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Lives in Fugue

Book Review
A Change of Key by Adrienne Jansen (Escalator Press, $28)
Reviewed by Judith Morrell Nathan

change-of-key-201018-001Adrienne Jansen, a Wellingtonian, teaches on the creative programme at Whitireia Polytechnic. She and a group of Whitireia colleagues and students founded and run the Escalator Press which published this book.

With years of experience as an ESOL teacher, Jansen has worked extensively with immigrants to New Zealand and written for and about them.  She has used her experience to create a diverse cast of migrants for this novel and for its predecessor, The Score.  She has also written some non-fiction such as Migrant Journeys, which was based on conversations with immigrant taxi drivers.

It is not necessary to have read The Score to enjoy A Change of Key which tells its story against a background of the difficulties that migrants, divorced from their inherited culture can encounter in adjusting to our country, from housing to employment to understanding idiomatic English.  Most of the characters live in a block of council flats, several off the same corridor.  They have varied reasons that drove them to New Zealand, from Portugal, Bulgaria, Serbia, Iraq or Sudan. An Indian taxi driver and a Polish bookseller also feature in the story.  Some of them have deep personal secrets based on traumatic experiences that almost broke them psychologically and drove them deliberately to seek “the ends of the earth”. This is particularly so for Marko, the Bulgarian violinist who is the main character and also for Stefan, the Portuguese piano tuner who makes a lot of efforts to get Marko’s life back on track.

This is not a dark, heavy-going novel; rather it is a very readable, worthwhile, multicultural mystery story that revolves around a series of issues that Marko and his neighbours are grappling with. Who has accused Marko of being a former KGB spy?  How did the accuser find out about the encounters that lie behind this accusation?  What, if anything, should he do about it?  Do the neighbours believe Marko’s version of events? Why did he leave Bulgaria?

In a subplot, the residents plan and carry out various activities designed to stop a threatened rent increase that would prevent many of them continuing to live there.  Music plays a significant part in the story, as intimated in the title, with several characters playing a variety of instruments together, but at times it brings back memories that are too painful for some of the individuals to continue playing.

There are some unlikely touches, for example hauling grand pianos up to the fourth floor for Stefan to repair.  But these are details.  They do not detract from the fact that this is an unusual novel dealing with migrants – a topical New Zealand issue – and I would recommend reading it.

The Price of Perfection

Book Review
Monsters of Virtue by L.J. Ritchie (Escalator Press, $28)
Reviewed by Emily Brill-Holland

monsters-of-virtue-cover-copy-1Alternative History. Eugenics. Teenagers. Plato. Utopia. Vicious. Brilliant.

The title slashes across the cover; the two nouns abruptly incongruous and it is this fine line that is played throughout the novel. Who are the virtuous? Who are the monsters? Can one be both?

Also – what happens when you tell a group of children they are the brightest of the bright and then leave them alone?

Monsters is an alternative history, looking at a critical point in New Zealand’s history – the early 20th-century eugenics movement.

Eugenics is the theory and practice of controlled breeding to increase desirable traits as applied to humanity. Methods to exclude undesirable traits include sterilisation. Hitler would be the most well-known advocate for it in the early 20th century, however, eugenic research was being carried out all over the world. In 1928, eugenics became sharply relevant to New Zealand with the Mental Defectives Amendment Bill plus a pro-sterilisation clause being put before Parliament.

It is this moment in history that Ritchie focusses on.

In our reality, the significant clause was removed, and the Bill passed.

In Monsters of Virtue, the Bill is passed with clause removed but Parliament reaches a compromise with its prominent and wealthy eugenics supporters. A Eugenics Department is established, and construction starts quietly on a private utopian settlement north of Wellington, owned by secretive millionaire Walter Hannay.

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On the Run

Book Review
Circus Hearts 1: All The Little Bones by Ellie Marney (Bearded Lady Press, 2018)
Reviewed by Rachel Stedman

circuis-hearts_coverI’ve been aware of Ellie Marney for some time. Based in Australia, Marney straddles the difficult divide of traditional and independent publishing. She’s won the Scarlet Stiletto Award for short crime writing in 2010 and has been shortlisted for a number of prestigious Australian awards, including the Gold Inky Award. Some of her works are published by Allen and Unwin or HarperCollins; others she publishes herself through her own imprint, Bearded Lady Press. Marney also helped spearhead the awesome #LoveOzYA movement – yes, the hashtag is obligatory – so when I saw she had a new book coming out, I was dead keen to try it.

Plus, her new book is about circuses, and what’s not to love in a circus?

Okay, so here’s a bit about All the Little Bones.

Seventeen year old Sorsha Neary and her friend Colm MacKay are on the run. Escaping from a crime Sorsha never meant to commit, they’re travelling south to Klatsch’s Karnival. Sorsha is a trapeze artist and Colm’s a trainee strongman, so with luck the carnival will have enough room for both of them. But the question for Sorsha and Colm isn’t if the police will catch them – it’s when…

All The Little Bones is the first in the three-part series Circus Hearts. The second in the series, All Fall Down, has just been released. The third will be coming soon, so if you’ve got a voracious teen reader, this series is a perfect read for them.

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Southern Fantasy

Book Review
The Kingfisher’s Debt by Kura Carpenter (IFWG Publishing Australia, Amazon Kindle $6.88; paper $35.95)
Reviewed by Rachel Stedman

kingfisher-debut-coverIt’s been a long time since I’ve read such an engrossing urban fantasy. This wonderfully written story is sure to appeal to fans of Ben Aaronovitch, Brandon Sanderson or Maggie Stiefvater.

Okay, so the plot summary: It’s midwinter in Dunedin. Solstice, when the nights are long and magic powers ebb. Tamsin Fairchild, part-time Power worker, part-time occult expert (and full-time criminal) is hired to help find a missing baby by the Dunedin Police.

As the story unfolds, the reader gradually learns about the Fair Folk of the Dunedin, their Elemental rivals, and their darkly exciting, half-hidden world. Initially, the story comes across as a who-dunnit starring snarky Tamsin, but as the plot unfolds a deeper tale emerges, of plotting and betrayal and forbidden Bloodmagic.

The story moves skilfully from present day to past, without losing the reader in the narrative. Time-hopping is a difficult technique to pull off, as there’s a good chance you’ll risk slowing the plot or confusing the reader – so kudos to Carpenter for managing it in a debut novel.

The Kingfisher’s Debt is a gritty read in places, with an abused and damaged heroine, but the heart of the story is redemption and some fine, fine writing.

There’s so much to discover in this story – did you know there are hidden floors beneath the Dunedin Library, full of arcane knowledge. And to get in, you need to lick a piece of paper!? But beware, because if you try to tell others about this secret library, your tongue is forever tied?

The Kingfisher’s Debt needs re-reading, and I’ve just purchased the hard copy so I can read it again. The Dunedin setting is fabulous, okay so I live in Dunedin so I’m biased – but the evocativeness of the Victoriana, the midwinter darkness and the 80s kitsch of St Clair really work. And the Mustangs and the muscle cars are great too. I also found it a huge pleasure to read an urban fantasy told from a female perspective.

Don’t know what else to say really, except this book is perfect for goth-loving teens, all librarians ever and anyone who loves urban fantasy. I really hope there’s another book coming, as I want to know more about this world.

Six Feet Under — Maybe Less

Book Review
Death and Dying in New Zealand edited by Emma Johnson (Freerange Press, $30)
Reviewed by Alison McCulloch

death-and-dying-coverI’ve been to one funeral and two tangihanga this year: two former teachers and someone I didn’t really know. It’s true that we don’t give much thought to death until it’s right in front of us, and also that we probably should, both points Emma Johnson raises in her introduction to this collection of essays on the topic.

We’re a bit like that about lots of things: illness, old age, taxes. But especially about death. It comes to us all, but in many ways we have to live life as if it won’t, because if we thought too much about being dead for all eternity (as an atheist, that’s how I see it anyway), it would be that much harder to spend so much of our time at our meaningless jobs, doing our meaningless chores and indulging in our meaningless squabbles. And I’m with Ernest Becker in believing a whole lot of what we do is, consciously or not, a futile attempt to deny our mortality. 

The focus of Death and Dying in New Zealand is less on the philosophical than on the practical, though when it comes to death, they certainly overlap: it’s impossible to think about the latter without falling into pondering the former. And I did a fair amount of that reading this book, while discovering there’s a lot of interesting practical stuff I had no idea about: that more than 90 percent of of our dead are embalmed; that conservation and natural burial parks are here, but they’re land hungry and can be expensive; that there’s a newer (possibly better) way of disposing of bodies called aquamation (or bio-cremation or resomation or alkaline hydrolysis); that there are people who call themselves ‘deathwalkers’ who help “facilitate a loving, dignified and peaceful death”. Read more »

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