Book review: The Doll’s House by M.J. Arlidge

The Doll's House cover imageThe Doll’s House by M.J. Arlidge, Penguin, ISBN9781405919197, RRP $30

I reviewed the first two books in M.J. Arlidge’s DI Helen Grace thriller series so I was keen to get my hands on this, the third. And I’m glad I did because it’s definitely a step up from the previous title Pop Goes the Weasel and a return to the promise shown in his debut, Eeny Meeny.

The Doll’s House returns us to the complex world of Detective Inspector Helen Grace, her internal demons and the dark crimes she is charged with investigating. The Helen Grace of this instalment is flawed but determined and feels more real and better-rounded than the same character in Pop Goes the Weasel.

The book opens as a young woman wakes up in a dark, cold room that is completely unfamiliar to her. Meanwhile a body of a young woman is discovered on a remote beach and DI Grace and her team start investigating. Quickly it becomes clear that these crimes are calculated and continuing.

Arlidge also does a much better job of handling the timeline and the details around evidence in The Doll’s House, stepping away from the forensics and focusing more on police work in the traditional sense. The focus of tension is also moved, away from who is the culprit and to will we catch them in time. This is a positive move for Arlidge, who I think has proven more adept at handling timing and pacing than at plot twists.

There are several character-driven subplots at work here too, some previously introduced, but the centre of the stories is definitely DI Grace and that is a very good thing. She is an intriguing character and I’m again looking forward to seeing where Arlidge takes her.

A quick, tense read that will satisfy crime and thriller fans.

Book review: The Ghosts of Young Nick’s Head by Sue Copsey

Ghosts of Young Nicks Head cover imageThe Ghosts of Young Nick’s Head by Sue Copsey, ISBN9781494354411, Available in paperback or ebook

Young adult books are ubiquitous these days but sometimes I feel like the traditional 8 – 12 year old children’s chapter book is being ignored. So it’s a pleasure to find a fun, well-written example like The Ghosts of Young Nick’s Head, even better when it features a New Zealand location!

Friends Joe and Eddie are off on a summer holiday with family, staying in an old house near Gisborne and, of course Young Nick’s Head. A spooky encounter soon sets them off on the adventure of their young lives, discovering ghosts, history and local secrets.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Ghosts of Young Nick’s Head and would have to recommend it to all young readers. It strikes the perfect balance of spooky and realistic for the intended audience, and it’s definitely keeps the reader’s attention. The inclusion of bits of New Zealand history are seamless and will probably send young readers off to find out more.

Originally published by Pear Jam Books back in 2011, The Ghosts of Young Nick’s Head is now back in the author’s hands and available in ebook format, AND it’s also got a Booktrack. After I read this the first time I went back and read it again with the Booktrack and it was a really good experience, and one I think the targeted readership of this title would enjoy. For parents looking for a way to increase their young kids interest in reading, I would say get them on your smartphone and get them reading and listening to The Ghosts of Young Nick’s Head!

Book review: Credit in the Straight World by Brannavan Gnanalingam

Credit in the Straight World cover imageCredit in the Straight World by Brannavan Gnanalingam, Lawrence & Gibson, ISBN9780473319106, RRP $23

I find it quote odd that the global financial crisis of 2008 has its own acronym – the GFC. In my mind acronyms are an old-world corporate driven blight that hold the rest of the world to ransom. I imagine in ten years when we’ve had another GFC we’ll then have to starting distinguishing them – GFC08, GFC20. Just like the Olympics.

The GFC and many of the stories that came out of it are ripe for satire and thank god in New Zealand we’ve got author Brannavan Gnanalingam and publishers Lawrence & Gibson to get stuck in. Credit in the Straight World (also the title of a surprising number of songs) is the story of Frank Tolland, as told by his brother George Tolland. Frank is a South Canterbury stalwart, born and bred in the fictional town of Manchester, who comes from humble beginnings to build a financial empire that collapses after the GFC, taking along with it over a billion dollars of investors’ money which was later paid out by the New Zealand government under its Deposit Guarantee Scheme.

I know, where did the author get the idea for such a story!!??

There were still the same customers who would come to the Store, the women who had come throughout the ’20s, the ’30s, those who weren’t affected by the Depression (and even those who were) made sure they continued to come to the Store to broadcast that they weren’t affected  by the Depression, which seemed an odd way for some people to behave, but I think pride often informs people’s financial decisions more than prudency.

The bones, of course, come from the story of South Canterbury Finance but thankfully Credit in the Straight World is so much more than that. George is deaf and mute and through his eyes Frank’s story is told with a wry tone and a self-effacement. George is of necessity a listener, or rather a watcher, as he lip reads. He watches Frank’s interactions with their community, his choice of people around him, his participation and almost deliberate non-participation in his business dealings, and his affect on the people around him.

He wanted, he told me, Manchester Gold not to get itself sucked into people’s hair-brained schemes, simply “to keep on keeping on”. Frank really did talk a lot in cliches to me, whenever he was trying to keep me from understanding what he was really thinking.

George’s studied chronological account of their lives carefully elucidates how change and shifts in ethics and values can happen in such small increments that no one notices until suddenly you are light years away from where you thought you were going to be.

Of course this isn’t just true of people but of societies, towns and countries too.

It seemed to me money was nothing more than a language, something that simply governs our social interactions like words and phrases, that like words it doesn’t coalesce in a rational way, it could never materialise yet own a house, or it can be carried along in a wheelbarrow to buy a loaf of bread, and the moment we give it more power than that, the moment we give it a physicality that could be hoarded, or indeed at a basic level belong to somebody, we elevate it beyond its intended station.

I started reading Credit in the Straight World not really knowing how I was going to enjoy it but the truth was I found it a wonderful read. It was full of observations, thoughts, sentiments that were genuinely insightful and it was damn funny in places too. Gnanalingam is as cutting of those with no independent thought as he is of those who are morally bankrupt. The best moments are the scenes of surreal hilarity that you only get when you skate right up to real life and tweak it on the nose (the exchange between groups of lawyers on which company has the right to be called “New Zealand’s pre-eminent law firm” literally had me crying with laughter).

Last week at the Dunedin Writers and Readers Festival it was asked “Where are the anarchic books?” The answer is right in front of us.

Book review: One Summer in Venice by Nicky Pellegrino

One Summer in Venice cover imageOne Summer in Venice by Nicky Pellegrino, Orion Books, ISBN9781409159452, RRP $34.99

Leaving one’s life behind to take time out in another country has to be one of the most enjoyable and popular fantasies for our modern day, so it’s definitely a credit to author Nicky Pellegrino that her latest novel feels fresh and fun despite following a well-worn path.

Addolorata Martinelli (best.name.ever) has a happiness (and confidence) crisis following a bad review of her restaurant. She’s not overly happy with her life anyway, feeling like something is missing, even though she loves her job, her husband and her daughter. A quick getaway to Venice turns into a summer retreat filled with food, tango and mysterious Venetians.

It was the food and the mysterious Venetians (okay, secondary characters) that really appealed to me. Pellegrino’s descriptions of food are intoxicating, delicious and made me constantly hungry. Her secondary characters are similarly attractive. In Venice Addolorata meets Coco, a life-long Venetian with a bit of a mysterious but glamorous past. The author does a great job of alluding to Coco’s history and slowly revealing the truth while retaining a air of authenticity – reminding us, the readers, that fantasy lives (and destinations) are all very well but reality is always just around the corner.

I similarly enjoyed the character of Valentina, spiky and smart, and a good foil to Addolorata’s at-times self-indulgent musings on her life and choices. Despite a climactic moment that felt slightly rushed, I appreciated that Pellegrino doesn’t use stunning revelations or big set-pieces to reveal the secrets to happiness, instead letting Addolarata’s musings and experiences gently remind us that we find happiness not just in fleeting moments (one summer) but that we create it within ourselves over the course of our lives.

Read my interview with Nicky about One Summer in Venice, happiness, food and more.

What should Witi read?

An interesting discussion happened on Twitter today regarding Witi Ihimaera’s Festival Foreword NZ Book Council address to open the Dunedin Readers and Writers Festival. The theme for the speech was “Where is NZ literature going?” but reading the excellent overview on the Booksellers NZ blog I seriously wonder how this got translated by the speaker to “Where has NZ literature been?”

Bearing in mind that this isn’t based on a transcript of the speech, I have a few thoughts I’d like to put forward.

Is this 2015 or 1993? Because I did a NZ Literature paper in 1993 and literally heard the exact same arguments. When Ihimaera is still talking about “nationalist” literature, and still, STILL refusing to see that nationalism is no longer the over-riding concept that interests or even makes sense to a new generation of thinkers (and therefore writers), then I cannot understand why we are asking him to repeat his arguments instead of asking new voices to talk to us – even in addition to his.

Ihimaera is too institutionalised in the “old guard” of New Zealand writing and publishing. When he says:

Though Ihimaera acknowledged the very significant successes of Nalini Singh, Paul Cleave, Neil Cross and Nicky Pellegrino, he also asked, “is a paranormal novel New Zealand literature?”

I literally want to throw something. Has he not heard of Steampress, Paper Road Press, Paul Gilbert, Summer Wigmore, Debbie (and Matt) Cowens, David Hair? Remember a NZ author called Margaret Mahy? HAS HE NOT HEARD OF ELIZABETH KNOX? Who came up with a much better response to this than I:

On much the same lines was this:

Later in his address, Ihimaera also talked about the preponderance of young writers coming out of creative writing courses, the effect of which seems to “melt” the writing into homogeneous prose that “blunted” New Zealand’s edge. “Where are the anarchic books?” he asked.

Dude. Just stop.

NZ literature and NZ publishing: we need new voices. We need better voices. We need to move this conversation on and hear new ways of thinking. I get that a Festival has an economic imperative to sell tickets and has to understand its audience but this is the same tired argument from the same tired voice. I compare this with Elizabeth Knox’s Margaret Mahy lecture and I know who I’d prefer to hear from.

On that note who would you like to hear talk about where NZ literature is going? And #WhatShouldWitiRead? Or, as suggested by a nicer person than me, #WhatCountsasNZLit?