419 by Will Ferguson

 419 by Will Ferguson

Moral of the story: never ever click on those spam emails telling you have won stuff, or those wanting help for ill relatives. And what ever you do never ever reply to one, even if it is to say sorry, wrong person. Just don't.

Because that is what this novel is about. An elderly man is found dead and his daughter, Laura, takes it upon herself to find out why he died, as this would appear to not be your normal suicide. Her research takes her to Lagos, Nigeria, where so many of these emails originate from.

So who or what is 419?  The number 419 refers to the article in the Nigerian Criminal Code dealing with fraud. In this case scams of the advance fee nature. Such scams have been around for centuries, but became much more common place in the 1980s, and with the arrival of the internet, became open slather as it became increasingly diifficult to track down the origin of the emails sent out. Nigeria is not the only country, by the way, guilty of this type of fraud, but it seems that the emails from Nigeria have a common thread of unbelievable wealth just a few clicks of the mouse away if only you do as asked. It comes back to "If it sounds too good to be true, then it probabaly is". So why do people get sucked into these frauds, losing thousands and thousands in the process? That is what this novel is about.  And by crikey it is alarming and good - a real thriller.

While Laura is chasing down those responsible for her father's problems, in Nigeria itself, there are problems of a different kind, Nigeria having been blessed with enormous reserves of mineral wealth, especially oil. Reading this book you could be forgiven for thinking Nigeria is a mess, and in so many ways it is.  It has  been plundered by the British for over 200 years beginning with slaves, and latterly for its oil and other natural resources. Multinationals like Shell have contributed too to the destruction of the social and traditional fabric of this very diverse population with its various tribes and religious mixes. It is hardly surprising that there are continuously running civil wars, pirates,  and a flourishing and very dangerous black market, as well as internet scams. The author focuses his attention on a young man from the coastal area in the south of the country which is slowing being destroyed by the demand for oil, and a young girl from the dry north who is running away from all that she knows. It is inevitable that the worlds of Laura, Nnamdi and Amina will collide, and the author is a master at building the tension, weaving the tale, taking the long route to the climax of the story.

Always looming in the background to the lives of these three is the self styled Chief Ogun Oduduwa of the Obasanjo, essentially a mobster of the highest order who rules through fear. He has his finger in a number of pies including oil running and 419 frauds - a lot to protect.

This is a great read, and at times I found it hard to believe it was fiction. It could be real - we all receive these ridiculous emails - at the click of a mouse, we too could be sucked into this vortex of no return. Laura's father tried to get out, but he couldn't. A google search of '419' will take you to a whole lot pages featuring scam baiters, those who try to scam the scammers. It is a world that you don't really want to be entering, but novels such as this highlight how vigilant we need to be in our own home computer use.  

MAD ABOUT THE BOY by Helen Fielding

 MAD ABOUT THE BOY by Helen Fielding

Having come to this book months after it was released and the disbelief and shock that devoted Bridget fans felt on reading it, I knew, sort of, what to expect. Bridget, alone, again, looking for love. Nothing new there.

So much effort, mentally, physically and emotionally was at the centre of Bridget finding true love in the first two books that there was a certain emptiness in the reading of most of this sequel. There is really no Darcy in this, other than in  her memory, although I did like her seeing glimpses of him in her son - yes, let's bring back Darcy. What a dream of a man, and what a dream of a couple they were. And that is the problem with this book - there is not one single adult relationship that comes anywhere near close to the relationship Bridget and Darcy had. Her friends, who I barely remember from the other books, are awful - flaky, directionless, boring, unhappy and I have no idea why Bridget continues to be friends with any of them. Daniel, who I never particularly liked, is a disaster, as intensely narcissistic as ever, and it catches up with him. What a freak. Even Bridget doubts her own judgement in having him babysit her children. Eventually. 

So Bridget is unhappy in widowhood. It is now five years since Darcy left this mortal coil. She has  two young children, Billy at school and Mabel almost at school. She still, yes still, obsesses about her weight, her alcoholic intake, her daily life is still chaotic. As well as being Mum, which she actually does incredibly well - good on you Jones, she is developing her talents as a writer of screenplays. To my horror she decides to join Twitter and her daily tally of followers joins the daily update of weight, calorie intake, texts received - all the stuff that heralds the beginning of a new day in the world of Bridget Jones.

This Twitter stuff is awful, with swags of text in the book transcribing these awful Twitter exchanges she has. She meets a man though - #Roxter, which I kept misreading as Rooster! You cougar Jones. Hot and steamy romance ensues. Hot and steamy romance ends. Jones moves on, book ends.

At times, I must say, the real Bridget Jones shone through, and I felt like I was meeting up with an old friend, she is such a honey. But it has been twenty years or so since we first met Bridget and she hasn't really changed or grown up at all. I honestly could not believe she was 50, she was still wittering on just like she did when juggling Darcy and Daniel. Had she not done any maturing/growing up during her years as Mrs Darcy and having her babies? Intensely annoying. I don't know anyone who is the same person they were 20 years ago. 

I thought about giving up, but I also wanted to find out if she finds true happiness again..... Nevertheless I feel we have reached the end of the road with Jones, and maybe we should leave her to live the rest of her life in peace and happiness without disgruntled readers knocking her off her pedestal.



Review copy kindly provided by Booksellers Association NZ on behalf of Victoria University Press, Wellington.

This is the second book written by Breton Dukes and published by VUP. Like the first, "Bird North"  it is a collection of stories, but only six rather than seventeen as in the first. I haven't read the author's first book, but I understand from reading online reviews that is a hard hitting and not very attractive look at the underbelly of the young New Zealand man. Hmm, says this reviewer - over 50-female, just my cup of tea. Is his latest book more of the same?

Interesting then that the cover features a woman, in a swim suit no less, one hand on a ladder rung and the other holding a fishing line, apparently some distance from land. The character on the cover, Laura, is one of three adult siblings in the story 'Empty Bones'. This story, according to the blurb is a novella; the remaining five being short stories, although to be honest, it read more like a long short story. In this story, Laura's father Ian is hosting a bit of a weekend family reunion at the family bach. Ian and his three offspring have plenty of baggage between them as well as the usual love-hate stuff that goes on between siblings. By any family's account, this is certainly a very strange family with peculiar dynamics happening. For a start, Ian has just had a major face lift. A family reunion, for a writer, is a marvellous place for emotions to run high, for events to tilt slightly out of control, and for issues to be resolved, which all happens in this story. The author penetrates very deeply into the psyche of his characters, which is somewhat disturbing, as none of them are very likeable, and the things they do aren't very admirable, but I guess there really are people like that out there, and not just in New Zealand.

The five other stories, being considerably shorter than Empty Bones, have a lot more tension, dysfunction, and unease packed into them. And all with the same degree of intense characterisation as in the longer story. This, I feel, is the author's strength - he has the ability to get into the souls and heart of his characters, their complexities. And none of them are nice.

I can't say I liked reading these stories. I didn't like the characters, mostly young to middle aged men, who seem to have little direction in life, very little to get up for each day, users and bludgers of other people.  Other than Laura, who has her own issues, the only other story with its main character as a female is the story about Rachel. Plenty of potential perhaps for things to turn out a little differently maybe? But no, same downward spiral as the others. In all his stories, the characters seem to have got to a point in their lives where they seem to have lost control of where they see their life going. And didn't seem to know or be able to see how to get it back. Depressing reading really.

Maybe that is the author's point. Get us thinking a little more about the type of society we are living in and the type of people it is turning out. Are these behaviour issues something people are born with or a product of their upbringing/the passage of their lives/alcohol/drugs. Or maybe this underbelly of human nature has always been there, and he is simply bringing it to our attention.Whatever we may think of the subject matter of the stories, the unlikeable characters the author has created for his reader, and the future of masculinity in New Zealand, there is no denying the quality of the writing. These are well written stories, very evocative, they leave powerful images, and if they can bring about a strong emotion from the reader, then maybe the author has been successful in communicating his message.

EMPTY MANSIONS by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Jr

EMPTY MANSIONS by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Jr

One of the many facts that stood out for me in this very readable and fascinating book, is that a period of 172 years is covered from the birth of Huguette Clark's father in 1839 and her death at the age of 104 in 2011 - the lives of just two people covering such a long period of development, change, social and economic history. And so much money, unbelievably vast sums of money made by Mr Clark and ultimately inherited by his daughter Huguette.  At one stage WA Clark was one of the richest men in America, and by the standards of his own time his spending was extraordinarily lavish.  When Huguette died she left behind a fortune of USD$300 million, most of which was donated to charity, but not before a court battle between her distant relatives and the executors of her estate. I can hardly believe that over a twenty year period, she gave away $31 million to her nurse.

Joint author, Bill Dedman, is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, and quite by chance one day, while looking to buy a house to live in the state of Connecticut, he came across a very large empty house on a large piece of land. It had been empty for years and years, vines were growing through the windows, rodents and small animals wandered in and out at will. It was a mess. His interest was further piqued when he found out that rates were still being paid on the property, and were up to date. Further digging exposed a Huguette Clark was the owner. Being an investigative sort of journalist he then found out that Huguette Clark also owned a huge piece of prime real estate in New York City - overlooking Central Park no less, and a massive cliff side property above Santa Moncia foreshore. All empty, the Santa Monica property never lived in by its owner, and all up to date with rates and other expenses. Who was this mysterious Huguette Clark?

It turns out that Ms Clark had been living in a hospital for some twenty years prior to her death, by choice, and that she had lived a very comfortable but very solitary life. She had  an incredibly generous nature that, it would seem, had been taken advantage of while she was in the hospital. For such a journalist as Mr Dedman, here was a story to be told, and tell it he does. He teamed up with Paul Clark Newell, jr, who is a descendant of WA Clark's via his first marriage - a detailed family tree at the beginning of the book explains it all. This relative, along with a number of distant relatives, corresponded for many years with Huguette either by letter or by phone. No one ever saw her, ever. All very mysterious.

The first third of the book I found the most interesting. It tells the story of how WA Clark made his stash - to escape being conscripted to fight in the Civil War of the 1860s, he disappeared off to the Wild West - Montana to be precise, discovered the riches that could be obtained from copper mining and the railways, and he was on his way. He sounds to have been an extraordinary man with enormous energy, not just in his business life, but also in his personal life, marrying his second wife at the age of 67 and fathering two more children - Huguette and her sister. Once he died however, in 1925, things began to unravel for Huguette and her mother, and the story also begins to lose its thread a bit. Basically Huguette had a very aimless life so consequently there is little to tell.

The book is perhaps a bit long, and there seems to be a fair bit of padding out of the last years of Huguette's life, but by crikey it is so fascinating.  The book might be about Huguette Clark, but the main character undoubtedly is money, vast quantities of it, and it raises the question, yet again, of whether it is possible to have too  much money.