IN THE NEIGHBOURHOOD OF FAME by Bridget van der Zijpp

Wow, this is great, I very much enjoyed reading this, and found myself sitting down for five minute bursts just to keep those pages turning. A slow boiler with many twists and turns, 100% relevant for the times we live in, very New Zealand in its subject matter, its crafting, its ordinariness, its suburbaness. And primarily, how in such a lightly populated country/society/culture, the ubiquitous six degress of separation, is here really only three degress of separation. And as a result, we can't but help feel that we all own a piece of those who, in New Zealand eyes, become famous. The title could not be a more perfect summation not only of the suburban setting of the story, but also of the New Zealand we live in as a whole. When someone makes it big here, it doesn't take long for the poppy bashers to come out and cut them down to size - small size generally. And then once that cutting down has happened, the fame never really goes away, it seems it just goes into remission until something makes that little poppy pop out of the ground again for a further chopping down. Really, who would want to be famous? And that is what this story is about - the nature of fame, and how it affects those around it almost as much as it does the person concerned.

In this story, Jed Jordan is a man probably in his 40s, a one hit wonder who with his band of old school mates, some 15-20 years earlier had a glorious few years. There was one album that everyone adored, a couple of popular singles off it. Then it all came crashing down - band break up, financial woes, a second album that the reviewers didn't like, and it was all over. Now Jed is living in the suburbs, growing capsicums, living an aimless sort of existence. During the course of the book, other than the transcription of an interview he does with a 15 year old school girl, we never actually get to find out what he thinks about his life, his fame, and what it all means. That interview by the way, is fantastic. But we do get to read about the lives of those around him, and how that fame impacts on them all. There are three narrators - Lauren who is Jed's wife and mother to their 11 year old son Jasper, and chief executive of a theatre company; Evie who grew up with Jed, has been living in Australia for many years, but recently returned with her 18 year old son for her father's funeral, and Haley, a 15 year old school girl, really just a child, but like so many 15 year olds, wanting to be something/one else.

Even though Jed is the central character, and the ultimately the story is about him, it is mostly about Lauren, Evie and Haley  and the choices they make around this man who was once famous. It is almost as if everytime he breathes, out comes some sort of magic fame dust that lands lightly on all those he comes in contact with. It seems to affect some more than others, and in the process raises the question of when we meet someone well known, are we interested in them because they were/are famous, or simply because they are a new person to get to know.

I also think there is another major character in this story - social media and the power, we the users, have given it to transmit and spread the most awful stuff about people - not only from habitual trolls, but also from those that simply do it because they can - Twitter, Facebook, media outlets,  restaurant review pages  - and it can all be done anonymously behind a smokescreen of some awful made up handle. Make yourself feel better about your life by trashing someone else's.

Highly recommend this, I am surprised it has not had more press exposure, as it is an easy read, extremely worth while, and will make you think for some time afterwards.  

AND THE BAND PLAYED ON by Christopher Ward

Over 100 years after the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, it still holds a fascination over many. That movie in 1997, immortalised by Celine Dion's 'My Heart Will Go On', and that scene of Jack and Rose on the front most tip of the ship are the images that immediately come to mind when thinking of this tragedy. I can't forget either, the shot of the band playing on the main deck as the ship is going down around them, knowing they were doomed, but this was their job and their duty. There were over 2000 people on that ship, and more than 1500 of them died. Of those 1500 deaths, only 328 bodies were recovered, many of which were never identified. This is the story of one of the eight members of that band who also happened to be one of the bodies recovered, and fortunately, also identified. Jock Hume, 21 years old, is buried in Halifax, Nova Scotia. This book is Jock's story, and that of his family before and after the tragedy and how the shadow of the sinking hung over the family for subsequent generations.

The author is Jock's grandson, son of Jock's daughter who was born after the ship sank. Jock was a talented violinst, and was only 21 years old when he sailed on the Titanic, having already worked in ship bands for a year or two prior. He was from Dumfries in Scotland, was madly in love with his pregnant fiancee Mary, and life was good. He was estranged from his very controlling father, and had moved in to live with Mary's family. The catastrophe of the ship sinking completely tore apart the lives of the two families, as it did for many families who lost people in the sinking. I imagine this story is similar to many others over the years on both sides of the Atlantic, rich and poor alike. But this is a really good story. Not only about the families involved, but also the general aftermath of the sinking - the appalling behaviour of the White Star Line, the retrieval of survivors and bodies and their transport back to Canada/US, the seeking of compensation, the uncovering of family secrets, lies and fraud.

At times the writing is perhaps a little melodramatic, and there is some repetition, but overall this is a really interesting and heartbreaking read. The author is quite open about what at times has been quite a painful journey he has been on, and this book is as much about the legacy such a disaster has had on just one family. Which actually makes it very worthwhile reading. And really how much have things changed - families are still being torn apart by corporates,  multinationals and governments duck shoving their responsibilities and culpability when things go wrong.


Last year I reviewed 'The Dinner' by the same author. My final comment was that it left me with a chill. And my first comment here is that this one is equally chilling. There weren't many nice characters in 'The Dinner' and there aren't actually any in this novel. It is almost as if the author was trying things out in the first one, refining his technique, before he launched this attractive bunch of people on us!

This is a much bigger book than 'The Dinner', with a bigger story to tell. Dr Marc Schlosser is a doctor, just a regular general practitioner, but due to his generous prescribing has become a 'go to' doctor for those who move in desirable social circles. One day, one of his patients, Ralph Meier, a well known actor, dies in slightly mysterious circumstances, and so begins the story of how this death came about. Is it a case of medical mismanagement and error, or has the highly regarded Dr Schlosser commited a murder.

Marc, who narrates the story, thinks he is a good doctor. He gives lots of time to his patients and always prescribes at least one form of medication, so they think he is wonderful. But in the first few pages, he is brutally honest with the reader, as to what he really thinks of his wealthy and connected patients, and the work he does. And yet he finds it very diffcult to pull himself away from the world of his patients. He and his wife, Caroline, and their two young teenage daughters Julia and Lisa, are invited to spend some of the summer with Ralph, his wife Judith and their two teenage sons at the latters' summer house. Against his better judgement as Ralph has made his lust for Caroline very clear, Marc talks his wife into going, mainly because he, in turn, fancies Judith. You can see it is going to get very messy. But it is not only the grownups who become unhinged; thirteen year old Julia ends up at the centre of the crisis surrounding the death of Ralph.

The machinations and little power games that go on as everyone is trying to cover their tracks, as new evidence and secrets are disclosed is brilliantly and cunningly done. I actually started to feel a little sorry for Marc. Despite his awfulness, he does love his daughters very much, and like any father, wants to avenge the wrong that has been done. Btu all these people are such screw ups, that it is hardly surprising it does all go wrong.

This is great writing, a riveting page turner of a thriller. Despite all the characters being inherently unlikeable, there is some humanity in all of them. How clever is it to be able to write like that! Marc, the doctor character the writer has created is a monster and I am relieved some time has passed since reading this before I have to visit my doctor again! But it is so carefully crafted, and like any good psychological thriller, the reader/viewer is constantly drawn back to the scariest character who  appears to be so amazingly normal. Not....

JUBILEE by Shelley Harris

JUBILEE by Shelley Harris

Here, in one of Britain's colonial outposts, generally speaking the Queen is a popular figure head. But because she is so far away, and so remote, and so invisible to us, anything to do with celebrating who she is and what she represents has very little impact. Apart from a long weekend to mark her birthday. Her jubilees too - 25th, 50th, Diamond - come and go here, the average citizen barely noticing. But in the UK of course, completely different story. A jubilee is an event, something to plan for and anticipate, a celebration - let' s have a party!

In 1977, Satish Patel is 11. His family have been living in the town of Bourne Heath for a few years, having fled Uganda when Idi Amin took control in 1972, as did many other Indians. He doesn't look English, he doesn't feel English, the food his mother cooks is not English, he has had to learn how to be English. The school playground has been his training and battle ground, and this spills over into the street where he lives with the other children who live there - all English, naturally. The jubilee is being celebrated by a street party, lots of food, bunting, trestle tables, new clothes and excitement. A photo is captured of the day by an unknown photographer, with Satish right in the fore front of the photo. Seen as the symbol of the new multi cultural Britian, the photo is picked up by a newspaper, immediately becomes famous, as does its photographer. Over the years, the photo pops up on advertising, as the album cover for a famous band - much like the Sex Pistols. It becomes infamous.

A photo however does not reveal what is going on immediately before being snapped, or immediately after. Certain events happen on that day to Satish, the scars of which he always carries with him. Now, he is a very successful cardiologist, married, two children, but the memories of that day never leave him. With another jubilee looming, he is approached by one of the other children in the photo, now a troubled young woman, to re-enact the photo. Understandably he is very unwilling, and much of the book is how he wrestles with his demons as the pressures of work and family life build up.

The story, narrated in both 1977 and present day, is a slow simmerer rather than a pot boiler. At times I really wanted it to hurry up and get a move on. The incident(s) that happened before and after the taking of the photo are not revealed either until towards the end, but it is hardly surprising that they have their roots in racism towards Satish and his family. The story moves constantly between the past and the present, which is a little confusing at times, as do the other children/now adults. I would have liked to know more about how the lives of the other children panned out, as there is very little connection between the events and children of 1977, how they are now and why they want the updated photo to be taken again.

Still worth reading I think, as a snapshot of another time, and the loss of childhood innocence. It is interesting that the author was born in South Africa, but grew up in the very town and street she has set her story in. Her father and uncle were photographed in party hats at a trestle table during a street party to celebrate VE Day. This is where she got the idea of a story, which she set in 1977 when she herself was ten years old and went to a jubilee street party. 




This is great story telling. A riveting story of modern day piracy, a clash of cultures,  people's lives torn apart. The quality of the writing is not so great, and for that reason many will consider it not much better than an airport or pool side read, but in terms of being a page turner, it is right up there. It also raises a large number of issues that have become so much a part of our daily news - terroism, piracy in the Indian Ocean, the might of the US government vs everybody else. As well as intangibles such as the basic human needs of justice and truth, the bonds of family, religion, and simple human decency.

Daniel Parker, a successful lawyer, and his 17 year old son Quentin are most of the way through a world sailing trip on the family yacht Renaissance. Wife/mother Vanessa continues to live at their home in Washington DC and working as a doctor in the practice she founded. Quentin has not given his parents an easy ride through the teenage years, and this trip is an attempt by Daniel to re-bond with his son. The relationhip between Daniel and Vanessa has also beeen sorely tested over the previous few years. The trip, so far,  has been a fantastic success, with the Renaissance now off the coast of Somalia. So you already know what is going to happen next. A band of pirates, led by the young Ismail, hijacks the yacht and its two sailors. Isamil is a highly intelligent young man, in his short life having lived through violence and murder, been kidnapped himself and seen his family and life as he knew it torn apart. He has a sister, Yasmin, who has disappered, her only link to the outside world a mobile phone she has managed to keep secret from those around her.

As news of the hijack leaks out in the US, the Navy, the Seals, and a hostage negotiator, Paul Derrick, are deployed to do their part in the rescue of Daniel and Quentin, as well as the apprehension of the seven hostage takers. Being a novel, things do not go to plan.  About half way through the book, things take a decidedly interesting turn, with everyone out to protect and save themselves - the Navy, the Seals, the Parker family, Paul, Ismail and Yasmin. How these diverse elements and characters come together is gripping and very well done, if at times a little melodramatic in the telling. But, as I said earlier, the quality of the writing is surpassed by the quality of the story and the people who fill it.

So it is much more than an airport book shop read with a big glossy cover and author's name in large letters. And at the end of it all, there is a serious message - we do actually have to learn to get on with our fellow human being, to understand them and their pasts, not just their immediate pasts but where they have come from. So the book isn't really about Somalis hijacking foreign vessels, and the author makes this point in his notes. Piracy is his narrative framework for looking at the much bigger issue of the breakdown of Somalia over the past twenty years or so, and the lawlessness that has resulted from the ongoing civil war. It is tragic, and hardly surprising that the problems spill over into the Western world - after all Somailians really do have nothing to lose by taking the law into their own hands. 

The author's starting point for this novel was the 2011 hijack of a US flagged sailing boat, the Quest,  in the Indian Ocean by Somali pirates. HIs 'research odyssey' as he calls it includes visiting Somalia, getting to know the people there, interviews with many US government officials, an FBI hostage negotiator, learning how to sail, staying on an aircraft carrier, going to the trial of the Quest hostage takers - immersing himself in these strange and diifferent worlds. The result is this excellent story, well worth the effort .Part of his dedication at the beginning of the book is "For the jewel of the Indian Ocean, may you rise again". And after finishing this book, you too may well hope for such an outcome.    

US by David Nicholls

US by David Nicholls

Long listed for Man Booker Prize 2014

Poor Douglas. At age 54, his wife out of the blue declares that she no longers wants to be married to him. Talk about being thrown a curve ball. Douglas is an industrial biochemist, very buttoned up, somewhat nerdy, and has been married for 20 plus years to the beautiful Connie, his polar opposite in personality and temperament. She is artistic, creative, and very unbuttoned up. Together they have a 17 year old son, Albie, very like his mother, who has just finished school, and like many school leavers uncertain as to what to do next.

In a last ditch attempt to save his marriage and improve his relationship with Albie, Douglas decides to take his family on a Grand Tour of Europe, in the footsteps of many young men of means in the 18th and 19th centuries. Being anally retentive, the trip has been planned down to the last detail - the major cities; accommodation carefully chosen for its proximity to galleries, cafes, tourist sites; travel between cities carefully plotted; points of interest carefully researched. Very little room left for spontaneity. Douglas has the best of intentions, but of course it all goes completely wrong.  And Douglas not only learns more about his wife and his son, but above all, finds out amazing things about himself.

The story is told in two strands - in the present with Connie dropping her bombshell, and the Grand Tour unfolding. And in the past from the beginning of the relationship between Connie and Douglas - how they met, courtship, marriage, the various challenges they faced over the years, Albie. To the present day. 

It is a coming of age story in reverse - it is not Albie the teenager who is finding himself, but Douglas who is on the journey of discovery on the Grand Tour. It is funny, tender, poignant, sad, deep and meaningful, and also light and frothy. It is like chick lit, but being written by a man, and about a man, may not fall into the traditional chick lit catergory. In fact many of the on line reviews are written by men, so it has obviously struck a chord with both men and women. And surely that has to be a sign of a well written and put together book - it can be enjoyed and appreciated by anyone, and I am sure that both men and women who have been in long term relationships with the empty nest scenario happening will relate in many ways to the Petersen family - Douglas, Connie and Albi.

I loved reading about the Grand Tour - the travel, the food, being a tourist in Paris, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Florence, Pisa, Siena, the sights. I did have a little problem with Douglas and Connie. I simply could not see how these two ever got together in the first place with their wildly different personalities and life styles. What was even stranger, was how the person who is set on leaving her husband can then go away on holiday with him, share a bed with him, and obviously care for him. I found it a little far fetched.

However it does not detract at all from the great story telling, the wonderful and real characters of Douglas, Connie, Albie and a young New Zealand woman called Kat whom Albie picks up on his travels. A most interesting young woman, who could well be subject of a book entirely about her.