THE READER ON THE 6.27 by Jean-Paul Didier Laurent

Delicious, joyous, uplifting and beautiful. Yet another translation into English, this time from the French - why is it that in the last few years, we are reading so many wonderful and captivating novels translated from Dutch, Italian, French that look at the human condition in such a different way from us native English speakers?

Guylian Vignolles has a truly terrible job - working in a book pulping plant, as the lead operator of the hideous pulping machine that daily gobbles thousands of books. His boss is a tyrannical maniac, as is his co-worker. Every day, his one fact of defiance is to rescue unpulped pages from the innards of the machine that he reads aloud on his daily commute train ride. His fellow passengers are entranced, the highlight of their day. This daily ritual, the act of reading aloud and so sharing what he has rescued gives Guylian a reason for living, a sense of purpose, and goes a tiny way toward him trying to make his life just a tiny bit bearable. One day he finds a USB stick of a diary belonging to a woman who seems to work as a cleaner of public bathrooms. Guylian is captivated by the writer of the diary, Julie, and in the process of his reading to his fellow commuters, something inside of him comes alive, and it is not long before he realises he has to track this person down. And so Guylian is set upon a path from which he cannot go back.

It's like a modern day fairy tale: an ordinary man trying to get to grips with the complicated world around him, finding and devising ways to manage what life throws at him. Truly delightful. 


Alex and Ruth Cohen have been married 45 years, lived all that time in New York City, and now with the frailties of older age beginning to become apparent, have put their much loved apartment on the market, to hopefully be replaced by one in a building with an operational lift. So open homes to organise, and open homes to attend. Realtors to deal with in their selling and more realtors to deal with in their purchasing. As if that is not enough to be going on with, their adored pet dachshund Dorothy has seriously injured her spine, resulting in partial paralysis and two elderly people rushing as quickly and as urgently as they can to the local veterinary hospital. It is Friday evening and their passage through the city is hampered by traffic gridlock following a tanker being abandoned in a tunnel, throwing the whole city into complete chaos. In these post 9/11 days the threat of a terrorist attack is never far away, and with the driver on the loose, who knows how this will end. It is interesting the power of paranoia, because from memory I don't think the reader is ever told how the tanker came to be stopped in the tunnel.

So over the course of the weekend, Alex and Ruth agonise over buying and selling in a frightened city, the tanker driver/terrorist successfully eludes the authorities, and Dorothy undergoes surgery and post operative recovery. This is a snap shot of ordinary people living ordinary lives, doing the best they can with the struggles that old age brings, the slower thinking processes. It is also the most gorgeous and touching love story; not only Alex and Ruth's long and enduring relationship, now in its sunset days, but also their love for their little Dorothy, the light of their lives, and in turn her love for them. Because unusually and brilliantly, chapters of this book are also written from the point of view of Dorothy, prior to her operation and after. We feel her fear, her uncertainty at where she is, the sickness and injuries of the cats and dogs around her, her focus on Alex and Ruth returning to pick her up and take her home.

I loved this: such a joy to read, not at all complicated, no great earth shattering moral or ethical dilemmas to be solved, no navel gazing or self-pondering. Just sheer enjoyment in being part of a very small family getting on with the business of day to day living. 


Imagine, just for a moment, you decide to take a drive across the north of Alaska in winter. No, you wouldn't really would you, even imagining it is rather horrifying. You would have to be nuts, right? As if that isn't nutty enough, in this book, Yasmin also takes her deaf ten year old daughter. Yes, you will have to suspend disbelief in this mystery-thriller-missing person novel, and if you can do that you will be rewarded with an exciting, frightening, beautifully depicted and chilling (ha, ha) ride through the bare, icy and windswept landscape of Alaska, the race against time to find Yasmin's missing husband, and above all the sheer terror of being alone in this environment, the elements and a pair of mysterious blue headlights that never go away.

Yasmin arrives in Alaska with her daughter Ruby from England to reunite with husband and father Matt, a wild life photographer. Things have been a bit rocky between Yasmin and Matt, and there is some trepidation on Yasmin's part as to why she is doing this, but her gut instinct is telling her this is what she needs to do. That gut instinct is going to be working very hard over the next 300 pages, so it is reassuring that she trusts it so much! Ruby, like many little girls of ten, adores her father and has a wonderful relationship with him. Despite being deaf from birth, Ruby is highly intelligent, with a very enquiring  mind, has no trouble communicating with her parents, is an expert with computer and social media technology, and in her silent world leads a very rich and imaginative life. She even has her own blog - Words Without Sounds - and when the novel starts she has 630 followers. In her blog she describes the world around her, but in her own unique and very beautiful way.

On their arrival at Fairbanks airport, they are told that the village Matt was staying in has been destroyed by a fire, killing all 23 Anaktue residents, plus Matt. His wedding ring is produced as proof of his demise. Yasmin does not believe he is dead, not for one single minute, and with Ruby in tow promptly sets about finding a way to get into the Alaskan interior to find him. Really I hear you say? How ridiculous with a ten year old, insufficient gear, clothing, survival skills etc. Disbelief suspended....

The extraordinary thing about this book is how Ruby depicts the physical world around her through the veil of silence. She sees what we see, but through a totally different lens. The natural beauty of Alaska, its wildlife and the night sky of which there is a great deal (!) are already stunning, and enhanced so much more by Ruby's observations and commentary.

This is a great novel, narrated alternately by Yasmin in the third person, and Ruby in the first person. This does not detract at all from the pace or the characters. The combination of Ruby's more passive and observation driven narrative with Yasmin's mum-in-charge-on-a-mission narrative, provides the perfect balance to make this so much more than thriller mystery. 

LOVE AS A STRANGER by Owen Marshall

I have never read Owen Marshall before. I don't know why as he is certainly well known in New Zealand writing circles, well reviewed and favoured by many. His speciality would appear to be short stories, many short stories written and published over the years, acute observation of behaviour and motivations. So with knowing virtually nothing about the author I opened this nearly 300 page novel and began.

The central premise behind the story is the quote "When love is not madness, it is not love", penned by seventeenth century Spanish poet and writer Pedro Calderon de la Barca. We are saturated with love stories gone wrong - usually involving young and/or sexy lovers. We think of the madness, craziness and recklessness of new love as being the domain of the young - think Romeo and Juliet. Very rarely do we hear of wild, crazy, obsessional love applying to older people, people who maybe past their physical prime, people facing difficult questions relating to ageing. This is exactly what Owen Marshall tackles in this novel.

Sarah is in her late fifties. She and Robert have been married for many years, mostly successfully, sometimes not, but to their credit seem to have stuck together, lived a good married life, and are now planning on growing old together. However things aren't so rosy at the moment, with Robert having chemotherapy treatment for a cancer. They have moved from Hamilton to Auckland for the duration of the treatment, living in an inner city apartment. They don't know many people in Auckland, so their daily lives revolve around Robert's treatment programme, and his need for rest. Sarah is quite literally at a loose end, which gives her plenty of time for long walks, contemplation, partaking of coffee in the many city cafes. She is observed by Hartley, early sixties, recently widowed, and understandably lonely, slightly disoriented and also at a bit of loose end. One day while walking through the Symonds St cemetery, Sarah stops at a grave for a 17 year old girl, murdered by a spurned lover way back in 1886, when Hartley, as a random stranger also walking through the cemetery,  happens to join her. So begins a friendship that very quickly becomes a love affair. This is a first for Sarah, and for a while she fully embraces the excitement, the anticipation, the attention, the flattery, the subterfuge. Until she senses that things are tipping over slightly from a good fun time into something a little more obsessive and disquieting. She has to make the decision between her husband Robert or her new lover Hartley. Naturally there are consequences, none of them good, of whatever decision she makes.

My plot summary gives the impression that this is Sarah's story, but it is actually more the story of Hartley, with Sarah and the love affair being the catalyst for the madness of love that develops. The tone throughout out the book is slightly menacing and sinister, you know, really, from page two and the words on the headstone in the cemetery that something is going to to badly wrong somewhere: it is really just a case of wondering where and to who. Owen Marshall keeps the reader in an increasingly tightly wound grip, precisely paced with really well drawn and complex characters. This has also been greatly aided by the ominous illustrations at the beginning of each chapter - a long dark grey shadow of a suited man randomly placed onto a lighter grey background. It is a love story, but not really as we know it, and I am not sure if young(er) people would get as much out of this novel as perhaps older people. It is about mature love, and love in the hearts of people who have different pressures on them than young lovers do. Sarah, for example has to consider not only her seriously ill husband, but the effects of her actions on her own children and grand children, and the 'family' unit she and Robert have made over the years. Things that would not enter the consciousness of childless, mortgage free, financially independent young(er) things! But in a population that is ageing and living longer, marriages and relationships facing different pressures from those faced by just one generation back, there is quite a lot of reality here.

This really is a very good story, well written, suspense and interest maintained throughout, with above all very believable characters - they could quite literally be your next door neighbours, or your work colleagues. It is the characters who make the story - there are only three of them - facing questions and issues, having to make decisions that many of us could be now facing and may quite possibly face in the future.


So much of the news that we see wherever we turn over the past 12 months or so has been about refugees and immigrants. Not just the tragedies coming out of Syria and Turkey, crossing over to Western Europe, but also the appalling xenophobia tumbling endlessly out of Donald Trump and his ilk. What a shatteringly sad time we live in. And now this, shortlisted for the 2015 Man Booker prize. I suspect not just for its sensitive and beautifully paced story telling, but also for the picture it paints of the depressing impossibility of being able to 'make it' in that western 'civilisation' those from third world countries so desperately want to get to.

In this case, we read about young Indians, from both the sub-continenent and British born, both middle class and dirt poor. It could be compared to a much more modern 'A Fine Balance', but far sadder and wretched in both spirit and outcome. There is an excellent piece about this book at    So I won't go into a plot summary and commentary on this as it is all said so very well in the Guardian review.

Having lived in India for a year which was essentially 24 hour culture shock and left me in a whirl wind much of the time, I have found that contemporary Indian writing helps make sense of the huge chaos, to the Western eye, that is Indian society. The characters in this novel also live chaotic lives, materially and emotionally. Throughout there is a sense of hopelessness, of never being able to improve one's lot in life, and yet the positivity of youth, I suspect, is what keeps them going. And being in Sheffield, it would seem, is a whole lot better than being an untouchable in Punjab - Tochi, or trying to repay debts to loan sharks - Avtar, or of not having the right connections to break out of a set in stone middle class government clerical career - Randeep.  For the British born Narinder, her desperation to flee her father's control and impending arranged marriage take her from London to Sheffield. They are all runaways, fleeing their prescribed destinies, looking for something, anything else.

Although very Indian in its setting, its dialogues, and minutiae, I expect it tells the very same story that poor migrants all over the world tell. Not an easy read, but by the end things have shifted somewhat for all the characters, and they may well be living better lives than those prescribed for them. If anything, reading this should teach us how to be more compassionate to those less fortunate than ourselves in this complicated world we live in.

THE SEA DETECTIVE by Mark Douglas-Home

What is a 'sea detective' I hear you ask. Well, it is not a police officer who is based on a police launch that is part of a country or city's policing unit: pulling bodies out of the water, dealing with stolen boats, drug runners, carrying out search and rescue. No, this sea detective is a completely different type of problem solver. Edinburgh based oceanographer and environmentalist Cal McGill, is basically a scientist. As a young boy he became fascinated with the sea, its currents, its movements, and how something put into the water at one place can end up days, months or years later in a totally different place. There is a  map at the beginning of this book that gives you an idea of the ocean currents in the North Atlantic, particularly around the west and north coasts of Scotland where much of this novel is set.

The intriguing thing about this novel, is that although it sounds like a mystery or a thriller, it is really a number of stories or plots that are quite skilfully intertwined. Firstly the body of a young Indian woman is washed up, which piques Cal's interest, as he attempts to ascertain where it entered the water, and as a result where she may have originated from. In terms of crime and crime solving, this particular mystery is the moral heart of the story. But as an aside, Cal also finds he is putting his unique skills into use when two severed feet wash up miles apart from one another, and one of the feet actually matches a third foot in a different shoe washed up somewhere. I kid you not, the day after I finished reading this book there was a story on the NZ Herald App from Canada about severed feet, still inside shoes, mysteriously washing up on the coastlines of Canada and the US. Quick, call Cal McGill. Here is the link - Very very bizarre.

At the same time as all this is going on, Cal finds himself taking steps back into his family's past. An elderly woman is dying and she has some secrets she needs to share with Cal concerning his grandfather during the second world war. Cal always knew there was something not quite right with his family history, and using his specialist knowledge of ocean and wind currents he has the opportunity to put right a terrible wrong.

With the exception of a very small section, the whole novel is set in Scotland, much of it on the Outer Hebrides islands and west coast of Scotland. Cal leads a very solitary existence, this wild untamed environment suiting his temperament, and his slightly subversive nature. For he never lets a chance to annoy the authorities go by. As an environmentalist he has got himself quite off side with the Edinburgh police HQ, an interesting little sub plot that becomes quite crucial in his investigations into where the severed feet and the young Indian woman came from.

If it all sounds a bit quirky and light, it isn't. Far from it. You know from the first page that some pretty awful things are going to be happening. The plot does wander a bit, weaving these various threads together, the tension being slowly turned up as the story gathers pace.  Cal is an extraordinary detective, uncovering some very bad things, putting his own life in danger. It is fortunate he ends up with the police on his side because otherwise it may well be his feet that turn up washed onto a deserted stretch of coastline somewhere. So, a great story, well told.