I don't care what others say about Sarah-Kate Lynch's books, I love them. They are formulaic yes, exotic and romantic settings lushly and sensuously described, there is a young woman immersed in some sort of crisis, usually involving a broken heart, there are older and wiser people who guide and help our young heroine to a better, happier and simpler existence. Plus there is always lurrrve. What a recipe, fool proof, delicious and satisfying to read. She must get such a kick out of writing these escapist fluff-tales, they are just so intensely enjoyable to read.

Connie Farrell lives in New York. She is a restaurant critic, married to Tom who is a chef. She is on her way to Venice for a second honeymoon, but unfortunately Tom never turns up for the flight, so she wings her way to Venice alone, upset, defeated and worried about the future of her marriage. But this is Venice, you can't possibly be alone here! So after locking eyes with a gondolier, Marco, she finds herself on a whirl wind love-food feast of Venice.

There are hints in the narrative that things aren't quite right with Connie. A sudden collapse sends her back to New York, lying in a hospital bed, suffering from amnesia, with a life she doesn't recognise. What on earth happened to her, where is Marco, where is Tom? And why on earth is her horrible mother sitting on the end of the bed? Worst of all she has lost her sense of smell and taste, rendering her career as a restaurant critic completely redundant. What is a girl to do?

It is clever, surprising, full of twists and surprises. Adorable. Not so for a range of other reviewers who think it too cliched with stereotyped characters, Connie not at all resembling a born and bred New Yorker, the dialogue clunky, but I don't care! It's entertaining, easy to read, full of surprises, flawed characters, new beginnings and lurrrve. Wonderful stuff.


Every now and again you come across a book that is so out of your usually fairly narrow range of reading, that you just have to take a look at it. And for me, this is definitely such a book. My only exposure to tropical fish was falling into a gold fish pond when I was maybe 3 or 4, and my 8 year old daughter's small fish tank, her Christmas present, that of course I ended up doing all the cleaning, feeding, disposing of expired and repurchasing of replacement fish. I never enjoyed it. And yet, I started reading this - such a weird premise for a book - tropical fish collectors. And they sure are a weird bunch.

The fish at the centre of this book is the wild Asian arowana, dragon fish - the world's most expensive fish. Like most things, its value increases as it becomes rarer and harder to locate. Bizarrely, we find out later in the book that it became 'rare' completely by mistake, the fish having been put onto an endangered list by accident, the list never checked before approval, and a non-endangered fish becomes an endangered fish. So now we have the situation,as one reviewer put it of 'a modern paradox - the mass produced endangered species'.

But this book is full of such odd goings on as Voigt, a journalist specialising in science and culture, finds herself falling into the rabbit hole of fish collecting. It is hard for me to see how an intelligent non-fish person could succumb, and she even admits that her arowana search becomes an obsession. She interrupts her search to get married, then days later is back half way round the world fish hunting. She travels across the US and back again, to Singapore, Indonesia, Myanmar, South America, always dangling on the thin edge of safe travel, sometimes downright dangerous in her search for this elusive fish, treasured as a both a status symbol and a bearer of good luck. People are murdered for this fish, there is a thriving smuggling industry, there are back room deals. She is not the only one looking for the fish in the wild - other journalists and photographers are all hot on each other's trails to be the first to report the existence of this fish in its natural state.

As well as being an intrepid traveller and going to places she may never before have considered, and may never go back to again, she meets the most fascinating collection of people. I learnt a new word - fish collectors are called ichthyologists for whom aquarium fish are their sole reason for getting out of bed each day. She also meets breeders, scientists, conservationists, and gives us more knowledge and information about aquarium fish than we could ever hope to need. And somehow manages to make the whole book sound more like a travel story than a science story. 

But it is endlessly fascinating, slightly crazy and eccentric, sobering in her discussion of the human impact on something as mundane as wild fish and their habitats, even the rationale behind collecting and showing aquarium fish. And do fish have more than a 3 second memory. I really really liked this, so much to learn, such vivid writing. There is an audio version of this book which apparently is amazing. Could be tempted. 

THE QUIET SPECTACULAR by Lawrence Fearnley

This is condensed version of review in published in LandfallReviewOnLine 1/3/17

What constantly stands out for me in New Zealand fiction is how our land, our environment, our geography is such an inherent part of the narrative, almost like another participant in the story, forming the backdrop to everything that takes place.

It is just so in this, Laurence Fearnley’s latest novel, her tenth, that the landscape has its own life, its own crucial part to play in the narrative. Wetlands are her location of choice in this story, becoming the common ground where three very different women of various ages, stages, conflicts and histories randomly come together. Each interacts with the surroundings differently -  the birds, the lake, the bush floor, the rodents, the quietness, the mysterious den. At all times there is respect, care, nurturing and being at one with the surroundings, a place of healing and comfort. Each woman finds a strength arising from both the surroundings, and their unusual camaraderie enabling them to begin the process of facing down the conflicts in their individual lives.

Take a look at the cover, impossible to replicate via an e-reader. The sheer brilliance of colour, the delicacy of the drawings, how each leaf and flower is so vividly brought to life. The illustrations are by Audrey Eagle, a botanical illustrator, who has given much to New Zealand’s knowledge bank of native flora. A spectacular woman in her own right, I wonder if she was deliberately chosen by the author as an example of a woman quietly and spectacularly going about her life on her own terms.

Who then are the quiet spectaculars that people the pages of this novel? The story is set in a provincial town, close to Christchurch. I feel that it is somewhere like Ashburton, or Timaru. Large enough to be interesting, but small enough to be a little suffocating. The story is framed around the three characters of Loretta, Chance and Riva. Each third of the book is narrated by one of these women, the links between them gradually building and evolving, coming together in the last twenty pages.  

Loretta is in her mid-forties, a high school librarian, married, mother to a 12 year old boy. She is going through that stage in life where she doesn’t know what to do next. She knows her son is gradually going to draw away from her as he enters his teen years, her marriage seems to have stalled, she loves her job, but it seems to have lost its spark. She feels she is becoming invisible, her youth and vitality whittling away, just another middle-aged woman whose life is running downhill. During one of her ‘waiting for Kit’ moments, she comes across The Dangerous Book for Boys. Randomly opening it she begins to flick through the pages.

Loretta’s lightbulb moment. What has she done that is dangerous in her life? What have her friends done? Aside from giving birth it would seem not much. She wonders what has happened to the hopeful, adventurous, curious young girl she once was. Loretta resolves to write The Dangerous Book for Menopausal Women, a book about women who have done dangerous things, who will never become invisible, and in the process, maybe learn a thing or two herself on having an adventurous life. While waiting for Kit on yet another day, she begins to explore the wetlands, finding an abandoned den, which becomes a haven, her place to be alone, to think.  

Secondly, there is Chance, a 15 year old girl, who is a pupil at the local high school where Loretta is the librarian. She lives with her parents and two older brothers on a goat farm. Like 99.9% of Year 10 girls she is unhappy, unsure of where she fits in both at home and at school, who she is, who she wants to be, a loner. Her one possible ally, her mother, is a most appalling woman, deeply unhappy in her own life, taking her anger and bitterness out on her daughter.

One day at home, she also comes across The Dangerous Book for Boys, given to one of her brothers. As with Loretta, a new world begins to reveal itself, her rural upbringing giving her ample opportunity and tools to become her own intrepid adventurer. Her father and brothers’ passion for go-karting means they aren’t terribly interested in what she is up to, and her desperation to get away from her mother takes her to the Tinker Wetlands where she, as Loretta did, discovers the den, her own refuge, a space where she can be entirely her own person.

Lastly, Riva, certainly not invisible, or ever likely to be. In her early to mid- sixties, owner of the wetlands where everything quietly and spectacularly comes together. In the not too distant past, Riva was a successful business woman, but returned to New Zealand to nurse Irene, her terminally ill sister. She also bought the abandoned, rundown wetlands area, transforming it into the Tinker Wetlands.

Riva is grieving, still. The fourth-year anniversary of Irene’s death is coming up, and time for Riva to put into effect a promise she made to Irene before she died. This promise is beginning to consume Riva. She doesn’t know what to do or how to do it. Until Loretta and Chance quite separately enter her life. Chance, in particular, grabs her heart – a girl just leaving childhood, taking uncertain steps into adulthood. It is never implied that Chance is the daughter that Riva never had, but a wonderful bond of trust and mutual respect builds between the two, centred on the wetlands reserve. Riva takes Chance’s taxidermy seriously, helping her with trapping animals, conversing with her in that wonderful way where adults treat teenagers like adults and not overgrown children.

With support from these two older and quite different women, Chance blossoms. There are moments of doubt of course, but it is only when her mother treats her in a most shocking and humiliating fashion that Chance does rise like a phoenix, breaking away. What follows is the quiet spectacular between these three women, that enables them all to see that future of possibilities.

It is a gentle book, a story of self-discovery, self-worth, the power of friendship and the bonds that develop between women. I loved the characters of Loretta, Chance and Riva, all quite different, so carefully crafted and real. I can picture exactly what they all look like, how they dress, their body language, their stillness, their essence. The wetlands, described so vividly, sensuously, with its huge diversity of plant and animal life, is the perfect backdrop to the conflicts simmering away in the characters. Nothing dramatic happens, just quiet and gradual realisations that nothing stays the same, and no reason either for it to stay the same, but like nature continually shifting, changing and renewing.