SODDEN DOWNSTREAM by Brannavan Gnanalingam

Shortlisted for the 2018 Ockham NZ Book Awards in the Fiction category, this little book of 178 pages is simply amazing. I read it in one wet Sunday afternoon, could not put it down, it touched me deeply from a humanity point of view, the random kindness of strangers, and probably a realistic look at what life is like for those at the bottom of the economic heap - the refugee -  displaced, damaged, desperately poor, broken.

Sita is a Sri Lankan refugee, living in a state housing flat in Naenae, in the Hutt Valley with her out of work husband who had migrated to NZ a couple of years before civil war ripped Sri Lanka apart. They have a 9 year old son who was only a baby when the war happened. Although it is never said, I expect he is a deeply traumatised child, with nothing ever really done to fully address what he and his mother went through. Sita has a cleaning job, working as part of a group cleaning Wellington's office buildings in the evenings through to the early hours. As you would expect the pay, the conditions, the abysmal attitude of her employer, the drudgery is very grim. The family lives a hand to mouth existence, unable to earn more than a certain amount for fear of having their benefit reduced.

So topical now with the extreme weathers around the world, a storm is on its way to torment Wellington with wind, record rainfall, cold. Sita has to go to work, she has no choice, but the trains aren't going, the Hutt road and roads in Petone are flooded, cars are stranded, but she has to get there. This is the story of that journey, that 24 hours. How is she going to get there? Well, what are our legs and feet for - but to walk. And so she does.

It could almost be comical and whimsical in its purpose - what crazy person is going to walk to Wellington in the dark, in the wet? It really is quite mad. But she has no choice, this is what she must do. She has nothing else, only this job. This book is the story of her walk to work, those she meets, those who help, those who are, in different ways, as desperate as she is. We learn the story of how she came to New Zealand, the war, the violence, the horror inflicted upon civilians as their world is ripped apart and destroyed. As difficult as this day may seem to us in our warm, comfortable little world, I expect for Sita it never comes close to what she has gone through to get to this point, and this is probably what drives her on in her quest to make it to her work.

I loved reading about the setting of Naenae and Lower Hutt, very, very familiar to me, having grown up there. I commuted from the very railway stations Sita uses for some years as a student and city worker, and know the streets very well, a bicycle being my only other means of transport for some years.  The author writes brilliantly about Lower Hutt: I can see the streets, the houses, the railway line, feel the damp, the cold, the slick wet roads chocka block with cars. Most of all I loved the humanity in this book, those who never stop trying to make a day better for others less fortunate, who go out of their way to help, and be kind.

MAZARINE by Charlotte Grimshaw

It is hard to pin down exactly what sort of novel this is. It could be a thriller-mystery; it could be a change of life (ie menopausal) story; it could be a tale of sexual identity; it could be how to fulfil one's writing self; it could be a middle aged OE.  In fact it could be a whole host of things. This is actually why I find it confusing, at times directionless, and because of its abrupt and strangely dissatisfying end, really not very enjoyable at all. Aside from that and in a much more positive light, the author's writing as per usual is outstanding. Her insight into the minds of her characters, their motivations, flaws, process of decision making is lovely to read.

Frances lives in Auckland, she is the mother of Maya who is currently on her OE with her boyfriend Joe. They are based in London, and like thousands of young NZers before them, they travel regularly around Europe, the UK, living on the smell of an oily rag. Like their parents back in little old NZ, Frances frets and worries about her only child, daily scanning Facebook and emails for updates on her daughter's life.  Frances herself is in a state of flux. She is a writer of sorts, and is keen to get started on a thriller novel. Her long term relationship with possibly unstable Nick (or is it Frances who is the unstable one) has recently finished, she has little to do with her ex husband who is Maya's father. Suddenly Maya is no longer communicating on social media, emails to her go unanswered. Frances, convinced she is being stalked by Nick, and wanting to find out where her daughter could be, flees to a motel in Hamilton, intending to also track down Joe's mother, Mazarine.

And the confusion now begins to set in. The narrative could go in any direction as Frances travels to London, Paris, London, Buenos Aires, Auckland. Sometimes Mazarine is there, sometimes she isn't. Nick randomly appears in London, Paris. Is Frances going mad? Does she even know who she is, is she even real? Is Mazarine even real or just another figment of Frances' imagination? Is her daughter in danger or not? What is on the tiny USB stick she is given by the widow of a man who has unexpectedly died? Hardly surprising that I became impatient with this twisting and turning. Being a Charlotte fan, I kept reading in the hope that it would all come together into some devastating and/or amazing conclusion. But no, Frances continues her meandering, her indecisiveness, her obsession with Mazarine. By the end of the book nothing has changed from the beginning except that Frances has travelled, has emptied her bank account, and the disappearance of Maya has been resolved. Disappointing. 

THE PRAGUE SONATA by Bradford Morrow

So much to love in this novel - music, a mystery, a chase, some unpleasant people with suspicious motives, beautiful setting, great writing. But also way too long. Never mind, it is still a really good read, very easy to immerse yourself in, and now Prague has moved to the top of my 'go to places before I die' list.

It is  the year 2000, a new millennium. Meta Taverner is a musicologist in New York. Her very promising concert pianist career was cut short by an accident, taking her down the academic path rather than that of performance. She loves her work, loves music, loves her city, living with lawyer boyfriend Jonathon. In a meeting with Irena, an elderly Czech woman, she is given the middle section of a piano sonata that had been entrusted to her by Irena's best friend Otylie as the Nazis invaded Prague in 1939. Otylie herself fled Prague with first part of the sonata, the third part she gave to her husband Jakub. In this way, she thought at least some of the sonata would survive the war and whatever else lay beyond. Irena wants Meta to reunite, if at all possible, the entire sonata and ensure its future safety.

Meta immediately realises she is holding something very rare and precious from the late 18th century. She doesn't know who the composer is but she knows that this is very special. Her life takes on a sudden and most unexpected direction as she literally drops everything and heads off to Prague to do whatever she can to find the other two parts and, like looking for a needle in a haystack, unite the entire sonata.

This is a fabulous yarn, notwithstanding it being too long. Some reviews are critical of how it doesn't move easily between the present and the past, but I didn't find this a problem at all. You do have to suspend belief just a bit - some pretty amazing coincidences! But it's a story, a novel, so we go along with it all. Prague sounds like the most beautiful place, with its own appalling history of revolution and suppression. And yet throughout people still find time for beautiful music, connections and relationships. A chunk of the story is set in Texas, so vastly different from Prague, and yet the writing is so vivid of the huge open spaces, the heat, the dust, the small towns. If you love music and history, this is for you.

SEE YOU IN SEPTEMBER by Charity Norman

This terrific novel has been shortlisted for the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel of 2018 and it is a cracker. Just imagine sending your child off to the other side of the world for a 3 month backpacking trip, and five long years pass before you see her again. We don't hear much about cults nowadays, although anyone over the age of 45 will know about the Moonies, the mass suicide of the Jonestown cult, Waco, Charles Manson. They all lured people, mostly young, alone, down on their luck, by well proven mind control methods, into their closed and oppressive worlds.

And this is what happens to young Cassy Howells, travelling for three months around New Zealand with her boyfriend Hamish. See you in September is the last thing she calls out to her parents and sister as she farewells them at Heathrow Airport in June. She and Hamish break up suddenly and dramatically while trying to hitch hike to Taupo. Cassy spontaneously gets into a van full of friendly and welcoming young people and she is gone. Just like that. The community she finds herself in is called Gethsemane, established on an island in Lake Tarawera. Spooky setting, spooky place. What is so clever and very scary  about this novel is how quickly and easily Cassy is manipulated into being a fully immersed and functioning member of Gethsemane, under the control of the charismatic Justin Calvin.

Meanwhile back in England, her parents, sister and friends are becoming increasingly alarmed about the lack of contact and news from Cassy. September comes and goes, no Cassy... months and years pass... the impact of her absence takes a horrible toll on the family. Cassy herself knows there are things wrong with how she is living her life, but is unable to find a clear space in her head to deal with it. Time however is beginning to run out for both Cassy, her Gethsemane family and her England family.

I couldn't put this down, read the whole thing in about two days. It is excellent. With a child living on the other side of the world, I constantly worry and wonder how she is, who her friends are, the influences surrounding her. I can't even begin to imagine the terror, fear and heartbreak I would experience as a parent going through what Cassy's parents went through. 


The age old conundrum - can you really judge a book by its cover? Can such a divine cover reveal a story to match the colour, the ornateness and even the magic of the title? In this case it sure can! Before getting onto the story, this is a lovely book to simply hold and flip through as it is generously sprinkled with drawings of flowers, every chapter and there are thirty of them, headed with a different, a little about it, a drawing, and it's meaning. I am not entirely sure if all the plants are strictly native to Australia, where the novel is set, but such a lovely device contributes to this being very much a novel of Australia, its landscape and people. So much to say even before starting on the story!

When we begin, Alice is nine years old, living with her parents on what I am guessing is a rural property. Her father is an extremely violent man, of whom she is terrified. Her mother is a gentle loving woman, who adores her garden, teaching Alice about the plants, and where she first learns the language of flowers. A terrible tragedy results in her moving to live with her grandmother Agnes whom she has never met before. Agnes lives on a flower farm, started by her grandmother, and of which she is now the owner and custodian. Over the years she has taken in many women escaping from their violent and tragic lives, who live and work on the farm. They are called the Flowers. It takes some time for Alice to find her feet and herself in this environment, but over the years she does, immersed in the beauty of flowers, the cycle of the seasons, the love and good will surrounding her. But always at the root of her soul is the horrific loss of her parents, and her previous life.

A betrayal when she is in her early 20s sends her a long way away from this life, until she ends up in the Australian desert at a National Park, picking up the pieces of her life and starting again. Nothing ever goes smoothly for poor Alice Hart however....., although there are always flowers and plants to ground her.

It seems to me there are two types of people - victims and survivors. Alice is definitely a victim due to her childhood traumas, and she spends her whole life trying to get to grips with it, move on, and survive. We know that people keep deep traumas to themselves, and often we know nothing about what has gone on in the lives of people we meet, like, but have difficulty understanding how they are wired. This story, I would like to think, encourages us all to be more tolerant and accepting of those who may deal with life differently from how we may do it. This story is full of damaged souls, and yet, mostly, they are all trying to live the best life they can, getting through the daily problems. Be kind people, to one another, give flowers and appreciate the beauty around us.


After reading this excellent novel, I think the Spanish Civil War must be one of the most pointless wars in recent history. There were no winners at all, neither the extreme left nor the extreme right contributed anything to the future prosperity or political stability of this country and its people. I know nothing about the civil war really - thinking that Franco was the ultimate evil which he was, but also growing up believing that the Republicans/Communists were the good guys. People like Hemmingway both reporting and fictionalising his experience of the war. And yet despite their noble motivations they really were no better than the fascists, the two extremes in ideology both losers.

This novel is about that - the extremes in ideology, how there are no winners and those who lose the most are the civilians, the average worker, small business owner, the families, the middle and working classes, the old people, the young. Always the tragedy of any war. Into this appalling mess come four  young English people. Harry, Sandy and Bernie first meet at school, an English public school. On leaving school their paths diverge. Harry becomes an academic, interrupted by his army stint resulting in evacuation from Dunkirk; Bernie is a communist and goes to Spain to fight for freedom; Sandy is out for himself, always looking for best way to make a quick buck, completely unethical. Then there is Barbara, a Red Cross nurse who is linked to all three. Her lover Bernie goes missing, she grieves for years until she sees a chance to find out what really happened to him. Harry is recruited to be a spy and is sent to Madrid to find out what his old school friend Sandy is up to. Sandy happens to be living with Barbara. Nothing is what it seems, and no one is who they seem. Classic spy stuff, with Harry the mild mannered slightly out of his depth sleuth attempting to make sense of all that is going on around him.

I loved this. It is an excellent story, with great characters facing many challenges. The history is fantastic, I learnt so much about a terrible time in our recent history, I admire the spirit and courage of the Spanish and this novel certainly shows this. It has been marketed as a thriller, but it moves too slowly to be a thriller. Don't let this stop you from reading it. If you have been to Spain, spent any time there, you will love this. 


How I love revisiting old favourites. And when the film of the book is also in your top 10 - even better. The story is so well known there is no point in detailing that. But one can't help compare the film with the book, the book with the film, how some parts of the book are better than the film, and vice versa. The beheaded horse in the bed is one of those images that is forever associated with the movie, so visual, so graphic, so horrific. And yet I found the way this whole scenario was written about -  the lead up to it, the personalities involved, the slow applying of the screws, the inevitability of what was going to happen - far more frightening and evocative on the page than it is on the screen. I also loved how Vito Corleone's early life in Sicily, his escape to New York and the beginnings of the family powerhouse are narrated and developed. How Vito and then in turn Michael put the Family before everything else, how they come to this realisation and then act on it. The movies and the book are absolutely interchangeable with each other. Perfection. 


This is a tightly held, yet also a slow burner of a thriller starring a manly hero called Rever Fatk. Falk has had a chequered work history as have most of these thriller type heroes, so full of cliched personality faults, troubled relationships, mysterious friends and ex partners. But still a riveting read, our hero trying to uncover corruption, save lives, including his own, dealing with betrayal, turn coats and turn abouts. Top reading in other words.

The setting is new! Guantanamo Bay detention camp at the US Guantanamo Navel Base on the coast of Cuba. An overload of plot devices before the story has even started! Falk is an interrogator for the FBI, interrogating prisoners taken in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen in the US's relentless pursuit of terrorists and undesirables. The base is  an island hot bed of gossip, paranoia, the Cubans just around the corner. The discovery of the body of a US Marine on the Cuban side of things throws the army base into complete turmoil, reaching far up into the echelons of the FBI, CIA and the Pentagon. Flak is unwittingly drawn into the mess when he is put in charge of investigating the death of the soldier. He himself becomes a target, and he has to reach deep into himself to save himself and somehow still expose the secrets and coverups.Such vivid and descriptive writing of the geography of the island, the access, the turbulent seas around it, how such an environment affects the people on the base.  I have no desire to go to Guantanamo - bleak, uninviting where many horrible things happen in secret. Scary. 

BELONG TO ME by Marisa de los Santos

Interesting take on familiar themes of dislocated families, children seeking absent/unknown parent. The child is boy genius 13 year old Dev. His solo mum Lake moves the two of them to a town a long way from San Francisco. Also recently moved to the town are Cornelia and Teo, escaping the stress and pressure of New York City. The third narrator is Piper, who is a bit like a Queen Bee and take an instant dislike to Cornelia. She is also very involved in the care of her best friend Elizabeth who is dying. So interesting plot, some characters more believable than others, but overall it was too long and I don"t rate it highly.