Sunday, May 21, 2017


MARLBOROUGH MAN by Alan Carter (Freemantle Press, June 2017)

Reviewed by Alyson Baker

Nick Chester is working as a sergeant for the Havelock police in the Marlborough Sound, at the top of New Zealand’s South Island. If the river isn’t flooded and the land hasn’t slipped, it’s paradise. Unless you are also hiding from a ruthless man with a grudge, in which case, remote beauty has its own kind of danger. In the last couple of weeks, two local boys have vanished. Their bodies are found, but the Pied Piper is still at large. Marlborough Man is a gripping story about the hunter and the hunted, and about what happens when evil takes hold in a small town.

What makes a great thriller great is nerve-wracking plotting, rich atmospheric settings, and complex characters – Marlborough Man has the lot – and it treats the ‘Top of the South’ as Paul Cleave has been treating Christchurch for years – describing a heightened scuzzy substrate that tourists, and many residents, will never glimpse: “In rural New Zealand, calling police out at the sound of shots fired is like calling them out for the sound of cows mooing”.

Nick Chester, a Geordie cop, has been relocated to the Wakamarina Valley, near Havelock in the Marlborough Sounds, after an undercover job back home went South. Chester makes fun of the Zild accent, double takes at the literary references to The Hobbit, and settles in to continue his class-based grudges, and to get to know Latifa Rapata, his new partner.

Rapata is 24 and is often the voice of reason; for Chester is a rebel; happy to toe the line when his duties only stretch to bad drivers and petty theft, but when it emerges there is a sexual predator preying on young boys in the area he just wants “… to catch the prick who’s been murdering the kids” – and he starts playing by his own rules. He builds a case with the help of Rapata and her whanau. And his interest is galvanized when he starts suspecting that the press-named “Pied Piper” may be one of the local arrogant-ocracy – those people that “… never get looked at …” – and to make matters worse one of them starts a logging operation in the valley that is ruining his view!

In Marlborough Man Carter breaks all the rules about not hurting animals, and he pulls no punches in showing the many sides of Chester – who makes some very bad choices. Chester’s shaky marriage and his concern for their special needs son back-drop the story, as does the fact that comeuppance for the botched undercover job back in Geordie-land is stalking “the feral hills of the Wakamarina”.

The wild weather and visual beauty of the valley give you a sense of place in sand-fly-filled spades, and the mud and slips from the frequent downpours nicely echo Chester’s roller coaster ride. A trip back to the old country triggers a new look at the Wakamarina, and Chester’s re-entry into “A magic roundabout of people who won’t let go.” It also gives Vanessa, Chester’s wife, a chance to become a more interesting character, and another foil to Chester’s excitability. The crime plotting keeps you guessing the whole way, and the cliff hanger ending comforts me that there will be more.

Read this book!

Alyson Baker is a crime-loving librarian in Nelson. This review will also appear on her blog, which you can check out here

Friday, May 19, 2017


CORRUPTED ON THE COTE D'AZUR by Richard Donald (Mary Egan Publishing, 2015)

Reviewed by Tony Chapelle

A young New Zealander, Tom, obtains a job in the South of France as a sous-chef. His sister, Maggie, joins him and becomes the mistress of an influential and unscrupulous owner of a supermarket chain. His list of misdemeanors includes theft, tax fraud, omitting to tell his numerous partners that he is HIV positive, child pornography and indirectly, murder. The question is whether he will manage to corrupt the legal system and avoid justice? Will Maggie be corrupted by her dangerous liaison?

A brother and sister from New Zealand, he a sous chef and she, it seems, an incorrigible seeker after the high life, are caught up in a web of dangerous intrigue.

The action is set mainly in the south of France, with excursions into Paris and Italy. There is a strong element of ‘innocents abroad’ and ‘Famous Five’ in this book. The two somewhat naïve antipodeans and their French friends meet frequently in cafes and other places to plot the next steps in their quest to locate and bring to justice the irredeemably nasty villain of the piece. There are thefts, home invasions, kidnappings, car chases, glamorous and amoral women, meetings with both helpful and obstructive policemen, corrupt local politicians, and brushes with the mafia. There is also tax evasion, a murder and evidence of child pornography.

The author is clearly familiar with the settings for the story, and frequently introduces authenticating detail concerning architecture, local food specialities, the merits of various hotels, and so on – to the extent that at times the book could almost double as a tourist guide. There is also plentiful use of French terms and phrases, often with accompanying, and sometimes cumbersome, translation or interpretation.

Much of the plot is unfolded through explanatory dialogue as the protagonists decide on their tactics and discuss their successes and failures, but at other times details concerning what happens are sketched in as narrative. An uneven but generally fast pace is set from the start and more or less maintained throughout.

Underlying all the derring-do is the much darker question of human selfishness and the propensity to give way to temptation. Essentially, as the title suggests, the story deals with corruption – both physical corruption in the question of the spread of sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV/Aids, and moral corruption resulting from a hunger for wealth and a lust for power. These are seen as an almost inevitable result of the systems by which the western world operates – systems that reward rather than punish the greedy and ruthless.

There is much of what one would expect from a high-voltage adventure yarn in this book – violence and tension, sex and subterfuge – though the sex and violence in particular are treated in a rather coy manner. There are also characters in the story for whom the reader can develop and maintain some sympathy, just as there are others who are beyond redemption or who prove in the end to be unworthy. A heavily loaded epilogue attempts to tie up the numerous loose ends, but also creates some more. We learn that ‘good’ has some victories, but it does not triumph; and apparently in only one instance does love (there are two incipient romances) conquer all.

While there is throughout an uneasy co-existence between the narrative and the author’s penchant for instruction and explanation, Donald does display a flair for plot, and a clear desire for the reader to get a true feel for place.

Tony Chapelle is a Manawatu writer and retired academic who has won and been shortlisted for several short story competitions. He has published a collection of short stories set in provincial New Zealand and a novel set in Victorian England. You can read more about his in this feature from the Manawatu Standard newspaper. 

This review was first published in FlaxFlower reviews, which focuses on in-depth reviews of New Zealand books of all kinds, and is reprinted here with kind permission. 

Monday, May 15, 2017


THE CANDIDATE'S DAUGHTER by Catherine Lea (Brakelight, 2014)

Reviewed by Jenny Argante

The plan is simple: kidnap the daughter of Senate candidate Richard McClaine, take the money and run. Nobody gets hurt, the kid goes home alive.  That’s what twenty-two-year-old car thief Kelsey Money thought she was getting into. She chalked it up to another hare-brained scheme dreamed up by her boyfriend Matt and his drug-fueled brother. Then she discovers the part she wasn’t told - that six-year-old Holly isn’t going home alive - and Kelsey makes a decision that'll take her whole world apart.

Elizabeth McClaine can't even tell the police what her daughter was wearing when she disappeared. Soon after Holly was born with Down Syndrome and a cleft palate, she was placed in the care of a nanny while her mother battled postpartum depression. When Holly is kidnapped and Elizabeth learns the detective on the case has already failed one kidnapped child, she vows not to fail hers. The clock is ticking. Both women have twenty-four hours to find Holly because in twenty-five, she’ll be dead. 

I haven’t read anything by Catherine Lea before, but I will now be eagerly checking for the next or any other book she has written. She has woven together a story that is tense, absorbing and structured cinematically by time and character perspective to hold the attention from page one until the end.

It’s a story of an optimistic kidnap that goes disastrously wrong because it’s carried out without proper planning by a moronic pair of brothers, Matt and Lionel. Matt has enlisted the help of his girl friend, Kelsey, whose own damaged past has impaired her judgement, and who comes to experience a shift in understanding and motivation as the narrative unfolds.

What lifts up this story from the ordinary is some clever plotting, and the 3-dimensional nature of main characters and support players. Each reveals to us how flawed human beings can be and, ultimately, that some of us are, if we choose to be, redeemable.

The kidnap victim herself is heartbreaking real. Holly is a six-year old Down’s Syndrome girl, and the daughter of high-achieving parents. Neither has been able to reconcile what they got when she was born with what they believed themselves entitled to. Holly is endearing and vulnerable, and she wins Kelsey’s heart.

Though this leads to a shift from being ‘one of the gang’ to the role of Holly’s defender, Kelsey is still deeply mired in the consequences of the criminal actions she consented to. How she manages to resolve this is nail-biting stuff.

Lea brings to her narrative a suspense that is tightly maintained throughout. One example is the unwelcome publicity this bungled snatch brings to senatorial candidate Richard McLaine and his wife Elizabeth and how it leads to an unravelling of carefully constructed facades, personal, professional and marital.

Brought face to face with the realisation of where they have failed, the two women, Kelsey and Elizabeth, work hard to avert pending disaster.  The end, when it comes, is a satisfying and heart-wrenching finale of losers and winners.

Because Catherine Lea has made you care so deeply about the significant actors within this compelling drama – the child Holly; reformed accomplice Kelsey and Holly’s shamed and self-blaming mother – we also care deeply about what happens to them. That makes The Candidate’s Daughter a real page-turner.

In my opinion, it would also make a great New Zealand movie. I hope some talent scout will sit down and read the book, uncover its potential and pitch it to a film director –  it’s Niki Caro or Jane Campion material for sure.

I am both a picky and experienced reader and I couldn’t put it down. Take a bow, Ms. Lea.

Jenny Argante is a Tauranga writer and editor, and a member of Tauranga Writers and the New Zealand Society of Authors. This review was first published in FlaxFlower reviews, which focuses on in-depth reviews of New Zealand books of all kinds, and is reprinted here with kind permission. 

Friday, May 12, 2017

Five Terrific, Must-Read Kiwi Crime Novels Set in Otago

The biannual Dunedin Writers & Readers Festival is now in full swing, with plenty of terrific events for booklovers to enjoy over this weekend. A big highlight is the Crime Time session with visiting mystery masterminds Ian Rankin, Stella Duffy, and MJ Carter, chaired by local crime queen Vanda Symon, but there's plenty more fantasticness on offer (see full programme here, crime picks here).

Inspired by our own City of Literature bringing some great international crime writers to Otago (and this feature I read today highlighting five classic Auckland-set novels in the lead-up to AWRF), I thought I'd reciprocate by sharing a reading list of superb Otago-set crime tales that can give readers from around the world a page-turning story infused with a real sense of this southern province in New Zealand.

So pull up a couch (don't set it on fire), grab your blue and yellow scarf, and let's dive in.

Given she's chairing the Crime Time panel at the Dunedin Writers & Readers Festival, it seems only appropriate to start with New Zealand's modern day Queen of Crime. A former pharmacist who's recently completed a PhD studying the use of poisons in crime fiction by the likes of Dame Ngaio Marsh in crime fiction, Symon is also a medal-winning competitor in masters-level fencing. So the Dunedin author is doubly deadly in real life, let alone her excellent crime novels.

Symon has written five crime novels so far, including four in her Sam Shephard series. Her books have been shortlisted for the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel three times, translated into German, and praised as “superlative storytelling packed with vivid scenes, touches of humour, and one of the most engaging heroines around”.

Symon’s 2008 follow-up to her excellent debut Overkill finds heroine Sam Shephard having moved to Dunedin from Mataura; bridges burnt. Undertaking detective training, Sam’s on the bottom rung of the ladder. The Ringmaster opens with a murder in the Botanic Gardens, before switching to stroppy Sam’s first-person narration. Marginalised, she struggles to participate in the investigation, working in her own time and feeding off the scraps her partner Smithy smuggles her way. She eventually uncovers a link between the visiting circus, and a series of deaths throughout the lower South Island.

One of many great facets of this novel is Symon's use of the Dunedin setting. From the opening murder beside the Leith, to Highlanders games, and student life, Symon brings alive this southern city. When interviewed, Symon has said, “a town will have a feel, a social background. I like using Dunedin. It has a vibrancy and an edge with the students and all that brings with it.”

HUNTING BLIND by Paddy Richardson
Symon’s fellow Kiwi crime queen Paddy Richardson is also appearing onstage this weekend, tasked with riding shotgun to the infectious energy of Tokoroa-raised novelist, theatremaker, and Fun Palaces champion Stella Duffy (grab your tickets here). Richardson is herself a prolific writer, with two collections of shorts stories and seven novels under her belt. Five of Richardson’s seven novels have been top notch psychological thrillers. Her books have been shortlisted for the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel twice, translated into German, and been praised for blending modern thrillers with social commentary and history, creating very New Zealand stories that are “stylishly written and compellingly plotted”.

While all of Richardson’s psychological thrillers are good to outstanding reads, the one that screams ‘Otago’ to me the most is Hunting Blind, which was shortlisted for the 2011 Ngaio Marsh Award.  The story begins at a lakeside school picnic in Wanaka, Central Otago, back in the late 1980s. Minna Anderson is there with her four children, when tragedy strikes. Her four-year-old daughter Gemma disappears. A massive search fails to turn up any trace, not even a body. The family is torn apart by the tragedy, but the investigation eventually fades. Many years later Gemma's sister Stephanie is completing a psychiatry course in Dunedin, when she's assigned a suicidal and uncommunicative new patient who gradually reveals an eerily similar story. While reluctant to reopen old wounds, Stephanie is compelled to investigate - could the same person be responsible for both abductions?

This is a terrific read, a character study crime novel that's "a gripping and truly human story of what happens when families have to cope with the unthinkable", further elevated by its strong sense of place. As US mystery writer, professor, critic (and now Ngaio Marsh Awards judge) Margot Kinberg said back in her 2011 review for Crime Watch, "As Stephanie searches for Gemma’s abductor, she travels to several places on South Island, and each is described in lovely but not overburdening detail. One gets a really authentic sense of life there not just from the physical setting but from several other little touches that really add to the context".

The most recent of my recommendations, just published last year and in the running for this year's Ngaio Marsh Awards (judging is currently going on). Finn Bell is a new addition to the #yeahnoir ranks, with the Dunedin-based full-time author releasing both his debut Dead Lemons, and Pancake Money, on Amazon Kindle in 2016. He has another two crime novels coming out this year.

I first came across a mention of Bell's writing thanks to the well-respected British website, CrimeFictionLover, which gave a big thumbs up to Dead Lemons as part of its 'Ten to Taste' roundup of top self-published novels that could 'blow your mind', last November. A separate, more in-depth review on the same website was equally effusive, calling Bell a talented writer who'd "constructed a compelling and accomplished story that doesn't wallow or stall... this slice of Kiwi noir is very moreish" and that he was a welcome arrival and an author to watch in future.

I was intrigued. And having now read Bell's first two novels, I can see why the overseas critics were raving. While both are very good crime reads from a distinctive new voice, Bell’s debut is set in Southland and this second tale is based in Otago, so Pancake Money gets the nod here. Bobby Ress is a Dunedin detective with a family life who just wants to make a difference. But he's thrust into a horrifying case when two Catholic priests are not only murdered, but martyred in torturous, medieval fashion, Ress and his partner Pollo don't know whether they're hunting a vicious serial killer, or a team of vigilantes exacting some sort of revenge. As they dig into the priests' pasts, they have to confront some of the darkest corners of humanity, putting their own lives on the line.

This is clever, dark crime fiction populated with engaging characters, authentic relationships, a strong narrative drive, and powerful threads about philosophy and human psychology. All set against a cinematic evocation of Otago's urban and rural landscapes, which add to the moody atmosphere.

TWISTER by Jane Woodham
If you like deeply character-centric crime, then this recent Kiwi crime novel, which was a finalist in last year's Best First Novel category at the Ngaio Marsh Awards, could be right up your alley.

Woodham, who immigrated to Dunedin from London almost twenty years ago, is a founding member of the Dunedin Detection Club, alongside fellow Ngaio Marsh Award finalists Symon and Richardson, and 2014 Ngaio Marsh Award winner Liam McIlvanney. Before writing Twister, Woodham had twice been a finalist in the prestigious BNZ Katherine Mansfield Short Story Competition, and had her short stories published in New Zealand and the United Kingdom. She certainly knows her way around a great story, and how to craft deep, authentic characters that tug at readers’ hearts and minds as the pages turn.

In Twister, Dunedin is suffering from a series of plagues: an unseasonal flu epidemic, cats are getting tortured, and a spate of gay bashings. When a storm tears up the city, the body of a missing schoolgirl is uncovered. It’s a particularly tough case for Detective Senior Sergeant Leo Judd, whose own daughter disappeared nine years ago. He and his wife Kate have never really recovered, and unbeknownst to Judd, Kate has been having an affair with their old neighbour, Rea, and intends to leave him. Pressure mounts on the work and home fronts, as Judd tries to overcome his own grief while Kate plucks up the courage to confess not just her affair, but a secret she’s been keeping for years.

This is a very fine novel that’s as much or more about the impact of crime on the people involved, as solving crime or catching criminals. Woodham crafts an emotional spiderweb of human relationships, with the investigation bubbling along in the background and used to ramp up tension and reveal character. She also does an excellent job evoking a strong sense of Dunedin. As US author and Ngaio Marsh Awards judge Margot Kinberg said, "It’s the kind of ‘small world’ place where people know each other and where gossip spreads ... Woodham shares the diverse cultural makeup of the city. Readers who enjoy a strong sense of place in the novel will appreciate this".

West is an Otago freelance journalist, novelist, and playwright who lives on a farm near Mosgiel, a small township just south of Dunedin. Her novels are thrilling tales for young adults. Her debut, Thieves, was shortlisted for the New Zealand Post Book Awards for Children & Young Adults, and spawned an acclaimed trilogy.

While her first three books were thrillers set in a sci-fi world (the second book was also a finalist for the Sir Julius Vogel Awards from New Zealand's Science Fiction & Fantasy Association), West's fourth novel was a crime thriller that drew on her own love for and experiences of rural life. Night Vision, an engaging tale starring an exceptional girl, was published in 2014 and went on to win both the Young Adult Fiction Award at the 2015 LIANZA Children's Book Awards, and the YA Children's Choice Award at the 2015 New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults.

Young Viola was born with rare genetic condition Xeroderma Pigmentosum, making her at dangerous risk from anything that emits ultraviolet light, including the sun. So she's a 'moon child', and while her parents sleep she explores the family sheep farm and surrounding forest by night, sharing the natural world with the moreporks, possums, and other nocturnal creatures prowling the darkness. One night, she witnesses a vicious crime, and sees the perpetrator bury a sack of money. With her parents in danger of losing their farm, Viola decides to take the money to help her family, drip-feeding it to them over time. While the Police are looking in the wrong direction, Viola finds herself in the criminal's crosshairs after a newspaper interview about her and her condition tips off the local drug dealer as to just who might have taken his money.

Night Vision would be a truly superb mystery for adolescent readers, and could still be greatly enjoyed by older teens and adults. I liked it a lot, even if the young adult-targeted plotline was more straightforward than the adult crime I usually read. Viola is a terrific narrator, a unique and engaging girl who draws us into her perspective on the world. West brings the Otago rural setting to life, on the farm and in the forest. The nocturnal perspective on the local bush, the dual serenity and danger of nature, was well evoked and created an atmospheric backdrop to an intriguing tale.

Craig Sisterson is a lapsed lawyer who writes features for leading magazines and newspapers in several countries. He has interviewed more than 180 crime writers, discussed crime writing onstage at festivals in Europe and Australasia, on national radio, is a judge of the McIlvanney Prize, and is the Judging Convenor of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. You can follow him on Twitter: @craigsisterson

Murder in the Library - Greytown - Sat 27 May

The Ngaio Marsh Awards, in association with the New Zealand Book Council and the Wairarapa Library Service, invites booklovers to an event featuring three talented writers.

2017 Ngaio Marsh Awards entrants Cat Connor and Jude Knight will be in discussion with 2013 Ngaio Marsh Award winner Paul Thomas, the 'Godfather of New Zealand Crime Writing', about what they love about crime and mystery stories, and how they create compelling characters, evoke vivid fictional worlds, and blend real-life issues into page-turning plotlines.

WHEN: Saturday 27 May 2017
WHERE: Greytown Library, 89-91 Main Street, Greytown
WHEN: 3pm

This is a free event.

Cat Connor lives in Upper Hutt and is the author of the‘byte’ series starring headstrong and highly skilled FBI Special Agent Ellie Conway. The series was initially inspired by Cat receiving online death threats when she ran a poetry chat room. Her novels have been described as “fast-paced techno-thrillers with black humour, likable protagonists, and full of twists and turns”.

Jude Knight is a Featherston author who worked for thirty years in commercial writing, editing, and publishing. She now writes historical romances, romantic mysteries, and romantic thrillers. She has published five novels, as well as several novellas and a collection of short stories. Jude's romantic mystery REVEALED IN MIST is entered in the 2017 Ngaio Marsh Awards.

Paul Thomas lives in Martinborough and is an award-winning columnist, novelist, and sports biographer. He has written sports biographies with cricketer John Wright, former All Blacks coach John Hart, and All Blacks John Kirwan and Tana Umaga, and Paul's groundbreaking series of Tito Ihaka crime novels has won both the Ned Kelly Award in Australia and the Ngaio Marsh Award.

Update: Catherine Lea added to Otahuhu Murder in the Library

The Ngaio Marsh Awards, in association with the New Zealand Book Council and Auckland Libraries, invite South Auckland booklovers to a free event featuring a diverse panel of four talented local crime writers. 

Over the past century, crime writing has evolved from puzzle-like entertainment into modern novels delving deeply into people, places, and psychology. Still the world's most popular form of storytelling, crime fiction can take readers into all aspects of society, providing page-turning entertainment and memorable characters while also addressing real-life social issues.

2017 Ngaio Marsh Awards contenders Angus Gillies, Sidney Mazzi and Fiona Sussman are joined by Auckland-based international thriller writer Catherine Lea to talk about what inspired them to write tales full of crime, and how they create memorable characters and bring the world of their novels to vibrant life.

WHEN: Wednesday, 24 May 2017
WHERE: Otahuhu Library, 28-30 Mason Ave, Otahuhu, Auckland
WHEN: 6.15 for a 6.30pm panel discussion

This is a free event.

Angus Gillies' Ngati Dread trilogy, which examined a 1980s rastafarian uprising in Ruatoria, has been described as "one of the most remarkable books ever written about crime, race, religious voodoo, and the New Zealand way of life and death" (The Spinoff).

Catherine Lea worked in IT sales and recruitment, and writes international thrillers from her Auckland home. Her books have been translated into German, and praised as "thrillers with heart" and "absolutely spellbinding... completely unputdownable".

Sidney Mazzi is originally from Brazil and has worked in a variety of business roles in New Zealand. He now lives in Hamilton. His debut crime tale TAINTED BY FIRE has been described as "an exciting story that shows plenty of promise".

Fiona Sussman's THE LAST TIME WE SPOKE delves into the aftermath of a home invasion, and "shows the freshness and daring of Alan Duff's ONCE WERE WARRIORS" (Takahe) while being "a gripping story of grief and redemption" (Sunday Mirror).


THE LAST TIME WE SPOKE by Fiona Sussman (Allison & Busby, 2016)

Reviewed by MJ Burr

On the night that Carla Reid plans on celebrating her wedding anniversary with her husband Kevin and their grown son Jack, their New Zealand farmstead has never felt more like home. But when Ben Toroa and another aspiring gang member brutally force their way into the house with robbery and more on their minds the night and the rest of both their lives take a radically different direction.

As Carla struggles to come to terms with the aftermath and bereavement of different kinds, and Ben faces the consequences in prison, their stories continue to interweave.

This book came heralded as a winner of the Kobo/NZ Author Publishing Prize, and a shortlisted entrant for the NZ Heritage Book Awards. Could it really be that good? And if it is, what makes it so?

And the answers are “Yes, it is” and “Everything”.

But in expanding on those assertions I’m going to abandon the cool, academic detachment of the third person and give way to the viscera where the hugely-talented Sussman largely appealed to me and occasionally kicked me.

First things first – The Last Time We Spoke is a redemption novel revolving around an unspeakable crime: a home invasion resulting in murder, maiming and rape. Carla has the misfortune to survive it where her husband and son do not and is condemned to live with her grief, her anger and her hate for the perpetrator, who gets fourteen years for his part in the crime. In addition to losing a family more precious even than most, her way of life and the certainties about it that most citizens take for granted and her hopes of any sort of future, Carla enters a downward spiral that skirts a predictable outcome which she survives by a thread.

That thread attains a tenuous strength through an epiphany that leads to her involvement with the perpetrator, Ben. Slowly, terribly slowly, and after the almost-inevitable false starts, she sets him, and herself, on the path to some sort of triumphant redemption. Teaching him to read is the least part of her effect upon him, for the beauty of her purpose tames the beast of his soul. Carla’s achievement is most touchingly encapsulated in the butterfly episode, but I resist the temptation to expand on that because it needs reading, re-reading and then reading some more.

So much for first things.

Second things: in looking at what makes this infinitely better than any other light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel story, what was immediately apparent to me was the sheer power of the writing. The chief ingredient in this was the ring of authenticity present in the book from earliest times and throughout. Dialogue, attitude, behaviour and scene-setting all bespeak the investigation and research that went into painting colour, life and credibility into what might easily have been a down-and-dirty, monochromatic story of true bottom-feeders – or as Sussman has it, “the scum of the earth”.

Sussman has a truly enviable power to evoke, and I will forever covet some of her descriptive passages, viz. a girl with “eyes that were a catch-your-breath-blue”; a head-trauma patient with “his small face stuck on to his bandaged head”; the atmosphere inside a prison van which “was a foul brew of disinfectant, traffic fumes and old urine”, and the one that turned me inside out when she writes of Carla’s bereaved, devastated and desolate life “when every minute is empty and drags its feet toward nothingness”. I have never read a better description of the utter hopelessness of a life
sentence that has nothing to do with prisons.

For me, much of the technical excellence of the book lies in Sussman’s clever juxtapositioning of characters and scenes. Two examples of many – we meet two women facing the watershed of pregnancy. Carla is inexpressibly overjoyed at a long-hoped-for miracle, while Miriama is resigned, apprehensive and despondent. Shortly after, we see the collision of two polarised worlds in the differing first-day-home experiences of Jack, whose entire life thereafter will be passed in the love and happiness of being wanted, and Ben, a mere by-blow who is lucky to survive his first night in the company of an abusive, selfish and violent father. ‘As the twig is bent...’

Chapters are linked by the presence of an Atua, an all-seeing eye who comments on the story as it develops and who can therefore offer the viewpoint of traditional Maoridom on events and characters. This is needed because, bereft of their tikanga, the Maori characters of the story cannot do so, and in my view it worked well although some of the proselytising grated; particularly the hoary old saw that the suppression of te reo was a Pakeha plot rather than an expression of Sir Apirana Ngata’s injunction of “E tipu e rea” to grasp “the tools of the Pakeha”.

The Last Time We Spoke is an absolute triumph.

MJ Burr is a New Zealand novelist and former history teacher. You can visit his website here

This review was first published in FlaxFlower reviews, which focuses on in-depth reviews of New Zealand books of all kinds, and is reprinted here with kind permission. 

Wednesday, May 10, 2017


LOOK AWAY, DIXIELAND by MJ Burr (Cliowrite, 2016)

Reviewed by Carolyn McKenzie

A desperate cavalry action carried out to save a retreating Confederate army in the American Civil War is the prelude to the court-martial and judicial murder of the hero who led it. In 2010, in the first term of America’s first black President, the Journal written from old age by the only survivor of that desperate charge surfaces against a backdrop of bomb outrages throughout the states of the original Confederacy. As a young academic uses his specialist knowledge in 2010 to chip away at the mysteries of 1865 it becomes apparent that an even more deadly agenda is being worked upon across Dixie to breathe new life into the ‘Lost Cause’. Who’s behind the terror? Who was responsible for the contrived death of a Confederate hero? Is it too late for justice, or has Dixieland looked away for too long?

From the opening pages of Look Away, Dixieland, with a rigged court martial and judicial murder in America’s war torn southern states in 1865, to the book’s fast-paced final chapters in 2009-10, MJ Burr takes his readers far beyond the mere facts of events in the American Civil War and deep into the destructive, obsessive mind of a man who is still fighting that war in our times.

Look Away, Dixieland portrays the final months of the Civil War from the Confederate point of view, as described in an account written by Jim Shields, a Virginian cavalryman who survived the war and founded a family tradition which is still respected four generations later in the 21st century.

Through Shield’s story, Burr breathes life into the Southerners, both military and civilian, who inhabited the states of America which became known as Dixie.

As Shields’ story unfolds, we learn of the brave and tragic events leading up to the fabricated charges of desertion and treason, and resulting execution of his friend and fellow cavalryman, Billy Brodie. Jim Shields and Billy Brodie are the heroes of their cavalry unit, while cowardice, bullying brutality, over-zealous patriotism and non-acceptance of the South’s defeat are embodied in the family of Abner Quealey and his equally obnoxious son, Amos.

When Jim Shields’ journal is discovered in 2010 and found to contain a mystery, who better to solve it than the brilliant duo of his History lecturer great-great grandson, Brodie Shields and criminologist Ellen Newstrom! However, in setting out to unravel the journal’s riddle, Brodie and Ellen put themselves on a deadly collision course with the latest incarnation of the wicked Abner and Amos Quealey. Hartford Quealey is in fact masterminding a series of terrorist acts aimed at forcing the American government to grant long-awaited self-government to the southern Dixie states.

History enthusiast Burr has combined his passion for, and knowledge of, events with his strong belief that those events are more memorable when seen through the eyes of the fleshed-out ordinary people who participated in them: an approach which, in Look Away, Dixieland, very effectively takes the dryness out of the bare bones of the facts.  His Confederate characters are convincing and likable and blend fluidly with his present-day Quealey and cohorts who are chillingly hateful. I found the relationship between Brodie IV and Ellen rather soppy and self-congratulatory but this is a minor irritation in a cleverly told story.

In the final pages of the book, Burr builds tension with a series of short, snappy chapters. Brodie and Ellen survive Look Away, Dixieland by an almost comical chain of events, and just when our guard is down, thinking Ha, ha! They were lucky to get out of that alive, Burr takes us by surprise and winds the suspense up again to the final dramatic scenes.

Look Away, Dixieland is a great read in the genre of faction or fictionalised fact – a gripping historical-contemporary thriller combined with a sweet and tragic 19th century romance. It will have curious readers reaching for their encyclopaedias/search engines to refresh the lyrics of Dixie and confirm the exact position of the Mason-Dixon line.  At the same time, Look Away, Dixieland is thought-provoking: to paraphrase Burr’s quote from Marie-Jeanne Phlippon Roland, What crimes will still be committed in your name, oh Liberty?

It’s good to know that Burr has other historical novels in the pipeline, including one set in New Zealand’s not so distant past.

Carolyn McKenzie is a freelance proofreader, copy editor, and Italian-English translator. She also offers holiday accommodation for writers and others in Thames, New Zealand and Ventimiglia Alta, Italy. 

This review was first published in FlaxFlower reviews, which focuses on in-depth reviews of New Zealand books of all kinds, and is reprinted here with the kind permission of Bronwyn Elsmore and Carolyn McKenzie.