Something for the summer, Susan Budd

Throwing Stones
Gwenyth Perry
Bookcaster Press, $20.00, ISBN 0 473 05654 2

Throwing Stones is a romantic novel for the thinking woman, or at the very least the keen member of a book club, it offers the sort of escapist fantasy sadly mocked by Marianne Faithfull in The Ballad of Lucy Jordan: “At the age of 37 she realised she’d never ride through Paris in a sports car with the warm wind in her hair.”

At much the same age, Paula flees her white suburban bedroom in a small New Zealand town for Parisian zephyrs and an Arcadian summer in Brittany. Her children are at boarding school, her husband is dull, though a quiet philanderer, and the excitements of the local amateur dramatic society and work in a bookshop with Miss Gray, a sane Miss Havisham, are palling.

An invitation from dashing Eleanor, free, single and based in London, lures the country mouse out of her comfortable hole. Paula’s naïve delight at the city sights are well captured, although her transports at French country living tend to become irritatingly cloying – at least to those who are immune to the charms of the living-in-Tuscan-and-Provençal-farmhouse genres.

Passion without strings with a tall, handsome French commitment-phobe and a neat subplot unravelling Miss Gray’s mysterious past complete Paula’s overseas education before she returns wiser and considerably happier to Rivertown and comfortable spouse.

Paula, unlike most of Gwenyth Perry’s readers, manages to have her cake and make an exceedingly good meal of it, too. Deftly written, Throwing Stones is a good light read with a little pathos to spice the sugary wish-fulfilment tale.

 

Washing up in Parrot Bay
Frances Cherry
Steele Roberts, $22.95, ISBN 0 958 3712 7 X

Washing Up in Parrot Bay starts with a snap and a crackle as Linda leaves a husband from hell to find the meaning of life under the aegis of Zilla, her ample clairvoyante, in Parrot Bay. It is a thinly-disguised Paekakariki, that seaside colony near Wellington that offers refuge to the sensitive appalled by the rigours of life in the capital.

Loony tunes play loudly in the neighbouring decrepit cottage as the birth of Virginia Woolf’s reincarnation is awaited. As if the poor woman did not have problems enough in her first life, she has Adele and Katrina and a witches’ coven planning her conception via a turkey baster.

Condo, object of desire to both sexes, captures Linda’s heart and skews the best-laid plans of the coven. And then things get decidedly silly as the plot goes into a spin while the characters remain relentlessly two-dimensional. Dostoyevsky Frances Cherry is not, but I found myself turning to the Cast of Characters as often as with The Brothers Karamazov in an attempt to discover who was spouting the current lines of pseudo-witticisms. What was presumably intended to be a zany comedy of manners and sexual mores becomes a sorry, overcooked mess.

 

Gather the Wind
Daphne de Jong
HarperCollins, $19.95, ISBN 1 86590 301 5

Gather the Wind is Daphne de Jong’s second historical novel, though she has sold millions of copies of her romantic novels on the world market under the pseudonyms Daphne Clair, Laurey Bright and Clarissa Garland.

The genres can form a delightful blend, as schoolgirl fans of Georgette Heyer’s frothy tales of saturnine Regency bucks and grey-eyed, spirited maidens will remember.   

Gather the Wind, however, is not a light read. More than 500 pages long, it contains the results of extensive research into 19th century whaling in the South Pacific and the battles fought and alliances formed between early settlers and the Maori.

Captain Joss, the curiously unlikeable protagonist, is the prototypical strong, silent, emotionally unavailable male. His character formed by a miserable childhood as bastard nephew of a bullying merchant prone to toss such epithets as “Devil’s spawn” in his direction, he leaves Kingston-upon-Hull after an encounter – closer to rape than seduction – with his cousin’s wife. More for money than love, which comes after a long, post-nuptial courtship, he marries Tamar, his match in opacity.

Joss’s relationships with Maori chiefs and Governor Grey, his presence at the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi and his participation in local skirmishes are of considerably greater interest than his love life. The life of whalers near Kororareka, with the casual “marriages” they entered into with local women, form a telling picture of pre-colonial exploitation of Maori which leaves a sour foretaste.

De Jong has a tendency to over-write and attempts to cram too much into an often rambling narrative, but her account of early colonial life contains some fascinating material.

 

The Bloodwood Clan
Beryl Fletcher
Spinifex Press, $24.95, ISBN 1 875559 80 9

Beryl Fletcher’s The Bloodwood Clan is a rattling good thriller with a strong, but not obtrusive, feminist perspective.   

Josie, a widow, leaves her two children in Canberra to conduct doctoral research in Digger Town, a hermetic community in New South Wales in which people live a pre-technological lifestyle. The society is rigidly patriarchal.  Their heads and legs covered, their faces free of cosmetics, women live in dormitories until marriage.

Just outside Mudgee is the diametrically opposed community of The Ranters. A neo-Nazi group communicating with the outside world via the Internet, they prove strangely attractive to Josie’s difficult (what other sort is there?) teenage daughter, as does a macho male member to Eliza, a beautiful young Digger.

The plot thickens further with the presence of a group of hippy travellers, the Ferals. The explosive mixture leads inevitably to violent combustion and, as witnesses in grave personal danger, Josie and Eliza are forced into exile in Auckland.

Details of life in Mudgee are meticulously drawn and the idiosyncratic Diggers portrayed with depth and complexity. The long coda of exile in Auckland is dramatically the least effective portion of the novel, although the charting of Eliza’s nostalgia for the secure slavery of her community and the beauty of the Australian bush are beautifully rendered.

By far the most satisfying and entertaining book of the quartet, The Bloodwood Clan will keep holiday boredom at bay.

Susan Budd is an Auckland reviewer.

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