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Beyond the pale, Kathryn Walls

Heloise
Mandy Hager
Penguin Random House, $38.00,
ISBN 9780143770992

Heloise is Mandy Hager’s reconstruction in novelistic terms of the lives of the 12th-century lovers Heloise and Abelard, told from Heloise’s point of view. While both Abelard and Heloise read a great deal, neither of them had ever read a novel. They had, no doubt, read Augustine’s Confessions, an autobiography as distant in time from the 12th century as the 12th century is from our own. But Augustine saw no point in the concrete realisation of experience that characterises most novels. Unlike Hager, he does not mention things like the off-putting “flatulence, coughs and wheezing snores” of the convent dormitory, or the impression made on him by “streams of fish gut and animal entrails that [ran] down to meet the river”, or where the privy was. His subject was his psyche as a model for the reader’s. Being an African, he might have been black, but his skin colour remains a mystery. And yet, Hager, whose novel is rich in evocations of earthy reality, is not genuinely concerned with “the medieval body” (although the subject is currently being done to death by academics). Indeed, she has followed in the steps of Augustine (in this respect, at least, as so many great novelists have done) by focusing on the trajectory of her subject’s inner life. Paradoxically, while she has sought to establish authenticity by appealing to our senses, the effect here is decorative. What is truly authentic about her novel is quite different. Hager has, impressively, studied a wealth of primary and secondary texts in order to reconstruct Heloise’s mental and emotional development.

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Loosening stiff upper lips, Charlotte Graham

Leap of Faith 
Jenny Pattrick
Black Swan, $38.00,
ISBN 9780143770916

Good Sons
Greg Hall
Mary Egan Publishing, $32.00,
ISBN 9780473383787

It seems there are two major challenges for any author wanting to write about New Zealand in some of its formative historical periods. One is the research. The other is conveying the spirit of tough people who lived tough lives, when often these were men and women of few words. The tendency of our forebears not to respond to even the most brutal of conditions, or to utterly cavernous moments of grief and loss, with anything other than stoicism, has bred an odd national reluctance to talk about our problems that persists, in some forms, to the present day. It presents an even bigger challenge to writers of historical fiction, who need to convey moments of hope and anguish among the austere, taciturn Pākehā of 1907 or 1917 without breaking character or boring us to tears. On screen, it can be done with sideways looks: the raise of an eyebrow, or a mumbled syllable. But Jenny Pattrick, author of Leap of Faith, and Greg Hall, in his book Good Sons, have set themselves a difficult task to convey it through text.

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Fascinating threesome, Rosemary Wildblood

Obsession
Elspeth Sandys
Upstart Press, $35.00,
ISBN 9781927262900

Set mostly in the 1980s, Elspeth Sandys’s Obsession explores the dynamics of a relationship fuelled by desire and driven by a symbiotic need for intimacy. The narrative is purportedly written by a third party – who bears the sobriquet of the Dally poet – in a manuscript we are told in the foreword was discovered after his death. For those who like to judge a book by its cover, its design features three pressed flowers on a parchment-coloured background bearing faint traces of script, with the same theme continued through to the back in a graphic depiction of its contents. Combined with creamy pages inside, it’s a handsome book to own and shelve.

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Talking of war, Hugh Roberts 

Mulgan
Noel Shepherd
Steele Roberts,$25.00,
ISBN 9780947493387

Noel Shepherd’s debut novel, Mulgan, certainly doesn’t lack for moxie. Writing one’s way into one of the small handful of truly iconic New Zealand novels and, what’s more, openly setting out to imitate the tone, style and form of that novel, is not for the faint-hearted. One can applaud Shepherd’s ambition even if, ultimately, the novel itself must be seen as an interesting failure. There is, though, at least one way in which a parody or a pastiche or an homage is always interesting: it asks us to think about what really is the quintessence of the thing imitated; what is it that makes John Mulgan’s Man Alone still such a powerful read, even after so many years of stultifying “official” reverence and highbrow critical snark?

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The thrills of genre-literacy, David Larsen

The New Animals
Pip Adam
Victoria University Press, $30.00,
ISBN 9781776561162

Pip Adam’s second novel is bewildering. I say this as praise, though also as fair warning.

On page one we meet Carla, who has stopped on her way somewhere to buy a cup of tea. She is not enjoying the experience:

The whole of St Kevin’s Arcade was awful now … it was clean and the café down the end of the arcade served ricotta doughnuts to men in suits and she couldn’t stand it. She’d lived in Auckland for 43 years and it still wasn’t finished. Nothing stayed in place.

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The grimness of contemporary realism, John McCrystal

Five Strings
Apirana Taylor
Anahera Press, $35.00,
ISBN 9780473389482

Iceland
Dominic Hoey
Steele Roberts, $35.00,
ISBN 978094749343I

It’s that time of the three-yearly cycle again. A billboard has gone up near my house promoting the political party that has, for the last couple of terms, been promising us a brighter future. It claims this party is “Delivering for New Zealanders” – which is true, so long as you don’t read it as a claim that it is delivering for all New Zealanders. And, as for the brighter future, well, there is a significant number of people in New Zealand for whom the future can only be brighter, given how bleak their present is.

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Cliquety-clique? David Hill

Twice Upon a Time
James Norcliffe
Puffin NZ, $17.00,
ISBN 9780143770671

Into the White
Joanna Grochowicz
Allen and Unwin, $19.00,
ISBN 9781760293659

Taupo Blows!
Doug Wilson
Bateman, $19.00,
ISBN 9781869539672

Those accusations from a few months back – the ones which told us New Zealand literature is a cliquey little club, rampant with mutual back-scratching and buttock-wiping, with the Book Council and New Zealand Books among its most self-serving cliquettes: am I the only one who found them a tad same-old, same-old?

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Posted in Children, Fiction, Literature and Review

Who is Sam? Phillip Mann

Star Sailors
James McNaughton
Victoria University Press, $35.00,
ISBN 9781776561018

This book is not science fiction; it is science fact. Global warming, unless controlled, will create an uninhabitable world. The threat is real: it is here, it is now and it is not going away. Only we can stop it … and the clock is ticking. Though a day does not pass without our being made aware of global warming we, as the animal primarily responsible, do not seem able to take the necessary decisive action to avert it. Why is this?

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Kelp triffids, zombie chickens and taniwha, Annabel Gooder

Speculative fiction
At the Edge
Dan Rabarts and Lee Murray (eds)
Paper Road Press, $31.50,
ISBN 9780473354152

At the Edge is an original anthology of speculative fiction (science fiction, fantasy and horror) stories by New Zealand and Australian authors. The title is advantageously open; the eponymous edge can be outer space, a frontier planet, the border between the mundane and the supernatural, or living down here at the edge of the world. In a third of the 23 stories, that edge is apocalyptic. Another handful feature ghosts, and several more are about body-snatching or metamorphosis. Five take place off planet Earth, and the remaining few are varied – a  protagonist with narcolepsy, a pre-teen girl adopted by a street goblin, a housesitter with a zombie chicken problem.

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Courting controversy, Emma Martin

Fiction
The Suicide Club
Sarah Quigley
Vintage, $38.00,
ISBN 9780143771012

Midway through Sarah Quigley’s The Suicide Club, Lace, one of its three troubled young protagonists, recalls a story told to her by her father, a celebrated film-maker who, along with Lace’s mother and younger sister, died in horrifying circumstances when Lace was eight – a loss which she has learned to accommodate, but from which she has in no way recovered. In the story, a beautiful princess develops an allergy to sunlight, which leaves her crying salty tears that form small ponds around her. The allergy becomes progressively more extreme until she is unable to tolerate even artificial light, leaving her living in darkness with only a blind manservant for company.

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