I have retired from my day job. Shortly after my last day, we flew to the United States for our grandson’s second birthday. We’re back home now in New Zealand, slowly recovering from jet lag and the effects of weeks of non-stop talk with family and friends. As much as I love them all, I’m too much of an introvert to not find that intense contact exhausting.
At my retirement luncheon back in April, my colleagues at Wētā Digital/Unity gave me this lovely hei matau (pounamu fishhook) pendant. This is waaaaay better than a gold watch! The fishhook catches good luck and prosperity. It also represents safe travel over water—quite appropriate, given the timing of our trip.
Now that I’m retired, I’ll have lots more free time to write, yes? Well, maybe. If I’m lucky. We have some family health issues to deal with that are likely to be serious, ongoing, and draining.
I started this blog six years ago in a state of enthusiasm, posting something nearly every week. I soon discovered I couldn’t keep that pace up and get anything else useful done while I was still working full time. Lately, one post a month is about all I’ve been able to do.
I am still writing, but I will be focusing on my current project: the Monster Duke saga. This will be a fantasy duology, unrelated to the Reforging series, set in a world with sentient castles and early 20th-century technology. There is a fanatical king determined to exterminate the fae, an imprisoned prince equally determined to prevent their genocide, and a subversive, sadistic duke. There are assassination attempts, a jailbreak, and a Beauty-and-the-Beast-style romance. The working titles for the two books are Skin Deep and To the Bone, and I’m 130,000 words into the first draft.
I may post something on this blog occasionally, if I stumble across a book that excites me enough to draw my attention away from my Monster Duke, but for now I’m having much more fun fleshing out that story.
The time and place: early 19th century England, during the Napoleonic Wars. Miss Elinor Rochdale, on her way to take up a post of governess, alights from a stagecoach in the village of Billingshurst. She is expecting to be met—by a servant of course, not by Mrs Maccelsfield, the wealthy mother who is her new employer—so when the driver of the only other conveyance in sight asks if she is the young lady who had come down from London in answer to the advertisement, she answers that she is, and climbs into the coach. The Maccelsfield’s home is only a short distance from Billingshurst. Miles later, with the evening turning to night, she has become apprehensive. Her apprehension deepens when she is delivered to an estate in a shockingly neglected condition, and finds herself having a farcical and confusing conversation with a gentleman who knows nothing about Mrs Maccelsfield. There has been a mixup; the gentleman, Lord Carlyon (Ned), had advertised not for a governess but for a woman to marry his dissipated and disreputable cousin, Eustace Cheviot.
They are beginning to untangle the situation when Lord Carlyon’s younger brother, Nicky, bursts in with the news that Eustace is dying. The cause: he lost the fight that he provoked with Nicky—a fact that surprises no one who knows him. If Eustace is to be married, as Lord Carlyon insists on for reasons relating to an unusual inheritance, it must be immediately. The imperious aristocrat talks the confused and exhausted Elinor, against her better judgement, into marrying Eustace. (Although, to be fair, being an independent widow with a modest income isn’t a bad deal, compared to a life of drudgery as a governess.) The ceremony, performed by a clergyman also under the high-handed Carlyon’s spell, takes place in the middle of the night; by dawn Elinor is a widow.
This wedding, with its dubious rationale, is all setup for the real plot in Georgette Heyer’s The Reluctant Widow. Elinor, as inheritor of Eustace’s estate, is beset. At midnight, she discovers a stranger snooping in the locked-up house. Her late husband’s relatives descend on her, and appear to be searching the house for something. Shots are fired. A murder occurs (off-screen). Elinor would rather not have anything to do with the maddeningly competent and unflappable Lord Carlyon, but she comes to rely on his good sense as what at first appeared to be a small matter grows into one with international repercussions.
I first read The Reluctant Widow years ago. It was, in fact, the first book I read by Georgette Heyer. (Heyer is considered the founder of the Regency Romance subgenre. She wrote in the mid-20th century, publishing several dozen historical novels, plus another dozen or so contemporary detective novels.) I picked the book up again recently when I needed something light and soothing to de-stress with. (The U.S. Income tax season always has me reaching for comfort reads. Not because I mind paying the tax I owe; it’s the complexity of the paperwork that drives me nuts.)
The Reluctant Widow is an old-fashioned romantic adventure. There’s no sex, and only one chaste kiss, but I’ll always prefer a slow-building romance based on good humour and compatible personalities over lust-driven insta-love stories. The romance here is actually quite subtle. (Some goodreads reviewers claim it is non-existent; YMMV.) Elinor will try to get a rise out of Ned by making an exaggerated complaint about his behaviour—usually with some valid basis—and then spoil the effect by laughing at his deadpan answer. The dialogue sparkles, and there’s a lot of humour, a good bit supplied by one charmingly volatile teenage boy (Nicky) and his independent-minded dog. Plus there’s a murderer I have difficulty labelling a villain—one of the story’s most interesting characters.
Assuming you can put up with 19th-century patronising male attitudes, the only really annoying bit was Ned’s reaction to Elinor being hit over the head; there’s a big difference between unflappable and unfeeling. And avoid the Arrow edition; it is riddled with typos.
December 1192. Twenty-year-old Justin de Quincy, unacknowledged bastard son of a bishop, is on the road to London in search of gainful employment when he interrupts a violent robbery in progress. The robbers flee, scared off by the approach of the mounted, armed de Quincy. He stops to help the man they attacked rather than pursue the robbers. The dying man, a goldsmith, begs de Quincy to deliver to the queen the letter he is carrying.
The queen is the Dowager Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, widow of England’s Henry II and mother of King Richard the Lionheart. She is a very worried mother, because King Richard has disappeared on his way back to England from the Crusades. There has been no news of him for three months, and his brother John, Count of Mortain and later King John, is spreading rumours that Richard is dead. The political situation in England is precarious, and ripe for a coup.
The letter that de Quincy delivers, with the help of a pretty widow among the queen’s attendants, brings important news: King Richard is alive, but held captive by his enemy the Holy Roman Emperor, who may or may not be willing to ransom him.
The queen, pleased with what she sees in de Quincy, gives him an assignment to find out who killed the goldsmith, and why. Was the attack simple robbery? Or was it part of a plot to sabotage the king’s safe return to England?
This is the beginning of The Queen’s Man by Sharon Kay Penman. De Quincy makes enemies and friends as he settles into life in London, nosing into both palace intrigues and the criminal underworld. His quest for justice puts him in danger and draws him further into the queen’s confidence. Too principled and honest to be a good spy, he serves her well as a private investigator.
The Queen’s Man is the first of four historical mysteries featuring Justin de Quincy. They are lighter weight than the author’s better known but longer historical novels about English monarchs and Welsh princes. (Those have been sitting on my bookshelves for years, waiting for some future day when I could manage the sustained attention span.) Penman started writing the Justin de Quincy mysteries to give herself a break from the larger historical novels, but apparently her publisher discouraged her from writing any more of them. (Dang.) They aren’t heavy on historical detail, but her understanding of the politics and personalities of the major players is evident. (Justin de Quincy and the letter he delivers are fictional; King Richard’s captivity and John’s scheming are real.)
The plotting of the mysteries is adequate but not outstanding, and de Quincy doesn’t develop much of a personality in the first book. That improves as the series progresses. The second book, Cruel as the Grave, has a bit of a cozy mystery feel, with most of the action taking place in London, where de Quincy solves a murder involving his new friends and neighbours.
The action goes further afield, though, in the third and fourth books, with the queen sending him to northwest England and Wales in Dragon’s Lair (my favourite of the four books in the series) to investigate the theft of a portion of the ransom she is collecting to free King Richard. In the fourth book, Prince of Darkness, she sends him to France, where he has to collaborate with his personal nemesis—a spy for the queen named Durand—to clear Prince John of a charge of attempted murder.
The tantalising glimpses into the characters of real historical figures are what intrigued me the most about this series. Her Prince John is a ruthless, conniving scoundrel with a chip on his shoulder and a sense of humour that almost—almost!—redeems him. Makes him seem like a real person, anyway. Llewelyn the Great, the outlaw Welsh prince in Dragon’s Lair, also comes to life, as an intelligent, principled man with a better grasp of the nature of leadership and the responsibilities of government than the uncle he is in conflict with.
Some day I will read Penman’s Welsh Princes trilogy. The first book, Here Be Dragons, about the marriage of Llewelyn and Joanna, Prince John’s illegitimate daughter, is only 800 pages. Retirement beckons…
The Queen’s Man is only 300 pages, and the other three mysteries are similar lengths. The non-mysteries are much longer. The Sunne in Splendour, about Richard III, is 900 pages. When Christ and His Saints Slept, about the Anarchy—the civil war between King Stephen and Empress Maude, and the time period for Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael mysteries—is also 900 pages. I started reading When Christ and His Saints Slept in January and still have about a hundred pages to go. It’s rewarding, but definitely not unputdownable.
I was as captivated by When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain, the second novella in the Singing Hills Cycle by American writer Nghi Vo, as I was by the first book, The Empress of Salt and Fortune. Like that one, this book is a story within a story; in this case the framing device has a certain Scheherazade-like quality, with the cleric Chih spinning an entertaining tale to avoid being eaten.
The story opens with Chih travelling over a snowy mountain pass on the back of a mammoth, hoping to reach the shelter of a way station before dark. As they approach the way station, tigers attack out of the deepening dusk. Chih’s party reaches the shelter of a barn, and achieves a standoff: three hungry, ferocious, talking tigers on one side, and on the other, an unarmed cleric, the wounded and unconscious station keeper, the mammoth’s handler, and the mammoth. Wisely, Chih de-escalates, accepting the tigers’ claim of sovereignty over the mountains, and asking for their histories to record and take back to the abbey at Singing Hills.
The name of an illustrious tiger ancestress is mentioned; the tigers’ ears perk up. After some negotiation, the tigers settle down to hear the human’s version of the story of the shape-shifting tiger Ho Thi That and the human scholar Dieu. But, of course, the story-telling doesn’t go quite as Chih intended:
“Well,” said Sinh Loan, her voice as taut as a zither string. “Is that what they say happened?”
“It is,” said Chih. …
“How awful!” said Sinh Cam, shaking her head. “How could they, that’s the best part and they ruined it, that’s not how it went at all.”
Sinh Cam came to her feet, forcing Sinh Loan to sit up in irritation, and she packed back and forth, occasionally biting the cold air as if she wanted to get a bad taste out of her mouth.
[For context, the Sinhs are the tigers.]
The narrative shifts back and forth, Chih telling one side, the tigers telling the other, of a legend full of cultural misunderstandings, confusion, betrayal, and courtship. The mammoth handler declares that she likes the tigers’ version better, and I can see why, but both versions have their good points. The larger story, of course, is about how stories are shaped by cultural practices, and that different observers of the same events can have wildly different interpretations of them.
When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain, while equally rich and atmospheric, is a more straight-forward story than The Empress of Salt and Fortune, and with considerably lower stakes. (Although with higher stakes for Chih! But the stakes are the lives of a few individuals rather than the obliteration of an entire culture.) It is a fine successor to the first book. There will be at least two, possibly more, other books in the Singing Hills Cycle: Into the Riverlands, already published, and Mammoths at the Gate, to be published sometime this year. I am looking forward to reading more of them.
On his way to the British town of New Braybourne, where he is supposed to be studying art, twenty-year-old William (Willie) Banks hitchhikes to save money, instead of taking the train. (This story is set in the 1970s, when hitchhiking was still common, although already in decline.) Willie’s journey with Alf, the driver who picks him up, seems pleasant enough, but when they arrive in New Braybourne, it’s late. Too late to expect that Willie’s new landlady, only spoken to over the phone, would still be up and willing to let him in. Alf makes an offer: if Willie will save Alf some time by delivering a package to Alf’s sister’s flat, a few blocks from the middle of town, Willie can spend the night there. Alf’s sister and brother-in-law are away; all Willie has to do is lock up in the morning and drop the spare key in the letter box. Willie agrees. Alf drops him off in the middle of town with his suitcase and the package, and hurries on his way home.
Willie looks for the flat but misses a landmark, and asks the first pedestrian he sees—Calli, a young woman on her way home from a dance club—for directions. Interest sparks between the two. He tells her what he’s doing, and she smells something fishy—who trusts a total stranger enough to let them spend the night alone in their, or their sister’s, flat? She convinces him it’s not a good idea to spend the night there, although she’s not certain why. Together, they deliver the package and continue on to her flat, where he spends the night on her sofa. (Who trusts a total stranger…? Hmm. Anyway, the romance in this story is squeaky clean.)
In the morning, the news reports a fire in the flat they delivered the package to, and that a body, charred beyond recognition, was found after the fire was extinguished. The police think that the dead man is Alf’s brother-in-law, Stan Bastable. Stan was a fugitive, wanted for his part in a successful bank burglary a few years earlier. The money was never recovered, and with rumours flying in the criminal underworld that Stan was back in town, the other men involved in the theft and several members of a London-based organised-crime family have converged on New Braybourne. They, plus his abandoned wife, all want a share in the stolen fortune.
Willie and Callie, of course, go to the police, after realising that the package they delivered was probably the incendiary device. The fire was carefully planned to make the police think that Stan was dead, and Willie was supposed to have been the dead body. But then, who really was the victim of the fire? And is Willie in danger, if Alf discovers that he is still alive?
Ellis Peters is better known for her series of Brother Cadfael medieval mysteries, but Never Pick Up Hitch-Hikers is a standalone novel in a more modern setting, contemporary with the 1970s, when it was published. The story is nicely plotted, but once the question of the identity of the dead body is answered, it isn’t much of a mystery. We’re shown who commits murder, and why, as the story progresses. The unanswered questions become: Where is the stolen money hidden? Who will find it first, Stan or Willie? And if Willie finds it before the thieves do, will he survive?
Despite gunshots and stabbings (thankfully not gory), this isn’t much of a thriller, either. In fact, it feels more like a farce, with swapped handbags, mistaken identities, a confused landlady, and our two innocents, Willie and Calli, stumbling onto important clues. There is a nighttime procession of criminals and police through the town’s streets and back alleys, and a wonderfully comic encounter in a restaurant between most of the players, not all of them aware of who the others are.
It is, in short, a quick, easy, lightweight story, though somewhat old-fashioned, with several memorable characters and a sweet romance. What more can one ask for in entertainment?
Ten years ago, Nina Parvati Rai vanished without a trace, taking with her a quarter of a million dollars in cash. Her disappearance was assumed to be an act of defiance: a bored socialite’s revenge on her wealthy, controlling husband. The furious husband, industrialist Ishaan Rai, initiates divorce proceedings, and remarries shortly afterwards.
But now, Nina’s Jaguar, with her remains in the passenger’s seat, has been discovered not far from home, where it had lain hidden in the New Zealand bush for the past ten years. The police begin a murder investigation, but her son doesn’t trust them to find the right answers, and begins his own investigation.
This is the start of Quiet in Her Bones by New Zealand author Nalini Singh, one of the most enjoyable mysteries/psychological dramas I have had the pleasure of reading in some time. There’s a lot I like here, from the plot that was satisfyingly complex without being impossible to follow, to the atmospheric evocation of the dense New Zealand bush and the multi-ethnic flavour with a Hindu family at the story’s centre.
The Rais are residents of a gated community known only as the Cul-de-Sac (as if it’s the only one, or the exemplar) nestled against the New Zealand bush in the Waitākere Ranges Regional Park, forty minutes from downtown Auckland. Everyone in the Cul-de-Sac is wealthy. Nearly all have festering secrets—adultery, gambling debts, toxic relationships of all kinds—hidden under a well-maintained facade.
Aarav Rai, Nina and Ishaan’s 26-year-old son, is only recently out of the hospital after a car crash left him with a pulverised foot and a piece of metal embedded in his brain. His intelligence and identity don’t seem to be affected by the brain damage, but his memories clearly are. All he can remember of that violent night so long ago is a scream, the front door slamming twice, and watching the taillights of his mother’s car receding into the rain. He has no idea why his father blames him for the disappearance of the expensive rug that used to lie in front of the fireplace, or why he has nightmares of a motorcycle skidding out of control.
He loved his mother. He would never have done anything to hurt her. Would he?
Aarav is the story’s unreliable narrator. He knows he is unreliable, and we feel his alarm as the evidence of his unreliability mounts. (View spoiler.) If he is to find out who killed his mother, he has to do it soon, before his abused brain and leg give out. Before the police arrest him for the murder. Before the real killer—if someone other than Aarav himself—decides he’s too much of a threat.
Aarav is an interesting character, a mama’s boy with an adversarial relationship to his father. He calls himself a sociopath wearing masks to hide his true self, and while some of his actions would justify calling him an arrogant, privileged asshole, he does other things that earn him our (or at least, my) sympathy. His relationships with his stepmother, Shanti, and his sister, Pari, in particular, involve a good deal more kindness than would be expected from someone out just to butter a person up before taking advantage of them.
For an intelligent character, though, he does do a few stupid things, which is usually a red flag for me. (Can’t the author find a better way out of the plot hole they dug?) I was willing to overlook that here, given the already established fact that he’s not fully in control of own actions. It is his search for answers, and his struggles with his own limitations, that make the book interesting.
The story wasn’t flawless. The ending left a few questions unanswered. (View spoiler.) And for a book advertised as a thriller, it got off to a quite leisurely start. The pace picked up eventually, but never quite reached thriller territory. If that’s what you’re expecting, you might be a bit disappointed. And finally, there’s the shear number of characters. I counted forty-two named characters, plus three dogs, and I’m not sure I didn’t miss a few (people, not dogs). By a quarter of the way in, I simply couldn’t remember who was who in the Cul-de-Sac, and whether or not they were a suspect, so I went back to the beginning and started making notes. Here’s the cast of characters for the benefit of anyone else in danger of getting lost in the details:
Inhabitants of the Cul-de-Sac:
The Rais: Nina (mother, murder victim), Ishaan (father), Aarav (son, narrator), Shanti (Ishaan’s second wife), and 7-year-old Pari (Shanti’s daughter, Aarav’s half-sister).
The Lius: Calvin (father, surgeon), Diana (mother, Nina’s best friend), Mia and Beau (teenage children), and Charlie (elderly bulldog).
The Henares: Hemi (father, school principle), Tia (mother, with inherited wealth), Ariki (son in the army), Mihirangi (daughter, lawyer), and Rima (daughter in med school).
The Dixons: Paul (retired rock musician) and Margaret (financial whiz).
The Fitzpatricks: Brett and Veda, the neighbours who annoy everyone else, plus their German Shepherd.
The Savea-Duncans: Cora (aeronautical computer specialist), Alice (nurse), Elei (Alice’s Samoan mother), Manaia (Alice’s 13-year-old daughter), and Princess (poodle).
The Brennans: Isaac (owns an ad agency), Mellie (Isaac’s 4th wife), and Phil (Isaac’s elderly father).
Leonid and Anastasia (newcomers, Russian Mafia?), with twin toddlers.
Police: Detective Senior Sergeant Oliver Regan and Constable Sefina Neri.
I love mysteries, fantasies, and science fiction, so what could be better than a good murder mystery in a fantasy or science fiction setting? There are a number of those in my TBR pile, so it’s not surprising they figure heavily in this selection of recent speculative fiction books I’m looking forward to reading in 2023:
The Tea Master and the Detective by Aliette de Bodard: A human scholar and a transport spaceship avatar join forces to solve a murder in a Vietnamese-flavoured interstellar society.
A Half-Built Garden by Ruthanna Emrys: Aliens arrive to save humanity—whether we want to be saved or not.
The Cartographers by Peng Shepherd: A contemporary fantasy thriller about the power of maps.
The Peacekeeper by B. L. Blanchard: A murder mystery with a Native American detective in an alternate history timeline where North America was never colonised.
The Embroidered Book by Kate Heartfield: Imagine Marie Antoinette, Queen of France, and her sister, Maria Carolina, Queen of Naples, casting spells, and attempting to deal with the unintended consequences.
Clockwork Boys by T. Kingfisher: A paladin, an assassin, a forger, and a scholar ride out of town. This is not the start of a joke. It is the start of an espionage mission with deadly serious stakes. By the same author as The Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking.
The Demi-Wolf and the Hunter by Amberley Martin: A fairy-tale mashup of Macbeth with Beauty and the Beast, and the sequel to The Rogue and the Peasant.
I started off this year with a post about the half-dozen books on the top of my TBR pile, and was only happy with one of them (When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain). What about the others? I loved some early parts of The Hands of the Emperor, but ended more disgusted than pleased. The House by the Cerulean Sea was too twee for me; The Three-Body Problem too grim. Project Hail Mary was entertaining—if you can tolerate buddy movies in space interspersed with info dumps—but far-fetched and a bit juvenile. Insta-love and the abusive sister put me off Witchmark.
But that doesn’t mean I didn’t find lots of good books this year. In no particular order, here’s the top ten of the ones I did enjoy:
Isobar Precinct by Angelique Kasmara: Time travel, a missing father, an intricate plot, and an appealing tattoo artist for a protagonist are only part of what make this novel a standout.
The King of Faerie by A. J. Lancaster: The fourth in the series that started with The Lord of Stariel takes us deeper into the fae lands. Hetta Valstar and her sexy fae fiancé Wyn Tempestren try to find the elusive king of Faerie before their snowballing problems (including Wyn’s murderous sister) catch up with them.
Sanctuary by And C. Buchanan: In this ghost story, the ghosts are the ones in danger, and it’s up to the members of a neurologically diverse, gender queer, found family to protect them.
Winter’s Orbit by Everina Maxwell: An enjoyable read, whether you’re more interested in nicely-plotted mystery with a side of romance or a slow-burn heart-warming romance with a side of space opera and mystery.
Piranesi by Susanna Clarke: This story starts off slowly in an artificial, nearly uninhabited world, like some sort of allegory or dream, but gradually shifts into something captivating, urgent, and strongly connected to our own reality.
When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain by Nghi Vo: This fantasy novella uses shape-shifting tigers and a tiger/human courtship to explore culture clashes and the variability of perceptions of the same events. Domesticated mammoths are icing on the cake.
Flashback by Nevada Barr: The only book on this list with no connection to speculative fiction, this thriller, with its exploding boats and other bloody mayhem, takes place in the Dry Tortugas National Park, at the end of the Florida Keys.
Middle Distance: Long Stories of Aotearoa New Zealand: An anthology of stories, around 10,000 words each, by New Zealand writers. Longer than a typical short story but shorter than a novella, these have enough meat on their bones to be satisfying without requiring a significant time commitment.
Ten Acceptable Acts of Arson by Jack Remiel Cottrell: At the other end of the scale is this collection of flash or micro fiction that packs a punch in a small space. Perfect for dipping into while on hold, or while waiting for the bus.
Esme is destined to be a queen. At least, that’s what her mother has always said, and Esme doesn’t doubt her, despite living like a peasant in a small village all her life, where she plays—and fights—with the miller’s children, the baker’s daughter, and the butcher’s son. She has, however, had tutors to instruct her in the subjects a queen needs to know, from the arts and sciences to deportment and diplomacy. So when she returns home one day from the village to discover a coach waiting to take her to Finishing School, Esme fights down her dismay over the abrupt departure, packs her small bag, and climbs into the coach with her head held high.
Finishing School may not be what you expect, her mother warns her while saying goodbye. Disquieting advice, as she has few preconceived notions of what Finishing School is. But whatever it should be, she is quite sure it does not involve being kidnapped on the way by a charming rogue.
To Rory, the rogue, waylaying Esme’s coach is just one more task the godmother has assigned to him. He has the script down pat: carry the purported victim off to the godmother’s tower, chivvying them along while they make a good show of righteous indignation and resistance, and keep them fed and healthy until their promised prince with a hero complex arrives to rescue them (or princess, or whatever they wished for—this world isn’t heteronormative or bound by strict gender roles). Rory has done this before, and never had any trouble, so he is caught by surprise when Esme puts up a real fight. The solid kick she lands in the middle of his chest hurts. She’s not following the script. It’s almost as if she doesn’t know there is one. She’s not responding as expected to his charm, either.
Sounds like the beginning of a generic fairy-tale romance novel, doesn’t it? It’s not.
If Esme doesn’t follow the script, neither does the book she’s in: The Rogue and the Peasant, by New Zealand author Amberley Martin. It is not a romance, although it does have things to say about friendship and families. What it is, is a fairy tale—a very modern one, with women who can take care of themselves. Martin borrows elements from lots of stories—imagine a mashup of Rapunzel, Cinderella, Labyrinth (the movie with David Bowie), and Hamlet. She tosses them together with a Dead Prince, a sword-wielding homicidal princess, giants, trolls, an extremely intelligent horse, a dragon, and more, and comes up with something deliciously original. The action is stage-managed by a vicious godmother who seems closer kin to The Godfather than to Cinderella’s saccharin fairy. The mix keeps throwing up surprises, making for a lighthearted and entertaining read.
The Rogue and the Peasant has a (mostly) happy ending, even if not a guaranteed happily-ever-after, and both Esme and Rory are appealing characters. The book is the first in a new series, The Fairy Godmother Tales. The second book, The Demi-Wolf and the Hunter, is high on my TBR list for 2023.
Middle Distance: Long Stories of Aotearoa New Zealand is a recent anthology of stories around 10,000 words each, shorter than a novella but longer than the typical short story. For me, these long stories (novelettes?) were a nice change of pace, with enough meat on their bones to be satisfying, while not requiring the time commitment of a longer novel or novella. Published by Victoria University Press, the book contains fourteen new stories by New Zealand writers, covering a range of styles and genres. Most, but not all, are set in New Zealand, with a very Kiwi flavour. Ordinary family problems are a recurring theme, but some stories delve into other-world fantasy and horror. There’s something here for everyone. The stories are:
Scales, Tails, and Hagfish by Octavia Cade: A pre-teen girl with scaly eczema claims to be a mermaid. Her continued insistence antagonises people and gets her into trouble as she engages in increasingly bizarre activities to prove her point—activities that eventually land her in hospital after an encounter with an angry seal—but her mermaid dreams may not be entirely delusional.
School Spirit by Joy Holley: A ghost story, with several graduates returning to their old school after dark.
The Promotion by Maria Samuela: Twenty years apart, a father and his abandoned son come to Wellington from the Cook Islands looking for work, and experience similar cases of culture shock.
Basil and the Wild by Rem Wigmore: A fairy tale of sorts, and I love fairy tales. Two outsiders—a slow-witted shepherd and a forest giant—become friends, but the frightened villagers are unable to see past the giant’s threatening bulk, or understand the shepherd’s attempts to protect his peaceful friend.
Getaway by Nicole Phillipson: Unlike the previous story, this is grounded in current reality, showing us a dysfunctional family whose members are unable to communicate with each other or see past their own noses.
Backwaters by Emma Sidnam: A tale of Chinese immigrants to New Zealand in the 1870s. It starts out appearing to be a pleasant historical love story, but gradually morphs into something rather more unsettling.
The Dead City by Jack Barrow: This story is the most clearly fantasy, with nomadic tribespeople pursued by ghosts in a lush, jungly world. It includes evocative descriptions of an abandoned, haunted city, but I was not sure quite what was going on, and unfortunately I lost interest in trying to find out.
Ko tēnei, ko tēnā by Vincent O’Sullivan: A 19th-century bored, wealthy gentleman has tangled relationships with his sister-in-law and half-sister. He leaves England and travels to New Zealand, where he buys a tattooed head as a macabre souvenir. On his return to England, he gets drunk and shows the head to the two women. It isn’t clear where the story is going, or how the two women feel about him, until the very end, where they deal out what is a clear instance of poetic justice.
Ringawera by J. Wiremu Kane: Culture clashes again, along with a bit of a mystery involving several people attending a Māori funeral. One woman is intent on giving her deceased aunt the proper ceremonial farewell she wasn’t allowed to give her late Pākehā wife. Two others—both young gay men, one a cop—struggle to fit in with the other Māori. For me, this was the outstanding story in this collection, with universal emotional arcs around otherness and acceptance.
Around the Fire by Anthony Lapwood: A father of three, struggling to keep his family together after his wife leaves, reflects on an incident in his own childhood: his father, divorced from his mother, took him and brother on an unauthorised, two-week long, incommunicado “camping trip”.
Afterimages by Sam Keenan: Set in the World War II era, a woman draws on theories about recently-discovered dark matter to escape painful reality by disappearing—literally, as in becoming invisible.
Like and Pray by Samantha Lane Murphy: A young couple’s daughter dies suddenly. The father, confronting reality, wants to grieve silently, but the mother, a member of some charismatic evangelical cult, is sucked into an ecstatic worship service attempting to call the girl back to life.
Sea Legend by Kathryn van Beek: This is a different sort of mermaid story. A fishing trawler pulls a mermaid up in its net, forcing the newest member of the crew into a crisis of conscience.
The Black Betty Tapes by David Geary: This is speculative fiction and the most adventurous story, told in a fast-paced—and rather baffling—series of transcripts of interviews with people involved in the future Queen Elizabeth III’s ascension.
As with any anthology, the stories are not equally successful. Besides Ringawera, the ones that left the biggest impression on me, either because I enjoyed them or they stuck in my head afterwards, were Backwaters, Ko tēnei, ko tēnā, Basil and the Wild, and Scales, Tails, and Hagfish. There’s a lot to like here; other readers may have different favourites.