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What Happen Then, Mr Bones? by Charlotte Randall (Penguin)
Love in Shades of Grey by Glynne MacLean(Penguin)
Music from a Distant Room by Stephanie Johnson (Random House)
Rhythm by Rebekah Palmer ( Penguin)

4 New Zealand Novels

What Happen Then, Mr Bones? by Charlotte Randall;
I have a bit of a soft spot for NZ author, Charlotte Randall, ever since reading and loving The Curative. She is just so damn clever. And she peppers her work with a lovely macabre sense of humour.
Her latest novel continues with the clever and the macabre. But the most attention grabbing thing about this novel is that Randall tells the story backwards.We start at the beginning with the Montague family in Petone, NZ in 2002 and we work our way backwards, tracking the family through World War 2, right back to London, the Plague and the Great Fire, arriving all the way back at the beginning (or the end) where an original member of the family, Anne Green, is hung on the gallows and on the post mortem table makes a miraculous recovery from death.

The bizarre nature of medical science over the years is one of Randall's themes and she fills the novel with some fascinating information and quirky asides. All brilliantly written, in typical Randall fashion.

I have to say it is a challenging novel. Randall delights in challenging her reader and that isn't a bad thing if you are ready to be challenged. I found the leaping backwards progress, disorientating at times. It is hard to ever get a closer understanding of any character, as no sooner are they introduced as adults, but we romp back in time to find them younger, and then even further back to where they have never yet existed.

Her dazzling skill with words and ideas is on full display, but I don't know whether that goes all the way in compensating for a lack of interest or development in the characters. Clever but somewhat emotionally empty. What Happen Then, Mr Bones? is a hard novel to define - it is unusual, intellectually brilliant, and challenging.

Love in Shades of Grey by Glynne MacLean

Moving on to another unusual New Zealand novel. Subtitled' An Unusual Love Story'... and so it is. The novel opens with the reader inside the main character, Claire's head - she is lying ' in a vegetative state' in Edinburgh hospital. Unable to move or communicate, she can only hear the nurses bustling around her and can only feel the baby that is starting to move inside her. From her hospital bed coma, Claire begins to tell the story of her unusual love affair and how she came to be bedridden. A talented composer, on the day that she is commissioned to write an opera, she also learns that she is dying . She determines to finish her opera in her limited time left. Alone and desperate, she needs to earn enough money to support herself and becomes part of the sex industry, and is offered an unusual contract with a powerful and enigmatic businessman.

It is a story of courage and bravery as she struggles with her declining health to see her opera through to completion, and becomes increasingly intertwined in this unusual relationship and binding contract with this man. A gripping story involving the seedy prostitution world, murder, music and creativity, and ill health and dying. But Love in Shades of Grey is ultimately a positive and life affirming read.

Music from a Distant Room by Stephanie Johnson:
Music from a Distant Room, the latest novel from last year's Montana Fiction Prize winner, starts rather bleakly with a funeral. Death seems to be a bit of a theme with these New Zealand novels. A grim lot, we must be.

Initially set in Auckland in the 60's, Nola is a young attractive dental nurse, and in a complicated series of events, gives birth to a love child, Carl who is tragically born blind. The funeral at the start of the book is his. Forty years later, Carl had become a successful jazz musician in the US and has died under mysterious circumstances. Nola is telling the story of Carl's early life to his black American lover, Tamara, who is also blind. Nola is eager to hear Tamara's story of how Carl actually died .Tamara was present at the death but being blind remained unaware of some important visual clues. They hope by sharing their stories that they will help solve the mystery of his life and death.

Johnson excels at creating a place and a time in her novels. Auckland in the 60s is presented with nostalgia and fond detail. Her visual descriptions are vivid and strong, perhaps enhanced in this novel by the number of blind characters.

Some of the plot becomes a little contrived due to the mechanics of the two characters telling the story, and as a result the strength of the characters are diminished. The plot revolves around an interesting and challenging premise, but is never cohesive enough to truly hold this reader. I don't think this is up to the standard of some of Johnson's past work : the Montana winning Shag Incident or her earlier Belief, but it does make for a satisfactory, if not compelling, read.

Rhythm by Rebekah Palmer.
No death in this novel, thank goodness. Rhythm is a quietly gripping and disturbing story, very well told, of a complicated love triangle that centres around Cara. Her husband Michael, a psychotherapist is a steady and loving partner, but Cara falls in love with the young and passionate Adrian, a drummer in an avante garde percussion band. Each character takes turns to narrate their story and to give their version of the entangled relationships. The emotional complications of their marriage and the growing love affair slowly develops until some surprising truths are revealed at the end. What we thought we knew and what they knew about themselves is revealed to be all deceit. The twist at the end isn't totally unexpected, but Palmer still manages to keep the reader questioning whether any of the three characters are telling the complete truth in their narratives.

Rhythm is a simple and straight forward novel and comes as a relief after reviewing some of the other novels above. It is a surprisingly effective piece of writing - a chilling observation about love and obsession and the inadequacy of our understanding of ourselves and our partners.

It is just a little clever, pleasantly surprising and very readable.

- Liz Fraser, July 2004

Related Links-
Charlotte Randall:
Bookcouncil author feature
Book-club review of The Curative : review of Within the Kiss
Book-club interview with Charlotte Randall

Glynne MacLean:
Love in Shades of Grey - Glynne MacLean website

Rebekah Palmer:
Book Council author feature

Stephanie Johnson:
Book Council author feature
book-club review of The Shag Incident

What the Critics Say.

What Happen Then, Mr Bones by Charlotte Randall

NZ Herald
reviewer -Susan Jacobs- 10 7 2004
link to review

."Readers of any of Randall's novels need to keep a dictionary handy — she is a wordsmith, forging delectable phrases that dazzle with stunningly original images. I particularly enjoyed "the cloying redolence of the jam factory, yeasty halitosis of the brewery, and the rancid transudations of the woollen mills" — and this is only half the sentence.
Such is the sheer bravura of it, some of us can even (with a groan) forgive such preposterous excesses as "to propitiate the predatory coruscations of the peddler's teeth", mainly because the narrative voice — in turn ironic, whimsical, sly, bawdy, complicit — seems to groan with us. In short, Randall gets away with it because she can. She is one of the most original, intelligent and exciting voices in contemporary New Zealand literature. Enter-tainingly erudite, abuzz with febrile ideas, quirky characters and lush settings, this is a remarkable story".

Music from a Distant Room - Stephanie Johnson

The Listener
reviewer - Steve Scott - 14 June 2004

...The telling of these stories is compelling. They are strong, emotionally focused, interleaving stories of love and loss. Johnson excels at place, and how to live and move within it. She's meticulous about its authenticity and atmosphere....Johnson is, after all, the current holder of the Montana fiction prize, and one wants, even expects, her to go on from strength to strength. But there remains a lingering regret that the narrative fluency of the writing takes second place to the strong emotional pull of what is so nearly a very successful novel. "

reviewer - Steve Scott - 14 June 2004
link to review

...Johnson, an award-winning author, has gathered all the ingredients of a good solid read. Unfortunately, she hasn't been able to mix them to any workable consistency – if the characters were teeth they'd be cheap dentures – clumsy, ill-fitting and poorly constructed. And lest we forget the plot, which is about as appetising as a pot of Nola's mum's boiled cabbage – there's nothing to get your teeth stuck into. Of course, you could just grit your teeth and bear it. I think not. "

Rhythm - Rebekah Palmer

NZ Herald
reviewer -13.07.2004- SIOBHAN HARVEY

Collectively, this is an absorbing cast. They draw our attention, while seamlessly moving the plot forward. And this is important, because it enables Rhythm to be something out of the ordinary, lulling us into a false sense of security, making us unaware that appearance is deceptive, and that this isn't a story of betrayal but a thriller building up to its crescendo. When the denouement dawns — a secret revealed with careful delay and precision by Palmer — we are struck by the fact that we've just read a story that has a very different tempo to the one we imagined. Awestruck and startled, we see that Rhythm's pages of infidelity and confession are offset by a medley of lies, betrayal and psychological torture. A powerful opus, it moves us in uncomfortable and dramatic ways to see the world in all its darkness as well as all its splendour."

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2001 book-club

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