Bookmarks: Reviews in brief

This we week review The Wives of Henry Oades, The Surrendered, The Storyteller, The Devil's Queen, The Officer's Lover, Pictures of You and Rhythms of Water.

Family situation complication

The Wives of Henry Oades, by Johanna Moran (HarperCollins, $39.99, pbk) is an interesting first novel.

Moran uses information from newspaper accounts to create a historical fiction that is permeated by loss.

There is a lot of sadness in the story, which is told from the perspective of both wives of Henry Oades.

Margaret is content in England with her husband Henry and two children aged 8 and 6.

Henry is offered a two-year position in New Zealand and encourages her to take up the adventure, assuring her they will be back.

Waving from the deck is the last either of them will see of their homeland.

Henry is promoted and they decide to stay on in Wellington since Margaret is again pregnant (she miscarried on the long passage).

When her twin baby girls are not yet four months old, Margaret and the children are abducted by Maori (this is 1890) and taken as slaves.

Only one of the twins survives the brutal and protracted trip to the pa.

After searching for months and struggling on for nearly a year, Henry presumes the worst and sails for California.

Through a contact made on the ship, Henry works his way into owning a dairy farm in Berkley.

After years, he remarries and then, within months, Margaret arrives on his doorstep.

The remainder of the book becomes a prolonged drama as the local Daughters of Decency interfere with the cohabitation that is occurring at the farm of Henry and his second wife Nancy, after they take in Margaret and the children.

The family of Mr and Mrs and Mrs Oades become social outcasts and fight to maintain their farm.

If you forget that it is the late 1800s, the hysterical nature of the accusations seem a bit improbable and ridiculous, but in its time, the people and characters are believable and probably realistic within the social conundrum of this man with two wives and two sets of children.

People can be very cruel but kindness does shine through in unexpected quarters.

- Kathy Young

Lauded tale of Korean refugee

Chang-Rae Lee has received considerable praise for The Surrendered (Little, Brown, $39.99, pbk) and it is, in large part, justified.

His novel is bleak, relentlessly so.

The heroine, June Han, a refugee in the Korean War, pitches back and forth over her life as she is at the point of its ending.

The principal male figure is United States soldier Hector Brennan, who rescued her, who later briefly married her and fathered her son, and who at the end sets out with her on her final search.

Other significant characters involved in the Korean War figure, but this is largely June and Hector's history.

At more than 460 pages, it is long for contemporary literary fiction, and the author could well have pared it further, but its structure is exceptionally well-planned, the writing of a high quality throughout, the tone of the story is consistent and its pace is dynamic.

Not quite the masterpiece claimed for it, but certainly one of the top-quality novels in a limited field published so far this year.

- Bryan James


Rich in the tradition of Arabian Nights, Rabih Alameddine's The Storyteller (MacMillan, $29.99, pbk) weaves the past and present of the al-Kharrat family with tales of magic and unbeatable heroines and heroes.

Osama al-Kharrat returns to Beirut to be with his dying father and, before long, is immersed again in family politics and history.

From the childhood of Osama's Hakawati (storyteller) grandfather, through wartime struggles, to his strained relationship with his family and country, The Storyteller bounces here, there and everywhere.

This jumping around is quite a challenge at first, especially as Osama's large and diverse family adds to the chaos.

But by the end, the chaos is manageable and the mystery behind most of the family dramas is cleared up.

I especially enjoyed the storyline of Fatima the slave and her various quests, such as facing up to an angry jinni and setting up house with a demon.

- Laura Hewson

The subtitle of The Devil's Queen, by Jeanne Kalogridis (HarperCollins, $38.99, pbk), "Fate cannot be cheated", offers a hint about how the story may end.

It becomes particularly poignant when Catherine, known late in her reign as the Devil's Queen, engages the services of a court astrologer.

All her life, she has suffered from visions and is constantly trying to explain and prevent what she sees from happening in the future.

This is a work of historical fiction.

It tells the story of Catherine de Medici, orphan from Florence married off to the future king of France.

Unable to produce an heir in her first 10 years, she in danger of repudiation but through the skilful use of dark arts, makes a deal with the devil.

When later she has Nostradamus do natal charts for her sons, even he is suspicious about her children.

That they are sickly and demented is unfortunate for many.

And it isn't until the final chapters when the line "my one true heir will rule" can be fully understood, by Catherine most importantly.

Yet Catherine is a loving woman and this book gives her a believable character and allows the reader to appreciate her childhood trials which explain many of her actions after she comes to power.

Set in the 1500s, the novel is detailed and engaging.

Catherine is a pawn in political dramas.

But she is loyal and courageous.

She is also modest and naive.

The novel offers a dramatic glimpse into life at court, its brutality, intrigue, dishonestly, lechery and villainy.

It is not an easy read - there is a lot of horrifying bloodshed - but it is a fascinating story well told.

- Kathy Young.

Described as a "jaw-dropping cliff-hanger", Pam Jenoff's The Officer's Lover (Sphere, $34.99, pbk) falls somewhat short and hardly could be categorised as a romantic thriller.

Largely this is due to the heroine, Jordan Weiss, who is an intelligence officer in the US state department, assigned to England to uncover who is behind an international money-laundering fraud.

This, however, becomes the sub-plot.

The real plot is to establish the true nature of the death of her Cambridge university lover a decade earlier.

It became obvious to me within the first few chapters who the villain was, and why, but it takes Weiss an entire book.

She emerges as possibly the most incompetent sleuth/spy in contemporary literature, although I'm sure Jenoff didn't intend that fate.

An entertaining read, but don't take it too seriously: lean heavily on the romantic angle.

- Bryan James


Luna's father dies suddenly and he leaves her a box full of photos.

Luna pieces together a version of her parents' earlier life based on her interpretation of the photos.

Luna's mother, Angie, has a totally different version, however, and Jane Elmor's Pictures of You (Pan, pbk) tells of her earlier struggle with a young baby living in a commune with Luna's father, Dave.

Nat, a young mother of three, appears unconnected in every way but in an unlikely turn of events interweaves into the lives of both Luna and Angie.

I really enjoyed this light read.

Jane Elmor has a knack of keeping you reading to the end.

- Raylene Myhill

North Otago setting for novel

It will be a courageous reader who ploughs through Rhythms of Water, by Nicco McKenzie (Oamaru Print and Copy, $32.99, pbk).

Almost stream-of-consciousness stuff, the novel is written in an unimpressively stiff, high-flown style.

McKenzie has degrees in archaeology and palaeoanthropology, and is a member of the Lower Waitaki River Management Society.

The reader will soon discern that he obviously has a great love of North Otago, the Waitaki River system in particular.

With this area as a backdrop, the author writes about the peregrinations and adventures of archaeologist Hugo Massey, who becomes caught up in the complicated situation caused by a murder involving a friend.

The amalgam of territorial fact - the action played out in North Otago - and fiction will perhaps be of particular interest to some of the populace of that area.

They, though, like most readers, will find the book a hard slog.

- Clarke Isaacs


Add a Comment