Thursday, April 27, 2017

Crime Time - Dunedin Writers & Readers Festival - Sat 13 May

Saturday 13 May, 3pm, Dunedin Public Art Gallery
part of the Dunedin Writers & Readers Festival

Ian Rankin gave us the magnificently misanthropic John Rebus; Stella Duffy was recently tasked with inhabiting the skin of Ngaio Marsh’s famous gentleman detective Roderick Alleyn to complete one of the author’s unfinished novels; and M.J. Carter has anchored her historical crime novels around Victorian odd couple Blake and Avery (one a taciturn special inquiry agent, the other his posher subordinate officer). They’ll discuss detectives and other dark matters with local crime writer Vanda Symon.

In association with Museums Aotearoa, the Auckland Writers Festival and Heartland Bank. ​



DAYS ARE LIKE GRASS by Sue Younger (Eunoia Press, 2016)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

A beautiful New Zealand summer. An ugly past that won’t stay buried. Paediatric surgeon Claire Bowerman has reluctantly returned to Auckland from London. Calm, rational and in control, she loves delicately repairing her small patients’ wounds. Tragically, wounds sometimes made by the children’s own families. Yossi wants to marry Claire. He thinks they’ve come to the safest place on earth, worlds away from the violence he knew growing up. He revels in the glorious summer, the idyllic islands of the gulf. But Roimata, Claire’s fifteen-year-old daughter, is full of questions. Why is Claire so secretive about her past? Why won’t she talk to the man who could solve the mystery that dominated her childhood? 

When a family refuses medical treatment for their boy, Claire’s story is in the headlines again. All Claire wants to do is run. This is a novel about the wounds a family can make. About a woman caught between the past and the present. And about her need to keep everybody safe. Especially herself.

This was a fascinating read. Before I read it myself I'd heard about it from two different books people I trust and respect - one who thought it was a book with strong crime threads, that could definitely fall under the broader view of 'crime fiction' (ie books about crime or the impact of crime, not just detective fiction or the solving of crime), and another who thought it was a deep character study and family drama that had little to nothing to do with crime at all. Having read it, I can see both sides.

Wherever you fit it on a 'genre' spectrum, there's no doubt about one thing: DAYS ARE LIKE GRASS is a tremendously well-written and emotional book, a pearler of a story that flows beautifully and takes the reader deep into the characters lives and the challenges they face. It's an astonishing debut from a fresh new voice in New Zealand literature that has the page-turning flow of a psychological thriller even as it centres largely on domestic and workplace issues for the characters.

DAYS ARE LIKE GRASS is the kind of book that lingers, that you'll still be thinking about days later. Pondering the choices the characters made, the varying outcomes, and questions of justice.

The book starts years ago with a life-altering choice made by a man who'd picked up a young hitch-hiker. It's a vignette touching on an all-too familiar crime for anyone who's grown up in New Zealand - the disappearance of a young woman on the lonely rural roads of our country. For Kiwi readers there'll be echoes of famous unsolved crimes and disappearances, names etched into our country's consciousness as we grew up, and still. In DAYS ARE LIKE GRASS, the effects of that choice, and all that followed, casts an ongoing shadow over the lives of the main characters decades later.

Claire Bowerman is a respected paediatric surgeon who's returned to her homeland from Europe with her fiance Yossi and fifteen-year-old daughter Roimata. Claire likes to be in control, but the tightly wound precision that helps her in her career can be problematic in other areas of her life. As a doctor she wants to do what's best for her patients - often disadvantaged and abused children - but can smack into opposing wishes of parents and hospital administrators. This comes to a head when the parents of a child with a tumour refuse life-saving treatment, instead opting for alternative measures. The media interest in the case opens up Claire's past, something she has tried to put in a box buried deep.

For Claire's father was that man in the car with the hitch-hiker. A man many think is a rapist and murderer. Claire's lived with the stares, the questions, the shame for most of her life - only escaping from it when she lived abroad. Now back in New Zealand, the past is rekindled when reporters put two and two together. The daughter of an infamous man, trying to force her wishes on a family.

If that wasn't drama enough, the extended family of Claire's daughter Roimata gets in touch, opening up other areas of Claire's life that she'd closed off. And Yossi, her rock, isn't in total agreement with Claire about a variety of matters. Why did she come back 'home', to have all her fears exposed?

However you categorise it, DAYS ARE LIKE GRASS is full of drama with a capital D. There are medico-legal and ethical questions, family challenges, themes about how we cope with the past and live alongside other people who think differently from us. It's the kind of book that will have you thinking deeply even as you hurtle along, as well as feeling for the wholly believable characters.

At times I found Claire a bit of a difficult 'heroine' or main character. She's sometimes the least likable, and a frustrating person if you find yourself siding with other characters in various disputes. But that's part of the beauty of this book. However you feel about Claire (and some readers may be 100% on her 'side'), she's beautifully flawed and very human. We grow to understand her and her choices, even if we disagree with them. We can see how all she's been through in her life has caused her to put up walls, and the battle she faces letting people in, and letting go of control.

DAYS ARE LIKE GRASS starts with a past crime that haunts the entire book, has moments of crime and mystery throughout, but different readers may have different views about how 'crime-y' it is. Personally, I don't really care. It's a great novel, well worth reading. I think fans of crime fiction could love it (as long as they don't expect detective fiction or an investigation-centred novel), as well as fans of 'contemporary fiction'. It has a lovely page-turning quality, deeply drawn characters, and also Younger does a great job evoking the contemporary Auckland setting and landscapes.

Highly recommended.

Craig Sisterson is a lapsed lawyer who writes features for magazines and newspapers in several countries. He has interviewed more than 180 crime writers, discussed crime writing onstage at festivals in Europe and Australasia and on national radio, and is a judge of the McIlvanney Prize and Judging Convenor of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. You can follow him on Twitter: @craigsisterson


A WATERY GRAVE by Joan Druett (Allen & Unwin, 2007)

Reviewed by Shane Donald

In the first book in the Wiki Coffin adventure series, Wiki embarks as linguister for the US Exploring Expedition. Though beset by enemies, and under a cloud of suspicion himself, his mission is to expose a vicious, opportunistic murderer.

Known for her work as a writer of maritime history, A Watery Grave marks Joan Druett’s debut as a mystery novelist. Set in 1838, the story is takes place during the period the US Exploring Expedition set sail for the South Pacific and Antarctica and features Wiki Coffin, the expedition’s ‘linguister’ (language expert) investigating the murder of a young woman who has been killed just before the expedition is set to depart.

This novel is the first in a series which now numbers five books and involves a great deal of exposition about the characters and the reasons for the existence of the expedition. This does not detract from the story and offers a fascinating glimpse into the period in which the novel is set and the oceangoing exploration that was a feature of the time. Druett’s love of maritime history is clear to see in the depth of detail she provides about sailing ships. However, she has a light hand in informing the reader about her area of expertise and focuses on crafting an interesting murder mystery with an engaging and unique protagonist.

The novel opens with Wiki in the forest at night, waiting for a man who has insulted him. A duel is meant to follow. His opponent never arrives but as he waits, a row boat floats by on the river, containing the body of a murdered woman. Shots are fired from the forest and Wiki ends up in the river, pulling the boat to shore. He is arrested for murder but soon freed and given authority by the local sheriff to investigate the crime. The murdered woman is the wife of an expedition member and it is thought the real killer will be aboard one of the ships setting sail. Seeing that Wiki will be part of the expedition, he is given official sanction to find the killer.

I was interested to read in an interview that Joan Druett’s publishers encouraged her to try her hand at detective fiction. Her knowledge of nautical history is put to good use in crafting a good detective story. The result is an excellent introduction to a series based on a real-life expedition, populated by real and fictional characters. Joan Druett apparently had members of the Hurricane’s rugby team in mind when visualizing the character of Wiki Coffin. When I was reading I pictured Ma’a Nonu for some reason.

An important aspect of this novel is the attention given to social mores of the time. Wiki Coffin is the son of a Maori woman and an American father and has been educated in the United States since the age of 12. Throughout the novel his identity is questioned and held up to scrutiny by those he encounters. The issue of race is never far from the interaction he has with the majority of characters as he is often thought to be an American Indian. None of this overwhelms the story as a work of detective fiction. While plot is the driving force of most detective stories (you read to find out who the killer is), the attention to the inner world of Wiki Coffin makes this a detective novel that stays with you after reading and makes you ponder ideas about race and identity, as well as showing the reader a period in American history that they may not be familiar with. The later novels in the series continue the story of the expedition and involve Wiki Coffin investigating further murders. This novel is a great introduction the both the series and lead character and is well worth reading.

Shane Donald is a New Zealander living in Taiwan. An avid reader with 3,000 books in his home, he completed a dissertation on Ngaio Marsh for his MA degree, and also has a PhD in applied linguistics. 

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Murder in the Library - Lower Hutt 2 - Friday 26 May

The Ngaio Marsh Awards, in association with the New Zealand Book Council and Hutt City Libraries, invites booklovers to an event featuring four talented local writers. 

2017 Ngaio Marsh Awards entrants Brannavan Gnanalingam, Danyl McLauchlan, and Geoff Palmer are joined by 2016 Ngaio Marsh Awards longlistee Trish McCormack to discuss how they create memorable characters, craft page-turning plotlines, and infuse their exciting storytelling with real-life issues. Steph Soper of the New Zealand Book Council will prosecute the offenders.

WHEN: Friday 26 May 2017
WHERE: War Memorial Library, 2 Queens Drive, Lower Hutt
WHEN: 6.15 for a 6.30pm panel discussion

This is a free event.

Brannavan Gnanalingam is a Wellington lawyer and writer of fiction and non-fiction. His fourth novel, A BRIEFCASE, TWO PIES AND A PENTHOUSE has been called “an uncomfortably believable caricature of spycraft the New Zealand way” (NZ Listener).

Trish McCormack is the author of the Philippa Barnes series of mysteries set in the scenic and treacherous national parks of the West Coast. Her books have been praised as "intriguing mysteries packed with complex relationships and stunning landscapes".

Danyl McLauchlan is a biologist by day, writer/satirist/political blogger by night whose genre-blending books set in the Aro Valley have been praised as “clever, tightly plotted and told in a manner something like a pastiche of Paul Auster writing a pastiche of Dan Brown”.

Geoff Palmer is an IT columnist and the treasurer of the Wellington branch of the New Zealand Society of Authors, as well as an award-winning novelist. His sixth novel, PAYBACK, is a gritty page-turner delving into the secret world of human trafficking.

Review: BOSCH season 3

BOSCH: Season 3 (Amazon Prime, 2017)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Angered by the truths behind his mother’s murder, LAPD detective Harry Bosch struggles to find integrity in an imperfect justice system. The killing of a homeless veteran, the suicide of a serial killing suspect, and the high-profile murder trial of a Hollywood director pits Bosch against ruthless opponents who all threaten to destroy him. 

Two years ago I was nervously excited about the premiere of Bosch, an Amazon original show adapted from Michael Connelly's award-winning crime series starring dogged LAPD detective Hieronymous "Harry" Bosch. Connelly had been one of my favorite crime writers for years, consistently putting out excellent novels, and Bosch is arguably the greatest fictional detective of modern times. But how would that translate to screen? Adaptations can be hit and miss at the best of times, and this was Amazon's first original series, which also centred on a stoic, determined maverick who was beloved by readers but might be rather tricky to translate into a screen story.

Fortunately, my apprehension was unfounded. The stars aligned, and the first season of Bosch was an absolute cracker. Titus Welliver embodied Connelly's cop, bringing Bosch's 'everybody counts or nobody counts' attitude and love-hate relationship with his city to vivid life in a subtle, nuanced performance. Welliver was supported by an excellent cast and great writing. Good stuff all around.

The second series was even better, For my money, you'd struggle to find a better crime drama on TV (network, cable, or online) nowadays. An exquisitely shot, beautifully acted, and strongly written show that has a timeless quality, tipping its hat to a past era while never feeling old-fashioned.

So what about Season Three, which premiered on Friday? Bluntly, it underlines my belief that while other shows may garner greater awards recognition, Bosch is strongly in the discussion for best thing on TV. We're all different, and have varying preferences and favorites, but I don't think you could find anything that's on a higher level in terms of all-around quality. Bosch is unabashedly binge-worthy, rewatchable, while being just top shelf storytelling across the board. Like a 20-year-old single malt or small batch bourbon, it may not be to absolutely everyone's taste, but it's something truly special.

Like previous seasons, Season Three of Bosch blends elements from multiple Connelly books into a new contemporary story. In this case it's the very first Bosch book, THE BLACK ECHO, where Bosch looked into the death of a fellow Vietnam 'tunnel rat', along with A DARKNESS MORE THAN NIGHT. The latter, in book form, saw Bosch readying to testify against a movie director accused of murder while also facing off against before teaming up with FBI profiler Terry McCaleb (of BLOOD WORK fame), who was investigating Bosch himself for another murder.

For fans of the books who haven't watched the Bosch television drama yet, it's important to underline that its the spirit and underlying story of the books that's used, not the specific details. Things are blended and updated to fit the timeline and modern LA, be age-appropriate for a middle-aged Bosch with a teen daughter, and tie together even if they were years or decades apart in the book series.

So television Bosch is a veteran of Desert Storm, who also did a stint in Afghanistan following 9/11. His teenage daughter Maddie is living with him in Los Angeles while her mother, former FBI Agent Eleanor Wish, lives in Hong Kong. The murdered man is a homeless veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan whose former platoon mates arouse Bosch's suspicions. Bosch is a key witness in a rape and murder case against a Hollywood director at the same time as his own actions fall under suspicion for a separate murder, of a suspected serial killer he'd been closely watching for years. But it's not McCaleb investigating him (perhaps because the profiler has already been played onscreen by Clint Eastwood in a less-than-stellar adaptation of BLOOD WORK?). Instead, one of Bosch's fellow Hollywood Homicide detectives, is on his tail. And Bosch's partner, Jerry Edgar, also has concerns.

For me, this is all done with great aplomb. I love the Bosch books, but aren't put off by the changes made. Welliver's performance is pitch perfect, particularly in the way he conveys Harry's personality through the quieter moments, through silences and glances, not just action and dialogue. This, along with the other great performances, allows me to be sucked deeply into the story unfolding onscreen.

The cinematography is excellent, once again, really giving a great tone to the unfolding drama. It's an unvarnished look at modern-day Los Angeles, a diverse city of dreams made and broken. The cast around Welliver is uniformly excellent, the actors ensuring that even if their supporting roles might fit genre cliches, they're fully formed characters rather than caricatures. It's great to see the likes of Jerry Edgar (Jamie Hector), Lt Grace Billets (Amy Aquino), and 'Crate and Barrel' (Troy Evans and Gregory Scott Cummins) again, as well as Bosch's daughter Maddie (Madison Linz). They have plenty of moments to shine in scenes alongside Bosch as well as when he's offscreen.

It's that quality of writing, acting, and production that elevates Bosch far beyond genre tropes, even if it hits many of the familiar notes for crime dramas. When you're watching, you're just sucked into the swirling, building story with its many strands, but if you pause to consider it with a critical eye, you can appreciate the craft and quality that goes into making it such a smooth, exquisite show. It makes sense, really, when you look at the people involved onscreen and behind the camera. Showrunner Eric Overmeyer is a former playwright who went on to work on Homicide: Life on the Street, Law & Order, and The Wire, among other top notch crime dramas. The cast have experience working on some of the best dramas of the past twenty years, from The Wire to Sons of Anarchy and ER.

But while we can sit here and try to unpick what makes Bosch such a great television show, and why, perhaps it's better just to be grateful we get to sit back and enjoy it. While it's nice to know how a 20-year-old single malt is crafted, and what goes into making it so damned good, the real pleasure is in the drinking. For me, I was intending to space the ten news episodes out over Friday and the weekend, but ended up gulping them all down in less than 24 hours.

Season Three of Bosch is a great television series. Drink it in.

Craig Sisterson is a features writer from New Zealand who writes for publications in several countries. He has interviewed more than 180 crime writers, discussed crime writing at literary festivals and on radio, and is Judging Convenor of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. Follow him on Twitter: @craigsisterson

Friday, April 21, 2017


THE BONE FIELD by Simon Kernick (Century, 2017)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

When the bones of a 21-year old woman who went missing without trace in Thailand in 1990, are discovered in the grounds of an old Catholic school in Buckinghamshire, an enduring mystery takes on a whole new twist. Her boyfriend at the time, and the man who reported her missing, Henry Forbes, now a middle-aged university lecturer, comes forward with his lawyer and tells DI Ray Mason that he knows what happened to Kitty, and who killed her.

So begins a hunt for the truth that will focus on a ruthless crime gang, a rich, dysfunctional family with a terrible past, and a highly ambitious man so cruel and ruthless that he must be brought down at any cost...

If you need a shot of adrenaline in your reading life, then grab a Simon Kernick novel. The British thriller writer is a master when it comes to helter-skelter plotlines that quicken the pulse as the pages whir. Someone really needs to turn some of his novels into movies or TV - they seem ideal for screen adaptation: exciting plots, interesting characters, plenty of action.

THE BONE FIELD brings two of Kernick's intriguing past characters together in one book. DI Ray Mason, from THE WITNESS, has moved from counter-terrorism to homicide but is still a somewhat-rogue, do-whatever-it-takes cop. Tina Boyd, who featured in many of Kernick's thrillers, is no longer with the police force, but working as a private eye. Over the course of Kernick's oeuvre, Boyd grew from  minor role to major star - like Mason she was a maverick cop with bucketloads of issues, so the pairing of the duo is like a lit fuse burning down towards a stack of dynamite.

Kernick's 'good guys' are often more anti-hero than hero, but he leaves no doubt with his villains. They're beyond bad, and THE BONE FIELD features some real nasties. It's kicked off when Mason is contacted by middle-aged Henry Forbes, whose girlfriend went missing in Thailand a quarter century ago. So how come her body now gets found in England? Before Forbes can confess to Mason what he knows, or what he did, their meeting is violently interrupted by professional killers.

From there, we're off to the races. Mason knows something bigger is going on, and is determined to find out, regardless of the danger. He needs to colour outside official lines, and that's where Boyd and her skills come in. Simple plans shatter. Each quickly finds themselves neck-deep in danger.

There's a particular sinister killer in this one, and the secrets that get uncovered are pretty dark. Kernick thatches an intriguing plot, keeps the narrative pedal to the metal, and had me engaged with the dynamic between Mason and Boyd. It's not flawless, but there's a heck of a lot to like.

There are many different kinds of thriller writers, so how you feel about Simon Kernick may depend on where your preferences fall. He's very good at what he does, one of the best. If you're keen on action-packed reads that'll have you laminated to your seat, that delve into the darker parts of the criminal underworld, and where you're riding a rollercoaster with damaged heroes, give this a try.

Craig Sisterson is a lapsed lawyer who writes features for leading magazines and newspapers in several countries. He has interviewed more than 180 crime writers, discussed crime writing onstage at arts and literary festivals in Europe and Australasia, on national radio, has been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards, and is the Judging Convenor of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. You can follow him on Twitter: @craigsisterson

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Murder in the Library - Lower Hutt - 2 May

The Ngaio Marsh Awards, in association with the New Zealand Book Council and Hutt City Libraries, invites booklovers to an event featuring three talented local crime writers. 

2017 Ngaio Marsh Awards entrants Cat Connor, TA MacLagan, and LJ Ritchie will discuss how they create memorable characters, craft page-turning plotlines, and infuse their exciting storytelling with real-life issues. Steph Soper of the New Zealand Book Council will umpire.

WHEN: Tuesday 2 May 2017
WHERE: War Memorial Library, 2 Queens Drive, Lower Hutt
WHEN: 6.15 for a 6.30pm panel discussion

This is a free event.

Cat Connor’s ‘byte’ books starring FBI Special Agent Ellie Conway have been described as “fast-paced techno-thrillers with black humour, likable protagonists, full of twists and turns”.

TA MacLagan is a Kansas native who immigrated to the bush-clad hills of Wellington. Her series starring a reluctant teenage spy has been called "page-turning, slickly written, and full of intrigue".

LJ Ritchie's LIKE NOBODY'S WATCHING centres on a group of teens who use computer skills to combat bullies, only to be seduced by their new-found power. "An engaging story about the line between heroes and villains, and the abuse of social media".

Murder in the Library - Waitakere - 25 May

The Ngaio Marsh Awards, in association with the New Zealand Book Council and Auckland Libraries, invite Auckland booklovers to an event featuring three talented local crime writers. 

Over the past century, crime writing has evolved from puzzle-like entertainment into modern novels delving deeply into people, places, and psychology. Still the world's most popular form of storytelling, crime fiction can take readers into all aspects of society, providing page-turning entertainment and memorable characters while also addressing real-life social issues.

2017 Ngaio Marsh Awards contenders Jonothan Cullinane, Katherine Dewar, and Simon Wyatt will discuss what drew them to crime writing, how they craft authentic characters and narrative tension, and the impact of setting on tales of crime and mystery. Coast FM book reviewer and Ngaio Marsh Awards judge Stephanie Jones will play referee and prosecute the offenders.

WHEN: Thursday, 25 May 2017
WHERE: JT Diamond Room on Level 2, Waitakere Central Library, 3 Ratanui Street, Henderson
WHEN: 6.15 for a 6.30pm panel discussion

This is a free event.

Jonothan Cullinane's RED HERRING is a noir novel set against the politics of the 1951 Waterfront Strike, and has been described as "a deft mix of politics and history with a local twist on the usual private-eye tropes" (New Zealand Herald).

Katherine Dewar's political thriller RUBY AND THE BLUE SKY blends feminism, rock music, and climate change concerns into an exciting tale that has been praised as thrilling and beautifully written while addressing a variety of social issues (Culture Vulture).

Simon Wyatt is an ex West Auckland detective who wrote his THE STUDENT BODY while recovering from a life-threatening condition. The New Zealand Herald called his debut "a compelling tour through the mean and moneyed streets of West Auckland".