THE TRANSLATION OF LOVE by Lynne Katsukake

Oh how I loved this book, beginning with the cover. The whole experience of reading this is a roller coaster of emotional reactions to grief, friendship, loneliness, bonds of family, exile, despair, fear, and above all love. Sure, there are aspects of the writing that are a bit uneven, and sometimes I felt there were too many threads to the narrative, all competing for attention to be the dominant thread, but it just manages to hang in there and meld together in a most satisfying manner by the end.

Such an unusual premise for basing a novel on too. The author, being third generation Japanese-Canadian, was born after the second world war. Her parents and both sets of grandparents were sent to internment camps during the war, as were thousands of people of Japanese descent in Canada and the US. A pretty appalling episode really, and unsurprisingly this was not a subject talked about when the author was growing up. As an adult she has done her own research which is where this novel has sprung from. However the actual experience of internment is not the main thrust of this novel, although definitely part of the background. This novel is about the post war experience of those living in an almost destroyed Tokyo in 1947, now under the Occupation of the US, led by General MacArthur, a figure it would seem who is almost revered and adored by his conquered populace.

Such is his mana that people from all over Japan write him letters, asking for help, looking for lost family members, giving suggestions on how to fix things, sending him gifts. The Allied Translator and Interpreter Service was set up to translate these letters into English, staffed by Japanese-Americans, and in this fictionalised account, Corporal Yoshitaka 'Matt' Matsumoto, who sees himself as American but is looked upon as being Japanese.

Also in this position is thirteen year old Aya. Aya and her father were interned in a camp in Canada during the war. Her mother died during the internment. Her father opted to return to Japan after the war, unable to face living in Canada and now Aya, more Canadian than Japanese, has to adapt to a new life, new people, new language. In her new school she is a perfect target for bullying, led by Fumi, who lives with her parents and sister. Her father was a bookseller who lost his shop and livelihood in the war. Her older sister Sumiko works in the 'entertainment' district of Tokyo, where there are plenty of US troops to be entertained. Her earnings support the family, until one day she disappears. An unlikely friendship springs up between the two girls - the feisty, angry Fumi and the bullied, unhappy Aya - when Fumi realises that Aya is fluent in English and is able to write to General MacArthur asking for his assistance in finding her sister.

By chance the letter ends up with Matt, but this does not stop the two girls from taking matters into their hands in looking for Sumiko, taking them into the underbelly of Tokyo, a very murky place indeed. Interlaced with these three characters are Sumiko herself who has her own reasons for disappearing, and the girls's school teacher Kondo who tries to make money on the side as a street side translator,

The themes of recovery, rebuilding, rediscovering, and rearranging life and self permeate the entire narrative and the characters. There is a lot of being in limbo, physically and figuratively, especially for Aya, her father and for Matt who has the added complication of possibly also being gay. I liked this book very much, almost sorry when it ended. It is also really good to be getting novels about the post WWII experience taking place in areas outside Europe.

THE INFINITE AIR by Fiona Kidman

New Zealand has produced some truly amazing women over the decades. My all time favourite is Nancy Wake, the Whtie Mouse who was on Hitler's most wanted list. Jean Batten would have to be my second favourite, a marvellous woman who did spectacular feats of flying and survival in the 1930s. If she was a cat, she would have used up a number of those nine lives: her courage and determination were extraordinary, and she became a legend in her own lifetime.

Extraordinary things happen to ordinary people from very ordinary beginnings. Jean's father was a dentist in Rotorua, and she had two older brothers. It was her mother, Ellen, however who became the driver in Jean's early life, the unstoppable force behind Jean's achievements, the two inextricably entwined for the whole of Ellen's life. Much in the same way that Andre Agassi's father exposed his son to tennis glory from birth, so too did Ellen. She put a picture of the first person to fly across the English Channel above Jean's cot, captivating the child from an early age. Unsurprisingly she did become obsessed with flight, eventually becoming the Garbo of the Skies as she was known.

Jean Batten's life story is well known, and very accessible via excellent biographies, as well as Jean's own accounts of her journeys, all of which the author has used in her research for this novel. She has also spoken with descendants of Jean to help provide a fuller picture of this enigmatic and reclusive woman. This novel covers much of the ground in previously published material, but being a novel, has allowed the author to give a very human face to Jean Batten. Because she was so private and gave very little of herself away, hiding behind the very glamorous image she created of herself, very little is actually known of the person herself. Which is a dream scenario for a novelist.

The result is this very readable and enjoyable account of Jean Batten's life, with all the well known milestones and achievements, as well as what happened to Jean once WWII came along, putting an immediate stop to her gallivanting around the world making and breaking flying records. Her life purpose seemed to stop at this point, and the resulting years till her death in 1982 are really rather sad. It shows perhaps that Jean was human, just like all of us, and that sometimes the extraordinary life is not quite what it is cracked up to be. 

THE MOON IS DOWN by John Steinbeck

This book has taken my book club by storm. There is plenty of information, reviews, study notes about this book on-line, as there is with most of John Steinbeck's novels. Published in 1942, it would seem to  be the famous book that you have never heard of, which includes me. And I have read John Steinbeck before too - The Pearl, Of Mice and Men, and The Grapes of Wrath - probably his most well known novels.

A small coastal town in a fictitious country, widely lauded as Norway, is taken over by an invader during a war,  widely lauded as the Nazis during WWII. Norway was actually a neutral country when the war started, and had been neutral during WWI so was ill prepared for an invasion. Resistance became the name of the game and this is exactly what this novel is about. It's a slow burner of a novel, even though it is so beautifully put together, as well being extremely compact - so much said in so few words.

The invaders don't really want to be there, and don't really know what to be doing. They feel unsafe, vulnerable, unable to be effective conquerors, neglected to a certain extent by the high command of wherever it is that they are from. The loss of freedom on the part of both the community and the occupiers lies heavily on both sides. The conquered have a certain advantage in that they know the lie of the land, and can be passive aggressive in their own unique way. Things take a turn for the worse for when one of the town's leaders is executed, changing the fine balance that had sorted of evolved. From that moment on, passive aggressive is out the window, a resistance movement begins to take shape and the badness really begins. AT one point, there is a huge mammoth parachute drop of dynamite and chocolate on the town and the region, which just serves to inflame the occupying force even more, making them realise that they are never going to win this particular section of the war. And you have to wonder why an invasion ever took place in this small remote community in the first place.

It is not a happy book. Despite the fortitude and defiance of the locals, and unlike my fellow bookclubbers, I didn't find it uplifting. It was just more of the same horrible, tragic and unnecessary war stuff that we seem to continually find ourselves confronted with in the world  we live in. There is never a happy ending in anything like this, I was glad when I had finished it. Well written yes, but just not for me.



BRUSHSTROKES OF MEMORY by Karen McMillan

Combined with the perfect timing for Mother's Day, the pretty and colourful cover, the by-line 'a novel of love, lost memories & rediscovering dreams', this really looks like a great piece of enjoyable reading, in rare and craved for moments of solitude, cat or dog curled up next to you, glass of wine, cup of tea, piece of cake! Bliss.

Karen McMillan is a North Shore, Auckland based writer. She has previously written, to popular acclaim, two novels themed around WWII in Poland and America - The Paris of the East and The Paris of the West. This novel is quite, quite different in every possible way from her two previous novels. The writer has tapped into the now getting a little worn theme of 'woman losing memory', focusing on Rebecca, who loses the memory of ten years of her life, from her 32nd birthday to present day. She is now 42, when she wakes up in hospital, concussed from a fall down some stairs. She is still married to Daniel - a once successful NZ rock star now music tutor,  lives in Browns Bay on Auckland's North Shore, and works in the city in some sort of graphic designer capacity.

In the ten year period that she can't remember, many things happen to her and Daniel - illness, death, loss, good times and bad times. None of this of course is known to Rebecca when she wakes up, seeing her adorable and adoring husband by her bed, her best friend Julie, life is peachy, other than a bit of a headache. Not so. The novel, of course, then sets about revealing what has really gone on in those ten years, working towards a well managed climax, and subsequent resolution. Well crafted then, with plenty of tension, some curve balls, a mysterious stalker, the horrible boss, ageing parents, health issues, and at the core of the novel, the state of Daniel and Rebecca's marriage.

So much of this novel is good, with a straight forward story, some very insightful writing on grief, the nature of memory, the brain recovering its memories, the complications of every day life and relationships, and especially the sections on Rebecca's serious brush with breast cancer, which I understand are strongly based on the author's own experience of breast cancer. I learnt a lot, not just about the physical experience of the disease but also the emotional experience. Very, very good.

But, for me, and I stress most strongly that this is my own personal reaction to this book, it is just average. There are a number of unfinished threads, and I just could not relate to Rebecca or Daniel. I couldn't understand, and there is no explanation in the book, why such a talented and successful artist as Rebecca was ten years ago, is now working in some horrible unpleasant design firm doing reworks of work she has already done; we never find out how the accident happened even though decent sized chunks of Rebecca's thoughts are taken up with this mystery; how serious is this head injury, how long had she been in hospital for, concussion can take months to recover from - she is back at work seemingly full time two weeks after she becomes conscious again with nothing but the odd headache.

I honestly thought Daniel was pathetic, a wimp of a man. He can't bring himself to tell his wife of one terribly tragic event, or that they were on the verge of separating, because suddenly, what-ho, his newly conscious wife is a sex-goddess! What man in his right mind would want to lose that! Best friend Julie is by far the best character. Forever berating Daniel for his inability to talk to his wife, she spends most of her time protecting Rebecca from herself, looking after Rebecca's elderly mother in the rest home she works in, and generally trying to keep one step ahead of all those around her. And I am being oh-so-picky here, but I couldn't stand Rebecca being called Rebs. Google it -  and you will see why.

This is a very Auckland-city novel, depicting the city's love affair with real estate - big modern homes and quaint Devonport villas, cafes, the hideousness of the transport infrastructure, the whole glossy magazine feel about the place, the people, the lives they lead. Even though I live in Auckland, I found all this quite cliched and cringing. We get this in the papers, on TV and media every single day, surely there are other aspects of the city that the author could also have found to illustrate her novel. It reflects what I feel overall about this novel - that despite the serious and important themes, much of it lacks depth and insight, too glib, things are just brushed over instead of going just a little deeper. There will be people who love this, I appreciate that, and for an easy, lazy Sunday afternoon read, it will definitely fill the gap.




RED HERRING by Jonathan Cullinane

What a top read this turned out to be. So much diversity in what New Zealand authors are writing about at the moment. This was completely unexpected, as one would expect with a title like 'Red Herring'. Not a fish in sight. But 'red' does refer to the time and setting of this story - the 1951 Waterfront Strike -  a very significant event in NZ's history, that impacted hugely on the country in every possible way. The fear and paranoia around the rise of communism, reds under the bed, the growing power of the unions completely freaked out the government of the day. Such the perfect setting and atmosphere for a thriller, a murder, and a private investigator with his own murky past!

The hero of the day is Johnny Molloy, hard man, ex war veteran, killed a man or two in his time, now working as a private investigator in downtown Auckland. It's so interesting reading about Auckland city in 1951, suburbs we now think of prime real estate, with character homes, actually all quite new then; downtown Auckland a little seedy and down at heel with equally seedy characters lurking in the scenery. Trams are the main form of public transport, as well as taxis, s few privately owned cars.  Googling photos shows a very, very different Auckland!

Even though the war finished some six years earlier, these are still dangerous and uncertain times, with a fair few dodgy characters, hidden agendas, a heightened sense of lawlessness. An American  insurance rep has arrived in town looking for an Irishman who has apparently faked his own death and is now in Auckland. He approaches Molloy to track this miscreant down. Also doing her own detective work is young newspaper reporter Caitlin O'Carolan. Together the two of join forces, playing a dangerous game as they attempt to unravel a conspiracy linked to the strike, the government of the day, trying to stay as many steps as possible ahead of those hunting them down.

Great reading - gripping, diverse characters and motivations, really good depiction of Auckland and what it was like to live there in those times. The author is a filmmaker, and I can just see this being turned into a movie or a TV series. Fantastic stuff. 

A STRANGER IN THE STREET by Deborah Burrows

A WWII novel not set in Europe for a change, but in Perth, Australia. Yes, there was a very real Japanese threat to Australia during the war, cities and communities on the coast at high alert at this time. Perth, being the main population area on the west coast was the base for all defence activity on that side. By January 1943, US troops were camped in Perth, as well as a number of returned Australian soldiers, injured and/or redeployed back to the home land.

Meg Easton lives in Perth with her mother and sister. She works in an admin capacity at the local police station. She is terribly unhappy as the love of her life has recently been killed in action in Africa, she simply going through the motions of daily living. Quite by chance, she meets in her street, her finance's brother Tom. Tom is recently back from active service, having been seriously injured and disfigured in fighting the Japanese. He has quite a senior position, but like many is having trouble adjusting to life back in Perth, as well as dealing with the ongoing pain and trauma of his injuries.

Is it coincidence or not that the day Meg first meets Tom, not far away is also the day that her neighbour is found murdered. Meg finds herself drawn into this murder mystery, involving both Australian and American soldiers and various others who may or may not be red herrings. It is actually a good story, nicely plotted, plenty of tension and suspense, but never really tipping over into  the suspense wielded by the likes of Lynda La Plante or John Grisham for example. A pleasant, easy read with a few surprises thrown in. What the author is good at however is reimagining for the reader what life in 1940s Australia was like. Her descriptions of residential streets, houses and gardens are vivid, as are how people dressed, including the soldiers, transport, what shops were like. I loved reading this side of the story, it really brought the city and the people who lived there to life. 

SMALL GREAT THINGS by Jodi Picoult

She just keeps getting better and better, does Jodi Picoult, her novels always relevant and timely. Her title is based on a quote by Martin Luther King Jr - 'If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way'. So not surprising that she is taking on the issue of race. But her novel transcends just the concept of race as being how you are 'labelled'. It goes much deeper, and looks more at the concept of personal identity, way beyond the idea of skin colour being how we are defined and how we define ourselves. It is simply a superb novel, with extremely complex ideas, troublesome to many, that have been woven in into a first class story of present day  race relations in the US.

Ruth is a nurse, extremely competent, professional, highly respected, working in a maternity unit of a hospital. She looks after women in labour, during and after the birth, as well as the new born baby. She is also black, proud of how she has made it in the white man's world, intelligent, well educated, at the peak of her career. She is widowed, her husband having died serving his country in Afghanistan, and she is the mother of 16 year old Edison, a top student, also on the path to success. 

One day she is working, helping a young couple who have just had their first child. Turk and Brittany Bauer are white supremacists, and take exception to Ruth being the nurse attending to Brittany and the baby. So they insist that she not be allowed to have anything to do with the baby or them. Naturally Ruth is extremely shocked, upset and angry. But it would seem there is nothing she can do about this requirement. In an unfortunate series of events - short staffing basically - the baby dies, and Ruth is blamed for his death. 

Suddenly she finds herself arrested, charged with murder, her life completely turned on itself. She is a black woman charged with murdering a white baby. Everything she had ever known about herself, the world she lived in, her life programme, her self belief, her future for her son is going to be ripped away from her. What becomes painfully obvious for Ruth as the novel progresses is that she is and always will be a black woman living in a white person's world. Her life, the life she has made for herself is really just an illusion, her success is 100% defined by how well she has coped with and adapted to the rules, the mores, the culture, the undercurrents, the everything that is the world of the white person. She might think she has successfully entrenched her place in her world, but in fact she hasn't and never will. 

Her lawyer is a public defender, a white woman, Kennedy, who also finds herself on a very long and unexpected learning curve; on the flip side, the public prosecutor is a black woman who is also confronted with issues she didn't think she would need to think about.  At the centre of all this of course is  newborn baby, dead from natural causes or otherwise. And the bereaved parents. 


Jodi Picoult is a genius in how she brings all this together, and holds the interest compulsively for 450 plus pages. This will stay with you for ages after, every time there is some race based controversy in our society, or more particularly in the US, you will be reminded of this book, of the message in it. It is good reading - the best reading is that which makes us think, which makes us question, puts us in another person's shoes, and that is what this does.