of Emergency Weather, Better the Blood, and Hannah & Huia
Wherein I cannot manage to write in-depth reviews for all the fabulous books on my device or nightstand, but I want to feed as many authors as I possibly can, so I cobble together a selection books I have enjoyed recently and put up some quick-fire reviews that I hope will somehow translate into the sales equivalent of a cup of coffee for the authors concerned.
These three stories, all from Kiwi authors, are underpinned with our wonderful Aotearoa sense of place, culture, and character, which would make these tales difficult to transplant elsewhere. Kiwi readers will love them for the connection and celebration of our local lore and literature, and everyone else will enjoy an opportunity to savour our Aotearoa sights (and insights).
Let’s dive in…
Back cover Blurb: Zeke has to stay with his aunt and uncle in Lower Hutt after a landslide takes his East Coast home off its foundations. Allie puts her drought-ridden Otago dairy farm out of her mind and catches a plane to the capital city. Stephanie wonders why she's sitting around a table at the Ministry for Resilience – again. In Emergency Weather, three people find themselves in Wellington as the climate crisis crashes into their lives. A giant storm is on its way – what will be left of the city when it’s over? A scarily prescient thriller by award-winning author and climate change activist Tim Jones.
A well-paced and entertaining read, at its core Emergency Weather is more cautionary tale than traditional thriller, although there are definitely some hairy moments, with its race-against-time stakes embedded in the real-life urgency for climate change. And given the devastation caused up and down the country by Cyclone Gabrielle just nine months ago—the costliest tropical cyclone ever to hit the southern hemisphere with an estimated NZD13.5 billion in damages according to some reports—it’s fair to say that this novel is timely.
What I most loved about it was the good keen Aotearoa context, with the story providing a kind of love letter to the country and particularly to Jones’ hometown of Wellington—complete with wine bars, bird calls, bus routes, and belligerent politicians—as well as a nostalgic cultural jaunt through our Kiwi attitudes and colloquialisms.
I know Jones mainly as a poet and short fiction writer, so it is interesting to see him stretch his legs here with a longer format, and while the style of Emergency Weather tends to be matter-of-fact in keeping with its subject matter, the author’s poetic flair can’t help but shine through; with university town Hamilton described as “that overgrown teenager of cities’ for example, a certain Wellington suburb is overlaid with a ‘warm patina of money’ , and Nature is hailed as ‘the ultimate ram-raider’.
The story is populated with a huge cast of characters, told in the main by three POV characters from vastly different demographic groups, with Jones managing to give each a distinct voice that resounds with Kiwi authenticity. Underlying these narrative threads, the author’s own sense of urgency, his frustration at the lack of concrete action by the powers-that-be comes through, and while the novel’s final outcome is ultimately satisfying for his characters, I wonder if Jones would have preferred a stronger result. Perhaps he will write a sequel, so we might see how things play out.
Overall, where Emergency Weather succeeds is as an informative and engaging call to action to New Zealand leadership on climate change. I only hope they listen.
Back Cover Blurb: Detective Senior Sergeant Hanna Westerman is a tenacious Māori detective juggling single motherhood and the pressures of her career in Auckland’s Central Investigation Branch. When she’s led to a crime scene by a mysterious video, she discovers a man hanging in a hidden room. With little to go on, Hana knows one thing: the killer is sending her a message. As a Māori officer there has always been a clash between duty and culture for Hana, but it is something that she’s found a way to live with. Until now. When more murders follow, Hana realises that her heritage and past are the keys to finding the perpetrator. Especially when the killer’s agenda of revenge may include Hana – and her family...
I’m a late to the party with Michael Bennett’s debut novel, Better the Blood, a gritty crime-noir released last year (2022) and set Auckland’s sprawling suburbs and dense forest surrounds. Just this week Bennett was awarded a Ngaio crime fiction award for Best First Novel, and I can see why. A fast-paced and tightly plotted narrative, the novel is told with sharp prose and punchy dialogue, giving it a strong cinematic feel. In fact, Bennett’s screenwriting influence comes through in the way he calls on omniscient exposition in a separate section to inform readers about the Māori cultural practice of utu, although it is neatly done and, by the time it appears, we’re already so invested in the whodunnit that the intrusion is minimal.
I could see some parallels with my own 2019 novel Blood of the Sun, a supernatural crime-noir co-authored with Dan Rabarts, with its koru symbolism and Auckland mountaintop climax, although where we use a brother-sister (by whāngai) team, Bennett partners two cop ex-spouses in his narrative. Other similarities include cultural underpinnings, personal demons, and family complications. But Bennett’s story is all his own, Better the Blood mining historical hurts and ongoing colonial tensions with blockbuster impact. A perfect summer beach read for crime lovers.
Back Cover Blurb: Hannah is in a mental health unit, in shock and rendered speechless following the sudden death of her husband and baby son one rainy night – for which she feels unspeakable guilt. She pays little attention to her institutional surroundings as events play and replay inside her head. There is no way out, no way back, and no future she can possibly imagine, just an endless, unbearable present. Huia is also there, a long-term resident who lives entirely in her own inner world, a woman who seems unable to communicate. Her mutterings, her sleeve-plucking, her foot-tapping? Well, that’s just Huia. But who is she? What is her story and why does she play on Hannah’s mind? No one else pays attention to Huia’s condition, but Hannah is drawn to the mystery of the older woman … Huia has something to teach Hannah, if only Hannah pays attention – and she does. Gradually drawn out of her own web of misery, Hannah learns to read Huia and decides to follow the tiny clues back to the source and discover the truth of Huia. In the process, she uncovers the strange bonds that unite them and finds it might, after all, be possible to save her own life – that families can and should heal. And Huia is her path to redemption. Two women, two literally unspeakable tragedies, two families, one powerful and unforgettable story.
This debut novel by Tauranga writer Charlotte Lobb came out in July and I meant to read it straight away, but at the time my own struggle with depression made me put it aside, worried that the work might be too triggering set as it is in a mental health unit. And perhaps that was a good decision because, from an emotional standpoint, Hannah and Huia is not an easy read given its gruelling subject matter. That said, once I got started, I couldn’t stop, devouring the book in just two sittings, Lobb’s characters drawing me in, demanding that I read on and uncover the source of their trauma and their connection.
As the title suggests, Hannah & Huia is a dual-protagonist narrative. It’s a tale that transcends generations, culture, and stigma.
Billed as a work of literary fiction I would argue that this is a work of horror. Not because horror is my favourite genre (it is!) and not because the story involves a lot of blood and death (although there certainly is some blood and death) but because Lobb’s narrative inspires a universal fear in readers: the fear of spiralling into mental illness and being othered and ostracised for it. When I finished reading the book, I immediately messaged UK writer Dave Jeffery, my Horror Writers Association Mental Health Initiative co-chair, because it occurred to me that any narrative that addresses mental illness as its central theme must forcibly become horror given that it addresses someone’s worst fear. The story resonated because I recognised myself in it; it might have been me, which of course, is the point of good fiction, to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, to make us feel, albeit at a distance.
Lobb addresses mental illness with authenticity and compassion throughout using myriad techniques including lived experience (as noted in the author note), obvious research into historical and clinical aspects, close internal thoughts of her characters, clever use of sentence fragments and white space, exquisite detail, imagery, metaphor, and symbolism. In the early chapters there were times when I didn’t know who was speaking, where I struggled to capture all the nuance and all the goings-on in the mental unit in a way that mirrored the character’s trauma—the clouded dullness of her thinking—but as the novel progressed and the character gained clarity and cognisance, so did I, the reader. Did I mention that this is Lobb’s first novel? Many more experienced writers could not have achieved this with the same verve and poignancy. Imagine what she might do with a second work.
Hannah & Huia is a stunning debut. Lobb is an author to watch.
Disclaimer: I have met two of the lovely authors mentioned above and the other is the in-law of a dear friend, so of course you cannot trust my review to be impartial. The only way to find out for sure if they can write a good yarn is to buy a copy of these works and draw your own conclusion. And no, there’s no kickback for me —just a chance for you to discover a great read. Get your copy by asking at your local bookstore or library or click on the book covers for links.