Quick and the dead

Love, lone­li­ness and loss get in the way of closet artist’s de­sire to es­cape his bor­ing job.

New Zealand Listener - - BOOKS&CULTURE - By CATHER­INE ROBERT­SON

El­lis Judd is un­happy. Ev­ery­one he’s ever cared about is dead. His wife, An­nie, his es­tranged friend Michael and his mother. His fa­ther, whom he doesn’t like, is hang­ing in there grimly, and even though El­lis wanted to be an artist, at 46 he’s still work­ing in a car plant. Right now, you’ll be for­given for as­sum­ing that TIN MAN (Ha­chette, $29.99) is a com­plete downer, but it’s more bit­ter­sweet than de­press­ing. Au­thor Sarah Win­man never lets it get too dark, so we can read about sad El­lis in com­fort, know­ing noth­ing truly ter­ri­ble will hap­pen to him. Although this is pri­mar­ily El­lis’s story, Michael pops up as nar­ra­tor in part two, fill­ing in gaps. An­nie, who’s sup­posed to be a char­ac­ter of equal weight, isn’t given the same op­por­tu­nity, which jars a lit­tle. It’s a pleas­ant read that won’t test your nerve, but it won’t linger in your mind ei­ther.

“A Vik­ing Game of Thrones,” says the pub­lic­ity for Lin­nea

Hart­suyker’s THE HALF DROWNED

KING (Ha­chette, $34.99), which is al­most but not quite en­tirely a lie. There are Norse rulers vy­ing for con­trol. There’s sword­play and a tiny amount of rape and pil­lage, but over­all this is a tame game. That said, it’s en­ter­tain­ing enough, and squea­mish read­ers who pre­fer less blood and more his­tor­i­cal ac­cu­racy should en­joy it. Based on a true story, the novel’s main char­ac­ter is nascent war­rior Rag­n­vald, who since his fa­ther’s death has worked hard to keep him­self and his younger sis­ter, Svan­hild, alive. A tal­ented strate­gist, he draws the at­ten­tion of Har­ald, who may be the long-fore­told king of a united Nor­way.

But for every ally there’s a de­ter­mined en­emy. Will Rag­n­vald and Svan­hild make it to part two of this tril­ogy? A saga on the mild side.

Au­thor Lily Wood­house has al­ready been outed as our very own Stephanie John­son, hav­ing a go in JARULAN BY THE RIVER

(Harper Collins: $35) at a sweep­ing fam­ily saga in the tra­di­tion of The Thorn Birds.

Set mainly in ru­ral Aus­tralia be­tween 1916 and 1939, the book has every­thing you’d ex­pect: crum­bling man­sion, con­trol­ling pa­tri­arch, dead mad wife, feck­less heir, faith­ful re­tainer and a beau­ti­ful blonde with her eye on the prize. Oblig­a­tory hint of Gothic too, with a sur­pris­ing num­ber of ghosts. It could be lu­di­crously clichéd, ex­cept that Wood­house/John­son is too good a writer. The novel is at­mo­spheric, with some won­der­ful de­scrip­tive pas­sages, and the char­ac­ters are com­pelling. It has faults: the house, the novel’s epony­mous cen­tre, is too in­dis­tinct, and the se­cond half shifts so of­ten be­tween char­ac­ters that we start to lose our at­tach­ment to them. But th­ese are mi­nor quib­bles. Rec­om­mended.

Sarah Win­man: never lets her book get too dark.

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