Ratings: 1-5 stars, with 5 stars the best…
Burma A Nation at the Crossroads. By Benedict Rogers. PB from Random House RRP $32.95
Burma is the name long used for what is also known as Myanmar. Burma is the name favoured by the military. It is a country of 55 million people, with fertile land, plenty of water and resources, situated in a region where countries are beginning to prosper. Burma joins India, China and Thailand. One of the factors which has to date prevented Burma from being another Asian success story is the multiplicity of ethnic groups: with such a complex society, all the world religions are also present. Burma was a British colony, but was overrun by the Japanese in the early 1940s, and then became independent in 1948. For the past 50 years it has been ruled by a brutal military government. Most of the free world has long standing sanctions against this government, and China is ready to exploit this situation when and where it can. The best known Burmese citizen is of course Aung San Suu Kyi, the Oxford educated daughter of the leader of the Independence movement. Ater many years under house arrest, she was finally released in the last year, and the military leaders are showing some signs of easing the rigid of their rule. They have seen what has happened in the Middle East, and also the sanctions against the country have worked. This is a very interesting, well-written book about a fascinating country, and people who deserve to see their country develop so that its inhabitants can have a better life.
Fishing Fleet, by Anne de Courcy PB from Orion and Hachette. PB $29.99
India in the days of the Raj was run by men, the East India company, the British Army and later the British Civil Service. Good jobs in England were scarce, so many young men went out to India to work. The Fishing Fleet were the young British women who followed the men, looking for adventure and generally a husband—hence the subtitle of this book: “Husband-hunting in the Raj”. The book tells the stories of some of these women—mostly from the early twentieth century; there was a very formal and fashionable asocial life but this was mixed in with the hardships and loneliness of some postings. There were also difficult choices—often children were sent back to England when very young, for health and education reasons. Some women chose to stay in India with their husbands. The content has been sourced from letters, memoirs and diaries. It is a vivid and fascinating account of the lives of several women, and as well it presents a factual and lively account of life in the sub continent prior to independence. Excellent reading.
Thinking in Numbers. By Daniel Tammet. PB from Hodder and Stoughton. RRP $29.99
Daniel Tammet is a savant who holds the world record for reciting the longest sequence of the decimal places of pi. He took it to 16,000 places over five hours, all from memory. This seems to be a degree of knowledge few people really need! He writes an interesting book about a lot of possibly irrelevant mathematical facts. Just one example: the number 5040 can be divided by 50 different factors…for extra useless knowledge, Plato, the Greek philosopher said that a city comprises 5040 landholding citizens! Tammet gives examples of how long people can be expected to live and why time seems to speed up as you age. (Just for interest, he missed the quote – I’ve forgotten where from- that time is God’s way of preventing everything form happening at once!) This is not a book for maths wizards, but more a way to get you imagination working and to think about the world a bit more.
*A Story of Seven Summers. By Hilary Burden. PB from Allen and Unwin. RRP $29.99
Hilary Burden left Tasmania to further her career as a journalist. From her base in London she then lived a very social and successful life, travelling for work and pleasure, but finally deciding to return to live in Tasmania. She discovered, almost by accident a house which appealed to her mightily, not far from Launceston. In its earlier life the house had been the residence of a group of nuns, who had run a school in the building. Hilary tells the stories of the next seven years as she settled into semirural life, still working at times for the ABC, but her main passion has become her desire to grow things to cook and eat, and to delight in the space and tranquillity of her rural setting. The book is easy and pleasant to read, with lots of amusing anecdotes, a fair bit about friendships and her friends, and now, a flourishing fresh food business. Pleasant reading.
The Way the World Works, by Nicholson Baker. HB from Simon and Schuster. RRP $29.99
This is a series of essays, written on a wide range of subjects, from gondolas in Venice, to Wikipedia, to how libraries cull their old books, and what he thinks about reading on a Kindle. It is interesting in parts, with a fairly free flowing prosy style, and lots of personal anecdotes and reflections, but overall, fairly heavy going.
The Yellow Birds, by Kevin Powers. PB from Sceptre ( Hodder) RRP about $20
Kevin Powers served as a machine gunner in Iraq in 2004-5. This is a book which is very difficult to read, but still should be read to give you an understanding of what it is like to be a soldier in a war you do not believe in, see your friends die, and not know if you are going to survive. Soldiers went through war and same home to people who did not understand the often depressed state of mind of the soldiers.
Buddhaland Brooklyn, by Richard C Morais. PB from Allen and Unwin. RRP $30
Oda grows up in a small village in Japan. His parents are killed in a fire, and he is sent to the nearby headquarters of a Buddhist temple to train as a priest. Until he is almost forty, Oda knows no other life, but he is then sent to New York to establish a monastery and temple there for the buddhist adherents of the city. His role is to tend to the needs of the congregation. Oda is a rigid Japanese Buddhist and finds it difficult to adjust to American ways, and to the vagaries of beliefs and practices that he finds in his new congregation. This is a pleasant small book, with a number of humorous incidents as well as calamities outlined as the content deals with the need for humanity and tolerance on all sides as Oka establishes himself in America.
***Cooking with a passion for Pork, by Johnnie Mountain. HB from Duncan Baird Publishers, released in Australia by Simon and Schuster. RRP about $40
The author, Johnnie Mountain is a London chef who specialises in pork dishes. His interest originated with his grandmother, who taught him and fed him treats after school. The book discusses all the breeds of pigs, the cuts of meat which can be obtained, and what each cut is best for. There is also a wonderful range of recipes, with straightforward instructions, and mostly easily accessible ingredients. The directions are also straightforward, and the pictures are mouth watering! The old skills of sausage making, and ham and bacon smoking can all be done at home, and it is excellent to see instructions for these skills included. It is the first time I have ever seen these in print. From our family experience we know that home smoked ham is really wonderful, as are home made pork sausages. With some pages of this book there is a QR code that will link you to a video clip which shows useful techniques and some tricks of the restaurant trade. For keen meat cooks!
Books of the month….
****The Geneva Trap by Stella Rimington. PB from Bloomsbury. RRP $30
Stella Rimington worked for MI5, the British Security Service, and was the first woman appointed as its Director General. This is her fifth novel with Liz Carlyle as the investigator. A Russian intelligence officer approaches the Geneva section of MI5 and asks to speak with Liz Carlyle. He claims to have picked up information which is vital to the Anglo-American Defence programme and feels that whatever is going on will do irreparable damage to the improving relations between Russia and the Western Bloc countries. This is a superbly constructed story of international intrigue. The author’s background provides a strong ring of authenticity for the story. It is rare to find a book so gripping that it demands that you keep finding time to read it.
***The Uncommon Appeal of Clouds by Alexander McCall Smith. PB from Little, Brown. RRP $30
Isobel Dalhousie, Scottish to the core, wife, mother, philosopher, cloud gazer and good listener, finds herself embroiled in another puzzle when she learns of a philanthropist art collector who has been robbed of a very valuable, and precious painting. Isobel is reluctant to become involved, but it happens anyway and proves to be more complicated and tricky than she could have imagined. In between this, Isobel and her husband Jamie deal with domestic issues, such as their three year old’s apparent mathematical talents, the hurt feelings of their nanny, and the concerns of the assistant who works in Isobel’s niece’s coffee shop. This is relaxing reading—dealing in very sympathetic manner with a host of mild issues with which we feel some connection.
Say You’re Sorry, by Michael Robottom. PB from Little, Brown, RRP $30
Two teenage friends, Piper and Tash, disappear one weekend. They could have run away from home, but despite an extensive search nothing is ever found. A letter from each is received by a friend, but is not disclosed to police. Three years after the disappearance, the couple who had since been living in the isolated farmhouse where Tash once lived are found murdered, and then Tash’s body is recovered from a nearby frozen lake. Joe O’Loughlin is a clinical psychologist who persuades the police to reopen the case. I was going to tell something of the narration of the story, but I will leave it to you to read the book. There is a gripping end to the story as quite a number of suspects are ruled out of contention, with the rush on to solve the case and protect another life.
The Shadow Girls, by Henning Mankell PB from Random house. RRP $32.95
Jesper Hummin is a poet who does not make enough money. His publisher wants him to write a mystery novel; his wife and girlfriend give him a hard time and his investment advisor seems only to get him into financial trouble. The book is about girls who are refugees from various countries, and who have moved illegally to Sweden. They are determined to make a life for themselves in a more female friendly society. It might be good to understand both sides of illegal immigration, but it isn’t a pleasure to read about it.
**The Time Keeper, by Mitch Albom. PB from Little, Brown. RRP $30
I once read that it is difficult for a scientist to define what time is; the best explanation I have heard, and as I have written elsewhere, is that time is God’s way of stopping everything form happening at once”. Mitch Albom is the much loved author of “Tuesday’s with Morrie’. He writes interesting books about ordinary things. The characters in this novel range from the Time Keeper, who does not age, to a young girl who feels rejected and doesn’t want to live, even to a very wealthy old man who wishes to be frozen until medicine can keep him alive longer. It’s an intriguing, thought provoking and pleasant small book.
***The Beautiful Mystery, by Louise Penny. PB from Sphere, and Little, Brown. RRP $30
The monks of Saint-Gilbert-entre-les Loups, a remote monastery in Quebec lived a private cloistered life that revolved around their ancient Gregorian chants. This Gilbertine order had kept to the original Latin chants and stayed away from Rome and the world. To pay for improvements and maintenance of their monastery they released a recording of their chants and it became a hit, making them a lot of money. Some monks felt that this recording compromised their vow of silence, while some wanted to do more of it to provide financial security for their future. When one of the monks was found murdered in the private garden; the murderer had to be one of the community: two police inspectors are allowed into investigate a crime with some similarities to the murder of Thomas ‘a Beckett in Canterbury—“who will rid me of this troublesome priest?” This is a very well planned book and story, set in an interesting place with intelligent people. It is a murder mystery of substance and excellent reading.
The King’s Revenge, by Dan Jordan and Michael Walsh. PB from Little, Brown. RRP $35
The English had had enough of Charles 1. He believed that as king he was the absolute master of the lives and possessions of his subjects. The Magna Carta stated that every man had the right to be tried by his peers, but as the king had no peers, Charles 1 felt that he could not be tried for any crime. However, parliament appointed 153 people as judges and some 59 eventually signed the death warrant in January 1649. When Charles 11 gained the throne, he charged the so-called regicides with treason and for thirty years he supported a manhunt where many of the most senior figures in the earlier trial were executed. The chase involved Europe and America. It is amazing how much detail the authors have uncovered from old records although such detail can be tedious in places. It’s an interesting read, and one which makes the dismissal of Whitlam seem very low key indeed.
The Red Chamber by Pauline Chen. PB from Virago, and Little, Brown. RRP $30
This is an extraordinarily complex family saga based around the Chinese classical epic “The Dream of the Red Chamber” It is set in 18th century Beijing, and around the lives of three wealthy women in one mansion. Traditional restrictions, lots of staff and money do not make for happy contented families. I found it difficult to read. The many Chinese names confused me, and I did not finish the story.
Wentworth Hall, by Abby Grahame. PB from Simon and Schuster. RRP $17
This is another family saga, this time about a wealthy British family called the Darlingtons, and their home Wentworth Hall. When orphaned teenage twins swell the numbers of the extended family who live at the Hall early in the twentieth century, there begins a series of publicity leaks about several family scandals, presumably from some of the large staff who are not all happy about their employers and their lifestyle. I found the writing uneven; it does not flow well, and at times is too simplistic. I did not enjoy the story, or the style.
Mr Chen’s Emporium, by Deborah O’Brien. PB from Random House. RRP $30
Set in a fictitious, but plausible gold mining town in southeastern Australia in the 1870s and in the present day, this story concerns two young women Amy and Angie, who arrive in Millborne in these two eras. Their stories blend together when Angie is given an old trunk, which contains mementoes of Amy’s life and experience s on the gold fields. It is easy to read, and the historical bits are interesting, but overall I found the story too contrived and fanciful.