adult book reviews for november 2012

Best books–three stars….. Non-fiction.

My Greek Island Home by Claire Lloyd.  HB from Lantern and Penguin. RRP  $49.99

This book tells mostly of the author’s life after she discovered a house which appealed to her on the Greek island of Lesvos.  There is a short summary of her life before she and her partner moved to Lesvos, but the focus of the story, photos and recipes is life on Lesvos.  The result is a brief, episodic story about events, people and feelings, a lot of photographs about aspects of Lesvos life, and some recipes.  It is an attractively presented book.

The Honoured Society, by Petra Reski. PB from Atlantic and Allen and Unwin.  RRP   $32.99

The subtitle of this book is  “The secret history of Italy’s most powerful Mafia”.  It is a serious topic about how pervasive and entrenched in power is the Calabrian Indrangheta mafia.  It describes how the warring factions have killed their opposition and, where they have thought it necessary for their continued well being, the mafia have also killed the lawmakers.

In a poor society, these Mafiosi have amassed enormous wealth and power.  They can be both religious and honourable within their families, while utterly ruthless, arrogant and brutal in their illegal business dealings.  Many of the names which are given in the book will mean more to those of Italian heritage than they did to me.  The book is not easy reading but provides significant information about the social structure of Italy.

My Ideal Bookshelf.  Edited by Thessaly La force, and illustrated by Jane Mount.  HB from Little, Brown and Company.  Released by Hachette.  RRP  $29.99

This is a very interesting  book to browse.  It showcases various prominent authors, chefs, designers and other cultural figures, and presents their choice of favourite literature, with their comments.  This is an American book, and most of the contributors and many of their choices are American in origin.  I was surprised to find so many books that I have never heard of, let alone read.  One book, which was chosen by several of the contributors, was Middlemarch, by George Eliot, and I have resolved this it is one book that I must find the time to read. The personal comments about the choices from the selectors are revealing and intriguing.  Whilst I was surprised that so few children’s books have rated a mention, at least I have read all of them!  Recommended for keen readers and a worthy book.

***The Essential Leunig, Cartoons from a Winding Path by Michael Leunig. HB from Viking and Penguin.  RRP  $49.99

There has been no other book this year which has given, and will continue to offer for a long time, such pleasure, and at times comfort, in the browsing as this one. It is a collection of   more than 400 of Leunig’s cartoons produced over the forty years of his career, and revealing his attitudes to a multitude of life’s events, his humour, his sadness at times at man’s frailties, and his coverage of some of the world’s momentous events. These are     cartoons to read, not look at briefly because there is such variety in the characters, and in the content.   I find that I sit, maybe flick, look, read and ponder, then sometimes reflect on the content for ages afterwards.    Leunig would have to be Australia’s best-known newspaper cartoonists. Whilst I have most of his previous publications, and even his calendars, this volume will be a book a continue to hug and love for a long time.

The Universal Sense.  How Hearing shapes the mind. By Seth S Horowitz.  HB from Bloomsbury.  RRP  $27.99

Every vertebrate has the power to hear.  Horowitz is a research professor in psychology and neuroscience, and he has been interested in how hearing originates in the outside world, and makes its way through the ear into our brains, and how we then make sense out of the sounds, using the elements that underlie and drive high-level cortical and cognitive functions. I found a lot of the technical explanations of how this all works, beyond my understanding on a single reading, but I was fascinated to realise the complexity of the process by which our individuals brains shape what vibrations we feel, into so much variety of understanding and actions.  The admiration of the author for the complexity and beauty of our minds and brains shines through, as does his curiosity to continue to study how sounds in our world contribute to our lives.  It’s a serious book which will stimulate the reader to think about the issues discussed.

4 Ingredients Kids, by Kim McCosker and Rachael Bermingham.  PB from Simon and Schuster.  RRP about $25

This cookbook is designed to help children learn to cook, and to enjoy doing so with minimal help from adults.  Hence the 4 ingredients theme, and the measuring and advice pages, both of which are designed for kids.  The recipes are accompanied by photographs, so that the kids can both admire the product, and seek to make their look similar plus feel a real sense of achievement when they succeed. It’s a simple idea, but suggestions for all meals are included, plus snacks.  It is a very simple, attractive presentation, and I am sure it will be popular with mums, and the kids.

**Cooking with a Passion for Pork.  Pig, by Johnnie Mountain.  HB from Duncan Baird, released by Simon and Schuster.  RRP about $40

This is one of the best cookbooks I have ever read for pleasure and information. It is also the only book I have ever read which gives instructions and advice on making your own sausages and hams at home and recipes.  The author is a pork lover, and a specialised pork chef.  After a brief outline about breeds of pig, and the various cuts of pork butchery, there are heaps of recipes, including preparation and cooking times.  There are also photos of the dishes of course.  It is good to see recipes which turn cheap cuts of meat such as the belly into such delicious dishes. There are also lots of recipes with an Asian flavour.    We have put this book in our cookery book shelves, and already it has been well used.

**Exit wounds, by Major John Cantwell, with Greg Bearup.  PB from Melbourne University Publishing.  RRP  $34.99

John Cantwell rose through the ranks of the Australian army from private to be in the running to become Chief of Staff for all Australian forces.  He saw active service in the two gulf wars and Afghanistan, so  there is nobody better placed to have written this book.  His men called him “Boss”, not “Sir”. Greg  Bearup is a well known  and respected journalist and author who has worked in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Greg claims that he only helped tidy up a few things for Cantwell.

This is a book which should be read, although much of the content is not enjoyable.  We are fed a lot of news items about wars, but we are given very few details of how the men who serve, feel.  For the most part their intense loyalty is to their fellow soldiers, rather than to a grand cause.  John Cantwell served for 38 years, and for more than twenty suffered from post traumatic stress disorder.  He is concerned that returning servicemen don’t get enough help or respect.  It is only recently that PTSD has become viewed as a normal reaction to the life of a soldier on active duty.  A frightening statistic from the US is that there were 6500 veteran suicides in 2011.  This is a well written, but sobering account of the  service  and experiences of a distinguished Australian soldier.

November Fiction titles.

Best books three stars….***


The Island House by Posie Graeme-Evans.  PB from Simon and Schuster.  RRP  $29.99

This story delves into the pagan and Christian history of a Scottish island. I quickly became steeped in the atmosphere, with clear depictions of chilly Scottish climates and landscapes and the stop -start of a new romance.  Whilst the characters seem stereotyped   they are still very likeable.  The Australian archaeologist is Aussie, so she is full of gusto, takes no rubbish from anyone and is very driven in her pursuits.  Her Scottish love interest is brash and standoffish at first but is eventually warm and romantic in a very proper, old school way, which eventually wins her over.

The story is based around the mystery of the death of a young pagan girl in Viking raider times.  The archaeologist who has inherited the island uncovers the truths about the past while magically connecting to the young girl via visions and vivid dreams. A bit far-fetched this idea maybe, but it hangs together OK and  provides an intriguing read in a very vivid setting.


**In Falling Snow, by Mary-Rose McColl.  PB from Allen and Unwin.  RRP  $29.99


This story is based on the history of the Scottish Women doctors who ran hospitals in France and Serbia during WW1.  When Iris, one of the nurses in France in WW1 receives an invitation to return there from Brisbane for a reunion, memories of the years spent there return vividly to her.  It must be difficult to write about sadness and grief, but the author conveys the wartime cruelty, danger and terror with directness and arouses considerable empathy in the reader.  It is at times desperately sad, but engrossing reading.  Iris originally went to France to find and bring home her too -young brother, but in the process she ends up at the abbey of Royaumont and becomes a skilled and dedicated nurse in the most awful of circumstances but also finds friendship and love there.  The major twist in the story comes towards the end of the book, and rewards the patience and tolerance of the reader who has persisted with this often so -sad story with a very satisfactory ending.  It is very good reading.


In the shadow of the Banyan.  By Vaddey Ratner.  PB from Simon and Schuster.  RRP about $29

When Cambodia underwent an agrarian revolution in the 1970s under the control of Pol Pot, it became a desperate time for the peoples of that country.  Cut off from the rest of  the  world because of Pol Pot’s actions and attitudes, it was difficult to understand or really know what went on in the then called Kampuchea until later.  The story of Raami is one which, during the seven or so months that I spent in Cambodia teaching young adults about 10 years ago, I heard echoed frequently.  The horrors of the killing fields, and the execution of anybody who had been educated, in total at least 25% of the population, is something which the country has found very hard to deal with, and the current generation of young parents is growing up with a huge deficit of senior experience and education to support them.  I found the story of Raami heart wrenching, but probably not as hard for me to read as for some others, who are unfamiliar with the tragedy and  extent of the criminal  acts which was Cambodia under  Pol Pot and his regime.  Hard reading, but evocative, and sadly, too true.


The Inn at Rose Harbour, by Debbie Macomber.  PB from Random House.  RRP  $32.95

This author has written other stories about life in the village of Cedar Cove, but this story is complete in itself.  Jo Marie buys Cedar Cove’s B and B business and sets out to build a new life for herself.  Joshua has returned to Cedar Cove to collect some of his personal effects from his estranged stepfather.  Abby was in a car crash where her best friend was killed, and she had avoided return to the cove for over twenty years, until forced to return to attend her brother’s wedding.  Debbie Macomber is a very successful author, and regarded as somewhat of an icon in women’s literature.  This story is light reading, but it turns out well.

Lighthouse Bay, by Kimberley Freeman.  PB from Hachette, RRP  $32.99

The hamlet of Lighthouse Bay is on the Queensland coast, unspoiled and ripe for development, it was the site a century ago, of a shipwreck in which a valuable gift, a mace, from Queen Victoria to the new commonwealth of Australia was supposedly lost at sea.   In 1901, Isabelle winterbourne was the survivor of the shipwreck.  She has the mace and is pleased that her husband drowned.  In 2011, Libby has moved back to Lighthouse Bay after the death of her lover Mark Winterbourne.   She has not seen her sister for twenty years.  This is a story of family secrets with local mysteries woven in with  love stories.  It is a pleasant very readable story.

Before I Met you by Lisa Jewel.  PB from Random House. RRP  $32.95 

Betty Dean grew up on the channel Island of Guernsey.  Later she was to look after her exotic old grandmother, Arlette, then was left with a mission to find Clara Pickle, an unknown beneficiary of her grandmother’s estate.  The other story tells of Arlette’s time in London in the free-living time of the 1920s.  I found it difficult to keep track of Arlette’s friends and life.  The story is complicated but gave excellent insight into what life was like in London over the two periods, seventy years apart. However, overall I tended to lose track and interest in the story.

Philida, by Andre Brink.  PB from Random House.  RRP  $32.95

This is a gripping but heart wrenching story.  It tells of a slave—Philida– in South Africa almost 200 years ago, and her life, in which she owned nothing, and was considered the property of her owner.  She had four children by Francois, the son of the owner, but when Francois went back on his promise to give her her freedom, Philida took the extraordinary step of lodging a protest and complaint against her owner.  The ructions which followed were terrible, but when Philida was actually sold on to another family further north, she walked away, and set off to make her own way in life.  This story is based on the life and actions of one of the authors’ ancestors.  It is an earthy story, with lots of graphic descriptions of how Philida was treated, and lots of sadness at man’s inhumanity to man yet again—and to woman more so!  The story is told as if we are inside Philida’s mind; this can make parts of the story, and the sequences hard to follow, but it is a searing story, which will stay with you.

*Unnatural Habits, by Kerry Greenwood.  PB from Allen and Unwin. RRP  $22.99

It is Melbourne in 1929, and girls are going missing.  Young, often fair, but invariably poor.  When Polly Kettle, an intrepid reporter decides to investigate, she too goes missing.  It is suspected that the girls, sometimes pregnant , are being shipped off to Cairo to work in brothels.  This is lighthearted reading, which turns out well once Phryne and her offsider Dot take on the case.   The only part which is not elegant are the descriptions of how the churches exploited young girls who were in trouble.

This is a book which will certainly appeal to watchers of the ABC drama series Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries.

***Entitlement, by Jessica White.  PB from Penguin.  RRP  $29.99

It is rare to find a book about life in rural Australia where the small details are all correct.  Jess has the background to achieve this, as well as to understand the pressures of life on the land, the issue of inheritance, and also the relationships of aborigines with the land.  The McConville property in northern NSW had been in the family for a couple of generations.  Blake the father was stubborn, but suffering with very bad hips, which affected both his work, and his temper.  His wife generally supported him, but there were conflicts with his brother, also a  partner in the property.  The two children Cate and Eliot were close in age, and inseparable.  Both were intelligent.  They were best friends, wonderful partners in musical performances, and the usual bush kids, with lots of freedom to live and play outdoors and to make friends where they wished.

Cate went on to become a doctor.  Eliot would have liked to have become a  musician but was expected to take on the property. When Eliot disappears it is Cate who refuses to give up the quest to find him and continues to hope for over eight years.   Meanwhile the property becomes too much for Blake and everyone else except Cate want to sell  to a neighbour.  When the mystery of Eliot’s disappearance is finally solved, it is Cate who is the catalyst to resolve the issues and bring the situation to a satisfactory resolution for everyone, including the aboriginal family who have lived and worked on the property for so long and who now are even more strongly linked with the McConvilles.

This book is a gem.  Jessica’s first book, “A Curious Intimacy” was an excellent character study, but in this story we have a more coherent and mature story line, mixed with the excellence of her character development and the familiarity with the succession issues faced by rural families.

The Twelve Rooms of the Nile, by Enid Shomer.  PB from Simon and Schuster. RRP  $29.99

There is no evidence that Florence Nightingale and the French author and poet Gustave Flaubert ever met during a journey on the Nile—it is the imagination of the author that brings the two together in this novel.  Both are looking for adventure and passion, and come together even though they are quite different in their backgrounds and experience.  This is a good story that at times had me flicking forwards to see what would happen.  Maybe this meant that it was not all happening quickly enough, but it was a book which I certainly finished and enjoyed.

Shadow of the Rock, by Thomas Mogford.  PB from Bloomsbury.  RRP  $29.99

This is the first in what is intended to be a series set in Gibraltar and Morocco and featuring the lawyer Spike Sanguinetti.  One evening when Spike arrives home from work he finds an  old friend, quite desperate, on his doorstep having just arrived in Gibraltar from Tangiers.  Hassan, the friend, has been accused of murder.  Morocco is an interesting part of the world, but when Spike goes to Tangiers, the story starts to become complicated as he discovers the world of Bedouin girls, and the seedy politics of Morocco.  It is a fine story, and set in an atmospheric and colourful part of the world.   Another  very good thriller.

The Elephant Keepers’ Children, by Peter Hoeg.  PB from Harvill and Random House.  RRP  $45 

I really enjoyed “Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow” by this author, and began this book with alacrity.  It tells of how Peter and Tilte are trying to track down two notorious criminals—who just happen to be the children’s parents.  There is to be a conference of scientific and religious leaders ain Copenhagen, and the children just know that somehow their parents who are the organist and pastor of the small church on the remote island of Fino, are involved and up to no good.  Sadly, the story did not live up to expectations, as it became  too fanciful  to be plausible.  I found the supposed humour beyond me, and did not finish the story.

Salvation of a Saint, by Keigo Higashino.  PB from Little Brown and Company.  RRP  $29.99

This author has been described as the Stieg Larsson of Japan.  I began the story, doubting this accolade somewhat, but yes, Higashino has written a splendid murder mystery– complex, yet free flowing, and with  the conclusion certainly difficult to predict.

The characters are well rounded and interesting as the lead detective finds himself developing an attachment to the most likely suspect.  It is the youngest policewoman who notices mundane details which turn out to be significant.  As always, and as with Larsson, names from a non-English speaking country are always hard to remember, but this difficulty is the only drawback to this well written and intriguing story.

***The Secret Keeper, by Kate Morton.  HB from Allen and Unwin.  RRP  $39.99

Kate Morton does a good job of connecting the two periods of this story—the years of WW2 and the present.  In 1961 young Laurel sees her mother stab a stranger to death.  Fifty years later as her mother is drifting into a confused state prior to death, Laurel tries to find out what happened and why.  The different stories of Dorothy, the mother, jimmy, her wartime boyfriend and Vivien whom Dorothy had regarded as a friend, but who betrayed Dorothy, and the lives the three of them had led in London during the blitz of WW2 are the secrets which Laurel has to attempt to unravel and understand.  Another very interesting and entertaining read.




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