November-December 2013 Adult fiction and non-fiction book reviews from Janet Croft

 The best books have from one to five stars…the more stars the better.

Non-fiction.

**The Butler, by Wil Haygood.  HB from Simon and Schuster.  RRP  $24  Ebook $13.99

Eugene Allen was employed at the White House in Washington at a time when segregation in the USA was widespread, and when it was very rare to see a black person in a position of responsibility.  Eugene Allen started work at a country club, but then was told about a job at the white House.  He had nothing to lose by applying because jobs were hard to come by, but from when he was appointed in 1952 to work in the pantry at the White House,  he was regularly promoted,  and finally, ended up as butler and in time,  to eight American presidents.  It is a simple, short book, and the precursor to the film of the story, (the film has already been well received) but I found the book enjoyable and interesting reading.  There are some insights to life in the White House, but most significant to me was how this calm and very professional man was able to conduct himself with diplomacy, honesty and unassailable morals in a job which required discretion, a sense of humour, and modesty while having a home and family in a very different environment.

*Sylvia Plath: Drawings.  Compiled and introduced by Frieda Hughes.  HB from Allen and Unwin.  RRP  $29.99

Frieda Hughes is the daughter of Sylvia Plath, who, in her short life became recognised as multi- talented in whatever artistic field she explored and practised—art and poetry being the two spheres in which she is largely remembered today.  Plath’s turbulent life ended with her suicide in 1963— bi-polar disorder is now much better understood than it was then, but we will never know if the magic of her works would have been as great if she had been medicated to take out the highs and lows of her life.  There are letters to her mother, many of her drawings —and some very personal letters between herself and her husband Ted Hughes.  It is an intensely personal look at a woman whose turbulent but passionately- lived life gave us so much in a short time.

*****Letters of Note; Correspondence Deserving of a Wider circulation, by Shaun Usher.  HB from Allen and Unwin.  RRP  $49.99

There is a web site called Letters of Note—I have not yet looked at it, but I have spent hours poring over various letters in this book—there are over a hundred of them, from a wide range of eras and sources. Many are facsimiles of the originals, others are transcripts. My favourites so far include the letter, written during a flight, from Elvis Presley to President Richard Nixon, to request the granting of the credentials for Presley to become a Federal Agent at Large so that Presley could obtain another police badge, of which he had a large collection.  There is the handwritten letter from Queen Elizabeth to another American president, Eisenhower, in which she  sent him her recipe for drop scones.  And, maybe my favourite of all, the letter from a young Fidel Castro, then aged 14, to President Roosevelt to request a “ten dollars bill green American” because ‘never have I seen (one).” The handwriting is well formed and easy to read, and hence a delight to show to my students.  There are facsimiles of a letter from Beethoven (with English translation of course); a long letter from Louis Armstrong, with advice about aspects of jazz, Einstein to a young girl who asked him “Do scientists pray?”  So many letters, and such varied content.  This book is a joy to behold, and to peruse at leisure.  It has been both stimulating and relaxing and is a book which I will continue to treasure.

*Almost Complete History of the World: 75 incredible events from ancient times to today. Edited by Joseph Cummins, James Inglis and Barry Stone.  Paperback from Allen and Unwin.  RRP  $39.99

Divided into five eras, beginning with ancient times, then the middle Ages,  the early modern era and the world at War and the Cold war during the 20th Century, to the present, this large book presents quite detailed vignettes of the most momentous events of each era.  This is a useful book for secondary and tertiary students who wish to improve their knowledge of major world events and history as well as for families who seek to improve their general knowledge.

***Holy Fool, by Michael Leunig.  HB from Allen and Unwin.  RRP  $49.99

What a gem for Leunig fans—a large book, with colour and lots of variety but most with the usual Leunig theme of the holy fool—the small, insignificant looking creature who does not conform to social norms and always seems to be an onlooker because he is puzzled but curious by some of the majority attitudes to life and morals and to accepted social behaviours.  The holy fool is happy with his lot, and always seems surrounded by an air of mysterious blessedness. The other theme in this book is Leunig’s commentary on the physical world and how we live in and treat the environment. There are numerous full page  paintings reproduced, most of which I have never seen before.  Leunig’s works are often used as stimulus materials for various discussion groups, and for students who require related texts for themed studies.  It’s an attractive book with appeal to many people of any age.

Seven flowers and how they shaped our World, by Jennifer Potter.  HB from Allen and Unwin.  RRP  $45

The seven flowers that this author believes shaped our world are the lotus, lily, sunflower, opium poppy, rose, tulip and orchid.  The book presents a mixture of botany, history, commercial and religious issues as well as information about the areas where the plants originated.  It is an interesting book although you get the impression that the author has just collected facts, diagrams and pictures and put everything together to make a book.  Mostly for interested gardeners I feel.

*1001 Ideas, by Robert Arp.  HB from Murdoch Books.  RRP  $49.99

This squat and solid hardback volume has 950 pages and is very heavy. About half the book is pictures, diagrams or photographs and illustrations of the 1001 ideas which range from the ideas of Confucius and Plato to the very latest in thinking on a variety of topics from economics to the concept of the transmigration of souls and the mysteries concerned with the notion of time. Questions discussed include whether we can build a just society, the perennial issues of the origins and meaning of life as well as how to oppose injustice, with Ghandi’s approach to civil disobedience and the work of the suffragists to improve the lot of women.  It is a vast miscellany; the only obstacle to having the book beside the bed for leisure reading is that it is too heavy!  Otherwise it is an excellent book to browse and to improve the general knowledge.  For teenagers and adults.

**The Speech, by Gary Younge.   PB from Allen and Unwin.  RRP  $19.99

What a contrast to the last book!  This slim volume has the subtitle, “The Story behind Martin Luther King’s Dream’ and contains a very detailed account of the public movement led by King to obtain a fair and just America for the black people who had been taken there originally as slaves from Africa.  This very detailed analysis outlines the actions and events which led up to August 28, 1963.  Probably the most significant feature for me is the fact that it was when King departed from his prepared speech and spoke off the cuff, that his words had such a momentous and electric effect on his extraordinarily large and supportive audience.  There is no doubt that the speech provided the stimulus for the changes to laws and social attitudes in America.  The book extends its commentary beyond the speech to the election of Obama and then his re-election, and  stresses how these events would not have happened when they did were it not for King’s speech.  Much of the book dry reading with lots of dates, but it is a significant analysis of a turning point in American life, and possibly the world, and it has become universally acknowledged as such.  When we had four Chinese boys stay  with us last year, we were impressed that all four boys were able to quote King’s speech from the point of  ‘ I still have a dream” to the end.   A significant and important book for all students and for HSC students studying speeches.

***The Gentle Art of Preserving, by Katie and Giancarlo Caldesi. HB from Simon and Schuster. RRP  $39.99

I am enjoying this book.  We are interested in preserving various foods and over the years have enjoyed the fruits of our labours for many months after the foods were available or in season because we have preserved them. This book is fun because it is practical and offers suggestions and recipes which are within the reach of ordinary families to try at home, as well as providing a variety of methods to preserve various foods. The book shows how to  make and then use various vinegars as the preservative , and we are introduced to chutneys pickles and sauces, some of  which originate in the Middle East, Sweden and Mexico;  there are jams, marmalades and cordials which  use sugar as the preservative and then the book covers the delights of pickling and smoking pork and other meats.  There is also a section of how to freeze foods and  then a great section on suppliers of various ingredients and equipment, handy hints and web sites.   It is a delightful book, easy to use and to read and  will make a great gift book.

Merle’s Country Show Baking and other favourites, by Merle Parrish.  PB from Random House. RRP  $39.95

This book concentrates on sweet items such as cakes, biscuits and desserts, although there are also excellent recipes for a meat pie, a quiche and some breads.  The recipes are easy to follow, there are photos of what each dish should look like, and there are lots of handy hints to ease the cooking process. This will be a good book for young people starting out in their own kitchen and wishing to cook for themselves.

Heaven on Earth, by Stephanie Dowrick.  HB from Allen and Unwin.  RRP  $29.99.  ebook—yes, available.

Stephanie Dowrick has had years learning the benefits of prayer, and then to teach others to trust prayer as a healing and supportive technique as well as a way to celebrate happiness.    This collection contains prayers from most of the world’s major faith systems, as well as many written by the author. I have enjoyed the variety — and how there always seems to be a prayer which reflects current feelings if you do not have the ‘right’ words for yourself in your heart at that time.  It is not a book to read, but to dip into when the spirit moves you to take time out.

Writing on the Wall, by Tom Standage.  PB from Bloomsbury.  RRP  $29.99 

The subtitle of this book is “social Media, the first 2000 years” and the content is the story of how forms of social media appropriate to each era have affected developments in society over the 2000 years since letters forewarned of considerable changes in the Rome of Cicero’s time.  Facebook, Twitter and coffee shops are seen in the context of providing an interchange of ideas in the 21st century in much the same way as graffiti, letters, and whatever was appropriate throughout history since Cicero,  with tracts and the more rapid dissemination of ideas during the late Renaissance and the time of the Reformation after the introduction of the printing press, and so on. I enjoyed reading how the English poet John Milton contributed to today’s bloggers when he argued against the laws of his time which prevented freedom of speech. Although quite erudite in its content, it’s another interesting book, for those who are interested and again shows that nothing in print is really new, just recycled in another form!

Encyclopedia Paranoiaca, by Henry Beard and Christopher Cerf.  HB from Bloomsbury. RRP  $24.99

It’s a bit hard to decide whether we should take seriously the information provided in this book, or whether it is all tongue in cheek.  The authors are both well-known satirists, and the ways in which the content of the book pulls apart everything that we have been taught to believe was good for us, is a bit alarming.  Especially that leafy greens are not good for us!  The book is an alphabetical look at a huge variety of issues which may or may not affect our daily lives, from tick bites on a picnic in the park, to the hazards of plastic food containers,  condoms, drinking from a straw, wearing skinny jeans—you name it, there is a potential hazard in most activities it seems.  It’s a great list, really interesting and fun to browse, but will  it upset people’s  peace of mind too much?

The First Muslim, the story of Muhammad by Lesley Hazleton.  PB from Allen and Unwin.  RRP  $29.99

Muhammad was an illiterate orphan who founded one of the world’s largest religious faiths.  Lesley Hazleton has researched his life and times and produced a very readable history of a man who challenged society and the existing religions of his times.  Our society can hold many theories about religions other than our own, so it is good to understand more about  how a man who became a merchant, traveller and a leader could become a prophet. The great religions have much in common with each other—in particular those to which the term ‘people of the book’ are concerned, with Muslims, Jews and Christians all closely connected because of  their shared inheritances from Abraham.  This book connects history and knowledge of a world leader in a form which is easy to read to gain understanding of his life, times and legacy.

1914, The Year The World Ended, by Paul Ham.  HB from Random House.  RRP  $49.95

Already, with the century of the beginning of World War 1 to occur next year, new books about the war, its causes, and events are available.  This large book is well researched, with detailed recounts of events leading up to the war, the political background of the alliances involved, why these were thought necessary, and the consequences of the war for subsequent generations around the world.  The book is not for light reading, but will appeal to serious students of World War 1 history.

First Victory 1914, by Mike Carlton.  HB from Random house.  RRP  $45

The subtitle to this book is ‘HMAS Sydney’s Hunt for the German Raider Emden’.  Mike Carlton has been one of Australia’s most respected and best-known radio and television broadcasters.  He has also published another book about a warship, Cruiser, which was the story of HMS Perth during the Second World War.  This book provides a most detailed study of the Sydney’s search for, and then battle with the German raider Emden in the Indian Ocean.  Carlton also provides a detailed sketch of what life in Australia was like at the time, and how the work of the Sydney was regarded by the populace. Whilst it is not difficult to read, it is essentially a book  with lots of detail about a naval battle.  As such it will appeal to military historians and students, and to those, who like Carlton have a passion for naval history.

Traveller, by Michael Katakis.  PB from Simon and Schuster.  RRP  $22.99

The subtitle of this book is Observations from an American in Exile” and it is a series of letters, journal entries and photographs of the author’s ramblings around various countries and areas of the globe after he decide to leave America for ever.  There are also comments about his own philosophy, and past experiences, and of his urge to be of some use to the world, and to those he meets. It seemed as if he was trying to emulate the efforts of traveller writers and dilettantes of the past. I did not find the book very informative or stimulating.

My mother, My father.  On Losing a Parent.  Edited by Susan Wyndham.  PB from Allen and Unwin.  RRP  $29.99 EBook available.

The editor asked many of Australia’s best known and loved authors, playwrights poets and journalists for recollections of their parents and the memories they retain as they share the grief at the loss of these most beloved of people.  The stories are mostly intensely personal, although not overly sentimental, and there is some humour and wit.  Contributors include Helen Garner, the editor, Nikki Barraclough, Thomas Keneally, and  David Marr.  I browsed the various stories, but was unable to read the contributions straight because they recalled strong feelings of grief in me for my late father too. For those to whom it appeals.

Cluetopia, by David Astle.  PB from Allen and Unwin.  RRP  $29.99, ebook—yes

I, like many others, did not realise that the crossword was such a recent invention.  It has just celebrated its centenary and with it, David Astle, the Australian guru of the crossword, from the Sydney Morning Herald in particular, and his blog at www.davidastle.com, has written a book to show how the puzzle has evolved, and to highlight some of the more exotic versions which have appeared over the years.  Along the way in each of the 100 chapters of the book, he introduces us to the new words which have emerged, and highlights major world events in history, events which have also led to clues for crosswords.  It’s a fascinating book to browse, and the reader must also admire the talent of the guy –it’s extraordinary—I just wish I could solve more of his clues each week!

The Real Mrs Brown, by Brian Beacom.  PB from Hachette.  RRP  $29.99

It was only a month ago that I was introduced to Mrs Brown, on a DVD, during a long bus trip. I was captivated by the humour and talent of the guy, and the way in which he represented his alter persona so well.  As with many comics real life has not always been kind to Brendan O’Connell, and the book details his unhappy home life, and the  difficulties he experienced to  establish  a career to repay his efforts with a good income.  It’s an OK read, but I think I will continue to enjoy his work and appearances on TV, and DVD, and wish him well.

Alligator Blood, by James Leighton.  PB from Simon and Schuster.  RRP  $29.99

This is the biography of a young Australian professional on- line poker player, who initially made lots of money when he was able to hide the money he made from gambling into apparently legal payments.  This great gamble did not succeed long term however and his approach led to changes in laws controlling  on line poker payments.  It is quite a technical book, and not one for light reading unless you are keen on the topic.

I am Malala, by Malala Yousafzai.  PB from Hachette.  RRP  $32.99, ebook #19.99

This is a most amazing, yet at the same time, heart- rending story. Probably almost everybody in the world has now heard of Malala, and her unrelenting attempts to gain an education equal to that offered to boys in her home country of Pakistan.  People also know that she was deliberately targeted in 2012, while travelling home in a school bus, and shot by a Taliban terrorist, with the intention of killing her. After a battle to survive a serious head wound, Malala is now in England with her family, but wishes still to return to her home in Pakistan and has vowed to continue the campaign for girls’ education around the world. This autobiography contains lots of details about life in the Swat Valley of Pakistan, the area where the Taliban have been most active in their attempts to subdue and rule according to their patriarchal and primitive tribal customs.  I do not regard them as Muslim, because Islam encourages the education of women, and when we were in a nearly area of Pakistan a few years ago, in a school north of Gilgit, on the wall was a poster which read.  “If you have two children, a girl and a boy, you should educate the girl better than the boy, because it is she who will educate the next generation.”  Some of this book is very detailed when it tells of the struggles Malala’s father experienced as he established his schools, but for fascination about the dreams and goals and experiences of this young woman, this is an engrossing story. Suitable for teenagers and adult.

*The History of Cycling in Fifty Bikes, by Tom Ambrose. HB from Allen and Unwin.  RRP $35

I was curious about this book, because I couldn’t see how talking about fifty bicycles would be interesting. I was mistaken.  As the author presents, in historical order, the fifty innovative bicycles, he talks about innovations in engineering, and how increased knowledge in physics and wind pressures for example have influenced design.  He also mentions the most significant names in bike design, and talks about the differences between road, mountain and various types of racing bicycles.  I find the section on electrically motored cycles appealing—my brother-in -law has one, and at over 80 is able to ride quite long distances in comfort.  Sounds good to me.  This is essentially a book for bike buffs, but it has general appeal from the point of view of design, and innovations.

ROY G.BIV  An Exceedingly Surprising Book about Colour, by Jude Stewart.  HB from Bloomsbury.  RRP  $24.99

The weirdo title of this book presents the colours of the spectrum in an easy to remember sequence. The author wishes the reader to be reminded of some stories and facts concerning the history of colours, as soon as a particular colour is mentioned, so there are her favourite stories, and there are also some chapters about non-spectrum colours.  Some of the text is in very small font size, and in colours similar to the background colour:  this small print is just OK to read.  Arrows and diagrams and key words attract the reader’s eye to link the concepts presented; this is a pleasing way to let the eye move from one idea to another.  Overall an intriguing book, suitable for secondary kids as well as adults. I think it will appeal to secondary art students.

**First Footprints, by Scott Cane.  The Epic Story of the First Australians.  PB from Allen and Unwin.  RRP  $35

Scott Cane has an archaeological and anthropological consulting company.  He has spent his working life conducting fieldwork and publishing stories and the history of Australia’s first people.  First Foot prints looks at the traces left by the first inhabitants.  Carbon dating allows for the residues of, for example, campfires and middens to be dated quite accurately. There are  some amazing old photographs included.  (I was struck, when I looked at these, at how historically significant are the Lindt photographs- in the Grafton Art Gallery- of indigenous people in the Clarence Valley of NSW) Cane looks at rock art, weapons and food sources to provide an amazingly complete and really interesting outline of the history of the lives of the first inhabitants of Australian.

Botany for Gardeners, by Geoff Hodge.  HB from Allen and Unwin.  RRP  $35

This is not a read for pleasure book unless you are a gardener.  It is a reference book  which contains nine chapters, each of which discusses an aspect of the botany of plants. Thus there are chapters on the plant kingdom and how plants are named, seed germination and growing, how to prune, pests and external factors and how these all affect a garden.  The book contains many cross references, and really it will be up to the gardener to browse at length, and at will to extract value from this technical, but beautifully presented book.

What a wonderful World, by Marcus Chown.  PB from Allen and Unwin.  RRP  $27.99, eBook available. 

Physics and cosmology have never been my strong points, but I have found this book a pleasure, because I have actually been able to understand some things about the universe which have to date escaped me.  In this large, book there are many issues discussed which do not seem to be related, except by their relevance to our lives. Ultimately, the question of most interest is, as always, why is there something rather than nothing…..this is a book for teenagers and adults to read over time, and to use as a guide to understand the choices we make in life better, and our world. I need to read the sections on atoms, time, cells and cosmology again and again! Whilst the book is easy to read, there is a huge amount to absorb.

****To the Letter, A Journey through a Vanishing World, by Simon Garfield. HB from Allen and Unwin.  RRP  $29.99

I have not needed to wonder why I have had three books about letter writing to read and review over the past couple of months. Letters have provided pleasure, information, condolences and congratulations to people since the time of the ancient Romans.  Now, with everyday communication with each other by email, or worse still, sms and Twitter, the art, and pleasure which was found in the sending and the receipt of letters is severely threatened. So is the regularity of communications between family members and friends who live at a distance. Also, so is the history which is to be gleaned from collections of letters, and the delight to be found in sharing the thoughts and lives of some of our best known people in the letters they wrote.  Garfield presents extracts of letters from well-known and unidentified origins.  He also provides background details on the authors and their time, for example when and why Bonaparte wrote to Josephine, and what the letters reveal of the man and his personal issues.  There is also an explanation of why, less than two years before her death, the letters of Jane Austen changed somewhat in their nature and content.  This is another superb book to treasure and read at leisure, and which maybe will encourage me to take up my pen and write a genuine, handwritten letter to our children!

In Search of Captain Moonlite, by Paul Terry.  PB from Allen and Unwin.  RRP  $29.99

It has taken a couple of months to read this book—others initially seemed to have more appeal. Captain Moonlite is a legendary Australian figure. You remember the name, but not much detail.  His real name was Andrew Scott; he was well educated, but a con man, gaol escapee, and probably a bank robber.  Paul Terry has researched well, the man behind the legend, and it makes for quite an interesting read. 

***Through the Farm Gate.  A Life on the Land, by Angela Goode.  PB from Allen and Unwin.  RRP  $29.99

Angela Goode was a city girl whose mother always thought needed to understand ‘a life on the land’, so school holidays were always spent in the bush on farms.  Angela then always felt that she should work towards bridging the gap between city and country people.  Angela always told her farm friends to keep contact with city people because that is where the votes are.  She is constantly amazed about the lack of understanding that city people have and show about life in country areas, and how they continue to believe that space and peace equate with wealth.

This is a fine book, which reveals with wisdom and understanding the reality of life on the land.  Did you know that a majority of rural land is owned, managed and worked by women?  There is discussion about climate change; the use of farm chemicals and animal management, and these should all be read by anybody who wants to be critical of rural life and attitudes.  Plus—investors who are driven by ideas of tax minimisation schemes should take the opportunity to see the results of failed dreams too.  A worthwhile, interesting and stimulating read.

 

Fiction titles

 

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt.  PB from Little Brown, Hachette.  RRP  $32.99

Theo Decker had been abandoned by his drunken father.  When he was thirteen his mother was killed, but he survived, an  explosion in a museum.  Among the dying was a man who gave Theo an antique ring and a very old valuable painting of a goldfinch.  The story relates how Theo was  then taken in by a very wealthy New York family until finally his biological father claimed him and took him to Las Vegas where he was mostly left to raise himself.  His companion, Boris was in a similar state, and they indulged in shoplifting and drugs.  It’s a complex story, with a look at present day American life as Theo and Boris grow up and start to work.  Theo goes into the antique business and Boris into a very shady but successful life.  A lot of the book is quite sad, and there is too much about drugs. Even though the author makes it all seem very real, and at times it is quite enjoyable, the story is of a full life of problems, with love mixed in and at 700 pages, it all seems a bit long.

***Maeve’s Times, by Maeve Binchy.  PB from Orion.  RRP  $29.99

When Maeve Binchy, who died in 2012, was made women’s editor of the Irish Times, she suggested that one day each week be set aside for fashion and food, leaving the other days for things women found interesting.  She wrote great novels about people and continued to write for the Irish Times for fifty years.  She was interested in travel, and people, and this selection of articles written for this paper, contains some of her best, with lots of warmth and humour.  Excellent light reading.

Cartwheel, by Jennifer duBois.  PB from Scribe.  RRP  $32.95  ebook $21.99

This story is loosely based on the case of the death of Amanda Knox in Italy, but is decidedly fiction.  Lily Hayes went to Buenos Aires for a semester abroad when she was a student.  She shared a room with Katy, a studious girl, but they did not hang out together as Lily was intent on extracting the best value possible from all aspects of life in exotic Buenos Aires.  When Katy was brutally murdered a few weeks later, it is Lily who is the prime suspect.  Depending on the viewpoint of the others involved, Eduardo or his girlfriend, the enigmatic Maria, Ignacio, or Lily’s boyfriend Sebastien, Lily is either definitely innocent, or sinister and definitely the killer.  As the reader, you will have to make your own decision as to guilty or not guilty.    Powerful reading, but not a pleasant story.

Sunset Ridge, by Nicole Alexander.  PB from Random house.  RRP $32.95

It is always pleasant to read a story based in rural Australia, where the authenticity of the author’s knowledge of the bush shines through. This story is no exception, and the setting, on a property in northern NSW is brought to life so well that the story seems real even before it unfolds.  It is very loosely based on the life of the author’s grandfather, who went to war in 1916, together with his brothers.  Much of the story involves their experiences during the war, but then also after the return home, when David Harrow becomes a well-established painter.  I found this a very readable story of family, of their values, and their experiences in war, and on the land.

Coal Creek, by Alex Miller.  PB from Allen and Unwin.  RRP  $29.99

This is a deceptively simple story—two mates- caught up in a mess of love, ignorance and bigotry- Bobby Blue and his mate Ben Tobin suffer at the hands of the whitefella cop Constable Daniel Collins as he, ignorant of the bush, seeks to protect his daughters from  the trackers when they search for the two girls who have left home. It is a sad story, of misunderstandings and a lack of trust, but one which  has occurred before in the bush, and probably will again.  It is evocative reading, with a distinctly Australian flavour.

The Two Hotel Frankforts by David Leavitt.  PB from Bloomsbury.  RRP  $29.99

Set in Lisbon in 1940, this novel is redolent of the atmosphere of so called neutral Europe in wartime.  Two couples meet:  both are waiting to board a ship to New York and supposed safety, and although from vastly different backgrounds and means, are almost pushed together by circumstances as they wait to board the ship.  The more the couples have to do with each other, the more the fabric of their lives loosens, and long held beliefs are thrown into turmoil as the four become enmeshed in affairs and almost panic about what is to happen to each, and to all of them.  The atmosphere of the book is very British, and has a feel of the nineteen twenties about it—until the relationships fall in a heap.  Quite readable, and intriguing, with a very authentic feel to the wartime background.

*The Signature of All things, by Elizabeth Gilbert.  PB from Bloomsbury, RRP  $29.99

Alma Whittaker was born into a family of botanists.  Her father Henry had begun his long life as a street urchin, stealing and selling plants from Sir Joseph Banks at Kew Gardens.  Banks recognised his skill and arranged for him to travel the world with Cook, collecting plants as they went. Later Whittaker developed his interests into a huge business raising plants for medical purposes in the USA.  Alma grew up as a girl who was involved in this business:  her family did not expect her to live and work a normal life as a child.

The book covers a wide range of interests; it ranges across the globe, from Tahiti to Amsterdam at the finish.  In the 1870’s when Darwin published his “Origin of Species”, Alma had come to similar conclusions with her studies of moss, and Alfred Wallace had also worked on the same issues.  Alma Whittaker led a full and interesting life—her lover had vastly different interests, but Alma always remained dedicated to scientific study.  The book presents her as a woman many years ahead of her time when it comes to gender expectations.  It is a fascinating wide-ranging story.

***The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon, by Alexander McCall Smith.  HB from Little, Brown and Hachette.  RRP  $34.99

In this, the latest in the series of the No 1 Ladies Detective Agency in Botswana, we follow further the lives of Mma Ramotswe, and in this story, that of her assistant (and soon to become partner), Mma Makutsi, when she and her husband are thrilled with the birth of their first child. As is the way in Botswana, domestic issues are important, and the couple need to learn to manage their own lives in harmony with the expectations of the older generation.  It is quite a pensive Mma Ramotswe in this story, as she also worksto discover the source of the harmful comments which criticise   the local beauty salon.  As always, this mild but pleasant story made me consider my priorities in life, and reflect on the differences between our first world society and that of a quieter and maybe more harmonious society.  Excellent reading.

Just One Evil Act, by Elizabeth George.  PB from Hodder and Stoughton and  Hachette.  RRP  $32.99.

Barbara Havers’ role as Detective Sergeant seems to be threatened when her neighbour and close friend disappears, together with her young daughter, Hadiyyah Upman. Havers, and the child’s father are both devastated. Later the girl is kidnapped when in Italy.  Barbara is determined to find the girl and return her to her Pakistani father.  It is a very complex, but clever plot.  With poor policing in Italy, Scotland Yard becomes involved and Barbara finds herself in trouble with her boss and trusted friend and colleague Detective Inspector Thomas Lynley.  Within the main plot there are subplots of romance, and these are a pleasant distraction in a rather long book.

Perfect North, by Jenny Bond.  PB from Hachette.  RRP  $29.99

The North Pole was a harsh and unforgiving place.  Many attempts were made to reach the pole—one trio, in 1897 sought to reach the pole in a hydrogen-filled balloon, but the attempt ended in tragedy.  Many years later, their remains and journals were found, frozen on the island of Kvitoya in 1930 by a young reporter, Knut  Stubbendorff.  This young guy was so taken with the love expressed in one of the journals by one of the adventurers, for his fiancée and his brother, that Knut determined to find the people involved so that they too can read this most intimate of journals.  The search uncovered long lost and complicated secrets, and brings to the surface the events during and after 1897.  Inspired by the facts of the balloon trip, this develops into a gripping story of love, intrigue and concealment.

Secrets of the Sea House, by Elisabeth Gifford.  PB from Allen and Unwin.  RRP  $29.99

The Hebrides are the edge of the known world.  For generations the people who lived there struggled in a harsh climate and because the old English landlords were inclined to clear away the crofters and fishermen in order to run more sheep.  Although Christianity arrived there early from Ireland,  old stories persist of mermaids and mermen which come from the sea.  The Reverend Alexander Ferguson lived in the parish on the island of Harris.  He was young and tried hard for his flock.  He was convinced that the mermaids are half man and half seals.  Years later Ruth and Michael buy the old manse to turn it into a B and B.  Ruth was an orphan who  had been badly treated when she was young.  This is a story of the islands, how people are connected, and there is a very logical explanation for the mermaid story.  It is OK reading.

*The Lowland, by Jhumpa Lahiri.  PB from Bloomsbury.  RRP $29.99

Two brothers who grew up in Calcutta were always envious, as young men can be, of those who could use the golf course.  Their brotherly link was very strong until Udayan married and became involved with the communist Naxalite movement—until he was murdered by the police.  The older brother, Subhash,  who was studying in America decided to marry his brother’s widow and they then continued to live in America.  This is a complex, intimate story which raises the issues concerned with how Indian families work together, and how  succeeding generations fit into a new society.  It’s a well-written story with depth to the characterisation and lots of insights into relationships which work differently from what we are used to in western society.

***Murder and Mendelssohn by Kerry Greenwood.  PB from Allen and Unwin.  RRP  $22.99.  e-book available. 

It’s hard to believe that this is the twentieth adventure for the redoubtable Phyrne Fisher, Melbourne’s famous private detective.  Phyrne has the ability to enjoy all aspects of her life, and does so, whilst still solving murders, in conjunction with Detective Inspector Jack Robertson.  If you have enjoyed any of these books at all, or seen any of the TV episodes, this is a must read.  The background are members of a choir, whose conductors are murdered.  Generally you feel that this is what should have happened to them!  The relations are complex, but friendly and it is good light reading.

The Quest, by Nelson DeMille.  PB from Hachette.  RRP  $29.99

Most of this book was written in the 1970’s at the time when revolution occurred in Ethiopia and the emperor Haile Selassie was murdered.  The novel is a story of the search for the Holy Grail, the chalice used by Christ at the Last Supper.  Two journalists, a beautiful female photographer and and an English mercenary are caught up in the revolution.  Ethiopia is an ancient Christian country with links through the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon: this is a fast moving action story in an ancient land.  I found the book rather disappointing, as we have recently travelled throughout Ethiopia, and the country which is described in the book does not match what we found.

Dark Witch, by Nora Roberts.  PB from Little Brown, and Hachette.  RRP  $29.99

This is the first of a trilogy about an Irish family where the past returns to disrupt the present.  Iona Sheehan has always felt drawn to the family home of her ancestors in Ireland, so when the opportunity presents itself, she leaves America and settles at Castle Ashford.  She meets her cousins, and finds a job at a local riding school, where, almost in spite of herself she falls in love with the tempestuous owner of the school.  The ending of this story leaves the readers up in the air of course, and we must wait for the second instalment. Nora Roberts maintains her ability to set the scene well, and to draw her characters so that we will remember them, so, let’s just wait for the next volume….

****Elianne, by Judy Nunn.  PB from Heinemann and Random House.  RRP $32.95

This was an engrossing read.  It is a story that encompasses four generations of the Durham family and their lives on the large sugar milling estate Elianne, near Bundaberg,.  The earliest generation is revealed through the diaries written by the wife, Elianne, after she married “Big Jim’ Durham.  These diaries, written in French were eventually found by Kate Durham, of the fourth generation.  Kate, who is studying at Sydney University to become a vet, translates the diaries, and finds the contents quite explosive, particularly given the bigoted attitudes of her father towards non-Caucasian races.  It is the era of the Vietnam War, and the referendum to allow aborigines to be classed as Australian citizens, and with deaths, and intermarriage, life in this family is not dull, but often there is unhappiness and friction. The as Kate feels is appropriate.   I loved the story; the people and their lifestyle seem very real, and the way in which revelations from the diaries are introduced, and blend  history with the present is really clever.  An excellent read!

The Truth about you, by Susan Lewis.  PB from Century and Random House.  RRP  $32.95

Some families seem to have more than a fair share of unexplained mysteries from the past which surface and cause waves of unrest, unhappiness and confusion for the families involved.  This story, about Lainey, whose mother refused to tell her about her Italian origins, Lainey’s husband Tom, who also has surprises from his past to discover, and the children of this family as well—they each contribute to the surprises. There is a message for parents in some of these, as the girls are at risk of sexual exploitation. Throughout it all there is a marked lack of clear communication within the family, which aggravates all the problems, but makes for interesting reading if you like such involved messes.  Lainey, who is recognised to be full of tolerance, seems too good to be true!  A good story for fans of television soap operas.

***Chocolate Cake for Breakfast, by Danielle Hawkins.  PB from Allen and Unwin.  RRP  $29.99

This story is set in New Zealand, and it is clear from very early in the story that the author is a vet.  The other major themes in the story are the pressures of international rugby, as Helen becomes the partner of an All Black player, plus the issues, which arise when in a relationship with a man who is so often away.  Pregnancy is the third major theme as Helen discovers she is pregnant, and she and Mark work through this complication to their blossoming relationship.  It’s a good story—I feel that it will appeal more to rural readers than those in the city, because there is a lot about aspects of stock and animal management and health as well as about the relationship between Mark and Helen.  If the story were not fiction, I would say it was autobiographical because the readers certainly feel they are living in Helen’s shoes.

The Storyteller and his Three Daughters, by Lian Hearn.  PB from Hachette.  RRP  $29.99

Sei is an old storyteller.  For him, Tokyo in 1884 provided a good living for somebody who could entertain an audience.  As he got older, Sei was finding it difficult to be motivated to write new stories.  With debts mounting, Sei started to find translations of French short story writers to try to inspire him. It was Japan’s wish to conquer Korea that provided a story with all the elements he required.  This is a pleasant book, with lots of easy to absorb details about life in Japan in the 1880s, and also lots about what makes a good story.

The October List, by Jeffrey Deaver.  PB from Hachette.  RRP  $32.99

Jeffrey Deaver has written some thirty best selling thrillers, including my favourite, the Lincoln Rhyme series.  In this book he tries a new format, with the first chapter about the end of the kidnapping, and the following chapters filling out the story.  I didn’t like this technique—it was all a bit confusing, and the story seemed to lose its oomph because I knew what would happen.

*The English Girl, by Margaret Leroy.  PB from Sphere, and Hachette.  RRP  $29.99

What a well-crafted story!  Stella Whittaker goes to Vienna to study music, and has the offer to live with old friends of the family. It is the mid 1930s, just before the outbreak of war, and Stella finds that life is not all straightforward, particularly after she falls in love with a young Jewish doctor.  There is also some  mystery about  Stella and the couple with whom she is living.  Stella seeks to discover what this is, as well as to obtain a way out of Austria for Harri. After the upsetting arrest of Harri, Stella is fortunate to salvage her own life and that of Harri’s young sister from the wretchedness of Nazi rule.  It is strong, evocative writing, and a plausible story, with historically authentic background.

*****Sycamore Row, by John Grisham.  HB from Hachette.  RRP $39.99

Seth Hubbard was an old, sick and very private man, who had been twice divorced, but had little contact with his children.  When he decided he was not going to recover from his illness, he arranged his affairs, turned his very considerable assets into cash and hand wrote a new will in which he left the bulk of his estate to his black housekeeper.  He then sent his new will, with instructions to Jake Brigance, a young solicitor who had recently won a court case on behalf of a Negro family.  Seth was specific that his family was not to inherit his estate.  He predicted that Jake would have to fight in court to have the will upheld.  Grisham reveals the family faults, the greed of lawyers and of the family, who would like to prove that Seth was too ill to know what he was doing. Sycamore Row is a book which just must be read—you cannot put it down and leave it till later!  There are lots of issues and legal twists which help to make it a most enthralling read.

The Gods of Guilt, by Michael Connelly. PB from Allen and Unwin.  RRP  $32.99

The title of this book refers to the role of the jury in court cases; it is the jury which determines whether the defendant is guilty or not.  Mickey Haller is regarded by the police and his family as a fairly low life lawyer whose role is usually to represent defendants.  If he wins a case, this may mean that the wrong—i.e. guilty– person has been released.  His contacts and clients are often prostitutes and drug dealers.  When an old client, a so-called escort is murdered, Mickey becomes involved, and plants evidence to send a drug dealer to gaol for life.  The story is mostly American courtroom tactics and drama and Connelly presents this setting vividly.  Readers need to decide whether they like this style of book.

One More Slip, by Marion Von Adlerstein.  PB from Hachette.  RRP  $29.99

In this novel about the fashion world, the author’s experience as a journalist and advertising copywriter with Vogue Australia is evident, and gives the story a strong authentic feel.  Three women, Desi, Bea and Isabel are friends, and all making their way in what is still a man’s world.  It is a story of women’s working lives, the almost desperate search for love, with backstabbing, and intrigues to bulk it out. Whilst the style of writing is simplistic, with nothing left to the imagination and lots of short and jerky sentences, the story still has appeal to anyone who is interested in the fashion world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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