April-May 2014: Adult non fiction and fiction book reviews

The more stars, the better!

Non-fiction:

Sheila, by Robert Wainwright. PB from Allen and Unwin. RRP $32.99

Sheila Chisholm was born to a prominent Australian family. She was intelligent, attractive and generally got her own way in most things. Her brother was sent to Egypt before the Gallipoli campaign so Sheila and her mother went to Egypt to see him. They ended up nursing there, and looking after wounded soldiers, one of whom was Lord Loughborough, the heir to one of Scotland’s oldest and most significant families. Eventually, Sheila married three times; marriage with Loughborough did not last; she then married an English Baron, and finally a Russian prince. Although none of these had any real money, Sheila, by virtue of her personality and beauty became a leader and possibly could be called a reformer of English society. The book covers her friendships and more with a long list of notables, including a future king of England. It is an interesting glimpse of society and also shows that people can achieve a lot for various charities, especially when blessed with some business acumen.

***Knowing Mandela, by John Carlin. HB from Allen and Unwin. RRP $24.99. Ebook also available.

John Carlin was a journalist who spent six years in South Africa, covering the time from when Mandela was released from Robin Island prison. They last met when Mandela was ninety. Carlin tells Mandela’s story from the viewpoint of this long-standing relationship. The ending of apartheid without recourse to violence was a major achievement, given the ill will and absolute self belie on both sides. Mandela believed that non-vio9lence was the only way and it was his integrity, respect charisma and empathy for others that allowed such an achievement. He engaged with his enemies and killed them with kindness.   It is not often that you read a book which you feel should be read by absolutely everyone in the world, but this is one. In a world where there is so much conflict, it is a pity there are not more world leaders with his abilities and attitudes.

The Perfect Theory, by Pedro G Ferreira. PB from Hachette. RRP   $32.99and as an ebook.

It is almost a century since Einstein, in his spare time while working as a clerk in a patents office, worked out his theory of relativity; he had no laboratory, no research grants, just an amazing mind. Much of the ensuing research on gravity, light, pace and time can be explained with Einstein’s theory. Nuclear research and black holes in space are also discussed in this very readable book. While the theories and arguments are too difficult for the average reader to understand, Ferreira manages to explain what the research is about, and how much more needs to be studied, all in a very simple way. For the interested layperson.

**Give Up to Get On, by Peg Streep and Alan Bernstein. PB from Hachette. RRP $32.99

Most people are generally optimistic, and society has always encouraged us to be persistent with our choices and not give up. This book is not anti these attitudes but explains that there are circumstances where to quit is a better option than to persist. The idea of looking at all the facts about an issue can be liberating, and also avoid errors of judgment. A very good example of where this approach would have been useful was towards the end of the war in Vietnam, when it was thought that for America to quit would have meant that lives already lost would have been wasted. This is quite a technical book; it doesn’t quite fit into the self-help category, but overall it is interesting to read and to help understand the reasoning or lack of it behind decision-making.

****Mister Owita’s Guide to Gardening: How I learned the unexpected joy of a green thumb and an open heart, by Carol Wall. PB from Bantam and Random House. RRP $34.99

This is a book with a very strong emotional effect with each heartfelt, meaningful exchange between the main characters the author, and Mister Owita. It is an autobiographical account of Mrs Wall’s battle with breast cancer and her friendship with Giles Owita. Although Giles is African and the neighbourhood is southern American conservative white, the pair strikes up a friendship based on Carol’s lack of gardening skills and Giles’ apparent expertise in the area. The friendship is the beginning of a deeper understanding that develops between them as they talk of all topics religious and philosophical. Refreshingly, their relationship does not turn into something sexual. It remains true and respectful and reveals the marvellous gifts with which friendship can reward us. It seems that the book is leading us towards something incredibly important, but that it is taking each step carefully to help us understand what that message is. We should feel privileged to read this account of Carol’s battles with illness. I have found myself reflecting about the depth of my own friendships and have resolved to take the time to improve the quality of some of my friendships. A gem of a book.

***Dark Invasion, by Howard Blum. PB from Scribe. RRP $32.99

President Woodrow Wilson was determined that America would not be drawn into fighting in the 1914-18 war. America supported the Allies by selling food, munitions and horses. There were large populations of Irish and Germans living in America who believed that the Allies should not be helped. While the American banker J Pierpont Morgan used his resources to finance much of the Allied war effort, Germany had effective spy and sabotage agents in America. These agents had to draw a fine line—they wanted to limit supplies to the Allies, but not antagonise America enough to give them cause to take them into the war proper. This is a factual story, and it is riveting history. At times the Americans were naïve, and the Germans ruthless. The police in New York had to catch the people who placed bombs in supply ships; Morgan was shot and wounded in an assassination attempt. There is lots of action, and it is entertaining, historically accurate reading.

Fiction titles

**Imperial Fire, by Robert Lyndon. PB from Hachette. RRP $29.99

In the years around 1066, world empires fought for dominance, with the Normans in the north while the Arabs wanted Constantinople, which was the headquarters of the Byzantine Emperor. China was a country at the other side of the world—and which had invented gunpowder. Vallon was a mercenary leader, a Frank who had gathered a loyal army of highly trained soldiers who were seeking to make their fortunes. They are sent by the Byzantine emperor on what looks to be an impossible mission, to China, to obtain gunpowder. Robert Lyndon is ah historian, a climber, a traveller and a falconer. He weaves bits of all of these into this fascinating novel which is set mainly along the Silk Road.

***Balancing Act, by Joanna Trollope. PB from Random House. RRP $32.99

Joanna Trollope is an insightful novelist, whose characters seem to live next door to the reader. There are a fair few characters in this story, but they are all full of life. Susie, the matriarch has been a very successful businesswoman, after she began to create her own pottery. Her three daughters and their partners are now all involved in the business too, and very successfully. However Susie feels she is losing control and doesn’t want to. The purchase of a house, seen as superfluous by her daughters, is an attempt for Susie to stamp her name and style on the business yet again. All is thrown into the melting pot however when Susie’s father Morris, with whom she has had no dealings at all for many years, suddenly turns up, penniless and wants to become part of the family. It is an intricate, complex story which keeps the reader wondering what will happen next.

****The Visitors, by Sally Beauman. PB from Hachette. RRP $29.99and in ebook at $16.99

What an engaging read. The insights and details, which Sally Beauman has created in this novel, are truly amazing and the bibliography is a testament to this.

The story is told from the view of a girl, Lucy Payne who, aged ten, recovering from a bout of typhoid and her mother’s recent death, is given a privileged and indulgent holiday in Egypt at the height of archaeological work, when the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb by Lord Carnarvon and Howard Carter is imminent. The details of the digs and of these discoveries are the book’s anchor point. Thrust into the high-class world of these people and their short tempered and sometimes unpredictable manners, Lucy seeks the friendship of another child, Frances, and together they “spy” or eavesdrop on many adult conversations, and gain incriminating evidence against them.

I love the way Beauman has made the story from an outsider’s viewpoint, in that Lucy was never really part of, or central to, any of the main characters in the tale. It was a great way to experience the intimate dealings and corruption of the archaeologists of that era, and of the political stances taken by Egypt and America at that time without Lucy being too involved in the proceedings. I was thoroughly absorbed by the story, and the outline of so many interesting factual events.

Pack up the Moon, by Rachael Herron. PB from Random House. RRP $32.99

Life is complicated when young girls get pregnant and decisions are made which affect a lifetime. Kate Monroe had to allow her infant to be adopted, as Kate was only sixteen when the child was born. It was only when her daughter Pree was twenty two that Kate introduced herself. Kate had found it impossible to tell the father about Pree. There is a lot of tragedy as well as love involved, when secrets are kept for too long. This was not always an easy novel to read.

***Trouble in Mind, by Jeffrey Deaver. PB from Hachette. RRP $32.99

Jeffrey Deaver is a best selling author of more than thirty-one novels.   He is probably best known for those crime thrillers which feature the work of Lincoln Rhyme. This collection of twelve short stories cover a broad range of themes, from those with lots of tension, to conspiracy stories, and murders. All are engrossing reading and excellent examples of the storyteller’s art, and it was a pleasant change to read such a collection, rather than another novel.   A most enjoyable book

The Lie, by Helen Dunmore. PB from Hutchison and Random House. RRP $32.99, and in ebook.

The war in 1914-18 was a terrible time. Life was difficult enough beforehand, and the years afterwards were full of damaged men, widows trying to restart their lives, and general societal hardships. Daniel was determined to survive and returned to the small village where his mother had died. The horror and memories of the war continue for him with nightmares as he tries to make a living as a small farmer. It is not a pleasant story to read but it is undoubtedly realistic. I expect that with the centenary of the commencement of the war at hand, a surfeit of similar war based stories will appear.

**The Chase, by Janet Evanovich and Lee Goldberg. PB from Hachette. RRP $24.99

This is the second book which these two authors, each well known in their own right, have collaborated to produce another action adventure. Carter Grove was a former White House Chief of Staff, who now runs a ruthless but successful security business. Behind the scenes he has a large collection of stolen artworks. Nick Fox, notorious as a gentleman thief and con artist, is almost top of the most wanted list from the FBI. The only agent to catch him was special agent Kate O’Hare. Nick does not see it as a con when he and Kate team up to catch Grove. It is an appealing story, and enjoyable to read—the more so because it is so well written, and the chase ranges across the globe.

Unlucky 13, by James Patterson and Maxine Paetro. PB from Century and Random House.   RRP $32.95

This is another of the Women’s’ Club Murder mysteries. It is a story packed with action, which starts when two bodies are found in the wreckage of a bomb blast in a car on the Golden Gate Bridge. About the same time a cruise ship is hijacked off Alaska by a gang asking for a huge ransom, and with the intention that they kill a passenger every hour until the payment is made. James Patterson is a very successful author, so there must be an ongoing market for American based thrillers. I found it a novel lacking in subtlety and depth, and not up to his usual standard.

**In the Morning I’ll be Gone, by Adrian McKinty. PB from Allen and Unwin. RRP $29.99

This is the third novel where Sean Duffy is the hero. Here, he has hit a low point in his life, having been suspended from the Northern Irish police force. Because he has a reputation as a competent investigator, he is offered a chance from MI5 to redeem his career when he is asked to find a former school mate of his, who has now escaped from the Maze Prison. After his escape from the prison Dermot McCann had spent time in Syria, training with explosives. It is anticipated that he will make a grand gesture sometime, by bombing some target in England. Ireland in the 1980s was a dangerous place, with lots of sectarian violence, and lots of people with no wish to help the police. This is a well-structured novel, with realistic background, and with an intriguing but plausible crime and murder. Plenty of action, and well worth reading.

**Beauty, by Louise Mensch. PB from Hachette.

This is a book I wasn’t particularly interested in reading – perhaps because I already had a preconceived idea about it from the cover, thinking it would probably be about the world of fashion, models and uppity designers or divas in the supermodel world. How wrong I was. This book is about a young girl, Dina Kane, who is disadvantaged from the start, being the unwanted and unplanned second child of a poor family. The details of her tragic and often harsh upbringing, serve only to push Dina harder and further than any of her peers to make it big in the world of beauty.

This is a tale of the underdog making it to the top and this kind of story appeals to most of us. We want to see battlers be successful somehow. This story brings with it all the highs and lows of the life of Dina Kane; it is fast paced, racy and romantic, and an excellent read.

The Accident, by Chris Pavone. PB from Allen and Unwin. RRP $29.99, and in ebook.

Isabel Reed is a powerful New York literary agent who receives an anonymous manuscript that, if true, contains revelations that would ruin the life of media baron Charlie Wolfe. Wolfe is considering running for the Senate, and will do anything to prevent publication of the manuscript. The Accident is a very complicated story; it provides an interesting look at the industry of publishing in New York, and the powers behind the scenes. I found it a bit difficult to keep track of who was left alive in a very full-of-action plot.

****Then We Take Berlin, by John Lawton. PB from Grove and Allen and Unwin. RRP $29.99

John Holderness was too young to fight in WW2. He spent the years learning to be a house burglar and safebreaker in London with his grandfather. They used the noise of the German bombing of the city to conceal the break-ins. John is called up at the end of the war, and found the IQ test of the army ridiculously easy, scoring 169. This result caught the eye of Byrne-Jones, a lieutenant colonel in Intelligence and John was then sent to Cambridge for an education, but really, intelligence wanted him for his already considerable skills in safe breaking. The occupational force in Berlin was where the action was and when not working for the army John developed a highly satisfactory business in smuggling and trading in goods such as coffee, and soap, and –unknowingly- drugs. War books have become somewhat tedious in their content but John Lawton has written a great story, with an authentic historical background and it is a most enjoyable read.

The Temporary Gentleman, by Sebastian Barry. PB from Allen and Unwin. RRP $29.99

Jack McNulty was seen as a temporary gentleman because he was Irish, and therefore his commission in the British Army was never a permanent post. Born to a poor Irish family, he saw the world as a sailor, drank heavily for most of the time and generally made a mess of his life. He was an officer, an engineer and a U.N observer in Ghana. Jack’s marriage to Mia, who was a great beauty, but also quite mysterious and difficult to understand at times, was fraught with problems of separation and differing personalities. Jack tries to come to terms with his life, but overall I found it a sad story.

The Wives of Los Alamos, by Tara Shea Nesbit. PB from Bloomsbury. RRP $29.99

This is a moving, and interesting novel. It is told with lots of multiple narrative snippets, and with this approach, we learn about the activities or lack thereof, and emotional lives of a number of the women who were married to the men who were sworn to secret about their work as the creators of the atom bomb. Thus there is one extract which tells how toys were made for children for Christmas from excess casings made for bombs.   The story is set mainly in the desert of Los Alamos, New Mexico. It is a book which I browsed over a period of time, because there are so segments to read.

**Dog Gone, Back Soon, by Nick Trout. PB from Allen and Unwin. RRP $29.99

This is a loose sequel to the enjoyable book which I read last year, The Patron Saint of Lost Dogs which told of how Dr Cyrus Mills returned to Eden Falls to close down his late father’s vet practice, and then move on. Circumstances arose which meant that he didn’t close the practice, or leave Eden Falls. In this volume we learn more about Cyrus’ new life and in particular about one very busy week; Nick enjoys working with the animals and people, refuses to be taken over by a large national chain of vets, has to sort an issue in his love life, and suddenly finds himself the guardian of a large dog which possesses some unique skills. It is pleasant reading and is suitable for teenagers as well as adults. It is also printed in very large font, which is most unusual, but which makes for very easy reading.

We are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler. PB from Allen and Unwin. RRP $29.99

This begins in the middle of the story of Rosemary and her family, when Rosie is now at college. As the story loops back and forth, the story of her family life, and the lives of the members of the family are revealed bit by bit, as Rosie reflects, and tries to bring it all together, basically for her own sake. Rosie used to have a sister the same age as herself, and an older brother. What happens to each member of the family is gradually revealed, in a readable and interesting story which has been very cleverly put together to maximize the effect of some of the issues raised by the story. At the end of the book is a list of topics for discussion by local reading groups.

***Iron Junction, by Charlotte Nash. PB from Hachette. RRP $29.99

Families are never perfect, and sometimes don’t work properly together. Dr Beth Harding’s mother expects her to marry a dentist and live a settled life. Will Walker grew up on a cattle station in the Mt Isa district. Will did not see himself as a cattleman, and became a mining engineer. Both Beth and Will were escaping some of their pasts and their families when they accepted jobs in the Pilbara Iron Junction mining town. Charlotte Nash has an intimate knowledge of the background to her stories, having been trained in both medicine and as an engineer. She has worked in isolated mining towns and sites. This is the second of her books that I’ve read, and it is a pleasure to read a story which combines good characterization with action in a realistic setting.

*The Perfect Match, by Katie Fforde. PB from Random House. RRP $32.99, and as an ebook.

Bella is engaged to her boss and fellow estate agent Nevil. Nevil however seems rather distant emotionally, but is making plans about the sort of house he and Bella will live in after their marriage. Bella however is hard at work trying to sell properties to clients with rather particular needs and to help another elderly friend with her decisions. She seems to strike unexpected obstacles just as deals are almost completed, and Bella is frustrated. When Dominic, a former boyfriend of Bella’s reappears in the area, Bella is thrown into confusion and doubt about her relationship with Nevil. This is a pleasant, undemanding, but easy to read novel, with largish print, great characters and a plausible story.

One More Slip, by Marion von Adlerstein. PB from Hachette. RRP about $32.99

Set in the sixties, in Sydney, this story is about Bea, Desi and Isabel, successful women various characters who work in one or more aspects of the advertising industry. Theoretically it is only about these three characters, but numbers proliferate until I found it difficult to sort out all the sub plots and who was emotionally entangled with whom. Love is unpredictable too, and there are signs of societal changes as the women sort themselves out. OK if it appeals.

Wake up Happy every Day, by Stephen May. PB from Bloomsbury. RRP $29.99

Russell suddenly and unexpectedly dies on his fiftieth birthday in his San Francisco mansion, with Nicky the only witness. Nicky, who is visiting from England, realizes that he can take over the persona, home wealth and all personal belongings of Russell and is sure that in so doing, he is ensuring that he, his wife Sarah and their daughter Scarlett are on the path to a happy and secure future. Not so fast….maybe it was not so much a crime as a series of delusions, but when the adopted lifestyle and person crumble, it is for Nicky and Sarah and Scarlett to realize that wealth is not all it is often cracked up to be. It’s an amusing, and insightful cautionary tale.

Just One night, by Kyra Davis. PB from Simon and Schuster. RRP $19.99

Kasie Fitzgerald is a successful businesswoman; she is almost engaged to a sensible, suitable man. Somehow, a spark is missing in this relationship but when a friend suggests she try a one night fling, circumstances spiral out of control. Kasie ends up with two controlling men—one logical and conservative, the other a very sexy, wealthy man who really turns on her lights. This is a story for fans of Fifty Shades of Grey and similar—there is not much story, but lots of athleticism.

Never Say Goodbye, by Susan Lewis. PB from Random House. RRP $32.99, and as an ebook.

Josie Clarke is wife and mother, but life is not going well. It is difficult to make do on low wages, and with a husband who does not cope well with what life has thrown up. When Josie is diagnosed with breast cancer she is intensely anxious about how her family will get along without her. Bel Monkton is a wealthy young property developer whose sister died of cancer. Bel has agreed to be a mentor to Josie and to help her deal with the effects of the cancer—not just the medical effects, but also those on family and friends. Bel is very good with this support, because she has experienced it all herself. I found this to be an uplifting story, as Josie and Bel develop a close supportive friendship. The book may have appeal for those who find themselves similarly faced with a serious illness in the family.

The Wardrobe Girl, by Jennifer Smart. PB from Random House. RRP $32.99

Working in TV production is a stressful mix; there are timing pressures, highly strung and large egos and bitchy people –all of these do not make for a pleasant work environment. Another conflict is that this work is perceived by society as an exciting and exotic lifestyle. Tess has all of these pressures, plus relationship issues with her family and former fiancé.   The story is all go, and probably provides an accurate picture of work in television. If such a read appeals, then this book has it all, even if the whole topic seems rather superficial to me.

****The Italians at Cleat’s Corner Store, by Jo Riccioni. PB from Scribe. RRP $29.99

In 1949 when England was starting to recover from the war, old habits and a narrowness of outlook persisted in the small village of Leyton. When an Italian, and former prisoner of war returned to the village with his two young sons he was apparently indentured to the large local landholder, but was looking for a chance of a new life. Connie is only seventeen, and an orphan, whom the village seems to think should be satisfied with a job behind the counter at Cleat’s corner store. The second narrative of the story is set in the small Italian village where the Onorati family originated. We learn of their lives during the war, and how difficult it was to earn a living, while paying an excessive tithe to the church and keeping some distance from the Germans. This novel gives a very observant picture of life in two very different villages and links the two environments through the lives of Connie, Vittorio and Lucio in a plausible and vivid manner. It is an excellent, absorbing read from a new author.

*The Good luck of Right Now, by Matthew Quick. PB from Picador and McMillan. RRP $29.99

If you can put up with the format of this book-it is a series of letters, none of which receive a reply, then it is definitely, eventually, worth the read. The letters are written to the main character Bartholomew Neil’s guide or guru for life, Richard Gere. (who else?) It becomes evident very early on that the person writing these letters is somewhat lacking in the social etiquette required to form so-called “normal” relationships. He is a simple minded, yet intelligent 40-year-old man who has lived with his devoted mother until her death. Bartholomew, who is probably somewhere on the autism spectrum, is struggling to find his way in the world without his mum. He is helped by his letters to Richard Gere. His faithfully religious mother did many things for him to help him understand how and why others behave certain ways towards him, but mostly she needed to protect him from the real world. Her way of coping with the daily unhappiness and nastiness was to believe in “the good luck of right now”. Bartholomew’s mum would say that if something bad was going on, then somewhere, someone in the world would be receiving good. However reality is still difficult for Bartholomew. The tragic circumstances of the setting of the story prepare the reader for more grief. The story is a sad, poignant reminder that many people struggle to cope in the world- it is serious reading, but with a message for us all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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One Response to April-May 2014: Adult non fiction and fiction book reviews

  1. joriccioni says:

    Hi Janet, thanks for taking the time to read my novel, “The Italian’s at Cleat’s Corner Store”. I’m so glad you enjoyed it and greatly appreciate the review on your blog. Jo Riccioni

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