August-September 2014-Adult fiction and nonfiction titles: Reviewer-Janet Croft

The more stars, the better!


****The Independent Member for Lyne, by Rob Oakeshott. A Memoir.   PB from Allen and Unwin. RRP about $32

The reading of memoirs of retired politicians is a way to revisit recent history. Memoirs provide the politicians a chance to tell their view of past events in which they played a part.

Oakeshott was a member of both state and federal parliaments over seventeen years, and for much of that time, he sat as an independent member. He was generally elected with a strong majority from within his electorate. His considerable experience is at variance with our present parliamentary independents, most of whom are first termers and inexperienced politicians.

The strongest impressions I gained from this book are the author’s love of his family, and his regret that during the last parliament people were prepared to say rude things about him even to his children.

Oakeshott respected the role of the Prime Minister. With Tony Windsor, Oakeshott was left with considerable power in a hung parliament. The public and the Conservatives mostly expected both to favour their earlier affiliations with the National Party, and support a coalition government, but both chose to support the Labour Party under Julia Gillard, when they agreed to vote with Labour on any vote of confidence, or supply. They were free to vote as they wished on all other issues.

This is a book which should be read if you have an interest in governance, the pressures experienced by members and the reasons given for decisions made by the author about various issues.

****He who must be Obeid, The Untold Story, by Kate McClymont and Linton Besser. PB from Vintage and Random House. RRP $34.99

As a NSW state politician, Eddie Obeid always claimed that he was doing a civic duty for the people. With his ownership of local Sydney newspapers he was seen as a person of influence who could deliver migrant votes for the Labour Party. The authors have retraced his life since he arrived in Australia, and from their work you must conclude that although he could be personable and able to deliver on his promises, he has been, and is, the most corrupt politician ever elected in NSW. As well as the $30million he collected from coal leases which were obtained by corrupt means, he also expected to get $100 million from Australian Water Holdings. With his family, he spent his time chasing big money by whatever means he could. He could just as easily dud his friends and partners as be kingmaker and destroyer of state premiers.

If you are interested in public affairs, this is a fascinating read. You can only wonder why it took journalists to reveal his corruption, and the extent of it. His political and business colleagues only seemed to joke about how he was lucky with fires—with reference to what happened to some of the business premises he had bought, and of course insured.   We can only look forward to the political and legal sequels to the story.

Addicted to Adventure, Between Rocks and Cold Places, by Bob Shepton. PB from Bloomsbury. RRP $27.99

Bob Shepton was an effective clergyman, who worked mostly with children’s’ camps, and taught them to climb and sail. Right up to his late ‘70s his real love was sailing and climbing and he taught skiing in winter to make enough money to arrange very adventurous trips with fellow enthusiasts. He refers to himself as ‘the old man’. Most of his trips were around Greenland and Iceland. The last one described in the book was across the top of Canada and Alaska, and through the Bering Strait. He felt this was a bit dull because there were no cliffs or mountains along the way! An interesting book for people who crave a more adventurous life!

Numbers are Forever, by Liz Strachan. HB from Allen and Unwin. RRP $24.99

The sub-title of this book is ‘Mathematical Facts and Curios”; it deals only with arithmetic and numbers—there is nothing about quadratic equations or trigonometry or irrational numbers.

I found the first half of the book very interesting; it confirmed some maths that I knew, and I was very pleased to learn that a short cut exists about how to check if a number is divisible by 7—something I did not realise was possible. The second half of the book deals with ‘weird’ numbers like 145, and palindromic marvels and differences between cubes—some of which was interesting, but, as a non-serious mathematician, other bits were just too esoteric for my interest level. An excellent book for maths teachers, advanced maths students, and secondary school libraries

*The Quantum Age, or how the Physics of the very Small has transformed our Lives, by Brian Clegg. HB from Allen and Unwin and Icon Books. RRP $29.99

Brian Clegg can make intensely complicated subjects most of which are significant in our everyday lives, interesting and generally understandable. He discusses topics such as why the sun stays hot, and why it would be great to be able to conduct electricity from place to place without loss of power along the way, and the benefits of quantum computing. He covers a diverse range of topics, and you don’t need a degree in physics to enjoy the read and what you learn as you do.

***I Spy a Great Reader, by Jackie French. PB from Harper Collins. RRP $19.99

Jackie French is an accomplished and much loved Australian author whose children’s books have been read and read to death by thousands of children. She has the ability to tickle the fancy and delight the imagination. French has always acknowledged that she is dyslexic, and has done a lot to raise awareness of this inherited condition which can make it difficult for the one in about eleven children who show dyslexic characteristics. As a teacher, educational psychologist and wife and mother of dyslexics, I have worked extensively with other dyslexics for about 40 years to teach them to read and I have often used Jackie’s books to enthuse young readers. Here, Jackie discusses methods which parents can use to teach and consolidate basic skills needed to learn to read; issues which need to be faced, and worked through, and most of all how reading to, and with children as much and for as many years as humanly possible is the best path to engender a love and ability to read. The book also will provide information for teachers about how best to teach children who are dyslexic. There is considerable knowledge and wisdom in this book, particularly for parents who find it hard to be patient sometimes.

*Banjo, by Paul Terry. PB from Allen and Unwin. RRP $29.99

Andrew Barton Patterson is one of Australia’s best-known poets and storytellers of the early twentieth century. He was also a war correspondent and respected solicitor. Barton was raised in the Orange district of NSW, and all his life, preferred country to city life. His feelings about this are best described in the poem” Clancy of the Overflow”. His family was well connected and he had a good education and comfortable life while his good friend Henry Lawson, who is also mentioned in the book, did not have such fortune. Another friend was Harry “The Breaker” Morant. This is an interesting and easy to read biography about Barton’s long and productive life.

The Aitch Factor, Adventures in Australian English by Susan Butler. HB from Macmillan. RRP $24.99

A delightful book from the editor of the Australian Macquarie Dictionary, about how and why we have, keep, or delete words from our spoken and written language. It also discusses pronunciation, why perhaps the apostrophe should be abolished totally, and how there are regional variations in both words and pronunciation around Australia. This is a book for people who are interested in language, words, their history and usage. It’s a book to keep and browse, rather than reading straight through.

The Quest for a Moral Compass, A Global history of Ethics, by Kenan Malik. PB from Allen and Unwin. RRP $32.99

Over the centuries man has wondered if good and evil, the virtues and various moral qualities are controlled by the Greek Gods, behavioural science or by the genes we inherit. This complex book about the history of ethics covers how moral thoughts have evolved over the world. It is a book you could dip into for a relevant quotation as needed. I loved the comment that monotheistic religions combine an unyielding attachment to God’s word with an immensely flexible understanding of what the words mean. It’s a very interesting book that covers the range of thought about how people think society should work, but it is not light reading

A Good Place to Hide, by Peter Grose. PB from Allen and Unwin. RRP about $32.99

Not only is this a story about what happened in small rural communities high up in the Loire Valley of France in World War 11, it is an inspiring read of what can be achieved when a community was lead by a dedicated pacifist Andre Trocme, who happened to be a Protestant pastor. When faced by evil in the form of the Nazis and the turncoats of Vichy France, the community really worked together to save thousands who fled from the Nazi regime. It is a serious story, and the work of hiding and protecting the refugees, mainly Jews, who fled to the area did not always go smoothly, but it reads very easily, and leaves the reader with the knowledge that something really good for mankind happened in and around Le Chambon-sur-Lignon.

*The Economics about Just about Everything, by Andrew Leigh. PB from Allen and Unwin. RRP $26.99

Andrew Leigh is a professor of Economics, and the Federal Member for Fraser in the ACT. He has made sense out of economics for me in this book, and on a vast range of topics from how to approach asking for a raise at work, to the use of contraceptives when aroused, to ways to help the world’s poor, and so on. Lots about little things around the house too…

In our media, we are given a huge number of predictions about economic affairs—on the share markets, the economy, and what the quality of Grange Hermitage will be in ten years time for example. Believe it or not, the most accurate predictions made are weather forecasts! This is a book which I found much more enjoyable and engrossing than I had expected. There are at times a lot of provocative ideas, and often discussed in a novel manner. As a book reviewer I appreciated his comment about books—that if you are reading one you do not enjoy, give up, so you will have more time for one that you do enjoy!

****Sexts, Texts and Selfies, by Susan McLean. PB from Viking and Penguin. RRP $29.99

This book has been on the shelves now for several months, but I only read it last week after my return from overseas. The content is so important that I trust this review will lead more parents and teachers to read the book, even though it is not a new release. The author is a police expert in cyber crime which involves children, cyber bullying and predators. There is a web site mentioned too—, and I mention that as an adjunct to the excellent advice provided in the book. The author is at pains to emphasise that parents need to know and check what their children are doing on line—particularly what social media accounts they have, and with whom they are conversing regularly. The subtitle for the book is ”How to keep your children safe in the digital Space”, and McLean stresses that it is important that families discuss the issues of cyber bullying, dangers in establishing a digital reputation, the legal risks of selfies with sexual behaviour, the prevalence and ease of access to pornography—it is in many ways an alarming book, because there is so much that I didn’t know for example, and even though I no longer have kids at home, I still teach children, and work with parents and have had experience with families which have been burnt badly by experiences such as those described in this book. It is a no holds bar guide for parents, and teachers, and I would hope would be in all teacher libraries in schools.

*Small Bamboo, by Tracy Vo. PB from Allen and Unwin. RRP $29.99

Australia at the present time has a very severe policy of refusal to accept refugees who arrive in Australian waters by boat. Forty years ago, after the war in Vietnam, many people in the south, including the Vo family were treated very badly in the so-called re-education camps after North Vietnam won the war. Tracy’s parents escaped, married in Malaysia, and then, with 10 others of their family, boarded a leaky boat for the treacherous trip to Australia. Some others of the extended family made it to Canada and the USA. Small Bamboo is an excellent read, heart-warming, and we empathise totally with the family. Australia at that time was good to refugees, and the Vo family worked really hard to succeed and raise a family of young Australians. It is an inspirational read. Would that Australia was still so generous to share our lifestyle with others in need.

Back of Beyond, by Freda Marnie Nicholls. PB from Allen and Unwin. RRP $29.99 also as an ebook.

In a land ballot in 1924, Arthur Tindall drew a block off Warbrellan Station, 240 km west of Longreach. The area was very isolated, with no roads, or phone, and very poor transport options. Only hard work and a bit of luck with seasons could mean success. There was little money and the children were bred to hard work from very young. Education was by correspondence, and at times they were flooded in for months at a time. Hugh Tindall grew up in this back country. He made his pocket money from the sale of roo skins, and learned to shear as soon as he was big enough to hold a sheep. His story is of the work and people as the family put together a lot of country because they were all able to work on the station. It is an interesting personal story about rural Queensland and Queenslanders.

Inheritance, by Sharon Moalem. PB from Hachette, RRP $29.99

The subtitle of this book is “How our Genes change our lives and our lives change our genes”. It is a book for people who feel they should have a chart of their DNA to indicate their chances of having the genes responsible for various cancers, early dementia and a host of other ailments. The knowledge can mean early detection, and treatment, and the possibility of avoiding marriage with somebody with similar genes which might lead to children with rare conditions like cystic fibrosis for example. It is an interesting idea, but overall it seemed as if there might be too great a chance of becoming a thorough hypochondriac if one were to worry about all of this. I decided I can live with out the knowledge.

*The house on Carnaval Street, by Deborah Rodriguez. PB from Random House. RRP $29.99

Deborah Rodriguez had to flee Kabul after she published her book about the Little Coffee shop of Kabul where she had established not only a coffee shop, but also a beauty salon. For some reason she always found she could cope better and establish businesses better in a war zone. When she returned to New York she could not settle, and moved, with her cat, to a small seaside town in Mexico. Life took a lot of sorting out, but eventually she felt accepted, and that she had a place she could call home. It’s an appealing and revealing story about a life which has always been a bit out of the ordinary.

*The Luck of the Irish, by Babette Smith. PB from Allen and Unwin. RRP $32.99

The reality of the convict era in Australia was that the convicts were used as cheap slave labour. At times farms were offered for sale with a number of assigned labourers included. The other reality was that conditions in England and Ireland were so bad that convicts sent to Australia who did their time would end up with a better lifestyle here than they could have expected in their native land. The book looks at how a shipload of convicts survived the wreck of their boat “Hive”; where they were assigned and how these people contributed to the society we enjoy today. Because of the shortage of trained people, many convicts were able to work towards a good future. It is a well-researched book and interesting Australian history.

The Mammoth book of Brain Games, by Dr Gareth Moore PB from Allen and Unwin. RRP $12.99

There is a range of puzzles in this book, and enough to do a puzzle a day for a year. The goal is to keep the brain active. Most of these puzzles are unfamiliar to me, but I will have a go at them—slitherlinks, phraseology, scales and calcudoku, just to mention a few—others, sudoku, codewords and crosswords of course, are fine… I am looking forward to the challenge, and to read the comments which accompany the solutions, and instructions for each game……for those who want variety of brain games to keep them thinking.

*The Long Ride Home, by Rupert Isaacson. PB from Penguin. RRP $29.99

This is a sequel to the Horse Boy, the story of Rowan, a boy on the autistic spectrum, and how a trip to Mongolia and a time spent on horseback, lead to a marked reduction in his symptoms of autism. After a year at home however, the symptoms began to recur, and at his wits end, Rowan’s horse trainer father Rupert took him on another journey—very much extended, and taking in Namibia, Northern Australia and finally the Navajo reservations of the American south west, where Rowan’s behaviour and character were transformed. Whilst it is always debatable whether it was the work with the horses or the consistent attention of parents and other adults, or a combination, any programme which helps autistic kids to communicate and function in society is a wonderful achievement. This book makes really interesting reading and will appeal to parents of children with autism, in the hope that they will learn something from it to help their own child.

**The Bookshop that Floated Away, by Sarah Henshaw. PB from Constable and Robinson, and Allen and Unwin. RRP $19.99

What a pleasant story to read, about how the author set up a bookshop on a boat, and then later spent six months floating at will around England, swapping books, learning to live without fear, and to relax about love. The author also has a very serious message for people—what will happen to good books if all the bookshops close down? There is nothing like a good browse to help decide whether to buy a book! There are also lots of comments about bits from books which are relevant to the author as she ponders life and books.   It is a very British story, but so much the better, because the humour is easy—my only gripe is the use of the present tense for the story. Not everyone will find this irritating I hope because the book deserves readers!

Fiction titles:

The Skin Collector, by Jeffrey Deaver. PB from Hachette. RRP $32.99

Jeffrey Deaver writes thrilling and complicated murder mysteries, many of which are to be solved by the paraplegic detective Lincoln Rhyme. Deaver has written more than thirty novels of this genre. The serial killer in New York is smart, and different and taunts the police with cryptic clues tattooed in poison—a new way to kill! As in all Deaver’s books, the evidence accumulates as the action speeds up. Deaver is a master of his craft in the way it all comes together for an unexpected solution; his books are always really good reading for mystery fans.

*A Place of Her Own, by Deborah O’Brien. PB from Random House. RRP $32.99

Angie Wallace, recently widowed, and Richard Scott, are the couple who provide this story with one of the most chaste, and thoroughly believable romances that I’ve read for ages. Theirs is the kind of romance which burns slowly, but cannot be extinguished. It overcomes all obstacles. I loved the pictures the author creates of the small country town of Millerbrooke where Angie buys an old house to restore, and starts a B and B. She joins a painting group, and the people she meets there also become memorable characters. Angie fights the council to prevent a revamp of an historic building, then wins a place on council and is elected as mayor. Through all of this Richard is the constant.   He seems much more interesting than he wishes to appear. It is very pleasant light reading.

The May Bride, by Suzannah Dunn. PB from Hachette. RRP $32.99

This is an historical novel set in the era of the wives of Henry V111, and in particular Katherine of Aragon, and Jane Seymour. The reasons why Henry rid himself of wife’s regularly only to marry again, were many, but often banal.   The story is told as the personal story of Jane Seymour, her life, her family and friends. I found it a difficult story to read.

Chestnut Street, by Maeve Binchy. PB from Hachette. RRP $32.99

During her career as a novelist and newspaper columnist, Maeve Binchy wrote short descriptions of various people who lived in a Dublin Street. These short chapters were put away for future use. In all her most popular novels Binchy had the ability to write -at a time when Ireland was dominated by the attitudes of the Church- about characters, their often simple lives and ambitions in a way which brings them to life for the readers. Life could be quite harsh and the given moral codes do not always fit the hormones and lonely lives of people who enjoyed few opportunities for change. Binchy has always been one of my favourite authors. This time I was a little depressed at the quality of life described for the Irish.

Beneath Outback Skies, by Alissa Callen.   PB from Random House. RRP $32.99

This is an easy read, with nothing too taxing for the brain. It is a pleasant light romance set in the Aussie outback, on the drought stricken family property. The struggle is to keep the farm going and in the family, instead of selling out to a large city corporation. Paige, who cares for her handicapped father, and runs the farm, notices that their visitor Tait seems to ask lots and lots of questions about the farm and the land. It is only when the drought breaks that everything becomes clear. The drought is horrible and unpleasant as drought is for anyone who has lived on the land but this time there is a happy ending.

***The Collector, by Nora Roberts. PB from Hachette. RRP $29.99 ebook $16.99

This is an engrossing read—one of Roberts best to date I feel. Her characters are so very very lifelike!   Lila Emerson does house sitting in New York, and her latest place to look after is an expensive apartment, from where Lila can see lots of life from her windows. As a writer she finds this both interesting and productive. Unintentionally however, one day she witnesses a murder in a flat which her temporary home overlooks. When she realises what she has seen, she is unable to let the matter rest, and soon finds herself in extreme danger. The biggest question she then needs to sort out is whether she can trust Ashley Archer, an artist, who appears on the scene and is also interested to solve the crime. Lila instinctively likes him and want s to trust him, but what will happen? This is an excellent, hard-to-put-down story.

Surrounded by Water, by Stephanie Butland. PB from Random House. RRP $32.99

With the opening letter we know that Elizabeth has lost Mike, her policeman husband when he drowned as he tried to save a stranger in difficulties. As we read the letter she has written to Mike in her immediate grief following his death, we are aware of a sense of foreboding, that there was something more complicated about all of this. Immediately we are plunged in to the turmoil of what happened, and the disbelief, and self-doubt that Elizabeth feels. We are drawn in to Elizabeth’s discoveries, along with those made by the police, but ultimately the truth emerges from friends and family. The story takes a short time to reach its climax, only about half the book, but from then on, the rest is rather predictable, and I found myself skipping to the end to see how things panned out. An intriguing read.

The Wolf in Winter, by John Connolly. PB from Hachette. RRP $29.99, ebook $26.99

The small town of Prosperous, in Main, USA lives up to its name; the inhabitants are well off, there are no misfits, and the future of children is secure. In the centre of the town are the remains of an old stone church; the church had been transported from England by the founders of the town who were members of a sect called the Family of Love. All is not well under the surface however because the apparently well managed and close knit community is actually controlled by one committee, and their appointed head of police. When a homeless man is killed, and his daughter disappears, the private detective Charlie Parker travels to Prosperous determined to solve the crime in spite of the danger he is now in because he is inquisitive. This is a well-written crime novel with an intriguing plot, but there is so much violence that I did not enjoy reading it.

That Part was True, by Deborah McKinlay. HB from Hachette. RRP $24.99

Rather an extraordinary story this one, and the publisher’s blurb is correct, because it did remind me of 84 Charing Cross Road. Eve and Jack strike up a friendship by letters, and it helps both of them to sort out their respective lives because of the way in which the friendship allows for no holds barred communication about issues which affect and disturb each of them. Will they meet in Paris? Will it develop to a physical relationship? You’ll have to read the book to find out!

The Arsonist, by Sue Miller. PB from Bloomsbury. RRP $29.99

Frankie Rowley returns home after suffering burnout from stressful work with aid programmes in Africa. She moves back in with her ageing parents in a small community is New Hampshire. Frankie needs to decide what to do with the rest of her life; how to deal with the problems that age brings to parents plus her developing relationship with the new newspaper owner. When houses in the community start to catch fire there is an arsonist at work and people react differently but cooperate to watch and mistrust others. This is a book which raises questions about small town living—where you should live and what you should do with your life.

**Love and Treasure, by Ayelet Waldman. PB from Hachette. RRP $29.99, ebook $16.99

The more you read, the more you learn and understand about the world. Love and Treasure tells the story of the aftermath of World War 2 in Europe. The Nazis had confiscated the possessions of the Jews, and afterwards efforts were made to gather up these goods—jewellery, watches, paintings and so on and to return them to the families. The US army were in charge of the trainload of possessions from Hungary but to return the items was a difficult task in itself because ownership was not often recorded, and many of the owners had been killed during the holocaust. Ayelet Waldman’s novel combines the history with the personal stories of the families. The story touches on the dispossessed thousands of refugees in Europe and difficulties the Jews faced to leave Europe and start life elsewhere. It is also a love story set in very difficult times, and it makes outstanding reading.

Shadow Spell, by Nora Roberts. PB from Hachette. RRP $29.99 ebook $16.99

This is the second in the Cousins O’Dwyer trilogy, the first book of which I read and reviewed last year. Here the issues between the cousins continue to cause disquiet and unrest, while Mara tries to resist the attraction her cousin Connor holds for her. I have not enjoyed these books as much as most of Roberts’s books, because of the fantasy vein in the story but as usual the plot develops well and holds the attention.

The Cairo Affair, by Olen Steinhauer. PB from Atlantic and Allen and Unwin. RRP $29.99

The term ‘Arab Spring’ has been used to describe the changes of leadership which occurred over the past three years in Egypt and Libya. The Americans liked these changes but did not want to be seen to promote them. The Cairo Affair is a novel about espionage, written to tell the story from all sides—the American CIA, Egyptian Intelligence operators, plus some who could be working for either side. It is a complex and fast moving plot, but with so many Arab names and places mentioned that it was hard to keep them all sorted. It gives a good portrait of the various marriages of convenience that politics can cause, and the differing loyalties that operated at the time.

The Peculiar Case of the Electric Constable, by Carol Baxter. PB from Bloomsbury. RRP $19.99

The name of the book refers to the fact that transmission of messages by phone wires was used for the first time to track a suspected murderer in this case. Quaker John Towel was seen to leave the house of his mistress, who was later found dead. John Towel had been convicted and transported to Sydney where he served his time, built a fortune and then returned to England. The prosecution of Tawell was a turning point in crime investigation as it was the first time the use of recent technology was a factor in the conviction. Tawell has a lot of experience as a chemist and it appeared that he had killed his mistress with prussic acid. It is an unusual book which is based on an actual case. At the end is a sensible discussion about capital punishment, and about how Tawell sought to protect himself from hanging, by confessing to the crime, in order to protect his soul from damnation. An interesting read, a bit out of the ordinary, but as often happens, truth can be strange then fiction, and it is a memorable tale.

Close Call, by Stella Rimington. PB from Bloomsbury. RRP $29.99

The so-called Arab Spring had made the Middle East politically volatile; arms dealers were making their fortunes and counterterrorism groups such as the CIA and the English MI5 were stretched to keep track of all that was happening and to prevent the spread of subversion. Liz Carlyle is in charge of a counter terrorism unit. Which had collected information about an arms deal that looked like it was to go to Yemen. When the consignment began to head to England to be picked up by Yemeni agents who lived in England, the big decision was as to when the consignment ought to be raided. The action really starts when the consignment heads towards England; how far can they let it go without losing it? If it reaches the warehouse, can they catch the ringleader? Rimington worked for MI5 and was appointed its director in 1992. Her books are always full of detail, and authentic flavour. This is a cracking good story.

Arms Wide Open, by Tom Winter. PB from Allen and Unwin. RRP $19.99

This story tells of twins, Jack and Meredith, how their lives fall apart in their middle age, and how they start to see more of each other again, and to wonder yet again about their father, whom they cannot remember after he walked out on their mother when they were two. As their mother fades into dementia, a comment one day leads Jack to question whether their father is really dead, and he and Meredith start to investigate. I found the story to be sad and negative, and did not enjoy the tales of woe which filled the plot.
























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