The more stars, the better the read…
*Monash. The Outsider who won a War, by Roland Perry. PB from Random House. RRP $34.99
This biography of the man who has been called the greatest ever Australian is easy to read and an understanding of the military details of his work in World War 1 is made easier by the inclusion of maps which show the areas involved. Bob Carr limited the accolades somewhat when he said of Monash that he was ‘ one of the most remarkable Australians of his time’. This seems a more reasonable compliment! The title of the book comes from the facts that Monash was Jewish, and that although he was in the Australian army, for most of the war he took his orders from London. Monash was born in Australia, and was brought up in the Jewish tradition, his father having emigrated, via America, from Prussia (which is now Poland) in 1853. John Monash was born in 1865. He was a superb scholar, and was accelerated at Scotch College in Melbourne and matriculated before he was 16. He then did further studies at Scotch to help pay his way at university but failed a year because he was distracted by his growing agnosticism, thinking about life and the world, the theatre, books, and girls. He noted in his diary that he just did not do enough work! He did qualify as an engineer eventually, and this, together with his expertise with maths, was to form the basis for his future work. At the same time Monash was playing the field hard with women; some of these activities were less than honourable. Monash is best known for his strategic planning and execution of certain battles in WW1, and he was knighted for his efforts and achievements. After he left the army at the start of the twenties, Monash worked mainly for the State Electricity Commission of Victoria. I did not really like the way in which the book did not follow Monash’s life chronologically, but jumped about. Throughout his life Monash kept a detailed daily diary, and this has been a major source of the material in the book. There is no doubt that Monash was an egotist, and a philanderer but when he died in 1931 his funeral procession in Melbourne was watched by about 300,000 people. A fair compliment to his contribution to the war and Victorian development!
The Making of Australia, by David Hill. PB from Random House. RRP $34.99
This is an accessible—i.e. easy to read! –history of Australia from the first convict settlement to the present. The font is large, there are lots of anecdotes and interesting facts along the way, and there is a long list of references for those who wish to read further. The best feature of the book is that it is not overrun with dates and formality, but reads as an interesting story. For older teenagers and adults.
***Margaret and Gough, by Susan Mitchell. PB from Hachette. RRP $32.99
Essentially this is the story of a marriage—viewed from the outside, but with lots of snippets which suggest that the author spent lots of time interviewing family members. Some of the details revealed are intimate. Of course there is an outline of Gough’s work as a politician as well, but for me the most interesting part was the discussion of Margaret, her life, ambitions, and activities. She really was a remarkable woman! The book is easy and interesting reading, and revealed much about an era which my parents shared, so in the process I learned more about what their lives much have been like as well. Adult reading, perhaps with more appeal to women than men.
The Spy Catchers. The Official History of ASIO 1949-1963, by David Horner. HB from Allen and Unwin. RRP $59.99
This is the first of what is to be a series of volumes about the work of Australia’s national security organisation, from its inception after the end of WW2, to 1963. The book is an official history, and the author is Professor of Australian Defence History at ANU—which won the tender to produce the book. Given its nature, it is not surprising that some information, and names of certain ASIO employees over the years, have had to be suppressed, but nevertheless, the story provides insight into methods and the rational of much of Australia’s security efforts over those early years. I’ve often thought that there would be an ASIO file on me because of a trip I made to China before diplomatic recognition, but after reading a lot of this book, I’m sure I was too insignificant! I found a lot of the content too detailed for my interest level, but there is no doubt that it will become a text book for those who wish to study this aspect of Australian history. A long and serious book, with later volumes still to come.
** Australians, (Volume 3) Flappers to Vietnam, by Thomas Keneally. HB from Allen and Unwin. RRP $49.99
Keneally has developed considerable interest in Australian history, and this is the third volume in his recount and assessment of our history. The content is the result of assiduous story of primary sources, and works by other historians, and is a detailed account of the years from the end of World War to the midst of Australian involvement in the Vietnam War and the death of Harold Holt in December 1967. Kennelly has attempted throughout to make the story alive and personal, primarily by reference to individuals and their involvement in events. His chapter headings are interesting, because they reflect his view about the themes of particular years or decades, and enable the reader to see events through the emphases he has provided. It is a big book—and lots of details, but for students of Australian history it will be an excellent addition to the library.
*Top Dog, by Maria Goodavage. PB from Michael Joseph and Penguin. RRP $29.99
Most of this story is set in Iraq where the dog Lucca, a German Shepherd is paired with her trainer, Chris Willingham to work to sniff out IEDs and other explosives. It is a highly readable and enthralling story about how Lucca was identified as a potential working dog in the war, then how she was trained, and finally some of her adventures and deployments. Throughout the book we are aware of the bond between man and dog, and it makes for excellent reading. It is adult reading, but I suspect that many teenager boys will also enjoy the story.
**Eureka! by Peter Jones. HB from Atlantic and Allen and Unwin. RRP $35
Again, I am not sure if this book should be classified adult, or teenage reading. It is suitable for both—whilst the content is comprehensive, there is not much detail about any item, and the language is almost colloquial and very easy reading. The sub title of the book is “Everything you ever wanted to know about the ancient Greeks but were afraid to ask. The period covered by the book dates from 2000BC to the end of the Empire of Alexander the Great in 27BC, so it begins in the Bronze Age, and encompasses the origin of the Olympic games, the rise of Athenian cultural and political life, the Peloponnesian Wars, the City States, and then the Rise and Fall of Alexander. There are short segments about lots of aspects of daily life—coinage, the role of women, the character and nature of Dionysus, some sexual behaviour, and quite a lot about the derivation of words, including that of why “Greek” became an English word while the Greeks themselves use “Hellenic”. It is an enjoyable book to browse, and many of the facts- because they are just a bit quirky- stay with you long after the segment has been read. For readers of 14 years to adult.
Christmas Carols, from Village Green to Church Choir, by Andrew Gant. HB from Allen and Unwin. RRP $24.99
This interesting small book discusses the origins of various Christmas carols (22, to be exact) and matters of language which are raised in some of the carols. It also outlines how the carols became popular, and includes a simple version of each of the musical scores. It also outlines how most of the carols have variations because of the oral tradition by which the carols spread from one area of Britain to another. The author also believes that carols will continue to evolve. Because there is quite a deal of Old and Middle English included, the book is probably best suited to serious music students.
***Question Everything, ed. by Mick O’Hare. PB from Profile Books and Allen and Unwin. RRP $19.99
The back page of this book states that ‘All science begins with questions” and the book is a collection of some of the more fascinating questions that readers of the New Scientist magazine have asked, plus the answers which have been submitted by a variety of other readers and experts. There are questions about all areas of science, from earth and chemistry to biology, evolution, meteorology, and cognition—in all, 132 questions, and the miscellany in the last chapter is titled ‘The Rest’! It’s a great book to browse as the fancy takes you…..for adults and interested teenagers.
*History’s Most Daring Moments, by Hazel Flynn. PB from Allen and Unwin. RRP $29.99
This book will appeal to those interested in extraordinary events of history, but without the need to read long dry accounts of such events. The book is divided into seven chronological sections, beginning with the Siege of Troy, and with the final instalment the story of the capture and Death of Osama Bin Laden. Thus from the Age of Heroism, we look at The Age of Subterfuge, the Age of Dirty Tricks and the Age of Special Operations, to name such a few of the sub headings. In the Age of Dirty Tricks we read of Lawrence of Arabia and the Capture of Aqaba in Jordan, which had the objective to force the Turks out of the Arab homeland. With each event there is a description of the goal, and the events. There are maps, photos and drawings and a step-by-step analysis of the event. There is also a timeline. I find this book to be a fascinating way to learn—in brief- about the events recounted, and it has stirred my imagination to follow up with more details about some of the events I have read about. An excellent production. If I have a gripe, it is that the fonts used are small and fine—I have no doubt that this was a deliberate choice to allow maximum content, but it does detract from the ability to read more than a few pages at a sitting.
***The Churchill Factor, How One Man Made History, by Boris Johnson. PB from Hachette. RRP $32.99
Boris Johnson is the Mayor of London, and has been since 2008. Whilst his story is fascinating enough, the subject of his book is the story of one of the best-known Brits of recent times, Winston Churchill, as the 50th anniversary of his death (in 2015) approaches. Johnson has sought to produce a readable story of this most complex man and leader. Most of us have heard some of the apocryphal recounts of some of Churchill’s stories and foibles, from drinking champagne for breakfast to sniffing cocaine, and of course we have all heard at least extracts from his most famous speeches of World War 2. This book however provides a much more complete picture of a man with wonderful talents of leadership and decision making, a master of the English language, as seen in his speeches, but also as an author, and overall an eccentric but fascinating Englishman. I have enjoyed reading the story—there are some really funny stories and moments in it– and learning more about the history of his times, but most of all, of reading about a great man. Highly recommended.
Who Knows Tomorrow, From High Fashion to a Mud hut, by Lisa Lovatt-Smith. PB from Random House. RRP $34.99
Donating to charities is Africa is fraught with risks, as this author discovered, after she had visited, and given many thousands of dollars to support a small orphanage in Ghana only to realise that crooks in fact ran it who stockpiled both money and donations for their own use. After she had realised the errors she had previously made, and from a life as a successful fashion magazine, Lisa, together with her late-teens daughter, established a reputable charity, Oafrica, which has since raised huge sums of money, and assisted many thousands of children. It is an interesting, easy to read story about a woman and her efforts to help the poor, and a heart breaking read about the evils and sadness which are still Africa and Africans.
****The Rich, by John Kampfner. PB from Hachette. RRP $32.99
The subtitle of this book is “From Slaves to super Yachts. A 2000-year History”. John Kamfner decided to look at why certain individuals over the centuries had become super rich—from ancient Egyptians, and the Romans to the industrial barons of America, Russian oligarchs, modern bankers and the high tech geeks. It is a much more interesting book to read than I had expected as it covers so much territory and gives insights into periods of history, as well as the people involved. Many of these billionaires used their roles as ruler to build fortunes by robbing their people. The Africans seem to be the experts at this. The Swiss banking system has a lot to answer for, as they profited from such corrupt behaviour too. There are many ways around the world to hide or launder ill-gotten gains. There is an interesting similarity among members of the honest super rich who have developed an interest in giving away their fortune to help others, such as Carnegie, Gates and Buffet. These people have felt that they were better at managing their donations than their governments—hence they have been just as careful to avoid taxation as large companies. Engrossing and enlightening reading.
Lingo: A language spotter’s guide to Europe. HB from Allen and Unwin. RRP $24.99
I have always been interested in the complexity of the English language, and how and why we have words from such a diversity of sources. It’s not a subject of general interest, but for those who DO find it interesting, this book is a gem. We learn about world alphabets, why PIE, which originated in what is now Lithuania, is the name given to the first of the European languages and from which it morphed into so many separate languages, and why Esperanto was doomed to fail from its beginnings for example. I noted with interest that the book was actually sponsored by the Dutch Foundation for Literature, and was originally published in Dutch as Language Tourism. Because of its nature, there have been contributions to the book, and translations from many people, but the result is –for those who find it interesting—a wealth of information and interesting trivia.
**The Woman I wanted to Be, by Diane von Furstenberg. PB from Simon and Schuster. RRP $29.99
The author’s mother survived Auschwitz, and at that time weighed only 27 kgs. She was determined to get the best from her subsequent life as possible. Diane grew up with a similar attitude. Although her marriages and numerous affairs afforded her entry to the upper levels of society and business she had the ability and drive to become a successful, wealthy and independent fashion designer, and as the book says, she became the woman she wanted to be. Usually books like this seem to be about ego, and high society but Von Furstenberg offers considerable wisdom, and inspiration in her story, and I found it a much more reading, and positive story than I had expected.
The Heineken Story, by Barbara Smit. PB from Allen and Unwin. RRP $24.99
This is the story of the Dutch company and family that, over 150 years, has built up the world’s biggest brewing company. Much of this development was driven by Freddy Heineken—he liked to give the impression that he was a playboy, with yachts, and royal friends, but in fact, grew the business with good partnerships, takeovers and a very sure instinct for effective advertising. The book can be interesting as it shows how good and bad decisions affect a business, and also, how clever advertising can sell beer in a highly competitive environment.
Six Poets: Hardy to Larkin, by Alan Bennett. HB from Allen and Unwin. RRP $29.99
To this collection of poems from six of the best-known English-speaking poets of the 20th century, the editor, Alan Bennett has added notes about the life and times of the poet which he finds of interest. Bennett is himself a dramatist, but is probably best known in Britain for his television series Talking Heads. Some of his comments about the poets are pithy, but I find it interesting to read Housman, and Auden in particular, as they are poets with whose works I was largely unfamiliar. Pleasant browsing for those to whom it appeals.
Margot at War, by Anne de Courcy. PB from Hachette. RRP $29.99
There is a lengthy subtitle to this book—“Love and Betrayal in Downing Street, 1912-1916.
The centenary of the start of World War 1 is upon us, and there has been a glut of new books written about that era. Margot Asquith was the wife of Britain’s Prime Minister. She was an intelligent, stylish woman who transformed 10 Downing Street into an attractive home with an intellectual and social flavour to it. The book gives a comprehensive account of the war, and the reasons why it began. It is readable and interesting—which I cannot say of quite a lot of the other books recently published on the same theme.
***Joy, A celebration of the Animal Kingdom, by Alex Cearns. HB from Penguin. RRP $19.99
Accompanied by a brief commentary about the choice of photos and some of the stories associated with various animals, this is primarily a book of photographs of some of the most amazing and delightful characteristics of animals. The author has focused on themes—including “Joy in their innocence”, “Joy in their uniqueness”, “Joy in their soulful eyes’ and, in the last section, ‘Joy in helping rescue’ in which Cearns encourages support for damaged, lost or unwanted animals. The photography is of course superb, and it is possible to look time after time at the photos, and see something new each time. I have categorised this book as adult non-fiction, but really, it will be a delight to share it with children from as young s about 3 years old as well.
The Art of Stillness, by Pico Iyer. HB from Ted and Simon and Schuster. RRP $16.99
This very small, thin book, with the sub title, “Adventures in going nowhere”, is a plea for people to slow down and take time to be still. It is not a meditation guide, or a book about religion, but rather a suggestion that we all need to cut out the noise and frenetic urge to be connected to everybody, or everything. I like the suggestion that the weekend should be a cut off time, when the internet and television are turned off…..there are some superb images in the book, all from Iceland, of still scenes, but although they are photographs, they appear more as watercolours, because the paper used is not conducive to sharpness of resolution. The book is sponsored by TED, which is an organisation which promotes big ideas. There is a web site, TED.com, and this book is available as a talk by the author on this site.
The Penguin Leunig., by Michael Leunig. HB from Penguin. RRP $24.95
How does one categorise a Leunig collection—as philosophy, humour, art or visual poetry? This 40th anniversary edition of the first Leunig cartoons is slightly quirkier than some of the more recent collections, but the wry humour is strongly evident. As always, the victim is the human, as he shows folly and mismanagement of life-it is as if he has lost his way. The animals seem, by their presence and attitudes to regret the stupidity of the man. Man seems to be fixated somewhat on aspects of his anatomy, but in general without much oomph! A delightful collection to look at and ponder appreciatively.
***Slim, Another Day, Another Town. By Slim Dusty and Joy McKean. PB from Hachette. RRP $29.99
Slim Dusty was Australia’s best known and most popular country music performer. This book was first released in 1996, but this edition has a new epilogue from Slim’s wife, Joy McKean. Together, the pair toured Australia for many years– Slim recorded hundreds of tracks for EMI records over a sixty-year period. Country music was despised by some city radio jocks, and some would not play his best known song “The pub with no beer”- but this song made it on all the hit parade lists and the single sold 50,000 copies in Australia and 270, 000 in the UK—no other hit parade song came close to these numbers at this time.
Rather to my surprise, I found this to be a really interesting story about people and places, from small country towns to the Sydney Opera House. Slim and Joy always drew a crowd and made Australians proud of their shared heritage. Touring was a hard life and the pair had heaps of stamina and pride in their work.
Lila, by Marilynne Robinson. PB from Hachette. RRP $29.99
Lila was abandoned as a child and brought up in an itinerant band by a smart, but damaged woman, whom Lila called Doll. It was a hard life, and Lila was often cold and hungry if the band could not find work. The description of this lifestyle is interesting; they’re sense of pride and the ethics by which they lived. The effort made by Doll to give Lila a chance in life was considerable. She managed to obtain enough schooling for her so she could read, and give change, both of which provided a means to obtain a job in a shop. Lila rarely owned more than a bedroll, what clothes she could carry and a very sharp knife for luck and protection. When Doll disappears, Lila drifts into a small town, where the old preacher tries to help her in his shy way. The story continues after Lila marries the preacher and they share many intense conversations, which try to reconcile her lack of formal knowledge with her worldliness, and to blend these with a simple interpretation of the Bible. The content is unusual, but the book was a pleasant, and interesting change of reading matter.
**The Burning Room, by Michael Connelly. PB from Allen and Unwin. RRP $32.99
This is crime writing at its best. Harry Bosch is in his final years with the Los Angeles unsolved crimes unit when he is assigned a new partner, Lucia Soto, a rookie detective with a past which seemed complicated, and maybe a bit murky, given the case they have been assigned to resolve. It is good writing; the story is intriguing, and there is none of the bad language and gung-ho American attitudes often found in US crime fiction. Harry and Lucia use state of the art technology and inspired detective work to solve this ten-year-old crime, a deed that ends up interwoven with other cases.
Frog, by Mo Yan. PB from Hamish Hamilton and Penguin. RRP $29.99
This story has been translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt. It is an intense story about life in a small Chinese village during the communist era where the rulers introduced the unpopular but seemingly necessary policy of one child per family. The Chinese names make it difficult to retain track of the story; the narrator Tadpole tells the story of his aunt Gugu. She is the district midwife and stand-in gynaecologist. To begin with, she has to compete with older midwives with their black arts. Aunt Gugu’s lover defects to Taiwan, and she feels the need to prove her own allegiance to the communist party. She becomes a strict enforcer of the one child policy—a sure way to become unpopular. It was a difficult book to read, but gave a realistic and haunting description of living in China at that time, and with that particular policy.
*Time and Time Again, by Ben Elton. PB from Bantam, Penguin and Random House. RRP $32.99
Hugh Stanton was ex-military. His life had changed dramatically when his wife and children were killed by a hit and run driver. His former Cambridge professor Sally McCluskey contacts Hugh with a scheme to go back in time, using a plan suggested by Isaac Newton. They had to decide what to change. They felt that World War 1 was history’s greatest mistake. If they could prevent the events what set off this war, history would be changed, and the enormous loss of young life it caused, would be avoided. The time transfer happens, and Stanton sets out to stop the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in Sarajevo. Afterwards, Stanton assassinates the Kaiser. It is an intriguing story of time travel, world history around 1914 and creates the urge to ponder how the world we know would have changed had this not been fiction!
Return to Fourwinds, by Elisabeth Gifford. PB from Allen and Unwin. RRP $29.99
A long family saga set in England and Spain; the story is convoluted, and it takes a long time to engage the reader. Sadly, I didn’t engage with the story—a disappointment as I enjoyed the previous novel from this author.
**The Teashop on the Corner, by Milly Johnson. PB from Simon and Schuster. RRP $29.99
A village teashop is a place for friendships to grow and companionship to be enjoyed. Life can throw up some nasty surprises and Leni Merryman’s teashop is the place where people find others to lean on, and eventually to love. The Teashop on the Corner is a genteel sort of story; things are resolved positively, even if there is drama along the way. It was a pleasant book in which to escape reality.
The Heart has its Reasons, by Maria Duenas. PB from Macmillan. RRP $29.99
Bianca Perea is working as an academic in Madrid when her marriage fails. Seeking to get away form her unfaithful husband, she finds work and life in California. She undertakes a research project on a long-dead author. It is an intelligent story, but slightly tedious and long drawn out. An OK read.
Gemma’s Bluff, by Karly Lane. PB from Allen and Unwin. RRP $29.99
Gemma and her friend Jasmine are sick of city life and when another friend finds the pair of them work on her brother’s arm, they are prepared to give it a go. The brother, Nash, does not even know they are to arrive, or how little they both know of rural life. Nash is overwhelmed with work, and pleased to have someone as reliable as Gemma to help. It is a light-hearted romantic novel in which love overcomes all rural and romantic obstacles!
Funny Girl, by Nick Hornby. PB from Penguin. RRP $29.99
This is quite an intriguing story, written in Hornby’s usual whimsical style. It is the story of a popular British TV comedy series in the 1960’s and the people involved in its production. The star is Sophie Straw, who had changed her name after she was Miss Blackpool in 1964, and moved to London to seek her fortune as an actress –hopefully in the style of Lucille Ball. We follow the lives of the four guys involved with the show, plus Sophie of course. It is light, but enjoyable reading.
**The Job, by Janet Evanovich and Lee Goldberg. PB from Hachette. RRP $29.99
This is the third of a series based on the adventures of special agent Kate O’Hare and the very charming and capable con man, Nicholas Fox. After he was caught by Kate, Nicholas now helps the FBI to catch other master criminals. It is a charming story of how the pair set up a drug lord to fund the salvage of a shipload of Spanish gold. Kate and Nick assemble a group of talented but not totally honest assistants. Excellent light reading.
The Last Pulse, by Anson Cameron. PB from Vintage and Random House. RRP $29.99
The world is running short of water, and every person who lives along a particular river feels that someone else is stealing their share. The story is loosely based on the storage of water by Queensland cotton farms, and how these limit the flow of the Darling. Merv and his young daughter Em are failed South Australian irrigation farmers. They blow the dam walls on what, in real life, is Cubby Station, then ride the water flow back south. It is a light-hearted but lightweight novel about water rights. The author does not acknowledge the fact that flows of the Darling River have always been seasonal.
***The Italian Wife, by Kate Furnivall. PB from Hachette. RRP $29.99
Isobel Berotti is an architect in Mussolini’s Italy. She is working to build new towns on land reclaimed form the Pontine marshes. The book is historical fiction, and interesting partly because of the detailed background of Italy of the 1930s. Isobel’s husband was one of Mussolini’s Blackshirts—thugs, in style similar to that of the Gestapo in Germany. Her husband, Luigi, had been shot ten years earlier and Isabella had been badly wounded at the same time. This is an interesting, well-written and gripping novel.