January 2016 Latest adult books as reviewed by Janet Croft

The more stars, the better the read!

Non-fiction

**The Lightless Sky, by Gulwali Passarlay, with Nadine Ghouri. PB from Allen and Unwin. RRP $29.99

When Gulwali Passarlay’s doctor father was killed during a gun battle with US troops in Afghanistan, his mother paid a people smuggler eight thousand dollars to send Gulwali and his older brother to England. These were two Pashtun boys of twelve and thirteen, brought up in a conservative comfortable well educated Pashtun family with social and religious values which seem alien to westerners. A trip which was promised to take a few weeks took more than a year. The boys were separated very early, and it was an extraordinarily difficult time for them both. They had no knowledge of how they were to reach England, and had to rely on the many levels of the people smuggling operation, people whose main interest was to make money out of the huge numbers of refugees floating and otherwise moving around the world; estimates are that there are 60 million of them at any one time. This story is not only inspiring; it gives insight into the bureaucracies with which the refugees have to deal, when all governments are overwhelmed with the numbers they are dealing with. This is not the first time I have read of the immense changes to their lives that the refugees have to learn to accept. Here it is interesting to read of the differences between the Sunni and Shiite sects that are the root of so much conflict in the Middle East, but also, there are the rare acts of kindness from strangers Gulwali meets along the way. This is yet another book, which I would like to shout to the world that everyone should read. The story will not solve the world’s problems, but will give greater understanding, and hopefully arouse feelings of compassion in the readers. Gulwali’s story has been a happy one since he arrived in Britain and was fostered to a good family. In 2012, then at university, he was selected to be an Olympic torchbearer.

A wonderful book to read at the start of 2016.

Asio: The Protest Years. The Official History of ASIO, 1963-1975. By John Blaxland. HB from Allen and Unwin. RRP $49.99

This is the second volume of the history of ASIO which I have read, or rather browsed, because much of it concerns bureaucratic changes and political manoeuvring as the Menzies era came to an end and more frequent changes of government followed.   This volume concludes with the downfall of the Whitlam government in 1975. The major issues of the time spanned include the expulsion of a Russian spy, Skripov in 1963, the duration of the Vietnam War, and issues concerning communism, in particular in China, and whether certain members of the Labour Party had affiliations with communism governments. Much time and energy was put into the surveillance of Arthur Gietzelt in particular.   Much of the text is tedious to read because it is so bureaucratic, and detailed, but the photographs and other illustrations, including some memorable political cartoons are wonderful, and make the book more appealing. For those to whom it appeals.

The Complete Beatles songs, by Steven Turner. HB from Hachette. RRP $49.99

Wow—this is a gem for collectors of Beatles memorabilia! All the lyrics of 207 songs, together with background information about each of them, plus lots of photographs. Unsurprisingly, this makes for a large book; if I have a gripe, it is that the lyrics are printed in quite small font, but otherwise, go to it Beatles fans, and enjoy!

***The Nature of Sex, by Dr Carin Bondar. PB from Hachette. RRP $32.99

The Ins and Outs of Mating in the Animal Kingdom is the subtitle of this book. Humans are one of the few species of life on earth that appear to continue to enjoy their sex lives, even after they are unable to reproduce further but there is evidence that for many species, sexual intercourse is pleasurable. Dr Carin Bondar has written a fascinating book which shows that reproduction is behind the behaviour of all species. Her expertise is that of an animal biologist, and her chapters on the habits and hugely diverse and complex biological themes make humans look to be relatively simple in our habits; humans have largely removed the biology out of the sexual process. The process of fertilization of female eggs with male sperm is a process which varies enormously from one species to the next: how animals find a mate; some mantis eat their male partner after sex, for extra protein; some penises are broken off; there is a chapter on the prevalence of homosexual behaviour, the fact that this occurs in all species, and that there are benefits to the practice for these species. This is not a lightweight book, and it is a serious discussion, but there is also some humour and overall it is a really interesting book.

**Thing Explainer, by Randall Munroe. HB from Hachette. RRP $35

This is a large hardback book which looks as if it is a kids’ picture book. Whilst it is suitable for children who are interested in how things work, the complexity of the diagrams in the book makes it firstly to be viewed as a book for interested adults. All the highly detailed diagrams show how things work, and there are various categories, from the solar system to computers, to helicopters, and human organs for example. What makes this book so different from others is that the language Munroe uses is restricted to explaining the operation of all of these machines using only the 1000 words which Munroe decided, from his analysis of the usage of words in print, to be the most commonly used words in English. Thus he describes the functioning of a microwave oven as a ‘food heating radio box’, and a helicopter as ‘a sky boat with turning wings”. A bridge is described as a ‘tall road”. Whilst this simplified vocabulary sounds strange to us, it certainly means that the majority of the population can both read and understand what he is explaining. If I have a gripe it is that presumably because there is so much information packed into the book, the print is really small, and faint. I found half the fun to be to try to work out what the correct labels should be for various items. It’s a bit gimmicky, but I can imagine that lots of people from teenage boys to adults will enjoy perusing the book.

*Why does Asparagus make your wee smell? By Andy Brunning. HB from Hachette. RRP $29.99

This is a book of 58 examples of everyday foods, and how to understand the chemistry involved in their flavours, tastes, and smell. The book begins with a very brief outline of organic chemistry, and there are supplementary references at the end of the book as well. I have found browsing the various sections—flavours, aromas, colours, poison, mind, sensation, health and transformation- to be very interesting. From “Why does bacon smell so good?’ to “What causes the bitterness of coffee?” and “Why can clove oil be used as an antiseptic?”—the range of questions is huge, but the answers are explained clearly and for the most part I have understood them. This is a good book for adults who like trivia, schools and for families where the children ask these sorts of questions.

 

Fiction

A Few of the Girls, by Maeve Binchy. PB from Orion, RRP $29.99

The late Maeve Binchy was one of Ireland’s best storytellers. Not only did she write great atmospheric stories, her characterization skills were superb. This is a collection of short stories, written over the years. It is interesting to observe in the stories, that as the years passed, there were changes in attitudes and a decreasing role for the Catholic Church in regulating people’s lives and morals. This is a collection to savour, and to remember a great author….

The Little Red Chairs, by Edna O’Brien. PB from Faber. RRP $29.99

Another renowned Irish writer, but one who is still writing in her mid eighties! A stranger arrives in a small town in the west of Ireland and claims to be a faith healer. Fidelma is persuaded to give him her trust, but then soon is forced to flee Ireland for London, when the so-called doctor is found to have been a war criminal in Bosnia. Once in Britain, we read of Fidelma’s experiences as one woman after another recounts to Fidelma, her painful past experiences in life. Many of the stories are unpleasant; most involve maltreatment and violence towards the women in some way. The book did not appeal to me- it seemed as if Fidelma was just the listener and the writing lacked the subtleties and fullness of characterization and plot that we have seen previously from this author.

A Strangeness in my mind, by Orhan Pamuk. PB from Hamish Hamilton, and Penguin/Random House. RRP $32.99

Mevlut Karatas came to Istanbul from a poor village in central Anatolia. He was uneducated and came to the city to find work and a life. Orhan Pamuk has won a Nobel Prize for Literature, and again here, he reveals what is happening in the hearts and minds of his characters. The translation from the Turkish has been completed competently, and the story flows well. Mevlut works as a street vendor, a parking attendant and as an electricity metre inspector—all simple jobs for a hard working, simple man. The story shows how such people rely on extended family members to find work, marriage and housing. It is a book that shows how people connect, and live, and the complications that arise from the mix of races and religions in Istanbul, one of the world’s most famous melting pots, in history, and still today. It was an enjoyable and interesting way to understand and appreciate the flavour of the city.

Stars of Fortune, by Nora Roberts. PB from Hachette. RRP $29.99

This is the first in what is to be a trilogy, from this prolific, and entertaining author. There is a mixture of the real, and the supernatural, as Sasha Riggs, a self-contained and almost reclusive artist, goes to Corfu to work to try to understand the too-vivid dreams and nightmares, which have haunted her for years. Once on Corfu, she is amazed to meet Bran the magician, because he is the one who has been the mysterious constant in her dreams. There are other characters in the story that are also seeking to find truth and happiness, in real life, or through magical means.   Obviously, with a trilogy, there are sequels to come, so everything is left hanging at the end of the story. For once the story is not set in the USA or Ireland, as has often been the case for Roberts. It is a good easy read, for women only I suspect, and maybe teenage girls; it borders on chick lit, but it can be read as a stand alone, and does not relate to any other stories by this author.

***Career of Evil, by Robert Galbraith. PB from Hachette. RRP $32.99

Cormoran Strike has a private investigation agency. He has been successful, and this success has caused resentment among some police, who are not as smart or as thorough in their work. Robin Ellacott loves to work with Strike; each of them has had difficult periods in their lives, and they work well together. The story is clever—at times brutal. A murderer fantasises about killing Robin, and delivers body parts from previous victims to her. Robert Galbraith is a pseudonym for J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter books (just in case you didn’t know!) and has now turned her skills to adult crime fiction. It is a complicated and long story, but gripping plot and wonderful characters.    She is undoubtedly a master storyteller and I loved this story, even with the brutality.

*Tallowood Bound, by Karly Lane. PB from Allen and Unwin. RRP $29.99

It is always pleasing to read a story set in Australia, and by one of our burgeoning number of Australian authors. Erin McAlister returns to the small hometown to look after her grandmother, who is now quite old, and in failing health. Erin’s mother has never been the maternal type, and does not wish to look after her own mother, so it is up to Erin. There does seem to be a mystery about Erin’s’ grandmother’s past as she tells Erin stories about her life, and events in the war. Erin finds a few small clues, and photos, then begins to delve to find out the truth. At the same time, she meets up again with Jamie McBride, with whom she had a romantic fling at the age of seventeen. Whilst the second round romance with Jamie is predictable there is much to enjoy in the story of Erin’s grandmother, and the unravelling of her past. The book is a good read, and I enjoyed it.

Dead Joker, by Anne Holt. PB from Allen and Unwin. RRP $29.99

It appears to be an open and shut case; the chief prosecutor’s wife has been beheaded in his house, with him as a witness. The only other suspect had appeared to commit suicide before the beheading. D.I. Anne Wilhelmsen appears to believe Sigurd Halvorsrud is not guilty, despite appearances. This is a complex story made more difficult by the abundance of Scandinavian names. As well, Anne has a personal crisis to deal with. The story has been planned well, and gradually the links to the horrific crime come together to round out a gripping book.

All the Stars in the Heavens, by Adriana Trigiani. PB from Simon and Schuster. RRP $32.99

Hollywood in the 1930s was a time of big stars, who could get away with most escapades. It was usual for the leading actors to have affairs with their co-stars; marriage did not seem to be an impediment. This is a work of fiction and should be read as such, although it revolves around the lives of real stars. When Loretta Young was twenty-one, she lived with her very solid and conservative family. She fell for Clarke Gable, and he enjoyed the relationship without bringing himself to divorce his older wife because he believed that she would get all his money. The mother superior of St Elizabeth’s infant hospital called in Alda Ducci to say that she was better suited to the outside world than a convent, then found Alda a job as assistant to Loretta young. This is fiction about the golden years of Hollywood and how Alda, with her convent background, learned to fit into this world. The story is interesting enough, more so if you are interested in film stars.

The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto, by Mitch Albom. HB from Hachette. RRP $35

Mitch Albom is an inspiring writer and his books have always appealed to me. This novel is no exception. Frankie Presto is an orphan, raised from the age of nine by a kind man, taught music by a blind musician, and then made his way through the world because of his ability to compose, play and sing. This is a story woven around the souls of the musicians—soul, classical or rock. Frankie is said to have played for Presley, the Beatles and many others. At times the story is sad, but in general, both moving and inspiring. It’s a book I believe you will be pleased to have read.

**The Simplest Words, A Storyteller’s Journey, by Alex Miller. HB from Allen and Unwin. RRP $35

Alex Miller is a storyteller. Born in London, he moved to Cornwall while still a boy. He was inspired to migrate to Australia by a photograph of the outback taken by Sydney Nolan. Once here, he worked his way north, and spent two years working with aboriginal stockmen on a property in the gulf country. With these experiences behind him Miller studied at university in Melbourne. He owned a small farm, travelled the world and became a major prize winning author, with more than ten books published. This is an interesting collection of stories from his life- his passions, backgrounds for his stories, people who influenced him and some hints on how to start and write a story. I have not read any of his other books, but this collection convinced me that I should search out some of his other books. Highly recommended.

Between Sisters, by Cathy Kelly PB from Hachette. RRP $29.99

This is a novel about two sisters, raised in Ireland by their grandmother after being abandoned by their mother. Their reactions to this abandonment influence their lives. Cassie is committed to raising a perfect family; this she finds a hard slog, and a few wines at the end of each day help. Her sister Coco cannot commit to marriage. She does not trust men to make her life any better. Some Irish stories can become morbid with the ways so many things seem to go wrong. In this case, the ending is fine, but I found the story a bit tedious.

***Hester and Harriet, by Hilary Spiers. PB from Allen and Unwin. RRP $29.99

The two widowed sisters live a quiet life, and are annoyed by the close and cloying presence of their cousins George and Isabelle, plus their son Ben. The lives of Hester and Harriet are thrown into turmoil when they find a young refugee, with a tiny baby, in a bus shelter, and spontaneously decide to take the pair home with them. And so begins a period of turmoil, unexpected occurrences, surprises with Ben, and much busier lives for the sisters. English villages are special places, with genteel living, a lot of gossip, some dalliances with the vicar’s wife, suspicious farm crops, and in this case, undercurrents surrounding illegal immigrants. This is a novel of life in modern Britain, and although the story took a bit to sort out, in the end I enjoyed it immensely.

*The Crossing, by Michael Connelly. PB from Allen and Unwin. RRP $32.99

Michael Connolly has written twenty novels, mostly about crime in an American setting. He has sold some two million books, including plenty in Australia and New Zealand. Many of these books have starred Harry Bosch as the detective. Harry Bosch had been a successful police officer in Los Angels for many years, but now has resigned. His half brother Mickey Haller is a defence lawyer who defends what the police regard as the undefendable. When Harry is offered investigative work by Mickey, Harry is uncomfortable about this as he feels he is going against his lifetime principles but Mickey is convinced his client has been set up and is innocent. The investigations turns on the police department, and the issue is whether there is a rogue cop, or lazy policing. The story is tightly constructed and the issues raised are interesting. There is also a satisfactory ending. Good reading for crime fans.

The Sun in her Eyes, by Paige Toon. PB from Simon and Schuster. RRP approx $30

This book was just perfect for the commencement of summer leisure reading….it is a sweet well-written romance.   Leaving her husband Ned in England, Amber returns to her native Australia to help her father recover after a stroke, and rekindles a childhood affair with Ethan. Amber is torn between her love for Ned and new lust. Funny how separations for whatever reason are not helpful to any relationship!   It is a predictable scenario but well presented.

The Honourable Assassin, by Roland Perry. PB from Allen and Unwin. RRP $29.99

Vic Cavalier had not led a boring life; he almost made it into the elite SAS army group, became a journalist, married a Thai, drank too much then somehow became involved with the death of a Mexican drug lord in a Melbourne laneway. His journalist editor asks him to go to Thailand to follow leads about the drug trade and the general corruption at high levels of government there. All of this makes for a fast moving, almost believable thriller, with bits of romance to complete the picture.

I’ll be home for Christmas, by Roisin Meaney. PB from Hachette. RRP $29.99

Tilly lives on a farm north west of Brisbane. When she is about fourteen her teacher asks her to do her family tree as a class project. From this, Tilly discovers she had been adopted, and eventually is able to trace her birth mother; this mother had abandoned her for adoption and is not interested to establish or maintain contact. Tilly does learn however that her biological father is alive and that she has a full sister who lives at Troone, a small island off the coast of Ireland. Deciding to visit her sister, Tilly just buys a ticket without telling anybody. It becomes a very Irish situation! Troone is a small island and every body knows everybody else. There are complicated relationships- past and present -and bits of Irish magic as part of the mix. It is a feel good story, with reminiscences of Maeve Binchy’s style and content.

****The Lake House, by Kate Morton. PB from Allen and Unwin. RRP $32.99

This novel begins with vignettes of different people, places and times. In 1933 a child goes missing from the Edevane family country house. It is an old family, with a teenage girl, a younger child, and a father who still suffers in the aftermath of the Great War. Seventy years later Sadie Sparrow is in trouble. She was investigating the disappearance of a woman and her abandoned daughter, but Sadie disagrees with her superiors about the case. Whilst the episodes presented at the beginning appear separate, the novel develops into an extraordinarily well-crafted book where past and present come together in unexpected ways. It was really satisfying to reach the end, after a delightful book which should satisfy all readers of mystery detective stories.

The Secret Chord, by Geraldine Brooks. HB from Hachette. RRP $39.99

David was not the favoured son of the family. He was made to live as a shepherd with his flock. He crafted a harp, and played and sang. He became the anointed leader of the Promised Land after he slew the giant Goliath with his slingshot. King David is an historical character of the Bible, who is believed to have lived a thousand years before the birth of Christ. He is credited with forming the tribes of Israel into a kingdom, and with the establishment for the city of Jerusalem, although there is little evidence to support these claims. The author has built a story of a mighty leader and fighter who had many wives, and ruled as a despot. To the credit of the author, and rather to my surprise, it all makes for a good story, with lots more details than in the bible, even if it is all conjecture.

The Promise, by Robert Crais. PB from Hachette. $29.99

This is an American crime thriller, with Elvis Cole and his sidekick Joe Pike as the investigators. Cole is hired to find a woman who is suspected of selling explosives. Nothing is as it seems; the local police do not trust Cole and appear to try to hinder his inquiries. Scott James is a police dog handler. The dog between Scott and his dog Maggie is the best part of the story. It is all action, and a reasonable story if you like American thrillers.

The Bazaar of Bad Dreams by Stephen King. PB from Hachette. RRP $32.99

In this latest book from the master of thrilling, often spine chilling novels we have a collection of short stories twenty in all. Quite varied in content and in the degree of fantasy about the future, horror, guilt, the ‘after life’ among other themes. King has previously written a book about writing, which is also part autobiographical, but as a teacher I found it fascinating to read his introduction to this book as well as the titbits at the beginning of each story. This would be a wonderful collection for extension HSC students in NSW for example who choose to write as story as their extension 2 work. And it is a fine collection for anyone who likes an exciting, varied range of excellent short stories.

No Mortal thing, by Gerald Seymour. PB from Hachette. RRP $29.99

Jago is working for a bank in Germany when he is witness to a crude extortion threat. Mecantonio is the young arrogant heir to an Italian Ndrangheta family who enjoys the power he can exercise and fear he can arouse. When the German police seem uninterested in the case, Jago sets out to see what he can do. The gangster’s grandfather is hiding in the Italian mountains, protected by bribed police and the loyalty of his clan. Jago does not realise he is interrupting a carefully planned police surveillance operation, with police from Rome, Berlin and London poised to swoop on the grandfather boss, when they are able to prove where he is. It is a story of the brutal power of crime bosses, the frustrations of under-resourced police and is all suspense and action.

The Winter Isles, by Antonia Senior. PB from Allen and Unwin. RRP $29.99

The western isles of Scotland were a wild place in the twelfth century. The tribes and islanders were Gaelic, Norse, Normans who came up from England, or Irish from the west. Somerled, who arrived with the Irish, became leader of a small tribe when he was fifteen. The only way to survive and grow was to fight, starting with raids for cattle. Over his lifetime he managed to lead the people of the Scottish islands. This is a story, based on facts of the life and times of Somerled; sometimes it is brutal and sometimes tender. It offers some interesting history, and is quite entertaining.

 

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