Adult Book Reviews March 2016 . Reviewed by Janet Croft

The more stars, the better the read!

 Non-fiction

 

*The Romanovs, 1613-1918 by Simon Sebag Montefiore. HB from Hachette. RRP $45

The Romanovs felt they were appointed by God to rule Russia. They ruled in fact for three centuries and controlled up to one sixth of the world’s surface—easily the most successful dynasty in modern times. Even today in Russia Putin appears to hold, as one man, similar power and wealth. It makes you understand why he thinks he should, and wants to control Ukraine and the Crimea as well. This is not a book for the faint hearted; there are heaps of Russian names, and lots of characters including some from the complicated European royal families, many of whom intermarried. There are also many-varied but numerous- sexual exploits described in the story.

The strength of the book is its slant on world history from the Russian perspective; why , for example there were so many wars, including the background to the Crimean war and WW1. I had never previously heard that Churchill was asked by Russia to attack Turkey-and hence to Gallipoli. Russia always wanted to control Constantinople, because of its shipping access to the Black Sea. It is a long, but interesting book, of great scope and a lot of history.

**The Amazing Mrs Livesey, by Freda Marnie Nicholl. PB from Allen and Unwin. RRP $29.99

 Australia’s greatest imposter was exactly that! This story didn’t enthuse me to begin with, and the chronicle of this woman’s notoriety doesn’t read very well. Mrs Livesey ripped people off and married two men, one after the other. Moreover, this was the Depression so she had hardly any money. She neglected her children while she was living off her next victim. By this point I felt quite disgusted with the woman, and almost stopped reading. But then, as she wheedled her way out of one dicey situation after another, and clocked up debts all over the country, with cheques which bounced, the tale continued to deteriorate, but my fascination grew—how much longer before her certain demise? As the story became more involved the author’s fictional dialogue improved and it all flowed well . Overall—an amazing read.

 

***Keating by Kerry O’Brien. HB from Allen and Unwin. RRP $49.99

Keating would never write his autobiography. Kerry O’Brien has reported on Australian politics for fifty years. This collaboration provides a wonderful and insightful way to understand what went on and why in Keating’s life, and in the political scene where he was so significant. From the age of about fifteen, Paul Keating was interested in politics, and wondered how he could improve the well being of all Australians. He developed a relationship with Jack Lang, former Labor leader, and by then a very old man. The pair met weekly for about seven years and Keating also met with various captains of industry. These background briefings gave him considerable understanding of how the country worked. Like all politicians who want to achieve greatness, Keating became both loved and hated. All treasurers and prime ministers have to deal with world events as they occur, from money issues, wars, inflation and recessions. My husband says he was on the hating side when Keating was in cabinet, and then prime minister, but has since come to respect what Keating wanted for Australia and to acknowledge that Keating was the person who fixed Australia’s problems of rampant inflation. It is worth noting that we do not realize that we are living through what will become long remembered history until you read a book like this. It took a long time to finish, but I enjoyed it and am pleased to have read it.

 

Melnitz, by Charles Lewinsky. PB from Allen and Unwin. RRP $32.99

The Meijer family are Swiss Jews and the saga spans five generations from the time of the Franco-Prussian War to World War 2. It is best described as a very Jewish book—much of the story involves their traditional way of life and the religious traditions practised by the family, their place in society and the restrictions placed on them by society. The book has been translated into English, but the glossary is a considerable help with the many Yiddish terms used. In fact the glossary is the best Yiddish/Jewish Hebrew list of words and terms that I have ever seen. This is serious book, which presents a long period of European history from a particular and uncommon point of view.

***Presence, by Amy Cuddy. PB from Hachette. RRP $29.99

 A book written by a Harvard Business School social psychologist might seem a bit intimidating. At times I thought I would not bother to try to read the book, but every time I picked it up, I found the content very interesting and relevant to lots of situations with which I could relate. The book is based on a TED talk given by Amy Cuddy which has become one of the most viewed TED talks ever. There are sections on non-verbal behaviour, how to stand tall to impress people and how to feel confident, and these sections will benefit most people in business, from job seekers to managers. I have ended up with this book in our shelves, and have already shown it to several young job seekers.

 

Fiction

Running against the tide, by Amanda Ortlepp. PB from Simon and Schuster. RRP $32.99

This is an Australian story of a family who moved to a South Australian fishing town. Erin Travers discovers that her husband has gambled away their house and savings so she packs up her belongings, her two teenage sons up and leaves. The eldest son Mike soon finds work with the old oyster farmer next door. He is happy and fits in well with the locals. Ryan is difficult and different; he hates school and goes out of his way to be difficult because he feels he should have stayed in Sydney with his father. The story provides a readable and plausible snapshot of life in a small town, and the ways prejudice, rumour and innuendo can disrupt and affect life and happiness.

***Song of the Skylark, by Erica James. PB from Hachette. RRP $29.99

Lizzie has returned home after an ill-judged affair with an adulterous boss. She lost her job and her confidence and has to live with her semi-reluctant parents. Her mother asks her to volunteer at the local old folks home. Mrs. Dallimore is in her nineties; she lived in America and as a young girl travelled to England on an ocean liner. These pre-war years were exciting and life on board was where she met people who became lifelong friends. Lizzie and Mrs. Dallimore become friends and the story covers and blends the war years with contemporary life. Lizzie learns that what she had considered bad luck was nothing compared with what could and did happen during the war. Erica James has the delightful capacity to present her readers with life like characters and a heart-warming story.

Rain Dogs, by Adrian McGinty. PB from Allen and Unwin. RRP $29.99

 Sean Duffy is close to the end of his career when he is called to investigate his second so-called Locked Door mystery where journalist Lily Bigelow appears to have committed suicide inside a locked castle. Sean is not convinced there is more inv than meets the eye. This is a Scottish based thriller that develops into a complicated investigation of high-level establishment corruption. The death of Lily was to hide events which had been occurring for years. It’s a well-constructed story.

The Scam by Janet Evanovich and Lee Goldberg. PB from Hachette. RRP $29.99

 The thrillers which star Fox and O’Hare are always action packed. Nick Fox is on the FBI’s most wanted criminal list and Kate O’Hare has to capture him. In reality the pair have come together to expose a brutal and corrupt casino operation run by Evan Trace, a man who will stop at nothing to get his own way. The FBI want Trace because a range of criminals, terrorists and mobsters use his casino to launder their ill-gotten money. Kate and Nick set out to scam Trace—use a crim to catch a crim! The story has an intriguing bunch of characters ranging from a Somali pirate, to Kate’s father, who believes that violence can sometimes be a good method to lead to a conclusion. The story is lightweight, but quite entertaining.

* That Empty Feeling, by Peter Corris. PB from Allen and Unwin. RRP $29.99

 Cliff Hardy has been around; he works as a private investigator, had been a useful boxer and can hold difficult relationships with both sides of the law. Barry Bartlett was a ten pound Pom who had done well in Australia.. He played rugby league and managed a few boxers. His property development and investments might just be a tad shady. When Ronny Saunders arrives from England claiming to be Barry ‘s son from a failed marriage, Barry likes the idea of a son and heir, but has enough doubts about the relationship to hire Hardy to check Ronny out. This is a very entertaining light Australian crime novel but has a totally unexpected and unsatisfying conclusion.

Tricky Twenty-Two, by Janet Evanovich. PB from Hachette. RRP $29.99

 Another book from this prolific author, this time with the redoubtable Stephanie Plum as the investigator, together with her sometime boyfriend Joe Morelli. With the security expert Ranger on the case as well, and determined to claim the bounty, Stephanie and Joe need to find the killer of Doug Linken before Ranger. It’s all American action, with lots of shooting.

All These Perfect Strangers, by Aoife Clifford. PB from Simon and Schuster. RRP $29.99

 Penelope Sheppard had a difficult childhood; her mother would always have a new boyfriend, and sometimes Penelope needed a lock on her bedroom door. Pen and her friend Tracy were involved in the death of a policeman, but you are left with the impression that the policeman was not a pleasant person. Most of the story is based around Pen’s first year at university. She had managed to get a bursary, but university life had too much alcohol, drugs were available and some students were too privileged and had too much money; there are three deaths among the student body. During the story it is difficult to work out if these deaths are accidental, murders, or people in the wrong place at the wrong time. Pen keeps a diary and there are forward and backwards references to her meetings with her psychologist. It was a novel approach to narration, and not all that easy to follow because of the style of presentation of the story.

What a Way to go, by Julia Forster. PB from Allen and Unwin. RRP $27.99

 This story of the divorce of Harper Richardson’s parents, and life thereafter, is set in England, and has a strong British flavour. Harper is only twelve, and is both sad and cross at her parents for messing with her life as well as their own. She determines to do what she can to get them back together, but of course this doesn’t happen, and life with many more almost- family people in it becomes much more complicated. The book is written in the present tense, which does not appeal to me although the story is OK.

Hartley’s Grange, by Nicole Hurley-More. PB from Allen and Unwin. RRP $29.99

 Lily Beckett has her dream job, working to become a dress designer. Her boyfriend is an elegant fashion photographer. In one week all Lily’s life crashes, and she retreats to live with her sister in the small town of thief childhood. Romantic fiction seems to have standard elements— in particular a new love interest that appears perfect while events occur which drag out the suspense. Hartley’s Grange is a snapshot of life in a small rural Australian town, and is light reading. Somewhere in the editing process however, someone should have pointed out that blue heeler cattle dogs never win sheep dog trials.

Girl Waits with Gun, by Amy Stewart. PB from Scribe. RRP $29.99

Amy Stewart has adapted real events as the basis for this story. Constance Kopp lived with her two sisters on a small farm outside New York. They had moved there years previously to hide from a scandal. Henry Kaufman is the arrogant, lazy and morally corrupt young man who is expected by his family to manage the local silk dyeing works. The story begins with one of the earliest car crashes in the US when Henry and his mates crash their car into a carriage in which the Kopp girls are traveling. In their attempts to collect damages, the Kopp girls are threatened and harassed by Henry and his thugs. Constance arms the family with pistols and with the help of the sheriff brings justice to their situation. So starts the career of the first woman in America to become a deputy sheriff. It is well written and interesting.

*Between Enemies, by Andrea Molesini. PB from Allen and Unwin. RRP $29.99

 The Spada family are caught up, towards the end of 1917, between the Austrians who are fighting the Italians, and their allies. Both sides are exhausted, hungry and probably confused about why the world is at war. The family find their estate requisitioned, and they are often required to host German officers, and are horrified by the sexual violence committed by these soldiers. Their sympathies are very anti-German and they find ways to provide information to help end the war. It is difficult to understand the failed politics which led to WW1, but it is easy to feel support for the eccentric members of the Spada families in their actions. Pleasant enough and the topic is handled differently enough to make it interesting..

**Even Dogs in the Wild, by Ian Rankin. PB from Hachette. RRP $32.99

Edinburgh and Glasgow have crime boss families: mostly they compete with each other, but sometimes it is to their advantage to help some different opposition. John Rebus has retired from the police but he has contacts and skills still respected by both sides of the law. When a series of unrelated murders begin to show some shared characteristics, Rebus is asked to help. Scottish crime fiction is enjoyable reading, and here, as always the solution is difficult to predict.

**Summer Harvest, by Georgina Penney. PB from Penguin/Random House. RRP $32.99

 Beth Poole’s life has reached a bit of a stalemate; she is working as a dog trainer, and living in a small English village with her grandparents, but abandoned by her husband who could not cope with her efforts to defeat breast cancer. Beth’s grandmother buys her a trip to Australia and this proves a great move to get Beth going, as she rents a cottage in the West Australian wine district. Australian rural romances are popular reading at the moment— with attractive masculine men, plenty of humour and drama and enough misunderstandings to drag out the plot seem to be a good recipe for light, but entertaining reading. In this story however, there is also a strong reality streak, with details about the stresses caused by breast cancer to add to the mix. Georgina has dedicated this book to the survivors….

The Bitter Season, by Tami Hoag. PB from Hachette. RRP $29.99

 Hoag is a best-selling author who writes about shocking crimes. Here there are two major crimes to be solved- one a cold case from some twenty-five years ago, where a policeman was shot in his back yard. There were very few clues and it remained a frustrating unsolved crime. Recently, a college professor and his wife, who owned a collection of antique Japanese weapons are hacked to death with one of their swords. Both these are complex cases; they are assigned to different detectives. There are unpleasant people and aggressive policing, but one person appears to link both cases. I didn’t find it an engaging story, because the nature of the crimes plus the style of investigation did not appeal.

Brotherhood in Death, by J.D Robb. PB from Hachette. RRP $29.99

This is a particularly American murder mystery. The term ‘American’ is not used loosely, as the author uses a lot of New York police terms and slang in this book. Eve Dallas is a dedicated policewoman. She had been brutally abused as a child by her father, and now has strong sympathies with abused women. When a series of prominent wealthy men are abducted, abused and hung up to die, Eve finds that they all had attended Yale, and were serial womanizers. This is a fast moving story, both dramatic and complicated. Whilst the author is skilled and very well known, I could not read two such novels in succession…

***Be Frank with Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson. PB from Allen and Unwin. RRP $$27.99

 This is a captivating read—it tells of a young publisher’s assistant who is sent, ostensibly to help a reclusive writer, MM Banning, complete her second novel. In effect, Alice Whitley arrives at the mansion to find that she is to be the companion to the author’s eccentric son—definitely on the autistic spectrum, with lots of ritual behaviours and attitudes. I enjoyed the story, as Alice learns to understand Frank, how he thinks and acts, and why. It is an engaging story and almost seems to be reality based.

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