ALL THE YOUNG MEN by Ruth Coker Burks and Kevin Carr O'Leary

 I was in my early 20s when the Aids epidemic exploded into the world, decimating, mostly, the male gay population, but also many many recipients of blood transfusions. All innocent in being infected with the HIV virus, but subject to the most appalling discrimination, abuse, vitriol, hate, disownment, exclusion by medical professionals, employers, funeral homes, churches, schools, child care centres, neighbours, friends, and families. Fortunately, here in NZ, I don't recall this degree of hate and discrimination towards people with HIV/Aids. I worked for an organisation with a high proportion of gay men also employed, and over the years saw their numbers drop. I remember feeling very sad when I heard that identical twin brothers, one of whom worked where I did, had died. Imagine being their parents. 

In the conservative and staunchly religious parts of the world, the treatment meted out to Aids patients was a terrible thing to see. Fear of course was driving much of the behaviour and attitudes, as was shame - being gay not considered natural, normal, permitted. HIV being a seen as a 'serves you right' disease. In the states of the American south, these attitudes were far too prevalent. It took a young single mother, Ruth Coker Burks, a woman with an extraordinary level of compassion, courage and balls to challenge the community she had lived all her life in and give these men dignity and love in their dying days. The more involved she got, the more of a crusade and his life's work this became. Her decisions around caring for and helping these abandoned men forced her to make some tough life decisions regarding her own life and that of her daughter. She could have had her child taken off her because of the work she was doing, she had no money, hardly any job, yet she kept going and going, her goal to help those less fortunate than herself. 

You can Wikipedia her, she is still doing great things in the community she lives in, and passed her own courage onto her now adult daughter and grandchildren. What a legacy to leave to the world.  I love to think that how this is written is exactly how Ms Burks speaks and goes about her daily life. A marvellous woman, funny too, fearless. For 10 years she cared for and buried Aids patients, only relinquishing this part of her life as medical and palliative care as well as social attitudes, improved for such patients. 

 


CONSTANT RADICAL by Jenny Chamberlain

Bad girl of NZ politics - Sue Bradford. It seems like she has been part of the scene forever,  born to a life of revolution, and this has been her whole life.  Sue is almost to the day exactly 10 years older than me, so I grew up with this angry, confronting woman, all those communist left labels attached to her. The media and politicians of the day did a great job of demonising her! I gradually came to respect her enormously for her courage, her staunchness, her self belief, her complete commitment to social justice.  And then suddenly she was almost mainstream and everyone wanted to hear from her. Her success in bringing about the anti-smacking law will always be hers, what an achievement. 

This excellent biography by veteran journalist Jenny Chamberlain is much much more than the chronicle of a life, still being lived. It is a potted history of New Zealand since the very early days of European settlement in this country, when Maori and Pakeha first interacted. She takes the reader on a social, political and economic history of this country from those days in the 1820s, when Sue's forebears first arrived here in the capacity of missionaries. And why is all this early history necessary? Because if we want any understanding of this powerhouse of a woman, who has challenged the white middle class establishment of this country, who has put herself through numerous arrests, who has endured some really tough times, who has pages and pages of her actions meticulously detailed in NZ's secret service files and who never, ever gives up, then we really do have to go right back to those first footsteps in NZ's early settlement days. 

Sue's early life was a combination of middle class bohemian intellectualism. Two brilliant parents, Sue the eldest child of 4, the only girl, herself intellectually brilliant, was always going to be 'trouble'. School was difficult, her relationship with her father was never easy, her mother having lost her spirit, Sue became the stroppy female from a young age, easily open to politicisation and making a difference And it just grew from there. Her life has been so intense, so rich, so busy, and would have crushed many, but no, she gets back up and just keeps going. 

I grew up in a household the complete antithesis of Sue's: a compliant and dutiful first born child, in a family conservative and proper. I loved this book, am in complete awe of Sue, what she has achieved, her work ethic, her own immensely strong core values, her own unwavering devotion to her family - I just find her dazzling. Her political career may not have panned out as she wished, but it seems that she earned the respect of almost every politician she worked with, I can only imagine how terrified and/or scathing most of them would have been with her entry into parliament. 

 Chamberlain's research is huge, the list of names in her acknowledgments and the 100 plus items in her bibliography letting the reader know that this is not just the story of a life, but with the detailed background, it is also the story of a society and how we came to be as a country. The book is equally about the writer - she has turned all this material into a hugely readable and interesting book. I know that, as a journalist this is what she is trained to do, but this is nearly 400 pages of A5 size book, densely written, I hope she also is proud of what she has written. Such a great book. 

OLD MAN AND HIS GOD by Sudha Murty

 

Sudha Murty has spent her life helping people - teacher, writer, social worker, Married to the co-founder of Bangalore-based multinational information technology company Infoys  Ltd, she is the chair of the Infoys Foundation, the public charitable trust arm of the company. Her extraordinary intelligence, compassion and innate understanding of human nature has allowed her entry into many different and diverse communities. And yet people still surprise her, which is what this little book is all about - her encounters, often quite random, with people who challenge her expectations in surprising ways. Many of her short succinct stories have ethical dilemmas at their heart, the author's own humble attitude and generous spirit giving her the ability to analyse, perhaps not understand, but able to take us with her in her journeys. I really enjoyed this, and having lived in Bangalore a book such as this just gives mea little more insight into India and the enormously diverse conundrum of a place it is. This book was actually a farewell present from an Indian friend I had in Bangalore. I thought of her while I was reading it. 

WE WERE NOT MEN by Campbell Mattinson

 

In the opening pages of this novel, two small boys, 9 year old twins Eden and Jon, are orphaned. Both suffering injuries, physical and emotional, in the accident that took their parents away from them. Dealing with her own grief from the recent death of the boys' grandfather, their step grandmother Bobbie, takes the boys in. You are already wondering how is anyone going to come out of this as a fully functioning human being. But children as we know are surprisingly resilient and ever-adaptable to the challenges around them It seems as long as there is just one person who they know cares for and loves them, then things tend to have a habit of turning out ok. 

So it with Eden and Jon. Jon is the narrator, the observer. The story covers the years from  the accident - age 9 till their late teens - ten very formative years for these two. For a start they never really know if Bobbie actually wants to be their 'mother', if she is capable of loving again after her losing her husband, then her step-son, his wife, leaving two badly little boys with no one else to take them in. Such a responsibility and sheer work for a not-so-young woman. The boys find huge comfort in each other, but most of all it is water that provides the most comfort. Eden's injuries and recovery mean that land based pursuits are hard on his body, so the medium of water and swimming comes to save the mental and emotional lives of these two. Gifted swimmers, all that each other needs, they are instant winners on the local swimming circuit. The pressure, expectations, enormous discipline, sacrifices mind games and exhaustion of high level sport are insightful to read, the minutiae of the swimming races tense and exacting, the competition between two people who love and need each other more than anything fascinating to see. 

And naturally along comes a complication that threatens to unravel completely the bond between the two. Being Australia let's not forget a bush fire either that threatens everything they boys have left. Like a lot of writing coming out of Australia in the last few years, it is not simply a story being told in matter of fact straightforward language. Authors like Tim Winton have paved the way for a greater sensitivity in writing, especially by male authors. Like Markus Zusak's Bridge of Clay,  this story rocks the family love, the bond and tenderness between brothers, the world through a child's eyes, the search for purpose. It is almost as if it has become 100% ok for Australian men to finally explore and be comfortable with the softer, more nuanced sides of themselves, to be ok with being emotional and fully engaged with feelings. One doesn't have to be that tough, mean emotionally disengaged man we so often see. If you liked Bridge of Clay you will love this. 

MONEY: THE TRUE STORY OF A MADE UP THING by Jacob Goldstein.

 

Well, we all know money doesn't grow on trees, it doesn't seem to grow anywhere, which is why we have to make it, then suggesting that it is a made up thing, just as the title says! This book is chock full of interesting facts, people and history about where money came from, how it originated and came to be this essential all-encompassing thing it is today, making our world go round, it not being love after all. I enjoyed it immensely, but I did have a feeling of disconnect with it which I couldn't really put my finger on. The book bounced around all over the place, and gave an overall picture of what this made up thing is, but there wasn't much depth to it all. I wanted to know more, and on reading some of the GR reviews it seems I am not the only one. Other readers put this down to the author's gift as a podcaster not transferring so well to being a writer. I can imagine him delivering these chapters in a pod cast way - they would be great - entertaining, interesting, scattershot. But not so much for a 'speak to the reader' way of each chapter moving smoothly into the next. I  also felt he was trying to be a bit like Malcolm Gladwell in his writing style, but it just does not quite hit the mark. Perhaps too much information and not enough expanding on some of the important ideas he presents? 

Despite this, I did enjoy what he had to say very much. I got a bit bogged down with the gold standard, and central bank theory, but there is plenty more to enjoy and learn from. Much of this of course is basic economics as societies grapple with how to place value on stuff. He takes us back to the ancient Greeks where it all began, the sophistication of China before the Europeans arrived on the scene, the early European economists and mathematicians who tried to make sense of the chaos brought about by expanding empires, then the industrial revolution. I particularly enjoyed the sections on how the Great Depression occurred, and the GFC of not that long ago. His explanations of these I thought were good, possibly over simplistic but when you aren't an economist or a mathematician, simple is good. 

FROM THE CENTRE: A WRITER'S LIFE by Patricia Grace

 

One of New Zealand's most celebrated and renowned writers has finally told her story. Centred on her traditional ancestral land of Hongoeka Bay, a little north of Wellington on the west coast, Patricia Grace tells her story, the view from her windows inspiring her own story telling, stirring her memories and letting us in to glimpse what makes a writer.  Growing up in a world where her Maori and her Pakeha heritages were of equal importance in shaping the young Patricia, she nevertheless faced plenty of prejudice through her life. Bright, confident, a gifted writer from childhood, growing up in Wellington and on her family's land just north of the city, she was surrounded by love, family, strong values, books and reading from a young age. Her father was in the 28th (Maori) Battalion during WWII, absent for some years leaving Patricia and her sister in the care of strong women. Her father's experiences were the inspiration for a number of her books and stories in later years. Never handed anything on a plate, Patricia and her husband have built their own strong and loving family, her maturity and growth as a writer coming from her life experience, her commitment to her ancestral land, her commitment to Maori land and women's issues shining through. As you would expect Patricia Grace's writing is beautiful and lyrical, cementing her place in this country's literary heritage as one of it's most enduring writers. 

HOSTAGE by Clare Mackintosh

This was a cracker of a read! A story line that we think we know where it is going - how much can you really do with a plane hijack - they either all die or they don't. But no, a good number of twists and turns in this thriller, right to the very last page. This is tightly held story, great variation in pace with the everyday taken over by the extraordinary, possibly all quite plausible which gives it a ring of truth too. 

Mina is a senior flight attendant, her next flight is special. She is one of the chosen few to crew the first non-stop flight from London to Sydney - some 20 hours in the air. This is a very big deal. Plenty of publicity, press exposure, important passengers, and not so important with their own reasons for travelling to Sydney. 

Mina is married to Adam, things haven't been going so well between these two in recent months, Adam moving out, but he does come home when Mina goes to work. Adam seems to be on some sort of path of self-destruction which Mina is increasingly unable to deal with. They have a daughter, Sophia. Now five years old, she was adopted by Mina and Adam. Her early life was not easy resulting in a child who is not easy to parent. But easy to love. She is a delightful child, unusual and challenging but comes across in the story as bright, curious, knowing. 

Mina begins her work day, stressed out by what is going on at home, Sophia unsettled by her loved nanny unexpectedly leaving, the replacement nanny still not yet part of the furniture. Not long into the flight Mina is given a note - the plane is being hijacked, and if she wants to see her daughter again, alive, then there is something she has to do. If she doesn't, they all die. What do you do? Save your daughter, or save a plane load of hundreds of people? A dilemma to be sure.

What follows is tension ridden, especially when it becomes clear who the hijackers are, how they behave and interact with each other, the passengers and the crew. It is very very good. We have all flown long distance, especially when you are from NZ - 12 hours to Los Angelos is just what you have to do. This is all very realistic and relatable. And how little do we really know about the passengers around us? So much blind faith.

Meanwhile, back home, Adam is having troubles of his own, managing Sophia, the new nanny, and finding that his gambling debts are catching up with him. Who is going to come out of this alive? 

Terrific stuff. And what a movie it would make!