DECEMBER READING - Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows; Rebel With A Cause; Little Bee

LITTLE BEE by Chris Cleave
Also published as THE OTHER HAND.

Imagine if you will, the tranquility of a luxury beach side resort. Now think about it in Nigeria. Now think about it with an unlikely and violent clash between two young Nigerian sisters, a 30-something white professional couple from London, and the local police. You already know this will not be a pretty picture.

From the very first sentence - 'Most days I wish I was a British pound coin instead of an African girl.' - we are drawn into the life of Little Bee, one of the two Nigerian sisters on the beach that fateful day. The story begins two years after the beach encounter, with Little Bee being released from an immigration detention center in England. She has been detained there since her arrival in the UK as an illegal refugee. She sets out to find the only people she knows in England, being the husband and wife she met on the beach that day. From this most curious beginning, the lives of both Little Bee, and the couple,Sarah and Andrew, gradually unfold, with Little Bee eventually finding them. The two sets of lives, of course, could not be more different. Little Bee has grown up in a village in the forests of Nigeria, amidst the encroachment of Western corporate interests and the destruction that results. Sarah and Andrew live and work very comfortably in London, and really have no idea at all as to what goes on inside countries like Nigeria or what happens to the people there.

The story is told, in alternating chapters, by Little Bee, and Sarah. Little Bee is determined that she will be granted residency in the UK while she is in the detention center and studies the English language - the Queen's English that is - with a fierce passion. Being the only English she knows, this is the language she uses to tell her story. It is very measured and deliberate, as is the English of those for whom it is not a first language. It is also very visual, which makes for compelling reading. I imagine if the story were to be narrated by a native Nigerian, it would be like listening to music. Sarah's story is narrated in a pretty standard sort of fashion, but with the added delight of the language and awesome imagination of her four year old son, Charlie. This child is an absolute treasure; apparently the author modelled him based on observations of his own four year old son. Very cleverly, a lot of the story is viewed through his eyes.

Little Bee finds delight and happiness and positivity in vitually everything in England, she is convinced everything will work out ok for her. Sarah, on the other hand, is struggling with her marriage, motherhood, her work as a journalist/editor and life in general. The contrast could not be more great. But we get to see the beauty of Little Bee's new world, and the gradual changes that take place in Sarah as she comes to terms with Little Bee being part of her life.

This is a harrowing story, and has haunted me since finishing it two weeks ago. The West, and the huge multinationals who want to control the natural resources of our world, have a lot to answer for in their decimation of the Third World, its traditional societies and peoples. We don't have a lot of refugees here in New Zealand, being a low population country, but I will look at the plight and lives of refugees who have the good fortune to make it here with quite different eyes now.


Every now and again amazing people of unbelievable vision, talent and self-belief come along and change things about the world we live in. Or other people's worlds. Ray Avery is one such person. Currently the Kiwibank New Zealander of the Year, and the recent recipient of this year's Peter Blake Award for Leadership, Ray Avery is essentially a humanitarian. He has harnessed his scientific skills, his business experience, his inventor's brain, and his brilliant entrepreneurship together to change the lives of the people in Third World countries, initially Eritrea and Nepal, and then to other countries as well. His mantra is that 'one man can change the world', and he has certainly done that with his determination, his vision and sheer power of personality.

What perhaps makes his story even more fascinating and inspiring is that he had a most wretched childhood. Born just after the war in England, abandoned and abused by his parents, his early years were spent either with his mother, in foster homes, or running away and living on the streets. Consequently he developed excellent survival and can-do skills, which he put to such good use in his adult life. Against all the odds, and through sheer good luck he found himself under the tutelage of the school gardener who opened him up to the world of science. And from that point on there was no stopping Ray Avery.

Perhaps the most fortuitous thing to happen to him was meeting Fred Hollows, and this put him on the path to the incredible work he has done in Eritrea and Nepal bringing cheap and safe cataract surgery to millions of people. Based on his observations working and living in these countries he has gone onto to invent a number of other low cost, effective and innovative products to benefit the populations of these poverty-stricken countries.

Ray Avery is a fascinating and very humbling man, who has a fascinating story to tell. Reading his story may well make you think just a little bit differently about the footprint we leave on the world, and how little effort it takes to do a lot of good things, not necessarily in the third world, which is probably just a bit inaccessible for the majority of us, but in our own communities. If that happens, then we too have taken on some of Ray's spirit.


The final instalment, the seventh book in the wonderful saga of magic, wizardry and witchcraft, where we have watched young Harry and his friends grow from youngsters to young adults, all the while dealing with the Dark Side, and despite all the odds overcoming. What child, or adult for that matter, has not dreamed at some stage of being able to cast a wand, say a magic word and it happens. We all knew it had to come to an end one day, and that it would have to be an epic ending, where dozens of loose ends get tied up and one or the other of Harry or He Who Cannot Be Named would have to be dispatched, and it couldn’t possibly be a clean and tidy despatch!

So on a family holiday trip to the US, to the land of magic and theme parks and surreal moments – Disneyland, Hollywood and the rest, it seemed the perfect place to start reading this last book. After all what is one more bit of escapism.

And I loved it. Action packed, full of twists and turns, surprises aplenty, Rowling has weaved virtually every single character from the previous six novels into this rich, multi layered story. Not only is the 18 year old Harry having to deal with growing from a boy into a man, falling in love, his internal demons, changing relationships with his friends but he has the added burden, complication, bonus of having to save the world as we know it single handed and staying more than one step ahead of you-know-who. Not what the average 18 year old has to deal with. We all know that it is complete fantasy, but it is just all so riveting, and imaginative, and fabulous that you just have to wonder in awe at the amazing brain of JK Rowling in holding it all together and making it work. And maybe that is part of the magic!

Despite the fantasy and the magic and the characters we have loved since they were children, this is actually more an adult novel than a children’s novel. There is a lot of violence, death, dark magic, and it is not a pretty read. It is almost as if Rowling has been making each novel darker and more evil to prepare us for the dramas of this one. The relationships between Harry, Hermione and Ron are also far more developed and complicated than previously. Magic cannot make for a perfectly, happy, contented personality where problems can be whisked away with a wand. I think Rowling captures very well the internal conflicts we all have and how they do take a bit of work and effort to resolve, not just something that can be fixed by a pill or a magic wand.

This book is a great finale to a wonderful story. Some of the books I have enjoyed more than others; some have been better written than others, but this book is right up there with the best. And I cried!

NOVEMBER READING - Magpie Hall; The Slap; The Household Guide to Dying; Cutting For Stone

CUTTING FOR STONE By Abraham Verghese

Ethiopia - earliest known home home of mankind, previously known as Abyssinia - one of the greatest of ancient civilisations, home of the Queen of Sheba, Christian since the first century, now one of the poorest countries on earth with serious health and life expectancy problems, a recent history of war with neighbouring Eritrea, military coups, communism and now a democracy. This is country we know very little about, we don't read books about Ethiopia and the people who live there! This book could will change that and maybe make you read more about this ancient society.

Now the subject of this book is not about Ethiopia; the story however is set primarily in Ethiopia, at a mission hospital called Missing in Addis Ababa, the capital, in the time of Emperor Haile Salassie and dictator Mengistu. The hospital's doctors and surgeons are primarily of Indian origin, either through birth or through training. In the late 1940s, the paths of an Indian Catholic nun and a British doctor cross at the hospital resulting in the totally unexpected birth of identical twins Marion and Shiva, the tragic death of their mother, the breakdown and disappearance of their father. The twins are adopted and brought up by a husband and wife doctor couple at the hospital, in a wonderfully loving, stimulating and medical environment.

The absent of their birth parents cast long shadows over the lives of the boys and how they unfold. Being half Indian/half Anglo, they are never completely Ethiopian but being born and bred there, they feel Ethiopian and love their country and its people with complete passion. The twins are almost supernaturally close and forever bound, but are subject to the same betrayals and sibling rivalries as non-twins.

The political turmoils and upheavals of the 1970s (although for the purposes of this fiction these events take place five years earlier) change the lives of the main characters, in particular Marion. The breakdown of the relationship with his twin combined with the civil war result in him leaving Ethiopia for the US, where he qualifies as a surgeon specialising in trauma surgery.

The story is narrated in the first person by Marion, beginning rather weirdly while he is still in the womb which lends the narrative a slightly magical quality. Plenty of the novel is in the third person too, giving the background to the myriad other leading characters in the story - Shiva, their adoptive parents Hema and Ghosh, their birth parents Sister Mary Praise Joseph and Dr Thomas Stone, and other people involved in the lives of the boys and the hospital. But the story is primarily that of Marion Stone, his determination to forge his own identity, honour the people he loves including his dead and unknown mother, become the doctor that his genetic destiny has determined for him.

Right from the beginning of reading this book I was reminded very much of reading Rohinton Mistry's 'A Fine Balance' - making a life worth living out of the chaos around you, the overriding importance of keeping your humanity and personal dignity when the forces are against you. The wonderful characters who seem to rise above everything that is thrown at them make this an inspirational read.

On reading a brief biography of the author, one must wonder how much autobiographical content there is in this story. He is also of Indian descent, brought up in Ethiopia, and is a professor of medicine at Stanford University. He would appear to have a deep love of his profession, and I have never read of surgical procedures in such grisly, stomach churning detail. Makes programmes like ER look like child's play. The power of the written word is so much more graphic than what is shown to us on a screen.

This is a very long book - some 550 pages of small font, but is so worthwhile. It never plods, its characters seem like real people - flawed, passionate, difficult, honourable, complicated. There is plenty to learn - about Ethiopia, about surgery, infectious diseases, twins, migration, even cricket!


When you spot an interesting looking book on the bargain tables at New Zealand's largest bargain retail store for the glorious sum of $5-00, in other words as much of a bargain as you can possibly get, you really must wonder why it is there. After all, books that find themselves on the bargain tables anywhere are generally there for one reason only. So, it was with some trepidation that I started reading this, and without doing any googling of it prior.

The subject matter also was the cause of some trepidation - 30-something Delia Bennet, mother and wife, has been diagnosed with terminal cancer and is planning for her death, or as the back cover says, realizing that it was now 'time to get her house in order'. Hardly the happiest of topics for a leisure reader. Cancer, like taxes, does not discriminate on the basis of age, sex, colour, creed, socio-economic status etc. One, however does not die of taxes. And, we know about taxes, we confront them daily, but death is really something we know very little about and not something we face on a daily basis, or really that we like to talk about.

My feelings of trepidation, being price and subject matter, however were groundless. Despite the undoubtedly sad and difficult subject matter, this is a story of such warmth, love, remorse, tragedy and humanity told in such an achingly normal sort of fashion that it has stayed with me long after finishing.

Moving between the present and the past, Delia decides to add to her successful series of household management guides by writing the ultimate guide - The Householder's Guide to Dying. Her past guides have covered the erstwhile subjects of home maintenance, laundry, garden, and kitchen. In addition she continues to answer questions in a very acid fashion in a newspaper advice column on same household matters. Faced with a death sentence, and being a practical, organised sort of lady, Delia forces herself to deal with planning her own funeral, what advice and messages she should give her two young daughters, what type of coffin she should choose, a daily timetable for her husband on family management and so it goes on. And let's not forget the five pet hens. As she does her research, she documents it all into a manuscript for publication into her final book.

Facing up to your death of course, means that you also have to deal with the demons of the past. Delia traces her steps back some fifteen years, leaves her home in what I presume is Sydney, and goes back to Queensland where, as a pregnant teenager she gave birth to a son. And that is all I will say about this particular strand of the story because the events that took place when she was a young woman shaped the woman who is now coming to terms with this latest and last challenge in her life.

I really, really liked this book. Being a mother and wife, and dealing on a regular basis with cancer patients, I thought this would be a desperately sad and morbid book, totally sentimental and a complete slush-fest. It is sad, I had tears in my eyes at several points, but it is never morbid and throughout you are aware of how much life there is going on around Delia all the time. More importantly for Delia, and hence the reader, how life will continue when she is no longer around, and how it can be joyful. Now if all that sounds a bit too new-agey, I am probably not doing a very good job writing this, because I am the most un-new-agey person ever.

I wondered while reading this if the author had suffered herself from cancer, there is such a personal feel to the writing. I later found out that her son was diagnosed with leukaemia, and successfully treated for it while she was writing the book. Hence the empathy for her subject I guess, and perhaps some sort of catharsis too. I find it a little disturbing that a book long listed for the Orange Prize should end up on a bargain book table!

THE SLAP by Christos Tsiolkas

This is a sensational book, and not because when you get to the last page, you put it down and think 'Awww, that was just lovely'. Lovely it aint, but sensational it certainly is, because it puts the spotlight on the modern urban society - in this case Melbourne - we live in and makes us think, very hard, about that society. If our society is like the one portrayed in this novel, it is not a pretty place to be. To really capture the entirety of our modern urban society, the novel is told from the perspectives of a wide range of the people in our society's - a three year old; school age children; teenagers; men and women single, married, divorced; adulterers; gay and heterosexual; those with children, those without; wealthy, middle class, struggling; old and grandparents - all mixed up in a cultural melting pot of Greek, Indian, Aboriginal, Muslim, Jewish and white Australian. With the exception of the children and the elderly couple, all the rest of the characters swear like there is no tomorrow and seem to spend vast portions of their lives stoned, drunk, both, and/or thinking about or having the best sex ever, with or without their spouses.

So what is the story that all these characters are telling? A bit like an Agatha Christie novel, the scene is set at a family barbecue with all the characters present, where the crime is committed. That is the characters described above - an enormous amount of diversity in a suburban back yard and the perfect setting for a bucket load of tension to develop and explode. Which it does, slowly but surely building up to the very obnoxious, undisciplined and over-indulged three year old being slapped by one of the guests, the father of a six year old about to dealt to with a cricket bat by the younger child. Horrors you think, and if you are a parent, I bet that at some stage in the past you too would have liked to have smacked some out of control child that was not yours. In this story it happens, and you see how easily it happened.

The BBQ is immediately over, and a chain of events is set in place by the child's parents that will not have a happy ending. But the book is not entirely about the saga of the slap. It is much much more about the lives of the characters as the slap resonates through their relationships with each other. The interesting thing I found while reading this, is that the slap itself had very little effect on how all these relationships and lives would have worked out anyway. Most of them were, in the author's (excessive overuse of) words f***ed anyway - dysfunctional marriages, friendships, parent-child stuff, in-laws - the list goes on. The slap is just another nail in the very many coffins.

Does it sound like the sort of book you really want to read? Probably not. It is not an easy book to read, the subject matter is not pretty, things that happen certainly made me feel uncomfortable, and most of the characters are not likable at all. But that is what makes the story so powerful - they are unlikable and do and say things you might not like, but they are very human, just like all of us, and the things that go on are very believable. It is almost as if the author has switched a spotlight onto our little suburban 21st lives and shown us the nasty stuff just beneath the surface.

This book has won a number of literary awards and deservedly so too. Next time I travel to Melbourne I will look at the people in the street in a slightly different way!!! Although those in Auckland are probably no different.

MAGPIE HALL by Rachael King

It seems to me that much New Zealand literature has a dark and sinister thread running through it. Dark secrets lurk in the minds and souls, there are deaths aplenty that occur in mysterious circumstances, or other unpleasant events, which all seem to emanate from events that occurred in years gone by. What's more they all seem to take place against a backdrop of the country's dramatic landscape, its isolated communities, the wild coastal areas. The books of Maurice Gee immediately spring to mind, as do the likes of John Mulgan's 'Man Alone', or Keri Hulme's 'The Bone People'. There seems to be a preoccupation with death, and none of it a particularly nice death! Now Rachael King has made her contribution to the ranks of these macabre writings with this, her second novel.

Set in the present day in the very white Anglo-Saxon New Zealand region of Canterbury, the story centres on Rosemary Summers. Rosemary has returned to the farm of her recently deceased grandfather to whom she had been very close and from whom she had learnt taxidermy. Amongst other things. The farm and its homestead, Magpie Hall, have been in the Summers family for four generations, and naturally, as one would expect, there are plenty of secrets and skeletons in the cupboards. Rosemary is attempting to complete her thesis on the Victorian Gothic novel and hopes that the peace and quiet and privacy of the homestead will help her to complete her work.

Parallel to Rosemary's story with its own dramas is the story of her great-great-grandfather, Henry Summers, who was a passionate and obsessed collector of native flora and fauna. At all costs. It was he who built Magpie Hall and established the farm some 100 years prior.

This novel reads like a Victorian Gothic novel, with overtones of 'Jane Eyre' and 'Wuthering Heights'. And let's not forget Alfred Hitchcock. There is always an element of danger and something not quite right; a certain amount of spookiness and unhinged madness permeate the whole story. This is very compelling writing, the author would appear to adore the Gothic novel as form of story telling, and it shows in the atmosphere she has created in this modern day version of the genre. I loved this book, most satisfying, and by way of bonus I learnt a lot about taxidermy - I am glad I am not a vegetarian, it would have made quite harrowing reading otherwise! On a more serious note, the story also highlights how native wildlife such as the huia became extinct primarily due to the relentless pursuit of it by greedy collectors. Very poignant.

OCTOBER READING - Ghost Train to Eastern Star; Two Lipsticks and a Lover; Day After Night; The Good Mayor; The Long Song

THE LONG SONG by Andrea Levy

Andrea Levy centres her novel on a dark chapter in British history - the last years of a 300 year history of slavery in Jamaica. In the first quarter of the 19th century, July is born to Kitty, a field slave on the Amity plantation. Her father is the brutal white overseer, so July is a mulatto. Not that this makes her life any easier, but purely by chance she is literally taken from her mother's arms and ends up as a house slave living in the big house as the personal maid to Caroline Mortimer, sister to the English owner of the plantation. July's life is by no means easy, but she is smart, has excellent instincts and quickly learns to manipulate her mistress, and eventually the new white overseer, fresh off the boat from England, idealistic and noble.

At this time there were strong moves in Britain to abolish slavery, but naturally it took a while to filter through to places like the Carribean. In 1831, the slaves in the area of Jamaica that the novel is set in, revolted against the British landowners. The revolt as one would expect. was quickly and violently and cruelly suppressed with plenty of reprisals against the slaves, but it did result a few years later in slavery in Jamaica being abolished, and the slaves being freed. Although the changes brought about by the stroke of a pen in London took considerably longer to take place at the grass roots of plantation life somewhere half way around the world. Suffice to say that July's life is never an easy one, but it does make a superb story.

Not only is the story riveting, but the author has chosen to tell it through the eyes of July as an elderly woman, telling it her way, to her son, who wants the story told his way. In dribs and drabs the son 'encourages' his mother to tell her story, in wonderful parent-child dialogue, the son of course wanting every detail possible and the mother wanting to keep some things secret. It is almost as if there are two stories going on in this novel.

The best thing about this story is the rich use of language. July is of slave birth and so has no chance of growing up speaking the 'Queen's English',let alone being able to read and write. Her way of speaking and telling a story is a complete corruption of English as we know it. It is colourful, colloquial, idiosyncratic and has a whole rhythm and music to it that English English does not, making it a joy to read and enjoy. On first reading there were sentences that just did not make sense, but like all good writers, she makes us re-read the sentence to get the sense.

The subject matter is tragic, violent, heart-rending, far too visual and ghastly in places to be called enjoyable. But July's refusal to give up, to keep on trying to make things better for herself, her ability to turn situations to her advantage give this story enormous energy and hope, and like many other books I have read and loved, it shows the power of the human spirit to overcome and beat adversity. Read this and just love this woman for the survivor she is.

THE GOOD MAYOR by Andrew Nicholl

I got to the last page of this many-paged novel - 465 pages - , closed the book, and said out loud, "Gorgeous, just gorgeous". What a lovely, wonderful, passionate, delicious love story this is. Not at all soppy or syrupy but oh so romantic, with rich, delightful writing and so full of hope!

Tibo Krovic is the mayor of the town of Dot, an average town in some far off corner of north-west Europe (I think). Dot has the river Ampersand running through it, and the neighbouring rival town is called Dash. Krovic is a very good mayor, honest, popular, humane, and single. He has been desperately in love with his beautiful, voluptuous, generous-spirited and unhappily married secretary Agathe Stopak for quite some time. Never did the path of true love run smoothly, and it certainly doesn't in this story. As the reader, at times you have to suspend belief just a little bit, but it just adds to the charm and delight of this story. Bizarrely this novel is narrated by a saint, the patron saint of the town called St Walpurnia, a 'bearded virgin martyr, whose heart-wrung pleas to Heaven for the gift of ugliness as a bolster to her chastity were answered with a miraculous generosity.'

This is a big book and I have written much longer reviews of books much smaller than this one. There is nothing more to add, it is just so enjoyable and as The Scotsman newspaper says 'Enchanting'.

DAY AFTER NIGHT by Anita Diamant

WWII continues to be a very rich and diverse source of material for novels both entirely fictional and those based on historical incidents. One such incident was the escape in 1945 of 200 refugee immigrants in a British illegals displacement camp in Israel with the help of Jewish settler partisans. The escape happens towards the end of the story, but the escape is not really what the book is about. It is about four young Jewish women, none older than 21, who have all been displaced by the war in Europe. Polish-born Shayndel was orphaned during the war and ended up fighting with partisans; Dutch-born Tedi is half-Jewish and spends most of the war in hiding until she is betrayed and sent off to a camp; Leonie is Parisian who is saved by brothel keeper, and has a miserable time trying to stay alive as a prostitute; and finally Zorah, also Polish who manages to survive the horrors of the concentration camp. All very damaged emotionally and physically, they find themselves in Israel as there is really nowhere else for them to go and they are promised that Israel will finally be the home they are looking for.

The girls are just four of the couple of hundred men, women and children in the camp where they have to learn to live a normal life again, to trust people and build relationships and friendships. There are nightmares to get through, symbols such as the barbed wire of the camps reminding the internees of the concentration camps, physical health to rebuild.

The establishment of the state of Israel by the British and the United Nations forms the background to the story, the displacement of the Palestinians barely rates a mention, and the British come across as the enemy with the exception of a few of the the British running the immigrant camp.

So is it a good book? Well, good plot, interesting characters, plenty of action and tension, but something is missing. I felt like I was reading a narrative: he said, then she said, then she said. It just felt a bit too one dimensional. The richness of writing that made 'The Red Tent' so special and memorable, for me, just is not there. Maybe it is not supposed to be there, the subject matter of internment camps and the tragedies of the people who find themselves there perhaps do not lend themselves to rich, beautiful writing. Still it is book worth reading simply for the history it chronicles.

TWO LIPSTICKS AND A LOVER by Helena Frith Powell

"Unlock your inner French woman...". How do they look so sleek, so glamorous, so slim, wearing such gorgeous clothes, with such beautiful hair,and such immaculate faces? And all those temptations-delicious wines, oh-so-tasty cheese, that crusty, soft bread???? Why can't us Anglo-Saxon women have such style, look so effortlessly good?

Well, let me tell you, it takes effort, and plenty of it. Ms Powell moved from England to France with her husband and immediately felt like a frump. So in the process of discovering her inner French woman she interviewed and spent time with many beautiful French women to discover what really goes on. In short a lot of money is spent, a lot of time is expended, eating habits are abnormal, having girlfriends means competition - for men, having a career is not encouraged, having babies is really a bit of drag and terribly unsexy. But on the upside, women of all ages are adored and respected by men, they are encouraged to be intellectual, to think and to express opinions, and to take lovers. These are the things Ms Powell discovered in her research and what she wrote her book about.

As an exercise in self-discovery it is fairly light hearted, and she does manage to find her inner French womanliness! But I really did have a problem believing that ALL French women lived their lives like this. The women she interviewed all seemed to have lots of money, lots of time, were high profile either as society women, fashion shop owners, ex-models, actresses, successful career women and so on - women who are expected to look and be fabulous all the time.

As an aside I googled 'French Women Images' and came up with pages and pages of gorgeous beautiful women until I got to page 9, and there was a fat French woman which took me to an article in the Daily Mirror 19/09/2006 called 'Myth of Thin French Women Exposed' claiming that a third of French women are overweight. How beautifully refreshing I thought. They are normal after all!! Time for a glass of wine and some gooey cheese on a thick piece of crusty white bread. Or maybe a croissant...


Twenty five years ago while living in a Pacific tropical paradise, I would visit the two very small English language book/stationery shops at least weekly to feed my reading appetite. Being very small shops there was a very limited range of books, so I had to expand my horizons somewhat and found myself reading books I would never have normally read, like Paul Theoroux's 'The Great Railway Bazaar'. Even though I was quite young still at the time, and it had been written by a sad, grumpy man some 12 years older than me who was going through some very major domestic strife, it left a lasting impression on me. His intense curiosity, his sense of adventure, his cantankerousness, the freedom of a life on a train was such a fantastic combination to read about. He was a grumpy bugger though, opinionated, little patience for many of the different societies and peoples he met, and I don't think he had a great deal of fun!

So thirty three years after that journey in 1975, Paul Theroux, now in a much better head space decides to retrace his steps on that epic train journey. His first journey took him through Italy, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Ceylon, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Japan and across the vast expanse of the USSR. Already you will see that that particular journey would be quite a different undertaking now! Yugoslavia is now a number of different countries; the communist states have been over run by capitalism, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan are off limits to anyone of a Western hue. So the journey takes the author slightly north of these troubled countries through some of the now independent states of the former USSR - all the -stans; India is neck and neck with China as the world's fastest growing economy; the war is over in Cambodia and Vietnam; and is Russia any further ahead than it was some 40 years ago? To top it all off, the journey takes place some 16 months after the devastating Boxing Day tsunami. So a lot to write about!

The author is still cantankerous, obviously does not tolerate fools easily, and as the review in the Los Angeles Times said, "One of the problems Theroux presents to the careful reader is the fact that he's a compelling writer who is essentially unlikable. In part, that's a consequence of his blimpish judgments on everyone upon whom his disapproval settles...". But I think he is a much happier man now, his domestic life would appear to be pretty good, he certainly is not as angry, age would appear to have mellowed him as it does to us all!

His journey by train is, in a word, fantastic. I loved it, loved reading about where he went, what he saw, what he ate, the people he met, the changes he observed from 30 years ago, in particular the impact of technology and Westernisation. But the book is also about his own personal journey, comparing the man he was 30 years ago with the man he is now, and that is also fascinating to read about. He is now somewhat reflective and, shock, horror, traces of humility creeping through!

This is a long book with a lot of reading, but well worth it, and if at all possible, try to read the first book at the same time.

SEPTEMBER READING - What The Dog Saw; The Breaking of Eggs


The late 1980s/early 1990 saw the collapse of the communist states in Europe; symbolised most potently by the destruction of the Berlin Wall. Democracy and capitalism poured into a myriad of new states and countries and everything became well with the world again. But, as usual in these economic and political upheavals very little if any thought is given to the peoples going through the upheavals. In this novel, 61 year old Feliks Zhukovski, Polish born, long term resident of Paris and citizen of France, die-hard leftist, and successful writer of a travel guide book to the communist bloc countries is one of those people.

The fall of the Wall is the catalyst that shakes and rattles the cage of a life that Feliks has carefully created for himself since his mother shipped him as a 9 year old boy and his older brother off to Switzerland shortly after the Germans took over Poland. Being half-Jewish in Poland in 1939 was not the place to be. The end of the war found Feliks one of the many millions of people displaced in Europe and he found himself living and working with those of a communist persuasion, finding a sense of belonging and meaning in all the chaos that was post-war Europe. And as the years go by, he remains convinced of the glories of communism and life goes on. Quietly and uneventfully.

So to be confronted in 1991 with all the stuff from his past leads to Feliks going on an unexpected adventure of personal discovery, and in the process laying all the demons of his past to rest. And that is all I will say about what happens!

What really struck me while reading this was how drastically and irreversibly war and conflict affects the ordinary man/woman at the bottom of the heap for the rest of their days. Over the past seventy years we have been saturated with war survival stories - fiction and non, movies, TV mini series until you would think that we scream "Enough!" But no, it just does not seem to happen like that. And a war survival story told like this one continues to keep the interest level high. I really enjoyed this story, lots of feel good happenings and a few reality checks thrown in, but not too over the top on the emotion meter, although I did feel a tear well up at one stage!

The author would appear to be very interested in the political and economic doctrines of the past couple of hundred years or so - democracy, capitalism, communism, socialism. He seamlessly interweaves all these into the story, and we watch Feliks move from one to the other as he tries to sort out his own meaning of life. But there is an awfully large amount of it through the novel and at times I did find it heavy going. However this does not detract much from what is a great story and very real characters.

WHAT THE DOG SAW by Malcolm Gladwell

What makes the writing of Malcolm Gladwell so interesting and compelling to read is that he looks at the everyday stuff of life just a little bit differently from the rest of us. He must have been an incredibly curious child, probably driving his parents completely crazy with question after question about absolutely everything. And most of the stuff he writes about is stuff that from time to time may flash through our minds, but there it stops. In 'Outliers', for example, he looks at why Asians are so good at maths. This is something we all generally know, but how many of us have actually given it any deep thought? Or in 'The Tipping Point', we accept fashion trends as something we follow because that is what in the shops. But Gladwell takes the example of the sudden and unexpected increase in popularity of people wearing Hush Puppies shoes, of all things.

His latest book is a collection of essays he wrote between 1996 and 2008 while he was working for 'The New Yorker' magazine. Should we really be banning pit-bull terriers, are they really as dangerous as they seem? Why do some people choke or panic when under stress, and what is the difference between choking and panicking anyway? Why are mammograms not necessarily as reliable as we think they are? And why, in the 1950s, did it suddenly become socially acceptable for women to start dyeing their hair when it had always been the domain of hookers and chorus girls? Malcolm Gladwell attempts to find out the answers to these curly questions and a host of others.

It is, of course, intriguing reading, funny, interesting, 'well fancy that'. And he writes it all in such an easy to follow fashion, despite all the facts, figures, reports, trials, examples, interviews that he uses to illustrate and prove his points.

If you look at the review in an esteemed publication such as the New York Times Gladwell does come in for some criticism over the lack of 'technical grounding' on his subjects, his tendency to be genarlise in his writing and to include the reader in his reasonings: the royal 'we'. But as another review observed, he does not profess to be an expert in any of the subjects he writes about. His overwhelming curiosity and writing ability are more than enough to keep the reader engaged, to make us think further about the world we live in and how we try to rationlise what is going on around us.

READING IN AUGUST - Ned and Katina; The Spellman Files; The Elephant Whisperer; A Week In December; Book Book

BOOK BOOK by Fiona Farrell

Read a brief biography of the author and you will find a most versatile writer who has written novels, short stories, plays and poetry. She has received a number of literary awards and held a number of residences. Fiona Farrell is one of NZ's most prolific and successful writers, and it all started in Oamaru, home of the more famous Janet Frame. I don't know from reading this book how much is fact and how much is fiction. But it is clear that much of this book is autobiographical. And at the centre of it all is her love of books and reading, and how they are closely associated with events in her life as they unfold.

The story is told in the third person being Kate, a child growing up in Oamaru with her family, her school days, teen years, going to university in Dunedin, falling in love, marrying, travelling to and living in Oxford, then Canada, having babies and rearing children, returning to New Zealand and onto middle age. Which is where the story opens. Kate is sitting reading books from her father's bookshelves, a book about ancient wars in Persia, while a modern day war is also happening in the same part of the world. There are parallels of course between the ancient war and the modern war.

The book then reverts to Kate's childhood and all sorts of books, fact and fiction, from all eras form the backbone to Kate's life. Kate/the author has a very deep love and almost spiritual bond with the books that have shaped her life, and this shines through. What also comes through very strongly is the post-war 1950s childhood and growing up in small town New Zealand, at a time when New Zealand is finding its own identity in the big world, and dealing with the aftermath of WWII. A number of other themes emerge as Kate grows up - university education for women, rise of feminism, mothers and daughters, career vs babies. The one that stayed with me the most was Kate's search for her own identity, particularly when she is in Oxford with her husband, as a 'colonial' in the 'home' country.

I found this whole book very moving. Reading about many of the books in the novel was like meeting old friends, and I can more than relate to Kate's love of and need for reading to keep her grounded and able to deal with the world around her.

A WEEK IN DECEMBER by Sebastian Faulkes

Two weeks before Christmas in 2007 in London the wife of a newly-elected MP is organising a large dinner party for those who are wealthy, or influential, or up-and-coming, or just simply different enough to be important to her husband's career. The husband never actually features in the novel, and the wife exists solely as the mechanism to bring these people together. In fact the invitation list has a very disparate bunch of people, the novel centering on several of them in this particular week. It seems as if the list has been devised to show the MP's wide and varied interests because it is difficult to see how this group of people would really have anything in common!

Anyway the dinner party is due to happen at the end of the week. Meantime there is seven days to get through. Amongst others there is a young man, Scottish by birth of Pakistani Muslim parents who have been invited to the dinner. The parents are the immigrant success story having made their fortune with lime pickles. The son, however seems to be spending far too much time exploring his Islam roots. Then there is Gabriel, a young not-so-successful lawyer, and his latest client, Jenni, who is a tube train driver with a rather fractured life history. There is also R Tranter who is a very successful if embittered and disillusioned book reviewer; John Veale, a most unlikeable character who has made millions and millions from hedge funding, and is in the middle of the deal of his life. Then there is the recent import to the local premier league soccer club, all the way from the hard life in Poland.

So what do all these people have in common? Very little if anything, except they are simply all living their lives in London this particular week. So what ia the novel about then? What ties all these people together? It is everything that makes up the First World, materialistic, consumer-oriented society we live in. From social networking, to religious fanaticism, to obsession with celebrity, mental illness, social isolation, family dysfunction, the list goes on. It is, therefore, a novel of social commentary, and Faulkes does not have very nice things to say about the type of society we have become. This message comes through loud and clear, but not so cleverly that Faulkes is still able to give us a great story, with complicated characters and lots of interlinking threads. I must say though that I was getting a bit glassy-eyed reading the intricacies and details of hedge funding and making money out of nothing.


I have never really been big on reading animal related books. I remember reading 'My Family and Other Animals' by Gerald Durell many years ago (when I was 12) because we had to do a book review of an 'adult' book. I was mildly amused by it, but never really felt 'engaged' with it. I have always had a cat or two or three in my life, plus we had a dog at one stage, but it has really only been since we have fostering motherless kittens over the past couple of years that I understand the 'art' of communicating with animals. It took a while but it has surprised me how little kittens of 6-8 weeks old have such very individual personalities and how, as a family, we have become 'cat whisperers'. For each pair of kittens the 'socialisation' challenge is get them to purr! Once they purr when we touch them then we know we are on the right track to having potentially gorgeous pets.

Anyway I digress, but all this has made me much more interested in animal type books. So when Sarah at book club raved about a book that her niece had given her about a man who had saved a herd of elephants I was, surprisingly, interested. Having been exposed to elephants in India also piqued my interest.

Elephants are truly incredible animals. I won't say anymore about the wonder of elephants because you need to discover it for yourself by reading this book so you too can be amazed. Lawrence Anthony has spent his whole life in South Africa and its surrounding countries, living mostly in the rural hinterland where he has built up a close and empathetic relationship with the land, the animals and the native Africans. He owns and runs the Thula Thula wildlife reserve in South Africa and finds himself landed with the monumental task of taking on a herd of wild elephants that are under threat of being shot. The enormity of this task is seen in the first 76 pages of the book which focus on getting the elephants safely corralled on the reserve behind 8000 volt fences. From then on Anthony's relationship with the elephants slowly develops and the reader learns a lot about the majesty of these animals. As well as life on a wildlife reserve - the other animals, gaining the trust and confidence of the native Africans, the development of the reserve as a tourist destination. It is all a most enticing mix. And I now want to visit a wildlife reserve in Africa!

As an aside the author was involved in rescuing the animals in the Baghdad Zoo after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. And that is another book in itself. He was gone from Thula Thula for six months, and not once during that time did the elephants come to the Lodge where Anthony and his wife lived. But on the day he returned to the reserve the elephants were waiting at the main entrance gates for him. How did they know? That is the magic...


On the surface the Spellmans are a very dysfunctional family. 30 year old David, the perfect child, who has 'escaped' by becoming a lawyer; 28 year old Isabel, the lead narrator who is desperately trying to find herself away from her family while she works for the family; and 14 year old Rae, really just a typical teenager trying to find her own place in the big complex world she lives in. Heading the family are Albert and Olivia, the parents, who run a successful private investigation business in San Francisco. Then there is Uncle Ray, ex-cop and health freak who after a cancer scare transforms the way he lives. All these people, in the daily management of their lives and each others as does happen in any family, do the wrong thing for the right reasons. That is, they all love each other desperately, but have mighty peculiar ways of showing it!

Isabel is the narrator. She really is a mess, desperately wanting out of the family firm, but not knowing how to do anything else. Her life is controlled by her over-zealous parents, each with their own peculiarities! The novel jumps around a bit at the beginning as the various characters and their backgrounds are introduced and I found it took a short while to get the drift of what was going on and who was connected with who. But once it got going, this is a rollicking good read, full of witty dialogue, funny happenings, unexpected twists and turns, and full of surprises. Extremely easy and quick to read, and highly entertaining, I look forward to reading the two sequels on my bookshelf. Apparently a movie is being made...I can only hope that it is as witty and sharp as the book!


A few years ago, after the death of Katina, Patricia Grace was approached by Ned and Katina's family to write the story of their love and life together. The result is not only a story of love, but also a story of two ancient cultures coming together, of urbanisation, of war, of families, of the best and worst of humankind, personal courage and above all hope.

Ned came from rural Northland, from a hard-working, self-sufficient Maori family. Katina came from rural Crete, also from a hard-working and self-sufficient family. In 1939, Ned was 20, and he immediately signed up to go to war. He joined the Maori Battalion and before he knew it, he was on his way to Europe with the rest of the Battalion. His war did not last long as he was injured during the assault on Crete. Along with a large number of other New Zealanders and Australians who were left on Crete after the evacuation, he roamed around the island, hiding in caves, trying to stay alive, and one step ahead of the Germans. He (and all the other soldiers) was aided by a number of families on Crete who risked their lives to feed and protect as best as they were able the fugitives. One of the families looking after Ned was Katina's family and very slowly love developed between the two. Ned was captured and spent the latter part of the war as a POW, but he never gave up hope of returning to Crete and marrying Katina. Which of course he did.

The couple sailed back to New Zealand, initially settled in Northland, had three children, moved to the Wellington area where they ran a number of successful businesses, before returning back to the extended family when they were elderly. This can't have been the easiest of marriages especially for Katina who left her roots, travelled to the other side of the world to a country she knew nothing about, alien food, language, culture and so on. This, I think, is the remarkable story, and one that I would like to have learnt more about.

An enormous amount of research has gone into this book and as a result it is extremely interesting, informative, and with plenty of history. There are lots of photos, copies of letters, documents and so on. The author has done a great job of documenting a crucial time in the history of two countries and peoples. And for me, herein lies the problem with this being a 'love story'. I didn't feel like I was reading about 'love'. I felt like I was reading a historical narrative, a report, an account of events. I felt detached from Ned and Katina, I didn't feel involved in their 'love'. There is plenty of courage, bravery, determination, tenacity and hope in this book, but as a reader, I didn't feel involved in it. It goes without saying that Ned and Katina were amazing people, of exceptionally high character and moral courage, and their story is very inspiring to anyone. I just wish I could have felt more involved with them rather than just simply reading about them! Hard to explain...

JULY READING - Trespass; The Night Book; The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest; The Bugatti Queen

THE BUGATTI QUEEN by Miranda Seymour

I know nothing about motor racing, nothing about Bugatti cars, nothing about the racing car drivers of the day and the racing car world, and very little about the lives of the rich and famous in France between the wars. Helene Delange, known publicly as Helle Nice, was one of the most famous, most successful and undoubtedly the most glamorous of them all. From a young age it seems she was destined for great things, born in 1903, just south of Paris, with a determination to escape the small town life that she was born into. She moved to Paris when she was 16 to become a dancer, and quickly found success in the music halls that were so popular. She quickly found a taste too for the glamorous life, with her bright, exhibitionist and risque personality, her beauty and insatiable desire for wealth,fame and men. Her dancing earned her enough money and attention to enter motor racing, cars still being very much the preserve of the very wealthy. She had many suitors and affairs, and one can't help wondering while reading of her numerous lovers,if she really only saw them as a means to an end, ie more fame and money. Her success as a woman racing car driver, of whom there were very, very few, took her to America where her fearlessness and wins turned her into an overnight sensation. By now very famous in the motor racing world, she returned to Europe, and became a regular driver on the Grand Prix circuit. Although she never won a Grand Prix race, she continued to excel with her competitiveness in this male dominated world, at the same time exploiting her femininity for all it was worth. This hedonistic life was brought to a sudden halt with a serious crash in Brazil in 1936, that left her seriously injured and a number of people dead. Although she was cleared of any responsibility for the accident, it weighed heavily on her and she never really got over it. Of course shortly after this, war intervened and effectively her racing career was over. She was by this time very wealthy, but had gotten involved with a much younger man to whom she spent lavishly on in order to retain his affections. Naturally he left and by the time the war was over she had nothing left. She remained in France throughout the war, and found herself accused of collaborating with the German occupiers, although this was never proved. Her final years were spent in poverty, at the mercy of a Paris based charity. By the time she died in the 1980s, she had been forgotten about, estranged from her family who couldn't deal with her notoriety, and buried as a pauper.

Although not a huge book by the standards of a biography, Miranda Seymour has written a very detailed account of a legend in motor racing circles. There is no doubt she was a pioneer, glamorous and beautiful to boot, which always helps, despite what the feminists would say! There is a lot in the book about motor vehicles and racing cars and engines and comparisons between one model over another and so on - petrol head stuff. But if this is not quite your cup of tea, do evere as the story itself is worth reading and very absorbing. Helle Nice was not in the same league perhaps as Jean Batten, but she is definitely the same type of woman.


This is the third and final story in the Millennium trilogy that began with 'The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo'. As readers of the previous two would expect, this is also a suspenseful, multi-stranded and complex thriller. I felt like I was reading an octopus with Lisbeth Salander as the body of the octopus, and all the strands and facets of what has become her very complicated life being the tentacles. Unlike the other two parts of the trilogy, she spends most of this story in a hospital bed, maybe that is where I get the idea she is the 'head' around which all the action happens. And boy does it happen. Goodies and baddies abound of course and all weave their complicated threads, the former wanting justice for Lisbeth and to uncover the dark secrets within the Swedish Secret Police; the latter wanting to ensure that Lisbeth remains locked up for the rest of her days. Even though she is bedridden, Lisbeth's unique computer skills once again come to the fore.

I keep trying to think about what has made this trilogy such compelling reading all over the world. There are the classic themes of good vs evil of course, the David and Goliath nature of Mikael/Lisbeth taking on the justice system in the 2nd book and the government in this 3rd book, the large number of strong, smart, positive female characters ranging from Lisbeth to the editor Erika Berger, to the various police officers and detectives and to Mikael's sister who more than delivers when she has her day in court. Plus you just can't get away from the fact that these books are purely and simply superb story telling. And who doesn't like a jolly good story, just like fairy tales when we were children, the goodies won, and the baddies didn't.

THE NIGHT BOOK by Charlotte Grimshaw

I read the author's short story collection 'Opportunity', which won the fiction prize at the NZ Montana Book Awards in 2007, and fell in love with it. Most of my experiences of short stories, especially New Zealand ones, have not been very good, but Ms Grimshaw's stories were, to me, works of art. I loved her observations of human behaviour, I can imagine her quietly watching those around her, visualizing their lives and then weaving her stories which seem to reflect so uncannily the little dramas that make up everyday life. I also enjoyed her follow up 'Singularity', all in the same vein, but just a little more sinister and unsettling.

The author has taken one of the stories in this latter collection, 'The Night Book', and made it the first chapter of the novel of the same name. This short story is the foundation of the novel from which the story unfolds, and is also the cornerstone for both the beginning and ending of the novel.

Simon Lampton is a gynecologist/obstetrician, married to Karen. They are parents of two children, when they foster, then adopt Elke who joins the family when she is about eight years old. Simon comes across as very close to his children, very empathetic to them, and develops a close bond with Elke who like him, is a bit of an insomniac and often sits up with him while he is doing work related stuff, hence the title. By the by, much of the action in the book takes place at night. His wife Karen is not a character who endears herself to the reader, being a bit of a flake, sycophantic, and far too consumed by the material world she lives in. It appears that Simon is not 100% happy with his very fortunate life, is mildly unsettled, and probably sitting on the tip of a mid-life crisis. Karen's best friend and her husband are heavily involved in the political campaign that wants to see the election of a new right-of-center prime minister after some years of left-of-center government. Simon, reluctantly, and Karen, enthusiastically, find themselves slowly pulled into the inner circle of the about to be PM David and his very beautiful, enigmatic wife Roza. The plot unfolds from the initial meeting of Simon and Roza. Simon is immediately attracted to Roza, but is not sure why, and this uncertainty and increasing dissatisfaction with his life takes him on a bit of downward spiral. Roza meanwhile, finds herself spiraling down even further with the pressure on her to be the perfect PM-to-be's wife.

The novel is based in Auckland, mainly in the wealthy eastern suburbs, but also in the poorer suburbs of South Auckland where Simon deals with his own demons. It could of course be any big city in any country in the world, but if you live in Auckland, or know the city well, it is very obvious where it is set. There are a number of events and people in the novel based very closely on real recent events, and I couldn't help comparing her writing of them with the real thing! As usual her writing of human behaviour and interactions is spot on, she writes beautifully of the human condition, the reasons and motivations people have for doing things.

But despite the writing, the book as a complete package just did not fully gel for me. Some days after finishing I still can't put my finger on it, it is almost as if there is too much going on, as if she has tried too hard to make something bigger and deeper than the short stories. And I really did have some trouble with Simon being the deep thinking, totally empathetic, in touch with his feelings kind of guy that the author has created! I just don't seem to know any men like that! Most of the characters are stereotypes of the wealthy eastern suburbs type, social and political climbers, and I really wonder if the author likes the type of people she is writing about. Apart from the one character from the wrong side of the tracks, I didn't actually like any of her characters. Perhaps that is what she set out to do - how too much money, too much time can corrupt the soul.

TRESPASS by Rose Tremain

Trespass - of land by foreigners and by one's own family members; of one's own personal body and personal space; of intruders into one's relationships. Trespass is the underlying theme of this novel. How this violation is dealt with by the various characters makes up the story line and the inevitable conflict that is at the core of any good story.

In the south of France is the mountainous region of the Cevennes. This is not a pretty postcard area of France, but one of rugged, mountains, full of valleys, rivers and forests with tortuous roads made famous by a journey Robert Louis Stevenson took on a donkey over 12 days and 220 kms. This sinister and dark environment is captured perfectly as the backdrop for the sinister and dark goings-on in this novel which centres on two sets of brother and sister, one set French, born and bred in the Cevennes; and the other English, relatively new arrivals to the area.

Aramon and Audrun are, I guess, in their late fifties or early sixties. They live on a family property, the brother in the dilapidated large house, the sister in a new bungalow on her portion of the land. The brother, like the house, is falling apart through personal neglect and the sister is biding her time until he completely falls apart. He is desperate to sell the property to the numerous English, Dutch and Germans eager to buy in the area, but the presence of his sister's house on what he considers is his land has prevented any sales to date.

Meanwhile not far away, Veronica Verey, a successful garden designer and aspiring writer, who is of a similar age, lives with her lover Kitty, a very average artist. Into this mix arrives Anthony Verey, an extremely successful antique dealer from London, who is beginning to find he is a bit of a has-been, and is looking for fresh pastures. His arrival sets in place a chain of events that result in death and destruction.

The writing is marvellous: suspenseful, descriptive, dramatic, all the while taking place in the dangerous and rugged terrain of the area, its secret forests, valleys and glades. The characters are fabulously vivid, I can picture exactly how they look, what they wear, how they move, their little behaviours and idiosyncrasies. Like peeling the proverbial onion, very gradually the author uncovers the background and secrets to the relationships between the two sets of brothers and sisters which sets the scene for how events unfold.

A first rate story, that is just a little bit scary and so remains with you for quite some after. And it is not the characters and the events which are scary but the fabulous landscape and scenery which stays with the reader! Next trip to France...

READING IN JUNE - Where Underpants Come From; The Ginger Tree; Between the Assassinations


The assassination of Indira Ghandi occurred in 1984 and that of her son in 1991. The series of stories that make up this book are set during this time period. In many other parts of the world social and economic happenings were happening apace, but in India, nothing much changes. The more it changes, the more it stays the same. Aravind Adiga has followed up his Man Booker prize winning 'The White Tiger' with an equally hard hitting collection of stories detailing the wretchedness and hopelessness of the lives of the average Indian in an urban setting.

Adiga has made up a small city, Kittur, somewhere on the south-western coast of India, north of Calicut and south of Goa, in the state of Karnataka. Having lived in a south Indian city much bigger than this one, the city of Kittur is very true to life I felt like I had been transported back to the city that I had lived in - the traffic, the markets, the squalor, the dirt, the desperation of the lives the vast majority of people live. The south of India being very Hindu, the caste system and its role in directing the lives of the minions who are born into it, dominates the stories and characters that Adiga has created. He is not a fan of the caste system and the appalling injustices that result from it, and neither does he come up with any solutions to fix it. Having lived there, some twenty years after this book is set, I also don't think there is any way to fix it. And this of course is the tragedy of the life of the average Indian.

Adiga transforms the reader into a tourist, treated to a guided tour of the city. At the beginning of each of the fourteen chapters the reader learns a bit about that particular part of the city, and then Adiga launches into the wretched life of yet another impoverished person. The stories are not interlinked by characters, but by the awfulness of their existences. It is compelling reading, the characters are beautifully drawn, their lives written with love and compassion, but also utter hopelessness.

THE GINGER TREE by Oswald Wynd

This novel was first published way back in 1977, and has been reprinted several times so must be a popular story! This book was given to me to read by an elderly couple, her Japanese and he European. They were married in Japan some 47 years ago, such a mixed marriage being unusual for those days. They suggested I read this because it gives a lot of insight into Japanese society from around 1900 to WWII. Things of course started to change in Japan after the war, but prior to that very little had changed for hundreds of years.

The story is narrated by way of a diary and letters by a young Scottish woman, Mary Mackenzie, who is sailing out to China to marry an army man. She has decided to marry to get away from Scotland and the unexciting life she has there. The marriage of course is a disaster, despite a daughter being born, and Mary has a very brief affair with a Japanese career soldier, gets pregnant, is ostracised from the expat community in Shanghai and flees to Japan. She remains in Japan until 1942 when the book ends. Over the years Mary experiences all sorts of traumas and trials and ends up making a very good life for herself in Japan, becoming financially independent, which I imagine was a most unusual accomplishment for any woman of that time, let alone a European one in pre-war Japan.

So the story is relatively trite, and the characters are fairly predictable, but the best thing about the book is the insight we get into pre-war Chinese and Japan society and how Europeans fitted in or didn't. I found it difficult to completely engage with this story, mainly due to its style of narration. Mary sends letters to her mother in Scotland and to a French woman whom she met when living in China. The rest of the story is via diary entries. So we have a very personal and intimate narration style, but I felt very detached from Mary and how her life was unfolding. I almost felt like an observer rather than a confidante of her. Nevertheless a good read which gives a good insight into a society and time most people would know little about.


Who would have thought that the story of a pair of underpants bought from that icon of New Zealand retail, The Warehouse, could be so interesting. Underpants are an article that we, in 1st World countries regard as essentials. Virtually all our clothing purchases are discretionary, but underpants are things that we ALL wear, it is the universal garment, the one garment of necessity that we all wear. Sure you can buy at The Warehouse or you can buy at a top end lingerie shop. But I expect that almost all of them are Made in China. Let's not get too picky with the likes of La Perla and so on! So Joe has an epiphany and decides to find out exactly where his special Warehouse purchased undies come from.

And what unfolds is a fascinating journey giving us an insight into modern day, China. He travels firstly to Shanghai, where amongst other sights and sites he visits, he goes to the world's largest, and it is very very large, container terminal. The authorities casted around for a suitable site close to Shanghai. An island offshore was deemed suitable, the long standing residents were sent somewhere else in China, a 30km bridge was built from the mainland to the island, and this massive, huge container terminal was built. On it are HUGE warehouses stocked full of every single item that the Western world uses in its daily lives. It is absolutely mind boggling. Joe travel throughout China to find out where and how the elastic in his pants is made, and where the cotton is grown, harvested and spun. Throughout his travels his observant and keen eye documents everything going on around him, the lives of the people, the massive upheaval taking place with the millions migrating from the rural areas to the urban areas for the dreadful manufacturing jobs they feel they need to have. He has plenty to say about the far reaching, overwhelming power and influence the government has over the lives of the common man, as well as the indomitable, uncrushable spirit of the common man to better himself and maintain his personal dignity in the process.

After reading this I begin to understand the powerhouse that is the Chinese economy in our capitalist and materialistic world. They own us, and every other Western country too. I expect that one day China will own the world. It really makes me wonder that we are so far out of touch with our world and immediate environment that we have resorted to even importing frozen veges from China. Read this and it may help you rethink your shopping habits.

READING FOR MAY - Major Pettigrew's Last Stand; Dissolution; Ordinary Thunderstorms


I finished reading this latest William Boyd novel about a week ago and just have not been able to figure out what to write about it. And I can't figure out why that is!! There is no deny it is an excellent read; I think the problem is that is so hard to define what type of novel it is. Is it a murder mystery, or a Bourne Identity theft type of thriller, or a modern day fable parable type thing? Whatever it is, it is a damn fine story, an action-packed, intricate plot with just enough rope to keep the reader dangling and wondering who will get who first.

In one of those being-in-the-wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time moments, Adam Kendrick, in London from the US for a job interview, finds himself on the run, wanted by the police for murder, and a shady bunch for the information he may possess. Living on his wits and on the streets, he has to stay one step ahead of those who are looking for him.

Great plot, small number of well drawn characters, and tightly held together, this is compelling reading. All of William Boyd's books that I have read - 4 or 5 now - have fantastically complex and human characters, full of baggage and consequently very realistic and life like.

This would be a great book for a holiday or a curl up on a wet, winterly afternoon. Be grateful you have a cosy warm room to read in, and you are not sleeping under a hedge in London town with nasty people after you!


We just cannot seem to get enough of murder mysteries, especially from English writers, who are devilish experts at whipping up unlikely victims, and not just one at a time. These stories take place in slightly sinister, gloomy and ever so slightly scary settings. There are very odd people with very imaginative motives, any of whom could be the murderer, and red herrings galore, pouring out of every ancient crevice or thatched cottage or porcelain teapot. And best of all, superbly well written, edge of the seat stuff. And this book is another in that genre, replete with all of the above except the porcelain teapot.

Set in 1537, in Henry VIII's England, shortly after Anne Boleyn loses her head, Thomas Cromwell is Henry's right hand man. His major responsibility, at least as far as this story is concerned, is to bring the monasteries to their knees, close them down, strip them of all their wealth and consequently all the power of the Catholic Church. No easy task as we know from the fabulous The Tudors series on TV. Cromwell has a number of commissioners whose jobs it is to travel to the monasteries to achieve these tasks. One, Robin Singleton, is sent to a Benedictine monastery in Sussex, where he promptly loses his head. Matthew Shardlake, a hunchback lawyer, with his young assistant Mark Poer, are sent to the monastery to solve the murder and continue with the dissolution of the monastery. Sharldlake is a die-hard supporter of the reforms taking place but as events unfold finds himself questioning what is going on. But this is bye the bye.

In their quest to solve the murder, further deaths occur; corruption and avarice and lust run amok; not one single person appears to be innocent, and our two intrepid sleuths have a big task on their hands.

As you can imagine rural England in 1537 is not a pleasant place to be. The author evokes how ghastly, and cold, and damp and revolting it all is fabulously. His descriptions of the monastery buildings, the beautiful church, the misty and dangerous moors all contribute to the atmosphere of danger and fear that are part of every good murder mystery. Plus of course the mostly unsavoury and unappealing characters that make up the story.

Added to all of this is the historical factor. I don't know much about this period in English history, but I learnt an awful lot, even such things as the logistics of travel between Sussex and London. The all pervading influence of both Cromwell and Henry VIII is terrifying, even in the far reaches of the countryside. Both these people hang like a dark threatening cloud over the whole story.

This is very compelling reading, a great story extremely well told. Very measured in its pace, it does pick up towards the end as the element of danger increases. Highly recommended.


Major Pettigrew is 68 years old, a very proper, buttoned up widower who lives in a picture perfect English village. The book opens with him in the shock of grief on hearing the sudden death of his brother Bertie who lives nearby with his wife and daughter. He has a chance meeting with Mrs Ali, a Pakistani lady, coincidentally a widow, who runs a small convenience store in the village owned by her late husband's family. For them both it is love at first sight, although of course this realisation takes a while to occur! As their friendship develops they both have to deal with the prejudices that inevitably arise as the result of such a relationship in such a small conservative English rural community! And the behaviour is not pretty. But as the title says, Major Pettigrew makes his last stand, and he and Mrs Ali live happily ever after. I have given the ending away, but it is fairly obvious, like all good tales, that they will end up together!

This is a gentle story, that strolls along in a very controlled fashion as befitting Major Pettigrew and the fine, upstanding man he is. Bit by bit the prejudices and stereotypes of the community unfold. It is predictable in so many ways, but also very engaging, wryly humorous in that very English way. Even though I enjoyed it, I didn't quite feel that I am the target audience, perhaps being a bit young, not yet of the age of 50! But I could see my mother and her friends reading it and relating more to the characters than I did.

APRIL READING - The Girl Who Played With Fire; Year of Wonders;

YEAR OF WONDERS by Geraldine Brooks

Also known as 'annus mirabilis', the year 1666 was the subject of a poem with this title by Johm Dyrden about the events of that year in England, namely the Great Fire of London and the Great Plague, plus war with the Dutch. The author also refers to the phrase in her Afterword at the end of her novel, with God telling Moses to 'do my wonders', which included the first plague in recorded history visited upon the Egyptians.

Ms Brooks has based her novel upon the actual events that took place in the village of Eym in Derbyshire which was struck by a plague in 1665-1666. The village chose to quarantine itself from the rest of the local area in the hope the illness might outrun itself and thus restrict its spread.

The narrator of this fictionalised account is 18 year old Anna Frith, recently widowed with two young sons. She takes in a boarder who unwittingly appears to have been the carrier of the illness to the village. The illness is horrible in how it attacks the victims and Ms Brookes' descriptions are not attractive! The disease quickly takes hold in the community of approximately 350 people. The Rector, typically of the times, has a very powerful influence in the community of largely illiterate, superstitious agricultural families. His decision to isolate the village from the community at large comes at a huge cost over the course of a 12 month period.

Fear grips the villagers, with the local medicine woman/midwife and her daughter being early victims of the mob violence and climate of fear. Anna and the rector's wife, Elinor, take it upon themselves to continue to care for the people with herbal remedies and tonics and so on. Little good it does! But it enables Anna, as the narrator, to be out in the community and so able to report on what is happening to the villagers and their daily lives. Not pleasant, and I am so glad I live in the time period I do! Eventually, over the 12 month period the disease does run its course but the population is reduced by two thirds as a result.

Throughout it all Anna just manages to retain her sanity despite enormous personal loss and emerges like a phoenix from the ashes into a strong and extremely capable young woman. Her life subsequent to this story would make a further wonderful novel if ever Ms Brooks decided to write about her again.

If you are looking for a pleasant bed time read, this is not it. The subject matter is harrowing, the style of writing is very correct, formal and beautifully descriptive. Not modern at all. As the novel evolves, Anna begins to question what God is all about, that despite all the worship etc of Him, He still thinks it is ok to deliver this plague. At the core of all this is how human beings behave when their very lives and survival are threatened by something they have no control over.

I can't say I really enjoyed reading this, and I would not put it in my top 10 or 20. But such is its power that it has stayed with me, and I continue to think about it nearly a week after finishing reading it. Ms Brooks is a fabulous writer, I don't know how people can write such amazing things that continue to haunt us and make us think more deeply.


Google this title and pages and pages of stuff come up. This writer and his books are a phenomenon in the thriller genre. Totally gripping, intricate plot and plot development, very well drawn and unusual characters, and of course plenty of token violence just to keep us breathlessly turning the pages.

Lisbeth Salander returns, naturally, as one of the main protagonists. This time she takes centre place in the story as she attempts to stay one step ahead of being arrested for murder, 3 murders in fact. Assisting her is Mikael Blomkvist, journalist extraordinaire, and a number of characters from the first book who are also convinced of her innocence. Sex trafficking and prostitution of young women is the underlying theme of this book, which runs a parallel with the lack of control Lisbeth had over her early life.

Some reviews say the first book is better, some say this is one better. They are both equally good. I still don't want to see the movie as I don't see how they can cram all the stuff in the book into 2-3 hours. Riveting reading though.


A lot of reading was done in March. In fact we had almost everyone present at the meeting so lots of talk too.

Being read this past month and brief comments of :

Confessions of Edward Day
by Valerie Martin: A number of us have read and very much enjoyed Property by the same author which won the Orange Prize. This relatively short but exceptionally well written novel is narrated by the wife of a plantation owner who is a brutal master to his slaves and a pretty awful husband too. From all accounts Edward Day would appear to be a much easier read, a romp and entertaining. Perhaps it is good Property was read first!

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Stroud: this year's Pulitzer Prize winner. Bleak but a very good book.

Return to Paris by Colette Rossant: the second book in a memoir series, the first being Apricots on the Nile and the third being The World in My Kitchen. We read the first one some years ago and very much enjoyed it. This one takes us to Paris where Colette was taken by her mother at the conclusion of Apricots. Just as enjoyable and interesting as the first one, with delicious sounding recipes.

Ordinary Thunderstorms by William Boyd: this is another author we have read a lot of over the years and this is his latest novel. Very credible, totally compelling and riveting says the first reader of this.

An Equal Stillness by Francesca Kay: Beautifully written emotional tragedy

The Life and Death of Laura Friday by David Murphy: After I gave this a great review (see blog) someone else finally read it and also loved it. Very funny with good movie potential she said!

The Journal of Dora Damage by Belinda Starling: Very weird, strangely attractive and compelling, vivid portrayal of life in 1850s London.

Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger: This is the woman who wrote The Time Traveller's Wife which had mixed reviews in our group. This latest does not appear to be popular at all!

The Blue Notebook by James Irvine: This was mentioned in November book club notes. Slowly more people in the group are reading it, same excellent reviews, because it is such harrowing subject matter, it is hard to read and really enjoy!

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel: Last year's Man Booker prize winner. All about Thomas Cromwell who served Henry VIII until his head got chopped off. By all accounts heavy going.

A Week in December by Sebastian Faulkes: This author's latest novel, great story and very relevant.



The hype surrounding this book, and any book for that matter that people start raving about, made me nervous about starting this. SO many people I know have read this, the reviews have all been very praise worthy and now of course it is out at the movies. I wasn't nervous about reading this just because of all the hype though. The few books I have read by Scandanavian authors have always been gloomy, dark, set in the middle of winter, matter of fact and generally hard work to get through. With the exception of Pippi Longstocking of course.

This book however has it all, apart from all the murder and blood and gore of course that seems to pepper any decent blockbuster nowadays! It has a great plot line that goes back and forth over fifty years or so, exceptionally well drawn characters, all of them, not just the major characters. The main half dozen characters are all incredibly interesting and complex people, and yet very realistic, even the girl of the title. Their relationships with each other, even the ones that are not healthy or good, are well portrayed and again very realistic in the way they relate to each other.

Plenty has been written about this book and the others in the series so I will say little about the plot other than an investigative journalist is commissioned to solve a long standing disappearance and finds himself more and more drawn into the complexities of the family he is investigating. His assistant is the girl of the title, damaged but brilliant and together the mystery is solved.

The book is written as a classic whodunnit, with the odd red herring thrown in. The story does travel quite a bit around Sweden and the reader gets a wonderful travelogue of the country and the climate as the story unfolds. After a gently paced beginning, the story picks up and becomes an absolute page turner, right to the last page. Can't wait to start the second one in the series.

THE OUTCAST by Sadie Jones

What a depressing, sad and sorry bag of bones this book is. I understand it was originally conceived as a screenplay, maybe that should have told everyone something that it didn't get further than that. But I also see that it is to become a movie directed by the guy who directed Shakespeare in Love. I really can't visualise how that will turn out, although movies have been made of much less. And that reminds me, even though the blurb on the back sounded a bit suspect, I took it to read because I knew it was being made into a movie. Big mistake.

Because, really not a lot happens in this novel. It has a busy sounding plot, with young Lewis Aldridge, growing up in post-war England in a suffocating satellite/commuter town of London where appearances count for everything. At the age of ten Lewis's lively, attractive and loving mother drowns in a river - the perils of drinking and swimming - and this changes his life quite dramatically. His emotionally retarded father, Gilbert, swamped by grief, cannot deal with his own grief, let alone that of his son. He quickly remarries, and life returns to 'normal' as Gilbert knows it, but of course not for Lewis. From this point on the downward spiral of Lewis's life takes off. Increasingly alienated from the people in his closed, insular community who quite simply don't understand him and don't want to, he becomes more isolated, takes to drinking, self harming, visiting a prostitute, ends up committing arson and goes to prison for two years, where by all accounts he was actually quite happy.

The second half of the novel focuses on his return to the town and to his father's and stepmother's house. Nothing has changed of course, and it is as if he has never been away. Nothing has changed in the neighbourhood either. The other main character in the book is Kit, a girl a few years younger than Lewis who comes from an equally dysfunctional family headed by a man who is a master in domestic violence but hides behind the enormous respectability of being the richest man around. There are some truly lovely people that live in this small community! Kit has always been desperately in love with Lewis, probably because she recognises a similarly damaged soul. Now that Lewis is 19, and Kit 15, they begin to notice each other, surprise surprise, and this is the main focus of the last third as they deal with the chaos of their lives.

But the whole thing is so depressing and monotonous and grey and gloomy. Perhaps Ms Jones is trying to depict life in the straightened and controlled times of the 1950s, which she does actually succeed in doing. Her writing is quite descriptive and very visual but it has so many 'ands' in every single sentence. I read another review of this book and the reviewer also commented on the excessive use of 'and'; apparently it is intentional to illustrate the monotony of everything. She succeeds here too. Reading it reminded me very much of Atonement by Ian McEwan, but way way more happens in the latter, plus being a better story, better characters, and you can see it becoming a movie, sad ending notwithstanding. I have no idea how this story will be turned into 90 minutes minimum of entertainment. I won't be going! The only reason I finished this book is because I have to review it for book club.

THE GLASS ROOM by Simon Mawer

Fifteen years ago the author visited the Tugendhat house in Czechoslovakia which is the house upon which this novel is based on. Designed by Ludwig Miles van der Rohe it is considered an icon of modern architecture. So highly regarded is it that is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. From the information available the house in this book would appear to be a replica of the real house and is the one centre piece constant throughout the novel in a world of chaos and disintegration.

Despite the historical backdrop which encompasses the Nazis, war, communism and all the rest it, the house remains, a symbol perhaps of the indestructibility of the human spirit and hope for the future. This is primarily a story of optimism. Throughout the story all the characters are looking to improve themselves and their lives, always looking forwards. And it follows, for once, that for a story about war and destruction it does actually have a happy ending.

Liesel and Viktor (who is Jewish) Landauer commission the house to be built in 1929. Its construction coincides with the pregnancy and birth of the couple's first child, symbolic of the new life as a family within the walls of the house. The plot follows the well known history of the time with the taking over of Austria and then Czechoslovakia by the Germans, the refugees who arrive in the locality, anti- semitism and how it all affects this family, their friends and associates. The family escape to Switzerland in 1938, leaving the house to its fate, and after a hurried journey across Europe in around 1942, finally finish up in the USA.

The house meantime lives through and survives to the modern day, and at the end of the story becomes the focus for the conclusion. The glass room is the main living room of the house, and encompasses the whole front expanse of the building with huge window panes of glass and an onyx wall. So much of the critical elements and events of the story take place in this room.

This is a fabulous piece of story telling, giving a slightly different take on the thousands of novels that have come out of the horror of the WWII, the Nazis, the holocaust, Communist rule, and subsequent breakdown. All that stuff happens in the background, the focus in this story is the people to whom it is happening to. There is some beautiful writing, without being overly sentimental, just a little mind you! I did find some of the characters a bit flat though, not enough depth or roundness to them. With the exception perhaps of Hana who is Liesl's best friend. Although she is not one of the main characters of the story, she certainly comes across as the most complex and interesting.

A most worthwhile book, that does take a little while to get going - till about page 75 from memory, but then the switch for me suddenly came on and I was away with it.


A few years ago in the book club we read a fabulous biography of the famous Mitford sisters. Aristocratically born early in the 20th century, the five sisters came to adulthood between the wars where they literally took the world by storm. Nancy, the oldest, became a writer of biting satire towards her class, Unity and Diana were fascists - Unity in cahoots with Hitler and Goebbels, and Diana marrying the very well known fascist Sir Oswald Mosley who ended up going to prison for his troubles; Jessica became a journalist and went off to report on the Spanish Civil War not on the side of the fascists; and extraordinarily the youngest, Deborah, became the Duchess of Devonshire! And what is more they were all incredibly beautiful, rich, opinionated and famous.

So any writings that come out of this mix are bound to be interesting if nothing else. Along with The Pursuit of Love, Love in a Cold Climate takes a satirical view of upper class society at a certain point between the wars - before the stock market crash of 1929 and after. The story is narrated by Fanny Logan, an 18 year old girl who lives with relatives due to her parents either being incapable or unable to care for her. Money however is no object! In this particularly wealthy area of England the Lord and Lady Montdore and their daughter Polly, also 18 live. Recently returned from being Viceroy in India, they are totally full of themselves and their position so high up the food chain. Except for Polly who really could not care less, and certainly does not want to be married off to the first available suitor as her mother wishes. Until Polly takes control of her own life of course, seriously threatening her mother's esteemed position in society, and forcing Lord Montdore to disown his only child. This results in the arrival of the male heir, Cedric, from the colonies of Nova Soctia and the upheaval he so delightfully foists on this small corner of English landed gentry.

As one expects the plot dances along, with sparkling and witty dialogue and gorgeous characters. The stereotypes abound - Lady Montdore is a monster, Polly is the beautiful, angelic, dumb blonde, there are mad and lecherous uncles and dotty aunts, absent minded professors, and of course the completely foppish and outrageous Cedric.

A lot of fun and easy to read. But I don't feel I need to read another of her books.

THE HELP by Kathryn Stockett

This recently published book has taken the US by storm. Ms Stockett is an excellent story teller but in taking on a tricky subject such as the social structure of 1960s Mississippi, just as the civil rights movement is getting started she is setting herself up for all sorts of fallout and retribution. I almost always read the Acknowledgments/background notes pages written by the author before I start reading a book and this book has superb background information to her novel. Ms Stockett grew up in a house that had a black maid, and like the white children in this story, she had the same maid looking after her for most of her childhood. These maids would either stay with the family until retirement or death, or would move onto another family with young children. As you can imagine the bond that develops between the white families and the black staff is extremely strong, as is the huge variation in the way the staff are treated by their white employers. In this novel the relationship focus is on the white women employers and the black maids.

The main characters are a young white woman, Skeeter Phelan, who has recently returned to her home town of Jackson, Mississippi after being at college with dreams of becoming a writer and getting out of Jackson. She has to deal with her mother's determination to get a ring on her finger. Aibileen is a black woman who I guess is in her 50s, now onto being nanny to her seventeenth white child and giving this child all the love and self esteem that the mother seems unable or unwilling to do. Then there is Minny, a younger black maid with a drunk abusive husband and five children, and a mouth on her that gets her into all sorts of trouble. Skeeter begins to write a book anonymously documenting the stories of the black maids in the town, and thus begins to walk a very fine line between the white-lady-expected-behaviour-line and giving a dignified voice to the not very dignified lives of the maids. Naturally the two collide in spectacular fashion!

So beneath the very serious message there is humour and love and graciousness. But at the core of this book is the tragic legacy left by slavery in the American South and the enormous rifts that arose between human beings of simply different skin colour. Not confined just to 1960s America either.