DECEMBER READING: RESTORATION by Rose Tremain

This very fine novel was first published in 1989. Writing some twenty years later about this book, the author states that this story was her 'fictional response to the climate of selfishness and material greed that began to prevail in our society during the Thatcher years, from which we have never recovered and for which we are now beginning to pay a terrifying price'. Four years on from making this statement of course, society is no better off.  Which ensures that a story such as as this has as much relevance now as it did 25 years ago, and 325 years before that when it is set in the equally greedy time of the reign of Charles II.

When the story begins, in 1664, Robert Merivel is a 37 year old physician. Since he was a child he has been fascinated by how the body works, over the years developing his knowledge and an enormous respect for the human condition. The restoration of a king to the throne of England in 1661 awakens a frenzy of celebration and hedonism in the population at large which Robert is desperate to become a part of. Fortunately for Robert, his father is a glove maker to the King, which does improve his chances of getting close to the King. In a peculiar piece of good luck he cures one of the royal spaniels and finds himself firmly in place at the royal court. But he is really no more than a plaything of the King, a pawn to be used as the King sees fit, and in the process Robert loses some of himself. He finds himself married to one of the King's mistresses, ostensibly to keep another mistress happy. As a reward for this service he is knighted, given lands and a house miles away in Norfolk and forbidden from falling in love with his wife. Naturally he does fall in love, and in a single kingly stroke, all his good fortune is taken away from him.

What follows is Robert's rediscovery of himself and his own personal restoration to the man that was always there, but had been temporarily waylaid by the madness and greed around him. Destitute and homeless, he makes his way to where John Pearce, his oldest friend, a Quaker who had been a fellow medical student with him, now lives - an establishment that cares for mentally disturbed people. All the way through the novel John Pearce acts a bit like Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio - that little conscience just sitting out of sight on Robert's shoulder. Robert always knows that John's way is the right way; he just has some trouble getting on the right path!

The journey of restoring body and soul is long and fraught with the crazy house not being the end of the road for Robert by any means. But slowly and surely,  Robert Merivel, Physician and Surgeon, finds happiness and peace and his own self. Robert is a fully rounded character, with his fair share of human failings and strengths. He encourages us all to look into ourselves and find the goodness within, as well as the moral courage to make a stand.

This is a long book, not a light summer read, but one to be savoured and lingered over. The research into 17th century life, in the country, the hideous cities, the court life, treatment of the sick, the Plague, the Great Fire of London, dress, diet, transport, is outstanding. As is the writing. The author is a very classy writer, and I am very much looking forward to reading the  recently published sequel called simply 'Merivel'.

DECEMBER READING: Oh Dear Silvia


OH DEAR SILVIA by Dawn French

Review copy kindly supplied by Penguin Books NZ via Booksellers New Zealand.

Dawn French - everyone's funny lady, mainstay of British light television, and yet, like many comedians, also brilliant at serious thought, producing work that has considerably more depth to it than the laughs generated. Should we be surprised then that her second book is a serious book? Poignant and reflective, it highlights how in life the wires that hold our relationships with family and those dear to us can become quite tenuous, and how difficult it can be to repair those bonds. And that is often because we don't know what caused them to bend and break in the first place, so of course can't then fix them.

This story is all about Silvia, and how every single meaningful relationship she has had in her life is in absolute tatters. Strangely, Silvia is in a coma, lying in a hospital bed, in a vegetative state. So, rightly or wrongly, we never actually hear from Silvia herself as to how or why she is in this current predicament. For the purposes of the story she is a prop, but a prop who is the focus of the visitors that come to see her, to talk/shout/cry/reflect/scream/laugh, as they come to terms with the fact that Silvia may not be around for too much longer.

The cast of 'loved ones' is not huge, but varied and rich in complexity, damaged and vengeful, loving and protective, hurt and sad. So through their stories, we find out exactly how Silvia ended up in this small hospital room facing her own demise. There is her ex-husband Ed, her estranged daughter Cassie and absent son Jamie, her older, completely bonkers sister Jo, her lover Cat, her cleaner Tia, and overseeing all with her warmth and humanity the gorgeous nurse Winnie who, a bit like the chorus that features in Greek theatre, holds the whole thing together. 

But let us not forget that the book has been written by a woman renowned for her comedy, both in writing and performing. This story reeks of Dawn French's voice. This may be distracting for some, but I loved it. I could hear her voice saying large chunks of the dialogue or even doing an audio version of the book. I could see in my mind's eye exactly how the nutty sister Jo looks and behaves. There are some truly hilarious moments in this story, that may well have you laughing out loud. There is a page of exquisite writing when Ed is looking at Silvia's hands lying on outside of the sheets - a page of writing about her hands - how do you make a page of writing about a pair of hands so beautiful? But it epitomises so gently and poignantly the intimacy of a marriage or relationship. We know from her comedy how cleverly Dawn French captures the human condition, and here she shows she can also do it in writing.

This is a great read, not too deep, not too shallow, but with just enough pathos, loose endings tied up, and the power of love and forgiveness to make it amazingly satisfying. Ah yes, you think when you finish it, that had a little bit of everything, and in just the right quantities.

READING IN DECEMBER: Intimate Death;

INTIMATE DEATH: HOW THE DYING TEACH US TO LIVE by Marie de Hennezel.

This book is also known as 'Seize the Day' depending on the publisher.

 I work closely with terminally ill patients, helping them compile biographies of their lives to leave their families. And yet this process is as much about the patient as it is about the legacy being left. Is there anything more cathartic and indulgent than telling a complete stranger stories about your life, and then seeing it in writing and adorned with photos? For the patient it gives dignity and honour at a difficult time. For me, and I imagine other biographers, it is perhaps one of the most humbling and humane things that can be done for another person. And brings home to me, so much younger than most of the patients I deal with, the title of this book - how the dying teach us to live. Death is a subject that in our Western civilisation bubble, we choose not to think about until we are suddenly confronted with it. In the flood of emotions that corkscrew through us, we find death is something we are really quite ill equipped to deal with. This beautifully written, and at times achingly sad book lifts the lid on, quite simply, what it is like to die. The author is a psychologist/psychotherapist who specialises in caring for palliative care patients. She works mainly in hospice settings in France. This book has been translated from French. This woman has compassion in buckets, and it seems to me walks a very fine line between her professional role in caring for the patient, and her instincts as a human being to nurture and love those she is caring for. She takes a number of patients of various ages suffering from various illnesses - cancer, aids, motor neurone - and shows us that one's last journey need not be as sad, awful, and heartbreaking as we think it is. By giving these patients dignity, talking to them, letting them talk, not wallowing in sadness when with them, the whole business takes on new and uplifting meaning. The most important things I got out of this book? The importance of a smile, the importance of the touch of hand on hand, and what it really means to be human.

NOVEMBER READING : WAITING FOR SUNRISE


WAITING FOR SUNRISE by William Boyd

In our book club we love William Boyd. His books are always satisfying, complicated, great plots, interesting flawed protagonists, or as one reviewer puts it - there is always a 'Dude with a Problem'. And the author himself is timeless, judging by the photo that graces the book covers. Although as an aside, the photo on the cover of this, his latest, does actually resemble a man who could be approaching 60 years of age!

Lysander Rief is a young Englishman, an actor, who is the son of a now deceased famous actor father. He is engaged to a young actress. He comes to Vienna in 1913 to seek a cure for a personal and private problem, Vienna of course being the home to Sigmund Freud and his theories of psychoanalysis. Lysander is very much an innocent abroad, rather dull, indecisive, bit of a wimp really. In Vienna he meets a wide assortment of very interesting people ranging from his fellow lodgers, his therapist, a fellow patient with whom he has a very complicated entanglement, and some fellow Brits. Life suddenly takes a very dark turn for Lysander, and it seems as if he goes through a personality transplant in the process. The result is a man of action who would not be out of place in a John Le Carre novel. Suddenly his life has a purpose, ie save it, and in the process uncover a mole deep inside the British military machine.

Because of course, by now it is World War I. Lysander is quite literally, thrown in the deep end, on his quest to solve the intelligence leak. This takes him to the trenches, to Switzerland, back to England, tripping around all over the south coast, dealing again with his complicated entanglement, finding true love, and finally managing to derail the traitor. Quite an achievement really for someone whose life only months before appeared to be going nowhere.

I know it is all only fiction and made up, but the changes that take place in Lysander I did find a little far fetched. Maybe his psychotherapy treatment produced a truly new man! Maybe those acting genes finally kick in. The book could be psycho analysed forever in an attempt to understand the author's purpose. But it doesn't really matter because this is a very readable, action filled, page turner of a book. The story may be a little uneven, the ending a bit of an anti climax, but William Boyd's writing, as usual, is flawless. It doesn't take much for him to pick the reader up and throw them into the action too.

READING IN NOVEMBER - Waiting for Sunrise; Bitter Almonds; We Are All Made of Glue; The Blasphemer


WAITING FOR SUNRISE by William Boyd

In our book club we love William Boyd. His books are always satisfying, complicated, great plots, interesting flawed protagonists, or as one reviewer puts it - there is always a 'Dude with a Problem'. And the author himself is timeless, judging by the photo that graces the book covers. Although as an aside, the photo on the cover of this, his latest, does actually resemble a man who could be approaching 60 years of age!

Lysander Rief is a young Englishman, an actor, who is the son of a now deceased famous actor father. He is engaged to a young actress. He comes to Vienna in 1913 to seek a cure for a personal and private problem, Vienna of course being the home to Sigmund Freud and his theories of psychoanalysis. Lysander is very much an innocent abroad, rather dull, indecisive, bit of a wimp really. In Vienna he meets a wide assortment of very interesting people ranging from his fellow lodgers, his therapist, a fellow patient with whom he has a very complicated entanglement, and some fellow Brits. Life suddenly takes a very dark turn for Lysander, and it seems as if he goes through a personality transplant in the process. The result is a man of action who would not be out of place in a John Le Carre novel. Suddenly his life has a purpose, ie save it, and in the process uncover a mole deep inside the British military machine.

Because of course, by now it is World War I. Lysander is quite literally, thrown in the deep end, on his quest to solve the intelligence leak. This takes him to the trenches, to Switzerland, back to England, tripping around all over the south coast, dealing again with his complicated entanglement, finding true love, and finally managing to derail the traitor. Quite an achievement really for someone whose life only months before appeared to be going nowhere.

I know it is all only fiction and made up, but the changes that take place in Lysander I did find a little far fetched. Maybe his psychotherapy treatment produced a truly new man! Maybe those acting genes finally kick in. The book could be psycho analysed forever in an attempt to understand the author's purpose. But it doesn't really matter because this is a very readable, action filled, page turner of a book. The story may be a little uneven, the ending a bit of an anti climax, but William Boyd's writing, as usual, is flawless. It doesn't take much for him to pick the reader up and throw them into the action too.


BITTER ALMONDS by Mary Taylor Simeti and Maria Grammatico

I have mixed feelings about this book. Firstly what sort of book is it? Is it a recipe book - 111 pages of its 229 pages are recipes; secondly is it biography of Maria Grammatico or thirdly is it a memoir of Mary Taylor Simeti telling how she came to be telling Maria's story. And these two latter stories cover the first 118 pages.

There is a terrific story here in the life Maria Grammatico.  In the 1950s, her impoverished mother sent her, at the age of 11, and her older sister to live in the enclosed and cloistered world of the local convent. There were approximately 22 people living in the convent of whom 13 were nuns, the rest young girls such as Maria and her sister. Maria lived here till the age of 25, when she left the convent. The only skills she had were how to make the delicious, dainty, delectable pastries, sweetmeats and biscuits that she had 'acquired' over the years living with the nuns. The nuns produced vast quantities of these morsels to sell to the locals on feast days and religious celebrations/ceremonies. None for the girls.  It was an appalling existence really for young girls. There was never enough food, very few comforts, very little if any freedom, no celebrations or fun of any kind. The one solace for Maria was the kitchen. Now, in her fifties, she still lives in the town the convent was in - Erice - and has her own very famous and highly regarded Italian patisserie where she makes, by hand, all the delicacies she had learnt all those years ago. On You Tube there are some lovely films of Maria in her kitchen and interviews with her about her life. I would love to have had the whole 229 pages about her life, more about what convent life was like, more about what happened to her when she left the convent, how she started her business  - I kid you not, it is summarised in one paragraph. Very very disappointing.

So is the book then a memoir of the writer, Mary Taylor Simeti and how she came to meet Maria and write the book. Unfortunately there is almost as much about this as there is about Maria. Mary is a successful writer herself, married to a Sicilian and living on Sicily. Her books about Sicilian food and travel are highly regarded and would appear to be well worth reading. But to me, this little book, should not be about her, and unfortunately it is. She intersperses Maria's story with snippets from her own, and the thread really does at times become quite confusing.

Then we come to the remaining 111 pages of recipes. And glorious they are too! From almond dough, almond cream, ricotta tart, citron jam, marzipan,  fig biscuits, preserves - 46 recipes in total. And all this is marvellous to read too! But is it perhaps just a little too much?

My overall feeling on finishing this book was that I felt cheated. And that Maria actually deserved more. Maybe one day someone will write a real biography of Maria's story instead of this offering.


WE ARE ALL MADE OF GLUE by Marina Lewycka I actually really liked this book, despite the many negative reviews that have been written about it. No, it is not nearly as good as her first novel 'A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian' or even 'Two Caravans', but I found it hugely enjoyable with its convoluted slightly ridiculous plot, equally eccentric and stereotyped characters, and at times really quite funny. I enjoyed this novel far more than the author's latest 'Various Pets Dead and Alive' which I reviewed in September, even though it is all over the place and has more threads going on than an out of control sewing machine. Georgie Sinclair has recently separated from her husband Rip (ridiculous name). She has two children, the younger one Ben is still at school and lives with her. The daughter, Olivia is at university. Georgie has a rather strange job writing for a trade magazine that specialises in glues and adhesives. So all the chapters are headed with some sort of adhesive that may or may not be relevant to the contents of the chapter, for example Rubber, Biopolymer, The Attraction Between Adhesives and Adherends'. Very intriguing. Her husband walking out after an argument over the attachment of a toothbrush holder to the bathroom wall has left Georgie in a bit of a state. In the process of venting her rage by throwing all his precious LPs into a skip she meets an elderly, possibly eccentric lady who resides nearby called Mrs Shapiro. An unlikely friendship begins to unfold. Georgie suddenly finds herself named by Mrs Shapiro as her next of kin following an accident that requires the latter to stay in hospital for a spell, and then run the gauntlet of compulsory and permanent removal to a rest home. It becomes Georgie's 'job' to protect Mrs Shapiro's interests from the Social Welfare bureaucrats, the local real estate agents/sharks, feed the stray cat population, and try to find out more about Mrs Shapiro, her mysterious past and hopefully some relatives. At the same time Georgie is dealing with her Ben who is losing himself in the cyber universe convinced the world is going to end any day, Rip the husband, her closet romance writing (dreadful),and her own search for new love. This book highlights just perfectly how there is nowt as queer as folk, that we are all bound together in some way or other, and that out of any situation that may arise, with a little effort there is always a way forward. Yes it has it faults. For example I am still not really sure why the marriage reached such a crisis point, the overly simplistic view of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, even the mysterious past of Mrs Shapiro. But despite all this it is a joy to read, and likely to leave a smile on your face at the end of many of the gluey chapters.
THE BLASPHEMER by Nigel Farndale

My goodness, there is SO much going on in this book, it's a minor miracle it is all packaged up and concluded in 492 pages. Is there a God or is there not? Was the earth created in seven days or not? Are there angels or not? And that is just for starters. But having said that, these three questions form the crux of the novel.

Daniel Kennedy is an atheist. He is also an associate professor of zoology at Trinity College in London, and has recently written and fronted a natural history television programme.  He lives in London with his long time girlfriend Nancy and their nine year old daughter Martha. When the book opens he and Nancy are preparing to take a trip to where the creation vs evolution debate began - the Galapagos Islands. On the way to their island destination, the sea plane crashes, Daniel makes an error of judgement, but does survive, as does Nancy, although his actions reverberate for months afterwards. Immediately post crash, as penance perhaps, Daniel makes the decision to swim the 14-odd kilometers to shore for help and during the swim has a vision of a young man - angel - who encourages him, enabling Daniel to hang on and eventually reach shore. All is well. Except for Nancy and Daniel's relationship which goes into freefall.

Running parallel to Daniel's story is that of his great grandfather, Private Andrew Kennedy, 21 years old, on his first day facing the horrors of Passchendaele. Andrew is a plumber, a very ordinary young man, brought up to believe in a God and that God is on the side of the right, which naturally includes him. His first day of war is a complete disaster, and he sees a vision which takes him off the battlefield, into a village in France, only to find himself some months later in front of a firing squad for desertion.

As if these two threads don't have plenty of potential for plot and character, the author also throws in radical Muslims and terrorist attacks,  a bitter and twisted university academic, nine year old Martha madly in love with her teacher, Mahler and Vaughan Williams, old age and mortality, distinguished military careers, other love interests, and long winded philosophical discussions on whether there are angels or are such visions a frontal lobe malfunction due to extreme stress. Quite frankly it all gets a bit much, with the whole story becoming quite incongruous and far too many coincidences for it to have any chance of being truly credible.

But despite the weakness with plot and lack of character development of some important people in the story, this does actually read very well and is quite a page turner. The author knows how to make a story. I did enjoy it, and who knows, maybe there really are angels out there.

READING FOR OCTOBER - The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut


 THE GOOD DOCTOR by Damon Galgut

You know there will be no happy ending when the opening line is 'The first time I saw him I thought, he won't last.' The first two pages are full of words like -  tall, thin, dusty, empty, frail, wilting, burden of leaves, ragged trees, basic standard issue, ugly, austere -  and the best one of all which sums up the whole mood of the book - bleak. What a writer this man is. From beginning to end the reader is taken on slowly unwinding spool of inevitable tragedy. Danger and a sense of foreboding is all around, as is the disintegration of the physical surroundings and the people themselves.

In the confusion of post-Apartheid South Africa, Dr Frank Eloff is a white doctor who has been working for seven years in a hospital in a remote rural outpost. The town was once the 'capital' of one of the many homelands set up by the apartheid government for self rule by the local tribal groups. There was a president, a flag, a parliament, statues of venerable leaders, in this case the Dictator, in the town square - all the trappings but none of the clout. Now there are no longer the trappings, with empty buildings and bits of statues strewn around the desolate country side. What rules now is violence, suspicion and despondency.

The hospital has gradually been allowed to become more rundown and neglected, staff who leave not being replaced, equipment and fittings slowly disappearing and not being replaced. The black doctor in charge does not want to be there but is powerless to move. Frank no longer really cares, and has come to see the hospital as his refuge from a messed up personal life. Into all this one day walks young recently graduated doctor Laurence Waters, who is on a one year's compulsory community medical practice stint. Being young, idealistic and energetic he wants to make a difference and so has chosen this particular derelict rundown operation to leave his mark.

His arrival, quite simply, upsets the proverbial apple cart. He has ideas, plans, wants to explore, asks too many questions, wants to put things right and in the process upsets the delicate balance between the various groups within the local community. The opposing personalities of Frank and Laurence are at the core of the novel, much like the new South Africa - the old being supplanted by the new. Being the only white men on site, (there is also a doctor husband and wife team from Cuba),  Frank is forced to share his room with him. As a result, both unintentionally and deliberately,  they constantly irritate each other and this becomes the undoing of both of them.

Damon Galgut is South African and grew up during the turbulent and dark times of the 1960s and 1970s, coming to adult hood in the early 1980s. This was his first novel and made such an immediate impression it was short listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2003. He pulls no punches with what he thinks of the current state of his country of birth, and what it has become. He also appears to have little hope for the future of the country.

But the book does end on a hopeful note, with Frank finally having achieved his goal of being head of the hospital and the many challenges that brings. There is a sense of hope and contentment in Frank's world, although maybe after seven years he has become so part of the local community he works in that he can't actually see a way out.






THE BUDDHA IN THE ATTIC by Julie Otsuka

A little book of 129 pages, with the most perfect writing. Seven chapters with deceptively simple titles such as 'Babies', 'Traitors', 'Last Day' that capture so poignantly and sadly the lives of a group of Japanese women, ranging in age from 13 to late forties. Early last century, they journeyed by boat from Japan to San Francisco to marry Japanese men they had never met. Apparently hundreds of Japanese women were such mail order brides to America. The book finishes during World War II with the arrest/internment of all those of Japanese descent into camps for the duration of the war. How does a writer sum all that these women went through in just 129 pages?


The author does not use just one voice, or just one person's story, but brilliantly tells numerous stories at any one time by using the collective 'we'. So the chapter titled 'Babies' which is all of five pages long has a few hundred sentences, each one beginning with the word 'we' describing in just one sentence a different experience of giving birth in this new country. So even though the reader only gets a snap shot of any one woman's life, collectively we learn an enormous amount about the overall life of each woman. It is very very clever, very very effective and hardly surprising that this book has won a number of American writing awards.  

The author, of Japanese descent, herself has based this story on her own family's experiences after the Pearl Harbour bombing.  It is written with such love, tenderness and sense of loss, that the story stays for quite some time after finishing.   This is the shortest review I think I have done, but I don't need to tell you anymore about this book. It can be read in one sitting, and fully deserves to be. Unlike many books I read, I am so glad I bought this one because I get to keep it. 

 






THE SEALED LETTER by Emma Donoghue

Before she wrote the riveting 'Room', this Irish author wrote 'The Sealed Letter'. And it couldn't be more different from 'Room'. Based on an actual event and real people, this story is about three individuals in Victorian London who, to their peril, find themselves up against the Establishment, fighting for their honour and good names.

Vice-Admiral Harry Codrington is a career navy man from a family with a sterling military pedigree. He is married to the much younger beautiful and enchanting Helen, with whom he has had two young daughters. Recently returned to London from a posting in Malta, both Harry and Helen are not finding the return to the more restrained and proper society of London very easy.  By chance, Helen one day literally runs into her former confidante and companion Miss Emily Faithfull. Fido, as she is known, is an unmarried woman, late twenties, who is a true blue feminist, involved in various causes, as well as being the owner/manager of a successful printing business.

Suddenly Fido finds herself drawn back into the unhappy marriage of Harry and Helen, and the disastrous fall out that results from Helen's adulterous affairs. As befits the mores of the time, there is a huge scandal, and  a high profile court case as Harry petitions to divorce his wife.  As well as producing the usual evidence gathered by a private detective and bizarrely a dress with a suggestive stain on it (this actually happened - move over Bill Clinton), he also tries to discredit Helen by bringing into question the true nature of the friendship between the two women. Back then, if the woman can be proved to be at fault, as well as being tarnished with the label 'divorcee' she also lost all custody, rights to money, marital property, care and any involvement at all with her children - she may as well be dead. No doubt this kept many marriages together.  But for someone like Fido, fiercely committed to the rights of women, dealing with this and the rumours swirling around, all placed her between a rock and a hard place.

The actual trial and the subsequent mind games don't occur till the last third of the book. So the majority of the book is the background to the situation, the setting up of the relationships, the careful manipulations. It is so well done and so well thought out that by the time of the trial, we realise that all three people are as much victims of each other as well as of the society they live in. Who would want to live in Victorian England? The poor had a terrible time - Dickens - but the rich or richer, especially if female, didn't really have a much better time.

Although based on fact and real people, the author seems to have created her own versions of Harry, Helen and Fido. No doubt they bear some resemblance to the real people, but they may also enable her to highlight the hypocrisy of the times, as well as the dangerous path many women trod, whether they were unhappily married mothers or independent unmarried businesswomen. Were you allowed to be either way back then? I'm just glad that I was born one hundred plus years later! 


READING IN OCTOBER - Rangatira by Paula Morris

RANGATIRA by Paula Morris

It has taken some years for Paula Morris to finish her meticulously crafted and told tale of her tupuna's (ancestor's) journey to England in 1863. Her tupuna was Ngati Wai chief Paratene Te Manu. He was a fierce warrior who fought with Hone Heke against other tribes, and fully embraced the arrival of the European with their muskets and other influences. After a time he converted to Christianity, quickly taking on the mores and ways of the European Christians around him. In 1863, now an exemplary convert, along with 13 other chiefs, he made the long and not very pleasant voyage to England. The chief objective of this tour was to meet Queen Victoria, as was fitting for their chiefly status in Maori society. The trip was organised and funded by members of the Wesley Methodist church in New Zealand, three of whom also made the journey. As well as an audience with the Queen, the other aims of the trip were to allow the chiefs to see what a great nation England was in its industrial and economic development and to allow the English themselves to see first hand the high ranking Christianised chiefs from England's furthest outpost. The whole adventure, that started with such high hopes and I would say honorable intentions, fairly quickly descended into disorder, sickness, exploitation, misunderstanding and tragedy. The story is narrated in the first person by Paratene himself, some twenty years later. He is now an old man and has agreed to undertake a number of sittings for a portrait to be completed by the artist Gottfried Lindauer. This is the picture that is the cover for the book, although apparently the original painting was done from a photo. However we won't let that get in the way of a good story! Mr Lindauer is shortly to leave on a long sea voyage himself and this, combined with the long sitting sessions allows Paratene to reflect on his own life changing long sea voyage. The research the author has put into this book is extraordinary, and it shows in the richness of detail and quality of writing. We experience the discomfort and confinement of being in steerage for the sea voyage through the eyes of Paratene, who has never been in such a situation before, and already sees this an omen for how the rest of the tour will turn out. Hardly an appropriate accommodation for a group of chiefs. We also see the squalor, poverty, violence and ugliness of Dickensian London through the wide-open eyes of Paratene, as well as the luxury and grandeur of the higher echelons of English society they find themselves in. Amidst the chaos the tour turns into, Paratene documents the kindness and concern they receive from perfect strangers who see the Maori chiefs for the symbols of conquest they become. Throughout Paratene maintains his dignity and manners, unlike some of the others in the party. This makes him the perfect narrator for such a tale as at all times he tries to see both sides of what is going on around him. At times I did find his objectivity frustrating - I don't think any person of such intelligence and perception could remain so distanced, almost passive by what was going on around him. Nevertheless, as he is narrating his story some twenty years after the event, it is hardly surprising the urgency, emotion and immediacy of the situation has faded over time. Perhaps what I found most interesting about the whole book was how emphatically and righteously the Christian Maori totally embraced everything European and openly rejected their traditional Maori ways, all in the space of one generation. This included things such as European dress, performance of haka, songs and prayers, learning to read, write and speak English. Quite different from today! As the quote from the Bible on page 137 says 'For what is a man advantaged, if he gain the whole world, and lose himself, or be cast away?'

SEPTEMBER READING: Various Pets Alive and Dead; Aloft; So Many Books and So Little Time

VARIOUS PETS ALIVE AND DEAD by Marina Lewycka

Despite the title, there are actually very few pets alive or dead in this story, but it does make for a catchy title and a very striking cover design. The one pet that is a regular fixture in this story is a hamster. Not the same hamster mind you, but a number of different hamsters. The hamster, as a pet, in its little cage, being man-handled by children, adults and others, going round and round endlessly and vigorously on its little wheel, is of course a very metaphoric way of looking at the way everyday life goes - "Putting all your heart and skill into running round inside a spinning hamster wheel is fine for a while, if your're making money, but demoralising and exhausting when you're pushing flat out and getting nowhere." How many people spend their lives in exactly this type of situation? This is the central theme of the story. Beginning with the very idealistic, young and energetic Marcus and Doro way back in the 1960s who are looking for a new way to live a meaningful life. With a few others they create a commune in the vicinity of Doncaster, sharing everything, literally, until the commune self implodes some 20 plus years later. It is now 2008. Marcus and Doro have three children who want to have nothing at all to do with the politics or lifestyles of their childhoods. After all if you had spent much of your childhood eating lentils, doing chores and sharing you would want to escape too! Clara is about as far removed from the carefree existence of hippies by becoming a primary school teacher, trying to bring about order and stability to her lower decile students; Serge, a brilliant mathematician supposedly doing a Ph.D at Cambridge has been sucked into the money-go-round vortex of London's financial markets - naturally his parents do not know; and younger sister Oolie-Anna, who has Down's Syndrome,is desperate to claim her own independence and live in her own place on her own terms. Marcus and Doro have never got married. For some reason, one day they decide to get married. And this leads to each member of the family having to come to terms with certain things that happened in the past. Much of the novel focuses on Serge, as his carefully constructed facade gradually comes crashing down, along with the entire financial services industry. Clara's issues focus on keeping her students on the straight and narrow, and taking Oolie Anna's side in her bid for independence. In the middle of all this is Doro, her left wing fighting spirit just as bright as ever as she takes on the local council who wish to build over a much loved and cared for allotment area. This is an easy to read feel good story, a lovely commentary on money not being everything, and much like Justin Cartwright's "Other People's Money" actively ridicules and mocks the big city so-called money makers. Her characters are very, very human, as are the relationships between them. In fact I think this is her greatest strength. In the books of hers I have read, the plot is not always memorable, but the characters drawn with such fondness and care, do stick in the mind. Thoroughly enjoyable.


ALOFT by Chang-Rai Lee


On reading this novel I was constantly reminded of the lyrics from Pink Floyd's 'Learning to Fly' - marvellous words that perfectly capture the magic of flying, aloft from the troubles and cares of life on earth below. And so it is for Jerry Battle, middle aged, middle class, European man of south Italian descent, second generation small business owner with plenty of troubles and cares on his shoulders to keep him awake at night. And yet, until these small simmering problems reach a crisis point, which of course in the made up world of the novel they do, dear old Jerry really has no commitment whatsoever to sorting his problems out. So what are the things going wrong? Firstly and probably the most significant is the tragic death of his Korean/American wife Daisy when his children were young. I would say he never really dealt with his grief properly - his wife was probably manic depressive, and was not an easy person to live with. He remains strangely ambivalent about this monumental tragedy which left him a widower and sole parent to a son and daughter. The second major issue, is that Rita, his long time partner/step mother to his children, whom he met after his wife's death, beautiful, loving and probably the most well-adjusted person in the whole story, has just left him. It doesn't take much to figure out why. Thirdly his dear old father, living in a retirement home, truly hates where he lives, and actually strikes me as being far too with it to be there in the first place. Maybe that is what they do in suburban communities in America - pack all the old people off to retirement homes! Fourthly, the family business that his son Jack now manages, is about to hit the wall. Jerry can see it happening, but is unable to really do anything about it. Lastly his lovely daughter Theresa, strange mixed up sort of young woman, is engaged to the perfect son-in-law Paul, and has dropped the twin bombshell of pregnancy and cancer. Plenty of issues in life to deal with? No wonder he spends as much time as possible in the air. The novel gently unfolds with Jerry battling (ha ha) primarily with himself to sort these people in his life out, and of course in the process find his own self. There is plenty of picking away at the facade that each person has put up to get to the core and so begin the process of rebuilding relationships. It is all very tenderly and, and in some instances hilariously done. The tennis match between Jerry and his old school mate Richard over the lovely Rita, is just brilliantly captured. And so so funny. As is another episode at a family birthday party hosted by Jack and his conspicuous consumption wife Eunice. There are beautifully depicted conversations between Jerry and Theresa - the anguish of a father trying to do right by his troubled daughter, but struggling with expressing it, and the daughter still fighting behind the barriers she has erected over the years. I imagine so typical of many parent/child relationships. The author is of Korean descent and I have also read his previous novel 'A Gesture Life'. One of its themes was the alienation those of other cultures experience in modern day America. I was actually expecting more of this in 'Aloft', particularly in light of Daisy's mental health, her death, and her children's experiences, as 1/4 Korean, along with the Italian from their father, in growing up. It is interesting that Theresa's husband to be is Korean/American himself. But there was very little of this. This really could be any family in any middle class community setting. The author's writing is worthy of a review in itself. For me, the book is way too long. Too much pontificating, procrastinating, and philosophising. And his sentences!!! Long, long, long. One sentence has approximately 130 words, three sets of phrases in brackets, and only five commas. And there are many others like it. These long monologues detracted from the story and I did find them annoying! However as a study of a family evolving, being challenged and coming out the other side, it is really well done and quite moving.



SO MANY BOOKS AND SO LITTLE TIME by Sara Nelson

How luxurious and indulgent...to set yourself the challenge of reading 52 books a year and then write about it. What makes the journey? The selection and reading of the books; the challenges along the way that either slow down or prevent progress; or the writing about it all; or even what to do once the year is complete? Here we have a woman who could be described as dangerously obsessive and quite simply mad about reading. I have no idea at all how someone like this woman who, at the time of her undertaking this feat, was a senior editor at Glamour magazine, and a columnist for the New York Post, and other bits and pieces on the side. Plus she is married with a young child. Where on earth did she find time to fit all that in!!! At precisely half way through her memoir she has a bit of meltdown - not a surprise - and at another point in the book does mention that she is feeling somewhat isolated and distanced from the world around her. Day to day stuff such as what's on at the movies, the gossip and chit chat about popular TV programmes. She has nothing to contribute because she spends all her time reading, and I mean all her time!

I love reading, it is my favourite past time. I have over a hundred unread books quietly waiting for me to pick them up. I don't read for a living but I would like to. Even so, I would still need a break from time to time. The glaring thing that jumps out to me in this book is that this woman never has a break from reading or anything else for that matter! Her work, her family life, her reading - it seems she never stops, even waking in the night and reading till all hours. A little crazy, obsessive perhaps?

But anyway - the reading itself. She has very wide ranging tastes, interests and reasons for choosing books to read. She is very curious and open to all different types of books and authors. It would take too long to make mention of what she read and wrote about - part of the fun of this book is the surprise factor! Of the books she has read that I have too - not a great many - she thinks deeply and writes well. I can only assume she has done the same with the rest that I haven't read! I very much enjoyed her views and analysis of the love of reading and why people become so addicted to it - in other words I could relate.

Did she manage to read 52 books? According to her epilogue she read more, but that also seems to count those she dipped into or skimmed through. What is interesting and to which she alludes to regularly is that she didn't read what she intended to read, and found that the book was choosing her rather than her choosing the book. The books seem to mirror what is going on in her life at the time, and in her writing she is able to intertwine the two. It would appear she doesn't have as much control over her life as she would like, but she accepts the slightly chaotic existence she lives in and invites the reader in.

Despite her seriously high intellect, her high powered publishing career, the sheer busyness of her life, she seems to be a very down to earth, normal sort of woman trying to keep her career going, her child and husband happy, and like many of us, finding a spare half hour to sit down with a cuppa and a book. How can we not relate?

I enjoyed this very much. It is light, fun, interesting, insightful and stimulating. Each chapter is pretty much self contained so great for dipping in and out of. My list of 'To Read' has grown somewhat...sigh.

READING FOR SEPTEMBER: So Many Books, So Little Time; The Abbey; Ladies, A Plate - The Collection by Alexa Johnston


SO MANY BOOKS AND SO LITTLE TIME by Sara Nelson


I love reading, it is my favourite past time. I have over a hundred unread books quietly waiting for me to pick them up. I don't read for a living but I would like to. Even so, I would still need a break from time to time. The glaring thing that jumps out to me in this book is that this woman never has a break from reading or anything else for that matter! Her work, her family life, her reading - it seems she never stops, even waking in the night and reading till all hours. A little crazy, obsessive perhaps?

But anyway - the reading itself. She has very wide ranging tastes, interests and reasons for choosing books to read. She is very curious and open to all different types of books and authors. It would take too long to make mention of what she read and wrote about - part of the fun of this book is the surprise factor! Of the books she has read that I have too - not a great many - she thinks deeply and writes well. I can only assume she has done the same with the rest that I haven't read! I very much enjoyed her views and analysis of the love of reading and why people become so addicted to it - in other words I could relate.

Did she manage to read 52 books? According to her epilogue she read more, but that also seems to count those she dipped into or skimmed through. What is interesting and to which she alludes to regularly is that she didn't read what she intended to read, and found that the book was choosing her rather than her choosing the book. The books seem to mirror what is going on in her life at the time, and in her writing she is able to intertwine the two. It would appear she doesn't have as much control over her life as she would like, but she accepts the slightly chaotic existence she lives in and invites the reader in.

Despite her seriously high intellect, her high powered publishing career, the sheer busyness of her life, she seems to be a very down to earth, normal sort of woman trying to keep her career going, her child and husband happy, and like many of us, finding a spare half hour to sit down with a cuppa and a book. How can we not relate?

I enjoyed this very much. It is light, fun, interesting, insightful and stimulating. Each chapter is pretty much self contained so great for dipping in and out of. My list of 'To Read' has grown somewhat...sigh.



THE ABBEY by Chris Culver

Review book kindly provided by Hachette Publishing via Booksellers New Zealand.

This book started off as an E-book that could be purchased in the US for USD$0.99, and in places like Jamaica for USD$2.99. A bargain in anyone's book. But much like that other massive E-book hit '50 Shades of Grey', this has been so successful in E-book format that it has now been published in paperback form.

I couldn't find much about the author, but apparently this is his first published book, and what a jolly good read it is too. It is in the detective/thriller genre, great airplane/holiday read, with no great demands on the intellect. Unlike many of fiction's hardened, bitter, over-philosophizing-internal-analysing detective cops, Detective Ash Rashid really only thinks about his job and gets on with what has to be done. Which is just as well really because if he spent too much time fretting about the human condition, he would probably be dead.

No longer a homicide detective because all that death was getting to him, and now working in the Prosecutor's Office, he finds himself drawn back to hunting for murderers when the body of his 15 year old niece is discovered. What follows is an absolute whirlwind of more murders, drugs manufacture, corrupt police, Russian crims, biological weapons, and at all times Rashid having to stay several steps ahead of those he is hunting and the various arms of the enforcement agencies. It gets very confusing, I have to say. And by about 2/3 of the way through I confess I had sort of lost my way with the various plot developments and connections to people involved.

In other reviews of this book, mostly American I may add, much has been made of the fact that Rashid is a practising Muslim. He prays regularly during the day, as does his wife and child, and talks fairly often about Islam and how he should be living his life. But really he comes across as just another hard playing fighting cop who needs more than a healthy dose of alcohol to get him through his days and nights. Is the Muslim thing a gimmick as one review suggests? I don't see it as a gimmick, as I am sure there are many law enforcement people who see themselves as committed Catholics or Protestants or whatever, also struggling with the requirements of their faith against the ghastliness of their jobs. But I do think that if the author does want to introduce a point of difference from your stock standard crime fighter, he needs to dig a little deeper into the character to make the religion a fundamental part of who Rashid is rather than just another person with conflict over how he wants to live his life with how he actually does.

Nevertheless I found it hard to put this novel down. A great page turner, perfect for a long flight or a lounger by the pool.



LADIES, A PLATE - THE COLLECTION by Alexa Johnston

Review copy most kindly provided by Penguin Books NZ Ltd via Booksellers NZ

What a wonderful treat to have the opportunity to review this gorgeous inviting book. And an excuse of course to try things out. It has sat on the small ledge above the sink for the past few weeks and is still remarkably unblemished and tidy looking - a testament to the excellent production values perhaps. Because it is not for want of opportunity to get grubby! As promised I have also photographed my creations, which overall were quite successful.

Alexa Johnston has been one of the main contributors to the recent surge of interest in home baking in this country. This book is a compilation of her two relatively recent cook books - 'Ladies, A Plate' and 'A Second Helping'. She has taken classics of traditional New Zealand home baking, sourced/mixed/matched the best recipes from a myriad of publications over the past seventy years or so, and the recipes of many home bakers into this collection. Her published sources range from the Aunt Daisy cookbooks, to community fundraising recipe books put out by the likes of church groups, life saving clubs, kindergartens. Her home bakers are women of all ages, eras and backgrounds from throughout the country. Her food heroes are the well-known Ray McVinnie which whom she once flatted, and my own all time favourite, Lois Daish.

So with all that we were off to a pretty good start! The thing about a book like this is that it makes baking look so easy - beautiful illustrations, snippets of history, very clear step by step instructions and helpful hints from the likes of Ms Daish, and other bakers. This little gem from a 1957 recipe for Christmas mincemeat - 'Make It Early', or that a Chocaroon Cake won '$10 in a recipe contest'. Not a lot now, but way back in 1967 worth a bit more!

The temptation to try things never before attempted therefore is very great....like Sponge Cake! Yep, never made a sponge cake. Memories of my Gran's too perfect sponge cake always stopped me. I bought some tins last year in anticipation... Remarkably easy and extremely tasty, but possibly not quite up to Gran's standard. Never mind, it had the same colour as a bought one, rose admirably and looked 'spongy'. Sorry no photo - got eaten before I thought about the photo thing.

So over past few weeks, I have made two different types of pikelets - the Perfect Pikelets were better (on the right in the picture) ;


Dainty Sandwiches (I had to take a plate) - quite yummy, but very time consuming, messy and only for the devoted;


Date and Walnut Loaf for school lunches - excellent long keeper;


Special Chocolate Cake for my daughter's 18th birthday iced and decorated magnificently by her 15 year old sister (Alexa Johnston has a funny back story to this cake);
Ginger Crunch - best thing I made;



Almond Fingers - my least successful creation;

Chocolate Caramel Fingers - had to do a large amount of exercise after some heavy sampling of the caramel; Chocolate Brownie - fabulously rich, and requests for the recipe;

and finally one of my top comfort foods - Date Scones. I usually do a variation of the Edmonds recipe with a healthy dose of Annabelle White technique thrown in. These were made quite differently - cream rather than butter, and the milk diluted with boiling water. Really really good!



This book is divided into nine sections - Biscuits, Squares and Slices, Small Cakes, Large Cakes, Items to be Buttered, Festive Baking, Jams and Preserves, Sweets, and Savouries. Recipes range from easy to more complex, at least they read that way! There would be something here to appeal to all levels of baking expertise from Pikelets to the frightening Cream Napoleon - making your own puff pastry. I haven't ventured down the pastry road yet...might need some magic red shoes for that one.

READING FOR AUGUST : Enchantments; Incendiary; Breakfast at Tiffany's; Twelve Minutes of Love




ENCHANTMENTS by Kathryn Harrison

Review copy kindly supplied by Harper Collins NZ Ltd via Booksellers NZ


I just googled images of Faberge eggs, perhaps the most ostentatious symbol of the last thirty years of the Romanov dynasty of Russia. Exquisitely crafted, encrusted with precious stones, and all with a hidden surprise, these beautiful pieces have outlived and outshone a most awful time in Russian history.

In this novel, there is a Faberge egg which has a miniature version of the royal residence Tsarskoe Selo, some 24 kms south of St Petersburg. First constructed in the early 18th century by Peter the Great, it was also the last home of the Romanov family before they were sent to Siberia for their final days. For Marsha, the narrator of this story, the beautiful egg, which she first sees as a young child, is her introduction to the Romanov family and comes to symbolise the tiny, unrealistic and controlled world they live in.

Marsha is 18 years old. She is also the daughter of Grigori Rasputin, that peculiar man who had such a hold over the Tsarina Alexandra, and apparently not just for his medical skills in his treatment of her hemophiliac son, Alexi or Alyosha as he is in this book. Who knows. There have been pages and pages written about this time in Russian history, films made, songs sung. This book is not about Rasputin, but it does open with the discovery of his murdered body in the Neva River.

With Rasputin now gone, the Tsarina looks to Marsha, an intelligent, quietly observant girl with perhaps some of the mystique of her father which is so appealing to the Tsarina, to take over the care of her 13 year old son. Somewhat shocked and alarmed by this request, Marsha doesn't feel she can refuse. So she moves into the palace a bare two months before the Bolsheviks took over. From thereon in, she too is a prisoner in the palace.

She becomes a close friend of the young Alyosha, telling stories of her family, in particular her father, and recreates the lives of both their parents into some sort of fairytale wonderland/dream sequence which of course comes crashing down. Throughout the stories which quickly blend with the reality of their imprisonment, there is a strong thread of erotica and awakening sexuality between these two. It is all very tastefully and beautifully done. At all times Alyosha knows he and his family will not survive - he is a well educated young lad with a fascination for the French Revolution and is constantly comparing his family's fate to that of the Louis XVI and his entourage.

Marhsa, naturally, survives the carnage and here the book takes a slightly different turn. The magical realism quickly fades away as the reality of life outside the luxury of the palace hits home. After a marriage of convenience that takes her to Paris, she rather weirdly ends up becoming an animal handler in the circus - first as a horse riding acrobat, and latterly as a handler of lions, tigers and bears until the day she is almost killed by a bear. And even more weirdly, this is actually true - Marsha was a real person, daughter of Rasputin and animal whisperer extraordinaire - her father's daughter perhaps.

Aside from the historical aspects and the strong narrative, there are faults with this book. Firstly it took an absolute age to get underway. For the first 60 odd pages barely anything happens, things just trudge along, not helped by the heavy, overly long and complicated sentences. Once the actual narrative gets underway things improve, but it is quite a way into the book before the author seems to find her stride and she is away. Secondly I did find the transition from being companion to Alyosha to being her own woman a bit awkward. After all is this a book about the last days of the Romanov dynasty or is it a book about Rasputin's daughter?

I think I would have preferred it to be about Marsha herself. She sounds to have all the characteristics of a true survivor and I would have liked to have had more than the last quarter of the book solely about her.



INCENDIARY by Chris Cleave

What better way to get to the heart of the British heart and soul than blowing up a packed soccer stadium in London? Total deaths and missing - 1000+; injured whether it be physically, emotionally or mentally - uncountable.

A woman loses her husband and four year old son in the terrorist attack and so begins her grief-filled and traumatic account as she attempts to pick up the pieces of her life and start again. Naturally, as a mother, she feels guilt for the death of her child, that it is her fault, that she has done something to bring it about. By no means is she a perfect wife, and she has not had the easiest of lives. As a result she could be any of us, and although not always a likeable character, she is very real, as mixed up and complicated as the rest of us.

Her grief is raw, so raw and unchecked, she spends most of the book teetering on the brink of insanity. As a form of self-therapy, she writes a letter to Osama Bin Laden, the mastermind behind the terrorist attack, telling her sad story. Her aim is to appeal to his sense of decency, if he has any, appeal to the fact that he too is a parent, and the what his attack has done to the ordinary little person on the street. Mind you, I could easily imagine a widow in Kabul pouring her broken heart out to the likes of George Bush or Tony Blair - women and children: the most broken and damaged by the wars perpetrated by their leaders.

Our narrator, nameless, as are her son and husband, has a dreadful time dealing with her losses. As do many, many other people in London. The reader gets an inkling of this as she goes about her daily life - the trauma is extreme. With all intention of doing honorable things and resorting their lives, the characters in the story are simply unable to deal with what has happened.

Despite the ghastly subject matter, this is a book well worth reading. The author writes in such a way, that everything in the book - the plot and the characters are totally believable and real. We ache for things to turn out ok for the narrator, for things to get better, and at times it looks possible. But her grief is so overwhelming that the downward spiral becomes inevitable.

Uncannily this book was launched in London the day before the London bombings of 2005. The book was immediately shelved, the book tour stopped, all publicity and promotional material withdrawn. In the US however, publication went ahead and the book was an immediate success - maybe quite timely as many people perhaps would have identified with the loss in the story.



BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S by Truman Capote

Never having read any of Truman Capote, and with the slight revival of modern classics taking place in the book club, I thought it very timely to put this one in. Forever fascinated by the luminous Audrey Hepburn, and knowing all the words to Moon River, I started this story thinking I was going to be in for a delicious treat. Not so.

Firstly, Holly Golightly in the novel is nothing like Holly Golightly in the movie. Secondly there is really nothing delicious or romantic or luminous about Miss Holly Golightly, formerly known as Lulamae Barnes. Thirdly, she never does reunite with her cat as she does in the film. She is essentially a prostitute, with not a cent to her name, living off a number of rich and besotted admirers. Naive yes, optimistic and refreshing yes, beautiful and entrancing yes. But also damaged, a shop lifter, user of other people, completely irresponsible and unable to look after herself.

The story, such as it is, is narrated by a young man, whose name we are never told, but whom Holly calls Fred after her beloved brother. He is an aspiring writer, who is completely bewitched by Holly. The relationship remains platonic, but they become very good friends, although the friendship is always on her terms. Our narrator meets Holly in the apartment building they live in New York City, sometime after WWII. This is not a plot based story, more a character study of Holly's self-destructiveness, and the effects of her behaviour on those around her.

Every now again people like Holly briefly enter and then exit our lives. Mercurial, demanding and exhausting, they leave an indelible impression and despite the problems they have and bring to any relationship, their sudden absence almost brings about a grieving process. So it is with Holly. This is a much darker, and more serious look at the lives of post-war young things in urban American society. I imagine at the time it was published it caused a bit of a furore, as it touches on women being in charge of their own destiny with not a care for those they leave behind.

I liked the story very much. Despite her issues, I liked Holly; her sheer joie de vivre is enough to make anybody's day a bit brighter. And as for Tiffany's? Naturally it is where she wants to be someday, but all she can manage to purchase from that store is a set of business cards - Holly Golightly, Travelling.




TWELVE MINUTES OF LOVE - A TANGO STORY by Kapka Kassabova

Tango! The passion, the intensity, the romance, the seduction, the pure escapism! From its dark beginnings with African slavery to the ghettos of Buenos Aires, to the salons of Europe one hundred years ago, tango, in its various forms, is now danced in dozens of different countries around the world and by people of many more nationalities. What is about this dance that captivates, seduces, and changes people's lives?

Kapka Kassabova has written a very personal and emotional account of her ten year love affair with tango. Kapka migrated from Bulgaria as a child with her family in the early 1990s to New Zealand. She grew up in New Zealand, loves her new country and the people she meets, but you get the feeling that there is always something missing, as if she has still not found her place, her niche. Already a published author when this book begins, Kapka one day finds herself wandering into a cafe in Auckland during tango night. Immediately hooked, completely smitten and overtaken by tango bug, it seems that everything else in her life for the next ten years takes a very distant more than second place.

Which gives us the most intimate and personal insight into the heart and soul of this beautifully talented writer. In the material consumer-oriented world we live in, our busy lives running us ragged - jobs, family, relationships, children, etc etc, there is something almost ethereal, something very basic and fundamental about such a passion for a dance form that seems to reach very deeply inside us all.

From Auckland to Buenos Aires, to Edinburgh, to Montevideo with return visits to BA and to Auckland in-between times, Kapka absorbs absolutely everything she possibly can about tango - the music, the moves, the history, the famous dancers and teachers, her partners, her lovers - until she finally reaches saturation point. And what a wonderful, rich, poignant, and incredibly personal account it is. Tango is like a drug - addictive, mind and soul altering, far reaching, almost unattainable and ever so scary. Read this, at your peril, and find yourself swept away into a whole new world.

JULY READING - The Song Before It Is Sung; Paris In Love; The Lifeboat; Wulf


THE SONG BEFORE IT IS SUNG by Justin Cartwright

In July 1944 an assassination attempt was made on Hitler by members of a variety of different groups within the German resistance. The failure resulted in some thousands being arrested and tortured, with apparently almost 5000 of them executed. Amongst those executed was one of the ring leaders, a high ranking Foreign Office diplomat and lawyer, Count Alex von Trott. Von Trott, only 35 when he died, loved Germany very much, hated the Nazis and the Germany they were hell-bent on creating, and saw it has his destiny to do all he could to get the Allies ie England and America, to help restore Germany to its pre WWI glory. His pleas fell on deaf ears. While a young man he was a Rhodes scholar to Oxford where he met Isiah Berlin, a brilliant young Russo-Jewish academic. These two unlikely characters became very good friends, the friendship becoming strained as the aspirations of Germany became more apparent. Von Trott seemed uhable to convince Berlin and others that he was not a Nazi, that he did not support the direction Germany seemed to be headed and, crucially, a comment he made about treatment of Jews in Germany was misunderstood.

In this novel, Justin Cartwright explores both the nature of friendship and the frailty of the human condition by fictionalising the lives of von Trott, Berlin and this awful time in our recent history. He is really looking at the idea of how much we are in control of our destiny or whether the events going on around us are a greater determinant of the final outcome. For example von Trott had the opportunity to leave Germany in the early days, but saw his destiny in Germany rather than elsewhere. Von Trott becomes von Gottberg and Berlin becomes Elya Mendel. The story is told through 35 year old Conrad Senior, who was a student of Mendel's when he was at Oxford. When Mendel died he bequeathed all his writings, correspondence, notes etc to Conrad with the instructions that Conrad write about the friendship between the two men, and Mendel's perception that he was perhaps to blame for von Gottberg's eventual execution.

Conrad has his own troubles. His marriage is in tatters - his ever practical, results-oriented doctor wife can no longer cope with the airy fairy seemingly going nowhere existence of her husband. She is pregnant but it may not be his baby, he is having a most peculiar affair with an equally directionless young woman, no money, no career. His research into von Gottberg's death takes over his life, which forms the crux of the novel.

As always anything to do with the Nazis is pretty horrifying, and little is left to the imagination. Despite the complexity of the book with its fact vs. fiction, present events vs those of almost 70 seventy years ago, it is quite compelling reading. Although to be honest, the story of Mendel and von Gottberg has enough going for it without the added complication of the hopeless Conrad. The author seems to enjoy writing about men who are a bit lost and directionless, see 'The Promise of Happiness'!




PARIS IN LOVE by Eloisa James

Review copy kindly supplied by Harper Collins via Booksellers NZ.

Eloisa James is a successful romance fiction writer. Take a look at her website via the links - very romantic! She is also a professor who teaches Shakespeare at a New York University. What a bizarre combination that sounds. She is married to her Italian husband Alessandro and has a son(15), and a daughter(11) at the time of this book. In 2007 her mother died of ovarian cancer and two weeks later she also was diagnosed with cancer. Following a mastectomy and treatment she made the decision to take a year off and move her family to Paris, a city she had always been in love with. How incredibly appropriate for a writer of romance.

This move was not done faint-heartedly: they sold their house in New Jersey, resigned from jobs, took children out of schools, and leased a place in Paris sight unseen. While the children were at school Eloisa's plan was to write four novels during the year away. After all how hard could it be - she wasn't working, there were no elderly/sick parents to look after, she didn't know anyone so there were no friendships to nurture/maintain, and she was in Paris! Yet she found that for the whole year she did very little at all. And loved it. As she says "It was a glorious lesson." She did however Facebook and Twitter much of her time in Paris, and this memoir is the result.

Wouldn't we all love a year in Paris! Eloisa tells the story of the family's year away through her childrens' experiences at school - highly entertaining, her own rediscovery of her womanhood following her illness, the amusing clashes between Italian and French ways of doing things, her own ramblings and excursions around the city to museums, cafes, shops, parks.

The book reads very much as if the Facebook and Twitter postings have simply been transplanted from the monitor screen to the page. Short - ranging from five lines to perhaps half a page at the most, this is probably one of the easiest, most relaxing, enjoyable books you will read. Each of the 15 or so sections is prefaced by a much longer commentary, more like an essay really, on different subjects pertaining to their lives in Paris. I actually found these much more interesting and engrossing than her little snippets. For example she has a lovely four pages on discovering a love of French food and cooking it, another three pages on the French woman's passion for beautiful underwear, a hilarious description of the family's holiday in the Loire Valley. The 'postings' by contrast I found rather banal and I really wanted more about the ones related to living in Paris. I didn't really want to read five lines about how her latest novel was coming on, or how her daughter rearranged her bookshelves, but I would like to have known more about how multicultural her neighbourhood was rather than just reading that 'Our neighbourhood is very multicultural'. It is almost as if we are only getting just a taste and I would so much have liked more.

However this book grew on me very much. She is very good at linking the snippets. For example she keeps us informed about some of the homeless people in the vicinity of their apartment over the course of the year, the ongoing weight battles of her mother-in-law's dog, and the process by which her daughter's arch enemy when she first starts school, has, by the end of the year become her close friend.

Delicious escapism, with a very important message.


THE LIFEBOAT by Charlotte Rogan

Who could have thought that three weeks being stranded in a lifeboat with forty others going nowhere could be so absolutely riveting and engrossing? Surely you remember as a youngster doing one of those ethical problems where the world is about to end, there are only spaces for say eight people to survive to carry on the future of the human race. But there are twelve people vying for places - the priest, the farmer, the young woman in her twenties, the doctor, the teacher, the musician, the writer, the athlete, the artist, and so on. How do you choose one over the other? Who is going to make the greatest contribution to human survival? Reading this book is much like that youthful exercise!

In the 100th year since the sinking of the Titanic, it is hardly surprising that stories of sinking ships are being written. From the very first few pages we know that Grace is on trial as a party to murder of some of the people she shared a lifeboat with after their cruise ship unexpectedly sank. We also quickly find out that she is very recently married, and very probably now widowed as a result of the explosion on the ship that resulted in the survivors adrift in lifeboats somewhere in the Atlantic.

In this boat there are a mixture of men and women, young and old, strong and weak, those you suspect are going to be survivors and those you suspect you won't last the distance. As in any situation where strangers are thrust together, the leaders very quickly emerge, alliances are formed, conflicts develop and have to be resolved. Grace, as narrator, is determined to survive. Three weeks stuck in a lifeboat, limited food, limited water, sun, heat, severe storm, it is hardly surprising those on the boat precariously walk the edge of reason, including Grace.

As well as being an account of such a terrible ordeal, this book is more a psychological thriller. Grace constantly moves between reality and illusion/delusion in her personal struggle for survival. We never really know if she was party to a murder, because she never really knows herself. After all, how would we behave in such a desperate situation. And this perhaps is why this book is so good. The author taps so strongly into our need to survive at all costs and makes us face up to our own mortality. Right to the end Grace knows what she needs to do to ensure her own future and she never deviates from that.

One of the strengths of this book is the author's ability to write about life at sea. She comes from a family with a strong boating/sailing background and it shows in her writing. Her descriptions of the boredom, the power of a storm at sea, the isolation and vulnerability are very powerfully depicted. This is a real page turner of a book, but don't read this while contemplating a day out boating, or a cruise!

READING FOR JULY - Wulf


WULF by Hamish Clayton

Review book kindly provided by Penguin Books New Zealand via Booksellers NZ

From its opening words this book grabs you by its visual imagery. That first page conjures up a land of power, secrets, strangeness, and above all the inevitability of terrible and frightening things about to happen. It is eerie reading this book. You know you are not, but it certainly feels as if you too are trekking through dense New Zealand native bush, wandering on a desolate sandy beach, sitting on a brig slightly off shore on gentle seas. And all the time knowing that you are a foreigner in this land, always with the sense that you are being watched and observed by the locals. Very uncanny.

At the center of this story is an unnamed crewman on the 'Elizabeth', an English ship that in this tale arrived in New Zealand waters in 1830 looking to trade with the Maori, specifically for flax. For such a man and his fellow crew members, this new land would not have resembled their homeland in any way. Neither would the bird life, the fish life, the plant life. Combine this with the tales about the land's fearsome inhabitants - warmongers, revenge-seekers, desirous of muskets, rumours of cannibalism - and the scariest of them all, the great chief Te Rauparaha, it is little wonder that the visitors are in such awe of this land.

On the 'Elizabeth' is a young man, Cowell, who joined the ship in Sydney. He has been to New Zealand before, can speak Maori fluently and is there to act as a middle man between the ship's captain and the Maori traders. He is also a marvellous story teller and over a period of time regales the mesmerised crew members with stories of the exploits and conquests of Te Rauparaha. Any New Zealand history book will tell you what an extraordinary man Te Rauparaha was, both in his ambitions and his brutality. Dubbed 'Napoleon of the South' he seemed to spend his whole life exacting revenge for many and various wrongs. Naturally the myths that had built up around this man were also many and various, being perfect fodder for the imaginations of the sailors. He became the Great Wolf, always there, watching and waiting for the right moment to attack.

Rumours of a huge load of flax coupled with the chief's desire for muskets eventually lead the 'Elizabeth' to Kapiti Island, Te Rauparaha's stronghold, lying just off the west coast of the lower half of the North Island. A waiting game begins, during which the tension slowly winds up notch by notch. You see, the Great Wolf is far cleverer than the white sea captain, resulting in a major clash of the two entirely different cultures. What is a moral and ethical dilemma for one is a perfectly acceptable negotiation and result to the other. The consequences are disastrous.

The 'Elizabeth' was a real ship, Cowell and Captain Stewart were real people, and the incident they all find themselves involved in did happen. This was only one of many encounters and clashes that the Pakeha visitor had with the local Maori. We generally learn about them through history books, objective and fact driven. Very rarely do we experience what it may have been like to encounter a people so different from oneself. And in a land that is so dramatic and awe-inspiring, and all the time threatening and unknown.

Reading this book is like reading poetry, but in a prose form. It is just so stunningly beautiful. Many New Zealand novels are dark, gothic and morbidly gloomy. This is not a happy tale either, but the writing is so full of colour and richness that it is almost as if it is all taking place in some sort of enchanted wonderland. Anybody with an interest in New Zealand history, or a love of the land will feel uncannily linked with this story and the people in it.

READING IN JUNE -Season to Taste; Ed King; The Street Sweeper


SEASON TO TASTE by Molly Birnbaum

In my much younger days I was in a flat with a nurse. She was a terrific person, great flatmate, lots of fun. I remember asking her one day why she always cooked the same thing when it was her turn to cook. She told me that it was the one of the few dishes she knew how the finished result would taste/smell as she had lost her sense of smell in an accident getting off a bus on her way to work one day some 18 months or so prior. Wow. This was something I had never come across before. But I never really thought more of it because she was so matter of fact about it and functional in every other respect; she certainly didn't appear to have a 'disability'. I remember visiting her after she had a baby a few years later and asking her how did she know baby's nappy need changing and she said she would have a look. Hmm, that's easy, makes sense I thought. She always the same perfume too; she said that she knew it smelt nice on her, so it was the only one she could wear. I only hope all these years later they still make it!

But I never really gave her loss much thought. We all have slightly dulled taste/smell when we have a cold or are not well, but of course it always comes back. Just imagine though if you could not smell freshly mown grass and what it reminds you of, or the smell of the ground/air after it has been raining, or the smell of your boyfriend's aftershave, or the smell of leaking gas, or the smell of your baby, or the smell of burning food, or clean washing dried in the sun, or the smell of a Christmas lily? Loss of sense of smell invariably involves loss of the sense of taste - imagine that disaster! All food apparently reverts to the basic tastes of sweet, sour, bitter, or salty without the subtleties that make the taste of one food different from another. White wine apparently tastes like a sugary drink, coffee is just plain bitter. I can't imagine what parmesan cheese would taste like; at least you wouldn't be able to smell it! Smell, you see, is completely tied up with how we see ourselves and our place in the world we live in.

This is what Molly Birnbaum explores and comes to terms with in her memoir of her own experience with loss of smell. In 2005, Molly, recently graduated from college is filling in the months before taking up a coveted place at the Culinary Institute of America by working in a restaurant. One day, out for a run, she is knocked over by a car. Although not life threatening, her injuries are bad enough - broken pelvis, bad knee injury and a head trauma. It is only when she is recuperating at her father's place some weeks later and she is offered a piece of home-made-fresh-out-of-the-oven apple pie that it hits her she can't smell, or taste. So ends chapter 1.

As cliched as it is, the word 'journey' is probably the most appropriate word to describe the next few years for Molly as she sets out to deal to her loss. A very spirited young lady our Molly. She doesn't want to deal with it, she wants to deal to it and get her smell back. And I am not giving anything away by saying that much of her smell does come back, but not to the same level of sophistication that the general population would have. And would we even know if we didn't have it. She is chopping rosemary one day, four months or so after the accident and suddenly she smells it. So begins her slow and frustrating road to understanding how the sense of smell works - physiologically, mentally and emotionally.

We learn how intimately the sense of smell is associated with memory and self-perception, why depression is so common in those who can't smell, how those who can't smell/compensate by concentrating on texture and use the other senses to relearn food enjoyment, how the brain actually processes smell and why dirty socks and parmesan cheese do smell like each other and yet so slightly different, the power of smell in healing sufferers of post-traumatic stress syndrome, what is involved in becoming a perfumier, how we learn what is a nice smell and what isn't, pheromones and why we never generally fancy our blood relatives. All sorts of interesting and relevant information and research.

Beautifully weaved into all the fact is what is going on in Molly's own life. Her slow and nerve wracking foray back into cooking, her difficulties in learning to 'taste' food again, her relationships, and how smells gradually come back to her. She is so adept at getting under her own skin and imparting this to us. Her biggest problem it would seem is that although she finds herself able to smell more and more, she can't actually put a name to the smell. This whole thing about smell is just so intriguing that I have found myself much more aware of smell since. I have found myself smelling the pages of the book, and putting my nose in containers of coffee, spices, different pots of honey, mandarins and lemons and that is just in my kitchen.

This is a great story of self discovery that is also very informative and relevant to us all. I loved Molly's style of writing: the culinary world may have lost a great cook/chef, but the world of writers and readers is very lucky that she has found a second career in writing. Take a moment to read her blog before she had her accident in the link and her talent for writing and love of food shines out.



THE STREET SWEEPER by Eliot Perlman

My rating - 5.0*

A story, a real story, that moves effortlessly from the present to the recent past, from New York to Chicago and back again, then to Poland, to Auschwitz, to Melbourne, from the American civil rights movement to Nazi camps to academia. The scope of the story, where it takes the reader, the vision of the author in successfully combining all these disparate elements is really quite awesome. The diversity and richness of characters, in fact they are more than characters, to the reader they become real people, is just as awesome. I can't commend this book enough. The story is gripping, the characters life-like and the message it leaves at the end will stay a long time, and should stay forever: tell everyone what happened here.

Now such a book with so much in it is not going to be short - 544 pages plus another 10 of notes, references, acknowledgements etc! But well worth every page.

The street sweeper is a young black man, Lamont Williams, who has recently been released from prison. He is on a 6 month probation term at a cancer hospital in New York, lives with his grandmother in the Bronx and is trying to locate his young daughter somewhere in the city. By chance he meets one of the patients, Henryk Mandelbrot, an elderly Jewish man who tells Lamont of his life prior to and during the war, ensuring Lamont commits everything he is told to memory. In another part of New York, at Columbia University, Adam Zignelik, an untenured history professor is finding himself without a job and living alone. His Jewish American father was closely involved in the civil rights movement of the 1960s and as a result Adam too has close friends who are also black. Through one of his father's old friends, William, Adam finds himself on a research project that will change his life and unite all these people and places that we are slowly introduced to in the story.

The whole crux of the book rests on Adam's discovery of a set of recordings made by a psychology professor in 1946. Henry Border went to Europe after the war to make recordings of the war experiences of displaced persons - DPs - mainly as it happens, Jewish survivors of the camps, principally the death camp Auschwitz. So now you know a lot of the story does not make pretty reading. But it needs to be told. Adam realises this too, and over the course of the following weeks he peels away the mystery of Henry Border, his family and the stories of some of the people in the tapes. And then like an intricate spider web the events and people of the past are brought together with Lamont, Henryk, William, Charles, Michelle and Sonia on a street corner in New York city.

Marvellous writing, marvellous story.




ED KING by David Guterson

Oedipus Rex meets Silicone Valley
Rating 4*
Genre - modern fiction

Sometimes a little knowledge can be a bad thing. So it was probably just as well I had only read one review of this book before starting it and that was some months prior so I had forgotten what it was all about. It becomes apparent fairly early on that this novel is loosely based on the Greek myth Oedipus Rex, a story I have only a basic knowledge of. Actually that is all you need to get the comparisons with the plot of this novel. If I was a student of Greek myths or ancient Greek dramas, I would be very disappointed in this novel as a modern retelling of the Oedipus story. But as I don't have such a background I was able to enjoy the book simply for its story telling. I had been led to believe it was a weird book. It has element of weirdness in it, and at times is pretty far fetched, but nevertheless very readable, satisfying, and quite a good story.

Reading the reviews of this book by such bodies as the Guardian newspaper, New York Times, and the Telegraph are almost as entertaining, diverse and interesting as reading the book itself, which hilariously won the Guardian's 2011 Bad Sex Writing Award. And it really is.

But this book is not hilarious or really humorous at all. The characters are not really very nice people. Their lives are focused entirely on self-gratification and material gain and this results in their unpleasant and tragic lives. We could blame the society they live in - our contemporary Western one - that is set up to allow such people to exist and procreate. And yet nothing really has changed since the days of Oedipus Rex - greed, lust, narcissism are as much a part of the human condition now as they were then; the means of attaining it are just slightly different. The story is told too in a manner very much like a parable or moral story - we don't feel we are part of the characters, it is almost as if we are observers of the action as it unfolds.

And so the story opens in 1962 on the US west coast with a very young Diane fresh from England spending the summer working as an au pair for a family in which the mother is in hospital. Lust doesn't take long to show itself and before long Diane is pregnant to her employer, Walter. Blackmail and subsequent abandonment of the baby soon follow. To make ends meet the very beautiful Diane becomes a high class hooker. Her empty life, and her determination to remain young and beautiful take her places that most of us would prefer not to go to. Meanwhile the baby is adopted by a Jewish couple and becomes Ed King. He grows up with a younger brother, Simon, in a perfect childhood full of love, support, encouragement, extended family - everything a child could want. And he is never told he is adopted. Both boys are brilliant mathematics students and end up getting into the new and exciting world of information technology - computers and Silicone Valley. Ed has a few issues in his latter teenage years, but like many teenagers comes through, showing himself to be a genius at what he does and very quickly begins raking in the money, the fame, the plaudits that go with it all. And naturally his path crosses with that of Walter and that of Diane during the course of his life.

While reading this book, it is difficult not to think about the nature vs nurture argument. Here we have two boys of different biological parents brought up in the same environment, both highly intelligent, ambitious and hard working. There is strong rivalry between the two but probably no more nor less than in many families. The paths of their lives do go in different directions, but again no more nor less than in any other family. While the characters of Walter and Diane are not very nice people, and Ed does inherit some of his mother's ruthlessness, he does have a heart and feels genuine love, compassion and sorrow for happenings in his life. I can't say I liked Ed, but I did feel that he was a much more rounded, balanced character than perhaps some of the others who were either good (Ed's adoptive family) or not so good (his birth parents).

A good read, with plenty to think about.