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!


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.