DECEMBER READING: PARIS by Edward Rutherfurd


DECEMBER READING: PARIS by Edward Rutherfurd

Well, there is no doubt that this is a very big book - covering 700 years of that iconic city, and trying to do so in 800 closely written pages. Wow. Big. And apparently this is one of his shorter novels. Unsurprisingly 800 pages is not enough to incorporate a detailed and complete history of the City of Light. I expect the author's greatest challenge was what to put in and what to leave out. Who runs the city of Paris also runs France, so leadership is the dominant thread through the book, forming the background to the characters and their stories. So Louis XIV and XVI, Napoleon, the Gestapo, and the Catholic Church as well as the leaders post-French Revolution feature strongly.  Paris is also known for its iconic architecture - the story of the Eiffel Tower features. The reader learns a lot about the geographical layout of the city from its early  Ancient Rome days and the continuity of  such structures as Notre Dame, the Louvre, Sacre Coeur, the main roadways, and above all the the river Seine. This is all fascinating stuff, and the maps at the beginning and end of the book - one of Paris in the Middle Ages, and the other of Paris in the late 1890s - show how this city has grown and moved outward, yet still retaining its core.

Against this historic and cultural detail, the author has woven the stories of a number of families ranging from the aristocratic de Cygne family, the working class Le Sourd and Gascon families, the more bourgeois Blanchard and Renard families, to the Jewish family Jacob. The family tree at the beginning of the book is absolutely invaluable because the author tells the story in the most confusing way possible jumping through the centuries, back and forth in time, introducing different members from the families at different times. The book opens in the late nineteenth century and next chapter we are in the thirteenth century, next chapter a bit later in the nineteenth, then to the fourteenth century and so it goes on. Each chapter introduces new people and plot lines, then the next chapter has other family members meeting new family members of a previously introduced family. Aaagh, gets very confusing!

But, despite all the trickery, this is a very readable and enjoyable book. 800 pages whizzed by, as did 700 years. This is a city that continues to be very high on my list of places to go, and this book has only increased my desire to do so. The author clearly loves the city, but I would very much have liked for there to have been more about the French Revolution - after all this is where much of the modern history of France and Paris itself all started. The chapter on the Terror of 1794 was very good, but I get the feeling the author assumes that all readers have prior and detailed knowledge of the mechanics of the Revolution of 1789, which I don't believe would be the case.

DECEMBER READING: LETTERS FROM BERLIN by Kerstin Lieff and Margarete Dos


DECEMBER READING: LETTERS FROM BERLIN by Kerstin Lieff and Margarete Dos

Growing up in the West learning 20th century WWII history, we took it on board that the British, the Americans and for a while the Russians were the good guys. The Germans and the Japanese were the bad guys - simple as that. History, of course, is always perceived and told from the viewpoint of the person telling it, and often the viewpoint of the other party/ies is minimised, ignored, glossed over or dressed up in a way to enhance the teller's version. We never, ever learnt about the history of the war from the German point of view, from the Germans themselves, and it is only in recent years that the children of those who lived during the war years are now telling the stories of their parents and grandparents. And about time too.

Almost as interesting as the story itself, is the process taken to have the parents'/grandparents' stories told. Often there is so much pain and trauma that many of these stories of survival go unheard. In this particular instance, after some persuasion, Margarete made recordings of her story with her daughter Kerstin, and after her death in 2005, Kerstin took it upon herself to compile the recordings into a book. She also found diaries and photos which have greatly enlarged and enhanced the oral recordings made by her mother.

I can only imagine the emotion that came to the surface during the telling of Margarete's story, the courage it took to open up such old wounds and let out the grief and anger there. As we know war is never pretty, and it is always the civilian that cops the brunt of whatever the conflict is. Kerstin Lieff has transcribed her mother's story, adding historical and narrative detail where necessary.  

Margarete Dos was a child when Hitler came to power, and very quickly it seems he became a figure to be feared and obeyed. She is training to be a doctor when the war starts, but quickly moves back to Berlin to be with her mother. She describes vividly the terror and horror of the city being bombed around her. The brutality of the approaching Russians matches the fear of living under the Nazis, and it seems it is more by good luck than good management that Margarete survives this terrible, terrible time. Her mother is of Swedish origin, so late in 1945, Margarete and her mother finally manage to get themselves on a train supposedly taking them to a new life in Sweden. Instead they find themselves transported to a Russian gulag, where again, against the odds they somehow manage to survive. Their return to Berlin after two years sees them trying to restart their lives, along with millions of other displaced people, and eventually they do make it to Sweden.

This paragraph only gives a taste, and does very little justice to this dreadful time in our modern history. Yet again, we are reminded of the strength of the human spirit to survive, the power of hope, and most importantly that for every war that is won, there is the other side, the loser, whose stories are almost never told, but have as much right to be told.  

DECEMBER READING: THE HUNGER GAMES by Suzanne Collins



DECEMBER READING: THE HUNGER GAMES by Suzanne Collins

So... 125,764 reviews on Good Reads, and another 18,382 on Amazon. How could I possibly add to any of them! Very short review then.

How clever to take the main genre of current TV - the reality contestant elimination show and make it something evil and very, very nasty - a fight to the death that the whole of society must watch, and every night of the week. Plus, the contestants are children, fighting for food to feed their own. As a parent I had no desire at all to indulge my reading or movie viewing time in this contrived and utterly senseless story making.

However, by the very virtue of being a parent, you do become entwined in your children's interests. So now that the second movie is out, passionately embraced  by 16 year old, I thought maybe it was time! And yes I am glad I did. Great plot, terrific characters, lots of twists and turns right up to the last page.

The best part about this novel, and I am sure the others in the series are the same,  is what great heroes the three main characters are to young readers. In an age when young girls feel they have to wear very few clothes and twerk themselves to get attention and young boys feel they have to drink themselves stupid and prey on young vulnerable fellow teens, such fine characters as these Katniss, Peeta and Gale are very inspiring. No wonder these books have been such a hit.

Looking forward to reading the next instalment of Katniss, Peeta and Gale. Off to the movies I go!

NOVEMBER READING; THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO LUKE by Emily Maguire


NOVEMBER READING: THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO LUKE by Emily Maguire

Luke Butler has recently been appointed senior pastor at an evangelical Christian youth centre in suburban Sydney. He is in his late 20s, and never known any life apart from the orphanage he was brought up in following his abandonment at birth, or the church to which he has devoted his life to and where he has finally found a family of sorts. He has no knowledge, or indeed any desire to find out about his birth parents or family. Luke's life is one of order, devotion, tolerance and adherence to God and the teachings of the Bible.

Across the road from the youth centre is, in a bizarre situation of polar opposites, a family planning clinic, managed by the very capable, compassionate and real Aggie Grey. Aggie has a complicated back story too, but wildly different from that of the chaste and clean living Luke. She is a counsellor at the clinic, dispensing contraceptive and relationship advice, helping those with gender identity and sexual orientation issues, counselling women with unwanted pregnancies, and dealing with sexual diseases.

The snake on the cover of the book does not need an apple to tell you what is going to happen when these two meet. An instant and dangerous connection sees them both compromising their deeply held values and beliefs. Into this mix comes 16 year old Honey, pregnant, alone and without a clue as to what she should do. She has been treated very badly by the men in her short life, and she is inextricably drawn into the powerful relationship bubbling away between Luke and Aggie.

The time worn theme of two people falling in love at the wrong time in the wrong place is at the core of this novel. And just like Romeo and Juliet, there are myriad forces at play to prevent any lasting happiness. The elephant in the room is 'abortion' and what is seen to be in the best interests of Honey by the pro life and pro choice factions, ie the church and everyone else. As expected, things rapidly spiral out of control, and there is no happy ending in sight.

Despite the deep and controversial subject matter, this is a straightforward and easy book to read. The characters are perhaps a little too stereotyped and one dimensional, but this is an important subject with neither a right or wrong answer that has been intelligently handled. 

MASTERING THE ART OF SOVIET COOKING by Anya von Bremzen


NOVEMBER READING: MASTERING THE ART OF SOVIET COOKING by Anya von Bremzen

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=87lMFkCQaUM

Growing up in the West during the 1960s, 1970s and into the 1980s, international relations were dominated by this thing called the Cold War. The war was between 'us' and 'them' - a whole different, entirely undesirable, backward, and frightening other world behind this other thing called the Iron Curtain. It probably never entered my empty teenage head that there were people just like us behind this Iron Curtain - Mums, Dads, children, teenagers, grandparents. They were, quite simply,  all communists - baddies, a serious threat to the democracies we pretty much took for granted. But after reading this memoir by a woman of a similar age to me, is it possible that  threat may well have been a lot of hot air? It seems they were all too damn hungry and spent too much time standing in queues to be a threat to anyone! 

Nevertheless, Anya von Bremzen's memoir is a book truly written from the heart - for her mother and grandmothers, her father, her grandfather, her fellow Soviets, the terrible waste, deaths, family tragedies all  resulting from the megalomania of a few. In their own way each of the leaders was mad. The chapter on Stalin is the most compelling and frightening to read, Khrushchev is positively boring in comparison, and the chapter on Gorbachev was a complete revelation. In the Western media, I remember him being portrayed in glowing terms - perestroika, glasnost and all that. But in the USSR it seems he was quite a different sort of fish.

And of course throughout the book there is the food. It is amazing how we so often associate food with how we feel, our overall well being and happiness with ourselves, our lives and how it lives on in our memories. Now a successful food writer in the US, Ms von Bremzen takes the traditional Russian food of her family and weaves the history of both her family and  Communist Russia from its beginnings in 1917 under Lenin to its dissolution in the early 1990s. She treats the whole 70 year odd years as an unmitigated disaster for virtually everyone. I really hope that writing this memoir was cathartic for her and for her mother who is still alive.

Anya was very fortunate that in 1974 when she was 10,  she and her mother fled to the US, leaving everything and everyone behind, knowing that they would never be able to return.  In her writing there is very little happiness or nostalgia for what she left, and although their first few years in Philadelphia were not easy, at least it was better than what they had come from. She would never have had the life she currently has if they had stayed.

The link above is an interview with the author talking about the book and her life. It is long, but well worth it. She makes for a great interview subject, and best of all, her mother is in the television audience. Beautiful to watch.


OCTOBER READING: LUNCH WITH THE STATIONMASTER by Derek Hansen

OCTOBER READING: LUNCH WITH THE STATIONMASTER by Derek Hansen

In June I read the fourth book in the 'Lunch With' series -"Lunch with a Soldier". The subject of this review is number three in the series; I also have number two! I noted in my review in June that at times I thought the writing was a little contrived, and that I couldn't really imagine four elderly gents in a cafe in suburban Australian actually having a conversation such as that recorded by the author. But, on the other hand, the author is damn fine story teller, which of course does forgive many a little niggle.

So how does this one, number three, compare? In a word, outstanding. Fantastic story telling, very believable and real characters, plenty of action, danger, fear, courage, hope, endurance, loyalty and above all love. Like the other novels in the series, the narration moves between the present - the weekly lunch dates of Milos, Neil, Ramon and Lucius; and the past, in this case Milos' story. As with number four book, there are a few twists and turns, which for me, seemed to make a great deal more sense than they did in Neil's story, the subject of number four book.

So, in this novel of nearly 600 pages, which by the way you will race through because you won't want to put it down, Milos narrates the story of Milos, his brother Tibor, and young friend Gabrielle who is loved by both Milos and Tibor but whose heart belongs to Tibor. It is 1941, and Hilter and his machine have their sights set on world domination including Hungary where these two Jewish families are about to have their worlds turned upside down.

This is a corker of a story, an absolute page turner.Brilliant for a holiday read, or a wet weekend. Better get myself started on number two.

NOVEMBER READING: A HISTORY OF SILENCE by Lloyd Jones

 NOVEMBER READING: A HISTORY OF SILENCE by Lloyd Jones

Review copy of this book supplied by Penguin Group (NZ) Ltd, via Booksellers NZ

http://www.themonthly.com.au/book-club/2013/september/transcript

I had the most peculiar reaction to reading this memoir by the very highly regarded Lloyd Jones. For the first five years of my life I lived 1.7kms in one direction from where the author was living out his childhood, and for the next 15 years I lived 1.7kms in the other direction. Our paths never crossed, (he is a few years older), but everything he writes about the place of  Lower Hutt, and the sense of place is very strong in this book, had a startling ring of truth about it. From Stellin Street where I learnt to drive, to his days at the intermediate school, to the shop in the High St his school uniform was bought at, to his descriptions of Petone, the Hutt River bed, Eastbourne and the bays - I could see it all so clearly and in his retelling of his memory, he made me remember too. Just as wonderful was the quite amazing thought that just up the road a writer of such genius was slowly incubating! 

Every family has its secrets, its stories that change over the years to accommodate new narrators and mores of the time, its black sheep, and often full truths never come out because they are too painful, considered too shameful, or quite simply just too hard to deal with. Lloyd Jones' parents, Joyce and Lew, were both extensively scarred by the circumstances of their childhoods, carrying their burdens into their marriage and the parenting of their five children, of whom Lloyd was the youngest by some ten years.

Lloyd grows up in a household of silence, where he and his siblings know very little about their parents' early lives. All they really know is that there was a fair bit of sadness. There is a complete lack of family stories, no photos on the walls, what he calls 'wilful forgetting'. Because he has nothing to compare this with, he grows up thinking nothing much about this lack, and is puzzled only momentarily when he goes driving, from time to time, with his mother to a house that they sit outside of for a while and then drive away again. His siblings are adults long before he is, and so he lives alone in the house with his parents, about whom he knows very little. One Christmas his older sister produces the results of her own research into their parents, a myriad mix of birth, death and marriage certificates which doesn't really answer any questions and leads to a whole lot more.

The devastating Christchurch earthquake of February 2011, was the catalyst Lloyd Jones needed to kick start his search for where he came from and what made him. Throughout the book, Jones uses  Christchurch repairing itself and rebuilding its foundations as an analogy for him finding his own base and putting the pieces of his family puzzle into place. The narrative takes the reader from Christchurch to Lower Hutt, as far away as Wales, Wairarapa, the backblocks of North Canterbury, Wellington, backwards and forwards, to and fro, weaving and threading the story of a family through these places. 

It is very moving to read such a personal account of a family's story, or more to the point the stories of Joyce and Lew. This memoir reads more as a tribute to the parents, and Lloyd himself finally seems to find out from whom he has inherited aspects of his own self and the influences that have shaped him. This is writing written with love and longing, and all the more poignant for that. The story teller in the author comes shining through as he expands on the lives of the people he is writing about, as they react to the events taking place around them. There are some threads I just could not figure out the relevance of  - the boxing bout between Bob Fitzsimmons and Gentleman Jim Corbett springs to mind. But boxing was a big thing in the house he grew up in.  Maybe I was just too tired to fully comprehend the significance. Never mind, such a tiny criticism, it barely matters.

This is a book I will treasure, not just because of the eloquent writing, but because he has given honour and integrity to the lives of two people who were unable to really find it for themselves during their own lifetimes. Read or watch the interview in the link above - well worth the time taken.


  

OCTOBER READING: ONE FOR THE BIRDS by Jacqueline Fahey


OCTOBER READING: ONE FOR THE BIRDS by Jacqueline Fahey

http://www.listener.co.nz/culture/books/interview-jacqueline-fahey/


Jacqueline Fahey is a New Zealand artist. She was one of the first women artists in this country to work entirely from a woman's perspective - domestic life from a suburban neurosis viewpoint, the ill/dying/dead, homeless and street people. A most unconventional woman for her time, she continually challenges our preconceptions of these subjects. And, being a vastly talented woman, she is also a writer. This book is the first of two memoirs she has written in recent years, and is as entertaining and diverse as her art work and her life.

Now in her mid-80s, I expect she is just as feisty as ever, if the interview in the link above is anything to go by! By all accounts she has made outstanding contributions to the NZ art scene, to the women's and mental health movements over the years, not to mention nuclear disarmament, bigotry and discrimination. Her marriage to psychiatrist Fraser McDonald brought her into close contact with those institutionalised in places such as Porirua, Carrington and Kingseat Hospitals. Her compassion and determination to highlight those hidden from mainstream society are evident in much of her art work and in her writings. Her art work is bold, colourful, and about life. This year she received a NZ Arts Foundation Icon Award for her contributions and legacy to NZ culture and to her particular art form.

In this first memoir she writes about her Irish Catholic ancestry and childhood growing up in the South Island town of Timaru, her move to Christchurch to study art and the bohemian lifestyle she follows, her meeting and marriage to Fraser including the most lovely letters she wrote to Fraser before they married and which she now reflects on. The last section covers their early married life living on site at Porirua Hospital.

The inner cover blurb describes this book as a 'tapestry of very personal and family stories' and that her 'commentary on the social and cultural trappings of NZ life is shrewd, witty and perceptive'. I really can't put it any better than that. In many ways reading this book is like having her sitting in the room with you telling her story. There is a fair amount of wandering around a subject or anecdote, and sometimes you wonder, well how did we get to this point, and have I missed a bit! But I can only think, not knowing the woman, that this is how she really is and it just adds to the charm and pleasure of reading.  I am very much looking forward to reading her second memoir which I hope will be just as entertaining and insightful as this one.

OCTOBER READING: MY BROTHER'S KEEPER by Donna Malane


OCTOBER READING: MY BROTHER'S KEEPER by Donna Malane

I really liked this book. A woman crime solver, in the vein of a private investigator rather than a police officer, feisty, smart, damaged, Diane Rowe is as straight up as a spade, not afraid to take on those bigger and brawnier than her, chock full of empathy and compassion, she is one great character. And above all believable, which despite her various failings makes her immediately attractive to the reader.

The author, Donna Malane, is a New Zealand producer and script writer who has written extensively for the TV crime solving/police genre. Her first foray into novel writing was with 'Surrender', where she introduced Diane Rowe, a missing persons expert, dealing with the aftermath of her sister's murder. Although not a sequel, this second novel follows nicely from the first with some of the same characters.

Diane has been contacted by Karen who has just finished a prison term of seven years for driving her car into a lake with her two children in it, resulting in the death of one of the children. The surviving child, Sunny, is now 14 and has had nothing to do with her mother in the intervening years. Karen has asked Diane to find Sunny, 'to make sure she's safe'. Taking the case reluctantly, Diane thinks it will just be a straightforward process of reuniting mother and daughter, whether that is a good thing or not is not the issue. Quite quickly though, she senses there is more to this investigation than immediately apparent, and she soon finds herself drawn into Sunny's family and life.

Like all good TV whodunnits, the action takes place over a very short period of time - 13 days to be precise; there are a number of twists and turns, as well as the odd red herring; the only people who spend more time than Diane in an aeroplane over the 13 days are airline crew; we get a great sense of place with vivid descriptions of the cities of Wellington and Auckland; there is Diane's complicated personal life as well as the requisite rivalries between herself and other law enforcement people/agencies.

Diane is not the only great character in this book. Sunny herself is beautifully drawn as the damaged, motherless, tough but still childlike and resilient 14 year old; you want to steal Diane's boyfriend away for yourself; you ache for Karen and the terrible burden she has had to bear over the years.  But it is the character of Diane herself who shines through, what a woman! This is a great book, neither too long or too short, and very hard to put down which is why it can be read in two days, and you too will read it in two days, trust me! 

OCTOBER READING: ONE NIGHT IN WINTER by Simon Sebag Montefiore



OCTOBER READING: ONE NIGHT IN WINTER by Simon Sebag Montefiore

A bit of internet research shows up that Joseph Stalin, dictator leader of the Soviet Union from mind-1920s till his death in 1953, was responsible during this time for the deaths of 20 million Soviet people - his own people. Most died from starvation either due to state induced famine or in the infamous Gulags. By the way, this is in addition to what may be another 20 million who died as a direct result of WWII. His purges were so extensive and ruthless that come the German invasion of Russia in 1941, it is claimed that he did not have enough man power to prevent the invasion. Such was Stalin's paranoia and insecurity during all the years of his terror filled reign, that literally no one was safe. Including children. Even children of his own advisers and high ranking defence personnel.

This novel is based on the episode that became known as the Children's Case of 1943 when two children of high ranking Soviet officials died during a shooting. Amongst their papers, plans for a joke government were found which resulted in the friends of the two dead teenagers being imprisoned, interrogated, forced to sign a confession and then sent to central Asia for six months. The author spoke to survivors of the case as part of his research.  This case forms the backbone to the novel, using both real people, for example Stalin and some of his generals, and fictionalising the children and their families. The novel is as much about Soviet Russia during this time as it is about the private lives of families, and how betrayal at this most private of levels was actively encouraged.

Stalin didn't believe in love of any kind except to himself and the glory of Russia. The one fly in this ointment was the poet and writer Alexander Pushkin whose works were reluctantly permitted as he simply couldn't get this man out of Russian mindset. In this novel, the author uses Pushkin as the base around which the teenagers build their Fatal Romantics' Club which Stalin felt so threatened by. The web of fear that was caused by the shooting of the two teenagers, is huge and complicated, with the reader fearing for the lives of most of the characters in the novel. This includes the children themselves, one as young as six, the parents, some of whom have to continue looking Stalin in the eye, knowing that Stalin hs personally directed the arrest and interrogation of their children.The school teachers at the prestigious state school the children attend are also under threat, surveillance and interrogation.

At the same time as all this is going on, one of the school girls is having an affair with someone she shouldn't be. This too is based on a true story of the period, whereby a translator at the British Embassy became engaged to a Russian girl. When she attempted to legitimately leave Russia and join him, she was poisoned, brought back to Moscow and tried for treason. The fictionalised version is slightly different, but no less terrifying than the original.

The tension and fear throughout this story is palpable from the opening sentence: "Just moments after the shots, as Serafima looks at the bodies of her school friends, a feathery whiteness is already frosting their blasted flesh".  This very highly regarded author has written two non fiction books about Stalin, and another about Catherine the Great, as well as one other fiction book set during the time of Stalin's rule. He knows this period in history intimately, his knowledge and research shining through. We get a real taste for what daily life was like in communal living situations, the need for husbands and wives to have private whispered conversations in the bathroom with the taps running, the queues for food, the constant being on guard, the sudden disappearances of neighbours and then years later the random appearance of long lost friends and loved ones. We simply can't comprehend living under such fear and intimidation. And yet it is important that we know about what has gone on in our recent past.This is a compelling and frightening read, Stalin's use of children making you realise what an absolute monster this man was, and yet the power of love still managing to shine on through.

OCTOBER READING: AND THE MOUNTAINS ECHOED by Khaled Hosseini

OCTOBER READING: AND THE MOUNTAINS ECHOED by Khaled Hosseini

Best known for his first novel,  'The Kite Runner', this author certainly has, in spades, the wonderful gift of telling a story. A very powerful book that when published in 2003 introduced most of us, in a post 9/11 world, to Afghanistan, its people and cultures, and its recent conflicts. Since then two more books have been written by this author, of which this is one. There are many similarities with 'The Kite Runner' - after all why change a winning formula. All three books span at least one generation, Kabul is a major setting, the Taliban feature, the oppression of women, the divisions that exist between the rich and the poor, the weak and the powerful. And yet, for me, neither of the these later two books capture the brilliance, the richness, the raw emotion, the power of that first novel. There is no doubt they are terrific stories, with great characters, suspense, unexpected twists and surprises, but something is missing. I felt vaguely dissatisfied after reading 'A Thousand Splendid Suns' a few years ago, and it was the same with this book. 

Covering 60 years or so from 1952 to the present day, this is the story of family loyalty and love, beginning with an impoverished father coming to the inevitable conclusion that 'A finger had to be cut, to save the hand'. Abdullah and his younger sister, Pari, are the main focus of the early stages of the story, and then it moves to other characters whose lives are also affected by this decision. Staying mainly in Afghanistan, the story also goes to Paris, Greece, and San Francisco, as the years pass. 
There are a lot of minor characters who make a big impression at the time, that you think are going to be important to the overall story, but then just as suddenly  they disappear.  I spent a lot of time wondering what had happened to them, why they were even in the story in the first place, and will they appear some time before the end, to which the answer was no. I would love to have known what eventually happened to the young girl with the badly smashed face, or the two brothers who in one chapter were young boys living in a street in Kabul, then a chapter or two later were fully grown men living in San Francisco - how did that happen! Or a whole section of 40 odd pages back in rural Afghanistan, the central character a young boy, son of the local drug lord, who meets a homeless boy. You can see this could go somewhere, and just when it is getting interesting, whoosh, we are on some other tangent - a Greek Island in 1967. 

But despite the disjointedness, and the hopping around the decades, it is a great story, and very readable. From the very beginning, it is easy to care about the characters, to understand the motives behind the way they behave and to be happy with the eventual outcome. I did really enjoy it, my reservation being that maybe nothing this author writes will be as good as 'The Kite Runner'.

SEPTEMBER READING: THE CARTOGRAPHER by Peter Twohig



SEPTEMBER READING: THE CARTOGRAPHER by Peter Twohig

Life looks different through the eyes of a child than it does for us adults! Grown-up challenges, disappointments, responsibilities gradually dilute that magic view of our childhood lives and the things that were so important to us at the time. Isn't it strange how the street you grew up in looks so much smaller and narrower when you revisit it years later. Just imagine how much stranger it would be if you found the map of your neighbourhood that you so scrupulously and carefully crafted when you were eleven, showing above ground and below ground, and looked at it with your now adult eyes!

Not that this happens in this novel, but I imagine our young hero treasuring for a very long time, the intricate and detailed map that he put together over a few months when he was eleven, struggling to find himself, dealing with the sudden and tragic death of his twin brother, Tom, a year earlier, and his parents' collapsing marriage.

It is Melbourne, 1959. Our nameless hero, simply Tom's twin, is a sad, lonely, confused and unhappy little boy. But he is also stoic, highly imaginative, very observant, independent, insanely curious and thanks to his special survival bag very self-sufficient. His exploring starts when his father finally leaves the family home, giving our hero his mission of finding out exactly where he has gone to live. His curiosity leads him up and down alley ways and path ways, front yards and back yards, and an absolute magnet for any curious, adventurous child - a ladder leaning against a house. Up he scoots and promptly witnesses a murder. Now a man on the run, he spends large chunks of the unfolding story avoiding the murderer, and various other miscreants/crooks/scary people he encounters along the way. His flight path(s) eventually takes him into the drainage system of the suburb of Richmond, which he explores very methodically, opening up a whole new world. So what does one do with all this knowledge - he maps it! Hence the name he gives himself 'The Cartographer' along with 'The Outlaw', 'The Railwayman', in addition to his all-round superhero capabilities. There are references galore to the fictional heroes of the time - the Phantom, Wonder Woman, Mandrake, Biggles, Kim from Rudyard Kipling, the Wizard of Oz.  An extra ordinary child really!

And so over the course of his adventures and exploits, our young hero gradually comes to terms with the death of his brother, his family situation, and develops stronger bonds with the 'good' grown ups in his life - his grandfather, the Sandersons who live nearby, and one or two others. Narrated in the first person, he is a fabulous little guy, trying to make sense of all that is going on around him, trusting his instincts in these new situations he finds himself in and the variety of people he is meeting. 

It is not a perfectly well told story however. I did lose track a bit of who some of the characters were, their relationships with other characters, and what they were sort of all there for! I thought maybe this might be a reflection of the unbelievable activity going on in the boy's brain, but thinking again, if he is so meticulous in his map making skills, then he would be just as diligent in keeping track of those he meets and how they inter relate with each other. But he doesn't. As a result the book is too long, and there are probably a few too many deviations from the main thread. But it is still a most entertaining read, with a most lovable young lad at its centre.



SEPTEMBER READING: PERFECT by Rachel Joyce



Be warned: this is an entirely different book from the author's previous novel, 'The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry'. No comparison whatsoever. Not much in the way of warm fuzzies, lightness of touch, or happy endings. I say this because so many reviews I have read of 'Perfect' compare this to the wonderful, uplifting and quirky story of Harold and his long walk. And you can't  as they are so totally different. 'Perfect' is much darker and bleaker. It probes deeper into the walls and facades we build around ourselves, our families, so as to ensure the perception of living is different from the reality. In terms of a good read, a good story well told, I prefer 'Harold', but 'Perfect' has given me much more to think about, and is far more unsettling than the former.

It is 1972. Byron Hemming is an 11 year old boy, living with his mother, absent-during-the-week father, and younger sister in a town within commuting distance of London.  They live in a beautiful house on a piece of land complete with a pond. Byron and his best friend James Lowe go to an expensive school, and by all accounts lead a privileged sort of existence. One day James tells Byron that two seconds is going to be added to time in order to balance the time of the clock with the movement of the earth, making things perfect and in harmony. Byron becomes increasingly anxious about this event, reaching its peak during a non-routine drive to school with his mother driving that results in a young girl being knocked over.

Using James as his wing man, Byron, who feels that the whole incident is his fault, tries his utmost, to the capacity that an 11 year old boy can, to rectify the situation and make everything right again - back to his perception of perfect. Which of course, is never going to happen, as 11 year old boys, simply have no grasp of the intricacies of adult life and relationships, specifically marriage and friendships. A child's world view is different from an adult's world view.

Parallel to this story, and in alternate chapters, the narrative moves to the present, to the story of Jim. Jim is a loner, a drifter, with OCD, has been in and out of hospital since a youngster, was subject to ECT therapy, a very damaged man with very little grasp of how to look after himself or manage his life. He lives in a caravan on the edge of an estate, works in a shopping center cafe, has low self esteem. But fairly early on in the story we catch on that he is not stupid, he yearns to be 'normal', but just has no idea how to go about it.

Over the course of the book bad things happen to one of the main characters and good things happen to the other. Perfection, of course, is never reached, but there is a gradual resolution as the events of 1972 come full circle to the present day.  This book is about relationships, about the need to get below the surface of a person to find the true essence, and much as Harold found during his pilgrimage, the kindness of strangers. It has at its core however, the murkiness between perception and reality, and how enormously difficult it is to be able to wade through the murk to find the reality.

Now that I have read two quite different books by this author, I am intrigued to see what she will come up with next.





SEPTEMBER READING: MONSIEUR LINH AND HIS CHILD by Philippe Claudel


SEPTEMBER READING: MONSIEUR LINH AND HIS CHILD by Philippe Claudel

Translated from the French, this is 130 pages of the most exquisite and perfect writing. This little book will touch your soul and leave both a lingering sadness and joy at what the human soul can desire and find.

Monsieur Linh is an elderly Vietnamese refugee who has endured a long journey by boat with his baby grand daughter and one old suitcase. He has seen his homeland destroyed by foreign soldiers, his village, fields, buildings and population burnt and killed, including his son and daughter-in-law. All that is left is the baby, Sang diu. Monsieur Linh arrives in a city in France, and is moved to a refugee centre where he lives in a dormitory like place with other refugees. He is lonely, homesick, deeply traumatised, only living to devote his whole self to his care of the child.

One day, having gone out for a walk to give Sang diu some air, he meets Monsieur Bark, an elderly gentleman whose wife has recently died. The two of them strike up a most unusual but strangely beautiful friendship,  as of course neither can understand the other. But both feel the pain and loss in the other, and both are soothed by voice of the other, the body language, the smiles, and genuine attempts at understanding.  Things go terribly awry when Monsieur Linh is suddenly moved out of the refugee centre to an old people's home some distance away. But he never gives up hope or the determination that he and the baby will be ok, and that he will see Monsieur Bark again.

This could be a book set in any time or in any city. It has the universal themes of war, displacement, hope, humanity and love. We live in times where millions of people have been forced to leave their entire lives behind, often having witnessed the murders and deaths of their loved ones. They cross borders to new places with virtually nothing and are simply expected to get on. Books like this one are very important for us to read, to help us have even a modicum of understanding as to the plight of such people. Very very worthwhile, and for maximum effect read in one sitting.

SEPTEMBER READING: GONE GIRL by Gillian Flynn



SEPTEMBER READING: GONE GIRL by Gillian Flynn

Oh my goodness, after reading this I guarantee you will look at your own relationship in a new and different light, and look ever so slightly sideways at the relationships of your friends, families and neighbours. Yes, I know, it is fiction, made up and all that, but this is very spooky, with enough razor sharp twists to put you into hospital for abdominal surgery just to unravel it all. Rest assured though, that our main characters, Nick and Amy Dunne, are not normal. Behind the facade of loving, devoted, perfectly suited (or are they) and fully functional married couple, lies a narcissist, a sociopath, possibly a border line schizophrenic, and any combination of the aforementioned. And how do we know that the person we bond so lovingly with is not also of similar tendencies? This novel is all about that - the side of ourselves, real or otherwise, that we present to our spouse, our family and our friends. And ultimately to ourselves.

On the morning of Nick and Amy's 5th wedding anniversary, she simply disappears, apparently kidnapped from her home while Nick is at work. The couple have been living in Nick's home town somewhere in Missouri, having moved there (Amy reluctantly and Nick resignedly) after job losses in New York following the recent global financial crisis. She does not have a job, and with his twin sister, he is struggling to run a local bar. Things are tough for them financially and the stresses, unsurprisingly spill over into their marriage.

Suspicion over Amy's disappearance naturally falls on Nick. The story is narrated in alternate chapters by Nick in the present, and by way of Amy's yet to be found diary. But which is the truth? Despite his claims of innocence, Nick seems to show very little distress or concern for Amy's whereabouts, and if he is innocent, then where is she? It is a very tangled web, and I really can't say anymore about what happens because the twists and turns are what keeps you going when reading this. You simply have no idea at all where you are going to be taken next, or what surprise the next chapter will reveal.

It is very clever, very well done, and almost 500 pages of compulsive reading. Riveting. The twists keep coming, right up to the last page.  I want to say more, but I can't, you will just have to read it! All I can say is ...marriage - be afraid, be very afraid. And with 15,000 odd reviews on Amazon, you know this book has left some big impressions.


AUGUST READING: THE ACCIDENTAL APPRENTICE by Vikas Swarup


AUGUST READING: THE ACCIDENTAL APPRENTICE by Vikas Swarup

Didn't we just love the movie Slumdog Millionaire! Heavily based on this author's first novel, Q&A, it gave us a glimpse of what contemporary Indian society and life is like. Controversial because it didn't show things in a positive light, this movie and book introduced many of us to the huge extremes in wealth and living standards, corruption, exploitation of women and children, Bollywood, rackets, and the power of good over evil. Q&A is an absolute page turner, well written, great story, and believable characters and very deserving of all its success. You could almost believe such a story could really happen. Plus, anything translated into 44 languages has to be a tale of universal appeal.

This latest novel is the author's third, and follows much the same themes and way of storytelling as the first one. His Jamal is Sapna, a young woman from a very middle class family, with an honours degree in English, who lives in Delhi with her unwell mother and younger sister. As the breadwinner for the three of them, she works as a salesperson in an electrical applicance store, a job she loathes, with people she doesn't like, but which she can see no way out of.  One day, completely out of the blue, she is approached by one of the wealthiest men in India. Bizarrely, he wants her to take over as CEO of his conglomerate, provided she passes seven life tests. Sound implausible? It is. 

Sapna eventually agrees to be his 'apprentice' and over a period of months the seven tests take place. Are these tests random events or are they contrived by the billionaire?  During the tests Sapna discovers that she has the qualities of integrity, courage, leadership, foresight, resourcefulness and decision making - all of which her benefactor is looking for. Much like Jamal in Q&A, during this testing time, she comes up against various facets of modern Indian society -  Bollywood and the casting couch, an arranged marriage in rural India, police corruption, a kidney donor selling racket, child labour, and reality shows. At the same time she is trying to hold onto her job, and deal with a myriad of dramas within her family. 

The seventh test, however is quite a different kettle of fish from the others in that her life depends on passing it. It is at this point the book moves up a gear or two to become a real page turner. A satisfying conclusion is reached, naturally, but an alarming number of coincidences, set up at various stages during the book, occur to make this happen. Much like in classic fairy tales really!

And I think that is the key to enjoying this story. It is a modern day urban fairy tale, and I don't think you can see it any other way. There is the plucky smart young thing, a strange fairy godmother like figure, a possible prince, annoying family members, strange and unexplained events and encounters, evil and good. Great package. It is not, however,  as well written a story as Q&A, not as tightly plotted and not as well rounded. It is almost as if the author is trying to replicate the formula, but he has hurried the process and left it a bit loose and untidy.

I also found the character of Sapna very annoying and unrealistic. Male author writing about young woman - not the easiest transplant. I might be speaking out of turn, but I doubt very much if there are young women in India like Sapna. As a sheltered middle class girl, I really don't think she would have the life smarts or worldliness to deal with most of the people she encounters - most of whom have some sort of hidden agenda and, who we as the readers immediately know are going to be trouble. But like I said, it is a fairy tale...  The other thing that bothered me - the India in this story is too clean. In Q&A, we got a sense of the poverty, the desperation, the squalor, the random ugliness of the lives of the majority of the population. The author touches the surface, for example the arranged marriage or the kidney racket, but it is not raw enough.

Nevertheless, this is a good bit of escapism, easy to read, and no doubt will be a movie one day too.


AUGUST READING: MIDNIGHT'S CHILDREN by Salman Rushdie


AUGUST READING: MIDNIGHT'S CHILDEN by Salman Rushdie

There is no getting away from the fact that this is a huge book - huge in its word volume, huge in its wonderful use of the English language, huge in its scope, huge in its characters, in its styles of writing, huge in its diverse use of magic realism, and just like the huge country of India - completely chaotic.  For all these reasons this has to be one of the most frustrating, difficult, annoying and crazy books I have ever read. I never thought about giving up, but I did have to relook at how I was to read and absorb this thing. After taking about 2 weeks to read about 100 pages I decided I had to treat this tome like a project. So I found some study notes on line - good old Sparks - and set myself the target of doing the thing chapter by chapter. It worked - nothing like taking small steps to achieve the end goal, and I am pleased that I saw it out to the end. But definitely not a book for the faint hearted.

So why did I persevere? Having lived in India for a short period of time, and being there when it celebrated 60 years of independence, this book has been on my very long list of must reads. And Salman Rushdie, as the winner of two Booker Prizes, as well as the Booker of Bookers, plus being considered one of the most influential and controversial writers of the twentieth century, is an author I felt I should read. When in India I had read the really quite amazing book he wrote for his young son from whom he was separated while in hiding after the fallout from 'The Satanic Verses'. 'Haroun and the Sea of Stories' is one of the most stunning stories I have read - it really is magical and an absolute gem to read with a child.

So I thought 'Midnight's Children' - should be a doddle. Oh no, how wrong I was! There is so much of 'Haroun' in 'Midnight's Children' - the guy is a genius with his word pictures and his captivating writing. It is mesmerizing to read. But there is just so much of it that it is hard at times to keep track of the story, or where the characters are, even who they are and what they are doing.

Midnight's Children are the children born between midnight and 1am on the night of 15 August 1947. (Salman Rushdie himself was born in 1947.) The first born baby was Saleem Sinai who is the main character, either as the narrator or being narrated about. There were 1001 (as in the Arabian Nights - the book is a tsumami of symbolism, drawn from the 300 million Hindu Gods, Islam, Christianity, Sikhism, Jainism, Indian mythology) babies born during this hour who are all blessed with some sort of magic power. Saleem, being the closest to midnight has the greatest powers of all - the ability to reach into the minds of all the others and communicate with them. The story of Saleem and his family parallels the story of modern India/Pakistan/Bangladesh from the end of World War I until the 1980s. It also traverses huge portions of the India subcontinent beginning in Kashmir, moving to Delhi, Agra, Bombay, Pakistan, Bangladesh and various other places. The transition from British colony to fully independent and functional democracy has not been easy or straightforward, and the book is full of the darker chapters in modern India's history - Partition itself, ongoing Muslim/Hindu conflict especially in Kashmir, the Bangladeshi war, Prime Minister Ghandi's sterilization programmes and suppression of opposition elements.

It is not a pretty story. But nevertheless I am glad I have read it, it has further broadened my understanding of this extremely complex region and population  known as the Indian sub continent. If you decide to read this - take some notes with you.


SEPTEMBER READING: MAX GATE by Damien Wilkins


SEPTEMBER READING: MAX GATE by Damien Wilkins

Review Copy kindly supplied by Victoria University Press, via Booksellers New Zealand.

I can't think of a single author writing today who could garner the intense media speculation surrounding their imminent demise that Thomas Hardy attracted in January 1928. So famous and popular and revered was this man that there was a very bitter dispute between the locals and the literarti over where he should be buried - at Poet's Corner in Westminster Abbey or beside his first wife in parish of Stinsford where he was born in his beloved Dorchester.

The death of Thomas Hardy and the furore surrounding it are the subjects of this latest novel by highly regarded, award winning New Zealand writer Damien Wilkins. Thomas Hardy, who died at the very grand age of 88, was probably England's greatest living author at that time. Author of such classics as Far From the Maddening Crowd, The Mayor of of Casterbridge, Tess of the Dubervilles and Jude the Obscure, he had in the previous twenty years or so returned to writing poetry. Much of his poetry deals with his first wife Emma, who he seemed to have a tortured love-hate relationship with, as well his love of nature, his preoccupation with man's suffering and life's disappointments. And these are the major themes that permeate through this carefully crafted and beautifully written novel.

The story is not so much about Thomas Hardy himself, who is lying in his bed, death imminent, but more about the people directly affected by his passing - those living at Max Gate, his much loved house that he designed and lived in for over 40 years.  And let us not forget Wessex, Hardy's devoted terrier.  The story is narrated primarily by a maid of the house, Nellie Titterington, but also moves gracefully to and fro between Nellie, second wife Florence Hardy, his executor Mr Cockerell, his elderly brother and sister, the author James Barrie and several other characters who may or may not have been real people.

So what does one do when waiting for a loved one to die? One reflects on life with the loved one, and this is what the main characters do. Particularly Florence who was initially a secretary to Mr Hardy and then married him on the death of his first wife Emma. Florence, considerably younger than Thomas is a fairly tortured soul. Never feeling fully accepted as Thomas' wife due to her youth and what would appear to be Thomas' shortcomings in the sensitive husband department, she is doing her best to walk the fine line between keeping her husband's final wishes - burial locally, and keeping the public happy - privacy vs celebrity. Nellie is her maid, and so is privy to Florence's emotion and distress. She, in turn, has to maintain the fine line between maid and confidante, in view of the uncertainty of her own fate once Mr Hardy dies.

There are a number of other 'fine line' relationships and situations in this novel - Nellie's relationship with a young reporter Alex Peters; Alex himself desperate to be the one to have the first scoop on Hardy's death and yet, as a local, wanting to protect him from the likes of Cockerell and Barrie; Florence's own relationship with Barrie;  a conversation between Barrie and the doctor over what is more important, the brain or the heart; being a celebrity vs the need for privacy. Interspersed through the novel are many of Hardy's own writings, in particular his poetry, that Wilkins has referred to in his note at the end of the book.

I don't really know anything at all about Thomas Hardy or his writings, and have only seen a 2008 BBC TV adaptation of Tess of the Dubervilles, which was about as gloomy and awful and sad as you can get. It doesn't compel me to read any of his novels, but his life was certainly interesting and one of deep introspection. There is some very beautiful writing in this book, and I certainly think his poetry is worth a look. There is a lot going on in this novel of just over 200 pages, and really, I have barely scratched the surface. Much like Thomas Hardy really - full of hidden depths.

AUGUST READING: THE MAN WHO FORGOT HIS WIFE by John O'Farrell


AUGUST READING: THE MAN WHO FORGOT HIS WIFE by John O'Farrell

Well, I bet there are plenty of women out there currently thinking they get forgotten about all the time by their beloveds, so what is the big deal about some bloke writing a book about it? I bet you haven't been forgotten about quite like Jack Vaughan forgets about his wife Maddy! You will either appreciate that much more your beloved and his minor memory relapses, or you may well wish that he follows the same path as the said man in this funny, charming, slightly ridiculous and very satisfying story.

Jack Vaughan, or Vaughan as he known by is 39 years old, lives in London, is a high school history teacher, married to Maddy, father to two children. One day, while riding the Underground, he suddenly realises that he has no idea who he is, where he is,  what he is doing or where he is going. His whole life has been erased, everything, including his family, how to ride a bike, how to swim, his job. The lot. So begins what could loosely be termed a comedy of errors as Vaughan begins the long process of two steps forward, one step backward, regaining himself and his life.

Ever so very slowly Vaughan's memory begins to return. The fragments are tiny and quite random in how they turn up. His first step in finding out who he is occurs while lying in his hospital bed next to the irrepressible Bernard. Bernard has the very bright idea of buying a Name Your Baby book and reading out every single name in the hope it will jog something in Vaughan's memory. Which the name Gary does. Just think how many names Bernard had already read out to get to G...This immediately prompts Vaughan to start reciting a phone number belongs to Vaughan's best friend.

Vaughan finds out quite quickly that he is in the middle of an acrimonious divorce from his wife Maddy. He simply can't figure out why he has found himself in this situation, as the first time he sees her once he knows who he is, he falls madly in love with her. The focus of the book is his mission to win her back.

Like the lives of most of us, Vaughan's  life is very ordinary, which is what makes this book so very appealing to read and to enjoy.  Could something like this possibly happen to any one of us? And how would we handle it? During the course of the story Vaughan's memories slowly return which enables him, and the reader, to go back to the his and Maddy's first meeting, their courtship, and exactly where things went wrong in the marriage. It is wonderfully romantic and poignant, and probably a reminder to us all that it can be easy to forget how things once were, and hard to dig deep to find those memories again.

The author is a very prolific English writer, who has worked on television and radio political satire and comedy programmes including Spitting Image, broadcasting, an aspiring politician as well as successful novelist and non-fiction writer. His skills as a writer with a wry wit are on full display in this book, as in turn we feel sorry for him, then frustration, then what a lovable buffoon he is. He tries so very very hard, it is so endearing. Yes, it is a light and trite story, but also very satisfying, and you will close it with a contented sigh, and think, gee, that was such a pleasant piece of escapism.

JULY READING: BLOOD AND BEAUTY by Sarah Dunant


JULY READING: BLOOD AND BEAUTY by Sarah Dunant

Renaissance Italy gifted history with the works of Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo, Botticelli, Machiavelli and many, many others. But it would not be complete without the inclusion of the wealthy city states and families who were the patrons of many of these celebrated artists and writers. And especially the families who controlled the Papacy. No family was more notorious or infamous than the Borgias with their time at the Vatican. Of Spanish origin, under the control of firstly Pope Calixtus III, and then his nephew Pope Alexander VI, the Borgia family was not going to let anything stand in its way of controlling the whole of Italy, creating alliances and subsequently destroying them as it suited.  Rodrigo Borgia became Pope Alexander VI when he was 61 having served under a number of popes for years prior to his 'election'. He fathered at least four illegitimate children who were instrumental in his grand plans for domination. These four - Giovanni, Cesare, Lucrezia, and Jofre - were born to the same mother, and are the subject of this novel. History has not been kind to the Borgia family, portraying them as murderers, poisoners, incestuous, torturers, thieves, adulterers, bribers - the list goes on. Their ambition was without parallel.
It would seem there are enough diaries and letters from this period to believe that much of the history is true. The author, who has published a number of other stunning novels set in the Renaissance period, has researched her subject extensively if her bibliography and historical epilogue are anything to go by. The result is a truly fabulously rich and detailed historical novel of real people based on real events. At 500+ pages  it is a lot of reading, but what a read it is. The novel begins in 1492 when Rodrigo, surprise surprise finds himself pope,  his four children range in age from 17 to 10, his mistress is the very beautiful Guilia, his enemies are many and various and he immediately begins the task of immortalising the Borgia name forever. 
Primarily this involves building alliances with the other powerful Italian families - the Sforza, the Medici, the d'Este, the d'Aragon, as well as the noble Spanish families, and keeping on the good side of the French. And how does he do this? By betrothing and marrying off his children, repetitively, either as a result of death, annulment, or changed mind. His 'accomplice' in all this becomes his second son, the ruthless, cruel and syphilitic mad Cesare. His main 'pawn'  is the very beautiful, intelligent and accomplished Lucrezia. And the story, as narrated in this novel, is essentially her story. The author appears to have taken a much more compassionate view of Lucrezia than her portrayal by historians, casting her as a means to an end by her father, and with very little, if any control of her own destiny. Hardly unusual for a young lady of her standing at this time. 
The author is apparently working on a sequel to this novel, which continues the saga and fates of the Borgia, again with considerable emphasis on Lucrezia Borgia who becomes more determined to be in charge of her own destiny. I can't wait. This is marvellous reading, never boring, sumptuous in its detail, strangely narrated entirely in the present tense making it more real and life like. The conversations and dialogue are like real conversations, the passions are intense, the power, ambition and violence fair drips off the page. It is stunning reading.


JUNE READING: LUNCH WITH A SOLDIER by Derek Hansen


JUNE READING: LUNCH WITH A SOLDIER by Derek Hansen

This novel is the fourth in the 'Lunch With' series, although is a stand alone story and does not need to be read in conjunction with the others. Each of the four books is a tale narrated by one of four friends who gather regularly to eat and drink  in a small local Italian restaurant in Sydney, Australia. The four friends are getting on in years and hail from different countries - Hungary, Italy, Argentina and Australia. This book is the story narrated by Neil, who grew up in the farming/opal mining areas of north west New South Wales and beginning, I estimate, after WWII. The story he tells is primarily that of his brother Billy - their childhood,  Billy's tour of duty in Vietnam in the 1960s, and Billy's life after Vietnam. While living as a bit of a recluse running the family farm, a woman one day appears wanting to rent a cottage on the property.  It becomes obvious early on that she is on the run from someone or something, and Billy finds himself drawn to her and whatever has befallen her.

However this story is not only that of Billy, but also of Neil and Billy. One of the rules the four friends has laid down about the story telling is that the story cannot be true. Although without having read any of the other three books, I get the impression that there are elements of a true story in each of the other tales told respectively by Ramon, Milos and Lucio. Neil states from the outset that his story is true, throwing a bit of a spanner into the works as a result, to the extent that I felt the longstanding and close friendship between the four men was seriously under threat by this not sticking to the rules. This tension is a distinct undercurrent throughout the whole book, with it becoming an absolute page turner as he reader really has no idea where it is going - how true is it really? All we know is Neil's statement at the beginning -  that he was responsible for taking his brother's life. How's that for a conversation opener.

There are a number of twists and turns in this book, and it makes for a jolly good story. The author is a truly gifted story teller as seen in his novel 'Remember Me', published 2007, which I reviewed in January 2012. This review book was published 2004 and the quality of his writing improved markedly since then. The writing in the book under review feels a bit contrived and forced. For me there isn't enough subtlety or realness in the characters and relationships of the four friends - I can't really imagine four older gents who have known each other for years having a drink and a yarn in a Sydney bar/restaurant actually talking like this to each other.

This however has not stopped me from wanting to read the other three 'Lunch With' books, and I do have 'Lunch with the Stationmaster' sitting in my enormous pile of unreads. All four books have been favourably reviewed on Amazon/Good Reads etc, but no one book stands out as the 'best' or the 'favourite'. Which I guess is the way it should be - something to suit all tastes. 



JUNE READING: THE UNIVERSE VERSUS ALEX WOODS by Gavin Extence



JUNE READING: THE UNIVERSE VERSUS ALEX WOODS by Gavin Extence

Initially I had this book pegged at 3 out of 5. It seemed a bit far fetched that a freak accident with a meteor could put an 11 year old boy onto the path of becoming a media sensation, geek freak, epileptic and all round weirdly over intelligent teenager. Oh, what's more with a mum who ran a business as a fortune teller. No wonder he was bottom of the pops at his local school. In addition, for about half of the book we are in plot development mode, with not a great deal happening, and unusually for me, I really did consider giving up and moving onto one of the many other books beckoning me to pick up.

But not long after half way, the book took a decidedly surprising and most interesting turn. The subject of assisted suicide is a political hot potato in our Western society with increasing numbers of people living with terminal illness. The burden, stress, and suffering this places onto the person with the illness and onto those who care for and love that person are impossible to quantify. Tie into this religious beliefs, the sanctity of life, the sanity of the ill person, the culpability of those doing the assisting, and we have a major ethical and moral dilemma on our hands. After all we don't let our animals suffer unnecessarily, so why should we let our loved ones.

The person in this novel who wishes to die is not our young protagonist Alex Woods, 17 at the time of his narration of the story, but an older man, Mr Issac Peterson. Mr Peterson is probably in his 60s, American, an ex-Vietnam vet with a damaged leg, who lives alone since his wife died a few years before from cancer. A most unlikely and special friendship develops between these two when Alex, in his early teens, meets up with Mr Peterson while trying to escape from a group of school bullies. Under Mr Peterson's guidance and friendship, Alex quickly finds his teenage world rapidly improving, he learns to deal with the bullies from school, and develops ways to keep his epilepsy under control. Things are on the up.

Then Mr Peterson is diagnosed with a debilitating illness with no prospect of a cure. After considerable research and soul searching, Mr Peterson decides assisted suicide is the only option, and the only place this is legal is in Switzerland. There is no doubt in Alex's mind, and in the mind of Mr Peterson that they are doing the right thing. And so the wheels are put in motion to enable Mr Peterson to die with dignity and self worth.

The second half of this book dives right into this fraught subject in a very open minded way. The author is obviously in favour of assisted suicide, but he sends his message without being inflammatory or judgmental of those not in favour. By using a teenage boy - idealistic, highly intelligent, having had his own share of pain - as his vehicle he has probably found the easiest path to convey his feelings on the matter.

I greatly enjoyed reading the last third of this book. This is not a subject people feel very comfortable talking about, but I found it handled in a very touching and meaningful way. And it has certainly got me thinking more about how we care for and treat people close to us who are terminally ill.  Upgraded to 4 out of 5!



JUNE READING: COLLATERAL by Ellen Hopkins



COLLATERAL by Ellen Hopkins

I have never read a novel in the form of poetry before. It was a bit of a surprise to open this to begin reading to find it all in verse form, and initially was a little weird to read. But once I forced myself to get over the different format, reading became a strangely captivating experience. There is nothing like poetry as a vehicle to tell a love story. The sparseness and pin point accuracy of language is achingly beautiful, passionate, sad, violent, loving, and memorable, at the same time telling a story. 

Here, at the bottom of the world, we aren't a society very familiar with being at war. So it is probably difficult for most of the population to fully relate to the impact that being a Marine at the coal face in Afghanistan can have on the family and partner left behind, and on the self. Cole is such a Marine, Ashley is his long term girl friend. For five years and four deployments Ashley and Cole work very hard at keeping their love alive, and at the same time trying to retain their own individual sanity. There is nothing like war to heighten the emotions and make one live with a little more feeling.

Narrated primarily by Ashley, with odd bits of poetry in Cole's voice, the story moves between the past from the time the two of them met to the present day. Different fonts indicate who is speaking, and what time period we are in. Ashley is a college student, studying poetry. She and Cole meet one night in a bar, connect instantly, and it is full on from day one. Their passion is very intense and beautifully rendered into free form verse, but as we all know passion is not enough to keep a love alive. And slowly over time the relationship begins to falter - the distance, the long periods apart, his daily dice with death vs her daily college routine, similar relationships around them crumbling - all contribute toward an inevitable conclusion.

Since the beginning of time, the lives of those without the power have been torn apart by war. As much an indictment of war on the average person, the way this novel is written also shows how a small story can leave such a big impact on the reader. After all in the scheme of things Ashley and Cole are really just the cogs in the wheel of the war machine, yet their story rings with hope, poignancy and loss. I don't know how this book has been received by the families of those serving in Afghanistan; how true this particular scenario is. But I don't think it actually matters. Love and overcoming obstacles are part of what we do as humans, and so this setting really only serves to highlight the intensity of what we all feel. Outstanding. 

JUNE READING: MUD, SWEAT AND TEARS by Bear Grylls


JUNE READING: MUD, SWEAT AND TEARS by Bear Grylls

This man has so many lessons that he can teach the rest of us about living a life to the best that we can. His autobiography is chock full of worthy mantras to live your it by. On a random page opening, "Life is all about getting up again, dusting yourself down again, learning from the lessons, and then pushing on". Or "It was time to get out there with all of my enthusiasm and commit to fail...until I succeeded". And on his dream to one day climb Everest - "But I had a dream, and that always makes people dangerous...To a man, they thought I was mad". I think a lot of people still do!  And these are just a very few of the thoughts scrambling around in this man's head. But other than his courage, his curiousity and his fearlessness, perhaps the most remarkable thing about him is his  humanity and humility, his bloke-next-doorishness, how Jo-average he seems to be. And the encouragement, that anyone can take on the sort of challenges he has and succeed. Aside from the respect he engenders in people, perhaps his greatest gift is the model he provides for children and young people. He is the youngest ever head of the Scout Association, (he was a Cub Scout as a boy), and is in a most unique position to pass on his passions, his knowledge, his moral and ethical code, and his very ordinariness to the world's youth. 

Any search engine will toss up all sorts of biographical detail about this extraordinary man, and you would have to have lived in a deep cave not to have heard, at the very least,  about Man vs Wild, even if, like me, you have never actually seen it. But a bit like the late Crocodile Hunter, Steve Irwin, he is as much part of popular culture and entertainment, and as British as One Direction or Kate and Wills. In this book Bear Grylls delves deeper than the story of his life and shares the influences and elements that have shaped him into the man he shares publicly.

He comes from a privileged background, but not outstandingly so. His family is very important to him, and he has some very interesting forbears who have made their own mark on the world.  He had a passion for adventure, the outdoors and climbing - be it hills or buildings - from a young age. He went to Eton College where a culture of freedom and pursuit of individual interests further developed his adventurous streak. His decision to try out for the SAS selection almost did him in, the fracturing of three vertebrae in his back almost killed him, as did a fall during his climb of Everest. These combined with his wife and children and his strong Christian faith have all made him the man he is today.



There is no doubt that he is one of the luckiest men to be alive. He has had more lucky escapes than I imagine he cares to count. The two main ones he writes about in this book - the broken back in a parachute accident and the fall into a crevasse on Everest - are, at a guess, barely the tip of the iceberg.  I can't think of anyone who has done more for the saying "Feel the fear and do it anyway" than Bear Grylls. I do wonder though how long he can continue living his life, quite literally, on the edge.

This is such an easy book to read, very short chapters, lots of action, fair amount of self-reflection but in a good and straight forward way, finishing with an epilogue that sets the scene for volume two. Yes, you will want to read more, and you can only wonder what the next forty years of this life will produce.

MAY READING: THE FISHING FLEET - HUSBAND HUNTING IN THE RAJ by Anne de Courcy

MAY READING: THE FISHING FLEET - HUSBAND HUNTING IN THE RAJ by Anne de Courcy.

Hard to believe now, but up until probably the time of World War II in Britain, if you were young and female you were expected to marry, produce children and be a devoted wife and mother for the rest of your days, in that order. Woe betide being labelled 'spinster', a word, when spoken aloud, sounds as dreadful as what it stood for - left on the shelf, destined to be a governess or companion forever. A failure.

But wait, all was not lost! From the early days of Britain's involvement/interference in India, women were thin on the ground. For a long time, it was acceptable for British soldiers, farmers, plantation owners, business men to marry or live and have children with local Indian women, with little prejudice to their womenfolk or children. But over time, this changed and it became more desirable and socially necessary for British men to marry British women. At first, women in want of a husband were paid to make the perilous journey to India to find a husband. They were given a year, and if a match was not made in that time, they sailed back home as 'returned empties'. What a fate.

India came under British government control in 1857 - the beginning of the Raj. The  export of well educated and well bred young men to India to govern this jewel in the crown became a flood. Along with the transplanting of the strictly hierarchical English class society.  From that time on, British men could marry only British women and once a year the ships left British ports, full of eager young women in search of a husband and an adventure, with hundreds of young and not so young men waiting at the other end. Let the fishing begin. After World War I, with the huge hole left in the young male population of Britain, the annual fishing fleet took on a greater significance, lasting  until the mid 1940s when India became independent of Britain.

The author has documented the many and various stories of these women through their diaries, letters, personal interviews with some of the women themselves, and their descendants. Most of these women were very young when they made the trip - late teens/early 20s. They knew little of life, little of relationships, nothing about the opposite sex, but they treated the whole thing as an exciting and thrilling adventure. The parties, the dances, the tiger hunts, polo matches, retaining one's virtue, the sheer logisitics of travelling around the country, the extravagant clothes, the heat, the isolation, the boredom, the fragility of life with illness and unexpected deaths.  To us an extraordinary way to find yourself a life, and it would seem, more often than not, successful.

For the women who did find themselves married and then mothers, the hardest most painful time came when their children reached the ages of 8, 9, 10, and the decision would be made to send them home to be educated. Did she also go to be with her children and leave her husband on his own for at least a year? Or did she stay and send her children to boarding school knowing she may not see them for some years. There are some interesting reviews by readers on Amazon.uk who are children/grandchildren of some women who were part of the Fishing Fleet, which do make the stories in this book just that much more interesting.   

As well as being the story of these brave and resourceful women, this book also gives fascinating insight into British life in India, especially covering the period from 1870s to early 1930s. Relations between the Raj, headed by the Viceroy, always a Lord or an Earl, and the many, many unbelievably wealthy Indian maharajahs were generally very cordial. The two societies mirrored each other perfectly in terms of a rigid social hierarchy, everyone fitting neatly into it, and each using the other to advance further up the social and economic ladder.

This is a truly fascinating and extremely well researched account of a time when Britain ruled supreme in the world, and boy did they know it. My only criticism is that it could have done with some more editing - there is a fair amount of repetition and padding out especially in the first few chapters; I don't know how times I read that young women had to be chaperoned at all times, or that men had to receive permission from their superiors to marry and were not allowed to marry too young so generally were ten years older than their intendeds. The narrative also jumped around a fair bit, and I did lose track of who all these young women were as they reappeared at different stages of the book.

MAY READING: MIDDLE AGE- A NATURAL HISTORY by David Bainbridge


MAY READING: Middle Age - A Natural History by David Bainbridge

Just say it out loud - middle age - how drab, dull and gloomy sounding is that. The long slow slide to old age and beyond. Bits of body drooping, face showing cracks of a life lived, being overtaken in the job stakes, can't keep up with the ever changing language, music, TV of the youth, never heard of before medical issues, worries about retirement, elderly parents, teenager offspring, and so it goes on and on.  Paraphrasing Frankie Goes to Hollywood - Middle Age, What Is It Good For. 

Well, according to David Bainbridge, trained vet surgeon and with a PhD in Zoology, middle age is actually good for quite a lot of things. Mind you, he was only 42 when he wrote this book, so he has barely scratched the surface really in terms of the realities of middle age. Unlike some of us...but if it makes you feel better, keep reading.

The author has taken a biological viewpoint in his analysis of why human beings are really the only species with a defined period of time in the life cycle that can be called a middle age. We are neither young and we are neither old; we are, quite simply, in the middle. He defines the period of middle age as being the fifth and sixth decades, ie one's 40s and 50s. Because we are the only species which has a middle age, then from an evolutionary point of view, this period of time must be a necessary stage in the human life span. Essentially he puts this down to the very large brain that humans have - no other species has a brain quite so large as the human brain in proportion to the rest of the body mass.

His research and conclusions cover a huge range of topics broadly divided into three parts - Why Middle Age Has Never Been About Growing Old; The Triumph of the Middle Aged Mind; and Romance, Love, Sex and Babies After 40. So we learn that middle age spread is there for a reason, that the whale is the only other mammal to go through menopause and it is not about your eggs running out, is there really such a thing as 'empty nest syndrome' and 'mid life crisis', why we have the feeling that time moves faster as we get older, why mental health issues are at their lowest level during this time. And this list really just touches the sides of what middle age is all about, and how, really, according to the author, it is probably the best time of your life to be alive. Wow - bet you never thought that as you contemplated another grey hair, or hankered inexplicably after that brand new Porsche.

Initially when I started reading this, I thought how good it would have been to read it when I was in my early 40s, right at the beginning of 'middle age' - what to look forward to. But as I got closer to end of the book, I realised it all made a lot more sense, having a bit of experience of 'middle age' under my belt. Unbelievably perky, upbeat and optimistic about this stage in the human life cycle, this book makes for very interesting and entertaining reading. Not light enough to be a bed time read - deteriorating eyesight (!), but easily absorbed at any other time of the day, you will learn plenty about yourself and how this is really a stage to enjoy rather than get down in the dumps about.




MAY READING: LOTS OF CANDLES, PLENTY OF CAKE by Anna Quindlen


READING FOR MAY: Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake by Anna Quindlen

I picked this up quite by chance one day in the local public library, filling in time as one does. It had a look of promise about it - successful novelist, self help book writer, and respected New York based journalist who has won the Pulitzer Prize - lots going for it. Without being earth shattering or extraordinarily brilliant as one would expect from a writer with such credentials, this is a most comfortable read. Sort of curl up on the couch with your slippers and bowl of hot soup type of read.

As it states on the cover this is a memoir. Not an autobiography, or stand-on-the-soapbox-aging-baby-boomer rave. Ms Quindlen is a commentator, using elements of her personal and public lives, to reflect on matters which have been particularly relevant for women of her generation - she is now 60 years old. With themes ranging from being a mum, being a working mum, being a wife, being a daughter, a friend, body image, getting older, this is a book full of reflections and a fair amount of wisdom. The author nursed and lost her mother at a young age. There is a certain sadness in much of the book because of this, and it may well have been the defining event in her life. As a result there is a certain 'take time to smell the roses' thread running through. And there is nothing wrong with that in a book either.

It has had mixed reviews in book circles, but I actually found it just a really nice book to read. Here is a woman who was at the vanguard of women 'having it all', who helped lay the foundations for those of us who followed along in her footsteps. Some things went well, some didn't, and she is quite open in her musings. A nice read.