VILLAGE OF SECRETS: DEFYING THE NAZIS IN VICHY FRANCE by Caroline Moorhouse

VILLAGE OF SECRETS by Caroline Moorhouse

War always brings tales of heroism, courage, defiance of the odds, and humanity. And as so often happens these stories often aren't fully revealed until years later, two to three generations later, when the participants themselves have passed on, and truths begin to emerge. So it is with this story. But as well as the truths, plenty of myths also surround this extraordinary and horrific period in modern history. Well known biographer Caroline Moorhead states at the beginning of the book that her intention is to try to put right some of the myths, sift the fact from the fiction, and address the 'fallibility of memory'. In the process she pulls together an enormous amount of research material and first hand accounts from some of the many children that were saved, and descendants of those who did the rescuing.  However it would seems that even she has also got the facts wrong. There are a number of reviews on Goodreads and Amazon from some of these people, none of them complimentary, disputing what she has written. All this, of course, makes a book such as this even more fascinating and intriguing to read.

During the period 1940-1944, Vichy France collaborated with the Nazis in the governance of what was essentially the southern half of France. It followed that the French police in this area were expected to carry out the orders of the Nazis to arrest dissedents, resistance fighters, Jews and anyone else seen as a threat or simply unwanted. The Haute-Loire is a region south of Lyons, so well and truly under Vichy France control. It is mountainous, very beautiful and scenic, lots of little villages and hamlets tucked in amongst the slopes, the hills, the plateaux, valleys and gullies. Before the war it was a tranquil holiday region, with many inns, pensions, and other accommodations. As it is now. Because of its geography and its isolation, this area during the war was the site of much resistance activity. The population of the area was essentially Protestant, a sect of the church that believed strongly in being pacifist, and helping out one's fellow man. Which is how the small towns and villages came to be places of refuge and hiding, as well as a transit point for thousands of people, mostly Jewish, and mostly children. The courage of these very ordinary farming families, small business owners, deeply spiritual and humble people in their defiance of the regime they found themselves living under is, in a word, awesome. And not without tragedy as the Nazis and French collaborators gradually tightened their net around the area.

There is so much to write about this whole shameful period in French history,  and the author, having been a human rights journalist, fills her narrative with many stories of what life was like in Vichy France during this time. Still, aside from the comments made by survivors and descendants, I am not entirely sure if she does succeed in telling the real story. There are so many people involved, and with the absolute necessity of a code of silence, there are bound to be myths and distortions of the truth occuring.  Nevertheless, this is yet another side of WWII that we don't know a great deal about, and is a story that should be told.

A PLEASURE AND A CALLING by Phil Hogan


A PLEASURE AND A CALLING by Phil Hogan

After reading this dark and chilling thriller, you will be deleting all those real estate agent contacts from your life, looking for ways to sell your house privately!  Real estate agents have never been Top of the Pops in most admired or trusted professions, and most of us have a shady story or two to tell about our dealings with them. But I bet none of us know an agent such as William Heming!

Mr Heming has been an agent in an attractive English town for many years. He is part of the local landscape, respected, well liked it would seem, does his job well, and leads an unremarkable average sort of life. But, how would you feel if you knew that he kept the key of every single house he had sold over the past twenty plus years, and had them displayed on a wall in his home? And that he used these keys to enter the homes of his clients, buyers and vendors alike, finding out every detail of their lives, their bank accounts, their families, their holidays, their pets? Mr Heming is that man.

So much does he love his neighbourhood and many of the people that live in it, he uses his knowledge and his expertise to actually protect and help many of them. He is decidedly creepy, but it is when he his behaviour begins to do more harm than good that things get really chilling. The undoing of Mr Heming's carefully built up veneer begins when a body is discovered by the swimming pool on the property of the Cooksons, who would clearly fill the shoes of nightmarish vendors to be dealing with. During the course of Mr Heming dealing with this situation, he tells us the story of how he came to be involved in real estate, his childhood, and his obsessive streak of curiosity that leads and saves him from so much trouble. He walks a very fine line, but from his story, as a lonely, neglected and misunderstood child, we see how the decidedly unhinged sociopathic Mr Heming evolved. You will like and dislike Mr Heming in equal amounts, which is what makes this book so enjoyable and fun to read - what will he do next, and how will that exactly pan out?

This is a creepy, blackly comic, chilling, macabre and bizarre story, and you will never walk past a real estate office, which incidentally are everywhere if you care to look hard enough, without the hairs on the back of your neck lifting ever so slightly.Would make a great movie, with someone like Kevin Spacey or James Spader in the title role.



THE PAPER TRAIL by Alexander Munro

THE PAPER TRAIL: AN UNEXPECTED HISTORY OF THE WORLD'S GREATEST INVENTION  by Alexander Munro


It is highly unlikely that you are reading this review on a piece of paper held in your hand. And yet, it was the invention of paper that enabled mass communication and exchange of information quickly and effectively. Now we have the internet rapidly replacing the likes of the daily newpaper, but we must cast a thought back to where it all began.  First produced over 2000 years ago in China, paper very quickly replaced bamboo as a writing surface and from then on was unstoppable in its spread. Although, it was not till over 1000 years later that paper made its way in a westerly direction to what is now Iran, Iraq, then Turkey to Europe.

The movement and development of paper has been integral to the history of these regions over the last 2000 years. As a form of storing religious texts, whether they be Buddhist as in the early centuries of paper use in China, the Koran or the Bible; as a means of distributing religious messages amongst the populace as seen in the work of Martin Luther in the 1500s looking for an alternative to the Catholic church, or as fuel to the French Revolution in the late 18th century, paper has been at the centre of it all..

Even New Zealand's very own Treaty of Waitangi has two pages in this book devoted to it. Apparently the Treaty was a very rare type of document in British imperial history, in that it was a bilingual document - Maori and English - drawn up for both sides to sign. Which is what happened. Although as we now know, the two versions actually had two different meanings. However it is considered remarkable for its time, as it attempted to come to a political settlement without going to war. The author also points out that when the Treaty was signed in 1840, the Maori had only had maybe 20 years of exposure to the written word, their entire means of communicating and passing on history up to that time being oral in nature. Is it any wonder they are such marvellous story tellers?

This research undertaken for this book is enormous, and how much the author has put in is mind boggling. The author has studied Chinese and lived for a time in Beijing, so it is hardly surprising that half of this book is about the invention, development and spread of paper in China, Eastern and Central Asia - the first 1000 years.  I am not entirely sure how one makes 1000 years of paper making interesting and riveting, and at times I found myself nodding off. The seond 1000 years is easier to digest as it has much more relevance to history that we already know about. Nevertheless, I wouldn't say this book is an 'easy' read. The detail and minutiae of his subject is at times overwhelming, to the extent that I felt the thread of many of his stories was getting lost.


There has been a trend in recent years for non-fiction writers to undertake histories of items/inventions that have been crucial to the development of the world we know and live in, and write about it in a way that makes it accessible to the average reader. For example "E=mc2"  by David Bodanis takes Albert Einstein's famous equation and explains it in such a way the most unmathematical persons in the world could understand. This book is not on the same accessible level as the likes of "E=mc2".

My biggest criticism - the almost total lack of illustrations. In a book of 368 pages there are only seventeen illustrations. I don't understand how a book about paper and it's place in modern history can only have seventeen, low quality illustrations. There is whole chapter devoted to the Renaissance and the use of paper in the creation of some of the beautiful art works from that time. Any illustrations from this time? No. Any pictures of some of the beautifully and crafted Bibles of the Middle Ages? No. Or the copies of the Koran produced by the Islamic Caliphate? No. I kept wanting to see pictures of what the author was writing about. Disappointing for a book with so much research and information in it. 

But if you have the time and want to know where paper, the development of script, binding, typography, the printing press, the concept of reading,  the disbursement of knowledge sprang from, then you will get a lot out of reading this book.


LUIGI'S FREEDOM RIDE by Alan Murray

 LUIGI'S FREEDOM RIDE by Alan Murray

Having noticed that I had been reading far too many  books about WWII and the awful horrifying things that occurred, I needed something light, uplifting and human to read . And wouldn't you know it. I find it, in a book set in... WWII!

 But what a contrast. In the words of the author that he sprinkles numerous times through this lovely book,  it is a story 'of the very first order', a wonderful story, brimming over with optimisim, charming, rich in characters, plot and just simply everything. I loved it.  But of course being about the war, there is plenty of sadness and pain. But for once,  somehow it doesn't leave the reader feeling sad, despondent, and downright glum about the moral compass of the human race.

With a title and book cover like this, somewhere bicycles have to feature and they do - symbols of freedom, the journey that is a life, that you have to turn the pedals to make that life happen, and you have to maintain the machine in good order to keep it going. Every chapter is headed by words of wisdom invoking the bicycle in some way. For example: "There is no space for the freestyle cyclist in our Movement. Ours is the business of acting in concert as one. Each is a spoke in the bigger wheel, a tyre on the track of profound change - Randall Ochiltree, Convener, Glasgow Socialist Cycling Club, 1938, Letter to the Glasgow Herald". Or how about this one - "War is a bit like those silly cycling races where you pedal at about zero miles an hour, and then you go like the clappers for half a minute. Either dead stop or flat out - Jeremy Forsythe, Memoirs of a Partisan, 1961". You could do what I did, and google all these quotes to find out a bit more about some of the writers....

The story opens with Luigi Ferraro, now an elderly man living in a small beachside settlement in Australia. How does he get here you wonder?  The life story begins in 1931 when Luigi is ten years old and receives his first bicycle. He comes from the small mountainous village of Tescano in Italy. He lives with his mother Franca, and his Uncle Cesare who is the black smith. His best friend is Leonardo whose parents have the local bakery. His passion in life is bicycles, rebuilding, repairing, maintaining and riding them around the local area. Such a simple life, in a village where everyone knows you, and life continues as it has done for hundreds of years. Until Mussolini and his fascists come onto the scene. Luigi and Leonardo both find themselves in the Italian Army Cycling Corps, and yes it was a real organisation, and then in a rather strange turn of events fighting with the partisans in the mountains around Tescano that he knows like the back of his hand. Love is found, love is lost, friendships found and lost, there is danger, loss, renewal, reconciliation and reunion.

This book is a joy to read, narrated with a sense of wonder and optimism, as if Luigi is an innocent abroad and his very survival to an advanced age is more a matter of good luck than good management. A fabulous read, ideal for the upcoming summer holidays.

SKELETONS AT THE FEAST by Chris Bohjalian

SKELETONS AT THE FEAST by Chris Bohjalian

There seems to be no end to new books, both fiction and non-fiction about the Second World War, and I seem to be reading a lot of them. Almost without exception, they are very powerful, well written, and good reads, and mostly from the point of view of Germany and Germans being the enemy. This novel, written by an American, focuses on the disaster the war brought to the people of Germany. Not the SS or the prison guards or Hitler and his entourage. But the average German man, woman and child, whose lives were destroyed. Millions of people throughout Europe were forced to fleel their homes with few belongings and no one to help them. We don't seem to have much writing from the average German person's point of view, having been conditioned to collectively seem them all as the enemy, and all complicit in Hitler's vision and its enactment. It is refreshing to read another side of the terrible story of this war.

This novel tells the story of a wealthy farming family in the part of Germany that bordered with Poland - East Prussia. The advance of the vengeful Russians in 1944 into Germany, with all their brutality and thirst for revenge, led to a mass exodus west from this area in an attempt to reach the Allied lines before the Russians caught up with them. The author has taken the diary of an East Prussian woman who kept a diary from 1920 to 1945, parts of which documented her family's fleeing and turned it into this story.

Eighteen year old Anna is the story's narrator. With her mother, her younger brother Theo, and a Scottish POW, they flee with as much of their belongings, and food for themselves and their four horses. It is winter, the journey is long, cold, dangerous and terrifying. Parallel to this story is that of a young Jewish man, Uri Singer, who managed to escape from a train taking him and his family to Auschwitz. His story of survival may or may not be true, but what he goes through says a lot for the power of the human spirit. A third story line centers on a group of women who are in a labour camp, and the forced march they undertake across Germany to escape the Russians. An equally horrible story of cruelty, hunger, cold and what it takes to keep on living.

It's a great story, well written, brutal in parts, and heartbreaking. In places not nice to read - the author doesn't beat around the bush with the horrors facing the refugees, the terrible winter cold, the daily fight for survival. But maybe I will leave WWII stories alone for a while, and read more uplifting stuff.

THE REHEARSAL by Eleanor Catton

THE REHEARSAL by Eleanor Catton

Before The Luminaries, there was this novel. A fraction of the size thank goodness, as I actually found it considerably more difficult to read than The Luminaries. Ms Catton was only 23 when this was published, and it is extraordinary writing for one so young. Not only in her plot and its development but in the depth and complexity of her characters. I can't say I enjoyed reading this, there is so much going on, her characters are more complex than most people I know, I am not even really entirely sure what it is all about! But being  Eleanor Catton writing, out of sheer respect for her I did read it to the end. None the wiser really I am afraid. However I can very clearly see where the magic that is The Luminaries has come from. There are plenty of sections of writing in the book that are stunning and beautiful, the joy of writing and the joy of words are everywhere. From reading on-line reviews there are plenty of people out there who really like this earlier novel of hers.

The story centres on two groups of young people - girls at a girls' school, where an older teacher and a 17 year old student have been found out. There is plenty of angst, hand wringing and teenage girls trying to find their own sexual selves in the emotionally ridden atmosphere that results. And a second group of older teenagers - 1st year drama students who are competing with each other for attention from the instructors in voice, movement, mime. The two groups do come together, but it is all really quite strange. I venture to suggest that perhaps this book is about teenagers finding themselves, the search for identity, what fitting in really means, first love, first sexual experience. 

But really to be truly honest, I don't think I got it! It is confusing, I am not sure where it was supposed to be going to, and despite my perserverance it just did not come together for me.  Glad I read The Luminaries before this.



SPARKLING CYANIDE by Agatha Christie

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SPARKLING CYANIDE by Agatha Christie

Isn't she wonderful, the most widely published author in the English language after the Bible and Shakespeare! She isn't called the Queen of Mystery for nothing. Imagine having this fantastic storyteller as your grandmother. Bedtime stories sure would be something else! I haven't read Agatha Chrisite for years and years, and ambling through the library one day recently, waiting for something to pop out at me, this did! Like so many of her stories, this murder involves just a small group of people, intimately linked to the deceased, with more than likely one of the remainings to no longer alive at the end of it all. So as well as pondering over who did it, you are also left pondering who isn't going to make it.

The title refers to the means of death - cyanide in a glass of French champagne. Rosemary Barton is the first deceased, whose death at the dinner table, with previously mentioned small group of people, opens the story. The remaining characters are her older husband George, her younger sister Iris, her husband's personal assistant Ruth, her lover Stephen Farraday, another male 'friend' Anthony Browne and lastly Sandra, the wife of Stephen Farraday. All with their intriguing back stories, and their motives, but do they have the means? And who else won't be left standing by the end?

Brilliant stuff, such insight and understanding into the human condition, what motivates us, and why we behave in certain ways. And she writes so easily, making her novels very readable and compelling. With the last of the Hercule Poirot TV movies starring David Suchet being made this year, hopefully interest will be revived in the marvellous and timeless books written by Agatha Christie. 

THE PARIS ARCHITECT by Charles Befloure

  THE PARIS ARCHITECT by Charles Befloure

What's not to like about a story that involves people trying to outwit the Nazis? This is a great story, a really good read written by an architect about an architect living in Paris in 1942. Paris is occupied by the Nazis, everyone is soley concerned with staying alive and out of the way of the occupiers. Jews are being hunted and rounded up and sent away. Everyone is suspicious of everyone else, people are on rations and hungry, life is not easy, collaborators are everywhere, the Germans are quite random in their use of violence, and the search for Jews, espcially rich ones, is relentless.

Lucien Bernard is a very talented architect. A patriot to the core, he hates the Nazis, but also knows he needs to stay out of their way. He has little time or energy for the Jews of the city, but when he is approached by a wealthy industrialist to design very secret hiding places for Jews on the run in return for being able to design buildings for the Germans, and thus earn money and prestige, he has to swallow all his misgivings. His secret hiding places are a success, and against his will he finds himself doing more such work. Over the course of the story, his conscience, his survival instinct and his very humanism are constantly fighting against each other.

Being an architect himself, the author has peppered the story with all sorts of interesting architectural and design detail. One finds a new appreciation for buildings as works of art. So iit is a book that informs as well as entertains. I wouldn't say he is the best writer in the world, and that his talents perhaps lie more with a drawing pencil rather than a writing one, but this is a terrific story. Well told, very real characters, and like many books that have been inspired by WWII, make us question how we would behave in a similar set of circumstances.

MOCKINGJAY by Suzanne Collins

MOCKINGJAY by Suzanne Collins

Well, number three in The Hunger Games trilogy, and 17 year old Katniss Everdeen is out there fighting for her life...again. Surprised that girl does not have grey hairs strewn through that beautiful blonde braid. Plus the ever present Peeta and Gale - who to trust, who not to trust. Certainly gives a different perspective on the life of a teenage girl than those reading these books could ever lead. And yet despite her toughness and outstanding attributes as a hunter and master of weapons, her unwanted destiny as leader and figurehead, she still manages to retain the angst and anguish of being a teenage girl, especially with regards to boys. Is this the real secret of the amazing success of these three stories? That beneath the horrific plot lines, sickening themes and all round ghastliness of it all, there lurks a normal teenage soul, that makes her so relateable to her audience?

And yet, something has been lost in this last chapter in Katniss's fight against the Capitol and President Snow. Yes, it has a gripping plot line, full of surprises and the unexpected. Characters we have grown to love and admire die -  violently. In fact I don't think one single person dies a peaceful death in the whole series of books. Where would be the fun in that. but as a whole this book lacks the page turning intensity and frightening suspense that was on every page of The Hunger Games, and almost every page of Catching Fire. There are many pages in this last book where nothing happens, and it actually got just a little boring. When Katniss was in fighting/survival mode, it was marvellous stuff, but the reader has to read a lot of pages before the Katniss we know and love asserts herself.

Taking up right where Catching Fire finishes, Katniss, unsurprisingly, is a bit of a mess, with her home destroyed and her life upside down. She doesn't know who or what she is. In common with many 16/17 year old girls and boys. Maybe it is because she is now nothing more than a pawn or a tool  in the war between the rebels and the Capitol that it seems like this. She is continually torn between Gale and Peeta, her mother and sister don't seem to need her as much, her best relationship seems to be with her sister's cat Butterscotch. She doesn't seem to like anyone else, nor they her.

Still as expected the Good Guys win, the Bad Guys don't, and there is some Happy Ever After. It is a good story, but somehow to me, it just all seems a bit tired. Hope the movie is better.....

IN COLD BLOOD by Truman Capote


IN COLD BLOOD by Truman Capote

No review from me will ever do this book justice. I can't say marvellous, fabulous, fantastic and all those other uplifting and positive words, because the book is about murder most horrible  - in cold blood  no less. But as a quality book, a well written, put together and very memorable book to read, it is, for me, right up there with the best. There are many, many very interesting and insightful and passionate reviews on Goodreads and other places about this book. The most memorable review I read was by a man who grew up in the state of Kansas. It was near the small town of Holcomb in south west Kansas, that one night in November 1959, the Clutter family of four were tied up, tortured then shot in their beds by two petty criminals looking for a safe full of money. The reviewer met a librarian who grew up not far from the Clutter farm, and vividly remembers her father putting locks on all the outside doors of the house after the murders. She sounds scared when she is telling the reviewer this some 55 years later. Truman Capote also conveys very vividly this fear that the local people had about what had happened in their small safe farming community.

The book is subtitled 'A True Account of a Multiple Murder and Its Consequences'. It marked Capote's first foray into what we now call the non-fiction novel, a new genre at the time he wrote this book in the 1960s. After the murders occurred Capote and his friend Harper Lee travelled to Kansas and interviewed as many people as they could about the family, the community, the murder and so on. Smith and Hickock, the two killers, were eventually hanged for their crime. But not before Capote also spent time interviewing them. His book also tells their stories and how they came to be killers. Apparently some of the things in the book are not strictly correct, but it does not detract from what is a captivating read, the perfection of his character portrayals, the whole horrifying next door feel about it all. It is a book of horror, chillingly so, made more so by it being written in the neutral tones of reportage. 

THE VIRGIN AND THE WHALE by Carl Nixon

THE VIRGIN AND THE WHALE by Carl Nixon

How appropriate to read this in the year of the 100th anniversary of the start of WWI. And such a great tribute to the ordinary people - the survivors of the fighting, their families and the people who worked hard to rehabilitate them. This is a really good story, in fact it is several stories really, and centers itself around the power of memory in narrating those stories. Not just the stories we tell each other, but as Oliver Sacks puts it in an opening quote - our 'inner narrative', our own personal story.

Set in 1919, in the city of Mansfield, (very recognisable as Christchurch, NZ), Elizabeth Whitman is a very capable nurse who has worked with injured soldiers, injuries of both physical and mental nature. She has a husband, presumed missing, and a four year old son. She lives with her parents in some sort of limbo zone, unsure of how to proceed with her life.  Lucky is one such very damaged soldier who she finds herself assigned to look after and try to discover what, if anything, can be done to fix him. It becomes very quickly apparent that all of his memories prior to a head injury he received while in the trenches have been completely obliterated. Elizabeth realises this fairly quickly, but has considerable trouble convincing Lucky's wife and medical team that this is the problem, and that he is not schizophrenic needing to be locked up.

Alongside the stories of these two people, Elizabeth is narrating to her young son the story of the Virgin and the Whale, the lead character being the Balloonist, supposedly representing the missing husband and father. How else do you explain to a four year old that no one knows where Daddy is.  Nothing like a bit of magic.

Yet another story comes out of this. The author himself, also takes on the role of story teller. He opens his novel with the story of how this story came to be. He was approached by the son of Elizabeth, with the very attention getting line, 'My mother fell in love with a man who had no memory'.  The author tantalises us with whether this could be true or not, and in the end it does not really matter. Because the story he weaves between the chapters set in 1919 keeps our own thought processes alive and engaged, and the hold that memory has in our own understanding of ourselves.

THE MINIATURIST by Jessie Burton

THE MINIATURIST by Jessie Burton

Would you look at that cover! Who would not want to explore further such an exquisite house, a cabinet sized replica of the beautiful home once lived in by a wealthy Dutch family in the the late seventeenth century. In the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam the cabinet house of Petronella Oortman is on display. Petronella was the wife of a wealthy merchant and did what lots of wealthy wives did - had a replica made of her home, made with marble, tortiseshell, art works by artists of the day and so on. Exquisite, extravagant and expensive do not even begin to adequately describe such works of art. The author has based her totally fictional historical novel on this lady and her cabinet house. But as there is no further information about the lady and her life, the story created by the author is totally fictional.

When it was published earlier this year, this novel was highly anticipated, and Ms Burton was touted to be the new Sarah Waters or Donna Tartt. Bit off the mark on that one I am afraid. It starts off promisingly however - 18 year old Petronella (Nella), daughter of an impoverished but well connected widow, arrives in Amsterdam from a country town, married in haste to an older man, the very successful and widely courted merchant trader Johannes Brandt. In the tradition of Rebecca and Jane Eyre, the man of the story is absent much of the time, leaving the poor young naive heroine in the clutches of a number of other residents of the house. In this case Johannes' sister Marin who is the other main character in the story, and the two house servants - Otto who happens to be African, and Cornelia. Naturally there is much mystery surrounding each of these characters.

The absent husband, with his own mysterious background and dodgy deals, arranges for the house replica to be delivered to Nella as a wedding gift. It immediately fascinates her and in her lonliness and isolation slowly takes over her life. She very intrepidly locates a miniaturist - a craftsman  - to furnish and decorate the house for her, and fill it with people. For me, at this point, it really started to get just a little bit fanciful. And also quite complicated in its plot. From the title I thought the book was going to be about the miniaturist and the relationship between that person and Nella. But it moved away completely from this idea, with Nella becoming an observer/spectator to what was going on around her of which there was plenty. And I can't say anymore as it will give too much away!

Overall this was not a satisfactory read. The author is definitely passionate about her subject, and has done considerable research, but there was almost too much going on, too many characters with complicated stories and objectives. I didn't get confused, I just got bored.  On her website the author says her book 'focuses on two women’s very different journeys to find a slice of freedom in a repressive, judgmental society.' And it does, but it just does not seem to hang together very well to achieve that aim. 

SHIFTING COLOURS by Fiona Sussman


SHIFTING COLOURS by Fiona Sussman

Review copy kindly provided by Allison & Busby Ltd, via Booksellers NZ

I remember as a  university student in the early 1980s, fresh out of a sheltered existence at my high school, being confronted almost head-on with The World as seen through the eyes of the university student newspaper. Apart from the usual gripes that students had towards the tertiary education policy of the day, the overwhelming memory I have of those weekly student newspapers is the ongoing coverage of the violence and injustice of life in South Africa. As a very naive 17 year old, I literally felt my eyes and mind being saturated and filled up with far away happenings.

Reading this novel took me right back to how I felt when I read those student rags, with their vivid and emotional reporting, engaging peoples' physical and emotional pain, the little control they have over the path their lives take, and how hope and human kindness can still be found in the most unexpected places. It is a fabulous story, carefully and sparingly written, not too emotionally awful, but enough to make one ache for the characters and  how little they are able to change their condition.

Opening in 1959, in Johannesburg, six year old Miriam lives with her mother Celia who is the maid for an English couple, Ria and Michael. Life is tough for Celia, although Miriam, being a child much loved by her mother, knows no different. The continuing unrest in South Africa leads to Celia's employers returning to England, and giving Celia a terrible choice - they wish to adopt Miriam and give her the life that she could never have in Johannesburg. It breaks Celia's heart, and Miriam finds herself living in Norwich. The book then alternates Celia and Miriam narrating their stories as the years pass. Both suffer in their respective environments. Celia has trouble finding and retaining work, she has three older children and has to provide for them as well, black unrest continues unabated and Celia finds herself caught in the crossfire. Meanwhile in Norwich, where black people in the 1960s are almost unheard of, Miriam also has a terrible time. Unable to adjust in any way to life in England or to her new 'family', she is a most unhappy girl. An accidental meeting with an Indian girl and her family is the one bright thing in her life, and also becomes her anchor in the years to come.

Eventually Miriam, as an adult in the mid-1980s, finally realising that she needs to attend to the unfinished business of her early life in South Africa, makes the journey back to find where she came from. This perhaps was the most interesting part of the whole book. For here we have a black woman, well educated, speaking with an English accent, with the same rights as all other people in the UK, suddenly finding herself a repressed person, a second class citizen, subject to random searching, violation, and with very few rights.

I met the author socially at a dinner. This book had just been accepted for publishing and all she would modestly say about it was that it was set in South Africa. Very evasive. I am quite blown away that this is what her book was all about, and that it has been written with such humanity, power and intensity. She is South African born herself, and at university found herself drawn to the protest movement. Knowing that background now, it is hardly surprising she has written this book with injustice and identity as central themes. 


THE ASSAULT by Harry Mulisch

 THE ASSAULT by Harry Mulisch

There is something immensely appealing about small books. In an age when bigger is better, and publishers produce books of 400 pages with enormous font and large paragraph spacing there is something reassuring about novels well short of 200 pages. Yes, big things can be said in small packages. And so it is with this.

Originally published in Dutch, the language of the author, this is a powerful piece of fiction writing. Anton is a twelve year old boy, living with his parents and older brother in a town in occupied Holland during WWII. It is 1945, the Nazis are beginning to realise that the tide is turning against them and their retributions whenever a Nazi or collaborator is killed are particularly vicious and somewhat random. So it is in Anton's small town one night when a collaborator is shot by an unknown. The result of this violence is that Anton, in turn, finds the violence turned upon him and his family and he is left an orphan. His life unfolds over the course of the book in a series of episodes between 1945 and 1982 where he grows from boy to man,going through the various stages of a life. At each episode he is confronted in some way by the tragedy of 1945, which was never really explained to him then or since in any way that enabled him to process or make sense of what had happened. Over the course of his life, during these episodes, he gradually comes to understand what really happened that day, and also finds the peace that has eluded him for all of his life. The world as seen through a child's eyes is, as we know, totally different from the same view that an adult may see. And that is what this book is about - the slow peeling away and probing of the secrets and reasons that people do things in a small community, not only to protect themselves, but also to protect those around them. And the healing that occurs as a result to those most damaged.


ONE SUMMER: AMERICA 1927 by Bill Bryson

 ONE SUMMER: AMERICA 1927 by Bill Bryson

How on earth one person can create a book, albeit a very long book, out of such an extreme diversity of events, developments, people and plain downright pecularity, that is quite simply riveting and entertaining and somehow holds itself together? That person can only be Bill Bryson. No idea how he does it, but this is a book that is great fun to read, will contribute at least one fact to quite possibly every subject you can think of, and by the end of it, make you feel as if you have been at the centre of a whirlwind. As America must have felt at the end of the four months of summer in 1927 - whew.

A lot happened or came to fruition over that four months. Bill Bryson would seem to touch on all of them in some way - amongst others the beginnings of television, talking films, manipulation of the US finanical system, Ponzi schemes, Al Capone, boxing, devastating floods in the Mississippi, Henry Ford's new Model T car.  But of total dominance, overshadowing everything that occurred during that period are the trans Atlantic flight of Charles Lindbergh and the magnetic power of Babe Ruth - baseball and planes. You will learn a lot about both, much of which you never really needed or wanted to know, but because it is written about in such an engaging and conversational manner, somehow the facts, and there are many of them, do stay with you.

However this compendium of  often  quite bizarre, fancy that, overall useless but intensely fascinating informaton  is not so much about April to September 1927, but about the years that lead up to the various events that reach their zenith over that particular year. The book more becomes a history, mostly social and economic of America during the 12-13 years since the end of WWI . So the list includes prohibtion, the prejudices and bigotry that evolved from the mass inflow of migrants from Europe, the seeds of eugenics and population control that reached its peak in Nazi Germany, the Ku Klux Klan, the pull of newspapers, America's love affair with skyscrapers, the weirdness of history makers like Henry Ford, Herbert Hoover, and so it goes on. An endless parade of events, people, and behaviours that quite frankly had me wondering how on earth America made it past 1927.

And it is riveting, endlessly fascinating reading written.


THE STORYTELLER by Jodi Picoult



THE STORYTELLER by Jodi Picoult

Jodi Picoult is expert at writing novels that get us thinking about all sorts of ethical issues that confront us in the world we live in today. This novel presents us with more curly issues to squirm over, and get us thinking about how we would react in the same situation. The front cover talks about this being 'an astonishing novel of redemption and forgiveness', and it certainly is that. Darn good read.

I seem to have read a lot of Holocaust-themed books lately, and although they make for disturbing and grisly reading, it is important that we do continue to read them. This novel is a Holocaust based story, yes, but it is also a story of great humanity and those tricky issues of how and if to forgive.

Sage Singer (hideously awful name - her sisters are called Saffron and Pepper!), is a young woman with her own truckload of guilt that she can't forgive herself for. She is virutally a recluse, working the night shift in a bakery, making breads and pastries being her only solace. She has few, if any friends, has very low self esteem and is generally a very unhappy person. The only bright light in her life is her grandmother, Minka, who survived the Holocaust and to whom she is very close.

At the grief group Sage attends, she strikes up an unusual friendship with an elderly man, Josef Weber, who one day asks Sage to help him die. It transpires he is also a Holocaust survivor, not however as a Jewish prisoner, but as an SS officer. His grief revolves around his inability to deal with what he has done in his past as an officer and camp guard. He can't live with his guilt any longer and so asks Sage to help him end it all.

In turn both Minka and Josef tell their stories. Intertwined with these two stories is another story that Minka, as a child and young woman made up and held onto during her time in the Lodz ghetto and the concentration camp. It is this story, that in the end saves them both. It is a big book, but well worth the time taken.


AN OFFICER AND A SPY by Robert Harris

AN OFFICER AND A SPY  by Robert Harris

The officer is Georges Picquart, a major in the French army in 1895 when the story begins. The spy could be one of two people - either Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a French-Jewish army officer wrongfully convicted of passing secrets to Germany, or alternatively the real spy, another French army major.

At a time when anti-semitism was rife and not particularly frowned upon, and when diplomatic relations between France and Germany were very low due to the latter's annexation of the Alsace-Lorraine regions, the wishy washy evidence against Alfred Dreyfus was enough to have him convicted of treason in spying for Germany. Public humiliation and exile followed. Georges, who was involved in the arrest and the trial of Dreyfus, was promoted to the rank of colonel and became chief of an intelligence unit within the French military. This appointment gave him access to all the material and evidence against Dreyfus, the result being he uncovered a conspiracy that covered the tracks of the real spy and made Dreyfus the scapegoat. The first half of the novel is Georges discovering these facts, the second half is what he tries to do about this massive miscarriage of justice and bring the true spy out into the open. Very, very John Le Carre.

The case was an absolute sensation in its day. The overwelming negative public opinion towards Dreyfus, mainly on account of his being Jewish, made it very difficult for Dreyfus' supporters of which there were quite a few, to highlight the injustice that had been done. Within the military Georges's whistleblowing nearly cost him his life, but eventually in 1899 Dreyfus was freed, and in 1906 officially exonerated.

Robert Harris, a prolific writer, has made good use of his early journalistic career in now writing excellent historical fiction. He has the ability to make history come alive, weaving actual events and settings around the lives of real and made up characters. Even though this book is classified as a novel, all the characters were real people, and everything that happens in the book is also true, the author drawing on personal letters, police reports, newspaper articles, official documents, court transcripts. Despite all the factual material, he has still managed to instill character, personality and thought processes into his main characters, so it does not feel that one is reading a historical account, but rather a great story. I wouldn't say it is a page turner, full of excitement, intrigue and action; rather it is quietly gripping, sinister, and highlights quite scarily, how dangerous it is for one man who, singlehandedly, decides to take on the might of the French military playing them at their own game. 

THE CHILDREN'S POND by Tina Shaw


THE CHILDREN'S POND by Tina Shaw

Review copy kindly provided by Pointer Press, via Booksellers' Association NZ.

What a cover. Beautiful still photograph of a gnarled old tree on a shady bank of flowing Tongariro River. Conveying a sufficiently high degree of spookiness, mystery, some anxiety, plus of course that enigmatic title. As with many New Zealand novels, you know immediately, that the scenery, flora and fauna are going to be a significant part of the plot, the setting, and general atmosphere of the book.

The Children's Pond is actually a real place, on the Tongariro River, at the National Trout Centre just outside the township of Turangi, as are most of the places in this novel. It is in this pond, one day, that the body of a young woman is discovered. But that is only a small part of the story and a lot happens before this particular alarming episode. Jessica is a woman in her late 30s who has moved from Auckland to Turangi to be close to her son, recently sentenced to a stint in Rangipo prison. She finds work at a fishing lodge and slowly sets about finding her feet, rebuilding her relationship with her son, and dealing with a sizeable amount of personal baggage. Being a small community it is not long before she finds herself drawn into the lives of those around her, in particular the family of the dead young woman. Slowly the threads of Jessica's early life and the lives of those she gets to know in Turangi become more and more entangled, until Jessica herself is at the centre of the danger.

Even though the river cannot speak, it is probably the largest character in this tightly written and gripping novel. The river domintaes the lives of those attached to the fishing lodge, both the tourists, the owners and the employees. All rivers have a life of their their own, a secret beauty, peace, tranquility and enticements. Jessica is no less sucked in than the next person and finds her main solace in learning to fly fish. Now, if there was ever an advertisement to get someone out there learning to fly fish, then Ms Shaw is the perfect person to be writing about it. I am not at all surprised to see that this book is dedicated to Bruce - "who showed me the grace of fly fishing".  Her descriptions of fly fishing are glorious, for me the highlight of this book. I know nothing about fly fishing, and have never had any interest in it. But now? I would love to have a crack at it. She writes in such a way about the art of fly fishing that I get why people come from all over the world to fish for trout in New Zealand rivers. And mostly they fish for the sport of catching, not for the killing and eating.

Tina Shaw is not an author I have heard of. But I probably should have, and after reading this latest work, I am really keen to read more. A scroll through the list of publications on her small but perfectly formed website reveals a writer interested in all sorts of subjects and places and plot lines. She has written fiction for children, young adults and adults, as well as short stories, two anthologies and two works of non-fiction. Writing would appear to be her life.

This is a really good story, totally believeable and well written. There is a spooky and sinister overtone running through the whole story, short sentences, wonderful descriptions and visualisations, interesting characters, all with a back story.  Everybody who has ever been to the Turangi area, even if just driving through, will already have a sense of the place. Reading this book makes you feel like you are still there, and may even make you want to go back.

A COUNTRY TOO FAR: WRITINGS ON ASYLUM SEEKERS edited by Rosie Scott and Tom Keneally

 A COUNTRY TOO FAR: WRITINGS ON ASYLUM SEEKERS edited by Rosie Scott and Tom Keneally

I really can't write a review of this book that could possibly do it any justice, other to say that anyone with half a thinking brain who lives in Australia (primarily), and New Zealand (only because it is the next landfall after Australia) should read it. The following link is by a reviewer (Australian) for The Guardian newspaper, and it says everything that I want to say, but so much better. I urge you to read it.

http://www.theguardian.com/books/australia-culture-blog/2013/oct/28/a-country-too-far-review-book-review

Other than the Aboriginies in Australia, every single person who lives in the countries of New Zealand and Australia migrated to these islands. The asylum seekers who are the subject of this anthology of writings are also seeking a better life. Their much publicised fates once, that is if, they reach the shores of Australia would make most of them wonder why they even bothered. All the contributors are well known Australian writers, with the exception of one who is well known in New Zealand, and they write a mix of fiction, poems and non-fiction mostly from the perpectives of the refugees  themselves - men, women and children. There are also a few writers who have written stories from their own family history which, although not about the asylum seeker/boat people we see nowadays, are every bit as relevant as the current hopefuls.

This is a problem that will not go away.  Australians burying their NIMBY heads in the sand are going to be creating more troubles for themselves. After all how hard can it be for a country of 23 million to treat with dignity and compassion a few thousand desperate migrants a year.




THE GOLDFINCH by Donna Tartt


THE GOLDFINCH by Donna Tartt

First off, it is huge, 771 pages. Secondly it took 11 years to write. Thirdly it won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. A very big book in so many ways. It is also very very good - engrossing, page turning, full of surprises and twists, exquisitely drawn and very human characters, a terrific story, and after so many pages, an ending that really is quite satisfactory. Author Stephen King said about it "a smartly written literary novel that connects with the heart as well as the mind." Little more to be said really.

If you can apply yourself for that number of tightly typed pages, and allow yourself to be lost in the tale, this really is a fabulous read. 13 year old Theo Decker happens to be in the museum with his mother when a terrorist bomb goes off, killing his mother. In his panic, fright, and confusion he comes across a seriously injured an elderly man who gives him a ring and indicates to a picture on the wall, which Theo pulls off the wall and flees. This chance encounter and acquisitions dictate Theo's life for the duration of the story.

I really loved this novel, although it is a shade too long perhaps....there is no doubt it is very wordy, and there are places in the story when I wished it would just hurry up and get on with it, but the author's mastery of the language and how she simply carries you along with the train of thought sort of takes over until before you know it, things are happening again. Not having been a 13 year old boy, I don't know how their brain patterns work, but here is a child desperately trying to survive with no parents, no love, no direction, growing into a man probaby suffering from Post Traumatic Stress, with the only constant in his life being a small priceless painting some 350 years old. I couldn't put this down, and found myself drawn to it,  having to sneak-read another page or two in the long compelling saga.  

DIPLOMATIC LADIES: NEW ZEALAND'S UNSONG ENVOYS by Joanna Woods

 DIPLOMATIC LADIES: NEW ZEALAND'S UNSONG ENVOYS by Joanna Woods

Joanna Woods is highly qualified to be telling the story of New Zealand's 100 year history diplomatic representation through the eyes of the spouses and daughters of its various diplomats. For 22 years she herself was the wife of a diplomat, representing New Zealand in Rome, Teheran, Bahrain, Washington, Athens, Paris and Moscow,  rising up the ranks from a lower level secretary to ambassador.

It does all sound incredibly glamorous and sophisticated, representing your country at the highest level, all those parties, meeting interesting and influential people from everywhere, the travel, the domestic help, education and many expenses paid for. But the reality of this life is actually quite different, and having worked in the foreign service myself, albeit some 30 years ago, I was able to observe how tough this life can be on the spouse and the family. Even though I was not a spouse, so much of this book rang true. I can still see the sadness on the face of the wife of the Head of Mission as she farewelled her children back to school in New Zealand for another protracted period of time. 

In most cases, the NZ mission is one of the smallest in any foreign city hence there is less support available especially when something goes wrong. Family life can be chaotic with children usually going to boarding school back in New Zealand, only seeing their parents in school holidays. The result is many children grow up not feeling as if they are a New Zealander or from any other country for that matter. It was only in the late 1980s that spouses were allowed to work in the country that their husband/wife was sent to. Prior to that the spouse, usually the wife, was expected to be the one who kept the home fires burning. I can recall at the post I was sent to in the mid 1980s that two of the spouses were husbands  - neither was allowed to work, there was literally nothing for them to do. One left half way through the posting.

Joanna Woods has taken just a handful of NZ's diplomatic wives, beginning with the establishment of an official NZ office in London in 1896, the first embassy in Moscow straight after WWII, being in Saigon when it was overtaken by the Viet Cong, early days in Samoa and Tonga, having the first coup in Fiji occuring on your doorstep, being in New York on 9/11, a dalliance with Pierre Trudeau, and driving across borders during the Kuwait hostage crisis in 1990. And many more. The stories and memories are riveting to read, and yes, it is slightly gossiply in style, but what a marvellous homage to the many, many unsong heroes  of New Zealand's diplomacy.

They say that behind every successful man is a woman, and for our diplomats no truer words were spoken. For much of New Zealand's diplomatic history, the spouses have generally been women - strong, intelligent, highly educated and feisty women. Increasingly the spouses are men - the spouse during the Kuwiat hostage situation is a man. Gay and lesbian spouses are also increasingly recognised and taking their rightful place as representatives of New Zealand.

This is a great read, not just of lives far removed from daily life in New Zealand or anywhere for that matter, but of the place that New Zealand has gradually made for itself in the world and the high esteem it is held in, plus giving  us eye witness accounts of a number of events that have shaped the twentieth and early twenty first century.  

 

LIFE AFTER LIFE by Kate Atkinson

LIFE AFTER LIFE by Kate Atkinson

This novel continually reminds us that our lives hang by a thread - life can be whipped away from us in the time it takes to take a breath. In one instance we have baby Ursula dying at birth because a snow storm prevents the doctor getting there in time. In then next instance her life begins again with the doctor present. In another instance, her mother Sylvie has the foresight to perform CPR - probably unknown in 1910; and in yet another scenario Ursula lives because Sylvie dredges up a pair of scissors and frees the cord from around baby's neck.

Does it all sound far to bizarre? Well, yes it is, but the story or should it be stories of Ursula's life are so comfortably wrapped and contained within such familiar and known boundaries - everday day family life, young adulthood, sibling rivalry, pre-war Germany, the Blitz and the war in general - that it  doesn't feel at all unfamiliar and weird. As we know life is full of what-if moments, and we all wonder how things would have panned out if we had chosen a different path. So in this book, amongst other deaths, Ursula drowns. In the replay she is is saved from drowning, and in another it is another child who drowns. As a young woman, again there are different versions which all have different outcomes. Some good, some not so good. By the end of the book we really have no idea exactly how Ursula's life happened: maybe the idea is that each reader takes the lives they like and puts them altogether to create Ursula's life. We know of course that she didn't try to kill Hitler in the 1930s, but just imagine if she had succeeded!

As weird as all this description so far sounds, it does work, and the result is this wonderful book about Ursula, her family who become as familiar to the reader as Ursula does, and her life, or should that be lives. It is the quality of the writer, of course, who makes all these threads hang together, and Ms Atkinson is superb. Her story of Ursula is as much a commentary on England from 1910 to post-war and the effects these times had on the average person who lived through them. Her sections on the London Blitz are simply amazing and many reviewers have commented on how vividly she portrays what London and its residents went through.

Many reviewers on the likes of Good Reads think it is just plain weird and strange and completely implausible. But don't let that stop you from becoming immersed into Ursula's life, and if you can get past the time changes and jumping backwards and forwards through history, this is a really worthwhile book. 


BLOOD: THE STUFF OF LIFE by Lawrence Hill

BLOOD: THE STUFF OF LIFE by Lawrence Hill

This book arose out of a lecture series given by the author at the University of Toronto. Divided into five chapters, which I guess represent five lectures he gave, this book is difficult to give a label to. A mix of science, biology, medicine, history, social commentary and personal memoir it covers all sorts of stuff about blood:  the good stuff in our bodies that carries around oxygen that keeps us alive; the bad stuff that carries diseases such as HIV, malaria, plague; who invented blood transfusions; Lady MacBeth and that damned spot; blood as a weapon of power; his musings on blood being thicker than water or not; do men and women have different blood; human sacrifice; drug taking in sport; and taking up most of the book blood as a factor in race, culture and ethnicity. And this latter theme is really what the author is looking at in his exploration of blood and what it all means.

By way of background, Lawrence Hill is a successful Canadian author, whose black father and white mother migrated from the US to Canada when they got married in 1953 to escape the difficulties such a union at the time brought. He grew up in a family very involved in human rights, and most of his writings are concerned with issues of identity, especially race. For those of a certain age, you may be surprised to know that the author's brother is Dan Hill, he who sang that tear jerker song of the 1970s 'Sometimes When We Touch'. On googling their images, to me they look nothing like brothers, and I can understand his fascination and intense interest in looking at how our origins and blood lines define us. But more importantly perhaps how others see us and may label us differently from what we ourselves think we may be.

This, then is the crux of the book, and although it wasn't quite what I thought it would be, it really is a most interesting and informative read. There may be a little too much self-indulgence on the part of the author, but in a world where peoples of different cultures, religions, races, and ethnicities are meeting and having children of their own, these are very real issues that he is bringing up. It made me feel good to be an NZer, where on our five yearly census form, under the 'Which Ethnic Group Do You Belong To' there is a space for 'Other' where increasingly people are simply putting 'New Zealander' rather than identifying themselves as just one of the many others listed.






CATHERINE THE GREAT: PORTRAIT OF A WOMAN by Robert Massie

CATHERINE THE GREAT: PORTRAIT OF A WOMAN by Robert Massie

This is a fabulous biography of a woman who changed the face of Russia in every possible way during her reign of 34 years. Born in Prussia into one of the ruling families, she went to Russian court at the age of 14, found herself bethrothed to the young grandson of Peter the Great and some three years later married to him. Like all young ladies of wealth/title, she was destined to be married off to a man/family at some stage, and by the some very good fortune she found herself at the Russian court. And so began her long love affair with Russia, determined to make it a better place than she arrived in 1744. 

She didn't succeed in all her endeavours, but by the time she died, the lands  under Russia's control had extended significiantly into what was then Poland, and as far south as the Black Sea. She presided over what became known as Russia's Golden Age, the Age of Enlightenment, and also worked very hard, with mixed succes at improving the plight of the serf class, who really were no more than slaves, and treated accordingly.

This book is a huge read - 573 pages - but easy to read and well worth the time taken. The author won the Pulitzer Prize for his biography of Peter the Great, and also wrote two highly regarded biographys - one about the Romanov dynasty started by Peter the Great and the other, Nicholas and Alexandra, detailing the downfall of the Romanov dynasty early last century. Much of the narrative has been drawn from Catherine's own memoirs, and the hundreds of letters she exchanged with all sorts of famous people of the time - other European monarchs, writers and philosophers, lovers, her own advisers and generals. She was a woman of enormous intellect, focus and determination, and what she managed to achieve in her time is quite remarkable.

Numerous legends have grown over the centuries about her sexual appetite and tendencies: this book puts paid to much of it!  There is no doubt she was one fierce lady who took no prisoners, but this biography also shows much of her human side and beneath that awesome heart there was a real woman.

ELIZABETH IS MISSING by Emma Healey


 ELIZABETH IS MISSING by Emma Healey

Review copy provided by Penguin Group (NZ) via Booksellers NZ.

Wow, this novel is great, a stunning first novel, and reading all the media releases in the UK on this book, the young author is a wonderful new talent. How can someone so young - the author is only 28 -  write so eloquently and  masterfully, but above all with such compassion about the issues of dementia in elderly people. Are there even many 28 year olds out there with more than a passing interest in elderly people? That is the first surprising thing about this book. The second is her ability to get inside the head and soul of an 84 year old woman and write so knowingly about what is going on in there. There is  confusion, frustration, rage and anger, realisation that something is not qutie right, and yet in her writing the author manages to hold all the craziness together with the lucidness.

With an ageing population, issues such as dementia and Alzheimer's are just not going to go away and many of us, if we haven't already, will be facing such issues in our own parents and maybe in ourselves or spouses. So often we see old age senility from the outside - as the child, grandchild, caregiver, spouse, neighbour or friend. Not as the person actually experiencing it. I have no idea if what is going on in Maud's head happens or not, but by hokey, the author has created a very compelling and realistic character.

Maud is 84, a widow, still living in her own home with caregiver, Carla, popping in every morning, and her daughter Helen who is in her 50s, taking on the rest of the caring/supervising. Maud knows she is becoming a bit of a handful but can't seem to fully realise why that is, or what should be done about it. Her major problem, at the moment, is trying to find her friend Elizabeth - another elderly lady - who seems to have simply disappered. Maud asks everyone, all the time, if they have seen Elizabeth, and is a known face at the local police station where she regularly goes to report her missing, but of course she can't remember ever doing so! So every visit to the police station is a first visit.
Her short term memory may be shot, but her long term memory is razor sharp. She begins to associate Elizabeth's disappearance with that of her older sister in 1946 when Maud was 15. Sukey was married to Frank, and one day simply disappeared. No trace of her was ever found. In post war Britain things were still pretty tough with rationing, people  homeless after losing their homes in bombings, men or women traumatised by war time experiences, simply running away with surprising regularity. Even as a youngster, Maud never thought that Sukey had run away, and now all these years later, it still preys on her mind.

The author weaves these two different worlds in Maud's mind, as well as her interacations with the real world so expertly, so cleverly. As her mind continues to unravel, there are times when you really don't know whether Maud herself is in the present or the past. It is terrific stuff, all told in Maud's voice. A very ordinary lady who would appear to have had a very ordinary life, but has such a deep inner life as she tries to find where Elizabeth is. Watching her interactions with her daughter, neighbours, medical people and others Maud sees in her day, we also get a picture of how heart breaking losing one's mind is to those watching, the pressures and stresses they deal with in looking after someone like Maud. And all from the pen of a 28 year old. Amazing.




BEHIND THE SUN by Deborah Challinor


BEHIND THE SUN by Deborah Challinor

This is the first novel in a series aboaut four young women, convicted felons, who are transported to the penal colony of Botany Bay in the late 1820s. As the descendant of one such young woman, I have more than the average interest in their story and what life would have been like for such a young woman of the time. The author is Australian convict royalty indeed, being descended from three convicts, one of whom arrived in Botany Bay on the same ship as my ancestor - the Lady Juliana in 1789, also infamously known as the Floating Brothel, but that is another story.

This story is set some forty years later, when the settlement of Sydney was growing and becoming more established. Ships carrying convicts were still regular arrivals until 1840, with the women convicts being offloaded and transferred to the Parramatta Female Factory Precint, a short distance up the Parramatta River. The author says in her notes that 20% of Australians, and no doubt a fair few New Zealanders, are descended from women who went through the factory gates.

The book begins in London, where Friday, Harriet, Sarah and Rachel are each caught and convicted of crimes ranging from prosititution, stealing some material, stealing jewellery, and being destitute. Although they are from vastly different backgrounds, one they meet in Newgate Gaol - truly lovely place - they forge an inseparable bond which sees them through the voyage to New South Wales. Much of the book is taken up with the voyage, providing a detailed account of shipboard life which was actually not too bad compared with being in Newgate Gaol. The food was reasonable, the captain was a reasonably enlightened man, it seems the women in general got on, and I imagine once the distress of leaving England and loved ones, plus the sea legs were found, for many of the women, their lives were vastly improved. For some not so much, as the ship did carry male passengers, and of course the crew. Amongst other happenings on board, Rachel catches the eye of one particular passenger, the consequences of which reverbarate long after the ship's arrival in Botany Bay.

Their arrival in Botany Bay signals the beginning of their seven years of punishment beginning with the transfer to the Parramatta Factory where they stay until suitable employment is found, usually in a shop or as a domestic servant. Being a novel, life for each of the girls takes many and interesting turns, but throughout they have each other and the loyalty between them is very strong.

This is excellent historical fiction. The author has extensively researched London life in the early 19th century, court transcripts of trials, the back stories of many convict women - I was amazed to read that about 65% of convict women could read and around half of these could write. Newgate Gaol, shipboard life and crews, early Sydney, the Parramatta Factory and the lives of many female convicts in Sydney and the surrounds are almost as interesting as the characters. The four main characters are interesting and complex young women, with quite different back stories who are thrown together in what must have been a frightening time and facing an unknown future. The scene is well and truly set for the next novel in the series, and I look forward to reading that in due course.


419 by Will Ferguson

 419 by Will Ferguson

Moral of the story: never ever click on those spam emails telling you have won stuff, or those wanting help for ill relatives. And what ever you do never ever reply to one, even if it is to say sorry, wrong person. Just don't.

Because that is what this novel is about. An elderly man is found dead and his daughter, Laura, takes it upon herself to find out why he died, as this would appear to not be your normal suicide. Her research takes her to Lagos, Nigeria, where so many of these emails originate from.

So who or what is 419?  The number 419 refers to the article in the Nigerian Criminal Code dealing with fraud. In this case scams of the advance fee nature. Such scams have been around for centuries, but became much more common place in the 1980s, and with the arrival of the internet, became open slather as it became increasingly diifficult to track down the origin of the emails sent out. Nigeria is not the only country, by the way, guilty of this type of fraud, but it seems that the emails from Nigeria have a common thread of unbelievable wealth just a few clicks of the mouse away if only you do as asked. It comes back to "If it sounds too good to be true, then it probabaly is". So why do people get sucked into these frauds, losing thousands and thousands in the process? That is what this novel is about.  And by crikey it is alarming and good - a real thriller.

While Laura is chasing down those responsible for her father's problems, in Nigeria itself, there are problems of a different kind, Nigeria having been blessed with enormous reserves of mineral wealth, especially oil. Reading this book you could be forgiven for thinking Nigeria is a mess, and in so many ways it is.  It has  been plundered by the British for over 200 years beginning with slaves, and latterly for its oil and other natural resources. Multinationals like Shell have contributed too to the destruction of the social and traditional fabric of this very diverse population with its various tribes and religious mixes. It is hardly surprising that there are continuously running civil wars, pirates,  and a flourishing and very dangerous black market, as well as internet scams. The author focuses his attention on a young man from the coastal area in the south of the country which is slowing being destroyed by the demand for oil, and a young girl from the dry north who is running away from all that she knows. It is inevitable that the worlds of Laura, Nnamdi and Amina will collide, and the author is a master at building the tension, weaving the tale, taking the long route to the climax of the story.

Always looming in the background to the lives of these three is the self styled Chief Ogun Oduduwa of the Obasanjo, essentially a mobster of the highest order who rules through fear. He has his finger in a number of pies including oil running and 419 frauds - a lot to protect.

This is a great read, and at times I found it hard to believe it was fiction. It could be real - we all receive these ridiculous emails - at the click of a mouse, we too could be sucked into this vortex of no return. Laura's father tried to get out, but he couldn't. A google search of '419' will take you to a whole lot pages featuring scam baiters, those who try to scam the scammers. It is a world that you don't really want to be entering, but novels such as this highlight how vigilant we need to be in our own home computer use.  



MAD ABOUT THE BOY by Helen Fielding

 MAD ABOUT THE BOY by Helen Fielding

Having come to this book months after it was released and the disbelief and shock that devoted Bridget fans felt on reading it, I knew, sort of, what to expect. Bridget, alone, again, looking for love. Nothing new there.

So much effort, mentally, physically and emotionally was at the centre of Bridget finding true love in the first two books that there was a certain emptiness in the reading of most of this sequel. There is really no Darcy in this, other than in  her memory, although I did like her seeing glimpses of him in her son - yes, let's bring back Darcy. What a dream of a man, and what a dream of a couple they were. And that is the problem with this book - there is not one single adult relationship that comes anywhere near close to the relationship Bridget and Darcy had. Her friends, who I barely remember from the other books, are awful - flaky, directionless, boring, unhappy and I have no idea why Bridget continues to be friends with any of them. Daniel, who I never particularly liked, is a disaster, as intensely narcissistic as ever, and it catches up with him. What a freak. Even Bridget doubts her own judgement in having him babysit her children. Eventually. 

So Bridget is unhappy in widowhood. It is now five years since Darcy left this mortal coil. She has  two young children, Billy at school and Mabel almost at school. She still, yes still, obsesses about her weight, her alcoholic intake, her daily life is still chaotic. As well as being Mum, which she actually does incredibly well - good on you Jones, she is developing her talents as a writer of screenplays. To my horror she decides to join Twitter and her daily tally of followers joins the daily update of weight, calorie intake, texts received - all the stuff that heralds the beginning of a new day in the world of Bridget Jones.

This Twitter stuff is awful, with swags of text in the book transcribing these awful Twitter exchanges she has. She meets a man though - #Roxter, which I kept misreading as Rooster! You cougar Jones. Hot and steamy romance ensues. Hot and steamy romance ends. Jones moves on, book ends.

At times, I must say, the real Bridget Jones shone through, and I felt like I was meeting up with an old friend, she is such a honey. But it has been twenty years or so since we first met Bridget and she hasn't really changed or grown up at all. I honestly could not believe she was 50, she was still wittering on just like she did when juggling Darcy and Daniel. Had she not done any maturing/growing up during her years as Mrs Darcy and having her babies? Intensely annoying. I don't know anyone who is the same person they were 20 years ago. 

I thought about giving up, but I also wanted to find out if she finds true happiness again..... Nevertheless I feel we have reached the end of the road with Jones, and maybe we should leave her to live the rest of her life in peace and happiness without disgruntled readers knocking her off her pedestal.

EMPTY BONES AND OTHER STORIES by Breton Dukes

EMPTY BONES AND OTHER STORIES by Breton Dukes


Review copy kindly provided by Booksellers Association NZ on behalf of Victoria University Press, Wellington.

This is the second book written by Breton Dukes and published by VUP. Like the first, "Bird North"  it is a collection of stories, but only six rather than seventeen as in the first. I haven't read the author's first book, but I understand from reading online reviews that is a hard hitting and not very attractive look at the underbelly of the young New Zealand man. Hmm, says this reviewer - over 50-female, just my cup of tea. Is his latest book more of the same?

Interesting then that the cover features a woman, in a swim suit no less, one hand on a ladder rung and the other holding a fishing line, apparently some distance from land. The character on the cover, Laura, is one of three adult siblings in the story 'Empty Bones'. This story, according to the blurb is a novella; the remaining five being short stories, although to be honest, it read more like a long short story. In this story, Laura's father Ian is hosting a bit of a weekend family reunion at the family bach. Ian and his three offspring have plenty of baggage between them as well as the usual love-hate stuff that goes on between siblings. By any family's account, this is certainly a very strange family with peculiar dynamics happening. For a start, Ian has just had a major face lift. A family reunion, for a writer, is a marvellous place for emotions to run high, for events to tilt slightly out of control, and for issues to be resolved, which all happens in this story. The author penetrates very deeply into the psyche of his characters, which is somewhat disturbing, as none of them are very likeable, and the things they do aren't very admirable, but I guess there really are people like that out there, and not just in New Zealand.

The five other stories, being considerably shorter than Empty Bones, have a lot more tension, dysfunction, and unease packed into them. And all with the same degree of intense characterisation as in the longer story. This, I feel, is the author's strength - he has the ability to get into the souls and heart of his characters, their complexities. And none of them are nice.

I can't say I liked reading these stories. I didn't like the characters, mostly young to middle aged men, who seem to have little direction in life, very little to get up for each day, users and bludgers of other people.  Other than Laura, who has her own issues, the only other story with its main character as a female is the story about Rachel. Plenty of potential perhaps for things to turn out a little differently maybe? But no, same downward spiral as the others. In all his stories, the characters seem to have got to a point in their lives where they seem to have lost control of where they see their life going. And didn't seem to know or be able to see how to get it back. Depressing reading really.

Maybe that is the author's point. Get us thinking a little more about the type of society we are living in and the type of people it is turning out. Are these behaviour issues something people are born with or a product of their upbringing/the passage of their lives/alcohol/drugs. Or maybe this underbelly of human nature has always been there, and he is simply bringing it to our attention.Whatever we may think of the subject matter of the stories, the unlikeable characters the author has created for his reader, and the future of masculinity in New Zealand, there is no denying the quality of the writing. These are well written stories, very evocative, they leave powerful images, and if they can bring about a strong emotion from the reader, then maybe the author has been successful in communicating his message.

EMPTY MANSIONS by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Jr

EMPTY MANSIONS by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Jr

One of the many facts that stood out for me in this very readable and fascinating book, is that a period of 172 years is covered from the birth of Huguette Clark's father in 1839 and her death at the age of 104 in 2011 - the lives of just two people covering such a long period of development, change, social and economic history. And so much money, unbelievably vast sums of money made by Mr Clark and ultimately inherited by his daughter Huguette.  At one stage WA Clark was one of the richest men in America, and by the standards of his own time his spending was extraordinarily lavish.  When Huguette died she left behind a fortune of USD$300 million, most of which was donated to charity, but not before a court battle between her distant relatives and the executors of her estate. I can hardly believe that over a twenty year period, she gave away $31 million to her nurse.

Joint author, Bill Dedman, is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, and quite by chance one day, while looking to buy a house to live in the state of Connecticut, he came across a very large empty house on a large piece of land. It had been empty for years and years, vines were growing through the windows, rodents and small animals wandered in and out at will. It was a mess. His interest was further piqued when he found out that rates were still being paid on the property, and were up to date. Further digging exposed a Huguette Clark was the owner. Being an investigative sort of journalist he then found out that Huguette Clark also owned a huge piece of prime real estate in New York City - overlooking Central Park no less, and a massive cliff side property above Santa Moncia foreshore. All empty, the Santa Monica property never lived in by its owner, and all up to date with rates and other expenses. Who was this mysterious Huguette Clark?

It turns out that Ms Clark had been living in a hospital for some twenty years prior to her death, by choice, and that she had lived a very comfortable but very solitary life. She had  an incredibly generous nature that, it would seem, had been taken advantage of while she was in the hospital. For such a journalist as Mr Dedman, here was a story to be told, and tell it he does. He teamed up with Paul Clark Newell, jr, who is a descendant of WA Clark's via his first marriage - a detailed family tree at the beginning of the book explains it all. This relative, along with a number of distant relatives, corresponded for many years with Huguette either by letter or by phone. No one ever saw her, ever. All very mysterious.

The first third of the book I found the most interesting. It tells the story of how WA Clark made his stash - to escape being conscripted to fight in the Civil War of the 1860s, he disappeared off to the Wild West - Montana to be precise, discovered the riches that could be obtained from copper mining and the railways, and he was on his way. He sounds to have been an extraordinary man with enormous energy, not just in his business life, but also in his personal life, marrying his second wife at the age of 67 and fathering two more children - Huguette and her sister. Once he died however, in 1925, things began to unravel for Huguette and her mother, and the story also begins to lose its thread a bit. Basically Huguette had a very aimless life so consequently there is little to tell.

The book is perhaps a bit long, and there seems to be a fair bit of padding out of the last years of Huguette's life, but by crikey it is so fascinating.  The book might be about Huguette Clark, but the main character undoubtedly is money, vast quantities of it, and it raises the question, yet again, of whether it is possible to have too  much money.


WHEN HOOPOES GO TO HEAVEN by Gaile Parkin


WHEN HOOPOES GO TO HEAVEN by Gaile Parkin

In the midst of the appalling tragedy that is HIV/AIDs in the African continent, ten year old Benedict is getting on with his life as ten year old boys the world over do. Both his parents are 'late', and with his two siblings and two cousins, who also have 'late' parents, he has been taken under the wing of his grandparents. The family has just moved from Tanzania to Swaziland for his Baba's work. Mama, or Angel as she is also known, is desperately trying to get her cake baking business going, which is not easy while attempting to settle into a new place.

Benedict is the type of child who will find something good or positive in any situation, and for him, his new home is a paradise. A beautiful garden rich with lizards, birds and butterflies, and with the recent tragedies in his young life, it doesn't take much for him to escape into his own special world. As an outsider at school, a kwerekwere, he finds solace in the garden, in reading King Solomon's Mines to improve his language knowledge and generally getting to know his new environment. Which includes the search for the buried treasure in aforementioned book Benedict is convinced is buried nearby. Being an inquisitive boy, determined to be good for his grandparents, and where death from HIV/AIDS is an everyday occurrence, he very quickly endears himself to the local funeral directors. Lots of doors open to Benedict and his family as a result of his charm, and with his open mind and his open heart, yet little or no understanding of the adult world around him, he is a happy little lad.

Despite the vast majority of the book being narrated through Benedict's eyes, the reader gets a very keen sense of the world the adults are living and surviving in  - Benedict's grandparents with the responsibility of five grandchildren, the neighbours with their family, Mavis who works for Baba and Mama and has her own grief to deal with, the young man who looks after the animals, as well as a girl at his school.. Not a great deal happens in this book, and even though I kept waiting for some plot development, it didn't matter that it didn't. This is a story about people looking for the good and the happy in the lives they are leading and finding it. It is colourful, lively, warm and charming, and beautifully depicted in the cover.