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.



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. 



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.