THE NIGHTINGALE By Kristen Hannah

Extraordinarily excellent book, must be one of the best I have read all year. So many novels have been written in recent years set against the background of WWII and the ordinary people who suffered, survived, and  retained their humanity against all odds and the brutality of the Nazi regime. Ordinary people who did extraordinary things. And here we have another truly amazing novel that will completely grip you, wring you out emotionally. Two sisters, Vianne and Isabelle Rossignol (French for nightingale), have lived quite separate lives due to the death of their mother when they were children. Vianne has married her childhood sweetheart who has left to fight, and with her young daughter they live in a town in Nazi controlled France. Her war involves basically staying alive, having to fight off starvation, losing neighbours and friends to deportations, while also having to billet Nazi officers. Her sister Isabelle has quite a different war, finding her calling working in the Resistance, and risking her life every hour of her waking hours. It is marvellous stuff, I can't recommend this book highly enough - suspense, betrayal, love, tragedy, the whole package. Well paced, great plot development, imperfect and real characters with great humanity who never give up hope. I do have one criticism - the author mentions in her introduction that the catalyst for her novel was reading about a young woman who created an escape route across the Pyrenees for allied airmen. I really think she should have said who this woman was - I wonder if it was Nancy Wake - the White Mouse who was on Hitler's wanted list. If her story is based on real people, then I think the author is honour bound and almost obligated to name them so a to ensure that their memory is revered and remembered. It wouldn't have taken much for her to name, thank and revere these people who did so much, and more often than not died for their actions.

THE STORY OF A NEW NAME by Elena Ferrante

My word, this woman can write. I was fairly luke warm about part one in the four part Neapolitan Novels - My Brilliant Friend, but this one, the second novel in the series, has converted me to the brilliance of her writing and her story telling. Picking up where My Brilliant Friend finished - Lila's wedding - we are immediately thrust into the rest of the reception.  The two childhood friends are now 16, and this novel covers much of the next ten years in their lives. As much a story about friendship and growing up as a story of the savagery of the society they  live in, it really is gripping reading. Both girls are struggling to break out of the poor, downtrodden, violent community they have been born into, finding different ways and means, not always successful. The book is huge, and really over the ten years there is not a great deal of plot. But what is so stunning is the author's, and it also has to be said her translator's, skill and uncanny ability to dig deep into the souls of her characters. Books three and four also look like whoppers, and no doubt will be just as grim, but riveting reading as this one. 

THE PRETENDER'S LADY by Alan Gold

"Her name will be mentioned in history, and if courage and fidelity be virtues, mentioned with honour." So wrote the famous diarist and biographer  James Boswell of his compatriot Flora MacDonald, the never to be forgotten heroine of Scotland for her single handed role in the perilous escape of  Bonnie Prince Charlie from the clutches of the rampaging English. 

What a woman - born 1722 in the Scottish Hebrides, her life is well documented. Her passion for a Scotland free from the iron grip of the English led her into many adventures and many troubles - not just risking her life to save the Prince, but also spending time locked up in the Tower of London on a charge of treason. In the 1770s she lived for a time in North Carolina with her husband and children, only to be caught up in the War of Independence, and then surviving a raid by pirates on the return journey to Scotland. By any account she was an extraordinary woman, and her legendary place in Scottish history is well deserved. And hardly surprising either that there is a mystique and aura about her, that continually fuels the fires of independence, resilience and fierceness so part of the the Scottish identity. 

In this novel, the Australian author has taken the bones of Flora's life and created a rollicking good read that will appeal to a wide variety of readers, and not just those of Scottish descent or  can lay claim to being descended from a MacDonald of the island of South Uist of the Outer Hebrides. She will be forever known as the saviour of Prince Charles Edward Stuart, aka the Young Pretender,  and this is the central narrative of the story. Plus what would a good historical novel be without a bit of romance and bodice ripping in the Scottish highlands surrounded by heather and blustery winds? The background to all this however is just as important to the story. The author has thoroughly researched the history of the time - King George II, his son the Duke of Cumberland whose army famously defeated Charlie at Culloden in 1846 and later known as the Butcher Cumberland for his murderous treatment of the Scottish after this uprising, Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Johnson, the American War of Independence - all in very rich and exciting detail. 

Comparisons of the author's style of writing have been made with Phillippa Gregory (The Other Boleyn Girl) and Alison Weir who both write historical novels from the view point of key characters. As a result, fact is used as the starter for the story, but is not necessarily 100% factual in its content. The key word here, emblazoned on the front cover of such books is 'a novel'. A great starting point for further research and reading. For me, the key point of such historical novels, is that we learn so much about stuff - these books are page turners, they draw us in, real people and real events become vivid in our imaginations, such writers make history come alive.  How clever is that! And more importantly, provide background to the nature of the world we live in now. For example, why did thousands leave Scotland from the mid-18th century onwards for the greener pastures of unknown lands in America, Canada, and New Zealand? Aside from the weather...

This is a terrific story, well told, great characters both good and bad, and in the light of the referendum that took place last year for Scottish independence very timely. The relationship between the two nations may be cordial now, but it has not always been so, in fact many times over the centuries completely the opposite. Such a story makes me very proud of my Scottish heritage, and has sparked a wish to go to the Hebrides. My only criticism? Some pictures of Flora and Charlie would not have gone amiss, and a couple of maps would also have helped greatly in conjuring up images of the intrepid journey Flora and her prince made. 

THE LIST OF MY DESIRES by Gregoire Delacourt

Such a divine book, with its simple enticing cover - buttons: who would have thought. With the added bonus of large font, sizeable line spacing, just 200 pages of heart rending, poignant, beautiful story telling. 

Jocelyne 47, married to Jocelyn for 20-something years, two grown up children, owns and runs a haberdashery store in a town in France, considers herself very ordinary, ordinary husband, ordinary marriage, ordinary life. Sometimes she thinks, dreams about what could be or could have been, how things could be different, but of course there will never be a chance really to make big changes in her life. And so she just keeps on reflecting and wondering what if. Until one day, she wins the 18 million in the EuroLotteries. Then everything changes. For good and for bad. Can and will Jocelyne realise her dreams, and change her life, or will she lose the courage to do so?

Aside from this being such a great fable of modern living, the first person voice of Jocelyne is written by a man. He captures the essence of an ordinary woman, in her ordinary life extraordinarily well. I loved the woman I was reading about, and it raises so many questions as to what one would do if so much money was won. Loved it. 


MY BRILLIANT FRIEND by Elena Ferrante

What a cover - you just want to open it and follow the just marrieds into their new lives. And those three little dolls following on behind! You won't get that on a Kindle. Anyway there is a lot of hoopla surrounding this novel, book one of the Neapolitan novels, and hoopla also around the very mysterious and reclusive author.

It's a marvellous story - two small girls who meet and become best friends in a poor rundown neighbourhood in Naples in the 1950s. Book one focuses on the ten years from roughly six years of age to sixteen years. Life is tough for these families, eking out existences as shoemakers, carpenters, porters, bakers, shop owners. Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo are the stars of the story, both intelligent and clever girls, Lila being particularly gifted. There is a lot to navigate in their small communities - desire for an education beyond primary school, other children, rivalries, family problems, young love. All the usual stuff children and  young people have to deal with, but in this case set against the hard life of the poor streets of post war Naples. Not easy.

It is a good story, and I am looking forward to reading book two, but I did not find it an easy book to read. It took considerably longer than I would have thought to finish it, and it is a bit of slow burner with the second half considerably more riveting than the first. I wasn't expecting it to be chick lit, but I did think it would be easier to read than I found it. Still, roll on book two! Now that the girls are sixteen what does life have laid out for them?

THE PEARL THAT BROKE ITS SHELL by Nadia Hashimi

In 2009 the International Human Rights Watch published a truly appalling 96 page report on the situation of women in Afghanistan. It would appear nothing has changed since the Taliban were thrown out. If anything, a further five years on from this report,  the lot of women has actually got worse. The report focused on five areas: attacks on women in public life, other violence against women, child and forced marriage, access to justice, and girls' access to secondary education  All of these issues are covered in this novel with the author stating on her website that she wrote this novel to share the experiences of Afghan women in 'a fictional work that is made up of a thousand truths'.  This novel tells the story of two women - Rahima, the third daughter of five, living with her cocaine addicted father and powerless mother in a village with numerous other extended family members around her. As there are no sons, Rahima  has the great good fortune to be able to take on the role of a son for the family. She is dressed  as a boy, has her hair cut, her name is change, she is able to go to school, to do the family shopping in the market, speak to men, look them in the eye, and have other boys as her friends. A great life, until inevitably, puberty begins and she must revert. What follows for Rahima and her two older sisters is forced marriage to much older men in order to satisfy their father's debt to a local war lord. Life takes a terrible turn for the worse for the three sisters. The girls' aunt, is a most unusual woman in that due to a physical disability she has never been given in marriage. She does all she can to focus Rahima and her sisters on being strong and smart and resilient by telling the story of the girls' great great great grandmother, Shekiba, who in turn was treated very badly by the men in her family and community she lived in. At one stage, she is required to take on the task of guarding the women in a harem,  dressing and living as a man, giving her unprecedented freedom from the dreadful life led by women. But life is not always rosy, and violence, death and betrayal are never far away.

I can't even begin to think  how intolerable and terrifying a life such as this could be. It is dreadful to think that millions of women in these countries are still living such restrictive violent lives. Although this is fiction, it is a serious read and doesn't shy away from the tough issues. It doesn't have quite the same punch and impact as 'The Kite Runner", but is every bit as good a story.  

GO SET A WATCHMAN by Harper Lee

So did Harper Lee really write this or not? There seems to be more hype about the publication of this book than about the book itself. Supposedly found abandoned in Ms Lee's house, this was the manuscript that she first submitted for publication, only to be told by her editor to take the main character, Jean Louise Finch/Scout, and flesh out her childhood story. Which she did, and it became that marvellous wonder of a story - "To Kill A Mockingbird". It's a shame that this found manuscript made it out of the drawer or cupboard where it was found, because it probably should have stayed there. The story line - early to mid 1950s, a grown up Scout returns to her home town of Maycomb, Alabama where ideas and views have changed somewhat since she left, and she is forced to take a long hard look at herself and those around her - has been challenging for readers who hold Mockingbird close to their hearts. But for me, and plenty of other on line reviewers, the main problem with this is how poorly it has been written and pulled together. It is almost as if maybe, the manuscript has been published as it was found - bits and pieces of Jean Louise's early life slotted in around the few days of her visit back to her home town. I really enjoyed these early stories - vignettes of her relationship with her father, the perfect Atticus Finch; her brother Jem; Calpurnia, the black housekeeper who became Scout's surrogate mother; her days at school. Wonderful stuff, and maybe this is why that long ago editor asked Ms Lee to make a story about Scout the child. Because the writing around Scout the adult is all over the place - it rambles, it is boring, she has the most bizarre conversations with her uncle, goes through the most intense 24 hour love/hate/love crisis with her father that reads more like a soap opera than a genuine crisis. I actually wish I hadn't read this - as a prequel/sequel it has added nothing to 'To Kill A Mockingbird". Maybe it was the vision of all those dollars to be made by those managing Ms Lee's affairs....

A FAREWELL TO ARMS by Ernest Hemingway

My first Hemingway, and probably my last. I didn't not enjoy it, but I certainly didn't really like it. My thinking is that I should read at least one book of this famous twentieth century author, possibly more famous for the life he led than the books he wrote, even though he did win the Nobel Peace Prize for literature in 1954. And this was a random pick off the library shelf rather than one I specifically chose.

A good story, based on Hemingway's own ambulance driving experiences during WWI in Italy. The lead character is an American, Fredric Henry, serving as a lieutenant in the medical corps of the Italian army. Amongst all the horror of war he meets an English nurse, Catherine, with whom he falls madly in love. Their love affair amidst the chaos going on around them is the backbone to the story.

The problem is that it is just not terribly well told or very well written. The plot meanders quite a bit, the dialogues between all the characters are dreadful, often amounting to no more than two or three word exchanges - for a couple in love they can't really seem to find anything to talk about, but having said that, probably not a lot of talking was going on! With his fellow soldiers, all Italian, the conversations are just as boring, naturally there is a lot drinking and ribbing and sitting around being bored going on, which is probably what happened anyway. The best writing is the descriptions of what is going on around them all - the fear, the tension, the horror, the dirt, the day to day life. And quite a bit on the futility of war, the pointlessness of it all, and of course the inevitable deaths.

This was probably very much a book of its time - published in 1929 the war had ended only ten years earlier, and it was very well received when first published. So, I can now say I have read a Hemingway, yay, moving on. 

KING RICH by Joe Bennett

Well-known NZ writer and columnist Joe Bennett, who has lived in the Christchurch area for many years, has now written his first work of fiction. What would have happened to someone who actually managed to remain inside the cordoned off CBD disaster zone, living in the condemned multi story  hotel which also happened to be the tallest building in the city? For Richard, in his early sixties, life in recent years has taken a bad turn. Sick, probably malnourished, basically homeless, and an alcoholic to boot, the haven he finds in the deserted and leaning hotel, is really the only place he wants to be. No one to love, and no one to love him other than an abandoned dog which also finds its way into the building, Richard has little to live for. On the other side of the world in London, his daughter Annie, who has spent her whole life wondering what happened to her adored father after he left her and her mother, sees on TV the devastation wrought on her home town, and makes the long journey back to Christchurch to see if she can find him and maybe re-find herself.

It's a simple story of love and hope, the kindness of others, the simple pleasures in life, set against a background of such devastation, loss and despair. Could it only be written by someone who has lived through all this themselves? Well, in this case, I think yes. Because the book absolutely sparkles with what Christchurch is all about. The writer captures the essence of the landscape, the garden city, the old wooden architecture, the solidness of the place, the spirit, resilience and stoicism of the residents that was apparent to the rest of the country and the world in the days, weeks and now years after. Joe Bennett is a marvellous writer, so visual - 'The starlings are gangsters in flashy suits, strutting like hit men on the far edge of the sill, their sword-beaks jabbing at each other in perpetual squabble.' This is just one of many, many sentences that I loved. It's such an entertainment to read, even though the subject matter is not.

Both Richard and Annie, as the main characters, are very real people. Despite their flaws, as the reader you can't help but relate to them, empathy oozing over the page. Noted NZ writer Dame Fiona Kidman reviewed this book for The Spinoff, and her main criticism is how Annie's mother/Richard's ex wife is portrayed, and I agree with her. It is a very simplistic and one dimensional view of a woman who was betrayed early on in her marriage, left with a young child to raise, and consequently not a very nice portrayal. The reader is not supposed to like her, she does not behave well. However, taking into consideration the circumstances of her marriage breakdown, I do think she deserves some compassion and sympathy. Dare I say it, if the book had been written by a woman the wife may have come across as a nicer person, with at least one redeeming quality.

But a small criticism. Annie's search for her father, the history she unearths, the people she meets who knew her father in his younger and better days is really quite heart warming. Disasters like this always produce small but beautiful real life stories, and what is probably the best thing about the story of King Rich and his daughter Annie, is that it could so easily be true. I hope Joe Bennett keeps writing fiction! 

THE CATCHER IN THE RYE by JD Salinger

Not so long ago I read 'My Salinger Year', a memoir by a young woman in her first job at a literary agency that just happened to number JD Salinger among its clients. She revels in the myth of the hermit like Salinger, she answers his hundreds and hundreds of fan mail on his behalf, she eventually meets him. Many of his writings get a mention in the book, none more so than The Catcher in the Rye, that angst ridden teenage rant of young Holden Caulfield who is having the usual crap time of life that teenagers the universe over have always had. So I thought I better read it, again, as I did way back in my tender youth. It is actually still pretty good, and did take me back to the intense emotional tragedy that one feels one's life is between about the ages of 14 and 18. Poor old Holden -misunderstood, unloved, unable to attract any girls, very self centred and full of his own self importance. At least he comes from money so no worries there, unlike the vast majority of teenagers...

This book has over 36,000 reviews on GoodReads, so not much more to say really. Read some of the reviews, they are great, works of art themselves! Glad I am not a teenager, and never to be one again, horrible time in one's life. 

THE SECRET LIFE OF VIOLET GRANT by Beatriz Williams

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this novel. It was a Goodreads top read for 2014 and I must say I was a little sceptical at first. The blurb on the back wasn't that inspiring, but I figured with 70% of the Goodreads readers giving it four stars or above it had to be a goer. And  it really is!

Two stories are running parallel - in 1964 New York, young graduate Vivian is bored in her new job as a fact checker for a magazine. Despite her wealthy and  privileged background, she is starting at the bottom, and very keen to work herself up the ladder as fast as she can. She is ballsy,  awesomely articulate, loads of personality and ambition. Her life changes completely on a Saturday when her roommate tells her there is a parcel waiting at the local post shop for her collect - a suitcase as it happens, and an encounter with a young man in the queue.

In alternate chapters is the story of Violet. Her story begins in 1912. She also is not typical of young women of her time, having escaped her own suffocating privileged background to further study physics at Oxford university. She quickly falls under the spell of her famous professor and so begins her story. Much of Violet's story is set with the beginnings of WWI as a backdrop, moving from Oxford to Berlin, Switzerland and finally Paris. Vivian's  receipt of the suitcase and its mysterious contents and origins leads her inevitably to Violet's story.

Both stories are really good, both young women rebelling against their expected roles, both trying to survive in tough surroundings, and both shining through. The two women are quite different, and I was really impressed with how the author created two entirely different personalities in Vivian and Violet, and how both women changed and grew during the course of the story. Plus you are on your seat right to the very end, to a most satisfying conclusion for all involved.





THE GUEST CAT by Takashi Hiraide

A most unusual little book for the Western reader to read, digest and ponder over. This has been translated from the Japanese - the Japanese author is a well known poet. So not surprising that the writing is very lyrical with each word carefully and precisely chosen. This lends to the story a gentle and intensely thoughtful tone,  such things noticeable lacking in so much of our busy challenging lives. We are constantly told to be more mindful, pause, take a break, just sit and be. This little book of 136 well spaced pages demands that you do just this very thing - sit, read and be very present in the writing.

Cats mesmerise us humans, and in the country that gave the world Maru, cats are adored, obsessed over. The couple in this story don't own a cat, but as so many of us can testify to, a cat sort of adopts them - the guest cat. This book is the story of the relationship between cat and humans that evolves, and the profound change it brings to the husband and wife. Not a lot happens, in fact for much of the book, nothing at all happens. It is just a gentle meditation on life, what we are doing, how we relate to each other. It didn't leave an enormous impression on me - I have my own nutty relationship with cats - but it is very beautiful, and certainly touches a spot in the heart. 

THE PORCELAIN THIEF by Huan Hsu



How intriguing growing up knowing that somewhere far across the seas in a foreign land there may be a priceless heirloom collection of the world's finest porcelain, buried in a huge hole by your great great grandfather, as he escapes with his family from the advancing Japanese army! Author Huan Hsu is an ABC - American Born Chinese, having grown up straddling the three worlds of the US, China and Taiwan. As a journalist he has a desperate curiosity to find out if the porcelain collection is still buried, or even if it exists at all. He pulls on his big 'find my inner Chinese' boots and travels to China to dig out the story.

What unfolds is an enormous amount of discovery, not only about his ancestry and his family, but also about himself.  He finds he has to leave his American self very far behind as he learns the language, learns how to get on with those he works with and mixes with, and tries to get answers to the multitude of questions he has. He travels widely too, locating many family members, some of whom live in China, some who live in Taiwan, getting their stories, sifting through the wildly diverse accounts of what happened firstly in 1938 when the family was scattered throughout China and Taiwan, and then what happened after the war with the Nationalists and Communists at loggerheads, the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward, and latterly China as a power house of manufacturing and economic growth. Through all this the myth of the porcelain continues to bubble.

There is so much in this book - part memoir, part travelogue, art history lesson, China's story over last 130 years. Huan Hsu is a very engaging and talented writer, with an inquiring and open mind to all that is going on around him - a true traveller. I enjoyed it very much and learnt a lot about what modern day China is like, the opening up to the West, the still many, many untold stories of dislocation, 're-education', oppression, starvation, torture. And is there reconciliation for the family in unearthing the family treasure? Well, that would be telling, and would take away from the journey of discovery that this whole book is.







THE ANTIPODEANS by Greg McGee

It took Greg McGee thirty years to complete this book, the seed planted in the mid 1970s when he was playing rugby in the north-east of Italy, living amongst Italians, speaking the language, absorbing himself into being Italian. At that time it was only thirty years since the end of the second world war, a war which tore Italy apart - one minute Italy was an enemy, next minute it was an ally - so still very fresh in people's minds. Many NZ soldiers fought in Italy during the war, and in the northeast where this novel is set, a number of NZers were closely involved in the partisan movement, risking their own lives, and putting the lives of the local people at huge risk, for which the consequences were deadly. Much of this has been documented and McGee acknowledges these sources which he makes rich use of in his story telling.

And what a rich tale this is, set against such a background, telling the story of three generations, over three different time periods, in both New Zealand and in Italy. Clare is one of the narrators, in the present day, who is accompanying her father on a trip to Venice for a reunion of a rugby team he played and coached for in the 1970s. Clare has had a pretty rough time of it lately herself and the trip is supposed to give her some space from what has been going on in her life. Her father, Bruce, is also on a personal mission which Clare does not appreciate until it is too late, and on reading her father's diary she begins to unscramble the father she never really knew. Parallel to the Clare/Bruce thread is that of Joe Lamont and Harry Spence - two NZ POWs, on the run in the mountainous regions of the border between Yugoslavia and Italy. Goes without saying terrible things happen. Most of the book is taken up with Joe's story - from his early life in rural Oamaru to his big war adventure, time as a POW and subsequent escape, then the dark days after the war and its horror ended. War does terrible things to people, some thrive and survive, others almost die and still survive, and others just die. Both Harry and Joe are haunted for the rest of their days by what went on in the mountains.  Things have not improved much for Bruce when he is in Italy in the 1970s. Fascism never really went away after the war, and the Red Brigade is running its own terror campaign.

Through this many layered web, the story swirls and travels, coming together at the end in a most satisfactory fashion, and not without a twist or two in the tale. I really liked this book, I was hooked from the very beginning, and snatched chances to read a few more pages any chance I could. Fortunately the chapters were fairly short so I could do this! The only two jarring notes for me were the constant shifts in time and location, I found it distracted from the flow of the story. And the second thing, the quantum physics stuff: I know the author is trying to tell us something here, but it just seemed to be out of place with the story telling that is 99% of the book, and for me, meant I had to put my brain into another gear, and I just could not quite make that leap into connecting it all. But this is just a small criticism as the philosophical physics stuff does not distract from the story in any way.  

THE PEOPLE ON PRIVILEGE HILL by Jane Gardam

Jane Gardam started having her writings published when she was in her 40s. Now in her mid-80s, she is still writing and publishing. She seems to like writing books and stories about older people, people who have seen something of life, have fears and insecurities brought on by disappointments and failures. As do we all. The glass is not really half full anymore, but life is not yet over and there be some living yet to do. She has the most acute eye in her story telling and characters. This book is a collection of short stories, really just about ordinary people going about their ordinary lives, and then having a bit of curve ball thrown at them that they have to deal with. Sometimes well with a good outcome, and often not so well with not such a good outcome. It could become depressing and maudlin, but because her writing is more about the human condition than about the human subject of her stories, it never really feels too awful and sad. It's wonderful stuff, the stories are short, incisive and observant, and just the right amount of pathos. But she is such a good writer, and I have now read three of her books, I think anything she wrote would be well worth the time taken to read and enjoy and savour. 

THE TERRORIST'S SON: A STORY OF CHOICE by Zak Ebrahim

This extraordinary and powerful story is told in just 93 pages. At the age of seven Zak Ebrahim's family life as knew it came crashing down. He lived with his American born mother, Egyptian born father, and his siblings in New York. His father was a devout Muslim, his mother had converted, and Islam, naturally, was a very important part of the family's life. But his father was becoming increasingly radicalised, becoming angrier and more frightening to live with. Along with his fellow radicals, he was the one who gunned down the Jewish leader of the Jewish Defence League. Sent to Rikers Island Prison, his father then became the mastermind behind the bombing of the World Trade Centre three years later in 1993. For Zak, his mother, and his siblings, the rest of his childhood was basically spent on the run. They would find a new town to live in, but it would never take very long for their true identities to be discovered, with bullying, unwanted publicity and racism constantly directed at them. It would be very difficult to not come out of all this with a level of resentment, anger, hate and despair, all fuelled by his radical uncle and others of his father's support groups. But surprisingly, growing up in this atmosphere, produced quite a different young man. He realised that the way of the adults around him was not right, and he vowed to be a different man from his father. To hate is a choice, a consciously made choice, as is tolerance and understanding. His choice was not hate, but tolerance and peace. He has made this his life's mission. This book arose out of a TED talk he gave in 2014, following his selection from a 2103 TED talent search. His message is very important, and it will not take too much of your time to read these inspiring and humbling 93 pages. 

MY SALINGER YEAR by Joanna Rokoff

I chose this book to read not because I am a die hard JD Salinger fan, but because it made the GoodReads list of top reads for 2014. What I probably should have realised is that GoodReads is primarily an American site, JD Salinger is an American writer who has a God like status amongst millions, and so I expect this memoir made the favourites list simply because it was read by many, many JD Salinger fans. There is plenty about JD Salinger in the book, but it is not actually about JD Salinger. Slightly misleading title maybe?

Still, for those that don't know, JD Salinger is the author of the famous coming of age tale 'The Catcher in the Rye'. Unlike America, this novel is unlikely to ever make compulsory reading in New Zealand high schools, but having said that, I do remember reading it for English at school way back in the 1970s and being sort of impressed by it - teenager Holden Caulfield giving the finger to everything and running away to New York.

This book is a memoir. Joanna Rakoff is now a successful writer in the US, but once upon a time she was a starry eyed university graduate looking to become a writer or at least get a foot in the door somewhere in the New York writing business. She lands a job as the assistant to the boss of a very successful and well established writers' agency in New York.  One of the many, many writers the agency represents is JD Salinger,  famously reclusive, who wanted all his correspondence from fans from all over the world to go through the agency, as he simply was unable to deal with it all. Amongst Joanna's numerous tasks was to reply to these letters - a fascinating task as the letters are really quite wonderful. She immerses herself into Salinger and his books, she talks to him on the phone, she finally meets him when he comes into the agency one day. He becomes her guiding light,  and his magic keeps her sane during her first 12 months in New York.

But the Salinger year is not just about JD Salinger. It is really about Joanna's year making it on her own in the Big Apple - earning money, finding somewhere habitable, her writer boyfriend, finding herself. And it is good, very readable. But, I am not sure if it is really enough to have made the top read list. However, I do want to read 'The Catcher in the Rye' again and remind myself why it is still such a great book.  

THE ORPHAN TRAIN by Christina Baker Kline

Way back before governments put in place some sort of social welfare safety net for its most vulnerable, to say orphaned or unwanted children had a pretty tough time of it is an understatement. From the work house in the UK, to mass shipments to the colonies, to state or church funded orphanages, the future for such children was pretty bleak. In the US from 1854 to 1929 thousands of children in east coast  cities were put on trains  and sent to the farm lands of the mid west. The trains would stop in small towns, met by anyone looking for a child - to adopt, to find a servant, a farm labourer, a nanny, a general dogsbody. Young teenage boys were the first to go, then babies, then all the others. Those not wanted in that town would be put back on the train and move onto the next town. Some 'adoptions' were successful, many were not. Life was tough for these children, 'supervision' of their adoptions by the overseeing authority very fluid - for example they were supposed to go to school, but many did not.

This novel tells the story of Vivian, a young Irish migrant girl, orphaned when her parents and siblings died in a fire in New York in 1929. At the age of nine she is put on the orphan train and travels to an uncertain and unknown future in Minnesota. Some ninety years later she is in Maine, now very elderly but still very sharp, living in a house full of memories. Into her life comes Molly, a teenage girl of native Indian descent. Molly has had a pretty rough road so far too, and as part of a community sentence she finds herself helping Vivian clean out her attic. Vivian's story slowly unfolds, and as the relationship between the old lady and the troubled Molly grows, Molly herself changes and grows, finding her own internal strengths and resilience.

It is a marvellous story, beautifully told, with a number of twists and surprises in it. The beauty and strength of this story lies in what the true meaning of family is, the relationships we form, the kindness of those around us, and how these truly define and cement our place in the world. Wonderful reading. Warning  - have tissues handy. 

THE LAST DAYS OF THE NATIONAL COSTUME by Anne Kennedy

I so wanted to like this. Firstly it is written by an NZ author and set in the city I live in - so definitely got to show support for that. Secondly, it has an historical element to it, and features story telling; thirdly, it focuses on hand craft, the pleasure that can be derived from working with one's hands. However, it was far too long, and as a result got bogged down in all sorts of stuff that just got more and more complicated. I really was quite over it by the last page, finding it all  quite strange and far too long.

It starts off well. In an inner city suburb of Auckland, Megan Sligo runs a mending and alteration business from her home. She has married into money, and lives a pleasant sort of existence, her pleasure in her work coming from finding out the stories behind the people and the clothes they bring in for her to work on. On the day that Auckland  suffers a catastrophic power cut that leaves the inner city area without power for five weeks, a young Irish woman comes to Megan with an Irish dancing costume to be repaired. Megan, being an astute judge of character by now, quickly realises that the young woman, like many of her clients, is having an affair with someone she shouldn't. Before long she meets the lover who also happens to be Irish, and then his wife, and so begins the next stage of this story. Despite herself, Megan is drawn to the guilty husband, attracted by what the Irish dress represents, and the stories the husband tells. Throughout this book however, there is a sense of unease about the husband that Megan does not want to see. And taking place against the surreal world of Auckland city basically turned into a ghost town, Megan finds herself disoriented, confused, unsettled. But then so does everyone else.

This surrealism - a large city completely incapacitated without power, residents, businesses and people leaving in droves, and yet some remaining, living without hot water, power, air con, shops, cooking facilities - is what I actually did enjoy reading about. A very weird sort of existence, and it is not surprising that those who remain, such as Megan and her husband, do find things get a little distorted and out of sorts. But really, it is just too long, too repetitive, and unfortunately was not able to hold my interest. 

A TREACHEROUS PARADISE by Henning Mankell

Henning Mankell is the creator of Inspector Kurt Wallender, very famous in the Scandanvian countries and immortalied on TV and movie screens. In recent years the BBC has introduced Wallender to an English speaking audience with the flawless Kenneth Branagh in the title role solving gruesome murders and dealing with his own demons. And captivating stuff it is.  But the author does not write only mystery thrillers set in Sweden. He has a deep affinity for Africa, in particular Mozambique, beautifully illustrated in this historical novel set in the early 1900s when Mozambique was in it's Portuguese hey day. This story has a tiny thread of truth to it, in that the author found a mention in some archival material that one of the largest taxpayers in the colony in the early 1900s was a Swedish woman who owned nine brothels. What a gem of an idea for a story! How on earth did a Swedish woman come to a Portuguese colony and end up a rich woman owning nine brothels!

When the story begins, Hanna Restrom is 18 years old. She lives a pretty bleak life in rural Sweden, until her recently widowed mother arranges work for her in the home of a family friend some distance away in a coastal town. For Hanna, life begins when she says farewell to her mother and makes the long journey to the new town. It isn't long before she gets the opportunity to work as a cook on a ship that transports timber to Australia - and yes, apparently this did happen and was not unusual. Within three short months, she is married and widowed, and unable to bear her predicament any longer, she basically jumps ship when it docks at Lourenco Marques, Mozambique. Here the events unfold that lead to her becoming a wealthy woman and brothel owner. But as suddenly as she appears in the old colonial ledger books, she also disappears. And this forms the rest of the novel.

Hanna recreates herself several times during the few years she lives in Lourenco Marques, and as a white woman in a largely black population under rigorously enforced Portuguese control, she is in a very privileged position. It does not take her long to see the injustices going on around her, with the way the local populace is treated, and the attitudes of disdain and prejudice that prevail. This conflict, and her increasing unwillingness to tow the line, become the key drivers in Hanna's  life, and in her dealings with her employees, house servants, and others. As you have probably gathered it does not end happily.

The story itself is well worth reading, but the writing too is quite bewitching. We feel the overwhelming African heat, the loneliness and isolation Hanna feels in her highly unusual position in the local society, her constant feeling of alienation in this very foreign environment, the menacing undertone at the imbalance of power between native African and white interloper. It is very good, and lingers for quite some time after finishing. I really look forward to reading more of this author.
 

THE SILKWORM by Robert Galbraith

Robert Galbraith is really JK Rowling, of Harry Potter fame. I am not sure I really understand why she took another name to write adult private investigator novels because it didn't take long for her to be sprung. But like the name she chose, this work is totally different in every possible way from the Harry Potter series. As you would expect!

Cormoran Strike (she always has great names for her characters) is a private investigator, a man who has had an interesting career in the defence forces and the police, and now working for himself. Assisting him in his one-man band business is his wonderful assistant, Robin, dying to become a private investigator herself, following and observing every move Cormoran makes. To be honest, she has way more smarts than Cormoran, and is far more instrumental in solving the case.

With a name like Cormoran Strike you would have to be a bit of a maverick and he now walks a rather blurry line between the wrong and right side of the law as he attempts to help helpless citizens in their pursuit of justice. Most of his work is domestic related - spouses suspecting spouses of misbehaving and engaging Cormoran to tail, photograph and report back. In the midst of all this bread and butter stuff, he is approached by a woman who happens to be the long suffering wife of a famous author. The writer has gone missing, she suspects foul play, and Cormoran finds a routine missing person case becomes considerably bigger and more awful than he could have imagined.

And this is actually the problem for me with the novel - the imagination. The author who is missing, Owen Quine, writes quite bizarre and disquieting books. Not a nice man, and neither are any of the seven people closely associated with Quine that Strikes finally identifies as suspects. The seven people have been redrawn as fictional characters in Quine's latest controversial manuscript, entitled Bombyx Mori -the scientific name for a variety of silkworm.  In this manuscript, the protagonist, Bombyx, is a writer who is "repeatedly abused, tormented and ultimately eaten alive by the people in his life whilst going to extraordinary lengths to capture and preserve his talent for their own selfish gains." Does it sound weird? Well, it is, really weird. As I said way too much imagination. The whole thing becomes so convuluted and complicated and dare I say it ridiculous that I just could not take any of it seriously. And so it lost me. Apart from the very real Robin, I couldn't engage with any of the characters - all self absorbed back stabbing narcissists - makes it even harder to work out who is the villain, as they are all vile. And I just thought Strike was a bit of clown - the usual failed detective, with a sad lonely life, living in the tiny decepit flat above his offices, drinks too much, has a crap diet, rude and grumpy. Plus the whole thing is very, very long. The ending when it comes, is a massive relief, and not much of a surprise, as  I said the baddy could have been any of the seven.

Having adored all the Harry Potter books, marveled at them, Cormoran Strike is just one great big massive disappointment. Which saddens me. Maybe I will try JK Rowling's The Casual Vacancy, written under her own name - apparently it is good, and I don't want to give up on her just yet!


SLEEPING ON JUPITER by Anuradha Roy

Beautiful descriptive writing, the taste and feel of India drips off the page, but not a nice story.

Exquisetly written and totally evocative of modern day India, still caught it would seem between the demands of the consumerist 21st century, and the deep rooted spiritulism at the core of what India is all about. I loved the writing, the drawing of the characters, the small and minute detail of each of them and the exchanges that take place between them. Amidst the chaos of modern day India, it is the intimacy of the relationships between people, the ties that bind, that stand out so much in this story.

But it is not a nice story, and throughout there is an undertone of menace, of impending disaster, and as the Guardian reviewer put it, 'violence and misogyny abound'. Such a prevalent theme in novels of India.

Nomita, now a young woman, has returned to India, having left at about the age of 12, when she was fostered/adopted by a woman in Norway. When she was about 6 or 7, she lost her entire family during a time of violence, was rescued with a number of other young girls from a boat and they were all placed in the care of a highly respected and adored spiritual leader at his ashram. His good name is of course a cover for a range of abuse that takes place at the ashram and the girls are among the victims. Nom's whole childhood is pretty grim, including her time in Norway, and now as a young woman she wishes to find some closure by returning to the ashram, abandoned and derelict. The town itself is still a major pilgrimage destination and floods of tourists visit.

As a result Nom runs into other characters in the story including 3 elderly women travelling together to make a once in a lifetime pilgrimage, a photographer travelling with Nom who is also using the visit to make a documentary about the town and its sacred sites, a young man who is a tourist guide at the very famous temple everyone is visiting, a chai-wallah and his young assistant. All around is the dust, the noise, the crowds of people, the colour of saris, the smell of spices, as the interactions between all these people unfolds. There isn't a great deal of plot, and the whole thing is really pretty grim, but as I say, the writing is gorgeous.

NEW FINNISH GRAMMAR by Diego Marani

The theme of reading books that revolve around amnesia continues. Why I keep reading these books, I don't kow, but this is certainly one of the more interesting ones doing the rounds. Apparently it was a best seller in Italy, and the translation into English has also received loud and probably deserving praise. Because it is very beautiful to read, the language is very lyrical, the imagery is strong and memorable, and the actual plot line is terrific.

It is WWII, a man wakes up in a hospital bed in the Italian port city of Trieste, with no idea of who he is or how he got there. He has no language, no identity, no idea about anything at all. His doctor, an exiled Finnish neurosurgeon, thinks that he is Finnish, based on a jacket the man is wearing with the label Sampo Karjalainen in it. So the doctor assumes, understandably that the name matches the man. As part of Sampo's therapy, the doctor starts to teach him Finnish, and eventually the patient is shipped out to Helsinki where it is assumed he is from. It is not hard to feel sorry for Sampo as he spends the rest of the book trying to figure out who or what he is, and he finds his solace in learning the Finnish language, believing this is the key to a future. All of this in 186 pages. 

Unfortunately however for me, this excellent plot line never reached its full potential. Poor old Sampo  never figures out what is going on around him, he never really understands the language, his life never gets underway again, and all that we read about are the ravings of a Finnish priest who takes it upon himself to teach Sampo the language through the telling of Finnish myths and legends which is all tied up somehow in a symbolic way with the war, the Russians invading, and the conflicts within Finland. With all this in mind, the ending when it comes is hardly a surprise - just more confusion on top of an already confusing landscape. Yes, the writing is exquisite, but it is just not enough for me.  

THE AMERICAN LOVER by Rose Tremain

She writes like a dream, does Rose Tremain. Short stories aren't normally my thing, but Rose Tremain writes novels as if she is magic so I took a punt that her short stories would be just as stunning. And this collection is. I am in awe as to the diversity of her stories and where she gets her ideas from - the arrival of Leo Tolstoy on his death bed at a in-the-middle-of-nowhere railway station; the real Mrs Danvers from Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca; a woman farwelling her young child off to boarding school; an elderly couple deciding to run away; a man and his dog boarding kennels. Some of the stories are happy, others are sad, some disturbing. If there is any common thread or theme here, I am far too unanalytical to spot it or try finding it! Each story is carefully crafted, complete in its own way, some longer than others, some more memorable than others. And all showing a slice of life, a baring of the soul of the narrator. Just wonderful.

A GOD IN RUINS by Kate Atkinson

This writer, Kate Atkinson, just keeps getting better and better. Every novel she has had published I have read and enjoyed enormously. And she has done it all again with 'Life After Life' which I read exactly a year ago, and now this companion story to that one. 'Life After Life' told the what-if story of Ursula, born in England between the two great wars, and how her life unfolded or may have unfolded depending on if she took the left fork in the road or the right fork. This very clever and slick way of telling the story however does not detract from what the novel was acutally about - the appallingness of war on ordinary people, and in the case of the English ordinary person, the incredible stoicism/stiff upper lip/just get on with living attitude that prevailed.

The author continues this theme in this latest novel, which is primarily about Teddy, Ursula's younger brother, who becomes a Lancaster bomber pilot during the war, and then after it seeks to escape the merest suggestion of excitement by trying to live the quiet life. He marries his childhood sweetheart, Nancy, they have one child, the truly awful Viola, and she in turn has two children, Sunny and Bertie. I mention their names because as characters they have just as much of a story to tell as Teddy, and as the novel is about Teddy and his family, including his parents and siblings, really they should all be mentioned.

The story moves effortlessly between the years of Teddy's long life, with a number of different narrators as Teddy's life unfolds. As with Ursula's story, it is very clever narrative technique, and never once feels like it is losing itself. But the true marvel of this book is the writing about the war of a bomber pilot - essentially that every time you go flying you probably won't come back. The bibliography at the back of the book gives you an indication of the depth of knowledge the author has brought to her writing and the tragic waste of all life that occurs in wartime. The peacetime though, for many is no easier, and the reverence and grace with which Teddy's post war life is told is almost overwhelming.

I loved this very much, I didn't want it to end. If you haven't already done so, read 'Life After Life' first, then this one. Together they are just wonderful.  


THE YEAR OF FALLING by Janis Freegard

Falling - falling from grace, falling in love, falling out of love, falling over, falling down, falling apart, the harder you fall.....so many quotes about falling, and they could all apply to the characters in this first novel from Wellington poet and short story writer Janis Freegard. Such a clever and simple idea to build a story around.
The lives in various stages of falling are those of two sisters, Selina and Smith. Their mother deserted them and their father when Selina was just a toddler and Smith was a teenager. Even though their father did the best job he could raising his daughters by himself, the absence of their mother has affected both girls in quite diverse ways over the years since.
Selina is now 29, a graphic designer working for an advertising company in Wellington city, single, living alone in a flat in Brooklyn on the property of her landlady, Quilla, a semi reclusive older woman with her own story to tell. Selina is, quite frankly, a bit of mess. She drinks too much, is unreliable in her work, recently broken up with her boyfriend, her much loved father and his wife are in the process of moving to Australia. At the same time as porcelain dolls begin turning up on her doorstep, she begins an affair with  a celebrity chef who not long afterwards disappears.
Smith, being somewhat older that than her sister, has never been able to move away from the surrogate role of mothering Selina. She has sacrified many opportunities in her life to look after Selina through her various issues, and is now living in Takaka in a house bus, part of a cooperative community, finally having found some peace in her life. Ever the carer, she is also caring for a young woman who is terminally ill, and the woman's nine year old son. With all this going on, she has taken it upon herself to also try and find her and Selina's mother.
Selina is the central character in the story, and well over half is told in her voice, with Smith and Quilla in alternating chapters. The characterisations are terrific, well rounded, flawed, trying to live a life and hold themselves together. We also get to see each character viewed through the eyes of the others which gives quite a different dimension to each woman. All three women and the minor characters all felt like real people - the likes of Selina could easily be in your workplace, and Quilla is instantly recognisable as the elderly neighbour living alone, keeping an eye on things.
The locations of the story also feature highly. Wellington in particular I enjoyed very much reading about, hailing from that city myself. I can see the winding streets of Brooklyn, the houses perched on the slope down off the road, or up steep driveways, the bush of the town belt as an ominous and slightly threatening backdrop. By contrast, the author writes about Takaka in a completely different way - the natural beauty of the place comes shining through, symbolic of being far better for one's mental and emotional health than Wellington. And for a place of complete difference and contrast - Iceland!
This is a story of searching for one's self, trying to identify and then hold onto the important things, and finding a place to call home whether it be a physical place or simply in your own head and heart. There is hope, forgiveness, joy and love. It is a wonderful story, I very much enjoyed reading it. I really hope this book gets widely read and promoted, because it certainly deserves to.


 



BY BREAD ALONE by Sarah-Kate Lynch




I love Sarah-Kate Lynch's novels. They have at their core an item of food or drink - cheese, champagne, bread, baking, honey, or have a backdrop of food - and love. All so delicious, a tasty treat, with surprises and a bit of magic thrown in.

In this story, it is the sourdough starter which is the magic ingredient - 'the living, breathing, bubbling mixture of the past and the present that ...  added to every batch of flour and water to turn it inot the future.' It is the starter that forms the link for Esme between the most beautiful summer of her life, in her late teens, when she falls madly in love with a young baker in a small village in France, and her life fifteen years later, when things aren't quite so rosy.

Now Esme is married to Pog, they have a young son, they live in the House in the Clouds in Suffolk, her father-in-law lives with them, as does her grandmother. It is fairly clear early on in the story that something awful has happened to this family, and it is just not talked about, which is why the reader never finds out till the end either. The constant through the last fifteen years has been Esme's daily sour dough breadmaking, still using that same starter she created that summer in France. Esme simply cannot help herself focussing on the happy times in her life, just to get her through her days. And of course the memory of her summer with Louis is at the forefront of that.

A chance meeting with Louis threatens to completely derail Esme, or does it offer her the unbelieveable opportunity to start her life again with the man she can never forget? And off we go on a breath holding will she or won't she? Yes do it, you say to yourself, surrender to love and Louis, then no, don't leave Pog, make more bread, someone save her!!!!

A lovely frothy treat of a read, with a very worthy message at the end - Man, or woman for that matter, cannot live by bread alone. Cryptic I know, but all will become clear. Now, off to make my own starter - the recipe at the end of the book is not the one used by Esme, but according to the author is the best she has tried, and it would seem she tried a few.

THE EXPATS by Chis Pavone

Sometimes when you are reading a book, you do really have to wonder if the author is having just one great big laugh. How ridiculous can he make his plot line, how far can he fool the reader, how much fun can he have in making his story believable. You just want to keep on reading to see how preposterous it can all get. And yet it is still a compelling and highly readable novel. How strange can fiction get?  After reading this it would have to be a great bit of fact to be stranger than this story!

So, Kate is a wife and mother married to an IT financial security expert called Toby. They live in Washington DC, have two young sons, and life seems pretty rosy. But Kate has a secret, a secret so big her husband does not even know. Her job as a researcher is actually just a cover for being a CIA agent, now tied to a desk but in her past she was an active field agent with some dark secrets to protect. She resigns from the CIA when Toby gets the job of a lifetime as a top notch security analyst for a big bank in the European tax haven of Luxembourg. Hooked yet? So the family upsticks to the idyllic city of Luxembourg and Kate becomes the cliched expat wife. Overnight. Hardly surprising she struggles a little with her new role as non-working, financially dependent wife/mother. Is all her CIA training and instincts telling her that there are things in her new life that aren't quite right, or is she so bored and frustrated that she is looking for trouble, or is she simply paranoid? It would seem that the expat life is not all coffee mornings, play dates, cocktail parties and weekend breaks in exotic locations. Nothing or anyone is what they seem, and before long we are all dragged into the web.

It is however all a bit long and tedious. For someone who has spent her life being an action woman Kate is tiresomely indecisive, overly self analytical, and not as intuitive as the likes of the CIA agents we see on the tele. But if you can take the whole premise of this story with a very large grain of salt it is actually quite enjoyable, with twists and turns, red herrings galore and plenty to look forward to in the inevitable movie. 

THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN by Paula Hawkins

This thriller is riding on the band wagon of novels published in the last couple of years about people, mostly women it seems, suffering from some sort of amnesia, aware that something in their world is not quite right, but unable to figure it out or solve whatever it may be.

Like these previous novels, this also has been a best seller. It is a great read, full of tension, the writer in total control as she takes us on the slow journey to find out what has really gone wrong in Rachel's world for her to be in her current situation.

Firstly Rachel is not a girl but a woman, I would guess somewhere in her late twenties/early thirties. Her life has fallen apart - her marriage collapsed following infertility problems, she became a drunk, she lost her job, is staying with an old school friend who feels sorry for her, but powerless to help. Rachel's only shred of dignity that she seems to have left is the daily train commute into the city under the pretence of continuing to go to work. Every day the train passes her old street, and she always looks forward to seeing the perfect couple at number 15. Until one morning she sees something quite unexpected in the back yard. What she sees takes on greater significance when Megan, the young woman in the back yard goes missing. And so begins the process of Rachel unravelling the last few months of her life. As well as Rachel narrating her side of things, Megan tells her story too, as does Anna, the woman that Rachel's ex husband Tom took up with after Rachel who now lives in Rachel's old house at number 23 with Tom and their baby girl.

Without doubt it will be a movie, and although the ending wraps things up a little too easily, it is nevertheless a tautly written psychological thriller, that does leave you questioning how much of your reality is actually real. 

A SENSE OF THE WORLD by Jason Roberts

We think, with how easily we can hop onto an airliner and in twelve hours be on the other side of the world, that we know about travel. All the amazing places and new tastes, sights, and sensations we can experience so easily and so quickly,  such that could not be done 100 or even 50 years ago. How wrong we have it.

James Holman is most likely to be someone you have never heard of. James Holman is also the man who has travelled the most of anyone in the world, ever. And what's more he did it all, every bit of it, blind. And what's still more, he did it 200 years ago. He was quite simply, an amazing man, and with all our modern gadgetry and gimics, we are unlikely ever to see the likes of him again. His story is so unlikely, so incredible, so unique, you could even wonder if it is in fact true. So extraordinary is it, that the reviewer from The Guardian, actually thought the book was 'a spoof, an elaborate hoax designed to expose confusions in our attitudes to disability'  But no James Holman and his story is 100% real.

James was born in 1786 and went to sea when he was a boy, working his way up to lieutenant in the Royal Navy. Continuous and prolonged exposure to the elements on board ship resulted in him developing severe rheumatism and a sudden loss of his sight when he was in his early 20s. Far from letting this catastrophe ruin his life, and being quite a clever and resourceful young man, he managed to continue his love of discovering the world around him for the rest of his days, essentially by himself.  In the process he went simply everywhere, carefully documenting what he 'saw', what he felt, the people he met, the societies he was able to get to know, the extraordinary things that happened to him, the close shaves he had. In his day he became a celebrity, not just because he did all this as a blind person, although he did become known as the 'Blind Traveller', but because of how the way he saw the world produced a completely different style of travel writing from ever before. Charles Darwin was indebted to him for his writings on the Cocos Islands, he had the ear of Queen Victoria's personal physician, he almost caused a diplomatic incident while trying to cross Russia from west to east, he lived with the Australia aboriginies for a period of time and wrote about them from a perspective never considered before. He was a man of enormous courage, charm, intelligence, fearlessness and above all curiosity.

This is, quite simply, an amazing story. But it is not just about a man and his meanderings around the world. The true gift he brings to what he reports is that he is 'seeing'without using his eyes, and consequently he 'sees' things that us sighted people don't see, plus he sees everything differently from how us sighted ones see. Have you ever considered that blind people don't get vertigo, or agarophobia? That they use echos to navigate their way round around? It is a fabulous book, and written with enormous respect, affection and awe by this author. We are unlikely to ever see the likes of him again, and what a great shame that is.