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.  


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. 


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. 


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. 


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.