Reviews

BOOKS

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You Don’t Have To Live Like This

Well, it seems that many people do – live like that; in America, anyway.

This is not so much a novel as a social commentary on what ails the world’s most materially advanced country.

For much of it, if you didn’t know better, it reads like a random diary written by a typical victim of the middle class angst that has afflicted the US, as post-World War II prosperity has morphed into an awful delusion, in which people pay the price for rampant consumerism and meaningless pursuit of wealth.

This is screwed-up America. A place described in excruciating detail as the main player emerges aimlessly from Yale and is drawn into a social experiment to rejuvenate wasteland Detroit, itself a symbol of failed capitalism.

One of his university buddies has made a lot of money in something or other and wants to salve his conscience – and make more – by buying up derelict neighbourhoods in the former car-making capital of the world and attracting a strange blend of “pioneering” settlers (former hippies, tradies, Mexicans, gays, Jews, and dropout academics like the book’s “hero”) to move in and fix up the burned out houses.

It kind of works, at first, but despite attracting the support and supposed presence of President Obama, it all crashes down around the inconvenient presence of those who were left behind when Detroit crumbled, the black population.

The author brilliantly portrays the disillusion and the disjunction of affluent America, and the misguided philanthropy that underpins much of the social experimentation being applied to urban and suburban malaise.

In some ways, his technique is clunky. But in others it is compelling, as the main players are sucked up into the catastrophe that has been building all along.

It’s a depressing prospect, if he has even halfway found the mettle of America.


Inside the Cup

For anyone who takes even the mildest interest in rugby, it will be no surprise to find that this account of the world cups played so far is authoritative, entertaining and compelling.

Phil Gifford brings a lifetime of rugby reporting to the page, and with it an insight into what went on behind the scen as New Zealand’s All Blacks have attempted every four years since 1987 to meet the at-times unreasonable expectations of a nation.

Gifford’s contacts within rugby ensure a constant flow of anecdotes that elucidate some of the most controversial moments of our rugby history.

These are stories gleaned from conversations, interviews and chance encounters experienced during a long career in broadcasting and journalism, a job (or several jobs combined) that placed him at the centre of the action for each of the seven world cup tournaments played so far.

He largely succeeds in countering the perpetual enemy of candid reporting in the sports world, the need to maintain a workable relationship with the main players. It’s done with a liberal application of self-analysis and self-deprecation, and a lot of research to try to get to a balanced truth.

Usually, anything Gifford writes is an easy read, because he makes the use of simple prose look natural (actually, it’s hard to do well). However, in this case his relentless use of the present tense is a distraction, sometimes to the point of confusion when it comes to working out what happened when.

It’s a device used by some TV documentary makers – made famous in the Jacques Cousteau undersea series in the 1970s – and it works if there’s vision to write to. In a book like this, it’s a bloody nuisance.


Chappy

Patricia Grace

A beautiful book, and an important book, that keenly observes the lives of marginalised Maori in 20th century New Zealand.

Patricia Grace tells an intriguing story of how four cultures blended and inter-acted, forming a family of extraordinary blended talents and love.

The main cultures are Maori, Japanese and Hawaiian, all of whom were forced in different ways to adapt to European influences that threatened to engulf them.

They refused to be engulfed, instead adapting in such resilient and ingenious ways that their cultural wellsprings were strengthened rather than diminished.

There is a lot to be learned from this book, precious information that records ways of living that are simply unknown and probably unknowable to most mainstream New Zealanders.

Grace uses sophisticated story-telling constructs so cleverly they seem natural, unobtrusive to the main objective, which is to place in our history a perspective that could have been too easily lost.

A gem of a book, a priceless book. A must-read for every New Zealander who has any curiosity at all about how we got to where we are.


The Antipodeans: A novel

Greg McGee

A remarkable work that weaves the cruelty of a behind-the-front-lines war in with the complexity of family relationships as they stretch between two halves of the world.

Sometimes, the stretch is less than believable and the coincidences too pat, and sometimes there is the need for family tree graphics to aid the reader’s journey.

But those flaws are acceptable in such a vivid story.

It’s vivid because of McGee’s skills at constructing Kiwi characters, whose exploits as escaped prisoners among the country people of Northern Italy during World War II were extraordinary.

It’s more than just a war story, however. This is about the legacies of war, the fallout from actions that seemed justifiable by supposedly greater causes and a primal urge to survive, yet are inconceivable in the peacetime that followed.

The main players are left with an impossibly tangled mess of inter-generational intrigues, but the author steers us through the untangling with elan.


The Vanishing Newspaper [2nd Ed]: Saving Journalism in the Information Age

Philip Meyer

No history of newspapering in the post World War II era would be complete without reference to this all-encompassing work by Meyer.

He brings to the page not only a significant back-story in newspaper journalism as he experienced it in the US as newspapers began to decline, but also his considerable experience as an academic and teacher.

His many student-centred research projects into all aspects of the newspaper business enable him to write with authority about the trends.

He is perhaps best-known for his prediction that the last newspaper will be printed in 2044, but in this book – now in its second version – he is at pains to say that was not a prediction at all.

As he says, he merely “straight-lined” a couple of trend graphs and noted where they intersected with rock bottom. As he says, nature throws us curves and something is likely to intercede well before that fateful year.

This book is an essential tool for anyone trying to make sense of what’s happening to what was once a seemingly impregnable industry.


Cloudstreet

Tim Winton

Nobody does similes like Tim Winton.

His comparisons, in metaphor and simile, bring a special life to this great, unwieldy but intensely compelling story about two families living in a big old house in Perth in post World War II Australia.

He captures that period exactly, precisely, vividly.

His characters are real, in their tribulations and human failings. At times the story is so real it’s heart-breaking. And always, the similes, the similes.

It’s as fragile as a two-bob watch, but it works, this story of battler Aussie. He’s got it right. Right as rain.


Being Mortal: Illness, Medicine and What Matters in the End

Atul Gawande

Facing the inevitable in a palatable way, July 28, 2015

This is a superbly written book that takes a scientific yet compassionate look at how we treat death in this modern age of so-called medical miracles.

There are no miracles, of course, and one of the biggest problems we face is the medical industry’s propensity to try to save us from the inevitable.

In doing so, it often neglects the real need, which is to enable people to have the best possible experience in the last days of their lives.

The author is a doctor from a family of doctors and in this book he traces the tortuous path he has taken to realisation that medicine, for all it’s amazing advances, can make dying a far more unbearable journey than it needs to be.

A must read for anyone prepared to face the fact that we ain’t none of us going to live forever.

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Go Set a Watchman 

Harper Lee

Understanding The South, July 21, 2015

A writer in The New Yorker dismissed this book as merely a vehicle for didactic debate, and a thin excuse for a book publisher coup.

He was wrong. It’s way more than a cheap followup.

Yes, there are a few absent-minded repeats from To Kill A Mockingbird (the opening description of Aunt Alexandra uses the same words), but first of all this return from the future shows how carefully Harper Lee examined her earlier masterpiece and identified its faults.

For instance, she wrote of the children’s play acting in the first, without saying what they did. In this she fills that space with detail.

More importantly, of course, in this book she explodes the myths of childhood and reveals the underlying racism of a society that was comfortable with its delusions. That causes a lot of pain, not just for the book’s characters but for a generation of Americans who were blind to what any outsider could see.

Lee has traversed the ugliness of The South with clever analysis. Given recent ructions over the Confederate flag, it seems her insights are as up-to-date as ever. ________________________________________

To Kill A Mockingbird

Harper Lee

It seems strange to be as old as I am and have to admit there are two things I haven’t seen in life that just about everybody in the world has seen.

Well, now there’s only one, and that’s the movie, The Sound of Music.

The other was this book, To Kill a Mockingbird, and having just finished it I can understand what all the fussin’ was about.

It’s a helluva story, well told. I came to it because like millions of other people I’ve been suckered by the marketing people who have convinced us that Lee Harper actually did have another book in her, and now they’ve miraculously found it and published it as the book coup of the millenium.

So, it made sense to read this one first, otherwise, as someone in The New Yorker pointed out, how could you possibly understand Go Set a Watchman if you hadn’t first read Mockingbird and understood who Atticus and Jem and Scout all are.

Now I do. So now I’m ready. But there’s no chance in hades that I’ll be seeing Sound of Music. Man’s got to hold on to some things. ________________________________________

Whipping Boy: The Forty-Year Search for My Twelve-Year-Old Bully

Allen Kurzweil

Stunning, touching…with not the expected ending, July 9, 2015

We have all, it seemed, suffered at the hands of a bully at some stage in our lives. Even the bullies.

So this story will touch a chord with just about everyone who reads it. It’s well told, compelling in its breadth and scope.

The writer’s quest to rid himself of his bully-spectre takes some extraordinary turns.

My only complaint is how it ends. I won’t spoil it for anyone, but I guess I expected more. That’s probably just me – I know what I would do to my bully if ever I met him again: smack him one.

Well, punch his arm, probably, just as he did to me endlessly, it seemed. Or did it? ________________________________________

The Phantom of Fifth Avenue: The Mysterious Life and Scandalous Death of Heiress Huguette Clark

Meryl Gordon

Priceless, as was the life she led, July 6, 2015

If there’s an afterlife, the central character in this amazing story will be thoroughly enjoying what happened after her death. Or not.

The publicity will be killing her, so to speak. Huguette Clark lived an extraordinary life as a recluse behind the multiple facades of New York, a cosseted existence fuelled by more inherited money than she could ever spend.

She did her best, though, and where her millions ended up provides a compelling story of greed and eccentric behaviour.

After the court battles over her contested wills were settled, you have the feeling the animosity she caused were all part of her planned legacy.

Superbly researched and well put together. Can’t wait for the movie. ________________________________________

Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China

Evan Osnos

The Chinese are likely to baulk at this enormously detailed examination of their country, especially by someone from the epitome of capitalism, America.

But who better to examine your state of affairs than an outsider, especially one who seems to have gone to an inordinate amount of trouble to verify his facts?

As a journalist working in China, the author had eight years of legitimate reasons to talk to prominent Chinese figures from all walks of life…all, that is, except those who run the country from the depths of the Party.

His portrait of a slumbering giant that has sprung to life, leapt up in exuberance, and then begun to stumble in self-doubt is fascinating to those of us who have regarded China as some kind of vague idea, one that has crept rather menacingly into our consciousness in recent decades.

The book has its difficulties, a major one being the huge cast of characters, whose names the author neglects to differentiate for us as they pop up in constant updates on their progress through the country’s ever-changing progress towards, well, nobody knows for sure.

Without wishing to sound mono-cultural, there is a difficulty in remembering who is who. China suffers from similar ever-widening chasms between rich and poor that beset the West, although the driving forces seem different from the latter’s rampant neo-liberalism.

And the scale is greater, the statistics over-whelming: more highways, more skyscrapers, more airports, faster high-speed rail, great numbers left behind, more of everything at a faster pace than anything the world has ever seen.

He spends much time and wordage trying to analyse the impact of all that on emerging generations, whose aspirations seem little different from those of any other developed nation.

The thing that makes it different, this Chinese renaissance, is the number of people caught up in its various forms. When there is a moral panic or a fad or even just the publication of a book that touches a nerve, the scale of the resulting online and off-line fracas is beyond belief.

A highly recommended read for anyone wondering what drives an awakening giant whose image is so frustratingly manipulated by those in charge of the propaganda. ________________________________________

James Cook’s Lost World

Graeme Lay

Lay has done such a superb job of telling the story of James Cook that by the end of this last in the trilogy there is more than just the sadness of his account of Cook’s wife receiving his final journal.

Those of us who have lived all our lives with the familiarity of Cook-named places in the South Pacific will feel bereft that the story has had to come to an end.

That there are no more travails and wonders of discovery to read about, no more details of the extraordinary hardships Cook led his men through, no more accounts of visceral cravings above which the stolid captain rose with such impeccable outward calm.

There was no inward calm, if Lay has made his interpretations accurately. Here was a man consumed by an implacable refusal to acknowledge the human failures of others.

Cook’s internal churnings literally shut him down as a functioning human being. Combine that with the plain bad luck of a destructive storm soon after they departed Hawaii for the second time and his demise at the hands of natives whose hospitality had been sorely tried seemed destined and inevitable.

Of parallel intrigue was the presence of William Bligh on this last voyage, and Lay takes every opportunity to portray this early part of his career as a portent of what was to come. He was a loner and a driven man.

Cook and Bligh were but two of a cast of dozens of unusual Englishmen who featured in England’s naval history, and Lay captures their eccentricities precisely in this brilliant series.

His writing has transcended dry historical accounting and gives a very clear insight into the origins of Pakeha New Zealanders who trace our lineage back to the “old country”. It’s little wonder we’re all a bit odd.

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The Kennedy Brothers: The Rise and Fall of Jack and Bobby

 

Richard D. Mahoney

This may be the ultimate account of the Kennedys, written by someone from within Camelot but also informed by the rich history of inquiries, media commentary and personal recollection that has accumulated since that heady 60s era.

It focuses not on the legend of Jack, but on the brother whose obsessive drives helped make Jack’s place in history, Bobby.

This brother provided the organisation that helped create Jack’s sanguine, brilliant, compelling image as the great US president of our time.

One of the book’s poignant features as we watch the death of newspapers in this new internet age is the crucial part played by the great media writers of those times.

It seems during every crisis there were reporters everywhere, in the Kennedy caravans, in their homes, even, recording, pontificating, advising.

Their power was immense. The writer makes frequent use of their words. A description of Bobby Kennedy on the campaign trail by a New Yorker writer is almost absurdly detailed in its intrusion.

Many of them, it seems, perhaps with the benefit of hindsight, foretold the inevitable outcome of the Kennedy obsession with disrupting the entrenched power structures, especially those linked to organised crime (including the people who were meant to be bringing it to heel, the FBI and the CIA).

This is a bleak narrative. Its central theme is the trouble America found itself in as post-WW II prosperity was revealed to have trampled on and dispossessed vast numbers of people, the Blacks, Hispanics, Indians, and others.

Bobby Kennedy’s headlong tilt at the perceived causes of inequality proved quixotic, of course: America is to this day riven with racial unrest whose ghastly shapes appear unchanged despite the passage of half a century.

How might it have been had he and his brother survived? We’ll never know. ________________________________________

Forged From Silver Dollar 

 

Too often, history is written by men, whose egos get in the way of balanced observation. This is a history of 20th century China written by women, and without the sentimental blinkers women are so often accused of bringing to bear. This is undoubtedly a more accurate account because it is told from the viewpoint of the truly powerless, without bitterness, with a matter-of-fact candour that reinforces its authenticity. How these women suffered. At the hands of politics, ideology, class hatred…and self-seeking male stupidity. They triumphed through sheer bloody-minded tenacity. How apt a story, in a world still dominated by the egotism of the male species. After reading this, I’m ashamed to be one. ________________________________________ Hacking could never happen in NZ – could it?, May 16, 2015 Hack Attack: How the truth caught up with Rupert Murdoch (Kindle Edition) It’s tempting to think that New Zealand has never suffered from the extraordinary news media behaviour documented by Guardian journalist Nick Davies in Hack Attack. The only newspaper vaguely resembling the UK national tabloid “red tops” was Truth, and it vanished into oblivion years ago. However, Nicky Hager’s book, Dirty Politics, and the rabid behaviour of blogger Cameron Slater and his fellow travellers suggests the vileness is here too, albeit in a milder form and not involving the industrial-scale phone hacking outlined by Davies. Since the 1970s, most of the Western world has been brought under the cosh of neo-liberalism, and it seems that is the breed of politics that engenders much of the craven thirst for power that tabloidism feeds. New Zealand was dragged into the era by Roger Douglas (not Rob Muldoon, as Davies mistakenly claims) in the mid-80s, and has been subjected to the power games ever since (even through the Clark years, when she had the cellphone numbers of prominent journalists she wanted to influence). There are journalists (and so-called journalists) in New Zealand who sit in cars outside people’s homes waiting to “pap” them or confront them over salacious gossip. However, the approach here is sedate compared to the attack dogs of Fleet Street, especially those employed by Rupert Murdoch (who sold off his New Zealand newspapers long ago, but who still owns the majority of Sky TV). Their extreme bullying and illegal tactics against anybody who caught their eye or displeased them is revealed in all its lurid detail by this book. Whether that sort of thing still goes on in Britain is left unclear. The suggestion from Davies is that while Murdoch and those like him had their fingers burned in the hacking scandal, the digits remained largely intact, and may to this day by flexing over key pads again as geeks find newer and more imaginative ways to pry into people’s lives. The thing is – most people accept it as one of the prices of democracy. Some democracy. ________________________________________ Heroism and longevity go together, May 11, 2015 Rescue at Los Banos: The Most Daring Prison Camp Raid of World War II (Kindle Edition) More than just a ripping good yarn, this transcends American tendencies towards jingoism and emerges as a well-researched and meticulous piece of war history. One if the extraordinary aftermaths in the epilogue is the longevity of the stories’ many heroes. ________________________________________ English in no position to judge barbarity of conquered tribes, April 27, 2015 The King’s Curse (The Cousins’ War Book 6) (Kindle Edition) When Captain Cook made contact with various South Pacific peoples, including Maori, he was repelled by the cruel practices he observed among some. However, just a couple of hundred years before he was born, his England of the 1500s was an equally barbaric place (although not given to cannibalism). The cruelty of its leaders is all too apparent in this gripping novel treatment of the times of Henry VIII, a madman who was driven by his sexual addiction and yearning for a male heir to destroy the church and murder many members of his rival ruling families. Maori displayed the heads of fallen foes, as did Henry at the gates of London and along the roadsides of England. This is a story of courage and paranoia, and of the bravery of women faced with male chauvinism beyond anything that is seen today. ________________________________________ Inside Captain Cook – compelling fiction, April 21, 2015 James Cook’s New World (Kindle Edition) Lay has built on the success of his first foray into Cook’s mind to continue to imagine what drove the explorer on the second of his epic voyages. The approach is the same as the first book of Lay’s trilogy – a fictionised account based on what Cook might have written had he kept a personal journal for his wife, Anne. It is exceedling well done, so convincing as to encourage the reader to believe these would surely have been Cook’s inner thoughts as he ventured into the uncharted expanse of the southern seas. I can’t wait to read part three, which is due out on May. ________________________________________ Captain Cook fiction that treads brilliantly through an unexplored inner world, April 21, 2015 The Secret Life of James Cook (Kindle Edition) What possibly could be left unwritten about great explorer of New Zealand, Captain James Cook? Read this and you’ll see. Lay has charted with Cook-like precision what might have been going on in the good captain’s mind while Cook was putting the southern oceans on the map. Using the library of material already written, as well as excerpts from Cook’s official journals, the author does a compelling job of imagining Cook’s cogitations as he led three voyages around the world. The main device is a supposed personal diary Cook could have, might have written to his long-suffering wife, who brought up their family back home in England while Cook gallivanted. He was away for years at a time, surviving extraordinary adventures and accurately documenting the lands and islands of the southern hemisphere for the first time. A terrific read, whose primary fictionalised device could have backfired, but which proves as resilient as the great sailor himself. ________________________________________ When being clever becomes tiresome, April 21, 2015 In the Light of What We Know (Kindle Edition) At first, this seems clever, even compelling. But after a while – maybe 30 pages – you’re likely to find the author’s cleverness merely tiresome. I was unable to read on. ________________________________________ Russian revelations a courageous act of defiance, April 21, 2015 Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: Adventures in Modern Russia (Kindle Edition) By the time you finish reading this extraordinarily revealing view of modern-day Russia, you’re wondering if the author is still alive. Has he by now perished mysteriously of an unexpected heart attack, induced by some kind of untraceable drug administered by the dark forces of the Kremlin. This is such a dark story, and the reader is left in no doubt about the labyrinthine powers that control post-communist Russia, whose reach seems to go into the very heart of those Western places where Russian gangster-bureaucrats keep their money. The author – brought up in the UK after his parents fled the USSR – spent a decade working within the Russian TV industry, best described as a propaganda machine. It enabled him to see how Putin is kept in power by an impossibly complex system of corruption, one that sucked in Western investment and now spits it back out into the secret Swiss bank accounts of the Putin accolytes. The title is apt: nothing is as it seems, and anything is possible in a world created for the benefit of the extremely rich. Somehow, the author clings on to his Russian identify, but his revelations must surely have prised some of his fingers from the edge of the precipice. ________________________________________ Testimony to the futility of redaction, April 17, 2015 Guantánamo Diary (Kindle Edition) One of the most disturbing things you will ever read, this account of imprisonment at Guantanamo Bay in the aftermath of 9/11 is among many things a testimony to the stupidity of redaction. Redaction – a vogue word for crossing stuff out – is as imperfect an art in the hands of American security agencies as their approach to interrogation. Applied as inconsistently as it is in this diary of a detainee’s shocking experiences at the hands of the super power, it is worse than useless. Analysis by the editor and others was able to peel back the suppressed details with ease. As to the account itself, who are we to believe? There are inconsistencies in his story that are unexplained. By the end, the reader is left with a strong desire for some counter-balancing narrative, because on its own this is a story that by its very nature remains one-sided. That being the whole point, perhaps. ________________________________________ Len Lye – an obligatory read for every ratepayer, April 5, 2015 Len Lye: A Biography (Kindle Edition) There is an obligation to read this book about Len Lye. It lies with those who so vehemently oppose his presence in New Plymouth, where a “temple” to house his extraordinary works of art is about to open. The opposers are a large proportion of the local populace, but are especially members of that small-town group of conservatives called “ratepayers”. They pay their rates to the council, and they seem terrified that some of this money, parted with so begrudgingly, might end up supporting something that to them smacks of upper middle class exclusivity. The book is a masterpiece befitting Lye’s undoubted genious. It traces his remarkable career, from its unlikely beginnings in rural New Zealand to the height of his renown in one of the art capitals of the world, New York. It is meticulous, it is sourced, it is objective as it is possible to be when the subject is as subjective as art. The sturdy burghers of New Plymouth – a town renowned for its small-mindedness – have every right to oppose, of course, but also an obligation to do so from an informed standpoint. Horrocks presents that foundation with great skill. The irony is that the new Len Lye art museum – which opens in July, 2015 – has not actually been built with ratepayer money. It has been funded by corporate donations, which in themselves represent an even stronger paradox. Throughout his life, Lye eschewed corporations and they ignored him, because he consistently refused to kowtow to them and to compromise his artistic principles to please them. New Plymouth’s fundamentalist opposition to the Len Lye temple will soon become irrelevant. It seems likely that New Zealand’s first art museum devoted to a single artist will draw much international acclaim and many visitors. Then, the ratepayers might flock to buy Horrocks’ book in a bid to understand what the fuss is about. Then again, they might not. Len wouldn’t have cared either way. ________________________________________ 1 of 2 people found the following review helpful A story in which all men are bastards, March 22, 2015 The Girl on the Train (Kindle Edition) Compellng to the end. No wonder it’s a best seller. Probably, though, a best seller for women. Because all the men in this thriller murder mystery are absolute bastards, and all the women victims of their bastard-ness. The men lie, have affairs, are violent, heartless, etc. The women are helpless in the face of all this bad behaviour, until the end when they retaliate with some violence of their own. All well deserved against the murderer, of course. The story is cleverly told around what is seen from a slow commuter train in and out of London central, one that stops at a defective signal, enabling a telling observation by the main player. The only half-decent man in the story is the cop, and he is balanced out by the only woman who is a bastard, his female colleague. Their role reversal does nothing to even up the gender bend of the main characters. ________________________________________ A story about some very curious Englishmen, March 16, 2015 A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal (Kindle Edition) If you’re interested in spies, communism, the Cold War and why British and American espionage agencies hold such sway over the world, this is the book for you. Fluently written and immensely compelling, it seems an even-handed attempt to pull together the history of what was probably the world’s most notorious spy thriller – the Kim Philby story. Except, “thriller” is an inappropriate description for what was a sordid affair. Philby betrayed hundreds of Western spies to the Russians and many lost their lives as a result of his treachery. The book goes a long way towards explaining how a member of the English upper class could be so disloyal. It’s main theme is the power of friendship to blind people to the obvious and allow them to somehow justify the unacceptable. In the end, you can only conclude that most of the main players got what they deserved – betrayal. Betrayal of trust, betrayal of friendship, betrayal that cost many their lives. ________________________________________ Brutal, honest critique of a corrupt society, March 5, 2015 Americanah (Kindle Edition) It’s difficult to know how Nigerians might feel about this epic story about their country, but for the rest of us it must surely rate as a masterpiece. Not only is it impeccably written, but it shows such extraordinary insight into that troubled African nation. It is brave. It pulls apart and scrutinises what can only be described as a corrupt society, and it does it from the perspective of someone who has the courage of honesty. That honesty is only possible because the author plainly loves her country. The love, though, didn’t get in the way of brutal clarity. ________________________________________ A story that’s not what it seems, February 3, 2015 Not My Father’s Son: A Family Memoir (Kindle Edition) A well written, well constructed autobiography, with a clever twist in every chapter. This is also a sad story of how mental illness can reach well beyond those who suffer from it and blight the lives of everyone it collaterally damages. There is a brittleness to the writing style, and the story depends to some extent on the reader knowing who Alan Cumming is as a public figure. But those hurdles, if indeed they are hurdles, were easily negotiated by the compelling narrative. ________________________________________ Which polemical viewpoint do we trust?, January 13, 2015 Twilight of Abundance: Why Life in the 21st Century Will Be Nasty, Brutish, and Short (Kindle Edition) It’s difficult to dismiss a skilled polemicist, especially one this adept. Archibald appears to have done his homework, and despite the extreme candour of some of his statements, the general thrust of his message seems well-founded. Unpalatable, unwelcome, apocalyptic, extreme perhaps…but none-the-less well-founded That is, until a polemicist from the other end of the continuum weighs in with his or her seemingly equally incontrovertible evidence to the contrary. And who can be bothered drifting outside one’s world-view comfort zone to find such a “balancing” informant? No wonder most people simply go with the current majority view and hope for the best. That best seems to depend on politicians and their advisers spending our money wisely on sifting the research and acting accordingly. Oh dear….Prepare for a long, cold winter. ________________________________________ 2 of 4 people found the following review helpful Who killed the inventor of the computer?, January 8, 2015 Alan Turing: The Enigma (Kindle Edition) One enormous possibility is left hanging by this otherwise diligent account of the life of the man who envisaged the computer. Was he killed by the State? Turing’s death was suicide, the State recorded. But it did so with a strange carelessness, neglecting to analyse the half-nibbled, supposedly cyanide-dipped apple found beside his body. The author may have suspected the State disposed of Turing in an era of hysterical fear about homosexuals and blackmail and Cold War security breaches, but his hints are as faint as the certainty surrounding the end of a genius Britain could ill-afford to waste. State-ordered executions by the post World War II forces of good are by no means outside the realms of possibility, if we accept the conspiracy theories surrounding the Kennedy boys and others. Turing’s recklessness (to official eyes) made him a prime target for unofficial execution. He harboured State secrets of the highest order, but also an inconvenient desire for individual freedom, especially to pursue sexual satisfaction in times when his predilections were considered deeply perverse by officialdom. The author fails to explore this obvious thesis, however, and leaves us to wonder. His book is a tedious read for its complexity. However, those patient enough to chip away at it are rewarded with a remarkable account of a man so far ahead of his time as to be incomprehensible to those who knew him and worked with him. The fact I am able to write this review with the unseen aid of a lot of ones and zeroes working magically behind the screen of my iPad is attributable to the extraordinary mind of Alan Turing. Where might we be if he had lived to see the outcome of his vision? ________________________________________ 1 of 1 people found the following review helpful The unanswerable question about war, December 9, 2014 My Life as a Foreign Country (Kindle Edition) This is a beautifully literate account of war, a narrative poem written by an American soldier with the same name as NZ poet Brian Turner. I heard the American Turner interviewed by Wallace Chapman on Radio NZ’s Sunday programme last weekend and Chapman later said the book was the best he’d read in a while. A sound judgement. Turner relates his mind-numbing experiences in Iraq to his family’s long history of warriordom. It’s visceral in its awfulness, a gruelling account of the fear, mindlessness, boredom, brutality and sheer ugliness of war. The only question left at the end is why do men do this. It’s an unanswerable one. ________________________________________ 1 of 2 people found the following review helpful Too technical for words, December 9, 2014 Colossus: The secrets of Bletchley Park’s code-breaking computers (Kindle Edition) In its current form, this can only be regarded as a work in progress, or at best a “crib” that will hopefully spawn a book that is actually able to be read by someone who is not a spy, a cryptologist or a chess player. It is incomprehensible in parts. Large parts, in fact. These are the many pages of highly technical “explanation” of how various machines, precursors to the digital age, were invented to crack communication systems used by Germany and Japan during World War II. Lurking in there is a terrific story, but it takes the patience of a cryptanalyst to extract it. The book is a loose collection of reminiscences from a brilliant and dedicated bunch of social misfits who were seconded from British ivory towers to Bletchley Park, the English headquarters of the Allied codebreaking, which at its peak involved 10,000 people. The problem is each contributor repeats what has already been written about, albeit from his or her own viewpoint. While that helps the uninitiated – through repeated exposure to a plethora of strange terms and ideas – understand what went on in the 1930s and 1940s as the combatants strove for supremacy, in the end it becomes a tedious read. Even more infuriating is the absence of photographs from the Kindle edition, even though these are referred to frequently by each writer. What this needs now is a clever editor to extract the unique insights lurking within each individual account and weave them into a readable story. The most interesting bits were in fact written by the bit players, the women service people drafted in to do the typing, and by a single male in the vast cast, Roy Jenkins, who later became a prominent British politician. That experience gave him the confidence to stray beyond the dry precision of codebreaking and comment on the human reality of what was going on. The most extraordinary thing about all this was the fact it was kept so secret until the 1970s. Even now, some information is classified. The second most extraordinary thing is that such obsessive secrecy cost Britain any chance to lead the post-war world in the development of our familiar computerised world. ________________________________________ A hard slog – in more ways than one, October 18, 2014 Journey to a Hanging (Kindle Edition) What a hard slog is the work of the historian. In this case, Peter Wells does us enormous service by pulling together and interrogating anything and everything that was ever recorded – well almost – about the death of Carl Volkner and his supposed murderer, Te Rau. It is a monumental project, well timed by the fact there is a re-writing going on of this piece of New Zealand’s troubled past: Volkner is being disowned and Te Rau ressurected. That troubles Wells, who points out that a problematic missing piece in the puzzle has yet to be discovered; that is, the whereabouts of Volkner’s head. Surely that ought to be given up by Maori, if indeed any know its whereabouts, before some kind of moral decision can be made about who was right and who was wrong. The problem with this book is Wells is a hard slog to read. The colour of his prose is so purple as to partially dazzle those of us who like a fluent style. That makes the story something of an ordeal. But a worthwhile one, none-the-less. It’s just a pity someone among the impressive gallery of helpers didn’t have the courage to tell him straight that after all that wonderful research there is still a fundamental requirement to present the findings in a way that pays respect to the use of language. ________________________________________ Where Does Gas Come From (Where Does… Come From) (Kindle Edition) This is a clever children’s book that explains something in life that most people take for granted – where does the energy come from that cooks and heats things. Beautifully illustrated by photographs, the narrative is how a major industry looks to a nine-year-old kid. Very effective. ________________________________________ 2 of 3 people found the following review helpful Reacher is back, big time, September 9, 2014 Personal: (Jack Reacher 19) (Kindle Edition) I take it all back. Jack Reacher is back. Lee Child is back. Big time. Good as ever. Not a spent force, as I concluded, prematurely, obviously, from the last Reacher book, whatever it was called. This new one is an absolute cracker. Can it be Child was re-inspired by sending Reacher offshore? Brilliant. ________________________________________ 3 of 5 people found the following review helpful Great material, clunky writing., September 3, 2014 Never Turn Your Back on an Angus Cow: My Life as a Country Vet (Kindle Edition) Fascinating material, folksy writing style, clunky read. This really could have done with a good editor, someone who would have taken this character’s random thoughts and organised them coherently. His account of small vet practice encompasses some interesting insights and information, but it jumps around so much as to be a struggle for the reader. It’s often the problem with people who’ve had unusual lives that their ultimate nemesis is an inability to write. A pity. ________________________________________ The original survival story, August 18, 2014 The Nazi Officer’s Wife: How One Jewish Woman Survived The Holocaust (Kindle Edition) This is story-telling at its very best – observant, wry, humane, fair, intelligent, literate, fluent, accessible. Such a reminder of what can happen when a society in dire straits fools itself deeply and completely about the cause of its angst and the way it can be “fixed”. How memorable the author’s observation that Germans within her orbit – which was at the heart of Nazi Germany – had two major concerns as World War Ii reached its climax: the pending rape and rampage of the swarming Russians, and a fear that the Jews might come back to seek revenge. As she says, they seemed to have no idea the Jewish population of Europe by 1945 was so ravaged and exhausted there was little immediate prospect of any of the victims of the “final solution” returning. Ever. The remarkable thing about Edith Hahn’s survival was the series of coincidences and luck – if that’s the right word – that allowed it to happen. The extraordinary thing was her ability to become a docile, unnoticed player within Nazi society. Nobody suspected she was Jewish – until straight after the war when a Russian soldier recognised her Jewishness the instant after he bumped into her in the street. The most amusing thing was the reaction of her eccentric Nazi husband, who couldn’t handle her apparent transformation from obedient housewife to judge. Yes, you read that right – she ended up being a judge in East Germany. That was not to last long. When she declined to cooperate with Russian demands, she ended up facing the same repressive pressures so completely engendered by the Germans. Simply a remarkable story. ________________________________________ Scottish crime writing at its very best, August 15, 2014 The Complaints (Kindle Edition) This reminds me of all the great TV crime series that have come out of Scotland over time, especially the acerbic humour and the grimness of the urban landscapes that seem to inhabit Scottish cops and robbers story-telling. A good yarn, a clever yarn, a story that gets hold of the reader and is told fluently, with rarely a distracting or discordant line. The good cops win out, of course, but it’s suitably touch and go at times. The book succeeds largely because the complexity of the crime web is clearly unravelled by the writer, who seems to have a good sense of how cops work. A sense that can probably only come from personal experience. ________________________________________ Timely probe into ways to preserve quality journalism, August 13, 2014 Trust Ownership and the Future of News: Media Moguls and White Knights (Kindle Edition) Shown here are the advantages of someone who knows how to write fluently and without embellishment, and who has applied those skills and a penchant for research to produce an immensely interesting academic work. This is an important contribution to news media research in New Zealand. Our press may now be on the edge of extinction (Ellis hedges his bets on that) but too little has been written about how it reached that parlous state and what might be done to prolong its contribution to democracy. In this, his doctoral thesis for a PhD conferred by Auckland University, Ellis focuses on a particular aspect of the paradigm shift, the utility of trust ownership as a means of preserving quality journalism. Most of his case studies are well known overseas ones – the UK Guardian, Wall Street Journal, etc – but their relevance to New Zealand is clearly demonstrated. As are the pitfalls of trusts and those who set them up with the noblest of intentions, including a common urge to wield influence from beyond the grave. Ellis appears to have made effective use of global contacts established in his long career as a New Zealand Herald journalist and editor to access current global players, gaining information that makes this a work of international significance. ________________________________________ 1 of 1 people found the following review helpful All the Light We Cannot See (Kindle Edition) This is a story that tells much of the civilian horrors of world war on both sides of the Franco-Prussian divide. It centres on the harrowing experiences of two children, a gifted German boy and a blind French girl, whose destinies in World War II are cleverly entwined around the lure of a precious stone and the early power of radio. Resplendent with imagery and rich colour, even in the sightless perceptions of the girl, the narrative promises inevitable sadness, and engenders wistfulness within the reader that it has to end at all. It fulfills the mandate of most new millenium war accounts, whose focus is on the experiences of ordinary people rather than those who drew them into that terrible time. They became extraordinary in the circumstances thrust upon them. ________________________________________ Our digital future, well writ, August 2, 2014 Get off the Grass: Kickstarting New Zealand’s Innovation Economy (Kindle Edition) Hendy and Callaghan have produced a well-written account of why New Zealand lags behind in prosperity, and how the problem could be fixed. This is an inspiring and positive critique, an essential read for all politicians and intelligent 11-year-olds. Within it are the seeds of New Zealand’s next future, an era in which our geographic isolation and small market will be largely irrelevant in the quest for greater productivity and more jobs. Hi-tech innovation and its followups will surpass both dairying and tourism as our biggest source of income if our decision-makers do the right things. Let’s just hope they are paying attention. The book’s only major flaw is repetition, which is a trap when you have two authors. The whole thing could have been edited back to two-thirds its current length without losing the scope of meticulous research and clear enunciation of ideas. ________________________________________ Half a story, August 2, 2014 Eyrie (Kindle Edition) I’m tempted to do here what Tim Winton has done to us, the readers of Eyrie – write just half a review. It’s not clear whether Winton just got tired, was under pressure from his publisher to finish, or thinks it’s okay to play with our minds, Or whether there is some other reason why he ended the story in mid-stride, mid-sentence, in fact, to leave us wondering how it was all resolved, this gruelling epic of bogan poverty in sun-scorched Australia. He’s a brilliant writer, someone who uses original language to create word pictures that are vivid and disturbing. Winton’s description of the meth-head dad as he came to the door of his hovel-cum-lab will never leave me, especially the image of a man “huffling his nuts”. We can only pray that this was in fact part one of a trilogy, and that we don’t have to wait too long before the narrative is continued. Get writing, Mr Winton. ________________________________________ What the war was really about, July 16, 2014 Unbroken (Kindle Edition) This is one of the most compelling adventure stories ever written. Except, it’s not an adventure story in the accepted meaning of that genre. It’s much more. For a Baby Boomer like me, brought up on war stories and xenophobia against Japan by our parents, this is a sharp reminder of what World War II was really about. It was about families being stripped of a generation of young people and suffering the enormity of uncertainty perpetrated by inept authorities preoccupied with winning at all costs. Those who commemorate Hiroshima and Nagasaki as monstrous crimes against humanity might want to read this book and learn more about what would have happened if the bombs weren’t used. It seems many thousands of captive prisoners of war held by the Japanese were just days away from slaughter when the bombs were used. Japan’s leaders were still intent on fighting to the finish until the bombs dropped. The central character in this gruelling account is extraordinary, not just for his endurance in the face of being ditched at sea, but for surviving horrendous torture by his captors, one in particular. I recall hearing how a friend of our family, a POW held by “the Japs”, survived by eating grass. It didn’t register. How could it be so? Now it does. As does the cynicism of politicians in deciding quite quickly after the war that punishing properly those who tortured prisoners of war should take second place to shoring up Japan as a bulwark against the spread of communism. This is a great story of how global politics affects the ordinary person. No wonder it has been a best-seller in the US for so long. ________________________________________ Monumental story, not well told, July 6, 2014 The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History (Kindle Edition) This is an extraordinary story, but one that suffers at the hands of an author not nearly as gifted as his subjects. The monuments men of World War II risked life and indifference to rescue the looted art treasures of Europe from the mad Nazis, and any account of their priceless work ought to be accorded the same clarity of purpose. However, the narrative is confusing and contrived, and it takes persistence to try to keep track of the numerous key figures. The writer attempted to give the story the enthralling passage it deserved, but ended up with an over-written muddle. You get there in the end, if you’re dedicated. It need not have been so. ________________________________________ An inspirational reminder of the importance of journalism, June 26, 2014 No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the Surveillance State (Kindle Edition) The main theme of this compelling story is of course the extraordinary courage of Edward Snowden’s choice to reveal the dark secrets of mass surveillance. But an equally importantly sub-theme is the journalism narrative. Nothing as inspiring as this has happened since Watergate, which sent waves of young people to journalism school with aspirations of being Woodward or Bernstein. Paradoxically, the shining beacon of journalistic excellence in those heady 70s days, the Washington Post, is revealed here as a fawning accomplice to US governmental civil wrong-doing, as is the New York Times. It seems America is currently unable to self-examine through its most important journalistic pillars, so much of the credit for these revelations go to the media of another country. It is also a paradox that even though the Guardian operates within an equally repressive regime, it still managed to lead the campaign to reveal Snowden’s cache of incriminating documents. The response from the two governments was hardly surprising: they predictably did what all guardians of the status quo do when threatened. What was more extraordinary was confirmation that a man who swept to the US presidency with such liberal promise, Barack Obama, has not only affirmed the tyranny of power but positively enhanced it. Perhaps, though, us non-Americans misjudge the depth of anguish a whole generation of Americans, the current one, bears from the awful events of 9/11. Just as World War II shaped its generation, so 9/11 does, and warps it, as well. The heartening thing about this book is it ends on a positive note, recording as it does the growing desire among some politicians to swing the pendulum back again to something like equilibrium. I wonder, of course, whether these words here will be collected up in the NSA’s all-seeing dragnet and if that means consequences for any of us who speak in favour of what Snowden did. You will never know. ________________________________________ Stark reminder of man’s inumanity, May 30, 2014 Twelve Years a Slave (Kindle Edition) A shocking account of slavery in the southern states of America, this story is a reminder that inhumanity lurks just beneath civilisation’s pretensions. It will be interesting to see if the movie has captured the authenticity that lies within the writer’s archaic use of language. Its quaintness somehow captures the brutality of his experiences more effectively than modern words and sentences. I suspect we all know an Epps, the cruel plantation and slave owner. ________________________________________ Newspaper dead, journalism alive, May 21, 2014 Stop Press: the last days of newspapers (Media Chronicles) (Kindle Edition) Such an important book, so well told, so, well, journalistic. The writer has captured forever the end of an industrial age, the death, as it happens, of newspapers. I write this on an iPad. I read my newspaper on it, too. I have the same passion for newspapers as the author, yet I haven’t used a newspaper for anything other than lighting fires for the past three years. I can still read what looks like a real newspaper, but I can adjust the type size and change the lighting. It means I will read on into old age. Such a paradox. Well done, author. You have recorded the insides of a story that might well have slipped by, its details lost. It has happened so fast. You came along to devote many hours to this and your timing was perfect. Your book begins morosely, but ends on a hopeful note. You demonstrate with your sharp, spare sentence structures the very skills that will endure. Journalism, eh. You can’t ever beat it. ________________________________________ But what’s the actual answer?, April 25, 2014 Brutal Truths for Schools: How Education Fails Students in our Digital Age (Kindle Edition) This looked promising, and certainly made a strong case for abandoning what he calls “factory schools”. But where was the solution? All he gives at the end is a vague reference to personalised learning enabled by digital technology. Fine – but how, exactly? It felt like the last chapter was missing. Please explain. ________________________________________ 1 of 1 people found the following review helpful Poland revealed, April 25, 2014 The White Lake: Fighting for a Free Press, Justice and a Place to Call Home in the New Poland (Kindle Edition) They say it takes an outsider to reveal the intricacies of a tight-knit community, and John Borrell’s book strengthen’s that axiom. This is a compelling story of the emergence of inward-looking rural Poland from post-Communist torpor, told from the viewpoint of a skilled journalist seeking a new way of life by building a world-class country lodge on the shores of a beautiful lake. His struggles against deeply conservative and corrupt local government seem extraordinary to those of us used to at least a measure of transparency in the way bureaucrats respond to entrepreneuriism. Borrell’s memories of his first chief reporter on a regional daily newspaper in New Zealand resonate with people like me who suffered similarly from the tyranny of newsroom practices in 1960s New Zealand. The lessons stay with us, and they are present in the clarity of his story-telling. They boosted his chances of prolonged success as a foreign correspondent prior to settling in the remote Polish country-side not far from Gdansk, and underpinned a risky enterprise, starting a newspaper to reveal the venality of local politics. It was unheard of in a country resigned to corrupt relationships between officials and the media. A terrific read. ________________________________________ Wonderfully true, February 14, 2014 Romps, Tots and Boffins: The Strange Language of News (Kindle Edition) So now the secrets are out. Astute and funny, this romp through journalists’ language weaponry does more than reveal the cynical truths behind news gathering and writing, it illuminates the subtle forces that lie at the very foundations of journalism. Required reading for every deluded soul under the illusion that they want to be a reporter because they can write a bit, feel the world needs saving or it must be glamorous reporting on the rich, the famous and the crazy. Anglo-centric, of course, but much of it applies to journalism anywhere in the world. Be nice to see some local spinoffs. ________________________________________ 1 of 1 people found the following review helpful Balanced view, February 9, 2014 All Hell Let Loose: The World at War 1939-1945 (Kindle Edition) As a baby-boomer born just after WWII, I lived the first half of my life hearing a lot about what happened in the war from my father and his friends who fought for various New Zealand branches of the services. I visited my uncle’s grave on Crete in 1972, my brother and me treated with enormous respect by older Cretans who had warm memories of the Kiwis who fought there. My wife’s uncle died in the engine room of a convoy freighter off the west coast of Africa. At school, we had military drill, and most of our teachers were returned servicemen. But the war view we were fed was unsurprisingly narrow and beset by the propaganda that overwhelmed the country during and immediately after the war. So to read Max Hasting’s extraordinarily detailed and seemingly well-balanced account is a revelation, despite my having read many previous books about what supposedly happened. He and other war historians have benefited from relatively recent access to Russian, German and Japanese archives, and combined with the fullness of time and his nimble ability to weave in the personal stories of the non-combatants, his book is rich and fascinating. Two complaints – not enough about New Zealand’s contribution (after all, he notes we lost more people per capita than any of the Allies) and not enough about what happened in China. Also, he could do with breaking up his paragraphs to suit the many transitions from general narrative to anecdote. Some of the book gets confusing when the story segues into a new source without enough warning. Overall, though, this is a tour de force and his must be congratulated for producing a work that is not beset with the biased world-view of its author. More please. ________________________________________ 1 of 1 people found the following review helpful Complex, challenging, infuriating, November 12, 2013 The Luminaries (Kindle Edition) This book is a difficult read, not one you can easily dip into in bed at the end of a day without struggling to pick up its entanglements and recall who is who. The intricacies of the narrative and interplay between a big cast mean it is not meant to be a modern-day leisure read, but something to be regarded as a piece of literature, thus demanding almost as much from the reader as it did from the writer. Nonetheless, it became for me a terrific comfort at the end of the day, knowing this was not a story that would burn brightly then disappear, never to be remembered. It would be there at the bedside for some considerable time, and it would reward by its very denseness. This book endured for weeks, and now I have finished it there is a sense of loss, that the saga of reading it is finished, and what could there possibly be to follow it and provide an equal sense of adsorption. Such writing is all too rare. ________________________________________ Intriguing insight, September 21, 2013 Killing Fairfax: Packer, Murdoch and the Ultimate Revenge (Kindle Edition) Well researched and written. A frightening insight into the super rich, in an industry that impacts directly on our lives in New Zealand. ________________________________________ Brilliant, September 21, 2013 Leaves of the Banyan Tree (Kindle Edition) This is brilliantly written, a wonderful insight into Pacific Island traditions and life. Why didn’t he win the Booker Prize? ________________________________________ 0 of 1 people found the following review helpful Sorry, Mr Child, but it’s over, September 21, 2013 Never Go Back (Jack Reacher, Book 18) (Kindle Edition) Am I over Mr Reacher and Mr Child. Possibly. The lack of action was thinly disguised by an over abundance of detail about American suburban life. One of the past appeals of this series was the insight into the shadows of the Great American Dream, the dross and prosaicness of life in the US. But now I’ve read enough. Sorry, Lee, but you’ve run out of steam. A TV programme obviously based on Reacher, but with the modern appeal of computer intrusiveness, called Person of Interest, has usurped your territory. Great while it lasted, though. ________________________________________ Truly imaginative, April 27, 2013 Genesis (Changels) (Kindle Edition) This is the product of an amazingly imaginative mind. I’m well hooked. The structure is simple – the narrative swings between the uncertain menace of the present faced by the main character and his telling of what led to it. There are some problems: the writing is roughly punctuated, which is a distraction, and there are some long, boring passages where the writer seems to have dropped into some kind of polemicist mode. The whole book could have done with a solid edit, which would have resolved the poor mechanics and removed the unnecessary digressions. However, what saves it are the brilliantly conceived ideas of how an alien race might interact with us, and the authenticity of the narrator. His 14-year-old view of the world is largely realistic. The author has a good ear for prepubescent dialogue and perceptions. Next book, though, get a good editor.

Journey to a Hanging

By Peter Wells. Kindle edition, 2013, 543 pages. What a hard slog is the work of the historian. In this case, Peter Wells does us enormous service by pulling together and interrogating anything and everything that was ever recorded – well almost

Wells

– about the death of Carl Volkner and his supposed murderer, Te Rau. It is a monumental project, well timed by the fact there is a re-writing going on of this piece of New Zealand’s troubled past: Volkner is being disowned and Te Rau resurrected. That troubles Wells, who points out that a problematic missing piece in the puzzle has yet to be discovered; that is, the whereabouts of Volkner’s head. Surely that ought to be given up by Maori, if indeed any know its whereabouts, before some kind of moral decision can be made about who was right and who was wrong. The problem with this book is Wells is a hard slog to read. The colour of his prose is so purple as to partially dazzle those of us who like a fluent style. That makes the story something of an ordeal. But a worthwhile one, none-the-less. It’s just a pity someone among the impressive gallery of helpers didn’t have the courage to tell him straight that after all that wonderful research there is still a fundamental requirement to present the findings in a way that pays respect to the use of language. One other point – at $28.21, this is very expensive for a Kindle book, which usually sell for between $10 and $20.


Where Does Gas Come From?

By Rob Tucker. Kindle edition, 2013, 42 pages. Gas MaoriGas bookThis is a clever children’s book that explains something in life that most people take for granted – where does the energy come from that cooks and heats things. Beautifully illustrated by photographs, the narrative is how a major industry looks to a nine-year-old kid. Very effective. It’s now also available in Maori te reo language.


HolocaustThe Nazi Officer’s Wife: How One Jewish Woman Survived The Holocaust

By Edith H. Beer and Susan Dworkin, Kindle edition, 2013, 366 pages. This is story-telling at its very best – observant, wry, humane, fair, intelligent, literate, fluent, accessible. Such a reminder of what can happen when a society in dire straits fools itself deeply and completely about the cause of its angst and the way it can be “fixed”. How memorable the author’s observation that Germans within her orbit – which was at the heart of Nazi Germany – had two major concerns as World War II reached its climax: the pending rape and rampage of the swarming Russians, and a fear that the Jews might come back to seek revenge. As she says, they seemed to have no idea the Jewish population of Europe by 1945 was so ravaged and exhausted there was little immediate prospect of any of the victims of the “final solution” returning. Ever. The remarkable thing about Edith Hahn’s survival was the series of coincidences and luck – if that’s the right word – that allowed it to happen. The extraordinary thing was her ability to become a docile, unnoticed player within Nazi society. Nobody suspected she was Jewish – until straight after the war when a Russian soldier recognised her Jewishness the instant after he bumped into her in the street. The most amusing thing was the reaction of her eccentric Nazi husband, who couldn’t handle her apparent transformation from obedient housewife to judge. Yes, you read that right – she ended up being a judge in East Germany. That was not to last long. When she declined to cooperate with Russian demands, she ended up facing the same repressive pressures so completely engendered by the Germans. Simply a remarkable story.


EllisTrust Ownership and the Future of News: Media Moguls and White Knights

By Gavin Ellis, Kindle Edition, 2014, 328 pages. Shown here are the advantages of someone who knows how to write fluently and without embellishment, and who has applied those skills and a penchant for research to produce an immensely interesting academic work. This is an important contribution to news media research in New Zealand. Our press may now be on the edge of extinction (Ellis hedges his bets on that) but too little has been written about how it reached that parlous state and what might be done to prolong its contribution to democracy. In this, his doctoral thesis for a PhD conferred by Auckland University, Ellis focuses on a particular aspect of the paradigm shift, the utility of trust ownership as a means of preserving quality journalism. Most of his case studies are well known overseas ones – the UK Guardian, Wall Street Journal, etc – but their relevance to New Zealand is clearly demonstrated. As are the pitfalls of trusts and those who set them up with the noblest of intentions, including a common urge to wield influence from beyond the grave. Ellis appears to have made effective use of global contacts established in his long career as a New Zealand Herald journalist and editor to access current global players, gaining information that makes this a work of international significance.


All the Light We Cannot See Cannot see

By Anthony Doerr, Kindle edition, 2013, 545 pages. This is a story that tells much of the civilian horrors of world war on both sides of the Franco-Prussian divide. It centres on the harrowing experiences of two children, a gifted German boy and a blind French girl, whose destinies in World War II are cleverly entwined around the lure of a precious stone and the early power of radio. Resplendent with imagery and rich colour, even in the sightless perceptions of the girl, the narrative promises inevitable sadness, and engenders wistfulness within the reader that it has to end at all. It fulfills the mandate of most new millenium war accounts, whose focus is on the experiences of ordinary people rather than those who drew them into that terrible time. They became extraordinary in the circumstances thrust upon them.


EyrieWinton

By Tim Winton, Kindle Edition, 2013.  I’m tempted to do here what Tim Winton has done to us, the readers of Eyrie – write just half a review. It’s not clear whether Winton just got tired, was under pressure from his publisher to finish, or thinks it’s okay to play with our minds. Or whether there is some other reason why he ended the story in mid-stride, mid-sentence, in fact, to leave us wondering how it was all resolved, this gruelling epic of bogan poverty in sun-scorched Australia. He’s a brilliant writer, someone who uses original language to create word pictures that are vivid and disturbing. Winton’s description of the meth-head dad as he came to the door of his hovel-cum-lab will never leave me, especially the image of a man “huffling his nuts”. We can only pray that this was in fact part one of a trilogy, and that we don’t have to wait too long before the narrative is continued. Get writing, Mr Winton.


InnovationGet off the Grass: Kickstarting New Zealand’s innovation economy

By Shaun Hendy and Paul Callaghan, Auckland University Press, Kindle edition, 2013. Hendy and Callaghan have produced a well-written account of why New Zealand lags behind in prosperity, and how the problem could be fixed. This is an inspiring and positive critique, an essential read for all politicians and intelligent 11-year-olds. Within it are the seeds of New Zealand’s next future, an era in which our geographic isolation and small market will be largely irrelevant in the quest for greater productivity and more jobs. Hi-tech innovation and its followups will surpass both dairying and tourism as our biggest source of income if our decision-makers do the right things. Let’s just hope they are paying attention. The book’s only major flaw is repetition, which is a trap when you have two authors. The whole thing could have been edited back to two-thirds its current length without losing the scope of meticulous research and clear enunciation of ideas.


The ComplaintsComplaints

By Ian Rankin, Kindle Edition, 2013, 412 pages. This reminds me of all the great TV crime series that have come out of Scotland over time, especially the acerbic humour and the grimness of the urban landscapes that seem to inhabit Scottish cops and robbers story-telling. A good yarn, a clever yarn, a story that gets hold of the reader and is told fluently, with rarely a distracting or discordant line. The good cops win out, of course, but it’s suitably touch and go at times. The book succeeds largely because the complexity of the crime web is clearly unravelled by the writer, who seems to have a good sense of how cops work. A sense that can probably only come from personal experience.


VetNever Turn Your Back on an Angus Cow: My life as a country vet

By Dr Jan Pol, Kindle Edition, 2014, 276 pages. Fascinating material, folksy writing style, clunky read. This really could have done with a good editor, someone who would have taken this character’s random thoughts and organised them coherently. His account of small vet practice encompasses some interesting insights and information, but it jumps around so much as to be a struggle for the reader. It’s often the problem with people who’ve had unusual lives that their ultimate nemesis is an inability to write. A pity.


Reacher - personalPersonal (Jack Reacher 19)

By Lee Child, Kindle edition, 2014, 369 pages. I take it all back. Jack Reacher is back. Lee Child is back. Big time. Good as ever. Not a spent force, as I concluded, prematurely, obviously, from the last Reacher book, whatever it was called. This new one is an absolute cracker. Can it be Child was re-inspired by sending Reacher offshore? Brilliant.

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