Friday, May 18, 2018

White Houses by Amy Bloom

This is the fictionalised account of Lorena Hickson’s love affair with Eleanor Roosevelt. It features all the characters and had me running to Google time and time again to look up the details of who they were in real life. It’s a sensitively and beautifully written love story, which shows the push-pull nature of such affairs between strong and independent women. The character of Hick, who tells the story, just shines.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Adventures of a Young Naturalist by David Attenborough

This is a collection of three books David Attenborough wrote describing his expeditions to Guyana, Indonesia in search of the Komodo Dragon and Paraguay in search of armadillos. They date back to the 1950s so the practice of collecting animals from the wild to put into zoos was quite acceptable then. He makes a point of noting this in his introduction, saying that the practice is no longer acceptable. It’s a fairly old fashioned read, but very interesting. I was surprised, because I’d never really thought about it I guess, about the amount of time wasted getting visas, gathering provisions and waiting for the weather to improve enough to go out. The connections between places were almost non-existent and David and his photographer partner on the expeditions, Charles, take the most incredible risks in the pursuit of their quarry. They sail in leaky boats to god knows where, fly around in small planes held together by string and chewing gum, and head off into the unknown with no food supplies. Extemporisation is the name of the game. I doubt whether they’d be allowed by their employers to travel in this way these days. I liked reading about the animals but these books are more about the journeys, the customs of the local people (before the days of mass tourism) and the characters that these adventurers meet. David Attenborough’s voice permeates the whole thing of course, and I have such a fondness for him that it was like spending an afternoon with an old mate.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

You wonder whether there can be yet another perspective on either of the world wars but yes, Anthony Doerr has done it. This book involves one of those backwards/forwards structures, where you move between the experiences of the two main protagonists and one more minor character, and backwards and forwards in time as well. Yet it’s not confusing. It tells the story of WWII from the point of view of a young and sensitive German boy, Werner, who is picked out of an orphanage because of his genius for radio technology and sent off to a Hitler Youth school to prepare for war. It follows him to St Malo and charts his failure to stand up against what he knows is inhumane in the face of the fanatics behind the Nazi war machine until his redemption, which you know has to be coming, in the end. It must have been something countless Germans had to deal with as the war progressed. And it’s a question I’ve long been interested in – what would I do in the face of relentless propaganda and the danger of resisting authority. Would I buckle or be brave? The other protagonist is a blind French girl Marie Laure, daughter of a museum locksmith, who flees Paris with her father carrying one of the museum’s greatest treasures, a blue diamond. The diamond and the quest of the third protagonist, a Nazi sergeant major, to obtain it provide another form of conflict and suspense in the book, though I think the internal conflict suffered by Werner is far more interesting. The language in this book is exquisite. Doerr not only tells a good story but he also expresses it in the most beautiful figurative language, so lovely that I found myself stopping to read passages over again.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Victoria the Queen by Julia Baird

What a marathon effort! This enormous book, though, is extremely readable. Julia Baird is a journalist, not a literary fiction writer, so her analysis of Victoria’s life is fluent, exceptionally well researched and couched in very accessible language. Despite its five hundred odd pages, I had no trouble coming back to this book over and over again, always surprised at how engaging it was. It’s full of gossipy details, a little bit of speculation, and lots and lots of explanations about the politics and personalities of the time. It’s a fascinating, five star read.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

The Magicians by Lev Grossman

People, unspecified because I can’t remember who but nevertheless people I must respect because I listened to them, raved about this book. In fact they recommended the whole trilogy. So I was nearly going to buy it but got it from the library, just in case it wasn’t worth the investment. It WASN’T! Poorly written, blatantly derivative – at times I didn’t know whether I was in The Lion The Witch and The Wardrobe or Harry Potter or The Hobbit and he even has a bloody QUESTING BEAST straight from TJ White’s Once and Future King in there – and just plain tedious. I ploughed on and on through this book, skimming great chunks of it, just to see it through. But really I don’t know why I bothered. It’s clearly aimed at the adolescent market, with all its clumsy attempts at sexual allusion and doing drugs and getting drunk and the difficulties with relationships between this group of schoolies. Maybe Grossman thought he was channeling Donna Tartt? Anyway, he’s making a fortune because it obviously appeals to someone. Just not me.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Light and Shadow: Memoirs of a Spy’s Son by Mark Colvin

What an interesting life Mark Colvin led. There’s a little about his father but no real detail, probably unsurprisingly when you think about it. The rest of the book details his travel and reporting on various places around the world. It was interesting reading about Moscow in the seventies and about political crises in other parts of the world that I remember from the time. The depth of course is not there, because of lack of space, but from time to time Colvin in extremely prescient in his comments – for example when he talked about the potential for a power vacuum should Saddam Hussein fall, which is of course what happened and we all know what filled it.

The Pigeon Tunnel by John Le Carre

My second book about spies in a couple of months – must be something going on. This one was a fascinating collection of memoirs and family snippets covering Le Carre’s career as a spy and later as a novelist. I absolutely lapped it up. It was full of veiled detail about spies he knew and diplomats he met and worked with, as well as a lot of detail about the workings of the post WWII government in Germany, which remained full of Nazis who had changed their spots. He talks at length about his conman father, who sounds like a combination of a complete bastard and an utter charmer, the sort of personality they make movies about. It’s not written in chapters but in sections, some as short as a few lines and others continuing over twenty or more pages, so it’s ideal to pick up and put down. Neither is it chronological, which also makes it accessible for the haphazard reader. And of course his writing is superb. I now want to go back and reread all his fiction!