Archive for the ‘Books I’ve read’ Category

Hearing the author and her mother interviewed on the BBC sparked my interest in this book, so I asked the Library to buy it.  The emotion of the teenage sister of murdered adolescent Milly Dowler is raw and heart-rending.  It was fifteen years before she was able to write the book, and she has shown tremendous courage baring her feelings in this way.  I hope and pray the writing has helped her to be more at peace.

I cried over the book, not just for the girl who was murdered, but for the sister who had to continue to live.  The story is totally gripping and almost unbearable.  It’s hard to believe what we read about the murderer’s eventual trial and the way the family were treated there.  Reading this would shake anyone’s faith in the British justice system, especially the police.  Then there’s the whole business of the hacking of Milly’s phone and the subsequent Leveson Inquiry.

This is one of the most powerful and moving books I’ve read, and I’d thoroughly recommend it to anyone who feels able to tackle it – it’s not for the faint-hearted.

“It’s harrowing and honest too
with love of family shining through.”


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This fascinating and beauiful woman lived from 1807 to 1881. She travelled from aristocratic England, through Europe via various men, to Arabia where she finally married a Bedouin Sheik twenty years her junior (the original cougar!).  Many of her letters and diaries remain, as well as references to her in other letters and publications, including those of Isabel and Richard Burton.  The latter used Jane’s knowledge of harem life as information for his sex manual “The Perfumed Garden”.

The author quotes a number of poems written by Jane and her lovers, and I’m pleased to note Jane wrote in rhyming verse.

I was interested to read about the origin of the word “cad”, based on Jane’s lover Prince Schwarzenberg, and that the first of Munich’s Oktoberfests was to celebrate the wedding of King Ludwig of Bavaria, another of Jane’s lovers.  I also discovered the word “Ferengi”, which I’d thought was created by “Star Trek” writers, was the Bedouin name for western Europeans (Franks).

Jane’s later life among the Bedouin was the most amazing part, and many of the towns she knew – Aleppo, Homs, Palmyra, Damascus – feature in our modern news.

Jane’s life is magnificently enthralling, but this book had so much detail, and the font is so small, that reading sometimes felt like a chore.  I may not have finished it if it hadn’t been this month’s Book Group choice.  However I was pleased to read the true story of a woman who followed her desires, even when it meant social ostracism.   Without her privileged background and good income she may not have survived.

“With beauty and her libido
she went where others would not go.”


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I greatly enjoyed Fiona’s non-fiction book “The Villa at the Edge of the Empire”, and looked forward to this fictional companion, especially after hearing Fiona discuss it with Liz Grant at the launch function.

This is a rich novel that demands concentration.  The reader is given a wealth of details to be followed and imagined.  The main character is a house, and we learn about the lives of the different people who live in it over m0re than a century.  I found similarities to houses I’ve lived in, and I’m sure others would too.   There were many references to places and events that were comfortingly familiar.  I did wonder how these would strike a reader who was not from New Zealand or even not from Christchurch.

The depictions of “our” earthquakes were very real, especially the continual guessing at the strength of aftershocks.  It was sometimes hard to read about those experiences all over again.  The book has a parallel story about an eel in the river, and hanging threads at the beginning and end of each short chapter.

In some ways the fictional story is outweighed by the actual events depicted.  It’s an excellent read, but I prefer “The Villa at the Edge of the Empire”.

“This book reflects what we’ve been through
with fiction that rings always true.”

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Entrancing is the word for this book.  It took me a while to get into it and I even skim-read a few pages, but it soon had me hooked.  Set in Sweden during and after the second world war it deals with myth and mystery in a compelling way.  The characters are clearly depicted and demand the reader’s involvement.   The relationships are complex and real, especially those between the various mothers and their offspring.  Differences in race and class add another layer to the saga of boys growing to maturity.  A powerful novel, beautifully written and translated.

“A mother caring for her son
would do whatever must be done.”

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This novel moved me to tears at several points.  It starts with a White Russian family exiled to China after the Communist revolution, then follows the daughter to Shanghai, the Philippines, and Australia.  The story deals with love, betrayal, and displacement.  The blurb says it ‘depicts vividly the powerful lifelong bond between mothers and daughters’ but I felt it was wider than that.  The story with wonderfully detailed settings held me entranced, although the writing could have been improved.  It’s fiction, inspired by the journey made by the author’s Russian mother and godmother, and gives an excellent account of what happened to some refugees after the second world war.  Good reading for a rainy day.

“She overcomes a tragic plight
accompanied by gardenias white.”





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This novel would fascinate anyone with an interest in the history of Banks Peninsula.  A branch of my family lived in Akaroa in the late 19th century, I’ve spent many holidays there, and I’ve walked the Banks Peninsula Track.  With careful research of the historical setting the book tells the stories of two fictional early Pakeha settlers in Akaroa, the struggle between French and English for control over the area, and the interaction with takata whenua.  The willow tree of the title, sometimes thought to be the ancestor of the willows that now grow along the Avon/Otakaro, came from a slip from the willow beside Napoleon’s grave on St Helena.

The book opens unusually with a glossary of Maori words.  There was only one I wasn’t familiar with – Tinirau, guardian of sea creatures, son of Takaroa.

The descriptions of the area have the power of authenticity, especially when characters walk up the Rue Balguerie, past the stream.  I loved the description of the forest “where birds seemed not so much to twitter as to shout”.

My only quibble about the writing was that it sometimes seemed to me a little ponderous, almost as though the author couldn’t decide whether she was writing serious history or fiction.  The story is well worth reading and an excellent addition to local knowledge.

“”The separate settlements unfold
as Akaroa’s story’s told.”

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From the start of this memoir I was struck by the questions about identity and the effect of childhood trauma on memory.  These are areas I have personal experience of, so I was quickly enthralled by Sandy’s story.  I was not previously aware of Freud’s theory that our unpleasant experiences are forced out of the conscious mind deep into the subconscious, where they remain out of the reach of memory.  Once, when I felt I was strong enough to want to recover buried memories of my father’s death, I consulted a hypnotherapist who told me that if a memory was buried that deep it would be healthier for it to stay buried.   I was envious that some of Sandy’s childhood memories eventually resurfaced.

The book documents how Sandy spent decades trying to understand and recover his buried memories.  At the beginning he quotes Isaac Bashevis Singer who said: “When I was a little boy they called me a liar, but now that I’m grown up they call me a writer.”  Sandy’s adoptive parents lied to him, which caused all kinds of mental and emotional difficulties.  His early years were spent in Christchurch, and his evocation of this area in the 1950’s and 60’s offers interesting social history.  The reader follows his quest for family after being adopted as an infant, and shares the joy of finally meeting blood relations.

The book is clearly written, and would be enjoyed by anyone with an interest in identity and/or adoption.

“It’s vital we know who we are
the stories may be quite bizarre.”

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