Book Review: Vodka & Apple Juice, by Jay Martin

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_vodka_&_apple_juiceJay Martin’s husband accepts a diplomatic post in Poland so she leaves career to share the experience with him, of living in a country vastly different to Australia.

Her memoir Vodka & Apple Juice catalogues their journeys to many countries bordering Poland, as well as her involvement assisting Tom with his job at the embassy. From glamorous cocktail parties and dining with presidents, to snowy sleigh rides and drinking vodka in smoky bars, Jay is thrown into all that embassy life has to offer. She sets herself a goal of learning the Polish language and starts simply ordering coffee etc until eventually she is able to hold a conversation and confident to explore the country on her own, as well as venturing in Eastern Europe. At times Martin struggled with living in Poland as she felt she was living multiple lives, doing the mundane living things about the home, or staying in five star hotels while on embassy work but she was also living as a foreigner, trying to identify food items in the supermarket while ‘finding my way around on buses and dealing with obstructive post office officials.’

She felt her husband Tom wasn’t having the same ‘disjointed experience’ as he was in the embassy all day and often into the evening. But her writing for the Warsaw Insider and volunteering at the museum as well as the addition of a cat called Very helped her become more satisfied with her Polish experience.

An engaging read, with touches of humour which help to lighten the enormous challenges the couple find themselves having to deal with, in a very different culture to what they are used to. It will be enjoyed by anyone who travels, especially to a country where English is not the native language. Martin’s inclusion of historical facts also add a depth to the book without making it a heavy read, as the author’s wit is evident in every chapter. I loved the book, its name is captivating, and the cover splendid, inviting the reader to turn the pages to read of the Travels of an Undiplomatic Wife in Poland.

Jay Martin grew up in Melbourne and lived in a number of countries overseas before settling in Canberra where she worked as a policy analyst and married her husband Tom. On their return from Poland the couple settled in Fremantle,Western Australia, with the cat called Very.

Reviewed by Lesley McIntosh

Vodka & Apple Juice
by Jay Martin
Published by Fremantle Press
ISBN 9781925591316

Book Review: A Well-Behaved Woman, by Therese Anne Fowler

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_a_well-behaved-womanHello, my name is Rachel, and I am addicted to historical fiction. Probably 60-70% of my adult library is historical fiction, with another 15% historical biography. For me, the sign of a good historical fiction book is one that sends me searching for more information, and A Well-Behaved Woman certainly fits the bill.

The riches to rags to obscene-riches tale of Alva Vanderbilt (nee Smith, later Belmont) is the focus of Fowler’s novel. After the American Civil War her family was left in dire financial straits, and to avoid abject poverty Alva needed to marry well (or more to the point, she needed to marry wealthy). She set her sights on William Kissam Vanderbilt, and won, entering into a world of wealth and privilege that defies comprehension.

Life wasn’t all smooth sailing (both literally and figuratively) for Alva after her marriage. The Vanderbilts were ‘new money’ and found it hard to gain acceptance in the top tier of New York society. Alva worked tirelessly to gain acceptance for the family and a lot of the novel’s plot follows her efforts to become part of the New York crème de la crème, as well as her married life with William.

Alva’s character – strong, determined, well-educated, rebellious and creative – is a gift to an author, and Fowler has made the most of it. The book is well-researched and moves along at a good pace, and successfully transports the reader to the luxurious world of Gilded Age New York, Newport and Europe. It’s a very enjoyable read, and the only thing missing for me was a Vanderbilt family tree – fictional Alva struggles to keep track of them with their reuse of names when she first meets them, and she at least had the benefit of seeing faces. As a reader it was even harder to keep track.

A Well-Behaved Woman sent me in search of one of my favourite book adaptations, the BBC’s 1995 version of Edith Wharton’s unfinished The Buccaneers, set at the same time as much of Alva Vanderbilt’s early story, and certainly appearing to be based on some real life characters (you can find it on YouTube). I also spent some time skimming my long-forgotten copy of Consuelo and Alva Vanderbilt by Amanda Mackenzie Stuart, enjoying the photographs of the novel’s protagonists. And this is why it’s easy for me to recommend A Well Behaved Woman to others who enjoy historical fiction and/or strong and interesting female characters – I was completely satisfied with the novel, but my interest was piqued and it sent me looking for more.

Reviewed by Rachel Moore

A Well-Behaved Woman
by Therese Anne Fowler
Published by Two Roads
ISBN 9781473632516

Book Review: The King’s War, by Peter Conradi and Mark Logue

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_the_kings_war.jpgThe recent visit to New Zealand by Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, has rekindled the nation’s interest in things royal. This fascination has created images and articles across the years. When there is an Antipodean link, we become even more engrossed. Here is a book to nurture your curiosity on the part played by Lionel Logue.

Movie The King’s Speech, was released in 2010. It told the story of Lionel Logue, the Australian born therapist who worked with King George 6th on his acceptance speech. The King had a stutter which was never cured, but ably managed to allow him to address the public on countless occasions. Following the movie, the story was written by Peter Conradi, a Sunday Times journalist and Mark Logue, Grandson of Lionel. Both the movie and the book were a great success.

The King’s War is an opportunity for this established writing pair, to delve deeper into the story using material uncovered during the making of the movie. Mark inherited four large scrapbooks of information and personal family diaries and letters. This includes correspondence from the King to Lionel from 1926 when they first met, until 1952 when the King died. While the movie reaches a climax with the Coronation speech, this book looks at the growing relationship between Lionel and the King. As well as the letters, much of the information comes from the diaries kept by Lionel’s wife, Myrtle. These record the details of living in London during the war.

The actual book is an historical account of the Second World War and the events which impact on the Royal household, but also on the lives of those living through the Blitz, Dunkirk, the American support and finally peace. I liked the parallel between Logue’s involvement in every major event as he was called in to support and prepare the King for his public appearances, and the detail of family life for the Logue’s and their children, following these speeches.

It was not until after the death of George VI in 1952, that the role played by Logue became public. His was a private task and he always took care to respect this aspect of his work. While Logue had no academic qualifications, his skill in amateur dramatics enabled him to work successfully from his rooms in Harley St.

I enjoyed learning more about the warmth of the relationship between the King and Lionel. This book fills in all the gaps left by the earlier story, The King’s Speech. It is a story of an unusual relationship which we might have missed, but for Mark Logue’s desire to honour his grandfather, Lionel.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

The King’s War
By Peter Conradi and Mark Logue
Published by Quercus Publishing
ISBN 9781782065975

AWF Out-of-Season: An Evening with Lee Child

Lee Child is in Christchurch tonight with WORD Christchurch. Tickets are sold out. 

cv_past_tenseTo start, a confession: until yesterday, I’d never read a Lee Child story. And—here’s another, perhaps a more damning one—after watching both movies this week on Netflix, I was primed to not particularly like Reacher, either.

After all, this event was advertised as an evening with Lee Child and Jack Reacher. Reacher doesn’t form the backbone, but the entirety of Child’s writing work. And in the first Reacher movie (named simply Jack Reacher) there’s a scene in a bar that really prickled me. Reacher is approached by a woman, Sandy. And after a brief exchange, he tells her he’s not interested—by implying that she’s a prostitute (Reacher: I’m on a budget, Sandy. I can’t afford you. Sandy: I’m not a hooker. Reacher: Oh, well I really can’t afford you Sandy: Seriously, I work at the auto parts store. Reacher: What I mean is, the cheapest women tends to be the one you pay for.) Things escalate, Sandy gets mad and calls in reinforcements to beat Reacher up, and it ends in this little exchange: Sandy: I don’t mind the sight of blood. Reacher: When it means you’re not pregnant, anyway. So, you know, it was just one of those pop-culture moments that made the feminist in me squirm, recoil, and lose a little faith in humanity.

Perhaps not the introduction to Jack Reacher that the author intended. These gender-based reservations being said, there’s no doubt that Lee Child is a binge-worthy writer. He’s rare, too, in that he has written a character who has become so iconic in pop-culture that Reacher lives outside the page. In fact, Reacher boasts many famous fans—from Stephen King to Bill Clinton—and according to Child, Reacher has even made it to New Zealand parliament. (He mentioned a New Zealand politician was quoted quoting Reacher himself: “We must hope for the best and plan for the worst.”)

Child’s work is accessible, and Reacher is snarky enough to satisfy both people who like thrillers, and people who like thrillers ironically. And from the moment he stepped on stage at the Bruce Mason theatre, I knew it was going to be hard to love to hate him.

Perhaps because he’s well-versed in author events by now, or perhaps because he started his career with an eighteen-year stint as a presentation director for Granada Televison; either way, Lee Child has a very likeable way of being around people. He’s charming and funny, in a relaxed kind of way, and it was impossible not to get sucked in by his genuine concern for his readers.


Photo of Lee Child by Sigrid Estrada

After talking a little about his story—about how he was inspired to work in entertainment by the utter joy of Beatles mania (he talks about postwar Britain being horribly depressing for a child, up until the Beatles); his firing at 40 and the 7-mortgage payment severance payment period that he had to make that first book work; after that, he talked about the responsibility he has to serve his readers—and that was something that resonated with me.

Readers are the ones who create story, he said, a book doesn’t exist until it has been read. And it’s this audience-serving perspective that came through in almost everything he had to say; in his way of being. He didn’t mince words, or his feelings on literary fiction. When asked if he was interested in writing the next great novel—the next Moby Dick—Child replied “Sure, but did anyone read Moby Dick?” And it’s this attitude—of a book not truly existing until it’s been read; of a book not truly being great unless it is read—that could well be the secret sauce that has made him so successful.

It’s certainly his connection to his readers that inspired him to recently walk way from a lucrative movie deal. Talking about moving Reacher from film to TV, Child said that initially for him at least, the movies were peripheral—it was the books that mattered. But that seemed to change when he realized how unhappy his readers were that the hands-the-size-of-dinnerplates Reacher was portrayed by the normal, human-sized action movie actor of our generation, Tom Cruise. ‘I just felt I let the readers down. Readers wanted to see something closer to the books.’ And as to why he keeps writing a Reacher novel a year? He says it’s because he has an emotional contract with his readers. ‘I’m their servant.’

So, would I ever read a full Reacher novel? Well, I’m not going to be the first in the queue on release day to pick up the next one in the series. At least not yet. But—surprisingly, even to me—I will be adding Child to the top end of my holiday reading list. Partly because Child’s work is removed from the spheres of what I’d usually read (so wouldn’t in the slightest feel like work), but also because of how nice it was to see so many people engaged, enthusiastic and asking questions at an author event; how tempting the ultimate freedom fantasy of Jack Reacher is, and—most importantly—how genuine Child is with his audience.

Event attended and voluntarily reviewed by Emma Bryson

The latest in the Jack Reacher series is:
Past Tense
by Lee Child
Published by Penguin NZ
ISBN 9780593078204

Book Review: The Seventh Cross, by Anna Seghers

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_the_seventh_crossFirst published in the US in 1942, this novel is the first unabridged English translation of the original, written by German born Jewish woman Anna Seghers. Of four copies Seghers made, only one made it to publication in the US, and even then it was posted from France, the others destroyed or disappeared. In 1944, a film starring Spencer Tracy based on this book was one of the few movies of the era to depict a European concentration camp.

As we continue to be deluged with both fiction and non-fiction, movies, TV series about the war, the Holocaust, the horrific and terrible cost, pain and loss of everything during WW2, this novel remains as relevant and important as it was 70 plus years ago.

George Heisler is a prisoner in a concentration camp near a town in Germany. Like the author, George is a communist, hence his imprisonment. Along with six others, one day he escapes. This is the story of that escape, how the others are caught, how George evades capture, how he learns who to trust and who not to trust, and how living on your wits is almost fatal work. The seven crosses are a creation of the ruthless and sadistic camp commander. As each prisoner is caught he is dragged back to the camp and tied to the cross erected for the purpose. Day after day the seventh cross remains empty.

Over the course of a very desperate week George returns to the town he came from – Mainz, where he has both good and bad luck in getting help for his continuing evasion from the Gestapo and SS. For the risk remains that he may be betrayed by any one of the people he meets, or that his contacts are in turn betrayed, or make an error that puts them and all their families at risk. It is a perilous world. But as we know, us humans can be capable of great risk taking for another person, and great acts of kindness. That George makes any progress at all is a miracle, but the biggest miracle is what he discovers about himself.

This novel is exquisitely written in its detail of daily life for the average German over this time. There is much putting the head in the sand amongst the citizens, the constant worry that ears are listening and possibly misinterpreting conversations, asides, who one is seen with. The SA, SS, Gestapo and Hitler Youth are everywhere, there is endless fear that one may put a foot wrong. Right up till the very last page, George’s plight could all go wrong.

This is neither a hard read nor an easy read. It is very detailed in the minutiae of daily life and there are a lot of characters, most of whom are peripheral to the actual plot. A character list at the beginning doesn’t do enough to introduce us to all the characters. However, this is a minor issue, as the story of George is really what carries the whole thing along. It would be great to see a remake of the 1944 movie.

Reviewed by Felicity Murray

The Seventh Cross
by Anna Seghers
Published by Little, Brown
ISBN 9780349010670


Book Review: Frieda – a Novel of the Real Lady Chatterley, by Annabel Abbs

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_frieda.jpgThis book tells the moving story of Frieda von Richthofen, wife of D.H. Lawrence – and the real-life inspiration for Lady Chatterley’s Lover, a novel banned for more than 30 years.

Frieda, daughter of German aristocrat Baron von Richthofen is married to English professor Ernest Weekley and living in Nottingham. A visit from her sister unsettles her and she decides to visit Germany, leaving her three children with Ernest and the nanny. It is 1907 and Munich is a city alive with new ideas and free love so it seems inevitable for Frieda to take a lover. Her experience awakens her sexually and Otto stimulates her intellectual thinking as well so that when she returns to England she continues to write to him and dreams of their time together.

Ernest invites a former student D H Lawrence to lunch , but when Ernest is delayed Frieda finds herself relaxing and warming to the young man who is keen to go to Germany for work. She decided ‘if she was still as dazzled by him, she would take him to the woods and show him who she truely was’. The year is now 1912 and their relationship is volatile and causes great heartache and anxiety in the family.

The book is written in eight parts taking the reader from England to Germany, Italy and back to London while the epilogue is back in Italy in 1927 with Lawrence working on Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

Author Annabel Abbs lives in London with her husband and four children. Her debut novel The Joyce Girl has won a number of awards. Her writing style is soft and gentle with a wonderful use of the English language,’She hadn’t intended to lie naked in the open air but as she walked through the woods , a sudden breeze had rushed up her skirt, rattling and pulling at her underclothes as if trying to prise them off.’

Having read Lady Chatterley’s Lover in my final year at high school I was keen to read Frieda and found it added a lot of background to the characters and I will read Lady Chatterley again shortly. The historical notes at the rear of the book added useful information about the characters and DH Lawrence’s books. It is a great read and I am sure will be enjoyed by many people especially those who have read some of DH Lawrence’s novels.

Reviewed by Lesley McIntosh

Frieda – A novel of the Real Lady Chatterley
by Annabel Abbs
Published by Hachette
ISBN 9780733640117

Book Review: The Peacock Summer, by Hannah Richell

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_the_peacock_summer.jpgThe Peacock Summer is the latest novel by bestselling Australian-born and England-based author, Hannah Richell. Narrated in the first person, the story centres on the lives of two women, Lillian and Maggie.

In the prime of her life, Lillian finds herself trapped. Encouraged by her aging guardian, Lucinda Daunt, and out of concern for her invalid sister Helena’s medical expenses, Lillian marries the wealthy investor, Charles Oberon. At twenty-six years old, she has become a porcelain beauty in a delicate dollhouse, burrowed within the paintings, ornaments, and collected objects of Charles’s manor. Now Lillian must navigate a world of cake tins and floral dresses, of high-society men and their wives with their expectations and illusory glories.

At the hands of her manipulative husband, Lillian becomes the victim of domestic abuse, which leads to her barrenness. The pains of maternal yearning and a loveless marriage plunge her into a world of deep loneliness. Nevertheless, what keeps Lillian going is Albie, her stepson, whose playfulness and curiosity remind her constantly of the joys of living and loving. Life takes a dramatic turn that summer, when Lillian meets the young artist, Jack Fincher, whom Charles has commissioned to paint the nursery.

Fast forward to the present day: At age twenty-six, Maggie Oberon feels like she is going nowhere. Her parents, Amanda and Albie, left her at a young age, going their separate ways. The rock of Maggie’s whole life was her grandmother, Lillian. Now that the aged Lillian is very ill, Maggie travels from Australia to Lilian’s English manor, Cloudesley, at the foot of the Chiltern Hills. As Maggie learns of Lillian’s story, she finds that they are very much alike. Lillian reminds Maggie about the brevity of life and the necessity, therefore, to live boldly and fully.

The Peacock Summer is a call to the genuine celebration of life and family. Richell’s prose is highly descriptive, tender, and vibrant. The story touches on the poignant themes of parenthood, loss, longing, and the indefatigability of authentic, sacrificial love. I strongly recommend this excellent book for the upcoming spring and summer months.

Reviewed by Azariah Alfante

The Peacock Summer
by Hannah Richell
Published by Hachette
ISBN 9780733640438