Tuesday, December 27, 2016

The revolving door of life

Alexander McCall Smith continues the stories in the 44 Scotland Street series in The Revolving Door of Life.  The stories are the continuation of the events, large and small, about the lives of characters who live, or who have lived, in this part of Scotland Street.

Although Matthew and Elspeth, with their triplets, have left Scotland Street to move into their new home outside Edinburgh, Matthew still works at his art gallery in the city. The house was purchased from a gentlemen calling himself the Duke of Johannesburg, a character who makes appearances throughout this collection of stories. Angus Lordie and Domenica Macdonald, now married, have settled into Domenica's flat in Scotland Street and are adjusting to their new life together.

The story of central interest in this collection revolves around Bertie, now seven, and his new found freedom when his mother is detained in a Bedouin harem - you will have to read the book. Nicola, Bertie's grandmother moves to Scotland Street to look after Bertie and Ulysses and determines that her grandson should have a less structured life.

The other major theme concerns Pat's father, Dr MacGregor. Pat is concerned that her father's new friend is only interested in his money so Pat and Matthew devise a plan to test whether this is the case.

Ethics and the need to do the right thing tend to be major considerations for some of the characters as they often agonise about their plans and possible actions however a solution is usually eventually found.

As this book is number 10 in the series, this volume is another collection of often amusing stories recounting the minutiae of the lives of a collection of characters we have come to know, all part of the revolving door of life.

London in many books

For family history research I have been looking at books with references to London, particularly in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries and discovered a selection of books on the history of London in the local public library. Some titles were more relevant to my research than others but it was interesting to see the range of material available.

London in the Eighteenth Century: a great and monstrous thing by Jerry White published by The Bodley Head in 2012. This book looks at the growth of London during the eighteenth century with the first section looking at architectural advancement during that period. There are also sections on People, Work, Culture and Power including a section on prisons and punishment. There are several sets of illustrations inserted throughout the book, detailed notes, a large bibliography and index. This is a useful social history of eighteenth century England providing useful background information for those researching the city in which some of our convict ancestors lived.

The following two books that are good to  browse through.
London: the illustrated history by Cathy Ross and John Clark was first published by Penguin Books in 2008.  This history of the city discusses London through the ages illustrated with maps plus  photos of items from the Museum of London collection. There is a useful section of further reading plus an index.

Another book using the Museum of London collection is London: the story of a great city by Jerry White.The second edition of this book was published by Andre Deutsch in 2014. In this book the history of the city is shown by topic rather than chronologically. Some of the topics include London's River, Making Money, A City of Shopkeepers, Meat and Drink, Faiths of London plus Police, Prisons and Punishment.The book is lavishly illustrated and has an index plus a small section of further reading.

The City of London by Brian Girling, published by The History Press initially in 1998 and again in 2009. It is part of Briain in Old Photographs series. Most of the photographs used to illustrate the book were taken in the early 1900s and were often from postcards. Topics in the book include Around Fleet Street, the River Thames, City Life, St Paul's Cathedral and Churches, City Celebrations and City Transport. Many of the photos show buildings built at the end of the eighteenth century and nineteenth century.

Lost London by Richard Guard is a guide to some of the lost buildings and landmarks in the city.It was published by Michael O'Mara Books in 2012. The main landmarks discussed are arranged alphabetically and the index also allows the reader to locate further information if they are mentioned in other articles.

Lindsey German and John Rees have written A People's History of London published by Verso in 2012. The book investigates how the power of ordinary people through strikes, rebellions and demonstrations has shaped the history of the city through the ages. The book has a bibliography and index.

London: a social and cultural history, 1550 - 1750 by Robert Bucholz and Joseph P Ward was published by Cambridge University Press in 2012. It is a study of the development of London as a city during two hundred years. There are plates with illustrations throughout the book as well as detailed notes, a bibliography and index.

The third edition of The London Encyclopaedia was published in 2008. The 6000 alphabetically arranged articles cover all aspects of the history and life of the city. The authors are Ben Weinreb, Christopher Hibbert, Julia Keay and John Keay. This is a good reference book for information about the city. At the end of the book is an index to people mentioned in the volume.

Friday, December 16, 2016

The Best of Adam Sharp

In The Best of Adam Sharp Graeme Simsion has written a book about relationships.

Adam Sharp lives in England but one day he receives an email that reminds him of an affair that he had with a television actress in Australia more than 20 years earlier. Adam struggles to work out what Angelina really wants to achieve by contacting him. This email contact forces him to consider his relationships of the past and the present as well as what he really wants in the future.

Part I of the book primarily explores Adam's memory of his relationship with Angelina Brown in Sydney as well as reflecting on his deteriorating relationship with his partner, Claire. Part II is about the meeting of Adam with Angelina and her husband, Charlie, in France.

Music plays an important part throughout this novel. Adam works in IT but is also a pianist and throughout the book songs are constantly being mentioned - either music that he is playing or songs that are remembered as the story unfolds. A list of the songs is provided at the back of the book plus a link to the playlist on Spotify.

During the novel Adam is forced to rethink about a variety of relationships - with his father as well as with Angelina and Claire. He also needs to reconsider the components that  make a successful relationship. Adam has to decide whether following his emotions is the right pathway or should the long term needs of all parties be the main consideration.

A number of detailed reviews of this book can be found in Good Reads.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

The Grandparent

Ladybird books now have a series for adults called How it works. The design of the books and style of illustrations play homage to the Ladybird children's books but the books are designed for grown-ups. As grandparents my husband and I enjoyed the humour of one of the books in this series, The Grandparent. We could identify with some of the situations particularly in regard to providing 'day-care for the under twelves' and the statement, 'Retirement is an exhausting job'.

The books in this series only take a few minutes to read and are worth taking a look at, especially if you are familiar with the format of the Ladybird children's books. Good fun.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Turbo Twenty-three

Christmas must be approaching as a new title in Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum series has just been published. I find these books an entertaining read so always look forward to catching up with the next installment of Stephanie's eventful and certainly unpredictable life.

The story begins when Stephanie and Lula discover an abandoned freezer truck filled with ice cream plus a frozen body decorated to imitate an ice cream bar. This time most of the action centres around the rivalry between the owners of two ice cream factories. Ranger, who has been employed to install security at one of the firms, asks Stephanie to work undercover at the factories to try to collect inside information relating to the rivalry. Stephanie also continues her work as a bounty hunter and some of the characters she apprehends have links to the ice cream saga further complicating the plot. As the storyline progresses it is clear that working in the ice cream industry can have sinister consequences.

Themes in the other books in the series continue to evolve with the complications in Stephanie's love life continuing and more motor vehicles being damaged when Stephanie is around.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

The Invisible History of the Human Race - how DNA and history shape our identies and our futures

A recent television drama series, Code of a Killer, on ABC2 was based on the first case of using DNA fingerprinting techniques to solve a murder. DNA testing has become an accepted part of our lives. DNA is often used by archaeologists to test biological samples from skeletons to help determine their age. Studying a person's DNA can also be used medically to detect family patterns of diseases. Part of the book is also spent looking at eugenics and how theories of eugenics influenced the leaders of the Nazi Party.

In the Invisible History of the Human Race, Christine Kenneally, investigates how our DNA can help tell us of our past. Her theory is that a study of our DNA cannot only help us understand our biological history but also our social history. Increasingly DNA tests are being used as a tool to assist researchers determine family connections as well as exploring the paper trail of history. DNA is also used to investigate how peoples, such as the Vikings, settling in England mixed, over time, with the local populations.

This is not necessarily an easy book to read for those of us without an advanced science background, however it does contain some interesting theories to think about, particularly in relation to historical research.

The Pigeon Tunnel - stories from my life

John le Carre has been writing books, largely spy stories, since 1961. The Spy who came in from the Cold and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy are perhaps his best known novels. Many of his novels have been adapted for the cinema or for television.

David John Moore Cornwell was born in Dorset in 1931. When he began writing books he adopted the nom de plume, John le Carre. The Pigeon Tunnel is a collection of stories recounting events that happened in his life when he was working for a time in British Intelligence during the Cold War as well as when he has been researching the background for a new book. The stories provide a glimpse into the life of David Cornwell but particularly of John le Carre, author.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

The Nightingale before Christmas

Each year Caerphilly seems to have a variety of festivals. This time it is the Caerphilly Designer Show House competition where a number of designers each have a room of a house to decorate before the house is open to the public during the Christmas festivities. Money raised during the Open House is designated for the Caerphilly Historical Society. Meg's mother has one room to  decorate while Meg is the on-site co-ordinator of the project. What could go wrong at such a busy time of the year apart from murder and attempts to destroy some of the show rooms. As well as trying to find time to attend other Christmas activities in the town Meg works overtime assisting the police with their investigations as well as trying to establish the motives for the murder and the destruction of part of the house. Another Meg Langslow Mystery, this time with a Christmas theme.

No Nest for the Wicket

No, this book is not about Cricket but is about Extreme Croquet - this game really does exist. Meg is playing extreme croquet when an opposition player hits Meg's ball off the course. When looking for the ball Meg discovers a body lying at the bottom of a slope - and so the story begins. Another entertaining encounter with Meg's extended family and the townsfolk of Caerphilly (ficticious town in Virginia) as attempts are made to first discover the identity of the victim and then solve the mystery of her murder.
Another Meg Lansgslow Mystery by Donna Andrews. This is one of the early titles in the series so it was interesting to revisit the earlier lives of the characters compared with their lives in the more recent books in the series.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

A great reckoning

Armand Gamache has a new position as head of the Surete Training Academy in Louise Penny's latest novel, A great reckoning. The corruption which infiltrated the Surete has affected the training of new police recruits and not everyone is happy with Armand's appointment to rectify this situation. When one of the staff is murdered Isabelle Lacoste and her team arrive to investigate but to show impartiality a RCMP officer is also appointed to observe the investigation. One of Commander Gamache's first tasks in his new role was to check the application forms for the new intake of students. The choice of Amelia Choquet as a student amazes Gamache's colleagues, especially when she is considered as a prime suspect for the murder. However it soon becomes obvious that some of the investigators also consider Gamache to be the murderer.

Armand and his wife continue to live at Three Pines though he occasionally spends nights in his rooms at the Academy. Back at Three Pines a map of the village and surrounding area has been found hidden in a wall. Gamache takes a copy back to the Academy and when some of the students show an interest he gives them the task of determining the significance of the map and the reason it was hidden.

A reason that I enjoy reading these books by Louise Penny is not only for the resolution of the plot but for the continuing story and development of the main characters at the Surete and at Three Pines.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Owls well that ends well

 I recently discovered a series of short reviews that I had written about the first six Meg Langslow Mystery books by Donna Andrews which I am adding to the blog.

When Meg and Michael purchased a house they also inherited a house and barn full of accumulated junk. A garage sale seemed to be the solution but complications arose when various members of Meg's family offered to help and also set up stalls. The sale itself progressed relatively smoothly until the body of a local antique dealer was found in a trunk. When a colleague of Michael's is arrested for murder, Meg investigates among the mayhem. A Meg Langslow mystery no. 6

We'll always have parrots

Meg travels with her fiance Michael to a fan convention for Porfiria, Queen of the Jungle--a cheesy cult TV show on which Michael has a minor role. Michael hopes the weekend will give him a chance to talk Miss Wynncliffe-Jones, the show's temperamental leading lady and executive producer out of enforcing a certain provision in Michael's contract.
Of course, Michael's not the only person whose career the dictatorial star has manipulated. So when the star is found murdered, the police have plenty of suspects. Trouble is, Meg doesn't believe they're going to arrest the right one. Soon she finds herself following the murderer's trail through a hotel filled with egotistical actors, costumed fans, and a motley flock of monkeys and parrots who, rebelling against their role as live scenery, have escaped from their cages to take an active (and noisy) role in the festivities. A Meg Langslow mystery no. 5 by Donna Andrews.

Crouching buzzard, leaping loon

Meg agrees to tend the switchboard of Mutant Wizards, where her brother's computer games are created, and handle all the office management problems that no one else bothers with. For companionship, besides a crew of eccentric techies, she has a buzzard with one wing---who she must feed frozen mice thawed in the office microwave---and Michael's mother's nightmare dog. Not to mention the psychotherapists who refuse to give up their lease on half of the office space, and whose conflicting therapies cause continuing dissension. This is not what Meg had in mind when she agreed to help her brother move his staff to new offices.
In fact, the atmosphere is so consistently loony that the office mail cart makes several passes through the reception room, with the office practical joker lying on top of it pretending to be dead, before Meg realizes that he's become the victim of someone who wasn't joking at all. He's been murdered for real.
An eccentric cast of characters are suspects for the muder investigated by Meg (and her father) in another entertaining  and amusing mystery. A Meg Langslow mystery no. 4 by Donna Andrews.

Revenge of the wrought-iron flamingos

Every year, Yorktown, Virginia, relives its role in the Revolutionary War by celebrating the anniversary of the British surrender in 1781. This year, plans include a re-enactment of the original battle and a colonial craft fair. Meg Langslow has returned to her home town for the festivities--and to sell her wrought-iron works of art. Except, of course, for the pink-painted flamingos she reluctantly made for her mother's best friend--she's hoping to deliver them secretly, so she won't get a reputation as "the blacksmith who makes those cute wrought-iron flamingos."
Besides, she has taken on another responsibility--making sure none of her fellow crafters ruin the historical authenticity of the fair with forbidden modern devices--like wrist watches, calculators, or cell phones. She's only doing it to keep peace with the mother of the man she loves. And Michael himself will don the white-and-gold uniform of a French officer for the re-enactment--what actor could resist a role like that?
Meg's also trying to keep her father from scaring too many tourists with his impersonation of an 18th century physician. And to prevent a snooping reporter from publishing any stories about local scandals. Not to mention saving her naive brother, Rob, from the clutches of a con man who might steal the computer game he has invented. It's a tough job--at least, until the swindler is found dead, slain in Meg's booth with one of her own wrought-iron creations.
Now Meg must add another item to her already lengthy to do list: "Don't forget to solve the murder!" A Meg Langslow mystery no. 3 by Donna Andrews.

Murder with puffins

In an attempt to get away from her family, Meg and her boyfriend go to a tiny island off the coast of Maine. What could have been a romantic getaway slowly turns into disaster.
Once there, they are marooned by a hurricane and that is only the beginning of their problems. Meg and her boyfriend arrive at the house only to discover that Meg's parents and siblings, along with their spouses are all there. When a murder takes place, Meg realizes that she and her boyfriend can no longer sit by a cozy fireplace, but must instead tramp around the muddy island to keep try and clear her father who is the chief suspect. A Meg Langslow mystery no. 2

Murder with peacocks

Donna Andrews introduces a cast of quirky characters who will pull her heroine in different directions as she plans three successive summer weddings.
When Meg Langslow is roped into being a bridesmaid for the nuptials of her mother, her brother's fiancee, and her own best friend, she is apprehensive. Getting the brides to chose their outfits and those of their bridesmaids (and not change their minds three days later), trying to capture the principals long enough to work out details, and even finding peacocks to strut around the garden during the ceremony--these are things Meg can handle. She can brush off the unfortunate oaf who is smitten with her, and take philosophically her disappointment when she learns that the only eligible man in her small Virginia town is of questionable sexual preference. But even Meg is taken aback when the unpleasant former sister-in-law of Meg's soon-to-be stepfather disappears and is later found dead. A Meg Langslow mystery no. 1 by Donna Andrews.

Die like an eagle

The junior baseball season was about to begin and Meg and Michael's twin sons are ready to play for the Caerphilly Eagles. Unfortunately it is soon obvious that politics exists in this junior baseball carnival competition. While most of the families just want their young children to enjoy learning the game the head of the league, Biff Brown, is determined that his team must win at all costs. When the body of Biff Brown's brother is discovered before the first game of the carnival many people think that perhaps the wrong man was murdered. Meg becomes involved in solving this puzzle with the assistance of her extended family who are always ready to assist. Another entertaining Meg Langslow Mystery by Donna Andrews (no. 20).

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Keep the aspidistra flying

First published in 1936, this book by George Orwell is largely about money - at least money, or lack of it, in the world of Gordon Comstock. Orwell provides a clue to this at the beginning of the novel by providing an adapted quote of I Corinthians chapter XIII where the word money has been substituted for the word love.

Gordon Comstock has given up a well paid job in an advertising agency to devote his life to writing poetry. The novel is written from Gordon's viewpoint as he struggles to survive with limited pay from working in a bookshop during the day and writing his poetry at night. Gordon makes it clear that he hates money and all that it represents but he needs money to survive. He resents friends who have money though he has no qualms about borrowing from his sister who he knows will not refuse him even though she cannot afford to keep bailing him out. Gordon is a depressing character who does little to try and improve his situation. He is unkind to friends, including his girlfriend Rosemary, who try to help him. It is only at the end of the book when he is forced to make a life changing decision that he reluctantly decides to review his lifestyle.

I found this a difficult novel to read primarily as the character of Gordon annoyed me. The book is set in England during the 1930s Depression. Initially it was interesting to view his decisions and struggles but as the story progresses, his self pity increased along with his refusal to take advantage of chances to improve his situation. I had to force myself to finish reading the book.

The nature of the beast

Time has passed. Armand Gamache has retired with his wife, Reine-Marie, to live in the village of Three Pines. Isabelle Lacoste is now chief inspector while Jean-Guy Beauvoir remains an inspector in the Surete du Quebec.

One afternoon, nine year old Laurent Lepage ran into the bistro telling those present that he had seen a huge gun with a monster on it in the forest. As Lauent was known to have a vivid imagination no-one believed him. The next day Laurent is found in the forest, dead. Armand becomes involved in the investigation to discover the boy's killer. As the investigation continues it is obvious that a force of evil has been present in Three Pines but who, or what, is it?

The Nature of the Beast is the twelfth volume in the Chief Inspector Armand Gamanche series of books by Louise Penny. Once again this book is not just an investigation of a crime but is a study of strengths and weaknesses of individuals as they struggle with present and past events in their lives.

Monday, August 22, 2016


When we were in England last year a number of people on tour with us, because of my interest in history, arecommended that I should read Sarum by Edward Rutherfurd. I thank them for this recommendation.

When we visited Hobart in November for the Seniors Cricket National Championships I purchased a copy of Sarum in Dymocks Bookshop. Since then my copy of Sarum attended most of the local over 60s games that I watched last season, travelled to Launceston and Adelaide when we visited for cricket matches, and more recently has been to Port Douglas. A well travelled book.  Although this book obviously took me a while to finish this was due to a shortage of reading time and had nothing to do with the impact of the novel. In a way the structure of the book allowed me to take a periodic break from the novel as each chapter covers a succint period in English history from the time when the area around Sarum (Salisbury) was first settled until after the Second World War.

Sarum, Rutherfurd's first novel, was published in 1987. The story unfolds through the lives of the members of five families - the Wilsons, the Shockleys, the Masons, the Porters and the Godfreys, although there are variations in some family names over time. Each chapter looks at how events occuring in England at a particular period of time may have impacted upon the lives of ordinary people. However the changes in the use of landscape over time is also an important feature of the book as is the cathedral in Salisbury.

In August 2011 we visited the area of England where the book is set including Stonehenge and Old Sarum and the Cathedral in Salisbury. It was therefore, for me, especially interesting to read this novel. My blog posts (above) noted the remnants of the castle at Old Sarum built in Norman times, the foundations of the first cathedral in the region plus the deep ditches around the site including a note that this had originally been a Neolithic site before being used in the Bronze Age, Iron Age, during Roman occupation and by the Saxons. All of these time periods are covered in the novel.

My paperback edition of Sarum comprises 1344 pages so it is quite a long book however it is one that I would certainly recommend to anyone interested in reading a novel about the history of England.

Monday, July 4, 2016

The Pursuit

At the end of the previous book in this series. The Scam, Nicolas Fox had disappeared. At the beginning of The Pursuit he wakes up in a coffin in Belgium after being kidnapped by members of the Road Runners, a group of diamond thieves led by Dragan Kovic. Dragan wants Nick to help him rob a diamond vault in the Executive Merchants Building in Antwerp. Nick agrees to help while waiting for Kate O'Hare to rescue him. They then discover that the diamond robbery was planned primarily to steal something deadly which was also hidden in the vault. Nick, Kate and their team have limited time to foil a plot which could threaten the lives of thousands of people.

I thought that initially the story-line in The Pursuit by Janet Evanovich and Lee Goldberg was a little slow to develop (perhaps I am becoming used to the plotline in this series) however once the plans for the con took shape the book proved to be another lively romp - a worthy sequel in the series.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

The history of Tasmania

In 1852 John West published The History of Tasmania with copious information respecting the Colonies of New South Wales, Victoria & South Australia etc. This work was republished in 1971 by Angus & Robertson. This edition was edited by A G L Shaw. This detailed work begins as a chronological study of European settlement in Van Diemen's Land followed by sections dealing with Zoology, the Aborigines and Transportation. The 550 pages of text is followed by an extensive section of reference notes, a bibliography and index. A good resource for anyone investigating the early history of Tasmania.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

The Silent Inheritance

This book was recommended to me by one of the patrons in the library where I work. The location for much of this work is the City of Whitehorse and nearby environs so many of the places mentioned are familiar to those living in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne. A major theme of the book, the hunt for a serial kidnapper and murder of young girls, is told from the point of view of the murderer and his latest victim as well as an account of the investigation led by Detective Ross Hunter. The book also tells the story of Sarah and her daughter, Marni, especially the effect of the revelation of long buried family secrets on their relationship. This book is a good addition to Australian modern crime literature.

Closing Hell's Gates: the death of a convict station

In December 1815 James Kelly named a small island in Macquarie Harbour Sarah Island after Sarah Birch, the wife of the sponsor of his exploritory exhibition, Thomas William Birch. For eleven years between 1822 and 1833 Sarah Island, also known at the time as Settlement Island, was used as a convict station. The penal settlement was situated in a remote environment with no nearby habitation. To get to the island the boats had to travel through the narrow entrance to Macquarie Harbour referred to as 'the Gates of Hell'. The island was windswept especially when partly cleared to construct building for the settlement. Hamish Maxwell-Stewart has written a detailed study of the establishement of the penal settlment on Sarah Island and the challenges faced by the convicts unfortunate enought to be sent there.

Another book on this area has been written by Kerry Pink. Through Hell's Gates: a history of Strahan and Macquarie Harbour provides a brief history of the area from the exploration and discovery of Macquarie Harbour in 1815 to more recent times. The first European settlers in the area were there to gather Huon pine growing on the shores of the Harbour. Thomas William Birch and James Kelly had exclusive licence for cutting the timber for twelve months before others timber cutters were allowed into the area. The penal settlement is covered in one section of the book. In later years there was a mineral boom in the area, initially gold mining followed by the mining of copper from the Mt Lyell Mine. A railway from Strahan connnected to the mine. The 1980s saw environmental movements to save the Franklin River. The area is now a tourist area.                                               

Sunday, May 15, 2016


This is the fourth edition of Genealogy written by George G Morgan and published in the How to do everything series.This edition (2014) is divided into three sections - Begin your Family History Odyssey, Expand your Research plus Employ Advanced Strategies and Electronic Tools.

The book is aimed at those commencing their family history research but also contains sections on new tools and approaches, particularly using electronic tools, social media and websites, as well as DNA, to further your family history research. Genealogy is published in the USA but includes a number of references to Australian records (check the index) and other countries, including the UK, Ireland and Canada. A useful basic introduction and resource.

Common people

Subtitled the history of an English family, this book by Alison Light investigates the lives of five generations of her family. She was brought up knowing little or nothing about her ancestors on both sides of the family except for a few family stories about some of the family members. Therefore there was not much else to go on. The book is divided into four sections - two for her father's family and two for her mother's family. Her family are ordinary people often struggling to eke out an existence for themselves and for their family.

Alison Light had little documentation about the lives of family members but she has been able to piece together their stories, taking one piece of of information and then working backwards to investigate where they lived, worked and died. The family primarily consisted of farm labourers, brick layers, seafarers and maids and servants. When she was unable to locate information about a direct ancestor on the family tree she was sometimes able to locate information via brothers and sisters of the person and then work back towards the person being researched. Members of at least one of the families were constantly on the move and she was able to locate records of their new locations. One ancestor was born in a work house and died in an asylum, therefore as well as tracing how and why this happened the author provides detailed information about these establishments and how they operated. There is also information about family members who tried their luck in the sea trading enterprises from Newfoundland to Poole and other destinations. One member of the extended family was sent to Van Diemens Land as a convict while another departed England to live in Western Australia.

The family of Alison Light may have been 'common people' but their stories highlight what life was like for many living in the UK in the eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth century. Much of the information gathered in the book was located investigating parish records and records of organisations (when they still exist) as well as more readily available sources such as the census and birth, death and marriage records. A good book to read by anyone trying to trace the history of their ancestors, particularly in England.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Archer's Melbourne Cup

This is a children's book in the My Australian Story series. Vashti Farrer has written the story of the lead up to and the running of the first Melbourne Cup in 1861. The book is written in diary form by a young strapper, Robby, who works for Mr de Mestre on his property which is largely used for training horses. In the book we learn about racing in the early 1860s and the life of the young boys who look after the horses. Robby spends much of his time looking after Archer and is allowed to accompany Mr de Mestre and the other staff who take three horses to Melbourne by steamer to run in the racing carnival which includes the new race which is to become famous throughout the country.

This is a well written book which can be enjoyed by anyone interested in the history of Australian horse racing in the nineteenth century, not just children. At the back of the book Vashti Farrer provides a summary of the actual events leading up to the horse race and dispels some of the myths which grew up around the story of Archer.

Etienne de Mestre was a grandson of my great (x3) grandmother.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Blockbuster! Fergus Hume & the mystery of the Hansom cab

The mystery of the hansom cab is one of the major works in early crime fiction. Lucy Sussex describes the novel by Fergus Hume as Australia's first literary block buster.

In this book Lucy Sussex writes about what is known of Fergus Hume, the author, particularly in relation to what became a block buster, not just in Australia but also in England and other countries throughout the world. As well as the editions of the book published in English the book has been translated into French, German and Scandinavian languages. First published in Melbourne in 1886, the book has never been out of print.

Fergus Hume, born in Scotland, moved with his family to New Zealand when a child before trying his luck in Melbourne. He had studied to be a lawyer but preferred writing and tried his hand writing pieces for newspapers. He wanted to write drama but there was a preference for overseas productions and he found it difficult to find anyone to seriously look at his plays. He therefore began writing books. The mystery of the hansom cab was first published in Melbourne and then in London where it became a best seller. Unfortunately Hume had sold his rights to the book for a small sum so he did not make a fortune from the book. This was to be his most successful work though he wrote 130 titles. His work was influencial on crime writing in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The book was made into a film in 1911, 1915, 1925 and 1936. The story was adapted for radio, became a play and was shown as a telemovie on the ABC in 2012.

A brief review of The mystery of a hansom cab appeared in this blog in 2011.

Fergusson Wright Ume - ADB
Article in Inside Story 8 May 2012
Review of Block Buster! in Sydney Morning Herald June 27 2015

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Girt: the unauthorised history of Australia

Australians, generally, have a reputation for the ability to see humour in most situations so why not history. Some historians aside who appear to be upset when allusions to Australia's history appear in novel form - such as Kate Grenville's The Secret River, most other readers will enjoy this irreverent look at the history of our country until the end of Macquarie's term as Governor.

David Hunt starts his account with the first Europeans credited with bumping into the coast of Australia, Aborigines in Australia prior to 1788 and then the decision by the British to set up a colony on the other side of the world. The rest of the book deals with the trials and tribulations of the early settlement, the convicts and their leaders until Macquarie left the colony in 1821- nothing is safe. The author sets out to write a satire on Australian history and succeeds.

This book is recommended reading for anyone interested in the history of Australia but it is particularly recommended for those who think that Australian history is boring. The author is currently working on volume two so beware.

A review of Girt in The Australian 5 April 2014

Ireland - Easter Rising 1916

2016 marks the centenary of the Easter Rising in parts of Dublin and other areas in Ireland.

There had been a move for the establishment of an Ireland free from English rule for many years and political negotiations were under way, however these had been hampered and slowed down by the events of World War I. Some groups were not happy with the progress of negotiations so there were also plans for militant action by groups such as the Irish Republican Brotherhood. It had been hoped that there might be some assistance from Germany in this operation but when these plans fell through a section of the IRB decided to still go ahead with the planned insurrection. On 24 April key buildings in Dublin and other locations were seized by small groups of the IRB and members of other nationalist groups.Two of these locations were the General Post Office and the Four Courts. The rebellion lasted for a week and during that time 450 people died and approximately 2000, often civilians, were injured. The rebels had hoped that the general populace would rise and support them but this did not happen. Reprisals from the English were swift and severe which contributed to simmering antagonism against English rule. This all came to a head in the Irish Civil War from 28 June 1922 to 24 May 1923.

A quick look in the library catalogue located a number of books on this period of Irish history. They are just a few of the many publications available on this topic.

General books on the history of Ireland
Understanding Irish History by F J M Maden (Teach yourself series) (2010)
Although this work concentrates on the history of Ireland from 1500, most of the book deals with the political development of the country from the nineteenth century onwards. At the end of each chapter there is a summary of the main points covered in the chapter which is useful for quick reference.
A Brief History of Ireland by Paul F State (2009)
A general history of Ireland is provided in this book with the last five chapters covering the period from the beginning of the nineteenth century onwards. The book is well set out with maps, illustrations and separate biographies of prominent participants in Irish history. Good for an overview of the topic.

The Easter Rising and the Irish Civil War
The War for Ireland 1913-1923 edited by Peter Cottrell (2009)
As the title suggests this book covers events between 1913 and 1923 leading to the establishment of Eire at the end of the Irish Civil War. A detailed, illustrated, approachable account of this period of Irish history. At the front of the book is a detailed chronology. A clear overview of this period of Irish history.

A Nation and Not a Rabble: the Irish Revolution 1913-1923 by Diarmaid Ferriter (2015)
This book also covers the period 1913 to 1923 providing a detailed study of the period.

1916 the Morning After - From the Courts Martial to the Tribunals by Tim Pat Coogan (2015)
A detailed study of the Easter Rising and its aftermath. Although the initial focus is on the Easter Rising the author investigates the issues affecting the history of Ireland over the following one hundred years, including corruption and institutional and clerical abuse.

Cumann Na MBan and the Irish Revolution by Cal McCarthy (2014)
Women were also involved in the struggle for independence and many belonged to the organisation Cumann Na MBan established in 1914 to support the Irish Volunteers. The role of this group in opposing English rule in Ireland, providing arms for Irishmen wanting to fight and later assisting with intelligence, nursing the wounded and providing safe houses is discussed in this book. Members of the group proved that women could also be politically active.

A small selection of websites providing an overview of the topic
Easter Rising - British History
Ireland Easter Rising 1916
Why there was a civil war in Ireland - 1916 Rebellion Walking Tour
Irish Civil War - a brief overview - The Irish Story

Monday, April 4, 2016

No! I don't want to join a book club

Yes, I did choose this book because of its title. I came across it when shelving some books in the library and decided I had to read it.

Marie Sharp is about to turn 60. She has never regularly kept a diary but decides that this is the time to start in order to record the significant events at this stage of her life. It is soon obvious that Marie has definite ideas about aging and has a list of things she does not intend to do including taking an Open University degree, learning Italian or joining a book club.

The diary records events in the lives of Marie and her friends. Much of the work does reflect on growing older, but is is also a celebration of being free, the joys, and fears, experienced when first becoming a grandmother, and of relationships made by older people. The acceptance of the death of a friend is discussed in the second part of the book but there is also the possibility of a new relationship and hope for a happier future.

The book is often quirky and amusing as the account of eighteen months in the life of Marie Sharp and her friends is recorded. Although Marie did not join a book club there are a number of literary allusions throughout the novel. Penguin has also published a Reader's Guide on the novel as an aid for members of book clubs.

This book had mixed reviews in Good Reads however many of the readers who did not enjoy the book were American and may not have appreciated the English humour.

Monday, March 7, 2016


The subtitle of this book by Roger Crowley is How Portugal seized the Indian Ocean and forged the first Global Empire. The story begins in 1415 when a fleet of Portuguese ships captured the Muslim port of Ceuta in Morocco. This was the commencement of the Portuguese expansion along the coast of Africa and eventually finding the sea route to India and the islands beyond.

The focal point of the book is the period 1495 to 1515 encompassing the three voyages of Vasco da Gama as he travelled around the coast of South Africa, part way up the east coast of Africa to Mombassa and then across the sea to India. Others also followed the path in the same way that the voyage of Vasco da Gama was only made possible by the excursions of previous Portuguese sailors and navigators.The prize was access to the lucrative spice trade plus access to other riches from this region.

The arrival of the Portuguese in the region was not always greeted with enthusiasm by the locals, especially as Vasco da Gama could never be considered as a diplomatic ambassador for Portugal. As he and other Portuguese explorers set out to obtain a foot hold for Portugal in the region a number of battles ensued as they furthered their exploration to the Malay Peninsula and even to part of Japan. Portugal now rivalled Spain and shortly afterwards the Dutch and England also began to colonise the region. While sailing west to avoid unfavourable winds in the Atlantic Ocean the Portuguese also arrived at Brazil which later became a Portuguese colony.

This is an interesting account of how in a short time frame Portugal became a world power.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

A bone of fact

David Walsh, creator and owner of MONA (Museum of Old and New Art) in Hobart has written this memoir, A bone of fact. Each chapter contains observations about a snippet from his life which together provide a partial insight into the mind of the author. There are references to his early life, the illness of his brother, Tim, his grade five teacher and the poems he taught the class, his gambling and how this helped him create his fortune, early upbringing in the Catholic church and schools plus the creation of his museums to house his collections as well as to give something back to the community and his views on collecting. Don't expect a chronological narrative. The 368 pages of the book provide short glimpses into an unusual mind which together provide a partial introduction to the life and interests and sense of humour of the author, The book contains many photographs. I did not read this book from cover to cover but rather dipped into it and read isolated chapters. This book can be read as a companion book to The making of MONA.
Car spaces at MONA reserved for the owner and his wife Nov 2015

Saturday, February 6, 2016

The Vandiemonians: from penal settlements to Marvellous Melbourne

Ian Morison has used his family story to record part of the early history of Australia. The story starts with the arrival of the first family members, James and Anne Hortle, who travelled with the Third Fleet arriving at Port Jackson in 1791. James was a member of the New South Wales Corps and he and his growing family decided to settle in the colony. In 1804 James and his family accompanied Lieutenant Colonel Paterson to found the new settlement at Port Dalrymple (Launceston). Around the same time another expedition was being organised from London to create a settlement at Port Phillip. This expedition was led by  Colonel David Collins of the Royal Marines. Richard Pitt applied to travel with the party as a free settler. His wife and eldest son decided to stay in England but Richard and his three younger children left England at the end of April 1803. The ships arrived at Port Phillip in October 1803 where unsuccessful attempts were made to establish a settlement. On 30 January 1804 most of the settlers were relocated to a new settlement on the Derwent River - Hobart Town.

Ian Morison describes what it was like living in the two settlements at the north and south of Van Diemen's Land over the ensuing years. The two families are united when Elizabeth Hortle and Philip Pitt marry and settled at Green Ponds. Attempts were again made to settle Port Phillip in 1835 and many from Van Diemen's Land took up land across Bass Strait. The Gold Rush of the 1850s saw many changes in the new colony. Salome Pitt, daughter of Elizabeth and Philip, married Alexander Morison in November 1851 Alexander was a preacher with the Colonial Missionary Society until becoming a minister of the new Independent Church in Melbourne.

The time frame of the book covers the period up to 1880 and, as well as telling the family story, the book provides good background information on what it was like living in the various settlements. There are citations for notes in each chapter at the back of the book as well as well as a bibliography and index.              

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The Making of MONA

When we were in Hobart in November last year we visited MONA, the Museum of Old and New Art situated on the banks of the Derwent River in a suburb of Hobart.

Adrian Franklin has written The making of MONA in an attempt to explain the vision for the museum of its owner, Davis Walsh, and how the museum was created and promoted. MONA was opened on 21 January 2011 so it is a new feature in Hobart but it has quickly become the major tourist destination when visiting the city.

Visiting MONA is an experience. It is not like any other art gallery in Australia. To start with it is a privately owned gallery designed to store and show the collection(s) of David Walsh. To view the items in the galleries you enter at ground level and then take a lift down to the initial viewing area. There are three levels but the area is designed so that the visitor does not necessarily know where they are in the building. Passages take the visitor in various directions to discover another section of the museum. There is a deliberate policy not to have signage and there is limited use of labels, however each visitor is provided with a device which provides information about items in their present vicinity. Themes of the collection are largely relating to sex and death and some visitors may find some of the exhibits confronting. The general setting of the exhibits is that of Carnival. However it is the arrangement of the items including the juxtaposition of antiquities with modern art that can still intrigue visitors who may not appreciate some of the art works. Visitors can always move on to another section. Standing on the upper balcony viewing Sidney Nolan's gigantic (44.3 metres by 5.6 metres) artwork, Snake, is worth the visit on its own.

The author describes how David Walsh purchased the Moorilla Estate Winery in 1995 and how he developed the property to initially show his collection of antiquities in one of the houses on the property, developed and created a brand for a craft beer (Moo Brew), rebranded the wine from the winery and then, after beginning to collect modern art, decided to build MONA to house the collections of the antiquities and the growing modern art collection. There are also artworks to explore in the area around the main museum building. MONA is more than a museum. The vineyard is a working concern and there are bars and restaurants in the museum and in the grounds. Festivals and entertainments are part of the annual program. Most people travel to MONA aboard the MR-1 Mona Fast Ferry from Hobart to the museum. This is all part of the MONA entertainment experience or package.

The book itself features the black and bright pink colours of the MONA brand. The many illustrations show the concept and building of the property as well as photos of some of the artworks. Having visited the location I found the descriptions of the challenges of the building project particularly interesting and now have a slightly better understanding of MONA and its eccentric owner.For more information on David Walsh, read A bone of fact.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Robert Burns

25 January is the birth date of Robert (Rabbie or Robbie) Burns who was born in Alloway, Scotland, in 1759. He died on 21 July 1796 aged only 37.
Rabbie Burns is a well known and well loved poet not only in Scotland but throughout the world. When we were in Edinburgh in 2014 we found the Robert Burns Memorial. As there was a fence around it plus traffic it was not easy to photograph but it is an impressive monument. However this is only one of many memorials to Robert Burns throughout the world. There is even a memorial in Melbourne in the Treasury Gardens. An article in Wikipedia provides a list of Robert Burns Memorials throughout the world.
Robert Burns: Poems, songs and legacy is a FutureLearn course beginning on 25 January 2016 to coincide with the anniversary of Robert Burn's birth. The three week course has been prepared by the Centre for Robert Burns Studies and will examine three core questions - Who was Robert Burns? What made Robert Burns a poetic genius? And what made Robert Burns a global icon?

In 2011 the BBC made a series of television programs - The World According to Robert Burns. The website prepared in conjunction with those programs provides an outline of the life of Robert Burns as well as a list of his songs and poems. There is also a section on the ceremonies to be performed on Burns Night which is held on or near the anniversary of the birth date of Robert Burns.

Much has been written about the poet over the years and I am sure that we will be introduced to many of these works during the course. One title that I found in the local library was:
Robert Burns: the patriot bard by Patrick Scott Hogg (2008). The book purports to be an examination of the poet within the context of his times as the author examines a selection of Burn's poetry within the biography of his life.

The life of Robert Burns has also been recorded in fiction. James Barke has written five volumes of historical fiction (series title: Immortal Memory) based on the life of Robert Burns. The first volume, The wind that shakes the barley, was published in 1946 and this was followed by The song in the green thorn tree (1947). Wonder of all the gay world was the third volume, followed by Crest on the broken wave (1953) and The well of the silent harp (1954). I found copies of the first two volumes in the large print section of a local library. The author has set out to write a fictional story based on events in the life of Robert Burns. I am sure that the author set out to capture the essence of the life of Robert Burns in these books but I do not like this style of writing, especially when much of the story is based on supposed conversation between the characters , however the books do provide an outline of the life of Robert Burns. I suspect that the books would have been more readable, in my opinion, if they had been heavily edited and condensed into one or two volumes. A paper about three of the volumes was presented at a Calgary Burns Club meeting in October 2010. I also found online an article in the Glasgow Herald (21 January 1984) about James Barke and his books on Robert Burns.

A list of many of the poems and songs by Robert Burns can be found in a section of the BBC website.
Youtube and Spotify.com also have performances of his songs.

Websites include:
Burns Scotland
Robert Burns World Federation 
Editing Robert Burns for the 21st Century
Burns Encyclopedia

Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Eagle of the Ninth

I first discovered books by Rosemary Sutcliff when I worked as a children's librarian in the 1960s and remember enjoying her books. Although the books were written for older primary / lower secondary age readers they can be enjoyed by adults too. Rosemary Sutcliff obviously enjoyed history, particularly Roman history, and this is the setting for her novels. Eagle of the Ninth is the first of three of her books about Roman Britain, the other two being The Lantern Bearers and The Sword at Sunset. In the FutureLearn course that I did last year about Hadrian's Wall, The Eagle of the Ninth was often mentioned by participants in forum discussions. I therefore decided to read the book again.

Marcus Aquila was appointed as Centurion at a fort on Hadrian's Wall. He is a long way from Rome but he is following a family tradition as his father had been with the Ninth Legion that mysteriously disappeared when Marcus was a young boy. Marcus quickly settled into life on the Wall until  the fort was attacked by local tribes and Marcus was severely injured. No longer able to remain in the army he initially stayed with his uncle at Calleva. When he eventually is able to walk again he set off with Esca, a former slave, to travel north to the other side of Hadrian's Wall in the attempt to discover the fate of the Ninth Legion and to locate the Eagle, the Legion's symbol.

Marcus's quest is an exciting story but what I appreciated was the description of life in Roman Britain encouraging the reader, for a short while, to experience what the characters in the novel are experiencing. Rosemary Sutcliff also examines the relationship between Marcus and Esca who is a Briton of the Brigantes tribe. Esca had been Marcus' slave but before they set out on the quest he is freed and once the two travel past the Wall it is Esca, with his knowledge of the area and the people, who often makes decisions.

Eagle of the Ninth was published in 1954 but has stood the test of time. Charlotte Higgins wrote a long article about the book in The Guardian in 2011, about the same time that a film, The Eagle, based on the book was released. 

Postscript: I have just watched the DVD of the film, The Eagle, made some years ago and supposedly based on Rosemary Sutcliff's book. There was plenty of action but not a lot of resemblance to the story in the novel - still I guess you expect that in films of books.

London rain

The setting for this novel is the coronation of King George VI in London on 12 May 1937. There is much excitement in the city as people plan how they will observe this momentous day. Red, white and blue decorations adorn the city streets and buildings. People line the streets to watch the rehearsal of the royal street procession. Josephine Tey is in London as she has tickets to watch the actual parade with friends. At the same time the BBC has decided to produce her stage play, Queen of Scots, as a radio drama so she attends the first rehearsal to see how how play has been adapted. The BBC occupies an impressive new building but the politics of the nation's broadcaster are about to be revealed when one of its best known broadcasters is murdered after commentating on the parade. Josephine's friend, Archie Penrose, who is involved in ensuring that security arrangements, including crowd control, run smoothly  is called in to investigate the murder.

This is a crime novel with many twists and turns in the plot to keep the reader guessing. It is also a story of several relationships. The portrayal of the coronation and its affects on the population of London plus description of the early days of radio broadcasting provides an impressive backdrop for this novel of 1930s London.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

The Scam

This is the fourth title in the Fox and O'Hare Mystery series, a collaboration between Janet Evanovich and Lee Goldberg. Nicolas Fox is a con man and thief who for many years was pursued by FBI Agent, Kate O'Hare. Now (most of the time) Nick and Kate are working together undercover to bring about the arrest of criminals who cannot be caught by normal operational means.

Their target in this book is casino owner, Evan Trace, who is is using his casinos for money-laundering. In order to successfully carry out the scam Nick and Kate travel between Las Vegas, Hawaii and Macau. The plot is action driven and at times Kate and Nick need to call upon the expertise of a team of eccentric but highly competent accomplices to successfully carry out their mission. From the ending of the book this will not be the last one in this series. I look forward to the next installment.

Lord of the Wings

Donna Andrews continues her series of books with bird themed titles with Lord of the Wings, the nineteenth in the Meg Langslow Mystery series. This is another tale of the lives of the people of Caerphilly who this time have decided to hold a week long Halloween Festival. For once the town has hired a festival organiser to run the activities while Meg is in charge of the Visitor Relations and Police Liaison Patrol, known to the locals as the Goblin Patrol. However as the festival begins more responsibility seems to be thrown Meg's way.

Strange events begin to occur in the town and it is soon disclosed that a scavenger hunt is being undertaken by some of the visitors. Then a body is found in the woods. As well as the need to discover the murderer there are a number of other matters to resolve to ensure the safety of the Festival visitors as well as the success of the Festival. As usual Meg's family rally around to to help, often in their own unique way. An enjoyable light summer read.

Tricky twenty-two

As the title suggests, this is the twenty-second title in the Stephanie Plum series of books written by Janet Evanovich. Although these books tend to follow a formula it is a formula that provides an entertaining read.

As usual there is an assortment of strange characters, cars are destroyed, Grandma Mazur continues to visit viewings at the funeral parlour, Stephanie's mother despairs of her daughter ever finding a decent job and a good partner while a large number of doughnuts are consumed. Stephanie finds herself in dangerous situations but fortunately, usually, has the back up from Ranger and Joe Morelli. In this book, however, her relationship with Joe appears to be at an end as he struggles with undisclosed problems and this forces Stephanie to also consider her future.

As a bounty hunter her job continues to introduce Stephanie to weird individuals and situations. The main plot-line is the search for Ken Globovic, a member of a fraternity at Kiltman College, who was accused of attacking the college dean of student. When Goltman goes into hiding, his being protected by fellow students make it more of a challenge to find him. However this is not the only problem as Doug Linken, who is associated with the college, is killed when Ranger is employed to protect Linken and his wife. There are many twists and turns as well as laughs as the story evolves.

Monday, January 11, 2016

A Dance with Jane Austen

This book is a gem. Susannah Fullerton has written A dance with Jane Austen; how a novelist and her characters went to the Ball.
Anyone who has read a Jane Austen novel will know how the characters enjoyed going to a ball. Apparently this enjoyment was shared by the Jane Austen and in this book Susannah Fullerton uses excerpts from Jane Austen's correspondence as well as examples from her books to explore customs relating to dance in Regency England.

Topics include chapters on learning to dance, choosing appropriate clothes for the occasion, means of transport to and from balls, Assembly balls, private balls, the etiquette of the ballroom, dancing and music, supper, conversation and courtship and men in the ballroom. There is also a section on how dance is used in Jane Austen films.

This well illustrated book is a useful companion to the works of Jane Austen and for those wanting to know more about the Regency period.