Thursday, June 29, 2017


Solzhenitsyn's devastating picture of one day in the life of a prisoner in a remote Siberian labour camp has been hailed by the world's critics as an undisputed masterpiece.  This moving novel is a powerful expose of the corrupt conditions that Solzhenitsyn suffered in a concentration camp under Stalin and is a scathing indictment of Soviet bureaucracy.

I first read this many years ago and the idea of a crust of bread being the height of luxury stayed with me and was just as moving with this second reading.

These men are forced out to work in -27 degrees, their wildest fantasy is that the temperature will drop to -41 degrees meaning they don't have to go to work.

They have to build in these temperatures but have great difficulty because the mortar often freezes before it can be laid .

An incredible read, its very short, only 156 pages but it should be read by all generations.

The " great Soviet experiment" to be mocked for eternity

Monday, June 26, 2017


He hoaxed, humbugged, dazzled and delighted the whole world with his magnificent ballyhoo of the unique and the wonderful!

Inventor of modern high pressure advertising, the man who discovered General Ton Thumb, the twenty-five inch man, P. T Barnum founded the famous circus that bore his name, made two fortunes and died worth a million pounds.

And as he died in  1891 so, a million pounds was a million pounds not a one bedroom apartment.

If there was ever a man who encapsulates the American drive for success it was Barnum.  He had vision, he had a mainline into the taste of the people and he had an enormous work ethic.

His first real success was the American Museum, then General Tom Thumb, then Chang and Eng , the Siamese twins then his big punt and huge earner the Swedish singer Jenny Lind.  This run of success lead to his first fortune.  Then he lost it. But he went at it again made another fortune and then finally the circus.

This book debunks the well known expression attributed to him  -"There's a sucker born every minute"- Wallace states that this slang "sucker" was not in use at the time Barnum was meant to have used it.  What he did say was - "the American people love to be hoaxed".

Barnum was friends with royalty, presidents and the wealthy.  Reading this he was generally fair to his performers and realized if people aren't compensated well, they won';t work well.

He was a very interesting man.  Wallace's writing leaves a bit to be desired, I found it full of fact but a dull read.

Sunday, June 25, 2017


Agatha Troy, world famous painter, is inveigled into accepting a commission to paint the 70 - year- old Sir Henry Acred, the Grand Old Man of the stage.  But just as she has completed her portrait, the old actor dies.

The dramatic circumstances of his death are such the Scotland Yard is called in- in the person of Troy's long absent husband, Chief-Inspector Roderick Alleyn.

This is an excellent story involving an exceptionally dysfunctional family.  The story of the family and Troy's involvement with them while completing her commission is more entertaining than the solving of the mystery.

As always Marsh is outstanding.

Monday, June 19, 2017

GONEVILLE - Nick Bollinger

This is a 'memoir' not a history and for me it is a aide memoire.  The book is set mostly in the 1970's telling of Bollinger's growing up in Wellington, joining a band and travelling the country insistently for meals and love, it wasn't for wealth.

The aide memoire for me is I moved to Wellington in 1977 as a 17 year old and this brings back many many memories of how raw and  fun Wellington was for a young chap from Timaru.

As well an outline of Nick Bollinger's life it is part social history of New Zealand and a history of New Zealand bands at the time.  If you tried to explain today  to a 25 year old how in the late 70's early 80's you could not go to the bar in a nightclub and get a drink, it was waitress service only, they would think you're mad. Or just ignore you as really really tedious but it was true.

The band he traveled with for two years "Rough Justice' rubbed shoulders with all the muso's travelling the brewery circuit and there are delightful little tidbits , Ricky Ball's band history before Hello Sailor for example. There are great little pieces like this that are news to me.

Rough Justice was a Rick Bryant Band.  I never saw them I don't think but I saw the Jive Bombers lots and I can say Rick Bryant has never taken anything of himself home, he leaves it all for the audience.

There are many Auckland memories for me as well  as I move there as a 19 year old in late 1979. There is a lot of detail regarding the un-licenced clubs that tried to do the right thing for music but could not survive without a liquor licence which was impossible to obtain.  This was a real shame and was the brewery lobby that prevented these entrepreneurs from making a dollar.

I spent hundreds of hours at the Gluepot and all the city pubs that had music.  I had the best nicest piss taking of me in Queen Street by the Topp Twins when I was a young Police Constable.  This book brought all these memories back and I can thank Nick Bollinger for this.

Last but not least Bollinger saw 'Little Feat' play at the Wellington Town Hall, bastard, there will not be many New Zealanders who can say they have seen that outfit.

Sunday, June 18, 2017


Twenty years after Notes From A Small Island was published it was suggested by Bill Bryson's publisher that a follow up be written.  I am very glad that it has been.  I love Bryson's easy rambling style, full of humour and information that you won't find probably anywhere else.

In this book he re-visits some places from his original book but this mostly contains places that he hasn't written about before.

He starts in Bognor Regis and ends at Cape Wrath.  A line is drawn between these two locations and is referred to as the Bryson line.  He works his trip east and west of this  entirely self created geometrical divide.

Bill Bryson is the teacher I never had, full of information with a sense of humour that never stops, read and enjoy.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

CLOUDS OF WITNESS - Dorothy L. Sayers

The victim was engaged to marry Lady Mary Wimsey, Lord Peter's sister.  The man accused of murdering him is the Duke of Denver, Lord Peters brother.  And his trial - in the House of Lords- is about to begin.  The the Duke refuses to help his defence in anyway.

Published in 1926 this story involves the entire Wimsey clan.  This is one of the first stories by Sayers and she introduces characters that remain until her last Wimsey book.

When it comes to 'golden age' detective writing Sayers is on a totally different level than most and this was at a time when there are many superb authors writing the genre.

This as normal has great language, the usual strong and interesting female leads and Wimsey doesn't go 'full Bertie Wooster " too often.

This is a very good multi-layered story; you can not go wrong reading anything Dorothy Sayers has ever written.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

WHY SHOOT A BUTLER? - Georgette Heyer

It is a complete mystery why anyone would choose to murder the trusted old butler of Norton Manor. Barrister turned amateur detective, Frank Amberly, has reason to believe the shooting involves the nervy young lady discovered at the scene of the crime, a snooping gentleman in the halls of Greythorne and then a second dead body.

Published in 1933 this is a run of the mill whodunnit and the first I've read by Ms Heyer, who was better known at the time for her historical novels.

The motive isn't hard to figure out and the the killer isn't either, its just a wait to see what some part minor characters play in the whole thing.  The detective Amberly isn't particularly likable either being a bit of a smart arse without any humour.

Not a great tale but the dialogue was sharp enough to warrant reading more of Heyers crime books.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

THE WAR BEHIND THE WIRE - John Lewis-Stempel

On capture, British officers and men were routinely told by the Germans: ' For you the war is over'. Nothing could be further from the truth.  British prisoners of war merely exchanged one barbed-wire battleground for another.....

It was a war with heart breaking consequences; more than 12,000 PoWs died, many of them murdered, to be buried in shallow unmarked graves.

This books is based on contemporary journals and memoirs of the prisoners that survived and were eventually returned to Britain.

The book is broken down in , "being captured", "being a prisoner", 'the camp world", surviving in the camps", "escaping" and "returning home".  No matter what chapter you read, the suffering is heart breaking.  Large parts of the book are direct quotes taken from diaries etc, stories told without exaggeration, just facts.  Individual Germans showed kindness and some humanity but the regime was almost inhumanly cruel until it was apparent that the war was lost and then back tracking became the norm.

Conditions varied from camp to camp, but in general British PoWs were made to suffer and who without the Red Cross and private care packages many more would have starved to death. Prisoners were put to work in salt mine, coal mines and multi digit sub-zero temperatures, much of which was denied by the German authorities.

Reading how the PoWs were treated is sickening as a whole but as a document it is enlightening.  I've read that the terms of the Versailles Treaty sowed the seeds for the Second World War but this does not explain  the cruelty of the German nation as a whole toward opposing combatants in their custody during the Great War.

Monday, June 5, 2017

TRAIN - Tom Zoellner

Tom Zoellner travels the globe to tell the story of the innovation and sociological impact of the railway technology that transformed the world- anbd could well change it again.  From the frigid trans-Siberian railroad to the antiquated Indian railways to the Japanese- style bullet trains.

This is more a series of essays that have then been bound into a book.  It starts strongly with a rail journey from the north of Scotland to Lands End with interesting history on development of the steam engine and observations of the passing Scottish and English countrysides.

The second is essay is about the Indian rail system, a system with truly staggering numbers- passengers carried, freight carried, number of schedules trains, staff employed and on and on.  A fact I found that most fascinating is - the steel rails in India, particularly those nearest to urban stations, must be frequently replaced because poor people have the habit of defecating on them..... The uric acid in human feces gradually eats through the steel fasteners... that hold the rails onto their ties.

The third chapter is New York to Los Angels and runs nearly a third of the book.  The Russian section is disappointing, the author gets bitten by a rabid dog and has to abandon the trip half way through it.

There are chapters that follow on China into Tibet, South America and the final chapter supposedly about the AVE rapid trains in Spain but it segues off into Americas plan for rapid rail.

Potentially this could have been much better than its turned out.  There is a standalone book on the Indian rail system, instead we get these essays that have a rushed feeling about them.  There is nothing wrong with the writing or facts but it feels like a series of New Yorker pieces.

As mentioned, I was disappointed the Russian journey was shortened, I was looking forward to comparing it to Eric Newby's The Big Red Train Ride - but I'm assuming the author didn't get bitten deliberately just to annoy me.

This makes the perfect bathroom book, you can dip into into without having to retain any thread.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

SWEET DANGER - Margery Allingham

Driving home from Italy, Guffy Randall passed by the Hotel Beauregard at Mentone, where ... he saw a small man, armed with pistol, climbing out of a ground floor window.  Guffy, who knew the manager well, stopped to tell him about the incident, and learnt that several other suspicious characters were also in the hotel.  After inquiries these turned out to be Albert Campion and two friends engaged in in a fantastic and fateful pursuit of  a European Crown.

What transpires is a very good espionage tale set in the British countryside . The search for a European Crown is actually British Intelligence Services attempting to locate a deed to a European state that would give them access to a port and oil (sounds familiar).

This an adventure in the style of Buchan, but with lots of humour. Allingham writes great characters; my favourite is Campions man servant Magersfontein Lugg, known simply as Lugg retired burglar, and as usual she has good strong female characters with sundry weird ones thrown into the mix.

Published in 1933 this is great fun