Monday, June 29, 2015

Groove Book Report: The Bones of You - Debbie Howells - MacMillan

Rosie was beautiful, kind and gentle. She came from a loving family and she had her whole life ahead of her. Who could possibly want to harm her? And why?

Pan Macmillan has won a six-figure auction for psychological thriller The Bones of You by Debbie Howells.  Trisha Jackson at Pan Mac signed UK and Commonwealth rights in the book and a follow up from Juliet Mushens at the Agency Group.  It was the book, which Mushens took from the agency's slush pile, is described as 'Lovely Bones' meets 'Sister'.  The book opens with the murder of an 18-year-old lass, Rosie, living in the most idyllic village in Sussex.  The impact is devastating, especially one young mother, Kate, who is sure there is more to the death than meets the eye.  This is not an accident, she surmises.  The reader is left to figure out who would murder this young girl and why.  The story was artfully told from alternating points of view and time frames. tackles some dark undercurrents in family life in a very clever way, don't expect reveals and twists to hit you in the face, it's more like they creep up upon you until you gasp with shock as truth is revealed.  This is a very steady paced book with an intricate plot that is written with great care. 

The main characters are Rosie herself, and her parents Neale and Jo. Neale is a world renowned TV reporter and we are told millions of women around the world are in love with him. I have to say that I didn’t buy that at all, to me he just comes across as a smarmy git. He is the sort of man who my husband would walk to the other end of the bar in the village pub, to get away from.

This was a book that caused a frenzy of activity, akin to a JK Rowland release.  The novel sold in the Netherlands within 24 hours of submission, and was pre-empted in Brazil, selling six figures at a German auction.  It quite simply has all the ingredients for a bestseller: a strong hook, a compelling narrative and intriguing characters.

Howells has previously self-published novels, but 'The Bones of You' is her first attempt at a thriller. No bad for a woman, who's day job is a florist and chic-lit writer.  

Groove Book Report: Ardennes 1944: Hitler's Last Gamble - Anthony Beevor, Penguin Random House

Could this be the best critique of Hitler's last stand crackpot scheme to defend the Empire of the Third Reich?

The events leading up to Victory in Europe, May 1945, is one that's so clearly well known that it's t forget that – at the time – most Europeans were most people expected the war to finish much sooner than it really did. the Third Reich looked defeated by mid-1944 and in the east, the Russians were steamrolling their way to Baltics, Poland and Hungary at breakneck pace. Over in the west, the American and British armies lost no time clearing France and Belgium within only a few months of their Normandy landing.  Over by Xmas it was proposed.  Yeah.  Nah!

In-fighting and a certain level of incompetent leadership bubbled through the Allies, slowing the advance.  Hitler's army was decimated and hopelessly outnumbered but exceptionally stubborn, they were not giving in.  The Allies' insistence on unconditional surrender and the US bravado claiming Germany would become an agrarian wasteland further fueled Nazi propagandists.  It encouraged the most despicable patriotism, with the enlistment of an entire underage army of boys to defend the Fatherland.  they were dragged away from their mother's bosom to 'man' anti-tank guns and take up arms against the invaders.  Some of the most atrocious acts of cowardly genocide against Jews and other 'detainees' in the camps occurred in this time, partially in pure retaliation.

What might have happened, had Hitler decided to pour his remaining forces into the defense of the 'rump' of Germany? We'll never know.   Because he was now playing a final card: to launch an offensive into the Ardennes by chucking absolutely everything into a quick assault through the forest of Southern Belgium, and a grab-back of Antwerp and the division of the Allies.  It should force the English into a second Dunkirk style retreat. There was hope that the known backbiting between Bradley and Montgomery et al would morph into something bigger and Germany to claw back victory from the jaws of defeat.  Hitler's hero, Frederick the Great, after all had extracted Prussia from the threat of annihilation in the Seven Years War, in exactly the same way.  He was convinced it could work for him, too.

Yeah.  Nah.  Again.  Really?  Nobody outside the bunker believed that this nutty scheme would work.  Germany's half-starved army of old men and untrained boys and conscripts were in no position to argue and no position to win.  Duly, they were bogged down near Dinant, miles from Antwerp.  Never a real threat. Still Allies were given a mighty fright! Beevor notes that it was odd that they had left themselves so unprotected in the Ardennes, given that the Prussian army in 1870 and the German army in 1914 and 1940 had invaded France from precisely this point.

Beevor's account is just wonderful - "as good on the rows behind the front lines as he is on the battles themselves", wrote the Guardian and I'll have to agree.  He starts with the grating friction between those two preening, jealous generals, Generals Montgomery and Omar Bradley, the USA's commander of Allied forces to the South.  He's especially damaging of  Monty making him out a  drama queen with a loose mouth, and a thorn in the side of the equally bombastic  Churchill a good deal of trouble. Montgomery's floundering attempts to assert Britain's efforts clearly 'p'ed off the Yanks.  Beevor maintains the legacy with the American's coldness towards Britain when the Suez crisis came about ten years later.

Ten days, this was an offensive resulted in many unnecessary deaths, but otherwise achieved nothing. By Christmas Day 1945, the great gamble was over. The only real result, Beevor notes, was to completely drain Germany's Eastern front of all defenses and expose it to the devastation of the the Red Army's steamroller. The sole beneficiary of Hitler's last gamble was Stalin, who was able to push further and faster into Eastern Europe and advance the process of communist take over that set up the Cold War for ever forth with.  This at once a 'Boy's Own" account of thrilling and daring, a wargamer's bible, for arguments and dice role patriotism and a god accessible read for those like myself, who have a passing history in military history.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

When to Rob a Bank - The Freakopedia - Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner

... and 131 More Warped Suggestions and Well-Intended Rants from the Freakonomics Guys. 
As co-authors Levitt and Dubner explain at the start of this brilliant collection, that, a decade ago, and in concurrency with their publication of the ground breaking Freakonomics, they decided to start a blog with the same name.   It was a baby that grew and demanded feeding, and was nourished by new and wacky ideas.  A source of experimental conversations.  Wisdom, they argue, is on line like water.  Free, when you take it for granted and costly when you want it and pay to owning it.  Still it live, this web site.  This blog of Freakery.  And eight thousand posts later, they're still writing, even though the blog generates no income and probably cannibalizes sales from their books. For the site's anniversary, they've finally had arms twisted and released a collected works The result is a hearty, enthusiastic, but random collection of posts, arranged around topics as varied as the benefits of terrorism, restoration of the draft (stupid concept), getting rid of pennies, that ogre 'obesity',  Internet poker, steroid use in the Tour de France (a major target that one), the pathetic D.C. gun ban efforts, and other things all from a distorted but quite plausible economic stand point.  i.e if there's money in it, then it could fly.  There's an assurance of an entertaining read for fans and newbies. It seems likely to prove the authors right in their gamble that even content available for free can be a viable product, especially with such a large, devoted fan base. Oddly when checking their web site, the book doesn't feature high in the promo lists.  Still it's a marvel, and that's the long and short of it. 

Steven D. Levitt is an economist. Stephen J. Dubner is a writer. In 2005, they co-authored Freakonomics, a book about cheating teachers, bizarre baby names, and crack-selling mama’s boys. They figured it would sell about 80 copies. Instead, it has sold 5.5 million, in roughly 40 languages. In 2009, they followed up with SuperFreakonomics, with stories about drunk walking, the economics of prostitution, and how to stop global warming. (To date, SuperFreakonomics has sold 1.5 million copies.) In 2014, Dubner and Levitt published Think Like a Freak: The Authors of Freakonomics Offer to Retrain Your Brain, which made its debut at No. 2 on the New York Times best-seller list. Their latest book, to be published in May 2015, is When to Rob a Bank: …And 131 More Warped Suggestions and Well-Intended Rants. It is a compilation of “greatest hits” from 10 years of blogging at Along the way, a lot of other stuff has happened too. An award-winning blog. A movie. Lectures. And a No. 1-ranked podcast, with more than 5 million monthly downloads. This is the place where all that stuff continues to happen. Welcome to

Landfall 229

‘This is the little magazine that always produces great issues packed with fine writing. The writing is highly readable, sometimes controversial, but never dull.’ – Canvas, Weekend Herald, 31 January 2009

I have to take issue.  Not with writers or with the content of this icon of kiwi literature, for the content page for this, the 229th edition of Otago  University's wonderful dedication  to Aotearoa's arts, literature and correspondence.  This particular edition addresses the winner of the Caselberg Trust International Poetry Prize: Sue Wootton.  No.  I take issue with the cover.  But I'll get to that later.  Let's focus on the positive.  There's a challenging and reflective piece on ANZAC Day in the guise of a fantasia showcasing iconic cultural figures from the last century.  John Mulgan, Winston Churchill, 'Blue Smoke'.  Playwright Dean Parker has created a sort of 'radio play' for the page about the feeling of being and AZAC.  But, it's like war - glorious, epic, confusing but pointless.  Journo Adam Dudding takes a personal slant on the death of his father Robin, also a journalist (and the editor of the infamous Islands).  There's Elizabeth Smithers making a wry, small town affair of the heart, 1950's style.  It's deliciously retro, like the vinyl couch in your grandparents rumpus room.    There's opener Sandra Arnold, 2014 recipient of the Serisin Landfall Residency, who, almost in gloat writes of her time in the idyllic Waterfall Bay.  "I wake to a bird piping in the garden.  The hill and water are silver in the pre-dawn light.  I set up a writing room upstairs with a view of bush and sea.  Through the open window I can birds, water, and the occasional boat in the jetty, fish jump for insects and weka call to each other in the bush"  I'm dead jealous.  Lucky buggers.  Shouldn't have read this on the train in to my office day job!

Speaking of residencies, Randell Cottage 2014 homebody Tina Makeriti must have found time in her busy schedule to whip up an essay that challenges the individual and personal identity in our contemporary lands.   For someone with deep Maori sensitivities, the idea of even the individual that can be separated from one's history, whakapapa, land is in a way, an oddity.  We are, and always will be owned by where we are - in time, space and place.  Or are we?  She documents travelling to the Frankfurt Book Fair, with taonga, strange and rare to Europeans, who still gawp like their ancestors did when they made landfall here, over 170 years ago.  It's about looking at things from a differing perspective, another angle.  "Sometimes we have to excavate the good from the things we have always viewed as bad.  New Randell resident, Owen Marshall wades in with more profound poetry on a less than perfect book launch and Emma Neale laughs her way through the agony of how to write a short story.  In my head that Monty Python skit of Hardy in a stadium writing his open sentence, treated like the World Cup final with cheering fans, chanting and beer on tap plays in my head.  But my favourite is Nick Ashcroft
s word play of a UK multicultural supermarket - The Osney Snag -  it's like an out-take from Trainspotting - I had absolutely no idea what was going on, but loved it anyway.  

And there's plenty more.  This is a great dip into the deep literary pool. 

But none of this explains my issue with the publishers.  I loved all this wonderful creative writing.  What I take issue with is the cover.  "As calligraphic as 1940's De Kooning, gruesome as Bosch, crudely cartoonish as Guston, a Rabelaistian carnival of excess complete with distorting mirrors..." wrote Andrew Paul Wood in the catalogue of Rob McCleod's 'Untitled', which adorns the cover of Landfall 229.  "a Freudian phallus nose there, a creature in tartan (an allusion to the artist's Scottish origins) with dugs interchangeable with her flesh-pink Mickey Mouse ears may be Miley Cyrus at the 2003 VMA awards, twerking  away among the stylised comic strip shorthand of swooshes...."  What a load of tosh!  Sometimes art is pretentious nonsense.  I take issue with the publishers selecting such immature, amateur rubbish.  Perhaps there's some sense of elitism, but it really belittles this fine publication and it ties it to the 1980's to the dusty origins when, really there needs to be new growth and an embracement of the future.  I judge a book by its cover, especially in the age of the Kindle.  I want the perfect package.  And it almost is.  Just loose the awful artwork and embrace something that doesn't look like what my kids drew, eh?