Hughes, Bettany (2017) Istanbul: A Tale of Three Cities. Weidenfeld & Nicolson. Istanbul, the metropolis nestled on the banks of the Bosphorus, is the gateway between east and west. Hughes’ epic is a biography of the city’s three incarnations – Byzantium, Constantinople and Istanbul, taking us from prehistory to the modern day, and exploring the city’s legends, magic and mystic, in a story that covers 10,000 years. The city served as the capital of the Roman, Byzantine, Latin and Ottoman Empires, but it is the people, culture and historical geopolitics that binds the narrative. Drawing on recent archaeological discoveries this tome is rich, scholarly and meticulously researched. Rating: 9/10.
Grisham, John (2017) Camino Island. Hodder & Stoughton. The heist of five original F. Scott Fitzgerald manuscripts, stolen from a secure vault at Princeton University, is the foundation of this thriller. On picturesque Camino Island debt-ridden struggling writer Mercer Mann is recruited to get close to an infamous local bookseller, and rare books specialist, who is suspected of harbouring the priceless manuscripts. Her family ties to the island and her literary aspirations, make her attractive bait. The chase is on to recover the priceless manuscripts. A lawyerless summer yarn. Rating: 8/10.
Schmitz, Rob (2016) Street of Eternal Happiness: Big City Dreams along a Shanghai Road. Crown. Schmitz, a foreign correspondent for US National Public Radio, lives off Changle Lu (loosely translated as Street of Eternal Happiness) in the Xuhai District (former French Concession) in Shanghai. Changle Lu, a two-mile thoroughfare lined with shops and restaurants with a few remaining residential alleyways, is a mine of narrative on the human impact of Shanghai’s rapid development. Schmitz has immersed himself in his neighbourhood forging close relationships with several of its residents. This is a portrait of the stories and aspirations of the people he has befriended, people who have become largely disillusioned by dislocation and the Chinese Dream. Four integrated, insightful and intimate profiles of contemporary China, with a Chinese voice. Highly recommended. Rating: 9/10.
Taplin, Jonathan (2017) Move Fast and Break Things: How Facebook, Google, and Amazon cornered culture and undermined democracy. Little Brown. Libertarian entrepreneurs have via their “disruptive innovations” usurped regulation and intellectual property to dominate the means by which content is distributed on the net, while creating very little of it themselves. Taplin explains that in seeking to transform the world the free-market libertarianism of Google, Facebook and Amazon is undermining democratic institutions, accelerating the rise of oligarchy, and destroying both cultural and economic opportunities for millions of people. He ardently espouses that it is time to stop breaking things and start thinking about the new world we are creating. A timely wakeup call to action. Rating: 9/10.
Hager, Mandy (2017) Heloise. Penguin. The love affair between Heloise and Abelard scandalised 12th century society at a time when celibacy among the clergy was being rigorously imposed. Peter Abelard was celebrated as a great philosopher and theologian and Heloise was among the most lauded of his students. Heloise was a young woman with an exceptional mind, longing to pursue learning rather than marriage or life as a cloistered nun, when she meets and is compromised by the ambitious Abelard. Detailed and meticulously researched this novel offers a plausible story based on the pair’s own writings. All your empathy is with Heloise as she battles a hostile world and lover. Length may deter. Rating: 8.5/10.
Carter, Miranda (2010) The Three Emperors: Three Cousins, Three Empires and the Road to World War One. Penguin. Miranda Carter’s colourful talk at the 2017 Auckland Writers Festival, on the cousins that ruled Europe in the lead-up to WWII encouraged me to read this study of dysfunction, power and personality. Cousins, George V, Kaiser Wilhelm II, and Tsar Nicholas were flawed; possessing average intelligence they were unprepared for their jobs, unfortunately they ruled Europe’s three most powerful states holding the fate of Europe in their hands. Carter’s chronicle of linked biographies extends from Queen Victoria’s final decades to the 1930s. Engaging historical storytelling. Rating: 9/10.
Shreve, Anita (2017) The Stars are Fire. Knopf. In 1947 fires break out along the Maine coast, racing out of control destroying village after village. Housewife Grace Holland, pregnant with two toddlers, is alone and to survive she huddles with her family in the sea. Homeless and penniless she begins to rebuild her life, but just when she appears to be gaining independence, events conspire to test her true courage. Formulaic crowd-pleaser. Rating: 7.5/10.