Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Review: Dear Dory by Tom Kreffer

Synopsis: Imagine discovering you're about to become a parent, even though doctors told you the chances of making a baby were close to zero.

Now, a soon-to-be first-time father is charting a course through the perilous and choppy waters of living with a pregnant woman. He's dodging hormonal right hooks, evading emotional explosions, saying all the wrong things (like 'Are you okay?') and trying to figure out how the hell you install a car seat.

Written as a journal to his unborn child, Dear Dory is the unfiltered, irreverently funny, honest and heartfelt account of one man's journey to fatherhood as he contemplates his new identity as a Daddy and prepares for the responsibility of a lifetime.

WARNING: This book contains a truckload of profanity. 

I will go out on a limb and say that this is not typical of the type of book I would normally pick up - I have a huge penchant for history and its related memoir genre. However, this book, offered by the author, Tom Kreffer, was a blast!

It is one man's documenting of his personal perspective of the events from the discovery to the leading up to that all important delivery date and his own impending fatherhood. It is written by a man for his child -- it covers the highs and lows of living with a pregnant woman - and many men will find a kinship with Tom in this - how he got away with much contained therein with his manhood still intact is a miracle!.

The diary style entries are humourous, satirical, reflective, refreshing, and heartfelt. Tom recounts his fear, joys, relief as both he and his wife travel the much worn path of scans, appointments, false alarms, "to tell or not to tell" family and friends, baby expos, mood swings (and the appearance of what Tom refers to as "Miss Heidi"). And as Tom reflects ... "... this pregnancy stuff is fucking nuts! .."

Just keep swimming, Dory! How I loved that name! I do hope Tom continues to use it as a nickname for the young squib when they arrive!

This is a must read for every prospective parent - and those already with children will no doubt be sagely nodding their heads amid bursts of laughter and self-recognition!

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Review: From My Balcony To Yours by Nino Gugunishvili

Synopsis: Who would have thought that Global Pandemic, Self-Isolation, Cluster, and a Lockdown were to become the trendiest words in 2020? Who would have imagined the world would freeze and people would stay home shattered with fear, panic, uncertainty towards their future?How do we adjust to this changing reality, when none of our questions have answers when plans turn upside down, things get totally out of control?

In her new book: “From My Balcony to Yours,” author Nino Gugunishvili shares her personal account during the first several months of the COVID -19 global pandemic in the form of short stories and observations.

So utterly relatable - personal, humourous, emotional, compact.

A series of small observations as one woman documents her life during covid lockdown from March to September 2020. Nino writes of all the emotions she experiences, emotions that will be familiar to us all - from acceptance and contemplation, to fear, anger, apathy, anticipation. Her stories will touch everyone in some small personal way.

Nino describes covid as a "... noisy, unwanted neighbour you have to share your apartment with ..." whilst also acknowledging that " ... there were more dramatically things happening ...." around the globe, even more poignant when reminiscing about her childhood. And then there is one line that will resonate with us all - "... socks are my best friends ...".

This charming tale will find a home with all readers for we all have this one great shared experience wherever we are in the world. A must read!

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Review: Melting in the Middle by Andy Howden

Synopsis: Long-listed for the Exeter Novel Prize, Melting in the Middle is a literary comedy about redemption and second chances, played out amid the madness of modern life.

Set against the backdrop of a modern day "David and Goliath" story, a middle management, middle aged man must come to terms with changes not only in his business life but in his personal life. Will he succeed - only time - and his persistence - will tell, especially when a spanner, in the form of an enigmatic and contradictory young woman, is thrown in for good measure.

This slow moving tale of one man's attempts to keep his life and career afloat makes for interesting read. At times, it almost seemed as though the workplace was being used a metaphor for some sort of dystopian society where it was a case of survival of the fittest (maybe I am reading too much into something that is not there).

Our hero, for want of a better word, a big fish in a little pond, finds himself merely one of a school in a large pond. To keep his head above water, he must fall in line with the new management protocols or else find himself on the scrap heap. But Stephen Carracas is a survivor, he goes from being "axeman" and "lackey" to back to the top of his game, and along the way comes to terms with events in his personal life.

I would not have normally picked this up but was offered a complimentary review copy, and I did enjoy reading it.

Review: Because He's Jeff Goldblum by Travis Andrews

Synopsis: An irreverent yet deeply researched biography about the always offbeat, suddenly meme-able, and wildly popular actor.

When did you first encounter Jeff Goldblum? Maybe as a deranged killer in his 1974 screen debut in Death Wish? Maybe as a cynical journalist in 1983s The Big Chill? Or a brilliant if egotistical scientist-turned-fly in 1986s The Fly? Perhaps as the wise-cracking skeptical mathematician in 1993s Jurassic Park? Or maybe you're not a film buff but noticed his face as part of one of the Internet's earliest memes. Who knows?

Whenever it was, you've probably noticed that Goldblum has become one of Hollywood's most enduring actors, someone who only seems to grow more famous, more heralded, more beloved through the decades, even though he's always followed his own, strange muse. The guy primarily plays jazz music these days, but is more famous than ever. Actor, pianist, husband, father, style icon, meme. Goldblum contains multitudes, but why? What does he mean?

The Washington Post's Travis M. Andrews decided to find out. And so he set out on a journey through Goldblum's career, talking to directors like Lawrence Kasdan and Philip Kaufman, colleagues like Harry Shearer and Billy Crudup, and pop culture experts like Chuck Klosterman and Sean Fennessey, to get to the bottom of this whole Goldblum thing. And then he took what he learned and he wrote this book, which is titled Because He's Jeff Goldblum and is the best thing written since The Brothers Karamazov and slightly easier to follow. But you should already know that. In this new semi-biography, semi-rumination, and semi-ridiculous look at the career of Goldblum, Andrews takes you behind the scenes of his iconic movies, explores the shifting nature of fame in the twenty-first century, and spends far too much time converting Goldblum's name into various forms of speech.

Want to hear how Goldblum saved a script supervisor from an amorous baboon? Or what he would write on the mirror after taking showers when he was a teenager? How about his feelings on various brands of throat lozenges? (That one could be an entire book unto itself.) Then this is the book for you! 

Very quirky biographical /memoirish style of book with absolutely no contribution from the subject at hand - but I was fascinated none-the-less as Goldblum is such a tenacious, enigmatic, figure, seemingly beloved by all. What more can I say.....

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Review: The Princess Spy by Larry Loftis

Synopsis: When Aline Griffith was born in a quiet suburban New York hamlet, no one had any idea that she would go on to live “a life of glamour and danger that Ingrid Bergman only played at in Notorious” (Time). 

As the US enters the Second World War, the young college graduate is desperate to aid in the war effort, but no one is interested in a bright-eyed young woman whose only career experience is modeling clothes.

Aline’s life changes when, at a dinner party, she meets a man named Frank Ryan and reveals how desperately she wants to do her part for her country. Within a few weeks, he helps her join the Office of Strategic Services—forerunner of the CIA. With a code name and expert training under her belt, she is sent to Spain to be a coder, but is soon given the additional assignment of infiltrating the upper echelons of society, mingling with high-ranking officials, diplomats, and titled Europeans, any of whom could be an enemy agent. Against this glamorous backdrop of galas and dinner parties, she recruits sub-agents and engages in deep-cover espionage to counter Nazi tactics in Madrid.

Even after marrying the Count of Romanones, one of the wealthiest men in Spain, Aline secretly continues her covert activities, being given special assignments when abroad that would benefit from her impeccable pedigree and social connections.

Filled with twists, romance, and plenty of white-knuckled adventures fit for a James Bond film, The Princess Spy brings to vivid life the dazzling adventures of a remarkable American woman who risked everything to serve her country. 

For me, this was cosy-espionage, a new term I am applying to works on espionage where there is not really a lot of espionage substance.

One cannot take away from Aline that work that she did for the USA whilst she was based in neutral Spain - she was a coder and a field agent of sorts; she underwent the training before being handed a cover story and assigned a task.  Yes, anyone caught spying in Spain was at risk of being arrested, imprisoned and deported - but all, including the Nazi, were on the same playing field. However, the risks associated with her work are a far cry from those who were air-dropped behind enemy lines and were at risk of being captured by the Nazi and executed.

Much of Aline's "work" was social - meeting and mingling with society notables to gain access to any information that might come her way.  The odd bits of derring-do come in the form of being tailed by "associates" of a jealous boyfriend (a bull-fighter of renown) and a short spell of imprisonment.  Her work was carried out in the last year or so of the war in Europe - and with the surrender of the Germans, her work - for all intents and purposes - was over.

By this time, she was more or less ensconced in Spanish society and being courted by a Spanish prince.  Though she claims she wants to do her part, one finds that Aline was more interested in the social aspects that this covert work provided her - so much so she quits to marry her prince.

We are only told that during her marriage that she was working for the CIA - but there are no details that are indeed forthcoming to really give credence to this theory.  Her latter years could be taken from the covers of the gossip columns.

" ... Aline had perfected the art of gathering and keeping friends, weaving them together in a tapestry that spanned from Madrid to Paris to New York to Hollywood ..."

The author himself lets us know quite early on that even he was unsure if her story was even true, and that numerous events in her memoirs are indeed highly imagined. The constant adjustments to her narrative in her own books did not help matters in her favour.  

I would not class her as a war heroine along the lines of say a Nancy Wake, Odette Sansom, Noor Inayat Khan or even Violette Szabo, but one cannot discount that fact that she did serve her country in some capacity (more of a Bletchley Park type role).  I did appreciate the wrap up of the main characters at the end - it is always to see where they ended up after the war.

This is a very readable story of a small town girl, who went from model to spy to novelist to celebrity all in one incredible lifetime.

Review: the Rise and Fall of a Medieval Family: The Despensers by Kathryn Warner

Synopsis: The Despensers were a baronial English family who rose to great prominence in the reign of Edward II (1307-27) when Hugh Despenser the Younger became the king's chamberlain, favourite and perhaps lover. He and his father Hugh the Elder wielded great influence, and Hugh the Younger's greed and tyranny brought down a king for the first time in English history and almost destroyed his own family. 
Rise and Fall tells the story of the ups and downs of this fascinating family from the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries, when three Despenser lords were beheaded and two fell in battle. We begin with Hugh the Justiciar, who died rebelling against King Henry III and his son in 1265, and end with Thomas Despenser, summarily beheaded in 1400 after attempting to free a deposed Richard II, and Thomas's posthumous daughter Isabella, a countess twice over and the grandmother of Richard III's queen.

From the medieval version of Prime Ministers to the (possible) lovers of monarchs, the aristocratic Despenser family wielded great power in medieval England. Drawing on the popular intrigue and infamy of the Despenser clan, Kathryn Warner's book traces the lives of the most notorious, powerful and influential members of this patrician family over a 200 year span.

This for me is a hard review to write and I have literally left it unwritten for sometime after reading this book.

On the one hand, writing about one of England's most despised medieval families, in a favourable light, but still warts and all, is no simple task. Documenting the families' politically activities over a mere 200 years again is no walk in the park.

What I took away from this book was that the Despencers were always closely connected with the reigning royal family of the day - and they maintained their support of the royal line through thick and thin. They did not shy away from political or military service, and gladly served their monarch. The Despencers were also, I think a rather closely knit familial group - for the most part, barring a few renegade members from lesser branches. They supported each other - they had each others' backs. And they accumulated wealth - great wealth, some of it centralised in the hands of a few, but from my understanding, even the lesser branches were doing much better than some of the more powerful nobles of the day.

This is obviously a very well researched and documented book - Warner is noted for her focus on the reign of Edward II and all that which is associated with it. And she is at ease her with her subject matter. Which brings up my next point.

For me, this felt like a genealogical dump. So much was focused on who married who, who inherited what, who took what from whom, that the narrative of the "rise and fall" was somewhat lost - its thin threads are in there but they are quite fragile. In fact, after looking at some of the reviews, I was worried I was the only one who felt the story was lost amid the overwhelming amount of genealogical data. 

When composing this review, what I did, in essence, was put myself in the shoes of someone who was maybe just starting out their own journey of discovery of the era. I imagine them looking at the spine of the book on the shelf, picking up the book, admiring the cover, reading the blurb, maybe reading the intro. What worries me is if they skip the intro and dive right in to be confronted by page after page of whom begat whom (which I can get chapter and verse from Genesis). Then, the book is quietly returned to the shelf and passed by for something more user-friendly.

Writing a two hundred year history of an important family and binding it all together with the contemporaneous events is no slight feat. It is hard to know what to include but more importantly, what to exclude. Just because you have all of this information to hand, doesn't mean it has to be included. Whilst the book does include family trees and a list of who's who for each chapter, I think the focus should have been more concentrated on those (few) who were responsible for the rise and the ultimate fall of this great family.  Afterall, in the great scheme of things, political power and influence was only held by a few. I just wanted a bit more meat on the bone - a bit more of an analysis of events and the impact of the actions undertaken by certain members.  

Alternately, it could have be written in two parts - maybe the first part concentrating on the political history, and then the second part on the more detailed genealogical discussion (for the purist). Anyone is is avidly interested in this period and has done their due diligence will certainly pick this up for their own collection. 

Friday, December 18, 2020

Review: The Viking Woman of Birka by David K Mullaly

Synopsis: Asa was a young woman who avenged a personal assault, was forced to become a warrior and leader during her family’s travels, and ultimately became responsible for defending Birka, one of the great Viking trade centers. This actual Norse woman made her mark during a violent time.

A Viking burial found on the Swedish island of Birka, identified as Bj.581, contained what was recently identified as the remains of a woman warrior and leader. What was found there confirmed that she was female and presented herself as such. Testing also suggested that she traveled a lot when she was young. What we cannot know for sure is how she grew into the role which typically was filled by men in the Norse culture.

This story is a riveting but plausible reconstruction of her life during a turbulent time in European and human history. It provides a realistic context based on our limited knowledge of the period, and creates a sequence of events which could have led to her becoming the extraordinary woman that she surely came to be.

Fans of the fiction of Bernard Cornwell, Robert Low, and James L. Nelson will appreciate this historical novel. Mullaly’s first two novels deal with a later period of Viking history.

Warrior Bj:581
In 2017, a research paper made waves by claiming that the remains of a supposed professional warrior found in a 10th-century grave in Birka, Sweden, could be female. The remains, originally unearthed in the 1880s by archaeologist Hjalmar Stolpe, had been long presumed to be those of a male warrior, due to their burial with weapons and other status symbols (a bag of gaming pieces (possibly to represent military command) and two horses, one bridled for riding). In the 1970s, an anatomical analysis of the bones suggested that they belonged to a female, and a 2016 analysis suggested the same thing (see: The Birka Warrior : the material culture of a martial society by Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson). 

Credit: Drawing by Þórhallur Þráinsson
Copyright Antiquity Publications Ltd

Despite (or in spite of) the intense scrutiny that this discovery was subjected to, genetic analysis in 2017 confirmed the warrior was indeed biologically female. Up until this point, the warrior interpretation was never challenged until the deceased was revealed to be a woman, the researchers noted. However, as one great (fictional) detective was wont to say: “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?

And in fact, our lady from Birka is not the only known female warrior, as attested by the find of a grave in Solor, Norway (source: Viking Shield Maiden). 

About Birka
In the mid-700’s, a city was born on Björkö in Lake Mälaren named Birka, a location, which is commonly called Sweden’s first town. It is believed that it was the Swedish King who took the initiative to form the city as part of a desire to control the trade in northern Scandinavia, both politically and economically.

The Swedish King himself was living a few kilometers away , at a place called Hovgården on Adelsö. At that time it was the King’s duty to keep order in the city and protect it from being looted. - at the time of our story, this was King Ring, who was in turn succeeded by his sons Eric and Emund. He is also a bit of a shady character in that not much is know about him except from the sparse writings of Adam of Breman.

In its early medieval day, Birka was a thriving city and Sweden’s most important place for trade throughout northern Europe. The city had a perfect location because it was not only centrally located, but also well protected in the Baltic Sea. There is strong archaeological evidence to support the evidence of Birka's importance as a mercantile city. However, after only a few hundred years of existence, the settlement was abandoned. No one knows exactly why Birka, but it is posited that this was based either on political decisions or that Birka lost its strategic and easily accessible location through the land rise - no maritime access, no trade.

The author covers off some fascinating (and well researched) themes throughout the novel, including the focus on trade, for which the Vikings were also noted. In this instance, it is the journey to legendary Micklagard, that large and wealthy city, know today as Constantinople or Istanbul. The journey there was fraught with challenges and danger, which our characters experience. We also have the introduction of another great trading city, that of Dublin or as it would have been known, Dubh Linn the history of which is remarkable in it own telling.

Dubh Linn was - for our purposes - under the control of one Olaf Guthfrithson, who having succeeded his father as King of Dublin in 934,  a few years later allied with Constantine II of Scotland in an attempt to reclaim the Kingdom of Northumbria. The forces of Olaf and Constantine were defeated by the English led by Æthelstan at the legendary Battle of Brunanburh in 937.

What can I say about "The Viking Woman of Birka" by David Mullaly except that I literally could not put it down! It demands to be read in one sitting. Like Lagertha, Asa - the warrior woman of Birka - provides a different and unique look at the role of women in the Viking world, one which challenges the norms of both Viking society and our own. David certainly knows his stuff as his previous books will attest, and this well researched fictional account of the warrior found in Bj:581 certainly does her justice. 

Highly recommended.

Read more here @
Cambridge Journals - Viking warrior women? Reassessing Birka chamber grave Bj.581
Wiley Online Library - A female Viking warrior confirmed by genomics

Monday, December 14, 2020

The great era for spy novels ends with the death of John le Carre

‘‘When you enter the secret world and you are engaged in the intensive examination of your enemy, your opponent, you in a sense begin to know him and think about him not just as an opponent but some kind of secret sharer.’’

That was John le Carre, who has died at the age of 89, talking to The Age in 2001 about his own experiences with the British secret service before he embarked on his long and more successful career as a spy novelist and fierce critic of the hypocrisy and moral and political decline of his country – and, indeed, the west. He died of pneumonia on Sunday morning (Australian time) just as the British government was stumbling towards the final deadline for Brexit, a development he loathed.

In a sense how he defined his experience running agents in East Germany for MI6 determined the nature of his novels and particularly the three great Cold War novels featuring his best-known protagonist, George Smiley: there was a lot of talk, a lot of thought and a lot of smart people trying to get a handle on what the Soviet Union and its spymaster, Karla, were up to, and then outwit them. And, of course, they were frequently hindered by a traitor - a mole - in their midst.

read more here from The Sydney Morning Herald and John le Carre

Saturday, December 12, 2020

New book tells the story of a hardworking people in West Offaly

From the Offaly Express:
Veteran writer and local historian Brendan Ryan has just received the copies of his 12th book from the printers.  The book is called "On Gallen Green - The Story of a West Offaly Townland".

Brendan says the book had a modest beginning but then ballooned. "I started by writing an article on a townland that straddles both Ferbane and Cloghan parishes, for Offaly Heritage, but it grew legs and ended as a more than 200 page book." 

Brendan has written several very popular local history books over the last 35 years.  His first book was "The Green Fields - A History of Ferbane GAA", which was massively popular. His next book, printed in 1991, shone a light on the life and poetry of local man John M Doyle. The book was called "Where the Brosna Flows". In 1994 he published "A Land by the River of God - A History of Ferbane Parish". Last year he co-authored a book about Shannonbridge.

"On Gallen Green" is the story of a small townland (Gallen) in West Offaly, a townland that straddles two parishes, Cloghan and Ferbane. For the past three hundred years its economy was based on a thriving brickmaking industry, a labour-intensive enterprise, probably brought to the area by Cromwellian soldiers. The Grand Canal forms a focal point in the social life of the community.  "It is the story of a hard-working people," says Brendan, "a people who also know how to enjoy their recreations of football, dancing, music, singing and games."

Gallen has a Community School and the artifacts of a Celtic monastery and of a medieval Augustinian Priory. The book tells many interesting stories including how the Lord Lieutenant in Dublin Castle happened to send a silver snuff box to the parish priest of Ferbane in 1831; how two successive clerks of the Petty Sessions for King's County happened to live in Gallen View; and the times when the travelling theatres put on their shows in two local Gallen halls.

Brendan grew up in Dublin's north inner city. After graduating from UCG he taught for many years in Ferbane parish. Brendan is married to Cecilia MacNerney from Dromard, Longford and they have seven children.

A limited number of signed hardback copies of 'On Gallen Green' will be available, priced €20, in O’Callaghan’s Centra, Ferbane; Ferbane Post Office; Spar, Ferbane; Spar Express, Cloghan; and Offaly History Shop, Bury Quay, Tullamore. 

Copies of the book can also be ordered from the author at