Bad to Worse by Robert Edeson

Bad to Worse

Reviewed by Rod McLary

The Foreword to Bad to Worse recommends that this book is read five times – ‘forward quickly, forward slowly, once aloud, once backwards and once upside down’.  Following this recommendation is supposed to assist in understanding the book and in allowing the reader to enter the author’s ‘dissenting universe where every fact seems fallibly familiar and every falsehood impossibly erased’.  If nothing else, that sentence offers a glimpse of the nature of Bad to Worse.

The book purports to be a manuscript found by the writer of the Foreword who believes that it may have been written by A B C Darian [note the sequence of initials].  The Foreword also points out that Bad to Worse has some stylistic similarities to The Weaver Fish – an earlier novel by Robert Edeson – and in fact there are references to that book in this one.  The structure of the novel suggests a work of scholarly investigation – a suggestion which is reinforced by a scattering of footnotes throughout the novel which expand on and explain various terms and references in the text.

However, despite the faux scholarship, the core of the novel is a feud between two families – Mortiss and Worse – which begins in 1877 with the shooting death of Rigo Mortiss by Tom Worse in Dante Arizona.   The story then leaps to sometime in the 21st century where the long-standing feud is now played out to its conclusion by Richard Worse and Regan Mortiss.  The names of characters such as ‘Glimpse’, ‘Spoiling’, ‘Reckles’, ‘Mortiss’ and ‘Worse’ demonstrate creative wordplay on the part of the author.

Along the way, there are a number of digressions into science fiction of a kind.  One such digression describes a giant crab which lives in a cave system, scuttles upright and kills a cave explorer.  After this rather gruesome episode, the crab is never seen again although its supposed presence in the cave inhibits further exploration.  Indecipherable hieroglyphs are located in the giant crab’s cave and much time and energy is expended in attempting to decipher them.   However, this sub-plot eventually fades away without resolution.

There are continuing references to ‘swint’ which in the novel is a species of bird.  ‘Swint’ in urban slang refers to a combination of the words ‘sweet’ and ‘win’ which is used when an item of great importance is obtained free of charge from some source.  Perhaps there is a deliberate use of ‘swints’ for the birds as they are reputed to ingest a fruit which contains volcanic gold and have a language which may be translated to English.

These digressions as I have called them create a complicated and complex novel in which the reader can readily find him/herself up a blind alley and lose sight of the core of the novel – the feud.  The various footnotes explaining words or terms which have no basis in reality contribute to the complicated nature of the novel while at the same time creating further distractions.  Is there really something called Stochastic Signatures of the Parsan Gap written by Nicholas Misgivingston [note the name]?   Well – ‘stochastic’ means ‘having a random probability distribution’ which doesn’t really help the reader at all.  But then, it is not meant to.  The purpose of that term and others like it is simply to add a scholarly or intellectual feel to a novel which is essentially a crime story.

Unfortunately, it is not a particularly good crime novel.  The science fiction simply overwhelms the novel which is too clever by half.  It is not helpful that there are towns and cities which are clearly fictitious and set alongside those which aren’t – such as Perth Australia where some of the action is set.  It is almost as if the novel is moving between two parallel universes – and maybe it is.  The secondary story of the swints [for example] seems to go nowhere even though there are continued references to them through the novel.  To further detract from the merit of the novel, some of the events are simply too far-fetched and strain the novel’s credibility.  One such event is when the character Regan Mortiss, as the CEO of her multi-national corporation, shoots dead a non-performing director at one of her board meetings – and gets away with it!

The author clearly has a creative and intelligent voice which is expressed here in a complex novel which unfortunately lacks cohesion and consistent dramatic tension.  The novel falls apart when it tries to create this parallel universe of swints, giant crabs and strange minerals.  It works better when the focus is on the feud between Mortiss and Worse.  However, there is insufficient content there to sustain the reader’s attention.

Perhaps the last word should come from the novel itself – ‘it is safely read and internalised only by the sound in mind and pure of soul’.  The reader can draw his/her own conclusion as to whether he/she meets this criterion.

Robert Edeson was born in Perth and has published in the neuroscience, biophysical and mathematical literatures.  His first novel The Weaver Fish – to which there are references in this novel – won the T A G Hungerford Award which is given biennially to Western Australian writers who are not published.  Bad to Worse is both a sequel to that novel and a stand-alone novel.

Bad to Worse

[2017]

By Robert Edeson

Fremantle Press

ISBN 978 1 925 16493 0

312pp; $29.99

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Kilted Yoga by Finlay Wilson

Reviewed by Antonella Townsend

What could be better than a bearded, handsome man in a kilt?  Well, try a bearded, bare chested, handsome man in a kilt … up side down!

After the wild success of his U-Tube video, Finlay Wilson has released the book version of the same that is his fun take on yoga, dressed in a kilt, performed against the stunning backdrop of the Scottish highlands.

When thinking of yoga, kilts aren’t the preferred apparel that spring to mind.   Furthermore, possible locations for yoga exercises would not, sensibly, include anywhere that was the natural habitat of thistles.   Particularly if the ‘nothing worn under the kilt’ stories are true, and I might add, that some of the photographs in this book do suggest that that is the case.   Ladies, Kilted Yoga is a ‘must-have’ coffee table book.   Gentlemen, you will be inspired!

Finlay became famous for his, somewhat eccentric, outdoor-kilted yoga in 2016, when the BBC asked him to be part of The Social, an online platform featuring creative people in Scotland.   Lanark is where Finlay grew up, enjoying the Scottish landscape during weekend hiking trips, with his father and brothers.   As part of an old Scottish family, Findlay wore a kilt and jacket for special occasions, proudly acquiring his own tartan – Heartland – in his teens.  Then, while recovering from a severe accident, and, two major operations on his legs, Finlay was introduced to yoga.  So, to encapsulate his life, he opted for a lighthearted approach, combining yoga and kilts, filmed in a rugged Scottish landscape … and the rest is U-Tube history.

All gimmicks aside, this book is a work of art.  The photographs are stunning, and, given the subject matter, quite captivating!   But, more importantly, Kilted Yoga introduces the basics of the Ana Forrest system of yoga, which addresses the needs of modern-day people and their ailments.  If the exercises appear difficult, take heart, Finlay attended his first lesson on mobility supports and could not manage any of the standing poses.    His success is inspiring.  (Although the publishers take the trouble to note that for some pre-existing conditions medical advice should be sought).

Breathing, while trying to sound like Darth Vader, with the intent of expanding the breath, is the starting point.  Then, hands and feet stretches, with correct lower back stance, before postures for neck, shoulders and side bends.  All so ‘doable’!  Findlay, elegantly sprawled on the edge of a rock, while demonstrating poses, just adds to the entertainment value.  It’s all going really well until you reach the impossible, one-leg balance, other leg bent backwards with toes at shoulder height, posture, as demonstrated by Findlay.  Don’t panic, it is just intended to be an artistic visual break, before moving on to the next section ‘Serenity’.

‘Serenity’ poses are designed to aid freedom in breath and movement, including the famous ‘downward facing dog’, which is given new life when a kilt is involved.   The next section ‘Strength’ is intended to strengthen legs, so aiding weak knees and poor balance.  Excellent practice much needed for most of us.

Before the ‘Power’ section readers are treated to another dramatic photograph of Findlay.   This time he is performing a handstand on the edge of a waterfall.   This might inspire some readers, but most will have absolutely no ambition to emulate.  The ‘Power’ section postures are intended to ‘explore the first edge of your resistance and wait for it to shift before going deeper’.   So we move into postures like ‘turbo dog’.   It might take awhile to get there, but be inspired by Finlay’s own persistence while in recovery mode after his operations.

Meditation is an important part of the Forrest method and is covered in four separate sections: ‘Sanctuary Meditation’, Sensory Meditation’, Breathing Meditation, and, Walking Meditation.  The well-being that springs from these exercises has to be experienced to be believed.  It is a vital part of the routine, so forming a complete system for physical and mental health.

Kilted Yoga is a fun, beautiful presentation of basic yoga, and also a work that, in the most entertaining way, will inspire readers to improve the quality of their lives.

I can’t think of a better Christmas present suitable for everyone.

Kilted Yoga

(2017)

By Finlay Wilson

Hodder & Stoughton, Hachette UK

ISBN  –  9781473667846

159 pp; $19.99 (hardback)

 

Another Woman’s Husband by Gill Paul

Reviewed by Clare Brook

Virginia, North America, July 1911, two fifteen year old girls are coming of age.  They are best friends, Mary Kirk and Wallis Warfield and their exciting young adult lives are just beginning.

Paris, 31st August 1997, in a tunnel, a young woman’s life is ending.  She is Princess Diana.

Gill Paul reconstructs these events, on this, the twentieth anniversary of Princess Diana’s death, in her latest novel Another Woman’s Husband.    The dual narratives, one following the rise and fall of Wallis Warfield, later Simpson, and later still, The Duchess of Windsor; the other concerns theories on probable causes of Princess Dianna’s fatal accident.   All of which is well-researched historical fact.   Details concerning Wallis Simpson are based on a biography – That Woman by Anna Sebba (2012) and an autobiography The Heart Has Its Reasons by The Duchess of Windsor (1956).  Mary Kirk’s life is based on a biography co-authored by her daughter: The Other Mrs. Simpson by Anne Kirk Cooke and Elizabeth Lightfoot, (1977).

The novel uses quotes from these biographies in dialogue between Mary and Wallis, so adding to the authentic flavour of Paul’s narrative.  This brings the reader into the sphere of the characters’ lives, and as such, gives a more rounded understanding of what drives their life choices.

The two separate narratives about Mary and Wallis and Princess Diana, are ingeniously knitted together by three fictitious characters –   Rachel and Alex, soon to be married, and Susie Hargreaves, a childhood friend of Diana.

Alex and Rachel are taking a break in Paris from their demanding careers.  Rachel runs her own antique fashion business, in Brighton, and Alex is a reporter, working in London.   They drive into the Alma Tunnel where Princess Diana and Dodi Al-Fayed are entangled in the wreck of a car.  The plot is told from the perspective of Rachel. Alex has switched to reporter mode and later becomes involved in making a documentary about the life of Diana and the facts surrounding the crash; he thinks Diana was murdered.

Gill Paul details, in the course of the narrative, the public response and theories that were circulating at the time.   It has been estimated that approximately eighty-five per cent of the British public thought Diana had been murdered, so Paul was not being dramatic, rather portraying accurately the sentiment at the time.

The second story line concerns Wallis and Mary and takes up most of the novel.  It is told from the perspective of Mary; through her eyes we follow Wallis and her rather shadowy life.  In some regards Wallis is the victim of her circumstances, although she makes some daring decisions.  Her first husband, a pilot, is mainly cruel and drunk.   Divorcing in this era was hazardous for women, but she really didn’t have a choice.  Wallis then marries Ernest Simpson, living in London and moving in high society circles, where she is introduced to the then, Prince of Wales, later to become King Edward VIII.   As told by Gill Paul, the reader gets an insight into the characters of Wallis and Mary, but also Prince Edward and the somewhat strange attitude of the husbands whose wives he used at will.   ‘For King and Country’ seemed to be their slogan.

Whereas readers might be aware of this particular era, given that the events rocked the British establishment, retold countless times in film and book, Paul does add something fresh.   History has not been sympathetic towards Wallis, but in this telling opinions might change.  The King was portrayed as a weak, ineffectual man and, perhaps, Wallis was a victim of his weak character and social power.   Paul leaves some rather interesting theories hanging, regarding other affairs Wallis may have embarked on, particularly German Nazi Minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop.  Intrigue weaves itself throughout this novel.

The end of the novel sees the two strands come together to form a satisfying conclusion.

Recommended.

Another Woman’s Husband

By Gill Paul

(2017)

Hachette Australia

Paperback     9781472249111 |     $19.99

Hardback       9781472250445 |     $49.99

349 pp.

e-Book            9781472249104 |     $11.99

Nineteen Letters by Jodi Perry

Reviewed by Angela Marie

In Nineteen Letters by Jodi Perry the reader is quickly immersed into the perfect lives of a perfect twenty-something couple, Jemma and Braxton Spencer. Jemma is an interior designer rapidly accruing an impressive clientele, whilst Braxton is an up-and-coming architect on the verge of landing a major client. They are beautiful, their home is beautiful and their love is beautiful and pure.

The number nineteen remains a constant coincidence in their lives. It is both their lucky and unlucky number. It was the date of their first meeting. It was also the number of days after their wedding that tragedy struck in the form of a motor accident on a rainy morning. True, Jemma survives, although is badly injured. What is stolen from her are her recollections of who she is, who her family are, her former life and most importantly for this novel, who the love of her life is.

And so begins the succession of letters, penned by Braxton and nineteen in total, to paint a picture of her past and prick her memory.

This novel is heavily weighted to the emotional. To the hand-wringing despair, to the yearning for closeness, to the need to feel whole. This is a difficult device to sustain. This reviewer yearned for greater complexity. Perhaps a little less perfection. Perhaps a peep into the minds of the supporting characters? A voice that resonated male. A named place, other than beachside, to develop context. Was this to deliberately increase the universality of appeal? Smatterings of pop culture framed this as a contemporary novel and were welcomed.

Nineteen Letters is a reminder that, as readers, we are not all drawn to the same genre. Some of us prefer intricate and detailed visual descriptions, or the sensory overload of texture and smell. Some of us prefer suspense and a twisting plot, lathered in politics, history or intrigue. We may wish to pause and consider the unfolding events and reroute our conjectures, tally the clues and weigh the possible outcomes. If so, then Nineteen Letters may not be for you.

Conversely, if you wish to melt your sceptical heart with an at times warm, at times tragic, love story, then put on your slippers, reach for your cocoa, and snuggle up with Nineteen Letters. This is a novel for those who enjoy a hopelessly romantic journey imbedded with the machinations of fate and the intertwining of souls. At the conclusion Braxton offers up his philosophy to us. “Love with your entire heart while you have the chance, because life is far too precious to waste on any uncertainty.”

This is a simple love story, romantic fiction strewn with reminiscence, regret and hope. Will all be restored or do new horizons emerge?

Jodi Perry is an Australian writer who has previously published under the name of J.L. Perry. Her last four ebooks were number one bestsellers. She travels yearly to the U.S. and to the U.K. to meet her fans. Nineteen Letters is the first novel she has written as Jodi Perry.

Nineteen Letters

(2017)

by Jodi Perry

Hachette

ISBN 978 0 7336 3589 2

381pp; $24.99

Don’t Let Go by Harlan Coben

Reviewed by Rod McLary

Harlan Coben is a very popular writer of crime novels – he has sold over 75 million books.  Clearly, he has a significant following and this book will surely satisfy his followers.  It is fast-paced with twists in the plot and sudden unexpected disclosures which will challenge any reader to foresee.

Unlike many such writers, he has not written a series of books about one particular person whether private detective, police officer or forensic psychologist.  His books are stand-alone novels and this one is no exception.

Napoleon Dumas – known as ‘Nap’ – is a police investigator in a small town in New Jersey.  Like many protagonists in crime novels, he is intelligent, resourceful and a seriously good investigator.  Nap is also a renegade and not afraid of defying his bosses when he knows he is right.  He has a French heritage as may be suggested by his name.  While this has no bearing on the story, it seems to be something of which Nap is quite proud.  It is mentioned more than once and usually to demonstrate that Nap has excellent taste in food and wine; and that he is sensitive to the pronunciation of his surname.  It is correctly pronounced Du-mah.

Set in the mythical town of Westbridge which does not have ‘a poor side of town maybe just a poor acre’, the novel centres on the death 15 years before of Nap’s twin brother Leo and Leo’s girlfriend Diana.  Diana also happens to be the daughter of Augie the police chief – a complication which has some significance later in the story.  At the time, the death of these two teenagers was seen as either a tragic accident or a suicide pact.  The premature death of Leo still weighs heavily on Nap who continues to struggle with the fearful thought that he may have missed some clue indicating Leo’s state of mind at the time and thus been able – perhaps – to prevent his death.  Through the novel, he has one-way conversations with Leo about the investigation.  As the story unfolds, it becomes clear to Nap that while he was open and honest with Leo, Leo did not reciprocate and he had secrets which resonate through the investigation of his death.

However, the deaths remain in the past until – 15 years later – the shooting death of a police officer creates a series of events which threatens all those connected to Leo and Diana.  Nap sees a connection between the death of the police officer and the deaths of his brother and his girlfriend.  There are secrets no one wants uncovered but only by uncovering them will Nap ensure that justice triumphs in the end.

There is even something to thrill the most avid of conspiracy theorists.  Deep in the heart of Westbridge is a federal government facility in which it is rumoured that political prisoners are held and tortured.  To add verisimilitude, there is a graphic description of ‘water boarding’ – a particularly heinous form of torture of which even CIA operatives could only manage 14 seconds before capitulating.  It is no wonder that water boarding has been condemned.  The presence of this facility allows the author to stray into political intrigue to demonstrate that the government will stop at nothing – even murder – to protect its secrets.  However, the existence of the facility does not just offer the author an opportunity to express his political views.  The presence of this facility is critical to the explanation for the earlier deaths of Leo and Diana.

Running through the novel are Nap’s memories of his own girlfriend from that time and her mysterious and sudden disappearance soon after Leo and Diana died.  Clearly, this flags a plot development which some readers may be expecting almost from the beginning of the book.

Unfortunately, some elements of the novel are clichéd particularly the character of Nap as the key protagonist.  Nap is an investigator with the police service but seems to have the freedom to pursue his own investigation into the deaths for no other reason but to lay the ghosts of his brother’s death and to assuage his own guilt.  Other police officers – the good ones – are willing and able to provide timely information to Nap whenever he requires it.

However, there is much in the novel to please those readers who enjoy American style crime novels and/or thrillers.  While character development is not key to this novel, it is fast-paced with many twists and turns in the plot.  Although we finish the novel without knowing much more about the characters than we did at the beginning, there is some satisfaction in knowing that at the end justice has been served and the secrets hidden for so long are now exposed.

Don’t Let Go

[2017]

By Harlan Coben

Century/ Penguin

ISBN 978 1 78 089424 9

347pp; $32.99

 

he by John Connolly

Reviewed by Rod McLary

There is a strong tradition of double acts in comedy – Abbott and Costello, Martin and Lewis, Hale and Pace, even Kennedy and Newton.  But one stands above the others – Laurel and Hardy.  Oliver Hardy died 60 years ago and Stan Laurel died over 50 years ago, but they are remembered still.  Stan Laurel has been described as ‘one of the greatest screen comedians the world has ever known’.

John Connolly – an Irish author perhaps better known for his series of crime books featuring former policeman Charlie Parker – has written a re-imagining of the life of Stan Laurel.  Referring to Laurel in the novel as only ‘he’, John Connolly delivers an imaginative recreation of the golden age of Hollywood and Laurel’s [and Hardy’s] place in it.

The book opens in England where Laurel lived and first performed on the vaudeville stage with his father, ‘he’ describes the circumstances leading to his move to the United States and his early appearances on stage with Charlie Chaplin.  But backstage when Laurel tries to learn as much as he can, Chaplin is already the star of the company.  Laurel leaves the company and returns to England where he experiences further failures.  As ‘he’ puts it – ‘failure: failure in America, then Britain, and finally Europe’.  Fortuitously, he receives an offer to return to America to understudy Chaplin.  It is 1912 and Laurel is 22 years old.  In later years, Laurel feels betrayed by Chaplin’s failure to acknowledge their earlier closer relationship.

Running parallel to Laurel’s early history is Oliver Hardy’s.  Hardy – referred to in the novel as ‘Babe’ a name he was first given by his barber and under which he was billed in his earlier films – began acting in film in 1914 and appeared in about 250 films – or shorts as they are more accurately called as they were fewer than 40 minutes in length.

Hardy and Laurel were brought together by Hal Roach who owned Hal Roach Studios and for whom Laurel and Hardy worked for over 20 years.  In 1927, Laurel and Hardy were paired for the first time in a film called Putting Pants on Philip and together they went on to make more than 100 films between 1927 and 1950.  They achieved great fame – especially in Britain where they toured – although their fame was tainted by artistic and emotional turmoil.

The novel is written in the form of a reminiscence.  ‘He’ is now retired and living with his fourth wife in the Oceana Apartments where, as he nears the end of his life, he thinks back over the years before, with and after Babe.  The chapters alternate between the parallel stories of ‘he’ and ‘Babe’ with connecting chapters describing Laurel’s current circumstances.

As should be expected in a novel about actors, there is considerable information about the making of films, the tensions, jealousies and conflicts regarding scripts, directors, co-stars, contracts and off-screen relationships.  Many actors of the silent era and of the first of the ‘talkies’ are name-checked.  Charlie Chaplin is just one of the many names referenced in the novel. Others include Clara Bow, Mary Pickford, John Gilbert, Lon Chaney, Douglas Fairbanks, Max Sennett and Jerry Lewis.  Not only are these actors referred to by name but, in many cases, we learn something of their promiscuity and peccadilloes – and, in one or two particular cases, we learn more than we would want to know.  With some, the author makes sharp and succinct character assessments which add to the enjoyment of the novel.

There is much to enjoy in this novel – not only is it well written but it provides an insightful and intelligent examination of the creative process of acting and especially comedic acting.  At one point, the author describes comedy as ‘the disintegration of order into chaos’.  If the reader is familiar with any of the Laurel and Hardy films, this seems to be as perfect a description of them as anyone could offer.

Dialogue does not play a significant role in the novel but, when it does appear, it is not within inverted commas, but introduced by a dash.  Why?  Perhaps to create a more impressionistic feeling and to remind the readers of the artifice of the novel.  Impressionists seek to capture a feeling or experience and, as we know, memory is unreliable so what we have is the recollections of a famous screen comedian at the end of his life.  He recalls not only the adoration he received but also the losses he experienced, the heartache he lived through – and caused – and the betrayals.

Most of all though, the novel is about the great friendship between Laurel and Hardy which extends beyond the simple working relationship.  There is a level of affection and respect between them which requires few words but is deep and honest.  By the use of the impressionistic style, the author allows the reader to share much of this.  The heart of the novel is the love ‘he’ has for Babe – his co-star and great friend.  As ‘he’ says – he knows he loved this man, and this man loved him, and that is enough, and more than enough.

he

[2017]

By John Connolly

Hodder and Stoughton /Hachette Aust

ISBN 978 1 473 66363 3

449pp; $22.99

Nature’s Fabric by David Lee

Nature's Fabric

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

The broader my knowledge of books the more excited I become at the quality of work that is out there to be read. Books cover virtually any topic including those as yet undreamed of. When the present volume arrived, I could not wait to get inside its cover, to find out why a book called Nature’s Fabric interested its author.

David Lee is very well known in the scientific community. He is the author of many articles and several books, including Nature’s Palette and now Nature’s Fabric. For more than fifty years his focus has been leaves, researching them in Asian tropics and Florida International University. Having entered his seventy-fifth year David Lee is an Emeritus Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at FIU where he researches…leaves.

Professor Lee’s approach to his subject in Nature’s Fabric is a winning one. How less than excited will any reviewer, indeed any student, be when faced with the thought that the next few months will be devoted to studying leaves – green vigorous leaves, mouldy old-timers on their last legs. Not something to warm one’s heart but – open David Lee’s book and by Chapter Three leaves are the “hottest” thing around. The reason is found in the quite extraordinary way in which Lee teaches us his passion.

Chapter One begins with green men in English mythology, which expands to ceremonies associated in mythology with trees. From here it’s a quick slide into foliage and the Garden of Paradise. I’m talking Adam and Eve, whose garden is a nice metaphor and inspiration for royal and ecclesiastical gardens, at least one of whom has felt the magical hands of Friedrich Heinrich Alexander von Humboldt (Humboldt, for brevity’s sake). From here the text takes a determined turn into a new chapter called Leaf History.

The information is absorbing as the reader is led through the input into leaves by some of the best known scientists of recent centuries, little realizing that they are learning about and transiting through cellular structures to leaves, to trees, and to plants and animals.

Chapter Three is called “Green Machinery” a very apt title as it so happens. For here is told in casual but stringently academic fashion, the story of photosynthesis. Of course the story begins, in unlikely fashion, with William Harvey who reported on the circulation of human blood in 1628, and who went on to invent ingenious ways of measuring pressures and volume of fluids and gases. Van Helmont, Stephen Hales and Joseph Priestley and other big names in science suddenly find themselves harnessed to the development of plant knowledge. All information is treated logically and links beautifully from one scenario to the next. That’s the David Lee style. An excellent example of the overarching passion of those who have developed further our understanding of photosynthesis is delivered in an understated aside called Einstein’s “cosmic religious feeling” (65).

Chapter Four is called Nature’s Fabric and our reading, still at a persuasive academic level, reveals a statistic that is so “way out there” as to leave one gasping. It’s David Lee’s comment that the annual production of leaves on the land surface is around 39 billion tons per year, an equivalent figure to the mass of our extraction of petroleum. The science associated with the thickness of leaves on the ground becomes an acceptable link to climate control and change particularly at a global level.

The point I’m alluding to in this discussion is the seamless transition from one topic to the next. The book is a masterly piece of writing. Chapter Five is called leaf economics and relates to the economic models underpinning research, topics like the Linnaean classifications, leaf connections and leaf traits plotted, thus reminding us that we’re talking about serious research into what we will soon be calling a leaf economics spectrum.

I have drawn attention to the quality of the outcomes of the research without having a close examination of the data that form the chapter. Chapter Six is headed Metamorphosis. Its title page contains two quotes one of which is a poem called Fibonacci Takes a Walk to Clear His Head. The chapter explains the origin of the word itself, and then considers the context for much of the research beginning with Pythagoras of Samos, and marking its development through Aristotle, and the Natural History of Plants by Theophrastus, developing through the influence of Robert Hooke on Nehemiah Grew and Marcello Malpighi, the latter well known for contrasting the veins of animals with the vessels of plants and for speculating on the movement of air and sap through them. Grew developed an understanding of the ways that compact leaves in buds could enfold. The work of these two scholars was unmatched for something like 150 years.

This representative chapter considers leaf formation, a topic that appears straight forward but, as David Lee explains, is as complex as any other part of plant physiology and development. The sphere of interest merges into a segment called Mutants and Models. The point is that human beings are sensitive to differences among individuals that would improve their value in terms of crop yield, easier harvesting, better taste and more attractive appearance. Penultimately, nestled among a host of intricate explanatory drawings and photographs is a section on phyllotaxis, or patterns of leaf production appearing on the mature stem. The chapter concludes in a most unlikely manner, until one realizes that the imagination of a great literary figure, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, is as open as anybody else in enjoying and responding to natural beauty.

David Lee makes one final point that stimulates thoughts. Diversity of forms of life suggests complexity not easily reducible to simple mathematical rules. Maybe David Bohm was on to something when he argued that chaos is really the reflection of higher orders of complexity (131)

The chapters discussed so far account for perhaps half the book. The material continues for another nine chapters each as compressed and loaded with information as the ones we’ve seen so far. The presentation remains relaxed and interesting to read as any other. The book finishes with appendices that explain sharply focused techniques and chapter notes. There is then a comprehensive index.

Professor David Lee has bridged successfully the world of the young scholar who prefers to learn through exposure to new experiences with the world of the seasoned scientist who requires the professionalism of an academic performance. I loved this book and give it my highest recommendation.

Nature’s Fabric

(2017)

by David Lee

University of Chicago Press

ISBN: 978-0-226-18059-5

$US35.00; 512pp

To order a copy of Nature’s Fabric: Leaves in Science and Culture at the Footprint Books Website with a 15% discount click here  or visit www.footprint.com.au

Please use discount voucher code BCLUB17 at the checkout to apply the discount.

Hamlet and the Vision of Darkness by Rhodri Lewis

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

One of the major innovative thinkers of the current century Rhodri Lewis has taken one of the most studied plays of this and earlier centuries, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and turned on their head many of the grand notions we have all had about Shakespeare. Lewis’s ideas are breathtakingly original. Written in a style befitting the importance of the ideas they usher in, Lewis’s prose is academic, precise and requires close attention. But it is all worth it.

The character of Hamlet has received close scrutiny since the Romantics took him to their bosom in the later eighteenth century. He became a persona in which Shakespeare appeared to dramatize the struggles of a lone individual searching for a path through the suffocating thickets of moral, personal, and political existence. But what we must remember is that Shakespeare wrote a play. Lewis took up Margreta de Grazia’s recommendation that we reorder our thinking to focus on the play, not the man. We are reminded that (a) Hamlet has developed out of an earlier revenge play, the Ur-Hamlet, (b) nothing is known of the ways in which Hamlet was initially regarded, and (c) that the later seventeenth century has nothing positive to say about the play until about 1736. It follows that much of our knowledge does not derive directly from Shakespeare at all.

Hamlet, read as a profound meditation on the nature of human individuality, does not rely on the conceptual frameworks of any particular century. “Shakespeare’s characters have a rich and compelling moral life, but that moral life is not autonomous. Instead, it is in each case intimately bound up with the particular and distinct community in which the character participates” (Greenblatt, Shakespeare and the Ethics of Authority).

Lewis maintains that, for Shakespeare and the culture of which he was a part, the personal or moral could no more remain private than the political could remain the province of public life alone. To understand why and how Shakespeare wrote Hamlet as he did we must return to reconstructing aspects of sixteenth century life as the playwright is likely to have encountered them. Lewis’s most critical point is this: rather than spell out how, where, when or why the action is unfolding Shakespeare gives his audience the circumstantial data required for them to infer or deduce its consequences for themselves, and often to question the processes through which their inferences or deductions have been reached. This is a really big leap.

An unashamed summary of Lewis’s ideas as they appear in the introductory chapter goes like this. Shakespeare confronts his audiences with the realization that they have no fixed points of reference with which to help them make up their minds. For example, Hamlet’s dramatic presence is framed by his interactions with his fellows. What sets Hamlet apart from the remainder of the dramatis personae is the degree to which Shakespeare explores through him the insight that the insufficiency of received ethical and political wisdom does not just have public consequences. Transposed on to the person of Hamlet, it calls into question the fundamentals of who and what a human individual might be said to be (my emphasis).

By revealing that a discontented Hamlet is bound by cultural circumstance to use his intelligence as his accomplice rather than a guide, Shakespeare discloses something of the plight faced by every inhabitant of his Danish play world. The actions of those at the top of the social and political hierarchy are a symptom of whatever it is that’s wrong, not its cause. There is no discernible framework of right and wrong, no epilogue affirming that all will be well if only princes conduct themselves virtuously. “Humanist orthodoxy…is instead a set of doctrines that distorts reality and constrains all human beings to obscure their true natures – from themselves as much as from others” (9-10). It forces us to play at being ourselves, preventing us from playing truly meaningful roles. The crux of the matter is this:

Hamlet thus offers a representation of the cultural dynamics shaping human existence that is rich, sustained, compelling, and completely at odds with early modern convention. Its moral universe is an unyielding night. One that self-exploration, inwardness, honour, loyalty, love, poetry, philosophy, politics, moral scruple, military force, and religious belief are powerless to illuminate” (10).

And that is why our early modern interpretations of Shakespeare need to be reexamined.

The remaining chapters open a number of avenues for discussion. Beginning with a reference to the humanist debate on the suitability of hunting for the virtuous man (Erasmus and More thought the practice bestial), Lewis likens the Danish court to the Elizabethan hunt. Just as the hunt governs the way in which its participants interact, so in demonstrating how the cast of Hamlet interact with one another does Shakespeare expose the dangerously illusory foundations on which humanist moral philosophy was constructed.

While Gascoigne might have written of the nobility of the hunt, Shakespeare’s glance is less forgiving. He crafts a play in which hunter and prey are interchangeable. The members of the Danish court may be unexceptional in their preoccupation with hunting, falconry, fowling and fishing, but in Shakespeare’s vision these everyday activities become the analogues of dishonour, dishonesty, and moral debasement (Lewis 81).

Lewis’s chapter three begins a series of considerations of Hamlet in various guises. Hence we have essays on Hamlet as historian, poet, and philosopher. Each is a gem in its own right. A look into chapter three provides us with a taste of what this and subsequent chapters present, with the same level of original thought.

“I want to explore the notion that Hamlet is concerned less with the claims of the past on the present than with exposing the perspectives from which the shifting present apprehends, appropriates, and frequently reshapes that which has gone before it” (Lewis 113). Lewis goes on to claim that the past can assert no identity of its own. It can only exist through modes of representation that are as subject to partiality as they are to distortion. “Although Hamlet and many others in the play invest considerable amounts of energy in pretending otherwise, the pasts to which they respond are a product of the imperatives and desires with which they, in the present, are inescapably absorbed; the past is revealed as another screen on which they can project the personae and pretence of their disconnected moral vision” (113).

From this comes the judgment that Hamlet’s need to play the part of a dutiful and loving son leads him to confect a memory of his father that is grounded in neither emotional nor historical reality. “The young prince’s deliberations on his mnemonic capacities, like his reification of the Ghost’s injunction to “remember me” are an elaborate attempt to evade the consciousness of this painful truth, and of his feelings for his father that underlie it” (113).

Fresh ideas are the backbone of the book. It is this originality of vision that is behind the instruction to early modern students in the USA that Lewis’s book should be compulsory reading. Truthfully, this is “an innovative, coherent, and exhilaratingly bleak tragedy in which the governing ideologies of Shakespeare’s age are scrupulously upended”.

Hamlet and the Vision of Darkness

(2017)

By Rhodri Lewis

Princeton UP

ISBN: 9780691166841

$39.95; 392pp

To order a copy of Hamlet and the Vision of Darkness at the Footprint Books Website with a 15% discount click here  or visit www.footprint.com.au

Please use discount voucher code BCLUB17 at the checkout to apply the discount.

 

The Commando by Ben McKelvey

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

To undertake a review of this book is one of the more difficult tasks I have set for myself. It’s not because Cameron Baird VC, MG does not deserve the accolades that the media (including this book) have awarded him. He was without doubt the warrior we all depended on to protect us against the forces of evil that populate this world. His story (as depicted in this book as well as in many other sources) shows him to be a young man, dedicated to the life of the serving soldier, who without fuss gave an outstanding degree of service to his unit and the wider community.

Forthright as an Australian Football League player and showing great promise, he sought an alternative option when the AFL closed ranks against him. He became a soldier and, from all accounts, a dedicated one right up until his death on 22 June 2013 in a gunfight against Taliban troops, a fight that was to see him in the forefront of an attempt to relieve pressure on another Australian unit. There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that his VC was earned that day.

But that is the story of Cameron Baird and nobody will write a word that detracts from his much deserved reputation.

However, my job is to review Ben McKelvey’s book and that is a different task. To stop messing around I would have to say upfront that in places I found the writing patchy. Among competent passages, I found writing that was half-hearted and uninspiring. Passages like the following example from page 119 would benefit from the services of a clear thinking editor.

Although Operation Anaconda is now seen as a cautionary tale detailing the difficulties of securing Afghanistan, at the time it was thought to be nothing more than an aberration in the inexorable journey towards completion of the mission.  Keen to move the focus to Iraq, the United States made every effort to frame Anaconda as a rousing success, and perhaps even the full stop in the conflict they had envisioned it as.

In fact, the cliché-ridden text is often loose (“killing more than 1000 Taliban fighters and ostensibly creating the conditions for ISAF” (124). The book is tedious on occasion and does little in the service of Cameron Baird’s family. I know nothing of Edward Robertson but assume he is the Commando friend who served alongside Cameron Baird in the Middle East. I am more familiar with the work of McKelvey, whose media release describes his previous writings as ‘gigs’. I think that trivial phrase is at the root of the problem I have with this writer. For me, he has spread himself too wide. Cameron Baird’s biography is too important to place in the hands of a generalist author. Baird deserves a writer whose specialty is the armed services.

I take issue with the lack of focus of the book. The title tells us with a complete lack of uncertainty that the book is about the life and death of Cameron Baird. But then, in the Media Release, the focus alters. Now the book is to be “a unique look at modern warfare and the lives of Australia’s Special Forces including one of our most decorated modern soldiers”. Baird has become an addendum. Pages 116ff and similar pages take a swipe at  US-Australia foreign policy or on-the-ground administrative matters that should be given solid treatment reflecting their importance or alternatively, given such little exposure that they do not divert attention from the book’s focus.  But, of course, this book doesn’t have a clear focus. How fortunate for Cam that he was not deployed to Iraq which, in a breathtaking moment McKelvey tells us “was on the verge of going to hell in a handbasket” (127) – where is there a good editor when you need one?

McKelvey seems to find little significance in the fact that Cameron Baird’s wife had no wish to be associated with the book about her husband. “With respect for her wish for privacy, details of her life, except those that are pertinent in telling Cam’s story will not be revealed” (79). I found the treatment of Robin insensitive.

What the writer hoped to achieve with the following recount is beyond my understanding. Perhaps he thought that this might have given him some personal identification with the soldiers:

On the last night in South Australia, there was an almighty piss-up. Details concerning this night are not available, but I’m told Bravo is no longer welcome to train at Woomera.

Forget that approach, Ben. You have to be a professional soldier to be recognized as such. It’s not enough to associate with soldiers.

At other times it is as though another writer took up the pen and introduced some sharp and exciting description. When the armed forces are in action in the pages before and after Baird’s death the pace picks up. The action becomes less of an academic exercise and breathes authenticity. That is why I wonder what part, other than advisory, was played by Edward Robertson who knew the cold fear and brilliant crispness of moments in battle.

The url https://www.hachette.com.au/news/the-commando-by-ben-mckelvey was written by no professional soldier. It reeks of commercialism. It is in the hand of a promoter who wishes to win funds from an investment. And that is as close to a focus as I can come.

In sum, this book is indeed a puzzle. The tribute to Cameron Baird in the final paragraph is heart-felt and sincere. It is one of the few passages where the writing reaches any great height.

The Commando

(2017)

By Ben McKelvey

Hachette Aust.

ISBN: 9780733636493

$49.99; 352pp

The Influential Mind by Tali Sharot

Reviewed by Norrie Sanders

Tali Sharot has distilled research from the last four decades to explain how we are persuaded. She analyses this from many angles – the effects of fear, risk avoidance, our desire for control and the value of information – to name a few.  The book is eminently readable, even by those of us who can’t quite explain what a cognitive neuroscientist actually does.

The author writes with some authority – as an Associate Professor and Director of the Affective Brain Lab at University College London.  She has a doctorate in psychology and neuroscience and is widely published in scientific journals and media.  Her earlier book, The Optimum Bias, won a British Psychological Society Book award for popular science in 2014.

The Influential Mind contains many empirical precepts. The first is introduced in the prologue and is very relevant to every age, especially when it comes to explaining the apparent paradoxes of Brexit, Trump and climate change denial. “So you can imagine my dismay when I learned that all those numbers, from numerous experiments and observations, pointed to the fact that people are not driven by facts, or figures, or data”.  Despite this, she has taken up the challenge of using evidence to persuade her readers, using techniques that she describes in the book.

There are many lessons to be learned, but they are delivered through a gradual building of layers of understanding, avoiding the didactic:

“My hope is that the characters in this book and the stories they tell will live happily at the back of your mind, raising their heads every so often when the time is right.”

Terms such as “pop science” and “pop psych” have been used occasionally to describe the book’s genre. The cover work may reinforce this perception. The book has also been dismissed, though rarely, as too “technical”.  All of these are a disservice to a digest that is good science, made simple.

Dr Sharot cites current and historic research – many being classic studies. Some of the more recent science is, well, mind blowing. Much of this is the author’s own work in which the study designs are almost fiendish (but in a good way). In one experiment, peoples’ memories of a movie were changed permanently by supplying them with misleading information in a post screening test.

The resonance in modern society is readily apparent. For example, the author stated in a recent interview (Scientific American, 27 Sep 2017):

“I am concerned about the negative effects of social media. All we know about human biases—conformity, over-confidence and so on – suggests that the abundance of information and opinions on the web will result in misinformation, false beliefs and polarization. And we already see this happening. We can now find information online to support any view or opinion we wish, and that makes us more confident in our opinions and more resistant to change.

In one study …….[we found that] when two people agreed their confidence in their decision grew significantly. However, when they disagreed, their brain became less sensitive to the information presented by the other person. In fact it looked like the brain, metaphorically speaking, was shutting down. This is what is happening online – people respond to others that agree with them, dismiss those who do not (sometimes viciously), and the result is escalation.”

A challenge in this age of information overload, fake news and ill-informed opinion is the difficulty of evaluating truth:

 “…people often ignore information that can help them determine who the expert in the room is. Instead they prefer to give everyone’s opinion equal weight; ….This tendency comes at a cost: by weighing everyone’s opinion equally, rather than according to expertise, people ……. made many wrong decisions.”

She deliberately chooses not to give us elaborate lessons on brain function. Instead, chapters tend to be a mix of anecdotes and research findings, peppered sparingly with neurological explanations. This works well, but also leads to a few shortcomings. There is limited synthesis of the various topics at the end and sometimes apparent contradictions are left unresolved. There is little about the limits of our knowledge of the mind and only briefly does the book touch on the often debated distinction between brain and mind.

Although the cover suggests that the book “unveils the hidden power of influence”, the content is more nuanced and for that reason, more effective. Dr Sharot’s style is to deliver the scientific concepts into familiar settings rather than, for example, to rely heavily on statistics. Her anecdotes and descriptive analyses seek to persuade the reader by offering recognisable situations that are readily understood.

Dr Sharot’s ability to straddle the worlds of media and neuroscience has resulted in a book that is at once credible, understandable and persuasive. These elements are often mutually exclusive and if this book does convince readers – as it should – it is a testament to her many skills.

The Influential Mind

(August 2017)

By Tali Sharot

Hachette Australia; Little, Brown Book Group

ISBN: 9781408706077

209pp

$32.99 (paperback)