Varina by Charles Frazier

Reviewed by Wendy Lipke

Charles Frazier, in his new novel Varina, takes the reader back to the American Civil War years in America, just as he did in Cold Mountain, a very well-known novel of the recent past.

The novel switches from the early 20th Century back to the 1840s quite seamlessly as we journey with mixed-race teacher, James Blake, as he searches for information about his earlier life.

Walking down a street one day he heard snatches of a song which triggered hazy memories of an earlier time and feelings of love. Later on reading a marbled journal which had caught his attention, he had the feeling that the boy in the text might be him. To solve this problem he searches out Varina Howell Davis, the wife of the only president of the Confederate States of America.

This novel follows the journey both take to draw on their memories of a time of great upheaval in American history, as they meet weekly in a hotel retreat which is now Varina’s home and where James is barely tolerated because of his colour.

Although the catalyst was James’s search for answers, the novel is really a story about Varina, who is known to her friends a V and is what the author calls her throughout the book.

As the story unfolds we learn about Varina’s life and that of her husband Jefferson Davis, who was a melancholic widower 19 years her senior, when she first met him.  A stirring orator in public, he makes a political career of his military experience, representing Mississippi in the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, as well as serving as the Secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce before being elected president of the Confederacy in 1861.

Although Varina’s life is closely affected by her husband’s career she is herself an educated and fiercely independent person in her own right which becomes evident when at the end of the war she becomes the one who holds the family together as she flees from the advancing army.

-Those fugitive months…they’re the axle of my life.

Everything turns around them (p115)

On first meeting James Blake, V tries to brush him off but soon realises that he is Jimmy Limber, a child she once rescued from a beating, and took into her own home.

As they meet, prompted by each other, memories surface and the past and the present flow easily into each other in each of the chapters. -I’ve been wondering how you came together

  • It was biers and hurricanes right from the start, V says (p61) and then another piece from the past emerges.

When the past is revealed, little by little, it is not presented in chronological order but more like pieces of a puzzle which will eventually come together to provide the big picture.

The author uses some unconventional methods of presentation. The use of the initial V to represent the main character and the use of a dash to signify speech rather than quotation marks. The imagery in this novel is striking. When describing people standing in the rain at a political event the author says “Most stood under umbrellas – a field of tight black satin domes – and hunched shoulders against the cold and wet”(p223)and on another occasion-

“The audience turned to V. An ominous swivel of necks and                                        shoulders and backbones to aim hundreds of eyes through the veil into her two. She believed she heard the faint mechanical sound of those thousands of vertebrae shifting, clicking, grinding as the audience pivot her way”(273).

When James sought out Varina she was an old woman whose memories were filtered through a slight haze of morphine, which back in her youth doctors said V needed before important occasions (p70) so it was no surprise that not long after she succumb to pneumonia.

In his book James writes of the occasion of her burial, Every beautiful thing in the country darkens to one degree or another by theft of lives (349).

Then he jots a thought about V.

       Her last years, she was in many ways a very modern woman – unanchored and unmoored, unconstrained by family, poverty, friends or love of place. Making a major portion of her living from her own work and talent. So why such sense of crisis in her life near its end? Yearning for the reconciliation with the past – the country’s and her own. Her need to shape memory into history. (p349)

This was not a book about the Civil War but more a book about people and their thoughts, beliefs and actions who were there at that time and in the public eye. From this book I have generated an admiration for this woman and all women in similar positions.

Varina

(2018)

By Charles Frazier

Hachette

ISBN: 978-1-473-68614-4

$29.99; 368pp

 

 

 

 

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All the Burning Bridges by Steve Bisley

Reviewed by Pauline Seath

All the Burning Bridges, written by veteran Australian actor Steve Bisley, is a sequel to his highly acclaimed first book Stillways, a memoir published in 2013, and nominated for several literary awards.

Steve, a born storyteller, grew up in Lake Munmorah, near Newcastle NSW.

Stillways tells of his childhood, candidly, sometimes humorously, managing always to paint vivid pictures of his surroundings, encounters and most of all, his feelings.

In the epilogue to his first book, Steve included several of his mother’s poems. He rote: “Mum is the reason I was able to write this book. She taught me about the music of words”.

All The Burning Bridges begins with Steve, at the tender age of just 17, heading to Sydney to leave his childhood behind. He has managed to secure a job, and the address of a boarding house. On the 27th of Dec 1967, Steve waits by the highway attempting to hitch a ride to Wyong, then catch a train to Sydney.

“Cars come and go, no one stops. It’s hot this December day. A boy beside a road, a suitcase with his life inside.”

Finally, a car.

“I throw the suitcase in, and we’re gone before I get the chance to have a last look at what I’m leaving, what I’ve lost. It’s risky in here in a stranger’s car, for all I know there could be a body in the boot with its head cut off by a chainsaw.”

The very essence of Steve is revealed as his journey continues. With no qualifications, after 6 years Steve decides he wants to be an actor and applies to NIDA. He waits nervously for his turn to audition.

His name is called. “Fear strikes my heart and bowel in equal measures. My brain ceases to function; sweat glistens on my forehead. I wish I was in Vanuatu.”

After a bungled audition, disappointed in himself, he thinks that perhaps he is not cut out to be an actor. However, the gods disagreed, and he is accepted. A new life begins. Along the way, Steve meets “someone special” and they go on to have four children.

Successful in the Australian industry, Steve is chosen to play the lead in a BBC series in London.

“Sometimes in my life as an actor, wonderful things have happened; this was one of them.”

All The Burning Bridges reflects many different aspects of Steve’s life. He shares his battles with depression, his addiction to lust, alcohol and drugs.

It’s not ‘just another autobiography’, There is a great deal more to this story than the story itself, you will see why when you read it.

Some sequels can’t be appreciated without having read the predecessor, this one works just as it is. It’s not entirely necessary to have read Stillways first. However, I highly recommend you read both, in any order.

All the Burning Bridges

(2017)

By Steve Bisley

Echo Publishing/A & U

ISBN: 9781760400842

$32.99;

Superhuman by Rowan Hooper

Reviewed by Rod McLary

With a nod to Frederich Nietszche, Rowan Hooper’s book is – in his own words – ‘a book about what it feels like to be exceptional and what it takes to get there’.

Structured in three parts – Thinking, Doing and Being – the book explores the diversity of humans and attempts to come to an understanding of how people at the highest levels of achievement got there and why.  It also examines the continuing debate about the relative

importance of nature and nurture – or in other words genetics and environment – drawing on latest developments in the studies of DNA.

The book challenges – and perhaps even debunks – the widely-held belief that 10,000 hours of practice or study in any field will make a person an expert in that field.

To explore high achievement, Rowan Hooper has selected people at the very pinnacle of achievement in characteristics which are generally considered to be highly valued.  These eleven characteristics include intelligence, memory, language, singing, running, longevity, resilience and four others.  Each characteristic is given its own chapter in which persons considered to be the best in that characteristic are interviewed by the author.  Alongside the interviews is a discussion about the most recent scientific thinking regarding that characteristic with a particular focus on the genes which may contribute to the high level of achievement.

The author is clearly a skilled interviewer and has been able to draw out from the interviewees remarkable stories of their childhoods and upbringing.  Many recognised from early childhood that they were ‘different’ from their peers.  Some are able to identify what set them apart from the other children such as – a high level of curiosity, the capacity to spend time alone without the need to socialise with other children, and a precocious level of understanding of the characteristic in which they excelled as adults.  For example, Hilary Mantel – a two-time Man Booker Prize winner – says of herself as a child ‘it was as if there was a much older person sitting inside me’ [23].  Mantel believes her linguistic fluency is an innate characteristic.  When young, she listened closely to her grandmother and great-aunt talking and soaked up their patterns of language and at the same time acquired ‘an enormous vocabulary’.

In a study cited in the book, it was established that 60% of the differences in high intelligence are genetic.  However, there is no one ‘intelligence gene’ – instead there are thousands of them each with a tiny but significant effect on intelligence [25].

It is not quite so clear cut with other characteristics.  Memory – a characteristic of vital importance to all of us and one which we miss more than most when it begins to fade – is also examined by Hooper.  There are people amongst us who have what can be called ‘super memories’ – that is, they have completed phenomenal feats of memory.  Hooper writes of Rajveer Meena of Rajasthan India who can recite pi [the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter] to 70,000 decimal places.  It took him 9 hours 7 minutes [39].

Surprisingly perhaps, there are national competitions for so-called memory athletes – the world champion is a young man who memorised in fewer than twenty seconds the order of a shuffled pack of cards [45].

Some studies have demonstrated that there seems to be an association between super memory and an enlarged hippocampus – the area of the brain which is involved in long- and short-term memory – but it is unclear what role genetics has played in this enlargement [65].

One rather terrifying chapter considers people who have ‘locked-in’ syndrome.  This is a condition where because of severe illness a person is almost totally paralysed but whose brain is still active.  Communication is almost impossible but can be done as shown by Hooper in his interview with Shirley Parsons.  One day in 2003, Shirley woke up with a very bad headache and vertigo.  She managed to work through to the afternoon but collapsed and woke up two weeks later in intensive care.  A simple mutation in a gene gave her thrombophilia which is a tendency for her blood to clot more than it should.  She can now communicate only with her eyes – looking up for ‘yes’ and side-to-side for ‘no’.  However, Shirley is able to use a keyboard with a cheek switch and specialist software.  Even more heart-warming is the fact that Shirley has completed a BA in Social Sciences and graduated in 2010.

These conundrums are played out through the book.  Hooper describes persons with an enhanced skill in a specific characteristic, meets with the persons to explore his/her life and what in his/her family and cultural environment may have contributed to this skill, and concludes by examining the most recent genetic studies.

Returning to the 10,000 hours of practice theory made popular by Anders Ericsson – a Swedish professor in psychology at Florida State University – the opposing view is awkwardly called multifactorial gene-environment interaction model [MGIM].  This view claims that high achievement cannot be explained by practice which accounts for only 30% of the variance in performance [153].  In other words, 70% of the variance is accounted for by other factors.  The general consensus is that you need the right genes to achieve at a high level in any field.

Rowan Hooper has written a very intelligent and enjoyable book about super achievers.  While there is science on every page, it is balanced by the intensely human experience of Hooper speaking with a number of persons about their performances.  Most of the interviewees speak articulately about their achievements and what they believe helped while at the same time expressing humility and a deep appreciation for their talents and skills.

Hooper is the managing editor of New Scientist magazine and has been for ten years.  In his Acknowledgements, he thanks his mother for showing him that he could be a writer – and the subtext perhaps is thanking her for the genes she passed on as she too is a writer.

Superhuman

[2018]

by Rowan Hooper

Little, Brown

ISBN 978 1 4087 0947 4

344pp; $32.99

No Friend but the Mountains by Behrouz Boochani (trans.) by Omid Tofighian

Behrouz Boochani: No Friend But the Mountains

Reviewed by Rod McLary

Behrouz Boochani is a Kurdish journalist who has been held in the Manus Island offshore processing centre since 2013.  This book is a first-hand account of his experiences in the centre.  It has an immediacy which, in no small way, was created by the process by which it was written.  Boochani texted the book text by text in Persian – or Farsi as it is referred to in the book – from within the centre using an illicit mobile phone.  Some of the incidents described in the book were actually occurring as Boochani texted the details.

The book’s title No Friend but the Mountains comes from the Kurds’ experiences in their homelands which straddle the border between Iraq and Iran.  In answer to his own question Where have I come from? – Boochani has come ‘from the land of rivers, the land of waterfalls, the land of ancient chants, the land of mountains’ [284].  War has raged for many years in the land of the Kurds and, each time the warplanes went overhead, the Kurds ran to the mountains for protection.  Thus, the saying – ‘Do the Kurds have any friends other than the mountains?’ [285]

Beginning when Boochani is being transported by truck along with many others to the ocean off Indonesia so that he can board a boat to Australia, the book describes day-by-day the intense and difficult experience of being a refugee.  Knowing that many boats have sunk on their way to Australia, Boochani confronts his fear – I don’t want to die out there surrounded by water – but comforts himself by believing that ‘I don’t expect that it will happen to me’.  While a romantic view of refugees escaping war and religious and political persecution may suggest excited anticipation of travelling to a free land, the reality as graphically described in the book is very different.  The time spent in the truck and later in the boat is characterised by overcrowding, obnoxious and aggressive behaviour by the young single men, sickness, and – in the boat – an ever-present fear of drowning.

Boochani describes the fear of drowning as ‘the formidable waves beat the body of our splitting boat without interruption.  The smashing waves engender a mixture of terror and lament in our thoughts’. [51]  However, the boat and its terrified ‘passengers’ are rescued by a British cargo boat and then transferred to an Australian ‘warship’ which takes them to Christmas Island.  For a brief moment after the rescue, ‘happiness has revisited the faces of the passengers’ [103] but only hours later, they are placed in a ‘tightly confined cage’ and then transported to Manus Island.

In ‘this soul-destroying prison made with a mix of lime and dirt’, Boochani spends the next three years.  He describes the searing heat and humidity and the senseless bureaucracy which pervades every waking moment.  In a very moving section, Boochani tells of the refugee whose father is dying in his home country.  He begs the guards to allow him to make a telephone call on a day other than his rostered day so he can speak with his father one last time.  The guards arbitrarily refuse, and continue to refuse, permission in spite of the refugee’s entreaties and senselessly in spite of other refugees offering to give up their rostered time.  The refugee is not permitted to speak with his father and his father dies before his rostered day comes around.

Boochani describes the endless queueing for meals, showers, telephone calls, use of the toilets, and medical care.  He describes the lack of any ‘care’ from the medical staff who see all illnesses as psychosomatic.  Quite graphically, Boochani speaks of the smells of the prison – the unwashed bodies in close proximity, the overpowering smells of blocked toilets, and in counterpoint, the perfume of the flowers which grow without any attention in the heat and humidity.

Australia has much to be ashamed of in the ways it has treated genuine refugees escaping from war-torn and unsafe countries in the Middle East.  While the refugees’ method of entering – or at least attempting to enter – Australia is risky and dangerous, one cannot deny that a more humanitarian response is necessary.

Behrouz Boochani has written a book which is as powerful as it is poetic and moving.  He describes his experience of living in a refugee prison with profound insight and intelligence.  With continuing care for the other refugees, he emphasises that his references to others are carefully worded to ensure they cannot be identified.  Key characters are given names such as ‘the gentle giant’ but Boochani reassures the reader that the characters are composite figures.

Translating the texts from Farsi to English was a major challenge for the translator.  Farsi in its written form comprises ‘long elaborate sentences with many different kinds of clauses in consecutive order’.  The subject is at the beginning of the sentence with the verb at the very end.  But, Farsi is a very poetic language with rhythmic movements.  Tofighian in his translation has beautifully captured the poetic nature of the original text thus contributing to an intensely personal and moving experience for the reader as she/he progresses through the book.

While the major proportion of the book is written in prose, some is styled in verse.  This serves well in more effectively capturing the cultural and political allusions in Boochani’s writing.  In many ways, the most moving and emotive passages are those which are in verse.

Boochani is a Kurdish-Iranian journalist and scholar.  He fled Iran in 2013 and became a political prisoner of the Australian Government and was imprisoned at the Manus Regional Processing Centre.  In 2017, he was awarded an Amnesty International Award for his contribution to human rights journalism.

The translator – Dr Omid Tofighian – is a lecturer and researcher based at the American University of Cairo and the University of Sydney.  He works with asylum seekers, refugees and young people from Western Sydney.

No Friend but the Mountains

[2018]

by Behrouz Boochani

Translated by Omid Tofighian

Picador Australia

ISBN 978 1 760555 38 2

400pp; $32.99

The Botanist’s Daughter by Kayte Nunn

Reviewed by Wendy Lipke

The Botanist’s Daughter by Kayte Nunn came about as the result of the author’s belief that ‘stories circulate in the ether and if you are receptive, they will tap you on the shoulder and start to whisper in your ear’. (http://kaytenunn.com)

On a visit to Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens the author was inspired by a beautiful sundial and had a mental picture of such an object set in an English walled garden. At a later time, her visit to Kew Gardens found her interest awakened again by an exhibition of botanical art and another of the work and letters of a nineteenth-century plant hunter. These things form the basis of her novel The botanist’s Daughter.

This dual timeline novel follows the lives of two young women both with a quest of discovery.

The first story is set in Cornwall in the 1880s where Elizabeth has been given a deathbed request  by her father, a renowned traveller and  plant collector, to continue on his work and find an elusive plant which though it can be deadly also has great life-saving  potential. This request comes with a serious warning about an unscrupulous competitor. ‘ He can charm the skin off a snake, but he has the scruples of the devil himself. Don’t give him a single reason to suspect you, or you will be in fear of your life’(33).

Although Elizabeth has always been interested in her father’s work and has become a skilled botanical illustrator she knows that as a young woman she has been set a very dangerous mission. Against strong opposition from her sister and brother-in-law, Elizabeth finds the newly installed bronze sundial with its engravings of ‘mint for virtue, oregano for joy, lavender for devotion, hyssop to cleanse, lemon balm for wit, borage for courage, chamomile for comfort and bay for glory’ (53)and globe that revolved on its axis, helps steady her resolve and soon she is on the boat to Chile with her maid.

The second story is set in Australia in 2017 and begins with Anna, who had inherited her grandmother’s house, discovering a diary and waterproof chest containing botanical illustrations, a photograph and a small bag of seeds, when renovation work is undertaken. Her search for answers as to why these were found in her Grandmother’s house leads her to England where eventually the two stories intersect. Anna has her own gardening business so both stories are also linked through the knowledge of all things botanical.

The author has used her knowledge from growing up in England and thorough research to present the reader with authentic descriptions of plant species found in all the locations described in this novel. For the most part the book is made up of alternating chapters presenting one story then the other.

Kayte Nunn also brings to this novel her expertise as a book magazine and web editor with two decades of publishing experience to produce a storyline which flows beautifully. This is not her first novel. She has also written Rose’s Vintage (2016) and Angel’s Share (2017) both set in lush vineyards’.

The Botanist’s Daughter  has adventure, danger, love, loyalty, murder and the exoticness of a  different culture. What more could a reader require?

Throughout the story we are reminded that there are always flowers for those that want to see them and when we take the time to look we can discover much beauty, variety and perhaps usefulness.

A very good read.

The Botanist’s Daughter

(2018)

By Kayte Nunn

Hachette

ISBN: 978-0-7336-3938-8

$29.99; 396pp

Napoleon: the Imperial Household by Sylvain Cordier

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

Perhaps it is my bourgeois roots that find the lush splendour of Napoleon Bonaparte’s imperial household somewhat sickening. That some way to compensate for the ruin that was France after the long years of revolution had to be found, cannot be denied, but viewing the ostentatious luxury within which one small segment of the French population bathed, seems an unfortunate way for a nation to recover. I think I prefer to remember Napoleon as the man who brought precision and order to the nation without the trappings.

But this is not to take away from the book Napoleon: the Imperial Household which Yale University Press and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts have recently published. This sumptuous volume contains some of the finest examples of artwork of the time, together with a comprehensive explanation that lays the Imperial Court bare. The script is a work of scholarship and keeps an academic tone consistently throughout the publication. It is not overwhelmed by the artwork which is at all times of a high standard.

On considering the purpose of the current publication I suppose that what we are seeing in this book is a slice of history. No matter how tasteless one might view such a court, the fact is that such did exist and has been written about before now, but nothing written so far has had the impact that the current publication supplies. It is, as Sylvain Cordier stated on another occasion, “… all about the ways a staff can be employed to transform a man into a hero” (MMFA curator at the opening of the Exhibition of Napoleon: Art and Court Life in the Imperial Palace). As a piece of propaganda for the new regime its effect was enormous in that the artists of the day, no matter how republican their politics, could not go past the opportunity to show their works to the people who really mattered.

Courdier and her team have adopted a telling, but not often used, technique of narrating the broader picture by showing the minutiae, such as the cutlery used for special occasions or the detail in a dress or headboard. The masterpieces of famous artists are there in their numbers, but are not overshadowed as much as lessened, by the small things that everyday people may have used.

The book, an undisputed masterpiece in presenting the imperial court, is divided into sections, the first of which is called The Imperial Household: Portraits. In a colourful double spread, the principal duties of the post are explained and a biography of one of the notable figures who assumed the role is given. Where there was conflict between the point of view of the holder of the position and Napoleon himself is made known to readers. Such is the case of Joseph Fesch, the Grand Chaplain, caught in the maelstrom of Napoleon-Papal conflict.

The next section describes the Household and the Palaces. In this context the word “palaces” is defined as Napoleon himself defined it i.e. the presence of the sovereign made the palace regardless of its place within or outside the capital. The imperial household was defined as three principal spaces viz. the Grand appartement de representation the Emperor’s ‘ordinary’ room or place of residence and the Empress’s ‘ordinary’ apartment. By decree secondary spaces were established to house the officers of the Court. This chapter exhibits a number of plans only some of which were implemented, and in a segment that reeks of wealth, describes the supply of Sevres porcelain to the imperial household (much of which was not supplied in Napoleon’s time).

Fontainebleu, the Tuileries and St Cloud were principal components of Napoleon’s system of representation, or as we might say, places where he stayed most often. By residing at Fontainebleu Napoleon made clear that he saw himself as a natural successor to the Valois and Bourbon kings. A total of eight lavish pages are devoted to Fontainebleu. Then come chapters (if I may call them that) on the manifestation of power in the furnishings; the issue of public access to the imperial apartments; and court dress (including colour coding) and the influence it gave to the wearer, that conclude this section.

The next section is called Art and Majesty. A major chapter on current artists to the Imperial Household gives way to a huge series that encompasses planning a portrait of the emperor, (there is a telling anecdote on the disagreement of an employee with the emperor over the suitability of art to hang in the empress’s apartment), which opens out into a discussion of major pieces of art at the time. Then follows a series of discussions on furnishings, fabrics and clothing, in particular with respect to the emperor’s Grand Cabinet. The section concludes with segments on gift giving to diplomats and noteworthy others, table settings where the name Sevres figures prominently, and ends with the tale of a master silversmith.

The next section, called Serving the Imperial Family, contains chapters on preparing a banquet for the wedding of Napoleon and Marie-Louise; there is a discussion on stables, coaches and the Grand Corteges, and the imperial hunt. Information about the empress’s household, the Marescot family, the Emperor’s Cabinet, and theatres of the regime leads the reader into a final section called Epilogue. Naturally enough, this covers the year preceding Napoleon’s defeat  and his subsequent stays at Elba and St Helena. It is a wry twist that the book makes much of a three-tiered birdcage that Napoleon orders constructed in his prison on St Helena Island. The saga ends with a portrait (also called ‘photograph’) of the dead Napoleon taken by his guard who, being an Englishman charged with a duty he considered distasteful, was more than ready to leave the island. The final comment should be left with Cordier: “That painting [of Napoleon in death] is by Denzil O. Ibbetson, who was also the goods and food purveyor to the house,” said Cordier. “He was English, so as far as he was concerned he wasn’t depicting an emperor — he was portraying a newly deceased general. He was one of the last people allowed in the bedchamber the day after Napoleon died; he made a few sketches of the corpse and went and made three portraits, of which I feel the one you see here is the best. Remember, to him and the other English this was a death that effectively meant the story was finished, that they could all go home. So it carries that meaning, in addition to the usual associations of a death portrait.”

The usual referencing that Yale does so well is a strengthening feature. The book is placed within a lavish cover and proper exposure is given to Sylvain Cordier who curated the function in Montreal and wrote a number of pieces for the book. This is an out of the ordinary way of telling the history of a regime but, on reflection, I realise that I now have a greater knowledge of Napoleon’s household and also a better grasp of the man himself. The book is not overpriced when one considers the rewards of owning such a masterpiece.

Napoleon: the Imperial Household

(2018)

By Sylvain Cordier

Yale UP and Montreal Museum of Fine Arts

ISBN: 9-780300-233469

$79.99; 352pp and more than 380 illustrations

To order a copy of Napoleon: The Imperial Household at the Footprint Books Website with a 15% discount click here  or visitwww.footprint.com.au

 

Please use discount voucher code BCLUB18 at the checkout to apply the discount.

 

 

The Grand Strategy of the Habsburg Empire by A. Wess Mitchell

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

We read these days of Big History, a study of the universe from a split-second after the Big Bang to the demise of the last Black Hole. That was a long, long time interval. In a different context we can view another long interval though measured on a different scale. The history of the Habsburg Empire from its foundations in 1700 through all the political machinations of non-member and member countries until the world war of 1914 – 18 caused a re-definition of boundaries, is a remarkable phenomenon. Frederick the Great could not destroy it, and Napoleon failed in his attempts to incorporate it into his Empire. Yet Austrian armies were no better than those of any contemporary nation. The Habsburg grasp of financial management was nothing splendid, and ethnic rivalries were terse and liable to flare. Yet the Habsburg Empire remained a dominating force that just would not go away. How did it survive?

A Wess Mitchell believes he has found an answer. He openly admits that Austrian forces in most of its conflicts were led by indifferent generals and backed by shaky finances. It faced enemies who were superior in both technical power and numbers. In 1815, as everyone knows, at the Congress of Vienna, the Austrian Metternich ushered in an era in which Austria dominated international policy.

Conventional explanations argue that the Empire was a necessity. It existed to provide a public service that blocked the strenuous and often bitter rivalries between the growing national states. It was there to maintain peace and the major powers dared not demolish it. Quite rightly, Mitchell sees that as an insufficient explanation of Austria’s success. In Mitchell’s words: “the mere fact of being a necessity was not in itself a solid enough foundation on which to gamble the monarchy’s existence” (8).

The Austro-Hungarian Empire’s continued existence required a companion, or alternatively, a completely new explanation. Mitchell finds it in strategy, a grand strategy. Defining ‘grand strategy’ Mitchell thinks of three dimensions, a ‘what’, a ‘how’ and a ‘when’. The functional aspect of this device occurs repeatedly across the life of the Empire, and requires a structural component (a ‘how’), the method by which means-ends calculations are transmitted with and between generations. Finally, there is the means-ends calculations forcing leaders “to act beyond the demands of the present” and “think about the future in terms of the goals of the political entity” (11). States that field many threats to their sovereignty require the continued development of higher-level strategies, moreso than a place like the UK that is not so threatened. Hence Mitchell identifies three main thrusts to support his thesis: the maintenance of secure buffers, the preservation of an army in being, and coalitions with allies.

Chapter One provides the argument, the evidence and approach, and the purpose for the book. Chapters 2 – 4 examine the constraints on Habsburg power and the effect they had on Austrian strategic thinking. Unable to fight all their enemies at once the Habsburgs used terrain, technology and their allies to sequence and stagger their conflicts. Chapters 5 – 7 focuses on individual frontiers, while Chapters 8 – 10 place particular emphasis on the Metternichian and Franz Joseph eras. With the Habsburgs persuading their friends of the moment to voluntarily play their part in managing the Empire’s lengthy borders we see a benign relationship rather than a fractious one separating various nation states. Chapter 10 is more discursive than most of the chapters and contains observations for geopolitics in our own time.

It is a very big argument, a brave and challenging thesis. The book is thoroughly researched, written in clear and delightful prose, and thoroughly documented in a Notes section and a huge bibliography of scholarly books and journal articles.  The support from colleagues never falters. I support the view that Jacqueline Deal reveals when she “describes a path breaking analysis of the grand strategy of the Habsburg Empire.” Critics write about the compelling need for this book and describe the author’s analyses as original and convincing.

The book is presented as a hard cover edition, and is a reference that European scholars cannot afford to not have on their shelves. A remarkable piece of scholarship.

The Grand Strategy of the Habsburg Empire

(2018)

By A. Wess Mitchell

Princeton UP

ISBN: 978-0-691-17670-3

$35.00; 416pp (hardback)

To order a copy of Grand Strategy of the Habsburg Empire at the Footprint Books Website with a 15% discount click here  or visit www.footprint.com.au

Please use discount voucher code BCLUB18 at the checkout to apply the discount.

The Summer of Secrets by Barbara Hannay

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Reviewed by Ian Lipke

This book is described as “the sweeping new saga by…”. I can assure readers that it is definitely not a saga, not even a narrow one let alone a sweeping one. But of course Barbara Hannay’s readers and the author herself realise that. It’s all part of the games we play with our light fiction. We do the same thing with mystery plots and crime fiction. We read these books to be entertained and that’s what happens. Only the English language withers on the bough, and drops earthward from lack of use.

It’s totally unfair to lay any blame at Barbara Hannay’s feet.  She took a decision to write the story this way and for commercial reasons she was wise to do so. Let the setting be mostly around Tinaroo Dam. It’s located in far North Queensland and has landscape that can contribute a romantic sheen to an already exotic spot to most readers. Let there be couples who have suffered some infliction of the heart or some tragedy in their past lives that they are trying to deal with. Throw in a teenage girl and a couple of nasty drug runners, and you’re well on your way.

So, a grouchy newspaper man, once a foreign correspondent is the local town editor whose heart is broken because his wife and son were blown up by terrorists in Thailand. His twelve year old daughter, bless her father’s sensitive heart, attends a boarding school in Cairns, far away from her father. Couple number two lived together in Sydney. She wants a baby; he does not. He speaks to her in the language of a lout and she heads north to be an assistant to a newspaper editor whose wife has been blown up in Thailand. Sorry! It’s a bit predictable, but has to be or it won’t sell.

There’s a baker who disappears, an older lady whose husband cannot handle her part in a family tragedy, and a neighbour that’s just hot, man! And so sex descends, the men raise whatever they raise at these times, and the party moves to the bedrooms.

However, read this book without the cynicism of my review and you have a very fine story of human beings seeking surcease for their beaten souls. I defy any reader to not become involved in the lives of the characters who inhabit the plots of Barbara Hannay’s books. She is an excellent writer of romantic fiction and has the track record to support my claim. Look at this description and observe the master storyteller at work. Chloe and Finn are about to make love for the first time.

All she could really remember was the feverish urgency of their kisses and the breathtaking thrill of first contact. Of his skin meeting hers.  Of seductive hands and teasing lips embarking on an intimate trail of discovery. Somewhere in the hazy mists of desire, it occurred to her that they should perhaps slow down, linger a little, but there was a danger they might also come to their senses. It seemed Finn was as unwilling as she was to take that risk (200).

How graciously does she describe the sex act? The language hints and the ideas blossom in the reader, where they are nurtured by the language, and the outcome is a sharing of something beautiful, writer to reader. There is nothing dirty or unseemly in the description.

This is a novel that readers of romantic fiction will line up to buy. They know what they want, and they’ll spend good money to satisfy their want. And I will be willing to state that very few readers will realise that the story they read today is the same story in different clothes that was on the stands last month.

The book is beautifully presented as Penguin books usually are. There appeared to be no errors in the typescript, and the publisher kept the story flowing where it could have become heavy going. An excellent read for a less than discerning audience.

The Summer of Secrets

(2018)

By Barbara Hannay

Penguin

ISBN: 978-0-14-378347-3

$32.99; 384pp

Sisters and Brothers by Fiona Palmer

Reviewed by Wendy Lipke

Fiona Palmer has made a name for herself as a rural romance writer. She has written nine bestselling novels and an earlier book Secrets Between Friends was a Top 5 best seller in 2017.  Her latest contribution Sisters and Brothers is not the usual type of romance. Set around Perth in Western Australia, the inspiring landscapes she is so known for are not as prominent in this novel but it is the down to earth characters which take central place. It is dedicated to family, in any shape or form.

This story is about four separate families who have a connection to Bill the piano tuner and the type of connection is gradually revealed as the story unfolds. Seventy-two year old Bill has had a heart attack while undergoing hip surgery. Having lost the love of his life he is depressed and these separate families are just what Bill needs to give his life purpose.

Each of these families is so completely different that one wonders, “How can they help Bill?”

Sarah is Bill’s only child, and is married with two well behaved children but her desire to keep up with the other mums is causing her stress and she feels she is drifting away from her husband.

Emma is a nurse, who has three children and a husband who is away a lot working in the mines. This is a happy, noisy, messy family who share a lot of love.

Adam grew up in a single parent family and has just become engaged to his male partner. They would dearly like to adopt a child and create a happy family.

Michelle has grown up in a loving family and has always known that she and her brother were both adopted. At forty-six she believes she has lost the opportunity of ever having a family of her own. She now has a desire to find out about her biological parents.

When I first started reading this novel I did not engage with the characters but through perseverance I gradually found myself drawn into the lives of the various families.

Many questions are raised in these family stories. The central theme is that of adoption and biological paternity – should the children be told and when, adoption or fostering by gay couples, the feelings of adoptee parents and fear of losing their children, will the biological parent want to see the child who was given up, and how do all the children who become involved feel about this situation?

I had the feeling that the storyline involving Michelle was an afterthought but this might be because she is not in a family situation at this time. Having said that, her story made the whole situation a little more realistic because, of all the sub-stories, her’s did not end in a ‘happy ever after situation’.

I was also quite amused that Bill, the piano tuner, could have reaped so many rewards or otherwise from his encounters before he met his wife Debbie. What are the odds?

Sisters and Brothers is an engaging story for those who persevere and brings to light many issues that could be controversial in today’s society.

Sisters and Brothers

(2018)

By Fiona Palmer

Hachette Aust.

ISBN: 978-0-7336-3701-8

$29.99; 384pp

 

84 K by Claire North

Reviewed by Dr Kathleen Huxley

This novel is a work of fiction written by a new voice in English Literature, Claire North. This name is a pseudonym for British author Catherine Webb who published previous, successful and acclaimed novels, ‘The first Fifteen Lives of Harry August’ and ‘Touch’ under the same nom de plume. In her day job Catherine works as a theatre lighting designer who is a fan of the urban magic of big cities. 84K is a work of dystopian literature that has been compared to Margaret Attwood’s The Handmaids Tale.

The novel begins and ends with the phrase ‘At the beginning and ending of all things……’ and is a recurrent phrase in the narrative alongside ‘Time is ….’. Past, present and future are repeated themes in the totalitarian vision of a society bereft of reason. We are taken into a world where we recognise familiar aspects of daily life overlaid with futuristic features that we can imagine but find abhorrent and intolerable. Despite the strangeness of the atrocities in our contemporary lives they echo ideas and concepts that we recognise as possibilities and predictions of societal evolution. The future is hinted at and there are glimmers of hope that humanism will prevail.

The tale follows the past and present travails of the protagonist ‘Theo Miller’ who is not really ‘Theo Miller’ but his close friend who has assumed his identity.

In the futuristic world where Theo now lives he works in the Criminal Audit Office, assessing each crime that is committed and making sure the correct debt to society is paid in full. He exists in a cold and automaton state with an unswerving reality that requires little in the way of emotions. He fulfils his duty as a ‘Company’ employee and asks few questions of his superiors. ‘Company men would run for parliament, Company newspapers would trumpet their excellence to the sky, Company TV stations would broadcast their election promises and say how wonderful they were. They would inevitably win, serve their seven years in office and then return to the banking or insurance branches happy to have completed their civic duty, and that was that. It was for the best the adverts said. This was how democracy worked: corporate and public interests working together at last, for the greater good.’

Despite everybody’s obedience and passivity to the ‘Company’ there is an undeclared consciousness amongst people  ‘we all knew, of course, Everyone knows, but no one looks. We don’t look because if we look it makes us evil because we aren’t doing something about it, or it makes us sad because we can’t do anything about it, or it proves we’re monsters when we always thought we were righteous because we won’t do anything about it. Either way safer not to look’.

Theo remembers important episodes of who he was and where he has come from with affection and poignancy. With one past relationship taking on a real and awakening significance, his burning quest is to fulfil the dream of a long-gone lover and find a girl who may be his daughter. The lengths he will go to and the risks he will take on this journey exhibit an emotional attachment that he has managed to erase from his life as a ‘Company’ man.

This book is a provocative look at what society might come to look like. It is a substantial novel that is well written, captivating and stirring.  It is a scary insight into what humans might be capable of doing to others and to themselves ‘just slaves to other people’s fortunes, crawling our way from the cradle to the grave and so…’.

The writing style of the author is thought-provoking and prompts us to understand and follow the narrative in an instinctive way. Altogether a fascinating account of what might happen in this opposite of the utopian society we strive for, one where we live as happy citizens with highly desirable qualities and social conditions. A timely warning of what may be possible in this unpredictable and less than honest world we currently inhabit.

84 K 

(2018)

by Claire North

Hachette Livre Australia

ISBN: 9780356507385

$29.99; 480pp