Archive for December, 2017

“Out of the secret world I once knew, I have tried to make a theatre for the larger worlds we inhabit. First comes the imagining, then the search for reality. Then back to the imagining, and to the desk where I’m sitting now.”

From his years serving in British Intelligence during the Cold War, to a career as a writer that took him from war-torn Cambodia to Beirut on the cusp of the 1982 Israeli invasion to Russia before and after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, le Carré has always written from the heart of modern times. In this, his first memoir, le Carré is as funny as he is incisive, reading into the events he witnesses the same moral ambiguity with which he imbues his novels.

Whether he’s writing about the parrot at a Beirut hotel that could perfectly mimic machine gun fire or the opening bars of Beethoven’s Fifth, visiting Rwanda’s museums of the unburied dead in the aftermath of the genocide, celebrating New Year’s Eve 1982 with Yasser Arafat and his high command, interviewing a German woman terrorist in her desert prison in the Negev, listening to the wisdoms of the great physicist, dissident, and Nobel Prize winner Andrei Sakharov, meeting with two former heads of the KGB, watching Alec Guinness prepare for his role as George Smiley in the legendary BBC TV adaptations, or describing the female aid worker who inspired the main character in The Constant Gardener, le Carré endows each happening with vividness and humor, now making us laugh out loud, now inviting us to think anew about events and people we believed we understood.

Best of all, le Carré gives us a glimpse of a writer’s journey over more than six decades, and his own hunt for the human spark that has given so much life and heart to his fictional characters


Supplied by Penguin Random House New Zealand

Reviewed by Steve

The Pigeon Tunnel has been, by his own admission, the working title for all of John Le Carré’s books. Fittingly, it is the title for his first memoir (if the back cover blurb is to be believed). This is not a grand autobiography whereby the author tries to illuminate every minute of his or her life. Rather it is a collection of anecdotes, just under forty, that cover the length and breadth of the author’s experience.

John Le Carré is the penname of David Cornwell, son of a conman. He sort of fell into the world of espionage while working for the British Diplomatic Service in Germany, and became a novelist despite the Official Secrets Act. He has written more than 20 novels, mostly psychological spy-fi rather than action thrillers. The Cold War served as the backdrop to much of his pre-1990 work. Many of his books have been made into films or adapted to television, or both in the case of The Night Manager.

Being both an ex-spy and a novelist has allowed Le Carré the opportunity to meet a large number of extraordinary people in less than usual circumstances, such as Yasser Arafat in Beirut and a German terrorist held by the Israelis in the Negev Desert. He recounts quite a few of these in his usual sparse yet descriptive style. Being a former spy, many of his subjects assume he is still in active contact with his erstwhile employers. Le Carré lives with the forlorn hope this will cease, but it does make for more interesting anecdotes. The period covered is from his childhood/adolescence until quite recently.

Always entertaining and rarely deprecating of his subjects, Le Carré kept me interested throughout this memoir. I can thoroughly recommend this book to anyone.

Season’s Greetings

Posted: December 25, 2017 in nonfiction

In The Good Dirt, landscape designer Xanthe White goes beneath the surface to reveal the secrets to successful gardening. As the title suggests, this book is all about the soil we find in our garden and more particularly how we can maximize its growing potential.

If you’ve ever wondered why some plants thrive in one location but struggle in your own backyard you’ll be likely to find explanations in the soil below. Xanthe White examines the five main soil types found in New Zealand and offers advice on how to get the best from each one by working in harmony with nature.

Complete with ingredients guides for each soil type and ideas and design features to enhance its fertility, this is an essential companion for anyone looking to establish a new garden or improve their existing one.

Random House New Zealand

Supplied by Penguin Random House New Zealand

Reviewed by Jacqui

Okay, now this is something different. It’s a gardening book, and I have a few of those; but it’s also intended to be a science book. It is a book about the science of soil, specifically about New Zealand soils, which are notoriously deficient in a whole bunch of nutrients.

Now, I’m hardly an expert in the field, but I do have a background in both science and education, and I have to say that this work is somewhat inadequate in both departments. The author is a landscape gardener, and clearly very experienced in her field, but I can sense a certain lack of depth to her understanding of the geology and chemistry that underlie soil science.

The book is organised by the types of soils; but what is missing is the section at the beginning that describes soil types, how they come about, and how to tell them apart so you know what you’re dealing with. I have misgivings as a science educator when terms like pH are used without explanation, because I know that many people have forgotten what chemistry they learned in high school, and some won’t even got far enough to have come across that concept.

There’s a lot of wordage given over to anecdotal material, which might be interesting, but isn’t always relevant. It all seems a bit superficial.

If you’re looking for the good dirt on New Zealand dirt, this book might entertain you for a while, but I think you’d soon be looking elsewhere for something more solid.

After a daring chase across the globe, Tim Barnabas and Clara Calland have brought Clara’s scientist father’s secret formula to Westralia. Here, much of Australia is simply too hot to be habitable by day. Duke Malcolm, of the Imperial Security Service, transports Claras rebel-father to a prison in Eastern Australia, hoping to bait her into attempting a rescue. Clara looks to Tim for help, only to find he has fled a racist incident into the desert. She takes a burrowing machine know as a “steam mole” in search of him. The two head to Eastern Australia, where they discover an invading force with plans to take Westralia.


Published by Pyr

Purchased from Bookwyrms (some time ago)

Reviewed by Jacqui Smith

This is the sequel to Dave’s young adult novel Cuttlefish which I reviewed recently, and features the continuing adventures of Tim Barnabas and Clara Calland. Tim, along with the crew of the Cuttlefish, is stuck in Westralia, while the submarine is repaired. He takes a job working on the steam moles, digging tunnels to the mines north of the Tropic of Capricorn where it has become so hot that the trains must go underground. Only it all goes wrong, and he escapes into the desert… Meanwhile, Clara’s mother is poisoned by an Imperial agent and is sick in hospital. Clara learns that her father is incarcerated in Imperial territory in Queensland, and sets about attempting a rescue. When she finds Tim is missing, she steals a scout steam mole and follows him out into the desert.

I think you can see where this is going. You get a rollicking steampunk adventure, with a touch of romance, set in the Australian desert. It’s a lot of fun. The star of the show, however, is not the characters, but the steam mole itself. Dave does a masterwork job of creating this wonderful steampunk device, making it thoroughly believable.

The story ends happily for all concerned, save the villains, who get what they deserve. Perhaps it’s a bit simplistic for some, but I found it a good read, and one I can happily recommend to young and old, especially if they are fascinated by unusual mechanical devices.