Archive for the ‘autobiography’ Category

“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.

A girl named Rose is riding her new bike near her home in Deadwood, South Dakota, when she falls through the earth. She wakes up at the bottom of a square hole, its walls glowing with intricate carvings. But the firemen who come to save her peer down upon something even stranger: a little girl in the palm of a giant metal hand.

Seventeen years later, the mystery of the bizarre artifact remains unsolved—its origins, architects, and purpose unknown. Its carbon dating defies belief; military reports are redacted; theories are floated, then rejected.

But some can never stop searching for answers.

Rose Franklin is now a highly trained physicist leading a top secret team to crack the hand’s code. And along with her colleagues, she is being interviewed by a nameless interrogator whose power and purview are as enigmatic as the provenance of the relic. What’s clear is that Rose and her compatriots are on the edge of unraveling history’s most perplexing discovery—and figuring out what it portends for humanity. But once the pieces of the puzzle are in place, will the result prove to be an instrument of lasting peace or a weapon of mass destruction?

Published by Michael Joseph

Supplied by Penguin Random House New Zealand

Reviewed by Jacqui

There are two important aspects to reviewing any novel; the story and how it is told. In the case of “Sleeping Giants” how it is told is so unusual, that I have to question whether it is technically a novel. It is certainly a work of fiction, but is written as a series of transcripts of interviews and reports, mostly involving a mysterious “Man in Black”. This gives a strange sense of remoteness from the characters and from events. The characters speak for themselves certainly, but the reader never gets inside their heads, to know what they are really thinking. If that style is going to irritate you, then don’t invest your time and money on this book.

Then there’s the story. Now, this is proper science fiction, utilising the well-trodden trope of alien artefacts, long buried on Earth, coming to the surface. Literally, in this case.

Where the author puts a contemporary spin on the story is to have various parts of the artefact spread around the planet, sometimes in less than easily accessible places, resulting in interesting political complications. I’m not entirely convinced by some of the events – the author stretches the long arm of coincidence a bit too far in places. And really the whole “backwards knees” thing is unnecessary (and most likely based on a common fallacy regarding avian anatomy). However, I did appreciate the references to both Biblical and Greek mythology (it is called the Themis Trilogy for a good reason).

0Overall, for me this book proved to be a solid win. There are negatives, but there are strong enough positives that it was an enjoyable read, and one I can safely recommend.


Human rights activist Park, who fled North Korea with her mother in 2007 at age 13 and eventually made it to South Korea two years later after a harrowing ordeal, recognized that in order to be “completely free,” she had to confront the truth of her past. It is an ugly, shameful story of being sold with her mother into slave marriages by Chinese brokers, and although she at first tried to hide the painful details when blending into South Korean society, she realized how her survival story could inspire others. Moreover, her sister had also escaped earlier and had vanished into China for years, prompting the author to go public with her story in the hope of finding her sister.

Fig Tree

Supplied by Penguin Random House New Zealand

Reviewed by Jan

Born into a subsistence-level existence in North Korea, Yeonmi’s father, a smuggler of metals, is sent to a labour camp and her family struggle even more.  When he is released, he is a broken man and dies quickly and quietly, leaving the family with no future. Yeonmi and her mother cross into China, leaving her sister behind.

Once there, they are split up and sold several times, with Yeonmi becoming harsh and eventually trafficking other girls to survive. They became friends with another North Korean illegal immigrant and planned their escape.  Almost in South Korea, they are found by Chinese and Korean missionaries who arranged for their passage and papers.

Safe in South Korea, they enter a program to adjust North Koreans to life there.  After several years Yeonmi goes to Costa Rica as a missionary with an American group.   After publishing her story, Yeonmi and her mother are reunited with her sister, who had also escaped to China.

This gives an insight into how North Korea is more than just a repressive country ruled by a fat dude with a bad haircut that threatens to launch nuclear weapons every time he has a bad day.  The poop competition made me laugh though.  I had never thought about how defectors are integrated into South Korea and found the re-education program interesting.

Heart-breaking, horrific, yet inspiring; this is a powerful book that everyone should read.  It’s amazing how Yeonmi can still smile and fight for the humans rights of others.


Reading this book was a labour of love that seemed Sisyphean and took far too long. Brand either writes as he speaks or this book is dictated and transcribed. It is full of contradictions. He perambulates through his ideas with digressions and unnecessary anecdotes. Critics have, justifiably in my opinion, called the book wandering and slated it. I struggled to read it at all. At times — and this is contrary to my character — I felt quite violent towards Russell Brand. Seeing his deftly threaded eyebrows on the cover had me itching for soap and a razor.

Nick Cohen of the Guardian called the book the “barmy credo of a Beverly Hills Buddhist.” In this uncharitable response he was far from alone. The criticisms have flown so hard and fast that criticizing the critics of this book has become a staple topic for columnists in the past weeks (

So, having read this book, with loud internal mutters of annoyance and occasional revulsion I am bemused to find myself wanting to offer it to other people. Alas, I got a lot out of it.

The Independent reviewer bemoaned that it was “typical of England to produce a revolutionary who offers no route map towards a revolution.”

Brand’s style is indeed peripatetic and his discourse personal. He is wealthy and eccentric and open about his feelings. This makes him a wonderful and apparently soft target. Yet the array of good minds he brings to his topic, in addition to his own, provide thoughtful support for his ideas and so his philosophy is not as easily dismissed as Brand himself.

Additionally, despite what the Independent says, Brand does provide laundry lists of action we could take to revolutionise society. He also offers examples of previous revolutions that have and haven’t worked as well as a consideration of why that has been the case. He untangles why he thinks we need a revolution at length (inequality, damage to the planet, poor representation, corruption etc).

If only the book had been heavily edited. I would love to take a red liner and cut out Brand’s lapses into poetry (p.61), typos (p.87 for example), baby talk (which had my head hitting the desk at p.313-315), self-contradictions (one moment he wants to throw molotovs and the next the process must be utterly non-violent), page long off topic rambles (p.132), and self-serving but irrelevant anecdotes (let me tell you about the time I hung out with Tom Cruise baby!).

A fact checker would also come in handy. Even someone as bad at math as I, raises their eyebrows when Brand says 10% of Londoners don’t have internet access, then proposes city wide Wi-Fi because “one fifth of the population are offline” (p.344).

I could happily trim his random attacks on people. It’s hard to find a group he doesn’t bash though of course rich people are a favourite target. Here is one example, found on page 133, of a baffling harangue about a random woman who displeased Brand:

“Nicola is a nervous flyer, which is annoying, because we all die in plane crashes, not just nervous people… They’re getting short shrift from me now, these blubbering sky-nancies. Phobias are like fetishes if you ask me, nurtured little perversions that the sufferers secretly enjoy.”

I sure didn’t need to be told what my reaction to this book would be (p.172) or that Brand has a big ego (numerous times). He says that he only had a few hours of research time and that he had to write 100,000 words (p.190 and p.172). Plus, he continually mocks the reader “you self-centred swine” (p.154).

It might have been kinder to the reader, who after all pays for the experience of reading this work, to encourage Brand to put more time into research and focus less on the word count.

Sometimes, the expression given to Brand’s credo is beautiful. The book design is a credit to the publisher. In all, as it stands, I recommend reading this book and will pass it onto others, because the message is good. But, just this once, can I please shoot the messenger?

Random House

Supplied by Random House New Zealand

Reviewed by Sally


Sally won a Julius Vogel award with her first book Deputy Dan & the Mysterious Midnight Marauder which you can purchase here:

Since she has had two short stories published in Baby Teeth and one in Fat Zombie. These anthologies are available from Amazon.
Please check her Facebook page or website for news about her first novel, Somewhere Else and its sequel Sunrise.

so anyway

Probably the best known of the Monty Python’s Flying Circus crew, John Cleese has worked in comedy since the early 1960s. In this, what I hope is his first volume of an autobiography, we follow the development of John Cleese from slightly bewildered and shy primary school child through socially awkward teenager and youth to budding thespian and the initial rungs of success following the launch of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

Cleese grew up in and around Weston-super-Mare, Somerset, and attended a steady progression of Public Schools before heading to Cambridge to pursue a law degree. He obligingly provides several interesting anecdotes from his schoolboy days, as well from his stint as a teacher at one of his former schools. The anecdotes and remembrances grow stronger and longer with his days at Cambridge and his friendship and professional relationship with Graham Chapman.

Cleese provides a broad insight into the forces, people, and circumstances that allowed him to progress from a prospective career in law to a successful career in comedy. He also explains the genesis of several well-known and much beloved Python sketches, many of which had their genesis at Cambridge. He also gives his insights and takes on the nature of comedy and how he believes his star characters, such as Basil Fawlty, should be interpreted.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book as did the people I lent it too. You will too.

Random House Books

Supplied by Penguin Random House New Zealand

Review by Steve

My Story

The truth behind Louise Nicholas’ claims of gang rapes by policeman that was one of the biggest court cases in New Zealand.

It tells the story of a girl who was 13 when the abuse by policeman first started and continued throughout her teens and twenties. It shows how badly she was let down by authorities and the legal system and shines a spotlight on how rape survivors are treated.

I was on the fence about this story when it first broke and I’d like to say a huge sorry to Louise for my doubts about her. The back-story was hugely informative and the evidence suppressed! That was disgusting, it should have been admitted! I was left with outrage justice wasn’t served and sympathy for victims, their families, and all the genuine police officers and others who fight for the truth.

Now fighting to change the system to stop victim blaming and serve up justice in New Zealand courts, Louise and the Rape Prevention agencies she works with are amazing. She helped police set up a training program for officers to learn how to work with victims of sexual assault and campaigns for funding to support them. I don’t know how she isn’t huddled in a corner somewhere crying but Louise is a fighter, a truly inspirational woman who is a survivor.

I think this book should be a must read for every New Zealander, especially teenagers as they go through school. It certainly was an eye opener for me.

Random House New Zealand

Supplied by Random House New Zealand

Reviewed by Jan

My Brief History

It is hard to believe that Stephen Hawking is 72 years old. But he is, and has written this memoir to prove it. By comparison with the Richard Dawkins memoir/autobiography I reviewed earlier, Hawking’s memoir is remarkably short at 126 pages. And that includes photos and truncations due to chapters. Not that it isn’t worth the read. But I got the distinct impression Hawking is decidedly uncomfortable writing about himself. The style is generally light and Hawking doesn’t entertain any fantasies about his own importance.

Stephen Hawking is still inspirational to many and My Brief History provides some insights as to why. Don’t expect revelations into physics but do expect appreciations of humanity.

Bantam Press

Supplied by Random House New Zealand

Reviewed by Steve

dear leader

Not much is known about life inside North Korea under the Communist Party regime. This is a first-hand account of how the totalitarian state is run, written by a former Party insider who defected.

It follows his early life as a doctor’s son, then rise through the ranks of the Party through to his service in the Literature Division. Then he returns home and has a good look at the lives of ordinary people and he begins to question the state’s ideas.

Sharing a forbidden foreign magazine with a friend who is also disillusioned, they are forced to flee when the magazine is accidentally left behind on a train. Knowing their families would be punished if they stay, they escape across the border to China on foot, hoping to reach South Korea and gain asylum. If found by the Chinese authorities they’ll be sent back, so their journey is perilous and nerve-wracking, with the kindness of strangers offering hope.

The stories of other refugees are shared, and bits of the hardships of North Korean life are shared. I was horrified for most of the book by the sufferings of   the people and the blindness of the regime’s leadership. The fate of female refugees in China was sobering and the courage and determination of returned refugees to escape again is immense. I was surprised by the cleverness of the Party regime in their diplomatic negotiating and hadn’t realised there was such a coldblooded, calculating method to their insane policies. The leadership of North Korea and reality are not on the same planet as each other and I’m so fortunate to live in New Zealand.


Supplied by Random House New Zealand

Reviewed by Jan

my two heavens

Some people do lead interesting lives… and some of them do write about it. With varying results, but this is one of the good ones. It fits into a curious little sub-genre; the offspring of cookbook and autobiography. It is a personal story interspersed with recipes, and illustrations of pictures; most of them drawings by the author’s partner, but some lovely colour photos in a section in the middle. So, not the usual pictures of food that you find in a cookbook; and I must admit that it might have helped to have some drawings and diagrams with some of the recipes.

The writing is evocative… those few days in Paris last year kept coming back to me as the author described her second home in France. There’s something of the travelogue here too, from New Zealand to Britain, France, Morocco, the Middle East and India. The recipes come from all those cuisines; and are well-written with abundant anecdotes explaining exactly how to get it right (and what can go wrong). The author has an enthusiasm for the history of food which I can certainly relate to.

I have only a few quibbles… if you’re going to write a personal history out of chronological order and wombling across the globe, it helps to put a place and date (even if it’s only a year) at the top of each section. The conclusion felt a bit weak… I guess that might be an autobiography thing, it’s not a genre I read in often. And the paper the book is printed on feels really rather pulpy – so sadly, it may not last as long as it deserves to.

Random House New Zealand

Supplied by Random House New Zealand

Reviewed by Jacqui

richard dawkins

This is part autobiography and part history of Richard Dawkins progenitors. Various members of previous generations of Dawkins had served the British Empire. Two generations served as foresters. A similar amount of colonial activity was undertaken by his maternal ancestors. The Dawkins also made a habit of attending Balliol College, and having, though not using the first name of Clinton. Dawkins admits his birth name is Clinton Richard Dawkins, and he was born in Kenya because his mother followed her husband there from Nyasaland (Malawi) when Dawkins pere was posted there during World War 2.

Richard Dawkins was not drawn to zoology, as several early incidents of his life indicate. However, he fell into once he arrived at Balliol, having been talked out of reading biochemistry instead. He charts his progression through the British academic world with candour, and shows great respect for the various people who mentored him on the way. Dawkins was not only fascinated by zoology, once he got underway, but by automated data collection and processing. Anecdotes about this take up more space than the discussion about the genesis and publication of his first book, The Selfish Gene. He also explains the development of his gene-centred view of evolution, for which he is famous throughout the wider science of biology.

Dawkins writes with affection, humour and modesty. This is not a boastful work showcasing how great Dawkins is. Nor does he push his atheism. Instead, he explains all the influences on his life, finding inspiration in the dedication of others. At approximately 300pages, it is an easy read, with nicely structured chapters and a collection of photographs showing both early family life and other actors in his story. Because this memoir is not only about him, it’s about his family and his academic friends.

I would recommend this book for those not only wanting to know more about Richard Dawkins, but also about the collegial nature of university research.

Bantam Press

Supplied by Random House New Zealand

Reviewed by Steve