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Book reviews: October 2020

3 min read

Pick of the month

Mystical Places
Sarah Baxter
Allen and Unwin
Reviewed by Esha Chanda

I’ve always liked stories, whether narrated through books, movies, or even through mere conversations. Whether factual or fictional, stories have navigated the passage of time, adapting to the many tools humans have developed to share them: eons ago, it was etched on parchments and stones; today, there’s Netflix and e-books.

But among these many tales, a personal favourite has been the ones bearing mythical kings, scared summits, giants, ghosts, and golems. And at the heart of such parables are the places that are equally mystical.

Sarah Baxter’s book delves into this enchanting world full of magic, folklore, and beautiful places. There’s a magical pilgrimage to Alfaborg, the City of Elves; the otherworldly splendour of Xandadu, the heart of a lost dynasty; and the gateway to the afterlife in the Alepotrypa Cave.

The pages are filled with beautiful illustrations that conjure the legends born in these places. Part of the ‘Inspired Traveller’s Guide’ series, the book is perfect to flip through on a clear blue spring day as you kick back, relax, and enter a different world.

More good reads

Agent Sonya
Ben Macintyre
Penguin Random House
Reviewed by Steve Atkinson

I always wondered about the backstory of how the Russians got hold of the plans to the A-Bomb.

It turns out the diminutive Agent Sonya was one of the primary people who put the plan together, organised the mole, and help funnel the stolen intel out of Britain and into the hands of the Reds.

But prior to this 1940’s covert operation, the unassuming German-born Jewish housewife had a secret-intelligence history spanning a number of years and it seems an even larger number of countries.

Her story is a page-turner and has not been given its historical significance by the underplayed book title. This is superior to the best spy thrillers and made all the better by being a true story. Buy it, read it. An almost unbelievable story.

Lesley Blume
Reviewed by Esha Chanda

Seventy-five years ago, when the US dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima on 6 August 1945, little was known about the consequences. And then a second bomb was dropped.

The war ended, but for weeks afterwards, Lt Gen. Leslie Groves, the man who had directed the programme, continued to dismiss reports on the radiation sickness that had spread after thousands of people absorbed the dangerous doses during the morning of the bombing. Many were sick; some even dying, and all along, the US hid the true extent and nature of the devastation.

The cover-up continued with the cities closed to Allied reporters in an attempt to block any information from leaking out. And the efforts kept on intensifying until New Yorker journalist John Hersey got into Hiroshima and the truth unfold.

The story, no doubt when released, caught global attention. The 30,000-word report described the experiences of six survivors of the atomic attack. It was then published as a book Hiroshima and millions of copies were sold.

Today, 74 years after the story was first revealed, a new book unpacks an important piece of hidden history that shows how one heroic scoop saved the world. And maybe it still can. A nuclear attack hasn’t happened since the Hiroshima Nagasaki bombings and hopefully, it never will, but it is important for the world to discuss the impact of this threat to humans. The next one will spell doomsday for Earth.

A highly recommended read.

Sweat and Toil – The Building of New Zealand
John McLean
Tross Publishing
Reviewed by Tony Orman

This 252-page book features the story of some amazing construction feats of the 19th Century in the big public works projects that created roads, railways, viaducts, lighthouses, and other utilities. Involved were skilful engineers and surveyors, adept work-managers in contractors, and, of course, the ‘sweat and toil’ of the workers themselves.

Author John McLean is the great, great-grandson of John McLean who founded the firm of John McLean and Sons, which became the largest firm of public works contracts and which carried out many projects.

Readers will almost certainly marvel at the perseverance and good old-fashioned guts of workers and the precision of engineers and surveyors. The Otira tunnel for example – when the two drills met the difference was only about 2.5cm over its eight-kilometre length.

Highly recommended. 

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