Book reviews: One for the road - November 2013

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Peta Stavelli reviews extra-special new releases from New Zealand publishers and finds some stellar spring reads to recommend.

An English Affair, Richard Davenport-Hines, Harper Collins NZ, $25

While the subtitle of this book — Sex, Class and Power in the Age of Profumo — implies a racy revelation of new facts surrounding one of the most mesmerising scandals to rock post-war Britain, the alluring title is more of a nod to the fact sex sells. Yet, sex or no sex, this is one of the most exquisitely written and beautifully-paced non-fiction books I have ever read. I was incredulous at the pomposity, hypocrisy and rigidity of the upper-class English establishment into which good-time gals Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies stumbled, and ultimately fell. It is a meticulously-researched, compelling and hilarious portrayal of swinging sixties society as it fell in love with the tattle of the tabloids. Five stars for Davenport-Hines. Go to the top of the class.

A Walk a Day — 365 Short Walks in New Zealand, Peter Janssen, New Holland Publishers NZ, $35\

Peter Jansen's numerous best-selling short-walk guides, including Best Short Nature Walks and Exploring Aotearoa, clearly prove his ability to tap into the country's psyche. We are a nation of walkers. And no wonder, with one of the longest coastlines in the world and stunning natural resources throughout each region, walking has become one of the nation's favourite recreational pastimes. Yet, few of us can spare the time for the Great Walks, or even for tramps over several days. So this guide, which presents in a beautifully-illustrated regional format, 365 of the best walks of less than three hours duration, will no doubt be a welcome addition to your library.

The Virgin and the Whale, Carl Nixon, Random House NZ, $38

If I read a better novel this year, I will eat my socks. Although I am fairly certain it won't come to that. It would be hard to top this marvellous tale based on the true story of a New Zealand soldier (known only to himself as Lucky) who returned in 1919 from WW1 with no memory of his early, privileged life. Worse — from her perspective, at any rate — is the fact he cannot remember his wife whom he shuns completely in favour of living like a (dangerous and chained) animal in his room, eating from cans and refusing to bathe. A nurse is hired, until the professional jealousy of the chief psychiatrist of the local asylum leads to a recommendation that Lucky be committed. This is an extraordinary story based on the recollections of the nurse's letters, the memories of her son and woven exquisitely together by Nixon. Elegantly crafted, gripping and heart-warming. Five stars.

Ladies, a Plate, Alexa Johnston, Penguin Books NZ, $47

Give me a cookery book any day of any week and I'll be a happy camper poring over the pages, looking for inspiration I may never have cause to use. Never mind the naysayers who have never fallen prey to the sweet delights of the culinary arts and their purveyors. I'm a sucker and I know it, but rarely more so for a book such as this that brings us recipes, both new and classic, for preserves. Oh, the joy. Quince cheese masquerades as the original Dulce de Membrillo, bread and butter pickles feature, alongside a recipe for a good old-fashioned tomato sauce. And then there are the recipes for chilli sauce, home-made Worcester sauce and gorgeous gifts like apricot sauce and brandied fruits. No excuses. Now you can restore perfectly-preserved fruits and vegetables to their rightful place: on glorious show in your pantry.

Moa, Quinn Berentson, Craig Potton Publishing, $50

The fact Moa has already won two major book awards (The Royal Society of New Zealand Science Book prize and New Zealand Post's Best First Book Award) is not surprising. What is surprising is the modest cover price attached to a book of this calibre. From the cover to the conclusion and credits, Moa is a quality read and a book that you would feel proud to give as a gift — if you could bear to part with it, that is. The Giant Moa was the largest bird to have ever lived. It survived for millions of years until a rapid demise at the hands of human predators. This is a fascinating story, beautifully told and illustrated.

Kicking the Habit, Eleanor Stewart, New Holland Publishers NZ, $20

This book makes three reviewed in the past month about the 1960s. As well as being a period piece of that era, it unusually provides a fascinating glimpse into life in a French convent. Kicking the Habit is written by a lapsed nun who eventually returned to the UK to work as a midwife. Eleanor Stewart was eighteen (and no longer a vestal virgin) when she swapped Britain as it was firmly in the grips of Beatlemania, for the cloistered life. She writes with candour about her willing surrender and eventual struggle to adapt to an austere existence few of us could otherwise imagine.

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