IMG_0240I love reading books about history.

‘Buried Treasure; Travels Through The Jewel Box’ by Victoria Finlay (Sceptre; Hodder Headline) I thoroughly enjoyed Finlay’s book ‘Colour; Travels Through The Paintbox’ about colour pigments, so I was eager to read her book about jewels. Finlay travels the world to mines, markets and museums to tell the stories of each jewel. Research, interviews and anecdotes combine to create a rich, readable account of why, in an era when we can manufacture synthetics, jewels still hold their appeal. Each of the chapters is devoted to a jewel in ascending order of hardness; from amber to diamonds. We are introduced to the jewel with its own fascinating story including ancient conifers producing sap in The Baltics to produce amber (sometimes with 40 million year old insects in it), the history of jet worn for mourning in Victorian times, the fascinating evolution of Mikimoto pearls, underground towns in Australian for opals, how Nero used emeralds in the lenses of his theatre glasses and the advertising coup of diamonds, birthstones and anniversary stones. A fantastic read.

Read my interview with Victoria Finlay here.

Visit Victoria Finlay’s website here and follow her on Twitter; @victoriafinlay and Instagram; @buzzcolour.

IMG_0234‘The King’s Speech; How One Man Saved The British Monarchy’ by Mark Logue and Peter Conrad (Quercus; Pan Macmillan) This book gave an intriguing insight in to The English Royal Family, speech and speech therapy. Based on the recently discovered diaries of Lionel Logue, a self-taught Australian speech therapist, and written with Logue’s grandson, we learn about  the Duke of York’s unexpected rise to king (King George VI) after his eldest brother Edward VIII’s abdication in 1936. Never considered to be trained to be king, the Duke of York was a married man with two small daughters (the eldest of whom is Elizabeth, later to become Queen Elizabeth II) and was a nervous, tongue-tied speaker. The introduction and demands of radio impacted on the new king’s speech as he was required to make broadcasts. We live through the king and his wife’s (the late Queen Mother) anguish and concern. The combination of Logue’s casual, informal style and the required formal style of the Royal Family is awkward, funny and endearing.

IMG_0238‘The Story Of English In 100 Words’ by David Crystal (Profile Books; Allen & Unwin) Crystal picks 100 words and lists them chronologically since the first English word was written down in the 5th Century to create a highly entertaining read. We learn of words inspired by trade (taffeta, gingham, calico, chintz, khaki, cameo, volcano, mosquito, potato) and economic and cultural factors (robot, earthling). We read about how, with the use of English, Latin and French in the English language, terms were adopted to make sure everything was covered; therefore we get the phrases goods and chattels, peace and quiet, will and testament. We hear of how hello became popular when the phone was invented, places which have loaned their names to words; brie, champagne, banish, jerseys, Brussels sprouts and words associated with people; cardigan, leotard, wellingtons, pavlova, sandwich. Crystal writes about nouns turning into verbs; Google was launched in September 1998 and by December 1998 people were googling and words that are replaced in different version of book; British versions of Harry Potter have crumpets, crisps, cookers, dustbins, jumpers and philosophers whereas in the US editions we find English muffins, chips, stoves, trashcans, sweaters and sorcerers. I really enjoyed this book.

IMG_0242‘Tsar; The Lost World Of Nicholas and Alexandra’ by Peter Kurth (Back Bay Books; Hachette) Kurth establishes the history and culture that Nicholas and Alexandra inherited as a young couple who ruled one sixth of the world. Tracing both their childhood and family histories and combining these with images from their private collections creates a fascinating document. Beautiful photos from the family’s own photo albums are interwoven with stunning contemporary photos of the palaces and places the Romanov family knew well. Happier times in The Imperial City, Faberge eggs, Russian Imperial Ballet, wonderful holiday places, the Imperial Train, exerts from the family members’ diaries, the Imperial daughters’ portraits when they were war nurses are all depicted and explained right up to the family’s devastating finale and aftermath. The richness and beauty of the Russian culture was fascinating and captivating.

IMG_0235For Love Of A Rose; The Story Of The Creation Of the Famous Peace Rose’ by Antonia Ridge (Faber and Faber; Allen and Unwin) I really enjoyed the gentle and warm way that this book was written. It’s the true story of two families who loved roses. We are introduced to each of the main characters from 1884 onwards and we get a great sense of their character, French and Italian cultures and interests in life. We are enveloped in life in Italy and France, to becoming a gardener in French parks, to rose-growing, developing roses, the rose industry and the business of naming roses . Two of the characters later marry and we follow their passion and development of roses. Their work results in what is eventually known as the famous Peace Rose at the end of World War II. It reminded me of my dear maternal grandfather who loved to potter in his garden and had quite a ‘green thumb’. My grandfather helped his three younger brothers buy florist shops in Collins Street, The Block Arcade and Kew in Melbourne when they came back from the war and later bought land in the Dandenong Ranges where they grew flowers for their businesses.

IMG_0236‘China; Land Of Dragons and Emperors’ by Adeline Yen Mah (Random House) I loved reading about the first paper made and the invention of silk, porcelain, printing and matches which were all invented in China. Yen Mah’s love and fascination with her country of origin is endearing and contagious. She walks us through the different Chinese dynasties and discusses why they were so important and powerful. Lucky numbers, what different colours mean, festivals, dragons, The Terracotta Army, The Silk Road and The Great Wall of China are all integral parts of Chinese history and culture and are all discussed and analysed.  We learn about how and why rice and tea became synonymous with China. This was a fascinating study of a rich and intriguing culture.

IMG_0239‘The Children’s House Of Belsen’ by Hetty E. Verolme (Werma Pty. Ltd. ATF) This memoir about a horrific time in history was informative, devastating and powerful. It’s one of the remarkable, largely untold stories of the Holocaust ; the extraordinary struggle and survival of this group of children through unbelievably inhumane situations. Verolme’s  family in The Netherlands was torn apart in 1943 during World War II. Separated from her parents, Verolme is sent to the Children’s House within the Belsen concentration camp and she becomes the ‘little mother’ there; helping to care for her siblings and other children in dire circumstances. Many, many times during this book I cried at the terrible and almost unimaginable situations these children were in. A story of triumph against all odds, Verolme survives to emigrate to Australia and becomes a successful business woman.

IMG_0237‘Long Walk To Freedom’ by Nelson Mandela (Abacus; Hachette) When my parents moved out of the house I was born in and they had lived in for 36 years, this book was needing a new home. I thought it would be a good book to read as it was about an area of history I didn’t know so much about. The book is Mandela’s memoir of his times from his childhood until his release from jail after 27 years in 1990. Mandela started writing this book when he was in Robben Island prison. The manuscript was confiscated and later retrieved. The submersion into African culture was immediate from the start of the book and you get a real sense of history and culture of the various tribes, areas and groups. We get a real and alarming insight into the racial conflicts and inequalities. Mandela’s foray into law was fascinating and the leadership style which he developed resulted from his history of conflict and persecution is inspiring. I enjoyed reading such an eloquent story about this courageous, interesting, powerful and important contemporary man.

IMG_0241‘Flower Hunters’ by Mary Gribbin and John Gribbin (Oxford University Press) Who knew that botany could be such a risky occupation? Why is tea grown in India? Have you ever wondered how Botany Bay in Australia got its name? Where did the Douglas Fir tree initially come from?  Looking at 11 early explorers and botanists who sailed the globe before travel was made easier, we read about men and women risking disease, hunger and life to find specimens in hostile environments including being chased by hyenas, lions, buffalos with some of the botanists exploring 12,000 miles on foot, horseback and canoe often through unexplored territory. Many specimens including monkey puzzle trees, orchids, azaleas, Bird of Paradise flowers, magnolias, proteas and two of my favourite flowers ; gardenias (from Tahiti) and orchids (some from North America) were sought out or stumbled across by accident and brought back to countries as prized specimens. A great read about scientific discovery and the adventurous, determined people behind the discoveries.

IMG_0233‘A Shorter History Of Australia’ by Geoffrey Blainey (Vintage; Random House) This book guided me through history and events which have challenged, surprised, frustrated and delighted inhabitants of our dry, vast and isolated land. Starting when the water level of the sea was higher and some of the areas which are now underwater were then land, we read about Tasmania becoming separated from the Australian mainland, to Aboriginal travel, to exploration and travel routes, sheep grazing, modes of travel to and also within the continent, gold rushes, multicultural societies, the establishment of parliaments and the role of Antarctica. Blainey explains how and why Australia’s love of sport grew, how the unusual native Australian animals, birdlife, trees and flowers combined with strong light inspired unique paintings, poetry and songs, including ‘Waltzing Matilda’, the attitudes to and the conflict of war, Australia’s proposal to become a republic in 1992, the recognition of Aboriginal past and how new inventions changed the social and environment of Australia. We are illuminated as to the intricacies and changing identity of Australia in a most engaging way.

Read more of my reviews of books about history here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here.

Read more of my reviews of biographies here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here.

Read more of my reviews of books about design and architecture here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here.

Read more of my reviews of non-fiction books here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here.

Read more of my reviews of classic books here, here, here, here, here, here and here.

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