The best books that embrace show business and history

Who am I?

I’ve been an actor and a writer all my life. After many years performing in theatre and television in both Australia and the UK, I turned my hand to prose and revelled in the creative freedom. Thirty years and sixteen novels later I’m still revelling. As both actor and writer, the mix of fact and fiction has always intrigued me and I love travelling my characters through historical times of great impact, particularly upon Australia. In 2015 I was honoured to be made a Member of the Order of Australia for my service to the performing arts as an actor and to literature as an author.


I wrote...

Showtime!

By Judy Nunn,

Book cover of Showtime!

What is my book about?

Showtime! takes the reader on a journey from the cotton mills of England and the orphanages of London to the gold mining towns ‘Down Under’ and the magnificent theatres of Melbourne and Sydney. This work of historical fiction is a trip through the world of Australian show business in its wildest days from the 1880s to the end of the First World War. 

Following the mid-19th century gold rushes, Australia became a mecca for the thousands who rushed from every corner of the globe and Melbourne went from country backwater to the most cosmopolitan, fastest-growing city in the world. And close on the heels of the hopefuls came the entrepreneurs who knew only too well that where people craved gold, they also craved entertainment.

The books I picked & why

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The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay

By Michael Chabon,

Book cover of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay

Why this book?

For me, no book connects more wonderfully the themes of show business and history than The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. Opening with the daring escape of a young Jewish magician from the clutches of Hitler to unite with his equally young cousin, a devotee of the burgeoning comic book craze, in America, this novel is about as theatrical as it gets. The two teenagers scale the heights of invention creating new comic book heroes who enthrall America as World War 2 brings the earth crashing all about them. It’s thrilling, compelling, funny, utterly engrossing and one of my favourite novels of all time.


A Gentleman in Moscow

By Amor Towles,

Book cover of A Gentleman in Moscow

Why this book?

This is one of the most beautifully written books I’ve ever read, and again with a wonderfully theatrical flavour. When Count Rostov is placed under house arrest for life by the Russian Bolsheviks his prison becomes - to me anyway - a glorious theatre set inhabited by the most fascinating cast of characters you’re ever likely to meet. Why? Because his prison just happens to be the opulent Hotel Metropol in central Moscow, with the finest of wines, haute cuisine, and five-star service. 

The hotel’s highly colourful inhabitants include a Russian chef, a French maitre d’hotel, a philosophical bartender, and a capable seamstress, all of whom mingle with political hierarchy, princes, famous actresses, poets, orchestra conductors and the like. This book is such a feast of delights that as you savour every mouthful you don’t even realise you’ve been treated to a fantastically constructed story until you get to the end.      


Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

By Yuval Noah Harari,

Book cover of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

Why this book?

Sapiens blew my brain, as I believe it did the brains of many millions of readers all over the world. I’m aware some scholars disagree with Harari’s theories, but I’m no scholar and I found them riveting. In fact, Harari really did open my eyes to a great many things that made a great deal of sense to me. I have also read the following two books of his trilogy – Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century – which I found equally compelling, although rather bleak in the final prognosis. However, his writing is so accessible, his use of analogy and metaphor for complex situations so clever that one grasps every argument in an instant. As the ‘blurb’ promised, Sapiens really did ‘change the way I view life’. And one can’t help but be impressed by that, surely. 


Identity Crisis

By Ben Elton,

Book cover of Identity Crisis

Why this book?

Identity Crisis is the most delicious satire! It is so much a send-up of modern times it will unfortunately date, and all too quickly become tomorrow’s history. But I don’t care. I will always find this one of the funniest books I have ever had the pleasure to read - indeed a wickedly witty laugh-out-loud on every page. Anyone who chooses to find the political incorrectness that abounds in Identity Crisis offensive really will need to delve deep in order to discover their obviously lost or sadly under-developed sense of humour.  


Grand Days

By Frank Moorhouse,

Book cover of Grand Days

Why this book?

There is one major reason I include Grand Days in my list of "best" books and her name is Edith Campbell Berry. Some might suggest that as Edith happens to be an Australian character and Frank Moorhouse an Australian author I’m favouring the pair, being Australian myself. But this is definitely not so. To me, Edith Campbell Berry is one of the most beautifully conceived heroines in literary fiction. And when I make this sweeping statement I include every great leading lady you can think of. 

From the moment I met Edith on the train from Paris to Geneva where she was to take up her position with the newly-created League of Nations in the 1920s, I was captivated. She is wickedly naïve, worldly innocent, outrageously proper and every other contradiction imaginable. She continued to bewitch me in Frank Moorhouse’s companion Edith novels, Dark Palace and Cold Light, but if you decide to introduce yourself to her do start with Grand Days


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