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Do try this at home

Dale Williams reviews recent non-fiction releases.

Astonishing intelligence: octopuses can form bonds with people. Photo/Thinkstock

Taylor Wilson promised his mother he would not make a nuclear reactor in the house – so he relocated it to the garage. Arkansas prodigy Wilson was born to be a physicist, and science writer Tom Clynes’ excellent account of a gifted child’s self-development into the youngest person in history to achieve nuclear fusion is THE BOY WHO PLAYED WITH FUSION: EXTREME SCIENCE, EXTREME PARENTING, AND HOW TO MAKE A STAR (Faber & Faber, $36.99). It reflects on the part parental help played in furthering Wilson’s talent and ambitions, and an absorbing epilogue examines available help for the parents of gifted US children.

With three hearts, mouths in their armpits and a brain wrapped around their throat, octopuses are difficult to anthropomorphise, and US naturalist Sy Montgomery is respectful in this affectionate account of the animals’ behaviour and personalities. She describes her experiences with both aquarium and wild octopuses in THE SOUL OF AN OCTOPUS: A SURPRISING EXPLORATION INTO THE WONDER OF CONSCIOUSNESS (Atria Books, $29.99). Montgomery marvels at their Houdini-like escape talents and their astonishing intelligence – octopuses can form bonds with people and enjoy retrieving food from inside nested locked boxes. After extracting the food, one eight-armed mastermind even screwed the lid back on.

For a real-life thriller, try Maximillian Potter’s SHADOWS IN THE VINEYARD: THE TRUE STORY OF THE PLOT TO POISON THE WORLD’S GREATEST WINE (Hachette, $34.99). Based on a 2010 crime, this describes the ransom plot to poison the vines – in a crop circle pattern – of one of the world’s most exclusive and expensive French vineyards, La Romanée-Conti. Although a leisurely and ornamented retelling, with long detours into Californian wine history and Madame de Pompadour’s feud with an early Conti, this will hold the attention of wine buffs (or indeed poison buffs).

The banking Gutmanns were renowned for their illustrious collection of art, furniture and fine silver before their Dutch home was ransacked in 1941 and the senior Gutmanns sent to concentration camps. THE ORPHEUS CLOCK: THE SEARCH FOR MY FAMILY’S ART TREASURES STOLEN BY THE NAZIS (Scribe, $40) tells of the family’s 60-year quest for restitution. Grandson Simon Goodman details his exhaustive detective work, the rigid standards of proof demanded of the victims and the determination of many well-known institutions, auction houses and collectors to hang onto their stolen treasures. Not the most comfortable reading, and the guilty will resent being identified, but let justice prevail.

Although it’s doubtful that business analyst Edward Tse fully defines the “how” in his CHINA’S DISRUPTORS: HOW ALIBABA, XIAOMI, TENCENT AND OTHER COMPANIES ARE CHANGING THE RULES OF BUSINESS (Portfolio Penguin, $38), he provides more than enough eye-popping statistics, company success stories such as Huawei, and competent sketches of the new breed of entrepreneurs such as Jack Ma to give plenty of food for thought. Up-to-the-minute and well-informed, this is essential reading for anyone trying to make sense of where world business and international investment are heading – and good luck with that.


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