THE SECRET COUNTESS by Eve Ibbotson

This novel was intended by the author to be adult fiction when first published in 1981, but it found such a strong following among younger readers, that it has since been republished as young adult fiction. It is a credit to the writer, who would be 90 this year if still alive, that she has so successfully been able to place a foot in both camps.

The secret countess is 19 year old Anna Grazinsky, daughter of Count and Countess Grazinsky who lost everything with the Bolshevik uprising of 1916. Her father dead, Anna has fled Russia with her mother, brother, and countless other aristocrats, ending up in London and taken in by her former governess. Anna has courage, pluck, and plenty of smarts. She decides to get a short term job as a servant in order to contribute to the household's income, talking her way into a position at the country estate of an English aristocratic family.

What follows is fairly predictable for us older jaded readers, but this never detracts from the nicely paced story telling, the upstairs/downstairs characters, shenanigans, and various eccentric English people. Anna charms her way into the hearts of everyone, well almost everyone, never letting her secret out, determined to pay her way. The author is Austrian by birth, escaping to England in the early 1930s with her mother, making me suspect some elements of this are autobiographical.

I really liked this with plenty of action, easy to read, some depth and complexity, a good number of twists and turns, a most satisfying outcome, and I  can see why it appeals to both the younger and the older reader. 

THE MEMORY STONES by Caroline Brothers

"The Grandmothers are not afraid. The worst that could happen to them has already happened. Their voices challenge the military regime that continues to deny the existence of the disappeared" Strong words from the Grandmothers of the Plaza De Mayo, set up by a group of grandmothers in Buenos Aires in 1977 whose children were among the thousands of 'disappeared' following the military coup of 1976-1983. Among the disappeared were many young people, including what is estimated to be 500 pregnant women. They gave birth to their babies while imprisoned, were subsequently disposed of and their babies adopted out to military families. This powerful and heart wrenching  novel is the fictional story of one family, although if you do some on-line research, this story could be that of any one of the real families. To date 126 grandchildren have been located and identified, often bringing about considerable emotional shock and trauma for the grandchildren themselves, who had no idea at all of their origins. 

In this story, Osvaldo Ferrero, a surgeon, and his wife Yolanda, a teacher, have two daughters. Julieta has married and lives in Florida, while Graciela, still a student is engaged to Jose, who works with the city's poor, empowering them with jobs, education. Once martial law takes over in 1976, the reign of terror begins. Osvaldo is forced to flee Argentina as the result of a cartoon he draws which is published in a left wing paper. Jose and by association Graciela are taken away, never to be seen again. Yolanda is left, in total despair, fear and shock, to continue living in her ruined city. She joins the Grandmothers and so begins her search for her daughter and Jose. Meantime Osvaldo lives in exile in Paris, never to be a surgeon again. 

For many years, the rest of the world never really knew what was going on in Argentina, and so it is for Osvaldo and Yolanda. Osvaldo is consumed with guilt at deserting his wife and daughter, Yolanda is completely powerless in her role as mother and wife not being able to do either, Julieta cannot visit her mother for fear of not being allowed to return to Florida,  and Graciela, well, we pretty much know what happened to her. But nothing remains secret forever, and as the months and years pass, snippets of information come to the couple, and they are slowly able to piece together what happened to their daughter.  Over the course of 20-30 years, they come to terms with the shattering of their family, just one with hundreds of other families and in the end find a way to move forward. 

As you can imagine there is a lot of very intense emotion going on here, and the author is brilliant at capturing what is going on the hearts and souls of the characters. We have no idea really what it would be like to be in the situation of any of the characters, how we would feel, or behave, but the author makes it very easy for us to imagine the horror, the distress, the fear and awfulness of it all. I loved this book, it was a total page turner, although I feel it did drag a little in the middle.  Doesn't stop me giving it 5 out of 5. I couldn't help but become a little consumed with the fact that this only happened forty years ago, very recent history, and how quickly lives and a society can be ripped apart by the power crazy actions of a few. 





STREET OF ETERNAL HAPPINESS: BIG CITY DREAMS ALONG A SHANGHAI ROAD by Rob Schmitz

Judging from Trip Advisor, Changle Lu in Shanghai is a very interesting street to spend a bit of time on. It is in the historic French Concession, a very modern mix of old buildings now converted into boutiques, eateries, bars etc, and new high rises. It would appear to have enough charm left in it for a stroll. It is on this street that the author of this book lives, in an apartment building with his wife and young child. He is the Shanghai correspondent for National Public Radio, and has lived off and on in China since 1996 when he was a Peace Corp Volunteer. The changes he has seen in that twenty years form the basis to this book, a mini bio of some of the people who live and work on this historic street, and a heart warming tribute to their spirt, their doggedness, quiet determination, and all round human - ness.

Being a journalist of course, he knows the questions to ask and how to nurture these relationships along, the result being these great snapshots of lives that have gone through an absolute roller coaster of economic, political and cultural change in the last 70 years. There is CK, probably in his 30s, having varying degrees of success in operating a dining establishment and bizarrely the import licencee for a high quality line of Italian piano accordions; there is Zhao Shiling, a wife and mother who ran away from her rural village, becoming a flower seller and now responsible for her two adult sons; the long suffering and now elderly residents of Maggie Lane who have seen their homes destroyed around them; Uncle Feng and Aunty Fu in constant disagreement over how to make money; and finally a mysterious box of letters. In his sensitive and careful questioning, Schmitz extracts stories that are probably a snapshot of many communities in modern day China. Over shadowing everything in the lives and histories of these people are the appalling and devastating policies of Mao Zhe-Tsung and his Communist rule. Awful things happened to these families in past decades, the effects still being felt now. Yet despite these shadows, there is huge optimism and a definite sense of getting there one day. The people Schmitz writes about are very ordinary, but they want a secure financial future, they want their children married and in good jobs, they want good jobs themselves. And they are willing to try anything to achieve these goals, which makes for some great stories and encounters. No matter where we come from, or what we have come from, we will always have dreams and schemes to get there. A real gem of a book.


A LONG WAY FROM HOME by Peter Carey

There is so much life in this novel, such exuberance and energy. It was a delight to read, at times flamboyant in its language, always deliciously descriptive and vivid, rich and colourful from beginning to end. How does one make the arid and rugged landscape of Australia lush and stunning - I don't know but somehow Peter Carey, winner of the Booker Prize twice, as well as numerous other awards, does.

It's a bit of a romp, but there is also a serious side to this novel, essentially about two people finding themselves, discovering who they really are, emerging from the restraints society has placed on them. This is 1950s Australia, still dealing with the consequences of British colonialism, dealing not terribly successfully with the Aboriginal people, and simply trying to make it, to get ahead in life, make a better life than one's parents had.

Irene Bobs is married to Titch Bobs, the most successful Ford car salesman in his region of Victoria. They have two young children, life is pretty good, except for Titch's appalling father Dan. To get away from Dan, Irene and Titch move the family to the town of Bacchus Marsh, 33 miles from Melbourne and home town of Peter Carey himself. Irene is one clever woman, under rated and under-appreciated as many women in post-war Australia were. She sees a Holden dealership is the future for her and Titch, but there is the problem of raising enough money to open their own dealership. Winning the Redex Trial, a wild and crazy car race all around the perimeter of Australia would set them up perfectly. Irene is also a most talented driver, she loves to drive fast, by the seat of her pants, and she knows they have a chance. So she enters herself and Titch, and their navigator Willie Bachhuber.

Their navigator, Willie, is an intriguing young man, only 27 years old, a school teacher who loves geography, a failure in love, and has also got himself into a spot of bother at his latest school. He happens to live next door to the Bobs family and is slowly pulled into their slightly chaotic family life. Recognising his incredible talent with maps, geography and anything to do with direction, Irene talks him into becoming the navigator. And so the scene is set for an endurance test, not only in the physical race sense, but also in a whole lot of other ways, as Willie and Irene face some pretty tough personal challenges along the way.

Maps and navigation become an analogy for Willie's search for himself. While in the car race, Willie is confronted with some very big life issues, literally turning everything he knew about himself upside down. It is at this point the story sort of veers off the car race path, and into Aboriginal culture, the dream time, pathways, the long-term effects of British imperialism. I actually found of lot of this hard to enjoy reading. Much like a map it meandered, had some dead ends, lost threads, strange illustrations.  I am sure a true-blue Aussie would get far more of this than I did! 

However, this book is still a great yarn from a master story teller. There are some wonderful characters - Irene is marvellous - loving mother, wife, unbelievably feisty and determined, she is the heart and soul of the book. The novel becomes more about Willie, but it is Irene that holds everything and everyone together. Within the fast action and high energy level of the narrative there is a serious side, in that people aren't always what they seem, and that family secrets always, always, always cause more harm in the long run than any thread of good the short term may offer.











A LEGACY OF SPIES by John le Carre

He certainly has not lost his touch, the master story teller at 86 years of age still turning out a good spy yarn. I read somewhere that it  would help to have read the previous novels of 'The Spy Who Came in From the Cold', 'Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy' and 'The Honourable Schoolboy' which all predate the action in this novel. But a quick google gave me a pretty good idea what had been going on, and I did refer back to Prof G while reading this.

Basically the past has come back to bite Smiley's trusty lieutenant Peter Guillam on the bum. Retired and living out his well earned rest on his family property in France, a letter arrives and he is summoned to appear in London. Duly questioned, threatened, on the receiving end of many of the techniques he employed during his time of service in the Circus, the story of what happened years before at the height of the Cold War slowly unravels. And at the end, the question is was it all worth it?

I love these types of books, this author in particular. I surprise myself that I have not  read any of the three previous novels, even though I have read plenty le Carre novels and seen movies/TV series. This is absolute classic stuff, such a good story, the slow and gradual reveal in an atmosphere of how much does poor Peter allow himself to give away, and at the same time save himself. Brilliant.

HOW TO EAT A CUPCAKE by Meg Donohue

Well, you won't believe how many web pages and images come up when you google 'how to eat a cupcake'. If you were in a pickle over the 'right' way to pour a cup of tea, you will be in the pits of despair when it comes to eating a cupcake. Who would have thought?

Rest assured, this light and happily predictable read is not going to torture you with how to eat these little delicacies. Although there are one or two suggestions.....

 Two young women - Annie Quintana and Julia St Clair. They grew up together in Julia's parents' San Francisco mansion. Annie's mother was the cook. Both girls were treated equally and beautifully by Julia's parents and Annie's mum, an idyllic childhood for the two girls, really quite oblivious of the obvious economic and class disparity between them. Things went horribly wrong in their last year of high school, both girls then going off in different directions. Julia to the corporate world of New York, and Annie to become a pastry chef. Now Julia has come back home to prepare for her wedding, Annie being asked by Julia's charity queen mother to cater the cup cakes for a function where she and Julia meet up again.

Despite all the hurt and pain of their younger years, a door opens ever so slightly when Julia declares she wants to go into business with Annie - in a cupcakery. Mistrust is never far from the surface however, with lots of old ground having to be raked over, old wounds opened - lots of two steps forward, one step back. At the same time there is someone trying to sabotage the shop, and who is the mysterious man seen lurking in the streets near the shop? Has Julia made the right choice in her fiancĂ©? Can she let her guard down enough to share a shattering event with him? And  what about Annie? Will she trust Julia again? Will she also find love? Will the cupcakery survive the troubles swirling around it? And will you bake a cup cake or two on finishing this easily digestible story?


THE ELUSIVE LANGUAGE OF DUCKS by Judith White

Hannah is at that awkward stage in life when many women question what the hell they are doing, where is their life going, with ageing parents to attend to, looking after and living with their partner of the last 30 years - is this really all there is to the rest of one's life? Yep, the post menopausal woman. Awesome. No, I don't want to read about such a depressing subject!

But wait! In the midst of her mother's illness, death and subsequent funeral, her fracturing relationship with her husband Simon and her lifelong difficult relationship with her sister Maggie, she is given a duckling. A cute, yellow downy feathered gorgeous little creature that she pours her complete heart and soul into. Not surprisingly this all consuming focus on the duck alienates her from those who love her, and whose help she cannot see. Will the love of her life turn out to be the duck or will she return to the land of human beings?

How can one resist such a lovely little creature - the development of the relationship between Hannah and the duck is funny, moving, weird, alarming and when the duck gets big - it is a Muscovy duck - becomes downright dangerous. She has conversations with the duck, seeing the world from the duck's point of view as well as her own. The duck as therapist helps her unravel her complicated relationship with her mother and sister, helps her mourn her mother's death. Her sister Maggie and drug addicted husband Toby have their own troubles, with both marriages under threat. Will an impasse be reached? Will Hannah choose the duck over Simon? And what about Toby - can he survive?

I very much enjoyed this insightful and compassionate look at middle age, death, change of life. I found much of the duck dialogue/interface very weird, at times tedious and ridiculous, but never having experienced life-stopping grief I should not be too critical about how others cope! To top it all off, Judith White is a New Zealand author, and writes beautifully of the landscape, the beaches, the farmland, and surroundings that Hannah and Simon live in. Well worth a read.