THE HUSBAND'S SECRET by Liane Moriarty

Greek myths and legends - there is a very strong lesson in each that we ignore at our peril. We all know what happened when Pandora just could not stop herself opening that box, and letting all that badness out! Similar scenario here. Modern day north shore suburbs of Sydney, Cecilia finds an envelope in the attic addressed to her from her husband, with the words that it is only to be opened in the event of his death. Oh, what to do. Those itching fingers.

This whole story centres on guilt, confession, and atonement. St Angela's School is the centrepiece for the characters in this story. So already you see that  this is not ordinary guilt etc but very Catholic guilt, confession, and atonement. The main characters either all went to the school as children themselves, and/or now have children/grandchildren going to the school. 

The unsolved murder  of a teenage girl some 15 years earlier continues to haunt her mother Rachel who works in the office of the school. She is convinced that a teacher at the school who was then a teenage boy and friend of her daughter is somehow responsible. We also have Tess, who has left Melbourne with her young son, deep in betrayal following her husband and cousin/best friend declaring their undying love for each other. And we have Cecilia immersed in  her perfect life, perfect marriage to John-Paul, perfect children as well as being the Queen Bee of the school mums, plus a successful Tupperware distributor. You get the picture.

The story takes place over the few days of the Easter period - how coincidental I hear you say - death, rebirth, and so on. Ripe for sin confession, guilt, Catholic doctrine filtering through, secrets to be revealed. And despite my slightly subversive and cynical tone, this is a great story. I found the characters believable, relatable. The very suburban family oriented physical setting is instantly recognisable, as are the characters themselves. There is a touch of Jodi Picoult with the envelope plot device - the moral and ethical repercussions of opening the envelope, then dealing with what the contents are. My only criticism is at how the climax of the story takes place, and it is not the opening of the envelope. I found this part of the story horrifically unnecessary, quite out of place and far too dramatic. For those who believe in some sort of divine retribution, this may be quite an acceptable and likely outcome, but for me, immersed in the ordinary day to day life of the characters, I thought it pushed the boundaries too much. Good read though.  

THE LAST HOURS by Minette Walters

A dystopian novel that isn't was the predominant thought going through my mind while reading this. A dystopian society or state is imagined rather than real, follows some catastrophe, injustice, suffering or total disaster wiping out the normal way of doing things. This novel ticks all of the above except for the imagined society. Because the Black Death did exist, it did wipe out 50% the British population in the mid-14th century, it's origins at the time were totally unknown, superstition and religious dogma explaining how and why it randomly seemed to descend, wiping out villages, communities, towns, generations overnight.

In this novel, long established crime thriller writer Minette Walters turns her hand to historical fiction, her impetus apparently being learning that where she lives in Dorset is very close to a plague pit. Her setting is the fictional community of Develish, with the manor house occupied by land owner Lord Richard, his wife Lady Anne and their 14 year old daughter Eleanor. The land is farmed by peasants - serfs, effectively slaves to the land owner, with no say or control over their destiny - everything they do and have is owned by, in this case, Lord Richard. Not a nice man. Serfs are treated like the lowly, dirty, uneducated, subservient creatures they supposedly are.

Lady Anne, however, is a most exceptional woman. Brought up by nuns, she can read, knows how to care for the sick, understands the importance of basic hygiene, managing and caring for communities. During her 15 years at Develish, she has worked ceaselessly behind her husband's back teaching the serfs to read, and basic sanitation all resulting in Develish being a local success story with its healthy serfs, and productive fields. Not much of which goes back to the peasants.

Following the unfortunate demise of Lord Richard, by default Develish is in Lady Anne's hands. Fortunately for Develish, there is a moat separating the castle from the surrounding fields, assisting Lady Anne with her immediate removal of the entire community and livestock to the castle, and thus isolating it from the rest of the world. A woman in this medieval world has no power, but Lady Anne's careful nurturing of her relationships with the peasants has given her a powerful support base, and she uses this to establish and maintain order within the castle while chaos rules outside.

Religion and the plague being God's punishment for sins, superstition around why some get sick and others don't also dominate daily life. Living in such close confines too, conflicts and trouble soon appear, the prospect of food running out, the ever present threat of invasion, all create big challenges to Lady Anne. Plus it wouldn't be Minette Walters without a murder.

Really good book, and very much look forward to reading the sequel 'The Turn of Midnight'.


HOT PINK SPICE SAGA by Peta Mathias and Julie Le Clerc

So many reasons to give this 5 stars! Everything Peta Mathias writes is totally fab to read - her enthusiasm, her sheer joy, her perseverance in sometimes trying circumstances all come shining through. The photographs by fellow author Julie Le Clerc of food, scenery and local people are beautiful and complement Peta's  often-over-the-top prose. The recipes, and I did try some, are easy, delicious and look pretty much what the picture shows. It is a travel book as well as a food book, they two working seamlessly together - lots and lots to love.

Having lived in India for a year, plus just finished a nearly 4 week trip through much of the north of the country, I have been to a number of places this book travels through. It both brings back memories and adds to the new memories made over the recent trip. She has a wonderful chapter on Darjeeling, which was the impetus for one of the others in our group insisting that we go to Darjeeling and stay at Glenburn Tea Estate. Everything about this part of India I adored, and it was by far my favourite place. Glenburn is a place of tranquility, wonderful hospitality, plus tea, tea and more tea. Peta captures it perfectly.

If you want to be further inspired to go to India, or think it may not be the place for you to go to, read this delicious travel/cook book/memoir, and just get out there and do it. It is country that will confront you in many ways, but if you go with an open mind, you will be rewarded. And eat the local food - it is the best. This book will sure help in that regard. 

NORMAL PEOPLE by Sally Rooney

If I read this novel at the age the two main characters are - late teens/very early twenties, I would have hated it, I wouldn't have understood it, I would have been bored, I would have found very little to relate to. (I was very naive at that time in my life). But now that I have read it at the other end of life - middle age and all that, with plenty of life experience behind me - I got a huge amount out of this, almost to the point that I may think it is wasted on the young.

It is about love - young love which has such an intensity to it, often overpowering in its need to be fulfilled, expressed and simply let out. Danny and Marianne are the young couple, growing up in a small town in Ireland, at school together, yet in completely different social circles. She comes from money, academically gifted, not a popular at school, does not fit in with any peer group. Danny is the opposite - no money, his solo mother is Marianne's family's housekeeper, in the top sports teams and groups, and also academically very gifted. These two find each other, they are soul mates, kindred spirits, but too young and immature to fully realise it, emotional damage ensuing.

They end up at Trinity College in Dublin together - he on a scholarship, she because she can. Their paths cross, separate, recross during their time as students at college and back in their home town during holidays. All you want is for them to get their acts together, get those emotional hurdles out of the way, and be a couple - they are so obviously perfect for each other, but just can't seem to do it. Their paths diverge, Marianne not going through a good time, and Danny for a short time having a really good time. But then they meet up again - will it last?

This was frustrating, I can tell you, as an older person looking in on a young love! But all so incredibly normal - is this the secret behind the title? This novel brings back memories of intense teenage/young adult love/lust/stupid decisions and actions/treating lovers badly/indifferently, navigating one's way through the 'relationship stuff'. Exhausting really, and poor old Danny and Marianne seem to be in a constant state of exhaustion, which leaves you feeling drained, sad and actually very glad that you are no longer at that stage in life.

I am surprised how much I did like this book though, and put it down to the amazingness of the writing. Like so many Irish writers, the author captures emotion, angst, the heartfulness and torment of love, growing up. You feel you are there, that it could be you. There is so much to admire in how she writes about the smallness of the teenage life, how it expands, changes, and grows when moving away to a more stimulating and larger place, not just physically but intellectually too. The story, the plot line could be any book, but it is the writing that elevates this above the standard teenage love story.

THE BAREFOOT SURGEON by Ali Gripper

This is incredible. Not only is this the story of a truly extraordinary and amazing human being, but it is also an extremely well told and outstanding biography. Two huge reasons to read it; be humbled, be excited, enthralled, and grateful that the almost unbelievable story can be told so graciously and so well.

Sanduk Ruit was born in the mid 1950s, into a poor and humble farming community in the mountains of Nepal. Life expectancy was not long, child mortality high, blindness everywhere. And yet from this deprivation, he becomes a world famous healer of the blind, adapting and improving surgery procedures and techniques to pioneer a new and innovative way of cataract surgery, bringing sight back to hundreds of thousands of people. He teams up with Australian ophthalmoloigst Fred Hollows, also a pioneer in the field of cataract surgery and together they take on the rigid and conservative Western medical system to revolutionise the way cataract surgery is done. A real David and Goliath story. Never once does Ruit lose his sense of where he comes from, despite all the fame, accolades, the rich and famous wanting to be associated with him. He continues to perform hundreds of operations a day, in bare feet, in the most impossible environments, with the minimum of facilities and sanitation. His motivation? Seeing what the miracle of sight does to a person, deprived of it for so many years. The rebirth of a life.

The writer has spent a lot of time with Ruit his family, his team of doctors and nurses. She tells his story in his words, his vision, his perseverance and determination. His compassion and love for his fellow man comes shining through, as does his humour, and humbleness. The writer clearly adores her subject, what he represents and how in this deeply troubled world we live in, there are still some very very good people. Outstanding.

THE CUT OUT GIRL by Bart van Es

A memoir of sorts, as well as a biography, this is a gentle and elegantly told story of a young Dutch Jewish girl, Lientje, who was smuggled out of The Hague as the Nazis were taking over Holland, into the care of non-Jewish families in the Dutch countryside. It is also the story of the author, who is the grandson of one of the families Lientje lived with as a little girl. He had grown up knowing that his family had been part of the resistance against the Nazis, and the terrible danger they constantly lived in harbouring a Jewish child. He also knows that something happened some time after the war ended that estranged Lientje from his family.  So he sets out on a quest to find out what happened, Lientje's story is, his own family's story, and in turn  it also becomes a journey of self-discovery and healing for himself.

Part of the story is how Bart tracks down the now very elderly Lientje, her reluctance to open up and tell the story, his quiet and gentle encouragement, getting to know her, gaining her trust.  There is an urgency to it all - she is old after all, he wants to get the story while Lientje is still healthy and well.

We know war is a terrible thing. People do things, make decisions, behave in ways they just would not have to consider in normal every day predictable living. Lientje's parents saw the writing on the wall very quickly, and made the agonising decision to give their only child up to the unknown - the care of others, knowing they would never see her again. He writes so beautifully of this agony, the loneliness of a little girl, doing as she is told, without fully understanding why. being taken by strangers, delivered to strangers, settling in, opening her own heart, being moved on, living in fear.

And then what happened once it was all over. Where does a young girl go whose parents and entire family have all been obliterated?

I loved this book, a sad story, but also full of courage and hope, and above all the rebirth of a relationship and deep bond between two families formed and nurtured during such a trying and difficult time. 

THE ICE PRINCESS by Camilla Lackberg

Translated from the Swedish, this is the first murder mystery in a series featuring writer Erica Falck and detective Patrik Hedstrom. Being the first novel, the author does a lot of scene setting with Erica returning to the small town she was brought up in to sort out her parents' estate following their recent deaths in a car accident.  She is a journalist,  in her mid-30s, tired, stressed, single again, and is both happy and relieved to be back in her old home, enjoying the peace and quiet of her old neighbourhood. Until her best friend from childhood, the beautiful, successful, happily married Alex is found dead in her bathtub, apparently by her own hand.

Being a journalist she  naturally has a very enquiring mind, and fairly quickly she sees that things don't quite stack up in the death by suicide scenario. She and Alex were only children when they were best friends, with Alex and her family suddenly disappearing when the girls were about 10 years old. This little mystery and a few other odd things about Alex and her life do not sit well with Erica. The local detective Patrik also remembers Alex from childhood, and when he and Erica team up, the layers of silence and terrible secrets are gradually revealed.

I kind of guessed what was going on, but the time lines always remained a little hazy, so the big reveal when it did come was still a shock. Which of course is exactly what you want in a good thriller/murder mystery. Plenty of clues and red herrings tossed around, but not enough to give too many Aha moments. I really liked this novel - with a well developed plot line, it just manages to nicely walk the line between 'dynamic crime-solving duo' and the delicate art of slowly peeling the layers behind the lives of those entwined with those who are killed - yes, there is another death! I would happily read the next in the series.