SEX AND VANITY by Kevin Kwan

Complete escapist fiction, silly and frothy, but entertaining and enjoyable. Not as good as Crazy Rich Asians, but same formula of two young people from diverse Asian backgrounds meeting, love story ensues with annoying and difficult family members thrown in, expectations and prejudices also in abundance. The author writes in a very chatty, gossipy way; his text full of footnotes that are more like asides and quips to the reader about the characters, events, historical accuracy and detail. I don't think they are necessary, certainly not adding to the story or to our perception of the characters. But they aren't doing any harm either. So take your pick as to whether you like them or not. 

Kevin Kwan has taken the 1908 classic Room With a View, setting it in the present, but with the same characters - Lucy, Charlotte, George and Cecil, their personalities essentially unchanged too. So then you wonder how original a tale this really is. I thought it more like Pride and Prejudice. The setting is also in Italy, but here we are on the island of Capri where the young and quite naive Lucy and her older aunt Charlotte been invited to Lucy's close friend Isabella's extremely extravagant and over the top wedding to some enormously wealthy young Italian man. Lucy herself is half Chinese, her aunt is not which creates some confusion amongst the guests. However Lucy and Charlotte are both descended from a blue-blood New York family which arrived on the Mayflower. Making them very important people in New York social circles. And very wealthy.  The opulence of the wedding festivities over a few days is completely intoxicating to everyone attending, and Lucy finds herself drawn to a young Chinese/Australian man George. And of course there is an upset of sorts which threatens to derail her social standing. 

Some years later Lucy has recovered her equilibrium, back living in New York, working for an art gallery and romantically involved with the boring, self absorbed Cecil. What a silly man he is. And horrors, his family is new New York blood, not of the same ilk as Lucy and Charlotte's line of descent! But oh so wealthy, beyond comprehension wealthy. He and Lucy become engaged, and then, wouldn't you know it, George reappears on the scene. Oh dear, what will happen now!   

It is a most enjoyable book to read, great for beach or curling up somewhere. I have added Capri to my list of places to see - it sounds like paradise not just with the money being tossed around, but in its natural beauty too. I still think Crazy Rich Asians is better, but can see this making an entertaining movie too. 

THE LOST PIANOS OF SIBERIA by Sophy Roberts

I knew I would l love this unusual book - it has everything I adore in a book  - travel, social history, music, discovery, wonder, pathos, more music, fascinating people and their stories, a tormented and desolate landscape. And a brilliant writer, telling her own story of months and months travelling through the extremely unglamorous, uncomfortable, unappealing land that we know of as Siberia. Always looking for pianos. And dealing with the bureaucracy. I had no idea how important the piano was to Russian society at all levels over the past couple of hundred of years. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Russians took to the piano in droves, it being normal and almost expected that every household have a piano. The classical music repertoire overflows with words by Russian composers, and brilliant musicians, still going on now. And somehow hundreds and hundreds of pianos ended up in Siberia too. The banishment and exile of thousands began long before the days of Stalin, the pianos accompanying the punished to their new and gruelling life. In all the despair and horribleness of the gulag and the basic settlements that evolved in Siberia, the sound of a piano playing, plus the joy and escape of being able to play would surely have calmed the Russian soul.

The story of how the author came to find herself on this odyssey is also amazing. By chance she meets a very talented young Mongolian pianist, and with a bit of encouragement from others decides to find this young woman the perfect piano, last seen somewhere in Siberia. So off she goes. A detailed map at the beginning of each chapter has the author in a different part of Siberia - every map looks the same, but if you look carefully you can see where she goes. Her search takes her into some of the coldest places on earth where in the not too distant past gulags existed, with appalling stories of how cruel humans are to each other, and yet the spirit of survival and hope continues to flourish. She goes to towns and communities where music has thrived for decades, where Russian jazz began, where talented and extraordinary people have made their lives, many actually choosing to live there. She goes to Ekaterinburg where the last Russian Tsar and his family were executed, searching for the piano that the Tsarina had with her while imprisoned. 

And so on, and so on. Every chapter, town, community with another story about a piano, the people who built it, played it, how it got to Siberia, where it is now, the love that the Russian people have for music, how it is played and listened to, how it feeds the Russian soul. One of the best books for me this year. 


THE JANE AUSTEN SOCIETY by Natalie Jenner

Purist Jane Austen fans may well hate this, seeing it as trivialising her works and her life. For the rest of us, now awash in movies and TV series of her seven novels - yes only seven -  this novel is a lovely and easy read, with more than enough Austen stuff to satisfy and encourage a return to her memorable and timeless books. The author of this novel is either a Jane Austen obsessive, with intimate knowledge of every one of these seven books, or she devoured numerous study guides. I would like to think the former is the case, as she clearly loves Jane Austen, her writings, and above all the complex and human characters Jane created. Pride and Prejudice and Emma feature more heavily than the others, but they all come in handy in the plot of this story, the characters of course being the main feature. 

The story takes place just after WWII ends, in the English village of Chawton, where Jane lived for a period of time. Her brother  owned Chawton House, with Jane living in a cottage on the estate for the last 8 years of her life. It was here that she wrote four of her seven novels.  Descendants of Edward Austen still live in the house, although the current owner is very elderly, with not too long on this earth left. Word slips out that the entire estate may well be sold off after his death, taking away with it any ongoing association, remembrance or acknowledgement of Jane. Understandably the locals get a little towy about this unexpected turn of events, banding together to find a way to turn the cottage into some sort of museum in Jane's honour - the Jane Austen Society. There is an element of truth to all this, as Chawton Cottage did in fact become a museum in 1947, with Chawton House becoming a writing centre too. 

The story in this novel is of course complete fiction, but wouldn't it be great if it was true. The characters who band together to form the society are still reeling from the last few years of war, with so much loss, sadness, unfulfilled dreams and hopes. The society gives them all a purpose, an opportunity for new friendships and relationships. It is a delight to see that these characters share many of the same foibles and dilemmas as Jane Austen's characters, with many references to Emma, Mr Knightely, Lizzie, Mr Darcy, Mr and Mrs Bennett, Anne Elliot, Elinor and Marianne and many others. It doesn't take much to feel enormous affection for the Austen characters, and likewise with the characters that Jenner creates. Naturally there is a happy ending. 

LAST DAYS IN OLD EUROPE by Richard Bassett

Another century, another time. Only 30-something years ago and look how the world has changed since. As there was no internet, no email, no social media, no immediate need to be in contact and communication with every single person you know, life worked differently. For The Times on the ground-in the thick of it reporter,  communication to and from London was either by phone - landline or telex. A slower time meant it took longer for news to get out, and filing a report either by phone or telex meant one had to be succinct, accurate, illustrative - no photos. And in daily dealings one had to be resourceful, charming, intuitive and courageous. And when all this is happening behind the Iron Curtain, the Cold War at its peak during the late 1980s, then the story telling is even more intriguing, remote and marvellous. 

So it was for Richard Bassett, when he took himself off to Trieste in the late 1970s, fresh out of Cambridge, and off to see the world. Fortuitously, he also took his french horn, of which he appears to have been quite accomplished. As a young man about town, with a curious mind, good manners, and a most pleasant demeanour, he has no trouble getting to know people, making friends, meeting interesting and extraordinary characters with stories and anecdotes of life perched on the border of Yugoslavia and Italy. There was still much dislike of Italy in this area, Yugoslavia had started its path to early 1990s imploding following the death of Tito. Bassett lives there for 3 years or so, landing himself a position as the lead french horn in a local orchestra with a punishing schedule of rehearsals and performances. Now we can see why Eastern Europe produces amazing orchestras and musicians. 

Following a return to London, where he approaches The Times to be become an on-the-ground reporter in Vienna - such a recruitment process wouldn't even get a look in today- he makes his way to Vienna which was the centre of the Austro-Hungarian empire till WWI came along, with the dissolution of the monarchy and rearrangement of borders, banishment of the royal family, the horrors of WWII and invasion by the Nazis, a brief rule by Russia after the war. Again he slips sublimely into the circles that matter most, meeting people such as the former Empress of the empire, at this time fabulous in her 90s. He captures the essence of this ancient and historical city, at the cross roads of East and West, works his contacts and acquaintances. An intriguing city and society to be living in. 

Next stop is Prague at the time of the Velvet Revolution, when the Communists were thrown out for good. The tidal wave of change throughout eastern Europe takes him to Warsaw and we read about how terribly the Poles have been treated by Germany, Russia, and others in between over the centuries. There is an element of danger and tension throughout this chapter, Bassett being under constant surveillance as he treads carefully through Romania and Bucharest; never too sure if he is in the right place while in Berlin. 

This is a great memoir of a time and way of doing things that no longer exists. We are reading so many books about Europe during WWII, stories of concentration camp survival. of the lives of ordinary people through out Europe during this time. But very little of life behind the Iron Curtain told by those who were there. I loved this, exactly the type of memoir I adore. My only criticism - more photos would have helped all the imaginations in my mind. 

HOW TO HEAR CLASSICAL MUSIC by Davinia Caddy

Adorable, divine, life enhancing, moving and timeless - classical music - hmm hmm. Love it. And here is a little book, beautifully designed and packaged that will expand your understanding and appreciation of classical music, whether you are a newbie to it, or a dedicated devotee. 

The author is an academic, and sometimes it gets a little pointy-headed, but generally what she has to say is very accessible and easily understood. She begins by asking if classical music is elitist, just for show, beyond the understanding and appreciation of people. Is sitting in an auditorium with hundreds of others in complete silence the best way to enjoy, appreciate classical music. You don't necessarily have to understand what you are hearing, you just have to be moved by it. She looks at different ways music is performed and staged, takes on the phenomenon of the 1980s music train Hooked on Classics, how the music of a classical concert is chosen to give a complete listening experience to the audience, the hideousness of elevator music and some perfect alternatives, the magic of opera, how technology can be harnessed to dazzle people with what classical music can do. 

So much in this little book to savour, enjoy and to get you thinking as well as hearing. 

BOY SWALLOWS UNIVERSE by Trent Dalton

Incredible piece of writing, I devoured this. Life through the eyes of Eli, a 13 year old boy, in a family about as dysfunctional and tortured as you could expect. The one abiding thing though that holds him together, that stops him taking the same dangerous, hopeless and failing path as the adults  around him is knowing that he is loved - by his drug addict mother, his heart broken and absent father, his adored step father, his ex-con babysitter, and his mute brother August. He makes an interesting observation that people end up on this hopeless downward spiral because they have terrible fathers - men who abuse them as children, violent to their mums, abandon their families, are drunks, addicts, generally hopeless, passing the burden to mothers, who often themselves have had bad fathers. It is a generalisation, yes, but in the eyes of a 13 year old boy, pretty insightful. 

Apparently the characters of Eli and August are based on the author and his brothers, and his own difficult childhood in Brisbane during the 1980s. Are we living inside Trent Daltons's head while reading this? Who cares, it's amazing regardless how much of it is real. 

Eli is a wonderful character - really just a little boy, trying to do the best he can in his troubled world. As the story unfolds the extent of the traumas that August and Eli have been through is told, we ooze sympathy for these two kids. Eli, it would seem, has mostly moved on, note the word mostly, not feeling sorry for himself and not giving up, to the next stage of making things better. His adult goal is to be a journalist, so he knows the importance of observation - watching and listening, and it is these great qualities that enable him to navigate all the drama around him. And there is plenty of it, revolving around local drug king Tytus Broz - cross him at your peril. 

At times horribly violent and brutal, but still magnificent and terrific. 

RECIPE FOR LIFE by Nicky Pellegrino

This is an early Nicky Pellegrino novel, 2010, and it is such a lovely piece of escapism, especially with the possibility of going to Italy so far off the programme for the foreseeable. Never mind! You can jump into this, starting off in the gloom and pressure cooker environment of London and ending up in the deliciousness of the south of Italy, with a bit of movement between the two as the story unfolds. It wouldn't be a Nicky-novel if food and the cooking of it wasn't a lead character, a bit of romance thrown in the pot, and some life lessons and wisdom added to the mix. 

Her formula works a treat, so why mess with it. Here we have Alice, early 20s, newly flatting with her oldest friend the beautiful exotic contrary Leila. Alice has a boyfriend, Charlie, but this is a bit rocky, and things get worse when Alice is raped in her bed, prompting the move to London and Leila's flat. Then she needs to find a job. A waitressing job in a local cafe turns into a move to an Italian restaurant owned by Tonino, a gifted chef and restaurateur who sees talent and potential in young Alice. He sends her to his home town in Italy for the summer to immerse herself in food - the growing and harvesting of, the cooking of and eating of. In one of those amazing coincidences that only happens in a novel such as this, Leila's mother has just bought a beautiful old home in the area, long neglected and abandoned save for the elderly Babetta and her husband Nunzio. 

Plenty of ups and downs happen over the course of the next few years in the lives of all the characters - Alice, Babetta, Nunzio, Tonino, his parents Rafaella and Ciro, brother Lucio, Leila and even Charlie. Food is at the centre of it all as is connections with one another,  as well as the growing and nurturing of new life, new loves, new enterprises - the recipe for life. All the characters could be real people, people you know or meet in your life,  likeable and relatable, dealing with problems and issues that the reader can easily relate to. And of course happy happy ending.