THE PRAGUE SONATA by Bradford Morrow

So much to love in this novel - music, a mystery, a chase, some unpleasant people with suspicious motives, beautiful setting, great writing. But also way too long. Never mind, it is still a really good read, very easy to immerse yourself in, and now Prague has moved to the top of my 'go to places before I die' list.

It is  the year 2000, a new millennium. Meta Taverner is a musicologist in New York. Her very promising concert pianist career was cut short by an accident, taking her down the academic path rather than that of performance. She loves her work, loves music, loves her city, living with lawyer boyfriend Jonathon. In a meeting with Irena, an elderly Czech woman, she is given the middle section of a piano sonata that had been entrusted to her by Irena's best friend Otylie as the Nazis invaded Prague in 1939. Otylie herself fled Prague with first part of the sonata, the third part she gave to her husband Jakub. In this way, she thought at least some of the sonata would survive the war and whatever else lay beyond. Irena wants Meta to reunite, if at all possible, the entire sonata and ensure its future safety.

Meta immediately realises she is holding something very rare and precious from the late 18th century. She doesn't know who the composer is but she knows that this is very special. Her life takes on a sudden and most unexpected direction as she literally drops everything and heads off to Prague to do whatever she can to find the other two parts and, like looking for a needle in a haystack, unite the entire sonata.

This is a fabulous yarn, notwithstanding it being too long. Some reviews are critical of how it doesn't move easily between the present and the past, but I didn't find this a problem at all. You do have to suspend belief just a bit - some pretty amazing coincidences! But it's a story, a novel, so we go along with it all. Prague sounds like the most beautiful place, with its own appalling history of revolution and suppression. And yet throughout people still find time for beautiful music, connections and relationships. A chunk of the story is set in Texas, so vastly different from Prague, and yet the writing is so vivid of the huge open spaces, the heat, the dust, the small towns. If you love music and history, this is for you.

SEE YOU IN SEPTEMBER by Charity Norman

This terrific novel has been shortlisted for the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel of 2018 and it is a cracker. Just imagine sending your child off to the other side of the world for a 3 month backpacking trip, and five long years pass before you see her again. We don't hear much about cults nowadays, although anyone over the age of 45 will know about the Moonies, the mass suicide of the Jonestown cult, Waco, Charles Manson. They all lured people, mostly young, alone, down on their luck, by well proven mind control methods, into their closed and oppressive worlds.

And this is what happens to young Cassy Howells, travelling for three months around New Zealand with her boyfriend Hamish. See you in September is the last thing she calls out to her parents and sister as she farewells them at Heathrow Airport in June. She and Hamish break up suddenly and dramatically while trying to hitch hike to Taupo. Cassy spontaneously gets into a van full of friendly and welcoming young people and she is gone. Just like that. The community she finds herself in is called Gethsemane, established on an island in Lake Tarawera. Spooky setting, spooky place. What is so clever and very scary  about this novel is how quickly and easily Cassy is manipulated into being a fully immersed and functioning member of Gethsemane, under the control of the charismatic Justin Calvin.

Meanwhile back in England, her parents, sister and friends are becoming increasingly alarmed about the lack of contact and news from Cassy. September comes and goes, no Cassy... months and years pass... the impact of her absence takes a horrible toll on the family. Cassy herself knows there are things wrong with how she is living her life, but is unable to find a clear space in her head to deal with it. Time however is beginning to run out for both Cassy, her Gethsemane family and her England family.

I couldn't put this down, read the whole thing in about two days. It is excellent. With a child living on the other side of the world, I constantly worry and wonder how she is, who her friends are, the influences surrounding her. I can't even begin to imagine the terror, fear and heartbreak I would experience as a parent going through what Cassy's parents went through. 

THE LOST FLOWERS OF ALICE HART by Holly Ringland

The age old conundrum - can you really judge a book by its cover? Can such a divine cover reveal a story to match the colour, the ornateness and even the magic of the title? In this case it sure can! Before getting onto the story, this is a lovely book to simply hold and flip through as it is generously sprinkled with drawings of flowers, every chapter and there are thirty of them, headed with a different, a little about it, a drawing, and it's meaning. I am not entirely sure if all the plants are strictly native to Australia, where the novel is set, but such a lovely device contributes to this being very much a novel of Australia, its landscape and people. So much to say even before starting on the story!

When we begin, Alice is nine years old, living with her parents on what I am guessing is a rural property. Her father is an extremely violent man, of whom she is terrified. Her mother is a gentle loving woman, who adores her garden, teaching Alice about the plants, and where she first learns the language of flowers. A terrible tragedy results in her moving to live with her grandmother Agnes whom she has never met before. Agnes lives on a flower farm, started by her grandmother, and of which she is now the owner and custodian. Over the years she has taken in many women escaping from their violent and tragic lives, who live and work on the farm. They are called the Flowers. It takes some time for Alice to find her feet and herself in this environment, but over the years she does, immersed in the beauty of flowers, the cycle of the seasons, the love and good will surrounding her. But always at the root of her soul is the horrific loss of her parents, and her previous life.

A betrayal when she is in her early 20s sends her a long way away from this life, until she ends up in the Australian desert at a National Park, picking up the pieces of her life and starting again. Nothing ever goes smoothly for poor Alice Hart however....., although there are always flowers and plants to ground her.

It seems to me there are two types of people - victims and survivors. Alice is definitely a victim due to her childhood traumas, and she spends her whole life trying to get to grips with it, move on, and survive. We know that people keep deep traumas to themselves, and often we know nothing about what has gone on in the lives of people we meet, like, but have difficulty understanding how they are wired. This story, I would like to think, encourages us all to be more tolerant and accepting of those who may deal with life differently from how we may do it. This story is full of damaged souls, and yet, mostly, they are all trying to live the best life they can, getting through the daily problems. Be kind people, to one another, give flowers and appreciate the beauty around us.





MADRID IN DECEMBER by CJ Sansom

After reading this excellent novel, I think the Spanish Civil War must be one of the most pointless wars in recent history. There were no winners at all, neither the extreme left nor the extreme right contributed anything to the future prosperity or political stability of this country and its people. I know nothing about the civil war really - thinking that Franco was the ultimate evil which he was, but also growing up believing that the Republicans/Communists were the good guys. People like Hemmingway both reporting and fictionalising his experience of the war. And yet despite their noble motivations they really were no better than the fascists, the two extremes in ideology both losers.

This novel is about that - the extremes in ideology, how there are no winners and those who lose the most are the civilians, the average worker, small business owner, the families, the middle and working classes, the old people, the young. Always the tragedy of any war. Into this appalling mess come four  young English people. Harry, Sandy and Bernie first meet at school, an English public school. On leaving school their paths diverge. Harry becomes an academic, interrupted by his army stint resulting in evacuation from Dunkirk; Bernie is a communist and goes to Spain to fight for freedom; Sandy is out for himself, always looking for best way to make a quick buck, completely unethical. Then there is Barbara, a Red Cross nurse who is linked to all three. Her lover Bernie goes missing, she grieves for years until she sees a chance to find out what really happened to him. Harry is recruited to be a spy and is sent to Madrid to find out what his old school friend Sandy is up to. Sandy happens to be living with Barbara. Nothing is what it seems, and no one is who they seem. Classic spy stuff, with Harry the mild mannered slightly out of his depth sleuth attempting to make sense of all that is going on around him.

I loved this. It is an excellent story, with great characters facing many challenges. The history is fantastic, I learnt so much about a terrible time in our recent history, I admire the spirit and courage of the Spanish and this novel certainly shows this. It has been marketed as a thriller, but it moves too slowly to be a thriller. Don't let this stop you from reading it. If you have been to Spain, spent any time there, you will love this. 

THE GODFATHER by Mario Puzo

How I love revisiting old favourites. And when the film of the book is also in your top 10 - even better. The story is so well known there is no point in detailing that. But one can't help compare the film with the book, the book with the film, how some parts of the book are better than the film, and vice versa. The beheaded horse in the bed is one of those images that is forever associated with the movie, so visual, so graphic, so horrific. And yet I found the way this whole scenario was written about -  the lead up to it, the personalities involved, the slow applying of the screws, the inevitability of what was going to happen - far more frightening and evocative on the page than it is on the screen. I also loved how Vito Corleone's early life in Sicily, his escape to New York and the beginnings of the family powerhouse are narrated and developed. How Vito and then in turn Michael put the Family before everything else, how they come to this realisation and then act on it. The movies and the book are absolutely interchangeable with each other. Perfection. 

THE PRISONER OF GUANTANAMO by Dan Fesperman

This is a tightly held, yet also a slow burner of a thriller starring a manly hero called Rever Fatk. Falk has had a chequered work history as have most of these thriller type heroes, so full of cliched personality faults, troubled relationships, mysterious friends and ex partners. But still a riveting read, our hero trying to uncover corruption, save lives, including his own, dealing with betrayal, turn coats and turn abouts. Top reading in other words.

The setting is new! Guantanamo Bay detention camp at the US Guantanamo Navel Base on the coast of Cuba. An overload of plot devices before the story has even started! Falk is an interrogator for the FBI, interrogating prisoners taken in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen in the US's relentless pursuit of terrorists and undesirables. The base is  an island hot bed of gossip, paranoia, the Cubans just around the corner. The discovery of the body of a US Marine on the Cuban side of things throws the army base into complete turmoil, reaching far up into the echelons of the FBI, CIA and the Pentagon. Flak is unwittingly drawn into the mess when he is put in charge of investigating the death of the soldier. He himself becomes a target, and he has to reach deep into himself to save himself and somehow still expose the secrets and coverups.Such vivid and descriptive writing of the geography of the island, the access, the turbulent seas around it, how such an environment affects the people on the base.  I have no desire to go to Guantanamo - bleak, uninviting where many horrible things happen in secret. Scary. 

BELONG TO ME by Marisa de los Santos

Interesting take on familiar themes of dislocated families, children seeking absent/unknown parent. The child is boy genius 13 year old Dev. His solo mum Lake moves the two of them to a town a long way from San Francisco. Also recently moved to the town are Cornelia and Teo, escaping the stress and pressure of New York City. The third narrator is Piper, who is a bit like a Queen Bee and take an instant dislike to Cornelia. She is also very involved in the care of her best friend Elizabeth who is dying. So interesting plot, some characters more believable than others, but overall it was too long and I don"t rate it highly.

LULLABY by Leila Slimani

A morality tale for our times - chilling, too close for comfort - that supposedly most benign of people, the family nanny and how it can all go so terribly wrong. In the family home two children are dead, there is blood everywhere, the nanny has been taken to hospital. There is never any question as to who the killer is, but I kept hoping  in my reading that someone else was responsible.

As parents, and I am will be treading on toes here, more specficially as mothers,  we are torn between two polar forces - being a Mum, caring for and nurturing our precious children, with all the stress, pressure, exhaustion, and tedium that goes along with it; and being our own person, continuing and maintaining the career that has been put on hold, friendships, interests, holidays, a life that we had before children. When children come along, one parent has to make the sacrifice, usually the mother, as unfair and unequal as it may be. So the Nanny - next best thing to Mum. But how little do we really know about the people we entrust our beloved children to.

This novel, made more perfect by being just on 200 pages, captures the dilemma of Myriam who has the opportunity to return to her legal career, and yet has to find the right person to look after her two children. Musician husband Paul is in favour of the idea, but does not make things easy for Myriam; I would say sub-consciously believing that the mother is the best person to look after small children. Louise comes along, seemingly perfect, and bonds immediately with the two children. But Louise has not had an easy or happy life, or even a good life, and over time her overwhelming baggage spills out.

It is the writing that pushes this story to a higher level than what you may think is a bunny-boiler-domestic-horror. The author is inside the minds and emotions of the parents, particularly Myriam, and of course Louise. The tragedy is an event that has been waiting to happen for Louise, it was inevitable really, it could be any family she has worked for in past years, or it may well have been the next family she would be a nanny for. For Myriam and Paul the tragedy came to them. 

A MAN CALLED OVE by Fredrik Backman

It's a movie in Swedish, please someone make it into a movie in English! It is a simply wonderful heart warming beautiful story. I loved it, adored it, it made me cry. What a treasure of a story. There is no getting past that Ove, who is actually only 59, is the quintessential grumpy old bugger. With a lifetime of pain, disappointment and struggle, culminating in the recent death of his beloved wife, all he now wants to do is die himself. But his wretched neighbours prevent this happening at every turn, every attempt. No one seems to understand he wants to be left alone, no one seems to have the same standard of care and respect for the neighbourhood they all live, he is just so sick of everything.

But slowly, gradually, despite Ove's considerable resistance those barriers are broken down. Without even being aware of it, Ove rejoins the human race, and starts living again. Wonderful. 

THE WISH CHILD by Catherine Chidgey

Such delicate, precise writing, words put together perfectly creating this difficult to read, sad, and touching story. It is only in recent years that we are getting a window on what life was like for the ordinary person in Germany during WWII. Although not oppressed and decimated as much as those in countries taken over by the Nazis, it would seem the average person's existence was as oppressive as those in neighbouring countries. In this novel, through the eyes of two children and a mysterious narrator the reader gets glimpses of how life in wartime Germany was no picnic.

The children are Siggy who lives in Berlin with her parents and younger brothers. Her father finds himself working in a censorship office cutting words out of books that are deemed unacceptable, emotional. He works in an atmosphere of fear and mistrust, the family aware that every word spoken can be heard and used against them. Siggy goes to school where the indoctrination continues. Erich is a little boy who lives in the country side near Leipzig with his pro Nazi parents. The Nazi regime did his parents a great service some years prior, the truth of which comes out as the story progresses. Eventually the war comes to both Berlin and Leipzig, bringing the two children together, who then have to endure the horrors of being the conquered people.

The Wish Child is the narrator of the story; we don't find out who the narrator actually is until near the end. The narrator reminded me very much of Death who was the narrator in another amazing novel set in Germany during the war - 'The Book Thief': not harmful, all seeing, wise, almost benign in its observations.

This is really quite an amazing book. I enjoyed it much more than I thought I would. There have been so many questions since the war about how did the German people not know what was going on under their noses, why didn't people stand up and object. I would say, after reading this, they were simply frozen with fear from doing anything that would draw attention to them or their families. The evil perpetrated by Hitler and his cohorts cannot ever be forgotten, and as long as stories  like this keep being published, we will always be reminded. 

NEVER LET ME GO by Kazuo Ishiguro

It is a very strange book this, not particularly likeable or enjoyable, but certainly thought provoking, disturbing and weird. I read it because some in my book club had read it, found it challenging, said it was worth a read. So I did. Was it worth the time and effort? For  me, no.

On line reviews warned of spoilers, so I was careful what I read. Getting closer to the end of the book, page by page waiting for the big twist, waiting, waiting, nothing. The premise behind the plot is disclosed fairly early on, and my expectation of some even bigger reveal was disappointing.

The story is narrated by Kathy, a woman in her early 30s, who is a medical carer. Without ruining the plot for readers, although there is plenty on line about the plot, it is suffice to say that there are no happy endings here. I think this is the big twist I was waiting for. Kathy has grown up at a school,  Hailsham House. It is a very protective and isolated school, well away from public eyes, and the reader senses immediately that things are not quite right as we know them. There are no parents, no siblings, only guardians. Her closest friends are Ruth and Tommy and a sort of love triangle evolves over the years, although they are so sheltered and hidden from the real world, they don't really understand love and relationships in quite the same way as the mainstream population.

The story is narrated entirely by Kathy, looking back on her life as she is about to enter the next phase of it.  She is trying to make sense of her life, the life they have all led, what is it all for, looking for some sort of identity, where they have come from. It is extremely peculiar trying to make sense of your purpose when it is a life led in a totally different way, and it makes for uncomfortable reading. I wouldn't go as far as saying this is a dystopian novel or even sci-fi. But it is certainly an intriguing, frightening and disturbing topic that is being written about. Hitler would have loved it. 

THE SIXTEEN TREES OF THE SOMME by Lars Mytting

It's a big book, a story that will take you from Norway to the Shetland Islands, to the Somme, but what a cracker of a novel it is. I loved this, its complexity, the unusual characters, the bleak landscapes so well evoked that contribute to what is really quite a bleak story. But it is the plot, so unusual and intriguing that really grabbled me. I really had no idea almost all of the time where this story was going, and the ending was still a wonderful surprise. It has been translated from Norwegian - the author is very successful in Scandinavia - and at times it does read slightly differently from how we perhaps would write/say the same thing in English. It is not a problem at all, and has no impact on the story, but the odd turn of phrase lends the narrative a bit of an edge.

It is the early 1990s, a small farming community in Norway. Edvard Hirifjel is in his mid 20s, living with his grandfather on the family farm. He knows very little about his parents, as they died in strange circumstances in a remote area of France near the Somme when Edvard was only three years old. He had been with his parents and was found a few days later in a town some distance away. He has no recollection of this time, although every now and again hazy sorts of images will float across his mind. He has been brought up by his grandparents. He comes across as being a loner, old before his time - I can't really believe he is so young - shaped by the deaths of his parents, the isolated existence he lives with his grandfather, his destiny on the farm, married to a young woman he has known since childhood.

Then his grandfather dies. A beautifully made coffin had been delivered at some time in the past, which was to be used for the grandfather  - the handiwork of Edvard's uncle Einar. But Einar is supposed to have died in France during the war. Going through his grandfather's possessions and papers, trying to unravel the mystery of the origins of the coffin,  he finds things that lead him to question what did happen to him, his parents, and to Einar. Over the course of the months Edvard finds the young man inside himself, he learns about himself, what he is capable of, his curiosity propelling him forward. In the end, he does answer all the questions, it is satisfying, uplifting, and well concluded.

Trees, wood, a love of the outdoors, the land, craftsmanship, having and taking time to do things, to think things - this is set in the time before email, internet, texting, social media. So there is a heavy reliance on telephones, letters, leaving notes, even having a real conversation.  We often need time and space to process things, this story would not have been the same in our 'now' society. Edvard's search for answers takes him to the Shetland Islands, once owned by Norway and where apparently many words in the local dialect are of Norwegian origin. The WWI Battle of the Somme is central to the story, and is depicted in the most graphic horrifying way.

It has stayed with me this story, it makes me want to go to the Shetland Islands, and even to the memorials at the Somme, to see for myself the places described and to feel the atmosphere the writer has been able to conjure up. 

MY NAME IS NOBODY by Matthew Richardson

My favourite type of book - Spies! Espionage! Double Agents! Red Herrings! This has it all. I read a review that this is a cross between a Robert Ludlum and John Le Carre and would easily agree with that summary. Not as sophisticated, intricate as Le Carre, but every bit as thrilling as a Ludlum, this is a great book. We are beyond the Cold War days so beloved by writers of this genre, the more modern theme of Islamic terrorism central to this story. Solomon Vine is the MI5 operative who has found himself suspended after a shooting that takes place while he is interviewing a suspect in Istanbul. Not long after the head of the Istanbul post, old friend and rival Gabriel Wilde, goes missing. Solomon is called in by his old boss to unravel the puzzle.

And what a puzzle it is. Cryptic clues are everywhere, beginning with a copy of Ulysses' The Odyssey, translated by Gabriel into English, and delivered to Solomon after the former's disappearance. It is in this translation that Solomon eventually finds the phrase 'My Name is Nobody'.  What follows is an endlessly twisting path, both physically and metaphorically as Solomon, a mathematical genius by the way, looks to connect the dots between the shot suspect in Istanbul, Gabriel's disappearance, and whoever 'nobody' may be, doors firmly shut in his face at every turn. To complicate matters further, Solomon's ex fiancee, now wife to Gabriel, makes a reappearance, desperately trying to find her husband. Murky, tricky, smoke and mirrors, who can Solomon trust, are his instincts as good as they used to be when he himself was in the field. The ending is both surprising and not, as there are clues planted in the novel that if you are smart will lead you to the 'nobody'. Just remember a perceived red herring is not always a red herring.

Terrific stuff. What is also very refreshing is that the spy work is good old fashioned surveillance, walking or running the streets, decoding messages, listening, reading body language, looking for the nuances in language, and behaviour. A very modern old fashioned spy novel, if you see what I mean. 

PACHINKO by Min Jin Lee

The cover and the title provide no clue at all as to what this novel is about, so in opening it and beginning to read you are in completely uncharted territory. Taken out of the comfort zone of the expected - judging the book by its cover, not possible with this novel. There is lots to learn in this novel.

Set against the historical context of twentieth century Japan-Korea relations, this novel tells the story of a Korean family living in exile in Japan. In the early 20th century, Korea was 'conquered' by Japan, becoming a colony of Japan, which resulted in considerable hardship for the Korean population.

The story begins in 1932 with Sunja, a teenage girl living with her widowed mother, helping her in her running of a boarding house in Korea.  She becomes pregnant to a wealthy Korean man, Hansu, who seems to have made a successful life for himself in Osaka. But of course is married. Sunja is 'rescued' by a young Korean Christian missionary, who promises to raise  the baby as his own. They migrate to Osaka, to the impoverished and squalid part of the city where the Korean population lives, and like millions of migrants before them all over the world, begin the long hard slog to making a better life for themselves and their children. At all times, often unwanted, but always doing his best, is Hansu who still loves Sunja and her son, but can never know who his real father is.

The story chronicles the family - Sunju, her husband Isak, her in-laws, children Noa and Mozasu, their children, partners over the years from 1932 to 1989. It is wonderful, deeply engrossing and affecting. A lot of history is woven into the narrative, which provides the backdrop to the despair of the Koreans and the appalling discrimination by the Japanese toward them. I had no idea at all about any of this. I loved the characters, the love and compassion they show each other, the smallest of gestures and kindnesses making life worth living. Every day they get up, bravely facing another day of hard work, little money, doing their best for their families. It is inspiring and beautiful, lives and people lovingly written and described. This is a time and place in history I know nothing about- I learnt a lot. 

PERSONAL HISTORY by Katharine Graham

The movie 'The Post' with Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks depicted how The Washington Post newspaper won the right of free speech competition with Richard Nixon's government of the early 1970s. This set the scene the scene for arguably the Post's most successful coup ever, the uncovering of the Watergate scandal which resulted in the impeachment of Nixon, retold in the movie 'All the President's Men'.

At the helm of the paper during these turbulent times was Katharine Graham, there really only by virtue of being the daughter of the man who bought the paper way back in 1933, and the wife of the man, Phil Graham,  who took over from his father-in-law. The reins were  inherited by Katharine on her husband's suicide in 1963. She stood down as publisher in 1979, her son, then great niece in charge until 2014 when it was was sold to Jeff Bezos of Amazon fame.

There was really nothing remarkable about Katharine, a very privileged, well educated young woman, who had been brought up to believe that a woman's place was in the home, tending to her husband and children, putting her own needs and thoughts etc second to those around her. From time to time she had dabbled in a bit of journalism, writing the odd column for the paper, but certainly no positions of management, leadership or decision making. Being thrust into the top dog role in 1963 at the age of 46, recently widowed in horrible circumstances, four children, was more than a baptism by fire. She had plenty of help of course: this book is riddled with Post staff at all levels of the organisation whose advice, guidance, and decision making probably contributed more to the survival and success of the paper than her own management did, but flourish indeed it did.

This is her story, all 700 pages of it, published in 1997 when she was 80 years old. And what a story it is. It is incredibly long; there are way too many names - harsher critics than me call it name dropping, they also call her a spoiled ineffective figurehead; I skim read much of the management stuff of the paper, her conflicts with editors, managers, labour issues. But as a story of the transformation a woman of her time made from being a wife/mother to being a person of influence and opinion in a very male-dominated world is marvellous, and what's more at a time when the feminist movement was beginning to hit its stride. Yes, there were set backs; yes, she was regularly vilified, parodied and insulted; yes, there were times she wanted to throw it all away. But she didn't and in her quiet, dignified and polite way (as she tells it), she ends up being a stayer. The paper won 10 of its 47 Pulitzer Prizes on her watch.

Much of this book is outdated now, but not only does it tell Mrs Graham's own personal story, it also chronicles much of America's social, economic and political history during the middle section of the last century. Well worth a read, and ties in very nicely with  the two movies 'The Post', and 'All the President's Men'. 

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.

MANHATTAN BEACH by Jennifer Egan

Oh how I loved this fabulous novel, a great story, great characters, twists and turns, unexpected outcomes all over the place, a truly gripping read perfect for long stretches of self indulgent reading. It is both the story line and the characters together who are extraordinary, equally balanced. The characters are so human, so real, flawed, passionate, loyal, fierce, strong, intelligent, I loved them all. There is so much going on here, not just in the story line, but also the skill with which it moves back and forth in time. It is like a miracle that it can all be held together so well. I guess if you previously won a Pulitzer Prize, you do have some writing smarts!

Annie Kerrigan is just twelve when the story starts in the depressions years of the early 1930s. She lives in Brooklyn, New York with her father Eddie, mother Agnes and sister Lydia who is severely disabled. Eddie does his best to provide for his family, to make Lydia's life as comfortable as possible, leading him down  dodgy pathways, until one day he just simply disappears. Annie spends a lot of time with her father, trailing around after him as he goes out about his various business activities. One day on the shores of the beach, she is with her father when he meets with Dexter Styles, a man of mystery to a twelve year old, but to us old hacks clearly a man not to be messed with, which would appear to be where her father went wrong.

The narrative fast forwards to the war years, and Annie is now late teens. She is works at the Brooklyn Naval Yard, doing essential war work, her meagre earnings supporting her sister and mother. Somewhat bizarrely she becomes a diver, the first female diver, an occupation considered dangerous and risky for even men to contemplate. She is quite a girl Annie, to take on the misogyny of the navy at this particular time. Her life finally has purpose, until she meets up again with Dexter Styles, still involved in his shady dealings. Once she realises she knows him, her one mission in life is to find out what happened to her father.

Fantastic read, not particularly fast moving, but compelling, surprising, the writing perfectly poised to keep us turning the page, yet also marvelling at the pages already read. Loved it. 

THREE MARTINI LUNCH by Suzanne Rindell

I felt really quite disappointed with this novel by the time I got to the end. Such a great plot line - three young people wanting to leave their mark on the literary world, baed in New York, with big dreams, talent, ambition. Cliff wants to be the next Jack Kerouac, and will do anything to attain that goal. His father is a very successful New York editor/publisher, Cliff struggling to win his father's approval. Eden is a bright, hardworking and ambitious young woman from the mid-west, looking to become an editor herself, as a woman a laughable and unlikely achievement. Miles is a young black man from Harlem, an insanely talented writer, also looking to make it big, but with more hurdles to jump than either of the other two.

Their progress to the top is thwarted by the usual road blocks - the mean father who won't indulge his wayward son, the glass ceiling and workplace sexual harassment, deeply ingrained racial prejudice to name a few. Has much changed in the decades since?

With these fairly predictable power imbalances being the foundations of the plot, I felt that the three main characters, as well as some of the minor characters,  were on a hiding to nowhere. As a result, with all their talent and brains, it seems to me that the author simply does not want them to win. They all make decisions which, in the end, for me, made them quite unlikeable, their original core values compromised by their ambition. Eden is the only one who remains true to her goal - an editor, but it is a tortuous route there. I wonder if this is how people would behave in real life

What I did like however was how the author wrote about the times - New York and San Francisco at a turning point in our recent history. The author lives in both New York and California and her love of both cities shows in her depictions of fashion, food, cafes, bars, street life, San Fran fog, the three martini lunches in New York where so much business is done - all very Mad Men.





BEHOLD THE DREAMERS by Imbolo Mbue

Two families in New York in 2007, one white, one black; one American, one African; one poor, one rich; one in a position of power, the other not. But the dreams are the same - advancement, wealth, making it, succeeding. Two families with the same dreams, but vastly different paths to achieving those dreams.

Jende Jonga, his wife Neni and six year old son are migrants from Cameroon. America is the land of opportunity, the only chance they have in life to make money, get rich, achieve the American dream of the house in the suburbs, a good education for their children, good jobs for themselves. Jende is essentially an illegal, but that does not stop him seeking jobs. Neni has a student visa, she wants to be a pharmacist, and their son has a visa under Neni's student one. The optimism and their energy is boundless in this land of amazing opportunity. The Edwards are also chasing that dream, and it would seem they have well and truly made it. They are privileged, powerful, rich, living the dream. Clark is very senior in Lehman Brothers, Cindy is his society wife, and they have two sons, one of whom is hating law school, and the much younger Mighty. Jende lands himself a well paid job as Clark's chauffeur and so begins a relationship that ends up transcending the employer/employee dynamic. Jende and Neni can now see a future for themselves, if only they could get over the stumbling block of Jende's illegal resident status.

But is 2007-2008, and we all know what happened to Lehman Brothers, as well as many other financial giants. The fall out is enormous, like a big spreading stain, affecting thousands of people caught up in the washout. At times the story lumbers along, making it for me a bit too long and drawn out. But the characters are wonderful, fully rounded, their good sides and their bad sides in full view. I love books with real people in them, people you can relate to, people you can shout at no don't do that, people you want to meet and give a big hug too because in all their goodness and badness they are so intensely human. This is such an insight into the migrant experience in a truly tough town like New York, as the author herself was. New York is a magnet for people not just from other countries, but also from within the US, as it was for Clark and Cindy. So this book is also about the white, privileged migrant experience.