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. 


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.


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.