Thursday, 26 October 2017


The Survivor’s Guide to Family Happiness, by Maddie Dawson

            Where would the dedicated reader be without Chick Lit?  If nothing else, the genre helps us to distinguish between ‘Light Reading’ – encompassing at one end the Bodice-Rippers which all seem to involve Dukes wearing tartan who fall for spirited (and beautiful) wenches from humble backgrounds, to the Feel-Good Heart-Warmers that make us go ‘Aaaaaaah’, only to forget them when something more substantial from the higher end presents itself – as indeed it should.
            Maddie Dawson’s higher end charming story ticks all the boxes:  it’s a heart-warmer;  the reader feels good at the end and no-one has to wear tartan.  Instead, real-life problems that we can all identify with are faced by ordinary, typical, disfunctional  characters  that we easily recognise as ourselves or our neighbours.  Ms Dawson casts a loving and astute eye here on families, especially of the adoptive kind, particularly that of Nina Popkin who is now mid-30s, divorced by her husband after six months of marriage – he fell in love with his bank teller and moved out on the day he confessed – and completely on her own after nursing her beloved adoptive mother through her last illness.  It’s time, thinks Nina, to start a search for her real  family, her birth family, kin who will fill the awful, yawning gap in her solitary life.  No-one should have to go through life alone.
            Which she doesn’t, because Nina has true friends and a new romance on the horizon – one that fills her with dismay, because Carter, though divorced, continues to live in the family home with his ex-wife and his two teenage children because he can’t bear to be away from them – the kids, that is, not the wife.  When the living arrangements eventually get sorted, Carter’s daughter, a terrifying fifteen-year old who dyes her hair with purple markers because she wants to be different and has a to-do list that includes having sex as soon as possible to ‘get it out of the way’ is instrumental in helping Nina search for her birth mother who (thanks to Google) is eventually revealed as a Pop Star of the Eighties. 
            In due course a younger sister is found, the biggest shock to that being that they both went to the same school, and Nina is ashamed to think that in those days she thought Lindy Walsh was a snivelly little thing.  Now Lindy Walsh is not interested in any kind of sister relationship with Nina, much less making contact with their birth mother.  Finding a replacement family is proving to be much harder than Nina thought, particularly when it is obvious that all concerned consider her to be ‘needy’.  Which she is, but surely in a good way?
            This is a charming story, and what elevates it into the higher ranks of Chick-Litdom is Nina’s floundering approach to the perils and joys of a ready-made family, and her inept but persistent attempts to bond with her true sister and birth mother:  the laughs come thick and fast, as do the tears, as in all families.  FOUR STARS.

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, by Lisa See
           Li-yan is a child of a remote hill tribe in China, the Akha.  It is an animistic, patriarchal society governed by traditional and ancient rituals designed to propitiate the many spirits that rule their lives;  life is hard and there never seems to be enough to eat, for Li-yan’s family, like the rest of the tribe, grows tea on the steep slopes of one of the six Tea Mountains in Yunnan.  They all work from dawn to dusk to tend the trees, harvest the leaves, then take them to the collection centre – and hope they will get a fair price for their labours.  If they don’t, everyone goes hungry.
            Fortunately, Li-yan’s mother enjoys a special status in the village.  She is a respected midwife and wishes to pass on her skills to Li-yan, the lowly daughter who is addressed as ‘Girl’ by all the male members of her family, but if Li-yan learns well, she too will have a status denied other women.  Also, Li-yan’s mother reveals a special secret known only to the female members of her family:  she is the custodian of a special grove of tea-trees which she lovingly tends.  Li-yan will be the next guardian of this secret, and no man must ever know where these trees are.
            Li-yan is not happy.  She does not want to be a midwife, especially after her first ‘birthing’ where newborn twins were killed because they would bring misfortune to the village – just because there were two of them;  she is interested in learning about teas and their myriad varieties and production, but the secret grove can remain so, as far as she’s concerned – she wants an education!  And the effort she employs to achieve her goals is mighty – until she falls in love, as all young people do, but with a young man who is not welcomed by her family.  The resulting baby from their union should be killed according to tribal tradition, but Li-yan’s mother, that superb midwife, helps her to give birth in the secret grove;  then it is up to Li-yan to take the baby to an orphanage in the nearest big town ,for abandoning her will give her a chance at life not possible in the Tea Mountains.
Ms See writes so well of the crippling traditions and superstitions of a remote people that the reader’s heart aches along with Li-yan’s as she eventually gains everything she dreams of:  an education;  a business;  an enviable reputation as a Tea Master;  a strong and loving husband;  a prosperous life in America, and a son, the greatest gift of all – except for the yawning hole in her heart where her daughter should rest.  Will she ever find her?
The reader certainly hopes so, especially as Li-yan’s child is adopted by Americans and we are treated to a parallel story of Haley’s childhood, youth and experiences both positive and negative of being a Chinese American Adoptee.  Ms See’s impeccable research delves into every aspect of brown skin in a white family and the contradictory emotions such a state evokes, and this great story is played out against a backdrop of the huge changes made in Chinese contemporary history over the last forty years – all melded together by the timeless allure and mystique of an ancient and beloved beverage.  FIVE STARS.

A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towle

          Moscow, 1922.  Thirty year-old Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, scion of a formerly illustrious family of the Russian aristocracy faces a Bolshevik committee dedicated to investigating his reasons for returning to Russia on pain of execution by firing squad, rather than staying in exile in Paris with so many other cowardly White Russians.  His reply that he ‘missed the climate’ was greeted with the disdain it deserved, and if he hadn’t displayed pre-revolutionary valour during the First World War he would have been executed forthwith:  instead, his punishment is to remain under house arrest as a ‘Former Person’ in the Metropol Hotel, directly opposite the Kremlin.  If he should leave in the future for any reason at all, then he will be shot.
Alexander is a cultured bon vivant, educated to his very fingertips, an aristocrat to the bone.  He is also an optimist, determined not to be daunted by his new situation – even when his sumptuous apartment at the Metropol as part of his new circumstances is substituted for a poky attic room in the servants’ quarters, but he is still able to move precious items of furniture and possessions he holds dear into his new ‘accommodation’.  Things could be worse – he could be dead!  As it is, he is still able to indulge himself in his daily epicurean routines in the hotel’s various restaurants, forming firm friendships with the staff, all of whom accept him for the good man that he is, especially bored nine year-old Nina, whose father is an important cog in Stalin’s new government.  Their friendship is so strong that many years later, she entrusts her own precious child Sofia to his care (to his utter bewilderment!) while she searches for her husband, sent in disgrace to a Siberian Gulag.
Yes, life is tolerable at the Metropol, thanks to the staff loyalty and friendship – why, it is even possible to have a romantic liaison with ‘a willowy young beauty’ who is a rising film star:  she is attracted to his wit and urbanity, not to mention more intimate skills.  For the fact that he must never venture past the front door, his life contains everything he enjoys or desires.  Until a new waiter is employed in one of the hotel restaurants:  his waiting skills are negligible;  he is rude and inept – but he has contacts in high places, and he loathes Alexander, viewing him as a prime example of an effete and evil class system, the remains of which Comrade Stalin is purging assiduously.  Alexander has an enemy without making the slightest effort to gain one, and his life is more dangerous as a result.
Alexander’s story is recounted in prose as elegant and witty as its protagonist.  Amor Towle has created a singular and unforgettable man who makes the very best of his circumstances despite fate’s attempts to defeat his perpetual optimism - he is eventually employed as the hotel’s top restaurant’s head waiter, a position designed to humiliate, instead producing the opposite effect:  he excels at his new job, for no-one knows wonderful food and wine better than he.  But when a threat to Sofia rears its head, he must risk his own life to save hers.
This is a beautiful story of friendship and loyalty set against a background of some of the most turbulent times of Russia’s history – across the road from the Kremlin in fact, for the Metropol Hotel is as much a character as its occupants in this fine novel.  SIX STARS


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