Lisa Wingate’s dual timeline novel explores the hurt that is done by some to others in their efforts to survive – emotionally, physically, materially.
We meet Rill Foss, who in the 1930’s is kidnapped along with her four siblings and taken to the Tennessee Children’s Home in Memphis. The home is one of many run by Georgia Tann, a real-life figure whose questionable activities were later uncovered and condemned.
In the current day, there is Avery Stafford, a young lawyer and a member of a powerful South Carolina political family. When Avery meets May Crandall, an elderly resident of a nursing home, the encounter starts her on a quest to unravel the mysterious connection between May and Avery’s own grandmother, Judy.
Rill’s storyline introduces us to her life before she is whisked away. She lives with her large, noisy family in a ‘shantyboat’ on the Mississippi River. Folk like her were known disparagingly as ‘river rats’ and ‘river gypsies’ – they are itinerant and poor. They don’t always have enough to eat and there are plenty of dangers on the river. But Rill’s family is loving, with music and books, and friends they meet up with on their seasonal travels up and down the river.
The author has captured Rill’s voice perfectly and brought her river home to vivid life. But when Rill and her brother and sisters are sent to the children’s home, they are treated as if they are stock, items sold to couples desperate to adopt a child. There are sickening acts of cruelty and indifference towards children’s needs, and a wilful blindness by staff to the abuses perpetrated against their charges.
It’s a sobering reminder, if one were needed, that there are people who will exploit the vulnerable and that, without proper oversight and regulation, abuses will occur, especially if money is involved. We may think that these sorts of situations could not arise today, but we would be mistaken.
As Avery’s exploration of her grandmother’s past continues and deepens, she learns about the scandals surrounding the ‘baby farms’ run by Georgia Tann. As she searches for the truth, her own future (which had once seemed a charmed pathway to a life of privilege) becomes less clear to her. In her uncertainty about her family’s past, she reaches for a different, more authentic future.
No matter how much we may love the melody of a bygone day or imagine the song of a future one, we must dance within the music of today, or we will always be out of step, stumbling around in something that doesn’t suit the moment.
Before We Were Yours p315
Before We Were Yours takes the reader on a journey of discovery to difficult truths, and explores the different ways people deal with tragedy. The characters and the setting in America’s South are wonderfully realised and there are moments of tenderness and hope that lead to a satisfying resolution. I enjoyed this novel and will be on the lookout for more titles by Lisa Wingate.
Before We Were Yours is published by Harper Collins Australia in December 2020.
I’m always intrigued by what prompts readers to pick up a particular book. I was initially drawn to this new novel by Australian writer Vanessa McCausland because it is set in a location not too far from where I live in the Blue Mountains of NSW: the Capertee Valley.
It’s a dual timeline story: one thread traces the disappearance in 1948 of a young woman from the valley’s iconic Art Deco hotel. The other, present day thread, also centres around the hotel, and another missing woman.
If you have read Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies (or seen the TV series adaptation) you will recognise the technique of multiple viewpoint story-telling. When done well, it is an effective way of capturing the inner thoughts and feelings of different characters, drawing us into their worlds. In The Valley of Lost Stories there are four main characters: all young mothers whose children attend the same Sydney seaside suburban primary school, who decide to enjoy a week away together in the Capertee Valley.
The author skilfully shows how the women are all hiding some aspects of their true selves and their lives, which are not as picture-perfect as they seem. Each woman has her problems or disappointments, which begin to impact on the relationships within the group as the holiday progresses. Tensions rise as their insecurities spill over, which coupled with the eerie atmosphere of the old hotel and its starkly beautiful surroundings, culminate in a gripping tale of mystery and danger.
Woven throughout are the events of 1948, and hints of other dark episodes in the valley’s history, including the dispossession and murder by white settlers of the Wiradjuri people, and exploitative behaviour by mine owners and managers when the valley was a major producer of shale oil. This history provides a telling backdrop juxtaposed against the modern-day problems of the four women:
What would it have been like to live back then? Emmie thought. History was so easy to ignore, gloss over. But really, it was everything. It was perspective. It was all that made up where we are now. It was the progression of time that we chose so often to conveniently ignore.
The Valley Of Lost Stories p242
The Valley of Lost Stories is peopled by very relatable characters, both past and present, and explores the deep wounds that we can inflict on each other, as well as a little known aspect of Australian history. It’s inspired me to want take a trip to the Capertee Valley and see its renowned ancient beauty for myself.
The Valley of Lost Stories is published by HarperCollins Publishers in December 2020. My thanks to the publishers for a copy to read and review.
Like her previous novel, The German Midwife, The Berlin Girl is set in Germany and is about the effects of WWII. This time, the story opens in 1938, just before events cascade into war.
As in her previous book, Mandy Robotham has drawn on her own professional experience to enrich the drama and give a realistic portrayal of the characters’ work. In this case, it is journalism and the protagonist is Georgina (Georgie) Young, posted to Berlin as a fairly ‘green’ foreign correspondent.
Georgie had been to Berlin a few years earlier, but the city she finds this time is a much darker and murkier one than the Berlin presented to the world at the 1936 Olympic Games. The realities of Nazi control of Germany are being realised by ordinary Germans, especially of course Jews, people with disabilities, and anyone else considered unworthy by the Reich.
She must quickly find her feet, along with fellow London journalist Max Spender, who is employed by a rival English publication. They need to learn who are potential sources of information, who are allies and who not to trust.
Their frustration grows at the apparent unwillingness of Western governments to believe what is happening in Germany, frustration shared by their fellow ‘foreign press pack’ journalists, with whom they form a strong camaraderie and bond. They witness the horrors of Kristallnacht, the violent pogrom against Jewish businesses and families. The devastating effects of anti-Semitism are brought home through Georgie’s friendship with one Jewish family, Rubin and Sara Amsell and their children.
There is rising tension and mistrust as Nazi oppression tightens its grip on the country. There is also a reminder of the importance of a free press and access to information by a nation’s citizenry (especially relevant in this era of Trump, social media and ‘fake news’.) Georgie and her press colleagues attend a press briefing after Kristallnacht given by Joseph Goebbels (the Minister for Propaganda whom they privately nickname ‘Joey’):
Joey spouted it all with familiar conviction, but he couldn’t have failed to notice the murmurings of disbelief among his audience. To every reporter listening to his fairy-tale rhetoric, it was pure farce. Yet Goebbels remained unashamed, steadfast in his own propaganda.
The Berlin Girl, p194
Does that remind you of another (modern day) politician, steadfast and unashamed in their own fake news?
A theme that runs deeply through this novel is the question: How did Hitler and his cronies beguile an entire country into wholesale murder and war?
Why, when it seemed so transparent to everyone in the room, did the German people believe it? ‘Fear’, said the Daily Express correspondent swiftly. ‘Maybe your average German doesn’t believe it, but they wouldn’t dare express it. Not even to their neighbours. It masquerades nicely as belief when you’ve got no one telling you you’re wrong.’
The Berlin Girl p52
The Berlin Girl touches on other issues, including the trail-blazing role of early female foreign correspondents, the wilful disbelief on the part of the British and other governments to prevent Hitler embarking on his murderous path to world war, and the risks taken by the many brave people who did what they could to resist.
Though set during 1938 – 39, the questions this novel asks about a population’s willingness to blindly support a dictatorial or self-obsessed leader and believe their lies and promises, rang many bells for me. As we see what has played out in the USA and other parts of the world in recent years, can we honestly say that we have moved beyond that tendency to cede power to those who promise to ‘make us great again’? Because that rallying cry of Trump’s was exactly what Hitler had promised the German people.
Have we really changed that much?
The Berlin Girl will be published by HarperCollins Publishers on 2 December 2020. My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
The first thing I noticed about The Angel of Waterloo is the cover image – one of the most haunting book covers I’ve seen for a while, designed by Mark Campbell using artwork by Mary Jane Ansell. You can see more of her beautiful work here.
The novel opens on the carnage and chaos of the battlefield at Waterloo, arguably the most famous of all the battles of the Napoleonic Wars. The protagonist, Henrietta (or ‘Hen’) is just fifteen and, along with her army surgeon father, desperately trying to save as many injured soldiers as she can.
Already more accomplished in medical matters than many physicians (who in this era were all male), Hen manages to save the arm and the life of a young lieutenant, Max Bartlett. When he regains consciousness he makes a rash proposal of marriage to his saviour and Hen accepts. They are married by a local priest, right there on the battlefield, witnessed only by Hen’s father and Max’s friend.
I’m still uncertain if this battlefield marriage worked for me, though I do understand that in war, normal behavioural norms and expectations are often jettisoned. The device also works to move the plot to Australia, when Hen embarks on a hopeful voyage several years later. In the colony, she finds that the stakes for her happiness, safety and fulfilment are even higher than before.
I’d describe this novel as a saga: so much happens and it’s an emotional roller coaster as we follow the fluctuating fortunes of the various characters.
As always, Jackie French’s historical detail is impeccable and layered through the narrative seamlessly, so readers can learn a great deal while being immersed in the story. We become aware, for example, of how the colony’s politics and economics affected all who lived there: the indigenous people who were quickly dispossessed of their lands, the poor, the convicts and the free settlers who followed in their wake. The violence and injustice imported along with the settlers are clear to see.
As Sergeant Drivers says to Hen:
‘Miss Hen, ain’t you realised yet that this is a land of felons? We walk around with no chains because the wild about us is prison-walls enough, but none of us is innocent, no matter what we claim. Nor was we caught the first time we broke the law, neither. Most of us are damned good at it.’
The Angel of Waterloo p 212
So, the realities of colonial life are laid bare as Hen immerses herself in this new world and faces difficult decisions about her future there.
At the novel’s heart is the theme of warfare, violence and colonisation:
‘You were simply swallowed up by Waterloo.’ She saw by his expression Max did not understand. ‘I mean the whole mindset that led to it, those long years of war with France. The colony is built on a world that sees nothing odd in killing thirty thousand soldiers in a day, leaving ten thousand orphan children starving and countless eyeless beggars craving for a crust. It’s the right of any gentleman to take whatever he can win.’
The Angel of Waterloo p327
This novel also made me think about how authors of today portray historical events and people in fiction. There is a tension between wanting to give as accurate a picture as possible, while also allowing at least some characters to express views on matters such as race-relations, for example, that would be more in line with modern-day values.
I wonder how many non-indigenous people in nineteenth century NSW would have been sympathetic to the First Australians and why their views and experiences were not recorded prominently in their own time. The work of historians such as Paul Irish and Grace Karskens does help to show that not all settlers were blind to the humanity of the indigenous people they encountered. But I think that they were likely in a minority. Jackie French shows how racist attitudes had their roots in the long standing divisions and violence of British society.
The Angel of Waterloo has plenty of unexpected moments that kept me eager to read on. I warmed to Hen and truly wished her happiness in her adopted country. Lovers of Jackie French’s historical novels will find this an engrossing read.
The Angel of Waterloo is published by Harper Collins Publishers on 2 December 2020. My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.
I adored The Sapphires from the moment I saw the stage play and fell in love with it again when the movie came out. The four women in the film’s lead roles – Jessica Mauboy, Deborah Mailmain, Shari Sebbens and Miranda Tapsell – brought the amazing story to life and added so much to the joyous nature of the experience. Ditto with Miranda Tapsell’s film, Top End Wedding, which she co-wrote and starred in. Both were productions with a lot of heart and soul, with serious things to say, that nevertheless left me with a big smile and a full heart.
Reading Top End Girl was a similar experience. It’s Miranda Tapsell’s memoir taking in her childhood in Darwin and Arnhem land, her time at NIDA learning about the industry she had set her heart on, her early career (including the making of The Sapphires), and then conceiving, developing, writing and filming Top End Wedding. Oh, and her real-life romance and wedding in between all of that.
Miranda’s chatty style makes for an engaging read, though this does not mean she pulls back from addressing issues of importance, including a tough call-out of racist stereotypes in media and popular culture, and the limited opportunities from people of colour and other minorities in film and television – both of which she is endeavouring to do something about in her own career.
What I’m asking is to celebrate modern Aboriginal culture, to subvert the stereotypes that have been pitted against Aboriginal people – that we don’t believe in hard work, that we’re negligent with our children, that we’re all criminals or that we all have alcohol problems. To instead show the complexity and commonplace that we all share while also acknowledging the uniqueness of our story.
Top End Girl p82
Miranda’s account of what she calls her ‘charmed life’ does not bely her own hard work, risk-taking and commitment to seizing opportunities when they appeared, learning to believe in herself and sticking to her principles. Nor does she gloss over the challenges still facing First Nations people in Australia and around the world today. She uses her art, creativity and drive to make a difference in these areas.
There are plenty of talented Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists who have blazed the trail for passionate and ambitious people like me, and we shouldn’t all have to agree to tell the same story to be made to feel appreciated. Our lived experiences are just as vast and nuanced as the non-Indigenous people who have squatted here. I want my community to have a say in what I’m making because I’m reflecting them.
Top End Girl p291
She describes how this worked for her in the making of her film: the consulting, yarning, including and respecting Traditional Owners at every step of the process, from script development, decisions about locations and cast, ensuring the team organised appropriate Welcomes to Country during the production. I enjoyed learning about how this respect and inclusiveness could be woven into a fast-paced production journey.
Top End Girl is a heartfelt story from a talented young woman in Australian cultural life. I loved reading about Miranda’s views and experiencesand look forward to seeing what new projects her creative self will develop.
Top End Girl was published by Hachette in April 2020.
This is the eighteenth in my series called Travels with my Mother. If you’ve not read the first in the series, you might wish to have a look at that one as it gives the context behind these posts.
Recently I showed Mum several of her old school reports from high schools she attended during WWII, when her father was away on overseas service with the Army. There was a clue on two of them which told me where Mum was living and what was happening in her life at that time.
‘See here, Mum, where the parent’s signature goes?’ I pointed at the faded handwriting. ‘These two were signed by your grandmother. Your mum had died by this time and you were living with her mother.’
Mum’s mother died in 1942 from a long illness and her three children were sent to live with different families because their father was not granted permission to return home from active service.
Mum showed no recognition at her grandmother’s name or even at what must have been a traumatic time in her young life.
I tried again: ‘Your grandmother was married to Bob then; her second husband. You always said you liked Bob; though not your grandmother so much. But you really liked Bob.’
At that name, a warm smile lit up Mum’s face. ‘Bob was kind,’ she nodded. I said, ‘Do you remember why you didn’t like your grandma?’
Mum stared into space for a while before shaking her head. ‘I don’t remember her. Just Bob. He was lovely.’
This exchange left me wondering: was this another of dementia’s strange gifts: the expunging of difficult times and people, leaving only the good? Perhaps it was a transient phase of the disease. If so, at least it offered my mother the opportunity to recall someone whom she had loved and who had offered her a kindly presence at a difficult time.
If only we could all remember the good a little more and leave behind those painful, unwanted or distressing recollections, at least for a time.
Future Friend, a chapter book for middle grade readers, will be a sure-fire spark to ignite interest in stories that, like the best sci-fi and speculative fiction, asks readers to consider ‘What if…?’
Pip is a girl from the year 3020, who accidentally enters a time-travel portal and lands in the home of Rahul, a thousand and one years earlier, in the year 2019.
Once over their shock, the two marvel at the amazing differences between their world, while trying to figure out how to get Pip back to her own time. Pip’s future world certainly has some very cool technology – sentient robots, gravity defying boots, MindLink, animals and birds that can talk. (If you grew up in the 1960’s or thereabouts, you might remember the mix of amazement and envy at the futuristic world of the early Star Trek series or even cartoons like The Jetsons.
But the world of 3020 has its definite downsides and Pip wishes that she could be like Rahul and play outside, go to school with other children, and eat real (not lab-created) food. These are all impossible for her because of Earth’s extreme temperatures, rampant viruses and frequent floods.
There is a gentle, and timely, dig at conspiracy theorists and people who refuse to listen to science and instead choose to believe whatever disinformation they are fed by others.
Future Friend deals with some big themes, with an emphasis on friendship, humour and working together to take care of the future planet. It’s a perfect way for youngsters to embark on some enjoyable and accessible sci-fi reading.
Future Friend is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books on 18 November 2020. My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
…how do we endure when suffering becomes unbearable and our obstacles seem monstrous? How do we continue to glow when the lights turn out?…We must love. And we must look outwards and upwards at all times, caring for others, seeking wonder and stalking awe, every day, to find the magic that will sustain us and fuel the light within – our own phosphorescence.
This lovely book was a recent birthday gift from a dear friend (thank you Jennie!) and so timely after a year of tragedy and hardship at both the international and local levels. So many people I know have had a difficult year- economic worries, personal health challenges, suffering and death of loved ones, separation from people and places that they care about.
So reading Julia Baird’s book was like applying a balm to raw damaged skin: soothing, calming, but also an invitation to think deeply about life and what really matters. In it, she talks a little about her own personal trials, especially her very serious health challenges, but the book is about much more than one person or one set of difficulties.
It’s a broad ranging exploration of what gives joy, wonder, passion, hope, purpose; especially what keeps people going during the hard times. She includes themes such as the power of nature, connection and community, working to a purpose larger than ourselves, the role of beauty and silence, paying attention.
Each theme is illustrated by examples from the author’s own life but also the lives of others from past and present times. I particularly enjoyed reading about her activism and that of others on issues like feminism, climate change, indigenous, Black or LGBTQI rights, and the environment. Comments on the need to maintain effort over the long term resonated for me, as someone who has at times despaired at the slow rate of change and the feeling that achieving social justice goals is a matter of ‘one step forward, several leaps back.’ As Baird says:
You don’t walk away until the work is done.
Phosphorescence p 101
Most moving to me, however, were the two chapters she addresses to her daughter (Letter to a young woman) and son (Thoughts for my son: the art of savouring.) Such beautiful, wry, humorous and hopeful reflections from a mother to her children.
Phosphorescence is a book to be savoured, enjoyed, mulled over and returned to again and again.
It was published by Fourth Estate, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, in March 2020.
David Walliams, best-selling UK based children’s author, has written another action packed story for readers seven years and older. Full of nonsensical moments and humour, Code Name Bananas takes place during World War II, at the height of The Blitz.
Eric is an 11 year old orphan who is teased by other kids at school because of his sticky-out ears and glasses. Eric’s favourite place in the world is the London Zoo, where his Great Uncle Sid works, and Eric’s favourite animal there is Gertrude the gorilla. Gertrude and Eric share a special connection, so when he learns that Gertrude is no longer safe at the zoo, Eric and Uncle Sid hatch a wild plan to rescue her.
The adventure leads them to uncover a Nazi plot and they must do everything they can to escape the clutches of elderly spies, twin sisters Helene and Bertha Braun, and raise the alarm. In between, they float over the River Thames under a barrage balloon, evade capture by London police, survive a Luftwaffe bombing attack, disguise Gertrude as a bride, and are imprisoned in a German U-boat.
The main characters are endearing; I especially liked that Eric is a kind boy, and his Uncle Sid equally so – his tiny house stuffed with injured animals he has ‘adopted’ from the Zoo is testament to that.
Amongst all the mayhem, younger readers will be gently introduced to some of the features of the war that impacted the most on Britain – the bombing raids, loss and destruction that could strike at any time, the uncertainty of life during wartime. Of course, Code Name Bananas is first and foremost an action packed and fun read and youngsters will be sure to welcome it.
Code Name Bananas was published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in November 2020. My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
With The Wreck, Meg Keneally has written another novel bristling with vividly drawn characters and adventure, with a good dollop of the kind of real-life historical stories that make her work so compelling. If you have read Fled, which was a fictionalised version of the incredible true story of the convict Mary Bryant, you’ll know how well this can work in the skilled hands of an assured writer.
In The Wreck, we meet Sarah, traumatised by the murder of her parents in what was meant to be a peaceful demonstration by some of England’s working poor (loosely based on the real Peterloo massacre) and the treatment of her brother in its aftermath. Sarah joins a group which plans the violent overthrow of the British government.
Betrayed and frightened for her life, she escapes aboard a sailing ship headed to NSW. The convicts and crew on board are drowned in a terrible shipwreck just off Sydney Harbour. Sarah is the sole survivor: alone and penniless in a strange land, though still burning for justice for her family and for other oppressed and mistreated people.
So begins her life in the colony, where she tries to create a new identity and a new beginning. But Sarah finds that inequity, poverty and brutality have been brought to NSW along with the convicts and soldiers and that she must choose her friends and allies carefully, as she is still a wanted woman. She struggles to reconcile her desire to work towards a better world and her fear of British justice – or injustice.
She, too, was part of a faceless mass, toiling down in the basements of grand houses or begging on the streets. Yes, those on the upper levels knew people like her existed, but they didn’t have to see or speak to her, they could conveniently ignore her humanity, as they were doing with the original inhabitants of this place.
The Wreck, p195
The novel is peopled with some wonderful characters: Sarah herself, and others such as Nell and her baby Amelia, who Sarah befriends. Mrs Thistle, who Sarah and Nell go to work for, is loosely based on the real life character of Mary Reibey, a remarkable woman who went from being a convict to an astute businesswoman and one of the wealthiest people in the early colony.
Sarah herself develops from the frightened and bewildered young woman who washed up from a shipwreck on the shores of the colony, to someone who has learnt that there is more than one way to change her part of the world.
The Wreck will appeal to readers who enjoy their historical fiction well seasoned with convincing detail and believable characters, and themes that are as relevant today as to the period in which the novel is set.
The Wreck was published by Echo Publishing in 2020.
Mim is on the run. Her husband Ben is missing from his workplace, a gold mining project on an Indonesian island. The Department assigns a ‘liaison team’ to the family and they take the passports of Mim and her two young children, Essie and Sam. The Department, she has come to realise, is not a benevolent body but the principal instrument of a controlling, all-powerful oppressive government. Mim is right to be afraid.
So she takes the kids, goes offline and flees – first back to her family home, then to the place of her childhood seaside holidays. With high school sweetheart Nick, she and the kids embark on a long drive north; then out to sea on Nick’s boat to Indonesia, hoping to find her husband Ben. All the while trying to avoid detection by The Department. Oh, and to be a good mother to her kids.
The Mother Fault is set in the very near future, in an Australia where Government tentacles reach everywhere, assisted by technology that feels very familiar (think Siri or Google Home), but includes microchipping babies at birth so that they are literally never ‘off line’.
Mim’s dash towards freedom and her husband invites new dangers and risk for herself and everyone she loves. At the novel’s heart is Mim’s struggle to know if she’s doing the right thing by her family. Is she careful enough, protective enough, loving enough? An age-old anxiety, this one; surely recognisable to most mothers. As is its corresponding struggle: to return to a sense of self, of personhood, amidst the layers of responsibility and distractions that come with busy modern lives.
She shouldn’t leave them out there on their own, but see if she fucking cares. Little shits, not listening, making fun. ‘Mum!’ A shriek from outside and her legs don’t even hesitate, already making deals with fate. Sorry sorry sorry stuck in her throat as she races out through the gate, sees them both out of the water and a long trickle of watery blood down Sammy’s shin, a small rupture of flesh near the knee. ‘It got caught on the brick climbing out,’ Essie says, glaring at her. ‘You shouldn’t have left us alone.’ …and it doesn’t even hurt, her daughter’s admonishment, because it’s just the way it is. She’ll never get it right.
The Mother Fa ult, ch 13 (Audiobook version)
At the opening of the novel is a quote from The Great Hack (Netflix, 2019):
The Mother Fault certainly got me thinking about all the trade-offs we make for the conveniences and luxuries of our modern lives: connectivity, streaming services, personal entertainment devices, labour saving technologies. How often do we stop to consider what is lost amongst the gains?
Because the novel is set in an Australia that is so familiar to our own current-day one, the dangers Mim experiences feel very real and entirely believable. There is a dramatic climax in which Mim is forced to face some very unpleasant realities and make an excruciating choice in order to keep her kids safe.
The Mother Fault is gripping speculative fiction with the added bonus of Mildenhall’s beautiful prose. I listened to the Audible version narrated by Claudia Karvan whose flawless performance added greatly to my enjoyment of the novel.
The Mother Fault was published by Simon & Schuster, 2020.