• Children's & Young Adult Books

    June picture book love

    Three new picture books for youngsters to love, coming in June.

    Boss Cat by Sarah Speedie shows what happens when a grumpy cat is introduced to the family’s new dog – with hilarious results. Anyone who has tried to soothe ruffled feathers (or fur) at the entrance of a new ‘best friend’ into a household will recognise Boss Cat’s antics. Tom Jellett’s bright pictures capture the sulky, vengeful feline’s mood perfectly.

    Marringa Lullaby is written by Emily Wurramara with Sylvia Wurramarrba Tkac, accompanied by block colour illustrations by Dylan Mooney, of Yuwi, Torres Strait and South Sea Islander heritage. It’s a beautiful, lilting board book perfect for sleepytime reading and singing, with an introduction to words in the Anindilyaka language.
    I remember seeing Emily perform at the Woodford Folk Festival some years ago, and thinking what a talent she was. Lovely to see her branching out into new art forms.

    Lights Out, Little Dragon! by Debra Tidball and Rae Tan, approaches that common parental dilemma – baby is tired but won’t go to sleep – with humour and imagination.
    Each double page spread invites the littlies to join in, by tracing a path on the page for naughty sheep to exit, or saying Go to bed, Little Dragon. And when Dragon tries to distract with a million questions, Put your hands over your ears and tell him to hushhhhh. On it goes, with baby trying all sorts of strategies to encourage Little Dragon to quieten down, lie still and sleep, and Dragon pulling out every trick in the baby-at-bedtime book.
    It’s an amusing and gentle way to settle down for nap time.

    These three picture books are published by HarperCollins Children’s Books Australia in June 2024.
    My thanks to the publishers for review copies.

  • Books and reading

    Did you know that in Victorian times, the fear of grave-robbers disturbing the final resting place of a loved one led to a brisk sale in ‘mortsafes’, an iron frame anchored over graves to secure them? And that there was an equally brisk, and to modern eyes very disturbing, trade in the bones and other body parts of non-Europeans, smuggled about the globe and ending up in private collections, museums and scientific institutions?

    These are some of the snippets I learned by reading Black Silk and Sympathy.

    I love Deborah Challinor’s historical fiction for this reason. She weaves into her stories fascinating insights about the places and periods in which her novels are set – in this case, London and Sydney in the 1860’s. Specifically, it is the world of Victorian undertakers: not usually a topic for a novel, especially one with a female protagonist, but all the more reason to enjoy it.

    Tatiana at seventeen has been recently orphaned and makes a decision to leave London – and England – and try her luck in the colony of New South Wales. She is offered work as an undertaker’s assistant by Titus Crowe. It’s an unusual offer, but Crowe is an astute businessman and recognises the attraction of a ‘woman’s touch’ to grieving clients. Echoes of today’s women-operated funeral businesses, I suppose, but truly ground breaking in Victorian-era Sydney.

    When Titus dies, Tatty is determined to keep running the business on her own terms. Not unheard of, but unusual for the time, especially in the competitive world of the funeral industry.

    Unfortunately for Tatty, the competition is even fiercer than she’d thought, and one rival in particular will stop at nothing to limit her success.

    Being a businesswoman in this town, and particularly in your industry, will not be without its challenges. And you will be the only female undertaker in Sydney. To my knowledge there are seven other local undertaking firms apart from yours, all chasing the same profit to be made from funerals. Be prepared.

    Black Silk and Sympathy p167

    She is a formidable adversary though, and through quick thinking and a willingness to take risks, Tatty and her business endure.

    Previous books I’d read by this author include the Convict Girls series, and it took me a while to realise that several characters, who felt vaguely familiar, were from those novels, albeit several decades on. It’s always nice to meet old friends from earlier books again.

    The author’s background as an historian and researcher show in her impeccable details of the period, including fascinating insights into Victorian mourning customs and funeral practices, and the restrictions on women owning anything of their own once they married. The laws of the time certainly stacked the odds against women having anything like independence; yet there were women like Tatty who did not let that stand in their way. Thankfully we can now read stories about such women and the circumstances in which they lived.

    Tatty is a heroine to relate to and I hope to meet her again in the next book of the series.

    Black Silk and Sympathy is published by HarperCollins Publishers in April 2024.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    Simple delights: ‘Happy All Over’ by Emma Quay

    Author and illustrator Emma Quay (of Rudie Nudie fame) is back with another romp with things that make us happy.

    In this delightful new book she has her little ones taking pleasure in the simplest things of everyday life:

    A star.
    The floor.
    Shapes at the door.
    Finding there are five
    When you thought
    there were four.

    Happy All Over

    The illustrations, of family scenes, pets, babies and toddlers, books and gardens, are exuberant and lively; perfect for the story.

    Happy All Over was published in April 2024 by HarperCollins Children’s Books.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading

    Jake Jackson is a former London detective who has retired to live outside a small rural village. He is still troubled by unsolved cases from his past, and he is pulled into an informal investigation involving a supposed suicide, a snatched child, and a murdered man.

    Before long the stakes are raised to a frightening level, threatening his new partner and her little girl, as well as several people who have helped Jake find answers.

    This is Book 2 in a new series by London based author Stig Abell. The premise of an ex-detective being unable to leave his former job behind completely, is not a new one. However in this case it is given an extra fillip by the place Jake now inhabits and the lifestyle he has chosen.

    His new home is called ‘Little Sky’ and its surroundings are an important part of the novel. The setting and even the weather have a presence, by turns calming and peaceful, foreboding, or threatening. There are immersive descriptions that take the reader right into Jake’s chosen home:

    The storm abates, and he wraps up and goes outside, his feet damply bare in old wellies. The world in its aching iciness is still, as if all has been frozen and fixed into place. He can feel the expanse of the lake rather than see it, the silent night cloaking him softly like dark silk. The air is fresh in his lungs, the bitter cold somewhat cleansing.

    Death in a Lonely Place p75

    Jake has left the crowds and hubbub of the city behind, re-entering it only with reluctance. His house is isolated, almost completely ‘off grid’ in terms of communication with others. His routines include exercise (runs followed by winter swims in his private lake), healthy food, idyllic nights by the fire, reading his beloved detective and thriller novels. He is content.

    Yet when trouble comes calling he does not hesitate to respond, though he has long discussions about the wisdom of re-entering a criminal world both with himself and his partner, Livia, who is anxious about trouble imposing itself on them, especially as she is sole parent to a little girl.

    Livia and daughter Diana are more than just the ‘love interest’ and child; they are drawn into the action to a certain extent, which puts some strain on the relationship, with Livia also needing to make decisions about the right thing to do.

    Jake is an attractive character, too. He has his own preoccupations but no fatal flaw such as alcoholism, so often seen in the detective genre – probably with good reason, given the things that they see and the crimes they have to deal with. Instead, Jake’s ‘problem’ is a tendency to take responsibility, such as his feeling that he has let down the families of the victims of crimes he was unable to solve.

    With the help of several others, he uncovers a criminal conspiracy that is happening right under his nose. The nature of this conspiracy is particularly distasteful and distressing, actually. I left the novel thinking -hoping – that it is just fiction, that such crimes would not actually take place or find willing participants in today’s world. Probably very naive of me, but I do prefer to leave some crimes in the world of make believe, and I can still enjoy a good detective novel even when they include such abhorrent behaviour.

    And I did enjoy this novel. The plotting is tight, there is a good pace (without page after page dedicated to – yawn! – drawn out fight scenes), and the characters around Jake are, mostly, people I could warm to.

    But most of all I loved the way the author brought Jake and his home to life for me: snowy fields, woolen jumpers, frozen streams, and hot coffee by the fire.

    Now that I have met Jake I’ll no doubt look up Book 1; Death under a Little Sky, to read more about how he came to be in this beautiful part of the country.

    Death in a Lonely Place is published by Hemlock Press, an imprint of HarperCollins, in April 2024.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    Simply wonderful: the work of author/illustrator Freya Blackwood

    A few years ago I was fortunate to see an exhibition of works by award-winning children’s book author and illustrator Freya Blackwood. She has illustrated books by such leading authors as Libby Gleeson, Margaret Wild, Nick Bland, Jan Ormerod, Danny Parker and Mem Fox. See more about Freya and her work here.

    If you follow my blog posts, you’ll know that I adore children’s literature and in particular, picture books. There is something magical about the combination of carefully chosen words and intuitive illustrations that bring a story to full, vivid life. Each component are integral, essential: one does not work without the other.

    With The Garden of Broken Things, Ms Blackwood has created both words and pictures. It tells of little Sadie, who investigates the garden of Number 9 Ardent Street, an old house avoided by the other children because it has

    windows like sad eyes, and

    Thick like cobwebs,
    the tangled vines concealed
    things from another time,
    revealed things twisted and bent,
    seized and rusted;
    things that had come to a final halt.

    The Garden of Broken Things

    Sadie discovers an old woman there, sitting slumped on a garden bench. Rather than running away, Sadie stays to chat, telling the woman about her friends, her school lessons, her pets. By the time she has to go home, she has made a new friend, and the garden of broken things becomes, once again, a wild and beautiful playground for the local children.

    It’s a simple, sweet story about stopping to look and to listen, and how friends can appear in the most unlikely places. The soft evocative illustrations add so much to the book’s beauty and depth.

    The Garden of Broken Things is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in May 2024.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading

    Legacy of war: ‘Hungry Ghosts’ by CJ Barker

    English-born Australian writer CJ Barker has created a novel that delivers profound truths about war and about the ways in which trauma’s effects on lives and relationships can endure.

    The protagonists are working class Vic and Ruth, whose experiences in WWII inform their relationships and life trajectories for ever.

    First we meet Vic’s father Frank, a veteran of the first World War, described as a quiet reserved man who keeps to himself. He deals with the unwelcome memories of his war years by turning to alcohol and work. Young Vic witnesses his father’s drunken episodes and times when ‘volcanos of rage’ rip through the house. Then Frank deserts his family to wander the countryside, a vagabond. He leaves a gift for his son – an old camera rescued from a rubbish heap. That camera is to become a salvation of sorts, but it also adds to Vic’s later grief and despair.

    After his mother is killed in a bombing raid, Vic goes to live with his aunt Amelia, an unorthodox, modern woman who introduces him to photography as an art form. When war starts he joins the RAAF and hopes to be a pilot; instead he becomes a bomb aimer: a role that requires him to lie flat in the nose of the plane, directing the pilot to the target, then release the bombs at the right moment. On each mission, the crew expect to die.

    Meanwhile, Ruth grows up in a poor neighbourhood in East London. She dreams of getting an education and a proper job that would allow her entry to the bigger world that beckons. But the best her world offers is a shorthand course and a secretarial job.

    Then the war begins and she endures the Blitz along with her neighbours, crowded into air raid shelters at night. She volunteers for the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force where her clerical skills are put to use. She has ambitions beyond what’s expected for women at the time – she aims for work interpreting arial photographs taken by Allied reconnaissance planes, roles mainly given to university educated women, as are officer positions.

    The inequalities and unfairness of their society are painfully apparent to both Vic and Ruth, even as they serve their country and what they believe is the greater good.

    At RAF Medmenham base in Buckinghamshire she and Vic meet. Their attraction to each other outlasts the war and while they must endure their own wartime tragedies separately, they eventually marry on VE Day. Their child, James, is born and Ruth must give up her job and become a full-time wife and mother, something she’d never planned.

    It isn’t long before the lasting effects of the war begin to impact on the little family. Vic has found work as a professional photographer and his career is promising. But his inner torment and lingering mental and spiritual injuries find expression in the same way he’d seen with his father – alcoholism. Vic becomes a distant father, often cruel, and little James grows up under the shadow of two generations of war-induced suffering.

    So a third generation enters a world dominated by conflict.

    James begins study at Cambridge University – an opportunity denied his parents, but he questions its relevance in the face of the protests, drug use, anti-war sentiment and counter-culture of the sixties and early seventies. His father is lost to him – not even widespread praise for Vic’s stark photographs of the conflict in Vietnam can convince James that his father is anything but a useless, cowardly waste of a life.

    There is a resolution – imperfect as these often are, but one which allows us to feel more hopeful for James’s future.

    The settings and characters of the story are beautifully realised; the details of wartime in Britain conjure the darkness of that time, the reality that whether civilian or military, you could die at any moment. The hope that some held for a better world afterward:

    For him, England, or at least East Anglia, had become a giant aircraft carrier littered with runways and rubble. He was familiar with the Nissen huts and landing strips of his base. He was intimate with the night sky over Germany and the tracer bullets that sped towards him like a stream of malicious fireflies. His homeland, though, felt like another country, alien to his memories, like a long-lost relative with whom he hoped to be reunited, only to find that they had grown apart during the missing years. And yet this ashen graveyard – this England – this was the place where he hoped that justice would spout like crocuses in spring.

    Hungry Ghosts p99 /30% (ebook)

    Hungry Ghosts is a beautiful, engrossing novel about all the hurts that humans can inflict on each other; and also about resilience and vulnerability:

    Over and over, a question arose in his mind, like a bad dream, or a Zen riddle: after we have seen the horror, how do we go on?

    Hungry Ghosts p227/67% (ebook)

    You can read a guest post by the author on the blog Whispering Stories, in which he discusses the genesis of the book and describes it as a ‘letter of understanding and forgiveness to my (now deceased) parents.’

    Hungry Ghosts is published by The Book Guild in March 2024.
    My thanks to the author for a review copy.

  • Books and reading

    Art + History + Crime = ‘The Engraver’s Secret’ by Lisa Medved

    This first novel by Australian author Lisa Medved shines with historical detail and the beauty of the artworks which are the main subject of the plotlines – two plotlines, as it is a dual timeline novel.

    The modern-day story features art historian Charlotte, recently arrived in Antwerp in Belgium. Recovering from the death of her beloved mother, Charlotte has just landed her dream job at the university, and hopes to do more research on her artistic hero, Rubens, while in the city where he created so many of his famous works in the seventeenth century.

    She is also nursing a secret: an unwelcome last minute disclosure by her mother about the identity of her father – a man she had been led to believe was ‘no good’ and long dead.

    While at the university, she discovers a clue that could lead to a ground-breaking discovery about Ruben’s work, and his relationship with the eponymous engraver who worked in his studio for many years.

    This is where the second timeline comes in. It’s the story of Antonia, a teenaged girl living in Antwerp in the 1620’s, the daughter of the engraver, Lucas Vosterman. Raised by her father to pursue academic and artistic interests, she later finds that the options available to a young woman are much more limited. And like Charlotte, Antonia is the recipient of an unwelcome admission by her father – a secret that she must carry to her grave.

    As Charlotte sets off on a quest to find the centuries-old clues that could establish her career as an art historian, she experiences the serious consequences of the competition and professional jealousy amongst her colleagues at the university.

    Meanwhile, as Antonia deals with her own heartbreak and the barriers to leading a fulfilled life as an independent woman, she must struggle with the consequences of her father’s behaviour:

    I owed him my gratitude and loyalty, yet something inside me – my ingrained stubbornness, whispers of doubt, a yearning for independence – stopped me from fully submitting to his will. How can I remain loyal to my family and stay true to myself?

    The Engraver’s Secret p 371

    Underlying both stories is the relationship between the two protagonists and their fathers, and the constraints imposed by the times and places in which they live.

    I loved the mysteries at the heart of the novel; the wonderful detail provided of seventeenth century life and culture in (what was then) the Spanish Hapsburg Empire; the descriptions of the beautiful artworks and their creators. The author has a background in both art and history and her knowledge and love of these subjects inform the book in a natural and accessible way. As always I enjoyed reading about places and historical periods that I know relatively little about; it always makes me want to know more.

    But most of all I enjoyed the very human dilemmas of the two women and the relationships at the heart of their stories.

    The author’s next book will be set in Vienna and feature the artist Gustav Klimt. I can’t wait to read that one!

    You can find out more about Lisa Medved and her work here.

    The Engraver’s Secret is published by HarperCollins Australia in April 2024.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading

    Different worlds: ‘The Sea Captain’s Wife’ by Jackie French

    Possibly one of Jackie French’s more unusual historical fiction creations, The Sea Captain’s Wife takes us into a vivid world of her own imagination, informed by folklore and research.

    The protagonist is Mair, a young woman who lives on a remote fictional island. It is 1870. Her tiny community is made up almost entirely of women, after a tsunami hit a nearby island, sweeping away many of the men who’d gone there to collect bird’s eggs. It’s a matriarchal society where women make the decisions. They wait for those men who’d survived The Wave to return from sailing ventures, or search the beaches in case a shipwreck washes a man onto their shore.

    ‘Wait’ and ‘search’ are perhaps misleading verbs here. These are not passive women, pining for a man, or immobilized by grief. They build gardens on the poor rocky soil of their volcanic island, birth babies and raise children, fish, prepare meals and create beautiful, functional garments. It’s essentially a subsistence life, where what they grow and produce is supplemented by occasional visits from a ship with goods to trade. They are busy and, largely, content.

    They wait for, or seek out husbands for companionship, support, procreation. Potential husbands must be approved by the council of women. The community has their own way of dealing with any man who poses a threat to their way of life or to the peace and safety of the island. There are strong expectations and rules; however the individuals who live here enjoy freedoms only dreamt about by most women in western society at the time.

    They named their island ‘Big Henry Island’ after the active volcano that rumbles beneath them, throwing out black boulders and sulphur-laden fumes. Islanders have lived with Big Henry for two centuries and know its moods. But they are mostly unaware of the danger it poses.

    Into this world arrives Michael, a ship’s captain washed onto the beach. Mair takes him to her cottage and nurses him back to health, during which time he learns a little of the customs and ways of living. He can barely comprehend the enormous differences between the world of colonial-era Sydney, and the seemingly free and easy lifestyle on Big Henry, especially for women. However he admires Mair’s intelligence, kindness and skills. Admiration turns to love and when the next ship arrives, Michael takes Mair back to live in Sydney.

    Here is where the different worlds of Michael and Mair collide. She is shocked and bewildered by the restrictions on women, in a society where wives are expected to be helpmeets to their husbands, and have little in the way of individual freedom or agency.

    Michael tries to understand, but he is preoccupied by the challenge to find a ship laden with gold that he discovered on the voyage which ended in him washed up on Big Henry Island. His upbringing leads him to believe that once Mair experiences his wealthy family’s life in Sydney, she will be happy there:

    But all across the world women left their childhood homes to follow their husbands. It might not be the island way, but it was the natural order of things, and surely Mair would find it so once she had the luxuries and comforts that awaited her in Australia, with three women to make her feel she had family and a home there. The most important criterion for a sea captain’s wife was a woman who was used to waiting in a household of women for her husband’s ship to sail to harbour.

    The Sea Captain’s Wife, p83

    There are several mysteries that wind through the narrative: the ‘ghost ship’ that haunts Michael’s dreams, and a series of accidents and deaths that take place within his family. Does the gold ship really exist? Were the accidents really mishaps or something more sinister? The conclusion brings these to a satisfying end.

    But the novel has deeper themes. It asks questions about humans’ lack of perception of danger – all too relevant in today’s world, threatened by climate change and conflict. And it asks readers to reflect on our own lives. What makes a worthy life? What responsibilities do we have for others?

    As always Jackie French has brought her setting to life, creating not one, but two very believable worlds.
    Readers who enjoy her historical fiction will not be disappointed in The Sea Captain’s Wife, which is published by HarperCollins in March 2024.

    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    As I sit down to write this review, it is leading up to ANZAC Day in Australia, an annual day of commemoration of those who served in military campaigns in Australia’s name. Up until recently, those who served as medical staff and nurses in wartime seem to have been ‘add-ons’ in our military histories.

    Take the story of Sister Vivian Bullwinkle. Her name should come easily to Australians thinking about their nation’s involvement in war, like Simpson and his donkey in the ANZAC story, or ‘Weary’ Dunlop in WWII.

    There is now a statue of Sister Vivian in the grounds of the Australian National War Memorial. But when it was unveiled in 2023 – last year! – it was the first statue of a woman at the memorial.

    I’ll move on from my bewilderment at why it took such a long time to recognise this woman, and onto Grantlee Kieza’s story of her life. What a tale it is.

    Vivian Bullwinkle completed her nursing and midwifery training at Broken Hill Hospital in the 1930s. Then came the announcement in September 1939 that Australia was at war with Germany. From the Melbourne hospital where she was working, Viv enlisted as an army nurse. By 1941 she was on her way to Singapore, where she would face the new enemy of the war, Japan.

    The book includes vivid descriptions of the rapid and vicious attacks on Malaya and Singapore by Japanese troops. On reading these pages I had a sense of the fear that must have been in every heart, knowing that the Japanese were moving south at a rapid rate, killing anyone who stood in their way. I also felt anger at the apparent lack of preparation on the part of Allied authorities; the complacent belief of Western superiority which was then prevalent, certainly worked in favour of the Japanese. Rumours began spreading about the merciless nature of the Japanese soldiers.

    On a personal note, an uncle of mine was involved in that first encounter with the Japanese on Singapore Island; he was reported missing, presumed dead; a fate confirmed by the Australian Army at the war’s end. His mother and siblings never got over the loss of smiling, kind, lovable Ernest Harvey Newton, known as ‘Snow’ to his family. Learning about the cruelty inflicted on those who survived encounters with the Japanese, perhaps Snow’s fate was preferable. Who can say? All I know is that the whole thing was an shocking savagery that should never have happened.

    Eventually the nurses were evacuated from Singapore; it is telling that they apparently felt great reluctance and shame to be leaving the sick and wounded soldiers they’d been caring for. The author paints an appalling picture of the chaos and desperation of a defeated Singapore. The nauseating smell of death and raw sewage, oil fires and explosions, terrified civilians climbing over each other in their panic.

    Worse was to come for Sister Vivian and her comrades. Put aboard the Vyner Brooke, formerly a royal yacht of Sarawak, over two hundred people endured a terrifying voyage from Singapore heading for the relative safety of the Indonesian islands not yet occupied by Japanese. The stories of those on board are poignant: sixty-five Australian nursing sisters, including one who was seven months’ pregnant; a family of Polish Jews who had fled to the assumed safety of Singapore only to find themselves refugees once again; and many women and children.

    The ship was bombed by Japanese aircraft and went down off the coast of Bangka Island near Sumatra. Viv and her nursing colleagues tried to assist the wounded and terrified civilians, before the inevitable order to abandon ship as it broke up underneath them.

    But Viv had never learnt to swim.

    Somehow, she survived, with the aid of a life jacket and an upturned lifeboat, despite continued bombing from above and the threat of sharks below. She stumbled onto a beach where she recovered enough to find other survivors washed up on the island by the strong currents. At least twelve nurses had died in the water that night. With no food, shelter, and with many needing urgent medical care, the survivors agreed that they had to surrender to the Japanese and hope that the rumours they’d heard about the Japanese taking no prisoners were not true.

    What follows is a story of unbelievable cruelty, even sadism, by some of the Japanese they encounter. Men and women alike were coldly gunned down or bayoneted on Radji Beach, left to bleed out in the shallow water or drift off on the tide. Twenty-one of Viv’s nursing companions were murdered that day.

    Amazingly, after being hit through her middle by a machine gun and left in the water, Viv did not die. Some instinct told her not to show that she was alive, and even though she couldn’t swim, she allowed herself to float until the men with guns were satisfied that they had killed everyone. Eventually she was taken to a prison camp where she was reunited with others of her nursing sister colleagues.

    Moved from camp to camp, starved, with no medical care, minimal fresh water, no way to preserve their hygiene and health, beaten and abused…this was the experience of nurses and civilian refugees on Bangka Island and Sumatra for three and a half years. They survived by caring for each other, pooling any resources they could scrounge, making efforts to raise the spirits of their companions, burying the dead as one by one, women began to succumb to the ravages of malnutrition, tropical diseases and mistreatment by their captors.

    It’s a terrible story of unimaginable hardship and suffering. As I read, I often wondered ‘What would I do in this situation? Could I endure it? Would I have survived?’

    It’s also about stoicism, bravery, sacrifice and the comradeship that we often hear about amongst soldiers, but is less often applied to those who care for the sick and wounded.

    Of course the war did end, Japan surrendered, and the prisoners were eventually found and returned to Australia. We should remember that in the midst of their suffering, none of the nurses knew what would happen. They had no way of knowing what the eventual outcome of the war – and their fates – would be.

    After the war, Viv’s strength of spirit, her compassion and her pride in the nursing profession, did not abate. She devoted the rest of her working life to improving the standing and professionalism of nursing in Australia, as well as speaking at many memorials and events where she kept the memory of her dead sisters alive.

    And in 1975, aged nearly sixty, she played an instrumental role as one of twelve nursing volunteers in Operation Babylift, the mass evacuation of orphaned babies and children from South Vietnam, aboard a chartered Qantas jet from then Saigon to Sydney.

    I was so happy to learn that just a year or so later, she married and was able to enjoy more than twenty years with husband Frank Statham.

    Sister Viv is a gripping account of a woman who endured great suffering but went on to live a full and productive life in spite of her awful wartime experiences. Grantlee Kieza has written a biography worthy of this truly remarkable Australian.

    Sister Viv is published by HarperCollins in April 2024.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading

    Lives of crime: ‘Sanctuary’ by Gary Disher

    Gary Disher writes the kind of crime stories I like best: ones that focus on the people more than the crimes. He manages to show the how and why of the crimes committed, sure; but also the impact on both perpetrators and victims. This is meaningful fiction, not showcasing crime for its own sake, but to say something about humans and why they do the things they do.

    Sanctuary is unusual for this genre in that the workings of the world of law enforcement are of minimal importance to the narrative. It centres on several people whose stories overlap, though for much of the book we don’t necessarily know how or why.

    There is Grace, formerly known as Anita, who grew up in an unlovely and unloving foster home, along with Adam. They become a team involved in petty crime, just the two of them against a hostile world, until Anita meets a man who teaches her the tricks of a higher level criminal life. When she decides she has had enough of this man’s cruelty and control, she becomes Grace and continues her life of crime alone.

    But Adam harbours a grudge and when they inadvertently cross paths on a ‘job’, she runs again, fearful of what he might do.

    So begins a series of intricate and well planned moves; staying several steps ahead, constantly checking on surrounds and on people, distrusting of others, always looking for an escape, adopting a series of disguises.

    Disher vividly conjures the loneliness and insecurity of this life, and we feel some sympathy for Grace as she tries to adopt another way of being, the kind of ‘legitimate’ and ordinary life that she now longs for. It takes enormous mental and physical energy to live like this. I was reminded of Maxwell Smart in the 1960’s cold-war spoof series Get Smart, in which he often says of the ‘baddies’: If only they could use their cleverness for niceness instead of nastiness.

    Through the viewpoint of another character we are given insight into the mind of someone who indulges in digital stalking and illegal surveillance of people. It’s an unpleasant place and I was always relieved to move onto another scene, away from this sordid and rage-filled character’s world view. But I am very aware that sadly, technology has provided increased opportunities for people like this to frighten and hurt others.

    The tension mounts as the trajectories of Grace, Adam and other characters head towards collision, with complications cleverly woven in.

    The resolution does not tie everything up in a neat bow; that would be unrealistic and too tidy. But we are left with a hope that perhaps, at some future time, Grace and Adam can find a more satisfying way of being in their world.

    Sanctuary is published by Text Publishing in April 2024.
    My thanks to the publishers and to NetGalley for an early review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    ‘Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind’ by Yoval Noah Harari

    While we homo sapiens might feel pleased to be the species that has seemingly evolved to ‘rule the world’, this book should give pause for thought.

    It’s a sweeping story of our history: how we evolved and separated from other human species such as the Neanderthals, why we have paid a price for the development of our relatively large brains, how the ‘cognitive revolution’ distinguished our species from other animals (and what we have done with this advantage since), how and why myths such as gods, race, nationalities, money and human rights were created.

    There are some ideas that I am certain would be controversial to some, including:

    • the ‘agricultural revolution’ actually resulted in humankind spending more time and effort feeding itself than in hunter-gatherer communities
    • it is possible that, far from grains such as wheat or rice being ‘domesticated’ by humans, it could be the other way around: that these grains trained humans to spend huge amounts of labour tending them, allowing them to become masters of the grain world.
    • the three unifying forces of humankind have been money, empire and religion, and of these:
    • capitalism is the most successful religion invented by humans, requiring high levels of trust to operate effectively.

    Sapiens is definitely a thought-provoking book. Always interested in the ‘back story’ in how things came to be as they are, I found the historic elements deeply fascinating.

    The last section of the book ventures into territory which for me was far less comfortable, involving scary questions about the future of humankind, as technological developments seemingly outpace our collective ability to predict where they might lead or to place conditions on their use.

    First published in 2015, the questions in this book are now more relevant than ever, surrounded as we are by the growth of cyborg, genetic and other technologies which could conceivably lead to the end of homo sapien and even devolution into a new species.

    More questions than answers; but perhaps a book of this nature needs to raise issues that can’t be easily addressed. If the idea is to make readers sit up and take notice, to think more deeply about the rapid pace of change, and to appreciate our collective past as a species, Sapiens achieves this very well indeed.

    Books like this should be read by scientists, ethicists, teachers, medical professionals and legislators, because these are the people holding the reins of our collective future.

    Sapiens was published by Vintage (an imprint of Penguin Books.)
    I listened to the audiobook version, also released in 2015 and read in English by Derek Perkins.