Dervla McTiernan (Irish-born Australian crime writer) has published a critically acclaimed and award winning series of novels featuring Detective Sergeant Cormac Reilly, set in Ireland. The Murder Rule is her latest, much-anticipated new book, this time a stand-alone and set in the United States.
I am a big fan of the earlier novels and I especially loved the character portrayal and development, and the sense of empathy that the writer conveys within well-crafted plots.
I have to confess that while reading The Murder Rule, I found myself missing the vivid sense of ‘Irishness’ of those earlier settings and characters. There is something about the Irish voice, and the misty (sometimes dark) landscape, that lends itself so well to crime fiction. If you are, like me, also a fan of Tana French’s ‘Dublin Murder Squad’ series, I am sure you will agree.
Having said that, The Murder Rule is, like McTiernan’s earlier novels, a well crafted story with a suitably tight plot, told with assurance and skill. The main protagonist is Hannah, a law student who applies to work at the Innocence Project. This is an organisation which works to free supposedly innocent people who have been wrongly convicted and imprisoned.
From the opening pages, readers understand that Hannah is not all she appears and that her motivations for joining the Innocence Project are not what they appear to be. The question is: why? And what has driven Hannah to take this admittedly extreme approach to righting what she sees as a grievous wrong done years earlier?
The answers are given as clues within chapters alternating between Hannah’s voice and diary entries made by her mother, Laura, when she was Hannah’s age.
I found myself feeling somewhat impatient with both characters at times, however when the first plot twist came it was so unexpected I was eager to read on.
The novel deals with the subtleties of human behaviour and ideas about right and wrong:
I’m just saying that it’s about narrative, isn’t it? We, I mean people, all of us, we love a story. We want a hero. We want a bad guy. We want a beginning, a middle, and an end. And life is more complicated than that but we love it when we’re served up a story and sometimes if we don’t get it, we make it for ourselves. We believe only the facts that suit the story we like and we ignore everything else.
The Murder Rule p164
Readers who enjoyed books such as Gone Girl or The Woman in the Window will, I am sure, enjoy The Murder Rule. But I do hope to see a return of McTiernan’s native Ireland in a future story.
The Murder Rule is published by HarperCollins in May 2022. My thanks to the publishers for a copy to review.
An engaging start to a new series by best-selling children’s author Matt Stanton, Bored! Milo Finds $105 is a tale of friendship, neighbours and lost property.
Milo is a typical youngster, riding his BMX bike around his street and practicing his jumps, while feeling pretty bored, when he spots money on the road. One hundred and five dollars, to be precise.
Milo is an honest lad, so rather than pocket the money, he decides to try and find out who it belongs to.
What follows is a series of escapades that have him making a new friend (the surprisingly named Frog, who has just moved into the street), investigating possible criminals, and learning to stand up for himself and others.
There are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments along with some food for thought:
Some kids just have power and other kids don’t, and I don’t understand it. Where do you get power from? Because if I knew, I’d happily spend a hundred and five dollars to buy some.
Matt Stanton knows how to hit the funny bones of his young readers but also that spark of recognition; Milo is a suburban kid just like most Australian suburban kids. He does have two mums, but that’s his ordinary life and nothing special. He has to deal with the everyday challenges of youngsters everywhere – including feeling bored sometimes. I’m sure youngsters will relate to Milo and look forward to each new book in the series.
Bored! Milo Finds $105 is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in March 2022. My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
The war in Vietnam divided opinion and (often) families, in those countries that sent troops and support personnel to oppose the communist Viet Cong in Vietnam during the 1960’s and early 70’s. The Leonard Girls is a well researched portrayal of the issues confronting New Zealanders during this turbulent time.
There are three main characters in the story: Rowie and Jo (the Leonard girls of the title) and Sam. Rowie has just enlisted to serve as a military nurse in Vietnam. Jo, her younger university student sister, is vehemently outspoken in her opposition to the war. Sam is a professional soldier about to embark on his second tour of duty.
By the time the novel closes, each of these three have undergone a change in their views about the war, due to first-hand experiences of the losses that inevitably accompany military conflict.
There are fascinating details of the daily lives of the soldiers who fought, the nurses who tended the wounded and the concert parties who braved the difficult and sometimes dangerous conditions to entertain the troops. Inevitably there are confronting scenes of the impact of war, including on the Vietnamese people and on families left at home in New Zealand. A scene in a Vietnamese orphanage made an especially visceral impression on me.
The other, quite shameful, aspect of this time that is portrayed well is the treatment of Australian and New Zealand soldiers, particularly on their return from Vietnam. The Author’s Note goes into this in a little more detail as well as giving a good overview of NZ involvement in the conflict, and what was going on at home.
As in another book I recently reviewed, The Nurses’ Warby Australian writer Victoria Purman, The Leonard Girls shows the important positive effects on injured Australian and New Zealand personnel of being tended to by nurses and doctors from ‘home’.
If you have seen either the stage production or the hit Australian movie The Sapphires, you’ll have something of a picture of the work of entertainers in Vietnam during the conflict. However, I enjoyed the New Zealand focus of this novel, as so often the ‘NZ’ component of ‘ANZAC’ is downplayed or ignored altogether. I also enjoyed the glimpses of Maori culture and community throughout.
While I found the pace a little slow at times, there was much to enjoy about – and learn from – this novel. Deborah Challinor’s books are always founded in deep research and knowledge of the period or context about which she writes, and this one is no different.
The journeys of the three protagonists, and their loved ones, are profound and well portrayed. This is a novel to leave the reader thinking deeply about a period of relatively recent history about which opinions can still be sharply divided.
The Leonard Girls is published by HarperCollins in March 2022. My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
I’ve not been a Dungeons & Dragons player but I’m certainly aware of its long standing popularity.
Madeline Roux (with illustrator Tim Probert) have created a fun adventure for primary and early secondary aged readers, featuring locations and characters worthy of the best D&D story.
Essentially, this novel is about friendship and diversity.
We meet Zelli, adopted by her two Minotaur mothers, who knows she is different from her classmates at the Dungeon Academy, where the focus is on learning to be fearsome and frightening. One day she stumbles across information in a textbook about Allidora Steelstrike, a skilled and famous adventurer, and Zelli’s world changes. The picture shows a human who looks a lot like Zelli herself. Could she also be of the Steelstrike bloodline – a human, not a monster or creature?
And if she is, what does that mean for her future at the Academy and within her family? After all, Academy students are being prepared to do battle with humans, to hate them and want to fight them.
So Zelli sets out on a quest to find Allidora Steelstrike and find out if she is a Steelstrike too.
But she’s not alone. Joining her are Hugo, a huge Owlbear who (unlike the rest of his kind) loves to eat vegetables and hates meat; Snabla (a juvenile kobold who wants to prove himself worthy of his father’s shield), and Bauble (a shapeshifting mimic of indeterminate gender).
The foursome are all misfits at the Academy, but together prove to be a force to be reckoned with.
In the process, Zelli learns that family is where you feel at home, and kindness is what really counts, along with courage.
All her life, her mothers had been preparing her for this moment – to stand tall and face down whatever adversity came to her. She tried to embody them, tried to feel nine feet tall and made of iron, with horns that could gore and hooves that could stampede. What she actually looked like, she didn’t know, but she felt in her heart like her adopted mothers’ daughter, a mighty minotaur.
Dungeon Academy p136
Dungeon Academy is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in March 2022. My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
Acclaimed Australian author Victoria Purman’s new historical fiction novel is a fat book, just the thing for reading by the fireside during a prolonged wet spell – which is how I enjoyed it. It’s an easy read – though not a light one – as it deals with real historical events that proved distressing, often tragic, for those who lived through them.
The setting is the real-life ‘Harefield House’, a grand mansion owned by wealthy expatriate Australians in the little village of Harefield, in Middlesex, England. In 1915 it was converted into a hospital for Australian troops recuperating from injurie inflicted at some of the many battlefields in Europe – especially at Gallipoli, France and Belgium.
The hospital was staffed by Australian doctors and nurses and it must have been wonderful for the ill and injured Diggers to hear the familiar accents from home as they were cared for.
If you, like me, are interested in the history behind the novel, the author has a piece on HarperCollins’ website with more detail, along with lovely photographs of the place, the nurses and some of the soldiers who went to Harefield. You can find it here.
The story concerns four nurses, among those who sailed from Australian homes to help establish the hospital and stayed to care for the injured. There is also a local woman, Jessie, who volunteers to help care for the patients. We witness their anxiety as they await the first influx of soldiers, followed by their increasing horror as the hospital, established to cater for up to one hundred and fifty men, is flooded by thousands, stretching their resources, both physical and human. We are not spared the sights, sounds and smells that engulf the nurses as the brutality of war on human bodies and minds becomes clear.
Cora had been well-trained, had more than a decade’s experience behind her and had believed she had seen almost everything, but nothing in Adelaide, nor the extra army training she’d undergone, could have prepared her for this sight.
The Nurse’s War p79
The novel also touches on other, perhaps unexpected, results of the war: profound change as the fundamentals of society shift, with women stepping into what were previously ‘men’s jobs’, becoming agriculture or postal workers, tram conductors, ambulance drivers; new trends in clothing allowing women more freedoms and comfort; and of course the suffrage movement. The threat of instant death and loss also changed many people’s long-held beliefs and attitudes, about marriage, love, or religion, for example.
Friendships forged in wartime can be intense and profound, as can romances, but the novel does not pretend that these led to a ‘happy ever after’ ending for everyone. Rather, it illustrates the essentially random nature of an individual’s fate in times of war: an apparent throw of the dice can take a life or crush a person’s future. In such circumstances, is it surprising that people behave differently, re-think future plans or even their faith? World War I left behind a legacy of vast numbers of missing or profoundly wounded young men, multiple generations of grief, and a new social order in many parts of the then British Empire.
Some aspects of Australian life, however, continue throughout – including racial discrimination, where indigenous men had to have written permission from the Protector of Aborigines to enlist, and yet still faced racism on the battlefield, in hospitals, and also at home at war’s end.
This is a beautifully researched novel with characters that I quickly came to care about and a storyline that took me from the naivety of young Australians embarking on an adventure at the other side of the world, through the horrors of their war, to a profoundly moving conclusion.
At the end of The Nurses’ War, the influenza pandemic is sweeping through the world, inflicting a terrible toll on those who’d managed to survive years of war. Again, the random hand of fate is at play. And given the global pandemic of 2020 to the current time (2022) I could not help but compare the experiences of then, with now. I found myself wondering: could modern-day Australians or British cope with prolonged, seemingly never-ending trauma and stress of a convulsive war, followed so closely by a deadly pandemic, in quite the same way as our forebears had to do?
Coincidentally, this post is published on ANZAC Day, an annual commemoration of Australians who have died or suffered in war time. As I write this, a brutal war is being waged in Europe, as Russian troops attempt to take over the democratic nation of Ukraine. As always, I hope ANZAC Day will allow people to think about the futility and barbarity of war and redouble global efforts to put an end to using violence as a way to deal with disputes.
The Nurses’ War is published by HarperCollins Australia in March 2022. My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.
In the early 1800’s, a time when well-bred young ladies were raised to do embroidery and look after their households and husbands, Rose de Freycinet dressed as a man and stowed away on her husband’s ship, sailing across vast oceans on a voyage of scientific exploration.
In so doing, she did support her husband’s venture (and occasionally sewed whilst on board) but she also became the first woman to circumnavigate the globe and to leave a record of her adventures. Her resolution from the start was:
Never, through my fears or my own wishes, to part my husband from his duty.
It was a dangerous adventure for many reasons. To begin with, there was a strict prohibition on women aboard French ships. There were political considerations: the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars had changed the geo-political scene irrevocably, and the Commander and crew of the ship Uranie had to tread carefully at their various ports of call. There were the common dangers of a voyage in the smallish ships of the time, with none of today’s comforts and navigational technology: the ever present possibility of shipwreck, disease, storms, being blown off course, running out of supplies and fresh water. Added to that was Rose’s unique position as a lone woman on a ship full of men, with whom she travelled for several years.
This is a thoroughly researched book and readers get a fascinating insight into how such a voyage was planned and prepared for; maritime traditions and practices in the nineteenth century; questionable (but common) medical practices; the drive to add to scientific and navigational knowledge; the intriguing customs and manners of the people encountered in places such as Brazil, French colonies, ‘New Holland’ (now Australia), the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), Guam and the Sandwich Islands (now Hawaii), for example.
Looking at the map of the Uranie’s voyage, it is amazing to think of people setting sail into what were at times, literally uncharted waters. From our modern perspective, when many people don’t venture to a new town or country without checking on-line maps and reviews, these people were taking enormous risks! They were creating and correcting the maps as they went and recording what they found.
Rose recorded her experiences via a journal and in frequent letters to her mother back in France. After her death these were edited (the author suggests they were also ‘sanitised’ in some instances) and later published. I am grateful for that, because they give a very different perspective on the voyages of this period than do the formal ones written by her husband and other men.
For example, the Uranie was indeed shipwrecked, running aground at a bleak and deserted island in the Falklands. For Rose, the dreadful experience of terror followed by hunger and cold as they waited for rescue, was compounded by the fact that her husband became seriously ill. What would her fate be if he died, leaving her to the mercies of men without a commander?
I have always loved the Freycinet Peninsula in Tasmania’s northeast, named for Louis de Freycinet. When I travel there in future, I shall also think of Rose, a person of equal courage and adventurousness as her husband.
Rose is published by HarperCollins in March 2022. My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
I fell in love with this book while reading its opening pages. It ticks so many boxes for me: family history, family stories, personal challenges and insights, humour…I know it will be one of my ‘stand-out-reads’ of 2022.
When Australian writer and mother Ella Ward was undergoing treatment for a rare cancer at the age of thirty-six, she began a series of letters to her young daughter, in case she would not be around as her daughter grew into adulthood
In the process, she documented a lively and fascinating family history, encompassing her own stories but also those of her great-grandparents, grandparents, and parents: their lives, loves and adventures. Woven throughout are 188 ‘Lessons’ for her daughter. The final one sums up her purpose: ‘Lesson #188: Tell your stories.
A family is only as strong as the stories that are told. And, I’m afraid to say, the stories can’t just be told – they need to be kept.
27 Letter to My Daughter, p4
When my mother, the keeper of our family history and stories, began losing those memories due to encroaching dementia, I promised that I would hold, remember – and tell – the stories for her. This is what Ella has done for her daughter and all who follow her.
The Lessons serve as mother-to-daughter tips for a fulfilling life, and each one appears after family anecdotes that illustrate the points. Some of my favourites are: Lesson #1: If you have a family, you have a story Lesson #18: ‘The End’ does not mean‘THE END’ Lesson #30: If you’re young, forgive yourself. If you’re not, stop (This one appears in the chapter called ‘For when you’re a jerk.’ Lesson #45: Try and do your stupid things with kind people Lesson # 63: Your heartbreak will last exactly as long as it’s meant to Lesson #71: Shock will tear you apart. You will come back together. Differently, but together Lesson # 110: Menopause is a feminist issue. Followed by Lesson # 112: Bleed loudly Lesson #179: It’s okay to stay up past your bedtime when a book is to blame
The family stories include Ella’s great-grandfather’s experiences in the trenches of WWI, her grandparent’s globe-trotting lives, her mother’s single parenthood, her own experiences of travel, first jobs, love, motherhood and trauma. So yes: sadness, distress, hard work, blood and tears. But also: joy, fun, mischief, music, scents and sights. And magic and dreams.
27 Letters to My Daughter is a magical book that will have a place on my bookshelf for many years to come.
27 Letters to My Daughter is published by HarperCollins Publishers in April 2022. My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
Jason Om will be familiar to viewers and listeners of Australia’s ABC network, presenting for programs such as 7.30 and Four Corners. His memoir opens with an account of witnessing his 44-year-old mother die of a heart attack when he was just twelve. Such trauma would have to impact on a young life and indeed, Jason and his family were never the same afterward.
He lived with his Cambodian-born father in Melbourne, until study and a career in journalism took him to Sydney, Adelaide and back to Sydney.
In the background, rearing up to confound and confront, were memories of his mother: her mental illness, her own (hidden) trauma, her love and her erratic, troubling behaviours.
His memoir has vibrant descriptions of individual and family quirks, along with the puzzling questions about his family’s past, for which it seemed impossible to get answers.
So, Jason decided to put his journalism skills to use and approached the secrets of his family, and particularly those of his parents, as he would approach an investigative piece: uncovering records and photographs, interviewing family members, visiting the places where long-ago events occurred.
This took him to Malaysia and Cambodia where he began to piece together the personal and national tragedies that had such profound effects on his own life. He writes beautifully and sensitively about these issues and how he slowly began to come to terms with the past and its impact on his life and those around him.
Also of great interest are his insights into the experiences of mixed race children, migrant families in Australia’s suburbs in the 1970’s and 80’s, the courage needed to come out as a gay man within his family, community and workplace, and the development of a more ethnically diverse media landscape in this country. All fascinating to read about and described with great sensitivity and honesty.
I loved his ‘handy trick’ of reflecting the ‘Where are you from?’ or ‘What’s your background?’ questions (often asked out of curiosity and with no ill intent) back to the questioner:
It meant we were all talking about race, not just mine, and I found that mutually sharing our heritage would open up the conversation. ‘That’s my background, what’s yours?’ I would ask them. I could always see the strain on their faces, their eyes darting around for an answer because the question had never entered their heads.
All Mixed Up p125
As someone with a deep seated and passionate interest in family history and identity, I love this tip and I think I’ll use it myself to spur conversations about the fascinating array of cultural and family backgrounds to be found in this country!
All Mixed Up is a beautiful tribute to Jason’s family, his own struggles with acceptance and understanding, and the measure of humanity. I highly recommend to anyone interested in people!
All Mixed Up is published by ABC Books and HarperCollins Publishers in April 2022. My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
One of the (many) things I love about Jackie French’s historical fiction is that she effortlessly shines a light on frequently overlooked people and events from history, without veering into tokenistic territory. Her characters represent people who really were there, but who are so often hidden from view in traditional histories and stories. Her new Girls Who Changed the World series for middle grade readers is a good example.
In Book One, Ming and Flo Fight for the Future, we meet Ming, a twelve year old schoolgirl whose family has Chinese-Vietnamese and European heritage. Ming loves learning about history, but not the way it is taught at her school. She asks a question in class one day: ‘Sir, why don’t we ever learn about girls who changed history?… Where were all the girls at all the important times in the past?’
Good question, right? Sadly, her teacher and classmates have no answer for her. Ming is exasperated, until Herstory appears, to offer her a chance to return to the past – as an observer. Ming agrees, but in the process she manages to become a person living in the past. She is now Florence, and the year is 1898.
She is plunged into a drought-stricken farm in the middle of nowhere, grinding poverty, and the sudden death of Flo’s mother, until Aunt McTavish arrives to take Flo to share her well-heeled life in Sydney. Aunt McTavish is a friend of Louisa Lawson, a committed Suffragist, but determinedly ‘British to the core’ – despite her obvious mixed Chinese and Scottish heritage.
So Ming/Flo experiences some of the challenges for girls and women at a time when girls’ education was considered unimportant, women could not vote, and the White Australia policy loomed. As Herstory had warned her: ‘The past is – uncomfortable.’
In the process, Ming learns that it is not just the big, obvious actions that can lead to profound social or political change. More often, it is the small, unnoticed actions by committed people who never give up, that set the scene for change. As Herstory tells Ming:
Men like Henry Parkes get the credit for uniting Australia, but it would never have happened without the speeches, petitions and passion of women. When social forces come to a head, it’s usually been a man who got the credit, not the hundreds, the thousands, the millions of women who made it happen too, like Mrs Lawson.
Ming and Flo Flight for the Future p256-257
Book Two of Girls who Changed the World will see Ming in Belgium during WWI. I look forward to reading it! This series will be enjoyed by those who are interested in stories from Australian history told from the viewpoint of those who are usually forgotten.
Ming and Flo Fight for the Future is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in March 2022. My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.
In book two of Katrina Nannestad’s Travelling Bookshop series, we meet up with old friends Mim, her little brother Nat and their Dad, as they wander from place to place in their bookshop-in-a-caravan, guided by Flossy the horse. As in book one, Flossy takes them to where their books are most needed. This time, it’s to a small Greek island.
Here they meet Anjelica and her husband-to-be, Stavros, whose wedding is just days away. The whole village is happy and can talk of nothing else. But Mim sees a problem: neither the bride nor the groom appear to be excited about the wedding.
The bookshop caravan works its magic, finding the perfect book for each of its visitors – that is, the book they need, not the book they want. By the end of the story, answers to everyone’s problems have been found and the Cohen family leave behind happy villagers when Flossy leads them to their next destination.
Did you love Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books when you were a child? One of the most entrancing features of these stories for me was the independence of the children – especially when they’d set off on a horse-drawn caravan adventure. There is a thrill for youngsters of tiny places to call home – caravans, cubby houses, tree houses.
The Travelling Bookshop stories tap into that, and add a dash of magic, resulting in a great read for kids. They are madcap tributes to words, books, family, making new friends and exploring new places. There is also a theme of accepting and celebrating difference, and the important roles that imagination and playfulness have in our lives.
The line drawings by Cheryl Orsini add to the text and help to bring the story alive.
‘I love words,’ I say. ‘I have a whole collection of them that I keep in a special box.’ ‘What sorts of words?’ asks Xander. ‘Happy words. Gentle words. Scrambled, rambling words. Words that pop and fizz. Words that paint pictures and sing songs. Words stuffed with memories. Any kinds of words, as long as they make my heart soar. I’ll show you next time you visit the bookshop.’
Mim and the Woeful Wedding p48
Mim and the Woeful Wedding is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in March 2020. My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
This gloriously illustrated picture book by American author Joanna Ho and illustrated by Dung Ho, celebrates difference, heritage and love. It’s a follow up to the beautifully titled Eyes That Kiss in the Corners.
A little boy of Asian heritage is unhappy about the difference between his eyes and those of his school friends, and confides in his father:
The other day, when Baba picked me up from school, I didn’t run in for a hug the way I usually do; I stared at my toes where it was safe. “What’s wrong?” Baba asked, and all my hurt tumbled out.
Eyes That Speak to the Stars
His father explains to him that the little boy’s eyes come from his father, his grandfather Agong, and all their ancestors – and that his little brother Di-Di has the same eyes.
Agong has an answer for every question I ask on our early morning walks, but when I hug him goodnight, he cups my face in his hands and looks at me like I am the only answer that matters.
Eyes That Speak to the Stars
This is a story about heritage, and family love in all its forms. I recently reviewed The Love that Grew, which tells of the love a mother feels for her children. Eyes That Speak to the Stars is a celebration of boys and their fathers, grandfathers, and the links that bind generations together. It’s a big story for little people, but the lyrical text and rich illustrations tell it well.
Eyes That Speak to the Stars is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in March 2022. My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.