• Books and reading

    Old but new: ‘Death at Greenway’ by Lori Rader-Day

    I love the idea of ‘falling into’ a novel – the image of plunging straight into another world, meeting the characters and their emotions and thoughts. That’s what happened to me with Death at Greenway. The world of this novel is WWII England: first London, where trainee nurse Bridget Kelly is receiving an ultimatum after a serious error on the ward; then to south Devon and the house of famous mystery writer Agatha Christie.

    Bridget goes there unwillingly, as one of two nurses hired to care for a group of ten children under five: they are evacuees, sent from at-risk London suffering under the Blitz, to country areas considered safer. For Bridget, it is her last chance to save her floundering career. She also nurses terrible grief and trauma, the result of a well-aimed German bomb, and this follows her to her new posting.

    The other nurse travelling with the group is Gigi, a glamorous young woman who has secrets of her own, one of which threatens the tenuous safety of their country refuge.

    I love stories that weave real-life people and events into the plot, and Death at Greenway does this. It is an homage to the world of thirties England, the works of writers like Christie, and the often heroic actions of so many ordinary people during wartime. Greenway really was a temporary home for two nurses and ten children during the war. The author has drawn on the names of some of the people who populated the home at this time, including Doreen, one of the young evacuees, who shared her memories of that time.

    All the tropes of British mystery novels of the era are there: a (nearly) invisible mistress of the house; gothic folk stories told by the locals; a muddy footprint on the front step; crying foxes and other unearthly noises; a butler and housekeeper with their own opinions about the newcomers; a growing body count and a disappearance. Suspicions rise and Bridget starts to think that no one is who they seem to be. I liked the dry tone of much of the narrative, reminiscent of an author like Kate Atkinson.

    Alongside the mystery, though, is the real theme of the novel: the toll taken by war and loss on the people living through such times:

    It was a thin thread that kept them tethered to the earth, a single strand of her embroidery floss, easily snapped. No one keeps us. They were all small lives, nowhere near the center. Tossed about by the gale of history and hardly noted for having endured.

    Death at Greenway p245

    The web of deception and intrigue becomes complex at times and I had to concentrate hard to follow the threads; but that was not to the detriment of my enjoyment of this satisfying novel.

    Death at Greenway is published by HarperCollins Publishers in October 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Non-Fiction Reading Challenge 2021: Done

    In this year’s Non-Fiction Reading Challenge I signed up to read at least 6 books across a range of categories. So far I have ticked off 13 books.

    These included memoir, biography, history, true crime, and indigenous cultures.

    Some were by Australian authors; some were published in 2021; some were older titles I had not read before.

    Most surprising read?
    One Last Dance: My Life in Mortuary Scrubs and G-Strings by Emma Jane Holmes: fascinating insight into two contrasting worlds – the funeral industry and exotic dancing.

    Most heartfelt read?
    Daughter of the River Country by Dianne O’Brien with Sue Williams – a troubling but ultimately hopeful story of a Yorta Yorta woman’s childhood and her journey of discovery of herself and her people.

    Most lyrical read?
    Ten Thousand Aftershocks by Michelle Tom – the story of family fractures woven together with the trauma of living through the Christchurch earthquake.

    Best history read?
    There are two: both exploring hidden aspects of Australian history
    People of the River – by Grace Karskens, and
    The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka by Clare Wright

    Laugh-out-loud read?
    Flash Jim by Kel Richards – a startling story of colonial recidivism and a unique take on early Australian language.

    Thanks to Shelleyrae at Book’d Out for hosting the 2021 Non Fiction Reading Challenge this year.

  • Books and reading,  Children's & Young Adult Books

    Growing empathy: ‘Rabbit, Soldier, Angel, Thief’ by Katrina Nannestad

    Once again, Australian children’s book author Katrina Nannestad brings us a story of children at war. As with her 2020 book We Were Wolves, this one features the experiences of kids caught up in the turmoil and tragedy of WWII in Europe.

    This time, the protagonist is a small Russian boy, Sasha, who at the age of six sees his village and his family destroyed by invading German soldiers. He faces starvation and other dangers until he is adopted by a passing company of Red Army troops. The Author’s Note tells us that Sasha is based loosely on the story of a real Russian child who joined with a troop of Russian soldiers as a bid for survival. He was about six to eight years old. Apparently there were many such children for whom the dubious ‘safety’ of the front line with troops was preferable to almost certain death from hunger or exposure on their own.

    It’s a shocking concept and the author acknowledges that this is confronting territory, especially for children. What she has created, though, is a story of love and hope; of how people need each other not only to survive, but to grow.

    The opening plunges us into a Russian military hospital with Sasha, who is recovering from numerous injuries, though we don’t learn why until towards the end. Sasha is ten and has spent four years with his company of Red Army soldiers. Trauma has robbed him of his ability to speak. Each night he roams the ward, stealing an odd assortment of items from staff and other patients. He has a collection of these pilfered things under his bed.

    Over the course of the book, these items become triggers for Sasha to gradually remember all the events that led up to this point: his flight from home; finding the Red Army company; the characters and personalities of the individuals there; and the way Sasha brings joy and comfort to these battle-weary soldiers in his childish, trusting innocence. He accompanies the troop as it makes its slow way to Stalingrad, and then westward to Berlin as the tide of war turns in their favour. They are protective of Sasha and care for him, in part because he reminds them of their own loved ones back home.

    As his memories return, he finds speech and so, bit by bit, he recounts his experiences to the hospital doctors, nurses and patients.

    Sasha’s story turns full circle as the novel concludes; by which time he has learned the truth of his shared humanity with the people he has regarded as the enemy.

    There are hints of the atrocities committed on both sides in this war. They are not explicit, though an adult reading alongside a child will understand the references. They are here to point out the basic truth that people are people (good and bad) no matter which army they fight with. Sasha learns a bitter lesson in Berlin, that hatred and revenge achieve nothing. The major in charge of his unit says:

    Returning cruelty for cruelty makes the hatred and misery grow. Their misery. Our misery. Surely we have had enough sorrow to last a lifetime. To last a thousand lifetimes. We must choose a better way.

    Rabbit, Soldier, Angel, Thief p279

    Ultimately, it is our children and grandchildren who can make our world a more peaceful one. Empathy is an essential ingredient in this quest. Books such as this one, which combine plenty of wartime drama and adventure in a context of understanding war’s futility and cruelties, can help young readers to see the world from different perspectives and experiences than their own. This is how empathy is grown.

    Rabbit, Soldier, Angel, Thief is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in November 2021.
    It would be suitable for readers 10 years and older.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    An ode to family traditions: ‘What Do You Do To Celebrate?’ by Ashleigh Barton & Martina Heiduczek

    This is the third in the What do you… series of picture books (I have previously reviewed What Do You Call Your Grandma? and What Do You Call Your Grandpa? on this blog).

    Each one of these delightful picture books invites readers to think about what we all share, as well as to enjoy the colourful and creative differences that make humans so interesting.

    In What Do You Do To Celebrate? we explore some of the many ways in which families around the world mark special times of the year together: Christmas, New Year, Lunar New Year, Hanukkah, just to mention a few. We see family celebrations in Israel, New Zealand, the Phillipines, South Africa, China, and many other parts of the globe, coming together to enjoy special foods, lantern festivals, big family gatherings, festive music and parades.

    Each double page spread is devoted to one type of celebration, explained in simple and lovely rhyme by Ashleigh Barton and Martina Heiduczek’s vibrant, mixed media illustrations.

    The final page invites children to think about their own family traditions:

    So many traditions to mark the year.
    What about you – what brings you cheer?
    Presents, dancing or is it cake?
    What do you do to celebrate?

    This beautiful book is an ode to families, love, and celebratory traditions. It is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in October 2021.

    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Colonial women: ‘Daughter of the Hunter Valley’ by Paula J Beavan

    In my deep dive into family history during the 2021 Covid lockdown in NSW, I realised that the Hunter Valley played a big role in my paternal ancestors’ lives. Both Great-Grandparents emigrated from England in the mid nineteenth century as children and lived out their lives in the Maitland and Newcastle regions. So it was with interest that I picked up Paula J Bevan’s novel which is set in the 1830’s along the Hunter River.

    The heroine, Maddy, is newly arrived from England. Her father has established a farm there and planned to bring his wife and daughter to live in the colony with him; but Maddy’s mother died before she could embark on the voyage, and Maddy arrives alone to break the awful news. To her horror, the very next day her father drowns in the river and Maddy must decide what to do: return to England; or stay in NSW and try to make a new life for herself?

    She decides to stay and finish creating the house and farm that her father had begun; but it is a very different world for a young woman from the green gentility of country England. The house her father promised is largely still plans on a page, so Maddy must live in a rough hut with two convict women, and she has to quickly learn how to run a property with only assigned convict labourers, and Daniel Coulter, the overseer, to work the land. There is heat, dust, unfamiliar wildlife and unaccustomed threats, and plenty of hard work. To her surprise, Maddy finds that the new life agrees with her as she gradually becomes part of the local settler community.

    The original inhabitants of the region are the Worranua people; they get sidelong references in the narrative, which I found disappointing, though perhaps historically accurate; as many European settlers preferred not to think of the people whose lands they had taken. There is, however, a complicated cast of characters from properties nearby, who I found a little hard to sort out in my head. There are also convicts, bushrangers and an orphaned child.

    I enjoyed Maddy’s development from a confused, grieving daughter to a more assured young woman forging a new life for herself. The author based some of Maddy’s character on colonial women who stepped up to run estates in their men’s absence, and I always love it when I read fiction based in part on real people or events.

    Daughter of the Hunter Valley is primarily a romance, and I did find Maddy’s preoccupation with Daniel a little annoying after a while – as was her tendency to blush whenever she saw him!

    The strength of the novel is in its finely observed portrayal of early colonial life away from the Sydney township; the new environment in which the settlers found themselves, and the hardships they faced. I could picture my own ancestors in similar circumstances in similar locations. Knowing that they, too, had dispossessed Worranua in order to create this new life is uncomfortable, but it is part of my personal history and the history of this country. There are, no doubt, echoes of Maddy’s story in the lives of many of those who came as colonisers to this country.

    Daughter of the Hunter Valley is published by HarperCollins in September 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    Making history: ‘The Story of Us’ by Michael Wagner & Beck Feiner

    This new book for kids is set to warm every family historian’s heart (and I am sure, their children’s). It’s designed to encourage kids to talk to various members of their family: mum, dad, grandparents, cousins, aunties, siblings, and anyone else considered ‘family’. Each double page spread offers an idea for discussion and a way to record the stories that make up the rich tapestry that is a family’s history.

    During the 2021 long winter Covid lockdown in my area, I have found solace and interest in a deep dive into family history, investigating hitherto unexplored parts of my family tree and finding the stories of the people there. It is, for me, always the stories behind the facts, dates and names, that turn a basic family tree into a world peopled by families, with all their ups and downs. Stories are what make family history so engrossing.

    The Story of Us is a wonderful way to introduce this idea to children, and to create a beautiful keepsake that family members can look through in years to come.

    The questions up for discussion include topics like: One of my earliest memories… One of the strangest things that ever happened to me… The best decision I ever made… One of the most precious things I own… My favourite and least favourite parts of school were…

    Each topic has illustrations that invite inclusion and diversity, with bold, colourful block prints by Beck Feiner, plus plenty of space for various family members’ comments and memories to be recorded.

    This book is sure to be a favourite way for families to explore ideas and memories and while they are at it, to write their own history.

    The Story of Us is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in September 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  Children's & Young Adult Books

    Australian Women Writers’ Challenge 2021: my Aussie reading year

    This year I signed up to read at least 10 books by Australian women writers and review at least 6. On this score at least, I am an over-achiever! As at the beginning of September, I had read (and posted reviews for) 30 books by Aussie women. I think next year I’ll need to aim for the top level of AWW Challenge. It is not hard for me to read plenty of books by the wonderful and talented authors we have here in this country.

    My 2021 reading ranged across multiple genres, from historical fiction (always a favourite, especially Australian history and stories featuring women in WWII, which is a theme that has become very popular in recent years); memoir, history, quite a few children’s books, true crime and crime fiction.

    My standout reads by Aussie women so far for 2021?

    These four spoke to me the loudest (the links are to my reviews):

    People of the River by Grace Karskens (non-fiction, history) This one, by the way, recently won the Australian history prize as part of the NSW Premier’s History Awards.

    The Things We Cannot Say by Kelly Rimmer (historical fiction)

    Ten Thousand Aftershocks by Michelle Tom

    Of the children’s books, Night Ride into Danger by the marvellous Jackie French

    Thank you to the wonderful Australian Women Writers’ Challenge for another year of fabulous reading. If you haven’t checked out the AWW website, be sure to have a look. You will find so many recommendations for new authors and books to discover.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Cold War deceptions: ‘Our Woman in Moscow’ by Beatriz Williams

    The cover of this new title by best-selling US author Beatriz Williams is emblematic of the deceptions she writes about. A glamorous woman in a snowy city, walking towards her fate… The thing is, this is a story of two women, sisters Iris and Ruth, neither of whom (despite initial impressions) are people who passively await what the future might bring.

    The story plunges us head-first into the murky world of post-WWII espionage, via Iris and Ruth’s very different pathways out of the war. Loyalties, family bonds and assumptions are all put to the test when Iris sends a message to her sister – after nearly a decade of estrangement and silence between them. She needs Ruth to come to Moscow, where Iris lives with her husband since his defection to the Soviet Union. She is about to give birth to her fourth child, and with a history of difficult, dangerous childbirths behind her, she pleads for Ruth’s support.

    Ruth’s journey to the Soviet city sets in motion a complex series of events and uncovers layers of deception and of course, dangers. I was immediately invested in the fate of Iris and Sasha, Ruth and Fox, and the novel was, for me, an absolute page-turner.

    What I enjoyed most was the focus on the relationships, rather than gun battles and car chase scenes as in a James Bond spy story- which can get, frankly, yawn-worthy. Rather, we witness two sisters realising new truths about each other; a crumbling marriage and a new, unlikely, relationship; and the unravelling of long-held beliefs. Ms. Williams borrows certain famous Cold War era episodes and characters to weave her own story around, but there are echoes of truth that are as relevant now as in 1948:

    “It’s all these chaps, you know, bright young things who radicalized at university in the thirties, when the capitalist economies went to pieces. They very fashionably joined the Community Party as students and ended up recruited {by} the Soviet intelligence service.”
    “But surely they all shed their illusions as they got older?”
    “Most of them, of course. I daresay the Nazi-Soviet pact did for a great many. Stalin’s thuggery, the famines. But it’s like a religion, you know. To the true fanatic, everything and anything can be twisted around to prove what you believe in.”

    Our Woman in Moscow p169

    The characters are complex, believable – and damaged, all of them, by conflict and deception. I enjoyed this novel very much and will be on the watch for future titles by this author.

    Our Woman in Moscow is published by HarperCollins Publishers in Australia in September 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading

    Finding an ‘after’ trauma: ‘Here in the After’ by Marion Frith

    As I read this debut novel by Australian Marion Frith, TV, print and broadcast media were saturated with the shocking news of the Taliban taking over Kabul and huge swathes of territory in Afghanistan. A reminder, if I needed one, of how devastating, cruel and ultimately pointless that protracted war has been.

    The two protagonists of Here in the After are both connected to violence emanating from that part of the world and the roles played by Western nations there.

    Nat is an army veteran who served in Afghanistan. He has returned to his wife Gen a broken man, unable to take the steps needed to heal from his complex PTSD and the things he saw and did during his tour of duty.

    Anna is middle aged, a grandmother who has been grieving the death of her beloved husband. One day during her lunch break from work, she sees a brochure in the window of a travel agency and impulsively goes in to check it out, because she’d made a promise to her husband not to stop doing the things they enjoyed together, like travel. Wrong place, catastrophically wrong time for Anna.

    She ends up as the only survivor or a shocking terrorist attack in which eleven other people – including a child – are murdered in cold blood. Anna is rushed to hospital and faces a long physical recovery, all the while wondering if she will ever recover from the trauma. She is now in the ‘after’ – and it seems that she will never recover her life ‘before’ the shocking events that she somehow survived.

    Nat seeks out Anna because he suffers from crippling guilt for everything that happened in Afghanistan. He has realised that he and other soldiers were sold a lie, when they believed that they were fighting there to keep Australians at home safe. The attack on Anna and the others in the shop are proof that they failed in that mission.

    At first wary, Anna comes to see Nat as someone who understands her turmoil because he is experiencing something very similar. A friendship develops as the pair meet, talk, challenge and reassure each other.

    Told in alternating viewpoints, the novel plunges the reader into the horror of Nat and Anna’s experiences and the tormented emotional and mental loops that each are now suffering. Their confusion, rage, guilt and sorrow are well described.

    Despite the darkness of their experiences, each person offers something profound and important to the other; most especially the possibility of hope.

    It really did take one to know one as he’d joked on the beach about their battle scars that day. It was true. That was the core of their connection, but it was more complex than his having been a soldier and her a victim of the perverted ideology he had fought… Anna had said she thought he understood her, but he realised now it was she who understood him. Nat had never believed anyone would ever understand him again.

    Here in the After pp170-171

    Here in the After is a sensitively written story of appalling trauma, the slow rocky path to recovery, and a different type of friendship. As we witness the tragedy in Afghanistan, the story is a timely reflection on the scars that violence leaves on its survivors – some visible, others less so.

    Here in the After is published by HarperCollins Publishers in September 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    Talking pets? Yes please! ‘The School for Talking Pets’ by Kelli Anne Hawkins

    This book ticks many boxes for lots of children: pets (of all kinds), a school that is actually fun, making new friends, and two baddies who want to rule the world.

    The main character, Rusty, is a very ordinary boy who suffers from low confidence and has not had much go right in his young life. He wins a competition that takes him and his best friend, his pet blue tongue lizard Bongo, to a secret island, where he hopes Bongo will learn to talk at the School for Talking Pets.

    There are other youngsters who arrive with him, from Japan, Germany, England and the USA, all hopeful that their pets will also talk.

    Things don’t go quite as smoothly as they might have wanted, though, because there are two secret spies sent to the island by people who plan to use the animals for their own nefarious purposes. By the end, Rusty and Bongo are the unlikely heroes.

    I loved that the school is the brainwave of Miss Alice Einstein, the great-granddaughter of the famous scientist Albert. I also enjoyed the nod to the principles of effective education: Believe in learners. Listen to them. Lead by example. Make learning interesting. Give learners time and freedom to learn at their own pace.

    Hmmm… wouldn’t it be great if all teaching could be like that?

    The School for Talking Pets combines friendly animals, some madcap adventure, and a mystery to solve, in a package that will be sure to please middle-grade readers who love their pets.

    The School for Talking Pets is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in September 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.