• Books and reading,  History

    Resilience and friendship: ‘The Bird in the Bamboo Cage’ by Hazel Gaynor

    This novel introduced me to a previously unknown story of WWII : the experience of teachers and pupils at a Protestant boarding school in northern China while under Japanese control. The students, children of missionaries, business people or diplomats from around the world, received a traditional British-style education including the classics, religious instruction and preparation for English university study.

    After Japan’s invasion of China in 1937, school life continued largely as before for a time, until the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour in 1941. Overnight, citizens of the US and the British Empire became enemy aliens and everything changed at Chefoo School. They were, suddenly, prisoners of war. They were moved twice; firstly to another location in the town and later to Weihsien Internment Camp, where they were kept captive for two years until liberation by US soldiers in 1945.

    The author heard about these events and knew this was a story she wanted to write. The novel’s characters are her own creations but she researched accounts of internment and pored over the archives from Chefoo School, to write an authentic and moving account of people living through great hardship and fearful times with humour, compassion and resilience.

    The story centres around a teacher, Elspeth Kent, and three pupils who are young girls at the novel’s opening but teenagers by the time of liberation. Nancy, known as ‘Plum’ to her friends, is the child of missionaries and, even before her capture by the Japanese, had not seen her parents for three years. For someone like me, not familiar with the boarding school system, that seems an incredible time for a child to be without her parents. Nancy and her friends endure an additional four years under the most testing of circumstances.

    What holds the children and teachers together are their friendships and the teachers’ steadfast adherence to maintaining a sense of safety and unity, and what we might think of as a ‘stiff upper lip.’ Or, as Miss Kent puts it,

    I closed my eyes and absorbed the simple familiarity of the moment: chalk dust on my fingertips, the pool of winter sunlight against my cheek, the sounds of singing and instruction drifting along the corridors. Routine and discipline. The glue holding me together while the world was falling apart.

    The Bird in the Bamboo Cage p25

    Told through alternating viewpoints of Miss Kent and young Nancy, we see the circumstances under which the school community must survive deteriorate rapidly; the brutality of some of the Japanese guards; the tragic experiences of the local Chinese communities.

    There are two potent themes throughout: sunflower seeds and the Girl Guides. The seeds are given to Miss Kent by the school’s Chinese gardener just before they are moved from the campus. She plants a seed at various locations throughout the story, one in each place they are interned and in remembrance of specific people.

    She resolutely keeps the rituals of the Guides alive for the girls in her charge, as a way of holding onto meaningful traditions for her pupils, and to follow the teachings of the Guides about honourable and right behaviour and deeds, despite the suffering and cruelty around them.

    One interesting character who really was at Weihsien Internment Camp is Eric Liddell, the Scottish Olympic athlete on whom the film Chariots of Fire was based. He was held captive at the camp and sadly died there before the prisoners were liberated. There is a memorial at the location where he was buried.

    Both Miss Kent and Nancy come to realise that freedom can be taken away from without but not from within. Nancy’s version of this understanding is this:

    For the first time since we’d been under Japanese guard, I understood that freedom wasn’t something I had to wait for, but was something I could choose. In my mind, in my imagination and my memories, I could be as free as the birds that raced the wind, as free as the clouds that chased the sun far above me.

    The Bird in the Bamboo Cage p277

    The Bird in the Bamboo Cage is a beautifully told story of loss and courage, the strength of the human spirit, and the bonds of friendship.

    It is published by HarperCollins Publishers in September 2020.
    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to read and review.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Historical fiction in a vivid setting: ‘The Sea Gate’ by Jane Johnson

    Following the death of her mother, Becky begins the sad task of sorting through her things. Among the unopened letters she finds an envelope post-marked from Cornwall that will change her life forever. In it is a desperate plea from her mother’s elderly cousin, Olivia, to help her save her beloved home…

    The Sea Gate

    The Sea Gate is a dual-timeline story: the historic storyline is about wartime Cornwall and 16 year old Olivia, and the modern day one involves Rebecca, the adult daughter of Olivia’s cousin. I enjoy novels that bring together past and present in this way and this one is no exception.

    I especially loved the setting of this book, having travelled to Cornwall and been enchanted by its dramatic rock-strewn coastlines, picturesque fishing villages and brooding moors. They provide a wonderful backdrop for a tale with plenty of family secrets; an old rambling house full of mysteries; intrigue and danger; past wrongs and a dash of romance.

    Becky sets herself the task of restoring Olivia’s neglected family home to some semblance of habitability, so that her elderly cousin can come home from hospital. In the process she finds herself piecing together the secrets of Olivia’s past, especially events that took place during the war.

    She also re-examines her own life and makes some surprising decisions about her future; she is a cancer survivor, still recovering from surgery and treatment and the shock of her illness:

    Fear has trapped me, rendered me immobile and powerless: fear of losing Eddie, fear of the cancer, fear of everything, really. I’d forgotten I ever had wings, let alone how to use them.

    The Sea Gate p304

    This was for me the most satisfying part of the novel: the emotional development of Rebecca’s character and her trajectory of self-discovery and change.

    The one part that didn’t work so well for me was the chapter in which Hamid tells his story. An important secondary character, his story is a good one, so it is perhaps simply personal taste that meant I didn’t enjoy his first-person narrative inserted into the the story in this way. It did not, however, detract from my overall enthusiasm for The Sea Gate.

    It’s an engrossing read, recommended for anyone who enjoys historical fiction, dual timeline stories and an evocative, dramatic setting.

    The Sea Gate was published by Head of Zeus Publishing in June 2020.

    My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Fabulous tale of derring do from Australia’s colonial past: ‘Ten Rogues’ by Peter Grose

    I am a lover of history in all it’s forms, though I have sometimes wondered how my interest in Australian history survived my school years in the 1960’s and 70’s, with the dry recitations that passed for history back then. I learnt about early European explorers and their ‘discoveries’, the names of people – usually men – of note, something about the Depression and the World Wars. But not enough – not nearly enough – of the humans who populated these past eras – their strivings, motivations and follies. Where, oh where, were the dramas, the absurdities, the outrageous injustices and outright comedies, the incredible feats of resilience and courage that peppered our past?

    In more recent years there have been some wonderful works of fiction and non-fiction that have brought this human part of history into sharper focus. From the Edge: Australia’s Lost Histories by Mark McKenna springs to mind, as do excellent podcasts such as Forgotten Australia by Michael Adams or The History Listen from ABC’s Radio National. Fled by Meg Keneally is a novel based on the astounding escape from Sydney by convict Mary Bryant; Esther by Jessica North tells the story of the woman who arguably managed and controlled one of NSW’s first large agricultural estates. And there is now, thankfully, plenty of literature to tell us the stories from indigenous Australia – non-fiction such as Archie Roach’s Tell Me Why and Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu; and fiction, including this year’s Miles Franklin awarded The Yield by Tara June Winch.

    Ten Rogues is subtitled The unlikely story of convict schemers, a stolen brig and an escape from Van Diemen’s Land to Chile. As the title promises, it is both a rollicking good tale, and a well-researched true- life adventure. The convict at the centre of the tale is Jimmy Porter, a man who must surely have possessed the proverbial ‘nine lives’ to have escaped the multiple death sentences he faced over his career as a criminal and teller of tall tales. The author acknowledges that Jimmy’s penchant for exaggeration and blurring the truth made the research more difficult (the book is based, in part, on judicious selection from Jimmy Porter’s own accounts of his actions, as well as other contemporary narratives, convict records and newspapers, and some additional delving in Chile.)

    The book weaves all of these together with information on the history of convict transportation to Australia, the grim conditions in penal stations such as Tasmania’s Sarah Island, the historic links between the slave trade and transportation, and eighteenth and nineteenth century debates about crime, punishment and prison reform. It does so in a very readable way, because apart from anything else, the story of Jimmy Porter and his band of escapees is one of luck and misfortune, unwise choices, incredible feats of endurance and courage, and moments of humour and bravado, that might be seen as very unlikely, if they appeared in a work of fiction.

    These are the stories from our past – the funny, the ugly, the tragic, the astounding – that for me, make history so irresistible. Read this book for a rollicking good tale and to learn more about Australia’s colonial and convict periods. It delivers both in an entirely absorbing package.

    Ten Rogues was published by Allen & Unwin in 2020.

    Peter Grose is the author of several other books about episodes in Australian history including A Very Rude Awakening (about the raid on Sydney harbour by Japanese mini-submarines during WWII) and An Awkward Truth (about the bombing of Darwin in 1942). These promise to be just as intriguing as Ten Rogues and are now on my Want To Read list.

    #AussieAuthor20
    #2020ReadNonFic

  • Books and reading

    Identity, secrets, tragedy – and love: ‘The Love that Remains’ by Susan Francis

    This is such a beautiful book. Susan Francis’ debut published book, it is a memoir that tells of her lifelong search for her birth parents, her struggle to understand and accept the circumstances of her birth and adoption, her relationship with her adored husband Wayne, and her grief at his untimely and sudden death. But it is also about secrets that are kept by individuals and within families and asks one of the hardest of all questions: How well can we really know another person?

    The author weaves the two main themes of her story – identity and secrets – together in a way that makes the book un-put-down-able. Along with Susan Francis, I really wanted to know why she was adopted, who her birth parents were, as well as those aspects of Wayne’s past that he sought to keep hidden. The story goes back and forth in time and across continents, new griefs mixing with old, as we accompany the author on her quest to learn, to know, to understand. We feel her unbearable trauma and confusion as she faces some of the most difficult circumstances imaginable, challenges that would test any one of us. Challenges that she faces with humanity, humility and a gritty determination. All of this is told in beautiful, lyrical prose that touches the deepest parts of the readers’ own emotional responses and imagination.

    Never was I tempted to ignore this knowledge about my husband’s past. The only way I could be fully me in the present was to know the truth of what had gone before. If I didn’t find out…my story would not be whole. Because you can’t un-know information.

    The Love that Remains

    I won’t say more about the events described in this book because I think every reader should come to it without too many preconceptions or prior knowledge. That way it unfolds fresh for each new reading. It is enough to say that it is a compelling debut. Susan Francis is currently working on her first novel, which I understand is partly inspired by the ‘Balibo Five’ and other events surrounding the struggle for East Timorese independence from Indonesia. I look forward to reading that once published.

    If you enjoy books that touch the heart, that make you think and wonder, and that pose questions for which there are no easy answers, you should read The Love that Remains.

    Just a note: I ‘heard’ this book via the Audible audiobook version, which is why I was unable to give a page reference for the quote above.

    #AussieAuthor2020
    #2020ReadNonFic
    #AWW2020

  • Books and reading

    Cute new titles for younger readers: ‘Marshmallow Pie’ by Clara Vulliamy

    These are the first in a new series by UK children’s writer and illustrator Clara Vulliamy, featuring a fluffy cat called Marshmallow Pie and his owner Amelia Lime.

    Aimed at early independent readers, these are chapter books with simple storylines, relatable settings and plenty of humour.

    The books are narrated by Marshmallow Pie himself and this is where much of the humour comes in, because as cats tend to do, he takes a rather one-sided and egocentric view of his world. His human, Amelia, lives with her dad in a small apartment and is shy, but dotes on her fluffy cat. When she suggests that Marshmallow Pie auditions for TV and movie roles, he is very reluctant at first, but soon comes to enjoy the limelight, though not before mishaps and escapades provide some good laughs for the reader.

    Children will enjoy the mismatch between the cat’s view of events and how they are portrayed in the charming black and white illustrations on each page. I also enjoyed the way in which even the supremely self-centred kitty had small moments of enlightenment about how to be a good friend.

    These are sweet stories of friendship, family, and the joy that pets can bring, in bite-sized books perfect for ages seven and up.

    Marshmallow Pie: The Cat Superstar and Marshmallow Pie: The Cat Superstar on TV are published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in August 2020.


    My thanks to the publishers for copies to review.

  • Books and reading

    Learning from the youngsters: ‘Loveless’ by Alice Oseman

    YA (young adult) fiction is something I have only recently begun to read (since I was a young adult myself, I mean – and that was… well, some years ago now.) I’ve been intrigued and I admit, a little surprised at how much has changed in novels for this target audience. For a start, the language is different: much more ‘colourful’ and very influenced by the brevity of social media posts and also by some ‘Americanisms’. What has not changed is the way that these novels can explore the issues that are front and centre of their young readers’ lives.

    This is what Loveless does, in an interesting and sensitive way. The themes of this novel by Alice Oseman include the challenges faced by young people as they explore their sexuality, begin to navigate the adult world, and face new challenges outside of home and school life. At its heart is friendship, of utmost importance to all people in this age group.

    The story centres on Georgia and her best friends Pip and Jason as they begin university life. There are the usual nerves at the threshold of a big step like this, but for Georgia there is also confusion and anxiety. She longs for a romantic relationship and can’t understand why she has not been able to find someone she is attracted to. Is she gay? Bisexual? What does it mean to be asexual? Is that even a thing? Or is she just shy, preferring to watch a romcom or read fanfic to going clubbing?

    Georgia envies her room-mate, Rhooney, who seems to be able to make friends easily, exudes confidence and has a robust social and sexual life. However she comes to realise that Rhooney, too, has her own secrets and struggles.

    After some unsuccessful attempts to meet boys she would want to date, Georgia reflects:

    I thought I’d understood what all these romantic things would feel like – butterflies and the spark and just knowing when you liked someone. I’d read about these feelings hundreds of times in books and fanfic. I’d watched way more romances than was probably normal for an eighteen-year-old.

    But now I was starting to wonder if these things were made up.

    Loveless p139

    We dive right in to the university experience with Georgia and her friends: clubs and societies, college life, formal balls and pub crawls, student mentors, too much alcohol. The story is unflinching about the lengths youngsters will go to, in order to fit in, and to find romance and/or sex.

    One delight is the reference to Shakespeare: the group are all avowed Shakespeare fans and work to put on a performance with scenes chosen from some key plays. In doing so they highlight the relevance of some much of Shakespeare’s work to our modern world with scenarios that are still recognisable today : romance, social gaffes, sexuality and gender fluidity, for example.

    I learnt a lot about the lives of young people today but was also reminded of my own nerves and fluster at beginning university, not knowing anyone and shy to make friends. Alice Oseman is a skilful novelist to be able to evoke memories while illuminating the current lay of the land for young adults.

    Loveless will be published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in
    August 2020.

    My thanks to the publisher for a copy to read and review.

  • Books and reading,  History

    A heartfelt search for the truth: ‘The Other Side of Absence’ by Betty O’Neill

    The Other Side of Absence is Betty O’Neill’s debut memoir. The author information tells us that she is a writer and teacher in areas such as writing family history, the Cold War, migration and the domestic space as an archive. This wonderful book includes all of these themes, and more.

    She begins by explaining her unusual family situation. Her mother Nora, a young Australian woman on working holiday in England in 1952, met and fell in love with Antoni (Tony), a Polish political refugee. Tony had joined the remnant Polish army under British command in Italy at the end of the war, but later moved to England where he worked for a time at the Bata Shoe Company. (That company name rang bells for me; Bata school shoes were de rigueur for Aussie kids in the 1960’s and 70’s but I didn’t know it was a British company.)

    Tony was older, well dressed and charming. After a brief courtship they married and soon Nora was pregnant with Betty. Nora’s mother sponsored Tony to emigrate to Australia and in 1954 Nora and Betty moved to Lismore, NSW, to live with her. Tony arrived eight months later. Within days, he had disappeared: gone from their lives with no word of explanation. Betty did not meet her father until she was nineteen – a troubling connection with a damaged and troubling man – and soon after that he returned to Poland. She never saw him again.

    It is with this family background that Betty navigated life as a young adult, but not until later did she begin the search for her father’s story. Who was he? What did he experience as a member of the Polish resistance during the war, and then as a political prisoner at three Nazi concentration camps? What damage was inflicted on him during this time? Why did he marry her mother but then desert his wife and infant child? What motivated him to make contact with Betty when she was nineteen? What about her Polish family – who were they and what stories did they have to tell about their lives and about Tony?

    These questions took her to Poland and Austria to retrace her father’s history, his movements and experiences during the war, his life once he returned to Poland from Australia. There were many surprises and troubling revelations in store for Betty as she dug deeper into the past. In the process Betty faced the impact of her father’s experiences on her own life:

    I attempted not to judge anyone, particularly not my father, but my knuckles were white holding onto the see-saw of emotions, trying not to fall off…
    I knew that crush of feeling unwanted. I had felt it when each of my parents left me..It never leaves when it is imprinted onto a tiny heart. A shaft of darkness was embedded from deep within me to just under the skin. It painfully broke through from time to time. I could easily recognise it in others.

    The Other Side of Absence p183-184

    The author’s research and personal visits to significant wartime sites, add depth and authenticity to this story of discovery and growing understanding. She describes the feeling when she saw her father’s prisoner card from Auschwitz concentration camp – in a small way I have experienced a similar thrill at finding my ancestors’ names on convict muster lists from the nineteenth century, although of course the emotional punch was much less in my case. She also reflects on the way trauma plays out from one generation to the next. Her conclusions are beautifully nuanced:

    Not knowing and wondering had been replaced by understanding and acceptance in ways I could never have predicted. The past no longer haunted my present. I’d come to an appreciation of human complexity: not good or bad but layered by circumstance and context.

    The Other Side of Absence p288-289

    This memoir, like others I have read (such as Magda Szubanski’s Reckoning, or Esther Safran Foer’s I want you to know we’re still here), illuminate the present by examining the past.
    The Other Side of Absence is a beautifully written, engrossing and heartfelt addition to Australian memoir.

    The Other Side of Absence is published by Impact Press in August 2020.
    My sincere thanks to the publisher for a copy to read and review.

    #AussieAuthor20
    #2020ReadNonFic
    ##AWW2020

  • Books and reading

    A jolly little tale of friends: ‘Pea and Nut Go For Gold!’ by Matt Stanton

    Every young child knows that friends can sometimes be… well, annoying. Pea (the panda) and Nut (the pink flamingo) are great friends and occasionally, as in this new picture book for readers 3+, great rivals.

    Pea likes nothing more than lazing in the shade, but when Nut challenges her to a race to the end of the pool, she is ready! The only problem is that Nut can be sneaky sometimes.

    A jolly story of friends who are sometimes also in competition with each other, Pea and Nut Go For Gold! explores the pleasures and occasional frustrations of friendships. The clean, bold and colourful illustrations perfectly complement the story. Little readers will find themselves barracking for both Pea and Nut as the pages turn.

    Pea and Nut Go For Gold! is the second in the series by Matt Stanton (best selling author of the very popular Funny Kid books) about two mismatched but firm friends. It will be published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in August 2020.

    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to read and review.

    #AussieAuthor20

  • Books and reading,  History

    A WWII story with a focus on women: ‘The German Midwife’ by Mandy Robotham

    Along with writing historical fiction, Mandy Robotham delivers babies. She is an experienced midwife – and it shows in this, her debut novel. The story opens in a Nazi labour camp during WWII, where Anke, the midwife of the book’s title, is imprisoned for helping pregnant women in the enforced Jewish ghetto of Berlin.

    Immediately we are plunged into the darkness, despair and filth of the camp, where giving birth is another trial to be faced by exhausted women weakened by harsh conditions and malnutrition. Having endured labour and birthed a child, their babies are ripped from their arms to be murdered by the guards. This is not a war story where miracles happen and people live happily ever after.

    Then Anke is transported from the camp and taken to a mansion high in the mountains, which we learn is the Berghof, Hitler’s luxury Bavarian complex. She is to be midwife to none other than Eva Braun, Hitler’s mistress. This is the what if? question at the heart of the novel: if Hitler had fathered a child, what might that have meant for the Reich, the progress of the war, and the victims of that war – including the midwife and her family, who are all at the mercy of the Nazis and their leader?

    At a deeper, more personal and profound level, the question becomes: how should a person act in such circumstances? What is the right choice: to care for a woman and her innocent child, or to sacrifice either or both for the greater good?

    The stakes are high for Anke as she navigates her way through this treacherous territory. There are flashbacks to her loving family before the war, her work in a Berlin hospital as the Nazis ramp up their cruelty and their control of the nation, and to Anke’s actions which lead to her arrest and imprisonment in the camp. There are examples of the various ways in which ordinary people coped and survived in a world that had become savage and unforgiving. Anke’s dilemma underlines everything from the moment she is chosen to be Eva Braun’s midwife:

    I didn’t know whether to be grateful for my life chance, or angry at her naivety. A thought flashed, ‘a child within a child,’ and I forced a smile in response, while every sinew in me twirled and knotted.

    The German Midwife p62

    One thing that makes this novel stand out from others set during WWII and the Nazi regime, is that childbirth, and the midwives who assist, are the central points around which the story spins. Against a backdrop of widespread death and destruction, the descriptions of birthing are a welcome shift of attention to the act of creation of new life. The midwifery expertise of the author lends great credibility to these scenes: they are believable; never once do they feel gratuitous. The birthing scenes are there for a reason and they anchor the protagonist to a reality other than the one presented by war. Anke reflects on this:

    I soon realised my role – and that of the ten or so other qualified midwives in the camp – was to bring dignity where we couldn’t prolong life. We could create memories, perhaps of only hours or days, where kindness and humanity won out…
    Each of us had our way of creating a small world impenetrable to the harsh reality of noise and stench around us. It was a tiny cosmos where we cried and laughed with them, where we held a space – perhaps only for a few minutes – so pure that only their child, their baby, existed for that time. Their history. The burning ache of a child’s parting was no less painful, but alongside the sadness sat memories of what they did for their babies – memories of being mothers.

    The German Midwife p280

    The German Midwife has plenty of tension as the pregnancy of Eva Braun plays out, and plenty of drama. At its core, though, is an invitation to ask ourselves: What would I do, if this were me? What is the right choice in a world where every decision is fundamentally flawed?
    It’s a gripping read with the experience of women at its heart.

    The German Midwife is published by Harper Collins Australia in
    August 2020.
    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to read and review.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Hardship and misdeeds on Victoria’s goldfields: ‘The Goldminer’s Sister’ by Alison Stuart

    Alison Stuart lives in an historic town in Victoria and it shows in her writing. The Goldminer’s Sister is her second novel featuring places and events from Australia’s past. Set in a fictional 1870’s Victorian goldfields town of Maiden Creek, the author conjures the dirt, noise, hard living conditions and gold fever of the times brilliantly. Even more impressive are her descriptions of the mines themselves – the never-ending thud of the ‘stampers’, the ever-present risk of mine collapse, the dark tunnels following the gold seams.

    Around this rich background she has woven a story of greed, loss and love. The protagonist is Eliza, who arrives from England after the death of her parents, hoping to be reunited with her beloved brother Will. Arriving at Maiden’s Creek, she is greeted by her uncle Charles Cowper and the news that Will died in a recent fall at the mine. Shocked, Eliza realises she is now alone in the world and work out how she is to support herself.

    She meets many of the town’s inhabitants; those who have made good money through mining and those less fortunate who live on the edges of the community. Alec McLeod is a mining engineer who works at her uncle’s mine. He has his own sorrows and secrets, but events bring them together as both Alec and Eliza begin to suspect that Will’s death might not have been an accident.

    Stuart has conjured the atmosphere of ‘gold fever’ well – the way the prospect of instant unbelievable wealth drew people from all backgrounds to try their luck at mining. Crime flourished, and if the risk of mining accidents was not enough, there was also the threat posed by bushrangers who roamed the trails between the goldfields and Melbourne or other bigger towns. The author does not flinch from portraying the grim reality of life for those who don’t strike it lucky: the prostitutes, sly grog dealers and children from poor families for example.

    Eliza is a sympathetic character whose circumstances are less than ideal but who nonetheless shows courage and compassion throughout.

    The Goldminer’s Sister is a satisfying novel with intrigue, action and a dash of romance set amidst a compelling and dramatic chapter of Australian history.

    It was published by Mira, an imprint of Harlequin Enterprises (subsidiary of HarperCollins Publishers Australia), in July 2020.
    My thanks to the publisher for a copy to read and review.

    #AWW2020
    #AussieAuthor20