• 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,  History

    ‘The Things We Cannot Say’ by Kelly Rimmer

    This best-selling novel by Australian author Kelly Rimmer is a beautiful exploration of love, loss and the sacrifices that people can make for those they love most. It’s also an interesting juxtaposition of the challenges of modern lives with those faced by people in wartime.

    If you have read a few of my posts and reviews, you will know that I love stories inspired by real events and people, and especially those drawn from the author’s family history. This is what Kelly Rimmer has done; by telling a story set in her grandmother’s hometown in Poland during the horrors of WWII.

    I found Alina and Tomasz’s story to be engrossing, tragic, and hopeful. The details of the impoverished farm which was young Alina’s world, the terrors of the Nazi occupation, and the profound losses experienced by the Polish people, are enriched by the author’s research and visits to the places she writes about.

    The story is centred firmly in this environment, but woven through it is the story of Alice, a modern day mother of two, and the challenges she faces bringing up a ten-year-old gifted daughter and a seven-year-old son who has autism.

    When Alice’s grandmother begs her (from her hospital bed) to go to Poland to find something or someone she is unable to name, it seems like an impossible task. How can Alice leave her two kids, whose routines and care she tightly manages, with her busy husband, who doesn’t really have a relationship with Eddie?

    She does, though, and that’s where the elements of Alina and Alice’s lives begin to intersect, as Alice discovers more about her grandmother’s experiences during the war. In the process, Alice discovers a lot about herself, her son and daughter, and her marriage.

    The book does a wonderful job of bringing these seemingly disparate stories together, and portrays each woman’s challenges in a compelling way.

    There are long-held secrets that Alice needs to uncover before she can truly understand her family’s past, and to allow the grandmother she adores to be, finally, at peace. In Alina’s words:

    We embraced there on the deck – witness to a vow to hold on to a secret that we thought we could simply reveal one day. We had no idea of the gravity of that lie. We didn’t realize that time has a way of racing past you – that the long hard days sometimes make for very short years.

    The Things We Cannot Say p394

    The Things We Cannot Say is beautifully realised story and readers who love historical fiction firmly rooted in real history, will enjoy it.

    The Things We Cannot Say was published by Hachette in 2019.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Brooding and malevolent: ‘The Burning Island’ by Jock Serong

    Jock Serong is one of my favourite Aussie authors. He writes novels that are page turners, taut and beautiful, with characters that don’t leave you. The Burning Island is a sequel, of sorts, to his earlier historical fiction work Preservation, which was a stand-out for me because it incorporated both historical fiction and crime in an unforgettable package. I would recommend reading Preservation first – the latest book can be a stand-alone, but there is so much that links the two books together, it would be a shame to miss out.

    The Burning Island picks up the story of former Lieutenant Joshua Grayling, but told this time through the voice of his daughter Eliza, spinster and governess in 1830’s Sydney. Joshua is a faint shadow of the man we first meet in Preservation – damaged and traumatised by his encounters with the enigmatic Mr Figge and the devastating events that follow, he is an alcoholic and recluse.

    When he is offered a chance for revenge he grasps it – to Eliza’s horror. It will involve a voyage to the Furneaux Islands (located in Bass Strait, between mainland Australia and Tasmania) including the island called Preservation, where the story in the first book begins. Eliza must accompany her father, because he is now not only an alcoholic, but also blind.

    The tragedy of addiction and the strain it places on family relationships is portrayed beautifully, and Serong’s trademark descriptive prose glows throughout this novel, resulting in both a gripping story and an incredible character study.

    We sat like that and neither of us spoke. The boat slipped onward, closing in towards something we couldn’t understand. The dark birds moved about us, specks of cold water lit on our faces, perhaps spray or the faintest rain, drips off the rigging, and here we were, two lost people on a voyage to nowhere.

    The Burning Island p121

    There is much in this novel about the often bloody and violent history of the islands, with sealers, mutton birding and kidnapping of Aboriginal women from nearby islands and Tasmania itself, as well as their kidnapping by white authorities – an attempt at genocide. The dramatic, lonely islands are imbued with a malevolence that echoes the nature of the man being pursued – the vile Mr Figge.

    It all makes for a novel that once read, is not easily forgotten.

    The Burning Island was published by Text Publishing in 2020.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Courage and conflict: ‘Sisters of the Resistance’ by Christine Wells

    I remember being in Paris, on a much-anticipated trip in 2015, falling in love with this amazing city (of course!) and imagining Nazi boots tramping the beautiful cobblestoned streets. I could almost hear the tanks rumbling through the city. I wondered: what would it have been like for Parisians, experiencing the fear and humiliation of German occupation?

    Sisters of the Resistance, by Aussie author Christine Wells, is a novel that plunges the reader into that experience, but also allows us to imagine how cities such as Paris were, straight after the war. How did Parisians survive the relentless assaults on their beautiful city and their lives? How much did rationing and fear impact on everyday experiences and for how long, after peace finally arrived?

    Paris was bleak in the winter with the plane trees leafless and grey. While the bombings had not touched the part of the city in which Yvette now hurried along, the place had the air of a beautiful, damaged creature still licking its wounds. Now that winter had come, all its scars were laid bare.

    Sisters of the Resistance p8

    The novel moves between 1947 and 1944, which was a time approaching the end of the war but still a dangerous one, as the Nazis grew ever more desperate and vicious.

    The sisters of the title are Yvette and Gabby, young women of very different personalities and approaches to their wartime experiences. Gabby is the eldest; sensible and cautious, just wanting to survive the war as best she can. Yvette is more impulsive, driven by a need to do something to help her city and country in its struggle against Nazi oppression. I enjoyed the contrasting characters: one accidentally and reluctantly drawn into resistance work; the other eager, if naïve about the dangers involved.

    As with many good historical fiction novels, this one was inspired by the true story of Catherine Dior, the sister of the more famous French fashion icon Christian. She worked and fought for the Paris resistance before her arrest, torture and incarceration in a German concentration camp. I had been introduced to her story before, via another novel about WWII, The Paris Secret by Natasha Lester. Hers is a remarkable story and in this new novel, Christine Wells has woven a moving and exciting tale about other women who contributed in their own ways to the cause of French freedom.

    The murkiness of the world of the resistance is explored as the characters navigate their way through the difficult (sometimes impossible) choices they are faced with:

    “At what point does it become collaboration? At what point treason? Do we judge by someone’s actions or by their intentions?”

    Sisters of the Resistance p102

    There are hints and glimpses of intrigue, betrayals and danger that kept me turning the page, and prompted me to wonder what I would do, if faced with similar situations and dilemmas that called upon every atom of strength I possessed.

    Sisters of the Resistance is published by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins, in July 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Rollicking re-telling: ‘The Good Wife of Bath’ by Karen Brooks

    In her re-telling of Geoffrey Chaucer’s well-known story within The Canterbury Tales, Australian author Karen Brooks has brought us the dry tone of a mediaeval English woman whose rags-to-riches-back-to-rags life is full of passion, love, misfortune and plain bad luck.

    The author’s extensive and meticulous research into the period makes for a warts-and-all glimpse of England in the fourteenth century, including the awfulness of life for so many women. There is the Wife’s first marriage at twelve years old to a man more than twice her age. There is poverty, plague, domestic violence and abuse. There is also humour, bawdiness and plain speaking, making for plenty of laugh-out-loud moments for the reader.

    The disrespect in which women were generally held at the time is not airbrushed out of Brook’s version, and her Good Wife demonstrates the struggle that women had to gain and retain any agency over their lives.

    Eleanor/Alyson lives out her eventful life against a backdrop of tumultuous times in England and Europe. Death of a king, battling popes, resurgences of the plague, changes in industry and the economy, are all woven skillfully into the fabric of the story, much as the Good Wife herself learns to spin and weave beautiful thread and fabric. Reflecting on her life and the family and community she has created around her, Eleanor/Alyson thinks:

    How did this happen? This marvellous workshop of colour and quality – of bonds tighter than the weave itself. I couldn’t take all the credit. It had been a combined effort… every household, every husband, had added its own ingredient – coin, wool, skills, but above all, people.

    The Good Wife of Bath p313

    Brooks explores the long-standing debate over Chaucer’s intent in writing a story that ostensibly mocked women who wish to be in control over their own lives, opting for the interpretation that it was meant as a satire. Whatever his motives, The Good Wife of Bath offers a modern-day take on his original story.

    It’s an engrossing and rollicking re-interpretation of a classical English story that will please lovers of historical fiction, especially those set in the mediaeval period.

    The Good Wife of Bath is published by HQ Fiction in July 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to review.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Rebellious women: ‘The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka’ by Clare Wright

    One part of Australia that I especially love is the goldfields region of Victoria. Rich in history, with picturesque villages like Maldon and bustling towns like Ballarat, it has heritage and physical beauty aplenty. The legendary Eureka Stockade understandably has pride of place in the folklore of the region. So it was with interest that I began The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka, which won the 2014 Stella Prize and was short- and long-listed for a swag of others.

    Of course I expected it to be about the role that women played in the famous rebellion that occurred in December, 1854; to my pleasure it was about much more as well. The books paints a vivid picture of the phenomena that were the Victorian gold rushes of the mid nineteenth century, and what drew a diverse community from all over the world and all walks of life to try their luck in the chaos, hope and heartache of the goldfields.

    Unlike many other works examining this period, in this book, the women take centre stage – those who accompanied their menfolk, those who came independently, those who had children or bore babies in the mining camps, those who ran businesses, those who prospered and those who suffered.

    Also included is some of the story of the contact between gold seekers and the Wathaurung, the original inhabitants of the country around Ballarat, which was rapidly changed from ancestral homelands to pastoral land and then, almost overnight, to a frontier town.

    In this account we can clearly see the social, political, environmental, economic and emotional factors that contributed to the tinder-dry circumstances on the diggings, that needed only a spark to ignite the all-out conflict between the mining community and the colonial authorities.

    The addictive nature of gold mining, the disparity in results (creating both great wealth but also terrible poverty), the inequitable impositions of the government and police on the diggers, the brutality of life on the diggings, all built towards the sickening violence that occurred at dawn on that fateful day.

    And present and active through it all, were women. The author highlights a number who were to play key roles, but also emphasises the many other, nameless women who were there – ‘right beside {the men}, inside the Stockade, when the bullets started to fly.’

    It’s fascinating stuff, made poignant by an epilogue in which the eventual fates of the ‘main characters’ of the story are outlined – some who went on to live happy or successful lives, others dogged by tragedy or hardship.

    This book certainly made me think about the Eureka Stockade, one of Australia’s ‘foundation legends’, differently, and to see the connections between the experiences of women there and on the goldfields more generally, with later political and suffrage rights campaigns.

    {The} nuggets of evidence that women’s political citizenship was being advocated in Australia as early as 1856 are significant. They place the genesis of women’s rights activism in that gold rush community of adventurers, risk-takers, speculators and freedom fighters who struggled for the more famous civic liberties often said to be at the heart of Australia’s democratic tradition.

    The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka p453

    The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka was published by Text Publishing in 2013

  • Books and reading,  History

    Cycles of tragedy and hope: ‘Daughter of the River Country’ by Dianne O’Brien with Sue Williams

    Imagine being not quite sixteen, alone in the world and pregnant. Now imagine being faced with two intolerable alternatives: give up your baby for adoption or choose a life of violence, terror and misery.

    This is what happened to the author of this memoir – not a hundred years ago, but in the mid twentieth century. Brought up in a white Australian family in the 1950’s, Dianne experienced unwavering love from her mother, but abuse at the hands of her father. She did not know she was adopted until later and was confused about many things, including why she always felt different from others around her.

    Daughter of the River Country paints a vivid picture of suburban Australia in the latter half of the last century: the casual racism, bullying and violence meted out to those who least deserved it; the White Australia Policy that was still firmly in place; the neglect, jaw-dropping abuse and cruelty by those in charge of institutions meant to care for girls with no safe home to live in. For these reasons the memoir is hard to read at times but no less important for that. It tells of parts of our country’s history that many would prefer to forget, but which must be remembered so that we don’t keep repeating into the future. And as the author reminds us, some things haven’t changed as yet – the shameful gaps in life expectancy between indigenous and other Australians is one example, as is the shocking rate of incarceration and deaths in custody of indigenous people.

    Dianne discovered that she was one of the Stolen Generations, taken from her birth mother when a baby. Her people were Yorta Yorta, from the river country of Victoria. Her adoptive mother had very much wanted her and Dianne had a relatively happy childhood, though with edges of danger from her adoptive father that were fully expressed in cruelty after her mother died. From there, everything fell apart for the young girl: she experienced multiple violent relationships, incarceration in both a girls’ home and gaol; alcohol addiction and indifference or outright abuse from some who should have helped her.

    Discovering her birth family, her Aboriginal heritage and her people, brought about an incredible turn of events and her life took an upward turn, though not without tragedy along the way. It is the true measure of the woman that she was able to rise above the awfulness of her earlier life and work towards a better future for herself and her own children and grandchildren, and for her community.

    I have nothing but admiration for Dianne O’Brien and her memoir sheds further light on what has often been a hidden part of Australia’s past. It is one of the growing number of books that allow Australians to learn, reflect and hopefully understand more about the experiences of First Nations communities.

    Daughter of the River Country is published by Echo Publishing in July 2021.
    My thanks to Better Reading for an advance reading copy to review.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Time slip: ‘The Alchemy Thief’ by R.A. Denny

    The Alchemy Thief can best be described as a sweeping saga in which the two main characters are transported through time from 2019 to 1657. It’s Book One in the ‘Pirates and Puritans’ series. The U.S. author draws upon characters from her own family history as inspiration (something I always enjoy). The action also moves between Morocco and New England. It encompasses themes of religious faith, fanaticism and forgiveness.

    It is part modern thriller, taking in the machinations of the Islamic State as they use humans as pawns in deadly international terrorist actions; part love story; and part examination of the beginnings of the American experiment in Pilgrim communities in New England. The novel brings together two characters who under normal circumstances are unlikely to meet. Ayoub is born into the world of Islamic State, while Peri is a young woman at the beginning of her Harvard university studies.

    Their worlds and belief systems clash when the effects of a lightning storm transport them both back to the seventeenth century. They must each decide where their loyalties lie. And they must work out how to survive a strange world in which a belief in magic is widespread and pirates roam the seas.

    As the trajectories of the two characters begin to head towards each other, the danger one poses to the other is clear. The plot moves forward at a satisfying pace and there is plenty of action, as you’d expect in a novel set in what was a fairly brutal time. However, the author deftly draws parallels between the cruelties and hardships of the earlier era with the contempt for human life demonstrated by some in our own times.

    One jarring note for me was the character of Liam. I thought his motivations could have been made clearer and I was left wondering what was at the root of his seeming hatred of his parents and disregard for his fellow Americans.

    The Alchemy Thief is an interesting and energetic glimpse into American colonial history and the people who risked everything to establish those early settlements. It is also a chilling ‘what if?’ story about our modern times.

    The Alchemy Thief is published by the author in July 2021 and available on Amazon.
    My thanks to R.A. Denny for an advanced reading copy to review.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Joyous, beautiful read: ‘Still Life’ by Sarah Winman

    Have you been to Italy? I haven’t, although I did come close early on in 2020 when preliminary plans were afoot for a trip. A loved one’s uncertain health, and then of course Covid, put a stop to that.

    If you are anything like me, a book set in a place you’ve not been, can often make you long to go there. This happened when I read Heather’ Rose’s Bruny: on a recent trip to Tasmania, I made sure to include Bruny Island in the itinerary, as I’d never had the opportunity to visit before.

    Still Life is set in both Italy and England – Florence and the east end of London, to be precise. It’s a big joyous hymn to love, passion, art, beauty and family (both birth families and the families we create for ourselves). In some ways, it reminded me a little of Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet: like that much loved Australian classic, Still Life sprawls across decades and follows a disparate group of people as they travel through life. And, one of the shining strengths of the novel is the way those characters are captured with apt description, humour and wonderful dialogue. Here’s a couple of examples, about Peg:

    She’d have done anything to have had a mum like Nora. Nora was all soft angles and kindness. Peg could be kind, but there wasn’t enough of it to be a regular thing with her. It was like her wage. Always ran out by Thursday.

    and:

    Peg slunk out bare legs and heels first followed by a belted midi short-sleeve dress in emerald green. Sunglasses hid the ten years older and the sun high-lighted the ten years blonder.

    Still Life pp98 & 311

    Ulysses (a young British soldier in Italy in the last years of the war) and Evelyn (an art historian in her sixties) meet by chance in Italy and talk through one night about truth, beauty and Florence. We follow both of these main characters through the decades after the war, from the wreckage and hardship of London to the great flood of 1966 in Florence and into the 1970’s, years of tumult and dissent. Ulysses has moved to live in Florence, that city at the centre of Renaissance art, and has gathered around him a close group of friends – family, really – both Italian and English. Evelyn continues her stellar career as an art historian and teacher, always remembering a maid in Florence with whom she had her first love affair at the age of twenty-one.

    I fell a little in love with these two main characters, though the novel is peopled by many others: complex, funny, three dimensional humans whose convivial dinners in a Florentine piazza had me longing to join them. And there are touches of magical realism, as well, including a Shakespeare-quoting parrot and trees that commune with humans.

    This passage encapsulates the themes of this book:

    This song’s called Angeli del fango, he said. Mud Angels.
    It was a ballad. About the young men and women who’d come to the city. About good rising out of need, about love in all its forms, about kindness and looking out for one another, and only the third verse was about art, but even that was about the paradox of meaning…

    Still Life p355

    I feel certain that Still Life will be one of my standout reads for 2021. It’s such a joyous book; rich with love of life, art, beauty and what makes humans, human.

    Still Life is published by HarperCollins Publishers in June 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to read and review.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Some things change (and some definitely remain the same!) ‘Rum: A Distilled History of Colonial Australia’ by Matt Murphy

    Hands up if you sometimes think “We are rules by fools and knaves!” Or if you fret about the unhealthy role that alcohol seems to play in our Australian society. Me, too. It may be reassuring (or not) to know that this is not a new thing. In fact, according to this history by Matt Murphy, Australia’s very beginning as a British colony in the eighteenth century was inextricably linked to and shaped by alcohol, and the idiocy and corruption that so often accompanies it. One type of alcohol (rum) played a greater role than others, and this book deftly fills in a history of the beverage itself, how it first arrived on the shores of New South Wales, and what happened after.

    Startling snippets of information are revealed: did you know, for example, that the First Fleet brought sufficient rum for seven years for each marine on board – but only enough food for two years. Rum was packed into the holds of those tall ships at the expense of tools, clothing and food supplies that the penal settlement would need in its early years.

    Alcohol had an immediate, detrimental impact on Aboriginal people around Sydney and further afield; one that is still being felt today. Very quickly rum became a measure of currency and exploited by those in charge of the settlement – the NSW Marine Corps – which earned them the epitaph of ‘Rum Corps’.

    We are introduced to some well-known historical figures: First Nations figures such as Bennelong; colonial Governors; convicts; emancipists and free settlers; those responsible for guiding the settlement all the way from England. Some of these characters are more notorious than others: John Macarthur, for example, is given a lot of attention due to his incessant meddling and blatantly corrupt activities, many of which involved the importation, sale and use of rum to further his own interests.

    Murphy highlights the huge amount of energy expended on dispatches, petitions, orders about rum to and from authorities in NSW and London, canvassing the advantages and pitfalls of importing, distilling, trading, controlling and drinking the stuff. Well meaning but unsuccessful edicts regarding the control of alcohol consumption have echoes in our own times:

    A further law proclaimed in June 1825 was aimed at publicans who condoned disorderly conduct on their premises or permitted patrons to become drunk. While the law pertaining to convicts was somewhat easy to maintain, the second one only meant that boozed-up barflies were being turfed out of hotels to drink in the street…Now there were more drunks on the street than ever before.

    Rum: A Distilled History of Colonial Australia p229

    Is it just me, or could these attempts to curb the negative effects of alcohol consumption be the Georgian equivalents of Sydney’s lock-out laws and today’s ‘responsible service of alcohol’ guidelines?

    Matt Murphy writes with humour and a fast pace, so this is an entertaining read as well as a sobering (no pun intended) look at our modern relationship with alcohol, and it is refreshing to re-visit some well-known people and events from history through the prism of one substance or object – in this case, the bottom of a rum bottle.

    Rum: A Distilled History of Colonial Australia is published by HarperCollins Publishers in June 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to read and review.