• Books and reading,  History

    How the heart survives: ‘The Tolstoy Estate’ by Steven Conte

    The Tolstoy Estate is described as ‘a novel for people who still believe in the saving grace of literature in dark times’ and literature – particularly the work of Leo Tolstoy – is at its heart.

    During the ill-fated German assault on Russia in the winter of 1941, military doctor Paul Bauer is assigned to a field hospital established at ‘Yasnaya Polyana’, the ancestral home of Russian writer Leo Tolstoy. We quickly realise that Bauer’s heart is not invested in the ideologies of the Nazi Reich, though he does feel loyalty to his comrades and to his mission as a doctor.

    On arrival at the estate he meets Katerina, the guardian of the property which has great cultural importance for Russians. In Katerina’s youth, she was a passionate supporter of the Revolution; this conviction has faded over the years, replaced by what could best be described as a critique of its methods and results, mixed with a deep love for her country in the face of the invader’s army. She is – understandably – hostile towards the Germans, but Paul recognises her fierce intelligence and a shared love of literature, and a friendship develops between them, despite the difficult circumstances.

    Paul’s job is to treat and repair the damage done to German soldiers on the front. He and his colleagues work under appalling conditions, made particularly hard by the brutal winter cold – with temperatures as low as minus 41 Celsius – inconceivable to someone like me, who lives on one of the warmer continents on Earth.

    The author is unflinching in describing the kinds of operations Paul and his colleagues perform, with enough authentic detail to make the scenes in the makeshift surgical theatre feel visceral. The waves of injured, sick and frostbitten soldiers keep on coming throughout the novel; the horror of the conflict always there. Even eyelids could be lost to frostbite, apparently: a prospect too awful to contemplate. The German troops were ill equipped to wage war in a Russian winter, with winter clothes late arriving, so that the soldiers were wearing summer uniforms well after the onset of cold weather.

    The theme of literature’s role in society is explored throughout, contrasting with the butchery taking place on the battlefields. Paul’s commanding officer Metz (who is experimenting with new drugs to ‘sharpen his soldierly performance’ – with awful results) boasts to Katerina that:

    ‘Deeds, not words, gnadige Frau, are the currency of greatness…with his rifle our humblest Landser shapes the world more profoundly than your Tolstoy ever did.

    To which Katerina replies:

    ‘How odd. You sound rather like him in War and Peace -the dull bits: the little man as mover of Great Events. But you’re mistaken. Lev Tolstoy’s books certainly did shape history. He’s still at it, in fact, tipping the war in our favour.’

    The Tolstoy Estate p28

    And of course, the events of War and Peace are foregrounded, as the fate of the German army replicates that of Napoleon’s, on his unsuccessful invasion of Russia a century earlier.

    This novel is a celebration of the human heart and the beauty of words and ideas, even when surrounded by the very worst of human behaviour. Paul is certain of this when he says to Katerina:

    Yes, what do is important. For the individual it’s vital. But the body is transient, we all know that. It’s stuff. You writers, you forge culture, and culture is eternal. Or as good as…I believe {literature} is beneficial…And enduring. Even the worst of it survives its author, and the best outlives the language it’s composed in. I can’t imagine what it must be like to … know that in fifty, one hundred, two hundred years there will be someone, somewhere reading your books.

    The Tolstoy Estate p175

    The Tolstoy Estate is published by Fourth Estate, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishing, in September 2020.
    My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

  • Life: bits and pieces,  Travel

    Travels with my mother X: The organiser

    Image by Breakingpic at pexels

    This is the tenth in my occasional series I’m calling Travels with my Mother. If you’ve not read the first in the series, you might wish to have a look at that one as it gives the context behind these posts.

    In conversation with Mum:

    ‘I couldn’t get on to you by phone yesterday, Mum. You must have been – ‘
    Mum broke in. ‘Oh, I wasn’t here, love. I was away for a few days.’
    I tried to keep the surprise from my voice. ‘Oh! Where did you go?’
    Mum gave a chuckle. ‘There was a competition of some sort, a raffle I think. First prize was a trip away. I walked in on the end of the draw and they said “Well Doreen, you’re the one who organises all of our activities and such, so can you please organise this trip? You’re in charge!”
    ‘So where did you take them?’
    Mum thought for a moment. ‘I can’t really remember exactly where. We went along our highway, in a bus. We just stopped where we liked, all different places.’
    ‘Sounds wonderful,’ I ventured.
    Even over the phone, I could tell Mum was beaming. ‘Everybody said later, “We had a wonderful time!” I felt pleased especially as it came at the last minute. I did feel pressure, hoping the trip would go well, so I was happy it turned out so successfully.’

    Classic Doreen, ever the organiser. The epitome of the old saying: If you want something done, ask a busy person.

    Back in her day, Doreen held voluntary positions in many organisations, including the Bilpin District Women’s Association (which in the 1960’s raised funds for the Bilpin Community Hall to be built and was an important social connection for women in the village and outlying areas); school Parents & Citizens committees; fund raising for community projects; and later, coach, umpire, and President of her Women’s Lawn Bowling club. Many events and competitions were successful due to her participation and leadership.

    Being organised, and being useful. The two guiding principles of my mother’s life, so aptly reflected on her latest travel story. It was not by accident that this one involved taking other people on a pleasant bus trip. So many of her ‘travels’ reflect her need to be helpful, to do something of benefit to others, and to do it well.

    Although she could probably recall the names of a very few fellow residents in her nursing home, in her mind Doreen is contributing to the well-being of others there, in her own indomitable way. Heaven help the brave soul who might want to stand in the way of Mum and her to-do list!

    I love that she is continuing in this role and using these skills on her travels.

    #travelswithmymother

  • Books and reading

    Sweet and colourful: ‘The Polar Bear in Sydney Harbour’ by Beck & Robin Feiner

    Kids (of all ages) enjoy incongruities and humour and this is definitely a feature of the new picture book by Sydney-based husband and wife team Beck and Robin Feiner.

    ‘When Hannah spots a polar bear in Sydney Harbour, she knows something isn’t right…But even worse, none of the adults seem to notice him at all.
    Can Hannah help her new friend find his way back home?

    The polar bear in Sydney harbour

    There is the obvious humour in the text – a polar bear in Sydney? – but the clever illustrations by Beck Feiner add another layer, as only Hannah can see the polar bear as they visit well known and beloved Sydney locations. Her parents don’t even notice the bear riding on the roof of their car!

    Kids will love pointing out the absurdities in this gentle book that, below it’s humour, is a child-friendly invitation to consider some of the possible effects of climate change on the animals most affected.

    The illustrations are stylised with gorgeous blocks of colour, portraying places like Bondi Beach, the Opera House and Sydney ferries, all very familiar to many Australian children.

    The brief friendship that develops between Hannah and the bear is heart warming and Hannah is a clever girl to work out a solution to the polar bear’s dilemma.

    The Polar Bear in Sydney Harbour is a welcome addition to picture books that introduce children to environmental themes, with humour and a child’s eye view throughout.

    The Polar Bear in Sydney Harbour is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in September 2020.

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

    #AussieAuthor20
    #AWW2020

  • Books and reading

    Wild magic: ‘Havoc! The Untold magic of Cora Bell’ by Rebecca McRitchie & Sharon O’Connor

    Havoc! is the second book in the Jinxed! series by Rebecca McRitchie, all about the magical adventures of Cora Bell and her fairy friends Tick and Tock.

    Aimed at independent readers eight years and over, these are chapter books that will enchant and engage, with enough action to please and a focus on the themes of friendship, belonging and being brave.

    Havoc! picks up from the first book, with Cora realising that the magic within her has been ‘syphoned’ from magical beings and threatens to get out of control. If she is not able to do something soon, she runs the risk of turning into a Havoc, and no one wants to be around one of those…

    She sets off in search of other syphons, in the hope that by finding others like herself she will finally have found a family and a place to belong. On the way, she encounters dark magic, powerful enemies and danger.

    Her friends Tick and Tock add some humour into the mix. Forget about sparkly, delicately fluttering ‘Tinkerbells’ – these fairies are bald little men with rather large bellies, and plenty of gumption to help their friend.

    The black and white illustrations by Sharon O’Connor bring characters Cora, Tick, Tock and others to life.

    The world-building in this story is lovely, with riffs on familiar creatures like mermen, warlocks, trolls and vampires. Some of the scenes are a little dark so possibly not suited to very young children – though with the popularity of Harry Potter among even the youngest of tots, perhaps there is not so much cause for concern nowadays?

    Havoc! and the Jinxed! series will appeal to young readers who like their magic fast and colourful, and who enjoy stories about friends facing the odds together.

    Havoc! The Untold Magic of Cora Bell is published by Angus & Robertson (an imprint of Harper Collins Children’s Books) in September 2020.

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

    #AussieAuthor2020
    #AWW2020

  • 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.

  • Life: bits and pieces

    Travels with my mother IX: Lockdown

    Image from cottonbro at pexels

    This is the ninth in my occasional series I’m calling Travels with my Mother. If you’ve not read the first in the series, you might wish to have a look at that one as it gives the context behind these posts.

    Recently, my mother’s aged care facility went once again into lockdown, due to rising cases of Covid19 infections in and around Sydney. It is a completely understandable and appropriate response, given the toll that this pandemic has wrought upon nursing homes in NSW and now Victoria. There is a great deal of discussion in the media and the aged care sector about how prepared facilities and the sector overall were for a pandemic of this type – the answer seems to be, not very.

    I’m not addressing that debate here, but rather, reflecting on the impact of lockdown on residents, especially those like Mum who no longer have independent resources to draw on to keep boredom and loneliness at bay: TV, hobbies, reading, puzzles, or knitting, for example.

    How must it feel to have been kept in the one place – for half a year, and counting? Apart from visits where she’s enjoyed a short time in the sunshine out in the residence courtyard, her room and the dining room have been her entire world since March.

    Family bring snippets of the outside in to her, partly to explain why things have changed so much: why she is only allowed ‘window visits’ with family now, or brief (and fairly unsatisfactory) attempts to connect via Zoom or Facetime. For someone with sensory limitations, they are no substitute for a hug, a warm hand on hers, a hot coffee made with love and sipped outdoors while we chat and listen to the birds in the lavender bushes. But they are all we have and so they have to be enough, for now.

    Image by andrew neel at pexels

    Mum has heard us speak so much about ‘the virus’ (and really, what else is there to talk about in this, the strangest of years?) that she does remember the gist of it. It’s why, for example, her beloved grandson has been reluctant to visit too often, for fear of inadvertently introducing it to her or other elderly residents in the nursing home. Why we are no longer able to wheel her to her favourite coffee shop to enjoy a cappuccino. Why staff are all wearing masks. Why our visits must all be pre-booked and of limited duration and now – for a while anyway – not real visits at all.

    I am grateful that Mum has not been in one of the Covid affected facilities and we have not had to endure the heartbreak of knowing she is sick in isolation without a family member there beside her.

    But I will be more grateful still when the pandemic begins to fade. It will, won’t it? Surely, one day, we will be able to visit our elderly family again and the wretchedness of this time will be an awful memory.

    image by jordan benton at pexels

    I am just sad that these months have been so difficult for elderly folk like my mother. When you only have a few years or months left to you, it seems a tragic waste to have to spend them like this.

    #travelswithmymother

  • 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

  • Life: bits and pieces,  Travel

    Travels with my mother VIII: Fading

    This is the eighth in my occasional series I’m calling Travels with my Mother. If you’ve not read the first in the series, you might wish to have a look at that one as it gives the context behind these posts.

    On a visit with Mum, this conversation:

    Why is there an oxygen machine in my room?’
    ‘You had another of those funny turns last night, Mum. The nurse decided not to send you to hospital but to keep an eye on you here, and you needed a bit of oxygen.
    Mum looked perplexed. ‘What are the funny turns?’
    I took a breath. ‘Well, they’re kind of like mini-strokes. You come out of them quickly but you’ve had a few lately.’
    The perplexed expression gave way to one of enormous disappointment.
    ‘Do you know, I was thinking about doing some travelling around Australia. But if I’m having these turns then I can’t really ask anyone to come along with me, can I? ‘ Her weakened eyes focussed on me for a few moments. ‘It would be too much responsibility for another person. I couldn’t ask that.’

    As always, Mum’s main concern is for other people, despite her own sadness.

    Photo by Karolina Grabowska
    from pexels

    My mother is fading. At each visit her inner light appears more subdued, her grip on the world loosening. I don’t know if she knows this, if the part of her brain that would process such information still allows her to understand that her time on earth is now limited. Perhaps it does.

    If so, she shows no sign of it, no distress. I am relieved by this, because I feel sure that such understanding might lead to anxiety or regret. When you have lived over ninety one years, do you still wish for more time? I don’t know and my guess is that, as with most things in life, the answer is likely: it depends. If my daily existence were one of chronic pain, or indignity, boredom, a physical and mental tiredness, then I might long for it to be over. Within that longing, though, surely there would be a certain looking back, a nostalgia for experiences from my past, a wish to stay with loved ones?

    And here is where the cruelty and kindness of dementia steps in. The process of becoming less aware, less attached to people and places, must cushion the prospect of leaving. But for the people being left, family you have loved and who still love you, it is painful, to put it mildly.

    Sometimes Mum hints at disappointment, when reality breaks through and she realises she can no longer do certain things, as in the above exchange about travel, for example. And surely this is where her dream world / fantasies come in, as a substitute for adventures no longer possible for her in the ‘real world.’

    My wish for Mum is that in the time she has left, she will continue to dream and go wherever her heart takes her.

    Photo by Jill Wellington from pexels

    #travelswithmymother

  • 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