Colonial women: ‘No Hearts of Gold’ by Jackie French
Some girls are born to be loved,No Hearts of Gold
Some are born to be useful,
And some are born to be bad…
The strapline of Jackie French’s new historical fiction sums it up: not all colonial women in Australia were wives, mothers, convicts, or servants.
No Hearts of Gold is about three very different women: one from aristocratic English society; one of a sturdy business-minded nature; and one from a self-made-gone-bust family. They are brought together on a voyage from England to the colony in the 1850’s; the beginning of a complex but staunch friendship against all odds.
What they find in the booming, bustling, troubled colony defies their own expectations.
The three women embark on lives very different from the ones they may have envisaged for themselves, back in England.
Kat, daughter of a fond father whose fortune disappeared with the bust of railway shares that had created it in the first place, makes the quick marriage arranged for her by an aunt. While such a fast marriage seems improbable, they were surprisingly common at all levels of society then, especially in far-flung outposts like Sydney. Marriage offered protection, financial support and a chance to leave the past behind.
Titania launches a business provisioning the ships leaving the wharves, profiting from her acumen and hard work, but dispensing kindness and help to others where she can.
Wealthy, loving Viola lives with her guardian, Cousin Lionel, in the lavish house funded by her own inheritance.
It’s difficult to say much more about the plot while avoiding spoilers. So I will instead focus on the issues and themes canvassed in the novel.
The Gold Rushes play a major role in the plot line and set the scene for some of the drama. But the focus is also on the destructive nature of these crazy events: on families, on homes and businesses that overnight lost fathers, husbands, workers. And especially, on the fragile environment of this land.
… the vegetable gardens, the fruit crop, the supplies in their storeroom were a treasure now – a treasure that could keep you alive, when specks of gold could not, and envied by men who had forgotten laws and rules, even if they had once obeyed them. There was no one they could ask for help…No Hearts of Gold p177
Women’s lack of ownership over their wealth, possessions, future and even their children, and the control wielded by men, is another important current running through the novel. As is the ways in which many women, including our three protagonists, defied the systems and conventions that kept these inequities in place.
An unexpected twist turns the story into a mystery involving a possible murder, a bushranger and a police detective.
The novel packs in all this and more: but I think, at its heart is the precious nature of enduring friendships between women.
Viola closed her eyes in sudden, deep pleasure. A friend one could say anything to. A friend who took you seriously, and not as a child, or one who must live up to the concept of ‘lady’.No Hearts of Gold p171
No Hearts of Gold is another beauty of a Jackie French novel: a gripping mystery, a rollicking yarn, and an elegy to women’s strength and courage in a society that discouraged both.
No Hearts of Gold is published by Angus & Robertson, an imprint of Harper Collins Punishers, in December 2021.
My thanks to the publishers for a copy to read and review.
Words & numbers for sharp-eyed youngsters: ‘Mrs Koala’s Beauty Parlour’ by Catherine Jinks and Tania McCartney
Mrs Koala’s beauty parlour is so busy, with a succession of alliterative critters lining up to receive the feel-good ministrations of a skilled beauty therapist.
Each double page spread features different services offered by Mrs Koala, with fun for little ones who can join in the countdown, alliterative text and searching for the beauty parlour key, cleverly hidden in each scene.
There are 10 fancy frogs getting facials, 9 pampered porcupines getting perms, 8 trendy tigers getting trims, and so on, right down to 1 ‘kaput koala’ on the final page – Mrs Koala is tired after all that work!
The attractive colour illustrations by Tania McCartney invite close examination of each busy scene – and of course little ones will love to find the key on each page.
This is a sweet book that simply begs to be read aloud and I’m sure will be a favourite at story time.
Mrs Koala’s Beauty Parlour is published by Working Title Press (an imprint of Harper Collins Children’s Books in February 2022.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
The sweetness of friendships: ‘Birds of a Feather’ by Tricia Stringer
It’s good to branch out into a genre you don’t generally read much of, or an author not encountered before, and that’s what I’ve done with this contemporary fiction by Australian author Tricia Stringer.
Birds of a Feather is all about family and friendships, old and new. Set in fictional Wallaby Bay on South Australia’s Spencer Gulf, the story features three very different women. There is Eve, battling to maintain her independence after a crippling shoulder injury; her goddaughter Julia, struggling with suppressed grief and the sudden loss of her scientific research job; and Lucy, trying to be the best mother she can be to her two young children, and coping with the absence of her FIFO (Fly In Fly Out) husband.
The first part of the novel sets up the circumstances that bring these characters together: at first unwillingly, each feeling their way in a new situation, trying to overcome mistrust, hesitation and past hurts. Once the women are together, the story really gets going. Before that, there are hints and veiled references to their back stories, tensions, traumas and the circumstances that shaped each one, and it is fun to put their stories together as the novel goes along.
There are references to the Covid pandemic and the dilemmas faced by people like Lucy, an aged care worker, who must try to deal with an emotionally and physically draining experience while also worrying about her kids. It’s a very real scenario that brings home the additional challenges the pandemic introduced to already complicated lives.
The author captures the small town atmosphere beautifully: all the strengths of rural communities, along with the downsides that can accompany living in a place where everyone knows everybody else (and their business).
I found it soothing to be lost in the minutia of others’ lives, and the novel’s resolution was satisfying, even though some aspects felt a bit too tidy.
Birds of a Feather will be an enjoyable read for people who like to read character-based contemporary fiction about real-life struggles and challenges and the ways in which they can be overcome.
Birds of a Feather is published by HQ Fiction, an imprint of Harlequin Enterprises, in December 2021.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
‘Australia Remembers: Len Waters, Boundless and Born to Fly’ by Catherine Baver
Len Waters was born behind the gates of an Aboriginal reserve, but his big imagination and even bigger dreams took him soaring beyond the reach of those who tried to confine him.Len Waters: Boundless and Born to Fly
Len Waters was a Kamilaroi man who became a trailblazer: probably only the second man of Aboriginal descent to be accepted into RAAF pilot training in the 1940’s, receiving his pilot’s wings in 1944 and graduating in the top four of his class – at just 19 years old.
Len went on to serve in the RAAF in the southwestern Pacific, flying bombing missions in his Kittyhawk aircraft Black Magic. Promoted to the rank of Flight Sergeant, he continued service in the Pacific until the war ended, when he’d been promoted to warrant officer.
Despite his bravery and skillful service, Len (and other First Nations servicemen and women) discovered that their service didn’t seem to matter once they returned to civilian life, and they faced the daily discrimination and disadvantage meted out to Aboriginal people in Australia.
This lovely book weaves Len’s childhood and early life experiences, the teachings of his parents and cultural knowledge, with his hard work, dreams and dedication, to create a picture of a truly remarkable Australian.
It is aimed at primary aged children and includes many illustrations and side boxes that pose questions for readers to consider as they learn more about Len and the Australia he grew up in and returned to.
It includes accessibly presented information on many key aspects of Australian First Nations culture and history: language, kinship, totems and respect for culture and knowledge holders, the British Empire and its consequences for First Nations people across the world, missions and reserves, Stolen Generations, Aboriginal servicemen in WWI, their experiences after that war and the Second World War.
I purchased the book for my 8-year old grandson who is interested in aircraft from this period, and also in stories about Indigenous Australians. I think it will well and truly tick both boxes.
Australia Remembers: Len Waters, Boundless and Born to Fly is published by Big Sky Publishing in 2021.
Fires, climate change, and activism : ‘Burnt Out’ by Victoria Brookman
From the setting and the themes of this novel, I was not surprised to read in Victoria Brookman’s bio that she ‘is an author, activist and academic. She lives with her family in the Blue Mountains, on Darug and Gundungurra country.’
Burnt Out is not the first and certainly won’t be the last novel that deals with Australia’s catastrophic Black Summer fires of 2019-2020, when huge swathes of forest (and townships) were destroyed by out of control bushfires after years of crippling drought. It was, in many ways, a turning point for ‘mainstream Australia’ – evidence that climate change was indeed increasing the severity (and frequency) of fires and extreme ‘weather events’.
As a fellow resident of the Blue Mountains, the opening scenes of Burnt Out conjured visceral and unpleasant memories of the fear, smoke and danger of that time. Cali, a writer whose life is already crumbling around her, shelters at the home of her neighbour, Spike, while fire consumes her house, her car, her work, and her cat.
Cali vents her rage at government and corporate inaction on climate change while in front of a TV camera and journalist. Her emotional and angry outburst goes viral and her words become the hashtag of the moment: #Fu**ingDoSomething.
She is homeless, cat-less, car-less, and her publisher is demanding that she produce the manuscript she is supposed to have been writing over the previous three years, an intended follow up for her first, best-selling novel. But Cali has nothing to give them – not, as she tells her agent, because it went in the fire, but because for three years her writing has dried up. On top of it all, her husband leaves her.
Then a rich business tycoon, handsome Arlo Richardson, steps in, offering her free accommodation in his beautiful Point Piper home, space and time to ‘re-write’ her non-existent novel. Cali, bewildered, crushed, and fearing the end of her writing career, accepts. Arlo offers her the chance of a lifetime: to be the public face of a new charitable foundation which will fund action on climate change.
What follows is a twisty tale in which do-nothing politicians, the divide between Australia’s uber-rich and the rest, greenwashing, social media, the news cycle, the publishing industry, celebrity influencers, are all examined and thoroughly skewered.
I didn’t find Cali an endearing character: I tend to get rather frustrated in a novel where the protagonist is perpetuating their own train wreck of a life, and her helplessness and inability to make her own decisions were maddening. This fortunately changes towards the end of the novel and I was able to cheer Cali on when she finally gets her mojo back.
To be fair, though, Cali’s inability to get her bearings is probably a very real manifestation of trauma: the transformation of familiar landscapes, an inability to get a grip on a new reality.
As they turned down Gumnut Close, she began to doubt her own abilities. Had she directed him to take the wrong street? Everything looked wrong. There was no blue weatherboard cottage here. No bush, no wall of overgrown lilly pillies. Frantic, she looked out her window, desperate to get her bearings.Burnt Out p132
Being a Blue Mountains gal, what I also enjoyed about this book were the frequent references to familiar places (and occasionally people). While fictionalised, there were enough details to spark a pleasant feeling of recognition and a smile.
Burnt Out is published by HarperCollins Publishers in January 2022.
My thanks to the publishers for an advanced reading copy to review.
Magnificent (and flawed) men (and women) in their flying machines
In the early morning of 16 October 1930, Oscar Garden set out from Croydon Aerodrome in South London in a second-hand, open-cockpit Gipsy Moth. On his feet he wore carpet slippers, and he had half a dozen sandwiches on his lap. His plan was to fly to Australia. He was 27 years old and had just learnt to fly, with a mere 39 flying hours under his belt.Sundowner of the Skies p11
This astonishing opening of Mary Garden’s biography and family memoir gives plenty of hints as to the story to come. The unlikely and dramatic adventure undertaken by her father when a young man, remains one of the great feats of early aviation, and Oscar Garden was also unusual in that he was one of the few early aviators who lived into old age.
Equally astonishing is the admission that he was more or less forgotten in the history of aviation, until quite recently, when his daughter Mary Garden wrote articles and then, this book about her father’s career and their troubled, unsettled family life.
The book, short-listed for the 2020 NSW Premier’s History Awards, gives readers insights into the romance and danger of those early years in aviation. We are now so accustomed to the criss-crossing of the skies by international and domestic airlines (at least until the Covid pandemic hit) that we can forget what a risky and uncomfortable business powered flight was in its early years. The exploits of those young aviators who broke records, took passengers up on joyflights, and piloted planes for the first commercial airlines, raised the public’s interest in flying and spurred the industry along.
Oscar Garden was one such, along with more famous names such as Charles Kingsford Smith, Amy Johnson, Bert Hinkler and Charles Lindbergh. There is now a portrait of Oscar in New Zealand’s Tauranga Airport, which was installed there in 2019. Before that, few would have known of Oscar Garden or his achievement.
According to his daughter, this was partly because, after a stint as a pilot for the forerunner of Air New Zealand, Oscar retired from the aviation industry and never flew a plane again, preferring to grow tomatoes in his adopted country, New Zealand.
There is much of interest in this book: the descriptions of the amazing exploits of early aviators (including a delightful reference to one woman who completed a long-haul solo flight in a skirt and pearls); the forced landings in dangerous circumstances; the fact that Oscar told no-one of his flight plan because he didn’t want to be talked out of it, and completed the whole thing on a shoe-string budget; the fact that early flights were navigated by a simple compass and what was known as ‘dead reckoning’. Amazing stuff.
For me, though, the most engrossing aspect of the story is the family history behind it. Oscar came from a wealthy Scottish merchant family, but family disputes and factions resulted in a troubled, restless, loner of a man who ended up suffering from mental ill-health and was unable to find any happiness in life. Mary’s recollections of her father and his relationships with others left her wondering ‘Who is this Oscar Garden?’ as she learnt more about his younger years.
It’s a poignant story of an emotionally frozen parent and a young adult trying to emerge from beneath his influence. The two Oscars – the adventurous youngster and the depressive older man and father – are woven together throughout the book, allowing the reader to experience some of the author’s confusion and ambiguity about the man who happened to be her father.
Sundowner of the Skies was published by New Holland Publishers in 2019.
My thanks to the author for a 2021 edition to read and review.
A Jackie French lovely: ‘Christmas Always Comes’
In her historical fiction books for kids, Australian author Jackie French creates enthralling tales that subtly weave important themes of our history into the narrative – history at its best, all about people and their stories. Christmas Always Comes is no exception.
In this picture book, beautifully illustrated by the talented Bruce Whatley, we meet Joey, Ellie and their parents, droving cattle in drought-and-Depression time, on the ‘Long Paddock’. This was the name given to the stock routes where farmers sent their cattle to graze during times of sparse feed for their animals.
It’s Christmas Eve and the family have nothing except their milking cow, Blossom, some clothes, a billy and their horse and dray. They are travelling the dusty roads between fast-drying waterholes in search of food and water for the cattle. The hard times brought about by the combination of the Great Depression of the 1930’s and drought, is referenced in a way that children will understand: Joey wonders if there will be Christmas tree and presents this year?
His parents are worried and Ellie doesn’t expect that Christmas will happen for them. Joey has faith in the magic of Christmas, though:
It was dark when they finished watering all the cattle.Christmas Always Comes
The stars shone like Christmas candles.
‘Christmas pudding tomorrow!’ said Joey,
eating his cold meat and damper. ‘And presents!’
‘Shhh! Don’t let Mum or Dad hear,’ whispered Ellie.
‘There’s no shops or money to buy presents or
sultanas for a pudding.’
‘Silly. There are always presents at Christmas!’ said Joey.
He had already hung up his and Ellie’s stockings for Santa to fill.
Joey’s belief is not misplaced, thanks to a chance meeting with a local farmer, an apricot tree and the kindness of strangers.
The story also serves as a gentle hint that sometimes, kids can be happy with the smallest of gifts and the most rudimentary of Christmas trees.
Christmas Always Comes is an ode to the magic of Christmas, the value of families, and the way Australians have weathered hard times.
It is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in October 2021, making it a perfect Christmas gift for the little ones in your life.
My thanks to the publishers for a copy to review.
Tenacious women: ‘Elizabeth and Elizabeth’ by Sue Williams
Sue Williams takes the real-life women of her title, Elizabeth Macarthur and Elizabeth Macquarie, and places them in the centre of this novel about the early colonial years of Sydney and Parramatta. Told through the point of view of each woman, we meet the various characters that stride larger than life through Australian history books: ex-Governor William Bligh, Governor Lachlan Macquarie, Reverend Samuel Marsden, John Macarthur, and many other names that are familiar to us today as place names: Nepean, Evan, Bathurst, Hunter, Huskisson, for example.
At first reading, this novel has a very different take on these women than some other works. Kate Grenville’s A Room of Leaves, for example, portrays the relationship between Elizabeth Macarthur and her husband John in a very unflattering way, with Elizabeth as the publicly supportive but privately despairing woman tied to the erratic and self-serving John.
Reading Elizabeth and Elizabeth further, I could see that whatever Elizabeth’s true feelings about her husband, her circumstances did not allow her to do anything but be a supportive wife. Through the lens of modern understanding of mental ill-health, we might have some sympathy for John, subject to what would now likely be described as bipolar disorder or other serious mental illness.
That does not excuse his corrupt behaviour. Nor does it excuse the many petty personal jealousies and grievances of those in authority in the fledgling colony, and the way personal ambitions undermined the just and efficient administration of affairs in NSW. Sue Williams gives a graphic portrayal of how these factors played out.
We might also have sympathy for Elizabeth Macquarie, a new bride accompanying her husband to his post as Governor of a far flung colonial outpost of Britain. Nothing is as she expects. She and her husband face political opposition from those who see the colony as a way to make money or to rise up the ladder of their ambition. They also have to contend with apathy from the British Government, and their own personal misfortunes and ill-health.
In the end, Elizabeth and Elizabeth is a story about the tenacity of two women who never give up on what they see as the right thing to do, and put all their considerable skills to use in support of their husband, the family, and what they regard as the colony’s best interests. It’s a very readable novel and will be enjoyed by anyone interested in colonial Australian history.
Elizabeth and Elizabeth was published by Allen & Unwin in January 2021.
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.
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.