• Books and reading,  History

    New historical fiction from Jackie French: ‘The Angel of Waterloo’

    The first thing I noticed about The Angel of Waterloo is the cover image – one of the most haunting book covers I’ve seen for a while, designed by Mark Campbell using artwork by Mary Jane Ansell. You can see more of her beautiful work here.

    The novel opens on the carnage and chaos of the battlefield at Waterloo, arguably the most famous of all the battles of the Napoleonic Wars. The protagonist, Henrietta (or ‘Hen’) is just fifteen and, along with her army surgeon father, desperately trying to save as many injured soldiers as she can.

    Already more accomplished in medical matters than many physicians (who in this era were all male), Hen manages to save the arm and the life of a young lieutenant, Max Bartlett. When he regains consciousness he makes a rash proposal of marriage to his saviour and Hen accepts. They are married by a local priest, right there on the battlefield, witnessed only by Hen’s father and Max’s friend.

    I’m still uncertain if this battlefield marriage worked for me, though I do understand that in war, normal behavioural norms and expectations are often jettisoned. The device also works to move the plot to Australia, when Hen embarks on a hopeful voyage several years later. In the colony, she finds that the stakes for her happiness, safety and fulfilment are even higher than before.

    I’d describe this novel as a saga: so much happens and it’s an emotional roller coaster as we follow the fluctuating fortunes of the various characters.

    As always, Jackie French’s historical detail is impeccable and layered through the narrative seamlessly, so readers can learn a great deal while being immersed in the story. We become aware, for example, of how the colony’s politics and economics affected all who lived there: the indigenous people who were quickly dispossessed of their lands, the poor, the convicts and the free settlers who followed in their wake. The violence and injustice imported along with the settlers are clear to see.

    As Sergeant Drivers says to Hen:

    ‘Miss Hen, ain’t you realised yet that this is a land of felons? We walk around with no chains because the wild about us is prison-walls enough, but none of us is innocent, no matter what we claim. Nor was we caught the first time we broke the law, neither. Most of us are damned good at it.’

    The Angel of Waterloo p 212

    So, the realities of colonial life are laid bare as Hen immerses herself in this new world and faces difficult decisions about her future there.

    At the novel’s heart is the theme of warfare, violence and colonisation:

    ‘You were simply swallowed up by Waterloo.’
    She saw by his expression Max did not understand. ‘I mean the whole mindset that led to it, those long years of war with France. The colony is built on a world that sees nothing odd in killing thirty thousand soldiers in a day, leaving ten thousand orphan children starving and countless eyeless beggars craving for a crust. It’s the right of any gentleman to take whatever he can win.’

    The Angel of Waterloo p327

    This novel also made me think about how authors of today portray historical events and people in fiction. There is a tension between wanting to give as accurate a picture as possible, while also allowing at least some characters to express views on matters such as race-relations, for example, that would be more in line with modern-day values.

    I wonder how many non-indigenous people in nineteenth century NSW would have been sympathetic to the First Australians and why their views and experiences were not recorded prominently in their own time. The work of historians such as Paul Irish and Grace Karskens does help to show that not all settlers were blind to the humanity of the indigenous people they encountered. But I think that they were likely in a minority. Jackie French shows how racist attitudes had their roots in the long standing divisions and violence of British society.

    The Angel of Waterloo has plenty of unexpected moments that kept me eager to read on. I warmed to Hen and truly wished her happiness in her adopted country. Lovers of Jackie French’s historical novels will find this an engrossing read.

    The Angel of Waterloo is published by Harper Collins Publishers on 2 December 2020.
    My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

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    #AWW2020

  • Books and reading

    ‘Top End Girl’ by Miranda Tapsell

    I adored The Sapphires from the moment I saw the stage play and fell in love with it again when the movie came out. The four women in the film’s lead roles – Jessica Mauboy, Deborah Mailmain, Shari Sebbens and Miranda Tapsell – brought the amazing story to life and added so much to the joyous nature of the experience. Ditto with Miranda Tapsell’s film, Top End Wedding, which she co-wrote and starred in. Both were productions with a lot of heart and soul, with serious things to say, that nevertheless left me with a big smile and a full heart.

    Reading Top End Girl was a similar experience. It’s Miranda Tapsell’s memoir taking in her childhood in Darwin and Arnhem land, her time at NIDA learning about the industry she had set her heart on, her early career (including the making of The Sapphires), and then conceiving, developing, writing and filming Top End Wedding. Oh, and her real-life romance and wedding in between all of that.

    Miranda’s chatty style makes for an engaging read, though this does not mean she pulls back from addressing issues of importance, including a tough call-out of racist stereotypes in media and popular culture, and the limited opportunities from people of colour and other minorities in film and television – both of which she is endeavouring to do something about in her own career.

    What I’m asking is to celebrate modern Aboriginal culture, to subvert the stereotypes that have been pitted against Aboriginal people – that we don’t believe in hard work, that we’re negligent with our children, that we’re all criminals or that we all have alcohol problems. To instead show the complexity and commonplace that we all share while also acknowledging the uniqueness of our story.

    Top End Girl p82

    Miranda’s account of what she calls her ‘charmed life’ does not bely her own hard work, risk-taking and commitment to seizing opportunities when they appeared, learning to believe in herself and sticking to her principles. Nor does she gloss over the challenges still facing First Nations people in Australia and around the world today. She uses her art, creativity and drive to make a difference in these areas.

    There are plenty of talented Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists who have blazed the trail for passionate and ambitious people like me, and we shouldn’t all have to agree to tell the same story to be made to feel appreciated. Our lived experiences are just as vast and nuanced as the non-Indigenous people who have squatted here. I want my community to have a say in what I’m making because I’m reflecting them.

    Top End Girl p291

    She describes how this worked for her in the making of her film: the consulting, yarning, including and respecting Traditional Owners at every step of the process, from script development, decisions about locations and cast, ensuring the team organised appropriate Welcomes to Country during the production. I enjoyed learning about how this respect and inclusiveness could be woven into a fast-paced production journey.

    Top End Girl is a heartfelt story from a talented young woman in Australian cultural life. I loved reading about Miranda’s views and experiences and look forward to seeing what new projects her creative self will develop.

    Top End Girl was published by Hachette in April 2020.

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

    For budding speculative /sci-fi fans: ‘Future Friend’ by David Baddiel

    Future Friend, a chapter book for middle grade readers, will be a sure-fire spark to ignite interest in stories that, like the best sci-fi and speculative fiction, asks readers to consider ‘What if…?’

    Pip is a girl from the year 3020, who accidentally enters a time-travel portal and lands in the home of Rahul, a thousand and one years earlier, in the year 2019.

    Once over their shock, the two marvel at the amazing differences between their world, while trying to figure out how to get Pip back to her own time. Pip’s future world certainly has some very cool technology – sentient robots, gravity defying boots, MindLink, animals and birds that can talk. (If you grew up in the 1960’s or thereabouts, you might remember the mix of amazement and envy at the futuristic world of the early Star Trek series or even cartoons like The Jetsons.

    But the world of 3020 has its definite downsides and Pip wishes that she could be like Rahul and play outside, go to school with other children, and eat real (not lab-created) food. These are all impossible for her because of Earth’s extreme temperatures, rampant viruses and frequent floods.

    There is a gentle, and timely, dig at conspiracy theorists and people who refuse to listen to science and instead choose to believe whatever disinformation they are fed by others.

    Future Friend deals with some big themes, with an emphasis on friendship, humour and working together to take care of the future planet. It’s a perfect way for youngsters to embark on some enjoyable and accessible sci-fi reading.

    Future Friend is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books on 18 November 2020.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  Life: bits and pieces

    A beautiful book for the dark times: ‘Phosphorescence’ by Julia Baird

    …how do we endure when suffering becomes unbearable and our obstacles seem monstrous? How do we continue to glow when the lights turn out?…We must love. And we must look outwards and upwards at all times, caring for others, seeking wonder and stalking awe, every day, to find the magic that will sustain us and fuel the light within – our own phosphorescence.

    Phosphorescence p281

    This lovely book was a recent birthday gift from a dear friend (thank you Jennie!) and so timely after a year of tragedy and hardship at both the international and local levels. So many people I know have had a difficult year- economic worries, personal health challenges, suffering and death of loved ones, separation from people and places that they care about.

    So reading Julia Baird’s book was like applying a balm to raw damaged skin: soothing, calming, but also an invitation to think deeply about life and what really matters. In it, she talks a little about her own personal trials, especially her very serious health challenges, but the book is about much more than one person or one set of difficulties.

    It’s a broad ranging exploration of what gives joy, wonder, passion, hope, purpose; especially what keeps people going during the hard times. She includes themes such as the power of nature, connection and community, working to a purpose larger than ourselves, the role of beauty and silence, paying attention.

    Each theme is illustrated by examples from the author’s own life but also the lives of others from past and present times. I particularly enjoyed reading about her activism and that of others on issues like feminism, climate change, indigenous, Black or LGBTQI rights, and the environment. Comments on the need to maintain effort over the long term resonated for me, as someone who has at times despaired at the slow rate of change and the feeling that achieving social justice goals is a matter of ‘one step forward, several leaps back.’ As Baird says:

    You don’t walk away until the work is done.

    Phosphorescence p 101

    Most moving to me, however, were the two chapters she addresses to her daughter (Letter to a young woman) and son (Thoughts for my son: the art of savouring.) Such beautiful, wry, humorous and hopeful reflections from a mother to her children.

    Phosphorescence is a book to be savoured, enjoyed, mulled over and returned to again and again.

    It was published by Fourth Estate, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, in March 2020.

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    #AWW2020

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

    Flight of nonsensical fancy: ‘Code Name Bananas’ by David Walliams

    David Walliams, best-selling UK based children’s author, has written another action packed story for readers seven years and older. Full of nonsensical moments and humour, Code Name Bananas takes place during World War II, at the height of The Blitz.

    Eric is an 11 year old orphan who is teased by other kids at school because of his sticky-out ears and glasses. Eric’s favourite place in the world is the London Zoo, where his Great Uncle Sid works, and Eric’s favourite animal there is Gertrude the gorilla. Gertrude and Eric share a special connection, so when he learns that Gertrude is no longer safe at the zoo, Eric and Uncle Sid hatch a wild plan to rescue her.

    The adventure leads them to uncover a Nazi plot and they must do everything they can to escape the clutches of elderly spies, twin sisters Helene and Bertha Braun, and raise the alarm. In between, they float over the River Thames under a barrage balloon, evade capture by London police, survive a Luftwaffe bombing attack, disguise Gertrude as a bride, and are imprisoned in a German U-boat.

    The main characters are endearing; I especially liked that Eric is a kind boy, and his Uncle Sid equally so – his tiny house stuffed with injured animals he has ‘adopted’ from the Zoo is testament to that.

    Amongst all the mayhem, younger readers will be gently introduced to some of the features of the war that impacted the most on Britain – the bombing raids, loss and destruction that could strike at any time, the uncertainty of life during wartime. Of course, Code Name Bananas is first and foremost an action packed and fun read and youngsters will be sure to welcome it.

    Code Name Bananas was published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in November 2020.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Well seasoned historical fiction: ‘The Wreck’ by Meg Keneally

    With The Wreck, Meg Keneally has written another novel bristling with vividly drawn characters and adventure, with a good dollop of the kind of real-life historical stories that make her work so compelling. If you have read Fled, which was a fictionalised version of the incredible true story of the convict Mary Bryant, you’ll know how well this can work in the skilled hands of an assured writer.

    In The Wreck, we meet Sarah, traumatised by the murder of her parents in what was meant to be a peaceful demonstration by some of England’s working poor (loosely based on the real Peterloo massacre) and the treatment of her brother in its aftermath. Sarah joins a group which plans the violent overthrow of the British government.

    Betrayed and frightened for her life, she escapes aboard a sailing ship headed to NSW. The convicts and crew on board are drowned in a terrible shipwreck just off Sydney Harbour. Sarah is the sole survivor: alone and penniless in a strange land, though still burning for justice for her family and for other oppressed and mistreated people.

    So begins her life in the colony, where she tries to create a new identity and a new beginning. But Sarah finds that inequity, poverty and brutality have been brought to NSW along with the convicts and soldiers and that she must choose her friends and allies carefully, as she is still a wanted woman. She struggles to reconcile her desire to work towards a better world and her fear of British justice – or injustice.

    She, too, was part of a faceless mass, toiling down in the basements of grand houses or begging on the streets. Yes, those on the upper levels knew people like her existed, but they didn’t have to see or speak to her, they could conveniently ignore her humanity, as they were doing with the original inhabitants of this place.

    The Wreck, p195

    The novel is peopled with some wonderful characters: Sarah herself, and others such as Nell and her baby Amelia, who Sarah befriends. Mrs Thistle, who Sarah and Nell go to work for, is loosely based on the real life character of Mary Reibey, a remarkable woman who went from being a convict to an astute businesswoman and one of the wealthiest people in the early colony.

    Sarah herself develops from the frightened and bewildered young woman who washed up from a shipwreck on the shores of the colony, to someone who has learnt that there is more than one way to change her part of the world.

    The Wreck will appeal to readers who enjoy their historical fiction well seasoned with convincing detail and believable characters, and themes that are as relevant today as to the period in which the novel is set.

    The Wreck was published by Echo Publishing in 2020.

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    #AWW2020

  • Books and reading,  History

    Familiar places through the lens of the past: ‘The Cartographer’s Secret’ by Tea Cooper

    Readers of Tea Cooper’s fiction will know that she likes to write dual timeline stories set in Australia’s past. The Cartographer’s Secret is no exception.

    The protagonists are two young women: Evie in 1880, and her niece Lettie in 1911. The story connects the two: Lettie drives from Sydney to visit her Great Aunt Olivia on the family property in the Hunter Valley, to inform her that Lettie’s brother (and the heir to the property) has died. She soon gets caught up in the secrets and puzzles held within her family’s history, particularly the mysterious disappearance of her Aunt Evie, thirty years earlier.

    Evie had shared her father’s fascination with maps and exploration, and become similarly obsessed by the famous explorer Ludwig Leichhardt who had disappeared without trace in 1848. She sets out to track down evidence that she believes will prove her theory of what happened to Leichhardt and his party, but she is never seen again, leaving her Aunt Olivia heartbroken.

    Poring over the map of the Hunter region that Evie left behind, Lettie begins to put the pieces of the puzzle together. She wants to solve the mystery of Evie to give Olivia, and the whole family, some peace (or closure, as we would call it today.) But things don’t go smoothly and Lettie uncovers more than she’d expected.

    Tea Cooper’s heroines are likeable and relateable: young women with gumption and interests unusual for women at the time (Evie with her maps, Lettie with her Model T motor car.)

    I found some of the details of the plot a little complicated and often needed to refer to the copy of Evie’s hand drawn map. While there is no happy conclusion for all the characters, there is a satisfying and believable resolution.

    For me the strength of Tea Cooper’s novels lie in the central role played by their settings. She takes me on a journey through time of and in doing so, shows me an earlier version of often familiar places, through the lens of history. I believe this is what historical fiction can do best: immerse readers in another time so that we can see the present in a different way.

    I also enjoy how aspects of the everyday inform that picture of the past. In The Cartographer’s Secret, this includes the beginning of rail and motor travel, the genesis of the famous Bulletin magazine, rural economies, the exploits of early European explorers, and the lives of women in both city and country.

    The Cartographer’s Secret is a satisfying addition to Tea Cooper’s historical fiction and fans of her novels won’t be disappointed.

    It is published by HarperCollins Publishers on 29 October 2020.
    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to read and review.

    #AWW2020
    #AussieAuthor20

  • Books and reading

    Pocket sized book with a timely message: ‘Anti Racist Ally: An introduction to action & activism’ by Sophie Williams

    This is literally a pocket sized book. Don’t let its diminutive size fool you, though. At a time when painful truths about racism in the past and the present are being confronted world-wide, Anti Racist Ally gives some sound advice for anyone who wants to be able to do more than watch #BlackLivesMatter protests on TV news or bemoan the shocking rates of Black deaths in custody.

    Sophie Williams also explains some current terminology in the discussion of race relations and racism: intersectionality, institutional and structural racism, the race pay gap, emotional labour, racial gaslighting and others.

    And it deals with some common myths: racism is over, it’s not the right time to act, we shouldn’t talk about racism with children, I can’t be racist because my best friend / girlfriend / boss is Black, to name a few.

    Each idea is discussed in short, pithy segments, ideal for absorbing quickly so that we can apply them in our own lives.

    If the human world is to stamp out the cancer of racism, it is up to all of us to speak up, to have difficult conversations when required, to recognise racism in all its forms (both overt and subtle), to support individuals and organisations who fight racism. In other words, to be an ally. It’s not necessary to be an ‘activist’, just to act when we see or hear racism around us.

    Anti Racist Ally is a little book big on information, suggestions and inspiration for everyone to help build a better world.

    Anti Racist Ally is published by Harper Collins Publishers in October 2020.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    Recovery & resilience: ‘The Fire Wombat’ by Jackie French

    The wonderful Jackie French is back with another picture book, this one illustrated by Danny Snell.

    The Fire Wombat takes the trauma and devastation of the 2019/2020 summer bushfires across eastern Australia and crafts a gentle fable about how even the smallest of beings can survive with the support of others.

    Jackie lives in the Araluen Valley near Braidwood in southeastern NSW, an area that experienced those appalling fires during that summer. She is passionate and vocal about the wildlife that shares her land, and has published many books about these animals, including her well loved Wombat series.

    In The Fire Wombat, the terrifying fires drive many animals from their homes, some to shelter in a wombat burrow deep in the earth. When the fires have passed, they face starvation and thirst. That is, until human intervention delivers life saving food and water to the devastated fire grounds. And gradually, the land begins to heal:

    Others flourished, though trees drooped:
    Goannas feasted, eagles swooped.
    Grass trees blossomed, feeding bees.
    Native mice carried seeds.
    Kookaburras, currawongs…
    Slowly, the bush regained its songs.

    The Fire Wombat

    The little wombat at the heart of the story survives.

    The author’s note at the end of the book urges people to donate to a wildlife charity if they wish to help after disasters, or get training in how to care for wild animals.

    This lovely picture book is perfect in the way it encompasses its environmental theme and deals with a very dark and traumatic experience for so many Australian children, while also offering hope for the future.

    The Fire Wombat is published by Angus & Robertson, an imprint of HarperCollins Children’s Books, on 29 October 2020.

    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

    #AussieAuthor20
    #AWW2020

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    A celebration of difference: ‘The Odds’ by Matt Stanton

    Meet the Odds…because fitting in is overrated.

    The Odds by Matt Stanton

    Kip lives in a noisy city with her dad, who makes graphic novels. She’s quiet and has a hard time fitting in at school, where other kids often laugh at her difference.

    One day ten characters, all decidedly odd beings, appear in her bedroom. It takes Kip a while to recognise them from the world of dreams, imagination and stories that she sometimes prefers to real life.

    That’s the start of a mad-cap adventure as Pip and her dad try to figure out how to get the uncooperative Odds back to their own worlds of comic strip, picture book, TV show, video game and dream.

    In the process, Kip learns that it’s easier to tackle hard things with someone you love, and that it’s possible to accept ourselves – and others – for who we are.

    Dad: Hard things are just hard, Kippo. You can’t escape them, but you know what does help?
    Kip: What?
    Dad: You. Even the hardest things are made easier if you have someone to share them with.

    The Odds p104

    The Odds delivers its message with a light touch and lots of humour, deftly pointing out the oddities in everyone:

    Kip: But after all, isn’t odd just another word for special? I’m odd. We’re all odd. And that’s… normal.

    The Odds p139

    It’s a perfect little book for early readers who like stories that make them laugh and invite them to think a bit, too.

    The Odds is published by Harper Collins Children’s Books on 29 October 2020.

    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

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