• Books and reading,  History

    Billie Walker Book #2: ‘The Ghosts of Paris’ by Tara Moss

    I very much enjoyed Tara Moss’ first historical crime novel Dead Man Switch, now published as The War Widow. In book two, it’s 1947 and Sydney-based private inquiry agent Billie Walker sets off for London and Paris, to investigate the disappearance of a client’s husband.

    The Billie Walker novels flip the script of familiar 1940’s noir stories. For a start, Billie is a refreshingly forthright, courageous and skillful investigator who navigates her way adroitly through the sexism inherent in the era. She is also a woman of decidedly modern and progressive views, and readers become aware of the troubling laws and practices of the time, around race, the role of women, divorce and homosexuality.

    In Europe, Billie is confronted with stark reminders of the effects of the devastating war that ended just two years earlier. She is also reminded of her short but passionate relationship with Jack, whom she married while both were on assignment as journalists covering the war, and Jack’s mysterious disappearance. While searching for her client’s husband, Billie also searches for clues about her own.

    What began as a trip to solve her client’s mystery becomes a much more complex – and deadly – affair, during which Sam, her reliable and loyal assistant, proves his worth more than once.

    I especially enjoyed the vivid historical details in the settings of post-war Sydney, London and Paris, and the glimpses of each city’s wartime experience and (slow) recovery. It’s also sobering to realise that, unlike today, the world did not yet know the full extent of Nazi atrocities throughout Europe, and the novel shows us how this information was revealed, for example, during the Nazi war crimes trials.

    There are a few of Billie’s expressions that I found jarring, but overall I enjoyed the characters of Billie, Sam and Shyla in particular.

    I hope there’ll be a third Billie Walker story before too long.

    The Ghosts of Paris is published by HarperCollins Publishers in June 2022.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Duty and trauma: ‘The Nurses’ War’ by Victoria Purman

    Acclaimed Australian author Victoria Purman’s new historical fiction novel is a fat book, just the thing for reading by the fireside during a prolonged wet spell – which is how I enjoyed it. It’s an easy read – though not a light one – as it deals with real historical events that proved distressing, often tragic, for those who lived through them.

    The setting is the real-life ‘Harefield House’, a grand mansion owned by wealthy expatriate Australians in the little village of Harefield, in Middlesex, England. In 1915 it was converted into a hospital for Australian troops recuperating from injurie inflicted at some of the many battlefields in Europe – especially at Gallipoli, France and Belgium.

    The hospital was staffed by Australian doctors and nurses and it must have been wonderful for the ill and injured Diggers to hear the familiar accents from home as they were cared for.

    If you, like me, are interested in the history behind the novel, the author has a piece on HarperCollins’ website with more detail, along with lovely photographs of the place, the nurses and some of the soldiers who went to Harefield. You can find it here.

    The story concerns four nurses, among those who sailed from Australian homes to help establish the hospital and stayed to care for the injured. There is also a local woman, Jessie, who volunteers to help care for the patients. We witness their anxiety as they await the first influx of soldiers, followed by their increasing horror as the hospital, established to cater for up to one hundred and fifty men, is flooded by thousands, stretching their resources, both physical and human. We are not spared the sights, sounds and smells that engulf the nurses as the brutality of war on human bodies and minds becomes clear.

    Cora had been well-trained, had more than a decade’s experience behind her and had believed she had seen almost everything, but nothing in Adelaide, nor the extra army training she’d undergone, could have prepared her for this sight.

    The Nurse’s War p79

    The novel also touches on other, perhaps unexpected, results of the war: profound change as the fundamentals of society shift, with women stepping into what were previously ‘men’s jobs’, becoming agriculture or postal workers, tram conductors, ambulance drivers; new trends in clothing allowing women more freedoms and comfort; and of course the suffrage movement. The threat of instant death and loss also changed many people’s long-held beliefs and attitudes, about marriage, love, or religion, for example.

    Friendships forged in wartime can be intense and profound, as can romances, but the novel does not pretend that these led to a ‘happy ever after’ ending for everyone. Rather, it illustrates the essentially random nature of an individual’s fate in times of war: an apparent throw of the dice can take a life or crush a person’s future. In such circumstances, is it surprising that people behave differently, re-think future plans or even their faith? World War I left behind a legacy of vast numbers of missing or profoundly wounded young men, multiple generations of grief, and a new social order in many parts of the then British Empire.

    Some aspects of Australian life, however, continue throughout – including racial discrimination, where indigenous men had to have written permission from the Protector of Aborigines to enlist, and yet still faced racism on the battlefield, in hospitals, and also at home at war’s end.

    This is a beautifully researched novel with characters that I quickly came to care about and a storyline that took me from the naivety of young Australians embarking on an adventure at the other side of the world, through the horrors of their war, to a profoundly moving conclusion.

    At the end of The Nurses’ War, the influenza pandemic is sweeping through the world, inflicting a terrible toll on those who’d managed to survive years of war. Again, the random hand of fate is at play. And given the global pandemic of 2020 to the current time (2022) I could not help but compare the experiences of then, with now. I found myself wondering: could modern-day Australians or British cope with prolonged, seemingly never-ending trauma and stress of a convulsive war, followed so closely by a deadly pandemic, in quite the same way as our forebears had to do?

    Coincidentally, this post is published on ANZAC Day, an annual commemoration of Australians who have died or suffered in war time. As I write this, a brutal war is being waged in Europe, as Russian troops attempt to take over the democratic nation of Ukraine. As always, I hope ANZAC Day will allow people to think about the futility and barbarity of war and redouble global efforts to put an end to using violence as a way to deal with disputes.

    The Nurses’ War is published by HarperCollins Australia in March 2022.
    My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books,  History

    Girls can change the world: ‘Ming and Flo Fight for the Future’ by Jackie French

    One of the (many) things I love about Jackie French’s historical fiction is that she effortlessly shines a light on frequently overlooked people and events from history, without veering into tokenistic territory. Her characters represent people who really were there, but who are so often hidden from view in traditional histories and stories. Her new Girls Who Changed the World series for middle grade readers is a good example.

    In Book One, Ming and Flo Fight for the Future, we meet Ming, a twelve year old schoolgirl whose family has Chinese-Vietnamese and European heritage. Ming loves learning about history, but not the way it is taught at her school. She asks a question in class one day: ‘Sir, why don’t we ever learn about girls who changed history?… Where were all the girls at all the important times in the past?’

    Good question, right? Sadly, her teacher and classmates have no answer for her. Ming is exasperated, until Herstory appears, to offer her a chance to return to the past – as an observer. Ming agrees, but in the process she manages to become a person living in the past. She is now Florence, and the year is 1898.

    She is plunged into a drought-stricken farm in the middle of nowhere, grinding poverty, and the sudden death of Flo’s mother, until Aunt McTavish arrives to take Flo to share her well-heeled life in Sydney. Aunt McTavish is a friend of Louisa Lawson, a committed Suffragist, but determinedly ‘British to the core’ – despite her obvious mixed Chinese and Scottish heritage.

    So Ming/Flo experiences some of the challenges for girls and women at a time when girls’ education was considered unimportant, women could not vote, and the White Australia policy loomed. As Herstory had warned her: ‘The past is – uncomfortable.’

    In the process, Ming learns that it is not just the big, obvious actions that can lead to profound social or political change. More often, it is the small, unnoticed actions by committed people who never give up, that set the scene for change. As Herstory tells Ming:

    Men like Henry Parkes get the credit for uniting Australia, but it would never have happened without the speeches, petitions and passion of women. When social forces come to a head, it’s usually been a man who got the credit, not the hundreds, the thousands, the millions of women who made it happen too, like Mrs Lawson.

    Ming and Flo Flight for the Future p256-257

    Book Two of Girls who Changed the World will see Ming in Belgium during WWI. I look forward to reading it! This series will be enjoyed by those who are interested in stories from Australian history told from the viewpoint of those who are usually forgotten.

    Ming and Flo Fight for the Future is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in March 2022.
    My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Hardship, hope and glamour: ‘Dressed by Iris’ by Mary-Anne O’Connor

    If you’ve read a few of my reviews, you will know how much I love – adore – fiction inspired by real people and events, especially when they are people from the author’s own family. This is exactly what Australian novelist Mary-Anne O’Connor has delivered in her latest historical fiction, Dressed by Iris.

    Firstly, the glamour. The cover design is gorgeous; a beautiful young woman dressed in the lush fashions of the 1930’s. It’s lovely, and the story does centre around Iris, a young woman with a dream to design and make beautiful clothes.

    But as in real life, glamour can hide a multitude of sins and less-than-beautiful realities. The novel opens with Iris and her large, Catholic family, living in a tiny shanty house on the outskirts of Newcastle. Times are hard, with the Depression biting deep. The family barely scrape by and to add insult to injury, they experience the ugly prejudice of some better-off townsfolk against ‘Micks.’ Iris is courted by, and in love with, John, a young man from a Protestant family; but fears that the division between their families can never be bridged. It’s very Romeo-and-Juliet.

    Speaking of bridges, the story moves to Sydney, where Iris’s father and brother have found work, helping to build the Sydney Harbour Bridge. That bridge takes on a powerful role as a symbol of hope, modernity and better times ahead.

    Meanwhile, Iris finds work for a well-known Sydney designer of fashionable women’s clothing, and her dream of designing clothes seems a step closer. There are new threats and obstacles to overcome, and the story takes many twists and turns before its resolution.

    The author has given us a vivid picture of Sydney in the 30’s: the glamour of some parts, certainly; but also the rising desperation of the poor and a rising crime rate; entrenched sexism and religious intolerance; evictions of families unable to meet their rent; political turmoil with Fascists, Communists and unionists fighting pitched battles in the suburbs; the drama around the sacking of Jack Lang, the left-leaning Premier of NSW at the time. There are small details of domestic life that help bring the era alive: the careful coin counting and hard choices while shopping for a family’s dinner, just one example of this.

    I found unexpected personal connections with some aspects of the story. The suburb the family settle in is Hurstville – near my mother’s own childhood stamping ground in southwest Sydney. And one of Mum’s vivid memories from her childhood is the day she, her parents and her two younger siblings were evicted from their flat, finding a new home in the then ‘charity estate’ at Hammondville.

    Along with the ups and downs of the story and Iris’ journey from poverty to a career in fashion, Dressed by Iris is a love letter to family and to the lessons we learn from childhood. It’s also a song of praise for the virtues of hope, resilience, counting your blessings and making the best of things.

    I was moved to read in the author’s note that the two ‘leading ladies’ of this story, Iris and her mother Agnes, were modelled closely on the author’s own aunt and grandmother, and so many of the snippets of life included in the novel did, in fact, occur. I confess I shed a tear or two, reading that.

    They endured both tragedy and hardship, these two women, and faced great poverty during their lives, but they did it resiliently, cheerfully, generously and always with love. For me, that makes them two of the richest women that I will ever know.

    Dressed by Iris Author Note, p501

    Dressed by Iris is published by HQ Fiction in February 2022.
    My thank to the publisher for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Colonial women: ‘No Hearts of Gold’ by Jackie French

    Some girls are born to be loved,
    Some are born to be useful,
    And some are born to be bad…

    No Hearts of Gold

    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.

  • Books and reading,  History

    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.

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

    Australian Women Writers’ Challenge 2021: my Aussie reading year

    This year I signed up to read at least 10 books by Australian women writers and review at least 6. On this score at least, I am an over-achiever! As at the beginning of September, I had read (and posted reviews for) 30 books by Aussie women. I think next year I’ll need to aim for the top level of AWW Challenge. It is not hard for me to read plenty of books by the wonderful and talented authors we have here in this country.

    My 2021 reading ranged across multiple genres, from historical fiction (always a favourite, especially Australian history and stories featuring women in WWII, which is a theme that has become very popular in recent years); memoir, history, quite a few children’s books, true crime and crime fiction.

    My standout reads by Aussie women so far for 2021?

    These four spoke to me the loudest (the links are to my reviews):

    People of the River by Grace Karskens (non-fiction, history) This one, by the way, recently won the Australian history prize as part of the NSW Premier’s History Awards.

    The Things We Cannot Say by Kelly Rimmer (historical fiction)

    Ten Thousand Aftershocks by Michelle Tom

    Of the children’s books, Night Ride into Danger by the marvellous Jackie French

    Thank you to the wonderful Australian Women Writers’ Challenge for another year of fabulous reading. If you haven’t checked out the AWW website, be sure to have a look. You will find so many recommendations for new authors and books to discover.

  • 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.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books,  History

    Another historical fiction gem for younger readers: ‘Night Ride into Danger’ by Jackie French

    From Australia’s amazing Jackie French comes another book that tantalises with a gripping story while immersing readers in the sights, sounds, smells and figures from Australia’s past.

    Night Ride into Danger is set in NSW’s Braidwood district in the 1870’s, the days of the iconic Cobb & Co coaches. In the first few paragraphs we are plunged into the world of young Jem and his widowed father, Paw, a skilled coach driver who takes Jem to ride beside him on the 14 hour journey from Braidwood to Goulburn.

    We get a vivid sense of the coachmen’s work, the adventurousness as well as the hardships of his life, the way the coach looked, smelt and felt for the passengers who entrusted their lives to his care on the rutted, icy or flooded roads common at that time.

    The passengers in this story – six of them – all have their reasons for choosing to take the faster but more dangerous night mail coach. Each of them has a different secret and the ways in which the secrets are gradually revealed make up the connecting spine of this story.

    When Jem’s father is injured, Jem must take over as driver – a tall order for a youngster who has never driven a team of four horses at night on such a long journey. How Jem deals with this challenge and interacts with the six other people who travel with him, makes for an engaging tale.

    The book includes many of the figures of Australian colonial legends: gold diggers, bushrangers, farmers, innkeepers and grooms. There are also women (often hidden in the annals of Australian folklore): dancers, cooks, farmers, as well as women travelling to a new country to be married, or giving birth in difficult circumstances. The author doesn’t avoid describing the racism inherent in white attitudes of the time, or the strictures of colonial society against Chinese immigrants, First Nations people, or unmarried mothers.

    The characters are all active and engaging and the reader will cheer Jem on in his quest to arrive safely in time for both the mail and his passengers to meet the Goulburn train for Sydney.

    Night Ride into Danger is guaranteed to be enjoyed by middle grade readers who like a mix of history, adventure and mystery.

    Night Ride into Danger is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in May 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    A heady time: ‘Sisters of Freedom’ by Mary-Anne O’Connor

    Historical fiction and romance author Mary-Anne O’Connor has set her latest novel in the first years of the twentieth century, a heady time in Australia as Federation joined the colonies into one nation, and Australian women – if only white women – looked forward to the campaign for women’s suffrage resulting in success.

    The three Merriweather sisters in the novel have grown up in an enlightened home, with mother Harriet and father Albert supporters of rights for women and for indigenous Australians. Despite their shared convictions, they are otherwise very different: Frankie is passionate about the suffrage campaign and determined to stand for Parliament herself so that she can help make laws that give women more rights and freedoms. Aggie is happily married and longing for a baby, fearful that she and her husband will be unable to conceive a child of their own. She devotes her time to volunteer work at an orphanage, wanting in her own way to make a difference in the world. The youngest is Ivy, who loves beauty and art and hopes for nothing more than marriage to Patrick, a nice home and a family of her own.

    Their lives take a dramatic turn on Ivy’s eighteenth birthday, when an accident on the river sees her rescued by Riley, a young man who makes a living with his supply boat up and down the tiny communities along the Hawkesbury – and some smuggling on the side. While she recovers from her injuries, Ivy sees a very different life in the wild river lands with the people who inhabit its secret coves and reaches. Her time with Riley and his sister Fiona will change her life – and that of her sisters – forever.

    The water was clear at the edges but a murky olive colour further out, mysterious in its flow as it hid whatever creatures lived below the surface. It seemed appropriate that a deeply flowing, concealing river should be the main artery that pumped through this place…It held secrets, this river, and so did the people who lived along it.

    Sisters of Freedom p183

    I grew up in the Hawkesbury Valley – upstream from the locations of this novel – and one of my standout reads of 2020 was Grace Karskens’ fabulous historical work People of the River so I came to this book keen to read about the place and characters its author dreamed into existence. I very much enjoyed the descriptions of places and communities and the political and social milieu of the time; the references to significant people of the Australian suffrage movement (such as Vida Goldstein); and the way in which major national events played out in individual and family lives.

    Ivy’s gradual realisation of the inequities faced by women of all classes, and the particular hardships of the poor, echo those of women in the 1970’s during what has is known as ‘second wave’ feminism. The shocking and absurd ideas about women expressed by some men in the early twentieth century are, sadly, not completely erased from twenty-first century Australia. The struggles of individual women to balance their desire for romance, family, companionship, with their own hopes and goals, is one which never seems to go away. In this way, Sisters of Freedom is a timely novel despite being set more than a hundred years ago.

    There is a strong romance thread throughout, and I thought the resolution a little contrived (almost Shakespearian!) but actually quite fun as well. It’s nice to imagine a ‘happy ever after’ for characters, after all.

    Sisters of Freedom will be enjoyed by readers who like some romance along with strong characters and evocative descriptions of real places, in times past.

    Sisters of Freedom is published by HQ Fiction, an imprint of Harlequin Enterprises, in April 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.