Is Jackie French among Australia’s most productive – perhaps I should say prolific – author? From her busy mind and creative genius pour picture books, fiction and non fiction for older children and adults, and book series to please all ages and tastes. The Vanishing at the Very Small Castle is book two in the Butter O’Bryan Mystery series for middle-grade readers.
Set in the 1930’s during the Depression, the series follows the adventures of Butter who lives with his friends Gil, Olive and Tish, their dog Woofer, and three Aunts with unusual nicknames – Elephant, Cake and Peculiar. The Very Small Castle is just what it’s name suggests – a mini castle built on the shore of Howler’s Beach, and it is complete with battlements and a dungeon as all good castles should be.
A ‘talking movie’ is being filmed on the beach and the children are asked to join the action, when the beautiful star Delilah Divine vanishes without leaving a trace. Has she been been kidnapped? Lost to the sea? Butter is determined to solve the mystery.
Ms French incorporates a great many historical references in these books, from the ‘Susso camp’ nearby (a shanty town of the kind found outside many Australian towns during the Depression) to Australia’s early film industry. The Sydney Harbour Bridge is about to be opened, characters speak using early 20th century Australianisms, and food on the menu ranges from the then very new fad of pavlova, to ‘bread and dripping’.
There’s a wonderful section in the back of the book which explains many of these aspects of Australian history, and includes recipes for traditional treats like Victoria Sponge, Bubble and Squeak and Boiled Fruit Cake. There’s also instructions on how to play games like Knucklebones or Blue Murder (which I knew as ‘Murder in the Dark’ when I was a kid.)
All of the history is embedded naturally in a rollicking tale of a disappearing actress, a circus performer and a monster, and a crime to be solved.
Most of all, the story is about friendship, sharing, and embracing difference:
His family. Not a normal family, maybe. But normal was much less fun…Butter grinned. There were many ways to make a family.The Vanishing at the Very Small Castle p233
The Vanishing at the Very Small Castle and the Butter O’Bryan series will be enjoyed by middle-grade readers who like mystery and history together in a story.
The Vanishing at the Very Small Castle is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in April 2021.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
For me, this new work of fiction by best seller Nikki Gemmell (Shiver, The Bride Stripped Bare, among other titles) is a conundrum. I had been excited to read it as I enjoyed her earlier works and it is set in colonial era New South Wales – my cup of tea. It tells the story of Thomasina, raised by a free spirited father who she is mourning after his death; sent by a manipulative half brother to the colony. His plan is to marry off his vibrant, ‘untameable’ young sister to a vicar, a man she has never met.
Fate intervenes and the ship they are travelling on goes down just off the Australian coast, with Thomasina the only survivor. She is washed up on rocks, rescued by a mysterious Aboriginal man and deposited, with care, at the doorstep of ‘Weatherbrae’, the home of the respectable Craw family.
The family takes her in but there is no sanctuary here for Thomasina.
She befriends Mouse, the young boy who shares her love of nature and passion for life. Mouse’s nervous, dissatisfied mother first sees the strange young castaway as a replacement for the daughter she lost to illness – and a welcome female companion. There is talk of Thomasina becoming governess for Mouse, offering her a home and refuge from an unwanted marriage and constrained life as a respectable wife.
Very quickly, though, she realises that at the heart of the Craw family there is a dark secret. ‘Weatherbrae’ itself becomes a character, almost gothic in its claustrophobia, while the wild country outside its doors beckons to the young woman on the cusp of adulthood, who is confused and troubled by what she sees, hears and suspects. Told over the space of one week, the story becomes a tale of terrible acts committed, a family eaten away by their secrets, willing to do anything to preserve their respectability in the eyes of themselves and their community.
As always, Nikki Gemmell’s writing is beautiful, startling in its originality and lyricism:
‘Isolated by the alone…’ p21
‘I miss my father, corrosively.’ p 9
‘…light slips in through a curtain gap as strong as a cat, enticing us both out.’ p11
I loved the language, losing myself in Ms Gemmell’s beautiful prose.
There were aspects of this novel that threw me out of the story, annoyingly and at times violently. I could not warm to Thomasina; while I admired her determination to remain true to herself and the way she was raised, her naivety and blindness to the risks around her irritated me. She continually acts in ways that can only increase the risk to herself and to others and while by the end of the story she realises her mistakes, it’s too late. Occasional expressions that feel wrong for the historical period also jarred: ‘I guess’ or ‘Hang on’ seem inconsistent with colonial English, even in a colony planted at the far end of the earth.
The dark heart of the story is to do with the troubled relations between First Australians and settlers; it’s no spoiler to say that as it is obvious from the beginning that atrocities of the sort committed during the colonial era will be involved. I respect the author’s choice to write a story about difficult events like these.
‘Let’s just say my little tale is a history of a great colonial house that was burdened by a situation that was never resolved, and I fear all over this land will never be resolved. It is our great wound that needs suturing and it hasn’t been yet and I fear, perhaps, it never will be, for we’re not comfortable, still, with acknowledging it.’The Ripping Tree p339
This quote from the end of the book speaks to the truth of the novel and the author’s purpose. I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiments expressed. For me, the disappointment lies in my inability to care for the protagonist or most of the other characters.
Others may disagree: I would be most interested to know if you have read The Ripping Tree and if so, what you thought.
The Ripping Tree is published by HarperCollins Publishers in April 2021.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
Firstly: don’t let the luscious cover of Jackie French’s latest historical fiction fool you. It may look like a classic historical romance, but there is enough danger, intrigue, secrets and twisty bits to satisfy any lover of thriller novels. No car chase scenes, but I say thank goodness for that!
Secondly, a disclaimer: Legends of the Lost Lilies is book number five (and the final) in the Miss Lily series, which collectively cover the immediate pre-WWI period to the immediate post-WWII period (and a later epilogue). I had previously read only the first, Miss Lily’s Lovely Ladies, and there is a lot that happens in the intervening three episodes – so I was left a little bewildered by some of the story in this latest book. Ms French skilfully weaves in essential bits of backstory and introduces characters well (of course she does, she is an expert storyteller), but I do think it best to come to this one having read at least one or two of the previous titles. I intend to go back and fill in some gaps when I can.
The characters from the first Miss Lily appear in this one, too, though of course much has happened to them all over two world wars and everything in between. I don’t want to say much about the plot of book five, because it would be too easy to give spoilers. One thing I will say about the plot is that, in her Author’s Note, Ms French assures us that every character and incident in the book is based on people and events that really existed, individually or as composites. That was good to read because there are some ‘larger than life’ characters and some moments when I wondered at a plot turn. Shades of Margaret Atwood, who based every event in her groundbreaking novel The Handmaid’s Tale’ on things that had really happened somewhere in the world.
I’d like to comment on the themes of the five Miss Lily books. In her Author’s Note, Jackie French says:
The series shows how women’s views of themselves changed and widened over the twentieth century. It is also about the women men did not see, or rather, did see, but then for a multitude of reasons omitted from history.Legends of the Lost Lilies p.431
The novel also explores the complexities of life, of relationships, the tragedy and pointlessness of war. A strong underlying theme is the nature of love (in all its forms) and loyalty, kindness and forgiveness as tools for peace, and loss as the inevitable other side of love.
A lovely quote towards the end of the book combines many of these themes. Observing the young women of her family in the 1970’s, Sophia reflects on how the women of her generation and earlier generations prepared their path:
They think they invented it all, and that is how it should be, for pride in what they have achieved will take them further.Legends of the Lost Lilies p.428
Yet their grandmothers and great-grandmothers and every generation of women before them were there at every major moment in history, though the books rarely record us.
In amongst the drama, the intelligence activities, the horror of wartime, the losses, pain and grief, this is the shining thread that runs through the Miss Lily narrative: women and their networks, friendships, strengths. The series will be enjoyed by historical fiction fans who love reading about the heroic women of our collective past.
Legends of the Lost Lilies will be published by HarperCollins Australia in April 2021.
My thanks to the publishers for a copy to review.
Did you know that Australia had its own version of the Bletchley Park signals and cipher intelligence unit? No? Neither did I, until I read this new historical fiction by Australian author Alli Sinclair. Set in Queensland during WWII, it tells the story of the women and men who worked in a top secret organisation called Central Bureau.
People were recruited from all walks of life. They needed level heads, problem solving skills, as well as an aptitude for mathematics, patterns, languages, commitment to the war effort and – of course – the ability to keep secrets. They all signed an official secrets act, which meant they could never talk about the work they did. Not to family, friends…anyone.
I’ve often wondered how people who work in these sorts of roles, or in intelligence services more generally, manage to keep their working lives separate from the rest of their personal lives. For most people, work is such a big part of life and to keep it secret… well, I think it would be almost impossible.
What I especially liked about The Codebreakers is that this aspect of their role is not avoided. In fact, the secrecy requirements and the difficulties this posed for women forms a key part of the story.
Added to this is the portrayal of the other factors at play. The women recruited to Central Bureau were young, they lived in barracks and worked together every day, in a garage at the back of a mansion in a Brisbane street (most of the men worked inside the house itself). The women were dubbed ‘The Garage Girls’, and they formed strong bonds as a result of their experiences.
Brisbane during WWII is portrayed brilliantly – the heady atmosphere of wartime; fear of imminent Japanese invasion; grief and heartache at the loss of loved ones killed in action; conflict between Australian and American servicemen; rationing; the quick courtships and impulsive marriages that sometimes happened; living with continual uncertainty and anxiety. It’s easy for us today, knowing what we know now, to forget that at the time, Australians did not know what the outcome would be. Reading this novel I found it easy to imagine how it would have felt, living with the possibility that Japanese soldiers might well arrive on the shores of northern Australia.
The other aspect of the novel that is very convincing is the portrayal of how it felt for Australians, once peace was declared. Of course there was elation, joy, relief. For some, there was also sadness and a sense of let-down. We can understand that for the women in Central Bureau, their employment ceased almost immediately. They were expected to return to hearth and home, making way for the men as they returned from the services. The aftermath of war is not always easy, and they had to exchange the exciting, demanding, important work they had been doing, for more mundane roles at home or in jobs seen as suitable for women.
Shadowed by the mansion at Nyrambla, this little garage had been the centre of her world for two and a half years. Its walls had witnessed the women handling some of the war’s most top-secret messages and ensuring they got into the right hands at Bletchley Park, Arlington Hall and countless outposts around the world. The messages they’d decrypted and encrypted had saved lives and helped the troops come back to their loved ones. All this happened under the roof of a regular-looking garage in suburban Brisbane and no one outside Central Bureau would ever be the wiser.The Codebreakers p324
If you enjoy finding out about lesser known aspects of Australian life during WWII – and particularly the more unusual roles performed by some women – you’ll love The Codebreakers. There is a light touch of romance in the story, though the main themes are to do with friendship, courage and the many ways in which lives are changed by war.
The Codebreakers is published by HarperCollins Australia in March 2021.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
I first encountered the work of Sydney based writer Alexandra Joel when I read her work of narrative non-fiction Rosetta: A Scandalous True Story. This book was a good example of how truth is, indeed, often stranger than fiction. In her new novel, The Royal Correspondent, fiction is blended with real people and events from Australia and England in the early 1960’s.
The author is the daughter of Sir Asher Joel, who was born in the Sydney suburb of Enmore, and went on to a long and esteemed career in journalism and the press. So it is not surprising that much of the action of this novel takes place in the rough and ready (and male dominated) world of daily newspapers.
Blaise Hill is a young woman from ‘the wrong side of the tracks’, as Enmore was regarded in the sixties, but with a passionate desire to be a journalist. She battles the entrenched sexism and outright hostility of the many men she encounters who believe that a woman’s place is at home and certainly not at a typewriter.
Much to her surprise and delight, she is sent to London to cover the wedding of Princess Margaret to photographer Anthony Armstrong-Jones, and then the opportunity to become the newspaper’s permanent royal correspondent lands in her lap.
Of course, it is not all easy sailing for Blaise. She has a secret that she cannot share with anyone. And there are two men in her life: one with secrets of his own, and one who appears to be kind, attentive, and very much in love with her. Eventually, she has to decide who to trust.
Blaise finds, to her horror, that she has somehow become entangled in a dangerous set of circumstances – and that rather than reporting on the stories, she has herself become one.
The novel’s settings (both Sydney and London) are vividly portrayed: the poverty of her childhood, with the scourge of a polio outbreak and the struggle to make ends meet, is contrasted with the glamour and excitement of the ‘swinging sixties’ in London and the pomp and ceremony of Royal events.
Blaise is a relatable character: her deep love for her family and her determination to succeed in her career are set against her uncertainty in the new situations she must confront. I also liked that she has a bit of a temper which occasionally lands her in trouble!
What I enjoyed most about The Royal Correspondent was the seamless way in which real-life characters and events from this time are dropped into the narrative. I had fun spotting the personalities and scandals that filled newspapers and magazines in the decade of my childhood.
It’s also a good reminder, if one were needed, of the barriers that prevented the full participation of women in the workplace and society: unequal pay; the sequestering by men of the important and interesting jobs (leaving most female journalists working on the ‘women’s pages’ of publications); the requirement that women resign from public sector jobs once they married; male-only clubs; a bar against women entering public bars; just to name a few.
I thought The Royal Correspondent was, in parts, a little reminiscent of a twentieth-century Pride and Prejudice. However, I enjoyed the characters and setting, and the intrigue kept my interest throughout. There is an informative Author’s Note (which I always love to read, especially in novels with an historical setting) which pinpoints the inspiration for many of the novel’s component parts. Overall, The Royal Correspondent is a satisfying read.
The Royal Correspondent is published by HarperCollins Australia in February 2021.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
As noted in an earlier post, 2020 was (apart from everything else that was so very wrong about it) a bumper reading year for me. I embark on the new year in a spirit of optimism that I’ll be able to keep up my reading to similar levels, and to that end I am once again signing up for several reading challenges.
First, the 2021 Non Fiction Reader Challenge. I’ll opt for the Non Fiction Nibbler category, in which I’ll aim to read 6 non fiction books from any of the Challenge’s 12 categories.
The Australian Women’s Writers Challenge is one I have participated in for several years now, and as the majority of books I read do tend to be by Australian women, I’m confident of meeting the target of the Franklin challenge, which is to read 10 books (and review at least 6 of them)
The Aussie Author Challenge overlaps with the AWW Challenge, except books can be by male and female authors. In 2021 my goal is to reach the Kangaroo level, where I’ll have read 12 books (4 by male, 4 by female, 4 by authors new to me, and across at least 3 different genres).
I’m adding a new challenge for 2021: the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge, which I’m pretty sure will be a shoo-in as I adore historical fiction. I’ll read at least two books set in the 20th Century and five set in Victorian times for this one.
A personal challenge of mine, begun a few years ago, is to read as many books by First Nations authors as I can. It’s a delight to see so many wonderful works being published nowadays so this one is indeed a pleasure.
Whatever else 2021 might bring, I do hope it’s a year of entering new worlds, different times and places, adventure, mystery, love and warfare, faith and hope – all through the pages of some great books.
Happy New Year everyone.
The novel’s prologue sets the scene for it’s storyline and the mystery at it’s heart: Alice, a young woman pregnant to her fiance, is left at a Victorian port town when he boards the Shenandoah. This is an American Confederate ship which actively pursues ‘Yankee’ ships in the Pacific during the American civil war.
She never sees him again.
Decades later, her daughter, Stella, is finally free of an abusive marriage when her criminal husband dies in violent circumstances. Her beloved grandparents, along with her mother, have all died and Stella is completely alone in the world.
A private investigator, Bendigo Bartlett, is engaged by a client called Mrs Parks, to find Stella.
The novel is full of mysteries: what happened to Stella’s father? Who has employed Bendigo to find her, and why? Who is the disreputable man who threatens them all?
There is romance, but I would describe this novel more as an historic crime or mystery story. Set in Melbourne, Geelong, Bendigo and Sydney in the late 19th century, it gives a vivid portrayal of the two colonies during this time.
I enjoy novels where the major events and preoccupations of the period are woven into the storyline. In The Last Truehart, this includes debate about proposals for Australian Federation, still several years off; the divisions between what were then separate colonies; women’s suffrage; gendered roles in society and the workplace; attitudes towards divorce; the drought and economic downturn being experienced as the century came to a close. This is where fiction can bring historic events alive and make them real, showing their impact on everyday lives at the time.
The romance is lightly handled and the characters are well drawn.
The Last Truehart will appeal to readers who enjoy a well-crafted story with an engrossing mystery at its heart.
The Last Truehart is published by Mira (an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers) in December 2020.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
I’m always intrigued by what prompts readers to pick up a particular book. I was initially drawn to this new novel by Australian writer Vanessa McCausland because it is set in a location not too far from where I live in the Blue Mountains of NSW: the Capertee Valley.
It’s a dual timeline story: one thread traces the disappearance in 1948 of a young woman from the valley’s iconic Art Deco hotel. The other, present day thread, also centres around the hotel, and another missing woman.
If you have read Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies (or seen the TV series adaptation) you will recognise the technique of multiple viewpoint story-telling. When done well, it is an effective way of capturing the inner thoughts and feelings of different characters, drawing us into their worlds. In The Valley of Lost Stories there are four main characters: all young mothers whose children attend the same Sydney seaside suburban primary school, who decide to enjoy a week away together in the Capertee Valley.
The author skilfully shows how the women are all hiding some aspects of their true selves and their lives, which are not as picture-perfect as they seem. Each woman has her problems or disappointments, which begin to impact on the relationships within the group as the holiday progresses. Tensions rise as their insecurities spill over, which coupled with the eerie atmosphere of the old hotel and its starkly beautiful surroundings, culminate in a gripping tale of mystery and danger.
Woven throughout are the events of 1948, and hints of other dark episodes in the valley’s history, including the dispossession and murder by white settlers of the Wiradjuri people, and exploitative behaviour by mine owners and managers when the valley was a major producer of shale oil. This history provides a telling backdrop juxtaposed against the modern-day problems of the four women:
What would it have been like to live back then? Emmie thought. History was so easy to ignore, gloss over. But really, it was everything. It was perspective. It was all that made up where we are now. It was the progression of time that we chose so often to conveniently ignore.The Valley Of Lost Stories p242
The Valley of Lost Stories is peopled by very relatable characters, both past and present, and explores the deep wounds that we can inflict on each other, as well as a little known aspect of Australian history. It’s inspired me to want take a trip to the Capertee Valley and see its renowned ancient beauty for myself.
The Valley of Lost Stories is published by HarperCollins Publishers in December 2020.
My thanks to the publishers for a copy to read and review.
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.’The Angel of Waterloo p327
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.’
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.
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.