• Books and reading

    A twisty tale: ‘The Murder Rule’ by Dervla McTiernan

    Dervla McTiernan (Irish-born Australian crime writer) has published a critically acclaimed and award winning series of novels featuring Detective Sergeant Cormac Reilly, set in Ireland. The Murder Rule is her latest, much-anticipated new book, this time a stand-alone and set in the United States.

    I am a big fan of the earlier novels and I especially loved the character portrayal and development, and the sense of empathy that the writer conveys within well-crafted plots.

    I have to confess that while reading The Murder Rule, I found myself missing the vivid sense of ‘Irishness’ of those earlier settings and characters. There is something about the Irish voice, and the misty (sometimes dark) landscape, that lends itself so well to crime fiction. If you are, like me, also a fan of Tana French’s ‘Dublin Murder Squad’ series, I am sure you will agree.

    Having said that, The Murder Rule is, like McTiernan’s earlier novels, a well crafted story with a suitably tight plot, told with assurance and skill. The main protagonist is Hannah, a law student who applies to work at the Innocence Project. This is an organisation which works to free supposedly innocent people who have been wrongly convicted and imprisoned.

    From the opening pages, readers understand that Hannah is not all she appears and that her motivations for joining the Innocence Project are not what they appear to be. The question is: why? And what has driven Hannah to take this admittedly extreme approach to righting what she sees as a grievous wrong done years earlier?

    The answers are given as clues within chapters alternating between Hannah’s voice and diary entries made by her mother, Laura, when she was Hannah’s age.

    I found myself feeling somewhat impatient with both characters at times, however when the first plot twist came it was so unexpected I was eager to read on.

    The novel deals with the subtleties of human behaviour and ideas about right and wrong:

    I’m just saying that it’s about narrative, isn’t it? We, I mean people, all of us, we love a story. We want a hero. We want a bad guy. We want a beginning, a middle, and an end. And life is more complicated than that but we love it when we’re served up a story and sometimes if we don’t get it, we make it for ourselves. We believe only the facts that suit the story we like and we ignore everything else.

    The Murder Rule p164

    Readers who enjoyed books such as Gone Girl or The Woman in the Window will, I am sure, enjoy The Murder Rule. But I do hope to see a return of McTiernan’s native Ireland in a future story.

    The Murder Rule is published by HarperCollins in May 2022.
    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to review.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Extraordinary true story: ‘Rose’ by Suzanne Falkiner


    In the early 1800’s, a time when well-bred young ladies were raised to do embroidery and look after their households and husbands, Rose de Freycinet dressed as a man and stowed away on her husband’s ship, sailing across vast oceans on a voyage of scientific exploration.

    In so doing, she did support her husband’s venture (and occasionally sewed whilst on board) but she also became the first woman to circumnavigate the globe and to leave a record of her adventures. Her resolution from the start was:

    Never, through my fears or my own wishes, to part my husband from his duty.

    Rose p348

    It was a dangerous adventure for many reasons. To begin with, there was a strict prohibition on women aboard French ships. There were political considerations: the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars had changed the geo-political scene irrevocably, and the Commander and crew of the ship Uranie had to tread carefully at their various ports of call. There were the common dangers of a voyage in the smallish ships of the time, with none of today’s comforts and navigational technology: the ever present possibility of shipwreck, disease, storms, being blown off course, running out of supplies and fresh water. Added to that was Rose’s unique position as a lone woman on a ship full of men, with whom she travelled for several years.

    This is a thoroughly researched book and readers get a fascinating insight into how such a voyage was planned and prepared for; maritime traditions and practices in the nineteenth century; questionable (but common) medical practices; the drive to add to scientific and navigational knowledge; the intriguing customs and manners of the people encountered in places such as Brazil, French colonies, ‘New Holland’ (now Australia), the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), Guam and the Sandwich Islands (now Hawaii), for example.

    Looking at the map of the Uranie’s voyage, it is amazing to think of people setting sail into what were at times, literally uncharted waters. From our modern perspective, when many people don’t venture to a new town or country without checking on-line maps and reviews, these people were taking enormous risks! They were creating and correcting the maps as they went and recording what they found.

    Rose recorded her experiences via a journal and in frequent letters to her mother back in France. After her death these were edited (the author suggests they were also ‘sanitised’ in some instances) and later published. I am grateful for that, because they give a very different perspective on the voyages of this period than do the formal ones written by her husband and other men.

    For example, the Uranie was indeed shipwrecked, running aground at a bleak and deserted island in the Falklands. For Rose, the dreadful experience of terror followed by hunger and cold as they waited for rescue, was compounded by the fact that her husband became seriously ill. What would her fate be if he died, leaving her to the mercies of men without a commander?

    I have always loved the Freycinet Peninsula in Tasmania’s northeast, named for Louis de Freycinet. When I travel there in future, I shall also think of Rose, a person of equal courage and adventurousness as her husband.

    Rose is published by HarperCollins in March 2022.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading

    A book to love: ’27 Letters to My Daughter’ by Ella Ward

    I fell in love with this book while reading its opening pages. It ticks so many boxes for me: family history, family stories, personal challenges and insights, humour…I know it will be one of my ‘stand-out-reads’ of 2022.

    When Australian writer and mother Ella Ward was undergoing treatment for a rare cancer at the age of thirty-six, she began a series of letters to her young daughter, in case she would not be around as her daughter grew into adulthood

    In the process, she documented a lively and fascinating family history, encompassing her own stories but also those of her great-grandparents, grandparents, and parents: their lives, loves and adventures. Woven throughout are 188 ‘Lessons’ for her daughter. The final one sums up her purpose: ‘Lesson #188: Tell your stories.

    A family is only as strong as the stories that are told. And, I’m afraid to say, the stories can’t just be told – they need to be kept.

    27 Letter to My Daughter, p4

    When my mother, the keeper of our family history and stories, began losing those memories due to encroaching dementia, I promised that I would hold, remember – and tell – the stories for her. This is what Ella has done for her daughter and all who follow her.

    The Lessons serve as mother-to-daughter tips for a fulfilling life, and each one appears after family anecdotes that illustrate the points. Some of my favourites are:
    Lesson #1: If you have a family, you have a story
    Lesson #18: ‘The End’ does not mean ‘THE END’
    Lesson #30: If you’re young, forgive yourself. If you’re not, stop (This one appears in the chapter called ‘For when you’re a jerk.’
    Lesson #45: Try and do your stupid things with kind people
    Lesson # 63: Your heartbreak will last exactly as long as it’s
    meant to
    Lesson #71: Shock will tear you apart. You will come back together. Differently, but together
    Lesson # 110: Menopause is a feminist issue. Followed by Lesson # 112: Bleed loudly
    Lesson #179: It’s okay to stay up past your bedtime when a book is to blame

    The family stories include Ella’s great-grandfather’s experiences in the trenches of WWI, her grandparent’s globe-trotting lives, her mother’s single parenthood, her own experiences of travel, first jobs, love, motherhood and trauma. So yes: sadness, distress, hard work, blood and tears. But also: joy, fun, mischief, music, scents and sights. And magic and dreams.

    27 Letters to My Daughter is a magical book that will have a place on my bookshelf for many years to come.

    27 Letters to My Daughter is published by HarperCollins Publishers in April 2022.
    My thanks to the publishers 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.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    ‘Mim and the Woeful Wedding’: The Travelling Bookshop #2

    In book two of Katrina Nannestad’s Travelling Bookshop series, we meet up with old friends Mim, her little brother Nat and their Dad, as they wander from place to place in their bookshop-in-a-caravan, guided by Flossy the horse. As in book one, Flossy takes them to where their books are most needed. This time, it’s to a small Greek island.

    Here they meet Anjelica and her husband-to-be, Stavros, whose wedding is just days away. The whole village is happy and can talk of nothing else. But Mim sees a problem: neither the bride nor the groom appear to be excited about the wedding.

    The bookshop caravan works its magic, finding the perfect book for each of its visitors – that is, the book they need, not the book they want. By the end of the story, answers to everyone’s problems have been found and the Cohen family leave behind happy villagers when Flossy leads them to their next destination.

    Did you love Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books when you were a child? One of the most entrancing features of these stories for me was the independence of the children – especially when they’d set off on a horse-drawn caravan adventure. There is a thrill for youngsters of tiny places to call home – caravans, cubby houses, tree houses.

    The Travelling Bookshop stories tap into that, and add a dash of magic, resulting in a great read for kids. They are madcap tributes to words, books, family, making new friends and exploring new places. There is also a theme of accepting and celebrating difference, and the important roles that imagination and playfulness have in our lives.

    The line drawings by Cheryl Orsini add to the text and help to bring the story alive.

    ‘I love words,’ I say. ‘I have a whole collection of them that I keep in a special box.’
    ‘What sorts of words?’ asks Xander.
    ‘Happy words. Gentle words. Scrambled, rambling words. Words that pop and fizz. Words that paint pictures and sing songs. Words stuffed with memories. Any kinds of words, as long as they make my heart soar. I’ll show you next time you visit the bookshop.’

    Mim and the Woeful Wedding p48

    Mim and the Woeful Wedding is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in March 2020.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    All about family: ‘The Love That Grew’ by Sarah Ayoub

    The Love that Grew is a sort of picture book / pre-schooler take on Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem ‘How Do I Love Thee?’ which begins How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…

    An ode to a mother’s love and to families, it explores different ways to describe the indescribable, with sweet illustrations by debut picture book illustrator Mimi Purnell.

    I thought I could not love another,
    not a sister, nor a brother.
    But just like magic, my love then grew
    when I was blessed with more of you.
    It stretched as high as the beanstalk climbed by Jack:
    impossible to measure, and hard to track.
    A feeling that was both fierce and strong
    and the-longest-noodle-you-can-think-of-long.

    The Love that Grew

    This would be perfect picture book for a little one expecting a new brother or sister. Mums and Dads find that, while time can be difficult to share around with a new baby, love is different – there is usually plenty to go around no matter how many new siblings arrive. The rhyming couplets lend themselves well to read-aloud sessions – just right for snuggling; baby, toddler, book and parent together.

    The Love that Grew is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in March 2022.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Stories and silences: ‘After Story’ by Larissa Behrendt

    Amongst loss, you need to hold onto what you still have.’

    After Story p260

    What do Australian First Nation’s cultural stories and history have to do with the writings and times of Dickens, Shakespeare, Woolfe, Keats or Austen? The surprising answers to this question are to be found in the pages of After Story, by First Nations lawyer, academic, author, speaker and film-maker Larissa Behrendt.

    A tragic loss opens the story, one that forever scars Della and her family. All the other events of the novel hang off that one devastating event and its consequences.

    Years later, Della accompanies her now adult daughter Jasmine on a literary tour of England, taking in the places where many of the ‘greats’ of British literature were born, or lived, or worked.

    Jasmine sees books as her escape from the claustrophobia, racism and limited opportunities of the small town in which she grew up. She has read widely, graduated from university, and now works in a legal career. She invites Della on the tour with her as a way of bridging the gap that has arisen between them over the years. Alternating viewpoints allow us to experience both women’s perspectives on the tour. Della’s viewpoint is less sophisticated than her daughter’s, especially as she knows little about the writers and their works, but no less heartfelt or insightful for that.

    At every significant place visited, the characters in the group chat, argue and reflect on the particular writer, their historical context and achievements. The author has skillfully linked all of these with commentary and reflections on Aboriginal experiences. An example: when told of the plague that struck England during Shakespeare’s time, followed by London’s Great Fire in 1666, Della relates these catastrophic events to the smallpox outbreak and land dispossession that decimated First Nations communities in the earliest years of English settlement:

    I thought about what it must have been like for those Aboriginal people who watched the world around them change hard and fast when the colony was set up, who had to watch the destruction of the life they knew.

    After Story p43

    Della’s deceased Aunty Eileen is an important, if unseen, character. It is through Della’s and Jasmine’s remembered conversations with her, that key features of Aboriginal culture, history and beliefs are shared and further linked to European lives and histories. Gazing at a copy of the Magna Carta in the British Library, Jasmine reflects that:

    If Dickens reminded us that the system is not fair, here was the hope, the ancient promise, that it might be. Aunty Elaine’s generation had advocated for changes that made opportunities in my life different from those for Mum and Dad. It’s not just the words on the page but the people who push the ideas at the heart of them who really alter the world.

    After Story p82

    The characters are all three dimensional and fresh, their struggles real, and at times there are uncomfortable moments, as the author invites us to consider our own culture’s role in the theft, forgetting or dismissal of cultures other than our own. But for anyone who loves literature and/or stories and their long histories, this is a book to relish, made all the more special by the weaving together of old and contemporary, indigenous and non-indigenous traditions, tragedy and loss with hope and love.

    After Story was published by Queensland University Press in 2021.

  • Books and reading

    The mistakes of youth: ‘Love and Virtue’ by Diana Reid

    Are you a good person, or do you just look like one?

    The question of what makes a ‘good person’ is explored from the perspectives of first year university students, in this contemporary novel by Sydney based writer, Diana Reid. Readers are invited to consider the hot-potato issues of consent, power and sex – a powder-keg mix if ever there was one.

    If you can remember your late teen/early adult years, chances are there are at least a few cringe – or shame – inducing vignettes that you’d rather forget. Michaela is that age, living away from her Canberra home for the first time, and wanting to fit in somewhere. She is not an unquestioning acolyte, but rather interrogates her own experiences to the point of exhaustion. Her friendship with her college room neighbour Eve – wealthy, slender, white, and confidently opinionated – has her feeling out of depth, but she participates in the habitual, conditioned behaviours of young people in this environment – too much drinking, casual sex and drug use.

    An occurrence during the university’s ‘O-week’ acts as an underlying pull for the narrative, providing conflict and some mystery. It is a narrative device – but it’s all too recognisable, and one that allows for layers of meaning and intent to ramp up the tension.

    The novel shines a spotlight on the awful pressures on young people to conform; women endure harrowing personal humiliations but are expected to ‘take a joke’; young men are groomed for a life of adult privilege and power. Some speak out, others pretend none of it happens.

    It’s embarrassing, as a reader, to recall the self absorption of youth and the mistakes that, in retrospect, seem inevitable. At times, the characters’ behaviours reminded me of the hopeless, unhappy role playing of the characters in Sally Rooney’s Normal People.

    Similarly, this novel is definitely one for its time: the issues around what constitutes consent in sexual situations is currently being examined in ways not seen before, as are power dynamics and the role of prestigious university colleges in grooming new generations of (potentially) abusive, or at least complicit, men and women.

    The prose is beautiful, evocative and very moving at times:

    I dived down and counted twelve dolphin kicks, resurfacing close to the moored boat. My body was warmer for the movement, but the morning froze on my face. It was cold enough to remind me, in every tingling pore, that I was, first and foremost, a physical thing. Before thought or feeling or reason, I was a stretch of skin, a bag of flesh, for the ocean to cradle or drown with indifference.

    Love and Virtue p160

    The author states that she wrote this manuscript – her first novel – during the 2020 Covid lockdown in Australia. It was an excellent use of her time and whilst I have no wish for similar lockdowns to happen again, I do look forward to reading more of her work.

    Love and Virtue was published in 2021 by Ultimo Press.

  • 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.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    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.