I first fell in love with the work of Australian best-selling author Sulari Gentill with her historical crime fiction Roland Sinclair series, which combine my love of the two genres of historical and crime fiction in a brilliant and somewhat addictive way.
Since the last book about Roland and his friends, Ms Gentill has written several stand-alone novels, set in contemporary America. A theme that unites these disparate stories is the ‘behind the scenes’ glimpses of the worlds of writing and publishing, with twisty tales of dark deeds threaded throughout.
The Mystery Writer is set in middle America, a town called Lawrence in Kansas. This is where Australian student Theodosia arrives unexpectedly on her older brother Gus’ doorstep. She has left behind a partly completed law degree and brings with her a burning desire to become a writer.
She meets a best-selling author Dan and a friendship starts to form, but to her horror, Theo discovers Dan dead on the floor of his apartment, his throat cut.
The murders begin to mount up and Theo is suddenly the prime suspect. What can she do to protect herself, her brother and his friend Mac? She has to make a difficult choice which leads to devastating consequences.
Gradually she understands that Dan’s life and death have a connection to a dark web network of conspiracy theorist fantasists and ‘preppers’. The online posts of key members of this group preface each chapter of the novel, and are by turns hilarious and chilling.
In the midst of all the dramatic events, Theo receives an offer of representation by the literary agency connected with Dan. A condition is that Theo turns over total control of her social media and online presence to the agency for management by them. She is assured that this is standard procedure. We are left to wonder if this is true…
The novel explores how fictional narratives can be used to vicariously wield political and business influence. While this is in a context of a piece of fiction, it is worth thinking about in the broader sense, given the events that we’ve seen in US, British and Australian politics, economies and societies over past years.
Theo, Gus and Mac are all sympathetic and relatable characters,; the tension is nicely calibrated throughout the novel. It’s a book that will please crime and mystery readers and which also provokes some thought about the online worlds we now inhabit.
The Mystery Writer is published by Poisoned Pen Press, an imprint of Sourcebooks, in March 2024.
My thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for an ebook copy to review.
Immediately this book opens, we know we are in for a startlingly different view of the British ships, sailing into Sydney harbour in 1788.
The First Nations people of the lands surrounding Sydney are portrayed in a rich cultural context (informative and easy to absorb within the story), however they have European names and wear modern European dress. What does this mean? What is happening here? We are left to wonder.
It is an effective device to ensure that readers approach this story with a different mindset than they might otherwise do. Especially if the readers have been raised in Australia, and grown up with the story of Captain Phillip planting the British flag in the sand of Sydney cove in the name of His Majesty King George.
Instead, we see the ships from a vantage point above the cove, where seven respected Elders, representatives of their various nations, have come together for a day to collectively decide what their response to these ‘visitors’ should be.
The cover blurb of the book reads:
1788, Gadigal country.
They’ve got a big decision to make…The Visitors
It’s a brilliant premise and the reader is plunged into the many considerations and issues that the seven men need to take into account as they ponder their response to this unprecedented situation.
Some of the older men remember the time, eighteen years earlier, when similar ships had appeared and strange looking men disembarked. In their short time on land, those men had cut down trees, trampled precious clean water to mud, and took ridiculous amounts of seafood from the waters. But that time, those visitors left and did not return. Perhaps the same thing would happen again?
Each of the seven men representing their mob have their own backstory: a set of family, cultural and tribal circumstances that affect their behaviour and how they approach the discussion and voting. This allows the reader to see them first of all as people – with their own preoccupations and motivations.
I enjoyed the portrayal of the tensions, petty squabbles, and individual behaviours of the seven. It meant I could approach their story as I could that of any other people dealing with a sudden and unexpected arrival of uninvited visitors of their country.
Within the narrative of a long day of arguments, counter arguments and vote-taking, the author has woven in a great deal of beautifully described customary lore and traditions. It includes one of the best and easiest-to-understand explanations of songlines:
Songs, Joseph knows, are a living map of country – where the fresh water is, the good fishing spots, the whereabouts of steep crevices or marshy swamps and all of the other signposts, so you don’t get lost or travel the hard way. And all songs are three-dimensional, referring to the stars above and the earth and even below the seas. And the songs are always evolving and being shared. They are maps for all who need them to travel for food, for shelter or, like him, for business. And they are sung, because singing is the most effective way to memorise great swathes of data.The Visitors, p33
The use of modern expressions by the men also helps to bring us into our own time, with an understanding that these men represent a spectrum of life experiences and attitudes – much like today’s representatives in our modern parliaments.
There is a telling moment when the men are faced with the idea that perhaps, this time, the strangers won’t leave, and a great deal of irony as well-worn European-centrist ideas about ‘barbarism’, ‘a dying race’, ‘thieves’ ‘superior weapons’ and ‘capable of learning’ are turned on their head.
This book invites us to ask those ‘what if?’ questions: what if the First Nations peoples of Sydney had attacked in a concerted effort to rid their lands of these foreigners? What if the British had been able to listen and learn from the original inhabitants of the continent? What if the diseases brought by those ships had not wreaked such a terrible toll? So many things we can never know, but in the asking of the questions, there is learning to be had.
In a profound way, one of the men, Gary, sums up what was important for those Elders and still remains important today:
Just because they break lore, doesn’t mean we should. Then they’ve won, in a way, before even one spear has been thrown. I think we need to be good ancestors.What are the stories a good ancestor needs to create, to leave behind? Do we want our descendants to look behind them and see that we have failed in our duty, that we succumbed to the lowest denominator? Or do we want them to be proud of us and the stance we took?…I’m voting to let them land and that we do what we always do: we follow protocol to the letter. That means when they step on country, we welcome them and wish them safe passage.The Visitors p222-223
If only those ‘visitors’ could have been so generous and gracious in their response.
The Visitors is published by Fourth Estate in August 2023.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
The photograph on the cover of Shauna Bostock’s story of researching her ancestors is indicative of the book itself: compelling.
I am going to begin my discussion of the book with this: if you are a family historian or at all interested in Australian history, this book is a must-read.
The author, a Bundjalung woman who began researching her family story for a PhD in Aboriginal history, has skillfully woven together various strands of her exploratory processes in archives, libraries, and interviews, with the stories of her forebears. In doing so, she has created a vivid and multi-layered picture of Australian history, especially the experiences of First Nations Australians in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
There is so much in this book that made me stop, turn pages back and forth to the meticulous referencing, to the photographs, or to previous pages. As someone passionate about uncovering my own family stories from the past, there were many moments of recognition in Ms Bostock’s research journey: the thrill of discovering a previously unknown fact; the way that serendipity or fate so often plays a part in the process; the coincidences of meeting someone or stumbling upon a document that hold the key to the very nugget of information you are seeking. The indescribable feeling of viewing an archival document from the past that tells you something about your ancestor, or an old photo that brings them to life.
As any family historian will tell you: family history research requires patience AND perseverance.
Especially so in this case, as Ms Bostock found when she experienced road blocks to accessing important archival information, and evidence of the mind-numbing level of bureaucracy that Aboriginal people have endured since colonisation.
The book begins with the shocking revelation that the non-indigenous ancestors in her family tree were descended from English slave traders – a huge irony given that one of them arrived in Australia as a convict, having been arrested on slavery charges in the late 1700’s.
From there, the narrative traverses key parts of the colonisation experience for First Nations: frontier violence and killings; theft of land, livelihood, spiritual and cultural connections; the precarious nature of life on Aboriginal reserves; the deceit and hypocrisy of the various government bodies set up to ‘protect’ and control Aboriginal people and the enduring damages inflicted through practices such as the forced removal of children from their homes and families.
rural and urban Also looming large are the ugliness of apartheid-like segregation and racism within communities; indenture of young children into service of white families or farms (often akin to slavery); increasing control and surveillance of every aspect of Aboriginal lives.
I could go on.
What distinguishes this book is the author’s research and how she has woven together the experiences of the colonisers and the colonised – including of course her own family members:
To use a photographic analogy…I felt like a photographer adjusting the focus of the lens. I have ‘zoomed in’ with a microcosmic focus on the individuals and the reserve/mission space – and then I have ‘zoomed out’ to capture the macrocosmic bureaucracy of the Australian Government’s Aborigines Protection Board.Reaching through History p174
There are stories of defiance and resistance as well, which the author rightly points out are important for all generations of Aboriginal people to know about.
I enjoyed the later chapters where she outlines the many creative and artistic ways in which her family members have expressed defiance and worked for change.
On a personal note, I had a little thrill to realise that several of the author’s close family members were instrumental in producing the excellent documentary film Lousy Little Sixpence, in which elders discussed their experiences as stolen children, in the homes set up supposedly to ‘care’ for Aboriginal children, or working as domestic servants or rural labourers for white people in the first half of the twentieth century. I used this film as a resource many times in my teaching during the 1990’s and early 2000’s, and I now see that it was one of the earliest publicly accessible resources telling the stories of the Stolen Generations.
There is so much to think about in this book. Please buy a copy or borrow it from your local library. It is such a rich resource on our nation’s history. And for family historians, surely we must all resonate to the author’s final words:
The history of Aboriginal people in this country is also a ‘living wound under a patchwork of scars’ but the process of truth-telling creates healing. By reaching through time and pulling our ancestors’ files out of the archives we restore their humanity…Reaching through Time p319
Ruminating on the slavery theme, I wondered if family history research was the key to emancipation, because researching my ancestors’ lives has spiritually unshackled them.
Reaching Through Time is published by Allen & Unwin in July 2023.
The sixth novel by Australian author Kirsty Manning explores the legacy of WWII trauma and loss over several generations.
It was inspired by the true story of an album of photographs smuggled out of Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria. The graphic and shocking photographs were taken by an inmate of the camp under instructions from the camp commander, who wanted five albums made to present to his superior officers – itself a rather sickening act, I think.
The photographer risked all to create a sixth copy of each photo, which he kept hidden, until they could be smuggled out and kept in safety by a local villager. After the war, the photos were used by prosecutors during the Nuremberg war crimes trials. The album was brought to Australia in the 1970’s and today is kept at the Sydney Jewish Museum.
From these historical events, the author has woven a tale of courage and heartbreak, the pain that memories can inflict and the importance of truth telling. She has imagined how the album got to be in Australia, creating a cast of fictional characters and relationships that are entirely believable and compelling.
Hannah is a teenager in 1980’s rural Australia with her mum, who emigrated from then-Yugoslavia and married an Australian man. Hannah’s father has died and she has a difficult and complicated relationship with her mother, Roza; but she adores her grandfather Nico, who visits every few years.
On his last visit he leaves a mysterious book, wrapped in an ordinary calico bag. Roza refuses to allow Hannah to see it and hides the book, but Hannah later finds it. What she sees are confronting images, bewildering to her young eyes. Over the years, she learns about the war, the Holocaust and the camps, and longs to see the album again, to make better sense of it and to understand the legacy Nico’s experiences have left for her family. She studies history at university and decides to undertake an honours thesis, on aspects of WWII camps related to her grandfather’s experiences:
You couldn’t rewrite history, but you could explore different ways to study it and bring it into the present political and cultural domain…the whole of Mauthausen, inside and outside the camp, needed to be treated with reverence and remembrance. The question of how to present and tell stories of the past could perhaps be one of the backbones of her thesis.The Hidden Book, ebook location 123 of 221
Alternating with Hannah’s contemporary story are those of Nico during his long years at Mauthausen camp; Santiago, a young Spanish boy who helps the photographer Mateo in the darkroom; and Lena, a young woman in the village who is entrusted with the care of the photos. All of these characters risk punishment and likely death if their activities are discovered.
The novel is a tale of incredible courage and endurance, and of completing a journey that began decades earlier for Nico, Roza and Hannah.
It is a moving story about war and its aftermath. Readers who enjoy historical fiction with a foot firmly in real historic events, will love The Hidden Book.
It is published by Allen & Unwin in August 2023.
My thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for a review copy.
The premise and setting of this story, debut novel by Australian Peta Miller, has special significance for me.
Those who have read my series of posts Travels with my Ancestors will know that I have several ancestors who emigrated as assisted and unassisted migrants, aboard sailing ships in the 1800’s. The bald facts of their journeys (name of ships, dates of arrival, etc) do little to convey the often-traumatic experiences they had and the risks they took in search of a new life in colonies of Australia.
The Ship’s midwife tells the story of Sarah Harlow, who in 1850 sails to Brisbane aboard an immigrant ship. She is alone in the world and hopes to be able to use her midwifery skills in the colony to support herself.
She becomes firm friends with her cabin mate, Bridie, a fiery and outspoken Irish girl, with midwifery experience of her own. Together they plan a life working together in the colony.
On the voyage, typhus breaks out amongst the steerage passengers. A common shipboard illness caused by unhygienic and cramped conditions – and the abundance of lice, among other pests), typhus is highly infectious, and it cuts a vicious swathe through passengers and crew alike.
Sarah and Bridie do their best to help nurse the sick, but little can be done to prevent its spread.
The ship is a microcosm of Victorian-era society: the bulk of passengers from impoverished backgrounds, cramped together in ‘steerage class’ below decks; the ship’s surgeon and his son, ship’s master and senior crew in more comfortable cabins, and the bulk of the crew sleeping in hammocks. There are grievances and arguments as the long tiring voyage wears away at patience, but also kindness and generosity.
Terrible events play out on the ship and to make matters worse, when they finally arrive in Brisbane, they are sent to quarantine at Stradbroke Island, which had been recently designated a quarantine station and was not ready or equipped to receive them. Sarah and the others must find the energy and grit to set up what is necessary to provide for all the passengers, until they can be received on the mainland.
I remember several visits I made years ago, to the historic quarantine station on Sydney’s North Head. It’s wild beauty and amazing views of the harbour must surely have provided some comfort for those sent there at the end of their long voyages across the world. But the remains of the hospital building, and the names carved into the cliff near the landing dock, spoke volumes about the experiences of the people who found themselves there. Having endured months at sea with all its risks and discomforts, and so far from home, arriving at a lonely, isolated spot like this must surely have been the last straw for many.
So it is with the characters in this book. People are people and there are those who will help others, who will do what must be done; and there are always those who complain and leave the hard work to others or fall prey to despair.
My only criticism – and it is a small one – is the title. The working title of the unpublished manuscript was apparently Sing Us Home, which (in my humble opinion) is a resonant and beautiful title. There is a current trend in historical fiction publishing that novel titles take a certain form: The Resistance Girl, or The Librarian Spy, for example. I applaud the focus on the agency of the female protagonists, but…I do wish there was a little more variety – and that terrific titles are allowed to stand more often. Still, publishers know the industry and what sells, so who am I to argue?
I very much enjoyed the research that has gone into the story of The Ship’s Midwife and I hope to see more historical fiction from this author in the future.
The Ship’s Midwife is published by HQ Fiction in June 2023.
My thanks to the publishers for the copy to review.
What a beautiful debut book this is.
With lush, gorgeous illustrations by Perth-based Jennifer Faulkner, The Lucky Shack tells the story of a simple cottage by the sea, built and cared for by a fisherman.
One day a frightening storm strikes and the fisherman does not return. The shack feels alone and neglected…until a fisherwoman finds it and once more, the place is loved and lived in.
The story celebrates the colours, depths and beauty of nature, along with human connection and love.
There is a wonderful assortment of vocabulary for younger readers to absorb, enriching the narrative and introducing beautiful new words to try:
Boats pass me by.
I creak my tired floorboards with loud groans,
but they don’t stop.
I flicker the porch light,
like the lighthouse on the cliff
sending codes in the night.
I let go of a precious window shutter
to send a message into the deep blue,
to anyone who will listen.
This is a gorgeous addition to any child’s bookshelf.
The Lucky Shack is published by Working Title Press, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, in July 2023.
My thanks to the publishers for a copy.
This evocative novel by Australian author Jennifer Mackenzie Dunbar is a lively combination of historical fiction, multiple timelines, and a dash of magical realism, centered around the story of the Lewis Chessmen collection.
The tiny chess pieces were discovered in 1831 on the remote Scottish island of Lewis. They have been dated to the second half of the twelfth century and were carved from walrus ivory and whale tooth.
Images of some of the pieces can be found on the British Museum’s website here. If you have a look you’ll see how intricately carved they are, with quirky, individual expressions and postures. Some pieces were included in the exhibition History of the World in 100 Objects which traveled from the Museum a number of years ago; I remember seeing these little characters in Canberra and was quite taken with them. Some pieces are in the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland in Edinburgh.
There is much about the chessmen that is still shrouded in mystery and history, such as exactly where they were made and by whom, why they were buried, and if there are missing pieces and if so, why?
The author has made good use of the historical known facts and the remote location of the find, to weave an engaging story across three timelines and settings: Iceland in the twelfth century, Lewis Island in the nineteenth century and in 2010, and London.
The main character is Marianne, a lab assistant at the British Museum, whose master’s thesis was on cultural and national issues around the repatriation of museum artifacts to their places of origin. She is being undermined at every turn by a toxic manager; also facing a restructure of the museum’s staff, the recent trauma of her father’s death, a complicated relationship with her mother, a sad secret from her own past, and a crushing lack of confidence in her own worth and abilities.
She is sent (reluctantly) to Lewis Island to accompany twelve of the pieces from the BM, for an exhibition on the island on which they were found nearly a hundred and eighty years earlier. Here she meets several locals who give her a refreshing new way of seeing history, including her own.
Marianne sank into a warm fog, letting the music wash over her. With it came a twinge of envy for the way the locals all seemed connected to each other and to the music, joined by their history and stories of their past. An ache inside her grew.Missing Pieces loc. 1187 of 3824 (eBook)
The story caught my attention from the start, because of the chessmen at its centre, but also its focus on issues of return of cultural artifacts. It’s a topic which has been in the news of late, including here in Australia, as many Aboriginal objects of spiritual and cultural significance have been kept in museums overseas, including the BM.
Also, I share Marianne’s mother, Shona’s, passion for family history research and was amused at the eye rolls it sometimes induces in Marianne – I am pretty sure my own interest elicits a similar response in all but fellow family historians. The time slip quality of parts of the novel appealed to the side of me that dreams of time travel (in a safe and totally reversible manner, of course!)
Most of all I enjoyed witnessing the development of Marianne from an uncertain, often prickly young woman who often feels out of her depth, to someone with more confidence in her knowledge and views and the ability to decide on her own future.
The characters are believable and relatable and the various settings of time and place brought vividly to life.
Missing Pieces is a terrific read, one I thoroughly enjoyed. It renewed my interest in the Lewis chessmen and spurred me to read more about them, and the island where they were re-discovered.
Missing Pieces was published by Midnight Sun in June 2023.
My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.
A debut novel by Sri Lankan-Australian Ayesha Inoon, Untethered offers a vivid insight into the culture of a Muslim family in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and the experiences of two people who try life as immigrants to Australia.
The title evokes the dual meaning of ‘untethered’, conjuring both the sense of isolation from being apart from one’s homeland, and the possibility and freedom that can come from breaking with old behaviours and expectations.
Zia, a young adult woman at the outset of the story, has her marriage to Rashid arranged by their families with the help of a matchmaker. It is fascinating to learn about the customary ways in which engagement and marriage are celebrated by some Muslim members of the Sri Lankan community. I enjoyed how the author effortlessly wove Sri Lankan words, foods, clothing, and cultural references throughout the narrative.
As she waits for the ceremony to begin on her wedding day, Zia ponders the contrast between her childhood dreams and the reality of a wedding:
She had imagined that was how she would feel when it was her turn.Untethered p50
She hadn’t known that there would be hope but also fear, that there would be love but also doubt. She hadn’t known that the tools with which she had to build their dreams would be so fragile.
The story is told from both Zia’s and Rashid’s points of view, allowing the reader to experience their life together as a couple, and the process of emigration, with each character.
Especially, once they arrive in Australia, their differing expectations and experiences are stark. Rashid feels deeply the ignominy of being unable to find work commensurate with his Sri Lankan work experience as an IT manager; Zia feels lonely and isolated, missing her close family and friends left behind.
The couple must traverse rocky ground and tragedy before the slow tendrils of hope appear.
Immigration, it seemed, was the great equaliser – no matter where you came from or who you were before, you had to let it all go and reinvent yourself.Untethered p129
Zia is young and somewhat naive at the novel’s start, but her self confidence grows over time. She is a sympathetic character whose awareness of the world around her also develops, allowing her to see and empathise with others who are in more difficult circumstances than her own. Both Zia and Rashid learn about other Sri Lankans held in offshore detention for years, after trying to reach Australia as refugees from the terrible civil war in Sri Lanka.
On a personal note, Australia’s capital city, Canberra, is where the couple settle when they get to Australia. Having spent ten years there myself, I very much enjoyed reading about familiar locations and landmarks there; a story set in Canberra is long overdue!
Untethered is a highly recommended read; I think it is a wonderful debut from an author with a promising future.
Untethered is published by HQ Fiction, an imprint of HarperCollins Australia, in June 2023.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
Ming and Hilde Lead a Revolution is book no 3 in Jackie French’s superb series of middle-grade historical fiction, ‘Girls Who Changed the World’. These stories are all about putting women and girls back into the historical record.
In this book, Ming is sent by Herstory back to the 1800’s, on a sailing ship heading from Europe to Australia. Her companion, Hilde, is one of several girls looking after royal Saxon sheep that are being imported, to add to the flocks of Merino sheep made famous by the Macarthurs, amongst others.
I love that Ming has to guess at the specific timeframe she is in, judging it by the various historical facts she knows. And as always, she needs to work out which girl she meets will change the world, and how.
This particular setting and scenario were new to me: I knew nothing of this particular breed of sheep and how it contributed to the success of the Australian wool industry in the nineteenth century. Which is odd, seeing as how in my primary school classes we learnt all about how Australia ‘rode on the sheep’s back’ – until mineral resources overtook wool as a major export a century or so later.
Not so odd, though, when you think about it. Because according to this story, it was the young women shepherds from the part of Europe that later became Germany, who went on to demonstrate a radical new way of taking the fleece from the sheep – ushering in the technique that we now recognise as ‘shearing’. And yet, the quintessential image of Australian shearing is a Tom Roberts painting, featuring muscled bronze men grappling with woolly sheep in a colonial shearing shed.
Another example of girls and women being written out of history.
Young readers can learn these gems of history from this book, along with an understanding of earlier attitudes to Asian and First Nations Australians, the sexism taken for granted in colonial society, and attitudes to crime and punishment. The daily life on a wealthy rural estate is portrayed beautifully, especially the contrast between conditions for the rich and poor.
And as always in a Jackie French novel, the past and present are both shown in a balanced way, neither wholly bad nor wholly good. The actions that bring about change often have unforeseen and unintended consequences – the environmental consequences of colonialism and the introduction of animals such as sheep, being one example in this book.
The poor bare hills, the animals killed or driven off, and the people of this land too. The country had seemed so beautiful as they passed through it, not wild at all, but tended enough to keep its natural beauty. But we’re in the past, she reminded herself. This is the beginning of the Australia I live with today: most of its forests cleared, its rivers shrinking, its wetlands drained, so many animals extinct of in danger of it.Ming and Hilde Lead a Revolution p150-151
This was how it began.
Ming is a delightful, thoughtful character, learning more about herself, her country and its past each time she is sent on another adventure by Herstory. I can’t wait to see where and when she lands next time.
Ming and Hilde Lead a Revolution is published by HarperCollins Children’s Publishing in June 2023.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
This beautiful picture book by Gumbaynggirr author and artist Melissa Greenwood reads as a bedtime story from a mother to her child.
With soft illustrations in pastel and ochre shades, it is a perfect introduction to a First Nations language and contemporary art style for very young Australians.
The text follows the path of the sun and moon across a day and night, incorporating words and phrases from her Gumbaynggirr language from the mid-north coast of NSW.
As the sun shines throughout the day,My Little Barlaagany
it warms your cheeks while we play.
As the sun sets in the evening sky,
say, ‘Yaarri Yarraang, goodbye.’
Now it’s time for Giidany (the moon) to rise
and we say, “Darrundang, thank you,’
for the gift of the night skies.
It is wonderful to see First Nations language included in texts for children, and I look forward to more works of this kind to add to children’s bookshelves across the country.
My Little Barlaagany was published by ABC Books and HarperCollins Children’s Books in May 2023.
My thanks to the publishers for a copy.