• Books and reading,  History

    Wartime, pasta & Dean Martin: ‘The Proxy Bride’ by Zoë Boccabella

    Can you imagine boarding a ship to voyage across the world to live in an unfamiliar country, learn a new language AND join a man you had never met, as his wife? This was the life changing decision of thousands of young Italian women and their families in the period leading up to WWII, and is the basis of The Proxy Bride. The brides in question were married ‘by proxy’ in Italy (with a male family member standing in for the groom, who was far away in Australia) before leaving to begin their new lives.

    Why did they leave their homeland under such circumstances? According to the author, it was a combination of desperate poverty in Italy, Italian men already in Australia outnumbering potential brides of Italian birth, and a desire by families to give their daughters a chance for a better future.

    I was surprised to learn of this chapter of Australia’s migrant history. The Proxy Bride tells a compelling and sympathetic story of hope, loss, homesickness, culture and prejudice, putting the historical events into a relatable context.

    Gia is a courageous protagonist, travelling towards a future with Taddeo, a quiet man who has established himself in Queensland’s Stanthorpe region, growing apples and peaches and mixing mainly with other Italian migrants in the district. When Gia arrives, there is no spark of romance between the new couple. Some of her compatriots who had travelled with her on the voyage to Australia have more luck with their arranged marriages, others less so. It is essentially a ‘pot luck’ scenario, but mostly, the couples try to make the best of what fate has sent their way, working hard to establish themselves and earn a living.

    Unfortunately for Gia (or fortunately, depending on your viewpoint), there is an immediate and lasting spark between her and a neighbouring farmer, Keith, though they both know that nothing permanent can come of their connection.

    Then along comes the outbreak of war and Italian men (now considered ‘enemy aliens’) are taken to internment camps for an indefinite period, leaving behind bewildered women wondering how they can support themselves until their husbands return. The women need to learn new skills and manage the tasks previously done by their menfolk, to ensure a harvest that will allow them to live and feed themselves and their children.

    They do this by banding together, supporting each other while facing shame, ridicule, and bullying from many in the local community. We must not forget that this was during the era of the ‘White Australia’ policy and before the influx of European migrants brought about by the end of the war. Wartime suspicion of anyone seen as aligned with Germany, Italy or Japan ran deep.

    At the same time, newsreel footage portrays parts of Italy suffering under heavy bombardment by Allied forces, so the women live with the agony of not knowing if their families back home are safe.

    In between Gia’s story, the author has woven in the first-person narrative of her grand-daughter, Sofie, who has come to spend the summer holidays with Gia. Sofie is sixteen, that tender age during which young people test their boundaries, seek out their own identity, and (sometimes) begin to see their parents and grandparents with fresh eyes, as people in their own right, with lives and loves and experiences apart from those connected with their children.

    Sofie’s story is complicated by the fact that she has never known her father, and there seems to be secrecy around his identity. Even as Gia shares with Sofie the story of her early life in Australia, her ‘proxy bride’ status and the painful events during the war, there remains a reluctance to venture into Sofie’s own beginnings.

    The way in which Gia’s and Sofie’s stories connect is revealed towards the novel’s climax. It’s not an easy story to tell or hear, but it allows Sofie to move closer to her mother, grandmother, and Italian extended family and community.

    Gia plays her beloved Dean Martin albums on near constant rotation, so his voice is the backdrop to Sofie’s holiday time with her grandmother – as is cooking.

    Each of Sofie’s chapters is named after a particular dish her grandmother makes, always based on traditional Calabrian recipes. And Gia loves to use chilli, from a plant grown from seeds her own grandmother gave her when she left Italy so long ago. ‘Angry spaghetti’ is a favoured dish (spaghetti all’Arrabbiata Calabrese) and I was delighted to discover the recipe for this and quite a few other special dishes made by Gia in the novel, at the back of the book. It absolutely felt like a gift from Gia to me, the reader!

    Cooking is a theme throughout the novel and a beautiful metaphor to express the ways in which love, culture, connection and family can be passed on through favoured recipes, cooking and sharing food together.

    ‘Go on. Close your eyes. Breathe in.’
    The sharp tang hit my nostrils first, then a little bit of acridity, followed by sweetness and last of all a current of mellow earthy oil. I open my eyes to Nonna Gia beaming.
    ‘It’s the same scent your ancestors breathed when they cooked this dish.’
    And just then it was almost as if the aroma released a trigger of deep memories that let things rise up and take shape in ourselves.

    The Proxy Bride p369

    The Proxy Bride shines a light into a little-known or understood corner of the migrant story in Australia, told through complex characters no doubt informed by the author’s own family experiences as Italian migrants. I learnt a lot and enjoyed the read.

    The Proxy Bride is published by HarperCollins Publishers in September 2022.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading

    Friendships and memory: ‘True Friends’ by Patti Miller

    Upon opening Australian author Patti Miller’s latest book, I immediately began thinking about my own friends, past and present. I have been fortunate to have experienced sustained, deep, nurturing friendships throughout my life, but of course there have been some that have fallen away as the years went on – mostly gradually through changed life circumstances, but one or two abruptly and somewhat painfully.

    True Friends is an exploration of friendship but also of memory: when considering the people and events in our past, what Patti Miller calls the ‘questionable vault of memory’ will inevitably get things wrong, or in a muddled order. Tightly linked with memories are sounds, smells, tastes, places, feelings; even if we get some facts wrong, these things bind the event or moment to the memory and help to bring it alive once again.

    First there is the original experience, but even at that stage, before interpretation or memory, so much is unobserved, unrecorded. A few moments of colour and sound are partially registered and then all that is left are the neurotransmitters floating from axon to dendrite, hopefully creating a neural pathway. The lovely, faulty, biochemical science of friendship.

    True Friends p167

    She describes the epic poem Gilgamesh, written on clay tablets up to two thousand years before Homer’s Iliad or Odyssey were written, as the first story – and it is, essentially, all about friendship. The need for connection, contact and understanding with another is a fundamental trait from the deep past of humanity right through to modern times. Thinking about this, I wondered why there have not been many more non-fiction books on the topic of friends.

    This book is about friendships generally, and the author’s friendships specifically, but it is told through the framing device of one friendship in particular which did not last, and which ended in a way that left her feeling bewildered and hurt. She describes the period of time during which she struggled to recognise the end of the relationship as ‘the long bewilderment.’

    I’m certain that many reading this book will recognise the pain of this.

    Overall, though, the book is a hymn to friends and the richness they add to our lives, in all their complexities and challenges:

    For me, loving friendship is not a fusion with another, but it is a rickety swing bridge to a separate being, and even though I know it can fall away in to the abyss, the urge to step onto it is always there…when I am with a friend, I am woven into the human mystery.

    True Friends p279

    I have enjoyed every book by Patti Miller that I have read, and this one is no exception. It is a book to savour, one that made me laugh and sigh in recognition, and that I continued to think about long after I’d closed the cover.

    True Friends is published by University of Queensland Press in 2022.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    ‘In-betweenness’: ‘The Cult of Romance’ by Sarah Ayoub

    In a classic case of judging a book by its cover, my first thought on picking up The Cult of Romance was ‘Oh no, another YA novel drenched in teenage angst about boys!’

    Well, I am here to admit that in that, I was wrong: thoroughly, comprehensively wrong.

    What Australian journalist and author Sarah Ayoub has written is a funny, wise and very relevant portrayal of growing up in multicultural Australia. All about identity, culture and belonging, it explores what it means to be a young Lebanese-Australian women – and a feminist – while trying to be supportive as your best friend heads towards a ridiculously young marriage.

    The novel is full of amusing asides such as: 5 things you expect your best friend to bring back from a Lebanese holiday (the list does not include an engagement ring), that highlight the sometimes difficult, often funny, aspects of contemporary life for the children and grandchildren of immigrants.

    Crucially, it explores the ‘in-betweenness’ of these young people : there is the traditional culture of the homeland as it was when the parent / grandparent left that remains real to that family member; the contemporary society that has developed there since they left; and the world inhabited by the young person who was born into a different country and culture.

    The protagonist, Natalie, comes face to face with this when she travels to Lebanon for her friend’s wedding, as she is confronted with all that she doesn’t know or understand about the country that her grandmother, her Tayta, had left so many years before.

    That night as I lie in bed, I think about my inheritance. Not a house or money or family heirlooms, but that very feeling of straddling two separate identities, crystallised in small moments, like that one on the train today. Lebanese stories on Australian trains, being told to sit like a girl, judgement for my otherness in my own homeland. ‘Your mother made such an effort to teach you Arabic,’ Tayta had said.

    The Cult of Romance p115

    Natalie is an engaging and believable character and I admired her strenuous efforts to understand and to learn. There is a romantic thread (which is in itself interesting as Natalie is a self-proclaimed ‘anti-romantic’) but the true arc of the story is her journey to more understanding and acceptance of herself and others.

    The Cult of Romance is a terrific book for young people to enjoy and to reflect on the differences and similarities that make us human.

    It was published by HarperCollins Publishers in May 2022. My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    “Gus and the Starlight’ by Victoria Carless

    It’s rare for a novel aimed at middle grade readers to deal openly with issues of family instability and broken or difficult parental relationships. Aussie author Victoria Carless has achieved this, while imbuing her story with a sense of hope (and a smidgen of the supernatural).

    Gus is twelve. At the novel’s opening she is in a car with her mum, older sister Alice and little brother Artie. They are driving through the day and night – actually, several days and nights – heading north to Queensland. Her mother, Delphine, is escaping another difficult boyfriend, looking for a fresh start with her kids, somewhere where Troy won’t find them. Equally importantly, she wants to find a place to live where the locals won’t know about her work as a spiritual medium, which she’s keen to leave behind because of all the sadness it brings.

    So, not entirely a ‘regular’ family then, especially as it becomes clear that the girls of the family tend to inherit ‘the gift’ (connecting with the dead) at puberty. Will the gift – or curse, depending on your viewpoint – manifest itself in Gus and her sister?

    The family lands in the small township of Calvary, surrounded by sugarcane fields, where Delphine plans to restore and run the long-neglected drive-in cinema, the Starlight.

    Gus has learnt long ago not to put down roots, make friends, or get used to the places that her family stay in, because it’s too painful when the inevitable happens and they have to leave. Despite herself though, she becomes fascinated by the workings of the old-fashioned film projection equipment and learns to operate it, with the help of Henry, who may or may not be a ghost.

    The descriptions of the drive-in and the surrounding Queensland countryside are vivid and will resonate with anyone who remembers drive-ins of yesteryear, or who has driven through such semi-tropical parts of Australia. The novel is, in a way, a homage to some of the terrific films of the 1980’s and 90’s, such as ET, Strictly Ballroom, Ghostbusters, and The Princess Bride. Each film has something to say to Gus and to the locals, who eventually flock back to the drive-in.

    Their landlady, Deidre, proves to be problematic, but by the time of the showdown, Gus and her family have developed a degree of self awareness and confidence and prove to be more than a match for their bullying landlady.

    Gus and the Starlight is part coming-of-age story, part magical realism, and all heart.
    It was published by HarperCollins Children’s books in May 2022.
    My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

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

    Terrific new children’s fantasy: ‘The Callers’ by Kiah Thomas

    The Callers is a fabulous new book for middle-grade readers, particularly those who enjoy immersion in a skillfully drawn fantasy world that prompts consideration of the challenges facing our own.

    Quin is the son of Adriana, the powerful head of the Council of Callers who rule the continent of Elipsom. ‘Calling’, the ability to conjure anything out of thin air, is in the DNA of his family and has been for generations.

    But Quin is different. He cannot Call, which puts him at odds with his mother and his talented sister Davinia, and also with the expectations of his world.

    When he discovers that the objects Callers bring into Elipsom are actually taken from another place where people also live, he decides to do something to change this.

    He meets Allie, a girl who is also on the path to correct this long-standing injustice, and together they embark on a quest to preserve the future of Allie’s land. But Quin is now heading for a headlong collision with his own family.

    This novel can be read as a sustained and sensitive metaphor for the risks of the environmental degradation facing our own planet, and also for the injustices perpetrated by centuries of colonialism. Is it fair that some should benefit from other’s loss?

    The story is deeply engrossing and I loved that there was no need for pitched battles or physical violence in Quin’s and Allie’s efforts to change their world. The two work together, using their existing skills – and some previously undiscovered talents – to overcome the obstacles in their way.

    Quin is uncertain, confused about his place in his family and society. Allie, on the other hand, is passionate and courageous and she shows Quin the reality of their two worlds, and how he can live in line with his own beliefs and feelings. There are many profound questions addressed in this slim novel, but it is such a great story that it’s never a lecture. I really cared about Quin and Allie and their quest.

    It’s also, in a way, a coming-of-age story, about growing up and seeing your world, and the adults in your life, through a different lens:

    His head was throbbing. How would he ever know what he believed anymore? Half of him wanted to simply dismiss what Allie was telling him. It would be easier to go on believing what he’d always known to be true. And who was this girl to tell him that every single thing about his life was a lie? What could she know?

    The Callers p86

    I loved this book right away and I hope Kiah Thomas writes more stories like this.

    The Callers was published by Harper Collins Children’s Books in May 2022. My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    ‘The Brightest Star’ by Emma Harcourt

    Recently I have noticed a heartening bounty of books being published that feature women striving and achieving in areas traditionally the preserve of men. It’s a timely redress of a centuries-long imbalance. The Brightest Star is a terrific example.

    Set in Renaissance Florence, it tells the story of Luna, a child born under a full moon and in the eyes of many, doubly cursed, as she was born with a crippled foot and her mother died shortly afterwards.

    Luna is raised by her father Vincenzio (a prosperous wool merchant with an appetite for learning, particularly in the burgeoning field of astronomy), her stepmother and two half-siblings. She has a happy childhood, despite her disability, as she has a quick, intelligent mind and a love for learning, which her father indulges – until Luna grows ‘too old’ for such interests, which are seen by most as inappropriate for a young women.

    To make matters worse, Florence has fallen under the spell of the fanatical preacher Friar Girolama Savonarola, who rails against all earthly pleasures and any view he regards as heresy. The powerful Medici family, who Luna’s father secretly supports, have been banished from the city. These are dangerous times for anyone who questions accepted orthodoxies or who longs for a different life than that set out by church, family and society.

    The reader is plunged into the world of Renaissance Florence: the petty concerns of society are contrasted with ground-breaking developments in science, mathematics, philosophy and the arts; the blossoming of intellectual thought collides with the fundamentalism of Savonarola. Luna’s interests and abilities lead her into conflict with the norms and expectations of her society, just as her father’s political views result in danger for the entire family.

    The hold of the Friar over the great and good of the city has echoes of modern so-called ‘leaders’ whose followers similarly suspend rational or independent thought and swallow all they are told, no matter how improbable or dangerous the lies become:

    It was very clever the way the preacher stood in the halo of luminosity, just as he spoke of the divine light the Lord had sent to him. All around, people murmured in agreement with his words and Vincenzio was astounded. Was he the only sane man to hear the brittleness in the hollow-cheeked voice? How could Savonarola speak of a new era of universal peace whilst ransacking the homes of good citizens and banishing others? Discord was growing and word had travelled that Florence was becoming unstable, yet the people believed the preacher’s promise of riches, glory and power.

    The Brightest Star p138-139

    Sound familiar?

    Reading this book, I had a sense of the ebb and flow of human knowledge; the theories of the ancient Greeks more advanced than some of the ideas of mediaeval Europe; some of the ingrained assumptions about women almost as familiar today as they were over six hundred years ago. Characters from history appear in the novel’s pages, inviting recognition: Leonardo da Vinci, Botticelli, Machiavelli and Copernicus, to name a few.

    The Brightest Star is a welcome addition to the growing number of historical novels in which women’s aspirations and abilities are centre-stage, in settings where such things could be dangerous.

    The Brightest Star is published by HarperCollins in July 2022. My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Secrets: ‘The Silence of Water’ by Sharron Booth

    Are some secrets best left buried in the past? Should we know everything about our forebears’ lives: including things they would much prefer remained hidden? Do the actions of the past affect descendants, even generations later?

    These are some of the questions explored in Sharron Booth’s debut novel, a work of historical fiction that builds on her extensive research. Regular readers of my blog will know that I am a sucker for fiction inspired by real-life people and events: it is what I most love to read (and write).

    The Silence of Water joins other books of this type that I have admired, including Kate Grenville’s The Secret River. It’s a complicated book, told from the experiences and points of view of three characters across three generations of people.

    Fan is unhappy at her parents’ decision to move from Adelaide to Western Australia to take care of Fan’s elderly grandfather, Edwin Salt, a man she has never met and knows nothing about. She develops an unexpected relationship with the old man and becomes curious about his past, as veiled references and clues emerge. When she goes digging for further information about Edwin, she stumbles across long-buried secrets that upset her view of the world and her family.

    The narrative moves from South Australia in 1906, backwards in time to Lichfield in England where Edwin lived with his family in the 1840’s; in between are the experiences of Agnes, Edwin’s daughter and Fan’s mother in Perth.

    These settings and times are the warp of the book; the stories of Edwin, Agnes and Fan are the weft, slowly revealing the true picture of the family and its origins as the novel progresses. Fan’s curiosity about her family’s past and its people is beautifully portrayed:

    ”You’ve got such a lost look about you, poor little bird.’ Ernest rested his hand over hers. ‘Now you know where you fit…. At grandfather Samuel’s funeral, my mother told me that Saint Mary’s was full to the gunnels. Brothers, sisters, aunties, uncles, rows and rows of cousins just like you and me, and all those screaming brats that our grandfather’s second wife kept popping out every year like Christmas puddings.’ Ernest drew an enormous circle around the entire family. ‘The point is, all those people in the church that day were your people, Agnes. Every single one.’
    Agnes stared at Ernest’s drawing. So many names, she could hardly take it in.

    The Silence of Water pp79-80

    The rich historical detail gives us an insight into how Western Australia must have appeared to the earliest British settlers and convicts; and also an indication of how late the convict transportation system continued into the western colony (until 1868), having ceased in the eastern colonies by the 1850’s.

    The Silence of Water was shortlisted for the 2020 City of Fremantle Hungerford Award for an unpublished manuscript. It tells a complex web of stories from one family and provokes questions about whether family secrets are best told or kept hidden. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would recommend to readers who enjoy stories about Australia’s past.

    The Silence of Water is published by Fremantle Press in May 2022.

  • Books and reading

    A slice of Australian life: ‘The Secret World of Connie Starr’ by Robbi Neal

    The Secret World of Connie Starr is a sweeping story of one Australian town, Ballarat, during a thirteen year period encompassing World War II and its immediate aftermath.

    It’s also the story of Connie, a child whose mother knew she was different – and difficult – from the moment of her birth. She sees (and speaks to) angels and demons, and she knows that the world is engaged in a ‘long, long war of good and bad.’ (p.436)

    Connie grows up with her parents, Joseph (a strict and devout Baptist minister), her mother Flora, and step-siblings Thom, Lydia and Danny, and alongside their friends and neighbours, many of whose stories are intertwined with her own.

    The book is written with an ‘omniscient author’ point of view, which allows the reader to engage with the experiences of each of the main characters alongside the broad canvas of the town and the sweep of world events. There are tragedies, loves and dramas; as elsewhere the onset of war means loss and despair for some, while for others it means escape of sorts, from mistakes or from an otherwise tedious life.

    Connie is not an especially likeable character, but the novel is an exploration of difference: individual differences as well as seismic events that can change lives forever:

    ‘I don’t know where I’ll be sent next,’ he said, and the urgency of their world, the shortness of their lives, filled their lungs and they breathed deeply and thought it was their only chance to step into the future.’

    The Secret World of Connie Starr p262

    I appreciated the vivacity of the details in the book: wartime rationing, work and home lives, church activities, the devastation of illnesses like polio which are rarely thought of today in Australia, shortages of goods, and even the drudgery of postwar life with many missing husbands and sons and a loss of faith for so many.

    Ms Neal has spent most of her life in country Victoria and lives in Ballarat, so the setting is particularly evocative, imbued with her own life experiences along with historical research. Some of the details made me smile in recognition, having grown up in country Australia in the 1960’s where many older traditions persisted: exploding ginger beer bottles in the shed, for example.

    The Secret Life of Connie Starr is a beautiful book: both broad and specific, similar to the ways in which Tim Winton’s Australian classic Cloudstreet is simultaneously both a sweeping saga and a slice of Australian family life.
    It is published by Harper Collins in June 2022.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • 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

    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.