I’m now a definite fan of Kate Miles, the central character in this third novel by Aussie author Dinuka McKenzie featuring this determined, but very human, police detective. You can read my thoughts about Taken, book 2 in the series.
Once again Kate is on her home turf in the fictional town of Esserton, in the NSW Northern Rivers region. She is still juggling her very demanding job with two young children while trying to be more present for them and her husband Geoff. Not an easy task.
In this story, her birth family and its complications feature heavily and place more demands on Kate. Her brother Luke, long estranged from their father, returns to Esserton for the funeral of one of his two closest friends during their school years. A few days later, the third in their old friendship trio is found dead.
Luke has many other issues he is trying (not very successfully) to deal with, and it’s not surprising when the shadow of suspicion falls on him.
While Kate attempts to convince Luke to help himself, things begin to spiral out of control. Her impartiality and professionalism is brought into question as another death in the town rocks the community.
Events from Luke and his dead friends’ pasts become inextricably linked with these tragedies, in ways the characters struggle to understand.
The novel nicely meets the requirements of a page-turner, but as always for me it’s the characters who are the most important, especially Kate and her family. She is entirely believable and relatable and I found myself cheering for her the whole way through.
She knew that Geoff would love her to give up the police force for a profession that placed less strain on their family life and removed his constant worries about her welfare and safety. But that would mean throwing away all the years of slog, the slow and patient climbing, dealing with all the bullshit and dick swinging and bureaucracy to prove her worth. It felt like so much of her life and identity were tied up in proving herself against those jeering voices that told her it was her skin colour, her gender and her father’s influence and not her ability that had got her there. To give it up now felt nigh-on impossible.The Tipping Point p99
The Tipping Point was published by HarperCollins Books in January 2024.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
The publishers had this to say about Australian author Jackie French’s latest offering for middle grade readers:
This is the story of women who fought during WWI, but not as nurses or ambulance drivers.
In 1917 sixteen-year-old Jean McLain is working as a post-office assistant in England. But when she wins a national Morse code competition, the British army makes a request Jean cannot refuse – to take a secret position as a signaller in France.
If Jean can keep the signals flowing between headquarters and the soldiers at the Front, Britain might possibly win the war.From Secret Sparrow blurb, HarperCollins Australia
I sometimes think that if Jackie French was not an author, she would have made a wonderful archaeologist or even miner: she is forever digging out long-buried nuggets of wonder and creating compelling stories to bring to life little-known events or circumstances from the past.
Secret Sparrow tells the story of young Jean, whose character stands in for the women who were sent by the British to work as ‘signallers’ in WWI. Working at base camps but sometimes near or on the front lines, they operated the morse code machines, sending and receiving coded messages that were crucial in the days before mobile technology or even telephones were widely used in warfare.
Most of these women were employed by the postal service, although on temporary ‘secondment’ to the army. This meant that they were paid at the normal rate for their postal worker job, received no special conditions and – shockingly – were not paid pensions or medical expenses due to them after injury, or at the end of the war.
A shortage of recruits with signalling skills meant long shifts of twelve hours or more, with no toilet or meal breaks. Signallers needed to be fast and, importantly, accurate – a slip could literally be the difference between life and death for soldiers. It was crucial work.
To add insult to injury, in researching this history, the author learned that the majority of records relating to the women signallers’ service were destroyed after the war. Was this to evade responsibility for paying pensions to these women? Or embarrassment that the authorities had needed to recruit women for what were seen as men’s jobs, due to the danger and skill involved?
Jean’s story takes us to the heart of trench warfare in France in 1917 and the author does not try to tidy it up for younger readers. The mud, rats, lice, horrific injuries, chaos, death and fear are all there. But there is also comradeship, and kindness, and bravery.
There are moments of humour:
‘Toodle-pip, ma’am,’ Sergeant Peartree said to Mrs Reynolds with a half-salute, half-wave. Jean had a feeling that he thought a woman administrator was not worth a proper salute, or possibly he simply didn’t know which one was due to her – an ignorance shared by almost the entire army, the generals included. Those worthies had not decided whether the female administrators were officers, non-commissioned officers or ordinary troops. Apparently they were simply to be treated like unicorns: a species you didn’t have to acknowledge might exist.Secret Sparrow p93
Jean’s wartime story is told by her to a young Arjun, a boy she helps when they are both caught out in a flash flood in rural NSW, Australia. It is 1978 and Jean is now an older lady, who has not lost her quick thinking and survival skills. She is able to look at her wartime experiences in a nuanced way which she shares with Arjun:
It was a stupid war, fought in stupid ways, and mostly run by stupid men… The stupidity of the battle I was in – multiply that by every battle in the war… So yes, we had to fight. But we shouldn’t have had to fight like that. England and Germany were ruled by elites, and those elites weren’t very good at ruling. They’d got the job because they were born into it, and so millions of people died.Secret Sparrow p226
Lest we forget, indeed.
Secret Sparrow was published by Angus & Robertson, an imprint of HarperCollins Children’s Books, in November 2023.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
Irish-born Australian author Dervla McTiernan writes gripping crime fiction with well drawn characters and vivid settings. What Happened to Nina? is set in a snowy Vermont winter, and centres around the main character, twenty year old Nina.
The prologue tells us much of what we need to know about the story. Nina lives with her mum, stepfather and younger sister Grace. She has a boyfriend, Simon Jordan, and they both love rock climbing.
One weekend they go away to stay at Simon’s family holiday cabin to climb and spend time together. Only one of the pair returns from that weekend away.
So, what did happen to Nina?
The narrative takes the reader into the aftermath of crime: the devastation wreaked on a victim and their family, as well as on the perpetrator’s. To a certain extent, the novel keeps us guessing, as both Nina and Simon’s families have different versions of the events that played out that weekend.
In essence, it is a story of the awful acts that people can commit, and the lies they can tell to avoid responsibility. As readers we are invited to step into the shoes of the main people involved: Nina’s parents and sister, and Simon, his mother and father. How do you move on from tragedy? How can justice be best served? What lengths would a parent go to, to protect their child?
It also touches on the power of social media to work both for and against victims of crime and their loved ones.
It’s the kind of crime fiction I enjoy, raising deep questions about human behaviour and asking the reader to reflect on those questions. I found it compelling, the characters believable and in some respects, the events all too familiar.
What Happened to Nina? is published by HarperCollins in March 2024.
My thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for an advance review copy.
Imagine being proposed to by letter, then marrying in a small and hasty ceremony, acting on your new husband’s assurances that you would be joining him on his next voyage on a British naval ship; only to learn that you would not, in fact, be granted permission to do so. You bid a sad farewell to your beloved, having been married a matter of weeks. Off he sails, to explore and chart a vast southern continent on the other side of the globe.
You do not see your husband again for nearly a decade.
This is what happened to Ann Chappelle, who married Matthew Flinders in Lincolnshire, England, in 1801. To say that her new husband was impulsive and careless, as Kieza describes him, is an understatement. However it is also true that he was a man of his age, ambitious, curious about the world, passionate about science and the sea, keen to venture into the unknown. And there is no question that he adored his wife.
Reading this detailed and vivid account of the life of an extraordinary figure of Australia’s early colonial history, I discovered some personal links with my own family history. One is that he came from the same part of England from where my paternal ancestors migrated in the mid-1800s, the marshy fens of Lincolnshire. His lifelong mentor, the botanist Joseph Banks, was also born there.
From an early age Matthew wanted more than a small life in a small village, working as a physician like his father. He was attracted to the sea and inspired by the adventures of Captain James Cook and Banks on the Endeavour, and he joined the navy when he was sixteen.
He first served under another famous figure, William Bligh, experiencing terrifying battles against the French, voyages to Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania), Tahiti, the Cook Islands, Tonga, Fiji, through the treacherous reefs of the Torres Strait, to Jamaica and then back to England. In most of those places there were encounters with the original inhabitants, as well as astonishing new sights, sounds, smells and foods, and Matthew developed his charting skills which would become such an important part of his work. It is hard to overstate how much these experiences would have affected a youngster from a small, quiet corner of England.
He was to have command of his own ships of exploration: most famously the tiny Tom Thumb, on which (along with surgeon George Bass) he explored areas around the Sydney settlement and beyond. Later they circumnavigated Tasmania and proved it was an island, separate from the mainland of ‘Terra Australis.’
Subsequent voyages took him to parts of the continent still relatively remote today: up the Queensland coast to the furthest reaches of Cape York Peninsula and the islands of the Torres Strait, across the Gulf of Carpentaria to Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory, and around the southern coastline of the continent. On these voyages he was accompanied by the famous Trim, the black-and-white cat who became Matthew’s beloved and loyal companion for many years.
He experienced shipwreck, sickness, injury, thirst and near starvation. None of these deterred his passion for life at sea and for exploration.
Everywhere he ventured he created charts and kept detailed notes of his observations. It’s difficult for us in today’s connected world to understand that to Europeans at that time, ‘Terra Australis’ was largely a mystery – thousands of kilometers of coastline and a vast interior which was – what? Desert? An inland sea? A network of rivers? No Europeans knew.
Another significant feature of Matthew’s experiences was the help given to him and his crews by the indigenous people they encountered. Interactions included warning shots from muskets and some occasions that came close to outright armed conflict; but many times the British mariners had help in the form of fresh water, guidance through difficult country, or exchanges of European goods for food.
Indeed, it is significant that one of the first times the word ‘Australians’ was used, it was to describe First Nations people near what is now called Port Lincoln in South Australia.
And what of Ann, his wife in far-away Lincolnshire?
The couple exchanged letters, full of longing and (on Ann’s part at least) occasional exasperation. The wives of British sea captains had to resign themselves to long periods of separation, though for Ann, this was further prolonged, when on his homeward voyage in 1803, Matthew put in to the French-controlled island of Mauritius for emergency repairs and reprovisioning, only to be placed under guard as a potential British spy. Because news from Europe took so long to reach British colonial outposts, Britain and France were again at war, but Matthew had not known of it.
He was to spend seven long years in captivity of varying degrees of discomfort, before finally being released in 1810.
He and Ann were at last reunited and set up house together, Ann giving birth to a daughter at the relatively old age (for a first-time mother in the 1800s) of nearly forty-one. Matthew’s health, though, was badly affected by his trials at sea. And sadly, he had to battle with the Admiralty to be given the pay owing him while he’d been imprisoned by the French, and for due recognition for his work in mapping Australia.
Matthew Flinders died in 1814 from renal failure following years of kidney and bladder problems. He was only forty years old.
He led an extraordinary life, voyaging through seas and territories previously unknown to Europeans, experiencing many dangers and hardships. He adopted the name Australia for the southern continent he spent so much of his time exploring and he urged the authorities to do likewise.
The aspect of Flinders’ personality that I most admire, though, is that he was a man whose greatest wish was that his work, his charts and discoveries, would be used for the benefit of science and the greater knowledge of humanity in general, not for warfare or domination. In this, of course, he was disappointed, but he lived his life in the service and pursuit of knowledge.
Flinders is a finely researched and well-written account of a fascinating figure of Australian colonial history, the man who – quite literally – put Australia on the map.
Flinders was published by HarperCollins in November 2023.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
Once again I am signing up to reading challenges for the coming year, as a way to add to my reading diet and explore new areas of knowledge and understanding.
In 2024, I will take part in these challenges:
- Non Fiction Reading Challenge
My goal is to become a ‘Non Fiction Nibbler’, reading 6 books from any 6 of the 12 categories (details about the challenge, hosted by Book’d Out, here)
- Historical Fiction Reading Challenge
Of course! I’m aiming for the ‘Mediaeval’ level of 15 books.
This one is hosted by the Intrepid Reader. Sign up and find out more here.
- Books by First Nations authors
This one is my own personal challenge, not an official one. I’m aiming for 6 books by Australian (or other) First Nations authors.
- Cloak and Dagger Reading Challenge
Hosted by Carol’s Notebook (check out the blog here)
This is a new one for me; I’m having a go for fun, as I do enjoy a good crime/mystery read.
The challenge also includes thriller/suspense/true crime books.
I’m aiming to become an ‘Amateur Sleuth’ by reading between 5 – 15 books in these genres.
So, that’s my reading sorted. Oh, and add the book group choices already programmed for the year, plus ones I review for publishers…I’ll be behind a book somewhere if you need me.
Have you joined a reading challenge or reading group, and if so, did it help you to expand your reading repertoire?
- Non Fiction Reading Challenge
Where to begin with this huge, sweeping non-fiction book? Perhaps with the title. In an interview I heard with the author (best known for her historical fiction featuring British royalty like the Plantagenet and Tudor women) she said that she wanted to write about the full gamut of women across 900 years of British history – from royal and aristocratic to peasant women. Because, at the times in which they lived, these were ‘normal’ women, doing what queens, noblewomen, tradeswomen and artisans and peasant farming women did.
I found that a compelling argument; more so since reading this grand work of research and narrative.
Why am I interested in the history of British women?
Apart from the fact that I inherited my fascination with history from my mother; as an Australian woman whose ancestors were almost all from England, Ireland or Scotland, the history of Britain and its women is also my history.
Also, my interest in family history is particularly focused on the women in my family tree, the people about whom it is most difficult to find information and records that extend beyond birth and baptism, marriage and babies, death and burial. I want to know what kind of lives they lived, what their likely interests or preoccupations might have been, what big and small events shaped them.
Ms Gregory sums up her motivation for writing the book as follows:
What we read as a history of our nation is a history of men, as viewed by men, as recorded by men.Normal Women pp1-2
Is 93.1 per cent of history literally ‘His Story’ because women don’t do anything? Are women so busy with their Biology that they have no time for History, like strict timetable choices – you can’t do both?…
Women are there, making fortunes and losing them, breaking the law and enforcing it, defending their castles in siege and setting off on crusade; but they’re often not recorded, or mentioned only in passing by historians, as they were just normal women living normal lives, not worthy of comment.
The book begins with the Norman invasion in 1066 and ends at the modern era, in the 1990’s. In between it examines the lives of women over a range of topic areas, including: religion, violence, marriage, women loving women, women and the vote, prostitution, health, education, work, enslaved women and slave owners, single women, ideas about the ‘nature of women’, rape, sport, wealth and poverty, protest…It’s a huge expanse of information drawn from a wide range of sources.
In the process the real reason for the beginnings of the gender pay gap is revealed; also how the patriarchal systems of law and inheritance were imported and formalised by the Norman invaders; how accusations of rape were dealt with in the legal system and how this barely changed over centuries; when businesswomen and tradeswomen gained admission to important guilds and how they were later excluded; how a queen became the first woman to publish a book in English in her own name; how women worked together and also against each other; a sombre roll call of women martyrs who died for their religious beliefs during the early modern period and another of women murdered by husband, boyfriend or family member in 2019.
The author’s skill is evident in the way she has presented a mind-boggling array of historical facts and themes in a compelling narrative, with snippets of the names and stories of women across different circumstances that help to bring them to life for the reader.
And there are some Oh My God moments. Here are some that stayed with me:
- Sixteen year old Emma de Gauder holding out against William I (aka the Conqueror) at a Norwich castle for three months and later going on the First Crusade with her husband.
- Roman Catholic churches in the eight century hosting same-sex marriages (women marrying women) which were entered in the parish records in the usual way.
- The old Anglo-Saxon word for ‘wife’ meant peace-weavers and ‘spinster’ originally meant the actual occupation (a woman who spun yarn.)
- The 1624 Infanticide Act meant that women who could not prove that a baby had been stillborn would hang. There was no assumption of innocence and no accusation levelled at the father of the baby.
- The sentence of death by burning at the stake was still being applied for crimes such as the murder of a husband in the 1700’s. It mattered not how violent, cruel or abusive the husband was. Husband-killing was seen as ‘petty treason’.
- Forceps for difficulties in childbirth were invented in the 1700’s but kept a secret for three generations in order to increase the profits of the medical family concerned.
- Housewives living in poverty were blamed for poor sanitation and high rates of disease and child mortality.
- Syphilis was thought to occur spontaneously in the bodies of promiscuous women (read: prostitutes) and passed on to men.
- Rape in marriage was thought to be impossible as their wedding vows meant that women gave consent to sexual acts from that time on.
- The widespread belief (even into the early twentieth century) that women would become infertile if they were more highly educated: to quote from the book, a statement by a neurologist – If the feminine abilities were developed to the same degree as those of the make, her material organs would suffer, and we should have before us a repulsive and useless hybrid. (p460)
- Male students at Oxford University were so appalled at the proposal that female graduates should be awarded their degrees on completion of their course of study – in 1948 – that they attacked the college residence of women students.
- and so on and so on…
I dare any woman to read this book and not be thankful for feminism and the changes it has helped to bring about. But – it also highlights the fact that there is a long, long way to go before we can truly say we have achieved genuine equality for women of all classes, races, religious beliefs and family situations.
Normal Women is published by HarperCollins in November 2023.
My thanks to the publishers for a copy.
In 2023, my total number of books came to 45 this year, a few more than the previous one. (And I may have missed a title or two in my count.)
Of these, 11 were non fiction titles, meaning I exceeded my #ReadNonFicChal goal of 6 books, which I am pleased about. Five of these were history (of course!); three biographies (though to be fair, they were all biographies of historical figures, so could count in both categories); two memoirs and one on a medical/health topic.
Standout non fiction reads? David Marr’s Killing for Country for its truth-telling, and Grantlee Kieza’s The Remarkable Mrs Reiby for its story of a truly remarkable woman who quite possibly rubbed shoulders with an ancestress of mine in early colonial Sydney.
My historical fiction reads this year numbered 18: no surprise there as it is a favourite genre of mine. My goal for the #histficreadingchallenge for 2023 was 15, so I easily met that one.
And a personal challenge of mine is to read books by First Nations authors. I have read 4 this year: The Visitors by Jane Harrison, Reaching Through Time by Sheila Bostock, We Come With This Place by Debra Dank, and Mullumbimby by Melissa Lucashenko. All great reads in different ways; I highly recommend them. It’s wonderful that there is now so much First Nations writing being published; it is hard to choose just one to recommend as my annual ‘pick’ for the book group I am part of.
I plan to participate in reading challenges both online and of my own making again in 2024. It’s a fun way to be a little more conscious of my reading choices and to incorporate some new authors or topics in my reading diet.
I wish you all a happy reading year ahead, good health and a happy 2024.
Photo by Abhinav Sharma at Pexels
School – big school – is a Big Thing in a little one’s life. For their parents, too. So picture books that help prepare and excite very young children about the prospect of starting or returning to school are always welcome.
From the ABC Books ‘Mindfully Me’ series comes Ready, Set, Big School, (Jan Stradling and Jedda Robaard) featuring the beloved characters from ABC’s ‘Play School’ TV shows. Humpty, Jemima, Little Ted, Kiya and friends practice putting on their school uniform, packing their lunchbox, and making new friends, all ready for the big day.
When the first day arrives, Big Ted is surprised to find that he also has a funny feeling in his tummy.
(Parents will relate to that bit.)
The Crayons Go Back to School (Drew Daywalt and Oliver Jeffers) allows youngsters who are old hands at the school thing to recognise that the end of the holidays means back-to-school. The colourful crayons throw themselves into the routine of school: deciding what to wear, greeting old friends, drawing, writing, doing maths.
Two books to share and read aloud, perfect to soothe Big School nerves.
Ready, Set, Big School and The Crayons Go Back to School are published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in November 2023.
My thanks to the publisher for review copies.
This novel opens in Baltimore, USA, in 1900. Hannah Isaacson is one of a small group of women admitted to Johns Hopkins Medical School, in the face of doubt and opposition from the men who dominate and control everything about healthcare and medical education, including for women. She is determined to achieve her goal of working as a qualified doctor in obstetrics.
To do so, she has to study and work hard and find a way around the demands and questionable practices from some doctors who don’t put the interests of patients first.
She becomes increasingly concerned about the rising number of women she has to deal with who are the victims of botched abortions. The stark reality of women’s lives at this time led some to choose this way of dealing with an unwanted pregnancy: middle-class and ‘society’ women to avoid shame for themselves and their families; poor women because they cannot afford another mouth to feed.
Contraceptive devices were illegal under Federal US laws at the time – women left with very few choices regarding family planning and their own health needs.
Hannah wants to work to change all this.
After she is qualified, she moves back to her home town of New York City to work in a major Jewish hospital there, and meets other women with similar aims, including the real-life Margaret Sanger, a pioneer in areas of women’s birth control and suffrage.
When Hannah tries to save the life of a woman dying after a botched abortion, she is arrested and incarcerated at the notorious Blackwell’s Workhouse, where she is horrified at appalling neglect and abuse of inmates. Her experiences here add to her determination to address the devastating effects of poverty on women, especially among the communities of immigrants pouring into New York from Europe and Ireland.
When she is finally released, she has to claw back her reputation and career, and while doing so, develops a plan to create women’s health services in the poorest parts of the city.
This is a carefully researched novel, with a mix of real-life and imagined characters. I love that part of the inspiration for one of its central women, was the author’s great-grandmother. And I enjoyed learning about the beginnings of modern hospital care and obstetric services in an important US centre and its immigrant populations, especially Jewish people from Europe escaping anti-semitism in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Hannah is a believable character. She is determined, but not without anxieties and insecurities. Her experiences with men add complications and leave her questioning her own instincts. Many readers will relate to that side of Hannah. However, despite all the challenges confronting her, she does not lose sight of her goals to better the lives of others. She is smart, sensitive and empathic. Her dealings with the men in charge of institutional funds and regulations allow her to develop some wily negotiation skills!
I enjoyed In the Hands of Women: an engrossing novel with themes and characters I could care about. There is a prequel on the way by Jane Loeb Rubin which I look forward to reading on its release.
In the Hands of Women was published by Level Best Books in May 2023.
My thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for a review copy.
‘Welcome to the secret life of the Colebrook twins: unnoticed old maids to most, but unseen champions to those in need – society be damned.’The Benevolent Society of Ill-Mannered Ladies
Fans of Georgette Heyer’s Regency novels and the TV hits Bridgerton and Queen Charlotte will welcome this romp-with-a-twist through Georgian society.
Far from simpering ‘young gels’, the Colebrooks (Augusta and Julia) are spinsters of what was then regarded as advanced age – late thirties and early forties. Rather late to still be unmarried.
Augusta (‘Gus’) decides to take matters into her own hands when she learns that her good friend’s goddaughter is being cruelly mistreated and kept a virtual prisoner by an abusive husband. She hatches a plan to rescue young Caroline and Julia becomes her sidekick – somewhat reluctantly and certainly with misgivings, but wholeheartedly once they both realise the seriousness of Caroline’s situation.
The mission presents many dangers, especially once their carriage is held up by a highwayman on the way to their destination, and Gus accidentally shoots the man on horseback, who has demanded their money and jewellery.
Once she realises he is someone they knew from years before – Lord Bevan who was exiled to Australia after being accused of murder – the sisters’ plans begin to unravel in a hilarious way. Despite the setbacks, they succeed in rescuing Caroline and this whets Gus’s appetite for more adventures – much to her sister’s dismay.
Gus and Julia are very different women, bound by deep love for the other, and they bring a different skill set to each of their subsequent missions to help badly used women. Lord Bevan plays a role and of course there is a blossoming romance (it would hardly be a Regency novel without it, right?)
The fun of the novel is coupled with some devastating scenarios that beset many women during this time. The graceful gowns, satin slippers and elegant manners of polite society were accompanied by laws and attitudes that seriously disadvantaged women, sometimes to the point of threatening their lives.
I loved seeing Gus and Julia sally forth on their pursuit of justice for other women. They are heroines we can admire and enjoy – while men provide assistance, the brains of the outfit definitely resides in female heads!
There is apparently a sequel on the way and I look forward to more fun with the ill-mannered ladies.
The Benevolent Society of Ill-Mannered Ladies was published by HarperCollins in June 2023.