• 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.

  • History

    A Kiwi perspective: ‘The Leonard Girls’ by Deborah Challinor

    The war in Vietnam divided opinion and (often) families, in those countries that sent troops and support personnel to oppose the communist Viet Cong in Vietnam during the 1960’s and early 70’s. The Leonard Girls is a well researched portrayal of the issues confronting New Zealanders during this turbulent time.

    There are three main characters in the story: Rowie and Jo (the Leonard girls of the title) and Sam. Rowie has just enlisted to serve as a military nurse in Vietnam. Jo, her younger university student sister, is vehemently outspoken in her opposition to the war. Sam is a professional soldier about to embark on his second tour of duty.

    By the time the novel closes, each of these three have undergone a change in their views about the war, due to first-hand experiences of the losses that inevitably accompany military conflict.

    There are fascinating details of the daily lives of the soldiers who fought, the nurses who tended the wounded and the concert parties who braved the difficult and sometimes dangerous conditions to entertain the troops. Inevitably there are confronting scenes of the impact of war, including on the Vietnamese people and on families left at home in New Zealand. A scene in a Vietnamese orphanage made an especially visceral impression on me.

    The other, quite shameful, aspect of this time that is portrayed well is the treatment of Australian and New Zealand soldiers, particularly on their return from Vietnam. The Author’s Note goes into this in a little more detail as well as giving a good overview of NZ involvement in the conflict, and what was going on at home.

    As in another book I recently reviewed, The Nurses’ War by Australian writer Victoria Purman, The Leonard Girls shows the important positive effects on injured Australian and New Zealand personnel of being tended to by nurses and doctors from ‘home’.

    If you have seen either the stage production or the hit Australian movie The Sapphires, you’ll have something of a picture of the work of entertainers in Vietnam during the conflict. However, I enjoyed the New Zealand focus of this novel, as so often the ‘NZ’ component of ‘ANZAC’ is downplayed or ignored altogether. I also enjoyed the glimpses of Maori culture and community throughout.

    While I found the pace a little slow at times, there was much to enjoy about – and learn from – this novel. Deborah Challinor’s books are always founded in deep research and knowledge of the period or context about which she writes, and this one is no different.

    The journeys of the three protagonists, and their loved ones, are profound and well portrayed. This is a novel to leave the reader thinking deeply about a period of relatively recent history about which opinions can still be sharply divided.

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

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    D&D Adventures for middle-grade readers: ‘Dungeon Academy-No Humans Allowed!’ by Madeline Roux

    I’ve not been a Dungeons & Dragons player but I’m certainly aware of its long standing popularity.

    Madeline Roux (with illustrator Tim Probert) have created a fun adventure for primary and early secondary aged readers, featuring locations and characters worthy of the best D&D story.

    Essentially, this novel is about friendship and diversity.

    We meet Zelli, adopted by her two Minotaur mothers, who knows she is different from her classmates at the Dungeon Academy, where the focus is on learning to be fearsome and frightening. One day she stumbles across information in a textbook about Allidora Steelstrike, a skilled and famous adventurer, and Zelli’s world changes. The picture shows a human who looks a lot like Zelli herself. Could she also be of the Steelstrike bloodline – a human, not a monster or creature?

    And if she is, what does that mean for her future at the Academy and within her family? After all, Academy students are being prepared to do battle with humans, to hate them and want to fight them.

    So Zelli sets out on a quest to find Allidora Steelstrike and find out if she is a Steelstrike too.

    But she’s not alone. Joining her are Hugo, a huge Owlbear who (unlike the rest of his kind) loves to eat vegetables and hates meat; Snabla (a juvenile kobold who wants to prove himself worthy of his father’s shield), and Bauble (a shapeshifting mimic of indeterminate gender).

    The foursome are all misfits at the Academy, but together prove to be a force to be reckoned with.

    In the process, Zelli learns that family is where you feel at home, and kindness is what really counts, along with courage.

    All her life, her mothers had been preparing her for this moment – to stand tall and face down whatever adversity came to her. She tried to embody them, tried to feel nine feet tall and made of iron, with horns that could gore and hooves that could stampede. What she actually looked like, she didn’t know, but she felt in her heart like her adopted mothers’ daughter, a mighty minotaur.

    Dungeon Academy p136

    Dungeon Academy is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in March 2022.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Duty and trauma: ‘The Nurses’ War’ by Victoria Purman

    Acclaimed Australian author Victoria Purman’s new historical fiction novel is a fat book, just the thing for reading by the fireside during a prolonged wet spell – which is how I enjoyed it. It’s an easy read – though not a light one – as it deals with real historical events that proved distressing, often tragic, for those who lived through them.

    The setting is the real-life ‘Harefield House’, a grand mansion owned by wealthy expatriate Australians in the little village of Harefield, in Middlesex, England. In 1915 it was converted into a hospital for Australian troops recuperating from injurie inflicted at some of the many battlefields in Europe – especially at Gallipoli, France and Belgium.

    The hospital was staffed by Australian doctors and nurses and it must have been wonderful for the ill and injured Diggers to hear the familiar accents from home as they were cared for.

    If you, like me, are interested in the history behind the novel, the author has a piece on HarperCollins’ website with more detail, along with lovely photographs of the place, the nurses and some of the soldiers who went to Harefield. You can find it here.

    The story concerns four nurses, among those who sailed from Australian homes to help establish the hospital and stayed to care for the injured. There is also a local woman, Jessie, who volunteers to help care for the patients. We witness their anxiety as they await the first influx of soldiers, followed by their increasing horror as the hospital, established to cater for up to one hundred and fifty men, is flooded by thousands, stretching their resources, both physical and human. We are not spared the sights, sounds and smells that engulf the nurses as the brutality of war on human bodies and minds becomes clear.

    Cora had been well-trained, had more than a decade’s experience behind her and had believed she had seen almost everything, but nothing in Adelaide, nor the extra army training she’d undergone, could have prepared her for this sight.

    The Nurse’s War p79

    The novel also touches on other, perhaps unexpected, results of the war: profound change as the fundamentals of society shift, with women stepping into what were previously ‘men’s jobs’, becoming agriculture or postal workers, tram conductors, ambulance drivers; new trends in clothing allowing women more freedoms and comfort; and of course the suffrage movement. The threat of instant death and loss also changed many people’s long-held beliefs and attitudes, about marriage, love, or religion, for example.

    Friendships forged in wartime can be intense and profound, as can romances, but the novel does not pretend that these led to a ‘happy ever after’ ending for everyone. Rather, it illustrates the essentially random nature of an individual’s fate in times of war: an apparent throw of the dice can take a life or crush a person’s future. In such circumstances, is it surprising that people behave differently, re-think future plans or even their faith? World War I left behind a legacy of vast numbers of missing or profoundly wounded young men, multiple generations of grief, and a new social order in many parts of the then British Empire.

    Some aspects of Australian life, however, continue throughout – including racial discrimination, where indigenous men had to have written permission from the Protector of Aborigines to enlist, and yet still faced racism on the battlefield, in hospitals, and also at home at war’s end.

    This is a beautifully researched novel with characters that I quickly came to care about and a storyline that took me from the naivety of young Australians embarking on an adventure at the other side of the world, through the horrors of their war, to a profoundly moving conclusion.

    At the end of The Nurses’ War, the influenza pandemic is sweeping through the world, inflicting a terrible toll on those who’d managed to survive years of war. Again, the random hand of fate is at play. And given the global pandemic of 2020 to the current time (2022) I could not help but compare the experiences of then, with now. I found myself wondering: could modern-day Australians or British cope with prolonged, seemingly never-ending trauma and stress of a convulsive war, followed so closely by a deadly pandemic, in quite the same way as our forebears had to do?

    Coincidentally, this post is published on ANZAC Day, an annual commemoration of Australians who have died or suffered in war time. As I write this, a brutal war is being waged in Europe, as Russian troops attempt to take over the democratic nation of Ukraine. As always, I hope ANZAC Day will allow people to think about the futility and barbarity of war and redouble global efforts to put an end to using violence as a way to deal with disputes.

    The Nurses’ War is published by HarperCollins Australia in March 2022.
    My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

  • Books and reading

    Powerful and insightful: ‘All Mixed Up’ by Jason Om

    Jason Om will be familiar to viewers and listeners of Australia’s ABC network, presenting for programs such as 7.30 and Four Corners. His memoir opens with an account of witnessing his 44-year-old mother die of a heart attack when he was just twelve. Such trauma would have to impact on a young life and indeed, Jason and his family were never the same afterward.

    He lived with his Cambodian-born father in Melbourne, until study and a career in journalism took him to Sydney, Adelaide and back to Sydney.

    In the background, rearing up to confound and confront, were memories of his mother: her mental illness, her own (hidden) trauma, her love and her erratic, troubling behaviours.

    His memoir has vibrant descriptions of individual and family quirks, along with the puzzling questions about his family’s past, for which it seemed impossible to get answers.

    So, Jason decided to put his journalism skills to use and approached the secrets of his family, and particularly those of his parents, as he would approach an investigative piece: uncovering records and photographs, interviewing family members, visiting the places where long-ago events occurred.

    This took him to Malaysia and Cambodia where he began to piece together the personal and national tragedies that had such profound effects on his own life. He writes beautifully and sensitively about these issues and how he slowly began to come to terms with the past and its impact on his life and those around him.

    Also of great interest are his insights into the experiences of mixed race children, migrant families in Australia’s suburbs in the 1970’s and 80’s, the courage needed to come out as a gay man within his family, community and workplace, and the development of a more ethnically diverse media landscape in this country. All fascinating to read about and described with great sensitivity and honesty.

    I loved his ‘handy trick’ of reflecting the ‘Where are you from?’ or ‘What’s your background?’ questions (often asked out of curiosity and with no ill intent) back to the questioner:

    It meant we were all talking about race, not just mine, and I found that mutually sharing our heritage would open up the conversation.
    ‘That’s my background, what’s yours?’ I would ask them.
    I could always see the strain on their faces, their eyes darting around for an answer because the question had never entered their heads.

    All Mixed Up p125

    As someone with a deep seated and passionate interest in family history and identity, I love this tip and I think I’ll use it myself to spur conversations about the fascinating array of cultural and family backgrounds to be found in this country!

    All Mixed Up is a beautiful tribute to Jason’s family, his own struggles with acceptance and understanding, and the measure of humanity. I highly recommend to anyone interested in people!

    All Mixed Up is published by ABC Books and HarperCollins Publishers in April 2022.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    The gift of vision: ‘Eyes That Speak to the Stars’ by Joanna Ho

    This gloriously illustrated picture book by American author Joanna Ho and illustrated by Dung Ho, celebrates difference, heritage and love. It’s a follow up to the beautifully titled Eyes That Kiss in the Corners.

    A little boy of Asian heritage is unhappy about the difference between his eyes and those of his school friends, and confides in his father:

    The other day,
    when Baba picked me up from school,
    I didn’t run in for a hug
    the way I usually do;
    I stared at my toes
    where it was safe.
    “What’s wrong?” Baba asked,
    and all my hurt tumbled out.

    Eyes That Speak to the Stars

    His father explains to him that the little boy’s eyes come from his father, his grandfather Agong, and all their ancestors – and that his little brother Di-Di has the same eyes.

    Agong has an answer
    for every question I ask
    on our early morning walks,
    but when I hug him goodnight,
    he cups my face in his hands
    and looks at me
    like I am the only answer that matters.

    Eyes That Speak to the Stars

    This is a story about heritage, and family love in all its forms. I recently reviewed The Love that Grew, which tells of the love a mother feels for her children. Eyes That Speak to the Stars is a celebration of boys and their fathers, grandfathers, and the links that bind generations together. It’s a big story for little people, but the lyrical text and rich illustrations tell it well.

    Eyes That Speak to the Stars is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in March 2022.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

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

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

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

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

    The Love that Grew

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

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

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    Hopeful alternatives: ‘Into the Sideways World’ by Ross Welford

    The whole world was heading for war when Manny Weaver and I went through a ‘grey hole’ to another world.
    Till then, I didn’t believe in magic. Fairies, witches, magic spells, strange lands with talking animals, monsters with three heads and potions to turn you into a giant?
    …Then I encountered Manny, and the strange animal we called a ‘cog’, and the brother who I’d never met because he died before I was born. I rode through a lightning storm on a flying jet ski, and lived in a World Without War.
    And so now, if you ask me if I believe in magic? Let’s just say I’m not so sure.

    Into the Sideways World p3

    One of my favourite childhood books was The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C S Lewis – actually, I adored the whole Narnia series. It was something about the possibility of entering another world, parallel with, but completely different to, our own.

    Into the Sideways World by British author Ross Welford offers middle grade readers that opportunity to imagine another world. In this case, though, the Sideways World is not populated by magical creatures, but by the same people in Willa and Manny’s world – their families, friends, teachers – just different versions of the same people.

    This new world is very different in all other ways from their normal one. It’s an alternative world, in that its people have figured out how to stop warfare, avoid climate change and pollution, feed and house everyone – and they love wearing bright colours.

    Manny and Willa are both delightful characters, each with their own challenges and problems, whose friendship forms the basis of the novel. Together they try to figure out how to return to their own world, but also to bring home with them the messages of hope and positivity – a different way of doing things – from the Sideways World.

    I enjoyed the little snippets of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, Doctor Who, J F Kennedy, and genetic experimentation, among others. I also love that it’s set in the Tyneside area of northeast England (home of the Geordie accent). There are occasional echoes of Madeline L’Engle’s 1962 novel, A Wrinkle in Time (also a novel I loved), with its exploration of the concepts of time and space travel.

    Into the Sideways World is a story of hope and possibility – something youngsters very much need just now. It will be enjoyed by readers who like to imagine, explore, and wonder.

    Into the Sideways World is published by Harper Collins Children’s Books in February 2022.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Hardship, hope and glamour: ‘Dressed by Iris’ by Mary-Anne O’Connor

    If you’ve read a few of my reviews, you will know how much I love – adore – fiction inspired by real people and events, especially when they are people from the author’s own family. This is exactly what Australian novelist Mary-Anne O’Connor has delivered in her latest historical fiction, Dressed by Iris.

    Firstly, the glamour. The cover design is gorgeous; a beautiful young woman dressed in the lush fashions of the 1930’s. It’s lovely, and the story does centre around Iris, a young woman with a dream to design and make beautiful clothes.

    But as in real life, glamour can hide a multitude of sins and less-than-beautiful realities. The novel opens with Iris and her large, Catholic family, living in a tiny shanty house on the outskirts of Newcastle. Times are hard, with the Depression biting deep. The family barely scrape by and to add insult to injury, they experience the ugly prejudice of some better-off townsfolk against ‘Micks.’ Iris is courted by, and in love with, John, a young man from a Protestant family; but fears that the division between their families can never be bridged. It’s very Romeo-and-Juliet.

    Speaking of bridges, the story moves to Sydney, where Iris’s father and brother have found work, helping to build the Sydney Harbour Bridge. That bridge takes on a powerful role as a symbol of hope, modernity and better times ahead.

    Meanwhile, Iris finds work for a well-known Sydney designer of fashionable women’s clothing, and her dream of designing clothes seems a step closer. There are new threats and obstacles to overcome, and the story takes many twists and turns before its resolution.

    The author has given us a vivid picture of Sydney in the 30’s: the glamour of some parts, certainly; but also the rising desperation of the poor and a rising crime rate; entrenched sexism and religious intolerance; evictions of families unable to meet their rent; political turmoil with Fascists, Communists and unionists fighting pitched battles in the suburbs; the drama around the sacking of Jack Lang, the left-leaning Premier of NSW at the time. There are small details of domestic life that help bring the era alive: the careful coin counting and hard choices while shopping for a family’s dinner, just one example of this.

    I found unexpected personal connections with some aspects of the story. The suburb the family settle in is Hurstville – near my mother’s own childhood stamping ground in southwest Sydney. And one of Mum’s vivid memories from her childhood is the day she, her parents and her two younger siblings were evicted from their flat, finding a new home in the then ‘charity estate’ at Hammondville.

    Along with the ups and downs of the story and Iris’ journey from poverty to a career in fashion, Dressed by Iris is a love letter to family and to the lessons we learn from childhood. It’s also a song of praise for the virtues of hope, resilience, counting your blessings and making the best of things.

    I was moved to read in the author’s note that the two ‘leading ladies’ of this story, Iris and her mother Agnes, were modelled closely on the author’s own aunt and grandmother, and so many of the snippets of life included in the novel did, in fact, occur. I confess I shed a tear or two, reading that.

    They endured both tragedy and hardship, these two women, and faced great poverty during their lives, but they did it resiliently, cheerfully, generously and always with love. For me, that makes them two of the richest women that I will ever know.

    Dressed by Iris Author Note, p501

    Dressed by Iris is published by HQ Fiction in February 2022.
    My thank to the publisher for a review copy.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books,  History

    World Between Blinks #2: ‘Rebellion of the Lost’ by Amie Kaufman & Ryan Graudin

    Yes! Another instalment in the World Between Blinks, what I hope will become a long series for middle-grade readers. I loved Book 1 (here’s my review) so this sequel was very welcome.

    Book 2 continues the magical, sometimes chaotic, occasionally scary but always fun world of the Lost. Every item, person, geographical feature and building in the world that has been ‘lost’ to history, ends up in this world. The problem is that the Administrator, in charge of the team of Curators who log and document all the comings and goings of things, has decided it is all way too chaotic for his liking.

    So, he implements strict new controls designed to restore order. The unintended consequences of these rules are separated families, bored inhabitants, and a sterile, humourless World. Enter the rebels: all those who want to see their World returned to the creative, beautiful place it had been.

    Cousins Marisol and Jake, along with Marisol’s older, teenaged brother Victor, are drawn back to try to assist the rebels. What follows is a rollicking adventure with some fearful moments, new friendships and old ones rediscovered.

    On the way, Marisol and Victor learn some new things about each other and get to see their sibling in a new light. This insight stretches to others in the World: a beautiful metaphor for how, if we only stop to look, we can realise that people are not all ‘bad’ or ‘good’ – even individuals like the Administrator has an inner life that guides what he does, even if somewhat misguidedly.

    ‘That’s the thing the Administrator doesn’t understand, or doesn’t want to understand. Put everyone back in their zones, and they’ll be exactly the same forever. But everything changes. I’m not the same person I was back home. I used to think some things, say some things that – well, I’ve learned a lot. That’s what happens when you’re always exploring. You learn new lessons.’

    Rebellion of the Lost p139

    The Administrator has the power to ‘flip’ the hourglasses of every person in the World, thus erasing their memories. The process and its result is rather like an accelerated version of what happens to a person who suffers from a dementia illness such as Alzheimer’s. This could be a good analogy to explain what that disease is, for youngsters who have a family member diagnosed with it.

    On a personal note, I was intrigued that the ‘lost mountain tops’ in the World includes Mt St Helens, the volcano in America’s Washington State that literally blew off its peak in 1980. I’d spent a year in Washington State in 1979 and was very familiar with how that particular mountain top had looked before it became ‘lost.’

    I’m looking forward to Book 3 in the World Between Blinks series!

    The World Between Blinks: Rebellion of the Lost is published by Harper Collins in February 2022.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.