• 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.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Women in wartime: ‘The Light We Left Behind’ by Tessa Harris

    One of the most welcome aspects of the current trend in historical fiction publishing is the space created to tell the stories of women and the part they played in well-known – and sometimes, lesser-known – historical events. The Light We Left Behind is one such novel, focusing on the contributions made to the Allied war effort by the women and men who worked at Trent Park.

    Trent Park? Never heard of it?

    If that’s your reaction, rest assured it was also mine.

    Like the more famous Bletchley Park, Trent Park was a centre of intelligence gathering during WWII that was like no other in Britain at the time. A stately home outside London, it was turned into a prison for German POWs. A prison with a difference: Trent Park housed high ranking German officials and military officers in luxury, catering to their expensive tastes and providing entertainment and every comfort.

    You might be thinking ‘If the long-suffering British public had known of this place, there would have been an uproar’, and you would be quite correct. Trent Park’s real purpose was kept hidden even from the locals. The house and its grounds were fitted out with listening devices, and German speaking employees (sometimes refugees from Nazi-occupied territories) brought in to interpret what the German captives were saying to each other when they were alone – strolling the grounds, smoking cigars and drinking fine wine in the library.

    The prisoners were interrogated, of course, but the methods of interrogation tended to be gentle, employing psychological strategies rather than brute force. And the arrogant German generals and officials would boast amongst themselves about what they had not divulged to their interrogators, unknowingly providing information to the Allies about weapons development and war strategies that would otherwise have remained hidden.

    This fascinating centre of wartime activity provides the backdrop for the story of Maddie Gresham, a psychology student who had studied under the professor whose theories informed the establishment of Trent Park. Maddie is tasked with gaining the Germans’ trust and getting them to reveal more information.

    Maddie’s pre-war and wartime lives collide in the form of Max Weitzler, whom she had met and fallen in love with years before on a visit to Germany. What happens to Max’s German father and German Jewish mother shows how the Nazis’ racist policies so bitterly divided the country and tore families apart. Max’s appearance at Trent House brings with it both joy and potential disaster for Maddie.

    Maddie’s story illustrates how people’s emotional concerns and preoccupations can exist side-by-side with the pressing concerns of wartime work or survival: they are important parts of a character’s make-up and should not be ignored. For me, this results in a more satisfying and realistic picture because for all of us, while our lives may be transformed by external events such as war or disaster, our internal lives continue.

    The Light We Left Behind joins other novels (such as The Rose Code or The Codebreakers) which feature the valuable work done by women in complex wartime circumstances. It’s an engrossing, heartfelt portrayal of the difficulties faced by ordinary people doing extraordinary work in incredibly challenging times.

    The Light We Left Behind is published by Harper Collins 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.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    Beloved Aussie star & children’s books: ‘Little Ash’ series

    Ash Barty, three-times Grand Slam tennis champion and much-admired young Australian First Nations woman, has excelled at tennis (obviously!) and also cricket. I suspect she would shine in any sport she chose to try.

    Apart from her amazing sports success, Ash has earned admiration for her positivity and kindness, both on and off the court and playing field. She has become a role model and her example is a shining light for aspiring sports players of all ages.

    Who can forget the look of unalloyed surprise and joy when Ash was presented the 2022 Australian Open winner’s trophy by none other than her own role model and Australian tennis legend, Wiradjuri woman Evonne Goolagong-Cawley?

    After her retirement from professional tennis this year, Ash has moved on to other endeavours, including collaboration in a new series of books for young readers called Little Ash, featuring her own younger self in various adventures that children will relate to. The settings are at school, and various children’s sports activities.

    The little books are perfect for early readers, light and easy to hold in little hands with very short chapters and lots of black and white illustrations throughout.

    Co-authored with Jasmin McGaughey (a young author with Torres Strait Islander and African American heritage) and illustrated by Jade Goodwin (who has Gamilaraay heritage), this book series is a welcome addition to books for children and young adults by First Nations authors and illustrators.

    The first four books in the Little Ash series are published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in July 2022.
    My thanks to the publishers for review copies.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Uncovering little-known corners of war: ‘The Resistance Girl’ by Mandy Robotham

    Mandy Robotham’s books tell stories of women during or immediately after World War II, illustrating how their wartime experiences could both reflect, and differ from, those of their menfolk. I very much enjoy the way this author takes readers to corners of the war that might have otherwise remained hidden. In The Resistance Girl, we meet Rumi Orlstad, a Norwegian woman whose fiancé is drowned at sea during an action by the arm of the resistance movement known as the ‘Shetland Bus’.

    I’d heard of the Shetland Bus, where Norwegian fishing vessels were used to smuggle agents, supplies or fugitives across the North Sea between the Shetland Islands and Norway. After her fiancé’s death, Rumi’s loyalty to her beloved family and country means she must decide if she will withdraw from supporting the resistance and just see out the war in safety, or continue to fight the occupying Germans in the only ways she can.

    I liked many things about this novel. To begin, I loved that the Author’s Note appears first! As someone who habitually turns to the Author’s Note before I launch into a story, I appreciated knowing the historical background to the novel, especially as it concerns an area of WWII not featured in historical fiction that I’ve previously read. I knew little about Norway at this time and how its people dealt with Nazi occupation.

    Rumi is a strong, capable and engaging character, as is Jens, the British-Norwegian SOE agent she rescues from a botched airdrop at the novel’s opening. The other main characters quickly became people I cared about, too. There is just enough action, risk and drama to keep the story moving along at a satisfying pace.

    For me, as always, the pleasure of a novel comes from the way it deals with underlying themes, and The Resistance Girl does this well. It explores the grey areas between the choices that citizens of an occupied country must make: the fine line between doing what must be done to survive, and collaboration with the enemy. From our safe distance of time and place, it can be easy to offer condemnation of those who choose survival over heroism – but I’m not sure if any of us can truly know what choice we would make in a similar situation.

    I also enjoyed learning more about the war through the story; for example, the complexities and increasing dangers of resistance work, including correctly interpreting coded enemy messages and dealing with German reprisals.

    The other – shocking – thing I learned was that, along with the lands, homes and livelihoods taken from the Norwegian people, the Nazis also stole babies. They were on the lookout for blond haired, blue eyed babies born to Norwegian women and German fathers, in order to advance their ‘Lebensborn’ program to further the Reich’s aims of creating the ‘perfect race’. This sickening program was especially implemented in Norway, which had the largest number of maternity homes outside of Germany. Mothers were cared for until the birth of their babies, who were then forcibly taken from them and given to German families to raise. Australian readers will recognise this as another Stolen Generation based on race and physical appearance. Will humans ever learn?

    It soon becomes clear that the currency of new and impressionable humans to mould into Hitler’s perfect way of thinking represents something of great value; Lebensborn is an industry in the Reich’s grand plan: a ‘natural resource’ to be harvested, much like iron ore or fish oil. As they’ve suspected all along, Norwegians are a commodity.

    The Resistance Girl p224

    Readers who love fiction that brings to life historical events will enjoy The Resistance Girl. It is published by HarperCollins in May 2022.

    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading

    1930’s glamour and murder: ‘Miss Aldridge Regrets’ by Louise Hare

    Are you a fan of Agatha Christie novels? Or ones set on a cruise ship in the glamorous days of the 1930’s? Who-done-it murder mysteries with a cast of characters that leave you guessing until the very end? If so, you will enjoy Miss Aldridge Regrets, the second novel by British writer Louise Hare.

    Lena Aldridge escapes her life of poverty as a singer in a seedy nightclub in London’s Soho, when she is offered a break as leading lady in a new Broadway musical. She boards the luxury Queen Mary as a first class passenger – courtesy of her mystery American benefactor – where she is obliged to spend time with the wealthy Abernathy family.

    Lena leaves with relief but not without pangs of guilt and regret. A week earlier, Tommy, the owner of the nightclub where she worked (and husband of her best friend, Maggie) was murdered in front of them both – poisoned by his own drink. Now Lena is leaving Maggie alone and she can’t help wondering if she is doing the right thing.

    The chapters alternate between the current time (on board the Queen Mary) and the night of the murder in Soho, dropping clues like breadcrumbs about how and why Tommy was killed.

    Meanwhile, Lena begins to realise that her week of rest and relaxation on the ship is not without its challenges. The members of the Abernathy family start to die in very suspicious circumstances, getting picked off one by one in the best traditions of classic who-done-it stories.

    The atmospheric settings of the novel conjure the pampered lives of the very wealthy, contrasted with the hand-to-mouth existence of the poor, especially during the era of the Great Depression. The staff of the Queen Mary, and its ‘lower class’ passengers, occupy spaces very different from the luxury of the first class staterooms. We also see how racism played out during that period, and there are hints of the trouble brewing in Europe with the Nazis’ rise to power.

    It wasn’t strictly fair to blame it all on Eliza, but she had that same air about her that I hated in James, the assumption that those of us who found ourselves floundering in life only needed to pull ourselves together, forgetting that they’d been born into the lifeboat while some of us had been dropped into the fathomless depths without so much as a rope to grab hold of.

    Miss Aldridge Regrets p246

    The eventual disclosure of the killer did not quite convince me, however I was willing to suspend disbelief and immerse myself in the world of the Queen Mary and the complex personalities of its passengers. I also enjoyed the depictions of 1930’s London life as experienced by Lena, her beloved father, and her friend Maggie.

    Miss Aldridge Regrets is published by HarperCollins in May 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.

  • 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.