• Books and reading,  History

    Uncovering scandal and abuse: ‘Before We Were Yours’ by Lisa Wingate

    In my multifold years of life, I have learned that most people get along as best they can. They don’t intend to hurt anyone. It’s merely a terrible by-product of surviving.

    Before we were yours, p3

    Lisa Wingate’s dual timeline novel explores the hurt that is done by some to others in their efforts to survive – emotionally, physically, materially.

    We meet Rill Foss, who in the 1930’s is kidnapped along with her four siblings and taken to the Tennessee Children’s Home in Memphis. The home is one of many run by Georgia Tann, a real-life figure whose questionable activities were later uncovered and condemned.

    In the current day, there is Avery Stafford, a young lawyer and a member of a powerful South Carolina political family. When Avery meets May Crandall, an elderly resident of a nursing home, the encounter starts her on a quest to unravel the mysterious connection between May and Avery’s own grandmother, Judy.

    Rill’s storyline introduces us to her life before she is whisked away. She lives with her large, noisy family in a ‘shantyboat’ on the Mississippi River. Folk like her were known disparagingly as ‘river rats’ and ‘river gypsies’ – they are itinerant and poor. They don’t always have enough to eat and there are plenty of dangers on the river. But Rill’s family is loving, with music and books, and friends they meet up with on their seasonal travels up and down the river.

    The author has captured Rill’s voice perfectly and brought her river home to vivid life. But when Rill and her brother and sisters are sent to the children’s home, they are treated as if they are stock, items sold to couples desperate to adopt a child. There are sickening acts of cruelty and indifference towards children’s needs, and a wilful blindness by staff to the abuses perpetrated against their charges.

    It’s a sobering reminder, if one were needed, that there are people who will exploit the vulnerable and that, without proper oversight and regulation, abuses will occur, especially if money is involved. We may think that these sorts of situations could not arise today, but we would be mistaken.

    As Avery’s exploration of her grandmother’s past continues and deepens, she learns about the scandals surrounding the ‘baby farms’ run by Georgia Tann. As she searches for the truth, her own future (which had once seemed a charmed pathway to a life of privilege) becomes less clear to her. In her uncertainty about her family’s past, she reaches for a different, more authentic future.

    No matter how much we may love the melody of a bygone day or imagine the song of a future one, we must dance within the music of today, or we will always be out of step, stumbling around in something that doesn’t suit the moment.

    Before We Were Yours p315

    Before We Were Yours takes the reader on a journey of discovery to difficult truths, and explores the different ways people deal with tragedy. The characters and the setting in America’s South are wonderfully realised and there are moments of tenderness and hope that lead to a satisfying resolution. I enjoyed this novel and will be on the lookout for more titles by Lisa Wingate.

    Before We Were Yours is published by Harper Collins Australia in December 2020.

    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Close to home: ‘The Valley of Lost Stories’ by Vanessa McCausland

    I’m always intrigued by what prompts readers to pick up a particular book. I was initially drawn to this new novel by Australian writer Vanessa McCausland because it is set in a location not too far from where I live in the Blue Mountains of NSW: the Capertee Valley.

    It’s a dual timeline story: one thread traces the disappearance in 1948 of a young woman from the valley’s iconic Art Deco hotel. The other, present day thread, also centres around the hotel, and another missing woman.

    If you have read Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies (or seen the TV series adaptation) you will recognise the technique of multiple viewpoint story-telling. When done well, it is an effective way of capturing the inner thoughts and feelings of different characters, drawing us into their worlds. In The Valley of Lost Stories there are four main characters: all young mothers whose children attend the same Sydney seaside suburban primary school, who decide to enjoy a week away together in the Capertee Valley.

    The author skilfully shows how the women are all hiding some aspects of their true selves and their lives, which are not as picture-perfect as they seem. Each woman has her problems or disappointments, which begin to impact on the relationships within the group as the holiday progresses. Tensions rise as their insecurities spill over, which coupled with the eerie atmosphere of the old hotel and its starkly beautiful surroundings, culminate in a gripping tale of mystery and danger.

    Woven throughout are the events of 1948, and hints of other dark episodes in the valley’s history, including the dispossession and murder by white settlers of the Wiradjuri people, and exploitative behaviour by mine owners and managers when the valley was a major producer of shale oil. This history provides a telling backdrop juxtaposed against the modern-day problems of the four women:

    What would it have been like to live back then? Emmie thought. History was so easy to ignore, gloss over. But really, it was everything. It was perspective. It was all that made up where we are now. It was the progression of time that we chose so often to conveniently ignore.

    The Valley Of Lost Stories p242

    The Valley of Lost Stories is peopled by very relatable characters, both past and present, and explores the deep wounds that we can inflict on each other, as well as a little known aspect of Australian history. It’s inspired me to want take a trip to the Capertee Valley and see its renowned ancient beauty for myself.

    The Valley of Lost Stories is published by HarperCollins Publishers in December 2020.
    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to read and review.

    #AussieAuthor20
    #AWW2020

  • Books and reading,  History

    Fiction to pose uncomfortable questions: ‘The Berlin Girl’ by Mandy Robotham

    Like her previous novel, The German Midwife, The Berlin Girl is set in Germany and is about the effects of WWII. This time, the story opens in 1938, just before events cascade into war.

    As in her previous book, Mandy Robotham has drawn on her own professional experience to enrich the drama and give a realistic portrayal of the characters’ work. In this case, it is journalism and the protagonist is Georgina (Georgie) Young, posted to Berlin as a fairly ‘green’ foreign correspondent.

    Georgie had been to Berlin a few years earlier, but the city she finds this time is a much darker and murkier one than the Berlin presented to the world at the 1936 Olympic Games. The realities of Nazi control of Germany are being realised by ordinary Germans, especially of course Jews, people with disabilities, and anyone else considered unworthy by the Reich.

    She must quickly find her feet, along with fellow London journalist Max Spender, who is employed by a rival English publication. They need to learn who are potential sources of information, who are allies and who not to trust.

    Their frustration grows at the apparent unwillingness of Western governments to believe what is happening in Germany, frustration shared by their fellow ‘foreign press pack’ journalists, with whom they form a strong camaraderie and bond. They witness the horrors of Kristallnacht, the violent pogrom against Jewish businesses and families. The devastating effects of anti-Semitism are brought home through Georgie’s friendship with one Jewish family, Rubin and Sara Amsell and their children.

    There is rising tension and mistrust as Nazi oppression tightens its grip on the country. There is also a reminder of the importance of a free press and access to information by a nation’s citizenry (especially relevant in this era of Trump, social media and ‘fake news’.) Georgie and her press colleagues attend a press briefing after Kristallnacht given by Joseph Goebbels (the Minister for Propaganda whom they privately nickname ‘Joey’):

    Joey spouted it all with familiar conviction, but he couldn’t have failed to notice the murmurings of disbelief among his audience. To every reporter listening to his fairy-tale rhetoric, it was pure farce. Yet Goebbels remained unashamed, steadfast in his own propaganda.

    The Berlin Girl, p194

    Does that remind you of another (modern day) politician, steadfast and unashamed in their own fake news?

    A theme that runs deeply through this novel is the question: How did Hitler and his cronies beguile an entire country into wholesale murder and war?

    Why, when it seemed so transparent to everyone in the room, did the German people believe it?
    ‘Fear’, said the Daily Express correspondent swiftly. ‘Maybe your average German doesn’t believe it, but they wouldn’t dare express it. Not even to their neighbours. It masquerades nicely as belief when you’ve got no one telling you you’re wrong.’

    The Berlin Girl p52

    The Berlin Girl touches on other issues, including the trail-blazing role of early female foreign correspondents, the wilful disbelief on the part of the British and other governments to prevent Hitler embarking on his murderous path to world war, and the risks taken by the many brave people who did what they could to resist.

    Though set during 1938 – 39, the questions this novel asks about a population’s willingness to blindly support a dictatorial or self-obsessed leader and believe their lies and promises, rang many bells for me. As we see what has played out in the USA and other parts of the world in recent years, can we honestly say that we have moved beyond that tendency to cede power to those who promise to ‘make us great again’? Because that rallying cry of Trump’s was exactly what Hitler had promised the German people.

    Have we really changed that much?

    The Berlin Girl will be published by HarperCollins Publishers on 2 December 2020.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    New historical fiction from Jackie French: ‘The Angel of Waterloo’

    The first thing I noticed about The Angel of Waterloo is the cover image – one of the most haunting book covers I’ve seen for a while, designed by Mark Campbell using artwork by Mary Jane Ansell. You can see more of her beautiful work here.

    The novel opens on the carnage and chaos of the battlefield at Waterloo, arguably the most famous of all the battles of the Napoleonic Wars. The protagonist, Henrietta (or ‘Hen’) is just fifteen and, along with her army surgeon father, desperately trying to save as many injured soldiers as she can.

    Already more accomplished in medical matters than many physicians (who in this era were all male), Hen manages to save the arm and the life of a young lieutenant, Max Bartlett. When he regains consciousness he makes a rash proposal of marriage to his saviour and Hen accepts. They are married by a local priest, right there on the battlefield, witnessed only by Hen’s father and Max’s friend.

    I’m still uncertain if this battlefield marriage worked for me, though I do understand that in war, normal behavioural norms and expectations are often jettisoned. The device also works to move the plot to Australia, when Hen embarks on a hopeful voyage several years later. In the colony, she finds that the stakes for her happiness, safety and fulfilment are even higher than before.

    I’d describe this novel as a saga: so much happens and it’s an emotional roller coaster as we follow the fluctuating fortunes of the various characters.

    As always, Jackie French’s historical detail is impeccable and layered through the narrative seamlessly, so readers can learn a great deal while being immersed in the story. We become aware, for example, of how the colony’s politics and economics affected all who lived there: the indigenous people who were quickly dispossessed of their lands, the poor, the convicts and the free settlers who followed in their wake. The violence and injustice imported along with the settlers are clear to see.

    As Sergeant Drivers says to Hen:

    ‘Miss Hen, ain’t you realised yet that this is a land of felons? We walk around with no chains because the wild about us is prison-walls enough, but none of us is innocent, no matter what we claim. Nor was we caught the first time we broke the law, neither. Most of us are damned good at it.’

    The Angel of Waterloo p 212

    So, the realities of colonial life are laid bare as Hen immerses herself in this new world and faces difficult decisions about her future there.

    At the novel’s heart is the theme of warfare, violence and colonisation:

    ‘You were simply swallowed up by Waterloo.’
    She saw by his expression Max did not understand. ‘I mean the whole mindset that led to it, those long years of war with France. The colony is built on a world that sees nothing odd in killing thirty thousand soldiers in a day, leaving ten thousand orphan children starving and countless eyeless beggars craving for a crust. It’s the right of any gentleman to take whatever he can win.’

    The Angel of Waterloo p327

    This novel also made me think about how authors of today portray historical events and people in fiction. There is a tension between wanting to give as accurate a picture as possible, while also allowing at least some characters to express views on matters such as race-relations, for example, that would be more in line with modern-day values.

    I wonder how many non-indigenous people in nineteenth century NSW would have been sympathetic to the First Australians and why their views and experiences were not recorded prominently in their own time. The work of historians such as Paul Irish and Grace Karskens does help to show that not all settlers were blind to the humanity of the indigenous people they encountered. But I think that they were likely in a minority. Jackie French shows how racist attitudes had their roots in the long standing divisions and violence of British society.

    The Angel of Waterloo has plenty of unexpected moments that kept me eager to read on. I warmed to Hen and truly wished her happiness in her adopted country. Lovers of Jackie French’s historical novels will find this an engrossing read.

    The Angel of Waterloo is published by Harper Collins Publishers on 2 December 2020.
    My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

    #AussieAuthor20
    #AWW2020

  • Books and reading,  History

    Familiar places through the lens of the past: ‘The Cartographer’s Secret’ by Tea Cooper

    Readers of Tea Cooper’s fiction will know that she likes to write dual timeline stories set in Australia’s past. The Cartographer’s Secret is no exception.

    The protagonists are two young women: Evie in 1880, and her niece Lettie in 1911. The story connects the two: Lettie drives from Sydney to visit her Great Aunt Olivia on the family property in the Hunter Valley, to inform her that Lettie’s brother (and the heir to the property) has died. She soon gets caught up in the secrets and puzzles held within her family’s history, particularly the mysterious disappearance of her Aunt Evie, thirty years earlier.

    Evie had shared her father’s fascination with maps and exploration, and become similarly obsessed by the famous explorer Ludwig Leichhardt who had disappeared without trace in 1848. She sets out to track down evidence that she believes will prove her theory of what happened to Leichhardt and his party, but she is never seen again, leaving her Aunt Olivia heartbroken.

    Poring over the map of the Hunter region that Evie left behind, Lettie begins to put the pieces of the puzzle together. She wants to solve the mystery of Evie to give Olivia, and the whole family, some peace (or closure, as we would call it today.) But things don’t go smoothly and Lettie uncovers more than she’d expected.

    Tea Cooper’s heroines are likeable and relateable: young women with gumption and interests unusual for women at the time (Evie with her maps, Lettie with her Model T motor car.)

    I found some of the details of the plot a little complicated and often needed to refer to the copy of Evie’s hand drawn map. While there is no happy conclusion for all the characters, there is a satisfying and believable resolution.

    For me the strength of Tea Cooper’s novels lie in the central role played by their settings. She takes me on a journey through time of and in doing so, shows me an earlier version of often familiar places, through the lens of history. I believe this is what historical fiction can do best: immerse readers in another time so that we can see the present in a different way.

    I also enjoy how aspects of the everyday inform that picture of the past. In The Cartographer’s Secret, this includes the beginning of rail and motor travel, the genesis of the famous Bulletin magazine, rural economies, the exploits of early European explorers, and the lives of women in both city and country.

    The Cartographer’s Secret is a satisfying addition to Tea Cooper’s historical fiction and fans of her novels won’t be disappointed.

    It is published by HarperCollins Publishers on 29 October 2020.
    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to read and review.

    #AWW2020
    #AussieAuthor20

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    A celebration of difference: ‘The Odds’ by Matt Stanton

    Meet the Odds…because fitting in is overrated.

    The Odds by Matt Stanton

    Kip lives in a noisy city with her dad, who makes graphic novels. She’s quiet and has a hard time fitting in at school, where other kids often laugh at her difference.

    One day ten characters, all decidedly odd beings, appear in her bedroom. It takes Kip a while to recognise them from the world of dreams, imagination and stories that she sometimes prefers to real life.

    That’s the start of a mad-cap adventure as Pip and her dad try to figure out how to get the uncooperative Odds back to their own worlds of comic strip, picture book, TV show, video game and dream.

    In the process, Kip learns that it’s easier to tackle hard things with someone you love, and that it’s possible to accept ourselves – and others – for who we are.

    Dad: Hard things are just hard, Kippo. You can’t escape them, but you know what does help?
    Kip: What?
    Dad: You. Even the hardest things are made easier if you have someone to share them with.

    The Odds p104

    The Odds delivers its message with a light touch and lots of humour, deftly pointing out the oddities in everyone:

    Kip: But after all, isn’t odd just another word for special? I’m odd. We’re all odd. And that’s… normal.

    The Odds p139

    It’s a perfect little book for early readers who like stories that make them laugh and invite them to think a bit, too.

    The Odds is published by Harper Collins Children’s Books on 29 October 2020.

    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

    #AussieAuthor20

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    Empathy through fiction: ‘We Are Wolves’ by Katrina Hannestad

    There is a theory that people who read a lot of fiction can develop empathy through their reading. Fiction (and some non fiction too) invites us to inhabit other worlds – the characters’ times, places, and situations – and also allows us to see our own world and circumstances through different eyes. This is one way that our empathy ‘muscles’ develop and grow.

    This process begins from the earliest exposure to books and, I believe, continues right through our reading life.

    So it was with interest that I approached We Are Wolves, an historical fiction work by award winning Australian author Katrina Nannestad. Pitched at middle grade readers (approx 10 years and over) it is the story of the Wolf children: Liesl, Otto and baby Mia, who become separated from their mother and grandparents as the family flees from the oncoming Russian army towards the end of WWII.

    The thing is, the family are German, living in East Prussia. They have the requisite photo of Hitler above their dining table. Their father has just been pressed into army service for the Reich as German defeat looms.

    As a child, The Diary of Anne Frank was the only text I knew of that was written from a German-born child’s point of view. I remember my sense of dawning horror as I read about the dreadful things that befell other Jewish children and their families under the Nazis. The Wolf family are not Jewish, nor are they Nazi supporters. They are just an ordinary family trying to get by, to survive the war. They are very fearful of the Red Army troops so when Papa is reported missing in action and the Russians approach their village, they must leave.

    Liesl promised her mother that she will keep her siblings together and protect them. When they find themselves alone, in a bitterly cold winter and the middle of a war zone, with no food or shelter, she and Otto must use all their wits to survive. Sometimes they must break the rules: stealing food, ransacking abandoned luggage for warm clothes or a blanket, killing birds or animals to eat. They live like wild things, like wolves; facing danger, cold and constant hunger.

    The narrative is all from Liesl’s point of view, that of a child who gradually realises that war turns everything on its head:

    All I know is that war does not make sense. The things that people do in a war are not the things they would do if they were at home with their families.

    We Are Wolves p126

    This is how we develop empathy: by living, for a while, in the world of German children whose world has collapsed around them due to a war not of their making. The narrative takes readers far enough into the experience of the Wolf children to be able to recognise their hardships and dilemmas. Darker events and actions are alluded to but not inappropriately so for younger readers.

    There are lighter moments also: acts of kindness from some German and Russian soldiers and citizens, unlikely friendships with other Wolfskinder (wolf children) they encounter, and the playfulness of children, especially little Mia.

    There are lovely illustrations by Martina Heiduczek, which capture the landscape and circumstances of the Wolf family as the story progresses.

    The novel also touches on the importance of identity and language for well- being and sense of self, as at one stage the children must pretend to be Lithuanian so as to avoid Russian retribution.

    ‘German words feel right in my mouth,’ {Otto} says.
    ‘Yes, ‘ I agree.
    “And in my heart.’
    I wrap my arms around him. ‘Yes!’… But from now on,’ I whisper at last, ‘you and I must speak Lithuanian. Always…Even with each other in the middle of the night. Even in our heads and in our hearts…it is the only way we will ever be truly safe…’

    We Are Wolves p290

    If we can transfer our understanding of this to situations closer to home, perhaps we can better appreciate the pain experienced by Australia’s First Nations peoples, so long denied their language, culture and identity?

    We Are Wolves is a beautiful, heartfelt, engrossing read that can contribute to the development of empathy in all who read it.

    It is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books on 29 October 2020. My thanks to the publishers for a copy to read and review.

    #AussieAuthor20
    #AWW2020

  • Books and reading

    New short fiction: ‘Unrestricted Access’ by James Rollins

    The first thing I should say is that I am not a big fan of the thriller genre. Crime fiction and true crime? Yes, if it is well written and character driven. But I get bored by fight scenes, car chases and bomb blasts.

    I do, however, enjoy short fiction, so I was not altogether the wrong person to review James Rollins’ collection of new and classic short fiction, Unrestricted Access. Rollins is a New York Times best selling author, so there are plenty of thriller loving fans around the globe who will enjoy these stories in his first ever anthology, many of which introduce or give some back story for characters from his novels.

    The stories’ setting range from Afghanistan to the jungles of South America, San Francisco in the ‘Summer of Love’ to the Paris Catacombs. And the characters vary from operatives of an elite US Defence unit, Sigma Force, to an ambitious journalist and a military war dog.

    The plots are tight, with a fast pace, plenty of action and often a neat twist at the end. Each story has a short introduction by Rollins and readers of his longer works will be interested in the connections with characters or settings from his novels.

    If you are a fan of the genre, the twelve stories in Unrestricted Access will have you turning the pages to find out ‘what happens next’.

    Unrestricted Access is published by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, in October 2020.

    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to read and review.

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

    Cute Christmas story for littlies: ‘Rudie Nudie Christmas’ by Emma Quay

    A follow up to the original and well-loved picture book Rudie Nudie, this book will delight little ones this Christmas.

    Author and illustrator Emma Quay grew up in England but moved to Australia in the early 1990’s and now lives here with her Aussie family. So it’s not a surprise that her delightful crayon illustrations depict Christmas fun without an emphasis on the Northern Hemisphere motifs like snow and holly. Instead, her two little characters run and play, rudie nudie, through bath time, decorating the Christmas tree, wrapping gifts, making gingerbread, and waiting for Santa’s arrival.

    The text is simple with repetition that allows children to ‘read along’:

    Rudie Nudie gingerbread
    will make it twice as fun,
    with two more Rudie Nudies
    on a Nudie Rudie run.

    Rudie Nudie by Emma Quay

    This is a lovely Christmas offering for kids three years and over who love to snuggle up while mum, grandpa or big brother reads aloud; the simple text also makes it perfect for beginner readers.

    Rudie Nudie Christmas is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in October 2020.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

    #rudienudiechristmas
    #HarperKidsOz
    #AussieAuthor20
    #Aww2020

  • Books and reading,  History

    A microcosm of a world in turmoil: ‘The Pull of the Stars’ by Emma Donoghue

    What a marvel of a novel this is. Emma Donoghue has written a story that explores profound human issues – hope, survival, struggle – within the minutiae of three days in a tiny hospital ward, allowing glimpses of the social, religious, political and health influences swirling around the small cast of characters. I can absolutely see this story brought to life as a stage play or movie.

    The timing of The Pull of the Stars is uncanny. Published in mid 2020 during a world pandemic, it is set during another pandemic, the global influenza outbreak a century ago. Reading it now, as we struggle with Covid-19, I was struck by so many similarities between then and now.

    The story takes place over three days, in a short-staffed Dublin hospital. Julia is a nurse, working long days in the maternity/fever ward, where there are three patients about to give birth who are also suffering from influenza.

    The author pays tribute to the struggles of people from all levels of Irish society at the time. The poverty, religious conservatism and bigotry of early nineteenth century Ireland imposed added burdens for many, but middle class women were not immune to influenza or its effects on pregnant women, which could have dire consequences for mothers and babies.

    If you are squeamish about the icky parts of the body’s functioning during childbirth or illness, you might find some scenes in this book challenging. Personally, I loved the way the author honoured the crucial role of nurses during what are profound and dramatic moments: the work and risk of bringing new life into the world, and the struggle against an illness that could strike from nowhere and kill in a matter of days, even hours. The research that went into the book was evidently deep but sits lightly in the narrative.

    The characters – nurse Julia; young, poor Bridie, a volunteer helper in Julia’s ward; and the three sick, labouring women they care for – form the nucleus of the story, though the other characters are well drawn and entirely believable. We meet Dr Kathleen Lynn, rumoured to be a Rebel on the run from police, but whose calm and compassionate approach prompts Julia to question her own assumptions and beliefs. Dr Lynn is based on a real figure, a Sinn Féin rebel who later established a hospital for impoverished mothers and babies.

    The intense work of the hospital is set against the background of an Ireland at war: internally in the aftermath of the 1916 Rebellion, and externally as the Great War is still being waged throughout Europe. As Julia realises:

    It occurred to me that in the case of this flu, there could be no signing a pact with it. What we waged in hospitals was a war of attrition, a battle over each and every body.

    The Pull of the Stars.

    One aspect of the novel that I particularly enjoyed was that the business of childbirth – those giving birth and those helping labouring women – was front and centre, much as in another book I have reviewed this year, The German Midwife. Perhaps it is no coincidence that both novels juxtapose the battles of women in the process of giving life, against the battles of war, which are all about taking it.

    There is so much to love about The Pull of the Stars. I listened to the Audible audiobook version, where the narration by Emma Lowe added another layer of enjoyment. It’s a wonderful book with timeless themes and compelling characters.

    The Pull of the Stars was published by Allen & Unwin Australia in July 2020.