• 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

    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

    Tragedy and mystery: ‘The Good Son’ by Jacquelyn Mitchard

    In her author’s note, Jacquelyn Mitchard describes the moment of inspiration for this novel: standing in a coffee line at a hotel, she met a woman who explained that she came there every week, to visit her son at a nearby prison where he was serving a long sentence. While affected by drugs, he had killed his girlfriend.

    And I wondered, could you still love the one you loved most in the world after he had done the worst thing? Then I realized, you would be the only one who could.

    The Good Son, Author’s Note

    That’s the nub of this story. Thea and Jep are loving parents of their only child, Stefan, who has served a prison sentence after being convicted of the murder of his girlfriend Belinda while in a drug induced state. The story begins on the day Stefan walks out of prison, a free man. Thea has not yet realised it, but the family’s struggles have only just begun.

    There are so many squirm-inducing insights into the reactions and feelings a parent might experience in this situation. I found myself asking the question: What would I feel? How would I behave? How would I deal with the shame, the guilt, the pity for the victim’s grieving family and friends?

    The novel also offers insights into why some people commit crime. Stefan, after observing fellow prisoners in the jail, comments:

    Most {habitual criminals} didn’t have the patience for going through a process, trying and failing and trying again…their brain isn’t usually used to that…Trying and failing and trying again is not exciting. Doing a crime is really exciting…a robbery or burglary, it had to feel really exciting…living on a knife’s edge, anything could go wrong, it’s like a race against time, the Olympics of being bad.

    The Good Son p71

    I resonated strongly with the idea of parent-child relationships being ‘a delicate dance of the years, or approach and retreat, offer and hold back.’ (p267) As our children grow into teens and young adults, that dance becomes more delicate and fraught. How must it feel, then, to be stepping through the eggshells that a criminal conviction and prison time create?

    There is a mystery and plenty of tension in this novel, which is resolved by the end of the book. For me, the strength of the story lies in that exploration of the devastating concentric circles that result from a crime, especially a violent one. The characters are well drawn and believable and Thea someone I could very much relate to.

    The Good Son is published by HQ Fiction in January 2022.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Dust bowl and Depression: ‘The Four Winds’ by Kristin Hannah

    I was in my twenties when I read John Steinbeck’s classic novel about the experiences of ‘Okies’, the derogatory name given to migrants from the US Great Plains states who, in their thousands, went west to California during the 1930’s. They did so in an attempt to escape the shocking dust storms, drought and poverty that ruined so many farms and livelihoods, hoping to find work picking Californian cotton and fruit. After reading The Four Winds, I am moved to want to re-read Steinbeck’s book, because there is so much human drama, endurance and tragedy in these stories.

    The Four Winds begins in the Texas Panhandle, where Elsa Martinelli is an unloved and isolated young woman in a well-to-do business family. Her longing for love leads her to an encounter with Rafe Martinelli, son of Italian immigrants who have made Texas their home. Pregnancy follows, resulting in expulsion from her family, and Elsa marries Rafe and goes to live with the Martinelli family on their farm. She earns a place in the family and fully adopts the life of a farmer, wife and mother; she has finally found a home.

    Then come the effects of years of drought: dead crops, heat and shocking dust storms that blight the land. Combined with the Depression, the result is that thousands of farmers and local businesses lose their ability to make a living and feed their families. After Rafe deserts them, and her son becomes seriously ill, Elsa makes the hard decision to join the throngs of desperate people travelling to California, lured by the promise of work in a ‘milk and honey’ land.

    Of course, the reality is very different and if anything, the hardships and injustices faced by Elsa and her two young children are even worse than those they left behind.

    The story takes in the efforts of unions and Communist party members fighting for workers’ rights, especially for the ‘Okies’ who face discrimination and abuse by big farming concerns. Elsa is a woman with little agency over her own life, but for the sake of her children’s future, she puts herself in the path of danger, great risk and tragedy.

    The descriptions of the dust storms are truly terrifying, and the despair felt by those affected leaps from the pages. So does the independence and self-reliance of the American farmer at that time: proud to work the land and reluctant to accept government help of any kind. There is irony, too: the methods used by those farmers led to the degradation of the land which, when combined with drought, resulted in an ecological disaster that even then was seen as such by the federal government.

    Elsa now knew how Tony had felt when his land had died. There was a deep and abiding shame that came with asking for handouts.
    Poverty was a soul-crushing thing. A cave that tightened around you, its pinprick of light closing a little more at the end of each desperate, unchanged day.

    The Four Winds p280

    The romance in the latter part of the novel did not work so well for me; overall though, The Four Winds brings to life a tragic period in American history and highlights the resilience and courage of the many people affected by the environmental and economic tragedies that played out in the 1930’s.

    The Four Winds was published by MacMillan in 2021.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Magnificent (and flawed) men (and women) in their flying machines

    ‘Sundowner of the Skies’ : The Story of Oscar Garden, The Forgotten Aviator by Mary Garden

    In the early morning of 16 October 1930, Oscar Garden set out from Croydon Aerodrome in South London in a second-hand, open-cockpit Gipsy Moth. On his feet he wore carpet slippers, and he had half a dozen sandwiches on his lap. His plan was to fly to Australia. He was 27 years old and had just learnt to fly, with a mere 39 flying hours under his belt.

    Sundowner of the Skies p11

    This astonishing opening of Mary Garden’s biography and family memoir gives plenty of hints as to the story to come. The unlikely and dramatic adventure undertaken by her father when a young man, remains one of the great feats of early aviation, and Oscar Garden was also unusual in that he was one of the few early aviators who lived into old age.

    Equally astonishing is the admission that he was more or less forgotten in the history of aviation, until quite recently, when his daughter Mary Garden wrote articles and then, this book about her father’s career and their troubled, unsettled family life.

    The book, short-listed for the 2020 NSW Premier’s History Awards, gives readers insights into the romance and danger of those early years in aviation. We are now so accustomed to the criss-crossing of the skies by international and domestic airlines (at least until the Covid pandemic hit) that we can forget what a risky and uncomfortable business powered flight was in its early years. The exploits of those young aviators who broke records, took passengers up on joyflights, and piloted planes for the first commercial airlines, raised the public’s interest in flying and spurred the industry along.

    Oscar Garden was one such, along with more famous names such as Charles Kingsford Smith, Amy Johnson, Bert Hinkler and Charles Lindbergh. There is now a portrait of Oscar in New Zealand’s Tauranga Airport, which was installed there in 2019. Before that, few would have known of Oscar Garden or his achievement.

    According to his daughter, this was partly because, after a stint as a pilot for the forerunner of Air New Zealand, Oscar retired from the aviation industry and never flew a plane again, preferring to grow tomatoes in his adopted country, New Zealand.

    There is much of interest in this book: the descriptions of the amazing exploits of early aviators (including a delightful reference to one woman who completed a long-haul solo flight in a skirt and pearls); the forced landings in dangerous circumstances; the fact that Oscar told no-one of his flight plan because he didn’t want to be talked out of it, and completed the whole thing on a shoe-string budget; the fact that early flights were navigated by a simple compass and what was known as ‘dead reckoning’. Amazing stuff.

    For me, though, the most engrossing aspect of the story is the family history behind it. Oscar came from a wealthy Scottish merchant family, but family disputes and factions resulted in a troubled, restless, loner of a man who ended up suffering from mental ill-health and was unable to find any happiness in life. Mary’s recollections of her father and his relationships with others left her wondering ‘Who is this Oscar Garden?’ as she learnt more about his younger years.

    It’s a poignant story of an emotionally frozen parent and a young adult trying to emerge from beneath his influence. The two Oscars – the adventurous youngster and the depressive older man and father – are woven together throughout the book, allowing the reader to experience some of the author’s confusion and ambiguity about the man who happened to be her father.

    Sundowner of the Skies was published by New Holland Publishers in 2019.
    My thanks to the author for a 2021 edition to read and review.

  • Books and reading

    Memory lane: ‘The Boys’ by Ron Howard and Clint Howard

    If you were a child of the 50’s, 60’s or 70’s, chances are you watched some or all of these TV shows and movies: The Andy Griffith Show, Gentle Ben, Happy Days, American Graffiti, Star Trek, Lassie, MASH, Flipper, Daniel Boone, The Mod Squad, The Music Man… If so, you will have seen either Ron Howard’s or his younger brother, Clint’s, on-screen performances.

    Reading this book uncovered many forgotten TV and movie memories for me. The brothers describe their memoir as ‘an acknowledgement of our love and appreciation for our parents’, but it is also an engrossing ramble down memory lane, taking in their parents’ love story, their own childhood and adolescence on film sets in Hollywood studios, and the ups and downs of a career in the entertainment industry.

    It’s such a personal account, with a chatty conversational style, and their alternating viewpoints result in the sense of being on the sofa with the Howards, as they tell the stories of their lives. They discuss their own personal impressions of key people and events in their lives, including the challenges and the highs.

    They don’t shy away from difficulties, including Clint’s struggle with addiction, and Ron’s efforts to leave Opie, his childhood alter-ego from The Andy Griffiths Show, behind him as he moves into adolescence and tries to forge a career as a film director.

    The theme running throughout is the crucial role their parents played in the success of their acting and directing careers, but also in their development as human beings. The Howard family lived a modest lifestyle relative to many of their contemporaries in the Hollywood scene. Ron comments that:

    As possibly the most ethical talent managers in the history of show business, they were significantly underbilling their clients, Clint and me… Dad felt that most of what he and Mom did fell under the rubric of parental responsibility rather than professional management. They found the idea of taking anything more than 5 percent to be immoral, though Clint and I would not have objected in the least.
    Mom and Dad were concerned about the damage it might do us boys if we were taught to think of ourselves as the family breadwinners. And they simply didn’t hunger for a flashy life or a Beverly Hills address. They were sophisticated hicks. They had all that they wanted.

    The Boys p 167

    Ron’s insights into the joys and challenges of film directing are of great interest, as are the behind-the-scenes glimpses the brothers give of their various experiences from a child’s, teenager’s and adult’s perspectives.

    The Boys is a trip down memory lane, certainly; but also offers a lovely tribute to the key people in the Howard family’s successes – most especially, ‘Dad and Mom’, or Rance and Jean Howard.

    The Boys is published by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, in October 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading

    Living treasures: ‘Living Planet: The Web of Life’ by David Attenborough

    In my view naturalist, author and broadcaster David Attenborough is a living treasure. For decades he has brought the astonishing stories of our natural world to living rooms across the globe through his beautifully produced television documentaries. Now there is a narrative version in his trilogy of books Life. Living Planet: The Web of Life is the second in the series.

    I admit that I am usually more drawn to stories about people in my non-fiction reading. However, Attenborough’s fascinating insights into the ways in which organisms, insects, plants, animals, reptiles and birds adapt to the many different environments on our planet drew me in. There is plenty of drama, humour and mystery, told in the author’s infectiously enthusiastic style.

    The book answers intriguing questions such as:

    Why do elephant seals stop their battles with each other once a year, while they grow new hair?

    How do seagulls perch on icebergs without their featherless feet and legs freezing?

    How do giant worms with no mouths or gut, survive in jets of hot water, deep on the ocean floor?

    Why are holes in trees of the northern forests fought over like Sydney houses at an auction?

    Why are ants like dairy farmers?

    Why is a sparrow’s heart twice the size of a mouse’s?

    How can a female cichlid fish be likened to a pastry cook icing a cake?

    The text is supported by sections of stunning photographs in the style we have come to associate with Attenborough’s work.

    Attenborough’s deep concern for the future of our planet and its amazing biodiversity underlies the narrative and his final statement sums it up:

    As far as we can tell, our planet is the only place in all the black immensities of the universe where life exists. We are alone in space. And the continued existence of life now rests in our hands.

    Living Planet: The Web of Life p292

    Living Planet: The Web of Life is published by William Collins, an imprint of Harper Collins Publishers, in October 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    We’re not scared: ‘There’s a Ghost in this House’ by Oliver Jeffers

    Oliver Jeffers’ new picture book, like an earlier one of his I reviewed on this blog (What We’ll Build), is an ode to the rich creative and imaginative world of childhood. It takes what could be a bit scary for some youngsters (the idea of ghosts) and turns it into a fun hide-and-seek game where kids play ‘spot the ghost’ as pages are turned.

    Each double page spread is a scene from a grand old house. We go with the heroine, a small girl, as she wanders from room to room, upstairs and down, seeking out the ghost she is sure inhabits the place – it’s just that she has never seen it! Over each page fits another, translucent one, on which the ghost (and friends) can be seen, playing their own hide-and-seek with our little girl.

    Children will quickly be in on the joke as they spot the ghosts, behaving in mischievous ways – but not at all scary. The ghosts are portrayed in the stereotypical ‘white sheet’ variety which adds to the humour.

    The book is gorgeously presented – a tall hardback cover with the old house on the front. Jeffers has used sepia photography of the house and added his own signature quirky characters. Simple text makes it an accessible story for very young readers, while others can enjoy the pictures which invite engagement and fun.

    There’s a Ghost in this House is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in October 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading

    Old but new: ‘Death at Greenway’ by Lori Rader-Day

    I love the idea of ‘falling into’ a novel – the image of plunging straight into another world, meeting the characters and their emotions and thoughts. That’s what happened to me with Death at Greenway. The world of this novel is WWII England: first London, where trainee nurse Bridget Kelly is receiving an ultimatum after a serious error on the ward; then to south Devon and the house of famous mystery writer Agatha Christie.

    Bridget goes there unwillingly, as one of two nurses hired to care for a group of ten children under five: they are evacuees, sent from at-risk London suffering under the Blitz, to country areas considered safer. For Bridget, it is her last chance to save her floundering career. She also nurses terrible grief and trauma, the result of a well-aimed German bomb, and this follows her to her new posting.

    The other nurse travelling with the group is Gigi, a glamorous young woman who has secrets of her own, one of which threatens the tenuous safety of their country refuge.

    I love stories that weave real-life people and events into the plot, and Death at Greenway does this. It is an homage to the world of thirties England, the works of writers like Christie, and the often heroic actions of so many ordinary people during wartime. Greenway really was a temporary home for two nurses and ten children during the war. The author has drawn on the names of some of the people who populated the home at this time, including Doreen, one of the young evacuees, who shared her memories of that time.

    All the tropes of British mystery novels of the era are there: a (nearly) invisible mistress of the house; gothic folk stories told by the locals; a muddy footprint on the front step; crying foxes and other unearthly noises; a butler and housekeeper with their own opinions about the newcomers; a growing body count and a disappearance. Suspicions rise and Bridget starts to think that no one is who they seem to be. I liked the dry tone of much of the narrative, reminiscent of an author like Kate Atkinson.

    Alongside the mystery, though, is the real theme of the novel: the toll taken by war and loss on the people living through such times:

    It was a thin thread that kept them tethered to the earth, a single strand of her embroidery floss, easily snapped. No one keeps us. They were all small lives, nowhere near the center. Tossed about by the gale of history and hardly noted for having endured.

    Death at Greenway p245

    The web of deception and intrigue becomes complex at times and I had to concentrate hard to follow the threads; but that was not to the detriment of my enjoyment of this satisfying novel.

    Death at Greenway is published by HarperCollins Publishers in October 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Non-Fiction Reading Challenge 2021: Done

    In this year’s Non-Fiction Reading Challenge I signed up to read at least 6 books across a range of categories. So far I have ticked off 13 books.

    These included memoir, biography, history, true crime, and indigenous cultures.

    Some were by Australian authors; some were published in 2021; some were older titles I had not read before.

    Most surprising read?
    One Last Dance: My Life in Mortuary Scrubs and G-Strings by Emma Jane Holmes: fascinating insight into two contrasting worlds – the funeral industry and exotic dancing.

    Most heartfelt read?
    Daughter of the River Country by Dianne O’Brien with Sue Williams – a troubling but ultimately hopeful story of a Yorta Yorta woman’s childhood and her journey of discovery of herself and her people.

    Most lyrical read?
    Ten Thousand Aftershocks by Michelle Tom – the story of family fractures woven together with the trauma of living through the Christchurch earthquake.

    Best history read?
    There are two: both exploring hidden aspects of Australian history
    People of the River – by Grace Karskens, and
    The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka by Clare Wright

    Laugh-out-loud read?
    Flash Jim by Kel Richards – a startling story of colonial recidivism and a unique take on early Australian language.

    Thanks to Shelleyrae at Book’d Out for hosting the 2021 Non Fiction Reading Challenge this year.