• 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

    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

    Chilling glimpse into a possible future: ‘The Mother Fault’ by Kate Mildenhall

    Mim is on the run. Her husband Ben is missing from his workplace, a gold mining project on an Indonesian island. The Department assigns a ‘liaison team’ to the family and they take the passports of Mim and her two young children, Essie and Sam. The Department, she has come to realise, is not a benevolent body but the principal instrument of a controlling, all-powerful oppressive government. Mim is right to be afraid.

    So she takes the kids, goes offline and flees – first back to her family home, then to the place of her childhood seaside holidays. With high school sweetheart Nick, she and the kids embark on a long drive north; then out to sea on Nick’s boat to Indonesia, hoping to find her husband Ben. All the while trying to avoid detection by The Department. Oh, and to be a good mother to her kids.

    The Mother Fault is set in the very near future, in an Australia where Government tentacles reach everywhere, assisted by technology that feels very familiar (think Siri or Google Home), but includes microchipping babies at birth so that they are literally never ‘off line’.

    Mim’s dash towards freedom and her husband invites new dangers and risk for herself and everyone she loves. At the novel’s heart is Mim’s struggle to know if she’s doing the right thing by her family. Is she careful enough, protective enough, loving enough? An age-old anxiety, this one; surely recognisable to most mothers. As is its corresponding struggle: to return to a sense of self, of personhood, amidst the layers of responsibility and distractions that come with busy modern lives.

    She shouldn’t leave them out there on their own, but see if she fucking cares. Little shits, not listening, making fun.
    ‘Mum!’ A shriek from outside and her legs don’t even hesitate, already making deals with fate. Sorry sorry sorry stuck in her throat as she races out through the gate, sees them both out of the water and a long trickle of watery blood down Sammy’s shin, a small rupture of flesh near the knee.
    ‘It got caught on the brick climbing out,’ Essie says, glaring at her. ‘You shouldn’t have left us alone.’
    …and it doesn’t even hurt, her daughter’s admonishment, because it’s just the way it is.
    She’ll never get it right.

    The Mother Fa
    ult, ch 13 (Audiobook version)

    At the opening of the novel is a quote from The Great Hack (Netflix, 2019):

    But no one bothered to read the terms and conditions.

    Professor David Carroll, The Great Hack

    The Mother Fault certainly got me thinking about all the trade-offs we make for the conveniences and luxuries of our modern lives: connectivity, streaming services, personal entertainment devices, labour saving technologies. How often do we stop to consider what is lost amongst the gains?

    Because the novel is set in an Australia that is so familiar to our own current-day one, the dangers Mim experiences feel very real and entirely believable. There is a dramatic climax in which Mim is forced to face some very unpleasant realities and make an excruciating choice in order to keep her kids safe.

    The Mother Fault is gripping speculative fiction with the added bonus of Mildenhall’s beautiful prose. I listened to the Audible version narrated by Claudia Karvan whose flawless performance added greatly to my enjoyment of the novel.


    The Mother Fault was published by Simon & Schuster, 2020.

    #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,  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

    Another gem from Kate Grenville: ‘A Room Made of Leaves’

    The title of Kate Grenville’s latest and much anticipated novel put me in mind of the famous work by Virginia Woolfe – A Room of One’s Own. The message in both titles includes, I believe, the necessity for all women to have a space (whether that be an actual room, a favourite place in nature, or a corner of their imagination) where they can dream, write, plan, think, or simply be. In this and in many other ways, while A Room Made of Leaves might be a work of historical fiction, its themes are as relevant to today as to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

    Kate Grenville is well known to many Australian readers for her novels of colonial Australia, particularly The Secret River, The Lieutenant, and Sarah Thornton.

    Her new work has a most wonderful premise: that she has stumbled upon and transcribed the private writings of Elizabeth MacArthur, the wife of John MacArthur, Captain in the NSW Corps and so-called ‘father of the Australian wool industry.’ These scribblings are a ‘warts and all’ account of Elizabeth’s life, much more honest than the carefully penned letters that she wrote for public consumption.

    As always, Ms Grenville captures perfectly the voice of her protagonist, a woman of modest background but reasonable education, and convinces us that we are, in fact, hearing a first-hand account of life in colonial Sydney and Parramatta. Through Elizabeth, we meet some of the well-known figures of that time including John MacArthur himself, and Governor Phillip, Watkin Tench, Lieutenant Dawes; also Pemulwuy and other First Nations people who influenced the development of the faltering settlements.

    Of course, her real opinions and feelings about her husband, her life and her new home, as compared to the public ones, form the backbone of the narrative and serve to show Elizabeth MacArthur as a woman of much greater aptitude and empathy than the man she is tied to in marriage.

    I absolutely loved the way in which the author has used snippets of the actual letters and other writings of Elizabeth, in a way that brings her to life and also hints that she may well have had quite a different inner life than the serene and uncomplaining face she presented to the world.

    Elizabeth MacArthur, 1766-1850, from
    oil painting in State Library of NSW

    Writing about a time when women had little agency, she shows that through carefully chosen words, sly irony, and well-kept secrets, some women could and did manage to execute a certain degree of independence of thought, even if that was not always visible to others.

    A Room Made of Leaves joins the list of simply wonderful novels by Kate Grenville about early colonial Australia. If you enjoyed her earlier ones, you will love this book.

    A Room Made of Leaves was published by Text Publishing in 2020.

    #AussieAuthor20
    #AWW2020

  • Books and reading

    Gothic blend of crime and small town life: ‘The Mystery Woman’ by Belinda Alexandra

    Rebecca moves to Shipwreck Bay to take up the position of postmistress in the small coastal town. She is nursing a secret after the end of her relationship with a well-known politician and she dreads being exposed as his mistress. What she finds is that Shipwreck Bay has several secrets of its own.

    Her plan to hide away from the controversy surrounding her former life turns out to be far more difficult than she imagined. To begin with, Rebecca is not the sort of women who blends in easily – her fashionable clothes, striking looks and style stand out against the blandness of the town and its inhabitants.

    Rebecca needs to tread carefully, to navigate between her need to keep on the right side of the community and her need to avoid unwanted attention.

    Her arrival sets tongues wagging. Women are suspicious of her – she is in her thirties, beautiful and not married (more unusual in 1950’s Australia than now) – and men ogle her shamelessly, including the married ones. The town and its citizens are portrayed in less than complimentary ways, with all the prejudices and small-town attitudes proving stifling to Rebecca’s creative spirit, and the hypocrisy and double standards of that era posing real threats, should her past be discovered:

    She was living two parallel lives – one as a postmistress gradually finding her place in the town, and another as a hunted animal that was about to be destroyed by the beast of the press.

    ‘Unique and different are fine for men!’ she said. ‘When you live your lives how you want to, people applaud you. It’s not like that for women. We are crucified for doing as we please.’

    The Mystery Woman p128 & 282

    The secrets beneath Shipwreck Bay’s placid surface pose other kinds of dangers: here the author touches on issues of domestic violence, sexual harassment and the abuse of vulnerable people. Environmental issues are also woven into the novel, as Shipwreck Bay’s economy is heavily dependent on the brutal whaling industry (which continued in Australia up until the 1970’s, seriously depleting whale numbers on their migratory routes.)

    I found Rebecca, and most of the characters of Shipwreck Bay, not very likeable. Having grown up in a very small country village myself, I can recognise the pettiness and love of gossip that often characterise small communities. What I remember most, though, are the many everyday kindnesses and genuine community spirit of the place.

    Of course, The Mystery Woman is at heart a crime novel, so the peculiarities of a small town and its people feel malevolent when viewed through this lens. Even the beauty of the seascape is foreboding for Rebecca.

    She is a woman who has made poor choices in the past and is left second guessing her every move. Will she make yet another mistake now, when the outcome could be so much more dangerous?

    The Mystery Woman is a novel of gothic drama: a passionate heroine, with secrets to protect and a beautiful setting with secrets of its own; danger; and redemption. It explores themes that are no less relevant today than they were in the Australia of the 1950’s.

    The Mystery Woman is published by HarperCollins in September 2020.

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

    #AussieAuthor20
    #AWW2020

  • Books and reading

    Droll new series for babies – and parents: ‘Sleep 101’ & ‘Whine Guide’ by Beck & Matt Stanton

    I had to consider the question of whether these books (no’s 1 & 2 in the Self Help for Babies series by husband and wife team Beck and Matt Stanton) were written for babies or adults. The answer, I’m certain, is both. A bit like the Shrek movies, these are humorous messages of support for stressed-out parents, cleverly disguised as short, read-aloud stories for the very young.

    Other titles to follow in the series help to prove my point: Dummies for Suckers, One Ingredient Cookbook (for infants still breast or bottle feeding, I assume), and Baby Goes to Market. The first books explore two of the frustrations that parents of a baby will experience day to day: the challenges of getting an infant to sleep, and how to interpret your new baby’s cries.

    Illustrated with very simple line drawings that manage to capture real life scenarios every new parent will recognise, they are tongue-in-cheek reassurance to hollow-eyed, exhausted parents wondering ‘Is it just me? Am I a terrible parent? Why won’t my baby sleep? What am I doing wrong?’

    Here’s an example, from Whine Guide (Find your voice and start sweating the small stuff):

    Do you have something to say but no voice to say it?
    Do you have trouble matching the right whine to each occasion?
    This whine guide is here to help.

    The Whine Guide by Beck & Matt Stanton

    Each double page spread then analyses, in a simple sentence, the various permutations of a baby’s cry, grizzle, whine or full-throated bellow, and pairs each one with the appropriate life occasion. For example:
    ‘The bubbly. An open-mouthed, gassy whine, requiring attention.
    Best served with bicycle legs and a tummy massage.’

    You get the idea. It’s a delight; something that could be read aloud to a baby while giving a wrung-out parent a much-needed chuckle.

    These first two in the Self-Help for Babies series are published by HarperCollins and ABC Books in September 2020, with more available for pre-order.

    My thanks to HarperCollins Children’s Books for copies to review.