• 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.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    Homage to the mistress of crime: ‘The Agathas’ by Kathleen Glasgow & Liz Lawson

    Alice and Iris are teenagers who inhabit different worlds, despite both being students at Castle Cove High School. Iris comes from a struggling single mother family and is seemingly invisible to Alice’s crowd, nicknamed the ‘Main Kids’ by Iris’ crowd (the ‘Zoners’, who include punks, nerds, hippies and dance team.) The Mains are the kids from wealthy backgrounds. ‘Glossy and full of health and money, they ooze easy life.’

    When Alice’s erstwhile best friend Brooke disappears, the community is in uproar. Brooke had been dating Alice’s ex-boyfriend and things had become messy. So messy, in fact, that when Steve left Alice for Brooke last summer, Alice had disappeared for five days.

    Brooke’s disappearance is being treated by the local police as ‘copycat’ – until her body is found at the base of cliffs on the edge of town. Steve, the boyfriend, is arrested for her murder.

    Neither Alice nor Iris believe that Steve is guilty. They are thrown together as they begin to put pieces of the mystery together, guided by Alice’s collection of the complete works of Agatha Christie.

    This novel will appeal to young adult readers of mystery and crime fiction. There are amusing commentaries on high school cliques and social stratifications that I’m sure will resonate with readers (of any age) who can recall their own high school experiences. More contemporary references to the impact of social media and local gossip will also be familiar, especially the way social media invites everyone to weigh in with their uninformed views and personal agendas.

    While the story is mostly light-hearted, it has some darker themes: family violence is one; the tendency of adults to patronise youngsters and discount girls’ abilities another.

    Something that hurts, to be honest. I mean, we live with it every day. In class, on the street, everywhere. Teachers not calling on you but calling on boys. Cluck-clucking at our clothes and makeup. The eyes of men when I just want to buy a stupid cup of coffee at Dotty’s Doughnuts. That cop at the police station, Thompson.

    The Agathas p123

    In the end, under all the mystery and drama, the story is one about friendship, especially how, if people can look beyond their assumptions and prejudices, true friendship can develop.

    And the pithy quotes from Mistress of Crime, Agatha Christie, are exactly on point.

    A fun ‘whodunit?’ for young adult readers, with food for thought throughout.

    The Agathas is published by Harper Collins in May 2022.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • 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

    Enchanting: ‘Einstein the Penguin’ by Iona Rangeley

    A brand-new character in the children’s book world, Einstein is a ‘little penguin’ from an Australian zoo who turns up in London, looking for his rockhopper penguin friend Isaac. The Stewart family encounter the little creature on an outing to London Zoo, and Mrs Stewart politely tells Einstein ‘And you, Mr Penguin, must come and stay with us whenever you like. Penguins are always very welcome at our house.’

    The very next day, the family are amazed to find Einstein has done just that!

    In this, the story is reminiscent of the Paddington Bear series. However, Einstein has his own, enchanting personality and reasons for being so far from his usual home.

    He quickly becomes a favourite with the children, budding sleuth Imogen and shy Arthur. Even their parents find themselves catering to the penguin’s need for fish at every meal, making sure their guest is comfortable.

    Einstein’s wish to find his friend lead the family on a chase to Edinburgh and home again, all the while trying to evade the mysterious tall man with the Australian accent. Does he mean Einstein harm? How can they find Isaac before he does?

    It’s a fun, sweet story that will appeal to younger readers, especially those who love penguins – and really, who doesn’t?

    I suspect this is the first book in a new series and look forward to reading more of Einstein’s adventures with the Stewarts.

    Einstein the Penguin is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in December 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    Balm for the soul ‘A Hundred Thousand Welcomes’ by Mary Lee Donovan and Lian Cho

    This gorgeous, gorgeous book is balm for the soul. The author says that This particular river of ink is my love song to our shared humanity and it is my protest against intolerance, injustice, and inhumanity. The creator of the beautiful, colourful illustrations says We fear what we do not know, and I hope that through these pages, readers will learn more about cultures and families and rituals different from their own.

    These comments sum up what the book does: by presenting some of the many ways in which humans can express welcome and care for others, it shows us the things we have in common: food, families, friends, fun and language.

    There are thirteen languages featured (along with helpful pronunciation guides) including Mandarin, Arabic, Hindi, Bengali, Urdu, and Lakota Sioux.

    The double page spread at the end completes the book with a Gaelic blessing:

    May you never know hunger
    May peace fill your nights
    May your children’s children grow strong in the light.
    May the road rise to meet you,
    and walls fall away.
    A hundred thousand welcomes
    I sing,
    I sign,
    I pray.

    A Hundred Thousand Welcomes

    A Hundred Thousand Blessings is truly balm for the soul and belongs in every public and school library!
    It is published by GreenWillow Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Children’s Books, in 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to review.

  • 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,  Children's & Young Adult Books

    ‘100 Remarkable Feats of Xander Maze’ by Clayton Zane Comber

    Xander is 15, a student at a Sydney high school. He lives with his Mum and his Nanna, who is sick with cancer. Xander’s Dad died of cancer and he wants to do whatever he can to save Nanna, and making lists helps him with anxiety and coping with difficult situations, so he decides to write a list of 100 Remarkable Feats and then achieve them all.

    Xander experiences and sees the world and other people differently than some, and the author has skilfully and sympathetically given readers a ‘Xander view’ of events, allowing us to understand that being neurodiverse is only a problem because it’s thought of as such. Little snippets of his learning pop up as well, such as how to make small talk, how to tell the difference between people being rude and being reserved, how to ‘read between the lines’ of interpersonal communication, and what an idiom such as ‘read between the lines’ actually means.

    The narrative is peppered with lists that Xander makes to help him cope with new or challenging situations. He accesses his memories and emotions via lists as well: #1 Most Trusted Person; Worst Life Moments; Memory Lists; Top Ten Life Moments.

    As he sets out to achieve his Remarkable Feats, he pushes his comfort zone out further than ever before; makes new friends; and tackles some very challenging scenarios. And he learns a great deal about life, family and friends on the way.

    In a letter to actor Emma Watson (#2 Prettiest Girl in the World), Xander writes:

    I also reckon it must have been incredibly hard for you being so famous so young, like you had to learn to be Hermoine Granger before learning to be yourself. That’s how I feel about being a teenager, like I’m always trying to be someone I’m expected to be rather than myself. I think that’s why I’ve had such a hard time fitting in.

    100 Remarkable Feats of Xander Maze p103

    As well as Xander’s experiences, the story touches on challenges that affect others: eating disorders, childhood illness, agoraphobia, bullying, among others. Yet it’s a quirky and uplifting tale in which the reader will cheers for Xander as he progresses through his Remarkable Feats. This novel will help teens and young adult readers to understand a little more about neurodiversity, and that can only be a positive thing.

    100 Remarkable Feats of Xander Maze is published by HarperCollins Publishers in June 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    A story of survival: ‘The Woman With the Blue Star’ by Pam Jenoff

    I had not known that Jews in Poland wore a blue star, rather than yellow, under the Nazi regime. Nor did I know the horrifying fact that some Jews survived detection by living underground – in the city sewer tunnels, along with the filth, the damp and the rats. These were two new things I learnt as a result of reading Pam Jenoff’s The Woman with the Blue Star.

    Set in Krakow in 1942, the novel tells the story of two young women – Sadie, an eighteen year old Jewish girl who escapes the Nazis and Polish police during their ‘liquidation’ of the Ghetto, and Ella, who is from an affluent Polish family. Ella lives with her hated stepmother in relative comfort (in large part due to her stepmother’s consorting with German men.) Ella spots Sadie’s face one morning through a sewer grate and comes to realise that Sadie (and others) are in hiding down there.

    Ella sets out to help in whatever ways she can – bringing food to begin with – but the stakes for them both get much higher as the war progresses and the level of danger increases.

    The author set the story in Krakow, though it was the sewers in the Polish city of Lvov in which Jewish people actually lived and survived the war. It’s almost beyond belief that anyone could survive a day or a week in such an unhealthy and putrid environment. Then again, much of what happened in European cities, towns, and Nazi concentration camps during WWII is beyond belief.

    I found that I didn’t warm to the characters in The Woman With the Blue Star as much as I might have wished; however the novel’s drama swept me along with it and I am always fascinated by stories that reveal things about this period of history.

    The Woman With the Blue Star is published by HarperCollins Publishers in May 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

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

    Magic of buttons: ‘Eliza Vanda’s Button Box’ by Emily Rodda

    When I was a little girl, I loved looking through my Nanna’s button collection. At one point she began to give my mother assorted buttons each time we visited; much later on I realised that Nanna knew she was dying of cancer and had begun divesting herself of objects. Perhaps they were special buttons, treasured for some memory they evoked of happier times. I’ll never know. Now I have my own modest button collection and I sometimes think of Nanna when I search through them to replace a missing shirt button.

    The new story from award-winning Australian author Emily Rodda is all about buttons and the mysterious but kind woman who appears in Milly Dynes’ small village with her magical button collection.

    Milly is in the midst of a spate of difficulties in her life, and meeting Eliza Vanda (or EV as she is known) and her companion Victor, takes her into a magical world in which she encounters witches, black jellybeans, a princess, a bewitched frog and a beautiful wedding dress.

    It’s a gentle story with humour and compassion in equal parts, and allows younger readers to explore emotions such as sadness or anger in a safe context. Milly is a sweet and clever girl and EV and Victor quite complex characters; Milly quickly realises that things (and people) are not always entirely as they appear.

    Eliza Vanda’s Button Box endows the humble button with a significance which I think is fully deserved, as I recall the pleasure I had in sorting through my Nanna’s button box all those years ago.

    Eliza Vanda’s Button Box is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in May 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading

    What we ignore at our peril: ‘You Need to Know’ by Nicola Moriarty

    Jill sees an email from her son’s ex-partner with the subject line ‘You need to know’ but can’t bring herself to read it. So begins a cascading sequence of lies and secrets which come to a crescendo on Christmas Eve as Jill and her sons, daughters-in-law and grandchildren are driving in convoy to their holiday house. A devastating accident with consequences no one could have foreseen.

    You Need to Know is billed as a family drama and it is certainly that. As with many if not most modern families, the Lewis clan are dealing with all the complications that life can serve up: the unexpected arrival of twins, relationship breakups and tensions, demanding work, teenagers. Everyone has a secret; something they don’t or can’t discuss with others. That’s normal, of course; but there is a much darker secret at the heart of the Lewis family’s problems.

    Told from alternating viewpoints, the novel effectively conveys each main character’s perspective on things. The three Lewis brothers – Tony, Pete and Darren – and their partners, ex-partners and children, are a believable group of people, three-dimensional characters trying to grapple with life’s challenges. Their mother, Jill, is dealing with her own sorrows and regrets.

    It’s difficult to say more about the plot without giving away spoilers. I found this novel to be a page-turner, with some twists that I didn’t see coming along with a couple that I did; they all contributed to a satisfying story that has some valuable things to say about our world. Most especially, about the secrets that can harm and how what we choose to ignore can come back to damage those we love the most. Readers who enjoy contemporary fiction with well drawn characters and themes will enjoy this new one by Nicola Moriarty.

    You Need to Know is published by HarperCollins Publishers in April 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to read and review.