• 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.

  • Books and reading

    Whose stories can we tell? ‘The Truth About Her’ by Jacqueline Maley

    Jacqueline Maley is an award winning journalist and columnist at The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age whose work I have admired for some time. The Truth About Her is her debut novel and it’s a beauty. Literary, funny and sobering by turns, it takes familiar stories and situations and makes of them a wry, incisive commentary on modern life, motherhood and the nature of truth.

    The main character is Suzy, an almost-forty journalist whose professional and personal lives have both hit major snags. Her article exposing a fraudster, Tracey Doran, who claimed to have cancer which she cured by an organic diet and lifestyle, was published just before the young woman killed herself. Suzy experiences crippling guilt although friends and family reassure her that the suicide wasn’t her fault.

    At almost the same time her casual, secret sexual relationship with her (married) boss is exposed, so Suzy herself experiences the distress of public shaming and the online vitriol and abuse that goes with that. She quits her job and faces a bleak financial future as she tries to support her pre-school aged daughter, Maddy, as a single parent.

    Unexpectedly she is approached by Tracey’s grieving mother who asks her to write the story of her daughter’s life – on her terms. Suzy agrees and so begins a connection that is strange and fraught and laden with secrets and emotional burdens. Through it all, Suzy examines her own life, her beliefs about relationships, truth and the role of the journalist.

    This novel captures with devastating clarity the challenges and moments of joy in the life of a working single parent. Suzy has sudden flashes of what she calls ‘the parallel life’, in which her former partner, Maddy’s father, is still with them and they lead a ‘normal’, middle class life together, with enough money to pay the bills, and love and support for each other. Instead, Suzy’s sadness and confusion mean she has a barely-in-control lifestyle and constant worries about the future.

    The author paints with delicate and humorous brushstrokes the little details of a mother-daughter bond, the small moments of unadulterated love and joy along with the hefty dose of guilt that seems to accompany the parenting role:

    Often, when I inquired about the dolls, or the tiny bunnies, or the little mice, that Maddy was playing with, asking their names and how they were related to each other, Maddy would say ‘Dair mummy is at work.’ Even her toys were latchkey kids.

    The Truth About Her p64

    There were moments when I felt I knew Suzy – that we were friends, perhaps, catching up over a coffee and bemoaning the state of the world. Her take on so many aspects of our modern world – the ‘on demand’ nature of everything, from sex to television; the sad lack of noise-killing soft furnishings in restaurants; the carefully designed nature of corporate premises, just to name a few examples – felt so similar to my own, and many of her wry asides elicited knowing chuckles as I read. A strong theme in the novel is the nature of truth: in a world where people curate their own stories and images for public consumption yet give little away of their inner lives, it poses the question: can we ever truly know another person? And who has the right to tell their story?

    The relationships are beautifully drawn, including Suzy’s sometime lover, Tom, her critical mother Beverley, her loving and good humoured great-uncle Sam, Tracey’s mother Jan, and especially little Maddy – all become real people, alive on the page.

    As the story plays out and reaches its conclusion, Suzy has learnt some things about herself, about the other people in her life, and possibly also what life was for. I enjoyed this novel so much and I can’t wait to read Jacqueline Maley’s next offering.

    The Truth About Her is published by Fourth Estate, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, in April 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Remembering the heroines: ‘Legends of the Lost Lilies’ by Jackie French

    Firstly: don’t let the luscious cover of Jackie French’s latest historical fiction fool you. It may look like a classic historical romance, but there is enough danger, intrigue, secrets and twisty bits to satisfy any lover of thriller novels. No car chase scenes, but I say thank goodness for that!

    Secondly, a disclaimer: Legends of the Lost Lilies is book number five (and the final) in the Miss Lily series, which collectively cover the immediate pre-WWI period to the immediate post-WWII period (and a later epilogue). I had previously read only the first, Miss Lily’s Lovely Ladies, and there is a lot that happens in the intervening three episodes – so I was left a little bewildered by some of the story in this latest book. Ms French skilfully weaves in essential bits of backstory and introduces characters well (of course she does, she is an expert storyteller), but I do think it best to come to this one having read at least one or two of the previous titles. I intend to go back and fill in some gaps when I can.

    The characters from the first Miss Lily appear in this one, too, though of course much has happened to them all over two world wars and everything in between. I don’t want to say much about the plot of book five, because it would be too easy to give spoilers. One thing I will say about the plot is that, in her Author’s Note, Ms French assures us that every character and incident in the book is based on people and events that really existed, individually or as composites. That was good to read because there are some ‘larger than life’ characters and some moments when I wondered at a plot turn. Shades of Margaret Atwood, who based every event in her groundbreaking novel The Handmaid’s Tale’ on things that had really happened somewhere in the world.

    I’d like to comment on the themes of the five Miss Lily books. In her Author’s Note, Jackie French says:

    The series shows how women’s views of themselves changed and widened over the twentieth century. It is also about the women men did not see, or rather, did see, but then for a multitude of reasons omitted from history.

    Legends of the Lost Lilies p.431

    The novel also explores the complexities of life, of relationships, the tragedy and pointlessness of war. A strong underlying theme is the nature of love (in all its forms) and loyalty, kindness and forgiveness as tools for peace, and loss as the inevitable other side of love.

    A lovely quote towards the end of the book combines many of these themes. Observing the young women of her family in the 1970’s, Sophia reflects on how the women of her generation and earlier generations prepared their path:

    They think they invented it all, and that is how it should be, for pride in what they have achieved will take them further.
    Yet their grandmothers and great-grandmothers and every generation of women before them were there at every major moment in history, though the books rarely record us.

    Legends of the Lost Lilies p.428

    In amongst the drama, the intelligence activities, the horror of wartime, the losses, pain and grief, this is the shining thread that runs through the Miss Lily narrative: women and their networks, friendships, strengths. The series will be enjoyed by historical fiction fans who love reading about the heroic women of our collective past.

    Legends of the Lost Lilies will be published by HarperCollins Australia in April 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to review.