• Books and reading,  History

    Chaos and conflict in post-war Europe: ‘Miss Graham’s Cold War Cookbook’ by Celia Rees

    Don’t be fooled by the cover or title of this new novel by English writer Celia Rees. This is no light and fluffy historical romance, but rather a gripping thriller set during Europe in 1946, in the immediate aftermath of a vicious war that had destroyed so much.

    The protagonist is Edith Graham, whose rather dreary life as a teacher in war-torn England transforms when she is offered the opportunity to join the British Control Commission in Germany as an education officer, tasked with re-establishing schools within that shattered country.

    I’d not thought much about what life was like for Germans immediately following their defeat, apart from images of bombed-out cities and hungry survivors. The picture painted in this novel is of a people struggling to deal with military occupation by the Allied forces, revealing its darker aspects: a flourishing black market, the flaunting of regulations by many of the populace, lingering anti-Semitism not only amongst some Germans but some of the Allied occupiers as well. Most distasteful of all is the manoeuvring for power by the occupiers, once allies, who were now fighting for control of the resources (both physical and intellectual) left by the defeated Nazi regime. There is suspicion, betrayal and double-dealing aplenty, as Edith soon discovers.

    We get glimpses of Edith’s life before the war, including her brief affair with a handsome German man, Kurt von Stavenow, later meeting his beautiful, wealthy wife Elisabeth, and her interest in cookery and collecting recipes from different part of the world. Edith not only accepts the challenge of working for the Control Commission, but also takes on a hidden role as a spy, which she comes to via her cousin Leo.

    In this, Edith’s role is to gather information and contacts of Germans who have escaped arrest for war crimes. The horrors of Nazi-controlled Europe are revealed as she pursues this work, and she smuggles coded messages back to England within innocent-looking recipes. This is where the ‘Cookbook’ of the title comes in. It’s a clever device and a lovely motif that ties the various parts of Edith’s story together as the novel progresses, also illuminating the culture and experiences of the people she encounters.

    She made notes as Hilde described what to do, remembering her home, her family, her mother and grandmother’s kitchen. A whole world came spilling out with the sifting and stirring of each ingredient…Grandmother, bundt tin, everything, gone in the raid on Hanover that had sent Hilde north to find refuge…

    Miss Graham’s Cold War Cookbook p228

    There is plenty more intrigue and drama in the novel, heartbreak and hope, which I think is perhaps the most-needed commodity in a world that has been almost destroyed. Edith is a wonderful heroine, an ‘ordinary’ young woman who finds herself in extraordinary circumstances and who has to make difficult choices because of it. She reflects on what lies ahead for Germany when observing young children in their resource-starved schools, in this way:

    How resilient these children were, she thought, how inventive. They had lost everything. Homes. Fathers. Mothers. Their young lives had been shattered like their surroundings by a war that was no fault of theirs but they still managed to conjure a playground out of a bombsite. If this country had a future, it lay with them.

    Miss Graham’s Cold War Cookbook p363

    The novel kept me guessing to the end of the book, and the conclusion made me go back and re-read the prologue so that I could put all the puzzle pieces together. It’s a well plotted and intriguing story.

    Readers who enjoy a fast-paced novel, with plenty of twists and turns, a dash or romance, and plenty to think about, will enjoy
    Miss Graham’s Cold War Cookbook.
    It will be published by Harper Collins in July 2020.
    My thanks to the publisher for a copy to read and review.

  • Books and reading,  Life: bits and pieces

    Five months of reading: 2020 Reading Challenges done and dusted

    OK, so perhaps COVID-19 isolation rules had something to do with it. I’ve been reading a whole lot more in the first five months of this year. As a result, my 2020 Reading Challenges are done and it’s not quite halfway through the year yet.

    So, here’s what I’ve achieved between the pages (you can find my reviews for each of the books in the links to my earlier posts):

    And the books I read? Here they are along with links to my thoughts on each in case you missed them the first time. (There are a few additional books read but not listed here because I did not post a review.)
    Eggshell Skull by Bri Lee
    Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl
    The Mind of a Thief by Patti Miller
    Your Own Kind of Girl by Clare Bowditch
    Bruny by Heather Rose
    The Yield by Tara June Winch
    Songspirals by Gay’wu Group of Women
    The White Girl by Tony Birch
    The Lioness Wakes by Blanche D’Alpuget
    No Small Shame by Christine Bell
    I Want You to Know We’re Still Here by Esther Safran Foer
    Tell Me Why by Archie Roach
    The Women’s Pages by Victoria Purman
    Inheritance of Secrets by Sonya Bates
    The Schoolmaster’s Daughter by Jackie French
    Evie and Pog by Tania McCartney
    Starfell: Willow Moss and the Forgotten Tale by Dominique Valente
    When Grace Went Away by Meredith Appleyard
    The Weekend by Charlotte Wood
    Taboo by Kim Scott
    Invisible Boys by Holden Shepard
    Cutting the Cord by Natasha Molt
    When Grace Went Away by Meredith Appleyard


    Have you set yourself any reading challenges this year? Maybe a new author? Or trying out a genre you don’t normally gravitate to? Perhaps, like me, you’ve also been searching out more titles by indigenous Australian authors.

    Now, on to the next half of 2020 and more reading.
    We’re into winter here in Australia and of course that’s the perfect time to settle in a sunny spot or in front of the fire with a good book or three.

    #AussieAuthor20
    #readthestella
    #2020StellaPrize
    #AWW2020

  • Books and reading,  Uncategorized

    Two new titles to delight children of different ages

    This is a sweet book, perfect for reading aloud or for children beginning independent reading. It is number three in a series, early chapter books, all about six -year-old Evie and her best friend, Pog, who is a dog. They live in a tree house right near Granny Gladys and their friends Noah and Mr Pooch, and Miss Footlights, Evie’s teacher.

    Written and illustrated by Tania McCartney, who lives in Australia’s capital, Canberra, the three stories in Party Perfect are about the various escapades of Evie and Pog, well suited for children of those early school years: such as the school Book Parade, creating a work for the village art show, and a special party. The text is simple yet satisfying, with plenty of repetition to allow familiarity, and important or new words highlighted to help children learn. The illustrations are witty and engaging.

    This is a lovely little book to absorb youngster and encourage reading while being absorbed in the safe and loving environment of Evie and Pog’s world.

    Evie and Pog: Party Perfect was published by Harper Collins in April 2020.

    #AWW2020
    #AussieAuthor20

    Starfell: Willow Moss and the Forgotten Tale by Dominique Valente, is for older readers, perhaps 8 and older (‘middle school’ ages). The second in a series all about the young witch Willow, her family and friends, and her adventures in the world of Starfell, where magic exists but sometimes (as with Willow in this book) goes awry. Willow’s special magic is supposed to be about finding lost things. Instead, she inadvertently makes things disappear – with perplexing and sometimes humorous results.

    When Willow’s friend Nolin Sometimes is kidnapped, he writes an urgent letter to Willow pleading for her help. Willow sets off with her trusty companion kobold (a cat-like and cantakerous ‘monster’ called Oswin who spends most of his time in a carpetbag) to find and rescue Sometimes. They recruit more helpers along the way, including a strange and mysterious part boy -part raven called Sprig and a ‘cloud dragon’ called Feathering, while travelling across Starfell and finally into the dark land of Netherfell.

    Willow is an entertaining protagonist, full of life and very well-meaning, but sometimes unsure of herself and her magic. The youngest in a family of accomplished witches, she nevertheless faces danger, dark magic and betrayal to find her own magical abilities and help her friend. She doesn’t always get things right, which makes her very relatable for young readers who are also working out their place in the world.

    The world building is terrific, full of vivid descriptions and a fast pace. Emotions (such as grief and fear) are dealt with sensitively. The characters are a delightful collection and there is a great deal of playful use of language, especially Oswin’s utterances from within his carpetbag. The illustrations by Sarah Warburton add the perfect amount of whimsy and context.

    Starfell is perfect for readers who love books such as Jessica Townsend’s Nevermoor series, and who are perhaps not ready for the somewhat darker themes of J.K.Rowling’s Harry Potter books. It is evidence, if that were needed, of the unfailing delight that can be had from stories of witches, wizards and magic.

    Starfell: Willow Moss and the Forgotten Tale was published by Harper Collins in April 2020.


    Thanks to Harper Collins Australia for a copy of both these books to read and review.

  • Books and reading

    Bookish challenges for 2020

    Happy New Year lovely readers. I do hope 2020 treats you kindly and you give and receive love in abundance – because that’s the thing that we all need in great quantities. Every single one of us.

    In addition, the readers among us need books! Perhaps you have added some new books to your shelves: Christmas gifts, or books borrowed from your local library or a friend, or ones you have bought yourself. Like you, I’m looking forward to another year of great reads.

    In 2020, I am signing up to three reading ‘Challenges’. I like to do this to motivate me to expand my reading repertoire and discover authors and books I might not otherwise know about.

    The first is one I’ve participated in for the past couple of years – the Australian Women Writers Challenge, now in its ninth year. The #aww2020 Challenge aims to increase the number of reviews of works by women authors in this country. So far it is having great success, if the published review statistics are anything to go by, improving the ratio of reviews of works by male and female authors to near equal.

    From the AWW blog:

    The AWW challenge was set up to help overcome gender bias in the reviewing of books by Australian women. The challenge encourages avid readers and book bloggers, male and female, living in or outside Australia, to read and review books by Australian women throughout the year. You don’t have to be a writer to sign up. You can choose to read and review, or read only.

    For 2020, I’m selecting the ‘Franklin’ challenge, which means I aim to read ten books by Australian women authors, and review at least six. Given that the majority of books I read in 2019 were by Australian women, I’m feeling pretty confident!

    The second challenge for 2020 is the Nonfiction Reader Challenge, which is a new one for me. I’ve chosen to participate in this one because I’ve always thought of myself as mainly a fiction reader, but lately I’ve enjoyed many more nonfiction titles. Some of these were books chosen by members of my book group, others ones I gravitated to myself – mostly in the areas of history, memoir or biography. So, why not set myself a challenge to read more?

    For this one, I’ve chosen the ‘Nonfiction Nibbler’ level, in which the aim is to read 6 books, from any category, which are:

    1. Memoir 2. Disaster Event 3. Social Science 4. Related to an Occupation
    5. History 6. Feminism 7. Psychology 8. Medical Issue 9. Nature

    10. True Crime 11. Science 12. Published in 2020

    The third challenge overlaps a bit with the others- the 2020 Aussie Readers Challenge, which aims to

    Showcase the quality and diversity of books by Australian authors.

    Book lover Book Review

    I’ve opted for the ‘Kangaroo’ level. This means I will aim to read 12 books by Australian authors, at least 4 by female and 4 by male authors and at least 4 by authors new to me, and across 3 different genres.

    So, there are my reading challenges for the next twelve months.

    Do you like to set reading (or other) challenges for yourself? Do you find it helpful to do so? Let me know in the comments what your best challenges have been, or the ones you look forward to in 2020.

    And happy reading.

  • Books and reading,  Life: bits and pieces

    Books for the tough times

    If you are anything like me, you might pick up a book for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes it’s to escape into another world, or another life, or to learn things, or pass the time. Or just because I can’t bear passing an entire day without reading. And sometimes, reading can help me cope with difficult times or emotions.
    Here’s my go-to collection of books that have helped me at various times and for various reasons.

    About ten years ago I came across two beautiful books that I connected with strongly.

    Brenda Walker’s Reading by Moonlight (Penguin, 2010) is a meditation on how particular books helped the author through her experiences of diagnosis and treatment for breast cancer. In it, she writes:

    A good book laces invisible fingers into the shape of a winter armchair or a hammock in the sun. I’m not talking about comfort, necessarily, but support. A good writer might take you to strange and difficult places, but you’re in the hands of someone you trust.

    ‘Reading by Moonlight’ p 8

    The other book that was meaningful for me around that time was Worse Things Happen at Sea by William McInnes and Sarah Watt (Hachette, 2011). This collection of anecdotes, reflections and photographs celebrates the author’s marriage, creative partnership, children, families and neighbourhood and is made especially poignant by the knowledge that Sarah later died of breast cancer. I loved the book because of its inherent optimism and the spirit of thankfulness that imbues the writing of both authors. Here’s a snippet from Sarah:

    I began to count what I had. Not my blessings, just what I had: a car, a healthy child, a lovely man, enough money to pay the mortgage, not enough to cause worry, Australian citizenship, ten pairs of shoes. A pathetic amount in some eyes, absurdly wasteful in others.

    ‘Worse Things Happen at Sea’ p 145

    Another kind of inspirational book is Rise by Ingrid Poulson (Pan MacMillan 2008) Ingrid endured what many would consider the worst kind of trauma: in 2003 her estranged husband murdered her father and her two small children in front of her, and tried to kill her also. Her book is both a reflection on these events and her own survival, and a guide to developing and practicing resilience. It’s a very practical book while also being full of compassion and kindness for the suffering of others. Here is Ingrid at the end of her book:

    My journey continues on, as does yours. There is always room for improvement, but much more for appreciation and gratitude...I have never regretted love I have given…I seek joy and I survive well. I live for those who cannot.

    Rise p 226

    And now, some books to allow for the experience of various emotions:

    Anne of Green Gables by LM Montgomery, first published 1908. I read and re-read all of the Anne books so many times in my childhood and teens, I have lost count. Full of sweet humour and poignant moments, it’s a perfect book to indulge in a good cry – especially the scene when Mathew dies. Never fails for me.

    The House at Pooh Corner and all the other books about Winnie- the- Pooh by A A Milne, first published 1928. These books are all mini philosophy lessons wrapped up in simple stories for children. So many quotable quotes! Here’s one of my favourites:

    Christopher Robin thought that if he stood on the bottom rail of a bridge and leant over to watch the river slipping slowly away beneath him, then he would suddenly know everything there was to be known, and he would be able to tell Pooh, who wasn’t quite sure about some of it.

    The House at Pooh Corner, p 102

    I’ll finish with some poetry, because poems are always good to turn to in difficult times. There are two poems by the American poet Mary Oliver that I especially love: ‘A Summer’s Day’ and ‘Wild Geese’, both in the collection Wild Geese (Bloodaxe Books, 2004)
    And Judith Wright, a favourite Australian poet, with her poem ‘The Trap’ (in The Penguin Book of Australian Women Poets, 1986. Here’s a stanza from this poem:

    ‘I love you,’ said the child,
    but the parrot with its blazing breast and wing
    flaunted in the high tree, love’s very beckoning,
    and would not be beguiled.

    The Penguin Book of Australian Women Poets, p 75

    What are some of the books or poems that have supported you in difficult times? Let me know in the comments.

  • Books and reading,  Life: bits and pieces

    Last conversations, last greetings, last books: a strange New Year’s message

    This is a ‘Strange New Year message’ because it’s all about ‘lasts’. Usually, as a new year rolls in, we are caught up in thinking about everything new and shiny: new year plans, resolutions, a new calendar on the wall…

    And I’ve been doing all that too, of course. I’ve set my goal for 2019: to have a completed and edited manuscript of my first novel, and be well and truly on the path to approaching agents and publishers to gauge interest in the story.

    For this post, though, I want to write about ‘last’ things.

    How do we know when its the last time we do something, see something, speak to someone?

    I ask this because last night, I called to wish Happy New Year to an elderly person in my life. After I had hung up the phone, I began to wonder if this was to be the last New Year greeting I would exchange with that person, who is not in the best of health and approaching the grand age of 90.

    Would knowing that it was the last time I wished her a Happy New Year, change the way I did so? Or the way I act before or afterward? Probably. But of course I don’t know, and generally speaking, we never do. Which is, perhaps, for the best.

    That got me thinking about other ‘lasts.’

    The last time I might kiss someone hello, or goodbye.

    The last breakfast I might eat.

    The last coffee I enjoy.

    The last swim ( I’m writing this post after 20 laps at my beautiful local pool, and it’s mid summer here in Australia, so swimming is definitely on my agenda right now)

    The last piece of beautiful music I hear.

    The last book I read.

    Disappearing down that particular rabbit hole has me reflecting on what I would choose, if I knew that a book was to be my last one ever…and I truly don’t know the answer! Would I choose to re- read a well loved favourite, perhaps one I hadn’t read in a while? Or would I elect to tackle one of the many, many books on my ‘to be read’ list?

    Even thinking about that incites a little bubble of panic. I always say, only partly joking, ‘So many books, so little time’. But of course I never really think that I won’t actually have enough time to read all the books I want to. Despite being perfectly aware of the reality that we all leave this life some day, I have never truly considered the fact that there will be a last book. So, which one would I choose?

    Which book would you choose for your last book ever? Let me know in the comments.

    And, Happy New Year to you and yours.