• Books and reading

    New short fiction: ‘Unrestricted Access’ by James Rollins

    The first thing I should say is that I am not a big fan of the thriller genre. Crime fiction and true crime? Yes, if it is well written and character driven. But I get bored by fight scenes, car chases and bomb blasts.

    I do, however, enjoy short fiction, so I was not altogether the wrong person to review James Rollins’ collection of new and classic short fiction, Unrestricted Access. Rollins is a New York Times best selling author, so there are plenty of thriller loving fans around the globe who will enjoy these stories in his first ever anthology, many of which introduce or give some back story for characters from his novels.

    The stories’ setting range from Afghanistan to the jungles of South America, San Francisco in the ‘Summer of Love’ to the Paris Catacombs. And the characters vary from operatives of an elite US Defence unit, Sigma Force, to an ambitious journalist and a military war dog.

    The plots are tight, with a fast pace, plenty of action and often a neat twist at the end. Each story has a short introduction by Rollins and readers of his longer works will be interested in the connections with characters or settings from his novels.

    If you are a fan of the genre, the twelve stories in Unrestricted Access will have you turning the pages to find out ‘what happens next’.

    Unrestricted Access is published by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, in October 2020.

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

  • 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.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Resilience and friendship: ‘The Bird in the Bamboo Cage’ by Hazel Gaynor

    This novel introduced me to a previously unknown story of WWII : the experience of teachers and pupils at a Protestant boarding school in northern China while under Japanese control. The students, children of missionaries, business people or diplomats from around the world, received a traditional British-style education including the classics, religious instruction and preparation for English university study.

    After Japan’s invasion of China in 1937, school life continued largely as before for a time, until the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour in 1941. Overnight, citizens of the US and the British Empire became enemy aliens and everything changed at Chefoo School. They were, suddenly, prisoners of war. They were moved twice; firstly to another location in the town and later to Weihsien Internment Camp, where they were kept captive for two years until liberation by US soldiers in 1945.

    The author heard about these events and knew this was a story she wanted to write. The novel’s characters are her own creations but she researched accounts of internment and pored over the archives from Chefoo School, to write an authentic and moving account of people living through great hardship and fearful times with humour, compassion and resilience.

    The story centres around a teacher, Elspeth Kent, and three pupils who are young girls at the novel’s opening but teenagers by the time of liberation. Nancy, known as ‘Plum’ to her friends, is the child of missionaries and, even before her capture by the Japanese, had not seen her parents for three years. For someone like me, not familiar with the boarding school system, that seems an incredible time for a child to be without her parents. Nancy and her friends endure an additional four years under the most testing of circumstances.

    What holds the children and teachers together are their friendships and the teachers’ steadfast adherence to maintaining a sense of safety and unity, and what we might think of as a ‘stiff upper lip.’ Or, as Miss Kent puts it,

    I closed my eyes and absorbed the simple familiarity of the moment: chalk dust on my fingertips, the pool of winter sunlight against my cheek, the sounds of singing and instruction drifting along the corridors. Routine and discipline. The glue holding me together while the world was falling apart.

    The Bird in the Bamboo Cage p25

    Told through alternating viewpoints of Miss Kent and young Nancy, we see the circumstances under which the school community must survive deteriorate rapidly; the brutality of some of the Japanese guards; the tragic experiences of the local Chinese communities.

    There are two potent themes throughout: sunflower seeds and the Girl Guides. The seeds are given to Miss Kent by the school’s Chinese gardener just before they are moved from the campus. She plants a seed at various locations throughout the story, one in each place they are interned and in remembrance of specific people.

    She resolutely keeps the rituals of the Guides alive for the girls in her charge, as a way of holding onto meaningful traditions for her pupils, and to follow the teachings of the Guides about honourable and right behaviour and deeds, despite the suffering and cruelty around them.

    One interesting character who really was at Weihsien Internment Camp is Eric Liddell, the Scottish Olympic athlete on whom the film Chariots of Fire was based. He was held captive at the camp and sadly died there before the prisoners were liberated. There is a memorial at the location where he was buried.

    Both Miss Kent and Nancy come to realise that freedom can be taken away from without but not from within. Nancy’s version of this understanding is this:

    For the first time since we’d been under Japanese guard, I understood that freedom wasn’t something I had to wait for, but was something I could choose. In my mind, in my imagination and my memories, I could be as free as the birds that raced the wind, as free as the clouds that chased the sun far above me.

    The Bird in the Bamboo Cage p277

    The Bird in the Bamboo Cage is a beautifully told story of loss and courage, the strength of the human spirit, and the bonds of friendship.

    It is published by HarperCollins Publishers in September 2020.
    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to read and review.

  • Books and reading

    Identity, secrets, tragedy – and love: ‘The Love that Remains’ by Susan Francis

    This is such a beautiful book. Susan Francis’ debut published book, it is a memoir that tells of her lifelong search for her birth parents, her struggle to understand and accept the circumstances of her birth and adoption, her relationship with her adored husband Wayne, and her grief at his untimely and sudden death. But it is also about secrets that are kept by individuals and within families and asks one of the hardest of all questions: How well can we really know another person?

    The author weaves the two main themes of her story – identity and secrets – together in a way that makes the book un-put-down-able. Along with Susan Francis, I really wanted to know why she was adopted, who her birth parents were, as well as those aspects of Wayne’s past that he sought to keep hidden. The story goes back and forth in time and across continents, new griefs mixing with old, as we accompany the author on her quest to learn, to know, to understand. We feel her unbearable trauma and confusion as she faces some of the most difficult circumstances imaginable, challenges that would test any one of us. Challenges that she faces with humanity, humility and a gritty determination. All of this is told in beautiful, lyrical prose that touches the deepest parts of the readers’ own emotional responses and imagination.

    Never was I tempted to ignore this knowledge about my husband’s past. The only way I could be fully me in the present was to know the truth of what had gone before. If I didn’t find out…my story would not be whole. Because you can’t un-know information.

    The Love that Remains

    I won’t say more about the events described in this book because I think every reader should come to it without too many preconceptions or prior knowledge. That way it unfolds fresh for each new reading. It is enough to say that it is a compelling debut. Susan Francis is currently working on her first novel, which I understand is partly inspired by the ‘Balibo Five’ and other events surrounding the struggle for East Timorese independence from Indonesia. I look forward to reading that once published.

    If you enjoy books that touch the heart, that make you think and wonder, and that pose questions for which there are no easy answers, you should read The Love that Remains.

    Just a note: I ‘heard’ this book via the Audible audiobook version, which is why I was unable to give a page reference for the quote above.

    #AussieAuthor2020
    #2020ReadNonFic
    #AWW2020

  • Books and reading

    Learning from the youngsters: ‘Loveless’ by Alice Oseman

    YA (young adult) fiction is something I have only recently begun to read (since I was a young adult myself, I mean – and that was… well, some years ago now.) I’ve been intrigued and I admit, a little surprised at how much has changed in novels for this target audience. For a start, the language is different: much more ‘colourful’ and very influenced by the brevity of social media posts and also by some ‘Americanisms’. What has not changed is the way that these novels can explore the issues that are front and centre of their young readers’ lives.

    This is what Loveless does, in an interesting and sensitive way. The themes of this novel by Alice Oseman include the challenges faced by young people as they explore their sexuality, begin to navigate the adult world, and face new challenges outside of home and school life. At its heart is friendship, of utmost importance to all people in this age group.

    The story centres on Georgia and her best friends Pip and Jason as they begin university life. There are the usual nerves at the threshold of a big step like this, but for Georgia there is also confusion and anxiety. She longs for a romantic relationship and can’t understand why she has not been able to find someone she is attracted to. Is she gay? Bisexual? What does it mean to be asexual? Is that even a thing? Or is she just shy, preferring to watch a romcom or read fanfic to going clubbing?

    Georgia envies her room-mate, Rhooney, who seems to be able to make friends easily, exudes confidence and has a robust social and sexual life. However she comes to realise that Rhooney, too, has her own secrets and struggles.

    After some unsuccessful attempts to meet boys she would want to date, Georgia reflects:

    I thought I’d understood what all these romantic things would feel like – butterflies and the spark and just knowing when you liked someone. I’d read about these feelings hundreds of times in books and fanfic. I’d watched way more romances than was probably normal for an eighteen-year-old.

    But now I was starting to wonder if these things were made up.

    Loveless p139

    We dive right in to the university experience with Georgia and her friends: clubs and societies, college life, formal balls and pub crawls, student mentors, too much alcohol. The story is unflinching about the lengths youngsters will go to, in order to fit in, and to find romance and/or sex.

    One delight is the reference to Shakespeare: the group are all avowed Shakespeare fans and work to put on a performance with scenes chosen from some key plays. In doing so they highlight the relevance of some much of Shakespeare’s work to our modern world with scenarios that are still recognisable today : romance, social gaffes, sexuality and gender fluidity, for example.

    I learnt a lot about the lives of young people today but was also reminded of my own nerves and fluster at beginning university, not knowing anyone and shy to make friends. Alice Oseman is a skilful novelist to be able to evoke memories while illuminating the current lay of the land for young adults.

    Loveless will be published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in
    August 2020.

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

  • Books and reading,  History

    Hardship and misdeeds on Victoria’s goldfields: ‘The Goldminer’s Sister’ by Alison Stuart

    Alison Stuart lives in an historic town in Victoria and it shows in her writing. The Goldminer’s Sister is her second novel featuring places and events from Australia’s past. Set in a fictional 1870’s Victorian goldfields town of Maiden Creek, the author conjures the dirt, noise, hard living conditions and gold fever of the times brilliantly. Even more impressive are her descriptions of the mines themselves – the never-ending thud of the ‘stampers’, the ever-present risk of mine collapse, the dark tunnels following the gold seams.

    Around this rich background she has woven a story of greed, loss and love. The protagonist is Eliza, who arrives from England after the death of her parents, hoping to be reunited with her beloved brother Will. Arriving at Maiden’s Creek, she is greeted by her uncle Charles Cowper and the news that Will died in a recent fall at the mine. Shocked, Eliza realises she is now alone in the world and work out how she is to support herself.

    She meets many of the town’s inhabitants; those who have made good money through mining and those less fortunate who live on the edges of the community. Alec McLeod is a mining engineer who works at her uncle’s mine. He has his own sorrows and secrets, but events bring them together as both Alec and Eliza begin to suspect that Will’s death might not have been an accident.

    Stuart has conjured the atmosphere of ‘gold fever’ well – the way the prospect of instant unbelievable wealth drew people from all backgrounds to try their luck at mining. Crime flourished, and if the risk of mining accidents was not enough, there was also the threat posed by bushrangers who roamed the trails between the goldfields and Melbourne or other bigger towns. The author does not flinch from portraying the grim reality of life for those who don’t strike it lucky: the prostitutes, sly grog dealers and children from poor families for example.

    Eliza is a sympathetic character whose circumstances are less than ideal but who nonetheless shows courage and compassion throughout.

    The Goldminer’s Sister is a satisfying novel with intrigue, action and a dash of romance set amidst a compelling and dramatic chapter of Australian history.

    It was published by Mira, an imprint of Harlequin Enterprises (subsidiary of HarperCollins Publishers Australia), in July 2020.
    My thanks to the publisher for a copy to read and review.

    #AWW2020
    #AussieAuthor20

  • 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.