• Books and reading,  History

    Courage and conflict: ‘Sisters of the Resistance’ by Christine Wells

    I remember being in Paris, on a much-anticipated trip in 2015, falling in love with this amazing city (of course!) and imagining Nazi boots tramping the beautiful cobblestoned streets. I could almost hear the tanks rumbling through the city. I wondered: what would it have been like for Parisians, experiencing the fear and humiliation of German occupation?

    Sisters of the Resistance, by Aussie author Christine Wells, is a novel that plunges the reader into that experience, but also allows us to imagine how cities such as Paris were, straight after the war. How did Parisians survive the relentless assaults on their beautiful city and their lives? How much did rationing and fear impact on everyday experiences and for how long, after peace finally arrived?

    Paris was bleak in the winter with the plane trees leafless and grey. While the bombings had not touched the part of the city in which Yvette now hurried along, the place had the air of a beautiful, damaged creature still licking its wounds. Now that winter had come, all its scars were laid bare.

    Sisters of the Resistance p8

    The novel moves between 1947 and 1944, which was a time approaching the end of the war but still a dangerous one, as the Nazis grew ever more desperate and vicious.

    The sisters of the title are Yvette and Gabby, young women of very different personalities and approaches to their wartime experiences. Gabby is the eldest; sensible and cautious, just wanting to survive the war as best she can. Yvette is more impulsive, driven by a need to do something to help her city and country in its struggle against Nazi oppression. I enjoyed the contrasting characters: one accidentally and reluctantly drawn into resistance work; the other eager, if naïve about the dangers involved.

    As with many good historical fiction novels, this one was inspired by the true story of Catherine Dior, the sister of the more famous French fashion icon Christian. She worked and fought for the Paris resistance before her arrest, torture and incarceration in a German concentration camp. I had been introduced to her story before, via another novel about WWII, The Paris Secret by Natasha Lester. Hers is a remarkable story and in this new novel, Christine Wells has woven a moving and exciting tale about other women who contributed in their own ways to the cause of French freedom.

    The murkiness of the world of the resistance is explored as the characters navigate their way through the difficult (sometimes impossible) choices they are faced with:

    “At what point does it become collaboration? At what point treason? Do we judge by someone’s actions or by their intentions?”

    Sisters of the Resistance p102

    There are hints and glimpses of intrigue, betrayals and danger that kept me turning the page, and prompted me to wonder what I would do, if faced with similar situations and dilemmas that called upon every atom of strength I possessed.

    Sisters of the Resistance is published by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins, in July 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

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

    Fun new graphic novel: ‘Lightfall: The Girl and the Galdurian’ by Tim Probert

    The first in a new series of graphic novels for younger readers, Lightfall is all about Bea, who lives with her adoptive grandpa, the wise (but forgetful) Pig Wizard. On a day when Bea is in the forest collecting ingredients for Gramps’ next batch of potions, she meets Cad, a Galdurian, a race of frog-like people thought to have been extinct.

    The two strike up an unlikely friendship and Cad accompanies Bea home as he wants to ask Gramps for advice about how to find his missing people. But when they arrive at Bea’s home, Gramps is missing. He’s left a note to say that he is off an important magical errand, and Bea is not to follow him.

    What Gramps has not told Bea is that the light in the jar he has given her, along with warnings NOT to lose it, is the last light of the sun. The light of their world has been fading and an ancient force is set on extinguishing the light forever. Bea and Cad must save the jar with its precious magic flame at all costs. And they need to find Gramps.

    The story follows the setbacks and dangers they face along the way. What I enjoyed most is the friendship of two opposites: Cad is big, adventurous, optimistic and outgoing, where Bea is small and often anxious about doing the right thing or letting people down. The characters balance each other nicely and Bea must step out of her comfort zone many times on their journey.

    Graphic novels are terrific for reluctant or early readers as the text load is lighter and readers can absorb a good chunk of the story through the artwork. I can see the Lightfall series becoming a popular addition to children’s bookshelves.

    Lightfall: The Girl and the Galdurian was published by HarperAlley, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, in May 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to review.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Joyous, beautiful read: ‘Still Life’ by Sarah Winman

    Have you been to Italy? I haven’t, although I did come close early on in 2020 when preliminary plans were afoot for a trip. A loved one’s uncertain health, and then of course Covid, put a stop to that.

    If you are anything like me, a book set in a place you’ve not been, can often make you long to go there. This happened when I read Heather’ Rose’s Bruny: on a recent trip to Tasmania, I made sure to include Bruny Island in the itinerary, as I’d never had the opportunity to visit before.

    Still Life is set in both Italy and England – Florence and the east end of London, to be precise. It’s a big joyous hymn to love, passion, art, beauty and family (both birth families and the families we create for ourselves). In some ways, it reminded me a little of Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet: like that much loved Australian classic, Still Life sprawls across decades and follows a disparate group of people as they travel through life. And, one of the shining strengths of the novel is the way those characters are captured with apt description, humour and wonderful dialogue. Here’s a couple of examples, about Peg:

    She’d have done anything to have had a mum like Nora. Nora was all soft angles and kindness. Peg could be kind, but there wasn’t enough of it to be a regular thing with her. It was like her wage. Always ran out by Thursday.

    and:

    Peg slunk out bare legs and heels first followed by a belted midi short-sleeve dress in emerald green. Sunglasses hid the ten years older and the sun high-lighted the ten years blonder.

    Still Life pp98 & 311

    Ulysses (a young British soldier in Italy in the last years of the war) and Evelyn (an art historian in her sixties) meet by chance in Italy and talk through one night about truth, beauty and Florence. We follow both of these main characters through the decades after the war, from the wreckage and hardship of London to the great flood of 1966 in Florence and into the 1970’s, years of tumult and dissent. Ulysses has moved to live in Florence, that city at the centre of Renaissance art, and has gathered around him a close group of friends – family, really – both Italian and English. Evelyn continues her stellar career as an art historian and teacher, always remembering a maid in Florence with whom she had her first love affair at the age of twenty-one.

    I fell a little in love with these two main characters, though the novel is peopled by many others: complex, funny, three dimensional humans whose convivial dinners in a Florentine piazza had me longing to join them. And there are touches of magical realism, as well, including a Shakespeare-quoting parrot and trees that commune with humans.

    This passage encapsulates the themes of this book:

    This song’s called Angeli del fango, he said. Mud Angels.
    It was a ballad. About the young men and women who’d come to the city. About good rising out of need, about love in all its forms, about kindness and looking out for one another, and only the third verse was about art, but even that was about the paradox of meaning…

    Still Life p355

    I feel certain that Still Life will be one of my standout reads for 2021. It’s such a joyous book; rich with love of life, art, beauty and what makes humans, human.

    Still Life is published by HarperCollins Publishers in June 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to read and review.

  • Books and reading

    Amusing, troubling, insightful, and occasionally annoying: ‘Should We Stay or Should We Go’ by Lionel Shriver

    Lionel Shriver (US born, now based in the UK) is a controversial author. She picks up on contemporary social themes and preoccupations and interrogates them with razor sharp wit, in the process holding up a mirror that reflects modern society back to itself, mostly with less than flattering results.

    Kay Wilkinson and her husband Cyril are middle class Londoners with respected careers in the NHS – she as a nurse and he a doctor. When in their fifties, she and her husband are both appalled at the possibility that they will suffer from dementia (as both Kay’s parents did before they died), or become disabled by a stroke or another debilitating health condition. So they make a pact that when they have both turned eighty they will suicide together. In the discussion leading to this decision, Kay says:

    Everyone thinks they’re the exception. Everyone looks at what happens to old people and vows that it will never happen to them… They value quality of life. Somehow they’ll do something so their ageing will proceed with dignity... Then it turns out that, lo and behold, they’re exactly like everyone else! And they fall apart like everyone else, and finish out the miserable end of their lives like everyone else…

    Should we stay or should we go p12-13

    Okay, so some of these arguments touch on tender points for me just now. My mother is 92 and suffers from dementia and several other long term illnesses, and there have been plenty of times when my best wish for her is to close her eyes peacefully in bed and not wake again. Also, I have had discussions with friends and family about voluntary assisted dying which sounded very like another of the arguments put forward in the novel, this one by Cyril:

    You said everyone imagines they’re exceptions and they’ll surely arrange an early and merciful exit before submitting to the intolerable, And then they do submit to the intolerable. That’s because, in order to retain agency over your own end of life, you have to be willing to give up some small portion of it that’s not particularly rubbish. Otherwise, you go downhill, doctors and relatives take over, and you’re apt to lose the very part of yourself that makes judgements and takes action. We have a very narrow window in which to exercise control.

    Should we stay or should we go p30

    So, the couple seem united and sure of their decision. And then, as the book cover blurb says: they turn eighty.

    What follows is a twisting, circular, whirlwind of a time travel novel which explores and expounds on multiple final outcomes for Kay and Cyril, and indeed the whole nation and humanity more generally. The scenarios played out are by turns horrific, fanciful, eccentric, far-fetched, almost believable, idealistic or depressing. Scenes, sentences, characters appear and re-appear in different guises and surroundings as ‘sliding door moments’ take the characters one way and then another. It’s almost a grown-up ‘choose your own adventure’ story. I admit to feeling breathless a few times as I was carried away on the author’s imaginative tide of possible outcomes.

    There are plenty of darkly funny moments, and it’s hard not to admire the wicked ways in which the author has made national and global preoccupations at the time of writing – Brexit, climate change, ageing populations, the Covid19 pandemic – symbolic of so much that Kay and Cyril are grappling with.

    Should We Stay or Should We Go is a clever novel that skewers and taunts as much as it poses serious questions. There are laugh-out-loud moments but a word of warning: if you are already by nature or mood pessimistic, worried about your own future and old age, or dealing with themes of death and illness in your own life: be careful. This novel could either shake you up with a good belly laugh at its audacity, or leave you deeper in the gloom.

    Should We Stay or Should We Go is published by The Borough Press, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, in June 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to read and review.

  • 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,  History

    More about the codebreakers of WWII: ‘The Rose Code’ by Kate Quinn

    You know that thing where you buy, say, a red Mazda and suddenly, it seems that every second car on the road is a red Mazda? For me, the same phenomena sometimes happens with books. I had just finished reading The Codebreakers by Alli Sinclair, which tells the story of the women who worked in an Australian signals intelligence unit in WWII. The next book I picked up was The Rose Code by Kate Quinn, a British historical fiction best-selling author. This new release novel is also about codebreaking women – this time at Bletchley Park, the better known facility in England that did so much to turn the war in the Allies’ favour.

    I loved this book. I found it an ‘easy’ read in that it engaged me right from the start with characters that are believable and a compelling storyline, complete with a mystery that must be solved by them. The setting of both time and place – wartime Britain and the top-secret facility which employed a wide range of interesting people with astounding skills and commitment – grabbed my interest and added to my understanding of this important work and how what was done at Bletchley Park, and other units scattered throughout Allied territories, fitted together.

    The main characters – charming wealthy debutante Osla, impoverished East End girl Mab, and shy but talented Beth – are all either based on real-life historical figures or an amalgam of people who really did work at Bletchley Park. These three young women – so different and from such dramatically diverse backgrounds – illustrate how Bletchley Park recruited all kinds of people, so long as they had the skills required.

    The historical detail is terrific but always serves to progress the story. The novel also canvasses conditions of the time: casual sexual harassment and inequality experienced by women, for example; the intense concentration and high stakes of the work at Bletchley Park; the awful practices at mental health institutions then, just to name a few. There is tragedy, destruction, fear and distress and amongst it all, people had to continue with life:

    I know there’s a war on, Osla wanted to shriek. I know, I know! But something else went on at the same time war did, and that was life. It kept going right up until the moment it stopped, and this was hers, limping along like a horse suddenly gone lame…

    The Rose Code p457

    As in The Codebreakers, a strong theme in this novel is the secrecy that Bletchley Park demanded, and the sometimes awful toll it took, both during and after the war. Can you imagine having to lie to your family and closest friends about the work you did during the war? I cringe to think of young men, stopped in the street by people accusing them on being shirkers because they were not in uniform, and unable to say that their work is crucial to the war effort.

    I enjoyed The Rose Code so much that I was rather sad when I’d finished it. I’ve since watched several documentaries about Bletchley Park and I might just re-watch the movie The Imitation Game very soon! And – one day – I’d love to visit Bletchley Park museum.

    The Rose Code is published by HarperCollins Publishers in March 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to review.