• Books and reading,  History

    Women in wartime: ‘The Light We Left Behind’ by Tessa Harris

    One of the most welcome aspects of the current trend in historical fiction publishing is the space created to tell the stories of women and the part they played in well-known – and sometimes, lesser-known – historical events. The Light We Left Behind is one such novel, focusing on the contributions made to the Allied war effort by the women and men who worked at Trent Park.

    Trent Park? Never heard of it?

    If that’s your reaction, rest assured it was also mine.

    Like the more famous Bletchley Park, Trent Park was a centre of intelligence gathering during WWII that was like no other in Britain at the time. A stately home outside London, it was turned into a prison for German POWs. A prison with a difference: Trent Park housed high ranking German officials and military officers in luxury, catering to their expensive tastes and providing entertainment and every comfort.

    You might be thinking ‘If the long-suffering British public had known of this place, there would have been an uproar’, and you would be quite correct. Trent Park’s real purpose was kept hidden even from the locals. The house and its grounds were fitted out with listening devices, and German speaking employees (sometimes refugees from Nazi-occupied territories) brought in to interpret what the German captives were saying to each other when they were alone – strolling the grounds, smoking cigars and drinking fine wine in the library.

    The prisoners were interrogated, of course, but the methods of interrogation tended to be gentle, employing psychological strategies rather than brute force. And the arrogant German generals and officials would boast amongst themselves about what they had not divulged to their interrogators, unknowingly providing information to the Allies about weapons development and war strategies that would otherwise have remained hidden.

    This fascinating centre of wartime activity provides the backdrop for the story of Maddie Gresham, a psychology student who had studied under the professor whose theories informed the establishment of Trent Park. Maddie is tasked with gaining the Germans’ trust and getting them to reveal more information.

    Maddie’s pre-war and wartime lives collide in the form of Max Weitzler, whom she had met and fallen in love with years before on a visit to Germany. What happens to Max’s German father and German Jewish mother shows how the Nazis’ racist policies so bitterly divided the country and tore families apart. Max’s appearance at Trent House brings with it both joy and potential disaster for Maddie.

    Maddie’s story illustrates how people’s emotional concerns and preoccupations can exist side-by-side with the pressing concerns of wartime work or survival: they are important parts of a character’s make-up and should not be ignored. For me, this results in a more satisfying and realistic picture because for all of us, while our lives may be transformed by external events such as war or disaster, our internal lives continue.

    The Light We Left Behind joins other novels (such as The Rose Code or The Codebreakers) which feature the valuable work done by women in complex wartime circumstances. It’s an engrossing, heartfelt portrayal of the difficulties faced by ordinary people doing extraordinary work in incredibly challenging times.

    The Light We Left Behind is published by Harper Collins in July 2022. My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Uncovering little-known corners of war: ‘The Resistance Girl’ by Mandy Robotham

    Mandy Robotham’s books tell stories of women during or immediately after World War II, illustrating how their wartime experiences could both reflect, and differ from, those of their menfolk. I very much enjoy the way this author takes readers to corners of the war that might have otherwise remained hidden. In The Resistance Girl, we meet Rumi Orlstad, a Norwegian woman whose fiancé is drowned at sea during an action by the arm of the resistance movement known as the ‘Shetland Bus’.

    I’d heard of the Shetland Bus, where Norwegian fishing vessels were used to smuggle agents, supplies or fugitives across the North Sea between the Shetland Islands and Norway. After her fiancé’s death, Rumi’s loyalty to her beloved family and country means she must decide if she will withdraw from supporting the resistance and just see out the war in safety, or continue to fight the occupying Germans in the only ways she can.

    I liked many things about this novel. To begin, I loved that the Author’s Note appears first! As someone who habitually turns to the Author’s Note before I launch into a story, I appreciated knowing the historical background to the novel, especially as it concerns an area of WWII not featured in historical fiction that I’ve previously read. I knew little about Norway at this time and how its people dealt with Nazi occupation.

    Rumi is a strong, capable and engaging character, as is Jens, the British-Norwegian SOE agent she rescues from a botched airdrop at the novel’s opening. The other main characters quickly became people I cared about, too. There is just enough action, risk and drama to keep the story moving along at a satisfying pace.

    For me, as always, the pleasure of a novel comes from the way it deals with underlying themes, and The Resistance Girl does this well. It explores the grey areas between the choices that citizens of an occupied country must make: the fine line between doing what must be done to survive, and collaboration with the enemy. From our safe distance of time and place, it can be easy to offer condemnation of those who choose survival over heroism – but I’m not sure if any of us can truly know what choice we would make in a similar situation.

    I also enjoyed learning more about the war through the story; for example, the complexities and increasing dangers of resistance work, including correctly interpreting coded enemy messages and dealing with German reprisals.

    The other – shocking – thing I learned was that, along with the lands, homes and livelihoods taken from the Norwegian people, the Nazis also stole babies. They were on the lookout for blond haired, blue eyed babies born to Norwegian women and German fathers, in order to advance their ‘Lebensborn’ program to further the Reich’s aims of creating the ‘perfect race’. This sickening program was especially implemented in Norway, which had the largest number of maternity homes outside of Germany. Mothers were cared for until the birth of their babies, who were then forcibly taken from them and given to German families to raise. Australian readers will recognise this as another Stolen Generation based on race and physical appearance. Will humans ever learn?

    It soon becomes clear that the currency of new and impressionable humans to mould into Hitler’s perfect way of thinking represents something of great value; Lebensborn is an industry in the Reich’s grand plan: a ‘natural resource’ to be harvested, much like iron ore or fish oil. As they’ve suspected all along, Norwegians are a commodity.

    The Resistance Girl p224

    Readers who love fiction that brings to life historical events will enjoy The Resistance Girl. It is published by HarperCollins in May 2022.

    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading

    1930’s glamour and murder: ‘Miss Aldridge Regrets’ by Louise Hare

    Are you a fan of Agatha Christie novels? Or ones set on a cruise ship in the glamorous days of the 1930’s? Who-done-it murder mysteries with a cast of characters that leave you guessing until the very end? If so, you will enjoy Miss Aldridge Regrets, the second novel by British writer Louise Hare.

    Lena Aldridge escapes her life of poverty as a singer in a seedy nightclub in London’s Soho, when she is offered a break as leading lady in a new Broadway musical. She boards the luxury Queen Mary as a first class passenger – courtesy of her mystery American benefactor – where she is obliged to spend time with the wealthy Abernathy family.

    Lena leaves with relief but not without pangs of guilt and regret. A week earlier, Tommy, the owner of the nightclub where she worked (and husband of her best friend, Maggie) was murdered in front of them both – poisoned by his own drink. Now Lena is leaving Maggie alone and she can’t help wondering if she is doing the right thing.

    The chapters alternate between the current time (on board the Queen Mary) and the night of the murder in Soho, dropping clues like breadcrumbs about how and why Tommy was killed.

    Meanwhile, Lena begins to realise that her week of rest and relaxation on the ship is not without its challenges. The members of the Abernathy family start to die in very suspicious circumstances, getting picked off one by one in the best traditions of classic who-done-it stories.

    The atmospheric settings of the novel conjure the pampered lives of the very wealthy, contrasted with the hand-to-mouth existence of the poor, especially during the era of the Great Depression. The staff of the Queen Mary, and its ‘lower class’ passengers, occupy spaces very different from the luxury of the first class staterooms. We also see how racism played out during that period, and there are hints of the trouble brewing in Europe with the Nazis’ rise to power.

    It wasn’t strictly fair to blame it all on Eliza, but she had that same air about her that I hated in James, the assumption that those of us who found ourselves floundering in life only needed to pull ourselves together, forgetting that they’d been born into the lifeboat while some of us had been dropped into the fathomless depths without so much as a rope to grab hold of.

    Miss Aldridge Regrets p246

    The eventual disclosure of the killer did not quite convince me, however I was willing to suspend disbelief and immerse myself in the world of the Queen Mary and the complex personalities of its passengers. I also enjoyed the depictions of 1930’s London life as experienced by Lena, her beloved father, and her friend Maggie.

    Miss Aldridge Regrets is published by HarperCollins in May 2022.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    The Agathas p123

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

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

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

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

  • History

    A Kiwi perspective: ‘The Leonard Girls’ by Deborah Challinor

    The war in Vietnam divided opinion and (often) families, in those countries that sent troops and support personnel to oppose the communist Viet Cong in Vietnam during the 1960’s and early 70’s. The Leonard Girls is a well researched portrayal of the issues confronting New Zealanders during this turbulent time.

    There are three main characters in the story: Rowie and Jo (the Leonard girls of the title) and Sam. Rowie has just enlisted to serve as a military nurse in Vietnam. Jo, her younger university student sister, is vehemently outspoken in her opposition to the war. Sam is a professional soldier about to embark on his second tour of duty.

    By the time the novel closes, each of these three have undergone a change in their views about the war, due to first-hand experiences of the losses that inevitably accompany military conflict.

    There are fascinating details of the daily lives of the soldiers who fought, the nurses who tended the wounded and the concert parties who braved the difficult and sometimes dangerous conditions to entertain the troops. Inevitably there are confronting scenes of the impact of war, including on the Vietnamese people and on families left at home in New Zealand. A scene in a Vietnamese orphanage made an especially visceral impression on me.

    The other, quite shameful, aspect of this time that is portrayed well is the treatment of Australian and New Zealand soldiers, particularly on their return from Vietnam. The Author’s Note goes into this in a little more detail as well as giving a good overview of NZ involvement in the conflict, and what was going on at home.

    As in another book I recently reviewed, The Nurses’ War by Australian writer Victoria Purman, The Leonard Girls shows the important positive effects on injured Australian and New Zealand personnel of being tended to by nurses and doctors from ‘home’.

    If you have seen either the stage production or the hit Australian movie The Sapphires, you’ll have something of a picture of the work of entertainers in Vietnam during the conflict. However, I enjoyed the New Zealand focus of this novel, as so often the ‘NZ’ component of ‘ANZAC’ is downplayed or ignored altogether. I also enjoyed the glimpses of Maori culture and community throughout.

    While I found the pace a little slow at times, there was much to enjoy about – and learn from – this novel. Deborah Challinor’s books are always founded in deep research and knowledge of the period or context about which she writes, and this one is no different.

    The journeys of the three protagonists, and their loved ones, are profound and well portrayed. This is a novel to leave the reader thinking deeply about a period of relatively recent history about which opinions can still be sharply divided.

    The Leonard Girls is published by HarperCollins in March 2022.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    The gift of vision: ‘Eyes That Speak to the Stars’ by Joanna Ho

    This gloriously illustrated picture book by American author Joanna Ho and illustrated by Dung Ho, celebrates difference, heritage and love. It’s a follow up to the beautifully titled Eyes That Kiss in the Corners.

    A little boy of Asian heritage is unhappy about the difference between his eyes and those of his school friends, and confides in his father:

    The other day,
    when Baba picked me up from school,
    I didn’t run in for a hug
    the way I usually do;
    I stared at my toes
    where it was safe.
    “What’s wrong?” Baba asked,
    and all my hurt tumbled out.

    Eyes That Speak to the Stars

    His father explains to him that the little boy’s eyes come from his father, his grandfather Agong, and all their ancestors – and that his little brother Di-Di has the same eyes.

    Agong has an answer
    for every question I ask
    on our early morning walks,
    but when I hug him goodnight,
    he cups my face in his hands
    and looks at me
    like I am the only answer that matters.

    Eyes That Speak to the Stars

    This is a story about heritage, and family love in all its forms. I recently reviewed The Love that Grew, which tells of the love a mother feels for her children. Eyes That Speak to the Stars is a celebration of boys and their fathers, grandfathers, and the links that bind generations together. It’s a big story for little people, but the lyrical text and rich illustrations tell it well.

    Eyes That Speak to the Stars is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in March 2022.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading

    Tragedy and mystery: ‘The Good Son’ by Jacquelyn Mitchard

    In her author’s note, Jacquelyn Mitchard describes the moment of inspiration for this novel: standing in a coffee line at a hotel, she met a woman who explained that she came there every week, to visit her son at a nearby prison where he was serving a long sentence. While affected by drugs, he had killed his girlfriend.

    And I wondered, could you still love the one you loved most in the world after he had done the worst thing? Then I realized, you would be the only one who could.

    The Good Son, Author’s Note

    That’s the nub of this story. Thea and Jep are loving parents of their only child, Stefan, who has served a prison sentence after being convicted of the murder of his girlfriend Belinda while in a drug induced state. The story begins on the day Stefan walks out of prison, a free man. Thea has not yet realised it, but the family’s struggles have only just begun.

    There are so many squirm-inducing insights into the reactions and feelings a parent might experience in this situation. I found myself asking the question: What would I feel? How would I behave? How would I deal with the shame, the guilt, the pity for the victim’s grieving family and friends?

    The novel also offers insights into why some people commit crime. Stefan, after observing fellow prisoners in the jail, comments:

    Most {habitual criminals} didn’t have the patience for going through a process, trying and failing and trying again…their brain isn’t usually used to that…Trying and failing and trying again is not exciting. Doing a crime is really exciting…a robbery or burglary, it had to feel really exciting…living on a knife’s edge, anything could go wrong, it’s like a race against time, the Olympics of being bad.

    The Good Son p71

    I resonated strongly with the idea of parent-child relationships being ‘a delicate dance of the years, or approach and retreat, offer and hold back.’ (p267) As our children grow into teens and young adults, that dance becomes more delicate and fraught. How must it feel, then, to be stepping through the eggshells that a criminal conviction and prison time create?

    There is a mystery and plenty of tension in this novel, which is resolved by the end of the book. For me, the strength of the story lies in that exploration of the devastating concentric circles that result from a crime, especially a violent one. The characters are well drawn and believable and Thea someone I could very much relate to.

    The Good Son is published by HQ Fiction in January 2022.
    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

    Memory lane: ‘The Boys’ by Ron Howard and Clint Howard

    If you were a child of the 50’s, 60’s or 70’s, chances are you watched some or all of these TV shows and movies: The Andy Griffith Show, Gentle Ben, Happy Days, American Graffiti, Star Trek, Lassie, MASH, Flipper, Daniel Boone, The Mod Squad, The Music Man… If so, you will have seen either Ron Howard’s or his younger brother, Clint’s, on-screen performances.

    Reading this book uncovered many forgotten TV and movie memories for me. The brothers describe their memoir as ‘an acknowledgement of our love and appreciation for our parents’, but it is also an engrossing ramble down memory lane, taking in their parents’ love story, their own childhood and adolescence on film sets in Hollywood studios, and the ups and downs of a career in the entertainment industry.

    It’s such a personal account, with a chatty conversational style, and their alternating viewpoints result in the sense of being on the sofa with the Howards, as they tell the stories of their lives. They discuss their own personal impressions of key people and events in their lives, including the challenges and the highs.

    They don’t shy away from difficulties, including Clint’s struggle with addiction, and Ron’s efforts to leave Opie, his childhood alter-ego from The Andy Griffiths Show, behind him as he moves into adolescence and tries to forge a career as a film director.

    The theme running throughout is the crucial role their parents played in the success of their acting and directing careers, but also in their development as human beings. The Howard family lived a modest lifestyle relative to many of their contemporaries in the Hollywood scene. Ron comments that:

    As possibly the most ethical talent managers in the history of show business, they were significantly underbilling their clients, Clint and me… Dad felt that most of what he and Mom did fell under the rubric of parental responsibility rather than professional management. They found the idea of taking anything more than 5 percent to be immoral, though Clint and I would not have objected in the least.
    Mom and Dad were concerned about the damage it might do us boys if we were taught to think of ourselves as the family breadwinners. And they simply didn’t hunger for a flashy life or a Beverly Hills address. They were sophisticated hicks. They had all that they wanted.

    The Boys p 167

    Ron’s insights into the joys and challenges of film directing are of great interest, as are the behind-the-scenes glimpses the brothers give of their various experiences from a child’s, teenager’s and adult’s perspectives.

    The Boys is a trip down memory lane, certainly; but also offers a lovely tribute to the key people in the Howard family’s successes – most especially, ‘Dad and Mom’, or Rance and Jean Howard.

    The Boys is published by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, in October 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading

    Living treasures: ‘Living Planet: The Web of Life’ by David Attenborough

    In my view naturalist, author and broadcaster David Attenborough is a living treasure. For decades he has brought the astonishing stories of our natural world to living rooms across the globe through his beautifully produced television documentaries. Now there is a narrative version in his trilogy of books Life. Living Planet: The Web of Life is the second in the series.

    I admit that I am usually more drawn to stories about people in my non-fiction reading. However, Attenborough’s fascinating insights into the ways in which organisms, insects, plants, animals, reptiles and birds adapt to the many different environments on our planet drew me in. There is plenty of drama, humour and mystery, told in the author’s infectiously enthusiastic style.

    The book answers intriguing questions such as:

    Why do elephant seals stop their battles with each other once a year, while they grow new hair?

    How do seagulls perch on icebergs without their featherless feet and legs freezing?

    How do giant worms with no mouths or gut, survive in jets of hot water, deep on the ocean floor?

    Why are holes in trees of the northern forests fought over like Sydney houses at an auction?

    Why are ants like dairy farmers?

    Why is a sparrow’s heart twice the size of a mouse’s?

    How can a female cichlid fish be likened to a pastry cook icing a cake?

    The text is supported by sections of stunning photographs in the style we have come to associate with Attenborough’s work.

    Attenborough’s deep concern for the future of our planet and its amazing biodiversity underlies the narrative and his final statement sums it up:

    As far as we can tell, our planet is the only place in all the black immensities of the universe where life exists. We are alone in space. And the continued existence of life now rests in our hands.

    Living Planet: The Web of Life p292

    Living Planet: The Web of Life is published by William Collins, an imprint of Harper Collins Publishers, in October 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.