• 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.

  • Books and reading

    Old but new: ‘Death at Greenway’ by Lori Rader-Day

    I love the idea of ‘falling into’ a novel – the image of plunging straight into another world, meeting the characters and their emotions and thoughts. That’s what happened to me with Death at Greenway. The world of this novel is WWII England: first London, where trainee nurse Bridget Kelly is receiving an ultimatum after a serious error on the ward; then to south Devon and the house of famous mystery writer Agatha Christie.

    Bridget goes there unwillingly, as one of two nurses hired to care for a group of ten children under five: they are evacuees, sent from at-risk London suffering under the Blitz, to country areas considered safer. For Bridget, it is her last chance to save her floundering career. She also nurses terrible grief and trauma, the result of a well-aimed German bomb, and this follows her to her new posting.

    The other nurse travelling with the group is Gigi, a glamorous young woman who has secrets of her own, one of which threatens the tenuous safety of their country refuge.

    I love stories that weave real-life people and events into the plot, and Death at Greenway does this. It is an homage to the world of thirties England, the works of writers like Christie, and the often heroic actions of so many ordinary people during wartime. Greenway really was a temporary home for two nurses and ten children during the war. The author has drawn on the names of some of the people who populated the home at this time, including Doreen, one of the young evacuees, who shared her memories of that time.

    All the tropes of British mystery novels of the era are there: a (nearly) invisible mistress of the house; gothic folk stories told by the locals; a muddy footprint on the front step; crying foxes and other unearthly noises; a butler and housekeeper with their own opinions about the newcomers; a growing body count and a disappearance. Suspicions rise and Bridget starts to think that no one is who they seem to be. I liked the dry tone of much of the narrative, reminiscent of an author like Kate Atkinson.

    Alongside the mystery, though, is the real theme of the novel: the toll taken by war and loss on the people living through such times:

    It was a thin thread that kept them tethered to the earth, a single strand of her embroidery floss, easily snapped. No one keeps us. They were all small lives, nowhere near the center. Tossed about by the gale of history and hardly noted for having endured.

    Death at Greenway p245

    The web of deception and intrigue becomes complex at times and I had to concentrate hard to follow the threads; but that was not to the detriment of my enjoyment of this satisfying novel.

    Death at Greenway is published by HarperCollins Publishers in October 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Cold War deceptions: ‘Our Woman in Moscow’ by Beatriz Williams

    The cover of this new title by best-selling US author Beatriz Williams is emblematic of the deceptions she writes about. A glamorous woman in a snowy city, walking towards her fate… The thing is, this is a story of two women, sisters Iris and Ruth, neither of whom (despite initial impressions) are people who passively await what the future might bring.

    The story plunges us head-first into the murky world of post-WWII espionage, via Iris and Ruth’s very different pathways out of the war. Loyalties, family bonds and assumptions are all put to the test when Iris sends a message to her sister – after nearly a decade of estrangement and silence between them. She needs Ruth to come to Moscow, where Iris lives with her husband since his defection to the Soviet Union. She is about to give birth to her fourth child, and with a history of difficult, dangerous childbirths behind her, she pleads for Ruth’s support.

    Ruth’s journey to the Soviet city sets in motion a complex series of events and uncovers layers of deception and of course, dangers. I was immediately invested in the fate of Iris and Sasha, Ruth and Fox, and the novel was, for me, an absolute page-turner.

    What I enjoyed most was the focus on the relationships, rather than gun battles and car chase scenes as in a James Bond spy story- which can get, frankly, yawn-worthy. Rather, we witness two sisters realising new truths about each other; a crumbling marriage and a new, unlikely, relationship; and the unravelling of long-held beliefs. Ms. Williams borrows certain famous Cold War era episodes and characters to weave her own story around, but there are echoes of truth that are as relevant now as in 1948:

    “It’s all these chaps, you know, bright young things who radicalized at university in the thirties, when the capitalist economies went to pieces. They very fashionably joined the Community Party as students and ended up recruited {by} the Soviet intelligence service.”
    “But surely they all shed their illusions as they got older?”
    “Most of them, of course. I daresay the Nazi-Soviet pact did for a great many. Stalin’s thuggery, the famines. But it’s like a religion, you know. To the true fanatic, everything and anything can be twisted around to prove what you believe in.”

    Our Woman in Moscow p169

    The characters are complex, believable – and damaged, all of them, by conflict and deception. I enjoyed this novel very much and will be on the watch for future titles by this author.

    Our Woman in Moscow is published by HarperCollins Publishers in Australia in September 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading

    Finding an ‘after’ trauma: ‘Here in the After’ by Marion Frith

    As I read this debut novel by Australian Marion Frith, TV, print and broadcast media were saturated with the shocking news of the Taliban taking over Kabul and huge swathes of territory in Afghanistan. A reminder, if I needed one, of how devastating, cruel and ultimately pointless that protracted war has been.

    The two protagonists of Here in the After are both connected to violence emanating from that part of the world and the roles played by Western nations there.

    Nat is an army veteran who served in Afghanistan. He has returned to his wife Gen a broken man, unable to take the steps needed to heal from his complex PTSD and the things he saw and did during his tour of duty.

    Anna is middle aged, a grandmother who has been grieving the death of her beloved husband. One day during her lunch break from work, she sees a brochure in the window of a travel agency and impulsively goes in to check it out, because she’d made a promise to her husband not to stop doing the things they enjoyed together, like travel. Wrong place, catastrophically wrong time for Anna.

    She ends up as the only survivor or a shocking terrorist attack in which eleven other people – including a child – are murdered in cold blood. Anna is rushed to hospital and faces a long physical recovery, all the while wondering if she will ever recover from the trauma. She is now in the ‘after’ – and it seems that she will never recover her life ‘before’ the shocking events that she somehow survived.

    Nat seeks out Anna because he suffers from crippling guilt for everything that happened in Afghanistan. He has realised that he and other soldiers were sold a lie, when they believed that they were fighting there to keep Australians at home safe. The attack on Anna and the others in the shop are proof that they failed in that mission.

    At first wary, Anna comes to see Nat as someone who understands her turmoil because he is experiencing something very similar. A friendship develops as the pair meet, talk, challenge and reassure each other.

    Told in alternating viewpoints, the novel plunges the reader into the horror of Nat and Anna’s experiences and the tormented emotional and mental loops that each are now suffering. Their confusion, rage, guilt and sorrow are well described.

    Despite the darkness of their experiences, each person offers something profound and important to the other; most especially the possibility of hope.

    It really did take one to know one as he’d joked on the beach about their battle scars that day. It was true. That was the core of their connection, but it was more complex than his having been a soldier and her a victim of the perverted ideology he had fought… Anna had said she thought he understood her, but he realised now it was she who understood him. Nat had never believed anyone would ever understand him again.

    Here in the After pp170-171

    Here in the After is a sensitively written story of appalling trauma, the slow rocky path to recovery, and a different type of friendship. As we witness the tragedy in Afghanistan, the story is a timely reflection on the scars that violence leaves on its survivors – some visible, others less so.

    Here in the After is published by HarperCollins Publishers in September 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading

    Fractured lives: ‘Ten Thousand Aftershocks’ by Michelle Tom

    This memoir by New Zealand born- now Melbourne resident – Michelle Tom is already one of my standout reads of 2021. It cleverly, poetically, blends her story of family violence, love, and bitterness with the devastation of the earthquake that hit Christchurch in 2011. She uses geology and seismology as metaphors to drill down into the strata of her family; its patterns of behaviour and unrest over generations.

    I had some initial confusion in the opening chapters, with their leaps across multiple timeframes, before I realised this is also a metaphor: for memory, and the way past events and feelings come to us in a mélange of seemingly unconnected scraps and layers.

    The book is divided into five sections, each one reflecting the different stages of an earthquake, the final one being the aftershocks of the title. And for each of these stages, she identifies a corresponding period or event in her family’s life. It is such a powerful way of looking at family and individual trauma.

    As children, she and her siblings were burdened with adult secrets they should never have had to hear. Regarding her sister Meredith, she says, in a passage reminiscent of the Victorian idea of dying from a broken heart:

    Some days the weight of daylight was too much, as she hid away in her darkened flat. She fought to carry the secret of her beginning from each day into the next, and several years before she died I realised that she was not really living. Her spirit was fractured, and she possessed no energy for anything other than mere existence.

    Ten Thousand Aftershocks pp56-57

    The legacy left for successive generations by parents and grandparents who are emotionally immature, manipulative and volatile is laid clear.

    The descriptions of the earthquake itself and its aftermath are visceral and horrifying. My husband and I visited Christchurch in 2012 and saw evidence of the destruction it had caused, including mounds of strange mud that were left after the liquefaction that can happen during a major earthquake. Even this becomes part of the family metaphor:

    What becomes of liquefaction after it has issued forth from the darkness beneath, into the light of the world? Like shame, it cannot survive being seen. In the heat of the sun it dries to a grey powder as fine as talc and disperses on whatever current of air may find it, gentle zephyrs and howling gales alike, leaving only a scar in the earth where it emerged.

    Ten Thousand Aftershocks p278

    Ten Thousand Aftershocks is a profound and beautiful memoir, one I cannot recommend highly enough.

    Ten Thousand Aftershocks is published by Fourth Estate in September 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.