• Books and reading,  History

    Uncovering scandal and abuse: ‘Before We Were Yours’ by Lisa Wingate

    In my multifold years of life, I have learned that most people get along as best they can. They don’t intend to hurt anyone. It’s merely a terrible by-product of surviving.

    Before we were yours, p3

    Lisa Wingate’s dual timeline novel explores the hurt that is done by some to others in their efforts to survive – emotionally, physically, materially.

    We meet Rill Foss, who in the 1930’s is kidnapped along with her four siblings and taken to the Tennessee Children’s Home in Memphis. The home is one of many run by Georgia Tann, a real-life figure whose questionable activities were later uncovered and condemned.

    In the current day, there is Avery Stafford, a young lawyer and a member of a powerful South Carolina political family. When Avery meets May Crandall, an elderly resident of a nursing home, the encounter starts her on a quest to unravel the mysterious connection between May and Avery’s own grandmother, Judy.

    Rill’s storyline introduces us to her life before she is whisked away. She lives with her large, noisy family in a ‘shantyboat’ on the Mississippi River. Folk like her were known disparagingly as ‘river rats’ and ‘river gypsies’ – they are itinerant and poor. They don’t always have enough to eat and there are plenty of dangers on the river. But Rill’s family is loving, with music and books, and friends they meet up with on their seasonal travels up and down the river.

    The author has captured Rill’s voice perfectly and brought her river home to vivid life. But when Rill and her brother and sisters are sent to the children’s home, they are treated as if they are stock, items sold to couples desperate to adopt a child. There are sickening acts of cruelty and indifference towards children’s needs, and a wilful blindness by staff to the abuses perpetrated against their charges.

    It’s a sobering reminder, if one were needed, that there are people who will exploit the vulnerable and that, without proper oversight and regulation, abuses will occur, especially if money is involved. We may think that these sorts of situations could not arise today, but we would be mistaken.

    As Avery’s exploration of her grandmother’s past continues and deepens, she learns about the scandals surrounding the ‘baby farms’ run by Georgia Tann. As she searches for the truth, her own future (which had once seemed a charmed pathway to a life of privilege) becomes less clear to her. In her uncertainty about her family’s past, she reaches for a different, more authentic future.

    No matter how much we may love the melody of a bygone day or imagine the song of a future one, we must dance within the music of today, or we will always be out of step, stumbling around in something that doesn’t suit the moment.

    Before We Were Yours p315

    Before We Were Yours takes the reader on a journey of discovery to difficult truths, and explores the different ways people deal with tragedy. The characters and the setting in America’s South are wonderfully realised and there are moments of tenderness and hope that lead to a satisfying resolution. I enjoyed this novel and will be on the lookout for more titles by Lisa Wingate.

    Before We Were Yours is published by Harper Collins Australia in December 2020.

    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Close to home: ‘The Valley of Lost Stories’ by Vanessa McCausland

    I’m always intrigued by what prompts readers to pick up a particular book. I was initially drawn to this new novel by Australian writer Vanessa McCausland because it is set in a location not too far from where I live in the Blue Mountains of NSW: the Capertee Valley.

    It’s a dual timeline story: one thread traces the disappearance in 1948 of a young woman from the valley’s iconic Art Deco hotel. The other, present day thread, also centres around the hotel, and another missing woman.

    If you have read Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies (or seen the TV series adaptation) you will recognise the technique of multiple viewpoint story-telling. When done well, it is an effective way of capturing the inner thoughts and feelings of different characters, drawing us into their worlds. In The Valley of Lost Stories there are four main characters: all young mothers whose children attend the same Sydney seaside suburban primary school, who decide to enjoy a week away together in the Capertee Valley.

    The author skilfully shows how the women are all hiding some aspects of their true selves and their lives, which are not as picture-perfect as they seem. Each woman has her problems or disappointments, which begin to impact on the relationships within the group as the holiday progresses. Tensions rise as their insecurities spill over, which coupled with the eerie atmosphere of the old hotel and its starkly beautiful surroundings, culminate in a gripping tale of mystery and danger.

    Woven throughout are the events of 1948, and hints of other dark episodes in the valley’s history, including the dispossession and murder by white settlers of the Wiradjuri people, and exploitative behaviour by mine owners and managers when the valley was a major producer of shale oil. This history provides a telling backdrop juxtaposed against the modern-day problems of the four women:

    What would it have been like to live back then? Emmie thought. History was so easy to ignore, gloss over. But really, it was everything. It was perspective. It was all that made up where we are now. It was the progression of time that we chose so often to conveniently ignore.

    The Valley Of Lost Stories p242

    The Valley of Lost Stories is peopled by very relatable characters, both past and present, and explores the deep wounds that we can inflict on each other, as well as a little known aspect of Australian history. It’s inspired me to want take a trip to the Capertee Valley and see its renowned ancient beauty for myself.

    The Valley of Lost Stories is published by HarperCollins Publishers in December 2020.
    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to read and review.

    #AussieAuthor20
    #AWW2020

  • Books and reading,  History

    Fiction to pose uncomfortable questions: ‘The Berlin Girl’ by Mandy Robotham

    Like her previous novel, The German Midwife, The Berlin Girl is set in Germany and is about the effects of WWII. This time, the story opens in 1938, just before events cascade into war.

    As in her previous book, Mandy Robotham has drawn on her own professional experience to enrich the drama and give a realistic portrayal of the characters’ work. In this case, it is journalism and the protagonist is Georgina (Georgie) Young, posted to Berlin as a fairly ‘green’ foreign correspondent.

    Georgie had been to Berlin a few years earlier, but the city she finds this time is a much darker and murkier one than the Berlin presented to the world at the 1936 Olympic Games. The realities of Nazi control of Germany are being realised by ordinary Germans, especially of course Jews, people with disabilities, and anyone else considered unworthy by the Reich.

    She must quickly find her feet, along with fellow London journalist Max Spender, who is employed by a rival English publication. They need to learn who are potential sources of information, who are allies and who not to trust.

    Their frustration grows at the apparent unwillingness of Western governments to believe what is happening in Germany, frustration shared by their fellow ‘foreign press pack’ journalists, with whom they form a strong camaraderie and bond. They witness the horrors of Kristallnacht, the violent pogrom against Jewish businesses and families. The devastating effects of anti-Semitism are brought home through Georgie’s friendship with one Jewish family, Rubin and Sara Amsell and their children.

    There is rising tension and mistrust as Nazi oppression tightens its grip on the country. There is also a reminder of the importance of a free press and access to information by a nation’s citizenry (especially relevant in this era of Trump, social media and ‘fake news’.) Georgie and her press colleagues attend a press briefing after Kristallnacht given by Joseph Goebbels (the Minister for Propaganda whom they privately nickname ‘Joey’):

    Joey spouted it all with familiar conviction, but he couldn’t have failed to notice the murmurings of disbelief among his audience. To every reporter listening to his fairy-tale rhetoric, it was pure farce. Yet Goebbels remained unashamed, steadfast in his own propaganda.

    The Berlin Girl, p194

    Does that remind you of another (modern day) politician, steadfast and unashamed in their own fake news?

    A theme that runs deeply through this novel is the question: How did Hitler and his cronies beguile an entire country into wholesale murder and war?

    Why, when it seemed so transparent to everyone in the room, did the German people believe it?
    ‘Fear’, said the Daily Express correspondent swiftly. ‘Maybe your average German doesn’t believe it, but they wouldn’t dare express it. Not even to their neighbours. It masquerades nicely as belief when you’ve got no one telling you you’re wrong.’

    The Berlin Girl p52

    The Berlin Girl touches on other issues, including the trail-blazing role of early female foreign correspondents, the wilful disbelief on the part of the British and other governments to prevent Hitler embarking on his murderous path to world war, and the risks taken by the many brave people who did what they could to resist.

    Though set during 1938 – 39, the questions this novel asks about a population’s willingness to blindly support a dictatorial or self-obsessed leader and believe their lies and promises, rang many bells for me. As we see what has played out in the USA and other parts of the world in recent years, can we honestly say that we have moved beyond that tendency to cede power to those who promise to ‘make us great again’? Because that rallying cry of Trump’s was exactly what Hitler had promised the German people.

    Have we really changed that much?

    The Berlin Girl will be published by HarperCollins Publishers on 2 December 2020.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    New historical fiction from Jackie French: ‘The Angel of Waterloo’

    The first thing I noticed about The Angel of Waterloo is the cover image – one of the most haunting book covers I’ve seen for a while, designed by Mark Campbell using artwork by Mary Jane Ansell. You can see more of her beautiful work here.

    The novel opens on the carnage and chaos of the battlefield at Waterloo, arguably the most famous of all the battles of the Napoleonic Wars. The protagonist, Henrietta (or ‘Hen’) is just fifteen and, along with her army surgeon father, desperately trying to save as many injured soldiers as she can.

    Already more accomplished in medical matters than many physicians (who in this era were all male), Hen manages to save the arm and the life of a young lieutenant, Max Bartlett. When he regains consciousness he makes a rash proposal of marriage to his saviour and Hen accepts. They are married by a local priest, right there on the battlefield, witnessed only by Hen’s father and Max’s friend.

    I’m still uncertain if this battlefield marriage worked for me, though I do understand that in war, normal behavioural norms and expectations are often jettisoned. The device also works to move the plot to Australia, when Hen embarks on a hopeful voyage several years later. In the colony, she finds that the stakes for her happiness, safety and fulfilment are even higher than before.

    I’d describe this novel as a saga: so much happens and it’s an emotional roller coaster as we follow the fluctuating fortunes of the various characters.

    As always, Jackie French’s historical detail is impeccable and layered through the narrative seamlessly, so readers can learn a great deal while being immersed in the story. We become aware, for example, of how the colony’s politics and economics affected all who lived there: the indigenous people who were quickly dispossessed of their lands, the poor, the convicts and the free settlers who followed in their wake. The violence and injustice imported along with the settlers are clear to see.

    As Sergeant Drivers says to Hen:

    ‘Miss Hen, ain’t you realised yet that this is a land of felons? We walk around with no chains because the wild about us is prison-walls enough, but none of us is innocent, no matter what we claim. Nor was we caught the first time we broke the law, neither. Most of us are damned good at it.’

    The Angel of Waterloo p 212

    So, the realities of colonial life are laid bare as Hen immerses herself in this new world and faces difficult decisions about her future there.

    At the novel’s heart is the theme of warfare, violence and colonisation:

    ‘You were simply swallowed up by Waterloo.’
    She saw by his expression Max did not understand. ‘I mean the whole mindset that led to it, those long years of war with France. The colony is built on a world that sees nothing odd in killing thirty thousand soldiers in a day, leaving ten thousand orphan children starving and countless eyeless beggars craving for a crust. It’s the right of any gentleman to take whatever he can win.’

    The Angel of Waterloo p327

    This novel also made me think about how authors of today portray historical events and people in fiction. There is a tension between wanting to give as accurate a picture as possible, while also allowing at least some characters to express views on matters such as race-relations, for example, that would be more in line with modern-day values.

    I wonder how many non-indigenous people in nineteenth century NSW would have been sympathetic to the First Australians and why their views and experiences were not recorded prominently in their own time. The work of historians such as Paul Irish and Grace Karskens does help to show that not all settlers were blind to the humanity of the indigenous people they encountered. But I think that they were likely in a minority. Jackie French shows how racist attitudes had their roots in the long standing divisions and violence of British society.

    The Angel of Waterloo has plenty of unexpected moments that kept me eager to read on. I warmed to Hen and truly wished her happiness in her adopted country. Lovers of Jackie French’s historical novels will find this an engrossing read.

    The Angel of Waterloo is published by Harper Collins Publishers on 2 December 2020.
    My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

    #AussieAuthor20
    #AWW2020

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

    For budding speculative /sci-fi fans: ‘Future Friend’ by David Baddiel

    Future Friend, a chapter book for middle grade readers, will be a sure-fire spark to ignite interest in stories that, like the best sci-fi and speculative fiction, asks readers to consider ‘What if…?’

    Pip is a girl from the year 3020, who accidentally enters a time-travel portal and lands in the home of Rahul, a thousand and one years earlier, in the year 2019.

    Once over their shock, the two marvel at the amazing differences between their world, while trying to figure out how to get Pip back to her own time. Pip’s future world certainly has some very cool technology – sentient robots, gravity defying boots, MindLink, animals and birds that can talk. (If you grew up in the 1960’s or thereabouts, you might remember the mix of amazement and envy at the futuristic world of the early Star Trek series or even cartoons like The Jetsons.

    But the world of 3020 has its definite downsides and Pip wishes that she could be like Rahul and play outside, go to school with other children, and eat real (not lab-created) food. These are all impossible for her because of Earth’s extreme temperatures, rampant viruses and frequent floods.

    There is a gentle, and timely, dig at conspiracy theorists and people who refuse to listen to science and instead choose to believe whatever disinformation they are fed by others.

    Future Friend deals with some big themes, with an emphasis on friendship, humour and working together to take care of the future planet. It’s a perfect way for youngsters to embark on some enjoyable and accessible sci-fi reading.

    Future Friend is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books on 18 November 2020.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  Life: bits and pieces

    A beautiful book for the dark times: ‘Phosphorescence’ by Julia Baird

    …how do we endure when suffering becomes unbearable and our obstacles seem monstrous? How do we continue to glow when the lights turn out?…We must love. And we must look outwards and upwards at all times, caring for others, seeking wonder and stalking awe, every day, to find the magic that will sustain us and fuel the light within – our own phosphorescence.

    Phosphorescence p281

    This lovely book was a recent birthday gift from a dear friend (thank you Jennie!) and so timely after a year of tragedy and hardship at both the international and local levels. So many people I know have had a difficult year- economic worries, personal health challenges, suffering and death of loved ones, separation from people and places that they care about.

    So reading Julia Baird’s book was like applying a balm to raw damaged skin: soothing, calming, but also an invitation to think deeply about life and what really matters. In it, she talks a little about her own personal trials, especially her very serious health challenges, but the book is about much more than one person or one set of difficulties.

    It’s a broad ranging exploration of what gives joy, wonder, passion, hope, purpose; especially what keeps people going during the hard times. She includes themes such as the power of nature, connection and community, working to a purpose larger than ourselves, the role of beauty and silence, paying attention.

    Each theme is illustrated by examples from the author’s own life but also the lives of others from past and present times. I particularly enjoyed reading about her activism and that of others on issues like feminism, climate change, indigenous, Black or LGBTQI rights, and the environment. Comments on the need to maintain effort over the long term resonated for me, as someone who has at times despaired at the slow rate of change and the feeling that achieving social justice goals is a matter of ‘one step forward, several leaps back.’ As Baird says:

    You don’t walk away until the work is done.

    Phosphorescence p 101

    Most moving to me, however, were the two chapters she addresses to her daughter (Letter to a young woman) and son (Thoughts for my son: the art of savouring.) Such beautiful, wry, humorous and hopeful reflections from a mother to her children.

    Phosphorescence is a book to be savoured, enjoyed, mulled over and returned to again and again.

    It was published by Fourth Estate, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, in March 2020.

    #AussieAuthor20
    #AWW2020

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    The richness of imagination: ‘The Unwilling Twin’ by Freya Blackwood

    Several years ago I was lucky enough to see an exhibition of Freya Blackwood’s award winning work at a NSW regional gallery. She is such a talent, one of the many wonderful picture book creators and illustrators in Australia.

    The Unwilling Twin is her latest picture book. It’s a quirky take on the rich imaginative world of young children.

    It features Jules and her ‘identical twin’ George. They do everything together as twins often do: get dressed, eat breakfast, play, read books, and go to the beach.

    It’s on the beach that their difference emerges. Jules loves to build sand castles while George loves to sleep on (or in) the warm sand. Each is an unwilling participant in the other’s preferred activity. Occasionally they argue but always make up over ice creams.

    Oh, and George is… a pig!

    Freya Blackwood’s pencil and pastel illustrations add a gentle humour to the narrative. I especially enjoyed the framed ‘photograph’ of Jules and George in their matching ballet tutus, and the picture of them doing their daily yoga together.

    The Unwilling Twin is a humorous homage to early childhood, families, and imagination.

    It is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books on 29 October 2020.

    My thanks to the publisher for a copy to review.

    #AussieAuthor20
    #AWW2020

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    Empathy through fiction: ‘We Are Wolves’ by Katrina Hannestad

    There is a theory that people who read a lot of fiction can develop empathy through their reading. Fiction (and some non fiction too) invites us to inhabit other worlds – the characters’ times, places, and situations – and also allows us to see our own world and circumstances through different eyes. This is one way that our empathy ‘muscles’ develop and grow.

    This process begins from the earliest exposure to books and, I believe, continues right through our reading life.

    So it was with interest that I approached We Are Wolves, an historical fiction work by award winning Australian author Katrina Nannestad. Pitched at middle grade readers (approx 10 years and over) it is the story of the Wolf children: Liesl, Otto and baby Mia, who become separated from their mother and grandparents as the family flees from the oncoming Russian army towards the end of WWII.

    The thing is, the family are German, living in East Prussia. They have the requisite photo of Hitler above their dining table. Their father has just been pressed into army service for the Reich as German defeat looms.

    As a child, The Diary of Anne Frank was the only text I knew of that was written from a German-born child’s point of view. I remember my sense of dawning horror as I read about the dreadful things that befell other Jewish children and their families under the Nazis. The Wolf family are not Jewish, nor are they Nazi supporters. They are just an ordinary family trying to get by, to survive the war. They are very fearful of the Red Army troops so when Papa is reported missing in action and the Russians approach their village, they must leave.

    Liesl promised her mother that she will keep her siblings together and protect them. When they find themselves alone, in a bitterly cold winter and the middle of a war zone, with no food or shelter, she and Otto must use all their wits to survive. Sometimes they must break the rules: stealing food, ransacking abandoned luggage for warm clothes or a blanket, killing birds or animals to eat. They live like wild things, like wolves; facing danger, cold and constant hunger.

    The narrative is all from Liesl’s point of view, that of a child who gradually realises that war turns everything on its head:

    All I know is that war does not make sense. The things that people do in a war are not the things they would do if they were at home with their families.

    We Are Wolves p126

    This is how we develop empathy: by living, for a while, in the world of German children whose world has collapsed around them due to a war not of their making. The narrative takes readers far enough into the experience of the Wolf children to be able to recognise their hardships and dilemmas. Darker events and actions are alluded to but not inappropriately so for younger readers.

    There are lighter moments also: acts of kindness from some German and Russian soldiers and citizens, unlikely friendships with other Wolfskinder (wolf children) they encounter, and the playfulness of children, especially little Mia.

    There are lovely illustrations by Martina Heiduczek, which capture the landscape and circumstances of the Wolf family as the story progresses.

    The novel also touches on the importance of identity and language for well- being and sense of self, as at one stage the children must pretend to be Lithuanian so as to avoid Russian retribution.

    ‘German words feel right in my mouth,’ {Otto} says.
    ‘Yes, ‘ I agree.
    “And in my heart.’
    I wrap my arms around him. ‘Yes!’… But from now on,’ I whisper at last, ‘you and I must speak Lithuanian. Always…Even with each other in the middle of the night. Even in our heads and in our hearts…it is the only way we will ever be truly safe…’

    We Are Wolves p290

    If we can transfer our understanding of this to situations closer to home, perhaps we can better appreciate the pain experienced by Australia’s First Nations peoples, so long denied their language, culture and identity?

    We Are Wolves is a beautiful, heartfelt, engrossing read that can contribute to the development of empathy in all who read it.

    It is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books on 29 October 2020. My thanks to the publishers for a copy to read and review.

    #AussieAuthor20
    #AWW2020

  • 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