• Books and reading

    A twisty tale: ‘The Murder Rule’ by Dervla McTiernan

    Dervla McTiernan (Irish-born Australian crime writer) has published a critically acclaimed and award winning series of novels featuring Detective Sergeant Cormac Reilly, set in Ireland. The Murder Rule is her latest, much-anticipated new book, this time a stand-alone and set in the United States.

    I am a big fan of the earlier novels and I especially loved the character portrayal and development, and the sense of empathy that the writer conveys within well-crafted plots.

    I have to confess that while reading The Murder Rule, I found myself missing the vivid sense of ‘Irishness’ of those earlier settings and characters. There is something about the Irish voice, and the misty (sometimes dark) landscape, that lends itself so well to crime fiction. If you are, like me, also a fan of Tana French’s ‘Dublin Murder Squad’ series, I am sure you will agree.

    Having said that, The Murder Rule is, like McTiernan’s earlier novels, a well crafted story with a suitably tight plot, told with assurance and skill. The main protagonist is Hannah, a law student who applies to work at the Innocence Project. This is an organisation which works to free supposedly innocent people who have been wrongly convicted and imprisoned.

    From the opening pages, readers understand that Hannah is not all she appears and that her motivations for joining the Innocence Project are not what they appear to be. The question is: why? And what has driven Hannah to take this admittedly extreme approach to righting what she sees as a grievous wrong done years earlier?

    The answers are given as clues within chapters alternating between Hannah’s voice and diary entries made by her mother, Laura, when she was Hannah’s age.

    I found myself feeling somewhat impatient with both characters at times, however when the first plot twist came it was so unexpected I was eager to read on.

    The novel deals with the subtleties of human behaviour and ideas about right and wrong:

    I’m just saying that it’s about narrative, isn’t it? We, I mean people, all of us, we love a story. We want a hero. We want a bad guy. We want a beginning, a middle, and an end. And life is more complicated than that but we love it when we’re served up a story and sometimes if we don’t get it, we make it for ourselves. We believe only the facts that suit the story we like and we ignore everything else.

    The Murder Rule p164

    Readers who enjoyed books such as Gone Girl or The Woman in the Window will, I am sure, enjoy The Murder Rule. But I do hope to see a return of McTiernan’s native Ireland in a future story.

    The Murder Rule is published by HarperCollins in May 2022.
    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to review.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Duty and trauma: ‘The Nurses’ War’ by Victoria Purman

    Acclaimed Australian author Victoria Purman’s new historical fiction novel is a fat book, just the thing for reading by the fireside during a prolonged wet spell – which is how I enjoyed it. It’s an easy read – though not a light one – as it deals with real historical events that proved distressing, often tragic, for those who lived through them.

    The setting is the real-life ‘Harefield House’, a grand mansion owned by wealthy expatriate Australians in the little village of Harefield, in Middlesex, England. In 1915 it was converted into a hospital for Australian troops recuperating from injurie inflicted at some of the many battlefields in Europe – especially at Gallipoli, France and Belgium.

    The hospital was staffed by Australian doctors and nurses and it must have been wonderful for the ill and injured Diggers to hear the familiar accents from home as they were cared for.

    If you, like me, are interested in the history behind the novel, the author has a piece on HarperCollins’ website with more detail, along with lovely photographs of the place, the nurses and some of the soldiers who went to Harefield. You can find it here.

    The story concerns four nurses, among those who sailed from Australian homes to help establish the hospital and stayed to care for the injured. There is also a local woman, Jessie, who volunteers to help care for the patients. We witness their anxiety as they await the first influx of soldiers, followed by their increasing horror as the hospital, established to cater for up to one hundred and fifty men, is flooded by thousands, stretching their resources, both physical and human. We are not spared the sights, sounds and smells that engulf the nurses as the brutality of war on human bodies and minds becomes clear.

    Cora had been well-trained, had more than a decade’s experience behind her and had believed she had seen almost everything, but nothing in Adelaide, nor the extra army training she’d undergone, could have prepared her for this sight.

    The Nurse’s War p79

    The novel also touches on other, perhaps unexpected, results of the war: profound change as the fundamentals of society shift, with women stepping into what were previously ‘men’s jobs’, becoming agriculture or postal workers, tram conductors, ambulance drivers; new trends in clothing allowing women more freedoms and comfort; and of course the suffrage movement. The threat of instant death and loss also changed many people’s long-held beliefs and attitudes, about marriage, love, or religion, for example.

    Friendships forged in wartime can be intense and profound, as can romances, but the novel does not pretend that these led to a ‘happy ever after’ ending for everyone. Rather, it illustrates the essentially random nature of an individual’s fate in times of war: an apparent throw of the dice can take a life or crush a person’s future. In such circumstances, is it surprising that people behave differently, re-think future plans or even their faith? World War I left behind a legacy of vast numbers of missing or profoundly wounded young men, multiple generations of grief, and a new social order in many parts of the then British Empire.

    Some aspects of Australian life, however, continue throughout – including racial discrimination, where indigenous men had to have written permission from the Protector of Aborigines to enlist, and yet still faced racism on the battlefield, in hospitals, and also at home at war’s end.

    This is a beautifully researched novel with characters that I quickly came to care about and a storyline that took me from the naivety of young Australians embarking on an adventure at the other side of the world, through the horrors of their war, to a profoundly moving conclusion.

    At the end of The Nurses’ War, the influenza pandemic is sweeping through the world, inflicting a terrible toll on those who’d managed to survive years of war. Again, the random hand of fate is at play. And given the global pandemic of 2020 to the current time (2022) I could not help but compare the experiences of then, with now. I found myself wondering: could modern-day Australians or British cope with prolonged, seemingly never-ending trauma and stress of a convulsive war, followed so closely by a deadly pandemic, in quite the same way as our forebears had to do?

    Coincidentally, this post is published on ANZAC Day, an annual commemoration of Australians who have died or suffered in war time. As I write this, a brutal war is being waged in Europe, as Russian troops attempt to take over the democratic nation of Ukraine. As always, I hope ANZAC Day will allow people to think about the futility and barbarity of war and redouble global efforts to put an end to using violence as a way to deal with disputes.

    The Nurses’ War is published by HarperCollins Australia in March 2022.
    My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Extraordinary true story: ‘Rose’ by Suzanne Falkiner


    In the early 1800’s, a time when well-bred young ladies were raised to do embroidery and look after their households and husbands, Rose de Freycinet dressed as a man and stowed away on her husband’s ship, sailing across vast oceans on a voyage of scientific exploration.

    In so doing, she did support her husband’s venture (and occasionally sewed whilst on board) but she also became the first woman to circumnavigate the globe and to leave a record of her adventures. Her resolution from the start was:

    Never, through my fears or my own wishes, to part my husband from his duty.

    Rose p348

    It was a dangerous adventure for many reasons. To begin with, there was a strict prohibition on women aboard French ships. There were political considerations: the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars had changed the geo-political scene irrevocably, and the Commander and crew of the ship Uranie had to tread carefully at their various ports of call. There were the common dangers of a voyage in the smallish ships of the time, with none of today’s comforts and navigational technology: the ever present possibility of shipwreck, disease, storms, being blown off course, running out of supplies and fresh water. Added to that was Rose’s unique position as a lone woman on a ship full of men, with whom she travelled for several years.

    This is a thoroughly researched book and readers get a fascinating insight into how such a voyage was planned and prepared for; maritime traditions and practices in the nineteenth century; questionable (but common) medical practices; the drive to add to scientific and navigational knowledge; the intriguing customs and manners of the people encountered in places such as Brazil, French colonies, ‘New Holland’ (now Australia), the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), Guam and the Sandwich Islands (now Hawaii), for example.

    Looking at the map of the Uranie’s voyage, it is amazing to think of people setting sail into what were at times, literally uncharted waters. From our modern perspective, when many people don’t venture to a new town or country without checking on-line maps and reviews, these people were taking enormous risks! They were creating and correcting the maps as they went and recording what they found.

    Rose recorded her experiences via a journal and in frequent letters to her mother back in France. After her death these were edited (the author suggests they were also ‘sanitised’ in some instances) and later published. I am grateful for that, because they give a very different perspective on the voyages of this period than do the formal ones written by her husband and other men.

    For example, the Uranie was indeed shipwrecked, running aground at a bleak and deserted island in the Falklands. For Rose, the dreadful experience of terror followed by hunger and cold as they waited for rescue, was compounded by the fact that her husband became seriously ill. What would her fate be if he died, leaving her to the mercies of men without a commander?

    I have always loved the Freycinet Peninsula in Tasmania’s northeast, named for Louis de Freycinet. When I travel there in future, I shall also think of Rose, a person of equal courage and adventurousness as her husband.

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

  • Books and reading

    Powerful and insightful: ‘All Mixed Up’ by Jason Om

    Jason Om will be familiar to viewers and listeners of Australia’s ABC network, presenting for programs such as 7.30 and Four Corners. His memoir opens with an account of witnessing his 44-year-old mother die of a heart attack when he was just twelve. Such trauma would have to impact on a young life and indeed, Jason and his family were never the same afterward.

    He lived with his Cambodian-born father in Melbourne, until study and a career in journalism took him to Sydney, Adelaide and back to Sydney.

    In the background, rearing up to confound and confront, were memories of his mother: her mental illness, her own (hidden) trauma, her love and her erratic, troubling behaviours.

    His memoir has vibrant descriptions of individual and family quirks, along with the puzzling questions about his family’s past, for which it seemed impossible to get answers.

    So, Jason decided to put his journalism skills to use and approached the secrets of his family, and particularly those of his parents, as he would approach an investigative piece: uncovering records and photographs, interviewing family members, visiting the places where long-ago events occurred.

    This took him to Malaysia and Cambodia where he began to piece together the personal and national tragedies that had such profound effects on his own life. He writes beautifully and sensitively about these issues and how he slowly began to come to terms with the past and its impact on his life and those around him.

    Also of great interest are his insights into the experiences of mixed race children, migrant families in Australia’s suburbs in the 1970’s and 80’s, the courage needed to come out as a gay man within his family, community and workplace, and the development of a more ethnically diverse media landscape in this country. All fascinating to read about and described with great sensitivity and honesty.

    I loved his ‘handy trick’ of reflecting the ‘Where are you from?’ or ‘What’s your background?’ questions (often asked out of curiosity and with no ill intent) back to the questioner:

    It meant we were all talking about race, not just mine, and I found that mutually sharing our heritage would open up the conversation.
    ‘That’s my background, what’s yours?’ I would ask them.
    I could always see the strain on their faces, their eyes darting around for an answer because the question had never entered their heads.

    All Mixed Up p125

    As someone with a deep seated and passionate interest in family history and identity, I love this tip and I think I’ll use it myself to spur conversations about the fascinating array of cultural and family backgrounds to be found in this country!

    All Mixed Up is a beautiful tribute to Jason’s family, his own struggles with acceptance and understanding, and the measure of humanity. I highly recommend to anyone interested in people!

    All Mixed Up is published by ABC Books and HarperCollins Publishers in April 2022.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    All about family: ‘The Love That Grew’ by Sarah Ayoub

    The Love that Grew is a sort of picture book / pre-schooler take on Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem ‘How Do I Love Thee?’ which begins How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…

    An ode to a mother’s love and to families, it explores different ways to describe the indescribable, with sweet illustrations by debut picture book illustrator Mimi Purnell.

    I thought I could not love another,
    not a sister, nor a brother.
    But just like magic, my love then grew
    when I was blessed with more of you.
    It stretched as high as the beanstalk climbed by Jack:
    impossible to measure, and hard to track.
    A feeling that was both fierce and strong
    and the-longest-noodle-you-can-think-of-long.

    The Love that Grew

    This would be perfect picture book for a little one expecting a new brother or sister. Mums and Dads find that, while time can be difficult to share around with a new baby, love is different – there is usually plenty to go around no matter how many new siblings arrive. The rhyming couplets lend themselves well to read-aloud sessions – just right for snuggling; baby, toddler, book and parent together.

    The Love that Grew is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in March 2022.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Hardship, hope and glamour: ‘Dressed by Iris’ by Mary-Anne O’Connor

    If you’ve read a few of my reviews, you will know how much I love – adore – fiction inspired by real people and events, especially when they are people from the author’s own family. This is exactly what Australian novelist Mary-Anne O’Connor has delivered in her latest historical fiction, Dressed by Iris.

    Firstly, the glamour. The cover design is gorgeous; a beautiful young woman dressed in the lush fashions of the 1930’s. It’s lovely, and the story does centre around Iris, a young woman with a dream to design and make beautiful clothes.

    But as in real life, glamour can hide a multitude of sins and less-than-beautiful realities. The novel opens with Iris and her large, Catholic family, living in a tiny shanty house on the outskirts of Newcastle. Times are hard, with the Depression biting deep. The family barely scrape by and to add insult to injury, they experience the ugly prejudice of some better-off townsfolk against ‘Micks.’ Iris is courted by, and in love with, John, a young man from a Protestant family; but fears that the division between their families can never be bridged. It’s very Romeo-and-Juliet.

    Speaking of bridges, the story moves to Sydney, where Iris’s father and brother have found work, helping to build the Sydney Harbour Bridge. That bridge takes on a powerful role as a symbol of hope, modernity and better times ahead.

    Meanwhile, Iris finds work for a well-known Sydney designer of fashionable women’s clothing, and her dream of designing clothes seems a step closer. There are new threats and obstacles to overcome, and the story takes many twists and turns before its resolution.

    The author has given us a vivid picture of Sydney in the 30’s: the glamour of some parts, certainly; but also the rising desperation of the poor and a rising crime rate; entrenched sexism and religious intolerance; evictions of families unable to meet their rent; political turmoil with Fascists, Communists and unionists fighting pitched battles in the suburbs; the drama around the sacking of Jack Lang, the left-leaning Premier of NSW at the time. There are small details of domestic life that help bring the era alive: the careful coin counting and hard choices while shopping for a family’s dinner, just one example of this.

    I found unexpected personal connections with some aspects of the story. The suburb the family settle in is Hurstville – near my mother’s own childhood stamping ground in southwest Sydney. And one of Mum’s vivid memories from her childhood is the day she, her parents and her two younger siblings were evicted from their flat, finding a new home in the then ‘charity estate’ at Hammondville.

    Along with the ups and downs of the story and Iris’ journey from poverty to a career in fashion, Dressed by Iris is a love letter to family and to the lessons we learn from childhood. It’s also a song of praise for the virtues of hope, resilience, counting your blessings and making the best of things.

    I was moved to read in the author’s note that the two ‘leading ladies’ of this story, Iris and her mother Agnes, were modelled closely on the author’s own aunt and grandmother, and so many of the snippets of life included in the novel did, in fact, occur. I confess I shed a tear or two, reading that.

    They endured both tragedy and hardship, these two women, and faced great poverty during their lives, but they did it resiliently, cheerfully, generously and always with love. For me, that makes them two of the richest women that I will ever know.

    Dressed by Iris Author Note, p501

    Dressed by Iris is published by HQ Fiction in February 2022.
    My thank to the publisher for a review copy.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books,  History

    World Between Blinks #2: ‘Rebellion of the Lost’ by Amie Kaufman & Ryan Graudin

    Yes! Another instalment in the World Between Blinks, what I hope will become a long series for middle-grade readers. I loved Book 1 (here’s my review) so this sequel was very welcome.

    Book 2 continues the magical, sometimes chaotic, occasionally scary but always fun world of the Lost. Every item, person, geographical feature and building in the world that has been ‘lost’ to history, ends up in this world. The problem is that the Administrator, in charge of the team of Curators who log and document all the comings and goings of things, has decided it is all way too chaotic for his liking.

    So, he implements strict new controls designed to restore order. The unintended consequences of these rules are separated families, bored inhabitants, and a sterile, humourless World. Enter the rebels: all those who want to see their World returned to the creative, beautiful place it had been.

    Cousins Marisol and Jake, along with Marisol’s older, teenaged brother Victor, are drawn back to try to assist the rebels. What follows is a rollicking adventure with some fearful moments, new friendships and old ones rediscovered.

    On the way, Marisol and Victor learn some new things about each other and get to see their sibling in a new light. This insight stretches to others in the World: a beautiful metaphor for how, if we only stop to look, we can realise that people are not all ‘bad’ or ‘good’ – even individuals like the Administrator has an inner life that guides what he does, even if somewhat misguidedly.

    ‘That’s the thing the Administrator doesn’t understand, or doesn’t want to understand. Put everyone back in their zones, and they’ll be exactly the same forever. But everything changes. I’m not the same person I was back home. I used to think some things, say some things that – well, I’ve learned a lot. That’s what happens when you’re always exploring. You learn new lessons.’

    Rebellion of the Lost p139

    The Administrator has the power to ‘flip’ the hourglasses of every person in the World, thus erasing their memories. The process and its result is rather like an accelerated version of what happens to a person who suffers from a dementia illness such as Alzheimer’s. This could be a good analogy to explain what that disease is, for youngsters who have a family member diagnosed with it.

    On a personal note, I was intrigued that the ‘lost mountain tops’ in the World includes Mt St Helens, the volcano in America’s Washington State that literally blew off its peak in 1980. I’d spent a year in Washington State in 1979 and was very familiar with how that particular mountain top had looked before it became ‘lost.’

    I’m looking forward to Book 3 in the World Between Blinks series!

    The World Between Blinks: Rebellion of the Lost is published by Harper Collins in February 2022.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Colonial women: ‘No Hearts of Gold’ by Jackie French

    Some girls are born to be loved,
    Some are born to be useful,
    And some are born to be bad…

    No Hearts of Gold

    The strapline of Jackie French’s new historical fiction sums it up: not all colonial women in Australia were wives, mothers, convicts, or servants.

    No Hearts of Gold is about three very different women: one from aristocratic English society; one of a sturdy business-minded nature; and one from a self-made-gone-bust family. They are brought together on a voyage from England to the colony in the 1850’s; the beginning of a complex but staunch friendship against all odds.

    What they find in the booming, bustling, troubled colony defies their own expectations.

    The three women embark on lives very different from the ones they may have envisaged for themselves, back in England.

    Kat, daughter of a fond father whose fortune disappeared with the bust of railway shares that had created it in the first place, makes the quick marriage arranged for her by an aunt. While such a fast marriage seems improbable, they were surprisingly common at all levels of society then, especially in far-flung outposts like Sydney. Marriage offered protection, financial support and a chance to leave the past behind.

    Titania launches a business provisioning the ships leaving the wharves, profiting from her acumen and hard work, but dispensing kindness and help to others where she can.

    Wealthy, loving Viola lives with her guardian, Cousin Lionel, in the lavish house funded by her own inheritance.

    It’s difficult to say much more about the plot while avoiding spoilers. So I will instead focus on the issues and themes canvassed in the novel.

    The Gold Rushes play a major role in the plot line and set the scene for some of the drama. But the focus is also on the destructive nature of these crazy events: on families, on homes and businesses that overnight lost fathers, husbands, workers. And especially, on the fragile environment of this land.

    … the vegetable gardens, the fruit crop, the supplies in their storeroom were a treasure now – a treasure that could keep you alive, when specks of gold could not, and envied by men who had forgotten laws and rules, even if they had once obeyed them. There was no one they could ask for help…

    No Hearts of Gold p177

    Women’s lack of ownership over their wealth, possessions, future and even their children, and the control wielded by men, is another important current running through the novel. As is the ways in which many women, including our three protagonists, defied the systems and conventions that kept these inequities in place.

    An unexpected twist turns the story into a mystery involving a possible murder, a bushranger and a police detective.

    The novel packs in all this and more: but I think, at its heart is the precious nature of enduring friendships between women.

    Viola closed her eyes in sudden, deep pleasure. A friend one could say anything to. A friend who took you seriously, and not as a child, or one who must live up to the concept of ‘lady’.

    No Hearts of Gold p171

    No Hearts of Gold is another beauty of a Jackie French novel: a gripping mystery, a rollicking yarn, and an elegy to women’s strength and courage in a society that discouraged both.

    No Hearts of Gold is published by Angus & Robertson, an imprint of Harper Collins Punishers, in December 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to read and review.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    Words & numbers for sharp-eyed youngsters: ‘Mrs Koala’s Beauty Parlour’ by Catherine Jinks and Tania McCartney

    Mrs Koala’s beauty parlour is so busy, with a succession of alliterative critters lining up to receive the feel-good ministrations of a skilled beauty therapist.

    Each double page spread features different services offered by Mrs Koala, with fun for little ones who can join in the countdown, alliterative text and searching for the beauty parlour key, cleverly hidden in each scene.

    There are 10 fancy frogs getting facials, 9 pampered porcupines getting perms, 8 trendy tigers getting trims, and so on, right down to 1 ‘kaput koala’ on the final page – Mrs Koala is tired after all that work!

    The attractive colour illustrations by Tania McCartney invite close examination of each busy scene – and of course little ones will love to find the key on each page.

    This is a sweet book that simply begs to be read aloud and I’m sure will be a favourite at story time.

    Mrs Koala’s Beauty Parlour is published by Working Title Press (an imprint of Harper Collins Children’s Books in February 2022.

    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading

    The sweetness of friendships: ‘Birds of a Feather’ by Tricia Stringer

    It’s good to branch out into a genre you don’t generally read much of, or an author not encountered before, and that’s what I’ve done with this contemporary fiction by Australian author Tricia Stringer.

    Birds of a Feather is all about family and friendships, old and new. Set in fictional Wallaby Bay on South Australia’s Spencer Gulf, the story features three very different women. There is Eve, battling to maintain her independence after a crippling shoulder injury; her goddaughter Julia, struggling with suppressed grief and the sudden loss of her scientific research job; and Lucy, trying to be the best mother she can be to her two young children, and coping with the absence of her FIFO (Fly In Fly Out) husband.

    The first part of the novel sets up the circumstances that bring these characters together: at first unwillingly, each feeling their way in a new situation, trying to overcome mistrust, hesitation and past hurts. Once the women are together, the story really gets going. Before that, there are hints and veiled references to their back stories, tensions, traumas and the circumstances that shaped each one, and it is fun to put their stories together as the novel goes along.

    There are references to the Covid pandemic and the dilemmas faced by people like Lucy, an aged care worker, who must try to deal with an emotionally and physically draining experience while also worrying about her kids. It’s a very real scenario that brings home the additional challenges the pandemic introduced to already complicated lives.

    The author captures the small town atmosphere beautifully: all the strengths of rural communities, along with the downsides that can accompany living in a place where everyone knows everybody else (and their business).

    I found it soothing to be lost in the minutia of others’ lives, and the novel’s resolution was satisfying, even though some aspects felt a bit too tidy.

    Birds of a Feather will be an enjoyable read for people who like to read character-based contemporary fiction about real-life struggles and challenges and the ways in which they can be overcome.

    Birds of a Feather is published by HQ Fiction, an imprint of Harlequin Enterprises, in December 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.