• Books and reading,  History

    Colonial women: ‘Daughter of the Hunter Valley’ by Paula J Beavan

    In my deep dive into family history during the 2021 Covid lockdown in NSW, I realised that the Hunter Valley played a big role in my paternal ancestors’ lives. Both Great-Grandparents emigrated from England in the mid nineteenth century as children and lived out their lives in the Maitland and Newcastle regions. So it was with interest that I picked up Paula J Bevan’s novel which is set in the 1830’s along the Hunter River.

    The heroine, Maddy, is newly arrived from England. Her father has established a farm there and planned to bring his wife and daughter to live in the colony with him; but Maddy’s mother died before she could embark on the voyage, and Maddy arrives alone to break the awful news. To her horror, the very next day her father drowns in the river and Maddy must decide what to do: return to England; or stay in NSW and try to make a new life for herself?

    She decides to stay and finish creating the house and farm that her father had begun; but it is a very different world for a young woman from the green gentility of country England. The house her father promised is largely still plans on a page, so Maddy must live in a rough hut with two convict women, and she has to quickly learn how to run a property with only assigned convict labourers, and Daniel Coulter, the overseer, to work the land. There is heat, dust, unfamiliar wildlife and unaccustomed threats, and plenty of hard work. To her surprise, Maddy finds that the new life agrees with her as she gradually becomes part of the local settler community.

    The original inhabitants of the region are the Worranua people; they get sidelong references in the narrative, which I found disappointing, though perhaps historically accurate; as many European settlers preferred not to think of the people whose lands they had taken. There is, however, a complicated cast of characters from properties nearby, who I found a little hard to sort out in my head. There are also convicts, bushrangers and an orphaned child.

    I enjoyed Maddy’s development from a confused, grieving daughter to a more assured young woman forging a new life for herself. The author based some of Maddy’s character on colonial women who stepped up to run estates in their men’s absence, and I always love it when I read fiction based in part on real people or events.

    Daughter of the Hunter Valley is primarily a romance, and I did find Maddy’s preoccupation with Daniel a little annoying after a while – as was her tendency to blush whenever she saw him!

    The strength of the novel is in its finely observed portrayal of early colonial life away from the Sydney township; the new environment in which the settlers found themselves, and the hardships they faced. I could picture my own ancestors in similar circumstances in similar locations. Knowing that they, too, had dispossessed Worranua in order to create this new life is uncomfortable, but it is part of my personal history and the history of this country. There are, no doubt, echoes of Maddy’s story in the lives of many of those who came as colonisers to this country.

    Daughter of the Hunter Valley is published by HarperCollins in September 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,  History

    Brooding and malevolent: ‘The Burning Island’ by Jock Serong

    Jock Serong is one of my favourite Aussie authors. He writes novels that are page turners, taut and beautiful, with characters that don’t leave you. The Burning Island is a sequel, of sorts, to his earlier historical fiction work Preservation, which was a stand-out for me because it incorporated both historical fiction and crime in an unforgettable package. I would recommend reading Preservation first – the latest book can be a stand-alone, but there is so much that links the two books together, it would be a shame to miss out.

    The Burning Island picks up the story of former Lieutenant Joshua Grayling, but told this time through the voice of his daughter Eliza, spinster and governess in 1830’s Sydney. Joshua is a faint shadow of the man we first meet in Preservation – damaged and traumatised by his encounters with the enigmatic Mr Figge and the devastating events that follow, he is an alcoholic and recluse.

    When he is offered a chance for revenge he grasps it – to Eliza’s horror. It will involve a voyage to the Furneaux Islands (located in Bass Strait, between mainland Australia and Tasmania) including the island called Preservation, where the story in the first book begins. Eliza must accompany her father, because he is now not only an alcoholic, but also blind.

    The tragedy of addiction and the strain it places on family relationships is portrayed beautifully, and Serong’s trademark descriptive prose glows throughout this novel, resulting in both a gripping story and an incredible character study.

    We sat like that and neither of us spoke. The boat slipped onward, closing in towards something we couldn’t understand. The dark birds moved about us, specks of cold water lit on our faces, perhaps spray or the faintest rain, drips off the rigging, and here we were, two lost people on a voyage to nowhere.

    The Burning Island p121

    There is much in this novel about the often bloody and violent history of the islands, with sealers, mutton birding and kidnapping of Aboriginal women from nearby islands and Tasmania itself, as well as their kidnapping by white authorities – an attempt at genocide. The dramatic, lonely islands are imbued with a malevolence that echoes the nature of the man being pursued – the vile Mr Figge.

    It all makes for a novel that once read, is not easily forgotten.

    The Burning Island was published by Text Publishing in 2020.

  • Books and reading,  History

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

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

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

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

    Sisters of the Resistance p8

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

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

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

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

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

    Sisters of the Resistance p102

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

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

  • Books and reading,  History

    Rollicking re-telling: ‘The Good Wife of Bath’ by Karen Brooks

    In her re-telling of Geoffrey Chaucer’s well-known story within The Canterbury Tales, Australian author Karen Brooks has brought us the dry tone of a mediaeval English woman whose rags-to-riches-back-to-rags life is full of passion, love, misfortune and plain bad luck.

    The author’s extensive and meticulous research into the period makes for a warts-and-all glimpse of England in the fourteenth century, including the awfulness of life for so many women. There is the Wife’s first marriage at twelve years old to a man more than twice her age. There is poverty, plague, domestic violence and abuse. There is also humour, bawdiness and plain speaking, making for plenty of laugh-out-loud moments for the reader.

    The disrespect in which women were generally held at the time is not airbrushed out of Brook’s version, and her Good Wife demonstrates the struggle that women had to gain and retain any agency over their lives.

    Eleanor/Alyson lives out her eventful life against a backdrop of tumultuous times in England and Europe. Death of a king, battling popes, resurgences of the plague, changes in industry and the economy, are all woven skillfully into the fabric of the story, much as the Good Wife herself learns to spin and weave beautiful thread and fabric. Reflecting on her life and the family and community she has created around her, Eleanor/Alyson thinks:

    How did this happen? This marvellous workshop of colour and quality – of bonds tighter than the weave itself. I couldn’t take all the credit. It had been a combined effort… every household, every husband, had added its own ingredient – coin, wool, skills, but above all, people.

    The Good Wife of Bath p313

    Brooks explores the long-standing debate over Chaucer’s intent in writing a story that ostensibly mocked women who wish to be in control over their own lives, opting for the interpretation that it was meant as a satire. Whatever his motives, The Good Wife of Bath offers a modern-day take on his original story.

    It’s an engrossing and rollicking re-interpretation of a classical English story that will please lovers of historical fiction, especially those set in the mediaeval period.

    The Good Wife of Bath is published by HQ Fiction in July 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to review.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Time slip: ‘The Alchemy Thief’ by R.A. Denny

    The Alchemy Thief can best be described as a sweeping saga in which the two main characters are transported through time from 2019 to 1657. It’s Book One in the ‘Pirates and Puritans’ series. The U.S. author draws upon characters from her own family history as inspiration (something I always enjoy). The action also moves between Morocco and New England. It encompasses themes of religious faith, fanaticism and forgiveness.

    It is part modern thriller, taking in the machinations of the Islamic State as they use humans as pawns in deadly international terrorist actions; part love story; and part examination of the beginnings of the American experiment in Pilgrim communities in New England. The novel brings together two characters who under normal circumstances are unlikely to meet. Ayoub is born into the world of Islamic State, while Peri is a young woman at the beginning of her Harvard university studies.

    Their worlds and belief systems clash when the effects of a lightning storm transport them both back to the seventeenth century. They must each decide where their loyalties lie. And they must work out how to survive a strange world in which a belief in magic is widespread and pirates roam the seas.

    As the trajectories of the two characters begin to head towards each other, the danger one poses to the other is clear. The plot moves forward at a satisfying pace and there is plenty of action, as you’d expect in a novel set in what was a fairly brutal time. However, the author deftly draws parallels between the cruelties and hardships of the earlier era with the contempt for human life demonstrated by some in our own times.

    One jarring note for me was the character of Liam. I thought his motivations could have been made clearer and I was left wondering what was at the root of his seeming hatred of his parents and disregard for his fellow Americans.

    The Alchemy Thief is an interesting and energetic glimpse into American colonial history and the people who risked everything to establish those early settlements. It is also a chilling ‘what if?’ story about our modern times.

    The Alchemy Thief is published by the author in July 2021 and available on Amazon.
    My thanks to R.A. Denny for an advanced reading copy to review.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books,  History

    Another historical fiction gem for younger readers: ‘Night Ride into Danger’ by Jackie French

    From Australia’s amazing Jackie French comes another book that tantalises with a gripping story while immersing readers in the sights, sounds, smells and figures from Australia’s past.

    Night Ride into Danger is set in NSW’s Braidwood district in the 1870’s, the days of the iconic Cobb & Co coaches. In the first few paragraphs we are plunged into the world of young Jem and his widowed father, Paw, a skilled coach driver who takes Jem to ride beside him on the 14 hour journey from Braidwood to Goulburn.

    We get a vivid sense of the coachmen’s work, the adventurousness as well as the hardships of his life, the way the coach looked, smelt and felt for the passengers who entrusted their lives to his care on the rutted, icy or flooded roads common at that time.

    The passengers in this story – six of them – all have their reasons for choosing to take the faster but more dangerous night mail coach. Each of them has a different secret and the ways in which the secrets are gradually revealed make up the connecting spine of this story.

    When Jem’s father is injured, Jem must take over as driver – a tall order for a youngster who has never driven a team of four horses at night on such a long journey. How Jem deals with this challenge and interacts with the six other people who travel with him, makes for an engaging tale.

    The book includes many of the figures of Australian colonial legends: gold diggers, bushrangers, farmers, innkeepers and grooms. There are also women (often hidden in the annals of Australian folklore): dancers, cooks, farmers, as well as women travelling to a new country to be married, or giving birth in difficult circumstances. The author doesn’t avoid describing the racism inherent in white attitudes of the time, or the strictures of colonial society against Chinese immigrants, First Nations people, or unmarried mothers.

    The characters are all active and engaging and the reader will cheer Jem on in his quest to arrive safely in time for both the mail and his passengers to meet the Goulburn train for Sydney.

    Night Ride into Danger is guaranteed to be enjoyed by middle grade readers who like a mix of history, adventure and mystery.

    Night Ride into Danger is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in May 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    A romp through colonial Sydney: ‘Flash Jim’ by Kel Richards

    Did you know that Australian expressions such as yarn, snitch, swag or cove originated from Flash cant, the jargon and coded language spoken by criminals in England in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and transported along with convicts to the Australian colonies? And that the very first dictionary written in Australia was written by a convict in an effort to curry favour with authorities – a vocabulary of the Flash language written by an Englishman by the name of James Hardy Vaux.

    Kel Richards’ biography of Vaux is based in part on the convict’s own memoirs, though as Richards points out, Vaux’s account of his actions needs to be treated with caution. He was a nineteenth century version of Peter Foster, an complete fraudster and convincing con-man, who skipped his way through English and Australian society with a fast and slick turn of the tongue and an apparent inability to stick at an honest job for more than a few weeks.

    Born into a respectable middle class family, Vaux declined opportunities available to him that were not offered to people from less comfortable beginnings, preferring instead to swindle, rob, steal, pickpocket and scam his way to an income. He seems to have been a clever man with very little judgement and a breathtaking level of recklessness, and it must be said, very good luck that frequently enabled him to avoid capture or, when he was arrested, got him acquitted on some legal technicality or other.

    I thoroughly disapproved of his criminal activities but I admit to being amused that the methods Vaux employed to hoodwink people in authority (employers, magistrates, etc) were the very aspects of ‘respectable society’ so sacred to those authorities: letters of recommendation from one acquaintance to another, for example; or the ability to present himself well and speak in a cultured and respectful manner. It was also ironic that at times, he got taken in by the very same sorts of scams he himself loved to perform on others.

    Good luck eventually runs out and so Vaux was finally found guilty of one of his many crimes and transported to NSW on a convict ship. Here his education again served him well; being one of a small group of convicts who could read and write enabled him to wheedle his way into easier jobs such as clerical or transcription work – much preferable to assignment as a farm labourer or on the iron gangs, especially for someone who seemed to have an allergic reaction to anything looking like physical work.

    I was astonished that he served not one, but two sentences of transportation – after arriving back in England after his first sentence expired, (in itself an unusual achievement) he returned straight away to his life of crime, resulting in a second period of transportation to the colony. This was clearly a man who did not learn from past mistakes!

    His example also serves to show that the horrific sentencing laws of Georgian and Victorian England were no deterrent to crime: people either stole because of extreme poverty and desperation, or because they preferred it to legal employment. Either way, the threat of a death sentence or of transportation to the far side of the world, did not stop the rising tide of crime in England.

    It was on his second stint in Australia that Vaux began work on his dictionary of Flash slang. Serving time in the convict settlement of Newcastle (reserved for re-offenders like Vaux) he recorded the huge array of words and expressions used by criminals, that so bewildered and frustrated magistrates and colonial authorities. Vaux planned to present his helpful guide to the Commandant of the Newcastle convict station. It was eventually published in London in 1819.

    Richards has included the dictionary as an appendix in his account of it’s author’s life, and it makes for terrific reading. There are many words recognisable today; though some have expanded or changed in meaning or use, many are used exactly as they were in Vaux’s world. If, for example, I said ‘He looks like he’s about to croak’, I suspect you’d know what I meant. ‘Can I cadge $10 from you?’ means just the same as it did in 1800, except with different currency.

    There are some expressions that have faded into the past and are as inexplicable to me as they must have been to a magistrate in Vaux’s time. What, for example, would ‘I’ll get the vardo and you can tow the titter out so she can be unthimbled’ mean?

    Some of the entries are hilarious, some quite grim, but they all give the feeling of the world in which they were created and used. It was a hard, unforgiving time for many and their language is imbued with sly humour and an anti-authoritarian slant that arguably still underpins aspects of modern day Australian culture.

    Flash Jim is a romp through the world of nineteenth century crime, criminals and their culture. Readers who enjoy language and it’s origins, and history brought to life, will find it an engrossing read.

    Flash Jim is published by HarperCollins Publishers in May 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to review.

  • Books and reading,  History

    A heady time: ‘Sisters of Freedom’ by Mary-Anne O’Connor

    Historical fiction and romance author Mary-Anne O’Connor has set her latest novel in the first years of the twentieth century, a heady time in Australia as Federation joined the colonies into one nation, and Australian women – if only white women – looked forward to the campaign for women’s suffrage resulting in success.

    The three Merriweather sisters in the novel have grown up in an enlightened home, with mother Harriet and father Albert supporters of rights for women and for indigenous Australians. Despite their shared convictions, they are otherwise very different: Frankie is passionate about the suffrage campaign and determined to stand for Parliament herself so that she can help make laws that give women more rights and freedoms. Aggie is happily married and longing for a baby, fearful that she and her husband will be unable to conceive a child of their own. She devotes her time to volunteer work at an orphanage, wanting in her own way to make a difference in the world. The youngest is Ivy, who loves beauty and art and hopes for nothing more than marriage to Patrick, a nice home and a family of her own.

    Their lives take a dramatic turn on Ivy’s eighteenth birthday, when an accident on the river sees her rescued by Riley, a young man who makes a living with his supply boat up and down the tiny communities along the Hawkesbury – and some smuggling on the side. While she recovers from her injuries, Ivy sees a very different life in the wild river lands with the people who inhabit its secret coves and reaches. Her time with Riley and his sister Fiona will change her life – and that of her sisters – forever.

    The water was clear at the edges but a murky olive colour further out, mysterious in its flow as it hid whatever creatures lived below the surface. It seemed appropriate that a deeply flowing, concealing river should be the main artery that pumped through this place…It held secrets, this river, and so did the people who lived along it.

    Sisters of Freedom p183

    I grew up in the Hawkesbury Valley – upstream from the locations of this novel – and one of my standout reads of 2020 was Grace Karskens’ fabulous historical work People of the River so I came to this book keen to read about the place and characters its author dreamed into existence. I very much enjoyed the descriptions of places and communities and the political and social milieu of the time; the references to significant people of the Australian suffrage movement (such as Vida Goldstein); and the way in which major national events played out in individual and family lives.

    Ivy’s gradual realisation of the inequities faced by women of all classes, and the particular hardships of the poor, echo those of women in the 1970’s during what has is known as ‘second wave’ feminism. The shocking and absurd ideas about women expressed by some men in the early twentieth century are, sadly, not completely erased from twenty-first century Australia. The struggles of individual women to balance their desire for romance, family, companionship, with their own hopes and goals, is one which never seems to go away. In this way, Sisters of Freedom is a timely novel despite being set more than a hundred years ago.

    There is a strong romance thread throughout, and I thought the resolution a little contrived (almost Shakespearian!) but actually quite fun as well. It’s nice to imagine a ‘happy ever after’ for characters, after all.

    Sisters of Freedom will be enjoyed by readers who like some romance along with strong characters and evocative descriptions of real places, in times past.

    Sisters of Freedom is published by HQ Fiction, an imprint of Harlequin Enterprises, in April 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books,  History

    Mystery & history for kids: ‘The Vanishing at the Very Small Castle’ by Jackie French

    Is Jackie French among Australia’s most productive – perhaps I should say prolific – author? From her busy mind and creative genius pour picture books, fiction and non fiction for older children and adults, and book series to please all ages and tastes. The Vanishing at the Very Small Castle is book two in the Butter O’Bryan Mystery series for middle-grade readers.

    Set in the 1930’s during the Depression, the series follows the adventures of Butter who lives with his friends Gil, Olive and Tish, their dog Woofer, and three Aunts with unusual nicknames – Elephant, Cake and Peculiar. The Very Small Castle is just what it’s name suggests – a mini castle built on the shore of Howler’s Beach, and it is complete with battlements and a dungeon as all good castles should be.

    A ‘talking movie’ is being filmed on the beach and the children are asked to join the action, when the beautiful star Delilah Divine vanishes without leaving a trace. Has she been been kidnapped? Lost to the sea? Butter is determined to solve the mystery.

    Ms French incorporates a great many historical references in these books, from the ‘Susso camp’ nearby (a shanty town of the kind found outside many Australian towns during the Depression) to Australia’s early film industry. The Sydney Harbour Bridge is about to be opened, characters speak using early 20th century Australianisms, and food on the menu ranges from the then very new fad of pavlova, to ‘bread and dripping’.

    There’s a wonderful section in the back of the book which explains many of these aspects of Australian history, and includes recipes for traditional treats like Victoria Sponge, Bubble and Squeak and Boiled Fruit Cake. There’s also instructions on how to play games like Knucklebones or Blue Murder (which I knew as ‘Murder in the Dark’ when I was a kid.)

    All of the history is embedded naturally in a rollicking tale of a disappearing actress, a circus performer and a monster, and a crime to be solved.

    Most of all, the story is about friendship, sharing, and embracing difference:

    His family. Not a normal family, maybe. But normal was much less fun…Butter grinned. There were many ways to make a family.

    The Vanishing at the Very Small Castle p233

    The Vanishing at the Very Small Castle and the Butter O’Bryan series will be enjoyed by middle-grade readers who like mystery and history together in a story.

    The Vanishing at the Very Small Castle is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in April 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.