• Children's & Young Adult Books,  History

    Girls can change the world: ‘Ming and Flo Fight for the Future’ by Jackie French

    One of the (many) things I love about Jackie French’s historical fiction is that she effortlessly shines a light on frequently overlooked people and events from history, without veering into tokenistic territory. Her characters represent people who really were there, but who are so often hidden from view in traditional histories and stories. Her new Girls Who Changed the World series for middle grade readers is a good example.

    In Book One, Ming and Flo Fight for the Future, we meet Ming, a twelve year old schoolgirl whose family has Chinese-Vietnamese and European heritage. Ming loves learning about history, but not the way it is taught at her school. She asks a question in class one day: ‘Sir, why don’t we ever learn about girls who changed history?… Where were all the girls at all the important times in the past?’

    Good question, right? Sadly, her teacher and classmates have no answer for her. Ming is exasperated, until Herstory appears, to offer her a chance to return to the past – as an observer. Ming agrees, but in the process she manages to become a person living in the past. She is now Florence, and the year is 1898.

    She is plunged into a drought-stricken farm in the middle of nowhere, grinding poverty, and the sudden death of Flo’s mother, until Aunt McTavish arrives to take Flo to share her well-heeled life in Sydney. Aunt McTavish is a friend of Louisa Lawson, a committed Suffragist, but determinedly ‘British to the core’ – despite her obvious mixed Chinese and Scottish heritage.

    So Ming/Flo experiences some of the challenges for girls and women at a time when girls’ education was considered unimportant, women could not vote, and the White Australia policy loomed. As Herstory had warned her: ‘The past is – uncomfortable.’

    In the process, Ming learns that it is not just the big, obvious actions that can lead to profound social or political change. More often, it is the small, unnoticed actions by committed people who never give up, that set the scene for change. As Herstory tells Ming:

    Men like Henry Parkes get the credit for uniting Australia, but it would never have happened without the speeches, petitions and passion of women. When social forces come to a head, it’s usually been a man who got the credit, not the hundreds, the thousands, the millions of women who made it happen too, like Mrs Lawson.

    Ming and Flo Flight for the Future p256-257

    Book Two of Girls who Changed the World will see Ming in Belgium during WWI. I look forward to reading it! This series will be enjoyed by those who are interested in stories from Australian history told from the viewpoint of those who are usually forgotten.

    Ming and Flo Fight for the Future is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in March 2022.
    My thanks to the publisher 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.

  • 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.

  • Books and reading

    2022 Reading Challenges

    I’ve enjoyed participating in several reading challenges over the past few years. Kind of like being in a book club, it is an added incentive to read beyond my ‘usual’ genres, and especially to explore new authors or styles of writing.

    For 2022, here’s what I am aiming for:

    The Australian Women Writers Challenge has been going for 10 years and I’ve participated in the past few years.
    In 2022 the AWW blog will focus on ’19th and 20th century writers including authors who may not have achieved prominence in their lifetimes, or whose works have been forgotten and/or overlooked.’ I will join in discussion of contemporary Australian women writers in the AWW Facebook group Love Reading Books by Aussie Women.
    (No need for me to set a goal for this as I already ‘love reading books by Aussie women’!)

    The Aussie Author Reading Challenge hosted by Jo at Book Lover Reviews is a fun one for me: I love to read books by the amazing talented authors we have in this country. This year I will go again for the ‘Kangaroo‘ level, which means I will read and review 12 books written by Australian Authors, of which at least 4 of those authors are female, at least 4 of those authors are male, and at least 4 of those authors are new to me; Fiction or non-fiction, at least 3 different genre.

    Historical fiction reading challenge hosted by the Intrepid Reader : This year I will take on the ‘Mediaeval‘ level, meaning I will tackle a goal of reading 15 books during the year.

    Non Fiction Reading Challenge hosted by Shelleyrae at Book’d Out. I’ll go for the ‘Nibbler‘ level: 6 books, one from any 6 of the listed categories:

    1. Social History 2. Popular Science 3. Language 4. Medical Memoir 5. Climate/Weather 6. Celebrity 7. Reference
    8. Geography 9. Linked to a podcast 10. Wild Animals 11. Economics 12. Published in 2022

    And lastly, my own informal personal challenge: Continue to increase the number of works I read by First Nations authors and/or about First Nations cultures and histories, especially Australian. There are so many First Nations authors publishing wonderful works here just now and I always love discovering new ones.

    So that’s it for me for 2022. As always I expect to vary from my initial goals: either I read way more than I anticipate or miss out on a particular category somewhere along the line. It’s all just fun, and a way to be a little mindful of the books I choose.

    What will be your reading goals or challenges for the year ahead? Let me know in the comments.
    I hope you find yourself lost in the pages of excellent books throughout the year.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Dust bowl and Depression: ‘The Four Winds’ by Kristin Hannah

    I was in my twenties when I read John Steinbeck’s classic novel about the experiences of ‘Okies’, the derogatory name given to migrants from the US Great Plains states who, in their thousands, went west to California during the 1930’s. They did so in an attempt to escape the shocking dust storms, drought and poverty that ruined so many farms and livelihoods, hoping to find work picking Californian cotton and fruit. After reading The Four Winds, I am moved to want to re-read Steinbeck’s book, because there is so much human drama, endurance and tragedy in these stories.

    The Four Winds begins in the Texas Panhandle, where Elsa Martinelli is an unloved and isolated young woman in a well-to-do business family. Her longing for love leads her to an encounter with Rafe Martinelli, son of Italian immigrants who have made Texas their home. Pregnancy follows, resulting in expulsion from her family, and Elsa marries Rafe and goes to live with the Martinelli family on their farm. She earns a place in the family and fully adopts the life of a farmer, wife and mother; she has finally found a home.

    Then come the effects of years of drought: dead crops, heat and shocking dust storms that blight the land. Combined with the Depression, the result is that thousands of farmers and local businesses lose their ability to make a living and feed their families. After Rafe deserts them, and her son becomes seriously ill, Elsa makes the hard decision to join the throngs of desperate people travelling to California, lured by the promise of work in a ‘milk and honey’ land.

    Of course, the reality is very different and if anything, the hardships and injustices faced by Elsa and her two young children are even worse than those they left behind.

    The story takes in the efforts of unions and Communist party members fighting for workers’ rights, especially for the ‘Okies’ who face discrimination and abuse by big farming concerns. Elsa is a woman with little agency over her own life, but for the sake of her children’s future, she puts herself in the path of danger, great risk and tragedy.

    The descriptions of the dust storms are truly terrifying, and the despair felt by those affected leaps from the pages. So does the independence and self-reliance of the American farmer at that time: proud to work the land and reluctant to accept government help of any kind. There is irony, too: the methods used by those farmers led to the degradation of the land which, when combined with drought, resulted in an ecological disaster that even then was seen as such by the federal government.

    Elsa now knew how Tony had felt when his land had died. There was a deep and abiding shame that came with asking for handouts.
    Poverty was a soul-crushing thing. A cave that tightened around you, its pinprick of light closing a little more at the end of each desperate, unchanged day.

    The Four Winds p280

    The romance in the latter part of the novel did not work so well for me; overall though, The Four Winds brings to life a tragic period in American history and highlights the resilience and courage of the many people affected by the environmental and economic tragedies that played out in the 1930’s.

    The Four Winds was published by MacMillan in 2021.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Tenacious women: ‘Elizabeth and Elizabeth’ by Sue Williams

    Sue Williams takes the real-life women of her title, Elizabeth Macarthur and Elizabeth Macquarie, and places them in the centre of this novel about the early colonial years of Sydney and Parramatta. Told through the point of view of each woman, we meet the various characters that stride larger than life through Australian history books: ex-Governor William Bligh, Governor Lachlan Macquarie, Reverend Samuel Marsden, John Macarthur, and many other names that are familiar to us today as place names: Nepean, Evan, Bathurst, Hunter, Huskisson, for example.

    At first reading, this novel has a very different take on these women than some other works. Kate Grenville’s A Room of Leaves, for example, portrays the relationship between Elizabeth Macarthur and her husband John in a very unflattering way, with Elizabeth as the publicly supportive but privately despairing woman tied to the erratic and self-serving John.

    Reading Elizabeth and Elizabeth further, I could see that whatever Elizabeth’s true feelings about her husband, her circumstances did not allow her to do anything but be a supportive wife. Through the lens of modern understanding of mental ill-health, we might have some sympathy for John, subject to what would now likely be described as bipolar disorder or other serious mental illness.

    That does not excuse his corrupt behaviour. Nor does it excuse the many petty personal jealousies and grievances of those in authority in the fledgling colony, and the way personal ambitions undermined the just and efficient administration of affairs in NSW. Sue Williams gives a graphic portrayal of how these factors played out.

    We might also have sympathy for Elizabeth Macquarie, a new bride accompanying her husband to his post as Governor of a far flung colonial outpost of Britain. Nothing is as she expects. She and her husband face political opposition from those who see the colony as a way to make money or to rise up the ladder of their ambition. They also have to contend with apathy from the British Government, and their own personal misfortunes and ill-health.

    In the end, Elizabeth and Elizabeth is a story about the tenacity of two women who never give up on what they see as the right thing to do, and put all their considerable skills to use in support of their husband, the family, and what they regard as the colony’s best interests. It’s a very readable novel and will be enjoyed by anyone interested in colonial Australian history.

    Elizabeth and Elizabeth was published by Allen & Unwin in January 2021.

  • 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.