• Books and reading,  History

    Courage and sacrifice: ‘The Librarian Spy’ by Madeline Martin

    I recently heard a podcast interview with Sulari Gentill, best-selling Australian author, in which she reported a comment made to her that people who love books will pick up any book with the word ‘librarian’ in the title. While it made me chuckle, I have to admit that it’s probably quite correct. I was definitely attracted to this book about a librarian, and also the setting – World War II Europe – combine librarian and spy and it’s a winner!

    The novel actually features two women. There is Hélène, whose husband Joseph has been arrested for suspected Resistance activities and taken to the notorious Montluc prison in Lyon. An act of generosity by Hélène sees her forced to adopt a new identity as Elaine, as she throws herself into work for the Resistance, producing newspapers and leaflets banned by the Nazi occupiers of France.

    The librarian of the title is Ava, sent from her job in the Washington DC Library of Congress to Lisbon in Portugal, where she joins others from the US and Britain, gathering foreign language publications that might assist Allied intelligence efforts.

    These two women exist in very different worlds. The French are under the Nazi jackboot, facing peril and starvation every day. Portugal on the other hand is officially neutral, with plenty of food, wine and fine clothing for those with money, though there is an undercurrent of intrigue and danger, which Ava is at first unaware of.

    Portugal is also the last ‘safe’ place for refugees from German occupied Europe to escape to, and there await precious visas and travel tickets to Britain or the US. Ava witnesses the distress and difficulties faced by these people and she tries to help where she can.

    The descriptions of people in Lisbon during this time bring to mind the setting of the classic film Casablanca, which was similarly a refuge for people fleeing Nazi atrocities.

    Children chased one another about in a game of tag while their parents held cups of coffee and tea, engaged in their dismal low-toned conversations. The faces changed from time to time, but the situations were always the same. Adults waiting for the little ones to be distracted before whispering their fears to one another.
    What if a visa didn’t arrive in time and the PDVE {Portugal’s secret police} came for them? What if a boat ticket couldn’t be found and they had to start the process over again? What if the money ran out? What if Germany attacked Portugal and they had nowhere to go?

    The Librarian Spy p190

    In their attempts to rescue a Jewish mother and child from Lyon, Elaine and Ava connect, unseen across borders, and the events play out with plenty of suspense and heightened emotion.

    As always when reading historical fiction, I learned new things while reading The Librarian Spy, due to the wonderful detail included throughout. I didn’t know, for example, that Charles de Gaulle had declared the city of Lyon to be the ‘centre of the French Resistance’.

    And one regret is that when I visited Lyon a few years ago, I didn’t know about the ‘traboules’, secret passageways originally for silk workers in mediaeval times to aid their movements around the city, and used to great advantage by Resistance members to avoid detection by the Germans.

    The Librarian Spy was published in Australia in July 2022 by HQ Fiction.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

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  • Books and reading,  History

    Women in wartime: ‘The Light We Left Behind’ by Tessa Harris

    One of the most welcome aspects of the current trend in historical fiction publishing is the space created to tell the stories of women and the part they played in well-known – and sometimes, lesser-known – historical events. The Light We Left Behind is one such novel, focusing on the contributions made to the Allied war effort by the women and men who worked at Trent Park.

    Trent Park? Never heard of it?

    If that’s your reaction, rest assured it was also mine.

    Like the more famous Bletchley Park, Trent Park was a centre of intelligence gathering during WWII that was like no other in Britain at the time. A stately home outside London, it was turned into a prison for German POWs. A prison with a difference: Trent Park housed high ranking German officials and military officers in luxury, catering to their expensive tastes and providing entertainment and every comfort.

    You might be thinking ‘If the long-suffering British public had known of this place, there would have been an uproar’, and you would be quite correct. Trent Park’s real purpose was kept hidden even from the locals. The house and its grounds were fitted out with listening devices, and German speaking employees (sometimes refugees from Nazi-occupied territories) brought in to interpret what the German captives were saying to each other when they were alone – strolling the grounds, smoking cigars and drinking fine wine in the library.

    The prisoners were interrogated, of course, but the methods of interrogation tended to be gentle, employing psychological strategies rather than brute force. And the arrogant German generals and officials would boast amongst themselves about what they had not divulged to their interrogators, unknowingly providing information to the Allies about weapons development and war strategies that would otherwise have remained hidden.

    This fascinating centre of wartime activity provides the backdrop for the story of Maddie Gresham, a psychology student who had studied under the professor whose theories informed the establishment of Trent Park. Maddie is tasked with gaining the Germans’ trust and getting them to reveal more information.

    Maddie’s pre-war and wartime lives collide in the form of Max Weitzler, whom she had met and fallen in love with years before on a visit to Germany. What happens to Max’s German father and German Jewish mother shows how the Nazis’ racist policies so bitterly divided the country and tore families apart. Max’s appearance at Trent House brings with it both joy and potential disaster for Maddie.

    Maddie’s story illustrates how people’s emotional concerns and preoccupations can exist side-by-side with the pressing concerns of wartime work or survival: they are important parts of a character’s make-up and should not be ignored. For me, this results in a more satisfying and realistic picture because for all of us, while our lives may be transformed by external events such as war or disaster, our internal lives continue.

    The Light We Left Behind joins other novels (such as The Rose Code or The Codebreakers) which feature the valuable work done by women in complex wartime circumstances. It’s an engrossing, heartfelt portrayal of the difficulties faced by ordinary people doing extraordinary work in incredibly challenging times.

    The Light We Left Behind is published by Harper Collins in July 2022. My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    ‘The Brightest Star’ by Emma Harcourt

    Recently I have noticed a heartening bounty of books being published that feature women striving and achieving in areas traditionally the preserve of men. It’s a timely redress of a centuries-long imbalance. The Brightest Star is a terrific example.

    Set in Renaissance Florence, it tells the story of Luna, a child born under a full moon and in the eyes of many, doubly cursed, as she was born with a crippled foot and her mother died shortly afterwards.

    Luna is raised by her father Vincenzio (a prosperous wool merchant with an appetite for learning, particularly in the burgeoning field of astronomy), her stepmother and two half-siblings. She has a happy childhood, despite her disability, as she has a quick, intelligent mind and a love for learning, which her father indulges – until Luna grows ‘too old’ for such interests, which are seen by most as inappropriate for a young women.

    To make matters worse, Florence has fallen under the spell of the fanatical preacher Friar Girolama Savonarola, who rails against all earthly pleasures and any view he regards as heresy. The powerful Medici family, who Luna’s father secretly supports, have been banished from the city. These are dangerous times for anyone who questions accepted orthodoxies or who longs for a different life than that set out by church, family and society.

    The reader is plunged into the world of Renaissance Florence: the petty concerns of society are contrasted with ground-breaking developments in science, mathematics, philosophy and the arts; the blossoming of intellectual thought collides with the fundamentalism of Savonarola. Luna’s interests and abilities lead her into conflict with the norms and expectations of her society, just as her father’s political views result in danger for the entire family.

    The hold of the Friar over the great and good of the city has echoes of modern so-called ‘leaders’ whose followers similarly suspend rational or independent thought and swallow all they are told, no matter how improbable or dangerous the lies become:

    It was very clever the way the preacher stood in the halo of luminosity, just as he spoke of the divine light the Lord had sent to him. All around, people murmured in agreement with his words and Vincenzio was astounded. Was he the only sane man to hear the brittleness in the hollow-cheeked voice? How could Savonarola speak of a new era of universal peace whilst ransacking the homes of good citizens and banishing others? Discord was growing and word had travelled that Florence was becoming unstable, yet the people believed the preacher’s promise of riches, glory and power.

    The Brightest Star p138-139

    Sound familiar?

    Reading this book, I had a sense of the ebb and flow of human knowledge; the theories of the ancient Greeks more advanced than some of the ideas of mediaeval Europe; some of the ingrained assumptions about women almost as familiar today as they were over six hundred years ago. Characters from history appear in the novel’s pages, inviting recognition: Leonardo da Vinci, Botticelli, Machiavelli and Copernicus, to name a few.

    The Brightest Star is a welcome addition to the growing number of historical novels in which women’s aspirations and abilities are centre-stage, in settings where such things could be dangerous.

    The Brightest Star is published by HarperCollins in July 2022. My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Billie Walker Book #2: ‘The Ghosts of Paris’ by Tara Moss

    I very much enjoyed Tara Moss’ first historical crime novel Dead Man Switch, now published as The War Widow. In book two, it’s 1947 and Sydney-based private inquiry agent Billie Walker sets off for London and Paris, to investigate the disappearance of a client’s husband.

    The Billie Walker novels flip the script of familiar 1940’s noir stories. For a start, Billie is a refreshingly forthright, courageous and skillful investigator who navigates her way adroitly through the sexism inherent in the era. She is also a woman of decidedly modern and progressive views, and readers become aware of the troubling laws and practices of the time, around race, the role of women, divorce and homosexuality.

    In Europe, Billie is confronted with stark reminders of the effects of the devastating war that ended just two years earlier. She is also reminded of her short but passionate relationship with Jack, whom she married while both were on assignment as journalists covering the war, and Jack’s mysterious disappearance. While searching for her client’s husband, Billie also searches for clues about her own.

    What began as a trip to solve her client’s mystery becomes a much more complex – and deadly – affair, during which Sam, her reliable and loyal assistant, proves his worth more than once.

    I especially enjoyed the vivid historical details in the settings of post-war Sydney, London and Paris, and the glimpses of each city’s wartime experience and (slow) recovery. It’s also sobering to realise that, unlike today, the world did not yet know the full extent of Nazi atrocities throughout Europe, and the novel shows us how this information was revealed, for example, during the Nazi war crimes trials.

    There are a few of Billie’s expressions that I found jarring, but overall I enjoyed the characters of Billie, Sam and Shyla in particular.

    I hope there’ll be a third Billie Walker story before too long.

    The Ghosts of Paris is published by HarperCollins Publishers in June 2022.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Uncovering little-known corners of war: ‘The Resistance Girl’ by Mandy Robotham

    Mandy Robotham’s books tell stories of women during or immediately after World War II, illustrating how their wartime experiences could both reflect, and differ from, those of their menfolk. I very much enjoy the way this author takes readers to corners of the war that might have otherwise remained hidden. In The Resistance Girl, we meet Rumi Orlstad, a Norwegian woman whose fiancé is drowned at sea during an action by the arm of the resistance movement known as the ‘Shetland Bus’.

    I’d heard of the Shetland Bus, where Norwegian fishing vessels were used to smuggle agents, supplies or fugitives across the North Sea between the Shetland Islands and Norway. After her fiancé’s death, Rumi’s loyalty to her beloved family and country means she must decide if she will withdraw from supporting the resistance and just see out the war in safety, or continue to fight the occupying Germans in the only ways she can.

    I liked many things about this novel. To begin, I loved that the Author’s Note appears first! As someone who habitually turns to the Author’s Note before I launch into a story, I appreciated knowing the historical background to the novel, especially as it concerns an area of WWII not featured in historical fiction that I’ve previously read. I knew little about Norway at this time and how its people dealt with Nazi occupation.

    Rumi is a strong, capable and engaging character, as is Jens, the British-Norwegian SOE agent she rescues from a botched airdrop at the novel’s opening. The other main characters quickly became people I cared about, too. There is just enough action, risk and drama to keep the story moving along at a satisfying pace.

    For me, as always, the pleasure of a novel comes from the way it deals with underlying themes, and The Resistance Girl does this well. It explores the grey areas between the choices that citizens of an occupied country must make: the fine line between doing what must be done to survive, and collaboration with the enemy. From our safe distance of time and place, it can be easy to offer condemnation of those who choose survival over heroism – but I’m not sure if any of us can truly know what choice we would make in a similar situation.

    I also enjoyed learning more about the war through the story; for example, the complexities and increasing dangers of resistance work, including correctly interpreting coded enemy messages and dealing with German reprisals.

    The other – shocking – thing I learned was that, along with the lands, homes and livelihoods taken from the Norwegian people, the Nazis also stole babies. They were on the lookout for blond haired, blue eyed babies born to Norwegian women and German fathers, in order to advance their ‘Lebensborn’ program to further the Reich’s aims of creating the ‘perfect race’. This sickening program was especially implemented in Norway, which had the largest number of maternity homes outside of Germany. Mothers were cared for until the birth of their babies, who were then forcibly taken from them and given to German families to raise. Australian readers will recognise this as another Stolen Generation based on race and physical appearance. Will humans ever learn?

    It soon becomes clear that the currency of new and impressionable humans to mould into Hitler’s perfect way of thinking represents something of great value; Lebensborn is an industry in the Reich’s grand plan: a ‘natural resource’ to be harvested, much like iron ore or fish oil. As they’ve suspected all along, Norwegians are a commodity.

    The Resistance Girl p224

    Readers who love fiction that brings to life historical events will enjoy The Resistance Girl. It is published by HarperCollins in May 2022.

    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading

    1930’s glamour and murder: ‘Miss Aldridge Regrets’ by Louise Hare

    Are you a fan of Agatha Christie novels? Or ones set on a cruise ship in the glamorous days of the 1930’s? Who-done-it murder mysteries with a cast of characters that leave you guessing until the very end? If so, you will enjoy Miss Aldridge Regrets, the second novel by British writer Louise Hare.

    Lena Aldridge escapes her life of poverty as a singer in a seedy nightclub in London’s Soho, when she is offered a break as leading lady in a new Broadway musical. She boards the luxury Queen Mary as a first class passenger – courtesy of her mystery American benefactor – where she is obliged to spend time with the wealthy Abernathy family.

    Lena leaves with relief but not without pangs of guilt and regret. A week earlier, Tommy, the owner of the nightclub where she worked (and husband of her best friend, Maggie) was murdered in front of them both – poisoned by his own drink. Now Lena is leaving Maggie alone and she can’t help wondering if she is doing the right thing.

    The chapters alternate between the current time (on board the Queen Mary) and the night of the murder in Soho, dropping clues like breadcrumbs about how and why Tommy was killed.

    Meanwhile, Lena begins to realise that her week of rest and relaxation on the ship is not without its challenges. The members of the Abernathy family start to die in very suspicious circumstances, getting picked off one by one in the best traditions of classic who-done-it stories.

    The atmospheric settings of the novel conjure the pampered lives of the very wealthy, contrasted with the hand-to-mouth existence of the poor, especially during the era of the Great Depression. The staff of the Queen Mary, and its ‘lower class’ passengers, occupy spaces very different from the luxury of the first class staterooms. We also see how racism played out during that period, and there are hints of the trouble brewing in Europe with the Nazis’ rise to power.

    It wasn’t strictly fair to blame it all on Eliza, but she had that same air about her that I hated in James, the assumption that those of us who found ourselves floundering in life only needed to pull ourselves together, forgetting that they’d been born into the lifeboat while some of us had been dropped into the fathomless depths without so much as a rope to grab hold of.

    Miss Aldridge Regrets p246

    The eventual disclosure of the killer did not quite convince me, however I was willing to suspend disbelief and immerse myself in the world of the Queen Mary and the complex personalities of its passengers. I also enjoyed the depictions of 1930’s London life as experienced by Lena, her beloved father, and her friend Maggie.

    Miss Aldridge Regrets is published by HarperCollins in May 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.

  • 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

    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.