• Children's & Young Adult Books

    Blend of mystery and historical fiction for younger readers: ‘The Fire Star: A Maven and Reeve Mystery’ by A.L.Tait

    A.L.Tait is an Australian author well known for her adventure stories for middle-grade readers, including the MapMaker Chronicles series. The Fire Star is the first of a new series featuring two very likeable characters, Maven and Reeve.

    Set in a kind of fictional mediaeval world, it is a mystery and adventure story involving the disappearance of a valuable gemstone (the Fire Star of the title). In the kingdom of Cartreff, Reeve has just arrived at Rennart Castle to begin his duties as newly made squire to Sir Garrick. He meets Maven, whose nondescript appearance as a humble maid to the Lady Cassandra belies her intelligent and quick mind – and hides her secret.

    The two young people are thrown together when the Fire Start disappears. In the uproar that follows, the hopes and plans of them both are thrown into jeopardy, unless they can solve the mystery of its disappearance – and do so quickly.

    There are knights, jousting, witches and a hiding place deep in the forest – all elements of a good fantasy or historical fiction.

    What shines in the novel are the two young characters, whose different skills complement each other perfectly. From reluctant beginnings and distrust, they must work together to avert disaster.

    There are some pithy comments throughout on the perils of being an outsider in any society:

    To them, we are outsiders, Reeve, and nobody is more vulnerable than a person who is other.’

    The Fire Star p120

    My favourite revelation in the story is the ‘Beech Circle’ , about which (in the interests of avoiding a spoiler), I won’t say more, other than to agree that every girl and woman needs their own Beech Circle.

    I’m looking forward to reading the next book in the Maven and Reeve series.

    The Fire Star: A Maven & Reeve Mystery was published by Penguin Random House 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.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Joyous, beautiful read: ‘Still Life’ by Sarah Winman

    Have you been to Italy? I haven’t, although I did come close early on in 2020 when preliminary plans were afoot for a trip. A loved one’s uncertain health, and then of course Covid, put a stop to that.

    If you are anything like me, a book set in a place you’ve not been, can often make you long to go there. This happened when I read Heather’ Rose’s Bruny: on a recent trip to Tasmania, I made sure to include Bruny Island in the itinerary, as I’d never had the opportunity to visit before.

    Still Life is set in both Italy and England – Florence and the east end of London, to be precise. It’s a big joyous hymn to love, passion, art, beauty and family (both birth families and the families we create for ourselves). In some ways, it reminded me a little of Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet: like that much loved Australian classic, Still Life sprawls across decades and follows a disparate group of people as they travel through life. And, one of the shining strengths of the novel is the way those characters are captured with apt description, humour and wonderful dialogue. Here’s a couple of examples, about Peg:

    She’d have done anything to have had a mum like Nora. Nora was all soft angles and kindness. Peg could be kind, but there wasn’t enough of it to be a regular thing with her. It was like her wage. Always ran out by Thursday.

    and:

    Peg slunk out bare legs and heels first followed by a belted midi short-sleeve dress in emerald green. Sunglasses hid the ten years older and the sun high-lighted the ten years blonder.

    Still Life pp98 & 311

    Ulysses (a young British soldier in Italy in the last years of the war) and Evelyn (an art historian in her sixties) meet by chance in Italy and talk through one night about truth, beauty and Florence. We follow both of these main characters through the decades after the war, from the wreckage and hardship of London to the great flood of 1966 in Florence and into the 1970’s, years of tumult and dissent. Ulysses has moved to live in Florence, that city at the centre of Renaissance art, and has gathered around him a close group of friends – family, really – both Italian and English. Evelyn continues her stellar career as an art historian and teacher, always remembering a maid in Florence with whom she had her first love affair at the age of twenty-one.

    I fell a little in love with these two main characters, though the novel is peopled by many others: complex, funny, three dimensional humans whose convivial dinners in a Florentine piazza had me longing to join them. And there are touches of magical realism, as well, including a Shakespeare-quoting parrot and trees that commune with humans.

    This passage encapsulates the themes of this book:

    This song’s called Angeli del fango, he said. Mud Angels.
    It was a ballad. About the young men and women who’d come to the city. About good rising out of need, about love in all its forms, about kindness and looking out for one another, and only the third verse was about art, but even that was about the paradox of meaning…

    Still Life p355

    I feel certain that Still Life will be one of my standout reads for 2021. It’s such a joyous book; rich with love of life, art, beauty and what makes humans, human.

    Still Life is published by HarperCollins Publishers in June 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to read and 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 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.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Beautiful prose with a dark story: ‘The Ripping Tree’ by Nikki Gemmell

    For me, this new work of fiction by best seller Nikki Gemmell (Shiver, The Bride Stripped Bare, among other titles) is a conundrum. I had been excited to read it as I enjoyed her earlier works and it is set in colonial era New South Wales – my cup of tea. It tells the story of Thomasina, raised by a free spirited father who she is mourning after his death; sent by a manipulative half brother to the colony. His plan is to marry off his vibrant, ‘untameable’ young sister to a vicar, a man she has never met.

    Fate intervenes and the ship they are travelling on goes down just off the Australian coast, with Thomasina the only survivor. She is washed up on rocks, rescued by a mysterious Aboriginal man and deposited, with care, at the doorstep of ‘Weatherbrae’, the home of the respectable Craw family.

    The family takes her in but there is no sanctuary here for Thomasina.

    She befriends Mouse, the young boy who shares her love of nature and passion for life. Mouse’s nervous, dissatisfied mother first sees the strange young castaway as a replacement for the daughter she lost to illness – and a welcome female companion. There is talk of Thomasina becoming governess for Mouse, offering her a home and refuge from an unwanted marriage and constrained life as a respectable wife.

    Very quickly, though, she realises that at the heart of the Craw family there is a dark secret. ‘Weatherbrae’ itself becomes a character, almost gothic in its claustrophobia, while the wild country outside its doors beckons to the young woman on the cusp of adulthood, who is confused and troubled by what she sees, hears and suspects. Told over the space of one week, the story becomes a tale of terrible acts committed, a family eaten away by their secrets, willing to do anything to preserve their respectability in the eyes of themselves and their community.

    As always, Nikki Gemmell’s writing is beautiful, startling in its originality and lyricism:

    ‘Isolated by the alone…’ p21
    ‘I miss my father, corrosively.’ p 9
    ‘…light slips in through a curtain gap as strong as a cat, enticing us both out.’ p11

    I loved the language, losing myself in Ms Gemmell’s beautiful prose.

    And yet…

    There were aspects of this novel that threw me out of the story, annoyingly and at times violently. I could not warm to Thomasina; while I admired her determination to remain true to herself and the way she was raised, her naivety and blindness to the risks around her irritated me. She continually acts in ways that can only increase the risk to herself and to others and while by the end of the story she realises her mistakes, it’s too late. Occasional expressions that feel wrong for the historical period also jarred: ‘I guess’ or ‘Hang on’ seem inconsistent with colonial English, even in a colony planted at the far end of the earth.

    The dark heart of the story is to do with the troubled relations between First Australians and settlers; it’s no spoiler to say that as it is obvious from the beginning that atrocities of the sort committed during the colonial era will be involved. I respect the author’s choice to write a story about difficult events like these.

    ‘Let’s just say my little tale is a history of a great colonial house that was burdened by a situation that was never resolved, and I fear all over this land will never be resolved. It is our great wound that needs suturing and it hasn’t been yet and I fear, perhaps, it never will be, for we’re not comfortable, still, with acknowledging it.’

    The Ripping Tree p339

    This quote from the end of the book speaks to the truth of the novel and the author’s purpose. I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiments expressed. For me, the disappointment lies in my inability to care for the protagonist or most of the other characters.

    Others may disagree: I would be most interested to know if you have read The Ripping Tree and if so, what you thought.

    The Ripping Tree is published by HarperCollins Publishers in April 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

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

    What can be put right? ‘Heroes of the Secret Underground’ by Susanne Gervay

    This new historical fantasy / timeslip novel by Australian author Susanne Gervay is aimed at middle grade or younger ‘young adult'(YA) readers. I do love a good timeslip story – I still remember the pleasure I had reading Ruth Park’s Playing Beatie Bow and the way it brought Sydney’s past to life. This one moves between 2000 in Sydney, to the winter of 1944 in Budapest, Hungary- perhaps Hungary’s darkest period during WWII. The novel is inspired by the author’s own family’s experiences in Budapest during the Holocaust and I particularly love that Ms Gervay honours her family story in this way.

    I think it it always hard, when deciding how much and what to tell youngsters about such awful events, to find that balance between honesty, not minimising the horrors, and respect for the sensitivities of younger readers. In my view this novel strikes the right note, visiting some of the crimes and atrocities committed by Nazis without becoming gratuitous. As always when I read historical fiction that includes events or people about whom I previously knew little, I looked for information on Hungary during WWII, and sure enough found references to the youth underground, the children’s houses in Budapest, the fascist Arrow Cross regime and the war crimes that took place along the banks of the river Danube. There is a terrific section at the back of the book that gives the historical facts of events and people included, in bite sized offerings just right for younger readers.

    I found the present tense narrative style, and short, almost staccato sentences, didn’t work for me, but that is just a matter of taste. The main characters (Louie, Bert, Teddy, Grandma and Pa) are believable and likeable and the fantasy elements flow well. I loved the motifs throughout: music, shoes and magnolias connect the past to the present in a natural and evocative way.

    The theme of the novel is perhaps summed up well in this quote:

    ‘Terrible secrets.’ Louie catches her breath.
    “Terrible secrets,’ Naomi repeats quietly. ‘We have to know the past, otherwise everything’s just a maze. We’re buried in lies and dead ends. It’s hard to find the way out then.’

    Heroes of the Secret Underground p137

    The three children at the centre of the story travel unwillingly back to a time when terrible deeds were done that became terrible secrets. They find that many things can’t be put right, but that there are some things that can.

    Heroes of the Secret Underground will suit middle grade and younger YA readers who enjoy fantasy elements in historical stories that explore some darker moments in history, but also show how unity, friendship and courage can help restore a balance.

    Heroes of the Secret Underground is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in April 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to review.

  • Books and reading,  History

    More about the codebreakers of WWII: ‘The Rose Code’ by Kate Quinn

    You know that thing where you buy, say, a red Mazda and suddenly, it seems that every second car on the road is a red Mazda? For me, the same phenomena sometimes happens with books. I had just finished reading The Codebreakers by Alli Sinclair, which tells the story of the women who worked in an Australian signals intelligence unit in WWII. The next book I picked up was The Rose Code by Kate Quinn, a British historical fiction best-selling author. This new release novel is also about codebreaking women – this time at Bletchley Park, the better known facility in England that did so much to turn the war in the Allies’ favour.

    I loved this book. I found it an ‘easy’ read in that it engaged me right from the start with characters that are believable and a compelling storyline, complete with a mystery that must be solved by them. The setting of both time and place – wartime Britain and the top-secret facility which employed a wide range of interesting people with astounding skills and commitment – grabbed my interest and added to my understanding of this important work and how what was done at Bletchley Park, and other units scattered throughout Allied territories, fitted together.

    The main characters – charming wealthy debutante Osla, impoverished East End girl Mab, and shy but talented Beth – are all either based on real-life historical figures or an amalgam of people who really did work at Bletchley Park. These three young women – so different and from such dramatically diverse backgrounds – illustrate how Bletchley Park recruited all kinds of people, so long as they had the skills required.

    The historical detail is terrific but always serves to progress the story. The novel also canvasses conditions of the time: casual sexual harassment and inequality experienced by women, for example; the intense concentration and high stakes of the work at Bletchley Park; the awful practices at mental health institutions then, just to name a few. There is tragedy, destruction, fear and distress and amongst it all, people had to continue with life:

    I know there’s a war on, Osla wanted to shriek. I know, I know! But something else went on at the same time war did, and that was life. It kept going right up until the moment it stopped, and this was hers, limping along like a horse suddenly gone lame…

    The Rose Code p457

    As in The Codebreakers, a strong theme in this novel is the secrecy that Bletchley Park demanded, and the sometimes awful toll it took, both during and after the war. Can you imagine having to lie to your family and closest friends about the work you did during the war? I cringe to think of young men, stopped in the street by people accusing them on being shirkers because they were not in uniform, and unable to say that their work is crucial to the war effort.

    I enjoyed The Rose Code so much that I was rather sad when I’d finished it. I’ve since watched several documentaries about Bletchley Park and I might just re-watch the movie The Imitation Game very soon! And – one day – I’d love to visit Bletchley Park museum.

    The Rose Code is published by HarperCollins Publishers in March 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to review.