• 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.

  • 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.