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.
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.
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.
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.Heroes of the Secret Underground p137
“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.’
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.
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.
I first encountered the work of Sydney based writer Alexandra Joel when I read her work of narrative non-fiction Rosetta: A Scandalous True Story. This book was a good example of how truth is, indeed, often stranger than fiction. In her new novel, The Royal Correspondent, fiction is blended with real people and events from Australia and England in the early 1960’s.
The author is the daughter of Sir Asher Joel, who was born in the Sydney suburb of Enmore, and went on to a long and esteemed career in journalism and the press. So it is not surprising that much of the action of this novel takes place in the rough and ready (and male dominated) world of daily newspapers.
Blaise Hill is a young woman from ‘the wrong side of the tracks’, as Enmore was regarded in the sixties, but with a passionate desire to be a journalist. She battles the entrenched sexism and outright hostility of the many men she encounters who believe that a woman’s place is at home and certainly not at a typewriter.
Much to her surprise and delight, she is sent to London to cover the wedding of Princess Margaret to photographer Anthony Armstrong-Jones, and then the opportunity to become the newspaper’s permanent royal correspondent lands in her lap.
Of course, it is not all easy sailing for Blaise. She has a secret that she cannot share with anyone. And there are two men in her life: one with secrets of his own, and one who appears to be kind, attentive, and very much in love with her. Eventually, she has to decide who to trust.
Blaise finds, to her horror, that she has somehow become entangled in a dangerous set of circumstances – and that rather than reporting on the stories, she has herself become one.
The novel’s settings (both Sydney and London) are vividly portrayed: the poverty of her childhood, with the scourge of a polio outbreak and the struggle to make ends meet, is contrasted with the glamour and excitement of the ‘swinging sixties’ in London and the pomp and ceremony of Royal events.
Blaise is a relatable character: her deep love for her family and her determination to succeed in her career are set against her uncertainty in the new situations she must confront. I also liked that she has a bit of a temper which occasionally lands her in trouble!
What I enjoyed most about The Royal Correspondent was the seamless way in which real-life characters and events from this time are dropped into the narrative. I had fun spotting the personalities and scandals that filled newspapers and magazines in the decade of my childhood.
It’s also a good reminder, if one were needed, of the barriers that prevented the full participation of women in the workplace and society: unequal pay; the sequestering by men of the important and interesting jobs (leaving most female journalists working on the ‘women’s pages’ of publications); the requirement that women resign from public sector jobs once they married; male-only clubs; a bar against women entering public bars; just to name a few.
I thought The Royal Correspondent was, in parts, a little reminiscent of a twentieth-century Pride and Prejudice. However, I enjoyed the characters and setting, and the intrigue kept my interest throughout. There is an informative Author’s Note (which I always love to read, especially in novels with an historical setting) which pinpoints the inspiration for many of the novel’s component parts. Overall, The Royal Correspondent is a satisfying read.
The Royal Correspondent is published by HarperCollins Australia in February 2021.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
As noted in an earlier post, 2020 was (apart from everything else that was so very wrong about it) a bumper reading year for me. I embark on the new year in a spirit of optimism that I’ll be able to keep up my reading to similar levels, and to that end I am once again signing up for several reading challenges.
First, the 2021 Non Fiction Reader Challenge. I’ll opt for the Non Fiction Nibbler category, in which I’ll aim to read 6 non fiction books from any of the Challenge’s 12 categories.
The Australian Women’s Writers Challenge is one I have participated in for several years now, and as the majority of books I read do tend to be by Australian women, I’m confident of meeting the target of the Franklin challenge, which is to read 10 books (and review at least 6 of them)
The Aussie Author Challenge overlaps with the AWW Challenge, except books can be by male and female authors. In 2021 my goal is to reach the Kangaroo level, where I’ll have read 12 books (4 by male, 4 by female, 4 by authors new to me, and across at least 3 different genres).
I’m adding a new challenge for 2021: the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge, which I’m pretty sure will be a shoo-in as I adore historical fiction. I’ll read at least two books set in the 20th Century and five set in Victorian times for this one.
A personal challenge of mine, begun a few years ago, is to read as many books by First Nations authors as I can. It’s a delight to see so many wonderful works being published nowadays so this one is indeed a pleasure.
Whatever else 2021 might bring, I do hope it’s a year of entering new worlds, different times and places, adventure, mystery, love and warfare, faith and hope – all through the pages of some great books.
Happy New Year everyone.
The novel’s prologue sets the scene for it’s storyline and the mystery at it’s heart: Alice, a young woman pregnant to her fiance, is left at a Victorian port town when he boards the Shenandoah. This is an American Confederate ship which actively pursues ‘Yankee’ ships in the Pacific during the American civil war.
She never sees him again.
Decades later, her daughter, Stella, is finally free of an abusive marriage when her criminal husband dies in violent circumstances. Her beloved grandparents, along with her mother, have all died and Stella is completely alone in the world.
A private investigator, Bendigo Bartlett, is engaged by a client called Mrs Parks, to find Stella.
The novel is full of mysteries: what happened to Stella’s father? Who has employed Bendigo to find her, and why? Who is the disreputable man who threatens them all?
There is romance, but I would describe this novel more as an historic crime or mystery story. Set in Melbourne, Geelong, Bendigo and Sydney in the late 19th century, it gives a vivid portrayal of the two colonies during this time.
I enjoy novels where the major events and preoccupations of the period are woven into the storyline. In The Last Truehart, this includes debate about proposals for Australian Federation, still several years off; the divisions between what were then separate colonies; women’s suffrage; gendered roles in society and the workplace; attitudes towards divorce; the drought and economic downturn being experienced as the century came to a close. This is where fiction can bring historic events alive and make them real, showing their impact on everyday lives at the time.
The romance is lightly handled and the characters are well drawn.
The Last Truehart will appeal to readers who enjoy a well-crafted story with an engrossing mystery at its heart.
The Last Truehart is published by Mira (an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers) in December 2020.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
I’m always intrigued by what prompts readers to pick up a particular book. I was initially drawn to this new novel by Australian writer Vanessa McCausland because it is set in a location not too far from where I live in the Blue Mountains of NSW: the Capertee Valley.
It’s a dual timeline story: one thread traces the disappearance in 1948 of a young woman from the valley’s iconic Art Deco hotel. The other, present day thread, also centres around the hotel, and another missing woman.
If you have read Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies (or seen the TV series adaptation) you will recognise the technique of multiple viewpoint story-telling. When done well, it is an effective way of capturing the inner thoughts and feelings of different characters, drawing us into their worlds. In The Valley of Lost Stories there are four main characters: all young mothers whose children attend the same Sydney seaside suburban primary school, who decide to enjoy a week away together in the Capertee Valley.
The author skilfully shows how the women are all hiding some aspects of their true selves and their lives, which are not as picture-perfect as they seem. Each woman has her problems or disappointments, which begin to impact on the relationships within the group as the holiday progresses. Tensions rise as their insecurities spill over, which coupled with the eerie atmosphere of the old hotel and its starkly beautiful surroundings, culminate in a gripping tale of mystery and danger.
Woven throughout are the events of 1948, and hints of other dark episodes in the valley’s history, including the dispossession and murder by white settlers of the Wiradjuri people, and exploitative behaviour by mine owners and managers when the valley was a major producer of shale oil. This history provides a telling backdrop juxtaposed against the modern-day problems of the four women:
What would it have been like to live back then? Emmie thought. History was so easy to ignore, gloss over. But really, it was everything. It was perspective. It was all that made up where we are now. It was the progression of time that we chose so often to conveniently ignore.The Valley Of Lost Stories p242
The Valley of Lost Stories is peopled by very relatable characters, both past and present, and explores the deep wounds that we can inflict on each other, as well as a little known aspect of Australian history. It’s inspired me to want take a trip to the Capertee Valley and see its renowned ancient beauty for myself.
The Valley of Lost Stories is published by HarperCollins Publishers in December 2020.
My thanks to the publishers for a copy to read and review.
The first thing I noticed about The Angel of Waterloo is the cover image – one of the most haunting book covers I’ve seen for a while, designed by Mark Campbell using artwork by Mary Jane Ansell. You can see more of her beautiful work here.
The novel opens on the carnage and chaos of the battlefield at Waterloo, arguably the most famous of all the battles of the Napoleonic Wars. The protagonist, Henrietta (or ‘Hen’) is just fifteen and, along with her army surgeon father, desperately trying to save as many injured soldiers as she can.
Already more accomplished in medical matters than many physicians (who in this era were all male), Hen manages to save the arm and the life of a young lieutenant, Max Bartlett. When he regains consciousness he makes a rash proposal of marriage to his saviour and Hen accepts. They are married by a local priest, right there on the battlefield, witnessed only by Hen’s father and Max’s friend.
I’m still uncertain if this battlefield marriage worked for me, though I do understand that in war, normal behavioural norms and expectations are often jettisoned. The device also works to move the plot to Australia, when Hen embarks on a hopeful voyage several years later. In the colony, she finds that the stakes for her happiness, safety and fulfilment are even higher than before.
I’d describe this novel as a saga: so much happens and it’s an emotional roller coaster as we follow the fluctuating fortunes of the various characters.
As always, Jackie French’s historical detail is impeccable and layered through the narrative seamlessly, so readers can learn a great deal while being immersed in the story. We become aware, for example, of how the colony’s politics and economics affected all who lived there: the indigenous people who were quickly dispossessed of their lands, the poor, the convicts and the free settlers who followed in their wake. The violence and injustice imported along with the settlers are clear to see.
As Sergeant Drivers says to Hen:
‘Miss Hen, ain’t you realised yet that this is a land of felons? We walk around with no chains because the wild about us is prison-walls enough, but none of us is innocent, no matter what we claim. Nor was we caught the first time we broke the law, neither. Most of us are damned good at it.’The Angel of Waterloo p 212
So, the realities of colonial life are laid bare as Hen immerses herself in this new world and faces difficult decisions about her future there.
At the novel’s heart is the theme of warfare, violence and colonisation:
‘You were simply swallowed up by Waterloo.’The Angel of Waterloo p327
She saw by his expression Max did not understand. ‘I mean the whole mindset that led to it, those long years of war with France. The colony is built on a world that sees nothing odd in killing thirty thousand soldiers in a day, leaving ten thousand orphan children starving and countless eyeless beggars craving for a crust. It’s the right of any gentleman to take whatever he can win.’
This novel also made me think about how authors of today portray historical events and people in fiction. There is a tension between wanting to give as accurate a picture as possible, while also allowing at least some characters to express views on matters such as race-relations, for example, that would be more in line with modern-day values.
I wonder how many non-indigenous people in nineteenth century NSW would have been sympathetic to the First Australians and why their views and experiences were not recorded prominently in their own time. The work of historians such as Paul Irish and Grace Karskens does help to show that not all settlers were blind to the humanity of the indigenous people they encountered. But I think that they were likely in a minority. Jackie French shows how racist attitudes had their roots in the long standing divisions and violence of British society.
The Angel of Waterloo has plenty of unexpected moments that kept me eager to read on. I warmed to Hen and truly wished her happiness in her adopted country. Lovers of Jackie French’s historical novels will find this an engrossing read.
The Angel of Waterloo is published by Harper Collins Publishers on 2 December 2020.
My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.
Readers of Tea Cooper’s fiction will know that she likes to write dual timeline stories set in Australia’s past. The Cartographer’s Secret is no exception.
The protagonists are two young women: Evie in 1880, and her niece Lettie in 1911. The story connects the two: Lettie drives from Sydney to visit her Great Aunt Olivia on the family property in the Hunter Valley, to inform her that Lettie’s brother (and the heir to the property) has died. She soon gets caught up in the secrets and puzzles held within her family’s history, particularly the mysterious disappearance of her Aunt Evie, thirty years earlier.
Evie had shared her father’s fascination with maps and exploration, and become similarly obsessed by the famous explorer Ludwig Leichhardt who had disappeared without trace in 1848. She sets out to track down evidence that she believes will prove her theory of what happened to Leichhardt and his party, but she is never seen again, leaving her Aunt Olivia heartbroken.
Poring over the map of the Hunter region that Evie left behind, Lettie begins to put the pieces of the puzzle together. She wants to solve the mystery of Evie to give Olivia, and the whole family, some peace (or closure, as we would call it today.) But things don’t go smoothly and Lettie uncovers more than she’d expected.
Tea Cooper’s heroines are likeable and relateable: young women with gumption and interests unusual for women at the time (Evie with her maps, Lettie with her Model T motor car.)
I found some of the details of the plot a little complicated and often needed to refer to the copy of Evie’s hand drawn map. While there is no happy conclusion for all the characters, there is a satisfying and believable resolution.
For me the strength of Tea Cooper’s novels lie in the central role played by their settings. She takes me on a journey through time of and in doing so, shows me an earlier version of often familiar places, through the lens of history. I believe this is what historical fiction can do best: immerse readers in another time so that we can see the present in a different way.
I also enjoy how aspects of the everyday inform that picture of the past. In The Cartographer’s Secret, this includes the beginning of rail and motor travel, the genesis of the famous Bulletin magazine, rural economies, the exploits of early European explorers, and the lives of women in both city and country.
The Cartographer’s Secret is a satisfying addition to Tea Cooper’s historical fiction and fans of her novels won’t be disappointed.
It is published by HarperCollins Publishers on 29 October 2020.
My thanks to the publishers for a copy to read and review.