Don’t be fooled by the cover or title of this new novel by English writer Celia Rees. This is no light and fluffy historical romance, but rather a gripping thriller set during Europe in 1946, in the immediate aftermath of a vicious war that had destroyed so much.
The protagonist is Edith Graham, whose rather dreary life as a teacher in war-torn England transforms when she is offered the opportunity to join the British Control Commission in Germany as an education officer, tasked with re-establishing schools within that shattered country.
I’d not thought much about what life was like for Germans immediately following their defeat, apart from images of bombed-out cities and hungry survivors. The picture painted in this novel is of a people struggling to deal with military occupation by the Allied forces, revealing its darker aspects: a flourishing black market, the flaunting of regulations by many of the populace, lingering anti-Semitism not only amongst some Germans but some of the Allied occupiers as well. Most distasteful of all is the manoeuvring for power by the occupiers, once allies, who were now fighting for control of the resources (both physical and intellectual) left by the defeated Nazi regime. There is suspicion, betrayal and double-dealing aplenty, as Edith soon discovers.
We get glimpses of Edith’s life before the war, including her brief affair with a handsome German man, Kurt von Stavenow, later meeting his beautiful, wealthy wife Elisabeth, and her interest in cookery and collecting recipes from different part of the world. Edith not only accepts the challenge of working for the Control Commission, but also takes on a hidden role as a spy, which she comes to via her cousin Leo.
In this, Edith’s role is to gather information and contacts of Germans who have escaped arrest for war crimes. The horrors of Nazi-controlled Europe are revealed as she pursues this work, and she smuggles coded messages back to England within innocent-looking recipes. This is where the ‘Cookbook’ of the title comes in. It’s a clever device and a lovely motif that ties the various parts of Edith’s story together as the novel progresses, also illuminating the culture and experiences of the people she encounters.
She made notes as Hilde described what to do, remembering her home, her family, her mother and grandmother’s kitchen. A whole world came spilling out with the sifting and stirring of each ingredient…Grandmother, bundt tin, everything, gone in the raid on Hanover that had sent Hilde north to find refuge…Miss Graham’s Cold War Cookbook p228
There is plenty more intrigue and drama in the novel, heartbreak and hope, which I think is perhaps the most-needed commodity in a world that has been almost destroyed. Edith is a wonderful heroine, an ‘ordinary’ young woman who finds herself in extraordinary circumstances and who has to make difficult choices because of it. She reflects on what lies ahead for Germany when observing young children in their resource-starved schools, in this way:
How resilient these children were, she thought, how inventive. They had lost everything. Homes. Fathers. Mothers. Their young lives had been shattered like their surroundings by a war that was no fault of theirs but they still managed to conjure a playground out of a bombsite. If this country had a future, it lay with them.Miss Graham’s Cold War Cookbook p363
The novel kept me guessing to the end of the book, and the conclusion made me go back and re-read the prologue so that I could put all the puzzle pieces together. It’s a well plotted and intriguing story.
Readers who enjoy a fast-paced novel, with plenty of twists and turns, a dash or romance, and plenty to think about, will enjoy
Miss Graham’s Cold War Cookbook.
It will be published by Harper Collins in July 2020.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy to read and review.
The first in a new trilogy by British-Mauritian author Kester Grant, The Court of Miracles is a complex, action-filled story of what might have happened had the French Revolution failed. A large cast of characters, many of them re-imagined versions of Victor Hugo’s creations from Les Misérables, includes the protagonist Eponine (‘Nina’). At the opening of the story, Nina is a frightened child but she develops courage, quick wits and skill in order to survive in early nineteenth century Paris.
This is no City of Lights, but a far darker and more dangerous city. Nina’s older sister Azelma is sold by their father Thenardier to the Master of Flesh (the head of a sex-slave and prostitution ring as hideous as it sounds). Before she is taken, Azlema instructs her sister:
Be useful, be smart, and stay one step ahead of everyone. Be brave even when you’re afraid. Remember that everyone is afraid.The Court of Miracles p14
What follows is a series of exploits as Nina struggles to survive, while also trying to rescue Azelma and a youngster, Cosette (‘Ettie’). Ettie is a beautiful, naive girl towards whom Nina feels a protective love. All three girls join the Wretched – those who survive in the poverty-stricken streets, invisible to royalty, the nobility and the wealthy. As Nina sees it:
After the revolution failed, the city was carved into two parts. Half of Paris is rigid, boxtree-lined avenues haunted by the aristocracy. The other half is a murky jungle of crime and misery.The Court of Miracles p70
The lives of the Wretched who inhabit that shadowy Paris are governed by the Miracle Court, made up of nine Guilds: the Guild of Thieves (to which Nina is pledged), the Guilds of Flesh, Assassins, Smugglers, Beggars, Dreamers, Mercenaries, Chance and Letters. The Guilds are akin to the trade and craft guilds of the mediaeval period, but they operate via criminal activities and with a complicated code of law and behaviour which members must follow. The Guilds, their Masters and Lords are brought to vivid life and there is a helpful summary of the main characters and activities of each at the front of the book, which I referred to often. Perhaps the best explanation of this underground world is this:
We all come to the Miracle Court as equals. The Court recognises no race, no religion, no marriage or tie of blood. The Wretched have only one Father, their Guild Lord; one family, their Guild; and one Law.The Court of Miracles p134
There are some surprising twists and revelations which kept me turning the pages, leading to Nina’s understanding that ‘sometimes we must pay a terrible price to protect the things we love.’ p379
Readers who like a fast-paced story will enjoy this novel. There is also plenty to love for fans of historical fiction, fantasy, and the characters from Les Misérables in its various forms. It’s a vivid re-imagining of a dramatic time and place.
The Court of Miracles is published by Harper Voyager (an imprint of Harper Collins) in June 2020.
Thanks to the publisher for a copy to read and review.
I’m a bit of a medieval and Tudor history tragic so the opportunity to delve into twelfth-century English and French goings-on (courtesy of Holly at Ventura Press) was most welcome. The Lioness Wakes (published March 2020 by Ventura Press) is the fourth in a series by Blanche d’Alpuget called ‘The Birth of the Plantagenets’. They were a dynasty that ruled England for over three centuries, had fourteen kings of England among their ranks and included the inter-family conflict known as The Wars of the Roses.
The book opens with the bloody drama of the murder of Thomas Becket, one-time friend but now a thorn in the side of King Henry II. Henry may or may not have ordered this murder, but its consequences were to dog him, leading to rebellion and revolt throughout his kingdom and into lands controlled by him in what is now modern day France. With such a graphic start, the reader is plunged into the complexities and brutalities of twelfth-century European courts, monarchs and their families – especially the Plantagenets, riven by suspicion, plots and intrigue. A Netflix crime series has nothing on the drama of this period.
Eleanor, wife of King Henry II, is a particularly compelling character. Known for her beauty, daring and intelligence, and the former wife of the French King Louis VII, Eleanor is behind a revolt against Henry, pitting their three sons against their father in the process. I recalled the character of Eleanor as portrayed by Katherine Hepburn in the 1968 film The Lion in Winter and it was with pleasure that I was introduced to her again in this novel. She was certainly a formidable woman and foe.
Remembering stories of her son Richard, who succeeded Henry and became known as ‘Richard the Lionheart’ it was surprising to read d’Alpuget’s rather more unflattering picture of him as a young man – cruel, capricious and arrogant. Although they band together to oppose their father, there is no love lost between the three eldest Plantagenet sons – Henry the Younger, Richard, and Geoffrey. John (‘Baby’ in this book) later becomes the notorious Prince John in the Robin Hood legends and then King John of Magna Carta fame, but in this book he is a toddler, already spoiled by his adoring father.
There are vivid pictures of the places peopled by the novel’s characters. In Scotland, for example:
As the cold of an ill-tempered autumn laid thick sheets of ice on the surface of lakes, one morning of muted light he heard the screams of gulls and saw a dark outline rear through the fog. Edinburgh Castle was perched at the top of that monster of nature, Black Rock.The Lioness Wakes, p 143
I wanted to draw a cloak around myself to keep out the chill air as I was reading.
A few times I found the narrative a bit disjointed, but that may have been due to my lack of knowledge of events and some characters from the first three books of this series, which I have not yet had the opportunity to read. The story deals with complex (and at times for me confusing) negotiations and power plays between members of the European royalties and aristocracy. If we are ever tempted to think that self-serving and ambition are peculiar to modern-day politics, this novel swiftly puts that belief to rest:
…centuries deep in their blood runs ambition, pride and aggression, generation after generation, back to the mists of the north wind.The Lioness Wakes p 148
d’Alpuget shows how the Church, no less political, wielded huge power at a time when people of all stations in life were as likely to believe in dreams and magic as in miracles of the kind purportedly brought about by Thomas Becket after his death, and goddesses shared in the affection of villagers and nobles alike, along with the Virgin Mary.
This novel is a vivid portrayal of events and people from a turbulent time in European history. I’ll be on the lookout for the first three books in the series, and the fifth and final book when published.
Lovers of historical fiction will know that Philippa Gregory is one of the most well known and respected UK authors, with titles such as The Other Boleyn Girl, The White Queen, The Red Queen, The Last Tudor and The Constant Princess on best seller lists, some made into movies or TV series. These books explored the stories of the women caught up in the wars and intrigues of the Plantagenet and Tudor dynasties in England. With her latest novel, Tidelands, the focus moves away from royals and courts, to the ordinary folk, the people who live with the consequences of the decisions and actions of royalty and aristocracy throughout history.
What hasn’t changed is the author’s interest in telling the stories of women. In Tidelands the central character is Alinor, a poor woman living in the marshy coastal regions of southern England in the mid seventeenth century. Alinor is a midwife, herbalist and healer – sought after by her fellow villagers in times of ill health or childbirth, but also regarded with suspicion at a time when the line between ‘healer’ and ‘witch’ could be so easily blurred.
Alinor’s England is convulsed by civil war, and the ‘old ways’ of the Catholic Church and many of the centuries-old village customs are frowned upon or banned. Villagers and nobles alike are forced to choose sides: for King or for Parliament. Declaring your choice could be dangerous, depending on which way the pendulum of victory swings, and villagers were sometimes all too keen to inform on their neighbours if there was gain in it for them.
Amidst all this turmoil and suspicion, Alinor wants to live a quiet life with her two growing children, not causing offence or getting involved in political or religious debate. She grows her herbs, prepares her healing tonics and tinctures, assists those who need her help, and labours on the local estate during harvest season. She is disadvantaged both economically and socially by being ‘neither a wife nor a widow’, since her abusive husband disappeared at sea. Some of the less generous villagers look at her with disdain because of this alone.
At the opening of the book, Alinor meets James, a Catholic priest on a mission to assist the exiled King Charles – and she is immediately drawn into a web of intrigue and secrets. She helps James across the hazardous marshes that surround her home. There is no turning back from this moment, as events draw inexorably to their dangerous conclusions.
The novel skilfully weaves the tiny details of Alinor’s and village life within the tapestry of a nation convulsed by political conflict and religious fanaticism. Philippa’s meticulous research shows in these details: the work of the harvest, the water mill where the grain is turned into flour, the herbs of Alinor’s garden, the customs around betrothal, dowries, marriage and childbirth, the work of collecting eggs and making meals. They drew me in until I could almost feel the mud under my boots, smell the smouldering fire of Alinor’s cottage, see the thick fogs of the marshlands. I love the details of daily life that sit alongside the grand sweep of historical events.
There is romance in the story, although this is not a ‘happily ever after’ sort of novel and the romance plays out in unexpected ways. There are chilling scenes of persecution that left me enraged and tender moments of family love and loyalty that are timeless.
Most of all, the setting plays a pivotal role throughout – the estuarine marshes are a fitting backdrop for a story about personal and political suspicion and treachery. It is an eerie, dramatic and marginal landscape on which the affairs of Alinor and her family, and those of the nation, are played out.
I loved this novel and I was happy to learn that this is book one in what the author calls the Fairmile series. I look forward to reading book two.
If you’d like to know more about Philippa Gregory and her books, check out her website: https://www.philippagregory.com/
Reflections on the Historical Novel Society Australasia Conference 2019, 25/26 October, Parramatta NSW
1: It is enormously endearing for an audience to be referred to as ‘Dear hearts’, which Kate Forsyth (HNSA patron) did as she began her introductory address. She went on to deliver a call to action: to let everyone know of the active and vibrant community of lovers of historical fiction in our part of the world. https://hnsa.org.au/kate-forsyth/
2: Keynote speaker Paula Morris, from NZ, spoke of her Maori culture in which history is seen as a spiral, and reminded us that all characters are a combination of their past and present – and that ‘historical figures’ existed in their own contemporary world and didn’t know they were to become historical. Interesting to contemplate that for our own times and selves.
Literature can make visible the unbroken lines with the past and the unbroken lines to the future.Paula Morris
3: Jackie French, Conference Guest of Honour, never sets out to write a book- she writes scenes which then become a book.
4: Kelly Gardiner, in the session ‘The Versatile Writer’, divulged that she is working on a book about her Great Grandmother who was active in Australia’s Suffrage and Women’s Peace movements.
Definitely a book I’d like to read. https://hnsa.org.au/kelly-gardiner/
5: Jane Caro shares my interest in the life of Elizabeth I, so much so that she wrote a trilogy about her. In Jane’s view, female heroic figures often had to pay horribly for their independence. Not so Elizabeth, says Jane:
Elizabeth I became her own Prince and rescued herself.
6: Paula Morris again, on ‘Respectful research’:
Living in the internet era it’s easy to think we should have access to everything and all information. Not everyone has the right to everything. The notions of ‘no secrets’ and ‘nothing is sacred’ are problematic.Paula Morris
7: If you have emotional connection to a place it comes out naturally in the words you write. (Lucy Treloar on the resonance of place in fiction.) https://hnsa.org.au/lucy-treloar/
8: A strong pitch to a literary agent or publisher will contain the following: Emotion, a strong sense of the protagonist and their challenge, and the stakes will be clear. (First Pages Pitch Contest)
9: When considering using personal or family stories as the basis for fiction (yes, that’s me) look at one aspect or kernel of a story and expand your fiction around that, don’t try to tell the whole story (excellent advice from Nicole Alexander which spoke straight to me as I’m currently wrestling with these sorts of issues) https://hnsa.org.au/nicole-alexander/
10. Madison Shakespeare, a Gadigal woman living in Adelaide, spoke on the panel on Dispossession and Betrayal: Recovering the erased history of First Nations. She reminded us that we were on Dharug land – pertinent land for its history of dispossession and violence.
It’s difficult going back, looking back…Ancestors we thank you, for your tenacity, dignity and diplomacy.Madison Shakespeare https://hnsa.org.au/madison-shakespeare/
On the question of writers worrying that, if when writing about indigenous people or indigenous histories, they might ‘get it wrong’, Madison posed the question: How much more damage if you don’t do it at all?
11. The reason I love dual narrative or timeline books is this, as put by Carla Caruso:
There’s a point in your life when you realise realise that your parents, grandparents etc have experienced loss and heartache. That fashions and technologies change but we humans go on and we all want the same things: security, love, passion.Carla Caruso https://hnsa.org.au/carla-caruso/
12: Expert use of point of view allows the writer to take the reader by the hand and lead them through the story. It’s the first splash of colour on the page. Greg Johnson at the ‘I am a Camera: Exploring point of view’ panel session.
13. Juliet Marieller and Elizabeth Jane Corbett write strong female protagonists set during times in which women did not always have great agency or independence, by focusing on how they confront their challenges, find inner strength, have the courage to face truths and move forward.
14. Watching demonstrations of historical fencing over lunch is surprisingly engrossing.
15: Meg Keneally, when talking about the partnership between novelist and historian, described herself as historian Gay Hendriksen‘s
This in reply to Gay being asked by an audience member if she sometimes comes across a story from the historical record or archives and thinks I wish I could find a novelist to write that.
16: The second conference day (27th October) was the anniversary of the first ever female industrial action since colonisation: otherwise known as the 1827 ‘Parramatta Female Factory Riot‘.
17: Kate Forsyth has had enormous respect for the power of words since she delivered a magic curse to a bully in primary school and it worked.
Magic is for the powerless, when you want something so much you exert your full intention upon the universe until it comes true.
Kate told this story in the conference’s final session, Love Potions and Witchcraft.
18: As I suspected, the historical fiction writing community is friendly, energetic, encouraging and inclusive. And the HNSA puts on a jam-packed and satisfying conference. Thanks to all involved:
I had a ball.
This well researched historical fiction for young adults tells the story of Nanberry, a young Cadigal boy who was ‘adopted’ by John White, the Surgeon at the early colony of Sydney. Nanberry’s story is a remarkable one, as so many of the stories to be found in Australia’s history are. Orphaned when his parents and most of his clan died from the smallpox that devastated so much of the First Peoples communities of the Sydney region, Nanberry lived in Surgeon White’s house and learned to speak English, use English clothes and manners, yet maintained strong links with the remaining survivors of the Eora nation. As Jackie French tells it, in adulthood he gravitated between life as a sailor, travelling the seas on board English ships, and returning at times to the Cadigal people.
The novel is told from multiple viewpoints, which I appreciated because it’s an effective way to weave in some of those other stories that we don’t always hear about. The stories of Maria, for example, an ‘ordinary’ convict girl assigned to Surgeon White as servant, and that of Rachel Turner, another convict servant and a real figure from history, who after serving her sentence, became one of the wealthiest and most admired women in the early colony. Rachel’s son by the Surgeon, Andrew, also features—another remarkable life. The ‘white’ brother in the title, Andrew was left as an infant with his mother when White was recalled to England (though White made sure he and Rachel were well provided for.) Andrew later returned to England to attend school and went on to become one of the ‘heroes of Waterloo’, the crucial battle by the English against Napoleon’s army.
We also see the colony, with all it’s vice, filth, disease and despair, through the eyes of the Surgeon whose unenviable job it was to treat injury and illness with few medicines and fewer facilities. I marvel when I read accounts of life in these early days of Sydney. That anyone survived, let alone a settlement that developed into a global city, is something of a miracle.
Of particular note, of course, are the parts told from the viewpoint of Nanberry. Governor Phillip used the boy to interpret for him with Eora people he came across, because of the youngster’s facility with English. Through Nanberry we meet other Eora figures including Coleby, Bennelong and Balloonderry. Writing from an indigenous viewpoint when you are not yourself indigenous is a contested thing nowadays. However, I do think that this book manages to convey multiple viewpoints with skill and sensitivity.
Nanberry: Black Brother White is a terrific way for young people to see Australia’s history through story—the vibrant, tragic, astounding stories that make up the whole of this nation’s history since European colonisation.
The ‘Monsarrat series’ comprises three books (at time of this post):
The Soldier’s Curse, The Unmourned, The Power Game
No surprise that I was drawn to this series – they are, to date, three novels of historical fiction, set in several different locations in convict era Australia. Another draw card was the fact that they were co-written. I’ve always been a little fascinated by how the co-authoring process works, and this is an intriguing father and daughter team: well loved Australian author Tom Keneally and his daughter Meg. If I had the chance, I’d love to sit down with the authors and find out more. Who writes which bits? Which of them comes up with the initial ideas? Do they meet physically to discuss, plan and plot their stories, or is it an online or Skype process?
The stories centre around Hugh Monsarrat, who we first meet at Port Macquarie penal colony in NSW, while he is serving out his sentence for fraud, in the early part of nineteenth century NSW. Hugh is an educated man whose intelligence and aspirations outstripped his means, tempting him to pass himself off as a lawyer in England. His deception is discovered and he is shipped off to NSW on a convict transport.
The books take the form of classic “whodunnits”, as for one reason or another, Hugh is tasked with solving murders that occur where he happens to be: Port Macquarie in book one, the Parramatta Female Factory in book two, and Maria Island (off Tasmania’s coast) in book three. There are plenty of opportunities for guesswork by the reader, with red herrings planted throughout, and various characters having their own reasons to commit a murder.
A truly delightful character who appears in each book is Mrs Mulroony, a forthright Irish woman who has already served her sentence and becomes Hugh’s offsider. Mrs Mulroony is a woman of many talents, including skillful tea making and shortbread baking, to which she adds a fierce intelligence and the ability to accurately read people and situations – usually much more astutely than Hugh himself.
The books have a droll humorous tone, with believable characters and intriguing story lines. What I also enjoyed is their examination of the social, economic and political forces at play in colonial times, and the way in which these impact on the various characters.
If you are looking for well written historical fiction set in early Australia, peopled by characters you can fall in love with, you won’t be disappointed in these stories.I read that the books have been optioned for a TV series and very much hope that will eventuate.
For me, reading (and now writing) historical fiction is a portal into the past. Good fiction has the ability to bring a time and place alive in a way that reading history texts can’t, with some notable exceptions. I’ve always been a history tragic, though not of the ‘dates, battles and great men’ variety. I’m much more interested in the lives of people: where they lived, what they ate, wore, read; who and why they loved; how they worked, travelled…
I’ve probably learnt more about history through my fiction reading, because I usually find myself looking up certain times and places to see ‘if that really happened then’. Of course that’s so much easier now, with the tools available on the internet.
I love finding out the history of places I go to. Walking down a street named after a figure from the past, or visiting an historical site, is always more interesting to me if I know the background beforehand. I love the fact that we are, all of us, walking over and around our history every day – even if we are not aware of it much of the time.
This debut novel by Sydney writer Lauren Chater is historical fiction at its best. The story plunged me into the snowy depths of winter in Russia and Estonia during WWII. Like some other novels I have read, the settings against which the drama unfolds become characters in themselves – and in this, I include the time setting along with the places.
There are two main protagonists: two young women who at the novel’s opening live on either side of the Russia – Estonia border, but whose stories eventually entwine so that the climax and resolution of the novel involve them both. Katarina is the lace weaver of the title: a young woman determined to carry on the traditions of her Estonian language and culture, including knitting beautiful woollen lace shawls. Lydia is Russian, but her mother was Estonian and she was raised to love and respect Estonian traditions even as the country of her birth, Russia, spread its oppressive tentacles over all aspects of Estonian life. Both women suffer because of the actions and policies of Soviet Russia under Stalin’s rule until they are faced with yet another enemy: Nazi Germany.
I love historical fiction when it spurs me to think more about the time and place in which it is set. This novel did that, opening up a chapter of European history that I’d previously not given much attention to. It also offered an insight into the dilemma of the Baltic peoples at this time: whether to embrace the Nazi invaders as liberators from Soviet rule or to resist the hateful Nazi race laws and ideology. Reading this book made me realise that for many Estonians at that time, the choice would not have been a clear-cut one, and in the end, the result was oppression and brutality whichever way they went.
The motif of the lace shawls is woven beautifully throughout and highlights the themes of traditions, culture, family and love.
I enjoyed this book very much and will look forward to reading this author’s future novels.