Tessa Harris writes fiction featuring stories about women in WWII. The Light We Left Behind tells of women in intelligence roles at Trent Park, where German officers were held as prisoners in England. The Paris Notebook explores a fascinating ‘what if?’ scenario of the late 1930’s: as Europe was poised for war, what could have happened if the deep-rooted psychiatric problems of Adolf Hitler had become public knowledge? Would it have been enough for Germany to avoid the looming disaster of his making?
It’s easy for us today to assume that the serious psychological flaws of someone like Hitler would have been obvious to everyone who mattered. Let’s not forget that within Germany and elsewhere, there were many who agreed with his views on race and how to solve Germany’s economic and social problems. He had admirers in many places.
As an aside, let’s also not overlook the fact that the United States of America has already elected someone like Trump to be its leader, and may even do so again – despite damning information about the man now in the public domain.
So, it obviously takes more than information to change minds. As we see with responses to climate change (or lack of them) despite the plethora of scientific evidence now available.
Having said that, the premise of this novel is an tantalising one. The author’s note explains the real historical facts of the ‘notebook’ of the book’s title, and it’s not hard to see how the publication of a psychiatrist’s clinical notes on Hitler would have been an intelligence bombshell, had it been able to be deployed in time.
And it is this which forms the core of the book. The protagonist is Katya, a young German woman who is employed by a psychiatrist to type out his clinical notes on Hitler, in the hope that they can be published, and so possibly avert Germany pursuing the path to war. Both Katya and Dr Viktor are nursing emotional wounds caused by the Nazis and the stakes are high. They end up traveling to Paris to try to persuade a publisher there to take up the story.
The author paints a vivid picture of how Germans opposed to the Nazis live in fear of discovery and brutal retribution. It’s contrasted with France, where before war is declared, many people seem determined to ignore the threat posed by Nazi Germany and pretend that nothing is amiss.
Events catch up with everyone as all-out war erupts across Europe, and Dr Viktor and Katya are embroiled in a dangerous cat-and-mouse tussle with German agents over possession of the explosive notes.
In Paris, they meet Daniel, a world-weary Irish journalist nursing his own grief, who joins their cause.
The romance in the story did not work for me, and the ending really did not: a little too neat for my taste.
I was willing to overlook both of these issues because I found the rest of the story gripping and I felt invested in the publication of the doctor’s work – even though I already knew the big-picture outcome.
There is a real trend in historical fiction featuring women’s often overlooked roles and experiences in WWII. The Paris Notebook offers another take on the genre, with that intriguing ‘what if?’ question at its centre.
The Paris Notebook is published by HQ Fiction, in July 2023.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
The premise and setting of this story, debut novel by Australian Peta Miller, has special significance for me.
Those who have read my series of posts Travels with my Ancestors will know that I have several ancestors who emigrated as assisted and unassisted migrants, aboard sailing ships in the 1800’s. The bald facts of their journeys (name of ships, dates of arrival, etc) do little to convey the often-traumatic experiences they had and the risks they took in search of a new life in colonies of Australia.
The Ship’s midwife tells the story of Sarah Harlow, who in 1850 sails to Brisbane aboard an immigrant ship. She is alone in the world and hopes to be able to use her midwifery skills in the colony to support herself.
She becomes firm friends with her cabin mate, Bridie, a fiery and outspoken Irish girl, with midwifery experience of her own. Together they plan a life working together in the colony.
On the voyage, typhus breaks out amongst the steerage passengers. A common shipboard illness caused by unhygienic and cramped conditions – and the abundance of lice, among other pests), typhus is highly infectious, and it cuts a vicious swathe through passengers and crew alike.
Sarah and Bridie do their best to help nurse the sick, but little can be done to prevent its spread.
The ship is a microcosm of Victorian-era society: the bulk of passengers from impoverished backgrounds, cramped together in ‘steerage class’ below decks; the ship’s surgeon and his son, ship’s master and senior crew in more comfortable cabins, and the bulk of the crew sleeping in hammocks. There are grievances and arguments as the long tiring voyage wears away at patience, but also kindness and generosity.
Terrible events play out on the ship and to make matters worse, when they finally arrive in Brisbane, they are sent to quarantine at Stradbroke Island, which had been recently designated a quarantine station and was not ready or equipped to receive them. Sarah and the others must find the energy and grit to set up what is necessary to provide for all the passengers, until they can be received on the mainland.
I remember several visits I made years ago, to the historic quarantine station on Sydney’s North Head. It’s wild beauty and amazing views of the harbour must surely have provided some comfort for those sent there at the end of their long voyages across the world. But the remains of the hospital building, and the names carved into the cliff near the landing dock, spoke volumes about the experiences of the people who found themselves there. Having endured months at sea with all its risks and discomforts, and so far from home, arriving at a lonely, isolated spot like this must surely have been the last straw for many.
So it is with the characters in this book. People are people and there are those who will help others, who will do what must be done; and there are always those who complain and leave the hard work to others or fall prey to despair.
My only criticism – and it is a small one – is the title. The working title of the unpublished manuscript was apparently Sing Us Home, which (in my humble opinion) is a resonant and beautiful title. There is a current trend in historical fiction publishing that novel titles take a certain form: The Resistance Girl, or The Librarian Spy, for example. I applaud the focus on the agency of the female protagonists, but…I do wish there was a little more variety – and that terrific titles are allowed to stand more often. Still, publishers know the industry and what sells, so who am I to argue?
I very much enjoyed the research that has gone into the story of The Ship’s Midwife and I hope to see more historical fiction from this author in the future.
The Ship’s Midwife is published by HQ Fiction in June 2023.
My thanks to the publishers for the copy to review.
A debut novel by Sri Lankan-Australian Ayesha Inoon, Untethered offers a vivid insight into the culture of a Muslim family in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and the experiences of two people who try life as immigrants to Australia.
The title evokes the dual meaning of ‘untethered’, conjuring both the sense of isolation from being apart from one’s homeland, and the possibility and freedom that can come from breaking with old behaviours and expectations.
Zia, a young adult woman at the outset of the story, has her marriage to Rashid arranged by their families with the help of a matchmaker. It is fascinating to learn about the customary ways in which engagement and marriage are celebrated by some Muslim members of the Sri Lankan community. I enjoyed how the author effortlessly wove Sri Lankan words, foods, clothing, and cultural references throughout the narrative.
As she waits for the ceremony to begin on her wedding day, Zia ponders the contrast between her childhood dreams and the reality of a wedding:
She had imagined that was how she would feel when it was her turn.Untethered p50
She hadn’t known that there would be hope but also fear, that there would be love but also doubt. She hadn’t known that the tools with which she had to build their dreams would be so fragile.
The story is told from both Zia’s and Rashid’s points of view, allowing the reader to experience their life together as a couple, and the process of emigration, with each character.
Especially, once they arrive in Australia, their differing expectations and experiences are stark. Rashid feels deeply the ignominy of being unable to find work commensurate with his Sri Lankan work experience as an IT manager; Zia feels lonely and isolated, missing her close family and friends left behind.
The couple must traverse rocky ground and tragedy before the slow tendrils of hope appear.
Immigration, it seemed, was the great equaliser – no matter where you came from or who you were before, you had to let it all go and reinvent yourself.Untethered p129
Zia is young and somewhat naive at the novel’s start, but her self confidence grows over time. She is a sympathetic character whose awareness of the world around her also develops, allowing her to see and empathise with others who are in more difficult circumstances than her own. Both Zia and Rashid learn about other Sri Lankans held in offshore detention for years, after trying to reach Australia as refugees from the terrible civil war in Sri Lanka.
On a personal note, Australia’s capital city, Canberra, is where the couple settle when they get to Australia. Having spent ten years there myself, I very much enjoyed reading about familiar locations and landmarks there; a story set in Canberra is long overdue!
Untethered is a highly recommended read; I think it is a wonderful debut from an author with a promising future.
Untethered is published by HQ Fiction, an imprint of HarperCollins Australia, in June 2023.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
Jackie French writes marvelous commercial historical fiction, with protagonists who are active participants in their lives and the world around them. Her stories always feature intriguing snippets from history:
The incidents in my books are based on actual people, historical events and attitudes that are often not widely known. That is why I write about them…Sometimes fiction is a gentler way of presenting those harder times of history, as well as celebrating the good.Author’s note, Becoming Mrs Mulberry
Becoming Mrs Mulberry is an example of the many reasons why Ms French is an Australian best-selling author. She has a way of imparting historical information in a way that illuminates rather than bogs down the story.
It’s a big book, with several big themes: Australia’s mixed record on dealing with issues such as gender equality, treatment of people with disabilities, and the sad fate of so many soldiers returning from WWI. It is also a plea for us to become more attuned to our natural environment, which is under such severe threat today.
The main protagonist, Agnes, is in the midst of medical studies at Edinburgh University, when the war and its aftermath requires her to put her dreams of becoming a doctor on hold. She experiences eye-watering levels of abuse and discrimination both during her studies (much of it meted out by male fellow students) and after it. Any so-called ‘post feminists’ should read this book.
Despairing of her ability to make a difference for the endless line of soldiers with horrifying injuries that she nurses during the war in Europe, she is given a sage piece of advice by her Matron:
Just do the next right thing, and then the next. Put a thousand crumbs together and you make a cake.Becoming Mrs Mulberry pp225-226
Straight after the war, her ‘next right thing’ sees her marrying the severely shell-shocked brother of her close friend, in order to rescue him from being declared mentally incompetent and being confined to an asylum. This is how she becomes the Mrs Mulberry of the novel’s title.
Her new husband is very wealthy and she uses this money to provide respite, care and refuge from some of society’s outcasts, suffering war injuries or disabilities from accidents or illnesses. Coincidentally, the place where she does this is on her husband’s Blue Mountains property, in a fictional location that the author placed not too far from my home.
Then she comes across a young child in a situation of terrible abuse and vulnerability – and her life develops an unexpected trajectory.
Through it all, there is a tender shoot of love and care which grows as the story progresses:
Her sense of loss seeped away under the hush of trees. Trees had patience and so must she, as their roots wound deep into the ground and their leaves slowly burgeoned to the sky. Here, on a highland ridge, she could see trees shaped by wind and snow, none of which was within their control, and yet they managed beauty nonetheless: even greater loveliness from fate’s twisting of their trunks and branches.Becoming Mrs Mulberry pp124-125
This is a sweeping, heartfelt story that will appeal to readers who love their historical fiction to actually mean something.
Becoming Mrs Mulberry is published by HQ Fiction in March 2023.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
In her new book, Aussie author Alison Stuart once again demonstrates her deep knowledge and love for the parts of Victoria that were the scene of frenzied gold rushes in the mid 1800’s.
The Homecoming is the third novel set in fictional Maiden’s Creek. The first two were The Postmistress and The Goldminer’s Sister.
This new story is set two decades after the last in the 1890’s, when the gold seams around the township are mostly exhausted. Residents needed to find new ways of making a living. The protagonists are two characters from the earlier novels: Charlotte (Charlie) O’Reilly and Danny Hunt. No longer children, they are brought back to Maiden’s Creek after years spent developing careers elsewhere: Charlie as a nurse and Danny a lawyer.
Both are dealing with the legacies of difficult circumstances from their childhoods and have returned to the town for different reasons.
While working as Matron of the small cottage hospital, Charlie is embroiled in a series of events that bring escalating danger to her and to others. Danny is dodging an enemy from his past who is intent on doing him harm. Then the town is engulfed by a dangerous flood which threatens everyone.
In the midst of all this, the pair find themselves increasingly pulled towards each other.
I took a while to get fully involved in this novel, perhaps because I had read The Goldminer’s Sister in 2020 and my memory had to work hard to recall the characters and events from that story. Having said that, The Homecoming would also make a satisfying stand-alone read without reference to the earlier books. There is mystery, romance and some terrific characters; all of which add up to a great addition to Australian historical fiction shelves.
The Homecoming is published by HQ Fiction in January 2023.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
This is an account – with a twist – of the discovery and subsequent investigation of the ‘Somerton Man’ affair: one of the longest running unsolved mysteries in Australian history. In this re-telling of the events, it is a woman who narrates the story.
In 1948, the body of a man is found dead at Somerton, an Adelaide beach. He is dressed well in a nice suit and good shoes – with all the clothing labels removed. He has no wallet or any possessions to identify him, and he is found sitting on the sand against the sea wall.
He is first seen by Kitty Wheeler, a member of ‘Women Police’, tasked with patrolling streets and beaches in what is essentially a social welfare role. She and her partner spot the man but mistake his stillness for drunken sleep, and they decide to let the fellow sleep it off.
When the mystery of the unknown man takes over the city’s police and newspapers, Kitty regrets the missed opportunity to be part of the investigation of the year, if not the decade.
The setting of a novel about a female police constable against the backdrop of a famous mystery allows Olivia Wearne to examine the mores and values of the time. Kitty loves her work, despite the frustrating restrictions imposed on women, who are relegated to the so-called ‘soft’ issues of brothels, child welfare, domestic violence, vagrancy. Rarely allowed to be a part of an actual investigation, she still manages to inveigle herself into key aspects of the Somerton Man case, but she needs persistence and occasionally, impertinence, to be even heard by the ‘real’ police – the male detectives – handling the case.
She also has family issues to contend with, and a loyal and loving fiancé who is eager for her to tie the knot – which Kitty knows would be the end of her policing career. As the days go by, she becomes more and more obsessed with the Somerton Man investigation, consumed by the need to know who he was.
This is very much a character driven novel, with a cast of personalities who come to life in the pages. The pacing was a little slow for me at times, but this was more than compensated by the brilliant use of clever language and descriptive writing. There is witty dialogue as Kitty (at times an ascerbic, prickly sort) engages with her colleagues, members of the public and family, capturing workplace and family dynamics brilliantly. The author makes inventive use of simile and metaphor that gave me some laugh-out-loud moments:
Almost every passenger on the trolley held a newspaper up to their faces. MISSING FATHER AND SON FOUND IN MACABRE DISCOVERY. When the car pitched and swayed the commuters moved with it, like some jolly choreographed performance. Under cover of newsprint, they were feasting on the story, gorging on the Mangnosons’ misfortune.The Woman Who Knew Too Little pp220 &367
Peter let his head sink between his stooped shoulders. A forlorn droop, like a houseplant desperate for water. His torso rose and fell as he heaved in resignation. He hauled himself onto his feet, leaving his head hanging, and addressed his leather boots, whose untied laces appeared to be slithering away from him: ‘I think we need some time apart.’
The delightful cover and title advertise the book’s intent perfectly: take a well-known and long-lasting mystery from the 1940’s, marry it with tropes from classic noir novels and film, then mix it in with delicious irony and wickedly observant swipes and the hypocrisies of the time.
The Woman Who Knew Too Little is published by HQ Fiction in February 2023.
My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.
Australian author Jo Dixon has written a terrific debut novel about youth, longing, family – and the hurt that secrets can inflict, even decades old ones.
Set in Tasmania (one of my favourite parts of the country) it has a dual timeline structure.
In 1986, we meet Pippa, a restless and adventurous young soul, house sitting with her best friend Jeremy and his girlfriend Rebecca. On a New Year’s Eve outing in Hobart, she falls head over heels with Leo, whose controlling, conservative parents have mapped out his future at university and a law firm. Leo is not so sure, and with Pippa’s encouragement, he decides to contradict his parents and forge his own way in the world.
Before he can do so, tragedy strikes, and a secret is buried that will have consequences decades later.
In 2017, Olivia is living in the same house on Hobart’s outskirts, hiding out from the world and trying to heal from a sordid ‘revenge porn’ and blackmail affair that sent her promising life skittering out of control. One day, a young man, Tom, knocks at the door and asks for her help. Does she know anything about Pippa, the young woman who used to live in the house? He has just arrived from England with an envelope to give to Pippa, on behalf of his recently deceased father, Jeremy.
Olivia and Tom’s quest to find Pippa leads them down a twisty path of long-buried resentments, lies and hidden crimes. When they finally uncover the truth, it is beyond anything they might have guessed, and will have profound implications for everyone involved.
The characters are wonderful: totally believable, complex, yet recognisable. The Tasmanian setting is vividly drawn: if you have been to Hobart and its surrounds you will recognise it; if not, it might very well make you want to go there.
This is not a ‘crime’ novel in the usual sense of a police procedural or of gritty portrayals of serial killers. It’s actually a story about families. About the wonderful and the sometimes-terrible things that can occur in a family, and how our lives are shaped by the people who raise us. There’s a suitably surprising twist that kept me turning the pages and a gratifying, though not saccharine, ending. Not all the loose ends are neatly tied in a bow, but there is hope and a sense of realistic optimism.
I enjoyed this novel very much. I hope Jo Dixon is preparing her next manuscript; I look forward to reading it.
The House of Now and Then is published by HQ Fiction in January 2023.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
A Google search for this novel showed just how well author Lisa Unger nailed its title. I found as many listings for actual holiday rentals as ones for the book itself.
This book might make you reconsider the advantages of ‘seclusion’ and ‘luxury’ when choosing your next Airbnb rental. In a similar vein to Liane Moriarty’s Nine Perfect Strangers, the novel centres around three young American couples meeting up at a luxury retreat. The rental host is not quite as weird as Masha at Moriarty’s Tranquillium… though Bracken is pretty weird now I think about it.
There is Mako, uber-wealthy self-made businessman and his beautiful wife Liza; Mako’s sister Hannah and her husband Bruce; and Hannah’s best friend and Mako’s high school sweetheart, Cricket, with her new boyfriend Josh.
Each of the individuals have secrets and concerns they are hiding from the others. And each couple has its own issues needing resolution. These are gradually revealed throughout the novel by chapters with alternating points of view.
And there are two additional characters: Henry and Trina, whose role in the drama is initially unclear but who are integral to events as they play out.
This is a modern-day twisty psychological thriller which will keep you guessing as the characters, and their mistakes and problems, emerge from the pages. It is a perfect summer read.
Secluded Cabin Sleeps Six was published by HQ Fiction in November 2022.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
On the same day in 1922 when Verity Binks loses her job at a Sydney newspaper (to make way for struggling WWI veterans), she receives a mysterious parcel in the mail. Inside is an invitation to attend the Sydney Masquerade Ball, along with a mask and costume designed to transform her into the guise of a beautiful orange and black butterfly.
She decides to accept the invitation and attend the ball when her former boss, the Editor at the Sydney Arrow, suggests that she write a profile story about the Treadwell Foundation, a charity for ‘young women in trouble’ (that is, women pregnant outside of marriage.) She hopes to meet Mr Treadwell at the Ball – and also to find out the source of her mysterious invitation and costume.
Not satisfied with the result, she travels to the little river town of Morpeth, in the Hunter Valley north of Sydney, on a quest to find out more about the origins of the Treadwells and the Foundation. This is also where her beloved grandparents, Sid and Clarrie, lived in their younger days and where her father, Charlie, was born. Gradually, Verity learns that there is much more to the Treadwell story than first meets the eye. Together with Arlo, who has lived all his life in the town, she uncovers dark secrets about some of Morpeth’s past residents.
The Butterfly Collector is another of Tea Cooper’s successful dual-timeline historical mysteries. Woven in with Verity’s story is an earlier thread which relates the events of 1868 in the town of Morpeth, featuring Sid, Clarrie, Charlie and Arlo’s parents. Arlo’s mother, Theodora, is the butterfly collector of the novel’s title; a young woman fascinated by a spectacular new species of butterfly she encounters: the same orange and black of Verity’s costume.
Theodora’s and Verity’s stories are intertwined with the Treadwell’s and Verity’s investigations gradually uncover why. It’s cleverly plotted and well-paced, bringing the reader along with Verity and Theodora as they deal with the challenges and questions of their explorations.
A strength of Tea Cooper’s novels is the historical authenticity which comes from thorough research, but which never intrudes. Rather, we learn about the real-life places in past times incidentally, through vivid and evocative descriptions. I was especially drawn to this story because of its Hunter Valley setting: my father was born and grew up in West Maitland and one side of his family were early settlers around Morpeth.
Another aspect I enjoyed is that the protagonists are women with intelligence, agency and courage, not content to comply with social expectations for women at the time in which they live. They are not ‘damsels in distress’ waiting to be rescued by their hero. There is romance, but it is never the main point of Cooper’s stories.
The Butterfly Collector will be enjoyed by those who like well-researched historical fiction with a mystery to solve.
The Butterfly Collector is published by HQ Fiction in November 2022.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
If you’ve read a few of my reviews, you will know how much I love – adore – fiction inspired by real people and events, especially when they are people from the author’s own family. This is exactly what Australian novelist Mary-Anne O’Connor has delivered in her latest historical fiction, Dressed by Iris.
Firstly, the glamour. The cover design is gorgeous; a beautiful young woman dressed in the lush fashions of the 1930’s. It’s lovely, and the story does centre around Iris, a young woman with a dream to design and make beautiful clothes.
But as in real life, glamour can hide a multitude of sins and less-than-beautiful realities. The novel opens with Iris and her large, Catholic family, living in a tiny shanty house on the outskirts of Newcastle. Times are hard, with the Depression biting deep. The family barely scrape by and to add insult to injury, they experience the ugly prejudice of some better-off townsfolk against ‘Micks.’ Iris is courted by, and in love with, John, a young man from a Protestant family; but fears that the division between their families can never be bridged. It’s very Romeo-and-Juliet.
Speaking of bridges, the story moves to Sydney, where Iris’s father and brother have found work, helping to build the Sydney Harbour Bridge. That bridge takes on a powerful role as a symbol of hope, modernity and better times ahead.
Meanwhile, Iris finds work for a well-known Sydney designer of fashionable women’s clothing, and her dream of designing clothes seems a step closer. There are new threats and obstacles to overcome, and the story takes many twists and turns before its resolution.
The author has given us a vivid picture of Sydney in the 30’s: the glamour of some parts, certainly; but also the rising desperation of the poor and a rising crime rate; entrenched sexism and religious intolerance; evictions of families unable to meet their rent; political turmoil with Fascists, Communists and unionists fighting pitched battles in the suburbs; the drama around the sacking of Jack Lang, the left-leaning Premier of NSW at the time. There are small details of domestic life that help bring the era alive: the careful coin counting and hard choices while shopping for a family’s dinner, just one example of this.
I found unexpected personal connections with some aspects of the story. The suburb the family settle in is Hurstville – near my mother’s own childhood stamping ground in southwest Sydney. And one of Mum’s vivid memories from her childhood is the day she, her parents and her two younger siblings were evicted from their flat, finding a new home in the then ‘charity estate’ at Hammondville.
Along with the ups and downs of the story and Iris’ journey from poverty to a career in fashion, Dressed by Iris is a love letter to family and to the lessons we learn from childhood. It’s also a song of praise for the virtues of hope, resilience, counting your blessings and making the best of things.
I was moved to read in the author’s note that the two ‘leading ladies’ of this story, Iris and her mother Agnes, were modelled closely on the author’s own aunt and grandmother, and so many of the snippets of life included in the novel did, in fact, occur. I confess I shed a tear or two, reading that.
They endured both tragedy and hardship, these two women, and faced great poverty during their lives, but they did it resiliently, cheerfully, generously and always with love. For me, that makes them two of the richest women that I will ever know.Dressed by Iris Author Note, p501
Dressed by Iris is published by HQ Fiction in February 2022.
My thank to the publisher for a review copy.