• Books and reading,  History

    Stories and silences: ‘After Story’ by Larissa Behrendt

    Amongst loss, you need to hold onto what you still have.’

    After Story p260

    What do Australian First Nation’s cultural stories and history have to do with the writings and times of Dickens, Shakespeare, Woolfe, Keats or Austen? The surprising answers to this question are to be found in the pages of After Story, by First Nations lawyer, academic, author, speaker and film-maker Larissa Behrendt.

    A tragic loss opens the story, one that forever scars Della and her family. All the other events of the novel hang off that one devastating event and its consequences.

    Years later, Della accompanies her now adult daughter Jasmine on a literary tour of England, taking in the places where many of the ‘greats’ of British literature were born, or lived, or worked.

    Jasmine sees books as her escape from the claustrophobia, racism and limited opportunities of the small town in which she grew up. She has read widely, graduated from university, and now works in a legal career. She invites Della on the tour with her as a way of bridging the gap that has arisen between them over the years. Alternating viewpoints allow us to experience both women’s perspectives on the tour. Della’s viewpoint is less sophisticated than her daughter’s, especially as she knows little about the writers and their works, but no less heartfelt or insightful for that.

    At every significant place visited, the characters in the group chat, argue and reflect on the particular writer, their historical context and achievements. The author has skillfully linked all of these with commentary and reflections on Aboriginal experiences. An example: when told of the plague that struck England during Shakespeare’s time, followed by London’s Great Fire in 1666, Della relates these catastrophic events to the smallpox outbreak and land dispossession that decimated First Nations communities in the earliest years of English settlement:

    I thought about what it must have been like for those Aboriginal people who watched the world around them change hard and fast when the colony was set up, who had to watch the destruction of the life they knew.

    After Story p43

    Della’s deceased Aunty Eileen is an important, if unseen, character. It is through Della’s and Jasmine’s remembered conversations with her, that key features of Aboriginal culture, history and beliefs are shared and further linked to European lives and histories. Gazing at a copy of the Magna Carta in the British Library, Jasmine reflects that:

    If Dickens reminded us that the system is not fair, here was the hope, the ancient promise, that it might be. Aunty Elaine’s generation had advocated for changes that made opportunities in my life different from those for Mum and Dad. It’s not just the words on the page but the people who push the ideas at the heart of them who really alter the world.

    After Story p82

    The characters are all three dimensional and fresh, their struggles real, and at times there are uncomfortable moments, as the author invites us to consider our own culture’s role in the theft, forgetting or dismissal of cultures other than our own. But for anyone who loves literature and/or stories and their long histories, this is a book to relish, made all the more special by the weaving together of old and contemporary, indigenous and non-indigenous traditions, tragedy and loss with hope and love.

    After Story was published by Queensland University Press in 2021.

  • Books and reading

    The sweetness of friendships: ‘Birds of a Feather’ by Tricia Stringer

    It’s good to branch out into a genre you don’t generally read much of, or an author not encountered before, and that’s what I’ve done with this contemporary fiction by Australian author Tricia Stringer.

    Birds of a Feather is all about family and friendships, old and new. Set in fictional Wallaby Bay on South Australia’s Spencer Gulf, the story features three very different women. There is Eve, battling to maintain her independence after a crippling shoulder injury; her goddaughter Julia, struggling with suppressed grief and the sudden loss of her scientific research job; and Lucy, trying to be the best mother she can be to her two young children, and coping with the absence of her FIFO (Fly In Fly Out) husband.

    The first part of the novel sets up the circumstances that bring these characters together: at first unwillingly, each feeling their way in a new situation, trying to overcome mistrust, hesitation and past hurts. Once the women are together, the story really gets going. Before that, there are hints and veiled references to their back stories, tensions, traumas and the circumstances that shaped each one, and it is fun to put their stories together as the novel goes along.

    There are references to the Covid pandemic and the dilemmas faced by people like Lucy, an aged care worker, who must try to deal with an emotionally and physically draining experience while also worrying about her kids. It’s a very real scenario that brings home the additional challenges the pandemic introduced to already complicated lives.

    The author captures the small town atmosphere beautifully: all the strengths of rural communities, along with the downsides that can accompany living in a place where everyone knows everybody else (and their business).

    I found it soothing to be lost in the minutia of others’ lives, and the novel’s resolution was satisfying, even though some aspects felt a bit too tidy.

    Birds of a Feather will be an enjoyable read for people who like to read character-based contemporary fiction about real-life struggles and challenges and the ways in which they can be overcome.

    Birds of a Feather is published by HQ Fiction, an imprint of Harlequin Enterprises, in December 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Colonial women: ‘Daughter of the Hunter Valley’ by Paula J Beavan

    In my deep dive into family history during the 2021 Covid lockdown in NSW, I realised that the Hunter Valley played a big role in my paternal ancestors’ lives. Both Great-Grandparents emigrated from England in the mid nineteenth century as children and lived out their lives in the Maitland and Newcastle regions. So it was with interest that I picked up Paula J Bevan’s novel which is set in the 1830’s along the Hunter River.

    The heroine, Maddy, is newly arrived from England. Her father has established a farm there and planned to bring his wife and daughter to live in the colony with him; but Maddy’s mother died before she could embark on the voyage, and Maddy arrives alone to break the awful news. To her horror, the very next day her father drowns in the river and Maddy must decide what to do: return to England; or stay in NSW and try to make a new life for herself?

    She decides to stay and finish creating the house and farm that her father had begun; but it is a very different world for a young woman from the green gentility of country England. The house her father promised is largely still plans on a page, so Maddy must live in a rough hut with two convict women, and she has to quickly learn how to run a property with only assigned convict labourers, and Daniel Coulter, the overseer, to work the land. There is heat, dust, unfamiliar wildlife and unaccustomed threats, and plenty of hard work. To her surprise, Maddy finds that the new life agrees with her as she gradually becomes part of the local settler community.

    The original inhabitants of the region are the Worranua people; they get sidelong references in the narrative, which I found disappointing, though perhaps historically accurate; as many European settlers preferred not to think of the people whose lands they had taken. There is, however, a complicated cast of characters from properties nearby, who I found a little hard to sort out in my head. There are also convicts, bushrangers and an orphaned child.

    I enjoyed Maddy’s development from a confused, grieving daughter to a more assured young woman forging a new life for herself. The author based some of Maddy’s character on colonial women who stepped up to run estates in their men’s absence, and I always love it when I read fiction based in part on real people or events.

    Daughter of the Hunter Valley is primarily a romance, and I did find Maddy’s preoccupation with Daniel a little annoying after a while – as was her tendency to blush whenever she saw him!

    The strength of the novel is in its finely observed portrayal of early colonial life away from the Sydney township; the new environment in which the settlers found themselves, and the hardships they faced. I could picture my own ancestors in similar circumstances in similar locations. Knowing that they, too, had dispossessed Worranua in order to create this new life is uncomfortable, but it is part of my personal history and the history of this country. There are, no doubt, echoes of Maddy’s story in the lives of many of those who came as colonisers to this country.

    Daughter of the Hunter Valley is published by HarperCollins in September 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

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

    Australian Women Writers’ Challenge 2021: my Aussie reading year

    This year I signed up to read at least 10 books by Australian women writers and review at least 6. On this score at least, I am an over-achiever! As at the beginning of September, I had read (and posted reviews for) 30 books by Aussie women. I think next year I’ll need to aim for the top level of AWW Challenge. It is not hard for me to read plenty of books by the wonderful and talented authors we have here in this country.

    My 2021 reading ranged across multiple genres, from historical fiction (always a favourite, especially Australian history and stories featuring women in WWII, which is a theme that has become very popular in recent years); memoir, history, quite a few children’s books, true crime and crime fiction.

    My standout reads by Aussie women so far for 2021?

    These four spoke to me the loudest (the links are to my reviews):

    People of the River by Grace Karskens (non-fiction, history) This one, by the way, recently won the Australian history prize as part of the NSW Premier’s History Awards.

    The Things We Cannot Say by Kelly Rimmer (historical fiction)

    Ten Thousand Aftershocks by Michelle Tom

    Of the children’s books, Night Ride into Danger by the marvellous Jackie French

    Thank you to the wonderful Australian Women Writers’ Challenge for another year of fabulous reading. If you haven’t checked out the AWW website, be sure to have a look. You will find so many recommendations for new authors and books to discover.

  • 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

    Finding an ‘after’ trauma: ‘Here in the After’ by Marion Frith

    As I read this debut novel by Australian Marion Frith, TV, print and broadcast media were saturated with the shocking news of the Taliban taking over Kabul and huge swathes of territory in Afghanistan. A reminder, if I needed one, of how devastating, cruel and ultimately pointless that protracted war has been.

    The two protagonists of Here in the After are both connected to violence emanating from that part of the world and the roles played by Western nations there.

    Nat is an army veteran who served in Afghanistan. He has returned to his wife Gen a broken man, unable to take the steps needed to heal from his complex PTSD and the things he saw and did during his tour of duty.

    Anna is middle aged, a grandmother who has been grieving the death of her beloved husband. One day during her lunch break from work, she sees a brochure in the window of a travel agency and impulsively goes in to check it out, because she’d made a promise to her husband not to stop doing the things they enjoyed together, like travel. Wrong place, catastrophically wrong time for Anna.

    She ends up as the only survivor or a shocking terrorist attack in which eleven other people – including a child – are murdered in cold blood. Anna is rushed to hospital and faces a long physical recovery, all the while wondering if she will ever recover from the trauma. She is now in the ‘after’ – and it seems that she will never recover her life ‘before’ the shocking events that she somehow survived.

    Nat seeks out Anna because he suffers from crippling guilt for everything that happened in Afghanistan. He has realised that he and other soldiers were sold a lie, when they believed that they were fighting there to keep Australians at home safe. The attack on Anna and the others in the shop are proof that they failed in that mission.

    At first wary, Anna comes to see Nat as someone who understands her turmoil because he is experiencing something very similar. A friendship develops as the pair meet, talk, challenge and reassure each other.

    Told in alternating viewpoints, the novel plunges the reader into the horror of Nat and Anna’s experiences and the tormented emotional and mental loops that each are now suffering. Their confusion, rage, guilt and sorrow are well described.

    Despite the darkness of their experiences, each person offers something profound and important to the other; most especially the possibility of hope.

    It really did take one to know one as he’d joked on the beach about their battle scars that day. It was true. That was the core of their connection, but it was more complex than his having been a soldier and her a victim of the perverted ideology he had fought… Anna had said she thought he understood her, but he realised now it was she who understood him. Nat had never believed anyone would ever understand him again.

    Here in the After pp170-171

    Here in the After is a sensitively written story of appalling trauma, the slow rocky path to recovery, and a different type of friendship. As we witness the tragedy in Afghanistan, the story is a timely reflection on the scars that violence leaves on its survivors – some visible, others less so.

    Here in the After is published by HarperCollins Publishers in September 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading

    What we ignore at our peril: ‘You Need to Know’ by Nicola Moriarty

    Jill sees an email from her son’s ex-partner with the subject line ‘You need to know’ but can’t bring herself to read it. So begins a cascading sequence of lies and secrets which come to a crescendo on Christmas Eve as Jill and her sons, daughters-in-law and grandchildren are driving in convoy to their holiday house. A devastating accident with consequences no one could have foreseen.

    You Need to Know is billed as a family drama and it is certainly that. As with many if not most modern families, the Lewis clan are dealing with all the complications that life can serve up: the unexpected arrival of twins, relationship breakups and tensions, demanding work, teenagers. Everyone has a secret; something they don’t or can’t discuss with others. That’s normal, of course; but there is a much darker secret at the heart of the Lewis family’s problems.

    Told from alternating viewpoints, the novel effectively conveys each main character’s perspective on things. The three Lewis brothers – Tony, Pete and Darren – and their partners, ex-partners and children, are a believable group of people, three-dimensional characters trying to grapple with life’s challenges. Their mother, Jill, is dealing with her own sorrows and regrets.

    It’s difficult to say more about the plot without giving away spoilers. I found this novel to be a page-turner, with some twists that I didn’t see coming along with a couple that I did; they all contributed to a satisfying story that has some valuable things to say about our world. Most especially, about the secrets that can harm and how what we choose to ignore can come back to damage those we love the most. Readers who enjoy contemporary fiction with well drawn characters and themes will enjoy this new one by Nicola Moriarty.

    You Need to Know is published by HarperCollins Publishers in April 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to read and review.

  • Books and reading

    Whose stories can we tell? ‘The Truth About Her’ by Jacqueline Maley

    Jacqueline Maley is an award winning journalist and columnist at The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age whose work I have admired for some time. The Truth About Her is her debut novel and it’s a beauty. Literary, funny and sobering by turns, it takes familiar stories and situations and makes of them a wry, incisive commentary on modern life, motherhood and the nature of truth.

    The main character is Suzy, an almost-forty journalist whose professional and personal lives have both hit major snags. Her article exposing a fraudster, Tracey Doran, who claimed to have cancer which she cured by an organic diet and lifestyle, was published just before the young woman killed herself. Suzy experiences crippling guilt although friends and family reassure her that the suicide wasn’t her fault.

    At almost the same time her casual, secret sexual relationship with her (married) boss is exposed, so Suzy herself experiences the distress of public shaming and the online vitriol and abuse that goes with that. She quits her job and faces a bleak financial future as she tries to support her pre-school aged daughter, Maddy, as a single parent.

    Unexpectedly she is approached by Tracey’s grieving mother who asks her to write the story of her daughter’s life – on her terms. Suzy agrees and so begins a connection that is strange and fraught and laden with secrets and emotional burdens. Through it all, Suzy examines her own life, her beliefs about relationships, truth and the role of the journalist.

    This novel captures with devastating clarity the challenges and moments of joy in the life of a working single parent. Suzy has sudden flashes of what she calls ‘the parallel life’, in which her former partner, Maddy’s father, is still with them and they lead a ‘normal’, middle class life together, with enough money to pay the bills, and love and support for each other. Instead, Suzy’s sadness and confusion mean she has a barely-in-control lifestyle and constant worries about the future.

    The author paints with delicate and humorous brushstrokes the little details of a mother-daughter bond, the small moments of unadulterated love and joy along with the hefty dose of guilt that seems to accompany the parenting role:

    Often, when I inquired about the dolls, or the tiny bunnies, or the little mice, that Maddy was playing with, asking their names and how they were related to each other, Maddy would say ‘Dair mummy is at work.’ Even her toys were latchkey kids.

    The Truth About Her p64

    There were moments when I felt I knew Suzy – that we were friends, perhaps, catching up over a coffee and bemoaning the state of the world. Her take on so many aspects of our modern world – the ‘on demand’ nature of everything, from sex to television; the sad lack of noise-killing soft furnishings in restaurants; the carefully designed nature of corporate premises, just to name a few examples – felt so similar to my own, and many of her wry asides elicited knowing chuckles as I read. A strong theme in the novel is the nature of truth: in a world where people curate their own stories and images for public consumption yet give little away of their inner lives, it poses the question: can we ever truly know another person? And who has the right to tell their story?

    The relationships are beautifully drawn, including Suzy’s sometime lover, Tom, her critical mother Beverley, her loving and good humoured great-uncle Sam, Tracey’s mother Jan, and especially little Maddy – all become real people, alive on the page.

    As the story plays out and reaches its conclusion, Suzy has learnt some things about herself, about the other people in her life, and possibly also what life was for. I enjoyed this novel so much and I can’t wait to read Jacqueline Maley’s next offering.

    The Truth About Her is published by Fourth Estate, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, in April 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    More stuff I didn’t know! ‘The Codebreakers’ by Alli Sinclair

    Did you know that Australia had its own version of the Bletchley Park signals and cipher intelligence unit? No? Neither did I, until I read this new historical fiction by Australian author Alli Sinclair. Set in Queensland during WWII, it tells the story of the women and men who worked in a top secret organisation called Central Bureau.

    People were recruited from all walks of life. They needed level heads, problem solving skills, as well as an aptitude for mathematics, patterns, languages, commitment to the war effort and – of course – the ability to keep secrets. They all signed an official secrets act, which meant they could never talk about the work they did. Not to family, friends…anyone.

    I’ve often wondered how people who work in these sorts of roles, or in intelligence services more generally, manage to keep their working lives separate from the rest of their personal lives. For most people, work is such a big part of life and to keep it secret… well, I think it would be almost impossible.

    What I especially liked about The Codebreakers is that this aspect of their role is not avoided. In fact, the secrecy requirements and the difficulties this posed for women forms a key part of the story.

    Added to this is the portrayal of the other factors at play. The women recruited to Central Bureau were young, they lived in barracks and worked together every day, in a garage at the back of a mansion in a Brisbane street (most of the men worked inside the house itself). The women were dubbed ‘The Garage Girls’, and they formed strong bonds as a result of their experiences.

    Brisbane during WWII is portrayed brilliantly – the heady atmosphere of wartime; fear of imminent Japanese invasion; grief and heartache at the loss of loved ones killed in action; conflict between Australian and American servicemen; rationing; the quick courtships and impulsive marriages that sometimes happened; living with continual uncertainty and anxiety. It’s easy for us today, knowing what we know now, to forget that at the time, Australians did not know what the outcome would be. Reading this novel I found it easy to imagine how it would have felt, living with the possibility that Japanese soldiers might well arrive on the shores of northern Australia.

    The other aspect of the novel that is very convincing is the portrayal of how it felt for Australians, once peace was declared. Of course there was elation, joy, relief. For some, there was also sadness and a sense of let-down. We can understand that for the women in Central Bureau, their employment ceased almost immediately. They were expected to return to hearth and home, making way for the men as they returned from the services. The aftermath of war is not always easy, and they had to exchange the exciting, demanding, important work they had been doing, for more mundane roles at home or in jobs seen as suitable for women.

    Shadowed by the mansion at Nyrambla, this little garage had been the centre of her world for two and a half years. Its walls had witnessed the women handling some of the war’s most top-secret messages and ensuring they got into the right hands at Bletchley Park, Arlington Hall and countless outposts around the world. The messages they’d decrypted and encrypted had saved lives and helped the troops come back to their loved ones. All this happened under the roof of a regular-looking garage in suburban Brisbane and no one outside Central Bureau would ever be the wiser.

    The Codebreakers p324

    If you enjoy finding out about lesser known aspects of Australian life during WWII – and particularly the more unusual roles performed by some women – you’ll love The Codebreakers. There is a light touch of romance in the story, though the main themes are to do with friendship, courage and the many ways in which lives are changed by war.

    The Codebreakers is published by HarperCollins Australia in March 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    A fun mix of history and fantasy for middle grade readers: ‘The World Between Blinks’ by Amie Kaufman & Ryan Graudin

    Amie Kaufman is a much-loved writer of fantasy and adventure for middle grade and young adult readers. She has teamed up with another best-selling author, Ryan Graudin, for a new middle grade series, of which The World Between Blinks is Book One.

    First of all, this is such a cool title reflecting an equally cool premise: that there is another world that exists in parallel with our own, that some people (especially youngsters) can occasionally get a fleeting glimpse or sense of it – in between blinks.

    The book lives up to its promise of terrific world-building by the authors, some adventure, a treasure map and lots of magic, and engaging characters, especially the two protagonists, cousins Jake and Marisol, who arrive in the world by accident and must find the one person who can help them return home.

    Being a history nut, I especially enjoyed the way the story is peppered with figures and events from the past. The World between Blinks is the place where lost things are found, so the cousins come across many ‘lost’ people and things: aviatrix Amelia Earhart; former Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt; a thylacine (the extinct Tasmanian Tiger); brown M&M’s; London’s Crystal Palace; a Viking; the Ninth Roman Legion are just some examples.

    My feeling is that this would be a great springboard for some ferreting in a library or the internet by youngsters keen to discover who and what and when and why. I confess to doing a bit of ‘Googling’ of some of the references with which I was less familiar.

    The historical gems are dropped in with humour and a light touch and they add much to the story.

    At a deeper level, The World between Blinks explores memories, what it means to leave friends and places behind, and what makes family special.

    But what Marisol was really trying to hold on to was her family’s togetherness, and you couldn’t keep that in your hand any more than you could catch a puff of smoke…You couldn’t use a particular thing or a certain place to make your life just the way you wanted.
    But you could hold onto love…
    You could hold onto the things that made you you.

    The World Between Blinks p255

    An added bonus is the way in which so many cross cultural references are included, including American, Australian, Bolivian. Marisol and her parents speak both Spanish and English so Spanish expressions are effortlessly woven into the dialogue without losing the meaning and flow of the narrative.

    The World Between Blinks is a wonderful beginning to a new middle grade fantasy series. It will be enjoyed by readers who like adventure, magic, and a little history, all rolled into a satisfying package.

    The World Between Blinks is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in February 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.