• Books and reading,  History

    Women in wartime: ‘The Light We Left Behind’ by Tessa Harris

    One of the most welcome aspects of the current trend in historical fiction publishing is the space created to tell the stories of women and the part they played in well-known – and sometimes, lesser-known – historical events. The Light We Left Behind is one such novel, focusing on the contributions made to the Allied war effort by the women and men who worked at Trent Park.

    Trent Park? Never heard of it?

    If that’s your reaction, rest assured it was also mine.

    Like the more famous Bletchley Park, Trent Park was a centre of intelligence gathering during WWII that was like no other in Britain at the time. A stately home outside London, it was turned into a prison for German POWs. A prison with a difference: Trent Park housed high ranking German officials and military officers in luxury, catering to their expensive tastes and providing entertainment and every comfort.

    You might be thinking ‘If the long-suffering British public had known of this place, there would have been an uproar’, and you would be quite correct. Trent Park’s real purpose was kept hidden even from the locals. The house and its grounds were fitted out with listening devices, and German speaking employees (sometimes refugees from Nazi-occupied territories) brought in to interpret what the German captives were saying to each other when they were alone – strolling the grounds, smoking cigars and drinking fine wine in the library.

    The prisoners were interrogated, of course, but the methods of interrogation tended to be gentle, employing psychological strategies rather than brute force. And the arrogant German generals and officials would boast amongst themselves about what they had not divulged to their interrogators, unknowingly providing information to the Allies about weapons development and war strategies that would otherwise have remained hidden.

    This fascinating centre of wartime activity provides the backdrop for the story of Maddie Gresham, a psychology student who had studied under the professor whose theories informed the establishment of Trent Park. Maddie is tasked with gaining the Germans’ trust and getting them to reveal more information.

    Maddie’s pre-war and wartime lives collide in the form of Max Weitzler, whom she had met and fallen in love with years before on a visit to Germany. What happens to Max’s German father and German Jewish mother shows how the Nazis’ racist policies so bitterly divided the country and tore families apart. Max’s appearance at Trent House brings with it both joy and potential disaster for Maddie.

    Maddie’s story illustrates how people’s emotional concerns and preoccupations can exist side-by-side with the pressing concerns of wartime work or survival: they are important parts of a character’s make-up and should not be ignored. For me, this results in a more satisfying and realistic picture because for all of us, while our lives may be transformed by external events such as war or disaster, our internal lives continue.

    The Light We Left Behind joins other novels (such as The Rose Code or The Codebreakers) which feature the valuable work done by women in complex wartime circumstances. It’s an engrossing, heartfelt portrayal of the difficulties faced by ordinary people doing extraordinary work in incredibly challenging times.

    The Light We Left Behind is published by Harper Collins in July 2022. My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    ‘Australia Remembers: Len Waters, Boundless and Born to Fly’ by Catherine Baver

    Len Waters was born behind the gates of an Aboriginal reserve, but his big imagination and even bigger dreams took him soaring beyond the reach of those who tried to confine him.

    Len Waters: Boundless and Born to Fly

    Len Waters was a Kamilaroi man who became a trailblazer: probably only the second man of Aboriginal descent to be accepted into RAAF pilot training in the 1940’s, receiving his pilot’s wings in 1944 and graduating in the top four of his class – at just 19 years old.

    Len went on to serve in the RAAF in the southwestern Pacific, flying bombing missions in his Kittyhawk aircraft Black Magic. Promoted to the rank of Flight Sergeant, he continued service in the Pacific until the war ended, when he’d been promoted to warrant officer.

    Despite his bravery and skillful service, Len (and other First Nations servicemen and women) discovered that their service didn’t seem to matter once they returned to civilian life, and they faced the daily discrimination and disadvantage meted out to Aboriginal people in Australia.

    This lovely book weaves Len’s childhood and early life experiences, the teachings of his parents and cultural knowledge, with his hard work, dreams and dedication, to create a picture of a truly remarkable Australian.

    It is aimed at primary aged children and includes many illustrations and side boxes that pose questions for readers to consider as they learn more about Len and the Australia he grew up in and returned to.

    It includes accessibly presented information on many key aspects of Australian First Nations culture and history: language, kinship, totems and respect for culture and knowledge holders, the British Empire and its consequences for First Nations people across the world, missions and reserves, Stolen Generations, Aboriginal servicemen in WWI, their experiences after that war and the Second World War.

    I purchased the book for my 8-year old grandson who is interested in aircraft from this period, and also in stories about Indigenous Australians. I think it will well and truly tick both boxes.

    Australia Remembers: Len Waters, Boundless and Born to Fly is published by Big Sky Publishing in 2021.

  • Books and reading

    Old but new: ‘Death at Greenway’ by Lori Rader-Day

    I love the idea of ‘falling into’ a novel – the image of plunging straight into another world, meeting the characters and their emotions and thoughts. That’s what happened to me with Death at Greenway. The world of this novel is WWII England: first London, where trainee nurse Bridget Kelly is receiving an ultimatum after a serious error on the ward; then to south Devon and the house of famous mystery writer Agatha Christie.

    Bridget goes there unwillingly, as one of two nurses hired to care for a group of ten children under five: they are evacuees, sent from at-risk London suffering under the Blitz, to country areas considered safer. For Bridget, it is her last chance to save her floundering career. She also nurses terrible grief and trauma, the result of a well-aimed German bomb, and this follows her to her new posting.

    The other nurse travelling with the group is Gigi, a glamorous young woman who has secrets of her own, one of which threatens the tenuous safety of their country refuge.

    I love stories that weave real-life people and events into the plot, and Death at Greenway does this. It is an homage to the world of thirties England, the works of writers like Christie, and the often heroic actions of so many ordinary people during wartime. Greenway really was a temporary home for two nurses and ten children during the war. The author has drawn on the names of some of the people who populated the home at this time, including Doreen, one of the young evacuees, who shared her memories of that time.

    All the tropes of British mystery novels of the era are there: a (nearly) invisible mistress of the house; gothic folk stories told by the locals; a muddy footprint on the front step; crying foxes and other unearthly noises; a butler and housekeeper with their own opinions about the newcomers; a growing body count and a disappearance. Suspicions rise and Bridget starts to think that no one is who they seem to be. I liked the dry tone of much of the narrative, reminiscent of an author like Kate Atkinson.

    Alongside the mystery, though, is the real theme of the novel: the toll taken by war and loss on the people living through such times:

    It was a thin thread that kept them tethered to the earth, a single strand of her embroidery floss, easily snapped. No one keeps us. They were all small lives, nowhere near the center. Tossed about by the gale of history and hardly noted for having endured.

    Death at Greenway p245

    The web of deception and intrigue becomes complex at times and I had to concentrate hard to follow the threads; but that was not to the detriment of my enjoyment of this satisfying novel.

    Death at Greenway is published by HarperCollins Publishers in October 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    ‘The Things We Cannot Say’ by Kelly Rimmer

    This best-selling novel by Australian author Kelly Rimmer is a beautiful exploration of love, loss and the sacrifices that people can make for those they love most. It’s also an interesting juxtaposition of the challenges of modern lives with those faced by people in wartime.

    If you have read a few of my posts and reviews, you will know that I love stories inspired by real events and people, and especially those drawn from the author’s family history. This is what Kelly Rimmer has done; by telling a story set in her grandmother’s hometown in Poland during the horrors of WWII.

    I found Alina and Tomasz’s story to be engrossing, tragic, and hopeful. The details of the impoverished farm which was young Alina’s world, the terrors of the Nazi occupation, and the profound losses experienced by the Polish people, are enriched by the author’s research and visits to the places she writes about.

    The story is centred firmly in this environment, but woven through it is the story of Alice, a modern day mother of two, and the challenges she faces bringing up a ten-year-old gifted daughter and a seven-year-old son who has autism.

    When Alice’s grandmother begs her (from her hospital bed) to go to Poland to find something or someone she is unable to name, it seems like an impossible task. How can Alice leave her two kids, whose routines and care she tightly manages, with her busy husband, who doesn’t really have a relationship with Eddie?

    She does, though, and that’s where the elements of Alina and Alice’s lives begin to intersect, as Alice discovers more about her grandmother’s experiences during the war. In the process, Alice discovers a lot about herself, her son and daughter, and her marriage.

    The book does a wonderful job of bringing these seemingly disparate stories together, and portrays each woman’s challenges in a compelling way.

    There are long-held secrets that Alice needs to uncover before she can truly understand her family’s past, and to allow the grandmother she adores to be, finally, at peace. In Alina’s words:

    We embraced there on the deck – witness to a vow to hold on to a secret that we thought we could simply reveal one day. We had no idea of the gravity of that lie. We didn’t realize that time has a way of racing past you – that the long hard days sometimes make for very short years.

    The Things We Cannot Say p394

    The Things We Cannot Say is beautifully realised story and readers who love historical fiction firmly rooted in real history, will enjoy it.

    The Things We Cannot Say was published by Hachette in 2019.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Courage and conflict: ‘Sisters of the Resistance’ by Christine Wells

    I remember being in Paris, on a much-anticipated trip in 2015, falling in love with this amazing city (of course!) and imagining Nazi boots tramping the beautiful cobblestoned streets. I could almost hear the tanks rumbling through the city. I wondered: what would it have been like for Parisians, experiencing the fear and humiliation of German occupation?

    Sisters of the Resistance, by Aussie author Christine Wells, is a novel that plunges the reader into that experience, but also allows us to imagine how cities such as Paris were, straight after the war. How did Parisians survive the relentless assaults on their beautiful city and their lives? How much did rationing and fear impact on everyday experiences and for how long, after peace finally arrived?

    Paris was bleak in the winter with the plane trees leafless and grey. While the bombings had not touched the part of the city in which Yvette now hurried along, the place had the air of a beautiful, damaged creature still licking its wounds. Now that winter had come, all its scars were laid bare.

    Sisters of the Resistance p8

    The novel moves between 1947 and 1944, which was a time approaching the end of the war but still a dangerous one, as the Nazis grew ever more desperate and vicious.

    The sisters of the title are Yvette and Gabby, young women of very different personalities and approaches to their wartime experiences. Gabby is the eldest; sensible and cautious, just wanting to survive the war as best she can. Yvette is more impulsive, driven by a need to do something to help her city and country in its struggle against Nazi oppression. I enjoyed the contrasting characters: one accidentally and reluctantly drawn into resistance work; the other eager, if naïve about the dangers involved.

    As with many good historical fiction novels, this one was inspired by the true story of Catherine Dior, the sister of the more famous French fashion icon Christian. She worked and fought for the Paris resistance before her arrest, torture and incarceration in a German concentration camp. I had been introduced to her story before, via another novel about WWII, The Paris Secret by Natasha Lester. Hers is a remarkable story and in this new novel, Christine Wells has woven a moving and exciting tale about other women who contributed in their own ways to the cause of French freedom.

    The murkiness of the world of the resistance is explored as the characters navigate their way through the difficult (sometimes impossible) choices they are faced with:

    “At what point does it become collaboration? At what point treason? Do we judge by someone’s actions or by their intentions?”

    Sisters of the Resistance p102

    There are hints and glimpses of intrigue, betrayals and danger that kept me turning the page, and prompted me to wonder what I would do, if faced with similar situations and dilemmas that called upon every atom of strength I possessed.

    Sisters of the Resistance is published by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins, in July 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    A story of survival: ‘The Woman With the Blue Star’ by Pam Jenoff

    I had not known that Jews in Poland wore a blue star, rather than yellow, under the Nazi regime. Nor did I know the horrifying fact that some Jews survived detection by living underground – in the city sewer tunnels, along with the filth, the damp and the rats. These were two new things I learnt as a result of reading Pam Jenoff’s The Woman with the Blue Star.

    Set in Krakow in 1942, the novel tells the story of two young women – Sadie, an eighteen year old Jewish girl who escapes the Nazis and Polish police during their ‘liquidation’ of the Ghetto, and Ella, who is from an affluent Polish family. Ella lives with her hated stepmother in relative comfort (in large part due to her stepmother’s consorting with German men.) Ella spots Sadie’s face one morning through a sewer grate and comes to realise that Sadie (and others) are in hiding down there.

    Ella sets out to help in whatever ways she can – bringing food to begin with – but the stakes for them both get much higher as the war progresses and the level of danger increases.

    The author set the story in Krakow, though it was the sewers in the Polish city of Lvov in which Jewish people actually lived and survived the war. It’s almost beyond belief that anyone could survive a day or a week in such an unhealthy and putrid environment. Then again, much of what happened in European cities, towns, and Nazi concentration camps during WWII is beyond belief.

    I found that I didn’t warm to the characters in The Woman With the Blue Star as much as I might have wished; however the novel’s drama swept me along with it and I am always fascinated by stories that reveal things about this period of history.

    The Woman With the Blue Star is published by HarperCollins Publishers in May 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

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

    What can be put right? ‘Heroes of the Secret Underground’ by Susanne Gervay

    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.
    “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.’

    Heroes of the Secret Underground p137

    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.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Remembering the heroines: ‘Legends of the Lost Lilies’ by Jackie French

    Firstly: don’t let the luscious cover of Jackie French’s latest historical fiction fool you. It may look like a classic historical romance, but there is enough danger, intrigue, secrets and twisty bits to satisfy any lover of thriller novels. No car chase scenes, but I say thank goodness for that!

    Secondly, a disclaimer: Legends of the Lost Lilies is book number five (and the final) in the Miss Lily series, which collectively cover the immediate pre-WWI period to the immediate post-WWII period (and a later epilogue). I had previously read only the first, Miss Lily’s Lovely Ladies, and there is a lot that happens in the intervening three episodes – so I was left a little bewildered by some of the story in this latest book. Ms French skilfully weaves in essential bits of backstory and introduces characters well (of course she does, she is an expert storyteller), but I do think it best to come to this one having read at least one or two of the previous titles. I intend to go back and fill in some gaps when I can.

    The characters from the first Miss Lily appear in this one, too, though of course much has happened to them all over two world wars and everything in between. I don’t want to say much about the plot of book five, because it would be too easy to give spoilers. One thing I will say about the plot is that, in her Author’s Note, Ms French assures us that every character and incident in the book is based on people and events that really existed, individually or as composites. That was good to read because there are some ‘larger than life’ characters and some moments when I wondered at a plot turn. Shades of Margaret Atwood, who based every event in her groundbreaking novel The Handmaid’s Tale’ on things that had really happened somewhere in the world.

    I’d like to comment on the themes of the five Miss Lily books. In her Author’s Note, Jackie French says:

    The series shows how women’s views of themselves changed and widened over the twentieth century. It is also about the women men did not see, or rather, did see, but then for a multitude of reasons omitted from history.

    Legends of the Lost Lilies p.431

    The novel also explores the complexities of life, of relationships, the tragedy and pointlessness of war. A strong underlying theme is the nature of love (in all its forms) and loyalty, kindness and forgiveness as tools for peace, and loss as the inevitable other side of love.

    A lovely quote towards the end of the book combines many of these themes. Observing the young women of her family in the 1970’s, Sophia reflects on how the women of her generation and earlier generations prepared their path:

    They think they invented it all, and that is how it should be, for pride in what they have achieved will take them further.
    Yet their grandmothers and great-grandmothers and every generation of women before them were there at every major moment in history, though the books rarely record us.

    Legends of the Lost Lilies p.428

    In amongst the drama, the intelligence activities, the horror of wartime, the losses, pain and grief, this is the shining thread that runs through the Miss Lily narrative: women and their networks, friendships, strengths. The series will be enjoyed by historical fiction fans who love reading about the heroic women of our collective past.

    Legends of the Lost Lilies will be published by HarperCollins Australia in April 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to review.

  • Books and reading,  History

    More about the codebreakers of WWII: ‘The Rose Code’ by Kate Quinn

    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.

  • 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.