We That Are Left by Lisa Bigelow

we that are left.jpgTitle: We That Are Left

Author: Lisa Bigelow

Genre: Historical Fiction

Publisher: Allen and Unwin

Published: 23rd August 2017

Format: Paperback

Pages: 400

Price: $29.99

Synopsis: A moving debut novel about love and war, and the terrifyingly thin line between happiness and tragedy, hope and despair.

Melbourne, 1941. Headstrong young Mae meets and falls head over heels in love with Harry Parker, a dashing naval engineer. After a whirlwind courtship they marry and Mae is heavily pregnant when she hears that Harry has just received his dream posting to HMAS Sydney. Just after Mae becomes a mother, she learns Harry’s ship is missing.

Meanwhile, Grace Fowler is battling prejudice to become a reporter on the afternoon daily newspaper, The Tribune, while waiting for word on whether her journalist boyfriend Phil Taylor, captured during the fall of Singapore, is still alive.

Surrounded by their friends and families, Mae and Grace struggle to keep hope alive in the face of hardship and despair. Then Mae’s neighbour and Grace’s boss Sam Barton tells Mae about a rumour that the Japanese have towed the damaged ship to Singapore and taken the crew prisoner. Mae’s life is changed forever as she focuses her efforts on willing her husband home.

Set in inner Melbourne and rural Victoria, We That Are Left is a moving and haunting novel about love and war, the terrifyingly thin line between happiness and tragedy, and how servicemen and women are not the only lives lost when tragedy strikes during war.

~*~

aww2017-badgeIn 1941, Australia is at war against Germany, and as they advance through Asia and the Pacific, Japan. Those in the armed forces at bases and at sea are away from their families, who are trying to make do back home. In Melbourne, two women’s lives will be inexorably changed by the events to come in Malaya, Singapore and at sea that are to come. Mae’s husband, Harry, has been assigned to the HMAS Sydney, and Mae, having just given birth, is at home under the care of family, and kept at arms length by Harry’s family at times. When the Sydney goes missing, Mae’s world begins to fall apart, and she is held together by her family, and her friends, Sam and his wife, Claire, whose kindness heals her and will eventually help her come to terms with what has happened.

In Melbourne, Grace Fowler has begun work as Sam’s secretary at the Tribune, where she meets Phil Taylor, who eventually takes a correspondents posting in Singapore to do what he can for the war, and is subsequently captured by the Japanese in 1942 after the fall of Singapore. Throughout his absence, Grace graduates from secretary to writing in the women’s pages and attending a memorial service for the HMAS Sydney, where she spies Mae – the only time they appear in the same section of the book, but do not interact. Through their separate lives, the story is about how these women, the ones that are left behind, cope with the looming war and loss of loved ones, whether dead or captured, and how they deal with grief and their hopes and dreams for themselves and their families.

We That Are Left as a novel, is more historical fiction, an homage to those left behind. Lisa got her title from the poem often read out on Anzac Day and Remembrance Day each year, For the Fallen by Laurence Binyon:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

The realities of war and war at home are a major theme in We That Are Left. By focussing in on the stories of two women, with very different lives, like the many authors who have explored World War Two in literature, Lisa Bigelow has given a human face, another aspect of humanity lost and humanity found to the war. It explores motherhood and family tensions and resolve through Mae’s story, and the staunch belief in the best outcome, even if the reality is the opposite, and the time it can take for some people to come to accept the reality they are faced with in times of war, illustrating that grief affects people differently, and acceptance of a loss can take years. Through Grace, we see the fight of a young woman who yearns to be more than a wife and a mother, more than a secretary or teacher biding her time until she weds and has babies. Grace is head strong and determined to show she can do more than answer phones and write about knitting – she can write about a daring escape and capture of enemy prisoners of war, she can write about the human side of a story, catching the spirit behind the facts that so many reporters relied on, and she is praised for it by many.

The final chapters wrap up their stories, but in a realistic way, showing what life after the war means for different people in different situations. Rather than a happily ever after, it is just an ending. Life goes on, it is what it is for these women, who have shown varying degrees of strength and vulnerability throughout the novel, both with flaws that create well rounded characters and a story that is at times hopeful, but also gut wrenchingly sad in its realism.

Written to honour those who were left and those who came back but weren’t who they were, Lisa Bigelow’s inspiration came from family stories of her grandfather, one of the 645 sailors lost on the HMAS Sydney, and the death of her grandmother not long after. It is a story of hope and the ways we cling to our humanity in times of war. I found it to be very moving, and the little bit of romance between Grace and Phil was done very well and balanced out nicely with the bulk of Grace’s story and her fight to become a cadet and write for a paper. It is one of those stories that i think is too hard to give a starred review to, because there is something exceptional about it that giving it a starred rating cannot express eloquently or sufficiently.

Booktopia

The Children of Willeseden Lane by Mona Golabek and Lee Cohen

willesden laneTitle: The Children of Willesden Lane

Author: Mona Golabek and Lee Cohen

Genre: Non-Fiction

Publisher: Allen and Unwin

Published: 23rd August 2017

Format: Paperback

Pages: 224

Price: $16.99

Synopsis: A true story of courage and survival during World War II, and a celebration of the power of music to lift the human spirit.

Jewish musical prodigy Lisa Jura has a wonderful life in Vienna. But when the Nazis start closing in on the city, life changes irreversibly. Although he has three daughters, Lisa’s father is only able to secure one place on the Kindertransport. The family sends Lisa to London so that she may pursue her dreams of a career as a concert pianist. Separated from her beloved family, Lisa bravely endures the trip and a disastrous posting outside London before finding her way to the Willesden Lane Orphanage.

Here, her music inspires the other children, and they, in turn, cheer her on in her efforts to make good on her promise to her family to realise her musical potential. Through hard work and sheer pluck, Lisa wins a scholarship to study piano at the Royal Academy. As she supports herself and studies, she makes a new life for herself and dreams of reconnecting with the family she was forced to leave behind.

Based on the true story of her mother, Mona Golabek describes the inspirational story of fourteen-year-old Lisa Jura Golabek’s escape from Nazi-controlled Austria to England on the famed Kindertransport.

~*~

The human stories of World War Two, whether on the home front, or about those fleeing persecution, are the ones that always have the biggest impact on me when reading about them, because it can be easy to forget that wars were more than just the statistics of dead and injured, and easy to forget the human cost – not just in life and limb, but in loss of family, loss of country and loss of self. The stories about these people whether true, based on a true story or imagined and based on history, broaden the story told in history books and go beyond the statistics. The Children of Willesden Lane is one such story of the human face and the human cost of World War Two, and Nazi occupied Austria prior to the war.

In 1938, Germany enacts the Anschluss, annexing Austria, and placing it and its citizens under Nazi control. Just like the past five years in Germany, the Nazi Party begins to erode the rights of the Jewish citizens in Austria. In Vienna, Lisa Jura is forced to stop her piano lessons because she is Jewish – her teacher is heartbroken, but there is nothing else they can do, and so, Lisa’s mother teaches her until a spot opens up for Lisa on the Kindertransport to take her to London, away from the clutches of the Nazis, and where her family will make every attempt they can to join her as soon as possible. In London, Lisa finds her way to Willesden Lane, where she becomes part of a family of refugee children, and through her music, finds a way to get through the war, eventually gaining a spot in a music program, and a job playing piano at a hotel, which gets her through the dark days of the war.

Playing the piano at Willesden Lane gives Lisa and the other children, and those taking care of them, Mrs Cohen and Mrs Glazer a chance, even if just for an hour, to escape the war and the damage it is doing to London and Europe, and the hearts and souls of those directly impacted by the war and what has come out of the Nazi regime. It is a story of hope amidst tragedy and war, retold for children aged ten to fourteen, and anyone interested by Lisa’s daughter, Mona.

It is a story that I didn’t know much about, but that will stay with me. Like other stories of escape from the Nazis, or Anne Frank’s story, and novels such as The Book Thief, and the three novels by Jackie French about this period in history: Hitler’s Daughter, Pennies for Hitler and Goodbye, Mr Hitler, it serves as a reminder of what men like Hitler can do, and what the attitudes they spread and justify can do to ordinary people who have done nothing wrong, using it to back up their ideology and effectively, scare people into silence. Lisa’s journey was powerful and emotional, and it gives a human face to a war fought less than a century ago, showing the power of the human spirit to triumph over hatred and adversity.

Booktopia

The Cursed First Term of Zelda Stitch: Bad Teacher, Worse Witch by Nicki Greenberg

zelda stitch.jpgTitle: The Cursed First Term of Zelda Stitch: Bad Teacher, Worse Witch

Author: Nicki Greenberg

Genre: Children’s Fiction

Publisher: Allen and Unwin

Published: 23rd August, 2017

Format: Paperback

Pages: 272

Price: $14.99

Synopsis: Imagine if you read your teacher’s diary… and discovered she was a witch! With courage, imagination and a certain amount of recklessness, Zelda Stitch begins her first year of teaching primary school – as an incompetent (incognito) witch.

‘Zelda rides a broomstick!’
‘Zelda’s got a bat-friend!’
‘Zelda smells like toadstools!’
‘Witch! Witch! Witch!’

It was bad enough when I was eleven years old. But if they sniff me out now, it’ll be a disaster.

Zelda Stitch isn’t much of a witch – she’s hoping she’ll make a better primary school teacher. But if the vice principal finds out about her, her dream will go up in a puff of smoke.

Keeping her magic secret isn’t the only trouble bubbling in Ms Stitch’s classroom: there’s wild-child Zinnia, lonely Eleanor, secretive Phoebe and a hairy, eight-legged visitor called Jeremy. Not to mention the nits…

With NO HELP AT ALL from her disagreeable cat Barnaby, Zelda must learn to be a better teacher, a better friend and a better witch – even if that means taking broomstick lessons.

Magic. Mischief. Mayhem. Zelda’s classroom is a cauldron full of laughs.

~*~

aww2017-badgeZelda Stitch has just started a new teaching job, and she has more to worry about than just being a good teacher and the Vice Principal liking her. Zelda is a witch, and, according to her Mum and friends, not a very talented witch at that. Between witch lessons and teaching a class of children who seem to be trying to drive her away, to a Vice Principal who is constantly suspicious of her, Zelda must hide the fact that she is a witch from the class. Living a double life is hard, especially when one of your friends writes fantasy novels that use the tropes associated with witches, and your mother and friends are insisting you use your powers more than you do. And having a judgemental, disagreeable cat named Barnaby doesn’t help. Told in diary format, Zelda’s first nine weeks of teaching are filled with laughs, fun and magic, hinting at something bigger to come. Telling it in diary form is interesting and different – it allows the reader to truly get inside Zelda’s mind and see things the way she does, and she peppers her entries with conversations with her witchy circle, what happens in class and the snarky observations of her cat, Barnaby, whose character really shines from the page and he soon came to be the one I most looked forward to hearing about.

Zelda’s diary has illustrations of her class, Barnaby and other things she has written about, giving it colour and character that a purely text doesn’t always have. Aimed at children aged eight and older, I think it can be enjoyed by boys and girls, of any age, and by readers of all levels, from those learning, to confident readers, and will hopefully, like Harry Potter did for my generation, encourage reluctant readers to explore the world of books and words.

I thoroughly enjoyed this, even as an adult, and for older readers, I think is a wonderfully quick read when you just want something fun to enjoy and relax with.

Booktopia

Small Publisher Spotlight: Odyssey Books

Latest in my series of posts for the Australian Women Writer’s Challenge

Odyssey Books was founded in 2009 by Michelle Lovi, who fell in love with publishing whilst working for the public service in Canberra. Through her volunteer work for a magazine, she began to consider the different types of independent publishing available. Print-on-demand, self-publishing, and independent publishing, in both print and eBook formats, became the model…

via Small Publisher Spotlight: Odyssey Books — Australian Women Writers Challenge Blog

 

aww2017-badge

The Crying Years: Australia’s Great War by Peter Stanley

the crying yearsTitle: The Crying Years: Australia’s Great War

Author: Peter Stanley

Genre: History

Publisher: NLA Publishing

Published: 1st August 2017

Format: Paperback

Pages: 264

Price: $44.95

Synopsis: The Great War of 1914-1918 affected all Australians and decisively changed the new nation. They were ‘The Crying Years’ according to writer Zora Cross, who lost her brother in 1917.

This visual history of Australia’s Great War offers a different perspective on a period of time familiar to many. It helps to connect the war overseas – the well-chronicled battles at Gallipoli, Fromelles, Passchendaele and Villers-Bretonneux – with the equally bitter war at home, for and against conscription, over ‘loyalty’ and ‘disloyalty’. Men faced life-changing choices: volunteer to fight or stay at home; join the revolutionary unionists or break the strikes. Women bore the burdens of waiting and worrying, of working for charities, or of voting to send men to their deaths. Even children were drawn into the animosities, as their communities fractured under the stress.

Prize-winning historian Professor Peter Stanley of UNSW Canberra uses documents, photographs, artefacts and images from the collections of the National Library of Australia to evoke the drama and tragedy, suffering and sacrifice, pain and pity of Australia’s Great War.

~*~

Peter Stanley’s new book, The Crying Years, coincides with the one hundred years since the Battle of the Somme. Rather than just being about the battles, and the statistics, it delves into the war they many fought at home – not as violent or deadly as the battle that the men who volunteered and those who were eventually conscripted from 1916 onwards had been –but a war none the less. Back home, people in Australia struggled with losing loved ones, not knowing where they were or where they had fallen, or been injured. Back home, those who hadn’t volunteered or were not eligible to serve were often thought of as shirkers, especially conscientious objectors.

The war that we know in most history books, whilst it deals with statistics, they also talk a lot about the Anzac legend and how it was formed, and what it means to be an Anzac and an Australian and the importance we give to it. Stanley’s book makes mention of this too, but highlights the darker side, the more tragic side of the war that led to the formation of the legend. We should still be proud of the men and women on the front, in hospital ships, and behind the lines and in the trenches who gave their lives for Australia during our early years as a nation, and also those back home, who lost family and loved ones, and by honouring their sacrifice, we do. But at the same time, we should remember it was not always heroic, that these brave men and women who returned home came with more than just physical wounds. Stanley states that when the last Anzac died in 2002, John Howard, the then Prime Minister, revived the Anzac legend – the idealistic one that seems to hide the dark and grim reality of the war, and presents the heroic image of a young nation and the sacrifice of 60, 000 men as what Stanley suggests was seen as worthwhile by a patriotic middle class – his interpretation of the fervour of war that perhaps did a disservice to the reality these men and women had faced. Stanley recognises the reality and the mythical legend in this book, and I felt he carefully balanced them out to give a more holistic understanding, through visual artefacts from collections and text, to the war and the Anzac legend.

The sombre images of battlefields, of war worn soldiers and nurses, reproductions of letters and other communications between officials contrast with the patriotic images of commemorations of Australia during the war and propaganda, and the profiles interspersed throughout of men and women who aided the war effort or protested it also give a more rounded view than some other books might. Stanley has attempted to be inclusive in this book as well, but as it is a visual history, acknowledgement must be given to what was available for him to utilise and write about during the research process.

An interesting book for anyone interested in history, and war histories, I think it is an important reminder that war has darker sides that were not as obvious back then, as it can be patriotic to those involved.

The Sixteen Trees of the Somme by Lars Mytting

sixteen trees.jpgTitle: The Sixteen Trees of the Somme

Author: Lars Mytting

Genre: Fiction

Publisher: Hachette Australia: MacLehose Press

Published: 8th August, 2017

Format: Paperback

Pages: 405

Price: $32.99

Synopsis: A 20th-century family saga of epic scale, by the author of NORWEGIAN WOOD.

By Norway’s bestselling novelist and the author of NORWEGIAN WOOD, a family story of epic scale.

Edvard grows up on a remote mountain farmstead in Norway with his taciturn grandfather, Sverre. The death of his parents, when he was three years old, has always been shrouded in mystery – he has never been told how or where it took place and has only a distant memory of his mother.

But he knows that the fate of his grandfather’s brother, Einar, is somehow bound up with this mystery. One day a coffin is delivered for his grandfather long before his death – a meticulous, beautiful piece of craftsmanship. Perhaps Einar is not dead after all.

Edvard’s desperate quest to unlock the family’s tragic secrets takes him on a long journey – from Norway to the Shetlands, and to the battlefields of France – to the discovery of a very unusual inheritance. THE SIXTEEN TREES OF THE SOMME is about the love of wood and finding your own self, a beautifully intricate and moving tale that spans an entire century.

Translated from the Norwegian by Paul Russell Garrett

~*~

The story that Norwegian author, Lars Mytting weaves is unusual, yet lyrical. In 1991, a young man, Edvard Hirjifell, begins an odyssey of discovery about his past, and the family he never knew, following the death of his grandfather, Bestefor. The mystery of his parents death begins the trip, and leads him to search for his grandfather’s brother, Einar, whom he hopes has not died, and will help him link the pieces of his past together. Edvard’s journey spans Norway, France and the Shetlands, discovering an unusual inheritance on the blood-drenched soils of the Somme from 1916, and a family legacy tainted by two world wars, and the horrors some of his ancestors were forced to go through. At times he finds himself questioning his identity, and as he finds people linked to his family, the puzzle pieces of his early life in 1971 begin to fall into place.

Translated into English from Norwegian by Paul Russell Garrett, The Sixteen Trees of the Somme was more character than plot driven, lending itself to literary fiction, and the subtlety within the writing that hinted at what was to come, what had happened and who someone was. As a result, the story was slowly revealed, each detail placed specifically to ensure maximum impact on the reader.

Initially I chose this book based on its title, hinting towards a story about the Somme and those who were there – however, both world wars were only mentioned implicitly in the early sections, and it was about half way into the story before the Battle of the Somme and the events of World War Two started to link up to Edvard’s family history, and what his French and Jewish ancestors had experienced, and how a soldier who had been at the Somme had come to impact his early life, and his link to that family. It became less about the wars themselves and more about the individuals in Edvard’s life who had been marked by war and tragedy. Through the eyes of Edvard, it reveals not only the tragedy and futility of war and sending young men off to fight, or punishing people for resisting a heinous regime, but the futility of being human, and the flaws we all have that an impact on the decisions we make and the way we act.

Translated books allow people who don’t speak the primary language of the author to read stories they may otherwise not get to engage with, and this is a bonus of having these books available. Some translations are exceptionally done, and capture the essence of the book, and as a reader, you can get a sense of the movement of the story. The Sixteen Trees of the Somme achieves this, and through a serious a sombre tone, communicated the desolation felt by Edvard and those whose stories and lives had shaped his.

Lars Mytting has created a story that crosses a century, and through the eyes of the main character, reveals how different people reacted to the history and to those they knew had been involved. The image at the beginning of a swastika on Bestefor’s car is indicative of wounds that have not healed, but that could also hint at remnants of other attitudes that were around during this time, and is just one example of the slow reveal techniques used in the novel, which did give it a slow pace, but it suited the story and style of the novel, and as such, I found it to be well written and engaging.

Booktopia – 25% Off Top 100

Booktopia

Her by Garry Disher

Title: Her

her.jpg

Author: Garry Disher

Genre: Fiction

Publisher: Hachette Australia

Published: 8th August 2017

Format: Paperback

Pages: 210

Price: $29.99

Synopsis: Beautifully and powerfully written, this is a look at the darker side of Australia’s past – and particularly

the status of girls and women in our society – that will stay with you long after you finish reading.

Out in that country the sun smeared the sky and nothing ever altered, except that one day a scrap man came by . . .

HER name is scarcely known or remembered. All in all, she is worth less than the nine shillings and sixpence counted into her father’s hand.

She bides her time. She does her work.

Way back in the corner of her mind is a thought she is almost too frightened to shine a light on: one day she will run away.

A dark and unsettling tale from the turn of the twentieth century by a master of Australian literature.

~*~

A recurring theme across literature and various stories is the idea of names, and the power that they can have. In Rumplestiltskin, the Queen must guess Rumplestiltskin’s name to save her child, an act she achieves through deception and spying. By announcing his name, he loses, tears himself in half, and as the sanitised versions say, they all lived happily ever after. In Harry Potter, Voldemort’s name is one to be feared, and even years after his initial defeat, even those of Harry’s generation, including Hermione, a Muggle-born, are afraid of speaking it – a fear that Voldemort exploits in the final book to track down those who are trying to fight him. And in Her by Garry Disher, names are taken away as an act of power, a way to control women and girls, and a way to make them feel desolate and alone. The scrap man buys his women and girls, and denies them names and identities beyond Wife, Big Girl, You and Sister. Moving around, selling scrap and goods made from scrap, the scrap man is abusive towards his women, and spends all the money on pub visits throughout the course of the novel, blaming You, Wife and Big Girl.

Eventually, You is questioned by authorities about her name, and why she isn’t in school. She soon desires a name, and eventually, at the age of about six or seven, names herself Lily. From here on in, Lily forges her own identity, and plans to escape with Sister, who becomes known as Hazel. Set during the turbulent first twenty years of the twentieth century, the First World War and the Spanish Flu pandemic, the scrap man and his hastily thrown together family, whose main purpose is to help him deceive, and allow him to do what he wants to them, are unaware of the lingering effects of the war, knowing only that rabbit skins are in high demand for boots and hats for soldiers, and only seeing it as a way to make a living that he soon fritters away at the pub, and blames ‘his women’ for losing.

In a world so consumed by the war, the Kaiser and the trenches, the Australia, the country Victoria that Lily and Hazel know is ignorant of this war that has affected millions. They are sneered at for not knowing how the war has broken people, and broken families. It is, at its heart, a story about broken people, bought by a man who comes across as having no humanity, no feelings, and who uses and abuses people.

Lily’s time spent going around to places and gathering food and sometimes pilfering things leads to her growing sense of identity, something that was denied her for so long, and gives her the strength to keep planning her escape, and plans to take Hazel with her.

It is a novel where every word used pays off, and where the simplest of lines, such as Lily’s desire to hit the Kaiser, even though she doesn’t have an inkling of who it is or the significance of the war years to the country, illustrates how Lily responds to her world, and how an act of hitting a man unknown to her can give her a feeling of power.

I read it in two nights, and it is a well paced novel, that reveals a side to Australian history and humanity often ignored and unacknowledged, contrasting the wider horrors of war to the insular world of people who are out for themselves in more ways than one, and who are willing to manipulate and take advantage of people.

A historical fiction novel about World War One that uses it more as a pin point in time, and an event that simply gives the novel context, I felt this showed the grim reality of how women and girls could be treated – as property that in this story, didn’t even deserve names or identities, and the harsh reality of what it meant to be poor in those times. It highlights what having a name and identity means to us as humans. It is a novel that I might revisit one day, and is definitely one that stays with you for awhile.

Booktopia