Ticking off my fourth square this time, the debut novel, I went with The Soldier’s Curse by Meg and Tom Keneally (Monsarrat Series Book One). This is Meg Keneally’s debut novel, though it is written with her father, Tom Keneally, who wrote Schindler’s Ark. This is the start of a series, set during colonial times in Port Macquarie, around 1825, and explores not only a crime, but also the history of the convict era and implications of being a convict, as well as the interactions with the local Indigenous people and ideas about how these interactions could have occurred and what they meant for different people – so it is an interesting look at how this may have happened.
It is a complicated, and lengthy mystery, but finding out what happens at the end is very satisfying, and so the meandering road it takes to get to the resolution and main death is very well executed, and satisfying as you dig through the layers and uncover who the characters are. The true nature of the crime and those involved is also quietly bubbling away in the background as suspects are mentioned and dismissed until the true killer is uncovered. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the series.
I’m hoping to read the rest of the series this year, and it is going to be one that hits many categories in my reading challenges, some multiple times!
Onto the next square – I’m not sure what it will be but I can’t wait to fill it and reveal it to you!
Title: The Soldier’s Curse (The Monsarrat Series Book One)
Author: Meg and Tom Keneally
Genre: Historical Fiction, Crime
Publisher: Vintage/Penguin Random House
Published: 27th February 2017
Synopsis: A fast-paced, witty and gripping historical crime series from Tom Keneally and his eldest daughter Meg.
In the Port Macquarie penal settlement for second offenders, at the edge of the known world, gentleman convict Hugh Monsarrat hungers for freedom. Originally transported for forging documents passing himself off as a lawyer, he is now the trusted clerk of the settlement’s commandant.
His position has certain advantages, such as being able to spend time in the Government House kitchen, being supplied with outstanding cups of tea by housekeeper Hannah Mulrooney, who, despite being illiterate, is his most intelligent companion.
Not long after the commandant heads off in search of a rumoured river, his beautiful wife, Honora, falls ill with a sickness the doctor is unable to identify. When Honora dies, it becomes clear she has been slowly poisoned.
Monsarrat and Mrs Mulrooney suspect the commandant’s second-in-command, Captain Diamond, a cruel man who shares history with Honora. Then Diamond has Mrs Mulrooney arrested for the murder. Knowing his friend will hang if she is tried, Monsarrat knows he must find the real killer. And so begins The Monsarrat Series, a fast-paced, witty and gripping series from Tom Keneally and his eldest daughter, Meg.
This is another series that I have had on my shelf for years and have only just started reading. All the books in this series are out, so hopefully I can get through them over the next few weeks or months. The first book introduces us to Hugh Llewellyn Monsarrat, a gentleman convict who is towards the end of his sentence in 1825. He is friendly with a local housekeeper, Hannah Mulrooney, and Hugh now works as the clerk for the commandant of the Port Macquarie settlement in 1825.
It is around this time that the commandant heads off – and his wife, Honora starts getting ill, and eventually dies. When Hannah is accused, Monsarrat sets out to uncover the real killer.
The mystery within The Soldier’s Curse starts out slowly – as an illness that the doctors have several ideas as to what it might be – but poisoning does not cross their minds until it is too late, and this is where it is clever, as once Honora dies, the investigation Hugh conducts ramps up – whereas before he is an observer, and finds himself reflecting on the events that led him to where he is at the stage of the novel. As a result, there is a lot of backstory and build up, yet I think it helps contribute to the setting and feelings of the characters and mystery. Hugh is determined to prove Hannah Mulrooney is not guilty – the presumption that she is guilty because those in charge of finding out what happens ignore the access that others had to what may have to Honora and her home.
Whilst Hugh navigates his position between the world of convicts, education and freedom, he also observes how the Indigenous people of the area the settlers named Port Macquarie – the Birpai – interact with the newcomers to their land, and the intersections of these communities in different ways – from those who do not come into contact, to the Birpai returning absconding convicts and to those mentioned who are said to have relationships (though this is not expanded on) with the settlers – of which, knowing history, there would have been negative ones as well as the positive ones hinted at in this book. As these stories are not always told, having them mentioned brings them to light at least, and readers can, from there, explore this area of history further to gain a better understanding of what happened in those early colonial days. It will be interesting to see how this is further explored in future books. There are complexities of relationships between convicts, jailers and free settlers, between the Indigenous people and the Europeans, and indeed, between the men and women, as well as between Englishmen and Irish or Scottish folk dealt with in this novel throughout. It felt as though these were carefully considered through the lens of Hugh, and based on his personality, and ways of understanding the world. Inequality is highlighted in many ways here – as is the hierarchy of everyone there. The way this is navigated throughout is consistently there, even if not mentioned on every page: there is a constant feeling that this is all going on at the time. It reflects a world where nobody quite understands each other and struggles to find a way to collaborate.
As the start of a series, it is very dense in establishing the character and his history, yet as with any series with a key character, there is always more to come in subsequent books – the little things that have not come to the surface yet, and questions about the character that were not answered in the first book. I have the four that are already out on my shelf and hope to get through them all soon. It is an intriguing read about colonial history, and colonies other than Sydney Cove as well as the various interactions between the original inhabitants and those brought here for punishment, and the attitudes towards those two groups from the people who south to enforce their authority. A great start to a series.
In the last year, I’ve discovered podcasts, and the ones I mainly listen to revolve around books, history and popular culture. Because podcasts are generally short – usually no longer than an hour for the ones I listen to, I find them great to pop on whilst working or writing and just listen to them in the background and absorb the information in them. Podcasts cover just about every topic you could ever imagine, but in this post I am focusing on the bookish ones I listen to most days and weeks.
The Book Show is an ABC RN podcast, of a radio show hosted by Claire Nichols. The show airs live on Monday at ten in the morning, and repeated at nine p.m. on Wednesday nights and Saturday afternoons at two p.m. Claire interviews authors from Australia and around the world and conducts in-depth conversations with them about the book and how they wrote it, what influenced them and lets the interview flow, so there are some very interesting discussions with authors I know and many I do not know. I listen via podcast on the ABC listen app, and the website if you’d like to access the show through there.
Another ABC RN Show, hosted by Cassie McCullagh and Kate Evans, where they review the latest fiction books from Australia and around the world. Sister programme to The Book Show, Cassie and Kate sometimes feature snippets of The Book Show on their show, and at times, interview authors, and record from writer’s festivals from around Australia and in other places at times. It airs Fridays at eleven in the morning, and is repeated on Monday at eleven at night, and Sunday afternoons at three. As with the Book Show, I listen via the ABC listen app as a podcast. The website also has it if you prefer to access the show here.
In this podcast, various Good Reading employees interview Australian authors (so far) about their books, writing and what inspires them. Their very first interview was with Sulari Gentill, and many of my favourite authors have been interviewed. This is one I am still listening to the backlog of as I write this post in fact, and it can be accessed via a podcast app, such as the Apple Podcasts, Soundcloud or via the Good Reading Website. Like with many of the interviews, some episodes are more interesting than others, but it is nice to listen to all of them, as sometimes there are gems in there and lots of random trivia to store away.
I came to this one quite late – after it had been going for about two years, and spent a lot of time binge listening to it and now have one or two to catch up on, as with many of my podcasts, so I use my days where I don’t go anywhere to listen to as many episodes as I can. In this one, Dani Vee interviews authors from Australia, and sometimes overseas, who write for a myriad of age groups and in all genres, which makes it very interesting and she has interviewed some of my favourite authors and I think those are my favourite episodes. Some she has even had on more than once! Dani’s podcast can be accessed via the linked website, or via a podcast app such as Apple Podcasts.
Middle grade books are a genre I enjoy reading, reviewing and close to the genre I work in as an educational quiz writer. I am yet to start listening to it, but their website says they interview key stakeholders in the industry, and it can be found on Apple Podcasts, Spotify Podcasts or Google Podcasts, or on the website. I look forward to hearing from Julie Anne Grusso and Pamela Ueckerman in the coming weeks as I get into listening to this podcast.
These are the five main bookish podcasts I listen to, and all are suitable for what they do. I’m looking forward to exploring Middle Grade Mavens, and hope you find something you like in these recommendations.
The third square I am marking off is a book set in Europe. With this one, I had many countries, genres, time periods and authors to choose from that are on my shelf and will be headed my way. However, as my goal is to mark off the easier categories in all challenges first, with one book per book bingo square but knowing that other challenges may well have multiple entries and books, as they are fairly open. If this happens, then it is fine for me – it will just mean a more detailed list at the end!
Josephine’s Garden by Stephanie Parkyn is set in post-Revolutionary France, also known as the Terror at the time of the Napoleonic Wars. People are still feeling uneasy with the new way of things on all sides, and in the midst of these politics and politics of gender expectations and family, Josephine Bonaparte creates a garden at her home, Malmaison while her husband heads off on campaigns around Europe to take land for France and its empire.
Whilst Napoleon has his sights set on growing France within Europe, Josephine is focused on her small section of Europe, her little world that she has created, away from the memories of the Terror, yet there are still worries about it at the back of her mind.
So there are three squares already checked off in this book bingo challenge! I am sure some will be more challenging, yet in checking off the easier ones as early as possible, I will be able to focus on those as I get closer and try to get those done as well.
My second book bingo card, the Books and Bites Bingo Card, is a more casual one for me. I’ll post as I fill a square, rather than on a schedule as I am with the other one, and ideally, one post per square for better clarity. So this is my post for my second square – written in the first person.
There were many options I could go with here, that I have read, am reading and that I could read in the coming weeks and months. However, as there are other categories to fill in this and all my challenges, I chose one that I read just after New Year.
Pippa’s Island: Puppy Pandemonium is the fifth in the Pippa’s Island series by Belinda Murrell. Pippa tells these stories as she adjusts to life on an Kira Island after moving there with her mum, brother and sister from England. Across five books, Pippa has told her story as she has made friends and watched her new home being built. I’m hoping there are more to come, but for now, I will be content knowing Pippa has her home, family and friends, and this book has managed to tick off several different challenge categories.
Synopsis: A captivating story of love, nature and identity in Napoleon’s France
‘Stephanie Parkyn is one very talented storyteller.’ -Mrs B’s Book Reviews
France, 1794. In the aftermath of the bloody end to the French Revolution, Rose de Beauharnais stumbles from prison on the day she is to be guillotined. Within a decade, she’ll transform into the scandalous socialite who marries Napoleon Bonaparte, become Empress Josephine of France and build a garden of wonders with plants and animals she gathers from across the globe.
But she must give Bonaparte an heir or she risks losing everything.
Two other women from very different spheres are tied to the fate of the Empress Josephine – Marthe Desfriches and Anne Serreaux. Their lives are put at risk as they each face confronting obstacles in their relationships and in their desire to become mothers.
From the author of Into the World comes a richly imagined historical novel about obsession, courage, love and marriage.
‘Enthralling novel, rich in historical detail … Highly recommended.’ –Good Reading on Into the World
Set in the days after the Terror, the French Revolution, Josephine’s Garden is the story of three women – Josephine Bonaparte, Marthe Desfriches, and Anne Serreaux. These three women have lived through revolution in different ways. Josephine, also known as Rose, has lost her husband to the guillotine and is now wed to Napoleon Bonaparte. Marthe Desfriches has lost two husbands, one to war, and is onto her third marriage to Jacques Labillardiere, a botanist who made an appearance in Into the World, along with other characters like Robespierre. Anne Serreaux, married to another botanist, becomes friends with Josephine as a garden grows at Josephine’s home – made up of plants and animals from New Holland, cultivated by Josephine and her botanists as Napoleon fights his way across Europe.
He demands an heir from Josephine – something she had been struggling to give him, and she must allow her children from her first marriage to he used as pawns in the political games of Napoleon as survivors of the Terror – either royalists or those who see Napoleon as another leader who will not free them but will be just as bad as the royal family that has recently died, so there is an undercurrent of further rebellion as Napoleon starts to establish himself as emperor of France.
Much of the action takes place at home, away from the war front of the Napoleonic Wars of 1803-1815 as Napoleon tries to gain power over European states to build the French Empire – many years prior to Europe forming as we know it today, and several decades before Bismarck and the German wars of unification. Napoleon is often away at war, but the moments he appears in the novel are significant – demands of an heir, assassination attempts and plans, and family trying to drive Josephine out because she has failed to produce an heir, so rumours swirl that she is barren. This intrigue builds throughout the novel and causes tension in many relationships. Carefully balanced with what Josephine wants, and what she is able to give, this is explored sensitively and given the attention it needs. Much of what drives all the tensions is the idea of producing heirs to secure empire, and women and their role to reproduce and raise the future generations – the expectations placed on the new aristocracy in as they seek to rebuild the power they lost – or a new power in the new nation of France without a monarchy to lead them.
Marthe is unhappy in her marriage to Labillardiere – she longs for a child, yet he refuses to give her one. He has other plans and is determined to keep botany secrets from Josephine so he can write his book. It would seem that in many ways, there are lots of people plotting against Josephine and Napoleon, separately and apart, but in different ways. As Josephine tends her garden, political unrest and alliances tear her family apart, and her friends become embroiled in various activities – some nefarious and some very personal as rumours swirl about Napoleon’s activities at home and abroad. Marthe’s story is gently dealt with at first, until she discovers secrets later on, and her story, and suspicions about what she is up to within the new empire and whether she is acting against Napoleon ramp up.
The inclusion of the historical figures from Into the World ties the two books together cleverly – but can both be read as standalone novels, separate from each other. This is an intriguing period in history, and I have noticed that there seem to be more stories appearing now about it, or maybe I am just noticing that there are more around as it has been drawn to my attention by these books and Kate Forsyth’s latest. Either way, these stories are given life now, and we see – through Josephine’s eyes – how ego drove Napoleon and his ambitions as she sought to create a beautiful antipodean garden in France.
Josephine’s fate is tied up with Anne and Marthe eventually, and the political undercurrents of the Napoleonic Wars and Napoleon’s need to secure his empire as he tries to build the French Empire in the image that Napoleon wishes to see. Intrigue and secrets fill this novel. Stephanie Parkyn has written this exquisitely, evoking the gardens and feelings of post-Revolutionary France – as those who were affected by the Terror navigate a new world. Her research has brought these people to life – and I loved the nods and throwbacks to Into the World. If there is more to come, especially about certain characters who make an appearance in this book, then I am very eager for it and will be recommending this novel to lovers of historical fiction.
Synopsis: Abandoned by the priestess of the island at birth, Aissa is an outcast, surviving by her wits – until she joins the acrobatic bull dancers who are sent away to compete on the island of the Bull King. A gripping and powerful adventure by acclaimed author Wendy Orr.
WINNER: 2017 Prime Minister’s Literary Award, Children’s Fiction
WINNER: 2018 Adelaide Festival Awards for Literature, Children’s Literature
HONOUR BOOK: CBCA Book of the Year, Younger Readers, 2017
There are two ways of looking at Aissa’s story. She’s the miracle girl who escaped the raiders. Or she’s the cursed child who called the Bull King’s ship to the island.
The firstborn daughter of a priestess is cast out as a baby, and after raiders kill her adopted family, she is abandoned at the gates of the Great Hall, anonymous and mute. Called No-Name, the cursed child, she is raised a slave, and not until she is twelve does she learn her name is Aissa: the dragonfly.
Now every year the Bull King takes a tribute from the island: two thirteen-year-old children to brave the bloody bull dances in his royal court. None have ever returned – but for Aissa it is the only escape.
Aissa is resilient, resourceful, and fast – but to survive the bull ring, she will have to learn the mystery of her true nature.
A riveting, mythic Bronze Age adventure from award-winning author Wendy Orr.
When Aissa is born, she is abandoned at birth, feared disfigured, and taken in by another family until raiders kill them. Alone in the world, she is found by others, and dumped at the gates of the Great Hall of one of the Greek islands of the Bronze Age. Mute and nameless, she is referred to as No-Name by the servants and seen as cursed – bad things happen around her and she is called the cursed child, and so this is her life for eight years until the lottery of the youths who will be sent to the Bull King – to dance with the bulls, on what is most likely the Minoan island, Crete, at Knossos. Banished from the Hall, she is living in a cave for a time, until she is sent away.
Aissa learns that she can sing snakes and animals, but not talk – and she doesn’t realise she is doing this. When the priestesses at the Bull King’s island discover this, they take her under their wing to train as a priestess. Yet when she sings the animals at the bull leaping, she is thrust back into the world of slavery.
Set in the Bronze Age, and drawing on the myth of the Minotaur, the Minoans and Knossos, Wendy Orr has created a world where the role of names and identity is important to knowing who you are, as well as playing with the traditional sacrifice myth – where the maidens and youths of the isles were sent to the Minotaur as tribute every seven years.
The inspiration for the bull leapers comes from a fresco in Knossos known as The Bull Leaping fresco, depicting the ancient practice of bull leaping. In the novel, it is quite a dangerous affair, where many have died or been maimed over the years and have no returned to their homelands. The original painting is from around 1400BCE. The true purposes for bull leaping are not clear – without being able to translate Linear A, despite it being close to Linear B, used by the Mycenaeans, much guess work is undertaken about Minoan society from the archaeological evidence on Crete and Santorini. Or at least, perhaps not enough is known to fully translate it.
So this is where Wendy Orr starts to imagine what the bull leapers may have done, with a different take on the history and myths that are well known, through the eyes of a mute girl. To do so, the story is told partly in verse song, much like the oral tradition of the time, and the way the Odyssey has been written down, and partly in prose, exploring the rest of the story that way, and putting them together so the story is a whole entity and makes sense, and could easily fit within the mythic cycles, history and the traditions of works by Homer, and other epic poets of ancient times.
Minoan Bronze Age culture is not often used in books. Ancient Greek and Ancient Roman and the well-known stories of gods and goddesses are told. Perhaps because there is more to work with there, but surely there is also a sense of freedom in working with a culture where so much can be imagined and interpreted from the art and archaeology – until the scripts can be properly translated and give us more insight into the Minoans. It is the mystery of who they are and what they did that I think is what makes this book work, as so much must be imagined – but can also be drawn from the myths involving the island and the minotaur that it works well and I absolutely adored this book.
It is I think, appropriate for ages ten and older, for all readers, and can be the kind of book that just triggers an interest in that area of the world or history. For me, having studied the Minoans, I found it fascinating and then found myself tumbling down a rabbit hole of research into that area again, looking at frescoes. A great book and a good read to start the year and my many challenges.