The True Story of Maddie Bright by Mary-Rose MacColl

Maddie Bright.jpgTitle: The True Story of Maddie Bright

Author: Mary-Rose MacColl

Genre: Historical Fiction

Publisher: Allen and Unwin

Published: 1st April 2019

Format: Paperback

Pages: 504

Price: $29.99

Synopsis: In 1920, seventeen-year old Maddie Bright is thrilled to take a job as a serving girl on the royal tour of Australia by Edward who was then Prince of Wales. She makes friends with Helen Burns, the prince’s vivacious press secretary, Rupert Waters, his most loyal man, and is in awe of Edward himself, the boy prince.

For Maddie, who longs to be a journalist like Helen, what starts as a desire to help her family after the devastation of war becomes a chance to work on something that matters. When the unthinkable happens, it is swift and life changing.
Decades later, Maddie Bright is living in a ramshackle house in Paddington, Brisbane. She has Ed, her drunken and devoted neighbour, to talk to, the television news to shout at, and door-knocker religions to join. But when London journalist Victoria Byrd gets the sniff of a story that might lead to the true identity of a famously reclusive writer, Maddie’s version of her own story may change.

1920, 1981 and 1997: the strands twist across the seas and over two continents, to build a compelling story of love and fame, motherhood and friendship. Set at key moments in the lives of Edward and Diana, a reader will find a friend and, by the novel’s close, that friend’s true and moving story.

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Author: Mary-Rose MacColl

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Maddie Bright is seventeen when she is employed as a serving girl on the 1920 Royal Tour of Australia by Prince Edward, who would go on to become Edward VIII for a time in 1936. Soon, her talents are noticed by members of the Prince’s staff – Helen Burns, the press secretary and Rupert Waters, and she ascends to the position of letter writer, where she finds herself in awe of the prince, known as the ‘people’s’ prince – in a similar way that Diana was the ‘people’s’ princess of the 1980s and 1990s. What starts as a way to help her family earn some more money in a post-war Australia as nations around the world start to rebuild after The Great War, abruptly ends when the unthinkable happens.

In 1981, Maddie is watching from afar as Diana Spencer prepares to marry Charles, the Prince of Wales, the grandson of King George VI, Edward VIII’s brother. She now lives alone in Brisbane, with her neighbours for company. But in 1997, shortly after the death of Princess Diana, Maddie meet with a London journalist, Victoria, who was covering Diana’s death, and gets whiff of Maddie’s story and heads off to Australia, where she will discover a secret about her family that will have a rather large impact on her life.

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As the novel moves in and out of 1920 , 1981 and 1997 – three key years in the history of the Royal Family, and also in the fictional lives of Maddie and Victoria, and the way the lives of Victoria and Maddie intersect, and the secrets that Maddie has kept for over seventy years – how will this impact on Victoria and her family if she gets to meet Maddie? The lives of Edward and Diana are in some ways similar: both are popular and tragic, and progressive for the times and eras they live in. They are also both charming and appear to understand the wounds of others. We all know what Diana did for those she visited in poorer communities and countries, for AIDS patients. For Edward, it was making contact with members of the Commonwealth who had lost family in the war and apologising for his family’s war. Apologising for dragging them into it – which is perhaps in stark contrast to the inside figure we see – the charming, secretive figure whose contact with women he shouldn’t have is kept hush hush on the tour, even though his staff know.

Despite the stories being quite different, and separated by decades, the story is woven across time, seas and continents, and the impact that Edward, Diana and the tragic events in their lives mirrored each other, and yet in Diana’s case, the outcome was much more tragic. This book cleverly takes three, seemingly unconnected lives, and tugs at the strings of history, family and friendship to create a mystery where all the hints are there – but the question is how and when they will be resolved – and in some ways, if. In this story, Maddie is also an author, and the story of her life is interspersed with excerpts from her novel that hint at what the truth behind the secrets she has kept are.

Moving in and out of 1920, 1981 and 1997 – Maddie’s parts are told in first person, and Victoria’s in third person – which suits the novel, the characters and overall narrative. Everything is carefully revealed in this novel, almost purposefully, so that the reader knows details when they need to know it, and just as the reader finds things out in this way, the characters find things out when they need to. I loved that this was about family and friendship, and the power of breaking away from situations that weren’t right for each character – though we all know of Edward’s abdication in 1936 to marry Wallis Simpson. The tragedy of these figures highlights how hard it must be to be in the spotlight constantly, but also, what the consequences can be for how they represent themselves, and the perceived way they represent the monarchy.

It is an intriguing story that at first, I thought would need a great deal of concentration because it felt so in depth and involved with so many strands and differing perspectives between Maddie and Victoria and told in first and third person. Yet it is a seamless transfer between Maddie’s fiction, between time periods and between first and third, Maddie and Victoria, that the entire book went by in a matter of days. It combines fictional characters and real-life figures well and in a seamless way, and has an authenticity about it that suggests something like this could have happened had someone like Edward had dalliances like the book hints at. It also explores the polarising cult of celebrity, and the hate versus the love of people like Edward and Diana, and also, ways celebrity can harm people’s lives.

It is also powerful because the story is told by two women – Maddie and Victoria, rather than the male figures around them who are in a more peripheral role, though still present, and still having an impact – Victoria and Maddie control the narrative and the direction the story goes in. A very well-written, and tightly plotted story, where the lives of women are mirrored in each other – Maddie, Diana and Victoria yet also starkly different in many ways, giving each figure their own power and vulnerabilities.

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Esther by Jessica North

EstherTitle: Esther

Author: Jessica North

Genre: Historical Biography

Publisher: Allen and Unwin

Published: 1st April 2019

Format: Paperback

Pages: 277

Price: $29.99

Synopsis: The little-known rags to riches love story of a convict girl who arrived in Australia on the First Fleet. Much like another, better-known colonial woman, Elizabeth Macarthur, Esther successfully managed her husband’s property and became a significant figure in the new colony.

Esther only just escaped the hangman in London. Aged 16, she stood trial at the Old Bailey for stealing 24 yards of black silk lace. Her sentence was transportation to the other side of the world.

She embarked on the perilous journey on the First Fleet as a convict, with no idea of what lay ahead. Once on shore, she became the servant and, in time, the lover of the dashing young first lieutenant George Johnston. But life in the fledgling colony could be gruelling, with starvation looming and lashings for convicts who stepped out of line.

Esther was one of the first Jewish women to arrive in the new land. Through her we meet some of the key people who helped shape the nation. Her life is an extraordinary rags-to-riches story. As leader of the Rum Rebellion against Governor Bligh, George Johnston became Lieutenant-Governor of NSW, making Esther First Lady of the colony, a remarkable rise in society for a former convict.

‘North skilfully weaves together one woman’s fascinating saga with an equally fascinating history of the early colonial period of Australia. The resulting true story is sometimes as strange and thrilling as a fairytale.’ – Lee Kofman, author of The Dangerous Bride

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Even though I have studied Australian history at various levels of my education, there are still many stories about the start of the invasion and colonisation that are not widely told or known. This is usually because they have not been recorded, the records have been hidden or they simply have not been included in our history books and the stories forgotten or neglected by those who held the power over what could be told.

Many people know about Bligh, MacArthur, Philips, and all the various white explorers who crossed mountain ranges and laid out trails. Some stories are known about free settlers, but even less is known about convicts and the Indigenous people – two areas where I am noticing more stories being told, and I think these stories are going to make the record of Australian history richer.

In this instance, the story I read focuses on the first Jewish woman to be transported to Australia on The First Fleet, Esther Abrahams. Transported for stealing twenty-four yards of black lace, Esther and her daughter, Rosanna, who was born in Newgate Prison, would be sent into service upon arrival for the duration of Esther’s sentence. Once she had arrived in the colony of NSW, and the free settlers and officers had established things, Esther was assigned to serve First Lieutenant George Johnston. She would soon become his lover, his wife, and after her sentence ended and they were married, circumstances would thrust her into the life of First Lady of the colony of New South Wales, and the mother of eight children.

Jessica North has used archives, diaries and letters to build her story, and show how the new arrivals from England and the Indigenous people tried to make connections, or butted heads when it came to misunderstandings of each other’s cultures and legal systems. It also, through the diaries of the white settlers and convicts, early attempts to communicate and in some ways, bring the cultures together, but also, the fear of each other and desires to be separate as much as possible. It felt like in these early days, at least in this story and based on the sources used, efforts may have been made to work together, in some respects. Showing these nuances that were previously hidden from my school and university education shows how hard it was on both sides – but that it was much harder for convicts and Indigenous people, because when it came to the colonial powers, these were two groups that had very little power and were beholden to the colonial laws brought with the English.

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It was a book that opened my eyes and mind up to what female convicts did to survive, and how brutal those early days were for all, but especially for some. It is easy to judge actions from afar, to boil things down to simplistic us versus them and ignore that not everything was like that. No doubt fear was something that affected everyone in the new colony and the way they operated and built their lives. I don’t think we will ever know the full story of some things, especially where we only have partial facts, or not many, or things missing from records. But in starting to find books that tell the stories of those who weren’t in power at time for a change, maybe we can build a fuller, and richer historical record of Australia, and get the opportunity to hear more voices, and hopefully stories that show all sides, the good, the bad and the in between. Knowing these stories will hopefully unite all Australians and show the depth of our multicultural society that has been going for much longer than the history books some of us have had access to tell us.

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Northanger Abbey – Jane Austen Reading Challenge Update

Jane Austen Reading Challenge 2019

 

I’ve always meant to read all the Jane Austen books, because she does satire and social commentary so well whilst still giving her characters nice, happy or at the very least, satisfying endings. I am also interested in her life, and reinterpretations of her works, so this year I have taken on the challenge to read as many of these as I can, starting, ideally, with the original novels.

To start, I chose Northanger Abbey, and will hopefully be reading Emma next – I plan to read them according to whichever I feel like reading at the time, and might read other Jane related books in between – some of which will be part of other challenges as well and have their own posts for reviews in their challenges. For the most part, the Jane Austen books will be reviewed in these posts.

Northanger Abbey

Northanger Abbey is the first of Jane Austen’s novels to be completed for publication in 1803, but the last published in 1817. It is a satirical look at the Gothic novels of the time, and the coming of age story of Catherine Morland, wishing for happiness and morality over money and wealth like other young women of her age. She loves to read and seeks others like her as friends. On a sojourn to Bath with family friends, she meets Henry Tilney, and Isabella Allen, and becomes friends with Isabelle, visits with the Tilneys and is eventually forced home after a series of misunderstandings. At the core is Catherine’s growth and understanding of real life, which is vastly different to her novels. At the same time, she has fallen in love with Tilney and they eventually marry on the final page.

The romance in this novel is subtle, and develops slowly and cautiously alongside friendship, novel reading and ideas of class and acceptability of marriage. The subtlety of the romance allowed the characters to grow for themselves and not be pushed into a certain way of thinking by other characters. Of course, there are misunderstandings that led to the desire to correct things and set things straight, but at the same time, because it is subtle, it worked well and that’s why I enjoyed it. I wonder if in the 1800s, people caught the subtlety and social commentary in the same way we do today, or if they simply appreciated it for the romantic aspects and reflection of the upper classes. Either way, these stories have stood the test of time, and I look forward to reading Emma next.

 

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Book Bingo Seven: Written by an Australian Woman

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And thus ends March, and my seventh book bingo of the year with Theresa Smith and Amanda Barrett. I’ve just got one book to present this week, and this book fills the square “written by an Australian Woman” – which I intended to write weeks ago, but got caught up in all the other squares, and will hopefully be able to fill some of the tricker ones soon.

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zelda stitch 2So this week, to check off a book by an Australian woman, I’m using Zelda Stitch Term Two: Too Much Witch by Nicki Greenberg. Following on from the first book, Zelda’s mishaps as a witch continue to plague her, but she’s still trying to protect someone on her class, and make sure that more people don’t find out she is a witch. Her snarky cat, Barnaby is back, and causing even more mischief as Zelda tries to navigate her life as a teacher and life as a witch.

A fun book for kids, my full review is here.

Come back next fortnight for Book Bingo Eight, which might just be a double bingo!

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The Wolf and The Watchman by Niklas Natt och Dag

wolf and watchman.jpgTitle: The Wolf and The Watchman

Author: Niklas Natt och Dag

Genre: Crime/Scandi Noir

Publisher: Hachette/John Murray

Published: 12th February 2019

Format: Paperback

Pages: 407

Price: $32.99

Synopsis: Best Debut, The Swedish Academy of Crime Writers’ Award 2017

‘Thrilling, unnerving, clever and beautiful’ Fredrik Backman

The year is 1793, Stockholm. King Gustav of Sweden has been assassinated, years of foreign wars have emptied the treasuries, and the realm is governed by a self-interested elite, leaving its citizens to suffer. On the streets, malcontent and paranoia abound.

A body is found in the city’s swamp by a watchman, Mickel Cardell, and the case is handed over to investigator Cecil Winge, who is dying of consumption. Together, Winge and Cardell become embroiled in a brutal world of guttersnipes and thieves, mercenaries and madams, and one death will expose a city rotten with corruption beneath its powdered and painted veneer.

THE WOLF AND THE WATCHMAN depicts the capacity for cruelty in the name of survival or greed – but also the capacity for love, friendship, and the desire for a better world.

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The mystery that The Wolf the Watchman follows is both complex and strange – it follows Mickel Cardell and Winge after Mickel finds a torso in the river, Anna Stina, a young woman trying to find her way out of poverty and who finds herself in a position she never imagined she’d be in, and Kristofer Blix, whose path will eventually cross with Anna’s, and their lives will be changed forever.

They all have goals and dreams that are changed over the course of the novel, and each part weaves back and forth between their perspectives – creating a dense and complicated story where anxiety seems to be lurking around every corner. In 1793, things feel less stable following the assassination of the king of Sweden, and threats abound, and people will do whatever they can to survive whatever existence they might be living. It took me a while to read this one, only because there was so much to take in and absorb to get to the end and what felt like the solving of the mystery, but at the same time, maybe not quite. It’s the kind of book one needs to dedicate time and attention to because of the density of the plot and characters, and the way everything connects together.

The mystery of the body in the river is the impetus for the story, and it is woven through as each character and their story becomes clearer throughout the book. As I said before, it is dense and very involved, and needs quite a bit of attention to get through this meandering, and thrilling story as the characters travel across an eighteenth century Sweden during a time when people are trying to survive, and when people’s capacity for cruelty or love is shown through the actions and sacrifices they are willing to make for people they barely know, taking advantage of the law and others.

I enjoyed this mystery, a very different story to what I usually read. Translations into English can often be denser, depending on the story, and in this case, it benefits the story and enhances the characters and their actions. Be sure to pay attention as best you can to absorb everything you need to know.

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Book Bingo Six – Themes of Fantasy and Themes of Justice

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Another fortnight, and another book bingo post, my reading challenge done with Theresa Smith and Amanda Barrett, and a few others who have decided to take part with us. I am doing another double bingo this week and might be doing a double bingo next time. For themes of Fantasy, I chose the epic and much-anticipated finale to the Medoran Chronicles, which began in 2015 with Akarnae. My second square will be Themes of Justice, another book

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vardaesia_3d-coverThis series by Australian author, Lynette Noni, published by Pantera Press, is the series that got me started in blogging, and concluded this year with the heart-stopping, fast-paced Vardaesia, where the final battles between Alex and Aven come to a head, and where we will finally see the fate of Medora, and by extension, the entire world beyond Medora. Who will win? Aven, or Alex?

With this book, we wrap up the battles and troubles of Medora, and the journey of Alex and her friends. There is a hint at more Medoran books, but what these will be, and when they come and are set, is yet to be seen.

What-Lies-Beneath-Us-Cover-sample-copy-197x300My second book for this week fits the themes of justice square. This one is by the debut author, Kirsty Ferguson, whose book I also had the privilege of copyediting, and then reviewing – an interesting venture, as I had to switch off my editor’s brain whilst reading and go into reader-reviewer mode – it’s not as easy a task as you might think! What Lies Beneath Us is a book filled with twists and turns, following the murder of a young baby, Jason James. Is it a natural death, or is there something more sinister going on in the family or in the neighbourhood? It is a complex narrative with an unsettling ending that has a feeling of finality, yet that there is more to come later on.

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Zebra and Other Short Stories by Debra Adelaide

Zebra.jpgTitle: Zebra and Other Short Stories

Author: Debra Adelaide

Genre: Fiction

Publisher: Picador

Published: 29th January 2019

Format: Paperback

Pages: 326

Price: $29.99

Synopsis:A body buried in a suburban backyard.

A suicide pact worthy of Chekhov.

A love affair born in a bookshop.

The last days of Bennelong.

And a very strange gift for a most unusual Prime Minister…

Tantalising, poignant, wry, and just a little fantastical, this subversive collection of short fiction – and one singular novella – from bestselling author Debra Adelaide reminds us what twists of fate may be lurking just beneath the surface of the everyday.

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In this series of short stories, Debra Adelaide explores the spectrum of humanity and the human condition, from a dream about a murder, and the suburban lives it almost disrupts, to stories about love affairs that start in a bookshop, and suicide pacts, and an interesting story about the last days of Bennelong – a man who was captured and served the governor of New South Wales and travelled back to England, told from the perspective of Governor Phillips’ wife. Finally, the novella-length story Zebra is about an unnamed female Prime Minister in Australia who is gifted a zebra – and how this changes her and her life, and her relationships with those around her in government and her neighbours.

Each story encapsulates a different aspect of the human condition, and how we respond to the world and people around us, and how we handle ourselves. They are subversive, touching on the things we do not speak about, or the things about ourselves that we have to hide from the public, or the public persona versus the private persona and how we reconcile these. Or, the lengths humans go to in order to ensure their quirkier, fantastical aspects of their lives are kept private, and hopefully not released. This is what made me enjoy it – that each story was so different, and each perspective has been told from a unique perspective in first, second or third person. To make this connection, the book is divided into three parts – one, two and three – that represent which stories are told through which perspective. Doing this was brave, and unique – it is something I have never seen before and where some might think it takes away, I think it makes each story, each section and finally, the entire anthology more powerful because it shows the world through so many different perspectives, you always find yourself engrossed wholly in one story, and then pulled wholly into another.

If I had to choose a favourite story, it would have to be the novella, Zebra – about a female PM. What was striking about it, and indeed the rest of the anthology, was the tight, and varying imagery used throughout to convey what the characters were doing. Zebra was my favourite because I enjoyed the way the PM dealt with her neighbour, her staff members and everything in her life – too many to quote, I think. I liked that she was allowed to be human in her own world – we were allowed to see the vulnerabilities of politicians we never see in the media, such as when she was contemplating whether she should call Malcolm on a work pretence, but really, she just wanted to tell him how she felt.

Each character can represent people at different stages of life, or at various times and spaces in our lives – whether it is the culmination of many things, or a single instance where we cross paths with a like-minded person in a bookstore and start an affair. The subtlety in each story is excellent and enjoyable. It allows the reader to imagine some of what happened without completely explaining it, and this is the power of the stories in this anthology – that anyone can see themselves in these characters and situations. The subtlety also allows the reader to imagine how they might handle things, and what happens in the story.

Debra Adelaide has created a series of stories and a novella that are engulfing and subversive, that allow the depths of human nature to be explored and the reality, so to speak, is shown here in an unusual and intriguing way.

Short story collections are often hard to review, because they don’t always necessarily always link through a theme. In Zebra, the only discernible link is the subversiveness of the stories and characters, and the fantastical elements and quirkiness that feels uniquely Australian that connects these stories. I found this to be very effective, and it allows for the stories to be read in isolation, or as whole, seeing the progression of human nature and tearing ourselves away from our normal, everyday lives that might feel suffocating or claustrophobic. Debra Adelaide allows readers to feel like they were in that enclosed space with the characters until that final release of what constrains the characters, the narrators of the stories, and this release is like a weight lifting off the reader’s chest.

I quite enjoyed these stories and their uniqueness that showed another side of human life. Each story is tightly plotted and tells the whole story succinctly in a way that feels like a novel or epic story.

An excellent read if you enjoy short stories.

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