Wizards of Once: Knock Three Times by Cressida Cowell

Title: Wizards of Once: Knock Three Times

Author: Cressida Cowell

Genre: Fantasy

Publisher: Hodder Children’s Books/Hachette

Published: 24th September 2019

Format: Paperback

Pages: 460

Price: $19.99

Synopsis: The No.1 bestselling series from the author of HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON, Cressida Cowell. Enter a land of wizards, warriors, mythical creatures and powerful Magic in an exciting fantasy adventure.

The No.1 bestselling series from current Waterstones Children’s Laureate and author of HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON, Cressida Cowell. Enter a land of wizards, warriors, mythical creatures and powerful Magic in an exciting fantasy adventure. Wish and Xar are outlaws on the run, hunted by Warriors, Wizards and worst of all by WITCHES …

Can they find the ingredients for the spell to get rid of Witches before the Kingwitch gets his talons on the Magic-that-Works-on-Iron?

Their next Quest is the most terrifying and treacherous of all … and someone is going to betray them. Are you ready to KNOCK THREE TIMES?

~*~

Wish, Xar, and Bodkin are back, along with their band of sprites and animals. They’re outlaws on the run from Wizards and Warriors, and Witches as they continue their quest to find the ingredients for a spell to get rid of witches. Given sanctuary in a school for magic, the heroes must face their fears, and maintain their cover – until they’re betrayed. We meet more fun characters, who have links to some of the ones we already know as well. Welcome to the third and penultimate book in the Wizards of Once series!

I’ve been reading this series this month as I was sent the fourth book to review, and have now caught up, and am ready to delve into book four to find out what happens next for Wish and Xar.

While Xar and Wish are in hiding, their parents are hunting them, and this builds up the tension and excitement. This is one of those series that you never know what is around the corner, whilst still drawing on fairytale, myth and fantasy tropes that have been pulled together to create something vibrant, new and fresh in a fantastic quartet that ends with Never and Forever, out on the 22nd of September.

I have demolished the first three books within about two weeks, and I have adored each one. Children’s literature has such a rich history, and Cressida Cowell has brought something vibrant and exciting to the world of children’s books and literature. It’s so refreshing to see characters with visible differences, with learning disabilities reflected in a positive way. All kids will hopefully see something of themselves in Xar, Wish and Bodkin, and the unity of friendship between these three characters who some might say are unlikely friends – Xar is a Wizard, Wish is a Warrior and Bodkin is an Assistant Bodyguard, and everything tells them they should be enemies and there are lines that Bodkin should not cross when it comes to class systems in the Warrior fort.

Xar and Wish are on a dangerous journey, but Cressida Cowell has executed these dangers, so readers feel on edge, but so that they don’t get too scared. Magic abounds in this book as Wish and Xar seek to rid Xar of evil Magic, and Wish grapples with her Magic eye, and Magic that works on iron (cleverly written as Cressida draws on the folktale trope that magical folk can’t touch iron, which is a nice touch). The Unknown Narrator tells this story, and their nice little intrusions make the story fun. The identity of this narrator is also part of the quest to destroy the Kingwitch and has been an ongoing mystery throughout the first three books – and hopefully, their identity will be revealed in the final one.

I have had a few guesses as to who it might be. It could be anyone, and this is what makes this so fun. All readers are going to have their own opinion. Onwards to the final book, which shall be reviewed here next week!

If you have read the first three books, who do you think the Unknown Narrator is?

The Good Germans: Resisting the Nazis 1933-1945 by Catrine Clay

Title: The Good Germans: Resisting the Nazis 1933-1945

Author: Catrine Clay

Genre: World War Two History, Non-Fiction

Publisher: Hachette/W&N

Published: 8th September 2020

Format: Paperback

Pages: 404

Price: $32.99

Synopsis: Award-winning historian Catrine Clay tells the gripping stories of six ordinary Germans who witnessed the rise of Nazism in Germany from within, and dared to resist it.

After 1933, as the brutal terror regime took hold, most of the two-thirds of Germans who had never voted for the Nazis – some 20 million people – tried to keep their heads down and protect their families. They moved to the country, or pretended to support the regime to avoid being denounced by neighbours, and tried to work out what was really happening in the Reich, surrounded as they were by Nazi propaganda and fake news. They lived in fear. Might they lose their jobs? Their homes? Their freedom? What would we have done in their place?

Many ordinary Germans found the courage to resist, in the full knowledge that they could be sentenced to indefinite incarceration, torture or outright execution. Catrine Clay argues that it was a much greater number than was ever formally recorded: teachers, lawyers, factory and dock workers, housewives, shopkeepers, church members, trade unionists, army officers, aristocrats, Social Democrats, Socialists and Communists.

Catrine Clay’s ground-breaking book focuses on six very different characters: Irma, the young daughter of Ernst Thalmann, leader of the German Communists; Fritzi von der Schulenburg, a Prussian aristocrat; Rudolf Ditzen, the already famous author Hans Fallada, best known for his novel Alone in Berlin; Bernt Engelmann, a schoolboy living in the suburbs of Dusseldorf; Julius Leber, a charismatic leader of the Social Democrats in the Reichstag; and Fabian von Schlabrendorff, a law student in Berlin. The six are not seen in isolation but as part of their families: a brother and sister; a wife; a father with three children; an only son; the parents of a Communist pioneer daughter. Each experiences the momentous events of Nazi history as they unfold in their own small lives – Good Germans all.

~*~

The Nazi regime of 1933-1945, fuelled by propaganda, and thrust into place by a small number of Germans who voted for them, saw those 20 million people who never voted for Hitler’s party. During the twelve years the Nazis terrorised Germany and Europe, there were many Germans who resisted.

These Germans found ways to resist. They knew the consequences of resisting or helping those the Nazis had deemed enemies, and wanted to rid the country of, but they still resisted, often at great risk to their lives. There were several ways they did this: moved to the country, joined opposing parties and resisted openly that way, and later, acting as go-betweens for people in a party such as the Communist party. Some resisted from within the system – joining up and working with underground resistance movements, as described in The Beast’s Garden by Kate Forsyth, and several of the people in this book.

The six characters explored in this book – Irma Thalmann, Fritzi von der Schulenburg, Bernt Engelmann, Julius Leber and Fabian von Schlabremdorff – each tackle their resistance in a different way, and the Fritzi’s sister, Tisa, also contributes to the resistance.  

There of course, were other resistance groups operating during this time. These groups did good work too. Here are six individuals who took a different tack and looked at what they could do and how. Catrine Clay also weaves the reality and darkness of what the Nazis did, interspersed with these stories, to illustrate what these six and others like them were up against in a realistic and gritty way. Catrine does not shy away from the grittiness of what they faced and the consequences they faced – imprisonment, torture or execution. Not all would survive to the end of the war. Those who did saw the downfall of the man and regime they had been fighting against for twelve years, proving that resistance in all its forms will eventually have its cumulative effect.

Resisting the Nazi’s was hard – but not impossible. The power in this book was in the way it explored how people resisted, and what they did, and how this impacted their families and lives. Tisa is one resistance fighter whose family, for the most part, were Nazis. Living a reality like this must have been fraught, and there would have been many tensions, but people like Tisa stood their ground, and in the end, that is what counted. This is a book that needs to be read, and is one that is powerful in its historical context, and a contemporary context.

I received this book for review, and whilst it wasn’t one I requested, these sorts of stories are always very interesting, because they’re layered and nuanced, and take what at the surface might be presented as a simplistic good versus bad story at times, and shows that there was perhaps more resistance than we might realise sometimes. It is not easy reading. It is one that does require breaks at times, to process what you’ve just read, and is one that is worth pursuing with. It took me a little longer than most books this size, but it was one that showed that there is more to this period of history than some books let on and opens a narrative that says resistance is effective. It does work. Cumulatively, this resistance and the wider war contributed to the defeat of Hitler and Nazi Germany. We find out how the war wraps up, and the division of Germany into the British, French, American and Russian zones – but we do not know where the surviving resistance fighters ended up.

Catrine used documents and stories from the families of these six resistance fighters to put together this book and has managed to sensitively tell their stories. She’s made them human and flawed but shown their great strength in this fight. This is a must read for anyone interested in World War Two history in all its forms.

I learned many things from this book, but the most important was the importance of resistance and standing up for what you believe in, and finding a way, however small, to stand up against people like Hitler and the regimes that create havoc and pain. A worthy read, but also one that needs time to digest.

The Wizards of Once: Twice Magic by Cressida Cowell

Title: The Wizards of Once: Twice Magic

Author: Cressida Cowell

Genre: Fantasy

Publisher: Hachette Australia/Hodder

Published: 20th September 2018

Format: Paperback

Pages: 480

Price: $19.99

Synopsis: The No.1 Bestselling Series. Enter a land of wizards, warriors, mythical creatures and powerful magic in an exciting fantasy adventure from the author of HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON.

The No.1 Bestselling Series Enter a land of wizards, warriors, mythical creatures and powerful magic in an exciting fantasy adventure from the author of HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON.

Witches are creating havoc in the Wildwoods and danger lurks behind every tree trunk.

Wish is in possession of a powerful, Magic Spelling Book; Xar has a dangerous Witchstain on his hand. Together they can save the Wildwoods from the curse of the Witches but they are separated by the highest wall imaginable, and time is running out …

It was unlikely that these heroes should meet in the first place. Is it possible they are destined to meet TWICE?

~*~

Picking up several weeks after the first book, Twice Magic begins with Xar trapped in a prison for dangerous Magic people. Wish is back at the Warrior fort. As they grapple with their new situations, the Wildwoods are attacked by Witches. Xara and Wish reunite – and begin to fight the curse before time runs out – but can they convince their parents to put aside their differences?

Wish and Xar visit a dying giant as part of this journey, where all fairy tale and fantasy tropes are combined to tell a unique story and series, aimed at middle grade readers. But readers of all ages will enjoy this series. I’m working my way through this series and am halfway through at this point – with book three ready to go as soon as I can start it.

The continuation of the themes of friendship, unity and acceptance are ever present in this novel, and build on what has come before. Wish and Xar are powerful and unique characters, who promote creativity, intelligence and empathy, and the role these play in problem solving, friendship and understanding each other. The world is also exquisitely detailed, and the illustrations by Cressida add something magic and unique to the text, creating a story that is full of life and joy.

Danger lurks beneath the surface of Xar and Wish’s fun. They’re on a quest to defeat the Kingwitch, and remove the Witchstain from Xar’s hand, and they are accompanied by a band of sprites, including Squeezjoos, a raven called Caliburn and Wish’s bodyguard, Bodkin. Together, they are going to save the world!

I’m in love with this series – the good thing is, I have all four to read, so I don’t have to wait to find out what happens, but at the same time, a little sad that there are only four books to enjoy. It is an imaginative series, and I think the use of an Unknown Narrator telling the story is a powerful and creative way to draw readers in. With each book, the mystery of just who this narrator is intensifies and becomes a driving force to hook readers of all ages in, along with the magical quest Xar and Wish are on.

This series manages to have an ongoing thread as well as a separate narrative for each book, which adds to the magic and intrigue, and ensures that readers remain engaged and the plot is steadily built upon effectively. I’m looking forward to delving further into this world, which is in a way historical, if we are to believe the Unknown Narrator, that this is a world before the British Isles were known as the British Isles. Cressida also cleverly draws on folklore and pulls it into the story effectively and ensures that whilst it is still recognisable as folklore, there are also unique twists on each characteristic and the individual characters, especially Wish and Xar.

A fantastic series about acceptance for readers aged eight and over.  

A Girl Made of Air by Nydia Hetherington

a girl made of airTitle: A Girl Made of Air

Author: Nydia Hetherington

Genre: Historical Fiction, Folklore, Myth, Magical Realism

Publisher: Hachette/Quercus

Published: 8th September 2020

Format: Paperback

Pages: 376

Price: $32.99

Synopsis: A lyrical debut packed with myth, magic and folklore, perfect for fans of Erin Morgenstern and Angela Carter

‘A captivating tale of love and loss and finding connection in the most unexpected places’ Nikki Marmery, author of On Wilder Seas

A lyrical and atmospheric homage to the strange and extraordinary, perfect for fans of Angela Carter and Erin Morgenstern.

This is the story of The Greatest Funambulist Who Ever Lived…

Born into a post-war circus family, our nameless star was unwanted and forgotten, abandoned in the shadows of the big top. Until the bright light of Serendipity Wilson threw her into focus.

Now an adult, haunted by an incident in which a child was lost from the circus, our narrator, a tightrope artiste, weaves together her spellbinding tales of circus legends, earthy magic and folklore, all in the hope of finding the child… But will her story be enough to bring the pair together again?

Beautiful and intoxicating, A GIRL MADE OF AIR brings the circus to life in all of its grime and glory; Marina, Manu, Serendipity Wilson, Fausto, Big Gen and Mouse will live long in the hearts of readers. As will this story of loss and reconciliation, of storytelling and truth.

~*~

Beginning with an interview transcript in 1983, A Girl Made from Air is told through the eyes of a nameless narrator, referred to at times as Mouse, and is known worldwide as The Greatest Funambulist Who Ever Lived. She lived her life in a post-war circus, with parents who forgot her, and left her to her own devices. Until the arrival of Serendipity Wilson, whose presence and Manx fairy tales will change the circus, and the life of the narrator forever.

As an adult, the narrator is haunted by events of her childhood, and she appears to be writing a memoir – whether for her or someone else, it is unclear. She’s searching for a missing child at the same time, and this is woven throughout her story and Serendipity’s stories, the tales that sustained the narrator as a child. The narrator speaks directly to the reader, inviting us into her world, but on her terms, and only telling us what she chooses to tell. This perhaps makes her unreliable, yet this is after all her story, and there is always the hope that we will have the missing bits revealed at some point. This is what drives the novel and can make you want to read on – to find out if certain things are revealed, and in what way.

It has an ethereal or mystical feel. It is of this world, yet at the same time, not quite. Set between England and New York, the world is cemented in these realities, yet through the characters and themes feels like a fairy tale or world of folk tale where extraordinary and magical things happen. The circus setting is one that feels fantastical, and wondrous, a place where things out of the ordinary happen, and take people away from the mundanity of everyday life. For our narrator, this is everyday life though, made richer and more intriguing when she meets Serendipity.

The almost conversational feel of some parts of the book speaks to the sense that the narrator is writing a memoir, or long-form letter to someone. But we don’t know who at first and must work and read to find out. It is a unique novel that needs to be pondered and where you might need to spend a bit of time with it, to unpack what is going on and immerse yourself in this world.

This is a book for those who enjoy unusual stories, and ones that hold back a bit, and don’t sit neatly within a certain genre. This unusual book will find its audience and is one that is engaging and very readable. It won’t be for everyone, and it was a different one for me, with a change of pace. I hope this book finds its niche and audience.

The Silk House by Kayte Nunn

the silk houseTitle: The Silk House
Author: Kayte Nunn
Genre: Historical Fiction/Gothic Fiction
Publisher: Hachette Australia
Published: 30th June 2020
Format: Paperback
Pages: 380
Price: $32.99
Synopsis: Weaving. Healing. Haunting. The spellbinding story of a mysterious boarding school sheltering a centuries-old secret by the bestselling author of THE BOTANIST’S DAUGHTER
Weaving. Healing. Haunting. The spellbinding story of a mysterious boarding school sheltering a centuries-old secret…
Australian history teacher Thea Rust arrives at an exclusive boarding school in the British countryside only to find that she is to look after the first intake of girls in its 150-year history. She is to stay with them in Silk House, a building with a long and troubled past.
In the late 1700s, Rowan Caswell leaves her village to work in the home of an English silk merchant. She is thrust into a new and dangerous world where her talent for herbs and healing soon attracts attention.

In London, Mary-Louise Stephenson lives amid the clatter of the weaving trade and dreams of becoming a silk designer, a job that is the domain of men. A length of fabric she weaves with a pattern of deadly flowers will have far-reaching consequences for all who dwell in the silk house.
Intoxicating, haunting and inspired by the author’s background, THE SILK HOUSE is an exceptional gothic mystery.

~*~

Thea Rust has arrived in the British countryside to begin a new job – in the same year as the school’s first intake of girls occurs. Once there, Thea is faced with challenges from some of the staff as she beings her teaching and pastoral care for the girls, all of whom are fascinating and individual characters whose presence enriches the story and Thea’s experience. They are housed in The Silk House, exclusively for girls and separate from the main school.

The history of the house goes back to the 1760s, specifically, 1768-1769, when a new maid, Rowan Caswell arrives. Separate yet also intertwined with her story is that of weaver and silk designer, Mary-Louise Stephenson. It will be one of her designs, and another maid’s designs on the master of the house and determination to undermine her mistress and Rowan that form the tragic chain of events that form this part of the story and seep through the shadows of time into 2019, when Thea feels the ghosts and stories of the past needing to be told.

As the story weaves in and out of the late 1760s and 2019, the threads of the past find their echoes in the present in an evocative and hair raising way – like a gothic mystery from the past as ghosts and whispers ooze into the lives of the present, through The Dame and the stories that Thea reads in the archives and library. It is filled with mystery and the way it weaves history and witchcraft and the world of embroidery into the story through Rowan and Thea.

AWW2020

It is tinged with ideas of harmful and helpful herbs, of deception and at times, beauty. Rowan and Thea were my favourite characters, and I quote enjoyed that the majority of characters named and given agency were women – there were a handful of male characters named such as some of the teachers and Patrick Hollander – in a way, it turns some of the usual things we see in literature around, and the women have more agency than the men – despite the late 1760s being a time of witch hunts and when men had more agency. Characters like Tommy Dean in 1768 and Gareth in 2019, Theas fellow hockey coach, are stark differences to some of the other male characters with certain prejudices. They bolster the women and help them, which makes this a very rich story as well. It evokes a sense of the fight for equality and inclusion in exclusively male worlds that have never had to, and have resisted the inclusion of women and girls, and the empowerment of women and girls.

Kayte Nunn uses these themes extremely well and communicates them in sensitive and intriguing ways as she explores witchcraft, herbalism and the role of plants in embroidery and the tinctures Rowan makes and the implications of this for those in the Hollander household. It is a story of mystery tinged with gothic themes and ghosts, where some questions might be left unanswered or left up to the imagination of the reader – which I like to do with these sorts of novels. It gives the novel a sense of intrigue and mystery to the characters and delves deep into the idea of stories and identity, and equality.

A wonderfully gothic and transfixing read.

 

The Giant and the Sea by Trent Jamieson, Rovina Cai (Illutrator)

the giant and the seaTitle: The Giant and the Sea
Author: Trent Jamieson, Rovina Cai (Illutrator)
Genre: Fiction, Eco-themes
Publisher: Hachette/Lothian Children’s Books
Published: 26th May 2020
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 32
Price: $26.99
Synopsis: A stunningly beautiful and powerful take on climate change, standing up for what you believe in, and the power of hope. With lyrical text by acclaimed author Trent Jamieson and illustrations by CBCA Award-winner Rovina Cai that will resonate long after reading. For fans of Shaun Tan and Armin Greder.
A giant stands on the shore, watching the sea. She never moves, never speaks, until the day she turns to a little girl and says, ‘The sea is rising.’
The brave girl takes the message to the town. But when the people refuse to listen, the giant must find another way to save them.
Perfect for the children of the Climate Strike, this is a lyrical and deeply moving story about climate change, standing up for what you believe in, and the power of hope.

~*~

A giant stares out at the sea – she can see something is wrong – the sea is rising. The young girl she meets tries to pass on the message – but the townsfolk ignore it – can the giant save them before it is too late? Climate change is a big topic now and has been for many years. Over the past few years, there have been many and varied books about climate change, how to reduce waste and various strategies on how to help. One of the latest books in this genre is The Giant and the Sea – which combines the real world issues of climate change and unwillingness to listen and act with a fantasy, far off world to illustrate what climate change is to younger readers and readers of all ages.

Trent Jamieson’s story gently and quietly tells the story of a world under threat from a rising sea. It can be read on several levels – the simplicity of needing to find safety, and as readers gain confidence or deeper understanding – what the rising sea and dark machine mean and how they are connected to climate change. From there, readers can work out that action must be taken. Trent’s simple yet complex and layered cyclical narrative is combined effectively with Rovina Cai’s illustrations, which are in shades of darker colours – browns and greys, black and muddied shades to show the despondency of the giant and the characters. At times it does feel hopeless – and this reflects the reality of the climate change issue that Trent is writing about.

It is one of those books that feels like it stays with you long after you read it, and it will. It is one that can be revisited over and over, taught in class and used as an example at all levels of education to teach about climate change or how to deal with climate change in literature and make it an accessible topic for all ages. This will be ideal to teach in classes across the board, and to open up discussions about climate change as well as differences of opinion, and how to talk about these issues with people who might not be as receptive to some issues.

This story really brought the issues to life, and because it ends the way it starts, it has a cyclical feel – that this is an ongoing issue and discussion that will always be talked about, always get attention. However, this book is also a warning that we need to act – and act soon.

Ideal for children aged four and over, this is a sensitive way to teach them about climate change and open up discussions about what is going on in the world today.

 

The Strangeworlds Travel Agency by L.D. Lapinski

strangeworldsTitle: The Strangeworlds Travel Agency
Author: L.D. Lapinski
Genre: Fantasy
Publisher: Orion/Hachette Australia
Published: 28th April 2020
Format: Paperback
Pages: 380
Price: $16.99
Synopsis: Pack your suitcase for a magical adventure! Perfect for fans of THE TRAIN TO IMPOSSIBLE PLACES and THE POLAR BEAR EXPLORERS’ CLUB.
At the Strangeworlds Travel Agency, each suitcase transports you to a different world. All you have to do is step inside . . .
Pack your suitcase for a magical adventure! Perfect for fans of THE TRAIN TO IMPOSSIBLE PLACES and THE POLAR BEAR EXPLORERS’ CLUB.
At the Strangeworlds Travel Agency, each suitcase transports you to a different world. All you have to do is step inside . . .
When 12-year-old Flick Hudson accidentally ends up in the Strangeworlds Travel Agency, she uncovers a fantastic secret: there are hundreds of other worlds just steps away from ours. All you have to do to visit them is jump into the right suitcase. Then Flick gets the invitation of a lifetime: join Strangeworlds’ magical travel society and explore other worlds.
But, unknown to Flick, the world at the very centre of it all, a city called Five Lights, is in danger. Buildings and even streets are mysteriously disappearing. Once Flick realizes what’s happening, she must race against time, travelling through unchartered worlds, seeking a way to fix Five Lights before it collapses into nothingness – and takes our world with it.
A magical adventure for 9+ readers that will take you to whole new worlds.

~*~

A suitcase is an ordinary object – something you pack to take on holiday. Not so in the Strangeworlds Travel Agency in Little Wyvern. When twelve-year-old Flick and her family move from the large city to the smaller town of Little Wyvern, exploring her new town during the summer has Flick stumbling across an old shop called Strangeworlds Travel Agency – which to most people, might just seem like a travel agency you can book holidays with. But to Jonathon Mercator, the Custodian of the agency, and Flick Hudson, it is something else. It is a place of portals to new worlds, traversed by members of the secret Strangeworlds Society, a multiverse that is in trouble when Flick uncovers something that Jonathon says nobody has been able to do for generations.

So begins Flick’s adventures, jumping in and out of suitcases with Jonathon as she learns about her gift, the multiverse and Strangeworlds, until she discovers why Jonathon really needs her – and it has to do with something she’s able to see in the suitcases that he can’t. When Flick begins to break the rules to find out what is going on, she finds out she needs to fix things before every world including hers, vanishes.

This was a fantastic read, taking the idea of portals into new worlds, and creating something new. In every chapter, Flick travels, so it is also almost like a fictional travel memoir of the journeys Flick and Jonathon take into various worlds, a log of their quest and journeys. It all seems impossible, but in the world of Little Wyvern, anything is possible, and the consequences of staying in a world longer then you should – for time moves differently in each world, and you need to be mindful of this. L.D. Lapinski has taken all those classic elements – magic, portals and a new town, and a child who is either an orphan, or has parents who are always away, and brought them together into something fresh and new. I’m curious to see whether this is a standalone, or the beginning of a new series – either way, it works for both, and allows the reader scope to imagine what could happen next. It is the perfect middle grade book, and I think anyone who wishes to read it. It has that sense of magic that books like Narnia have, in its ability to enchant and transport readers to worlds beyond what they’re living and experiencing.

This was a great middle grade book, and works well as a stand-alone, but equally well as the start of a new series. I loved escaping to Little Wyvern, and visiting again would be fun.

The Bell in the Lake by Lars Mytting

bell in the lakeTitle: The Bell in the Lake
Author: Lars Mytting
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Hachette Australia
Published: 10th March 2020
Format: Paperback
Pages: 392
Price: $32.99
Synopsis: The first in a rich historical trilogy that draws on legend, by the author of NORWEGIAN WOOD and THE SIXTEEN TREES OF THE SOMME.
Norway, 1880. In the secluded village of Butangen at the end of the valley, headstrong Astrid dreams of a life beyond marriage, hard work and children. And then Pastor Kai Schweigaard comes into her life, taking over the 700-year-old stave church with its carvings of pagan deities. The two church bells were forged by her forefather in the sixteenth century, in memory of conjoined sisters Halfrid and Gunhild Hekne, and are said to have supernatural powers. But now the pastor wants to tear it down, to replace it with a modern, larger church. Though Astrid is drawn to him, this may be a provocation too far.
Talented architecture student Gerhard Schonauer arrives from Dresden to oversee the removal of the church and its reconstruction in the German city. Everything about elegant Schonauer is so different, so cosmopolitan. Astrid must make a choice: for her homeland and the pastor, or for a daunting and uncertain future in Germany.
Then the bells begin to toll…
Translated from the Norwegian by Deborah Dawkin

~*~

In Norway in 1880, society is changing. Astrid Hekne, the main character, dreams of a life beyond what society has in mind for her. That is, until she meets the new pastor, Kai Schweigaard to take care of an old church with pagan carvings. Here, the intersection of the old Norse ways from hundreds of years ago, and Christian traditions meet beneath the Sister Bells that Astrid’s ancestor made. They memorialise two conjoined Henke sisters. Astrid wants to try and stop their destruction.

Yet when a German architect arrives the plans to reconstruct it in Dresden are revealed. As their lives collide, and Astrid is forced into making a decision, the bells begin to tell and a fate that has been hanging over Astrid’s head begins to shape what is to come.

Told in three parts, each made up of multiple short sections or chapters, The Bell in the Lake was translated from the original Norwegian by Deborah Dawkin, and is a complex and lyrical story, exploring the lives of Astrid, Kai and Gerhard as they navigate the complexities of moving a church and how faith shapes a small community and the driving force of society to determine how people act and what is to come. Interspersed with Astrid’s story – a woman determined to be her own person and move ahead of her time, is the rich history of stave churches and what they meant to their societies. It is dense with history and plot, and many complexities that lead to an ending that was a bit surprising and needed a couple of reads to understand it, but it packed a powerful punch about the realities of the setting and how belief can be a powerful factor in what ends up happening to us.

The intersection of ancient and new religions – of a pantheon of gods versus a singular god, and how these two religions somehow came together – or how one more likely took over and appropriated another in order to convert those who were faithful to the older ways to a new, and what was seen at the time, more acceptable way of thinking. This mainly came through Kai and Gerhard but bubbled below the surface of the other characters and how their beliefs in older ways and legends informed how they wanted to live their lives.

The nineteenth century setting feels authentic – and the cold of Norway expressed throughout is biting and can be felt through the words, and there is a sense of isolation within the novel that Astrid longs to break away from. It is a unique novel and very dense with detail, character and setting – which work in this instance as it allows setting and character to be as important as the plot.

The River Home by Hannah Richell

the river homeTitle: The River Home

Author: Hannah Richell

Genre: Contemporary Fiction

Publisher: Hachette Australia

Published: 25th February 2020

Format: Paperback

Pages: 360

Price: $29.99

Synopsis: The river can take you home. But the river can also drag you under… The new novel from bestselling author Hannah Richell. A wise and emotionally powerful story of a broken family and the courage it takes to heal.

The river can take you home. But the river can also drag you under…

‘It’s something she learned years ago – the hard way – and that she knows she will never forget: even the sweetest fruit will fall and rot into the earth, eventually. No matter how deep you bury the pain, the bones of it will rise up to haunt you … like the echoes of a summer’s night, like the river flowing relentlessly on its course.’

Margot Sorrell didn’t want to go home. She had spent all her adult life trying not to look behind. But a text from her sister Lucy brought her back to Somerset. ‘I need you.’

As Margot, Lucy and their eldest sister, Eve, reunite in the house they grew up in beside the river, the secrets they keep from each other, and from themselves, refuse to stay hidden. A wedding brings them together but long-simmering resentments threaten to tear the family apart. No one could imagine the way this gathering would change them all forever. And through the sorrow they are forced to confront, there is a chance that healing will also come. But only if the truth is told.

The new novel from bestselling author Hannah Richell. A wise and emotionally powerful story of a broken family and the courage it takes to heal.

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The River Home opens with a mysterious passage hinting at a tragedy, something gone terribly wrong – a mystery that promises to unfold itself as the novel progresses and weave itself along the river in the title of Hannah Richell’s latest novel, The River Home. It centres around three sisters – Eve, Lucy and Margot Sorrell as they come together for Lucy’s whirlwind wedding. Yet Margot is resistant – holding onto secrets from the past that led to her leaving her family.

As Margot returns, old tensions resurface and whilst the novel goes between Lucy, Eve and Margot in the present and their parents and childhood in the past, the reasons Margot doesn’t want to return are slowly revealed, as are other secrets that Eve wants to keep quiet. Yet whilst all together in their childhood home with partners, Eve’s daughters, their parents and their father’s new partner, old secrets come to the surface, and new secrets burst forth throughout, culminating in the finale that is both heartbreaking and hopeful, bringing to life how unspoken secrets and tensions can rip a family apart and then bring them all back together.

AWW2020It is for Lucy that they come together, where all past ills are somewhat forgotten, and bridges start to be constructed. It is Lucy who urges them to do this – to heal themselves. Her heartbreaking story is raw and filled with every emotion possible – joy, fear, sadness, love and uncertainty. The three sisters have lived their entire lives with their mother as a best-selling author, and her story is woven throughout this family saga, written eloquently and in a way where each character gets to tell their story. Lucy is full of life, yet her secret will rock the family. Margot has been holding onto hers since she was sixteen – ever since the school play, and the incident that drove her away from her family at seventeen. And Eve is determined to hide her secret from her husband, to maintain the order and proper life she has led for thirty years. These secrets, and how they are revealed to the reader and to the other characters are each done with great impact, rocking the world for everyone involved and threatening to cause new rifts. Yet in the aftermath, when they discover Margot’s secret, that knowledge brings them together and allows the family to begin healing and gives the Sorrell sisters the courage to go on with the challenges that life is throwing at them.

Hannah Richell has delivered another enthralling family story, where the focus is the love of family and between family – extended and immediate, as they grapple with challenges in life, and takes place over a weekend as it goes back and forth in time, and in doing so, sets up for the secrets that are to be revealed and gives great insight into the characters and their lives. She has managed to capture the full range of emotion – from joy to despair on the page and everything in between, this is a book for fans of Hannah Richell, and the books like this that get a perfect balance between drama, secrets, happiness and what it means to be part of a family. I do hope others enjoy it as much as I did, as it is refreshing to see family love front and centre of a novel, rather than it always being romantic love.

The Killing Streets: Uncovering Australia’s first serial murderer by Tanya Bretherton

killing streetsTitle: The Killing Streets: Uncovering Australia’s first serial murderer

Author: Tanya Bretherton

Genre: History, Non-Fiction, True Crime

Publisher: Hachette Australia

Published: 25th February 2020

Format: Paperback

Pages: 340

Price: $32.99

Synopsis: From the acclaimed author of THE SUITCASE BABY and THE SUICIDE BRIDE, the story of a series of horrific murders that began in 1930s Sydney – and a killer who remained at large for over two decades.

In December 1932, as the Depression tightened its grip, the body of a woman was found in Queens Park, Sydney. It was a popular park. There were houses in plain view. Yet this woman had been violently murdered without anyone noticing. Other equally brutal and shocking murders of women in public places were to follow. Australia’s first serial killer was at large.

Police failed to notice the similarities between the victims until the death of one young woman – an aspiring Olympic swimmer – made the whole city take notice. On scant evidence, the unassuming Eric Craig was arrested. But the killings didn’t stop…

This compelling story of a city crippled by fear and a failing economy, of a killer at large as panic abounds, is also the story of what happens when victims aren’t perfect and neither are suspects, and when a rush to judgement replaces the call of reason.

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Modern Sydney has been connected to crime ever since the arrival of the First Fleet with the first lot of convicts from the UK, sent to serve out sentences for stealing bread, stealing clothes and many other crimes at what must have felt like the end of the world for those people. In 1930s Sydney, during the Depression, a violent murder occurred in Queens Park – followed by several others that were similar, and a few others had preceded the 1932 murder. It seemed Australia had its first serial killer.

AWW2020Yet in 1932, even though new forensic and crime scene recording techniques were coming to light – sketches and photography were used in conjunction as part of investigations – the police did not see the link between the initial deaths  – unfortunately laying some of the blame on the victim, due to their profession. Yet when Bessie O’Connor – an aspiring Olympic swimmer who lived a very different life to the other women – prostitutes – was murdered, the police hurriedly made the connection.

In these dark days, the police investigation appears to have been hurried somewhat in a desperate attempt to get the ‘sex slayer’ off the streets. Yet even once Eric Craig, who forever professed his innocence, was arrested – the killings continued after a brief break. The killer could have been a copycat, or perhaps in their haste, the police arrested the wrong man, and because of that, let the real killer go free for decades to come.

Tanya Bretherton uses the facts at hand in articles, archives and various other sources to construct her book, and whilst she extrapolates what may have happened in some places due to gaps in the information she has access to, this I felt was done respectfully and in a way that tried to give something more to the history, and show just how a forced and quick investigation can result in the wrong outcome, and possibly, lead to the real killer never being caught. She humanises the victims, and makes sure we remember their names: Daisy, Rebecca, Vera, Hilda, Iris, Bessie, Betty, Lucy, Joan and Ada, whose deaths were not properly investigated, and where their gender was also a factor in how the police viewed these crimes – that somehow they’d done something wrong, yet they hadn’t. Tanya makes them human again, seen through the eyes of those that loved them rather than their killer, and also, illustrated the dynamics of Eric Craig, his upbringing and the stark contrast between the way his mother – Leah, and his wife – Mary-Caroline as they watched the trial, and what happened to their son and husband.

Tanya also manages to get the balance between the emotions linked to the deaths and cases, and the facts – they both contribute to construct a narrative where one can believe that Craig wasn’t the killer, that he was coerced into a confession due to shoddy police work, and lack of further investigation into other possible suspects in an attempt to make the killings stop. The killings Craig was accused of were the 1932 ones, but very similar killings took place from 1926 to 1944, and suggest the possibility of one serial killer across the eighteen years – but nobody can know for sure, which is what makes this book so interesting – it posits that there could have been at least two, but this is something we will never know, perhaps lost to history forever. Still, these stories open up a seedy and dark underside of a well-known city, illustrating a time of fear and uncertainty through a dark and murky mystery. Readers of crime and true crime will find this a fascinating insight into Australia’s history and crime and justice system.