The Monstrous Devices by Damien Love

monstrous devicesTitle: The Monstrous Devices
Author: Damien Love
Genre: Science Fiction, Adventure
Publisher: Bloomsbury/Rock the Boat
Published: 19th May 2020
Format: Paperback
Pages: 352
Price: $14.99
Synopsis: A cinematic and original page-turner for fans of Indiana Jones and Alex Rider

On a winter’s day, twelve-year old Alex receives a package in the mail: an old tin robot from his grandfather. ‘This one is special,’ says the enclosed note, and when strange events start occurring around him, Alex suspects this small toy is more than special; it might be deadly.

Things get out of hand, Alex’s grandfather arrives, saving him from an attack – and his otherwise humdrum world of friends, bullies, and homework – and plunging him into the macabre magic of an ancient family feud. Together, the duo flees across snowy Europe, unravelling the riddle of the little robot while trying to outwit relentless assassins of the human and mechanical kind.

With an ever-present admiration for the hidden mysteries of our world, Monstrous Devices plunges readers into a gripping adventure that’s sure to surprise.

~*~
When the robot Alexander receives a mysterious robot from his grandfather, he has no idea what is in store for him. Soon, it seems as if the robot has come to life. Soon, Alexander and his grandfather are racing through Paris and Prague as they try to solve the mystery of the robot that comes to life and does things that Alexander never thought possible, and invites danger into their lives that is at times scary, and that Alexander and his grandfather need to get out of so they can resume their daily lives.

This intriguing novel combines adventure and quest stories, with living toys, ancient myths and stories from the past about the golem, and robots in a unique way. It merges magic and reality seamlessly, and incorporates themes of science fiction and stories of how the living robot came to be, and is at times, scary or worrying, but action packed from beginning to end as they try to bring an end to an ancient family feud fuelled by macabre magic, and people who aren’t quite who they say they are.

At times, it feels apocalyptic – as though the robot and those who want it and want to control it are going to win. It feels as though it is a whole story, that the ending wraps things up nicely. Yet at the same time, there could be a sequel. The Tall Man who appears has a connection to one of the characters that is hinted at but perhaps not wholly resolved – and as the mystery of the robot unfolds, we are told along the way about Alexander’s absent father, whose non-presence in the novel shapes the characters and forms an interesting plot line that works well not being resolved – we don’t always find out everything – yet also works to hint at a sequel – either way, this plot line is woven throughout as Alexander ponders who his father is and what is going on with the robot and his grandfather.

This is a book filled with mystery and danger at every turn, as it draws on the golem legend from Jewish culture, and a Rabbi Loewy who is linked to the robot and the store it was taken from in Prague – this theft opens up the novel – where we first meet the tall man and the young girl who accompanies him. They are a constant presence in the novel – whether on the page or off the page, and their role gives the novel the scary undertones – what do these two people want, and who are they are two questions constantly at play throughout the novel.

This was a different novel for me – most of the things I read don’t have robots. It was interesting, and perhaps gives a brief look at what things could be like if robots did take over or at least, what could happen if they could read our thoughts and act of their own volition. In this way, it was a touch scary at times, yet also engrossing – to find out if Alexander and his grandfather succeed, you have to read on. It captures the imagination and once in Prague, takes the reader somewhere new and historic. It evokes a sense of history and mystery, and magic in a place that has a long and complex history within Europe in many ways – perhaps too many to list here.

This is an interesting and mysterious read for confident readers aged nine and older, and will take you on a journey you’d never expect.

There Was Still Love by Favel Parrett

there was still loveTitle: There Was Still Love

Author: Favel Parrett

Genre: Historical Fiction

Publisher: Hachette Australia

Published: 24th September 2019

Format: Paperback

Pages: 215

Price: $29.99

Synopsis: The profoundly moving new novel from the critically acclaimed and Miles Franklin shortlisted author of PAST THE SHALLOWS and WHEN THE NIGHT COMES. A tender and masterfully told story of memory, family and love.

Prague, 1938: Eva flies down the street from her sister. Suddenly a man steps out, a man wearing a hat. Eva runs into him, hits the pavement hard. His hat is in the gutter. His anger slaps Eva, but his hate will change everything, as war forces so many lives into small, brown suitcases.

Prague, 1980: No one sees Ludek. A young boy can slip right under the heavy blanket that covers this city – the fear cannot touch him. Ludek is free. And he sees everything. The world can do what it likes. The world can go to hell for all he cares because Babi is waiting for him in the warm flat. His whole world.

Melbourne, 1980: Mala Li ka’s grandma holds her hand as they climb the stairs to their third floor flat. Inside, the smell of warm pipe tobacco and homemade cakes. Here, Mana and Bill have made a life for themselves and their granddaughter. A life imbued with the spirit of Prague and the loved ones left behind.

Favel Parrett’s deep emotional insight and stellar literary talent shine through in this love letter to the strong women who bind families together, despite dislocation and distance. It is a tender and beautifully told story of memory, family and love. Because there is still love. No matter what.

~*~

Most novels that deal with World War Two and its aftermath are often focused on the Holocaust, and in Australia, Changi, and the camps that imprisoned any Australians – civilian and military in places like Singapore during the 1940s. Very rarely have I read one set in the Communist era that goes between Communist Prague in 1980 and Melbourne in the same year, telling the story of the same family, and their vastly different experiences in each place – linked by grandmothers who were sisters, and photographs of each other, and the untold stories of how the branches of the family were separated in the months leading up to World War Two in 1948.

In Prague, Ludek lives with his Babi, and his grandfather. His mother is travelling the world in a ballet company, and occasionally writes to him, but cannot visit because of the strict rules dictating circumstances should she return to Prague. Ludek has only known Prague, but whenever his great-uncle and aunt visit, he gets gifts from Australia, and an unknown cousin who lives with her grandparents.

2019 Badge

Mala Lika lives in Melbourne, she lives an Australian life of freedom, away from Communism, but with the scars of war-torn Europe and a family torn asunder by war and post-war Communism and its impacts. The family is united because they are Czech, and because they do not speak of their experiences to the children – so the understanding of how the war years affected their family is filtered through the eyes of the children, and their experiences and understanding of language as well as the questions they ask. But the language of love crosses generations, language barriers and cultural barriers, and is the driving force behind this novel.

The familial love throughout this novel is what makes it more powerful and also what drives it forward. It is realistic – not everyone meets and nor are they always reunited – but they all love each other and are all linked together as a family. Eva and her sister are, alongside Ludek and Mala Lika, the driving forces and central characters of the novel, as their history and relationship is slowly revealed, leading up to what separated them and kept them apart for the rest of their lives.

 

Using first and third person for different characters, splitting each section up for each character makes this easy to follow, and also fits with the characters, their lives and what they observe. Sometimes mixing first and third person doesn’t work, but in this case it does, as does having different narrators.

Reading about how post-war politics affected families was interesting and gave new insight into what happened – the war didn’t just end. There were consequences for all, and not everyone was able to be reunited with their families. They might have been apart forever, but they would always have love.

Thus was an insightful, short and succinct story that allowed the characters to be true to who they were, within what they knew without another entity questioning it. Shown through the eyes of two child narrators for the majority of the book, apart from the flashbacks, it is accessible to all and each reader will have a different understanding, depending on how old they are and when they read it, as well as their own experiences. A nicely written book that reflects family life for what it can be.

Alice to Prague by Tanya Heaslip

Alice to Prague.jpgTitle: Alice to Prague

Author: Tanya Heaslip

Genre: Memoir/Non-Fiction

Publisher: Allen and Unwin

Published: 6th May 2019

Format: Paperback

Pages: 360

Price: $29.99

Synopsis:What happens when a young independent Northern Territory country girl decides to follow her dreams and go off in search of adventures abroad? An honest, often funny, bittersweet memoir of love, loss and belonging; of the hard-won understanding around where home lies.

‘I loved it! I laughed and cried and it was very hard to put down.’ Fleur McDonald, bestselling author of Where the River Runs

‘A story of love for country, for home.’ Toni Tapp Coutts, author of A Sunburnt Childhood

In 1994, with a battered copy of Let’s Go Europe stuffed in her backpack, Tanya Heaslip left her safe life as a lawyer in outback Australia and travelled to the post-communist Czech Republic.

Dismissing concerns from family and friends that her safety and career were at risk, she arrived with no teaching experience whatsoever, to work at a high school in a town she’d never heard of, where the winters are frigid and plunge to sub-zero temperatures.

During her childhood on an isolated cattle station in Central Australia, Tanya had always dreamed of adventure and romance in Europe but the Czech Republic was not the stuff of her dreams. On arrival, however, she falls headlong into misadventures that change her life forever.

This land of castles, history and culture opened up to her and she to it. In love with Prague and her people, particularly with the charismatic Karel, who takes her into his home, his family and as far as he can into his heart, Tanya learns about lives very different to hers.

Alice to Prague is a bittersweet story of a search for identity, belonging and love, set in a time, a place and with a man that fill Tanya’s life with contradictions.

2019 Badge

~*~

In 1994, Tanya Heaslip, who had grown up in the Australian outback on a farm, and attended boarding school in the city, heads off to live in Prague, in the Czech Republic for year – only three years after the collapse of Communism, and five years after she saw the Berlin Wall come down. Heading there to teach English, she enters a world that is unfamiliar, and in some ways, is still clinging onto the Communist past, yet at the same time, trying to embrace the new way of life and venture into a new world. Unable to speak Czech, Tanya had to rely on the generosity of the Czechs who spoke some English, and the keen students at her school like Pavel and Kamila who loved learning from her. She found ways to connect with her students through Australian songs like Waltzing Matilda, and met Karel, a man who would help her find her way in Prague, who she would fall in love with. Yet their cultural differences and understandings of love and relationships did not always see eye to eye.

The Prague that Tanya visited and lived in is very much the Prague I visited in 2007- where remnants of Communism still cling on, and where the first MacDonald’s built in Prague is opposite the Museum of Communism – which goes through the history of Communism in the Czech Republic from 1948 until the Velvet Revolution.

What we know of Communist era Prague and Eastern Europe from the Western tradition, and what the people Tanya became friends with told her have a stark difference for understanding and interpretation. Where the West – and Tanya – believed it was oppressive, people like Karel said they found it safe – they knew where they lived, where they worked and how their lives would turn out. The fall of Communism had made that uncertain for some people yet given hope to others.

Visiting in 2007, there are still elements of Communism amongst the new capitalist areas, and the old, medieval icons such as the Astronomical Clock. Each of these elements combines to create a unique city that has seen many changes, war, revolution and everything in between. Its identity is clear in Tanya’s memoir as one that has been cobbled together of all these elements, and one that continues to grow in Europe. Tanya’s story is amazing and intriguing – and the way she adapted to life in Prague illustrated how anyone might have to adapt to any environment starkly different from the one they are familiar with.

Where Tanya had the freedom to head back to Australia, and younger students expressed a desire to leave Prague and head to what they saw as freer nations, people like Karel expressed that they could not leave their lives for uncertain futures or places. In this meeting of East and West, Tanya discovered through discussions with her students at the school, legal institutions and a ministry, that both sides had been fed a narrative that suited their respective governments. That everyone had a valid viewpoint but some things simply did not translate or crossover – and only Tanya could make the decisions she needed to make about her life and her future – which she touches on at the end, and where she ends up in Australia, a decade after her journey to Prague.

This book gave an interesting insight into travelling to and around a former Communist country in the years just after the changes came forward, and the difficulties in transitioning from one to the other, and the conflicts of those who want change, those who don’t, and those who have come from an entirely different place where definitions of freedom and security are very different. It is eye opening and engaging – and I could picture Prague as she wrote about it – the River Vltava, Charles Bridge and all the ancient architecture peppered with newer, Communist bloc buildings. An interesting read for all into history and Prague, and for those who have visited or want to visit.