We That Are Left by Lisa Bigelow

we that are left.jpgTitle: We That Are Left

Author: Lisa Bigelow

Genre: Historical Fiction

Publisher: Allen and Unwin

Published: 23rd August 2017

Format: Paperback

Pages: 400

Price: $29.99

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

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

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

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

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

~*~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Author: Peter Stanley

Genre: History

Publisher: NLA Publishing

Published: 1st August 2017

Format: Paperback

Pages: 264

Price: $44.95

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

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

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

~*~

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

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

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

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

The Sixteen Trees of the Somme by Lars Mytting

sixteen trees.jpgTitle: The Sixteen Trees of the Somme

Author: Lars Mytting

Genre: Fiction

Publisher: Hachette Australia: MacLehose Press

Published: 8th August, 2017

Format: Paperback

Pages: 405

Price: $32.99

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

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

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

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

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

Translated from the Norwegian by Paul Russell Garrett

~*~

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

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

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

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

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

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Billy Sing by Ouyang Yu

Billy-Sing-front-cover-for-publicity.jpg

Title: Billy Sing: A Novel

Author: Ouyang Yu

Genre: Fiction

Publisher: Transit Lounge

Published: 1st April 2017

Format: Hardcover

Pages: 144

Price: $27.95

Synopsis: William ‘Billy’ Sing was born in 1886 to an English mother and Chinese father. He and his two sisters were brought up in Clermont and Proserpine, in rural Queensland. He was one of the first to enlist in 1914 and at Gallipoli became famous for his shooting prowess.

In his new novel, Billy Sing, Ouyang Yu embodies Sing’s voice in a magically descriptive prose that captures both the Australian landscape and vernacular. In writing about Sing’s triumphant yet conflicted life, and the horrors of war, Yu captures with imaginative power what it might mean to be both an outsider and a hero in one’s own country. The telling is poetic and realist, the author’s understanding of being a Chinese-Australian sensitively informs the narrative.

The result is a short novel of great beauty that impacts way beyond its size. A novel that is searing yet fresh, delicate yet brutal, a masterful habitation of another life. Billy Sing is arguably one of Ouyang’s finest works to date.

~*~

Billy Sing tells the story of one of the first Australians to sign up for the First World War in 1914. In the days before the army policies of not admitting non-whites to the AIF, Billy Sing’s story is brought to life, illuminating the rush of war alongside racial tensions and assumptions of a society where to many, skin colour was more important, though this importance seemed to melt away in the trenches of Gallipoli, where Billy Sing became known as the Murderer or the Assassin due to his skill as a sniper. This novel tells his story – of his family, his own feelings and his war time experiences and the years that follow in a first person narrative that allows the reader to enter Billy’s thoughts and feelings.

The son of a Chinese Father and English Mother, Billy spent his life trying to balance his Chinese heritage, and the beliefs of his father, with the English heritage and beliefs of his mother, as well as an Australian upbringing, and a feeling of home not really being China, but not really being England – whereas his war bride wife longs to remain in her home in Scotland, pushing Billy to forget that his home is truly Australia in a way. He questions his Chinese-Australian identity, which is where the similar heritage of the author comes in, informing the experiences with care and in a way that illuminates what it means to straddle two very different cultures in a country that whilst these days, is rather diverse, in the early twentieth century, was not as welcoming of the diversity we see today.

Ouyang Yu’s experience as a Chinese-Australian informs Billy’s story and gave him an authentic voice, especially to a figure in Australian history that I did not learn about during my history studies, despite the contributions he made to the fight at Gallipoli and during the First World War. It is an eye-opening book, revealing how some soldiers weren’t viewed as valuable at times during the war and after based on something like race, and highlighting the differences between what it was like in the trenches – where Billy’s mates didn’t seem to care he had Chinese heritage, only that he had their backs compared to later treatment post war and how that impacted on Billy as a person, how he saw himself and the way he devalued his contribution later in the narrative.

Written without chapter breaks, it is a fairly quick read, but no less powerful than something twice its length. Perhaps a good read for students studying the First World War in history to compare with some of the other tales and legends of figures during that time.

A Letter from Italy by Pamela Hart

letter from italy.jpg

Title: A Letter from Italy

Author: Pamela Hart

Genre: Historical Fiction

Publisher: Hachette

Published: 14th March 2017

Format: Paperback

Pages: 353

Price: $29.99

Synopsis: Inspired by the life of the world’s first woman war correspondent, Australia’s Louise Mack, the most gorgeous love story yet by Pamela Hart.

1917, Italy. Australian journalist Rebecca Quinn is an unconventional woman. At the height of World War I, she has given up the safety of her Sydney home for the bloody battlefields of Europe, following her journalist husband to the frontline as a war correspondent in Italy.

Reporting the horrors of the Italian campaign, Rebecca finds herself thrown together with American-born Italian photographer Alessandro Panucci, and soon discovers another battleground every bit as dangerous and unpredictable: the human heart.

~*~

aww2017-badgeA Letter From Italy opens with Rebecca bidding a fond farewell to her husband Jack before he departs on a journalistic assignment, leaving her in Italy, where she must wait for him to return, whilst working on her journalistic career, and finding stories that will see her departure from the Women’s Pages of the newspaper she works for to the serious, hard hitting journalism that at the time, was seen as the domain of the male journalist, as was the role of war correspondent, reporting on all aspects of the war, whereas Rebecca was encouraged to report on what affected the home front and women, rather than the battles and bombings that destroyed lives. Using her knowledge of the area and a kind hearted American photographer with Italian heritage, Sandro to help her, Rebecca starts writing stories that matter, and sends them to the newspapers, whilst hoping her husband is still alive, and showing the male journalists that she can cope. Her feminist views come out when young Italian girls are surprised at how many rights she has as a woman, that she can vote – and that she doesn’t need to do what her husband says.

A revelation of just how supportive Jack has been of her career comes later in the novel – and pushes Rebecca to confront the editors and work on more articles to get herself – and Sandro, her photographer noticed, especially after a small village is bombed during the course of the war, and tragedy seeps into every corner.

During this time, one of the journalists Rebecca thought she could trust begins to act suspiciously, the results of which were surprising – and led to events that I could not have expected.

The budding romance between Rebecca and Sandro is slotted in nicely – I liked that it was hinted at here and there, through their thoughts, and that their ambitions in photography and journalism were given a lot more attention, creating well-rounded characters whose relationship was one of respect, and friendship, as well as love, in a time of war.

A Letter from Italy is a fascinating historical novel that explores gender expectations and assumptions, and how at first glance, not everyone is who they seem to be. It shows how tragedies like war can show people for who they really are.

It is a novel that incorporates history, and the tragedy of war, with expectations of gender and the traditions of one country that have been around for generations, and the contrast of these with a young country, women’s rights and the freedom Rebecca has. This contrast also illustrates that though Rebecca has the freedoms to vote and be a journalist, she is in some ways hampered by gender expectations and assumptions.

The first Pamela Hart novel I have read, and one of the better romance novels I have read where the characters are more than just the love story, and have goals of their own that they set out to achieve before a bittersweet happily ever after.

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King’s Cage by Victoria Aveyard

Title: King’s Cage  kings-cage

Author: Victoria Aveyard

Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult

Publisher: Orion Children’s Books

Published: 7th February 2017

Format: paperback

Pages: 512

Price: $19.99

Synopsis: The highly anticipated new novel from New York Times Number One bestselling author of Red Queen.

Mare Barrow is a prisoner, powerless without her lightning, tormented by her mistakes. She lives at the mercy of a boy she once loved, a boy made of lies and betrayal.

Now a king, Maven continues weaving his web in an attempt to maintain control over his country – and his prisoner.

As Mare remains trapped in the palace, the remnants of the Red Rebellion continue organising and expanding. As they prepare for war, no longer able to linger in the shadows, Cal – the exiled prince with his own claim on Mare’s heart – will stop at nothing to bring her back.

In this breathless new novel from the bestselling author of the Red Queen series, blood will turn on blood and allegiances will be tested on every side. If the Lightning Girl’s spark is gone, who will light the way for the rebellion?

~*~

King’s Cage starts with Mare Barrow in the prison of Maven, and at the mercy of the Silvers. The third in the Red Queen series, it continues the story that began in Red Queen, of the battle between Reds and Silvers, and how the Newbloods – those with special abilities – fit into the war. The ongoing war, and forced conscription ahs led to rebellion and infiltration, with Mare’s undercover position in the castle where Maven lives now undone, with her in prison, and under the influence of Silent Stone to suppress her lightning powers, but also Maven, and his obsession with her, and with using her. Set in a dystopian world where magic and technology work together, and where royalty has replaced politicians, this series is gaining fire as it moves towards the war that is coming, and threatening their world.

Starting a series mid-way through is not something I ordinarily do, however, I am tempted to go and read the first two books now – to get the full story, even though I could understand what was going on and work out the characters. I did enjoy it – it was a different take on the fantasy/science fiction/dystopian stories and tropes that abound in Young Adult literature. As the rebellion works away, Mare must suffer the indignity of being paraded around as Maven’s pet to his court, and journey to collect his bride, and unite two Houses against the rebels. It is on this journey that everything Mare has feared comes to a head, and the world she knows, and the people she knows – her family, her friends, and Cal, Maven’s exiled brother – will never be the same again.

Being introduced to a series in the middle can be confusing – at first it was, which is why I hope to read the first two, and it is not something I recommend, however, I was sent a review copy, and at first, did not realise it was part of a series. That said, I did enjoy this – any romantic relationships were there but weren’t as important as the rebellion storyline, and uniting everyone against a common enemy. As a reader, I enjoyed this because they had just enough focus to be enjoyable and gain insight into the characters and motivations, and at the same time, didn’t take over what I saw as the more interesting aspects to the novel – the rebellion and coming together from various places to take on the other side.

Even though Mare is the main character, a few other characters get to tell their story – each chapter is told in first person, with the name at the top, making it easy to identify who is telling the story. Each voice is different too – with varying emotions and views that ensure each character’s chapter is identified easily from the others.

A great read for fans of the series, and Young Adult fans. I am looking forward to trying to get the first two as well.

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The Bombs That Brought Us Together by Brian Conaghan

the-bombs-that-brought-us-together

Title: The Bombs that Brought Us Together

Author: Brian Conaghan

Genre: Children’s Fiction

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Published: 1st May 2016

Format: Paperback

Pages: 368

Price: $16.99

Synopsis: WINNER OF THE 2016 COSTA CHILDREN’S BOOK AWARD

Fourteen-year-old Charlie Law has lived in Little Town, on the border with Old Country, all his life. He knows the rules: no going out after dark; no drinking; no litter; no fighting. You don’t want to get on the wrong side of the people who run Little Town. When he meets Pavel Duda, a refugee from Old Country, the rules start to get broken. Then the bombs come, and the soldiers from Old Country, and Little Town changes for ever.

Sometimes, to keep the people you love safe, you have to do bad things. As Little Town’s rules crumble, Charlie is sucked into a dangerous game. There’s a gun, and a bad man, and his closest friend, and his dearest enemy.

Charlie Law wants to keep everyone happy, even if it kills him. And maybe it will.

~*~

Set in what could be a not so distant future, but in an indiscriminate country, divided into Little Town and Old Country, Charlie Law’s life begins to change when he meets Pavel Dude, a refugee from Old Town. Charlie soon becomes embroiled in a rebellion plot against the army of Old Country that has taken over Little Town following the devastation of a bomb attack, increasing tensions between people, with enforced rules and danger lurking everywhere. Charlie must decide between keeping his head down and not getting involved, or becoming involved in ways he had never imagined he would at the age of fourteen.

Told through the eyes of a child who has always known war and oppression, The Bombs That Brought Us Together show the realities of war and state sanctioned oppression, and the way the innocent acceptance of children who have only known this life change, and work to fight against it or simply accept the new way of life. Seeing war and the consequences of war through the eyes of a child, watching people he cares about suffer without medicine because the chemist was bombed, or go missing, without a trace for days. Charlie’s voice is clear throughout the story, and the reader experiences the events through his eyes.

I found Charlie to be a likeable character – one which had flaws but was loyal to his friends and family, who questioned people when he thought something was up and didn’t simply accept things. I felt his fear and uncertainty in his dealings with the Big Man, his absolute loyalty to Pav, the refugee who struggled with Little Town lingo, who feared Old Country, yet still didn’t feel safe from the thugs and those who hated anyone from Old Country.

Brian Conaghan has captured the voice of a child affected by war, invasion and occupation, illustrating how a dictatorship can threaten lives but at the same time, feel like everyday life to those living in it and who may never have known anything different. I think it encourages readers to understand history and how events like these fictional ones can happen, and what drives people to extreme measures, such as the deal Charlie had to make for medication for his mother.

An intriguing read, and ideal for teenagers, The Bombs That Brought Us Together shows the importance and the strength of trust of friendship in the uncertain and dangerous times in the novel.