Originally published in the Canberra Weekly on 13 May 2021.
Make sure to also check out my extended review for The Warsaw Orphan.
Originally published in the Canberra Weekly on 13 May 2021.
Make sure to also check out my extended review for The Warsaw Orphan.
Publisher: Hachette Australia (Trade Paperback – 28 April 2021)
Series: Standalone/sequel to The Things We Cannot Say
Length: 416 pages
My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Prepare to have your heart broken again and again as Australian author Kelly Rimmer presents a captivating, powerful and dark historical drama, The Warsaw Orphan.
Warsaw, 1942. The Nazis have a firm control over all of Poland and have moved the entire Jewish population into the infamous Warsaw Ghetto. Vastly overcrowded and with limited supplies, life is extremely hard in the Ghetto, and many have given up all hope. For Jewish teen Roman Gorka, all he can do is try to survive and earn enough to keep his family alive. However, when rumours spread through the Ghetto about the Nazi plans to transport them to “work camps” out in the forest, Roman knows that it is time to act. Knowing that the lives of himself and his parents are already forfeit, Roman attempts to find a way to save his younger siblings.
At the same time, a young woman, Elzbieta Rabinek, has just arrived in the city and appears to be a typical Polish girl living with her family. However, Elzbieta is hiding a dangerous secret: her real name is Emilia, and she is the younger sister of an executed Jewish sympathiser. Fleeing her village with her new family, Emilia is kept hidden from any potential pursuers. But when Emilia discovers the truth about the Ghetto, she becomes determined to help and joins an underground group of women working to smuggle Jewish children to safety.
As Emilia becomes more involved with the secret work of her organisation, she soon encounters Roman. Working together to save Roman’s younger sister, the two grow close and soon their fates are inevitably tied together. But when a terrible tragedy strikes, both Roman and Emilia will be thrown into disarray. As Warsaw becomes overwhelmed with fire and despair, can these two young people survive with hope, or will they be washed away in a flood of righteous anger?
Wow, just wow. This was an incredibly touching historical drama that has really impressed me thanks to its moving story and striking portrayals of life in World War II Warsaw. The Warsaw Orphan is the latest novel from Australian author Kelly Rimmer, who has previously produced moving novels such as Truths I Never Told You and Before I Let You Go. The Warsaw Orphan is actually a sequel to Rimmer’s previous book, The Things We Cannot Say, with some of the supporting characters from the previous novel appearing in more prominence in this latest novel.
I was lucky enough to receive a copy of The Warsaw Orphan a few weeks ago and thought it sounded like an intriguing novel, especially as it was from a new-to-me Australian author. Based on the synopsis for the book, I knew going in that this would be a dark and emotionally rich novel, but I was very surprised with how compelling and poignant the narrative it contained would be. Using the perspectives of the two narrators, Roman and Emilia, Rimmer paints a grim and powerful picture of the situation in Warsaw which the two protagonists find themselves in at the start of the book. Both story arcs progress on their own separate way for a while, and it is intriguing to see the different experiences of two people living only a few streets away from each other in Warsaw. It does not take long for the protagonists to encounter each other, combining the narrative together. While the initial joining of their character arcs brings some hope to the story, Rimmer makes sure to quickly crush that with despair and heartbreak as both protagonists experiences tragedy after tragedy, as a series of different historical catastrophes engulf Warsaw and its people. Every time the two central characters appear to be close to some sort of happiness, some new danger or disaster seems to befall them, and the reader is forced to sit back and watch as they endure their latest hardship. While this novel is emotionally tough to read at times, Rimmer’s excellent storytelling ensures that you keep moving forward, especially as you become really invested in the lives of her two protagonists and the struggles of the various peoples of Warsaw. While you may be left emotionally ragged and drained by the end of this book, readers will come away from this story extremely satisfied and with a little bit of hope.
I must really highlight the author’s outstanding and powerful depiction of historical events and places throughout The Warsaw Orphan. Rimmer has clearly done her research on the subject and utilises a lot of fascinating and horrifying historical elements to great effect throughout the narrative. For example, much of the story surrounding Emilia and the organisation she joins that helped to smuggle Jewish children out of the Ghetto is based on real life Polish hero Irena Sendler, with various features of Sendler’s work and personality imparted on some supporting characters. The portrayal of occupied Warsaw is also extremely impressive, and you get a real sense of life in the city. This is especially true of the Ghetto, as the author spends a significant amount of time exploring what happened within. Rimmer pulls no punches when it comes to the horrors of the Ghetto and the brutalities the Nazi regime imparted on the Jewish population. The various descriptions of the Ghetto are extremely harrowing, but through them the reader gets a sense of what the people within would have experienced. I particularly appreciated the way in which she tried to capture the uncertainty that many of the characters, both Jewish and non-Jewish, had about the Nazis’ plans and you get a real sense of the fear and confusion in the lead up to the deportations. Rimmer ends up covering all the key events that occurred in Warsaw between 1942 and 1947, and readers get some powerful and detailed views of the forced deportations to the camps, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the Warsaw Uprising, the German retreat and the subsequent Soviet occupation. The author shows every dark aspect of these historical events as her point-of-view characters find themselves involved in them, often to their great detriment. All these powerful and remarkable historical events and locations serve as a great backdrop to this dramatic tale, and I found it fascinating to learn more about some of these events.
Rimmer has come up with an incredible pair of young point-of-view characters for this book, Roman and Emilia. Roman is a Jewish teen living in the Warsaw Ghetto with his family. Through his eyes you get to see many of the horrors of the Ghetto, starvation, Nazi oppression and the constant fear and death. Rimmer does an impressive job of capturing the inner thoughts and feelings of someone caught up in these terrible events, and I really appreciated the strong sense of survival and desperation you get from him. This quickly morphs in anger, righteousness and revenge when Roman experiences one tragedy too many, and he becomes in a number of dangerous fights against his oppressors. Not only does this result in a number of brutal war sequences, but Rimmer paints a picture of a rebellious soul whose anger and moral outrage overwhelm his senses and force him to do darker and more dangerous deeds. This depiction of anger and rage is quite powerful, and definitely fits an individual who loses everything and does not know what to do.
Emilia, on the other hand, is a somewhat more innocent figure, who, despite not being Jewish, has her own experiences with oppression after witnessing her brother dying in The Things We Cannot Say. Due to the events of this previous book, she has fled to Warsaw with her adoptive parents, hiding under an assumed name. Despite the troubles she is running from, Emilia chafes under the rules her guardians put in place, especially once she learns what is happening in the Ghetto. Despite her fear, uncertainty and loyalty to her guardians’ wishes, Emilia soon becomes involved in the smuggling of children. I really liked how Rimmer decided to utilise her previous character in this novel, and the author does a great job of revisiting parts of her story so that new readers can appreciate what has happened in her past. Emilia proves to be a really interesting character throughout the book, and I loved the contrast in views between her views of Warsaw and Roman’s darker experiences. Watching a non-Jewish citizen experience the horrors of the Ghetto for the first time is pretty moving, and the reader feels a certain kinship to her as they are also witnesses to the various tragedies. I loved the storyline surrounding Emilia joining the movement to save Jewish children, and the author utilises her to tell this group’s very unique tale extremely well.
Both Roman and Emilia have some fantastic storylines in The Warsaw Orphan, and I really liked the way their two separate character arcs come together. These two characters experience an immense amount of grief, regret, violence and despair throughout the book, and their connection is one of the few things to keep them going. Rimmer sets up both characters extremely well throughout The Warsaw Orphan and readers will quickly become obsessed with their unique tales and harrowing experiences. I think both character storylines worked extremely well on their own, but together they tell an even more tragic story, as these two fall in love amongst the worst moments of human history. Seeing the various tragedies and poor decisions that impact their relationship is pretty heartbreaking, and the reader is left in hope that they both survive in the end. I think that Rimmer did an exceptional job creating and developing these two characters, and it is a mark of her writing ability that I ended up caring so much for them both.
The Warsaw Orphan by Australian author Kelly Rimmer is an exceptional and incredible historical drama that comes highly recommended. Rimmer has produced a first-rate story that perfectly utilises two tragic protagonists, an extremely dark and atrocious historical period and an addictive, if tragic, story of love, loss and survival. The Warsaw Orphan is a powerful and compelling book that will stick in your mind long after you finish its final harrowing page.
Publisher: HQ (Trade Paperback – 3 March 2021)
Length: 460 pages
My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
Interested in a fantastic historical fiction novel that looks at a unique and overlooked part of Australia’s history? Then make sure to check out The Codebreakers by bestselling author Alli Sinclair, an amazing and dramatic novel that I found to be extremely captivating and powerful.
1943, Brisbane: The war continues to devastate and the battle for the Pacific threatens Australian shores. For Ellie O’Sullivan, helping the war effort means utilising her engineering skills for Qantas as they evacuate civilians and deliver supplies to armed forces overseas. Her exceptional logic and integrity attract the attention of the Central Bureau-an intelligence organisation working with England’s Bletchley Park codebreakers. But joining the Central Bureau means signing a lifetime secrecy contract. Breaking it is treason.
With her country’s freedom at risk, Ellie works with a group of elite women who enter a world of volatile secrets; deciphering enemy communications to change the course of the war. Working under immense pressure, they form a close bond-yet there could be a traitor in their midst. Can the women uncover the culprit before it’s too late?
As Ellie struggles with the magnitude of the promise she’s made to her country, a wedge grows between her and those she holds dear. When the man she loves asks questions she’s forbidden to answer, how will she prevent the double life she’s leading from unravelling?
The Codebreakers was an amazing and well-written historical drama from Australian author Alli Sinclair, who has previously penned several other great historical novels. This latest book from Sinclair tells the impressive and captivating tale of some of the most unique women in Australia’s storied war history, the secret codebreakers of Central Bureau. This proved to be an impressive and captivating read that I powered through in a quick amount of time, especially as Sinclair came up with a clever and compelling narrative.
Throughout this outstanding tale, Sinclair not only covers the intricacies of a fascinating group of female codebreakers, also known as the Garage Girls (they worked out of a garage), but also includes some excellent character-driven drama as the protagonist is forced to come to terms with the secrecy of her work as well as the various tragedies that befall her and her friends as the war takes it harsh toll. Throw in an intriguing spy thriller angle, as the Garage Girls find out that one of their own may be a traitor, and this becomes quite an intriguing and exciting read. I loved the great blend of excitement, adventure and tragedy that the author produced, and I really liked how she not only showed the protagonist’s entire tenure with the Garage Girls but also featured the tragic aftermath of the war, where the consequences of the protagonist’s decisions and the loneliness of missing friends and colleagues forces her to choose a different path. Readers will swiftly find themselves very attached to the main protagonist and her amazing story, and I had a great time seeing this entire tale unfold.
I must highlight the excellent historical aspects of The Codebreakers as Sinclair has clearly done some intense research on this period. I really enjoyed the intriguing examination of the Central Bureau codebreakers who were active in Brisbane during WWII and who helped to decrypt transmissions and provide vital information to the Allies. Throughout this great book, Sinclair really goes into great detail about the work the codebreakers would have done and some of the impacts of their work. She also tries to examine the mentality that surrounded these codebreakers, both in their work and outside it, as each codebreaker was forbidden to talk about their work to anyone, both during the war and after it. This proves to be an intriguing and intense central part of the novel’s drama, and it is apparently based on interviews that Sinclair did with surviving members of the real-life Garage Girls. This was an impressive and amazing basis for this great story and I deeply enjoyed learning more about this fascinating and formerly-secret women.
I also enjoyed the way in which the author perfectly captured the feel of mid-war Brisbane throughout The Codebreakers’ story. Sinclair laces her narrative with a lot of fascinating discussions about various military attacks that hit Australia, wartime polices and general thoughts and feelings about the war and the people involved with it. However, I was most impressed with Sinclair’s attempts to capture the mentality of the people on the home front in Brisbane at the time. Not only did you get the frustrations of the common Australian citizen/soldier as they dealt with the deployed American soldiery, but there is also the sadness and regret of those that survived. You could almost feel the despair of several characters in this book, especially after the deaths of some of their loved ones, and it was a truly moving inclusion in this fantastic and powerful read. All of these historical inclusions were really remarkable, and I had an outstanding time exploring Sinclair’s vision of this intriguing and momentous period of Australian history.
The Codebreakers by Alli Sinclair was an awesome and moving historical drama that proved to be an exceptional examination of a truly unique group of Australian women. Sinclair makes perfect use of the amazing historical basis for her novel and turns it into quite an exciting and captivating tale of resilience, friendship and romance, which comes highly recommended. I really enjoyed this fantastic novel and I loved learning so much about the codebreakers of Australia’s Central Bureau.
Publisher: Allen & Unwin (Trade Paperback – 2 February 2021)
Length: 344 pages
My Rating: 4.25 out of 5
Deception, divided loyalties and despair are all on offer in the debut novel of Australian writer Rebecca Starford, who presents a curious and captivating read with The Imitator.
‘We trade in secrets here, Evelyn. There’s no shame in having a few of your own. Our only concern is for who might discover them.’
Out of place at boarding school, scholarship girl Evelyn Varley realises that the only way for her to fit in is to be like everyone else. She hides her true self and what she really thinks behind the manners and attitudes of those around her. By the time she graduates from Oxford University in 1939, ambitious and brilliant Evelyn has perfected her performance.
War is looming. Evelyn soon finds herself recruited to MI5, and the elite counterintelligence department of Bennett White, the enigmatic spy-runner. Recognising Evelyn’s mercurial potential, White schools her in observation and subterfuge and assigns her the dangerous task of infiltrating an underground group of Nazi sympathisers working to form an alliance with Germany.
But befriending people to betray them isn’t easy, no matter how dark their intent. Evelyn is drawn deeper into a duplicity of her own making, where truth and lies intertwine, and her increasing distrust of everyone, including herself, begins to test her better judgement. When a close friend becomes dangerously ensnared in her mission, Evelyn’s loyalty is pushed to breaking point, forcing her to make an impossible decision.
A powerfully insightful and luminous portrait of courage and loyalty, and the sacrifices made in their name.
This ended up being a fantastic and enjoyable read from Rebecca Starford, who has come up with a really intriguing and unique story. Starford is an Australian writer who is probably best known for her work on the Kill Your Darlings magazine, as well as her non-fiction book Bad Behaviour, which chronicled the author’s life at an elite country boarding school. The Imitator, which was also released under the title, An Unlikely Spy, is an impressive and captivating historical drama that follows a young woman who becomes involved with British espionage at the start of World War II.
The Imitator has an interesting and surprising story to it which is guaranteed to grab the reader’s attention all the way up to its final shocking twist. Told from the perspective of protagonist, Evelyn Varley, the story is split into two distinct periods, with some of plot set shortly after the end of World War II, while the rest follows the protagonist during the early days of the war. Most of the narrative is set during the earlier time and examines the protagonist during this period, including her recruitment into MI5 and her eventual work investigating Nazi sympathisers. This proves to be quite a fascinating narrative thread, and I really enjoyed the great blend of historical espionage and the compelling drama surrounding the character and her personal relationships. I was particularly intrigued by the parts of the book that explored Evelyn’s attempts to infiltrate a major group of Nazi sympathisers, especially as she is forced to alter her personality to fit into the tight-knit group of fascists. Starford also includes several chapters set after the war which show Evelyn dealing with the aftermath and her actions during the conflict. These post-war sequences compliment the rest of the story extremely well, and hint at tragic consequences to what she did after she is contacted by people from her past. However, readers are in for quite a shock, as these later sequences are shown to be a major bait and switch. Instead of the conclusion that you would generally expect in one of these stories, Starford puts in a particularly major and dramatic twist which really changes the entire tone of the narrative. This twist was a brilliant master stroke from the author, especially as it switches around the implications for the post-war chapters and shines a whole new light on everything. I was really impressed with this amazing narrative, especially once you realise how the author set up the clever ending, and this was truly an awesome and memorable story.
One of the things that I really liked about The Imitator was the fantastic historical setting of London during the early period of World War II. Starford did a great job of highlighting what life during this period would have been like, from the early actions of organisations such as MI5, to the feelings of the populace, most of whom were convinced that the war would be fought far away or would not happen at all. I was also really impressed by the author’s examination and dramatization of several intriguing real-life historical events that occurred during this period. The character of Evelyn Varley is based upon the real life of MI5 operative Joan Miller, who infiltrated a major Nazi sympathiser movement, known as the Right Club, in London back in 1939. Many details about the Right Club are fitted into the book and used as the basis for the Nazi group the protagonist infiltrates. While there are several name changes, the fictional group closely matches what actually happened with the Right Club and MI5’s mission to infiltrate it. I felt that Staford did an amazing job exploring this group and the mission of Joan Miller, and it proved to be an exceptional and clever base to this awesome story.
I also must compliment the compelling and intriguing protagonist of this novel, Evelyn, who serves as the main point-of-view character for the story. Evelyn is a complex individual with a number of features formed during her harsh early life at a prestigious private boarding school. Thanks to her less affluent parents, Evelyn does not really fit in with the richer students and is soon forced to adopt a much different persona, which is helped by the relationship she forms with the family of her one friend at the school. This ability to change her persona becomes particularly important later in life when she begins her career in espionage and must show a false side to herself to people she is trying to take down. Starford has written a fantastically complex character here in Evelyn, and I really appreciated the way in which the author examines what events or personality traits a successful undercover spy might need to have. I also liked the way in which we get to see the character at different parts of her life as the book progresses, such as her innocent pre-war life, her experiences as a seasoned infiltrator and her reflections as a damaged survivor. These various periods of her life and the different personalities are very dramatic and intriguing, and I found it fascinating to see how the author envisioned her changing personality. Starford also writes in an extremely good storyline around the protagonist’s twisted loyalties, which forces her to choose between the safety of her country and the people closest to her. These conflicting loyalties and friendships take Eveyln in some dark places and I really must applaud the clever and powerful narrative that Starford constructed around this great character.
Overall, The Imitator by Rebecca Starford is an exceptional and captivating read that comes highly recommended. I really enjoyed this fantastic book’s clever blend of historical fiction, espionage and dramatic storylines, and I had a wonderful time getting through all of The Imitator’s compelling twists and revelations. An outstanding read that is guaranteed to stick in the mind long after you have finished reading it.
Publisher: Allen & Unwin (Trade Paperback – 2 July 2020)
Length: 360 pages
My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Acclaimed Australian author Caroline Beecham is back with another moving and compelling World War II historical drama with Finding Eadie.
London, 1943. As the war rages across the world, there is a demand for new books to not only distract the public from the grim realities of the war but to also entertain the troops as they fight. However, despite this increased need for books, the London branch of the Partridge Press publishing house is struggling due to wartime restrictions on resources and the damage done to their former offices. In order to survive, Partridge Press need a new bestseller and young staff member, Alice Cotton, has an idea for a book that will both appeal to the public and help lift their spirits. But before work can begin on this project, Alice suddenly leaves.
Alice’s absence is due to her secret pregnancy to an unnamed father. Determined to keep the baby, Eadie, Alice comes up with a plan to give birth in secret and then raise the baby with her mother, pretending it is a wartime orphan. However, Alice is unprepared for the ultimate betrayal by her mother, who steals the baby from her and gives it away in order to save her daughter’s reputation. Devastated, Alice searches for her daughter, and soon finds out that her mother gave the baby to baby farmers, people who make a semi-legal profit by taking unwanted babies and selling them to the highest bidder. Desperate to get Eadie back no matter the cost, Alice returns to Partridge Press and uses her book as a cover to get more information on the baby farmers. At the same time, she finds solace in an American, Theo Booth, who has been sent from the American office of Partridge to help salvage the failing British office. Can Alice find her daughter before it is too late, or will she lose Eadie forever?
Beecham is a talented and impressive author who is making a real impact on the historical drama scene due to her touching storylines that focus on fascinating aspects of the World War II experience. For example, her 2016 debut novel, Maggie’s Kitchen, focused on the struggles of opening a restaurant during the blitz, while her second novel, 2018’s Eleanor’s Secret focused on a young woman who was employed by the War Artist Advisory Committee. Finding Eadie is another powerful war drama that focuses on some intriguing aspects of the war.
At the centre of this book is an excellent dramatic storyline that focuses on two people trying to do their best in difficult circumstances. This story employs two separate point-of-view characters, Alice Cotton and Theo Booth, each of whom have their own intriguing and dramatic storylines. While Theo’s narrative of a young, conflicted, book-loving man who finds his true calling in war-torn London is very enjoyable, I really have to highlight the excellent story surrounding the character of Alice. At the start of the book, Alice has her baby, the titular Eadie, stolen from her by her mother and she spends the rest of the novel trying to find her. This is an incredibly powerful and emotional story thread which I found to be extremely moving. Beecham does an incredible job portraying Alice’s pain and distress throughout the course of the novel and the resultant raw emotion is heartbreaking and mesmerising in equal measures. This search for Eadie has a number of notable elements to it, including emotional confrontations between Alice and her mother, the continued strain impacting the protagonist the longer she is separated from Eadie, a compelling investigative narrative, and a dangerous dive into London’s criminal underbelly. The reader gets really drawn into the story as a result, as they eagerly wait to see if Alice will get a happy ending or if she will become another victim of the tragic circumstances surrounding the war.
On top of this compelling and dramatic storyline there is also a well-written, if somewhat understated, romantic angle between Alice and Theo. While it is quite obvious that the two are going to end up together (it is a historical drama with a male and female as the main characters, of course they are going to end up together), Beecham builds it up rather well, and while there are significant obstacles to their romance, such as Theo’s engagement to another woman and the fact that Alice is rightly more concerned with finding her baby, the two slowly realise their feelings for each other. Overall, the entire story comes together extremely well, and I found myself quite drawn to this excellent narrative which allowed me to read this book in remarkably short order.
While this book has an amazing story, I also really enjoyed Beecham’s examination of certain unique aspects of life during the war, which proves to be rather fascinating. I particularly enjoyed the exploration of the publishing world during the war, and this goes on to become a major and compelling part of the book’s plot. Beecham does a fantastic job highlighting what was going on during the publishing industry during the period in both England and America. This includes an impressive deep dive into the industry, exploring the importance of books during the period, the troubles involved with publishing during a war such as the lack of supplies, as well as also examining the sort of books that were popular at the time. I absolutely loved all this amazing detail about publishing during the war, and it was an outstanding highlight of the book. I also liked how well it tied into the rest of the book’s narrative as their love of books was not only a key element of both Alice and Theo’s personal storylines but also a major part of the characters, and it was something that made both of them more relatable and likeable to the reader, ensuring that they are more emotionally invested in the story.
In addition to the focus on the publishing world Beecham also explores other intriguing aspects of London during the war. Probably the most important one relating to the plot was the shocking practice of baby farming, where babies were bought and sold for profit. This was a remarkably horrifying aspect of history that I wasn’t too familiar with, but Beecham does a great job explaining it throughout her story, going into the history, the impacts, the surrounding social issues and the sort of the people that were involved. While most aspects of this are a tad disturbing, especially as it is based on some true historical stories, I found this entire inclusion to be really fascinating and it proved to be a compelling story element. I also quite liked Beecham’s examination of the London Zoo and how it survived during the war, and it was intriguing to see this small bubble of normality amongst the chaos of the blitz and the rest of the story. All of these incredible historical elements were really interesting parts of Finding Eadie’s story, and I had an amazing time learning more about London life during the war.
Finding Eadie by Caroline Beecham is a great and compelling historical drama that proved to be an excellent read. Containing a strong, emotional charged story, and featuring a clever look at some unique historical elements, this is a very easy book to enjoy which is worth checking out.
Publisher: Allen & Unwin (Trade Paperback – 28 April 2020)
Length: 266 pages
My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
Love, war, endurance. Debuting author Jenny Lecoat presents an impressive and compelling historical drama with The Viennese Girl, a fantastic read based on a remarkable true story.
June 1940. The inhabitants of the Channel Island of Jersey can only watch as the German army invades and takes complete control of their island without any opposition. Abandoned by the British and forced to fend for themselves, the people of Jersey must get ready to endure a lengthy occupation that will last to the very end of the war.
For young Jewish girl Hedy Bercu this is a nightmare situation. Having already successfully fled from the Nazis when they invaded her home of Vienna, Hedy once again finds herself trapped and persecuted, only this time she has nowhere to escape to. Forced to do everything she can to survive, Hedy tries to hide her true identity and even accepts a job as a translator in the German headquarters. However, Hedy is not content to simply sit back and let the Nazis win without a fight, and she begins to engage in several small acts of resistance which bring her to the attention of a German lieutenant, Kurt Neumann.
Kurt finds himself instantly smitten by the mysterious Hedy, and he attempts to pursue a relationship with her, without knowing about her tragic past. But when Hedy’s attempts at sabotage are discovered, her Jewish heritage is revealed to all and she becomes the most sought-after fugitive on the island. Can Hedy rely on her friends and Kurt to survive, and how will she escape detection from the Nazis on their most isolated and heavily occupied territory?
The Viennese Girl is a great debut novel from television writer Jenny Lecoat, which turned about to be quite an intriguing historical drama that I am really glad that I checked out. A very important thing to know about this novel is that it is actually based on a true story of the Jersey occupation. The main characters contained within this story are all real people, and their tale has been mostly unknown until a recent publication by Dr Gilly Carr in the Journal of Holocaust and Genocide Studies.
Lecoat provides an exquisite novelisation of these historical events within The Viennese Girl and turns it powerful and captivating narrative of romance and resistance that follows two real-life star-crossed lovers, Hedy and Kurt, as they attempt to survive a terrible situation. The story is shown from the dual perspectives of Hedy and Kurt, whose different viewpoints show off various aspects of the German occupation of Jersey. This book makes great use of a combination of a dramatic and tension filled storyline, fantastic portrayals of real-life characters, a distinctive historical setting and a compelling romance to make for an amazing read.
The lives of and the relationship between the two main characters, Hedy and Kurt, forms an excellent centre to this book. Both are intriguing characters in their own right. For example, Hedy is a Jewish girl doing everything she can to survive after being trapped by the Nazis a second time. She is rightly bitter and terrified about the entire situation, but brave enough to fight back against the Germans with small acts of sabotage. Naturally, the parts of the book told from Hedy’s point of view are filled with all manner of tension as she is terrified of being taken away by the Nazis, a feeling that only intensifies as the book proceeds. There is also a prevailing sense of loneliness and despair brought on by her situation, the lack of people on Jersey who she can trust and the knowledge of what has happened to her Jewish friends and family back home. Kurt, on the other hand, is a reluctant member of the German army who has become disenfranchised with his more radical Nazi colleagues. He has some rather surprising views for a German officer, and a distinct dislike for many of the people he serves with, and there is a bit of sadness in him as he watches the war consume Jersey. This, and the instant attraction he feels for Hedy, compels him to help her without really knowing anything about her. Kurt then goes to some amazing lengths to help save Hedy in the future once he knows the full detail of her history and manages to outthink some determined opponents.
The author makes sure to spend time exploring both of these characters through the course of the occupation, as well as examining their history, feelings and intentions. Despite all the inherently problematic issues that would occur with such a romance, the two fall in love and start a dedicated relationship. Their romance is an essential part of the story, and I think that Lecoat did a wonderful job showing how such a romance could occur, as well as exploring all the drama that resulted. I liked how the romance managed to help make each of them better, and it healed certain holes in their hearts and minds. I really enjoyed this romance, and I ended up being pleasantly surprised after finishing this book to find that Kurt was a real person who really did fall in love with and help Hedy (due to the unlikely situation, I had assumed that he was either a fictional character or an embellished version of someone). The knowledge that this romance actually happened really enhanced Lecoat’s incredible story for me, and I am rather glad to have seen how it unfolded.
In addition to Hedy and Kurt, I also have to highlight the character of Dorothea Weber (née Le Brocq), who was also a real person featured heavily in Dr Carr’s article. Dorothea was the wife of Hedy’s best friend and fellow refugee Anton, who would eventually become Hedy’s close companion and saviour after she hides Hedy in her house for the later years of the occupation. Dorothea was a rather complex character who has a rather interesting act within this novel, especially when it comes to her relationship with Hedy. For the first half of the book, Hedy sees Dorothea as an interloper and distraction to her friendship with Anton and is a bit annoyed by the attention she gets, her apparent helplessness and obsessions with American films and actresses. However, as the war progresses and Anton is conscripted into the German army, their relationship grows, especially as both of them face their own form of persecution. While Hedy is oppressed for her Jewish heritage, Dorothea faces ostracism from her friends and family for marrying an Austrian, especially one who ends up in the German army, and is labelled a Jerrybag (a derogative term for Jersey girls who were sleeping with the enemy). While she comes across as extremely naïve at the start of the book, Dorothea really grows as a character throughout the book, and continually shows off her surprising inner strength by standing up to people and not hesitating to take Hedy in and hide her from the Germans, despite the obvious risks. I really enjoyed learning about Dorothea’s story, and she became a fantastic part of this book, and it was rather gratifying to learn how the real Dorothea has been deservedly honoured by both the Jewish community and Britain in recent years.
I also really enjoyed learning more about the German occupation of Jersey during the Second World War. This was honestly a topic that I knew very little about, but which proves to be a rather fascinating backdrop to this character driven story. Lecoat, a Jersey native, does a fantastic job showcasing all the details of this invasion, and follows the entirety of the occupation in her story, right up until the end of World War II (the occupiers were some of the last German forces to surrender). The author captures a number of key moments from the occupation in the story while also including several historical figures in her narrative. I also liked how she endeavoured to highlight what day to day life for the inhabitants of Jersey would have been like with the Germans there, and it was interesting to see her interpretations of the islander’s attitudes, how they dealt with the Germans and how desperate the situation got at times throughout the occupation. This proved to be a really interesting and distinctive element to the novel, and I quite enjoyed learning more about this part of World War II that is often overlooked in other historical fiction novels.
Overall, The Viennese Girl is a superb and memorable historical drama novel that is very much worth checking out. Lecoat hit it out of the park with her debut novel, and I was absolutely enthralled by her amazing narrative of courage, survival and love in the most unlikely of circumstances. This was a really impressive novel, and it’s story is going to stick with me for a very long time.
Originally published in the Canberra Weekly on 14 May 2020
The review can also be viewed on the Canberra Weekly website.
Publisher: HQ Fiction (Trade Paperback – 23 March 2020)
Length: 394 pages
My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars
From bestselling Australian author Mary-Anne O’Connor comes another fun and intriguing Australian historical drama, Where Fortune Lies, which tells a multi-layered story of people seeking their fortunes in colonial Australia.
1879, Ireland. Anne Brown is a beaten-down young lady, hoping to escape the harsh life of poverty and misery she sees the rest of the women in her family experience. After a particularly cruel night which sees the one good thing in her life taken away from her, Anne flees her hometown, hoping to make a new life for herself in far-flung Australia.
Several months later in London, young gentleman Will Worthington and his sister Mari are shocked to discover that their recently deceased father has changed his will. Instead of the modest inheritance they were expecting, they find that all his money has been left to a mysterious pregnant painted lady who intends to resettle in Australia. With their social standing in London destroyed, Will and Mari, along with Will’s loyal best friend, artist Charlie Turner, follow their father’s mistress to Australia to seek their fortunes.
Upon their arrival in Melbourne, Will Mari and Charlie quickly befriend local businessman Tom McIntosh and his beautiful daughter, Alice, who Will falls in love with. While Will and Mari enjoy the opportunities afforded to them in Melbourne, Charlie spends time in the Victorian Alps with Alice’s brothers, Harry and Richie, and their wild group of friends, who show him how to live the rough colonial life. While there, Charlie finds his artistic inspiration through his work with the McIntosh boys and their wild horses, as well as his love for a mysterious exotic dancer. However, danger lies on the horizon, as Harry and Richie have been covertly engaging in the deadly trade of bushranging. Soon the fates of all these young people will hang in the balance, as tough choices, dangerous loyalties and harsh heartbreaks will impact them all.
Where Fortune Lies is another fantastic read from O’Connor, who has written some exceptional historical dramas in her five-year career. I read my first Mary-Anne O’Connor book last year, In a Great Southern Land, which told an excellent story about a group of people coming to Australia in the 1850’s to participate in the gold rush and subsequent uprising at the Eureka Stockade. I quite enjoyed In a Great Southern Land and I was rather pleased that my review of it was quoted on the back of the copy of Where Fortune Lies that I received. This latest novel follows a similar concept to O’Connor’s last book, with a diverse group of characters journeying to opportunity-rich Australia in order to seek a better life, and O’Connor is once again able to weave together a rich and compelling story of love, family drama and action in the Australian wilds, and I quite enjoyed the fun blend of story elements that the author was able to come up with.
Where Fortune Lies contains a strong character-based story that follows the lives and adventures of several characters who are drawn together by fate, love and family. O’Connor does a wonderful job of introducing these key point-of-view characters, whose story the reader finds themselves getting quite attached to. I really enjoyed the way that the author spaced out the various character threads, taking the time to explore the lives of each of the separate characters. While some of the character arcs do cross over quite a bit (for example, Charlie Turner directly interacts with all the other major characters and serves as a major bridging character), other characters are kept relatively separate from each other, with only a few scenes together. However, these characters arcs still have some subtle interactions, with their actions indirectly impacting other characters’ lives, or the two characters meet or discuss each other without realising who the other person really is. I liked the method of storytelling, as it allowed the reader to get to know each character individually and see the various struggles and difficulties that they are facing, as well as how they overcome them and evolve as people. I really enjoyed each of the character arcs that O’Connor explored, and I think that all of them came to a satisfying conclusion, especially as the various threads combine together at the end of the book with all the main characters finding their final fates. Each of these character-driven storylines had a good blend of adventure, adversity, romance and drama, which I think came together extremely well as an overall narrative.
I really liked the way that O’Connor once again dived back into Australia’s past, this time looking at the turbulent 1870s, and presenting the reader with another view of the country’s iconic colonial history. Where Fortune Lies contains some fantastic examination of various parts of old-school Victoria, including the busting metropolis of Melbourne, and it was interesting to see O’Connor’s depiction of the crossing to Australia and the things that immigrants back in this period would have experienced. Most of the story, however, takes place in the rugged wilds of outback Australia, particularly in the wilderness and small towns of the Victorian Alps. O’Connor presents a fascinating exploration of these communities, and I really enjoyed her depictions of people capturing the wild horses a la The Man from Snowy River. However, the highlight of this jaunt back into history has to be the author’s focus on the bushrangers, the dangerous highwaymen who stalked the Australian outback. A good part of the book’s plot revolves around some of the characters getting involved in bushranging out of desperation or greed, and it was rather intriguing to see how society perceived these criminals. There are a number of references to real-life bushrangers, such as the Kelly Gang and Captain Thunderbolt, and I really enjoyed the parts of the book that focused on this exciting part of Australia’s history. All of this serves as an incredible background to this fun story, and I look forward to seeing what amazing part of Australia’s past O’Connor will explore in her next book.
Where Fortune Lies is another terrific Australian historical drama from O’Connor, who once again combines a captivating, character-driven narrative with an excellent depiction of Australia’s rich and vibrant history. This turned out to be an elegant and enjoyable read that features amazing romantic and dramatic plots, as well as an intriguing dive into the infamous bushrangers of Victoria. A fantastic new novel that once again sees O’Connor continues to shine as one of the most talented authors of Australian historical dramas.
In her latest guest review, the Unseen Library’s editor, Alex, checks out one of the biggest releases of the year, and also sets herself up to do some more reviews for the blog in the future.
Publisher: Chatto & Windus (Hardcover – 10 September 2019)
Series: The Handmaid’s Tale – Book 2
Length: 419 pages
My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Unlike the Unseen Librarian himself, who seems to have no problem zipping through several books a week, I tend to buy books faster than I read them. I was very pleased, and not at all surprised, to find there’s a phrase for this in Japanese: tsundoku, meaning one who acquires books with every intention of reading them, but who never gets around to it. Well, it’s high time that I try to kick this habit and delve into my shelf of unread books, beginning with The Testaments by Margaret Atwood.
We received a copy of The Testaments way back in September 2019, before the honeymoon hiatus, but unfortunately the large, heavy hardback wouldn’t have fared well in my suitcase, so although I was keen to read it I was forced to leave it behind. Unfortunately several other distractions (including Eoin Colfer’s The Fowl Twins) meant it wasn’t until the post-Christmas calm that I took the time to finish it off, but I am so glad that I did, because this is a first-rate book that didn’t deserve to wait so long for my attention.
The Handmaid’s Tale reported the experiences of Offred, a Handmaid to a powerful Commander in the post-revolutionary United States, the totalitarian Republic of Gilead. The Testaments picks up the story several years later, and features accounts of three women and their own struggles for survival in Gilead. I won’t go into detail about the plot of the book (I’m sure reviewers with better time management skills have beaten me to it), only to say that it was incredibly engaging and suspenseful. Those who enjoyed The Handmaid’s Tale will love to see how the world has changed over the years.
I was absolutely thrilled by all of the world-building in The Testaments. The new regime of Gilead is fascinating, but in The Handmaid’s Tale details are limited to what Offred chooses to share in her narrative, which itself is limited by what Offred knows, given the sheltered and isolated life she is forced to live as a Handmaid. The Testaments, on the other hand, with its multiple narrators, presents a far broader view of life in Gilead. The first narrator is an Aunt, one of the powerful matrons who train the Handmaids and teach the children. In fact, she is none other than Aunt Lydia, the indomitable battleaxe responsible for the indoctrination of Offred who features so prominently in the original book. The second narrator is Agnes Jemima, the daughter of a powerful Commander. Her story is recorded after her liberation from Gilead and provides a fascinating insight into the experiences of a child growing up in the regime. The third narrator is Daisy, a child growing up in Canada. From her we get an outside view of Gilead—how the terrible society is viewed by its near neighbours and how the Mayday resistance seeks to help its people. The three tales are each engaging in their own right, but as they become more and more intertwined the story only gets better.
There are elements of the story that tie into the television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, but literary purists who have not watched the show will enjoy The Testaments just the same. Since it is a sequel, however, I would say that it will be best enjoyed by those who have read The Handmaid’s Tale or seen at least the first season of the show. The Testaments is a book that was 35 years in the making, but it was well worth the wait.
Publisher: Macmillan (Trade Paperback – 26 November 2019)
Length: 273 pages
My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars
From the mind of the fourth-bestselling author of all time, drama and romance novelist supreme Danielle Steel, comes an excellent and compelling story about life, war and espionage that is really worth checking out.
Alexandra Wickham is the youngest child of a well-to-do British family living out on their estate in the country. A beautiful and intelligent young lady, Alex appears to be set for a life of privilege and marriage. However, the outbreak of World War II in 1939 allows Alex to throw off the shackles of expectation, and she moves to London, volunteering as a nurse. However, her fluency in French and German attracts the attention of a new government organisation, the Special Operations Executive (SOE), who are desperate to recruit her.
Suffering from personal losses and determined to do her part for her country, Alex joins the SOE and quickly becomes a skilled and valued agent. Trained in various forms of combat, sabotage and espionage, Alex makes several journeys into German territory to obtain valuable information. However, the hardest part of her new life is keeping her work secret from her friends and family, including her worried parents and the brave pilot she falls in love with.
Even after the war ends, Alex finds that she is unable to stop spying. When her husband, Richard, enters into the foreign service, Alex is recruited into MI6 and tasked with obtaining information from the various people she meets socially. As she follows her husband from one volatile end of the world to the next, Alex must reconcile the two separate parts of her life if she is to survive. But who is she? The loving wife and parent or the government agent who can never reveal her secret to those closest to her?
Now, I have to admit that before this year Danielle Steel was not an author that I really went out of my way to read. Steel writes a staggering number of novels each year (seven in 2019 alone), and most of them do not appeal to me (I think a quick perusal of some of the previous books I’ve read will give you a good idea of what my usual literary tastes are like). However, after enjoying Turning Point earlier this year (which I checked out because I do enjoy medical dramas), I decided to try Spy, as I was kind of curious to see how Steel would handle the historical spy genre. What I found was a captivating and enjoyable story which I was really glad I grabbed a copy of.
Spy is a historical fiction novel that follows the life story of the fictional protagonist, Alexandra Wikcham, who serves as the book’s point-of-view character. This was a rather full and exciting story that not only focuses on the main characters career as a secret government agent but also explores her personal life, such as her interactions and relationship with her family, how she fell in love, and how she become a caring wife and mother. Spy’s overall narrative is a fantastic blend of drama, historical fiction, spy thriller and romance novel, which proves to be quite addictive and rather enjoyable. I loved seeing the full progression of the main character’s life, and I found myself getting attached to several of the characters featured within.
This was the first historical fiction by Danielle Steel that I have read, and I have to say that I was impressed with the various periods that were explored. The first half of the book is set during the events of World War II, and Steel does an incredible job of portraying this iconic part of the 20th century. The story is primarily set in England during this part of the war, and the reader gets a real sense of the events that are occurring, the struggles facing normal citizens during the conflict and the various contributions that the English people were making during the war. Spy also explores the damage, both physical and emotional, that the war produced, as the main character experiences great loss and despair throughout the course of the conflict and sees the impact on people that she cares for.
In addition to the great portrayal of World War II, Spy also examines a number of other intriguing historical events, periods and locations. The second part of the book is set over a much longer period of time and follows Alex and her husband, Richard, as they travel the world as English diplomats. These diplomatic assignments place them in a number of different countries during significant periods in history. For example, Alex and Richard end up in India during the end of British rule, when India is split into two countries. Other countries they end up in include Morocco, Hong Kong, America and the Soviet Union. All of these visits are only for a short part of the book, but they offer some intriguing snapshots into the various countries during significant parts of history. These combined historical periods make for a truly captivating and enjoyable novel, and they really work well with the dramatic and espionage aspects of the book, enhancing these other story elements with the cool historical settings.
I really enjoyed the espionage parts of Spy, as Steel has come up with a fascinating underlying thriller plot for this book. The actions of the SOE during World War II have long formed a great basis for historical spy stories over the years, and Steel did a fantastic showcasing how their female agents were recruited, often from organisations such as the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry, trained, and then dropped into Europe for missions. The various missions that the protagonist undergoes in Europe are quite interesting, and range from various reconnaissance missions, to more complex information gathering exercises. The protagonist’s actions after the war are also quite intriguing, as she is recruited by MI6 to spy on the various people her husband comes into contact with as a diplomat, and this results in her getting involved in some major historical events. It was quite fascinating to see with both missions during and post-World War II, the importance of information obtained from gossip or a leading conversation with a beautiful woman, and the impacts such information could have. This espionage part of the book is also the part of the book that I personally found the most thrilling and entertaining, and it was really cool to see all the danger and intrigue that followed this central character.
As Spy is a Danielle Steel novel, there is of course a central romance storyline that dominates the course of the book. At the beginning of the war, Alex meets and falls in love with Richard, a handsome and charming English fighter pilot, and they form a great relationship that lasts over 50 years. This is a really nice and supportive relationship, which is able to overcome some rather substantial obstacles, mainly World War II and Alex’s career as a spy. Not only are the forced to put their relationship on hold during the course of the war, in fear that one of them might die, but Alex is required to keep all of her espionage activities a secret from Richard. Even when they are married, Alex is unable to tell him that she is a MI6 Agent or warn him that she might be putting their lives at risk in foreign countries. All this secrecy weighs heavily on the mind of Alex throughout the course of the book, and it adds a whole new dramatic edge to their relationship. However, I really liked the way it ended, and this was a fantastic and heart-warming romantic storyline that I quite enjoyed.
The latest Danielle Steel novel, Spy, proved to be a really compelling and moving story of life and love during the turbulence of the 20th century. Featuring a gripping story which followed the entire life of a female British espionage agent, Spy was an excellent novel that honestly has something for everyone in it. I was really impressed with this novel, and I am planning to check out more Danielle Steel novels in the future. Her next release, Moral Compass, sounds particularly intriguing, and I have already requested a copy of it.