Thursday, February 20, 2020

Review: The Poppy Wife

Title: The Poppy Wife
Author: Caroline Scott
Publisher: 1st November 2019 by Simon & Schuster
Pages: 448 pages
How I Read It: ARC book
Genre: Historical Fiction, Women's Fiction
My Rating: 3.5 cups


In the tradition of Jennifer Robson and Hazel Gaynor, this unforgettable debut novel is a sweeping tale of forbidden love, profound loss, and the startling truth of the broken families left behind in the wake of World War I.
1921. Survivors of the Great War are desperately trying to piece together the fragments of their broken lives. While many have been reunited with their loved ones, Edie’s husband Francis is still missing. Francis is presumed to have been killed in action, but Edie knows he is alive.
Harry, Francis’s brother, was there the day Francis went missing in Ypres. And like Edie, he’s hopeful Francis is living somewhere in France, lost and confused. Hired by grieving families in need of closure, Harry returns to the Western Front to photograph soldiers’ graves. As he travels through France gathering news for British wives and mothers, he searches for evidence his own brother is still alive.
When Edie receives a mysterious photograph that she believes was taken by Francis, she is more certain than ever he isn’t dead. Edie embarks on her own journey in the hope of finding some trace of her husband. Is he truly gone, or could he still be alive? And if he is, why hasn’t he come home?
As Harry and Edie’s paths converge, they get closer to the truth about Francis and, as they do, are soon faced with the life-changing impact of the answers they discover.
An incredibly moving account of an often-forgotten moment in history—those years after the war that were filled with the unknown—The Poppy Wife tells the story of the thousands of soldiers who were lost amid the chaos and ruins in battle-scarred France; and the even greater number of men and women hoping to find them again.

My Thoughts

Upon reading the synopsis, it is clear that this is a fascinating premise for a book. There are many books surrounding WW1 but this is the first I have encountered regarding grieving families looking for closure of missing loved ones from the war; wives going from French village to village seeking answers or alternatively, a simple request for a photo of a grave site. Deeply touching reading material without doubt.

‘They stick up photographs of their husbands and their own faces. Like so many misplaced shoes that need pairing together again. I didn’t know that there would be so many.’

Richly written and detailed in its execution, Caroline Scott has presented an emotional read of what it must have been like to desire closure from the horrible outcomes of this tragedy. I guess I never really considered the absolute mess all this must have been after November 1918 and the following few years. So many thousands of people listed as missing amongst the complete destruction of town and country. Whole landscapes littered with who knows what amongst the discarded belongings, shell casings and barbed wire. 

‘... a farmer is struggling with a plough. Harry has read about the iron harvest, the barbed wire and spent shells that block the ploughshare’s path ...’

This is a book told from multiple viewpoints and differing timelines between 1916 - 1921. Whilst enabling the reader to journey through the various situations, I did at times find these time jumps difficult to keep up with. There is a good mystery, a little romance and lots and lots of introspective thoughts and concerns. I cannot help but feel this book was just a few too many pages long, as I got lost at times amongst it all at times. There are a lot of periphery details which many might enjoy, with long descriptive sentences; yet, my desire was for the core of the story to be adhered to. 

This was however, a highly engaging theme regarding the aftermath of WW1 and the often unaccounted for impact on the need for closure in order to move on. The idea here is indeed worthy of the readers attention and although long in parts, is well written and easy to appreciate the plight of those involved. 

‘It’s the uncertainty that’s so difficult to live with, isn’t it?’ says Clara. ‘It’s all the questions that you ask yourself. The constant needling of the doubt. The being unable to focus on anything else. It’s so exhausting, isn’t it? I understand that.’

This review is based on a complimentary copy from the publisher and provided through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. The quoted material may have changed in the final release.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Review: Wearing Paper Dresses

Title: Wearing Paper Dresses
Author: Anne Brinsden
Publisher: 24th September 2019 by Pan Macmillan Australia
Pages: 312 pages
How I Read It: ARC book
Genre: historical fiction, cultural-Australia
My Rating: 3.5 cups


You can talk about living in the Mallee. And you can talk about a Mallee tree. And you can talk about the Mallee itself: a land and a place full of red sand and short stubby trees. Silent skies. The undulating scorch of summer plains. Quiet, on the surface of things.
But Elise wasn't from the Mallee, and she knew nothing of its ways.
Discover the world of a small homestead perched on the sunburnt farmland of northern Victoria. Meet Elise, whose urbane 1950s glamour is rudely transplanted to the pragmatic red soil of the Mallee when her husband returns to work the family farm. But you cannot uproot a plant and expect it to thrive. And so it is with Elise. Her meringues don't impress the shearers, the locals scoff at her Paris fashions, her husband works all day in the back paddock, and the drought kills everything but the geraniums she despises.
As their mother withdraws more and more into herself, her spirited, tearaway daughters, Marjorie and Ruby, wild as weeds, are left to raise themselves as best they can. Until tragedy strikes, and Marjorie flees to the city determined to leave her family behind. And there she stays, leading a very different life, until the boy she loves draws her back to the land she can't forget...

My Thoughts

Wearing Paper Dresses is a poetically written with a heartbreakingly sad story, surrounding battles with mental illness for one struggling family located in the harsh Australian Mallee region. Despite the seriousness of the topic and consequences, the author ensures to provide glimmers of hope to the reader and the connections of the ‘paper dresses’ is both artful and inspired. 

‘The two girls gawked at the delicate papery creation floating on its humble wire hanger. ‘It’s beautiful,’ breathed Ruby. ‘Where did you get all the paper?’ asked Marjorie. ‘It’s crepe paper. It is very inexpensive,’ said Elise. ‘It’s a dress made out of paper,’ said Marjorie redundantly. Nodding at the wonder of it. ‘Yes, it is.’ Elise smiled.’

Probably the best thing about this book for me, was the lyrical and poetic use of personification of the environment itself. It is quite remarkable and makes the land itself a bonafide character. Through this prose the author was able to craftily communicate many profound thoughts and ideas. Known for its harsh environment, the Mallee region speaks to the reader through everything from the trees to the weather. 

‘The Mallee is quiet on the surface of things in its own arid way, and seemingly insipid in its semi-desertness. With its emaciated trees, its restless shifting sand, its spear grass, its prickles and its prickle bushes. But it watches. Waiting for a chance to get rid of you. Clear off, you lot, it says. Go back where you came from. There are too many of you here already! There is no permanent fresh water in the Mallee. The Mallee won’t allow it.’

At its heart this is a troubled story with not only the struggles of mental illness for an individual but also the impact on those living around the inflicted person. The fallout from this illness is a tragedy for many concerned,  within the community but particularly the immediate family. Far from being a happy story, it is confronting when seen through the eyes of one of the troubled daughters. At times, I struggled, not so much with the theme but the repetitiveness of thoughts and feelings, but again, this may have been a strategy in writing about such a thing. 

‘Marjorie realised a whole trainload of her dead and buried past was starting to derail right now. Wheat trucks full of it. Right in front of her. She watched the train wreck from the inside of her eyes as she was grabbed and thrown, like a bale of hay off the back of a ute. As her dead and buried stuff spilt out in every direction there in her paper castle.’

All up this is a poignant tale with a message to share when it comes to mental breakdowns. Combine that with the external challenges of living in such a harsh and unforgiving land and you have quite a remarkable story.  

‘Elise sang. And the Mallee sand and the Mallee sky listened and acknowledged this talent–strange and alien to it, but it bent its knee at talent nonetheless. Those stars, enduring in their eternal desert landscape scrutiny, spangled–just for Elise. Elise sang. And she left those people believing in magic. She left them all in no doubt about it.’

This review is based on a complimentary copy from the publisher and provided through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. The quoted material may have changed in the final release.

Saturday, February 8, 2020

Review: The Last Smile in Sunder City

Title: The Last Smile in Sunder City
Author: Luke Arnold
Publisher: 6th February 2020 by Hachette Australia
Pages: 352 pages
How I Read It: ARC book
Genre: urban fantasy, paranormal, mystery
My Rating: 3 cups


A former soldier turned PI tries to help the fantasy creatures whose lives he ruined in a world that's lost its magic in a compelling debut fantasy by Black Sails actor Luke Arnold. Welcome to Sunder City. The magic is gone but the monsters remain.I'm Fetch Phillips, just like it says on the window. There are a few things you should know before you hire me:1. Sobriety costs extra.2. My services are confidential.3. I don't work for humans. It's nothing personal--I'm human myself. But after what happened, to the magic, it's not the humans who need my help. Walk the streets of Sunder City and meet Fetch, his magical clients, and a darkly imagined world perfect for readers of Ben Aaronovitch and Jim Butcher.

My Thoughts

The Last Smile in Sunder City is Luke Arnold’s debut novel and the first in an urban fantasy series titled Fetch Phillips Archives. This is a dystopian work featuring ‘Sunder City’, a dark place holding a noir tale concerning the loss of magic post war.

The story features two timelines in its narrative - the present where Fetch is investigating a missing vampire and his flashbacks during the war and an event that still haunts him. For a debut novel, the world building here is pretty impressive, Luke’s writing quite good (if somewhat generic in places) and the characters held potential (although a little cliched at times).  

There is much to work with here given the concept of magic having disappeared and previously supernatural beings are struggling to survive. It’s dark and down with many a seedy person and place described. Whilst the plot has potential it is just a bit too slow and repetitive in places for me. All up, however, this was an interesting urban fantasy that had some interesting moments.

"I stepped back out into the main room to catch my breath. I couldn’t yet tell what it was that was bubbling up inside me, but something had snapped. I didn’t actually believe it yet. The hope was too dangerous. But just the idea ... What if we could fix it? What if, somehow, I could undo all those terrible things I’d done?  Emotion swelled in my chest. It was something unfamiliar. Hope. Just a bit of hope. That’s all. I’d forgotten what it felt like.”

This review is based on a complimentary copy from the publisher and provided through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. The quoted material may have changed in the final release.

Thursday, February 6, 2020

Review: The Daughter of Victory Lights

Title: The Daughter of Victory Lights
Author: Kerri Turner
Publisher: 20th January 2020 by Harlequin Australia, HQ & MIRA
Pages: 384 pages
How I Read It: ARC book
Genre: Historical Fiction, Women's Fiction
My Rating: 4 cups


An enthralling story of one woman's determined grab for freedom after WW2 from a talented new Australian voice.
1945: After the thrill and danger of volunteering in an all-female searchlight regiment protecting Londoners from German bombers overhead, Evelyn Bell is secretly dismayed to be sent back to her rigid domestic life when the war is over. But then she comes across a secret night-time show, hidden from the law on a boat in the middle of the Thames. Entranced by the risque and lively performance, she grabs the opportunity to join the misfit crew and escape her dreary future.
At first the Victory travels from port to port to raucous applause, but as the shows get bigger and bigger, so too do the risks the performers are driven to take, as well as the growing emotional complications among the crew. Until one desperate night ...
1963: Lucy, an unloved and unwanted little girl, is rescued by a mysterious stranger who says he knows her mother. On the Isle of Wight, Lucy is welcomed into an eclectic family of ex-performers. She is showered with kindness and love, but gradually it becomes clear that there are secrets they refuse to share. Who is Evelyn Bell?

My Thoughts

‘After a life of doing what was expected of her, leaving to help a group of strangers better their law-breaking performance just so she could do the kind of work she craved again … It was madness. It was also freedom.’

The Daughter of Victory Lights is the second book by Aussie author Kerri Turner that I have read and enjoyed. Once again, Kerri has done her research and details a beautiful merge of fact and fiction from post World War II. There is much to love about this tale from the roles of women and men during and post war to the Victory itself - that unique performing boat.

This book is split into two parts centreing around firstly Evie and then later, her daughter Lucy. I thoroughly enjoyed the first part as you journey with Evie from her role in the first all- female searchlight regiment through to providing the lighting work on the Victory. Then Flynn’s role in the Graves Registration Unit was truly an eye opener - horrific and heartbreaking. I feel Kerri truly captured for both Evie and Flynn the impact these demanding roles played in their lives. Reading about the Victory performances was another definite highlight of this book. Switching to the second part of the story almost twenty years later was a surprise in more ways than one initially. Whilst not as strong as the first part - carried through by the characters of Bee and Humphrey - it is like a completely different tale through the eyes of young Lucy. Worthy but not as compelling in my opinion. 

‘Think how much hurt you’re causing other people. And for what?’ ‘For a life.’ Maureen shook her head. ‘You have a life. One everyone else manages to be grateful for. Why can’t you?’

Overall this is a most unique tale of both war and post war experiences for two situations that I had been unfamiliar with. It truly showcases the contributions of women in this fascinating role during war with the expectation to then return to ‘normal’ life; and, this 
unit in the army of literally picking up the pieces in the aftermath of war for the men and the shattering long term impact it would have. 

There is love and loss, trauma and rescue, tragedy and heartwarming experiences throughout this uniquely compelling tale. I look forward to seeing where Kerri will take her readers next. 

‘Here she didn’t have to hide the person she used to be—the person she longed to be again. Here, as Evie, she could be anyone she wanted to.’

This review is based on a complimentary copy from the publisher and provided through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. The quoted material may have changed in the final release.