Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Review: The Tuscan Contessa

Title: The Tuscan Contessa

Author: Dinah Jefferies

Publisher: 23rd July 2020 by Penguin Books (UK)

Pages: 368 pages

How I Read It: ARC book

Genre: historical fiction, womens fiction, WWII

My Rating: 4 cups



Contessa Sofia de' Corsi's peaceful Tuscan home has been upturned by the arrival of German soldiers. Desperate to fight back, she provides shelter, medical aid and any help she can, keeping her efforts secret from husband Lorenzo – who is also passing information to the Allies.

When Maxine, an Italian-American working for the resistance, arrives on Sofia’s doorstep, the pair forge an uneasy alliance. Practical, no-nonsense Maxine promised herself never to fall in love. But when she meets a young partisan named Marco, she realizes it’s a promise she can’t keep.

Before long, the two women find themselves entangled in a dangerous game with the Nazis.

Will they be discovered? And will they both be able to save the ones they love?

My Thoughts

I love Dinah Jefferies books as you are guaranteed to not only be transported back in time but to locations that literally jump off the page, allowing you to lose yourself in often faraway lands. On this occasion Dinah takes you to Tuscany, sadly not the warm and romantic version, but a Tuscany filled with sadness and desolation. This is the Tuscany of Nazi invasion in World War II and the women left behind who must be strong and courageous in their attempts to defy these invaders. 

‘Could it really be about to end? She’d always tried to be a kind person, someone happy to fit in, and ready to help wherever she could. Despite living under the yoke of Mussolini, she’d had an easy life, privileged, and able to do pretty much whatever she wanted. Of course, it hadn’t been entirely painless.’

Set in 1943 The ‘Contessa’ is Sofia de’ Corsi, who lives in Costello de’ Corsi with her husband Lorenzo -  a beautiful property contained within a medieval walled village that has been in the family for generations (you need to Google this - it looks incredible!) They are living in fear of a retreating German army, with Allies advancing and partisans trying to cause havoc. It is clearly evident the amount of research Dinah has undertaken for this tale with dates and events during this sad period in Italian history. Dinah does not shy away from writing about the ruthless cruelty of those dark days with scenes of death and destruction. However, she is sure to counterbalance this with courageous and heroic acts in the fight for good. The message here is one of hope and being there for loved ones in their time of need. 

This leads onto what is perhaps the strongest aspect of this tale and that is the role of women. Dinah does a fabulous job in highlighting not only how they dealt with the day to day issues during the occupation but also the important roles and risks they took for their loved ones and their homes.  

‘Sofia closed her eyes for a second and, when she opened them again, knew she was forever changed; she had instantly become a completely different person in a completely different world. This act of utter provocation incited such a feeling of rage and revulsion that it flooded her whole body.’

Personally, I found this was not as gripping as Dinah’s other novels as I did not find myself swept away by it. I agree with other reviewers that perhaps the focus may have been too strongly focused on the research. Where, in other reads, the narratives are the driving force, in this tale they seemed to play second fiddle to key dates and events. The characters were not as engaging as they had to fulfill certain functions in what was driving the story - the events of the Nazi occupation of Italy. Still, for history buffs, this is a good story. 

Dinah writes beautifully with vivid descriptions and realistic portrayals of life at that time. She has the talent to transport her readers to another time and place, and on this occasion, to be a part of the friendship and bravery of the women of Tuscany. 

‘No. I want to be myself.’ When asked to explain exactly what that self was, she’d floundered. What she really wanted, what she longed for, was an open life, one in which she could find out about herself and thrive, not simply survive as her mother had done.’

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

Monday, July 27, 2020

Review: Tiny White Lies

Title: Tiny White Lies
Author: Fiona Palmer
Publisher: 28th July 2020 by Hachette Australia
Pages: 384 pages
How I Read It: ARC book
Genre: contemporary, family
My Rating: 4 cups


Two families escape the rat race to holiday at a remote coastal retreat, but what lies are they telling themselves and each other? The new family drama by beloved Australian storyteller Fiona Palmer

Ashley has recently lost her husband. Daughter Emily is being bullied online.

Best friend Nikki is holding a huge secret. And why is husband, Chris, receiving so many text messages lately?

Their teenage children are glued to technology, be it PlayStation, YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat . . .

The two women hatch a plan: for three weeks, both families will stay in a rustic, remote coastal camp with no phone reception. While the teenagers struggle to embrace this new world of self-entertaining in the rugged bushland, the adults are trying to maintain a certain facade. Soon, around the flames of the camp fire, their tiny white lies might just begin to be exposed.

My Thoughts

‘Was everyone hiding some sort of secret?’

I have enjoyed all the books Fiona has written and this one is no different. Tiny White Lies is a  contemporary tale that, like her ‘Sisters and Brothers’ book, looks at modern families with all its complexities and messiness. For a variety of reasons, families are not what they used to be! Therefore, it is not surprising to learn that this is not just one story, but in fact a number of stories. 

The focus here is very much on relationships - family and friends - and some of the little ‘white lies’ we tell often through a desire to protect those we love but, in fact, have the opposite effect. There are marital, parental, sibling and close friends relationships -  sure to be something for readers to identify with. Particularly pertinent is Fiona shining a light on the tug of war between parents and their children over the use of technology and the seemingly insurmountable challenges that our digital world presents. 

A definite highlight is the setting of this book in the remote outback of Western Australia. Fiona’s familiarity with these locales was clearly evident from hinterland to beachside. From lookouts with ocean vistas to cosy camp fires, Fiona invites you to feel a part of the retreat and escape from the chaos. The experience of this farmstay was very appealing and highlighted how nature can be the balm we humans often unknowingly crave for.

‘Should they pack up and go home? When Nikki reached the summit along the track she paused       
to catch her breath and take in the small private beach in the shape of an easy smile. It was then that she had her answer. They would stay. This trip was mainly for the kids and she     could use this view to get through the murky waters ahead. Taking a lungful of salty air, she smiled. At least here she had places to escape to. Invigorating places. If they went home they would all be stuck in the house together while anger and resentment festered and the kids went nuts.’

Within the various relationships presented in this story, themes from bullying, mental illness, marital affairs and cancer are covered. That’s a lot! Maybe just a tad too many for any of them to be fleshed out with real depth of meaning. I would have loved for Fiona to take the bullying issue, for instance, and really investigated thoroughly the impact this can have on young ones today. There were the obvious happy endings but perhaps, this is what we signed up for. 

With that in mind, Fiona makes her readers aware of some heartbreaking issues and peoples vulnerabilities through the range of relationship storylines. However, ultimately she gives us a feel good story that demonstrates that we all really need to make the most of each and every day. 

‘Luke reached for the wine bottle and topped up Nikki’s glass, shooting her a supportive smile while Chris remained quiet but attentive. ‘It’s been nearly six months.’  ‘Shit, you know how to keep a secret,’ said Ash taking a sip of her wine. ‘How did you manage that?’ ‘Same as you, I guess,’ said Chris. ‘Lots of white lies.’

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

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Review: The Paris Library

Title: The Paris Library
Author: Janet Skeslien Charles
Publisher: 2nd June 2020 by Hachette Australia/Two Roads
Pages: 380 pages
How I Read It: ARC book
Genre: historical fiction, cultural, France, world war II
My Rating: 3.5 crowns

Odile Souchet is obsessed with books, and working at The American Library in Paris for the formidable director Dorothy Reeder is all she has ever dreamed of. The Library and its thriving community of students, writers, diplomats and book lovers provide her with a safe haven. When war is declared, the Library is determined to remain open. But then the Nazis invade Paris, and everything changes. The Nazi 'Library Protector' changes the rules overnight, declaring a war on words and making the librarians risk their lives to do their jobs.
Under the courageous guidance of Miss Reeder, Odile and her fellow librarians defy the authorities to make sure all their subscribers, even those deemed no longer desirable, get access to books and remain part of their community, whatever the cost.
Choices as black and white as the words on a page become a murky shade of grey - choices that will put many of the wrong side of history, and the consequences of which will echo for decades to come.
The Paris Library illuminates a seldom-seen slice of history: the role of women and their fate during the war. It also recounts the consequences of unspeakable betrayal, when the people we count on for understanding and protection fail us.
My Thoughts

‘How can you stay?’ Gently, she cupped my cheek. ‘Because I believe in the power of books – we do important work, by making sure knowledge is available, and by creating community.’

A story about books and Paris ... too good to pass by! This is a dual time narrative, one that is both well researched and written, exploring a librarian during WWII and an American high school student who meets up with the Parisian librarian many years later. 

‘Sometimes I like books more than people.’ ‘Books don’t lie or steal,’ he said. ‘We can depend on them.’ I was surprised, and heartened, to hear an echo of my own feelings.’

The thing I probably admired most about this tale was the focus on books and their impact during dark times. The importance of libraries and the power of literature to see a person through difficult days at any stage in  life is something I support. The author herself states that ‘... language is a gate that we can open and close on people. The words we use shape perception as do the books we read, the stories we tell each other and the stories we tell ourselves.’ To bring to people's attention this unique story from WWII and the courage demonstrated by these Parisian librarians was notable.

‘People read,’ the Directress said. ‘War or no war.’

The Author’s Notes at the conclusion of the story reveal that many of the characters are in fact based around real people and actual events that occurred during Nazi Occupation. Having worked for a time in the American Library in Paris in 2019, the author committed to following up on stories she learnt of what occurred during this time and the result is this most insightful book.  Odile makes for a fascinating lead character who is a master of the Dewy Decimal system and thrilled to be working her first job at the library in 1939. The range of secondary characters who work or volunteer at the library is broad and eclectic. As they are determined to stay open during occupation, Odile and the staff work to provide books to recovering soldiers and as many of their Jewish subscribers as possible. There will be risks and there will be sorrows.

‘We must serve in the field of morale.’ ‘Morale? Then why books? Why not wine?’ a redhead quipped. ‘That’s what I’d want.’ ‘Who says it’s either or?’ I asked. They laughed. ‘But seriously, why books. Because no other thing possesses that mystical faculty to make people see with other people’s eyes. The Library is a bridge of books between cultures.’

My problem with the book was the modern day timeline. I just didn’t like it. Montana USA 1983 sees an older Odile as seen through the eyes of teenager Lily and the relationship they embark on.  I thought there would have been better ways to make the connections of past to present and confess not to be interested in Lily’s story at all. I truly feel that the American Library in Paris contained enough material and merit without having to bring in teenage angst from the 1980s.

‘I was needed at the Library. I was happy there. ‘I can’t rest,’ I told my father. ‘Miss Reeder says books promote understanding, which is important now more than ever.’

All up bibliophiles and  lovers of historical fiction will appreciate this window into a little known part of the Nazi occupation of Paris. Told from such a unique perspective, it was gratifying to learn of the librarian's courageous enterprise through literature and how the devastation of war impacts upon people. Most certainly  a tale of betrayal and loss but also one of hope and the power of friendship. 

‘You were brave,’ I told Odile. ‘Keeping the Library open and making sure all people could check out books.’ She sighed. ‘I merely did the minimum.’ ‘Le minimum? What you did was amazing. You gave subscribers hope. You showed that during the worst of times, people were still good. You saved books and people. You risked your life to defy the fricking Nazis. That’s huge.’ ‘If I could go back, I would do more.’

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

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Review: Miss Graham's Cold War Cookbook

Title: Miss Graham's Cold War Cookbook
Author: Celia Rees
Publisher: 22nd July 2020 by HarperCollins AU
Pages: 464 pages
How I Read It: ARC book
Genre: historical fiction
My Rating: 5 cups


A striking historical novel about an ordinary young British woman sent to uncover a network of spies and war criminals in post-war Germany that will appeal to fans of The Huntress and Transcription.

World War II has just ended, and Britain has established the Control Commission for Germany, which oversees their zone of occupation. The Control Commission hires British civilians to work in Germany, rebuild the shattered nation and prosecute war crimes. Somewhat aimless, bored with her job as a provincial school teacher, and unwilling to live with her stuffy genteel parents any longer, twentysomething Edith Graham applies for a job with the Commission—but is instead recruited by the OSS. To them, Edith is perfect spy material…single, ordinary-looking, with a college degree in German. And there’s another thing—the OSS knows that Edith’s brother went to Oxford with one of their most hunted war criminals, Count Kurt von Stabenow, who Edith remembers all too well from before the war.

Intrigued by the challenge, Edith heads to Germany armed with a convincing cover story: she’s an unassuming schoolteacher sent to help resurrect German primary schools. To send information back to her OSS handlers in London, Edith has crafted the perfect alter ego, cookbook author Stella Snelling, who writes a popular magazine cookery column that embeds crucial intelligence within the recipes she collects. But occupied Germany is awash with other spies, collaborators, and opportunists, and as she’s pulled into their world, Edith soon discovers that no one is what they seem to be. The closer she gets to uncovering von Stabenow’s whereabouts—and the network of German civilians who still support him—the greater the danger. 

With a unique, compelling premise, Miss Graham’s Cold War Cookbook is a beautifully crafted and gripping novel about daring, betrayal, and female friendship.

My Thoughts

‘... the fear that still held sway here, of hidden forces under the surface. Like they ’re afraid of something. As though the people we’re looking for still have influence and power.’

I initially picked up this book as, being a lover of historical fiction, it was of post WWII and the onset of the Cold War. I had not read much about this time period. Little did I realise the epic journey I would be taken on. This is a definite stand out book for me in 2020!

This is such a well written piece of literature that ticked so many boxes for me and an ending that totally swept me off my feet. Celia Rees has certainly done her homework here and produced a most memorable tale. On the surface this may appear your usual run-of-the-mill spy novel but the depth of research, plot and character arcs in this story is quite remarkable. There really was not that much about recipes - this was just a way, I believe, to demonstrate the ‘normalness’ of the lead character,  Edith. What a character she was - more of that in a moment. This is a tale of spies, deception, political intrigue, poverty and reconstruction. The range of characters is so well done that the reader is really unsure of who to trust.  Post war Germany was graphically presented from the weather, to the food, to the swelling underground of Nazis wishing to escape Europe. Into this network of war criminals and Russian/British/American sectors, throw in an innocent and honest lead character of Edith. 

"Lessons were conducted in the only room fit for habitation; the only room with any heating. An old iron stove stood in the corner; a small pile of fuel next to it, a few cobs of coke and coal, the scattering of sticks little more than kindling. The room had no ceiling. What little heat there was went up into the rafters.  The children and staff worked bundled in coats and scarves.’  

Edith is quite a remarkable woman. Thought to be a spinster with life having passed her by, off she goes to help reconstruct schools in Germany. Her honesty and determination to do the right thing is selfless yet worrying - but not detrimentally so to the story. It’s who she is.  Edith is supported by experienced operatives who are guiding her. You become so invested in her journey that she will without doubt stay with you long after you have turned the last page. Yet, this is not a ‘one woman’ show and Edith is surrounded by friends and foes on all sides and this truly sheds a light onto war torn Germany and Europe. The writing is so well done that from Jack the chauffeur, to Dori the former spy - you become invested in not only their individual stories but the collective joint venture in the fight for retribution. 

‘She should stop this spying. She wasn’t cut out for it. Escape from its spreading, tenebrous shadow. Meddle no more. She covered her face with her hands, tears leaking through her fingers for two young women stretched out in the morgue who might well be there because of her.’

Celia has written of locations savaged by war that it is absolutely haunting.  The crumbling buildings, the masses of refugees, the daily struggle against disease, shelter and malnutrition. These desolate passages leap off the pages and you feel the seemingly helplessness of the situation. Then there is the central plot - hunting down Nazi war criminals. Men and women who you can’t believe would treat their fellow human beings in that way. Celia lays their crimes out for you to shake your head at in disbelief with the pain and heartbreak palpable. The research here is evident and it lends utter credibility to this fictional tale.

“All this was going on and we knew it. It was just another thing, among so many things, that one tried to ignore, to turn a blind eye. What could we do? Nothing. That’s what we told ourselves. There weren’t that many Jews in our area. When they disappeared, moved to the east to work, we half believed it. The Gypsies? They just didn’t come any more. It is easy to compound a lie by lying to oneself. Easy to ignore the truth, until it arrives at your door.” 

The ending ... well, I can’t say anything ... but it’s like watching something in slow motion and you can’t believe it is happening. There are many books about WWII but I love the fact that this one has a different focus on post war and sheds light on clearing up after the devastation. I cannot recommend highly enough how exceptional I found this book to be and if this topic in any way appeals to you then it is a definite must read. 

‘There’s less and less appetite for bringing these people to justice. Too time consuming and expensive. The new policy seems to be to use them against the Russians or let them slither away. All this War Crimes stuff is being “discouraged”.’  "That’s more or less what McHale said. No one’s interested in going after them any more, punishing them for what they’ve done."

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

Friday, July 17, 2020

Review: The House on Boundary Street

Title: The House on Boundary Street
Author: Tea Cooper
Publisher: 4th July 2020 by Escape Publishing
Pages: 306 pages
How I Read It: ARC book
Genre: historical fiction, romance
My Rating: 3 cups

The House on Boundary Street is a revised and expanded edition of the novel originally published as Jazz Baby
From a bestselling Australian author comes a tale of double-dealing, adventure and the dark underbelly of 1920s Sydney...
In the aftermath of World War I, Sydney is no place for the fainthearted. Sly grog shops thrive, the cocaine trade flourishes and brothels abound. Into this big dark city comes fresh-faced country girl, Dolly Bowman, ready to risk everything in pursuit of her dreams. After all it's the 1920s - time to turn her back on her terrible childhood and search for her future.
Cynthia Burton's life changes irrevocably the day she steps over the threshold of the house on Boundary Street. Determined to survive the only way she can, she breaks into the world of money and matinee idols in order to fulfil a promise she made and now there's no going back.
As Dolly and Cynthia lives entangle they find themselves drawn into a far-reaching web of lies, intrigue and double dealing. Could it be that the house on Boundary Street, once their safe haven, offers nothing more than a dangerous facade?
The House on Boundary Street is a revised and expanded edition of the novel originally published as Jazz Baby.
My Thoughts

Tea Cooper has provided many engaging historical reads for her fans. On this occasion she presents a revised edition of her original novella, ‘Jazz Baby’ released some years ago. Retitled, ‘The House on Boundary Street’ it now tells the expanded story of life in Sydney during the 1920s.

Overall Tea presents a glimpse into the seedier side of a society from the Roaring 20s - very little  glitz and glamour here. This is more a look into the winners and losers from the fallout of  both WW1 and the Spanish Flu epidemic. Seen through the eyes of four key characters it delves into life in a high class brothel, extreme poverty with the drinking and cocaine (snow) use and abuse. Therefore, this is indeed a most unique insight into this period of Australian history recounted from an interesting perspective.

I found the story of Jack and Dolly to be rather bland whereas Ted and Cynthia’s story was far more engaging. The synopsis leads you to think this is the story of a country girl coming to the city but Dolly really does not feature that much. Cynthia has a story that is far more interesting for the readers and I wish Tea had made that more of her focus. Overall, this story was satisfactory,  just not up there with some of Tea’s other books. 

‘How had she got herself into this mess? All she’d wanted was to come to Sydney and make a life for herself.’

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

Monday, July 13, 2020

Review: Older and Wider - A Survivor’s Guide to the Menopause

Title: Older and Wider - A Survivor’s Guide to the Menopause
Author: Jenny Eclair
Publisher: 2nd July 2020 by Quercus Books
Pages: 352 pages
How I Read It: ARC book
Genre: nonfiction, Health, Mind & Body
My Rating: 5 cups

'The menopause is a weird one, as a woman you know that the likelihood of it happening to you is pretty inevitable, but no-one really tells you what to expect.'
So says Jenny Eclair, who, with her trademark humour, will share her experience of what can be a difficult time for many women, from the emotional side of life - missing the woman you were, the empty nest, mood swings - to the health aspects of the menopause, starring the hot flush and also periods (lack of), weight problems, insomnia and other issues. Upbeat and honest, Jenny shares her new-found hobbies, the joy of pets and how to make the best of the different but still-fabulous you.
My Thoughts

‘... she accidentally catches sight of what looks suspiciously like her mum standing just three feet away. Only her mum lives two hundred miles up the M6. Once she realizes that she is, in fact, staring at her own reflection and that she has turned into the doppelganger of her mother in her furious fifties, the truth of what is happening will hit her. Of course, this is it.’

Finding myself at the start of this journey, I was keen to read what I could to educate myself. Jenny (an English comedian, author and actor) has written a comprehensive A-Z of well researched information (she clearly states she is not a doctor) on menopause. Considering half of the world’s population will experience this, it was refreshing to find a book that was informative, relatable and funny - able to shine some light into an otherwise taboo subject. 

‘We only get one go at life, and considering the menopause can drag on for a decade of your allotted time on this planet (plus an extra couple of years for the peri-menopause) it would be a shame to waste that time by being permanently down. So, with that in mind, let’s put a positive spin on the menopause...’

This is a book everyone should read - female/male, young/old - as a book such as this is long overdue. There are some serious discussions, however being written by a comedian, there is much fun and laughter as Jenny brings her hysterical interpretation to some of the facts, fads and fascinations. She is most candid in sharing her own experiences and this is really helpful to those of us who, let’s be honest, have no idea. Her down to earth approach makes it relatable and accessible from an understanding of what can occur and how to try and stay on top of things. 

‘One of the most interesting revelations about the menopause is that, for many of us women, it’s a time of discovering who we really are, what we really like and what we really can’t be bothered with.’

The range of issues is truly comprehensive and I just love Jenny’s fun, yet no nonsense approach. She makes a lot of sense. Physical, social and emotional concerns are all here from HRT to mood swings to taking up a new hobby. It was a relief to read and realise that there are many women who feel exactly like you do - we just don’t talk about it. Apart from the humour and information, what I truly appreciated was Jenny’s insight into finding the silver lining on this otherwise grey cloud. The glass needs to be viewed as half full as women of this age can find themselves liberated from the confines of society's images and expectations and instead embrace just happily being themselves. 

‘We might as well start pleasing ourselves at this stage in our lives and that’s why it’s really important to know what makes us tick more happily as time goes by.’

I cannot recommend this book highly enough for its funny yet wise offerings. There is just so much here that it will keep you coming back as a guide and reference to the many helpful ideas suggested. Jenny’s honesty helps put things into perspective from practical ideas to confirmation that this is really just the beginning. 

‘The menopause is a definite chapter in your life. Not only does it mark the end of the young you, it also heralds in the dawn of a new you and what this new you is going to be is very much your decision to make.’

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