Sunday, February 26, 2023

Review: The War Pianist

Title: The War Pianist
Author: Mandy Robotham

Publisher: 16th February 2023 by Avon Books UK

Pages: 400 pages

Genre:  historical fiction, WWII

My Rating: 5 cups


Pianist: NOUN. Informal. A person who operates or controls a radio transmitter – often in code.

July, 1940

Blitz-ridden London: Marnie Fern’s life is torn apart when her grandfather is killed in an air raid. But once she discovers that he’d been working undercover as a radio operative – or Pianist – for the Dutch resistance, Marnie knows she must complete his mission – no matter the cost…

Nazi-occupied Amsterdam: At the other end of the wireless, fellow pianist Corrie Bakker is caught in a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse as she desperately tries to keep her loved ones out of the line of fire – even if it means sacrificing herself…

Bound together by the invisible wires of their radios, the two women lead parallel lives in their home cities, as both are betrayed by those they trust the most. But when the Nazis close in on one of them, only the other can save her…

My Thoughts

‘… when the streets outside are layered in dust and debris, as if Hitler has shaken the contents of a giant vacuum cleaner bag across Britain’s capital.’

I have read and loved all of Mandy’s books and I believe her latest offering, The War Pianist, may very well be one of her best! As always Mandy offers her readers a story packed with everything historical fiction readers love - espionage and betrayal, to plights and flights whether it be in blitz ridden London or Nazi occupied Amsterdam. 

‘… a mesh of letters and numbers … the vital work of a radio ‘pianist’ with nimble fingers … this fleeting stream of dots and dashes spells out ‘hope’ in her mind.’

There is never any doubt on the amount of research Mandy undertakes for her books. I learnt so much as I had never heard of radio operators being referred to as ‘pianists’ for their lightning finger movement in sending coded messages in quick time so as their position may never be compromised. Mandy’s war stories come alive off the page as she makes each and everyone of her characters someone you care about. You not only see the rubble in the streets of London but you feel the fear as Nazi boots are heard approaching on the streets of Amsterdam. Mandy’s writing is so vivid that despite all the knowledge readers bring, she still can invoke fear and shock as events play out.

‘Only inside are you allowed to die and scream and pummel your heart back into life and weep into your WVS tea, which swills alongside the swallowed-back tears.’

The story is brilliantly paced with twists and turns, with courage and bravery and with a touch of romance (shout out to the Jane Austen references, “Darcy to her Lizzy”.) Told from multiple points of view, Mandy’s writing is sure to hook you especially as Marnie is just an ordinary person like many of us and therefore so relatable in her thoughts and actions. Congratulations Mandy on yet another winning book. I have read and adored all your books and recommend them highly to all lovers of historical fiction. 

‘Is she strong enough to withstand it? Equally, can she walk away and pretend this doesn’t exist?’

This review is based on a complimentary copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own. The quoted material may have changed in the final release.

Review: The Private Lives of Spies

Title: The Private Lives of Spies
Author: Alexander McCall Smith

Publisher: 14th February 2023 by Hachette Australia

Pages: 216 pages

Genre: historical fiction, short stories, spy

My Rating: 3 cups


From Alexander McCall Smith, one of the world's most beloved and bestselling authors, comes a marvellous collection of stories about intrigue and espionage, told in his inimitable style.

During WW2 there was a rumour that German spies were landing by parachute in Britain, dressed as nuns...

Conradin Muller was an unusual spy. He was recruited in Hamburg in June 1943, much against his will, and sent on his first, and only, mission in late September that year. He failed to send a single report back to Germany, and when the War came to an end in May 1945, he fell to his knees and wept with relief.

From a highly reluctant German spy who is drawn to an East Anglian nunnery as his only means of escape, to the strange tale of one of the Cambridge spy ring's adventures with a Russian dwarf, these are Alexander McCall Smith's intriguing and typically inventive stories from the world of espionage.

My Thoughts

"Do you want to spend your life in the shadows? Now there are shadows, and it is the lot of some to work within them or, indeed, on their periphery, in their liminal territory. But if you are one who prefers to be in the clear light of day, then perhaps it is best not to dwell in penumbral regions."

I am a huge fan of the author Alexander McCall Smith. He is a prolific and incredible writer with his No.1. Ladies Detective Agency being a firm favourite of mine. Therefore I am always eager to read his latest which, this time around, is a short story collection surrounding intrigue and espionage. 

Here the reader is presented with five short stories that are a combination of fiction and nonfiction. The first is my favourite, a tale recounting the supposed legend of German spies dropped into England as nuns during WWII. You cannot help but be drawn to the plight of this reluctant spy and his effort to both hide and survive. Other tales include a Cambridge spy ring's adventures with a Russian dwarf and another on the Vatican Secret Service. 

Each of the short stories is imbued with Alexander’s typically clever prose and sprinkled life musings surrounding intrigue and espionage. Not one of my favoured of his books but still an entertaining read with themes of transparency and forgiveness in our lives.

“… you can create an identity for yourself that can then become the real you. Then people think that you were always what you claim to be, that you were born to it, so to speak, rather than having made it all yourself. And that can be important in the world of spies. They are accustomed to maintaining one identity while really being something else altogether.”

This review is based on a complimentary copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own. The quoted material may have changed in the final release.

Monday, February 20, 2023

Review: A Country of Eternal Light

Title: A Country of Eternal Light
Author: Paul Dalgarno

Publisher: 1st February 2023 by HarperCollins Publishers Australia, 4th Estate

Pages: 320 pages

Genre:  fiction

My Rating: 3.5 cups


Margaret Bryce, deceased mother of twins, has been having a hard time since dying in 2014. These days - they're not exactly days - she visits her daughter Eva in Madrid, her daughter Rachel's family in Melbourne and her estranged husband Henry in Aberdeen. Mostly she enjoys the experience of revisiting the past, but she's tiring of the seemingly random events to which she repeatedly bears witness. There must be something more to life, surely, she thinks? And death?

Spanning more than seventy-five years, from 1945 to 2021, we join Margaret as she flits from wartime Germany to Thatcher's Britain to modern-day Scotland, Australia and Spain, ruminating on everything from the Piper Alpha Oil Rig disaster to Australia's Black Summer bushfires, from the Covid pandemic to Mary Queen of Scots' beheading, from the death of Princess Diana to in-vitro fertilisation.

But why is facing up to what's happened in one's past as hard, if not harder, than blocking it out completely? A playful, bitingly funny, poignant and deeply moving novel about complicated grief and how we remain wanted by our loved ones, dead or alive.

My Thoughts

A Country of Eternal Light attracted me for its unusual premise and the fact that I am a sucker for books where characters reflect on their lives - even if this one happens to be dead (or maybe especially so?) 

Margaret is reliving memories of her life as her ‘spirit’ has not yet crossed over. She was just an ordinary person reflecting on some of the key moments and people from her life. Some of the themes are heavy and the author tries to balance it with humour  - often from Margaret’s throwaway comments. It is undoubtedly a clever story with very clever writing. Yet for me, I came away not as enamoured with it as many others have. There are a lot of time jumps with short sharp snippets from the various aspects of Margaret’s life. On the one hand I understand this approach for logistical and reflective purposes. However, on the flip side, it never allowed me to dive in deep and become a part of this reflective tale. The clever ending is certainly emotional almost to the point of needing to go back and reread with now fresh and enlightened eyes. 

A Country of Eternal Light is poignant, sad and bittersweet in that Margaret still feels something is missing. I recommend this unusual and meandering book to readers who like their stories to be unique and left of centre with a strong finish. 

‘I’m not vain. Or I am, but I don’t want to be, because vanity working on a weak head produces mischief and inadvertantly leads to familial catastrophe. Did Jane Austen write that? Or something similar? I used to read a lot, when I had eyes, my weak head trained on the page. I’m less self-regulating now, maybe.’

This review is based on a complimentary copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own. The quoted material may have changed in the final release.

Wednesday, February 15, 2023

Review: Never to Surrender

Title: Never to Surrender 
Author: Mary-Anne O'Connor

Publisher: 1st February 2022 by Harlequin Australia, HQ & MIRA

Pages: 400 pages

Genre: historical fiction, romance

My Rating: 5 cups


1941. A young German-Australian soldier meets a passionate Cretan girl and together they are caught up in guerrilla warfare during the brutal Nazi invasion of Crete. A heartfelt, sweeping saga of World War II, from the peaceful farmlands of NSW to the Mediterranean's glittering, dangerous shores, for readers of Fiona McIntosh, Nicole Alexander and Natasha Lester.

1939: Australian-born Carl Smith loves his country and despises fascism, but he never meant to go to war. He is training to be a doctor and wants to protect lives, not take them. But if enlisting is the only way he can save his German-born father, Dr Louis Schmidt, from an internment camp, he will.

1941: Athena Papandrakis has grown up on the island of Crete, swimming in jewelled waters and exploring ancient ruins. Now her home is under threat and she is ready to fight to defend it from the hated Nazi invaders, just as her ancestors sought to protect their island home in the past.

When Carl arrives in Crete with Allied Forces soldiers evacuated from the Greek mainland, he and Athena are intoxicated by each other. Carl is not the man her traditional parents would have chosen for their daughter, however, and hiding the secret of his German heritage from Athena could further threaten their love.

Decisions must be made when they find themselves in an intense final stand against the Nazis as the Allied Forces retreat and the Cretan peasants are forced into guerrilla warfare. For Carl and Athena, it becomes a desperate quest for survival ... and love, loyalty and trust will fight a battle to the last.

My Thoughts

A new book by Mary-Anne O’Connor is always cause for celebration - her books are phenomenal - and I am happy to report that Never to Surrender may well be my all time favourite of hers - it’s that good! Mary-Anne is indisputably an exceptional writer of historical fiction with each novel earmarking her as one of Australia’s foremost writers of her genre. Reading one of her books is much like Athena in her latest tale feels … ‘the wondrous thrill it gave her to be here, the dreamy pleasure of being immersed in the past.’ That truly is a gift. 

‘Wherever you are, and whatever happens, I’ll be with you, Carl. Right here.’ He tapped at his chest. ‘You take home with you, always.’

Where do I start? Never to Surrender is a sweeping saga that takes readers from the peaceful pastures of NSW to the shores of Crete as WWII rages. The characters are highly engaging from the eldest to the youngest, from the funniest to the most sadistic! One of the premier aspects of this book is the philosophy from the gentle spirits of Carl and his father Louis - I very much enjoyed their father/son discussions and shared thoughts. Then there are the injustices of war - from internment camps in Australia, to the Cretan village massacres. Mary-Anne brings balance to these horrors through two souls meeting and the depth of their connection in such extenuating circumstances being so real and heartfelt. Then there is Crete itself. There have been a number of books written of this period and place of late but I think Mary-Anne has done a stellar job with her interpretation. From the history of the Minoans and Knossos, to the culture, to the very landscape itself - she takes you on a vivid and inspired journey. 

‘Carl gripped the gun handle, trying not to think about the individual ideology of each man they targeted.’

Never to Surrender is a truly powerful and mesmerising story. The factual events (read the Author’s Notes) are so cleverly combined with Mary-Anne’s own fictional contributions. The melding of fact and fiction being seamless. A tale of family, a tale that touches on what it is to be human with results that are sure to leave their indelible impression on you. 

‘Even if they succeed in battle, we’ll never truly surrender and we’ll never give up until they are gone once more.’

This review is based on a complimentary copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own. The quoted material may have changed in the final release.

Thursday, February 9, 2023

Review: Emily Wilde's Encyclopaedia of Faeries

Title: Emily Wilde's Encyclopaedia of Faeries
Author: Heather Fawcett

Publisher: 31st January 2023 by Hachette Australia

Pages: 315 pages

Genre: fantasy, fae, fiction

My Rating: 3 cups


A curmudgeonly professor journeys to a small town in the far north to study faerie folklore and discovers dark fae magic, friendship, and love, in this heartwarming and enchanting fantasy.

Cambridge professor Emily Wilde is good at many things: She is the foremost expert on the study of faeries. She is a genius scholar and a meticulous researcher who is writing the world's first encyclopaedia of faerie lore. But Emily Wilde is not good at people. She could never make small talk at a party--or even get invited to one. And she prefers the company of her books, her dog, Shadow, and the Fair Folk to other people.

So when she arrives in the hardscrabble village of Hrafnsvik, Emily has no intention of befriending the gruff townsfolk. Nor does she care to spend time with another new arrival: her dashing and insufferably handsome academic rival Wendell Bambleby, who manages to charm the townsfolk, get in the middle of Emily's research, and utterly confound and frustrate her.

But as Emily gets closer and closer to uncovering the secrets of the Hidden Ones--the most elusive of all faeries--lurking in the shadowy forest outside the town, she also finds herself on the trail of another mystery: Who is Wendell Bambleby, and what does he really want? To find the answer, she'll have to unlock the greatest mystery of all--her own heart.

My Thoughts

Emily Wilde’s Encyclopedia of Faeries is a unique story that combines fantasy, mystery, history, and some romantic aspects. An academic inquiry into the world of the fae - be prepared for something completely different and outside the box.

"Remarkable?" I repeated.

"Well, it's never been done before, has it? An encyclopedia of faeries? This will form a cornerstone of all scholarship on the subject for years to come. Probably it will lead to the formation of new methodologies that will enhance our core understanding of the Folk."

Emily is an introverted researcher who travels in order to study faeries in an effort to compile an encyclopedia. It is written in a diary format which has its pros and cons and whilst the writing is good, it does get a little lost at times. Looking at reviews, people either loved or hated it! It was either magical or downright boring. What I can say is that it reads as a cosy fantasy, somewhat slow paced with quirky characters and a few abrupt occurrences that surprised me. I am not yet sure how I feel about it. I really wanted to like it as the premise is so inviting, especially the whole secrets of the Hidden Ones. Then it seemed to get lost within itself, convoluted and at times, quite dark. A strange mixture. 

This book is quite ambitious (it is book 1 as it will be part of a series) and is sure to appeal to many. It didn’t convince me but it had an understated charm that I found appealing. Readers who enjoy a slower academic fantasy, especially surrounding faerie mythology are sure to be on board.

‘The Folk cannot be understood. They live in accordance to whims and fancies and are little more than a series of contradictions. They have traditions, jealously guarded, but they follow them erratically. We can catalogue them and document their doings, but most scholars agree that true understanding is impossible.’

This review is based on a complimentary copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own. The quoted material may have changed in the final release.

Tuesday, February 7, 2023

Review: Weyward

Title: Weyward 
Author: Emilia Hart

Publisher: 2nd February 2023 by HarperCollins Publishers Australia

Pages: 336 pages

Genre: women’s fiction, historical fiction, magical realism 

My Rating: 4.5 cups


KATE, 2019

Kate flees London – abandoning everything – for Cumbria and Weyward Cottage, inherited from her great-aunt. There, a secret lurks in the bones of the house, hidden ever since the witch-hunts of the 17th century.

VIOLET, 1942

Violet is more interested in collecting insects and climbing trees than in becoming a proper young lady. Until a chain of shocking events changes her life forever.

ALTHA, 1619

Altha is on trial for witchcraft, accused of killing a local man. Known for her uncanny connection with nature and animals, she is a threat that must be eliminated.

But Weyward women belong to the wild. And they cannot be tamed…

Weaving together the stories of three women across five centuries, Weyward is an enthralling novel of female resilience and the transformative power of the natural world.

My Thoughts

Weyward is a wonderful tale of the three Weyward women spanning across the decades. This is a slow build character driven tale with an alternating timeline detailing the story of Altha, Violet and Kate. This is a book that perfectly brings together the genres of women’s fiction and historical fiction with magical realism woven throughout. I loved this -  not strict witchcraft per se - but a more gentle and intuitive undertaking, the magic of the natural world and how women throughout the centuries often have a gift for tuning into it. 

‘The valley was always at its most beautiful in the morning. I remember thinking that it was as if it had been made so on purpose, to remind us to keep living.’

I loved the writing style and with such a rich inclusion from nature it made the connections so strong. The cottage in Cumbria is the link between all three women as this unique tale unfolds with its atmospheric vibe. I found all three timelines to be wonderfully interwoven that made for a riveting tale. A tale of many raw and confronting emotions especially with a view to the treatment of women - whether it be of a time long past where many women were viewed as witches or the more contemporary tale of a violent relationship. At times this book presents traumatic experiences (warning of domestic violence) that are confronting but well handled. Still, trigger warnings for many readers. 

‘For I had begun to suspect that nature, to us, was as much a life force as the very air we breathed. Without it, I feared my mother would die.’

To like all three narratives is to be applauded in and of itself - an often rare occurrence. This is an intergenerational tale of love and loss, of sorrow and strength. Three women connected over time through heritage and a lasting, ongoing legacy - the interconnectedness of family, females and nature. It celebrates feminine strength to break free and embrace your birthright. 

‘She had thought, for a while, that she’d lost the magic of it: the ability to immerse herself in another time, another place. It had felt like forgetting to breathe.

But she needn’t have worried. Now, worlds, characters, even sentences linger – burning like beacons in her brain. Reminding her that she’s not alone.’

This review is based on a complimentary copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own. The quoted material may have changed in the final release.