Book Review: City of Crows by Chris Womersley

Set in 1673 France, Charlotte Picot grieves the death of her husband and with her only child Nicolas, she flees her small village to save him from the plague which sweeps across the country. Along the way, Nicolas is stolen from her and she is left for dead. Rescued by an old woman who brings her back from the brink of death, Charlotte continues her quest to find her son who she fears has been taken to Paris to be sold. Along the way, she meets Lesage, recently freed from jail and together they begin a journey filled with fear, rogues and superstition.

‘Grief was an unpredictable burden for a woman; it killed or deranged some, yet made warriors of others.’

This novel is beautifully written and is the second of this author’s novels I’ve read. Like his earlier novel, Cairo, this one is hard to put down. The language is evocative and the descriptions put you into a place so full of hardship, we’re grateful to have been born in a different time. I loved the idea that ignorance and lack of education heightened Charlotte and Lesage’s superstitions of sorcery and magic for explanation of events which today, with the knowledge of science, would be easily explained. Witches, sought after for many things were revered and feared.

‘Monsieur Maigret placed the skull back on the shelf. “You know, they are hanging Justine Gallant and Monsieur Olivier at Place de Greve tonight. For murder. Witchcraft. They say they tried to summon the Devil himself.”‘

It is also a story of a woman’s grief for her family and her sheer desperation to do whatever she has to do to get her son back despite the consequences. What she does towards the end is shocking and takes your breath away and there is quite a bit of controversy over the ending. All in all an enjoyable and engaging read.

Book Review: What the Light Reveals by Mick McCoy

Military secrets, spying for the Russians, fear and discrimination for your beliefs – this is an intriguing tale about what a communist’s life was like in fifties Melbourne. Conrad and Ruby, members of the communist party with one adopted son and another on the way are treated as outcasts after Conrad is falsely accused of spying for the Russians. Watched by ASIO, unemployed and their reputation in tatters they are forced to flee Australia to live in Russia.

The story diverges into not just about life in Russia but what happens to a family with secrets who never feel they belong in their adopted country and where every movement is under scrutiny. But this book is so much more than that. The characters are well developed as we are privy to the points of view from Conrad, Ruby, Alex, (the elder and adopted son) and Peter, the biological son.

Fast forward to Russia in the early seventies and this is where the family almost implodes from secrets and lies and where their very survival is tested. Are the ideals held so closely while living in a Western country destroyed by the reality of living in a communist state?

 “In a sudden breathless cleft between sleep and wakefulness, in darkness, eyes wide, mouth open, she listened for the rumbling of the tanks, the gravel-crunch of soldiers boots, the whispered metallic click of rifles being readied to fire. Nothing. She waited for her heart to settle. Breath by breath she let go. “

They belong to neither country and the only thing they do have is each other. When tragedy strikes, we feel for each of them as they’re torn apart by distrust, anger and grief. Alex, whose path was set by his parents is bewildered and his vulnerability is touching as he comes to grips with what his future holds.

This is a wonderfully written novel inspired by the authors own aunt and uncle. He borrows a lot from them to give us an insight into two worlds. It’s not often that a reader gets to meet the author, to hear him speak of what he did over a fourteen-year time span to research, interview, and write a story. It surely is a labour of love.

Book Review: The Last of the Bonegilla Girls by Victoria Purman


Can you picture being in a camp cramped with thousands of migrants hoping for a new life after living through the worst hardship and mayhem in your own country? Bonegilla Migrant Camp near Albury, Australia was one such place which temporarily housed thousands of migrants from all walks of life from Europe and Britain. Each of these migrants came to Australia for a new start in life – for a better life.

Put four sixteen-year-old girls together from different racial backgrounds and a life-long friendship develops. There is Elizabeta from Hungary, Vasiliki from Greece, Iliana from Italy and Frances, the Australian girl whose father is the Camp director. The reader is taken through an epic journey learning about each girl and their families through their eyes. While there are many characters, which could be overwhelming, it isn’t because the author gives us enough time with each one.

The girls grapple with their own problems not just because they’re migrants, but because they’re women in a conservative 1950’s Australia. Purman shines a light on a society where teenage pregnancies and hidden love because of racial, class or religious differences aren’t tolerated and where indiscretions are kept secret because the consequences are too traumatic.

The difficulties they face are many and in particular, the story of Elizabeta and her family is gut-wrenching. The exploration of mental health issues for migrants is explored in just enough detail for the reader to appreciate the generational impact. The racism of being a “New Australian” is very real, and this book provides an understanding of what being new to a country is like, serving as a reminder for tolerance and empathy for today’s new migrants.

This was a big undertaking for the author as we’re taken into the sixties, seventies and eighties. The reunions with the girls as grown women with their own families provides a picture of what’s happened to them. The last part of the book skips years from 1994- 2018 and I yearned to know more. Does Frances finally get her happy ever after? We’re left to join the dots. But isn’t the job of the author to leave us with our imagination? Reaching the end, I was glad the story of each girl wasn’t wrapped up in a bow with a Hollywood ending because life really isn’t like that.

This is an enjoyable and well-written historical novel with tragedy, love and friendship in a harsh landscape where the only option is hard work and survival. According to the author, “One in twenty Australians have links to Bonegilla”, so you too might have a connection. Who knows?

COVER REVEAL: NEW RELEASE

Announcing New Release: A Perfect Stone by S.C. Karakaltsas

I am so excited to let you know that my novel, A Perfect Stone will be ready for release October 10, 2018. The cover is done, the proof has been examined from front to back and the format double-checked. There is nothing like holding your new book in your hands for the first time.

It might seem as though I’ve churned out another novel in a short time but believe me, this has been a project of more than two years in the making and at times a laborious undertaking. But it’s also been a labour of love and passion as I researched the heartbreaking tale of what happened to children who were forcibly removed from their homes during the Greek Civil War in 1948.

A dual timeline story taking the reader on a journey through the snow-covered mountains of Northern Greece, to Czechoslovakia, Macedonia and Australia, I hope you’ll like reading it as much as I loved writing it.

How do you find a place to belong when there’s nowhere else to go?

Living alone, eighty-year-old Jim Philips potters in his garden feeding his magpies. He doesn’t think much of his nosy neighbours or telemarketers. All he wants to do is live in peace.

Cleaning out a box belonging to his late wife, he finds something which triggers the memories of a childhood he’s hidden, not just from his overprotective middle-aged daughter, Helen, but from himself. When Jim has a stroke and begins speaking another language, Helen is shocked to find out her father is not who she thinks he is.

Jim’s suppressed memories surface in the most unimaginable way when he finally confronts what happened when, as a ten-year-old, he was forced at gunpoint to leave his family and trek barefoot through the mountains to escape the Greek Civil War in 1948.

A Perfect Stone is a sweeping tale of survival, loss and love.

Now available https://www.amazon.com.au/Perfect-Stone-S-C-Karakaltsas/dp/0994503261/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1538698782&sr=1-1

Book Review: The Jade Lily by Kirsty Manning

 

I was so thoroughly immersed in this story, I had trouble putting it down.

This is another book which has two main characters, Romy and her granddaughter, Alexandra with dual time lines, the present, and the past, set during WW2. We are transported back to a time when Romy as a young Jewish girl escapes Austria in 1938 with her family and finds refuge in Shanghai where she grows up forming close friendships with a Chinese girl, Li and fellow Austrian, Nina. Their world soon changes with the occupation by the Japanese and the consequent liberation by the Americans, forces Romy to take drastic action to survive.

Alexandra is a trader who comes home broken hearted from a love affair in London for the funeral of her grandfather. We learn that Alexandra was brought up by her doting grandparents when her adopted Chinese mother and Australian father were killed in a car accident when she was a toddler. She begins digging into family secrets which Romy has withheld from everyone including her own husband.

I’d read nothing about Shanghai during the war and this was a well-researched and fascinating piece of history. Thousands of refugees escaped Europe and found a life in Shanghai until the Japanese took control. The atrocities by the Nazi’s and the Japanese is brutal but not overdone. The mix of cultures in the melting pot of Shanghai’s diverse population was described brilliantly as was the description of its architecture both in modern and historical contexts. Chinese medicine features strongly giving readers further information about its healing properties, both physical and mental.

The characters are well drawn and strong women in their own right with a love for each other which is heartfelt and touching, particularly toward the climax of the story. The historical details are weaved appropriately using the dual timelines which works really well.

There is something for everyone in this story of love, loss and survival against all odds. It’s a page turner by Australian author Kirsty Manning and you won’t be sorry getting hold of this one.

 

Book Review: The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

This is a disturbing book, beautifully written,  as well as shocking.

It opens in Saigon in April 1975 in the villa of a General of the South Vietnamese army. His right hand man, the Captain, unbeknownst to the General and anyone else is an undercover Vietcong agent. In the chaos of defeat, the Captain, the General and numerous others flee Vietnam and make it to America where the Captain continues his spying activity. The Captain finds himself in a dilemma and the opening lines hook you in. “I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces… I am simply able to see any issue from both sides.”

Reading this gripping Pulitzer Prize winning novel, I felt the constant tug of being in two minds. The Captain is the son of a peasant woman and a French priest which makes for an unhealthy start in life as he is ridiculed and treated as an outsider, eternally in conflict.

Having watched movies and read about the Vietnam War, it has only ever been from a Western point of view. This novel paints a very different picture. In America, the Captain is assigned the job of being a cultural adviser to the director of a movie about the war which we soon realise is Apocalypse Now.

“An audience member might love or hate this Movie, or dismiss it as only a story, but those emotions are irrelevant. What mattered was that the audience member, having paid for a ticket, was willing to let American ideas and values seep into the vulnerable tissue of his brain and the absorbent soil of his heart.”

There are many side observations like this throughout the narrative which makes the reader think and reflect. There are also moments of pure comedy bordering on the ludicrous which is an antidote to the horror of what people are forced to do during a war. The Captain’s torment grows with the ghost of deeds done past and present.

The first half of this book pummels you along, the middle is reflective and as times slow with the end almost unbearable to read. Yet it is an important book for all sides of politics and philosophies.

Put this one your list.

Book Review: The Passengers by Eleanor Limprecht

Pic from Goodreads

I was filled with sadness but more importantly hope when I finished this book. Sadness because I wanted more. Hope, because in the end I wanted the best for the characters of Sarah and especially her granddaughter, Hannah. These two characters’ sail halfway around the world from America to Australia so that Sarah can be reunited with the family she left as a war bride to begin a new life in America. Her granddaughter Hannah accompanies her and we are privy not only to the unfolding of Sarah’s life but that of Hannah.

The history of American soldiers in Australia is beautifully told but the little known fact that hundreds of Australian war brides were shipped out after the war was astounding. As an Australian in America, Sarah confronts not only a new life as a bride but the harshness of acceptance. Her accent is both ridiculed and admired as she confronts choices as to how she wants to live and the secrets she keeps from the family she escaped from in Australia. Her granddaughter on the other hand has a different set of concerns with secrets she can’t share which cause her suffering and heartache.

On the journey, Sarah reveals her past to her granddaughter and the reason why she hadn’t been home for more than sixty years. This forces Hannah to confront her own secret. The love they have for each other is heart-warming and the split narrative works very nicely. I warmed to both characters and wanted to know more about Hannah and her disorder and we are left wondering and hoping that she will deal with it.

This is a thoroughly researched novel, easy to read and compelling. Give it a go.