An intriguing novel about WWII intrigue

The Imitator by Rebecca Starford

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An enjoyable novel about the role of women in WWII espionage. By the author’s own admission, the characters are in the main invented and the story is loosely true, an artful combination that sits well with me.

The central character, Evelyn, is unlike other girls. She is clever and not afraid of a challenge; marriage and family are not her primary concerns. The setting in wartime London is believable, albeit the weather is continuously cold and bleak. The writing is confident and well-paced as the narrative develops into something of a spy-thriller.

My only gripe is that I often found myself lost in time, having to retrace to the chapter headings to get my bearings. For me, and possibly also for the author, the settings of the present (1948) and the past (1940), just eight years apart, are largely indistinguishable. As a fellow author of WWII historical fiction, I acknowledge the challenge of imagining an era based on second-hand experience (films, literature, archival records, stories of great-grandmothers) and writing it with authenticity.

That aside, the novel is well worth a read.

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Easy read, compelling story

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Despite the dark themes of alcohol addiction and domestic violence, this novel is a delight to read. In particular, the writing is tight, succinct, and appropriate. The imagery is wonderful, as demonstrated in the following excerpt (p17). ‘The town wharf, draped in frayed ropes and old pelicans, jutted into the small bay, whose water, when calm, reflected the reds and yellows of the shrimp boats.’ A vibrant picture in one sentence.

The characters have depth, although some suspension of disbelief is necessary in the case of young Kya, an girl of seven abandoned and surviving alone in harsh circumstances. My favourite characters are Jumpin’ and his wife, Mabel, people of colour who show compassion when the white community shows nothing but contempt toward the ‘Marsh Girl’.

The mystery aspect of the plot is nicely paced and the unexpected twist at the very end is well worth the wait. All in all, an easy read that deserves the popularity it has won.

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Review of ‘Still Life’ by Sarah Winman

Still Life by Sarah Winman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I fell in love, and then out of love, with this novel. The writing – which utilizes an expansive vocabulary that had me reaching for the dictionary – is a delight. The enticing settings – London and Florence – form a seamless but essential backdrop to the narrative. The use of magical realism, for example a talking parrot that is wiser than some of the human characters, and trees that listen and answer back, add a certain quirkiness. I also enjoyed the judicious repetition of ‘Peg’s tune’. ‘Clack, clack, clack across the stones she went. Hips swaying, arms swinging.’
That said, I found the book a chore to read, mainly due to the absence of quotation marks, which is not only irritating but also gets in the way of the narrative flow. Who is talking? Is anyone talking? Backtrack and work it out. My patience, at times, wore thin.
For most of the book, I had no idea where the story was going, and not in a good way. At times I wondered if there was any point at all. In fact, I could imagine entire chapters adapted into a feel-good British film, with the usual cast of ‘senior’ actors – Maggie Smith, Judy Dench, Bill Nighy – bumbling about together in a foreign land, enjoying the food but largely ignoring the inhabitants.
Finally, on page 373 (of the edition I read), came the critical question about Evelyn’s role in WWII, which she answers with an abrupt ‘Of course I was’. In the last chapter, aptly named ‘All About Evelyn’, she proceeds with the slow reveal. Yet it isn’t what I expected at all. Her backstory shot off into a coming-of-age frolic that happened forty years before the war. Frustrated, I kept reading, hoping that Evelyn would find her way back to the crucial question and fill us in. She did not. And then the book ended.
Overall, a work of literary fiction that will enthrall lovers of language. A good story, interesting characters, and settings to die for. Apart from my minor criticisms above, the novel is highly recommended.

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What was it like in a WWII internment camp?

Four Years in a Red Coat: The Loveday Internment Camp Diary of Miyakatsu Koike

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A diary of this nature is an absolute treasure for historians, researchers, and readers with an interest in WWII. Sensitively translated from the original Japanese, it makes an important contribution to our understanding of war and internment. The diary of Mr Koike, an employee of the Yokohama Specie Bank in Java, spans the period immediately before the Pacific War; his capture and detention in the Dutch East Indies; his transportation by ship to Adelaide and internment at Loveday, South Australia; and his repatriation to Japan in 1946.

During the war, writing paper was scarce and internees were prohibited from keeping diaries. Most days, Mr Koike jotted his experiences on whatever scraps of paper came to hand. The numbered notes survived not only searches by guards but also gruelling sea voyages. Concealed inside empty macaroni boxes, they were smuggled back to Japan. For nearly thirty years they lay untouched, until the author reassembled them and published them as a diary.

The writing style is factual and concise. Each section is prefaced with a scene-setting piece that the author describes as a ‘memoir’. From the outset, Mr Koike stoically accepts his lot. His notes are informative and descriptive, perhaps written with loved ones in mind. Although the camp in Java is steamy and uncomfortable and the voyage to Australia is like hell on Earth, the tone remains light. In the early months at Loveday, he conscientiously continues his writing practice.

The turning point is 15 August 1942, the day Mr Koike’s hopes of returning to Japan in a prisoner exchange are dashed. He must come to terms with the reality that, for the rest of the war, he will remain in the distant barbed-wire camp. The frequency of his note-making drops; the entries become one-liners about the weather or the main activity of the day. Sentiments of boredom and despair creep between the lines. Men die. A minute’s silence is observed to honour their spirits. Baseball games and the shimmering stars are welcome distractions.

In translation, the diary is easy to read. The choice of words retains hints of the original language. Where necessary, explanatory footnotes enlighten the reader. The translator and editors deserve high praise for transforming this important piece of WWII history into a fine English-language publication. Diagrams, cartoons, photographs of comrades and scenes within the Loveday camp add visual elements to the text.

‘Four Years in a Red Coat’ is a rare first-hand chronicle of internment that sheds new light on Australia’s wartime history. Mr Koike’s diary, which survived despite all odds, is beautifully translated and edited.

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A gripping 1880s migrant adventure

Paradiso A Novel by Steve Capelin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A gripping tale of hope and despair on the high seas. Set in 1879-80, a group of migrants from the struggling north of Italy chases the promise of Paradise in the South Pacific. Alas, the dream is far from reality. Instead of the thriving settlement they’d expected, there is nothing but jungle. They must battle the harsh climate, dysentery, the threat of starvation, fear, regret. Eventually the survivors make it to Australia. Later they found a township called New Italy, situated midway between Ballina and Grafton in NSW. The ill-fated adventure is based on a true story of triumph despite the odds. A well-written migrant story by Brisbane author, Steve Caplin, that had me on the edge of my seat.

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A gently-written novel about heartache and healing

The LabyrinthThe Labyrinth by Amanda Lohrey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Question: What does a mother do when her only son is in prison with a life sentence? Answer: She buys a crumbling shack by the sea and builds a labyrinth in the backyard. To proceed, she must become part of the little seaside community. Her neighbours are, quite frankly, a strange lot. But who is she to judge, given her curious childhood as the daughter of the chief medical officer of an asylum? One by one, she attracts various odd-bods to the project: the shy teenager, Lexie; the illegal immigrant, Jurko; the aloof neighbour, Ray. The activity of making something draws them together and gives everyone a sense of purpose and hope. This is a spiritual project as much as it is a physical one. Somewhere amongst the chaos, she also rediscovers herself.

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A memorable memoir by Brisbane author, Krissy Kneen

The Three Burials of Lotty Kneen

The Three Burials of Lotty Kneen by Krissy Kneen

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When Krissy Kneen was a speaker at my authors’ group a few months ago, I was intrigued by her latest book. I’ve read some of Krissy’s work before. While I love the way she writes, I confess that I find explicit erotica confronting. So, when she said this was a quest of discovery to find her roots in a faraway land, accompanied by bucketful of family secrecy and a good slather of quirkiness, I was hooked.

The memoir does not disappoint. In fact, I couldn’t put it down. Krissy’s storytelling is sublime. Her research tour of Slovenia and Egypt is thorough and personally risky. Gaps are filled with possibilities, family lies, fairytales. Her metaphors are spot on; one I loved was the dream of Lotty Kneen, reincarnated as a snake. ‘She is coiled up in a dark place … she is coiled in the belly of her granddaughter. Big belly, big enough to hold the long snaking form she has become. The grit of rock, the crackle of grass, the heat of the sun.’

This wonderful, uplifting story about personal discovery, grieving, and the pursuit of truth is highly recommended.

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The Quiet Voice: a short read about growing up in the 70s

The bartender called for last drinks. Closing time: eleven o’clock on a Friday night. The band was packing up; the patrons were drifting out. The four of us were reluctant to part.

‘Come to my place for coffee.’ A statement, not a question. Spoken by Keith, our new-found drinking buddy.

Louise lit a smoke, tossed the pack across the table. Janet made a grab but Keith beat her to it. He flipped it open, offered her cigarettes, flashed a silver lighter. His James-Bond self-assurance sent a ripple of annoyance through me.

‘How old do you reckon he is?’ I rasped in Louise’s ear.

‘Gotta be forty,’ she said. ‘But he’s fun.’

‘Not the Kingswood!’

they chorused and dissolved in giggles

We were in final year at uni. Almost twenty-one. We sat together in a packed lecture hall but barely knew each other.

‘The car’s not far.’ Keith took a pre-emptive step toward the pub door.

We stood to leave, a little unsteadily I might add.

Outside, the night air hit us like ice-water. The cosy warmth of camaraderie washed down the gutter. Keith strode ahead. We three girls ambled behind like servants or concubines.

‘I’m not so sure about this,’ I hissed.

‘Safety in numbers,’ said Louise. She and Janet began singing Stand by Me like fools at a country wedding.

We reached the car, a baby-shit yellow sedan. ‘Not the Kingswood!’ they chorused and dissolved into giggles. Louise claimed the front seat. Janet and I took the back. Keith coaxed a spark from an almost-flat battery and the car rumbled down George Street.

‘Think I’ll call it a night,’ I muttered.

‘Party pooper!’ A duet of big-girl voices.

The traffic lights went red; Keith tramped on the brakes. I flung the door open and leapt out. Half-walked, half-ran in the opposite direction. Hailed a taxi, made my cowardly escape. The friendship was over; I would never live it down.

Monday morning, the girls were already in the lecture hall. At first, relief. Then my heart sank. What should I say? Guilty of desertion, as charged? I ambled over to apologise.

Louise piped up first. ‘That Keith was a real prick.’

‘What happened?’

She began to laugh. ‘His place was out in the sticks. He did give us coffee, but.’

‘And liqueurs,’ added Janet. ‘By candlelight.’

‘Then, out of nowhere, came this woman. His WIFE. All hell broke loose.’

‘We walked home. Didn’t get there until four.’ Janet again.

‘A disaster! We should’ve listened to you.’

I smiled. Silently I thanked my inner voice. My quiet voice of reason.

Copyright, Debbie Terranova, June 2021
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Human rights tyrants and how to stop them

Bad People – and How to Be Rid of Them: A Plan B for Human Rights

Bad People – and How to Be Rid of Them: A Plan B for Human Rights by Geoffrey Robertson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

While this book provides a history of human rights dating right back to the 17th Century, the real background to Geoffrey Robertson’s treatise about how to stop human rights ‘baddies’ is the torture and death of Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian tax expert murdered by his own government for exposing fraud and corruption. Magnitsky’s story – and it is well worth knowing – is told in detail by former client, supporter, and fellow target, Bill Browden, in his book ‘Red Notice’ (reviewed below).

Human rights lawyer, Geoffrey Robertson, became involved in Browden’s quest for justice. Since, several countries, including the US, the EU (in December 2020), and the UK have passed ‘Magnitsky laws’, which ‘name and shame’ tyrants who perpetrate these crimes against humanity when the usual forms of justice fail. Australia is currently considering the form its ‘Magnitsky law’ will take. Robertson’s book is not easy to fully absorb. Many of the names and events will not be well-known to the general public. However it is well worth a read. Its currency -Robertson covers human rights developments up to March 2021 – is noteworthy. While the subject matter is weighty, his droll humour sometimes raises a smile.

Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man’s Fight for Justice by Bill Browder

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Reads like a Soviet-era spy thriller, only this story is true. Yes, there will be sceptics, but I have no doubt that the events leading up to the torture and murder of Russian tax expert, Sergei Magnitsky, and what happened as a result to author, Bill Browder, actually happened.

In a coincidental piece of triangulation, an article in ‘The Weekend Australian’ (1 May 2021) written by human rights lawyer, Geoffrey Robertson, reveals his role in bringing about international sanctions against the perpetrators. Shocking and compelling in equal proportions. Robertson’s book is reviewed above.

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‘The Next Twenty Years’: my short story in ‘Pen and Pixel’

Inspired by a turning point in my life, ‘The Next Twenty Years’ is a reflective piece about change and resilience. My short story was penned for a monthly competition run by the Queensland Writers’ Centre for their online magazine, ‘Pen and Pixel’. It was the winning entry for April 2021, and was published in the May edition.

Port Stephens, NSW, Australia. A place of peace to contemplate life.

My fingers hover over the lighted screen in my lap. The online form is complete. Only a few questions really: name and employee number, tick the right box.

From my vantage point on the headland, early sunlight illuminates the bay. Facets of gold, pink, cerulean glisten like shards of a broken mirror. Out on the water, a dark object floats unattended. A tinnie perhaps. No sign of anyone on board. Adrift from its moorings, it bobs with the swell. Directionless and buffeted by the wind. Like me.

Until now, life has been ordered into neat twenty-year blocks. Twenty was the age I left home. First career: twenty years, ended after a change of government. Motherhood: twenty years, abandoned when the kids flew the nest. Marriage: two blocks of twenty years, blissfully intact. Current career: twenty years, endangered but not quite extinct.

I’m on the wrong side of sixty now. Finding a new job will be tricky. At work my colleagues are younger than my offspring. Deals are done over Friday night drinks. I’d rather sip a glass of red and watch the seven o’clock news. Promotions are given to the up-and- coming, not the over-the-hill. Technology has made my skills—once in demand—curiosities. After all, who calculates percentages in their head when computer modelling can do everything? Millennial offsiders gawk at me as if I’m Methuselah when I speak of a childhood devoid of social media, streaming, and drones. I’m a relic, a human museum-piece.

The decision I’m about to make is irreversible, as irreversible as falling pregnant. As soon as I touch that screen button, my career will be finished. Am I ready? Reasons for and against fill a pad of notepaper. The routine and discipline of work gives structure to my days and weeks. Duty and deadlines are reasons to get out of bed. For the first time ever, my future is a chasm. Exciting and waiting for me to explore, but somehow dangerous. To enter is a leap of faith. Like a fledgling eagle, I stand at the brink, my wings outstretched. Will I glide or will I drop like a stone to the bottom?

My life-pattern suggests that the next twenty-year time-slot could be my last. A shame to waste it working, my elderly mother would say.

Out on the bay, a motorboat streaks across the water. Throws a line to the tinnie, tethers her and tows her in. Hope warms my heart. I am adrift now, but a life-rope will be thrown. And when it is, I will catch it and pull myself in.

I hold my breath, touch the button on the screen. My phone makes a whooshing sound. An automatic response: Your resignation has been received. A giant leap for one woman. If I expected fireworks or the ground to move under my feet, I was mistaken. The moment passes easily, softly. Nothing explodes or shakes the earth. It is over; I have survived.

Bring on the next twenty years.

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