A compelling tale of war and love in the Russian winter of 1941

The Tolstoy Estate by Steven Conte

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


This is one WWII historical novel that deserves attention. Thoroughly researched, beautifully written, and with a cast of interesting but flawed characters, Conte masters the ‘feel’ of a bitter conflict during the perishing winter of 1941.
The compelling story is told from the perspective of Paul Bauer, a surgeon and an officer of the Wehrmacht, who is sent to serve at the ill-fated eastern front. When his 3rd Panzer Division stumbles across the estate of literary giant, Leo Tolstoy, they claim it for a hospital. ‘Yasnaya Polyana’ is something of a Russian national shrine, which provides them with some protection from Red Army artillery fire. But the comfortable accommodation comes with strings attached, in particular a firebrand custodian and, quite possibly, a ghost.
Highly recommended.



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Beautiful prose about an arduous journey

Devotion by Hannah Kent.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars.

More than anything, I love the way Hannah Kent writes. Her use of language is inventive, perceptive, lush, evocative. Somehow she worms her way inside you, the reader, so that you are absorbed into the narrative, into the scene. Her descriptions are to die for. ‘The sea was flat and it mirrored the sky’s glory, bringing the lights down to the horizon so that it seemed the ship was suspended in stars’ (p229). Yes, the pace dragged at times, in particular the wretchedly long and torturous voyage, and some scenes that relied on magical realism went just a bit too far. Overall, however, it was her writing that triumphed.

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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 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 by 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 become the founders of 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 Labyrinth by Amanda Lohrey

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What does a mother do when her only son is in prison with a life sentence? 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 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 and fairy tales.

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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Human rights tyrants and how to stop them

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

Yes, there may be sceptics. But I have no doubt that the events leading up to the torture and murder of Russian tax expert, Sergei Magnitsky, and Russia’s ‘red notice’ to capture and/or kill author, Bill Browder, is true.

Reads like a Soviet-era spy thriller, only this story really happened.

As a result of Browder’s high-profile activism and persistence, many countries have now enacted ‘Magnitsky laws’, which sanction Russian oligarchs by freezing assets held in those countries.

If you are struggling to understand international relations between the so-called western countries and Putin’s Russia, do yourself a favour and read this book.
It is shocking and compelling in equal proportions.


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 books ‘Red Notice’ and ‘Freezing Order’.

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. In 2021, the Australian government followed suit and also passed Magnitsky-inspired legislation.

Robertson’s book is not easy to fully absorb. Many of the names and events will not be generally known. 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.


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