Immigrants and Spies: My father, my memories by Barbara Mackay-Cruise

This beautifully written book, Immigrants and Spies: My Father, my memories, tells the story of a remarkable man, Noel W. Lamidey, who not only headed up one of Australia’s first immigration schemes after the WWII, but his role in the formation of ASIO as well. Told through the eyes of his youngest daughter, Barbara or Boo, it’s also the story of Australia post-World War One and Two and the role mainly white immigrants from the British colonies played in shaping what we are today.

Starting in the 1930s in Canberra, before seguing back in time and moving forward again (and taking us from England to Tasmania, Melbourne and the nation’s capital), this memoir also takes the reader on a journey through the post-Federation Australia, the Depression and then onto London and Europe and its rebuilding after the horrors of the Second World War.

While I loved reading about Barbara’s idyllic Australian childhood, her memories of school the neighbourhood, the apparent simplicity of life in then agrarian Canberra, and the loving close-knit family of which she was a part, the food they ate, the hobbies she engaged in, as well as meeting characters from Australia’s political and cultural history, I found the parts set in London and the politicking behind funding and organising the mass immigration (of almost all white folk) – and too many young children – to Australian shores from Britain and other colonial outposts, not only riveting, but relevant to today as well.

There’s no doubt, despite battling contrary personalities of different political persuasion, Noel Lamidey was a man with compassion and keen to do his job well. Certainly, from his daughter’s perspective and what his letters (parts of which are reprinted in the book) indicate, he was a man with a great deal of humanity who didn’t see the hundreds of thousands of displaced, broken, fearful people as a problem so much as a great potential which Australia could mutually benefit from.

Experiencing and witnessing first-hand the devastation of returning soldiers (British) who found the promised welcome and new life back “home” a shibboleth, seeing the terrible misery of the survivors of the Holocaust and the Nazi regime, Lamidey knew Australia was a solution. The only problem was, that while the English and Australian press basically produced propaganda to keep migrants keen and willing to uproot themselves for the promise of a new and better life, the reality was often very different.

Italian immigrants arriving by ship

Not only were the waves of migrants from the northern hemisphere unable to be accommodated in adequate housing in Australia, instead being put in internment camps where they were segregated by sex – including established families, but they were often met with contempt by Australians who feared their jobs would be taken. Rather than being regarded as “New Australians”, these migrants were quickly reminded they were “wogs, dagos, huns and pommy bastards” and made to feel unwelcome. Not by all, but enough for many to give up after a short time and return home. Not surprising when the promised housing was a freezing or boiling hut enclosed behind wire and shared with other men or women and you couldn’t see your loved ones. Sympathy was in short supply for those who “gave up” or complained and they were swiftly referred to as “whinging poms.”

Distressed by this situation, Lamidey would lament if only those so far away could see the conditions these immigrants had survived and wished to escape – then maybe, just maybe, compassion would be offered instead of name-calling; understanding that they felt let down instead of assuming ingratitude.

Despite all this, the book is neither sentimental nor judgemental, after all, this is, as the subtitle suggests, one woman’s memories – about her father, about life throughout these turbulent, remarkable years where, because of immigrants, the face of Australia would be forever changed and for the better. It might be easy to read this and feel uncomfortable with how obviously racially and culturally biased the immigration scheme was – but that was a fact – one upheld by the “White Australia policy” which wasn’t disbanded until the 1970s. But we mustn’t shy away from what was a part of our history, even if it was colour-blind.

As I read, I couldn’t help but compare much of what unfolded with what is happening today as our world is once again being torn apart by war – affecting people deeply and tragically; displacing them, rendering them not only homeless, but nation-less as well. And what do we do?

In one of his unpublished books held in the national archives, Aliens Control in Australia, and from which Barbara quotes, Lamidey makes this observation: “When passions are let loose by war it happens all too often that foreigners whether or not of enemy origin, and even locally born persons bearing foreign names, become the object of denunciation and persecution.”

He could have been writing about today.  Plus ca?change

Noel Lamiday and his wife, Lillian

Exploring a particular slice of history and from an unapologetically narrow perspective, this is a fascinating and gorgeously told story that I couldn’t put down. The last ten pages are interviews with a few prominent Australian immigrants and their stories – and they resonated.

Like many people, I too come from an immigrant family – one side of my family escaped the Holocaust (and later, my mother came from Israel to start a new life here and give us one), and my other side came out from Ireland and Scotland. Likewise, Lamidey brought his new wife to Australia from England after serving in WWI, raising his family here before taking them to England as work dictated. His efforts and contributions, coloured by his mainly positive experiences as a migrant, made him determined to offer the same to others. Not always successful, he never stopped trying.

A terrific and, in the end, very positive book that will appeal to those interested in Australian and British history, politics, enjoy a well-written memoir, or just want to learn what it might have been like for their ancestors – the machinations behind their relatives/family’s decision to cross to the other side of the world.

There’s no doubt, Lamidey was a champion in his daughter’s eyes and, I suspect, he will be in many others’ as well.

 

 

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Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner

Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner is a marvellous, beautifully written novel that while it sits under the crime genre, is so much more than that.

When Cambridge University post-graduate student, Edith Hind – a privileged young lady whose parents not only have royal connections but friends in high political places –  goes missing, DS Manon Bradshaw, a self-described misanthrope is put on the case. A shade this side of 40, Manon seems to be the only one not too perturbed by the high-profile nature of the case – not even when every possible suspect has a water-tight alibi – Manon has more things than death and kidnapping on her mind. Yet, there is blood at the scene of Edith’s disappearance, suspicious circumstances and behaviours leading up to the event but, there’s no ransom note or any other clue as to where in the hell Edith is.

With the media breathing down their throats, time ticking and budget limitations, never mind stressed parents on their backs, the police are hard-pressed to know what to do. Every angle appears to lead to a dead-end or uncovers an element that bears no relevance to Edith’s disappearance.

In the meantime, Manon does her job and gets on with her rather miserable life. Stuck in the predictable rut of internet dating, she uses sex as a panacea for loneliness and just exacerbates her condition. With good friends and a reliable partner, however, it’s not all bad, especially not when a young street kid comes into her life.

However, there is the over-arching case and associated pressures of solving Edith’s disappearance and when more death follows, Manon begins to understand that they’ve all been looking in the wrong places and at the wrong people.

Superbly written with shifting points of view, allowing you to access other characters in the story in ways that are unusual to this genre, this story is an absolute cracker of a read. Insightful, deep characters with moving and logical interactions all set to a wonderful pace, this is a story you can get your teeth into. You see the crime from multiple perspectives, get to know all the police involved in the action and the people who are affected by what has occurred. You care deeply what happens and no more so than to Manon.

Filled with surprises and ah ha moments, more because of the rich street-philosophy and observations about people and life than anything, this was a joy to read. I didn’t want it to end. Cannot recommend highly enough for lovers of crime but also literary, well-written books with great plots and characters. Cannot wait to fall into another Susie Steiner.

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The Girl Before by J.P. Delaney

There’s been a real trend in books featuring “girl” in the title, from Gone Girl to the Girl on the Train and a few more besides. I don’t know why I picked up this one because I find the diminutive “girl” problematic rather than recuperative when discussing women. Nonetheless, I think the premise (and rave reviews) fascinated me – the idea of someone having died in a house you move into and the sense of being haunted by that… I was, however, worried that perhaps this was just a “jump on the ‘girl’ bandwagon book” and I would have read it or better before.

Yet, The Girl Before by J.P. Delaney manages to be so much more than simply “on trend” and, when the reveal at the end occurs, the title resonates in ways I didn’t expect. Despite criticisms that it doesn’t stack up to some of its predecessors, I think where it really succeeds is in the structure – where we have two primary narrative voices, both female, who are described simply as “Emma/Then” and “Jane/Now”. The interweaving of immediate past and present as the two women’s lives come together through the minimalist structure of One Folgate Street – the house both Emma and Jane live in, albeit at different times – is very well executed. Designed by an award-winning and quite mysterious architect, Edward, who suffers his own burdens, the house strikes different people in different ways – as does the man. From the opening pages, the house is as much a character as the people who dwell within its controlled, “perfect” white walls.

Living in One Folgate Street comes at a price: for reduced rent, the tenants have to be prepared to follow a strict set of rules (200) which also involves an interview, answering a series of questions periodically (and some of these questions appear as epigraphs to chapters), and basically being prepared to shed whatever baggage physical – and, it turns out – emotional, they may carry.

Both Emma and Jane have baggage they want to shed and One Folgate Street, a house that responds sensitively – through technology –  to its residents, seems the perfect setting for doing so.

But when Jane (now) discovers Emma died in mysterious circumstances in the house, and that other parts of their lives have certain parallels, including a physical resemblance to each other and the architect’s wife, Jane begins a quest to uncover the truth of Emma’s death, the architect’s past and One Folgate Street itself.

Fast-paced and very well written, I found the first three-quarters of the book almost unputdownable. Unlike some people who found the lengthy questionnaire in order to qualify as a renter and mystique around the architect a bit too much to stomach, I found the explanations for his behaviour and various decisions worked within the world being created.

Clean though the house is, and burdened by rules, it’s keeping dirty secrets and a dark, oppressive and quite claustrophobic mood is created that the women seem unable to sense. I thought Delaney evoked this very well and this makes you, as reader, worry for their security.

However, the last quarter of the book sort of unravelled. What had seemed like logical progressions and character behaviour/development in the realm of the story, suddenly didn’t gel and some of the explanations (there’s a great deal of exposition at the end) were a bit too pat and even clichéd. I finished the book a wee bit disappointed after such a promising and thrilling beginning and middle. The book went, for me, from being quite unique to being almost ordinary. What elevates it above that is the writing. It is as clear and as uncluttered as the house and sparkles from the page.

So, overall, I give it 3.5 to four stars. What started with a bang, ended with a whimper, albeit, a lyrical one.

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Ragdoll by Daniel Cole

513u4CwDsoLSent a copy of Daniel Coles’ Ragdoll by the publishers through NetGalley (thank you to both), I was excited to read a new crime book by a debut author. While the premise of the book was quite daunting and ugly (six dismembered bodies sewn together to form one Frankenstein’s monster), I was keen to see how Cole developed the professional and personal relationships of his leads, as well as resolved the hideous crime, in the first book in a series.

After reading a really charming foreword where readers learn Cole thought to write a screenplay after watching the character of Jack Bauer in the TV series 24 and, having his efforts rebuffed, wrote this novel, it’s easy to see the influence of what was, at the time, cutting edge television.

The main character in Ragdoll is Detective William (Wolf) Fawkes – his entire name forming the neat and symbolic anagram. Having disgraced himself and his profession in an earlier case, and served time, Fawkes is assigned to track down the ragdoll killer along with his former partner, the edgy Emily Baxter.

Complicated, irascible and capable, Wolf is a loner in every sense. Divorced from his wife, the anchor of a tabloid news show that is stalking the Ragdoll investigation’s every move and impeding it, he’s also loyal and believes himself smarter than everyone in the room. This is fair enough, as he mostly is – he’s also attractive to all the women, including his professional partner and ex and even a suspect in the crime. But for someone so smart, he really ends up doing some very silly things. This, frankly, annoyed me.

Well-written, paced and mostly plotted, I loved the first three-quarters of the book. But, for me, the last quarter lost a bit of credibility – and it was Wolf’s character that caused this. I was happily taken for the ride he started, enjoying the repartee between characters, pop culture references, the way tabloid TV and it’s unethical practises and cut-throat manner were exposed, and even the reminders of Wolf’s masculine superiority and inability to put himself first (unlike, apparently, his ex-wife – though she is redeemed – sort of) gelled. But, in the end, I found my credibility stretched to breaking point, even within the world Cole has created. While Jack Bauer got away with a great deal, it was partly because his organisation operated outside the law. Wolf tries to and while that’s fine, it’s how and why he does and what he gets away with (he is only a detective after all) which most often happens because others are prepared to risk their jobs and reputations for him or, worse, are conveniently blind to what’s going on, and the consequences of this that left me a bit disappointed.

Having said that, I do think this is a really good read, with some terrific writing that throws some interesting characters in the mix. And, though I was a tad disappointed with the outcome, I am looking forward to another instalment of the man called Wolf and his pack.

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The Scandalous Life of Sasha Torte by Lesley Truffle

31306285The Scandalous Life of Sasha Torte is the fantastically titled second novel by Melbourne-based writer, Lesley Truffle and I have to say, it is unlike any book I have ever read. Part historical fiction, part-fantastical and whimsical romp, part crime mystery, cooking extravaganza and cautionary fable, it’s also a picaresque novel that tells the tale of the irrepressible Sasha Torte, flame-haired daughter of a murderess and heiress to a bad reputation and melancholy, who becomes not only a world-famous pastry-chef in, of all places, the wilds of Tasmania in the early 1900s, but courts men, drugs and danger with abandon.

Told with Truffle’s wonderful flair, at first I wasn’t sure what to make of a book that opens with the heroine in a luxuriously appointed prison accused of murder. Deciding to pen her memoirs, Sasha then takes the reader back through her childhood, revealing how she grew up in a brutal and unconventional family surrounded by dedicated servants and a doting grandfather. As she matures, she learns to deal with nepotism, bullying, the cruelty of strangers and their kindness in equal measure. When her Aunt Lily enters her life, she finds a soul-mate and confidant to whom she can also aspire.

Launched into the society that wants to reject her, but finds they’re unable to resist her, the beautiful Sasha appears set to conquer not only men, but the globe.

But in earning devotion, Sasha also attracts enmity, even from those who purport to love her and it’s when the handsome Dasher brothers enter her sphere that trouble for Sasha and those she cares about looms large and deadly.

Featuring wilful, sassy and smart women, dedicated and dastardly men, horses, dogs, a psychic goldfish (no, I’m not kidding) ghosts, gangs, and, of course, amazing confectionary and pastries, this novel is fast-paced, enormous fun and heart-aching at the same time. Able to transport you from the docks of fictitious and rough Wolftown, to parties on wealthy estates, then sail you to London (where the Hotel Du Barry has a cameo role), Paris, Vienna and beyond, you find yourself captivated by Sasha – honest, steadfast and fair – as you ride the roller-coaster of her full and often tragic life.

For all its fantastical elements, the book coheres into a luminous whole, an adventure and story like no other that you feel the richer and more fulfilled for reading. Like one of Sasha’s sweet creations, it lingers in your mouth, head and heart long after you’ve finished it. Quite simply, it’s so completely different and a real treat.

 

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