Daughter of Victory Lights by Kerri Turner


This second book by Kerri Turner, Daughter of Victory Lights (her first was The Last Days of the Romanov Dancers), is an exquisite, heart-aching tale of love, loss, rejection and connection all set against the backdrop of firstly, London during the Blitz and, later, the post war years and early sixties.

Evelyn Bell is a young woman who rejects the roles and path society and her times insist upon for her. Determined to carve her own future and contribute to the war effort, against her family’s wishes, Evelyn joins the first all-woman Searchlight Squadron, tasked with the dangerous job of tracking enemy planes so they may be shot out of the sky or, alternately, helping friendly planes to land. It is a fraught exercise and not merely because of the terrible personal peril the women put themselves in, but because the women know that in saving the lives of many, they also end the lives of a few and destroy family forever. In the end, war has no victors. 

It is family that lies at the heart of this tale, that and the way war irrevocably alters both the social and personal fabric of our lives. Unable to settle back into “routine” in the aftermath of the war, Evelyn seeks, yet again, a different life. This time, she finds herself working the lights on The Victory, a ship which sits in different waters and offers entertainment like no other. It’s here that Evelyn meets her future, only it’s one that no-one, least of all Evelyn, anticipates…

Not only does Turner recreate London during the war and the stifling social and other mores (and attempts to disrupt and overturn them) of the time in a beautiful fashion, she breathes life into those who found theirs shattered. Whether it’s a US soldier tasked with retrieving bodies (the melancholic and heart-wrenching Grave Regiment) and giving them dignified burials, or those who for a variety of reasons find themselves displaced or wishing to hide, the reader is drawn into a world like no other and champions those who dwell in it. Our hearts alternately ache and are lifted in response to what happens as we witness to those who bravely forge ahead or those who simply cannot and are doomed to repeat a cycle of despair and guilt, as they’re locked in an emotional and psychological prison. 

Family comes under scrutiny in the novel. Here, it comes in familiar and different guises and its often the family which we create ourselves where the strongest bonds are formed, even out of tragedy. Add to this the marvellous burlesque/circus-like show that those on The Victory perform each night and what they have to do to sustain their performances and each other, and we have a rich, satisfying and utterly captivating novel. 

The writing is lovely, the historical backdrop and details beautifully rendered, never once dominating the story, but giving it depth and authenticity – the sign of a master storyteller at work. Not only was I riveted by this story (and wept and laughed and hurt), but I learned about an aspect of history that I didn’t know. I also loved that though Kerry foregrounds women and their varied lives, aspirations, triumphs and failures, she does so with empathy, truth and an acknowledgment of the good and not so good men and women who either aid them on their journeys or cross their paths only to trip them or prevent them moving forward. Fabulous characters in an utterly satisfying story that will leave you feeling fulfilled and wanting more.

Next book, please, Kerri!!!

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Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty

Let me start this review by saying how much I love Liane Moriarty’s books. I have read every single one with responses ranging from incredible (Big Little Lies), to yes, I quite enjoyed that – and not in a “damning with faint praise” way, but yes, I liked it. Nine Perfect Strangers, strangely enough, hovers between these two responses with a dash of disappointment added in as well. Let me explain…

After an opening scene that sets up a back story, the action moves ten years forward as the nine strangers in the title  – though less than perfect – descend upon a Wellness retreat called Tranquilium to change their lives. Each chapter is dedicated to a particular point of view – including those of some of the staff and the rather remote, exotic and passionate owner of the retreat, a Russian expatriate who has managed to transform her own life and is committed to doing that for others.

The reader is taken on the transformative “journey” these nine people are asked to share. A journey that involves a great deal of trust on their behalf and a sacrificing of the various pleasures their real world lives afford them. Slowly – and not so slowly- we learn what has brought them to a point in their lives where they felt they need to escape and change. The revelations are heart-aching, humorous, deeply felt, clever and the characters are brought to life through their back stories, insecurities, desires and flaws. But what they find at the retreat as the ten days begin to pass is not what they expected. As more and more is asked of them they begin to wonder, is change worth it, even if it means saving a life, marriage, relationship, mental health and well-being?

The first fifty percent of this book had me hooked. I engaged with the characters, felt compassion for them, laughed and cried alongside them and was drawn into the motivations of their lives past and present. I believed in them and their reasons for taking such an extreme option. I also enjoyed the gentle cynicism around the whole notion of “wellness” retreats and the expectations/demands of staff  and how these collide with and undermine those of the clients. But, at the halfway point, the story suddenly ventures into unexpected territory when one of the central characters becomes almost a caricature replete with accent. The reader is asked, along with the nine strangers, to suspend their disbelief as the tale and the clients’ experiences, descend into what is akin to a farce. My credibility was strained and I became frustrated as I was so enjoying the ride up until this point.

Moriarty is a beautiful writer and her insights into human nature and relationships are deep and shiny. Little pearls that pop and make you sigh, cry and laugh in recognition. This is what kept me reading and saved the latter part of the book  – to a point – for me. Threaded through this were still moments of incredulity (on my part – eg. there is an extended sequence where the characters “trip” and I found it unrealistic, too convenient from a narrative perspective and such a stretch, I found it uncomfortable) which undermined a persuasive and deeply felt story of the desire to transform, the pressures to do this, and why some people both feel they have to and resist. How in contemporary times so few people are content with who and what they are. The moral core of the story is sound, but the frame becomes frail and, in my humble opinion, came close to snapping. Never mind the fact some characters remain two-dimensional – sometimes so much so, they simply walk off the page with very little explanation.

Overall, this is a quite good read that contains some fabulous characters but, at times, a thin plot. That was, for me, the disappointing part. It’s wonderful prose which contains some searing insights into human nature and relationships, all explored with a deft and kind hand. I really love Moriarty’s work and will look forward to her next book even while I feel a little ambivalent about this one.

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The Secrets We Keep by Shirley Patton

I had the great fortune to be at one of the launches for this debut novel by Australian writer, Shirley Patton. Listening to her discuss the book, while sipping tea, learning that Shirley drew upon her own life and work experiences to write this tale, made me eager to read it and I was not disappointed.

Set in Kalgoorlie during the 1980s, the book centres, initially, on Aimee, a young social worker who relocates from Perth to take up a new role. There she meets not only an assortment of interesting characters: the irrepressible Lori, the kind ex-priest, Paddy, the psychic Agnes and Jack, as well as those who become her clients such as Kerry, Amber, and the dying Paul. But as Aimee becomes part of the close community and learns the secrets they both keep and entrust to her, she finds the ones she harbours harder to bear.

Whether it’s the politics of the day, the deleterious effects of mining, ageing, illness, loss, Indigenous issues and the lengths to which bureaucracy and the PTB go to cover up their intentions and regressions, spiritualism, romance and families, Patton’s tale covers it with aplomb. What I loved best about this book were the bonds forged between the women. So often novels cast women against each other, portraying them as competing – for a man, for recognition, pitting them as competitors, forming toxic relationships. The Secrets We Keep was so refreshing because, while it didn’t shy away from exploring differences and tensions, it examined the complexity and depth of a range of female friendships and relationships and the support, kindness, compromises and sacrifices people can make to ensure they work.

This was a lovely read that also evoked a sense of place as much as character and would appeal to anyone who enjoys a damn good read.

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Finn’s Feather by Rachel Noble and Illustrated by Zoey Abbott

What do you do when a book reaches into your soul and squeezes it so hard you’re left breathless and filled with a wondrous ache and yet the marvel of hope and the beauty of sorrow? You dry your eyes, still your weeping and read it all over again – this time, more slowly, taking in the deceptively simple and heart-warming prose and the gentle joy of the illustrations.

So it was when I had the amazing experience of reading Rachel Noble’s utterly lovely book for children, Finn’s Feather. This is a stark, moving and gorgeous tale about a boy named Finn who, when he finds a perfect white feather on his doorstep one day, believes it is a gift from his dead brother Hamish. I know… right?

The story is about how Finn, thrilled with his brother’s gift, can’t understand his mother’s or teacher’s reaction. His mother hugs him and sighs, his teacher takes a deep breath and smiles (and God, how I hurt when I read their reactions – it was a visceral response). It’s left to his best friend, Lucas to find, with Finn, the pleasure in his brother’s gift and the message it sends: to continue to laugh, love and never forget.

This exquisitely rendered tale of grief and loss, is told very much through a child’s eyes and how they process sorrow so differently. It is so sensitively rendered, so positive in its scope and the message and, believe it or not, happiness it offers (as well as the unbelievably touching acknowledgment of loss) that it should be read widely by everyone who has a child or who has experienced the death of a beloved.

I have been so touched by this story, but also rightly impressed with how it has been told – the care and love that has gone into a difficult and yet important tale in a society that generally doesn’t handle discussions of death at all well. Rachel Noble is to be commended and, indeed, praised for this elegant, poignant work – and for the ways in which she’s used her own experiences to give it such veracity and depth.

Let me give you a bit of background. In October 20102, Rachel lost her son Hamish in a terrible accident at home. As a way of trying to make sense of what happened, of Hamish’s death, as a professional writer, she turned to her craft: she wrote – and wrote and wrote. Knowing she wanted to write a picture book to honour Hamish and everything he means to her and her family, it wasn’t until she came home one-day and found a feather on her doorstep that Finn’s Feather took shape.

Snapped up by a US publisher – the phenomenal Enchanted Lion books, a family owned enterprise, it comes out June this year, including in Australia.

This is such an important book, such a lovely addition to any child’s and family’s library, I cannot recommend it enough. In sharing her emotions, her family’s story in such an accessible and meaningful way, Rachel has given voice to what is so hard to express and, along with Zoey Abbott, given death and loss a tender garment  for us all to don and cherish.

I loved Finn’s Feather and all the complex emotions it stirred, and the big, aching heart at its beautiful centre.

Thank you.

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I’ll Keep You Safe by Peter May

I have been a huge fan of Peter May’s Lewis books. Evocative, laden with a sense of place and time, they are simply wonderful reads. I was so excited to discover another of his set in the Outer Hebrides. I snapped up I’ll Keep You Safe as soon as I became aware it was available, finished the book I’d been reading and snuggled down to lose myself in the magnificent story May weaves.

Though a “Hebridean” book, this one commences in Paris with a harried married couple, Niamh and Ruairidh, owners of the successful Ranish Tweed Company, finishing a business trip in Paris. When tragedy strikes, and Nimah must return home alone, both a grieving widow and prime suspect in a brutal murder, little does she know she’s also a potential victim.

Reflecting on her life with Ruairidh, and her feelings for him and how they altered and grew over the years, the story of their courtship, their families, the troubles that both beset them and tore apart the communities in which they matured surface. Woven through the investigation and the reaction of the island community to the Paris tragedy, the past and present beautifully offset one another and set a sombre, mysterious and yet warm tone.

In the meantime, Lieutenant Sylvie Braque, a single mother, leaves Paris to pursue the investigation, carrying her own personal demons and reflections. Trying to rise above them, she begins to understand that though it’s evident Niamh loved her husband, there were those who didn’t – professionally and personally. And it seems their drive for revenge hasn’t yet been satisfied…

  1. Apart from one storyline to do with Sylvie, who is a professional woman, I really enjoyed the first seven-eighths of the book. What stuck in my craw was the notion that a woman, in this instance a divorcee, must be so torn about being a mother and working, she must consider choosing between them. It doesn’t help that Sylvie’s ex is a prick that stirs the embers of guilt every time he speaks to her… but really? Is that all? It is such a tired premise. There are so many compromises that can be made – personal and professional – to ensure a woman can contribute to society as a worker and mother and at the same time. Yes, she will always carry guilt, but this constant self-doubting of Sylvie was on the one hand likely real, but on the other, a bit over the top for such a strong and dedicated woman. It didn’t always ring true. Nevertheless, I liked her and her presence in the tale until she did a really stupid thing towards the end…

And it’s the end I have the most difficulty with, but not because of Sylvie. After being carried by the story, loving the setting, the remembering of Niamh and the way the narrative segued back and forth and using different PoVs, I am not sure what happened in the last few chapters. It’s as if May thought, gee, I had better wind this up now and, instead of resolving it in a way that was in keeping with the rest of the tale, rushed through to a WTF ending. For me, it was barely believable – ridiculous even. I rolled my eyes, stared at the pages, remained incredulous and cross after finishing and wondered how such a good, strong story could be ruined. I am all for suspending disbelief, but this was way more than that. I was forced to throw it out the window. The motivation of the perpetrator, the unlikely sequence of events and appearances, even the actions of a character earlier were all just crazy in terms of a solid, consistent story. The fact it was brought to a close in a few pages didn’t help either, particularly in light of one narrative strand which definitely needed more explication than, “I thought it better not to tell you” or thereabouts.

After thinking I would give this book another five stars, despite my feelings about Sylvie, the last eight of the book barely deserves a one.

I feel so disappointed that I can’t give this book more and I am curious how others felt about the ending too. May never usually lets his readers down but I feel after building this one up, he dropped me off a narrative cliff into a raging sea. I drowned.

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