Sunshine by Kim Kelly

This beautifully crafted novel set in rural Australia in the aftermath of WWI, is an incredibly moving story of loss, betrayal, masculinity, and terrible and entrenched bigotry. The story is told from three perspectives – that of two returned servicemen, Snow and Jack, and explores the expectations placed on them by themselves, others and especially patriarchal and white society – and a British nurse, the appropriately named Grace, who, married to an Australian returned serviceman, the eccentric and damaged Arthur, travels with him when he returns to his homeland and takes up the grant of land offered to all white soldiers. Only Jack, an Indigenous former Light Horseman is not given the opportunity to either own (by white laws) or work the land which is his anyway. Accustomed to being treated as if he has no rights, his service and sacrifice for his country so swiftly forgotten, Jack remains a drifter on the soil that is his.

Like Jack, both Arthur and Snow – the latter who most people give a wide berth – carry the internal wounds of their experiences and actions, the horrors to which they bore witness and played a part in – unable to quite readjust to their survival and the role that the land and the government now demands of them – never mind others. But what none of the men, who prefer to keep others at a distance anticipated is firstly, Grace, and the ability she has to recognise their pain and seek ways to heal them and herself, but also the land and the capacity it has to regenerate – not just what’s grown but those who work it. The land and each other.

I found this book achingly beautiful. Sparse yet so rich in its descriptions I found myself lingering on the words, the richness of the characters, the setting (which is marvellously represented), their memories and current interactions long after I’d finished the tale. The writing is sublime and the story that is told so important. It’s one that makes you squirm at the way the men, especially Jack, are treated – feel a deep shame that this happened – and the knowledge that it still does in parts. But it’s also such an important and unknown part of our history that needs to have a light shone on it. Kim Kelly does that and more and in relaying such a tragically-beautiful story, infuses not just sunshine on a dark past but imbues it with hope for the future. Simply superb.

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The Last Days of the Romanov Dancers by Kerri Turner

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This absorbing book took me completely by surprise. Not only is it a skilfully told story of a time in Russian history (the final years of the decadent Romanovs, and the rising rebellion among the workers as dissatisfaction and real anger towards the ruling classes, economic instability, food shortages, dreadful working conditions and war, grew worse), using two ballet dancers employed by the elite Imperial Russian Ballet as foils, it’s also a tragic tale of class difference, and the lengths those who were born with nothing will go to in order to ensure they don’t lose what they’ve gained. 

Luka Zhirkov is a young, up and coming dancer who has been given the chance of a lifetime when he’s asked to join the Imperial Ballet. For his father, a staunch member of the proletariat, who has already given one son to the civil war tearing Russia apart, Luka’s dancing career, where he mainly entertains capitalist elites, is a betrayal of class, family and country. 

When one of the principal dancers, Valentina Yershova, a woman born into poverty and whose talent and dalliances with rich protectors has allowed her to climb the ballet ladder, spies Luka, even she recognises his talent. But Luka hasn’t yet learned the rules that govern the ballet dancers behind the scenes – how who you know and associate with and who you share your body with is almost as important as skill. Disgusted and confused by the careless wealth of some of the dancers and those they choose to align themselves with, as well as their wilful ignorance about deteriorating social conditions for those who cannot afford to change them, Luka is nonetheless drawn to Valentina and his feelings for her begin to grow.

As great opportunities for both Luka and Valentina manifest, war and revolution follows, meaning they’ll soon be forced to make choices that will either grant them their every wish or tear them apart. 

Beautifully written, evocative and moving with characters both strong and flawed (which I love), this wonderful book and the ballet dancers at its heart explore a period of history and a country that for many of us remains mysterious. Petrograd (St Petersburg) is brought to life in all its hedonistic and dangerous glory. Ballet becomes a powerful metaphor for the struggles, passion and sacrifice the Russian people themselves make as their country plunges deeper into poverty and war, and those at the top attempt to continue with a decadent lifestyle that is fast becoming as dangerous as it is deplorable. Using the story of one of the most famous ballets, Swan Lake allegorically, Turner weaves the romance and tragedy of Odette and Prince Siegfried and the villainous Von Rothbart, cleverly throughout the novel. 

This is a photo I took inside the Alexandrinsky Theatre (mentioned in the novel) in St Petersburg (formerly, Petrograd). It is simply stunning. I saw my very first ballet there as well – appropriately, it was Swan Lake. Kerri’s novel brings all this to life.

One of the hallmarks of good historical fiction is that the author doesn’t only craft a marvellous tale, but you learn something about the past and the human condition in the process. Turner has done these things seamlessly and, in doing so, written a book that will, like its lead characters, dance its way into your heart. 

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The Rosie Result by Graeme Simsion


The third and final book in the Rosie series, The Rosie Result by Graeme Simsion is an absolute delight. Focussing on the return of the Tillman’s along with their 11 year-old son, Hudson, to Australia after a stint in New York, the reader becomes immersed in their struggles to re-establish their lives and careers after so long away. While Don and Rosie muddle along fairly well, for young Hudson, change is catastrophic. In his usual pragmatic way, Don sets about turning Hudson’s problems into a solution by embarking on what he terms, The Hudson Project; the primary objective being to ensure Hudson learns the life skills necessary to both fit in socially and ease his path in school and life. 

But no matter how clever or resourceful a person is, even Don, or how passionate about a project, one can never account for humanity and different personalities, particularly those of young people. Don may care about this project more than any other, but does he possess the necessary skills to steer Hudson’s life in the right direction or is he the wrong captain for this ship?

Alternately funny, heart-aching, poignant and forensically observant, this is a cracker of a read that I wish I hadn’t finished, I was so enjoying being in Don, Rosie and Hudson’s world. The novel is about family, otherness, difference and the lengths we go to in order to fit in (or not), it’s also about tolerance, love and kindness – something the world seems to be in rather short supply of sometimes and which is refreshing to read about, even in fiction – especially when the results are so all-encompassing and inclusive. 

Cannot recommend this wonderful book enough!

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The Stone Circle by Elly Griffiths


The Stone Circle is the 11th book in Elly Griffiths fabulous series featuring archaeologist Dr Ruth Galloway and terse DI Nelson. Like its predecessors, it’s packed with mystery, complex interpersonal relationships and murder.

In this novel, a body is found buried in a recently unearthed stone circle. While the circle is of ancient origins the body definitely isn’t. Enter both Ruth and Nelson whose expertise is required to firstly age the body and then discover who the culprit is. When a cold case is reopened, it’s not long before suspects come to the fore. But when the most prominent of these is murdered, Nelson and his team have to work harder than ever before someone else is hurt – or worse. 

As usual, Griffiths excels in developing her characters – the regulars and even those introduced because of the central plot. Ruth, Kate, Nelson and his family’s dynamic becomes even more tangled and emotionally fraught as revelations and decisions regarding the future are made and then disregarded. I think Griffiths does real justice to the notion that it’s possible to love two people at once – two good people who don’t deserve to be hurt. While Nelson is torn between the two women in his life and his very different families, there’s no doubting his love for them or the fact he’s a good person who can make bad decisions (like other characters in the books). I also like that the women are represented as strong and proud, not passive vessels to Nelson’s wishes or desires. 

The ending to this novel feels a little rushed – not in terms of the plot, which is nicely played out, but in relation to the main recurring characters. I wish the editors had allowed Griffiths the chance to flesh it out just a little more. Nonetheless, I really look forward to seeing where Ruth, Nelson and the rest of the characters based around King’s Lynn (which really does see more than its fair share of buried bodies, surely?) takes us! 

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The Muse of Nightmares by Liani Taylor

My reading year commenced with this wonderful, heart-achingly lovely book. It took me so long to read and not only because I worked over Xmas New Year (see previous post) but because I wanted to savour every single word and delay the gratification of finishing the novel for as long as I possibly could. With good reason. Now it’s over, I am bereft.

The sequel to the evocative, poetic and enthralling (I know I am using hyperbole, but believe me, these books deserve it) Strange, the Dreamer, The Muse of Nightmares continues exactly where that novel reached its heart-in-throat conclusion.

I refuse to reveal any spoilers except to say that the tale of Lazlo Strange, Sarai and the other godspawn as well as the denizens of Weep is far from over. When Muse begins, turning what appeared to be tragedy into something more bearable, another terrible situation posing grave danger to all Sarai and Lazlo know and love surfaces.

Forced into actions that cause them and others consternation and pain, Lazlo, Sarai are forced to make deals with the enemy as they seek a solution that will not only save the city but themselves. Just when they think they have opened the lines of communication, another force arrives the threaten them. This is a force that has not only travelled across worlds to find them, but quite literally torn them apart and is bent on a bloody and terrible revenge. Nothing, not even the formidable powers of the godspawn or strength of the Tizerkane can stop it, not without making a terrible sacrifice.

Who or what will survive this latest threat hangs by the merest of threads as do the lives of those we’ve grown to know and love. Unable to prevent catastrophe or reason with a mind destroyed by pain and loss, Sarai and Lazlo have no choice but to risk everything, including each other. But even then, will it be enough to save those they love?

Just when you thought the world containing Weep, the godspawn, Seraphim, Tizerkane and the ugliness and cruelty of the gods as well as they gentle beauty of Sarai and Lazlo’s love could not be any more enchanting or action-packed, there’s this book. Page-turning, heart-churning and utterly captivating, Taylor brings her characters, their mystery and terrifying allure to life as only she can.

This story of gods, god-monsters, and the monstrous and wonderful humans who fear and loathe them, grabs the reader by both throat and heart and squeezes. With each page, you are pulled into their impossible reality and taken on a journey like no other. Taylor’s world building is sublime the way she develops her characters, explains their motivation, explores their thoughts and feelings is magnificent.

If you love beautiful stories told with the delicate and dreamy touch of a master story-teller, then this is a tale for you. My only regret, as I knew it would be, is that I have now finished. I hope Liani Taylor writes another one very soon.

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