The Women’s Pages by Victoria Purman

The Women’s Pages by Victoria Purman is a wonderful and heart-warming read that sheds a bright light on pre and post-WWII Australia, Sydney specifically, focusing on often overlooked women’s experiences. The main character, Tilly, initially secretary to the editors of Sydney’s most popular broadsheet, the Daily Herald, finds the call of war changes everything. Like many women of the time, the absence of men who have left to fight, catapults her into a role usually reserved for males: in this instance, war correspondent. 

Unlike male reporters who are jettisoned into war zones or embedded with the troops (and I loved that genuine war correspondents of the era such as George Johnston are mentioned), Tilly’s reporting doesn’t mean travel, but it does mean covering the impact of war and loss of men – their absence – on domestic life. Determined to do her best, Tilly writes from the heart and with unerring accuracy, all the time noting the social, psychological, economic and other changes war brings about, not only on others, but her own life. As the wife of a PoW, Tilly is all too aware of the hefty cost of battle on everyone. Forced to deal with entrenched sexism, misogyny and all the other negative assumptions her remaining male co-workers and other men she encounters particularly make about women, Tilly and her peers continuously prove they’re simply doing what they’ve always been a capable of but were never given the opportunity. The age-old maxim. 

But it’s not only Tilly’s work and observations on life the book explores, but what those left behind do to help the war effort and acknowledge the sacrifices being made – from the amazing land army of women, to those who go above and beyond to send care packages, knit, sew, cook, learn trades and professions previously denied to them and generally step up and deny themselves so much to ensure the country runs smoothly and safely. That the men abroad, risking their lives and souls, know thy matter. It also deals with the constant fear and lack of accurate communication about what’s happening has on those left at home, the damage the spread of propaganda causes as well. And the book doesn’t steer away from exposing grubby politics and the way in which trade unions and dockers particularly were demonized for political gain.

When the war ends and Tilly’s  best friend and housemate welcomes her husband home as the country celebrates victory and returning soldiers, Tilly is forced to reconcile what this means to her personally, professionally, emotionally, and what it signifies for women and the rights they worked so hard to earn. The trauma of war, of loss (and not just human lives), and return to “normality’ for the repatriated soldiers and their families as well as everyone else effected, is sensitively and heart-wrenchingly dealt with.

Overall, this impeccably researched book was a fabulous, thought-provoking and not always easy read (and I mean that in the best of ways as it challenges popular myths and misconceptions) that is both utterly heart-warming and authentic. 
Loved it.

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The End of Men by Christina Sweeney-Baird

I adore eschatological stories – end of the world ones. Whether they’re books, films, TV series, if they’re about humanity and/or the planet facing imminent annihilation, or about to implode, count me in. I think it was Stephen King who said people love horror stories precisely because they’re vivifying and remind us to appreciate life. I think it’s the same with doomsday stories. So, when I learned that The End of Men by Christine Sweeney was, essentially, about this but, as the title indicates, with caveats, I thought, why not? And then I paused with a couple of misgivings: am I ready for a book about a virus that sweeps the world and changes it considering well, you know. And, secondly, is this book a hard-line feminist take on the effects of a pandemic or is it something else? I’m all for feminist narratives, but what if it’s really a thinly disguised man-hating rant? Do I need that right at the moment considering all the rage we’re feeling; the sense of justice delayed? Maybe…

Pushing aside my concerns, I went ahead and read. And read. And read. This book was impossible to put down.

Basically, it describes a world overtaken by a pandemic except, as the title indicates (so no spoilers) this virus only kills men. Very few (about 10%) are immune, but all women are carriers. It starts in Scotland and, as we very much know, despite efforts to contain it, spreads with a virulence. Told from multiple points of view – mostly female, but some men, the reader enters into the head, heart and experiences of a range of people – scientists, journalists, mothers, fathers, partners, single people, politicians, teachers, farmers – ordinary men and women – heterosexual, homosexual, trans etc. In that sense, in style and even progress, it reminded me a little of the power and impact of Max Brooks’s Word War Z (which I also loved). The immediacy draws you in and doesn’t let you go and you long to discover the story arc of a person you’ve just been introduced to, learn what happens to them, their experiences. Do they survive? What about those they love? And so the story develops from the start of the pandemic to its aftermath. It’s an intoxicating and breathless ride. 

World War Z (reprint) (paperback) By Max Brooks : Target

Yes, it is a feminist take on the end of the world, written with such searing intellect and a huge heart. It’s political, social, moral, psychological, economical, cultural and so much more besides. It is completely thought-provoking and I am so in need of people to talk to about some of the notions raised, I am pressing my partner and close friends to read it just so we can debate and discuss. If that’s not a sign of a great book, I don’t know what is. Book clubs will love this. And what of my second concern, that it might be a man-hating treatise? On the contrary, while there are some hateful men (and women) in it, it’s a realistic take on patriarchy, how it has shaped the world – for better and worse – and what the loss of 90% of one sex – those who essentially built it – might do. What changes would be wrought? Would life as we know it continue? (and, of course, you have to ask, what if the virus had killed 90% of the women? Would men have handled the situation the way the women in this novel have? I think we all know the answer to that… but what a discussion is to be had right there!). Far from loathing men, the novel portrays the multiple roles they play in relationships, families, professional spheres – including trades, medicine and politics – and what their loss signifies and the changes that must be wrought to compensate. In so many ways it points to how we (mostly) need each other – regardless of sex.

I am not going to say too much more except to recommend this over and over in the highest possible terms. It’s not so much an end of the world narrative as, to borrow from the song, an “end of the world as we know it” book. I think I have to call it now and say, this is one of my all-time favorite reads. Not just the story, the way its told, but for the fact it is so plausible and that it makes you think and feel and ask, “what if?”… and then wonder… 

Absolutely sensational. A ripper of a read. 

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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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