‘Let me tell you a story about my grandfather…My grandfather came to this country with nothing, but now, because of his hard work and sacrifice, I have everything. Grandpa was proud of his work, of every little toy that he made. That’s why he was so successful. There’s nothing more important than hard work and sacrifice…’
Adam Kulakov loves his life. He has plenty of money, thanks to inheriting his grandfather’s toy company, a beautiful wife and a son he adores. He has no shortage of mistresses, either. No matter that some of his ideas don’t turn out so well, or that he has trouble finding good staff who will stick around. His grandfather, Arkady, is also happy. After escaping Auschwitz at the end of World War Two, he was able to build a new, successful life for himself in Australia. Now he is retired, but Adam’s wife, Tess, on whom more and more responsibility for running the company falls, includes him in decision making. They have a close relationship.
But when Adam makes one mistake too many, the future of the toy company and of his marriage becomes increasingly rocky. And for Arkady, the horrors of the past are coming back to haunt him, too.
The Toymaker combines twin narratives of 1944 Poland and contemporary Australia so that the reader not only sees Arkady’s story unfold alongside the modern narrative, but also becomes aware of the contracts and similarities between the experiences and personalities of grandfather and grandson. It is a story of privilege, corruption and survival which is both absorbing and uncomfortable.
The Toymaker, by Liam Pieper
Penguin Books, 2016
Andrew read the message through twice. His eyes skipped over the words as if by reading them quickly he could reduce their impact. But it was too late. Missing, he thought. Perhaps that meant she simply didn’t want to be found. With Kirsten, something like that seemed possible. Maybe she had decided she needed some time away from the world. And yet there was a finality to Stewart’s tone; was he hinting at something more definite?
Three years ago, Andrew left Australia for a new life in Berlin – to reinvigorate his artistic photography career, but also to finally put an end to his relationship with Kirsten, his troubled ex-girlfriend. Now he has a wonderful new relationship and a big exhibition to prepare for. But an email from a friend telling him of Kirsten’s disappearance impels him to return to Australia, seeking some answers to where she has gone. As he tries to investigate he also confronts issues in his own past.
In Melbourne he meets a damaged girl who is a perfect subject for his photography, which focuses on broken things. Working with the girl as he also works through his experiences with Kirsten and his relationship with his mother, leads him to question his motivation and his career.
Where the Light Falls is an artful novel of self-discovery and of confronting the past. Andrew has been damaged by the childhood loss of his father and its impact on his mother, and must confront these in order to move forward – with his new relationship, which his trip to Australia puts at risk, and with his career. Readers will come to care for Andrew, even as they will be frustrated at times by his actions.
A moving read.
Where the Light Falls , by Gretchen Shirm
Allen & Unwin, 2016
I hate the label Selective Mutism – as if I choose not to speak, like a kid who refuses to eat broccoli. I’ve used up every dandelion wish since I was ten wishing for the power to speak whenever I want to. I’m starting to wonder if there are enough dandelions.
Piper Rhodes doesn’t talk to strangers. But far from this being a sign of following parental rules, her silence seems inexplicable. She can talk at home, and to people she knows well, but at school and in the community, words fail her. This causes lots of problems, but as she starts at a new school for her final year of schooling, Piper is never more aware of just how problematic it can be. Teachers think she’s being rude, and making friends is difficult. Then there’s West: the school captain, soccer-star, boy who has it all. He seems intent of getting to know her, even if it means writing notes.
Selective Mutism is a difficult condition to live with and for other people to comprehend. Even the name is problematic, as Piper complains, implying a ‘selection’ or choice being made. The Things I Didn’t Say is a wonderful exploration of the challenges it holds for one teen character, at the same time as being just a great read about friendship, peer pressure, and parental expectation. Piper has changed schools by choice after losing her best friend following a drunken party, and at the new school finds both new friends and new enemies. West, who appears to have it all, also has struggles, particularly with meeting the expectations his parents have of him. Their seemingly unlikely relationship blossoms through notes and text messages, but is threatened by people around them.
An excellent young adult read.
The Things I Didn’t Say, by Kylie Fornasier
There was a fierce, well-controlled energy about Eric Lund, and I couldn’t help wondering what he’d be like if he became angry. I suspected that he didn’t give in to anger lightly, though. He was holding me close and his hand was firm on the small of my back. I was very concious of the feel of his left hand, holding my right in a secure grip. I looked up, into his eyes. For a moment we just stared at each other, watching each other’s faces as our bodies moved together in time to the music.
When Australian Women’s Army sergeant Stella Aldridge meets Eric Lund, he reminds her of her dead husband, in disturbing ways, and yet she cant’ stop thinking about him, even after he is sent off a mission soon after they meet. Her mind should be elsewhere. She has overhead a threat to kill someone, a threat which links Eric and her new boss, the very attractive Lieutenant Nick Ross. While Eric is away, Stella must work with Nick to try to uncover a traitor who is putting surveillance missions, and lives, at risk.
A Time of Secrets, set in Melbourne during World War II, is an absorbing blend of romance, action and mystery.Readers are given an inside look at part of Australian war history they may not know about, with the fictional characters and relationships set amongst the real events of the time. Stella, previously an artist, and a war widow, has enlisted in the Women’s Army and her flair with languages has seen her deployed to Melbourne to work in Intelligence. Her determination not be hurt does not stop her from taking risks or from looking after herself and those around her. Readers will enjoy watching her development, as well as seeing that of the men in her life.
Excellent historical fiction.
A Time of Secrets, by Deborah Burrows
Available from good bookstores and online.
‘Where have you been working…’ He glanced down his clipboard for my name. ‘Dennis?’ He looked up.
‘I’ve been shearing down the Board of Works farm out of Werribee.’ I didn’t tell him this job was my get-out plan from shearing.
‘Worked underground before?’
He was taken aback. ‘Never?’
Twenty-seven years old, a recovering alcoholic, and with a faltering marriage, Dennis McIntosh goes to work on an underground construction site in Melbourne’s west. He hates confined spaces, so working underground constructing sewer pipes probably isn’t his ideal job, but he knows he needs to stick at it. And he does, for seven long years, before resurfacing a changed man.
The Tunnel is an honest and open account of one man’s working life and the way he uses it to confront his past and his perceived failings. McIntosh enters the tunnels poorly educated and with not a lot going for him, but decides in his time underground that it is time to take control of his life, get an education and achieve the things he wants to achieve.
A Penguin Special, The Tunnel is a quick read, exploring the role of unions as well as issues of education and self-determination.
A gritty, powerful read.
The Tunnel, by Dennis McIntosh
Penguin Books, 2014
Available from good bookstores and online.
Picking up her pace, Frances saw a woman in the shadowy depths of the garden. She wore a wide hat and a trailing pink dress; a white hand emerged from her sleeve. There came upon Frances a sensation that sometimes overtook her when she was looking at a painting: space was foreshortened, time stilled.
Frances and her partner Charlie have recently moved to Sydney. As she battles a sense of displacement, Frances finds pleasure in her daily walks with her rescue dog, Rod, who looks fearsome but is terrified of strangers. On a favourite stretch of her walk, Frances starts to glimpse a woman in a long dress, accompanied by a white dog. There is something surreal about what she sees, and she can’t help thinking the figure is ghostly.
Springtime is an intriguing little story – a short novella exploring the supernatural as well as themes of displacement, family and relationships. Billed as a ghost story, and packaged in a charming small hardcover format with a slip case, it is a book that is a delight to hold and to read.
Springtime: A Ghost Story, by Michelle De Krester
Allen & Unwin, 2014
Available from good bookstores and online.
‘No one cares about bad girls!’ Polly burst out indignantly. ‘They make one mistake and they are shut up in the laundry doing hard work. Their babies are adopted out. they are ruined. We ought to have got beyond that. What use is freedom – they told us that they fought that war for freedom – when the women are still punished and the men go on to seduce another girl?’
Girl Reporter Polly Kettle is on a case. Girls and pregnant women are going missing all over Melbourne, and she’s going to figure out what’s happening to them. Phryne Fisher warns her to be careful but the warning is unheeded and soon Polly vanishes, too. It’s time for Phryne, Dot and her minions, to figure out what is going on. But this is a case which take all of Phryne’s strength – both physical and emotional – as she delves into some truly horrible situations.
Unnatural Habits, the latest Phryne Fisher Mystery and features all the mystery, the raciness and the lushness of previous instalments, with favourite characters including (of course) the daring Phryne Fisher, independently wealthy and sharp private investigator, her companion the straight-laced Dot, her adopted daughters and her Chinese lover, the luscious Lin.
Whilst she has certainly faced dark realities in previous mysteries, Unnatural Habits takes Phryne to some truly terrible places, which confront her as much as they will confront the reader – particularly as she explores both child abuse and the appalling treatment of unwed mothers. However, Greenwood has the knack of entertaining and amusing even whilst not holding back, so that while the horrible realities are not played down, the reader is offered relief in sub plots and character development. New character Tinker is one such bright spot, a teenage boy finding himself resident in a sea of females in Phryne’s house.
Set in 1929 Melbourne, Unnatural Habits is a highly satisfactory addition to the series.
Unnatural Habits, by Kerry Greenwood
Allen & Unwin, 2012
Available from good bookstores or online.