All That I Am by Anna Funder: A Review

All that I Am by Anna Funder (ISBN: 9781926428338, 363 pagesPublished 2011, Penguin)
All that I Am by Anna Funder (ISBN: 9781926428338, 363 pages, published 2011, Penguin)

All That I Am by Anna Funder has been on my “to read” list for a long time. As the winner of many Australian literary awards, including the prestigious Miles Franklin Award, I knew this was a book that had impressed the critics. What stopped me buying it was the fact that I thought it was another sad story of the horrors inflicted on Jewish people during World War II. You definitely have to be in the right frame of mind to cope with those reads. So I put it off until I received it as a Christmas gift. And then I put off reading it a little longer.

Finally, I picked it up and started reading. When I did, I realised that this was a story I didn’t know. All That I Am follows the lives of two couples – Ruth and her husband Hans and Ruth’s cousin Dora and her lover the celebrated German left-wing playwright Ernst Toller. It takes place in the years before World War II when Hitler and the Nazi party are gaining more power. Before the rest of the world realised what was going on and the political opponents of Hitler, and those activists who openly opposed the Nazis in the public sphere such as journalists, writers and playwrights, were imprisoned or forced to leave Germany – and as time went by those who stayed were not given the option of a trial and prison, but were executed or sent to camps.

What makes it even more interesting is that it is based on a true story. It tells the fictionalised version of real people and real events. Ruth, Hans, Dora and Ernst were lucky enough to be allowed to take exile. They settle in London and as per the terms of their residency in the UK are told they can only stay if they do not engage in political activity. But they are compelled to continue to tell the stories of those left behind in Germany and of the friends hunted down and killed by the Nazis. They want to get countries like Britain to recognise what is going on in Germany. But they are not safe in London. There are men following them in the shadows. And the Nazis are prepared to go to any length to silence their opponents, wherever they may be. It is hard to know who to trust.

In the middle of all this intrigue is the story of Ruth, now an old woman living in Australia looking back on what happened before. Her story focuses on her cousin Dora – a brave resistance fighter who had an unconventional relationship with Ernst Toller. The book is also told from Ernst’s point-of-view.

I can see why this novel  won so many accolades. It is beautifully written with a compelling storyline. I learnt a lot about a part of history that I didn’t know about before. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone turns this into a film. It is a story that needed to be told.

The Red Queen: A Review

The Red Queen by Philippa Gregory (ISBN: 9781847394651, 419 pages, PB ed. published 2011)

When it comes to enjoyable and entertaining historical fiction, Philippa Gregory is my go-to author every time. I enjoyed her series of books on the wives of King Henry VIII and the Tudors (The Constant Princess, The Boleyn Inheritance, The Other Boleyn Girl, The Other Queen, The Virgin’s Lover and The Queen’s Fool) and then learnt a lot about the 15th century War of the Roses from her Cousins’ War books (The White Queen and The Lady of the Rivers). The Red Queen gives another perspective on the War of the Roses – that of Margaret Beaufort from the House of Lancaster. (You may know her as the grandmother of Henry VIII.)

Margaret Beaufort has often been portrayed as a joyless, scheming, witch of a woman in history and literature. A woman eaten up with one ambition – to set her son on the throne of England. When I read The White Queen, told from the perspective of the York Queen, Elizabeth Woodville, I sympathised with the rise and fall of her fortunes as her husband, King Edward, fought and lost the throne, only to die young and have his younger brother, Richard, seize the throne. There were so many twists and turns you couldn’t hope for a more intriguing plot. They certainly knew how to scheme in those days.

In The Red Queen, Philippa Gregory makes the reader see the War of the Roses from the Lancaster view point. She paints a portrait of Margaret as a pious child, more suited to a nunnery than marriage. Margaret was married off at the age of 12 to Edmund Tudor and was then a widow and mother by the age of 13. She then had to leave her child with his uncle in Wales as she entered into another arranged marriage.

She never forgot her child and his claim to the throne. And for decades, as her fortunes rose and fell with those of the House of Lancaster, she tirelessly plotted to forward her son’s cause. I will not give away any more – although all you history buffs will know how the story goes.

I thought it was interesting to hear this side of the story. I’ve read so many  literary works on this period of history, most told from the York perspective. I still think Sharon Kay Penman’s The Sunne in Splendour was the best of the lot. But Philippa’s series is certainly up there.

What I like about Philippa Gregory books is that they give women their rightful place in history. Yes, it was a man’s world back then but women were also central to the politics of the day. They may not have ridden off to war like Joan of Arc, but they plotted and schemed and did what they had to do to further their families’ fortunes and protect their children.

If you like historical fiction, definitely give this one a read.

The Other Side of Persuasion

Captain Wentworth’s Diary by Amanda Grange (ISBN: 970709082811, 223 pages, Published 2007)

A couple of months back I wrote about one of my favourite books – Persuasion by Jane Austen. At the time, fellow blogger Northern Mummy left a comment on my blog telling me about a series of books written by Amanda Grange which tell the Jane Austen stories we all know and love from the perspective of the male protagonists. Captain Wentworth’s Diary looks at all the action of Persuasion from Frederick Wentworth’s point-of-view. Of course, I had to go out and hunt this book down!

We first meet Frederick as a young man at the start of a stellar career in the British navy. On shore leave he goes to stay with his brother Edward, a curate who lives in a small country village. It is here that Frederick meets a certain Miss Anne Elliot in whom he finds a kindred spirit. This side of the story – how Frederick and Anne meet and fall in love – is something we never hear about in much detail in Persuasion. It is with a rush of guilty pleasure that I read Amanda Grange’s version of events.

Ultimately, Frederick proposes and Anne accepts, only to refuse him when persuaded to by her mother’s friend, Lady Russell. Eight years pass … during this time Frederick becomes Captain Wentworth and wins his fortune fighting in the Napoleonic wars. Fate leads him back to the village where he met Anne. There he finds Anne much altered after all these years. They are like strangers now and he has no idea of how she feels to see him again.

I won’t give away anything more. It was interesting to read a whole new take on Persuasion. The author did a pretty good job of channeling Jane Austen. I wouldn’t say that this is a literary masterpiece, but it was a nice way to pass my reading time.

Comfort Reading – The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows (ISBN: 9780385340991, 275 pages, Published July 2008)

Comfort reading is like comfort eating – minus the calories. From time to time I return to my bookshelf and pull out an old faithful friend. It has the same effect on me as eating a block of chocolate. It just makes me feel good.

Now I can add a new book to my comfort reading list: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. My best friend gave me this book before she got on a plane to go back to her home overseas. “Read it, it’s good,” she said.

I picked it up the other day and just meant to read a page or two. I ended up reading half the book! At first I wasn’t sure if I would like a book that is set out as a bunch of letters between numerous people. But it didn’t take long for me to warm to this format. Reading letters really draws you in and makes you feel closer to the characters.

The book is set in Britain in 1946, a time when everyone is emerging from the horror of the Second World War. Writer Juliet Ashton is fresh off a book tour and hunting around for the topic of her next book. She corresponds with her publisher and friend Sidney and his sister, Sophie, through a series of letters and telegrams. Then she receives a letter from a stranger named Dawsey Adams. He is a pig farmer from the British Island of Guernsey and found her details written in the front of a second-hand book. He writes to ask where he can find more books from the same author.

It is through the course of this correspondence that Juliet learns how the island was occupied by the Nazis throughout the war and how the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society came into being. Soon she is corresponding with a motley crew of islanders from a white witch who makes terrible concoctions, to an elderly farmer and a butler who impersonated a Lord throughout the occupation. What at first begins as an amusing correspondence quickly awakens the writer in Juliet. She learns that at the heart of all these stories is a remarkable woman named Elizabeth. The members of the literary society are waiting for Elizabeth to come home from wherever she was sent by the Germans during the war. As they wait, they are collectively taking care of Elizabeth’s small daughter, Kit.

To tell you much more would be to spoil the natural and entertaining way this story unfolds. I never knew that the islands between England and France were occupied by the Nazis, nor what the islanders had to endure to survive the war. The stories tell of starvation, of sending children away for years to the mainland, of friendships and run-ins with German soldiers, and of years without any news from England. But mostly this is a story of finding light in dark places, of love and resilience, and of how books can unite people from all walks of life. Although some of the subject matter is heavy, it is written in a manner that doesn’t weigh you down.

I really enjoyed this book. I’d heard about it for years but it wasn’t until my friend placed it in my hands that I read it. It’s just the kind of book that I needed to read right now. Or as Juliet says in the book: “Perhaps there is some secret sort of homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers.”

A Shining Light: The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman

The Light Between the Oceans by M.L. Stedman (368 pages, ISBN: 9781742755700, published March 2012, Vintage Australia)

What makes a good book? Well, a riveting plot helps, as do believable characters and masterful writing that makes it impossible to put the book down. Rarely do you find a book that combines all these elements and more. The Light Between Oceans by M.L Stedman is such a book. It is both a critic’s darling and a reader’s delight. I bought it on Saturday and finished it on Monday night, having a good weep as I read the final pages. This book is both heart-wrenching and gut-wrenching. And if I could think of another ‘wrenching’ it would be that as well.

The story is set in the 1920s in a remote corner of Western Australia. Tom Sherbourne is a man still haunted by the things he saw and did during World War One. He is a decorated soldier who doesn’t want to dwell on the past and sees no glory in what he did during the war. He finds solace by becoming a lighthouse keeper. There’s something about maintaining a beacon of light that soothes his soul. He also doesn’t mind the isolation.

Tom’s job brings him to the small town of Point Partageuse and then out to a tiny island called Janus Rock. From the lighthouse he can see where two oceans meet: the Indian Ocean and the Southern Ocean. He is the sole occupant of the island and only sees people from the mainland every three months when the supply boat comes out. He gets shore leave very rarely.Before he took up this post, he met Isabel, the 19-year-old daughter of the local headmaster. She is lively and vibrant, full of life. After a time of exchanging letters, they marry and she goes to live with Tom on Janus Rock.

Two miscarriages and a stillbirth later, Isabel is a shell of her former self, stricken by grief at her loss. That is until the day a boat washes up on the island, carrying a dead man and a crying baby girl. It’s Tom’s duty to report the incident at once, but Isabel has other ideas. Tom reluctantly agrees to keep the baby and pretend she’s their own. But where does the baby come from? Who does she belong to? And what will happen if the truth should ever come to light?

I don’t want to give away any more of the story because not knowing what will happen next is one of the strengths of this book. The language is exquisite, beautifully crafted without isolating the reader. The characters are three-dimensional and constructed so well that you care what happens to them. And the dialogue evokes the bygone era. This book also seamlessly explores themes of loss, love and family.

It’s no wonder that this debut novel has been snapped up in twenty territories so far. Now I’m left to wait impatiently for the next book by M.L. Stedman.