Book reviews for Aussie teachers and their students.

Archive for the ‘Historical Fiction’ Category

Book Review: “Hexenhaus” by Nikki McWatters (2016), UQP


Well done Nikki McWatters, you just succeeded in bundling everything I love about YA fiction in 331 pages!

As you can probably gather I am quite excited about this title.  A delectable combination of 15th Century European History and Contemporary fiction, I was riveted to the book from the first page.  Told in alternating narration Hexenhaus tells the story of Veronica, from 1628 Bamerg, Franconia (in what is modern Germany), Katherine, from 1696 Scotland and Paisley from present day Bunadoon, Australia.  The three share a commonality, their names inscribed in a single book, the Systir Saga, a volume which binds them together in a witchy sisterhood than transcends generations, hailing back to early pagan society.  With a powerful mix of historical truth and fiction, McWatters weaves the lives of the women together through their shared experiences of persecution and journey of self-discovery.

From the outset, as a text aimed at a YA audience, I think this works magnificently.  Paisley’s narration effectively grounds the story in the here and now and will appeal to many teen readers, drawn to stories that speak to their own experiences.  As a contrast to this, the narrations of Katherine and Veronica add a historical depth to the tale that is intriguing and highly evocative of the period explored.  I challenge anyone to read this story without feeling drawn (at the very least) to read further into the history of the Grand Inquisition.

With obvious parallels to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and Arthur Miller’s magnificent play The Crucible, Hexenhaus is perfectly suited for use with senior secondary students.  Used independently, or as a shared text, it is a story that will certainly inspire important discussions about modern society, while complementing a historical exploration of the Grand Inquisition, witchcraft through the ages and life and society in 15th century Europe.

Hexenhaus is much more than a tale about witches and witchcraft.  It is a story which examines the notion of evil masquerading in the guise of good, the evolution of mass paranoia and hysteria, all the while celebrating the indomitable feminine strength and triumph of the human spirit. Hexenhaus succeeds in its mission to unveil historical truths that must never be forgotten all the while speaking to a contemporary YA audience in a voice that they will understand.

Tanya Grech Welden

Book Review: “The Leopard Princess: The Tales of Jahani” by Roseanne Hawke (2016), University of Queensland Press


The Leopard Princess is the second book in the series titled The Tales of Jahani by acclaimed South Australian author Roseanne Hawke.  Following on directly from Daughter of Nomads, I highly recommend that readers will continue with this only after reading the first book.    Unlike some series, which can be read in any order, I suspect that The Leopard Princess may fail to resonate if read in this way.  I assume that the publisher made the decision to separate what was one rather long book into two smaller ones as they feared a younger YA audience may feel overwhelmed by such a large book.  This was probably the right decision although I feel that both books could easily be bundled together in one volume and pitched successfully at an older audience.

Feel free to read my earlier review of Daughter of Nomads hereThe Leopard Princess picks up the story in the Autumn of 1662.  Jahani remains in hiding from her jilted fiancée, the cruel Muzahid Baig and the tyrannical Dagar Khan.  With the constant risk of capture and increasing fear of retribution upon the nomadic people who are hiding her, Jahani knows that she must travel through the mountains to the northern kingdoms in an effort to secure peace for the region and realise her destiny.  Continuing on from Daughter of Nomads, The Leopard Princess develops themes and ideas that explore good versus evil, triumph against adversity, in addition to the quest for one’s identity.  The Leopard Princess also asks pertinent questions about love, leadership, followership, courage and self-sacrifice.

With plenty of action, a sprinkling of romance and just enough magic to make things interesting, I imagine that this book will appeal to readers in the middle years.  Certainly, as Jahani moves further into adolescence, I envisage that older teens and many adults will also discover plenty to relate to.  As with, Daughter of Nomads, this story provides unique opportunities for Asian perspectives, particularly to a History unit focusing on the Middle Ages and Renaissance period (which is too often Eurocentric).  I imagine that students might appreciate the opportunity to compare the life of Elizabeth I with Jahani, contrasting the challenges and limitations faced by women in positions of authority at this time.

While The Leopard Princess neatly draws to a conclusion the quest begun in Daughter of Nomads, I will live in hope that Hawke will decide to write a third book in this series.  After all, there are still plenty of adventures to be had for Jahani and Azhar.  I’d also be keen to read a story written exclusively from the perspective of Azhar, especially one which explores a time before the events in books 1 and 2.

Tanya Grech Welden

Book Review: Alabaster by, Chris Aslan, Lion Fiction (2016)


As Religious Education teachers in Catholic or Christian schools, one of our greatest challenges is bringing the world of the Gospels to life in a way that makes sense to our students.  It seems to me that many children and young people struggle to really understand what life was like for people, specifically Jewish communities, living at the time of the historical Jesus.  How as educators are we best able to convey the complex nature of this culture and address ideas such as the roles of men and women, double standards and the impact of Roman imperialism on the Jewish people?  When working with adolescents I commonly look towards fiction as a means for fleshing out this context and addressing some of the more subtle understandings of this culture that will lead to a deeper investigation of scripture.

Many years ago I was introduced to a method of reading scripture called Lectio Divinia.  Essentially, the method requires a prayerful reading of the Gospels that requires one to emotionally invest in a story from scripture and process this in such a way that allows for you to be creatively present in the story. What we have with Chris Aslan’s book is a very sophisticated model of this. Having said this, I wish to emphasise that, from the outset, this is a story that can be enjoyed on many levels.  In fact, while it will be deeply appreciated by those coming from a Judaeo-Christian world view, this book will also be enjoyed outside this realm purely as a work of fiction.  Written in ephemeral prose Alabaster invites us into the world of a young Jewish woman Mariam (loosely identified as Mary of Magdala) who lives in a small village during the ministry of Jesus.  Having suffered the death of her mother to a fever, Mariam, also endures the tragedy of her father’s leprosy and final ostracism, rape (in the absence of a male protector) and marriage to an abusive man.  Of course many of these details, while being an accurate portrayal of the experiences of women during this time and context, are obviously creative imaginings when applied to the life of Mary Magdalene (for whom the Gospels only ever provide very general details of).   Interestingly, Aslan elects to limit Mariam’s experiences of the historical Jesus to a couple of episodes, taking place over a few days, and the story never delves into Jesus’ crucifixion or resurrection, for which Magdalene is the first witness.   Instead the story revolves around the origin of the alabaster jar and culminates in the moment of Jesus’ anointing with the precious oil by Mariam a few days before his death.  While Aslan permits Mariam to develops a special ‘connection’ with the historical Jesus, he falls short in delving into the range of legends relating to Mary Magdalene, of course those which have drawn her as a fallen woman (prostitute), the ‘loved disciple’ and even the spouse of Jesus.

Within the Religious Education classroom the story has application for use in small excerpts to flesh out specific ideas related to life in the time of Jesus.  Specifically, I would be keen to make use of the stoning scene or the chapter exploring leprosy.  Alabaster, would be an ideal novel for senior students to use in independent study with rich parallels easily being drawn with the likes of Anne Rice’s, Christ the Lord or Colm Toibin’s The Testament of Mary.  The novel could conceivably work well as a class text with advanced English students in the senior years.

Alabaster is a gift for lovers of history and the Christian Scriptures.  It will certainly be finding a permanent place on my bookshelf as a wonderful resource for use with secondary students in the Religious Education classroom.

Tanya Grech Welden

Book Review: “Daughter of Nomads: The Tales of Jahani” by Roseanne Hawke (2016), University of Queensland Press

Cover_Daughter of Nomads_finalSm

In all honesty, I couldn’t wait to crack the spine on this one.  When a book arrives on my doorstep with the name Roseanne Hawke attached to it, I just know that I am about to start what is guaranteed to be an amazing journey.  Daughter of Nomads didn’t fail to disappoint.  In fact, it lived up to every whisper of a promise hinted at in the rich teal cover.

Australian readers are no doubt very familiar with Hawke’s work.  I first encountered her writing as a beginning teacher working in Port Augusta when I was ‘told’ to teach her contemporary novel The Keeper to my energetic group of year 8 students.  The students were captivated and so began my first introduction to a writer whose work is as prolific as it is diverse.  More recently I had the opportunity to read and review the immensely absorbing and gut wrenching story of Aster, a Christian Pakistani girl in her book The Truth About Peacock Blue (you can find my review for that title here).  Daughter of Nomads, the first book in the series The Tales of Jahani, is also set in the world of the middle-east.  However, Hawke explores this setting as it might have been in the summer of 1662, and adds a sprinkling of magic for good measure that is certainly reminiscent of the tales of Scheherazade.

Fourteen year-old Jahani lives with her mother in the village of Sherwan. Unfortunately, the violent world of tyrants and war lords is always close, with conflict constantly simmering and threatening to shatter the peace.   One day, while shopping in the bazaar Jahani and her friend are attacked.  With the help of Azhar, Jahani escapes certain death and so begins an adventure to discover the truth about her family and her real identity.

Daughter of Nomads will engage readers from in the middle years of secondary school.  It will especially hold appeal with students that have an interest in religion and history and might be a useful text to explore middle-eastern cultures.  While I personally would not use this as a shared text within my coeducational classroom, the accessibility of the language, make it a good choice for extending students into texts that are more culturally diverse.  That said, the story has the potential to work really well with single sex female classes, providing a unique Asian perspective with historical connections that could easily complement the Year 8 HaSS National Curriculum focusing on the Mediaeval Period.

Daughter of Nomads was a captivating read that I found utterly immersive.  I can’t wait for the release of the second book in the series The Leopard Princess.

Book Review: “Teresa A New Australian” by Deborah Abela, Omnibus Book (2016)


Teresa is a school-aged child when Malta is sieged and bombed daily by the Germans during the Second World War. Malta, is decimated, its people left hungry as they await British ships containing precious supplies and military reinforcements. At the conclusion of the war comes the challenge of rebuilding. With accommodation in short supply, many Maltese decide that the possibility of a new life in Australia, funded by the Australian government, is their best option. Teresa travels by ship with her parents, leaving behind friends and family to a country where everything is new and she must navigate through the challenges of growing up in a place where she is acutely aware of her difference.

True stories never go out of fashion, and while this one is not exactly complete truth, it is real enough to speak to authentically to its audience. I confess that my interest in Teresa: A New Australian was mostly personal. Like Teresa, my father migrated to Australia in the 1950’s as a child escaping war ravaged Malta. Having heard his stories I was very keen to read this one, dedicated to Deborah Abela’s Nanna Teresa and inspired by the author’s father’s experience as a new migrant to this country. Stories such as this are immensely important because they speak of that place from which we have come. Writng as a Maltese Australian, I was acutely aware of the power for Abela’s story to bring to life the snippets of information I gleaned over the years from family members. For other Australians it serves as a stark reminder of the extent to which the White Australia Policy had influence during the 1950’s. Indeed, for new Australians today, it is a story with a message that is nothing less than hope-laden.
I appreciated the way that Abela allowed the unique identity of the Maltese people to emerge. Too often, Maltese people are grouped together with other Southern Europeans, which as Abela takes time to reveal, is an unfair assumption. The Maltese, unlike the Italians for example, have an enduring connection with the British Empire and many of them came to this country with a fair understanding of English and its customs. While this was apparent I couldn’t help but feel that Abela might have explored with even greater intimacy, the cultural context of Malta. Similarly, I respected Abela’s depiction of a 1950’s Australia, as being a land that abounds with opportunity, yet a place where an uncomfortable chasm lurks beneath the surface which is inherently racist.
Within the classroom, middle school students from grades 6-8 will have no difficulty in accessing this text. Written in clear prose, students should relish the opportunity to investigate the migration experience during this period of history. I imagine that students will have no difficulty in identifying (and juxtaposing) this experience with more recent and contemporary experiences of migration. In particular, rich discussion may evolve from an exploration of racism in Australia, identifying the origins and evolution of this up to today.
Teresa: A New Australian is the fourth book in a series exploring the stories of children immigrating to Australia. I recommend it for use in isolation as a shared or independent text with students. Similarly, it would work equally well as a reading circle option perhaps complemented by other books in the series.

Tanya Grech Welden

Book Review: “War in My Town” by E. Graziani, Second Story Press (2015)

cover73133-mediumBruna is little more than a child in the 1940’s when her picturesque Italian village of Eglio comes under the control of the Nazis.  Part history book, part biography, War in My Town follows the experiences of Bruna and the residents of Eglio as they suffer war caught in the crossfire between the German and allied forces.

A poignant story told with striking simplicity, War in My Town is an accessible read for children aged 10 upwards.  The story reads episodically with frequent historical digressions to situate the reader with relevant background information to the narrative.  A good balance, and separation, between anecdotes and historical information is maintained throughout the story, although this did to some extent, cause a certain degree of stilting to the narrative.

Written from the perspective of Bruna, Graziani (the daughter of Bruna) writes this account as a Canadian/Italian based on stories told to her by her mother.  As an Australian teacher I was struck by this story, particularly its relevance for many Australian students I teach, many of whom, have Italian heritage with connections to this period of history.  The text itself provides a concise introduction to Fascism, Mussolini and the economic circumstances surrounding the emergence of this political influence whilst maintain the balance between the impact of these influences on ordinary Italians.   Within the classroom, the text might operate as an example of oral history.  This model could easily be adapted for assessment tasks to be used in the Middle Years, or, with additional depth, could form the basis for a detailed Oral History task in the senior years.

Tanya Grech Welden

Book Review: “Just a Queen”, Jane Caro (2015), University of Queensland Press

just a queenI have a special passion for Historical Fiction so it probably goes without saying, but I jumped (or more likely did a couple of virtual cartwheels) at the opportunity to get my hands on Jane Caro’s new novel Just a Queen.  As the sequel to Caro’s novel Just a Girl, this book provides an intimate insight into the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.  I haven’t read the first book and although I’m keen to read it retrospectively, it is important to note that this didn’t make any difference as the book operates well as a stand-alone text.

Overall I found this to be an enticing package.  I found the cover design appealing, striking the perfect balance between identifying the historical period whilst maintaining enough savviness to entice a youthful audience. I also found the gold decorative motif that backed the front and rear covers a delightful inclusion, serving as a suitable prelude for what was to follow.

Caro’s thoughtful prose consistently manages to engage her audience by being accessible yet maintaining a sense of faithfulness to the period explored.  The choice of first person narration, created a potent intimacy with the protagonist, allowing for an authentic and believable psychological portrait of Elizabeth to be drawn.  I did find the time shifts a little irksome at times.  Certainly, younger readers may find this a deterrent, although it added a narrative complexity that could be interesting to investigate with students in higher level English classes.

Just a Queen, was pitched to me as a Young Adult/Historical Fiction novel.  While I won’t argue with the latter, it became apparent to me early on, that this is a book which fails to conform to traditional notions of YA.  The story is narrated by rather distraught and significantly aged Elizabeth I, as a series of flashbacks occurring in the latter part of her reign.  The flashbacks, precipitated by the execution of Mary Queen of Scots, primarily hark back to a much younger Elizabeth, albeit one who is well into her twenties.  It did not take me too long to realise that the lack of an adolescent protagonist place this book out of YA and firmly into mainstream Adult Historical. Similarly, since the flashbacks involve mature reflection from that of an aging woman and, while not necessarily a criticism, I did wonder if a mainstream YA audience may perceive this as a little too preachy, or, even disregard the perspective as being irrelevant.  However, perhaps this is a little pedantic because Caro’s story is undoubtedly exquisitely crafted, while possessing a qualities that could easily make it an inspiring text to explore as a guided text with Senior English students or as an extension text in the Senior History classroom.Jane-Caro-photo-web

Jane Caro has managed to breathe new life into what is a well-trodden topic by novelists and filmmakers.  She is to be commended for her depiction of an Elizabeth who is not only flesh and blood, but whose portrayal will undoubtedly resonate with contemporary women, for whom the challenge of living in a man’s world, is as real today as it was in the Elizabethan world.

Tanya Grech Welden


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