Category Archives: Historical Fiction

The Diamond Horse – Stacey Gregg

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Harper Collins

          ISBN: 9780008124403

         ISBN 10: 000812440X

         Imprint: HarperCollins – GB

01/05/2017

         List Price: 14.99 AUD

I’ve bought two of the previous books in this series for my library but not had the chance to read either so I was very glad to receive this one for review.

Of course the horsey girls will love it (as they have done the others) but the historical facts on which it is based are also quite fascinating.

Two very different Russian girls and two very different special horses are separated by time but linked by a very special diamond necklace.

Anna Orlov lives in a magnificent palace in the often frozen Russian wilds surrounded by a menagerie of animals. They’re not pets exactly although two become so for the girl, rather they are part of the breeding program for which her highly-ranked father is famous throughout the empire. In the late 18th century Count Alexei Orlov was one of the most powerful men at Catherine’s court (not least because he was a conspirator in the overthrow of Tsar Peter III so that his wife, Catherine, could take the throne).  After Anna’s beloved mother dies, life with her cold-hearted father and her cruel older brother becomes almost unbearable as she discovers more and more about the darker side of both. Her only memento of her mother is a beautiful black diamond necklace that is rumoured to have special powers.

Anna’s father is given the credit for breeding the now famous Orlov trotters after he brings home a beautiful Arabian stallion to cross breed with the best of Russian horses but it is really Anna who saves the stallion’s foal and raises him secretly to become the foundation of the breed.

 

Valentina Romanov is an orphan trapped in a circus where she performs with her unusual looking horse, Sasha. She has however big dreams that go way beyond the tawdry and poor life she has at the mercy of her so-called benefactor, the ringmaster. Valentina has only one precious possession – the same black diamond necklace that once belonged to the Orlovs. [Her character is based on Alexandra Korelova who won Olympic gold with her Orlov trotter Balagur – also a former circus horse!]

The two stories run parallel and refer to many actual people and events fictionalised into this really compelling story.  After reading the novel I just had to go and look up the histories of both girls which proved just as interesting as the book.

I loved this – it was a great read and I can see why the girls in my library took to the others so readily.

Highly recommended for readers from around 8 upwards.

Watch Alexandra and Balagur here to see just how truly beautiful this breed is!

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The murderous Count Orlov

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Goodbye Mr Hitler – Jackie French

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Harper Collins – AU

May 2017

      ISBN: 9781460751299

RRP: 16.99 AUD

In a modern world that often seems to be filled with hate and prejudices and refusal to acknowledge basic human rights, we could easily fall into a despondency that could be soul-destroying. Many of us in daily contact with children will have observed that they too feel fearful about outcomes of some of the huge issues the world is facing. How can we as educators help them to overcome their fears and even perhaps hatred born of influence from media and other sources?

I believe that it is with great literature such as this that we can examine the horrors of the past and show the path to a place of peace, love and forgiveness.  We have a real duty to impart to these children that we cannot stand by and let evil happen and that if we all do that, it cannot survive.

Jackie French has continued her “Hitler” series with the story of Johannes and his doctor parents sent to concentration camps when the Nazis took over Poland, as well as following the threads from the previous two books with the fate of Heidi, believed to be Hitler’s daughter, as well as Georg, now firmly an Australian and his mother who has also survived the horror camps.

Their stories are vivid and told with Jackie’s usual painstaking historical accuracy and each resonates with the pain and suffering endured by so many. It is heart-wrenching and poignant and not for the first time we are inspired by the indomitable human spirit of truly good people. How could someone who has survived such vileness heal their hearts we might ask? And yet so many have done just that. Having witnessed truly despicable and terrible events and actions, these are the people who know that the one true way to freedom, not just of body but of mind and spirit, is through letting go of hate.

As these memorable characters find renewed hope and begin to build new lives in Australia, their various secrets, fears and sorrows begin to soften and ebb into a past.

The contemporary situation with asylum seekers and the denial of their rights should be compared to the spirit of generosity with which nations, especially Australia, welcomed displaced persons following the war.

This series is one of the most important and significant within my experience. Students particularly of Modern History and indeed Philosophy should be firmly pointed in their direction.

Find superb teaching notes here.

Highest recommendation for readers in Upper Primary onwards.

Yong : the journey of an unworthy son – Janeen Brian

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ISBN: 9781925126297
Imprint: WALKER BOOKS AUST
Distributor: Harper Collins Distribution Services for Australia and New Zealand

August 1, 2016

RRP $16.99

There have been many accounts of the Chinese coming to Australia in the gold rush era both for adults and children but this is the first I have read which explores the history of some of these worthy migrants making their arduous journey to get to those diggings.

While this is historical fiction there are so many parallels to contemporary issues surrounding the plight of refugees risking all for a better life and the treatment which many of them receive.

“ Janeen Brian has vividly and realistically brought to life 1850s’ Chinese and Australian culture, and themes of prejudice, racism, exploitation, desperation and coping with change are explored.”

Yong’s father is Headman of his village, widowed and living with young children and an aged grandmother when he persuades a group of his fellows to join him on what they hope to be their salvation. He takes a reluctant oldest son, Yong, with him. They are swindled and beset by troubles from their initial ship voyage to the trek to the goldfields by tricksters who see them merely as objects of scorn. The contrast between the honour, respect for others and cultural values held by this group and that of those they encounter is poignant and terrible. Yet, they persevere in their quest, most especially Yong who struggles with his feelings of resentment and disloyalty towards his father and his feelings of inadequacy in the face of such a monumental challenge.

Beautifully written, with short chapters and a plot laced with danger and daring, this has strong links to curriculum (particularly Key Idea: Australians of Asian heritage have influenced Australia’s history and continue to influence its dynamic culture and society.)

If you are looking for a new novel for a class reading in Upper Primary or as a read aloud to accompany a unit of work this would be a superb choice.

It is also bound to very popular with Middle to Upper readers of historical fiction.

Highly recommended for readers aged around 10 years upwards.

Update: New trailer here

The Lost Sapphire – Belinda Murrell

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ISBN: 9781925324112

Published: 16/05/2016

Imprint: Random House Australia Children’s

RRP $17.99

Once again Belinda Murrell has set her readers’ feet upon a path to the past with an ease that is breathtaking.

When Marli’s mother has to go overseas for work for several months, the teenager is sent to stay with her estranged father in Melbourne, doing so with the scowling bad grace that only an adolescent can summon. While all her friends will be back in Brisbane enjoying themselves for the holidays, Marli knows only too well that her workaholic father will leave her to moulder in boredom and loneliness.

Only one bright spot lightens her mood. She is reunited with her grandfather Didi who has some intriguing news. The old mansion owned by Marli’s ancestors, which has been leased to the government for ninety years is to come back into their possession. Derelict and abandoned, the old house seems destined for demolition.

Marli is determined to find out more about the mysterious mansion and its secrets especially after Didi handing over some artefacts which once belonged to his mother, Violet. Although a precious sapphire ring has not turned up in these, the other items are enough to spur Marli on in her journey of discovery.

Sneaking into the grounds of the mansion through a neighbouring property, Marli is surprised by Luca, a young man from the Italian family of neighbours who also has a connection to the old place.

As two parallel stories unfold, the reader shares in Violet’s life in the 1920s: the loss of her two brothers in the Great War, then her mother’s death, the emotional distance of her father and most interestingly the painful history of the chauffeur Nikolai, a Russian émigré whose family has escaped the Bolshevik revolution as well as following the progress of Marli’s Melbourne sojourn and her growing reconciliation with her father.

As usual, Belinda has woven a story of complete authenticity and within her fiction has much for us to learn about a period of time and events in Australia that are not widely known.

It is fascinating and engaging and will undoubtedly be as hugely popular as the other titles in this wonderful ‘time slip’ series. I have already had the first borrower snatch it up quickly five minutes after it went on our ‘new books’ display. I think that probably says it all!

Highly recommended for girls in Year 5 upwards.

 

The Family with Two Front Doors – Anna Ciddor

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ISBN:9781925266641

Publisher:Allen & Unwin

Imprint:A & U Children

Pub Date:March 2016

RRP $14.99

 

To take one’s own family history and turn it into a delightful, amusing and engaging story takes a real talent.

Anna Ciddor has done so with this wonderful tale of family warmth, traditions and insight. Inspired by her grandmother’s stories Anna has painted a beautiful picture of a Jewish family’s life in Poland before the horror of World War 2.

The Rabinovitches (the family name struck such a chord with me as it was also my great-grandfather’s name!) are a lively and close family who occupy two houses as there are quite a few of them. Yakov the mischief maker, Nomi, Miriam and serious Shlomo and more lead the reader into a fascinating glimpse of life in the 1920s in Lublin, Poland.

The details of daily life, celebrations and rituals, the excitement of older sister Adina’s wedding and adventures in the streets of their town bring this charming family to life before our eyes offering us a superb chance to develop more cultural understandings.

This is a book which holds up the ordinary life of a family and shows us the joy and love that abounds between all its members while at the same time commemorating the author’s lost family.

A marvellous addition to your collection especially suited to readers from around 12 up, I highly recommend it to you. Teaching notes are available here.

A Lottie Lipton Adventure: The Scroll of Alexandria – Dan Metcalf

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Allen & Unwin Australia

Bloomsbury Publishing

February 2016-04-02

ISBN 9781472911872

RRP $12.99

If you are looking for a new series to engage newly independent readers, you need look no further!

Imagine living in a museum full of rare and wonderful objects. Lottie Lipton, nine years old, lives in the British Museum with her Great Uncle Bert and absolutely adores the Great Library with its vast collection of rare and valuable books.

Rapacious Sir Trevelyan Taylor, the new Head Curator of the museum, has other views and sees the disposal of the books as a prime money raiser, claiming that books have no place in a library and no regard for the Royal Appointment that placed them there by King George – which came with unbreakable instructions that the collection must not be split.

But if Lottie and Great Uncle Bert can find the last remaining scroll of the ancient library of Alexandria, which would definitely constitute a museum artefact then the nasty Sir Trev’s plot will be well and truly foiled.

Young readers will love helping Lottie with her puzzle and decoding secret messages as this determined girl follows the clues to find the missing scroll.  Her fellow investigators, Great Uncle Bert and Reg the caretaker are fun characters adding humour to the story. A glossary of more difficult words is included at the end of the book along with a couple of additional brainteasers to solve.

Look for at least three more titles forthcoming in this terrific interactive series. Highly recommended for readers from around 7 years up.

Elephant Man Mariangela Di Fiore, illustrated by Hilde Hodnefjeld, translated by Rosie Hedger

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ISBN:9781760292201

Publisher:Allen & Unwin

Imprint:A & U Children

Pub Date:February 2016

RRP $29.99

To be honest, when I received this in my review package a few weeks ago I was somewhat taken aback. I wondered how the sad story of Joseph Merrick could possibly be the subject for a picture book and I put it to one side for a while.

Then in one of those moments of synchronicity a recently made documentary which examined Merrick’s illness, life and death with the hindsight of modern forensic scientific research screened. My little granddaughter and I watched it and while she found it very sad it was also a good opportunity to talk with her about everyone being different and as she has an intellectual impairment and attends a special school, an even better chance to discuss the students who do not have ‘invisible’ disabilities.

That made me get the book off the review shelf and show it to her and I realise now that for older children this is actually a tremendous opportunity to learn something not only about the treatment of disabilities in past times but to foster that sense of compassion that so many of us strive to instil in young ones.

While this is a fictionalised account of Merrick’s life there is clearly the thread of authentic historical detail and cleverly interspersed with sensitive illustrations are facsimiles of original documents and photos.

This is not a picture book for younger readers but for readers around 8 and up or for use in conjunction with some classroom experience relating to disabilities, awareness and empathy I think it would be of huge benefit to many students.

Thank goodness that in general so much of society has moved from those ignorant Victorian attitudes, though we still have a long way to go. And also thank goodness that people like Frederick Treves had enough true humanity to make Merrick’s later life as happy as possible.

Recommended for readers from around Year 3 and up with careful debriefing where necessary.

 

Teaching notes are available from Allen & Unwin here.

The Taming of the Queen – Philippa Gregory

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  • Simon & Schuster UK |
  • 448 pages |
  • ISBN 9781471132971 |
  • August 2015

List Price

AU$ 45.00

NZ$ 49.99

Why would a woman marry a serial killer?
Because she cannot refuse…

Every now and again I lash out and actually read a ‘grown up’ book and being a very genuine admirer of Philippa Gregory’s historical fiction was most excited to be able to review her latest book.

Kateryn (also known as Catherine) Parr was the last and surviving wife of the infamous Tudor monarch, Henry VIII. She is also arguably the least known of his wives in a sense – even the rather innocuous Anne of Cleves had some more notoriety if only because the marriage was so short-lived without the grisly end of other less fortunate of Henry’s spouses.

For those who have watched that excellent BBC series The Tudors or studied some medieval history there will be some background knowledge of the main facts. Philippa Gregory’s talent lies in bringing history to life by building on the facts through deeper research not only of the direct subject but also the prevailing attitudes, customs and daily lives of the period in question.

Kateryn was a beautiful 30 year old married to a much older husband when Henry Tudor first decided to make her his wife. When her husband died, the aging King Henry wasted no time in proposing to Kateryn, insisting she come immediately to court, despite her still being in mourning; and so began Henry’s last marriage and his first to a queen who despite her personal preferences, devoted herself to his well-being and also to the task of reuniting father and royal children thus ensuring those children were recognised and respected.

Kateryn had already secretly been planning to marry Sir Thomas Seymour, and indeed following Henry’s death in 1547, finally did so. Despite her disappointment in not being able to pursue her true love yearning, she proved a loyal and diplomatic wife to an increasingly despotic and erratic Henry.

She raised many eyebrows and incurred some real wrath for what was perceived (but never proven) as Protestant heresy, but was able to avoid the dire persecution inflicted on others, innocent or guilty, by engaging the king’s support and rekindling his loyalty to her.  She was perhaps the most scholarly woman of her times and demonstrated this through her writing and published works as well as her ability to match wits with the men surrounding her.

As always for these complicated times, plots and twists of fortune abound and provide fascinating indeed compelling reading offering real insight to the Tudor court and its significant players.

For lovers of historical fiction and particularly Medieval history, I believe, Philippa Gregory is top of the tree. If you have not yet tried out her books, I urge you to do so – you will not be disappointed.

There is a great reading group guide here.

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The Soldier’s Gift – Tony Palmer and Jane Tanner

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Published:23/07/2014

Format:Hardback, 40 pages

RRP:$26.99

price:AUD $26.99

ISBN-13:9780670077571

ISBN-10:0670077577

Origin:Australia

Publisher:Penguin Aus.

Imprint:Viking

This beautiful book, another published with timely consideration for the Anzac Centenary, arrived in our library at the start of 4th term and we all unanimously loved it for many reasons. Firstly the well-considered textured ‘retro’ style cover which instantly evokes stories from another age.  Then there are the absolutely stunning endpapers which resembles scrapbook collages of significant documents and pictures from one family’s history.  And of course, the story itself, poignant and yet with the hope of rebuilding and starting over, with its moving text accompanied by simply gorgeous illustrations.

Emily knows her big brother Tom wants to leave their farm and go to war, but she really doesn’t want him to do so. Their mother is no longer with them, Emily has never known her, and to her Tom is her everything. Most of all, she loves it when she and Tom and their dog Roo climb up the hill to the special cypress tree their mother had planted long ago.  But Tom does go to the Great War and keeps his promise to write to Emily all the time he is away – until one day the letters stop coming and finally, in their place, a telegram arrives telling Emily and her father that Tom will never come home.  As if to emphasis the finality, a wild storm fells their mother’s special cypress and Emily’s sadness knows no bounds.

In his last letter, Tom had enclosed some seeds from a special pine tree which grew in Turkey. Emily had put them away, not knowing quite what to do with them until struggling to come to terms with her grief and the refusal of her father to show his own despair.  At her uncle’s suggestion, Emily sets the seeds to sprout.   When the tiny seedlings are big enough to be replanted, Emily knows the perfect place to put them and clearing the ground around the spot where her mother once lovingly planted the cypress, Emily installs the three little Turkish pines.  The seed of hope grows even more when her father joins her and together they build a barrier to protect the baby trees from any danger.

Exploring themes of courage and endurance, as well as the hope that can come after deep despair, this is a book for older primary readers to examine the effects of the devastation of World War I on an ordinary Australian family.  It is a valuable addition to any primary library and I highly recommend it for readers around Year 4 and up.

.Read what Tony Palmer has to say about this book here.

Check out this and other books for the upcoming Centenary commemoration on Barbara Braxton’s new Pinterest page, Remembering Gallipoli,  here.

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