Category Archives: Historical Fiction

Night Ride into Danger – Jackie French

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Harper Collins Australia

May 2021

  • ISBN: 9781460758939
  • ISBN 10: 1460758935
  • Imprint: HarperCollins AU
  • RRP: $16.99

Again Jackie has crafted a narrative that combines fact and fiction to take readers back in time to colonial Australia where it was commonplace to meet diverse characters and perhaps even more commonplace not to know everything there is to know about those people. Though set in the 19th century much of the plot will resonate in today’s contemporary classroom as comparisons can be made around immigration, prejudice and race in particular.

Young Jem has been raised ably by his coach-driver father following the sad death of his mother, and has acquired many of the skills necessary to be a competent whip for Cobb & Co, but managing five horses, without help, on roads that are far from level or safe is not for the faint-hearted. The night run from to Goulburn to meet the Sydney train is always a race against time but when bad weather hits – and when your coach-driver is badly injured – it’s an almost impossible ask. Eleven year old Jem must gather up all his strength and courage to complete the journey as the six mysterious passengers each have their own special imperative for reaching the destination on time.

It’s a wild ride through the dark and dangerous country side between Braidwood and Goulburn and the suspenseful story will hold any reader fascinated until the very end. Jackie chooses to authenticate the narrative by using vernacular of the time and while this may challenge some readers, it is well-explained and completes the essential sense of being immersed in the moment.

Both boys and girls from around ten years upwards will relish this adventure from Australia’s past which, as with many of Jackie’s historical novels, is based on actual events. As someone who has read histories of colonial Australia, both factual and fictionalised since I was that same age, I can thoroughly endorse it and I recommend it enthusiastically for your middle primary to lower secondary readers.

I also particularly loved it as we have a strong Braidwood connection – and it was great fun to read of an incident from it’s past.

The Valley of Lost Secrets – Lesley Parr

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Bloomsbury Australia

February 2021

ISBN:9781526620521
Imprint:Bloomsbury Children’s Books

RRP: $14.99

Omg, I can’t tell you how much I loved this read during the week!! It completely reminds me of two much-loved favourites, Carrie’s War by Nina Bawden and Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian (both of which I own and have re-read many times), but with its whole new take on the situation of evacuee children in WWII.

Jimmy and his little brother have been evacuated from London to a Welsh valley – traditional, coal-mining families and either open welcomes or suspicion of ‘foreigners’. Mr and Mrs Thomas are warm and caring, and little Ronnie is quickly comfortable with both, but Jimmy is both distrustful and resentful. He’s already lost his mum, who took off leaving the brothers with their dad and grandmother, and he’s certainly not ready to treat this temporary stay as ‘home’. The entire London contingent seem different here. Jimmy’s best friend, now lodged with the local minister’s family, has turned into a nasty bully like the Reverend’s son and Florence, uncared for and abused at home, blossoms into a true friend.

Jimmy is to realise that even a temporary family can be a solace but first there are difficulties to overcome and these are complicated when the boy discovers a human skull hidden in the hollow of an old tree. Enough to scare even an adult, this find has Jimmy scrambling for someone to trust and sometimes an ally can be found in the most unlikely quarter. The secrets of the valley are gradually revealed as Jimmy and his little tribe work together to solve a decades old mystery, and bring much needed comfort to a long-held grief.

We do know, of course, that not all the evacuated children had happy experiences and we cannot begin to comprehend how overwhelming or unnerving the whole exercise would have been even for those who did. In those times, many city children had never had any experience of wide open spaces, nature and the reality of rural living – some didn’t even know that milk came from cows!

Young readers, particularly those who are fond of such stories set in wartime, will find much to love about this narrative. The strong themes of family, friendship and bravery are very inspirational and will give many children finding our current circumstances difficult some insight in dealing with similar events.

Highly recommended for your readers from around ten years upwards.

Cuckoo’s Flight – Wendy Orr

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Allen & Unwin

March 2021

ISBN: 9781760524913

RRP: $16.99

Wendy Orr continues her stunning and intriguing sequence of books set in ancient Crete, now focused on Leira’s granddaughter, Clio. In this companion book to Swallow’s Dance and Dragonfly Song, daily life is in turmoil as the ever-increasing threat of invaders pervades the village and its surrounds. Clio struggles often in her day-to-day activities since her horse-riding accident some years earlier. Horses are a rarity in Crete, but Clio’s father comes from a land where they are not only useful but valued and she has inherited her father’s love of the animals, despite the injury which has left her lame. Now the pressure is on to protect the village and its inhabitants and Clio is conflicted between her constant care of her beloved horses and the requirements placed upon all the people by the Lady. Looming over all this is the Lady’s decree that the Great Mother requires a sacrifice – a maiden to serve her in her underworld. Grandmother Leira conceives of the idea of creating a substitute with a beautiful and realistic clay image of the Great Mother and the family vows to protect the statue while praying the Lady will decree this a suitable alternative to one of the handful of village girls who would be the right age for a ritual sacrifice. Sadly Leira, who has reached the end of her days, puts so much of her own life and emotion into the creation of the image that she is spent and while the family mourn their loss, they redouble their vigilance in keeping her final work safe.

Into this mix comes a ragged and abused fisher-girl who secretly loves Clio’s horses, her older brother who is vengeful and seeks retribution after the constant scorn from the townsfolk, the stress when Dada sails away for trade at the order of the Lady and the constant fear of whether the oracle will declare for or against a live sacrifice.

This is another compelling narrative from Wendy Orr, which again spotlights girls of courage and resilience while exploring a culture and history not often described in fiction. Clio’s rollercoaster emotions as she grieves for her much-loved grandmother, misses the security of her father being at home, fear for her best friend and jealousy over young Mika’s natural ability with horses are dramatically woven throughout the story. Readers who enjoy historical adventure will truly love this new novel and become heavily invested in Clio’s world and family.

Highly recommended for readers from around Upper Primary upwards, particularly those keen to pursue a story with a difference. Read more at Allen & Unwin and don’t miss the teaching notes available as well.

Clancy of the Overflow (The Matilda Saga #9) – Jackie French

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Harper Collins

October 2019

ISBN: 9781460754771

ISBN 10: 1460754778

Imprint: HarperCollins – AU

List Price: 29.99 AUD

This little hobby of mine has brought me so much richness. I’m able to read the newest titles from so many fabulous creators. But as you probably have realised I stand in complete awe of our maven of literature for children, teens and adults, Jackie French, and what a privilege for me to have the opportunity to read the last of the Matilda saga well before its release date.

So many of us have followed the travails of Jackie’s characters both historical and fictional, spanning a century, and now the narrative comes full circle encompassing both the past and the contemporary. The characters with which we have engaged and loved have made the past come alive and the present realised in a sweeping story of strong women particularly and vivid history.

Those readers who are familiar with the series (who isn’t?) will expect that this last volume will continue our connection with Jed and Sam, Scarlett and William plus Alex, as well as Nancy so I don’t really feel the need to expand on the plot – because clearly you will want to read it for yourself. What I want to focus on is the scope of this body of work – as Charlotte would say, arguably Jackie’s ‘magnum opus’. By saying that I would not imply that Jackie has reached her peak or we can expect any less in the future but to my mind this series represents and encapsulates so much of what Jackie strives to achieve and bring to her audience as well as embodying so much of herself in so many ways.

Jackie’s unequalled ability to place her readers firmly in the period of which she writes and the skill with which she connects us to the characters is unparalleled. But even more so is her deftness with interweaving so many threads of historical narrative throughout her work: to do so over a series of nine books is to my mind a superb accomplishment. This final volume of the series not only continues the narrative but expertly brings in the references to earlier books and the exquisite blending of fact and fiction is enthralling. Of course, as readers we hang on waiting to know the fate of Jed and Sam, as well as Scarlett, but now we are also privy to the amazing love story of Clancy and Rose – as well as the unfulfilled connection between Clancy and Matilda. As a long time devotee of Banjo Paterson (thanks Dad!) this blending of history and imagination just delights me so much and Jackie has the innate skill of making the events and circumstances so utterly believable.

My regard for Jackie goes well beyond her unerring skill as a storyteller, a diligent researcher and an accurate historian. I know her to be a warm, generous and caring human with a drive that is enviable and a nature that is beautiful. She is truly an admirable Australian whose passion for our history – whether good or bad – and our unique culture is to be celebrated.

In case you haven’t picked up on it – I cannot recommend this highly enough – and all I can say is if you haven’t read the first eight books – shame on you

The Silver Hand – Terry Deary

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Bloomsbury Australia

July 2018ISBN: 9781472929488
Imprint: Bloomsbury Education
Series: Flashbacks

RRP $14.99

We all know Terry Deary’s expertise in bring history to life – witness the success of Horrible Histories. Now he turns his hand to a lesser explored part of history in the closing days of the First World War, examining this through the eyes of two children.  Aimee Fletcher is the daughter of a French woman and an English father, living in Bray, Northern France. Aimee’s father is M-i-A and her mother, as she discovers, is a valued member of the White Lady group – a dedicated and successful espionage network working to defeat the Germans. Marius is a young German boy who has learned much about healing from his grandmother and determines to go to help the soldiers if he possibly can.  These two meet as the ebb and flow of Allied/German occupation in the last days of the war play out.

With formidable skill Deary presents significant historical figures to young readers including a young angry Adolf Hitler, Baron von Richtofen aka the Red Baron and General Haig as the battered German army, starving and disassembled, try to claw back some dignity and the Allied forces push them further.

Amidst this the two youngsters are caught up in a dangerous cat-and-mouse game of spies, traitors and valuable information and play their part with a growing respect for each other.

Readers will gain a useful background to the motivation behind the Great War and its ultimate resolution – which sadly, also lead to the Second World War, whilst seeing it in terms of personal experiences.

This would be a superb addition to a ‘read around’ fiction collection for the First World War as well as for those children who enjoy historical fiction.

Highly recommended for readers from around ten years upwards.

My Brigidista Year – Katherine Paterson

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Penguin Random House

Candlewick  Press

October 2017

RRp $16.99

ISBN 978-0-7636-9508-8

Winner of the Newbery Medal on two occasions, Katherine Paterson is a superb writer for children and now turns her hand to a historical narrative born out of personal interest.

For many outside of America, including me, there is a scant knowledge of Castro’s Cuba. This account of 13 year old Lora Llera echoes the actual actions of many of Cuba’s young people who willingly volunteered to become literacy tutors to the country’s peasant population in remote country areas. Castro’s plan to have the entire country literate within a year of launching of his program seemed impossible and implausible but the selflessness of these many teenagers achieved that remarkable goal.

These youngsters worked alongside their country compatriots during the day often in very primitive conditions and taught them at night. For those as young as Lora leaving their families, relative comfort and security was a huge undertaking but done with open though somewhat naïve attitudes.

While avoiding political comment, Paterson interweaves much history and social commentary on the overthrow of the Batista regime and the rise of Communism in Cuba.

Personally I found it quite fascinating though written quite simply it covers or at least suggests many large-scale concepts and throws new light on a little known historical period.

I would recommend it highly for readers both boys and girls from around ten years upwards.

Barney and the Secret of the French Spies – Jackie French

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Harper Collins Australia

ISBN: 9781460751305

ISBN 10: 1460751302

On Sale: 22/01/2018

List Price: 14.99 AUD

Another gripping episode in the story of Barney and Elsie, providing readers with more insight into the early days of the European colony in Sydney and NSW and I’m so excited that next term I’m using Birrung the Secret Friend with my Year 4s in preparation for their ‘First Contact’ unit. My experience from last year informs me that the children love this as a read-aloud and are intrigued and stirred to discussion and debate on its themes.  I love knowing that those who are ‘ hooked’ will continue to read in the series and now that there are four will be able to satisfy their curiosity on a number of points.

This narrative takes up Barney’s story now that he is grown and becoming a successful farmer and still in love with Elsie. But who is Elsie really? How is it that this girl neither a convict nor daughter of a soldier came to be in the colony?

When Elsie becomes ill with a fever, her delirium reveals her native tongue of French and speculation becomes even more urgent as a war half a world away rages between the British and Napoleon’s France.  The true reason for Elsie not speaking all the previous years since Barney found her starving and cold is out in the open. Will it make any difference to Barney? More urgently will it put Elsie in danger with the authorities?

Once again Jackie French has uncovered history long ignored or forgotten including that of the first female botanist to sail around the world and achieve great things.

As usual the research is impeccable and the writing accessible even for children as young as 7 or 8.  Barney’s story has become special for many readers and I dare to hope this is not the last of history’s secrets Jackie will share with us.

Highly recommended for readers from around Year 3 upwards.

Sweet Adversity – Sheryl Gwyther

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Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers (Australia) Pty Ltd

ISBN: 9781460755105
ISBN-10: 1460755103
RRP : $17.99

 

In her new historical novel Sheryl Gwyther takes  readers on a dramatic, sometimes tense and often poignant adventure to a grim time in Australia’s past – the Great Depression. While the Wall St collapse impacted all around the world, Australia suffered terribly because of a variety of factors; huge loans from England, over-supply of our trade goods and the sponsorship of both returned soldiers and immigrants among them. For many it was a precarious time of minimal survival.

Adversity McAllister, only child of theatrical parents, is among those for whom this was a heart-breaking and dangerous time. Her parents know that their livelihood is in jeopardy as travelling thespians so think their best action for their beloved daughter, along with her clever cockatiel, is to have her in a home where she will be well-cared for and protected. Little do they know that the vile Matron in charge is not only far from the kindly woman she presents to outsiders but a ‘crook’ who skims off the government funding and worse, has an arrangement to sell useful or promising children off as nothing more than indentured slaves to an extremely odious co-conspirator.

Addie is not a docile child by any means (love her Mighty Girl sassy attitude) and when she believes that her parents have perished in a drowning accident in their travels and then Macbeth, her Shakespeare quoting bird, is likely to be killed, she takes action. Escaping the Emu Swamp Children’s Home with Macbeth via a borrowed gypsy caravan Addie first lands with a camp of ‘lost children’ all of whom are fending for themselves.  At least Addie makes one true friend here who proves to be a lifesaver.  But this respite doesn’t last long as the vile Matron and villainous Scrimshaw catch up with her and she is dragged back to the home. Aided by an unlikely ally she and little Jack, whom she has protected during her time at the home, are bundled off to Sydney where Addie is to be sold to a theatre where her acting and singing talents will bolster the failing performances. Addie has discovered the perfidy of Matron Maddock and she is determined not only to extricate herself and Jack from their predicament but to find the pair of them a safe haven.

Depression times Sydney is a dangerous place for many but especially vulnerable children but Adversity demonstrates her intellect and spirit as she contrives a safe escape for herself, Macbeth and little Jack.

This is a tale of courage and resilience set against a backdrop of extraordinarily difficult times and seemingly insurmountable odds. Addie is an impressive hero. Despite her youth and her troubles, she refuses to bow to the immense pressures and evil predation put upon her.

A narrative which explores a seamy side of our history but celebrates the triumph of one young girl, this is a must for your shelves and your avid historical fiction readers.

Highly recommended for readers from around 11 years upwards.

Read the story behind the story here. Thank you Sheryl for sharing this!

 

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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