All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Taking A Chance – Deborah Burrows

Taking A ChanceTaking A Chance
Deborah Burrows
Pan Macmillan AUS
2013, 345p
Read from my local library

It is 1943 in Perth, Australia and Eleanor “Nell” Fitzgerald is a journalist, working for a local rag. She primarily writes the women’s page, providing helpful fashion advice and frugal ways to repurpose old hats in this time of rationing, where money for luxuries is almost non-existent. She plans to marry her lawyer boyfriend as soon as he returns from service, but then everything changes.

The court reporter for her paper is away and her boss sends her on the final day to hear a verdict of guilty and sentence to hang passed down to Lena Mitrovic who is believed to have murdered her lover by way of rat poison. After the conclusion, Nell meets Johnny Horvath, an American war correspondent. Johnny is handsome, charming, smart and believes that all might not be as it seems with this case. He wants Nell to help him investigate and help him get Lena out of the hellhole that is Fremantle Gaol.

Working with Johnny could give Nell the boost she needs to be able to break into features writing. The more they dig around the more they uncover about the less savoury side of wartime Perth – there are some unscrupulous American soldiers preying on teenage girls, plying them with food and alcohol to get what they want, girls running away from home, drawn by the talk of the soldiers and the gifts they bestow, countless girls marrying Americans they’ve known only mere weeks, some situations ending up in the divorce court. And they are chipping away at the story that Lena murdered her lover in cold blood too.

Nell finds herself torn between the choice she has made to marry a good, safe, solid and honest man and the passion and heady feelings she knows that she would be able to experience with Johnny. Security is important to Nell and she finds herself mystified by the Australian girls that are marrying the American servicemen after knowing them mere weeks. She doesn’t understand how they can throw caution to the wind like that, marry someone they barely know and think that it will work out later. Does she have the courage to be reckless and take a chance on the handsome American? Or will she let something exciting slip by?

I recently read Deborah Burrows’ first novel, A Stranger In My Street and immediately requested her second novel, also set in Perth around a similar time, from the library. This one introduces us to 24 year old Nell, an Irish orphan who was taken in as a child by her uncle, who had migrated to Australia, his wife and their rowdy pack of children. Nell was given the opportunity to stay and finish school, almost unheard of for women at the time during the tail end of the Depression and she also went to University as well. She now writes for a weekly doing the women’s page and although this is a good, secure job that pays enough to help her aunt, it’s not particularly challenging and sometimes, Nell just wants more.

When she meets Johnny, the sparks fly between them immediately, despite Nell’s sort of (unofficial) engagement to local lawyer Rob who is serving in the war effort. He’s been in Guinea and now he’s in Melbourne and they communicate via very formulaic letters. Nell knows that although her aunt likes Rob, she doesn’t really approve of the match – Rob is not a Catholic and her aunt just doesn’t think he’s the man for her, perfectly lovely though he may be. When Nell brings Johnny home, she sees the way her aunt lights up and knows that she’s going to have a hard time convincing her that nothing is going on. It seems like everyone thinks that there’s something going on between her and Johnny and either they’re encouraging it, like her aunt or trying to warn her off with stories of what a playboy he is.

Nell has also found herself the surprise guardian of a teenage girl named Evie, who she “rescues” from some American soldiers who were most likely going to take advantage of the intoxicated girl. Evie is a challenge – at almost 15, she’s still a child in the ways of the world but she wants to grow up too fast. She’s stunningly beautiful and isn’t above using that to attempt to get what she wants. Flirting has become second nature to her and sulking has as well. I have to admit, at times the character of Evie irritated me. On one hand I did feel sorry for her, she was an orphan for all means really with very few prospects. But some of the choices Evie made were just not good and she often shows a lack of gratitude to Nell for essentially hauling her out of potentially ending up incarcerated. Nell also has to let go the idea of parenting Evie, who doesn’t need a mother, and just be a friend but sometimes I didn’t blame Nell for her frustration. I did really like the bond that developed between Evie and Nell’s aunt, who proved that you can ‘parent’ for lack of a better word, effectively without smothering.

The chemistry between Nell and Johnny is very appealing and the fact that we never see the mysterious semi-fiancé in Melbourne makes it easy to forget his very existence. To be honest I didn’t find the search for the real killer all that interesting but I did enjoy the descriptions of life in Fremantle Gaol and also Nell’s attempt to document the lost girls, young teens who run away to Perth for a better life and find nothing of the sort as well as her fascination with the girls who have the courage to throw caution to the wind and marry someone they barely know.

Taking A Chance is a very enjoyable book, giving me a further taste of Perth in the war time that I came to love when I read A Stranger On My Street. I hope that Deborah Burrows has plenty more stories set here to enjoy in the future.

8/10

Book # 156 of 2013

AWW2013

Taking A Chance is the 66th novel read and reviewed for my participation in the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013

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A Stranger In My Street – Deborah Burrows

A StrangerA Stranger In My Street
Deborah Burrows
Pan MacMillan AUS
2012, 337p
Read from my local library

It is 1943, the Second World War is still in full swing. In Perth Australia, US troops have landed and are making life just a little bit more bearable for the local young women. The men are generous, always bringing things such as food like meat and fresh fruit and vegetables and little gifts to express their thanks for the hospitality whenever they are invited anywhere. They have access to far more in the way of rationed items and are far better paid than their Australian counterparts. They are also friendly and happy, always willing to take a girl out for a meal, or dancing, often with little in the way of return. Many are just seeking some company, a night of fun to forget the horrors they’ve seen and been a part of. And many young women are very happy to be that distraction.

Meg Eaton isn’t one of them. This war has brought upon her nothing but pain, first stealing the man she loved away from her and then keeping him when he was killed in action 18 months ago. Since then Meg has done very little, just gone to work and come home again. On a hot Perth summer’s day, she meets her former fiancé’s brother Tom, who is looking for a woman who lives in Meg’s street – a married woman who, with her husband away in the war, has taken to hanging out with the American officers. Meg is disconcerted to finally meet Tom, the man Peter admired so much and it’s not long until she sees him again – when the two of them find the dead body of Doreen Luca, the woman Tom was looking for.

The immediate suspect is her jealous husband, home on leave but Meg, who knows Frank and Tom, who definitely knows more than he’s letting on, aren’t so sure. Despite Meg’s grief and Tom’s engagement to a chilly society type, they find themselves spending more and more time together. It is a way for them to talk about Peter as well as try and figure out exactly what is happening in their neighbourhood. When a young boy from their street goes missing, Meg is even more desperate for answers – anything to distract her from her growing feelings for the very taken but also very troubled, Tom Lagrange.

I saw a lot of reviews for this book last year – lots of bloggers I follow and admire and trust had glowing reviews and really enjoyed it and so it was kind of hovering around at the back of my mind, always on my radar without me ever really going out of my way to hunt it down. The other day I went to pick up a book at my local library – they have a ‘recently returned’ shelf which often has some great books sitting on it and I always browse there just before I pick up my holds. This book was the first one I saw on that shelf the other day so I immediately snatched it up.

I have to admit, when I read novels set during the war, they’re rarely ever set here. I’ve read quite a few books set around WW2 and just about all of them have taken place in Europe. It was refreshing to read something set close to home and get an idea of what life was like for Australians while the war was going on. Perth wasn’t entirely removed from the action and the arrival of the American troops helped greatly, which is only partially why they were so well received. The Americans are fun and lively and do a lot to bolster community spirits although it does send up a bit of a friendly rivalry (or perhaps not-so-friendly) with the local boys who perhaps can’t shower as many luxuries! I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, story wise but this novel was a tightly written mystery sprinkled with a believable war time feel and a forbidden romance.

I felt for Meg, she had found such a lovely happiness and then had it snatched away from her by a conflict on the other side of the world. Despite the fact that the war has taken from her, she retains her compassion and the ability to see people as who they are, not where they are from. When Doreen Luca is found murdered, many locals suspect her husband Frank, an Australian born Italian. Italians faced prejudice and even incarceration in Australia during WW2 as “aliens”. However, Meg never suspects Frank, knowing him to be more than just his stereotypical background.

I really liked the way in which things developed between Tom and Meg – Tom is her dead fiancé’s brother and at first he’s just a person she can reminisce about Peter with. The two of them are thrown together after discovering the body of Doreen but they seem to find solace in each other’s company. Tom has demons that Meg doesn’t even know about, having been captured by the Japanese and tortured horrifically. He’s employed as a liaison officer between the Australian forces and the Americans and definitely knows more than he is letting on. He and Meg meet often for lunch (which causes gossip, not least because Tom is engaged). There’s also a noted class difference between the two, which Meg has already faced when she briefly met Peter’s parents when they were dating. They’re wealthy whereas Meg is definitely lower middle class, living with her mother and her sister, the three of them pooling their resources to get by. They’re not starving, but there’s definitely very little money for luxuries. Apart from spending time with Meg himself, Tom convinces her to begin to live again, to go out and have fun and Meg begins to accept dates with some of the American soldiers and learn that life does indeed, go on. However she soon finds that the one man that really interests her seems to be the one that she can’t have.

This was a very enjoyable book – I just wanted to keep reading all day until I was finished. I know that the author has another book out and now I’m very keen to read that too. It’s going on my list.

8/10

Book #130 of 2013

AWW2013

A Stranger In My Street counts towards my participation in the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013. It’s book #55 read and reviewed so far.

 

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