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Review: The Last Reunion by Kayte Nunn

The Last Reunion
Kayte Nunn
Hachette AUS
2021, 364p
Copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley/personal purchased paperback copy

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: Five women come together at a New Year’s Eve’s party after decades apart, in this thrilling story of desire, revenge and courage, based on a brave group of Australian and British WWII servicewomen

Burma, 1945. Bea, Plum, Bubbles, Joy and Lucy: five young women in search of adventure, attached to the Fourteenth Army, fighting a forgotten war in the jungle. Assigned to run a mobile canteen, navigating treacherous roads and dodging hostile gunfire, they become embroiled in life-threatening battles of their own. Battles that will haunt the women for the rest of their lives.

Oxford, 1976. At the height of an impossibly hot English summer, a woman slips into a museum and steals several rare Japanese netsuke, including the famed fox-girl. Despite the offer of a considerable reward, these tiny, exquisitely detailed carvings are never seen again.

London and Galway, 1999. On the eve of the new millennium, Olivia, assistant to an art dealer, meets Beatrix, an elderly widow who wishes to sell her late husband’s collection of Japanese art. Concealing her own motives, Olivia travels with Beatrix to a New Year’s Eve party, deep in the Irish countryside, where friendships will be tested as secrets kept for more than fifty years are spilled.

Inspired by the heroic women who served in the ‘forgotten war’ in Burma, The Last Reunion is a heartbreaking love story and mystery by the international bestselling author of The Botanist’s Daughter and The Silk House. It is also a tribute to the enduring power of female friendship.

Can’t believe it took me so long to read this! I had an eBook review copy but I own the rest of Kayte Nunn’s books in paperback so I had to buy one to match them and it’s sat on my shelf for a couple of months. I’m trying to read from that shelf every so often, trying to balance out my reading a bit.

Anyway this is mostly a dual timeline, taking place partially in 1945 and partially in 1999 with a small scene from 1976. In 1945, it details the story of Bea and a bunch of other women who join the Women’s Auxiliary Service (Burma) known as the Wasbies. They run a sort of canteen where the men can get sandwiches, cakes, treats and tea as well as purchase little luxuries like cigarettes, razors, creams, soaps etc. They’re imperative for boosting the morale of the men and the women also provide a social aspect, attending dances and being friendly faces. The women become very close as they get closer and closer to the front lines and see and experience things that will change them forever. Most are from privileged backgrounds, some have husbands or brothers serving in the war.

In 1999, Aussie ex-pat Olivia is working as an intern for an art dealer and she goes to meet Beatrix for her boss, because the elderly widow has indicated she has something very valuable to sell. A freak snowstorm and an illness traps Olivia in the country with Bea, which leads to her hearing a lot of Bea’s story and attending a reunion of the Wasbies, where many things come to light. And Olivia will make choices about her own future as well, inspired by the somewhat crotchety old lady she’s come to admire.

I found this book so fascinating. The opening scene is intrigue and then both timelines are so equally interesting. I loved reading about Bea signing up for the Wasbies, wanting to contribute, meeting the other women and them forming bonds. There’s plenty of description of their duties as well as the conditions of their surroundings and also the local area – the oppressive heat, the insects, etc as well as the other challenges. It really gives you a clear picture of what it must’ve been like to be involved in the war this way, from the long days preparing and serving often hundreds of men, to the jungle setting. I don’t know much about Burma (which is now known as Myanmar) – it’s pretty limited to the invasion by Japan in WWII, which tore the country apart and the Burma Railway, which was responsible for the deaths of large numbers of Allied war prisoners. It was interesting to see it from a different perspective, not of a prisoner but from someone who was working in a different role, providing comfort and support in the best way they could, to fighting troops. They’re all women that volunteered, some of them giving up quite comfortable lives well away from war zones, in order to help and do their part, to try and give the men a bit of cheer and comfort in what were incredibly horrible times.

In 1999, Olivia is lonely in London, she’s been working non-stop in an industry where it’s hard to get a good position and there’s a lot of competition. Her boss is demanding and thinks nothing of sending her on a trek to visit Beatrix a couple days before Christmas. By now Bea is in her 70s, living alone in a crumbling pile and she desperately needs money to fix the roof, which is why she’s considering selling something that means the world to her. She’s equal parts brusque and caring, tender and abrupt and it’s clear to Olivia she has a lot of stories to tell, which Olivia would love to hear. Especially about her time with the Wasbies and the other women. Olivia gets a chance to meet those remaining from the group and even more chance to understand what sort of things they experienced back in Burma, where some of the dangers weren’t from the local surroundings at all.

I really enjoyed the friendship that built between Olivia and Bea, built in such a short time but with such genuine warmth and feeling. Olivia hasn’t really made any connections since she moved to London from Australia but in meeting Bea, it gives her opportunity to make several different ones, some of which give her personal happiness and others which give her the courage to make decisions to further her career.

And the ending? So wonderfully satisfying.

9/10

Book #93 of 2021

The Last Reunion is book #40 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge

It also counts towards my participation in the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge for 2021 and is the 18th book completed.

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Joint Review: The Silk House by Kayte Nunn

The Silk House 
Kayte Nunn
Hachette AUS
2020, 384p
Copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

Australian history teacher Thea Rust arrives at an exclusive boarding school in the British countryside only to find that she is to look after the first intake of girls in its 150-year history. She is to stay with them in Silk House, a building with a long and troubled past, where the shadows hide more mysteries than she could ever imagine.

In the late 1700s, Rowan Caswell leaves her village to work in the home of an English silk merchant. She is thrust into a new and dangerous world where her talent for herbs and healing soon attracts attention.

In London, Mary-Louise Stephenson lives amid the clatter of the weaving trade and dreams of becoming a silk designer, a job that is the domain of men. Arriving in the market town of Oxleigh, she brings with her a length of fabric woven with a pattern of deadly plants that will have far-reaching consequences for all who dwell in the silk house.

My fellow blogger friend Marg, from The Intrepid Reader and I have quite similar tastes in books. We have read and loved a lot of the same ones and are frequently discussing books, recommending them to each other and in the past, we have often reviewed books together, hosting 2 part discussions. We haven’t done that for a while but seeing as we both read this title almost at the same time, we thought we’d revive it! Marg has the first part of the discussion and I’m hosting the second part. So pop over to her blog first and read that one before you read this one here.

Marg’s thoughts are in black and mine are in purple.

M: I could actually quite relate to that aspect of the story because in my final year of high school I went to a school that was all boys until that last year when about 20 girls were allowed.800 boys ranging in age from 5 to 18, and 17 or 18 year old girls.  What could go wrong. I don’t know how long that arrangement lasted for. It was for a while before I started but they don’t do it anymore!

To be honest I thought that there was probably more that could have been used in the story. Instead the uncomfortableness around this kind of change was only really touched on, and even then it was in relation to the other teachers and staff in the school and not so much with the students.

The main character in the modern time line is Thea Rust. She is a former junior Australian hockey player who is now a teacher and hockey coach.  She has chosen to come to the school  for a number of reasons. The first is because this is the school that shaped her father’s life very strongly when he was a student there and she is hoping that being there might help her with dealing with his death. The second is that she needs to continue working on her history major, and she is hoping that this will be much easier in England compared to being based in Australia.

It isn’t long after her arrival that she began to notice strange things about the house – doors slamming, little piles of dirt on her floor, things not being left where she left them, that kind of thing.

Thea was thrilled when she learned that the Silk House is going to be her home, with it’s long and colourful history that she began to research. The house is definitely a character in the modern part of the story, which is something I love in these dual timeline type books, often because of the secrets held within the walls.

How did you feel about the secrets that this house held, it’s history and how it impacted Thea and the students who lived in the house with her?

 

B: I didn’t go to a boarding school but I did live on campus at a university in a residential hall, which feels similar. I lived in a building known as “A-Block” which was separated by a football field sized paddock, from the other university residential halls, which kind of led to us being socially insular. There were 3 floors, sixteen rooms to a floor. Look, for the first semester it was a fun experience. We were all between the ages of 18-25, a lot of us were experiencing freedom for the first time (which probably is the biggest difference to a boarding school). But after that? It began to wear quite thin, especially when you had an exam at 9am but the rest of your floor is running around drunk at 3am, trying to get a shopping trolley up 2 flights of stairs for reasons known to precisely no one. Like you, I think that the school setting could have been utilised more. Thea makes an effort to connect with the girls she is responsible for and there are some brief mentions of her having to be in class, or helping with a hockey practice but overall, the school wasn’t as much a presence in the story as I expected.

It’s definitely more about Silk House, which is mysterious from the very beginning. As you said, Thea notices strange happenings – a piano being played in the night, her belongings not being where they left them, etc. Now….normally I’m actually not really a fan of things that appear supernatural…..it has to be done in a certain way for me to enjoy it. But I did find this very intriguing. The way that it skips back and forth, constructing the happenings of the past and then bringing you back to the present so you can see the links slowly being established between what happened all those years ago and what Thea comes to realise she is experiencing, was very well done. 

I did not expect all of the secrets that the house reveals…..I actually did have inklings of one, it was just beginning to click together in my mind when Thea suddenly comes to the same realisation. But there’s another, I would say more shocking-type reveal that I did not expect but it worked really well for the story, it tied everything together and made all of Thea’s experiences suddenly make sense. 

This is not really a romance novel, but towards the end, Thea connects with another character in a way that seems promising. How did you feel about this plot development?

 

M: To be honest, that actually felt a bit under developed for me. It either needed to be a stronger thread introduced earlier and explored more or not there at all!

What did you think? And what did you think of the book overall. I gave it a rating of ⅘ and I intend to go back and read the authors other books now.

 

B: I tend to agree – I thought it was also a bit underdeveloped and there were things that were not really adequately explained after some early interactions. I definitely think it could’ve been a larger part of the novel, even just an extra scene or two would’ve really added to the overall development, I think. 

Overall? I really enjoyed the story. Both the present day, with Thea exploring her relationship with her father through her desire to work at the school and also the historical timeline with Rowan and her position in the Silk House as well as Mary Louise and her quest to be recognised for her designs at a time when it wasn’t believed women could do such things. The book took me on some unexpected twists and turns and I thought that Kayte Nunn did an excellent job conveying the atmosphere of a house with so much history. 

I gave this an 8/10 (⅘ on GR) – a wonderfully solid read. And yes, you should definitely go back and read her previous novels, they are excellent!

Book #118 of 2020

The Silk House is book #41 of my participation in the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2020

 

 

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Review: The Forgotten Letters Of Esther Durrant by Kayte Nunn

The Forgotten Letters Of Esther Durrant
Kayte Nunn
Hachette AUS
2019, 384p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

A cache of unsent love letters from the 1950s is found in a suitcase on a remote island in this mysterious love story by top ten bestselling author, Kayte Nunn.

1951. Esther Durrant, a young mother, is committed to an isolated mental asylum by her husband. Run by a pioneering psychiatrist, the hospital is at first Esther’s prison but soon becomes her refuge.

2017. Free-spirited marine scientist Rachel Parker embarks on a research posting in the Isles of Scilly, off the Cornish coast. When a violent storm forces her to take shelter on a far-flung island, she discovers a collection of hidden love letters. Captivated by their passion and tenderness, Rachel determines to track down the intended recipient.

Meanwhile, in London, Eve is helping her grandmother, a renowned mountaineer, write her memoirs. When she is contacted by Rachel, it sets in motion a chain of events that threatens to reveal secrets kept buried for more than sixty years.

The Forgotten Letters of Esther Durrant is a deeply atmospheric, resonant novel that charts the heart’s wild places, choices and consequences. If you love Elizabeth Gilbert and Kate Morton you will devour this book.

This book opens in such an intriguing way. Esther Durrant is a young wife and mother who has recently suffered a terrible loss. She’s been struggling to cope and her husband is apparently taking her on a holiday, leaving their young son behind in the care of others, so that Esther can find some sort of enjoyment again. Their destination seems somewhat suspect – a remote island in terrible weather, a huge mansion. Not really the relaxing and indulgent holiday that Esther was expecting. She astounded to wake the next morning, bound, in a strange room. Her husband has committed her here, to an experimental asylum. She will remain there for months, undergoing therapy and hopefully, learning to cope with the tragedy that has befallen her so that she can return to her family and mother her young son once more.

It wasn’t that long ago that men could commit their wives to mental asylums with relatively little difficulty and at first, I thought that this was what Esther’s husband was doing. Out of sight, out of mine. His intentions are ambiguous at first – dragging a grieving woman out in terrible weather to a remote island under the premise of a ‘holiday’. But there’s no denying that Esther is struggling mentally and needs some help in learning to cope with the terrible tragedy she has experienced. On the island, alone and feeling abandoned by those that should love her, Esther is at first somewhat reluctant and combative, preferring to sleep her time away. But eventually the island and its inhabitants intrigue her and she begins playing a part in the relatively experimental form of psychological evaluation.

Many years later Rachel Parker accepts a job researching marine species on islands off the Cornish coast. Rachel has lived a vagabond life, never staying too long in one place, always moving on to the next challenge and exciting location. This location is somewhat different to the tropical ones that she’s been used to – it’s a much more unforgiving environment than she’s used to but after an adjustment period, she finds herself drawn to one of the remote islands with an old gothic mansion, inhabited by a lone woman who shuns modern conveniences. Forced to stay there after losing her boat in a storm, Rachel finds a suitcase of abandoned clothing with love letters tucked inside, which sends her on a mission to reunite the letters with their intended recipient.

This book was amazing. From the first scene, where I was trying to figure out what had happened to Esther to grieve her so and what her husband’s true intentions were in leaving her on the island, to Rachel and her job. Some of Rachel’s earlier postings sounded like heaven on earth – atolls in the Pacific, living an endless life of summer and beaches. But there’s a serious side to her work, mapping the impact climate change is having by using certain species. I related to her initial feelings about the climate of her new home but Rachel adapts well, becoming a part of the local community and befriending a few of the locals. When she’s basically ‘shipwrecked’ and rescued by a woman living on her own, the mystery deepens with the discovery of letters from Esther’s time staying at Little Embers, the large mansion that was originally used as the hospice.

Esther was a woman in pain – all of the patients at Little Embers were experiencing great mental trauma. The others were men who had fought in the war and returned with PTSD and shock type traumas, which back in 1951, wasn’t particularly well understood. Esther slowly overcomes her resentment at being left there and begins to bond with the fellow patients and also their doctor as well, a kind and thoughtful man who just wants to be able to help people with his ideas and remote location, which helps focus the intensive therapy. The patients are encouraged to be out of doors, to walk and tend the garden, to take part in simple tasks that help keep the house running. Slowly she develops a special relationship with someone, the house becoming no longer somewhere she was abandoned, but a refuge, a place she feels safe and has given her happiness.

This book winds through two timelines – Esther’s ‘incarceration’ for want of a better term and Rachel’s discovery of the letters, which lead her to a woman named Eve living in London, helping her grandmother with her memoirs. Both of the timelines were amazing – I didn’t know what one I wanted to stay in more. I was so interested in Esther’s journey and how she would work through her grief but at the same time, Rachel’s job and exploration of the islands and her discovery of the letters as well as her journey to solve the mystery of writer/recipient kept me riveted too. The writing is so descriptive and wonderful that even though I’ve never left Australia, I could picture myself there, I could feel the sting of the salt and the ice of the wind and rain. The remoteness seemed so appealing as well, travelling by boat to these different islands and exploring a geography that’s totally different to what I’m used to. The characters were brilliantly rendered, the relationships and connections laid out with care.

This is two amazing stories wrapped up in one cohesive telling. I’ve really enjoyed Kayte Nunn’s last two books now and eagerly look forward to whatever else she has to offer in the future. Highly recommend it.

9/10

Book #89 of 2019

The Forgotten Letters Of Esther Durrant is book #40 of The Australian Women Writers Challenge 2019

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Blog Tour Review: The Botanist’s Daughter by Kayte Nunn

The Botanist’s Daughter 
Kayte Nunn
Hachette AUS
2018, 400p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

Discovery. Desire. Deception. A wondrously imagined tale of two female botanists, separated by more than a century, in a race to discover a life-saving flower . . .

In Victorian England, headstrong adventuress Elizabeth takes up her late father’s quest for a rare, miraculous plant. She faces a perilous sea voyage, unforeseen dangers and treachery that threatens her entire family.

In present-day Australia, Anna finds a mysterious metal box containing a sketchbook of dazzling watercolours, a photograph inscribed ‘Spring 1886’ and a small bag of seeds. It sets her on a path far from her safe, carefully ordered life, and on a journey that will force her to face her own demons.

In this spellbinding botanical odyssey of discovery, desire and deception, Kayte Nunn has so exquisitely researched nineteenth-century Cornwall and Chile you can almost smell the fragrance of the flowers, the touch of the flora on your fingertips . . .

I really love dual narrative historical and contemporary stories and this one was unputdownable from the start. Elizabeth, technically a ‘spinster’ in Victorian England, is begged by her ailing father to continue his work in botany and find a miracle plant with believed healing properties. He desperately wants it found before his rival and nemesis does, who will surely sell it to the highest bidder. Although a somewhat privileged and cosseted woman, Elizabeth undertakes a long voyage by sea to South America with just her maid Daisy. Once there, she must keep her identity and mission a secret so as not to attract the attention of her father’s rival, who it seems, will do anything to make the discovery before anyone else does.

I really enjoyed the historical aspect of this novel. It seems that in this time the study of botany and foreign plants was quite a thing and Elizabeth’s father undertakes many voyages to bring back and cultivate foreign species. He has no sons so rather than risk his rival discovering this secret, incredible plant first, he begs his younger daughter to do it for him after his death, sending her on an amazing adventure in a very different place to what she is used to. Elizabeth will find true courage and strength of character on her journey as she endures many different hardships but she will also find great love and happiness as well.

Elizabeth is not without her flaws and she’s secretive and impetuous and singleminded in her task. She certainly doesn’t make things easy for herself and her dangerous expedition places people in danger other than just herself. I liked her but at times I just wanted her to be honest about herself and her task and take people into her confidence and give herself I don’t know, some back up? A bit of assistance? She’s got guts though – to travel such a way with only a maid to a place she’s unfamiliar with and doesn’t know much about is amazing. I love that she was a botanical artist too and very talented at it.

Anna inherits a house from her grandmother in the present day and finds a mysterious box within the wall behind a bookcase that will send her on another incredible journey to discover the identity and truth of the person behind it. Anna is also incredibly interested in botany and has studied at university although perhaps hasn’t truly developed her career due to tragedy. A lot of the time, Anna feels like going through the motions of existing – she works, she goes to the gym every Saturday, she meets her sister and mother for dinner. She doesn’t actually really seem to embrace life and still seems very stuck on something terrible that happened. Finding the box gives Anna a purpose and it’s also a vehicle for her to overcome her fears and do something she should’ve done a long time ago.

This book definitely took me places I did not expect when I picked it up. I was surprised how dark it got during some parts, which added a whole new depth to the story. It’s told with obvious passion and I found myself really into the evocative descriptions of life in both Victorian England and South America. Kayte Nunn paints lush portrait of the landscape, the social life and the people – even the voyage from England is vividly rendered, with poor Elizabeth suffering nearly the whole way. This was the sort of story that you could just sink right into and not come up for air until you were finished. I found both timelines really fascinating and was invested in both Elizabeth and Anna. The more I learned, the more I wanted to know…..and the more I found out, the better the story became.

This is a truly beautiful story that meshes two very different timelines together admirably and takes the reader on a journey around the world from inner city Sydney to the beauty of Cornwall and the intriguing forests of Chile. Even though it focuses very much on botanical matters, you don’t have to have an interest in these to enjoy it and it weaves the information in perfectly. It’s definitely a must-read for all fans of historical fiction and I would happily recommend it to anyone.

9/10

Book #133 of 2018

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