Review ‘The Brisbane Line’ by J P Powell

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This is a book I had to read.  The name is derived from “an alleged 1942 WWII government plan to abandon Northern Australia in the event of a Japanese invasion”— there is nothing alleged about it.  My father was a young soldier in WWII based in Melbourne when his division received the command to form The Brisbane Line.  It made such an impression on him that later, when he was married, he relocated the family to Brisbane where I currently live.

I dearly wish I could discuss this novel with my late father but I do remember him reminiscing about the off-duty times and leave in tropical Far North Queensland where hi-jinks often lead to a soldier’s death.   I am sure there was tension, corruption and possibly murder among the thousands of American troops stationed in Brisbane, but on the other hand I know families of young women who married GI Joe’s and went to live in US never to return.

Enigmatic protagonist, Rose, has a boyfriend who is a prisoner-of-war and she says “It’s men who cause the trouble in the first place.  It’s just another hypocrisy.”

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Suitable for crime readers and historians, this well-researched fictionalised story is more interesting than a text book and follows Sergeant Joe Washington, a US Military Police officer and amateur photographer who joins local police in battling crime and black market corruption.  Joe also has grave suspicions of a murder cover-up.

The humid atmosphere is laced with grunge and irritability offset by guys and gals dancing the night away at the Trocadero Dance Hall.  Well-known people make an appearance, for example notorious cop Frank Bischof, author Thea Astley and General Douglas MacArthur, an American who in WWII commanded the Southwest Pacific region. 

The book is gritty and at times the inequality upset my 21st century sensibilities but it is based on true events.  Powell has recreated a vibrant town which embraced a huge influx of strangers in uniform and the repercussions this had on Brisbane society, some of which still lingers today.

Gretchen Bernet-Ward


Author Profile

Briobooks
http://briobooks.com.au/authors/jppowell
YouTube Avid Reader Books interview
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SbE0v3Yhkx0

Brisbane Line JP Powell Author Photo 2020 (5)Judy Powell is an archaeologist and historian with a passion for bringing the past to life.  She has worked as a high school teacher, an academic, a National Parks officer, a museum administrator and has excavated in Jordan, Cyprus and Greece as well as leading historical archaeology projects in Australia.  Powell, who lives outside Brisbane, was awarded a QANZAC Fellowship by the State Library of Queensland to pursue research into, and writing of, a series of crime novels set in Brisbane during World War II.

Review ‘Red Joan’ by Jennie Rooney

It took a while to get my head around Joan Stanley’s rationale.  Growing up, I had heard about the Official Secrets Act and censored letters from my father who was in the second world war, but never about spies selling secrets: I gleaned by inference that espionage was problematic for all sides.  Red Joan knew how to keep her lips zipped.

I really enjoyed this story and I put another book on hold to finished it.  Before and after the 70th anniversary of VE-Day, there was a rash of fact and fiction war books from the UK and this is one of them.

The bombings are what I found missing in Jennie Rooney’s tale, the destruction and the precautions every citizen had to take every day to survive.  Joan Stanley appears to live a charmed life in this regard, and not much of the physical devastation seems to touch her.

Of course, this story is character-driven, an emotional account of the Cold War, an internal struggle between what is right and wrong and justifying one’s decisions, rather than air-raids and bombed out buildings.

After a sheltered schooling, Joan attends Cambridge University where she meets flamboyant student Sonya; and Joan is easily swayed by Sonya’s handsome cousin Leo Galich.  Slowly Joan is groomed to become a spy and eventually steals top secret documents.  While her resolute decision to help the war effort unfolds beautifully and logically (to Joan at least) I couldn’t help thinking “Surely she isn’t that naive?”  But she is, and this propels the story.

That, and romance.  This is where cousin Leo comes in.  What can I say about earnest socialist Leo?  He is easy to picture—any handsome, charismatic, idealistic Uni student would fit his mould.  I can excuse Joan’s love-struck crush on Leo but not her belief in her new friend Sonya, a powerful influence.

Fur Coat New Zealand Fashion Museum 01
Fur coat 1940s in New Zealand Fashion Museum http://www.nzfashionmuseum.org.nz/f/fur-jacket-with-squared-shoulders/

I thought Joan’s shared fur coat was a nice touch, it was the tenuous connection, the innocent thread throughout the story but it spoke volumes about their personalities.

Joan Stanley (loosely based on real spy Melita Norwood) specialises in theoretical physics and when she gets a job in a metals research facility, the touch-and-go desire with Professor Max Davis is well done, I could see that happening.  The cast of males are oblivious to Joan’s duplicity, and receptionist Karen is pretty much ignored.  For a laugh I pictured Karen afterwards as a retired MI5 operative.

As I said, I like this book and would recommend it, not for an in-depth look at the war effort but as a glimpse into the human side, the male/female relationships and the story behind the atomic bomb construction.  Just enough details; the lab, scientific information, the protocols.

Destructive and fascinating at the same time.

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NOT relevant to Joan but just as fictitious – American actor Steve McQueen (1930-1980) on a motorcycle used in war movie ‘The Great Escape’.

Jennie Rooney’s modern day interrogators, Ms Hart and Mr Adams, were created a bit like Scully and Mulder from the X-Files, lots of meaningful glances at Joan, but they served their purpose well.

In the end, in my opinion, the unravelling of the story was pretty low-key.  Sir William Mitchell was out of the game, so that left Leo and Sonya’s questionable career moves.  Poor Joan, there seemed no end to her emotional turmoil before and after discovery.

Lately I’ve read a couple of books with weak transitions, but I thought the past and present were well written in Rooney’s story.  She did a good job with Joan’s son Nick Stanley QC, a real fly-in-the-ointment (or our own subconscious thoughts?) and he had a Hollywood style moment at the end.

I like to pick out my favourite lines in a story and I quote:

There is a pause.
“Anyway”, Joan says, “I’d have thought the Soviets would be developing their own weapons?”
“They are.  But it’s taking too long.  They’re starting from a disadvantage.”
Leo sighs and reaches once more across the table.
“Please, Jo-jo.  Don’t you see?  You’re in a unique position here to change the history of the world.”

When VE-Day dawns on 8th May 2020 it will be 75 years since the end of the war in Europe so I guess there will be more books forthcoming.

Of course, we read in hindsight and that can be a wonderfully misleading thing.

Gretchen Bernet-Ward


AUTHOR PROFILE:

Pen Paper Clipart Boy Holding PencilJennie Rooney was born in Liverpool in 1980.  She read History at the University of Cambridge and taught English in France before moving to London to work as a solicitor.  She lives in West London, and also writes and teaches History and English.  The fictitious story of Joan Stanley, the KGB’s longest-serving British spy, is her third novel.  It was adapted for the 2018 film ‘Red Joan’ directed by Trevor Nunn, starring Dame Judi Dench as aged Joan and Sophie Cookson as young Joan.

INTERVIEW:  Read Jennie Rooney’s discussion with RadioTimes about ‘Red Joan’ her book that inspired the movie and why she made changes https://www.radiotimes.com/news/film/2019-08-28/red-joan-author-on-why-she-changed-the-true-story-for-judi-dench-movie-im-not-a-biographer/

Assassin and the Actress ‘Reckoning: A Memoir’

A highly charged and deeply honest memoir, ‘Reckoning’ combines research into the life of assassin and Polish World War II survivor Zbigniew Szubanski , father of Australian actress Magda Szubanski, and Magda herself as she struggles to come to terms with her father’s legacy and forge her own career within the world of television and movies.  This absorbing, eloquently written book contains remarkable revelations of wartime espionage, emotional family ties and facing the truth, and I was enthralled to the very last page.

First published in 2016, ‘Reckoning’ is Magda’s debut novel, and courageously written.  I must admit my initial thoughts were ‘Wow, she’s brave putting that in writing’ but it made me love this book even more.  Definitely a five-star read!  Magda relates one of those true stories from childhood to adulthood which hits the right cord with just about everyone.  We’ve had similar feelings and domestic issues and career changes and sexuality debates and, yes, sadly, the father we got to understand a little too late.

‘Reckoning’ has gone on to bigger things but here’s the first results:
Winner Nielsen BookData Booksellers Choice Award, 2016
Winner Book of the Year, Australian Book Industry Awards, 2016
Winner Biography of the Year, Australian Book Industry Awards, 2016
Winner Douglas Stewart Prize for Non-Fiction, NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, 2016
Winner Indie Award for Non-Fiction, 2016
Winner Victorian Community History Award Judges’ Special Prize, 2016
Shortlisted Matt Richell Award for New Writer of the Year, Australian Book Industry Awards, 2016
Shortlisted Dobbie Literary Award, 2016
Shortlisted National Biography Award, 2016

Website https://www.textpublishing.com.au/books/reckoning
Twitter https://twitter.com/magdaszubanski

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Magda Szubanski is one of Australia’s best known comedy performers.  She lives in Melbourne and began her career in university revues before writing and appearing in a number of comedy shows.  Magda created the iconic character of Sharon Strzelecki in ABC-TV series ‘Kath and Kim’.  She performs in theatre productions and has acted in movies – notably ‘Babe’ and ‘Babe Pig in the City’ – and currently ‘Three Summers’ directed by Ben Elton and ‘The BBQ’ directed by Stephen Amis.

Gretchen Bernet-Ward