The Shadow House by Anna Downes

‘There was nothing better than a fresh start.’

Alex flees from an abusive relationship with her two children: teenaged son Ollie and baby daughter Kara. She moves from Sydney to Pine Ridge, an ecovillage fifty kilometres north-east of the NSW Central Coast’s suburban sprawl. Alex has three months to decide whether life at Pine Ridge is right for her and her family and initially she thinks it is perfect.

But not everyone is as welcoming as Kit, the founder of the ecovillage, and some unsettling events shake Alex.

‘The bones come first. A gift, but nothing wanted. Next, a doll: a likeness, a promise. And the blood marks the choice. It finds a face and then you know.’

There is an abandoned farmhouse on the hill opposite the village, with a history. The family who used to live there lost a child: their son went missing. There is a rumour now that the house is haunted.

The story shifts between Alex in the present and Renee, the mother whose son went missing from the farmhouse. Alex is drawn to the farmhouse, to try to uncover its history. It seems that someone wants to drive her out of the ecovillage, and she is very tempted to leave. But Alex realises that she cannot keep running from uncomfortable decisions: her children need certainty and continuity.

‘Create the life you want.’

An unsettling read with a few twists I did see coming, and a few I did not. If you enjoy twisty thrillers, I can recommend this.

Note: My thanks to NetGalley and Affirm Press for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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Sincerely, Ethel Malley by Stephen Orr

‘So that’s what I’ve decided to do: be honest.’

Who is Ethel Malley? She was Ern Malley’s sister, the one who sent the poems she discovered after Ern’s death to Max Harris, co-editor of the Angry Penguins. And in this novel, Ethel strides out of the shadows into an area bordered by history and imagination. The Ern Malley affair is one of Australia’s most infamous literary hoaxes, but Mr Orr’s Ethel is having none of that.

The novel itself opens in 1981 with Ethel’s death, takes us back to 1943 and 1944 and into the lives of Max Harris, his girlfriend (later wife) Von. Once he reads the poems Ethel sends him, Max is convinced that Ern is an undiscovered genius. He dedicates an entire issue of Angry Penguins to Ern’s poems. Ethel travels from Sydney to Adelaide, moves in with Max and helps him. Sort of helps him when she’s not hindering him or trying to take over completely. Ethel says she just wants Ern’s poems published but Max isn’t quite sure. Then two poets come forward, claiming that they wrote the poems.

The more Max, or his friend Mary Martin, dig into the Malley story the more uncertain it becomes. Stories change, facts become fluid, Ethel becomes more demanding. Max is charged with publishing Ern’s ‘pornographic’ poems, and the action moves to the court room.

What is truth? What constitutes freedom of speech? Where does fact end, and fiction begin? What constitutes art, and what is the role of censorship?

Reading this novel reminds me that it is not that long ago that many books were banned in Australia, and many Australians were suspicious of any whiff of modernity. Ethel Malley, championing Ern’s work, tries to control what is shared about Ern and fails. But does she fail because she—and he—are fictional, or because the audience is not worthy? And the poems? Does it matter how they were written and who wrote them? Max Harris considered them extraordinary.

Ethel becomes part of Max Harris’s world for a while, acquiring an understanding of modernism and determined to stand up for Ern and his work.

This is such a clever novel: so many possibilities to explore; so many aspects to consider. I especially liked the washed-up soccer ball with the Spanish word ’farsa’ (meaning farce) on it. A very neat touch.  Ethel Malley may (or may not) be real but in this novel Mr Orr brings the mid-1940s in Australia to life.

 ‘All of these lives had become threadbare, and put in the bin. Maybe that’s how it is with people. We just live and die?’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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The Monster of Her Age by Danielle Binks

‘Growing up, Lottie looked just the same to me as she did in the movies.’

Ellie Marsden has returned home, to Hobart, because her grandmother Lottie Lovinger is dying. Can Ellie make peace with her grandmother? Ellie is seventeen now, but she is still living with the trauma of her movie appearance with Lottie as a child.

‘Sadness has stages.’

As we wait with Ellie, as her grandmother lies in hospital, we learn about the infamous Lovinger dynasty. Their home in Battery Point is on the tourist trail, and every few hours a bus load of tourists is treated to a potted history of the Lovinger thespian fame. And Ellie, cast as a monster in the horror movie with Lottie, bullied at school and angry with both her mother and her grandmother is trying to separate person from deed. Ellie’s mother, Lottie’s ex-husbands, Ellie’s cousin Yael are some of the people who have gathered at Lovinger House.

Ellie meets Riya, who invites her to a meeting of a feminist film horror film collective. Ellie starts to look at horror movies through different eyes, questioning some of what she had come to believe. And she and Riya find their own space.

Ms Binks has set this novel in a fictional Australian film industry, one in which Australian film stars were successful without needing to flee to Hollywood. In this world, Lottie Lovinger is a big star, known and respected locally. Ellie comes to appreciate that her grandmother and the film star had separate identities (albeit with a degree of overlap).

There are some delightful characters in this novel, including several from diverse backgrounds. I enjoyed the way that Ms Binks drew the different elements (and people) together.

I enjoyed this novel and am looking forward to reading ‘The Year the Maps Changed’.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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The Shut Ins by Katherine Brabon

‘It is possible to create a whole hypothetical life of mistakes and consequences.’

The story unfolds over four notes, interconnecting the lives of four people, shared with us by the narrator:

‘I was in Japan alone when the story of Mai Takeda came to me. I don’t know where she is now—others’ stories only rest with us for a short time—so this is all I know from less than one year of her life.’

Mai and Hikaru went to school together in the Japanese city of Nagoya. Mai was one of the few people friendly with Hikaru, but she lost contact with him. Hikaru disappeared when they were eighteen. Ten years later and recently married, Mai runs into Hikaru’s mother, Hiromi. Mai learns that Hikaru has become a hikikomori, has withdrawn from society and has been unable to leave his bedroom for some years. Hiromi hires Mai to write to Hikaru, to encourage him to leave his room. Mai herself is struggling with the expectations of her husband and parents. And then Mai disappears.

‘Questions remained and they stalked me: is there no other side, is there no other way to live a life?’

The first note, from Winter to Spring 2014 is about Mai. The second note, from Spring to Summer 2014 is about Sadako. Sadako is a hostess, paid by Mai’s husband to serve him. He talks to her about Mai, about his discontent. The third note is about Hiromi, about the guilt and despair she feels that Hikaru will not leave his room. And it all becomes complicated when Hiromi needs to take care of her elderly mother in another city.

‘What god could comprehend this profoundly modern situation in which a grown child has moved as if back into the womb?’

And in the fourth note, we finally hear from Hiraku.

This is an intriguing novel, taking us through different reactions to the weight of expectations. Hiraku retreats from the world early: difference is neither desired nor accepted. Sadako gives us some insight into Mai’s husband’s requirements, while Hiromi bears the weight of Hiraku’s failure. Mai knows she cannot meet the expectations of her husband and parents, and she also disappears.

There is no neat ending to this story/these stories, just a reminder that roles for these four people are rigid and non-compliance with societal expectations is deemed failure. I can understand the desire to withdraw, to disappear rather than try to fit in. But is it ever possible to be completely separate from society? Hiraku may choose to stay in his room, but his mother still arranges his food and to wash his clothing.

An unusual novel, full of issues to contemplate.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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The Deep by Kyle Perry

‘This is Forest Dempsey. Be careful what you wish for.’

Pirates Bay, Tasman Peninsula, Tasmania. A thirteen-year-old boy walks out of the sea. There is a tattoo on his back: can he really be Forest Dempsey? Forest was believed dead: he went missing seven years ago.

The Dempsey family are well known on the Tasman Peninsula. They operate Dempsey Abalone and, using this as cover together with the weather, run a drug ring. Forest’s father Jesse was in charge, until he, his wife and Forest disappeared. His brother Davey now runs the operation, their other brother Mackenzie (known to most as Mackerel), out of gaol on strict bail, is shunned by the family including his mother Ivy.

‘Black wind at morning, sailors take warning. Black wind at night, death is in sight.’

The reappearance of Forest throws the family into crisis. Where has Forest been for all those years? Is his return tied to the emergence of the infamous Blackbeard, rumoured to be manoeuvring for a takeover of the Dempsey’s drug empire?

The story unfolds mainly through the perspectives of Mackerel Dempsey, his cousin Ahab Stark, and young Forest Dempsey. Family secrets and mysteries all have a part to play, as does the setting. Mackerel Dempsey is fighting to keep out of trouble before his next court appearance. His mother Ivy treats him with contempt. Ahab Stark is fighting his own demons and has renounced the family drug business. He has seen the cost firsthand. And Forest is surrounded by mystery.

I picked this novel up and could not put it down. I am familiar with many of the landmarks of the Tasman Peninsula and could just imagine the story unfolding there. Mr Perry has provided several well-developed characters for me to like (or loathe) and while parts of the story made me uncomfortable, I liked the way it was all drawn together in the end.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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Reasonable Doubt  by Dr Xanthé Mallett

‘The effects of wrongful convictions impact us all.’

Dr Xanthé Mallett is a forensic scientist and criminologist who has been based in Sydney since 2013. In this book, she looks at six specific cases where justice has failed. In five cases, men have been convicted of murder and have served time in prison. In each of these cases, there was a miscarriage of justice. I think that the most important points Dr Mallett makes are that miscarriages of justice can take many forms, and the criminal justice system does not always deliver justice.

‘We mostly forget about the wrongly accused and convicted when we think about victims of crime, but in this book I want to highlight some of their stories, because if it could happen to them it could happen to anybody.’

Staying with the first five cases, Dr Mallett demonstrates how the criminal justice system failed in each case. From false confessions and poor police work to contaminated evidence, from unreliable eyewitness accounts to dubious expert advice: there are many causes of failure. There are expert inserts included which provide additional information about legal procedures and forensic evidence. In two of the cases, involving an Aboriginal man and a man of Ethiopian heritage, racism seems to be a factor. Assumptions feed sloppy policework in one case, witness misidentification based on race seems a factor in the other.

Reading through each of these first five cases: Wayne Butler; Kevin Condren; Andrew Mallard; Henry Keogh and Khalid Baker is an eye-opener. I wondered how any of these men could have been convicted (found guilty beyond reasonable doubt) based on the information presented to the court. And then I remembered that what I was reading and what the jury had available to them were not the same.

The sixth case Dr Mallett covers is very different. This is the case of the infamous Lawyer X, Nicola Gobbo. This woman defended many of the criminals involved in Melbourne’s gangland war. While she was defending them, she was feeding information to the police about their criminal activities. She may also have been feeding information back to her clients about police activities. And so, it would seem that at least some of Ms Gobbo’s clients were denied a fair trial. Sigh. At least one client, Tony Mokbel, has appealed against his conviction. The implications for the Victoria Police Force are huge, and undoubtedly Ms Gobbo will be looking over her shoulder for the rest of her life.

I found this book disturbing, informative and thought-provoking and would recommend it to anyone interested in criminal justice.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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The First Day of Spring by Nancy Tucker

‘I killed a little boy today.’

Eight-year-old Chrissie, starved of food and affection, kills a child. She thinks he will come back from being dead, but she’s not sure when. Her parents are absent even when they are present: her mammy sometimes forgets to provide food, her da is not often home. Chrissie learns to steal, to impose herself on others to get what she needs. She is a bully, and a liar. It takes a while for the police to get to the bottom of Steven’s murder: no one wants to believe that a child could do such a thing.

‘You had to hurt people when they annoyed you, to teach them a lesson.’

And when Chrissie is finally caught, she spends years in a juvenile home.

Fifteen years later, Julia is a single mother. Her daughter Molly is the most precious part of her life, and she is terrified that she will lose Molly to the social services. Julia is very protective of Molly and reluctant to spend time with any of the other mothers: what would they think of her?

And then Julia starts receiving phone calls which terrify her: someone clearly knows her past.

This is a thought-provoking novel. Ms Tucker’s characterisation of Chrissie is chilling and complex and feels complete. My response is mixed. While deploring many of Chrissie’s actions, I keep wondering about the influence of nurture and the inheritance of nature. Can Chrissie ever move beyond the past? Should she?

Julia, afraid of losing Molly, revisits aspects of her past. Will she find peace? Should she?

I finished reading this novel and I have found that aspects are lingering in my mind. A challenging and heartbreaking read.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

The Elephant’s Journey by José Saramago

A review from 2010, of a book I very much enjoyed.

‘Well, it isn’t every day that an elephant appears in our lives.’

In 1551, King João III of Portugal gave the Archduke Maximilian of Austria an unusual wedding present: an elephant named Solomon. The elephant’s journey from Lisbon to Vienna was witnessed and remarked on by ordinary people as well as by scholars and historians. From this, José Saramago has crafted a delightful short novel.

Solomon and his keeper, Subhro, have been living a dismal existence forgotten in a corner of the palace grounds. When King João and his queen decide that the elephant would be an appropriate wedding gift, Subhro is given two new suits of clothes and Solomon an overdue scrub.

Solomon and Subhro travel together on foot from Lisbon to Valladolid, to Catalonia, by sea to Genoa, on to Venice, over the Alps, arriving at Innsbruck on the feast day of Epiphany in 1552, before continuing by barge down the rivers Inn and Danube toward Vienna. For part of the journey, they are accompanied by the Archduke, his new wife and the royal guard. The Archduke renames Subhro ‘Fritz’ and Solomon proves himself to be a natural sailor. Together, the party traverses a continent dived by both the Reformation and civil wars. They travel through the cities of Northern Italy, including Trento where the Council of Trent is in session. They travel at an unhurried pace, largely dictated by Solomon. And wherever they go, they encounter people with various interpretations of the sudden appearance of an elephant in their lives.

‘Like magicians, elephants have their secrets.’

One of my favourite passages involves Subhro discussing religion with the Portuguese captain. The discussion is overheard by peasants from a nearby village who, following what they have heard come to a conclusion which they share with their priest: ‘God is an elephant, father.’ The priest replies that ‘God is in all his creatures.’ This leads to an argument which the priest settles by promising to exorcise the elephant. The next day, he pretends to exorcise the elephant but because he is only pretending (or so we might believe) the elephant punishes him – by kicking him gently.

This is a delightful and funny story.

‘Given time, everything in the universe will dovetail perfectly with everything else.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Questions Raised by Quolls: Fatherhood and Conservation in an Uncertain World by Harry Saddler

‘Australia has the highest extinction rate in the world.’

I found this book a fascinating meditation on the consequences of habitat destruction. I have seen quolls, but only in wildlife sanctuaries and zoos in Tasmania. I know that there are Eastern Quolls at the Mulligans Flat Woodland Sanctuary, which I have visited occasionally, but I have not yet seen them. But reading this book also reminds me of some of the introduced species I do see regularly, including foxes and rabbits in the Snowy Mountains.

I am reminded, too, of the footage of the last (captive) thylacine (Tasmanian Tiger) who died in 1936. I walked past the site of the Beaumaris Zoo last time I was in Tasmania. I have since read that the last thylacine, named Benjamin, was in fact a female.

In this book, Mr Saddler reflects on the impact of human activity on our environment, on the species lost or critically endangered, on the efforts being made by some to save others. He reflects also on the responsibility of choosing whether to have children. The impact of the way we live has significant impacts on the natural world: the destruction of forests, the introduction of other species, the pollution of the environment.

This book made me stop, to think about the world in which I live and the world in which I would like future generations to live. It is too late for the thylacines, but we can still save the Tasmanian Devils and the quolls.  At least I hope so.

‘The Australian landscape will never be what it was. Too many species have been killed, each one significant in its own way to the overall environment.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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Cutters End by Margaret Hickey

 ‘He wasn’t coming back.’

On New Year’s Eve, 1989, near Cutters End in South Australia, a body is discovered near a fire damaged car. Michael Denby’s body had burns and a broken leg. A finding of accidental death was made.

But thirty-two years later, the case is reopened. Several people, including a high-profile celebrity for whom Michael Denby was a hero, believe that he was murdered. In July 2021, Acting Inspector Mark Ariti is seconded to the case. He knows some of the witnesses from 1989. After interviewing those he can from the old case files, Ariti travels to Cutters End. Ariti works with local Senior Constable Jagdeep Kaur and soon discovers that there are other unsolved cases linked to Cutters End.

During their investigation Ariti and Kaur find some new information which seems to demonstrate that Michael Denby was not the hero some thought him to be. And in the background, Ariti has some domestic issues to deal with.

So, what really happened to Michael Denby? And what other secrets are being held by both other locals and witnesses?

I enjoyed this novel. I thought I had the mystery worked out, and then a twist took me by surprise. Ms Hickey has created a remote rural setting in which I could feel both the heat and the wretched flies. I enjoyed Senior Constable Jagdeep Kaur and her diligent police work and wondered whether Acting Inspector Mark Ariti would be able to move beyond the domestic issues that are troubling him.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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