The Land Girls by Victoria Purnam

‘The war had touched everyone, changed everything.’

Australia, 1942. War has engulfed both Europe and the Pacific. In Australia, there’s a shortage of male farm labour because many men, deemed not to be in essential industries have joined the armed forces. In this novel, we meet three very different women who join the Australian Women’s Land Army, doing their bit for the war effort.

Flora Atkins is thirty.  She lives with her father and her brother Jack and works in an office.   Her other brother Harry is serving overseas. Jack is deemed medically unfit for military service, but this doesn’t stop a stranger from giving Jack a white feather.  Flora is angered by this and decides to leave her office job and join the Australian Women’s Land Army. Posted to Mildura, Flora meets Betty Brower, a seventeen-year-old former Woolworths shop assistant.  Betty, with her parents’ permission, has joined because her best friend and neighbour Michael has joined the Australian Army.  The third woman is Lilian Thomas, a well-to-do young woman from Adelaide, who is trying to find her own place in the world, free from the burden of her family’s expectations.

This novel follows the story of each of the three women: their achievements, heartbreaks and hopes. While I found myself most drawn to Flora’s story, I became caught up in the lives of all three.  Each of the women will take pride in her new role, each will develop new friendships, new strengths and a broader view of the world.  Each will be changed in some way by her experiences: there’s both happiness and heartbreak in these pages.  To write more might ruin the joy of a first-time read.

If you are interested in life in the Australian Women’s Land Army and the vital role it played in Australia during World War II, you may enjoy this novel as much as I did.

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

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AWW2019

The Montgomery Murder by Cora Harrison

‘It was a foggy evening in late November.’

A man lies dead in a Victorian London street.  A young lad, Alfie, is apprehended stealing a loaf of bread.  Who killed the man?  What will happen to the lad?

The dead man is Mr Montgomery, a wealthy man.  He’s been garrotted, and Inspector Denham of the Bow Street Police Station is keen to find out why and by whom as quickly as possible.  He sees Alfie, as he’s taken to the Bow Street Police Station and thinks that (perhaps) Alfie can help.  He quickly establishes that Alfie is both local and streetwise and knows the St Giles district where Mr Montgomery’s body was found.  The police need someone who can easily (and not obviously) access the slums of St Giles and Alfie fits the bill perfectly.

And so begins an action-packed story which, while it is aimed at young readers, has plenty to offer to older readers as well.

Alfie is a survivor.  He looks after his brother Sammy, their cousins Jack and Tom, and their faithful dog Mutsy, trying hard to keep a roof over their heads and food in their mouths. Ms Harrison depicts Victorian London vividly: the sights, sounds and smells as well as the hardships for the poor.

‘Usually, if you took a chance, something turned up.’

But there’s danger ahead for Alfie and his gang.  There are several people who may have wanted to murder Mr Montgomery, and others who might be convenient scapegoats.  And there are those who would murder anyone who gets in their way.  Sarah (who works as a scullery maid in the Montgomery house) is another wonderful character.

Ms Harrison provides plenty of detail about the squalid conditions in which the poor lived and reminds us that the poor did not enjoy the luxury of childhood. There are a few twists in the tale, and quite a bit of suspense, as Alfie and his gang try to identify the murderer.

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

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Eight Lives by Susan Hurley

‘Golden Boy, that’s what we called him.’

As a child, Dung (David) Tran was a refugee from Vietnam.   He and his mother were among those who undertook the perilous trip to Australia by boat. As an adult, Dr David Tran has become known as the Golden Boy of Australian medical research.  He’s invented a drug which could transform immunology. But, just after eight volunteers have been recruited for the first human trial of the drug, David dies in very unusual circumstances.

What has happened, and why?

The story is told to us by five of David’s family, friends and business associates.  Each of them must carry some responsibility for his death but finding out how (and why) takes a reader on a complicated journey. And you’ll need to pay attention because there are more than a few twists in this tale.  This is not a book for the squeamish: details of some of the procedures involved in drug trials are upsetting.  It’s the kind of reading that may have you questioning whether the costs involved in developing and trialling drugs justify the benefits.

The origin of this novel was in a real drug trial that ended in tragedy.  This may have been Ms Hurley’s starting point, but there are several other issues covered in the novel.  It took me a while to get into the novel (reading multiple perspectives often slows me down) but once I had the voices straight, I found it very hard to put the novel down.

And the mystery of David’s death?  You’ll need to read to the very end to find that out.

I enjoyed this novel, although I found some aspects quite confronting.

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

#AWW2019

Vanishing Point

Maybe it has been a little while since I’ve travelled up this stretch of Parramatta Road, or maybe it happened suddenly, but now there’s a great gap between Pyrmont Bridge Road and Mallett Street, where a whole block of buildings have been demolished. The light is the first thing I notice, how the demolition has opened the streetscape to the sky. I try to remember what had been there. A golf store, that’s right (and before that, a building supplies store distinguished by a window display that included a mannequin on a toilet) and a 1930s bank building with a brick and sandstone facade, a gym, then a row of former warehouses that had been repurposed as furniture stores. It was a bleak stretch: the other side of the road more favoured by pedestrians, with its slightly more appealing businesses – a toy store, vacuum cleaner store, and school with…

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RICHARD BROINOWSKI. Growth of Tribal Hatred | John Menadue – Pearls and Irritations

Hotel Mumbai, currently screening in Australia, tells the harrowing story of attacks by the Pakistani militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba across the Indian city of Mumbai in November 2008. Indoctrinated to believe that non-Muslims are not human, 10 young men armed with grenades and AK-47s go on an orgy of destruction. Urged on through their earpieces by…

Source: RICHARD BROINOWSKI. Growth of Tribal Hatred | John Menadue – Pearls and Irritations

MAX HAYTON. Jacinda Ardern leads a nation in grief. | John Menadue – Pearls and Irritations

Under a remarkable young woman New Zealand is discovering deep resources of kindness and compassion. In the aftermath of the Christchurch massacre people touched by the tragedy built mountains of flowers and in their thousands attended rallies in support of the Muslims living in their communities.  In the saddest of circumstances Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern…

Source: MAX HAYTON. Jacinda Ardern leads a nation in grief. | John Menadue – Pearls and Irritations

The Devil and the River by R.J. Ellory

‘Sometimes the mind slipped its moorings.’

One summer evening in 1954, sixteen-year-old Nancy Denton walks into the woods of Whytesburg, Mississippi.  She is never seen again, yet her mother still waits and hopes that she will return home.  Two decades later, a young woman’s well-preserved body is unearthed from a riverbank.  She has been brutally murdered.  But by whom, and why?  Sherriff John Gaines investigates.  John Gaines has his own demons to face, and much of the first half of the story involves him attempting to piece together events from Nancy Denton’s past while ruminating on his own life. While this slows down the pace of the story, it helps bring the characters into much sharper relief in the second half.

‘Man, I tell you … sometimes the only certainty was that if you were killed today, you could not be killed tomorrow.’

It’s a dark story, and Nancy won’t be the only person whose death requires investigation by the end of it.  There are ritualistic aspects to Nancy’s death which need explanation.  While John Gaines’s is the main viewpoint, we also have some narrative from Maryanne Benedict (Nancy’s friend) recalling the events from the summer of 1954.

‘The memory of the dead is the greatest burden of all.’

Occasionally I became impatient, wanting the pace of the story to increase, wanting to get to the bottom of Nancy’s death.  But towards the middle of the book I was fully engaged and unable to put it down.

This is the sixth novel I’ve read by Mr Ellory.  I’ve enjoyed them all.  My favourite (so far) is ‘Bad Signs’ but I still have a few more to read.

Recommended, if you enjoy dark mysteries and are prepared to invest the time to undertake the meandering journey required to appreciate the characters.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith