Catch and Kill by Ronan Farrow

‘For any survivor, memories haunt.’

If you have wondered how predators like Harvey Weinstein can get away with serial abuse for so long, then read this book.  In 2017, an investigation led Ronan Farrow into a story which has exposed corruption, cover-up, and sickening behaviour.  It has introduced us to people courageous enough to tell their stories and has led to the global #MeToo movement.

Mr Farrow persisted with his investigation in the face of intimidation.  Plenty of people wanted to keep the truth hidden, and money (so often) talks. There were the predators, and those who enabled them by ignoring what was happening.  Stories were bought and buried:

‘It was an old term in the tabloid industry: ‘catch and kill’.’

As I read, I felt sickened, both by the actions of the predators and those who protected them.  As I read, I felt saddened for those who were abused and were rendered powerless.  As I read, I felt grateful to Mr Farrow for his courage and persistence in uncovering this evil. 

And when I finished reading, I wept.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

My Tidda, My Sister by Marlee Silva

‘Stories of Strength and Resilience from Australia’s First Women.’

I did not know what to expect when I picked up this beautifully presented book. Marlee Silva, author and host of Tiddas4Tiddas, has brought together the experiences of several Indigenous women and girls, Rachael Sarra has surrounded the stories with colourful, vibrant artwork.

The stories are inspiring: full of hope and courage, as well as recognition of the difficult reality of life for many Indigenous people.

Two things stood out for me.  The first is the need to share the success stories.   It is the success stories that will provide the positive role models and inspire others.  The second was this reflection on Australia Day:

‘It is important to stress, though, I will still feel unable to celebrate Australia on any day, if the date change isn’t accompanied by a change in attitudes and actions.’

It is obvious, isn’t it?  So obvious that most of us have missed this critically important issue.  What are we celebrating, and why?

There are thoughts about identity and belonging, about connection to culture.  Different experiences.  And there is this perspective:

‘For a lot of women, but particularly women of colour or other minority backgrounds, imposter syndrome is something they face every day when they find success in what they do, or step out from the expectations broader society has of them.  It refers to an overwhelming sense that you don’t deserve to receive recognition or praise or to have opportunities you’ve received or be on particular platforms.’

How many of you can relate to this?

Be inspired, and don’t forget to share your success stories.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AWW2020

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The Edwards Street Baby Farm by Stella Budrikis

‘How did it come to this?’

In 1907, Perth woman Alice Mitchell was arrested for the murder of five-month-old Ethel Booth.  Alice Mitchell, a nurse and midwife, had been registered since 1903 with the Perth Local Board of Health to take charge of infants. Babies were boarded at her premises in Edward Street in East Perth while their mothers worked to support themselves and pay for their children’s care.

‘How could so many infants die in the care of one woman without anyone becoming concerned?’

The case came to light after Mitchell was reported by a constable on duty in the neighbourhood when she casually mentioned during a conversation that she had a child lying ill in her house but could not afford a doctor. The police called Dr Davey to attend a 10-month-old child who was in “an exceedingly emaciated condition”.  While at the house Dr Davey noticed another baby, Ethel Booth, in a similar condition.  Both children were taken to Perth Public Hospital, but little Ethel died the next day.

Ethel Booth was not the only baby to die in Mrs Mitchell’s care.  Corporal O’Halloran  investigated the names and addresses of the parents included on the (incomplete) register Mrs Mitchell was required to keep as well as details from the State Registrar’s office and was able to compile a list of thirty-seven infants who had died in Alice Mitchell’s care between 190l and 1907.  There may have been others.

‘I keep them for a living.  I don’t keep them for the love of the thing.’

But who else was involved?  In this book, Ms Budrikis writes of the social conditions in Perth at the time, of the factors that lead to Mrs Mitchell operating a baby farm, and of Dr Ned Officer and Miss Harriet Lenihan. The case raised questions about how so many infants could die, in apparently squalid conditions.

Dr Officer was the doctor who, apparently, provided regular oversight of the children in Mrs Mitchell’s care.  He also signed many of the children’s death certificates.  Miss Lenihan was the Lady Health Inspector responsible for inspecting the premises where the babies were kept on a regular basis.  Dr Officer emerges from the trial unscathed, while Miss Lenihan is vilified.

And Mrs Mitchell?  The trial concluded on 13 April 1907 and the jury found her guilty of manslaughter and she was sentenced to five years hard labour. The case led to legislative changes to protect the welfare of children.

In her Afterword, Ms Budrikis, while wondering about this case writes:

‘Clearly something went terribly wrong to cause the death of so many babies and young children in one household.  The death rate among the infants in Alice’s care was far higher than the already-high rate amongst other “boarded-out” children.’

I found this a difficult but important book to read.  And I wonder what really happened.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AWW2020

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Dance of Death by Helen McCloy

‘The snow began to fall Tuesday, about cocktail time—huge flakes whirling spirally in a north wind.’

And the following day, there are three cases of death by exposure. One of those bodies belongs to an unidentified girl who apparently died of heat exposure, a detail which has been kept from the papers.  Her body was discovered by men shovelling snow.  Who is she, and how did she die?

So begins the mystery the local police dub ‘The Red Hot Momma Case’.

Dr Basil Willing is a psychiatrist attached to the district attorney’s office in New York.   He and Inspector Foyle investigate what becomes an intricate and involved case, full of mysteries, secrets, and red herrings.  The identity of the girl is quickly discovered, but not before some misleading details are introduced.

“Mrs Jocelyn,” said Basil, evenly, “the most disillusioning thing about being a psychiatrist is discovering how many kind relatives wish that other members of their family could be declared insane.”

The main puzzle is who wanted Kitty Jocelyn dead?  Most of the people involved had good reason for wanting her alive.  But the autopsy reveals that her death was a consequence of poisoning, by a diet drug she endorsed but did not take.  Dr Willing uses his knowledge of psychology to try to get into the murderer’s mind.  Intriguing, because there were several people with opportunity, several secrets which could explain motivation.

The story moves at a rapid pace, and while I worked out who I thought was responsible just before the end, I needed confirmation. 

‘The answer came in a flash of illumination as sudden as lightening.’

This novel was first published in 1938 and is being republished in 2020.  It is the first of a series of fourteen novels by Helen McCloy (1904-1994) to feature Dr Basil Willing, and I have added the others to my reading list. A great ‘Golden Era’ mystery.

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

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Consolation by Garry Disher

‘I’m concerned for someone’s welfare.’

Constable Paul Hirschhausen (Hirsch) was posted to the one-man police station at Tiverton in the small South Australia eighteen months ago.  Tiverton may be a small town, but he is busy.  First, there is a snowdropper at work, stealing elderly women’s underwear from their clotheslines.  Hirsch is not taking this lightly, but suddenly there are a few other issues to deal with.  A teacher from the high school ‘phones him: she’s worried about the welfare of a home-schooled student.  Things are about to get even busier for Hirsch: his sergeant must take leave suddenly, and he needs to take on her job as well.  And then he is called urgently to the Tiverton Primary School:

‘I need you to get here straight away.  A parent’s going mental.’

This is just the beginning.  A child in danger, another family under pressure.  And there are some concerning rumours doing the rounds about one of the local pillars of the community.  An elderly woman dies: was it an accident or could it have been murder?

I was drawn into this novel and could not put it down.  Mr Disher brings his characters to life with their concerns and frustrations, added in a few complications which kept me guessing, and has me wanting to read the first two novels in this series immediately.

There are several different threads in this action-packed novel, and Mr Disher manages to bring them all together by the end of the story. Highly recommended.

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

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AussieAuthor2020

The Cartographer’s Secret by Téa Cooper

‘The time has come to collate my notes and make them available to the world.’

Set in the Hunter Valley of New South Wales, this novel involves two timelines, two women, some intriguing family mysteries, and a map.

In 1880, Evie Ludgrove went missing from her home at the Yellow Rock estate without a trace.  Her father had been obsessed with Dr Ludwig Leichhardt, and when The Bulletin magazine offered a £1,000 reward for proof of where he met his fate, Evie was determined to work it out.  She had her father’s papers to draw on, as well as information in the archives of the Royal Geographical Society.  Evie set off on her secret mission but was never seen again.

In 1911, Letitia Rawlings arrives at the Yellow Rock estate to advise her Great Aunt Olivia of a family bereavement.  Letitia, driving her Model T Ford may appear to be independent, but she has some problems of her own.  Her brother has died suddenly, and she is not happy with her mother’s plans.  But Letitia finds that things at Yellow Rock are not exactly as her mother has portrayed them.  And when she finds a map in her grandfather’s study, she wonders if she can solve the mystery of Evie’s disappearance.

I really enjoyed this novel, with its interesting female characters (especially Great Aunt Olivia) and its mysteries.  There is a touch of romance as well.

If you enjoy Australian historical fiction with strong female characters, with family mysteries to puzzle and with a hint of romance, I can recommend ‘The Cartographer’s Secret’.

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

#AWW2020

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The Dressmaker’s Secret by Rosalie Ham

‘Now here she was, the sad mess of her life enduring and another past from which to flee.’

In this sequel to the wonderfully quirky ‘The Dressmaker’, we find Tilly Dunnage in Melbourne.  It is 1953, and Melbourne society is looking forward to several events around the coronation of the young princess who is about to become Queen Elizabeth II.  And appropriate dresses will be required.  Tilly is working in a pretentious, second-rate salon in Collins Street where she is underpaid and unappreciated.  Why?  Because Tilly is keen to remain anonymous as she tries to escape from the past.

But the past is not quite so keen to let go of Tilly.  Sergeant Farrat and the McSwiney clan have been looking for her, as are the residents of Dungatar.  While the former might have Tilley’s best interests at heart, the residents want revenge.  Well, some of them would just like some new frocks.

I loved ‘The Dressmaker’ (novel and film) and this novel is a worthy (albeit darker) sequel.  Can Tilly succeed, despite the odds stacked against her?  How many of her secrets will she be able to keep?  There are some delightful laugh-out-loud moments (where would we be without Horatio Farrat?), some beautiful creations to admire and some very tricky moments to negotiate.

While I did not enjoy this quite as much as ‘The Dressmaker’, I am longing for it to be turned into a film so I can admire the dresses Tilly creates.

I strongly recommend reading ‘The Dressmaker’ first.

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

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AWW2020

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The Good Sister by Sally Hepworth

‘I know you love your sister, but … ‘

Rose and Fern are fraternal twin sisters, who seem to be particularly close.  Rose is the responsible twin, married and wanting a child.  Fern is a librarian who avoids social interaction.  Rose is very protective of Fern and becomes concerned about some of Fern’s choices.  You see, Fern did something terrible years earlier and Rose has always had to look out for her.

What did Fern do?  And what is driving Rose?   Does Fern really need Rose’s protection?  The story is told through the alternate perspectives of the sisters. 

I can’t write much more without spoiling what is a dramatic story full of suspense.  Suffice to say that life changes for both sisters when Fern makes friends with a man she calls Wally.  Things are not always as they seem initially.

I really enjoyed this novel. 

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

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AWW2020

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The Great Escape from Woodlands Nursing Home by Joanna Nell

‘At Woodlands, time moved differently for the staff and the residents.’

Two of the residents of the Woodlands Nursing Home, Hattie Bloom and Walter Clements, seem to have only one thing in common: neither of them wants to be there.  Hattie, who lived alone, was independent – until a fall.  Walter is just waiting until he can take charge of his new mobility scooter, and then he is heading home.  Walter, who sees himself as a comedian, is far too brash and loud for the very reserved Hattie Bloom.  Both dream of escape.

Then, on one restless night, Hattie learns about The Night Owls.  It is a clandestine club run by the wonderful Sister Bronwyn with the help of her dog Queenie.  Many of the residents of Woodlands do not sleep well at night, so the activities Sister Bronwyn oversees are welcome.  As is Queenie.  But shortly afterwards, Sister Bronwyn is dismissed.  Hattie and Walter would like to see her reinstated, and between them they work on a plan.  At the same time, Walter’s friend Murray is dying.  Can Hattie and Walter make his last days memorable?

This is a delightful novel, peopled with wonderful characters, facing many of the challenges that most of us will have (or acquire) some familiarity with.  ‘Never get old’, my late father-in-law used to say.  Unfortunately, if you live long enough, old age is inevitable.  But it need not be boring.

Will Hattie settle into life at the Woodland Nursing Home?  Will Walter ever get the keys to his Tesla mobility scooter?  And what about poor Icarus, the budgie?

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel.

‘Birds and humans alike needed to believe that things would always get better.’

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

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AWW2020

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The Ghost It Was by Richard Hull

‘Haunted House Inhabited’

A haunted house, a cantankerous old man, an assortment of nephews and one niece.  Most of the nephews would like to get their hands on the uncle’s money, should the opportunity arise.

Gregory Spring-Benson has decided to undertake a career as a journalist: it will be easy, he thinks.  He manages to persuade a reluctant editor that he can get a story: his estranged uncle James Warrenton, a well-known international financier, has recently adopted spiritualistic ideas and has recently purchased Amberhurst Place.  The house has been unoccupied for some years because there is a legend that it is haunted.

Gregory Spring-Benson sets off to see his uncle.

‘The captive, sir.  Will you be requiring the dog?’

After a few relatively minor setbacks, Spring-Benson meets his uncle.  He also meets his cousins: Henry, Emily, Arthur, and Christopher.

Mr Hull has provided us with a cast of unlikeable (and in some cases quite ineffectual) characters.  And then there is the butler, Rushton.  Spring-Benson may be in search of a story, but which one?

It took me a while to get into the novel as much of the first half serves to set the scene and demonstrate the nature of the characters and their relationships.  But once things get moving, they move quite quickly.  A ghost, and then a death.  Are they related?  Is it murder? 

Fortunately, Scotland Yard becomes involved.  Unfortunately, there is a second death before the case is solved.  Who is responsible?  You will need to read closely to work it out.

An enjoyable read.

This novel was first published in 1936 and was republished in 2018.

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

Jennifer Cameron-Smith