Her Last Holiday by C.L. Taylor

‘What really happened two years ago?’

At a wellness retreat on Gozo two years ago, two people died, and one person disappeared. Tom Wade, the man behind SoulShrink Retreats, has just been released from prison after serving a sentence for the two deaths. But what about the missing person? Fran’s sister Jenna is the one who disappeared. Tom’s wife Kate has been awaiting his release from prison and she is determined to get their lives back on track by relaunching SoulShrink. Another retreat is planned for Wales.

Fran and Jenna’s mother, Geraldine, sees this new retreat as an opportunity to find out what happened to Jenna. She books a place for Fran and bullies her into taking it.

What follows is complicated. Fran, under the cover of an alias, attends the retreat. A journalist, also under cover, is there as well. We follow the story through the viewpoints in the present of Kate and Fran, with Jenna’s view from the past. Moving between the original retreat in Gozo and the retreat in Wales involves many characters, some of whom were in both locations. What really happened to Jenna?

Ms Taylor provides a caste of flawed characters challenging the reader to identify who can be trusted (and when). While I enjoyed the suspense, some aspects of the story did not work for me and I did not enjoy this novel quite as much as I have enjoyed other novels by Ms Taylor. But, if you are after a fast-moving suspenseful tale and improbability doesn’t worry you too much then you may well enjoy this more than I did.

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

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Olive Cotton by Helen Ennis

‘Olive Cotton is recognised as one of Australia’s most important photographers of the modern period.’

Olive Cotton (11 July 1911 – 27 September 2003) was one of Australia’s pioneering modernist photographers. Her obsession with photography began when, aged eleven, she received a Kodak Box Brownie camera. Olive was a childhood friend of Max Dupain’s and in 1934 she joined his fledgling photographic studio, where one of her best-known works, ‘Teacup Ballet’ was photographed circa 1935.

But who was Olive Cotton? What is her story? Apart from her photographs (a retrospective exhibition in Sydney in 1985 drew critical acclaim), Olive left few material traces of her life when she died in 2003. Helen Ennis has pieced together Olive’s story from a variety of sources including her own friendship with the artist, from Olive’s children Sally and Peter McInerney, the private papers of Max Dupain, and the personal items Olive kept in a trunk on the property near Cowra, NSW, where she lived for more than fifty years.

I was intrigued by Olive’s story: a childhood of relative privilege, a university education (at a time when few women attended), a brief marriage to Max Dupain (between 1939 and 1941).  We have no insight into why this marriage failed, only that Olive left it and Max was subsequently granted a divorce on the grounds of desertion. Olive later married Ross McInerney and they lived in a tent (without electricity or running water) for several years before buying ‘Spring Forest’ where she lived for the balance of her life.

Around the biographical facts we have about Olive Cotton, Helen Ennis writes of the challenges of trying to balance the competing needs of marriage, children and family with art and the need to earn income.

The book includes several Olive Cotton’s photographs. While I have seen some of these as prints, others were new to me. I would love to see these images reproduced on photographic paper.

I finished the book knowing more about Olive Cotton and with a greater appreciation of her work.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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Sistersong by Lucy Holland

‘Someone once told me that the only names that matter are the ones we take for ourselves.’

There was a time, long ago, when ancient Britain was filled with magic. But then the magic started failing: crushed by the weight of the acolytes of the Christian God.   Long ago the Romans abandoned the land, warring tribes are their successors and now the Saxons are invading.

In King Cador’s hold, the last bastion against the Saxons, are three sisters. Riva can cure others but is unable to heal her own scars. Keyne, born female, longs to be seen as King Cador’s son.  Sinne, longs for adventure and dreams of love.

All three sisters fear confinement within King Cador’s hold. But, on a day that ash falls from the sky, Myrdhin the magician arrives. The siblings will discover their own power but will also become entangled in a web of treachery and heartbreak. Each of the siblings has a story to tell, each is fighting for the right to determine their own future.

The time has passed now, the magic often forgotten.

This is a retelling of ‘The Two Sisters’ folk ballad with its themes of love, loss and betrayal. It is a beautifully written, complex story that had me wanting to enter it, to experience the magic and to somehow influence the outcome.

Highly recommended for lovers of fantasy.

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

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

The Vanishing Children (Master Mercurius Mysteries #5) by Graham Brack

‘Mercurius, As you love your country and your Stadhouder, please come at once.’

In this volume of his memoirs, dated 1721, Master Mercurius is now recounting events from 1680. He might have been enjoying his life in Leiden, but once again William of Orange wants his help. William is worried about possible plots against the King of England, and consequences for his country …

‘Where are you going, Mercurius? There’s more.’

… and he wants to raise money to go to war with France. So, he wants Mercurius to go to Amsterdam and meet with its four mayors and convince them to pay their taxes. They have refused, on the basis that war is bad for trade.

Mercurius travels to Amsterdam to meet with the mayors and also to gather information about any plots afoot.

‘However, I am not a moral philosopher for nothing, and one of the tricks of my trade is to harness the power of silence, especially when you have nothing useful to say, so I simply sat and waited for someone else to say something.’

But nothing is ever straightforward, and Mercurius finds himself caught in another mystery. Three Jewish boys have vanished in Amsterdam, and the authorities are doing nothing. Who abducted these boys, and why? Could other children be at risk?

This is another magnificent Master Mercurius mystery. Clever, witty, and full of historical detail. While it could easily be read as a standalone mystery, the series is just a delight. I am now looking forward to the next instalment.

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

One Last Dance: My Life in Mortuary Scrubs and G-strings by Emma Jane Holmes

 ‘I’m not that unusual. There are double lives taking place all around us.’

What makes Ms Holmes’s memoir unusual is the particular double lives she lived. I do not think that too many people combine exotic dancing and work in the funeral industry. Ms Holmes did for a while.

Working in the funeral industry was Ms Holmes’s dream job, an opportunity to provide respectful care for the dead in preparation for their funerals. But when her marriage broke down, mounting bills had her looking for a way to make more money. As Madison, Emma Jane began a career dancing on stage.

Two essentially taboo industries: death and exotic dancing. I learned quite a bit about both from reading this book. I also realised, as did Ms Holmes, that the two jobs could not be compatible in the longer-term. And so, Ms Holmes made a choice.

Brava, Ms Holmes, for writing about your experiences. I was interested to read about your experiences in the funeral home, about the many and varied aspects of the work involved. While I was less interested in the exotic dance world, I learned a bit about that world as well. I especially enjoyed the candour and humour in this book.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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Revenge, Murder in Three Parts by S. L. Lim

‘I’m the one who’s in charge around here.’

Shan and Yannie, brother and sister, both aspire to attend university. But only Shan is able to.  Yannie is required, as a dutiful daughter, to stay home to help in the family store, to look after her parents. Shan attends university.  He finds success in the UK and then in Australia.

Her parents have gone into debt to support Shan’s pursuit of education. Yannie has two friends: Jun (who is unable to share his feelings) and Shuying, who distances herself after marrying.  Yannie takes on work as a tutor. Yannie looks after her parents until they die. Her life is one of duty, carried out with barely suppressed rage.

With Jun’s help, Yannie travels to Sydney where her brother, his wife Evelyn and daughter Kat live. She and Evelyn become friendly. And Yannie quickly realises that Shan is (still) a bully. He controls his wife and daughter and aims to take over the company he works for. Shan is a perfect one-dimensional villain.

Yannie is a more complex character. She encourages her niece and longs for a relationship with Shuying. She wants Evelyn to recognise the price she is paying for the lifestyle Shan provides.  She wants revenge on Shan. What form will it take, and what will the consequences be?

‘This is the point where fiction and reality must diverge. In real life, to disagree violently is usually a metaphor.  Most human beings are lazy, conflict-averse and not especially imaginative.  They stay out of trouble, defer to authority, and hope any anomalous situation will resolve without much intervention on their part. By contrast, characters in novels murder each other left and right for fairly trivial reasons.’

Ms Lim identifies so many issues in this novel including conformity with family expectations and roles regardless of the cost to the individual, the disregard for others exhibited by those who grow up without boundaries, the pain of lost opportunity, and the non-acceptance of same-sex relationships. I finished the novel wondering about the relative unfairness of life for Yannie and so many others.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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Men Who Hate Women – From Incels to Pickup Artists: The Truth about Extreme Misogyny and How It Affects Us All by Laura Bates

‘This is not just about women and girls. It is also a battle to protect the boys who are lost, who fall through the cracks of society’s stereotypes and straight into the arms of the communities ready to recruit them, greedy to indoctrinate them with fears of threats to their manhood, their livelihood, their country.’

This is an uncomfortable book to read: it must have been difficult to write. In ten depressing chapters, Ms Bates writes about those extremist groups who despise women and the spaces they occupy in the manosphere. Here’s one definition of the manosphere: ‘a collection of websites, blogs, and online forums promoting emphasized masculinity, hostility towards women, strong opposition to feminism, and exaggerated misogyny. The manosphere has been associated politically with the far-right and alt-right.’

There has been quite a lot written about misogyny, about the different ways in which women are abused, exploited, and mistreated. What made me read this book was the realisation that there are growing online communities hiding behind varying degrees of anonymity spreading their hate-filled messages. Who are they? How are they doing it? And why are some men so susceptible to their messages? What fuels the anger and hatred?

‘Men hurt women. It is a fact. It is an epidemic. It is a public health catastrophe. It is normal.’

It is difficult, sometimes, to wade through the white noise of claim and counterclaim about cause and effect. I read through this book, thinking about recent events in the USA and in at least two Australian parliaments, of men behaving badly, of those who defended unacceptable behaviour as being ‘okay’.  I wonder how many of the same men would be comfortable if it was their wife, sister or daughter who was raped or assaulted, or ‘grabbed by the pussy’?

‘Our father didn’t lose control of himself, he had lost total control over us when we escape[d] him.’

What do we need to do differently? Most men (and women) I know are kind and respectful. But in a world where personal contact seems to be diminishing, where social skills seem less important as many people interact almost exclusively online, individuals become somehow abstract and their feelings less noticed or cared about. And if people don’t talk to each other, how are feelings reality-checked?

‘Parents don’t know how to talk to kids, teachers don’t know how to talk to kids, no-one knows how to talk to kids, but also people don’t know how to talk to each other about the male experience.’

I have read both praise and criticism of this book. Praise for the work Ms Bates has done to identify and articulate issues, criticism for exaggerating these issues. I think the book is worth reading and talking about.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

With My Little Eye by Sandra Hogan

‘Forgetting their childhoods had been essential for their survival, but it came at a cost.’

Sue-Ellen Doherty was one of three children born into a family of spies. Both her parents, Dudley, and Joan, worked for the Australia Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) in the 1950s and 1960s. While Joan’s work for ASIO was unpaid after 1953, she saw it as her patriotic duty to help protect Australia from Soviet infiltration.

The children, Mark (born in 1951), Sue-Ellen (born in 1953) and Amanda (born in 1958) were trained to be observant by their parents. They were taught to memorise number plates, to notice unusual behaviour and to not draw attention to themselves. While they were also taught that not to lie, they were told to keep the entire truth within the family.

Years later, and keen to find out more about her father, Sue-Ellen approached Queensland-based journalist Sandra Hogan to help her. While this book is the product of their collaboration and research, it took many years to complete. It was not until 2011, when Joan Hogan was interviewed for part of an official history of ASIO, that much of the secrecy around the Hogan’s work was lifted. ASIO confirmed that the Dohertys were free to talk about the work they had done half a century before. Ms Hogan verified as much of the information as she could, and the siblings spoke with each other about their experiences.

This is an interesting book, both for the events described and because of the impact on the Doherty children. Sue-Ellen was looking for answers and trying to sort fact from fiction in her memory. Being unable to question events as they happened, being unable to talk about what was observed can make it difficult to form reliable memories. There are flashes of humour in this account, as well as tragedy.

Recommended.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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Girl, 11 by Amy Suiter Clarke

‘A catchy name is all it takes to turn a local case into a national sensation. Within hours, all the channels were calling him the same thing: The Countdown Killer.’

Elle Castillo was once a social worker who helped children who were the victims of violent crime. These days, she is the host of a popular true crime podcast, Justice Delayed, tackling cold cases involving missing children in Minnesota. After four seasons of successfully solving cold cases, Elle decides to return to the past, to a case that haunts her: The Countdown Killer.

The Countdown Killer has never been caught. After establishing a pattern of taking and ritualistically murdering three girls over a seven-day period, the murderer stopped. Each victim was a year younger: the eleventh and youngest victim was eleven years old.

A listener phones Elle with a tip. She heads out to interview him and discovers his dead body. Who murdered him, and why? And what information did he have? Days later, another girl is abducted. Is the Countdown Killer at work again? The police do not think so, but Elle is does. And an abduction close to home has Elle feeling responsible.

There is plenty of tension in this debut novel by Amy Suiter Clarke, a Melbourne-based author. While a couple of procedural aspects seemed unlikely to me (because of the potential for conflicts of interest) this never worried me enough to take me out of the story. Elle takes risks as she tries to find answers: her feelings of responsibility, of guilt, seem to overwhelm her judgement at times.

There’s a lot of information to process, plenty of characters to remember and a couple of improbabilities to digest, and a satisfying ending.

Recommended.

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

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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The Desolation of Devil’s Acre (Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children #6) by Ransom Riggs

‘I’ve lost my soul, I’m afraid, but I can’t remember how.’

Ah Miss Peregrine, how I will miss you. I almost did not read this final book in the series: books four and five did not really work for me, and I had wished that the series ended with book three. But then I saw book 6, read that it would be the final, and picked it up.

Caul has returned! Peculiardom has never faced so many threats, Caul’s strength is building (and his army is growing). There are now hollows that Jacob Portman cannot control, and all around Devil’s Acre ash and blood and bone desolate the landscape. Can Caul be stopped?

There is a prophecy, and Noor may be able to help if the peculiars can work out the secret location involved. Can they beat the army of hollows who have travelled on the Ruby Princess cruise ship?

Yes, I enjoyed this final book in the series. Epic struggles with more than a touch of magic from the peculiar world. This book is a fitting end to the series (I still do not like books four and five, but I can appreciate what they were setting up for).

Jennifer Cameron-Smith