Christmas in Canberra by Nicole Taylor

‘It had all begun quite comfortably.’

Meet Louise Keats of Canberra. It is 1988, and Louise is 28 and despite being the eldest in the family, she is the last girl in her family to have a family of her own. She is struggling against chauvinism at work (picture the Australian Taxation Office in 1988). And poor Louise, her family seem to be closing ranks against her (thanks in part to her sister-in-law Roxanne).

So, what is a single woman to do? There are three men who interest Louise, but how can she make any headway? Perhaps her friends can help. In the meantime, Christmas is creeping nearer, and Louise is determined not to spend Christmas with her family (again).

I have two confessions to make. First, this book has been on my shelf for a long time and second, I finish reading any book I start. And so, I persisted. Yes, I lived in Canberra in the 1980s and so many of the places mentioned are familiar to me, and so is some of the angst Louise experiences. But it all went on for too long, and my attention started to wane.

There were a couple of highlights for me. One was Roxanne eventually receiving her comeuppance, another is encapsulated in this passage (Jim and Mary are Louise’s parents):

‘Jim looked at Mary as though he had never seen her before. He was having trouble taking in this information. His wife had forged his signature; taken complete control of their finances and virtually declared their eldest son bankrupt by truncating his ability to draw on his father’s financial resources to prop up his own. He felt ill – with relief.’

I loved it!

The novel does end with Louise tentatively making a step into the future. I do hope that worked out for her. If you are looking for a light read with some laugh-out-loud moments, you may enjoy this.

I believe this was Ms Taylor’s first novel, first published in 2011.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AWW2021

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Cecily by Annie Garthwaite

‘It is no easy thing, to watch a woman burn.’

This novel opens on 30 May 1431, with Cecily watching the execution of Joan of Arc in Rouen, France. Cecily is sixteen years of age, the wife of Richard, Duke of York, heir to the English throne and son of a traitor. His position is precarious, subject to the whims of Henry VI and those who advise him.

In this novel, Ms Garthwaite covers Cecily’s story between 1431 and 1461, when her son Edward defeated his enemies at a battle in Yorkshire (thereby becoming Edward IV). It is a fascinating story, told from the perspective of a noble woman, covering the early part of the period we know as the Wars of the Roses. The history is readily available for those who are unfamiliar with this period but is most often recounted either from the perspective of powerful men, or of fictional characters.

Cecily Neville (3 May 1415 – 31 May 1495) was an English noblewoman, the wife of Richard, Duke of York (1411–1460), and the mother of two kings of England, Edward IV and Richard III. Ms Garthwaite brings Cecily to life in this novel: her family history, her involvement in politics, and the joys and heartbreak she experienced associated with childbirth.

‘When it is impossible to do a thing, you must simply find a way to make it appear to be done.’

While I do not think you need to know the history to follow this novel, it does help to understand the intrigues of the period and the (at times precarious) roles of Cecily and her husband. This is a well-written historical fiction which captured my attention and held it from beginning to end.

I would recommend this novel to anyone interested in historical fiction set in the fifteenth century.

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

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

The Perfect Family by Robyn Harding

‘I realised that everyone in my family had secrets. And mine might be the worst of all.’

Meet the Adler family: Thomas and Viv and their two teenage children, Eli and Tarryn. A perfect family: attractive, successful, and living in a beautifully restored home. Life is good, apparently.

But perfection quickly unravels. First, their front porch is pelted with eggs. Easily dismissed as a prank, perhaps, but this is only the beginning. A smoke bomb, then slashed tyres, and the Adler family invest in surveillance cameras. But the cameras do not show much, and the police are convinced that the attacks are nothing more (!) than attacks by bored teenagers.

The attacks increase, the violence escalates and each member of the family wonders whether s/he is the cause, or perhaps the target. Every member of the Adler family has a secret, and each secret could provide a reason for the attacks. Each member of the family feels guilty, and each wants to protect the others. Their individual worlds are crumbling: can they unite as a family? The story unfolds through the point of view of each Adler family member.

I kept reading, intrigued to find out who was behind the attacks and why. While I found the Adlers superficial (mostly) and self-absorbed, I do not need to like characters to feel sorry for them. There are a few twists here, and some important issues are touched on (especially in relation to Eli and Tarryn).

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

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

The Last Guests by J.P. Pomare

‘He is anybody, everybody, nobody.’

Lina (a paramedic) and Cain (a former member of the NZSAS) could do with some extra cash. Cain convinces Lina to put the home she has inherited from her grandfather at Lake Tarawera in New Zealand, on WeStay to rent out thus generating some additional income. While she is initially reluctant, Lina agrees. What could possibly go wrong? Well, as it turns out, plenty. Both Lina and Cain have secrets which the reader learns as the various threads of this story are untwisted.

But first, imagine your every move being caught on hidden cameras? Cameras installed in bedrooms and bathrooms, technology to cater for the tastes of every voyeur, or to track your every move. Lina quickly becomes caught up in a nightmare, while Cain is trying to deal with some demons of his own.

But strange things start happening, and secrets have a way of intruding into the present. One early action by Lina becomes a dangerous vulnerability as she constructs a very shaky house of cards to try to keep it secret. There is a twist in the tale and an ending which caught me by surprise.

‘Sometimes it’s the quietest alarms that shake you most.’

If you have ever worried about covert surveillance, and you enjoy tension-filled twisty tales, then you may also enjoy this.

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

When Things are Alive They Hum by Hannah Bent

This is Ms Bent’s debut novel, and will be published on 28/7/2021. I am certain that this will be one of my most memorable reads for 2021.

‘This is the sound of my heart talking to me.’

I picked up this book and was taken into a world of both heartache and wonder. Sisters Marlowe and Harper share a deep connection. Marlowe has left their home in Hong Kong to pursue studies in the UK. She is poised on the edge of winning a prestigious award: the Royal Zoological Award when she receives news from home. Harper, born with a congenital heart defect, lives with their father and ‘stepmonster’. Marlowe returns home when she receives the news that Harper’s heart is failing. She will do anything, everything she can to save Harper. Harper is ruled ineligible for a heart transplant because of her disability, but Marlowe cannot accept this.

Marlowe and Harper tell their story in alternate chapters. Marlowe’s distress is heightened by Harper’s quite different perspective and her wonder about the world. Harper has a story to tell, of life with what she calls ‘Up Syndrome’. She and boyfriend Louis have their own special place in the world, a place which not everyone accepts or supports.

This is Ms Bent’s debut novel, a beautifully written story, which demonstrates both the power of love and the need for acceptance.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AWW2021

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The Spiral by Iain Ryan

‘The plastic door jolts and a man shouts ‘Come on.’

Dr Erma Bridges returns to Brisbane from Spain to attend a disciplinary meeting. A complaint has been made against her, concerning inappropriate relationships with students, and she is determined to attend the meeting. Erma believes that the complaint has been made by her disaffected research assistant Jenny Wasserman.  The complaint might not be totally unwarranted: Erma is writing a book about interactive narratives for young adults, and she may have become close to certain students. But where is Jenny?

Later, Erma wakes to find Jenny in her bedroom. Jenny fires the gun, shooting Erma twice and then hitting her with it. Erma is conscious enough to witness Jenny shooting herself dead.

A year later, Erma returns. She has spent time in Thailand. She is still trying to work out why Jenny tried to kill her and, when she takes possession of a box of Jenny’s belongings, she decides to try to create a timeline of Jenny’s last few months. Jenny was supposed to interview the reclusive Archibald Moder, the author of ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ stories. The interview recording is missing, and Erma contacts Mr Moder to arrange for a reinterview.

That is one strand of this story, which also involves missing female students, dream sequences and Sero the Barbarian. The various strands will be brought together with lashings of gratuitous violence. Does it work? It is very clever, although essentially unbelievable. But if you are looking for suspense with twists and you can ignore gratuitous violence and suspend your disbelief, enjoy the rollercoaster ride! I did (mostly).

‘There’s one part of branching narrative that doesn’t work: the ending.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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Having and Being Had by Eula Biss

‘No one understands privilege as well as those who don’t have it.’

A review led me to this book, to wondering about ‘wanting’ and ‘owning’ and remembering life before it became complicated by owning (and then replacing) so many material possessions. Eula Biss writes that: ‘My adult life can be divided into two distinct parts, the time before I owned a washing machine and the time after’.

I can relate to that. The joy and privilege of owning ‘useful’ things, coupled with both a pride in maintaining them and the burden of ownership. Yes, it is a love/hate relationship at times a form of cognitive dissonance as convenience and burden jostle for importance.

Ms Biss explores what we own and why, and the underlying value system in play. Some of the questions that arose during my reading included: Do the things we own make us happier? Do they enable us to work harder, smarter or faster? Do we actually have more leisure to enjoy (as a consequence of our possessions) or do we simply acquire more possessions? And what do those possessions mean?

While Ms Biss’s American experience will resonate for many others outside the USA, within the USA at least some aspects will apply more to white middle-class people. Home ownership, for example, in particular areas.

Now that I am old, ownership is less about acquisition and more about maintenance. Some of my possessions bring me joy, others have become something of a burden. And yet I am grateful that I have been fortunate enough to acquire them. I have memories of wearing the ‘wrong’ (ie unfashionable) school shoes and not having the stuff the cool kids had.  I survived, and so did they.

I enjoyed this book, with its anecdotes from Ms Biss’s own experience and observation which started when she and her husband John bought a house in 2014. And once you buy a house, then you need to furnish it (to live in it) and maintain it (because it is also an asset). To buy a house, Ms Biss needs to work. Working means less time to write.  This experience made her uncomfortable, and her keeping a diary about this discomfort has led to this book. This book is a series of vignettes about Ms Biss’s work as a teacher and a writer and her role as a wife and mother. In short, her life viewed through the lens of capitalism.

Worth reading.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Vanished by James Delargy

‘A family was missing. They had been in the town and then they weren’t.’

Lorcan Maguire, his wife Naiyana and their six-year-old son Dylan arrive in the abandoned Westen Australian gold-mining town of Kallayee, on the edge of the Great Victoria Desert.  They are looking to escape from life in the city of Perth. The skeleton of a kangaroo provides a marker, and they have their choice of houses to live in. They just need to choose one that is not entirely derelict.

But life in Kallayee is not what they were expecting.  Dylan hears strange sounds at night, and car tracks appear where the family has not driven. If they are not alone, then who else is there?

They are advised to leave but choose to stay. The cracks in their marriage widen and they spend less and less time together. And then, they cannot be contacted. They appear to have disappeared.

Detective Emmaline Taylor is tasked with investigating their apparent disappearance. What she finds is puzzling: a house on the brink of collapse, ransacked, with smears of blood apparent. There is a tunnel littered with chocolate bar wrappers, but that seems to be all.  Until she finds a body, savaged by a pack of dingoes on the outskirts of the town.

‘That something had happened here. Something bad. And that, for a town that had been dead for forty years, a lot of blood had been recently spilled.’

The story shifts, between before and after the Maguires disappear, and between different characters. As we learn more about the past, we see more reasons why the Maguires chose to move to Kallayee. But where are they?

Mr Delargy maintains the tension throughout, through a series of quite bizarre events, with a few unexpected twists through to a satisfying but quite shocking conclusion.

‘We all have secrets.’

Recommended.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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Truth-Telling: History, sovereignty and the Uluru Statement by Henry Reynolds

 ‘In 1967 we were counted, in 2017 we seek to be heard.’

The book starts with the full ‘Uluru Statement from the Heart’. I have read it before, am moved by it, and wish the Australian government would pay it the respect it deserves. Yes, as Mr Reynolds acknowledges in his foreword, there was not universal Indigenous support for the statement. But surely it is a starting point? But, as Mr Reynolds also points out, most of the discussion has been about the Voice to Parliament, which the Australian government has dismissed.

For me, these are the key questions:

What if the sovereignty of the First Nations was recognised by European international law in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries? What if the audacious British annexation of a whole continent was not seen as acceptable at the time and the colonial office in Britain understood that ‘peaceful settlement’ was a fiction?

As I understand it, sovereignty is a spiritual notion for Indigenous people: an ancestral connection between the land and the people. This is not ‘ownership’ in the way most non-Indigenous Australians perceive it but a guardianship. This guardianship has existed for thousands of years and surely did not cease simply because a statement was made, and a flag raised a couple of hundred years ago?

And surely, until we acknowledge the past, we cannot move beyond it. I may not share all of Mr Reynolds’s views, but I absolutely agree that a Treaty is needed, together with the nomination of different national day.

I would recommend this book to anyone who seeks to understand our history, and the importance of the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

‘Truth telling has consequences. So too does reinterpretation of history.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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In Her Own Name: A history of women in South Australia from 1836 by Helen Jones

‘An important history of changes.’

This book was first published in 1986, with a second edition in 1994 and this, the third edition, published in 2020. I had earlier read the second edition and have noticed that this edition has grown. Ms Jones starts her history in 1836 and writes of the changes that have helped women move towards equality. We may not be there yet, but we are much closer than we were.

While there are several important changes, the achievement of women’s suffrage in 1894 is perhaps the most important one. This is a fascinating book, a political and legal history filled with personalities, issues, and events. Legal changes usually lag behind social changes, but it is interesting to follow the changes to both marriage and property acts.

Ms Jones documents her history, showing how women were able to develop their lives, assuming roles and responsibilities once considered taboo. While at times I felt overwhelmed by the data, I was fascinated by the personalities involved. Catherine Helen Spence is a particular favourite of mine, and there are plenty of others. Ms Jones also points out that men and women frequently worked together in progressing the rights of women.

While I would recommend this book to anyone interested in the history of women in South Australia more broadly, I was particularly interested in the period between 1836 and 1901.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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