The Things We See in the Light by Amal Awad

‘The end of every relationship will always make you question the beginning.’

In this story of choices and fresh beginnings, Sahar looks to establish a new life. Sahar married Khaled eight years ago and followed him to Jordan. Life there was not what she expected. Unhappy and haunted by secrets, Sahar returns to Sydney where she has friends. But eight years is a long time. The lives of her friends have changed and Sahar wonders (and worries) about embracing change. She also needs a job.

Sahar takes a job in a local patisserie and, with the help of her manager Maggie and colleagues Kat, Inez, and Luke discovers new possibilities. Has she really escaped the past? And can she find a new life outside the conservative values that shaped her choices in early adulthood? Can Amal overcome the guilt she feels as she tries to find her own path? This is an engrossing journey of self-discovery, of learning that while change involves risks, it is possible. Friends matter, and chocolate helps!

A heart-warming story of challenges, choices, and diversity.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith



The Riviera House by Natasha Lester

‘Civilisation was more than a mass of people; it was also the beautiful things that came from minds and hands and that touched hearts.’

Paris 1939. Éliane Dufort lives in Paris with her parents and siblings. The family has a small brasserie. Éliane works part time at the Louvre, and as a waitress in the family brasserie. But when Paris falls under Nazi control, lives are changed forever. The Nazis are stealing artworks, and they do not realise that Éliane understands German. Éliane is able to share information about the artworks with members of the Resistance. But this is both courageous and dangerous. And who can she trust? There are spies everywhere.

In the present day, following the tragic loss of her husband and daughter, Remy Lang retreats to a home she has inherited on the Riviera. Remy has a vintage fashion business, and in a catalogue of artworks stolen during World War II she discovers in her Riviera house, she is shocked to discover a painting that hung on her bedroom wall as a child. Who owns the painting?

The story shifts between past and present, between the heroic activities of Éliane and others during World War II and the puzzles and issues confronting Remy in the present day.

Rose Valland was the hero used by Ms Lester as the inspiration for this novel, which took me into a part of World War II history dealing with Nazi art theft and its far-reaching repercussions. Ms Lester brings the two storylines together brilliantly: I was left guessing about some connections until near the end. Both sets of characters came to life for me in this deeply moving story, and I became caught up in both timelines.

Highly recommended.

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


#AussieAuthor 2021

Razorblade Tears by S.A. Cosby

‘There was no turning back.’

Ike Randolph answers the door of his home in Virginia, USA, to two police detectives. It has been fifteen years since he left jail and he’s not done anything wrong since: what do the police want? Ike learns that his son Isiah and his husband Derek have been murdered. Was it because they were an interracial same sex couple?

While Ike has never accepted Isaiah’s sexuality, he is heartbroken by his murder. Derek’s father William (Buddy Lee) Jenkins was ashamed of his son, but he desperately wants to know who killed Derak and Isiah. Ike’s wife Mya looks after Derk and Isiah’s daughter, Arianna. At three, Arianna is too young to understand that her fathers won’t be coming home. And the police do not seem to be making any progress in their investigation.

The two men, one black the other white, join forces to find out who murdered their sons and why. Two deeply flawed men, willing to commit murder if that’s what it takes to get the answers they are seeking.

How many chances does a man get to make the right decision before fate decides he doesn’t deserve another bite at the apple?’

At the beginning, the only thing Ike and Buddy Lee have in common is a granddaughter and a desire to find out who killed their sons. Their responses to events are influenced by their own backgrounds, and experiences. This is a journey through privilege and prejudice: Ike and Buddy Lee learn about themselves while uncovering the truth about the murders of their sons.

Warning: this is an action-packed, violent story, full of twists. I found this a challenging and unforgettable read.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Gentle and Fierce by Vanessa Berry

‘Gentleness and ferocity are two qualities which guide my experiences.’

In this book of twenty essays accompanied by her own drawings, Vanessa Berry invites the reader into a world of reflection:

‘The eye that sees through time observes how the past braids into the present and how it shapes what is to come. Like the compound eye of an insect, it perceives all directions at once. Through this eye I see how memories curl and twist around details and moments, observing how they connect up and constellate.’

Those of us who live in urban environments often have limited contact with animals in their natural habitats. And, as Ms Berry reminds us, those habitats are shrinking. Animals, for many of us, are confined to household pets, occasional pests, representations in art and nature shows. Some representations in art are kitsch, but all carry memories (and sometimes special meaning) to those who own them.

I accompanied Ms Berry on her journey, through family possessions and stories, to a Japanese island overrun by rabbits, to the sinking horse in ‘The Neverending Story’ (which immediately takes me to ‘Black Beauty’), to Frank the Bear in the biology museum. Some essays triggered memories for me, and I found myself drifting into a different journey.

I enjoyed these essays and the accompanying illustrations. I enjoyed them for themselves and for the starting point they provided for my own memories. There’s one particular essay, ‘A Spider in My Cup’ which takes me back fifty years to my own nocturnal teenage years.

I finished the book and will be revisiting it. This is the second of Ms Berry’s books I have read an enjoyed. I can also recommend ‘Mirror Sydney: An Atlas of Reflections’.

‘To be gentle is to resist the privileging of command above compassion. It is a quiet voice, a persistent whisper, calm and consoling. Ferocity is an armour, a forceful expression of resolve and protection. To be fierce is to know the intensity of the edges of feeling. It is the voice that calls out, intending to be heard.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith



Merchant Adventurers: The Voyage that Launched Modern England by James Evans

‘In the first half of the sixteenth century a fundamental change was taking place in western Europe.’

I found this account of the first English mercantile adventure to Russia fascinating. The three ships that set sail in the spring of 1553 were seeking a northern passage to Asia. They were looking for both the riches of Asia and for opportunities to trade English cloth in the cold northern climes. Two of the ships were blown off course, but the Edward Bonaventure (under Richard Chancellor) made it and returned from Russia with a trade agreement.

In 1555, the Muscovy Company was formed, and Richard Chancellor led a second journey to Russia. And this is where I pause to mention that fiction led me to this book. In the fifth novel of Dorothy Dunnett’s marvellous Lymond Chronicles (‘The Ringed Castle’), Lymond is in Russia. Here he meets Richard Chancellor. Fact and fiction are skilfully combined, and it was Lady Dunnett’s mention of Richard Chancellor that led me to read this book which was first published in 2013.

While I enjoyed learning about the foundation of the Muscovy Company and the exploits of Sebastian Cabot, it was Richard Chancellor who held my attention. Mr Evans makes it clear just how dangerous sea travel was at the time, and how relatively inexperienced English seafarers were at the time. Arguably, this voyage could be seen as the first step towards the formation of the English (later British) empire.

The information is provided in short sharp chapters, within the context of the political events of the time. I found the book easy to read and understand and would recommend it to anyone interested in reading more about English exploration during the 16th century, and especially to anyone interested in some of the history related in ‘The Ringed Castle’.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

The Attack by Catherine Jinks

‘I recognised him at once.’

It is 2019 and Robyn Ayres is the caretaker of Finch Island, a national park in Queensland’s Morton Bay. Finch Island was once used as a leprosy quarantine station and now is used for camping and holidaymakers. Robyn looks after maintenance of the buildings and provides catering for the groups that book the site. It is usually a quiet and isolated life, but Robyn does not mind. But Robyn’s relative tranquillity is about to be shattered.

The current group on the island is a week-long bootcamp run for young offenders and boys at risk. The group is run by a group of ex-army veterans: they have been here before. But the group they have this time is particularly challenging. While most of their pranks are annoying, some are dangerous. And Robyn is sure that she recognises one of the boys: he is called Darren now, but she knew him as Aaron.

In 2009, Robyn was a primary school teacher. Aaron was one of the boys in her class and he was at the centre of a custody battle between his parents. The odds were stacked against Aaron’s mother: his paternal grandmother was a particularly manipulative and nasty piece of work who nobody was prepared to cross. And Aaron, caught in the middle was disruptive and violent in school.

Yes, 2009 did not end well for Aaron or for Robyn. But why has his name been changed and why is he on Finch Island in 2019?

The story shifts between 2009 and 2019 and the tension builds. Robyn may have questions about the past, but in 2019 she and others are at risk. Her past, and Aaron’s, both become part of a dangerous present.

How will it end? You will need to read it to find out. I enjoyed this novel and found the ending satisfying.

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



The Liar Next Door by Nicola Marsh

‘I don’t make friends easily. I never have.’

Picture this: a close-knit neighbourhood, with thirty houses surrounding a garden square. Welcome to Vintage Circle in Hambridge Heights, Brooklyn. A perfect space for children and for neighbourhood gatherings, such as a baby shower. This story is centred around three women: Frankie; Celeste and Saylor, and their stories unfold in alternate chapters. Frankie and Saylor are married, Celeste has left her partner. Saylor is pregnant (it is her baby shower that draws the three women together); Frankie and Andre have a five-year-old daughter, Luna; and Celeste has five-year-old Violette. Each of the adults has secrets from those closest to them, and some of those secrets will prove dangerous.

‘So many secrets in this little neighbourhood of ours. So many lies.’

Fasten your seatbelt and prepare for a fast-paced story with several improbable twists. Ms Marsh has peopled her novel with (to me at least) thoroughly unlikeable characters for whom blackmail, deception, and resentment are primary motivators. Such lovely people! While there is certainly suspense and there are some elements of surprise, I found I did not care enough about most of the characters to care about how it would end. And yet I could not stop reading because I wanted to know. If you enjoy the drama of soap opera, then you may well enjoy this novel.

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

Jennifer Cameron-Smith



Echolalia by Briohny Doyle

‘It would be easy not to notice him.’

There are two parts to this story, separated by a tragedy. Before the tragedy, Emma Cormac is struggling. She has married into a wealthy, privileged family, and lives in a palatial new home in outer suburban Australia. But she is undermined by her formidable mother-in-law, Pat Cormac, and is barely struggling with her three young children. Clem is four, a wilful child who mimics her grandmother. Arthur, who is almost three, has a genetic disorder. Emma is protective of him, but it is her perfect baby, Robbie, that the Cormac family sees as being their future. Robbie is a demanding baby, wanting more than Emma can give.

And just outside the window, the lake is evaporating, the birds are disappearing, and the Cormac family buys up land to develop into cheap housing. One night, Emma leaves baby Robbie alone by the lake. By the time he is found, it is too late to save him.

Afterwards, some years later, the summers are even hotter. The Cormac name no longer has the power it once held, and Arthur has made a name for himself overseas. Clem is now an artist, haunted by the past and obsessively revisiting it. And a nameless woman is released from state care. Hers is a life governed by the routine of a twelve-step program, lived one day at a time. How can she have any future when Robbie did not?

What a bleak story this is. The once mighty Cormac family fragmented, as though the death of baby Robbie robbed them of all ambition and the need to take any responsibility. Climate change continues and the natural environment suffers. And the nameless woman must live with all the consequences, not just the results of her own actions. How, where, and when will it end?

This novel haunts me. This is partly because of what happened to baby Robbie but also because there is no neat resolution. We are left, as is the world, in an uneasy suspense. Existence continues, but life is constrained.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith



Returning to Carthage by Ben Sharafski

Life, love, and loss.

In this book of six interconnected short stories, Israeli-Australian writer Ben Sharafski takes us on a journey around the world, through different perspectives on life and involving different cultures and generations. Of the six stories, my least favourite was ‘Love and Lies in Laos’. Not, I hasten to add, because of any deficiency in the writing, but because of the story:

‘Could duplicity be that simple, just a matter of brushing aside any inconvenient truths?’

My favourites were ‘Two Lives, Intersected’ and the final story, ‘Waiting’.  The first of these reminds us of the impact of past lived experiences on contemporary life, as World War II Manchuria has its own impact on a contemporary wedding in Sydney. The second, ‘Waiting’ is a story many of us will be able to relate to: the illness and decline of a parent; strength replaced by weakness; independence surrendering to dependency; the importance of the past as the future disappears and the present is consumed by the minutiae of maintenance and the indignity of a body’s failure. In ‘Waiting’ this is heightened by distance: the need for the son to travel from Australia to Israel, leaving his own family behind to be with his mother.

The other three stories are also thoughtful and enjoyable. ’Returning to Carthage’ takes us into the past, while considering unrest in the present. When is a good time to take a young family to Israel? The visit is important to maintain family ties, but unrest makes the young father cautious.

‘On Childcare and the Human Condition’ takes us to a different space, one in which the questions of children cause adults to stop, to think and to wonder about life (and death).

‘Annabelle’ is a reminder of the drudgery, the draining routine that is part of suburban family life. Our narrator has moved well beyond the excitement of a tryst in Laos but does not yet have to face his mother’s mortality.

I enjoyed this collection of six thoughtful stories, illustrating different phases in the life (and associated responsibility) of our male narrator. I will be revisiting these stories and will be looking forward to reading more of Ben Sharafski’s writing in future.

Note: My thanks to the author for providing me with a free copy of this book for review purposes.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith


Songbirds by Christy Lefteri

 ‘Once you start asking questions, I’m sure more questions will emerge.’

Nisha is a migrant worker, a widow who has left her home and family in Sri Lanka to work as a nanny and housekeeper in Nicosia, the capital of Cyprus. Nisha is employed by Petra and looks after her nine-year-old daughter Aliki. Petra was widowed just before Aliki was born, and Nisha has always been Aliki’s mother figure. Petra has a business as an optician and has very little to do with Aliki. Until Nisha goes missing.

Yiannis is the tenant of an apartment in Petra’s house. He and Nisha have been having a secret affair, and he asks her to marry him. The affair is secret because knowledge of it could result in Nisha losing her job or even being deported. And how then could she support her mother and daughter in Sri Lanka? Yiannis shares a secret with Nisha, and soon after she disappears.

What has happened to Nisha? Has she ‘just run away’ as the police seem to think?

Both Yiannis and Petra are concerned. The police are disinterested. Meanwhile, Petra realises just how much she and Aliki have come to depend on Nisha, and just how much they have taken her for granted. Yiannis feels guilty and, urged by Nisha’s young daughter Angela, looks for her.

Yiannis is a poacher. He is involved in trapping and selling the tiny (and protected) songbirds that stop in Cyprus each year as they migrate between Africa and Europe.

‘They are worth more than their weight in gold.’

The birds are captured and killed and sold as delicacies. A lucrative, secretive, and illegal trade.

Petra’s search for Nisha leads her into a world in which migrant workers are exploited, and an increasing awareness that Nisha’s life was more complex than she had appreciated.

I read this novel caught between disgust for the treatment of migrant workers and Yiannis’s poaching activities, and the reality of lives where choices are often constrained by economic circumstances. Nisha, absent for most of the story, is very much the human face of many migrant workers: largely invisible, exploited and taken for granted. Much like the songbirds.

A beautifully written novel which held my attention from beginning to end.  And now I must read ‘The Beekeeper of Aleppo’.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith