The Inland Sea by Madeleine Watts

‘The open wilderness of adulthood stretched ahead like so much wasteland.’

Two hundred years ago, British explorer John Oxley travelled west in Australia looking for an inland sea. He never found it, but myth of an inland sea led others to explore, and some to their deaths.

Now, in the present, John Oxley’s great-great-great granddaughter is drifting. She works as an emergency dispatch operator in Sydney answering and directing triple zero calls. In the wider Australian world, disaster follows disaster: heat, flood, tremor, and wildfire. In her world, she drifts between self-destructive behaviours. She (we don’t learn her name) might feel safe in the water, but her world is increasingly unstable.

‘A look of doubt came across my mother’s face. It was all there in her expression. The knowledge that a person can become lost in their life, how you might swim in the waters and each the lifebuoys.’

She treats her anxiety by self-medicating with alcohol, by risky encounters, by seeking detachment. If the world is dying, what hope do people have? What will the future look like? Will her happiness be as elusive as the inland sea?

The novel finishes, with our young narrator preparing to flee from Australia. Will she find what she needs?

What an uncomfortable, thought-provoking read this is. I am left wondering …

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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The Long Game by Simon Rowell

To be published 3/8/2021

 ‘It was time.’

One hot day in February, a local surfer named Ray Carlson is found dead in a house near Portsea on the coast in the Port Phillip area of Victoria. He has been murdered. The case is allocated to Detective Sergeant Zoe Mayer and her partner Charlie Shaw. Zoe Mayer has recently returned to work after a period of extended leave, and is accompanied by her service dog, a golden retriever named Harry.

While there is not a lot of evidence at the scene, there is enough information quickly available to point to a suspect who is duly arrested. But Zoe is not convinced. Is she right?

I could not put this novel down. It takes a while for Zoe’s backstory to unfold, and while it does the reader cannot really be sure about her instincts. Is this murder linked to other cases? And if it is, how and why? Can Zoe overcome the panic attacks she is still prone to? The tension is maintained throughout the novel: Zoe investigates on instinct, taking risks because time is critical and because she feels she needs to prove herself. She also runs into resistance from other police officers with vested interests in other cases. There are plenty of twists in this tale before what was, for me, a satisfying conclusion

I found Zoe a well-developed, multi-dimensional character and I really hope that this is the beginning of a new series featuring Zoe and Harry.

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

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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

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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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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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The Mother Wound by Amani Haydar

‘The last time I saw my mum alive, she was vibrant.’

In March 2015, Amani Haydar’s father killed her mother, Salwa Haydar. He also injured his youngest daughter, Ola, during his frenzied attack. Pregnant with her first child, Amani had to go to the Kogarah Police Station to give a statement. Her father had turned himself into the police.

Why did Haydar Haydar kill his wife of 28 years, the mother of his four children? While the Haydars had recently separated after an unhappy marriage, Amani recalled that while her parents had fought a lot, her father had never bashed her mother.

In this memoir, Ms Haydar writes of her family’s experiences of war in Lebanon, of her parents arranged marriage, of her grandmother’s brutal killing during the 2006 war. Culture and context are important, as is the complexity of intergenerational trauma.

In the six years that have passed since Salwa Haydar was murdered, Ms Haydar has reassessed what she knew of her parents’ relationship, and the different faces and layers of domestic violence. She wonders if she should have realised earlier that her mother was at risk? There may not have been an history of what she recognised as physical domestic violence but there certainly was of emotional abuse and of coercive control.

How can Ms Haydar’s book be both terribly sad and tremendously uplifting? How can anyone move beyond the trauma of losing two parents to looking for ways to make a difference for others as well as for herself? And, importantly, how does Ms Haydar negotiate the ‘othering’ experienced when negative stereotypes (both in relation to domestic violence and to Muslims) are applied? Ms Haydar and her sisters have also had to deal with being ostracised and abused by family members who support her father.

‘Storytelling cracks the crust of shame imposed on victims and shifts the burden to where it rightfully belongs: spitting and smouldering in the palms of the abuser.’

This is a difficult book to read, and I admire Ms Haydar’s courage in confronting so many issues to write it. There is despair here and grief. There is also hope, support, strength, and resilience. Ms Haydar invites us to look at the stereotypes of victims as well, reminding us that it is okay to be angry. Ms Haydar recounts the trauma of her father’s trial, with its victim-blaming and false accusations against her mother.

In 2018, Ms Haydar had an entry in the Archibald Prize. Her painting is a self-portrait in which she holds a photograph of her mother, who holds a photograph of her own mother. I find this moving and uplifting. Three strong women, together.

This is not an easy book to read, but it is important. Highly recommended.

‘We are in a process of breaking cycles, and we are imperfect.’

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

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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Lily’s Little Flower Shop by Lisa Darcy

 ‘I’d forgotten how to breathe and observe. I’d forgotten how to sit quietly and just … be.’

Lily’s living in Sydney with her boyfriend Matt. She is in line for a promotion and is looking forward to it. Except … the promotion is awarded to someone else. That same day, Matt is offered a job overseas and assumes that Lily will be happy to accompany him. And Lily’s mum Daisy is certainly pushing her to go.

But Lily wants a change. Impulsively, she decides to resign from her job, to move to coastal New South Wales near her Aunt Iris and establish a flower shop. Lily completed a floristry course years ago, and she used to help her Aunt Iris in the flower shop she once owned. This is a big move for Lily, and one with its own set of challenges. Can Lily find a place in this small close-knit coastal community? Do she and Matt have a future? And importantly, how will Trouble the rabbit settle in?

Lily works hard and she enjoys her work, but she has financial issues as well as a few unresolved personal issues to deal with. She is making friends in Clearwater, but not everyone is friendly. And Matt still wants to be part of her life, which complicates matters when Lily meets Ben, the owner of a local winery. And there’s Andy, a nice man with a few challenges of his own.

I really enjoyed this novel, which I picked up after reading another review. It is light-hearted in places while dealing with some sensitive issues including domestic violence and mental health. There are some lovely characters and one or two villains as well.

Recommended.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson by Leah Purcell

‘And there is no one here who cares for her opinion. She’s just a woman.’

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, in the heart of Australia’s alpine region, Molly Johnson lives with her four surviving children. Her husband Joe is a drover and is away for months at a time. Molly’s eldest son Danny, just turned twelve, is effectively the man of the house. Molly has another child due soon and is trying to make the necessary preparations. Life is tough: the Johnsons are isolated, but Molly often finds it easier when Joe is not around. Her children are important to her, and she looks after them as well as she can.

‘Joe Junior would ask, ‘Tell us those trials and triboolations, ‘ is how he would say it, ‘Ma, please?’ He’s heard them stories many times – they all have. But that’s what life stories are for: to be told and retold.  To remember. The memories livin’ on long after you’re gone. Family history.’

And in Britain, Louisa and Nate Clintoff are preparing to travel to Victoria to establish a new life with their son Samuel. Nate is to provide the police presence in the town of Everton in the same alpine region where the Johnsons live. Louisa is keenly interested in the rights of women.

Two quite different families whose lives will intersect, first when by chance and then through tragedy.

In preparation for childbirth, Molly sends the younger children away to Everton to be cared for. Danny will return to help her. But before he returns, Molly has a visitor. His name is Yadaka, an Aboriginal man. He is wounded and on the run from authorities. He helps Molly, and she provides him with shelter.

All these threads will be drawn together.  A prosperous white family has been murdered, and Yadaka is seen as a suspect. Prejudice seems more important than evidence. Molly learns some history from Yadaka but struggles to accept it. And then Nate Clintoff arrives, looking for Joe Johnson.

And so, we have a story with the unsettling ingredients of violence and poverty, the subservient roles of women and Aboriginal people, and secrets. Henry Lawson’s ‘The Drover’s Wife’ provides a starting point for Ms Purcell’s novel (and her earlier play of the same title) but her story evolves far beyond Lawson’s short story.  There are uncomfortable twists, reminders of prejudice and inequality, and of what people are driven to, sometimes, to survive.

Louise Clintoff seemed a little too modern at times, with her talk of global economic depression (page 23) and could Molly really have known about hormones in 1893 (page 18)? And we had no senators before federation in 1901. But while anachronistic, these are relatively minor points which (while they should have been picked up in editing) did not interfere with my appreciation of the story.

‘A life’s story untold is a life not lived, missus.’

I recommend this novel to anyone who would like to revisit some of the legends we Australians tell ourselves about the past.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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