Friends and Dark Shapes by Kavita Bedford

‘The year after my father died, I move into a share house.’

Three friends (Sami, Niki, and our unnamed narrator) move into a share house in Redfern in inner Sydney and select a fourth person to join them. A man is selected: gender balance is important. He is nicknamed Bowerbird.

What follows is a series of vignettes of life in this group house over the following year. The vignettes are both observations (of life in a share house, of life in Redfern) and reflections (on life approaching thirty, on connecting with others).

While my own experiences of living in a share house are confined to my teenage years, I recognised some of the tensions (house cleaning, anyone?), and the general angst of trying to find one’s own place in a world which seems to have a different focus. And what constitutes home?

‘The phrase ‘remember when…’ did not yet have a place in our conversations.’

This is a novel which invites an older reader to reflect on their own experiences and a younger reader to wonder about their own future. Time elapses, life experiences accrue, what once seems important might change. The novel ends, and I wonder what might happen next both in the lives of the people we meet and in the suburb of Redfern.

‘Is that true: is a feeling about a city also a feeling about oneself?’

I enjoyed the opportunity to reflect.

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

#AWW2021

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Other People’s Houses by Kelli Hawkins

‘I pulled over just in time.’

Ten years ago, Kate Webb lost her five-year-old son Sascha. For ten years, Kate has been marking time, taking refuge in alcohol, searching. She is held together, sort of, by her job and by attending open houses on Sydney’s north shore. In those homes, prepared for sale, Kate can imagine the lives of complete, happy families that live there. Then one afternoon, hungover, Kate visits the Harding house. It is a beautiful house, occupied by a husband, wife, and their teenaged son. Kate sees a family photograph: a husband, wife and son and thinks, for one heartbreaking moment, that the boy is her son. Kate recognises the wife: she and Kate were at university at the same time.

Curiosity turns to obsession. And Kate’s obsession uncovers that life for this family is not perfect. As Kate starts to intervene in the life of this family, we learn more about her life and the death of her son. His death was a heartbreaking tragedy: can Kate prevent something similar for this family? And, importantly, can Kate make a new life for herself?

To write more about this story could spoil the impact of it. There were a couple of twists I didn’t anticipate, and one I did.  I kept reading, wanting to know how it would end and hoping Kate would find renewed purpose.

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

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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The Second Son by Loraine Peck

To be published 2/2/2021

 The price of loyalty.

Ivan Novak was putting out his garbage bins one evening in Sydney’s west, when he was shot dead.  His father, Milan, leader of a criminal gang, wants revenge.  Milan is sure that Ivan was murdered by a rival gang, and revenge is a job for Ivan’s younger brother, Johnny.

There is plenty of tension between the various ethnic gangs in western Sydney.  Old fears and suspicions, together with the trauma of war, have accompanied those who have fled in their former homelands.

While Johnny is part of the gang his father leads, he is torn between his loyalty to his Croatian heritage and his love for his wife Amy and their son Sasha.  Amy wants the three of them to break free from this wave of violence, of attack and retribution.  She moves temporarily with Sasha to the home of her parents.  The violence escalates and others become involved. 

Johnny wants to be with Amy and Sasha, but he also wants to prove himself to his father.  Johnny has a plan which just may enable him to meet the expectations of both.  In the meantime, can he keep his family safe?

In this fast-paced debut novel, Ms Peck explores the causes and consequences of ethnic gang violence as well as conflicting loyalties.  There are a couple of twists which help sustain the suspense.  And the outcome?  Well, we can hope for a violence-free future …

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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Killing Sydney by Elizabeth Farrelly

‘Sydney’s not full.  And it’s not failing because of density.’

‘It’s just fed up with too much development too fast and too close, development that is ugly, greedy, undercontrolled and importunate.’

I read this book because, while I have never lived in Sydney, I have spent quite a bit of time there both personally and professionally.  I spent some time in the beautiful Education Department building in Bridge Street in the early 1980s (since sold by the NSW government) and in other buildings around the CBD.  I have enjoyed walking around the inner city especially Surry Hills and Potts Point.  But these days, my visits are occasional (for medical reasons or cultural purposes) and more often my rare trips terminate in what the real estate world now calls ‘Outer South Western Sydney’ (around Tahmoor and Picton). 

Walking around the centre of Sydney or catching the train (during non-peak times) is enjoyable.  Trying to drive around in Sydney or using public transport during peak times is horrific.  To me, Sydney looks full.  How can Sydney accommodate more people?  This is the question I kept in my mind as I read Ms Farrelly’s book.

From reading this book (and from my own observations) too much of the development is driven by profit: short-term profit by government as public assets are exchanged for money; and longer-term profit by developers fitting as much income-generating activity into as little space as possible.  And the people?  For me, that is the heart of Ms Farrell’s message.  Most of the development or redevelopment disregards what people want or need.  Especially people on low incomes.  And what about the people whose lives have been disrupted by WestConnex?

If cities are meant to be about and for people, then people’s views should be considered.  Ms Farelly mentions the newDemocracy model.  I was fortunate enough to be part of the group selected to look at Housing Choices in the ACT, and I think that the process followed there was a good example of citizen involvement.   I am one of those people, Ms Farrelly, who lives in and likes Canberra.  And Canberra has problems of its own: travel can be problematic for those without access to a car, especially in the more remote suburbs.  But development in Sydney troubles me more.  The endless urban sprawl, the impact (on the environment and on people’s health) of the commuting between home and work, the reclamation of public space for private development.

Ms Farrelly raises several important questions in this book If you have an interest in Sydney, if you care about cities meeting the needs of their inhabitants, then I recommend reading this book.  The issues raised by Ms Farrelly apply to all large cities.

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

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The Killing Streets by Tanya Bretherton

‘It was early morning on Saturday, 10 December 1932 when a forest-green dress was spotted, hooked in a spiky thicket of lantana in Queens Park.’

In her third true crime book, Ms Bretherton writes about a series of horrific murders that began in Sydney during the 1930s. The first body was found in Queens Park on 10 December 1932.  A woman violently murdered in a popular park, and no-one noticed anything.  Other women were found murdered: their bodies left in public places.  But it was not until the body of a young aspiring Olympic swimmer was found that an arrest was made.

Eric Craig was arrested, and eventually charged over the deaths of two women.  He was gaoled.  But similar murders occurred.  Was Eric Craig guilty?  And why were some of the murders apparently considered worse than others?

‘Bad police work, inconsistent witness statements and gendered assumptions plagued all of these investigations.’

Sydney in 1932 was in the grip of the Great Depression.  Jobs were scarce and, for some women, sex work was one of the few ways in which they could make money to feed, clothe and house their families.  Some of the murdered women were sex workers.  Assumptions were made, judgements followed.

I wonder how many deaths could have been prevented if the initial murder had been investigated more thoroughly?  Granted, much of the forensic science we now take for granted was not available.  I still feel that more could have been done.

I was unaware of these murders before reading this book.  I appreciate the effort Ms Bretherton has gone to in providing the socio-economic background for these murders in eastern Sydney during the Great Depression.  If you have an interest in true crime, then I recommend this book.  Was this killer Australia’s first serial killer (as stated on the cover of the book)?  I wonder.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AWW2020

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Dead Man Walking by Kate McClymont with Vanda Carson

‘Michael McGurk knew he was a dead man walking.’

I remember hearing about the murder of Michael McGurk, in September 2009, and feeling shocked that his nine-year-old son was present.  I’d a vague recollection of hearing his name and wondered what the story was behind his murder.

In this book, published in 2019, Kate McClymont takes the reader into the world of shady property development, of unscrupulous politicians (mostly bit players in this book), bumbling criminals and conmen masquerading as respectable businessmen.

Having read this book, it’s a bit of a surprise to me that Michael McGurk lived as long as he did.  There was no shortage of people who disliked him or who had been burned through his business dealings.  And Ron Medich? Words fail me.

Ms McClymont, with Vanda Carson, has done a fine job of piecing together the lives, times and crimes of McGurk and Medich.  The story leading to Medich’s conviction is a combination of great police work, a series of confessions by some participants which led to them receiving reduced sentences, and exhaustive investigative journalism. 

Highly recommended to anyone with an interest in business dealings representing the less savoury side of Sydney.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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Succession (The Sandstone Trilogy #3) by Michael Beashel

‘Everyone needs a succession plan.  You and I are not getting any younger.’

Sydney, 1885. Leary’s Contracting is now one of the biggest contractors in Sydney and, when a massive hotel project is mooted, John Leary knows that his company must have it.   Almost thirty years have elapsed since the end of the second novel in the Sandstone Trilogy. Richard, his son is an adult now, and John and his second wife Catherine have three children: Brendan, Mary and Agatha.

Both Richard and Brendan work for Leary’s Construction, and John has been giving some thought to succession planning.  Who should take over from him: Richard or Brendan?

In the meantime, building the Imperial Hotel is not easy.  It will be the tallest building in Sydney, and there are several challenges to be met. Red tape is one issue, as is managing the different aspects of the build to ensure that materials are available when and where they are required. And some of John’s competitors are not happy.

Richard has some problems of his own to overcome and may not be entirely reliable.  Brendan can work with the workers to achieve the results required, but an accident threatens the construction and the reputation of Leary’s Contracting.  John has some difficult decisions to make.

This book is a fine and fitting conclusion to The Sandstone Trilogy.  The books are best read in order, to enable the reader to follow the characters, the growth of both Leary’s Contracting and the building industry in Sydney.

John Leary is an ambitious character. I didn’t care for many of his actions during the first two books, but I really enjoyed the way the story developed.  If you enjoy historical fiction set in 19th century Australia, have an interest in the development and building of Sydney, you may also enjoy this trilogy.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AussieAuthor2020

 

Unshackled (The Sandstone Trilogy #2) by Michael Beashel

‘Leary’s has to grow.  It has to be bigger to be stronger.’

Sydney, 1855. The second book in ‘The Sandstone Trilogy’ follows immediately after the first. John Leary is realising his dream: he and wife Clarissa are expecting their first child, and his construction firm is making a name for itself.

But an act of sabotage, resulting in the death of workers, is disastrous.  John, already driven to succeed, is motivated even further.  He wants to know the truth about the sabotage, he wants to grow Leary’s even further.  But he has a problem.  His father-in-law has a majority share in the company.  John Leary solves that problem when he arranges for a silent partner buys his father-in-law’s share.  But who is the silent partner, and why is John determined to withhold that information for as long as he can?

‘It wasn’t knowledge or skills that made you powerful but the highly placed people you knew, and more importantly, what they could do for you.’

Leary’s moves from one success to the next. But it comes at a cost.  Leary’s wins contracts by undercutting rivals (which causes other problems).  John Leary himself is caught between past and present, insecurity making him difficult to work and live with.

I have very mixed feelings about John Leary.  As in the first book, I didn’t care for some of his actions.  But I loved reading about the development of Sydney, about the challenges of building during the 19th century.  For me, while there are some memorable characters in this trilogy, it is the setting and the building activity that have held my attention. How will it end? As soon as I finished, I moved straight onto the third book.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AussieAuthor2020

 

Marine Officer: Convict Wife The Johnstons of Annandale by Alan Roberts

 

‘Johnston played an important part in creating a viable colony out of pitiable beginnings.’

After reading ‘Esther’ by Jessica North earlier this year, I decided that I wanted to know more about her.  This book, about Esther and George Johnston, which grew out of a larger study of the history of the Sydney suburb of Annandale, provided me with quite a lot of additional information.  While I had known that George Johnston had a role in the deposition of Governor William Bligh in 1808, I knew nothing about his role as an entrepreneur.   And I was intrigued by Ms North’s book to learn more about Esther and the role that both Johnstons played in the early colony of New South Wales.

‘Johnston is not celebrated like Macarthur and the Rev.  Samuel Marsden in the foundation of the Australian wool industry but he played a significant part in it.’

Esther Abrams was a convict transported to Australia on the First Fleet for stealing 21 yards of silk lace. She was accompanied by her baby daughter Rosanna George Johnston was a lieutenant, part of the marine detachment sent on the First Fleet, to perform garrison duty.  He later transferred to the New South Wales Corps.

In this book Dr Roberts writes of George Johnston’s military service and of his achievements as an entrepreneur.  Esther, first his mistress and then (much later) his wife, played a large role in managing the Johnston’s pastoral empire.  The Johnstons had three sons: George Junior, Robert and David, who each played a part in the life of the colony, and four daughters (Julia, Maria, Isabella and Blanche).  George Junior and David were members of an exploration party that found good land in the Illawarra District in 1816.  Robert played a part in exploration east after the crossing of the Blue Mountains.

I found this book fascinating for the insight it provides into the early days of the colony of New South Wales.

Dr Roberts writes of George Johnston:  ‘He was overshadowed by Macarthur; but so were almost all of his generation.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith