The Morbids by Ewa Ramsay

‘I think about dying all the time.’

Two years ago, Caitlin was planning an overseas trip with her best friend. Two years ago, Caitlin was enjoying her career. Two years ago, an accident changed everything.

And now?

Every week, Caitlin attends a weekly support group. She and the other members of the group suffer from profound anxiety about imminent death. The group nicknamed ‘The Morbids’, talk about the many and varied ways, times and places in which death might await them. Their fear is disabling and paralysing, making ‘normal life’ almost impossible. The leadership of the group has changed: once a psychiatrist led discussion, now a series of different nurses attends and takes notes. It is almost as if the professionals have given up: the group is essentially facilitated by one of the participants.

’Everything had been perfect and now it wasn’t and nothing was ever going to fix it.’

Caitlin is convinced that she is going to die. She tries to manage her overwhelming anxiety by keeping busy, self-medicating with alcohol and keeping those who might care at arm’s length.

How can Caitlin possibly attend her best friend’s wedding in Bali? And when Tom, a handsome doctor, takes an interest in her, will she be able to overcome her fear of death and restart her life?

Anyone who has ever experienced anxiety will be able to relate to Caitlin’s story. Sure, anxiety is often only temporary for most of us, but it is the oppressive feeling of anxiety that Ms Ramsay captures in this novel. Anxiety: an overwhelming fear that often has a logical starting point but can grow into monstrous proportions and take over a life. I wanted Caitlin to succeed, to reclaim her life but could feel that monstrous weight pressing down on her.

Highly recommended.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AWW2021

#AussieAuthor2021

Those Hamilton Sisters by Averil Kenny

‘What does the future hold?’

Three sisters, orphaned after their mother’s death, arrive in Noah Vale, in tropical Queensland, where their aunt lives. It is 1955, and the girls are about to encounter all the gossip and small-minded prejudice that their mother Esther fled from when pregnant, over 20 years earlier. Sonnet (20), Fable (12) and Novella (known as Plum) (3) were all born out of wedlock. Their aunt Olive wants to help, but Sonnet is fiercely independent of herself and her sisters.

The story unfolds over the next ten years with each of the sisters overcoming the legacy of prejudice to find their own place in the world. Ms Kenny brings her characters to life, especially Sonnet and Fable. Gradually we learn more about their mother Esther, about her hopes and ambitions for herself and for her daughters. I finished the novel wanting more, especially as Plum’s journey to adulthood was just beginning. I really enjoyed this novel, with its wonderful descriptions of place and the clear-eyed depiction of the challenges that the sisters faced, trying to make their own ways in a town where they were judged according to the past.

An accomplished debut novel.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AWW2021

#AussieAuthor2021

#BRPreview

Elizabeth & Elizabeth by Sue Williams

‘If you want to forge a path of your own, you must find a way to make your time in New South Wales work for you.’

Elizabeth Macarthur arrived in New South Wales in 1790 with her husband John, a lieutenant in the New South Wales Corps. At the end of 1809, Betsey Macquarie arrived with her husband Lachlan, who took up his duties as New South Wales Governor on 1 January 1810. In this novel, Ms Williams imagines a friendship between Elizabeth (Betsey) Macquarie and Elizabeth Macarthur.

I admit to having reservations about this novel: I have read a few novels recently, where the lives of historical women (including novels about both Elizabeth Macarthur and Elizabeth Macquarie) have been imagined. Sometimes such novels can bring historical figures alive, other times they insert imagined details that have me wishing that the novelist had chosen entirely fictional characters. While I cannot quite envisage the Betsey Macquarie that Ms Williams writes of, I have no difficulty recognising Elizabeth Macarthur. My reservations fade quite quickly as Ms Williams immerses the reader in the politics and challenges of this period of Australia’s colonial history. I recognise many of the historical figures and events from other reading.

By the end of the novel, through the personal trials and tribulations each woman (and her family) suffers, I can envisage the shape of such a friendship, the competence of each woman, and the challenges faced.

If you are interested in novels depicting strong women set in colonial Australia, I recommend this novel.

‘In a place where there are so few educated women, Elizabeth knows her friend’s absence will leave a gaping hole.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AWW2021

#AussieAuthor2021

Sisters of Freedom by Mary-Anne O’Connor

‘Daughters of freedom, the truth marches on, Yield not the battle till ye have won!’

Sydney, December 1901. The states have federated, the Commonwealth of Australia has been formed. But Australian women have not yet been enfranchised, and many would like to see this changed.

The Merriweather family gathers to celebrate Christmas: Albert, Harriet, and their daughters Agatha (Aggie), Frances (Frankie) and Ivy. Aggie has been married to Robert Stapleton for three years. She volunteers in an orphanage and is longing to have her own children. Frankie is a dedicated advocate for women’s rights, and is determined never to marry while Ivy, who loves art and colourful clothing, hopes to marry Patrick Earle, a law student, and have a family. Three different sisters, each with her own dreams for the future.

Ivy has an accident which changes each of their lives. Patrick has left her briefly on the banks of the Hawkesbury River, and when he returns, she is gone. Riley Logan, travelling up the river by boat, comes across Ivy and takes her to his sister Fiona further upriver. Riley does not have the time to take Ivy downriver and he knows that there are some unsavoury characters lurking nearby. Fiona, her husband George, and their twin daughters live in a small shack by the river. Fiona helps Ivy and the two of them become close. Ivy does not forget them when she returns home, and the Merriweather family is grateful to Riley and Fiona for their help, and Ivy wants to establish a school along the river. She and Riley intend to work together to achieve this, but once Ivy becomes engaged to Patrick her plans are halted.

Ms O’Connor’s story takes us though several issues affecting Australian women including poverty, domestic violence, and the fight to enfranchise women. While two aspects of the storyline were resolved just a little too neatly for me, I was more than happy with the ending. Suffice to say that the path of true love does not always run smoothly.

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

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AWW2021

#AussieAuthor2021

Second First Impressions by Sally Thorne

‘By the time I leave here, you’ll have someone.’

Meet Ruthie Midona: she is twenty-five and works at the Providence Luxury Retirement Village where she is the live-in manager. Ruthie is devoted to her work and is a dedicated protector of the endangered golden bonnet tortoises living in the village’s gardens. There is not a lot of excitement in Ruthie’s life. Her temporary co-worker, Melanie Sasaki, decides to help Ruthie get into the dating scene. The Sasaki Method involves several stages, and Ruthie’s really not sure whether she wants to participate.

Two of the village’s more eccentric residents, Renata and Agatha Parloni seek Ruthie’s assistance in employing a new male assistant. They are tough taskmasters: none of their assistants has lasted for more than a week.

Enter Teddy Prescott, the son of the property developer who has just bought the retirement village. He is a good-looking young man with an intriguing past. The Parlonis employ him, his father allows him to stay in the retirement village (in accommodation adjoining Ruthie) and life becomes interesting. Teddy is not going to be staying long, and Ruthie (although she finds him attractive) does not want to become attached to someone who will soon move away.

In the meantime: what will the property developers do with the retirement village, why won’t Sylvia (Ruthie’s boss who is currently on holiday) respond to Ruthie’s messages, and what is the secret that makes the Parlonis sad? Will Ruthie be able to step outside the constraints she lives her life within, and will Teddy ever meet his family’s expectations?

While the ending was all a little too neat for me, I enjoyed the story. Ms Thorne has combined interesting characters, several important life issues, and romance, all delivered with warm humour.

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

#AWW2021

#AussieAuthor2021

A Million Things by Emily Spurr

‘Silence isn’t really silent.’

Suddenly, Rae and her dog Splinter are on their own. Her mum is gone. Rae’s determined to manage on her own. She can use her mum’s debit card to buy food and pay the bills, she can take care of Splinter and, if she keeps the front yard tidy, perhaps she will be left alone. Rae is afraid though, and while she knows she cannot trust the world, she is afraid that people will learn that her mum is gone.

This novel portrays Rae’s life for fifty-five days as she takes care of herself and Splinter. Rae’s used to her mum disappearing for a while, she knows what to do. But this is not the same.

Next door lives a grumpy old woman called Lettie. Lettie has her own secrets, her own ways of keeping people at arm’s length. Rae is worried about what will happen when her money runs out, and when her mother’s absence is noticed. Rae rescues Lettie after a fall, and the two of them form an unlikely but guarded alliance. Then there’s Lucy down the street who keeps wanting to speak with Rae’s mum, and her son Oscar who want to be Rae’s friend.

What a wonderful debut novel this is. Lettie and Rae are well realised characters, each dealing with difficult situations and relaxing into a comfortable companionship. But Rae cannot keep her secret, especially after she receives an eviction notice.

And the ending? You will need to read it for yourself.

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

#AussieAuthor2021

The Hope Flower by Joy Dettman

‘You want to run so far and fast but you know that if you do, you’ll eventually have to turn around and come back, so why bother running?’

Lori Smyth-Owen, almost 15 years of age, is the only girl in a family of twelve: their mother Mavis had eaten herself into morbid obesity, their father is dead. Some of the brothers have left but Lori and those who remain have learned how to manage their lives without drawing the attention of the authorities in the (fictional) Australian country town of Willama.

‘It was a blur of life without a signpost marking the way.’

Because the children have reduced Mavis’s food intake, she loses two-thirds of her weight. This may prove to be a mixed blessing: a more mobile Mavis might be a more effective parent, but she is volatile and has mental health issues. And a mobile Mavis could undermine the coping strategies the children have in place to keep the family together.

‘Kids raised in that house had learnt early to put aside disappointment and to get on with life.’

Mavis (‘Mave’) emerges from her cocoon of fat, ready to tackle the world. Her increased mobility makes her difficult to manage, her self-absorption means that she has no time (or interest) in effective parenting.

What can I tell you about this bittersweet rollercoaster ride of a novel? It is unbearably sad in parts, while humorous and hopeful in others. I understand it is a sequel to ‘Henry’s Daughter’ (which I have now bought but not yet read). While I am in awe of the ingenuity demonstrated by the children and their survival skills, the parent in me wanted to walk into the book and intervene. Yes, these characters become real. The children are incredibly resilient (mostly) and while their family history may not be what they thought it was, there is some hope for the future. Eventually.

Heartbreakingly sad and ultimately hopeful.

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

#AWW2021

#AussieAuthor2021

Nest by Inga Simpson

‘There was more than one hazard in returning to the town where you grew up.’

Jen Vogel, an artist and once a teacher, has returned to the place where she grew up. Her mother has recently died, and her long-term relationship has ended. Jen is returning to a place of safety, a nest. She lives alone in a secluded house, watching and drawing the birds around her and tending the semi-tropical garden around her home. Jen’s most regular interaction is with Henry, a high school student and talented artist to whom she is giving drawing lessons.

But when Caitlin, a girl in Henry’s class goes missing, Jen is drawn out of her current safe nest into the past. Nearly forty years earlier, when Jen was Henry’s age, her best friend Michael went missing, and her father left. When Caitlin goes missing, people are reminded of the past, and speculate about what happened and why. Jen watches and draws the birds around her, and tension builds.

Adding to this tension, of recent and past disappearances, is waiting for the summer rain. Rain that tantalises and threatens, creating an oppressive atmosphere before finally arriving.

What is ‘Nest’ about? Answers about those who are missing is one aspect but to me it is more about revisiting the past and coming to terms with the past in order to move into the future. 

I enjoyed this novel, with its quiet reflective pace. Ms Simpson brings Jen and her environment to life.

‘Sometimes it’s not your drawing that’s the problem, but your connection with the subject,’ she said. ‘There’s a story there, you just have to find it.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AWW2021

#AussieAuthor2021

Monsters by Alison Croggon

‘I can’t write this story in a straight line.’

A fractured relationship with a sister provides the starting point for this reflective narrative. From the individual (who am I, and where do I fit within the smaller world of family) through the present (including the privileges bestowed by place of birth and colour of skin) to the historical (the impact of British imperialism with its underlying racist and sexist behaviours). And, when these influences are considered and weighed, what of the future? Do we recognise the need to revisit (some at least) of our attitudes? Can we change?

In trying to understand her place in the world, Ms Croggon raises some serious and uncomfortable questions. We each occupy a life shaped by custom, culture, and history. Many of us accept, without question, both the constraints and privileges we are born into. In questioning this for herself, Ms Croggon invites the reader to do the same.

‘I need these narratives that give me a larger picture of who I am.’

I want to reread this book. As I shifted between memoir and essay, between the impact of a fractured relationship and the power structures of the British Empire, my thoughts kept straying to some of the related and painful contemporary issues in Australia.

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

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AWW2021

#AussieAuthor2021

The Drop-Off by Fiona Harris and Mike McLeish

‘Hey buddy, so maybe I should start at the beginning like most good stories do …’

Meet Lizzie, Megan, and Sam. Parents of children at Melbourne’s Baytree Primary School, they have become friends over school drop-off. Lizzie, a part-time midwife with four children, has an awkward secret. Sam, a chef, is now a stay-at-home dad whose wife spends a lot of time travelling because of her job. And Megan is a single mum with a thriving but demanding online business. Busy people, who have bonded over coffee and chat at school drop-off.

Chat at school drop-off was never part of my experience: there was never time. Child delivered: commute to work, full time job, shift working partner, no time to park and chat. I am envious, and I am still on the first page. So, what did these parents get up to?

Three parents, three quite different life situations, three different points of view. Lizzie, Megan, and Sam were like many of the other parents:

‘As school communities went, Baytree Primary parents were lazy and useless.’

Until a tragedy led them to become more involved in the school.

I enjoyed this novel, accompanying each of the characters as they dealt with changes and crises. They became unlikely saviours of a school event while supporting each other through personal issues. I may not have been part of the drop-off clique, but I recognise the challenges of being involved in the school community and of juggling commitments.

This novel was developed from a web-based comedy series (which I have not seen). I enjoyed the humour, found myself nodding in agreement with some of the issues faced and was delighted by the ending. Parenting is a tough gig, but everything is much easier with friends and good humour.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AWW2021

#AussieAuthor2021