If Not Us by Mark Smith

‘Hesse slipped his board into the rack on the side of his bike and swept down the Russell Street Hill.’

Seventeen-year-old Hesse Templeton lives with his mother Imogen at Shelbourne, a small coastal town in Victoria. The town is dominated by an ageing coal-fired power station and a coal mine which are two of the town’s major employers. The power station is for sale. Some members of the community, increasingly concerned about the impact of climate change, would like to see both the coal mine and the power station closed.

Hesse’s mother, Imogen, is a member of the local environmental group lobbying for closure. Hesse’s major interest, outside his weekend work at the surf shop and keeping up with his schoolwork, is surfing (and dodging the town bully). That is until he meets Fenna de Vries, a new exchange student from The Netherlands. Along with his interest in Fenna, Hesse’s awareness of climate issues is growing.

‘He was writing an essay on climate change for English. The more research he’d done, the angrier he’d become.’

But as Hesse knows, closure of the mine and power station will lead to job losses. And those job losses will have a direct effect on some of his friends and their parents. Hesse is initially reluctant to get involved in the campaign but decides that he must make a stand. Fenna encourages him. A protest meeting is arranged, and Hesse agrees to speak:

‘My name’s Hesse, and I’m part of the generation that’s going to have to’—he stopped to clear his throat and swallow hard—to live with the effects of climate change.’

The town divides. Hadron, the owner of the power station has been a supporter of many activities in the town, and job losses loom. A brick is thrown through Imogen’s window, and Hesse is threatened with violence. But footage of the meeting (filmed by Fenna on her ‘phone) is shared to social media and goes viral. Suddenly the issue of the pollution caused by the Shelbourne coal mine and power station is no longer local.

This is a terrific YA novel which deals realistically with the local challenges of climate change. I can imagine how those locals employed by Hadron would feel, and I liked the way the teenagers made their feelings known. There’s a touch of romance as well, and humour, as well as evocative descriptions of surfing.

This is the first of Mr Smith’s novels I have read, and I’ll be seeking out his earlier novels.

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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Echoes of War by Tania Blanchard

‘I followed the nun in a haze of exhaustion.’

Calabria, Italy, 1936. Guilia Tallariti lives with her family (parents and four siblings) in a remote farming village. She dreams of being a healer, like her grandmother, but her father is determined to see each of his three daughters married. Guilia spends some time at a monastery where, unknown to her father, she learns some of the skills of healing with a famous herbalist. But after she returns to the village, she is married at seventeen and then widowed two years later.

Beyond Calabria, Mussolini and his National Fascist Party are in power in Italy and the world is edging towards World War II. Calabria is no longer safe from the fascist agenda of northern Italy and Guilia’s family will be torn apart. Guilia remarries: her husband, father and brother are called up to serve in the armed forces. By now, Guilia is a trusted healer: even her father has accepted her skills.

And after the war, many of those who have survived can no longer make a living on their farms. Many will emigrate.

Ms Blanchard has drawn on her grandfather’s life in writing this novel: deftly drawing history into fiction and enabling the reader to experience the customs of Calabria and the challenges faced. I enjoyed this novel and learned more about the impact of Mussolini and of World War II in this part of Italy. The characters and story held my attention from beginning to end.

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

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Birds of a Feather by Tricia Stringer

Publication date: 29/9/2021

‘Eve Monk would never forget where she was and what she was doing the day she got the call to say her husband had been killed.’

That was in 1988. And now, in the middle of 2021, Eve is one of the matriarchs of South Australia’s (fictional) Wallaby Bay and a long-time partner in the Wallaby Bay prawn fishing fleet. Town gossip has seen Eve withdraw from her position on the town’s committee and now her partner Spiro wants to sell out. Eve is not sure, and then a shoulder injury shatters her independence.

Lucy, her husband Alec and children Noah and Poppy have moved to Wallaby Bay. Alec’s parents live there as well, which is helpful. But while Lucy is grateful for their support because Alec is a FIFO worker, she really doesn’t want to rely on them too much. Lucy is a very protective mother. While Lucy has a nursing background, she’s reluctant to return to nursing. For now, she is happy to do cleaning work.

Julia, Eve’s goddaughter, has been working on a research project in Melbourne. But, with the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, priorities have changed leaving Julia out of a job. While she considers what to do next, Julia decides to surprise Eve by visiting Wallaby Bay. Julia has had one failed relationship, and wary of commitment, she is also seeking a break from her current partner Glen while she works out whether she wants the relationship to continue.

Three very different women, drawn together by circumstances. Eve needs assistance after her shoulder injury and then after the surgery required to fix it. Lucy is employed by Eve to help her, but she and Julia really do not get on. Each of the women is battling past demons. As the women talk to each other about their fears and concerns, an unlikely but supportive friendship is formed.

I really enjoyed this novel, with its coverage of topical issues (including the Covid-19 pandemic, the challenges faced by FIFO families, and life after retirement). Ms Stringer brings her characters to life, as well as the sometimes claustrophobic ‘feel’ of a small town.

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

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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An Outback Life by Mary Groves

‘What on earth was going on?’

In this memoir, first published in 2011, Mary Groves writes of her life in the Top End of Australia. When she was fourteen, Mary and her family moved from Melbourne to the Northern Territory. The family included Mary, her parents and seven of her siblings.

‘It took our family convoy ten days, in two cars, to travel well over 2000 miles from our corner store in South Melbourne to our general store at Mataranka in the Top End of Australia in 1959.’

In a fascinating memoir, which ends in 1999 when Mary moves to Queensland, she tells of the challenges and hardships she and her family faced. In her early 20s, Mary met Joe Groves – a cattleman, horse breaker, drover, and rodeo rider. They fell in love, had four children, and worked together on several different cattle stations across northern Australia. The nature of Joe’s work meant that he and Mary were often separated, and the isolation meant that Mary acquired an array of survival skills.

I read of the challenges Mary faced and admired the humour with which she (mostly) faced them. The stories are peopled with interesting characters and ingenious solutions to issues. Mary and Joe worked hard, as did their children. I was pleased to read that they found some success along the way.

In her author’s note, Mary writes: ‘I have not used real names in these stories and the terminology I use is that of the 1960s and 1970s. I apologise for any remarks that may seem sexist or racist; they are not intended to be derogatory, but were the terms used by the black and white people in the Territory in my time there.’

Recommended reading for anyone interested in life on Australian cattle stations in the second half of the twentieth century.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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Here in the After by Marion Frith

‘It was so quiet, so very, very quiet.’

Anna, aged 62, is the sole survivor of a terrorist attack in Sydney. Eleven others were murdered.  Nat, aged 35, is an Army veteran who served in Afghanistan. Both are suffering because of their experiences; both have been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Once Anna is well enough to leave hospital, she retreats into herself, into her home as a fortress. Anna is widowed with adult children and while they try to help her, the only comfort she can find is with her young grandson. Nat’s wife Gen is worried about him. He has outbursts of anger which he cannot explain. Why can’t he tell her what is worrying him?

Nat’s initial approach to Anna is rebuffed: she thinks he is just another person who does not understand what she has been though. But a chance meeting on the beach leads to a tentative friendship. And as their friendship builds, Nat takes what he believes is a terrible risk: he tells Anna his story. There is more to the story than this as you will find if you read it for yourself.

‘They told us we were going over to stamp out terrorism and keep Australia safe … and … well, we didn’t.’

Reading this novel barely weeks after the US and its allies have withdrawn from Afghanistan, leaving the country once again in the hands of the Taliban makes this an even more uncomfortable read. Ms Frith’s novel takes us beyond the impact of terrorist acts on the individuals concerned into an appreciation of the concomitant impact on their loved ones. Anna’s family feel helpless, as does Nat’s wife. Anna and Nat (eventually) can talk to each other because their shared experience gives them understanding. Words are sometimes not enough.

There is no happy ever after ending here but there is hope that with the right support the future will be more comfortable for both Anna and Nat and their families.

I was deeply moved by this story and after finishing my review copy, bought a copy for myself. This is Ms Frith’s first novel, and I recommend it highly.

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

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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Black and Blue: a memoir of racism and resilience by Veronica Gorrie

‘I come from a long line of strong women.’

At the beginning of the book, at the end of her Author’s Note, Ms Gorrie writes:

‘Please be aware that this book contains material that readers may find confronting and disturbing, and that could cause sadness or distress, or trigger traumatic memories, especially for Aboriginal people, and those who have survived past abuse, violence, or childhood trauma.’

I thank Ms Gorrie for this warning: being forewarned enables a reader to proceed with caution into what is a confronting, important but uncomfortable read. The book is split into two parts. The first part deals with Ms Gorrie’s life before joining the Queensland Police Service, the second with her experience of ten years in the Queensland Police Service, and beyond.

This is a very personal story, of growing up in a society which (to my shame) makes judgements about people based on colour and ethnicity often without considering culture, family ties and responsibilities. Some people sink beneath the burden of abuse and mistreatment, others will find a path through to achieve a more meaningful life for themselves, but all are scarred by their experiences.

In telling us her story, Ms Gorrie gives context. We learn about why, for example, her grandparents lived the way they did. We learn (or remember) the impact of alcohol abuse and violence on families.

‘When you are getting beaten, it does something to you. It takes away your self-esteem, your confidence, your self-respect and your self-worth. But more importantly, it takes away your voice.’

Disempowerment and abuse can become entrenched within family groups and across generations. Most of us will copy the behaviour of those responsible for our upbringing. Most, but not all. And this, for me, is one of the reasons why Ms Gorrie’s book is important.

‘I joined the police for many reasons: first, to see if I could get in, and more importantly, because I had seen the way the police mistreated my people and naively thought that if I joined, I would be able to stop this.’

Sadly, Ms Gorrie’s idealism is undermined by the reality she worked within. And injury forces retirement.

‘When I first joined the police, I had this idea that I could change the attitude of the Aboriginal community towards police. Little did I know I couldn’t do that until I changed the police attitude towards Aboriginal people.’

As I read this book, my admiration for Ms Gorrie increased. She tells a difficult story with humour and insight and in doing so provides hope for others.

‘The pain and suffering of the stolen generations is passed down from generation to generation. My grandmother lived this fear, my father experienced the fear, and I feared the experience.’

I would recommend this book to all Australians.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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The Art of the Engine Driver (Glenroy Series #1) by Steven Carroll

‘They are walking down the old street again, Rita, Vic and Michael.’

A summer evening in the late 1950s, in a newly developing suburb of Melbourne. We join Rita, Vic, and Michael as they walk down the (unsealed) street to engagement party of Patsy Bedser at the home of her father George. And as we walk with Rita, Vic, and Michael, we meet the other neighbours and have glimpses into each of their lives. Michael dreams of the future, Vic wants to be the engine driver on the Spirit of Progress, and Rita wants change. As they walk, they see a comet overhead. As they walk, we learn more about the neighbourhood and its history, about the dreams and disappointments of those who live there. We learn a little about the past and see something of the future.

And later, after the party, after a train accident the consequences of which seem likely to cost Vic his dream, Rita makes a difficult decision.

‘Driving is a gift. Physical. Something you’ve either got or you haven’t.’

This is the first novel of the six books in the Glenroy Series and for some reason, I read the last four first. So, I am heading back into the past, to the beginning of the story. It’s like catching up on the family history of old friends and revisiting familiar territory. I didn’t grow up in Melbourne, but I grew up in a similar new suburb on the (then) outskirts of Launceston in the early 1960s. New suburbs, new dreams, old secrets. Somehow, Mr Carroll manages to hold the story in the present while referring to the past and providing glimpses into the future. And while I know how the Glenroy Series ends, I need to read ‘The Gift of Speed’ to see what I have missed.

If you have not read this series, I recommend it. And, if you can, read the novels in order. These are beautifully written contemplative novels.

‘What happens to all that life? All that time? Where does it all go? One moment you feel like you’ve got all the years in the world to live, and the next you feel like you’ve lived them.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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The Turning  by Tim Winton

‘But, you know, all the big things hurt, the things you remember. If it doesn’t hurt, it’s not important.’

This book contains seventeen linked short stories, set in the fictional whaling town of Angelus in Western Australia. These stories feature ordinary people struggling with life and responsibility, each trying to find their own place, grappling with life, actions, and consequences.

The Lang family feature in nine of these stories. Most of our view is through the eyes of Vic, as an adolescent and a young man, then as a husband and father. These shifts in chronology and perspective enable us to see the individual, his family, and his community. And then there are the stories featuring the bully Max Leaper and his wife Raelene, and the young Max with his brother.

As I read these stories, I feel like I know these people. I don’t like some of their choices and I wonder how they will survive some of them, but I recognise the gaps between ambition, dream, and reality. The stories are frequently bleak and depressing: exposing addiction, corruption, and domestic violence.

While I enjoyed each of the stories, I have two favourites: ‘Small Mercies’ and ’Boner McPharlin’s Moll’. In both stories, the characters stepped off the page and into my head.

This book was first published in 2004. Highly recommended.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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Apples Never Fall by Liane Moriarty

‘Four green apples lay scattered on the dry grass …’

Meet the Delaneys. Joy and Stan, former tennis coaches, are still winning tennis tournaments. They have sold the family business and are learning (or trying to) to live as retirees. They have four adult children: Amy, Logan, Troy, and Brooke, each a former tennis player and each busy with their own lives. Joy hopes, one day, to have grandchildren.

One night last year, Joy and Stan hear a knock at the door. A young woman stands there. Her name is Savannah, and she is bleeding after a fight with her boyfriend. Joy and Stan take her into their home. Joy thinks that she should recognise Savannah and worries that her memory is failing. Savannah stays with Joy and Stan for a while, but then moves on.

And then Joy goes missing. No one knows where she is, a weird text message is sent to her children, then later her mobile ‘phone is found under the bed. What has happened to Joy?

The police are involved and on the face of it, Stan looks guilty. He claims to be innocent but is clearly hiding something. And the Delaney children, each dealing with issues of their own are split over whether Stan might be innocent. The Delaneys had a fight just before Joy went missing.

As the story moves between the past, when Savannah was in their lives and the present where Joy is missing, we see the best and worst of the Delaney siblings. And what is the story with Savannah?

While I enjoyed this novel (and loved the neat ending) I found the story moved a bit too slowly at times.

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 Buchanan Girls by Emily Madden

‘When Andrew Buchanan returned home from the Great War with a bride in tow, his parents were not pleased to say the least.’

In July 1924, Andrew’s wife Louisa gives birth to identical twin girls: Olive and Ivy. Tragically, Louisa dies, and while Andrew does the best he can for his daughters, Ivy grows up feeling responsible for her mother’s death. Olive is the daughter favoured by both her father and grandmother. Olive is engaged at 17 and then marries her fiancé before he departs Australia to serve in the Army. Ivy wants to do more, and passing herself as being 18, joins the Australian Women’s Army Service (AWAS). She does so against her father’s wishes. Ivy starts to establish a life for herself in the barracks at Townsville, making friends with her colleagues. At a dance one night, she meets Leo, an American serviceman.

In 2008, Madeline returns to Sydney from New York. She has discovered that her husband cheated on her after the devastating loss of their baby and needs space to come to terms with both losses. Once in Sydney, Madeline is tempted to stay and never return to New York. But her husband Evan keeps sending her reminders of significant dates and she wonders why. Her grandmother provides a sympathetic ear and then Madeline learns of secrets within her family, secrets which will make her think about her relationship with Evan.

The story shifts between 1941 and 2008, between the lives of Ivy and Madeline. As the earlier story unfolds, Ivy makes many sacrifices for Olive. In the later story, Madeline learns about the past as she comes to terms with her own life and choices.

I enjoyed this novel with its dual timelines. I found Olive incredibly selfish and frustrating, felt sorry for Ivy and wondered what choices Madeline would make.

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

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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