Mirror Man (DCI Jack Hawksworth #3) by Fiona McIntosh

‘His life was meaningless. How could he ever give it meaning again?’

Several bizarre deaths in England have Scotland Yard concerned. DCI Jack Hawksworth is reassigned from his role in Counter Terrorism to head up an operation to try to find any connections between the deaths. Hawksworth is promoted to Detective Superintendent to head up Operation Mirror and has a small team including DI Kate Carter, DI Malek Khan, and analyst DS Sarah Jones with whom he has worked before.

How is the killer identifying his victims? Some of them are criminals who have been released early from prison, but how would the killer know how to find them? There is nothing random about these deaths, but how can Operation Mirror get ahead of a serial-killing vigilante? Detective Superintendent Hawksworth uses some unconventional methods to get results, including speaking with a convicted serial killer and working with an ambitious young journalist.

The reader may know who is responsible for these deaths, but the members of Operation Mirror must find evidence that the deaths are linked before they can search for a suspect. And the killer is very careful not to leave behind any trace.

I read this book in two sessions. I was intrigued by the characters (this is the first Jack Hawksworth novel I have read, and I’ve added the first two books to my reading list) and by the actions of the vigilante. Ms McIntosh introduces a few twists in this rapidly paced story and there is plenty of tension as the story nears its conclusion. Can the vigilante’s actions ever be justified given the nature of the crimes committed by those killed? Do the ends ever justify the means?

Highly recommended.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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A Little Bird by Wendy James

‘Bad news might be real life, but believe me, no one wants to hear about it anymore.’

A relationship break-down, her father’s illness and a job offer bring Jo Sharpe home in 2018 to the small drought-stricken town of Arthurville in remote, rural Australia. Jo has mixed feelings about returning: her mother and baby sister left Arthurville in 1994 and apart from one letter, neither have been heard from since.

Jo’s job on the ‘Chronicle’ is to produce six pages of good news each week. Not as easy as you might think given that the town is gripped by drought, but Jo settles in, rekindling some old friendships and making new friends. But being back in Arthurville rekindles Jo’s desire to find out why her mother left, taking her sister but leaving Jo behind. Her father, ill and ill-tempered, does not want to revisit the past. And then Jo finds some papers which, while they may shed some light on the past, raise plenty of questions.

The story shifts between Jo in 2018 and 1994, where Jo’s mother Merry is the narrator. As the two narratives unfold, we learn of secrets held, of ill-feeling and misunderstandings. And at the heart of it all is someone who would rather kill than concede ground.

I enjoyed this story with its complex, flawed characters and with a few twists that kept me guessing until very near the end. Ms James has published eight novels so far, and as this is only the third I have read, I have five others to look forward to.

If you enjoy domestic thrillers in a rural setting then I can recommend this,

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

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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The One Impossible Labyrinth (Jack West Jr #7) by Matthew Reilly

‘The Omega Event — the collapse of the universe— is only three days away!’

This, the final instalment in the Jack West Jr series, picks up where ‘The Two Lost Mountains’ ends. Jack and his remaining team have made it to the Supreme Labyrinth. But so have four teams of his rivals. The race is on: someone needs to reach a throne within the labyrinth to stop the universe collapsing. And, whoever gets there first and sits on the throne will be very powerful!

‘There are no shortcuts when the fate of the universe is at stake.’

Okay. What can I say without spoilers? Well, there is non-stop action in a very tight timeframe. The maze to be negotiated is very complex and not everyone will survive. There are plenty of twists as Jack and his team try to prevail against seemingly impossible odds. Great page-turning action, with terrific diagrams by Gavin Tyrrell. If you have enjoyed the first six books in the series, then I think you’ll enjoy this one as well. A fitting ending to the series.

‘We can sleep after we’ve saved the universe.’

Oh, and I want a Warbler!

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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Now That I See You by Emma Batchelor

‘I found some hairs last night. Long and dark. Glaring at me against the white tiles of the bathroom floor.’

In brief, this is a story about a relationship breakdown which occurred after one partner tells the other that they are transgender. What started as a relationship between a man and a woman fails when the man becomes a woman. Emma, whose story this is, finds it very hard to let go. The story unfolds over a period of eighteen months and is told in three parts: ‘Us’, ‘Them’ and ‘Me’. Emma, as part of ‘Us’ struggles with Jess’s disclosure and tries to think of ways to accommodate Jess’s change within her own needs. But Jess needs space to rediscover themselves and to make a new life.

We have only Emma’s perspective through her thoughts, diary entries and eMails to Jess. Jess is essentially silent. While that is okay — it is Emma’s story — it made it difficult for me to get any real sense of who Jess is.

‘It is curious how devoted we are to binary thinking, both in terms of gender and sexuality. Actually, not just binary thinking but traditional thinking. If you are a woman, you must be attracted to men. If you were initially attracted to men, you must always be attracted to them. We struggle with the in-between spaces, the grey areas that change. Anything that subverts the norm, really.’

Emma grieves for the loss of her relationship with Jess and while I felt sympathy for her, initially I wanted to know how Jess was feeling. But I guess that is another story. Relationships change over a lifetime: children become adults, form their own significant relationships, some become parents, the cycle repeats. But these relationships are usually lived out within specific binary gender constraints. And so, I am forced to think about how relationships formed within those constraints are challenged (and often broken) if one partner’s role changes.

‘I am a casualty of your quest for self-exploration.’

A challenging and thought-provoking read.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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Lawson by Grantlee Kieza

‘The life and times of Henry Lawson.’

I confess to knowing very little about Henry Lawson before reading this book. Sure, I have read ‘The Drover’s Wife and a few other pieces, and vaguely knew that he had written pieces published in The Bulletin. But I knew nothing about the man himself.

 Henry Lawson (1867-1922), short story writer and balladist, was born on 17 June 1867 at Grenfell, New South Wales. He was the eldest of four surviving children of Niels Hertzberg (Peter) Larsen, Norwegian-born miner, and his wife Louisa, née Albury. Peter and Louisa were married in 1866 and changed their surname when registering Henry’s birth. Henry Lawson died on 2 September 1922 in Abbotsford, New South Wales.

Mr Kieza writes of Henry Lawson’s upbringing by unhappy parents, of the bullying he faced, his minimal education and of his deafness. But this shy man was clearly perceptive, able to capture the aspirations and struggles of the ordinary Australians around him. His short stories and poems reflect this. Sadly, Henry Lawson was a deeply troubled and self-destructive man. An unsuccessful marriage, emotional highs and lows fuelled by an addiction to alcohol all took a toll on his health, his relationships, and the quality of his writing.

I finished this biography, resolving to read more of Henry Lawson’s work, especially his short stories.

I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to know more about Henry Lawson: Australia’s ‘People’s Poet’.

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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Water Music by Christine Balint

‘I was reared on water and fish like a bird.’

In this work of historical fiction, Ms Balint takes us to eighteenth century Venice. Lucietta is an orphan, being raised by a fisherman’s family. Her adoptive mother, a wet-nurse for the orphanage, asked permission to raise one girl and Lucietta was the one she kept, until she was sixteen. Lucietta is fortunate in that provision has been made for her future:

‘My real father had left instructions and funds to secure my musical education.’

From an early age, Lucietta learns the violin and as the novella opens, she is leaving for the Derelitti Convent, one of the musical orphanages for girls. Here, Lucietta will play the violin in the ensemble and will train some of the younger musicians. She wonders who her father is and whether he would be one of the nobles listed in the Libro d’Oro (the Golden Book).

‘I am Lucietta … the new violinist.’

We learn of Lucietta’s life within the Derelitti Convent, of friends she makes and challenges faced. There are beautiful descriptions of how Lucietta feels when she plays. She knows that music is all she has, all that has stood between her and marriage to a fisherman. And when she plays:

‘Now I am swimming inside the music, hearing every note, seeing the patterns on the page, but blocking out the audience. I cannot bear it’

Will Lucietta become a nun? Will she stay to play music, or will she accept an offer of marriage?

‘I want to talk to someone, but there is only air and moonlight.’

The historical backdrop for this novel is a system of patronage that existed in Venice between 1400 and 1797 which enabled girls from any background to obtain a full-time musical education, leading to a career in music, if they passed an audition.

This glorious novella was the joint winner of the 2021 Viva La Novella prize. I enjoyed Lucietta’s story and the setting and finished the novella wondering (but not needing) what might have happened next.

My thanks to the author for providing me with a copy for review purposes.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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Whole Notes by Ed Ayres

‘This is the moment, before the music begins.’

About twelve years ago, I started listening to ABC Classic in the mornings. A presenter called Emma Ayres introduced me to a world of beautiful music and accompanied me as I gradually started walking my way from ill health to fitness. And over the past twelve years, I have followed Emma through her adventures and books. I missed Emma when she left ABC Classic and then, reading ‘Danger Music’ understood why. Emma’s transition to Eddie has enabled him to find happiness in the gender he belongs to. And now, I can hear Ed on ABC Classic (on Weekend Breakfast).

‘This book is an ode to music, and a celebration of humanity’s greatest creation.’

This is a wonderful book, about life, about finding yourself, and about the role of music in that journey — for Ed — and for others. I particularly enjoyed the passages about teaching music to others, about working out what works best for student and teacher. And then there’s Ed’s journey as a student, as he learns to play the horn.

There’s mention of a period when Ed wasn’t playing music and I can imagine what a loss that must have been for him: missing that particularly beautiful part of life.

There is also Ed’s honest, open account of his transition from female to male. He had waited a long time, thinking it would be too difficult. And, yes, it is a difficult process but a necessary one for Ed. I finished the book overjoyed that Ed has found himself. It is never too late, is it?

At the end of the book is a list of music tied to each section of the book I know some of this music (thanks, ABC Classic) and will be exploring the rest.

Bravo, Ed, on having the courage to take this journey and thank you for sharing it with us.

‘There is no such thing as talent, there is only love. Love for what you are learning, and therefore a desire to know it more deeply, more comprehensively, to have that knowledge become part of you, and you of it.’

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

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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Modern Marriage by Filip Vukašin

 ‘Is Dante Garcia your husband?’

Klara Garcia is a cosmetic surgeon in Melbourne, working in partnership with her friend Tomas. Klara is married to Dante; they are in their late thirties, and they are talking about having a child. Dante has been increasing his fitness regime, and Klara thinks she might need to do some work as well.

And then Klara’s world shifts on its axis. Klara receives a ‘phone call. Dante is unconscious in intensive care. What has happened?

Klara discovers that Dante collapsed in a gay sauna, which immediately raises questions. And the fact that he doesn’t regain consciousness means that Klara cannot ask those questions of Dante. Klara is overwhelmed. She is worried about the possibility of STD, and feels that somehow, she should have known. Klara is anxious about what Dante’s family might think, and she tries to keep this information from them.

A complicated, emotional story unfolds. Tomas, who is gay and who is hoping to marry his partner Sam soon, is concerned about Klara. She’s not taking as much care of her personal presentation as she needs to in the ‘looks are everything’ cosmetic industry, and he knows something about Dante that he really should tell her.

Klara’s sister-in-law, Rachel, thinks that she has all the answers. She’s convinced that Klara knows more about what happened to Dante and starts wondering about motivation. Rachel can visualise the true story, dramatically unfolding in a podcast. And Klara starts injuring herself as she tries to make sense of the past and to face the future.

This novel addresses several complex issues including sexuality, identity, and self-image. I felt sorry for Klara, enjoyed Tomas’s perspective, and loathed Rachel.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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Bad Habits by Sarah Evans

Meet Detective Inspector Eve Rock. Her festive season is not going according to plan. After her house and other prized possessions were blown up, she has had to move in with her mother, Sister Immaculata in St Immaculata’s School for Girls in Nedlands, Perth. Eve’s daughter Chastity is also living there, and things are a little tense. Sister Immaculata is not happy, Chastity is developing a crush on a man who is possibly her brother and Eve cannot decide which of her two police colleagues Quinn Fox and his son Adam she prefers. Oh, and Eve invited her father Henry Talbot as well.

To escape the toxic tension, Eve arranges a callout with her sergeant. She arranges for Adam and Quinn Fox to be called out as well. But Eve’s strategic escape from family simply signifies the beginning of a rollercoaster ride. There’s crime aplenty to investigate: a freezer full of body parts, a jewellery theft, and a body in a skip. And Eve is seriously avoiding telling Chastity who her father is.

So, where did the body parts come from? Who stole the jewels, and what is Sister Immaculata hiding? Can Eve finally make a choice between Adam and Quinn? And who are the mysterious people hanging around the school at night? Eve falls out with Chastity, meets some fairly creepy people and avoids death in three car accidents in which she is deliberately targeted.

While I will never look at body art quite the same way again, I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and have added the first in the series to my reading list. Who knew that investigating crime could be so complicated and so full of laugh out loud moments? Poor Eve, I do hope that her hair grows back:

‘ […]my hair had been singed so badly I’d had to shave it off so that I now resembled an orange bog brush.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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Nellie, the life and loves of Dame Nellie Melba by Robert Wainwright

 ‘Who was she?’

Dame Nellie Melba GBE (19 May 1861 – 23 February 1931) was an Australian operatic soprano. She was born Helen Porter Mitchell in Richmond and became one of the most famous singers of the late Victorian era and the early 20th century. She took the pseudonym ‘Melba’ from her hometown of Melbourne.

Before reading this book, my knowledge of Dame Nellie Melba was scant. But while I lack the gene necessary for appreciating operatic singing performances, I wanted to know more about Dame Nellie’s journey from colonial Australia to international stardom.

Mr Wainwright begins his biography with a prologue in March 1919, with a man sitting down to write a letter. We learn that this man, Louis-Philippe, Duc d’Orleans, was important to Dame Nellie and that this letter was found amongst her papers. An earlier liaison between them had resulted in a scandal that almost derailed her career. And then we return to the beginning.

I read of Nellie’s upbringing, of her unfortunate marriage to Charlie Armstrong and then her life living in Mackay in Queensland. I read of her poverty-stricken years as a student in Paris to Mathilde Marchesi, of her care for her son George. While her father gave her some money, he did not support her singing. And her husband Charlie Armstrong was truly awful. I read of hardship, hard work and determination. Perhaps it was no surprise that Nellie fell in love with Louis-Philippe, Duc d’Orleans (aspirant to the French throne).

Her life was full of both sadness and triumphs. She did not see her son for a decade after her husband took him. She lived in a society which had particular social expectations of women and in which men dominated.

I might not have the ear to appreciate her singing but I admire her determination and hard work. The images we see today, of a formidable looking woman wreathed in furs wearing a large hat, our knowledge of a dessert named in her honour, and of the Australianism ‘More farewells than Dame Nellie Melba’ convey an incomplete picture of a woman who triumphed against considerable odds.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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