The Crow Eaters: A Journey through South Australia by Ben Stubbs

‘It’s a long walk if you take a short cut.’

I have travelled to South Australia a couple of times, but only ever to Adelaide. And when you travel for work-related purposes, there is not much opportunity for exploration and sightseeing. Reading Mr Stubbs’s book took me far beyond the city limits of Adelaide, into places I know by name or reputation such as Ceduna, Elizabeth, and Maralinga. What I enjoyed most about this book was the journey along the dog fence with one of the men who patrols part of it from the edge of Mabel Creek to Mount Eva. This is remote territory: red gibber plains, rolling scrub and chalky country, and is utterly foreign to me. And yet, as Mr Stubbs describes this part of his journey with Al, I can see that the country has its own austere beauty.

I read about Coober Pedy, Kangaroo Island and the Flinders Ranges and learned a little about the history and some of the people who live there. I am tempted to visit some of these places to see for myself. But whether I visit or I do not, I now appreciate that there is far more to South Australia than the city of Adelaide.

Mr Stubbs has written an interesting and informative guide which I would recommend to anyone interested in South Australia.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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The Inheritance by Gabriel Bergmoser

‘Maggie sensed danger the moment the man walked through the door.’

So, who is Maggie? She is a young woman who has fled Melbourne for good reason and is trying to stay under the radar in Port Douglas where she works in a bar. A man enters the bar and seems to have something over her boss. Maggie follows him to a warehouse, and with an improvised bomb explodes the warehouse. Maggie didn’t think she’d been seen but she has. And killing the leader of a drug cartel has consequences.

Maggie has skills and secrets, and a past that she’s trying to keep in the background. But she needs to get out of Port Douglas, and when a man from the past enters her life, she agrees to accompany him to Melbourne.

There are several elements to this fast-paced story: crooked policemen, a bikie gang, and the consequences of Maggie’s father Eric’s obsession with a serial killer. The man who convinces Maggie to travel back to Melbourn to claim her inheritance is one of the policemen who worked with her father. Maggie remembers him as a good guy and hopes that part of what her father has left her will provide clues to her missing mother’s whereabouts. Maggie is in danger every step of the way: members of the drug cartel want revenge, some of those from her father’s past want the information Maggie is seeking. Who can she trust?

This is not a book for the squeamish: it is action-packed and full of violence. It is also a sequel, to Gabriel Bergmoser’s ‘The Hunted’ which I have not yet read. While I don’t need to read ‘The Hunted’ to follow the story in ‘The Inheritance’, I will. I am hooked.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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The Way it is Now by Garry Disher

‘He wondered if a life—or lives—could be boiled down to a house.’

A small beachside town named Menlo Beach about an hour out of Melbourne provides the setting for this novel. Twenty years ago, Charlie Deravin was a young policeman working on a missing child case when his mother went missing. His parents, Rose and Rhys Deravin, were in the process of divorcing, and his father was the main suspect although Rose Deravin’s body was never found. Rhys Deravin was also a policeman, a detective, and two of his colleagues Mark Valente and Noel Saltash also lived close by.

‘Gaps had opened in all their lives and the repairs were makeshift.’

Twenty years may have elapsed, but Charlie has never given up wondering about what happened to his mother and hoping to find answers. His marriage has broken down, he is on forced leave after assaulting his superior officer and has moved back to Menlo Beach. Charlie has plenty of time on his hands and tries to follow up some of the now cold leads from his mother’s disappearance.

Charlie is treading on some very thin ice: the police do not appreciate his unofficial involvement. His new girlfriend Anna, a juror he met on a trial that had to be abandoned, is harassed because she would not support an acquittal. Both Anna and Charlie are in danger.

On a vacant block next to where his mother was living, foundations are dug for a new house. Skeletal remains are found: a child and an adult. While Charlie will find the answers he is seeking, regret for actions taken and disappointment with others will both play a part.

I really enjoyed this novel. The tension builds: the small-town setting was well done, and the characters became real (flaws and all). Events in the past and issues in the present maintained the tension as I kept reading, keen to find the answers.

A terrific murder mystery.

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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An Alice Girl by Tanya Heaslip

‘Who will I be, if I’m not here, on this land, under these skies?’

This is Tanya Heaslip’s memoir of childhood, about growing up in Australia’s remote outback during the 1960s and 1970s. Tanya was the eldest of Grant and Janice Heaslip’s four children, and with her siblings M’Lis, Brett and Benny, grew up on remote cattle stations in the Northern Territory. This memoir ends when Tanya went to boarding school aged 12.

The Heaslips were hardworking pioneers who developed Bond Springs Station in an environment where water is scarce, the temperature can exceed 45 degrees Celsius in summer, and everything from visiting neighbours to obtaining supplies requires considerable travel.

The children grew up with schooling provided by governesses and through The School of the Air. Tanya loved her lessons (except for maths) and schooling was often fitted around the demands of the cattle station. Janice ran the household, keeping family and stockmen fed, while Grant managed the property.

For me, as a city dweller who needs green spaces and access to rivers and the ocean, living in Australia’s hot interior is almost unimaginable. I admire those who do and enjoyed reading Tanya’s memories of growing up. The children grew up together, playing, looking out for each other, and helping their father with the cattle droving and mustering.

I learned more about The School of the Air, and of Adelaide Miethke’s role in its establishment. I read about the challenges involved in remote learning and the shyness of children who rarely saw anyone outside their own family. I finished the book full of admiration for Janice and Grant Heaslip, and keen to find out what happened next in Tanya’s life.

‘I will go away and live in the other places I’ve read about in my beloved books. I will do exciting things. Then, one day, I will write about this life and the land, so it’s always with me forever.’

Highly recommended.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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Devotion by Hannah Kent

‘It is time, I think, to tell my story.’

Prussia, 1836. Johanne (Hanne) Nussbaum is almost 15 years old, living with her family in the village of Kay. Her family are part of a community of Old Lutherans, which the King wants to reform. Bound by their interpretation of God’s law, the community seeks to move to a place where they will not be further persecuted. Hanne is different. She does not fit easily into the community because she does not conform to their expectations. She is close to her twin brother Matthias but has no close friends until Dorothea (Thea) Eichenwald and her family arrive. Hanne and Thea become close.

The families of Kay are finally granted permission to leave Prussia, their voyage to South Australia is arranged, and in 1838 they board a ship. All aboard are looking forward to new beginnings. Hanne and Thea are inseparable. They love each other. But the ship is overcrowded, and the six-month journey will take its toll. Illness and poor food in cramped unhygienic conditions means that not all will survive the journey.

There are some magical moments on this horrific journey: Hanne is in touch with nature wherever she is. One of the most memorable scenes is when Hanne, on the deck of the ship, sees a whale breach. She hears the songs in nature and appreciates them.

And now I will stop telling you about the story because to fully appreciate Ms Kent’s magic, you need to read it unspoiled. The historical setting for this novel is based on the real-life settlement of Old Lutherans at Hahndorf in South Australia’s Barossa Valley. This provides the framework for a beautifully imagined story of transcendent love and devotion.

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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Wild Place by Christian White

Publication date 26/10/2021

‘Somewhere along the way, something had gone wrong.’

December 1989, Camp Hill, Victoria. Seventeen-year-old Tracie Reed goes missing. The police think she is just another runaway who will turn up in a couple of days. But neither her mother Nancy, nor her father Owen, believe that. The Reeds are divorcing and while that has unsettled Tracie, neither of them thinks she has run away.

Camp Hill is a small suburb, the kind of neighbourhood where most neighbours know each other. There is an active neighbourhood watch, and no shortage of people who observe those around them. Oil leaks under cars, missing garden gnomes are important topics of conversation, as are rumours about satanic rituals. When Tracie goes missing, other parents are concerned. Teenagers are told not to venture into the Wild Place, the community forest behind several homes (including Tracie Reed’s).

When the Keel Street Neighbourhood Watch meets after Tracie’s disappearance, local schoolteacher, Tom Witter, married father of two sons, is tasked with posting missing person flyers. Tom is surprised that both his sons claim only vague knowledge of Tracie, but he quickly becomes focussed on a local youth. Tom and Tracie’s father Owen go on a hunt of their own which will not end well.

The search for Tracie puts this small suburban community under the microscope. Everyone, it seems, has something to hide. An old school friend of Tom’s, Detective Sharon Guffey, becomes involved in the case, bringing back memories for both.

There are plenty of twists and quite a few surprises as this story moves to its conclusion. While a couple of aspects can be figured out fairly easily, I was surprised by the final twist.

This is Mr White’s third novel, and the second I have read.  Highly recommended.

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

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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The Fossil Hunter by Téa Cooper

‘It’s blood—bad blood—that’s causing it. A new pinafore and some education ain’t going to change nothing.’

Wollombi, Hunter Valley, NSW 1847 and 1919.

A fossil discovered at London’s Natural History Museum leads Penelope Jane (PJ) Martindale on a journey of discovery. PJ, who left Australia to serve as an ambulance driver in France during the Great War, returns home to her father in 1919. Her father gives her a cold welcome: he blames her for her younger brothers signing up to serve and then both losing their lives during the war. PJ, looking through some of her brothers’ possessions, finds some fossils they had found at Bow Wow Gorge, and she remembers the fossil she discovered at the Natural History Museum.

In 1847, Mellie Vale contracts chicken pox. The last thing she remembers before succumbing to fever is a monster chasing her. Mellie is taken in by Doctor Pearson and his family: returning home is not possible although Mellie is not told why for a while. The Pearson family, trying to help Mellie, send her with their two daughters and their two friends to visit their family friend Anthea Winstanley at her home near Bow Wow Gorge. Anthea is an amateur palaeontologist, and Mellie quickly becomes caught up in the search for fossils.

In 1919, PJ is keen to learn more about Bow Wow Gorge, its fossils, and its connection to Anthea Winstanley. There’s a history about Bow Wow Gorge: apparently people disappeared there 70 years ago, and locals warn people against going there. PJ and her American boyfriend Sam explore, and amongst other mysteries, they discover some bones.

‘The Fossil Hunter’ is an intriguing dual timeline story which takes the reader between the lives of Mellie in 1847 and PJ in 1919. Both time periods have their dark secrets and mysteries, and PJ is determined to find out what really happened in 1847.

I really enjoyed this novel with its focus on natural history and its shifts between the stories of Mellie and PJ. A terrific blend of secrets and mystery spread across 72 years. Another terrific novel from Ms Cooper. Highly recommended to lovers of Australian historical fiction featuring some terrific female characters.

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

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Homecoming by Elfie Shiosaki

‘Four generations of Noongar women in this story. I am the sixth.’

I was fortunate enough to win a copy of this book in a giveaway conducted by Lisa at ANZ LitLovers LitBlog | For lovers of Australian and New Zealand literary fiction; Ambassador for Australian literature and I have been dipping in and out, reading, reflecting and revisiting over the past few weeks.

This book pieces together fragments of stories in poetry and prose and from historical colonial archives to provide a word picture of historical truth for four generations of Noongar women. There are three sections:

Resist

Survive

Renew

Each section takes us into a past that many of us have absolutely no idea about, or chose to ignore:

‘Mary Alice

She made herself visible

For great consequence

                                                                                In a world which made her invisible.’

The layout of this book with its spaces between thoughts and words slows down the reader, inviting us to think about what we are reading, about the lives and experiences being described.

How, with all the difficulties placed in front of them, with policies of protectionism and assimilation almost destroying family and cultural practices, did these women survive?

What does it say about us, the colonisers, that we sought to destroy what we didn’t understand and to force our own values?

 I read on and am struck by the resilience of the storytellers and their commitment to sharing.

Read this book and hear their voices, reflect on their memories, and feel their strength.

Elfie Shiosaki is a Noongar and Yawuru writer from WA.

Thank you, Lisa. This book lives on my keeper shelf.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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After Romulus by Raimond Gaita

Five essays, reflections on life

In this book, published in 2010, Raimond Gaita revisits the world he writes of in ‘Romulus, My Father’ of the events after the book (and film) were released. There are five essays in this book:

‘A Summer-Coloured Humanism’ about Hora;

‘Character and Its Limits’ and ‘Truth and Truthfulness in Narrative’

Both touch on the philosophical debt he owes his father and Hora;

‘From Book to Film’ is about the making of the film ‘Romulus, My Father’; and

‘An Unassuageable Longing’ is about his mother.

As indicated in his introduction, Mr Gaita wrote these essays at different times, and they have different styles. The five essays are united by Mr Gaita’s search to understand the people he is writing about and to represent them (and their influences) as accurately as he can. While his father Romulus is central to his life, others (especially Hora) were important.

‘It is bitterness rather than pain that corrodes the soul, deforms personality and character and tempts us to misanthropy.’

But these are not simply autobiographical musings about individuals and influences. Mr Gaita invites the reader to think, to reflect on what constitutes truth, on the complexities of existence (especially for those with mental illness). And in the background always is Romulus himself, with his principles of integrity, truthfulness, and ethical behaviour.

I read these essays slowly, from a biographical perspective as well as trying to appreciate some of the philosophical issues raised. When reading ‘An Unassuageable Longing’ I felt for the small child who had such limited opportunity to know his mother. These are essays to read and reflect on, to revisit.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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The Hush by Sara Foster

Publication date: 27/10/2021

‘The babies demonstrate no signs of pain, and no will to stay in the world.’

Six months ago, in a post pandemic UK, a healthy newborn baby is stillborn. The first of many: close to 1 in 3 pregnancies is ending in stillbirth. Why? Expectant mothers are being closely monitored to see if a cause can be identified.

This is another challenge for the UK, still recovering from the effects of the pandemic and grappling with floods and rising sea levels because of climate change. The government’s response to these issues is to restrict individual freedoms. Citizens are required to wear smart watches, initially to monitor their health and wellbeing during the pandemic, but now the watches monitor an individual’s location, track their spending, and can record their conversations. All of this is supported by new laws passed by the government. And now young pregnant women are going missing. What is happening?

Emma is a midwife, trying to do her best in these difficult circumstances. She’s a single parent: her daughter Lainey is 17. And when Lainey finds herself pregnant, both women are in danger. Emma’s estranged mother Geraldine may be able to help but contacting her has its own risks.

Conspiracy theories abound and social unrest increases. The parents of the missing women are unable, unwilling, or afraid to speak out. And the stillbirths continue.

This is a fast-paced dystopian thriller in which a few heroic women work together to try to uncover the truth. Aspects of this novel are uncomfortably plausible in our current pandemic world, and Ms Foster brings her story to life through well-developed very human characters.

An uncomfortable, engrossing and thought-provoking read.

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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