Last One at the Party by Bethany Clift

 ‘I need to go back to the beginning.’

November 2023. Humanity is being wiped out. The virus kills people within days. It is called 6DM (Six Days Maximum) …

‘… and it began, not in China or some tiny African village, but almost exactly in the middle of the USA.’

But there is one survivor in London. A woman who somehow is immune. A woman who needs to learn how to negotiate in a world full of rotting corpses that is being taken over by rats. We travel with her as she looks for survivors and learns how to survive in an increasingly hostile world.

Follow our survivor, through the first month of denial (fuelled by drugs and alcohol) and then into a reality where the failure of the electricity grid forces her out of denial into an uncertain future. This is a woman who has spent her life meeting the expectations of others, a woman who needs to work out how to live. And the future?

Yes, I have been reading a lot of dystopian fiction lately. It is how I inoculate myself against our current pandemic reality. Sometimes it helps. This novel captured my attention and held it. At the beginning, I wondered if she would be able to survive, if she would find any other survivors, whether she could find somewhere safe to live. Then, as she started finding her way through each of the challenges, I kept reading to see how (and where) it would end.

Part of this novel are difficult to read: Ms Clift made her dystopian world so awfully real that I was not sure that anyone would want to survive in it.

This is one of the best dystopian novels I’ve read in years, and I recommend it … if you have the stomach for dystopia at present.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

The Invisible Land by Hubert Mingarelli, Sam Taylor (Translator)

 ‘I didn’t know why I stayed on.’

The voice belongs to our unnamed narrator, a war photographer. He is in Dinslaken, Germany, in 1945, and reluctant to return home. While the damage around him is being assessed, he sets out to photograph ordinary German people in front of their homes. He is assigned a driver, a young soldier named O’Leary, a car with some fuel and other provisions.

As they drive, seemingly aimlessly, from place to place, we learn that O’Leary, who came to late too do any fighting, is also reluctant to return home. The fighting may have finished, but the aftermath is all around them. German people, ordinary German people, trying to pick up their lives. Our narrator, who has no language in common with them (and often seems insensitive to their needs and feelings) directs them (through gestures). Not everyone agrees to be photographed.

I read on, wondering what it is that our narrator is looking for, what purpose will his photographs serve? I wonder too about O’Leary, about his reluctance to return home.

And then, just as I think their travels are about to conclude, with a family who have offered hospitality, I am jerked out of my complacency by a violent act. I had been lulled into a false sense of safety, with non-combatants at the end of a dreadful war. I am reminded, yet again, that violence exists outside war. I observe the ‘how’ but have no answer for the ‘why’, just sadness and regret for the fact and impact. I am left thinking.

‘We walked into the forest amid almost total darkness and when we came out again the stars, more numerous than above the clearing, guided us towards the road.’

I was sad, too, to learn that Hubert Mingarelli died earlier this year. I have read ‘A Meal in winter’ and ‘Four Soldiers’ and hope to read his other work as it is translated into English.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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

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The Devil’s Pawn (Faustus #2) by Oliver Pötzsch , Lisa Reinhardt (Translator)

To be published 13 April 2021

‘You are in demand, Johann Georg Faustus, and these are tumultuous times.’

Rome, 1518.  Tumultuous times: peasants are rebelling while the church becomes ever greedier and more corrupt.  Meet Johann Faust: a renowned magician, astrologer, and chiromancer.  He is travelling through Germany with his loyal companion Karl and Greta, the orphaned juggler.  But Pope Leo X wants Faust’s services.  He sees alchemy as the best way to replenish the papacy’s drained coffers.  But Faust has a deal with the devil, and the devil wants something else…

‘You can’t defeat the devil, but you can offer him a bargain.’

Faust is struck by a mysterious illness and perhaps his new friend Leonardo da Vinci can help.  It is not only his own fate that Faust holds in his hands.

‘Only he who challenges his enemy can emerge victorious.’

Oliver Pötzsch has done it again.  I have thoroughly enjoyed the books I have read in the Hangman’s Daughter series and while I have yet to read Faustus #1 (‘The Master’s Apprentice’), I now have a copy.

 Can Faust outrun the devil?  Will Pope Leo X get his just deserts?  Does Leonardo da Vinci have the answers Faust is seeking?

This is an enthralling story, fast-paced, full of action and more than a few twists.  And what does it tell us about human nature?  Highly recommended.

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

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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

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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

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Half Life by Jillian Cantor

‘What if…’

Maria Skłodowska had married Kazimierz Zorawski and never left Poland? As Marie Curie (7 November 1867 to 4 July 1934) she was a hero of mine: a scientist, the first woman to win a Nobel Prize and the only woman to win a Nobel Prize twice. I cannot imagine her life lived in any other way.

But Ms Cantor could. In this novel, Ms Cantor explores Marie Curie’s real life and imagines an alternative life which involves many of the same characters. The novel opens and closes with Marie on her deathbed, examining the choices she had made:

‘In the end, my world is dark. My bones are tired, my marrow failing. I have given my whole life to my work, but now, science brings me no comfort.’

This is ‘my’ Marie Curie: the scientist I admire. But there is always more to a life. I learned that in 1891 she had been engaged to Kazimierz Zorawski. Apparently, he broke off the engagement when his mother insisted that Maria Skłodowska was not good enough for him. Oh, the irony! What, I wonder, would Maria Zorawska have achieved?

The story shifts between the real Marie Curie and the fictional Marya Zorawska. I really enjoyed Marie Curie’s story but was less caught up in Marya Zorawska’s imagined life. I appreciated that Ms Cantor was showing some of the challenges posed within Poland (then under Russian control) for women. Educational opportunities for women were restricted, and Marya Zorawska was every bit as intelligent and driven as Marie Curie. I quite liked the alternate life imagined but I could not successfully envisage the same characters playing different roles in the different stories.

I would recommend this novel to anyone interested in Marie Curie as well as to anyone with an interest in the status of women in Europe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. 

‘There was a choice. There was always a choice. Had I made the wrong one?’

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

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

‘Weakness is treating someone as though they belong to you. Strength is knowing that everyone belongs to themselves.’

This story starts in eighteenth century Ghana, with two sisters born to different mothers in different villages. Effia and Esi lead very different lives and will never know each other.  Effia is selected as wife to an Englishman and lives a life of privilege in Cape Coast Castle. In the dungeons beneath, her sister Esi is, with thousands of others, destined for slavery in America.

From these two lives, we follow the impacts of slavery and British colonisation in Ghana, and the path of slavery and its aftermath in America. One thread follows the lives of Effia’s descendants through centuries of warfare in Ghana as the Asante and Fante nations wrestle with colonisation and the slave trade. The other thread follows Esi and her descendants into America.

Effia and Esi are the pivotal characters, and the ones to which I felt most connected. As the story passes from one generation to the next, I had to keep referring to the family tree at the front of the book to keep the characters clear. I know little Ghanaian history. While the characters inhabiting those chapters of the story gave me some appreciation of conflicts, issues, and the effects of British colonisation, I need (and want) to read more. With the characters in America, I felt on more familiar historical ground. And yet, while the history is important, it is the stories of the individuals that makes this novel shine. Disadvantage becomes real through the eyes of Yaa Gyasi’s characters, as does the sense of dislocation. Where (and how) do people fit when their family ties are disrupted or destroyed, when colour defines place? How do nations evolve when slavery is part of their history? Both Ghana and America are shaped by this history as are the individuals.

 This novel took me into some uncomfortable places and made me think about belonging and about the impact of dislocation. I am ambivalent about the ending, but every fiction must end somewhere.

Highly recommended.

‘We cannot know which story is correct because we were not there.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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

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Whatever the Cost (Welker & Saboy #2) by Michael Kurland

‘We need ten – no, fifteen – men. Prisoners.’

September 1939. Germany has declared war on Poland. Meanwhile in America, Albert Einstein believes that the Germans, aware of advances in atomic science, could win the race to develop a new super weapon. He knows that there are a small group of scientists within Germany with the knowledge. President Roosevelt is concerned and hands a special assignment to Counter-intelligence agent Jacob Welker. Welker’s job is to find the scientists and get them out of Germany. In German Pomerania, Professor Josef Brun, one of those scientists, is already on the run from the SS. He carries a suitcase of secret documents which could change the course of the war. Can he survive?

The story unfolds through several different viewpoints set in Paris, Germany, the USA and the UK. Welker, in Europe unofficially, enlists the aid of his British friends posted to Paris: Lord Geoffrey Saboy and his wife Patricia.

Brun is aware that his former colleagues are being rounded up, and there is plenty of tension in this part of the story. Less satisfying, for me, were the interactions between the Saboys and Welker. While I found their interactions humorous at times and they certainly lightened the tension, I was as often irritated as I was amused. However, there are a few twists in this story and it held my attention from beginning to end.

This is the second book so far in Mr Kurland’s Welker & Saboy series, and I liked it enough to add the first book to my reading list.

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

Jennifer Cameron-Smith