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Reading this novel barely weeks after the US and its allies have withdrawn from Afghanistan, leaving the country once again in the hands of the Taliban makes this an even more uncomfortable read.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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The Man Who Died Twice (Thursday Murder Club #2) by Richard Osman

‘The Thursday Murder Club has concluded its latest meeting.’

Remember the Thursday Murder Club (TMC)? Four elderly sleuths from the Kent retirement community of Coopers Chase: Joyce, a former nurse and intrepid journal writer; Elizabeth, a former intelligence officer; Ibrahim, a psychiatrist; and Ron, a former union man.

And as Joyce seeks advice from the others about getting a dog, Elizabeth’s thoughts are elsewhere. She’s received a letter from an old colleague. He has made a big mistake, and he needs her help. The letter is signed by her old friend Marcus Carmichael, who is seeking a meeting with her tomorrow. Does Elizabeth remember him, the letter asks?

‘What a ridiculous question. She had found Marcus Carmichael’s dead body slumped against a Thames bridge at low tide.’

Buckle up. In addition to Elizabeth’s former colleague needing help over an opportunistic theft of £20 million pounds of diamonds, Ibrahim is mugged and injured. And then the murders start. Will the team be able to solve the crime? Can they get justice for Ibrahim? And what kind of dog will Joyce get?

‘Elizabeth taps her head. ‘My palace has many rooms. Some are dustier than others.’

How delightful it is to join the TMC again, together with their favourite police officers DCI Chris Hudson and PC Donna De Freitas, Elizabeth’s husband Stephen, and the resourceful Bogdan.

Joyce’s journal brings us much of the story, with various asides. Elizabeth works through the facts methodically and is occasionally surprised by Joyce’s insights, and Ron rises magnificently to the occasion as the various strands are pulled together. And Ibrahim? He and Ron’s grandson do some sleuthing of their own. All is not lost, even though Ibrahim’s phone was stolen when he had achieved level 127 (of 200) playing Tetris.

I have really enjoyed both books so far published in this series. The characters are well developed, there are plenty of different threads to untangle, and I though the ending was perfect.  

‘‘And there’s the clue!’ The short-sighted lean further forward, and the long-sighted lean further back.’

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

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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 Blackwater by Paul Smith

‘As time melted into the mist, I sensed a stillness.’

In the present, DCI William Constable is deeply depressed. His life, as he sees it, is full of failures. His marriage has failed and the international drug ring he is investigating keeps missing its targets. William Constable is contemplating death:

‘Entombed by the slavery of my depression, a cloud of loneliness enveloped me as I waited to die. Gripped by a choking sadness, I knew what I must do.’

A chance vision stops him from taking his life, but he is reassigned to community policing in his hometown of Maldon in Essex, UK.

In the past, over a thousand years earlier, the Vikings invade the Blackwater Estuary with the town of Maldon as their goal. Wilhelm is one of the men called on to defend the town as they wait for the king and his army to arrive. The fighting is brutal.

‘A picture of pain assaulted his vision, and before the image had time to disappear, it became etched into his memory, so that even after the fleeting glance had passed, Wilhelm continued to see it.’

In the present, as part of a murder investigation he becomes entangled in, William finds some clues to the drug case he had been investigating. He is determined to find the truth and places himself at risk as he investigates.

In the past, Wilhelm tries to save the woman he loves from the invaders.

‘Transcending time, I found myself transported from the present into the past.’

I had very mixed feelings about this novel. While I found the focus on William’s mental health interesting, the writing frequently jerked me out of the story. I itched to edit, to tighten up the language and remove some of the verbiage, to move beyond William’s thoughts into his actions. And while Wilhelm’s story has me interested in the Battle of Maldon (about which little is known), I found it difficult moving between past and present.

‘I was walking into a trap from which there could be no escape, a fight I could never hope to win.’

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

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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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Take Height, Rutterkin by Millie Thom

‘This cat will be called Rutterkin.’

Early in the 17th century, Joan Flower lives with her husband John and daughters Phillipa and Margaret in the Leicestershire village of Bottesford. While the family enjoyed a pleasant, comfortable life, Joan’s superior and proud manner made her unpopular with other villagers. And then tragedy struck. Joan’s husband is killed in an accident, and the family’s comfortable lifestyle recedes into the past.

Initially, the women find temporary employment at Belvoir Castle. But one by one, and for different reasons, each of them is dismissed. The family’s only income is the coin Joan earns from meetings with her lover, and from selling herbal remedies. Joan is angry and bitter over her daughters’ dismissal and takes this as a personal attack. And so, she talks of revenge.

‘I’ll get my own back on her and her family for their heartless treatment of us if it’s the last thing I do. Exactly how I haven’t quite decided. But one way or another, I’ll make them pay.’

The villagers, many of whom do not like Joan, are quick to mutter that Joan’s devilish practices are the cause of everything that goes awry in the village. And these whispers reach the ears of Sir Francis and Lady Cecilia Manners at Belvoir Castle. Lady Cecilia becomes convinced that Joan and her daughters are responsible for the death of one child and the illness of another.

Are the Flower women witches? They are arrested and sent for trial.

In 17th century England, King James VI and I becomes obsessed with witchcraft and the identification and eradication of witches. As a visitor to Belvoir Castle, his views are well known to the Manners family. And in her grief, Lady Cecilia believes the worst.

This novel is based on a true story and highlights the dangerous role that fear, and superstition can play. Ms Thom brings both the era and the women to life. The description of what happens after they are arrested is harrowing but important. Highly recommended.

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

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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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Powers and Thrones: A New History of the Middle Ages by Dan Jones

‘This book covers more than a thousand years, and its geographical scope encompasses every continent save Australasia and Antarctica.’

The book has sixteen chapters divided across four parts: Imperium (c 410 AD – 750 AD); Dominion (c 750 AD – 1215 AD); Rebirth (c 1215 AD – 1347 AD) and Revolution (c 1348 AD – 1527 AD). This history takes us on a journey between the sacks of Rome in 410 AD and 1527 AD. Within this structure, Mr Jones identifies three key themes that have underpinned the success of the west: conquest, commerce, and Christianity.

It is an epic history, covering the period between the retreat of the Roman Empire in the west and the 16th century Reformation. What makes this book particularly interesting is that it ventures beyond the political timeline. In addition to the power struggles between emperors, kings and tribal leaders, Mr Jones also writes of the impacts of pandemics, of demographic changes, and of climate change. Exploration, religious conquest, commercial growth, decline, and rejuvenation are all part of the history. I am reminded of the power of the Byzantine Empire, diminished after the 7th century but still standing until the fall of Constantinople in 1453, of the impact of the Mongol invasion in the 13th century, of the rise of commerce. There’s a lot to consider. I could get lost in reading about William Marshal, Sir Richard (Dick) Whittington, El, Cid and Leonardo da Vinci, or the impact of printing on the power of the Catholic Church.

I would recommend this book to anyone looking to expand their knowledge (and appreciation) of the period we in the west refer to as the Middle Ages.

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

Jennifer Cameron-Smith