The Last Mrs Parrish by Liv Constantine

This is one of those novels that I have very mixed feelings about.  It was an interesting way to spend a few hours …

‘Amber smiled. All she needed from Daphne was everything.’

Amber Patterson knows that she deserves more than she has. She’s sick of being in the background, of being poor and unnoticed. Amber has a plan: she will be wealthy, and she will have power. All she needs to do is replace Daphne as the current Mrs Parrish.

Daphne and Jackson Parrish are a good looking, wealthy couple with every material possession they could possibly want. They live, with their two daughters, in a beautiful mansion in the exclusive town of Bishops Harbor in Connecticut.

In the first half of the novel, Amber sets out to undermine Daphne and then replace her. There’s not much Amber won’t do to realise her dreams. And in the second half of the novel? Well, let’s just say that Amber gets a surprise.

I have mixed feelings about this novel. I had trouble accepting that Amber’s plan could progress quite so smoothly quite so quickly. Was Daphne as naïve as she appears at the beginning? Would Jackson really be so fickle? I kept reading, wondering what the next twist would be. What I can tell you, without ruining the story, is that all will become clear by the end. Clear, but not (for me at least) particularly satisfying. I did enjoy aspects of the novel and the writing held my attention. I finished the novel wondering whether the ends can ever justify the means, wondering whether the ends were just as despicable as the means. Hmm. I’m glad that these particular characters are confined within the pages of this novel.

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

Jennifer Cameron-Smith


Black Inked Pearl by Ruth Finnegan

‘Just an ordinary girl.  In a magical world.’

Meet Kate.  An Irish girl who rejects her lover in a moment of panic, and then spends her life seeking him.  While Kate’s story might be viewed as relatively straightforward, Ruth Finnegan’s crafting of it is not.  Yes, it is a romance, but it isn’t just about a romance between two people.  What became clear to me as I followed Kate’s journey was how powerful language is, how important words are and how our interpretations are coloured by our own experiences.

It took me a while to find my own rhythm in this story.   My usual fast reading speed was a hindrance.  I had to slow my reading speed, I had to read aloud.  And even then, I am certain I have missed some of the possible aspects of the story.  Possible?  Well, yes.  I chose not to explore every one of the literary allusions (and I suspect I missed many).  Literary allusions often take me into alternate worlds and in this case, I’d have left Kate’s journey and embarked on one of my own.  I may reread this book at some stage, and if I do I’ll permit myself some of those side journeys.  Staying with Kate was claustrophobic at times.  I wanted different points of reference, but I didn’t need them.  I particularly loved the beetle (you’ll need to read it for yourself).

I kept reading (aloud) through prose and verse, smiling sympathetically at Kate’s inability with numbers, wondering about some of the puzzles (not just numerical ones) she needed to solve.

Kate’s journey is a slow one, made slower by my need to map my own way through it. I stopped a couple of times, thought of Dante’s ‘Inferno’ and of Bunyan’s ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’ amongst others, and kept reading.  I wanted to understand Kate’s journey.  I wanted Kate to triumph and I wanted the beetle to succeed.

This was not (for me) an easy read, but it was ultimately a rewarding one.

‘Ask what in this life of hers, or ours, is dream and what reality?  What falsehood, what the truth?  Who can tell?’

Note: My thanks to Ruth Finnegan for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart by Holly Ringland

‘Each flower is a secret language.’

From the opening sentence, this novel held my attention:

‘In the weatherboard house at the end of the lane, nine-year-old Alice Hart sat at her desk by the window and dreamed of ways to set her father on fire.’

It didn’t take me long to appreciate why Alice might want to set her father on fire: Clem Hart is an abusive, violent man who controls Alice and her mother Agnes. When tragedy strikes the Hart family, Alice is sent to live with her paternal grandmother: June. Because Clem was estranged from his mother, Alice did not know her. Imagine: a nine-year-old child, having to move away from the place she knew as home, to live with a grandmother she did not know existed. I kept reading. June Hart farms Australian native flowers, with the help of a group of women known as the Flowers. Each of the Flowers has her own story, and we’ll learn some of them. It’s a supportive environment for Alice, who grows to adulthood learning about the language of flowers. There’s a future for Alice, if she wants it, running the farm.

‘Speaking through flowers had become the language she most relied on.’

But life is complicated, and Alice leaves the farm and makes her way into the central Australian desert. Will she find what she’s looking for? Is it a place she needs, or simply the time and space to remember? Each chapter is linked to a native flower, each flower is significant in Alice’s journey.

‘Trust your story. All you can do is tell it true.’

I’d like to write more about the story, but my descriptions and interpretations could well spoil a first time read. I found it difficult to put this book down and yet I had to sometimes in order to try to integrate what I’d read. I wanted Alice (and June) to make different choices at times: I wanted the road to be less tortuous, the choices to be simpler. I wanted Alice not to have to repeat mistakes to learn from them. In short, Alice got under my skin in a way that few fictional characters do. I finished the novel wanting more, but confident that Alice had found her own way.

This is Ms Ringland’s first novel: I hope it is the first of many.

Note: My thanks to NetGalley and HarperCollins Australia for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes. The cover and internal illustrations by Edith Rewa Barrett are beautiful and I’ll be buying my own copy of this novel.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith


A Queen’s Traitor by Samantha Burnell

‘It was a slow journey and it was three days before he even had a sense of his surroundings.’

If you’ve read the first book (‘A Queen’s Spy’) in Ms Burnell’s series ‘The Tudor Mystery Trials’ set in 16th century England, you’ll be familiar with the main characters Jack Fitzwarren and his brother Richard. If you haven’t read the first book, I strongly recommend that you do: this book is a continuation of that story. As the novel opens, Queen Mary is on the throne and her half-sister Princess Elizabeth is next in line to rule, unless Queen Mary has a child. Elizabeth is in danger: Protestant reformers see her as the figurehead of their cause, while Catholic traditionalists would like nothing better than to remove her from the succession.

Richard Fitzwarren has already foiled one attempt to remove Elizabeth from the succession (and been branded a traitor as a consequence). Some of the Protestant reformers believe that Elizabeth would be safer in Europe, but she does not wish to leave England.

At the beginning of the novel, Jack Fitzwarren believes that his brother Richard is dead. He also knows that William Fitzwarren is his father and, armed with proof and acting impulsively, seeks a lawyer’s help. Things do not go well for Jack, and he finds himself in Marshalsea as a debtor. Unless he pays the debt against his name, he’ll be left there to die. Can Jack be saved? By whom, and how?

Ms Burnell has crafted another intricately plotted novel, blending fiction around history. Jack frustrates me at times with his impulsive actions, but the story held my attention from beginning to end. I really enjoyed the new addition to the team: Lizbet, and I’m very curious to see where Ms Burnell takes this story next.

If you enjoy fiction set in Tudor England, you may enjoy this novel. I certainly did.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

The Shepherd’s Hut by Tim Winton

‘I told meself this was the best day of me life .’

Jackson (‘Jaxie’) Clackton is a survivor. He’s survived his mother’s death and he wishes his father was dead too. In the meantime, he tries his best to keep out of his father’s way. One day he goes home to find that he really is alone. Jaxie panics. He knows that there is one person in his world who understands him, but he’ll have to travel across some inhospitable parts of Western Australia to find her. Jaxie grabs a few items and heads off. Can he survive? Will he make it to his destination?

Jaxie has learned not to trust anyone and not to rely on anyone. He has learned the power of violence. Jaxie is impulsive, insular and isolated. He’s confident (sometimes) but vulnerable. As I travelled with Jaxie through the heat and the dust, searching for food and water I wondered how he would survive. I wondered whether Jaxie’s survival mattered, whether the rough teenager could become anything other than a violent man. Could his experiences gentle him in some way? We kept travelling. Me, worrying as parents should, him focussed on his destination. It’s brutal, confronting stuff. Jaxie is not likeable, but I’d like to think that he’s not beyond redemption. Yet.

What happens next? You’ll need to read the book to find out. Tim Winton’s words are much better than mine. I read this novel quickly, wanting to know what would happen next, wanting to intervene. Just wanting. I finished the novel hoping that Jaxie would find what he needed, knowing that want and need are very different things, and that abused children so often become abusive adults. I found this an uncomfortable novel to read because Jaxie emerged from the pages as a fully realised person. And I despair.

‘He saw me coming before I knew I was even there .’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

The Green Bell by Paula Keogh

‘In the process of remembering, I discovered that memories draw on both reality and imagination to recreate the dramas that make up what remains of our past.’

In 1972, Paula Keogh meets Michael Dransfield while both are patients in the psychiatric ward (known as M Ward) of the Canberra Hospital. Paula is both delusional and grief-stricken. Her close friend Julianne Gilroy had died in a Sydney psychiatric institution in 1968. Michael is being treated for drug addiction. Michael and Paula fall in love. They find a safe space, hidden from the world, under one of the willow trees lining Lake Burley Griffin near the hospital. This is the ‘Green Bell’ of the title.

‘When I was a small child, I knew that another world existed beyond the one I was familiar with.’

Paula finds a less fractured self, while Michael is inspired to write more of his poetry. Together, in the comparative safety of the Canberra Hospital’s M Ward, they plan for a future together.
This memoir is an account of the brief period (less than two years) that Paula and Michael had together. It’s an account of madness, from the perspective of someone diagnosed with schizophrenia, suffering from hallucination, lost in delusion, revisited some forty years later. It’s an account of optimism, of two vulnerable but kindred spirits briefly sharing a path.

I found this memoir unsettling: I have my own recollections of psychiatric institutions during the 1970s, my own ghosts to settle. I also found this memoir uplifting: Paula Keogh has survived and made a life for herself. It must have been difficult for her to return to 1972, to these memories and the associated pain. I moved to Canberra in 1974 and am familiar with the Canberra Ms Keogh describes, and some of the poets named. I can visualise ‘The Green Bell’ and remember M Ward. And as I move through those memories, I think I need to revisit some of Michael Dransfield’s poetry, now that I have a deeper understanding of the circumstances in which it was written.

‘Listening to this concerto, I come to understand madness in a new way. In one of its guises, madness is bondage to a reality that’s insular and personal. It offers you the kind of truth you see when you’re in pieces: a broken, defeated sort of truth.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith


The Portrait of Molly Dean by Katherine Kovacic

‘Lane & Co. think they have a portrait of a pretty but unknown girl by an unknown artist.’

An unsolved murder is at the centre of this accomplished debut novel by Katherine Kovacic. In the early hours of 21 November 1930, Mary (Molly) Winifred Dean was brutally murdered in a laneway in Elwood, Melbourne. Molly was a young teacher and an aspiring author.

While the novel re-imagines events leading up to Molly’s murder, Ms Kovacic starts her novel by working back from the discovery of a painting in 1999. Alex Cole is an art dealer who believes she has found a painting of Molly Dean by her lover, artist Colin Colahan. Alex buys the painting, knowing that it will be worth considerably more once she can have it restored and establish its provenance. Alex’s path leads her to the daughter of the detective who investigated Molly’s murder in the 1930s.

The story unfolds over two timeframes: Molly’s in 1930, and Alex’s in 1999. In Molly’s world, we are reminded of the restrictions that applied to most women trying to make their own way in the world. We also get a glimpse of the bohemian lifestyle of some in the art world at the time. In Alex’s world, we see a different perspective of the art world almost seventy years later: restorations, valuations, establishing provenance.
But Alex wants to find out more about the painting, about what happened to Molly. And there are certainly many inconsistencies and some curious aspects to the investigation undertaken in the 1930s. And in the present? Someone else is also after the painting of Molly.

At the end of the novel, Ms Kovacic provides a set of author’s notes distinguishing fact from fiction. I was grateful for those notes (and glad I read them at the end of the novel). Why at the end? Because I didn’t need to differentiate fact from fiction until the end. In my reading, most of Ms Kovacic’s novel was entirely plausible and I enjoyed reading it. Recommended.

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

Jennifer Cameron-Smith