Believe In Me by Lucy Neave

 

‘You’re right that I haven’t told you everything.’

In 2004 Bethany (Bet) embarks on a journey to find out who she is, by trying to find out more about her mother Sarah.

‘I would like to write down the portions of my mother’s story that I know, but I’m not sure exactly what happened to her in the year before I was born.’

Bet sees the story of her mother as starting in 1974, the year before Bet was born. I was drawn into the story, of Bet trying to look back on her mother’s life to try to better understand herself and her own place in the world.

As a teenager in the 1970s, Sarah Francis is sent from her home in upstate New York to accompany Pastor Isaiah Woolcott on a mission to Idaho. Sarah leaves behind her mother Greta and brother Levi.

‘Three days before I am conceived, Sarah packs her suitcase.’

When Sarah becomes pregnant, her mother sends her from Poughkeepsie in New York State to family in Sydney. My heart breaks: Greta is more concerned with the Pastor’s reputation than with Sarah’s wellbeing. And when Sarah arrives in Sydney, she is not staying with her Aunt Nadine and Uncle John: she’s delivered to a home where unmarried mothers live (and work) until their babies are born. No one intends for Sarah to keep her baby: perhaps her Aunt Nadine might take the baby. Thus far, Sarah has been given no say in the arrangements made for her. But her passivity ends (temporarily at least) after her baby is born. With the help of Dora, who quickly becomes a friend, Sarah takes Bethany.

Imagine. A young woman, cut-off from all family trying to establish a life for herself. Sarah’s life so far has not prepared her for this. Sarah wants to return to her mother in New York State, but she has no money for the airfares. Bethany grows up as an only child with no links to family and no clear history. Sarah alternates between passive acceptance of her situation, relying heavily on her friend Dora, being manipulated by others, and being quite manipulative herself. Her friend Dora is one constant in both Sarah’s and Bet’s lives.

Bet is encouraged to work hard at school, and she does. Bet becomes a qualified vet, but she is restless and chooses to work as a locum rather than settle into one practice. Sarah’s unsettledness is also part of Bet’s life: both want security but neither know how to find and embrace it.

This novel took me on an uncomfortable journey, a reminder that parents had lives before children, a reminder that parents and children shape each other’s lives and a reminder that we can never really know another person completely. Bet has Sarah’s scrapbooks, but it is not always possible to understand the significance of the mementos that others keep.

A beautifully written novel that has me wondering about family and identity.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AWW2021

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Where There’s a Will (Rowland Sinclair #10) by Sulari Gentill

‘I don’t know why Danny appointed me his executor.’

1935. Rowland Sinclair and his friends Clyde Watson Jones, Edna Higgins and Milton Isaacs are in Singapore on their way back to Australia when Rowly receives a telegram. His American millionaire friend Daniel Cartwright, whom he had met at Oxford University, has been shot dead. His body, dressed in evening attire, was found in Harvard Yard. Rowly has been named executor of the will. And so, Rowly and his friends travel to the USA.

Who murdered Daniel Cartwright and why did he name Rowland Sinclair as his executor? When the will is read, Daniel Cartwright’s siblings find that he has left the bulk of his estate to an Otis Norcross, whom no-one seems to know. Rowly and his friends set out to try to locate Otis Norcross, and things quickly become ugly. Members of Daniel’s family want to challenge the will, but Rowly is determined to do his best to locate Otis Norcross – even when it becomes clear that he and his friends are in danger.

I thoroughly enjoyed this tenth instalment in Ms Gentill’s Rowland Sinclair series (also published as ‘A Testament of Character’). The cast of characters includes cameo appearances by Marion Davies, Errol Fynn, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald as well as Joseph Kennedy. The backdrop is complex as well: organised crime, family secrets and a stark reminder of the difficulties faced by those in same sex relationships during this period. Ms Gentill kept me guessing who killed Daniel Cartwright until close to the end. There are more than a few twists,with some obvious (and not so obvious) villains. Another action-filled adventure for Rowly, Edna, Milt and Clyde.

And, given a surprise twist towards the end, I really wonder what will happen next.

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

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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The Women of Little Lon (Sex Workers in Nineteenth-Century Melbourne) by Barbara Minchinton

‘In the 1880s, Little Lon was Melbourne’s premier sex-work precinct.’

I did not know, until I read this book, that prostitution was not technically illegal for most of the 19th century. Instead of being charged with soliciting or prostitution, women (most sex workers were female) could be charged with ‘being drunk and disorderly’ or ‘behaving in a riotous or indecent manner’. Little Lon (Little Lonsdale Street) was not the only site of brothels in central Melbourne but thanks to C. J. Dennis, in ‘Songs of a Sentimental Bloke’:

‘Wot’s in a name? Wot’s in a string o’ words?

They scraps in ole Verona with the’r swords,

An’ never give a bloke a stray dog’s chance,

An that’s Romance.

But when they deals it out wiv bricks an’ boots

In Little Lon., they’re low, degraded broots.’

Little Lon became more infamous for drunkenness, gang violence and prostitution than Little Bourke Street.

In this book, as she describes the economy and the community centred around sex work, as well as the hazards, Ms Minchinton mentions many women by name. But the most powerful part of the book, for me, was Part 3, in which Ms Minchinton writes about five quite different women who demonstrate different aspects of the business of sex work. Some of these women were quite wealthy, with their own real estate empires. Many of the brothels were owned an operated by women. Some of the women may have turned to sex work because of financial necessity but others enjoyed the freedom provided at a time when most women could only choose domestic work or marriage (which would usually involve domestic work).

I found this book fascinating and while I appreciate the challenge Ms Minchinton had in trying to trace lives through public records, I found it interesting to learn about the different women involved.

‘When it comes to reforming sex-work legislation today, the history of Melbourne’s nineteenth-century industry offers one important lesson: while sex workers need the same protection from violence and exploitation as other workers, the more salient issue is the ongoing stigma and discrimination that sex workers suffer as a result of other people’s moral disapproval. Until sex workers and the services they provide are accorded legitimacy and respect, they will require a regulatory model that addresses the ugly moralism passed down from the nineteenth century.’

True.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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Cue for Murder (Dr. Basil Willing #5) by Helen McCloy

‘The murder mystery at the Royalty Theatre was solved though the agency of a house fly and a canary.’

Opening night at the Royalty Theatre in New York for the play Fedora provides the setting for a very public murder. One of the characters in the play dies in the first scene — as does the character playing him — yet no-one saw who killed him. Dr Basil Willing, present because of the gift of a ticket, becomes involved in solving the case. It should be simple: there were only three people on stage when the actor was stabbed to death. But who murdered him, and why? Each of the three on stage could have a motive. There are a few strange happenings as well as clues that need to be differentiated from red herrings, but with Dr Willing on the case it is surely only a matter of time.

‘You overlooked three main clues … a clock, a fly and a canary.’

I have read a couple of the Basil Willing mysteries, and this is my favourite (so far). While I identified the importance of two of the clues, I missed the third. A cleverly written murder mystery which held my attention from beginning to end.

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

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Larrimah by Caroline Graham, Kylie Stevenson

‘There was a time when Larrimah mattered.’

Larrimah, I read, is a flyspeck on the map of the Northern Territory. It is on the Stuart Highway, 75 kilometres south of Mataranka and 95 kilometres north of Daly Waters. It was from this hot, barren place that Paddy Moriarty and his dog Kellie went missing at dusk on 17 November 2017. Neither Paddy nor his dog have been seen since.

‘Stories are usually sprawling, murky things.’

Journalists Caroline Graham and Kylie Stevenson won a 2018 Walkley award for their podcast ‘’Lost in Larrimah’, and then visited Larrimah to assist them in writing this book. While they did not find Paddy or solve his disappearance, they found plenty to write about in Larrimah. After Paddy disappeared, Larrimah only had eleven human residents. The menagerie at the Larrimah Hotel (aka The Pink Panther Pub) includes an eyeless croc and it is fair to say that each of the humans that lives in Larrimah is a character.

Ms Graham and Ms Stevenson share some of the history of Larrimah (how and why it was established) and some of the stories they were told as they stayed in Larrimah, including speculation about what happened to Paddy and why.

I was intrigued by the mystery of Paddy’s disappearance, interested in the history of what seems to be a dying town and fascinated by some of the characters who live there. I am glad I read this book during a comparatively cool spring in eastern Australia: I doubt that I could be comfortable in the outback heat. Will we ever know what happened to Paddy? This year, the NT Police announced a $A250,000 reward for information. I wonder.

This book is an interesting blend of a mysterious disappearance and history, of people and place.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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The Bone Ranger by Louisa Bennet

‘The big secret is that dogs pretend to be dumb so that hoomans don’t feel threatened.’

This is the second time I’ve met Monty and his human companion, Detective Constable Rose Sidebottom. My first encounter was only a short one (‘When the Chips Are Down’) but it had me intrigued. In ‘The Bone Ranger’, Monty and Rose become entangled in both a murder investigation and a series of dog-nappings.

‘I sniff two warning wee-mails.

Dogs are disappearing. Stay home, stay safe.

He who must not be named is back! Be vigilant.’

Rose is on sick leave, and while she wants to return to work, she is having trouble complying with the medical fitness requirements. Monty, who loves Rose dearly, has his patience tested when Rose insists on washing his yellow toy duck. Hoomans just do not understand:

‘At least my bed carries my doggy aroma. The smells that come with me to bed at night are the memories of that day and they rub off on the bed cover. When I sniff my bed, all those memories come flooding back. Wash my bed and the result is olfactory amnesia. A terrible affliction.’

But back to the case of The Bone Ranger. Monty can enlist help from his friends Betty the rat and Nigel the squirrel. Dante the magpie also helps with aerial surveillance. If only Rose could understand when Monty tries to share some of the clues with her! [We hoomans can be so slow, as my own late doggy companion Sir Bruce the Battle Rat could have attested. Sir Bruce, a Jack Russell Terrier, would have loved to assist Monty, although he may not have been quite so keen on Betty.]

And poor Rose. While she can tell whether someone is telling the truth (or not) it is hard for her to help when she’s been directed not to. But our intrepid detectives are not deterred, and together after a misadventure or two, they sniff out the culprits.

I really enjoyed this novel: wondering whether Rose would make the breakthrough she needed and hoping that Monty could communicate the information he received from his wide network of advisers and informers. After all, lives are at stake!

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AWW2021

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My Year in Books

All right, let’s do something frivolous for the Silly Season…

I am inspired to do this by Lisa at ANZ LitLovers LitBlog:

The rules are: Using only books you have read this year (2021), answer these questions. Try not to repeat a book title. Links in the titles will take you to my reviews.

In high school I was The Unforgiven by Sarah Barrie

People might be surprised by Questions Raised by Quolls by Harry Saddler

I will never be The Cook by Wayne Macauley

My life in lockdown was like The Lonely Century by Loreena Hertz

My fantasy job is The Fine Art of Invisible Detection by Robert Goddard

At the end of a long day I need Whole Notes by Ed Ayres

I hate being The Monster of Her Age by Danielle Binks

Wish I had The Inheritance by Gabriel Bergmoser

My family reunions are Homecoming by Ellie Shiosaki

At a party you’d find me with Merchant Adventurers by James Evans

I’ve never been to Convict-Era Port Arthur by David W Cameron

A happy day includes The Things We See In the Light by Amal Awad

Motto I live by: If Not Us by Mark Smith

On my bucket list is (a journey on) The Unicorn Hunt by Dorothy Dunnett

In my next life, I want to have The Art of The Engine Driver by Steven Carroll

Now, over to you, and thank you, Lisa.

Once There Were Wolves by Charlotte McConaghy

‘When we were eight, Dad cut me open from throat to stomach.’

This opening line grabbed my attention and drew me into a novel that I could not escape from. Inti Flynn and her twin sister Aggie arrive in the remote Scottish Highlands. Inti hopes to successfully reintroduce wolves into the landscape, to rewild it, to try to arrest and reverse some of the damage done when wolves became extinct there. Inti know that she and the team of biologists she leads will have an uphill battle: the farmers are mistrustful and expect the wolves to kill their livestock. But re-establishing wolf packs is only part of the reason Inti and Aggie have moved to Scotland.

The story unfolds, between past and present. We learn that Inti and Aggie’s father was a naturalist who taught them to appreciate nature and who lived a separate life from their mother, a detective, who taught them that humans are the most dangerous predator. The connection between the twins is amplified by Inti’s mirror touch synaesthesia, which means that she can feel the pain experienced by others.

The wolves, tracked by Inti’s team, settle into their new environment remarkably well and Inti starts to relax. She becomes close to one of the villagers, a man who has his own past, and life becomes complicated when Inti finds a murdered farmer. Afraid that this killing will be blamed on one of the wolves, Inti buries the body.

This novel is part paean to nature, part murder mystery and part love story with an accompanying undercurrent of violence. Gradually we learn more about the sisters’ lives in Alaska and the events that have made Aggie unwell and driven her to silence. For me, the best part of this novel was the description of the behaviour of the wolves, knowing that there is currently a movement to reintroduce wolves into Scotland. I was less comfortable with aspects of Inti and Aggie’s stories but could appreciate how their past has shaped their present. I finished the novel hoping that both the wolves and the sisters could thrive and find their own space.

A fierce, violent, and thought-provoking novel addressing some important issues.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AWW2021

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The Cook by Wayne Macauley

‘So here I am and no going back.’

The novel opens with sixteen kids at Cook School, an hour and a half out of Melbourne. They are being given opportunities, these boys who are mostly sixteen and seventeen, opportunities to learn and to make something of themselves. Or so it seems.

Zac is our narrator, and he tells the story in his idiosyncratic stream of consciousness way, with occasional punctuation. Zac learns to cook, to slaughter and prepare animals for whatever gastronomic treat seems to fit the occasion. And after travelling with Zac, I think I am ready to become vegetarian.

Gradually, I was drawn into a world of excess, where ‘celebrities’ have others jumping to satisfy their every whim. But not everything goes according to plan for Cook School and while Zac thinks he’s fallen on his feet as cook for a rich family, he soon learns that adaptation is the name of the game.

I have very pedestrian taste in food, and found the world described in ‘The Cook’ darkly amusing. As I read, I could envisage some of the various ‘celebrity’ cooking shows I have occasionally seen, dicing niceties and mincing feelings while savouring the moment. All of which, naturally, sounds so much more impressive in French. While I enjoyed the satire, even the dark twist at the end, I don’t think I will never look at meat the same way again.

Delicious. And now I am off to read another novel by Mr Macauley.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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The Other Half of You by Michael Mohammed Ahmad

‘Rust is my blood. Stardust is my soul.’

This novel is presented as a story by Bani Adam to his son Kahlil. It is the story of how Bani, a young Australian Lebanese Muslim man fell found his place in the world, and the balance he found between traditional community expectations and his own aspirations.

The story unfolds in three sections:

All that was

All that is

 All that will be.

We learn of Bani’s traditional upbringing, the expectation that he will marry within his own Alawite Muslim tribe, and work with his family. Bani is the first member of his family to achieve a tertiary education: a mixed blessing which attracts both ridicule and admiration.

And through this novel (I have not read Mr Ahmad’s other novels – yet) I am drawn into a world I am less familiar with inside Western Sydney. Bani wants the freedom to make his own choices, but his family see that as a rejection of all they hold dear. A series of matchmaking attempts follow as Bani’s family tries to find a wife from within the Alawite community. A brief but unsuccessful traditional marriage, which his wife agrees to because she sees it as a way of obtaining her own freedom, ends as neither of them can meet the expectations imposed. Bani tries to conform but cannot.

Who is Bani? Can he step outside his family’s expectations and beyond his own prejudices to find his own more comfortable place in the world? Can the young man in flared jeans achieve his objectives?

Bani falls in love with a woman he chose for himself, the woman who becomes Khalil’s mother, the woman we come to know gradually as the story unfolds. Both will need to compromise, as will their families.

‘With all due respect Kahlil, I know I was being harsh on her, but please don’t be too harsh on me: I am the other, and you are half the other and your mother is the other half of you.’

I finished this novel, wanting to reread it after I have read ‘The Tribe’ and ‘The Lebs’. This is not just a novel about a migrant experience, it is a novel that touches on difference and othering, on ‘Us’ and ‘Them’ but finishes with hope: ‘We’.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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