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

#AWW2018

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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

#AWW2018

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

#AWW2018

The Lace Weaver by Lauren Chater

I read this novel in January, and have been waiting for it to be published before sharing my review outside Goodreads and NetGalley.

‘Sometimes a shawl is not just a shawl.’

In 1941, Estonia is being crushed by the Soviet Army. Katarina and her family have survived because the produce their farm produces is needed by the Soviets. The women have been able to save enough wool to continue knitting shawls. These shawls are intricate pieces of work. They are fine enough to pass through a gold wedding ring, knitted in intricate patterns passed down through the generations.

At the same time, in Moscow, Lydia prepares to escape to Estonia in search of her mother’s heritage. Her mother is dead, and Lydia has only two things that belonged to her: an old lace shawl and a tattered book.

This novel is about so many aspects of life, including love, tradition, tragedy and war. Ms Chater depicts the struggles of the Estonians as they first endure occupation by the Soviets and then by the Germans. Partisans, surviving in the forest, battle for their homeland. There is danger everywhere. Will Lydia and Katarina, and their companions survive?

‘Safe. There was no meaning in that word. It was an empty promise.’

I won’t write more about the story (I’m trying hard to avoid any spoilers). I liked the way in which Ms Chater wrote her story around the successive invasions of Estonia during World War II. The history supports the fiction without overpowering it. I could easily envisage the women knitting together, sharing their knowledge, unpicking and then reknitting the wool when no new wool was available. There’s a strength here, in sharing this tradition, a continuity in common purpose.

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

#AWW2018

Egyptian Enigma by LJM Owen

‘I absolutely thrive on uncovering what happened in the past.’

The novel opens with Dr Elizabeth Pimms and her New York friend Henry holidaying in Egypt, where Elizabeth is intrigued by some cryptic symbols in the corner of an ancient papyrus from the Golden Tomb in the Cairo Museum.

‘A museum label nearby stated that the Golden Tomb had been built for an unknown prince, his Pharaoh father also unknown: both names had been chiselled off the sarcophagus and wherever they had appeared on the walls.’

While the Cairo Museum held the mummy from the sarcophagus, the other scrolls, coffins and mummies it contained were in other institutions.  Elizabeth considers the Golden Tomb beautiful, and she would love to know who it was built for.

So begins the third instalment of the Dr Pimms, Intermillenial Sleuth series.  Elizabeth’s trip to Egypt has been marred by the puzzling theft of her journal from her hotel:

‘What value could a used notebook possibly have on the streets of Cairo?’

But a new adventure is about to begin.

Once back in Canberra, Elizabeth is juggling her work at the Mahony Griffin Library with her tutoring commitments.  In a Skype session with Henry, now back in New York, Henry suggests that the use of a 3D printer may be able to assist them in identifying the mummy in the Golden Tomb.

There are two storylines in this novel. While Elizabeth and her team are trying to work out who was contained in the Golden Tomb, we are also introduced to Tausret in 1192 BCE.  And who is Tausret, and what is her connection to the Golden Tomb?  The story shifts between Tausret’s life and the machinations of the Pharaoh’s court, and Elizabeth’s investigations to try to determine who was buried in the Golden Tomb.   But Elizabeth has real life commitments as well, and family responsibilities.  Her grandfather’s health is an issue, and there are other issues surrounding her father …

This is my favourite novel so far in the Dr Pimms series.  I really enjoyed the information about ancient Egypt, and the approach taken by Elizabeth and her team to try to solve the mystery.  While I’m less interested in aspects of Elizabeth’s personal life, I am extraordinarily envious of her phrenic library.

The novel ends with a cliff hanger.  While I personally don’t need that hook to keep reading the series, I hope that I don’t have to wait too long for the fourth instalment.  Thank you, LJM Owen, for writing such interesting, informative and intriguing cozy mysteries.

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

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AWW2018

The Rúin (Cormac Reilly #1) by Dervla McTiernan

‘I am reopening this case and I want you to run the investigation.’

Irishman Cormac Reilly remembers his first case as a new garda twenty years ago. He discovered the body of Hilaria Blake, dead of a drug overdose, in her home. Hilaria left behind a 15-year-old daughter and a 5-year-old son. Cormac Reilly has never forgotten them.

Aisling Conroy is a surgical resident, working hard to become a surgeon. She and her boyfriend Jack Blake are happy together. Aisling goes to sleep one morning after nightshift at the hospital, and when she wakes up Jack is not there. He doesn’t return home that night, and then the gardaí come knocking at the door. Jack’s been found dead in the River Corrib, and the gardaí tell her it is suicide. Aisling has decisions to make, but she tries to numb the pain she feels by throwing herself into her work and study. Aisling drifts through Jack’s funeral but is shocked when Jack’s sister Maude turns up. Jack hadn’t seen Maude for twenty years, and while Aisling knew that their lives as children were dreadful, Jack had never spoken of it. Maude Blake is convinced that Jack was killed and is determined to prove it.

Now a Detective Inspector, Cormac Reilly has spent the last month investigating cold cases in Galway. When he’s asked to re-examine the death of Hilaria Blake, he jumps at the opportunity. Was Hilaria Blake’s death an accidental overdose, or is there more to it?

Ms McTiernan skilfully sets the scene for a multi-layered police procedural which kept me guessing until near the end. What happened to Jack? Was Hilaria murdered? And if she was, who would have murdered her and why? Are the deaths of Hilaria and Jack linked in some way? There are several different strands to this story. Cormac Reilly has to overcome some difficulties of his own in fitting into the Galway office. Some of his colleagues seem keen to help, while others seem keen to obstruct him. It’s a journey best undertaken one step at a time, finding out the facts alongside the investigating detective. And that’s all I intend to write about the story itself.

This is Ms McTiernan’s debut novel: the first in the Cormac Reilly series. It’s one of the best novels I’ve read this year: it held my attention from beginning to end. And I’m still thinking about some of the issues raised.

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

#AWW2018

The Paris Seamstress by Natasha Lester

‘Always be who you are right now.’

Two women, Estella Bissette and her granddaughter Fabienne Bissette. Two interconnected stories spanning seventy-five years.

In 1940, Estella Bissette flees from Paris as the Germans advance. She leaves for Manhattan with very little money, one suitcase and her sewing machine. Estella dreams of one day having her own atelier. In 2015, Fabienne Bissette travels from Australia to the annual Met Gala for an exhibition of her grandmother’s work. Estella Bissette had achieved her dream: she is regarded as one of the world’s leading designers of ready-to-wear clothing.

Fabienne knows little about her grandmother’s past and can spend little time with her because of her work in Australia. Estella wants to tell Fabienne about the past but has always been concerned about the timing.

The story unfolds both in the past and in the present. Fabienne has decisions to make, while Estella’s past contains more than a few secrets and heartaches. Two strong and determined women each keen in her own way (and in her own time) to prove themselves.

I enjoyed most aspects of this novel, but one twist close to the end left me cold. I pushed it to the side of my consciousness (it’s fiction, I can do that) and continued on. I found most of the characters interesting and believable and I really enjoyed the descriptions of designing and making dresses. I admired the way in which Estella had carved a niche for herself, and finished the book hoping that Fabienne would do the same.

I’ll be looking out for Ms Lester’s other novels: this is the first of hers I have read.

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

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AWW2018