The Fossil Hunter by Téa Cooper

‘It’s blood—bad blood—that’s causing it. A new pinafore and some education ain’t going to change nothing.’

Wollombi, Hunter Valley, NSW 1847 and 1919.

A fossil discovered at London’s Natural History Museum leads Penelope Jane (PJ) Martindale on a journey of discovery. PJ, who left Australia to serve as an ambulance driver in France during the Great War, returns home to her father in 1919. Her father gives her a cold welcome: he blames her for her younger brothers signing up to serve and then both losing their lives during the war. PJ, looking through some of her brothers’ possessions, finds some fossils they had found at Bow Wow Gorge, and she remembers the fossil she discovered at the Natural History Museum.

In 1847, Mellie Vale contracts chicken pox. The last thing she remembers before succumbing to fever is a monster chasing her. Mellie is taken in by Doctor Pearson and his family: returning home is not possible although Mellie is not told why for a while. The Pearson family, trying to help Mellie, send her with their two daughters and their two friends to visit their family friend Anthea Winstanley at her home near Bow Wow Gorge. Anthea is an amateur palaeontologist, and Mellie quickly becomes caught up in the search for fossils.

In 1919, PJ is keen to learn more about Bow Wow Gorge, its fossils, and its connection to Anthea Winstanley. There’s a history about Bow Wow Gorge: apparently people disappeared there 70 years ago, and locals warn people against going there. PJ and her American boyfriend Sam explore, and amongst other mysteries, they discover some bones.

‘The Fossil Hunter’ is an intriguing dual timeline story which takes the reader between the lives of Mellie in 1847 and PJ in 1919. Both time periods have their dark secrets and mysteries, and PJ is determined to find out what really happened in 1847.

I really enjoyed this novel with its focus on natural history and its shifts between the stories of Mellie and PJ. A terrific blend of secrets and mystery spread across 72 years. Another terrific novel from Ms Cooper. Highly recommended to lovers of Australian historical fiction featuring some terrific female characters.

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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Homecoming by Elfie Shiosaki

‘Four generations of Noongar women in this story. I am the sixth.’

I was fortunate enough to win a copy of this book in a giveaway conducted by Lisa at ANZ LitLovers LitBlog | For lovers of Australian and New Zealand literary fiction; Ambassador for Australian literature and I have been dipping in and out, reading, reflecting and revisiting over the past few weeks.

This book pieces together fragments of stories in poetry and prose and from historical colonial archives to provide a word picture of historical truth for four generations of Noongar women. There are three sections:

Resist

Survive

Renew

Each section takes us into a past that many of us have absolutely no idea about, or chose to ignore:

‘Mary Alice

She made herself visible

For great consequence

                                                                                In a world which made her invisible.’

The layout of this book with its spaces between thoughts and words slows down the reader, inviting us to think about what we are reading, about the lives and experiences being described.

How, with all the difficulties placed in front of them, with policies of protectionism and assimilation almost destroying family and cultural practices, did these women survive?

What does it say about us, the colonisers, that we sought to destroy what we didn’t understand and to force our own values?

 I read on and am struck by the resilience of the storytellers and their commitment to sharing.

Read this book and hear their voices, reflect on their memories, and feel their strength.

Elfie Shiosaki is a Noongar and Yawuru writer from WA.

Thank you, Lisa. This book lives on my keeper shelf.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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The Hush by Sara Foster

Publication date: 27/10/2021

‘The babies demonstrate no signs of pain, and no will to stay in the world.’

Six months ago, in a post pandemic UK, a healthy newborn baby is stillborn. The first of many: close to 1 in 3 pregnancies is ending in stillbirth. Why? Expectant mothers are being closely monitored to see if a cause can be identified.

This is another challenge for the UK, still recovering from the effects of the pandemic and grappling with floods and rising sea levels because of climate change. The government’s response to these issues is to restrict individual freedoms. Citizens are required to wear smart watches, initially to monitor their health and wellbeing during the pandemic, but now the watches monitor an individual’s location, track their spending, and can record their conversations. All of this is supported by new laws passed by the government. And now young pregnant women are going missing. What is happening?

Emma is a midwife, trying to do her best in these difficult circumstances. She’s a single parent: her daughter Lainey is 17. And when Lainey finds herself pregnant, both women are in danger. Emma’s estranged mother Geraldine may be able to help but contacting her has its own risks.

Conspiracy theories abound and social unrest increases. The parents of the missing women are unable, unwilling, or afraid to speak out. And the stillbirths continue.

This is a fast-paced dystopian thriller in which a few heroic women work together to try to uncover the truth. Aspects of this novel are uncomfortably plausible in our current pandemic world, and Ms Foster brings her story to life through well-developed very human characters.

An uncomfortable, engrossing and thought-provoking read.

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 Crying Place by Lia Hills

‘How does a man choose where to die?’

Saul, a restless traveller is seeking to settle down when he receives the devastating news that his friend Jed is dead. Saul is in Sydney when he receives the news and sets out for Melbourne where Jed was living when he died. Family and friends want Saul to travel to Hobart for Jed’s funeral, but he cannot bring himself to attend. Instead, after sorting through Jed’s belongings in Melbourne, he sets out on a journey of his own. He has found a photograph amongst Jed’s belongings, of a woman. And Saul believes that if he can find this woman then he may be able to find the truth about Jed’s death.

Saul sets off alone, in his trusty Subaru, for Alice Springs. Here he finds the information he needs to find the woman, Nara, in a remote Aboriginal community. Along the way, Saul remembers Jed, the adventures they shared, and wonders about the mysteries of life and death.

‘A story is like a river. It has a source. It has tributaries, some as far reaching and expansive as memory, others a thin trickle, so tenuous their influx is barely noticed.’

The story moves through beautifully described landscape, into spaces and experiences beyond Saul’s experience. He has with him a copy of ‘Voss’, Patrick White’s metaphysical novel about a man and the woman he secretly loves. Once Saul arrives at his destination, he starts to learn about indigenous culture and folklore, about the different forms of grief, and about family ties. He is following Jed to try to understand his death, but his own journey will lead him to appreciate life differently.

This is a story to read slowly both to appreciate Saul’s journey and the importance of family ties and grief in the community where Saul finds himself. What does home mean for Saul? Is it a place, or a feeling? What can he learn about Jed by meeting with Nara and her extended family?

Saul’s restlessness, his inability to find a place to settle indicates that he does not know where he belongs. While I wonder about Jed, his relationship with Nara and where they each belong, it is Saul’s journey that captured and held my attention. So many questions to consider, amidst the heat, the dust, and the flies.

Grief and loss are universal parts of the human condition, but our reactions are not.

I found this novel incredibly moving, a story I will revisit.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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The Mother’s Fault by Nicole Trope

Publication date 15/10/2021

‘Beverley watches Riley spoon cereal into his mouth …’

Beverley is a single mother who is deeply protective of her eight-year-old son Riley. Her boyfriend Ethan is very fond of Riley as well, but when he asks Beverley to marry him, she ends the relationship. As much as she loves Ethan, Beverley has secrets she cannot share with him.

But life for Beverley and Riley becomes complicated when a series of expensive anonymous gifts start turning up for Riley. Beverley has told Riley that his father is dead, but he wonders if he is sending the gifts. Beverley assumes that Ethan is responsible for the gifts but her attempts to contact him are unsuccessful.

We (the readers) know that someone is watching Riley and Beverley, but we don’t initially know who.

Then, late one afternoon while Beverley is preparing Riley’s favourite spaghetti dinner, she looks out the window. She cannot see Riley: he has disappeared from the yard. Where could he be? A check with his friends and around the neighbourhood reveals nothing. Beveley calls the police.

‘What kind of mother loses her child?’

The story unfolds through the eyes of Beverley and Riley’s abductor. There are a couple of twists as we learn the truth about Riley’s parentage and the background of both Beverley and the abductor.

While the story held my attention from beginning to end, aspects of the abductor’s story left me uncomfortable. Perhaps that was Ms Trope’s objective: to remind us that parenting is complex and not all parents are good at it.

‘I thought I had a plan, but all I had was an idea and a wish. That’s not the same as a plan, not at all.’

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

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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Our Shadows by Gail Jones

‘So who was this old Paddy, dying in Melbourne in 1925?’

In this novel, Ms Jones explores the lives of three generations of a family living in Kalgoorlie. Her story begins with Irish-born prospector, Paddy Hannan who discovered gold in 1893, and ends with the stories of Nell and Frances who were raised by their grandparents Fred and Else when their mother Mary dies in childbirth. Fred, who suffered the horrors of war, was close to Mary and is diminished by her death.

The narrative ebbs and flows: between generations, between past and present, between life and death. Nell and Frances were close as children, both enjoyed Jules Verne’s ‘Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea’ and had a favourite sentence, which they passed between them:

‘It was not a mere phosphoric phenomenon.’

But as they grew older, Nell and Frances move to Sydney, and they became estranged. Frances is grieving for her husband Will who died from mesothelioma, while Nell struggles with mental health issues. And Else, central in their lives becomes diminished by dementia. And as Else recedes, Frances and Nell want to know more about their past, about the mother they never knew and the father who abandoned them. Their mother’s older sister, their Aunt Enid, is in Kalgoorlie.  Does she hold some of the answers that Frances (particularly) is seeking?

Frances travels to Kalgoorlie, to Jack and Else’s home, where she grew up and where Enid now lives. It is in the (fictitious) Midas Street, close to the Super Pit. Mining overshadows everything, together with the reminder of land expropriated from the original inhabitants.

‘Enid had refashioned their lounge room in the spirit of erasure.’

I became caught up in the story, in the impact of the mines on the different characters. For Paddy, the mines were a source of wealth, for Jack they were a place of refuge from the memories of war. For many others, they were a source of death through accident or disease. And what about those who occupied the land before? As the story unfolds and refolds, our perceptions change as we see different perspectives of the characters.

I finished the novel, sure that I have only understood part of the story Ms Jones is telling. I may have to reread it. This is Ms Jones’s 9th novel. I have not yet read them all.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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Echoes of War by Tania Blanchard

‘I followed the nun in a haze of exhaustion.’

Calabria, Italy, 1936. Guilia Tallariti lives with her family (parents and four siblings) in a remote farming village. She dreams of being a healer, like her grandmother, but her father is determined to see each of his three daughters married. Guilia spends some time at a monastery where, unknown to her father, she learns some of the skills of healing with a famous herbalist. But after she returns to the village, she is married at seventeen and then widowed two years later.

Beyond Calabria, Mussolini and his National Fascist Party are in power in Italy and the world is edging towards World War II. Calabria is no longer safe from the fascist agenda of northern Italy and Guilia’s family will be torn apart. Guilia remarries: her husband, father and brother are called up to serve in the armed forces. By now, Guilia is a trusted healer: even her father has accepted her skills.

And after the war, many of those who have survived can no longer make a living on their farms. Many will emigrate.

Ms Blanchard has drawn on her grandfather’s life in writing this novel: deftly drawing history into fiction and enabling the reader to experience the customs of Calabria and the challenges faced. I enjoyed this novel and learned more about the impact of Mussolini and of World War II in this part of Italy. The characters and story held my attention from beginning to end.

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

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Birds of a Feather by Tricia Stringer

Publication date: 29/9/2021

‘Eve Monk would never forget where she was and what she was doing the day she got the call to say her husband had been killed.’

That was in 1988. And now, in the middle of 2021, Eve is one of the matriarchs of South Australia’s (fictional) Wallaby Bay and a long-time partner in the Wallaby Bay prawn fishing fleet. Town gossip has seen Eve withdraw from her position on the town’s committee and now her partner Spiro wants to sell out. Eve is not sure, and then a shoulder injury shatters her independence.

Lucy, her husband Alec and children Noah and Poppy have moved to Wallaby Bay. Alec’s parents live there as well, which is helpful. But while Lucy is grateful for their support because Alec is a FIFO worker, she really doesn’t want to rely on them too much. Lucy is a very protective mother. While Lucy has a nursing background, she’s reluctant to return to nursing. For now, she is happy to do cleaning work.

Julia, Eve’s goddaughter, has been working on a research project in Melbourne. But, with the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, priorities have changed leaving Julia out of a job. While she considers what to do next, Julia decides to surprise Eve by visiting Wallaby Bay. Julia has had one failed relationship, and wary of commitment, she is also seeking a break from her current partner Glen while she works out whether she wants the relationship to continue.

Three very different women, drawn together by circumstances. Eve needs assistance after her shoulder injury and then after the surgery required to fix it. Lucy is employed by Eve to help her, but she and Julia really do not get on. Each of the women is battling past demons. As the women talk to each other about their fears and concerns, an unlikely but supportive friendship is formed.

I really enjoyed this novel, with its coverage of topical issues (including the Covid-19 pandemic, the challenges faced by FIFO families, and life after retirement). Ms Stringer brings her characters to life, as well as the sometimes claustrophobic ‘feel’ of a small town.

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

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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An Outback Life by Mary Groves

‘What on earth was going on?’

In this memoir, first published in 2011, Mary Groves writes of her life in the Top End of Australia. When she was fourteen, Mary and her family moved from Melbourne to the Northern Territory. The family included Mary, her parents and seven of her siblings.

‘It took our family convoy ten days, in two cars, to travel well over 2000 miles from our corner store in South Melbourne to our general store at Mataranka in the Top End of Australia in 1959.’

In a fascinating memoir, which ends in 1999 when Mary moves to Queensland, she tells of the challenges and hardships she and her family faced. In her early 20s, Mary met Joe Groves – a cattleman, horse breaker, drover, and rodeo rider. They fell in love, had four children, and worked together on several different cattle stations across northern Australia. The nature of Joe’s work meant that he and Mary were often separated, and the isolation meant that Mary acquired an array of survival skills.

I read of the challenges Mary faced and admired the humour with which she (mostly) faced them. The stories are peopled with interesting characters and ingenious solutions to issues. Mary and Joe worked hard, as did their children. I was pleased to read that they found some success along the way.

In her author’s note, Mary writes: ‘I have not used real names in these stories and the terminology I use is that of the 1960s and 1970s. I apologise for any remarks that may seem sexist or racist; they are not intended to be derogatory, but were the terms used by the black and white people in the Territory in my time there.’

Recommended reading for anyone interested in life on Australian cattle stations in the second half of the twentieth century.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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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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