Ache by Eliza Henry-Jones

‘Annie has never been the sort of person to have nightmares.  But since the fires on the mountain, her dreams have changed.’

A bushfire twelve months ago has ripped Annie’s world apart.  Her grandmother Gladys is dead, her daughter Pippa is traumatised, and her mother Susan’s home was half destroyed.  Although Annie, her husband Tom and Pippa live in the city, she’s never really settled there.  The mountain is her home, and after her uncle Len calls her, she takes Pippa back to Quilly for an extended visit.  The pressure of work means that Tom can’t join them, and he’s frustrated that Annie hasn’t thought this through.

‘It’s too easy to forget how good it feels to have purpose.’

Back in Quilly, we meet Annie’s eccentric mother Susan, her uncle Len and his wife Rose.  Gradually, we learn more about Annie’s life on the mountain, her relationship with Gladys, and the fire that has devastated the lives of so many.  And Pippa, so traumatised by the fire, starts to open up to her grandmother and find her way gradually through her own trauma.

It took me a while to adjust to the rhythm of this novel.  Ms Henry-Jones tells the story gradually, revealing pieces of information about people and events.  There are several finely drawn characters, each dealing with the consequences of the bushfire the best they can.  Some within the community see Annie as an interloper, and this undermines her sense of belonging.  Can individuals within the community move on?  Can Tom and Annie’s marriage survive this separation?

For me, this novel captures some of the trauma of catastrophe, as well as some of the issues individuals and communities need to deal with as a consequence.  The devastation is clear, the grief understandable.  There’s hope, as well, for the future – for the land and for at least some of the characters.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AWW2017

Flame Tip by Karenlee Thompson

Flame Tip by Karenlee Thompson

‘I’ll tell you about my neighbourhood on the 8th of February 1967 …’

In this collection of seventeen short fictions, linked to the Black Tuesday bushfires in Tasmania on 8 February 1967, Ms Thompson explores many different themes.  For those of you who weren’t around fifty years ago, this tragedy left 62 people dead and injured 900 others.  More than 7000 people were left homeless and 1400 homes were destroyed.  Most of the destruction was caused within a five-hour period.  It was horrific.  I was a school-aged child living in Launceston at the time, watching the local community mobilise to help those affected.

These fictions involve different people, with their different reactions to the fire and its aftermath.  There’s one woman, in ‘Lost’, looking for the life she lost when the fire destroyed her home.  In another, ‘The Keeper of the Satchel’, a man remembers the fire (and its impact) through his own regulated life.  He wonders.  In other stories, communities come together after the fire as differences that seemed important beforehand are erased.  For the storytellers – danger, fear, loss and memories play a part as do empathy, humour and resilience.

This is a book to dip into.  I will revisit these stories as a reminder of both the events of Black Tuesday (and other catastrophic bushfires) and the different ways in which such catastrophes continue to affect people long after the event.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AWW2017

The Dark Lake by Sarah Bailey

The Dark Lake by Sarah Bailey

‘It’s amazing what you can keep buried when you want to.’

A beautiful young woman’s body, strewn with red roses, is found floating in the lake near a small rural town.  Her identity is quickly stablished: she’s a teacher at the local high school, named Rosalind (Rose) Ryan.  Detective Sergeant Gemma Woodstock was at high school with Rose, but despite this connection she wants to investigate the case. Rose has been murdered, but by whom and why?  Why did Rose quit her teaching job in the city to return to teach at Smithson High School?  Why was the body strewn with red roses: many people seemed to admire Rose, but no-one seems to have really known her.

‘Beautiful things are hard to keep alive.’

Gemma Woodstock is an interesting, flawed character with her own secrets.  Some of those secrets become apparent early in the novel, and while I found aspects of Gemma irritating, I liked her.  Here’s a flawed woman, juggling family and work (not always successfully) trying to figure out who killed Rose.  The deeper she digs, the more people she finds with a possible motive for murder.  The deeper she digs, the closer she comes to revealing some of her own secrets that she would rather keep hidden.

‘Keep trying to figure out who killed perfect, precious Rose Ryan.’

I thought I had it worked out part way through the book, but I was wrong.  Once all the pieces fell into place (no spoilers) it makes its own sense.  A satisfying read, which left me wondering what the future might hold for Gemma Woodstock.  This is Ms Bailey’s debut novel, and I’ll certainly be hoping to see more from her in the future.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

 

#AWW2017

Closing Down by Sally Abbott

Closing Down by Sally Abbott

‘How has it all come to this?’
There are three main characters in this dystopian novel, set in an Australia which has largely been sold off to overseas interests. Rural towns are being closed by a remote central government, people are being displaced and dispossessed. The land is dry and food is limited. But the problems are not just confined to Australia: the countries and regions of the world are being realigned. Who cares about the human cost?

The main characters are Clare McDonald, Granna Adams and her grandson Roberto (Robbie). Clare walks the streets of Myamba most nights. She walks to escape: it’s the moving that matters. Clare thinks about the towns being closed, and what it means. Granna Adams creates and distributes care packages for those who have lost loved ones, their livelihoods, their homes. Robbie loves Ella, but they are often apart. Robbie travels around the world in search of newsworthy topics while Ella is a human rights worker, settling refugees where they are ordered to go.

From the opening page, this novel captured my attention. I was drawn in before I really had any idea of who the characters might be and where the story was heading. While Robbie’s story captured my heart, it was Clare and Granna who keep hope alive. These two very different, resilient women combine forces in Granna’s home, the House of Many Promises, to try to improve life for others. They do: in part because of the foresight of the man who originally built the house, and the rest you’ll need to read for yourself.

This is one of those novels which is best read, not explained. The components lack the magic of the whole. It’s imaginative, and disturbingly possible. This is Ms Abbott’s debut novel, and won the inaugural Richell Prize for Emerging Writers in 2015 from a field of almost 1000 entries.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AWW2017

 

Victoria: The Queen by Julia Baird

One of the best biographies I’ve read recently.

Victoria: The Queen by Julia Baird

‘Few would have bet Victoria would become queen of the British Isles.’

Sub-titled an intimate biography of the woman who ruled an empire, this book seeks to portray the person of Victoria behind the myth that has arisen since her death.  Myth? Many of Queen Victoria’s papers were destroyed or censored after her death, to preserve a particular image of her.  In preparing this biography, Ms Baird has had access to previously unpublished papers.  In a general note, at the end of the book Ms Baird states: ‘All passages that discuss what Victoria was thinking, feeling or wearing are based directly on journal entries, letters and other contemporary evidence referenced below.’

A lot has been written about Queen Victoria.  Born in 1819, she was fifth in the line to the throne and was never expected to become queen.  When Victoria ascended to the throne in 1837, she was aged just eighteen.  She lived through a period of great change and by the time of her death in 1901, aged eighty-one, the world had changed significantly.  This was the era of great technological change, of disastrous wars, and colonial expansion.  It was also the era of Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, Oscar Wilde, and Florence Nightingale.

But what of the woman herself?  Victoria was aged twenty when she fell in love with her cousin Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha.  They had nine children.  In Ms Baird’s words:

‘The marriage between Victoria and Albert is one of the greatest romances of modern history.  It was genuine, devoted and fruitful.  Together, they ushered in an era when the monarchy would shift from direct power to indirect influence, and from being the fruit of the aristocracy to becoming the symbol of the middle class.’

Victoria was no cipher: when dealing with her ministers, she was outspoken and asserted her opinions.  She also survived eight assassination attempts.  After Albert died, aged only forty-two, she had a close relationship with her servant John Brown. A passionate woman who needed intimacy and closeness.  The image I’d previously formed was quite different.  I kept reading, interested to find out more about this woman who was still Queen when two of my grandparents were born towards the end of the nineteenth century.  I was fascinated, too, that the adjective ‘Victorian’ had come to mean stuffy, prudish or hypocritical when Victoria herself seemed more broad-minded.

‘What is more startling today is to discover what a robust and interventionist ruler Victoria was.’

This is one of the most accessible and interesting biographies I have read recently.  There are pages and pages of notes for those interested in sources, but the notes themselves do not interrupt the flow of the book. The picture of Victoria that emerges is of a complicated woman, a successful and strong woman who negotiated her path in an overwhelmingly patriarchal society.  I was interested in how closely she worked with her prime ministers, especially Disraeli, and how she disliked Gladstone.

I’d recommend this book to anyone interested in the life and reign of Queen Victoria.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AWW2017

The Lucky One by Caroline Overington

The Lucky One by Caroline Overington

‘This is going to be my first dead body.’

It should be straightforward. A family trust owns a decrepit, heavily mortgaged estate, in the hills of Paso Robles, California. The estate can only be sold if all the direct descendants agree to the sale. The descendants agree, certain conditions are stipulated.

What could possibly go wrong?

The developers who purchased the estate, in violation of the agreed conditions of the sale, start removing the magnificent oak trees. They also start demolishing the family cemetery on the estate, where a partially singed, recently buried body is discovered.

The police are involved, and then another much older body is discovered elsewhere on the estate. Are the deaths connected?

Three generations of the Alden-Stowe family are scrutinised by the police as they try to find out the truth. And what a complicated, convoluted tale they will uncover: deceit, rivalry, self-serving alliances and treachery. Just who will be ‘the lucky one’?

‘Someone had a secret. You can bury bones but not secrets.’

There are plenty of twists and turns in this novel, some more believable than others. I kept turning the pages, trying to work out exactly who was responsible for what (and I didn’t work it all out before the final reveal). There are quite a lot of different characters in this story. While many are quite stereotypical, they fit the story perfectly. I am in two minds about the ending. On one hand, I liked the neatness and cleverness of it. On the other hand, it irritated me. No spoilers, though, because that would ruin the impact of the read.

If you like fast-paced psychological thrillers, you may enjoy this novel.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AWW2017

 

The Last Garden by Eva Hornung

A beautifully written, haunting novel.

‘He could not make sense of it all until he let a trickle of memory in: …’
Benedict Orion returns home to Wahreit from boarding school on the day that his father Matthias shoots his wife Eva and himself dead. Benedict, fifteen years old, discovers their bodies. The community of Wahreit is shocked. Wahreit, an isolated settlement set somewhere in colonial Australia has been founded by a community in exile awaiting the return of the Messiah. It is the ‘last garden’ of the title. But the community has been waiting for a long time, and Pastor Helfgott can feel some waverings of faith. He is not the leader that his predecessor was, and feels his deficiency keenly.

Benedict is unable to remain inside his parents’ home, and moves into the barn to live with the horses. Pastor Helfgott visits Benedict, bringing him food from the community. The novel marks the passage of the seasons. Benedict’s passage through grief is difficult to observe: he becomes more like the animals he is living with, and the community is unsure how to react. The horses, particularly the mare named Melba, provide Dominic with a focus and a way to relate to the external world. Dominic tries hard to keep hens as well (his mother had a collection of exotic hens) but there’s a fox to contend with.
Dominic’s difference becomes an issue with the community: especially when a scapegoat is needed. It has become clear that this isolated and closed community has flaws and faults.

As I read this beautifully written novel with its polished prose, I wondered if Dominic could ever find his way back to the world of humans. I wondered, too, about the community and Pastor Helfgott. Should they have done more, and what could they have done? Four themes stand out for me: the violence committed by humans (and not just that of Matthias Orion), the persistence and cunning of the fox, the strength of the horses, and the definition of redemption.

‘He opens the door with a firm hand and walks into the room.’

I found this novel unsettling in parts: I wanted to intervene in the story, to (somehow)improve Dominic’s life. It was a novel I wanted to read quickly (to know how it ended) and to read slowly (to enjoy the beauty of the writing). It’s a novel which will stay with me for a long time.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AWW2017