Red Can Origami by Madelaine Dickie

‘The ocean parts like a liquid silk kimono.’

Ava Kelly has left Melbourne behind. She’s landed a job as a reporter in the tiny (fictional) town of Gubinge in Australia’s tropical north. She sees beauty in the country, the camaraderie, the challenge of barramundi fishing. But below the surface, all is not well.

There’s tension between different indigenous groups, and between the indigenous people and the others who live there. A Japanese-owned company, Gerro Blue, wants to mine uranium found there. The community is divided between those who think that mining will bring prosperity, those who are concerned about environmental effects, and those concerned that the indigenous heritage of Burrika country will be destroyed. The local Burrika people have a native title claim pending over a place which contains a cave with rock paintings, land from which the white owner tries to exclude them. On a trip there, Ava sees a bulldozer (with Gerro Blue’s logo on it) parked near some recently exposed bones. Ava knows there is a story here. But Ava’s story about tragedy is turned into tabloid sensationalism by her editor. And some of the relationships Ava was developing with the indigenous people are damaged.

Ava is offered a job by Gerro Blue’s CEO, Yuma Watanabe. He offers her a job as the Aboriginal Liaison Officer, telling her that Gerro Blue wants to deal sensitively with the indigenous people:

‘You understand paradox, that different ways of seeing or being can be simultaneously correct.’

After giving the job offer some thought, Ava accepts. She thinks that she can make a difference, will earn lots of money in a short period. Ava also sees an opportunity to help Noah (the Burrika board director) for whom she has feelings.

Naïve or optimistic? Is it possible to reconcile indigenous connection to land with the damage done by open-cut mining? Is it possible to manage the environmental risks? And what will Ava do when confronted by ethical dilemmas?

This is a comparatively short novel which covers a lot of different issues, including: there is not one indigenous voice; native title rights do not necessarily exclude mineral exploration; and investment opportunities seem more important to remote government than cultural issues.

I liked the second person voice used in the narration because it brings the reader into the story. And we are there, whether we like it or not. There’s either our indifference or objection, or sometimes support for native title issues, there’s our (non-indigenous) confusion about what country means. There’s our difficulty weighing cultural concern against perceived economic benefit.

I became caught up in this story, wondering how real-life equivalents will end. This is Ms Dickie’s second novel: I’ll have to read her first.

‘Before you hit the road, you walk to the servo for a takeaway coffee. The pavement sparkles with glass, shimmers with an origami of flattened red cans.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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The Drover’s Wife by Leah Purcell

I don’t often read plays.  Reading plays requires different reading skills, together with a capacity for visualization which doesn’t always work effectively for me.  And yet, I can be (and was this time) surprised.  Why?  Because I thought I knew ‘The Drover’s Wife’ that wonderful short story by Henry Lawson.  Because I’ve only ever read it one way.  Ms Purcell’s interpretation makes me think differently.

‘I recently had a kill – ‘

I read this play purely by chance: I’d asked for a copy of Leah Purcell’s new novel of the same name and received a copy of her earlier play.  Intrigued, I read it through, finished it, and then reread Henry Lawson’s short story.

Yes, Ms Purcell’s play departs from the original story.  There are more active characters: the antagonist in the Henry Lawson version becomes the hero in this.  There are other changes, too. In the play, Molly (the Drover’s Wife) is participating more in events, not passively waiting.  And some of the reader’s assumptions about power and relative strength are challenged as well.

For myself, the play challenges the euro-centric view I have based on my reading of Henry Lawson’s short story.  And that, surely, is a good thing.

I found the play easy to follow: actions as described and words working together to create powerful images.  And now I wait, patiently, to read Ms Purcell’s novel.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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Perhaps a Little Madness by C. J. Martin

‘Death, Julia thought dismally, is supposed to be an ending.’

After Philip Andris died, his widow Alexa and three daughters Helen, Julia and Kit must move out of their comfortable home, away from their comfortable lifestyle and into an uncertain future.  Philip Andris’s wealth reverts to his stepson Aiden, the son of his first wife.  The Andris women will leave leafy Wahroonga in Sydney behind, for a more rural life near Cessnock.

‘We’re not all destined to be happy, are we?’

Helen and Julia will continue their university studies, Kit will move schools. Each sister needs to adjust. And along the way, both Helen and Julia will fall in love.

I really enjoyed this novel:  Ms Martin’s twenty-first century interpretation of Jane Austen’s ‘Sense and Sensibility’, set in Australia.  Cleverly done, beautifully written, I kept reading because I really needed to know how it would end.  And, gentle reader, I was not disappointed.  Ms Martin has given us several memorable characters, some challenging situations and some beautiful descriptions.

Highly recommended.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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The River Home by Hannah Richell

‘I need you.’

Sisters Eve, Lucy and Margot Sorrell grew up at Windfalls, a seventeenth century house by a river, in the English countryside.  Lucy is to be married (a spur of the moment decision), Eve is exasperated (but handling the organizational aspects) and Margot has returned home (reluctantly). There’s tension between family members, secrets (both present and past), resentments carried from the past.

‘What is it about a homecoming that can strip a person of all that they have become?’

Slowly the story unfolds.  Events from the past need to be acknowledged while each of the women, and their parents, deal with their own lives as well as the wedding arrangements.  Why is Lucy getting married in such a hurry?  What does Margot need to apologise for?  And what about Eve?

The story moves between present and past, gradually information is revealed.  This family has broken apart because of secrets, can it be reunited? Tragedy and human frailty are part of this story, as is courage and determination.  Well-developed characters facing issues many can relate to, doing the best they can, given what they know.  Be warned: parts are sad, and tissues may come in handy. A novel to read slowly, to think about and to reflect on.

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

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The Good Turn by Dervla McTiernan

‘The waiting room was ugly and neglected.’

Dublin, Ireland, 1 September 2015. Anna’s young daughter Tilly has stopped talking. Anna can’t change her circumstances in Dublin, so she decides to take Tilly to Galway.

Galway, Ireland, 31 October 2015.  Garda Peter Fisher is having a rare day off, enjoying life, when he receives a call from his colleague, Deirdre Russell:

‘Reilly wants to know if you can come in for the afternoon.’

The station is shorthanded (again) as most resources have been diverted to a surveillance task force. Detective Cormac Reilly and two others are the only ones there.  Deirdre Russell asks if Peter Fisher can make a call on his way into the station: an eleven-year-old boy says he saw a girl abducted.

Unfortunately, Cormac Reilly is unable to get his boss, Brian Murphy, to release the resources he needs to investigate the abduction. Those resources are part of the surveillance task force, and while Murphy will call on other stations to try to release some staff, Reilly knows that time is critical.  Unfortunately, in the absence of the back-up he needs, Peter Fisher makes some decisions which lead to him being relocated to Galway.  It’s either that, he’s told, or prosecution.  In Galway, Peter Fisher is tasked with administrative paperwork associated with two murders.

Cormac Reilly’s personal life remains complicated, his professional life is blighted by the fact that his search for justice impinges on some entrenched interests.  Who can he trust?  Can he continue in the Garda? Similarly, Peter Fisher, shunted to the side (at least temporarily) finds he can’t ignore his own need to investigate thoroughly.

This is a fast-moving story with several different strands and explores a number of different themes. I finished the novel, hoping that there will be a fourth.  Ms McTiernan has given us some interesting and intriguing characters to follow.

‘This is why you’ve been stuck for the past year.  If you trust absolutely no one, you’re never going to make any progress.’

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

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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Just an Ordinary Family by Fiona Lowe

‘No one tells you that being a mother’s both exhilarating and terrifying.’

Four women, four very different stories. Karen Hunter is the mother of twins Libby and Alice.  Even now they are both grown up, she wants to protect them.  And there’s Jess Dekic, Libby’s closest friend.  Closer to Libby than Alice, Jess has been around the Hunter family for so long that she’s considered family.

Alice returns to the tiny seaside town of Kurnai Bay after her relationship fails. She’s unemployed, and envies Libby her life as a doctor, a happily married woman with two children.  Karen worries about Alice: she wants her to succeed. Jess, a single mother with a young son, is also in Kurnai Bay.  Libby’s daughters and Jess’s son get on well together.  But things are about to go wrong, for each of the four women, in very different ways.

‘Luck was such an arbitrary event—one person’s luck was too often another person’s misfortune, but she couldn’t think about that.’

Secrets, medical issues, betrayal.  They are all part of the story that unfolds in Ms Lowe’s novel. Just when I thought I’d figured it out, there was another twist, another issue to be faced.  Karen will need to revisit the past, while Jess and Alice will need to come to terms with quite different futures.  And Libby will have some issues of her own to confront.

‘Sometimes the means justifies the end.’

There were times when I found the number of issues in this novel to be quite overwhelming.  Yet Ms Lowe makes it work drawing our attention (along the way) to several significant and confronting life issues.  Be warned: both happiness and sadness make several appearances, and some readers may find some aspects unbearably sad.  Be prepared for a rollercoaster ride.

I finished this novel with mixed feelings: a number of the characters had become part of my life.

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

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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The Darkest Shore by Karen Brooks 

‘Someone had to bear witness.’

In 1703, Sorcha McIntyre returns to her hometown of Pittenweem, on Scotland’s east coast. Pittenweem is a small fishing village, steeped in legend, tradition and superstition.  Sorcha is a widow and a fishwife, whose defiance of custom will prove dangerous.

A young local lad falls ill.  A victim of witchcraft, according to Reverend Cowper and some of the local villagers. In the ensuing hysteria, several women are named witches, imprisoned and tortured. The Reverend Cowper knows how to manipulate the situation, claiming to have right (and God) on his side.

What follows is an intense story, which is largely based on real events. Ms Brooks brings her characters to life: the circumstances and friendships of the fishwives are as much a part of the story as their fight for freedom. I kept reading, wanting the hysteria to abate.  I kept reading, wanting to see justice for the accused women, wanting to see Reverend Cowper get his just deserts.

I read this novel twice.  The first time, I read to find out how it would end.  The second time, I paid more attention to the setting, to Ms Brooks’s depictions of character and place.  I also appreciated the glossary and list of characters.

This is a compelling, dark work of historical fiction.  Not comfortable, and a reminder of both the best and worst of human nature.

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

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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