Horse by Geraldine Brooks

‘Nothing like a new horse to brighten a day.’

In 2019, a PhD student in art history rescues an oil painting of a horse from a pile of possessions discarded on a sidewalk in Georgetown, and a zoologist finds a skeleton labelled ‘Horse’ in a Smithsonian attic. In 1850, an enslaved boy is present when a mare foals. This is how Ms Brooks begins her novel. Yes, foal will become the horse in the painting and the skeleton in the Smithsonian. The enslaved boy, Jarret, will be with the horse from his first breath to his last. The foal, first named Darley, will be renamed Lexington. Lexington, a real racehorse, won six of his seven starts and became a legendary thoroughbred sire. His offspring dominated American racing in the late 19th century.

Some of the characters in the story are, like Lexington, real. Ms Brooks includes the various owners of Lexington and the painter Thomas J Scott. And in 1954, Martha Jackson a modernist art dealer, becomes obsessed with the painting when the woman working for her seeks her advice on a painting that has been handed down within her family. The key characters: Jarret; the PhD student Theo; and Jess the zoologist are fictional.

Jarret is the imagined son of Harry Lewis, a horse trainer who was able to buy his own freedom in antebellum Kentucky. Harry’s employer, Dr Warfield, offers to colt Darley to Harry in lieu of a year’s wages. If the colt is successful, Harry might be able to purchase Jarret’s freedom. But once Darley wins his first race, Dr Warfield is reminded by others that there is a law preventing Black people from racing horses. As a result, both Darley (then renamed Lexington) and Jarret are sold. They are sent south and become part of Richard Ten Broeck’s operation in Louisiana. Neither will be free.

In 2019, Theo and Jess are brought together by Lexington’s relics. Theo, the son of diplomats (a Nigerian mother and an American father) is painfully aware of racism. Jess, an Australian scientist, fascinated by the bones of the horse is less sensitive. They begin a tentative relationship, cut short by tragedy.

I really enjoyed this novel, the way in which Ms Brooks wove fiction around history to bring both Jarret and Lexington to life. And, just in case anyone has forgotten, slavery may no longer exist, but racism certainly does.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

The Idea of Australia by Julianne Schulz

‘Culture is the real barometer of change. Politics often follows.’

After reading enthusiastic reviews of this book by those whose opinions I value, I bought a copy for myself. I read slowly, to think about some of the important albeit uncomfortable questions Professor Shultz raises.

I agree with at least some of Professor Schultz’s conclusions, especially with this: ‘the idea of Australia is a contest between those who are imaginative, hopeful, altruistic and ambitious, and those who are defensive and inward-looking.’

Perhaps, now that we have had a change of government, there is reason for optimism. Perhaps. I agree that we need to acknowledge and better understand our past so that we can make sense of the present and build a positive and inclusive future. But I worry that the current economic climate and the ongoing pandemic will make this even more difficult.

We need to consider the long-term underlying issues while at the same time reacting to urgent emerging needs. We need to plan as well as react.

I would recommend this book to every Australian.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Any Ordinary Day by Leigh Sales

‘The day that turns a life upside down usually starts like any other.’

In this book, which is part investigation and part reflection, Leigh Sales looks both how ‘ordinary’ people face unexpected and often horrific twists and turns in their lives. And, in looking at her role as a journalist, Leigh Sales reflects on her own actions including how she interviews these people.

‘What prompted me to begin writing this book was the thought of what might happen if I walked towards what I most feared, rather than in the opposite direction.’

The interviews in this book are different from those we have seen on the ABC 7.30 Report. Here we have some insight into Ms Sales’s preparation and presentation. Her interviewees include those who have lost family members, those who came close to death themselves, as well as a police officer, a coroner, a priest, a social worker and former prime minister, John Howard. Ms Sales also writes of her own brush with death involving herself and her unborn child.

Ms Sales writes, too, of how we perceive risk. How, for example, we might be more concerned about the danger of an amusement park ride, or a plane flight (both rare) than being in a car (unfortunately common).

‘To live life, we have to take risks, most of which we will never even know we’re taking.’

When writing about the roles and responsibilities of journalists, Ms Sales acknowledges that she has made mistakes. She refers to her interview of a grandmother following Hurricane Katrina, and how the woman’s grandson intervened.

I found this book thought-provoking and informative. It both explores the different ways in which we approach grief and offers insights into how we can help those grieving. It reminds us to consider the consequences of our own actions.

Highly recommended.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Telltale: Reading Writing Remembering by Carmel Bird

‘As a child, at the end of World War Two, I was introduced to the concept of the Trickster in literature.’

A friend’s review of this book had me borrowing a copy from the library. My reading of it had me buying my own copy. Why? Because I opened the front cover, immediately recognised the end paper images of Launceston’s Cataract Gorge and the caretaker’s cottage and was transported ‘home’ to Launceston where I have not lived since the beginning of 1974.

I have read some (not all) of Ms Bird’s other works and was interested in reading what she chose to share of her life. The enforced isolation of the pandemic provided Ms Bird with an opportunity to re-read books from her past. And each of the books she chose (or the books that chose her) took Ms Bird into the past, into connections with family, friends and place.

‘I was confined, locked into my library, tracing my heartbeats from way, way back.’

I recognise some of these books and many of the places mentioned. Ms Bird’s mention of Glen Dhu Primary School (‘Dark Hollow School’) took me back to my own memories as a student there during the 1960s. The Scots Gaelic name impressed me more than the geography. The school was bursting at the seams with pupils during this period, and my elderly neighbour used to tell me stories of when he attended school there in the first and second decades of the twentieth century. I returned to visit Glen Dhu for its 120th year birthday celebrations and could see much change.

I have digressed. Ms Bird’s memoir has become a vehicle for memories of my own. I’ll have to reread the book to explore more of the books she mentions. Distracted, I was too busy walking crossing the King’s Bridge and making my way along the Cataract Gorge, visiting the peacocks and wallabies, and remembering the magnificent old Georgian library (which was demolished, from memory, in 1971).

I enjoyed reading the connections Ms Bird makes, the snippets of the past she shares (riding on the trams, and the Mary Fisher Bookshop in the Quadrant). I also enjoyed Ms Bird’s reminder of the significance of the Cataract Gorge area to the First Nations People.

A book to cherish. A book to reread. A book of books to explore.

I loved it.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Australia’s Great Depression by Joan Beaumont

‘Most Australians can tell you something about the Great Depression.’

Both sets of my grandparents were adults during the Great Depression. My maternal grandparents were born in 1889 and 1893, my paternal grandparents were born in 1907 and 1909. My grandfather fought in World War I, was invalided out of the AIF in 1917, married in 1918 and became a tram driver in Launceston until he retired in 1952. He and my grandmother had a flourishing vegetable garden and lots of fruit trees on their smallish house block. My other grandparents were newly married in 1929. My grandfather worked as a labourer. By the time I was born, in the 1950s, he worked as a boiler attendant at ‘The Pulp’ (the APPM) in Burnie. He also had a flourishing vegetable garden and kept hens. I remember that he hated eating rhubarb: he had eaten it far too often during the Great Depression.

Reading this book took me back sixty years. Neither set of grandparents believed in credit, both were careful with their money, and my grandmothers were terrific recyclers of just about everything. Their lives were affected by World War I, the ‘Spanish ‘flu’ epidemic, the Great Depression and World War II. I was too young to appreciate this sixty years ago and picked up this book with interest.

Ms Beaumont focusses on the period from 1929 to 1932 as the time of economic hardship, with the years 1933 to 1937 being seen as the years of recovery. In 1932, over one third of the Australian workforce was out of work. In that regard, my grandparents were fortunate, but many others were not. Many lost their homes as well as their jobs.

What made the Great Depression particularly bad in Australia? High levels of debt after World War I, and the collapse of wheat and wool prices made Australia vulnerable. Because of the threat of national insolvency, there was little room for policy flexibility. Instead, austerity measures were adopted as well as deflation. There were violent protests in the streets, and various paramilitary movements. Fortunately, our democratic institutions and our people survived.

‘What were the sources of resilience, individually and collectively, that sustained Australians through yet another shock to afflict this one generation?’

Ms Beaumont writes of the economic and political decisions taken by both state and federal governments, as well as the ways in which voluntary organisations and communities helped. Rural areas fared better than urban areas, and many men travelled around the country in search of work.
I would recommend this book to anyone interested in Australia’s twentieth century history. And yes, I can see some parallels between the Great Depression and today.

‘History can only be written if records of the past have survived.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

The Homecoming (Maiden’s Creek #3) by Alison Stuart

‘Sometimes the past really doesn’t want to be disturbed.’

1892, Maiden’s Creek, Victoria. Charlie O’Reilly returns to Maiden’s Creek almost twenty years after she left. While Maiden’s Creek holds bad memories for Charlie, she returns as the acting matron of the local hospital and is determined to prove her worth. Charlie is also trying to move on after a disastrous relationship which has left her in a difficult situation.

Danny Hunt is independently wealthy and has a busy criminal law practice. Danny also has ties to Maiden’s Creek. When a court case leads to threats against Danny’s life, he takes the opportunity to accompany his friend Robert to Maiden’s Creek. Robert is visiting his sister, a nurse at the hospital.

Danny is looking for some answers about his past, while also undertaking some investigations on behalf of his stepfather into a now defunct mine. He is also aware that Robert may have some involvement in the theft of the Speaker’s Mace from the Victorian Parliament.

Charlie settles into her duties as acting matron, managing the hospital and attending to various crises. Robert is injured and admitted to the hospital, which delays his return to Melbourne. Danny stays on as well. A nurse is murdered at the hospital, and suspicion falls on her fiancé. Both Danny and Charlie are certain that he did not murder her, but can they prove it? And while they are attracted to each other, Charlie is determined to maintain a distance.

Well, Ms Stuart certainly kept me turning the pages.  Yes, I wanted to know who killed the nurse (and why). I also was worried for a couple of lovely characters when Maiden’s Creek was hit by a disastrous flood. But most of all, I really wanted Danny and Charlie to negotiate the pitfalls of the past and find happiness. There are a few twists in the tale, and I finished it wanting more.

While this story is complete, I confess that I would be very happy to see this trilogy become a quartet.

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

The Ninth Life of a Diamond Miner: A memoir by Grace Tame

‘There are forces we can control, and others we can’t.’

Grace Tame is an Australian activist and advocate for survivors of sexual assault. Grace was 26 years old when named she was named 2021 Australian of the Year on 25 January 2021. So, we know a little about Grace’s life, about the sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of a teacher, about her activism, and about not smiling at Scott Morrison on 25 January 2022. If you want to know more about Ms Tame, then read her memoir.

But before you do, take the time to look at the cover. This sketch, drawn by Ms Tame, shows two different aspects of Grace. In the first, she is looking into the distance. In the second, she is looking down with her hands over her ears. Both are surrounded by other drawings. While I can’t make out all the detail, I can see eagles, wolves and snakes. Ms Tame drew this sketch herself.

Open the pages and learn about Ms Tame’s life, about her family, her autism and her political views. And along the journey, discover what an incredibly talented artist she is and how sharp her observations. There’s humour here as well as darkness, happiness as well as trauma. It’s confronting at times and very honest as Ms Tame analyses various influences and their effects on her.

‘If we live life on other people’s terms, we will inevitably be paralysed into action. Into silence. And we definitely won’t laugh.’

I finished this book filled with admiration for Ms Tame, for her courage and resilience, and her ability to speak up and speak out.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

The Stay-at-Home Mother by Nicole Trope

‘Everyone is hiding something.’

This story unfolds through the alternating views of two women: Gabby Burrell, mother of a teenaged son and Andrea Gately, mother of a three-year-old son and heavily pregnant with her second child. Andrea and her family have recently moved into the same street as Gabby. They are living in a rundown house for reasons that will soon become clear. Gabby runs a Facebook page on parenting and befriends Andrea. Gabby is lonely: she admits to having problems with her teenaged son, and her husband Richard she says is absent overseas on business. Andrea has her own problems: juggling pregnancy with the demands of a three-year-old and worrying about her husband Terry.

Gabby, it becomes clear, has mental health issues. And Andrea, because she is overloaded and worried ignores some of the discrepancies in Gabby’s account of her everyday life.

Okay. So how do I avoid spoilers but still convey some sense of the tension that builds as this story races to its conclusion? Suffice to say that Andrea’s trust is misplaced. She arrives home after a false labour alarm to find her son missing. And I will stop there.

This story kept me turning pages as I needed to know how it would end.  While some aspects were predictable, there were a couple of twists I did not anticipate.  And the ending? It made me uncomfortable, even though I recognise the truth in it.

If you enjoy psychological thrillers which touch on contemporary issues and challenges, then you may enjoy this.

‘It’s so easy to manipulate everyone, actually.’

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

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

The Other Olivia by Tamara M Bailey

‘And there lies the gray area. Are they human? Or are they just a computer program?’

When we meet Olivia Alexander (née Sharp) she thinks that her biggest problem is discovering her husband’s affair. If only. No, Olivia is about to find herself immersed in a confusing and dangerous conspiracy. There she is, walking down the street when a stranger warns her ‘Don’t sign anything’. But who can she trust? And how can the reader negotiate the twists and turns as we discover a shadow world in which Livvie Sharp is also being hunted?

It took me little while to shift between Olivia’s world and Livvie’s world. It took me a while longer to try to identify the good guys in this story. We have eco-terrorists and tech companies determined to make their points at any cost, competing with individuals trying to do their best against near impossible odds. Yes, my attention was captured and held, and I definitely didn’t sign anything. Just in case.

No, you don’t need to know anything else before you leap into a discombobulating world of hi-tech intrigue and low-tech resistance. Ms Bailey has peopled her story with likeable flawed heroes, and detestable flawed villains. And somehow, with all of the different issues raised, we have a story which feels uncomfortably possible in the near future.

Fast-paced fiction raising issues which we should be thinking about. Seriously.  I loved it.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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

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