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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Where There’s a Will (Rowland Sinclair #10) by Sulari Gentill

‘I don’t know why Danny appointed me his executor.’

1935. Rowland Sinclair and his friends Clyde Watson Jones, Edna Higgins and Milton Isaacs are in Singapore on their way back to Australia when Rowly receives a telegram. His American millionaire friend Daniel Cartwright, whom he had met at Oxford University, has been shot dead. His body, dressed in evening attire, was found in Harvard Yard. Rowly has been named executor of the will. And so, Rowly and his friends travel to the USA.

Who murdered Daniel Cartwright and why did he name Rowland Sinclair as his executor? When the will is read, Daniel Cartwright’s siblings find that he has left the bulk of his estate to an Otis Norcross, whom no-one seems to know. Rowly and his friends set out to try to locate Otis Norcross, and things quickly become ugly. Members of Daniel’s family want to challenge the will, but Rowly is determined to do his best to locate Otis Norcross – even when it becomes clear that he and his friends are in danger.

I thoroughly enjoyed this tenth instalment in Ms Gentill’s Rowland Sinclair series (also published as ‘A Testament of Character’). The cast of characters includes cameo appearances by Marion Davies, Errol Fynn, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald as well as Joseph Kennedy. The backdrop is complex as well: organised crime, family secrets and a stark reminder of the difficulties faced by those in same sex relationships during this period. Ms Gentill kept me guessing who killed Daniel Cartwright until close to the end. There are more than a few twists,with some obvious (and not so obvious) villains. Another action-filled adventure for Rowly, Edna, Milt and Clyde.

And, given a surprise twist towards the end, I really wonder what will happen next.

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

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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The Women of Little Lon (Sex Workers in Nineteenth-Century Melbourne) by Barbara Minchinton

‘In the 1880s, Little Lon was Melbourne’s premier sex-work precinct.’

I did not know, until I read this book, that prostitution was not technically illegal for most of the 19th century. Instead of being charged with soliciting or prostitution, women (most sex workers were female) could be charged with ‘being drunk and disorderly’ or ‘behaving in a riotous or indecent manner’. Little Lon (Little Lonsdale Street) was not the only site of brothels in central Melbourne but thanks to C. J. Dennis, in ‘Songs of a Sentimental Bloke’:

‘Wot’s in a name? Wot’s in a string o’ words?

They scraps in ole Verona with the’r swords,

An’ never give a bloke a stray dog’s chance,

An that’s Romance.

But when they deals it out wiv bricks an’ boots

In Little Lon., they’re low, degraded broots.’

Little Lon became more infamous for drunkenness, gang violence and prostitution than Little Bourke Street.

In this book, as she describes the economy and the community centred around sex work, as well as the hazards, Ms Minchinton mentions many women by name. But the most powerful part of the book, for me, was Part 3, in which Ms Minchinton writes about five quite different women who demonstrate different aspects of the business of sex work. Some of these women were quite wealthy, with their own real estate empires. Many of the brothels were owned an operated by women. Some of the women may have turned to sex work because of financial necessity but others enjoyed the freedom provided at a time when most women could only choose domestic work or marriage (which would usually involve domestic work).

I found this book fascinating and while I appreciate the challenge Ms Minchinton had in trying to trace lives through public records, I found it interesting to learn about the different women involved.

‘When it comes to reforming sex-work legislation today, the history of Melbourne’s nineteenth-century industry offers one important lesson: while sex workers need the same protection from violence and exploitation as other workers, the more salient issue is the ongoing stigma and discrimination that sex workers suffer as a result of other people’s moral disapproval. Until sex workers and the services they provide are accorded legitimacy and respect, they will require a regulatory model that addresses the ugly moralism passed down from the nineteenth century.’

True.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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Larrimah by Caroline Graham, Kylie Stevenson

‘There was a time when Larrimah mattered.’

Larrimah, I read, is a flyspeck on the map of the Northern Territory. It is on the Stuart Highway, 75 kilometres south of Mataranka and 95 kilometres north of Daly Waters. It was from this hot, barren place that Paddy Moriarty and his dog Kellie went missing at dusk on 17 November 2017. Neither Paddy nor his dog have been seen since.

‘Stories are usually sprawling, murky things.’

Journalists Caroline Graham and Kylie Stevenson won a 2018 Walkley award for their podcast ‘’Lost in Larrimah’, and then visited Larrimah to assist them in writing this book. While they did not find Paddy or solve his disappearance, they found plenty to write about in Larrimah. After Paddy disappeared, Larrimah only had eleven human residents. The menagerie at the Larrimah Hotel (aka The Pink Panther Pub) includes an eyeless croc and it is fair to say that each of the humans that lives in Larrimah is a character.

Ms Graham and Ms Stevenson share some of the history of Larrimah (how and why it was established) and some of the stories they were told as they stayed in Larrimah, including speculation about what happened to Paddy and why.

I was intrigued by the mystery of Paddy’s disappearance, interested in the history of what seems to be a dying town and fascinated by some of the characters who live there. I am glad I read this book during a comparatively cool spring in eastern Australia: I doubt that I could be comfortable in the outback heat. Will we ever know what happened to Paddy? This year, the NT Police announced a $A250,000 reward for information. I wonder.

This book is an interesting blend of a mysterious disappearance and history, of people and place.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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The Bone Ranger by Louisa Bennet

‘The big secret is that dogs pretend to be dumb so that hoomans don’t feel threatened.’

This is the second time I’ve met Monty and his human companion, Detective Constable Rose Sidebottom. My first encounter was only a short one (‘When the Chips Are Down’) but it had me intrigued. In ‘The Bone Ranger’, Monty and Rose become entangled in both a murder investigation and a series of dog-nappings.

‘I sniff two warning wee-mails.

Dogs are disappearing. Stay home, stay safe.

He who must not be named is back! Be vigilant.’

Rose is on sick leave, and while she wants to return to work, she is having trouble complying with the medical fitness requirements. Monty, who loves Rose dearly, has his patience tested when Rose insists on washing his yellow toy duck. Hoomans just do not understand:

‘At least my bed carries my doggy aroma. The smells that come with me to bed at night are the memories of that day and they rub off on the bed cover. When I sniff my bed, all those memories come flooding back. Wash my bed and the result is olfactory amnesia. A terrible affliction.’

But back to the case of The Bone Ranger. Monty can enlist help from his friends Betty the rat and Nigel the squirrel. Dante the magpie also helps with aerial surveillance. If only Rose could understand when Monty tries to share some of the clues with her! [We hoomans can be so slow, as my own late doggy companion Sir Bruce the Battle Rat could have attested. Sir Bruce, a Jack Russell Terrier, would have loved to assist Monty, although he may not have been quite so keen on Betty.]

And poor Rose. While she can tell whether someone is telling the truth (or not) it is hard for her to help when she’s been directed not to. But our intrepid detectives are not deterred, and together after a misadventure or two, they sniff out the culprits.

I really enjoyed this novel: wondering whether Rose would make the breakthrough she needed and hoping that Monty could communicate the information he received from his wide network of advisers and informers. After all, lives are at stake!

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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Once There Were Wolves by Charlotte McConaghy

‘When we were eight, Dad cut me open from throat to stomach.’

This opening line grabbed my attention and drew me into a novel that I could not escape from. Inti Flynn and her twin sister Aggie arrive in the remote Scottish Highlands. Inti hopes to successfully reintroduce wolves into the landscape, to rewild it, to try to arrest and reverse some of the damage done when wolves became extinct there. Inti know that she and the team of biologists she leads will have an uphill battle: the farmers are mistrustful and expect the wolves to kill their livestock. But re-establishing wolf packs is only part of the reason Inti and Aggie have moved to Scotland.

The story unfolds, between past and present. We learn that Inti and Aggie’s father was a naturalist who taught them to appreciate nature and who lived a separate life from their mother, a detective, who taught them that humans are the most dangerous predator. The connection between the twins is amplified by Inti’s mirror touch synaesthesia, which means that she can feel the pain experienced by others.

The wolves, tracked by Inti’s team, settle into their new environment remarkably well and Inti starts to relax. She becomes close to one of the villagers, a man who has his own past, and life becomes complicated when Inti finds a murdered farmer. Afraid that this killing will be blamed on one of the wolves, Inti buries the body.

This novel is part paean to nature, part murder mystery and part love story with an accompanying undercurrent of violence. Gradually we learn more about the sisters’ lives in Alaska and the events that have made Aggie unwell and driven her to silence. For me, the best part of this novel was the description of the behaviour of the wolves, knowing that there is currently a movement to reintroduce wolves into Scotland. I was less comfortable with aspects of Inti and Aggie’s stories but could appreciate how their past has shaped their present. I finished the novel hoping that both the wolves and the sisters could thrive and find their own space.

A fierce, violent, and thought-provoking novel addressing some important issues.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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Say Hello by Carly Findlay

‘Go on. Say hello.’

Dear Carly,

I would love to meet you one day. And yes, I would say hello. How could I not do so? Reading your memoir has educated and inspired me and reminded me that disability takes many forms. When I was a child, the focus was on difference. Most children with a physical disability went to a special school and many lived in associated homes. Those of us in more mainstream education had little contact. Difference became entrenched early. And now, over fifty years later, I wonder what opportunities we all missed.

‘I think, when someone needs to engage with a disabled person, the first thing they should say is ‘Hello’ – not something inappropriate that they wouldn’t want said to themselves.’

I agree.

As I was reading your book, I kept stopping so I could learn more about ichthyosis and its impact on those who live with it. And then I thought about other disabilities, both visible and invisible, and the energy many must use in their daily lives on activities many of us find easy.

And when I finished your book, just before you turned forty, I wanted to thank you for all you have achieved so far and to wish you well for the future. Your work as an activist for the wider disability community helps us all.

So, thanks Carly, for writing this book, for sharing your personal experience of disability and your love of life (and fashion). Thank you for reminding us (although we should not need reminding) of the importance of inclusion.

Thank you.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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Mirror Man (DCI Jack Hawksworth #3) by Fiona McIntosh

‘His life was meaningless. How could he ever give it meaning again?’

Several bizarre deaths in England have Scotland Yard concerned. DCI Jack Hawksworth is reassigned from his role in Counter Terrorism to head up an operation to try to find any connections between the deaths. Hawksworth is promoted to Detective Superintendent to head up Operation Mirror and has a small team including DI Kate Carter, DI Malek Khan, and analyst DS Sarah Jones with whom he has worked before.

How is the killer identifying his victims? Some of them are criminals who have been released early from prison, but how would the killer know how to find them? There is nothing random about these deaths, but how can Operation Mirror get ahead of a serial-killing vigilante? Detective Superintendent Hawksworth uses some unconventional methods to get results, including speaking with a convicted serial killer and working with an ambitious young journalist.

The reader may know who is responsible for these deaths, but the members of Operation Mirror must find evidence that the deaths are linked before they can search for a suspect. And the killer is very careful not to leave behind any trace.

I read this book in two sessions. I was intrigued by the characters (this is the first Jack Hawksworth novel I have read, and I’ve added the first two books to my reading list) and by the actions of the vigilante. Ms McIntosh introduces a few twists in this rapidly paced story and there is plenty of tension as the story nears its conclusion. Can the vigilante’s actions ever be justified given the nature of the crimes committed by those killed? Do the ends ever justify the means?

Highly recommended.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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A Little Bird by Wendy James

‘Bad news might be real life, but believe me, no one wants to hear about it anymore.’

A relationship break-down, her father’s illness and a job offer bring Jo Sharpe home in 2018 to the small drought-stricken town of Arthurville in remote, rural Australia. Jo has mixed feelings about returning: her mother and baby sister left Arthurville in 1994 and apart from one letter, neither have been heard from since.

Jo’s job on the ‘Chronicle’ is to produce six pages of good news each week. Not as easy as you might think given that the town is gripped by drought, but Jo settles in, rekindling some old friendships and making new friends. But being back in Arthurville rekindles Jo’s desire to find out why her mother left, taking her sister but leaving Jo behind. Her father, ill and ill-tempered, does not want to revisit the past. And then Jo finds some papers which, while they may shed some light on the past, raise plenty of questions.

The story shifts between Jo in 2018 and 1994, where Jo’s mother Merry is the narrator. As the two narratives unfold, we learn of secrets held, of ill-feeling and misunderstandings. And at the heart of it all is someone who would rather kill than concede ground.

I enjoyed this story with its complex, flawed characters and with a few twists that kept me guessing until very near the end. Ms James has published eight novels so far, and as this is only the third I have read, I have five others to look forward to.

If you enjoy domestic thrillers in a rural setting then I can recommend this,

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

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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Now That I See You by Emma Batchelor

‘I found some hairs last night. Long and dark. Glaring at me against the white tiles of the bathroom floor.’

In brief, this is a story about a relationship breakdown which occurred after one partner tells the other that they are transgender. What started as a relationship between a man and a woman fails when the man becomes a woman. Emma, whose story this is, finds it very hard to let go. The story unfolds over a period of eighteen months and is told in three parts: ‘Us’, ‘Them’ and ‘Me’. Emma, as part of ‘Us’ struggles with Jess’s disclosure and tries to think of ways to accommodate Jess’s change within her own needs. But Jess needs space to rediscover themselves and to make a new life.

We have only Emma’s perspective through her thoughts, diary entries and eMails to Jess. Jess is essentially silent. While that is okay — it is Emma’s story — it made it difficult for me to get any real sense of who Jess is.

‘It is curious how devoted we are to binary thinking, both in terms of gender and sexuality. Actually, not just binary thinking but traditional thinking. If you are a woman, you must be attracted to men. If you were initially attracted to men, you must always be attracted to them. We struggle with the in-between spaces, the grey areas that change. Anything that subverts the norm, really.’

Emma grieves for the loss of her relationship with Jess and while I felt sympathy for her, initially I wanted to know how Jess was feeling. But I guess that is another story. Relationships change over a lifetime: children become adults, form their own significant relationships, some become parents, the cycle repeats. But these relationships are usually lived out within specific binary gender constraints. And so, I am forced to think about how relationships formed within those constraints are challenged (and often broken) if one partner’s role changes.

‘I am a casualty of your quest for self-exploration.’

A challenging and thought-provoking read.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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