Water Music by Christine Balint

‘I was reared on water and fish like a bird.’

In this work of historical fiction, Ms Balint takes us to eighteenth century Venice. Lucietta is an orphan, being raised by a fisherman’s family. Her adoptive mother, a wet-nurse for the orphanage, asked permission to raise one girl and Lucietta was the one she kept, until she was sixteen. Lucietta is fortunate in that provision has been made for her future:

‘My real father had left instructions and funds to secure my musical education.’

From an early age, Lucietta learns the violin and as the novella opens, she is leaving for the Derelitti Convent, one of the musical orphanages for girls. Here, Lucietta will play the violin in the ensemble and will train some of the younger musicians. She wonders who her father is and whether he would be one of the nobles listed in the Libro d’Oro (the Golden Book).

‘I am Lucietta … the new violinist.’

We learn of Lucietta’s life within the Derelitti Convent, of friends she makes and challenges faced. There are beautiful descriptions of how Lucietta feels when she plays. She knows that music is all she has, all that has stood between her and marriage to a fisherman. And when she plays:

‘Now I am swimming inside the music, hearing every note, seeing the patterns on the page, but blocking out the audience. I cannot bear it’

Will Lucietta become a nun? Will she stay to play music, or will she accept an offer of marriage?

‘I want to talk to someone, but there is only air and moonlight.’

The historical backdrop for this novel is a system of patronage that existed in Venice between 1400 and 1797 which enabled girls from any background to obtain a full-time musical education, leading to a career in music, if they passed an audition.

This glorious novella was the joint winner of the 2021 Viva La Novella prize. I enjoyed Lucietta’s story and the setting and finished the novella wondering (but not needing) what might have happened next.

My thanks to the author for providing me with a copy for review purposes.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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Bad Habits by Sarah Evans

Meet Detective Inspector Eve Rock. Her festive season is not going according to plan. After her house and other prized possessions were blown up, she has had to move in with her mother, Sister Immaculata in St Immaculata’s School for Girls in Nedlands, Perth. Eve’s daughter Chastity is also living there, and things are a little tense. Sister Immaculata is not happy, Chastity is developing a crush on a man who is possibly her brother and Eve cannot decide which of her two police colleagues Quinn Fox and his son Adam she prefers. Oh, and Eve invited her father Henry Talbot as well.

To escape the toxic tension, Eve arranges a callout with her sergeant. She arranges for Adam and Quinn Fox to be called out as well. But Eve’s strategic escape from family simply signifies the beginning of a rollercoaster ride. There’s crime aplenty to investigate: a freezer full of body parts, a jewellery theft, and a body in a skip. And Eve is seriously avoiding telling Chastity who her father is.

So, where did the body parts come from? Who stole the jewels, and what is Sister Immaculata hiding? Can Eve finally make a choice between Adam and Quinn? And who are the mysterious people hanging around the school at night? Eve falls out with Chastity, meets some fairly creepy people and avoids death in three car accidents in which she is deliberately targeted.

While I will never look at body art quite the same way again, I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and have added the first in the series to my reading list. Who knew that investigating crime could be so complicated and so full of laugh out loud moments? Poor Eve, I do hope that her hair grows back:

‘ […]my hair had been singed so badly I’d had to shave it off so that I now resembled an orange bog brush.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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Unforgiven by Sarah Barrie

Publication date: 1 December 2021

‘There’s nothing fragile about who I am.’

Meet Lexi Winter. She’s a survivor: once a victim of notorious paedophile ‘The Spider’, now a vigilante looking to protect other children. Lexi earns some money as a sex worker and knows that she should drink less. But her main focus is on tracking down paedophiles and ensuring that the police know about them.  Lexi helps her sister Bailee, a child protection officer, by checking out people they suspect might be abusing children. There’s one offender she’s keen to have put away but her usual methods don’t work to capture the evidence needed. And when Lexi tries to gather evidence from his home, she becomes a witness to his death.

Eighteen years ago, Detective Inspector Rachael Langley cracked the Spider case. But she failed to save Lexi, and lives with her regret. As the Spider languishes in gaol, another man (claiming to be the real Spider) comes to the attention of police. A girl is found murdered, using the Spider’s signature positioning. Is he the real Spider, or a copycat? Some of Rachael’s colleagues think she may have made a mistake 18 years ago, and the media are keen for answers.

I really enjoyed this novel. Lexi is a terrific character as is Rachael. And Lexi’s neighbour Dawny is, well, a very rough (and helpful) diamond. There’s a twist near the end that didn’t quite work for me, but the story held my attention from beginning to end. There are some terrific secondary characters as well, and I would really love to read another novel (or more) featuring Lexi and Rachael.

Recommended.

‘Don’t think of it as leading, think of it as finishing.’

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

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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My father the murderer: a reckoning with the past by Nina Young and Denise Young

 ‘Was it even possible to truly know who you are if you didn’t understand where you came from?’

This is Nina Young’s story, of an uncomfortable search for the truth about her estranged father, Allan Ladd. This is also Denise Young’s story, about how she became involved with Allan Ladd, why she left him and the challenges afterwards.

This book arose out of a six-part podcast series in which Nina told her story. But as Nina writes, the podcast did not answer everything. The book came about, in Nina’s words ‘… as a way for us [Nina and Denise] to bond as we searched for the last pieces of the emotional puzzle that is our lives.’

The chapters of the book alternate between Nina and Denise. Nina writes of her shock at discovering that her father had strangled a woman to death, Denise writes of how she fell in love with Allan while working as a tutor at the gaol in which he was imprisoned. Denise fled from Allan when Nina was very young and worked hard to establish a new life. But Allan cast a long shadow over their lives: another murder, a half-brother who needed a home. Nina’s search for truth was uncomfortable and confronting, Denise found the process difficult and liberating. The two of them became closer as a consequence.

This is a well-written and moving account of what must have been a very difficult journey for both women. Denise may have been reluctant to revisit the past, but she found the courage to do so. And Nina? What a complicated story she had to unpack. Learning that your father was a murderer would be challenging enough, but to search through the past for the truth, to find the details must have been overwhelming.

A courageous journey by both women, through a past full of psychological minefields, hopefully to a more comfortable future.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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The Shadow House by Anna Downes

‘There was nothing better than a fresh start.’

Alex flees from an abusive relationship with her two children: teenaged son Ollie and baby daughter Kara. She moves from Sydney to Pine Ridge, an ecovillage fifty kilometres north-east of the NSW Central Coast’s suburban sprawl. Alex has three months to decide whether life at Pine Ridge is right for her and her family and initially she thinks it is perfect.

But not everyone is as welcoming as Kit, the founder of the ecovillage, and some unsettling events shake Alex.

‘The bones come first. A gift, but nothing wanted. Next, a doll: a likeness, a promise. And the blood marks the choice. It finds a face and then you know.’

There is an abandoned farmhouse on the hill opposite the village, with a history. The family who used to live there lost a child: their son went missing. There is a rumour now that the house is haunted.

The story shifts between Alex in the present and Renee, the mother whose son went missing from the farmhouse. Alex is drawn to the farmhouse, to try to uncover its history. It seems that someone wants to drive her out of the ecovillage, and she is very tempted to leave. But Alex realises that she cannot keep running from uncomfortable decisions: her children need certainty and continuity.

‘Create the life you want.’

An unsettling read with a few twists I did see coming, and a few I did not. If you enjoy twisty thrillers, I can recommend this.

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

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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The Monster of Her Age by Danielle Binks

‘Growing up, Lottie looked just the same to me as she did in the movies.’

Ellie Marsden has returned home, to Hobart, because her grandmother Lottie Lovinger is dying. Can Ellie make peace with her grandmother? Ellie is seventeen now, but she is still living with the trauma of her movie appearance with Lottie as a child.

‘Sadness has stages.’

As we wait with Ellie, as her grandmother lies in hospital, we learn about the infamous Lovinger dynasty. Their home in Battery Point is on the tourist trail, and every few hours a bus load of tourists is treated to a potted history of the Lovinger thespian fame. And Ellie, cast as a monster in the horror movie with Lottie, bullied at school and angry with both her mother and her grandmother is trying to separate person from deed. Ellie’s mother, Lottie’s ex-husbands, Ellie’s cousin Yael are some of the people who have gathered at Lovinger House.

Ellie meets Riya, who invites her to a meeting of a feminist film horror film collective. Ellie starts to look at horror movies through different eyes, questioning some of what she had come to believe. And she and Riya find their own space.

Ms Binks has set this novel in a fictional Australian film industry, one in which Australian film stars were successful without needing to flee to Hollywood. In this world, Lottie Lovinger is a big star, known and respected locally. Ellie comes to appreciate that her grandmother and the film star had separate identities (albeit with a degree of overlap).

There are some delightful characters in this novel, including several from diverse backgrounds. I enjoyed the way that Ms Binks drew the different elements (and people) together.

I enjoyed this novel and am looking forward to reading ‘The Year the Maps Changed’.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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The Shut Ins by Katherine Brabon

‘It is possible to create a whole hypothetical life of mistakes and consequences.’

The story unfolds over four notes, interconnecting the lives of four people, shared with us by the narrator:

‘I was in Japan alone when the story of Mai Takeda came to me. I don’t know where she is now—others’ stories only rest with us for a short time—so this is all I know from less than one year of her life.’

Mai and Hikaru went to school together in the Japanese city of Nagoya. Mai was one of the few people friendly with Hikaru, but she lost contact with him. Hikaru disappeared when they were eighteen. Ten years later and recently married, Mai runs into Hikaru’s mother, Hiromi. Mai learns that Hikaru has become a hikikomori, has withdrawn from society and has been unable to leave his bedroom for some years. Hiromi hires Mai to write to Hikaru, to encourage him to leave his room. Mai herself is struggling with the expectations of her husband and parents. And then Mai disappears.

‘Questions remained and they stalked me: is there no other side, is there no other way to live a life?’

The first note, from Winter to Spring 2014 is about Mai. The second note, from Spring to Summer 2014 is about Sadako. Sadako is a hostess, paid by Mai’s husband to serve him. He talks to her about Mai, about his discontent. The third note is about Hiromi, about the guilt and despair she feels that Hikaru will not leave his room. And it all becomes complicated when Hiromi needs to take care of her elderly mother in another city.

‘What god could comprehend this profoundly modern situation in which a grown child has moved as if back into the womb?’

And in the fourth note, we finally hear from Hiraku.

This is an intriguing novel, taking us through different reactions to the weight of expectations. Hiraku retreats from the world early: difference is neither desired nor accepted. Sadako gives us some insight into Mai’s husband’s requirements, while Hiromi bears the weight of Hiraku’s failure. Mai knows she cannot meet the expectations of her husband and parents, and she also disappears.

There is no neat ending to this story/these stories, just a reminder that roles for these four people are rigid and non-compliance with societal expectations is deemed failure. I can understand the desire to withdraw, to disappear rather than try to fit in. But is it ever possible to be completely separate from society? Hiraku may choose to stay in his room, but his mother still arranges his food and to wash his clothing.

An unusual novel, full of issues to contemplate.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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Reasonable Doubt  by Dr Xanthé Mallett

‘The effects of wrongful convictions impact us all.’

Dr Xanthé Mallett is a forensic scientist and criminologist who has been based in Sydney since 2013. In this book, she looks at six specific cases where justice has failed. In five cases, men have been convicted of murder and have served time in prison. In each of these cases, there was a miscarriage of justice. I think that the most important points Dr Mallett makes are that miscarriages of justice can take many forms, and the criminal justice system does not always deliver justice.

‘We mostly forget about the wrongly accused and convicted when we think about victims of crime, but in this book I want to highlight some of their stories, because if it could happen to them it could happen to anybody.’

Staying with the first five cases, Dr Mallett demonstrates how the criminal justice system failed in each case. From false confessions and poor police work to contaminated evidence, from unreliable eyewitness accounts to dubious expert advice: there are many causes of failure. There are expert inserts included which provide additional information about legal procedures and forensic evidence. In two of the cases, involving an Aboriginal man and a man of Ethiopian heritage, racism seems to be a factor. Assumptions feed sloppy policework in one case, witness misidentification based on race seems a factor in the other.

Reading through each of these first five cases: Wayne Butler; Kevin Condren; Andrew Mallard; Henry Keogh and Khalid Baker is an eye-opener. I wondered how any of these men could have been convicted (found guilty beyond reasonable doubt) based on the information presented to the court. And then I remembered that what I was reading and what the jury had available to them were not the same.

The sixth case Dr Mallett covers is very different. This is the case of the infamous Lawyer X, Nicola Gobbo. This woman defended many of the criminals involved in Melbourne’s gangland war. While she was defending them, she was feeding information to the police about their criminal activities. She may also have been feeding information back to her clients about police activities. And so, it would seem that at least some of Ms Gobbo’s clients were denied a fair trial. Sigh. At least one client, Tony Mokbel, has appealed against his conviction. The implications for the Victoria Police Force are huge, and undoubtedly Ms Gobbo will be looking over her shoulder for the rest of her life.

I found this book disturbing, informative and thought-provoking and would recommend it to anyone interested in criminal justice.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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Cutters End by Margaret Hickey

 ‘He wasn’t coming back.’

On New Year’s Eve, 1989, near Cutters End in South Australia, a body is discovered near a fire damaged car. Michael Denby’s body had burns and a broken leg. A finding of accidental death was made.

But thirty-two years later, the case is reopened. Several people, including a high-profile celebrity for whom Michael Denby was a hero, believe that he was murdered. In July 2021, Acting Inspector Mark Ariti is seconded to the case. He knows some of the witnesses from 1989. After interviewing those he can from the old case files, Ariti travels to Cutters End. Ariti works with local Senior Constable Jagdeep Kaur and soon discovers that there are other unsolved cases linked to Cutters End.

During their investigation Ariti and Kaur find some new information which seems to demonstrate that Michael Denby was not the hero some thought him to be. And in the background, Ariti has some domestic issues to deal with.

So, what really happened to Michael Denby? And what other secrets are being held by both other locals and witnesses?

I enjoyed this novel. I thought I had the mystery worked out, and then a twist took me by surprise. Ms Hickey has created a remote rural setting in which I could feel both the heat and the wretched flies. I enjoyed Senior Constable Jagdeep Kaur and her diligent police work and wondered whether Acting Inspector Mark Ariti would be able to move beyond the domestic issues that are troubling him.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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An Alice Girl by Tanya Heaslip

‘Who will I be, if I’m not here, on this land, under these skies?’

This is Tanya Heaslip’s memoir of childhood, about growing up in Australia’s remote outback during the 1960s and 1970s. Tanya was the eldest of Grant and Janice Heaslip’s four children, and with her siblings M’Lis, Brett and Benny, grew up on remote cattle stations in the Northern Territory. This memoir ends when Tanya went to boarding school aged 12.

The Heaslips were hardworking pioneers who developed Bond Springs Station in an environment where water is scarce, the temperature can exceed 45 degrees Celsius in summer, and everything from visiting neighbours to obtaining supplies requires considerable travel.

The children grew up with schooling provided by governesses and through The School of the Air. Tanya loved her lessons (except for maths) and schooling was often fitted around the demands of the cattle station. Janice ran the household, keeping family and stockmen fed, while Grant managed the property.

For me, as a city dweller who needs green spaces and access to rivers and the ocean, living in Australia’s hot interior is almost unimaginable. I admire those who do and enjoyed reading Tanya’s memories of growing up. The children grew up together, playing, looking out for each other, and helping their father with the cattle droving and mustering.

I learned more about The School of the Air, and of Adelaide Miethke’s role in its establishment. I read about the challenges involved in remote learning and the shyness of children who rarely saw anyone outside their own family. I finished the book full of admiration for Janice and Grant Heaslip, and keen to find out what happened next in Tanya’s life.

‘I will go away and live in the other places I’ve read about in my beloved books. I will do exciting things. Then, one day, I will write about this life and the land, so it’s always with me forever.’

Highly recommended.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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