2012 REVIEWS AUSTRALIAN WOMEN WRITERS #1

A STRANGER IN MY STREET
Author: Deborah Burrows
Macmillan Australia RRP $27.99
Review: Monique Mulligan

A Stranger in My StreetAn enjoyable debut from lawyer/writer Deborah Burrows, A Stranger in my Street blends a murder mystery with wartime romance in 1940’s Perth, making for interesting reading on a number of fronts.

The story starts in January 1943 when Australia is at war. Perth is buzzing because US troops have permanently docked in the city, bringing money, accents like movie stars, smart tailored uniforms and good manners. What’s more, they love to dance and show a girl a good time, and young women are throwing caution to the wind and pushing social boundaries with their behaviour. But while Perth women are having the time of their lives, the local men are bitter about the “American occupation”.

Until now, twenty-something Meg Eaton has remained indifferent. After all, the war has brought her nothing but heartbreak, stealing her young love 18 months ago. But when she meets her lost lover’s brother, Tom Lagrange – standing over the dead body of her neighbour, Doreen Lucas – things change fast. Suddenly, at Tom’s request, Meg finds herself embroiled in the murder mystery and with the Americans in the city’s dance halls. And Tom seems to be hanging around a lot. But what secrets are behind his mask? Who killed Doreen? And why was Tom in Doreen’s backyard?

As I read this, what intrigued me the most was Burrow’s description of wartime Perth. I grew up in Sydney and have lived in Perth for more than 10 years, but I know little about Perth’s history. Burrows has put considerable effort into researching the history of the the town, encapsulating the atmosphere with authenticity. This insight to my now hometown was interesting and engaging for me because of my familiarity with the city. It might make some people re-think the unfortunate “Dullsville” tag – clearly Perth has a history brimming with good stories.

The story line is well paced and once I drew near the end, I found I did not want to stop reading…this meant another late night for me, but it was worth it. Burrows has tied together a number of plot twists – murder, drug abuse, love triangles – and hooked them to the racial prejudices, stereotypes and social change that typified Perth (and Australia) in the 1940’s in a clever and realistic way. Her own voice, her questions about these social attitudes, flow through the character of Meg, who tries to rise above stereotypes and gossip; she is naive in some ways, and yet rejects common beliefs like “all Italians are hot-blooded; all Jews are profiteers…”

Meg is an intelligent and likeable character and the reader is drawn to her, hoping that she will find happiness and healing. She contrasts well with her more flighty friends; the reader is empowered to like her strength of character. Her complicated relationship with Tom (she’s still grieving for his brother, he’s engaged) adds interest but does not detract from the murder-mystery aspect of the story. That said, as I became more familiar with Tom’s broken character, I hoped the two would help each other heal. As for the ending, you’ll have to read it for yourself. I’ll only say that it was realistic – it’s not a simple Hollywood “happily ever after”.

For a first novel, Burrows can hold her head high. It’s well written, well researched and deserves a big “well done”.

This copy was courtesy of Pan Macmillan Australia.


SCARED YET?
Author: Jaye Ford
Bantam Australia RRP $32.95
Review: Monique Mulligan

Scared Yet? A sticker on the front cover of Scared Yet? promises that this will be a “stellar read”. Does it deliver? If edge-of-your-seat psychological thrillers are your thing, it certainly does.

The story centres around recently separated single mother Livia Prescott, who is, to put it mildly, having a bad year. Her husband has left her for another woman, her father is dying, she only gets to see her son every second week, and her business is floundering. When she is attacked in the car park next to her work, she is primed for a fight; afterwards, the media hail her bravery. Is she scared? A little shaken perhaps, but she’s dealing with worse things in her life.

It’s only when menacing notes start to appear that Liv starts to question her inner strength. Who is responsible? Is it a stranger or someone she knows? Suddenly everyone is a suspect. And when her son and friends are drawn into the stalker’s focus, scared is very much what she feels. Will her fighting spirit, nurtured from childhood by her boxer father, re-emerge?

Are you scared yet, Livia?

Scared Yet? is author Jaye Ford’s second novel. Her first, Beyond Fear, was a cracker, so I expected good things from Ford. I wasn’t disappointed. Ford wastes no time in making things happen in Scared Yet?, resulting in a fast-paced read chock-full of tension. Liv is a strong, practical and likeable character who is developed through the events, rather than in the lead-up to events; her circumstances can easily be related to, meaning that she attracts strong reader sympathy throughout. The reader wants her to fight and win.

Ford’s intention is to keep readers guessing until the very end and for the most part her attention to plot detail worked well. I had my suspicions early on so I wasn’t entirely surprised by the outcome, however, at times my suspicions were directed elsewhere. The art of misdirection was aptly demonstrated, which is a credit to the writer.

If you’re looking for a good thriller that will keep you up at night, look no further. Just as Liv was kept on her toes, so the reader will be.

Scared Yet? is available from good bookshops and Random House. This copy was courtesy of Random House Australia.


IN FALLING SNOW
Author: Mary-Rose MacColl
Allen & Unwin RRP $29.99
Review: Monique Mulligan

In Falling SnowFrom the delightful cover to the story within, In Falling Snow is a beautiful book that is testament to author Mary-Rose MacColl’s painstaking research and flair for drawing out a memorable tale.

“Whenever I contemplate my coming death, which I can still do without anxiety- it remains theoretical even now I suppose – I know there is one task left undone.” – Iris.

Iris is getting old. A widow, her days are spent living quietly and worrying about her granddaughter, Grace, a headstrong young doctor. When an invitation arrives for a sixty-year reunion of the Scottish Women of Royamount in France, the place where she served in a field hospital during World War I, her past awakens as if from a deep slumber. As she sits on steps, teacup in hand, she contemplates “the likelihood of death or travel”. Her mind drifts to the day she met the charismatic Miss Ivens, who is setting up the hospital in France; although Iris is in France to find her 15-year-old brother Tom, who has signed up for the British Army despite being underage, she is persuaded to stay at Royamount. It’s a decision which proves life-changing in many ways.

Before long, the hospital becomes home for Iris; away from her home in Australia, away from her fiancé and father, she finally comes of age, discovering her confidence, capability and strength. In a hospital exclusively staffed by women, she comes to see that women are capable of many things and that perhaps there is a future in medicine for her too – and not just as a doctor’s wife. Her limited view of the world expands through her experiences and the people she meets, including the vivacious Violet Heron. So why does she leave after three years without contacting any one at Royamount again?

Iris’s character develops beautifully as her voice shifts from the past to present – here is a frail woman approaching her last days, drifting in and out of a state of forgetfulness and heightened recall. Her granddaughter Grace’s voice weaves in and out of Iris’s story as a “voice of reason”; Grace is concerned about Iris’s plan to travel to France, fearing it will be too much for her. And yet, she can’t resist the chance to find out more about Iris’s past.

Grace is an obstetrician – unlike Iris, she followed her inclination to work in medicine, but she’s still fighting to fit into a man’s world (it’s the 1970’s). She juggles motherhood and medicine, often feeling guilty about the amount of time work demands. Guilt is a relatively strong feeling for her – she’s worried that a late-pregnancy fall is the cause of her son’s emerging health issues so puts off tests; yet, she masks any vulnerability with a brusque manner that often gets her in trouble. Initially, I felt that her story was a distraction from Iris’s, but as the dual narrative developed, her story became more and more important.

In Falling Snow is a rich and textural novel for many reasons. It addresses issues of war, changing (and stagnating) gender roles and societal expectations, parenting and ageing in a poignant and insightful manner, offering comparisons that at times showed great contrasts and at others, little change. I was particularly taken with the authentic, vivid description of life at Royamount and the way women stepped up to the challenge without complaint, showing the men they had what it takes … to see the way this was apparently forgotten and women once again relegated to the back seat post-war was a sad reminder that even now, there is more to be done.

While In Falling Snow is a slow read, even complicated, in parts, it’s also a truly fascinating and thought-provoking read. There were moments (one in particular relating to Tom) that left me stunned and shaken – having never lived through a war it’s so hard to really comprehend what it must have felt like, but MacColl paints the picture so well that you feel as if you are there. You begin to see through Iris’s eyes. There were a lot of threads to weave together and I really enjoyed seeing the tapestry of Iris, Grace, Tom and Violet emerge. I did pick the twist early though. Overall, In Falling Snow is a bittersweet, touching novel that ends with an uplifting element of hope. I’ll be reading this one again – I think second time round I’ll love it even more.

Available from good bookstores and Allen & Unwin. This copy was courtesy of Allen & Unwin.