The Secrets We Keep by Shirley Patton

I had the great fortune to be at one of the launches for this debut novel by Australian writer, Shirley Patton. Listening to her discuss the book, while sipping tea, learning that Shirley drew upon her own life and work experiences to write this tale, made me eager to read it and I was not disappointed.

Set in Kalgoorlie during the 1980s, the book centres, initially, on Aimee, a young social worker who relocates from Perth to take up a new role. There she meets not only an assortment of interesting characters: the irrepressible Lori, the kind ex-priest, Paddy, the psychic Agnes and Jack, as well as those who become her clients such as Kerry, Amber, and the dying Paul. But as Aimee becomes part of the close community and learns the secrets they both keep and entrust to her, she finds the ones she harbours harder to bear.

Whether it’s the politics of the day, the deleterious effects of mining, ageing, illness, loss, Indigenous issues and the lengths to which bureaucracy and the PTB go to cover up their intentions and regressions, spiritualism, romance and families, Patton’s tale covers it with aplomb. What I loved best about this book were the bonds forged between the women. So often novels cast women against each other, portraying them as competing – for a man, for recognition, pitting them as competitors, forming toxic relationships. The Secrets We Keep was so refreshing because, while it didn’t shy away from exploring differences and tensions, it examined the complexity and depth of a range of female friendships and relationships and the support, kindness, compromises and sacrifices people can make to ensure they work.

This was a lovely read that also evoked a sense of place as much as character and would appeal to anyone who enjoys a damn good read.

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Book Review: A Knight in Shining Armour by Jude Deveraux

Still on my fiction set in Elizabethan times kick, I wasn’t sure what to make of this book at first. I think the clichéd title worried me. It tells the stA Knight In Shining Armourory of the wonderfully named American, Dougless Montgomery, who is holidaying with her boyfriend (and she hopes, though it becomes rapidly apparent God knows why, soon to be fiancé), Robert, and his precocious and horribly spoilt teenage daughter in England. Meant to be the trip of a lifetime, within pages, things rapidly deteriorate between the couple and flashbacks indicate that Dougless’ dreams of an overseas holiday and a proposal of marriage are far from the reality of her situation or relationship.

Left  stranded in a church in a small village after being accused of all sorts of poor behaviour and intentions, Dougless weeps by the altar of long-dead Earl, bemoaning her situation, revelling in her misery but nonetheless with the optimism that the reader soon learns characterises this increasingly endearing if somewhat feckless young woman.

Lo and behold, a knight in shining armour literally manifests before her and what started out as a story about a grossly mismatched couple turns into a time-travelling tale about a seemingly mis-matched couple. Given little choice but to help this out-of-time Earl, Nicholas Stafford, Dougless learns what she can about his place in history discovering his philandering and generally poor reputation, a reputation that at first appears deserved, but the more time they spend together, the more Dougless realises that history has been unjust to her knight. Determined to help Nicholas change the legacy for which he’s remembered, and to understand why he was accused of the things that destroyed his family name, she discovers a traitor in the Stafford mix – but what use is the knowledge if she can’t alter the outcome?

In order to make a difference, Dougless must take an enormous risk and an extraordinary leap of faith and, lately, her faith in men has been severely compromised. But time with Nicholas has changed Dougless and she is no longer the woman she once was – but even with her new-found strength, can she change the course of history?

And what about her feelings? Will she sacrifice what could be for the sake of cultural memory? These questions and more pepper the second half of the book and make for quite a page-turner.

I have to say, Deveraux has done a grand job of time-travel and romance and not since Diana Gabaldron have I enjoyed the concept so much (Oh, hang on, I also loved The Time Traveller’s Wife, but that was different). Lighter in touch than Gabaldron, Deveraux brings a great deal of humour to the notion of a Sixteenth Century knight in the 1980s and there are some genuine laugh out loud moments, but without compromising tenderness or the core of the story, and still managing to tug at the heart-strings. I also enjoyed the fact that this book didn’t try and do big picture stuff – eg. Quuen Elizabeth and all the huge personalities and figures and plots that surrounded her reign. It really was about Nicholas, Dougless, Robert and intimate relationships – about family, soul-mates, love, compromises and what’s important to sustain feelings. Even so, it does hover around the edges of emotional and psychological abuse and gender subordination within relationships as well, which gives it a depth that enriches the narrative.

Overall, I found this hard to put down and thoroughly enjoyed the historical detail that Deveraux was at pains to present but without spoiling story.

A delightful time-travelling romp for lovers of romance and lighter historical novels.

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