The Second Son by Loraine Peck

To be published 2/2/2021

 The price of loyalty.

Ivan Novak was putting out his garbage bins one evening in Sydney’s west, when he was shot dead.  His father, Milan, leader of a criminal gang, wants revenge.  Milan is sure that Ivan was murdered by a rival gang, and revenge is a job for Ivan’s younger brother, Johnny.

There is plenty of tension between the various ethnic gangs in western Sydney.  Old fears and suspicions, together with the trauma of war, have accompanied those who have fled in their former homelands.

While Johnny is part of the gang his father leads, he is torn between his loyalty to his Croatian heritage and his love for his wife Amy and their son Sasha.  Amy wants the three of them to break free from this wave of violence, of attack and retribution.  She moves temporarily with Sasha to the home of her parents.  The violence escalates and others become involved. 

Johnny wants to be with Amy and Sasha, but he also wants to prove himself to his father.  Johnny has a plan which just may enable him to meet the expectations of both.  In the meantime, can he keep his family safe?

In this fast-paced debut novel, Ms Peck explores the causes and consequences of ethnic gang violence as well as conflicting loyalties.  There are a couple of twists which help sustain the suspense.  And the outcome?  Well, we can hope for a violence-free future …

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

Jennifer Cameron-Smith



Under a Full Moon: The Last Lynching in Kansas by Alice Kay Hill

 ‘I don’t have a plan.  Each step seems to follow the one before.’

This book is presented as a true crime history: the shocking murder of an eight-year-old girl in 1932 which led to the last mob lynching in Prohibition Era Kansas.  While this murder is part of the book, it is more widely a history of Kansas from the late nineteenth century told through the lives of several different families, starting in 1881.

I was interested to read that the impetus for writing this book, which took Ms Hill sixteen years around her other life commitments, was the restoration of the 1907 Shirley Opera House in Atwood, Kansas.  Ms Hill and her husband bought the Shirley Opera House in 2003, and research into its history led Ms Hill to a reference to the Owl Café, a business within the building in the 1930s.  The Owl Café was the last place eight-year-old Dorothy Parker was seen alive.

In April 1932, Dorothy Parker was abducted while walking home from school.  Her body was later found hidden in a haystack.  A local farmer, Richard Read, confessed to Dorothy’s rape and murder.  A mob removed him from his jail cell and hanged him.

Those are the bare bones around which Ms Hill constructs a narrative, starting in 1881 two years after Pleasant Richardson Read (Richard) was born. 

I struggled with parts of this narrative: I am ambivalent about having Richard Read narrate (in first person) part of the story.  On one hand, we cannot know what he was thinking, on the other hand it served to describe some of the challenges of homesteading in Kansas during this period.  For me, this book works better as an account of life of several families in Kansas between 1881 and 1932 than it does as an account of Dorothy Parker’s murder.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter (The Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club #1) by Theodora Goss

‘Mary Jekyll stared down at her mother’s coffin.’

Now that her mother has died, Mary Jekyll faces ruin.  Her mother’s income was endowed, and now Mary is alone and penniless.  As Mary deals with her mother’s estate, she finds a reference to money being paid for the upkeep of ‘Hyde’.  Could this be a reference to Edward Hyde, once her father’s friend, and an escaped murderer?  If it is, there is a reward for information leading to his capture.  Mary immediately consults Sherlock Holmes.

And this begins a story which, while it starts slowly, becomes engrossing in a fantastical way. Mary’s search for Hyde leads her to Hyde’s daughter, Diana.  Diana becomes part of Mary’s household and the search continues.  At the same time, women are being murdered in Whitechapel …

‘I have paused to show you Mary staring into the mirror because this is a story about monsters.’

Mary’s search continues, and her household grows.  Meet Beatrice Rappacini, Catherine Moreau and Justine Frankenstein and learn their stories.  Together with Holmes and Watson, they will discover a secret society of scientists dedicated to creating monsters.  Can they be stopped?  And what about the women being murdered in Whitechapel?

‘What was the use of propriety when it kept one from getting things done?’

It took me a while to get into this story but once I did, I enjoyed the flow of it and the interactions between the various characters.  And their adventures continue: there are (at least) two more books in the series.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Shiver by Allie Reynolds

To be published later this month.

‘It’s that time of year again.  The time the glacier gives up bodies.’

After ten years apart, five friends reunite at a resort in the French Alps.  Last time they were together, Milla was at the peak of her snowboarding career.  Last time they were together, Saskia, one of their friends, disappeared.  She has not been seen since. Milla would prefer to forget the events of that winter, but the invitation from Curtis intrigues her. 

The friends arrive: Curtis, Milla, Brent, Dale, and Heather.  But what is going on?  No-one admits to sending the invitations, the resort is deserted, and the weather is about to turn ugly.

Five people, mistrustful of each other, confined within the resort.  It is too dangerous to leave and, it soon becomes apparent, too dangerous to stay.  Who can Milla trust?  Who invited the friends to the resort, and what really happened ten years ago?  Six friends, ten years ago, until Saskia went missing.  All professional snowboarders.  Close but competitive.  Supporting each other, but always looking for a competitive edge.  And now, isolated in the French Alps, it seems that someone wants revenge.  But who, and for what?

Ms Reynolds, herself once a freestyle snowboarder, has written a very impressive debut novel.  There is plenty of suspense to keep you turning the pages.

Highly recommended.

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

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Against the Loveless World by Susan Abulhawa

‘My life returns to me in images, smells and sounds, but never feelings.  I feel nothing.’

We meet Nahr in ‘The Cube’, a high technology Israeli prison where Nahr is in solitary confinement. Incarcerated in a cell under constant surveillance, Nahr narrates her story. She is a child of a family displaced in the Palestinian exodus of 1948 (the Nakba), a family that fled to Kuwait.

‘Palestinians learned the first time in 1948 that leaving to save your life meant you would lose everything and could never go back.’

Nahr receives some visitors in her cell, mostly journalists who are less interested in Nahr’s story than they are in confirming their own views.  The past serves only to reinforce their fears.  But these visits take Nahr (and us) from the present into her story.

Nahr grew up in a Palestinian ghetto in Kuwait.  She, her mother, grandmother, and her brother Jehad form a family unit.  Her father is absent, requiring Nahr to become the family breadwinner.   She is responsible for earning enough money to support her brother’s education.  A young woman, who dreamt of marriage and children, of perhaps having her own beauty shop, Nahr has few choices when it comes to earning money.  She is led into prostitution by Um Buraq, and into a double identity.

This a complex, layered story.  Nahr’s life changes after Iraq invades Kuwait.  Another move, another change for Nahr.  All choices, it seems, are dangerous.  A failed marriage, a search for family roots, delving into Palestinian politics.  Nahr’s brother joins the resistance.  He is arrested, tortured, and released after Nahr pays.  The family decides to leave for Jordan.  Can Nahr find a place to belong?  And how will Nahr know? Her mother embroiders caftans, her brother encourages her to visit Palestine.

I found this a challenging novel to read: difficult because of the subject matter and heartbreaking because it is difficult to see the situation improving for Palestinian refugees.  The reality of displacement and dispossession is confronting and uncomfortable. 

‘To be committed is to be in danger.  I have never forgotten those words.’

In Nahr, Ms Abulhawa provides a complex character telling a thought-provoking story.

Highly recommended.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

2020: The Year That Changed Us by Molly Glassey (Editor)

Moving on ….

This book edited by Molly Glassey, includes fifty essays which provide a six part look at 2020 and at what might happen next.

Most of us will remember the bushfires that saw out 2019 and saw in 2020.  Many of those who lost their homes are still waiting to have those homes rebuilt. And after the bushfires some of us experienced hailstorms, and then others were flooded.  Before we could catch our collective breath, the COVID-19 pandemic struck.

Here we are in 2021, the COVID-19 pandemic continues.  There has been a global recession, political turmoil, and several other disasters.  Life (for those of us fortunate enough to be alive) has changed.  International travel is a distant dream (or a nightmare, depending on your viewpoint), mask-wearing and social distancing are part of life.

These fifty essays, from contributors to ‘The Conversation’ examine 2020 and start discussion about what might happen next.

The contributors include: Michelle Grattan, Peter Martin, Raina MacIntyre, Joëlle Gergis, Peter Greste, Thalia Anthony, Shino Konishi, Fiona Stanley, Benjamin Scheele, Jacinta Koolmatrie, Susan Carland, Geoff Plimmer.

While I found all the essays valuable, I was most interested in Part III ‘The New World’.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith



2028 by Ken Saunders

‘Well, Prime Minister … it’s the Luddites.’

Fast forward to Australia, 2028.  It’s not far away …  Picture parking meters as poker machines, virtual (instead of actual) radio shock-jocks … ASIO surveillance of a Charles Dickens Reading Group at Low Expectations, and the Communist Party of China as a multinational corporation.

Prime Minister Adrian Fitzwilliams’s finely honed political instincts tell him that now is the time to call a snap election. Will he ever have another opportunity like this?  His cabinet team is barely adequate, which is as good as it gets, the doctors have finally stopped protesting about the GP changes and (perhaps best of all) the Australian Greens are in receivership.  Winning the election should be a lay down misère.  In the absence of any organised credible opposition, what could possibly go wrong?

Meet the Luddites. The Luddites have their own rules.  They have no virtual presence (no website, no social media) they use carrier pigeons to communicate, and all their candidates are called Ned Ludd.  Yes, they have changed their names by deed poll, and they intend to run a candidate in every seat.

And somehow, they are a step ahead of the government at every turn. Policy announcements, nude protests, clever use of media.

I laughed my way through this novel, enjoying the fictional chaos and trying hard not to see any real parallels in current politics.  Great satire, and just what I needed.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith


No, Twitter is not censoring Donald Trump. Free speech is not guaranteed if it harms others (from The Conversation)

Alex Brandon/AP

Katharine Gelber, The University of Queensland

The recent storming of the US Capitol has led a number of social media platforms to remove President Donald Trump’s account. In the case of Twitter, the ban is permanent. Others, like Facebook, have taken him offline until after President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration next week.

This has led to a flurry of commentary in the Australian media about “free speech”. Treasurer Josh Frydenburg has said he is “uncomfortable” with Twitter’s removal of Trump, while the acting prime minister, Michael McCormack, has described it as “censorship”.

Meanwhile, MPs like Craig Kelly and George Christensen continue to ignore the evidence and promote misinformation about the nature of the violent, pro-Trump mob that attacked the Capitol.

A growing number of MPs are also reportedly calling for consistent and transparent rules to be applied by online platforms in a bid to combat hate speech and other types of harmful speech.

Some have conflated this effort with the restrictions on Trump’s social media usage, as though both of these issues reflect the same problem.

Much of this commentary is misguided, wrong and confusing. So let’s pull it apart a bit.

There is no free speech “right” to incite violence

There is no free speech argument in existence that suggests an incitement of lawlessness and violence is protected speech.

Quite to the contrary. Nineteenth century free speech proponent John Stuart Mill argued the sole reason one’s liberty may be interfered with (including restrictions on free speech) is “self-protection” — in other words, to protect people from harm or violence.

Read more: Parler: what you need to know about the ‘free speech’ Twitter alternative

Additionally, incitement to violence is a criminal offence in all liberal democratic orders. There is an obvious reason for this: violence is harmful. It harms those who are immediately targeted (five people died in the riots last week) and those who are intimidated as a result of the violence to take action or speak up against it.

It also harms the institutions of democracy themselves, which rely on elections rather than civil wars and a peaceful transfer of power.

To suggest taking action against speech that incites violence is “censoring” the speaker is completely misleading.

There is no free speech “right” to appear on a particular platform

There is also no free speech argument that guarantees any citizen the right to express their views on a specific platform.

It is ludicrous to suggest there is. If this “right” were to exist, it would mean any citizen could demand to have their opinions aired on the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald and, if refused, claim their free speech had been violated.

Read more: Trump’s Twitter tantrum may wreck the internet

What does exist is a general right to express oneself in public discourse, relatively free from regulation, as long as one’s speech does not harm others.

Trump still possesses this right. He has a podium in the West Wing designed for this specific purpose, which he can make use of at any time.

Were he to do so, the media would cover what he says, just as they covered his comments prior to, during and immediately after the riots. This included him telling the rioters that he loved them and that they were “very special”.

Trump told his supporters before the Capitol was overrun: ‘if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore’. Jacquelyn Martin/AP

Does the fact he’s the president change this?

In many free speech arguments, political speech is accorded a higher level of protection than other forms of speech (such as commercial speech, for example). Does the fact this debate concerns the president of the United States change things?

No, it does not. There is no doubt Trump has been given considerable leeway in his public commentary prior to — and during the course of — his presidency. However, he has now crossed a line into stoking imminent lawlessness and violence.

This cannot be protected speech just because it is “political”. If this was the case, it would suggest the free speech of political elites can and should have no limits at all.

Yet, in all liberal democracies – even the United States which has the strongest free speech protection in the world – free speech has limits. These include the incitement of violence and crime.

Are social media platforms over-censoring?

The last decade or so has seen a vigorous debate over the attitudes and responses of social media platforms to harmful speech.

The big tech companies have staunchly resisted being asked to regulate speech, especially political speech, on their platforms. They have enjoyed the profits of their business model, while specific types of users – typically the marginalised – have borne the costs.

However, platforms have recently started to respond to demands and public pressure to address the harms of the speech they facilitate – from countering violent extremism to fake accounts, misinformation, revenge porn and hate speech.

They have developed community standards for content moderation that are publicly available. They release regular reports on their content moderation processes.

Facebook has even created an independent oversight board to arbitrate disputes over their decision making on content moderation.

They do not always do very well at this. One of the core problems is their desire to create algorithms and policies that are applicable universally across their global operations. But such a thing is impossible when it comes to free speech. Context matters in determining whether and under what circumstances speech can harm. This means they make mistakes.

Read more: Why the business model of social media giants like Facebook is incompatible with human rights

Where to now?

The calls by MPs Anne Webster and Sharon Claydon to address hate speech online are important. They are part of the broader push internationally to find ways to ensure the benefits of the internet can be enjoyed more equally, and that a person’s speech does not silence or harm others.

Arguments about harm are longstanding, and have been widely accepted globally as forming a legitimate basis for intervention.

But the suggestion Trump has been censored is simply wrong. It misleads the public into believing all “free speech” claims have equal merit. They do not.

We must work to ensure harmful speech is regulated in order to ensure broad participation in the public discourse that is essential to our lives — and to our democracy. Anything less is an abandonment of the principles and ethics of governance.

Katharine Gelber, Professor of Politics and Public Policy, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Before I Saw You by Emily Houghton

‘Who was the girl hidden behind the curtain?’

Alfie Mack has been on the Moira Gladstone (rehabilitation) ward at St Francis’s hospital in London for some weeks.  His left leg was amputated after an accident, and he is undertaking extensive physiotherapy.  There are other patients on the ward as well, and Alfie does his best to fill in the time around his physiotherapy sessions by keeping them amused.  But Alfie’s life changes when a new patient is moved into the bed next to him.  Alice Gunnersley has been so severely burned that she cannot look at herself and does not want others looking at her either.  Alice has not spoken a word since she was admitted to hospital.  The curtains around Alice’s bed are kept firmly closed.  Alfie cannot imagine someone being silent for so long, and he is sure that being on the Moira Gladstone ward will make a difference. Why?  Because people stay on the Moira Gladstone ward to recuperate, and over time (in his experience) they become family.

But Alice has always valued solitude, and she is deeply traumatized.

The story shifts between Alfie and Alice, between past and present.  Alfie talks to Alice through the curtains and slowly she responds. Alfie has his own fears, as the time for him to re-join the outside world comes closer.  And their most intense conversations occur at night when insomnia and nightmares intrude.  Alfie has his fears but is mainly positive.  Alice is hoping that surgery will provide her with a face she can be seen with.

Ms Houghton has developed her two main characters and their concerns well.  At different times, the story is bleak, heartbreaking, and sad.  But there are also flashes of humour, and hope.

‘Our scars are simply the marks of our stories.  They show we’ve lived our life, and most of all that we have survived it.’

This is Ms Houghton’s debut novel.  I became so caught up in the story that wanted more: what will happen next?

Note: My thanks to NetGalley and Random House UK, Transworld Publishers for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes. 

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Killing Sydney by Elizabeth Farrelly

‘Sydney’s not full.  And it’s not failing because of density.’

‘It’s just fed up with too much development too fast and too close, development that is ugly, greedy, undercontrolled and importunate.’

I read this book because, while I have never lived in Sydney, I have spent quite a bit of time there both personally and professionally.  I spent some time in the beautiful Education Department building in Bridge Street in the early 1980s (since sold by the NSW government) and in other buildings around the CBD.  I have enjoyed walking around the inner city especially Surry Hills and Potts Point.  But these days, my visits are occasional (for medical reasons or cultural purposes) and more often my rare trips terminate in what the real estate world now calls ‘Outer South Western Sydney’ (around Tahmoor and Picton). 

Walking around the centre of Sydney or catching the train (during non-peak times) is enjoyable.  Trying to drive around in Sydney or using public transport during peak times is horrific.  To me, Sydney looks full.  How can Sydney accommodate more people?  This is the question I kept in my mind as I read Ms Farrelly’s book.

From reading this book (and from my own observations) too much of the development is driven by profit: short-term profit by government as public assets are exchanged for money; and longer-term profit by developers fitting as much income-generating activity into as little space as possible.  And the people?  For me, that is the heart of Ms Farrell’s message.  Most of the development or redevelopment disregards what people want or need.  Especially people on low incomes.  And what about the people whose lives have been disrupted by WestConnex?

If cities are meant to be about and for people, then people’s views should be considered.  Ms Farelly mentions the newDemocracy model.  I was fortunate enough to be part of the group selected to look at Housing Choices in the ACT, and I think that the process followed there was a good example of citizen involvement.   I am one of those people, Ms Farrelly, who lives in and likes Canberra.  And Canberra has problems of its own: travel can be problematic for those without access to a car, especially in the more remote suburbs.  But development in Sydney troubles me more.  The endless urban sprawl, the impact (on the environment and on people’s health) of the commuting between home and work, the reclamation of public space for private development.

Ms Farrelly raises several important questions in this book If you have an interest in Sydney, if you care about cities meeting the needs of their inhabitants, then I recommend reading this book.  The issues raised by Ms Farrelly apply to all large cities.

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

Jennifer Cameron-Smith