Lake Ginninderra in autumn

I love walking around Lake Ginninderra at any time of the year (well, perhaps not at the height of summer) but the colours of autumn make the walk particularly enjoyable.  The leaves on the deciduous trees have changed colour, and many are falling.  Winter will have its own beauty, but I’ll miss the leaves.

My Hearts are Your Hearts by Carmel Bird

I’m reading a lot of short stories at the moment, and am really enjoying this form of fiction.  Carmel Bird is now officially one of my favourite authors.

My Hearts Are Your Hearts by Carmel Bird

‘Once upon a time.  Listen.’

This book contains twenty new and recently published stories by Carmel Bird.  The stories are about a variety of experiences that are shared between people, but are also unique to each individual.  Those experiences, these matters of the heart, include life and death, fear and loss, love and betrayal and the stories are organised under four headings: ‘Body Parts’, Laws of Love’, ‘Sudden Death’ and ‘Life Saving’.

I have a confession to make.  I’ve fallen in love with Carmel Bird’s short stories, and am reading as many as I can.  I was delighted to pick this book up shortly after reading ‘The Essential Bird’.  While I was partly looking for more stories referencing Tasmania (I wasn’t disappointed), I was also just curious to explore Ms Bird’s latest work, to see how the stories compared to ‘The Essential Bird’.  My conclusion is that the one unifying aspect of Ms Bird’s short stories is that they are each interesting and each clever, albeit in very different ways.

I don’t have a favourite story in this collection, each story has its own appeal.  Some events (such as death, broken marriages) are more common than others.  I was intrigued by the story about the transplanted womb, made uncomfortable by the story about the schoolgirl and the priest, wondered about paying $6,000 for a raincoat.  But each of the stories, entire in itself, could be different.  Could be larger, perhaps, if Ms Bird chose to take it in another direction or into a different dimension.  Each story is perfect as it is, but I felt like each story had another life, somewhere off the page, it could be continued.  There’s a form of magic in the mundane, a believability in what is presented.

At the end of the book, Ms Bird has included comments on the origins and themes of each of the stories.  This allows the reader some insight into Ms Bird’s creative process, and is (for me at least) is fantastic.

‘It has occurred to me that one of the attractions the short story has for me both as a reader and a writer is the ability the form has to provide moments of illumination, to draw together delicate strands of emotion, character, incident, theme, subject – and to do something akin to what a conjurer does with coloured silk handkerchiefs …’

If you enjoy Ms Bird’s writing, if you like short stories (the longest is 26 pages), then this collection is well worth reading.  If you haven’t yet read any of Ms Bird’s fiction, then this might be a good place to start.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith


The Killing Season – Uncut by Sarah Ferguson and Patricia Drum

Gillard versus Rudd versus Gillard.  I wonder what the major parties have learned from this.  That it’s okay to replace first term prime ministers?  That a change of leader is all that is needed when opinion polls head south?  Worth reading before our next federal election, the double dissolution election promised (but not yet officially called) for 2 July 2016.

The Killing Season Uncut by Sarah Ferguson and Patricia Drum

‘The last week of Parliament: in politics they call it the killing season.’

I didn’t watch much of the ABC’s ‘The Killing Season’ on television.  While I have great respect for Sarah Ferguson’s skill as a journalist, I have far less little faith in what either Mr Rudd or Ms Gillard would present as their respective version of the truth of the events that destroyed their governments.  But when I became aware that a book was being published, a book with the uncut version of the series, then I knew I needed to read it.  Especially as Australia is about to face another federal election, and there’s a possibility that Labor might be re-elected to power.

But back to Ms Gillard and Mr Rudd.  As Sarah Ferguson writes:

‘I learnt listening to them you couldn’t determine who was telling the truth.  You could only put them side by side and let the audience decide.’

My own impression (from both events at the time and from reading this book) is that both Ms Gillard and Mr Rudd have developed an individual ‘truth’ that supports the narrative they choose to share.  And neither, in my view, can occupy the moral high ground.

There can be little doubt that Mr Rudd’s leadership style was frequently inefficient and often ineffective.  So many things had to go through the Prime Minister’s Office, and few decisions seemed to be made in a timely manner.  And the administration of some decisions (I’m thinking particularly of the Home Insulation Scheme, and aspects of the Building the Education Revolution (BER)) were appalling.  A government, elected with such high expectations, seemed to lose its way and lose its effectiveness very early.   But replacing Mr Rudd with Ms Gillard made a bad situation worse.  The way in which Ms Gillard replaced Mr Rudd (regardless of any ex post facto justification) was never going to give her government legitimacy.  And, worse than that, it seems obvious that Ms Gillard and her supporters had no plan beyond replacing Mr Rudd.  As if, by magic, replacing one leader with another would somehow fix everything.

‘Gillard and Rudd together were a very powerful combination.  She was everything to the Labor Party that he wasn’t, and he was everything to the public that she wasn’t.  Together they worked perfectly.’

More than a hundred people were interviewed for ‘The Killing Season’.  Their accounts of events provide a damning account of the Rudd-Gillard era.  But not everyone who was involved agreed to be interviewed.  I’d be particularly interested in reading Bill Shorten’s account of events, given that he appeared to play such a pivotal role, and is likely to be Prime Minister if Labor is elected to govern later this year.

I wonder what the Labor Party has learned from these events.  They managed to destroy their own government, to present personal rivalries as more important than the effective governance of Australia, and to hand government to Tony Abbott.   Quite an accomplishment.   If you are interested in Australian politics, the Rudd-Gillard era and its legacy, it’s worth reading this book.

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

Jennifer Cameron-Smith



The Snow Kimono by Mark Henshaw

This novel requires concentration.  It’s a rewarding read, but I found it a challenging one.

The Snow Kimono by Mark Henshaw

‘There are times in your life when something happens after which you’re never the same.  It may be something direct or indirect, or something someone says to you.  But whatever it is, there is no going back.  And inevitably, when it happens, it happens suddenly, without warning.’

‘The Snow Kimono’ is mainly set in Paris and Japan, between the late 1950s and late 1980s.  There are three main characters: the retired police Inspector Jouvert (a Frenchman), and two Japanese men a former Professor of Law, Tadashi Omura, and his schoolfriend, the writer Katsuo Ikeda.  The two main storytellers are Jovert and Omura, and the story moves backwards and forwards in time as it passes between them.

The story begins in 1989, when Jovert receives a letter from a stranger, a woman claiming to be his daughter from a relationship he had in Algeria thirty years earlier.  Shortly after receiving this letter, Jovert is approached by Tadashi Omura who has his own story to tell.

‘And we lapsed into silence, falling back into our own separate worlds, hers with its unknown future, and mine with its inescapable past.’

I found I had to pay careful attention when reading this novel.  Nothing is obscure or irrelevant, but not all connections are easily made.  Truth is not fixed, interpretations often seem to suit a particular selfish purpose.  The role of Katsuo Ikeda is central, even though the man himself seems to be at the periphery of the story.  He’s in gaol, we learn, quite early in the novel.  Why won’t become apparent until much later.  Jovert is looking for truth, but life (unlike crime) cannot be solved.

‘He’d been looking in the wrong direction.  The retrospective piece had fallen into place.’

And for the pieces do fall into place, memory has to be questioned.  Memory is not fixed and immutable, as Jovert may have once believed.  And once Jovert realises this, there are possibilities to be considered.

It took me a while to get into this novel, a while to appreciate the interconnectedness of the pieces of the puzzle, a while to accept the evolution of memory.  There’s a lot to admire about this novel, about the way Mr Henshaw constructs the various elements of the story and then pulls it all together.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

The Beloved by Annah Faulkner

I read ‘Last Day in the Dynamite Factory’ earlier this month, and as a consequence was very keen to read Ms Faulkner’s first novel.  I’m glad I did.

The Beloved by Annah Faulkner

‘It came one morning with the milk, and it seemed – at first – almost as innocent.’

Roberta ‘Bertie’ Lightfoot is six when she contracts polio.  Bertie recovers, but one leg is withered and she has to wear a special boot, which she hates.  Although Bertie is a talented and perceptive artist, her passion for art is not part of her mother’s plan for her future.  Bertie’s mother has high expectations for her, and sees Bertie’s interest in art as a waste of time, of misdirected effort.

In 1955, Bertie, her brother Tim and her parents move to Port Moresby where her father has a job.  Bertie’s mother also finds a job, as a photographer.   Bertie makes a friend, and life seems to be settling for her and her family.  But then Bertie and her mother travel to Canada to see her grandparents.  When they return, after some months, things have changed.  Bertie continues to draw, and has art lessons in secret.  But Bertie is not the only member of the family with secrets.  Can Bertie’s relationship with her mother survive?  Can her mother accept Bertie’s passion for art?  And can Bertie’s mother come to terms with the losses in her own life?

I read this novel immediately after reading Ms Faulkner’s later novel, ‘Last Day in the Dynamite Factory’.  Two characters (Bertie Lightfoot and Chris Bright) appear in both novels, and I was curious to follow them both from one novel to the other.  While the stories are quite different, and it is not necessary to read one in order to appreciate the other, I am glad I did.  Chris’s part in this novel is comparatively minor, which initially disappointed me.  But Bertie?  Bertie is magnificent.  How many of us, who felt different for whatever reason, can relate to Bertie?  And the relationship dynamics are so well presented, within a family stressed by ambitions and relationships past and present.  Port Moresby in the 1950s and early 1960s was an administrative centre and port, a frontier town, when the territory of Papua and New Guinea was administered by Australia.

‘The Beloved’ was Ms Faulkner’s debut novel, and was the 2011 winner Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards — Best Manuscript of an Emerging Queensland Author.  ‘The Beloved’ won the 2013 Nita Kibble Literary Award, and was shortlisted for the 2013 Miles Franklin Literary Award.  It is a thought provoking novel, and I’m very glad I read it.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith


The Memory of Things by Gae Polisner

This book won’t be published until September: I was fortunate enough to receive an advance electronic copy for review purposes.  When it is available, I will be buying a copy.  This is Young Adult fiction with heart.  And we all need heart, even those of us who are no longer young adults.

The Memory of Things by Gae Polisner

‘Maybe this is all some really crazy weird dream, the kind you wake yourself from and laugh because you dreamed it was a dream within the dream.’

The world changed on September 11, 2001. It is one of those dates seared into the consciousness of those of us old enough to remember it. But almost fifteen years have passed since then, and many will not have those memories. And memories vary, are mutable rather than fixed. And individuals who survived have to find their own way of dealing with the consequences, with life.

Kyle Donohue is sixteen, and at the Stuyvesant High School on the morning of September 11, 2001. After seeing the first tower collapse, he flees to safety – to his home – across the Brooklyn Bridge. On the bridge, he finds a girl wearing wings and covered in ash. Kyle can’t leave her there, so he decides to take her home. His father, a New York police officer, is probably on his way to the disaster. His mother and sister are in California. Kyle can’t contact his father, and his mother does not have a mobile ‘phone.

Having set the scene – of chaos, dislocation and fear – Ms Polisner tells the story of Kyle and the girl in alternating points of view. In a considered and thoughtful novel, Ms Polisner provides the perspective of two New York City teenagers as the world they thought they knew ceases to exist. Kyle wants to help the girl, to remember who she is and to find her family. But the more he comes to know her, the more she becomes part of his world. The events of September 11 provide a frame for this story which is about people dealing with the consequences of life-changing events.

‘Now I fully understand. Tuesday, and those planes, they’ve broken something.’

In Kyle’s narrative, he has some new and additional responsibilities. He grows into them, understanding that caring is more about actions than gestures and words. In the girl’s narrative, through her interior monologue, we gradually come to understand who she is, and how she came to be on the Brooklyn Bridge.

To write more about this novel may spoil the experience of reading it, of having the story unfold. Kyle and the girl both have discoveries to make, events to make sense of, connections to make and lives to live. It’s a story to read, think about, reread and reflect.

Note: My thanks to NetGalley and St. Martin’s Press for providing me with a free electronic copy of this novel for review purposes.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

The Essential Bird by Carmel Bird

I loved this collection of short stories, loved it.  I’m reading my way through Carmel Bird’s work, enjoying every page.

The Essential Bird by Carmel Bird

‘When I read fiction I want the words to take my spirit into the places beneath the surface of the everyday world.’

The above quote is from Carmel Bird’s ‘A Taste of Earth’, one of the short stories in this collection really caught my attention.  Mostly, this is what I want from fiction as well.  Maybe not always beneath the surface of the everyday world, but certainly at some remove from the everyday world.   But ‘A Taste of Earth’ held my attention for other reasons.  There’s a point where Carmel Bird’s story and my life intersect.  Carmel Bird writes: ‘I remember when my mother used to take me to the cemetery.’   Me too.  Carr Villa Cemetery is about a five minute walk away from my childhood home in Launceston, and while the trams were long gone by the time I accompanied my mother to Carr Villa, the hedges of rosemary and the pine trees still remain.  Now I visit my mother’s grave there whenever I return to Tasmania.

There are forty-five short stories in this collection, ranging from three to over forty pages.   This includes ‘The Common Rat’ – a story in seven parts.  The stories I am particularly drawn to are the ones that refer to the Launceston I grew up in, such as ‘Major Butler’s Kidneys’:

‘I would spend hours in the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery in Launceston, breathing in, imbibing the old things there, the mummies, the bark canoes, the furniture, paintings, jewellery, costumes of colonists, the Chinese Joss House, the stuffed animals, the musical boxes, the grandfather clocks.  It was a silent place, eerie, an old-fashioned museum.’

The Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery near Royal Park (there’s now an additional location in Invermay) was an old-fashioned museum.  It still contains the Chinese Joss House, but many of the other items are now at Invermay.  Ms Bird’s storytelling draws me into her fiction, her sense of place (especially for the stories set in Tasmania) holds me there.

This is an eclectic collection.  One of my favourite stories is ‘Affair at the Ritz’, which opens with: ‘Speaking as a dying cockroach, I tell you it is nice to have spiders and insects like you to talk to.’

And ‘Made Glorious Summer’ is unforgettable: a son murders his parents after they refused to lend him more money.

This is a collection of short stories that I know I will be revisiting.  Highly recommended.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith