The Hangman’s Daughter by Oliver Pötzsch

‘Hangmen’s daughters married hangmen’s sons – that was an unwritten law.’

Jakob Kuisl is the hangman in the small Bavarian town of Schongau in 1659. It’s a shunned profession, so Jakob and his family: wife Anna Maria and their three children live outside the town walls. His daughter Magdalena, clever and headstrong, is destined to marry the son of another hangman, even though the son of the town’s physician, Simon Fronweiser, is in love with her.

While practicing his trade, Jakob has learned quite a bit about the human body as well as about how some potions can ease suffering. His knowledge is valued by some of his neighbours, who’d rather seek advice from him than other healers – even though visiting the hangman is believed as bringing bad luck.

The Thirty Years’ War has finally ended, and although witchcraft is feared, there’s been no mass hysteria about it for many years. Until a drowning and badly injured boy is pulled from the nearby Lech River. He has been tattooed with what the villagers believe is the mark of a witch, and they suspect Martha Stechlin, the local midwife.

‘None of this makes sense!’

Jakob Kuisl is charged with extracting a confession from Martha Stechlin, and is expected to torture her until he obtains it. Jakob believes that Martha is innocent, and he, Magdalena and Simon set out to identify the real killer. It’s approaching Walpurgisnacht (when witches are reputed to meet and celebrate) when another dead, tattooed child is found. The town is in a frenzy: especially as a number of people have reported seeing a man (surely the devil!) with a hand made only from bones. And, surely Martha is innocent as she was imprisoned when the second child’s body was found?

‘Have you lost all your senses, or what? Don’t you realize there’s a murderer at large?’

So, who is killing these children, and why? Will Jakob, Simon and Magdalena be able to solve the mystery before mass hysteria reigns supreme?

This novel takes the reader straight into a 17th century world in which superstition is rife and in which fear is easily invoked. I really enjoyed this story, both for the 17th century setting and especially for the character of Jakob Kuisl. I was intrigued to learn that Oliver Pötzsch is descended from the Kuisl family and that Jakob (and other family members in the novel) were real people.

There are other novels in the series as well: I’m working my way through them.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

So, as 2017 draws to a close, which have been my favourite books?

I read over 200 books this year, and enjoyed most of them.  But while some of those books were great entertainment, or provided me with information or escapism, many of them will fade into the background.  Other books stay with me, and some of them may (even) be reread at some stage.

There are a few books that I’m not including on this list because, as much as I loved them, they won’t be published until 2018.

So, which books?  I’ll limit myself to twenty.  The links are to my reviews of each (on  The reviews can also be found on this blog, or on Goodreads for those interested.  And so, in no particular order:

His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet

The Prince at the Ruined Tower by Michael D Lockshin

Golden Hill by Francis Spufford

They Cannot Take the Sky by Michael Green, Andre Dao, Angelica Neville, Dana Affleck and Sienna Merope

Alternative Truths by Phyllis Irene Radford and Bob Brown (eds)

The Bone Sparrow by Zana Fraillon

The Trauma Cleaner by Sarah Krasnostein

A Crying in the Wind by Elizabeth Fleetwood

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

The Library: A Catalogue of Wonders by Stuart Kells

The Circle and the Equator by Kyra Giorgi

The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley

All We Shall Know by Donal Ryan

Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann

Anaesthesia by Kate Cole-Adams

Sixty Seconds by Jesse Blackadder

Not Just Lucky by Jamila Rizvi

Storyland by Catherine McKinnon

American War by Omar El Akkad

Flame  Tip by Karenlee Thompson


And that rounds out my twenty.  Have you read any of these?




My favourite books of 2017

What a great list! I’ve read a number of these books, and will add others to my list. And now, I think I need to seriously consider my own ‘best reads of 2017’.

She Reads Novels

With only two days left of 2017, I think it should be safe to post my books of the year list now. I always enjoy putting this post together, looking back over my reading year and picking out favourites. As usual, the list I’ve come up with is a long one, though not as long as some from previous years! I’ve also given a special mention to some books which didn’t quite win a place on the list – and re-reads have their own separate section this year too.

Here they are, in the order that I read them:


The Red Sphinx by Alexandre Dumas (1865)

From my review: “Well, it may be only January but I think I already know one book which will be appearing on my books of the year list this December! Bearing in mind that this is a later Dumas novel, written towards…

View original post 1,254 more words

Skylight by Jose Saramago

‘Even if you lived for a thousand years and experienced everything that everyone had experienced, you would never know life.’

‘Skylight’ is a novel returned from publishing limbo. It was submitted to a publisher by Jose Saramago in 1953: they neither accepted it nor rejected it. He did not hear from the publisher again until 1989 when, after rediscovering the manuscript, they wrote to Saramago saying it would be an honour to publish it. Saramago refused, and, according to his wife, vowed that it would not be published in his lifetime. Jose Saramago died in 2010, and ‘Skylight’ was published in 2011.

I read ‘Skylight’ in 2015. By then, I’d read ‘Blindness’ and ‘The Elephant’s Journey’ and was keen to read other Saramago novels (in English translation).

‘Skylight’ is a very different novel from the other two I’ve read. It is more conventional in presentation, more focussed on what might seem to be on the ‘normal’ lives of six families living in apartments in an old Lisbon house during the 1940s. There are two apartments on each of the three floors, and we are introduced to each of the families during the first chapter. On the ground floor there’s an elderly cobbler and his wife. They take in a lodger. Opposite them is a Spanish woman, unhappily married to a Portuguese man. They have a ten-year-old son. On the next floor is another couple, a woman with a brutish husband. Opposite, a woman is kept as a mistress by a businessman who visits her three times a week. On the top floor is a couple with their 19-year-old daughter. The second apartment on the top floor is occupied by four women: two unmarried sisters in their thirties, their mother and their aunt. Each of the families struggles to make ends meet, while the woman kept as a mistress is imprisoned by a form of ownership and expectation.

As the narrative moves between the apartments, we learn about the lives and loves, the jealousy and gossip of those who live inside. After learning about the occupants of each apartment, we start to see their interactions with each other: the joys and griefs of ordinary people.

While I’m glad I read this novel, it did not move me in the same way as ‘Blindness’ or challenge me as did ‘The Elephant’s Journey’. Instead, it gave me a sense of a writer exploring structure, of considering ways in which to present his narratives. I wondered whether not hearing from the publisher for over 30 years influenced the way in which Saramago wrote his later fiction.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

The Wanted by Robert Crais

‘Harvey and Stemms were making progress, but they couldn’t just blow into the club and flash the picture. The photograph of Unknown Male Subject Number One was dangerous.’

Devon Connor is a single mother, concerned when her teenaged son Tyson suddenly seems to have a lot of money. She’s concerned that he may be dealing drugs, so she contacts private investigator Elvis Cole to see if he can find out what Tyson is up to. Elvis quickly discovers that Tyson, with two others, has been responsible for several burglaries. But Tyson and his friends have stolen something that the owner wants returned at any cost. He’s has employed a team of his own to track down the thieves.

When one of the three is murdered, Tyson and his girlfriend disappear. Will Elvis Cole, with the assistance of Joe Pike, find them before the others do? As Elvis and Joe race to find Devon, they are also trying to find out what was stolen, and to whom it belongs.

‘The window was closing, but not closed.’

While some of the characters seem to be stereotypes (especially the computer geek ‘The Carl’, and the bad guys Harvey and Stemms) they fit into the story perfectly. Bad guys and computer geeks need to be a bit predictable, surely. Especially when there are a number of other layers to the story.

I enjoyed this novel. It is a fast-paced story, and the 17th book in the Elvis Cole series. It isn’t necessary to read the novels in order, each one can be read as a standalone story.

Note: My thanks to NetGalley and Simon & Schuster (Australia) for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

My Aussie Authors Reading Challenge for 2018

So, over on Goodreads, there’s a wonderful  reading challenge.  I’ve not participated in this particular challenge before, but I will this year.

‘This year’s Aussie Author challenge is a little different. Whether you are a dinky die Aussie or an international reader wanting to discover some talented new authors, the Annual Aussie Author Challenge 2018 is for you! It will run for 12 months until 31st December 2018!’

Here’s the list of books I intend to read for the challenge:

Level Three


Male Authors
1. A Tropical Cure by John Hollencamp
2. Danger Music by Eddie Ayres
3. How to Make Gravy by Paul Kelly
4. Away and Other Stories by Leigh Swinbourne
5.The Time We Have Taken by Steven Carroll
6.Death of a River Guide by Richard Flanagan
7.Tobruk by Peter FitzSimons
8.The Battle for Lone Pine by David Cameron
9.With the Pioneers by Charles Ramsay

Female Authors
1.Me Write Myself by Leonie Stevens
2. The Island Will Sink by Briohny Doyle
3.Nevermoor by Jessica Townsend
4.The Submerged Cathedral by Charlotte Wood
5.Winter Journey by Diane Armstrong
6.The Anzacs by Patsy Adam-Smith
7.The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty
8.A Map of the Gardens by Gillian Mears
9. Black Mirror by Gail Jones

2018 New Releases
1. Rebel With a Cause by Jacqui Lambie (Allen&Unwin March 2018)
2. The Lace Weaver by Lauren Chater
3.The Agency by James Phelan
4.The Secrets at Ocean’s Edge by Kali Napier
5.The Sisters’ Song by Louise Allan
6.Hangman by Jack Heath
7.The Paris Seamstress by Natasha Lester
8.The Other Wife by Michael Robotham
9.Scrublands by Chris Hammer

Favourite Genre (Non-Fiction)
1. Launceston by John Reynolds
2.Wasted by Elspeth Muir
3.Writing the Dream (Anthology)
4. The Best Death by Sarah Winch
5. The Media and the Massacre by Sonya Voumard
6. Warren Mundine in Black + White
7. Abandoned Women by Lucy Frost
8.My Home in Tasmania by Louisa Anne Meredith
9. Trucanini by Vivienne Rae Ellis

Dombrovskis: Journeys into the Wild

Today my husband and I went to the National Library of Australia specifically to see the Peter Dombrovskis Exhibition

Peter Dombrovskis (2 March 1945 – 28 March 1996) was an Australian photographer, best known for his Tasmanian scenes. Peter Dombrovskis was born, to Latvian parents, in a refugee camp in Germany.  He and his mother migrated to Australia in 1950, and settled in Fern Tree, a suburb of Hobart, situated below  kunanyi/Mount Wellington.

Peter Dombrovskis, who was a protégé of renowned wildlife photographer and activist Olegas Truchanas (1923-1972), took photographs of the Tasmanian wilderness.  Those photographs were used in Mr Dombrovskis’s annual calendars as well as in calendars produced by the Tasmanian Wilderness Society.  While I don’t have any of these calendars, sadly, I do have a number of postcards featuring his work.

The photographs provide a window into remote and relatively inaccessible parts of Tasmania.  I particularly love the photographs of reflections in the remote lakes, as well as images of the Painted Cliffs (Maria Island).  But Peter Dombroskis’s most famous photograph is undoubtedly:

Morning Mist, Rock Island Bend, Franklin River  

(The link is to an article in Wikipedia about the Franklin River Dam controversy.  A copy of the photograph appears in the article).

The National Library of Australia has over 3,000 Dombrovskis transparencies and has printed 70 of them for this special exhibition.

We also took the opportunity to visit the Treasures Gallery to see the remarkable Blaeu Map

Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich

‘I’ll write this anyway, because ever since last week things have changed. Apparently—I mean, nobody knows—our world is running backward. Or forward. Or maybe sideways, in a way as yet ungrasped.’

Cedar Hawk Songmaker is 26 years old and four months pregnant when she starts the diary which comes to us as ‘Future Home of the Living God’. Evolution is suddenly running backwards. Prehistoric animals and insects are appearing, and human genetics are also affected. Most foetuses are non-viable, and most pregnancies are fatal. The United States government appears to have collapsed, while the Church of the New Constitution has taken over. Pregnant women are collected and imprisoned as the Church seeks control over the few normal babies born.

Cedar and the reader alike can only wonder about what has caused evolution to reverse and about what is happening in government. There are rumours and there are possibilities, but the constant is uncertainty: nobody knows exactly what is happening.

Cedar writes of what she sees and feels, of her journey to learn more about her birth parents, of her attempts to avoid incarceration. Cedar is part Ojibwe Indian but was raised by adoptive parents in Minneapolis. Society is in melt-down, but we can only view it through Cedar’s eyes. Who can she trust? And when she is betrayed, is escape still possible? Will the baby survive? Will Cedar?

As I read this novel, I kept thinking of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ by Margaret Atwood (which I need to reread). Questions kept running through my mind about both the treatment of women and the treatment of Native Americans, about environmental disasters and failures of government.

For me, what made this novel most unsettling was the fact that Cedar’s perspective (and hence our view) of this increasingly alien but still familiar world is so limited. I may not be able to identify with many of the characters, but I recognise some of them.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Watch Me by Jody Gehrman

‘After five years waiting for this moment, watching you for the first time still catches me off guard.’

Kate Youngblood is a creative writing professor at Blackwood College. She’s aged in her 30s, and starting to feel as though life is passing her by. Kate is recently divorced, her husband has left her a younger woman. Kate has been unable to replicate the success of her first novel: her second novel has failed. Kate’s poised between the success of her past, and the possibility of an invisible future. Will anyone now want to get to know her? Kate’s most promising student is Sam Grist. He has a raw talent which Kate wants to nurture. But Sam, whose writing tends towards the dark and twisted, has more than one secret. Sam is obsessed by Kate. He’s been working on learning more about her, preparing to get to know her in person for five years. Sam envisages a life with Kate: she’s ‘the one’ for him. As Sam insinuates himself into Kate’s life, he starts to take control.

‘I’ve been worried about your judgment for quite some time now.’

Kate is torn between being attracted to Sam, and recognising the inappropriateness of any personal relationship. She’s intrigued by him, flattered (up to a point) by the attention he pays her. But just how far will Kate let Sam into her life? And, can she stop him?

‘Isn’t it sad, the way we grasp the beauty of everything too late?’

The chapters alternate between the perspectives of Sam and Kate. In Sam’s view, his actions are both logical and justified as he demonstrates to Kate why they are made for each other. I found Kate’s perspective more difficult, as she is torn between what she thinks she wants and what she knows she should do. And the ending? You’ll need to read it for yourself. Just keep in mind that obsession is dangerous, and may even be fatal.

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

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Sleeping Beauties by Stephen King and Owen King

‘The moth makes Evie laugh.’

Something strange seems to be happening in the world. First, Evie emerges from a tree trunk in a cloud of moths. As readers soon discover, Evie is both intriguing and powerful. Evie is soon arrested by the police (you’ll find out why, if you read the novel). And while the police are responding to the presence of Evie, something strange is happening when women go to sleep. Once asleep, the women become enshrouded in a cocoon-like gauze. And no, they can’t be woken up. Any attempt to do so will be met with violence. Fatal violence.

As the women come to realise this, many of them take whatever measures (legal or otherwise) to prevent falling asleep. While this sleeping disease is global, and only affects women, it doesn’t seem to affect Evie.

The novel, co-authored by Stephen King and his son Owen, is centred around a women’s prison in Appalachia. This is the prison to which Evie is transported, and many of the characters we meet in the story have important roles to play. While the cause of the sleeping sickness remains in the supernatural realm along with Evie, the effects become clear. What will men do in a world without women? The women themselves may be asleep in this world, but in another world, they are not. Some of the men want to kill Evie, others think she should be studied. Dr Clint Norcross, the prison psychiatrist thinks Evie needs to be defended. The stage is set for a battle.

This novel is over 700 pages, and while it mostly held my attention, I was frustrated by the time I reached the end. Frustrated because, in my reading, the novel was longer than it needed to be. Frustrated because I didn’t find the ending particularly satisfying. I guess I was expecting something different, something more definite. Or was I? Maybe compromise is always the outcome.

If you are looking to lose yourself in a 700+ page novel, to escape into a differently weird world with a huge cast of characters, then you may enjoy this more than I did. There are plenty of questions to ponder, just not very many answers.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith