The Naturalist’s Daughter by Téa Cooper

‘We must always record our evidence.  It’s the only way.’

In 1808 at Agnes Banks in NSW, a young Rose Winton is fascinated by her father’s work.  Charles Winton is a naturalist, studying the platypus (or mallangong, as it is known by the local indigenous people).  Charles Winton has been corresponding with Sir Joseph Banks, then President of the Royal Society, about the mysterious animal.  Charles Winton’s ground-breaking research, accompanied by sketches, provides much more information about the platypus than anyone else has yet documented.  Charles Winton is invited to present his findings to the Royal Society but becomes ill and is unable to sail to London.  He sends Rose in his place: there are family connections Rose can turn to.

‘‘Ask all the questions you can think of and remember the Royal Society motto—Nullius in Verba.’

Take no one’s word for it.’’

In 1908 in Sydney, NSW, Tamsin Alleyn is a young woman working at the Public Library.  She’s sent to Wollombi in the Hunter Valley to retrieve an old sketch book which has been gifted to the Library by an elderly woman.    The journal is said to belong to Charles Winton, and if it’s genuine, it may be of great significance.

Two stories, separated by a century.  Two young women, much more independent than is usual for the times.  Two mysteries to be explained.  While the reader will quickly understand where the sketchbook came from, the question of ownership needs to be resolved, as does how the sketchbook ended up in Wollombi.  For part of the story, the reader has more information than Tamsin.  I was engrossed by this stage: I wanted to know how Tamsin would trace the history of the sketchbook.  I wanted to find the links between 1808 and 1908: what happened to Rose, and what about the presentation to the Royal Society?

To write more about the story could spoil it. There is more than one mystery in this novel (in both 1808 and 1908) as well as an occasional melodramatic flourish to hold the reader’s attention.  I really enjoyed the characters of both Rose and Tamsin, and the way in which Ms Cooper presented this story.

This is the first of Ms Cooper’s novels I have read, but it certainly won’t be the last!


Jennifer Cameron-Smith



There it is again by Don Watson

‘English is an accommodating language.’

Don Watson is one of my favourite Australian authors. I’ve read each of his books and some of his columns while ‘Recollections of a Bleeding Heart’ and ‘The Bush’ have permanent homes on my bookshelf. When I heard that this book had been published, I added it to my reading list immediately.

The book is a collection of pieces published in various places over the past two decades. It’s an eclectic collection, which includes pieces on management, extracts from his other books and some wonderful pieces on society, politics and aspects of nature.

‘No unprejudiced human being could fail to be improved by the presence of magpies’.

Don Watson’s thoughts about magpies had me reconsidering. For most of the year, I like magpies (the birds, not the AFL team) but in spring I am wary. I need to avoid a couple of streets where I normally walk: the magpies there are very territorial and will swoop almost everyone. But I agree with Don Watson:

‘They are fearless, resourceful, amusing and melodious; and, above all – as all birds have to be – stoic.’

Many of Don Watson’s pieces on management take me back to my public-sector past. I remember mastering the art of writing in third person passive before a shift to active language became fashionable. It didn’t last long.

‘If scientists can regenerate a liver, even grow one from scratch, can a society of authors regenerate a language, or even just defend it ?

I wonder.

Most times I hop on the bus, almost everyone has their eyes glued to a mobile device. Or they are listening through headphones or earbuds, blocking out the external world. Those that don’t are usually my age or older. And as we all sit there in a confined space, in our separate worlds, I think about the role of electronic devices and connectivity in education. One of my favourite pieces in this book is entitled ‘Phoney Education’:

‘This is a shortcoming we have to acknowledge: the best mobile phone in the world cannot do what a teacher can. It is dumb, like a mule, and no more the master of the information we download from it than a mule is master of the piano it carries on its back.’

The best teachers teach us how to determine what is useful, and how to apply knowledge. I’m grateful I grew up in a pre-digital age, that I’ve acquired some skills useful as I wander around the internet.

I enjoyed each of the pieces in this book: others took me into the familiarity of the past while others had me worrying about the future. Each piece made me think: whether it was about country, horse-racing or politics.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

And the Wolf Shall Dwell by Joni Dee

‘This is great. You are playing a John le Carré book, and I’m about to get it.’

Early one morning, John Daniel, an Israeli national, is heading to work in the City of London. He’s waiting at the train station when an old man running, collides with him. John helps the man to his feet. The man is clearly panicked, and as he runs off he says: ‘The Queen … the Queen … where she is seated … they are all standing there behind her.’ Moments later, the old man is dead. Hit by a train. One of the men who were chasing him want to know whether he handed anything to John.
Adam Grey has retired from the SIS, but receives a telephone call from an old agent (code named Ephraim) who has information for him:

‘I have to meet with you urgently. I’ve prepared a dossier for you, it’s with me.’

Adam sets off for this meeting, but it never happens. The old agent is the man who is now dead. So what was the information he had for Adam, and where is it?

Adam Grey needs to talk to John Daniel, the last person to speak with the old agent. Adam is tasked by SIS internal security to try to make sense of why Ephraim contacted him. John who has been dragged into the situation by his chance meeting with Ephraim, is approached by Adam. The first step is to locate the dossier.

Mr Dee has set the scene for a great spy thriller. With elements of international espionage, crooked politics and terrorism, the story switches between past and present as John and Adam work together to try to uncover the truth.

Note: I was offered, and accepted, a free electronic copy of this novel for review purposes.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

The Island Will Sink by Briohny Doyle

‘We will not live long enough to live forever .’

In a post-energy-crisis world, hovering on the brink of collapse, Pitcairn Island is sinking into the Pacific Ocean. In this world, where catastrophe is reality, it is also our most popular form of entertainment. Meet Max Galleon. Married with two children, Max is not just a filmmaker, but the world’s foremost director of immersive virtual-reality catastrophe blockbusters: an auteur. But for all this, Max lives a life he cannot remember. And, if you can’t remember your life, then how can you tell what is real? Every experience is new, or is it?

EcoLaw is enforced, through its avatars such as Pow-Pow the Power-Saving Panda, assisted by armies of children just like Max’s daughter Lilly. This is close enough to our reality to be uncomfortably recognisable, just far enough away for the edges to be blurred. Max’s son Jonas, spends much of his time playing a simulation game set on Pitcairn Island with a friend online. And what about Max’s wife Eloise?

‘Goodbye, Max Galleon,’ farewells the elevator. ‘Always remember, sustainability is the key. You are a man who can make a difference.’

‘I leave no footprints as I step out into the world .’

Don’t expect every aspect of this novel to make sense: it doesn’t. But keep reading, because the absence of sense is a little like Max’s memory: apparently unnecessary. Especially when you are as networked as Max is.

‘It’s always much easier to measure complexity than it is to understand it .’

The story shifts between present and past, real and imagined. It’s complicated by what Max thinks he knows, by the film he is trying to make with Jean, his attempts to engage with his wife and children. And, in the meantime, while Max is trying to help his brother who is in a coma, obsessing about the state of his marriage and editing his out-sourced memories, the water level continues to rise.

Jonas is concerned:

‘We’ve lost another 0.00012,’ he says. ‘The world is ending and all you want to do is watch movies .’

How will it end? You’ll need to read it for yourself to find out. It’s a dystopian comedy of sorts, a look at a world where actual reality is so dire that escapism into imagined catastrophe is somehow better. How ironic. Or is it?

Jennifer Cameron-Smith


Winter Journey by Diane Armstrong

‘The end of a life was a disappointingly small moment that hung on the final exhalation of a breath.’

Halina Shore and her mother emigrated to Australia from Poland in the late 1940s, after World War II.  Halina knows that she was born in 1939 but knows little else of her background.  Her mother, Zosia, has never spoken about Halina’s father, about her family or life in Poland.    And when her mother dies, she leaves little behind.

Halina is a forensic dentist, living in Sydney with her cat Puccini, when she is approached to be part of a forensic team investigating the site of a Jewish massacre in Poland.  While relatively comfortable in Sydney, Halina seems restless and unsettled.  Perhaps a visit to her country of birth might enable her to reconnect with her past?

Halina travels to Nowa Kalwaria in Poland, and finds a community divided over the investigation into the massacre. Many believe (or want to) that the Jews were killed by the Germans after the Russians left Poland.  What would be the purpose in exhuming them?  But what of the suspicion that the Jews were killed by the local villagers?

‘Halina glanced around the site.  Somewhere in this dark soil, among the skulls and skeletons, criminology intersected with history, religion, sociology and psychology.’

Ms Armstrong approaches the investigation from two intertwined timelines.  There are the events of 1941 leading to the massacre, and the present-day investigation.  There are those in the present who think that the past can remain hidden, and there are those who’ve waited a long time to tell what they know.  Learning the truth will not be easy for either the investigators or the villagers?

And for Halina?

I found this novel utterly absorbing.  I also found the novel unbearably sad at times, with it’s reminders of unspeakable cruelty.  But there are uplifting moments as well: courageous individuals who did their best against overwhelming odds.  This novel, inspired by an event in Poland, is part history, part mystery and part forensic investigation.  It explores both the rational objectivity of science and the irrational (at times) subjectivity of human behaviour.

This is a novel worth reading.  Yes, it’s uncomfortable and confronting to be reminded of atrocity whether fact or fiction.  But ignoring atrocity or pretending it hasn’t happened is far worse.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith



The Best Death: How to die well by Sarah Winch

‘Is it possible to die well in Australia? I think so. Being prepared helps and this book shares techniques and information that works .’

How do you go about preparing for the best death possible? Either for yourself, or for someone you love? How do you accept the diagnosis of a terminal illness, and find out what options are available to you? Where do you start? Who can help?

In April 2008, Sarah Winch’s husband Lincoln died from kidney cancer. He had been diagnosed four months earlier. Lincoln Winch was forty-eight years old. Sarah Winch had been a registered nurse and ethicist for thirty years, specifically focussed on end-of-life care. Her background helped her and Lincoln plan for the best death possible. No amount of training and planning can help any of us fully prepare, but it can help. And in this book, Dr Winch draws on her experience to help others.

How does it help? Most of us don’t like talking about death. It’s a discussion ‘for another day’, or one that hopefully won’t be required at all as we drift away peacefully in our sleep at an advanced old age. I wish! This may be the way it will happen for some of us, but what if you are diagnosed with a terminal illness? What if you have weeks or months to live? How do you want to live those weeks or months, where do you want to die?

In the seven chapters of this book, Dr Winch starts with understanding (and then believing) the bad news. She then moves onto to the support you may need (including palliative care services) and how to access them. One of the important questions is to consider is where you want to die, as this will involve thinking about a range of other issues. There are legal issues and financial issues to consider as well.

I found this book comforting. Sure, I hope to not need to do any of this either for myself or for my loved ones. But I think it’s important to have a plan, to be aware of some of the issues, and to realise that some issues will be easier to deal with than others. I especially appreciated the explanation of the purpose and benefits of palliative care.

In just over 140 pages, Dr Winch provides some useful step by step guides for working out what is important and for navigating the healthcare system. An appendix includes some useful Australian websites as well.

Dr Sarah Winch is head of the Medical Ethics, Law and Professionalism discipline at the Faculty of Medicine, University of Queensland. She is also the CEO of Health Ethics Australia, a charity that aims to improve death literacy for everyone and compassion awareness for clinicians. She teaches healthcare ethics and researches end-of-life care.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith


Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff

‘Inside the Trump White House’

Why did I read this book? Well, I heard that Donald Trump tried to stop its publication and threatened to sue the publisher for libel. That certainly got my attention. What, I wondered, could Michael Wolff have written that so concerned Donald Trump?

I read the book over two days, and while some aspects of what’s written do not surprise me (sadly) other aspects really concerned me. Is it true, as Michael Wolff writes, that:

‘Donald Trump and his tiny band of campaign warriors were ready to lose with fire and fury. They were not ready to win .’

Making the transition from candidate to president would be, I think, difficult for anyone. But I guess it’s especially difficult for someone who has no direct experience of government and seems to have selected (at least initially) staff with limited experience. And I’m not going to touch on the wisdom of appointing family members as staff, or the revolving door of appointments.

‘The Trump campaign had built its central strategy around great rallies regularly attracting tens of thousands, a political phenomenon that the Democrats both failed to heed and saw as a sign of Trump’s limited appeal .’

But the Democrats were wrong. Donald Trump may have had limited appeal, but he mobilised it. He tapped into groups who feel disadvantaged and dissatisfied, people who were angry. Those people (and the vagaries of the US electoral system) delivered Donald Trump the presidency. But what has he achieved in the past twelve months?

Reading through the book, I’m reminded of the tale of the emperor’s new clothes, of the danger of sycophants, of the perils of not taking advice:

‘You could tell him whatever you wanted, but he knew what he knew, and if what you said contradicted what he knew, he simply didn’t believe you .’

I was amazed by how Michael Wolff managed to get the access he needed to write this book:

‘While the Trump administration has made hostility to the press a virtual policy, it has also been more open to the media than any White House in recent memory. In the beginning, I sought a level of formal access to this White House, something of a fly-on-the-wall status. The president himself encouraged this idea…. there seemed no one person able to make this happen. Equally, there was no one to say “Go away.” Hence I became more a constant interloper than an invited guest.’

And so, reading through the scuttlebutt and the outrage, the various analyses of Donald Trump’s ability to be president, made me wonder as much about the judgement of the people providing the comments to Michael Wolff as it did about Donald Trump. Did they really expect him to change?

I closed the book, wondering how (and when) the Trump presidency will end. Can it continue like this? What impact will this presidency have on the US in the long-term? Assuming, of course that there is a long-term. We are certainly living in interesting times.

“They take everything I’ve ever said and exaggerate it,” said the president in his first week in the White House during a late-night call. “It’s all exaggerated. My exaggerations are exaggerated .”

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Stories: The Collected Short Fiction by Helen Garner

‘Everything is spoken, nothing is said.’

This is one of two books published to celebrate Helen Garner’s seventy-fifth birthday in 2017. This book is by far the smaller book of the two (the other book, ‘True Stories: The Collected Short Non-Fiction’ is around 800 pages). This book, with its fourteen stories, contains just over 200 pages.

I’ve read this book twice. It takes me longer to read Ms Garner’s fiction: I need to work hard for my understanding of it. Not, I hasten to say, because of Ms Garner’s writing. No, it’s because most of these stories have many layers and in order to appreciate the whole story I need to identify the different parts.

There are no perfect characters, nor are there any stereotypes, in Ms Garner’s fiction. Each character has a past and a purpose. The future may be less certain, as in many stories the characters are anxiously navigating the present. We meet these characters, effectively described by Ms Garner, we journey alongside them for a while, witness an aspect or two of their lives, and then part company. There are no neat conclusions and no complicated backstories. And I think that is one of the reasons I find Ms Garner’s fiction harder work. Not because I need conclusions and backstories but because given an opportunity I will try to imagine them for myself. Ms Garner’s short story has finished on the page, but sometimes it is still taking place in my mind. Right now, I’m still in Surfers (‘Postcards from Surfers’) knitting, contributing my own monologue.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith


Our Tiny, Useless Hearts by Toni Jordan

‘I can’t speak. I am literally speechless.’

So, let’s identify the main players. There’s Caroline, who is married to Henry. Henry is having an affair with Martha, the teacher of Martha and Caroline’s daughter Mercedes. And Henry, after he tells Caroline this, heads off to Noosa with Martha. Caroline heads after them, after first shredding Henry’s clothes.

Then there’s Caroline and Henry’s neighbours: Lesley and Craig. Caroline is having an affair with Craig.

Caroline’s sister Janice steps in to look after Mercedes and her sister Paris, Craig comes calling on Caroline and Janice’s ex-husband Alec comes to visit Mercedes … and things get really hectic from there.

I had so much fun with this book I read it twice. Seriously. I missed some good one-liners first time around, and Ms Jordan’s timing is just superb. The measure of great farce, surely? Yes, the story is way over the top and most of the characters are so shallow they’d drown in a rain drop.

And then there’s Craig:

‘When you step inside an airport, you cease to have any rights whatsoever. Legally, it’s a return to the feudal system. It’s like the Manga Carta never happened.’

And, just in case you’ve never heard of the Manga Carta, Janice helps out with:

‘The Manga Carta is, presumably, a document drafted in 1215 by the Archbishop of Canterbury in the form of a Japanese comic book.’

In the right mood, I enjoy books like this because they make me laugh. In the wrong mood, they could become missiles. It’s all in the timing.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith


‘Me Write Myself’ by Leonie Stevens

‘The Free Aboriginal Inhabitants of Van Diemen’s Land at Wybalenna 1832-47’

I remember reading about the resettlement of Tasmanian Aborigines to Wybalenna on Flinders Island during the nineteenth century. I remember reading the justifications given: all from the perspective of the colonial authorities. I was totally unaware of any writing by those who were dispossessed and relocated. I was intrigued by the title of this book, and read it to find out more.
This book is the publication of Leonie Stevens’s PhD thesis. In her words:

‘This is a narrative history, which presents ideas, analysis and critiques chronologically. Given that its focus is documents and perspectives which were previously all but silenced, it is fitting that the overall structure is dictated by the nature of the texts themselves .’

I learned of the existence of the Flinders Island Chronicle, of sermons and letters written by the First Nation Peoples during the years of their exile to Wybalenna. And, as I read through each chapter, I started to hear voices from within the Wybalenna community. These exiles from their homelands saw themselves as free, and they wanted to return (as had been promised) home.
In the introduction, Leonie Stevens writes:

‘In the long and often problematic historiography surrounding the First Nations peoples of Van Diemen’s Land, one voice has largely been ignored: that of the people themselves. When two Big River nation elders wrote to the Governor in 1846, protesting the conditions of their exile, they signed their letter, proudly, ‘Me Write Myself King Alexander, Me Write Myself King Alphonso’. This study takes them at their word .’

It took me a while to appreciate the structure of Dr Stevens’s thesis, to try to move beyond what I thought I knew and to question some of what I had previously thought was accurate. Simply realising that the First Peoples were not passive, that they were actively involved in the activities of the settlement changed my perceptions. The various writing quoted engaged my attention (how can we have discounted or ignored these voices for so long?) but it was their petition (‘The Humble Petition of the Free Aborigines’) which held it, especially this part:

‘when we left our own place we were Plenty of People, we are now but a little one .’

Wybalenna changes over time. The First Peoples are subjected to (and often become part of) both the civilising mission and the Christianising missions undertaken. Much of what I read focusses on this. But it’s the reappointment of Doctor Henry Jeanneret as Superintendent which resulted in their petition to Queen Victoria in 1846. In 1847 Dr Jeanneret was again dismissed.

’18 October 1847 was a momentous date. After years of agitation by the VDL exiles, and months of planning by the colonial authorities, the VDL exiles boarded the Sisters. The journey took them south of Hobart, to Oyster Cove, where a former probation station had been prepared to house them.’

This may be the end of the Wybalenna settlement, but it’s not the end of the story of those who were part of it.

I am interested in history, but I am not an historian. Reading this book makes me wonder how much we should question what we think we know to be fact. Especially when so much of the history we read is often written by those with different cultural values and understandings than those being written about. This book should be a starting point, rather than an ending, for examining the voices of the First Nations Peoples at Wybalenna.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith