The Lace Weaver by Lauren Chater

I read this novel in January, and have been waiting for it to be published before sharing my review outside Goodreads and NetGalley.

‘Sometimes a shawl is not just a shawl.’

In 1941, Estonia is being crushed by the Soviet Army. Katarina and her family have survived because the produce their farm produces is needed by the Soviets. The women have been able to save enough wool to continue knitting shawls. These shawls are intricate pieces of work. They are fine enough to pass through a gold wedding ring, knitted in intricate patterns passed down through the generations.

At the same time, in Moscow, Lydia prepares to escape to Estonia in search of her mother’s heritage. Her mother is dead, and Lydia has only two things that belonged to her: an old lace shawl and a tattered book.

This novel is about so many aspects of life, including love, tradition, tragedy and war. Ms Chater depicts the struggles of the Estonians as they first endure occupation by the Soviets and then by the Germans. Partisans, surviving in the forest, battle for their homeland. There is danger everywhere. Will Lydia and Katarina, and their companions survive?

‘Safe. There was no meaning in that word. It was an empty promise.’

I won’t write more about the story (I’m trying hard to avoid any spoilers). I liked the way in which Ms Chater wrote her story around the successive invasions of Estonia during World War II. The history supports the fiction without overpowering it. I could easily envisage the women knitting together, sharing their knowledge, unpicking and then reknitting the wool when no new wool was available. There’s a strength here, in sharing this tradition, a continuity in common purpose.

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


Away and other stories by Leigh Swinbourne

‘As life briefly changes purpose, so do the rules by which we live.’

In each of the ten short stories contained in this book, individuals need to make difficult choices. A husband, desperate to keep his wife, makes a deal he knows is morally wrong. A collector chooses a priceless work of art knowing that a life will be lost. A man meets a woman and is so desperate to know about her past that he destroys any prospect of a shared future. At her father’s funeral, a woman reflects on the past, on relationships, on inner lives and memories, on a mask. A woman revisits the past, and then rushes to (re)join the real world.

Each story is self-contained, but I found invitations in some of them to think about the different choices characters could have made. The shortest of these stories has fewer than ten pages, the longest is just over thirty pages. And, as I removed myself from each of the different situations, I thought about the skill involved in creating ten quite different situations. Sometimes choices seem clear, but somehow, they are not. With a few deftly chosen words, Mr Swinbourne creates complications.

Stories to read, think about, and perhaps to reread.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Just not cricket: why ball tampering is cheating


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In happier times: Cameron Bancroft and Steve Smith talk to the media during the victorious Ashes series.
AAP/Darren England

Keith Parry, Western Sydney University; Emma Kavanagh, Bournemouth University, and Steven Freeland, Western Sydney University

Australian cricket is engulfed in scandal after TV cameras caught Cameron Bancroft attempting to manipulate the condition of the ball during the team’s third Test match against South Africa. Bancroft and the Australian captain, Steve Smith, subsequently admitted to the offence and the collusion of the player leadership group in the decision to do so.

Altering the condition of the match ball is against the rules of the sport, contrary to “the spirit of cricket”, and deemed to be “unfair”. It is a form of cheating.

What is ball tampering?

Cricket is not only controlled by a set of rules but, according to the sport’s laws, it should also be played “within the spirit of cricket”.

Like most sports, cricket is a self-regulating entity. The national associations and, ultimately, the International Cricket Council (ICC) enforce the laws. That said, cricket remains tied to gentlemanly ideals and the myth of “fair play”.

This “spirit” encourages respect for players and officials while advocating for self-discipline. Significantly, it says the:

… major responsibility for ensuring fair play rests with the captains.

Within these rules, law 41.3 identifies changing the condition of the match ball as an offence and “unfair play”. Specifically, law 41.3.2 states:

It is an offence for any player to take any action which changes the condition of the ball.

But why is the condition of the ball so important?

The ability to “swing” a ball is a prized skill in cricket. Altering the condition of one side of the ball can help it to swing, and may provide an advantage to the bowling team.

Read more:
Video explainer: Bowling strategies and decision-making in cricket

Players try regularly try to “rough up” one side of the ball by, for instance, deliberately bouncing it on hard ground or applying sweat or saliva to it in ingenious ways. Such practices are not deemed to be contrary to the laws, even if they may not be within the spirit of cricket. Cricketers can bend the rules but not break them.

However, others have been known to use fingernails to scratch the ball, or have rubbed it on the zip of their trousers. Such measures are against the laws and are punishable under the ICC’s Code of Conduct.

In this case, Smith has been banned for one match and fined his match fee. Bancroft, who was caught with a piece of yellow sticky tape that he was attempting to use to tamper with the ball, has also been fined most of his fee and issued three demerit points.


Risk and reward

When games are evenly matched, small gains from cheating can be enough to swing the result one way. This has occurred in other sports.

Sport is now a commercial product with large rewards for winning. In addition, when players are representing their country, there may be considerable pressure to win at all costs, particularly when sport plays a prominent role in the country’s national identity.

According to Smith, the Australians “saw this game as such an important game”. Here, the significance of the game and the team’s desire to win are used to justify cheating. The spirit of cricket and “fair play” were given little thought.

In his work on match-fixing, investigative journalist Declan Hill identifies several questions that may be considered when players are contemplating cheating. The importance of the game is a key factor. Prospective cheats will also evaluate whether they can win without cheating and the sanctions they risk if they are caught.

The Australian cricketers believed the game was slipping away from them. They either did not think they would be caught, or were not deterred by the possible sanctions.

Leading by example

In several cases of cheating, it has been senior players that have induced their younger teammates to cheat.

Two former cricket captains, South Africa’s Hansie Cronje and Pakistan’s Salman Butt, both recruited younger, less experienced players in their attempts to manipulate cricket matches. Similarly, Bancroft is at the start of his Test career and appears to have been influenced by others in the team.

Rather than ensuring fair play, Smith contrived to break both the game’s laws and spirit. Worryingly, it was not just Smith and Bancroft, but a group of senior players who were initially involved.

The players will have evaluated whether it was morally right to cheat and decided that winning was more important. While not a “crime” in the traditional sense of the word, the premeditated nature of these actions increases the level of deception and subsequent outrage surrounding the decision.

The event calls into question not only the behavioural integrity of those involved but also more broadly the moral integrity of the environment in which they function. This is an environment that leaves players viewing ball-tampering on this scale as a viable match-winning strategy.

Smith’s role, as captain, has often been described as the second-most-important job in Australia (after the prime minister). It is for this reason that the Australian Sports Commission has called for him, along with any members of the leadership group or coaching staff “who had prior awareness of, or involvement in, the plan to tamper with the ball”, to stand down or be sacked.

The plot to tamper with the ball was a clear attempt to cheat and has brought the spirit of cricket into question. The implications of being caught cheating or significance of the action were overruled in favour of an outcome: winning a match.

The ConversationSuch actions demonstrate the short-term focus players can have in the moment, ignoring the magnitude of their decisions. In this case, the fallout will be far greater than any punishment the sport will hand out.

Keith Parry, Senior Lecturer in Sport Management, Western Sydney University; Emma Kavanagh, Senior Lecturer in Sports Psychology and Coaching Sciences, Bournemouth University, and Steven Freeland, Dean, School of Law and Professor of International Law, Western Sydney University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The Unbinding of Mary Reade: Miriam McNamara

I’m tempted …

The Idle Woman


Well, hoist the mainsail, stock up on rum and run up the Jolly Roger: it’s time for a swashbuckling tale of piratical adventure! And, this time, the boys don’t have all the fun. Miriam McNamara introduces us to Mary Reade, who runs away to sea in 1717 disguised as a man, and who finds a new lease of life when the Dutch ship on which she serves is taken by pirates. Mary is impressed by the elegant pirate captain, ‘Calico’ Jack Rackham, but even more taken with the red-headed woman who fights in a red velvet gown at his side. This is Anne Bonny who, along with Mary, is one of the very few known female pirates. McNamara’s story plays a little fast and loose with the ‘facts’, though there are few enough of those, but she conjures up an engaging read with a very modern take on…

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The Displaced by Frieda Watts

‘The sound of sheep’s hooves thundering against the sun-hardened road was the first sign that something was not right.’

In 1744, Marie-Christine (Marie) Lévesque and her twin brother Nicolas (Nic) lived with their mother’s sister Annette and her husband Claude-Jean des Babineaux in the Fortress of Louisbourg on the Île Royale (now Cape Breton Island in Canada). Marie and Nic, and their friends Elise Sarrazin and Pierre Thibault, are growing into adulthood at a time when the conflict between France and Britain has spread across the Atlantic to North America.

Ms Watt has written an engaging work of historical fiction with a strong romantic component. Will Marie and Pierre ever find happiness together, or are they doomed to live forever apart? Lives are changed by the fortunes of war: some plans are thwarted (at least temporarily) while the conflict brings out both the best in some characters and the worst in others. Ms Watt has developed some interesting characters, and by adding elements of betrayal, conflict, double-dealing, friendship, intrigue, love, tragedy and (occasional) triumph to the mix, has provided a novel which I enjoyed and am likely to reread.

While I have a general understanding of eighteenth century battles between Britain and France, I knew nothing about the Fortress of Louisbourg. I often enjoy reading romance in an historical setting, but it is the historical period usually, rather than the romance, that holds my attention. At times I found the pace slow. This is not a criticism as I found that this served to enrich the story by describing life in Louisbourg and helped to provide sufficient detail and context to bring the characters and the period alive.

I understand that this is the first of a series of three novels planned: I’ll certainly be interested in reading the others.

Note: My thanks to Stuart Watt for providing me with an electronic ARC of this book for review purposes.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Podcasts: Wrongful

Sobering, and scary.

The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

This is a series of Australian podcasts, produced by ABC Radio National for their Earshot program. They explore five cases of wrongful conviction that have occurred in Western Australia over recent decades.  They are well-produced and chilling.  Most of the time there was a journalist digging away in the background, sometimes for decades, and the wheels of justice creak very, very slowly.

You can download each of the podcasts from this link:

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Egyptian Enigma by LJM Owen

‘I absolutely thrive on uncovering what happened in the past.’

The novel opens with Dr Elizabeth Pimms and her New York friend Henry holidaying in Egypt, where Elizabeth is intrigued by some cryptic symbols in the corner of an ancient papyrus from the Golden Tomb in the Cairo Museum.

‘A museum label nearby stated that the Golden Tomb had been built for an unknown prince, his Pharaoh father also unknown: both names had been chiselled off the sarcophagus and wherever they had appeared on the walls.’

While the Cairo Museum held the mummy from the sarcophagus, the other scrolls, coffins and mummies it contained were in other institutions.  Elizabeth considers the Golden Tomb beautiful, and she would love to know who it was built for.

So begins the third instalment of the Dr Pimms, Intermillenial Sleuth series.  Elizabeth’s trip to Egypt has been marred by the puzzling theft of her journal from her hotel:

‘What value could a used notebook possibly have on the streets of Cairo?’

But a new adventure is about to begin.

Once back in Canberra, Elizabeth is juggling her work at the Mahony Griffin Library with her tutoring commitments.  In a Skype session with Henry, now back in New York, Henry suggests that the use of a 3D printer may be able to assist them in identifying the mummy in the Golden Tomb.

There are two storylines in this novel. While Elizabeth and her team are trying to work out who was contained in the Golden Tomb, we are also introduced to Tausret in 1192 BCE.  And who is Tausret, and what is her connection to the Golden Tomb?  The story shifts between Tausret’s life and the machinations of the Pharaoh’s court, and Elizabeth’s investigations to try to determine who was buried in the Golden Tomb.   But Elizabeth has real life commitments as well, and family responsibilities.  Her grandfather’s health is an issue, and there are other issues surrounding her father …

This is my favourite novel so far in the Dr Pimms series.  I really enjoyed the information about ancient Egypt, and the approach taken by Elizabeth and her team to try to solve the mystery.  While I’m less interested in aspects of Elizabeth’s personal life, I am extraordinarily envious of her phrenic library.

The novel ends with a cliff hanger.  While I personally don’t need that hook to keep reading the series, I hope that I don’t have to wait too long for the fourth instalment.  Thank you, LJM Owen, for writing such interesting, informative and intriguing cozy mysteries.

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

Jennifer Cameron-Smith


Templar Silks by Elizabeth Chadwick

‘It is something I need to remember, but not something you need to know .’

In April 1219, at his Manor of Caversham near Reading in Berkshire, William Marshal’s life is nearing its end. Marshal, Regent of England and one of England’s greatest knights, served four English kings during his long and eventful life. Marshal has sent one of his knights to Striguil in Wales to collect the silks he brought home from his pilgrimage to Jerusalem. These are what he intends to be buried in. As he lies in his bed, shifting between consciousness and unconsciousness, between pain and relief, his thoughts turn to that pilgrimage. On his deathbed, Henry, the Young King, eldest son and heir of Henry II asked William Marshal to swear an oath to undertake a pilgrimage to Jerusalem on his behalf:

‘I want you to go to Jerusalem and lay my cloak on the tomb of Christ at the Holy Sepulchre .

In 1183, William Marshal was still a landless knight. Unattached, unmarried and dependent upon the patronage of others, there was no barrier to his undertaking the pilgrimage. And now, over thirty years later, he remembers the journey, the adventures, the people he met.

‘I was dreaming’, he said. ‘I was not in this time and place .’

William Marshal spent three years on this pilgrimage, but little is known about this period of his life. This lack of detail has enabled Ms Chadwick (who has written several novels about William Marshal and his family) to imagine how that time was spent. In this novel, William Marshal’s trip to Jerusalem took him via Constantinople, to the court of King Baldwin IV of Jerusalem (the Leper King), febrile with internal intrigue and threatened by Saladin. We meet the Patriarch of Jerusalem and his mistress, Paschia de Riveri. And amongst these historical figures, Ms Chadwick weaves a romance for William Marshal, and a possible explanation for decisions he makes.

I’ve fallen in love with the William Marshal of Ms Chadwick’s novels, and I enjoyed this novel as well. We know that William Marshal survived the pilgrimage, but I had to remind myself of this a couple of times.

For those who enjoyed Ms Chadwick’s novels about William Marshal as much as I did, this is a terrific read. As the novel alternates between William Marshal’s deathbed and the experiences of his pilgrimage, past and present move together.

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

La Belle Sauvage: Philip Pullman

I really enjoyed ‘His Dark Materials’, and I think I need to read this as well. But when?

The Idle Woman


The Book of Dust: Book I

This review is overdue because I read this book back in January, but the delay doesn’t point to anything rather than my own inefficiency. I’d asked for it for Christmas, eager to return to the otherworldly Oxford that I knew so well from His Dark Materials. After so many years, I did wonder whether Pullman would be able to carry off the same magical mixture that he achieved in the original: part children’s story, part moral fable, part religious allegory, which by the end had a truly epic sweep. I hoped I wouldn’t be disappointed. And I wasn’t. For me, La Belle Sauvage didn’t quite have the same wild, transporting alchemy as Northern Lights, but Pullman’s writing remains entirely reliable. To read it is to give yourself up into the hands of a master storyteller.

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Stephen Hawking: Martin Rees looks back on colleague’s spectacular success against all odds (from The Conversation)


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Lwp Kommunikáció/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Martin Rees, University of Cambridge

Soon after I enrolled as a graduate student at Cambridge University in 1964, I encountered a fellow student, two years ahead of me in his studies, who was unsteady on his feet and spoke with great difficulty. This was Stephen Hawking. He had recently been diagnosed with a degenerative disease, and it was thought that he might not survive long enough even to finish his PhD. But he lived to the age of 76, passing away on March 14, 2018.

It really was astonishing. Astronomers are used to large numbers. But few numbers could be as large as the odds I’d have given against witnessing this lifetime of achievement back then. Even mere survival would have been a medical marvel, but of course he didn’t just survive. He became one of the most famous scientists in the world – acclaimed as a world-leading researcher in mathematical physics, for his best-selling books and for his astonishing triumph over adversity.

Perhaps surprisingly, Hawking was rather laid back as an undergraduate student at Oxford University. Yet his brilliance earned him a first class degree in physics, and he went on to pursue a research career at the University of Cambridge. Within a few years of the onset of his disease, he was wheelchair-bound, and his speech was an indistinct croak that could only be interpreted by those who knew him. In other respects, fortune had favoured him. He married a family friend, Jane Wilde, who provided a supportive home life for him and their three children.

Early work

The 1960s were an exciting period in astronomy and cosmology. This was the decade when evidence began to emerge for black holes and the Big Bang. In Cambridge, Hawking focused on the new mathematical concepts being developed by the mathematical physicist Roger Penrose, then at University College London, which were initiating a renaissance in the study of Einstein’s theory of general relativity.

Using these techniques, Hawking worked out that the universe must have emerged from a “singularity” – a point in which all laws of physics break down. He also realised that the area of a black hole’s event horizon – a point from which nothing can escape – could never decrease. In the subsequent decades, the observational support for these ideas has strengthened – most spectacularly with the 2016 announcement of the detection of gravitational waves from colliding black holes.

Hawking at the University of Cambridge.
Lwp Kommunikáció/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Hawking was elected to the Royal Society, Britain’s main scientific academy, at the exceptionally early age of 32. He was by then so frail that most of us suspected that he could scale no further heights. But, for Hawking, this was still just the beginning.

He worked in the same building as I did. I would often push his wheelchair into his office, and he would ask me to open an abstruse book on quantum theory – the science of atoms, not a subject that had hitherto much interested him. He would sit hunched motionless for hours – he couldn’t even to turn the pages without help. I remember wondering what was going through his mind, and if his powers were failing. But within a year, he came up with his best ever idea – encapsulated in an equation that he said he wanted on his memorial stone.

Scientific stardom

The great advances in science generally involve discovering a link between phenomena that seemed hitherto conceptually unconnected. Hawking’s “eureka moment” revealed a profound and unexpected link between gravity and quantum theory: he predicted that black holes would not be completely black, but would radiate energy in a characteristic way.

This radiation is only significant for black holes that are much less massive than stars – and none of these have been found. However, “Hawking radiation” had very deep implications for mathematical physics – indeed one of the main achievements of a theoretical framework for particle physics called string theory has been to corroborate his idea.

Indeed, the string theorist Andrew Strominger from Harvard University (with whom Hawking recently collaborated) said that this paper had caused “more sleepless nights among theoretical physicists than any paper in history”. The key issue is whether information that is seemingly lost when objects fall into a black hole is in principle recoverable from the radiation when it evaporates. If it is not, this violates a deeply believed principle of general physics. Hawking initially thought such information was lost, but later changed his mind.

Hawking continued to seek new links between the very large (the cosmos) and the very small (atoms and quantum theory) and to gain deeper insights into the very beginning of our universe – addressing questions like “was our big bang the only one?”. He had a remarkable ability to figure things out in his head. But he also worked with students and colleagues who would write formulas on a blackboard – he would stare at it, say whether he agreed and perhaps suggest what should come next.

He was specially influential in his contributions to “cosmic inflation” – a theory that many believe describes the ultra-early phases of our expanding universe. A key issue is to understand the primordial seeds which eventually develop into galaxies. Hawking proposed (as, independently, did the Russian theorist Viatcheslav Mukhanov) that these were “quantum fluctuations” (temporary changes in the amount of energy in a point in space) – somewhat analogous to those involved in “Hawking radiation” from black holes.

He also made further steps towards linking the two great theories of 20th century physics: the quantum theory of the microworld and Einstein’s theory of gravity and space-time.

Declining health and cult status

In 1987, Hawking contracted pneumonia. He had to undergo a tracheotomy, which removed even the limited powers of speech he then possessed. It had been more than ten years since he could write, or even use a keyboard. Without speech, the only way he could communicate was by directing his eye towards one of the letters of the alphabet on a big board in front of him.

But he was saved by technology. He still had the use of one hand; and a computer, controlled by a single lever, allowed him to spell out sentences. These were then declaimed by a speech synthesiser, with the androidal American accent that thereafter became his trademark.

His lectures were, of course, pre-prepared, but conversation remained a struggle. Each word involved several presses of the lever, so even a sentence took several minutes to construct. He learnt to economise with words. His comments were aphoristic or oracular, but often infused with wit. In his later years, he became too weak to control this machine effectively, even via facial muscles or eye movements, and his communication – to his immense frustration – became even slower.

Hawking in zero gravity.

At the time of his tracheotomy operation, he had a rough draft of a book, which he’d hoped would describe his ideas to a wide readership and earn something for his two eldest children, who were then of college age. On his recovery from pneumonia, he resumed work with the help of an editor. When the US edition of A Brief History of Time appeared, the printers made some errors (a picture was upside down), and the publishers tried to recall the stock. To their amazement, all copies had already been sold. This was the first inkling that the book was destined for runaway success, reaching millions of people worldwide.

And he quickly became somewhat of a cult figure, featuring on popular TV shows ranging from the Simpsons to The Big Bang Theory. This was probably because the concept of an imprisoned mind roaming the cosmos plainly grabbed people’s imagination. If he had achieved equal distinction in, say, genetics rather than cosmology, his triumph probably wouldn’t have achieved the same resonance with a worldwide public.

As shown in the feature film The Theory of Everything, which tells the human story behind his struggle, Hawking was far from being the archetype unworldy or nerdish scientist. His personality remained amazingly unwarped by his frustrations and handicaps. He had robust common sense, and was ready to express forceful political opinions.

However, a downside of his iconic status was that that his comments attracted exaggerated attention even on topics where he had no special expertise – for instance, philosophy, or the dangers from aliens or from intelligent machines. And he was sometimes involved in media events where his “script” was written by the promoters of causes about which he may have been ambivalent.

The ConversationUltimately, Hawking’s life was shaped by the tragedy that struck him when he was only 22. He himself said that everything that happened since then was a bonus. And what a triumph his life has been. His name will live in the annals of science and millions have had their cosmic horizons widened by his best-selling books. He has also inspired millions by a unique example of achievement against all the odds – a manifestation of amazing willpower and determination.

Martin Rees, Emeritus Professor of Cosmology and Astrophysics, University of Cambridge

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.