The Year Without Summer by Guinevere Glasfurd

‘Never had there been such a bad year as this.’

In 1815, Mount Tambora on Sumbawa Island (then part of the Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia) exploded.  This powerful volcanic eruption killed thousands immediately, led to the starvation of thousands more, and had a massive impact on the world’s climate in 1816.  The Year Without Summer, as 1816 came to be known, caused famine resulting in poverty and riots.  Snow fell in the northern hemisphere in August.

‘It was the end of times; he knew of no other reason for it.’

In this novel, Ms Glasfurd imagines the impact of The Year Without Summer through the lives of six different people.  The six people include a Fenland farm labourer, a preacher in Vermont, a doctor on a ship, a war veteran, as well as the author Mary Shelley and the painter John Constable.

None of these stories are related, each serves to highlight the impact of The Year Without Summer.  John Constable’s painting was influenced by changes to light, Mary Shelley struggled to find a story to write.  The Vermont preacher persuades people not to move and has to live with the consequences.  The ship’s doctor describes what he sees in the ocean off the Dutch East Indies, and how helpless he is.  The war veteran and the Fenland farm labourer are both caught up in riots as crops fail, wages fall, and producers seek to mechanise labour-intensive work.

‘The year of 1816 was one of flood and fire, of popular protest and revolutionary struggle, of Constable’s art and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.’

As I read this novel, in Australia in January 2020, I am surrounded by fires.  Some of those fires have resulted from weather caused by existing fires.  In the north, there has been some flooding, close by a massive hailstorm.  The impact of climatic events is all too real.  I found this novel difficult to put down.  While the six stories are not interrelated, they don’t need to be.  One purpose of the narrative is to imagine the widespread impact of such a climate disaster.

Unsettling.  Highly recommended.  I just wish I could confine it all to fiction.

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

Island Story by Ralph Crane and Danielle Wood

‘Objects, whatever form they take, invite us to think about their history, the stories they contain and the stories they can tell.’

I was alerted to the existence of this beautiful book by Lisa ( and put in a request for my library to buy a copy.  I borrowed it, opened the cover and was immediately transported home.  There are connections everywhere for me in this book.  Sometimes it is one of the 57 objects itself (some of which I’ve seen) or the accompanying text.  Sometimes it is the writer.  One of the contributors, Tim Thorne, was once a teacher of mine at high school in Launceston. He also spoke about my great uncle, Max Bound, after Max’s death in 2012.

There are poems about places, there are landscapes.  There are authors I have read, including Carmel Bird, Heather Rose, Danielle Wood, James McQueen, Matthew Kneale and Jennifer Livett and others I know of.  I want to reread ‘Hook’s Mountain’. And there are paintings by Thomas Bock, Thomas Griffiths Wainewright and others.  Mention of the zinc works takes me back to the 1960s, and any mention of thylacines takes me to the death of the last known Tasmanian Tiger at the Beaumaris Zoo in Hobart in 1936, when my parents were young children.

I have to keep bringing my attention back to the objects and their accompanying text.  The protests to save the Franklin River.  The bushfires of 1967: the tragedy and devastation, being repeated again and again.  I recognise the 1920s washing machine, surely never as good as my Da’s copper and mangle (which he used until 1969).  A poem about roadkill takes me off on another tangent: memories of stories about cooking native hens.  Muttonbirds on Big Dog Island reminds me of food I’ve not tasted for over forty years, and (much more uncomfortably) of colonial impact on Indigenous peoples.

I love the way in which items are paired with text: not all connections are immediately obvious, but with a little reflection I could see them.

I am home for a while, longing to revisit the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery.

I close the book, wanting more.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith



The Changing Room by Christine Sykes

‘It was all getting too much for her.  Her life seemed out of control.  There were too many mysteries, too many feelings and too much to do.’

Three very different women: Anna, in her sixties, executive assistant to her lover; Claire, married to a surgeon, driving force behind ‘Suitability’, a firm helping women dress professionally for job interviews; and Molly in her twenties with four small children.

Anna’s world is turned upside down when she loses her job.  She becomes a volunteer with ‘Suitability’, a clothing and styling service for disadvantaged women which was founded by Claire and two friends some years earlier.  Molly becomes a client of ‘Suitability’ when she needs suitable clothing for a court appearance.  Claire’s perfect life is threatened, as ‘Suitability’ outgrows both its business premises and her husband’s patience, and she sustains an injury.

The story moves between the three women and the different challenges they each must face.  On the face of it, Molly has the most difficult battle.  She needs to prove that she can provide a safe home for her children.  Anna, who has put her own life on hold for so many years, learns to apply her many skills in different ways.  And Claire has different battles to fight.

In this novel, Ms Sykes explores several different themes including domestic violence, relationship breakdown, unemployment, ill health, love and loss.  She also explores the way in which women from vastly different backgrounds and experiences can support each other.

I enjoyed this novel.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith



The Shining Wall by Melissa Ferguson

‘She loved Mum, but there was only so far love could take you in life.’

In this ruined world, the shining wall protects the haves from the have-nots. Inside the wall, wealthy humans live their long and privileged lives, supported by technology and cloned Neandertals. And by services provided by women living outside the wall.  Outside the wall, in the demi-settlements, where poverty and disease are rampant, people must scavenge for food and other essential supplies.  They also need to avoid the ever-present security forces.  Avoidance is difficult when so much of life is controlled by OmniScreens and implanted microchips.

This is where Alida (aged 17) and Graycie (aged 5) live, with their mother.  Until they are orphaned. Then their already difficult lives become more challenging.  Alida can make money, if she sells her body.  They meet Shuqba, a cloned Neandertal, posted outside the city.  Shuqba is under strict orders, which she struggles to align with her feelings. Shuqba helps Alida and Graycie.

‘Everything was a transaction to them.  If the cost exceeded their benefit, there was no point.’

Graycie becomes ill.  Desperate to save her life, Alida makes a decision which separates them.

I quickly became immersed in the awfulness of this dystopian world.  It’s not hard to imagine a world in which implanted microchips and software controls lives.  It’s not hard to picture a world in which a privileged minority control the majority.  It’s even easier to relate to a world in which a wall divides the haves from the have-nots. But this novel, with its details of everyday life and its descriptions of power struggles makes what should (just) be fiction unsettlingly close. People harvested for organs, women being used to incubate children for the privileged are real, even if cloned Neandertals are not (yet).

‘What were security and comfort if you had no control over your own body?’

For me, this was a story that I could not put down.  I wanted to know how it would end.  I wanted …

Jennifer Cameron-Smith



The Cherry Picker’s Daughter by Kerry Reed-Gilbert

‘I am the cherry picker’s daughter.’

Kerry Reed-Gilbert (24 October 1956 – 13 July 2019) was a Wiradjuri poet, elder, author and educator.  She was a champion of up-and-coming Indigenous writers and an Aboriginal rights activist.  She died the day after she’d provided the final corrections and amendments to the manuscript of ‘The Cherry Picker’s Daughter’.

‘The Cherry Picker’s Daughter’ is Kerry Reed-Gilbert’s memoir of childhood.  Of growing up Aboriginal on the fringes of towns in regional New South Wales.  Of fear. Of prejudice.  Of disadvantage.

‘Everything we do is about avoiding the attention of the white people and, ultimately, the welfare, at all costs.  It’s not safe to ask white people for anything.’

Her father’s sister, Aunty Joyce Hutchings, raised her and her brother Kevin after her father was imprisoned for murdering her mother.  Aunty Joyce Hutchings, whom Kerry called Mummy, sounds like an exceptional woman.  Looking after her own children as well as others.  Working hard to keep them all fed and clothed.  It is Aunty Joyce Hutchings who is the cherry picker.

‘Picking can be really hard work and we have to work harder than the white people, too.  They get more money for a pound of cherries than we do.  We only get ten cents a pound while they get twenty cents.’

Racism, persecution and poverty are all part of this story.  I find it difficult to read: Kerry Reed-Gilbert, dead at 62.  Born in the same year as me, but in vastly different circumstances. I read of how the family has to camp in various places when the river level rises, and they can’t get to their home.  And then that home is lost.

‘I wonder why life has to be so bad to us that it wants to cause us all this misery.  Our house burns down, my father’s locked in a bad place and I don’t know why.’

I read about the racism experienced by Kerry Reed-Gilbert and her family, the double standards applied, the constant fear of ‘the welfare’ coming and taking children away.  I read about exceptional women who do their best to keep families together, and of the later (and different) struggles as families fracture.

Kerry Reed-Gilbert was a teacher and advocate.  She was also the co-founder and inaugural chairperson of the First Nations Australian Writers Network (FNAWN).  Her memoir is important: both a reminder to all of us of the continuing struggles faced by so many Indigenous peoples; and a tribute to an exceptional woman.

‘This book is to say thank you to my mother, Mummy, who took us home.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith



Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo

‘Twelve different people, twelve different stories.’

What a glorious novel this is: the interconnected (sometimes in surprising ways) stories of twelve very different characters. All born female, mostly black and British, they tell of their lives, loves and families. They tell of their challenges, too, of trying to overcome stereotypes, of trying to find their own place in the world.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I opened this novel. Reading Booker Prize winners is a bit of a lottery for me: some books I’ve loved, others have left me cold, wondering what I have missed. This book, though, would not let me put it down. So engrossed was I in reading these stories that I didn’t notice how limited the punctuation was. So engrossed that I didn’t need punctuation.

This is one of the few novels I’ve read recently where the ending seemed less important than the journey towards it. While I liked some of the characters more than the others, each of them became real. I loved the way in which Ms Evaristo entwined the stories, had me learning about a previous character’s past while in the current character’s present.

Different struggles for each character, different generations seeing different aspects as being more important. For some, their parents have sacrificed much to try to enable their children to succeed. Others are irritated that their parents can’t leave the past (history and customs) behind.

And the ending? Somehow it is just perfect.

I loved it.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

GRAEME WORBOYS: Kosciuszko: Post 2020 fire responses | John Menadue – Pearls and Irritations

In January 2020 severe bushfires burnt parts of Kosciuszko National Park impacting its National Heritage listed catchment wetlands, fauna and flora values. The fires also impacted part of Cabramurra, Mt Selwyn ski resort, Snowy 2 engineering equipment and historic structures. In its fire blackened state, feral animals were a major threat to the park, especially…

Source: GRAEME WORBOYS: Kosciuszko: Post 2020 fire responses | John Menadue – Pearls and Irritations

Shepherd by Catherine Jinks

‘I see nothing around me that I can properly name.’

New South Wales, 1840. Thirteen-year-old Tom Clay, an orphan, was convicted of poaching in Suffolk.  He is transported to New South Wales.   He’s assigned to a farmer as a shepherd, one of three whose job it is to protect his master’s flock of sheep from wild dogs. The three of them live in a crude hut.  Tom finds the sheep dogs better company than the men.

‘I’m as lost in this place as I would be in the middle of London.  I don’t know what is dangerous and what isn’t.’

But this is no idyll.  A man is murdered.  He is replaced. The murderer, intent on eliminating witnesses, returns.  The shepherds must fight for their lives.  They flee into the bush and are pursued.

The story is told over a couple of days.  The action is relentless.  We are with Tom as he flees, trying to find safety, trying to survive.  Can Tom prevail over the murderer?

The first time I read this, I had my heart in my mouth.  The second time (for I needed to reread) I was better able to observe Ms Jinks’s storytelling skills.

If you enjoy fast-paced action set in 19th century Australia, I can recommend this novel.

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

Jennifer Cameron-Smith



Storytime – Growing up with books by Jane Sullivan

‘I am a compulsive reader.’

In this book, Jane Sullivan revisits about a dozen books which she had read in her childhood. Her objective was to recall her memories of those books, then re-read them and record her new reactions. I picked up this book because I love reading about the reading experiences of others.

‘This will not be a book about books. It will be a book about my experience of reading those books.’

Jane Sullivan is only a few years older than me, and many of the books in her list are books that I have also read: ‘Winnie-the-Pooh’; ‘Alice in Wonderland’; ‘The Wind in the Willows’; ‘Little Women’; ‘What Katy Did’, ‘Heidi’ and lots of Enid Blyton. Other books such as the Narnia series, I read as an adult. Some I’d never heard of.

‘It’s ten o’clock at night and there’s still enough light to read by.’

I can’t imagine growing up without books. They were a source of learning as well as a source of escape. Robert Louis Stevenson was my favourite author before I was ten, but once I moved into the adult section of the library (with special permission at around that age) my horizons widened.

I was interested in which books Jane Sullivan chose to reread and why and interested in her reactions. Should I confess that I’ve never felt like rereading most of the books that were part of my childhood? I’m afraid that the magic would be lost, that the child who so enjoyed the adventures of ‘The Wind in the Willows’ and ‘Alice in Wonderland’ would be pushed aside by the more critical adult.

I enjoyed this book, especially reading Ms Sullivan’s differing reactions to the books she chose. I am tempted to dip into the world of Moonmin, and perhaps Edith Nesbit. But I am not tempted to reread the books I already know from this list.

‘I needed different things at different times from different books.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith



A Meal in Winter by Hubert Mingarelli (translated from French by Sam Taylor)

‘We explained to him that we would rather do the hunting than the shootings.’

Poland, World War II.  Three German soldiers, Bauer, Emmerich and the unnamed narrator are members of an Einsatzgruppe.  One day, instead of killing the Jewish people already rounded up, they have permission to track down and bring back more Jews in hiding.

‘We were no longer allowed to kill them where we found them, unless an officer was present to vouch for the fact.  These days, we had to bring them back.’

They find a young man hiding in the woods.  A young man, with a snowflake embroidered on his cap.  They then decide to rest in an abandoned hut, out of the bitterly cold winter, for a while before returning to the camp.  They break into the hut, and then set out to prepare a meal.  As they break wood for fuel, melt snow to cook the food they have, they are joined by a Pole who offers them potato alcohol in exchange for some of their meal.  The Polish man’s obvious and outspoken antisemitism heightens the tension.

‘Thus began the strangest meal we ever had in Poland.’

The focus of the novella is the preparation of this meal, the difficulty in preparing it, the logistics of sharing it given that they only have three mugs and a saucepan.  Will they share their food with the young Jewish man?  Will they let him free, or take him back to the camp?  The narrator is moved by the snowflake on the young man’s cap: he sees it as a thoughtful maternal display.  He may be able to forget about these personal touches later, but as he sees them, he is reminded of human similarities, not differences.

I finished this novella profoundly moved.  The contrast between the ordinary, mundane (albeit difficult in the circumstances) task of preparing a meal contrasted with the horrific hunting of a Jewish person for execution. Somehow, the mundane details (starting a cooking fire, the snowflake on the cap, sharing food) made the purpose of the mission even more horrific.

Powerful.  A disturbing reminder of how we ‘other’.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith