The Burning Island by Jock Serong

‘I had been aware of the man in the corner of my vision for an hour or more.’

Sydney, 1830. Eliza Grayling, thirty-two years old, has lived in Sydney all her life. Unmarried, she lives by herself and looks out for her father Joshua, a reclusive alcoholic.  There is something in Joshua’s past that haunts him.  Something that happened before she was born, something he does not speak about.

‘Circumstances are strands in a rope … it was their combination that mattered.’

And then, another man from the past arrives.  Srinivas, whose ship the Howrah has been lost.  Srinivas wants Joshua’s help.  He believes that foul play is involved, in the islands of the Furneaux group.  After following Eliza, Srinivas meets with Grayling.  Grayling remembers him and agrees to help.  He sees an opportunity to meet with his nemesis, Figge.   An opportunity to revisit and put right what went wrong thirty-three years earlier.

Joshua Grayling is blind: Eliza feels obliged to travel with him.  They are to travel on the Moonbird, with a small crew, including Dr Gideon who is a medical doctor and an amateur naturalist.

What follows is an extraordinary voyage at a time when sealers were operating in the Furneaux group and when George Augustus Robinson’s agents actively seeking to remove Indigenous women from the islands.  Mr Serong brings his characters to life: the flawed fictional characters as well as the real sealers and the tyereelore women living with them on the islands.  It is a dark tale of pursuit, strength and weakness, and the power of the past over the present.  Will Joshua Grayling find the answers he is looking for?  Will Eliza be able to protect him from himself?  It is an epic journey, a brilliantly written novel which, having given me some unforgettable images, has claimed its own space in my memory.

Mr Serong’s Author’s Note includes the facts around which this fiction is woven.  He also provides some suggested reading for those of us who want to know more about the Furneaux group and those who lived there.

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

Jennifer Cameron-Smith


Need a mood lift? We’ve tracked 4 ways Australia’s environment has repaired itself in 2020 (from the Conversation)


Albert Van Dijk, Australian National University

When the clock ticked over to 2020, Australia was in the grip of a brutal drought and unprecedented bushfires. But in the months since, while many of us were indoors avoiding the pandemic, nature has started its slow recovery. That is the message of our new analysis released today.

Every year, my colleagues and I collate a vast number of measurements made by satellites, field sensors and people. We process the data and combine them into a consistent picture of the state of our environment.

Our 2019 report documented a disaster year of record heat, drought, and bushfires. We repeated the analysis after the first half of 2020, keen to see how our environment was recovering.

It’s not all good news. But encouragingly, our results show most of the country has started to bounce back from drought and fire. Here are four ways that’s happening.

1. Rain

Whether a region is in drought depends on the measure used: rainfall, river flows, reservoir storage, soil water availability or cropping conditions. On top of that, Australia is a vast country with large differences between regions.

By most measures, and for most of the country, wetter weather in 2020 helped ease drought conditions – although with caveats and notable exceptions.

Halfway through January, rain-blocking conditions in the Indian Ocean finally relented. This allowed the long-awaited monsoon to reach northern Australia, and encouraged more rainfall across the rest of the continent. February and March brought much needed rains in southeast Australia.

A young girl checks a rain gauge
A young girl checks a rain gauge as her mum watches on at the family farm in February this year. Recent rainfall has eased drought conditions in parts of Australia. Peter Lorimer/AAP

2. Water availability

Across the continent, the volume of water flowing into rivers in the first half of 2020 was almost four times greater than the previous year – although still below average. Good rains fell in the northern Murray-Darling Basin. Some made it into the town and irrigation water supplies that ran empty during the drought, and storage levels showed a modest improvement by the end of June to 17% of capacity.

The flows were also enough to fill wetlands such as Narran Lakes and the Paroo and Bulloo River wetlands, west of Bourke. There were enough flood waters left to send a modest flood pulse down the Darling River in March for the first time since 2016.

Maximum measured daily flow in the Darling River at Wilcannia (left) and the maximum extent of wetland inundation in the 12 months up to June 2020, compared to the period 2000–2019.

Reservoir water storage across the entire the Murray-Darling Basin improved from 36% of capacity at the end of June 2019 to 44% a year later. Even so, by June 2020 dry conditions still persisted in the tributaries and wetlands of the middle and southern Murray-Darling Basin.

Storage in urban water supply systems increased for Sydney (52% to 81%) and Melbourne (50% to 64%) while remaining stable for Brisbane (66%), Canberra (55%) and Perth (41%).

Meanwhile, lake and wetland extent across much of Western Australia remained at record or near-record low levels. Due to the poor northern monsoon, Lake Argyle – the massive dam lake supplying the Ord irrigation scheme in northern Australia – shrank to 38% of capacity, a level not seen for several decades.

Read more: Global report gives Australia an A for coronavirus response but a D on climate

3. Soil moisture

Soil moisture acts like a bank account: rainfall makes deposits and plant roots make withdrawals. This makes soil moisture a useful measure of drought condition.

Average soil water availability across the country was far below average at the start of 2020, but returned closer to average conditions from March 2020 onwards. Very to extremely low soil water availability across most of northwest and southeast Australia had eased by June 2020.

By the end of June, rains had also improved growing conditions in southeast Queensland, western New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia. However, recovery in these regions is, literally, shallow. Soil water remains low in the deeper soil layers and groundwater from which trees and other drought-tolerant vegetation draw their water. Drought conditions also persist in the dry inland of Australia.

Average soil water availability and vegetation condition by local government area at the end of June 2020 in comparison to 2000−2019 conditions.

4. Vegetation growth

Vegetation condition is measured by estimating leaf area from satellite observations. National leaf area reached its lowest value in December 2019 due to drought and bushfires, but improved once the rains returned from February onwards. It’s remained very close to average since.

Autumn rains also brought the best growth conditions in many years across much of the eastern wheat and sheep belt. But in the Western Australian wheat belt, which did not see much rain, cropping conditions are average or below average.

We separately measured vegetation recovery across areas in southeast Australia burnt at different times during the 2019-20 fire season.

In the central and northern NSW regions which burnt earlier in the fire season and received plentiful rains, recovery was relatively swift – more than 63% of lost leaf area had returned by June 2020.

Recovery of vegetation leaf area in areas burnt in Sept/Oct and Nov/Dec 2019 and in Jan/Feb 2020, respectively.

But in the areas burnt in early 2020, recovery has been slow. The burnt forests in the far south of NSW and East Gippsland did not receive good rains until very recently. Also, much of areas burnt in early 2020 are found in the mountains of the NSW-Victoria border region, where cool autumn and winter temperatures have paused plant growth until spring.

Leaf area recovery is not a good measure of biodiversity. Much of the increase will have been due to rapid leaf flush from fire tolerant trees and undergrowth, including weeds. Some damage to ecosystems and sensitive species will take many years to recover, while some species may well be lost forever.

Blackened tree trunks and shoots of green
Australia’s environment is bouncing back from a horrendous 2019. Marta Yebra/ANU

Climate change: the biggest threat

Rainfall after June has been average to good across much of Australia, and La Niña conditions are predicted to bring further rain. So there is reason to hope our environment will get a chance to recover further from a horrendous 2019.

In the long term, climate change remains the greatest risk to our agriculture and ecosystems. Ever-increasing summer temperatures kill people, livestock and wildlife, dry out soil and vegetation, and increase fire risk. In 2020, high temperatures also caused the third mass coral bleaching event in the Great Barrier Reef in five years.

Decisive climate action is needed, in Australia and worldwide, if we’re to protect ourselves and our ecosystems from long-term decline.

Read more: Yes, it’s been raining a lot – but that doesn’t mean Australia’s drought has broken

Albert Van Dijk, Professor, Water and Landscape Dynamics, Fenner School of Environment & Society, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Fresh Cuttings (selected by Sue Abbey and Sandra Phillips)

‘A celebration of fiction and poetry from UQP’s Black Writing Series’

A copy of this anthology, published in 2003, found its way onto my bookshelf a couple of years ago.  Now that I have finally read it, I wonder why it took me so long.  It is a mixture of fiction and poetry, of authors I have already read and some that I’ve just learned about for the very first time.  There is biographical information about each of the authors.  Of the poets, I am most familiar with Elizabeth Hodgson.  I have a copy of ‘Skin Painting’ which I read a few years ago.  The other poets are Lisa Bellear, Jack Davis, Graeme Dixon and Samuel Wagan Watson.

Of the fiction writers, I am familiar with Alexis Wright, Melissa Lucashenko, and Doris Pilkington Garimara.  Each of the ten to twelve-page extracts included in this anthology had me wanting to read more.

My favourites?  Melissa Lucashenko’s ‘Steam Pigs and John Muk Muk Burke’s ‘Bridge of Triangles’.

If you are looking to read more fiction and/or poetry by Australian Indigenous authors, I can recommend this book.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith



Untrue till Death (Master Mercurius Mysteries #2) by Graham Brack

‘I just get things wrong now and again, that’s all.’

Leiden, The Netherlands, 1674.  As a result of his success in solving the case of the missing girls in Delft, Master Mercurius has made a name for himself.  He is summoned by William of Orange, who, suspicious that there is a plot to overthrow him, wants Master Mercurius to investigate.  But before Master Mercurius can start, one of his colleagues at the University of Leiden is murdered.

This novel is presented to us as part of Master Mercurius’s memoir:

‘Now that I am advanced in years, the time has come to set down my memoirs before senility sets in and I can no longer remember what happened.’

Because the story is presented in this way, Master Mercurius has some mischievous fun with the reader in the beginning as he moves backwards and forwards between events.  He may not have liked his murdered colleague very much, but who murdered him and why?  And then another man is murdered. Is William of Orange in danger?  Will Master Mercurius work out who is killing whom before William of Orange runs out of apples?

Poor Master Mercurius.  He is both an ordained Protestant Minister and a Catholic Priest.  Politics, religion, and an eye for women.  At least in his dreams.  Life is complicated.

‘That’s the trouble with bishops; they take religion too seriously.’

I really enjoyed this second book in the Master Mercurius series.  Mercurius himself is both observant and witty, and there are plenty of laugh out loud moments as he investigates:

‘No doubt you are wondering why I sent Van Looy for you.’

‘I was, of course.  A secondary question was why a man of sense would send Van Looy for anything.’

I really enjoyed this novel.  Master Mercurius is growing on me (there is a third book I’ve yet to read).  If you have not yet made his acquaintance, and you enjoy historical whodunnits with humour, then I can recommend this series. I can also recommend Mr Bracks’s Josef Slonský series as well.

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

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

The Erasure Initiative by Lili Wilkinson

‘I wake up, and for a few precious seconds I don’t realise there’s anything wrong.’

A girl wakes up on a self-driving bus.  She has no idea who she is, or how she got there.  There is a nametag on her T-shirt: ‘Cecily’.  There are six other people on the bus, each with a nametag and no memories.  They start talking, trying to work out who they are and what is happening.  The screen on each seatback gives them instructions.  There is a series of tests — each of them needs to choose an outcome.  Tests like this one:

‘You are in a moving vehicle.  Before you the road forks.  Ahead there are five pedestrians.  On the side road there is one pedestrian.  You can press a button and the bus will turn off onto the side road.  The bus will not stop.  Do you press the button?  YES/NO’

Each passenger must choose an outcome: the majority wins.  This is only the beginning.

And what do you do, in a situation where the past is unknown (and irrelevant)?  What choices do you make?  Who are the seven people on this bus, and why are they there?  How do you choose which lives to save?

As the story progresses, the stakes become higher.  While each of the seven characters has a role, the major characters are Cecily, Nia and Paxton.  Cecily is determined to escape, and Nia may be able to help her.  Small clues emerge, their perceptions of each other change.  But the more they learn, the more challenging choices become.

What an engrossing story this is!  I picked it up and could not put it down because I needed to know how it would end.  Are any of these people worth saving?  Can any of us be saved from ourselves?  There are a couple of twists that made me uncomfortable (choices can be difficult) but the story held my attention from beginning to end.  There is a mystery to solve and several moral issues to consider.

Highly recommended, and not just for its intended YA audience.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith



Exotic Stories for Punjabi Widows by Balli Kaur Jaswal

‘I’ll be mentoring women to write their stories.’

I would never have picked up this novel based on the name.  Never.  But when someone whose opinions I rate highly, read and reviewed this book, I was intrigued.

The novel is set in London.  Nikki, a young woman who is a law school dropout and struggling with her family’s expectations, attends the local community centre at the temple to post a notice for her sister Mindi on the notice board.  Mindi is seeking a traditional arranged marriage and thinks it prudent to advertise locally rather than invite Indian men who might only be seeking a British visa.

While posting the notice, Nikki (who needs more income than her current employment in a bar provides) sees an advertisement for a woman to teach creative writing.  Nikki gets the job, but the women who enrol in her class do so because they think she will teach them to read and write.

The women who enrol, the Punjabi widows in the novel, may live in London but they have maintained the traditional values of their Indian homeland and are essentially cut off from participating in life more broadly as a consequence.  As widows, they are in mourning.  Not all of them are elderly but most of them are illiterate.

‘What matters is that we’re keeping busy.’

While this novel focusses on the women and their classes (and their stories), it is what happens outside the classroom that held my attention.  There’s the mysterious death of Maya (the daughter of Kulwinder), there’s the fraught relationship Nikki has with her mother and sister, and there’s the threat posed to the women’s group by ‘The Brothers’ the conservative men who seek to police women.

What will happen if the stories are shared outside the classroom?

This novel made me think about cultural differences and expectations.  Some of the stories made me smile, but what really warmed my heart was that the women learned to venture outside some of their customary constraints.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Top End Girl by Miranda Tapsell

I cannot remember who first drew my attention to this book, but I am grateful to them. What a delightful read this was, and I recommend it to everyone who wants to read about an inspiring young Australian Indigenous woman.

‘I love what I do and the life I am living.’

In this energetic and engaging memoir, Miranda Tapsell writes of her childhood, her family, her time at NIDA and her work on the stage, on television and on film.  Miranda Tapsell is an Indigenous woman from the Northern Territory who has worked hard to succeed as a creative.  She writes about the challenges she faced as an Indigenous woman from a remote part of Australia looking for Indigenous role models in acting.  She writes about challenges; about her family’s support and the friends she has made.

I found this a heart-warming read because Ms Tapsell’s enthusiasm is infectious.  But there are serious issues addressed here as well as Ms Tapsell writes about making ‘Top End Wedding’, about reconnecting to family and culture.  There is a reminder too, about what is being lost, especially in terms of Indigenous languages.

Miranda Tapsell was born in Darwin in 1987, and her people are the Larrakia.  She grew up in Kakadu.  I’d recommend her book to anyone who wants, simply, to be inspired.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith



The government has thrown another $171 million at the problem. But a real plan for aged care has been missing all along (from The Conversation)

Joseph Ibrahim, Monash University

As deaths in aged care continue to rise, the community may find the Morrison government’s announcement of an additional A$171.5 million to boost its response to COVID-19 in residential aged care reassuring.

The package was agreed by all states and territories at Friday’s National Cabinet meeting, and brings the total Commonwealth funding for aged-care support during the pandemic to more than A$1 billion.

The funding will go towards additional support for the aged-care workforce, the recently established Victorian Aged Care Response Centre, and an Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC) Aged Care Advisory Group.

It will also fund grief and trauma support for families, more compliance and quality checks, and support the establishment of emergency response centres in each state and territory.

But this announcement appears to be geared primarily towards dealing with the unfolding disaster wrought by the federal government’s mishandling of the COVID-19 crisis in aged care. It will do little to better prepare the sector for further outbreaks or a third wave.

I would argue we haven’t had clear a plan for residential aged care since the pandemic began.

Read more: 4 steps to avert a full-blown coronavirus disaster in Victoria’s aged care homes

What should a plan look like?

While fighting the current fires is important, here are some of the things we would need to see in a truly forward-looking plan for managing COVID-19 in the aged care sector.

A leader

The first step for the Morrison government is to appoint a leader for aged care, who will be accountable and drive a coherent strategy to address the sector’s challenges.

Recent evidence presented to royal commission and senate inquiry hearings highlight there is no one in charge. It’s clearly not the federal Minister for Aged Care and Senior Australians Richard Colbeck.

The person must be apolitical, without ties to peak bodies or providers, and represent the interests of residents and their families. This position could be similar to a chief health officer, but specifically for residential aged care.

Blurred view of a man sitting in wheelchair through a doorway.
The new funding for aged care will include grief and trauma support for residents and families, among other things. Shutterstock

Clear goals

Second, we need a clear statement describing the goals and overall objectives this plan will achieve. The latest announcement is a scattergun approach, neither coherent nor strategic. It plugs existing holes.

We have a clear, well-presented strategy for reducing community transmission of COVID-19. We should demand an equally clear strategy for aged care. The focus should be on saving lives, while being humane and compassionate to residents, family and aged-care staff.

Read more: Should all aged-care residents with COVID-19 be moved to hospital? Probably, but there are drawbacks too

And we must ensure transparency and accountability by making the plan available to and responding to the public in real time. We need to eliminate the diffusion of responsibilities for the aged-care response across the government, health department and the Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission. It creates confusion and opportunities to excuse inaction, and offers no mechanism to redress failures.

We also need a structured approach for rapid two-way information flow between the people in charge and the people on the ground.

A national taskforce

The third step is a national taskforce with the ability to respond to rapidly changing conditions. The AHPPC Aged Care Advisory Group serves to advise government ministers, but only partially addresses this step.

The group’s composition and selection process ought to be publicly visible. The panel needs people with technical expertise, integrity and without any competing interests. There should be at least two members who are consumers — ideally aged-care residents with a human-rights lawyer to support and advocate on their behalf.

Outbreak preparedness

The fourth step is urgently addressing the aged-care sector’s approach to outbreak preparedness and prevention of COVID-19. We must agree to a set of objective measurement tools to assess the approach taken at a facility, organisational and regional level. Then we must be able to evaluate, support and strengthen those plans.

The Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission was allocated an additional A$9.1 million to increase their compliance and quality checks of individual facilities across the country. But additional checks are worthless if we don’t have uniform, transparent checks and balances across the board.

Read more: Let’s heed the warnings from aged care. We must act now to avert a COVID-19 crisis in disability care

Supporting the workforce

The fifth step is genuine support for the aged-care workforce. Staff confidence is key to reducing absenteeism in those who are well and presenteeism in those who are unwell.

While the government has directed A$140 million to staff, including for additional surge workforce, increased training, and retention bonus measures, we’re still missing a strategy to retain staff.

Increasing staff confidence and retaining them in the sector, especially in such a tumultuous time, requires asking, listening and responding to aged-care workers’ concerns. Beyond just offering financial incentives, we need to make them feel prepared, safe and that their concerns are addressed.

One hand reaches out to hold a pair of wrinkled hands on a wooden table.
We need greater transparency and accountability in the aged care sector. Shutterstock

Respecting residents and families

The final step is recognising the rights of aged-care residents and their families. An advocate not connected to the aged-care providers or government should have access to every aged-care home to be the eyes and ears for residents and their families. This could be achieved with a workforce of just 300 people, each advocate coordinating with ten aged-care homes.

The recent announcement provides for increased availability of grief and trauma support services, with A$12.5 million allocated to supporting residents and their families who have experienced a COVID-19 outbreak. This fails to recognise all residents and families are likely affected by the pandemic and lockdowns, even if they’re not directly affected by an outbreak.

Similarly, the A$1.5 million allocated to ensure regular direct communication from the health department appears to be only for “families and loved ones of aged-care residents impacted by COVID-19”. Is seems an odd approach as our whole country and every aged-care home is affected by the pandemic.

A coordinated, evidence-based national plan

The federal government’s commitment is a small amount, equating to roughly 1.5% of what this already struggling sector receives annually.

While it’s welcome, the majority of funds are allocated to expand existing initiatives which have had limited success.

Throwing money at a problem is not how we develop a coordinated, evidence-based national plan that addresses the known gaps.

Joseph Ibrahim, Professor, Health Law and Ageing Research Unit, Department of Forensic Medicine, Monash University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Women and Leadership by Julia Gillard and Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala

‘Women leaders all seem to be facing the same kinds of problems …’

This book, co-authored by Julia Gillard, Australia’s first woman prime minister, and Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, former Nigerian finance minister, looks at why there are so few women at the top level of politics. Ms Gillard and Ms Okonjo-Iweala draw on their own experience as well as on interviews with eight women leaders: Jacinda Adern; Hillary Clinton; Ellen Johnson Sirleaf; Theresa May; Michelle Bachelet; Joyce Banda; Erna Solberg and Christine Lagarde.

Why is this such an important issue? Well, consider this:

‘The World Economic Forum has calculated that, if we continue to improve at the current rate, closing the global gender gap in political representation will take ninety-five years.’

While Ms Gillard and Ms Okonjo-Iweala have focussed on women leaders in politics, much of what they write applies to women in leadership roles more generally.

In the book, they test eight hypotheses by asking each of their interviewees a set of questions. The headings of the eight hypotheses are:

1 You go girl
2 It’s all about the hair
3 Shrill or soft (the style conundrum)
4 She’s a bit of a bitch
5 Who’s minding the kids?
6 A special place in hell – do women really support women?
7 Modern-day Salem
8 The role-modelling riddle

Sadly, it does not look like sexism is going to disappear anytime soon. But in a chapter entitled ‘The stand-out lessons from eight lives and eight hypotheses, aspiring leaders are reminded to ‘Be aware, not beware’. This is important: while in writing this book Ms Gillard and Ms Okonjo-Iweala want to inspire women to pursue leadership roles, they have not glossed over the challenges.

There are other valuable observations, and a reminder. Both Ms Gillard and Ms Okonjo-Iweala are involved in sponsorship and mentorship. The publisher of this book observed that, despite all of the work they were doing they were both acting like stereotypical women and highlighting their failures and guilt.

‘Naturally, in response to her assessment, we edited. But there is something laugh-out-loud ridiculous about two intelligent, dedicated women writing tens of thousands of words about gendered stereotyping and then falling for it in our behaviour.’

I’d recommend this book to anyone interested in the issues faced by women in leadership.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith



Paul Kelly: The Man, The Music and the Life in Between by Stuart Coupe

‘Over more than four decades Paul’s built an enviable body of work.’

In this book, Stuart Coupe (music journalist, author, and one-time manager of Paul Kelly) examines Paul Kelly’s life.  Plenty of different people were interviewed, and their views shine a light on different facets of a man who is one of my favourite Australian singers and songwriters.  I am listening to his music now, as I write this review.

Mr Coupe takes us back to the beginning, to Adelaide, where Paul Kelly was born (in 1955) as the sixth child in a family of nine children, through to today.  A lot has happened along the way.

What did I learn that I did not already know, from reading Paul Kelly’s ‘mongrel biography’ ‘How to Make Gravy’?  Or from listening to his music, or reading through the poems selected in ‘Love is Strong as Death’?

I did learn more about some of the earlier music and different bands Paul Kelly was part of.   There are images of a complex, creative, reserved (and at times difficult) individual.   But the most important aspect of this book, for me, was reading about his work with other artists especially with Archie Roach, Kev Carmody, and Vika and Linda Bull.  Who can forget Kev Carmody and Paul Kelly performing ‘From little things, big things grow’ at a memorial service for Gough Whitlam in 2014?

Listening to Paul Kelly’s music, reading ‘How to Make Gravy’ and ‘Love is Strong as Death’ has given me space to reflect and has brought me much joy.  Learning a bit more about the man behind the books and the music enables me to appreciate some of the complexity of this creative genius.


Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AussieAuthor 2020