Dear Life by Rachel Clarke

‘If doctors cannot fix things, then what is the point of us?’

Rachel Clarke, daughter of a physician, came to medicine after a career in journalism.  Her father, an important part of this book, was also a doctor.  While completing her training in Britain, Ms Clarke was drawn to palliative care.

This book is part biography, part meditation on the role of medicine in death and dying.

I read this book, remembering my own parents experience with palliative care, in Tasmania, ten and seven years ago.  One experience, in a palliative care setting, was caring and supportive.  The other experience, in a general hospital, was more focussed on suggesting interventions.  Both sets of medical professionals were caring, both wanted the best outcomes, but one was much more accepting of the inevitability of death.  I know which I would prefer for myself.

I kept reading, remembering my own experiences of nursing the dying during the 1970s. And, more recently, the experiences of friends.  A wife who suffered, a husband who had a peaceful death.  Different professionals, different approaches to what was (in both cases) inevitable.

What makes Ms Clarke’s book special for me is her writing about her father’s death.  While the trained professional knows what is coming, the daughter is grief-stricken.  What we know in theory is never quite enough to equip us to deal with personal experience. 

‘That grief is the form that love takes when someone dies.’

At times heartbreaking, at times uplifting.  This is a book focussed on life.  It is a book which invites the reader to think about death as a part of life, and to remember that those dying are still living. It is a reminder, as well, of some of the ethical issues surrounding life and death. 

I am glad I read this book.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Can the government, or my employer, force me to get a COVID-19 vaccine under the law? (from The Conversation)

Lisa Maree Williams/AAP/Getty Images AsiaPac

Maria O’Sullivan, Monash University

Prime Minister Scott Morrison took many people by surprise this week when he said a COVID-19 vaccine would be “as mandatory as you could possibly make it”.

Although he later backtracked on the use of the word “mandatory”, he made clear the government is aiming for a 95% vaccination rate in Australia.

There appears to be strong community support for the vaccine, but it is not yet clear there will be enough people willing to take it voluntarily to reach that target. Therefore, it is likely there will have to be some sort of incentive or compulsion by the government to ensure nationwide compliance.

What, then, are the legal limits to compelling people to be vaccinated? There are myriad questions that could be raised, such as:

  • can workplaces require that workers take the vaccination as a condition of employment?
  • can airlines require an immunisation certificate to permit people to travel?
  • should people be able to claim a non-medical exemption, such as a conscientious objection to vaccines or on religious grounds?

This is an important debate we need to have about how to balance the rights of the community versus those of the individual in a public health emergency and how the law should be used to ensure the efficacy of a COVID-19 vaccine.

Can the government mandate vaccinations?

The right to bodily integrity is a fundamental legal principle in Australia. This means a person cannot be subject to medical treatment without consent.

However, there are exceptions to this under state and territory public health laws. For instance, sections 116 and 117 of the Victorian Public Health Act permit public health orders to compel people to undergo a medical examination, testing and treatment without consent if it is required to address a public health issue.

There may be a legal argument here that a vaccination is not “treatment”. But that could be dealt with via an amendment to the legislation.

Can workplaces and businesses require vaccines?

There is a strong case for requiring particular workers (for example, those in aged care facilities) to be subject to mandatory vaccinations. However, many other workplaces in Australia may also require COVID-19 vaccination certificates under Occupational Health and Safety policies.

The legal dynamics here are different to a government-mandated vaccination if it is required as a condition of employment (which is a private law matter).

There is precedent for this: some states and territories have adopted a mandatory vaccination policy for staff working in close contact with patients or infectious materials. In the ACT, for example, all ACT Health staff are subject to an “occupational assessment, screening and vaccination procedure”, which requires them to be immunised against diseases including influenza, diphtheria and hepatitis B.

A potential COVID-19 vaccine has shown positive results during phase one human trials in Adelaide. DAVID MARIUZ/AAP

Similarly, businesses could require an immunisation card to be presented as a condition of entry. This could include airlines requiring proof of vaccination as evidence of “fitness to fly”.

There are more complex legal questions when it comes to requiring vaccines for students to be admitted to schools or universities.

This was hotly debated in those states that introduced a “no jab, no play” mandatory vaccination regime for access to child care services, as well as the federal “no jab, no pay” policy.

Despite differing rules around the country, all states and territories have fairly consistent rates for childhood vaccinations — with a nationwide coverage rate of 91%. Whether the same rate could be reached for a COVID-19 vaccine remains to be seen.

Would this infringe on people’s human rights?

Challenges could be made to any compulsory COVID-19 vaccination policy under the human rights charters in Victoria, Queensland and the ACT, which aim to protect rights such as freedom of expression, thought, conscience, religion and belief.

Here, much will depend on who is requiring the vaccination (a public body or private business) and whether there are punitive measures in place for non-compliance (for example, the use of fines or imprisonment).

If there are punitive measures for non-compliance, these may be deemed as disproportionate by a court — even if it could be argued compulsory vaccines are necessary and reasonable for public health reasons.

The use of compulsory vaccination programs also has specific implications for children’s rights. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child provides that every child has the right to “the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health”.

However, children also have the right to an education. Therefore, punitive measures to compel parents to vaccinate their children against COVID-19, such as keeping them out of school, could violate the core principles of this convention.

Can people argue for a vaccine exemption?

There is no recognised right to conscientious objection to vaccinations under Australian law. Therefore, any person who is not willing to be vaccinated cannot merely argue an “objection” to it.

A religious body, however, may be able to argue a federal compulsory vaccination policy interferes with the freedom of religion protections under the Australian constitution, but that is a complex legal question.

One religious group did successfully claim an exemption to mandatory childhood immunisations — the Christian Scientists. This “conscientious objection” exemption was removed in 2016, but it does provide an example of how such an exemption could be dealt with under the law.

The federal government has invested $5 million in the University of Queensland’s COVID-19 vaccine development. Glenn Hunt/AAP

How to create good law during a crisis

Governments clearly have an obligation to protect the public’s health and welfare and vaccinations are an important means of ensuring this.

But while punitive legal measures such as fines may be effective in compulsory mask usage, they are not necessarily going to be effective when it comes to something much more invasive like a vaccine.

Serious thought must not be given just to what the law can do to achieve a high COVID-19 vaccination rate, but also what good law is. That is, we must pursue measures that will be sufficiently accepted by the community.

Maria O’Sullivan, Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Law, and Deputy Director, Castan Centre for Human Rights Law, Monash University

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

The Wasp and the Orchid by Danielle Clode

The Remarkable Life of Australian Naturalist Edith Coleman

‘It is tempting to think that Edith has been forgotten because she was a woman, but it’s more complicated than that.’

Recently I learned of an Australian naturalist, Edith Coleman.  I learned of her by reading a review of this book.   I added this book to my reading list, sad that I had not heard of her before.  What a fascinating woman she was.

So, what is the story of Edith Coleman?

Edith Coleman (1874-1951) was 48 years old when she delivered her first paper, on native Australian orchids, to the Field Naturalists Club of Victoria in 1922. Between 1922 and her death in 1951 she wrote over 300 articles about Australian nature for various newspapers, magazines, and scientific journals.  She also solved a mystery concerning orchid pollination and was the first woman to be awarded the Australian Natural History Medallion.

In this book, scientist and writer Danielle Clode sheds light on Edith Coleman’s life from her childhood in England to her passion for the Australian landscape and nature.  Ms Clode has undertaken extensive research to piece together the little that is known about Edith Coleman’s personal life, to visit places where she lived, and find her work.  Ms Clode also tracked down surviving family members.

The result is a book which combines known biographical facts with possibilities, a social history of the times with examples of Edith Coleman’s own writing.  Ms Clode speculates about why Edith Coleman has been forgotten and does her best to bring her back into view.  She writes:

‘Women’s voices are being lost when we anthologise, analyse and criticise the literature. In this case, it’s not a question of what’s written, but who we have chosen to hear.’

I agree.  If you are interested in Australian gardens and nature, if you have an interest in earlier Australian women authors and their work, then you may enjoy this book as much as I did.  It is beautifully presented and left me wondering about other Australian women who’ve slipped into the shadows.

‘The poetry of the earth is never still.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith



The Bluffs by Kyle Perry

‘The legend said that if you didn’t see his face, he wouldn’t take you.’

The Great Western Tiers of Tasmania’s Central Highlands provide an atmospheric setting for this intriguing novel.  A group of teenage girls from Limestone Creek go missing while on a school camp.  The teacher accompanying the girls, Eliza Ellis, was knocked unconscious.  When she is found, she has only limited memories of what happened, and she saw no-one.  The community is concerned: twenty-five years earlier six girls went missing in that same area.  Those disappearances gave rise to a legend, ‘The Hungry Man’:

‘Up in the hills he hides and kills.

Down in the caves, he hides and waits.

The Hungry Man, who likes little girls,

with their pretty faces and pretty curls.’

Detective Con Badenhorst is sent from Launceston to investigate.  The local police have their own views about who might be responsible.  Jasmine Murphy is one of the missing students, and her father (the town’s local drug dealer) becomes a suspect. 

While one early chapter gives Jasmine’s viewpoint, before she disappears, the story unfolds through three alternating viewpoints: Eliza Ellis, Detective Con Badenhorst, and Jasmine’s father, Jordan Murphy.

How can Con Badenhorst determine what is rumour and what is truth?  And in the meantime, the weather in the mountain bluffs hampers the search.  The four missing girls were friends, but each of them had secrets.

‘Not knowing each other’s secrets is the only reason we can all be friends.’

Con Badenhorst hopes that the girls will turn up, that they are just missing.  He has memories of a case he worked in Sydney, a case that still haunts him. 

And then a body is found at the bottom of a cliff.

Eliza Ellis has issues of her own, as does Jordan Murphy.  He keeps being implicated in the disappearance, and vigilantes (fuelled by the actions of one of the local police) are circling.

The sister of one of the missing girls, a social media star, keeps uploading posts on her YouTube site.  These calculated and partisan posts further fuel both community and media frenzy.

‘Just a child.  What a world we live in now, that a child with a camera can cause all of this carnage.’

What happened on the bluffs?  And where are the other girls?

Mr Perry introduces several different issues into this novel including dysfunctional relationships, bullying, and the power of social media.  He also touches on Tasmania’s uncomfortable past in relation to indigenous people.  All this set in an insular community: judgemental and suspicious of outsiders.

I kept reading, keen to find out how it would end, trying to work out what had happened.  While a couple of aspects of the police investigation raised my eyebrows, the story held my attention from beginning to end.  An accomplished debut.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith


Billings Better Bookstore and Brasserie by Fin J Ross

‘She was alone.’

Meet Miss Fidelia Knight.  She set out from England with her parents on the SS Great Britain and arrived in Melbourne in 1874.  Alone, except for half of Samuel Johnson.  Fidelia takes refuge at night in the fabulous Coles Book Arcade in Bourke Street.  Here, surrounded by books, she takes refuge in words.  But Fidelia’s rest in Coles Book Arcade is interrupted by a man puzzling over words (in alphabetical order).

Over twenty-six wonderful chapters, an A to Z of life through words, we travel with Fidelia as she meets several wonderful (mostly) characters and changes their lives.  First, she starts with Jasper Godwin.  He is the manager of the new Billings Better Bookstore and he is really struggling to prepare for the opening: how can he catch the attention of potential customers?

Fidelia calls him Quandary Man.

‘Could she be Quandary Man’s muse?  Would he thank her for her effort?  Or begrudge her presumptuousness?


Amelia Audacious Admonished an Amateur Abecedarian and Absconded with an Antediluvian Aardvark,

After Adjourning for an Arousing Absinthe at Billings Better Bookstore and Cafeteria.

Did she Absolutely?  She did indeed!’

And this is just the beginning.  Fidelia loves words.  Her enthusiasm helps Jasper Godwin, and Mr Billings who is also in a position to help others.  Where others see problems, Fidelia sees possibilities.  But there is one mystery she would like to solve: what happened to her parents?

What a word feast this novel is!  The superb cover and illustrations are by Judith Rossell and they are a perfect complement to the story.  I discovered new words, met some old favourites, and loved the alliteration. Fidelia’s thirst for knowledge is unquenchable and her enthusiasm enables her to teach others.  There are some unexpected twists in the story, and a very satisfying ending. 

Every one of the twenty-six chapters opens alliteratively.  My favourite today is x.


Xavier Xerxes, a Xenodochial Xenagogue, used Xyston and Xiphos

To eXtricate himself from a Xanthippe aboard his Xebec,

In an eXotic display at

Billings Better Bookstore and Brasserie

Did he Xenially?  He did indeed!’

A rewarding read. A read to return to.  Really.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith



Dead March for Penelope Blow by George Bellairs

‘Is Inspector Littlejohn in, please?’

Miss Penelope Blow has been trying to see Inspector Littlejohn at Scotland Yard.  Three times she is called but, unfortunately, he is away at a murder trial.  Miss Blow will only see Inspector Littlejohn and, as she is about to return home to Nesbury, reluctantly leaves a complicated message for Inspector Littlejohn to call her (via the housekeeper) when he returns.

Miss Blow returns to the place where she has been staying and is confronted by her relative, Harold, who insists that she return with him to Nesbury.  It seems that her family is suspicious of what she might be doing in London.

By the time Inspector Littlejohn receives the message, Miss Blow is dead.  An accident, they say.  She fell out of her bedroom window while watering plants in a window box.   Inspector Littlejohn is concerned: why did Miss Blow want to see him and was her death really an accident?

It seems that the Blow family is full of secrets.  Circumstances enable Inspector Littlejohn to investigate (although neither the Blow family nor some of the local police hierarchy see any such need).  The staff who work for the Blow family are happy (mostly) to assist.  But if Miss Blow was murdered, who murdered her and why?

This delightful mystery was first published in 1951 and reflects a class-conscious period in a small English town.  With well-developed characters, touches of humour and more than a couple of possibilities, the novel held my attention from beginning to end.  And yes, I did finally work it out … just before the truth was revealed.

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

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

The Tolstoy Estate by Steven Conte

‘Sir, we’re here.’

In 1941, Germany invaded Russia.  In the middle of the Russian winter, a German medical unit establishes a field hospital at Yasnaya Polyana, the former estate of Count Leo Tolstoy.  The caretaker of the estate is Katerina Trubetzkaya, a patriotic Soviet woman who is convinced that Germany cannot win this war.  The main German character in this novel is Paul Bauer, a skilled surgeon in his forties, widowed.

Katerina Trubetzkaya is surprised to learn that Paul Bauer had read ‘War and Peace’ and is a fan of Tolstoy.  A tentative friendship forms. They talk of their different pasts, life experiences and expectations, about literature.

Meanwhile, the war rages around them.  The commanding officer, Julius Metz becomes increasingly unstable as events unfold – poor decisions are made, and scarce supplies are wasted.  There are harrowing descriptions of the conditions under which surgery is performed, of the injuries sustained.  And everywhere, the shade of Leo Tolstoy.

Conquering Tolstoy becomes an obsession for Julius Metz, manic on a cocktail of amphetamines, while an appreciation of literature is one of the connections between Paul Bauer and Katerina Trubetzkaya.  They may be on opposite sides in this war, but they have a lot in common.

And then, surprisingly, about halfway through the novel the focus shifts.  A series of letters between Paul Bauer and Katerina Trubetzkaya which start in 1967 are interpolated into the narrative and the story shifts between the war and after the war. The ending I thought we were moving towards becomes something different, and a far richer story as a consequence.

Part love story, part war story, this novel is also a tribute to the enduring power of writing, of literature.  Mr Conte brings both his characters and their surroundings to life. 

I have finished reading this novel, but I am still thinking about it.

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

Jennifer Cameron-Smith


State Highway One by Sam Coley

‘They say you can never go home again …’

Alex has been away from New Zealand for years.  It has been a long time since he spent any time with his twin sister Amy.  When their parents are killed in an accident, Alex returns from Dubai.  A decision is taken: to travel the whole of New Zealand’s State Highway One, from one end of the country to the other.  Alex intends to return to Dubai: can the return trip be undertaken in two weeks?

The journey begins.  A pilgrimage: full of memories, reminiscing about the past, searching for answers or at least explanations.

The story unfolds.  There is humour here, interspersed with sadness and regret.  The tension increases to the stage where I found it impossible to put the novel down.  How will it end?  Are there answers to be found here in this pilgrimage?  Will Alex survive?

Tense.  Taut.  Unforgettable.

This is Mr Coley’s debut novel, winner of the 2017 Richell Prize for Emerging Writers.

Note: My thanks to NetGalley and Hachette Australia for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes.  I intend buying my own copy as soon as the novel is released.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Still Life by Val McDermid

‘Their first catch of the day was a drowned man.’

One freezing winter’s morning, fishermen pull a body from the Firth of Forth.  The body belongs to a man who was the prime suspect in a case, ten years earlier, when a prominent civil servant went missing.  DCI Karen Pirie, of Police Scotland’s Historic Cases Unit, was the last detective to review that case, and is asked to investigate.  There is another case DCI Pirie is working on: a skeleton had been found in a campervan, by a woman clearing her sister’s home after the sister died – who does it belong to, and how did they die?  And, at the same time, the person responsible for the death of the man Karen loved has just been released from prison.  How will Karen react?  How will she navigate the personal issues to manage the professional ones?

Both cases are intriguing.  There is a political angle associated with the body retrieved from the sea: the missing civil servant has never been found, and the man whose body has been found has an interesting past.  It soon becomes clear that he was murdered.  But by whom, and why?

The answers in both cases lead Karen and her team (DC Jason Murray and DS Daisy Mortimer, who is co-opted) through a complicated web of secret identities, missing people, and art forgeries.  The more the team digs, the more complex the cases seem to become.  But Karen sees something, which, while it takes her a while to realise its significance, enables her to find answers.

A tightly plotted, gripping read.  While I have read and enjoyed many of Ms McDermid’s novels, this is my first novel in the DCI Karen Pirie series.  As this is the sixth novel in the series, I have at least five other great reads to look forward to.

Highly recommended.

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

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

James Cook by Peter Fitzsimons

‘Who was James Cook? What sort of man was he?’

Peter Fitzsimons sets out to answer these questions in this chatty, weighty tome.

Does he succeed? Not really.

I am a big fan of Captain James Cook the navigator. I have read several books about him and his journeys: the boy from the Yorkshire farm who became a master mariner, an accomplished cartographer and navigator. I am interested in where he came from, in how a farm boy from Yorkshire ended up being the foremost navigator of his era.

And in parts Mr Fitzsimons gave me that. But I cannot warm to his style of writing, to his little asides. I kept reading (for once I start a book, I feel compelled to finish it). While I did not learn anything new, I did quite enjoy the description of fothering which was undertaken to keep the Endeavour afloat after she was holed on 11 June 1770.

If you enjoy history as portrayed on television, with actors in period costume trying to give you some idea of how, say, Henry VIII lived and Ann Boleyn schemed, then you may well enjoy this book more than I did. I like my facts less adorned. Boring, I know.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith