The Two Lost Mountains by Matthew Reilly

‘Lily West woke up with a jerk, startled and terrified, and freezing, freezing cold.’

The last book in this series ended with the apparent sacrifice of Jack’s adopted daughter Lily in a ceremony which was one of the steps necessary to save the universe.  But, as we learn on the first page of the penultimate book in this series, Lily did not die.  She is in trouble.

Lily is in the hands of that evil megalomaniac, Sphinx, who has a plan for world domination.  Pick up this novel, and plunge into a frenetically paced series of challenges and close calls as Jack West Jr and his cohorts try to save Lily.  And the world.  Of course, Sphinx is not the only bad guy.  If you have read the first five books in this series, you will recognise some of the others.  I strongly recommend reading this series in order: it’s the best way to meet the characters and to get a sense of what Jack West Jr and his team are up against.

‘Jack didn’t know what to do.’

The Jack West Jr novels (this is the sixth) are great escapist fun.  Action-packed adventures involving suitably horrific villains, some seriously awesome heroes (both male and female), elaborate challenges and totally impossible situations.   Alas, not everyone is likely to survive to make it to the final instalment in the series.

I have found this series hugely entertaining and am looking forward to the finale.

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

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AussieAuthor2020

Snow by John Banville

‘The body is in the library,’ Colonel Osborne said.  ‘Come this way.’

Winter 1957, County Wexford, Ireland.  The mutilated body of a highly respected parish priest is found in the library at Ballyglass House, the home of the aristocratic Osborne family.  Detective Inspector St John Strafford is called in from Dublin to investigate.  The doors were locked, the house was not broken into.  The crime scene has been cleaned and Father Lawless’s body has been ‘tidied up a bit’.  Who killed Father Tom Lawless, and why?  A murdered Catholic priest in a Protestant house: the police and the Catholic Archbishop both have an interest.

It has been snowing, and the snow continues to fall.  It is quite a contrast: the pure white snow, masking the usual surroundings as well as making movement challenging.  There’s mistrust as well between Catholics and Protestants, as well as between members of the Osborne family.  Detective Inspector Strafford meets silence at almost every turn.  The Archbishop wants to substitute his own version of what has happened to Father Tom Lawless, members of the Osborne family have some misdirection of their own.

‘A person acting on impulse can be lucky.  He’ll strike out without thinking, and afterwards everything looks natural, because it is.  But a plan always has something wrong with it.  There’s always a flaw.  Our job is to find it.’

DI Strafford and his investigations held my attention.  In the murder of Father Tom Lawless, the why might seem clear and the how will be obvious but the who hangs over the story.  There are secrets to be uncovered and, in an environment where the community is riven by mistrust, where covering up what happened is seen as desirable, finding answers was never going to be easy.  

The characters and their relationships are (mostly) well developed. The snow, by disguising the surroundings, adds a layer to the intrigue.  In this novel, Father Lawless’s murder is secondary to Mr Banville’s depiction of time and place.  

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

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Song of the Crocodile by Nardi Simpson

‘The sign at the entrance of town is neither informative nor welcoming.’

There’s a sign at the edge of town: ‘Darnmoor, The Gateway to Happiness’.  But what does this really mean?

This is a town neatly laid out, a town where proximity to the town centre matters.  A town where, if you follow a bush track most know as the road to the tip, through a pathway known as ‘Old Black Road’ you’ll find The Campgrounds.  Margaret Lightning is one of the inhabitants of The Campgrounds.  She rises early in the morning to walk to her workplace: ‘two large coppers, an incinerator, and a washing line that spanned the width of the block behind the Darnmoor District Hospital.’

Margaret’s daughter and son-in-law, Celie and Tom Billymil live with her.  Celie is pregnant, Tom is hoping for a better life for his family.

Scratch the surface of Darnmoor, and you will find tension between the Indigenous and settler families.  Different rules, different expectations.  Manipulation and exploitation, often less obvious than violence but just as harmful. And patterns are repeated.

Ms Simpson follows several stories, including those of Margaret, Celie, and Celie’s daughter Mili.   This is a story of hardship, heartbreak, and hope.  But there are secrets as well, imbalances of power which lead to anger and resentment.  There is always an opportunist waiting to take advantage.  And who speaks for the country?

‘As their feet dangled over the old waterway, lineage and custom flowed into the child.’

In this beautifully written story, with descriptions of land and the importance of connection, Ms Simpson explores what happens when connectedness is disrupted.  This is achieved in part through ancestral spirits who try to guide members of the family. Stories are important, as is choice.

‘This song was given to me by my master and it is the last I will sing.  It is the Song of the Crocodile, the greatest, most powerful song in this country.’

I finished this novel profoundly moved by Ms Simpson’s storytelling.  ‘Song of the Crocodile’ is an exceptional novel.

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

#AWW2020

#AussieAuthor2020

Diving into Glass by Caro Llewellyn

‘Shortly after my forty-fourth birthday, I was stopped in my tracks running in New York’s Central Park.’

I picked up this book, thinking I was about to read a memoir of life with multiple sclerosis.  I picked up this book, knowing that it had been shortlisted for the Stella Prize in 2020.  I was curious.

While this book does touch on Ms Llewellyn’s diagnosis of and life with multiple sclerosis, much of it is about her childhood.  It is also the story of her father, Richard, who contracted polio as a twenty-year-old.  Richard Llewellyn contacted polio towards the end of the polio epidemic in the 1950s, was confined to an iron lung for some time and then to a wheelchair for the rest of his life.  Richard Llewellyn’s determination provides a focus for Caro as she struggles to come to terms with her diagnosis and what it means.

But there is another dimension to this memoir.  There is the story of how her parents met (her mother nursed Richard in hospital) married, had children, and later separated.  Physical limitations and mental illness both play a part.  Caro’s own illness takes her back through those memories:

‘His great lesson was to teach me that we’re free as we allow our minds to be.  Imagination can save your life if you need it to. ‘

Memory can be a strange thing.  Interpreting our lived experience as children through our memories as adults can add a dimension of acceptance and understanding.  It can also be confronting: seeing some of the traits of our parents in ourselves.

When I picked up this book, I was expecting something quite different.  But Caro’s description of her father’s experiences took me back into my own family history.  My father also had polio, and while he was not as severely affected as Richard Llewellyn, he fought hard to be able to walk again and never retained his early adult muscle tone.  I remember listening to my grandmother’s descriptions of the physical therapy he underwent to walk, and how very brave he was.

And so it is that a memoir written by one person can be a jumping off point for memories of life for another. Multiple sclerosis is another disease which varies in its impact. I hope that Caro Llewellyn continues to find the courage she needs for her own journey.  As her father did.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AWW2020

#AussieAuthor2020

Over My Dead Body by Dave Warner

‘Do you remember anything?’

Dr Georgette Watson is a cryogenicist.  She can bring frozen hamsters back to life and she wants to see whether her technique can work on humans. To do that, she needs a body.

In New York City, people are being murdered.  Is there a pattern to these murders?  Dr Watson, who works with the NYPD to establish time of death in some cases, suddenly finds herself in the company of the world’s greatest detective: Sherlock Holmes.   (How will become clear when you read the novel.) Together, with some help from others including Georgette’s sister Simone and father Harry, they make a formidable team.  But in addition to solving crime, Holmes also must adjust to life in the twenty-first century.  And very few people know who he really is.

Mr Warner demonstrates that anything is possible in fiction, at least for a while.  This twenty-first century pairing of Holmes and Watson kept me turning the pages, wanting to see how it would end. Would they identify the killer?  Will Georgette obtain the funding she needs to continue her research?  Can Georgette find an answer to a problem which is threatening her hamsters? Read on to find out.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#BRPreview

#Aussie Author

The Room Where It Happened by John Bolton

‘Has there ever been a presidency like this?

As soon as I saw President Trump’s reaction to the publication of this book, I added it to my reading list. I am no fan of John Bolton, but the Trump reaction had me wondering. Especially as President Trump hired John Bolton in the first place. He was not calling him ‘Wacko John Bolton’ (or ‘a sick puppy’) back then.

And now I have read the book, it confirms everything else I have read about the dysfunctional Trump administration. But back to the book. John Bolton was President Trump’s National Security Advisor for 453 days. He was very well placed to comment on what took place in and around the Oval Office during that period.

Mr Bolton’s descriptions are of chaos and conflict. He describes dysfunctional working arrangements, and a President so focussed on the personal that he seems incapable of any strategic long-term considerations. It seems, too, that President Trump has little understanding (and less respect) for the way in which international alliances and relationships work.

There’s example after example of poor judgment, and example after example of self-aggrandizement. Read about lost opportunities, misjudgements, and policy announcements via Twitter. Add in turmoil and conflict, ego and ignorance. This book was vetted before publication and, while it no doubt contains information embarrassing to the Trump Administration, it does not contain any classified information.

I picked the book up and could not put it down. As I am reading it, snippets of Donald Trump’s interviews with Bob Woodward (for his forthcoming book ‘Rage’) are being played on various news media. Everything I hear and see reinforces the picture John Bolton paints of Donald Trump in this book.

‘With Kelly’s departure and Mulvaney’s appointment, all effective efforts at managing the Executive Office of the President ceased. Both domestic policy strategy and political strategy, never strong suits, all but disappeared; personnel decisions deteriorated further, and the general chaos spread.’

This book is worth reading by anyone with an interest in either the Trump presidency or the role of the current US President in international affairs.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

A Train in Winter by Caroline Moorehead

A story of resistance, friendship, and survival

One icy dawn morning in Paris in January 1943, 230 French women of the resistance were rounded up from the Gestapo detention camps and sent by train to Auschwitz.  The youngest was a 15-year-old schoolgirl, the oldest a 68-year-old farmer’s wife.  Of the 230 women, 49 lived to see the end of the war two and a half years later.

How did they survive the horrors of Auschwitz?   They were political prisoners who realised that working together would give them a better chance of survival.  They supported each other, worked together, cared for each other, sharing food and strength.

Ms Moorehead writes:

‘In 2008 I decided to go in search of the women who had left Paris, that freezing January dawn sixty-five years earlier.’

This book is both inspiring and heartbreaking.  Inspiring because of the support they gave each other, heartbreaking that so many died. Many of the women had been together in French prisons, suffering from extreme cold and chronic hunger, with a constant fear of torture or execution, before being moved to Auschwitz.  Here, their clothes were removed, their hair was shorn, numbers were tattooed on their arms.  One thousand of the female inmates died at Auschwitz when all of the inmates were marshalled into the prison yard at 3 am on 10 February 1943.  The women were required to stand (in their rags in the freezing cold, in the snow) through the night and the following day.  By the time they were ordered to return to their barracks, a thousand of the women were dead.

Writing of this, Ms Moorehead identifies the French friends by their first names as they look for each other, trying to work out who is missing. 

Before reading this book, I knew nothing about these women.  Ms Moorehead includes, as an appendix, with the names of each of the 230 women with biographical information.  Brave, courageous women who understood that they had a better chance of survival by working together.  And after the war?  Few of them were to know happiness, sadly.  Many had lost loved ones, and just how does anyone readjust to life after existing in such a hell?

‘Looking at me, one would think that I’m alive. . . . I’m not alive. I died in Auschwitz, but no one knows it.’ (Charlotte Delbo, one of the survivors)

I am grateful to Ms Moorehead for writing this book, for shedding light on the lives of these women.  This is the first book is what is now known as The Resistance Quartet:

‘A Train in Winter: An Extraordinary Story of Women, Friendship, and Resistance in Occupied France’ (2011)

‘Village of Secrets: Defying the Nazis in Vichy France’ (2014)

‘A Bold and Dangerous Family: The Remarkable Story of an Italian Mother, Her Two Sons, and Their Fight Against Fascism’ (2017)

‘A House in the Mountains: The Women Who Liberated Italy from Fascism (2019)

I intend to read each of them.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

‘Marsh is not swamp.  Marsh is a space of light, where grass grows in water, and water flows into the sky.’

Barkley Cove, North Carolina, 1969.  The body of a handsome young man, Chase Andrews is found dead.  Was it an accident, or was it murder?

In 1952, Kya Clark’s mother leaves her family.  She leaves her abusive husband, and her children.  Kya, aged just seven, is the youngest.  The Clark family live in the marsh near Barkley Cove.  Over the next few years, Kya’s siblings leave.  And then her father leaves as well.

‘Always cover yo’ tracks; I learned ya how.’

Kya survives. A friend of her brother, a boy named Tate, becomes her friend.  They share an interest in the birds and the beauty of the marsh.  Tate teaches Kya to read, which opens an entire new world for her.  Tate moves away, to go to college.  Kya is alone and, perhaps for the first time, lonely.

Part love story, part legal drama, part mystery.  I loved aspects of this novel, liked others and was indifferent to parts.   A mixed reaction and I am not entirely sure why.  Ms Owens brings the setting to life with her descriptions of the marsh, with the people such as Tate (and a few others) who help Kya.  And then there is Chase Andrews.

From 1952, to 1969 and then beyond, we follow Kya’s life.  And, right at the end, there is a twist.

I had mixed feelings about this novel.  I did not love it, but I did enjoy it.  Anything is possible in fiction.

‘Please don’t talk to me about isolation.  No one has to tell me how it changes a person.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Too Much and Never Enough by Mary L Trump

‘Much of this book comes from my own memory.’

As the USA heads towards the 2020 presidential election, during the global Covid-19 pandemic, I feel compelled to read about Donald Trump.  Why?  Because he will probably be re-elected, and I am still trying to make sense of who he is.  I have given up trying to understand what he might stand for.

In this book, Mary Trump draws on both her qualification as a trained clinical psychologist and her firsthand knowledge of the Trump family history and dynamics to try to explain the factors that have shaped Donald Trump’s character. The major influence seems to have been his relationship with his father Fred Trump, who seems to have played his two oldest sons, Fred Jr (Mary’s father) and Donald one against the other.  But there were other factors as well, including his mother’s serious illness when he was a young child.

Mary Trump writes:

‘Donald today is much as he was at three years old: incapable of growing, learning, or evolving, unable to regulate his emotions, moderate his responses, or take in and synthesize information.’

I still  wonder to what extent this could be considered a consequence of nature, or of nurture?

I kept reading, wondering about the relevance of some disclosures, but seeing how the Trump family (through a combination of neglect and control) have created a man with little insight or apparent self-control.  This would matter less if Donald Trump was not president, or if he was willing to appoint effective advisers and take their advice.  But the danger, as Mary Trump writes, is that:

‘There seems to be an endless number of people willing to join the claque that protects Donald from his own inadequacies while perpetuating his unfounded belief in himself.’

There are no words of comfort in this book, no sense that there are hitherto unseen thoughtful depths to Donald Trump.  While this book goes some way to explaining the factors that influenced the child and shaped the man, it leaves me afraid for the future of a country (and the world) in which such a man has such control.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith