A Girl from Birkenhead by Trish Ollman

‘There are many memories that live in the brain of an old girl from Birkenhead.’

In this autobiography, published in 2016, Ms Ollman writes of growing up poor in Birkenhead in the UK.  She was the eldest of six children. At the age of sixteen, pregnant with her first child, Trish and Ian eloped to Scotland to marry.  By the time she was seventeen, Trish and Ian had two sons.  Ian and Trish emigrated to Australia when they were aged twenty-one, where they had two more children.

In 2016, when this book was published, Ian and Trish were still married.  They have since divorced.

It often takes courage to write about the past, especially when the past is full of challenges and difficulties.  Ms Ollman’s life has certainly been eventful, and she has overcome many difficulties with determination.  Numerous moves (between houses and between the UK and Australia a couple of times) combined with career changes and family issues makes for an interesting read.  Interesting but at times frustrating because grammatical and word choice issues (such as ‘it’s’ for ‘its’; ‘heal’ for heel’; ‘ridicules’ for ‘ridiculous’) kept dragging me out of the narrative.  I kept thinking how much better this book could have been with effective proof reading and editing.

Ms Ollman’s (first) autobiography is both a snapshot of the times in which she grew up and a deeply personal account of her life.  She’s since written and published a second autobiography: ‘Cry’ (described on her website as ‘The tears of A Girl From Birkenhead A ‘No-Holds’ barred version of the original ‘Girl from Birkenhead’.).  I have also read this and will review it shortly.

If you read this book, be prepared to experience a range of emotions.  If you can ignore the grammatical and word choice issues, there is a story which is sometimes heartbreakingly sad and sometimes wryly amusing.  I finished this book, and immediately picked up ‘Cry’.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith



Surviving the Angel of Death: The True Story of a Mengele Twin in Auschwitz by Eva Mozes Kor, Lisa Rojany Buccieri

‘We must never forget.’

Eva Mozes Kor (31/1/1934 – 4/7/2019) was ten years old when she, her parents, her two older sisters and her twin sister Miriam arrived at Auschwitz.   Her parents and older sisters were taken to the gas chambers.  Miriam and Eva were allocated to Dr Josef Mengele and became part of the cruel human experimentation he carried out on twins.

This is a book for young adults and focusses on Eva’s story of endurance and survival.  It starts before Auschwitz, with a happy family in Romania.  But antisemitic behaviour and discrimination changed all of this.

What I found particularly moving was that Ms Mozes Kor was able to publicly forgive the Nazis on her own behalf.  This, she wrote, was her way of moving on:

‘Forgiveness is a seed for peace.’

While forgiveness was possible for Ms Mozes Kor, it was controversial.  Not everyone can forgive such atrocities.

We must never forget these atrocities, the lives lost and destroyed. Ms Mozes Kor devoted much of her life to working for human rights and peace, and for education about the Holocaust. An amazing woman.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

White Throat (Clementine Jones #2) by Sarah Thornton

‘Looking out over an ebb tide from the back verandah was like watching God paint stripes.’

The house-sitting gig in Piama on the Queensland coast does not pay much, but it gave Clementine (Clem) Jones a convenient excuse to leave Katinga once certain facts about her past became known.  It is supposed to be a temporary move.  The local Australian Rules Football club want her back after her success in coaching them to their first premiership win.  But Clem does not think she will return to Katinga.  And, while she considers her future (including a lucrative job in Melbourne), she is helping her friend Helen with a campaign to save the endangered white throat turtle.  The turtle’s habitat will disappear if a planned new port development goes ahead.

After Helen is found dead at the foot of a cliff, the police consider her death suicide.  Clem does not agree and sets out to find out what happened to Helen.  And there are plenty of suspects: many of the people in Piama want the port to go ahead.  The mayor and some businessmen see profits, while others would welcome the money they would receive for their properties.

Clem’s life and her investigation are both enhanced and complicated when one of her Katinga football stars (an ex-convict, himself in a spot of bother) joins her.

Clem takes quite a few risks (nothing new here) as she tries to find out what happened to Helen.  Who would benefit from her death?  And why did Helen include some puzzling conditions into her will?

I like Clem: she’s a flawed, focussed hero trying to work through some personal challenges while trying to ensure that Helen’s death is properly investigated. She’s feisty and brave and occasionally foolhardy.  Can she uncover the truth?  And will she accept what looks like a very attractive job back in corporate law? What about Katinga?

A terrific second instalment in Ms Thornton’s Clementine Jones mystery/thriller series.  What will happen next?

Highly recommended.

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



We Of The Forsaken World… by Kiran Bhat

‘Everything in this world is relative.  I can never have your life.  You will never know mine.’

Four different parts of the world, sixteen different lives.  How are they connected?  The four different locations are illustrative of a world under stress, a world being destroyed in different ways: a tourist town being destroyed by an industrial accident; jungle being destroyed by loggers; a sprawling metropolis where many live on the street; an impoverished village with little connection to the world beyond.

And in these places, the stories of sixteen people are told.  As one story ends, it connects with another: a chain of humanity forms and reforms.  Some characters appear in more than one story.

Each of the characters is important, but one in particular held my attention: the milkmaid.

I struggled occasionally with the language: ‘Our cottage was dilapidating, and I knew my son was often bored living in our tree-lined suburb’.  Yes, the meaning is clear but (for me at least) read awkwardly. But for much of the time I was swept up in the stories, wanting to know what would happen next and whether (in some cases) situations would improve.  The sixteen characters are defined by occupation or relationship: they are unnamed representatives of their respective worlds.

I finished the novel, thinking about some of the characters and the problems before them.  This is a novel which invites you to think about people: both the human condition and the human impact on the world.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith


The Stone Ship by Peter Raftos

Way, way back in September 2009 I read this book, and wrote this review.

‘That is the Best of All Possible Worlds’

Set in a university managed by a Kafkaesque bureaucracy, ‘The Stone Ship’ follows the adventures, misalliances and misdeeds of the suicidal Shipton and the ghost that saved his life, and demanded a favour in return.

Shipton’s experiences and adventures at the university illustrate a world where the paperwork of bureaucracy can destroy lives, where librarians can riot over ownership and position of acquisitions, and where academics bask in a dimly-lit world of scholarly delusion.

The adventures of Shipton, as he seeks to avoid carrying out the favour requested by the ghost take him into all manner of danger.  Shipton narrowly avoids death at the jaws of the monstrous creature who dwells underneath the University and feeds on the corpses of the unworthy.

An entertaining story, but definitely not a university I would choose to attend.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

In Search of Hobart by Peter Timms

I’m feeling homesick for Tasmania. I had a trip planned ‘home’ for October but then COVID-19 happened and our travel plans were shelved. Back in February 2013, I wrote this review. Since then I’ve been to Hobart a few times, stayed at Battery Point, walked around the inner city, visited some of the sights and enjoyed (always) the Salamanca Market.

‘What a place to be!’

Hobart, the state capital of Tasmania, is Australia’s smallest, second oldest and most southerly capital city. Greater Hobart had a population of 216,276 in 2011, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. As a consequence of its geographic setting, it’s both a long narrow city and a beautiful one. Divided by the Derwent River and overlooked by Mount Wellington, Hobart has a character all of its own.

In this book, Peter Timms explores the history of Hobart from the settlement at Sullivan’s Cove in 1804 to the present. This is less a history than it is a commentary on the influences that have shaped both Tasmania and Hobart (both good and bad) and what it is like to live in Hobart.

‘Tasmania, along with Outer Mongolia and Timbuktu, has long been seen a symbol of remoteness, whether of the mysterious, the enticing or the cruelly comic kind.’

While Tasmania is comparatively less remote these days because travel by both sea and air is less expensive than it was in the past, it is still an island some 240 kilometres (at its narrowest point) from the Australian mainland. Bass Strait can be both a physical and a psychical barrier to travel.

‘Hobart’s great paradox is that most of what people admire about it today is the result of poverty in the past.’

How true: many of Hobart’s public buildings would have been replaced in larger cities, which would be a great shame. Many of the small cottages of the 19th century are now regarded as highly desirable residences. And yet, there is a clash between old and new, and some of the new buildings are not at all sympathetic to their surroundings.

Hobart has the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, and the University of Tasmania (one of Australia’s Sandstone Universities founded in 1890). Hobart also has Constitution Dock where the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race ends each year, the amazing Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) and a couple of terrific independent bookstores.

This is more an introduction to Hobart than it is a guidebook. It gives context and explanation rather than grid references and ratings. Peter Timms touches on Hobart’s suburban sprawl, and the problems created in some areas where public housing is concentrated.

I found the book very interesting. The narrative is supported by anecdotes and interviews. Although I grew up in Tasmania, like many from the north of the island I spent very little time in the south. Hobart was seen as the seat of government, a source of bureaucratic interference, a place to be avoided rather than enjoyed. I visited Hobart briefly last year, and this book confirms what that visit hinted: I need to spend more time in Hobart both exploring the past and enjoying the present. It’s not the city I remembered from the 1970s: it’s a more diverse and interesting place.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

The Secret Life of Books: Why They Mean More Than Words by Tom Mole

‘For readers, books are familiar objects.’

Indeed, they are.  I write this in a room surrounded by books.  Many of my earliest memories are about books: as possessions, as paths to escape, and routes to knowledge.  Some books are mere acquaintances while others become lifelong friends.

But, as Mr Mole writes, books are not static.  Their form has changed, and function often evolves through a lifetime.  

I enjoyed reading about the history of books, about the different forms they take.  I thought about the joy I have when I pick up a new book, about that moment when the book itself is just a potential adventure or experience.  What will happen once I open the cover?

I have physical books and electronic books.  The electronic books are great travelling companions, while the physical books are much more comfortable friends.  I have some old books that belonged to my grandmother over a hundred years ago, and multiple copies of a few very special books. 

This book contains both memories and promises. 

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

The Survivors by Jane Harper

‘She could – almost – have been one of The Survivors.’

Kieran Elliott, his partner Mia and their daughter Audrey return to the small Tasmanian coastal town of Evelyn Bay to help Kieran’s mother Verity pack the family home for a move.  Kieran’s father, Brian has dementia and needs nursing home care.

Returning to Evelyn Bay is not easy for Kieran.  His brother Finn and another man died here in a storm twelve years ago.  A girl went missing that same day.  Tough memories for Kieran, especially as some blame him for the men’s deaths.

 A body is discovered on the beach.  The body of a young woman working temporarily in Evelyn Bay.  Who killed her, and why?  Who was the last person to see her alive? This new tragedy brings memories of the old tragedy to the surface.  And Kieran is struggling with his own memories, with the guilt he feels over the death of his brother, and responsibility for his parents’ grief which is reinforced when his father sometimes mistakes him for his brother.

Ms Harper brings the setting to life: the wildness of the Tasmanian coastal weather, the insularity and divided opinion of a small community under stress.  The characters are well-drawn, their grievances and challenges are real. The current investigation raises questions about the old tragedy.  And the conclusion took me by surprise.

This is Ms Harper’s fourth novel: I’ve enjoyed them all, but this is my favourite.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith



Troubled Blood (Cormoran Strike #5) by Robert Galbraith

‘A forty-year-old cold case beckons ….’

Private Detective Cormoran Strike is in Cornwall visiting family when he is approached by a woman whose mother, Margot Bamborough, went missing forty years earlier in 1974.  Can he help her?  He is intrigued.   Can the agency that he and Robin Ellacott are partners in solve the case after so many years, when the police had no success?

Cormoran and Robin are each struggling with personal challenges.  Cormoran’s aunt is terminally ill, and he is travelling between London and Cornwall to spend time with her.  Robin is in the throes of a messy divorce.  The agency is working on several different cases, and Cormoran’s absences need to be accommodated.  There are some other personal and personnel issues as well.

But back to the forty-year-old cold case. There was a serial killer operating in the area around the time that Margot went missing: could he have been responsible?  And why was the first policeman to investigate the case so obsessed with astrology and tarot cards?

I really enjoyed this novel (yes, all 900+ pages of it).  It is a complex, sprawling story with a few twists.  There are personal issues as well as case-related surprises to negotiate. And the ending?  It worked for me: I now want a sixth instalment in the series.  It can’t end here.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith