Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart

‘No day ever started well with six dozen raw chickens, and today of all days it was stealing the sweetness out of his daydreams.’

Glasgow, 1992. We meet Hugh ‘Shuggie’ Bain working at a supermarket. He has just turned sixteen and is trying to combine schooling with a part-time job. He does not receive adult wages and struggles to keep his things neat in the boarding house where he lives. But Shuggie has dreams.

‘Tomorrow was something to look forward to.’

But what about the past? The story shifts back to 1981, to public housing in Sighthill, Glasgow, to Agnes Bain, Shuggie’s mother:

‘To be thirty-nine and have her husband and her three children, two of them nearly grown, all crammed together in her mammy’s flat, gave her a feeling of failure.’

Unemployment is rife, housing is scarce. Agnes is used to getting what she wants, but it is never enough for her. She craves different, excitement, more. She left her first husband for Shug Bain (‘Big Shug’) a philandering taxi-driver and dreams of having her own house. Agnes is bored, and when she is bored, she drinks.

Things become worse when Shug moves her to Pithead in 1982. She is away from family and friends. Living in a house in an area mostly occupied by unemployed miners and their families. After her older children leave, Shuggie tries to look after her. He feels, as so many children in his situation feel, responsible. He is sure that he can make her better if only he tries harder. He knows how to help her:

 ‘Shuggie arranged three tea mugs: one with tap water to dry the cracks in her throat, one with milk to line her sour stomach, and the third with a mixture of the flat leftovers of Special Brew and stout that he had gathered from around the house and frothed together with a fork. He knew that this was the one she would reach for first, the one that would stop the crying in her bones.’

If Shuggie is 16 in 1992, then he can only be 6 in 1982. He is carrying the weight of responsibility for his mother and of being different from the other boys. Agnes makes a sad attempt to get one of her male neighbours to be a role model for Shuggie, trading in the only currency she has. To no avail.

This is a heartbreaking story of addiction and love. Agnes is not unaware of the impact of her drinking, but she is in the grips of an addiction. She manages to stay sober for a period, which makes her eventual relapse even harder to bear.

The best advice given to Shuggie is from his brother ‘Leek’ (Alexander):

‘Don’t make the same mistake as me. She’s never going to get better.  When the time is right you have to leave.  The only thing you can save is yourself.’

What does the future hold for Shuggie? I’d like to think that his story continues on, he acquires the education he wants and finds a place for himself.  He did his best for Agnes, but she was beyond help. Addiction is a devastating, destructive, sneaky condition. Especially alcoholism, where some vulnerable people can slide from acceptable social drinking into the abyss of dependency.

This is such a powerful novel with origins in Mr Stuart’s own experience. It’s a novel based in a sad, gritty reality.  It’s a novel that will stay with me.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton

‘The Saardam’s cargo is sin and all aboard will be brought to merciless ruin.’

1634, Batavia. The Saardam is preparing for her voyage to Amsterdam. Batavia’s Governor-General is returning to take his place as one of ‘The Gentlemen 17’, the shadowy group of capitalists who run the Dutch East India Company. He is accompanied by his wife, their daughter, and his mistress. And there’s Samuel Pipps, a celebrated ‘alchemical detective’ who is being transported back to Amsterdam to be executed. But why? What crime has he committed?

This is just one of several mysteries. Arent Hayes, a bear of a man, is Pipps’s protector. There is a mystery passenger, whom no-one has seen, and a secret cargo. Just what is ‘The Folly?

Once aboard, after an unsettling scene dockside in which a leper proclaims the Saardam is cursed, there is clearly something awry. Just who is the devil stalking the ship? And then there is a murder…

What a rollercoaster ride this novel is! Plenty of twists and turns, pieces of backstory slotting neatly into the narrative at just the right time. Irresistible and improbable. Everyone has a motive, or so it seems, but not everyone is guilty. Or are they? I kept reading, keen to try to work out ‘who’ and ‘why’. Illness, fog, mysterious lights, and strange symbols each have a part to play, alongside greed and opportunism. Can anyone be trusted? Could a demon be responsible for their misfortunes?

I had no idea where the novel was going to lead me, but I certainly enjoyed the journey. Another clever novel from Stuart Turton.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

The Shadow Game (Harry Dunkley #3) by Steve Lewis and Chris Uhlmann

‘…there are no rules in a fight. There is only the survivor and the defeated.’

Welcome to Canberra! Journalist Harry Dunkley tried, and failed, to reveal the existence of the cabal of mandarins (referred to as the Alliance) who exert power in Canberra. He is dispirited and disgraced, not sure what the future holds, and he could be facing time in gaol. Can things get any worse for Harry?

But politics is an uncertain game, and Harry’s fortunes rise as the Coalition government hits turbulence. Former Prime Minister Martin Toohey becomes an unlikely ally, as do some of Harry’s former adversaries.

Together, Harry and Martin Toohey are determined to bring down the Alliance. Australia’s sometimes challenging and fragile relationships with China and the USA provide tension in the background. And the tension is ratcheted up a level by the relative inexperience of Australia’s current Prime Minister Elizabeth Scott. In the background, Sir Jack Webster (of Defence) seems untouchable, but Harry just might be able to find a way.

This is the third of a trilogy, best read in order (‘The Marmalade Files’ and ‘The Mandarin Code’ are the first two) to appreciate the character development. While some elements are farfetched (I hope), other elements will seem depressingly familiar to those familiar with Australia’s federal political machinations.

A fitting end to the trilogy.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith


The Fine Art of Invisible Detection by Robert Goddard

‘The world went on its way. It was business as usual. Until it wasn’t.’

Umiko Wada, widowed, works as a secretary to Kazuto Kodaka, a private detective in Tokyo. Her mother wants her to remarry, but Wada is comfortable with the current orderliness of her life: managing her boss’s diary and keeping his paperwork under control. But then Kodaka takes on a case which changes everything. He is approached by a woman, Mimori Takenaga, who believes that her father was murdered in London in 1977.

As part of the investigation, Wada leaves Tokyo for London. She is to meet an Englishman, Martin Caldwell who may have some information.

And from here, the action escalates. Kodaka is killed, Wada’s contact in London goes missing. Wada is resourceful and follows leads to Devon and then to Iceland. There is more than one secret being hidden, and more than one person who will kill to make sure that those secrets remain hidden.

This is a complex thriller with several well-developed characters, some interesting plot twists, and plenty of action. Will Wada find the answers she is seeking? A dramatic, tense climax on a beach in Cornwall brings much of the story to a conclusion. But Wada has a taste for investigating now, and there are a couple of loose ends…

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. I hope that Wada finally finished her reread of ‘The Makioka Sisters’.

Note: My thanks to NetGalley and Random House, UK for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes. 

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

The Last Reunion by Kayte Nunn

Publication date: 30/3/2021

A story of friendship and resilience

Burma, 1945. Five young women joined the Women’s Auxiliary Service. They are attached to the Fourteenth Army, assigned to run a mobile canteen in support of the Burma Campaign of the Second World War. Bea, Plum, Bubbles, Joy and Lucy were in search of adventure, keen to do their bit to support those involved in what has often been referred to as ‘The Forgotten War’.

Oxford, 1976. A woman steals several rare Japanese netsuke from a collection in a museum. Although a considerable reward is offered, the tiny exquisitely carved netsuke are not seen again.

London and Galway, 1999. Olivia, an assistant to an art dealer, meets Beatrix. Beatrix wishes to sell her late husband’s collection of Japanese art. Olivia falls ill while visiting Beatrix and ends up accompanying her to a New Year’s Eve party, a reunion between the women who worked together in Burma.

But over fifty years have elapsed since the women worked together, and there are secrets that threaten their friendship.

Until I read this book, I knew nothing about the Women’s Auxiliary Service (Burma) and the role played by the women who served the war effort by running canteens to serve the Allied troops during the Burma campaign. Ms Nunn’s book took me into that world, with the hardships of service in the jungle not far from enemy lines and the power of friendship. And weaving between the friendships and the events of 1945 and 1999, is the story of a particular netsuke. The netsuke itself is important both as a hand carved Japanese artefact and because of its story, its journey.

I enjoyed this wonderful story of friendship and resilience. This is the fourth of Ms Nunn’s novels I have read, and I have enjoyed (and learned from) each one.

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



The Codebreakers by Alli Sinclair

‘The only information you need right now is that if you pass this test, you will be involved in an operation that is integral to helping the Allies win this war.’

Brisbane, 1943. Elanora (Ellie) O’Sullivan works as an engineer for Qantas Empire Airways. She is part of the team keeping allied planes in the air, transporting supplies to Australian troops in New Guinea. Ellie has left family in Longreach and boards with Mrs Hanley in Brisbane, sharing a room with her friend Kat Arnold.

Ellie’s dedication to her work does not go unnoticed, and she is approached by Lieutenant Andrews to join the Central Bureau. Her work, as part of the codebreaking team (working in conjunction with Bletchley Park operatives) is top secret, and subject to the Official Secrets Act. Ellie must undertake never to tell anyone about the work she is undertaking.

The team of women, calling themselves ‘the Garage Girls’ work in a converted garage at Nyrambla house in Henry Street, Ascot. Their work involves decoding intercepted Japanese messages: highly stressful work, where a mistake can cost lives. The need to maintain secrecy makes personal relationships difficult for Ellie (and the other women). And not everyone is strong enough to do so.

Ms Sinclair recreates the challenges of life for this generation of young women at the forefront of Australia’s domestic war effort. Women’s roles changed, not without considerable resistance from some quarters, and many of the women (including Ellie) had lost loved ones.

And once the war was over? What would the future hold?

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. The main characters stepped out of the pages for me, and I appreciated the research Ms Sinclair undertook to bring this novel to life. While I’ve read about Bletchley Park, I had never heard of the work undertaken by Australian Women Army Service (AWAS) staff in the garage at Nyrambla.

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

Jennifer Cameron-Smith



Could the Morrison government’s response to sexual assault claims cost it the next election? (from The Conversation)

Jeremy Piper/AAP

Sarah Cameron, University of Sydney

Today, thousands of Australians are expected to march around the country, angry and fed up at the treatment of women. In Canberra they will form a ring of protest around Parliament House.

This comes after Melbourne academic and entrepreneur Janine Hendry wondered how many “extremely disgruntled” women it would take to link arms around parliament to tell the government “we’ve had enough” (the answer is about 4,000).

It follows Brittany Higgins’ allegation of rape in a minister’s office in 2019 and an allegation Attorney-General Christian Porter raped a 16-year-old in 1988 (which he denies). It also comes amid multiple claims of a toxic work culture at Parliament House.

While Higgins’ case has sparked numerous inquiries, she claims she was not supported in the aftermath of her alleged assault. Regarding Porter, the government is resisting calls for an independent inquiry, with Prime Minister Scott Morrison declaring him an “innocent man under our law”.

As Australia heads into another pre-election season, questions have been raised about the potential impact of recent events.

Women are obviously a significant demographic, and data shows they are already drifting away from the Liberal Party.

So, what’s at stake when it comes to women voters and the Liberals at the next election?

Gender and voting behaviour

The Australian Election Study is a nationally representative survey of voter behaviour that has run after all federal elections since 1987.

In 2019, it showed that although the Liberal-National Coalition won the federal election, the Liberal Party attracted the lowest proportion of women’s votes since 1987.

While 45% of men gave their first preference to the Liberal Party, just 35% of women did so. Parties on the political left also had an advantage among women, with 6% more women than men voting for the Greens, and a smaller margin of 3% more women voting for Labor.

Looking at the gender gap over time, we see it has actually reversed over the past 30 years. Back in the 1990s, women were slightly more likely to vote for the Liberal party, and men were more likely to vote Labor.

This has gradually switched, so men now prefer the Liberal Party and women prefer Labor. The gender gap in voting Liberal is now at its greatest point on record.

This reversal of the gender gap in voting behaviour isn’t unique to Australia, it has also been observed in other democracies including in Europe and North America.

Why are we seeing a gender gap?

There are a number of factors underpinning this transformation of gender and voting in Australia.

This includes tremendous social change, such as women’s increased participation in higher education. Higher education is associated with political ideology that is further to the left.

Women’s increased participation in the labour force is also a factor. The election study shows in 1990, 41% of union members were women, by 2019, that figure had increased to 55%.

Read more: Labor’s election loss was not a surprise if you take historical trends into account

But womens’ voting behaviour can also be attributed to major changes in Australia’s major political parties. Back in the early 1990s, women were similarly underrepresented in both the major parties — just 13% of parliamentarians in 1990 were women.

Since then, Labor has dramatically increased its proportion of women in parliament, reaching 47% through party quotas as of the last election. The Liberal Party on the other hand, has made slower progress, reaching just 23% at the most recent election.

New research published in the journal Electoral Studies shows left-leaning women are more likely to support female candidates.

The Liberal Party’s ‘women problem’

So, even before the current crisis, the Liberal party was losing the electoral support of women.

The Liberal Party’s “women problem” has become a common criticism, not just by political opponents but also prominent Liberal Party figures including former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

The current crisis has the potential to exacerbate the gender gap in voting behaviour.

That said, election results are often influenced by the most important issues at the time of the election. The salience of different issues — shaped to a large degree by media coverage — can change considerably over time.

Approval ratings of Morrison from the Essential Poll show he lost a lot of support during the bushfires in late 2019 and early 2020, which he was perceived as handling poorly.

Since then, Morrison has benefited from Australia’s relative success in managing the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result of a phenomenon known as “rallying ‘round the flag,” voters have supported him and the government during this time of crisis.

The next election

The election can be held anytime from August this year, although political observers currently expect it to be next year.

The electoral impact of current events will depend not only on the government’s response to the sexual assault allegations (and voter satisfaction with those responses), but also which issues are salient at election time. A historical sexual assault allegation against former Labor leader Bill Shorten was not a major factor in the lead up to the last election (he denies the claims and in 2014, police said they would not proceed with charges).

Read more: Polls say Labor and Coalition in a 50-50 tie, Trump set to be acquitted by US Senate

Interestingly, the Australian Election Study shows trust in government reached its lowest point on record in 2019 with just one in four voters believing that people in government could be trusted. In contrast, three quarters thought those in government were more interested in looking after themselves.

On the issue of sexual assault, recent polling data also suggests the government is similarly perceived as putting itself first. Of those polled, 65% agreed “the government has been more interested in protecting itself than the interests of those who have been assaulted”. This includes half of Coalition voters, and a similar proportion of men and women.

Woman marching for women's safety in 2019.
Polls suggest voters don’t like they way the government has handled the Porter and Higgins cases. Jeremy Piper/AAP

Elections are decided on many issues and factors, including what is making headlines closer to election day, and the performance of leaders and parties.

But the growing gender gap in voting will be on the radar of both major parties. The Liberal Party ignores it at its peril.

Sarah Cameron, Lecturer in Politics, University of Sydney

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

Secrets of the Sea by Nicholas Shakespeare

‘There was one road into Wellington Point and one road out.’

Alex Dove has returned to (the fictional town of) Wellington Point on the east coast of Tasmania after twelve years in England. He was eleven years old when he was sent to school in England after his parents were killed in a car accident. Alex has inherited his parents’ unprofitable farm and his father’s collection of ships in bottles.

‘The weekend Alex met Merridy he had driven to Wellington Point to look for ice-cream sticks in the school rubbish tins.’

Merridy comes to Wellington Point with her own parents: her father in a wheelchair needing care, her mother there from a sense of duty. Merridy has abandoned her studies in Melbourne to help her parents. Merridy and Alex are drawn together. They marry and are determined to make a success of life on Alex’s farm with the family they intend to have. Merridy finds a flair for oyster farming, which helps relieve financial pressures.

But things do not go according to plan and they are already becoming strangers to each other when the sinking of a ship in a storm brings Kish into their lives. Kish is part of a semi-literate crew of young offenders serving on a replica brigantine as part of a rehabilitation programme. Though the young delinquent seems truculent and disturbed, the couple take him into their home, which allows Alex to ‘indulge the extravagant idea that he had plucked from the sea a child he never had’, while Merridy finds him reminiscent of her lost brother, Hector.

I loved the setting of this novel, on the east coast of Tasmania, near the town of Swansea. This is a beautiful part of Tasmania, rich in history and naturally beautiful. I envisaged Talbot’s Store as Morris’ Store in Swansea, with its views over the main road and across the bay. The story moved slowly at times, but I did not mind, until Kish entered the story. Kish’s presence jarred, for me, and while I kept reading, my interest waned.

I finished the novel, delighted by the description of Wellington Point and the surrounding country, and hoping that the future would be kinder for the main characters.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith


The Vandemonian War by Nick Brodie

‘The secret history of Britain’s Tasmanian invasion.’

I read an article by Nick Brodie which led me indirectly to this book. I was curious. I grew up in Tasmania, and colonial history was rarely touched on during my education during the 1960s and early 1970s. The Tasmanian Aboriginals are all dead, we were told, the race is extinct. Questions about how and why were neither encouraged nor answered. I moved away from Tasmania in 1974 and have since learned more.

‘The Vandemonian War was the British Empire’s best kept secret. Invasion was called settlement. Ethnic cleansing was called conciliation. Genocide was naturalised as extinction. Even Van Diemen’s Land was renamed Tasmania.’

What had Nick Brodie discovered, and how does it change our understanding of history?

‘My discovery of the truth about the Vandemonian War started with a certain manuscript volume in the Tasmanian Archives and Heritage Office in Hobart. It is labelled ‘No7/Records relating to the Aboriginals’, and has the archival designation CSO1/1/320 (7878).  It comes from the records of the Colonial Secretary’s Office, and contains hundreds of pages of inbound correspondence only a tiny fraction of which has ever been previously examined, analysed or cited by historians.  These letters detail military and paramilitary operations against Aboriginal people in the interior of Van Diemen’s Land in the 1820s and 1830s.’

Until I read this book, I had (mostly) believed that while individuals and small local groups had killed Aborigines, that the colonial government had tried (however ineffectually) to protect them. It is confronting to read that was not the case, that the military and paramilitary forces deliberately drove the Aboriginal peoples from the lands they had occupied for centuries. This was no accident.

I finished this book with very mixed feelings. It is never comfortable having to revisit what was taught as truth and is now exposed – via the colonial records of the time – as inaccurate and incomplete. Documented fact, not an issue of interpretation.

‘Unearthed after nearly two centuries of established history, the Vandemonian War allows us to see that a society can be led to do almost anything – and then come to believe it did not do it at all.’

Uncomfortable, but important reading.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith


The Good Teacher by Petronella McGovern

‘Allison greeted every child by name as they came into the classroom.’

Life on Sydney’s northern beaches can have its challenges. Kindergarten teacher Allison Walsh is struggling. Her marriage has broken down, her son Felix has chosen to live with his father, and a new student needing additional care has just arrived. Five-year-old Gracie Branson has a rare form of cancer and is having chemotherapy. Poor Gracie: she lost both her home and her mother in a bushfire a few months earlier, and she and her father Luke are alone.

Allison is not dealing very well with being alone. She is obsessed with trying to find out who her husband is with, and she is uncomfortable with the emptiness of her home. So, when the opportunity arises, she invites Gracie and Luke to stay with her. She wants to help Gracie, and there is a possibility that a cancer treatment trial in Chicago could help. Allison knows that the trip will be expensive and offers to help Luke raise the funds required.  Soon the entire town

And, on these foundations, Ms McGovern builds a tense, tight psychological thriller. There are a few twists, some of which took me by surprise and all of which had me wanting to know how it would end. This is Ms McGovern’s second novel and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith