The Deadly Truth (Dr. Basil Willing #3) by Helen McCloy

‘A butterfly in a beehive could not have looked more out of place than Claudia Bethune in the vestibule of the Southerland Foundation.’

Biochemist Roger Slater is working in his laboratory at the Southerland Foundation when Claudia Bethune drops in for a visit. She seems interested in his work:

‘Is this that truth serum you said something about last spring?’

He describes the properties of the drug: a ‘truth serum’ based on scopolamine. Shortly after she leaves, he realises that one of the tubes containing the drug is missing. He sets off in pursuit: Claudia Bethune has a reputation for playing practical jokes on her guests, and this drug has dangerous properties.

Dr Basil Willing has rented a cottage on the Bethune’s Long Island estate. He is hoping to have a vacation and has been refusing Claudia Bethune’s invitations to dinner. Wise man. Yes, Claudia Bethune has arranged a dinner party. Roger arrives in time to join the guests, but not before Claudia Bethune mixes a special cocktail.

Later, Dr Willing thinks he can see flames through the window of the Bethune house. He investigates. There is no fire, but slumped at her own dinner table, is Claudia Bethune. She has been strangled with her own emerald necklace.

Who strangled Claudia, and why? Given that she has been awful to every guest at the party, there is no shortage of suspects. Dr Willing substitutes investigation (with the full support of the local authorities) for his vacation.

This is the second Dr Willing mystery I have read, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It took me a while to work out who strangled Claudia and then, of course, it seemed obvious. Ms McCloy introduces several interesting ideas into this novel: fact supports fiction and flawed humans provide any number of possibilities. Dr Willing is both observant and persistent, and I am looking forward to reading the other novels in this series. This novel was first published in 1941 and is being re-published by Agora Books.

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

Later by Stephen King

‘Like I said, this is a horror story…’

Meet Jamie Conklin. He lives with his single mother, Tia, and they are doing okay. Until a series of events brought their world crashing down. And then Tia, who had urged Jamie to keep his unnatural ability secret, decides there may be a benefit. Jamie’s ability? Well, he can see and communicate with the dead, and Tia is not the only person who thinks this might be advantageous.

Welcome to classic Stephen King territory! The story starts out small and gradually moves into more horrific terrain. If you like your terror with a touch of the supernatural, can abide truly evil characters and retain your optimism (more or less) then I recommend this novel.

The last Stephen King I enjoyed this much was ‘The Green Mile’. My mother, who introduced me to Stephen King novels nearly fifty years ago, would have loved this.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Frank Ramsey: A Sheer Excess of Powers by Cheryl Misak

‘Who was Frank Ramsey?’

‘Any biography of Frank Ramsey must start with, and be haunted by, his death. He was one of the most powerful and influential thinkers Cambridge ever produced. Yet he died just shy of his twenty-seventh birthday.’

Frank Plumpton Ramsey (22 February 1903 – 19 January 1930) was a British philosopher, mathematician, and economist who made major contributions to all three fields before his death at the age of 26. He was a friend of Ludwig Wittgenstein and was instrumental in translating Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus into English. Frank Ramsey was also influenced by, and influenced, John Maynard Keynes and Bertrand Russell.

I was intrigued: how did someone who died so tragically young achieve so much? And why do I know so little about him? I picked up the book and started reading. Ms Misak describes the world Frank Ramsey inhabited, his family, and his beliefs. I was intrigued by his interactions with John Maynard Keynes, less interested in his belief in free love, fascinated by his achievements.

I do not pretend to understand all of Mr Ramsey’s achievements. I was familiar with some of his work on economic theory (from my studies in the early 1970s), but that is all. Ms Misak presents his ideas in a way that non-expert readers like me can appreciate their breadth and depth without becoming lost in technicalities.

I enjoyed reading this book, about the achievements of a young man whose contribution to the fields of economics, mathematics and philosophy should be celebrated by specialists and non-specialists alike.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

The Doctor Who Fooled the World: Andrew Wakefield’s war on vaccines by Brian Deer

‘In some imaginary universe, he might be revered as Professor Sir Andrew Wakefield.’

Who is Andrew Wakefield, and why is he referred to as ‘the father of the anti-vaccine movement?’  Why has this movement gained so much momentum?

Once again, vaccination is a hot topic. Once again, those for vaccination and those against face off. Social media provides an additional vector for the spread of (mis)information. Rumour becomes fact. People remember horror stories. Fears cloud judgement. And, because of non-vaccination, some diseases are returning. Why are people choosing not to have their children vaccinated?

Part of the answer lies in activities undertaken by Andrew Wakefield, then a doctor in the UK, trying to prove a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. His study was published in the Lancet in 1998 and has since been retracted. Mr Deer goes into painstaking detail to provide the background. He provides biographical detail of Andrew Wakefield, a description of the rigged research undertaken to try to prove a connection, and the hopes of those families struggling with a disability and looking for answers. Heartbreaking stuff.

Fifteen years of investigation: a long investigation, several different players (many of whom only had parts of the story) and plenty of statistics. I read page after page, wondering how on earth Andrew Wakefield got away with presenting misinformation as science. I felt sorry for the families caught up in his ‘proof’, and angry with the medical establishment for not acting earlier. So, Andrew Wakefield is banned from medicine and has left the UK for the USA where he is feted by conspiracy theorists. Sigh.

As Mr Deer writes:

‘The way I saw it, it was never about the science, the children or the mothers. It had always been about himself.’

I found this a difficult book to read for two reasons. Firstly, I really did not want to believe that the checks and balances that should apply to research had failed, and secondly, I feel incredibly sad that people continue to believe in a totally discredited study (some of the children involved had signs of autism before they had the MMR vaccine). The downside of children not being vaccinated is a rise in preventable diseases. Diseases which can cause serious illness and may result in death.

Yes, I am aware that there are some children cannot have some vaccinations for medical reasons. But those reasons do not apply to most. I am absolutely in favour of the rigorous testing of vaccinations, to identify possible side effects and issues.

I believe that vaccination saves lives. I remember standing with my father, a survivor of the poliomyelitis epidemic of the early 1950s, in a queue in the early 1960s to have the Salk vaccine. I remember how hard it was for my father to stand in that queue. He never fully recovered from polio.

I wish that those who don’t believe in vaccination would read this book.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Last One at the Party by Bethany Clift

 ‘I need to go back to the beginning.’

November 2023. Humanity is being wiped out. The virus kills people within days. It is called 6DM (Six Days Maximum) …

‘… and it began, not in China or some tiny African village, but almost exactly in the middle of the USA.’

But there is one survivor in London. A woman who somehow is immune. A woman who needs to learn how to negotiate in a world full of rotting corpses that is being taken over by rats. We travel with her as she looks for survivors and learns how to survive in an increasingly hostile world.

Follow our survivor, through the first month of denial (fuelled by drugs and alcohol) and then into a reality where the failure of the electricity grid forces her out of denial into an uncertain future. This is a woman who has spent her life meeting the expectations of others, a woman who needs to work out how to live. And the future?

Yes, I have been reading a lot of dystopian fiction lately. It is how I inoculate myself against our current pandemic reality. Sometimes it helps. This novel captured my attention and held it. At the beginning, I wondered if she would be able to survive, if she would find any other survivors, whether she could find somewhere safe to live. Then, as she started finding her way through each of the challenges, I kept reading to see how (and where) it would end.

Part of this novel are difficult to read: Ms Clift made her dystopian world so awfully real that I was not sure that anyone would want to survive in it.

This is one of the best dystopian novels I’ve read in years, and I recommend it … if you have the stomach for dystopia at present.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

The Invisible Land by Hubert Mingarelli, Sam Taylor (Translator)

 ‘I didn’t know why I stayed on.’

The voice belongs to our unnamed narrator, a war photographer. He is in Dinslaken, Germany, in 1945, and reluctant to return home. While the damage around him is being assessed, he sets out to photograph ordinary German people in front of their homes. He is assigned a driver, a young soldier named O’Leary, a car with some fuel and other provisions.

As they drive, seemingly aimlessly, from place to place, we learn that O’Leary, who came to late too do any fighting, is also reluctant to return home. The fighting may have finished, but the aftermath is all around them. German people, ordinary German people, trying to pick up their lives. Our narrator, who has no language in common with them (and often seems insensitive to their needs and feelings) directs them (through gestures). Not everyone agrees to be photographed.

I read on, wondering what it is that our narrator is looking for, what purpose will his photographs serve? I wonder too about O’Leary, about his reluctance to return home.

And then, just as I think their travels are about to conclude, with a family who have offered hospitality, I am jerked out of my complacency by a violent act. I had been lulled into a false sense of safety, with non-combatants at the end of a dreadful war. I am reminded, yet again, that violence exists outside war. I observe the ‘how’ but have no answer for the ‘why’, just sadness and regret for the fact and impact. I am left thinking.

‘We walked into the forest amid almost total darkness and when we came out again the stars, more numerous than above the clearing, guided us towards the road.’

I was sad, too, to learn that Hubert Mingarelli died earlier this year. I have read ‘A Meal in winter’ and ‘Four Soldiers’ and hope to read his other work as it is translated into English.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

The Morbids by Ewa Ramsay

‘I think about dying all the time.’

Two years ago, Caitlin was planning an overseas trip with her best friend. Two years ago, Caitlin was enjoying her career. Two years ago, an accident changed everything.

And now?

Every week, Caitlin attends a weekly support group. She and the other members of the group suffer from profound anxiety about imminent death. The group nicknamed ‘The Morbids’, talk about the many and varied ways, times and places in which death might await them. Their fear is disabling and paralysing, making ‘normal life’ almost impossible. The leadership of the group has changed: once a psychiatrist led discussion, now a series of different nurses attends and takes notes. It is almost as if the professionals have given up: the group is essentially facilitated by one of the participants.

’Everything had been perfect and now it wasn’t and nothing was ever going to fix it.’

Caitlin is convinced that she is going to die. She tries to manage her overwhelming anxiety by keeping busy, self-medicating with alcohol and keeping those who might care at arm’s length.

How can Caitlin possibly attend her best friend’s wedding in Bali? And when Tom, a handsome doctor, takes an interest in her, will she be able to overcome her fear of death and restart her life?

Anyone who has ever experienced anxiety will be able to relate to Caitlin’s story. Sure, anxiety is often only temporary for most of us, but it is the oppressive feeling of anxiety that Ms Ramsay captures in this novel. Anxiety: an overwhelming fear that often has a logical starting point but can grow into monstrous proportions and take over a life. I wanted Caitlin to succeed, to reclaim her life but could feel that monstrous weight pressing down on her.

Highly recommended.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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The Devil’s Pawn (Faustus #2) by Oliver Pötzsch , Lisa Reinhardt (Translator)

To be published 13 April 2021

‘You are in demand, Johann Georg Faustus, and these are tumultuous times.’

Rome, 1518.  Tumultuous times: peasants are rebelling while the church becomes ever greedier and more corrupt.  Meet Johann Faust: a renowned magician, astrologer, and chiromancer.  He is travelling through Germany with his loyal companion Karl and Greta, the orphaned juggler.  But Pope Leo X wants Faust’s services.  He sees alchemy as the best way to replenish the papacy’s drained coffers.  But Faust has a deal with the devil, and the devil wants something else…

‘You can’t defeat the devil, but you can offer him a bargain.’

Faust is struck by a mysterious illness and perhaps his new friend Leonardo da Vinci can help.  It is not only his own fate that Faust holds in his hands.

‘Only he who challenges his enemy can emerge victorious.’

Oliver Pötzsch has done it again.  I have thoroughly enjoyed the books I have read in the Hangman’s Daughter series and while I have yet to read Faustus #1 (‘The Master’s Apprentice’), I now have a copy.

 Can Faust outrun the devil?  Will Pope Leo X get his just deserts?  Does Leonardo da Vinci have the answers Faust is seeking?

This is an enthralling story, fast-paced, full of action and more than a few twists.  And what does it tell us about human nature?  Highly recommended.

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

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Those Hamilton Sisters by Averil Kenny

‘What does the future hold?’

Three sisters, orphaned after their mother’s death, arrive in Noah Vale, in tropical Queensland, where their aunt lives. It is 1955, and the girls are about to encounter all the gossip and small-minded prejudice that their mother Esther fled from when pregnant, over 20 years earlier. Sonnet (20), Fable (12) and Novella (known as Plum) (3) were all born out of wedlock. Their aunt Olive wants to help, but Sonnet is fiercely independent of herself and her sisters.

The story unfolds over the next ten years with each of the sisters overcoming the legacy of prejudice to find their own place in the world. Ms Kenny brings her characters to life, especially Sonnet and Fable. Gradually we learn more about their mother Esther, about her hopes and ambitions for herself and for her daughters. I finished the novel wanting more, especially as Plum’s journey to adulthood was just beginning. I really enjoyed this novel, with its wonderful descriptions of place and the clear-eyed depiction of the challenges that the sisters faced, trying to make their own ways in a town where they were judged according to the past.

An accomplished debut novel.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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Elizabeth & Elizabeth by Sue Williams

‘If you want to forge a path of your own, you must find a way to make your time in New South Wales work for you.’

Elizabeth Macarthur arrived in New South Wales in 1790 with her husband John, a lieutenant in the New South Wales Corps. At the end of 1809, Betsey Macquarie arrived with her husband Lachlan, who took up his duties as New South Wales Governor on 1 January 1810. In this novel, Ms Williams imagines a friendship between Elizabeth (Betsey) Macquarie and Elizabeth Macarthur.

I admit to having reservations about this novel: I have read a few novels recently, where the lives of historical women (including novels about both Elizabeth Macarthur and Elizabeth Macquarie) have been imagined. Sometimes such novels can bring historical figures alive, other times they insert imagined details that have me wishing that the novelist had chosen entirely fictional characters. While I cannot quite envisage the Betsey Macquarie that Ms Williams writes of, I have no difficulty recognising Elizabeth Macarthur. My reservations fade quite quickly as Ms Williams immerses the reader in the politics and challenges of this period of Australia’s colonial history. I recognise many of the historical figures and events from other reading.

By the end of the novel, through the personal trials and tribulations each woman (and her family) suffers, I can envisage the shape of such a friendship, the competence of each woman, and the challenges faced.

If you are interested in novels depicting strong women set in colonial Australia, I recommend this novel.

‘In a place where there are so few educated women, Elizabeth knows her friend’s absence will leave a gaping hole.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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