The Husband Poisoner by Tanya Bretherton

‘Her recipe for murder was simple.’ … ‘Your Bonox, dear.’

In this book, Ms Bretherton writes about several different women, who used rat poison to end the lives of husbands and other inconvenient family members. They used thallium (a colourless, odourless, tasteless poison used to kill rats) in drinks such as Bonox.

Ms Bretherton writes of the social changes after World War II, how some of the freedom women experienced during the war came to an end when employment opportunities changed as men returned to try to take up their pre-war lives. Yvonne Fletcher killed two husbands, Caroline Grills killed her stepmother, a family friend, her brother, and his wife. Each of these deaths was initially attributed to natural causes, despite the suffering endured by many of the victims.

Nearly every household in Sydney (and elsewhere) would have had some type of rat poison on hand, and I wondered just how many ‘natural deaths’ were really the result of poisoning. In this book, Ms Bretherton writes about the cases of Yvonne Fletcher and Caroline Grills, and mentions other cases but I wonder how many more escaped detection?

Between March 1952 and April 1953, ten deaths and forty-six hospital admissions were attributed to thallium. Fortunately, the Poisons Act was amended in 1953, regulating the sale of thallium.

Using thallium may have been comparatively easy for the murderer, but it inflicted agony on their victims. The details are harrowing and heartbreaking. They include severe pain and blindness. One poor victim was accused of malingering, was determined to be insane and committed to the Callan Park Hospital for the Insane.

Ms Bretherton includes various recipes of the period in this book: the perfect vehicle for delivering the poison and a reminder that poisoning is usually a domestic crime. Shudder.

If you are interested in true crime, then you may find this book interesting. And unsettling.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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China by Edward Rutherfurd

‘You must always remember that the emperor of China sits at the centre of the world, and he rules by the Mandate of Heaven.’

The novel opens in 1839, at the beginning of the First Opium War between the Qing (Manchu) Dynasty and the west and unfolds over the remainder of the Qing Dynasty, closing with mention of Dr Sun Yat-sen, General Yuan and Edmund Backhouse in the early twentieth century.

We follow the fortunes of members of different Chinese, British and American families over this period. I was particularly interested in Mr Rutherford’s depiction of various Chinese: from the Confucian principles outlined (if not always followed) by the Mandarins; of the differences between the Han Chinese and the Manchu; and of the customs described. While this novel is against the background of only a small period of Chinese history, Mr Rutherfurd’s characters reflect the conflict between the values of the Middle Kingdom and western imperialism. While I think Mr Rutherfurd depicts them accurately, I am less sympathetic to the western characters, especially the opportunistic traders and missionaries.

For me, most of the characters were less important than the story they were part of. They each served to highlight a particular part of history, to present a viewpoint consistent with the position occupied. I especially liked the eunuch Lacquer Nail’s description of the Empress Dowager Cixi’s reign, and I also enjoyed the stories of Shi-Rong (a young Mandarin at the beginning of the novel) and Mei-Ling (from a village near Guangzhou).

While I was hoping for a novel set in China before the impact of western imperialism, I quickly fell into the rhythm of this novel and enjoyed it. Chinese history is fascinating, and Mr Rutherfurd brings this particular period to life.

‘China’s history is long. The pattern takes new forms, but in essence it is always the same. A dynasty slowly degenerates. Outsiders encroach. Insiders rebel.  The Mandate of Heaven is withdrawn. The dynasty falls. A period of chaos and warlords follows. Finally order is restored by a new dynasty, usually from within.  The old empire rises again for a few more centuries.’

I would recommend this novel to anyone interested in China.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Still by Matt Nable

‘They killed him because he saw.’

Darwin, Summer, 1963. It is hot and humid when Senior Constable Ned Potter finds a body dragged from shallow marshland. From the state of the man’s body, Ned is certain that he has met a violent death. But Ned meets resistance in trying to find answers. And this body is only the first of several.

This is a story of corruption and violence, of abuse, oppression and racism. Isolation and location have roles, as do alcohol and the weather. Like almost every male in the story, Ned Potter drinks too much. This strains his relationship with his wife Bonnie and helps undermine his credibility with his superiors. The other central character is Charlotte Clarke. Charlotte is a young married woman, bored with her role as a housewife and unhappy in her marriage. She wants more from life. A chance encounter with an injured man changes Charlotte’s life.

The body count increases. People claim not to have seen anything; Ned is strongly encouraged to back off. Who can he trust? It seems as though everyone in a position of authority is corrupt.  Ned persists despite threats. He is sure that the deaths are linked.

There is plenty of tension in this story. Ned risks everything to find the truth while Charlotte is also treading a dangerous path. Why have these three people been murdered? What are the links between them, and why is Ned’s boss so eager to look the other way? Corruption and coverup: there are some in Darwin who will go to any lengths to protect themselves.

A highly recommended mystery thriller.

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

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The Breaking by Irma Gold

‘I guess we’re all running, in a way…’

Hannah Bird lost her job as a receptionist and fled to Thailand. She figures that her money will last longer there. In the lobby of the hostel where she is staying, she meets Deven, another Australian, working as a teacher. Deven has a passion for saving elephants and convinces Hannah to join her on an official project to save enslaved elephants. Deven and Hannah work as part of a team feeding and cleaning up after the rescued elephants. It is hot, hard work in the tropical humidity. Privileged westerners, well-intentioned but with a limited understanding of the world they have chosen to visit, imposing their values on others. The official project does not go far enough for them and Deven and Hannah, full of youthful idealism, embark on their own unofficial rescue mission with disastrous consequences.

Two idealistic young women, trying to find their own place in a world full of inequality, establishing their own relationship. Two young women, trying to do what they think is ‘right’ without being fully aware of the possible consequences of their actions.

I am still thinking about some of the issues Ms Gold raises in this novel: the role of elephants in Thailand, their use (and exploitation), and the role of tourists who often want to see the elephants perform. Tourism is important to the local economy, as is the other work that elephants are involved in. Tourists may decry the exploitation of elephants, but they are often reinforcing it.

I finished this novel, wondering what the future might hold for Thai elephants and how customary practice and economic factors impact on their lives. I finished the novel wondering, as well, about the hypocrisy of westerners who take their own use of resources (including animals) for granted but would impose a different standard on others. Sigh. And I wondered where Hannah and Deven might be in ten years’ time, and what their views would be then.

A thought-provoking debut novel. Highly recommended.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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Adelaide by Kerryn Goldsworthy

‘The story of Adelaide is ornamented with ambiguities and ironies small and large …’

I have never lived in Adelaide and while I have not been there for over twenty years, I felt right at home when I visited. Why? The centre of Adelaide, where I have spent nearly all my time, reminded me of Launceston where I spent most of my childhood. It is the buildings, and the parks. And, while I know a little of Adelaide’s history, I do not really have any sense of the city beyond the public spaces. This book took me into Adelaide: I learned about frog cakes and was reminded of Don Dunstan’s pink shorts.  I learned about the rotunda, and the chapter entitles ‘The Bucket of Peaches’ took me back to family orchards in Tasmania, and the fruit trees that adorned the backyards of my childhood. The similarities engaged me; the differences expanded my knowledge.

I kept reading. I remember some of the events referred to and learned more about the context in which they occurred. I kept reading and resolved to visit Adelaide again to explore the city and its surroundings properly.

Ms Goldsworthy has written a unique guide to Adelaide: a view of the city through an eclectic selection of objects. As I write this, I can hear Paul Kelly singing ‘Adelaide’.

‘You have to go away and have adventures in order to come home enriched; quite apart from anything else, what knows she of Adelaide who only Adelaide knows?’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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The Audacity of Sara Grayson by Joani Elliott

Can she do it?

Sara Grayson is having a tough time. Her husband has left, taking her confidence with him. Then her mother, a world-famous suspense novelist, dies. Three weeks later, Sara learns that her mother’s dying wish was for Sara to write the final book in her bestselling series. Gulp. Sara does not believe that she can do this and is on the verge of declining in a meeting with her mother’s publishers. But then an insult gets her back up and she decides to proceed.

Really, Sara. From writing greeting cards to writing a satisfying conclusion to a bestselling series? How audacious.

We travel with Sara on her journey through self-doubt, compounded by writer’s block, and her discovery of family secrets. Sara’s sister, Anna-Kath, supports her but has some issues of her own to deal with. Sara is up against very tight deadlines and the publisher seems sure that she will fail (and is doing her best to achieve that outcome). I kept reading and changing my mind about whether I thought Sara could do it. In the meantime, Sara writes and procrastinates, freezes, unfreezes, and refreezes. All this angst to deal with, all these issues to overcome, and family secrets threatening to undermine everything. The odds seem stacked against Sara.

I have mixed feelings about this novel. While I enjoyed much of it, I became frustrated at times with four hundred pages containing much angst and deeply involved family secrets. But I wanted Sara to succeed (it is an underdog thing) so I kept reading. And yes, I liked the ending.

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

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Dangerous Women by Hope Adams

‘A knife … is it true? Who’s got a knife?’

On 5 April 1841, the Rajah set sail from Woolwich, England en route for Van Diemen’s Land. She carried 180 female convicts. Kezia Hayter accompanied the women as matron, in charge of the prisoners and their ten children. The journey took fifteen weeks: the Rajah arrived at Hobart on 19 July 1841.  During the journey, a number of the convict women made the Rajah Quilt, which is now held in the National Gallery of Australia.

Around these facts, Ms Adams has woven an historical thriller involving fictional convicts, including one who has stolen the identity of another to survive. In this novel, Kezia Hayter selects eighteen women to work with her on the quilt. The activity draws the women together and tentative friendships form. And then one of them is stabbed. Fatally. Who stabbed her, and why? Some of the women working on the quilt were on deck at the same time as the woman was stabbed, and it seems likely that one of them is guilty. The mood aboard the ship changes as the women become fearful for their safety. Kezia Hayter and the Captain want to find the truth, and an inquiry is launched.

Ms Adams brings the confined quarters of the ship to life: the cramped, uncomfortable conditions, the monotonous food, the seasickness. The chapters alternate between past (in which we learn more about some of the characters and how they came to be aboard the Rajah) and present. And the answer to the murder may come as a surprise.

Ms Adams chose to create fictional characters for the convict characters in her novel because some of the real women on the voyage have living descendants. Some of the others named (including Kezia Hayter) were aboard the Rajah.

‘A patchwork of souls.’

I have seen the Rajah Quilt on display at the National Gallery of Australia (it is not on permanent display because of its fragility). For those interested in more information about the making of the quilt, I can recommend this book: ‘Patchwork prisoners: the Rajah Quilt and the women who made it’ by Trudy Cowley and Dianne Snowden.  This is one of the books included in Ms Adams’s Bibliography.

I enjoyed the novel.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Rural Dreams by Margaret Hickey

‘Venturing into the world outside the city …’

There are eighteen short stories in this anthology, ranging between ten and twenty pages in length. Eighteen different situations, some immediately recognisable if you have spent any time in a rural community. Stories of community, of the importance of nature, of hard work. Stories about the pull between home and here, for some of those who have left and miss the country, stories about escape for those pleased to have moved out (and think they have moved on). Small worlds in some stories (such as A Bit of Scrapbooking), dangerous worlds (The Precipice) and then there is the mother who seems unable to speak without swearing (Mind Your Language).

I enjoy well-written short stories like these. Each story is self-contained, each story had me wanting (but not needing) more. Why? Because the characters became alive, and I wanted to know what they would do next. Ms Hickey captures both what is good about life in rural communities, and what can be stifling when everyone knows your business.

The story that will stay with me is The Precipice. I loved the character in A Bit of Scrapbooking and could totally relate to the character in Glory Days.

I recommend this anthology to anyone who enjoys short stories set in Australia.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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Velocity: A Memoir by Mandy Sayer

‘I was conceived in May 1962, roughly an hour after my father swallowed a block of hash at a party of jazz musicians.’

Mandy Sayer was born in 1963, and this is a memoir of her life up until the time she travelled to America with her father, Gerry Sayer. That part of her life is covered in her first memoir, ‘Dreamtime Alice’, which I have not yet read.

This is a difficult memoir to read, not because of the writing, which is excellent, but because of the content. Gerry and Betty, Mandy’s parents, lived a life largely unfettered by usual societal restraints.  Gerry pursued his dream as a jazz drummer, while Betty retreated into alcohol when it became clear that her dreams would not be realised. The youngest of three surviving children born to Gerry and Betty, Mandy learned how to accept, observe, and survive.

The marriage Betty wanted (but Gerry did not) failed. Mandy stayed with her mother, changed school frequently, watches hr mother fall into and out of unsatisfying and often violent relationships, and lives through three of her mother’s suicide attempts. But the worst of it is Betty’s relationship with Hakkim: a violent, paranoid younger man who makes their lives an utter misery. Betty has a child with Hakkim, and life becomes even more complicated.

Ms Sayer is a child through the events she describes, and much of her description is that matter of fact way in which children describe what has happened without the filters imposed by age and awareness. It makes for heartbreaking reading (for me, reading as an adult and parent) but it demonstrates resilience.

I found this a moving account, filled with both joy and pain, a struggle against daunting challenges, and will seek out Ms Sayer’s other memoirs: ‘Dreamtime Alice’ and ‘The Poet’s Wife’.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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Borderlanders by Gillian Polack

‘Do you believe in magic?’

Meet Melissa. Melissa shares her life with both Hal, to whom she is happily married, and with chronic pain.  Melissa has strategies for dealing with her pain, but those strategies do not always work. Especially when the cause of her pain is not obvious to others. Melissa discovers that her artwork can produce magic, and a new journey is about to begin.

‘That’s it, isn’t it?  That’s what the magic does.  It shows the inside on the outside.’

Once upon a time, Melissa, Zelda, and Bettina were schoolfriends. Each of them is artistic, and all three of them receive a two-week creative residency in a mysterious old house near Robertson in NSW. Friendships and life evolve, different experiences change perceptions. Is it necessary to believe in magic to experience it?

Melissa struggles with and through the constraints imposed by her unlabelled chronic painfilled illness. She is more attuned to the possibilities of this restless, sentient house than her friends. Portals to other places open to her. Portals that Zelda does not see, and Bettina is frequently afraid of. Each will pursue her own creative endeavour with occasional help (and hindrance).

‘The portals are not equal in where they lead.’

There is a marvellous mystical library, magic in water, and danger in shadows. And not everyone means well.

The story unfolds. The lives of each woman: Melissa and Bettina are clearer for me than Zelda is; some of the challenges and fears each face; and the possible opportunities ahead.

‘People weren’t listening to each other.’

I enjoyed this journey, especially the sentience of the house, the imagery of the library and the views through some of the portals. Perhaps I should have been afraid at times, but I felt sure that, like all my favourite childhood fairy tales, there would be a happy ending.

I discovered a new word, as well, which I hated on sight, and will try to avoid hereafter: ‘suckitude’.

Recommended for readers of contemporary fantasy.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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