The Husbands by Chandler Baker

Whatever it takes…

Nora Spangler is a successful attorney: pregnant with her second child, in the running for partnership at her law firm, juggling domestic responsibilities and feeling exhausted. Her husband, Hayden, helps a bit but never really seems to take any initiative. Sigh.

With a second child on the way, the Spanglers need a bigger home. House hunting takes them to Dynasty Ranch, an exclusive suburban neighbourhood, just outside Austin, Texas, where Nora meets a group of very successful women whose husbands seem incredibly supportive. So, what is different about Dynasty Ranch?

Keen to be accepted (there is an approval process for intending residents) Nora agrees to help one of the women with a wrongful death case. The more time Nora spends with the women of Dynasty Ranch the more impressed she is. Hayden may help her a bit, but the husbands at Dynasty Ranch are well, amazing. They seem to have picked up all the domestic responsibilities without complaint. What on earth has happened?

Well, there’s a couple of twists which may (or may not) surprise but I am not going to spoil the story. Suffice to say that not everything that glitters is gold.

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

Convict-era Port Arthur: Misery of the deepest dye by David W. Cameron

‘In all, close to 13,000 convicts spent time at Port Arthur during its 47-year history (with around 8 per cent of serving convicts buried there).’

In this book, Mr Cameron provides background to the establishment of Port Arthur, the history of its operation as a penal colony and its closure in 1877. We learn about the differing approaches to the treatment of convicts. about the semaphore system used to convey messages, about the ships built there as well as the coal mines, the convict operated railway and the attempts at escape. In telling the story of Port Arthur, Mr Cameron incorporates the stories of several individuals within the history, including Charles O’Hara Booth (Commandant of Port Arthur from 1833 to 1844); Mark Jeffrey (a convict who was the gravedigger on the Isle of the Dead between 1874 and 1877); and William Thompson (a cobbler transported for life in 1841 who spent a year working in the underground coal mines).

The responsibility for Port Arthur was transferred from the British government to Tasmania in 1870 and the penal settlement closed in 1877.

‘It was on that day, Monday, 17 September 1877, that the seven remaining convicts were transported to Hobart on board the schooner Harriet and the doors to buildings were locked – Port Arthur ceased to exist as a penal settlement.’

These days, Port Arthur is a tourist destination. I visited twice during the 1970s, trying to imagine convict life amongst the peaceful ruins that remain. I walked around the shell of the church and the remnants of the penitentiary, around to the dockyards. I have not been to the Coal Mine site. And I feel a need, now, to include Mr Cameron’s epilogue:

‘The most pathetic and cowardly criminal to arrive at Port Arthur entered the site on Sunday, 28 April 1996 – he killed 35 innocent people, and physically and emotionally wounded another 23 along with the psychological scarring of surviving witnesses.’

This is a comprehensive account of both the events leading to the establishment of the penal settlement of Port Arthur and its operation. I knew some of this history and learned more. This book is an important addition to Tasmania’s complicated colonial history. Recommended.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith


The Rule by David Jackson

To be published on 1/7/2021

‘The Rule was that Daniel should avoid physical contact with others as much as possible.’

Daniel is twenty-two, about to turn twenty-three. He is looking forward to his birthday: to fish and chips, a chocolate caterpillar cake and comics featuring his favourite superhero Adam-9. While Daniel has the mind of a child, he is large and strong which means he can hurt people quite unintentionally. Hence The Rule. But a chance encounter with a drug dealer in a lift, coupled with Daniel’s inability to lie, lead to a death. Daniel’s parents, Gemma and Scott, want to keep him safe.  They know that if they report the death that Daniel will be taken away.

A decision is made, a choice which will have unintended consequences. People are looking for the dead person, and so are the police.

‘Oh what a tangled web we weave/When first we practice to deceive’

These words of Sir Walter Scott’s from his poem ‘Marmion: A Tale of Flodden Field’ came to mind as I read this novel. I kept reading, wanting to know how (and where) it would end.  And wondering, too, just how far parents will go to protect a child.

An engrossing family-based thriller with an interesting ending.

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

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams

‘Words are like stories.’

We meet Esme Nicoll in 1887. She is just six years old and surrounded by words. Esme’s mother has died, and she spends time with her father Harry as he works with Dr James Murray and other lexicographers in the ‘Scriptorium’ collating and editing entries for the Oxford English Dictionary.

Esme is fictional, but the Scriptorium and the process of compiling the OED are not. The words, their meanings and their use were submitted on slips of paper. These slips were sorted and debated, and sometimes words were excluded. Esme grows up with this slow process and becomes part of it. She learns that some words (and some meanings) are considered more important than others. Some of the slips are discarded, others are lost, and Esme rescues them.

After a brief period at a restrictive boarding school, Esme returns to Oxford, where she grows to maturity as volumes of the OED are slowly finalised and published. She learns new words from others and takes note of their meaning including a sentence using each word and who said them. Those words not included in the OED are stored in a tin trunk: Esme’s ‘Dictionary of Lost Words’. Some words have different meanings to women than they do to men, other words reflect class and upbringing. The Suffragist movement is part of Esme’s journey, as is the fact and impact of the Great War. Rules and roles change, and the usage and meaning of words continue to evolve.

What can I say about this remarkable novel? I have been intending to read it for ages and once I picked it up, I could not put it down. While I knew a little about the development of the OED, I had not paid as much attention to the society it was set within. The word ‘bondmaid’ is now fixed in my mind: you will need to read the novel to find why.

Highly recommended.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith



Edge of the Grave by Robbie Morrison

‘Any eejit can commit a murder – it takes brains to commit an accident.’

Glasgow, 1932. A city of contrasts. There is the rough, tough city full of gang violence, sectarian loyalties, unemployment, and poverty. And there is the power and influence held by the wealthy and well-connected. This is the backdrop for Mr Morrison’s debut novel.

A boy is murdered in his home in one of the poorer areas of Glasgow, his mother savagely beaten. A man is found floating in the River Clyde with his throat cut. The man found floating is Charles Geddes, the son-in-law of the patriarch of one of the city’s most influential families. Inspector Jimmy Dreghorn is the lead detective in the first case and is specifically sought by the family to lead the second. He has a history with the family especially with the victim’s widow, Isla Lockhart, and rivalries within the police will also complicate his involvement.

While it is clear who murdered the child, Inspector Dreghorn and his partner Archie McDaid must work hard to find out who murdered Charles Geddes. There’s motivation aplenty, and no shortage of suspects.

Dreghorn and McDaid’s search for answers leads them both into danger. In the meantime, Dreghorn’s search for information on another matter raises other issues. Some people are keen to explore the past, while others simply want to forget.

While I was tempted to read quickly, to find out who murdered Charles Geddes and why, I found myself consciously slowing the pace of my read so I could see the Glasgow being described and try to understand the various connections between the various characters. While a couple of aspects seemed improbable, they did not drag me out of the story.

It is a complex, gritty crime story that held my attention from beginning to end. Highly recommended.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

New Animal by Ella Baxter

‘Death always comes too soon, like a bus leaving minutes earlier than the timetable said it would.’

I have very mixed feelings about this novel, about Amelia Aurelia’s journey through death and grief with the aid of sex. I felt uncomfortable at times, like a voyeur in someone else’s nightmare. Meet Amelia Aurelia: a cosmetician at her family’s mortuary business. She is good at her job but detached from her emotions. Amelia is using sex as a proxy for affection, physical connection without emotional attachment. And things are about to get a whole lot worse.

Amelia runs away to her biological father in Tasmania, after something happens to her mother. Overwhelmed by emotion, looking to try to control her feelings, Amelia tries to take refuge in sex again. A BDSM club may provide Amelia with some answers, but you will need to read through some graphic scenes first.

I struggled with aspects of this story, wondering just how low Amelia would need to sink before finding her own place. I could relate to the numbness caused by overwhelming grief and could understand some of Amelia’s actions. I felt sorry for Amelia but found some of her actions utterly distasteful. But this, perhaps, is the point. If we care for a person, then to what extent do we accept or understand the actions sometimes taken in the pain of grief?

‘You’re looking in the wrong place if you are trying to escape from something.’

I finished this debut novel by Ms Baxter made uncomfortable by some of the images and by my own reaction to them. While I admire the writing (which has made me think), I am struggling to see any humour in Amelia’s situation. And yet … I find myself admiring her courage. Hmm.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith



Tidal Rage by David Evans

‘No day is a good day to die…’

Sebastian McKenzie is a brilliant pianist, working as an entertainer on some of the world’s leading cruise liners. Josef Werner is a criminal, a key part of a European counterfeiting ring. Max Cutler is a member of America’s Secret Service, working on breaking up the counterfeiting ring Josef Werner is part of. When Max’s young sister Elisa goes missing from a cruise ship off Alaska, his life changes forever. He is determined to find out what happened to Elisa, and it just so happens that after leaving the Secret Service, he has access to the financial means to do so.

After learning about Sebastian’s disadvantaged birth and past, we quickly learn that he is a murderer with a fetish. And what better place to murder than on an ocean liner where the evidence can be (comparatively easily) disposed of?

Josef Werner, with the help of a corrupt politician, manages to escape custody. He establishes a new base in Turkey and is after revenge.

And Max Cutler? He is determined to use his skills and contacts to finish off the counterfeiting ring and to find out what happened to Elisa.

All these strands are brought together in a fairly satisfying conclusion, but Mr Evans’s inclusion of excessive detail (at times) reduces the tension in what should be a gripping read.  While I enjoyed the novel, I believe that a good story could have been even better with some judicious editing.

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

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

The End of Men by Christina Sweeney-Baird

‘The Plague virus required the absence of a specific gene sequence.’

Yes, this is another pandemic novel. But this is one with a difference, and it certainly held my attention.

This novel, set in the near future, leads us into a world where a new virus has emerged – a virus which seems to only affect males.  The story opens in Scotland in 2025, when a new and mysterious illness emerges with a high mortality rate. Dr Amanda MacLean reports the illness but is dismissed as being hysterical. By the time her warning is heeded, the virus has become a pandemic. While not all men die, all the victims are men.

The virus results in a new world, one in which women will dominate. But what form will the world take and how will the survivors adapt?

The story unfolds through several different viewpoints and eight different stages. Ms Sweeney-Baird takes us from before the pandemic, through the panic and despair into survival and recovery as a vaccine is developed. But be warned: recovery cannot be (at least not yet, if ever) to the pre-pandemic world. The path into the future requires new strengths and abilities in order to adapt, and also requires the past to be remembered.

I really enjoyed the way in which Ms Sweeney-Baird developed the world of her novel. No, I did not particularly like a world in which males became a small minority, but the impact of this virus and the changes required to the world consequently made me think. How would such a world work?

I finished the novel and returned to the real world. One in which a pandemic is real and now in its second year.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

The Ringed Castle (The Lymond Chronicles #5) by Dorothy Dunnett

‘Not to every young girl is it given to enter the harem of the Sultan of Turkey and return to her homeland a virgin.’

Sixteen-year-old Philippa Somerville, wife in name only to Francis Crawford of Lymond and Sevigny, returns to England. While awaiting a divorce from Lymond, she is keen to find answers to some of the mysteries about his past. Meanwhile, Lymond himself is in Russia, with Güzel. His mission? To help Tsar Ivan create a modern army.

Now an accomplished young lady, Philippa is summoned to the English Court, to serve as a lady in waiting to Queen Mary. She is surrounded by both friends, (a couple of whom would compete to marry her once she is freed from marriage to Lymond) and foes (including Margaret Lennox).

Lymond and his highly skilled band of mercenaries have their own challenges in Russia. Self-interested factions compete for Ivan’s attention in a volatile court. Lymond has no intention of returning to England but does so at the Tsar’s command.

Philippa’s investigations into Lymond’s past reveal mystery about his parentage. And, once he is in England and the Tsar’s envoy, he is bound to cross paths with Philippa.

This is the fifth instalment in the Lymond Chronicles. It is also where I started my Lymond journey after my failed attempt to read ‘Game of Kings’ in 1974. This novel caught and held my attention from beginning to end, especially the descriptions of the Russian Court and the Tsar we have come to know as Ivan the Terrible. I enjoyed the history, the drama, the wonderful descriptions of people and place. Once I finished ‘The Ringed Castle’, I went back to the beginning and read my way through the series. I am now on (I think) my third re-read of the series and still enjoying the journey.

Dorothy Dunnett remains my favourite historical novelist. I continue to enjoy (and to learn from) these novels.

Highly recommended.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Here, There are Dragons by Witness J, Robert Macklin (Foreword), Julian Burnside AO QC (Foreword)

‘After secretly serving 455, days in prison, I was released on recognizance in August 2019 and quietly re-entered society.’

Witness J, I have read, was Australia’s first recorded secret prisoner. This book does not tell us why Witness J was imprisoned for 455 days in the ACT’s Alexander Maconochie Centre (AMC). He was housed with sex offenders and paedophiles because they are set apart from the AMC’s general prison population for their own protection.

It is disconcerting, reading an account of life in prison without some knowledge of why a person has been imprisoned. I want to be able to make my own judgments about this anonymous man’s crime and punishment, but I cannot. Instead, I read about some of the other men incarcerated (I have lived in Canberra for a long time and recognise several of the names mentioned) and the dynamics of prison life in this part of the AMC.

As Julian Burnside AO QC writes in his foreword:

‘The book considers the philosophical question J has struggled with: can you accept the humanity of people like these and not lose yourself in the process?’

I find this a difficult question to consider, especially in relation to sexual predators and paedophiles. What defines an individual’s humanity? Do (some) people cease to be considered human because of the crimes they commit? Witness J, I read, is a decorated Duntroon graduate and former military and civilian intelligence officer. His observations of life in prison: the social hierarchy, the conflicts and (some) of the people make for a thought-provoking read. I wonder, too, about the humanity of a process which incarcerates a man in secret. In 21st century Australia.

Many questions here, fewer answers.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith