In Sight of Stars by Gae Polisner

Sometimes I read YA fiction which takes me back to my own experiences of being teen-aged.  This is one of those novels.  The world is a complex place when we are teen-aged: we don’t (yet) have all the skills we need to make sense of it, and yet we often need to in order to survive.

While this is a novel for older teenagers, it’s also a novel for us (no longer young) adults.  Why?  Because I think it’s important sometimes to return to a version of the world we’ve left behind, to remember how black and white almost everything appeared to us in that world, and consider how the current version  of that world can appear to those currently inhabiting it.

The bad news is that you will need to wait until March 2018 to buy a copy.

‘There was a time when I felt happy and normal.’

Klee Alden is seventeen years old when the world he was comfortable in changes forever. His father, the centre of his universe, dies. He has committed suicide, and it is Klee who finds him. Klee (pronounced Clay) has explored New York City’s museums and art galleries with his father, learned about the lives and loves of great artists, experienced the magic his father could generate.

We meet Klee in a psychiatric hospital for teenagers. And, as we find out why Klee is in hospital, we learn about how his life changed after his father’s death and why Sarah, a girl he met in art class, has become so important to him.

I was deeply moved by this story. There are two main reasons for this. First, I had some experience myself as a teenager in a psychiatric institution and although that experience is over forty years ago, I remember trying (and failing for a long time) to make sense of what was happening. The world had shifted, and my place in it ceased to exist. Secondly, and more importantly, Ms Polisner takes Klee through the journey he needs to make in a way which felt so real (at least to me). Relearning how (and who) to trust, adjusting to medication, realizing that there is usually more than one reality (and certainly more than one view of it). Klee’s struggles are never trivialised, his views are not discounted. But he learns (as we all do if we survive the journey into adulthood) that our knowledge is often incomplete, our interpretations sometimes flawed.

Klee’s journey involves a number of different characters. We see each of them through Klee’s eyes, so our images are sometimes incomplete. I finished the novel hopeful that Klee would find a new ‘happy and normal’. I finished the novel knowing that I would be rereading it again at some stage. Why? Because there are several layers to Klee’s story, and I know that I’ve not yet absorbed them all.

This is Ms Polisner’s fourth published novel. I’ve enjoyed each of the three novels I’ve read (‘The Summer of Letting Go’ is still on my reading list). Ms Polisner has a gift for creating believable characters in challenging situations, the kind of fiction many young adults can relate to.

Note: Note: My thanks to NetGalley and St Martin’s Press for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith


Dark Edges by Catherine Lee

‘Jimmy Dallas was good at following instructions.’

Jimmy Dallas, an Australian Rugby League football player, is found dead from an apparent drug overdose.  The needle is still in his arm.  Is it an accidental overdose, murder or suicide?  Detective Sergeant Charlie Cooper and his partner Detective Senior Constable Joe Quinn are called in to investigate. Jimmy Dallas was the fullback for the Sydney Rangers team, a star performer in their last match, a win which guaranteed them a place in the finals. No one close to Jimmy thinks he’d use heroin, but everything points to a self-administered overdose.  Jimmy’s best friend is fellow Rangers player Joel Maquire.  Joel is devastated by Jimmy’s death.   Joel’s brother Nate is the team captain.  Can the Maguire brothers shed any light on events?

As part of their investigation, Cooper and Quinn look at drug use within the Rangers Club. The officials try to assure them that all is fair and above board.  ASADA has no adverse results from testing team members, and the team sports scientist Dean Rycroft assures them that the only supplements given to players are vitamins.  But Cooper and Quinn are not convinced, and when they find a connection between the heroin used by Jimmy and that supplied by the Chiefs outlaw motorcycle gang, things start to get complicated.

‘He had a bad feeling about this case.’

This is the fifth novel in Ms Lee’s Dark Series, and it is every bit as gripping as the first four. There are some interesting developments in Charlie Cooper’s personal life which add to the tension as Cooper and Quinn try to work out what happened to Jimmy Dallas.  There’s also some friction between different police officers involved in the case.  And the ending?  There are aspects that I didn’t anticipate, disquieting aspects that have served to keep aspects of this novel in my mind.

Note: my thanks to Ms Lee for providing me with a free advance reading copy of this novel for review purposes.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith


Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson

‘Skill without imagination is barren. Leonardo knew how to marry observation and imagination, which made him history’s consummate innovator.’

Walter Isaacson writes, in his introduction to this biography:

‘I have embarked on this book because Leonardo da Vinci is the ultimate example of the main theme of my previous biographies: how the ability to make connections across disciplines—arts and sciences, humanities and technology—is a key to innovation, imagination and genius.’

He then, over the next 500+ pages, demonstrates how Leonardo made these connections. I found this book fascinating. Drawing on Leonardo’s notebooks, Walter Isaacson gives the reader a sense of what interested and motivated Leonardo. Leonardo’s curiosity leads him to add ‘Describe the tongue of a woodpecker’ on his to-do list. But this omnivorous curiosity also leads him to miss deadlines, to never finish some commissions, and to work on others for years. He made an art of procrastination.

I’ve seen photographs of both ‘The Last Supper’ and ‘The Mona Lisa’. While I admire the skill demonstrated in those paintings and their beauty, I’m more interested in Leonardo’s explorations of anatomy, and his flying machines. And as I read about Leonardo’s exploration of light, his dissection of cadavers to work out muscle attachment and movement, I began to really appreciate how science informed his art.

In 2014 I was fortunate enough to see an exhibition of Leonardo da Vinci machines in a regional art gallery in Tasmania. This exhibition was created by the Artisans of Florence in collaboration with the Niccolai Group and the Museum of Leonardo da Vinci. I spent hours looking at the 75 exhibits, including many machines constructed from Leonard’s manuscripts and drawings. While some exhibits were static, others invited interaction. At this exhibition, for the first time, I came to appreciate the breadth of Leonardo’s achievements.

But back to Walter Isaacson’s book. It is sadly true that Leonardo’s anatomical work was not published at the time. This meant that others had to rediscover what Leonardo found, which served to lessen his impact on the history of science. The picture I form of Leonardo is of a man capable of great focus, able to observe and document what he saw. He seems to have combined obsessive perfectionism and innovation. What made him so? I think it was a combination of innate ability coupled with an unbounded curiosity.

‘The best way to approach his life is the way he approached the world: filled with a sense of curiosity and an appreciation for its infinite wonders.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Not Just Lucky by Jamila Rizvi

‘Have you ever noticed that really successful women are always lucky?’

When I first joined the paid workforce back in 1974, as a shop assistant in a women’s shoe store, my (male) boss was still complaining that equal pay (granted to women in 1969) forced him to pay women more, even though males were physically stronger.  This physical strength, he told me, would have enabled a male to carry more boxes of shoes up from the basement store room.  When I left the shoe store a few months later to start training as an enrolled nurse, I got to use a lot of physical strength.  Back in those days, there were few males in nursing and very few of the ancillary staff (or equipment) now available to help with the heavy lifting.  By the time I left the paid workforce, in 2009, there were a lot more women in the workforce.  But many of those women were in lower-paid work, were casual or temporary employees and were more likely to have accumulated less superannuation for their eventual retirement.

What has changed in the past 43 years?  Are women better off?  If they are not, what are the barriers to their success?   Have those barriers changed over the last four decades?  I picked up Ms Rizvi’s book to get a perspective on some of these issues questions from a young, articulate woman.

On Page 15, Ms Rizvi writes:

‘What this book is, is a career book that is unashamedly feminist.  One that will help you to help yourself, but also prepare you to help the woman sitting beside you and the woman who dreams of sitting beside you but thinks she never will.  It’s a book that will help you to feel more confident about work without blaming you for being less that confident to begin with.  It’s a book that will help you become brave enough to truly enjoy the success of others and to claim credit for your own.  It’s a book about being more than just lucky.  It’s a book about being brilliant.’

Ms Rizvi acknowledges the benefits bestowed upon her by a comfortable middle-class upbringing, but much of what she has to say is also relevant to women who’ve not enjoyed these benefits.  Women can lack confidence (in themselves, in their abilities, in each other) for many reasons.  And if you don’t believe that you are good enough, then it is difficult to present as if you are.  How do we, as individuals, work through some of the cultural and structural barriers to success?  And, importantly, how do we do this without sacrificing what is important to each of us as individuals?

This book is less about answers than it is about raising awareness about some of the issues.  Ms Rizvi does this by drawing on case studies and on her own experience.  It’s not about changing the system (that might be nice, but it isn’t likely to happen anytime soon).  it’s about working within the system, about being aware of ways in which your own behaviour may serve to undermine what you are trying to achieve.  It’s about surviving and (hopefully) thriving.  It’s also about recognising that women do not always act in the best interests of other women.

While I’d recommend this book to anyone interested in contributing to more effective equality in the workplace, I think it is of most interest to young women who are about to embark (or who have just embarked) on a professional career. It’s important to recognise that there is usually a gap between what workplaces should be like, and how they often actually function.   I think there needs to be more conversation about this gap and its causes.  While effective change needs to involve both men and women, awareness at an individual level is a good starting point.

I found this book easy to read, a good blend of personal experience, practical suggestion and research-based information.  And, on a purely personal level, I enjoyed the anecdote Ms Rizvi related about clothes.  She writes, drawing on her father’s experience in the public service, clothes may not give you power, but they do give you confidence.  I remember the tie to which she refers.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith


Helen Garner, Why she broke: The woman, her children and the lake (#Review)

I’m currently reading Helen Garner’s ‘True Stories’ (The Collected Short Non-Fiction), and ‘Why She Broke’ is the first piece in that collection. And, by the time I finished reading, I found myself thinking how could she NOT break?

Whispering Gums

Three years ago I reviewed Helen Garner’s This house of grief about Robert Farquharson who drove his car into a dam in Victoria, resulting in the deaths of his three sons. It’s a grim grim story, so you might wonder why I am now writing about her essay “Why she broke: The woman, her children and the lake” about Akon Guode who, in 2015, drove her car into a lake in Victoria resulting in the deaths of three of the four children inside.

There are two reasons, the main one being that this essay was, last week, awarded the Walkley Award (about which I’ve written before) for Feature Writing Long (over 4000 words). I hadn’t read the article when it was published in June this year, and probably wouldn’t have read it now, except for this award. What, I wondered, when I heard the news, made this essay, on a topic…

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I Remember One Time … by Chic Henry

Continuing my occasional Tasmania theme, I picked up this book by Chic Henry. My dad was a motor mechanic who loved V8 Fords, and I have fond memories of (especially) race meetings at Symmons Plains.  And I enjoy reading books that remind me of growing up in Launceston.

‘I’ve tried my best to take life seriously…’

I picked up this book because, although Chic Henry is ten years older than me, we grew up in the same area of Launceston: his family lived on one side of the Carr Villa Cemetery, we lived on the other. I also recognised some of the names (such as Gene Cook) because my father was a motor mechanic with a keen interest in Fords (especially Customlines) and most forms of car racing. So, amidst my nostalgia for the ‘Flying Mile’ at Longford, occasional visits to the Carrick Speedway and strategic parking above what is now called ‘Brambles Hairpin’ at Symmons Plains (just in case there was a prang), I was keen to find out what Chic Henry did before establishing Summernats in Canberra in 1988.

I enjoyed the read. I kept reading parts to my husband (who once used to drag race at Castlereagh, so knew some of the names mentioned, and is much more familiar with that aspect of car racing than I am).

Chic Henry has fitted a lot of living into his 71 years: he’s had some great adventures, made some questionable choices (as do we all), made mistakes and had a whole lot of fun. Occasionally, my resident inner editor itched to correct some typos, but it was easy to just go with the flow. Chic Henry’s style is idiosyncratic, full of enthusiasm and passion. If you are interested in cars (whether racing, restoring, rebuilding or showing) if horsepower is your metric of choice, then this is a book for you.

Thanks, Chic Henry, for the memories of Launceston and thanks, too, for founding the Summernats here in Canberra.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Six degrees of separation, FROM It TO …

I’ve read five of these books (‘It’; ‘The Burial’; ‘Burial Rites’; ‘Independent People’; and ‘Happy Valley’). I like the way Whispering Gums links one to the other, and I’m keen to read the Ian McEwan book (I’ve read others by him, but not this one) and to find Louise Mack. I’d not heard of Louise Mack. Have you read (any/all/some of) these books?

Whispering Gums

And so we come to December and the last Six Degrees of Separation for the year. For newbies to blogging – because the rest of you surely know by now – this is a meme currently hosted by Kate (booksaremyfavouriteandbest). For information about how the meme works, please click the link on her blog-name. It’s fascinating to see the wild and wonderful paths different bloggers go, all starting with the same book – which, this month is a book I haven’t read (as is more common than not), Stephen King’s It. As always though, I have read all the books I link to.

Stephen King, ItThe reason I haven’t read It is that I’m not a big fan of horror, either to read or see in movies, and It is, I understand, horror. I have enjoyed some movie adaptations of King’s novellas, like The Shawshank Redemption, Stand by…

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