The Fossil Hunter by Téa Cooper

‘It’s blood—bad blood—that’s causing it. A new pinafore and some education ain’t going to change nothing.’

Wollombi, Hunter Valley, NSW 1847 and 1919.

A fossil discovered at London’s Natural History Museum leads Penelope Jane (PJ) Martindale on a journey of discovery. PJ, who left Australia to serve as an ambulance driver in France during the Great War, returns home to her father in 1919. Her father gives her a cold welcome: he blames her for her younger brothers signing up to serve and then both losing their lives during the war. PJ, looking through some of her brothers’ possessions, finds some fossils they had found at Bow Wow Gorge, and she remembers the fossil she discovered at the Natural History Museum.

In 1847, Mellie Vale contracts chicken pox. The last thing she remembers before succumbing to fever is a monster chasing her. Mellie is taken in by Doctor Pearson and his family: returning home is not possible although Mellie is not told why for a while. The Pearson family, trying to help Mellie, send her with their two daughters and their two friends to visit their family friend Anthea Winstanley at her home near Bow Wow Gorge. Anthea is an amateur palaeontologist, and Mellie quickly becomes caught up in the search for fossils.

In 1919, PJ is keen to learn more about Bow Wow Gorge, its fossils, and its connection to Anthea Winstanley. There’s a history about Bow Wow Gorge: apparently people disappeared there 70 years ago, and locals warn people against going there. PJ and her American boyfriend Sam explore, and amongst other mysteries, they discover some bones.

‘The Fossil Hunter’ is an intriguing dual timeline story which takes the reader between the lives of Mellie in 1847 and PJ in 1919. Both time periods have their dark secrets and mysteries, and PJ is determined to find out what really happened in 1847.

I really enjoyed this novel with its focus on natural history and its shifts between the stories of Mellie and PJ. A terrific blend of secrets and mystery spread across 72 years. Another terrific novel from Ms Cooper. Highly recommended to lovers of Australian historical fiction featuring some terrific female characters.

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



Homecoming by Elfie Shiosaki

‘Four generations of Noongar women in this story. I am the sixth.’

I was fortunate enough to win a copy of this book in a giveaway conducted by Lisa at ANZ LitLovers LitBlog | For lovers of Australian and New Zealand literary fiction; Ambassador for Australian literature and I have been dipping in and out, reading, reflecting and revisiting over the past few weeks.

This book pieces together fragments of stories in poetry and prose and from historical colonial archives to provide a word picture of historical truth for four generations of Noongar women. There are three sections:




Each section takes us into a past that many of us have absolutely no idea about, or chose to ignore:

‘Mary Alice

She made herself visible

For great consequence

                                                                                In a world which made her invisible.’

The layout of this book with its spaces between thoughts and words slows down the reader, inviting us to think about what we are reading, about the lives and experiences being described.

How, with all the difficulties placed in front of them, with policies of protectionism and assimilation almost destroying family and cultural practices, did these women survive?

What does it say about us, the colonisers, that we sought to destroy what we didn’t understand and to force our own values?

 I read on and am struck by the resilience of the storytellers and their commitment to sharing.

Read this book and hear their voices, reflect on their memories, and feel their strength.

Elfie Shiosaki is a Noongar and Yawuru writer from WA.

Thank you, Lisa. This book lives on my keeper shelf.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith



The Crying Place by Lia Hills

‘How does a man choose where to die?’

Saul, a restless traveller is seeking to settle down when he receives the devastating news that his friend Jed is dead. Saul is in Sydney when he receives the news and sets out for Melbourne where Jed was living when he died. Family and friends want Saul to travel to Hobart for Jed’s funeral, but he cannot bring himself to attend. Instead, after sorting through Jed’s belongings in Melbourne, he sets out on a journey of his own. He has found a photograph amongst Jed’s belongings, of a woman. And Saul believes that if he can find this woman then he may be able to find the truth about Jed’s death.

Saul sets off alone, in his trusty Subaru, for Alice Springs. Here he finds the information he needs to find the woman, Nara, in a remote Aboriginal community. Along the way, Saul remembers Jed, the adventures they shared, and wonders about the mysteries of life and death.

‘A story is like a river. It has a source. It has tributaries, some as far reaching and expansive as memory, others a thin trickle, so tenuous their influx is barely noticed.’

The story moves through beautifully described landscape, into spaces and experiences beyond Saul’s experience. He has with him a copy of ‘Voss’, Patrick White’s metaphysical novel about a man and the woman he secretly loves. Once Saul arrives at his destination, he starts to learn about indigenous culture and folklore, about the different forms of grief, and about family ties. He is following Jed to try to understand his death, but his own journey will lead him to appreciate life differently.

This is a story to read slowly both to appreciate Saul’s journey and the importance of family ties and grief in the community where Saul finds himself. What does home mean for Saul? Is it a place, or a feeling? What can he learn about Jed by meeting with Nara and her extended family?

Saul’s restlessness, his inability to find a place to settle indicates that he does not know where he belongs. While I wonder about Jed, his relationship with Nara and where they each belong, it is Saul’s journey that captured and held my attention. So many questions to consider, amidst the heat, the dust, and the flies.

Grief and loss are universal parts of the human condition, but our reactions are not.

I found this novel incredibly moving, a story I will revisit.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith



Treasure & Dirt by Chris Hammer

 ‘Maybe this is it. The sky is too big, the land is too big. Too many places for secrets.’

Finnigans Gap, a fictional mining town in outback New South Wales is the setting for Mr Hammer’s latest novel. The opal mines aren’t quite as productive as they used to be, which has encouraged some miners to go ‘ratting’: stealing opals from the mines of others. And one night, a group of ratters find the crucified body of a miner in his mine. An anonymous call alerts the police. Who killed the miner, and why?

Sydney homicide detective Ivan Lukic is sent from Sydney to investigate. His senior partner, Detective Inspector Morris Montifore is unable to accompany him, and his assistant is Detective Constable Nell Buchanan, who previously worked in Finnigans Gap in uniform. Nell’s experience in the town is helpful, but there is some history as well. And Ivan Lukic has some preoccupations of his own.

There’s more to Finnigans Gap than opal mining. There is a strange religious cult located outside town, a pair of delightfully named billionaire mining magnates throwing their weight around and several involved family dramas. And it is very, very hot.

There are several threads to this story: an internal investigation into Morris Montifore involves Ivan Lucic, Nell’s previous life in the town causes some complications and soon it seems like Ivan and Nell are fighting to save their careers. The more they dig, the more complicated the case seems to become. There are people with longstanding grudges and there is a complicated history to navigate.

I read this novel in one day because I had to know how it would end. While this novel is a standalone, if you have read Mr Hammer’s other novels, you’ll recognise a couple of the characters.

What can I say without introducing any spoilers? This is a complex, well-plotted thriller which held my attention from beginning to end. Each of the twists fits into the narrative perfectly, and elements of the ending left me with a smile.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith


Our Shadows by Gail Jones

‘So who was this old Paddy, dying in Melbourne in 1925?’

In this novel, Ms Jones explores the lives of three generations of a family living in Kalgoorlie. Her story begins with Irish-born prospector, Paddy Hannan who discovered gold in 1893, and ends with the stories of Nell and Frances who were raised by their grandparents Fred and Else when their mother Mary dies in childbirth. Fred, who suffered the horrors of war, was close to Mary and is diminished by her death.

The narrative ebbs and flows: between generations, between past and present, between life and death. Nell and Frances were close as children, both enjoyed Jules Verne’s ‘Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea’ and had a favourite sentence, which they passed between them:

‘It was not a mere phosphoric phenomenon.’

But as they grew older, Nell and Frances move to Sydney, and they became estranged. Frances is grieving for her husband Will who died from mesothelioma, while Nell struggles with mental health issues. And Else, central in their lives becomes diminished by dementia. And as Else recedes, Frances and Nell want to know more about their past, about the mother they never knew and the father who abandoned them. Their mother’s older sister, their Aunt Enid, is in Kalgoorlie.  Does she hold some of the answers that Frances (particularly) is seeking?

Frances travels to Kalgoorlie, to Jack and Else’s home, where she grew up and where Enid now lives. It is in the (fictitious) Midas Street, close to the Super Pit. Mining overshadows everything, together with the reminder of land expropriated from the original inhabitants.

‘Enid had refashioned their lounge room in the spirit of erasure.’

I became caught up in the story, in the impact of the mines on the different characters. For Paddy, the mines were a source of wealth, for Jack they were a place of refuge from the memories of war. For many others, they were a source of death through accident or disease. And what about those who occupied the land before? As the story unfolds and refolds, our perceptions change as we see different perspectives of the characters.

I finished the novel, sure that I have only understood part of the story Ms Jones is telling. I may have to reread it. This is Ms Jones’s 9th novel. I have not yet read them all.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith



‘Are you double dosed?’ How to ask friends and family if they’re vaccinated, and how to handle it if they say no (from The Conversation)


Jessica Kaufman, Murdoch Children’s Research Institute and Julie Leask, University of Sydney

The weekend is approaching, your fridge is stocked with cheese and you’re eager to organise a COVID-compliant picnic with other fully vaccinated adults which your local rules stipulate. But choose your guests wisely — only fully vaccinated people can attend, and fines apply if the rules are broken.

These new rules, coming into effect in New South Wales and Victoria, place the responsibility for policing vaccination on individuals. Vaccine passports may eventually allow businesses to check people’s vaccination status on entry, but there is no app to scan before gathering for a picnic or home event.

So how do you find out who’s vaccinated, and what do you do with that information?

How do you start the conversation?

Vaccination can feel like a loaded topic, something you might not want to discuss if you can avoid it. But it doesn’t have to be a minefield. We can actually take some tips about approaching tricky personal topics from the field of sexual health.

First, try to talk about vaccination before you’ve confirmed plans with someone, and before you’ve communicated the plans to others. Once you’re already at the picnic, the stakes are much higher. You’re more likely to either go along with something that doesn’t feel right to you or end up in an argument.

Offer your own vaccination status first. You could say something like

FYI, I got my second dose last month. These new rules mean everyone coming will have to be vaccinated. Have you had both doses? I want to make sure we’re OK to go ahead.

Keep the question casual. Asking someone’s vaccination status is reasonable in these circumstances — it isn’t because you don’t trust the person.

What if the person says no?

Don’t jump to conclusions. Depending on your relationship with the person, you may want to find out more. When approaching a conversation about COVID-19 vaccines, start with an open mind and be ready to listen.

Ask them if they’d like to talk about why they aren’t vaccinated. Maybe they have some specific concerns, maybe they’re waiting for an appointment or for a different vaccine to the one available to them now.

Let them share all their concerns before you jump in and try to answer or correct them.

If they’re open to it, you can help them weigh up the risks and benefits of the vaccines, share some facts about safety and effectiveness, or tell them what convinced you to get vaccinated.

Talking about your own experience can help normalise vaccination.

The person you’re talking to might not be on fence about the vaccine — they might be strongly opposed to it.

If that’s the case, your best strategy may be to establish your position and close the conversation. You could say:

OK, that’s not what I believe. But either way, we have to follow the rules.

Arguing with people who strongly oppose vaccination is rarely — if ever — effective, and it could ruin your relationship.

A woman looks at her phone.
Try to talk about vaccination before you’ve confirmed plans with someone, and before you’ve communicated the plans to others. Shutterstock

While rules are in place that exclude unvaccinated people for the time being, it’s not necessary to cut someone out of your life because they aren’t vaccinated.

As those rules are relaxed and we move from suppressing COVID-19 to living with COVID-19, we will need to re-calibrate our risk assessments.

Of course these decisions are personal, but if you and your family are fully vaccinated, the risk of catching COVID-19, particularly in an outdoor environment, is significantly reduced.

If you have children too young to currently get vaccinated, the risks from COVID-19 are low except in certain circumstances so you’ll need to weigh health risks against social benefits.

Social exclusion leads to more conspiratorial thinking — in other words, cutting people off when they believe in conspiracy theories often leaves them to go further down the rabbit hole, unchallenged by alternative views.

You may have more positive impact by maintaining a relationship, within your boundaries, and role modelling the behaviour you believe in.

What about the picnic?

If your friend is a bit hesitant or firmly against getting the vaccine, your picnic with them will have to wait.

When you explain this, you may want to distance yourself from the rules. For example, you could say:

The new rules say… Unfortunately it sounds like we can’t get together for now. It’s only a temporary thing — we should all be able to get back to normal in a few more weeks.

You didn’t make the rules, but we’re all living with them for now. If relevant, convey how important the relationship is.

From the beginning, managing COVID-19 well has required us to take the evidence, abide by public health orders and, when we can choose, weigh the risks of an activity against the benefits.

For these sensitive social negotiations around vaccines, masks and other measures, we will need to communicate with care to keep connecting with each other as safely as possible.

Jessica Kaufman, Research Fellow, Vaccine Uptake Group, Murdoch Children’s Research Institute and Julie Leask, Professor, University of Sydney

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

If Not Us by Mark Smith

‘Hesse slipped his board into the rack on the side of his bike and swept down the Russell Street Hill.’

Seventeen-year-old Hesse Templeton lives with his mother Imogen at Shelbourne, a small coastal town in Victoria. The town is dominated by an ageing coal-fired power station and a coal mine which are two of the town’s major employers. The power station is for sale. Some members of the community, increasingly concerned about the impact of climate change, would like to see both the coal mine and the power station closed.

Hesse’s mother, Imogen, is a member of the local environmental group lobbying for closure. Hesse’s major interest, outside his weekend work at the surf shop and keeping up with his schoolwork, is surfing (and dodging the town bully). That is until he meets Fenna de Vries, a new exchange student from The Netherlands. Along with his interest in Fenna, Hesse’s awareness of climate issues is growing.

‘He was writing an essay on climate change for English. The more research he’d done, the angrier he’d become.’

But as Hesse knows, closure of the mine and power station will lead to job losses. And those job losses will have a direct effect on some of his friends and their parents. Hesse is initially reluctant to get involved in the campaign but decides that he must make a stand. Fenna encourages him. A protest meeting is arranged, and Hesse agrees to speak:

‘My name’s Hesse, and I’m part of the generation that’s going to have to’—he stopped to clear his throat and swallow hard—to live with the effects of climate change.’

The town divides. Hadron, the owner of the power station has been a supporter of many activities in the town, and job losses loom. A brick is thrown through Imogen’s window, and Hesse is threatened with violence. But footage of the meeting (filmed by Fenna on her ‘phone) is shared to social media and goes viral. Suddenly the issue of the pollution caused by the Shelbourne coal mine and power station is no longer local.

This is a terrific YA novel which deals realistically with the local challenges of climate change. I can imagine how those locals employed by Hadron would feel, and I liked the way the teenagers made their feelings known. There’s a touch of romance as well, and humour, as well as evocative descriptions of surfing.

This is the first of Mr Smith’s novels I have read, and I’ll be seeking out his earlier novels.

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

Jennifer Cameron-Smith


Birds of a Feather by Tricia Stringer

Publication date: 29/9/2021

‘Eve Monk would never forget where she was and what she was doing the day she got the call to say her husband had been killed.’

That was in 1988. And now, in the middle of 2021, Eve is one of the matriarchs of South Australia’s (fictional) Wallaby Bay and a long-time partner in the Wallaby Bay prawn fishing fleet. Town gossip has seen Eve withdraw from her position on the town’s committee and now her partner Spiro wants to sell out. Eve is not sure, and then a shoulder injury shatters her independence.

Lucy, her husband Alec and children Noah and Poppy have moved to Wallaby Bay. Alec’s parents live there as well, which is helpful. But while Lucy is grateful for their support because Alec is a FIFO worker, she really doesn’t want to rely on them too much. Lucy is a very protective mother. While Lucy has a nursing background, she’s reluctant to return to nursing. For now, she is happy to do cleaning work.

Julia, Eve’s goddaughter, has been working on a research project in Melbourne. But, with the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, priorities have changed leaving Julia out of a job. While she considers what to do next, Julia decides to surprise Eve by visiting Wallaby Bay. Julia has had one failed relationship, and wary of commitment, she is also seeking a break from her current partner Glen while she works out whether she wants the relationship to continue.

Three very different women, drawn together by circumstances. Eve needs assistance after her shoulder injury and then after the surgery required to fix it. Lucy is employed by Eve to help her, but she and Julia really do not get on. Each of the women is battling past demons. As the women talk to each other about their fears and concerns, an unlikely but supportive friendship is formed.

I really enjoyed this novel, with its coverage of topical issues (including the Covid-19 pandemic, the challenges faced by FIFO families, and life after retirement). Ms Stringer brings her characters to life, as well as the sometimes claustrophobic ‘feel’ of a small town.

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

Jennifer Cameron-Smith



With US democracy under threat from within, AUKUS puts Australia in danger – Pearls and Irritations

With the AUKUS treaty, Australia may have hitched its fate to a nation soon to be led by people who make Trump seem competent. Britain and Australia’s democracies are under threat; America’s future is in dire peril.  In 2024, there is a strong chance that the damage done to US political systems, courts, media and Continue reading »

Source: With US democracy under threat from within, AUKUS puts Australia in danger – Pearls and Irritations

An Outback Life by Mary Groves

‘What on earth was going on?’

In this memoir, first published in 2011, Mary Groves writes of her life in the Top End of Australia. When she was fourteen, Mary and her family moved from Melbourne to the Northern Territory. The family included Mary, her parents and seven of her siblings.

‘It took our family convoy ten days, in two cars, to travel well over 2000 miles from our corner store in South Melbourne to our general store at Mataranka in the Top End of Australia in 1959.’

In a fascinating memoir, which ends in 1999 when Mary moves to Queensland, she tells of the challenges and hardships she and her family faced. In her early 20s, Mary met Joe Groves – a cattleman, horse breaker, drover, and rodeo rider. They fell in love, had four children, and worked together on several different cattle stations across northern Australia. The nature of Joe’s work meant that he and Mary were often separated, and the isolation meant that Mary acquired an array of survival skills.

I read of the challenges Mary faced and admired the humour with which she (mostly) faced them. The stories are peopled with interesting characters and ingenious solutions to issues. Mary and Joe worked hard, as did their children. I was pleased to read that they found some success along the way.

In her author’s note, Mary writes: ‘I have not used real names in these stories and the terminology I use is that of the 1960s and 1970s. I apologise for any remarks that may seem sexist or racist; they are not intended to be derogatory, but were the terms used by the black and white people in the Territory in my time there.’

Recommended reading for anyone interested in life on Australian cattle stations in the second half of the twentieth century.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith