Christmas in Canberra by Nicole Taylor

‘It had all begun quite comfortably.’

Meet Louise Keats of Canberra. It is 1988, and Louise is 28 and despite being the eldest in the family, she is the last girl in her family to have a family of her own. She is struggling against chauvinism at work (picture the Australian Taxation Office in 1988). And poor Louise, her family seem to be closing ranks against her (thanks in part to her sister-in-law Roxanne).

So, what is a single woman to do? There are three men who interest Louise, but how can she make any headway? Perhaps her friends can help. In the meantime, Christmas is creeping nearer, and Louise is determined not to spend Christmas with her family (again).

I have two confessions to make. First, this book has been on my shelf for a long time and second, I finish reading any book I start. And so, I persisted. Yes, I lived in Canberra in the 1980s and so many of the places mentioned are familiar to me, and so is some of the angst Louise experiences. But it all went on for too long, and my attention started to wane.

There were a couple of highlights for me. One was Roxanne eventually receiving her comeuppance, another is encapsulated in this passage (Jim and Mary are Louise’s parents):

‘Jim looked at Mary as though he had never seen her before. He was having trouble taking in this information. His wife had forged his signature; taken complete control of their finances and virtually declared their eldest son bankrupt by truncating his ability to draw on his father’s financial resources to prop up his own. He felt ill – with relief.’

I loved it!

The novel does end with Louise tentatively making a step into the future. I do hope that worked out for her. If you are looking for a light read with some laugh-out-loud moments, you may enjoy this.

I believe this was Ms Taylor’s first novel, first published in 2011.

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


Night Blue by Angela O’Keeffe

‘I was not yet colour, and time was not settled in me.’

Imagine. Imagine the voice of a painting and listen to what it has to say. In this imaginative, short debut novel, Ms O’Keeffe gives voice to ‘Blue Poles’: the painting so controversially bought by Gough Whitlam in 1973 before the National Gallery of Australia, in which it is housed, was built. I remember the purchase and at the time I wondered about it. Now, when I visit the National Gallery of Australia, I am intrigued by it.

‘The name is not important. It is the feeling that a thing engenders, not its name.’

How does Ms O’Keeffe bring the painting to life? There are three parts to this novel. Parts One and Three are the voice of the painting, Part Two is the voice of Alyssa, an assistant restorer, who is undertaking a PhD on Lee Krasner and Helen Frankenthaler (the women in Jackson Pollock’s life). The voice of the painting takes us back through its creation, through settings and process and back to Jackson Pollock and his wife Lee Krasner, and then its travels. Alyssa’s voice gives an Australian perspective of the purchase itself and the painting’s journey as well as a look at the life and times of Jackson Pollock.

An inner (logical) voice tells me that it should not work, but it does. Ms O’Keeffe goes behind what is known and imagines life where many of us see a static object. It made me think both about the significance of Blue Poles, and the story it (or any other painting) could tell if we could hear its voice.

This is a clever and engaging novel. I enjoyed it, and I am still thinking about the voices (for surely there is more than one) within and behind this (and other) paintings.

‘The story is a moth; its destiny is light.’

Another novel recommended by Lisa over at ANZ LitLovers LitBlog:

Night Blue, by Angela O’Keeffe | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

Thank you, Lisa!

Jennifer Cameron-Smith



Cold Light (Edith Trilogy #3) by Frank Moorhouse

‘You are just the spirit Canberra needs.’

In 1950, with the collapse of the League of Nations, Edith Campbell Berry is out of a job. The newly formed United Nations has rejected all of those who worked and fought for the League, including Edith who joined the League in Geneva before the war. Edith returns to Australia, with her husband ‘the sexually unconventional‘ Ambrose Westwood, to Canberra, where she hopes to obtain a diplomatic posting.

Edith becomes involved in planning for the national capital. She is also concerned that the emergence of her communist brother Frederick and his girlfriend Janice will jeopardise her chances of a diplomatic posting. Both threads were of particular interest to me: I had relatives who were members of the Communist Party of Australia during the 1950s, and I have lived in Canberra since 1974.

Edith is a fascinating character. Australia is not yet ready to make the best use of her skills, nor would her unconventional marriage to Ambrose be acceptable in the conservative Australia of the era. Edith is mindful of exposure. And then she meets another man, and her life changes. At times Edith tries to conform, with a (third) conventional marriage, including an uneasy role as stepmother but she remains on the fringes of power, with contacts and connections, with little direct influence. Frederick’s story brings the history of Communism in Australia to life. Frederick and Edith are quite different, but they both fight Menzies’s attempt to ban the Communist Party. And Ambrose, who returns to Britain, is still part of Edith’s circle.

I enjoyed the way Mr Moorhouse overlays Edith’s life over the development of Canberra and emergence of an Australian identity. This is a novel in which small details are as important as the larger backdrop. The attention Edith pays to the organisation of her office, and of her desk, and the details of a party at University House contrast with the wider political issues and the building of Canberra.

I have not yet read the first two books in this trilogy ‘Grand Days’ and ‘Dark Palace’. I will because I am intrigued.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

The First Time He Hit Her by Heidi Lemon

‘To write of a relationship that ends in murder is to latch onto the earliest moments of disharmony.’

Tara Costigan was twenty-eight years old when she was murdered in Canberra in February 2015.  She was one of 103 Australian women who died because of family violence related homicide.  Tara was holding her baby daughter when her former partner, Marcus Rappel, attacked her with an axe.  Her two small sons were also present.

In this book, Heidi Lemon set out to understand the tragedy of Tara’s murder, and to try to find out why.  From the headlines at the time of Tara’s murder (I remember them well, as a Canberra resident) it seemed as though there had been no hint that verbal abuse (which had lead Tara to obtain an Apprehended Violence Order (AVO) the day before her murder) would lead to physical violence.  It was also Ms Lemon’s own experience which led her to research Tara’s story:

‘It was my experience of emotional abuse – of being urged, time and time again, to believe how little I amounted to – that kindled my initial interest in Tara Costigan’s story.’

I did not know Tara Costigan, but she came alive to me as I read this book.  A young dedicated mother, a hardworking young woman, strongly attached to family and friends.  I realised, reading about the Costigan family, that I had known her father, Tony.  We had worked together, had some shared taste in music, and I was saddened by his death.  A slight connection, but it made Tara’s story seem more personal.

Domestic violence takes many forms.  A relationship that started so happily foundered as Marcus Rappel’s jealousy came to the fore.

Over two and a half years Ms Lemon researched this story, meeting with members of the Costigan family, with Tara’s mother and with friends.  She includes elements of her own experience as well, to demonstrate how widespread domestic violence is.  Ms Lemon’s experience also underlines the point that definitions which focus only on physical violence can serve to blind victims to the danger they are in.  Tara knew, when she took out the AVO, that Marcus would ‘go ballistic’.  But she never thought that he would hurt her. 

I finished the book wondering what (if anything) Tara Costigan could have done differently.  I finished the book hoping that reading about Tara’s life and untimely death would help others to realise that control is a form of abuse and violence can take many forms.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith


#AussieAuthor 2020

Royal Canberra Hospital by Janet Newman and Jennie Warren

‘An Anecdotal History of Nursing 1914-1991’

The Royal Canberra Hospital closed on 27 November 1991.  A sad day for many Canberrans, to be followed by an even sadder day on 13 July 1997 when the planned implosion of the building resulted in the tragic death of 12-year-old Katie Bender.  Canberrans had been encouraged to gather on the shores to witness the implosion.  My husband (who worked there for over 15 years) and my son (who was born there) both watched the implosion.  We had several connections to the hospital: I’d worked there from 1974 to 1979, met my (now) husband there in 1976.  I’d lived in both nurses’ homes, made some very good friends, been part of a community.

When this book was published in 1993, I bought a copy. Ms Newman and Ms Warren wrote the book to set down the anecdotes of nurses who worked there while there was still so much living history.

I and other nurses who worked there are grateful.  I’ve read the book and dip into it every so often.  Some of the senior nurses I remember from the 1970s have passed away.  Reading the anecdotes brings them back for me.  I remember when Cyclone Tracy hit Darwin over Christmas in 1974.  A group of doctors and nurses from Canberra Hospital were amongst those who flew in to provide assistance.  Some people were evacuated here, including a very elderly Russian woman with no English.  She was distressed and unwell, and we had great difficulty communicating with her.  Lucky for all of us one of our lovely cleaning ladies could interpret: they had a shared language (not Russian) and we were able to attend to most of her needs.  Remembering this now, over 45 years later, I wish we’d been able to do more.

I remember nursing critically ill patients: being overjoyed if they recovered, being saddened when they did not.  I remember night duty: especially in H Ward and Isolation.  I remember the advent of microwaves (those new-fangled machines) to heat up our ‘dinner’ on night shift (taken in 30-minute shifts between 12:30 and 02:00 am).

This book is a tribute to each of the nurses who worked at Royal Canberra Hospital. 

My part in the history is brief, but I like to revisit it.  I like to be reminded of those strong female role models who were such an important part of the history of Royal Canberra Hospital.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith



Plots and Prayers: Malcolm Turnbull’s demise and Scott Morrison’s ascension by Niki Savva

‘Abbott’s destructive path helped demolish Turnbull’s prime ministership.

On 21 August 2018, thirty-five Liberal MPs cast their vote against Malcolm Turnbull.  That was the effective end of his leadership.  Three days later, Scott Morrison was prime minister.

What happened?

There were a few factors.  But I think that the most significant single factor was Tony Abbott.  Abbott was a rallying point for several disaffected conservatives and right-wing media voices.  It certainly seemed that there were a significant group of conservatives who would rather see Labor in power than have Malcolm Turnbull as prime minister.  How Alan Jones and Andrew Bolt railed against him, seemingly wanting a return of Abbott.  And then there was the Barnaby Joyce circus, leading to the ridiculous ‘bonking ban’.  There were plenty of other distractions.

Malcolm Turnbull himself demonstrated some pretty poor political judgement at times. I think he could have survived but for the relentless campaigning against him.

I read this book wondering what light Nikki Savva might be able to shed on some of the machinations, on some of the deals done, promises made and broken.  I finished the book even more depressed about Australian politics.

Is this book worth reading?  I think so.  It’s history now, that Scott Morrison has won an election in his own right, but ‘how’ and ‘why’ are always important.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith


Mary Cunningham: An Australian Life by Jennifer Horsfield

‘Mary Cunningham’s life spanned the last thirty years of the old century and the first thirty years of the new.’

After listening to Jennifer Horsfield speak about the history of the Tuggeranong area of the ACT, specifically about the Great War soldier-settlers, I was keen to read her other books.  The first one I located was this biography of Mary Cunningham (née Twynam). Mary Emily Twynam was born in 1869 in Goulburn, NSW, the second of eight children born to Edward and Emily Twynam.  Edward Twynam came to the colony from England in 1855 and would eventually become the Surveyor-General. The family home was ‘Riversdale’ in Goulburn.

On 24 April 1889, 19-year-old Mary was married to James ‘Jim’ Cunningham, a successful pastoralist who was 20 years her senior.  After honeymooning in Europe, the couple returned to Australia and settled on the property known as ‘Tuggranong’ in the Tuggeranong district. Jim and his brother Andrew Cunningham owned several properties, including nearby ‘Lanyon’.  Both were large sheep stations and up to 50,000 sheep were shorn at the ‘Tuggranong’ sheds.

The Cunninghams had eight children in 14 years, and Mary had several battles with what we now call post-natal depression. Despite her battles with depression, Mary took her role as a pastoralist’s wife seriously: attending balls and participating in various fundraising efforts.  The ‘Tuggranong’ homestead was a social hub of the district.

‘The day-to-day struggles of the small selectors and the itinerant workers who lived in the local area were remote from life at the Big House.  No wider gap separated the Cunninghams and other wealthy pastoralists from their local community than in the education of their children.’

By 1914, with the Great War looming, the Cunninghams moved to ‘Lanyon’.  This move was partly a consequence of the death of Jim Cunningham’s brother, Andrew, and partly because of planning for the new Federal capital.

Mary Cunningham’s life encompasses a period of great prosperity for pastoralists because of wool, the arrival of Federation, the creation of a Federal capital and the consequences of the Great War.

I found this account of the life of Mary Cunningham very interesting.  This is partly because of the European history of the Tuggeranong region, but also because of the issues she had to face.  This was a time of great change in Australia: from colony to country, with Federation bringing an end to the pastoral traditions of the Tuggeranong Valley.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith



Voices Beyond the Suburbs by Jennifer Horsfield

‘The Soldier Settlers of Tuggeranong.’

After the Great War, some 250,000 men returned from active service to try to resume their lives. A policy of land settlement was one of the ways the Commonwealth hoped to try to address their needs. For the men who applied for a block, it was a new start, a new beginning now that the war was over.  But few were successful.  Men walked away from their blocks, defeated by drought, rabbits, invasive weeds, uncertain markets, and debt.

I’ve lived in Canberra for over 45 years and, until I heard Jennifer Horsfield speak and then read this book, I was unaware that there had been soldier settlers in the south of the ACT. In this book, Ms Horsfield writes about the eight soldier settlers who were allocated land in the Tuggeranong Valley.  The eight blocks were part of the Tuggeranong sheep station and were made available on five- or twenty-five-years leases with payment of quarterly rent to the Commonwealth.

‘Two of the eight soldier settlers were married when they took up their blocks in 1920.  Of the other six, one never married, the others married in the 1920s, with one marriage ending in bitterness and separation.’

The most successful of the Tuggeranong farmers, with a twenty-five-year lease, was Darcy Thompson.  His was one of the few success stories.  Darcy Thompson’s son Ian was still farming the land when it was resumed by the Commonwealth in 1972.

I found this an interesting book about a part of Canberra’s history of which I knew very little.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith