Affection by Ian Townsend

‘Affection: (archaic) the action or process of affecting or being affected.’

For many of us, the bubonic plague was something that happened in the distant past, but it still occurs. It is caused by a bacillus Yersinia pestis, carried by infected fleas or animals such as rodents. These days, because we know how it is transmitted and have access to effective antibiotic treatment, bubonic plague is not as deadly as it once was. But effective management and treatment is essential, and much easier now than it was in 1900.

‘This novel is based on a true story, but it is fiction.’

In January 1900, an outbreak of plague is suspected in Townsville, Queensland. Dr Alfred Jeffris Turner is sent by the Queensland Government in Brisbane to join his colleague Dr Linford Row. Dr Turner, an amateur lepidopterist, arrives armed with a microscope and his butterfly net. Both doctors meet with a hostile reception: local councillors insist that the outbreak is ‘only’ typhoid. Fifty-two possible plague carriers including two MPs aboard the SS Cintra, are isolated on a quarantine station on Magnetic Island. They are not happy. And in Townsville itself, attempts to establish a quarantine station north of Townsville, near Three-Mile Creek, were resisted for a while.

Dr Row lives with his own tragedy: a young daughter who died of a respiratory illness. He throws himself into work to avoid his feelings of sadness and guilt. When he delivers a letter from one of the patients aboard the SS Cintra to the man’s wife, he becomes caught up with more of the people affected by plague.

This novel was published in 2005 but reading it in 2021 it is easy to see some parallels with the current COVID-19 pandemic. Economic interests in Townsville in 1990 had an impact on the speed with which the health crisis was treated. Some of those who lost loved ones to the plague were devastated thar those who died had to be buried in the plague cemetery without family members being able to attend. Fear and rumour spread faster than fact.

Do we ever learn?

I recognise some of the areas of Townsville and Magnetic Island referred to in the novel. I can imagine how challenging it would have been to try to deal with plague cases during the oppressive heat of the tropical summer.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AussieAuthor2021

The Codebreakers by Alli Sinclair

‘The only information you need right now is that if you pass this test, you will be involved in an operation that is integral to helping the Allies win this war.’

Brisbane, 1943. Elanora (Ellie) O’Sullivan works as an engineer for Qantas Empire Airways. She is part of the team keeping allied planes in the air, transporting supplies to Australian troops in New Guinea. Ellie has left family in Longreach and boards with Mrs Hanley in Brisbane, sharing a room with her friend Kat Arnold.

Ellie’s dedication to her work does not go unnoticed, and she is approached by Lieutenant Andrews to join the Central Bureau. Her work, as part of the codebreaking team (working in conjunction with Bletchley Park operatives) is top secret, and subject to the Official Secrets Act. Ellie must undertake never to tell anyone about the work she is undertaking.

The team of women, calling themselves ‘the Garage Girls’ work in a converted garage at Nyrambla house in Henry Street, Ascot. Their work involves decoding intercepted Japanese messages: highly stressful work, where a mistake can cost lives. The need to maintain secrecy makes personal relationships difficult for Ellie (and the other women). And not everyone is strong enough to do so.

Ms Sinclair recreates the challenges of life for this generation of young women at the forefront of Australia’s domestic war effort. Women’s roles changed, not without considerable resistance from some quarters, and many of the women (including Ellie) had lost loved ones.

And once the war was over? What would the future hold?

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. The main characters stepped out of the pages for me, and I appreciated the research Ms Sinclair undertook to bring this novel to life. While I’ve read about Bletchley Park, I had never heard of the work undertaken by Australian Women Army Service (AWAS) staff in the garage at Nyrambla.

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

#AWW2021

#AussieAuthor2021

A Question of Colour by Pattie Lees with Adam C. Lees

‘My journey to belonging.’

Pattie Lees was ten years old when she and her four siblings were separated from their mother on the grounds of neglect and placed into the care of the state. This is an important first-hand account of Pattie’s experiences as a ‘fair-skinned’ Aboriginal, a member of the Stolen Generations, caught between conflicting worlds. In Townsville, Pattie was considered ‘too dark’ to be successfully fostered, while on Palm Island, other children rejected her because she was seen as white. 

This is the autobiography of a strong, resilient woman who has survived neglect and abuse, and had the courage to revisit the past. In 1996, Ms Lees submitted a Freedom of Information application to the Queensland Department of Families and Community Services. She was not expecting to receive 300 pages of combined family files. Understandably, she was distressed by the contents. She was further distressed to find, amongst the bureaucratic papers, the transcripts of two letters her mother had written within four days of the children being removed from her care. The letters were transcribed, but the originals were never received by the children. I can only imagine how heartbreaking that must have been. Pattie’s mother neglected her and her siblings, but she clearly loved them.

I found this first-hand account deeply moving. Ms Lees acknowledges the good and the bad in her life. This autobiographical account is important, and I recommend reading it.

We cannot improve the future until we acknowledge the past.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AWW2021

#AussieAuthor 2021

Rosalee Station by Mandy Magro

‘Summer in Mareeba was close to unbearable at times.’

I was looking for a novel set in Queensland and picked up this book. I was in the mood for something light, and this rural romance fitted the bill.

Sarah Clarke travels from Mareeba to Rosalee Station with her boyfriend Brad. Sarah will work as a cook and is looking forward to it. But within days, her relationship with Brad is over. Sarah decides to stay, and then realises that she is attracted to Matt (the station owners’ son). Sigh. Matt is already in a relationship, but he does not seem happy.

What happens, dear reader, is inevitable but it takes a while. A few twists, a surfeit of similes and a touch of tragedy combined with some evocative description of the countryside and a glimpse of life on a station in remote Queensland.

If you enjoy Australian rural romance, then Ms Magro’s novels may well suit.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AWW2021

#AussieAuthor2021

Hunting the Wild Pineapple by Thea Astley

‘Let me draw you a little map.’

I am drawn to this collection of Thea Astley short stories because of the title, and because Lisa, at ANZ LitLovers LitBlog, is hosting a Thea Astley week later this month (August 17 to 25, 2020).   More information can be found at:  https://anzlitlovers.com/thea-astley/

I should admit that while Thea Astley has long been on my reading horizon, I have not previously read any of her work.  So, I consulted my local library’s online catalogue and borrowed ‘Hunting the Wild Pineapple’, a collection of short stories published in 1979.

‘Take a patch of coastline and its hinterland, put it just north of twenty and one hundred and forty-six east, make it hot and wet and sprinkle it with people who feel they’ve been forgotten by the rest of the country – and don’t really care.’

There are eight marvellous short stories in this collection, narrated by Leverson:

‘Take a failure, male of middling years, who had already punctured several shiny bubbles.’

And who is missing a leg.

‘Add a name.  Leverson.’

What can I tell you about these stories?  Can I describe aspects well enough to tempt you to read them? The places you might see, the people you might meet.  Would you like to travel to Mango with Leverson and Mrs Crystal Bellamy?  Will you wonder about the characters in ‘The Curate Breaker’?  Or, like me, will you become caught up in the stories (for there are more than one) in ‘A Northern Belle’?

It is Ms Astley’s descriptions that take me into the stories, lead me to observe people and wonder what might happen next after the writing stops.  Are any of these relationships between equals?  I keep thinking of ‘A Northern Belle’, but I could equally name ‘Ladies Need Only Apply’.  There are images that grab my attention, scenes which have me squirm, people I feel sorry for.  And some I detest.

There’s a skill in constructing self-contained narratives as short stories: images are important, and language is critical.  Each of the eight stories held my attention: none of them is predictable, each of them has a twist (or two) to make you catch your breath.

So this collection of short stories is my introduction to Thea Astley. I will look, next, for one of her novels.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AWW2020

#AussieAuthor2020

Riptides by Kirsten Alexander

‘I wake when Abby shouts.’

1974, rural Queensland.  Charlie Campbell and his sister Abby are driving to their father’s farm.  Charlie, who has fallen asleep at the wheel, forces another car of the narrow, unlit road.  They stop.  When they realise that the heavily pregnant woman is dead, they drive away.  They leave her on the ground, as heavy rain falls.  They tell no-one.

The next day, they arrive at their father’s farm and learn that the dead woman, Skye, was their father’s fiancée.  Charlie and Abby decide to tell no-one what has happened.

 ‘It will make my life worse, and possibly destroy the lives of everyone around me if I tell the truth.’

The narrative alternates between Charlie and Abby.  Charlie, temporarily in Australia, usually lives in Bali.  Abby is married to an investigative journalist and is a stay-at-home mother of three.  Can they hide their involvement in Skye’s death?  Charlie learns, from his father, that Skye had a five-year-old son who is on a commune with her abusive ex-partner.  His father wants to rescue the boy and wants Abby to bring him up.

It’s a complicated story, set in the corrupt Queensland of the Bjelke-Petersen era. The characters are well-developed, and I kept turning the pages hoping for an outcome I could applaud.  While I didn’t get that outcome and I ended up feeling no sympathy for any of the adult characters, I was completely caught up in the story.  Unsettling and uncomfortable.

‘For every action there’s a reaction.  Nothing and no one escapes that fact.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AWW2020

#AussieAuthor2020

Saltwater by Cathy McLennan

‘This is the last time this story will be told.’

Well, this may be the last time Ms McLennan tells this particular story, but similar stories are still being told.  This book is based on Ms McLennan’s two-year period as a barrister for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Service on Palm Island and in Townsville in the 1990s.

As a twelve-year-old, Ms McLennan and a group of year 7 classmates travel from Magnetic Island to Palm Island.  She writes that:

‘This is the day that changes the course of my life.’

Ten years later, she is as a twenty-two-year-old barrister.  And these are some of her experiences: a major murder case involving four teenaged boys, a young girl subjected to abuse. She writes about the impact of abuse, of neglect, of Foetal Alcohol Syndrome, of a system failing to support those who need it.  Ms McLennan mentions the beauty of Palm Island (and of Magnetic Island), and the violence that occurs there.

‘No point in teaching these kids.  They’re past hope.’

I found this a difficult book to read.  I kept turning the pages, hoping that things would improve.  The subtitle of the book is ‘An Epic Fight for Justice in the Tropics’: it’s clearly a fight still underway. And in the meantime, more lives are blighted, ruined, destroyed. Ms McLennan is now a magistrate, and I wonder whether she’s been able to make more of a difference in that role?

It’s unutterably sad to read about the challenges faced by some members of Aboriginal communities, and it is unbearable to read about the responses of those in authority.  A vulnerable child returned to a community which has already harmed her.  A baby left with an incompetent parent because ‘there’s nowhere else’. A mother doing her best, but not getting the support she needs.

I’ve had a copy of this book since 2017, after a friend read and reviewed it. I was reminded of it after reading a review critical of the book at the end of 2019 and now I’ve finally read it.  I’d like to say that things are better, but I have family and friends who live in far North Queensland, and I know that’s not true.  I’ve been to Townsville.  It is a lovely city (if you are fortunate) but you don’t have to look to hard to see those who are not.

I feel saddened, and helpless.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AWW2020

#AussieAuthor20

Khaki Town by Judy Nunn

‘A place they call Townsville.’

March 1942.  Singapore has fallen. Darwin has been bombed.  The Imperial Japanese Forces are on the brink of invading Australia. The small tropical city of Townsville in Queensland is transformed into a transport hub for 70,000 Australian and American soldiers destined for combat in the South Pacific.

Thirsty, lonely soldiers flock to The Brown’s Hotel.  Even with restricted trading hours, Val Callahan, publican of The Brown’s Hotel, is making a fortune.

But there’s tension in Townsville.  Tension between the Australian troops and the American troops, and tension within the ranks of the American troops.  The Australians resent the fact that the Americans are better paid and better fed and can offer chocolates and nylons to Australian women.  And within the American troops, some of the white GIs don’t like that the black GIs are not segregated.

After the black GIs are banned from the leisure activities in Townsville, and after a short-lived attempt to provide them with their own club outside Townsville, racial violence erupts.

A young United States Congressman, Lyndon Baines Johnson, is sent to Townsville to investigate.

This novel was inspired by a mutiny in Townsville in May 1942, in which a number of soldiers were killed.   I picked up this novel because I’d recently visited Townsville and was aware of some of the World War II related history.  Ms Nunn blends fact and fiction to recreate Townsville in this period, highlighting the racial tensions (both within Australia and America).  The historical figures have important cameo roles, while the fictional figures bring the period to life.  I enjoyed the novel but readers should be aware of Ms Nunn’s warning:

‘Khaki Town is about racism and there are some passages that readers may find offensive and even shocking.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AWW2019

Crimson Lake by Candice Fox

‘I was having some seriously dark thoughts when I found Woman.’

Ted Conkaffey’s life has been ruined. A former detective accused (but not convicted) of kidnapping and attacking a thirteen-year-old girl.  He was gaoled but was then ‘no billed’ meaning that he could be charged if sufficient evidence comes to light. A particular form of hell.  So, he’s escaped, sort of, to the steamy, croc-infested wetlands of Crimson Lake in the far north of Queensland.

He meets Amanda Pharrell, a private detective, who’s done time for murder.  She enlists his help to try to track down Jake Scully, a missing author.  Jake’s wife Stella doesn’t know whether Jake has disappeared or been kidnapped.  Ted agrees to help because he needs the money.  And so, the two most notorious residents of Crimson Lake band together, with their every move observed. Ted thought he could lose himself here, but it is not that easy.

I quickly became absorbed in this novel.  Yes, I wanted to know what happened to Jake Scully, but I was much more interested to learning more about both Ted Conkaffey and Amanda Pharrell. These are two of the most intriguing fictional characters I’ve encountered recently.  The stories (for there are more than one) unfold in pieces: we learn a bit about Ted, a bit about Amanda and about Jake Scully.

This is the first of three (so far) novels in the Crimson Lake series.  One advantage of picking this novel up in 2019 was that I could read the other two straightaway.   And now I wait, patiently, hoping for more.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AWW2019

George, Elise and a mandarin: Identity in Early Australia by Terry Fewtrell

‘Every family has a story.’

This book is about two European emigrants to Australia in the 1870s: George Fewtrell and Elise Bresler.  While it is about their lives and achievements in Australia, it is also about why they came to Australia and how their lives were shaped by their origins.  George Fewtrell was from Shropshire in the UK, while Elise Bresler (née Rehder) migrated from Schleswig-Holstein, from Kellinghusen, a small town in the much fought over peninsula straddling Denmark and the German Confederation.  As Mr Fewtrell writes: ‘The flat terrain of Schleswig-Holstein differed greatly from the rolling hills and relative peace of the English countryside in the latter part of the 19th century.  Identity in Schleswig-Holstein was not fixed but fiercely contested.  It was based on an association with place and region.  […] Here identity was less certain, more ambiguous, perhaps conflicted and compromised.’

‘But identity has many layers.’

Mr Fewtrell writes of the separate journeys, to Queensland, of each of his great grandparents.  He writes how each of them endured tragedy: George was widowed with small children while Elise lost both husband and three small sons.  He writes of how, working together, they established a community (Palmwoods, 100 kms from Brisbane) and developed a citrus orchard.  It touches on the dispossession of the Indigenous peoples, which was already well under way when George Fewtrell was granted Homestead Selection 4171 in April 1889.

George Fewtrell died in 1914, Elise Fewtrell in 1919.  This book covers the period of their lives from the 1970s until the end of World War I.  And the mandarin? George Fewtrell developed the ‘Early Fewtrell’ mandarin which is still grown in India and Pakistan.

I was fortunate enough to hear Terry Fewtrell talk about this book and his great-grand parents’ history.  While reading the book, I was struck by the way in which we define our identity: the story of Elise Fewtrell toasting the Kaiser each night has its own (but different) parallel story in my own family history.  I was also struck by the difficulty Elise experienced in gaining access to George’s estate after his death.  This was because Elise could have been regarded as a German or Austro-Hungarian subject (and thus an enemy of the Crown). Probate was granted on 12 January 1915.

‘In the scope of history, George and Elise made their contributions to the Australian story and moved on.’

If you are interested in family history, colonial settlement in Australia, the mutable concept of identity amongst immigrants, you may find this book as interesting as I did.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith