The Girl in the Glass Tower by Elizabeth Fremantle

A novel about one of the lesser known Stuarts of the 16th century.

The Girl in The Glass Tower by Elizabeth Fremantle

‘Memories are like that cracked pane of glass with its subtle distortions.’

Lady Arbella Stuart is ‘The Girl in the Glass Tower’ and I picked up this book with interest: Lady Arbella Stuart had always been a shadowy figure in my reading about Tudor/Stuart history. I knew that she had been considered as a possible successor to Elizabeth I, and when I first came across her name I was convinced it had been misspelled.  But I knew little about her.

First, some biography.  Lady Arbella  Stuart was the only child of Charles Stuart, Earl of Lennox and his wife Elizabeth Cavendish.  She was a grandchild of Matthew Stewart, Earl of Lennox and Lady Margaret Douglas, whose parents were Archibald Douglas, Earl of Angus and Margaret Tudor, daughter of Henry VII of England and widow of James IV of Scotland.  In short, Arbella Stuart was the great-great- granddaughter of Henry VII, and was in line to the English throne.  While it seems that she did not seek the throne herself, there were others keen to push her claims.  Her grandmother, Elizabeth Cavendish, better known as ‘Bess of Hardwick’ was key.

In this novel, Elizabeth Fremantle brings Arbella Stuart out of the shadows.  Arbella’s story is told in the past tense, in conjunction with the story of another historical figure, Aemilia Lanyer (Ami) a writer and poet whose story is told in the present.  It makes for an interesting juxtaposition: Ami’s story moving back in time as Arbella’s story moves forward.  The gaps in one story are filled in the other.  Arbella spends much of her time with her grandmother, effectively imprisoned behind the imposing glass windows of Hardwick Hall.  She is being kept safe: there is much danger in the world for those with royal blood.  And living within this glasshouse, unable to take control over many aspects of her life, Arbella wishes to ride her horse Dorcas, and longs to be free.

‘You may not be Queen of England but you are queen over the realm of your body.’

The historical facts can be found readily for those in search of them, having all of the detail before reading the novel may well spoil the experience for some readers.  Arbella wanted to marry, but because of her place in the succession neither Elizabeth I nor James I would agree.  There were offers made for her, but they came to nothing.  As Arbella grew older, she sought to control her life by controlling her body.

In this novel, her one last chance for happiness was thwarted. Ami Lanyer is part of this and, while aspects are wholly fictional, it provides an interesting dimension to Arbella’s story.

I finished this novel feeling like I had some greater sense of Arbella Stuart, but also wanting to know more about Aemilia Lanyer.  I was left with a small question, though: were containers really called cartons in late 16th   and early 17th century England?

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

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

The Phoenix Cycle by Bob Collopy

‘You are the best stock this Phoenix Cycle could hope to reap!’

Picture this.  The world has been ravaged by storms of ash and debris.  Only one city has survived: New San Francisco.  New San Francisco has survived because it is ruled by the General.  He has ensured that the people of New San Francisco understand that there is no room for weakness, no room for pity.  The city is ruled by the Inner Circle, and Steve and Leslie have a chance to join that Inner Circle.  It’s a once in a life chance to apply, and if they don’t they’ll be condemned to spend the rest of their lives in the ghettos of Edingburg.

There is another possibility.  There is opposition to the General.  A revolutionary army, known as the IRA, led by a voice known as ‘Mom’ is trying to overthrow the General and free the people of New San Francisco.  Steve will choose one path, and Leslie the other.

What follows is an interesting and busy dystopian tale.  The IRA wants a famous philosophical speech broadcast.  Many will die trying to do this, but is anyone listening?  The novel follows the main characters in a world that has been largely destroyed by the effects of environmental disasters and war, where the government keeps most people in a captive virtual reality.  There’s not enough detail to work out how all this happened, but there’s enough connection to the current world to make much of it believable.

A dystopian environment with philosophical characters –  there are several aspects to this story.  It’s not a straightforward narrative: some aspects are delivered by journal entries and broadcasts.

I’ll need to reread this novel.  I wonder whether the the Department of Smoke has been able to exert any influence over the final manuscript?  I know that the version I read is not the final version…

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

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Ache by Eliza Henry-Jones

‘Annie has never been the sort of person to have nightmares.  But since the fires on the mountain, her dreams have changed.’

A bushfire twelve months ago has ripped Annie’s world apart.  Her grandmother Gladys is dead, her daughter Pippa is traumatised, and her mother Susan’s home was half destroyed.  Although Annie, her husband Tom and Pippa live in the city, she’s never really settled there.  The mountain is her home, and after her uncle Len calls her, she takes Pippa back to Quilly for an extended visit.  The pressure of work means that Tom can’t join them, and he’s frustrated that Annie hasn’t thought this through.

‘It’s too easy to forget how good it feels to have purpose.’

Back in Quilly, we meet Annie’s eccentric mother Susan, her uncle Len and his wife Rose.  Gradually, we learn more about Annie’s life on the mountain, her relationship with Gladys, and the fire that has devastated the lives of so many.  And Pippa, so traumatised by the fire, starts to open up to her grandmother and find her way gradually through her own trauma.

It took me a while to adjust to the rhythm of this novel.  Ms Henry-Jones tells the story gradually, revealing pieces of information about people and events.  There are several finely drawn characters, each dealing with the consequences of the bushfire the best they can.  Some within the community see Annie as an interloper, and this undermines her sense of belonging.  Can individuals within the community move on?  Can Tom and Annie’s marriage survive this separation?

For me, this novel captures some of the trauma of catastrophe, as well as some of the issues individuals and communities need to deal with as a consequence.  The devastation is clear, the grief understandable.  There’s hope, as well, for the future – for the land and for at least some of the characters.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith


Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann


‘Like others on the Osage tribal roll, Mollie and her family members each received a headright – essentially, a share in the tribe’s mineral trust.’

In the 1920s, the Osage Indian Nation in Oklahoma were amongst the richest people in the world.  Oil had been discovered under their land, and the headrights could not be sold.  They could only be inherited.  This was to keep the mineral trust under tribal control, but it resulted in many Osage people being murdered.  Just how many were murdered and over what period is not clear.  Mr Grann writes that according to most historical accounts, the Osage Reign of Terror spanned from the spring of 1921, to January 1926, but there were other killings.

In this book Mr Grann writes principally about one matriarchal Osage family, about the plan to murder the women in that family, in a way guaranteed to enable their headrights to be inherited.  Mollie Burkhardt’s older sister Anna was shot dead, then her mother was slowly poisoned.  As the death toll climbs, with more than twenty-four Osage killed as well as almost anyone trying to investigate the killings, the case is taken up by the newly formed FBI. After a bungled start, J. Edgar Hoover, puts Tom White (a former Texas Ranger) in charge of the case.  Tom White and his undercover team, working with the Osage, began to expose this awful conspiracy.

Poor Mollie Burkhardt.  She discovers that her husband, Ernest Burkhardt, was part of the conspiracy.  He and his uncle, William Hale planned the death of Mollie and her entire family, including the Burkhardt children.

If only it were fiction, not fact.  Mr Grann sets out the tragedy in a way that is easy to read, even though the scale of it is not easy to comprehend.  This tragedy raises so many questions about the treatment of Native Americans, about greed and about systemic corruption.  And now?

‘History is a merciless judge.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Flame Tip by Karenlee Thompson

Flame Tip by Karenlee Thompson

‘I’ll tell you about my neighbourhood on the 8th of February 1967 …’

In this collection of seventeen short fictions, linked to the Black Tuesday bushfires in Tasmania on 8 February 1967, Ms Thompson explores many different themes.  For those of you who weren’t around fifty years ago, this tragedy left 62 people dead and injured 900 others.  More than 7000 people were left homeless and 1400 homes were destroyed.  Most of the destruction was caused within a five-hour period.  It was horrific.  I was a school-aged child living in Launceston at the time, watching the local community mobilise to help those affected.

These fictions involve different people, with their different reactions to the fire and its aftermath.  There’s one woman, in ‘Lost’, looking for the life she lost when the fire destroyed her home.  In another, ‘The Keeper of the Satchel’, a man remembers the fire (and its impact) through his own regulated life.  He wonders.  In other stories, communities come together after the fire as differences that seemed important beforehand are erased.  For the storytellers – danger, fear, loss and memories play a part as do empathy, humour and resilience.

This is a book to dip into.  I will revisit these stories as a reminder of both the events of Black Tuesday (and other catastrophic bushfires) and the different ways in which such catastrophes continue to affect people long after the event.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith


The Dark Lake by Sarah Bailey

The Dark Lake by Sarah Bailey

‘It’s amazing what you can keep buried when you want to.’

A beautiful young woman’s body, strewn with red roses, is found floating in the lake near a small rural town.  Her identity is quickly stablished: she’s a teacher at the local high school, named Rosalind (Rose) Ryan.  Detective Sergeant Gemma Woodstock was at high school with Rose, but despite this connection she wants to investigate the case. Rose has been murdered, but by whom and why?  Why did Rose quit her teaching job in the city to return to teach at Smithson High School?  Why was the body strewn with red roses: many people seemed to admire Rose, but no-one seems to have really known her.

‘Beautiful things are hard to keep alive.’

Gemma Woodstock is an interesting, flawed character with her own secrets.  Some of those secrets become apparent early in the novel, and while I found aspects of Gemma irritating, I liked her.  Here’s a flawed woman, juggling family and work (not always successfully) trying to figure out who killed Rose.  The deeper she digs, the more people she finds with a possible motive for murder.  The deeper she digs, the closer she comes to revealing some of her own secrets that she would rather keep hidden.

‘Keep trying to figure out who killed perfect, precious Rose Ryan.’

I thought I had it worked out part way through the book, but I was wrong.  Once all the pieces fell into place (no spoilers) it makes its own sense.  A satisfying read, which left me wondering what the future might hold for Gemma Woodstock.  This is Ms Bailey’s debut novel, and I’ll certainly be hoping to see more from her in the future.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith



Closing Down by Sally Abbott

Closing Down by Sally Abbott

‘How has it all come to this?’
There are three main characters in this dystopian novel, set in an Australia which has largely been sold off to overseas interests. Rural towns are being closed by a remote central government, people are being displaced and dispossessed. The land is dry and food is limited. But the problems are not just confined to Australia: the countries and regions of the world are being realigned. Who cares about the human cost?

The main characters are Clare McDonald, Granna Adams and her grandson Roberto (Robbie). Clare walks the streets of Myamba most nights. She walks to escape: it’s the moving that matters. Clare thinks about the towns being closed, and what it means. Granna Adams creates and distributes care packages for those who have lost loved ones, their livelihoods, their homes. Robbie loves Ella, but they are often apart. Robbie travels around the world in search of newsworthy topics while Ella is a human rights worker, settling refugees where they are ordered to go.

From the opening page, this novel captured my attention. I was drawn in before I really had any idea of who the characters might be and where the story was heading. While Robbie’s story captured my heart, it was Clare and Granna who keep hope alive. These two very different, resilient women combine forces in Granna’s home, the House of Many Promises, to try to improve life for others. They do: in part because of the foresight of the man who originally built the house, and the rest you’ll need to read for yourself.

This is one of those novels which is best read, not explained. The components lack the magic of the whole. It’s imaginative, and disturbingly possible. This is Ms Abbott’s debut novel, and won the inaugural Richell Prize for Emerging Writers in 2015 from a field of almost 1000 entries.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith