She Be Damned by M.J.Tjia

If you like interesting female protagonists, the mystery of murder in 19th century London, then you may like to read Ms Tjia’s novel.

She Be Damned by M.J. Tjia

‘Go back to work in a brothel, for the sake of a little detection?’

This novel is set in London in 1863, where prostitutes in the Waterloo area are turning dead.   When the corpses are found, organs have been removed or mutilated.  Who is killing these women, and why?

Heloise Chancey is a courtesan, nicely set up in a house in Mayfair with her Chinese maid /Amah, Li Leen.  Heloise has done some informal detective work for Sir Thomas Avery’s private detective agency previously, and when Eleanor Carter, a well-bred young woman goes missing in the Waterloo area, Heloise is approached by Sir Thomas and, on behalf of an unnamed client, a Mr Priestly to help. And, when simply asking doesn’t seem to get the answer Mr Priestly requires, an unsubtle threat does.   The police, apparently, are not particularly interested in the cases of four murdered prostitutes.  Sir Thomas and Mr Priestly believe that Heloise Chancey’s contacts may well enable her to locate Eleanor Carter.  And so, Heloise Chancey is essentially blackmailed into trying to find Eleanor.  Clearly a resourceful young woman, she quickly moves into an investigatory mode.  Her mission to try to find Heloise becomes caught up in the police’s wider investigation of the murdered prostitutes.

There are more than a few twists and turns in this story, despite the similarities between this fiction and the crimes perpetrated by Jack the Ripper some twenty-five years later. While I found Heloise Chancey an improbable character, Li Leen was intriguing and Ms Tjia kept my interest throughout.   I understand that this is the first novel in an intended series.

I was jerked out of the story at one stage: a reference to the stench of ‘sewerage’ in a novel set in London and written by an Australian should surely be a reference to ‘sewage’.

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

Jennifer Cameron-Smith


Girl Unknown by Karen Perry

‘I should, I suppose, go back to the beginning, to the first time we met.’

Professor David Connolly is a university lecturer in history. His wife Caroline has just returned to work in an advertising agency.  They have two children: Holly and Robbie.  All is going well, or so it seems.  But their lives are about to be turned upside down.   Zoë Barry, a first-year student, walks into David’s office one day, and makes a tentative statement:

‘I think you might be my father . . .’

Can David and Caroline integrate Zoë into their family?  David certainly thinks that they should try.  Caroline is less sure, but she’s prepared to try.  But Zoë is complicated and secretive and it isn’t long before she starts causing problems.  David is often inclined to believe Zoë, and takes her side in disputes with Caroline.

The novel switches between Caroline and David, presenting each of their perspectives as they try to accommodate Zoë and work out the best way to deal with her impact on their lives.  But Zoë has her own agenda: there’s clearly much more to Zoë than meets the eye.

The tension builds throughout the novel.  And, even though some of David’s actions seemed incredibly naïve and annoyed me, I kept reading wondering how it would all end.  Perhaps a family holiday in France might provide a solution?  One way or another.

‘Families don’t come apart because a thread has been loosened.’

A fast-paced psychological thriller with more than a couple of twists.  Not all the twists worked for me, but the novel certainly held my attention.  Karen Perry is the pen name of Dublin-based crime writing duo Paul Perry and Karen Gillece. This is their second novel.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Anaesthesia by Kate Cole-Adams

Have you ever had an anaesthetic, and wondered about the experience?

Anaesthesia by Kate Cole-Adams

‘The gift of oblivion and the mystery of consciousness.’

What is anaesthesia and what impact does anaesthesia have on us?  I’ve experienced fifteen or so general anaesthetics over the past fifty years, and I also worked (as a student nurse some forty years ago) in both the operating theatre and intensive care environments.  A lot has changed over that period, but the intention of anaesthesia is surely broadly the same: to alter consciousness and reduce pain.  Well-trained (and empathetic) anaesthetists are critically important to success.  Why empathy?  Because patient confidence is also important, and an empathetic anaesthetist is far more likely to inspire confidence.

As Ms Cole-Adams writes:

‘This book explores perhaps the most brilliant and baffling gift of modern medicine: the disappearing act that enables doctors and dentists to carry out surgery and other procedures that would otherwise be impossibly, often fatally, painful.’

This book is about both anaesthesia in general and about Ms Cole-Adams’ own journey towards major surgery for scoliosis.  It includes accounts from those who were conscious under anaesthesia (where this was not intended) as well as referring to studies investigating situations where people have become aware under anaesthesia, but don’t have conscious memory of this occurring.  I’m interested in how those studies were conducted.  Some of the accounts had me shaking my head, and remembering advice I was first given in 1974: never assume that an unconscious person can’t hear what is being said.

‘It is odd where the mind goes, when it is off the leash.’

Two of the main objectives of anaesthesia are to ensure that the person is unaware of what is happening to them and that they will have no memory of it.  Ms Cole-Adams focusses on these objectives and on the complexity of consciousness.  Do we need to form a memory of an experience for it to be harmful?  And what about those (thankfully rare) cases where people become aware during surgery, and remember the experience?  How should such cases be identified and managed?  If consciousness is a continuum, then managing it through anaesthesia is surely both an art and a science.

There’s a lot of detail in this book, but it is presented in a way which makes it accessible to an interested non-medically trained reader.  It is clear, from the references and sources noted at the end of the book, that Ms Cole-Adams has done a lot of research. The book is both an explanation of anaesthesia and an account of patient experience.

If you’ve ever had an anaesthetic and wondered about the experience, you may find this book interesting.  I certainly did.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith


Dark Paradise by Catherine Lee

A novella from one of my most favourite Australian writers!

Dark Paradise by Catherine Lee

‘It was barely lunch time and Detective Charlie Cooper was already exhausted.’

And he’s about to find that rest will become even more elusive!  Cooper and Quinn find themselves on remote Lord Howe Island, after a contestant on a reality television show called ‘Transformation in Paradise’ turns up dead.  Is it an accidental death, or is it murder?  There’s plenty of pressure on Cooper and Quinn to find out what happened, and to solve the case quickly.  The reality show producers want the show to continue, as to the remaining contestants.  There’s a million-dollar prize on offer.

From the beginning, Cooper and Quinn find the case challenging.  Lord Howe Island doesn’t have immediate access to the resources needed for their investigation, and almost everyone they encounter seems to have something to hide.  No-one seems to have liked the dead contestant very much.

Ms Lee delivers another fast-paced story, providing just enough information to keep me guessing about what happened and why.  A couple of possibilities become red herrings (naturally!) and the outcome is neatly satisfying.  But don’t take my word for it, read the novella for yourself.  If you’ve not previously read Ms Lee’s novels, this novella could be read as a standalone introduction to Cooper and Quinn.  It could be, but I strongly recommend reading each book in the series.  Ms Lee has developed two very likeable main characters and each of the novels explores crimes set amidst topical issues.

Note: I was fortunate enough to receive a free Advanced Reader Copy of this novella for review purposes.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith



The Bone Sparrow by Zana Fraillon

I don’t read much YA fiction.  I’m glad I read this book, even though it is haunting me.

The Bone Sparrow by Zana Fraillon

‘DAR-1, that’s me.  I was the first baby ever born here.’

Meet Subhi.  He’s about nine years old, and was born in an Australian detention centre.  The boundaries of his physical world are defined by the razor wire, but his imagination knows no bounds. Subhi’s mother, Maá and his sister Noor, nicknamed Queeny are with him.  They are Rohingya refugees from Burma.

Subhi describes his life: controlled by guards who oversee everything, where food, water and toilet paper are rationed.  He’s known no other life. He tells us that Maá spends much of her time sleeping, that he helps a friend trade items around the centre. He tells us, too, that one of the guards, Harvey, takes the time to remember and use the children’s names.  These are things that Subhi tells us, in a matter-of-fact way.  Subhi remains optimistic, he has the stories he has heard and those he imagines:

‘I’m listening to the stories of the sea.  Do you want me to tell you what I hear?’

He also has the Shakespeare duck to keep him company.

And then, Jimmie enters Subhi’s world.  Jimmie lives with her father and brother close to the centre.   Jimmie has lost her mother, doesn’t often make it to school, and cannot read.  She has a book of stories her mother wrote, and a necklace.  Both are important to her. This unlikely friendship is important to both Subhi and Jimmie.  She is his confirmation that there is a world outside the razor wire and he is her path back into her mother’s stories.

In the world that Jimmie and Subhi share, there is hope.

‘How can people be so mean to each other when isn’t everyone the same anyway and why can’t anyone work that out?’

This is a beautifully written book.  It may be aimed at the 8 to 14-year-old age group, but I’d recommend it to all adults (and politicians) as well.  ‘The Bone Sparrow’ won the 2017 ABIA book award for:  Book of the Year Older Children (age range 8 to 14 years)

Jennifer Cameron-Smith


The Marsh King’s Daughter by Karen Dionne

The Marsh King’s Daughter by Karen Dionne

‘And just like that, the walls of my carefully constructed second life come tumbling down.’

Helena Pelletier is driving home with her two young daughters when she hears the news:

‘Jacob Holbrook has escaped from prison. The Marsh King.’

Jacob Holbrook is Helena’s father, and his escape from a maximum-security prison concerns Helena.  Helena believes that she is responsible for Jacob’s imprisonment and believes that she and her daughters are in danger.

Helena has invested a lot of time and effort in keeping her past to herself.  She’s not even told her husband Stephen.  But now that her father has escaped, she needs to face the past.  She arrives home, but before she has a chance to tell Stephen, the police arrive to question her.  They think that she might know where her father might be headed.  Stephen is understandably shocked, and decides to take Helena and their daughters Iris and Mari to his parents for safety.  Helena refuses to leave: she tells Stephen she needs to help the police.

Helena’s mother was a teenager when Jacob Holbrook abducted her.  He wanted a woman, so he took one.  He was able, because of his knowledge of the marsh, to keep the outside world at a distance for some fourteen years.  Helena had no contact with the outside world until she was twelve.

‘I was born two years into my mother’s captivity.  She was three weeks shy of seventeen.’

‘But I won’t tell you my mother’s name.  Because this isn’t her story, it’s mine.’

The story moves between past and present. Helena tracks her father.  She’s sure that she can find him: he taught her everything she knows about the marsh. And while Helena remembers the past, and wonders whether she has any future, she’s paying careful attention to the signs her father is leaving.

I can’t write more about the story without introducing spoilers.  And this is a novel that works well because of the issues it raises and the way in which the story unfolds.  Recommended.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Watch Over Me by Claire Corbett

Watch Over Me by Claire Corbett

‘The first time I met you I never saw you.’

Port Angelsund is a foggy northern city, the gateway to the high arctic.  It’s a contemporary city which has been under occupation for some years by the soldiers of Garrison.  Port Angelsund is strategically significant because of its lucrative reserves of energy.  The citizens of Port Angelsund are under constant surveillance: their existences full of petty rules and hardships, of curfews, restrictions on movement and rationing.

Nineteen-year-old Sylvie Falk attracts attention at a routine checkpoint, and is bound and blindfolded.  She is rescued by a young lieutenant and allowed to travel home. Sylvie, her brother Toby and her mother work at the Half Moon Café where Sylvie is an accomplished pastry chef.

Sylvie’s rescuer, Lieutenant Will Maur, visits the Half Moon Café.  And, despite the risks of collaboration, Sylvie falls in love.

What follows is an extreme test of Sylvie’s loyalties.  Her older brother Jory is part of the resistance against Garrison.  Jory wants Sylvie’s help. Sylvie loves Will, but is acutely aware of the hardships being inflicted on her family and friends.  Sylvie is being watched constantly, both by Garrison’s city-wide surveillance and by her lover.  Whatever choice she makes will result in betrayal.  How will it end?

While Sylvie is the central character in the novel, there are other significant characters.  Their lives provide insight into life in Port Angelsund.   It is Sylvie’s story, narrated in her voice, but it provides a much broader look at conflict, love, loyalty and the consequences of war.

I started reading this novel a few weeks ago, and had to put it aside because of other commitments.   I picked it up again, went back to the beginning and finished it in two days.  Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this novel is the fact that the world described could so easily be the one in which we live.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith