Rough Justice by Matt Hilton

‘Now move aside, before somebody gets killed.’

There’s a plane crash in the Great North Woods of Maine, with two lives lost.  The three biologists who report the crash claim that they only saw the two who were killed. But later, one of them is heard talking about a female survivor. Private Investigator Tess Grey is hired to investigate. She and her partner Po Villere head off into the woods, together with their friend, gun-runner Jerome ‘Pinky’ Leclerc.  Pinky is looking to avoid some problems of his own.

What follows is an action-packed, messy series of violent encounters while Tess tries to work out what happened at the crash scene. Messy?  Well, Tess and her team are not the only people headed into the woods.  There’s another group looking for the survivor, and then there are some fairly inept bounty hunters searching for Pinky.  Who is this mysterious survivor, and why are so many people looking for her?  There are a couple of worthy villains and some likeable heroes.

There are a few unexpected twists in the story, and while I wasn’t always completely engaged, I was curious enough to keep reading.  This is the first of Matt Hilton’s novels I’ve read: I suspect it won’t be the last.

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

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Cromwell's Convicts: The Death March from Dunbar 1650 by John Sadler and Rosie Serdiville

I read this book last year, and held off publishing my review until closer to the publication date which, here in Australia, is 1 March 2020. I’ve read quite a bit of English history, but I had never really focussed on the Battle of Dunbar. and its consequences. Grim reading.

‘The dead may not be able to talk, but science can give them a voice and help us to understand more about their lives.’

The Battle of Dunbar occurred on the 3rd of September 1650 between the English Parliamentarian forces, led by Oliver Cromwell and the Scottish Covenanters led by David Leslie.  It was one of the major battles of the Third English Civil War (1649-1651) and was a decisive (albeit unlikely) victory for Cromwell.  So, what happened next?  In my previous reading about the English Civil War, I’ve focussed on the political consequences, the occupation of Scotland, the rise of Cromwell and then the Restoration.  This book deals with the Battle of Dunbar and its dreadful aftermath.

Following the battle, Cromwell marched on Edinburgh.  After he captured the capital (following the defeat of the castle), prisoners were force-marched towards England. They were force-marched to prevent any attempt at rescue and were imprisoned in Durham Cathedral.

Reportedly, there were 6,000 prisoners.  Five thousand were marched south, without food, adequate water or medical attention.  Of those who survived the seven-day march to reach Durham, as many as 1,700 died from typhus or dysentery.  Most of the rest were condemned to hard labour and exile in the new world across the Atlantic Ocean.

While this book describes the Battle of Dunbar, its primary focus is on what followed. Mr Sadler and Ms Serdiville retraced the route taken by the prisoners on this march and describe recent archaeological excavations in Durham, uncovering some of the victims.  There are also the stories of some of those transported to the colonies in America and the West Indies.

This is a dark period of British history about which I knew little.  It’s easy, almost 400 hundred years later and half a world away, to focus on actions, events, facts and consequences, on the politics and rulers. This book takes us into the details of one particular part of the Third English Civil War and reminds us of the human cost.

Recommended reading for anyone interested in 17th century British history.

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

Jennifer Cameron-Smith              

The Golden Country by Tim Watts 

‘What does it mean to be a real Aussie today? What should it mean?’

Tim Watts is a seventh generation Australian who grew up on the Darling Downs in Queensland. He is also a Labor MP — the federal member for Gellibrand, an ethnically diverse electorate in Victoria.  His children are the descendants of Hong-Kong Chinese migrants and of pre-Federation politicians who wanted to exclude people who were not white.  In this book, Mr Watts explores how we have made the transition from ‘White Australia’ and what that means in terms of national identity.

‘Australia has made enormous progress in transcending the history of racial exclusion at the heart of Federation.’

I agree that we have made progress, but I think we still have some way to go.  While 1966 marks the official end of the White Australia Policy, it wasn’t until the 1970s that the Whitlam Government established a policy of multiculturalism.  And increased immigration from Asia came even later.  But what does this mean?

In 1996, in Pauline Hanson’s maiden speech to the Australian Parliament, she said: ‘I believe we are in danger of being swamped by Asians.’ ‘They have their own culture and religion, form ghettos and do not assimilate.’

I’d like to say that no-one agreed with her, but that would not be accurate. However, Australia is changing.  There is much more diversity in our backgrounds now than there was fifty years ago. Those of us with essentially monocultural heritages have benefitted from this, but we’ve not embraced every aspect. Nor have our institutions reflect this diversity.

‘Today Australia is a nation of diverse classrooms but a resolutely monocultural parliament.’

There’s a gap between how we see ourselves as a community and how our institutions and symbols represent that diversity.  We’ve not come to terms with the past, and until we do, we can’t move confidently into the future.  Our institutions represent our British colonial past (with a few nods to the USA).  Sigh.

But despite the sigh, I am mostly optimistic about the future, hopeful that we can move beyond ‘us’ and ‘them’ to an inclusive ‘we’.

I’d recommend this book to anyone interested in what it means (or might mean) to be Australian.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AussieAuthor2020

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

‘Even in death the boys were trouble.’

In the early 1960s, Elwood Curtis lives with his grandmother in Jim Crow-era Florida.  He’s done well at school, and one of his teachers encourages him to enrol in the free classes at a local colored college. To get to college, Elwood  hitches a ride.  This choice is enough to have Elwood sentenced to a juvenile reformatory called The Nickel Academy.  The Nickel Academy, according to its mission statement, provide ‘physical, intellectual and moral training’ so that the boys there can become ‘honorable and honest men’.

Fine words.  Reality at the Nickel Academy is very different.   Those that run the place are corrupt, the staff abuse the boys, food and supplies are diverted elsewhere. Boys who resist disappear. Elwood wants desperately to hang on to Martin Luther King’s assertion ‘Throw us in jail and we will still love you’, but, how can he?

‘He’d started the day in his old life and ended it here.’

Elwood makes a friend in the Nickel Academy, Turner, who has a far more realistic view of how to survive.  Turner isn’t interested in Martin Luther King’s ideals; he is interested in surviving in the world he is in.

Before Elwood ended up in the Nickel Academy, he had hopes and aspirations for the future.  He had triumphed over some early setbacks, but life had possibility for him.  Could he negotiate the pitfalls, the unspoken rules and unspeakable violence of the Nickel Academy?

‘His mind was still capable of travel.’

I don’t want to write more about the story because reading it is much more important than reading about it. And while this is a work of fiction, it was inspired by the true story of the Arthur G Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida.  This school only closed its doors in 2011 (after 111 years of operation).  Graves of those who died there are still being identified.

This is an unsettling novel to read. Much of the violence is understated, which makes it worse in my view.  Not because I want to read graphic accounts of violence but because understatement enables detachment from the horror of it. Those who leave can never really escape. Read it, and weep.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Sharks in the Time of Saviours by Kawai Strong Washburn

‘When I close my eyes we are all still alive and it becomes obvious then what the gods want from us.’

In Hawai’i in 1994, seven-year-old Nainoa Flores falls from a cruise ship.  He is rescued by a shark, and gently delivered to his mother.  This event marks the beginning of an incredible family journey. The story unfolds across four parts, is told over fourteen years and involves success, failure, and family rivalry. There are five narrators: Malia (the mother), siblings Nainoa, Dean and Kaui, and their father Augie. Expectations of Nainoa are great, living up to them is not easy.  Each of the children leave Hawai’i: partly in pursuit of their dreams, partly to escape their reality.  Can any of them find happiness outside Hawai’i?

It took me a little while to fall in with the rhythm of this story, to appreciate the part Hawai’i has to play as Nainoa’s life unfolds.  While some aspects of the magic don’t work for me, the beauty in the storytelling kept me engaged.  I finished the novel wanting more.

‘He never left us.’

Note: My thanks to Better Reading for a copy of this novel.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#BRPreview

Red Can Origami by Madelaine Dickie

‘The ocean parts like a liquid silk kimono.’

Ava Kelly has left Melbourne behind. She’s landed a job as a reporter in the tiny (fictional) town of Gubinge in Australia’s tropical north. She sees beauty in the country, the camaraderie, the challenge of barramundi fishing. But below the surface, all is not well.

There’s tension between different indigenous groups, and between the indigenous people and the others who live there. A Japanese-owned company, Gerro Blue, wants to mine uranium found there. The community is divided between those who think that mining will bring prosperity, those who are concerned about environmental effects, and those concerned that the indigenous heritage of Burrika country will be destroyed. The local Burrika people have a native title claim pending over a place which contains a cave with rock paintings, land from which the white owner tries to exclude them. On a trip there, Ava sees a bulldozer (with Gerro Blue’s logo on it) parked near some recently exposed bones. Ava knows there is a story here. But Ava’s story about tragedy is turned into tabloid sensationalism by her editor. And some of the relationships Ava was developing with the indigenous people are damaged.

Ava is offered a job by Gerro Blue’s CEO, Yuma Watanabe. He offers her a job as the Aboriginal Liaison Officer, telling her that Gerro Blue wants to deal sensitively with the indigenous people:

‘You understand paradox, that different ways of seeing or being can be simultaneously correct.’

After giving the job offer some thought, Ava accepts. She thinks that she can make a difference, will earn lots of money in a short period. Ava also sees an opportunity to help Noah (the Burrika board director) for whom she has feelings.

Naïve or optimistic? Is it possible to reconcile indigenous connection to land with the damage done by open-cut mining? Is it possible to manage the environmental risks? And what will Ava do when confronted by ethical dilemmas?

This is a comparatively short novel which covers a lot of different issues, including: there is not one indigenous voice; native title rights do not necessarily exclude mineral exploration; and investment opportunities seem more important to remote government than cultural issues.

I liked the second person voice used in the narration because it brings the reader into the story. And we are there, whether we like it or not. There’s either our indifference or objection, or sometimes support for native title issues, there’s our (non-indigenous) confusion about what country means. There’s our difficulty weighing cultural concern against perceived economic benefit.

I became caught up in this story, wondering how real-life equivalents will end. This is Ms Dickie’s second novel: I’ll have to read her first.

‘Before you hit the road, you walk to the servo for a takeaway coffee. The pavement sparkles with glass, shimmers with an origami of flattened red cans.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AWW2020

#AussieAuthor2020

Fortune’s Child: A Novel of Empress Theodora by James Conroyd Martin

‘I am dreaming about her yet again.’

Stephen has been imprisoned for five years. He dreams of Theodora, his nemesis, a woman he once adored. And, when the door to his prison cell is opened, and he is pulled to his feet, he expects the worst.  Instead, he is summoned into Theodora’s presence.  She asks him to write the story of her life.  He wants to refuse but finds that he cannot.

‘Take what I tell you, Stephen, and bring my life to parchment.’  Breathe life into my past.’

Thus begins Mr Martin’s novel about Theodora and her rise from poverty to Empress of the Eastern Roman Empire.  Her story is intertwined with that of her biographer Stephen, a handsome Syrian boy who became a palace eunuch.

Both stories are fascinating.  Theodora rose from very humble origins to become a powerful Byzantine empress. Stephen, sold by his parents as a child to a Persian wizard, acquires language skills which stand him in good stead when he is sold again.  He and Theodora first meet in Antioch, both having suffered devastating disappointment.  They remember each other when they meet in Constantinople.  Stephen plays a pivotal part in several important events in Theodora’s life.  So, how could she have him imprisoned, and why?  And, why has she asked him to be her biographer?

‘I am writing your story, Theodora.’

I really enjoyed this novel.  I find the history of the Byzantine empire fascinating, and Theodora is a significant figure. But I particularly liked the character of Stephen.  In developing his role as Theodora’s biographer, Mr Martin makes him believable and his story heartbreaking.  This is the first book of an intended duology about Theodora, and I’m very keen to read the second book once it becomes available.

I’d recommend this novel to anyone interested in well-written historical fiction set in 6th century Constantinople.

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

Jennifer Cameron-Smith