The Battle for Lone Pine by David W. Cameron

‘The 1st Australian Division’s battle for Lone Pine resulted in 2277 Australian casualties, and over 800 killed outright.’

From 6 August to 9 August 1915, one of the most brutal battles fought by Australians in any war was fought between the Australians and the Turks at on a small plateau at Gallipoli known as Lone Pine. While I’ve read quite a bit about World War One and I’d heard of Lone Pine, it wasn’t until I read this book I realised how significant it was.

Like so many Australians, I had relatives who served in World War I. None of those who returned ever spoke within my hearing of what their experiences. My grandfather’s service medals were still in the boxes they were delivered in when he died in 1969. I have read about Gallipoli, and the Western Front, but I knew very little about the battle for Lone Pine.

In this book, Mr Cameron writes of the preparations for Lone Pine, of each day of the battle and the aftermath. He writes of the brutal hand-to hand combat, of the trenches, of the awful conditions. He writes of the bravery of the individuals, of courageous acts.

‘Of the nine Victoria Crosses awarded to Australians for the Gallipoli campaign, seven were for outstanding actions of bravery and valour during those four days at Lone Pine.’

And five of those Victoria Crosses were earned in a single day.

I was surprised to read that this is the first book to have been written specifically about this battle. Mr Cameron has drawn on first-hand accounts, from the diaries kept on precious scraps of paper and the letters sent home. While Charles Bean’s ‘The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918’ (Volume 2) is the source of so much information, it is the accounts written by the soldiers, nurses, engineers and others which provides voices to those who were part of the battle.
Although I find military history difficult to read, I feel an obligation to know more about the conflicts and battles in which so many were killed. I may never understand the ‘why’ or the ‘how’ but it’s important not to forget the ‘who’.

Lest we forget.

‘Lone Pine does not belong to the past – it is still very much with us, although those who served and suffered in that charnel house have passed.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Hangman by Jack Heath

‘The more of me you take, the more you leave behind. What am I?’

A fourteen-year-old boy is on his way home from school when he vanishes. A ransom call is made to his mother. A deadline is set, it is only hours away and the police have no leads. The Director of the Houston Field Office of the FBI, Peter Luhzin, calls in Timothy Blake (codename Hangman). He has a reputation for solving impossible cases but he’s the FBI’s last resort. Why this is so will quickly become apparent. It is a secret that Timothy Blake is desperate to keep hidden. Timothy Blake has seemingly preternatural observational skills and can make connections that other miss.

Warning: this is not a novel for the squeamish, and it’s not one of Jack Heath’s children’s novels. It is a murky roller coaster ride through several dark sides of humanity. Timothy Blake’s story, gradually revealed as he tries to find the kidnapper, reveals a dark past. We quickly learn that Timothy Blake is a cannibal, it takes longer to learn why.

‘One body for every life I save. That’s my deal with Luhzin.’

There are plenty of twists in this novel. Each chapter is introduced with a riddle, some of which I found easier to work out than others. Each riddle has its place in the story (and the answers can be fond on Jack Heath’s website for those who need them, but don’t read ahead. It may ruin your enjoyment of the novel.)

Timothy Blake is assigned a partner by the FBI (after all, they can’t let cannibals work unsupervised, can they?). But Timothy has a problem: his partner is a woman linked to his past. Will they find the kidnapped boy in time? And just who is the kidnapper?

While I found aspects of this story unbelievable (hey, it’s my sanity and I’m trying to save it) I was totally caught up in the journey. We know that cannibals exist, we just hope they’ve not yet been accepted into law enforcement bodies.

‘Right now, the cops will be scraping my blood off the fence and my hair off the headrest in the car. Soon they’ll be searching databases for my DNA. I’ve been careful, so I’m hoping they won’t find any matches. But you can only eat so many people before someone notices. Maybe I left a trace somewhere. Maybe some cop has been hunting me for years, and this is his big break.’

Timothy Blake may not be as polished and urbane as Hannibal Lecter, or perhaps as focussed as Dexter Morgan, but who knows? What does the future hold for Timothy Blake? I’m keen to find out.

Recommended, but not for the squeamish.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

A Map of the Gardens by Gillian Mears

‘Not even the old dog likes Alyssa, the second wife.’

In this collection of eleven short stories published in 2002, Gillian Mears explores illness and death. She also explores transitions through different life phases: the strong become weak, frail as Ms Mears herself did in her battle with multiple sclerosis before her death in 2016.
I read these stories slowly, sure that I was missing aspects of the messages contained within but certain that each story needed to be read more than once. My favourite story, on this first reading, was ‘The Friendship Garden’:

‘The day of the Friendship Garden’s virtual end, Muriel came into the kitchen as if she’d never gone silly.’

Muriel Reilly, suffering from dementia, is blessed with a lucid day. And on that day, with her husband Ron’s help, she removes plants from her garden. These were plants she’d accepted (it was a friendship garden) but no longer enjoyed or perhaps in some cases never liked at all. Muriel’s friendship garden had become a burden, a trap, an overwhelming obligation. How many of us become trapped in similar ways?

My least favourite story was ‘Sad Quarrion’. Dr Pagent Took may love his trees, but it is not enough. I am uncomfortable in his story. He may be trapped, but I feel no empathy for him or his situation. It’s my least favourite story because of the way it makes me feel, not because it is told any less well than the other stories in this collection. Ms Mears had a gift for developing an extraordinary story from what are sometimes quite ordinary situations.

I will reread these stories in future, but not yet. I want to read Ms Mears’s other collections of short stories first, and I’ve yet to read ‘The Mint Lawn’.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AWW2018

Abandoned Women by Lucy Frost

‘Abandoned women, the Scottish convicts were called by an eminent twentieth century Australian historian—worse than the English, even worse than the Irish.’

In this book, Lucy Frost follows the lives of women convicted of crime in Scotland who were subsequently transported to Van Diemen’s Land on the Atwick in 1838. Of the 151 women transported on this ship, 78 were Scottish. Where did those women come from? What were their crimes? What do we know about them after they reached Van Diemen’s Land?

‘Proud though the Scots were of retaining their own independent legal system after the Acts of Union joined the kingdoms of Scotland and England, the sentences to transportation pronounced by their supreme criminal court, the High Court of Justiciary, were implemented by the English.’

In the 1830s, when this account starts, Scotland was industrializing. Many people from rural areas moved to Dundee, Edinburgh and Glasgow in search of work. But work was difficult to find, especially for the unskilled. Life in cities is particularly difficult for the poor. Many of the women who appear within the pages of this book were transported for stealing. Single or married, with or without children, the women sought food and shelter by whatever means available to them.
But once they reached Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania), the women’s lives varied considerably. While some of the women disappeared completely from public records, the lives of others are well documented. Some of the women died soon after their arrival in Van Diemen’s Land. Some of the women served their time and then became part of the free community. Others resisted authority, or refused to conform to colonial ideas of femininity, and spent years moving between assignment and being sent back to the Female Factory as punishment. Some of the women turned to alcohol, which caused other problems for them.

‘But for many of the Scottish convicts, the fracture caused by transportation offered an opportunity to break with a thieving way of life pointed invariably towards incarceration.’

Elizabeth Williamson was one of the women who made the most of her opportunities. Within three years of arriving in Van Diemen’s Land, she was granted her ticket of leave. This enabled her to work for wages. She married twice, and twenty-three years after arriving in Van Diemen’s Land as a convict, she left the colony and sailed back to London. A wealthy widow. By contrast, Ann Martin from Edinburgh was brought before the authorities ten times within fifteen months of her arrival. Ann Martin’s record would eventually include twenty-two charges.

For me, one of the saddest aspects of this account concerns the children of these women. Some were left behind in Scotland and were unlikely to ever see their mothers again. Other children travelled to Van Diemen’s Land with their mothers. Some of the children were abandoned by their mothers in the colony’s orphan schools.

I found the accounts of these women very interesting, especially the accounts of those such as Margaret Alexander (Boothman) who had made the transition from convict in 1838 to be a respected member of the community when she died in 1912, aged 93. If you are interested in Tasmania’s 19th century colonial history during the transportation era, then I recommend this book.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AWW2018

The Promise Seed by Cass Moriarty

‘Suffice to say that life is a long, hard road, and I learnt that lesson early.’

An elderly man, a ten-year-old boy. They are neighbours on a suburban street in Brisbane. The man meets the boy after the boy takes refuge in his garden one afternoon. I don’t think that we ever learn their names, but we do learn about them and their circumstances. The man’s narrative is related to us in the first person, while the boy’s is told in the third. Who are they? What are their stories?

The man is at the centre of the story: we see parts of his life through his eyes. While he’s experienced occasional moments of joy, much of his life has been a series of betrayals, of being abandoned and of abandoning others. He’s wary. He doesn’t want to get to close to others: the pain of leaving or being left is too great.

And the boy? He’s neglected by his mother whose poor judgement reflects her own neediness and insecurity. The boy and the man begin an unlikely friendship. The man lets down his guard, the boy learns about gardening, about chooks and gardening. He also learns of the promise in a seed. But life is not going to suddenly improve and become ‘happy ever after’ for either the man or the boy. The man has a past which will be used to judge him, the boy has a mother he tries to protect.

As I read this story, I kept thinking that unnamed men and boys (as well as unnamed women and girls) live in the streets around each of us. And some of those unnamed people have been damaged (just like the central characters in this book). As I read this story, I’m reminded of just how hard existence can be for some. And how very easily damaged children can become damaging adults.

I found it difficult to put this novel down. I know similar stories: I wish they were all just a fiction. This was Ms Moriarty’s debut novel, and it is a difficult, powerful read. I am left with questions about how we should protect children, especially children in dysfunctional, abusive families. I am saddened by the experiences of both the man and the boy. Yes, our children should be wary of strangers but how cruel, how tragic it is that much of what children need to be wary of will happen within the family?

I hoped that somewhere after the final page of the novel, the man and the boy can find more happiness in their lives. I found this a challenging novel to read. I won’t forget it.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AWW2018

Writing the Dream – A Serenity Press Anthology

‘No two writers are the same…’

Twenty-five different authors have contributed to this anthology. Each has written of their own writing journey. Some of these authors are established, others are still on a path to publication.
I found each of these stories inspirational: each writer has a story (or more) to tell, and none of them has given up. Some of the authors have taken the self-publishing route, while others are traditionally published. Some of the authors have had a comparatively straightforward path to publication, while others have faced rejection after rejection. I admire the resilience of those who have faced rejection and have not given up.

I’ve read works by some of these authors, have books by others on my reading list, and have added more authors to the list after reading this anthology. Each of the authors writes about his or her writing journey. Each of the authors provides five tips at the end of their contribution.

Each of the tips is valuable. My favourites include:

‘Write every day. Writing is a skill and must be honed by doing.’ (Deborah Burrows)

‘Be heard: you have a unique and powerful voice. Don’t let fear stop you. Let everything about you ‘know what you’re about’.’ (Rebecca Laffar-Smith)

‘Write what you love to read.’ (Monique Mulligan)

‘There is no such thing as great writing, only great re-writing. Revise, revise, revise.’ (Jennifer Scoullar)

‘Know the importance of editing. Self-editing and the professional editing.’ (Karen Weaver)

The writers included in this anthology are of different ages and are at different stages. Each contribution offers a differing perspective, each is worth reading. I found reading each contribution was akin to having a conversation with each author. If you write and aspire to publication, then this is an anthology for you. If you’ve ever wondered about how some writers are inspired and approach their writing, then this is an anthology for you. Highly recommended to all who read as well as those who aspire to write.

I was fortunate enough to win a copy of this anthology last year: thanks to the 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge and Serenity Press.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

P is for Pearl by Eliza Henry Jones

‘I worked at the café down on the main surfing beach in town.’

Meet Gwendolyn P. Pearson. Gwen lives in a small coastal town in Tasmania with her father, step-mother (Biddy), step-brother (Tyrone) and half-sister (Evie). She remembers her mum: a colourful whirlwind of a woman, now dead. Everyone in the small community knew Gwen’s mum: some talk about her, others look at Gwen sympathetically and say nothing. Gwen tries not to think about losing her mother, or the death of her younger brother. Keeping busy helps. Gwen is now seventeen years old, in Year 11 at high school, trying to think about her future. One evening there’s an incident in the café, where Gwen and her best friend Loretta work part-time, and Gwen’s world is shaken.

Gwen tries to make sense of what happened to her mother and her brother. Trying to understand what happened leads Gwen to realise that life is more complex than she had realised. While Gwen is learning more about the deaths of her mother and brother, she is coming to terms with the fact that life is more complex than she’d thought, and that other people also have issues to deal with.

I read this novel, and then almost immediately reread it. I didn’t actually miss much on the first read, but the second read gave me an opportunity to think more about what Gwen was experiencing and her reactions. This is a beautifully written novel which explores the meaning of friendship, the impact of mental illness, as well as different configurations of family and grief. None of these issues are trivialised or glossed over. The characters came alive for me, especially Evie with her wicked sense of humour, Loretta and her dislike of sport, and Tyrone. It’s not just the story Ms Henry Jones tells, it’s the characters she peoples it with and the way in which she tells it.

I’ve been recommending this novel to family and friends. Unreservedly.

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

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

 

#AWW2018

The Shepherd’s Hut by Tim Winton

‘I told meself this was the best day of me life .’

Jackson (‘Jaxie’) Clackton is a survivor. He’s survived his mother’s death and he wishes his father was dead too. In the meantime, he tries his best to keep out of his father’s way. One day he goes home to find that he really is alone. Jaxie panics. He knows that there is one person in his world who understands him, but he’ll have to travel across some inhospitable parts of Western Australia to find her. Jaxie grabs a few items and heads off. Can he survive? Will he make it to his destination?

Jaxie has learned not to trust anyone and not to rely on anyone. He has learned the power of violence. Jaxie is impulsive, insular and isolated. He’s confident (sometimes) but vulnerable. As I travelled with Jaxie through the heat and the dust, searching for food and water I wondered how he would survive. I wondered whether Jaxie’s survival mattered, whether the rough teenager could become anything other than a violent man. Could his experiences gentle him in some way? We kept travelling. Me, worrying as parents should, him focussed on his destination. It’s brutal, confronting stuff. Jaxie is not likeable, but I’d like to think that he’s not beyond redemption. Yet.

What happens next? You’ll need to read the book to find out. Tim Winton’s words are much better than mine. I read this novel quickly, wanting to know what would happen next, wanting to intervene. Just wanting. I finished the novel hoping that Jaxie would find what he needed, knowing that want and need are very different things, and that abused children so often become abusive adults. I found this an uncomfortable novel to read because Jaxie emerged from the pages as a fully realised person. And I despair.

‘He saw me coming before I knew I was even there .’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

The Portrait of Molly Dean by Katherine Kovacic

‘Lane & Co. think they have a portrait of a pretty but unknown girl by an unknown artist.’

An unsolved murder is at the centre of this accomplished debut novel by Katherine Kovacic. In the early hours of 21 November 1930, Mary (Molly) Winifred Dean was brutally murdered in a laneway in Elwood, Melbourne. Molly was a young teacher and an aspiring author.

While the novel re-imagines events leading up to Molly’s murder, Ms Kovacic starts her novel by working back from the discovery of a painting in 1999. Alex Cole is an art dealer who believes she has found a painting of Molly Dean by her lover, artist Colin Colahan. Alex buys the painting, knowing that it will be worth considerably more once she can have it restored and establish its provenance. Alex’s path leads her to the daughter of the detective who investigated Molly’s murder in the 1930s.

The story unfolds over two timeframes: Molly’s in 1930, and Alex’s in 1999. In Molly’s world, we are reminded of the restrictions that applied to most women trying to make their own way in the world. We also get a glimpse of the bohemian lifestyle of some in the art world at the time. In Alex’s world, we see a different perspective of the art world almost seventy years later: restorations, valuations, establishing provenance.
But Alex wants to find out more about the painting, about what happened to Molly. And there are certainly many inconsistencies and some curious aspects to the investigation undertaken in the 1930s. And in the present? Someone else is also after the painting of Molly.

At the end of the novel, Ms Kovacic provides a set of author’s notes distinguishing fact from fiction. I was grateful for those notes (and glad I read them at the end of the novel). Why at the end? Because I didn’t need to differentiate fact from fiction until the end. In my reading, most of Ms Kovacic’s novel was entirely plausible and I enjoyed reading it. Recommended.

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

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AWW2018

Scrutiny on the Bounty by John Martin

‘What could possibly go wrong?’

Back in 1974, when Hobart became home to Australia’s first legal casino, lawyer William Clarin fell foul of some Chicago gangsters.  A case of mistaken identity of course, but the beginning of a new adventure for William.

You see, William was a magician as well as a lawyer.  The problem is that he’s not the lawyer known as The Magician.  And when he represents Giovanni Salvadori Biggi over a traffic infringement, which ends with a warrant for Mr Biggi’s deportation to the US on murder charges, Mr Biggi is not pleased.

‘Get him, boys.’

William Clarin must get away.  And so, he signs up as a magician on an ocean liner known as ‘The Bounty XIII’ to escape Hobart. He’ll be leaving all of his worries behind him, won’t he?  Gulp.  May be not.  Thus begins a funny novella in which Bill finds himself in ever more trouble on the high (and not so high) seas.  Poor Bill: his attempted escape becomes his worst nightmare.

If you enjoy madcap, slapstick comedy, full of coincidence and bad luck, then you may enjoy this.  If you’ve read Mr Martin’s other funny novels and novellas and like his style, then this is a treat for you.  I confess that while I’ve read and laughed my way through two of the Windy Mountain books, I’ve not yet read the other book so far published in the Mad Bill series.  But I will.

Thanks, John Martin, for making me laugh.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith