Islands by Peggy Frew

This is a review I wrote in April 2019 which, for some reason, I appear not to have posted here.

‘You were a girl, a sister and a daughter, and we knew you. At least we thought we did.’

Anna is at the centre of this novel. Anna is a difficult child, a rebellious adolescent, who disappears when she is 15. Anna’s parents are Helen and John, her older sister is Junie. So why did Anna disappear, and what impact has her disappearance had on those who knew her?

I found this a challenging novel to read: each chapter provides a different perspective, a different viewpoint by those who knew Anna. The chapters are not necessarily chronological and not all (directly) about Anna. But through these different perspectives, a disjointed narrative emerges, one which reinforces the sense of people (as well as places) being islands.

We see Helen and John when they are young and falling in love, we witness the breakdown of their marriage. Anna and Junie chose to live with different parents. We see Junie and Anna as children, we see Junie trying to build defences against her emotions, her life blighted by Anna’s disappearance. We see impact and effect; we can speculate as to cause. There is loss in this novel, pain and suffering. The breakdown of relationships, Anna’s disappearance, the guilt.

‘But these were small islands in the sea of demands.’

I finished this novel feeling quite unsettled. Ms Frew has created characters I felt I know (even if I find it difficult to relate to some of their actions). I wanted to step into the novel and intervene. I wanted to shake Helen and John, to listen to Anna and Junie, to try to change the future. And that is what has stayed with me: not the story so much as the characters.

‘Islands’ is Ms Frew’s third novel.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith


Where Fortune Lies by Mary-Anne O’Connor

‘From this day forward she would travel towards the horizon, not expecting to find, just to follow…’

 April 1879, Donegal, Ireland. Anne Brown is seen as drab, always dressed in brown, and feels invisible. One night, she’s made feel special, she’s chosen as May Queen at the Beltane Festival.  But Anne’s joy is to be short-lived.

September 1879, London. After their father dies, Will and Marigold (Mari) Worthington are stunned to learn that he has left the money that was to be Mari’s dowry to ‘Miss Chrystelle Amour I leave a personal cheque and passage to Australia, as promised, under the proviso that she raise our child in good faith and care.’

Will and Mari, together with their artist friend Charlie Turner, also decide to travel to Australia: there’s little left for them in England.

Chrystelle Amour is determined to make a new life for herself, but fate intervenes after she is robbed by bushrangers.  Will finds friendship, and possibly love.  Charlie is enchanted by the Victorian high country, which provides him with both ample material for painting and some dangerous friends.  But Charlie also falls in love with a mysterious exotic dancer.

Ms O’Connor weaves together several different threads as the four main characters seek their fortunes in Australia. Money, as each of them will learn, isn’t everything.  Ms O’Connor is a fine storyteller, and I enjoyed this novel.

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

Jennifer Cameron-Smith



Macquarie by Grantlee Kieza

‘Fellow citizens of Australia.’

Before I picked up this biography, I knew little about Lachlan Macquarie’s life before he became governor of New South Wales in 1810.  Macquarie was governor from 1810 until 1821, and played a leading role in the social, economic and architectural development of the colony.  But there’s a dark side to that legacy as well.

First, some biographic details. Lachlan Macquarie (1762-1824) was born on 31 January 1762 on the island of Ulva in the parish of Kilninian in the Inner Hebrides, Scotland.  He died on 1 July 1824 in London, England.

The first half of the book covers Macquarie’s early life: a poor Scottish farm boy who joined the British army to make his fortune. He saw service in North America, India and Egypt, was married (in 1793) and widowed (in 1796).  Macquarie remarried in 1807.  Following his appointment at governor, he and wife Elizabeth set sail for New South Wales on 22 May 1809, arrived in Port Jackson on 28 December 1809 and was sworn in as governor on New Year’s Day 1810.

Here I enter more familiar territory: Macquarie the autocratic governor, the builder, the administrator.  Macquarie (whose name, and that of his wife Elizabeth) appears as place names across New South Wales and Tasmania.  This is the Governor Macquarie I was taught about in the third quarter of the last century: benevolent, visionary, and a champion of emancipated convicts.

But I didn’t appreciate the impact of this nation-building on the Aboriginal people, many of whom were killed in conflict.  I also didn’t know about some of his more questionable actions (such as adding relatives to the army lists).

A flawed hero.  A man who laid a solid foundation for Australia’s move from penal country to nation but at the same time continued the dispossession of the country’s original inhabitants.

I’m glad I read this book, which draws on details from Macquarie’s journals. I’d recommend it to anyone interested in Australia’s journey from colony to nation.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith


Note: I read this book in 2019, so am not adding it to my 2020 reading challenges.


Maurice Blackburn: Champion of the People by David Day

‘Maurice Blackburn: a modest man who had devoted his life to the betterment of his fellow Australians.’

Maurice McCrae Blackburn (19 November 1880 – 31 March 1944) was an Australian lawyer and politician.  He founded the legal firm known as Maurice Blackburn in 1919 and served in state and federal parliaments (for various periods between 1914 and 1943).

In this biography, Mr Day writes of a man driven by a sense of responsibility, committed to social change.  In an era when the labour movement was defined by blue collar trade unionism, Maurice Blackburn was the first barrister elected to parliament as a Labor MP.

While I had heard of the legal firm, I knew nothing about Maurice Blackburn himself. I recognise some of the history: the Conscription debates in (in 1916 and 1917, and again from 1939); the treatment of Egon Kisch in 1934; and paranoia about the influence of the Communist Party. Maurice Blackburn was a man of principle: expelled from the Labor Party twice because of his stance over conscription.   I found this book fascinating.  I read about a man who went to work as a law clerk in 1896, to support his mother and siblings. I read about a man who didn’t graduate in law until 1908 and was admitted to practise in 1910.  A man with a social conscience, who struggled financially.  A man whose ideals were not comprised.

For me, the most valuable aspect of this biography was the social context.  The Australian Commonwealth came into existence as Maurice Blackburn reached adulthood, he lived in Melbourne (at the time when Melbourne provided the temporary home of the Australian Parliament), he lived through the upheaval caused by two world wars separated by the Great Depression.  Maurice Blackburn was a conscience of the labour movement, he consistently defended underprivileged groups and civil liberties.  In politics, Maurice Blackburn also had to deal with preselection issues and the impact of the business interests of the infamous John Wren.  Of course, on a purely personal note, I now want to reread Frank Hardy’s novel, ‘Power Without Glory’, and I wish I could discuss the consequences of membership of the Australian Communist Party with certain members of my family who were members during this period.

On 31 March 1944, Maurice Blackburn died.  He was survived by his wife, Doris (who served in the House of Representatives between 1946 and 1949), two sons and a daughter.

I’d recommend this book to anyone with an interest in the Australian labour movement, in Australian political history during the first forty-four years of the twentieth century, and (or) in reading about a man of principle.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith



Some of my favourite books in 2019

So far this year, I’ve finished reading 249 books.  So, I’ve set myself the task of identifying some favourites. And it wasn’t easy: I’ve read a lot of great books this year.

When I started to write this post, I intended to limit myself to ten books under each heading.  Easy, I thought.  Hmm.  I managed to achieve that restraint under one heading only (favourite fiction reads by Australian men).


Have you read any of these books?  Would they appear on your list of favourite books?  What would your list of favourite books for 2019 look like?


Here are my favourite nonfiction reads (in no particular order):

Saga Land                                                                              by Richard Fidler and Kári Gíslason

The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York

by Robert A Caro

Stasiland                                                                                by Anna Funder

From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage                      by Judith Brett

You Daughters of Freedom                                                 by Clare Wright

Am I Black Enough For You?                                              by Anita Heiss

Banking Bad                                                                           by Adele Ferguson

Murder, Misadventure and Miserable Ends                    by Catie Gilchrist

The Art of Growing Up                                                         by John Marsden

Pain and Prejudice                                                                by Gabrielle Jackson

Welcome to Country                                                             by Marcia Langton

Solomon’s Noose                                                                   by Steve Harris

Endeavour                                                                              by Peter Moore

The Land Before Avocado                                                   by Richard Glover

The Lonely City                                                                     by Olivia Laing



Here are my favourite fiction reads (by non-Australian authors):

The Cage                                                                                    by Lloyd Jones

The Bird King                                                                           by G Willow Wilson

The Winter of the Witch                                                        by Katherine Arden

The Girl in the Tower                                                              by Katherine Arden

Field of Death                                                                            by Graham Brack

Laid in Earth                                                                               by Graham Brack

How We Disappeared                                                                 by Jing-Jing Lee

Lost Children Archive                                                                 by Valeria Luiselli

The Secret in Their Eyes                                                              by Eduardo Sacheri,                                                                                                                                 John T. Cullen (Translator)

The Girls at 17 Swann Street                                                       by Yara Zgheib

The Naturalist                                                                                by Thom Conroy

Three Day Road                                                                             by Joseph Boyden




Here are my favourite fiction reads (by Australian women):

The Hollow Bones                                                                          by Leah Kaminsky

Heart of the Grass Tree                                                                 by Molly Murn

The Scholar                                                                                      by Dervla McTiernan

Wundersmith (Nevermoor #2)                                                    by Jessica Townsend

The Book of Emmett                                                                      by Deborah Forster

Vasilisa the Wise                                                                            by Kate Forsyth

There Was Still Love                                                                     by Favel Parrett

Wolfe Island                                                                                   by Lucy Treloar

Paris Savages                                                                                 by Katherine Johnson

The Crimes of Billy Fish                                                              by Sarah Hopkins

Fled                                                                                                 by Meg Keneally

The Yield                                                                                        by Tara June Winch

Mountains of the Mind                                                               by Gillian Polack

The Meaning of Grace                                                                 by Deborah Forster

In The Garden of The Fugitives                                                 by Ceridwen Dovey


This Taste for Silence                                                                   by Amanda O’Callaghan

The Trespassers                                                                            by Meg Mundell


Here are my favourite fiction reads (by Australian men):

This Excellent Machine                                                               by Stephen Orr

The Year of the Beast                                                                   by Steven Carroll

Truth                                                                                               by Peter Temple

The Rip                                                                                            by Mark Brandi

Daughter of Bad Times                                                                by Rohan Wilson

Gould’s Book of Fish                                                                     by Richard Flanagan

Flames                                                                                             by Robbie Arnott

Faerie Apocalypse                                                                         by Jason Franks

The True Colour of the Sea                                                          by Robert Drewe

The Palace of Angels                                                                     by Mohammed Massoud Morsi



Pain and Prejudice by Gabrielle Jackson

‘I have a disease that I know nothing about.’

I picked this book up because I saw a reference to Gabrielle Jackson’s diagnosis of endometriosis.  I was diagnosed with endometriosis in 1980, and I wondered what might have changed since then.

‘Endometriosis has been known as the ‘silent disease’, but that isn’t because women don’t want to talk about it.’

I quickly learned that while endometriosis was Ms Jackson’s starting point, her book is more broadly about women’s pain and suffering, and how that is treated (or not treated).  Ms Jackson points to a lack of education about how our bodies work, and the social taboos and stigmas that prevent many of us from talking about our genitals, sex life, pain and reproductive processes.  As she points out, many women do not know the names of parts of their anatomy.  So how can women accurately describe the location of pain when they can’t identify where it is?  Add to that the fact that in medicine the male is the default human being, then it is easy to see how women’s concerns can be overlooked and (or) ignored.  Writing this, I am reminded that many women experience different symptoms of heart attack from men and consequently can be mistakenly diagnosed.  Or, sometimes tragically, not diagnosed at all.

So I kept reading, becoming more and more uncomfortable.  I remembered, too, that I’d had many of the symptoms of endometriosis for at least ten years before diagnosis.

‘We need to know what is normal as opposed to what is common.’

Women are more likely to suffer from chronic pain than men, and less likely to receive effective treatment. I can relate to this, and I know several other women who can as well.  How often are men described as being ‘hysterical’?

This book is a blend of personal memoir, and presentation of reasons why women’s pain has been ignored.  There are also some hopeful signs of a better understanding.  But then I read about the earning differential between male and female doctors, that female doctors often take more time with their patients (which disadvantages them fee wise because of the way Medicare provides a greater benefit for some consultations than others).  One outcome noted:

‘In 2018, an inner-Melbourne medical practice kicked off a media storm when it put up a sign announcing female GPs would be charging more than male GPs because women’s health issues take longer to deal with than men’s, and women tend to self-select female doctors.’

So, what are the answers?  Surely the Australian health system is capable of recognising that then insertion of an IUD is more complex than a standard consultation?  Surely the Australian health system is capable of recognising that biology can have an impact on medical issues?  And, if you suffer from an autoimmune condition (as women do, more frequently than men), you’ll find some interesting information here.

I’d recommend this book to most of my friends (male and female).  Many women my age and older will be acutely aware of the social taboos and stigmas, that leave us with euphemisms and vague descriptions of ‘down there’.  I’d like to think that younger women are more knowledgeable, but I wonder.

Where to from here?

I’ll leave the last word to Ms Jackson:

‘Pain isn’t killing us, but it is denying us our full humanity.  Refusing to understand this fact of life for women is tearing opportunities from our grasp.  And I say, enough.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith


The Elsinore Vanish (Beechworth Trilogy #2) by Joanna Baker

‘Being an outsider is also an advantage.’

An impossible murder?  Ten months ago, in the Beechworth Town Hall, Tim Williams died in front of a room full of people.  He was poisoned with potassium cyanide.  But how?  The poison was locked in a cupboard two kilometres away.  And, at the time Tim was murdered, someone was sitting in front of the cupboard.

Yes, there are suspects.  But the police aren’t making any progress.  One of the suspects, Jacob Langton, thinks that Matt Tingle and Chess Febey might be able to help.  After all, they solved a couple of murders in Yackandandah recently (‘Devastation Road’ Beechworth Trilogy #1)

‘The thing about magic is, you get to see something impossible.’

In this intriguing locked room mystery, written for young adults, Ms Baker provides all the right clues for attentive readers.  Chess and Matt are Year 10 students, supposed to be enjoying their spring school holidays away from the traumatic events in Yackandandah.  But Chess likes solving problems and thinks that logic will provide the answers.  Matt is a better observer of human behaviour, but he’s initially reluctant to become involved.   It gets messy, and Matt and Chess are in danger.

What is ‘The Elsinore Vanish’?  And why are Matt and Chess being followed?  Who killed Tim Williams?

Matt and Chess are likeable and determined characters. I really enjoyed this novel, and I’m looking forward to the third book in the trilogy. Thank you, Ms Baker, for writing such an intriguing murder mystery.

‘It’s all about stage setting.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith


Devastation Road by Joanna Baker

This novel was first published in 2004, and was republished in 2018.  It is the first in a YA trilogy.

‘Tell anyone about this and you’re dead.’

Yackandandah in Victoria is a small close-knit town, and everyone knows their neighbours.   In this novel, ‘Devastation Road’ is the name locals have given to the local Station Road.  Several mysterious fires have occurred along this road, together with the tragic hit and run death of local girl Jeanette Carmody.  The car and the driver were never identified.

The novel opens with another fire, one in which fifteen-year-old Matt Tingle is caught.  But who lit the fire, and why? And then another local girl, Debbie, is found drowned in a pond. Matt Tingle and Chess Febey decide to investigate.  Matt and Chess aren’t really friends: Matt feels sorry for her, but he knows she’s smart.  And maybe the two of them can find out who killed Jeanette as well.  Maybe there’s a pattern involved?


I read this novel twice.  The first time I read the book in a day, galloping through to find out how it would end.  The second time, I read more slowly.  I paid closer attention to how Matt and Chess worked together to figure it out.  There are a few different strands to the story, including some difficult issues for the reader (this is aimed at a YA audience) to consider.

I was delighted to learn that ‘Devastation Road’ is the first book in a trilogy.  I’ve already purchased the second book (‘The Elsinore Vanish’) as I’m very keen to see what Matt and Chess do next.

Highly recommended, and not just for the intended YA audience.  A well-developed murder-mystery with a twist (or two).

‘How can a car be dark blue and white and the same time?  Give it some thought.  I think the truth to this whole thing lies in the answer.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith





After She Left by Penelope Hanley

‘With her one mistake, it felt as if she had paid a high price for an uncertain future in an unknown land.’

This novel spans six decades and the lives of three women: mother, daughter and granddaughter.  The grandmother, Deirdre, emigrates to Sydney from the remote Blasket Islands of Ireland.  Her story starts in 1927.  Deirdre, an artist, doesn’t settle easily into any domestic routine.  Her daughter, Maureen, will pay a price for Deirdre’s inattention.  Maureen’s daughter, Keira, is also artistic.

In the 1970s, as part of her study, Keira wants to learn more about her grandmother Deirdre.  Deirdre left Australia for Europe just after World War II.  She left to rejoin her lover, whom she had thought was dead.  She left Maureen behind.  Maureen resists Keira’s desire to learn more about her grandmother: there are secrets that Maureen doesn’t want to share.  But Keira is determined.

I enjoyed the way in which Ms Hanley bought this period to life, with her depiction of convention and changing values and expectations.  From the bohemian 1920s, through the conservatism of the 1950s and the emergence of the women’s liberation movement in the 1970s, her characters reflect their times.

While the reader knows quite early the secret Maureen tries to keep from Kiera, it’s the way the story unfolds that held my attention.  I am old enough to remember the issues (including conscription, equal pay, birth control) which are included in the novel, old enough to have marched in protests for some of them.  Each of the three main characters had an appeal for me, although I struggled at times to understand their actions.  Will Deirdre be reconciled with Maureen?  Can Maureen escape from the constraints of being a housewife in the 1950s? Will Keira find what she is looking for?

I enjoyed this novel.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith


One Summer Between Friends by Trish Morey

‘You just knew some days were going to be special.’

Sarah was hoping to be made a partner in the accounting firm where she’d worked for years.  After her marriage failed, she’d invested a lot of time and energy in her career.  But when the partnership doesn’t eventuate, Sarah agrees to return to Lord Howe Island for a while, to help her parents in the family store.  Sarah really doesn’t want to return to Lord Howe Island, where her two ex-best friends Floss and Jules live.  But she doesn’t feel like she has a choice: her mother is incapacitated with a broken hip and her father needs help.

‘It struck her that her life was a bit like those ceiling tiles: stained in places and with other bits all askew.’

Floss is married to her high school sweetheart, Andy, and they have five children.  But Andy seems preoccupied and is pushing her away.  Who can Floss talk to?

Jules can’t forget the past.  Her four-year-old daughter brings her great joy but is a reminder of her broken friendships with Sarah and Floss.

So, what went wrong?  How (and why) did Sarah, Jules and Floss go from being best friends to being estranged?  Can the past be negotiated?  Why did Sarah’s marriage fail and why is her mother so difficult?

Ms Morey delivers an enjoyable, contemporary story about life challenges, friendship and forgiveness. And just in time for the holidays!

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

Jennifer Cameron-Smith