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


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


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


Cardinal (The Rise and Fall of George Pell) by Louise Milligan

One of the most difficult books I’ve read this year.  Child sexual abuse, regardless of who the perpetrators are, is one of the most horrific things that can befall a child.  Any child.  How could anyone know about it, and do nothing?  That’s the big question for me.

Cardinal by Louise Milligan

‘Truth is the child of time.’

Cardinal Pell is Australia’s most prominent Catholic.  Since this book was published in May 2017, Cardinal Pell has returned to Australia to face (and to fight) multiple charges of historical sexual assault offences.  He faced the Melbourne Magistrates Court on 26 July for a filing hearing.

I approached this book with some trepidation: I’ve read several accounts about the horrific sexual abuse suffered by children and about the effects of this abuse on those children (and their families).  I’ve also read about how some of the priests were moved between parishes, thus allowing for even more children to be abused.  I cannot begin to understand how the church hierarchy permitted this.  And, perhaps, this is why I decided to read Ms Milligan’s book.  Cardinal Pell has claimed that he was the ‘first in the world’ to introduce a sexual abuse protocol, and also claims to have not known about the abuse going on around him.

Ms Milligan certainly covers, in detail, the rise of George Pell. But I think that any talk about his fall is premature.  He is after all, still a Cardinal.  And he has not yet been found guilty of anything.

But I cannot warm to Cardinal Pell.  I would expect a practicing Christian to demonstrate empathy for victims of abuse well ahead of any concern about legal cases, costs and consequences.  I would expect a member of the clergy to want to protect the vulnerable, to be attuned to signs of distress, to investigate as to the cause(s) and act.  I would not expect to read the following exchange between Gail Furness, SC and George Pell at a hearing of the Royal Commission in March 2016:

‘There is a reference in that paragraph to Father Searson stabbing to death a bird in front of the children.’  To which George Pell replied: ‘I don’t know whether the bird was already dead.’

I froze.  Why on earth would it matter whether the bird was already dead?  Surely, in this context, it is the behaviour of Father Searson in front of the children which is most important?  What does this response say about Cardinal Pell?

I don’t want to write more about the contents of the book– the story is not yet complete – there is a court case pending.  This book is uncomfortable and unsettling, but worth reading.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith



Half Wild by Pip Smith

Every so often, I read a novel which makes me think and question my own assumptions about identity.  This is one of those novels.

Half Wild by Pip Smith

‘You see, the great thing about cities is, the more people you have in them, the more you’re left alone.  Or the more you find yourself alone in them at least.’

In 1938, a woman is hit by a car on Oxford Street in Sydney.  She’s taken to Sydney Hospital where, comatose but aware, injected with morphine, memories come flooding back to her.  These memories are disjointed, and it is difficult to know what might be real.  The woman, eventually identified as Jean Ford, has £100 in her pocket.  She also has memories of being found guilty of murder and sent to Long Bay:

‘What was it – almost twenty years ago now? – I was sent to die under a different name. I travelled to Long Bay Penitentiary like a celebrity, on a tram with tinted windows,  …’

From this beginning, Pip Smith writes a novel about the different and varied lives of Eugenia Falleni.  Part of the story is told by Jean Ford in the first person, other parts are presented chronologically, interspersed with what may (or may not) be accurate reportage from the time. The first part of the novel presents a life of the young Eugenia, a life which makes some of her later choices understandable.  If a girl had little power in the late nineteenth century, then a man surely had more.  Eugenia Falleni spent over twenty years living as a man named Harry Crawford.  And as a man, Crawford married two women and (possibly) murdered one of them.

‘She was just a half-wild creature who felt herself apart and different, who had grown cunning and furtive, hiding her secret and satisfying her needs.’

So many questions.  So few definitive answers.  Much of Eugenia Falleni/Harry Crawford/Jean Ford’s life remains a mystery.  Ms Smith’s novel provides possibilities to consider: just how fixed is identity, how mutable might it be?  And how very difficult it was (and still is for many) to live outside accepted, defined and prescribed gender roles. The many different characters who appear in the novel each provide a different perspective, another aspect of Eugenia Falleni/ Harry Crawford’s life to consider.

I found this novel unsettling.  I’ve previously read Mark Tedeschi’s true crime account ‘Eugenia: A True Story of Adversity, Tragedy, Crime and Courage’, but this is the first novel I’ve read based on Eugenia Falleni’s life.  I was intrigued to read that it was seeing a police mugshot of ‘Harry Leon Crawford’ who, after being arrested for the murder of his wife, was discovered to be Eugenia Falleni, a woman who had been passing as a man since 1899 which provided Ms Smith with the starting point for her novel.  I’ve seen the same mugshot, and wondered about the lives, about the experiences, behind the eyes.  In this accomplished debut novel, Ms Smith provides some possibilities to consider.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith