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Jennifer Cameron-Smith "Expect the Unexpected" RSS Feed (ACT, Australia)
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Autumn in Carthage
Autumn in Carthage
Price: $3.59

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars ‘You can only save so many.’, April 20, 2014
Nathan Price is a college professor in Chicago, looking forward to a year’s sabbatical and uninterrupted research. Nathan seeks escape in historical research, the past is free from personal problems, or so he thinks. As he opens a package of seventeenth century documents from an old Salem trading family, he finds a letter written by his best friend Jamie, who disappeared six months ago. The letter is dated 1692, contains a reference to Carthage in Wisconsin. How can this this be?

Nathan travels to Carthage in search of Jamie, meets Alanna and finds a refuge for himself. But all is not well in Carthage, which has some mysteries of its own. Some Carthaginians are missing, and as Nathan becomes more attracted to Alanna, he wants to know more about the mysteries of Carthage. Could Simon, the town elder, be involved in the mystery of those missing? Is Alanna safe? And what is the significance of 1692?

‘For someone who claimed to like her solitude, she had an awful lot of threads tying her to life.’

It is difficult to categorise this novel: it is mostly set in the present in Chicago and Wisconsin, but some aspects are set in the seventeenth century around the time of the Salem Witch Trials. Nathan and Alanna are the principal characters, each carrying their own demons and scars from the past. There are elements of mystery and time travel, of the blight that mental illness can cast over lives, of the redemptive power of love, and of the difficulties of choice. Christopher Zenos almost lost me early in the book, with talk of the slayage of trees and the fryage (of food), but I was intrigued by Nathan and wanted to know more about the mysterious people of Carthage. The story builds gradually and held my attention – through slayage and fryage and some improbabilities. And the ending? Well, it worked for me.

‘You have to live while you still have days of sunshine ahead of you.’

Note: I was offered and accepted a copy of this book for review purposes.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 20, 2014 10:58 PM PDT


The End: The Human Experience Of Death
The End: The Human Experience Of Death
Price: $14.40

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars ‘In seeking to understand death, we are seeking to understand life.’, April 12, 2014
Bianca Nogrady, an accomplished science journalist, began this book partly as a quest to try to find answers she had to some questions about her grandmother’s experience of death. Ms Nogrady’s investigation has led her to investigate culture, ethics, history, medicine, philosophy and science. Her assumption is that the more we know about death and the process of dying, the less we will have to fear from it. The question ‘Why do we have to die?’ is one which Ms Nogrady sees as having two parts: ‘Why can’t we live forever?’ and ‘Why don’t we live forever?’

‘It would be easy if we could pinpoint a single, universal moment that delineates the point of transition between life and death, but the reality is quite the opposite.’

The book examines some of the myths associated with popular ideas about death, includes some accounts from those who returned from the brink of death, and notes that there can be no firsthand experience of death. One of the big challenges is defining death, which Ms Nogrady illustrates by recounting the ancient parable of how six blind men each have different experiences of their encounter with an elephant. One elephant, six very different experiences. Medical advances, especially in the field of intensive care, over the past one hundred and fifty years have complicated the business of dying by altering the parameters seen as defining life. Death is better described as a process than as an event.

‘In modern medicine, death is the enemy, and if a patient dies it’s tantamount to failure.’

Ms Nogrady explains complex processes (such as whole brain death versus brain stem death, and the importance of each) clearly. The issues around defining death now have a medico-legal significance that can complicate an individual’s choices and preferences immeasurably.

Thinking about death is, for many of us, difficult. We have our own notions about what constitutes ‘a good death’, our own beliefs about what will happen afterwards. In this book, Ms Nogrady explores our understanding of death from a number of different aspects, including opinions from medical experts, from those who have survived near-death experiences, from those who counsel and support the dying and their families. It’s a well written book which provides both a lot of worthwhile information and plenty of food for thought. I’m glad I read it.

‘This book began partly as a quest to find answers to the questions I had about my nan’s experience of death. At the end of this process, I believe I have found some of those answers.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 19, 2014 4:22 PM PDT


No Place Like Home
No Place Like Home

4.0 out of 5 stars ‘That’s not the way life works. You don’t get warning of the things that will change you.’, April 8, 2014
Shortly after 9.30am on the 18th of April 2011, a young man walked into a shopping centre in Bondi. No one pays him much attention, until he starts to run. This novel, written some time later from the point of view of Father Paul Doherty (a former priest and police chaplain), tells us about that day and the events that led to it.

Father Paul tells the story of Ali Khan, and how he came to be locked in a lingerie store with four other people with a bomb chained around his neck. We learn about Ali through the stories of those whose lives touched his: including the aid worker who took pity on him in Tanzania, and the self-righteous home stay volunteer who ‘rescued’ him from immigration detention. We also learn something about the lives of the other four people locked in the store.

What does Ali want? He seems either unable or unwilling to speak making it is difficult for the police to negotiate. Time is passing by, and while the police (with the aid of technology) work out who is in the store, they are still no closer to resolving the situation. And then, one of the people trapped in the store tries to reach out to Ali. What will happen next?

The tension has built throughout the story; each new piece of information casts new light on Ali. Is he a villain, or a victim?

I found this a challenging novel to read. While I felt moved by the terrible situation that Ali Khan was in, I felt manipulated by some aspects of the story. Still, the treatment of refugees (and those seeking refugee status) is a topical issue in Australia at present, and thinking more about the people and issues involved cannot be a bad thing. The other characters who have a part in this story represent a broad spectrum of what is good and bad in our society, as well as the barely visible spaces occupied by those who speak no (or little) English.

This is Caroline Overington’s fifth novel: I’ve yet to read the others.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 9, 2014 6:36 PM PDT


Near the Hope
Near the Hope
Price: $9.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars ‘You have an accent now, soul.’, April 5, 2014
This review is from: Near the Hope (Kindle Edition)
In 1909, Ruth Adele (‘Dellie’) Standard has to make a choice. She’s torn between a promise she made to her mother to leave Barbados, and her loyalty to her younger brothers and sisters. Dellie is torn between the unknown – the promise of a better life in America, and the known - the hard work associated with the sugar cane crop. Dellie, already unsettled by her mother’s death and the fact that her boyfriend Pendril Stoute is planning to go to sea, has a horrifying encounter with the master of the sugar plantation on which her family are tenants. Dellie , hoping to find employment as a seamstress, packs her sewing basket and follows her sister Lillian to Brooklyn, New York.

Life in New York is not easy. Dellie is made welcome by Lillian and her husband, Coleridge, and their friend Winnie, but their landlady Mrs Cumberbatch is difficult. Initially, Dellie has difficulty finding work, and is made very aware of inequality in America but eventually she finds her own way. Along the way, despite never forgetting Pendril Stoute, Dellie marries Owen Gibson, an African American Pullman porter with his own dreams of advancement. It seems to be a marriage of convenience for Dellie rather than a love match. What does the future hold for Dellie and Owen? Can they achieve their dreams? Will she ever see Pendril again?

In this, her debut novel, Ms Carey reconstructs her grandmother’s life, bringing both her hardships and dreams to life. Early twentieth century history provides the structure, memories of her grandmother and her grandmother’s precious possessions (letters and treasures kept in an old black leather handbag) provide the personal dimension and connection to Dellie’s world.
I enjoyed this novel, felt drawn into Dellie’s world with its joys, hardships, tragedies and setbacks, and kept hoping for Dellie to find lasting happiness. There is more to Dellie’s story, and I hope that Ms Carey writes it for us. It’s a reminder of recent history, of earlier waves of migration, of discrimination and hardships suffered in search of hope.

‘Not all of what I have written is factual. But all of it is true.’

Note: I was offered, and accepted, a copy of this book for review purposes.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 13, 2014 11:20 AM PDT


All I Know: A memoir of love, loss and life
All I Know: A memoir of love, loss and life
Price: $7.99

5.0 out of 5 stars ‘This is a story about life and death, a memoir based on a part of my history about which I never imagined writing. ‘, April 3, 2014
In this memoir, Mary Coustas takes us on a journey through three significant deaths that have shaped her life. This memoir incorporates Mary’s memories of those who died and celebrates the lives of those who have been part of her life’s journey so far.

‘But loss has driven me to find answers in what remains, to airlift myself to a place that serves me better than helplessness and misery. To reach out. This is my love letter to what lives on beyond the devastation.’

Mary’s journey is at times heartbreaking, but it is also filled with observation, gentle humour and is ultimately uplifting. While losses are acknowledged and remembered, the future holds its own promise. Mary recounts her childhood in Collingwood and Doncaster, knowing that her beloved father had already suffered heart attacks and could die at any time. And when he did die, she missed him terribly.

‘The death of my father had left a void that hadn’t been filled by the birth of anything new.’

Mary writes of her choice to be an actor, of the success of her character Effie in ‘Acropolis Now’, of personal expectations, of visiting her maternal grandmother in Greece with her mother. There’s a beautiful scene with her grandmother and mother, and a growing sense of the importance of family connections and heritage. By the time that she dies, her grandmother has lived in the same house for over seventy years. She may not have travelled much in any physical sense, but her influence is enormous.

‘Letting go is an even bigger sign of love than begging for more when time won’t allow it.’

But the main focus of Mary’s memoir is on her meeting, then in 2005 marrying, George Betsis, and six weeks later discovering that she is infertile. Much of the remainder of the memoir talks of the challenges of undergoing IVF treatment, of disappointment followed by pregnancy, of the difficulties of that pregnancy and the stillbirth of her daughter, Stevie, and of the support of family and friends.

‘I know that death is only ever a breath away and having witnessed that myself has only awakened me to living more fully.’

It’s important to me to mention that since writing this book Mary and George have become parents: their daughter Jamie was born on 28 November 2013. I knew this when I read the book, but I had little idea of the difficulties Mary and George had encountered along the way.

This book made me laugh, and cry, and I would recommend it to anyone interested either in Mary Coustas specifically, or IVF experiences and life more generally.

‘Fantasy comes with a very thin façade that disappointment often hides behind.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 3, 2014 8:46 PM PDT


Patchwork, Please!: Colorful Zakka Projects to Stitch and Give
Patchwork, Please!: Colorful Zakka Projects to Stitch and Give
by Ayumi Takahashi
Edition: Paperback
Price: $16.18
106 used & new from $8.68

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars ‘Colorful Zakka projects to stitch and give.’, March 27, 2014
‘Zakka, which translates to “many things”, refers to objects that improve your home, life or appearance.’ This book contains nineteen small patchwork projects, things that can be made from scraps of fabric - those tempting, gorgeous small pieces of fabric that have too much potential to discard - and assorted fat quarters. I was drawn to the book by the cute pincushions on the cover, but there are at least four other projects I’d like to make.

In a very helpful, cheerful chapter on tools and materials, the author advises that only a basic sewing machine is required. All you really need is a machine that can do straight stitch with an adjustable stitch length, and a zigzag stitch. A walking foot for quilting will be handy (although I suspect a number of quilters would like to do some of these projects by hand). The other items – including a rotary cutter and mat – would be part of any patch worker or quilter’s inventory of supplies.

There’s a wonderful chapter on techniques, and paper-piecing is well explained. There are diagrams and templates for the applique and quilt pieces, and the projects detail the order of assembly. A possible drawback for some may be the need to enlarge the templates –especially if you don’t have easy access to a copier.

Many of these projects would appeal to those new to patchwork and quilting, and would be a great way to practice cutting and piecing skills.

I’ve fallen in love with the ‘You’ve Got Mail Wall Pocket’ (a wall hanging measuring 52 by 70 cm) and the ‘Swedish Bloom-Time Lap Quilt’, while the ‘Yum Yum Apple Bib’ and the ‘Prettified Pincushion’ would make great presents. Hmm. Where to start? I’ll let my fabric decide.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 30, 2014 4:58 PM PDT


Almost Snow White
Almost Snow White
by Jeffrey Blount
Edition: Paperback
Price: $11.66
25 used & new from $6.99

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars ‘You got to play the game with the uniform God done give you.’, March 27, 2014
This review is from: Almost Snow White (Paperback)
In 1946 Precious Anne Sprately is a young woman isolated within the black community in which she lives in Virginia. Precious is a child born of rape, a mulatto in a community in which blacks and whites live separate lives. Precious is mostly unwanted and unloved: her mother pays her little attention, her mother’s husband can’t stand looking at her, and the black community taunts her because of her lighter coloured skin. When her brother Dred, her only ally, is found hanging from a tree, Precious looks for a way to escape.

‘At all costs, she had to feel free.’

Precious decides to take advantage of her lighter coloured skin, and moves to a distant town where she passes as a white woman. Here, while fitting into the white community, Precious learns how badly African Americans are treated. Here, Precious learns conclusively that there are those who are oppressed, and those that do the oppressing. Can Precious have her own safe and happy place in the world? Is it possible?

‘Desolate, angry Negro people who sat there pondering everything and nothing at the same time.’

I read this book quickly, hoping that Precious could find happiness and anxious to see how she would live her life. I was drawn in by the story, and wanted more – until almost the end of the story. I was thrown out of the story part way through Chapter 12, angered by a choice Precious made. And, while I am still angered by Precious’s choice, the story itself seems stronger as a consequence. There were no easy choices in the world of this novel, and certainly no choices without consequences.

This novel made me think, about the inequities of life where the colour of a person’s skin (or some other racial characteristic) defines the options people have and the choices they can make. It made me wonder how much, really, the world has changed since 1946.

Note: I was offered, and accepted, a copy of this book for review purposes.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 30, 2014 4:58 PM PDT


The Sunne In Splendour: A Novel of Richard III
The Sunne In Splendour: A Novel of Richard III
by Sharon Kay Penman
Edition: Paperback
Price: $17.58
92 used & new from $3.86

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars ‘Loyaulté me lie!’, March 4, 2014
The Sunne in Splendour is an intensely human, political story about two of the Yorkist kings of England: Edward IV and his frequently maligned younger brother Richard III. The title refers to Edward’s emblem, which he adopted after the battle of Mortimer’s Cross in 1461. The novel begins in 1459 when Edward is 17 and Richard is 7, a year of particularly vicious fighting in the Wars of the Roses, fought between the Lancastrian and Yorkist descendants of Edward III. The Lancastrian Henry VI, whether ill or feeble-minded, had essentially ceded power to his detested French wife, Margaret of Anjou.

Edward is the darling of the crowds: tall and handsome, instinctively gracious. His wife – Elizabeth Woodville – may have been beautiful, but her large, ambitious family undermined the stability of Edward’s government. And Edward’s death at an early age is a tragedy: his son (Edward V) is a minor. But how does Richard move from being Edward’s official guardian to being the king?
Richard is the centre of this novel, and is portrayed by Ms Penman as caring, loyal and thoughtful. Richard adores his elder brother, and from the time he accepted responsibility for something Edward did when Richard was aged 7, he serves Edward’s interests to the best of his ability. His marriage to Anne Neville is portrayed as a love match, and it’s very difficult to imagine this Richard as being guilty of the murders of his nephews in the Tower.

This was the first novel I read (for the first time back in the 1980s) that portrayed Richard III as other than a child murdering monster who murdered his nephew and usurped his throne. How accurate was the account given by Sir Thomas More, or Richard’s characterisation by Shakespeare?

Ms Penman paints a very different picture of Richard III, an account that is not inconsistent with existing historical documents. Richard loyally served Edward for 12 years and a number of his boyhood friends served with him – and died – at Bosworth in 1485.

I enjoyed rereading this novel. Ms Penman brings these historical figures to life, and I much prefer her portrayal of Richard III to Shakespeare’s or Sir Thomas More’s. This is a long novel, but well worth reading.

‘While imagination is the heart of any novel, historical fiction needs a strong factual foundation, especially a novel revolving around a man as controversial as Richard III.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith
Comment Comments (10) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 24, 2014 7:09 PM PDT


Richard III: The Maligned King
Richard III: The Maligned King
by Annette Carson
Edition: Paperback
Price: $19.27
38 used & new from $13.55

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars ‘This book is not a biography of Richard III.’, March 2, 2014
In this book, Annette Carson sets out to examine the events and circumstances of Richard’s life, rather than the man himself. She also focusses on the main chroniclers who have shaped public perceptions of Richard over the past 500 years: the anonymous chronicler of the Abbey of Crowland, Dominic Mancini, Polydore Vergil and Sir Thomas More.

In an analytical and methodical approach, Ms Carson examines some of the most contentious events and people - including the rise of the Woodvilles, the marriage pre-contract, the unexpected death of Edward IV, the interception of Edward V at Stony Stratford, and Elizabeth Woodville’s retreat into sanctuary. Ms Carson also examines the Titulus Regius, the role of Harry Stafford ( the Duke of Buckingham), the disappearance of the Princes and the October Rebellion of 1483. And while analysing these events, Ms Carson pays particular attention to how each one was interpreted and presented by each of the main chroniclers.

While no firm conclusions can be reached based on the few known objective facts, I found Ms Carson’s approach logical and reasonable. Personally, I’ve always been attracted to either the Duke of Buckingham or Henry VII as being the most likely villains. But I like even better the possibility that the boys were removed from the Tower and kept safe. By questioning the objectivity of the main chroniclers, and examining a range of possibilities, Ms Carson has raised a number of questions for those of us fascinated by Richard III and the Princes in the Tower to consider further. It is definitely true that certain key events have more than one possible interpretation.

‘In the end we cannot be sure of the truth about the princes’ fate and honesty demands that we admit as much.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 7, 2014 8:35 PM PST


Slammerkin
Slammerkin

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars ‘We’re each of us born into a place on this earth. We must make the best of it.’, February 28, 2014
This review is from: Slammerkin (Kindle Edition)
Mary Saunders, born in 1748 into Hogarth's working class-London, yearns for a better life. At the age of fourteen, she loses her virginity in return for a shiny red ribbon. A few months later, pregnant, Mary is turned out of the house by her mother. Shortly afterwards, Doll Higgins, a sharp-tongued young prostitute, takes Mary under her wing and teaches her how to survive on the rough streets of London's red light district. Mary relishes the liberty her prostitution provides and her ability to acquire colourful clothes, while readers wince at the awfulness of the world she inhabits with its dirt and disease, and wonder how long Mary can survive in this world. Mary's call of `fourteen and clean' can only be temporary, surely.

`Slammerkin. A loose dress for a loose woman.'

Following a period in the Magdalen (a hospital that looks after prostitutes who claim they are willing to repent), Mary needs to flee London for the country. She travels to Monmouth, where her parents once lived. There, in service to Mrs Jones (her mother's friend), she works as a dressmaker's assistant. Mary has a natural skill with the needle, and quickly becomes indispensable to Mrs Jones. But Mary is restless; she still desires a different life and can see herself wearing the sort of finery that she has to labour over for others. And this restlessness proves tragic.

`A whore's life was made up of fragments of other people's.'

This is a black and bleak story, inspired by a murder that took place in the Welsh Borders in September 1763. I didn't so much enjoy this novel as get tangled up in it. Few facts have survived about the real Mary Saunders, but Emma Donghue's imagined Mary seems very real for much of the novel. Hogarthian London is uncomfortable: the brutality, poverty and pain is distressing. And Monmouth? If only Mary could have settled. If only.

`Clothes outlived people, she knew that.'

Jennifer Cameron-Smith
Comment Comments (8) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 7, 2014 8:48 PM PST


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