Review of ‘The Last Painting of Sara de Vos’ by Dominic Smith

The Last Painting of Sara de VosThe Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Best novel I’ve read in a long, long time. Set in three time zones – seventeenth century Holland, 1950s New York, and Sydney in 2000 – the characters are linked together by an enigmatic Dutch oil painting and its forged replica.
A strong sense of place pervades the book. There is no doubt about where the action is occurring. You can see it, taste it, smell it. Three cities in three continents and Dominic Smith has nailed them all.
The writing is simply superb. Deeply evocative, and both rich and sparing at the same time. Every word is perfectly chosen; there are no lazy verbs or cliches to be found. And it’s all done with a light touch that will make you smile in places and wipe a tear in others.
Here’s one of my favourite passages, about octogenarian Marty who must fly from New York to loan his de Vos painting to an exhibition at the Gallery of New South Wales.
‘He carefully inspects his tan shirt and lined windbreaker that he’s kept on for twelve hours because Qantas likes to refrigerate the first-class cabin like they’re hauling steaks across the Pacific … The field vest with a thousand pockets is somewhere in his carry-on. When did an abundance of pockets become a matter of moral principle? He wants to be zipped up and buried in the thing. His final battlefield commission.’
Highly recommended – a literary novel with a heart.

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Review of “When Breath Becomes Air” by Paul Kalanithi

When Breath Becomes AirMy rating: 4 of 5 stars

A beautifully-written memoir that reminds you that Life works in mysterious ways.
As a youngster, Paul Kalanithi wanted to become a writer to come to terms with ‘the life of the mind’. Above all he wanted to understand: What makes human life meaningful?
In the end he studied neuroscience, which ‘laid down the most elegant rules of the brain’. He studied hard and worked even harder to reach the pinnacle of his residency as a neurosurgeon. Then came the shocking news: a diagnosis of lung cancer. The young doctor was about to become a patient.
Kalanithi goes on to examine what it is like to face death at the age of just 35. He is optimistic and positive throughout, but sadly his life ends before the book is finished.
Medical friends of mine balked at reading this book as they thought it would cut too close to the bone. I agree. Although I don’t class myself as superstitious, a book like this reminds us of our mortality and the fact that we are all, at any time, just one footstep away from the grave.
That said, this is a story of hope and love. It is also gratifying to realise that this first-time author discovered, at least for himself, what made life meaningful.

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Review of ‘Small Great Things’ by Jodi Picoult

Small Great ThingsSmall Great Things by Jodi Picoult

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A strongly-written novel that tugs at your heart and drills into your gut.
The story centres on an African-American nurse who is assigned to a newborn baby and its mother. The child’s parents are both white supremists, who complain to the hospital on the grounds of race, and the nurse is banned from treating them. When something serious goes wrong with the baby, she faces first an ethical dilemma and then the fallout from her split-second response.
This novel is not an easy read. It is confronting and uncomfortable and it stirs up your emotions. Some of the characters are totally objectionable, but they are so well-drawn that the extent of their hatred and despair is almost palpable.
In reading this book, you cannot help but examine your own preferences and prejudices. Given the same set of circumstances, what would you do? An excellent read if you like a novel that makes you think.

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The indie author dilemma: ‘What do you do with all those books?’

books-752657_1920The rhetorical question was posed by a woman who attended my recent author talk at a council library. I was there spruiking about ‘the story behind the story’ of my latest release, The Scarlet Key, a crime mystery about death and tattoos.

A self-confessed reading addict, she congratulated me on a fascinating presentation and then apologised for not buying a copy of my book.

‘I’ve got that many books: entire series collected over a lifetime. And then I inherited hundreds more when my mother died. What do you do with all those books? Honestly, I can’t fit another one in the house.’

As an indie author trying to sell books, her question got me thinking.

The only time you actually notch up a payment for your writing effort is on the initial purchase. From there your book might be read once and then left to gather dust on a shelf, or it might be passed around between family and friends, or it might find its way into a second-hand bookstore or a charity sale, or it might simply end up as recycled paper or in landfill. While council libraries may purchase copies – and, if you’re lucky, you might get some royalties as compensation – they are but a small market for most writers.

So I started to examine my own book-buying behaviour.

Like many Baby Boomer women, I love reading and I also hate waste. There is nothing so lovely as the look and feel and smell of ink on paper. For the supreme reading experience, ebooks simply don’t cut it. However, for me it is a luxury to buy a brand new book from a bookstore. Instead, my books are swapped between friends, or borrowed from a library, or ‘rescued’ from cluttered tables at a Lifeline Bookfest.

As a result of what I do, the authors of most books I’ve read have earned exactly zilch.

Now, if you are like me, you write because you love writing. But, as an indie author, you expect to not only recover costs but to also get a few dollars for your hard work.

So, how do you overcome reader reluctance to buy new? I don’t have the answer.

What are your thoughts?

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Review: ‘The Course of Love’ by Alain de Botton

The Course of LoveHonestly, I don’t know how to rate this novel by Alain de Botton because it does not read at all like a novel. While de Botton is undoubtedly a highly competent writer, I kept on thinking of this piece as a thinly-disguised self-help book about marriage and the vicissitudes of long-term love relationships.
Reading the blurb inside the front cover, I can appreciate the difficulty: this is his first novel in two decades. It seems he has been pumping out works of non-fiction for most of his writing career. Perhaps he has simply lost the knack of story-telling.
The characters are distant, hidden behind an unseen narrator who observes and provides a running commentary about the various stages of their relationship. We are told rather than shown who the characters are, what they do, and what they think about. Take this paragraph as an example, selected by randomly opening the book (at page 48).
“They’ve reached the point where, by rights, their story – always slight – should draw to a close. The Romantic challenge is behind them. Life will from now on assume a steady, repetitive rhythm, to the extent that they will often find it hard to locate a specific event in time, so similar will the years appear in their outward form.”
Interspersed amongst the ‘narrative’, are italicised paragraphs of ‘advice’ about long-term relationships. On page 49, in which a visit to a homewares store ends in an argument about whether our married couple should buy the plain glass tumblers or the ones with blue and purple swirls, a section of ‘advice’ reads:
“Romanticism is a philosophy of intuitive agreement. In real love, there is no need tiresomely to articulate or spell things out. When two people belong together, there is simply – at long last – a wondrous reciprocal feeling that both parties see the world in precisely the same way.”
While some of this advice might ring true (and some will surely raise a smile), de Botton’s pronouncements often come across as presumptuous and paternalistic.
As I said, I don’t know what to make of this book. I would have preferred to read either a straight-out work of fiction or a researched non-fiction about relationships. In attempting to blend the two together, de Botton has achieved neither.

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Meet Maggie Christensen, author of ‘Champagne for Breakfast’

Champagne for Breakfast Cover MEDIUM WEBWelcome, Maggie, and thank you for coming to my author chat. Also, congratulations on the release of your sixth novel, Champagne for Breakfast. With an alluring cover shot of the Noosa River and a catchy title, it’s sure to enjoy great success.

Thanks, Debbie. I’m delighted to be here.

Maggie, what inspires you to write and to keep on writing?

My readers are my inspiration. Good reviews, when someone tells or emails me that they’ve enjoyed my books, love my characters and want more, that my books mean so much to them, give them hope and inspiration. Even when mature women ask me for advice on their love life! All of these motivate me to keep going. It thrills me to have given pleasure to my readers and makes it all worthwhile. One especially pleasing comment I received recently was when a reader told me she was having coffee in one of the cafés I mentioned in my books and she expected the characters to walk in, even though she knew they couldn’t.

When writing a novel, do you plan the story from the start or ‘go with the flow’?

I start with my heroine and a challenging – or pivotal – situation and take it from there. My other characters appear, and the story begins to take shape. I may know how it will end, but not the intervening events. I most definitely ‘go with the flow’ and it sometimes takes me down surprising paths.

How much of yourself is reflected in your characters?

Maggie Wallace House eventeditedI guess there may be a little of me in all of my heroines, even though most of them is fiction.  For example, Anna in Band of Gold is a teacher – I was a teacher. Jenny and Rosa in The Oregon Coast Series and Champagne for Breakfast both work in a Health Service, as I did. Jenny faces a redundancy, as I did. But there the similarity ends. I guess I use my experiences to provide background information and locations I’m familiar with. I lived for many years on Sydney’s North Shore, hence the location for Band of Gold and Broken Threads. My mother-in-law moved to the small town of Florence Oregon in her eighties, many visits there prompting the setting for my Oregon Coast books. I currently live on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, hence the setting for my latest novel, Champagne for Breakfast and the beginning of The Sand Dollar. And Anna in Band of Gold makes a trip to my favourite Peregian Beach too. My heroines are, like me, independent and organised women.

As an Indie author, what do you see as the future of writing and publishing?

I think there is a strong future for writing and publishing. I believe more and more authors will turn to indie publishing and/or become hybrid authors as it becomes more difficult to find acceptance with trad publishers, smaller publishing houses disappear and authors become disillusioned with the trad route.

In your writing career so far, what has been your proudest moment?

I don’t think there is one proudest moment. There was the time I held a copy of my first book, my first review, when someone I’d never met wrote, ‘I read this book recently and LOVED LOVED LOVED it. A mature heroine was what made it so special. Brilliantly written.’ When our local bookshop owner promotes me to other indie authors as someone to emulate, and last Saturday when I sat at a table for my book signing behind my six books and I realised I’d written all of them.

What are you working on right now?

I’m currently editing a book set in Scotland. I’m often asked why I haven’t set a book in Scotland, so when writing Broken Threads, I gave one of the minor characters, Bel, an ageing aunt in Scotland. The Good Sister picks up this story when Bel returns to her native Scotland to visit her terminally ill aunt. It’s a dual narrative which tells Bel’s story while in Scotland plus her aunt’s story going back to 1938. It’s been fun researching Scotland in the war years and remembering my own time growing up there – lots of words and phrases I haven’t heard or used for years kept coming into my head as I was writing this one.

I’m also working on a novella which will be Alex and Jack’s story. Alex is an executive coach who appears briefly in The Sand Dollar and again in Champagne for Breakfast where Jack is also introduced.

As you see, I’m continuing my custom of having my readers meet old friends in my books. It’s something I set out to do, as does one of my favourite authors, Marcia Willett. I enjoy reading her books and meeting characters I’m already familiar with.

Thank you, Maggie, for sharing insights into your writing journey and best wishes for your new novel, Champagne for Breakfast.

If you’d like to buy a copy of Champagne for Breakfast, go to

 And if you’d like to contact Maggie direct, here’s how.






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Leadership at Loveday

del Drago_1

Prince Alfonso del Drago, elected leader of the Italian compound: Camp 9 at Loveday

When war came to Australia.

The man appointed to run the Loveday Internment Camps was Lieutenant Colonel Dean. As it turned out Edwin Thayer Dean was an inspired choice. He was an experienced and decorated military leader, having served in France in the Great War. As a civilian he was a grazier with an excellent knowledge of farming in South Australian conditions. When the Second World War erupted, he was 55 years old and unfit for overseas service.

From the outset it seems Commandant Dean’s aim was to set up and run a model camp. Early in the piece he recognised that men who were productively occupied were less likely to be troublesome. Although prisoners of war could be made to work, the Geneva Convention prevented forced labour for internees. If he wanted the inmates to contribute to the running of the camp, which was necessary for survival given their vast numbers in comparison to the soldier-guards, they had to be enticed into working.

Within six weeks of the first internee’s arrival in 1941 Dean had instituted a ‘wage’ of one shilling per day for anyone who put their hand up to work. Payment was made initially by means of a paper ‘chit’ that could only be used within the camp. Later the Government issued internment tokens in five denominations which could be traded at the canteen or used to buy items or services from other internees. Regular Australian currency was prohibited within the compound for security reasons.

Over several months, outside contractors were replaced with internee labour. For example, in September of 1941 internee workers took over camp sanitation and removal of the night soil, a service previously provided by the Barmera District Council.

By the end of the war, the Loveday camps were not just self-sufficient, they were profitable rural enterprises. More of that in another post.

For his services Dean was awarded a Member of the British Empire (M.B.E.). He died on 3rd June 1970.


In each of the six camps one inmate was elected to represent the internees. Prince Alfonso del Drago of Sydney, and formerly of Rome, was elected as the leader of Camp 9.

Initially he’d made a visit to Australia in 1924. According to the Perth newspaper The Sunday Times, his mother was a sister of Queen Charlotte of Spain. While in Fremantle, the young Italian nobleman said, ‘Mussolini is a very wonderful man.’

Del Drago migrated permanently in 1926. He settled at Potts Point in inner Sydney where he continued his proud association with all things Italian. He was president of the Italian Returned Soldiers Association and the Dante Alighieri Society, in addition to being a senior member of the Fascist party in Australia.

His occupation was listed as ‘gentleman’. It seems he was a man of independent means with friends in high places. Soon after his arrest in 1940, the Italian Ambassador in Tokyo wrote to the Australian government requesting a prisoner exchange. The request was denied.

He was moved from Long Bay Gaol to the internment camp at Orange and then to Hay (both in New South Wales), before being transferred to Loveday as part of the second contingent that arrived on 12th June 1941.

At the age of 58, he cut an impressive and capable figure.


The process of the election for Camp Leader at Camp 9 is unclear. However, an interesting outcome was recorded of a subsequent election for a Camp Leader for Camp 10, which housed mainly German internees.

Eight candidates were listed and duly voted for in a secret ballot. The Australian Commandant of Camp 10 classed the candidates and results as follows:

Extremists                                                         Moderates

Hercksen                5 votes                                 Erler                   3 votes

Globig                    6 votes                                 Mensdorff       196 votes

Meyer                 252 votes                                 Meckler             21 votes

Plate                       1 vote

2 votes were informal. Number who voted 486.

The Commandant went on to argue that 42 of the votes for Meyer were made by young boys of 18 to about 21 years of age, who were operating under the influence of a very strong Nazi (named) who was removed from the leadership of his previous Camp in Tatura and is a well known trouble maker.

For that reason, 42 votes were declared invalid. In addition, the Commandant claimed that he ascertained this day that many who voted for Meyer did so because of promises made in his campaign and which now they do not believe.

Consequently the role of the Camp Leader was awarded to Mensdorff.

For the above material I am indebted to the Australian War Memorial (including photo of Prince del Drago) and National Archives of Australia (including the Trove website).

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