6 Degrees of Separation

Six Degrees of Separation: From ‘Notes on a Scandal’ to ‘You Belong Here’

Six degrees of separation logo for memeIt’s the first Saturday of the month, which means it’s time to take part in Six Degrees of Separation, a meme hosted by Kate at booksaremyfavouriteandbest. In this meme, Kate suggests a starter book and the idea is to then create a chain of six more books, linking each one as you see fit.

Anyway, without further ado, here are the six books I have chosen for my chain. As ever, click the title to read my full review of each book.

This month the starting book is…

‘Notes on a Scandal’ by Zoë Heller (2003)

This is one of the first books I ever reviewed on this blog. I read it in one sitting and described it as a “cracking read”. Essentially it’s two intertwined stories about two very different relationships: the secret and scandalous love affair between a teacher, Sheba, and her 15-year-old pupil; and the developing friendship between Sheba and her confidante, Barbara, a history teacher at the same school.

The Best Kind of People

‘The Best Kind of People’ by Zoe Whittall (2016)

Another novel about sexual misconduct at a school, this one was shortlisted for the Giller Prize in 2016. The book explores the outfall on three members of a family, whose patriarch, George Woodbury, a popular science teacher, is accused of sexual misconduct with three female students under his charge on a school ski trip.

‘Vladímír’ by ulia May Jonas (2022)

This is a story about a popular English professor whose husband — a professor at the same small upstate New York college at which she teaches — stands accused of inappropriate relationships with former students decades earlier. But the narrator has her own sexual picaddilloes and develops an obsession with  a new male colleague, Vladímír, which highlights timely issues about power and consent.

‘Stoner’ by John Williams (1965)

Another campus novel, Stoner charts the life of one man — William Stoner — from the time he begins university to study agriculture in 1910 to his death as a just-retired English professor more than 40 years later, covering his career, which becomes slightly curtailed by university politics and his rivalry with another professor as time goes on, and a loveless marriage that falls apart.

‘Matrimony’ by Joshua Henkin (2008)

Marriage between a young academic couple forms the major focus of this compelling novel which covers a 15-year-period, from the pair’s college courtship to the onset of middle-age. It’s essentially a novel about domesticity, and how easily we fall into it, but it’s also a story about friendship and how  life happens to us while we’re busy making other plans.

‘Everybody has Everything’ by Katrina Onstad (2012)

Another portrait of a marriage, Everybody has Everything is about what happens when a happily married couple — a high-flying corporate lawyer and an out-of-work documentary filmmaker — have parenthood unexpectedly thrust upon them when a friend’s toddler is left in their care. The tensions come to the fore because one is ambivalent about parenthood while the other embraces it with enthusiaism.

‘You Belong Here’ by Laurie Steed (2018)

The long-lasting impact that parents can have on their children forms the hub of this brilliantly written novel, which spans more than 40 years. It tells the story of Jen and Steven who meet as teenagers, marry young and begin a family. It then charts how the marriage disintegrates and then looks at the impact the divorce has on their three children who struggle with various psychological issues long into adulthood.

So that’s this month’s #6Degrees: from a tale about an inappropriate relationship between a teacher and a student to a novel that explores the long-lasting impact of a divorce on three children well into adulthood, via stories about sex scandals on campus, academic life and marriages under stress. 

Have you read any of these books? 

Please note that you can see all my other Six Degrees of Separation contributions here.

Andrew O'Hagan, Author, Book review, England, Faber and Faber, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Scotland, Setting

‘Mayflies’ by Andrew O’Hagan

Fiction – paperback; Faber & Faber; 277 pages; 2020.

Andrew O’Hagan is a Scottish writer and literary critic with several award-winning novels and non-fiction books to his name.

Mayflies, his sixth novel, won the Christopher Isherwood Prize for Autobiographical Prose in 2020, with the judges describing it as “exuberant and heartbreaking”.

They weren’t wrong. This is a rare novel that starts out full of bonhomie and youthful energy and a cheerfulness that resonates off the page. By the end, the reader is left feeling bereft in the knowledge that life, for some, can be full of challenges despite our very best efforts to make something of ourselves. But there is also an aching awareness of the importance of love and friendship in all stages of our lives.

A book of two halves

Mayflies is a coming-of-age story framed around a group of working-class Ayrshire lads growing up in Thatcher’s Britain and is divided into two equal parts. The first is set in the summer of 1986; the second, some 30 years later, in the autumn of 2017.

It’s narrated by Jimmy, a bookish 18-year-old who has “divorced” his parents, and largely hangs out with his larger-than-life friend, Tully, whose family have pretty much adopted him as one of their own.

It’s this friendship between the quiet, thoughtful schoolboy Jimmy and the mischevious and fun-to-be-around lathe-turner Tully that forms the heart of the novel.

Together with a group of friends — Limbo, Tibbs, Dr Clogs and Hogg — they head to Manchester for a weekend of music and mayhem, a weekend that turns out to be one of the most formative experiences of their lives, filled with banter, booze, adrenalin and a sense of freedom.

The Manchester scene

For those of us of a certain, a-hem, age (O’Hagan is just a year older than me), Manchester was the musical Mecca of the world in the mid-to-late 1980s and beyond, and O’Hagan beautifully captures the awe and excitement of seeing those quintessential bands of the time, as punk merged into New Wave, and offered up the likes of Joy Divison, New Order and The Smiths.

We came into Manchester like air into Xanadu*. The place was a state of mind to us and we saw cascades of glitter in ordinary things.

The novel is shot through with references to the record stores (Picadilly Records), music venues (G-Mex), nightclubs (Hacienda) and record labels (Factory) of the time, which lends a ring of authenticity — and nostalgia.

I was a record-shop obsessive in my day, so this quote particularly resonated:

We were all obsessed with record shops. The major churches of the British Isles, with their stained glass, rood screens, and flying buttresses, were as nothing next to some grubby black box under Central Station, or some rabbit hutch in Manchester, which sold imports, fanzines, and gobbets of gig information.

But I also enjoyed the name-checking of bands and films and books and political events — the UK miner’s strike et al — and I laughed out loud at the scene in which Jimmy and Tully spot the members of The Smiths coming down the stairs of the hotel they were drinking in and going out into the street.

I thought I was seeing stuff — nobody else in the foyer seemed to notice. I elbowed Tully and he turned to see Morrissey and Marr. A lurch in the stomach. The singer was wearing a red shirt and he hit the air like a chip-pan on fire. Right behind him was Johnny Marr, light and young as his melodies and smoking a fag. The word ‘vermillion’ came to mind, and so did his lyrics, all the band’s images, and that’s how it works when you’re a fan who thinks Keats might save the world. In an instant, without a word being exchanged, Tully and I were through the doors and onto the pavement, just in time to see the famous Mancunians stepping into a Rolls-Royce.

Change in gear

When the book reaches the halfway point, there is a definite change in gear. Gone is the exuberance and energy of the first half, instead, there is a sombre, more serious tone to the writing reflected in the age of the characters who are now middle-aged men living quietly middle-class lives, far removed from the working-class roots of their fathers.

Jimmy is a successful writer living in London with his wife, Iona, who works in the theatre; Tully has gone back to school to transform himself into an English teacher and he is now Head of English at a school in Glasgow. He has a long-term partner, Anna, and is relatively happy and settled.

A phone call brings them back together again and what follows tests both men’s friendship, Jimmy’s relationship with Anna, and their worldviews.

This part might sound depressing, but it’s shot through with humour — Tully never loses his zest for life and his penchant for banter — and there’s a wedding that brings together many of the lads from the Manchester trip who haven’t seen each other for decades, as well as a holiday to Sicily that is depicted with charm and vividness.

Throughout, O’Hagan treads a fine line, showing the contrast between middle age and youth, without sliding into sentimentality. Yes, it’s occasionally wistful and there’s an undercurrent of pathos, but the story, as a whole, is evocative and poignant.

It explores many issues including the positive long-term impact a teacher can have on a student’s future; the importance of defending working-class rights but not their prejudices; the far-reaching consequences of Thatcherite politics on an entire generation and the ways in which the more recent Brexit referendum will do something similar. But I especially loved its depiction of music, male friendship and mortality.

For other reviews of this novel, please see Brona’s review at This Reading Life, Jacqui’s review at JacquiWine’s Journal, and Annabel’s review at Annabookbel.

If you liked this, you might also like:

‘The Guts’ by Roddy Doyle: Male friendship, family and music form the central themes of this frank and funny novel about a man grappling with his own mortality in the face of a cancer diagnosis.

* This is how I felt about London when I first arrived in the summer of 1998! 

Book chat

The Riverside Readers on Sky Arts Book Club

Screenshot from Episode 2 video

Well, look who it is! That’s (clockwise from top left) Claire, Sakura, Dom and Polly sitting on the Sky Arts Book Club sofa. These wonderful people are my fellow book group buddies from London who were recently invited to be the featured book club on the TV show.

I co-founded the Riverside Readers with Simon Savidge more than a decade ago. Both of us have since moved on — me back to Australia and Simon to Liverpool — but the group is still going strong, meeting once a month on the Southbank in London to discuss books. It’s all fairly relaxed, and usually involves a bit of gossip, a drink or two, and a lot of laughs.

Over the years members have come and gone but the four pictured above are the stalwarts who have been there from the start — the only person missing is Armen, who couldn’t make the TV recording.

The show is hosted by Andi Oliver and Elizabeth Day, and in this episode, they are joined by writers Leone Ross and Sarah Vaughan. As an added bonus, Simon is one of the presenters.

You can watch the episode on the Club’s dedicated Facebook page.

Update: Don’t have Facebook, but live in the UK? I believe Sky Arts is free to view, so you may be able to download and watch on your desktop using a dedicated app. Try this link.

Author, Book review, Fiction, general, Harper Collins, Ilaria Bernardini, literary fiction, Publisher, Romania, Setting

‘The Girls Are Good’ by Ilaria Bernardini

Fiction – paperback; Harper Collins; 205 pages; 2022.

The dark side of competitive gymnastics is explored in this fast-paced story by Ilaria Bernardini, an Italian novelist who writes in English.

The Girls Are Good is narrated by Martina, a teenage girl taking part in an elite international competition being held in Romania, whose cynical voice acts as a form of armour.

She’s the least accomplished of the girls in her team and comes from a much poorer background; there’s the constant feeling that she’s not good enough and never will be, and yet, as the reader comes to discover a little later on, she’s been brave enough to speak out about the abuses happening in her squad.

That abuse is sexual and, initially, is only hinted at:

[As gymnasts] Our body is our most precious possession. That’s why we live and travel with a physio. And that’s why we have daily sessions with him. In theory, the sessions are there to protect our most precious possession. In reality, it’s in there that it all gets broken.

Martina explains how the girls are in a constant battle against puberty; that to achieve success in the sport their bodies must remain small and undeveloped. They can control some of this through diet  — they are all anorexic to some degree — but they can’t stop themselves from getting tall or developing breasts.

She-who-puts-on-weight is done for. She-who-grows-tall is done for. She-who-grows-boobs, done for, unless she can endure very tight wrapping.

Obsessive sport

To help her cope, Martina has little rituals — or obsessive-compulsive tics — that she carries out. She taps things twice and pulls the zipper of her jacket up and down ten times in a row, all in a bid to achieve success.

Maybe we are all a bit obsessive […] and in the end we usually all turn a blind eye to each other’s monsters and manias and we’ll pretty much take any spell that we think will make us win and not die.

During the trip, Martina is forced to share a room with Carla and Nadia, the two best (and meanest) gymnasts in the squad who have an almost claustrophobic symbiotic relationship going on. They share a bed and are so close, physically and mentally, that they shut everyone else out, increasing Martina’s sense of isolation and “otherness” even more.

Intense competition

The story is structured over the seven days of competition — from Monday to Sunday — and is set up in the style of a literary thriller.

The page-turning danger comes in many different forms, including the risk of death from an accident on the high beams or pommel horse and the ongoing sexualisation and pedophilia that exists in the sport. But it actually ends in the grisly murder of a rival competitor.

While the premise is intriguing (it’s what drew me to the book in the first place), I found the ending a bit of a let down. What I did like was the voice of the narrator — cynical, matter-of-fact, free from sentimentality or any emotion at all — and the insider’s look at the brutal side of a sport that looks beautiful from the outside.

The Girls Are Good is about the pursuit of perfection and the risks that come with it. It’s about the destructive force of obsessive friendships and the ways in which girls can be silenced by those supposedly responsible for their care.

It’s not a pretty story. The near total absence of adults in this book and the claustrophobic and cruel world presented, with its deep-seated “traditions” and acceptance of immoral or questionable behaviour, is both shocking and stomach-churning.

There is absolutely no sense of redemption.

Apparently, the book has been optioned by Indigo productions along with All 3Media (the company behind Fleabag) for an eight-part TV series.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2022), Australia, Author, Book review, Helen Garner, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, Text

‘One Day I’ll Remember This: Diaries Volume II, 1987-1995’ by Helen Garner

Non-fiction – hardcover; Text Publishing; 320 pages; 2020.

I think I might burn all these diaries. What if I died and people got hold of them and read them? Their endless self obsession, anecdotes, self-excuses, rationalisations. Meanness about others.

One Day I’ll Remember This is the second volume in Helen Garner’s diaries, of which there are currently three. (I have reviewed her first volume, Yellow Notebook, here.)

This one covers the period 1987 to 1995 and begins with the news that Garner, now in her mid-40s, is splitting her time between Melbourne, where she lives, a rural retreat called Primrose Gully, and Sydney, where her lover, the writer dubbed “V”, resides. She later marries him — her third marriage —  but it’s not all smooth sailing.

In her richly detailed prose, she pours out her heart and shares her innermost thoughts about life and love and friendship and the creative urge — and everything in between.

A writer’s life

And, because she is a writer, we find out what she’s reading —  John McGahern, Janet Malcolm, Slyvia Plath, Patrick White, old copies of the TLS, Sally Morgan’s My Place, among others — and get a ringside seat as she works on her own screenplay The Last Days of Chez Nous and, a little later, her novel Cosmo Cosmolino (which I haven’t read).

Towards the end of this volume, she’s penning The First Stone, a non-fiction book (about a sexual harassment case) that turned out to be especially divisive — even before it was published.

A friend called: ‘Listen, the shit’s really going to hit the fan with this book. The street word is you’re running the line that women get raped were asking for it.’

Self-aware but fearless

Not that Garner is too worried about what anyone thinks of her. Throughout this volume, it’s clear she’s her own harshest critic.

I will probably never write anything large, lasting, solid or influential. Is this a proper life I am leading?

She’s plagued by self-doubt, not only in her work but in her life as well, both as a mother and as a wife.

I say, ‘I’m no good at marriage. I think I’d be awful to be married to.’

She spends a lot of time beating herself up about things — she has a falling out with a close friend, frets about her adult daughter leaving home and no longer needing her, wonders what it would be like to confront her lover’s wife to tell her about the affair — but she’s also good humoured and drops many witty one-liners.

My front tooth is dead. I have to have a root canal. But I swam eight laps of the Fitzroy Baths.

Gorgeous writing

Her powers of observation are extraordinary, and the way she paints scenes in just a few words is dazzling — particularly when you know she’s not writing for an audience; these were personal diaries never intended to be published.

Late summer morning. Swam. Pool very beautiful. Sun giving out long, oblique rays of pink and gold.

Similarly, in just a line or two, she is able to transport us to a different time and place —  the “miracle” of receiving a fax message, the tragedy of the Tiananmen Square massacre, the joy of the Berlin Wall coming down — and yet these diaries don’t feel dated.

That’s because the writing, at all times, is alive and wonderous, full of daring thoughts and brimming with heartfelt emotion and honesty. Thank goodness she never did get around to burning them.

This is my 11th book for #20booksofsummer 2022 edition. I rushed out and bought it as soon as it was released at the tail end of 2020, where it remained in my TBR for longer than I planned. In fact, it was lying in my TBR for so long, the publisher had enough time to publish a third volume  — which has been sitting in my TBR for more than six months now!

Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Japan, Keigo Higashino, Publisher, Setting, Vertical

‘The Name of the Game is Kidnapping’ by Keigo Higashino

Fiction – hardcover; Vertical; 238 pages; 2017. Translated from the Japanese by Jan Mitsuko Cash.

Japanese crime writer Keigo Higashino has once again broken the conventions of the genre with his standalone novel The Name of the Game is Kidnapping, which was first published in 2002 but only translated into English by American publisher Vertical in 2017.

In this story, a disgruntled employee takes an opportunity to scam a client who has complained about him — but with unforeseen consequences.

The book is not a typical whodunnit or even a whydunnit — it’s really a howdunnit and showcases Higashino as a true master at plotting, something that is apparent in all of his novels (or at least the ones I have read, which you can view here).

Playing a game of revenge

The Name of the Game is Kidnapping is narrated by Sakuma, a project leader for a PR and advertising firm who is booted off a campaign for a car manufacturer, Nissei Automobile, when a newly appointed executive vice president (EVP) decides he wants someone else in charge.

Sakuma decides to play it cool, although he’s raging inside — “It was as though rage and humiliation were filling my entire body; I felt as though if I said anything, I’d yell, and if I moved, I’d throw my glass” — so when an opportunity comes along to wreak a form of revenge he grabs it.

Except he doesn’t see it as revenge; he sees it as playing a game, a business game that “requires scrupulous planning and bold action”.

That game — as the title of the book suggests — involves kidnapping the EVP’s daughter, Juri, who is in on the game because she has a troubled relationship with her father and wants to get her inheritance early.

The narrative charts how the kidnapping unfolds and shows how cool-headed Sakuma plans the whole thing while holding down his job and sheltering his “victim” from any unwanted public attention or police investigation.

Everything goes perfectly to plan — perhaps too perfectly — and just when Sakuma thinks he’s got away with the entire scheme something happens that turns the game on its head. It’s a heart-hammering twist that makes the novel’s last 40 or 50 pages especially exciting.

Meticulous plotting but slow-paced

That said, the pacing is a little slow. It’s not until around page 200 that things take off, so to speak, which is a lot of pages to wade through beforehand if you are expecting a crime thriller.

The prose is pedestrian and full of exposition — which is fine because I have read enough Higashino novels to know you don’t read them for their literary merit — but I found the narrator’s voice, which is arrogant and misogynistic, a little grating.

Despite these faults, the novel’s meticulous plotting and its brilliant twist of a conclusion make it worth reading, especially if you are already familiar with Higashino’s style.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2022), Australia, Author, Book review, Focus on WA writers, Fremantle Press, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, true crime, Wendy Davis

‘Don’t Make a Fuss: It’s only the Claremont Serial Killer’ by Wendy Davis

Non-fiction – paperback; Fremantle Press; 2016 pages; 2022.

This is a story about the tragic consequences for all women when one woman speaks up and nobody listens.

The above line, quoted on the back cover of Wendy Davis’s memoir Don’t Make a Fuss, perfectly encapsulates the moral of this story.

Wendy, a 40-year-old social worker at a hospital in Perth, was randomly attacked at her workplace by an onsite contractor in 1990. He grabbed her from behind while she was sitting at her desk alone in her office. He put a cloth over her mouth so she couldn’t scream and tried to drag her into a nearby toilet cubicle. Wendy managed to fight him off and ran for help.

The culprit, a Telecom (now Telstra) technician, was charged with the relatively minor charge of common assault, told to undergo counselling and kept his job. Meanwhile, Wendy’s shock, trauma and concerns were dismissed by the police, by Telecom (who claimed the man was having “relationship problems” and was a “good worker” with a “good future ahead of him”) and even by her husband (a policeman), whom she later divorced.

She buried her fears and never talked about what happened. She left her job, even though she loved it and had worked hard to achieve her position, and tried to put it all behind her. She remarried and moved to Tasmania.

Claremont serial killer

Meanwhile, the man that attacked her went on to murder two women, and a suspected third, in what became known as the Claremont serial killings, which occurred in 1996-1997. He remained undetected for almost a decade, but in 2016 he was arrested by the Special Crime Squad which had ploughed extra resources into investigating the killings.

Bradley Robert Edwards, 48, was charged with…

the wilful murders of 23-year-old Jane Rimmer and twenty-seven-year-old Ciara Glennon, who had disappeared from Claremont in 1996 and 1997, the abduction and rape of a seventeen-year-old woman in Claremont in 1995, and the sexual assault of an eighteen-year-old woman in Huntingdale in 1998, with both of the latter offences including deprivation of liberty. […] Police were still investigating the 1996 disappearance of another woman from Claremont, eighteen-year-old Sarah Spiers.

Response to arrest

Wendy’s memoir is written as a response to the news of Edwards’ arrest, which affected her deeply. She had spent 25 years pretending the attack hadn’t happened, burying it deep in her subconscious, until she received an unexpected call from Western Australia police at her current home in Hobart, which made it all come rushing back.

I had forced the trauma deep down. As people, especially women, of my time were taught to do, I just ‘got on with it’. I didn’t make a fuss.

Her story is written in an intimate but forthright style and swings between Wendy’s life in the immediate aftermath of the attack and the resurgence of anger and grief she felt more than two-and-a-half decades later. She details her involvement in the state trial (she was called as a witness), which took seven months and was conducted without a jury, but actually took years to get to trial.

What emerges is a portrait of an intelligent, thoughtful and resilient woman, now in her 60s, who effectively suffered three traumas: the attack itself, in 1990; the dismissal of her concerns by the authorities immediately afterwards; and a resurgence of psychological trauma upon news of Edwards’ arrest and the subsequent trial.

Taking concerns seriously

The issue that hits home hardest, however, is the importance of taking women’s concerns seriously. While Wendy’s story is written with the benefit of hindsight, it’s hard not to see how Edwards’ terrible deeds may have been stopped if Wendy’s “incident” had been taken more seriously in the first place.

A meeting with Telecom, just a week after Edwards had tried to abduct her, is a case in point. Wendy attends the meeting with her husband, not sure what it is going to be about, but then discovers it’s the company’s way of making excuses for their employee and of ensuring that Wendy won’t go on to sue them.

The manager went on to say that, although he understood that I was shocked by what had happened, it would not benefit anyone if this promising employee lost his job, his career. I was rendered speechless for a moment or two. When I recovered, I told him that I thought I was going to lose my life. I told him it was not normal behaviour to attack a complete stranger because you were having difficulties in your relationship. I said that he’d had cable ties in his pocket, that he’d put something over my mouth, tried to drag me into the toilet, that I was still bruised and in shock.

The manager tells her that it wasn’t unusual for Telecom employees to carry cable ties, that he’d never done anything like this before and that counselling would help him with his “current personal issues”. Wendy claims the manager was “clearly not hearing my account of the events” and that she left the meeting feeling anxious, angry, concerned and totally disempowered.

It’s hard to read this compelling memoir and come away from it without feeling the same.

This is my 10th book for #20booksofsummer 2022 edition. I bought it new from Dymocks not long after it was released.

And because the author grew up in Western Australia and lived in Perth for much of her life, this book qualifies for my ongoing Focus on Western Australian Writers reading project, which you can read more about here

6 Degrees of Separation

Six Degrees of Separation: From ‘Braised Pork’ to ‘Hotel Iris’

Six degrees of separation logo for memeThe first Saturday of the month means it is time to take part in Six Degrees of Separation, a meme hosted by Kate at booksaremyfavouriteandbest. In this meme, Kate suggests a starter book and the idea is to then create a chain of six more books, linking each one as you see fit.

I didn’t take part last month because August crept up on me unawares, but here is my effort for September. See if you can spot a theme!

This month the starting book is the last one read in August…I’m kind of cheating here because I’m starting with the last one I reviewed in August as I’m about 6 books behind. As ever, click the title to read my full review of each book…

‘Braised Pork’ by An Yu (2020)

In this intriguing novel, a young Chinese woman living in Beijing is widowed suddenly and begins a journey of self-discovery, which includes a trip to Tibet, a romance with a local bar owner and a rediscovery of her artistic side. The prose style is simple and hypnotic and the story blends folklore and mythic elements to create a rather enigmatic, sometimes perplexing, tale.

‘Beijing Coma’ by Ma Jian (2009)

Another novel set in Beijing, this 600-plus extravaganza is a powerful story that bears witness to the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. t is a deeply moving account of the student pro-democracy movement, culminating in the massacre in which thousands of Chinese citizens were killed. Unusually, it is told from the point of view of one of the students, Dai Wei, who is in a coma. As a concept, this shouldn’t work, but in Ma Jian’s hands, this wholly original approach is devastatingly effective. (The book is banned in China and the writer is living in exile in the UK.)

‘The Man from Beijing’ by Hanning Mankell (2011)

The obvious link here is in the title, but I’m also linking to it because it is about a massacre. It’s a stand-alone crime novel (ie. not part of Mankell’s famous Wallender detective series) that follows an investigation into Sweden’s biggest (fictional) mass murder in which 19 people are slaughtered overnight in a sleepy village in the middle of winter. It’s not a police procedural as such because the crime is investigated by a middle-aged judge who has been signed off from work and needs something to occupy her time. Structurally, the book has some issues — the story, for instance, jumps back to the mid-19th century just as the investigation is hotting up, which interrupts the page-turning quality of the tale — but it’s an intriguing look at modern-day China’s hidden influence on the world and Mankell is not shy about wearing his politics on his sleeve, so to speak.

‘The Aosowa Murders’ by Riku Ondo (2020)

Sorry about the dark turn, but here’s another novel that features a mass murder as its starting point. In this unconventional crime novel from Japan, the focal point is the death of 17 people who are deliberately poisoned at a family celebration. The prime suspect is the family’s blind daughter, the only family member spared death, but why would she want to kill her loved ones? The novel is not really a whodunnit or a whydunnit. Instead, it looks at the far-reaching impact of the crime on the lives of so many people, including the police investigators, and it’s written retrospectively using multiple voices and multiple time-frames with no neat solution or ending.

‘Newcomer’ by Keigo Higashino (2018) 

Conventional structure is thrown out the window in this Japanese crime novel, too. Higashino is my favourite Japanese crime writer but this one was a little disappointing. it is set in Tokyo and follows the police investigation into the death of a 40-year-old woman. Each phase of the investigation is told as if it’s a standalone short story. With each new story, or chapter, we learn something new about the case as the list of suspects grows longer and longer. Eventually, Detective Kyochiro Kaga, a sharp-minded, highly experienced policeman, reveals the identity of the culprit, but it takes a long time to get there!

‘Strange Weather in Tokyo’ by Hiromi Kawakami (2013)

Staying in Tokyo, but leaving the crime behind, this is a bittersweet tale about a 30-something woman who embarks on a relationship with an older man who was once her teacher at school. It’s an unconventional love story because the pair never make dates; they simply go to the same bar at around the same time, sit next to each other and spend the evening drinking and talking. Their relationship, which grows from friendship into love, unfolds as gently as the narrative, which is written in stripped-back, often elegiac, prose.

‘Hotel Iris’ by Yoko Ogawa (2011) 

Another story about a relationship between a younger woman and an older man, this novel takes a horrifying subject — a sexual deviant praying on an innocent girl — but writes about it beautifully. The prose is lush and hypnotic and the narrative is perfectly restrained, and yet it brims with tension. Will 17-year-old Mari be okay or will her boyfriend, who is 50 years her senior, turn out to be the next Ted Bundy?

So that’s this month’s #6Degrees: from a tale about a young Chinese widower on the brink of a new life to the tale of a Japanese teenager playing with fire, via stories set in Beijing and Tokyo, most of them using unconventional structures to keep things interesting. 

Have you read any of these books? 

Please note that you can see all my other Six Degrees of Separation contributions here.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2022)

20 books of summer 2022 recap

It’s the last day of winter here in Australia (hooray!!), so that means it’s time to recap my efforts trying to complete this year’s #20booksofsummer/winter challenge.

This is the sixth year of participating in this annual event, which is co-ordinated by Cathy, who blogs at 746 Books.

The idea is to read 20 books (or a nominated amount less than this) from your TBR between 1 June and 1 September. Last year, I managed to complete it successfully, but this year was a different story!

In fact, at one point I thought I would be lucky to finish eight books in total. I actually considered abandoning the whole thing. I had too much other stuff going on and wasn’t in the right frame of mind.

But then I regained my reading mojo, made a stab at trying to get back on track and ended up reading a grand total of 15 books.

Of my original list, I read only eight books; the remainder were swapped in based on my mood at the time of reading.

Unfortunately, I am seriously behind on the reviewing front, but I hope to rectify that as soon as I can. In the meantime, here’s what I read, arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname (hyperlinks, as ever, take you to my full review):

As you can see, I read a fairly mixed bag, albeit dominated by Australian writers, but the standout was by an Irish writer — Bernard McLaverty’s Midwinter Break really hit the spot when I read it last weekend. But, to be fair, I didn’t read a dud all winter and would recommend everything listed here.

Thanks again to Cathy for hosting.

Did you take part in #20BooksOfSummer? How did you do? Care to share your favourite read of the summer (or winter)?

Book chat

Book news round-up: August 2022

I’m reading books faster than I can review them at the moment, but why review a book when you can put together a round-up post like this? Procrastination? What procrastination?!

¶  The winners of the 2022 Ned Kelly Awards have been announced. I’ve already got Debi Marshall’s true crime novel on the wishlist and Banjawarn by Josh Kemp on the TBR.

¶  Congratulations to Australian writer Robert Dessaix for being awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award for Literature at the 2022 Australia Council Awards. I have only read one of his books — Night Letters — which I loved for its intelligence, its humanity and its big-picture look at life. Must hunt out his other writings now.

¶ This piece in the Bookseller made me laugh out loud. It also made me wonder if the writer has been living under a rock!

¶  While this piece on the Penguin website made me scratch my head. Apparently, people who review books on Tiktok are revolutionising publishing. Um, no. It’s just another channel to promote books… it doesn’t replace all the other channels or revolutionise anything.

¶ Leïla Slimani claims the knife attack on Salman Rushdie has left her and other writers afraid, but that they have a “duty” to keep making public appearances and resist censoring themselves, despite the dangers.

¶ An interesting article about Tim Winton, his novel Blueback, his fight for Ningaloo, and 40 years of writing.

No link for this one (unless you count my LinkedIn post), but earlier this month I got to appear on a panel at the City of Melville’s Civic Square Library discussing favourite Australian books in the spirit of the ABC TV series Books that Made Us. The event was hosted by librarian and writer Emily Paull and included me, author David Whish-Wilson and bookseller Guinevere Hall from Typeface Books in Applecross.

It was a fun event — I got to champion two of my all-time favourites, George Johnston’s My Brother Jack and Randolph Stow’s The Merry-go-round-in-the-sea — and we had a wide-ranging discussion covering all kinds of questions, including whether reviews sell books, what kinds of genres Australian writers excel at, the role of literary prizes and what classics we want to read. Thanks to Emily for inviting me to take part and to the audience which was friendly and engaging. Would love to do it again at some point!