Book lists, crime/thriller, Fiction, Japan, Setting

6 gripping crime fiction reads from Japan

The crime genre is often accused of being formulaic and cliched, but the handful of Japanese crime novels that I have read tend to shun the usual conventions. In these well crafted stories we often know who has committed the crime. Sometimes we even know how they did it. And occasionally we know why.

Japanese crime writers, it seems, are more interested in looking at the circumstances surrounding a crime, the impact of the crime on victims, friends, family, investigators and even the accused, and  what these crimes say about society at large. I find them wholly fascinating and know that whenever I pick up a Japanese crime novel I’m going to read something entertaining as well as intelligent.

As with most Japanese fiction, these novels are generally written in a stripped back, flat, detached prose style, which only adds to the chilling nature of the stories.

Here’s a handful of Japanese crime novels that I can recommend, arranged in alphabetical order by author’s name — click the title to see my full review:

 

Devotion of Suspect X

‘The Devotion of Suspect X’ by Keigo Higashino

Keigo Higashino is a master crime writer whose tales turn the genre on its head. I have read several (all reviewed here) but The Devotion of Suspect X is my favourite. In this extraordinary crime thriller, we know from the outset who has committed the crime, how they did it and who has helped cover it up. But what we don’t know is the detailed steps that have been taken to protect the real murderer. The story is effectively one giant riddle; the reader must find the clues and then join them together to create a likely scenario, mindful that the real clues have been mixed in with red herrings! It’s a brilliantly gripping read — and turned me into a Higashino fan.

‘Out’ by Natsuo Kirino

I read Out many years ago (sadly it’s not reviewed on this blog), but the story — of a group of women who help a colleague get rid of the body of the philandering husband she has murdered — is another Japanese crime novel that turns the genre on the head. Yes, we know who committed the crime and we know all the women who become accessories after the fact, we even understand why and how the murder was carried out. But what we don’t know is whether the perpetrators will get away with it and whether one of them will say or do the wrong thing to give the game away. It’s a real nailbiting novel, but it’s also an insightful one about misogyny, domestic violence and the Japanese working class.

‘Confessions’ by Kanae Minato

This dark novel is a revenge story about a woman who takes the law into her own hands with devastating and gruesome consequences. It focuses on a grief-stricken school teacher, who accuses two of her students of having murdered her daughter. She doesn’t name the students but drops enough clues that everyone knows who she is pointing the finger at. She then avenges the crime, but this does not bring peace: it simply begats more crime so that a dizzying dark spiral of events unfolds, sucking people into its deadly centre. It’s a terrifying novel but it deals with big themes, including how we teach children right from wrong, how society deals with child criminals and what barriers there should be between teachers and their students. It’s a thought-provoking read.

‘The Aosawa Murders’ by Riku Onda

The central focus of The Aosawa Murders is a devastating mass murder in which 17 people (including six children) are poisoned and die agonising deaths 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 book, which has a complex structure featuring multiple view points and time frames, is about the long-lasting impact of the crime on those directly affected by it, including the police who carried out the investigation, those who knew the family well and the local community. There’s no neat ending, but it’s the kind of story that leaves a marked impression as the reader tries to process what happened and why.

‘The Thief’ by Fuminori Nakamura

This prize-winning novella is told from the point of view of a man who makes his living by petty theft. His sole occupation is to pick the pockets of the wealthiest people he can find, either on the streets of Tokyo or the public transport system. But he isn’t a particularly bad person; there’s a good heart inside of him. In one scene he is so outraged to see a man on the train groping a schoolgirl he comes to her rescue. And later, when he sees a woman and her young son shoplifting, he warns them that they have been spotted by the store detective. This isn’t a story about solving a crime; it’s merely a glimpse inside a criminal’s mind which allows you to empathise with someone you would most likely condemn. It’s an intriguing conceit.

‘Villain’ by Shuichi Yoshida

This book looks at the outfall of the murder of a young woman on a series of characters, including the woman’s hardworking parents, her friends and the accused, and shows how they adjust to their changed circumstances. So while there is a crime at the heart of this novel, it’s not a police procedural and it’s fairly obvious from the start who committed the crime, though we are never completely sure why he did it. Again, it’s another fascinating examination of the sociological and psychological impact of a crime on a community.

Have any of these books piqued your interest, or have you read any of them? Can you recommend any other crime books from Japan that are worth reading?

Book lists, Book review

4 new books by favourite authors

As much as I try NOT to read a constant diet of shiny new books it’s sometimes difficult when there are so many tempting new books being advertised on social media and being reviewed by bloggers. My wishlist seems to grow exponentially by the day!

To make matters worse, four of my favourite writers are due to have new novels published this year: John Banville (Irish), Damon Galgut (South African), Per Petterson (Norwegian) and Colm Tóibín (Irish).

Here’s some more information about the books, arranged in order of publication date and with details lifted from publisher websites:

‘The Promise’ by Damon Galgut
Publication date: June, in UK and Australia

“The Promise charts the crash and burn of a white South African family, living on a farm outside Pretoria. The Swarts are gathering for Ma’s funeral. The younger generation, Anton and Amor, detest everything the family stand for — not least the failed promise to the Black woman who has worked for them her whole life. After years of service, Salome was promised her own house, her own land… yet somehow, as each decade passes, that promise remains unfulfilled. The narrator’s eye shifts and blinks: moving fluidly between characters, flying into their dreams; deliciously lethal in its observation. And as the country moves from old deep divisions to its new so-called fairer society, the lost promise of more than just one family hovers behind the novel’s title.”

‘Men in my Situation’ by Per Petterson
Publication date: August, in UK and Australia

“In 1992 Arvid Jansen is thirty-eight and divorced. Turid has left with their three girls, slipping into her young, exuberant crowd of friends, ‘the colourful’, and a new house with no trace of their previous life together. More than a year has passed since the tragic accident that took his parents and two of his brothers. Existence has become a question of holding on to a few firm things. Loud, smoky bars, whisky, records, company for the night and taxis home. Or driving his Mazda into the stunning, solitary landscape outside of Oslo, sleeping in the car when his bed is an impossible place to be, craving a connection that is always just beyond reach. At some point, the girls decide against weekend visits with their dad. Arvid suspects that his eldest daughter, Vigdis, sees what kind of a man he really is. Adrift and inept, paralysed by grief. And maybe she’s right to keep her distance from his lonely life. Is there any redemption for a man in his situation? When Arvid has lost or been left by all those dear to him and feels his life unravelling, perhaps there is still a way forward.”

‘The Magician’ by Colm Tóibín
Publication date: September, in UK and Australia

“The Magician tells the story of Thomas Mann, whose life was filled with great acclaim and contradiction. He would find himself on the wrong side of history in the First World War, cheerleading the German army, but have a clear vision of the future in the second, anticipating the horrors of Nazism. He would have six children and keep his homosexuality hidden; he was a man forever connected to his family and yet bore witness to the ravages of suicide. He would write some of the greatest works of European literature, and win the Nobel Prize, but would never return to the country that inspired his creativity. Through one life, Colm Tóibín tells the breathtaking story of the twentieth century.”

‘April in Spain’ by John Banville
Publication date: October, in UK and Australia

“When Dublin pathologist Quirke glimpses a familiar face while on holiday with his wife, it’s hard, at first, to tell whether his imagination is just running away with him. Could she really be who he thinks she is, and have a connection with a crime that nearly brought ruin to an Irish political dynasty? Unable to ignore his instincts, Quirke makes a call back home and Detective St John Strafford is soon dispatched to Spain. But he’s not the only one on route: as a terrifying hitman hunts down his prey, they are all set for a brutal showdown.”

Are there any books here you would be keen to read? What books are you looking forward to this year?

Book lists, Reading Projects, Southern Cross Crime Month 2021

New Southern Cross Crime novels to add to your wishlist

If you are looking for more crime books to add to your TBR, there’s a clutch of new ones about to be released in Australia* over the coming months.

Note that the book descriptions have been taken from publisher websites and the books have been arranged in alphabetical order according to the author’s surname.

Far From Home by Rosie Ayliffe

“British mother Rosie Ayliffe thought her 21-year-old daughter, Mia, would be safe travelling around Australia on a gap year. But Mia wanted to extend her visa and in order to do that needed to find 88 days of work on a farm – a requirement that would lead to catastrophic events. Four short days after Mia moved to a hostel in Queensland to take a job on a sugarcane farm, she was brutally killed. Faced with every parent’s worst nightmare, Rosie travelled to Australia to retrieve Mia’s body. In Rosie’s memoir, she describes movingly how she has found the strength to come to terms with devastating loss, drawing on inspiration from her daughter’s short life. She also explains how she has become the driving force behind an international campaign to press for change to the 88 days system. Part exposé of the dangers facing backpackers in Australia, part call to arms, ultimately Far from Home is an inspiring and heartfelt story of a mother’s love for her daughter and her fight to protect others from suffering a similar tragedy.”

This true crime book is published in Australia by Penguin on 30 March. The ebook will be published in the UK and the USA on the same date.

The Quiet People by Paul Cleave

“Cameron and Lisa Murdoch are successful crime-writers. They have been on the promotional circuit, joking that no-one knows how to get away with crime like they do. After all, they write about it for a living. So when their 7 year old son Zach goes missing, naturally the police and the public wonder if they have finally decided to prove what they have been saying all this time – are they trying to show how they can commit the perfect crime?”

This will be published in New Zealand by Upstart Press on 8 April. I can’t find a publication date for elsewhere in the world.

The Night Village by Zoe Deleuil

“When Australian expat Simone moves to London to start a career, getting pregnant is not on her agenda. But she’s excited to start a new life with her baby and determined to be a good mother. Even though her boyfriend Paul’s cold and grey apartment in the Barbican Estate seems completely ill-suited for a baby. Even though Simone and Paul have only known each other for a year. Even though she feels utterly unprepared for motherhood. The arrival of Paul’s cousin Rachel in the flat should be a godsend. But there is something about Rachel that Simone doesn’t trust. Fighting sleep deprivation and a rising sense of unease, she begins to question Rachel’s motives, and to wonder what secrets the cousins share.”

This thriller will be published in Australia by Fremantle Press later this year. Date TBC.

The Lady with the Gun Asks the Questions by Kerry Greenwood 

“The elegant Miss Phryne Fisher returns in this scintillating collection, which features four brand-new stories. The Honourable Phryne Fisher – she of the Lulu bob, Cupid’s bow lips, diamante garters and pearl-handled pistol – is the 1920s’ most elegant and irrepressible sleuth. Miss Phryne Fisher is up to her stunning green eyes in intriguing crime in each of these entertaining, fun and compulsively readable stories. With the ever-loyal Dot, the ingenious Mr Butler and all of Phryne’s friends and household, the action is as fast as Phryne’s wit and logic.”

This cosy crime collection will be published in Australia by Allen & Unwin on 30 March. The audio book will be published in the UK and USA on the same date.

A Voice in the Night by Sarah Hawthorn 

“Following a bitter separation, Lucie moves to London to take up a position with a prestigious law firm. It seems an optimistic new beginning, until one day she receives a hand delivered note with the strange words: ‘At last I’ve found you. A shock I ‘m sure. But in time I’ll explain. Martin.’ Lucie hasn’t forgotten a man called Martin who was tragically killed twenty years ago in the 9/11 attacks. When she was working in New York as young intern Lucie had fallen in love with him and he vowed to leave his wife to be with her permanently. As an inexplicable series of events occurs Lucie wonders if her long-dead lover could have staged his own disappearance under the cover of that fateful day. Or could it be that someone else is stalking her, or that her vivid imagination is playing tricks? In a novel filled with compelling characters, and set in London, New York and Sydney, it seems that anyone could be out to sabotage Lucie’s memories and ambitions, including herself.”

This thriller will be published in Australia by Transit Lounge on 1 July. No international publication date is available, but the world rights have been sold so it may be picked up by a UK or North American publisher at a later date.

The Truth About Her by Jacqueline Maley

“Journalist and single mother Suzy Hamilton gets a phone call one summer morning, and finds out that the subject of one of her investigative exposes, 25-year-old wellness blogger Tracey Doran, has killed herself overnight. Suzy is horrified by this news but copes in the only way she knows how – through work, mothering, and carrying on with her ill-advised, tandem affairs. The consequences of her actions catch up with Suzy over the course of a sticky Sydney summer. She starts receiving anonymous vindictive letters and is pursued by Tracey’s mother wanting her, as a kind of rough justice, to tell Tracey’s story, but this time, the right way.”

This psychological novel will be published in Australia by HarperCollins on 7 April. No international publication date available.

You Need to Know by Nicola Moriarty

“Jill, her three sons, their wives and children are driving in convoy on Christmas Eve. But something sinister is simmering behind their happy smiles. Mimi is struggling with her new twins, but at least a glass of wine smooths out life’s jagged edges. Andrea’s starting to wonder if her marriage is as happy as she’d thought. Darren is reeling from a surprise request and teenager Callie has become increasingly withdrawn. On the way to their holiday house, a terrifying car accident devastates them all. But someone unexpected was in one of the cars. No one is searching for them. And their time is running out. You Need to Know is a dark domestic drama about family secrets and lies, fractured relationships, tragic mistakes and the ultimate betrayal.”

This domestic noir will be published in Australia by Harper Collins on 7 April. It will be published in the UK in late May.

Still by Matt Nable

“Darwin, Summer, 1963. The humidity sat heavy and thick over the town as Senior Constable Ned Potter looked down at a body that had been dragged from the shallow marshland. He didn’t need a coroner to tell him this was a bad death. He didn’t know then that this was only the first. Or that he was about to risk everything looking for answers. Late one night, Charlotte Clark drove the long way home, thinking about how stuck she felt, a 23-year-old housewife, married to a cowboy who wasn’t who she thought he was. The days ahead felt suffocating, living in a town where she was supposed to keep herself nice and wait for her husband to get home from the pub. Charlotte stopped the car, stepped out to breathe in the night air and looked out over the water to the tangled mangroves. She never heard a sound before the hand was around her mouth. Both Charlotte and Ned are about to learn that the world they live in is full of secrets and that it takes courage to fight for what is right. But there are people who will do anything to protect themselves and sometimes courage is not enough to keep you safe.”

This crime novel will be published in Australia by Hachette Australia on 31 May. The ebook will be published in the UK on 26 May.

Bound by Vanda Symon

“The New Zealand city of Dunedin is rocked when a wealthy and apparently respectable businessman is murdered in his luxurious home while his wife is bound and gagged, and forced to watch. But when Detective Sam Shephard and her team start investigating the case, they discover that the victim had links with some dubious characters. The case seems cut and dried, but Sam has other ideas. Weighed down by her dad’s terminal cancer diagnosis, and by complications in her relationship with Paul, she needs a distraction, and launches her own investigation. And when another murder throws the official case into chaos, it’s up to Sam to prove that the killer is someone no one could ever suspect.”

This crime novel will be published in the UK by Orenda Books on 18 March and the USA on 1 September. It was previously published in Australia and New Zealand in 2011 but is now out of print.

Are there any on this list that have piqued your interest?

* Some of these books will also be published in the UK and North America, but you can always order them online direct from the Australian- or New Zealand-based publisher if you are desperate to acquire them. I also recommend the Melbourne-based independent bookstore Readings.com.au for overseas orders.

Please note publication dates are subject to change but were correct when this post was published.

This post was written for #SouthernCrossCrime2021, a month-long celebration of crime writing by authors from Australia and New Zealand. You can find out more by visiting my Southern Cross Crime Month page

Ambelin & Ezekiel Kwaymullina, Australia, Book lists, Book review, Books in translation, Catherine Steadman, Children/YA, crime/thriller, Daunt Books, Elisa Shua Dusapin, England, Fiction, Headline Review, Ireland, Jennifer Johnston, literary fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Setting, Simon & Schuster, South Korea

Four Quick Reviews: Elisa Shua Dusapin, Jennifer Johnston, Ambelin & Ezekiel Kwaymullina, and Catherine Steadman

As 2020 draws to a close, I’m keen to wrap-up all my reviews so that I’m not playing catch-up well into the new year. (I will do my books of the year post tomorrow.)

So here are four quick reviews of books I have read recently. They are a good reflection of my eclectic reading tastes because they include a translated novel (from Korea/France), a literary novel (from Ireland), a young adult novel (by two Aboriginal writers) and a psychological thriller-cum-mystery (from England).

They have been reviewed in alphabetical order by author’s surname.

‘Winter in Sokcho’  by Elisa Shua Dusapin
Fiction – paperback; Daunt Books; 154 pages; 2020. Translated from the French by Aneesa Abbas Higgins

This intriguing novel is set in a South Korean tourist town, not far from the border with North Korea, during the offseason. The unnamed French-Korean narrator is a young woman in her early 20s who feels like an outsider but has no real desire to travel or live elsewhere. She has a disinterested boyfriend, who heads to Seoul to follow his dream of becoming a model, while she remains behind in Sokcho to help run a near-empty guest house. Her mother, who works in a nearby fish market, is critical of her daughter’s failure to get married and makes snide comments about her weight (she’s so thin you can see her ribs).

When a young Frenchman arrives at the guest house so he can work on his drawings (he’s a cartoonist), the narrator develops an uneasy one-sided relationship with him, acting as his tour guide and (unknown to her) muse for his art.

The entire novella is embued with a sense of melancholia, helped partly by the pared-back, hypnotic prose in which it’s written, but it also has a page-turning quality because the reader can’t help but wonder if the pair will ever become lovers. I  really enjoyed this debut and ate it up in a matter of hours.  Jacqui at JacquiWine’s Journal liked it too.

‘The Captains and the Kings’  by Jennifer Johnston
Fiction – Kindle edition; Headline; 152 pages; 1999. 

Jennifer Johnston is my favourite living writer and this book, her debut, first published in 1972 when she was in her 40s, earned her the Author’s Club First Novel Award.

There’s an aching, melancholy quality to this story, about Mr Predergast, a well-travelled elderly Anglo-Irishman, a widower, who now lives alone in his crumbling Big House with just his (drunken) gardener for company. When a local lad, Diarmid, is foisted on him by his parents because they’re worried he won’t amount to anything and needs a reliable job, Mr Predergast is dismissive. He doesn’t want to employ him.

But Diarmid, who is friendless and lonely himself, doesn’t take no for an answer and eventually the pair develop an uneasy friendship that gives Mr Predergast a renewed lease of life, one that helps him get over the loss of his elder brother in the Great War and eases the pain of his late (overbearing) mother’s preference for her older son. As the pair become closer — an old man at the end of his life, a teenager on the brink of his — the local community, headed by the vicar, does not approve of the relationship between a Protestant man and a Catholic boy — with bittersweet consequences. Lisa at ANZLitLovers liked this one too.

‘Catching Teller Crow’  by Ambelin & Ezekiel Kwaymullina
Fiction – Kindle edition; Penguin; 180 pages; 2019. 

This is one of the more unusual books I have read this year — a young adult novel written by an Aboriginal brother and sister duo — that employs Aboriginal storytelling devices in which time is not linear. It’s billed as a crime novel, but it incorporates elements of magic realism, has occasional chapters written entirely in verse, is narrated by a dead teenager, features an indigenous ghost as a witness and focuses on the “enduring strength of Aboriginal women and girls”.

The plot revolves around a murder investigation by a grief-stricken white detective and his Aboriginal daughter, Beth Teller, who has not yet “crossed over to the other side” having recently been killed in a car accident. Working together, the pair uncover a series of clues that suggest a fire in a local boarding house may have been deliberately lit in order to cover a hideous crime. A potential witness, a teenage girl called Isobel Catching, helps them build the case.

The story, which weaves colonial history, violence and grief into the narrative, has earned two of Australia’s most prestigious writing awards: the Victorian Premier YA Prize for Literature, and Best Young Adult Novel at the Aurealis Awards. I found it hard work, and a little bit out of my comfort zone, but it’s a good one to try if you are looking for something different.

‘Mr Nobody’  by Catherine Steadman
Fiction – Kindle edition; Simon & Schuster; 400 pages; 2020. 

Last year I read Steadman’s debut novel, Something in the Water, which I really enjoyed, so I was looking forward to this new one published earlier in the year.

The story starts with a handsome man washed up on a Norfolk beach who cannot remember his name and has no ID on his person. In fact, he has no memory at all. A young neuropsychiatrist from London, Dr Emma Lewis, is drafted in to determine if he is faking it, but Dr Lewis has her own mysterious past, having been in a witness protection program for the past 14 years, and the decision to accept the job is a risky one.

The author plays her hand carefully, drip-feeding information bit by bit, so the doctor’s back story doesn’t become clear until you are two-thirds of the way through the novel, making this a proper page-turner. There are enough hints that the amnesiac may also have a dodgy past — perhaps he was an assassin or a spy or worked for the military in some capacity.

Unfortunately, this curious medical mystery goes a bit over-the-top toward the end and heads into psychological thriller territory with a wholly unbelievable denouement. Up until the 80% mark (yes, I read this on a Kindle) I really enjoyed the story, but it was let down by a ludicrous ending that tied up all the loose bits too neatly, a common fault of the genre, I guess. And at 400 pages, it was far too long…

Arthur Golden, Author, Avan Judd Stallard, Behrouz Boochani, Book lists, Chloe Hooper, John McGahern, Sayo Masuda, Thea Astley

Book pairings: fiction & non-fiction titles that complement each other

Have you ever read a fiction book based on a true story and then wanted to read a non-fiction book on the same topic so that you can learn more? Or perhaps it has been the other way around: you’ve read a non-fiction book and thought you’d like to read something fictional inspired by those same events, people or places?

I love non-fiction and fiction pairings, the kinds of books that inform each other and give you a more rounded view of a particular subject, character, place or event.

Taking inspiration from Karen’s post on Booker Talk, here are four book pairings I have put together. As ever, links take you to my reviews.

On the love of mothers and of mining your own life for fiction

The Barracks by John McGahern

‘Memoir’ & ‘The Barracks’ both by John McGahern 

In Memoir, published in 2005, the late John McGahern wrote about his childhood and adolescence growing up in rural Ireland in the 1940s and 1950s. It reads very much like a love letter to his beloved mother, who died of breast cancer when he was eight years old, and an angry diatribe against his policeman father who showed his ill wife little empathy.

In his debut novel, The Barracks, McGahern writes from the perspective of a woman who returns to the rural Ireland of her childhood after the Second World War. Here she marries the local police sergeant, a widower, and becomes stepmother to his three children. When she develops breast cancer she hides it from everyone. It’s a dark, Catholic novel, but when you understand the events it was inspired by it seems to resonate with extra meaning and is a deeply powerful read.

On Australia’s immigration detention system

‘No Friend but the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison’ by Behrouz Boochani & ‘Spinifex & Sunflowers’ by Avan Judd Stallard

Behrouz Boochani’s award-winning non-fiction book, No Friend but the Mountains, details his time detained on Manus Island, Australia’s shameful offshore immigration detention facility. It’s an eye-opening account of cruelty and abuse, where the authorities fail to treat asylum seekers with any kind of dignity or respect.

Avan Judd Stallard’s novel, Spinifex & Sunflowers, is a fictionalised account of his own time as a prison guard in one of Australia’s immigration detention centres — in this case the one in Curtin, Western Australia, which is no longer operating. His novel highlights how the guards are given little training to deal with “prisoners” and that many of those employed in such roles are doing it simply for the money.

On black deaths in custody/Palm Island

‘The Tall Man: Life and Death on Palm Island’ by Chloe Hooper & ‘The Multiple Effects of Rainshadow’ by Thea Astley

Chloe Hooper’s shocking true crime book, The Tall Man, explores the death of Aboriginal man Cameron Doomadgee who died in police custody on Palm Island, one of the largest Aboriginal communities in Australia with a dark and torrid history.  (It was set up by the State Government in 1916 as a place to house Aboriginals as a kind of punitive mission.) This book demonstrates that in Australia there is one law for white people and another for black.

Thea Astley’s novel, The Multiple Effects of Rainshadow, is set in the same location, albeit under a different name, but takes a real-life incident from the 1930s as her inspiration. That incident involved a grief-stricken white superintendent who went on a drink-and-drug-fuelled rampage and set fire to many buildings. He used dynamite to blow up his own home, killing his two children inside, and after fleeing the island temporarily, was gunned down upon his return.

On life as a geisha

‘Autobiography of a Geisha’ by Sayo Masuda & ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ by Arthur Golden

Sayo Masuda’s much-acclaimed autobiography documents what happens to her when, aged 12, she was sold to a geisha house in 1930s Japan. Despite the material comforts she earns, her life is far from happy and carefree.

Arthur Golden’s novel, Memoirs of a Geisha, is a fictionalised account of a young girl whose parents sell her to a man with connections to a top geisha house in Tokyo. The book details her education and “apprenticeship”, describes the auctioning of her virginity and her subsequent rise as one of  Japan’s most celebrated geishas.

I wrote this post as part of Nonfiction November, which is hosted by Katie of Doing Dewey, Julz of Julz Reads, Rennie of What’s Nonfiction, and Leann of Shelf Aware

What do you think of these book pairings? Can you recommend any others?

Book lists, Book review

7 books for NAIDOC week

In Australia it is currently NAIDOC^ Week, where we celebrate the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Normally the week is held in July, but this year, because of Covid-19 it has been moved to November (8-15).

To mark the occasion, I thought I would put together a list of books I’ve read by Aboriginal writers. As ever, links take you to my review in full.

‘The White Girl’ by Tony Birch (novel, 2019)
Set in the 1960s, this easy-to-read novel tells the story of Odette, an Aboriginal woman, who is trying to protect her light-skinned granddaughter from being stolen by authorities to be raised by a white family.

Too Afraid to Cry

‘Too Afraid to Cry’ by Ali Cobby Eckermann (memoir, 2012)
A brilliantly evocative and heart-rending memoir, told in verse, by a poet of indigenous heritage who was taken from her Aboriginal family and raised by a white one.

Talking to my country by Stan Grant

‘Talking to My Country’ by Stan Grant (memoir, 2016)
A heartfelt and deeply personal memoir by one of Australia’s most respected journalists and broadcasters. about what it is to be an Aboriginal growing up in Australia.

‘Too Much Lip’ by Melissa Lucashenko (novel, 2018)
An award-winning brash, gritty and hard-hitting novel about an indigenous family that has been deeply traumatised by past events and is now grappling with a new challenge: saving their beloved river and Ava’s island from the local mayor’s plans to build a new prison on it.


‘Two Sisters: Ngarta and Jukuna’ by Ngarta Jinny Bent, Jukuna Mona Chuguna, Pat Lowe & Eirlys Richards (autobiography, 2016)
A gorgeous autobiography of two Aboriginal sisters, this short book is also a fascinating and eye-opening portrait of the desert people’s way of life in the 1950s and early 60s and how the coming of the vast cattle stations changed everything.

Taboo by Kim Scott

‘Taboo’ by Kim Scott (novel, 2017)
Told in the third person, but largely through the eyes of a teenage girl, this novel focuses on plans to open a modern-day Peace Park, not far from the site of a brutal massacre of Aboriginal people in the late 19th century, as a form of reconciliation.

‘The Yield’ by Tara June Winch (novel, 2020)
This year’s Miles Franklin winner is a multi-layered, multi-generational story that revolves around grief, loss and dispossession, but also gently examines what it is to be Aboriginal, to have a sense of identity, a true purpose and a language of one’s own.

^ NAIDOC originally stood for ‘National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee’ but it’s now just the name of the week itself. The ‘always was, always will be’ strapline refers to land – ie. that Australia always was, always will be Aboriginal land.

This post nicely ties in with Australian Literature Month hosted by Brona at Brona’s Books.

Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2020, Book lists, Book review, Books in translation, Cho Nam-Joo, Fiction, Hachette Australia, literary fiction, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, Simon & Schuster, South Korea, Tanya Bretherton, true crime, Viking

Three Quick Reviews: Tanya Bretherton, Cho Nam-ju & Imbi Neeme

Good things come in threes, they say.

Here are three eclectic stories, all focused on women characters and written by women writers, that I have read this year. All are highly recommended.

They include a narrative non-fiction book by Australia’s queen of historical true crime, a best-selling novel from Korea and an award-winning new release set in Western Australia.

They have been reviewed in alphabetical order by author’s surname.

‘The Killing Streets: Uncovering Australia’s first serial murderer’  by Tanya Bretherton
Fiction – paperback; Hachette Australia; 352 pages; 2020. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Tanya Bretherton has made a name for herself in Australia as a writer of historical true crime. I have previously read The Suitcase Baby and have The Suicide Bride in my TBR. The Killing Streets is her latest.

It examines, in painstaking detail, a series of violent murders against women in Sydney in the early 1930s. It took a while for the police to cotton on, but eventually, the cases, in which the women’s bodies were found dumped in public places, were linked together and suddenly the hunt was on for Australia’s first serial killer.

Unfortunately, in their rush to convict someone, the police made many mistakes and got the wrong man: the killings continued regardless.

As well as being a fascinating account of (unreliable) police investigative techniques at the time, this book is also an eye-opening portrait of a misogynistic society in which women were merely the playthings of men and if they went missing or were killed it was their fault for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, wearing the “wrong” kinds of clothing, pursuing the “wrong” kind of career or simply belonging to the “wrong” class. This is very much a story of a society in which victim-blaming was king,  where the police were quick to rush to judgement and where media coverage and hearsay had an entire city gripped by fear.

The Killing Streets  is a thoroughly researched and highly readable example of narrative non-fiction that puts a series of Depression-era crimes into a social, historical and economic context. It gets a bit bogged down by detail in places and sometimes the creative elements of the narrative felt overdone, taking away from the reportage of the story, but on the whole this is a good one for true crime fans.

‘Kim Ji-young, Born 1982’  by Cho Nam-ju
Fiction – paperback; Simon & Schuster; 176 pages; 2020. Translated from the Korean by Jamie Chang. 

This international bestseller from Korea, first published in 2016 but recently reissued, is a damning portrait of a contemporary society that favours men over women in almost every facet of life.

It tells the story of Kim Ji-Young, who grows up in South Korea and slowly comes to realise that she is at a disadvantage in almost everything she does simply because she was born female. Her younger brother gets special treatment by her parents (extra food and his own room), she’s sexually harassed at school by her male classmates (but is expected to put up with it because that’s just what boys do), she gets overlooked for promotion at work despite being a dedicated and conscientious employee, she’s expected to give up everything for her husband when she marries — you get the idea.

The easy-to-read narrative is dotted with footnotes relating to gender inequality in Korea — for instance, statistical information on the sex ratio imbalance at birth (116.5 boys born to 100 girls in 1990), and the ways in which women do odd jobs on the side to make money as well as raising children, running households and looking after elderly family members — which lends the story real authenticity.

I found Kim Ji-young, Born 1982 a gripping story, easily read in a day, but I’m not sure it told me anything I didn’t already know. For many teenage girls and young women, however, this novel would be the perfect introduction to feminism. It’s an important and powerful read.

‘The Spillby Imbi Neeme
Fiction – paperback; Viking; 336 pages; 2020. Review copy courtesy of the publisher

Before The Spill was published, Imbi Neeme’s manuscript won the Penguin Literary Prize — and it’s easy to see why. This is a gripping tale of two sisters, Nicole and Samantha, whose lives go separate ways following an incident in their childhood (a car accident on a remote road in Western Australia) and who later struggle to reconcile their differences — in temperament, in outlook and the ways in which they see their divorced parents — as adults.

The story, which is largely set in Perth, is told in such an original and ambitious way — vignettes from the past interweaved with the present day, told in alternate chapters from each sister’s perspective — that it’s hard to believe this is the work of a debut novelist. The writing is assured and the characters flesh-and-blood real.

In its portrayal of alcoholism, Neeme shies away from stereotypes or cliches, presenting the disease and its impact on others in all its messy, complicated detail. She does much the same for the relationship between sisters, for Nicole and Samantha are tied together forever but love and loathe each other in myriad different ways. There is jealousy and anger, hurt and regret, misunderstanding and confusion on almost every page. Yet this is not a maudlin story. There are many laughs and witty asides — often at the expense of stepmothers that come into their lives at various times —  dotted throughout.

I thoroughly enjoyed being in the company of this tricky and tangled family. It will be very interesting to see what Imbi Neeme comes up with next…

I read ‘The Killing Streets’ and ‘The Spill’ as part of the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge. They form my 10th & 11th books for #AWW2020.
Book lists

8 uplifting reads

If you are looking for something cheering to read, then let me help. While my preference tends towards the darker side of fiction, I also like to read books that are more upbeat. A few years back I put together a list entitled 5 uplifting reads, but here’s some more that you might like to try.

The books have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname. As ever, hyperlinks take you to my full review.

‘Fair Stood the Wind for France’ by H.E. Bates (1944)
A lovely heart-warming World War Two romance about a Royal Airforce pilot who crash-lands in Occupied France and falls in love with the French woman who nurses him during his convalescence.

‘Room for a Stranger’ by Melanie Cheng (2019)
A beautiful, bittersweet story about an elderly woman finding friendship in the most unexpected of places when she rents out her spare room to a foreign student.

‘That They May Face The Rising Sun’ by John McGahern (2003)
This beautiful, slow-moving book follows the year in the life of two Londoners who set up home in rural Ireland and charts the changing seasons, the farming calendar and the human interactions that make up life in a rural community.

Lillian Boxfish takes a walk

‘Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk’ by Kathleen Rooney (2017)
A rather sweet novel about an 84-year-old lady, once America’s highest-paid female advertising copywriter, taking a walk around Manhattan on New Year’s Eve in 1984.

‘The Women in Black’ by Madeleine St John (1993)
Delicious black comedy is set in (the fictional) F. G. Goode’s, a Sydney department store, during the 1950s and follows a group of women from various backgrounds who work in Ladies’ Frocks.

‘George’s Grand Tour’ by Caroline Vermalle (2015)
A mischievous and fun-filled story about an octogenarian who runs away from his overprotective family to follow the route of the Tour de France — in a car, not a bike — taking in 21 stages, 49 villages and covering 3,500km over two months.

‘Enchanted April’ by Elizabeth Von Arnim (1922)
Enchanting tale about four very different English women who rent a “small medieval Italian castle on the shores of the Mediterranean” for the month of April.

‘The Submerged Cathedral’ by Charlotte Wood (2004)
Gently told tale of a woman nursing a broken heart who builds an elaborate garden of wild Australian plants in the country home she inherits from her parents.

Have you read any of these books? Or can you recommend other happy and uplifting reads?

Six degrees of separation

Six Degrees of Separation: From ‘The Road’ to ‘Twins’

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 book-themed meme hosted by Kate from booksaremyfavouriteand best.

Every month Kate chooses a particular book as a starting point. The idea is then to create a chain by linking to six other books using common themes.

Here’s this month’s #6Degrees. As ever, click the book titles to read my review of that book in full.

The starting point is:

‘The Road’ by Cormac McCarthy (2006)
I read this novel when it first came out. Set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, it charts the treacherous journey of a man and his young son who follow the road south in search of a warmer climate. It’s a very bleak and chilling book. Another book set in a post-apocalyptic world is…

Cover image of Anna by Niccolò Ammaniti

‘Anna’ by Niccolò Ammaniti (2017)
It is four years after a flu-like virus has wiped out the world’s adult population. There’s no electricity, no transport, no food. The world is run by children, who fight among themselves for survival, and dangerous feral dogs roam the countryside. In this tale, 13-year-old Anna, accompanied by her younger brother, befriend a dog that effectively becomes their protector, albeit an unpredictable one. Another book featuring dogs is…

Fifteen dogs

‘Fifteen Dogs’ by André Alexis (2015)
This kooky novel is about a group of 15 dogs, all staying overnight in a veterinary clinic in Toronto, that are granted the power of consciousness and discover that they can suddenly think for themselves, talk in a new language (English) and reason with one another. It follows their individual antics as some dogs struggle with this gift, others adjust to it easily and a few use it in horrific ways. It won Canada’s Giller Prize in 2015. Another Giller winner is…

Bellevue Square

‘Bellevue Square’ by Michael Redhill (2017)
Over the years the Giller Prize has introduced me to some great books — and this is one of them. It starts off as a thriller, about a woman looking for her doppelganger, then morphs into a wonderful examination of mental illness, consciousness, identity and the blurring of lines between truth, reality and imagination. Another book about mental illness is…

‘Spider’  by Patrick McGrath (1990)
This story follows the plight of a man, who is adjusting to a new life outside of the psychiatric hospital from which he’s recently been released. He keeps a journal to make sense of the world. In it he recalls incidents from his troubled childhood, including how his father, a plumber with a violent streak, took up with Hilda, a local prostitute. Shortly afterwards, his mother mysteriously “disappeared” and Hilda moved into the family home. Another book featuring a plumber is…

‘Safe House’ by Chris Ewan (2012)
This is a rip-roaring thriller set on the Isle of Man. Local plumber Rob Hale has crashed his motorbike and is now in hospital. But when he asks about the female passenger riding pillion, no one knows what he is talking about — he was the only person found at the accident scene. So does this passenger actually exist, or is Rob losing his marbles? Another book featuring a motorbike crash is…

‘Twins’ by Dirk Kurbjuweit(2017)
In this fable-like tale, “twins” Johann and Ludwig are childhood friends who forge a strong bond in the belief that this will make them more synchronised as rowers and therefore more successful in competition. Part of their bonding activity involves rebuilding an old motorbike, which they then ride on the road, even though they are not old enough to hold a licence. I don’t think it’s a plot spoiler to say this does not bode well…

So that’s this month’s #6Degrees: from a post-apocalyptic novel to a story about teenage boys who develop a close relationship, linked via dogs, the Giller Prize, mental illness, plumbers and motorbikes!

Have you read any of these books? 

Author, Bernard MacLaverty, Birgit Vanderbeke, Book lists, Cynan Jones, Damon Galgut, J.L. Carr, Jay Mcinerney, Karin Fossum, Kate Jennings, Magnus Mills, Marguerite Duras, Mary Costello, Nell Leyshon, Nuala Ní Chonchúir, Sonya Hartnett, Tarjei Vesaas, Tommy Wieringa, Yoko Ogawa

17 intriguing novellas you can read in a day (or an afternoon)

If you are looking for a quick read during “lockdown”, something that will absorb you and take you out of yourself for a few hours, you can’t go past a short novel.

I have a penchant for books with fewer than 200 pages and thought I’d list some of my favourites here.

All these books can easily be read in the space of a day — or an afternoon. They have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname. To see a full review, simply click the book title.

Cover image of A Month in the Country by JL Carr

A Month in the Country by JL Carr (1980)
Escape to a long-lost English summer in this subtle tale of a young soldier who returns from the Great War and undertakes a special project: to uncover a medieval mural inside a church.

Academy Street by Mary Costello (2014)
Follow all the joy and heartaches in the life of a passive, too-afraid-to-grab-life-by-the-horns Irishwoman from her girlhood in rural Ireland to her retirement in New York more than half a century later.

The Lover by Marguerite Duras (1984)
Immerse yourself in this evocative and sensual story set in 1930s Indo-China which revolves around a teenage girl’s affair with a man 12 years her senior.

Bad Intentions by Karin Fossum (2011)
Discover a crime book with a difference in this fast-paced story about three men who go on a weekend trip to an isolated cabin by a lake — but only two of them return.

Small Circle of Beings

Small Circle of Beings by Damon Galgut (2005)
Learn about a stubborn South African mother who fails to take her young son to hospital when he falls dangerously ill — will you condemn her or feel empathy?

Of a Boy by Sonya Hartnett (2009)
Spend time in the head of a scared, lonely schoolboy who convinces himself that the three children who move in across the road are the same children whose recent disappearance now fills the TV news.

Snake by Kate Jennings

Snake by Kate Jennings (2001)
Meet Rex and Irene, a married couple living on an outback farm in post-war Australia, who hate each other but must muddle on regardless.

The Long Dry by Cynan Jones (2014) 
Accompany Gareth as he spends an entire day trudging the hills of his Welsh farm looking for a missing cow —  and along the way learn about his hopes, his dreams and the love he has for his wife and children.

Cal by Bernard MacLaverty (1983)
Get caught up in an affair between a Catholic man and an older Protestant woman during the height of The Troubles in Northern Ireland — and be prepared for a heart-rending morally challenging ride.

Explorers of the new century by

Explorers of the New Century by Magnus Mills (2006)
Strap yourself in for a totally bonkers competition between two groups of explorers competing to reach the “furtherest point from civilisation” — expect many laughs and quite a lot of WTF moments!

The Colour of Milk by Nell Leyshon (2012)
Take 15-year-old sharp-tongued Mary by the hand in “this year of lord eighteen hundred and thirty” and go with her as she is forced to work at the local vicarage as the live-in help.

Bright Lights Big City by Jay McInerney (1985)
Experience life as an out-of-work fact-checker in 1980s New York — go to all the parties, take all the drugs, but don’t let on your glamourous wife has left you, and do your best not to fall apart at the seams.

You by Nuala Ní Chonchúir (2010)
Meet a funny, feisty 10-year-old narrator caught between two families —  her mother and her new boyfriend; and her father and his new wife — in 1980s Dublin.

The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa (2010)
Be charmed by the relationship between a young housekeeper and her client, an elderly mathematics professor whose short-term memory only lasts 80 minutes.

The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas (1966)
Succumb to the mystery of an intense friendship between two 11-year-old girls, one of whom disappears in the “ice palace”, a frozen waterfall, in rural Norway.

The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke (1990)
Sit around the dinner table with a German family awaiting the arrival of the patriarch so that they can all celebrate his promotion with mussels and wine — but why is he so late?

The Death of Murat Idrissi by Tommy Wieringa (2019)
Travel abroad with two young women from the Netherlands, on holiday in Morocco, who agree to help smuggle a young man across the border into Europe — with deadly repercussions.

Have you read any of these? Do you have a favourite novella? Or can you recommend a few that I haven’t put on my list?