5 books, Anne Enright, Arrow Books, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2020, Book lists, Book review, Books in translation, Bruce Pascoe, Fiction, History, Ireland, Jonathan Cape, literary fiction, Magabala Books, Non-fiction, Penguin, Publisher

5 fast reviews: Anne Enright, Taylor Jenkins Reid, Yukio Mishima, Bruce Pascoe & Tara June Winch

Sometimes I can’t quite review books as fast as I can read them. I am now working from home (thanks to the coronavirus lockdown), which means there’s little separation from working and home life, and when I finally turn off the computer I’m too exhausted to do much other than flop in front of the TV to watch Netflix or ABC iView or some other streaming service. I really can’t summon up any extra energy to pen a book review.

In the interest of keeping you all informed about what I’ve been reading, here are five books I’ve read in recent months, which I know I will never get around to reviewing in full. This is a pretty eclectic list but a good demonstration of my reading tastes and interests.

As per usual, the books have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname.

‘Actress’  by Anne Enright
Fiction – paperback; Jonathan Cape; 264 pages; 2020.

I am an Anne Enright fan. I was so looking forward to this novel that I bought it on the day of release in Australia and spent a weekend reading it at home on my balcony.

It’s about an aged Irish actress, the fictional theatre legend Katherine O’Dell, as seen through the eyes of her daughter, Norah, but it’s less about acting (though that is a major theme) and more about the ties that bind mothers and daughters, and what it is like to live in the shadow of a famous parent. (The cover, by the way, is a nice reflection of the story: it’s Carrie Fisher as a child watching her mother Debbie Reynolds on the stage.)

But for all its beautiful language and its rich characterisation and the authentic insights into human relationships, I came away from this novel thinking, So what?  It’s full of dark truths and hidden secrets (but is nicely balanced with a touch of subtle comedy), and I loved the way it chartered Katherine’s career from Hollywood to London’s West End and then her slide into obscurity, but there was just something missing that meant I struggled to fully engage or care about the people depicted…

‘Daisy Jones and The Six’ by Taylor Jenkins Reid
Fiction – paperback; Arrow Books; 401 pages; 2020.

I bought this novel to read on a longish four-hour flight from Darwin to Perth last month (just days before the WA borders were closed) and I absolutely loved it.

It’s very much in the vein of a music “documentary”, structured around a series of interviews with members of a (fictional) band that was big in the 1970s. It mainly centres around Daisy Jones, an ingénue singer-songwriter, who joins The Six, and helps propel the group to worldwide fame.

It charts the group’s rise in popularity and recalls the legendary tours, the chart-topping songs and the volatile recording sessions, and provides startling insights into the personal lives of the main players, including their drug addictions and their relationships outside of the music industry. It’s very much a story about sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, and the enormous pressures fame exerts on those whose creativity is the basis of their success.

Fans of Fleetwood Mac (whom the band is supposedly modelled on) will find a lot to love here. It’s hard not to see Daisy as Stevie Nicks and The Six’s narcissistic leader Billy Dunne as Lindsey Buckingham. This is a fun read but has a sad ending…

(For a similar sort of novel, I can also highly recommend Joseph O’Connor’s much-underrated and deliciously entertaining The Thrill of it All, which is the fictionalised memoir of a guitarist from a rock band that made it big in the 1980s.)

‘Star’ by Yukio Mishima
Fiction – Kindle edition; Penguin; 87 pages; 2019. 

Published as part of the Penguin Modern series of novellas and short stories, Star is a story about fame. First published in 1961 not long after the author himself acted in a film, it focuses on a movie star and eligible young bachelor called Rikio. A heartthrob growing more famous by the day, wherever he goes he is greeted by screaming fans. This feeds Rikio’s narcissism and his arrogance, and much of the story focuses on his quest to remain relevant so that the fame does not disappear.

But 24-year-old Rikio has a secret. He has a lover, Kayo, an unattractive older woman — “She looked at least forty but was barely even thirty. Her two front teeth were silver, and she wore her hair in a messy bun” — who is, in fact, his assistant. She does his hair and makeup, and because his good looks are so central to his success, she is his constant companion.

The novella examines the artifice of celebrity. It demonstrates how difficult it can be to live a life that is not your own and the stresses you must endure to be unfaithful to your true self. I wouldn’t say rush out and read it, but I found it kept me entertained over the course of a couple of lunch times.

‘Dark Emu’ by Bruce Pascoe
Non-fiction – paperback; Magabala Books; 278 pages; 2014.

There won’t be many Australians who haven’t heard of this legendary non-fiction book which debunks the long-held belief that Australian Aboriginals were nomadic and did not build houses or practise agriculture.

Pascoe painstakingly excavates evidence from the papers and letters of the first white settlers and explorers to show that pre-colonial Aboriginals did, indeed, do those things — and more. He finds written evidence that they built dams, farmed wild plants for food, constructed settlements and fashioned landscapes to suit their ends. They even had their own system of government. And he explains why it suited colonialists to suppress that evidence, to maintain the myth that Aboriginals were simply hunter-gatherers, a myth that remains to this day.

Dark Emu is a truly eye-opening book. I loved Pascoe’s simple prose, his well thought out arguments and his plea for better understanding between black and white Australians so that we can move forward together. If the book has a single message it is this: white Australians have an amazing opportunity to learn from 60,000 years of sustainable custodianship of this land and all it contains — but they have to acknowledge it first.

‘Swallow the Air’ by Tara June Winch
Fiction – hardcover; University of Queensland Press; 216 pages; 2006.

First published in 2006 but reissued in 2018 (in a really lovely small-format hardcover), this is a gripping account of a young Aboriginal girl whose single mother dies, leaving her (and her older brother) in the care of an auntie. When Auntie’s fondness for drink and men who throw their fists around gets too much May strikes out on her own. 

Told in a series of self-contained short chapters and vignettes (a bit like short stories), the narrative charts May’s ups and downs, the heartbreak she contends with, the crappy jobs she works, and the people — good, bad and indifferent — that she meets along the way as she comes to term with her past and seeks out her own indigenous culture. The redemptive ending, when she returns to her childhood home as a proud Wiradjuri woman, makes this beautiful, heartfelt book such a powerful one. Written in lush language, it contains so many evocative descriptions of people, places and experiences that it’s the kind of book you want to savour rather than rush through.

Oh, and did I mention it’s won a million awards?

I read ‘Actress’ as part of Cathy’s Reading Ireland Month 2020, an annual initiative to read books from Ireland. You can find out more about that on Cathy’s blog 746 Books.

I read ‘Star’ as part of Dolce Bellezza’s #JapaneseLitChallenge13. You can find out more about the challenge, which runs from 1 January to 31 March, here. This is also my 11th book for #TBR2020 in which I plan to read 20 books from my TBR between 1 January and 30 June. I bought it on Kindle last November for £1.99, not realising it was basically a short story.

I read ‘Swallow the Air’ as part of the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge. It is my 6th book for #AWW2020.

5 books, Book lists

5 new Australian novels by big-name authors to add to your wishlist

Novels by award-winning Australian authors are like buses. None for ages, and then a flurry arrive all at once.

Indeed, there are so many brilliant Australian writers with new books coming out this month in Australia that the Miles Franklin Literary Award judges are really going to have their work cut out for them next year.

Here’s just five that have caught my attention (and my retail-clicking online tendencies — yes, I’ve ordered a few of these direct from Australia already).

The books have been arranged in alphabetical order according to author’s surname:

The Life to Come

The Life to Come by Michelle de Kretser

Set in Sydney, Paris and Sri Lanka, “The Life to Come” is a mesmerising novel about the stories we tell and don’t tell ourselves as individuals, as societies and as nations. It feels at once firmly classic and exhilaratingly contemporary. Pippa is a writer who longs for success. Celeste tries to convince herself that her feelings for her married lover are reciprocated. Ash makes strategic use of his childhood in Sri Lanka but blots out the memory of a tragedy from that time. Driven by riveting stories and unforgettable characters, here is a dazzling meditation on intimacy, loneliness and our flawed perception of other people. Profoundly moving as well as wickedly funny, “The Life to Come” reveals how the shadows cast by both the past and the future can transform, distort and undo the present. This extraordinary novel by Miles Franklin-winning author Michelle de Kretser will strike to your soul. 

Published by Allen & Unwin in Australia this month. Due to be published in the UK on 4  January.

First Person by Richard Flanagan

Six weeks to write for your life… In this blistering story of a ghostwriter haunted by his demonic subject, the Man Booker Prize winner turns to lies, crime and literature with devastating effect. A young and penniless writer, Kif Kehlmann, is rung in the middle of the night by the notorious con man and corporate criminal, Siegfried Heidl. About to go to trial for defrauding the banks of $700 million, Heidl proposes a deal: $10,000 for Kehlmann to ghostwrite his memoir in six weeks. Kehlmann accepts but begins to fear that he is being corrupted by Heidl. As the deadline draws closer, he becomes ever more unsure if he is ghostwriting a memoir, or if Heidl is rewriting him―his life, his future. Everything that was certain grows uncertain as he begins to wonder: who is Siegfried Heidl―and who is Kif Kehlmann?

Published by Penguin in Australia this month. Due to be published in the UK by Chatto & Windus on 2 November.

Force of Nature by Jane Harper

Five women reluctantly pick up their backpacks and start walking along the muddy track. Only four come out the other side. The hike through the rugged landscape is meant to take the office colleagues out of their air-conditioned comfort zone and teach resilience and team building. At least that is what the corporate retreat website advertises. Federal Police Agent Aaron Falk has a particularly keen interest in the whereabouts of the missing bushwalker. Alice Russell is the whistleblower in his latest case – and Alice knew secrets. About the company she worked for and the people she worked with. Far from the hike encouraging teamwork, the women tell Falk a tale of suspicion, violence and disintegrating trust. And as he delves into the disappearance, it seems some dangers may run far deeper than anyone knew.

Published by Pan Macmillan in Australia last month. Due to be published in the UK by Little, Brown on 8 February 2018; a Kindle edition is currently available on Amazon.

The Passage of LoveThe Passage of Love by Alex Miller

Robert Croft, a young Englishman, arrives in Australia in the 1950s, determined to inhabit the outback. After five years of life on the land, he makes his way to Melbourne where, living in a boarding house, working as a cleaner, he finds himself consumed by a burning need to read, write, draw, create. When he meets the enigmatic Lena, she instantly becomes his staunchest champion but as their tortured marriage evolves and gradually erodes she ultimately becomes an obstacle. This intensely autobiographical novel has much to say about the compulsion to create, and the fundamental unknowability of even our most intimate partners. As the reader sinks into the text of this singular book, the artifice of fiction gradually melts away, leaving nothing but truth on the page. In “The Passage of Love” Alex Miller has given us a masterful work which will come to define his career as one of the great writers of our time.

Published by Allen & Unwin in Australia this month. Due to be published in the UK on 1 March 2018.

Taboo by Kim ScottTaboo by Kim Scott

“Taboo” takes place in the present day, in the rural South-West of Western Australia, and tells the story of a group of Noongar people who revisit, for the first time in many decades, a taboo place: the site of a massacre that followed the assassination, by these Noongar’s descendants, of a white man who had stolen a black woman. They come at the invitation of Dan Horton, the elderly owner of the farm on which the massacres unfolded. He hopes that by hosting the group he will satisfy his wife’s dying wishes and cleanse some moral stain from the ground on which he and his family have lived for generations. But the sins of the past will not be so easily expunged. We walk with the ragtag group through this taboo country and note in them glimmers of re-connection with language, lore, country. We learn alongside them how countless generations of Noongar may have lived in ideal rapport with the land. This is a novel of survival and renewal, as much as destruction; and, ultimately, of hope as much as despair.

Published by Pan Macmillan in Australia in July. There is no date available for the UK — as yet.

Please note that the release dates quoted for the UK are subject to change.

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

5 books, Book lists

5 unmissable police procedurals

5-books-200pixThere’s nothing better than curling up with a good crime novel, especially one that’s intelligent and believable. I’m quite partial to police procedurals, but they have to be free of cliche, well plotted and far from predictable — I  don’t want to be able to guess the ending. It helps if they have a strong sense of place, which might explain my preference for crime in translation (Iceland and Japan, in particular), and focus as much on the why as they do on the how.

Here are five of my favourite police procedurals. The books have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s name — click the title to see my full review:

Prime cut by Alan Carter

‘Prime Cut’ by Alan Carter (2010)
The first in the Cato Kwong series, this story follows the Detective Senior Sergeant’s investigation into a torso found washed up on the West Australian coast during the height of the mining boom. Meanwhile, more than 1,400 miles away, police in Adelaide are investigating a murder in which the victim was electrocuted and bludgeoned to death, a crime that bears striking similarities to one that occurred in the UK in 1973. These two storylines eventually come together in an unexpected — and ultimately — shocking way.

In the woods by Tana Frence

‘In the Woods’ by Tana French (2008)
Tana French’s first novel (she has written five more since), this one introduces us to Rob Ryan, a detective on the Dublin Murder Squad, whose traumatic childhood past comes flooding back when he investigates the murder of a 12-year-old girl whose body was found in the local woods. Is this crime linked to a similar one Rob survived when a youngster?  Is it the same perpetrator? This is a clever story that marries the police procedural with elements of the psychological thriller as well as giving great insight into the emotional life of police doing harrowing jobs in difficult circumstances.

The Dry

‘The Dry’ by Jane Harper (2016)
A gripping crime novel set in a remote rural town during the height of the great Australian drought, this is one of the best books I’ve read this year. It focuses on what appears to be the murder-suicide of a man, his wife and young son, found shot dead in a farmhouse, but which may in fact have been carried out by an outsider. The ensuing investigation, carried out under-the-radar by a federal police officer who knew the dead man, and the local police sergeant, is full of twists and turns, but it’s the claustrophobic atmosphere of small town life painted here that makes this an extraordinarily compelling read.

Devotion of Suspect X

‘The Devotion of Suspect X’ by Keigo Higashino (2011)
This cult crime thriller doesn’t follow the normal conventions of the genre. We know from the outset who committed the murder, but we don’t know the detailed steps taken to cover it up. The resultant cat-and-mouse game between the investigating detective and the mathematician who covers it up is one of the most intriguing and well-plotted books I’ve ever read. Unravelling this giant riddle is almost impossible — perfect for anyone who tends to guess the ending of crime books.

Tainted Blood

‘Tainted Blood’ by Arnaldur Indriðason (2005)
The first in Reykjavik Murder Mysteries series, Tainted Blood (also published under the title Jar City) introduces us to one of contemporary literature’s most morose (and intriguing) detectives, Detective Erlendur, whose troubled family life forms a fascinating backdrop to the bleak cases he investigates. In this story he investigates the murder of an elderly man found dead in his flat. The man had a rather nasty reputation and had been accused, but never convicted, of horrendous crimes in the past, so is this someone wreaking revenge for past wrongs? The atmospheric location, complicated characters, a little bit of science, a lot of detective work and some unexpected twists and turns, makes this book a winning one.

Have you read any of these books? Or can you recommend another unmissable crime novel or police procedural?

5 books, Book lists

5 uplifting reads

5-books-200pixAs we near the end of 2016 I can already hear the collective rubbing of hands from across the world as people prepare to say goodbye to what, quite frankly, has been a terribly distressing year.

So many cultural icons have died (David Bowie, Muhammad Ali, Alan Rickman, Prince, Leonard Cohen et al), the gulf between the super-rich and the rest of us has got ever wider, migrants and refugees are drowning in ever-greater numbers as they cross the Mediterranean, the war in Syria has got worse, post-truth politics has gripped the west and I dare not mention Brexit or the fact that Donald Trump has been elected as the next President of the United States.

So, in these rather dark and troubling times it’s refreshing to be able to escape into a good book. While my literary tastes are relatively dark, every now and then I read a novel that could best be described as happy or uplifting.

Here’s a list of some of my favourite novels that put the human race in a positive light and show the redemptive power of kindness, generosity of spirit, tolerance and benevolence. The books have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s name — click the title to see my full review:

Lost & Found by Brooke Davis

‘Lost & Found’ by Brooke Davis (2015)
A rather delightful story about a young girl who loses her mother in a department store and then goes on a long cross-country adventure with two elderly people to find her. It’s quirky but big-hearted, and the way it explores the twin themes of loneliness and grief without being schmaltzy or sentimental makes it a fun and rewarding read.

Plainsong by Kent Haruf

‘Plainsong’ by Kent Haruf (1999)
This is a beautiful, sincere story about a wide cast of characters leading complicated, messy lives. By examining the ties that bind people and communities together, it shows that our lives are made all the richer by putting others before ourselves. My favourite read in 2014; nothing’s really surpassed it since.

Miss Garnet's Angel

‘Miss Garnet’s Angel’ by Salley Vickers (2005)
Set largely in Venice with a lonely spinster at its heart, this is an inspirational story about second chances and living life to the full when you’ve always lived life in the shadows. Art, religion and grief combine to show that emotions — and our ability to express and experience them — are what makes us truly human.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson

‘Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day’ by Winifred Watson (1938)
An enchanting mid-century take on Cinderella, this book is another one about second chances and the fact that you are never too old, too poor or from the wrong class to pursue them.

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

‘The Rosie Project’ by Graeme Simsion (2013)
This unconventional story about an unconventional man looking for love is a charming read about being yourself and never giving up on your dreams. It’s often laugh out loud funny, too.

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

5 books, Book lists

5 books for Women in Translation month

5-books-200pixAugust is Women in Translation Month, an initiative designed to encourage people to read books by women in translation.

Why? Mainly to redress the balance: figures suggest that just 30 per cent of literature in translation is written by women. According to blogger Meytal Radzinski, who set up the first #WITMonth in 2014, the situation has changed little over the past three years — and now it’s time to change it. (This post gives you all the stats you need to know.)

It’s great to see that this year’s #WITMonth seems to have really caught the imagination of readers, publishers and booksellers everywhere. All the major bookshops here in London — Waterstones, Folyes, the LRB et al — have got behind it. So, too, has the Reading Agency.

I’m a keen reader of translated fiction (you can see everything I’ve reviewed here), so thought I would highlight some of my favourites by women writers. The books have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s name — click the title to see my full review:

The_lover

‘The Lover’ by Marguerite Duras
Translated from the French by Barbara Bray

This is an evocative and sensual novel about a young girl’s affair with a man 12 years her senior, which is supposedly based on the author’s own life. Set in Indochina in 1929, it is compelling in the way it explores sexual taboos and the tensions between the French colonists and the South Vietnamese, and the writing has a beautiful melancholic tinge to it. It’s not a story that is easily forgotten…

Bad intentions

‘Bad Intentions’ by Karin Fossum
Translated from the Norwegian by Charlotte Barslund

Three young men go on a weekend trip to an isolated cabin by a lake, but only two of them return to shore. It’s not so much what happens, but why that makes this novella such a terrifically good read, one that explores culpability, peer group pressure, betrayal and paranoia. It’s the ninth volume of Fossum’s Inspector Sejer series, but it works as a stand-alone book. I’ve read quite a few of Fossum’s crime novels — and I’ve yet to come across a bad one.

This-place-holds-no-fear

‘This Place Holds No Fear’ by Monika Held
Translated from the German by Anne Posten

One of my favourite reads from 2015, this extraordinarily beautiful novel is both a touching portrait of a marriage and an exploration of what happens to Holocaust survivors long after the war is over. How do such people damaged by the unfathomable horror and trauma of the Nazi death camps get on with their lives? Based on a true story — the author interviewed and spent time with Auschwitz survivors — it feels incredibly authentic. It’s certainly powerful and compelling.

Hotel Iris

‘Hotel Iris’ by Yoko Ogawa
Translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder

This is another haunting tale about the relationship between a younger woman and an older man. But Ogawa’s story is more dark and twisted than Duras’ (above). The affair puts the woman in danger because the man is a sexual deviant and prone to unexpected rages and no one knows that the pair have hooked up. This tension-filled story is written in such a quietly understated and restrained style it’s not until you finish it that you realise how strange and disturbing it really is…

beside the sea

‘Beside the Sea’ by Véronique Olmi
Translated from the French by Adriana Hunter

This profoundly moving novella looks at what happens when a mother feels she can’t cope with her children. She takes them on a holiday to the seaside but doesn’t have the money to do much other than pay for the squalid accommodation that she’s arranged for them. The kind of story that could have been lifted from the news headlines, this has an earth-shattering ending that will make you think twice about judging women who commit infanticide.

Have you read any of these books? Or can you recommend other translations by women writers? Are you taking part in #WITMonth?

5 books, Book lists

5 non-fiction titles for dads (and anyone else for that matter)

5-books-200pixNext Sunday (June 19) it will be Father’s Day in the UK, the perfect opportunity to buy your dad a great book. But what to get him?

Sadly, many retailers don’t have a clue. Their “books for dad” selections are often dull and uninspired, as this tweet by Sam Missingham demonstrates. I replied by saying, “Men reading about men #yawn #predictable”. Anyone would think men never read books by women!

I figured I could do a lot better than the supermarkets and WH Smith when it comes to suggesting what might make a suitable present. So here are just five suggestions. Note they’re all narrative non-fiction and written by women. In my opinion, they are truly great reads — some of them have even won prizes.

The books have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s name — click the title to see my full review:

If he’s interested in geopolitics:  

Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick

‘Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea’ by Barbara Demick (2010)
Barbara Demick, an American journalist, tells the stories of six ordinary citizens who defected from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. It is a gripping account of what it is like to reside in the world’s most secretive and repressive state.

If he’s interested in crime and the justice system:

This-House-of-Grief

‘This House of Grief: The Story of a Murder Trial’ by Helen Garner (2016)
Australian journalist Helen Garner follows the trial of Robert Farquharson, who was charged with three counts of murder after his car ran off the road and plunged into a dam: all three passengers —  aged 10, 7 and 2 — were unable to get out and drowned. They were his sons.

If he’s interested in sport:

Night Games UK edition

‘Night Games: A Journey to the Dark Side of Sport’ by Anna Krien (2014)
This book examines the culture of male sport and the shocking attitudes many professional sportsmen hold towards women. While its focus is Australia (much of it follows the rape trial of a young Australian Rules footballer) it’s just as relevant here in the UK and any Western country where sportsmen are hailed as heroes and where sexism and misogyny are rife. (Note I haven’t forgotten the hyperlink; I read it last year but found it too profound to review.)

If he’s interested in the media and journalism:

The Journalist and the Murderer

‘The Journalist and the Murderer’ by Janet Malcolm (1990)
A classic of the narrative non-fiction genre, this book focuses on journalistic ethics. It examines a 1980s lawsuit between a convicted murderer, Jeffrey MacDonald, and a journalist, Joe McGinness, who wrote about the crime. It explores the relationship between journalists and sources and the difficulties which face both parties, and is just as scathing of the legal profession as it is of the media.

If he’s interested in War and the Middle East:

The Weight of a Mustard Seed

‘The Weight of a Mustard Seed’ by Wendell Stevenson (2010)
Written by an American-born British journalist, this book charts the rise and fall of one of Saddam Hussein’s generals, focussing in particular on the notion of moral culpability. It explores what it is like to live under tyrannical rule, albeit from the point of view of Saddam’s inner circle, as well as telling the story of Iraq’s recent bloody history.

Have you read any of these books? Are there any non-fiction titles, written by women, that you think would appeal to men?

5 books, Book lists

5 Australian novels not to miss this month

5-books-200pixThe next few weeks are busy with loads of new Australian novels being published here in the UK. Here are five titles that have caught my eye.

The books have been arranged in order of publication date:

The Anchoress by Robyn CadwalladeThe Anchoress by Robyn Cadwallader
Published in paperback by Faber on 7 April (already available on Kindle)

“England, 1255: Sarah is only 17 when she chooses to become an anchoress, a holy woman shut away in a small cell, measuring seven paces by nine, at the side of the village church. Fleeing the grief of losing a much-loved sister in childbirth and the pressure to marry, she decides to renounce the world, with all its dangers, desires and temptations, and to commit herself to a life of prayer and service to God. But as she slowly begins to understand, even the thick, unforgiving walls of her cell cannot keep the outside world away, and it is soon clear that Sarah’s body and soul are still in great danger…”

Relativity by Antonia HayesRelativity by Antonia Hayes 
Published in hardcover by Corsair on 7 April

“A tiny baby is rushed to hospital. Doctors suspect he was shaken by his father, who is later charged and convicted. The baby grows up in the care of his mother. Life goes on. Twelve years later, Ethan is a singular young boy. Gifted with an innate affinity for physics and astronomy, Ethan sees the world in ways others simply can’t – through a prism of light, time, stars and space. Ethan is the centre of his mother’s universe. Claire has tried to protect him from finding out what happened when he was a baby. But the older Ethan gets, the more questions he asks about his absent father. A single handwritten letter is all it takes to set off a dramatic chain of events, pulling both parents back together again into Ethan’s orbit. As the years seem to warp and bend, the past is both relived and revealed anew for each of them.”

The Midnight Watch by David DyerThe Midnight Watch by David Dyer 
Published in hardcover by Atlantic Books on 7 April

“On a black night in April 1912, fifteen hundred passengers and crew perish as the Titanic slowly sinks beneath the freezing waters of the North Atlantic. Charting the same perilous course through the icebergs is the SS Californian, close enough for her crew to see the eight white distress rockets fired by the Titanic. Yet the Californian fails to act, and later her crew insist that they saw nothing. As news of the disaster spreads throughout America, journalists begin a feeding frenzy, desperate for stories. John Steadman is one such reporter, a man broken by alcoholism, grief and a failed marriage. Steadman senses blood as he fixates on the Californian and his investigation reveals a tense and perplexing relationship between the ship’s captain and second officer, who hold the secrets of what occurred that night. Slowly he peels back the layers of deception, and his final, stunning revelation of what happened while the Titanic sank will either redeem the men of the Californian, or destroy them.”

The Wonder Lover by Malcolm KnoxThe Wonder Lover by Malcolm Knox
Published in paperback by Allen & Unwin on 7 April

“This is the story of John Wonder, a man with three families occupying their own compartment in his world, each with a loving wife and two children called Adam and Evie, and each completely oblivious to the existence of the others. As he travels from family to family in different cities, he works as an Authenticator, verifying world records, confirming facts, setting things straight, while his own life is a teetering tower of breathtaking lies and betrayals. Things really start to get complicated when on the search to authenticate the world’s most beautiful woman, he falls in love with a fourth woman.”

The Weaver Fish by Robert EdesonThe Weaver Fish by Robert Edeson
Published in paperback by Aardvark Bureau on 18 April (already available on Kindle)

“A captivating zoological, mathematical, technological, grammatical, architectural, aeronautical literary thriller – unlike anything you’ve read before. When Edvard Tøssentern, the missing author of studies of the mysterious flesh-eating weaver fish, staggers in from a remote swamp, his colleagues at the research station on the island of Ferendes are overjoyed. But Edvard’s discovery about a rare giant bird throws them all into the path of a dangerous international crime ring. Part-thriller, part-literary and mathematical puzzle, this unique, bold and playful debut engages the reader in an exhilarating game, challenging everything we know – or think we know – about language, morality and truth.”

Have any of these books piqued your interest? Some have been published in Australia already, so if you’ve read any of them I’d be delighted to know what you thought…

5 books, Book lists

5 Irish novels you’ve probably never heard of

5-books-200pixIn honour of St Patrick’s Day I thought I’d put together a list of Irish novels — with a difference.

While I would never presume to know what you have read or not read, here are five Irish novels that you may not have heard of. All are excellent reads and deserving of a far wider audience.

The books have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s name — hyperlinks will take you to my full reviews:

The Pilgrimage by John Broderick‘The Pilgrimage’ by John Broderick (1961)

The Pilgrimage was banned by the Irish Censorship Board upon publication in 1961. I’m not surprised. Even now it has the power to shock. Set during the 1950s, it is about what happens to ordinary men and women when the Catholic Church tries to control sex and sexuality. And it peels back the facade to show how women and gay men were affected by the hypocrisy at the heart of its religious doctrine. The story is largely told through the eyes of an upstanding Church-going woman who has a secret life in which she seeks out casual encounters with strange men, the consequences of which are rather devastating…

The dead eight‘The Dead Eight’ by Carlo Gébler (2011)

Carlo Gébler’s The Dead Eight is based on a true story in which police framed an innocent man for the murder of a prostitute in rural Ireland in 1940. The man, Harry Gleeson, was hanged at Mountjoy Prison the following year. Gébler’s dramatic retelling of events is less about Gleeson and more about the murder victim, Moll McCarthy, who was found lying in a field with two fatal shotgun wounds — in fact, one side of her face had been blown away. Mixing fact with fiction, this is a riveting tale about an impoverished and uneducated woman who became an unwitting pawn in a dangerous game involving the IRA and the police.

The Devil I Know by Claire Kilroy‘The Devil I Know’ by Claire Kilroy (2012)

The Devil I Know is an extraordinarily funny satire about the collapse of the Irish economy following the 2008 global financial crisis. This Faustian tale is set over 10 days in March, 2016, when Tristram St Lawrence, 13th Earl of Howth, is giving evidence at a public inquiry into the collapse of the Irish economy. His lurid, fantastical tale, which is laugh-out-loud funny in places, highlights the stupidity, idiocy and foolhardiness of a succession of builders, bankers, politicians, developers and businessmen who put their own greed above all else. This is a morality tale of the finest order.

Leaving Ardglass‘Leaving Ardglass’ by William King (2008)

Leaving Ardglass is about two Irish brothers whose lives follow vastly different trajectories. When the younger brother, Tom, the narrator of the story, heads to London in the summer of 1961 to work on the construction sites run by his older brother, much of what he witnesses challenges his value system and opens his eyes to the ways of the world. The story is shocking in places, but its depiction of the truly tough and knockabout lives that Irish immigrants were forced to live at the time is unparalleled — and incredibly moving. It’s one of the best Irish novels I’ve ever read.

The Last Fine Summer‘The Last Fine Summer’ by John McKenna (1997)

The Last Fine Summer is set in rural Ireland in the mid-1990s. It is narrated by Tim, a 29-year-old school teacher, who is grieving over the loss of his much younger lover, whom he addresses directly in a series of letters. This narrative is undercut with the story of Tim’s previous love affair with his best friend 10 years earlier. Much of the story is about teenagers finding their feet, negotiating that “last summer” when school ends and the rest of their lives begin, but it’s also about the relationship between fathers and sons. Sadly, the book is out of print, but it’s worth hunting out second-hand copies, because this is a powerful novel about love and loss, death and remorse. It is John McGahern-like in its depiction of the passing seasons, of rural life, close-knit communities and the ways in which education can help you rise above your circumstances.

Have you read any of these books? Or can you recommend another Irish novel that deserves a wider audience?

5 books, Book lists

5 books to read for Diverse December

5-books-200pixThanks to the power of social media and the efforts of two bloggers — Dan, who blogs at From Inside the Dog, and Naomi, who blogs at The Writes of Woman — this month has been designated #DiverseDecember. This encourages everyone to promote and read books by BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) writers in order to redress the balance, which tends to favour writers from white backgrounds (and usually from the US or UK).

Having read more about the initiative in this brilliant blog post by Naomi, I began to wonder whether I had an inherent bias against BAME writers, too. Though this blog tries to focus on Australian and Irish authors, I was surprised to see I do, actually, read writers from non-white backgrounds, too, though perhaps not as many as I should.

I thought I would highlight five of my favourites since I began book blogging in 2004. The books have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s name — click the title to see my full review:

Song-for-night ‘Song For Night’ by Chris Abani (2007)

This powerful novella is set in an unspecified African nation. The story is told from the perspective of a child soldier, who is taught to detect unexploded land mines with his bare feet and then disable them with a knife. His vocal chords have been cut, “so that we wouldn’t scare each other with our death screams” whenever a fellow solider is blown up by a mine. Song for Night is not a pleasant read, but amid the terror and the brutality, there is a deep, underlying humanity here, about what it is like to have your childhood stolen from you, a world in which life is cheap and hate comes easily.

Yacobian-building ‘The Yacoubian Building’ by Alaa As Aswan (2004)

Set in downtown Cairo at the time of the 1990 Gulf War, this intriguing novel shows Egyptian life in the late 20th century through the eyes of a diverse range of characters, all of whom live in a single apartment block. It charts the struggles of a wide cross-section of society, from the underclass that live in cramped conditions in converted storage rooms on the roof of the building, to the wealthy residents who inhabit the building’s apartments. This allows the author to show the apparent contradictions in Egyptian society where people with different religious, political and moral viewpoints live side by side, not always in harmony.

Half-blood-blues ‘Half Blood Blues’ by Esi Edugyan (2011)

This novel about jazz musicians living in Berlin during the Second World War won the Giller Prize in 2011. It is narrated by Sidney Griffiths, a black bass player from Baltimore who spent his formative years in Berlin during the 1930s and 40s, looking back on his life half a century later. The narrative swings back and forth across time — from Berlin and Paris during the war, and Berlin and Poland 50 years later. It’s a fascinating account of one man’s experiences — his love affairs, his musical rivalries and fierce jealousies, his guilt and much-too-late atonement for one cruel act that he can never take back. It’s a thrilling, adventure-filled read.

The-attack ‘The Attack’ by Yasmina Khadra (2007)

The Attack, set in Israel, is about a suicide bomber. It opens with Dr Amin Jaafie, a surgeon in a Tel Aviv hospital, dealing with the bombed and bloodied victims of a terrorist attack in a downtown pizza restaurant that has killed 19 people. As a naturalised Israeli Arab, Dr Jaafie has worked hard to be respected, admired and accepted by the Jewish culture in which he could so easily be cast as an outsider. A dedicated doctor, married to the woman of his dreams, he socialises in fashionable circles, but now his whole life has been turned on its head. What was it about his wife that made her carry out this despicable act, and what clues did he miss? The book follows his quest to find answers to these questions…

Benang ‘Benang: From the Heart’ by Kim Scott (1999)

This story about Australia’s history of white subjugation of indigenous people was joint winner of the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 1999. It is narrated by Harvey, who comes to slowly understand his place in his family line — “the product of a long and considered process” to create a white man from a long line of people with aboriginal blood. This process has been overseen by his grandfather as part of a disturbing scientific experiment in which he has been trying to “breed out” the aboriginal blood in successive generations. His efforts mirror those of the settlements and missions in the early part of the 20th century in which Australia operated a crude system of apartheid designed to separate whites from blacks. This incredibly moving, often challenging, book left me with a giant lump in my throat…

For more inspiration, please do check out my BAME writers tag.

Have you read any of these books? Or can you recommend others by BAME writers? Are you taking part in #DiverseDecember?

5 books, Book lists

5 books about holidays from hell

5-books-200pixWe all love going on holiday, but what happens when things don’t go according to plan? In this selection of five novels — all reviewed on this site — characters find themselves caught up in trips that quickly descend into vacations from hell.

The books have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s name — click the title to see my full review:

‘A Woman of my Age’ by Nina BawdenA woman of my age (1967)

Middle-aged Elizabeth Jourdelay is feeling bereft after her children leave home. When she goes on holiday to Morocco with her husband Richard, she finds herself trapped with other English travellers — one of whom she suspects her husband may have had an affair with. As the couple, and their new-found “friends”, travel from Fez to the barren uplands beyond the Atlas mountains, the reader soon begins to realise that Elizabeth has made far too many compromises in order that her marriage can work, and now, in a foreign country, the cracks in their relationship can no longer be smoothed over. The tension, some of it tragi-comical, builds and builds until it comes to a devastating head…

Up-above-the-worldUp Above the World’ by Paul Bowles (1966)

When Dr Taylor Slade and his much younger second wife, Day, set off on a holiday to Puerto Rico by cruise ship little do they know how nightmarish their trip will become. It all begins with one act of simple kindness — Day loans a Canadian woman $10, whom they then struggle to shake off. Before long things go from bad to worse when Dr Slade falls ill and Day has to enlist the help of a fellow expat American to help them. Except this man isn’t quite what he seems and has nefarious plans, which transforms the couple’s exotic holiday into a vacation from hell. It’s creepy and unnerving — and you’ll race through it wanting to know what happens next.

Losing-Gemma‘Losing Gemma’ by Katy Gardner (2002)

This a fast-paced psychological thriller about two English 20-something backpackers who journey to India on an “adventure of a lifetime” yet only one comes back alive — a fact that is made quite apparent at the start. The two female travellers, who have known each other since childhood but are polar opposites, are plunged into a strange land where strange things begin to happen to them. This puts untold stress on their friendship, which begins to quickly unravel. An intriguing undercurrent of menace builds to a frightening climax in which only one woman will survive…

Summer House with Swimming Pool‘Summer house with Swimming Pool’ by Herman Koch (2014)

This strange and compelling tale is a dark analysis of modern morals and the consequences of acting on our most wanton desires. It revolves around a doctor and his family who are invited to spend their summer in a holiday house with a famous actor and his friends. They all pass their days in the sun, swimming and drinking. It all seems rather carefree, but there’s an undercurrent of sexual tension between all the adult couples and there’s even a fledgling romance between the actor’s son and the doctor’s teenage daughter. But eventually that tension spills over into something dark and dangerous, the outfall of which has long-lasting repercussions. The message seems to be, choose who you go on holiday with very, very carefully…

Goat-mountain‘Goat Mountain’ by David Vann (2013)

This story covers one family’s annual hunting trip in the wilds of Northern California that goes drastically wrong. It is told through the eyes of an 11-year-old boy, eager to become a “man” by shooting his first buck. But within moments of arriving at their destination — the family’s remote 640-acre property — events take an unexpected and dramatic turn. This is a deeply disturbing and violent book that deals with important subjects, not least at what point should a child take responsibility for his actions. It ruminates on the sanctity of life, the sins of the father, the rules (or ethics) of hunting, human guilt and remorse, crime and punishment. It should appeal to those who like dark suspenseful tales about moral culpability.

Have you read any of these books? Or can you recommend another story that is based on a holiday from hell?