Book chat, News

A literary cause to support: the ‘Freadom Inside’ project

Image by Maaark from Pixabay

 

Imagine being stuck in prison with nothing to read. No opportunity to escape to a different world. No opportunity to better yourself.

This is obviously something that has crossed the mind of Australian writer Bri Lee (whose books I have reviewed here). Bri has set up the ‘Freadom Inside’ project, which is designed to provide women incarcerated in NSW jails the opportunity to read books that have been bought for them by the public. It is being backed by Independent bookseller Glee Books, in Sydney, which is covering the postage and dispatch of the books.

Writing on her Instagram account last week, Bri said: “What I found when researching #WhoGetsToBeSmart [her latest non-fiction book about power, privilege and education in Australia] was shocking, and I have chosen to commit to this work as one concrete way I can help share learning + resources instead of hoarding them.”

The project will be officially launched next week, on October 28, via Zoom. You can find out more and book tickets here.

In the meantime, if you would like to donate a book (or books) to the project, visit this page on the Glee Books website, choose from the preselected range (which has been approved by Corrective Services), purchase online using the “freadom” coupon code and Glee Books will cover the postage and dispatch. Find out more here.

As someone who has a TBR that spans two continents (!!), I cannot begin to imagine what it would be like to exist without access to reading material. I tend to buy at least a couple of books, both new and used, per month, so I have put my money where my mouth is and ordered Tara June Winch’s Swallow the Air, a book I read last year and really loved, for the project.

[Hat tip: I first read about this literary project on Australian writer Charlotte Wood’s Instagram account.]

Literary prizes, News

Ned Kelly Award winners announced

The winners of the 2021 Ned Kelly Awards for crime fiction and true crime writing have been announced.

Best Crime Fiction went to Consolation by Garry Disher. I am three-quarters of the way through this novel at the moment and it’s excellent, so expect a review soon.

Best Debut Crime Fiction went to The Second Son by Loraine Peck , which I read earlier in the year as part of my Southern Cross Crime Month.

Best True Crime went to Stalking Claremont: Inside the hunt for a serial killer by Bret Christian, which has been on my TBR since publication last year and which is another I hope to read soon seeing as it’s about an investigation that happened right here in Perth.

Best International Crime Fiction went to We Begin at the End by Chris Whittaker.

You can find out more about the awards and what the judges said about the prize winners via the announcement on the official website.

News

2021 Ned Kelly Awards shortlists announced

Here’s some good news for fans of crime writing: the 2021 Ned Kelly Awards for crime fiction and true crime writing have been announced.

Established in 1995, these awards are administered by the Australian Crime Writers Association (ACWA) and are named after Australia’s infamous 19th century bushranger Ned Kelly.

The awards are split into four separate categories as follows (hyperlinks take you to my reviews):

BEST CRIME FICTION

  • Consolation by Garry Disher (Text) (on my TBR!)

  • Gathering Dark by Candice Fox (Penguin Random House)

  • A Testament of Character by Sulari Gentill (Pantera Press)

  • The Survivors by Jane Harper (Pan Macmillan)

  • The Good Turn by Dervla McTiernan (Harper Collins) (on my TBR!)

  • Tell Me Lies by J.P. Pomare (Hachette) (on my TBR!)

  • When She Was Good by Michael Robotham (Hachette)

  • White Throat by Sarah Thornton (Text) (on my TBR!)

BEST DEBUT CRIME FICTION

  • The Good Mother by Rae Cairns (Bandrui Publishing)

  • The Second Son by Loraine Peck (Text)

  • The Bluffs by Kyle Perry (Penguin Random House) (abandoned this one)

  • The Night Whistler by Greg Woodland (Text)

BEST TRUE CRIME

  • The Husband Poisoner by Tanya Bretherton (Hachette)

  • Stalking Claremont: Inside the hunt for a serial killer by Bret Christian (Harper Collins) (on my TBR!)

  • Public Enemies by Mark Dapin (Allen and Unwin)

  • Hazelwood by Tom Doig (Penguin Random House)

  • Witness by Louise Milligan (Hachette)

BEST INTERNATIONAL CRIME FICTION

  • The Guest List by Lucy Foley (Harper Collins)

  • The Secrets of Strangers by Charity Norman (Allen and Unwin)

  • Take Me Apart by Sara Sligar (Text)

  • We Begin at the End by Chris Whittaker (Allen and Unwin)

  • Broken by Don Winslow (Harper Collins)

The winners will be announced at an award ceremony next month.

You can find out more about the Ned Kelly awards on the ACWA website. All previous category winners are listed on this Wikipedia page.

2021 Miles Franklin Literary Award, Literary prizes

2021 Miles Franklin Literary Award winner named

Congratulations to Amanda Lohrey whose novel The Labyrinth was named winner of the 2021 Miles Franklin Literary Award earlier today.

For once I am happy to say I have actually read the book — and I loved it.

In my review I said:

The Labyrinth is a beautifully crafted novel. It’s a rare example of a story that is both disquieting and yet deeply satisfying. It’s intimate and honest and brims with all kinds of important questions about what it is to reckon with the past and navigate the future.

You can actually watch the announcement here:

The $60,000 annual prize is designed to recognise a novel of “the highest literary merit” that presents “Australian life in any of its phases”. I read a handful of the shortlisted titles this year and enjoyed them all.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2021), 2021 Miles Franklin Literary Award, Atlantic Books, Australia, Author, Book review, dystopian, Fiction, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Publisher, Robbie Arnott, Setting

‘The Rain Heron’ by Robbie Arnott

Fiction – Kindle edition; Atlantic Books; 288 pages; 2020.

Robbie Arnott’s The Rain Heron is quite unlike anything I’ve read before. It defies convention because it’s a seamless blend of literary fiction, myth, fairytale and dystopia. Perhaps it could best be described as an “eco fable”? Regardless, it’s a wonderfully evocative and compelling tale about humankind’s obsession with exploiting nature to make money — seemingly at any cost.

Fairytale about a mythical bird

In this masterfully created tale, which is split into four parts, we are introduced to the rain heron, a mythical bird that brings rain wherever it goes. It has blue-grey feathers that are so pale you can see straight through them, and whenever it flaps its wings a thick spray of water falls from them, almost as if it generates its own rain.

In a world beset by drought, it’s a much sought-after creature, offering abundance and helping boost harvests, but it also comes with risks: the bird is also associated with frosts, floods, destruction — and sometimes death.

In Part 1 we meet Ren, an older woman who is living in a cave on a mountainside in the forest. She’s self-sufficient, eating berries and other plants, hunting deer for meat and occasionally trapping a fish for her supper. She barters with a man and his young son living nearby, with whom she exchanges items — fleece gloves, vitamins, boots, vegetable seeds — that she cannot get elsewhere.

The trio is careful to avoid contact with other humans, especially the soldiers that have recently infiltrated the area and who are on a mission to find and capture the sole rain heron that they believe lives in the vicinity.

Ren knows where the rain heron lives. She was introduced to it by her mother as a young girl. But when the soldiers find her and become threatening, she’s left with no option other than to show them where it roosts. This sets into motion a drastic — and deadly — chain of events.

Back in time

The story, which reads like a fairytale, doesn’t have a single narrator, nor follow a linear route. We go back in time to meet the female soldier — Harker, as she is known —  who puts so much pressure on Ren to offer up her secrets. In Part 2 we discover her way of life before the military coup that transformed the world into such a strange and menacing place.

This change in direction is a little disorientating to begin with, but it sets the scene for the rest of the novel.

Here, we discover that Harker had a happy childhood living with her aunt, who made her living from the “inking grounds” — a secret location out at sea where squid are caught, drained of their ink and then released back into the water without harm. (This, by the way, is not how ink is actually removed from squid — in the real world the squid are caught and killed first.)

This sustainable practice comes under threat when a northerner arrives in the port town seeking a way to make a lot of money quickly. He knows that the locals farm ink, which is worth a lot of money, but he doesn’t know how to do it and no one wants to share the secret with him.

Capitalistic tensions

This tension between a capitalist wanting to turn a secret into a business idea really does set the theme and tone of The Rain Heron, which is very much a book about humankind’s incapacity to just leave nature alone, to appreciate it intrinsically rather than trying to make money out of it.

In the final parts of the novel, which are essentially a road trip beset with danger and violence, this theme is developed further: how far would you go to capture a creature that may make you rich or give you an advantage over others?

It’s a beautifully realised tale told in graceful, elegant prose, which includes lush descriptions of landscapes and minimal dialogue. There’s a fable-like feel to the story, one that conjures up memories of other books I have read — think The Road meets Voyage of the Dawn Treader (and all those Narnia books) meets The Girl with Glass Feet meets The Silver Crown.

I love that we don’t know anything about this world — the politics or the events which have lead to soldiers taking over — nor the specific location (although I imagine it’s Tasmania, seeing that is where the author is from). Arnott simply plops you into this universe he has created and it all feels so real and vivid that you don’t need any explanations: you just accept it for what it is.

The ways in which he explores our fragile relationship with the environment is wonderfully evoked. It’s ripe with symbolism and meaning. This is the kind of novel you can really get lost in. I loved it.

The Rain Heron has been shortlisted for this year’s Miles Franklin Literary Award, the winner of which will be announced next week (15 July). And yes, if you haven’t guessed already, I’d be very happy to see this one take the prize.

This is my 5th book for #20booksofsummer 2021 edition. I purchased it in July last year.

20 books of summer (2021), 2021 Miles Franklin Literary Award, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2021, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Madeleine Watts, Publisher, Pushkin Press, Setting

‘The Inland Sea’ by Madeleine Watts

Fiction – Kindle edition; Pushkin; 256 pages; 2021.

Madeleine Watts’ debut novel, The Inland Sea, has been shortlisted for this year’s Miles Franklin Literary Award.

It’s yet another (fashionable) coming-of-age story about a troubled young woman grappling with the complexities of the modern world — think Sally Rooney, Naoise Dolan, Niamh Campbell, Sophie Hardcastle et al —albeit with a distinctive Australian twist.

This one marries personal accountability with ecological disaster, misogyny and sexual agency.

There are recurrent themes about the foolishness of colonial exploration (in search of the rumoured inland sea, hence the book’s title) and uses the mining and exploitation of the Australian landscape as a metaphor for the ways in which women continue to be dominated and used. Which is a roundabout way of saying this is not a novel about navel-gazing: it looks at the bigger picture and puts the central character’s life into a societal and historical context — and is all the more rewarding for it.

Life in a call centre

Set in Sydney, The Inland Sea charts a year in the life of an unnamed narrator with red hair who is striking out on her own after graduating from university. She takes a job as an emergency call dispatcher — “Emergency, police, fire or ambulance?” — and discovers that the outside world is a very dangerous place. She puts emergency calls through to the relevant first responders for everything from domestic violence incidents to car accidents, bush fires to heart attacks.

I had always been told that cars were more dangerous than planes, and had never really taken the idea seriously, but the first weeks at Triple Zero taught me to reconsider their dangers. Cars flipped over. They started smoking. They ran down children. They veered off the road, they smashed through houses in the middle of the night. They poisoned their passengers. I did not know how to drive, but if I had, I would have stopped. The calls made me walk along footpaths as far away from the road as I possibly could.

Her own life is full of emergencies, too, including, but not limited to, an unplanned pregnancy, chlamydia, anemia, low liver function and a tendency to blackout from drinking too much alcohol. Against her better judgement, she is also sleeping around and having a rather lust-filled affair with the boyfriend of a friend, and part of her hopes they are discovered, if only so things are out in the open.

A climate emergency

This tendency towards self-destructive behaviour is told in parallel with an ecological emergency that is unfolding in Australia — extreme weather events are occurring more frequently, there are bushfires raging and even an earthquake.

The news said that January was of hottest-ever days and broken records, 123 by the end of the season. Some days, the heat was so powerful that people died simply sitting in their own homes. The newspapers had started calling it the “Angry Summer”.

And further to this, terrible things are happening to women. There are references to notorious murders, including Gillian Meagher, who was raped and murdered while walking home from a pub in Melbourne in 2012, and the narrator is becoming increasingly aware of the sheer number of domestic violence incidents she must respond to in her call centre job.

This dovetails seamlessly with her own experience of domestic violence as a child. While the reader is spared any specific detail, we get an overall picture of her mother living in fear of her husband and then taking drastic steps to whisk away her daughter to a place of safety, of her father being unhappy about it and then moving south to Melbourne, rarely to be seen again.

Life on the edge

While the book doesn’t have a strong plot, it sustains interest through the narrator’s experiences, her tendency to live life on the edge, her seeming inability to take care of herself and flashbacks to her childhood. Interleaved with this very personal storyline, are anecdotes about John Oxley, a 19th-century colonial explorer, who went in search of an interior body of water but never found it, which adds interest. Occasionally, some aspects — about history, ecology and news events — do feel a bit shoehorned in, but this is a minor criticism.

On the whole, The Inland Sea is an eloquently written story about finding refuge in a world teetering on the brink of catastrophe, one that highlights the chaos and fear around us, but demonstrates that we all need to take personal responsibility for our own actions and our own safety. It’s a powerful read.

This is my 13th book for #AWW2021 and my 4th book for #20booksofsummer 2021 edition. I bought it shortly after it was longlisted for this year’s Miles Franklin Literary Award because it sounded like something I would enjoy.

2021 Miles Franklin Literary Award, Literary prizes

The 2021 Miles Franklin Literary Award shortlist

The shortlist for the 2021 Miles Franklin Literary Award was announced yesterday. It’s a strange mix of mainly new-to-me authors writing about diverse — and topical — subjects, including illegal immigration, immigration and environmental disaster.

As per usual, I have only read one title on this list — Amanda Lohrey’s rather beautiful and contemplative novel, Labyrinth — but there’s a couple here (The Rain Heron and The Inland Sea) that are already on my TBR and which I might read as part of #20BooksofSummer.

Here are the nominees in alphabetical order by author’s surname. The summaries are from the Miles Franklin website. I’ve included availability information for international readers where possible:

Amnesty by Aravind Adiga (Pan Macmillan)
Danny – Dhananjaya Rajaratnam – is an illegal immigrant in Sydney having fled Sri Lanka. For three years he’s been trying to create a new identity for himself, but then one morning he learns a female client of his has been murdered. Should Danny come forward with knowledge he has about the crime and risk getting deported, or saying nothing? Over the course of a single day, he must wrestle with his conscience and decide if a person without rights still has responsibilities.
This book is available in the UK and USA in paperback and ebook editions.

The Rain Heron by Robbie Arnott (Text Publishing)
Robbie Arnott’s second novel is equal parts horror and wonder, and utterly gripping. Ren lives alone on the remote frontier of a country devastated by a coup. High on the forested slopes, she survives by hunting and trading – and forgetting. But when a young soldier comes to the mountains in search of a local myth, Ren is inexorably drawn into an impossible mission.
This book is available in the UK and USA in paperback and ebook editions.

At the Edge of the Solid World by Daniel Davis Wood (Brio Books)
In a village in the Swiss Alps, a husband and wife find their lives breaking apart following the death of their firstborn. On the other side of the world, in their hometown of Sydney, a man commits an act of shocking violence that captures international attention. As the husband recognises signs of his own grief in both the survivors and the perpetrator, his fixation on the case feeds into insomnia, trauma and an obsession with the terms on which we give value to human lives.
This book does not appear to be published outside of Australia.

The Labyrinth by Amanda Lohrey (Text Publishing)
This deeply meditative book follows Erica Marsden, who, in a state of grief, retreats to a quiet hamlet near the prison where her son, an artist, has been imprisoned for homicidal negligence. Living in a rundown shack, she obsesses over creating a labyrinth by the ocean. To build it, Erica will need the help of strangers. This is a hypnotic story of guilt and denial as well as a meditation on how art can be both ruthlessly destructive and restorative.
This book is available in the UK and USA in ebook format.

Lucky’s by Andrew Pippos (Pan Macmillan)
The book centres around Lucky, a second-generation Chicago-born clarinet-playing Greek man who finds himself in wartime Australia in the ’40s, escaping service by impersonating “king of swing” Benny Goodman. Lucky comes into money through personal tragedy and uses it to run a successful franchise of cafe diners. Spanning decades, this unforgettable epic tells a story about lives bound together by the pursuit of love, family, and new beginnings.
This book does not appear to be published outside of Australia.

The Inland Sea by Madeleine Watts (Pushkin Press)
This debut novel is about coming of age in a dying world and exploring our capacity for harming ourselves, each other and the world around us. Facing the open wilderness of adulthood, our young narrator finds that the world around her is coming undone. She works part-time as an emergency dispatch operator, tracking the fires and floods that rage across Australia during an increasingly unstable year. Drinking heavily, sleeping with strangers, she finds herself wandering Sydney’s streets late at night as she navigates a troubled affair with an ex-lover. Reckless and adrift, she begins to contemplate leaving.
This book is available in the UK and USA in hardcover and ebook editions.

The winner of the $60,000 prize will be named on 15 July, which doesn’t leave that much time to read the entire shortlist, if that’s what you plan on doing!

You can read the official press release here. And read what The Guardian has to say about it here.

Have you read any of these books? Or have any piqued your interest?

2021 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, Literary prizes

The 2021 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Winner

Congratulations to Anakana Schofield whose extraordinarily bonkers (in a good way) novel Bina was named winner of the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year Award 2021 earlier in the week. She receives €15,000 prize money.

As you will know, I had planned to read every book on the shortlist, but life got in the way (I spent the best part of 8 weeks getting finance for a mortgage, buying a property and then moving in), but I did manage to read three out of five novels. Out of those, Bina was by far my favourite. In my review I said:

It’s a perturbing story but one that gives plenty of food for thought — about ageing, misogyny and euthanasia, to name but a few — but there are enough kooky elements (Bina, for instance, dreams a lot about David Bowie) to add an absurdist element to the tale, one that offers plenty of laughs and light relief.

I can’t find an official press release about the prize (the official website is just horrible to navigate), but you can read more about the winner via this news story from the Irish Examiner.

2021 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, Anakana Schofield, Author, Book review, Fiction, Fleet, Ireland, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR 21

‘Bina’ by Anakana Schofield

Fiction – Kindle edition; Fleet; 336 pages; 2019.

I am always looking for novels that are written in a strong, distinctive voice. Anakana Schofield’s latest novel, Bina, has that in spades.

It’s a bitterly funny and completely bonkers tale about an elderly Irish woman called Bina — “That’s Bye-na not Beena” — who gave shelter to a man who later refused to leave.

If a man comes to your door, do not open it.

He’s now in Canada, but she’s worried he might return. It’s not clear what the man has done to upset her so much, nor why he’s now abroad. It’s also not clear why she has protestors in her front garden and medical waste in her back garden.

It’s written in such a way that nothing is really clear at all.

A novel in warnings

The first-person narrative is a series of warnings — “I’m here to warn you, not to reassure you” — and it’s up to you, the reader, to make sense of Bina’s tale, which is sometimes structured in stanzas (see below) like angry poetry:

Stop roundabouting it, Bina. That’s me

To myself. I’m roundabouting again, amn’t I. Need to keep straight. Not be dizzy in circles. Need to tell it straight

Have to find a way to tell it all, with or without me in it. Keep it
straight, Bina

Or you’ll confuse them.

It sounds like hard work, but I really admire this kind of writing. Nothing is spelt out yet Bina’s thoughts, which come out all a-jumble and not necessarily in chronological order, can be pieced together to form a cohesive whole.

What this woman has to share with the world is alarming and disturbing, but it’s also blackly comic.

I must have said no to her 32 times. It wasn’t 32 times nearly enough because she threatened she’d go on her own, if I wasn’t going to help. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. This is what no 32 times looks like.

It’s also littered with footnotes, which can wear thin if you hate skipping ahead to read them. Interestingly, it’s through these footnotes that I realised the character Bina had first appeared in Schofield’s debut novel Malarky, which I read back in 2011 but did not review. In that novel, Bina was threatening to attack a plane with a hammer.

Schofield has taken that strident character and given her a novel of her own. It’s a perturbing story but one that gives plenty of food for thought — about ageing, misogyny and euthanasia, to name but a few — but there are enough kooky elements (Bina, for instance, dreams a lot about David Bowie) to add an absurdist element to the tale, one that offers plenty of laughs and light relief.

It was shortlisted for the 2020 Goldsmiths Prize.

I have previously reviewed Schofield’s novel Martin John.

This is my 3rd book for the 2021 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award and my 17th for #TBR21 in which I’m planning to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021. I purchased it on Kindle last year when it was on special for 99p!

2021 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Niamh Campbell, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR 21, Weidenfeld & Nicolson

‘This Happy’ by Niamh Campbell

Fiction – paperback; Weidenfeld & Nicolson; 311 pages; 2020.

When Alannah is 12-years-old, her father walks out on the family. A school psychologist tells her that she will always have trouble with men.

And that is essentially what Niamh Campbell’s novel This Happy is about — a young woman, now 30 years old, recounting the two most important male relationships in her life and trying to make sense of them both.

Two men six years apart

The first relationship occurred when she was 23. She fell in love with Harry, an Englishman 20 years her senior. He was married. She was studying art history in London. She gave up her student lodgings, packed her bags and visited him in Ireland where he rented a cottage in Drogheda, on the east coast where she was raised, to work on his writing, free from his wife.

The affair, which is complex and one-sided, ends abruptly after a mere three weeks but has a long-lasting emotional impact on Alannah.

Seven years later, she is now married — to someone else. Her husband, 10 years her senior, is a history teacher with ambitions to be a politician, but Alannah isn’t so sure he’s cut out for the job. She does not believe in him and feels unable to offer her unconditional support.

When one day she spies the landlady, who owned the Drogheda cottage, walking down a Dublin street, her mind turns toward Harry, her long-lost love.

She then recounts that relationship, the bliss and agony of it, and compares Harry to her now-husband, their ambitions, background and desires, and plagues herself with thoughts of what might have been with what she has now.

Style over substance

There’s no plot. The book is simply structured around Alannah’s interior thoughts and her memories. Stylistically the prose is what I would call verbose. The language is lush, ripe with metaphors and astute observations, but it feels over-written and, dare I say it, over-wrought.

This is not to say it’s a bad book. It isn’t. But you need to be in the right frame of mind to read it. You need to want to revel in the language, to soak up the words and the clever ways in which they are arranged on the page.

Much of it is about memory. About the way memory works. But it’s also about love and relationships, desire and ambition, class and privilege, how our childhoods inform our adult lives, how our expectations and beliefs can be thwarted by reality, and how if we always look back we can never look forward.

If you could dive into an old life — something you never protected when it was happening, something you believe to be a prelude at the time — if you could dive like one dives into love, or fall slowly over a precipice into it, enthralled, would you do this? Sometimes it seems like this is all I do. Like my past is a residue riming the world of the present, lying over everything. I’ve been living at speed because I know I can revisit the edited version.

But as much as I loved the honesty of the writing and the often gorgeous descriptions, I came away from the novel wondering if there was any point to the story. A newly married woman wonders if she might have had a different life with a different man isn’t that original after all.

This Happy was shortlisted for Newcomer of the Year at the 2020 An Post Irish Book Awards and has just been shortlisted for this year’s Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award, which will be announced in June.

Annabel has reviewed it too.

This is my 2nd book for the 2021 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award and my 12th for #TBR21 in which I’m planning to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021. I purchased it from my local independent book shop when it was published last August.