2022 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, Adam Kay, Author, Book review, Fiction, Grove Press, historical fiction, Jan Carson, Lily King, literary fiction, Literary prizes, memoir, New Guinea, Non-fiction, Northern Ireland, Pan Books, Publisher, Setting, Transworld Digital, UK

Three Quick Reviews: Jan Carson, Adam Kay & Lily King

I’m a bit behind in my reviewing, so here’s a quick round-up of books I have recently read. This trio comprises an Irish “supernatural” story, a medical memoir from the UK and a historical novel by an American writer. They have been reviewed in alphabetical order by author’s surname.

‘The Raptures’ by Jan Carson

Fiction – Kindle edition; Transworld Digital; 332 pages; 2022.

Shortlisted for the 2022 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year award, Jan Carson’s The Raptures is an unusual tale about a mysterious illness that spreads through a group of children from the same village, killing them one by one. But one young girl, Hannah Adger, remains healthy, the sole survivor of her entire classroom. Scared and haunted by survivor’s guilt, Hannah, who is from an evangelical Protestant family, discovers she can see and communicate with her dead friends.

Set in Ulster in 1993 during The Troubles, the illness that sweeps the small community is a metaphor for a war that rages on with seemingly no end in sight. As the children fall prey to the mystery illness, the community is brought together by a desire to end the disease that is killing its loved ones — but many families get caught up in the fear and the anger of an out-of-control plague and look for someone to blame, contributing to the divisions in an already divided community.

Admittedly, I struggled a little with this book. The structure, repetitive and predictable, quickly wore thin and I found the supernatural elements hard to believe. Ditto for the explanation of what caused the illness (which I guessed long before it was revealed). Perhaps it didn’t help that I had Covid-19 when I read the tale, so I wasn’t in the mood for reading about sick people dying. But as a treatise on religion, grief and faith, The Raptures is an unusual — and unique — read.

‘This is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor’ by Adam Kay

Non-fiction – memoir; Pan Macmillan; 256 pages; 2018.

One of the best things about living in the UK (which I did between 1998-2019) was the free medical treatment I was able to access under the National Health Service (NHS), a centrally funded universal healthcare system, free at the point of delivery. But the system is not perfect and is chronically underfunded and overstretched. Adam Kay’s memoir of his time working in the NHS as a junior doctor highlights what it is like to work on the front line, where every decision you make has life and death implications for the people under your care.

Written in diary form over the course of several years, This is Going to Hurt is a no-holds-barred account of a medical career forged in an overwhelmingly stressful environment dominated by long hours, poor pay and next to no emotional support. But Kay, who has since left the profession to become a stand-up comic, takes a cynical, often sarcastic tone, recounting stories and events — mostly to do with obstetrics and gynaecology, the areas in which he specialised  — with sharp-edged humour, so I tittered my way through most of the book.

And when I wasn’t laughing, I was crying because it’s so heartbreaking in places. Mind you, it’s nowhere near as dark and oppressive as the recent BBC drama series, which prompted me to read the book.

(Note, I wouldn’t advise anyone who is pregnant or has had a traumatic birth experience to pick it up.)

‘Euphoria’ by Lily King

Fiction – paperback; Grove Press; 288 pages; 2014.

Said to be loosely based on American anthropologist Margaret Mead’s time spent researching tribes in New Guinea in the 1940s, Euphoria is a story about a love triangle set in the jungle. It’s the first time I’ve ever read a novel about anthropologists and I found it a fascinating tale about ego, arrogance, academic controversy and desire.

I knew nothing about Mead and her achievements, so I can only judge the book on the power of its storytelling, which I found compelling even if the plot was a little thin. This is essentially a character-driven story — and what characters they are! We meet American Nell Stone, the central character, upon which the others revolve, including her Australian husband Fen, and the couple’s English friend Andrew Bankson.

King paints a convincing portrait of a trio of anthropologists at work, fleshing out each character so that we meet them in the past and the present, understand what drives them, what infuriates them and why they do what they do.

And the setting, including the (fictional) tribes that are described in such vivid detail, imbues the story with a rich sense of atmosphere and realism.

I read ‘The Raptures’ as part of my project to read all the shortlisted titles for the 2022 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award
Author, Book review, David Whish-Wilson, Newsouth, Non-fiction, Publisher, travel

‘Perth’ by David Whish-Wilson

Non-fiction; paperback; New South Publishing; 352 pages; 2020.

Perth is part of a series of books about Australia’s capital cities, each one written by a local author who can give us an intimate account of the city’s history and character.

This volume, by Fremantle-based writer David Whish-Wilson, is an insider’s look at what it is like to grow up and reside in Perth, the most isolated city in Australia (if not the world), sandwiched as it is between the Indian Ocean and the outback.

As most of you will know, I moved here in mid-2019. I am not from Perth (I grew up on the other side of the country, in Victoria) and had only ever been here on holiday (when I was living in the UK — Perth is a convenient city to break up the journey from Heathrow to Melbourne). But I knew from my handful of visits to Fremantle, a port city at the mouth of the Swan River, about 20 minutes drive from the CBD, that I would love to live here. It was something about the heritage buildings, the coastline, the vibrant arts culture, the pubs (and breweries) and the bright clear light that attracted me.

But more than two years after repatriation, admittedly 80% of that time during a global pandemic, I have come to know the city reasonably well and noticed, but not always understood, its distinctive quirks — the fact, for instance, that most residents are early birds, up and about at 5am, but drive through the suburbs after 7pm and it feels like the whole world has gone to bed (or died), it’s so dark and quiet, with nary a vehicle on the road.

And everyone is obsessed with the water, whether beach or river, and most own a boat (and are snobby about the model, the size and how much it cost) or is into fishing or surfing or kayaking or stand-up paddleboarding (you get the idea).

And most people live in the suburbs — indeed, the suburbs stretch along the coastline for more than 100km so that when you drive anywhere it sometimes feels like you’re out in the countryside when, in actual fact, you are still in metropolitan Perth.

And perhaps because of this quiet, suburban life, people seem to congregate in large packs every weekend to have picnics (by the river or in local parks). I’ve seen people bring their own marquees, fold-up furniture and carry all their food and drink in wheel-a-long carts. It’s fascinating. (I’ve long joked that I’ll know I’ve become fully assimilated when I buy a fold-up picnic chair or one of these.)

The inside track

The book itself isn’t so much a travel guide — it won’t reveal the best places to eat or stay or visit — but is more a journey into the heart and spirit of the city, highlighting its history (good and bad), its politics, it’s natural wonders and its achievements.

It’s divided into four main chapters — The River, The Limestone Coast, The Plain, and The City of Light — between a relatively lengthy Introduction and Postscript. Sadly, there’s no index, which makes it hard to pinpoint facts you might want to reread (for the purposes of writing this review, for instance) and even though it has been updated since the original 2013 edition was published, it still feels slightly dated.

But thanks to the healthy dollop of memoir that Whish-Wilson adds, you get a real feel for what it is like to grow up here under blue skies and constant sunshine, and with little intrusion from the outside world, a sense of perfect isolation.

I love all the literary references he dots throughout — there’s a helpful bibliography at the back of the book — to show how the city has been depicted in both fiction and non-fiction over time.

Unsurprisingly, given his background as a crime writer, the author balances the happy optimism of Perth life with darker elements, including the crime and corruption that has left its mark.

He highlights the eerie Ying and Yang feeling that I had instinctively felt when I first arrived but had not been able to articulate because I didn’t know what it was. Whish-Wilson frames it as people becoming untethered by the “silence and space of the suburbs” so that while all looks quiet and peaceful during the day, it is brimming with menace at night. He describes this as “Perth Gothic”. (It’s true there have been some hideous murders in Perth, not least the Claremont serial killings in 1996-97, the Moorhouse murders in 1986 and the Nedlands monster, who was active between 1958 and 1963, and became the last man hanged in Fremantle Prison.)

All that aside, this is a brilliant little gem of a book. It’s jam-packed full of insights, intriguing facts and personal observation and delivered in an intimate but authoritative voice. It’s like getting the inside track on what this city is like behind the shiny glass skyscrapers and quiet, tree-lined suburban streets, and Whish-Wilson is the perfect guide.

I read this book as part of my #FocusOnWesternAustralianWriters.You can find out more about my ongoing reading project here and see what books I’ve reviewed from this part of the world on my Focus on Western Australian page.

Author, Book review, memoir, Music, Non-fiction, Publisher, Sandycove, Sinead O'Connor

‘Rememberings’ by Sinéad O’Connor

Non-fiction – hardcover; Sandycove; 304 pages; 2021.

Like many outspoken people condemned for speaking the truth, Irish singer-songwriter Sineád O’Connor was a woman before her time.

When she ripped up a photograph of the Pope live on American TV in 1992 to protest sexual abuse of children by the Catholic Church, she was roundly castigated, her records burned and her public appearances cancelled. She became persona non grata virtually overnight. Even Madonna, that bastion of virtue (I jest), attacked her.

At the time, she was a global star thanks to her cover of the Prince song Nothing Compares to U — released in 1990 (YouTube clip here) — but this single act, prescient as it we now know it to be (it was nine years before Pope John II acknowledged the issue), killed her international career. (Interestingly, her story about meeting Prince does not paint him in a good light.)

And yet, in the decades that have followed, she has continued to slog away, creating great music in various different genres including pop, rock, folk, reggae and religious. And she has continued to stand up for what she believes in, often playing out her struggles — mental health issues and relationship breakdowns, for example — in full glare of the public eye.

Long time fan

I’m a long time Sineád O’Connor fan. It began when I bought her debut album The Lion and The Cobra in my late teens, two years after it had been released. At the time, I was just beginning to explore Irish music, both traditional and popular, and this sounded like an intriguing blend of the two.

I wasn’t wrong. This album was powerful. It was melancholy. It was beautiful. It was angry. And her ethereal voice, quite unlike anything I’d ever heard before, was mesmerising as she shifted between singing like a banshee and singing like an angel, sometimes within the space of a line or a verse.

What was astonishing was that she was only 20 years old when she made it. She not only wrote many of the songs herself, but she also produced the record, too. To this day, it remains as one of my “desert island discs” — I could never grow tired of it. (To listen to it in its entirety, visit YouTube.)

A way with words

Fans know that Sineád has a way with words, whether spoken or sung, but it also seems she’s a talented writer if this memoir is anything to go by. Rememberings is a beautifully written book that details a remarkable life and a remarkable career in a voice that is intimate, pragmatic and often wickedly humorous.

It’s a book of two halves: the first, written in episodic style, details experiences from her childhood; and the second, written in a different tone of voice, covers the period of her life after she became famous. This latter section is patchy rather than comprehensive (O’Connor says this is a result of her undergoing a radical hysterectomy that wrecked her memory and had a detrimental psychological impact on her life), but it hardly seems to matter for the tales she tells are often eye-opening, insightful and funny.

The stories from the first half are more nostalgic and often heartbreaking. She was born in Dublin in 1966, the third of five children. (Her older brother Joseph is, of course, the Irish novelist whose work I have reviewed here.) After her parents divorced, she and her younger brother went to live with her mother, her older siblings lived with their father.

Sineád says she was regularly and brutally beaten by her deeply religious mother — “I won the prize in kindergarten for being able to curl up into the smallest ball, but my teacher never knew why I could do it so well” — and she blames this abuse on the Catholic Church, which had “created” her mother. Later, when her mother died in a car accident in 1986, Sineád, who was 19 at the time, struggled to reconcile her grief with her sense of relief.

Her musical talent came to the fore when she was sent to a Catholic reform school (she used to shoplift regularly), where one of the nuns bought her a guitar, a Bob Dylan songbook and arranged music lessons for her. She began writing songs and after leaving school performed in and around Dublin (because she was too young to tour).

Derailing her career?

Aged 20, she recorded the debut record that was to put her name on the musical map. Two more albums later, just when everything was going exceedingly well for her, with Grammy nominations aplenty and three best-selling albums, she was ripping up the Pope’s picture on Saturday Night Live.

This example of “bad behaviour” is rather reflective of O’Connor’s life as a whole: she’s always been outspoken and forthright, not afraid of what people might think. She shaved her head very early on in her career when a record executive told her she needed to be “more feminine”. She went ahead with an unplanned pregnancy when she was told she couldn’t possibly be a mother and go on tour. She said she would not perform if the United States national anthem was played before one of her concerts. And she boycotted the 1991 Grammy Awards because she did not want to support, nor profit from, the “false and destructive materialistic values” of the music industry.

She has always defied convention and just done her own thing, regardless of the consequences.

But in this memoir she paints it differently: while the media and the public viewed the Pope photo incident as derailing her career, she sees it as saving her from the pop star’s life she didn’t want.

Everyone wants a pop star, see? But I am a protest singer. I just had stuff to get off my chest. I had no desire for fame.

Rememberings is a brilliant memoir full of cheeky spirit and forthright honesty, as entertaining as it is enlightening. If they handed out awards for resilience, Sinead O’Connor would have to be the first in the queue. She truly deserves it.

Extra notes

I read this book last year and loved it so much I struggled to pen a review, I just didn’t know how to articulate my thoughts. Then, over the Christmas break, I started putting something together and had it scheduled for early January. I held off publishing it when news broke that Sinead’s 17-year-old son, Jake, had died. Today, I’ve dusted it off and polished a few bits, and had fun digging out some of my favourite clips to share. Forgive the indulgence.

The first is an interview on Arsenio Hall in 1991 demonstrating a very wise head on young shoulders. She talks a lot of sense and her integrity really shines through. (But how the wheels turn because, in 2016, Arsenio Hall tried to sue her for defamation but dropped the case.)

One of my favourite songs from ‘The Lion and The Cobra’:

And, finally, her live performance at the 1989 Grammy Awards.

I’ve seen her in concert once — at Queen Elizabeth Hall in London in 2012 — and more recently in the queue at Dublin Airport, circa 2017. She was almost unrecognisable — apart from the dimples and those extraordinary eyes.

Author, Book review, Joshua Hammer, Non-fiction, Publisher, Simon & Schuster, true crime

‘The Falcon Thief: A True Tale of Adventure, Treachery and the Hunt for the Perfect Bird’ by Joshua Hammer

Non-fiction – paperback; Simon & Schuster; 318 pages; 2021.

For around 18 years (1998-2016), I worked on specialist magazines in the UK covering all kinds of subject matter, from equestrian sport to gamekeeping, in which I had no specialist knowledge — just natural curiosity and a willingness to learn new things and ask a lot of questions.

During 2005-2010, I was deputy editor, later rising to the editor, on a weekly publication about birdkeeping (even though I knew little about birds). We used to run four pages of news every week, the great bulk of it about bird crime — specifically, the theft of birds and or their eggs from the wild — and conservation.

Later, I was freelance sub-editor and then permanent content editor on a weekly country sports magazine that ran a lot of stories about birds of prey being persecuted (allegedly by gamekeepers protecting their gamebirds) or “going missing” in the wild under unexplained circumstances. In fact, in 2015-16 we ran so many stories about hen harriers that I’m surprised we didn’t change our name to Hen Harrier Weekly.

This is a long-winded way of saying that I was immediately intrigued by Joshua Hammer’s non-fiction book, The Falcon Thief, when I saw it on the shelf because it covered a topic with which I was relatively familiar.

Subtitled A True Tale of Adventure, Treachery and the Hunt for the Perfect Bird, it charts the life, times and crimes of a convicted wildlife thief who worked across three continents as well as telling the story of the British policeman who was instrumental in securing a conviction. It’s part police procedural, natural history treatise and true crime tale, and it reads like a well-crafted, page-turning novel. It is narrative non-fiction at its very best.

Airport arrest

The story begins with the apprehension of Irishman Jeffrey Lendrum at Birmingham International Airport, in the UK, on 3 May 2010. He was headed to Dubai but never got on the flight because a security guard noticed him behaving suspiciously. He was apprehended by officers from the Counter Terrorism Unit, but he didn’t have a bomb strapped to his body —  he had 14 fragile peregrine falcon eggs taped to his abdomen.

Lendrum claimed he was suffering from spinal trouble and that he was carrying eggs — which he claimed were from ducks — because they “force him to keep his stomach muscles taut […] and strengthen his lower back”.

(Isn’t that the most ludicrous thing you have ever heard? As the book reveals, Lendrum is notorious for making up ludicrous stories and this is not the worst of it.)

Investigations revealed the eggs had been stolen from a remote cliffside in Wales, most likely “on order” for wealthy clients in the Middle East, specifically Dubai, where rich sheiks pay huge money — up to $40,000 for a single bird — to secure the very best birds for falconry racing. This is an exclusive sport offering millions of dollars in prize money (the Abu Dhabi Falconers Club’s annual President Cup, for instance, offers a purse of $11 million) and prestige.

A lengthy investigation

Lendrum’s arrest made headlines because nobody had been caught smuggling rare raptor eggs in the UK for decades. This is where Detective Andy McWilliam, of the UK’s National Wildlife Crime Unit, steps in. The unit struggles for money and credibility (few people see wildlife crime as “real” crime), so the case is a chance to prove its worth.

A headline-making conviction of a notorious wildlife criminal could protect the unit from closure — or even, if McWilliam, was very, very lucky, get his budget significantly raised for the next year.

The book weaves together these dual narratives — of the crime and the investigation — and highlights how both men develop an almost symbiotic relationship that spans years and continents because Lendrum didn’t just do this once, he did it multiple times.

As well as being an epic police procedural cum adventure tale, The Falcon Thief is also a brilliant history of the illicit trade in birds and their eggs, the multiple reasons for it, why it is such a vital issue to address and how authorities across the world are working together to end it.

It shows how Dubai, in particular, has fuelled the black market for endangered birds of prey because of the belief that  “falcons stolen from nests are innately superior to those bred in captivity”.

Two brilliant characters

The author describes this as a “shadowy world”, one that draws in Lendrum, who, it turns out is a well-travelled, fearless character almost too fantastical to be true. He’s an intelligent ornithologist, an obsessive egg collector, a skilled climber, a brave adventurer, a clever businessman, an imaginative liar and a master manipulator. His crimes stretch back decades, from his early life in South Africa, where he made a name for himself as a well-respected wildlife enthusiast volunteering on research projects, to a businessman in the UK using his shopfront as a cover for illicit activities.

His foe — McWilliam — is equally intriguing. A policeman with decades of experience, who shunned promotion because he liked walking the beat, and then used his skills in a newly emerging field of investigation, he’s the resilient, hard-working, never-give-up type of bloke you want on your side.

This is a hugely enjoyable book, well-paced and filled with enough natural drama and tension to make it a page-turner. Will he or won’t he get convicted? What daredevil feats will Lendrum commit to feed his obsession? Will McWilliam’s unit get closed down and will he have to give up the chase? You will have to read it to find out…

I read this for Non-Fiction November (#NonFicNov) hosted by various bloggers of which you can find out more here. (Note, there’s a whole bunch of prompts for the month, but reading by schedule doesn’t really work for me, so I hope the hosts don’t mind me reading and reviewing non-fiction on a whim. )

ABC Books, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2021, Book review, China, Hong Kong, memoir, Mimi Kwa, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘House of Kwa’ by Mimi Kwa

Non-fiction – paperback; ABC Books; 362 pages; 2021.

Mimi Kwa’s House of Kwa is a memoir like no other. Written with honesty, vivacity and humour, it marries aspects of the historical novel with reportage to tell an epic story spanning four generations.

An epic family drama

When it opens, we learn that Mimi, a successful broadcast journalist and newsreader, is being sued by her own father, an eccentric Chinese man now living in Perth, but we don’t know what brought them to this crisis.

That’s when Mimi does something very clever: she winds back the clock to tell the grand story of her Chinese family, tracing its roots back to her great grandfather who claimed to be a direct descendant of the Emperor of China. And from here, she charts how the family moved from imperial Beijing to southern China and then, finally, Hong Kong.

She explains how her father — one of 32 children! — had his own life shaped by his childhood experiences living in Hong Kong under Japanese occupation during the Second World War.

We follow him to Australia, where he came to study engineering, and then, aged in his late 30s, married Mimi’s mother, a 19-year-old Australian with undiagnosed schizophrenia. The pair set up home in Perth, Western Australia, and Mimi was born not long after.

Because of her mother’s mental illness, Mimi was essentially raised by her maternal grandparents, but when she wasn’t in their care, her father’s parenting skills left a lot to be desired. He was running a hugely successful backpacker hostel — the Mandarin Gardens in Scarborough —  which he owned and where he put young Mimi to work. As a young teen, she was basically managing the place, meeting strange and dubious guests, and having her eyes opened to different cultures and personalities.

It was during this time that Mimi’s father developed a flair for suing anyone he could to demonstrate his cleverness and so-called grasp of the law. And so the memoir comes full circle, for now we understand how a father might come to sue his daughter. The reasons for doing so, however, don’t become clear until later on.

A book of two halves

The first half of The House of Kwa reads very much like a novel than an autobiography, but when Mimi begins writing about her own lived experience the story becomes much more personal — and heartfelt.

The product of two eccentric characters, Mimi endured a lot as a child, thrust into situations beyond her years but she got by and, regardless of such trauma, managed to carve out an impressive career as a journalist and TV anchor. But if anyone is to take credit for Mimi’s success it is her beloved Aunty Theresa, who has a starring role in this memoir, as a brilliant colourful character in her own right.

Theresa, who is the older sister of Mimi’s father, was the first Chinese air hostess for the British state-owned airline BOAC. She led a super-glamorous life during the golden age of air travel, and while she never married, she had plenty of suitors, including the man who founded the Mandarin Oriental Hotel for whom she designed some of the suites and had her own in-house fashion boutique.

During her childhood, Mimi visits Theresa often. Her aunty spoils her with treats and presents, but she also instils values and shares family history, giving Mimi a good grounding for the challenges ahead. It is this bipolar childhood — troubled and semi-neglected in Australia, privileged and spoilt in Hong Kong — that shapes Mimi’s life and outlook.

House of Kwa is an intriguing memoir, one that explores family history, loyalty, patriarchy and tradition.

I’d love to see the author turn her hand to a novel next. Perhaps she could fictionalise her aunty’s high-flying life!

This is my 24th book for #AWW2021. I also read it as part of #AusReadingMonth, hosted by Brona’s Books,; #NonFicNov, hosted by a million different bloggers of which you can find out more here; and my own ongoing #FocusOnWesternAustralianWriters because the author grew up in Perth (although she now lives in Melbourne). You can find out more about this reading project here and see what books I’ve reviewed from this part of the world on my Focus on Western Australian page.

 

Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2021, Book review, Heidi Everett, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, Ultimo, Wales

‘My Friend Fox’ by Heidi Everett

Non-fiction – memoir; Ultimo Press; 182 pages; 2021.

Depression is commonly referred to as the ‘black dog’. In Heidi Everett’s memoir, My Friend Fox, her mental illness is essentially a ‘fox’, a wild, misunderstood animal often viewed as an outsider, a creature of terror and beauty.

In this evocative book, illustrated with beautiful line drawings by the author, we learn what it is like to be a resident on a psych ward, where every facet of your life is controlled by rigid medical protocols and unwritten rules.

Everett, who was born in Wales but emigrated to Australia with her working class parents as a child, has a complicated diagnosis:

I am psych patient number 25,879* (or part thereof). Age: 24. Primary diagnosis: schizoaffective. Comorbidity: major depression, ? juvenile autism. Seems to enjoy music, art. No dependents. No further use for a name.

She spends her time in and out of psychiatric institutions. On one occasion, safe at home where she lives with her beloved dog Tigger, she goes on the run, believing she’s being spied on by cameras in the wall. It’s the middle of winter, cold and dark, and she’s dressed in nothing more than jeans and a light shirt.

I’m not dressed to go out tonight but I can’t go back. This is an emergency; I’ve got to get away. I quickly walk up to the end of the road, turn left and keep walking. Tigger and I won’t stop walking for the next two weeks.

Interspersed with Everett’s terrifying account of running from her own paranoia and her adventures in and out of psychiatric care, are her memories of a happy childhood in rural Wales contrasted with her troubled adolescence in suburban Australia (when her illness began to manifest itself).

She often speaks of her love of the countryside and her admiration for foxes, in particular, the urban foxes she comes across in Melbourne. She wends the tale of a suburban fox on the run throughout her narrative, a metaphor for her own life, misunderstood and never quite able to mix with other people.

She also writes movingly of the love she has for her dog and of her obsessive hobbies — music and drawing — and the ways in which they give her life meaning and take her outside of her illness.

Her lyrical prose is filled with original, occasionally breathtaking, descriptions — a fox she meets has “gemstone eyes”, for example, while the wind blows “a vomit of sea in its mouth” and “the trees begin a free jazz session of syncopated dripping” after a rainstorm.

My Friend Fox is quite an astonishing read — short, powerful and fable-like. The depiction of mental illness and the impact it has on one person’s life is arresting and illuminating. And despite the trauma at its heart, this survivor’s tale brims with optimism — and hope.

This is my 19th book for #AWW2021 

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2021), Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2021, Book review, Charmian Clift, Greece, Harper Collins Australia, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Mermaid Singing’ and ‘Peel Me a Lotus’ by Charmian Clift

Non-fiction – memoir; Harper Collins Australia; 416 pages; 2021.

Charmian Clift (1923-1969) was a legendary Australian writer and essayist. She was married to Australian war correspondent and author George Johnston (1912-1970) with whom she had three children. The couple moved to London in the early 1950s, where they resided for several years, before moving to the Greek island of Kalymnos in the south-eastern Aegean Sea. They later moved to the island of Hydra, where they became part of a Bohemian group of foreign artists and writers, which included young Canadian poet/songwriter Leonard Cohen.

Mermaid Singing (1956) and Peel Me a Lotus (1959) are two memoirs that Clift wrote about her family’s time in Greece. They were brought together in one volume and reissued by Harper Collins Australia earlier this year. In the UK, they have been published as single volumes, with gorgeous covers, by Muswell Press.


Mermaid Singing

This memoir charts Clift and Johnston’s move to Kalymnos where they planned to live as cheaply as they could while they worked on their books. (The pair collaborated on The Sponge Divers, a novel set on the island, during their stay.)

“We came to the island of Kalymnos in the small grey caique Angellico, belting in around Point Cali with a sirocco screaming in from the south-west, a black patched triangle of sail thrumming over our heads, and a cargo of turkeys, tangerines, earthenware water jugs, market baskets, and the inevitable old black-shawled women who form part of the furnishings of all Agean caiques.”

In beautifully evocative prose, Clift outlines a year living on the island. The entire experience is a culture shock — there is no running water nor electricity; even furniture is hard to come by with nary a wardrobe or chest of drawers to be found. Privacy is non-existent, with local villagers treating everyone’s houses as common property, and the Johnston’s attracting a lot of attention because they are foreign.

There is deprivation everywhere — food is scarce, children run around in rags, buildings are decrepit. Most families survive by sending their men off to sea for months at a time where they risk their lives to deep-sea dive for sponges, sometimes returning home with twisted legs caused by the bends.

Yet for all the poverty and harshness of life, there is a real sense of community, one that embraces the Johnstons, including their two young children Martin and Shane, with open arms. In this strange new world, Clift turns a forensic eye on cultures and customs to report on a way of life that was poor and primitive (even by mid-century London standards). Some of her chapters read like expertly crafted magazine features that would not be out of place in a glossy newspaper supplement today. She really gets under the skin of what makes the people and the place tick, writing about the sights,  smells and textures in filmic detail.

Mermaid Singing is as much an anthropological study (in the same vein as J.M. Synge’s The Aran Islands) as it is a story of two writers escaping the rat race to focus on their creative output. It is a lush and gorgeously vivid read.

Peel Me a Lotus

The second volume of Clift’s memoirs, Peel Me a Lotus follows nine months in the lives of the family, who have now decamped to Hydra, an island closer to the Greek mainland, and with a growing reputation as a Bohemian hangout.

When the book opens, Clift is pregnant with her third child and the couple are racing to fix up a house they have purchased before the baby arrives.

This memoir is less about traditional island life than her previous volume and more about the life of the family, how they go about setting up their home, the tensions Clift experiences between living a life of domesticity and one of creativity, and the role the couple play in the foreign community of artists and poets and writers who have made Hydra their hang out.

If the island is no longer ‘our’ island, it is very lovely nonetheless. A summer island, a painter’s paradise, just enough off the beaten track to be an authentic ‘discovery’, simple still, and strong with its own personality. ‘Quite unspoilt,’ people are heard to say. ‘The essence of Greekness. An absolute gem.’

Again, this book is full of bold and colourful descriptions of people, locals and foreigners alike, and places, including the dramatic landscape, the port and the sea, enough to make you feel as if you are there soaking up the sunshine, the plentiful wine and the good vibes.

Given our current travel restrictions (because of the Covid-19 global pandemic), reading this book is the next best thing to visiting the Greek islands yourself. I loved it. Cathy at 746 Books recently reviewed this one too.

This volume represents my 16th & 17th books for #AWW2021 and my 14th & 15th books for #20booksofsummer 2021 edition. I bought it in January this year, delighted to see these memoirs back in print at last! I’ve long been a George Johnston fan (his novel ‘My Brother Jack’ is my favourite book of all time, but read pre-blog and not reviewed here), but I had never read anything by Clift and had been wanting to do so for a very long time.

Australia, Author, Book review, food, nature, Non-fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Reading Projects, Richard Flanagan, Setting, TBR 21

‘Toxic: The Rotting Underbelly of the Tasmanian Salmon Industry’ by Richard Flanagan


Non-fiction – paperback; Penguin; 240 pages; 2021.

I have not eaten red meat for 30 years, but I consume a lot of fish. I love salmon, whether fresh, smoked or hot smoked.

I knew that when I picked up this non-fiction expose of the Tasmanian salmon industry I was toying with fire. “This is going to put me off eating salmon for life, isn’t it?” I declared when the bookseller I purchased it from told me this was the sixth copy he’d sold in a matter of hours. He just laughed and said, “Come back and let me know!”

Well, I haven’t been back yet, but the answer is exactly what I knew it would be. It’s doubtful I will eat Tasmanian farmed salmon ever again.

A thorough investigation

Written by Booker prize-winner Richard Flanagan, Toxic is a no holds barred investigation into the dubious practices of farming Atlantic salmon in Tasmania, specifically the D’Entrecasteaux Channel, a body of water that separates Bruny Island from the Tasmanian mainland and which acts as the mouth of the estuaries of the Derwent and Huon Rivers and empties into the Tasman Sea.

Flanagan explains how this channel, once a renowned beauty spot and sleepy backwater, has become environmentally degraded by an industry that puts profit before all else. He also shows how the product, which is marketed as clean and healthy, is anything but. It’s an eye-opening, stomach-churning and anger-inducing read.

I regard myself as an educated person, someone who is interested in the provenance of my food and who cares deeply about nature, but Toxic has exposed the glaring omissions in my knowledge and made me realise how naive I am when it comes to buying — and eating — farmed salmon.

Here’s just a handful of things I did not know — and which greatly alarmed me:

¶  The salmon is dyed so that it appears a healthy-looking pink and is more palatable to the consumer. This dye — synthetic astaxanthin — is made from petrochemicals.

Just as you use colour swatches to choose house paint, the salmon corporations use colour swatches to choose their salmon’s colour.

¶  Farmed salmon is not necessarily good for you. That’s because the fish’s fatty profile has changed as a consequence of the diet they are fed which is plant-based, rather than fish-based, so that the salmon now contain more omega-6 oils, the so-called “bad” fats, rather than omega-3 oils, which are better for you.

¶  Salmon farming is driving deforestation because the fish are fed a plant-based diet. Fishmeal, it turns out, is too expensive to feed, so farmers source protein from other food streams to cut costs. In Tasmania, the majority of this protein is chicken-based (a revolting mix of heads, feet, intestines and so on, mainly sourced from battery hens), but the fish are also fed soy, which comes from South America.

Illegal deforestation to create new soy farms in South America, particularly in the Amazon and Cerrado, is deeply embedded in the rise of the salmon industry globally and throws a long shadow over any attempt by the local industry to present salmon as a green product.

The fish live in horrendous conditions, crammed into “feedlots” where they barely have room to swim. These lots are often stacked one on top of another in towers of up to 20 metres in height, “down which faeces and urine rain”.

The image of thousands of cows slowly suffocating to death in a smog-polluted shed would be unacceptable. The reality of thousands of salmon slowly suffocating to death on a hot day as oxygen levels collapse is less questioned.

Fish farms are noisy. They work around the clock using heavy diesel compressors to oxygenate the water. To avoid salmon stock being killed by amoebic gill disease, the fish also need to be “bathed” in giant freshwater bladders on a monthly, sometimes fortnightly, rotation. They are mechanically vacuumed out of their feedlots into the bladders, then sucked out again. And then there are all the attendant boats and the industrial lighting required to enable workers to see what they are doing, so that residents living onshore are plagued by light and noise pollution 24/7.

I could go on, but it’d be easier for me to tell you to read the book. You might end up underlining the entire thing, which is what I was tempted to do when I wasn’t feeling nauseous by the horrendous facts that pile up on top of one another like bodies in a mass grave (I make no apology for that simile).

An industry mired in secrecy

Knowing all this, the first question you might well ask is how is this legal?

Flanagan painstakingly documents the corruption at the heart of the industry, which claims to be regulated but is really mired in secrecy and cover-ups. He talks to leading scientists and activists and a host of brave people who have spoken out against the industry’s practices. It doesn’t make for pleasant or comfortable reading.

It’s thoroughly researched and completely up-to-date (there are references to things that happened as recently as March 2021), but unfortunately, Toxic doesn’t possess an index, which is infuriating if you wish to look something up afterwards. There is, however, an extensive list of references and sources.

I can’t say I am glad I read this book, because it means I can no longer in all good conscience continue to eat one of my favourite sources of protein, but it’s one of the best, and most chilling, non-fiction reads I’ve consumed in a long while.

Please note, Toxic: The Rotting Underbelly of the Tasmanian Salmon Industry doesn’t appear to be published outside of Australia, but you can order it from readings.com.au or try bookfinder.com to source a used copy.

This is my 19h book 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 store last month.

Author, Book review, Emilie Pine, essays, Ireland, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR 21, Tramp Press

‘Notes to Self’ by Emilie Pine

Non-fiction – essays; Tramp Press*; 190 pages; 2018.

Notes to Self is a deeply personal collection of essays by Irish academic Emilie Pine. The pieces are all themed around Emilie’s life and are astonishing in their frankness and honesty.

There are six essays, the majority of which are framed around what it is to be a woman in the 21st century, forging a career, trying to start a family and caring for vulnerable parents. Taken collectively, the book could also be classified as a memoir.

The opening essay, “Notes on Temperance”, sets the tone for the entire book, for in it Pine tells the story of how, together with her sister, they “rescued” their father, an alcoholic, from a decrepit Greek hospital where they feared he would die.

By the time we find him, he has been lying in a pool of his own shit for several hours.

The essay charts their efforts to help a man who does not want to be helped, flying from Ireland and Corfu, and back again, numerous times to ensure his well-being; how they got him back to Dublin for a bit before he took it upon himself to return to Greece; how Pine learns to respect her father’s “principled stubbornness” and admires his talent as a writer; and how she came to understand that the emotional labour of looking after a poorly parent might make her “heart race” but comes with its own rewards: “an ever-changing conversation between two people, father and daughter”.

In “The Baby Years” she explains her struggles with infertility (“Do I want kids? I agonised for years”) and how, when she finally got pregnant, the baby dies in-utero.

On October 18th I am admitted for what they call an ERPC. It’s another terrible acronym; this one translates as ‘the evacuation of retained products of conception’.

Similarly, the essay “Notes on Bleeding and Other Crimes” looks at the intimate biology of what it is to be female and to experience menstruation  — the bloody mess of it, the pain of it, the surprise of it, the sometimes embarrassing times we are caught out by it — from our teenage years to perimenopause.

For three decades I have lived within a silence that declares periods too embarrassing, too unwanted, too female to talk about out loud. […] To hell with covering up, with being embarrassed, with being silent.

There are other essays about what it is like to grow up in Ireland with parents who have separated (“Speaking/Not Speaking”), about her troubled adolescence in which drugs and sex and a wild-child attitude reined (“Something About Me”) and, finally, about sexism in the workplace, particularly academia (“This is not on the Exam”).

And while Pine writes from her own personal experiences living and working in Ireland, there is a universality about the topics covered that will resonate with many women regardless of background or upbringing.

There are a lot of home truths in Notes to Self, and the frankness is, at times, breathtaking in its audacity and crudity. But Pine is not afraid to break taboos, to shine a light on uncomfortable topics, to shake off the shame often attached to them and to show that resilience and bravery come in many forms.

It is a superlative read.

* Please note this book has since been picked up and republished by Penguin.

If you like this, you might also like:

‘Constellations: Reflections of Life’ by Sinead Gleeson: a collection of 14 extraordinary, life-affirming and very personal essays covering the author’s own experience of sickness, health, motherhood and grief.

This is my 15th book 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 Dublin, Ireland, not long after it was released in 2018, and carried it in my suitcase when I repatriated to Australia in June 2019.

Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2021, Book review, Hachette Australia, Non-fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, Southern Cross Crime Month 2021, Tanya Bretherton, true crime

‘The Husband Poisoner’ by Tanya Bretherton

Non-fiction – paperback; Hachette Australia; 235 pages; 2021. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

In recent years Tanya Bretherton has made a name for herself as a chronicler of historical true crime. I’ve read a couple of her books now — The Suitcase Baby (2018) and  The Killing Streets (2020) — and found them interesting and well written.

In this new book, The Husband Poisoner, she turns her forensic lens towards women who killed in post-World War II Sydney using poison as their “weapon” of choice.

The title is a bit of a misnomer though because the cases that feature in this book aren’t solely focused on women who killed their husbands. Caroline Grills, for instance, did away with her stepmother, a family friend, her brother and his wife!

The thallium wave

Written narrative non-fiction style, Bretherton weaves her true crime tales with sociological insights and shows how poisoning was “fashionable” in the 1950s because it was undetectable. The poison used, thallium,  had no smell and was tasteless, so could be added to meals or a cup of tea and the person who consumed it would be none the wiser. And it was readily available as an over-the-counter poison designed to kill rats.

Between March 1952 and April 1953, ten deaths and forty-six hospital admissions [in Sydney] were attributed to thallium. It was an alarming statistic given exposure to thallium could only be traced to one source — the product known as Thall-Rat.

The author focuses on two specific NSW cases — Yvonne Fletcher, who poisoned two husbands, one after the other, and the aforementioned Caroline Grills —  before turning her attention towards the two police detectives who made a name for themselves solving these problematic crimes.

I say “problematic” because detecting the use of poison was difficult, and murders could be “made to look like something else entirely” so that “no one even realised that a crime had been committed”. For example, poor Yvonne Fletcher’s first husband died an agonising death that stretched over years — doctors put his poor health down to various issues, including “nervous tension and anxiety”, but no one suspected his wife was adding rat poison to his food!

The inclusion of old recipes at the end of each chapter, such as split pea soup and jam roly-poly (which come from the author’s own family cookbook), hammers home the point that this crime was wholly domestic and more often than not carried out by women, who, during the 1950s, spent their lives in the kitchen. This made it even easier for a disgruntled woman to get rid of a family member in such a deadly but seemingly innocuous manner.

Police corruption

If I was to fault the book in any way it is the creative element in which conversations and feelings are “invented” in the interests of telling a good story. This is the journalist in me kicking back against this style of writing which tends to blur fact and fiction. But I understand why the author has taken this approach: it makes the narrative more compelling and it’s easier to identify (and empathise) with characters.

The segue into the police investigation near the end of the book feels slightly clunky, too, almost as if it has been added as an afterthought. That said, it’s an intriguing look at the way in which NSW Detectives Fergusson and Krahe pinpointed the role of thallium in various murders and worked out an approach to catch the killers. Such an approach, while effective, was not without its own set of ethical problems. The pair were later recognised as “key figures in the institutionalised corruption of the NSW police force from the 1940s through to the 1970s”.

The detectives postulated that thallium killing was different to other kinds of killing. It was not violent, at least in the traditional sense. Thallium murderers did not usually seek to strike one devastating blow; it was not liked taking aim and firing a weapon into lethal target zones like the brain or the heart. Thallium killers were capable of patiently exploiting the poison’s manifold secrets. Thallium was a slow burn, and killing with it required a certain kind of disposition: deceitful. In turn, efforts to catch these criminals required a certain kind of investigation: deceitful.

The Husband Poisoner is a riveting expose of the darker side of Australian life after the Second World War.  As well as looking at a series of disturbing murders, it puts things into context by providing a fascinating account of post-war social change. It’s by turns macabre and sinister, eye-opening and, dare I say it, blackly comic.

Shelleyrae at Book’d Out has reviewed this one too.

About the author¹:  Tanya Bretherton has a PhD in sociology with special interests in narrative life history and social history. She has published in the academic and public sphere for 20 years and worked as a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Sydney for 15 years. Dr Bretherton’s specialty is converting detailed research into thought-provoking works which are accessible to a general readership. Currently she works as a freelance researcher and writer. Her first book, The Suitcase Baby, was shortlisted for the Ned Kelly Award, the Danger Prize and the Waverley Library ‘Nib’ Award. Her second book The Suicide Bride was shortlisted for the Danger Prize and in 2020 she won the Danger Prize for The Killing Streets.  (1. Source: Hachette Australia website.)

Where to buy: The book has been published in Australia in both paperback and ebook editions; in the UK and US it is available in ebook format only.

If you liked this book, you might also like:

‘My Mother, A Serial Killer’ by Hazel Baron and Janet Fife-Yeomans 
This book is about Dulcie Bodsworth, a community-minded wife and mother, who murdered her husband in the 1950s, then killed two other men she knew. A talented cook and caterer, her poison of choice was arsenic.

This is my 7th book for #SouthernCrossCrime2021 which I am hosting on this blog between 1st March and 31st March. To find out more, including how to take part and to record what you have read, please click here. It is also my 5th book for #AWW2021.