20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2022), Affirm Press, Australia, Author, Fiction, literary fiction, Omar Sakr, Publisher, Setting, Turkey

‘Son of Sin’ by Omar Sakr

Fiction – paperback; Affirm Press; 288 pages; 2022.

Sydney-based Arab Australian Omar Sakr is a prize-winning poet who has turned his hand to novel writing.

Son of Sin, his debut published earlier this year, is an eloquent, fierce and tender coming of age story about a queer Muslim boy coming to terms with his sexuality.

Written with a poet’s eye for detail and sublime imagery, it charts Jamal Smith’s life from his mid-teens to his mid-twenties.

It reveals how Jamal, the product of a Lebanese mother and a Turkish father, spends his adolescence and early adulthood grappling with the idea of being a good Muslim while all around him he sees his extended family — a motley collection of aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents — being violent, smoking dope and getting into trouble with the law.

His unconventional upbringing creates additional challenges. Until the age of seven, he was raised by his mother’s sister (whom he still regards as his real mother), a cruel and abusive woman, and believed that his cousins were his siblings. He never really knew his father.

Bookish and gay

As an adolescent, Jamal is a square peg in a round hole. He loves books — “as long as he was reading, he was invisible” — and is sexually attracted to his male friends. He knows that both traits mark him out as different and that the latter must be hidden at all costs, for homosexuality is the “ultimate taboo” for Muslim men, something he is reminded of by family members — of both sexes — who often express anti-gay sentiments.

On top of the homophobia, Jamal must also navigate racism. He lives in the multi-cultural western suburbs of Sydney and experiences first-hand the racial profiling and vilification that people of “Middle Eastern appearance”  were subjected to following 9/11, the Cronulla race riots and, later, Trump’s Muslim ban.

When, as a young adult he drops out of university and fails to find a job he enjoys, he heads abroad to meet his estranged father. During his two years in Turkey, things begin to fall into place — he comes to learn of his family history and begins to reconcile his race and identity in the knowledge that it’s okay to not fit in.

Grace and humour

Despite these heavy subjects, Son of Sin isn’t an oppressive read; it’s written with grace and good humour and there’s a sense of hope and optimism, too. Jamal does find his tribe — his school friends are all outsiders like him from different ethnic backgrounds but have shared interests — and has sexual encounters that are tender and joyful.

As you would expect with a typical bildungsroman, there’s not much of a plot. Instead, the book is essentially a character study of an introspective young man trying to navigate his way in a world beset by prejudice, racism and complex family histories.

It seems fitting that my edition features a cover quote by Christos Tsiolkas because the book is highly reminiscent of Tsiolkas’ own work, in particular his debut novel Loaded. It shares similar themes — what it is to be a first-generation Australian of immigrant parents, hiding your homosexuality, toxic masculinity and violence — and is just as powerfully written, but it’s far less hard-hitting, nihilistic and grungy.

Fans of Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s novel The Lebs will also find a lot to like here.

This is my 5th book for #20booksofsummer 2022 edition. I bought it not long after it was published in March this year. I have heard Omar talk at a few live-streamed book events over the past couple of years and he always comes across as a deep thinker with a lot of interesting things to say. I figured his book would be more of the same. I was right.

Affirm Press, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2021, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Helen FitzGerald, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, Southern Cross Crime Month 2021

‘Ash Mountain’ by Helen Fitzgerald

Fiction – paperback; Affirm Press; 270 pages; 2021. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Glasgow-based Australian writer Helen Fitzgerald does a nice line in dark, edgy fiction. I’ve read six of her novels and they have all been wildly entertaining if somewhat over-the-top. I quite like them as “palette cleansers” because they are so different to anything else out there.

Ash Mountain, which was published in the UK by Orenda Books last year and has just been published in Australia by Affirm Press, is cut from a similar cloth — with one important difference: this is her first novel to be set exclusively in Australia.

It’s billed as a “disaster thriller” because the storyline revolves around a terrifying bushfire and explores events leading up to the tragedy and what happens on the actual day of the fire.

I must admit that about half-way through I wondered whether this book could actually be described as Southern Cross crime, because I was struggling to find the crime in it. It’s there though, hidden in the dark folds of the time-hopping narrative, if you look closely enough. But don’t expect it to tick all the boxes that you might normally associate with the genre. It’s actually more litfic than crimefic.

In the UK the book is published by Orenda Books

Small town life

Set in a small town north of Melbourne, Ash Mountain revolves around a single mother, Fran, who has returned to the country after many years away to look after her bed-ridden father, the victim of a stroke, in the family home.

She has two children by two different fathers: 29-year-old Dante, whom she had when she was a teenager at school following her first sexual experience, and 16-year-old Vonny, whose father is indigenous. She cares for both very much and has quite a healthy, frank and empathetic relationship with both.

The narrative, which is comprised largely of flashbacks spanning a period of 30 years, shines a light on what it is like to grow up in a claustrophobic, predominantly Catholic community in rural Victoria, where everyone knows everyone else’s business, isn’t afraid to cast judgement and where tensions either fester or explode in the form of dust-ups in the pub or local swimming pool.

Fran thought she had escaped all that, but moving back after two decades in Melbourne has come somewhat of a shock. She can’t shake the feeling that she’s still at school, being stared at because she’s 15 and pregnant, or being pitied because her glamourous Italian mother has died prematurely in a car accident.

The third-person narrative swings between school life three decades ago and the current day, and is largely told from Fran’s perspective. It jumps around a lot, which can be disorientating for the reader. Occasionally I had trouble keeping up with what was going on. But slowly, once I understood the dynamics of the family and realised FitzGerald was drip-feeding information for me to process, it began to make much more sense and I found it difficult to put down.

Raging bushfire

The natural disaster at the heart of Ash Mountain is a raging bush fire on Australia Day (or Invasion Day, as Fran calls it throughout). It’s easy to think that this is what the book is about — indeed, it features some heart-hammering moments and is filled with terrifying imagery, such as when Fran discovers some burnt out cars, complete with bodies inside, parked in what should have been a place of safety — but it’s more subtle than that. If you read closely enough you will see that the fire brings out the best — and worst — in people, but it also exposes the town’s deep secrets, which have festered unchallenged for decades.

It’s difficult to pigeonhole this novel into any single category. This author used to be classified as “intelligent chick lit” and there’s no doubt it features her blackly comic take on the world, complete with her trademark snark, bad language and whip-smart dialogue, but Ash Mountain feels more mature than anything else she’s written.

I wasn’t sure I liked it to begin with, but the “mystery” at its heart, its brilliant cast of characters and the subtle social commentary running throughout made this an absorbing read, and one that will linger in my mind for a long time to come.

In her afterword, the author claims it was optioned for TV before the book was written. She struggled with the screenplay and decided she needed to put it in prose first. I’m glad she did.

About the author¹: Helen FitzGerald is the bestselling author of 10 adult and young adult thrillers, including The Donor (2011) and The Cry (2013), which was longlisted for the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year, and is now a major drama for BBC1. Helen worked as a criminal justice social worker for more than 15 years. She grew up in Kilmore, Victoria, Australia. She now lives in Glasgow with her husband. (1. Source: Affirm Press website)

Where to buy: This book is widely available in most territories.

This is my 3rd book for #SouthernCrossCrime2021, a month-long celebration of crime writing by authors from Australia and New Zealand. You can find out more by visiting my Southern Cross Crime Month page. It is also my 3rd book for #AWW2021.  

Affirm Press, Alecia Simmonds, Australia, Author, AWW2016, Book review, Non-fiction, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Setting, true crime

‘Wild Man’ by Alecia Simmonds

Wild Man by Alecia Simmonds

Non-fiction – paperback; Affirm Press; 260 pages; 2015.

Alecia Simmonds’ Wild Man is the true story of a mentally unstable man who was shot dead by police on a remote farm in northern New South Wales (NSW) in April 2012.

Evan Johnson (not his real name) was armed with a crossbow and hunting knife, and had been threatening to kill people, including his own fiancée, attending a hippie festival on the property. He was sleep deprived, high on a cocktail of drugs at the time and had a complicated history of mental illness. Two rural police officers called to the scene tried to subdue him but ended up shooting him dead.

The author, who is a journalist and lawyer, was so intrigued by the case and the Gothic nature of it — think a secluded and scary setting, a violent man on a rampage, and dozens of hippies seeking spiritual enlightenment caught up in the crossfire — that she sat in on the coronial inquest into Evan’s death held in November 2013. This book is the product of her reportage of that inquest, but it’s not simply a linear account of her time in court — it examines all kinds of issues relating to love, violence, masculinity, mental health and policing.

As she points out in her Author’s Note, this is not an academic study — like her compatriot Helen Garner, whose writing style she emulates,  “I have put all my doubts on the page” and “my thoughts change over time”.

A bizarre case

Interestingly, Simmonds was initially drawn to the case because Evan was the third person to be shot dead by NSW police in four weeks. The civil libertarian in her was outraged (she was teaching a university “foundations of law” course at the time) and wanted to know “why police were never prosecuted for criminal negligence” and why they felt the need to shoot vulnerable people instead of protecting them?

But over the course of this book Simmonds begins to see things in far less black and white terms. She starts to comprehend the dilemma facing the two police officers called to this particular scene in a remote area in the dead of night. Faced with a violent man pointing a crossbow at them, their options were limited.

So, a book that sets out to discredit the police or at least hold them to account for their actions, morphs into something else entirely: the failure of Australia’s current mental health policy.

Mental health history

Simmonds charts Evan’s mental health problems to determine whether what happened could have been prevented had he received the proper treatment. His nickname “Wild Man” points to a troubling personality disorder, and interviews with girlfriends and family members suggest there was an uncontrollable, often violent and risk-taking, nature to his personality, but Evan was never formally diagnosed with a severe mental illness, although there were hints he may have been schizophrenic.

As a boy he was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder but that had been curbed by prescription medication. His mother thought he might have been bipolar because he was sometimes manic and went through phases of using alcohol and recreational drugs interspersed with long periods of abstinence.

Yet, when Simmonds goes through Evan’s medical records she discovers a track history of hospital admissions — for self harm, suicide attempts, drug overdoses and psychotic episodes — along with visits to private psychiatric units. And yet, despite a long and detailed medical history, he appears to have slipped through the net. His nomadic lifestyle — he didn’t have a fixed address and found it difficult to keep down a job — probably did not help, but Simmonds argues the need for “joined-up thinking”:

I wonder about the hospitals and institutions that Evan encountered. Do they talk to each other? Is there, or should there be, a national health body given sweeping powers of oversight that could assemble this information on one database so that when doctors encountered people like Evan they weren’t starting from scratch each time?

But Simmonds points to something else: the Australian fixation — and love — of larrikins, of louder-than-life, macho men, who enjoy being the centre of attention and whose sometimes troubling behaviour is dismissed as simply being that of a “wild boy”. Evan was clearly not the sort of man who found it easy to discuss his problems — he lost visitation rights to his son shortly before he died, for instance — or to seek help or to admit his own vulnerability. The question here is blindingly obvious: how many other men out there are “bombs” just waiting to go off…?

No excuses

Simmonds’ compassionate examination of this case makes for a fascinating read. Wild Man doesn’t make excuses for Evan Johnson’s behaviour (he comes across as totally unlikable). Nor does it let the police who killed him get off lightly. But what it does do is explain what happened on that fateful night and fleshes out how the tragedy might have been avoided. It also shines a light on a whole array of issues, including what it is to be masculine, the horror of the bush on the Australian mindset and the need for a joined-up mental health policy.

It poses many questions, but doesn’t necessarily find any easy answers. It’s a compelling read.

Wild Man is available in the UK and US only in Kindle format.

You can listen to the author talk about the book on ABC radio.

This is my 43rd book for #ReadingAustralia2016 and my 29th for #AWW2016.