Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2021, Book review, crime/thriller, Dervla McTiernan, Fiction, Focus on WA writers, Harper Collins, Ireland, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR 21

‘The Rúin’ by Dervla McTiernan

Fiction – paperback; Harper Collins; 380 pages; 2018.

Dervla McTiernan’s The Rúin is an excellent police procedural set in Galway, Ireland. This is the first in the DI Cormac Reilly series, which continues with The Scholar (published in 2019) and The Good Turn (2020).

Dead from a drug overdose

In this debut, it’s 1993 and rookie Garda Cormac Reilly is called out to a decrepit Georgian manor house where Hilaria Blake, a known alcoholic, lies dead in her bed from a heroin overdose. Her two children, 15-year-old Maude and 5-year-old Jack, show signs of neglect. The boy, in particular, is covered in unexplained bruises. There’s not much Reilly can do, except take the children to the hospital and let social services take over.

Fast forward 20 years and Reilly has left his high-flying career as a detective in Dublin and is about to take up a new post in Galway so that he can be with his partner, Emma, a successful academic.

But easing into a new police station isn’t straightforward. Someone is spreading nasty rumours about him and he’s not sure who to trust.

Complications arise when the Blake death and those two neglected children return to haunt him. Jack, now an adult, has been found dead in the River Corrib. The police claim it’s suicide, but Jack’s girlfriend, a promising young surgeon, begs to differ. Yes, the pair had argued over an unwanted pregnancy, but Aisling doesn’t believe that would be enough for Jack to want to deliberately drown himself.

When Maude returns to Ireland after having lived on a remote sheep station in Western Australia for most of her adult life, there is pressure on Reilly to interrogate her over the death of both her mother and her brother. There’s a hidden agenda going on and trying to unravel it is the nub of this complex but compelling novel, which is written with great sensitivity and humanity.

Dual narrative

The narrative, which switches between Aisling and Cormac’s point of view, moves things along at a clip and gives the reader a well rounded view of events, both past and present.

And while the characters in The Rúin are all flawed and deeply human, the two leads are “good eggs” who you want to cheer on. However, things do stray into caricature towards the end when the culprit is revealed and his behaviour escalates into over-the-top shenanigans.

And while I guessed the “solution” pretty early on, this is a well-plotted, deftly written police procedural about family secrets, police corruption, child abuse and how the past and present can collide in disturbing ways.

The Rúin has won numerous awards, including the 2019 Ned Kelly Award for Best First Novel, the 2019 Davitt Award and the 2019 Barry Award for Best Original Paperback, and been shortlisted for the Australian Book Industry Awards, the Irish Book Awards and the Kate O’Brien Award.

Cathy at 746 Books also enjoyed this one.

This is my 9th book for #AWW2021 and my 9th for #TBR21 in which I’m planning to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021. I purchased it last year. I’m not sure I’m going to succeed unless I read a LOT over the next 6 weeks.

And because the author lives in Perth (where she emigrated with her family after the Global Financial Crash), this book also qualifies for my #FocusOnWesternAustralianWriters. You can find out more about this ongoing reading project here and see what books I’ve reviewed from this part of the world on my Focus on Western Australian page.

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‘Shore Leave’ by David Whish-Wilson

Fiction – paperback; Fremantle Press; 248 pages; 2020.

Australian crime doesn’t come much more hard-boiled than David Whish-Wilson’s Shore Leave, which is set in Fremantle, Western Australia, in 1989.

The fourth in the Frank Swann series (which began with Line of Sight, the only one I’ve read), it works as a standalone. All you really need to know is that Frank was once a police superintendent but now he’s working solo as a private investigator and because he’s made a few enemies in the past, he’s always looking over his shoulder for people out to get him. He’s also grappling with a debilitating illness in which he’s unsteady on his feet, losing weight and vomiting, but trying his best to ignore it!

Murder plot

The plot focuses on the murder of two women, which might be linked to the arrival in port of the US nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Carl Vinson. An African-American sailor is missing and thought to be the likely suspect.

Working together — and sometimes against — the US Navy Master-At-Arms and the local police, Frank finds himself drawn into a messy and dangerous game involving prostitution, warring bikie gangs and gun smuggling.

The third-person narrative expands beyond Frank’s point of view to also take in US Navy “cop” Steve Webb, gold miner Paul Tremain, terminally ill armed robber Tony Pascoe (on the run from Fremantle Prison), and sailor Devon Smith, a white supremacist trying to sell illicit M-16s to outlaw bikies.

These multiple narrative threads are told in alternate chapters to provide a choppy, fast-paced story detailing a dark web of corruption, greed and violence.

Gritty read

Shore Leave is a gritty read, but there’s a black sense of humour running throughout to offer some light relief, and Frank’s domesticated home life, with his beloved wife Marion and their grown-up daughters, adds a softer, more humane edge to all the violent drama.

I especially loved the historical time period and evocative setting, and had fun trying to spot the Fremantle landmarks that have become oh-so familiar to me since moving here almost two years ago!

This is a complex, cleverly plotted crime novel featuring well-drawn, memorable characters and cracking dialogue. Its dark and brooding atmosphere gives it a noirish edge, perfect if you are looking for a hard-nosed crime novel about old-fashioned investigative work before the advent of the Internet and smartphones.

About the author¹: David Whish-Wilson was born in Newcastle, New South Wales, but raised in Singapore, Victoria and Western Australia. He left Australia aged 18 to live for a decade in Europe, Africa and Asia, where he worked as a barman, actor, street seller, petty criminal, labourer, exterminator, factory worker, gardener, clerk, travel agent, teacher and drug trial guinea pig. David’s first novel in the Frank Swann crime series, Line of Sight (Penguin Australia), was shortlisted for a Ned Kelly Award in 2012. He has since written three more in the series: Zero at the BoneOld Scores and Shore Leave. The first three books in the series have also been published in Germany by Suhrkamp Verlag. David wrote the Perth book in the NewSouth Books city series, which was shortlisted for a WA Premier’s Book Award. He currently lives in Fremantle, Western Australia, with his partner and three children, where he teaches creative writing at Curtin University.   (1. Source: Fremantle Press website.)

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

This is my 10th (and final) 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 8th 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 indie bookstore (in Fremantle) last year.

And because the author lives in Fremantle, this book also qualifies for my #FocusOnWesternAustralianWriters. You can find out more about this ongoing reading project here and see what books I’ve reviewed from this part of the world on my Focus on Western Australian page.

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‘Death Leaves the Station’ by Alexander Thorpe

Fiction – paperback; Fremantle Press; 210 pages; 2020.

To kick off Southern Cross Crime Month I thought I’d start with the type of novel you may not normally associate with Australian crime fiction.

Death Leaves the Station, by Alexander Thorpe, is billed as “cozy crime”. It’s the type of old-fashioned mystery more commonly associated with the likes of Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh (more on her later in the month) and the Crime Classics recently reissued by the British Library.

Thorpe has taken that very British construct, with all its well-trodden rules and conventions, and plonked it slap bang in the middle of the Western Australian wheat belt circa 1927 and then let things play out under a hot Australian sky. It makes for an entertaining read with a distinctively Southern Cross twist — and I loved it.

A missing body

The story begins with the disappearance of a corpse on Halfwell Station, which is about 30 miles from the nearest town of Mullewa, in Western Australia’s mid-west region.

Detective Sergeant Arnold Parkes, renowned for his large moustache (which he hates but refuses to shave off because he believes to do so will cause his wife emotional harm), is called in to investigate. He describes the case as “the rummiest tale to come ringing down the telegraph wires since the Great War”. This is the nuts and bolts of what has happened:

A man is discovered on the edge of the desert, lying in a pool of his own blood, miles away from anywhere. Less than twenty-four hours later, he vanishes completely, with no apparent effort being made to either clean up or conceal the crime and nothing in the way of footprints or wheel ruts nearby. To top it off, there are no reports of anyone going missing from any of the surrounding towns or settlements and no reason whatsoever for a man of any description to be wandering around this far-flung corner of the country in the normal course of affairs, especially in the wee small hours of the morning.

The only person who saw the corpse is 18-year-old Mariana (Ana) Harris, the adopted daughter of the Sation owners, who likes to go for walks at night because she’s obsessed with the stars.

She keeps this frightening discovery to herself, but when an unexpected stranger — a mendicant monk who has no name (because he has given it up) — arrives on their doorstep en route to Mullewa, she gives him a brief tour of the property and confesses all. However, when she goes to show him where she saw the body, it is no longer there.

What ensues is a mystery of the finest order starring Ana (as the star witness) and a trio of investigators comprising the friar, the detective and an Aboriginal tracker. Their inquiries take them east to Geraldton, on the coast, and then south to Fremantle, as they try to find the missing corpse, determine his identity and work out who committed the crime.

A fun read

Death Leaves the Station is a fun read that marries an old-fashioned if somewhat quirky mystery with an adventurous road trip — by motor car and train. It’s written in formal prose — with tongue planted firmly in cheek, it has to be said — but with a liberal dose of humour. The characters are distinctive and well-drawn, and the plot, albeit reliant on maybe one too many coincidences, is well thought out and believable. The historical setting only adds to the evocative atmosphere of the mystery.

I especially liked the way that Thorpe has included indigenous Australians in the story and shown how attitudes of the time were intolerant and harmful without making this an explicit part of the text — the reader is left to come to their own conclusions, rather than be told what to think.

I’d love to see this novel develop into a series… I’d certainly read the next one!

About the author¹: Alexander Thorpe is from Fremantle, Western Australia. He has written advertising copy for pool cleaners and concrete supply companies, taught English in Joseph Stalin’s hometown, and written for news outlets, travel journals, marketing companies and educational providers. Death Leaves the Station is his first novel. (1. Source: Fremantle Press 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. You can order it direct from the Fremantle Press website.

This is my 1st 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

And because the author grew up in Perth and lives in Fremantle, this book also qualifies for my #FocusOnWesternAustralianWriters. You can find out more about this ongoing reading project here and see what books I’ve reviewed from this part of the world on my Focus on Western Australian page.

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‘Honeybee’ by Craig Silvey

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 432 pages; 2020.

Craig Silvey’s latest novel, Honeybee, is a nice reminder that I ought to always come at books with an open mind. For various reasons, I had not expected to like this book*, but I was pleasantly surprised by how entertaining I found it.

It deals with some universal issues, some of which might be triggering, including drug use, criminality, suicide, domestic violence and sexual identity, but does so in an empathetic manner, free from sensationalism.

And it’s super easy to read, not because the prose is pedestrian, but because it lacks literary flourish — indeed, I would brand it as “general fiction” and it could certainly slot into the Young Adult genre with no problem. (I say all this by way of putting the book into context, rather than being snobby about it.)

An unlikely friendship

The story is set in and around Perth (Silvey is a local author) and focuses on a troubled teenager trying to figure out their identity.

When the book opens, 14-year-old Sam Watson, who also goes by the pet name of “Honeybee”, is contemplating suicide by jumping off a bridge. By sheer coincidence, an elderly man called Vic is on the same overpass planning the same thing. The pair end up saving each other and forge an unlikely friendship.

Honeybee charts this friendship through enormous ups and downs as Sam’s family loyalties are tested (his alcoholic mother is addicted to drugs and his step-father is abusive and domineering), while Vic is coming to terms with the loss of his beloved wife after a long and happy marriage.

PLOT SPOILER

It’s almost impossible to write about this book without mentioning the key issue at its heart: Sam is a boy who wants to be a girl, and it is this confusion over his sexual identity that is the cause of so much heartache. When he becomes homeless, he moves in with Vic, who provides the moral support required to become his true, authentic self — but there’s a few bumps along the way.

END OF PLOT SPOILER

The story, which is essentially about learning to love and accept yourself before you can love and accept others, is narrated in the first-person by Sam, who is a naive soul, full of kindness, sensitivity and confusion. He loves fashion and food, tolerates his mother’s bad habits and circle of friends, but dreams of a better life: he knows he lives in the margins but can’t see a way out.

The narrative moves forward via a series of set pieces in which Sam develops his talent for cooking (the descriptions of food are so mouth-wateringly delicious I often felt hungry reading this book), befriends a drag queen, enters therapy and plots a bank robbery.

There’s a few farcical moments, some scary moments, sad moments and violent moments. But there are also a few moments which strain readerly belief; for all its focus on important “issues” there is an element of far-fetched boys’ own adventure that might not be to everyone’s liking (and which I had problems with in Silvey’s debut novel, Jasper Jones, written 11 years earlier).

An entertaining fast-paced read

But all that aside, Honeybee is an entertaining — and tender — read. It’s full of heart and warmth and humanity. Don’t expect anything highbrow. This is a fun read with fun, vividly alive, characters and you’ll race through it in no time! Sure, it’s probably not Silvey’s tale to tell, but I think his intentions come from the right place.

At this stage, Honeybee, which was Dymock’s Book of the Year for 2020, is only available in Australia. (I can’t find a publication date for it in other territories.)

The author is appearing at the Perth Festival this weekend (20 February) and if you purchase a ticket you can watch the session online at home, wherever you are in the world, for up to two weeks after the event. To find out more, visit the Perth Festival website.

For another take on this novel, please see Tony’s review at Tony’s Reading List.

* I was not a fan of his debut novel, Jasper Jones, though the rest of the world disagreed with me, and having heard a little bit about what this new book is about, I had to wonder about his right to tell a story that is not his lived experience and might be better coming from someone in the trans community.

This is my 4th book for #TBR21 in which I’m planning to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021. 

And because Silvey is from Fremantle, this book also qualifies as part of my #FocusOnWesternAustralianWriters. You can find out more about this ongoing reading project here and see what books I’ve reviewed from this part of the world on my Focus on Western Australian page.

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, Focus on WA writers, Laurie Steed, literary fiction, Margaret River Press, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting

‘You Belong Here’ by Laurie Steed

Fiction – paperback; Margaret River Press; 250 pages; 2018.

Laurie Steed’s You Belong Here has been described as the kind of book Anne Tyler might write if she was Australian — and I think that’s a fair summation.

This domestic driven drama charts what happens to the Slater family over the course of more than 40 years. It tells us how Jen and Steven meet as teenagers in Melbourne, how they marry young, move to Perth and begin a family. It then charts how the marriage disintegrates and then looks at the long-lasting impact the divorce has on the three children — Alex, Emily and Jay — who struggle with various psychological issues long into adulthood.

It’s a masterful account of family relationships, of the ways in which we struggle to navigate the world and the importance of love and stability to our mental well-being.

Episodic structure

You Belong Here is told in an episodic style structured in parts —1972-1984; 1985-1995; 1996-1999; 2000-2002; and 2015 — which makes for a relatively quick-moving read.

Steed does not get bogged down in details; he takes a particular episode, for example, how Steven loses his job as an air-traffic controller or how Jay’s mental health deteriorates to the point where he needs to be admitted to a psychiatric facility, and tells it from the point-of-view of a particular character. He fleshes it out so we see how that snapshot in time illuminates what else is happening within and outwith the family.

Little details, like a song or a fashion item or a brand of food, pegs the episode to a specific time in history, so you get the feeling as you move through the story that you are also moving through time, from the 1970s to the 2000s. It’s an effective literary device.

Compelling and realistic tale

On the face of it, You Belong Here might sound like a depressing read — and in parts, it is pretty miserable — but on the whole, this compelling story is written with warmth and humour. It feels realistic and, indeed, normal. There are families everywhere who confront and deal with the same kind of issues — family breakdown, single parenthood and mental health, just to name a few — that the Slaters go through.

It’s tightly written — it has to be given that Steed covers 40-plus years of one family in just 250 pages — so the focus is razor-sharp and insightful, with not a word wasted. He’s very good at drilling right down to the heart of the matter, the ways in which humans fool themselves or pretend everything’s okay because it’s easier not to confront the truth.

For all their arguments and misunderstandings, their troubles and heartaches, I did enjoy spending time with this dysfunctional family.

For another take on this novel, please see Sue’s review at Whispering Gums.

The author is based in Perth, so I read this book as part of my #FocusOnWesternAustralianWriters. 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 Writers page

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2020), Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2020, Book review, Fiction, Focus on WA writers, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, Text

‘A Week in the Life of Cassandra Aberline’ by Glenda Guest

Fiction – paperback; Text Publishing; 202 pages; 2018.

I have Lisa Hill from ANZLitLovers to thank for introducing me to this quite remarkable novel because it was her review that first drew my attention to it.

Taken on face value, Glenda Guest’s A Week in the Life of Cassandra Aberline could be mistaken for a maudlin story about Alzheimer’s — but it is much more than that.

It’s the kind of richly layered novel I really like, one that mixes a journey (in this case by train across the width of the Australian continent) with an immersive back story about one woman’s markedly independent life. And at the heart of it, there’s a long-buried family betrayal that has thrown a shadow over everything that has happened since.

But it’s also filled with quiet moments of joy, little accomplishments and achievements, and everyday triumphs that make up a life.

A journey to remember

The Cassandra Aberline of the title is a woman in her sixties, a former stage actress turned university lecturer, who has recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s — “I found myself on the wrong bus. Then, in a tutorial, I couldn’t remember what I was supposed to be talking about” —  and wants to put a few things in order before the illness renders her an invalid.

Route of the Indian Pacific trainShe books an expensive premium class train ticket on the transcontinental Indian Pacific to travel from Sydney to Perth, where she hopes to visit the family she ran away from some 45 years ago to make amends.

Her story is broken up into stages along the 4,352km journey — “Sydney to Broken Hill, 2.55pm to 6.30am”; “Broken Hill to Adelaide, 8.20am to 3.05pm” etc — and covers what happens to her along the way, including the people she meets and the places she sees. This is interleaved with recollections of her life as a young woman, having stolen money from her father in the Western Australian wheat belt to reinvent herself on the other side of the country in Sydney, where she initially lived in rough-and-ready King’s Cross and worked in a tattoo parlour.

As the train makes its way across Australia, the view out the window of the “deserted, eternal landscape that is full of the unknowable” is a metaphor for what awaits her at the other end — of her journey and her life.

Compelling story about memory

A Week in the Life of Cassandra Aberline is a compelling novel about memory, including what we choose to remember and what we choose to forget, and how a disease like Alzheimer’s can take away those choices.

The Cassandra Aberline you are today is not the one you were at eighteen or twenty. It’s only our memory that ties us to those young selves.

It’s also a story about the decisions we make and how it is possible to strike out on your own if you have the resilience and desire to do so, and the ways in which it is possible to reinvent yourself.

While it’s very much a character-driven tale, it’s also a page-turner thanks to its mysterious plot, which is topped off by a neatly drawn, yet believable, conclusion. Five stars.

Sue at Whispering Gums enjoyed it too.

Unfortunately, this book is only available in ebook form outside of Australia. Check bookfinder.com for paperback editions, or you can order direct from Text Publishing.

This is my 10th book for #20BooksofSummer / #20BooksOfSouthernHemisphereWinter. I purchased it from my local secondhand bookshop last year. This is also my 13th book for #AWW2020.

And because the author grew up in Western Australia, I also read this book as part of my #FocusOnWesternAustralianWriters. 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 Writers page

Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2019, AWW2020, Book lists, Book review, Emily Paull, Fiction, Focus on WA writers, Fremantle Press, literary fiction, Madelaine Dickie, Margaret River Press, Michelle Johnston, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, short stories, TBR2020, University of Western Australia Press

3 books by Western Australian women writers: Madelaine Dickie, Michelle Johnston and Emily Paull

Last year I decided to embark on a project to read books from my adopted state of Western Australia. And then my plans flew out the window when I started a new full-time job in a new career just a couple of weeks later!

Alas, six months on and my working life is now (slightly) more manageable, giving me more bandwidth to get on with my reading life.

Here are three excellent books I’ve read recently by women writers from Western Australia. They are all highly recommended reads worth seeking out.

‘Red Can Origami’ by Madelaine Dickie

Fiction – paperback; Fremantle Press; 224 pages; 2019. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Red Can Origami is a brilliant, politically motivated novel about mining and the repercussions it has on local indigenous communities and the environment in general. But it’s also a deeply personal story about living in a tiny tropical town, adapting to a new lifestyle and remaining true to yourself.

It’s narrated in the second person by Ava, a journalist, who works on the local newspaper. She later takes a job as an Aboriginal liaison officer for a Japanese firm that that’s big into nuclear power. That firm is going head to head with a Native Title group in a bid to begin mining uranium on country. As the fast-paced plot races its way towards an inevitable showdown between the local community, the white do-gooders and the mining company, Ava finds herself out of her depth — and in love with a local Aboriginal man.

The novel is set in Australia’s tropical north and is as much a love letter to that landscape and climate and remote way of life as it is an exploration of morals and principles and the importance of cultural understanding and awareness. It’s written in rich, vivid language, has a cast of strong, well-drawn characters and covers some pertinent issues without being too heavy-handed. It’s a wonderfully authentic Australian story told with insight and sensitivity.

‘Dustfall’ by Michelle Johnston

Fiction – paperback; University of Western Australia Press; 306 pages; 2018.

Dustfall is set in Wittennoom, the asbestos mining town in the Pilbara region of Western Australia, which was classified as a contaminated site and then degazetted in 2006/7. Its deadly legacy, in which hundreds of miners developed terminal mesothelioma, is the lens through which this delicately rendered story is told.

Split into two distinct time frames — one historical, one current — it looks at two doctors, a generation apart, who go to Wittenoom as a way to distance themselves from mistakes they have made in their medical careers. For Dr Raymond Filigree, working in the town’s small hospital is a way for him to rebuild his confidence, but instead, he finds himself at war with a mining company that has no respect for human life; while for Dr Lou Fitzgerald, the now-abandoned Wittenoom, full of eerie silence and empty buildings, offers a refuge from a career-ending error, but it also opens her eyes to much bigger crimes from the past when she discovers the town’s ruined hospital.

These twin narratives tapped into my own long-held fury about Wittenooom’s deadly blue asbestos mine which has been with me ever since I read Ben Hills’ Blue Murder, circa 1990, and heard Midnight Oil’s Blue Sky Mine at around the same time. Another politically charged novel, Dustfall is eloquently told but brims with slow-burning anger. It’s absorbing, intelligent — and powerful.

‘Well-behaved Women’ by Emily Paull

Fiction – paperback; Margaret River Press; 242 pages; 2019. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Well-behaved women seldom make history, so the saying goes. And that’s pretty much the theme of this collection of 18 short stories, which are mostly framed around women who are, as the title suggests, less inclined to rock the boat.

Many of the characters in these succinct tales live quiet lives with little fanfare, they know their place and don’t seek the limelight, they simply get on with the business of doing what they do. They are the kind of people that go unnoticed, even in death, such as the free diver in “The Sea Also Waits” who goes missing at sea during routine training and whose absence only appears to be noted by her adult daughter, or the female skeleton in “From Under the Ground” who has been buried under a lemon tree in a suburban backyard for so long even the police hold little hope of figuring out who she might be.

Then there are characters who ensure that other women don’t get above their station, such as the bitter and twisted television soap-opera-star-turned-drama-teacher in “Miss Lovegrove” who cruelly convinces her starry-eyed young hopefuls that they will never achieve acting success. “My job is to tell you that the world is sometimes a dirty, ugly place,” she tells one of her charges.

It’s hard to believe that Well-behaved Women is a debut because the writing — in the tone, the prose style and the range of subjects covered — feels so accomplished. There are some real gems in this book and it will be interesting to see what Paull comes up with next. She’s definitely a talent to watch.

I read these books as part of my #FocusOnWesternAustralianWriters. You can find out more about this reading project, along with a list of Western Australian books already reviewed on the site, here

These books are all by Australian women writers. I read Michelle Johnston’s novel for  #AWW2019 (I just never got around to reviewing it last year). The remaining two books represent the 3rd and 4th books I have read this year for #AWW2020 and the 6th and 7th books for #TBR2020 in which I plan to read 20 books from my TBR between 1 January and 30 June. 

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‘Two Sisters: Ngarta and Jukuna’ by Ngarta Jinny Bent, Jukuna Mona Chuguna, Pat Lowe & Eirlys Richards

Non-fiction – paperback; Magabala Books; 127 pages; 2016. Translated from Walmajarri.

Today is Australia Day, an occasion I haven’t celebrated for 21 years because I’ve lived abroad, but now I’m back home I don’t much feel like picking up the baton, mainly because I think the day disrespects and is hurtful to the First Nations people of this country. I decided to make a point of reading some indigenous writing instead. And what a treat this book proved to be.

Two Sisters: Ngarta and Jukuna is a brilliantly evocative autobiography of two aboriginal sisters. It’s also a fascinating and eye-opening portrait of the desert people’s way of life in the 1950s and early 60s and how the coming of the vast cattle stations changed everything.

Originally published by Fremantle Press in 2004, it has since been reissued by Magabala Books and comprises several different parts. The sister’s memoirs are told separately — Ngarta’s is titled a Desert Tragedy, while Jukuna’s is My Life in the Desert — and there are short chapters, by Pat Lowe (who edited the stories) and Eirlys Richards (who translated them from the Walmajarri language), explaining how the book came into being and putting the sister’s lives into context. It includes a helpful glossary and pronunciation guide, and colour plates of the artwork the sisters produced as well as a selection of their photographs. Jukuna’s story is also published in the original Walmajarri language in which she wrote it.

The new cover on the 2019 edition

Written in plain prose, both the sister’s stories highlight a way of life that no longer exists thanks to the arrival of Europeans and their vast cattle stations in the 1950s.

Both Ngarta and Jukuna were born in the Great Sandy Desert (located in the north-west of Western Australia and spanning more than 110,000 square miles — check out this Wiki page for more info) and lived a largely nomadic lifestyle, wandering from waterhole to waterhole, accompanied by their kin.

Each sister was raised by a different woman — Ngarta was raised by her grandmother; Jukuna by her birth mother — so they have slightly different takes on things, but they both depict relatively simple lives focused on family and hunting/gathering. Everything they did was imbued with a deep sense of respect for their homelands.

Their existence was so remote and their lifestyle so ancient they had never set eyes on a white person before and knew nothing of the modern world.

It was a Cherrabun Station [writes Jukuna] that I  saw a kartiya [white person] for the first time. He was the station manager, Mr Scrivner. I thought, ‘So that’s what a kartiya looks like!’ I stared at his red skin, so different from black people’s skin. He was the boss and he gave us rations in return for our work.

It’s difficult to fathom that even basic things we take for granted — rainwater in a tank, for instance — alarmed and frightened them, for they had never seen such things before. In one scene, Ngarta and her family dip their hands in a barrel of tar they discover on a cattle station, thinking it is some delicious foodstuff, only to find it burnt their fingers, mouths and throats!

A life lived in terror

Ngarta’s story is particularly fascinating because she (and her family) were on the run from a pair of aboriginal brothers who killed indiscriminately.

She had seen them spear her mother and kill her grandmother and then her brother for no reason at all. She kept wondering who would be next. When she had the chance, she took her mother to one side. ‘I said to my mother:’ “You and me’ll have to go, run away in the night. They might kill us.” But my mother wouldn’t listen.’ Perhaps Ngarta’s mother was too frightened to run away in case the men followed them. She must have wondered where else she and her daughter could go, when their only remaining relatives were here in this last little band. Ngarta made up her mind to go on her own.

She flees into the desert taking just a firestick and a digging stick with her, careful to only step on spinifex grass so that she does not leave footprints behind in the sand. Using her wits and her hunting and gathering skills, she manages to survive in the sandhills by herself for a year before deciding to return to her family.

While she had been away the brothers had become firmly ensconced in her family group, and she was with them when they killed cattle belonging to a local station manager; the men were sent to prison for the crime.

The culture and customs of desert dwellers

As well as outlining their day-to-day lives, the book also throws light on indigenous culture and customs, such as marriage, family structure, celebrations and ceremonies, how they grieve, the ways in which family members communicated with one another when they were separated by distance, and the language they spoke.

I learned so much reading this slim volume, not just about the amazing resilience and survival skills of these women, but the ways in which they were prepared to share their experiences with the wider world. Both women went on to do amazing things with their lives to ensure their culture was preserved — Ngarta became an artist in middle age and Jukuna taught Walmajarri to school students.

Lisa of ANZLitLovers liked this one too — read her review here. Bill, who blogs at The Australian Legend, has also reviewed it.

Please note, you can order a copy of this book direct from Magabala Books, which is based in Broome, Western Australia, and is Australia’s leading indigenous publishing house.

This is my 2nd book for #AWW2020 and my 4th book for #TBR2020 in which I plan to read 20 books from my TBR between 1 January and 30 June. I was given this copy by Lisa Hill, who kindly arranged for it to be hand-delivered by fellow WA-based blogger Bill last year. Thank you to both of them for getting this book in my hands — it was such a privilege to read it.

I also read this book as part of my #FocusOnWesternAustralianWriters. 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 Writers page

Australia, Author, Avan Judd Stallard, Book review, Fiction, Focus on WA writers, Fremantle Press, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting

‘Spinifex & Sunflowers’ by Avan Judd Stallard

Fiction – paperback; Fremantle Press; 340 pages; 2018. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

The Australian Government’s shameful policy on immigration detention has been chronicled from the refugee’s point of view (see here and here), but what of the person on the “right” side of the wire — the prison guard?

Avan Judd Stallard’s novel Spinifex & Sunflowers tells the story of a young man who takes a job as a guard at an immigration detention centre in Western Australia.

Contract job

Nick is a drifter, who has a troubled relationship with his family and needs a job to pay off a debt. Despite a lack of formal qualifications and little enthusiasm, he accepts a job with a contractor as a “refugee-prison guard” for which he is paid handsomely.

The book charts his so-called training (“Skippy could take my place at training and I doubt I’d miss much”), the relationships he develops with his colleagues — all poorly educated, with little to no passion for the task at hand and certainly no empathy for the people they’re “guarding” — and his long, monotonous 12-hour shifts at the “refugee prison”, where everything is reduced to preposterous levels of control. One of his tasks, for instance, is guarding a cordial machine to ensure prisoners don’t drink more than their allotted amount of liquid.

The tale reads like something Kafka might have dreamt up, but it’s rooted in reality, for Spinifex & Sunflowers is based on the author’s own experience working at the Curtin Immigration Detention Centre in Western Australia for several months. (Somewhat ironically, this is where Dr Munjed Al Muderis, one of the refugees who has written a book about his experience, was held.)

Hidden world

What Avan Judd Stallard presents in this book is an eye-opening account of a hidden world filled with petty cruelties, stupid rules and a cold-hearted attitude to real people.

It’s graphic and confronting in places, written in a blunt, choppy prose style using crude language designed to reflect the narrator’s machismo. Female colleagues are sexually objectified, there are brawls in pubs and a lot of hard drinking; everything, including the desert landscape, is harsh and confronting.

But for all its crudity, the book has an empathetic heart, for Nick has a conscience, a strong moral compass and sees the refugees in his care as human beings rather than numbers. He befriends them and learns about their lives and cultures in ways that are forbidden by the powers that be.

He also begins to see that he shouldn’t judge all his colleagues by appearances alone; some are good people who have simply become trapped by bad decisions or circumstances beyond their control.

We are all human

The overriding message of the novel is that we are all human and deserve to be treated with respect; it is the system and the policies that strip away dignity and pit people against each other.

It asks important questions about the ways in which we treat people fleeing persecution from their homelands, people who have every right to safe asylum but who have become caught up in a system that treats them inhumanely and strips them of their dignity. There but for the grace of God go I.

Spinifex & Sunflowers is grunge literature at its best. It might make for uncomfortable reading, but it deserves to be read by a wide audience. It was longlisted for the 2019 Colin Roderick Literary Award. You can read a sample chapter here.

I read this as part of my #FocusOnWesternAustralianWriters. 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 Writers page

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‘Cusp’ by Josephine Wilson

Fiction – paperback; University of Western Australia Press; 247 pages; 2005.

Sometimes I pick up a book and it so perfectly matches my mood that I immediately fall in love with it. This is what happened with Josephine Wilson’s debut novel, Cusp, a serendipitous find in my local independent bookshop earlier this week. (Wilson’s second novel, Extinctions, won the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 2017.)

Mending a fraught relationship

Set in 1990, Cusp tells the story of a mother and daughter trying to recalibrate a sometimes fraught relationship.

Lena Hawkins is 27 and has spent the best part of 18 months in New York, trying to reinvent herself as an art curator but is cleaning people’s homes instead and doing admin work because she doesn’t have a Green Card.

Her mother, Mavis, is half a world away — in Perth on the Western Australian coast — and she’s desperate for her daughter to return home. “Come soon,” she beseeches on the phone, before putting $900 on Lena’s Visa card to buy a flight. “Pack up properly, just in case a good job comes up. Or you meet a man. Or something,” she tells her daughter.

Back in Perth, in the height of an Australian summer, Lena finds herself hauled back to a past she’d rather forget, while Mavis struggles to make her daughter see what is right before her eyes.

Reissued edition, 2018

A layered narrative

The beautifully layered narrative, which is composed of vignettes and flashbacks, some set in New York and some in Perth, moves effortlessly between past and present and between two very different points of view — that of Lena’s and that of Mavis’s — from two vastly opposed generations.

What results is a complex picture of two lives inexorably linked but never quite working in unison. There’s a failure to understand one another. Mavis, who had Lena when she was 41 at a time when most women had their children in their 20s, can’t comprehend many of Lena’s life choices. Why did she drop out of university? Why did she have her heart set on such a flimsy career? Why did she go to New York instead of London like every other Australian wanderer? Why hasn’t she found a nice man yet?

While Lena doesn’t understand why her mother settled for such a boring domesticated life and why, now that her father has died (prematurely of a heart attack a few years earlier), she hasn’t used her new-found freedom to do something more exciting. Why, for instance, did she sell up the family home but move to a smaller unit in the same suburb? Why hasn’t she escaped the city she’s always complaining about? Why is she so intent on cleaning things up and throwing things away?

Portrait of a mother-daughter relationship

As well as a wonderful portrait of a mother-daughter relationship, with all its complexities, misunderstandings, tension and love, this book is also an insightful look at the impact of time and place on our lives and the ways in which our personalities and opinions can be shaped by experience, particularly travel.

There are some hard-hitting moments in Cusp, but it’s also full of vividly funny dialogue that often had me laughing out loud.

The characterisation is also superb: both Mavis and Lena feel truly authentic with their flaws and foibles, their little ways and viewpoints, and their inner monologues a curious mix of self-doubt and self-belief. I loved spending time with them.

Funny, poignant and wonderfully compelling, Cusp explores what it is to belong, to be loved and to find your rightful place in the world.

This is my 17th book for #AWW2019. I also read it as part of my #FocusOnWesternAustralianWriters. You can find out more about this reading project, along with a list of Western Australian books already reviewed on the site, here. Unfortunately, if you are based outside of Australia you may have trouble buying this book. I recommend searching for used copies on BookFinder.com, or you can always buy direct from the publisher UWAP, which has a flat international shipping fee.