Reading Australia 2016

And then we came to the end of Reading Australia 2016

Reading Australia 2016

“How’s your Australian reading year going?”

“Are you sick of reading Australian books yet?”

“Don’t you miss reading books from other places?”

During 2016 these questions hounded me every time I caught up with friends and bloggers who knew I had challenged myself to read Australian literature all year.

My response was always the same. I was enjoying the project so much that even I was surprised at how easy and fun it was proving to be. I did not feel like I was missing out. If anything, I was overwhelmed by the sheer scope and range of books available to me.

Now, looking back on an entire year’s worth of reading, I can chalk it up as one of the best reading years of my life.

Depth and breadth

I read such a diverse range of books, from psychological thrillers to personal essays about eating disorders, that I never once became bored. I was discovering some great new-to-me writers and reacquainting myself with ones I knew from long ago. It made me reassess my opinion that Australian writing was dull and obsessed with its colonial past — an opinion I formed more than 20 years ago when I worked in a book store and shunned the “convict fiction”, as I’d dubbed it, to spend all my money on a steady diet of (predictable) US fiction instead.

Back then I didn’t realise there were Australian writers pumping out edgy crime novels, mind-bending experimental fiction and glorious literary fiction set in contemporary times, or that essay writing could be so intriguing and readable, or that memoirs could be so thoroughly engaging and, occasionally, jaw dropping.

Perhaps in the early 1990s, the publishing industry wasn’t publishing those kinds of books (in 1991 I can safely say that I read just two Australian books that year — Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet and Ben Hills’ Blue Murder), or maybe I was too young and naive to realise there was more to the homegrown literary scene than I imagined.

Whatever the case, this past year of “reading Australia” has reignited a passion for reading books from my homeland. By year’s end I had read a total of 53 Australian books (I also read six British titles and six Canadian titles) and know that I will continue to read many more in the year to come.

Some highlights

  • I read a surprising number of memoirs (eight in total) and a surprising number of short story collections (four).
  • I read a diverse range of true crime, all of it fascinating, well researched and written in an engaging novelistic fashion.
  • I discovered Stephen Orr and now want to read everything he’s ever written.

Some lowlights

  • I did not make a very big dent in my TBR. At the beginning of 2016, the number of Australian titles in that pile was 128. It soon swelled thanks to a few review copies coming my way and the very many purchases I made (well, I had to buy the shortlisted titles for the Stella and Miles Franklin, didn’t I). By year’s end it stood at 116. Oops.
  • I did not read any pre-mid-20th century classics (I had to abandon Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children in the summer when I changed jobs and no longer had the bandwidth to cope with it).
  • I did not read any books by Kate Grenville, Alex Miller or Randolph Stow,  all Australian writers listed on my favourite authors page.

All up it was a brilliant year of reading, and I hope you had as much fun following along as I did in reading and reviewing so many fabulous books. I thought it might be useful to provide a list of everything I read, so here it is. The books marked * made my top 10 favourite reads of the year.





Reading Australia 2016


35 books by women: completing the 2016 Australian Women Writers’ Challenge

Australian Women Writers Challenge 2016 badgeWhen I challenged myself to spend the year reading Australian literature, it seemed logical to also sign up to the 2016 Australian Women Writers’ Challenge — to kill two birds with one stone, as it were.

I thought I should give myself a serious target and aimed to read 30 books by Australian women.

Now that the year is drawing to a close, I’m happy to report I exceeded that self-imposed target: I read 35 books by women — and I loved (almost, but not quite) every one of them.

As well as reading all the titles on the 2016 Stella Prize shortlist, I read a wonderful mix of newly released books and old ones that had been lingering in my TBR for years. These included non-fiction and fiction — mainly literary fiction, with a side order of short stories (I read four collections) and a couple of crime novels.

I really loved taking part in this challenge. It introduced me to some wonderful writers — hello Romy Ash, Jen Craig and Lucy Treloar — and reacquainted me with “old familiars” such as Thea Astley, Marion Halligan and Charlotte Wood.

Here is my comprehensive list. The books have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s name (click the title to see my full review):

Floundering by Romy Ash

‘Floundering’ by Romy Ash
Heartbreaking novel about two brothers “kidnapped” by their cash-strapped mother one hot summer.

Drylands by Thea Astley

‘Drylands’ by Thea Astley
This Miles Franklin winner looks at the humdrum nature of small town life and what happens when its inhabitants stop reading.

It's raining in mango by Thea Astley

‘It’s Raining in Mango’ by Thea Astley
A no holds-barred fictional story of one Australian family from the 1860s to the 1980s.

Six Bedrooms by Tegan Bennett Daylight

 ‘Six Bedrooms’ by Tegan Bennett Daylight
Collection of short stories about teenage girls growing up in the 1980s.

The Other Side of the World by Stephanie Bishop

‘The Other Side of the World’ by Stephanie Bishop
A deeply melancholy novel about emigration, marriage and motherhood set in Perth, Australia in the early 1960s.

Pathers and the museum of fire by Jen Craig

‘Panthers & The Museum of Fire’ by Jen Craig
A bold experimental novel set on a summer’s afternoon as the narrator walks across Sydney to deliver a manuscript to a bereaved family.

Elemental by Amanda Curtin

‘Elemental’ by Amanda Curtin
Gripping historical novel about a Scottish fisherwoman who escapes her circumstances to start a new life on the other side of the world.

Aunts up the cross by Robin Dalton

‘Aunts Up the Cross’ by Robin Dalton
An outrageously funny memoir about Dalton’s childhood in the 1920s and 1930s in Sydney’s Kings Cross.

Viral by Helen Fitzgerald

‘Viral’ by Helen FitzGerald
A confronting revenge thriller about sexual shaming online.

Hope Farm by Peggy Frew

‘Hope Farm’ by Peggy Frew
Fictional tale of a 13-year-old girl and her single mother living in a hippy commune in the 1980s.

Everywhere I Look by Helen Garner

Everywhere I Look’ by Helen Garner
Collection of essays spanning 15 years of Garner’s journalistic career.

What came before by Anna George

‘What Came Before’ by Anna George
Disturbing psychological thriller about a woman murdered by her husband.

Goodbye Sweetheart by Marion Halligan

‘Goodbye Sweetheart’ by Marion Halligan
Unexpectedly charming tale about one man’s untimely death and the effect it has on his loved ones.

The Dry

‘The Dry’ by Jane Harper
Compelling crime story set in rural Australia during the height of the worst drought in living memory.

A few days in the country and other stories by Elizabeth Harrower

‘A Few Days in the Country and Other Stories’ by Elizabeth Harrower
Collection of exquisitely written short stories mostly about women trying to find their place in the world.

Snake by Kate Jennings

‘Snake’ by Kate Jennings
Deeply affecting portrait of a marriage between two incompatible people in postwar Australia.

The Landing

‘The Landing’ by Susan Johnson
Delightfully funny and poignant story about a newly divorced man trying to recalibrate his life.

A Guide to Berlin by Gail Jones

‘A Guide to Berlin’ by Gail Jones
Unusual tale about six Vladimir Nabokov fans from around the world who gather in Berlin to share stories about themselves.

The Family by Chris Johnston and Rosie Jones

‘The Family’ by Chris Johnson and Rosie Jones
An eye-opening work of investigative journalism looking at a cult led by a woman who believed she was the female reincarnation of Jesus Christ.

Leap by Myfanwy Jones

‘Leap’ by Myfanwy Jones
A story about grief, marriage and parkour set in Melbourne’s inner suburbs.

The world without us by Mireille Juchau

 ‘The World Without Us’ by Mireille Juchau
Beautifully constructed novel about family secrets, love, loss, parenthood and community set in rural NSW.

The Golden Age by Joan London

‘The Golden Age’ by Joan London
Story set in a children’s convalescent home during a polio outbreak in the mid-1950s.

The Mint Lawn by Gillian Mears

‘The Mint Lawn’ by Gillian Mears
Award-winning novel about a young woman trapped in a small town with a husband she no longer loves.

The Latte Years by Phil Moore

‘The Latte Years’ by Philippa Moore
Frank and engaging memoir about Moore’s struggle to lose weight, build self-confidence and live what she calls an “authentic life”.

When the night comes

‘When the Night Comes’ by Favel Parrett
Two intertwined stories about grief, kindness and life on an Antarctic supply ship.

Wild Man by Alecia Simmonds

‘Wild Man’ by Alecia Simmonds
A compelling true crime story that follows the coronial inquest into the death of a mentally unstable man shot dead by police on a remote farm.

A Pure Clear Light by Madeleine St John

A Pure Clear Light’ by Madeleine St John
A domestic black comedy about middle-class life in 1990s London.

Reckoning by Magda Szubanski

‘Reckoning’ by Magda Szubanski
Extraordinary memoir about Szubanksi’s life lived in the shadows of her father’s war-time activities in Poland.

Dying A Memoir by Cory Taylor

‘Dying: A Memoir’ by Cory Taylor
Heartfelt and brutally frank memoir by a leading Australian author diagnosed with terminal cancer.

Salt Creek

‘Salt Creek’ by Lucy Treloar
Superb historical novel about one family’s attempt to settle a remote area on the South Australian coast and the dreadful, heartbreaking repercussions that follow.

Hush Little Bird by Nicole Trope

‘Hush, Little Bird’ by Nicole Trope
Deliciously suspense-filled tale about two women sent to prison for two separate but shocking crimes.

Hot Little Hands

‘Hot Little Hands’ by Abigail Ulman
Effortlessly readable collection of short stories about teenage girls or young women trying to find their way in the world.

The media and the massacre by Sonya Voumard

‘The Media and the Massacre’ by Sonya Voumard
A hard-hitting look at the relationship between journalists and their subjects in the context of Tasmania’s Port Arthur massacre.

The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood

The Natural Way of Things’ by Charlotte Wood
Award-winning dystopian novel set in a remote prison for women who have been sexually shamed.

Small Acts of Disappearance: Essays on Hunger by Fiona Wright

‘Small Acts of Disappearance’ by Fiona Wright
Surprisingly gripping collection of 10 essays about the author’s struggle with an eating disorder.

Have you read any of these books? Or care to share a great read by an Australian woman writer? Or any woman writer, regardless of nationality?

By the way, I plan on signing up for the 2017 Australian Womens’ Writers Challenge in the New Year. If you want to join me, you can sign up via the official website.

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.