20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2020), Allen & Unwin, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2020, Book review, Fiction, general, literary fiction, London, Publisher, Setting, Sophie Hardcastle

‘Below Deck’ by Sophie Hardcastle

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 304 pages; 2020.

If any book was going to slot into the #MeToo genre of novel, Sophie Hardcastle’s Below Deck would be right in there.

This simple yet moving story of a young woman coming to terms with a sexual assault that happened in her past should probably come with a trigger warning. And while the assault is just one aspect of this story, it comes like a sucker punch to the stomach and its aftermath informs everything that follows.

But this is not a heavy tale. Hardcastle writes with a lightness of touch. She sandwiches the traumatic event with more light-hearted aspects so you never feel too weighted down by it.

Oli at sea

The story follows 20-something Olivia — Oli — who is estranged from her parents and lives with her grieving (and grumpy) grandfather while she goes to university. She has a boyfriend, whose controlling behaviour foreshadows her future relationships with men — he doesn’t think she should accept the offer of a postgraduate internship with a prestigious investment bank, for instance, because that would make her more successful than him — but when she finds herself “kidnapped” on a boat her life takes a different turn.

The “kidnapper” is, in fact, a lovely older man called Mac, who loves to go sailing, and his partner is Maggie, a blind woman with synaesthesia — “It’s where you see colours when you think of or hear sounds, words, numbers — even time” — with whom she develops a fond friendship. Oli, too, has synaesthesia, processing her world and her feelings via colour. Maggie, for instance, is “velvet lilac”, Wednesdays are “blood orange”, two is “red” and nine “dark pink”.

Islands come into focus the way you wake up on a Sunday morning: slowly, like a painting, layer by layer. Block blue, at first. Then daubs of green, the outlines of trees, a band of white sand. A brown slab takes shape, all wrinkled and folded rock, until the cliff face opens its eyes.

It is the guiding light of this older couple that gives Oli her new-found strength to escape her controlling boyfriend, to come to terms with the sudden and unexpected death of her grandfather and to seek new adventures. She reinvents herself as a sailor, but it is a fateful trip several years later that puts her in danger. She sets sail with an all-male crew from Noumea to New Zealand and finds herself the subject of unwanted sexual attention.

Several years later, now a curator at an art gallery in London, Oli falls for a man who is perfect for her. He’s gentle, kind and devoted, but her past keeps holding her back.

Overcoming trauma

Without wishing to sound dismissive, I think I am probably too old for Below Deck to truly resonate, but I imagine if you’re a young woman this story would have a lot to say. It’s about misogyny and standing up for yourself, of finding your own voice, of learning to trust people, of making better life choices and dealing with past traumas so that you can move on.

Hardcastle deals with the issue of sexual assault with delicacy. The actual scene — “rape is the deepest red I have ever seen” — is deftly written, skirting over descriptions of the physical act, focussing instead on the ways in which Oli chooses to survive the assault, the voice that screams in her head, the emotions she goes through along the way. It is haunting and claustrophobic and harrowing.

But sometimes the narrative feels forced and lacks detail, jumping ahead too quickly. And yet when Hardcastle does focus on detail her writing really sings, especially when she focuses on the sea.

She enters the sea the way you come home, dropping your keys on the table, breathing out. A sigh of relief, the way the ocean holds her.

She has a particular penchant for similies. A gaze, for instance, drifts “across my skin like clouds across the sky”; waves lap at the shore “like gentle kisses in the middle of the night”; where cold weather is all-consuming “like falling in love. Total and unapologetic”.

Below Deck is an ambitious novel about an emotional reckoning, the beauty and language and colours of the sea, and about a young woman trying to navigate parts of her history she would rather forget. It won’t be for everyone — what book is? — but it will appeal to those looking for a quick-paced read with an emotional depth.

This is my 9th book for #AWW2020 and my 1st novel for #20BooksofSummer / #20BooksOfSouthernHemisphereWinter. I bought it earlier in the year, partly attracted to the cover I have to admit. 

Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2017, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Jane Harper, Pan Macmillan Australia, Publisher, Setting

‘Force of Nature’ by Jane Harper

Fiction – paperback; Pan Macmillan Australia; 400 pages; 2017.

Many of you will be familiar with Jane Harper’s debut novel, The Dry, which I read in 2016, long before it started to win every literature prize going, including the 2017 CWA Gold Dagger, the 2017 Australian Book Industry Award for Fiction Book of the Year and The Sunday Times Crime Book of the Year 2017.

I loved The Dry so much — the claustrophobic portrait of small town Australia, the depiction of the landscape and the drought, the wonderful characterisation and the believability of the crime — that I couldn’t wait for the UK publication of her follow-up, Force of Nature, so I ordered it on import at exorbitant cost from Australia. The price, I think, was worth it.

A gripping page-turner

Force of Nature (to be published in the UK on 8 February 2018) is yet another page-turner set in the Australian bush starring Federal Police Agent Aaron Falk.

This time round it’s winter, the drought has broken and a group of people on a corporate team-building exercise in rugged terrain have got themselves into trouble: one of their party has gone missing.

Falk has a special interest in the search-and-rescue mission because the missing bushwalker, Alice Russell, is the whistleblower in a fraud case he is working on with his colleague, Carmen Cooper. Is her disappearance linked to their investigation? Has she met with foul play or done a runner? Or is it purely co-incidence?

Mounting sense of tension

The book is nicely structured, swinging between two main narrative threads: what happens between the corporate team members on the weekend-long hike in the (fictional) Giralang Ranges; and the ensuing investigation by Falk and Cooper.

From the outset we know things are not going to go well on the hike. There are two groups — one comprising solely men, one comprising solely women — who go off in different directions, but the women never make their rendezvous point on the second night. Instead, fraught, frazzled and beset by petty squabbles, they get lost and cannot agree on the best course of action to take: set up camp and wait for daylight, or keep moving.

Meanwhile, Falk’s narrative thread highlights the pressure he is under from on high to solve the fraud case and at the same time we get to see the more human side of him: we learn about his fraught relationship with his late father and come to understand the loneliness of his life and his (unrecognised) need for human companionship.

Brilliantly clever characterisation

What makes this book work is the characterisation. Harper provides intriguing back stories for each character, particularly the women in the corporate group, giving each of them a plausible motivating factor for wanting nasty, short-tempered Alice to “disappear”.

And she does a terrific job of creating not only mounting tension — showing slowly-but-surely  how and why Alice goes missing — but also a sense of foreboding through the clever use of a news story familiar to the women: that of a serial killer, who butchered and buried a number of victims in the Giralang Ranges (loosely based, I suspect, on the real-life backpacker murders of the 1990s).

Force of Nature is not so much a crime novel, but a suspense one — and it’s so vividly drawn and so brimming with atmosphere it will probably deter swathes of readers from ever setting foot on a muddy bush track. (Companies offering corporate team-building exercises might rightly sue for damage, too.)

If I was to have criticise any aspect of the book it would be that we never quite find out what happens to Falk’s fraud investigation. But in the grand scheme things it doesn’t really matter: Force of Nature is a satisfying read, one that will delight fans of The Dry and perhaps attract a new audience to Harper’s work. Call me greedy, but I honestly can’t help but be impatient for the next novel in this intriguing crime series.

This is my my 10th book for #AWW2017 which means I have now completed this challenge for the year. Expect a wrap-up post in a few days.

10 books, Book lists

10 (more) of my favourite novels from Australia

10-booksTo mark Australia Day (26 January), I thought I would put together a list of some of my favourite Australian novels.

This isn’t the first time I’ve done this: back in 2005 I published a list entitled 10 of my favourite novels from Australia. But a lot has changed since then: my tastes have broadened, I have better access to books (thanks to the internet) and I’m more aware of new Australian fiction at the time of release (again, thanks to the internet and especially to the Australian bloggers I follow).

Since 2005, I’ve read more than 100 Australian books and these have spanned everything from historical fiction to psychological thrillers, much-loved classics to contemporary literary fiction. Gone are the days when I thought Australian novels only revolved around convicts or pioneers!

This new list features 10 of my favourite reads from the past decade. The books have been arranged in alphabetical order by author surname. You can click on each book title to read my review in full.

‘The Burial’ by Courtney Collins (2013)

The Burial by Courtney Collins

The Burial
 tells the tale of Jessie Hickman, a female bushranger who rustles horses and duffs cattle, in the years after the Great War. Part adventure tale, part romance, part Western (but without the gunslinging), it’s a dramatic story told in a visual, exhilarating — and memorable — way.  Jessie, who is based on a real female bushranger, is wonderful company — feisty, unafraid, daring and brave — and I loved spending time with her.

‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’ by Richard Flanagan (2014)

Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

I’ve read all of Richard Flanagan’s novels and reviewed most of them, but this book was so profoundly moving I couldn’t find the words to do it justice, so instead of reviewing it on this blog I just went around and told everyone they had to read it! Of course, I could have chosen almost any one of Flanagan’s novels to include here, but The Narrow Road to the Deep North, which won the Man Booker Prize in 2014, spoke to me in a way few books over the past decade have done so. It’s an unforgettable account of one man’s experience as a doctor in a POW camp and the long-lasting impact of what happened to him and his friends during that time. It’s also a tragic love story between a man and the woman he wasn’t supposed to fall in love with.

‘Five Bells’ by Gail Jones (2011)

Five Bells by Gail Jones

Five Bells is set in Sydney on a single summer’s day in 2008. It tells the stories of four individual characters — Ellie, James, Catherine and Pei Xing — as they criss-cross the city. This is not a plot-driven novel, but one in which the characters’ inner lives take centre stage. I loved Jones’ rich use of language and the ways in which she plays with images and motifs throughout, and the stories stayed with me long after the final page. (As an aside, I could have easily chosen Jones’ Sixty Lights in this slot, which is another evocatively written story, but set in Victorian London, not contemporary Australia.)

‘Utopian Man’ by Lisa Lang (2010)

Utopian Man by Lisa Lang

Lisa Lang’s debut novel is a sheer delight from start to finish. The central character is Edward William (E.W.) Cole, a real life legendary eccentric who built a magnificent retail emporium in Melbourne during the 1880s. This included a fabulous three-storey book arcade, supposedly filled with a million books. The novel charts Coles’ life in two-yearly increments and shows how this extraordinary man, who championed equality and was exceedingly generous to all and sundry, always saw the good in people despite suffering small tragedies and scandals himself. It’s a charming read about a charming man, and I wish more people knew about it.

‘Seven Types of Ambiguity’ by Elliot Perlman (2005)

Seven Types of Ambiguity by Elliot Perlman

I have Eliot Perlman to thank for opening my eyes to a whole new world of Australian fiction for this is the book that made me realise there was more to Australian literature than novels about convicts and pioneers! Set in contemporary Melbourne, it showed me my home town in ways I’d never come across before in contemporary fiction. Admittedly very baggy and overwritten (I would level the same charge against all of Perlman’s novels even though I admire his work), I loved its breadth and scope: it’s a  psychological thriller, a court room drama, a romance, a satire, an insightful commentary on modern-day existence, morals and values, and a kind of literary juggernaut that borrows the title of a well-known non-fiction book by William Empson on literary criticism. Throw in politics, big business and prostitution and pretty much every genre and theme is covered here. What’s not to like?

‘The Shiralee’ by D’Arcy Niland (1955)

The Shiralee by D'Arcy Niland

The Shiralee counts up there as one of my top three Australian books of all time (the other two are George Johnston’s My Brother Jack and Randolph Stow’s The Merry-go-round in the Sea). It’s a wonderful tale set during the Great Depression about a swagman (an itinerant worker) who travels rural NSW in search of work accompanied by his four-year-old daughter, Buster, whom he initially regards as his “shiralee”, a slang word for burden. Six months earlier he “kidnapped” Buster from her city-based mother, after he discovered his wife in bed with another man, but this well-meaning act is now taking its toll: Buster talks too much and slows him down and he’s constantly worrying about how to feed and protect her. It’s very much a novel about father-daughter relationships, and provides a fascinating glimpse of a past way of life where friendship and camaraderie between people “on the road” was so vital to their survival.

‘Benang: From the Heart’ by Kim Scott (1999)

Benang

This book challenged me on many levels but left a deep impression on me. Essentially it is about Australia’s history of white subjugation of indigenous people. This deeply poignant and haunting story is narrated by Harvey, who is of aboriginal descent but has been raised to believe he is a white man because all the aboriginal blood has been bred out of him. But in being raised in one culture while forced to ignore another, Harvey feels that something is missing from his life — and this book is an attempt to reconnect with his ancestors and to try to understand why his grandfather was so keen to “breed out” the aboriginal blood in the family line. I came away from this book feeling a mixture of joy and sorrow, anger and regret. I still think about it four years down the line…

‘The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea’ by Randolph Stow (1965)

Merry go round in the sea by randolph stow

I loved this book so much I read it twice — and I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve recommended it to people looking for a quintessential Australian read. Largely semi-autobiographical, it tells the story of Rob Coram, who is just six years old when the book opens, and his relationship with his older cousin, who joins the Army to fight in the Second World War. It’s a beautiful, somewhat nostalgic look at what it was like to grow up in one of the most remote areas on the planet, sandwiched between the desert and the Indian ocean, at a time when the war was raging in Europe, and the Japanese were getting closer and closer to invading Australian soil. It’s very much a coming-of-age story and has a truly authentic feel for the time and the place.

‘The Slap’ by Christos Tsiolkas (2009)

The cover of Christos Tsiolkas' acclaimed novel, The Slap.

Set in suburban Melbourne, The Slap is one of those bold, brash and visceral novels that stays with you long after the final page. The whole story unfurls from one seemingly minor incident at a family barbecue when a man slaps a child who is not his own. This one event has drastic repercussions on all of those people present. It tests friendships, marriages and family relationships, and it divides people into two distinct groups: those that think the child deserved it, and those that think the slap constitutes child abuse. I loved the scope and ambition of this novel (perhaps more than its execution) and raced through it in a matter of days. And the eight-part Australian TV adaptation is possibly the best thing to come out of Australia since Tsiolkas himself.

‘Eyrie’ by Tim Winton (2014)

Eyrie by Tim Winton

I’ve only read a handful of Tim Winton’s novels, but this one — his latest — is a brilliant look at contemporary Australia, awash with cash from the mining boom yet ethically and morally bankrupt. It tells the story of Tom Keely, a middle-aged spokesman for an environmental campaign group, who has lost his high-flying, highly pressurised job for daring to speak the truth. Now, holed up in a flat at the top of a grim high-rise residential tower, he lives like a recluse, until he becomes entwined in his neighbour’s messy life. What ensues is a bumpy — and seedy — ride,  far removed from his middle-class upbringing.  Despite Eyrie tackling some weighty subjects, it’s done with a lightness of touch and plenty of humour. I loved this book so much, I read it twice — in quick succession.

Have you read any of these books? Do you have a favourite Australian novel? Is anything missing from my list?

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, short stories, Text, Wayne Macauley

‘Demons’ by Wayne Macauley

Demons

Fiction – paperback; Text Publishing; 304 pages; 2015. Review copy courtesy of publisher.

A couple of years ago I read Australian writer Wayne Macauley’s The Cook, a deliciously dark satire about modern gastronomy, which amused and disturbed me in equal measure. Indeed, it was one of the most memorable — and original — books I’ve read in, say, the past four or five years.

His new book, Demons, has just been published in the UK and, for obvious reasons, I was keen to read it.

The narrative, as such, is structured around a group of (annoyingly) middle-class (snobby and pretentious) friends, who spend a  weekend together in a holiday home by the coast on Victoria’s Great Ocean Road. There’s no TV or internet at the property and they’ve all agreed to leave their phones and tablets behind so that they can truly unwind from their busy lives. It’s winter and the weather is rather wild, which makes the getaway rather conducive to sitting around the fire, imbibing wine (there’s a lot of wine in this book) and telling tales.

All right, said Lauren, once everyone was seated in the living room. The sky had darkened and a full moon was rising over the water. The sea was loud, but faraway loud. All right, she said, I’m going to start. My story is called Woman Killed By Falling Man.
Are we going to give them titles? said Evan.
Adam, said Hannah, do you think we should give them titles?
Titles are good, said Adam.
Wait, said Megan. She handed Lauren the piece of driftwood she’d brought back from the beach. The story stick, she said.

Dark tales

The book is structured around these individual tales, each one more ludicrous and outlandish than the last. They span all kinds of dark and edgy themes, including adultery, suicide and murder, with a good smattering of politics, crime and corruption thrown in for good measure.

Most of them are embellished and dramatised to a ridiculous degree, yet no one ever seems to challenge or question the authenticity of what they’re being told. And all the stories, most told second- or third-hand, expose the failings and foibles and prejudices of the people telling them.

There’s some terrific and truly memorable short stories here. In particular, almost two months after having read this book, I’m still thinking about the city couple who have their heart set on buying a farm only to find the farmer doesn’t want to sell it to them. They way in which they resolve this situation is truly shocking — to say the least — and left me feeling slightly ill at ease.

Microcosm of Australian society

The book’s strength lies in the way in which it shines a light on modern Australia, where everybody should be happy, but no one seems content. Or, as one character puts it, “everyone’s so bloody negative; they can’t see what they’ve got ’cause they think they’re entitled to more”.

Look at us, Ad, said Leon, without looking at him: a bunch of well-off, well-educated fucks, the generation in charge, and yet we don’t know shit. We went to uni, and it didn’t cost us a cent. We found jobs, made careers. We’ve lived off the fat. We saw the world, conquered every corner of it, but what did we ever do but stare at ourselves?  […] We could have done something, left a legacy. But what did we do? Talked crap, argued, bickered, ate, drank — we’re always eating and drinking, stuffing our faces, telling everyone what we had for breakfast, lunch and dinner. It’s obscene. We’ve let the world go to the dogs, Adam.

And so the weekend getaway that is depicted here — with its focus on food and wine and fanciful fireside tales — is a (cleverly written) microcosm of Australian society.

But (the appropriately named) Demons is not so much a novel but a collection of short stories masquerading as a novel and you either like that kind of format or you don’t. Admittedly, I’m not a fan, and while I admire Macauley’s silky and immediate prose style, his masterful way with dialogue and his clever expose on pertinent Australian issues — land rights, refugees, the dream of owning the quarter-acre block, 21 years of economic growth et al — I felt the book was weakened by the format. In other words, the whole is not greater than the sum of its parts. You may beg to differ.

5 books, Book lists

Five books by Australian writers I’m looking forward to reading

5-books-200pixLast month I went to Australia to visit family for four weeks. But that trip  seems a very long time ago now — especially as I am now immersed in loads of Canadian fiction.

As luck would have it, my return to London has coincided with a flurry of big-name Australian authors releasing long-awaited novels — why couldn’t they have released them all in the first week of September? Oh well, I would have never fitted them in my suitcase anyway.

Here’s five I’m looking forward to buying at some point — if they’re ever released in the UK or if I can scrape together enough cash to pay for international shipping charges!

The books have been arranged in alphabetical order according to author’s surname.

Narrow-road-to-deep-northThe Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

“August, 1943. In the despair of a Japanese POW camp on the Thai-Burma death railway, Australian surgeon Dorrigo Evans is haunted by his love affair with his uncle’s young wife two years earlier. Struggling to save the men under his command from starvation, from cholera, from beatings, he receives a letter that will change his life forever. This savagely beautiful novel is a story about the many forms of love and death, of war and truth, as one man comes of age, prospers, only to discover all that he has lost. “

Published by Vintage Australia last month. There is no date available for the UK — as yet.


Coal-Creek
Coal Creek by Alex Miller

“Bobby Blue is caught between loyalty to his only friend, Ben Tobin, and his boss, Daniel Collins, the new Constable at Mount Hay. He understands the people and the ways of Mount Hay; Collins studies the country as an archaeologist might, bringing his coastal values to the hinterland. Bobby says, ‘I do not think Daniel would have understood Ben in a million years.’
Increasingly bewildered and goaded to action by his wife, Constable Collins takes up his shotgun and his Webley pistol to deal with Ben. Bobby’s love for Collins’ wilful young daughter Irie is exposed, leading to tragic consequences for them all. Miller’s exquisite depictions of the country of the Queensland highlands form the background of this simply told but deeply significant novel of friendship, love, loyalty and the tragic consequences of misunderstanding and mistrust. Coal Creek is a wonderfully satisfying novel with a gratifying resolution.”

Published by Allen & Unwin in Australia earlier this month. Not published in the UK until next March, but a Kindle edition is available on Amazon.


Barracuda-2Barracuda
by Christos Tsiolkas


“Daniel Kelly, a talented young swimmer, has one chance to escape his working-class upbringing. His astonishing ability in the pool should drive him to fame and fortune, as well as his revenge on the rich boys at the private school to which he has won a sports scholarship. But when he melts down at his first big international championship and comes only fifth, he begins to destroy everything he has fought for and turn on everyone around him. Barracuda is a powerful and moving novel of sport and violence, class and education, dreams and disillusionment; it is the story of a young man who eventually comes to realise that it is in family and friendship that his strongest identity lies.”

Published in Australia by Allen & Unwin on 1 November, but not published in the UK until 2 January 2014. But international buyers can purchase the ePub edition from the Booktopia website.


EyrieEyrie
by Tim Winton


“Tom Keely’s reputation is in ruins. And that’s the upside. Divorced and unemployed, he’s lost faith in everything precious to him. Holed up in a grim highrise, cultivating his newfound isolation, Keely looks down at a society from which he’s retired hurt and angry. He’s done fighting the good fight, and well past caring. But even in his seedy flat, ducking the neighbours, he’s not safe from entanglement. All it takes is an awkward encounter in the lobby. A woman from his past, a boy the likes of which he’s never met before. Two strangers leading a life beyond his experience and into whose orbit he falls despite himself. What follows is a heart-stopping, groundbreaking novel for our times – funny, confronting, exhilarating and haunting. Inhabited by unforgettable characters, Eyrie asks how, in an impossibly compromised world, we can ever hope to do the right thing.”

Published in Australia by Penguin Australia earlier this month, but not published in the UK until June 2014.


Swan-bookThe Swan Book
by Alexis Wright

“The new novel by Alexis Wright, whose previous novel Carpentaria won the Miles Franklin Award and four other major prizes including the ABIA Literary Fiction Book of the Year Award. The Swan Book is set in the future, with Aboriginals still living under the Intervention in the north, in an environment fundamentally altered by climate change. It follows the life of a mute teenager called Oblivia, the victim of gang-rape by petrol-sniffing youths, from the displaced community where she lives in a hulk, in a swamp filled with rusting boats, and thousands of black swans driven from other parts of the country, to her marriage to Warren Finch, the first Aboriginal president of Australia, and her elevation to the position of First Lady, confined to a tower in a flooded and lawless southern city. The Swan Book has all the qualities which made Wright’s previous novel, Carpentaria, a prize-winning best-seller. It offers an intimate awareness of the realities facing Aboriginal people; the wild energy and humour in her writing finds hope in the bleakest situations; and the remarkable combination of storytelling elements, drawn from myth and legend and fairy tale.”

Published in Australia by Giramondo Publishing Co last month. Not published in the UK, but a Kindle edition is available on Amazon.

Please note that the release dates quoted for the UK are subject to change.

Are there any on this list that have piqued your interest?