AWW2016

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.

Australia, Author, AWW2016, Book review, Canongate, Cory Taylor, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Setting

‘Dying: A Memoir’ by Cory Taylor

Dying A Memoir by Cory Taylor

Non-fiction – paperback; Canongate; 160 pages; 2016. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Reading Cory Taylor’s Dying: A Memoir may not be the most cheerful thing to do on Boxing Day, but this heartfelt, often brutally honest account of what it is to come to terms with your own death is — paradoxically — a life-affirming read.

Taylor is a scriptwriter turned children’s author turned successful novelist. She’s probably best known for her two novels — Me and Mr Booker, which won the Commonwealth Book Prize for the Pacific Region in 2012, and My Beautiful Enemy, which was nominated for the Miles Franklin Award in 2013. (I have not read either book — but do check Lisa’s review of the latter.)

Skin cancer diagnosis

In 2005, shortly before her 50th birthday, she was diagnosed with stage-four melanoma thanks to a cancerous mole on the back of her knee. Three years later the disease turned up in the lymph nodes of her pelvis and a couple of years later it spread to other parts of her body. She had two operations, which helped halt the progress of the disease.

She kept her illness a secret, only telling her closest friends and her husband, Shin. She wrote two novels and found a measure of literary success.

Then, in December 2014, she had a seizure and was told the melanoma was now in her brain. She had the offending tumour removed successfully, but the disease was now terminal. She made her illness “public” and set about writing this memoir, something which took just a matter of weeks.

In fiction you can sometimes be looser and less tidy, but for much of the time you are choosing what to exclude from your fictional world in order to make it hold the line against chaos. And that is what I’m doing now, in this, my final book: I am making a shape for my death, so that I, and others, can see it clearly. And I am making dying bearable for myself.

Dying A Memoir by Cory Taylor, US edition
US Edition, by Tin House Books

A memoir in three parts

Dying: A Memoir is divided into three key parts: the first wrestles with her idea of dying a dignified death even if that means taking things into her own hands (she orders a euthanasia drug from China, pens a suicide note to go with it and locks it away in a cabinet — just in case); the second looks at her parent’s troubled marriage and the tensions that exist between herself and her two older siblings; and the third recalls her childhood growing up in a range of diverse places including Fiji and Kenya.

At all times, Taylor’s voice is self-assured, calm, reasoned. There’s not a shred of self-pity in it:

Mine was the privileged tale of someone who had not truly suffered. The fact that I was dying now was sad, but not tragic. I had lived a full life.

She is always honest, sometimes unbearably so, about the strained relationship she has with her brother and her (late) father, whom she had to cut out of her life when his behaviour became too aggressive and manipulative. But she’s clear-eyed about the reasons for the tensions and knows that under different circumstances the outcomes might have been more positive, but she’s not one for worrying about things she can no longer change.

Yes, I have regrets, but as soon as you start re-writing your past you realise how your failures and mistakes are what define you. Take them away and you’re nothing.

Dying A Memoir by Cory Taylor. Australian edition
Australian edition, by Text Publishing

Moments of joy

Through this all there’s a feeling of love in this book — for her (late) mother, with whom she has much empathy, and her husband Shin and their two sons. But there’s also a lot of love for places (Taylor’s father was a pilot, which meant moving houses a lot as a child) and for travel. She holds special affection for Japan, where she met her husband, and Fiji, where she spent some of her childhood.

And she’s enthusiastic about writing and the way she devoted her life to it, mainly to make sense of the world and her place in it. This rather extraordinary memoir is testament to her talent and love of the English language. It’s also testament to an extraordinary woman not afraid to confront her own mortality and to share what she discovers about it along the way.

Cory Taylor died on 5 July 2016, aged 61.

This is my 51st book for #ReadingAustralia2016 and my 34th for #AWW2016.

Allen & Unwin, Australia, Author, AWW2016, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Setting, Susan Johnson

‘The Landing’ by Susan Johnson

The Landing

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 288 pages; 2015.

“If a separated man — about to be divorced — is in possession of a good fortune, must he be in want of a new wife?”

So begins Susan Johnson‘s The Landing, which tells the story of a well-to-do, good-looking 55-year-old man trying to recalibrate his life after his wife leaves him for a woman.

Jonathan Lott is scared of being alone, but he can’t quite believe that his marriage is over. Seeking solitude  — and a place to lick his wounds — he spends as much time as he can at the couple’s holiday home at The Landing, 150km north of Brisbane.

But in this quiet lakeside community  — with just a few streetlights, a couple of bitumen roads, no reticulated water or sewage and patchy mobile phone coverage — Jonathan’s comings and goings are witnessed (and commented upon) by the locals who live there.

What results is a relatively lighthearted story that is essentially a comedy of manners — when is it socially acceptable to start dating again after you’ve separated, for instance — that focuses not just on Jonathan’s lacklustre love life but the lives and loves of pretty much everyone living in this rural backwater, including: Penny Collins, her demanding and elderly French mother Marie and her shallow and narcissistic daughter Scarlet; Sylv, who runs the only shop in town; Paul Raymond, who leaves his wife to shack up with the much younger Scarlet; Gordie, the Glaswegian doctor, and his pretty daughter Anna; and Giselle, a seven-year-old girl from an impoverished background who roams The Landing in search of company.

The complex nature of love 

The narrative comprises multiple, interleaved layers that to unpick it would be like peeling an onion. But the real strength of this novel lies in Johnson’s ability to capture the nitty-gritty of people’s lives, the often complicated relationships and tensions between different generations of the one family, and the complex nature of love in all its many forms — romantic, sexual and familial.

The frailties of the human heart are captured with insight and delicacy, lifting this story from the bog standard romance the cover might suggest, to one that is full of nuance and humour and moments of pitch-perfect clarity. And all the characters, so richly drawn, feel intensely human.

Combined with such eloquent writing — Johnson’s descriptions of the landscape and the wildlife that abounds in The Landing are particularly evocative and lyrical — makes for a superb, effortless read.

I really enjoyed The Landing, but in the spirit of transparency should point out I know the author. Indeed, we had lunch together when she was en route to Paris to begin working on the edits of this novel. I ended up buying my copy when I went to Australia last year — and couldn’t wait to read it.

For another take on this novel, please see Lisa’s review.

Unfortunately The Landing hasn’t been published in the UK, but you can order a copy via the Book Depository.

This is my 50th book for #ReadingAustralia2016 and my 33rd for #AWW2016.

Australia, Author, AWW2016, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Penguin Australia, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Setting, Thea Astley

‘It’s Raining in Mango’ by Thea Astley

It's raining in mango by Thea Astley

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Australia; 240 pages; 2010.

Reviews of Thea Astley’s novels on this blog are like buses: none for ages, then two come along at once.

First published in 1987, It’s Raining in Mango was Astley’s 10th novel. It tells the story of five generations of one family — from the 1860s to the 1980s — and touches on a wide variety of issues, including racism, sexism and homosexuality, all within a distinctly colonial Australia framework.

As ever, with most of Astley’s novels, it does not make for easy reading, but it will reward those who persevere through at least the first 60 or so pages.

Time shifts

The book’s unusual structure makes it a challenge to read. Instead of telling the story in chronological order, Astley complicates matters by constantly jumping between generations and sometimes letting time frames overlap. This does not make for a straightforward read and requires some effort on behalf of the reader to make things “work”.

Fortunately, there’s a helpful dramatis personæ at the front of the book, which provides the birth and death dates of each character, including the circumstances of their death. Without this I’m afraid I would have been totally lost.

The structure is also more akin to a collection of short stories (it won the inaugural Steele Rudd Award, a literary prize for short stories, even though it’s not branded as such) rather than a novel (a trait shared with her 14th novel Drylands), but the interconnections between characters means that it feels like a cohesive whole.

Reporting on dispossession and slaughter

When the book opens we meet an Irish-born journalist, Cornelius Laffey, who leaves Sydney, dragging his family with him, to set up a newspaper in the goldfields of northern Queensland in 1861. While there he witnesses the violence toward Aboriginals, who are dispossessed of their land and, finding much empathy with their situation, reports on it:

“No attempt is made to understand the feelings or even the natural rights of the indigenous peoples along these rivers. Their fishing grounds have been disturbed. Their hunting areas are invaded. All along the Palmer and the subsidiary creeks they have been pushed off by an army of diggers cradling for gold.[…] For every digger speared or killed along the mudsoaked track to the Palmer, there would be ten or more natives butchered. Many of the butchered are women and children. Blacks are now being shot on sight as if they were some pernicious vermin, and the outraged righteousness of one of our sub-inspectors of police has given sanction to the indiscriminate slaughter of these dispossessed people.”

This brutal, honest reporting results in him losing his job — and so sets into motion the cycle of incredible ups and downs for the Laffey family over the next 120 years.

Heartbreaking individual stories

During the course of this “novel” (I use the term loosely) we meet a wide variety of characters, most of whom are struggling to keep their heads above water, including Cornelius’ wife, who runs a pub, their son and daughter George and Nadine, and their respective partners.

Their individual stories, told in separate chapters, are gritty, often heartbreaking and sometimes violent. Nadine, for instance, has a child out of wedlock when she is 14 and ends up working in a brothel to support herself.

It’s Raining in Mango — the title refers to an imaginary town called Mango in tropical Far North Queensland — also covers the history of an Aboriginal family, whose lives occasionally intersect with the Laffeys. This serves to remind the reader that while things may never be smooth sailing for the Laffeys, things are a lot worse for the Mumblers who have suffered violent dispossession at the hands of white settlers.

What emerges is a portrait of Australia’s hidden history:  of strangers in a strange land trying to make a go of it, and its native inhabitants being massacred in the name of colonial “progress”.

For a much more intellectual — and insightful — take on It’s Raining in Mango, please see this article in the Australian Book Review.

This is my 49th book for #ReadingAustralia2016 and my 32nd for #AWW2016.

Australia, Author, AWW2016, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Penguin Australia, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Setting, Thea Astley

‘Drylands’ by Thea Astley

Drylands by Thea Astley

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Australia; 294 pages; 1999.

Drylands is Thea Astley at her fine, angry best. This novel, which turned out to be her last (she died in 2004, aged 78), earned her the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 2000, a prize she shared with joint winner Kim Scott for his novel Benang: From the Heart.

Astley, it has to be said, is not always an easy writer to read. Her prose is dense and rich in metaphors and her ideas are astute and political, the product of an inquiring and intelligent mind.

But this book, which is set in a small Australian town succumbing slowly to the drought, resonated with me, perhaps because I identified with the themes presented here: of small town loneliness and alienation; of kicking back against a culture too obsessed with sport and too inward looking and parochial to care about the importance of reading and language.

It is subtitled “a book for the world’s last reader” which suggests that it might have a literary slant to it, but even readers — and, in particular, book groups and book festivals — get a (slight) drubbing in this coolly intellectual novel.

A novel made up of stories

The structure of Drylands is unusual. It almost reads like a collection of short stories as we follow the trials and tribulations of a complex cast of well-drawn, intensely human characters living in the “God-forgotten tree-stump of a town halfway to nowhere”.  They include a foreign accountant on the run, the farmer who sells his property in pursuit of a dream, an indigenous man who lives in a broken down shack on the outskirts of town, a writing teacher who bemoans the “humdrummery” of small town life, the publican’s wife who hates sport and a stressed out house wife with six sons who leaves her family in pursuit of a new life.

Their individual tales are recounted by Janet Deakin, who fancies herself as a writer: she spends her days running a newsagency that in another (more literary) place would be a bookstore, and her nights chronicling in her journal the decline of the town and its inhabitants.

She would write a story, she decided, about a woman in an upstairs room above a main street in a country town, writing a story about a woman writing a story.

This “meta” element of Astley’s novel means it’s not clear whether Janet is an actual character or something dreamed up by writing teacher Evie, but whatever the case, Drylands captures a world in which the written word is in serious peril by a small population obsessed with drinking beer and sport, watching TV, videos and Internet pornography, and playing PlayStation games. (I can’t help but wonder how angry Astley would be if she were alive to see how the Internet and social media have become all-consuming vehicles for serious distraction in today’s switched-on digital world.)

Beautiful language

Aside from the scathing anger and the fierce social commentary in this rather wise and knowing novel, I rather enjoyed Astley’s beautiful way with language. I’m grateful that the copy I read was so battered — I bought it in a charity shop for the princely sum of £1.99 several years ago — because that meant I didn’t feel guilty about underlining so much of it in blue pen.

Here’s how she describes what’s it like being surrounded by bush:

A world of gum trees, bark stripping, dangling, their bony limbs rejecting grace, crowded arrogant as beggars in their rags.

Here’s how she describes the view of the Queensland landscape out of a train window:

The countryside was emerging in the pre-dawn light, misty hills and cane fields blurred silver under an uncertain sun blundering its way through clouds.

And, finally, perhaps my favourite sentence in the entire novel:

Along the main street in the clamorous dark the pub was yowling towards its climatic closing time.

Astley is also very astute at capturing human relationships, emotions and motivations. Here’s Evie, the writing teacher, trying to figure out why the women of the town turn up to her classes even though they have little to no creativity in their bones:

Why had they come? What did they expect? She was beginning to understand the isolation of these places that drove people to seize any opportunity to escape from their humdrummery. These four — these pleasant four — were playing truant from husbands who regarded their activity as female folly. They were fighting the darkness.

Did I like this book? It’s hard to say. I think it might be better to say I admired it. I admired the prose, the ideas, the wonderfully rich characterisation, but these stories did not stick, perhaps because the tales felt ephemeral and “untidy” in the sense that there are no neat endings. But, as a whole, Drylands is an evocative, somewhat pessimistic read about a town that grinds everyone down in the end.

For another take on this novel, please read Whispering Gum’s review.

This is my 48th book for #ReadingAustralia2016 and my 31st for #AWW2016.

Australia, Author, AWW2016, Book review, Magda Szubanski, memoir, Non-fiction, Poland, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Scotland, Setting, Text

‘Reckoning’ by Magda Szubanksi

Reckoning by Magda Szubanski

Non-fiction – paperback; Text Publishing; 400 pages; 2016. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

If you had met my father you would never, not for an instant, have thought he was an assassin.

So begins Magda Szubanksi’s extraordinary memoir Reckoning, which is as much a love letter to her dad as it is an autobiography of her own life.

Most British readers will know Magda from the Australian sit-com Kath & Kim, where she plays the sports-obsessed unlucky-in-love Sharon Strzelecki. But she also starred in the 1995 Hollywood film Babe, the story of a pig who wants to be a sheepdog, and appeared in a slew of comedy shows from the late 1980s onwards. She first came to my attention in 1986 when she was in The D Generation, a comedy sketch show created and written by a group of Melbourne University students, and later Fast-Forward, another comedy sketch show that went on to become Australia’s highest rating TV production of that type.

Not your usual celebrity memoir

That aside, you don’t need to know who Magda is to appreciate this book. It may be billed as a memoir, but it’s so much more than that. Yes, it tells the story of Magda’s life, but it’s got an intellectual rigour to it that you don’t often find in your usual run-of-the-mill celebrity autobiography.

It covers some very hard-hitting topics including relationships between fathers and daughters, what it is to be an immigrant (Magda was born in Liverpool, England, to a Scottish mother and Polish father, and they immigrated to Australia when she was five years old), intergenerational guilt, survivor’s guilt and “genetic memory”, the Holocaust and the Polish resistance, politics, feminism, mental health and repressed sexuality.

The latter is a major part of Magda’s story, for she kept her own sexuality a secret for much of her adult life, frightened not only of being rejected by her loved ones but by the Australian public and the film and television industry in which she’d forged such a successful career. Her struggle with this element of herself  is threaded throughout the narrative and her inability to come to terms with it publicly manifested itself in anxiety, depression and over-eating. She eventually came out live on TV in 2012 when she realised it was time to finally stand up and “do the right thing”:

It was possibly the most nervous I have ever been. My breathing was constricted but I could still make a sentence and even a joke. When the guys [the hosts of the TV show The Project] asked me how I identified I replied, “I am absolutely not straight. I wouldn’t define myself as bisexual either. I would say I am gay-gay-gay-gay-gay-gay-a-little-bit-not-gay-gay-gay-gay. Unfortunately, there’s not actually a word to describe me, so I have to express myself through the medium of dance.”

Bearing witness

Another thread running throughout Magda’s life is her father’s dark history. He was just 15 when the Nazi’s invaded his home town of Warsaw. Most Poles fled, but the Szubanskis stayed put. Magda’s father formed his own “private army” — “a vagrant bunch of childhood friends roaming around doing whatever damage they could, especially killing Germans” — before he was properly recruited, aged 19, to become a non-commissioned officer of the Polish execution squad known as Unit 993/W Revenge Company. This top-secret unit was tasked with assassinating agents of the Gestapo and Polish traitors. “It sounds like a movie,” writes Magda, “It wasn’t.”

In a city where everyone had something to be afraid of, those who aided the Nazis lived in fear of people like my father. His unit comprised both men and women. […] They targeted collaborators who gave the names of resistance members to the Gestapo. Unit 993/W also assassinated Poles who told the Gestapo where Jews were hiding. And so the Nazi collaborators were sentenced to death by the Polish underground courts. Despite the chaos of war, due legal process was followed. The traitor would be tried in absentia in a court of law and the sentence would be carried out by my father’s unit. Then, when the time was right, they would run in, read them the list of crimes of which they had been found guilty, and shoot them.

During the Warsaw Uprising in 1944, Magda’s father was captured and sent to a POW camp. He escaped while on the notorious Lamsdorf Death March, but was recaptured and sent to two more POW camps. Eventually, he was liberated by the Russians and made his way to Scotland, where he reinvented himself as an Englishman, married Magda’s mother, a Scot of Irish extraction, and tried to forget his past. He never saw his parents again.

Clearly a man of courage, who had a strong instinct for survival, Magda describes him as:

… warmhearted, friendly, engaging, intelligent, generous, humorous, honourable, affectionate, arrogant, blunt, loyal. He was a family man. He was handsome, although he did not have heroic stature. He was five foot four. He was stylish, fashion-conscious; a dandy even. […] He loved tennis, he loved ballet, he loved good conversation. Out there in the Melbourne suburbs […] you would never have guessed that he was capable of killing in cold blood. But he was. Poor bastard.

For Magda, the struggle is to reconcile in her own head (and heart) the man she loved with the man who was capable of shooting people dead, and much of this book explores that murky territory, trying to put events into some kind of context and fleshing out the ambiguities and moral complexities of what it was to live through the Second World War. Was it okay to kill people if you were on the “right” side?

An intimate read

Reckoning is a deeply personal read — sometimes uncomfortably so — but Magda is an honest, forthright guide, and her love for her parents (and her siblings, especially older sister Barbara) shine through. This is not a sentimental read, nor is it a self-pitying one, but it’s a warm, intelligent, brave and occasionally eye-opening one. I found it utterly captivating and came away from it feeling as if Magda had somehow exonerated the ghosts of her family’s past — or at least come to terms with them.

Unsurprisingly, Reckoning has won a slew of awards in Australia, including ABIA Book of the Year, ABIA Biography of the Year, NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Douglas Stewart Prize for Non-Fiction, Indie Award for Non-Fiction, and Nielsen BookData Booksellers’ Choice Award.

It has just been published in the UK and will be released in the US and Canada next month.

As an aside, do watch this clip of one of Magda’s most ingenious creations, Lynne Postlewaite, whose catch-phrase “I said pet, I said love…” still makes me laugh:


This is my 45th book for #ReadingAustralia2016 and my 30th for #AWW2016.

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.

Antarctica, Australia, Author, AWW2016, Book review, Favel Parrett, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Sceptre, Setting

‘When the Night Comes’ by Favel Parrett

When the night comes

Fiction – paperback; Sceptre; 272 pages; 2014.

Favel Parrett’s When the Night Comes is one of those lovely, gentle stories that demands nothing of the reader — except to let the quiet, bare-boned prose wash over you.

Set in 1986, largely in Hobart, Tasmania and on the Antarctic ice-breaker Nella Dan, the story charts the friendship between two unlikely people: Isla, a young teenage girl, and Bo, the Danish crewman who boards with her family when he’s not at sea.

Told in short impressionistic chapters — sometimes from Isla’s point of view, sometimes from Bo’s — their intertwined stories slowly unfold. What emerges is an in-depth character study of two people trying to find their rightful places in the world after loss  — in Isla’s case, the loss of her father through divorce; in Bo’s case, through the death of his father and, later, a colleague.

Emotional truths

While I would hesitate to describe When the Night Comes as a portrait of grief, it is very much a story about emotional truths. For Isla it’s all about working out whom she can trust and discovering that not all grown men are violent or unpredictable as per her estranged father; for Bo it’s about reconnecting with the things that his papa loved so much — nature, the sea and the camaraderie to be found onboard ship.

My father turned to me and said, “The sea is alive and there is no beginning and there is no end. It moves with the moon and the spinning of this earth and it calls us when it wants us to come.”

Indeed, the book offers some beautiful descriptions of the Antarctic wilderness, of the endless ice and snow, and the birds that fly overhead, and it’s hard not to see it as a metaphor for the frozen emotional states of both characters, whose gentle friendship over the course of “two long summers” helps them readjust to new circumstances.

The Nella Dan
The Nella Dan, by Dr. Robert Ricker, via NOAA Photo Library and Wikipedia Commons

Central to the storyline is the role of food and the exquisite comfort it can bring at times of turmoil. Bo, a chef on the Nella Dan, tells Isla and her younger brother of the simple joy that an orange can bring when you are far out at sea — or trapped in ice, as the Nella Dan was for seven long weeks en route to Antarctica’s Casey research station. And when he’s at home preparing food he is at his most honest and forthright with Isla, sharing stories of the sea and infecting her with a lifelong interest in science and the natural world.

(The descriptions of food, by the way, are mouthwatering… and it pays not to read this book on an empty stomach. You have been warned.)

While there’s a melancholia at the heart of this novel, helped in part by a series of tragic events, it never feels claustrophobic or depressing. It deals with big issues — death, grief, divorce, among others —  so you might expect the narrative to feel weighted down, but it’s almost the opposite: the prose practically floats off the page it feels so light. Coupled with moments of quiet, unbridled joy, When the Night Comes is a truly captivating and unexpectedly moving story.

Last year it was longlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award and was shortlisted for the Australian Book Industry Awards, The Indie Books Awards, the ALS Gold Medal and the ABA’s Booksellers Choice Award.

It has been published in the UK and North America.

For another take on this novel, please read Susan’s review at A Life in Books.

This is my 42nd book for #ReadingAustralia2016 and my 28th for #AWW2016.

Australia, Author, AWW2016, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Jane Harper, Little, Brown, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Setting

‘The Dry’ by Jane Harper

The Dry

Fiction – Kindle edition; Little, Brown Book Group; 352 pages; 2016.

It’s been a long time since I’ve read a crime novel and been completely transfixed from the first page. But that’s what happened when I opened Jane Harper’s The Dry, a book I had not heard anything about and had only stumbled upon by accident when I was looking for Australian reads to download onto my Kindle before heading to Greece for a week.

The book, which is set in the fictional country town of Kiewarra in rural Australia — about 500km north-west of Melbourne — is the first by Harper, a British-born journalist now based in Melbourne (she writes for the tabloid newspaper Herald-Sun), and the story itself could have been lifted from the headlines: a murder-suicide of a man, his wife and young son, found shot dead in a farmhouse. The only survivor — and witness — is a baby.

But the case isn’t clear-cut.  Amid the worst drought to ravage Australia in a century, the farm, like all others in the area, had been struggling financially. Luke Hadler’s mother doesn’t believe her son was capable of killing himself, nor his loved ones, and suspects that he may have been murdered by a debt collector. The police in Clyde, the nearest big town with a fully staffed cop shop, think otherwise and have closed the case.

Enter Aaron Falk, a federal police officer specialising in white-collar crime, who grew up in the town but left under a cloud when he was 16. Luke was his best friend at high school and the pair kept in touch. When he returns for the funeral, Mrs Hadler asks him to look into the case for her — even if he isn’t “that sort of police officer”.

Working under the radar with the newly appointed local sergeant, Greg Raco, the pair’s unofficial investigation reveals some disturbing facts that suggest Luke may have not pulled the trigger on his wife and child after all. His own death also looks suspicious. But how to prove it?

Running in tandem with this storyline is a darker one involving Falk’s own past, which fleshes out why he fled town for the city, dragging his father in tow, two decades earlier. Through the clever use of flashbacks Harper does a good job of revealing small nuggets of information that force the reader to constantly reassess their opinion, not just of Falk but of Hadler as well. Are either of them reliable? And just because Falk’s a cop, should we regard him as trustworthy?

A claustrophobic portrait

Harper’s portrayal of small town life played out against a backdrop of ongoing severe drought is an authentic and claustrophobic one. The community, which revolves around the school and the pub, is riven by poverty and personal tensions, and rumour and gossip abound. Anyone who’s lived in a small community will recognise the types of people and behaviours presented here.

The characterisation is richly drawn: the simmering tensions of people at their wit’s end is deftly depicted, and the town’s local “ratbags” — who have grudges to bear and like to solve problems with their fists — never strays into caricature. The people and the unpleasant atmosphere in which they live feels believable.

And for a story that is so fast-paced and tightly plotted, Harper hasn’t skipped on detail: her prose moves along at a clip but she has a keen eye for landscape, atmosphere and little things that matter:

The porch door that used to be yellow was now an insipid shade of blue, he noted with something like indignation. It had pockmarks where the paint was peeling. He could see flashes of yellow underneath, gaping like fatty scars. The wooden steps where he’d sat fiddling with toys and footy cards now sagged with age. Underneath, a beer can nestled in the flaxen grass.

Quite frankly, The Dry, is an astonishing debut. It’s an exceptional crime novel, one of the best I’ve read in years. That I failed to guess the “solution” (I’ve read so many crime books over the years I usually spot them long before the ending) is testament to her skill. Even the denouement, usually the weakest link in a crime novel because, well, the author has to wrap the story up somehow, is deftly handed and quite a surprise. Colour me impressed.

Last year The Dry won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript. I can see why.

This is my 41st book for #ReadingAustralia2016 and my 27th for #AWW2016.

Australia, Author, AWW2016, Book review, essays, Helen Garner, Non-fiction, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Setting, Text

‘Everywhere I Look’ by Helen Garner

Everywhere I Look by Helen Garner

Non-fiction – paperback; Text; 240 pages; 2016.

I was so excited about the impending publication of Helen Garner’s latest essay collection that I thought, “damn the postage costs”,  and ordered it all the way from Australia.

Garner is one of Australia’s finest writers (you can find many of her books reviewed here). Most Brits will know her from her sharply caustic 2008 novel The Spare Room in which a woman, caring for a friend dying of bowel cancer, finds herself caught between kindness and honesty: how should she deal with the fact that her friend is relying on quackery for a cure that will never happen?

But in her native Australia, Garner is widely respected (and occasionally vilified) for her journalism, a journalism that she practises with the same dilemma as the narrator in The Spare Room: when to be kind, and when to be blatantly honest? Her reportage style is deeply personal for she often inserts herself into the story, a technique that allows her to capture heartfelt reactions without the so-called veneer of “objectivity”.

In her last non-fiction book (she has five to her name, primarily about true crime cases), This House of Grief looked at a criminal case involving the deaths of three young boys at the hands of their father. Published in Australia last year and the UK earlier this year, it was critically acclaimed and won a literary prize, but there were some who would not read it because it did not condemn the man as a “monster”.

In her latest collection of essays, Everywhere I Look, which has just been published in the UK, Garner answers this criticism robustly in an essay called “On Darkness”:

“If he had been a monster, I wouldn’t have been interested in writing about him. The sorts of crimes that interest me are not the ones committed by psychopaths. I’m interested in apparently ordinary people who, under life’s unbearable pressure, burst through the very fine membrane that separates our daylight selves from the secret darkness that lives in every one of us.”

This is typical of Garner’s style. She’s not interested in dividing the world into black and white; she’s most happy – and effective – when she’s delving in to the margins, fleshing out the grey that no one else ever seems to report on. She appreciates the moral complexities of the world, an attitude that not only makes her work especially perceptive but incredibly powerful too.

And that’s a good word to describe the 33 short essays collected here: powerful. Garner turns her sharp, perceptive and sometimes painfully honest eye to a wide range of issues including a court case involving a 17-year-old charged with infanticide (“Punishing Karen”) and criminal proceedings against a man accused of pushing a refugee into Melbourne’s Yarra River, where he drowned (“The Man in the Dock”).

The power of the personal

But she’s no less powerful when writing about herself. For instance, her friendship with fellow Australian writer Tim Winton (“Eight Views of Tim Winton”) is depicted with wit and warmth – “It’s an unlikely friendship-I’m almost as old as his mother” – and she’s self-deprecating when she writes about her love of playing the ukulele (“Whisper and Hum”), an instrument she once regarded as a “cop-out for the lazy and talentless”.

Her personal diary extracts (“While Not Writing a Book”, “Funk Paradise” and “Before Whatever Else Happens”) are particular highlights, for not only do they give a glimpse of Garner’s life as a daughter, mother and grandmother, they are all written with the elegance and undiminished wonder of a true writer who revels in the extraordinariness of the every day. Some of them are also very funny.

“At two in the morning, Ted [her four-year-old grandson], sleeping in the spare room, has a bad dream and creeps into my bed. He flings himself about diagonally for the rest of the night, cramming me into a tiny corner. God damn it, I think at 5am, this is worse than being married.”

But it is her heartbreaking and oh-so candid essay about her late mother (“Dreams of Her Real Self”) that is the standout of this exceptional collection. In it Garner writes that her mother was timid and unsure of herself, that she always lived in the shadow of her larger-than-life husband and did not know how to express emotion. Their relationship was always slightly at arm’s length and they never really got to know each other.

“When, in the street, I see a mother walking with her grown-up daughter, I can hardly bear to witness the mother’s pride, the softening of her face, her incredulous joy at being granted her daughter’s company; and the iron discipline she imposes on herself, to muffle and conceal this joy.”

This is my 40th book for #ReadingAustralia2016 and my 26th for #AWW2016.