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

Australia, Author, Barry Maitland, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Setting, Text

‘Crucifixion Creek’ by Barry Maitland

Crucifixion Creek by Barry Maitland

Fiction – paperback; Text Publishing; 320 pages; 2016. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Barry Maitland is one of Australia’s most respected crime writers. He has a slew of titles to his name, but according to the press release that came with my copy of Crucifixion Creek, his latest novel represents a “triumphant change of direction” for him.

I haven’t read any of his earlier work, so I can’t say if that is true or not. But what I can say is that this is a rather dark, noirish crime thriller, one that blurs the lines between the good guys and the bad guys, and feels like something Peter Temple might have come up with if he set his novels in Sydney rather than Melbourne.

The Belltree trilogy

Crucifixion Creek was shortlisted for the 2015 Ned Kelly Award for Australian crime writing. The book is the first in a trilogy (the second, Ash Island, is already available) revolving around homicide detective Harry Belltree, a former soldier turned maverick cop, who doesn’t mind bending the rules it if suits his purposes.

He’s married to Jenny, a former researcher in a big city law firm, who was blinded in a car accident and now freelances at home, using a voice interface on her computer to carry out expert searches for clients. That same car accident resulted in the death of Harry’s parents — Danny Belltree, the first Aboriginal judge of the New South Wales Supreme Court, and his wife — when on a trip to northern NSW a couple of years earlier. Harry believes the trio were deliberately run off the road, but has never been able to prove it.

But while the accident and its aftermath haunts Harry — as does his experience in Afghanistan — that’s merely the back story to what turns out to be an adrenalin-charged novel, full of twists and turns and rather shocking revelations, which builds to a rather momentous finale typical of the genre.

Crimes that are linked

There are two central crimes in Crucifixion Creek: the double suicide of an elderly couple in a restaurant, and the brutal murder of a builder — Harry’s rich and successful brother-in-law — found dead in a street in Sydney’s suburban west. The incidents appear to be completely separate, but Harry thinks they are linked. He also thinks there may be some connection with his parents’ deaths. But because he’s in trouble with his superiors (for investigating his brother-in-law’s stabbing without revealing his family connection) he has to go “off-grid” to make enquiries.

That’s where local reporter Kelly Pool comes in to play. As Harry feeds her off-the-record information that earns her a succession of scoops for her newspaper, both put themselves in increasing danger. They also put friends and colleagues in danger too.

Throw in corrupt politicians, dodgy finance arrangements, a property development that looks less than squeaky clean, an outlaw bikie gang and links to some shady goings-on in Indonesia, and what you get is a rather frenzied, fast-paced and complex plot. But you also get a lot of shocking violence, a horrid rape, a series of gruesome murders and lots of morally dubious decisions. It’s not a story to take lightly.

A noirish police procedural

I don’t mind hard-hitting police procedurals, but this one felt a bit too noirish for me.

It’s got some punchy dialogue and there’s a lyrical style to Maitland’s writing which makes it effortless to read. But the narrative is unrelenting, with no humour to lighten the load, though some of the plot developments had me laughing inside. That’s because there are some incidents which seem too ludicrous to be true  (I can’t outline them here because that will spoil the plot) and I found myself quickly having to suspend belief.

It didn’t help that I had no faith in the authenticity of Kelly Pool and her working practices, which seemed incredibly outdated and unrealistic. (I mean, what local newspapers in the current climate, and indeed in the past 10 years, has the money to properly fund investigative journalism and doesn’t kick up a fuss when one of their employees jumps ship to work for a competitor without working their notice period? Sorry, rant over.)

That said, the storyline — of high-level corruption and sexual crimes — feels genuine and could, indeed, have been lifted out of today’s news. And there’s plenty of suspense and tension to keep you turning the pages. I can’t say I will bother with the remaining two titles in the trilogy, but as a fast ride into some dubious moral territory, Crucifixion Creek presented me with plenty to think about.

This is my fifth book for #ReadingAustralia2016.

Crucifixion Creek was published in the US late last year and has just been published in the UK.