Arthur Golden, Author, Avan Judd Stallard, Behrouz Boochani, Book lists, Chloe Hooper, John McGahern, Sayo Masuda, Thea Astley

Book pairings: fiction & non-fiction titles that complement each other

Have you ever read a fiction book based on a true story and then wanted to read a non-fiction book on the same topic so that you can learn more? Or perhaps it has been the other way around: you’ve read a non-fiction book and thought you’d like to read something fictional inspired by those same events, people or places?

I love non-fiction and fiction pairings, the kinds of books that inform each other and give you a more rounded view of a particular subject, character, place or event.

Taking inspiration from Karen’s post on Booker Talk, here are four book pairings I have put together. As ever, links take you to my reviews.

On the love of mothers and of mining your own life for fiction

The Barracks by John McGahern

‘Memoir’ & ‘The Barracks’ both by John McGahern 

In Memoir, published in 2005, the late John McGahern wrote about his childhood and adolescence growing up in rural Ireland in the 1940s and 1950s. It reads very much like a love letter to his beloved mother, who died of breast cancer when he was eight years old, and an angry diatribe against his policeman father who showed his ill wife little empathy.

In his debut novel, The Barracks, McGahern writes from the perspective of a woman who returns to the rural Ireland of her childhood after the Second World War. Here she marries the local police sergeant, a widower, and becomes stepmother to his three children. When she develops breast cancer she hides it from everyone. It’s a dark, Catholic novel, but when you understand the events it was inspired by it seems to resonate with extra meaning and is a deeply powerful read.

On Australia’s immigration detention system

‘No Friend but the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison’ by Behrouz Boochani & ‘Spinifex & Sunflowers’ by Avan Judd Stallard

Behrouz Boochani’s award-winning non-fiction book, No Friend but the Mountains, details his time detained on Manus Island, Australia’s shameful offshore immigration detention facility. It’s an eye-opening account of cruelty and abuse, where the authorities fail to treat asylum seekers with any kind of dignity or respect.

Avan Judd Stallard’s novel, Spinifex & Sunflowers, is a fictionalised account of his own time as a prison guard in one of Australia’s immigration detention centres — in this case the one in Curtin, Western Australia, which is no longer operating. His novel highlights how the guards are given little training to deal with “prisoners” and that many of those employed in such roles are doing it simply for the money.

On black deaths in custody/Palm Island

‘The Tall Man: Life and Death on Palm Island’ by Chloe Hooper & ‘The Multiple Effects of Rainshadow’ by Thea Astley

Chloe Hooper’s shocking true crime book, The Tall Man, explores the death of Aboriginal man Cameron Doomadgee who died in police custody on Palm Island, one of the largest Aboriginal communities in Australia with a dark and torrid history.  (It was set up by the State Government in 1916 as a place to house Aboriginals as a kind of punitive mission.) This book demonstrates that in Australia there is one law for white people and another for black.

Thea Astley’s novel, The Multiple Effects of Rainshadow, is set in the same location, albeit under a different name, but takes a real-life incident from the 1930s as her inspiration. That incident involved a grief-stricken white superintendent who went on a drink-and-drug-fuelled rampage and set fire to many buildings. He used dynamite to blow up his own home, killing his two children inside, and after fleeing the island temporarily, was gunned down upon his return.

On life as a geisha

‘Autobiography of a Geisha’ by Sayo Masuda & ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ by Arthur Golden

Sayo Masuda’s much-acclaimed autobiography documents what happens to her when, aged 12, she was sold to a geisha house in 1930s Japan. Despite the material comforts she earns, her life is far from happy and carefree.

Arthur Golden’s novel, Memoirs of a Geisha, is a fictionalised account of a young girl whose parents sell her to a man with connections to a top geisha house in Tokyo. The book details her education and “apprenticeship”, describes the auctioning of her virginity and her subsequent rise as one of  Japan’s most celebrated geishas.

I wrote this post as part of Nonfiction November, which is hosted by Katie of Doing Dewey, Julz of Julz Reads, Rennie of What’s Nonfiction, and Leann of Shelf Aware

What do you think of these book pairings? Can you recommend any others?

Australian Women Writers Challenge, AWW2019, Book lists

26 books by women: completing the 2019 Australian Women Writers’ Challenge

In what has become a bit of a tradition over the past few years, my New Year’s Day post is focused on Australian Women Writers — specifically listing all the titles I have read as part of the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge the year before. (You can see my wrap-up for 2018 here, 2017 here and 2016 here.)

In 2019, I aimed to read 10 books by Australian women writers. At the time I didn’t know I’d be moving back to Australia, so I kept my goal relatively achievable. But when I moved to Fremantle in June I suddenly had access to books — in both the shops and the library — that normally wouldn’t be available in the UK. As a consequence, I read a total of 26 books by female writers.

Here is a list of all the books I read. They have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s name (click the title to see my full review) and I have tried, where possible, to provide information on availability outside of Australia, but note this is subject to change:


‘Little Gods’ by Jenny Ackland (2018)
A gorgeously evocative coming of age story set in Victoria’s mallee region during the 1980s.
Fiction. Only published in Australia. Check bookfinder.com for copies.


‘A Constant Hum’ by Alice Bishop (2019)
The literary equivalent of a concept album, this collection features short stories and flash fiction focused on the aftermath of bush fire.
Fiction. Only published in Australia, but Kindle edition available in other markets.


‘New York’ by Lily Brett (2001)
This humorous and entertaining collection of 52 short articles is largely about the author’s own insecurities, anxieties and dislikes, with a special focus on New York life.
Non-fiction. Widely available.


‘Room for a Stranger’ by Melanie Cheng (2019)
A beautiful, bittersweet story about finding friendship in the most unexpected of places.
Fiction. Only published in Australia, but Kindle edition available in other markets.


‘Wedderburn: A True Tale of Blood and Dust’ by Maryrose Cuskelly (2018)
A deeply contemplative and gripping analysis of a small-town murder in Australia written very much in the vein of Helen Garner’s true-crime style.
Non-fiction. Only published in Australia. Check bookfinder.com for copies.

‘Springtime: A Ghost Story’ by Michelle de Kretser (2017)
A richly written short story about what it is like to begin a new life in a new city.
Fiction. Only published in Australia, but Kindle edition available in other markets.

The Bridge book cover

‘The Bridge’ by Enza Gandolfo (2018)
Moving tale focused on the families whose lives were drastically altered following the collapse of Melbourne’s Westgate Bridge midway through construction in 1970.
Fiction. Widely available.

‘Yellow Notebook: Diaries Volume I, 1978-1987’ by Helen Garner (2019)
This collection of sublime and pithy journal entries spans 10 years of Garner’s life and showcases her ability to capture the tiniest of details to elevate seemingly ordinary occurrences into scenes of extraordinary power.
Nonfiction. Due to be published in the UK in May 2020.

‘The Bride Stripped Bare’ by Nikki Gemmell (2003)
Originally published under the author “anonymous”, this is an erotically charged tale about a married woman’s sexual awakening.
Fiction. Widely available.

‘The Arsonist: A Mind on Fire’ by Chloe Hooper (2019)
A true-crime story looking at the police investigation and subsequent court trial of a man charged with deliberately lighting a fire in Churchill, Central Gippsland that burnt 32,860 hectares and killed 11 people.
Nonfiction. Widely available.

‘Shepherd’ by Catherine Jinks (2019)
A fast-paced chase novel about a teenage poacher from Suffolk who is transported to New South Wales as a convict in 1840.
Fiction. Widely available.

‘Dustfall’ by Michelle Johnston (2018)
A haunting novel following the twin paths of two doctors — 30 years apart — who both settle in the doomed asbestos mining town of Wittenoom to lick their wounds after disastrous career mistakes. (Please note, I never got around to reviewing this one: it’s really excellent.)
Fiction. Paperback available.

‘Pink Mountain on Locust Island’ by Jamie Marina Lau (2018)
The story of a troubled lonely teen living with a drug-addicted father is told in a fragmentary style structured around a series of short vignettes.
Fiction. Only available in Australia, but can be ordered online from Browbooks.com.

‘The Erratics’ by Vicki Laveau-Harvie (2018)
This year’s Stella Prize winner, Laveau-Harvie’s memoir recounts how she had to deal with her Canadian-based elderly parents — one of whom was trying to kill the other — from afar.
Nonfiction. Due to be published in the UK in August 2020.

‘Beauty’ by Bri Lee (2019)
A long-form essay looking at body image and the ways in which young women are conditioned to think that being thin is the only route to happiness and acceptance.
Non-fiction. Only available in Australia. Check bookfinder.com for copies.

‘Eggshell Skull: A memoir about standing up, speaking out and fighting back’ by Bri Lee (2018)
This riveting memoir marries the personal with the political by charting the author’s first year working in the Australian judicial system as she grapples with an eating disorder stemming from her own sexual abuse.
Non-fiction. Only published in Australia. Check bookfinder.com for copies.

‘Too Much Lip’ by Melissa Lucashenko (2018)
Winner of this year’s prestigious Miles Franklin Literary Award, this brash, gritty and hard-hitting novel is about an indigenous family trying to save their land from the local mayor’s plans to build a new prison on it.
Fiction. Only published in Australia. Check bookfinder.com for copies.

‘The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone’ by Felicity McLean (2019)
A disappointing novel about the fictional disappearance of three blonde sisters — the Van Apfel children of the title — from the perspective of their childhood friend, Tikka Malloy.
Fiction. Widely available.

‘The Trespassers’ by Meg Mundell (2019)
A dystopian tale set on a ship filled with Brits headed to Australia, but midway through the voyage, someone is found dead and an unplanned quarantine situation arises.
Fiction. Widely available.

‘Her Father’s Daughter’ by Alice Pung (2013)
This moving memoir explores the author’s early adulthood in Australia, the daughter of two Cambodians who fled the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge when she begins to unearth the story of her father’s frightening past.
Non-fiction. Widely available.

‘Bruny’ by Heather Rose (2019)
A political satire-cum-thriller about a terrorist attack in sleepy Tasmania some time in the very near future.
Fiction. Only published in Australia. Check bookfinder.com for copies.

‘See What I Have Done’ by Sarah Schmidt (2017)
Fictionalised account of Lizzie Borden’s possible culpability of the brutal murder of her father and step-mother in Massachusetts in the 19th century.
Fiction. Widely available.

‘Axiomatic’ by Maria Tumarkin (2018)
A heady mix of storytelling and reportage, this book looks at five different axioms — an accepted truth — and examines, often in great detail and with much intellectual rigour and anecdotal evidence, as to whether they can be debunked.
Non-fiction. Only available in Australia, but can be ordered online from Browbooks.com.

‘Cusp’ by Josephine Wilson (2005)
A beautifully layered narrative about a mother and daughter trying to recalibrate a sometimes fraught relationship.
Fiction. Only available in Australia, but can be ordered online at uwap.uwa.edu.au/collections/fiction

‘The Weekend’ by Charlotte Wood (2019)
A lovely story about friendship and growing old, it focuses on three women in their 70s who spend a weekend together cleaning out the holiday home of their now dead friend.
Fiction. Due to be published in the UK in June 2020.

‘Fake’ by Stephanie Wood (2019)
A respected journalist who dreamt of finding a special man to spend the rest of her life with, Wood fell victim to a charlatan — and this is her raw, unflinching account of their relationship.
Non-fiction. Only published in Australia, but Kindle edition available in other markets.

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?

I have just signed up for the 2020 Australian Womens’ Writers Challenge, so expect to see more reviews by Australian women writers to feature on this blog over the course of the year. I am going to aim to read and review 20 books.

If you want to participate, you can sign up via the official website. Please note you don’t need to be an Australian to take part — it’s open to everyone around the world. The more, the merrier, as they say!

Books of the year

My favourite books of 2019

This year has been a rather eventful one for me — in all kinds of ways.

Repatriating after almost 21 years in the UK has posed many challenges, but I’ve not regretted it and I have loved being able to buy Australian books as soon as they’ve been released instead of waiting a year or more for an overseas publication date!

I undertook a few reading projects across the year, with mixed results.

All up, I read 87 books — choosing my favourite proved a tough call. Surprisingly, more than half of the titles I loved were non-fiction reads (I seemed to read a LOT of non-fiction books this year) and 50 percent of the titles came from Australia.

Without further ado, here are the books that made an impression on me this year. They have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname. Hyperlinks will take you to my full review.

No Friend But the Mountain: Writing from Manus Prison by Behrouz Boochani (2018)
This award-winning memoir looks at Australia’s offshore immigration detention system from the point of view of a Kurdish-Iranian journalist caught up in it.

A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne (2018)
A rip-roaring read about a would-be writer hellbent on topping the bestseller lists — at any cost.

Eggshell Skull: A Memoir about Standing Up, Speaking Out and Fighting Back by Bri Lee (2018)
This riveting memoir marries the personal with the political by charting the author’s first year working in the Australian judicial system as she grapples with an eating disorder stemming from her own sexual abuse.

Yellow Notebook: Diaries Volume 1, 1978-1987 by Helen Garner (2019)
This collection of sublime and pithy journal entries spans 10 years of Garner’s life and showcases her ability to capture the tiniest of details to elevate seemingly ordinary occurrences into scenes of extraordinary power.

Constellations book cover

Constellations by Sinead Gleeson (2019)
A brilliant collection of deeply personal essays examining the body, illness and how the relationship between the two shapes our identity.

The Arsonist: A Mind on Fire by Chloe Hooper (2019)
A true-crime story looking at the police investigation and subsequent court trial of a man charged with deliberately lighting a fire in Churchill, Central Gippsland that burnt 32,860 hectares and killed 11 people.

The Erratics by Vicki Laveau-Harvie (2018)
This year’s Stella Prize winner, Laveau-Harvie’s memoir recounts how she had to deal with her Canadian-based elderly parents — one of whom was trying to kill the other — from afar.

The Offing by Benjamin Myers (2019)
A beautifully rendered tale about the unlikely friendship between a teenage boy and an elderly woman in Yorkshire following the Second World War.

Shadowplay by Joseph O’Connor (2019)
This atmospheric Victorian Gothic drama focuses on Irishman Bram Stoker, actor and theatre director Henry Irving and leading stage actress Ellen Terry and follows their complicated, intertwined lives as they work together at the Lyceum Theatre in London in 1878.

The South by Colm Toibin (1990)
A luminous tale of art and love and sacrifice set in Spain and Ireland in the 1950s and 60s, which has lingered in my mind long after I finished reading it. In fact, I loved this book so much I added Toibin to my favourite authors page.

I trust you have had an exciting reading year and discovered some wonderful books and writers. Have you read any from this list? Or has it encouraged you to try one or two? What were your favourite reads of 2019?

Please note that you can see my favourite books of all the years between 2006 and 2019 by visiting my Books of the Year page.

Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2019, Book review, Chloe Hooper, Hamish Hamilton, Non-fiction, Publisher

‘The Arsonist: A Mind on Fire’ by Chloe Hooper

The Australian edition

Non-fiction – paperback; Hamish Hamilton; 272 pages; 2018.

Ten years ago, on 7 February 2009, in unprecedented hot weather conditions, a series of bushfires — 400 separate fires giving off the heat equivalent of 500 atomic bombs! — raged across the state of Victoria, wiping out everything in their path, including whole townships and hundreds and thousands of hectares of farmland and bushland. One-hundred and eighty people lost their lives, making them the deadliest fires in Australian history.

On that particular Saturday — which later became known as Black Saturday — the Central Gippsland fires in and around the Latrobe Valley (just a 45 minute drive from where I grew up) burnt 32,860 hectares and killed 11 people. It later transpired that the Churchill fire, which started in a pine plantation, was deliberately lit and a 39-year-old Churchill man was arrested on suspicion of arson.

That man, who was sentenced to 17 years in prison three years later, is the subject of Chloe Hooper’s extraordinary new book, The Arsonist: A Mind on Fire, which was longlisted for the 2019 Stella Prize.

The UK edition

A true crime story

The book, which is essentially a true crime tale, is divided into three parts covering the police investigation into the fire, the defence lawyers’ case and the court proceedings.

It’s written in a clear but lyrical style with a journalist’s eye for detail. Hooper’s descriptions of the fire, taken from witness statements, are particularly powerful.

One man saw his beehives combust from the sheer heat. ‘Trees ignited from the ground up in one blast, like they were self-exploding.’ Burning birds fell from trees, igniting the ground where they landed. ‘Everything was on fire, plants, fence posts, tree stumps, wood chip mulch, the inflatable pool. I put water on it, but it melted slowly to nothing.’ The aluminium tray of a ute [pick-up truck] ‘ran in rivulets on the ground’.

Likewise, her “picture” of the arsonist, Brendan Sokaluk, is even-handed and compassionate. She unearths his back story to find out how this single, unemployed man living on a disability pension had become a social outcast long before he lit the fire.

He was bullied at school and ostracised at work (he was a groundsman for 18 years, took stress leave and never went back). His odd behaviour as an adult, including the inability to make eye contact, poor interpersonal skills and his penchant for watching Thomas the Tank Engine and Bob the Builder, marked him as “different”, never more so than on the afternoon of Black Saturday, when:

Brendan climbed onto his roof in Sheoke Grove and sat watching the inferno in the hills. His neighbours saw him and noticed that his face was streaked with dirt. He was wearing a camouflage-print outfit and a beanie. One hand shaded his eyes. All around, the sky was dark with smoke. Ash was falling. Tiny cinders burnt the throat on inhaling. Brendan glared down at the neighbours, then went back to watching his mother earth burn.

Firestarter motives

As per the book’s title, Hooper examines what makes an arsonist, in general, and why they do it. (Across Australia it is thought that 37 per cent of all vegetation fires are suspicious and that those that light them deliberately are usually “male; they are commonly unemployed; or had a complicated work history; they were likely to have disadvantaged social backgrounds, often with a family history of pathology, addiction and physical abuse; and many exhibited poor social or interpersonal skills”.)

And then she turns her focus on Sokaluk, who claims he accidentally lit the fire by throwing cigarette ash, wrapped in a serviette, out the window of his car when he was driving past the plantation. (The evidence suggests the fire was most likely started by a match or a cigarette lighter. It does not explain why there were two fires, one of either side of the road, which the police believe were both started by Sokaluk.)

This extraordinary case is brought to life by Hooper’s interviews with Selena McCrickard, Sokaluk’s Legal Aid lawyer, who comes across as being kind and compassionate but who is frequently frustrated by her client’s behaviour. When she has him mentally assessed, Sokaluk is diagnosed with autism, a condition that was practically unheard of in the 1970s when he was a kid and which goes some way to explaining his difficulties growing up and fitting into society.

Interviews with Sokaluk’s parents also help paint a much fuller picture of his childhood and day-to-day life and how they had always been worried about him but were unable to do much more than check up on him, take him on outings and ensure he paid his bills on time.

Fine reportage

The Arsonist is a fine example of true crime reportage. As well as examining this particular shocking crime in forensic detail, Hooper puts it in a much larger context — how common arson is in Australia, why it occurs, who commits it, the difficulties associated with investigating it and the hatred such a crime generates in the public — to provide a well-rounded picture of pyromania.

The book does not come up with any clear-cut answers as to how to prevent people becoming firebugs. “If arson is an expression of a particular psychology, there will always be arsonists,” Hooper writes.

But it’s clear that just like social outcast Martin Bryant, who shot dead 35 people in Port Arthur, Tasmania in 1996 (see my reviews of Born or Bred? Martin Bryant: The Making of a Mass Murderer by Robert Wainwright & Paola Totaro, and The Media and the Massacre by Sonya Voumard, two books about this case), we ignore children’s mental impairments and interpersonal difficulties at our peril.

The message I took from this book was the sooner children can be diagnosed and given appropriate support the better, not just for society as a whole but for those children who might otherwise be bullied and ostracised as Brendan Sokaluk was for his entire life.

Added extras

Other Australian bloggers have reviewed this book including Lisa at ANZ Litlovers and Kate at Booksaremyfavouriteandbest.

The UK edition of The Arsonist will be published in paperback by Scribner UK on 30 May.

To find out more about this case, including an interview with Chloe Hooper and footage of Brendan Sokaluk’s police interview, please check out this edition of Australian Story:

 

Note, I have also read and reviewed Chloe Hooper’s The Tall Man: Life and Death on Palm Island and highly recommend it.

This is my 9th book for #AWW2019  

5 books, Book lists

5 true crime books from Australia

5-books-200pixIf you believe the tourist brochures and the travel agents, Australia is a land of perpetual sunshine filled with happy-go-lucky people — and for the most part they’re right. It is a beautiful country and the people are laid back and happy. However, like any society, there is a darker element — no jokes about convicts, please!

I have a penchant for books that revolve around true crime, especially if they are well researched and are written in a narrative style — what I would call narrative non-fiction. Over the years I’ve read several books like this from Australia, so thought I’d put together a little list in case you were looking for something a bit different to try for ANZ Literature Month. Most of these books should be available in the UK and the US/Canada in Kindle format — or try your library.

The books have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname (hyperlinks take you to my reviews):

Joe-Cinques-consolation

Joe Cinque’s Consolation’ by Helen Garner (2010)

In 1997, Joe Cinque, a young engineer living in Canberra, died in his own bed of a massive overdose of Rohypnol and heroin. His girlfriend, Anu Singh, and her best friend, Madhavi Rao, were charged with his murder. In this book, Helen Garner follows the twists and turns of Singh’s and then Rao’s criminal trials as they unfold. Later, she befriends Joe Cinque’s family in order to tell his side of the story. It’s a profoundly moving piece of narrative non-fiction.

TheTallMan

The Tall Man: Life and Death on Palm Island’ by Chloe Hooper (2010)

On Friday November 19, 2004, Cameron Doomadgee, a 36-year-old aboriginal man living on Palm Island was arrested for swearing at a white police officer. He was thrown into the back of a divisional van and transported to the police station where he was put in a cell. Just 45-minutes after his arrest, Doomadgee was found dead, a black eye the only tell-tale sign of violence. Hooper examines the case as it progresses through the court system and in telling the real life story of the death of an Aboriginal man in police custody, she also reveals the dark underbelly of Australia.

Leadbelly

Leadbelly’ by Andrew Rule and John Silvester (2005)

Between 1995 and 2004 there were 34 underworld killings in Melbourne, Australia. Rule and Silvester don’t pull their punches — they make it exceedingly clear throughout the 288 pages that make up this book that they do not have any sympathy whatsoever for the criminals. But by the same token they don’t necessarily hold the Victoria Police in great esteem either, a much-maligned force that has been accused, at one time or another, of being reactionary, trigger-happy and corrupt. At times the book feels slightly tabloid, but as an account of a criminal world few of us would ever dare imagine it is an important, eye-opening read.

SinsoftheBrother

Sins of the Brother: The definitive story of Ivan Milat and the backpacker murders’ by Mark Whittaker and Les Kennedy (2008)

Between September 1992 and November 1993 the bodies of seven young tourists, five from overseas and two from Melbourne, were discovered partly buried in the Belanglo State Forest in NSW in what became known as the “backpacker murders”. Ivan Milat was eventually arrested and charged with the crimes. He is now serving seven consecutive life sentences, plus 18 years. The book, one of the best of the genre I have ever read, painstakingly explores Milat’s background and the resultant police investigation. It reads like a top-notch thriller but never sensationalises the crimes. Indeed, it is a superb piece of storytelling characterised by meticulous detail. The book is difficult to find (even in Australia), but worth the effort.

Born-or-Bred

Born or Bred? Martin Bryant: The Making of a Mass Murderer’ by Robert Wainwright & Paola Totaro (2010)

On April 28, 1996, a lone gunman opened fire at the Port Arthur tourist site in Tasmania, killing 35 innocent people and wounding 23 others. Martin Bryant, a 28-year-old man and social outcast, pleaded guilty and was given 35 life sentences without possibility of parole. In this book, the authors — two highly experienced journalists — look behind the crime to examine Bryant’s life in the search for clues as to why he committed it and whether it could have been prevented. As a piece of narrative non-fiction, the book is well written, fast-paced and rich in detail. The authors are able to demonstrate how a series of events, in combination with Bryant’s mental and social problems, lead to that fateful day — and their case is a convincing one.

Have any of these books piqued your interest, or have you read any of them? Do you know any other true crime books from Australia worth reading?