Affirm Press, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2021, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Helen FitzGerald, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, Southern Cross Crime Month 2021

‘Ash Mountain’ by Helen Fitzgerald

Fiction – paperback; Affirm Press; 270 pages; 2021. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Glasgow-based Australian writer Helen Fitzgerald does a nice line in dark, edgy fiction. I’ve read six of her novels and they have all been wildly entertaining if somewhat over-the-top. I quite like them as “palette cleansers” because they are so different to anything else out there.

Ash Mountain, which was published in the UK by Orenda Books last year and has just been published in Australia by Affirm Press, is cut from a similar cloth — with one important difference: this is her first novel to be set exclusively in Australia.

It’s billed as a “disaster thriller” because the storyline revolves around a terrifying bushfire and explores events leading up to the tragedy and what happens on the actual day of the fire.

I must admit that about half-way through I wondered whether this book could actually be described as Southern Cross crime, because I was struggling to find the crime in it. It’s there though, hidden in the dark folds of the time-hopping narrative, if you look closely enough. But don’t expect it to tick all the boxes that you might normally associate with the genre. It’s actually more litfic than crimefic.

In the UK the book is published by Orenda Books

Small town life

Set in a small town north of Melbourne, Ash Mountain revolves around a single mother, Fran, who has returned to the country after many years away to look after her bed-ridden father, the victim of a stroke, in the family home.

She has two children by two different fathers: 29-year-old Dante, whom she had when she was a teenager at school following her first sexual experience, and 16-year-old Vonny, whose father is indigenous. She cares for both very much and has quite a healthy, frank and empathetic relationship with both.

The narrative, which is comprised largely of flashbacks spanning a period of 30 years, shines a light on what it is like to grow up in a claustrophobic, predominantly Catholic community in rural Victoria, where everyone knows everyone else’s business, isn’t afraid to cast judgement and where tensions either fester or explode in the form of dust-ups in the pub or local swimming pool.

Fran thought she had escaped all that, but moving back after two decades in Melbourne has come somewhat of a shock. She can’t shake the feeling that she’s still at school, being stared at because she’s 15 and pregnant, or being pitied because her glamourous Italian mother has died prematurely in a car accident.

The third-person narrative swings between school life three decades ago and the current day, and is largely told from Fran’s perspective. It jumps around a lot, which can be disorientating for the reader. Occasionally I had trouble keeping up with what was going on. But slowly, once I understood the dynamics of the family and realised FitzGerald was drip-feeding information for me to process, it began to make much more sense and I found it difficult to put down.

Raging bushfire

The natural disaster at the heart of Ash Mountain is a raging bush fire on Australia Day (or Invasion Day, as Fran calls it throughout). It’s easy to think that this is what the book is about — indeed, it features some heart-hammering moments and is filled with terrifying imagery, such as when Fran discovers some burnt out cars, complete with bodies inside, parked in what should have been a place of safety — but it’s more subtle than that. If you read closely enough you will see that the fire brings out the best — and worst — in people, but it also exposes the town’s deep secrets, which have festered unchallenged for decades.

It’s difficult to pigeonhole this novel into any single category. This author used to be classified as “intelligent chick lit” and there’s no doubt it features her blackly comic take on the world, complete with her trademark snark, bad language and whip-smart dialogue, but Ash Mountain feels more mature than anything else she’s written.

I wasn’t sure I liked it to begin with, but the “mystery” at its heart, its brilliant cast of characters and the subtle social commentary running throughout made this an absorbing read, and one that will linger in my mind for a long time to come.

In her afterword, the author claims it was optioned for TV before the book was written. She struggled with the screenplay and decided she needed to put it in prose first. I’m glad she did.

About the author¹: Helen FitzGerald is the bestselling author of 10 adult and young adult thrillers, including The Donor (2011) and The Cry (2013), which was longlisted for the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year, and is now a major drama for BBC1. Helen worked as a criminal justice social worker for more than 15 years. She grew up in Kilmore, Victoria, Australia. She now lives in Glasgow with her husband. (1. Source: Affirm Press website)

Where to buy: This book is widely available in most territories.

This is my 3rd book for #SouthernCrossCrime2021, a month-long celebration of crime writing by authors from Australia and New Zealand. You can find out more by visiting my Southern Cross Crime Month page. It is also my 3rd book for #AWW2021.  

Australian Women Writers Challenge, AWW2018

19 books by women: completing the 2018 Australian Women Writers’ Challenge

For the past couple of years I have been participating in the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge, which essentially means reading a self-imposed target of books written by Australian women over the course of a year and then reviewing them online. The idea is to redress the balance in terms of the number of female authors who are reviewed and to raise awareness of their writing.

It’s a fun and enjoyable thing to do and has introduced me to an interesting and varied bunch of women writers from my homeland, people who may not necessarily fall under my readerly radar.

In 2018, I set myself a target of reading 10 books by Australian women writers, but without even really thinking about it I managed to achieve that fairly easily and by year’s end had found I’d actually read 19. They’re an intriguing mix of literary novels, crime fiction, memoir, true crime, suspense stories, classics and speculative fiction.

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):

My Mother, A Serial Killer

My Mother, A Serial Killer by Hazel Baron and Janet Fife-Yeomans (2018)
Horrifying true story of a woman who murdered three men in the 1950s but was only brought to justice when her daughter turned her into the police.

The Suitcase Baby by Tanya Bretherton (2018)
Heart-breaking true crime tale of an impoverished Scottish immigrant convicted of the murder of her three-week old baby in Sydney in 1923.

No More Boats by Felicity Castagna
No More Boats by Felicity Castagna (2017)
Literary novel about a postwar Italian migrant railing against foreigners arriving in Australia.

Too Afraid to Cry

Too Afraid to Cry by Ali Cobby Eckermann (2012)
Brave and beautiful memoir about what it is like to be taken from an aboriginal family and raised within a white one.

Terra Nullius by Claire G. Coleman (2017)
Speculative fiction, with a surprising twist, that paints a damning portrait of colonial settlement in Australia.


The Life to Come by Michelle de Kretser (2018)
Award-winning novel about contemporary life, the connections we make and the values we hold, which is written with a biting, satirical wit.

The Donor by Helen Fitzgerald

The Donor by Helen FitzGerald (2011)
Engaging, if slightly over-the-top, story about a man who has to decide which of his twin daughters to save when they both develop kidney disease.

The Lost Man

The Lost Man by Jane Harper (2019)
Soon-to-be-published (in the UK) murder mystery set in the Far North Queensland outback.

The Catherine Wheel by Elizabeth Harrower

The Catherine Wheel by Elizabeth Harrower (2014)
Claustrophobic tale set in 1950s London about a young Australian woman who falls in love with a narcissistic man.

The Last Garden by Eva Hornung (2017)
Otherworldly story of a boy growing up in a repressive religious community following the murder-suicide of his parents.

the well

The Well by Elizabeth Jolley (1986)
Slightly disturbing Australian classic about an eccentric woman who invites a teenage orphan to live with her on a remote farm — with unforeseen consequences.

Storyland by Catherine McKinnon

Storyland by Catherine McKinnon (2017)
Thought-provoking tale that weaves together five interlinking stories set on one tract of land to show the environmental impact over four centuries.

The Tattooist of Auschwitz

The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris (2018)
Fictionalised account of a Slovakian Jew sent to Auschwitz who became a tattooist for the SS and fell in love with a fellow prisoner.

Soon

Soon by Lois Murphy (2018)
Deliciously creepy novel, part horror, part dystopian, set in a country town threatened by an unexplained mist.

The Fish Girl

The Fish Girl by Mirandi Riwoe (2017)
Set in Indonesia, this coming-of-age story is about a young village girl who becomes a servant for a Dutch merchant.

The Secrets in Silence by Nicole Trope (2017)
Domestic suspense novel about a teenage girl and a middle-aged woman whose lives become entwined in a strange and unusual way.

Resurrection Bay

Resurrection Bay by Emma Viskic (2018)
Dark and violent crime novel starring a deaf protagonist investigating the brutal murder of his policeman friend.

Pieces of a girl

Pieces of a Girl by Charlotte Wood (1999)
Highly original debut novel about a married woman recalling her childhood in which her mentally disturbed mother tried to pass her off as a boy.

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 2019 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.  If you want to participate, you can sign up via the official website.

Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2018, Book review, crime/thriller, Faber and Faber, Fiction, Helen FitzGerald, Publisher, Scotland, Setting

‘The Donor’ by Helen FitzGerald

The Donor by Helen Fitzgerald

Fiction – Kindle edition; Faber & Faber; 320 pages; 2011.

The Donor is typical Helen Fitzgerald fare. It’s dark and edgy and asks the question that all her novels seem to ask: if you were thrust into this moral dilemma, what would you do?

The moral dilemma in this tightly plotted and fast-paced story set in Scotland involves a single father, Will, who has to decide which of his twin daughters, Kay and Georgie, to save when they both develop kidney disease, aged 16.

He comes up with a four-point plan and then sets about putting it into action — with mixed results.

An impossible-to-guess plot

As ever with Fitzgerald, nothing is straightforward — she’s difficult to outguess, which makes her stories unpredictable and exciting.

It’s told from two points of view — Georgie’s, which is written in the first person and gives insight into her rebellious nature, and Will’s, which is written in the third person and paints him as a rather dull and passive character. These voices alternate from chapter to chapter, showing the impact of the situation on both the patient and the parent.

Not surprisingly, there’s nothing obvious about The Donor. It would be too transparent (and the story too short) to have Will donate a kidney to his favourite daughter — the sweet natured studious Kay as opposed to the difficult, often nasty and spiteful Georgie — so instead Fitzgerald has him go in search of his ex-wife, a heroin addict in love with a prisoner, as a first step in finding a suitable donor.

This gives the narrative an intriguing twisty angle, but it also throws the believability of the story into question. Much of the plot, along with its vast array of vividly colourful characters, including Preston the 17-year-old private detective that Will hires to track down his ex-wife, are out-and-out bonkers.

Preston coped very well with stress. In the last twelve hours, he’d bought drugs, killed a man and helped save a woman’s life. In the last two weeks he’d tracked down a missing person across two continents and fallen in love.

But if you suspend your critical faculties and just go with the flow, the book is an engaging — and highly addictive — read. It’s laugh-out-loud funny in places, but it has its serious moments too, not least the way in which it looks at the moral and ethical issues surrounding kidney disease, organ donation and the clashes between the middle classes and the underclass. It’s a great book to get stuck into if you are looking for something a little bit shocking and darkly funny.

This is my 18th book for #AWW2018 — I only ever planned to read 10 this year!

10 books, Australian Women Writers Challenge, AWW2017, Book lists

10 books by women: completing the 2017 Australian Women Writers’ Challenge

Australian Women Writers Challenge 2017Last year I participated in the 2016 Australian Women Writers’ Challenge and enjoyed it so much that I signed up to do it again this year.

I set myself a target of 10 books by Australian women writers and am happy to report that I achieved that last week.

As well as reading all the titles on the 2017 Stella Prize shortlist (apart from one), I read a couple of newly released books and several old ones from my TBR.

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):

Between a wolf and a dog by Georgia Blain

Between a Wolf and a Dog by Georgia Blain (2016)
Domestic novel about family secrets, grief, betrayal and strained relations set in Sydney on one rainy day.

The Hate Race

The Hate Race by Maxine Beneba Clarke (2016)
Searing memoir of what it is like to grow up black in white middle-class Australia.

The Devil's Staircase by Helen Fitzgerald

The Devil’s Staircase by Helen FitzGerald (2012)
Over-the-top psychological thriller about an Australian teenage girl on the run in London who gets caught up in events beyond her control.

Force of Nature by Jane Harper (2017)
Page-turner about a whistleblower who goes missing on a corporate team-building weekend in the rugged Australian bush.

Down in the city by Elizabeth Harrower

Down in the City by Elizabeth Harrower (1957)
Disturbing story of an unlikely marriage between two people from opposite ends of the social spectrum.

The Long Prospect

The Long Prospect by Elizabeth Harrower (1958)
Meaty postwar novel about a lonely girl who develops a scandalous but platonic friendship with an older man.

An Isolated Incident

An Isolated Incident by Emily Maguire (2016)
Crime thriller meets literary fiction in a narrative that explores the outfall of a murder on the victim’s family and local community.

Wasted

Wasted: A story of alcohol, grief and a death in Brisbane by Elspeth Muir (2016)
Investigation into Australia’s drinking culture framed around the death of the author’s brother.

The Woolgrower's Companion by Joy Rhodes

The Woolgrower’s Companion by Joy Rhodes (2017)
Sweeping saga about a woman’s struggle to save the family farm in the outback during the Second World War.

Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose

The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose (2017)
This year’s Stella Prize winner asks what is art and what is its purpose, framing the story around a real-life performance art exhibition staged in New York by artist Marina Abramović.

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 plan on signing up for the 2018 Australian Womens’ Writers Challenge in the New Year. If you want to participate, you can sign up via the official website.

20 books of summer (2017), Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2017, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Helen FitzGerald, London, Polygon, Publisher, Setting

‘The Devil’s Staircase’ by Helen FitzGerald

The Devil's Staircase by Helen Fitzgerald

Fiction – Kindle edition; Polygon; 224 pages; 2012.

First things first. The Devil’s Staircase by Helen FitzGerald is completely ludicrous. But it’s also entertaining — provided, of course, you suspend belief, try not to analyse the holes in the plot or the rationality (or otherwise) of the characters and don’t mind your fiction being dark and edgy.

Backpacking life in London

It tells the story of Bronny, a likeable but naive 18-year-old Australian, who’s just had a blood test to determine whether she has inherited the genetic disorder that killed her mother. She’s too scared to find out the result, so runs away to London without telling her father or elder sister.

She’s spent most of her teenage years frightened of being diagnosed with Huntington’s disease and has lived her life cautiously:

There was darkness, seeping into me.
I missed out on a lot in those four years:
I never went on the Scenic Railway at Luna Park.
I never kissed a boy in case I began to love him.
I never applied for university.
I never lost my virginity.
I was already dead.

In London she falls in with a group of backpackers and moves into a squat (an abandoned town house off the Bayswater Road) next door to a hostel, finds herself a meaningless job handing out towels in a gym and goes on an unabashed mission to lose her virginity. She makes new friends, goes sight-seeing, starts taking drugs and generally learns to loosen up a little. It’s all very far removed from her life in rural Australia living at home with her nice dad and her high achieving sister.

But there’s a dark element to the storyline, which comes as a bit of a shock when it’s revealed more than a third of the way through: there’s a woman hidden away in the basement of the squat. She’s gagged and bound to a chair. She’s been kidnapped by a depraved young man, who uses her for sexual gratification, and there doesn’t seem to be any way out of her predicament.

FitzGerald interleaves these two narrative threads — Bronny’s new hedonistic life in London (told in the first person) with the terrified woman in the basement (told in the third person) — to build up a sense of mounting tension: when will Bronny realise there’s someone stuck in the cellar below her room and do something about it?

Fast-paced read

The story is, of course, bonkers and far-fetched. It’s fast-paced though and I ripped through it in about three sittings. But it does make for uncomfortable reading, because in typical FitzGerald style she never shies away from writing about the questionable morality of ordinary people and doesn’t seem to mind if her fiction is exploitative. (She’s worked for the Scottish probation and parole service for more than a decade, so I suspect she’s seen it all.)

While it’s essentially a psychological thriller with a dark, noirish bent, The Devil’s Staircase does throw up some pertinent issues. For instance, is it ethical to be tested for a genetic disorder when you’re a teenager and how do you live with the results when they are disclosed? Does living your life mean doing things that may risk it? What can we do to stop depravity in seemingly ordinary people? How does losing a parent at a young age affect the rest your life?

This is a genuinely dark and edgy read, with great characterisation and superb pacing, but I question the exploitative nature of some of the basement scenes. Still, as a form of escapism, it’s difficult to beat and makes me relieved that my early days as a backpacker in London were nothing like this!

This is my 8th book for #AWW2017 and my 5th book for #20booksofsummer. I bought it online in August 2015 for the princely sum of 99p. I’ve read several of Fitzgerald’s novels, so knew it would be an entertaining read.

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.

FICTION

PSYCHOLOGICAL THRILLER
CRIME
LITERARY FICTION
HISTORICAL FICTION
DYSTOPIAN FICTION
EXPERIMENTAL FICTION
SHORT STORIES

NON-FICTION

TRUE CRIME
ESSAYS
MEMOIR

Reading Australia 2016

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.

Author, AWW2016, Book review, crime/thriller, Faber and Faber, Fiction, Helen FitzGerald, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Scotland, Setting, Spain

‘Viral’ by Helen FitzGerald

Viral by Helen Fitzgerald

Fiction – Kindle edition; Faber & Faber; 272 pages; 2016. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Through some strange act of happenstance, I read Helen FitzGerald‘s latest novel, Viral, immediately after I finished Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things. It proved an interesting companion read, for in FitzGerald’s revenge thriller the main character does something that would have put her behind bars in Wood’s dystopian tale: 18-year-old virgin Su-Jin Oliphant-Brotheridge indulges in a sexual act — well, 12 of them to be precise — in a Magaluf nightclub while drunk.

The debauched behaviour is filmed without her knowledge or consent and then shared on the internet.

So far, twenty-three thousand and ninety-six people have seen me online. They include my mother, my father, my little sister, my grandmother, my other grandmother, my grandfather, my boss, my sixth year biology teacher and my boyfriend James.

The story traces the fallout on Su and her (adopted) family after the film goes viral, as well as fleshing out Su’s back story. And not everyone behaves as one might expect.

Sexual shaming

As a story of sexual shaming online, Viral has mixed messages. Like most of FitzGerald’s earlier novels — she’s got 12 to her name; I’ve read Dead Lovely (2007), My Last Confession (2009) and The Cry (2013) — it’s a very dark, noirish tale best described as “edgy” and “ballsy”.

Even though most of her novels, or at least the ones I have read, deal with big issues — such as criminality, drug taking and media exploitation — there’s often a moral ambiguity at their core. FitzGerald is definitely not a writer who sees things in black and white; she’s there in the margins, looking in the grey areas, teasing out the bits that don’t quite fit in the boxes.

And that’s exactly what she does with Viral, which explores sexual shaming and, in particular, the misogynistic behaviour of young men on holiday:

The notion that Xano could be every boy and every man had crossed her mind more than once. Would a nice boy like Su’s James have filmed the scene in the Coconut Lounge? Would a good boy like Frieda’s son Eric have said ‘You fucking cow. Suck it, whore’? Would the boy next door, literally, Barry, have uploaded it? It was too sickening to dwell on, but perhaps Xano’s behaviour did not set him apart from his peers.

She also explores ways in which the criminal justice system deals with, or fails to deal with, these incidents. I’m not sure FitzGerald’s novels should be taken too seriously, because in this tale Su’s mother, who is a sheriff in Scotland, discovers that the only justice she can get for her daughter is to take the law into her own hands. And, in becoming slightly crazed over this idea, her sense of fairness and balance is overshot by her deep abiding need for revenge. What results is a kind of black comedy in a thoroughly contemporary setting.

Fast paced, but preposterous plot

The story eventually becomes a kind of fast-paced, over-the-top, psychological thriller, the kind that makes you keep turning the pages into the wee small hours even though you realise the entire plot is completely preposterous.  Su, who is Korean by birth, goes on the run in Spain, but finds it difficult to hide because of her appearance, while her sister Leah, her lifelong sibling rival, is sent to find her. Meanwhile, her mother, Ruth, who is filled with anger, uses her professional connections to try to track down the men who gang “raped” her daughter, all the while plotting how to avenge them. The poor father figure in the story simply gets shunted aside, only to fall victim in another bizarre plot twist.

Did I enjoy this novel? I’m not sure. I had such mixed feelings as I read it. It felt distasteful and dirty (although, to be fair, that’s how I usually react to FitzGerald’s work), but I kept reading it purely to find out what would happen next, a sign of a good thriller.

Perhaps I was most uncomfortable with the idea that the central character was Korean, because it played into the stereotype of Asian girls either being slutty or studious. I didn’t much like the revenge element either, though I appreciate without it the book would be an entirely different one. On the positive side, it does make an important point: that these “crimes” aren’t treated as such and are often blamed on the victim, whose reputation lies in ruins while the perpetrators get away scot-free.

So, while Viral didn’t tick all my boxes for a high-quality high-brow read, as a piece of juicy genre fiction with bite and a healthy dose of black wit, it’s very good indeed. And as a exploration of social media and misogyny, cultural identity and sibling rivalry, it’s got plenty of issues to discuss, making it perfect for book groups.

This is my 19th book for #ReadingAustralia2016 and my 15th for #AWW2016.

Australia, Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Faber and Faber, Fiction, Helen FitzGerald, Publisher, Setting

‘The Cry’ by Helen FitzGerald

The-Cry

Fiction – Kindle edition; Faber & Faber; 320 pages; 2013.

I love novels that feature morally dubious characters — and Helen FitzGerald‘s latest novel, The Cry, slots very nicely into that category. I’ve read a couple of Fitzgerald’s novels before — Dead Lovely (2007) and My Last Confession (2009) — and both were  edgy, entertaining reads featuring well-meaning people behaving in abhorrent ways. The Cry is cut from the same cloth.

Plane ride from hell

Joanna is a first-time mother from Glasgow, bound for Australia with Alistair — the father of her child — a high-powered spin doctor for the British Labour Party. But the flight to Melbourne, via Dubai, is traumatic: nine-week-old Noah cries the whole way and won’t settle.

Joanna, who is suffering from an ear-infection, is frazzled and ill-tempered. But then Alistair steps in and offers to nurse the child, so that Joanna can finally get some much-needed rest.

When the trio eventually arrive in Australia, Noah is fast asleep. They dare not wake him, and decide to drive straight to Alistair’s mum’s place, in Geelong, despite the fact that it’s bushfire season and the sky is awash with ash and black smoke.

But on the car journey Joanna makes a fateful discovery: Noah is not asleep — he’s dead.

What happens next is a heart-hammering psychological ride in which one bad decision follows another, because instead of going to the police or calling an ambulance, Alistair decides to engineer Noah’s disappearance from a roadside petrol station.

Realistic plot

The plot borrows heavily from all manner of missing children cases — Azaria Chamberlain immediately springs to mind, as does Madeleine McCann — particularly in the ensuing media coverage (including Twitter and Facebook) and the way in which Joanna is expected to behave in court. (She’s told not to fidget and has to remind herself not to smile — “Don’t smile, don’t smile, remember Foxy Knoxy, remember Lindy.”)

And because truth is often stranger than fiction — how many parents do we see on the news protesting their innocence, only to be arrested for murder at a later date? — the storyline never seems over the top even though Alistair’s actions are repugnant. Indeed, the entire plot seems incredibly believable — and current.

It is also very fast moving. FitzGerald keeps the momentum up in several clever ways: she makes grief-stricken Joanna want to confess to the crime, so the reader is constantly wondering, will she or won’t she; she provides an interesting back story in the form of Alistair’s ex-wife, who is fighting over the custody of their teenage daughter and may possibly be framed for Noah’s murder; and she tells the story from multiple viewpoints and intercuts it with short scenes from the resulting court case.

I read the entire book in three sittings, eager to get to the end so that I could find out what happened next. And while it’s not a completely satisfying read — the climax, which has a neat little twist, didn’t seem convincing to me — it’s a thoroughly good psychological-type drama, perfect for those who like stories that explore why normally good people end up doing bad things.

Author, Book review, chick-lit, crime/thriller, Faber and Faber, Fiction, Helen FitzGerald, Publisher, Scotland, Setting

‘Dead Lovely’ by Helen FitzGerald

Dead-Lovely

Fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 298 pages; 2009. Review copy courtesy of publisher.

Last year I read Helen FitzGerald‘s second novel, My Last Confession, and enjoyed it enough to request her debut novel from the publisher. It was only while holed up at my sister’s place at Abu Dhabi last month that I got around to reading it. It turned out to be perfect holiday reading fodder, the type of book that’s not earth-shatteringly intelligent but one that’s entertaining and a lot of fun, albeit with a dark noirish feel to it.

The story introduces us to Glasgow-based Krissie, a social worker, who is also the star of the show in My Last Confession. That means it would have made more sense to read Dead Lovely first, but never mind, the book still made total sense, even if it had a touch of the déjà vus about it. (It took me awhile to clock that I had already “met” Krissie in the FitzGerald’s second offering, but I digress…)

Krissie is a rather plucky young woman, a kind of good-time-girl, who likes to work hard and play hard. Her best friend, Sarah, is more settled. She’s married to Kyle, a GP, and together the pair of them are trying to have a baby — with no luck.

Krissie’s friendship with Sarah begins to become strained when Krissie accidentally falls pregnant, thanks to a one-night stand during a wild holiday in the sun, and decides to keep the baby.

To patch things up between them, the trio go on a camping holiday to the Scottish Highlands, and this is where things begin to get even messier: Krissie falls in love with Kyle, whom she happened to share a house with back in her university days.

If this sounds a bit too far fetched, you’d be right. But the story goes completely over the top when one of the trio is killed during the trip. Now, I’m not going to spoil it and reveal who the victim is, but it’s what happens after the death that makes this book such a page-turner. The effect on Krissie is paramount — she becomes wracked by guilt and when the paranoia takes hold there’s no knowing what might happen next.

I went to the bathroom to wash my face. In the mirror was a woman with red eyes, bruises, bag-lady hair and very odd clothes. Who was I? And what was I thinking? Hoping for the best? Escaping? I couldn’t get away from this, away from my guilt, ever, I had to tell.

Dead Lovely is not exactly realistic — in fact, I’d go so far as to say that the storyline in completely preposterous — but it’s a fun romp, and perfect fodder for when you are on holiday or in the mood for something that won’t tax the brain matter.

I liked its mix of dark humour, murder and mayhem. The publisher sums it up as “intelligent chick-lit”, but I reckon it’s more accurate to describe it as a crime comedy. Either way, it’s an edgy and entertaining read. And if you like this one, then you can follow Krissie’s story, three years down the line, in the follow-up My Last Confession.