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‘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.

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‘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.

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‘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.