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, Helen Garner, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, Text

‘Yellow Notebook: Diaries Volume 1, 1978–1987’ by Helen Garner

Non-fiction – hardcover; Text Publishing; 272 pages; 2019.

I’ve started to write, without thought of form: it keeps coming, I am happy and no longer straining after effect. But each morning I set out for my office weak with fear. I will never be a great writer. The best I can do is to write books that are small but oblique enough to stick in people’s gullets so that they remember them.

If you are familiar with the work of Australian writer Helen Garner you may be surprised by this journal entry, penned in 1983, because it reveals a confronting truth: that early on in her career she was plagued by self-doubt and had resigned herself to never achieving critical success.

Of course, we now know that not to be the case. Garner has achieved rare critical and commercial success over the past 30-plus years — more for her non-fiction than her fiction, it has to be said — but she was on the money about writing stuff that “sticks in people’s gullets” for it’s fair to say she is not beloved. If anything, Garner is a polemic writer, often courting controversy for what is seen as her biased reporting.

I make no bones about being a fan. I particularly like her true-crime reportage (This House of Grief and Joe Cinque’s Consolation are stand-out books in this genre) and the way she tackles the truth — as she sees it — disclosing her own feelings without fear or favour.

When I read her essay collection, Everywhere I Look, published in 2016, I fell in love with her personal diary extracts “all written with the elegance and undiminished wonder of a true writer who revels in the extraordinariness of the every day”. Any wonder then, that I was completely enamoured by her latest book, Yellow Notebook: Diaries Volume 1, 1978–1987, published by Text last month.

Plagued by doubt

The quote at the top of this review is but one example of Garner’s extraordinary self-awareness and of her ability to be critical of her own talents and shortcomings as a writer.

Her take on leading a creative life, the all-consuming nature of it, the self-doubt and the courage of baring your soul to the world, is in sharp relief to her own personal struggles: the tedium of growing old, the loneliness of being in an unhappy marriage, the pain of a divorce and the fear of never finding love again, mixed in with the small joys of raising a daughter.

The entries are not what you might expect of a typical diary. There are no dates (apart from the year) and some entries are no more than a single sentence. But my, how each entry, each sentence sparkles and shines. She captures the minutiae of daily life in a remarkable way, using the tiniest of details to elevate seemingly ordinary occurrences into scenes of extraordinary power.

K and I ate room service food, sitting on the edge of the single bed like two good children.

Her writing is sublime and pithy. It’s confronting and raw and funny and makes you look at the world, domestic and familial, in a fresh, new way. The entire book is totally immersive and a joy to read.

Through the simple art of recording daily thoughts and experiences, Garner hones her writing skills and her powers of observation. Budding writers or anyone interested in the creative process could do worse than read Yellow Notebook: it’s compelling and insightful and full of the lovely, rich detail that makes a writer’s prose come alive. It’s a masterclass in anecdotal writing.

Personally, I cannot wait for follow-up volumes to be produced. If they are anything like Volume I, they will be exceptional reads.

This is my 24th book for #AWW2019.

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.

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

‘Everywhere I Look’ by Helen Garner

Everywhere I Look by Helen Garner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The power of the personal

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

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

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

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

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

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

5 books, Book lists

5 non-fiction titles for dads (and anyone else for that matter)

5-books-200pixNext Sunday (June 19) it will be Father’s Day in the UK, the perfect opportunity to buy your dad a great book. But what to get him?

Sadly, many retailers don’t have a clue. Their “books for dad” selections are often dull and uninspired, as this tweet by Sam Missingham demonstrates. I replied by saying, “Men reading about men #yawn #predictable”. Anyone would think men never read books by women!

I figured I could do a lot better than the supermarkets and WH Smith when it comes to suggesting what might make a suitable present. So here are just five suggestions. Note they’re all narrative non-fiction and written by women. In my opinion, they are truly great reads — some of them have even won prizes.

The books have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s name — click the title to see my full review:

If he’s interested in geopolitics:  

Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick

‘Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea’ by Barbara Demick (2010)
Barbara Demick, an American journalist, tells the stories of six ordinary citizens who defected from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. It is a gripping account of what it is like to reside in the world’s most secretive and repressive state.

If he’s interested in crime and the justice system:

This-House-of-Grief

‘This House of Grief: The Story of a Murder Trial’ by Helen Garner (2016)
Australian journalist Helen Garner follows the trial of Robert Farquharson, who was charged with three counts of murder after his car ran off the road and plunged into a dam: all three passengers —  aged 10, 7 and 2 — were unable to get out and drowned. They were his sons.

If he’s interested in sport:

Night Games UK edition

‘Night Games: A Journey to the Dark Side of Sport’ by Anna Krien (2014)
This book examines the culture of male sport and the shocking attitudes many professional sportsmen hold towards women. While its focus is Australia (much of it follows the rape trial of a young Australian Rules footballer) it’s just as relevant here in the UK and any Western country where sportsmen are hailed as heroes and where sexism and misogyny are rife. (Note I haven’t forgotten the hyperlink; I read it last year but found it too profound to review.)

If he’s interested in the media and journalism:

The Journalist and the Murderer

‘The Journalist and the Murderer’ by Janet Malcolm (1990)
A classic of the narrative non-fiction genre, this book focuses on journalistic ethics. It examines a 1980s lawsuit between a convicted murderer, Jeffrey MacDonald, and a journalist, Joe McGinness, who wrote about the crime. It explores the relationship between journalists and sources and the difficulties which face both parties, and is just as scathing of the legal profession as it is of the media.

If he’s interested in War and the Middle East:

The Weight of a Mustard Seed

‘The Weight of a Mustard Seed’ by Wendell Stevenson (2010)
Written by an American-born British journalist, this book charts the rise and fall of one of Saddam Hussein’s generals, focussing in particular on the notion of moral culpability. It explores what it is like to live under tyrannical rule, albeit from the point of view of Saddam’s inner circle, as well as telling the story of Iraq’s recent bloody history.

Have you read any of these books? Are there any non-fiction titles, written by women, that you think would appeal to men?

Australia, Author, Book review, Helen Garner, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, Text, true crime

‘This House of Grief: The Story of a Murder Trial’ by Helen Garner

This-House-of-Grief

Non-fiction – Kindle edition; Text Publishing; 304 pages; 2014.

One spring evening in 2005, a car veered across the Princes Highway in rural Victoria, Australia, crashed through a fence and plunged into a farm dam. The male driver escaped; all three passengers —  aged 10, 7 and 2 — were unable to get out and drowned.

Was it an accident, or did Robert Farquharson deliberately drive the vehicle into the dam in order to kill his three young sons, whom he was returning to their mother after an access visit on Father’s Day?

The police thought the latter. They charged him with three counts of murder, and he was tried at the Supreme Court of Victoria in August 2007. This House of Grief examines the court case in exacting detail.

In-court guide

I’m not going to chart all the dizzying twists and turns of the case — that’s what the book is for — but Helen Garner proves a kind and competent guide throughout. Her observations are often incisive and cutting, and I like the way she explores the accused’s back story and adds in extra detail gleaned from conversations she has with members of his family and other witnesses.

Much of the detail that happens inside the courtroom is soporific owing to the technical nature of the case — the speed of the car when it left the road, what sort of pattern the tyre treads left, what the skid marks proved and so on — which makes for an occasionally frustrating read, but Garner is at her best when she focuses on the people. Here’s how she describes the jury, all bored out of their brains by that aforementioned technical detail:

Their eyelids drooped. Their necks grew loose with boredom; they were limp with it, barely able to hold themselves erect. Once I glanced over and saw four of them in a row, their heads dropped on the same protesting angle towards their left shoulders, like tulips dying in a vase.

I read this book in one blistering fever of furious page-turning — or should I say Kindle button-clicking? — on a wet Saturday eager to discover answers to my questions: Did Farquharson deliberately kill his children? Was it a failed suicide bid? Or was it a freak accident, caused by him having a coughing fit at the wheel? By the end, I felt completely wrung out. It was a feeling I couldn’t shake off for days; the story had really wormed its way into my psyche and deeply affected me.

To leave such a mark on the reader in the wake of completing the book is testament to Garner’s skill as a writer and journalist. And yet her reportage style, in which she inserts herself into the story, often comes in for criticism. But it’s a style I quite like. Her all-too human reactions and her inner-most thoughts are there on the paper for all to see — removing the illusion that the journalism is utterly objective — and it feels very much as if she’s going on a journey of discovery and you’re coming along for the ride.

Here’s an example of how her thoughts and reactions become part of the narrative:

This testimony filled me with scepticism, yet I longed to be persuaded by it—to be relieved of the sick horror that overcame me whenever I thought of Farquharson at the dam, the weirdness of his demeanour, the way it violated what I believed or hoped was the vital link of loving duty between men and their children. And, as I listened, the phantom of failed suicide shimmered once more into view. Nobody in this whole five-week ordeal had yet said anything that could lay it to rest.

While I knew of the Farquharson case — I remember being shocked when I read the initial news story on The Age online all those years ago — I hadn’t followed it closely, so reading this book was very much a journey of discovery for me. I’m not sure how it works if you already know the outcome of the case (perhaps Australian readers can enlighten me?), but for me it was a fascinating, sometimes frustrating, always intriguing and passionately written read. I like that Garner is open and honest about her fury, disbelief and sheer inability to comprehend certain aspects of the accused’s behaviour, because they were the reactions I had to… and I wasn’t even sitting in the court room.

Unless you live in Australia, This House of Grief is currently available to purchase in ebook form only. It will be published in paperback in the UK next month and in the USA in April.

UPDATE: This edited extract published on The Australian website will give you a taster of the book.

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?

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, Helen Garner, literary fiction, Penguin Australia, Publisher, Setting

‘Monkey Grip’ by Helen Garner

Monkey-Grip

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Australia; 246 pages; 2009.

I seem to have accidentally developed a track record in choosing books for my book group that are universally disliked. Last year I chose Dermot Bolger’s The Journey Home, which scored 5.5 out of 10, and this year’s choice, Helen Garner‘s debut novel, Monkey Grip, achieved the far worse score of 4 out of 10.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised: Garner has a reputation in Australia for polarising readers, more notably for her journalistic work — The First Stone, an account of a 1992 sexual harassment scandal at the University of Melbourne, generated an avalanche of controversy. And her fiction also seems to attract equal amounts of bile and love. But of the books I have read — including Garner’s most recent novel The Spare Room and her true crime book Joe Cinque’s Consolation — I have thoroughly enjoyed.

I can’t say the same for Monkey Grip, which did not live up to my expectations.

Bohemians living in 1970s Melbourne

The story, which is set in Melbourne in the mid-1970s, is about a group of men, women and children living a Bohemian lifestyle in a series of share houses. It is narrated by Nora, a 30-something divorced woman with a school-aged daughter, who develops a sexual relationship with a junkie called Javo.

The diary-style narrative charts this on-off affair, which gradually morphs into an inter-dependent relationship that neither party is willing to break. Nora, who seems intent on sleeping with anyone simply to stave off the loneliness, turns a blind eye to Javo’s continued dependence on drugs — “Smack habit, love habit, what’s the difference?” — and his dishonest tendencies.

It is, at times, a fascinating, albeit frustrating, portrait of two people caught up in a destructive relationship. But for the most part I found it a somewhat tedious read, not helped by the all-too frequent descriptions of Nora’s dreams and her sexual activities.

A journey of self-discovery

There’s no real plot; the story is essentially one person’s journey of self-discovery.

The book’s strengths lie in Garner’s evocative prose — her descriptions of Melbourne baking in the summer sun are particularly eloquent — and the snapshot she provides of a specific time, place and group of people living an alternative lifestyle.

Nora’s voice, while slightly self-obsessed and vain, is refreshing in its frankness and its honesty. No surprise then, that Garner later claimed she adapted it directly from her personal diaries.

Monkey Grip, now regarded as an Australian classic, won the National Book Council Award in 1978 and was turned into a film in 1982 starring Noni Hazlehurst, Colin Friels and the author’s daughter, Alice Garner.