Book lists, Book review

7 books for NAIDOC week

In Australia it is currently NAIDOC^ Week, where we celebrate the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Normally the week is held in July, but this year, because of Covid-19 it has been moved to November (8-15).

To mark the occasion, I thought I would put together a list of books I’ve read by Aboriginal writers. As ever, links take you to my review in full.

‘The White Girl’ by Tony Birch (novel, 2019)
Set in the 1960s, this easy-to-read novel tells the story of Odette, an Aboriginal woman, who is trying to protect her light-skinned granddaughter from being stolen by authorities to be raised by a white family.

Too Afraid to Cry

‘Too Afraid to Cry’ by Ali Cobby Eckermann (memoir, 2012)
A brilliantly evocative and heart-rending memoir, told in verse, by a poet of indigenous heritage who was taken from her Aboriginal family and raised by a white one.

Talking to my country by Stan Grant

‘Talking to My Country’ by Stan Grant (memoir, 2016)
A heartfelt and deeply personal memoir by one of Australia’s most respected journalists and broadcasters. about what it is to be an Aboriginal growing up in Australia.

‘Too Much Lip’ by Melissa Lucashenko (novel, 2018)
An award-winning brash, gritty and hard-hitting novel about an indigenous family that has been deeply traumatised by past events and is now grappling with a new challenge: saving their beloved river and Ava’s island from the local mayor’s plans to build a new prison on it.


‘Two Sisters: Ngarta and Jukuna’ by Ngarta Jinny Bent, Jukuna Mona Chuguna, Pat Lowe & Eirlys Richards (autobiography, 2016)
A gorgeous autobiography of two Aboriginal sisters, this short book is also a fascinating and eye-opening portrait of the desert people’s way of life in the 1950s and early 60s and how the coming of the vast cattle stations changed everything.

Taboo by Kim Scott

‘Taboo’ by Kim Scott (novel, 2017)
Told in the third person, but largely through the eyes of a teenage girl, this novel focuses on plans to open a modern-day Peace Park, not far from the site of a brutal massacre of Aboriginal people in the late 19th century, as a form of reconciliation.

‘The Yield’ by Tara June Winch (novel, 2020)
This year’s Miles Franklin winner is a multi-layered, multi-generational story that revolves around grief, loss and dispossession, but also gently examines what it is to be Aboriginal, to have a sense of identity, a true purpose and a language of one’s own.

^ NAIDOC originally stood for ‘National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee’ but it’s now just the name of the week itself. The ‘always was, always will be’ strapline refers to land – ie. that Australia always was, always will be Aboriginal land.

This post nicely ties in with Australian Literature Month hosted by Brona at Brona’s Books.

Book lists, Focus on WA writers, Reading Projects

A Western Australian reading list: introducing a focus on Western Australian writers

As many of you will know, I have recently relocated to Western Australia (WA) after almost 21 years of living in the UK. I am originally from Victoria, on the other side of the country, so even though I am back “home”, as it were, I have never lived in WA before, so it is all very new and exciting — and a little bit strange.

For those who don’t know, WA is Australia’s biggest state — it makes up almost a third of the entire landmass, most of which is desert (or what you might call the Outback). The state’s population of around 2.6 million people (in 2014) live largely in the fertile south-west (home to the Margaret River wine region) and the capital city of Perth.

Until 2015, I had never stepped foot in WA. But when I did so, on an all-too-brief holiday, I immediately fell in love with the laidback lifestyle, the open spaces and the weather. I have returned for longer holidays several times since, and in June 2019 made the leap to move here permanently, choosing to settle in Fremantle, a historic port town just a 30-minute train journey south of Perth.

Living here for only a short time it strikes me how little I know about WA culture — its music, art, theatre and literature, in particular — because when you grow up on the south-east coast of the country it’s all very Melbourne and Sydney-centric. (Something I also noticed when I lived in Queensland for a few years in the mid-1990s.)

But what I have learned is that WA has a very strong literary tradition, with numerous successful writers, past and present, and a handful of independent presses, including Fremantle Press, the University of Western Australia Press and Margaret River Press, being based here.

I thought I would use my blog over the next few months to celebrate WA writers and review books written by the people who live here (or come from here). I’m regarding it as a bit of a journey of discovery and hope you might come along for the ride.

I’m not a complete ignoramus though. In the past, I have read many WA writers and I can see from my archives that I have already reviewed some, including (in alphabetical order by author’s surname):

Alan Carter

Claire G. Coleman

Amanda Curtin

Brooke Davis

Robert Drewe

Ron Elliott

Elizabeth Jolley

Gail Jones

Lynne Leonhardt

Joan London

Kim Scott

Craig Silvey

Randolph Stow

David Whish-Wilson

Tim Winton

My TBR includes novels by Josephine Wilson, Geraldine Wooller, Annabel Smith, Michelle Johnston, Marcella Polain, Madelaine Dickie, Steve Hawke and Dave Warner — just to name a few!

Have you read any of these books? Can you recommend a good read by a WA author?

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2018), 2018 Miles Franklin Literary Award, Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, Kim Scott, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Picador, Publisher, Setting

‘Taboo’ by Kim Scott

Taboo by Kim Scott

Fiction – paperback; Picador Australia; 276 pages; 2017.

Kim Scott is a two-time winner of the Miles Franklin Literary Award and his latest novel, Taboo, has been shortlisted for this year’s prize.

A descendant of the Noongar people of Western Australia, he is an indigenous writer whose work tends to focus on aboriginal identity and the sometimes strained relations between black and white Australians.

Taboo is no exception. Set in Noongar country, it examines the thorny issue of reconciliation: after so much bloody and violent history, how can white Australians and indigenous Australians make their peace?

This dilemma is neatly summed up in the book’s opening paragraph:

Our hometown was a massacre place. People called it taboo. They said it is haunted and you will get sick if you go there. Others just bragged: we shot you and poisoned the waterholes so you never come back.

Told in the third person, but largely through the eyes of a teenage girl, Tilly, the book focuses on plans to open a Peace Park in the Western Australian (fictional) town of Kepalup as a form of reconciliation. Just outside the town lies a farm, owned by widower Dan Horton, where Dan’s ancestors murdered Tilly’s in the late 19th century.  (By a stroke of coincidence — and there are many in this novel, it has to be said — Tilly was fostered by the Hortons when she was a young child.)

Dan, a devout Christian, wants to pursue his late wife’s dream to invite the Noongar onto the farm, to “reconcile themselves to what happened here”. He is more dismissive, thinking it was a long time ago and “there was no real evidence of any more than a few Aborigines being killed”.

A haunting tale

It’s fair to say that this massacre haunts the pages of this novel; a ghostly spectre that reminds us that modern Australia is built on horrific foundations. The story is also haunted by the long arm of dispossession, and the devastating impact on people when their cultural identity has been stripped from them.

In places it makes for depressing reading. Pretty much every indigenous character in this novel is struggling with an addiction, whether drugs or alcohol, and many have been in prison for violence and petty thievery.

Tilly’s back story is particularly horrific. Raised by a white mother, when she’s a teenager she learns that her father is an Aborigine, the legendary Jim Coolman, who’s serving time in prison. Drawn into the orbit of her new family, Tilly falls prey to a (white) violent sexual predator who feeds her drugs, ties her to a leash and treats her like a dog.

But there is hope here, too, for when Tilly eventually escapes she grabs a rare chance to make something of herself: she wins a scholarship to a boarding school, settles down to a life of some normality and is welcomed into the arms of her (extended) Aboriginal family.

A trippy novel

In his afterword, Scott describes Taboo as a “trippy, stumbling sort of genre-hop that I think features a trace of Fairy Tale, a touch of Gothic, a sufficiency of the ubiquitous Social Realism and perhaps a touch of Creation Story”. And he’s right: at times it does feel “trippy” and, I’d argue, slightly patchy and uneven in places. The second third of the novel feels a bit baggy and seems to lose direction after a solid, intriguing and page-turning first third.

That said, this is by far Scott’s most accessible novel — the language is slightly pared back compared with the complex Benang, for instance — and it feels particularly modern and relevant.

Despite the sometimes oppressive nature of the story, it brims with optimism. Scott is careful not to make this a revenge story — “Our people gave up on that Payback stuff a long time ago” — and instead chooses to focus on how it is possible for people to “claim back” their identity, largely through the use of the Noongar language (see Lisa’s review at ANZLitLovers for her excellent dissection of this issue).

He’s also not afraid to highlight, tongue-in-cheek style, the ignorance of some white Australians about Aboriginal culture. For instance, when Tilly meets her Aboriginal Support Officer for the first time, the officer is shocked that Tilly is Aboriginal. “Gee, with some of you it’s hard to tell,” she says. And later when Tilly tells her that the Noongar don’t play didgeridoo, the officer is dismissive: “Didgeridoo means Aborigine to everyone, surely.”

For another take on this novel, please see Bill’s review at The Australian Legend.

This is my 3rd book for the Miles Franklin Literary Award 2018 and my 4th for #20booksofsummer. It also qualifies for ANZ LitLovers’ Indigenous Literature Week(July 8-15 2018). I bought this one from Readings.com.au last year because I suspected it would never be published here in the UK and, having read Scott’s earlier work, I wanted to read it as soon as I could. Alas… it took me eight months to get around to it.

2018 Miles Franklin Literary Award, Literary prizes

The 2018 Miles Franklin Literary Award shortlist

Miles Franklin Literary Award logo SHORTLISTIt seems strange to announce a shortlist for a prestigious literary prize on a Sunday, but the organisers of this year’s Miles Franklin Literary Award have done just that. I’m not complaining… it gives me plenty of time to compile this post on a lazy Sunday afternoon, instead of writing it after work, probably while half-watching terrible Monday night telly.

Anyway, without further ado, here is the shortlist:

I plan on reviewing all the titles (provided I can get hold of Eva Hornung’s novel, which doesn’t seem to have been made available on this side of the planet). Do keep coming back to this post as I will update the hyperlinks above as and when I review each title.

The winner of the $60,000 prize will be named on 26 August so there’s plenty of time to read the entire shortlist if you so desire — and can source the books without too much bother.

You can read the official press release here.

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

10 books, Book lists, Books of the year

My favourite books of 2016

Books-of-the-yearWhat a reading year it has been!

As you’ll no doubt know, I challenged myself to read Australian literature all year — and what an enjoyable, entertaining, intriguing and wonderful exercise that turned out to be. The scope and range of the books I read — both fiction and non-fiction — never ceased to amaze and delight me, so much so I’ll write a separate post about it at a later date.

During the year I also read a handful of Canadian books, thanks to my participation in the Shadow Giller Prize (which I’ve been doing every year since 2011), and five amazing British titles thanks to my involvement in shadowing The Sunday Times/Peters Fraser & Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award 2016.

All up I read around 65 books, which is substantially fewer than my usual yearly average of around 75 to 80. (I can only blame excessive use of Twitter sucking up all my time, a lot of extra-curricular freelance editing on top of the day job in the first six months of the year, and two changes of day job, one in May and one in October.)

Choosing my favourite ten reads was no mean feat. I read so many great books. But here are the ones that have left a lasting impression (note they weren’t all published this year).

The books have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname. Hyperlinks will take you to my full review.

Floundering by Romy Ash
Floundering by Romy Ash (2012)
A woman “kidnaps” her two sons from the grandparents who are raising them and takes them on a road trip one hot Australian summer. It’s narrated by the youngest son, who soon realises their holiday by the sea isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Heartbreaking and poignant, I loved this book and still think about it almost a year after reading it.

Panthers and the Museum of Fire by Jen Craig

‘Panthers & The Museum of Fire’ by Jen Craig  (2016)
This bold experimental novel is set on a summer’s afternoon as the narrator walks across Sydney to deliver a manuscript to a bereaved family. It’s written stream-of-consciousness style and is unlike anything I’ve ever read before. I was gripped from the first line.

Aunts up the cross by Robin Dalton
Aunts Up the Cross by Robin Dalton (1965)
This delightful memoir had me tittering away at every madcap episode and anecdote related in Dalton’s droll, self-deprecating prose. Her tale about growing up in an unconventional household in Sydney’s King’s Cross in the 1920s and 30s is by far the most cheerful thing I read all year. I loved it.

Talking to my country by Stan Grant

Talking to My Country by Stan Grant (2016)
Another memoir, this is the one every Australian should read to find out what it’s like growing up as an indigenous person in a culture so firmly rooted in white colonialism. It’s also a frank examination of black and white relations, and Australia’s failure to reconcile its shared and troubled history. It’s the book that has had the most marked impression on me this year.

The Dry

The Dry by Jane Harper (2016)
One of the best crime novels I’ve read in years, this one — set during the worst drought in a century — rips along at a fair pace and has enough red herrings to keep the most jaded reader guessing. And it’s wonderfully evocative — of both the Australian landscape and the people who inhabit small, rural communities.

The Hands by Stephen Orr

The Hands: An Australian Pastoral by Stephen Orr (2015)
This is — hands down (pun sort of intended) — my favourite novel of the year. In quiet, understated prose Orr presents three generations of the one farming family eking out a living on a remote cattle station in the Australian outback over the course of two years (2004 to 2006). It is, by turns, charming, funny and deeply moving, reminding me very much of the eloquent fiction of the late Kent Haruf.

True Country by Kim Scott

True Country by Kim Scott (1999)
This extraordinary debut novel — Scott has since won the Miles Franklin Literary Award twice —  tells the story of a young teacher who moves to a remote settlement in Australia’s far north to take up a job at a local school. The community is plagued with problems, but Billy sees beyond that and finds himself coming to terms with his own Aboriginal heritage and forging rewarding relationships with the people and the landscape around him.

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith (2016)
A page turner of the finest order, this clever story largely revolves around a painting by a (fictional) 17th century Dutch painter, the first woman to ever become a member of the Guild of Saint Luke in Holland. Spanning three centuries and three cities, it begins as a crime story before it morphs into a mystery-cum-thwarted-romance-cum-cat-and-mouse-suspense tale. It’s a hugely entertaining read.

Reckoning by Magda Szubanski

Reckoning: A Memoir by Magda Szubanski (2016)
This is the third memoir to make my top 10! It is a wonderfully entertaining account of Magda’s life lived in the shadows of her Polish father, an assassin during the Second World War. As an exploration of a father and daughter relationship, it is superb; as an examination of the personal legacy of war and the way that legacy filters down through the generations, it is extraordinary. But it’s also a moving account of Magda dealing with her own demons, including depression and coming to terms with her sexuality.

The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood

The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood (2015)
A rare example of a book matching the hype, I loved Wood’s thought-provoking take on a dystopian world in which woman are imprisoned for their involvement in sexual “crimes” and misdemeanours. Written in a cool, detached voice throughout, the story follows a group of prisoners and their jailers over the course of a year. Fuelled by a quiet rage, this book rails against modern misogyny and should be required reading for men and women everywhere.

I’d also like to award honourable mentions to two more books, both of them non-fiction: Walking Free by Munjed Al Muderis (2014) and Big Blue Sky by Peter Garrett (2015) (review forthcoming). These made me see the challenges facing refugees and politicians, respectively, in a whole new light.

Have you read any from this list? Or has it encouraged you to try one or two? Care to share your own favourite reads of 2016?

I’m taking a little blogging break, but before I go I’d like to thank you for your valued support during this past year. Whether it was by sending me an email, visiting this blog or Reading Matters’ Facebook page, leaving a comment, clicking “like” icons or linking back to me from your own blog, it’s all very much appreciated and makes the whole experience of running this blog so much more enjoyable. 

Here’s wishing you a fabulous book-filled New Year! And I hope to see you back here for more literary chat and great book recommendations in mid-January.

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, Fremantle Press, Kim Scott, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Setting

‘True Country’ by Kim Scott

True Country by Kim Scott

Fiction – paperback; Fremantle Press; 299 pages; 2010.

You listen to me. We’re gunna make a story, true story. You might find it’s here you belong. A place like this.

True Country, Kim Scott’s debut novel, was first published in 1999. It tells the story of Billy, a young teacher, who moves to a remote settlement in Australia’s far north to take up a job at a local school.

Here, in a Christian mission now in decline and a government administrative outpost struggling to keep staff, Billy and his wife, Liz, find themselves thrust into an Aboriginal community that appears to be in disarray. Yet Billy is drawn to the people and the astonishing landscape in which they live in ways that surprise him.

An immensely powerful read about dispossession, the clash between cultures and finding your rightful place in the world, I found True Country the perfect follow-up/companion read to Stan Grant’s memoir Talking to My Country. Both books sing from the same hymn sheet, as it were, and paint a stark, disturbing portrait of what happens when one culture tries to subjugate another.

A remote settlement

When Billy and Liz fly into Karnama this is what they see from the plane window:

We flew over a large curved pool in the river, and saw the mission with its lawns and buildings and plantation. There were small huts and large trees, and a scratch of track that dipped through creeks. It scratched past the powerhouse and the school, turned the corner of the basketball court near the mission gates and continued, lined with coconut palms, past corrugated iron huts to a gravel airstrip in the shape of a cross. Not far from the airstrip the river flows through a gorge before widening to a mangrove-lined mouth and into the sea.

This first impression of a beautiful, semi-ordered landscape is tarnished when the plane banks over the bush on the other side of the settlement and Billy sees that it was “littered with old car bodies, tins, plastic, all sorts of rubbish”. And perhaps that’s a metaphor for this whole, carefully structured, novel, which scratches the dark underbelly of what it is to be a forgotten people living in a community beset by problems, many of them caused by decades long interference from others who think they know better.

It’s only when Billy and Liz settle into their new lodgings and begin work that they pick up on the very real “them” and “us” mentality that exists between the whites and the blacks. Grog is forbidden for Aboriginals, but the priest has his own private supply, for instance, and all the white staff live in well-built air-conditioned housing and have access to vehicles, while the blacks sweat it out in hot corrugated iron shacks and travel everywhere by foot.

Tensions arise between these two cultures, caused primarily by a different set of values. Many of the Aboriginals living in Karnama have so little respect for education that the teachers must wake up their students and practically drag them into the classroom every morning. There is no understanding of the concept of personal property, so that if they “borrow” a car and crash it, it is simply abandoned by the side of the road, and children think nothing of going into a teacher’s unlocked house without their knowledge to rifle through their belongings. And there’s a strong (cynical) belief that the white people, whether teachers, government administrators or clergy, are there simply to make money or to further their careers, they have no real interest in helping the Aboriginal community.

There are deeper, more disturbing problems here, too: alcohol abuse and petrol sniffing is rife (to “kill the world”, as Billy puts it) and the men are violent with each other and their wives (usually after drinking too much grog).

Room for hope

Strangely, for all the shocking incidences in this book (including a violent murder committed by white men), it is not a depressing one. That’s largely due to Billy’s “assimilation”, for want of a better word, into this community, for part-way through the story you come to realise that Billy is not white: he has Aboriginal ancestry, and his reason for moving to this community is to discover that part of himself which, for so long, has remained dormant and unknowable.

There are wonderful descriptions of outings to go fishing and to learn about bush culture and to fall that little bit in love with the varied landscape around him and to appreciate the vagaries of the seasons.

This time of the year […] it is getting hotter. Late in every day the sky comes low, it sags down like it is swollen and bruised. The flies are sticky drinking your sweat. Over on the edge of the sky the lightning stabs the hills. But no rain comes yet. It will.

He strikes up a particularly lovely friendship with Fatima, one of the oldest Aboriginal women living in  Karnama, who sits at his kitchen table and tells him stories that he records on audio tape with a view to transcribing them for his students. It’s perhaps telling that this form of oral history, so much a part of Aboriginal culture, never makes it into written form, for Billy realises that to do so would require too much time and too much editing and he doesn’t think he has the right to alter Fatima’s words: these are not his stories to tell.

An engaging portrait

The novel is largely structured around a series of vignettes and what I would call sketches of characters or scenes, some of which are only a couple of pages long. But this style builds up an engaging portrait of the community, so that you come to learn about the way it works and the people who inhabit it in ways a normal straightforward narrative might not have been able to do.

It’s largely written in the first person, past tense, but there are snatches of present tense to heighten tension and there are passages told in Aboriginal vernacular which lend a vivid, authentic flavour to the prose. It is that vernacular that I loved most, perhaps because much of it so wonderfully conveys the spiritual connection between people and the land:

And it is a beautiful place, this place. Call it our country, our country all ’round here. We got river, we got sea. Got creek, rock, hill, waterfall. We  got bush tucker: apple, potato, sugarbag, bush turkey, kangaroo, barramundi, dugong, turtle… every kind. Sweet mango and coconuts too.

In case you haven’t guessed, I really loved this novel. I loved the way Scott writes about confronting, often shocking, problems but in an intelligent, empathetic way. I loved his poetical use of language. I loved his characters, the whole complex range of them. I loved his descriptions of the landscape. I loved his sense of humour evidenced in descriptions of shambolic corroborees put on for American tourists expecting polished performances. And I loved the redemptive ending. But most of all I loved its big beating heart.

True Country has been widely published, so British and North American readers should be able to source a copy online without too much difficulty.

Kim Scott is of Aboriginal descent. He has won the Miles Franklin Literary Award twice — for his novels Benang: From the Heart (in 2000, jointly with Thea Astley’s Drylands) and That Deadman Dance (in 2011).

This is my 47th book for #ReadingAustralia2016.

10 books, Book lists

10 (more) of my favourite novels from Australia

10-booksTo mark Australia Day (26 January), I thought I would put together a list of some of my favourite Australian novels.

This isn’t the first time I’ve done this: back in 2005 I published a list entitled 10 of my favourite novels from Australia. But a lot has changed since then: my tastes have broadened, I have better access to books (thanks to the internet) and I’m more aware of new Australian fiction at the time of release (again, thanks to the internet and especially to the Australian bloggers I follow).

Since 2005, I’ve read more than 100 Australian books and these have spanned everything from historical fiction to psychological thrillers, much-loved classics to contemporary literary fiction. Gone are the days when I thought Australian novels only revolved around convicts or pioneers!

This new list features 10 of my favourite reads from the past decade. The books have been arranged in alphabetical order by author surname. You can click on each book title to read my review in full.

‘The Burial’ by Courtney Collins (2013)

The Burial by Courtney Collins

The Burial
 tells the tale of Jessie Hickman, a female bushranger who rustles horses and duffs cattle, in the years after the Great War. Part adventure tale, part romance, part Western (but without the gunslinging), it’s a dramatic story told in a visual, exhilarating — and memorable — way.  Jessie, who is based on a real female bushranger, is wonderful company — feisty, unafraid, daring and brave — and I loved spending time with her.

‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’ by Richard Flanagan (2014)

Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

I’ve read all of Richard Flanagan’s novels and reviewed most of them, but this book was so profoundly moving I couldn’t find the words to do it justice, so instead of reviewing it on this blog I just went around and told everyone they had to read it! Of course, I could have chosen almost any one of Flanagan’s novels to include here, but The Narrow Road to the Deep North, which won the Man Booker Prize in 2014, spoke to me in a way few books over the past decade have done so. It’s an unforgettable account of one man’s experience as a doctor in a POW camp and the long-lasting impact of what happened to him and his friends during that time. It’s also a tragic love story between a man and the woman he wasn’t supposed to fall in love with.

‘Five Bells’ by Gail Jones (2011)

Five Bells by Gail Jones

Five Bells is set in Sydney on a single summer’s day in 2008. It tells the stories of four individual characters — Ellie, James, Catherine and Pei Xing — as they criss-cross the city. This is not a plot-driven novel, but one in which the characters’ inner lives take centre stage. I loved Jones’ rich use of language and the ways in which she plays with images and motifs throughout, and the stories stayed with me long after the final page. (As an aside, I could have easily chosen Jones’ Sixty Lights in this slot, which is another evocatively written story, but set in Victorian London, not contemporary Australia.)

‘Utopian Man’ by Lisa Lang (2010)

Utopian Man by Lisa Lang

Lisa Lang’s debut novel is a sheer delight from start to finish. The central character is Edward William (E.W.) Cole, a real life legendary eccentric who built a magnificent retail emporium in Melbourne during the 1880s. This included a fabulous three-storey book arcade, supposedly filled with a million books. The novel charts Coles’ life in two-yearly increments and shows how this extraordinary man, who championed equality and was exceedingly generous to all and sundry, always saw the good in people despite suffering small tragedies and scandals himself. It’s a charming read about a charming man, and I wish more people knew about it.

‘Seven Types of Ambiguity’ by Elliot Perlman (2005)

Seven Types of Ambiguity by Elliot Perlman

I have Eliot Perlman to thank for opening my eyes to a whole new world of Australian fiction for this is the book that made me realise there was more to Australian literature than novels about convicts and pioneers! Set in contemporary Melbourne, it showed me my home town in ways I’d never come across before in contemporary fiction. Admittedly very baggy and overwritten (I would level the same charge against all of Perlman’s novels even though I admire his work), I loved its breadth and scope: it’s a  psychological thriller, a court room drama, a romance, a satire, an insightful commentary on modern-day existence, morals and values, and a kind of literary juggernaut that borrows the title of a well-known non-fiction book by William Empson on literary criticism. Throw in politics, big business and prostitution and pretty much every genre and theme is covered here. What’s not to like?

‘The Shiralee’ by D’Arcy Niland (1955)

The Shiralee by D'Arcy Niland

The Shiralee counts up there as one of my top three Australian books of all time (the other two are George Johnston’s My Brother Jack and Randolph Stow’s The Merry-go-round in the Sea). It’s a wonderful tale set during the Great Depression about a swagman (an itinerant worker) who travels rural NSW in search of work accompanied by his four-year-old daughter, Buster, whom he initially regards as his “shiralee”, a slang word for burden. Six months earlier he “kidnapped” Buster from her city-based mother, after he discovered his wife in bed with another man, but this well-meaning act is now taking its toll: Buster talks too much and slows him down and he’s constantly worrying about how to feed and protect her. It’s very much a novel about father-daughter relationships, and provides a fascinating glimpse of a past way of life where friendship and camaraderie between people “on the road” was so vital to their survival.

‘Benang: From the Heart’ by Kim Scott (1999)

Benang

This book challenged me on many levels but left a deep impression on me. Essentially it is about Australia’s history of white subjugation of indigenous people. This deeply poignant and haunting story is narrated by Harvey, who is of aboriginal descent but has been raised to believe he is a white man because all the aboriginal blood has been bred out of him. But in being raised in one culture while forced to ignore another, Harvey feels that something is missing from his life — and this book is an attempt to reconnect with his ancestors and to try to understand why his grandfather was so keen to “breed out” the aboriginal blood in the family line. I came away from this book feeling a mixture of joy and sorrow, anger and regret. I still think about it four years down the line…

‘The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea’ by Randolph Stow (1965)

Merry go round in the sea by randolph stow

I loved this book so much I read it twice — and I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve recommended it to people looking for a quintessential Australian read. Largely semi-autobiographical, it tells the story of Rob Coram, who is just six years old when the book opens, and his relationship with his older cousin, who joins the Army to fight in the Second World War. It’s a beautiful, somewhat nostalgic look at what it was like to grow up in one of the most remote areas on the planet, sandwiched between the desert and the Indian ocean, at a time when the war was raging in Europe, and the Japanese were getting closer and closer to invading Australian soil. It’s very much a coming-of-age story and has a truly authentic feel for the time and the place.

‘The Slap’ by Christos Tsiolkas (2009)

The cover of Christos Tsiolkas' acclaimed novel, The Slap.

Set in suburban Melbourne, The Slap is one of those bold, brash and visceral novels that stays with you long after the final page. The whole story unfurls from one seemingly minor incident at a family barbecue when a man slaps a child who is not his own. This one event has drastic repercussions on all of those people present. It tests friendships, marriages and family relationships, and it divides people into two distinct groups: those that think the child deserved it, and those that think the slap constitutes child abuse. I loved the scope and ambition of this novel (perhaps more than its execution) and raced through it in a matter of days. And the eight-part Australian TV adaptation is possibly the best thing to come out of Australia since Tsiolkas himself.

‘Eyrie’ by Tim Winton (2014)

Eyrie by Tim Winton

I’ve only read a handful of Tim Winton’s novels, but this one — his latest — is a brilliant look at contemporary Australia, awash with cash from the mining boom yet ethically and morally bankrupt. It tells the story of Tom Keely, a middle-aged spokesman for an environmental campaign group, who has lost his high-flying, highly pressurised job for daring to speak the truth. Now, holed up in a flat at the top of a grim high-rise residential tower, he lives like a recluse, until he becomes entwined in his neighbour’s messy life. What ensues is a bumpy — and seedy — ride,  far removed from his middle-class upbringing.  Despite Eyrie tackling some weighty subjects, it’s done with a lightness of touch and plenty of humour. I loved this book so much, I read it twice — in quick succession.

Have you read any of these books? Do you have a favourite Australian novel? Is anything missing from my list?

5 books, Book lists

5 books to read for Diverse December

5-books-200pixThanks to the power of social media and the efforts of two bloggers — Dan, who blogs at From Inside the Dog, and Naomi, who blogs at The Writes of Woman — this month has been designated #DiverseDecember. This encourages everyone to promote and read books by BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) writers in order to redress the balance, which tends to favour writers from white backgrounds (and usually from the US or UK).

Having read more about the initiative in this brilliant blog post by Naomi, I began to wonder whether I had an inherent bias against BAME writers, too. Though this blog tries to focus on Australian and Irish authors, I was surprised to see I do, actually, read writers from non-white backgrounds, too, though perhaps not as many as I should.

I thought I would highlight five of my favourites since I began book blogging in 2004. The books have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s name — click the title to see my full review:

Song-for-night ‘Song For Night’ by Chris Abani (2007)

This powerful novella is set in an unspecified African nation. The story is told from the perspective of a child soldier, who is taught to detect unexploded land mines with his bare feet and then disable them with a knife. His vocal chords have been cut, “so that we wouldn’t scare each other with our death screams” whenever a fellow solider is blown up by a mine. Song for Night is not a pleasant read, but amid the terror and the brutality, there is a deep, underlying humanity here, about what it is like to have your childhood stolen from you, a world in which life is cheap and hate comes easily.

Yacobian-building ‘The Yacoubian Building’ by Alaa As Aswan (2004)

Set in downtown Cairo at the time of the 1990 Gulf War, this intriguing novel shows Egyptian life in the late 20th century through the eyes of a diverse range of characters, all of whom live in a single apartment block. It charts the struggles of a wide cross-section of society, from the underclass that live in cramped conditions in converted storage rooms on the roof of the building, to the wealthy residents who inhabit the building’s apartments. This allows the author to show the apparent contradictions in Egyptian society where people with different religious, political and moral viewpoints live side by side, not always in harmony.

Half-blood-blues ‘Half Blood Blues’ by Esi Edugyan (2011)

This novel about jazz musicians living in Berlin during the Second World War won the Giller Prize in 2011. It is narrated by Sidney Griffiths, a black bass player from Baltimore who spent his formative years in Berlin during the 1930s and 40s, looking back on his life half a century later. The narrative swings back and forth across time — from Berlin and Paris during the war, and Berlin and Poland 50 years later. It’s a fascinating account of one man’s experiences — his love affairs, his musical rivalries and fierce jealousies, his guilt and much-too-late atonement for one cruel act that he can never take back. It’s a thrilling, adventure-filled read.

The-attack ‘The Attack’ by Yasmina Khadra (2007)

The Attack, set in Israel, is about a suicide bomber. It opens with Dr Amin Jaafie, a surgeon in a Tel Aviv hospital, dealing with the bombed and bloodied victims of a terrorist attack in a downtown pizza restaurant that has killed 19 people. As a naturalised Israeli Arab, Dr Jaafie has worked hard to be respected, admired and accepted by the Jewish culture in which he could so easily be cast as an outsider. A dedicated doctor, married to the woman of his dreams, he socialises in fashionable circles, but now his whole life has been turned on its head. What was it about his wife that made her carry out this despicable act, and what clues did he miss? The book follows his quest to find answers to these questions…

Benang ‘Benang: From the Heart’ by Kim Scott (1999)

This story about Australia’s history of white subjugation of indigenous people was joint winner of the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 1999. It is narrated by Harvey, who comes to slowly understand his place in his family line — “the product of a long and considered process” to create a white man from a long line of people with aboriginal blood. This process has been overseen by his grandfather as part of a disturbing scientific experiment in which he has been trying to “breed out” the aboriginal blood in successive generations. His efforts mirror those of the settlements and missions in the early part of the 20th century in which Australia operated a crude system of apartheid designed to separate whites from blacks. This incredibly moving, often challenging, book left me with a giant lump in my throat…

For more inspiration, please do check out my BAME writers tag.

Have you read any of these books? Or can you recommend others by BAME writers? Are you taking part in #DiverseDecember?

Australia, Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, Fiction, historical fiction, Kim Scott, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘That Deadman Dance’ by Kim Scott

That-Deadman-Dance

Fiction – paperback; Bloomsbury Circus; 416 pages; 2012. Review copy courtesy of publisher.

If there was one book I was really looking forward to in 2012 it was Kim Scott‘s That Deadman Dance, which had been published in Australia to critical acclaim in 2010. Prior to its long-awaited publication in the UK last October, it had gone on to win almost every award going in the antipodes, including the 2011 Regional Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, the 2011 Miles Franklin Literary Award and the 2011 Australian Literary Society Gold Medal.

But perhaps that weight of expectation proved too heavy for me, because I found myself struggling to enjoy this book, even though I very much appreciated Scott’s “message” and his thoughtful, often beautiful prose.

First contact between black and white

The story, which is set on the south-west coast of Western Australia in the mid-19th century, charts the colonisation of the land by white settlers and the impact of their arrival on the native inhabitants, the aboriginal Noongar people.

Scott, who is a descendant of the Noongar, is more than authorised to tell this tale, which shows how an initial spirit of co-operation between the two groups sadly erodes over time.

The Europeans, once outnumbered by their aboriginal counterparts, become dominant and all-powerful as the settlement takes shape and new buildings, new roads and new systems of governance are put into place. As the population grows and more people arrive from the motherland, the Noongar are no longer viewed as equals but as a threat — in all kinds of ways.

By comparison, the Noongar, a resourceful and welcoming people who had initially embraced their new visitors and their strange ways, find that the land which had sustained them for thousands of years has now been parcelled off into farms for crop and meat production and they are no longer free to roam it. Their incomprehension is only matched by the white settler’s fury when sheep and other food is stolen from them.

This almost imperceptible shift in power is what makes this book so fascinating, because at what point did it go wrong? What would modern Australia be like if black and white relations had not broken down in this terrible way?

Unusual structure

The book is structured in an unusual way — and I think this is probably why I struggled to enjoy it. It is divided into four parts, which are not arranged in chronological order — for instance, we start in 1835, before going back to 1826-1830, then we move forward to1836-1838 before jumping forward again to 1841-1844.

There’s not much of a plot either (except, of course, the breakdown in black and white relations) and there’s not really a main character with which the reader can identify. While much of the narrative revolves around Bobby Wabalanginy, a young aborigine, who has a remarkable gift for mimicry and learning new languages, Scott provides a range of perspectives, so we get to see things through the eyes of a vast array of characters, including Dr Cross, Bobby’s uncle Mendak, the Chaine family from Britain and former soldier Alexander Killam.

It is this constant jumping around (many of the chapters are very short) from person to person and from one time frame to another, that complicates the narrative. And despite this almost schizophrenic approach, I did occasionally find that the storyline lagged.

Portrait of Australia’s past

Of course, it’s not a bad novel and I’d urge anyone who is interested in Australia’s early history and its landscape to give it a try. Scott’s prose is wonderfully evocative, particularly of the bush and the ocean, and his descriptions of the whaling ships and the whaling industry — which becomes such a dominant force along this part of the coast — is rich and eloquent.

The strength of the story lies mainly in its examination of how the values of the colonisers were at odds with that of the Noongar — a dilemma that remains unreconciled to this day. But Scott does this in such a gentle, nuanced way that the full force of his detailed portrait of white arrogance and ignorance, coupled with black incomprehension and despair, doesn’t fully hit you until you come right to the end of the novel.

I came away from the last page feeling an overwhelming sense of sadness, best summed up in this quote (from page 109):

We thought making friends was the best thing, and never knew that when we
took your flour and sugar and tea and blankets that we’d lose everything
of ours. We learned your words and songs and stories, and never knew
you didn’t want ours…

For a different take on this book, please see the reviews at ANZLitlovers, Tony’s Reading List and Book Sexy Review.

A note of warning: the blurb on my edition suggests this novel is a romantic tale between an aboriginal man and a white woman, but that paints a false premise. While there is a short romance between Bobby and Chaine’s daughter, this is not the central focus of the novel.