Australia, Author, Book review, food, nature, Non-fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Reading Projects, Richard Flanagan, Setting, TBR 21

‘Toxic: The Rotting Underbelly of the Tasmanian Salmon Industry’ by Richard Flanagan


Non-fiction – paperback; Penguin; 240 pages; 2021.

I have not eaten red meat for 30 years, but I consume a lot of fish. I love salmon, whether fresh, smoked or hot smoked.

I knew that when I picked up this non-fiction expose of the Tasmanian salmon industry I was toying with fire. “This is going to put me off eating salmon for life, isn’t it?” I declared when the bookseller I purchased it from told me this was the sixth copy he’d sold in a matter of hours. He just laughed and said, “Come back and let me know!”

Well, I haven’t been back yet, but the answer is exactly what I knew it would be. It’s doubtful I will eat Tasmanian farmed salmon ever again.

A thorough investigation

Written by Booker prize-winner Richard Flanagan, Toxic is a no holds barred investigation into the dubious practices of farming Atlantic salmon in Tasmania, specifically the D’Entrecasteaux Channel, a body of water that separates Bruny Island from the Tasmanian mainland and which acts as the mouth of the estuaries of the Derwent and Huon Rivers and empties into the Tasman Sea.

Flanagan explains how this channel, once a renowned beauty spot and sleepy backwater, has become environmentally degraded by an industry that puts profit before all else. He also shows how the product, which is marketed as clean and healthy, is anything but. It’s an eye-opening, stomach-churning and anger-inducing read.

I regard myself as an educated person, someone who is interested in the provenance of my food and who cares deeply about nature, but Toxic has exposed the glaring omissions in my knowledge and made me realise how naive I am when it comes to buying — and eating — farmed salmon.

Here’s just a handful of things I did not know — and which greatly alarmed me:

¶  The salmon is dyed so that it appears a healthy-looking pink and is more palatable to the consumer. This dye — synthetic astaxanthin — is made from petrochemicals.

Just as you use colour swatches to choose house paint, the salmon corporations use colour swatches to choose their salmon’s colour.

¶  Farmed salmon is not necessarily good for you. That’s because the fish’s fatty profile has changed as a consequence of the diet they are fed which is plant-based, rather than fish-based, so that the salmon now contain more omega-6 oils, the so-called “bad” fats, rather than omega-3 oils, which are better for you.

¶  Salmon farming is driving deforestation because the fish are fed a plant-based diet. Fishmeal, it turns out, is too expensive to feed, so farmers source protein from other food streams to cut costs. In Tasmania, the majority of this protein is chicken-based (a revolting mix of heads, feet, intestines and so on, mainly sourced from battery hens), but the fish are also fed soy, which comes from South America.

Illegal deforestation to create new soy farms in South America, particularly in the Amazon and Cerrado, is deeply embedded in the rise of the salmon industry globally and throws a long shadow over any attempt by the local industry to present salmon as a green product.

The fish live in horrendous conditions, crammed into “feedlots” where they barely have room to swim. These lots are often stacked one on top of another in towers of up to 20 metres in height, “down which faeces and urine rain”.

The image of thousands of cows slowly suffocating to death in a smog-polluted shed would be unacceptable. The reality of thousands of salmon slowly suffocating to death on a hot day as oxygen levels collapse is less questioned.

Fish farms are noisy. They work around the clock using heavy diesel compressors to oxygenate the water. To avoid salmon stock being killed by amoebic gill disease, the fish also need to be “bathed” in giant freshwater bladders on a monthly, sometimes fortnightly, rotation. They are mechanically vacuumed out of their feedlots into the bladders, then sucked out again. And then there are all the attendant boats and the industrial lighting required to enable workers to see what they are doing, so that residents living onshore are plagued by light and noise pollution 24/7.

I could go on, but it’d be easier for me to tell you to read the book. You might end up underlining the entire thing, which is what I was tempted to do when I wasn’t feeling nauseous by the horrendous facts that pile up on top of one another like bodies in a mass grave (I make no apology for that simile).

An industry mired in secrecy

Knowing all this, the first question you might well ask is how is this legal?

Flanagan painstakingly documents the corruption at the heart of the industry, which claims to be regulated but is really mired in secrecy and cover-ups. He talks to leading scientists and activists and a host of brave people who have spoken out against the industry’s practices. It doesn’t make for pleasant or comfortable reading.

It’s thoroughly researched and completely up-to-date (there are references to things that happened as recently as March 2021), but unfortunately, Toxic doesn’t possess an index, which is infuriating if you wish to look something up afterwards. There is, however, an extensive list of references and sources.

I can’t say I am glad I read this book, because it means I can no longer in all good conscience continue to eat one of my favourite sources of protein, but it’s one of the best, and most chilling, non-fiction reads I’ve consumed in a long while.

Please note, Toxic: The Rotting Underbelly of the Tasmanian Salmon Industry doesn’t appear to be published outside of Australia, but you can order it from readings.com.au or try bookfinder.com to source a used copy.

This is my 19h book for #TBR21 in which I’m planning to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021. I purchased it from my local independent book store last month.

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, Knopf, literary fiction, Publisher, Richard Flanagan, Setting

‘The Living Sea of Waking Dreams’ by Richard Flanagan

Fiction – hardcover;  Knopf Australia; 302 pages; 2020.

Richard Flanagan’s latest novel, The Living Sea of Waking Dreams, is an exquisitely written tale about preserving human life at any cost at a time when everything in the natural world is being killed off by human activity. It’s a book brimming with irony, ideas and issues but is not without humour — or hope.

Holding on to a mother’s love

The book’s central focus is on three adult siblings who do everything in their power to ensure their aged mother, 87-year-old Francie, is kept alive in a Hobart hospital after she experiences a bleed on the brain.

But there are divisions between Francie’s three children — Anna and Terzo, who want to keep Francie alive, and Tommy, who would prefer she slip away naturally — and it is these different viewpoints which provide the necessary tension to make this deeply thoughtful novel a proper page-turner.

The story is largely told from Anna’s point of view. A successful architect who left Tasmania to pursue her career, she has a complicated relationship with her son, Gus, who steals from her. But this is the least of her concerns because early on in the novel Anna notices that her finger has disappeared; it is simply no longer there. Later, she “loses” a knee.

This becomes a metaphor for emotional loss, but it also seems that the more determined Anna becomes to keep her mother alive, the more of Anna herself disappears. (Admittedly, when I first heard that there was an aspect of “magic realism” to Flanagan’s novel I wasn’t sure it would work for me, but rest assured, as crazy as it sounds, it feels entirely realistic; I never once suspended belief.)

Anna’s brother Terzo, a venture capitalist who also moved to the mainland decades ago to make something of himself, acts as her enabler. The pair work together, using their power and influence and money and sheer inability to believe that death could come knocking at their mother’s door, to keep Francie alive.

The naysayer in the corner is younger brother Tommy, a sensitive artistic type, who is viewed by his siblings as a failure because he’s never gone out and explored the world. He’s the devoted son who has stayed behind; the one who sees that it would be kinder to let his mother — unhappy and miserable and no longer able to enjoy life — pass away.

Loss of the natural world

Intertwined with this largely domestic drama is the larger issue of mass extinction in our natural world. This is reflected in a storyline about efforts to save the rare orange-bellied parrot — “We do everything we can to keep them alive, and yet they keep dying” — a conservation project that Anna becomes involved with.

Sometimes she thought the birds did it out of spite, that they willed themselves to death because of their weariness with the world, with the failing efforts of their human saviours. Because the world is so against them.

And against this backdrop of a chaotic world where Nature is under threat and so many species are vanishing because of habitat loss and climate change, the only thing that makes Anna numb to the realities is to lose herself in her phone. And every time something terrible happens or Anna knows that she is going to hear bad news about her mother, she picks up her phone and scrolls and swipes and likes and clicks.

Perhaps the more the essential world vanished, the more people needed to fixate on the inessential world.

UK edition

Major issues of our time

The power of The Living Sea of Waking Dreams lies in the way it gently teases out major issues of our times in a multi-layered narrative that riffs on so many recurring themes — love, death, beauty, power, motherhood, feminism, family bonds, siblings, vanishings and distraction. It brings to mind Anne Tyler and Charlotte Wood, two writers who focus on the domestic and the minutiae of people’s lives, but Flanagan takes it a step further by writing in such a perceptive way that it shines a light on bigger societal issues.

There’s so much more I could say about this wonderful novel. I read it back in September and took copious notes, but couldn’t bring myself to review it at the time, not quite knowing where to start. Penning this now, I’m acutely aware I am struggling to articulate the book’s strengths or even the way it made me see the world anew.

I always greet a new Richard Flanagan novel with much fanfare, and this one was no exception. I even signed up to an online book launch, hosted by the Wheeler Centre, and watched an interview with him on the 7.30 Report (a current affairs news programme on ABC TV here in Australia).

I read it back to back with Sigrid Nunez’s What Are You Going Through, in which a terminally ill cancer patient decides to take her own life, and couldn’t help but compare how the characters in Flanagan’s novel have an entirely different take on death. This might sound like bleak subject matter, and sometimes it feels unbelievably cruel, but this isn’t a book without hope; I came away from it feeling that it’s important for us all to reconnect with nature and with each other and to care for the world in whatever small ways we can.

Lisa at ANZLitlovers loved this one too.

Books of the year

My favourite books of 2020

Happy New Year everyone! I know we are all excited and hopeful that 2021 will be happy, healthier and more normal than 2020, but before we step into a brand new year I wanted to look back at what I read over the past 12 months.

I read 83 books in total, which is roughly what I read most years, the only difference being that most of the books were published in 2020. (GoodReads has helpfully listed them all here.)

I don’t normally read so many shiny new books, but in 2020 I went out of my way to support my local independent bookshop (big shout out to New Edition in Fremantle), which bravely kept its doors open all year, including during our first (and thankfully only) six-week shutdown in March/April. I made it a regular habit to visit once a week and to never leave empty-handed! (What a tough challenge — hehehe.)

Also, I think I’m still enjoying the thrill of being able to buy newly published Australian fiction after being unable to do so when I lived in London for two decades! As a consequence, I did buy a lot of  #OzLit, including everything on the Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction shortlist and the 2020 Miles Franklin Literary Award shortlist.

My love for Irish fiction didn’t go away either. As per usual, I read all the books on the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year Award shortlist — although I abandoned one and had previously read another in 2019, so this wasn’t a particularly difficult “challenge” to complete.

It wasn’t all new, new, new though. In the first half of the year, I embarked on a plan to read 20 books from my TBR between 1 January and 30 June in a project I dubbed #TBR2020. I actually managed to complete this — which reminds me I really ought to have done a wrap-up post.

I also participated in Cathy’s 20 Books of Summer for the fourth time. And while I didn’t quite hit target, I did manage to read 17 books from my TBR — all listed here.

But that’s enough about my projects. What were the books that left a marked impression on me? Without further ado, here they are, all arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname. Hyperlinks will take you to my full review.

‘Snow’ by John Banville (2020)
Set in County Wexford at Christmas in 1957, Snow is a locked-room mystery in which a popular priest is found murdered in a Big House. Evocative, atmospheric and full of brilliant characters, this is historical crime fiction at its finest.

‘Night Boat to Tangier’ by Kevin Barry (2019)
This story about two 50-something Irish gangsters recalling the ups and downs they have weathered over the years as drug dealers in Cork and Spain is darkly comic but with a mournful undertone.

‘This Mournable Body’ by Tsitsi Dangarembga (2020)
Booker-shortlisted novel told in the second person about a well-educated Black woman from Zimbabwe who has fallen on hard times. One of the most powerful pieces of fiction I have ever read.

‘The Living Sea of Waking Dreams’ by Richard Flanagan (2020)
I am yet to review this one properly, but it’s an exquisitely written tale about preserving human life at any cost at a time when everything in the natural world is being killed off. A novel full of irony, ideas and issues but is not without humour — or hope.

‘The Butchers’ by Ruth Gilligan (2020)
Unexpectedly immersive, compelling and SURREAL novel set in Ireland during the BSE crisis of 1996. It made me, a fussy carnivore, look at beef consumption in a whole new light.

‘A Week in the Life of Cassandra Aberline’ by Glenda Guest (2018)
Possibly my favourite book of the year, this richly layered story follows one woman’s journey from Sydney to Perth by train when she discovers she has Alzheimer’s. In Perth she hopes to make amends for a past sin. Along the way we learn about her life.

‘The Animals in That Country’ by Laura Jean McKay (2020)
Wholly original dystopian tale about a flu pandemic that allows infected people to understand what animals are saying. Terrifying, deliriously strange and blackly comic.

‘The Last of Her Kind’ by Sigrid Nunez (2006)
A totally immersive story set in New York in the late 1960s which follows the ups and downs of an unlikely friendship between two women from different ends of the social spectrum who are roommates at college.

‘A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing’ by Jessie Tu (2020)
This seriously impressive debut novel is an uncompromising look at a talented young violinist trying to fill the void left behind when her fame as a child prodigy has died out. Brash, sex-obsessed and memorable.

‘Redhead by the Side of the Road’ Anne Tyler (2020)
Perceptive and warm-hearted tale of a 40-something man whose dull, predictable life gets turned on its head. Tyler is a genius at writing about ordinary people thrust into extraordinary situations and this one is no exception.

I trust you have discovered some wonderful books and writers this year despite everything that has been going on around the world. Have you read any from this list? Or has it encouraged you to try one or two? What were your favourite reads of 2020, I’d love to know?

Please note that you can see my favourite books of all the years between 2006 and 2020 by visiting my Books of the Year page.

10 books, Book lists

10 favourite Australian novels of the 21st century

Earlier today — thanks to @wtb_Michael and @frippet — I discovered that the Australian Book Review is conducting a poll to discover the nation’s favourite Australian novel published in the 21st century. (You can find out more, and nominate your favourite, here.)

Taking Michael’s lead, I thought it would be fun to put together a list of my top 10 favourite Australian novels published since 2000. I published that list on Twitter, but because I know not everyone who follows this blog follows me on social media, I thought it might be helpful to publish it here.

So here is my list. The books have been arranged in chronological order, from the most recent book published. As ever, hyperlinks will take you to my reviews.

Storyland by Catherine McKinnon

Storyland by Catherine McKinnon (2017)
Cleverly constructed tale that weaves together five interlinking stories set on one tract of land to show how humans have impacted the environment over four centuries.

The Hands by Stephen Orr

The Hands by Stephen Orr (2015)
Charming, funny and deeply moving story about three generations of the one farming family eking out a living on a remote cattle station in the Australian outback.

The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood

The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood (2015)
Thought-provoking take on a dystopian world in which women are imprisoned for their involvement in sexual “crimes” and misdemeanors.

Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan (2013)
Booker Prize-winning novel about an Australian surgeon, haunted by a clandestine love affair, who becomes a  Japanese POW on the Burma Death Railway during the Second World War.

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 holiday by the sea one hot Australian summer — but everything isn’t quite as it seems.

Foal’s Bread by Gillian Mears (2011)
Set in the 1920s and 30s, this historical novel traces the fortunes (and misfortunes) of two generations of a legendary showjumping family in rural NSW.

Five Bells by Gail Jones

Five Bells by Gail Jones (2010)
Ambitious novel comprised of several interwoven narrative threads, focussed on four individual characters as they criss-cross Sydney on a fine summer’s day.

Utopian Man by Lisa Lang

Utopian Man by Lisa Lang (2009)
Deliciously entertaining award-winning debut novel based on the true-life story of  Edward William (E.W.) Cole, a legendary eccentric who built an amazing retail emporium in Melbourne during the 1880s.

The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas (2009)
Middle-class angst fest following the fall out when a man slaps a child, who is not his, for misbehaving at a family barbecue.

Of a Boy by Sonya Hartnett (2003)
A beautiful, melancholy tale about a lonely, timid nine-year-old boy being raised by his grandmother.

Have you read any of these books? Or care to share your own list of favourite Australian novels from the 21st century? 

Giveaway

Book giveaway: win Richard Flanagan’s backlist

Book-giveawayThis giveaway is now closed

Many of you will know that Richard Flanagan is one of my favourite authors. Indeed, he’s listed on my favourite authors page, where he’s been quietly sitting (not literally, of course) ever since I read The Sound of One Hand Clapping (the second novel of his that I had read, after Gould’s Book of Fish) way back in 2008. That particular novel left a lasting impression (indeed, some times I still think about it), and I’ve followed his career ever since.

I haven’t reviewed all his books on this blog (I was so stunned by his Booker Prize-winning The Narrow Road to the Deep North that I simply couldn’t find the words to do it justice here), but I have read them all and done my fair share of championing his work on social media and elsewhere. So I was delighted (and honoured) to be commissioned to write a guide to his backlist for the Penguin website. That guide went online this morning — you can read it here — to coincide with the news that all of Flanagan’s backlist has been acquired and repackaged in the UK by Vintage Publishing.

Complete set of Richard Flanagan's novels

The exciting news is that I have a complete set of those books to give away on this blog to one lucky reader. That’s five rather glorious, if very different, novels: Death of a River Guide, The Sound of One Hand Clapping, Gould’s Book of Fish: A Novel in Twelve Fish, The Unknown Terrorist and Wanting.

To enter the prize draw, simply leave a comment below naming one of your favourite authors. The draw closes at 7pm GMT on Friday 3 June. I’ll then select the winner at random using a random number generator or some such.

Please note that because I’ll be paying the postage (and this is a hefty pile of books), the competition is only open to entrants with a UK address. Please note you can only enter once. Multiple entrants will be disqualified.

Good luck!

Please note, if you’ve not commented here before your comment will be held in moderation. Don’t worry: I’ll approve it next time I log on!

UPDATE — TUESDAY 7 JUNE
Apologies for the delay in drawing a winner of this prize: I’ve been rather busy and this has been my first chance to sit down and do it. There were 18 eligible entries [Rosie Amber, Evening Scribbles, KirkMC, David Riley, Kaggysbookishramblings, Paul Cheney, Chris A, Snoakes 7001, Victoria, Alison P, Tracey, Booker Talk, Sophie, Dawn, Simon H, Orangepekoereviews, Ben & Rhodri] I used an online random number generator to select the lucky winner. The number chosen was 12. That means the winner is — drum roll please — Booker Talk! Many congratulations! I’ll be in touch soon to find out your mailing address. Thanks to everyone who entered — and commiserations if you missed out.

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?

Books of the year

My favourite books of 2014

Books-of-the-yearSo, as 2014 draws to a close, it’s time for me to choose my favourite reads of the year.

I didn’t read as many books as I normally would in the space of 12 months, but that’s because I had other things taking up my time — I went back to study part-time (I graduated in October with a distinction), started walking five miles every day (thanks to my FitBit, which means I’m now 10kg lighter than I was this time last year — although I might have put a sneaky 2kg back on over the Christmas break), trained for London NightRider (your sponsorship helped me raise more than £400 for Arthritis UK) and then bought a road bike to take part in a 64-mile non-competitive sportive. And, of course, I transferred (and cleaned up) 10 years’ worth of content to Reading Matters’ new home, which took three months of hard graft! Oh, and I worked full-time (on a freelance basis) for the entire year. It’s a wonder I had any time for reading at all!

Still, taking all that in to account, I read some pretty amazing books. My 10 favourite books comprises a mix of old and new (with a self-confessed antipodean bias), covering all kinds of themes and subject matter. What these novels have in common — aside from the fact that I read them in 2014 — is that they entertained me, educated me, intrigued me and moved me.

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

Academy Street

Academy Street by Mary Costello (2014)
My favourite read of the year, this extraordinary debut novel charts one woman’s life from her childhood in rural Ireland to her retirement in New York more than half a century later. It’s a deeply moving story about an Irish émigré who struggles to find her place in the world. I fell in love with this book from the first page. It’s written in that lovely lyrical style reminiscent of the best Irish fiction — think a cross between Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn and Sebastian Barry’s On Canaan’s Side — but has a distinctive voice all of its own.

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The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan (2014)
I’ve read all of Flanagan’s previous novels (some are reviewed here) but this one moved me more than anything else he’s written. In fact, it moved me so much I struggled to write a review and in the end I didn’t bother. But this story, which is largely set in a Japanese POW camp on the Burma Death Railway, explores what it is to be a good person and looks at the ways in which those who survived such horror and brutality coped with normal civilian life after the war. It’s also a beautiful love story — and was the deserved winner of this year’s Man Booker Prize.

Soon
Soon by Charlotte Grimshaw (2013)
This New Zealand best seller is one of those gripping accounts of a holiday gone wrong. But the holidaymakers are not your usual every day people; it’s the prime minister of New Zealand no less and his elite group of friends and their families. Part political novel, part psychological thriller, it’s an exhilarating and intelligent read, perfect if you like fast-paced novels with a dark, unsettling edge.

The-tie-that-binds
The Tie That Binds by Kent Haruf (1984)
Kent Haruf’s debut novel, first published in 1984, has a bright ring of truth about it. Set in rural Colorado, it traces the life story of Edith Goodnough, an 80-year-old woman, accused of murder. But this is not a crime novel: it’s a grand sweeping drama tempered by gentle humour, little triumphs and quiet moments of joy. Like Haruf’s much-loved Holt trilogy — PlainsongEventide and Benediction — this is a deeply affecting tale, written in precise yet gentle prose, about living on the land. It’s bittersweet, heartbreaking and uplifting — all at the same time.

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The Dinner by Herman Koch (2012)
A pretentious group of people eating a pretentious meal in a pretentious restaurant has all the makings of a pretentious novel, but The Dinner is a rip-roaring read. It’s a disturbing morality tale of the finest order, the kind of novel that makes you marvel at the writer’s ingenuous plot, filled as it is with unexpected turns and eye-opening revelations, all carefully structured and perfectly paced to keep the reader on tenterhooks throughout. It’s bold, daring and shocking, but it’s also bloody good fun.

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TransAtlantic by Colum McCann (2013)
This accomplished, intricately crafted novel explores the connections between North America and Ireland over the space of 150 years. It comprises three main narrative threads at key times in Ireland’s history — and while there are connections between the storylines and the characters, these are largely superfluous. In many ways, each thread could be read as a standalone story, but McCann chops them up and interleaves them so that the novel, as a whole, occasionally jumps backwards and forwards in time, while the locations — Dublin, New York, Belfast — also shift. This results in a hugely ambitious novel which shows how — as one character puts it — “the tunnels of our lives connect, coming to daylight at the oddest moments, and then plunge us into the dark again”. I found it an entirely absorbing read and loved its compelling mix of truth and fiction.

Spider
Spider by Patrick McGrath (1990)
This novel, first published in 1990, sadly appears to be out of print. Goodness knows why, because it’s one of the best depictions of a man grappling with mental illness that I’ve ever read. It’s set in London, mainly before the Second World War, and tells the story of Spider, who returns to the East End after 20 years living in Canada. His account of coming to terms with his troubled past is so vividly drawn and so filled with pain, confusion and a distrust of all those around him, that it’s hard not to feel for his situation, particularly as his narrative becomes increasingly more paranoid and confused as the novel unfolds. It’s a brilliantly powerful book — and certainly the best one I read this year that was published prior to 2014.

Us-Conductors
Us Conductors by Sean Michaels (2014)
This turned out to be my surprise read of the year. Who would think a book about a Russian scientist who invents a weird musical instrument could be such a terrifically enjoyable romp? Ambitious in scope and theme, it’s a story about music, invention, emigration, science, love, espionage, money, fame, crime and punishment. It’s part New York novel, part prison memoir, part espionage tale, part romance. But, most of all, it’s epic, life-affirming — and fun. It was my pick for the Shadow Giller and I was delighted to see it win the (real) Giller Prize, too.

Eyrie_UKedition
Eyrie by Tim Winton (2013)
I loved this book so much I read it twice — and I thought it was even better the second time around. It tells the story of a middle-aged man who has lost his high-flying job and is now living like a recluse in a flat at the top of a grim high-rise residential tower. When he meets a woman from his past, things become slightly more interesting — and dangerous. It’s a wonderful novel about redemption, helping others less fortunate than ourselves and doing the right thing — whether for yourself, your family, the people in your community or the environment.

Animal People
Animal People by Charlotte Wood (2011)
C
harlotte Wood deserves to be far better known outside of her native Australia. This novel, published in 2013, is an extraordinarily rich family drama come black comedy written in pared back language. It’s another Australian book about a middle-aged man who’s lost his way. It deals with big themes, including consumerism, social prestige and climbing the career ladder, but it’s done with a lightness of touch and a good dose of humour. I loved it.

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 2014?

Finally, before I pop open the champagne, many thanks for your support — emails, blog visits, comments, clicks and links — over the past 12 months, and here’s wishing you a fabulous book-filled New Year! See you back here in 2015 for more ‘readerly’ inspiration!

5 books, Book lists

Five books by Australian writers I’m looking forward to reading

5-books-200pixLast month I went to Australia to visit family for four weeks. But that trip  seems a very long time ago now — especially as I am now immersed in loads of Canadian fiction.

As luck would have it, my return to London has coincided with a flurry of big-name Australian authors releasing long-awaited novels — why couldn’t they have released them all in the first week of September? Oh well, I would have never fitted them in my suitcase anyway.

Here’s five I’m looking forward to buying at some point — if they’re ever released in the UK or if I can scrape together enough cash to pay for international shipping charges!

The books have been arranged in alphabetical order according to author’s surname.

Narrow-road-to-deep-northThe Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

“August, 1943. In the despair of a Japanese POW camp on the Thai-Burma death railway, Australian surgeon Dorrigo Evans is haunted by his love affair with his uncle’s young wife two years earlier. Struggling to save the men under his command from starvation, from cholera, from beatings, he receives a letter that will change his life forever. This savagely beautiful novel is a story about the many forms of love and death, of war and truth, as one man comes of age, prospers, only to discover all that he has lost. “

Published by Vintage Australia last month. There is no date available for the UK — as yet.


Coal-Creek
Coal Creek by Alex Miller

“Bobby Blue is caught between loyalty to his only friend, Ben Tobin, and his boss, Daniel Collins, the new Constable at Mount Hay. He understands the people and the ways of Mount Hay; Collins studies the country as an archaeologist might, bringing his coastal values to the hinterland. Bobby says, ‘I do not think Daniel would have understood Ben in a million years.’
Increasingly bewildered and goaded to action by his wife, Constable Collins takes up his shotgun and his Webley pistol to deal with Ben. Bobby’s love for Collins’ wilful young daughter Irie is exposed, leading to tragic consequences for them all. Miller’s exquisite depictions of the country of the Queensland highlands form the background of this simply told but deeply significant novel of friendship, love, loyalty and the tragic consequences of misunderstanding and mistrust. Coal Creek is a wonderfully satisfying novel with a gratifying resolution.”

Published by Allen & Unwin in Australia earlier this month. Not published in the UK until next March, but a Kindle edition is available on Amazon.


Barracuda-2Barracuda
by Christos Tsiolkas


“Daniel Kelly, a talented young swimmer, has one chance to escape his working-class upbringing. His astonishing ability in the pool should drive him to fame and fortune, as well as his revenge on the rich boys at the private school to which he has won a sports scholarship. But when he melts down at his first big international championship and comes only fifth, he begins to destroy everything he has fought for and turn on everyone around him. Barracuda is a powerful and moving novel of sport and violence, class and education, dreams and disillusionment; it is the story of a young man who eventually comes to realise that it is in family and friendship that his strongest identity lies.”

Published in Australia by Allen & Unwin on 1 November, but not published in the UK until 2 January 2014. But international buyers can purchase the ePub edition from the Booktopia website.


EyrieEyrie
by Tim Winton


“Tom Keely’s reputation is in ruins. And that’s the upside. Divorced and unemployed, he’s lost faith in everything precious to him. Holed up in a grim highrise, cultivating his newfound isolation, Keely looks down at a society from which he’s retired hurt and angry. He’s done fighting the good fight, and well past caring. But even in his seedy flat, ducking the neighbours, he’s not safe from entanglement. All it takes is an awkward encounter in the lobby. A woman from his past, a boy the likes of which he’s never met before. Two strangers leading a life beyond his experience and into whose orbit he falls despite himself. What follows is a heart-stopping, groundbreaking novel for our times – funny, confronting, exhilarating and haunting. Inhabited by unforgettable characters, Eyrie asks how, in an impossibly compromised world, we can ever hope to do the right thing.”

Published in Australia by Penguin Australia earlier this month, but not published in the UK until June 2014.


Swan-bookThe Swan Book
by Alexis Wright

“The new novel by Alexis Wright, whose previous novel Carpentaria won the Miles Franklin Award and four other major prizes including the ABIA Literary Fiction Book of the Year Award. The Swan Book is set in the future, with Aboriginals still living under the Intervention in the north, in an environment fundamentally altered by climate change. It follows the life of a mute teenager called Oblivia, the victim of gang-rape by petrol-sniffing youths, from the displaced community where she lives in a hulk, in a swamp filled with rusting boats, and thousands of black swans driven from other parts of the country, to her marriage to Warren Finch, the first Aboriginal president of Australia, and her elevation to the position of First Lady, confined to a tower in a flooded and lawless southern city. The Swan Book has all the qualities which made Wright’s previous novel, Carpentaria, a prize-winning best-seller. It offers an intimate awareness of the realities facing Aboriginal people; the wild energy and humour in her writing finds hope in the bleakest situations; and the remarkable combination of storytelling elements, drawn from myth and legend and fairy tale.”

Published in Australia by Giramondo Publishing Co last month. Not published in the UK, but a Kindle edition is available on Amazon.

Please note that the release dates quoted for the UK are subject to change.

Are there any on this list that have piqued your interest?

Atlantic Books, Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Richard Flanagan, Setting

‘Death of a River Guide’ by Richard Flanagan

Death-of-a-river-guide

Fiction – paperback; Atlantic Books; 326 pages; 2004.

Richard Flanagan is one of my favourite authors. I’ve read and enjoyed all his novels — The Sound of One Hand Clapping (1997), Gould’s Book of Fish: A Novel in Twelve Fish (2001), The Unknown Terrorist (2006) and Wanting (2008) — but had kept his first novel for a special occasion. And what better occasion to read Death of a River Guide (1994) than Australian Literature Month?

A brave and audacious debut

As a debut novel, Death of a River Guide is a brave and audacious one.

It is told from the perspective of Aljaz Cosini — half Tasmanian, half Slovenian — who is drowning in Tasmania’s Franklin River during a rather adventurous, dangerous and ultimately tragic river expedition that he is leading. As Aljaz tries to wriggle free from the rock which has ensnared him under the white water, scenes from his life — good, bad and ugly — come rushing back to him like fragments of a dream.

In an unusual twist (I hate to use the term “magic realism” but I guess that’s what it is), Aljaz also gets to experience scenes from the lives of his parents, lovers and forebears, helping him to understand his place in the world.

Bite-sized flashbacks

Interspersed with this narrative thread, which is composed largely of bite-sized flashbacks, is a second storyline that follows the white-water rafting expedition that Aljaz is leading. The expedition is a commercial tour for stressed-out executives, nurses and other full-time workers, and Aljaz, who is accompanied by a younger, more enthusiastic river guide, is a bit cynical about it all.

The job doesn’t pay particularly well, but he’s a drifter and will take anything that is going to keep his head above water — pun not intended. He has been a river guide before, but is a bit out of practice, for reasons that are explained during one of his many flashbacks.

The novel is heavy on detail — the descriptions of the river and the rainforests of Tasmania are particularly vivid and beautiful — and peopled with a seemingly endless cast of wonderful characters, including Aljaz’s convict ancestors and the tiresome people he leads on the trip.

Fast-paced narrative

But this is not at expense of narrative tension which becomes heightened the further you get into the book. That’s because you know from the outset that Aljaz is drowning, but you don’t know how this tragic predicament came about — and you have to propel yourself through more than 250 pages before you find out what happens on that fateful fourth day of the trip.

Death of a River Guide is a lovely rich and engrossing novel, brimming with multiple storylines about history, fate, identity and nature. It’s also a wonderful tale that contrasts Tasmania’s dark past as a penal colony with its new role as a wilderness destination. It’s a captivating read — and one I won’t forget in a hurry.

Australia, Author, Book review, England, Fiction, historical fiction, Publisher, Random House Australia, Richard Flanagan, Setting

‘Wanting’ by Richard Flanagan

Wanting

Fiction – hardcover; Random House Australia; 252 pages; 2008. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

There’s something quite ironic about wanting a book called Wanting so much that when you finally get your grubby little mitts on it you find you’re not really in the right frame of mood to read it — and perhaps you didn’t want it that much after all. But having cajoled the Australian publisher into sending me a review copy on the basis that I’m an expat Australian I couldn’t exactly leave this one on the pile indefinitely, and so I recently unearthed it and began to read…

In this novel Richard Flanagan returns to his state of birth, Tasmania, and sets his story in the 1830s. We’ve been here before, of course, in Flanagan’s third novel, Gould’s Book of Fish, but this one has a dual narrative set in England in 1851, which adds an extra level of complexity.

There are famous people in this book, too, real characters from history that many readers will be familiar with: Sir John Franklin, who was governor of Tasmania between 1836 and 1843, but is better known for his exploration of North America and the Arctic, including his ill-fated expedition to chart and navigate the Northwest Passage; and Charles Dickens, the English novelist, who was briefly obsessed with Arctic exploration and staged a play, The Frozen Deep, in Manchester in collaboration with Wilkie Collins, and cast himself in the star role.

A third historical figure, much less known, is the young aboriginal girl, Mathinna, who was “adopted” by the Franklins in Tasmania as a kind of experiment to prove that the “savage” could be “tamed” and “civilised”. It’s an experiment which fails dismally, not because of any wrong doing by Mathinna, but because the social constructs and beliefs of the time were stacked against her.

These twin narratives, 12 years apart, are told in alternating chapters and are linked by Franklin’s wife, Lady Jane. She knew the novelist Dickens and enlisted him to defend her missing husband’s reputation when he was accused, in the press, of having resorted to cannibalism during his Northwest Passage expedition from whence he’d never returned.

But despite a book peopled by historical figures, Flanagan points out in his Author’s Note that “this novel is not a history, nor should it be read as one”. He adds:

The stories of Mathinna and Dickens, with their odd but undeniable connection, suggested to me a meditation on desire — the cost of its denial, the centrality and force of its power in human affairs. That, and not history, is the true subject of Wanting.

Taking this into account, the book is a superb exploration of this theme. The Dickens portrayed here is slightly crazed and very lonely, caught in a loveless marriage which mirrors “the cold whiteness of the Northwest Passage”.

He continued with his marriage. He continued to believe that, like everything else in his life, it would be righted by the sheer force of his will. He had trouble staying in the same room as his wife, but he stayed nevertheless. He continued to argue in his writing for domesticity, and tried not to think that perhaps this was the very thing in his life that had escaped him, that perhaps it did not really exist, or, if it did, it was just one more prison bar.

And Mathinna, whom captures the attentions of Lady Jane Franklin upon her arrival in Wybalenna, Tasmania — “Why, look, you could almost wish to hold the little wild beast and pet her” — spends the rest of her life caught between cultures and wants nothing more than to fit in. When she eventually returns to her own people, the juxtaposition is evident.

[…] she spoke in a manner that was neither white nor black, but in a strange way with strange words that made no sense to anyone. Who was this girl? Why did she talk this way, why this strange wavering voice?

At times this is a heart-breaking read, but there was something about Wanting that didn’t really gel with me — and I’m at odds to put my finger on exactly what this was.

Having read three of Flanagan’s previous novels, I consider him one of the finest writers in Australia, which is why I was eager to read this latest offering. There’s no doubt that the scene setting is vivid, that the characterisation is strong, that the writing is typically beautiful (although he seems to have lost his penchant for overly long sentences in this one), and yet it didn’t particularly “grab” me in the same way as The Sound of One Hand Clapping or the The Unknown Terrorist did.

And maybe it’s the dual narrative that lost me, because while both strands are excellent stories in their own right, putting them together in the one book doesn’t allow enough room for either to properly breathe. No sooner would I get to grips with one story, than I’d have to flip a switch in my brain and start reading about the next, and then do it all over again when I got to the end of the chapter. This makes for a slightly bumpy read rather than a streamlined one.

All the same, if you are intrigued by either Franklin or Dickens, or maybe even both, you will probably very much enjoy this book — although you may not necessarily like what you find out about either character.