6 Degrees of Separation

Six Degrees of Separation: From ‘Wintering’ to ‘Dirty Tricks’

Six degrees of separation logo for memeI’m not sure where June went (I’m still trying to figure out what happened to May) and so this month’s Six Degrees of Separation — a meme hosted by Kate at booksaremyfavouriteandbest —  caught me a little unawares. But at least I remembered: last month it completely passed me by! (Did anyone notice?)

Anyway, without further ado, here are the six books I have chosen for my chain. As ever, click the title to read my full review of each book.

This month the starting book is…

‘Wintering’ by Katherine May (2020)

I’ve not heard of this non-fiction book before, but now having looked it up online I can see why: it holds absolutely no appeal to me. It supposedly “offers instruction on the transformative power of rest and retreat” via “a moving personal narrative shot through with lessons from literature, mythology, and the natural world”. So, given this isn’t the kind of book I would normally read, it makes it difficult to know what to link it to, so I’m going for a seasonal theme and choosing…

Minds of Winter

‘Minds of Winter’ by Ed O’Loughlin (2016)

This “wide-screen” historical novel is themed around the exploration of both polar ice-caps over two centuries and is jam-packed with everything you would ever want to know about expeditions to the Arctic and Antarctica. It also interleaves a modern-day storyline about the “Arnold 294” chronometer, an important marine timepiece, thought lost forever with Sir John Franklin’s fatal expedition in the Canadian Arctic. However, when it reappeared in Britain 150 years later disguised as a Victorian carriage clock people began to wonder when and how it had been returned…

Wanting’ by Richard Flanagan (2008)

Sir John Franklin appears in this historical novel about a 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”.  Sir John was governor of Tasmania between 1836 and 1843 before he went on his ill-fated expedition to chart and navigate the Northwest Passage. Charles Dickens, who was briefly obsessed with Arctic exploration, is also another real life character in this novel.

‘My Turn to Make the Tea’ by Monica Dickens (1951)

Monica Dickens was Charles Dickens’ great-granddaughter, and this comic novel — one of my favourites — is largely based on her time as a journalist working on an English provincial newspaper in the years after the Second World War. It reads very much like the diary of a young reporter learning the ropes and is filled with hilarious moments as Poppy tries to convince her editor that women are not a nuisance in the office. Poppy’s experience living in a boarding house ruled by a strict take-no-prisoners landlady is also very funny.

‘A Far Cry from Kensington’ by Muriel Spark (1988)

Life in a boarding house features strongly in this blackly comic novel by Muriel Spark. The story focuses on a forthright young woman who works for a struggling book publisher. She deeply offends a purple-prosed author by calling him out on his bad writing and from there, things escalate into farce.

‘Get Me Out of Here’ by Henry Sutton (2010)

Bad behaviour is the central focus of this novel, another black comedy, in which Matt, a 30-something brand-obsessed businessman, loses his grip on reality. While he’s obnoxious, self-centred and absurdly funny, Matt is not what he seems. The author scatters little clues here and there which allow you to build up a picture of the real Matt — and it isn’t exactly pretty.

‘Dirty Tricks’ by Michaele Dibdin (1999)

A troubled character who is also unreliable and unscrupulous stars in this wickedly funny novel. The unnamed narrator justifies his behaviour in outlandish ways. Initially, it’s easy to pity him but as the narrative unfurls you begin to get a better sense of his strange, skewed outlook on life. He not only has an inflated sense of his own importance, but he is also so lacking in empathy for anyone around him that he can only be described as a psychopath. His behaviour is so bad that the book is laugh-out-loud funny!

So that’s this month’s #6Degrees: from a self-help book about self-care to a black comedy about a psychopath, via novels about polar exploration, taming a “savage” in Tasmania in the 19th century, being a woman reporter on a provincial newspaper in the 1940s, life in a 1950s London boarding house and bad behaviour by a businessman in the 2000s.

Have you read any of these books? 

Please note that you can see all my other Six Degrees of Separation contributions here.

Book lists

Books that Made Us: Episode Two

Picture credit: ABC / The Books that Made Us

The second episode in the three-part TV series ‘Books that Made Us’ was screened on ABC TV tonight. (If you live in Australia and missed it, you can catch up on iView. You can also read my thoughts on Episode One here.)

This episode, called ‘Place’, was themed around cities and landscapes that have featured so strongly in Australian fiction, but it could easily have been called ‘History’ because it covered Aboriginal dispossession and our convict past, among other changes in Australian society over the years.

There were lots of wonderful interviews with most of the authors name-checked below, including footage of the late Patrick White, after he won the Nobel Prize for Literature (the first and only Australian to achieve that honour).

The books covered in episode two

Here is a list of the books mentioned in this episode. They have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname. As ever, hyperlinks take you to my reviews.

The next episode, entitled ‘Power’, will be screened next Tuesday at 8.30pm.

Australia, Author, Book review, Chatto & Windus, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Richard Flanagan, Setting

‘First Person’ by Richard Flanagan

Fiction – Kindle edition; Chatto & Windus; 400 pages; 2017. Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley.

Richard Flanagan is one of my favourite authors, but I put off reading First Person for years because I had seen so many bad reviews of it. I guess I didn’t want to have my high opinion of him altered in any way.

But I now wonder if those reviews, all published in the UK when I was living there, just didn’t properly appreciate the fact the story was about a real-life fraudster, John Friedrich, who dominated the Australian media landscape in the 1980s and early 1990s. It turns out that when Flanagan was a struggling writer — while he was penning his first novel Death of a River Guide — he was contracted to write Friedrich’s memoir.

This novel is a fictionalised account of what it was like to act as the ghostwriter of “Australia’s biggest conman”, a man who lied about everything, including where he was born and gave Flanagan so little to work with he had to make large chunks of it up. It’s a book about truth and lies and the grey margins in between, and it’s a riveting exploration of ethics and morality in publishing long before the internet or social media blurred the lines between fact and fiction.

But first, let’s talk a bit about Friedrich because I think it’s important to really understand the strange and slippery character that is at the heart of this novel.

Australia’s biggest fraudster

Friedrich, who committed suicide in July 1991 just days after he appeared in court on charges involving defrauding the banks of almost $300 million, was a complicated man.

He came to Australia, from Germany, in the 1970s using a fake name and fake qualifications. After various stints in construction and the Uniting Church, he joined the National Safety Council of Australia in Victoria, where he later became executive director. He was lauded as a hero (he was granted the Medal of the Order of Australia in 1988) because he greatly expanded the council’s role to become a vital search and rescue operation, investing money in high-tech equipment and state-of-the-art aids, but when it collapsed financially, thanks to millions of dollars worth of bank loans that couldn’t be repaid, he went on the run.

When he was found, after an exhausting nationwide manhunt, he was charged with 92 counts of obtaining property by deception. It later transpired that he was not an Australian citizen and did not have a valid birth certificate. Who exactly was this man? And how had he pulled the wool over so many people’s eyes?

In First Person, much of Friedrich’s backstory is not fully explained — it’s assumed you know about this conman’s activities — but there’s enough information for you to piece together the idea that he’s not to be trusted, that he’s done bad things and that there are so many rumours swirling around him — did he work for the CIA, for instance — that it’s seemingly impossible to get a handle on who he really is.

And that’s the dilemma that faces the narrator in the story: how does he produce a truthful ghostwritten memoir of a man who is so lax with the truth?

Fictionalised tale

But, of course, this is a novel, not non-fiction, so the Friedrich character goes by the name of Siegfried (Ziggy) Heidl, and the narrator is an impoverished writer from Hobart called Kif Kehlmann. Kif is writing a novel while working a series of unsteady jobs to make ends meet. He has a young daughter, Bo, and his wife, Suzy, is pregnant with twins.

The offer of a six-week job in Melbourne to ghostwrite the memoirs of a man due to go to prison tempts Kif because of its potential to break him into publishing, while also netting a much-needed $10,000 fee. But it comes with all kinds of strings attached (this novel does a nice send-up of the publishing industry and the bizarre “rules” of the trade), and when he meets Ziggy he does not like him very much and struggles to get any information out of him that could be used in the book.

Being nice doesn’t cut it, and Kif is too weak and ineffectual to deal with a hard nut like Ziggy who comes out with extraordinary words of wisdom and advice, quoting Neitzche and philosophising about life and how to live it.

You want to live without enemies, Heidl said, that’s your problem. You think if I am good and kind and don’t speak ill of others I won’t have enemies. But you will, you just don’t know it yet. They’re out there, your enemies, you just haven’t met them. You can seek them out or pretend they don’t exist but they’ll still find you. Trust me. You want to be like a dog that everyone likes, but there’s not a dog alive someone doesn’t want to kick or kill. You want everyone to be your friend. Why? Why bother?

Ziggy spends a lot of time having lunch with contacts, including investors he claims are going to help him build a space station in Queensland, while avoiding Kif as much as possible. Kif, in turn, spends a lot of time gnashing his teeth and then taking out all his frustrations on his poor hapless wife when he returns home for weekend visits to Hobart.

The narrative begins to build when it’s clear Kif is not going to meet deadlines or word counts set for him by the seemingly greedy publisher, Gene Paley, for whom he is working.

It’s not a plot spoiler to say that Ziggy dies — though whether by his own hand or someone else’s is one of the puzzles Flanagan explores in this fictionalised account — at around the three-quarters mark, and then First Person loses a bit of steam. The remaining quarter of the novel is taken up with Kif’s life after the memoir is posthumously published, riffing on the idea that his exposure to so many lies and untruths has somehow infected his own psyche, so it’s hard to tell what’s real and what’s not anymore.

Kif seems unable to reconcile the idea that writing novels for a living is a noble profession. A woman he meets in a New York bar sums it up neatly for him:

It’s fake, inventing stories as if they explain things, Emily was saying. Plot, character, Jack and Jill going up the hill. Just the thought of a fabricated character doing fabricated things in a fabricated story makes me want to gag. I am totally hoping never to read another novel again. Novels disempower reality, the beard said.

First Person is an eloquent, if somewhat uneven, exploration of truth, corporate greed and the idea that the past always catches up with you.

For another take on this novel, please see Lisa’s review at ANZLitLovers.

Sue at Whispering Gums has also reviewed this book.

If you like this, you might also like:

This documentary on 9 Now, is a good summary of the John Friedrich case. It’s part of the Australian Crime Stories series, so it’s likely to be geo-restricted to those with an Australian IP address.

Otherwise, this promo (see below) for a documentary that I don’t think has ever been made sums it all up rather neatly:

I read this book as part of #AusReadingMonth, hosted by Brona’s Books

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.

17905709
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.

d444b-6a00d83451bcff69e201a3fcb67eee970b-pi-2
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.

446bb-6a00d83451bcff69e201a3fce3c572970b-pi
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!