6 Degrees of Separation, Book review

Six Degrees of Separation: From ‘Our Wives Under the Sea’ to ‘English Passengers’

Six degrees of separation logo for memeThe first quarter of 2022 is over and a fresh one starts!

And because it’s the first Saturday of the month, it’s time to participate in Six Degrees of Separation, a meme hosted by Kate at booksaremyfavouriteandbest.

This time around I’m theming mine around stories set onboard ocean-going vessels. I think living close to a port — I can see the vehicles carriers and container ships in dock through my living room window as I write this — has somehow infected my subconscious!

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…

‘Our Wives Under the Sea’ by Julia Armfield (2022)

I haven’t read this book, which has only just been published in Australia. From what I can gather, it explores the aftermath of a deep-sea mission that goes wrong. This made me think of other books I have read that have involved the sea in some way, so my first link is:

‘Below Deck’ by Sophie Hardcastle (2020)

This engaging novel explores both the healing and dangerous aspects of life sailing the ocean. The 20-year-old protagonist has a controlling boyfriend, whose behaviour foreshadows her future relationships with men. When the grandfather who raised her dies, she heads out on a sailing trip with an elderly couple as a way of dealing with her grief. She ends up falling in love with the ocean and reinvents herself as a sailor, ditching her boyfriend along the way. But several years later, when onboard a trawler with an all-male crew, she discovers there are dangers other than drowning with which she must contend.

Another novel about a young woman confronting danger on board a ship is…

Atlantic Black

‘Atlantic Black’ by A.S. Patrić (2017)

In this lyrical novel, a Russian teenage girl on the verge of womanhood has her sense of freedom and bravura tested in the brief space of a day and a night. The entire story takes place on a ship mid-way across the Atlantic Ocean on New Year’s Eve 1938. Katerina, the daughter of an ambassador, is left to entertain herself when he mother falls ill. Oblivious to the personal danger she often finds herself in — mostly, it has to be said, from men who do not have her best interests at heart — the narrative takes the reader on a perilous journey of nerves and anxiety.

Another story in which a cruise ship features is…

‘French Exit’ by Patrick deWitt (2018)

In this comedy of manners, a rich, morally challenged matriarch fallen on bad times, flees Manhattan for Paris, taking her adult son and her cat (which she believes houses the spirit of her dead husband) with her. But from the moment the trio set foot on the cruise ship that takes them to Europe, a series of minor disasters befall them. And things don’t really improve when they get to France, either. It’s a funny book, with lots of laugh-out-loud moments, but when I recently tried to watch the film adaptation, I’m afraid I actually fell asleep!

Another book about travelling across the ocean to start a new life is…

‘The Cat’s Table’ by Michael Ondaatje (2011)

The first half of this deeply reflective novel is set on an ocean liner bound for England from Ceylon (before it became Sri Lanka) in the early 1950s, and the second is about the long-lasting effect that three-week journey had on an 11-year-old boy, who made the trip alone to be with the London-based mother he hadn’t seen for several years. Much of the early section is told in short chapters focusing on specific passengers — pen portraits, for want of a better description — that allow you to build up a picture of what it was like onboard and how much of an adventure it must have seemed for a young lad.

Adventure of a different type features in the next novel, which is also partly set on a cruise ship…

‘Up Above the World’ by Paul Bowles (1966)

This suspense novel, set in the mid-1960s, is essentially the story of a holiday gone wrong — in the worst and most possibly terrifying way. It’s about a married couple onboard a cruise ship bound for Central America who are taken advantage of during the trip. The pair regard themselves as travellers, not tourists, but for all their so-called worldliness and their willingness to visit places independently, their naiveté is somewhat alarming. This is a book to really quicken the pulse!

Another novel about a seafaring adventure coping with threats of a different kind is…

English passengers

‘English Passengers’ by Matthew Kneale (2000)

This brilliant seafaring romp is told through the eyes of more than 20 diverse characters. It’s a wonderful boys’ own adventure tale turned comical farce in which a Manx smuggling vessel inadvertently flees British Customs by sailing halfway around the world to Australia. To make the journey legitimate the crew brings a small expedition team with them that comprises a spiritually crazed reverend, a sinister racial-theorist doctor and a wayward botanist intent on finding the lost Garden of Eden in Tasmania.

So that’s this month’s #6Degrees: from a novel about a sea mission gone wrong via stories all set on ocean-going vessels to the final novel about a Manx smuggling vessel fleeing the authorities by travelling to the other end of the world!

Have you read any of these books? 

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

Australian Women Writers Challenge, AWW2020

22 books by women: completing the 2020 Australian Women Writers’ Challenge

For the fifth year in a row, I signed up to do the Australian Women Writers Challenge in 2020. My aim was to read 20 books; I ended up reading 22.

Here is a list of all the books I read; all are fiction bar two. They have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s name (click the title to see my full review) and I have tried, where possible, to provide information on availability outside of Australia, but note this is subject to change:


‘Two Sisters: Ngarta and Jukuna’ by Ngarta Jinny Bent, Jukuna Mona Chuguna, Pat Lowe & Eirlys Richards (2016)
Indigenous memoir about life in the Great Sandy Desert at a time when the arrival of Europeans and their vast cattle stations changed everything.
Memoir. Only published in Australia. You can order direct from the publisher http://www.magabala.com

‘The Killing Streets: Uncovering Australia’s first serial murderer’ by Tanya Bretherton (2020)
Narrative non-fiction that examines, in painstaking detail, a series of violent murders against women in Sydney in the early 1930s.
Non-fiction. Only published in Australia, but can be ordered via Amazon.co.uk

‘Lucky Ticket’ by Joey Bui (2019)
This wide and varied short story collection is written with an eye for the outsider and often championing the underdog or the unseen.
Fiction. Only published in Australia, but Kindle edition available in other markets.

‘Second Sight’ by Aoife Clifford (2020)
Well-plotted psychological crime thriller set in a small Australian coastal town still coming to terms with a fatal bushfire two years earlier.
Fiction. Widely available.

‘Dolores’ by Lauren Aimee Curtis (2020)
A perfectly paced novella about a teenage girl who hides her pregnancy from the Spanish nuns who take her in.
Fiction. Widely available.

‘Red Can Origami’ by Madelaine Dickie (2019)
Brilliant, politically motivated novel set in Australia’s tropical north about mining and the repercussions it has on local indigenous communities and the environment in general.
Fiction. Only published in Australia, but Kindle edition available in other markets.

‘A Week in the Life of Cassandra Aberline’ by Glenda Guest (2018)
A near-perfect novel about a woman coming to terms with her Alzheimer’s diagnosis by taking a long train journey home for the first time in more than 40 years.
Fiction. Only published in Australia, but Kindle edition available in other markets.

‘Below Deck’ by Sophie Hardcastle (2020)
Moving story about a young woman coming to terms with a sexual assault that happened in her past. It is quick-paced but has an emotional depth, and the language, at times, is rich and lyrical.
Fiction. Widely available.

‘The Survivors’ by Jane Harper (2020)
Set on the windswept Tasmanian coast, this is a relatively mediocre murder mystery focussed on two women who lost their lives more than a decade apart.
Fiction. Only published in Australia, but Kindle edition available in other markets. Hardcover due for publication in UK on 21 January.

‘Our Shadows’ by Gail Jones (2020)
Tale of two orphaned sisters raised in the gold-mining town of Kalgoorlie by their grandparents in the 1980s. As adults, they fall out but try to come to terms with their shared history.
Fiction. Only published in Australia, but Kindle edition available in other markets.

‘The House of Youssef’ by Yumna Kassab (2019)
This tantalising short story collection revolves around Lebanese immigrants living in the western suburbs of Sydney, offering insights into home and family life by people often caught between two cultures.
Fiction. Only published in Australia, but Kindle edition available in other markets.

‘The Hunter’ by Julia Leigh (1999)
A disquieting book about a mystery man’s secret mission to find the last remaining Tasmian tiger, which died out in the 1930s but has recently been spotted in the wild. Hypnotic and suspenseful.
Fiction. Out of print. Check bookfinder.com for copies.

‘The Animals in That Country’ by Laura Jean McKay (2020)
Dr Doolittle, eat your heart out! In this wholly original dystopian tale anyone who succumbs to a new flu virus can suddenly understand what animals are saying — and it’s not very nice!
Fiction. Widely available

‘The Spill’ by Imbi Neeme (2020)
Tale of two sisters whose lives go separate ways following an incident in their childhood that has lifelong repercussions for their entire family. Adultery, alcoholism and loyalty all feature. Gripping & original.
Fiction. Only available in Australia.

‘Shell’ by Kristina Olsson (2018)
Set in Sydney in the 1960s while the controversial Opera House was being built, this is a lush literary novel about art, architecture and family, as well as the importance of staying true to yourself and your beliefs.
Fiction. Widely available

‘Well-behaved Women’ by Emily Paull (2019)
A tightly written collection of 18 short stories, which are mostly framed around women who are, as the title suggests, less inclined to rock the boat.
Fiction. Only published in Australia, but Kindle edition available in other markets.

‘There Was Still Love’ by Favel Parrett (2019)
A gorgeous tale about the impact of the Cold War on a family. Set in Prague & Melbourne in 1980, it’s as much a love letter to grandparents as it is to the places we leave behind. A total balm for the soul.
Fiction. Widely available

‘Exploded View’ by Carrie Tiffany (2019)
Strangely hypnotic story about a teenage girl in the 1970s plotting to get the better of the stepfather who is sexually abusing her.
Fiction. Only published in Australia. Check bookfinder.com for copies elsewhere.

‘A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing’ by Jessie Tu (2020)
Shortlisted for the Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction, this 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.
Fiction. Only published in Australia. Check bookfinder.com for copies elsewhere.

‘Elizabeth and Her German Garden’ by Elizabeth von Arnim (1922)
Charming semi-autobiographical novel about an upper class woman establishing a garden of her own at a time when this was definitely NOT the done thing. Of its time, but a gorgeous read.
Fiction. Widely available.

‘The Yield’ by Tara June Winch (2019)
Multi-award-winning, multi-layered, multi-generational story that revolves around grief, loss and dispossession, but gently teases out what it is to be Aboriginal, to have a sense of identity, a true purpose and a language of one’s own.
Fiction. Widely available. Hardcover due for publication in UK on 21 January.

‘Swallow the Air’ by Tara June Winch (2006)
Beautiful, heartfelt coming of age story about a young Aboriginal woman trying to find her indigenous identity told in lush, poetic prose.
Fiction. Only published in Australia, but Kindle edition available in other markets.

You can see all my wrap-ups for previous years of the Australian Women Writers Challenge as follows: 2019 here, 2018 here, 2017 here and 2016 here.

I have signed up to do this challenge all over again in 2021 and will aim to read at least 10 books. You can sign up too –  you don’t have to be Australian or live in Australia to take part. Visit the official website for more info. The more participants, the merrier!

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2020), Allen & Unwin, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2020, Book review, Fiction, general, literary fiction, London, Publisher, Setting, Sophie Hardcastle

‘Below Deck’ by Sophie Hardcastle

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 304 pages; 2020.

If any book was going to slot into the #MeToo genre of novel, Sophie Hardcastle’s Below Deck would be right in there.

This simple yet moving story of a young woman coming to terms with a sexual assault that happened in her past should probably come with a trigger warning. And while the assault is just one aspect of this story, it comes like a sucker punch to the stomach and its aftermath informs everything that follows.

But this is not a heavy tale. Hardcastle writes with a lightness of touch. She sandwiches the traumatic event with more light-hearted aspects so you never feel too weighted down by it.

Oli at sea

The story follows 20-something Olivia — Oli — who is estranged from her parents and lives with her grieving (and grumpy) grandfather while she goes to university. She has a boyfriend, whose controlling behaviour foreshadows her future relationships with men — he doesn’t think she should accept the offer of a postgraduate internship with a prestigious investment bank, for instance, because that would make her more successful than him — but when she finds herself “kidnapped” on a boat her life takes a different turn.

The “kidnapper” is, in fact, a lovely older man called Mac, who loves to go sailing, and his partner is Maggie, a blind woman with synaesthesia — “It’s where you see colours when you think of or hear sounds, words, numbers — even time” — with whom she develops a fond friendship. Oli, too, has synaesthesia, processing her world and her feelings via colour. Maggie, for instance, is “velvet lilac”, Wednesdays are “blood orange”, two is “red” and nine “dark pink”.

Islands come into focus the way you wake up on a Sunday morning: slowly, like a painting, layer by layer. Block blue, at first. Then daubs of green, the outlines of trees, a band of white sand. A brown slab takes shape, all wrinkled and folded rock, until the cliff face opens its eyes.

It is the guiding light of this older couple that gives Oli her new-found strength to escape her controlling boyfriend, to come to terms with the sudden and unexpected death of her grandfather and to seek new adventures. She reinvents herself as a sailor, but it is a fateful trip several years later that puts her in danger. She sets sail with an all-male crew from Noumea to New Zealand and finds herself the subject of unwanted sexual attention.

Several years later, now a curator at an art gallery in London, Oli falls for a man who is perfect for her. He’s gentle, kind and devoted, but her past keeps holding her back.

Overcoming trauma

Without wishing to sound dismissive, I think I am probably too old for Below Deck to truly resonate, but I imagine if you’re a young woman this story would have a lot to say. It’s about misogyny and standing up for yourself, of finding your own voice, of learning to trust people, of making better life choices and dealing with past traumas so that you can move on.

Hardcastle deals with the issue of sexual assault with delicacy. The actual scene — “rape is the deepest red I have ever seen” — is deftly written, skirting over descriptions of the physical act, focussing instead on the ways in which Oli chooses to survive the assault, the voice that screams in her head, the emotions she goes through along the way. It is haunting and claustrophobic and harrowing.

But sometimes the narrative feels forced and lacks detail, jumping ahead too quickly. And yet when Hardcastle does focus on detail her writing really sings, especially when she focuses on the sea.

She enters the sea the way you come home, dropping your keys on the table, breathing out. A sigh of relief, the way the ocean holds her.

She has a particular penchant for similies. A gaze, for instance, drifts “across my skin like clouds across the sky”; waves lap at the shore “like gentle kisses in the middle of the night”; where cold weather is all-consuming “like falling in love. Total and unapologetic”.

Below Deck is an ambitious novel about an emotional reckoning, the beauty and language and colours of the sea, and about a young woman trying to navigate parts of her history she would rather forget. It won’t be for everyone — what book is? — but it will appeal to those looking for a quick-paced read with an emotional depth.

This is my 9th book for #AWW2020 and my 1st novel for #20BooksofSummer / #20BooksOfSouthernHemisphereWinter. I bought it earlier in the year, partly attracted to the cover I have to admit.