Book review

Books that Made Us: Episode Three

Picture credit: ABC / The Books that Made Us

The final episode of the Australian TV series ‘The Books that Made Us’ was screened on ABC TV last night. (If you live in Australia and missed it, you can catch up on iView. You can also read my thoughts on Episode One here and Episode Two here.)

This episode was entitled ‘Power’ and looked at novels largely through the lens of the power dynamic between men and women, and white people and First Nations people. There was also one book about politics and corruption.

The books covered in episode three

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.

There was also a montage of books by indigenous writers, which would make an excellent reading list for those who want to explore more by our First Nation storytellers. The list includes:

To be honest, I thought this was the weakest of the three episodes. I would have loved to have seen Thea Astley’s ‘The Multiple Effects of Rainshadow’ mentioned, which looks at the power-mad superintendent on a punitive mission for Aboriginals, but perhaps that novel isn’t well known enough.

And where were the novels about war? For instance, David Malouf’s ‘The Great World’, Roger McDonald’s ‘1915’ or Richard Flanagan’s ‘The Narrow Road to the Great North’. But again, maybe the program makers didn’t think there was a specific title that was popular enough to include and Flanagan had already had his name up in lights in the previous episode.

Interestingly, most of the books named in this series, not just this episode, have been adapted for the screen so there was plenty of footage to show and part of me wonders whether that was a prerequisite for inclusion.

And while I’m being a little critical, I must say as much as I do like Claudia Karvan, we did see an awful lot of her on screen — and how many times does she have to cry while doing a reading? I know she’s an actress, but the waterworks were a bit much.

But still, it was WONDERFUL to have our literature celebrated on the small screen like this. Be great if someone could now make a program about Southern Cross Crime, cos that’s recently put us on the world stage and there’s plenty to discuss and showcase.

Did you watch this TV series? If so what did you think? And regardless, do these lists make you want to explore more Australian fiction?

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!

Book lists, Book review

7 books for NAIDOC week

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

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

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

Too Afraid to Cry

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

Talking to my country by Stan Grant

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

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


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

Taboo by Kim Scott

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

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

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

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

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‘The Yield’ by Tara June Winch

Fiction – paperback; Hamish Hamilton; 344 pages; 2019.

If you live in Australia, you would probably have to be living under a rock not to know this novel by Wiradjuri author Tara June Winch. The Yield won this year’s Miles Franklin Literary Award, arguably this country’s greatest literary prize, as well as the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction at the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. It has been shortlisted for numerous others, including the Stella Prize and the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards.

It tells the story of August, a young Aboriginal woman, who returns home — after a decade living in London — to help bury her beloved grandfather, Albert ‘Poppy’ Gondiwindi. Poppy was midway through writing a dictionary of his people’s language, but his work has gone missing and August is intent on finding it so that she can finish the task at hand. But back on country, August discovers there are bigger challenges ahead: her grandparents’ house is about to be repossessed by a mining company.

It’s a multi-layered, multi-generational story that revolves around grief, loss and dispossession, but teases out, gently but oh-so surely, what it is to be Aboriginal, to have a sense of identity, a true purpose and a language of one’s own.

I read this rather extraordinary novel earlier this year (as part of my #20BooksOfSummer challenge), but never got around to reviewing it mainly because I couldn’t find the words to do it justice. Since then, I have seen numerous other positive reviews online — Lisa’s from ANZLitLovers, Sue’s from Whispering Gums, Kate’s at Booksaremyfavouriteandbest, and Brona’s at Brona’s Books — all of which are excellent summations of a truly excellent book.

Rather than repeat what others have said, I thought I would quickly describe three things I loved about this award-winning novel so that you get a flavour of what to expect.

1.The Structure

The book has three main narrative threads, which are told in alternate chapters: the first is August’s tale, told in the third-person, covering her homecoming and the pain and anguish she feels upon Poppy’s death, an event that triggers traumatic memories associated with the disappearance of her sister, Jedda, years earlier; the second is comprised purely of extracts from Poppy’s dictionary (more on this later) written in a conversational first-person voice; while the third is a handful of letters written in the early part of the 20th century by Reverend Ferdinand Greenleaf, a German national who established and ran the mission (upon which the Goondawindi family live) in 1880.

This trio of storylines gives us different perspectives — spanning more than a century — on identity and the Aboriginal “problem”.

2.The Dictionary

Poppy’s dictionary, based on the language of the Wiradjuri people, is completely fascinating for anyone who loves words and language. Each entry reads like the sort of entry you’d expect to see in an established English dictionary, such as the Oxford or Macquarie, with the word bolded up and translated into English.

But the definition is written in a conversationalist tone, with Poppy telling a tale from his past revolving around that word. Through these dictionary entries, he is able to share his life story and the importance of culture and language to his being.

sap of trees — ‘dhalbu’ The dhalbu of the bloodwood tree saved some of the Gondiwindi. When we were being gathered up to be taken away and taught the Bible and be trained as labourers and domestic servants, my great aunties were frightened and ran. Tried to hide their light-skinned babies in the bush. Some did get away and were never seen again. And some couldn’t leave in time and disguised their babies as full-blood by painting them dark with the dhalbu. Some of them were later captured. They wander around the river that appears when I travel with the ancestors, blood and sap soaked, hiding in plain sight now but still frightened.

3.The immersive nature of the story

This probably sounds a bit vague, but reading this novel was a truly immersive experience in a way I have rarely known. It’s like a bit of “magic” happened inside my brain as I read it, because somewhere in my mind I was able to triangulate the three storylines to build up an almost complete picture of not only what had happened to the Gondiwindi family over a century of struggle and dispossession, but I could see how it had come about and how resilient these people had become.

I was able to see how the Reverend’s aims, so easily written off as racist when viewed through modern eyes, came from an essentially good, if seriously misguided, place; I could feel inspired by the ever-optimistic Poppy, who had defied everything that had been thrown at him because of the colour of his skin to lead a fulfilling life full of meaning and harbouring next to no bitterness; and I could empathise with August, who ran away from all she knew because that was the only way she could handle a personal tragedy.

For all these reasons, The Yield really is a triumph of storytelling. I particularly loved and admired the ambition of it.

The cover of the UK / USA edition

The Yield has already been published in the USA; it will be published in the UK next January.

This is my 16th book for #AWW2020 and my 14h book for #20BooksofSummer / #20BooksOfSouthernHemisphereWinter. I purchased it from my local indie book shop not long after it was first published last year. I hadn’t really heard much about it at the time; I was mainly attracted to the pretty cover adorned with pictures of brolgas. Shallow? Moi? Never!

2020 Miles Franklin, Literary prizes, Tara June Winch

Tara June Winch wins the 2020 Miles Franklin Literary Award

Congratulations to Australian writer and Wiradjuri author Tara June Winch who was named winner of the 2020 Miles Franklin Literary Award for her novel The Yield earlier today.

The $60,000 annual prize is designed to recognise a novel of “the highest literary merit” that presents “Australian life in any of its phases”. Winch is the second indigenous writer in a row to win the award, following last year’s winner Melissa Lucashenko for Too Much Lip.

This how the chair of the judging panel, Richard Neville, described the winning book:

 “In English ‘yield’ signifies what one takes from the land. In Wiradjuri it is ‘the things you give to, the movement, the space between things: baayanha.’ The Yield explores the legacies of colonial violence, shame, intergenerational trauma and environmental destruction. Winch celebrates and amplifies the contemporary resurgence and relevance of the Wiradjuri language. The Yield, a story of pain, loss, resilience and hope, is a novel where the past is the present is the future.”

Typically, I haven’t read The Yield, although I bought it not long after publication last year. I started it on the weekend and from the first couple of pages I just knew I was going to love it. The prose style, the ideas and themes, and the structure all appeal to me. Stay tuned for a review coming soon.

You can read more about today’s announcement on the official website.

And you can see a list of the shortlisted titles I have read here.

2020 Miles Franklin

The 2020 Miles Franklin Literary Award longlist

If you follow me on Twitter, you will know that the Miles Franklin Literary Award was on my mind at the start of the month.

Imagine my surprise today to discover the longlist had been unexpectedly dropped via the Miles Franklin Instagram account. (See here.) Of course, I then visited Lisa Hill’s blog to check whether she had any additional news (and to see how many books she had read) and read the official announcement on Perpetual’s website.

There are 10 books on the list and I’ve read three. I have a handful more on my TBR. I’m not sure I will read all the books on the longlist, but will wait for the shortlist to be announced on 17 June and try to read everything on that.

The winner of the $60,0000 prize will be announced on 16 July 2020.

Below is a list of the books, in alphabetical order by author name, with the publisher’s synopsis underneath. Hyperlinks will take you to my reviews.

The White Girl by Tony Birch
“Odette Brown has lived her whole life on the fringes of a small country town. After her daughter disappeared and left her with her granddaughter Sissy to raise on her own, Odette has managed to stay under the radar of the welfare authorities who are removing fair-skinned Aboriginal children from their families.”

Room for a Stranger by Melanie Cheng
“Since her sister died, Meg has been on her own. She doesn’t mind, not really—not with Atticus, her African grey parrot, to keep her company—but after her house is broken into by a knife-wielding intruder, she decides it might be good to have some company after all. Andy’s father has lost his job, and his parents’ savings are barely enough to cover his tuition. If he wants to graduate, he’ll have to give up his student flat and find a homeshare. Living with an elderly Australian woman is harder than he’d expected, though, and soon he’s struggling with more than his studies.”

Islands by Peggy Frew
“Helen and John are too preoccupied with making a mess of their marriage to notice the quiet ways in which their daughters are suffering. Junie grows up brittle and defensive, Anna difficult and rebellious. When fifteen-year-old Anna fails to come home one night, her mother’s not too worried; Anna’s taken off before but always returned. Helen waits three days to report her disappearance. But this time Anna doesn’t come back …”

No One by John Hughes
“In the ghost hours of a Monday morning a man feels a dull thud against the side of his car near the entrance to Redfern Station. He doesn’t stop immediately. By the time he returns to the scene, the road is empty, but there is a dent in the car, high up on the passenger door, and what looks like blood. Only a man could have made such a dent, he thinks. For some reason he looks up, though he knows no one is there. Has he hit someone, and if so, where is the victim? So begins a story that takes us to the heart of contemporary Australia’s festering relationship to its indigenous past. A story about guilt for acts which precede us, crimes we are not sure we have committed, crimes gone on so long they now seem criminal- less.”

Act of Grace by Anna Krien
“Iraqi aspiring pianist Nasim falls from favour with Saddam Hussein and his psychopathic son, triggering a perilous search for safety. In Australia, decades later, Gerry is in fear of his tyrannical father, Toohey, who has returned from the Iraq War bearing the physical and psychological scars of conflict. Meanwhile, Robbie is dealing with her own father’s dementia when the past enters the present. These characters’ worlds intertwine in a brilliant narrative of guilt and reckoning, trauma and survival. Crossing the frontiers of war, protest and reconciliation, Act of Grace is a meditation on inheritance: the damage that one generation passes on to the next, and the potential for transformation.”

A Season on Earth by Gerald Murnane
“Lost to the world for more than four decades, A Season on Earth is the essential link between two acknowledged masterpieces by Gerald Murnane: the lyrical account of boyhood in his debut novel, Tamarisk Row, and the revolutionary prose of The Plains. A Season on Earth is Murnane’s second novel as it was intended to be, bringing together all of its four sections – the first two of which were published as A Lifetime on Clouds in 1976 and the last two of which have never been in print. A hilarious tale of a lustful teenager in 1950s Melbourne, A Lifetime on Clouds has been considered an outlier in Murnane’s fiction. That is because, as Murnane writes in his foreword, it is ‘only half a book and Adrian Sherd only half a character.’ Here, at last, is sixteen-year-old Adrian’s journey in full, from fantasies about orgies with American film stars and idealised visions of suburban marital bliss to his struggles as a Catholic novice, and finally a burgeoning sense of the boundless imaginative possibilities to be found in literature and landscapes. Adrian Sherd is one of the great comic creations in Australian writing, and A Season on Earth is a revelatory portrait of the artist as a young man.”

The Returns by Philip Salom
“Elizabeth posts a ‘room for rent’ notice in Trevor’s bookshop and is caught off-guard when Trevor answers the advertisement himself. She expected a young student, not a middle-aged bookseller whose marriage has fallen apart. But Trevor is attracted to Elizabeth’s house because of the empty shed in her backyard, the perfect space for him to revive the artistic career he abandoned years earlier. The face-blind, EH Holden-driving Elizabeth is a solitary and feisty book editor, and she accepts him, on probation … In this poignant yet upbeat novel, the past keeps returning in the most unexpected ways. Elizabeth is at the beck and call of her ageing mother, and the associated memories of her childhood in a Rajneesh community. Trevor’s Polish father disappeared when Trevor was fifteen, and his mother died not knowing whether he was dead or alive. The authorities have declared him dead, but is he?”

Exploded View by Carrie Tiffany
“In the late 1970s, in the forgotten outer suburbs, a girl has her hands in the engine of a Holden. A sinister new man has joined the family. He works as a mechanic and operates an unlicensed repair shop at the back of their block. The family is under threat. The girl reads the Holden workshop manual for guidance. She resists the man with silence, then with sabotage. She fights him at the place where she believes his heart lives – in the engine of the car.”

The Yield by Tara June Winch
“Knowing that he will soon die, Albert ‘Poppy’ Gondiwindi takes pen to paper. His life has been spent on the banks of the Murrumby River at Prosperous House, on Massacre Plains. Albert is determined to pass on the language of his people and everything that was ever remembered. He finds the words on the wind. August Gondiwindi has been living on the other side of the world for ten years when she learns of her grandfather’s death. She returns home for his burial, wracked with grief and burdened with all she tried to leave behind. Her homecoming is bittersweet as she confronts the love of her kin and news that Prosperous is to be repossessed by a mining company. Determined to make amends she endeavours to save their land – a quest that leads her to the voice of her grandfather and into the past, the stories of her people, the secrets of the river.”

The Weekend by Charlotte Wood
“Four older women have a lifelong friendship of the best kind: loving, practical, frank and steadfast. But when Sylvie dies, the ground shifts dangerously for the remaining three. Can they survive together without her? They are Jude, a once-famous restaurateur, Wendy, an acclaimed public intellectual, and Adele, a renowned actress now mostly out of work. Struggling to recall exactly why they’ve remained close all these years, the grieving women gather for Christmas at Sylvie’s old beach house – not for festivities, but to clean the place out before it is sold. Without Sylvie to maintain the group’s delicate equilibrium, frustrations build and painful memories press in. Fraying tempers, an elderly dog, unwelcome guests and too much wine collide in a storm that brings long-buried hurts to the surface – and threatens to sweep away their friendship for good.”

I reckon this is a really interesting list — there are only two new names to me (John Hughes and Philip Salom) — with a mix of men and women and diverse subject matter. I’m looking forward to reading the books already on my TBR. Have you read any of these books? Or have any piqued your interest? 

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5 fast reviews: Anne Enright, Taylor Jenkins Reid, Yukio Mishima, Bruce Pascoe & Tara June Winch

Sometimes I can’t quite review books as fast as I can read them. I am now working from home (thanks to the coronavirus lockdown), which means there’s little separation from working and home life, and when I finally turn off the computer I’m too exhausted to do much other than flop in front of the TV to watch Netflix or ABC iView or some other streaming service. I really can’t summon up any extra energy to pen a book review.

In the interest of keeping you all informed about what I’ve been reading, here are five books I’ve read in recent months, which I know I will never get around to reviewing in full. This is a pretty eclectic list but a good demonstration of my reading tastes and interests.

As per usual, the books have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname.

‘Actress’  by Anne Enright
Fiction – paperback; Jonathan Cape; 264 pages; 2020.

I am an Anne Enright fan. I was so looking forward to this novel that I bought it on the day of release in Australia and spent a weekend reading it at home on my balcony.

It’s about an aged Irish actress, the fictional theatre legend Katherine O’Dell, as seen through the eyes of her daughter, Norah, but it’s less about acting (though that is a major theme) and more about the ties that bind mothers and daughters, and what it is like to live in the shadow of a famous parent. (The cover, by the way, is a nice reflection of the story: it’s Carrie Fisher as a child watching her mother Debbie Reynolds on the stage.)

But for all its beautiful language and its rich characterisation and the authentic insights into human relationships, I came away from this novel thinking, So what?  It’s full of dark truths and hidden secrets (but is nicely balanced with a touch of subtle comedy), and I loved the way it chartered Katherine’s career from Hollywood to London’s West End and then her slide into obscurity, but there was just something missing that meant I struggled to fully engage or care about the people depicted…

‘Daisy Jones and The Six’ by Taylor Jenkins Reid
Fiction – paperback; Arrow Books; 401 pages; 2020.

I bought this novel to read on a longish four-hour flight from Darwin to Perth last month (just days before the WA borders were closed) and I absolutely loved it.

It’s very much in the vein of a music “documentary”, structured around a series of interviews with members of a (fictional) band that was big in the 1970s. It mainly centres around Daisy Jones, an ingénue singer-songwriter, who joins The Six, and helps propel the group to worldwide fame.

It charts the group’s rise in popularity and recalls the legendary tours, the chart-topping songs and the volatile recording sessions, and provides startling insights into the personal lives of the main players, including their drug addictions and their relationships outside of the music industry. It’s very much a story about sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, and the enormous pressures fame exerts on those whose creativity is the basis of their success.

Fans of Fleetwood Mac (whom the band is supposedly modelled on) will find a lot to love here. It’s hard not to see Daisy as Stevie Nicks and The Six’s narcissistic leader Billy Dunne as Lindsey Buckingham. This is a fun read but has a sad ending…

(For a similar sort of novel, I can also highly recommend Joseph O’Connor’s much-underrated and deliciously entertaining The Thrill of it All, which is the fictionalised memoir of a guitarist from a rock band that made it big in the 1980s.)

‘Star’ by Yukio Mishima
Fiction – Kindle edition; Penguin; 87 pages; 2019. 

Published as part of the Penguin Modern series of novellas and short stories, Star is a story about fame. First published in 1961 not long after the author himself acted in a film, it focuses on a movie star and eligible young bachelor called Rikio. A heartthrob growing more famous by the day, wherever he goes he is greeted by screaming fans. This feeds Rikio’s narcissism and his arrogance, and much of the story focuses on his quest to remain relevant so that the fame does not disappear.

But 24-year-old Rikio has a secret. He has a lover, Kayo, an unattractive older woman — “She looked at least forty but was barely even thirty. Her two front teeth were silver, and she wore her hair in a messy bun” — who is, in fact, his assistant. She does his hair and makeup, and because his good looks are so central to his success, she is his constant companion.

The novella examines the artifice of celebrity. It demonstrates how difficult it can be to live a life that is not your own and the stresses you must endure to be unfaithful to your true self. I wouldn’t say rush out and read it, but I found it kept me entertained over the course of a couple of lunch times.

‘Dark Emu’ by Bruce Pascoe
Non-fiction – paperback; Magabala Books; 278 pages; 2014.

There won’t be many Australians who haven’t heard of this legendary non-fiction book which debunks the long-held belief that Australian Aboriginals were nomadic and did not build houses or practise agriculture.

Pascoe painstakingly excavates evidence from the papers and letters of the first white settlers and explorers to show that pre-colonial Aboriginals did, indeed, do those things — and more. He finds written evidence that they built dams, farmed wild plants for food, constructed settlements and fashioned landscapes to suit their ends. They even had their own system of government. And he explains why it suited colonialists to suppress that evidence, to maintain the myth that Aboriginals were simply hunter-gatherers, a myth that remains to this day.

Dark Emu is a truly eye-opening book. I loved Pascoe’s simple prose, his well thought out arguments and his plea for better understanding between black and white Australians so that we can move forward together. If the book has a single message it is this: white Australians have an amazing opportunity to learn from 60,000 years of sustainable custodianship of this land and all it contains — but they have to acknowledge it first.

‘Swallow the Air’ by Tara June Winch
Fiction – hardcover; University of Queensland Press; 216 pages; 2006.

First published in 2006 but reissued in 2018 (in a really lovely small-format hardcover), this is a gripping account of a young Aboriginal girl whose single mother dies, leaving her (and her older brother) in the care of an auntie. When Auntie’s fondness for drink and men who throw their fists around gets too much May strikes out on her own. 

Told in a series of self-contained short chapters and vignettes (a bit like short stories), the narrative charts May’s ups and downs, the heartbreak she contends with, the crappy jobs she works, and the people — good, bad and indifferent — that she meets along the way as she comes to term with her past and seeks out her own indigenous culture. The redemptive ending, when she returns to her childhood home as a proud Wiradjuri woman, makes this beautiful, heartfelt book such a powerful one. Written in lush language, it contains so many evocative descriptions of people, places and experiences that it’s the kind of book you want to savour rather than rush through.

Oh, and did I mention it’s won a million awards?

I read ‘Actress’ as part of Cathy’s Reading Ireland Month 2020, an annual initiative to read books from Ireland. You can find out more about that on Cathy’s blog 746 Books.

I read ‘Star’ as part of Dolce Bellezza’s #JapaneseLitChallenge13. You can find out more about the challenge, which runs from 1 January to 31 March, here. This is also my 11th book for #TBR2020 in which I plan to read 20 books from my TBR between 1 January and 30 June. I bought it on Kindle last November for £1.99, not realising it was basically a short story.

I read ‘Swallow the Air’ as part of the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge. It is my 6th book for #AWW2020.