What We’re Reading: August

Annie 
Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner and The Yield by Tara June Winch

I’ve been reading lots of great forthcoming fiction at the moment, in preparation for the end of the year, but here are two that are out at the moment that I’ve particularly enjoyed. 

Fleishman is in Trouble is a highly accomplished debut novel from the New York Times staff writer, Taffy Brodesser-Akner. We follow Toby, a middle-aged doctor who is diving back into the world of dating after his protracted divorce. His phone is running hot with dates, but when his tween children get dropped at his door and his ex-wife is off the grid, he has to reassess his options. Blisteringly funny, tongue-in-cheek and surprisingly honest about the state of modern relationships, Brodesser-Akner weaves plenty of home truths into this book about marriage, responsibility and friendship. 

Closer to home, Tara June Winch’s third book The Yield is a beautifully rendered portrait of a grieving family and a changing town. August Gondiwindi is returning to her hometown after a decade in Europe for the funeral of her beloved grandfather. The place she returns to is in peril – mining corporations and greed threatening to remove the land from under their families’ feet for a second time. As she reconnects with family and old friends, August is hunting for closure. Interspersed with her story, we are given Albert Gondiwindi’s own account through a dictionary of the reclaimed Waradjuri language and the diaries of a German minister who established Prosperous Mission, where Albert grew up. This is a luminous novel about history, heritage, ownership and the power of language and story. The Yield would make a great book club pick!

Jess
Jim’s Book: The Surprising Story of Jim Penman Australia’s Backyard Millionaire by Catherine Moolenschot

Most Australians know Jim, his face graces arguably one Australia’s best known brands. But as I discovered through reading this fascinating biography, I actually knew pretty much nothing about him, in fact Jim isn’t even his real name! Jim’s book tells the story of both Jim the man and Jim the business, both tales are equally fascinating and at times astounding. Jim never set out to become one of Australia’s most successful business people, in reality his business evolved as a vehicle to enable him to continue to pursue his academic research, which focuses on the rise and fall of civilisations throughout history and Jim devotes a large part of his personal wealth to this continuing research. It’s often said that truth is stranger than fiction: although at times Jim’s Book reads like a quirky bestseller with a colourful main character, Jim Penman is one hundred percent real and he is one of the most interesting and memorable characters that I have read about for a long time.

Kate 
Three Women by Lisa Taddeo

I’ve been enchanted by Lisa Taddeo’s book Three Women, a work of investigative journalism unlike anything I’ve read before. Taddeo spends eight years with three women, getting to know them and researching their sex lives and desire. We learn about their formative experiences and how they came to be where they are today. In some ways these stories are ordinary, they could be anyone, but each woman has a defining element in her sex life. Maggie had a relationship with her high school teacher, Lina has cheated on her husband with her first love and Sloane and her husband are swingers. The way Taddeo traces how early experiences informed what follows reveals interesting insights into desire and power. I’m particularly interested in how systemic control has shaped the lives of many of these women. This element is both revealing and frustrating. The balancing of frustration with seduction and delight makes for an impressive and highly enjoyable read!

What We’re Reading: July

Annie 
The Fate of Food by Amanda Little and Three Women by Lisa Taddeo

A couple of non-fiction titles have held my attention this month. 

Amanda Little’s search for answers about the future of food production has led her over the course of several years to write The Fate of Food: What We’ll Eat in a Bigger, Hotter, Smarter World. Following the release of a report stating that climate change with irrevocably alter our world over the next 30 years (alongside all the other science that says we’re headed for disaster) I was feeling quite despondent. This book gave me some hope that while our situation is indeed dire, there are some very clever people working to solve or work around the issues that will arise for farmers and food producers in years to come.

Little has traveled from Uganda to Mexico to talk to people who are combining technology and traditional farming methods to varying degrees of success in order to battle drought, frost, rising sea levels and water shortages. She is frank about the mental hurdles she comes up against – for example her deep-seated prejudice against GMO food, which is challenged by multiple farmers and scientists. Far from being a stodgy science book, Little also weaves her own discoveries and experiences as a parent, a foodie and a failed gardener into the writing to create a fascinating look at how food is produced currently as well as how we will need to adapt into the future. 

The other book that I’m part way through at the moment which is totally engrossing is Lisa Taddeo’s much-hyped Three Women. It is being hailed as Truman Capote for the #MeToo generation and it is a truly astounding work of longform journalism. Over the course of eight years, Taddeo found three women who agreed to share their stories and truly immersed herself in their lives, attempting to uncover female desire.

Maggie was a student when she began an affair with one of her teachers, which she remembers as her first love. Now that she is older, however, she is attempting to prosecute him for his inappropriate sexual conduct while she was still a minor – but does she want justice or attention? Sloane is a successful business woman living in Rhode Island who is happily married to a man who likes to watch her having sex with other men, which she also finds exhilarating. Lina is a small-town woman in an unhappy, sexless marriage and has recently taken up an affair with her high school boyfriend, with whom she split up after being gang raped at a party in her youth. By submerging herself in these women’s very different and quite extreme stories, Taddeo manages to reveal truths about female relationships, self-esteem, bodies, sexuality and the desires that underpin all of our actions – whether they are acted upon or not. The writing is lyrical, hypnotic and sometimes painfully real, but Taddeo manages to honour and uphold her subjects with great dignity even as they share their most vulnerable thoughts. 

Charmaine

I am having a great time reading the 5th book in Kate Atkinson’s private eye series revolving around her beloved character, Jackson Brodie. But don’t worry if you haven’t read the others, this one stands alone and you will be rewarded. Some of this is laugh out loud funny, some very detailed human experiences, a cast of fabulous characters and a very sinister storyline running through it. 

It has taken 9 years for this 5th book in the series and you won’t be disappointed.

Customer Library Spotlight: Rex Hosking

A childhood fascination which grew into a lifetime collection….

As a child Rex Hosking has memories of seeing the books that his parents would borrow from a commercial lending library. He knew then that books were special, as at the time with money being in short supply the family owned no books themselves. As he got older, he was presented with books of his very own as a reward for doing something well, he “got the disease” he says. A lifelong love of collecting (of books in particular) was sparked, which is still with him to this day.

Rex, a former Headmaster who is now in his nineties, has a collection of over 21,000 books, all catalogued by hand and arranged by category across the bookshelves which line the majority of the rooms throughout his house. Over the past few years his daughters have helped him to transform former bedrooms in the old family home into cosy reading rooms. Originally, his collection was squeezed into just two rooms, but after he was sadly widowed five and a half years ago the decision was made to give the collection more space. With standing room only and many shelves stacked over capacity in one of the rooms, it had become dangerously inaccessible and wasn’t being shown off or used to its full potential.

Rex arranges his books primarily by subject with Australian History, Geology, English Literature, the Silk Road and even Lawrence of Arabia being some of his favourite topics. Rex also keeps a number of other collections including maps, his own photographs and slides, music on CD and cassette tape and sporting memorabilia. When it comes to sport, Rex has been a dedicated supporter of the South Adelaide Football Club since he was a boy. There’s a 1964 premiership jersey hung in pride of place on his sitting room wall and he mentions that he’s been to almost all of their matches. Always a keen traveller, he and his wife explored both Australia and the world. During the seventies they were intrepid enough to take on the trans-Siberian railway alone! Rex tells me that whenever he travels to a new destination in Australia, he always tries to find a book about the history of the place to add to his collection, which on the subject of Australian history now numbers over 4,100 items. For many years Rex worked as a guide at the State Library and still belongs to a book club that he founded with a group of fellow guides. Their group chooses a new leader each month and the leader gets to select a topic on which everyone can choose their own book to read. Rex will be leading the next group and has chosen the Black Death as his subject for reading and discussion, after recently completing a course on it.

If there’s one thing that Rex’s remarkable collection demonstrates so well it’s that a love of learning and discovery can flow through an entire lifetime and can lead to a vast and wonderful treasure-trove of knowledge and history. Rex’s love of reading and learning was clearly nurtured by his parents from an early age. Even when he struggled with what he now suspects was dyslexia, his parents gave him every encouragement to stay in school and keep reading. He says that the biggest reason he decided to go into teaching is because in his upper years he didn’t want to leave school! He continued to pursue both learning and teaching for many years after retirement, attending courses at the University of Adelaide, the WEA and even lecturing at the University of the Third Age on one of his favourite subjects — geology. Today Rex still devotes a considerable amount of his time to his collection. He is transferring his many volumes of meticulously handwritten catalogue onto an electronic archive program called End Note Plus, which he learned about during his Geology studies. Rex says this keeps him busy most of the time. His children and grandchildren sometimes borrow books from his collection and of course he still continues to add new items to his shelves whenever a new book happens to catch his eye!

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Photo and interview credit: Jessica Riordan

What We’re Reading: June

Annie 
City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert and Magic for Liars by Sarah Gailey

I’ve been reading a couple of incredibly fun books that have transported me far from dreary Adelaide.  

Elizabeth Gilbert’s City of Girls is a fizz and bubble of a book which centres female sexuality and joy. Vivian Morris is blissfully rich (and blissfully unaware of the fact) when she moves to join her theatre director aunt in New York City in 1940, at the ripe age of nineteen. Obsessed with glamour, clothing and her own reflection, she is also blissfully ignorant of the violence that is threatening to encroach upon her newfound freedom. Wickedly funny and delightfully debauched, Gilbert’s sentences are luminous as always and the characters are authentic and lovable. This book will get you high kicking with abandon while you knock back all manner of strong drink – a marvellously pleasurable read to be enjoyed without a shred of guilt.

Like most people, I’m a sucker for a good cover, and I think this one is a real doozy! Magic for Liars is a gritty crime novel that takes place in an academy for magical teens and the book is just as fun as it sounds. Washed up PI Ivy Gamble is called in to solve the grotesque death of one of her estranged twin’s colleagues and she immediately becomes enamoured with the lifestyle and promise that Osthorne Academy appears to offer. This is no Hogwarts; Osthorne is filled with real teenagers who would rather turn their magic to creating indelible graffiti or float vulgar shaped clouds past classrooms. But as Ivy begins to unravel the mystery, she also reveals the dark secrets that lie beneath the Academy’s facade – and also the family truths that she has tried for so long to keep under wraps. Complex, witty and dark, this is a great read for anyone who has enjoyed Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series or Lev Grossman’s The Magicians


Kate
Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

Two sittings with this little gem is all it took to race through Keiko’s intriguing world. Keiko does not live her life the way others think she should. As a child, she doesn’t get along with other children and doesn’t seem to understand basic social rules. When she gets a job in a convenience store when she’s 18, it seems she’s finally figured it out. We meet Keiko when she’s 36 and still works at the same convenience store, and she loves it. She lives and breathes being a store worker and marvels at the sounds, smells and routine of the shop. It is in this role that Keiko has found her life purpose, but feels pressure from her family and friends to have bigger aspirations. It is a strange and funny journey we go on with Keiko as she wonders about what to make of her life and if her connection to a convenience store is enough. This is a very touching story about finding ones place in the world. 

What We’re Reading: May

Annie 
Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams and Things in Jars by Jess Kidd

This month I’ve been reading two novels with
lovably quirky protagonists. 

Queenie is a funny, honest and sometimes heartbreaking novel about a young woman trying to find her feet in the world. The titular Queenie is vivacious, neurotic and recently dumped. She launches into the world of dating with an open mind, but quickly discovers that modern relationships aren’t as straightforward as they may seem. And perhaps she has to resolve her personal baggage before she takes on anyone else’s? 

I have read and enjoyed both of Jess Kidd’s previous novels, and her new one is no disappointment. It follows the Victorian lady detective, Bridie Devine, as she tries to track down a lost child – who may or may not be a merrow (a relation of the mermaid). The first problem is that her father doesn’t want Bridie to tell anyone what’s missing. The second problem is that she is being haunted by the ghost of a boxer … and he has developed a crush on her. Delightfully creepy and strangely tender, Things in Jars is based in Victorian-era London but people with thoroughly modern characters. Fans of The Essex Serpent and The Rivers of London series will enjoy this fantastic historical romp. 

Charmaine
Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson 

Jeanette Winterson has been one of my favourite authors since the late 80s when I was given a copy of The Passion. I was totally amazed at this magical fairy tale and have read most of what she has written since. Later this month her new book Frankissstein will be published and this one is a must read (I haven’t loved everything that she has written). The story is set in two time frames. One in 1816 when Mary Shelley is writing her story about creating a non-biological life-form. The other in Brexit Britain where a young transgender doctor is falling in love with a prestigious professor who is leading the debate on Artificial Intelligence, another character is launching a new generation of sex dolls and in America, men and women who are medically and legally dead have used cryogenics but are waiting to return to life. The writing is daring, funny and pacy – the issues are provocative and timely. 

Kate
Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli

I’m enjoying reading this book slowly, taking time to research and write down quotes along the way. I haven’t read like this for a while and it’s a pleasure to be so interested and in the moment with a book. Lost Children Archive follows a family of two sound-artist’s and their children from New York City to the Apacheria, the regions of the US which used to be Mexico. The parents are working on their own projects and have become distant from one another while in their own worlds. The father is working on a project about the history of the Apaches, retracing the steps of the last Native Americans conquered by European settlers; and the mother is working on a project archiving undocumented children travelling between the border of Mexico and the US.

As they travel, it feels as if you’re part of the family holiday with all the food stops, motel decor, quibbles in the car, map reading mishaps. It is a work-focused family travel trip, told through the lens of capturing moments through sounds. Alongside this narrative is that of undocumented children travelling from Mexico to the US border, hoping for safety, but facing the brutality of a system that doesn’t want to help them. The comparison between the children in the car and the children travelling without adult protection is an obvious but powerful one. The narrator wonders if it’s ethical to make art with someone else’s suffering and I’m not sure she finds an answer, but I think this book succeeds in humanising the border crisis and in turn, humanising the readers, so often desensitised by the news.

What We’re Reading: April

Annie 
The Forest of Wool and Steel by Natsu Miyashita and Gingerbread by Helen Oyeyemi

If you’re looking for dreamy reads, I’ve got a couple of great recommendations this month.

First up, The Forest of Wool and Steel is a gentle, gorgeous book that follows a young piano tuner as he learns his craft. Tomura first hears a piano being tuned in the gymnasium at his high school and it gives definition and purpose to his previously aimless life. As he listens to the freshly tuned piano, a beautiful mountainous landscape appears in his mind. He commits to years of training and apprenticeship in an effort to recapture the beautiful images that were conjured by a master tuner. A Japanese best-seller and winner of the prestigious Japanese Booksellers Award, this is a meditation on perseverance, success and what makes a good life. 

Helen Oyeyemi is one of my favourite writers, and her latest novel is no disappointment. Gingerbread is a loose retelling of the Hansel and Gretel story, but Oyeyemi brings her characteristic wit and quirky charm to the story, adding elements of magical realism, feminism and class to ensure it’s a completely modern take on the old story.

Harriet Lee has made gingerbread according to the family recipe for years, but her daughter Perdita has never quite believed that they hailed from the tiny, undocumented land of Druhástrana. Determined to reunite her mother with her childhood friend, Gretel, Perdita unknowingly sets off a chain of events that will force these exiled Druhástranians to confront their past and share long-hidden family stories. A funny, rollicking read that weaves an enchanting spell, give this book a go if you’re willing to suspend disbelief and indulge in some playful literary storytelling. 

Kate
Memories of the Future by Siri Hustvedt

One of the best feelings as a bookseller is when you arrive at work to find one of your favourite authors has released a new book! This is a sort-of biography of Siri Hustvedt’s younger self. As 60 year-old SH clears out her 94 year-old mother’s house, she finds a manuscript she wrote for a detective novel when she was 23 and had freshly arrived in New York. She also finds her diary from that time, and pieces together the person she was. As SH communicates between her younger and older self, she meditates on memory, time, and physics.

The voices of SH patch together the story of a young writer navigating New York City, friends, relationships and intriguingly, her next door neighbour who she listens to through the wall with a stethoscope. She’s drawn into her neighbours nightly monologues and discovers a world of women who open up a door to her own self-knowledge. This was such a joy to read. I was taken into the mind of young SH and felt her pain, anger, excitement, and intelligence blossoming. I would highly recommend! And if you haven’t read Siri Hustvedt before, please do.  

Lou
No Friend But the Mountains by Behrouz Boochani

Kurdish journalist Behrouz Boochani’s award-winning account of life in Manus Prison reveals the Australian government’s “systematic torture” of asylum seekers. It initially seems like a harrowing read: a refugee’s journey from Indonesia to Australian waters by boat, and a bureaucratic prison system whose goal is degradation and violence. But No Friend But the Mountains reaches deep into the psyche of imprisoned people, and incorporates the finest literary traditions and Kurdish storytelling to create a work of enormous dignity, beauty and power. Boochani’s voice is compassionate without being sentimental, ruthless but never cruel. Not only is this an essential read for all Australians, but it joins the ranks of prison writing and world literature, and is a testament to the transforming power of words.

Jess
Beyond the Footpath: Mindful Adventures for Modern Pilgrims by Clare Gogerty

Everyone needs time out, an opportunity to step out of a life consumed by day-to-day worries and concerns, an opportunity to rest the mind and rejuvenate the spirit. The lost art of pilgrimage provides us with just such an option if we choose to embrace it. Clare Gogerty’s beautiful book provides a modern pilgrims guide to stepping out of everyday life, whether for personal, spiritual or religious reasons and on to your own pilgrimage journey. She uses both her own personal stories and historical grounding to give the reader an understanding of pilgrimage and what it can mean today. There are practical tips and mentions of well-known pilgrimage routes, but also encouragement to seek out your own path wherever you may be in the world.  A book which smudges the boundaries between travel, history, spirituality and personal growth in a wonderful way.

What We’re Reading: March

Annie
All Systems Red (The Murderbot Diaries #1) by Martha Wells

This punchy science fiction novel is superbly well written and a thought-provoking look at both humanity and artificial intelligence. Narrated by a taciturn, self-aware AI creature, the self-dubbed ‘Murderbot’ has been deployed as a security robot for a team of scientists attempting to ascertain whether a new planet is suitable for commercial activity. When a rival mission ceases communication on the other side of the planet, the team take Murderbot to investigate. A story of corporate espionage and greed plays out as our aloof protagonist has to decide how much of itself to reveal to its human charges.  

Charmaine
A Universe Of Sufficient Size by Miriam Sved

I have just finished reading Australian author Miriam Sved’s new book (available in April), A Universe Of Sufficient Size. This wonderful story moves between 1938 pre-war Hungary where 5 brilliant young, Jewish mathematics students have been expelled from University just prior to the devastation that is about to to be wrought, and 2007 in Sydney where one of these (Ildiko) now lives following her escape. One of the five, Pali Kalmar (a character loosely based on the great mathematician Paul Erdos), is visiting Sydney on a lecture tour and the 2 are about to meet for the first time in 70 years. Long buried secrets are revealed. This incredible story is loosely based on the true story of Sved’s grandparents.  I highly recommend that you read this book, it is excellent storytelling about brave and talented people. 

Kate
Transit by Rachel Cusk

I’m currently reading the second book in Rachel Cusk’s Outline Trilogy. As in the first book, the narrator is a blurry character who mostly reflects other people’s lives. We rarely get much insight into who she is. In the first book she is running a writing workshop in Athens and we learn about the personal lives and struggles of the people she meets. In Transit, Cusk offers a little more insight into the character, Faye, yet we still learn about her mostly through the questions she asks other people.

In this book the character moves back to London with her two sons. She goes about buying a house and is advised by a friend to value location over building quality. She buys a dilapidated apartment in a block above a grumpy and menacing couple. She goes about making the apartment livable and settling back into London life. She has conversations with the homesick Polish builders and friends from former London days. She also runs into her ex-partner who still lives in the house they shared together many years earlier. These books are satisfyingly curious. Through the stable yet vague character of Faye, characters reveal details about their personal lives, desires and fears. Faye attempts to transform herself and her life but through brilliant insights and comic moments, struggles to meet the expectations she’s set up. 

Writers’ Week Reflections

What a wonderful Writers’ Week we had this year. We were gifted stimulating conversation and eventually some beautiful weather. The topics presented to us this year were challenging and fresh and were often the kind that needed some time to reflect on. We each made it to a few sessions and wanted to share our thoughts with you after some time to ruminate. We’re still stocking the Writers’ Week books so if you missed out on a title, we’re happy to help you find it.

Annie

As I have done for the past few years, I took a glorious week off to work at Writers’ Week as a driver. It means that I get to meet many of the authors and have hugely interesting conversations on the way to and from the airport, but don’t get to see many sessions in their entirety. The car air-conditioning was certainly welcome on some of those hot days though!

Communicating Complexity with Rose George and Carl Zimmer

One of the sessions I did get to was Rose George & Carl Zimmer talking about complexity. They are both science journalists and reflected on the current state of affairs in reporting complex issues in this world of post-truth, truthiness and fake news.

Both George and Zimmer lamented the rise of unregulated platforms like YouTube that can spread misinformation – for example, the millions of videos that support the idea that the Earth is flat. Neither author had a simple answer about how to change this dire situation, but agreed that journalists and the media must continue to provide clear, concise and engaging summaries of scientific and other complex information, as well as educating the public about how to evaluate truth in media. They also urged writers and communicators in specialized fields not to remain in isolation.

I have since read Rose George’s book Deep Sea and Foreign Going, which documents her time spent on an enormous container ship as she investigated how 90% of the things we use in everyday life are transported around the world. I think this is a great example of how to blend scientific reporting (on the marine environment, in this case) with the economic and political realities that seafarers face today.

We That Are Young with Preti Taneja

Another session I was lucky to catch was Preti Taneja talking about her debut novel We That Are Young. It is a modern-day King Lear, transposed (or translated, as Taneja put it) onto contemporary India through the voices of five young characters. Themes of division, identity, loyalty and family are immediate links between Shakespeare’s text and this novel, but Taneja has also taken much of the language of the original and adapted it into her setting. The resulting pastiche sounds incredibly rich, poetic and powerful. I am yet to read the novel but am fascinated by the blend of old and new that, from the passages read during the session, seems at once fresh and familiar.

Kate

Remembering the Myall Creek Massacre with Aunty Sue Blacklock and Lyndall Ryan

I’m embarrassed to say I’d never learned about the massacre Myall Creek before I came across this book in the lead up to Writers’ Week. If I had heard of it, I hadn’t learned about the scale and horrific details. In 1838 twenty-eight unarmed Indigenous Australians were brutally killed by eleven British colonists. Lyndall Ryan is an academic and historian and began the huge project of mapping the colonial frontier massacres in Australia. The Massacre Map details and approximates locations of massacres and provides sources of corroborating evidence. The map is an important step in acknowledging the extensive violence used against indigenous people in Australia’s history.

Her most recent book details the massacre at Myall Creek. This massacre was unusual in that eleven of the twelve assassins were arrested and brought to trial. Out of these eleven, seven were hanged. Lyndall was joined at the Writers’ Week conversation by Aunty Sue Blacklock, whose ancestors were murdered in the massacre. She spoke of her family history and the significance of growing up with this painful story. Aunty Sue was the leader of a committee who recently finished a memorial at Myall Creek. The conversation centred around the details of the trial and why it was one of the rare cases where the perpetrators were convicted but also the importance of remembering and acknowledging the extent of the violence that Australia’s First People experienced and ways toward reconciliation today. One of the most powerful moments of the conversation was when Aunty Sue said that in finishing the memorial she could feel her ancestors being set free. 

Too Much Lip with Melissa Lucashenko

This is one of the most energetic Writers’ Week conversations I’ve been to. Melissa Lucashenko is a Bundjalung writer and a born storyteller. It was a joy listening to her speak about her most recent book, Too Much Lip.

She started the session by reading a scene from an early chapter where Kerry, the main character, watches four waark (crows) eating roadkill before tearing off on her motorbike to visit her family after years of separation to say goodbye to her dying pop. Hearing Lucashenko’s voice and sound of the Bundjalung language gave the book such guts that I wanted her to keep reading. She spoke about wanting to convey the complexities and violence in the Salter family while keeping her characters nuanced. I was interested in hearing her speak of the importance that her characters have humour and moments of pleasure in order to paint a realistic but whole image of Indigenous characters, one that included sexiness and playfulness. I was already enjoying the book when I went to the session but afterwards I raced off to finish it.

Charmaine

Red Birds with Mohammed Hanif

I hope that everyone had a wonderful Writers’ Week and heard plenty of good discussion and got inspired to read some new authors.

I went to hear Mohamad Hanif talk about his life as a journalist and author on Sunday afternoon, and I liked his relaxed, easy and humorous style whilst at the same time he was talking about very serious issues in Pakistan. He talked about how long years of dictatorship and censorship has led to finding ways of speaking out by making fun of them.

Hanif is an author who uses satire to highlight these problems and in his most recent book — a dark comedy about human ugliness — Red Birds, he critiques US Foreign Policy, war and America’s role in the destruction of the Middle East. The book is set in a refugee camp and has 3 narrators — an American pilot who survives his plane crashing and ironically ends up in the camp that he was supposed to bomb, Momo who is a young  boy who has become a refugee businessman who finds and rescues the pilot and a Philosophical dog called Mutt. In this story Hanif asks some big questions. How can we have safe sheltered lives when half the world is getting bombed? What role have we had in ruining their homeland? Where do our lives and theirs co-exist? And do we have base urges for conflict/war?

What We’re Reading: February

Annie 
The Friend by Sigrid Nunez. 

Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend is a little gem. It follows an academic as she mourns the loss of a dear friend and colleague, but her grief is complicated by the inheritance of his very large dog. As she forms a close bond with Apollo, the Great Dane, the narrator debates ideas around animal-human relationships, art, writing and philosophy. It is sharply written, witty and wry and will ring true to anyone who has lost someone close to them.


I’ve also recently had the chance to catch up on a hit from last year, Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton, in which Haruki Murakami meets Elmore Leonard in a small town coming-of-age story. Dalton’s writing is “full florist”, enabling him to create beautifully deep characters in an unexpectedly dark mid-80s Queensland. Magic realist elements mix well alongside a good old fashioned Aussie yarn, with a cracking crime story at its heart.

Charmaine
Political Correctness Gone Mad?

Political Correctness Gone Mad? is ultimately a gripping little book, even though the title suggests otherwise. The ‘Munk Debates’ in Canada have led to a few of these, each a summary of a public debate that draws live audiences of several thousand, and millions more on Canadian and US public broadcasters. The books consist of individual conversations between the moderator and the speakers beforehand, the debate itself, then individual conversations afterwards. This fleshes out the contributions of the speakers, before during and after the theatre of the debate itself. The four speakers, Stephen Fry, Michelle Goldberg, Michael Eric Dyson and Jordan Peterson, each bring strong and very different perspectives to the topic, and any reader is likely to find their views wobbling a little as the debate progresses. The exact topic is ‘What you call political correctness I call progress.’

Kate
Zami: A New Spelling of My Name by Audre Lorde

I’ve been reeling ever since I finished this beautiful biography by Audre Lorde, self-described ‘black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet’. This is Lorde’s coming-of-age story — and what a life she had! She paints a picture of what it was like growing up black in 1950s Harlem. Her insight into the social and political climate of the time is so interesting and hers is a perspective I haven’t learned about before. Lorde’s mother was strict and her parents tried to protect her from racism by pretending it didn’t exist, leading to some confusing childhood lessons. She was a strong-headed child and determined to find her own way in the world. She writes poetically about discovering her sexuality and talent as a writer. Her approach to life is unique and refreshing. While she has fun with her misfit group of friends who support one another to be the women they want to be, she works at libraries, hospitals and factories, always becoming more herself and never giving in to societal pressures. The stories of her exclusion from work spaces and public life show the terrible structural racism of that time, which continues today. Her beautiful honesty about the women she loved was heartbreaking and exciting in its tenderness. I was totally wrapped up in her life and energy and didn’t want her to leave.

What We’re Reading: January

Annie 
The Fragments by Toni Jordan and The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton 

My guilty pleasure reads are twisty crime novels, in the vein of Agatha Christie or Dorothy Sayers, and this month I’ve read two books that are as literary as they are criminal. 

The Fragments jumps between 1980s Brisbane and 1930s New York as Caddie, a bookseller, seeks to find out the truth of a literary mystery that has gone unsolved for 50 years. There’s all the elements of a good thriller: a lost manuscript, a mysterious fire and untrustworthy characters aplenty. But this is also a beautifully evoked portrait of Brisbane in the Bjelke-Petersen era, a time of corruption and corporate greed. A fabulous read for lovers of The Last Painting of Sara de Vos.

The winner of this year’s Costa award for debut fiction is The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle and it is well-deserving of the praise being heaped upon it. It is a body-swapping, time travelling murder mystery in which our protagonist has eight days to solve a murder – waking up in a different body to watch the same day play out and try to unravel the secrets of Blackheath Hall. It’s a truly mind bending feat of plotting, but the likable narrator carries you through the twists and turns with aplomb. Fans of Cloud Atlas and Inception will love trying to figure out how this story ends (or begins … or ends? My head is still reeling).

Charmaine
The Odyssey by Emily Wilson

Last year I read a couple of novels that retold stories from the classics The Iliad and The Odyssey. Circe by Madeline Miller, The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood and The Silence Of The Girls by Pat Barker. These were all magnificent and inspired me to read The Odyssey (for the first time). This was a timely choice as the first English translation by a woman was published in late 2017.

Emily Wilson is professor of classical studies at the University of Pennsylvania. The translation is written in iambic pentameter verse in language that is highly readable. Odysseus’s story of war, travel, power, wealth, shipwrecks and magic is incredible, but I found the story of his wife Penelope intriguing, along with the Gods and Goddesses who add to the magic, drama and beauty of this epic story. If like me, you have not read this classic, I highly recommend Emily Wilson’s translation.

Kate
Infidel: My Life by Ayaan Hirsi Ali

I saw Ayaan Hirsi Ali on a Q&A about free speech a few years ago. I intended to follow up and read her book but like many of these moments I forgot about it until recently. After reading Malala Yousafzai’s biography I wanted to continue reading about women working for the rights of women in Muslim countries and finally got around to seeking out Hirsi Ali’s book, Infidel. What I found was an entirely different approach to Malala. Her story of resilience and strength is remarkable. Hirsi Ali shares stories about her youth in Somalia, Kenya, Saudi Arabia and Ethiopia – including some shocking moments of abuse. She writes about her escape from an arranged marriage to the Netherlands, where she fights for her freedom and voice. She gets in to university and begins working in politics, fighting for the rights of women in Islamic countries. 

In the context of her experiences, her opinions and politics are understandable – however, in the context of current attitudes toward Islam, her ideas are challenging. I raced through this book to find out what happens next in her harsh history. She writes clearly and from a passionate and personal perspective, which I greatly empathised with. Since finishing the book, I’ve been researching her ideas and the criticism surrounding her work and have discovered some interesting arguments on either side about such vocal criticism of Islam. I would also highly recommend the Q&A I was referring to. For those interested, there is also a critical review of Infidel by Lorraine Ali  where she writes “Hirsi Ali is more a hero among Islamophobes than Islamic women”. This review clarified some doubts I had about Hirsi Ali’s persuasive voice, however I still think this is important reading for a broad perspective on these ideas. 

Jess
Australian Dreamscapes by Claire Takacs

This book is a real treat both for garden lovers and lovers of nature and landscape photography. Claire artfully combines both aspects here with a series of intimate portraits of many wonderful Australian gardens and the gardeners and land owners who care for them. This book features gardens from all over the country, some coastal, some inland, some arid and all spectacular in their own way. Her interviews with the people who have created these fabulous landscapes add an extra dimension to the breathtaking photographs which you can happily lose yourself in during a quiet hour. For those with green thumbs the book also contains a handy photographic glossary of featured plants so that you can start creating your own dreamscapes asap.