Category: Reviews

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 2019

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.

Book Club Recommendations for 2019

For those lucky enough to be in a book club, we’ve got twelve recommendations that might have gone under the radar for your next year’s worth of reads.

FICTION
Happiness – Aminatta Forna
A novel of coincidental meetings and the unseen side of London
A Gentleman in Moscow – Amor Towles
Charming historical fiction that paints a picture of Russia after the fall of the Czar
The Death of Noah Glass – Gail Jones
A beautiful and lyrical novel about grief and love, with a compelling mystery at its heart
Circe – Madeline Miller
This feminist retelling of The Odyssey pays homage to the original while breathing new life into the ancient myth
Pachinko – Min Jin Lee
A sprawling family story over several generations of a Korean Japanese migrant family
Normal People – Sally Rooney
Two young people orbit each other in this intimate and beautiful novel about class and power
An American Marriage – Tayari Jones
A young married couple is ripped apart by injustice – will they find their way back together?

NON-FICTION
Eggshell Skull – Bri Lee
A gripping look at the justice system for victims of sexual abuse, from both sides of the courtroom
The Trauma Cleaner – Sarah Krasnostein
The biography of an incredible woman, working with society’s most vulnerable
Amateur – Thomas Page McBee
Page McBee analyses the complicated relationship between men and violence as he trains to fight in an amateur boxing match
Built – Roma Agrawal
Humans have sought to build higher and higher throughout history, but what advances have we had to make along the way to satiate our need for height?
The Feather Thief – Kirk Wallace Johnson
The invaluable theft of bird specimens from the British Natural History Museum is examined in compelling detail

What We’re Reading: December 2018

Annie
My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite and Still Lives by Maria Hummel.

I’ve just read a couple of smart, edgy crime thrillers that don’t quite fit the mould but succeed nonetheless.

My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite is a dark, inventive and blackly funny take on what it means to have a mass murderer in the family. Korede, a Nigerian nurse, is forever cleaning up her sister’s mess, but lately, that has extended to an unfortunate spate of dead boyfriends. When Ayoola’s attentions turn to the attractive doctor at Korede’s workplace, her loyalties will be split and her morals challenged. This is a novel take on the serial killer and explores deep-set family tensions with all the punchiness and zest of a Shane Black film.

Still Lives, by Maria Hummel, uncovers the seedy underside of the art world when an artist fails to arrive at her own opening. The new show happens to be about famous murder victims, as the artist paints herself into each scenario. But is this just another stunt, or something more sinister? A young gallery worker begins to dig deeper, at once entranced and repelled by the artist’s subjects and life. Hummel has previously written historical fiction and this is her first foray into crime, so it may displease some fans of the genre, but I loved the complex and gendered picture she painted (pun not intended, I promise) of the art market and women’s fascination with violent crime.

Robin
Just Add Glitter by Angela DiTerlizzi, illustrated by Samantha Cotterill and Little Brothers & Little Sisters by Monica Arnaldo.


This month I’d like to recommend two lovely new picture books. Just Add Glitter has exploded onto the shelves, bursting with energy and guaranteed to delight any child (or adult) with a penchant for all things spangled and sparkly. Angela DiTerlizzi’s exuberant rhyming text follows a little girl who receives a mysterious package of glitter in the mail, and proceeds to joyfully bedazzle everything in sight. But can there ever be such a thing as TOO MUCH GLITTER? We shall see! Samantha Cotterill’s unique illustrations combine line drawing, 3D collage, photography – and LOTS of glitter – to create a playful wonderland of shimmering splendour. This is a perfect book to read aloud and enjoy together.

Much more down-to-earth, but no less charming, is Little Brothers & Little Sisters by Monica Arnaldo. Her understated text and detailed, animated illustrations combine to catalogue the frustrations and joys of sibling life. This is a warm and well-observed picture book to snuggle up and share.

Charmaine
Becoming by Michelle Obama

I devoured Michelle Obama’s book, Becoming, in a week. I am an admirer of hers and this book confirmed my thoughts that here is a woman who is passionate about using her influence to improve the lives of children globally. The book is an easy and insightful read into her life — from very ordinary beginnings through to an extraordinary life as First Lady. Throughout the book she remains grounded, with a few reminders from her mother without whom she could not have done her job. This is a great holiday read and the perfect present for your loved ones.

Kate
I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai

I have heard all about Malala Yousafzai in the media and watched videos of her speaking, but reading her biography offers intimate insight into her incredible, and terrible, experiences. Reading about her picturesque childhood in the Swat Valley in Pakistan gives a new perspective on the sudden terror imposed by the Taliban. Her bravery is unbelievable as she stands up for girls right to go to school, writing of her experiences at such a young age for the BBC and having her life threatened when she was shot by the Taliban when she was just 15. While many expected she would die, it is astounding to hear about how she instead became a Messenger of Peace for the UN and the youngest nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize. She writes with clarity and with a charged but humble voice, sharing personal stories that are a pleasure, and privilege, to read. I am in awe of Malala’s strength and integrity and her book is a reminder of the potential people have to create change in the world.

Jess
The Mystery of Three Quarters: The new Hercule Poirot mystery by Sophie Hannah

From the outset of this story you are hooked simply because the within the opening few pages such odd things happen. You follow Hercule’s trail through the eyes of his friend and fellow detective Inspector Edward Catchpool of Scotland Yard as Catchpool and Poirot try to work out what is actually happening. Hercule has been falsely accused of accusing three other people that they committed a murder – a murder which nobody seems to be sure ever actually took place! As the detectives dive deeper into the lives of Poirot’s accusers it becomes clear that every one of them have secrets to hide, but do those secrets include something so dark as murder? I thoroughly enjoyed following this story through its twists and turns. Engaging, intriguing and easy to read, choose this book if you love a good mystery and love the at times laugh out loud eccentricities of the one and only Hercule Poirot.

What We’re Reading: November 2018

Annie
Wundersmith by Jessica Townsend and The Murderer’s Ape by Jakob Wegelius.

In Wundersmith, we return to the world of Nevermoor with our intrepid hero, Morrigan Crow, as she begins her first year at the magical academy, WunSoc. But everything is not as it seems and Mog’s loyalty and bravery will be tested. I think this second instalment in the instant classic series is even better than the first – without the need to introduce the world, Townsend has more time to develop her characters and plot. I giggled with delight at her magical inventions, shivered with fear at the action sequences and am so excited to urge this upon readers young and old. 

The Murderer’s Ape was released before Christmas last year in hardback, but I’ve just gotten around to reading the new paperback edition. Full of gorgeous illustrations, this is a noir crime thriller set in early 20th century Portugal and India. Sally Jones is a sensitive and intelligent ship’s mechanic, who also happens to be a gorilla. When her captain is wrongly arrested for murder, she sets out to try to clear his name. A fun romp for anyone aged 10 and up.

Robyn
The Afterwards by A.F. Harrold, illustrated by Emily Gravett

The Afterwards is a compelling, thoughtful and dark new illustrated novel, for confident young readers. Dealing with loss and grief, with an inventive vision for the afterlife, A.F. Harrold’s story is ambitious and imaginative. Emily Gravett’s illustrations are the perfect accompaniment: very gloomy, but in a friendly way. Fair warning: this book is deeply sad, and sometimes genuinely scary. But it’s also exciting and original, and has an immense amount of heart. Those eager readers from 8 to 12 years of age who can handle heavier themes will find plenty to enjoy, and to think about.

Charmaine
Not reading by e-reader

This is a comment about how I am reading, not what I have read. I downloaded Anna Burn’s Milkman (this years Man Booker winner) while I was travelling on my bicycle recently. But I didn’t read it – I found I did less reading on this holiday because I didn’t have actual books with me. So I started reading it last week and whilst I am loving the style of writing and the content, I have now decided to get a hard copy and read it. I wonder what your experiences are with e-reading because I really don’t like it. For me when I read, I am looking for an experience of relaxed luxury and immersion and I just can’t get this on an e-reader. When I hold a book, smell the book, turn the pages, see the words on paper, admire the cover – all in my comfy chair or in bed in the evening – I am having a special experience. One that I relish daily and look forward to. I would be very interested to hear your experiences of reading. Next month I will tell you what I thought of Milkman.

Kate
Milkman by Anna Burns

I’m luxuriating in Anna Burns incredible experimental form in Milkman. Set in the Troubles in Ireland in the 1970s, Milkman unfolds in an unnamed town where the narrator is strategically fighting off creepy advancements from a much older man. I’m learning a lot about Irish history and the social climate of this period of time. The narrator is a smart, witty eighteen year old who offers nuanced insight into insidious social control and surveillance. This is a book about a particular time but the pervasive control of women is something still so relevant. I’m loving the writing and empathise so deeply with the narrator. I am yet to finish it and am waiting on the edge of my seat to find out what happens to such a memorable character.