Category Archives: Favourite books

Windows into war…

Perth is about to begin a snap three-day Covid lockdown, which means that Anzac Day this Sunday will be our second in lockdown. Services have been cancelled and driveway remembrances encouraged.

As I wrote in a blog last year, I’m always conflicted in my thoughts about Anzac Day. I turn to novels not to resolve those ambivalences but to explore them further—something that good fiction does so well.

Here are five wonderful Australian novels that give us windows into war, encouraging empathy and compassion, and it’s perhaps not surprising that they are all also stories of love…

World War I

Where the Line Breaks by Michael Burrows (Fremantle Press, 2021): my interview with Michael here

Matthew Denton, a starry-eyed Australian completing his PhD in London, is determined to prove that the Unknown Digger—Australia’s answer to England’s Soldier Poets—is none other than war hero Lieutenant Alan Lewis VC of the 10th Light Horse.

Like Lieutenant Lewis, Matthew is in love, and fighting for what he believes in—but the footnotes to Matt’s thesis come to reveal that all is not fair in love and war.

One hundred years and a lifetime’s experience apart, it becomes more and more difficult to say what makes a hero, especially if that hero is supposed to be you.

Traitor by Stephen Daisley (Text, 2011): review by Lisa, ANZLitLovers, here

What would make a soldier betray his country?

In the battle-smoke and chaos of Gallipoli, a young New Zealand soldier helps a Turkish doctor fighting to save a boy’s life. Then a shell bursts nearby; the blast that should have killed them both consigns them instead to the same military hospital.

Mahmoud is a Sufi. A whirling dervish, he says, of the Mevlevi order. He tells David stories. Of arriving in London with a pocketful of dried apricots. Of Majnun, the man mad for love, and of the saint who flew to paradise on a lion skin. You are God, we are all gods, Mahmoud tells David; and a bond grows between them.

A bond so strong that David will betray his country for his friend.

Stephen Daisley’s astonishing debut novel is a story of war and of love—how each changes everything, forever. Traitor is that rarest of things: a work of fiction that will transport the reader, heart and soul, into another realm.

The Wing of Night by Brenda Walker (Penguin, 2006): review in Sydney Morning Herald here

In 1915 a troopship of Light Horsemen sails from Fremantle for the Great War. Two women farewell their men: Elizabeth, with her background of careless wealth, and Bonnie, who is marked by the anxieties of poverty. Neither can predict how the effects of the most brutal fighting at Gallipoli will devastate their lives in the long aftermath of the war.

The Wing of Night is a novel about the strength and failure of faith and memory, about returned soldiers who become exiles in their own country, about how people may become the very opposite of what they imagined themselves to be. Brenda Walker writes with a terrible grandeur of the grime and drudge of the battlefield, and of how neither men nor women can be consoled for the wreckage caused by a foreign war.

World War II

Bodies of Men by Nigel Featherstone (Hachette, 2019): guest 2, 2 and 2 blog here

Egypt, 1941. Only hours after disembarking in Alexandria, William Marsh, an Australian corporal at twenty-one, is face down in the sand, caught in a stoush with the Italian enemy. He is saved by James Kelly, a childhood friend from Sydney and the last person he expected to see. But where William escapes unharmed, not all are so fortunate. William is sent to supervise an army depot in the Western Desert, with a private directive to find an AWOL soldier: James Kelly. When the two are reunited, James is recovering from an accident, hidden away in the home of an unusual family—a family with secrets. Together they will risk it all to find answers. Soon William and James are thrust headlong into territory more dangerous than either could have imagined.

Vietnam War

Seeing the Elephant by Portland Jones (Margaret River Press, 2016): review by Lisa, ANZLitLovers, here

Seeing the Elephant is the poignant story of a remarkable relationship between Frank Stevens, an Australian soldier sent to the Vietnamese Highlands to recruit and train the local hill tribes during the Vietnam War, and his Vietnamese translator, Minh.

The story is told through letters from Frank to his grandfather. Seconded by the CIA, Frank has been sent to the Vietnamese Highlands to recruit and train the local mountain tribes to resist the North Vietnamese. Once Frank returns home the letters document his struggle to cope with life in Australia after the war.

Nearly fifty years later, Minh, now living in Australia and seriously ill, reads through Frank’s letters and remembers the experiences that he shared with Frank, and discovers that even amongst his traumatic memories, there is consolation and joy.

3 Comments

Filed under Favourite books

A year of reading…

In this singular year when many people have said they had more time for reading than ever before, I haven’t. But oh, how I have enjoyed the books I have read—books that have taken me places I’ve never been (in a year when no-one is going anywhere), opened my eyes to the wrongs of both past and present, made me think, made me cry.

Excluding books read entirely for research—and there have been many of those—I’ve read 24 books. Of those, 22 were by Australian writers, 17 by women writers and 7 by Indigenous writers. Only three of those unrelated to research were non-fiction, and there was one verse novel among the many novels.

Favourites? Well, it’s been a stellar bunch this year, and I find myself resisting any hierarchical ordering, but I’ll just mention a few.

Tara June Winch’s Miles Franklin–winning The Yield has made many readers’ favourites lists this year, and with good reason. This beautiful novel is equally a work of history, and I hope it will become mandatory reading for all young people. I also loved Mirandi Riwoe’s Stone Sky Gold Mountain, which won the inaugural ARA Historical Prize, and Ally Cobby Eckerman’s verse novel Ruby Moonlight hit me in the heart. And my most recent read, Jamaican writer Alecia McKenzie’s new novel, A Million Aunties, was one of the year’s stand-outs: deeply moving, engrossing and a joy to read.

During the year I also featured the following new works in the ‘2, 2 and 2’ series, in which authors talk about (among other things) their inspirations and the connections of their work to place:

Thank you to all these authors for sharing their thoughts and insights.

And so to 2021. I’m going to be spending most of my time in my backyard studio, surrounded by photos and maps and boxes of research, hard at work on my new novel. But I’ll come up for air from time to time. I have a new interview series coming on looking up/looking down and look forward to introducing some exciting new works of literary fiction.

Until then, thank you for all the messages and comments during the year, and I wish you a happy, more peaceful, perhaps less eventful New Year.

8 Comments

Filed under Favourite books

Indigenous Literacy Day

Ok, I’m a day late—Indigenous Literacy Day was yesterday—but I want to highlight a few of the novels by Indigenous writers that I have been enjoying recently.

It’s been a while since I’ve been able to find time for reviewing—something I like doing but won’t unless I can devote the time that all books deserve—so I’m including here links to reviews by Lisa at ANZ LitLovers LitBlog and Sue at Whispering Gums

The Yield by Tara June Winch, winner of this year’s Miles Franklin Award
Review by Lisa

The Wounded Sinner by Gus Henderson, shortlisted in last year’s WA Premier’s Book Awards (Emerging Writer categoy)
Review by Lisa

Too Much Lip by Melissa Lucashenko, winner of the 2019 Miles Franklin Award
Review by Sue

Terra Nullius by Claire G. Coleman, shortlisted for the Stella Prize and many other awards
Review by Lisa
Review by Sue

And the following are next on the TBR list:

The White Girl by Tony Birch
Review by Sue

Catching Teller Crow by Ambelin Kwaymullina and Ezekial Kwaymullina
Review by Lisa

The Drover’s Wife by Leah Purcell
Review by Lisa

Ruby Moonlight by Ali Cobby Eckerman
Review by Sue

I also want to give a shout-out to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation and the fabulous work they do in bringing books into remote Indigenous communities. You can find out more about their work here.

6 Comments

Filed under Favourite books

The latest book Q&A…

imagesThe lovely Felicity Young, author of the historical detective fiction series featuring Dr Dody McCleland (A Dissection of Murder and Antidote to Murder), has tagged me in this latest books-and-authors questionnaire (the ‘rules’ are pasted at the end of the post). You can read Felicity’s answers here.

What are you reading right now?
Traitor by Stephen Daisley, which won the 2011 Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Fiction and a slew of other awards, and I can’t believe it’s taken me so long to get to this brilliant novel. I’m also dipping into Paul Hetherington’s beautiful new poetry collection, Six Different Windows.

Do you have any idea what you’ll read when your done with that?
There’s a pile. Isn’t there always? Towards the top are The Fine Colour of Rust by P. A. O’Reilly, Shore and Shelter by Keith McLeod and Canada by Richard Ford.

What 5 books have you always wanted to read but haven’t got round to?
Poor Fellow My Country by Xavier Herbert (when I have a spare month)
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
Carpentaria by Alexis Wright
As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
The Watchtower by Elizabeth Harrower

What magazines do you have in your bathroom/lounge right now?
I don’t read magazines, but the West’s TV guide is usually on the coffee table and a couple of issues of Australian Book Review are there too.

What’s the worst book you’ve ever read?
I read something awful by Jackie Collins many years ago. It was like paint-by-numbers but with words.

What book seemed really popular but you didn’t like?
A Visit by the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

What’s the one book you always recommend to just about everyone?
Perfume by Patrick Süskind. (Recommending books is always risky: one friend threw Perfume back at me with the comment ‘You’re a strange woman, Amanda Curtin.’)

What are your three favourite poems?
Too hard. Three that spring to mind:
‘The Lady of Shallott’ by Alfred Lord Tennyson
‘Diving into the Wreck’ by Adrienne Rich
‘The Lighthouse Keeper’s Wife’ by Barbara Temperton

Where do you usually get your books?
Independent bookshops, usually. My ‘local’ is Beaufort Street Books. If I need something out of print or difficult to find, I’ll buy online, and because I do have a Kindle for travelling, I have to buy some from Amazon.

Where do you usually read your books?
Never in bed. Usually on the sofa in our family room. But I take my current book with me wherever I go in case I have a few spare minutes—for example, while waiting for the physio.

When you were little, did you have any particular reading habits?
I remember reading while lying on the floor with my legs on the sofa or over my head, almost upside down. (Hence the physio.)

What’s the last thing you stayed up half the night reading because it was so good you couldn’t put it down?
I’ve read some brilliant novels this year, but some that I’ve loved the most I’ve wanted to savour rather than consume avidly. One that did have that compulsive effect on me was Courtney Collins’s The Burial (my review is here).

Have you ever ‘faked’ reading a book?
No, but there were several lit theory books I read at uni that I might as well have faked, for all that I understood them.

Have you ever bought a book just because you liked the cover?
No. But in a bookshop I know I am more likely to pick up a book with a human figure on the cover than something abstract.

What book changed your life?
I did a blog post on this not so long ago, so I’m going to cheat and just give the link.

What is your favourite passage from a book?
I can’t choose between these two:

For…if a bird with a broken neck could fly away, what else might be possible? Water may be older than light, diamonds crack in hot goat’s blood, mountaintops give off cold fire, forests appear in mid-ocean, it may happen that a crab is caught with the shadow of a hand on its back, that the wind be imprisoned in a bit of knotted string. And it may be that love sometimes occurs without pain or misery.
—Annie Proulx, The Shipping News

Truly, he thinks, for all our desires and ambitions, lives mapped out, pledges made, in the end we live from day to day, as fragile as twigs, needing to be loved, urged on by hope and acts of kindness.
—Robyn Mundy, The Nature of Ice

Who are your top five favourite authors?
Only five? Aarrgghh! Gail Jones, Anne Michaels, Simone Lazaroo, Annie Proulx, Michael Cunningham…

What book has no one heard about but should read?
It isn’t true to say no one’s heard about it, as it won several awards, but I don’t think enough people have read Simone Lazaroo’s superb The Travel Writer.

What 3 books are you an ‘evangelist’ for?
Tirra Lirra by the River by Jessica Anderson
Sixty Lights by Gail Jones
Letters to the End of Love by Yvette Walker
Whisky Charlie Foxtrot by Annabel Smith
(Numerically challenged, I know.)

What are your favourite books by a first-time author?
Books by friends whose journeys to publication I have followed, cheering all the way:
The Nature of Ice by Robyn Mundy
The Alphabet of Light and Dark by Danielle Wood
A New Map of the Universe by Annabel Smith
Finding Jasper by Lynne Leonhardt
Arrhythmia by Richard Rossiter
The Albanian by Donna Mazza

What is your favourite classic book?
The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Five other notable mentions?
The Winter Vault by Anne Michaels
The Last Sky by Alice Nelson
An Unknown Sky by Susan Midalia
Incendiary by Chris Cleave
Bereft by Chris Womersley
The Hours by Michael Cunningham
Unless by Carol Shields

THE RULES
1. Post these rules
2. Post a photo of your favourite book cover
[see two of my favourites below]
3. Answer the questions above
4. Tag a few people to answer them too
5. Go to their blog/twitter and tell them you’ve tagged them
6. Make sure you tell the person who tagged you that you’ve taken part!

I’m tagging Lynne Leonhardt, Dianne Touchell and Natasha Lester (without obligation, of course!)—but everyone’s free to join in, so please don’t wait to be tagged.

A_New_Map_of_the_Universe_cover_mainEdn9781921696343

9 Comments

Filed under Favourite books