Historical fiction novel about family and political upheaval in Taiwan
Content warning: torture, mental illness
I bought this book in keen anticipation of attending one of my favourite book clubs: the Asia Bookroom Book Group. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to attend on the day, but I nevertheless was very keen to read one of this year’s set books.
“Green Island” by Shawna Yang Ryan is a historical fiction novel set initially in late 1940s Taiwan. Shortly after delivering his fourth child at home, an attentive and energetic young doctor called Dr Tsai is disappeared by Chinese Nationalists after speaking at a community meeting in favour of democracy and Taiwainese representation. Years later, he returns a different man to a family who almost don’t recognise him and a community who shuns him. Nevertheless, he forms a close relationship with his youngest daughter and takes a keen interest in educating her. As the years progress, the unnamed daughter finds herself married and in a comfortable situation in America. However, the tension and surveillance of mid-century Taiwan is not over, and as she is forced to revisit her father’s decisions and ask herself what she would do to protect her family.
This is a well-written and challenging novel that says as much in the scenes we don’t see as it does in the scenes we do. Rarely do people who have been disappeared return home alive, and Dr Tsai’s experience challenges the reader to consider the impossible situation a person is placed in, the extremes they are pushed to through torture and threats, and how far they will go to survive. There was a pivotal scene in the book where Dr Tsai is convinced that he is being followed and kept under surveillance, and his family dismiss his concerns as paranoia. However, it transpires that his instincts were correct and he was being watched, and this experience is repeated for his daughter.
Yang Ryan also explores the idea of betrayal and living with your decisions long after they are made. I also quite liked the juxtaposition between the narrator’s life in Taiwan and her life in America, and how in some ways it seemed so easy for her to slip into this sophisticated, erudite, American lifestyle and yet how difficult it was to escape the reach of Taiwanese politics. Yang Ryan weaves in themes of intergenerational trauma and the impact of tension in households on children. I found that the sessions with the psychiatrist were some of the most illuminating in the book and they leave you wondering what difference access to mental health support and financial security would have made to the narrator and her family back in Taiwan.
However, this was not always an easy novel to read. The focus is certainly on the characters and themes of family and while I certainly could understand the impact of the Martial Law Era, I found it difficult to understand the history of it. This is almost certainly a result of my ignorance, and I think if you are reading this book it would be worth doing a bit of background reading to help understand the broader historical context. Although a key character in the book, I found Jia Bao quite unfathomable and there were a number of tense scenes involving him, the narrator, her husband and Jia Bao’s family that I struggled to make sense of. The narrator has a complicated relationship with him and as a reader, I was left with a disconcerting sense of missed opportunity.
A compelling and tense novel that explores the emotional and moral toll of living under an oppressive regime.
Thriller about marriage and infidelity on an Italian holiday
Content warning: child grooming
After recently moving house, it has come to my attention that my to-read pile is too big. In my heart, I already knew this, but in unpacking and repacking my shelves I have had to face the reality of the situation. In 2020 I had a go at The Quiet Pond’s #StartOnYourShelfathon challenge and managed to get through 21 books languishing on my shelf (which was over a quarter of my books read for the year). This year, I’m trying a new challenge: The Mount TBR Reading Challenge. I am not doing very well so far! It has been a busy and challenging year so far but I have finally had a bit of time to try to get back in the swing of reading. I was looking for some inspiration to help me choose my next book and this book caught my eye after reading about the Siracusa Principles recently for work. I can’t quite remember where this book came from (perhaps an ARC from Harry Hartog?) but it will hopefully be the first of many form my to-read list.
“Siracusa” by Delia Ephron is a thriller novel about two couples who decide to holiday together in Italy. When Journalist Lizzie and renowned writer Michael find out their friends Finn, Taylor and their daughter Snow are going to be in Europe at the same time, they organise a trip together in Siracusa, Italy. However, as the book progresses it becomes clear that the trip may not have been as innocent as it initially seemed.
This novel was told from the perspective of each of the adult characters, with Lizzie, Michael, Finn and Taylor each offering their take and thoughts on the events of the trip. Ephron is a clear writer and draws on the seascape and architecture of the city to underpin the growing tension in the novel between and among the two couples. Although she didn’t get any point-of-view chapters, by far the most compelling character is Snow. There seems to be an inexplicable discrepancy between how the characters talk about her and the things that she does and this, I believe, is the most interesting thing about the book.
However, ultimately I felt the book frustrating and hard to finish. All four characters are inherently unlikeable, and it is a strange position to be in when you find yourself spitefully hoping that characters cheat on each other. I’m not sure the structure of four points of view worked; even though it is a relatively short book, the chapters seemed to drag the same dirt over and over. I also didn’t find the voices distinct enough from one another to be truly compelling or to provide unique insight into the ill-fated trip. There was something quite uncomfortable about the way Michael and 10-year-old Snow interacted with each other. While all the characters applaud Michael for the “special attention” that he gives to Snow, the way their discussions are described (including, at one point, as a “flirtation”) just felt ick to be honest.
A novel with plenty of the pieces of a compelling story but perhaps not the right.
Content warning: family violence, coercive control, physical abuse, sexual assault, disability, trauma
I received a copy of this book courtesy of the publisher.
“To the Sea” by Nikki Crutchley is a crime thriller novel about Ana and her family who live on a coastal New Zealand property they call Iluka. At 18 years old, all Ana has ever known is the house, pine plantation and cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean. In her family, everyone has a role to play: Ana and her mother Anahita manage the housework, her grandfather Hurley builds furniture, her uncle Dylan looks after the land and her aunt Marina organises artist retreats to supplement the family’s otherwise self-sufficient existence. Everything they need is at Iluka and there is no reason for Ana to ever leave. However, when she meets a man on the beach one day who seems to know who she is, and photographer Nikau on an artist retreat takes an interest in her family, Ana begins to ask herself questions like why she has no father. As the narrative shifts between Ana and her mother Anahita 20 years earlier, the answers to Ana’s questions grow more and more deadly.
This was a dark and tense book that showed how insidious and entrenched gender roles and violence can become in a family. Crutchley juxtaposes the sinister events of the books against an beautiful if unforgiving landscape, and I especially enjoyed her descriptions of the harsh coastline. It is a bit strange to write this, but there was considerable creativity in cruel ‘punishments’ meted out by Ana’s grandfather and some of the scenes feel etched into my memory. At the heart of this story is control, and as the book progresses it is gradually revealed why Hurley and, by extension, Anahita, are so obsessed with controlling everything and everyone in Iluka. This book is an excellent reminder of how two siblings who grow up in the same family can have radically different experiences. The different ways that Dylan and Anahita relate to their father highlights the diversity in how abuse and control can play out, even under the same roof. Crutchley prompts to the reader to think about the meaning of safety and how far is too far to keep a family ‘safe’.
Although overall this is a strong novel, there were some parts that did not feel as strong as others. Some of Ana and Anahita’s chapters probably weren’t necessary to the plot and could have been pared back to quicken the pace of the book. I also thought that some of the peripheral characters like Nikau felt a bit less developed. While I appreciate we were getting the story largely through Ana’s eyes, I think some of the later events would have felt more significant if the characters were more fleshed out. There was also a reveal at one point about a character’s identity which I had guessed way, way earlier in the book and I wasn’t sure that story arc added much either (except perhaps to reinforce the idea that people are awful and the outside world should be shut out completely).
A tense and well-written book that explores in depths the dynamics of an insular family.
Romance novels set in the Regency era recently adapted into a TV series
Content warning: spousal rape
Unless you have been living under a rock (no shame if you have!), you will have heard of the hit TV series “Bridgerton“. This lush, colourful TV series reimagines the Regency era of the United Kingdom’s history as racially diverse with characters of colour in leading, powerful roles instead of relegated to servitude or slavery. I was looking for my next running book, and I saw that the book that inspired the series was available as an audiobook. I was really interested to see how the original compared to the adaptation. I didn’t realise at the time that the second season was just about to be released. After binge-watching it (ahem, twice), I had a bit of a family health emergency that involved a lot of driving to and from hospital. With so much stress and time in the car, I decided to listen to the second book as well, so today I’ll review both books.
“The Duke and I” by Julia Quinn and narrated by Rosalyn Landor is the first book in the “Bridgerton” series. The story is about Daphne Bridgerton and her eight siblings Anthony, Benedict, Colin, Eloise, Francesca, Gregory and Hyacinth who belong to a wealthy family in England in 1813. The Bridgertons are a tight-knit family and known for their parents’ decision to choose names based on letters of the alphabet corresponding with their birthday. As the sister of a viscount, there is a lot of pressure on Daphne to marry well. However, it is her second season out in society and she has yet to secure interest from any eligible suitors. When she manages to fight off the interest of a very ineligible suitor, she has a chance meeting with Simon, an old friend of her brother Anthony who also happens to be an extremely eligible duke. Simon has sworn never to marry, but the two agree to pretend to be courting to keep the women away from Simon and pique the interest of the bachelors in Daphne. However, once they start spending more time together it becomes harder and harder to distinguish between what is pretend and what is real.
Season 1 of the TV series drew heavily on the main elements of this book, and while not identical, the stories certainly followed a very similar path. I think I actually preferred book Daphne in some ways: the focus was less on her beauty and grace, and rather on her personality and gumption. I felt that apart from his race, the duke’s character was very similar in both the original and the adaptation, and considerable time was spent on his backstory and his ongoing anger and shame about the way he was treated as a small boy. One of the features of the TV series is the ensemble cast and we get to see snippets of many of the Bridgertons and other characters as well as the main romance. In comparison, the book had a much narrower focus, and we barely get a glimpse of the other characters at all. I found the writing of the first book reasonably compelling and Quinn goes into a lot more depth when it comes to some of the more compromising situations the characters find themselves in. I enjoyed Landor’s narration and felt that she did an admirable job distinguishing between the different characters with dynamic voices.
Not to be an English purist, but it became swiftly clear to me that the author, although trying to emulate a Jane Austen-esque tone, is herself an American. Using phrases such as “off of” in place of “off”, saying “spit” in both present and past tense and referring to buttocks as “fanny” (which any Australian is going to raise an eyebrow at” did break the illusion for me a little. The audiobook included a little additional epilogue about the characters much later on, and I’m not entirely sure that it added much to the story.
Without trying to give too much of the plot away, I did want to mention a pretty universal criticism of both the book and the TV series. There is a particular scene in the book where one male character is drunk, and one female character takes advantage of this and has sex with him. It is pretty clear from the story that he was likely unable to give consent and had he been sober would not have consented to the sex. The scene in the book was far less ambiguous than the corresponding scene in the TV series (where the male character is not drunk but is certainly reluctant and feels there has been a considerable betrayal of trust) and it left me feeling very uncomfortable that there was not much remorse or condemnation of this act which fell within the definition of spousal rape. Instead, the reader is left with the sense that the ends justify the means. I felt that had the genders been reversed, it would have been completely unacceptable and while the book was published over 20 years ago, it really isn’t an excuse.
“The Viscount Who Loved Me” by Julia Quinn and narrated by Rosalyn Landor is set in the following year, 1814. This time, the story is about Anthony Bridgerton, a viscount who inherited his father’s title at just 18 years old and notorious rake, who has finally decided to marry. The caveat, however, is that he has decided that the marriage must be business only and that he will absolutely not fall in love. Half-sisters Kate and Edwina Sheffield have come to London to be presented to society in the same year. Dedicated older sister Kate is determined to find her beauty of a younger sister a successful match and Edwina is determined to have Kate’s approval. However, when Edwina catches Anthony’s eye as a sufficiently beautiful and intelligent woman, Kate refuses to consider someone with such a bad reputation as suitable for Edwina, no matter how wealthy and powerful. As Anthony persists in courting Edwina, he and Kate spend more and more time together and soon find that first impressions aren’t always correct.
I found the second book far less engaging. The chemistry between Kate and Anthony was lukewarm at best and what little tension there was resolved very early in the book, with many, many chapters spent on self-realisation rather than any meaningful plot. In fact, the plot was in many ways very similar to the plot of the first book with themes of compromising positions, love growing over time and the man withholding something until he realises his love for the woman. The writing seemed even less inspired, and I lost count of how many times characters “murmured” or “swallowed convulsively”. Quinn goes into absolute minute detail in her scenes, labouring over each character’s thoughts and observations. I felt that she was hamming up the English imitation a little much and wasn’t quite able to capture the humour or irreverence of other American writers writing about England like Connie Willis or Mary Ann Shaffer. Again, there was an extra epilogue in the audiobook that again, didn’t add much.
In contrast, Season 2 of the TV series was absolutely fantastic. Kate was reimagined as Kate Sharma who travels from India with her younger sister to try to find a match in London. The Kate of the TV series, played by Simone Ashley, was haughty, imperious, spirited and stubborn and is as fun as she is frustrating to Anthony. The way culture was woven into the story has attracted a lot of discussion, and questions of authenticity and consistency aside, it certainly added to the richness of the show. Anthony, played by Jonathan Bailey, brought a smouldering intensity to the character that generated white hot sparks against Ashley’s Kate – a testament to his acting skills as he is gay in real life. The pacing of the TV adaptation was exquisite, with the incredible tension between Anthony and Kate maintained throughout the entire series. Similar to the first season, the rest of the characters all have engaging and interactive stories so the romance is not in a vacuum, and I especially enjoyed the Queen’s interactions with Eloise and Edwina.
Although I was looking for something light-hearted during a particularly difficult time and this book certainly met that criteria, I think I will stick to the TV series from now on.
Content warning: post-traumatic stress disorder, war, self-harm, paranormal themes
I saw a trailer for the film adaptation of this book a few years ago, and saw that the novel was by Sarah Waters who I have never read, but who is quite well-known for her lesbian fiction. It looked really well shot with beautiful filmography and an eerie vibe. I tend to prefer to read the book before watching the film, and kept an eye out for the book in second-hand bookstores. However, it wasn’t until a couple of years later I finally saw the book at the Lifeline Bookfair. Hilariously, the film doesn’t appear to be available to stream anywhere online in Australia at the moment, so I still haven’t seen it, but I did finally get a chance to read the book.
“The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters is a gothic novel about Dr Faraday, a general practitioner in his mid-30s who lives in Warwickshire in the West-Midlands, England. Growing up poor, a pivotal memory for Dr Faraday is visiting Hundreds Hall, a grand Georgian house, as a small boy. Now grown, he is called out to Hundreds to attend to a young maid. Although the house has withered since the war, Dr Faraday is just as mesmerised as he was as a boy, and he soon forms a friendship with Mrs Ayres and her adult children Caroline and Roderick. However, it is more than the house that has changed at Hundreds. Initially concerned that the family members are experiencing mental health symptoms, even a rationalist like Dr Faraday begins to find it harder and harder to explain the things that are happening in the house. Increasingly involved, Dr Faraday must ask himself who, or what, is the catalyst.
This is a deeply unsettling book that really seeps into your bones. Waters maintains an exquisite amount of tension throughout the book by giving the reader just enough to spark imagination but not enough to ever result in a satisfying resolution. As the house slowly crumbles so too does the Ayres family. With one misfortune after another, I found myself looking for the culprit. Was it one person, was it another, or was it an inexplicable, sinister force? In the end, nobody seemed trustworthy, not even the narrator Dr Faraday. After the book was finished, I felt like that math lady meme, trying in vain to put all the pieces together. I always feel that a sign of a good book is that you keep thinking about it once it is done, and I definitely kept thinking about this one. Also, even though nothing too overt happens, I found this book genuinely eerie to the point of being actually frightening. At one point, I was reading the book at night while my husband was in the same room playing computer games, and he shouted at something happening on screen, and I just about jumped out of my skin, I was that on edge. I had to abandon reading it that evening and try again the next day during daylight because it was too stressful.
It was such a well-written and well-paced book that there wasn’t really anything negative to say about it except that given it was published in 2009, there were some things that perhaps may not have made it past editors today. One example being Caroline’s elderly Labrador retriever dog, who shares a name with a slur used to refer to Romani people.
A lingering and haunted book that is just the thing if you’re looking for a gothic winter novel.
Modern fairy tale novella inspired by rural Australia
It has been a bit of a topsy turvy year, and I’ve noticed that one thing that hasn’t been as regular lately as in years gone past is book clubs. However, after the second half of last year grinding to a halt due to new and emerging COVID-19 variants, my fantasy book club finally managed to meet to discuss a book in February.
“Flyaway” by Kathleen Jennings is a modern fairy tale novella set in rural district in Australia called Inglewell. There are several plotlines interwoven together with interludes of different background stories and tales about the region, but the main story is about a young woman called Bettina who lives with her mother in a town called Runagate. Bettina’s mother is very concerned about keeping up appearances, and Bettina does as she is told: looking after the garden, dressing appropriately and avoiding undesirable neighbours. However, when a young man called Gary accuses her of being a coward, and she receives a mysterious note, Bettina decides to disobey her mother and try to find her missing brothers and learn what happened to their father.
For a short book, this is a surprisingly complex and intricate story with many layers. Jennings is a writer of considerable subtlety, and many seemingly innocuous events or characters become incredibly significant later on in the story. I really loved some of the little side stories, and my favourites were Linda’s Story: Turncoat and Gwenda’s Story: The School in the Wilderness. They really added to the overall plot while giving the reader interesting background information, and while getting the balance right can be challenging, I think Jennings struck a good balance. Jennings also did something that I haven’t seen many white fantasy authors in Australia do: she did an acknowledgement of country in the acknowledgements section of the book and recommended some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander authors that readers may also wish to read. I think settlers writing fantasy based in Australia will always be a bit fraught, but acknowledging traditional stories and knowledge in some way seems like a really good step.
However, there were points at which where I thought the stories did get a little tangled. We spent a long time at book club discussing this book not because of how much we liked it or the themes that it engaged, but because we all found it challenging to determine exactly what happened in the book. I felt like the two scenes that were the most obfuscating were when ‘Jack’ goes to help Uncle Davy retrieve some bottles, and the final showdown at the end. I have gone back several times to puzzle out what happened and while I think that Jennings should be commended for her cleverness, you don’t want to be so clever as to be confusing.
A short book with surprising depth and enjoyable worldbuilding; Inglewell definitely leaves the reader with a lingering sense of unease.
Literary body horror novel about women at university
Content warning: bullying, sex slavery, horror
Ages ago I requested this book on Netgalley not because I love rabbits, but because the description was really intriguing. Unfortunately it was in my early days of the platform and I didn’t realise you had to download books within a certain timeframe and I didn’t get a chance to read and review it. However, I have remained intrigued by this book ever since and eventually I caved and bought a copy for my Kobo.
“Bunny” by Mona Awad is a literary body horror novel about a young woman called Samantha Mackey who has won a prestigious scholarship to study creative writing at Warren University in New England, USA. There are four other students in the cohort, a clique who call each other ‘Bunny’ as a term of endearment. She and her only friend Ava privately make fun of the Bunnies, and Samantha has even come up with a special nickname for each: Cupcake, Creepy Doll, Vignette and the Duchess. However, one day the Bunnies invite Samantha to their Smut Salon, and slowly and seemingly despite her better judgment, Samantha is brought into the fold. With Ava all but forgotten, the Bunnies show her how they really use their creativity and Samantha has to decide where she draws the line.
This was an incredibly refreshing book and I am so glad that I went and bought a copy. Awad wrote with an exquisitely twisted clarity, shifting tones easily between Samantha before the Bunnies and Samantha after. Warren University is like an parallel universe where everything is a little darker, a little more dangerous and a little more possible. A big theme of this book is loneliness and isolation, and Samantha’s difficulty connecting with people was cleverly written. The characters are erudite and mysterious, and Awad seamlessly weaves in modern social issues into their conversations. There was a lot of interesting commentary about university culture, and the banality of academic privilege juxtaposed against the surreal events of the book was, in my view, far more captivating than other books set in universities I’ve read recently. There is an excellent twist to this book and I won’t spoil it by saying anything more, but while I had some guesses, I did not come close to appreciating the full story. I also really enjoyed Awad’s commitment to the rabbit theme with subtle references throughout the book.
There was only one very minor thing about this book that I found a bit difficult and that was keeping track of the Bunnies themselves. Of the four Bunnies Creepy Doll (Kira) was probably the most distinct, and while I appreciate that they were supposed to be a bit of an amorphous blur, it was a bit hard at times to tell who was who.
I honestly was so inspired by this book that I went and made a playlist to try to capture its very particular atmosphere. This book has such a unique flavour, it really got under my skin and I am so glad I went out of my way to buy it.
Fictional science fiction podcast set in a future where forests are memories
I recently moved house and I knew that a huge job was going to be getting the garden ready for the final inspection. In addition to running, I like to listen to podcasts when I’m gardening and I was in the mood for something outdoorsy. I was scrolling through different podcasts that were not too long, and I came across this one. I really enjoy radio plays and this one looked really interesting and unique.
“Forest 404” by Timothy X Atack is a fictional podcast set some centuries in the future about a young woman called Pan who works in a job sorting through sound recordings from the past. The recordings are from a time known as the Slow Times, before an event known as the Cataclysm that destroyed most of the data. Pan is very good at her job, and finds it easy to delete music and speeches and stories from another time to create valuable space for more data. However, one day Pan listens to a recording that changes everything. Something she has never heard before and something she cannot begin to fathom: a rainforest. Pan is mesmerised and listens to the recording over and over, but little does she know that making copies of the recording is not only illegal, it is extremely dangerous.
This was a really interesting project. There were 9 episodes of the story, 9 episodes of interviews with various experts about different scientific questions, and 9 different nature soundscapes. The story itself was really compelling. The voice actors were excellent and there was a palpable sense of tension and urgency. I really enjoyed the effortless diversity of this book as well, and the complexity of Pan’s relationship with Daria. However, the interviews and soundscapes were equally as engrossing. It was really relaxing listening to the soundscapes while working in the gardening, and because each episode is so short it never gets boring. The writing was really good, but the editing was also really good and the entire production was thoroughly immersive.
A really enjoyable podcast that is perfect for any sci-fi fans who enjoy the outdoors.
Spiritual historical fiction novel about multiple generations of an Aboriginal family
Content warning: racism, segregation, sexual assault
I heard about this book when it was first published in 2020, and it was longlisted for the Stella Prize and shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards (Indigenous Writing) and the Indie Book Awards (Debut Fiction). I picked up a copy some time back from the National Library of Australia and I’ve been looking forward to reading it for a while.
“Song of the Crocodile” by Nardi Simpson is a historical fiction novel interwoven with spirituality. The story opens with Margaret, an Aboriginal woman who works at a hospital in a country town called Darmoor laundry for pay and caring for otherwise neglected Aboriginal patients for free. When she loses her job through injustice, it is but one of a long series of injustices that are inflicted upon her family directly and indirectly by the white settlers of Darnmoor including her daughter Celie, her granddaughter Mili and her great-grandsons Paddy and Yarrie. Meanwhile, a sinister and ancient force lurks beneath the town, emboldened by plans to change the course of one of the town’s rivers. It is up to Jakybird, a songman created from a piece of his mother’s hair, to gather together spirits and ancestors to sing the monster Garriya back to where it came from.
This is a beautiful and complex novel that explores the bonds of family, and the violence of colonialism, from every angle. Simpson’s strength is character development and she excels at depicting the irreparable and cumulative damage inflicted upon each generation of the family by white supremacy. The characters themselves were very interesting, and I enjoyed the earthiness of Celie, the otherworldliness of Mili with her reflective eyes and the pain and self-hatred of Paddy counterbalanced by the love of his brother Yarrie. Simpson honours traditional storytelling and it is through Jakybird and the duty he is charged with that we try to make sense of the ongoing and evolving harm perpetuated by colonialism.
A challenging book full of heart and truth-telling and one that stayed with me for quite some time after I finished it.
The Black Saturday bushfires were a horrific collection of disasters with an enormous cost that still reverberates across Australia today. Although I wasn’t in Victoria at the time, the most destructive of the fires was right next to where I grew up and right next to the town where several members of my family live. After the fires, when lots of locals who had lost their homes were trying to rebuild, my family’s book charity opened its doors to help replace the books people had lost as well. I have to admit, I didn’t follow a huge amount of the news at the time, I think to be honest it was a little too close to home. However, when I heard about this book and that it covered the trial and conviction of a man found to be responsible for one of the fires, I thought that now, more than a decade later and after the 2019-2020 bushfires, I was ready to listen.
“The Arsonist: A Mind on Fire” by Chloe Hooper and narrated by Sibylla Budd is a non-fiction true crime book about the Black Saturday bushfires. The book opens with a harrowing account of the experiences of many Victorians in the fatal Churchill fire complex, including those who lost their loved ones and the detective who begins investigating the case. As the story unfolds, it appears that the fires may have been lit deliberately by someone, and one too many coincidences suggests one major suspect.
This is a thoughtful, considered book that carefully steps through the events of the bushfire with a strong focus on the stories of the people involved. I think the strongest parts of the book were the stories Hooper told about the people most directly affected by the fires. I don’t think I will ever forget the story of the man who lost his wife before his eyes, or the teenager who texted his father goodbye. I think Hooper did try to take a balanced approach to the book by providing a lot of background about the life of prime suspect Brendan Sokaluk and how he spent his days, and acknowledged the uncertainty around intent, capacity and guilt.
However, in some ways this book reminded of “Joe Cinque’s Consolation” and while I think Hooper was more sympathetic to Sokaluk’s background, disabilities and mental health issues than Helen Garner was, I similarly found her coverage of the investigation and trial a bit uncomfortable. One of the things that Hooper talked about at length was Sokaluk’s diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Although she did focus on the ways that ASD may have impacted Sokaluk’s ability to understand police interviews, court proceedings and engage with his peers socially, I really felt like she speculated far too much about how his ASD diagnosis led him to set the fire due a particular theory that people with autism who set fires are “mesmerised” by the flames.
I listened to the audiobook so I wasn’t able to tell whether there was a bibliography or not, but Hooper was critical of a psychologist who was a court witness for not telling the court “that psychologists often [emphasis added] separate autistic fire-setters from others who deliberately light fires because some neuro-atypical people find the flames not just mesmerising, but soothing”. In somewhat of a contrasting view, a 2019 paper titled Firesetting and arson in individuals with autism spectrum disorder: a systematic PRISMA review noted that relatively little research has been conducted to date exploring firesetting or arson in individuals with ASD. While the paper did conclude that there may be some ASD symptomology that may contribute to arson, the paper did stress that there is no empirical support for an association between ASD and criminality, and that studies have found that people with developmental disabilities may be more likely to be victims of crime.
After listening to this book, I went back and checked the publication date (2018) because of my surprise at some of the language used. Several times Hooper refers to “Aborigines”. I note that IndigenousX states that this term “has largely disappeared in favour of Aboriginal people/s (except for a few older people who haven’t kept up with the times and a few racist commentators trying to make the point that *checks notes* they are cartoonishly racist)” and that the Australian Government Style Guide acknowledges this term can be offensive and discriminatory. Hooper also several times repeats the slur r*tard as it had been used against Sokaluk. These are words that editors and publishers should really be checking for prior to publication.
I know this review is getting a bit long, but I did want to make a quick mention of the narrator, whose familiar and rather comforting voice initially reminded me of SeaChange actor Kate Atkinson, but was familiar because she is the actor who played Gabby in the Aussie drama The Secret Life of Us. Budd has a very clear, empathetic way of speaking but occasionally I wondered if it was her tone or the text of the book that occasionally felt a little too simplistic.
An important book that provides a lot of insight into one of the multiple factors behind the Black Saturday bushfires and that eloquently and with empathy tells the stories of those whose lives were lost. However, a book that I felt went too far in some of its conclusions and that could have used more rigorous editing for respectful language by the editors.