Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Australian (page 2 of 4)

The Arsonist – Chloe Hooper

I know we live in an increasingly fast-paced world (the news tells me that every twenty seconds), but sometimes I still find myself wondering if a book is “too soon”. It’s been ten years since the Black Saturday fires here in Australia, but when I picked up Chloe Hooper’s book, The Arsonist, I couldn’t help but shudder. At the start of this year, we saw the worst bushfire season on record with blazes incinerating half of the country, and it proved that the wounds are still very raw. I’m still not sure, even now, that Australia is ready for this story.

Black Saturday would be familiar to all Australian readers, but for the benefit of my international Keeper Upperers, here’s a recap: the Black Saturday bushfires burned across the southern state of Victoria on Saturday 7 June 2009, fueled by extreme weather conditions, mismanagement, and (as the title of this book would suggest) arson. It was among Australia’s all-time worst bushfire disasters (and we’ve had plenty of them, so that’s saying something), resulting in Australia’s highest-ever bushfire-related loss of life – 180 recorded human fatalities – and an accommodation crisis for the countless communities ravaged by the flames, with over 3,500 homes destroyed. I wasn’t living in Victoria at the time of the fires, but I remember the wall-to-wall news coverage that went on for weeks, and I’ve lived there in the intervening years. Black Saturday is burned (for lack of a more appropriate idiom) into every Victorian’s memory. Hooper does give what (I hope) would be enough background information in the book itself for any reader, local or otherwise, to understand what happened that weekend.

“Soon it would be known as Black Saturday: four hundred separate fires had burned in Victoria, giving off the equivalent of 80,000 kilowatts of heat, or 500 atomic bombs.”

Page 37

The Arsonist focuses on two specific fires in the Latrobe Valley (though, as per the excerpt above, there were many more): how they started, the investigation, the trial, and the verdict. Hooper has described Latrobe Valley as “the forgotten fire”. At the time, most of the news coverage focused on the larger fires at Kinglake and Marysville; later, the restrictions on news coverage of the trial meant that the public didn’t hear much about it until all was said and done. I guess this is Hooper’s way of correcting the record.

The blurb sets out her purpose: “What kind of person would deliberately set a firestorm? What kind of mind?”





I can only imagine that the first pages were the most difficult to write, the ones where Hooper describes the fire and the initial police investigation into its causes. The details are horrifying: “even when brand-new toilets were flushed, the water was black” (page 35). I was in tears before 40 pages had passed: this is not a book for the sensitive or squeamish. (Seriously, even if you’re thinking “oh, but I’m normally fine with true crime”, don’t assume that you’re prepared for the awful power of fire, and the way that Hooper unravels this story.) She balances these descriptions, though, with more general and historical information – not sugar to help the medicine go down, exactly, but room to breathe between the scenes.

Hooper acknowledges the Indigenous history of using fire as a cultivation tool in the bush, which was a pleasant surprise, and she touches on that history repeatedly throughout. She also describes the DSM definition of pyromania, provides contextual statistics about unemployment in the Valley, and so on. She provides an account of the police arson chemist, George Xydias (who also investigated the Bali Bombings), following the trail of clues that led the police to suspect arson, to the witness reports of a strange man wandering around carrying his dog. That man was Brendan Sokaluk, the man who would (eventually) be charged and tried for the crime.

The Arsonist is divided into sections, each giving a different perspective on what happened that day and in the months that followed: the detectives, the lawyers, and so forth. The opening section, about the fire itself and the initial police investigation, might seem a bit one-eyed at first, as though Hooper is simply saying “here’s a creepy guy who set fire to a beloved area and killed a bunch of people”. But if you keep reading, through to the section with the barrister’s perspective, Hooper starts to claw some of the balance back, bringing in a counterpoint: “here’s a maligned man with intellectual disabilities, who doesn’t understand the gravity of what’s happening, who watches Thomas The Tank Engine, who just wants to see his dog”. Sokaluk is far from a sympathetic character, but Hooper at least makes him multi-dimensional.





Hooper draws from court transcripts and other documents to provide the reader with as much detail and context as possible, in a mostly-linear timeline. She doesn’t offer conclusions or judgements; in fact, Hooper is barely present in the book at all. She writes from a detached third-person perspective (until the final chapter, her coda, where she describes the process of researching and writing the book, and her attempts to reach Sokaluk for an interview). It’s the same approach, the same “vibe”, as the Netflix series Making A Murderer (actually, if you liked that show, this is definitely the book for you!).

While The Arsonist is ostensibly about Sokaluk and his trial, it has broader significance. It’s about the struggles of regional and rural Australians, especially those living in coal mining towns. It’s about poverty. It’s about climate change. It’s about our understanding of mental illness and neurodevelopmental disorders, and how they’re handled in our educational, medical, and judicial systems. And, of course, it’s about arson. Hooper taught me a lot about the nature of this type of crime – not just the person who commits it, but how it is investigated and prosecuted. Very few bushfire arsonists are ever “caught” – around 1% is the best estimate. Given that 37% of the many bushfires in this country are deemed “suspicious”, that number seems jaw-droppingly low.

While The Arsonist is meticulous and detailed, it’s not necessarily comprehensive. The subsequent Royal Commission into the Black Saturday bushfires is mentioned a couple of times, but not covered in depth. Hooper ends the book with Sokaluk’s imprisonment, and the reactions of his family and community to his conviction. Don’t come to The Arsonist expecting “answers”. It’s not a thrilling police procedural where the bad guy is hunted down by the good guys and gets what’s coming to him. It’s an intimate portrait of a man who was found guilty of a horrendous crime, with many questions left lingering as to how, why, and even whether.

I recommend The Arsonist to true crime fans who worry that they’re completely numb after endless accounts of grisly serial murders. And, of course, I recommend it to all Australians who remember that day – but only if you think you can stomach it. (Seriously, trigger warning for fire and general horror!) Perhaps it’s too soon, perhaps not, but either way I’m grateful to Hooper for her attention and dedication in recounting this story and recording it for posterity.

If you want to know more about the Black Saturday fires and Brendan Sokaluk, I highly. recommend Brendan Sokaluk: Inside The Mind Of An Arsonist from the ABC, and The Burning Question, an episode of Australian Story.


Big Little Lies – Liane Moriarty

Even when I’m working my way through a set reading list, I’m still, at my core, a mood reader. When I’m down, I want a book that’s going to cheer me up. When I’m on top of the world, I want a book that’s going to challenge me. And after Ulysses, I was in the mood for some F.U.N. I didn’t want anything literary or high-minded or complex – I wanted a page-turner, dammit, and I wanted it NOW! So, where to turn but to Liane Moriarty’s ubiquitous smash hit, Big Little Lies? I was worried that I was the last person left in the world who hadn’t read this book. Honestly, how I managed to avoid any spoilers is beyond me… (this review is going to be chock-full of them, by the way, so if it turns out I wasn’t in fact the last person ever to read it, you might want to look away now.)

I had some idea of what I was getting into: I read and reviewed Moriarty’s fifth novel, The Husband’s Secret, last year. Big Little Lies, published in 2014, was her follow-up. It looks like she knew she’d stumbled onto a winning formula (three women-centric stories woven together in a domestic-thriller-type set-up), and figured she’d stick with it. Good call, on her part!

So, let’s meet the ladies. We’ve got Jane, the single mother who moves to Sydney’s Northern Beaches with her son, Ziggy. She enrolls him at the local Pirriwee Public School (entirely fictional, for those of you playing overseas). There, she meets Madeline, who has a daughter Ziggy’s age, and Celeste, who has twin boys that age, too. The three of them strike up a friendship – more of an alliance, really, to protect themselves in the political battles with other factions of school mums.

Each of them, naturally, has their own set of problems. Jane is dealing with the aftermath of the sexual assault in which Ziggy was conceived. Madeline is hella jealous that her teenage daughter from a previous marriage is growing close to her ex-husband’s new hippie wife, Bonnie. Celeste’s relationship with her wealthy, charismatic husband, Perry, is abusive and toxic (to say the least). So, clearly, it’s massive trigger warnings all ’round, for all types of violence against women (even sex slavery gets a look in, via the passion project of Madeline’s teenage daughter). The point, it seems, is that men are garbage – but at least the women in Big Little Lies have more agency than any of the women in The Husband’s Secret. It’s a far more enjoyable read for that reason alone!





As the story unfolds, each chapter is punctuated with extracts from witness interviews with a journalist, just to keep the lure dangling and really exaggerate the characterisation. See, something went down at a school trivia night, someone is dead, and these little snippets are like banner ads from Moriarty every few pages: SUBURBIA IS A LIE! SOMEONE WAS MURDERED! DON’T YOU WANT TO KNOW WHO, AND HOW? KEEP READING! It’s not subtle. I must say, I heaved a sigh of relief when she revealed, about a hundred pages in, that it was a parent who died; I mean, that’s not great news, but at least we were spared any particularly-gruesome child murders.

After the three women have grown quite close, Jane reveals the details of the sexual assault that’s got her all messed up. She says the man’s name was Saxon Banks. That raises a red flag for Celeste and Madeline, because that’s the name of Perry’s cousin. Celeste actually knows him, from family barbecues and whatnot. They decide to keep that little nugget of information to themselves, though, right until the very end. Perry also busts Celeste setting up her own apartment, and figures out that she’s planning to leave him – if you know anything at all about domestic violence, you know that this is Bad News. His violence towards her escalates accordingly.

And let’s not forget all the kiddie drama that’s playing out at the same time! Ziggy is accused of bullying another child at Pirriwee, and the mothers tear one another apart like lionesses fighting over a warthog carcass. It takes a while, but eventually Jane and Celeste work out that it’s actually one of Celeste’s sons doing the bullying, apparently taking after his violent father.

It all comes to a head at the Pirriwee Public Trivia Night fundraiser. All the parents get together, get drunk, and the titular big little lies come unravelled. This is what all the witness statements have been hinting at throughout the book. Perry is revealed to be Jane’s rapist; he used his cousin’s name, the way he used to as a kid, to get out of trouble. When Celeste calls him out (“hello, excuse me, yes, you’re the absolute worst”), he backhands her. Unbeknownst to him, Bonnie – remember her? Madeline’s ex-husband’s new hippie wife – was the child of a violent relationship, and seeing Perry hit Celeste causes her to freak the fuck out. She ends up pushing Perry over the balcony, to his death.





Yes, it’s all a little neat, a little convenient, but I still thoroughly enjoyed it. I much preferred the structure of Big Little Lies to The Husband’s Secret. The relationships between characters seemed much clearer (if you’re struggling to follow in this review, the fault is entirely mine!), as did the chronology of events. It was just a far better effort overall. Moriarty didn’t even have to resort to a saccharine explains-it-all epilogue. Big Little Lies didn’t have the most realistic ending, but it was certainly a satisfying one.

I was surprised at how dark it was, really, even though it managed to make me chuckle now and then. A New York Times book review said: “A seemingly fluffy book suddenly touches base with vicious reality”, which is spot on. There are laughs to be had, sure, but they’re ornaments on pretty heavy and disturbing subject matter. I hope everyone who picks this one up does so with eyes open…

The TV miniseries, produced by HBO in 2017 (starring Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, and Shailene Woodley) won eight Emmy Awards. The second season, based on a follow-up novella by Moriarty, brought in Meryl Streep(!). I haven’t watched either of them yet, but I checked out the trailers on YouTube; it looks like they’ve moved the setting to the States (boo!), but that’s the nature of the beast, I guess.

At the end of the day, Big Little Lies isn’t a “literary” read, but it lived up to the hype as far as I’m concerned. It was just what I needed after the brain-draining monster that was Ulysses! Moriarty’s writing was compelling, perfectly page-turner-y, and reminded me of how much fun reading can be. I would sum up Big Little Lies as being The Slap meets House Husbands, with a female cast and a murder mystery at its heart.

P.S. In her acknowledgements, Moriarty says: “Now seems like a good time to make clear that the parents at the lovely school where my children currently attend are nothing like the parents at Pirriwee Public, and are disappointingly well behaved at school functions.” = LOL!

My favourite Amazon reviews of Big Little Lies:

  • “Maybe little long ?” – Antoinette Ritacco
  • “Too many lies!” – Sissel Kran
  • “Book club torture” – Muffy McGuffin
  • “By the end of the book I didn’t care who did what to whom” – Lynn R
  • SPOILERS shallow self-absorbed helicopter moms and their tedious offspring completely overshadow the underlying tale of infidelity and manslaughter. Schadenfreude and black comedy can be entertaining, but when paired with the serious themes of rape and domestic violence it felt tone deaf and distasteful.” – Weaslgrl


13 Must-Read Books By Australian Authors

As wonderful as it is to travel somewhere new in literature, there’s also something wonderfully comforting reading a home-grown tome. I love reading books by Australian authors, and novels set in Australia. It’s always interesting to see whether they jibe with my lived experience of my home country. Even when they don’t, it’s fun to pick apart the reasons why. Plus, I just really love supporting Australian writers and local publishers; we’ve grown some fantastic literary talent down here at the bottom of the Earth! Here’s a list of 13 must-read books by Australian authors (as composed by an Australian reader – me!).

13 Must-Read Books By Australian Authors - Text Overlaid on Image of Urban Landscape with Australian Flag - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Picnic At Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay

Picnic At Hanging Rock has one of the most compelling premises in all of Australian literature: in 1900, four school girls go for a picnic at (you guessed it!) Hanging Rock. Three of the girls, and their teacher, mysteriously vanish, into thin air. The remaining girl has no memory of what happened, and no one can work out what has become of those who are missing.

Theories abound, (abduction, assault, murder?) but no one, aside from author Joan Lindsay and her editor, knew for sure… until 1987. See, Lindsay wrote a final chapter solving the mystery, but her editor (quite rightly) pointed out that the book was far more powerful and intriguing without it. Lindsay sat on the chapter, tucked it away in her bottom drawer, until her death. Then it was released as The Secret Of Hanging Rock.

This book has a very dreamy quality, one that translated to the film version released in 1975. In these pages, you’ll also find a few laughs, and – of course – beautiful descriptions of the Australian bush.

My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin

My Brilliant Career - Miles Franklin - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Miles Franklin is synonymous, in the minds of most Australian readers, with literary accomplishment – not the least because our most prestigious literary award is named in her honour. A second reason, no less impressive, is that she wrote her best-known work, My Brilliant Career, when she was just sixteen years old. With an abundance of admittedly-naive youthful confidence, she sent it to Australian literary giant Henry Lawson, and he fancied it so much that he forwarded it to his own publishers.

Franklin quickly learned a tough lesson: you really need to obfuscate a few more details if you’re going to write autobiographical fiction. My Brilliant Career is the story of Sybylla, a young girl (obviously Franklin’s self-image) growing up in the Australian bush in the early 1900s, with burgeoning feminist ideals and passions. She’s surrounded by parochial chumps who want to keep her from her dreams of a literary career, and force her to settle down into a respectable marriage. Apparently, the real-life inspirations for these characters didn’t take too kindly to Franklin’s depictions of them, and she had to withdraw the book from sale until after her death to end the drama.

Still, we get to read it now, in its full unabashed glory. It has also been made into a film, starring the incomparable Judy Davis, released in 1979. Read my full review of My Brilliant Career here.

The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas

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The Slap does exactly what it says on the tin. It’s the story of a single slap, one man disciplining a child who is not his own at a suburban barbecue, and the repercussions of that one action that reverberate through the lives of all who were present. There are eight main characters, and you get to see a little of the story from each of their perspectives. Tsiolkas pieces these fragments together to form a beautiful, if gritty, whole.

If you’re more familiar with the Liane Moriarty brand of Australian literature, and you’re looking for a book that deals with similar settings and themes from perhaps a more literary bent, this is the book for you. It’s a really powerful exploration of family, domesticity, and loyalty in European-Australian suburbia.

True History Of The Kelly Gang by Peter Carey

True History Of The Kelly Gang - Peter Carey - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

There is perhaps no Australian figure more recognisable than the bushranger Ned Kelly. Every Australian child is forced to learn about Kelly ad nauseam over the course of their standard education. So, in this bold re-imagining of a folk hero’s (or should that be anti-hero?) life, Peter Carey gives a new voice to a deeply familiar character. True History Of The Kelly Gang – an ironic, cheeky title – purports to tell Kelly’s story in his own words, beginning with his birth and ending with the infamous shoot-out at Glenrowan and Kelly’s execution.

This book made a big splash on the international stage. It won the 2001 Booker Prize, and the Commonwealth Writers Prize that same year. I personally loved the stylistic choices that Carey made with expression and grammar; he styled it from the Jerilderie letter, the most famous authentic piece of Kelly’s own writing still in existence, and the similarities are uncanny. If you’re interested in books written in dialect, and not too fussy about (ahem) artistic choices in punctuation and language, then look no further. Read my full review of True History Of The Kelly Gang here.

The Secret River by Kate Grenville

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One of my occasional bugbears with Australian literature is that it too-often shies away from our colonial past (and present!), obscuring the historical realities of the wrongs wrought upon our Indigenous population. The success of The Secret River is a small antidote to that horrible literary tradition. In this historical novel, a transported convict by the name of William Thornhill tries to build a life for himself on the Hawkesbury River, where he finds his world colliding with that of the Aboriginal people already living on that land.

Grenville drew inspiration from the stories of her real-life ancestors, and she has described this book as her own attempt to apologise to the Indigenous people of Australia. She certainly doesn’t shy away from the cruelty of the Europeans, and highlights that darkness can even be found in the hearts of people we think are fundamentally good. The Secret River was nominated for the Booker Prize in 2006, and it resonated for many audiences here and abroad. It’s also worth checking out her follow-up, Searching For The Secret River – an exegesis about the process of writing The Secret River and what she learned along the way.

Follow The Rabbit Proof Fence by Doris Pilkington

Of course, it’s absolutely critical that in examining Australia’s colonial past through literature, we push the voices of Indigenous Australians to the front. Follow The Rabbit Proof Fence is Doris Pilkington’s fictional account of a family’s experience as part of the Stolen Generation, including elements from the real lived experience of her own mother. For those of you who are not familiar, the Stolen Generation is the name we use for the forced removal of children from their Aboriginal families in Australia; this happened initially in the early 20th century and, in other ways, continues today.

In this incredible book, three young girls – Molly, Gracie, and Daisy – escape the Moore River Settlement and hike across hundreds of kilometers of desert in the hope of being reunited with their families in Jigalong. They follow the “rabbit proof fence”, a laughably disastrous pest-control effort by the Australian government. The fence stretched over 3,000km (that’s 2,000 miles), and the girls believed it would lead them home. This book was also adapted into a beautiful and devastating film, Rabbit Proof Fence, in 2002.

Blakwork by Alison Whittaker

For a more contemporary Indigenous perspective, Blakwork by Alison Whittaker is a must-read. It was released just last year, but I’ve been following Whittaker’s work for a while and I can promise you she’s one of the most powerful voices against Indigenous oppression in this country.

Blakwork is part memoir, part journalism, part fiction, part satire, part legal document, part social commentary, and somehow more than all of those things combined in poetry. She divides the text into fifteen sections, most of which center around the theme of a specific type of work (thus, the collection’s name). She writes with piercing and unflinching honesty, raging at times, about the experience of a queer Gomeroi woman. She challenges the white Australian legacy, covering everything from the Stolen Generation to deaths in custody to hate crime to stereotypes of rural Indigenous communities. She attacks myths and power structures at every turn, and it’s incredible to witness. I challenge you to read this book and not feel overwhelmingly moved.

Looking For Alibrandi by Melina Marchetta

I was asked recently which book spoke most to my own experience of living in Sydney and Australia, and this is the first one that came to mind. Granted, that’s probably because it’s the one I’ve read and re-read the most; my high-school copy of Looking For Alibrandi is so worn that the spine has all but fallen apart.

It’s a coming-of-age novel, so it covers all the Big Themes of love and loss and belonging, but above and beyond that it has a lot to say about the lives of migrant families and their children, and how racial and ethnic identities intersect with class. If you went to school in Australia, chances are you had to read this one at some point over the course of your secondary education; trust me, it’s worth pulling it up again and taking another look. For international readers, this is a great one to read if you want to get a feel for the experience of urban Australian teens in the ’90s.

No Friend But The Mountains by Behrouz Boochani

No Friend But The Mountains - Behrouz Boochani - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’m not sure there has ever been such a controversial choice for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award. Earlier this year, Behrouz Boochani got the gong for his incredible book No Friend But The Mountains, and the criticism was swift (also completely unjust, and laughably out-of-touch).

If you’re not familiar with Behrouz’s work: he’s a Kurdish journalist who was detained on Manus Island for seeking asylum in Australia, where he remains (I highly recommend following him on Twitter for real-time updates). “He’s not Australian!” the critics cried when his book won a prestigious literary prize for Australian authors. Perhaps they’re right on a technicality, but he has been imprisoned on Manus at the whim of the Australian government for years. In my view, that makes this book perhaps the most important non-fiction Australian story of my generation. He wrote the entire thing via WhatsApp messages, a lyrical firsthand account of his indefinite (and ongoing!) imprisonment, translated by Omid Tofighian. It’s a must-read for all Australians, now and in the future (when, hopefully, our system of detention will be a sad relic of our past ignorance).

I also recommend another poetic account of life in detention by Mohammed Ali Maleki. He wrote his collection, Truth In The Cage, while detained on Manus. It was translated by fellow detainee Mansour Shoushtari, and published by an incredible local team at Verity La.

The Hate Race by Maxine Beneba Clarke

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Another one of my Twitter favourites, Maxine Beneba Clarke, is perhaps best-known for her wonderful poetry. That said, I personally consider her memoir, The Hate Race, to be essential reading. It’s an account – sometimes hilarious, sometimes heart-breaking – about growing up black, the child of black Afro-Caribbean immigrants, in white middle-class suburban Australia. One of the opening chapters, where she describes her parents arriving in their new country and reeling at the overtly racist place and product names (not to mention being directed towards the cask wine in the liquor shop), has stuck with me to this day. I hear this one is often assigned in high schools now, which is fantastic to see!

No More Boats by Felicity Castagna

No More Boats - Felicity Castagna - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I love, love, love the premise of this book! No More Boats is set in 2001, around the time of the Tampa crisis (as we now call it), when 438 refugees were stranded on a boat off the Australian coast. It was a critical moment in Australia’s migrant history, one that continues to impact our policy and public discourse on the subject to this day (though at the time it was quickly overshadowed by the events of September 11).

Unfolding at the same time is the story of Antonio, a migrant man forced into early retirement after a terrible accident on his work site. His life unravels as the Tampa crisis intensifies. It’s a realistic historical fiction story, but history so recent it can’t help but echo in your brain when you think about what’s happening in Australia today. It really highlights our collective cognitive dissonance around refugees, in a way that is as emotive as a gut-punch.

This House Of Grief by Helen Garner

This House Of Grief - Helen Garner - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Helen Garner is the darling of Australian literature, and if you come across any list of best Australian books that doesn’t include her, you should disregard it because it is woefully incomplete. Really, any of her books could be rightfully included here, but because I’m a true-crime junkie I’ve chosen This House Of Grief.

The process of writing this book eerily mirrors that of Truman Capote writing In Cold Blood. Garner saw a breaking news update that a man had driven his children into a dam on Father’s Day. This led her to attend his seven-week trial, then to years of research, and ultimately to several drafts of a book documenting the entire sad tale. It’s a heart-wrenching account, and Garner has spoken often of how difficult it was for her to write, but I am eternally grateful that she persisted. This House Of Grief is a masterpiece of true crime, and of literary non-fiction more broadly.

The Dry by Jane Harper

The Dry - Jane Harper - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

To round out this list, let’s look at Jane Harper, one of the best-selling Australian novelists of the last few years. In an odd combination of many elements from other Australian books on this list, The Dry is a fictional story set in the bush, where a retired Australian Federal Police officer sets about trying to solve the murder of his childhood friend. The story unfolds against a vivid backdrop of drought and rural hardship, an all-too-familiar setting for many Australians. It’s twisty, it’s turny, it’s gripping, and it’s delightful. Harper has also since released a sequel, and a third (unrelated) book. I’m sure we’ll see much more from her in the years to come.

What are your favourite Australian books? Drop your suggestions in the comments below (or over on the Keeping Up With The Penguins Facebook page), so we can make this a real compendium of awesome Australian literature!

True History Of The Kelly Gang – Peter Carey

There’s a certain delicious defiance in calling a novel a “true history”, don’t you think? It’s especially so in the case of True History Of The Kelly Gang by Peter Carey. In “reality” (but who even decides what that is anymore?), this is a fictional story based rather loosely on the life of renowned bush-ranger Ned Kelly and his gang, so there’s no need to get your knickers in a knot about its historical accuracy. I’m pretty forgiving when it comes to the ol’ creative license, especially when a writer has clearly researched their subject so thoroughly. It’s impossible to fault Peter Carey’s attention to detail, whatever else you might say about this book…

… and people have had plenty to say about it, believe me! Let’s start with the good stuff. True History Of The Kelly Gang won the Booker Prize in 2001 (always good to see an Aussie author get an international gong!), and the Commonwealth Writers Prize that same year, along with about a dozen other awards and short-listings. This edition is absolutely gorgeous, I was blown away by the design and layout; clearly, the designers took a lot of time and care with it, and they did a bang-up job. The opening line serves as the blurb on the back, and it’s powerful as all heck:

“I lost my own father at 12 yr. of age and know what it is to be raised on lies and silences my dear daughter you are presently too young to understand a word I write but this history is for you and will contain no single lie may I burn in Hell if I speak false.”

Blurb, True History Of The Kelly Gang

It’s a pretty good example of the tone and style of the book on the whole, which some people hate, and others love – I’m definitely one of the latter. As I recall, True History Of The Kelly Gang is the first book I’ve read written in a uniquely Australian dialect or vernacular (albeit one that is clearly heavily influenced by the Kelly family’s Irish roots). There’s no punctuation for speech, which normally I would find pretentious and annoying (looking at you, Richard Flanagan!), but in this case it didn’t bother me at all. All of the stylistic punctuation and grammar choices felt quite natural – because it was. Carey modelled his style off the most famous surviving piece of Ned Kelly’s own writing, The Jerilderie letter. The National Museum of Australia has the full text available online, but if you can’t be bothered to take a look at it yourself, let me reassure you that the similarity in expression is uncanny. Carey positions True History Of The Kelly Gang as an autobiography, written in Kelly’s own hand, and divided into thirteen sections. He includes a blurb at the beginning of each section describing the fictional manuscript’s condition, as though it were catalogued in a library or museum.



Now, it’s hard to explain the Australian fascination with Ned Kelly to an international audience – especially being, as I am, an Australian who has never known any different. We mythologise this guy to an unbelievable extent. The only comparison I can think to draw is to call him a self-styled Robin Hood, or Jesse James, of the bush. Because no one outside Australia knows (or gives a shit) about Ned Kelly, the American publishers of True History Of The Kelly Gang actually promoted it as a “great American novel”. They justified it saying that Carey had lived in New York for many years, and thematically the book relates an apparently “American” experience, but come on! Frankly, the notion that anyone could try to describe this deeply, unabashedly Australian book about an iconic Australian figure, set entirely in Australia and written in an Australian dialect, as an “American novel” – much less a great one – makes me, an Australian, howl with laughter.

That aside, I always thought our national obsession with Ned Kelly was a bit twisted. It was thrust upon me like some kind of gross colonial birthright, and despite the fact that I had no intrinsic interest in the “legend”, I couldn’t avoid absorbing it, as though by osmosis, through repeated and extended exposure. I wondered from the outset whether this book would help me “see the light”, or put me off the subject for good…



True History Of The Kelly Gang begins with a description of John “Red” Kelly, an Irish man transported to (what was then called by the colonials) Van Diemen’s Land. After several encounters with law enforcement and some time in prison, he dies, when Ned Kelly – our “hero” – was just twelve years old. Ellen Kelly, Ned’s long-suffering mother, tried to support her large family by running a shebeen, a notoriously unstable line of work. I loved Ellen, she was a gloriously layered and complex character, more so than any other woman in True History Of The Kelly Gang. She wasn’t entirely likeable, and she made awful decisions, but she was a very strong influence in this version of Ned’s life, and basically underscored his motivations the whole way through the novel. If Ellen’s pure determination and grit could have paid the bills, the Kellys would have been just fine. As it stood, however, the family struggled: financially, emotionally, politically, and in just about every other way you can imagine.

Ellen sends Ned off to apprentice with a bush-ranger by the name of Harry Power, with whom she’d had an affair of sorts. (Oh, and for those of you outside Australia who aren’t familiar with the term, a “bush-ranger” was an escaped convict or outlaw in that colonial period, who lived in the bush (der) and etched out a living through thievery and hold-ups. Not great guys, on the whole.) That’s where Ned Kelly got his start, and he went on to become the most famous bush-ranger of them all, as we’ll see. Power taught him about the land, where to hide, how to steal, and so forth, setting him up for a “successful” life of crime.

Ned initially rejects Power’s way of life, returning to his family and attempting to work an honest job, but he’s promptly arrested and imprisoned for receiving a stolen horse (which he insisted was a gift from a friend – haven’t we all heard that line before?). There are beautiful turns of phrase throughout the whole book, but passages from this section in particular stuck with me for days:

“I were 17 yr. old when I come out of prison 6ft. 2in. broad of shoulder my hands as hard as the hammers we had swung inside the walls of Beechworth Gaol. I had a mighty beard and was a child no more although in truth I do not know what childhood or youth I ever had. What remained if any were finally taken away inside that gaol boiled off me like fat and marrow is rendered within the tarrow pot.”

Pg. 215

After that experience, Ned only makes half-hearted attempts to return to an honest life, returning – inevitably – to crime and bush-ranging. His brother Dan comes along for the ride, and they hide from the cops in the hills. Later, they’re joined by their friends Steve Hart and Joe Byrne. Together, they are “the Kelly gang”. They’re also accompanied by Mary, a (very fictional) love interest of Ned’s, who goes on to bear his child. Actually, she’s the character who convinces him to write down his history for their daughter, so that the child will know the “truth” of who her father was. Mary migrates to America before the end of the book, and waits there for Ned to join them (which, of course, he never does).



In an attempt to lure the gang out of hiding, the cops arrest and imprison Ellen Kelly. It doesn’t work. Ned swears he won’t leave the country until his mother is freed, but he’s equally determined not to give the cops what they want. This culminates in a Kelly Gang ambush at Stringybark Creek, where Ned kills three police officers.

The action doesn’t stop there, though: the gang roams the countryside, robbing banks and giving the proceeds of their crimes to the poor and working classes. It sounds like a fine and Robin Hood-esque thing to do, but they had an ulterior motive: they relied on the people they helped to help them in turn, to shelter them and not dob them in.

It all comes to a head in the town of Glenrowan, where the Kelly gang takes a bunch of hostages. Among them is Thomas Curnow, a local schoolteacher, who bonds with Ned over his memoirs. Curnow ultimately betrays them to the police, and there’s an old-timey-style shoot-out in the streets. In both the book and in real life, this is when the gang donned their now-famous home-made suits of plate steel armour (an illustration of Ned’s helmet is depicted on the cover of my edition). Ned is the only member of the gang to survive the confrontation, but he is seriously wounded.

Obviously, Ned can’t narrate this part himself (given that the book is positioned as hand-written first-person records), so the final section ends with a new voice, identified only as “S.C.”, telling the reader the story of this final showdown, Ned’s trial, and his death by hanging. He dies a “hero” to the poor and the working class, but the rich believe it to be good riddance to bad rubbish, and the debate over Ned Kelly’s role in our national history has been debated ferociously ever since.



If you’re a sympathetic soul, you’ll probably have a hard time reading True History Of The Kelly Gang without your heart breaking – just a little – for the Kelly family. They faced some very shitty circumstances, and in a lot of ways Ned’s life of crime seemed pre-destined, unavoidable for him and his brother. What other choice did they have?

However, as I’ve said previously, I’m not a soft touch. Going in, I had a long-held resentment for being force-fed the so-called patriotic view that this violent thug, thief, murderer was some kind of national icon or misunderstood martyr. I can’t say that this book changed that view very much at all. However, I really enjoyed reading it. I thought it was masterful. I know, I’m a walking contradiction! I contain multitudes!

The only element that really disappointed me was finding that True History Of The Kelly Gang was another very white account of Australia’s colonial past. Ned and his gang only mention encountering a couple of trackers in passing, even though they surely would have met and spoken with many more Indigenous Australians in that part of the world at that time. It was a really huge oversight in my view, and one that slightly soured an otherwise wonderful reading experience for me.

If you’ve come to True History Of The Kelly Gang looking for, well, a true history of the Kelly gang, you’re in the wrong place. While Carey did use many historically accurate events and facts from Kelly’s real life, much of the story is invented, including Kelly’s love interest and his daughter and his inclination to write his own memoirs. Still, it’s a great book to read if you enjoyed The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn, or if you’re looking for an interesting take on life for Irish convicts in colonial Australia. It’s not a quick or an easy read, and it’s not without its problems, but I still really enjoyed reading it and I can see why it attracted so many accolades upon its release. A film adaptation premiered at the Toronto film festival a couple months back, and is slated for release in Australia next year.

My favourite Amazon reviews of True History Of The Kelly Gang:

  • “not my type of reading. Not as interesting as the book spoke about. some chapters were not interesting at all.” – Robert L. Griffith
  • “I purchased this book because my book club suggested it. It is a difficult read, due to the poor sentence structure and grammar. Aside from the fact that it is also depressing (which is sometimes realistic) it moves along very slowly and is very predictable.” – Marilyn
  • “It’s one of the best adjectival books I’ve ever read.” – Eileen
  • “I thought this was a fairly interesting read. Very detailed. Well researched. I assume this is the outlaw that inspired Waltzing Matilda – but this was never said. The book is worth reading if you have and interest in Australian history.” – Bruce Louis Dodson
  • “Carey’s actually not a very good author, and this actually isn’t a very good book. If you really feel that you absolutely *MUST* read something about Ned Kelly, then erase those thoughts immediately, because he isn’t worth the two bucks of scrap metal that his stupid helmet was made out of. He’s no hero. He’s just a sauced Irishman with a bad attitude.” – Amazon Customer
  • “Who is this Ned Kelly? What relevance does he have to the people of Australia today? Peter… whatever his name is writes an interesting modern fable for the people of that little island of criminals. It imitates a found diary text (are we trying to be TOO confidently literary!?!) and tells of his adventures in struggling to grow up with an inherited criminality, a transvestite father and (gag) the horrible betrayals of the police. This may be a good book for children (peter partly intended this) but it’s not the most sophisticated read.” – Peter Cameron II


The Husband’s Secret – Liane Moriarty

It’s been a while since I picked up a contemporary popular fiction book (and even longer since I read one by an Australian woman!), so it’s about time I gave Liane Moriarty’s breakthrough novel a go, don’t you think? The Husband’s Secret came out in 2013, and even though it was her fifth novel, it made one hell of a splash. It sold over 2 million copies worldwide, and Moriarty is now practically a household name. She has the distinction of being the very first Aussie to have a book debut in the number one spot on the New York Times Best Seller List (her best-known book, Big Little Lies). Surely, all of this makes The Husband’s Secret a best seller worth reading – we need to see where the magic began!

Jumping right in, The Husband’s Secret has one HECK of a premise! A woman finds an envelope, written in her husband’s hand, and it says (*ominous music*): “For my wife, only to be opened in the event of my death”. But her husband is still very much alive, and he won’t tell her what’s inside.

I think it goes without saying that, given that this is how the story begins, the opening chapter is an absolute cracker. My brain was whirring, I was dying of curiosity, convinced this book was a winner… but then, in chapters two and three, we almost inexplicably started bouncing around in the lives (and, later, timelines) of a bunch of other characters. None of them seemed particularly three-dimensional, and they all had generic white-people names: Rachel. Tess. Will. Jacob. Lauren. It wasn’t until their storylines began to merge and intersect that things finally started making sense again…

The Husband’s Secret is set in Sydney, where Cecilia – the woman who finds the envelope – is an (otherwise) happily married mother-of-three. Her life looks pretty perfect from the outside, until she finds that envelope-shaped cat among the pigeons. Tess, it turns out, is a career-woman who returns to Sydney with her son after she finds out that her husband and her cousin are “in love” (they’re not even shagging, can you believe it, they just sit her down one night and tell her they love each other – vomit!). She enrols her kid in the same school that Cecilia’s kids attend. And then there’s Rachel, the school secretary; she suspects that the P.E. teacher, Connor (who is, coincidentally, Tess’s ex-boyfriend), is the man responsible for the murder of her daughter thirty-odd years ago.



Do you see why it was confusing at first? I mean, the paths all eventually cross and Moriarty pieces it all together like a jigsaw puzzle, but I wasn’t a huge fan of that initial confusion. I just wanted to get back to the letter, dammit, not hear about the love lives and murders of these other randoms!

So, back to THE LETTER! Reading the opening chapters of The Husband’s Secret triggered an intense debate in my household. I was immediately in my own husband’s ear, asking if he’d open the envelope in those circumstances. Long story (and many hours of argument) short: he wouldn’t, I would. I knew, instantly, reading that first page, that I would. I mean, come on now: it’s a secret letter! This is what makes The Husband’s Secret a really great read for book clubs. Love it or hate it, whatever your tastes, you know it’s going to stimulate some interesting conversations when you all get together.

So, we all know how much I hate spoiler warnings, but I feel obligated to offer one here, because this book is relatively recent and it’s kind of predicated on the “shock twist”. Consider this my warning: if you don’t want to know what’s in the envelope, bugger off and come back once you’ve read it for yourself…



So, no shit, Cecilia opens the letter (like any normal person! *ahem*) and it’s a confession that her husband was the one who killed the school secretary’s daughter, when he was seventeen!



Seriously, I was SHOOK! The longer version of the story is this: he had a baby with Cecilia and suddenly got all sentimental about that girl he killed that one time. So, he wrote this letter, figuring no one would see it until after he was dead. And then he set about implementing all these self-flagellation measures in his life to “punish” himself for his crime, seeing as he was never going to go to jail. He forced himself to go without sex for six months, boo hoo. What a guy, right?!

Anyway, this big reveal comes surprisingly early, before you’re even half-way through the book. Still, Moriarty manages to work in a few more twists down the line, so never fear. She drip-feeds you the story of Jane’s murder, and takes you through the sprawling impact it had (and continues to have) on all of their lives. The epilogue had a real Life After Life feel about. it, actually, because it highlighted all the near-misses and almosts that led the story to its conclusion.

Let me level with you: the premise was fun, the twist was interesting, but the writing didn’t exactly blow me away. This is ultimately a story about toxic masculinity, but Moriarty didn’t really interrogate that theme as much as I’d have liked. Even though the story is focused on the three women, and told almost entirely from their perspectives, they were basically just passive receptacles for the garbage behaviour of the men in their lives. They were reactionary, rather than demonstrating any agency of their own, and they never really explained why they were so damn submissive.



All that said, it’s not like I was so unimpressed that I won’t seek out any more Liane Moriarty books. I’m already eager to read Big Little Lies, and I’ve added it to my next reading list for Keeping Up With The Penguins. I mean, credit where credit is due: Moriarty managed to work in more than one plot twist I didn’t see coming, which I always appreciate (as all readers do), Plus, I really enjoyed reading a story set in my home city. Even when the topic is murder, there’s something really comforting about a familiar setting.

And off the back of the success of the HBO adaptation of Big Little Lies, CBS Films has acquired the rights to The Husband’s Secret. They announced back in 2017 that the film will star Blake Lively. I’m looking forward to checking it out, mostly because I’m curious from an artistic standpoint how the twist will translate to the screen. No word on the release date yet, though…

So, would I recommend this one? Maybe. If you’re looking for a challenging, meaty book to wrap your brain around, you’d best keep looking. But if you want something fun to talk about with your book club, or something to get your mother for Christmas, this one’s right up your alley. Do with that what you will!

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Husband’s Secret:

  • “Without a doubt this is the worst book I’ve read this year. There is not a likable character in the entire book, and that includes a 2 year old….” – MSC
  • “I read most of this book because it was the only book I had with me on a rafting trip. I had such hopes, since is the same author as Big Little Lies, hopes bashed.” – maggie t
  • “Story takes too long.” – Sandra Mulrey
  • “I didn’t like the format. I certainly didn’t like the story. Too depressing. Not my cup of tea. I read to slip into fantasy not depression.” – Amazon Customer
  • “I hated this book so much I deleted it off my Kindle immediately so I wouldn’t be reminded of the time I wasted with it.” – LMPV
  • “Such an enjoyable read! If you like books by Liane Moriarty this book is for you.” – Danielle Galanowsky
  • “Too dark for my taste, I was expecting a bit of suspense/mystery and got child death, adultery, murder, and what seemed to be advertising for the show Biggest Loser. The story is supposed to be how these strangers lives become entwined but in reality it’s just jumping around from one person’s point of view to the next, with several flashbacks thrown in to really muck things up. After the first few chapters I started skipping large chunks of pages and would pick up reading again with Cecilia and her family. This author has a way if making me dislike the main character, casting them in such a negative light that I, as a reader, do not care what happens to them. The only redeeming quality of this book is, I borrowed it from the library and can return it immediately!” – lovestoread
  • “Fine book. Epilogue unneeded.” – McAwsm
  • “It is well written, but I thought it was depressing and I didn’t finish it.” – Sandra Baumer
  • “This was a stupid book. General Hospital is better.” – Amazon Customer
  • “I find that authors who use profanity in storytelling demonstrate weak writing skills. It is offensive to me for writers to disrespect and dishonor God Almighty. Not one I could recommend.” – Karla Stores
  • “eye roller” – JKADEN
  • “buncha prudes” – Amazon Customer
  • “Okay for a holiday read. Like the Tupperware party the story unfolds around, it has a a predictable feel emblazoned with plastic characters.” – CM


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