For everyone Our summer reading guide
More than ever, AEU members deserve a long and relaxing summer break accompanied by a stack of excellent books. Here are our recommendations for an enlightening and entertaining read.
The Ninth Life of a Diamond Miner: A memoir, Grace Tame (Pan Macmillan)
“There is darkness and there is light,” Grace Tame writes aptly in her powerful memoir. We know that Tame, in the spotlight from a young age, is a survivor of child sexual abuse. She writes of this with an absence of self-pity, detailing her unstable childhood, her peripatetic life and her extended family, which features an abundance of interesting characters.
Tame also describes the media frenzy about her case, some of which sought to sensationalise her trauma. She reveals how her autism manifested following the abuse. And she grapples with the term “feminist”.
Amid all this, she has worked to maintain control of her own narrative. Tame has a strong voice, on the page and in person. She also has an unflagging sense of humour, which leavens this dark story, both for her and for us. What is evident in Tame’s book is just how many institutions let her down. Fortunately, many individuals have provided love and friendship. A fierce campaigner for the prevention of child sexual abuse, Tame is already a hero, and she’s not yet 30. This is just the start – and we are all the luckier for her grit and determination to use her experiences to fight for change.
Iris, Fiona Kelly McGregor (Pan Macmillan)
Iris Webber’s life of petty crime began in rural NSW, stealing from the house where she worked as a domestic. Little more than a decade later, in 1937, she’s in Long Bay State Reformatory for Women, awaiting trial for murder. This true-life story moves between that trial and all that led up to it, from Iris’s arrival in “the big smoke” where she was quickly drawn into Sydney’s Depression-era underworld of sex work, sly grog, thieving and illegal busking. It was a cruel scene, and women required extra stamina and smarts. As Iris says, “The nicer I dressed, the bolder the lurks I could get away with.” Rollicking, suspenseful, and meticulously researched, this is a portal (with a veritable smorgasbord of white settler slang) into an era in Australia’s history when the poor and marginalised were forced to do whatever it took to survive and the queer community (of which she was a part) was a particular target for police brutality. Characters don’t come much more vivid than Iris.
Hard Labour, Ben Schneiders (Scribe)
Investigative journalist for The Age, Ben Schneiders has spent years exposing the exploitative practices of some of Australia’s best-known companies, from McDonald’s to 7-Eleven, to our major banks and high-end restaurants. Whether operating through tax havens or on the stock exchange, owned by private equity or wealthy families, many of these businesses are deliberately structured to avoid paying minimum wages, allowing them to systematically rip off vulnerable workers. Based on extensive research, economic data and hundreds of interviews, Schneiders offers a damning indictment of our current industrial relations system and the neoliberal agenda. He shows the extent to which the loss of workers’ rights and power in Australia has contributed to rising inequality and asks what this means for our democracy. For anyone who believes in fairness, this is essential reading.
Here be Leviathans, Chris Flynn (UQP)
As unreliable narrators go, the stuffed behemoth pondering ex-life from a museum display case in Chris Flynn’s cracking novel Mammoth was remarkable. This exhilaratingly unique approach allowed for a sweeping overview of humanity’s progress. A bittersweet, absurdly good comedy that filled our cup, if it left you wanting more oddly anthropomorphised voices, there are mammoth-sized spoils to be had in this short story collection, Here Be Leviathans. We hear from a bear who gains much more knowledge than he bargained for when chowing on a teenager, a monotreme who is fed up with the colonial aggressions of “F%*ng backpackers”, and a macaque nicknamed Yorick who’s being tested on in a laboratory. So, by the time we encounter a bushfire determined to be done with us as a species, you can’t help but agree we deserve it. That’s the beauty of Flynn’s book: our follies reflected in these fanciful foils.
The Boy from Boomerang Crescent, Eddie Betts (Simon & Schuster)
Eddie Betts is an AFL legend. But this is no ordinary tale of football glory. It opens with Betts paying tribute to the football skills of his grandfather, who died on the floor of a Port Lincoln prison cell due to misdiagnosis and neglect by medics and police. Growing up between Port Lincoln and Kalgoorlie, Betts was a “skinny Aboriginal kid” who faced routine racism, police targeting and a turbulent family life, finishing school unable to read and write. When he was drafted to the AFL, a lot changed. And yet, after winning a car for kicking Goal of the Year in 2006, he was stopped by Melbourne police, who assumed he had stolen it. Despite his small stature, Betts went on to be a giant of the game. Now, he wants to educate readers on what it means to be a “Blackfulla” in contemporary Australia. He is also now a vocal advocate for literacy education. Betts’ positivity, heart and deep connection to Country and kin shine through on every page of this generous and enaging memoir.
The Settlement, Jock Serong (Text)
In Jock Serong’s sixth novel, he continues his historical fiction journey, detailing Australia’s past. The Settlement, based on a true story, begins in 1831 with George Augustus Robinson rounding up the Indigenous inhabitants of Van Diemen’s Land and relocating them with the promise of one day returning. Instead what takes place at Wybalenna – the isolation, disease, cruelty, betrayal, enforced Christianity, and denial of traditional ways – leads to the genocide of Tasmania’s First Peoples.
As we have come to expect from Serong, this is an intelligent novel, rich with symbolism, and replete with taught, muscular prose. In showing us what drives Robinson, Serong provides a critical reminder of the destruction to Indigenous peoples done by white colonisers. An important part of Australian history, it can be read in conjunction with viewing Rachel Perkins’ documentary, The Australian Wars.
Raised by Wolves, Jess Ho (Affirm Press)
Not all food critics are cut from the same white table linen. Jess Ho laboured on the front lines of the hospitality industry, where they encountered both lifelong friends and mortal staff-rorting restaurateur enemies, for years. The former Time Out food and drink editor, and host of award-winning SBS Food podcast Bad Taste, has broken the dirty dishes on the good, the bad and the ugly of the business in their spicy “memoir with bite” and, sheesh, is it a mouthful! But it’s not just a gawk at some of the shocking practices that play out in the kitchen and behind the bar of some of Melbourne’s top-end eateries and their culturally appropriating ways. It’s also a chicken-decapitatingly sharp insight into life as the offspring of unforgiving immigrant parents. Sweet and sour, this is a delicious read, with Ho’s voice one to savour.
Big Things Grow, Sarah Donnelly (Allen & Unwin)
This is the memoir of 31-year-old Sarah Donnelley’s four years spent teaching in Wilcannia, a small town two hours from Broken Hill. Her life changes dramatically, right from the first time she steps out for her morning coffee to find a large grey kangaroo in her yard! Sarah develops a school music program that helps keep students engaged, and ends up receiving a Telstra ARIA Music Teacher Award nomination for her work. When the pandemic hit, online learning posed a unique challenge in Wilcannia, where the majority of families were without an internet connection. Sarah recruited the help of the local radio station and ended up creating a music video from students’ video selfies. This book shows both the challenges and rewards that the teaching life can bring.
This Devastating Fever, Sophie Cunningham (Ultimo Press)
In this complex, multi-layered novel, contemporary author Alice Fox is writing – or trying to write – a novel about author Leonard Woolf, and while her journey has been waylaid for more than a decade, the arrival of the 2019 bushfires and the global pandemic in 2020 manage to focus her attention. The book shifts between times and places, flitting between Leonard’s life and Alice’s own, where she is concerned with climate catastrophe and modern life’s many disruptions. Cunningham explores bold questions about war, pandemics and vaccines, racism and colonialism, and how to find meaning in the everyday. The novel also successfully wrestles with the delicate relationship between fiction and non-fiction, and that tricksy beast: metafiction. This is a novel of ideas and a pertinent reminder of the ways in which the past bleeds into the present.
Men I Trust, Tommi Parish (Scribe)
There’s a haunting honesty at the heart of Melbourne-born, Montreal-based graphic novelist and illustrator Tommi Parrish’s follow-up to his award-winning The Lie and How We Told It. The trans author has a deft way of communicating fraught emotional journeys with a thoroughly lived-in approach. Men I Trust – beautifully illustrated in washed-out watercolours depicting oversized figures, all teeny heads on gargantuan bodies – opens with an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. Single mum Eliza frets that she’ll perpetuate the cycle of trauma inflicted on her, etching her scars onto her son. Holding down a day job, by night she performs darkly comic stand-up routines that draw on her struggles. It’s here she meets Sasha, who’s struggling with insecure housing since going through a bad breakup and dabbling in sex work. What follows is less a happily-ever-after than an illuminating ode to queer resilience in the face of crushing self-doubt. It’s astounding.
Find more reviews on our AEU News site: news.aeuvic.asn.au