What We're Reading / August

Catch yourself talking more about books lately? We certainly do! Our staff can’t get enough of all these literary goodies. Dig in!

How to be Australian by Ashley Kalagian Blunt & Almost a Mirror by Kirsten Krauth

Julia Tsalis, Program Manager

I have had the distinct pleasure of reading two books by my Writing NSW colleagues (and friends): Almost a Mirror by Kirsten Krauth, our Newswrite editor, and How to Be Australian by Ashley Kalagian Blunt, our Senior Program Officer. They are two very different books, but each of them has the very clear voice of the author, which was particularly evident as their actual voice is very familiar to me. I highly recommend both books and feel very proud to work with two such talented writers.

Ashley has written a memoir about her experience of moving to Australia from Canada with her new husband. It’s funny, insightful and at times surprisingly informative. Ashley expected Australia to be like Canada, only without the snow and with more interesting wild life. It wasn’t quite so easy a transition and she captures this in a delicate balance between light-heartedness and depth.

Although it is a book bubbling with humour it doesn’t gloss over the challenging aspects of Australian society or the strain such a move can put on you and your relationships. She writes about how unsettling it is to be out of place, and even more so to find that you’re not sure where your place is, but if it is this that allows her to be such a clear-eyed observer, present to the wonder but not oblivious to the weaknesses, I think this is a very good place to be.

As an Australian reading the book I appreciated having a keen, enthusiastic observer open my eyes to the things that I overlook or don’t appreciate. It’s almost strange finding that a Canadian has things to tell you about Australia, but that’s the beauty of this book.

Kirsten’s novel, Almost a Mirror, is told from several perspectives over numerous different time frames and in different locations. Kirsten’s skill is evident in that at no point is this confusing or distracting. The novel moves between the 1980s and 2010s but is always grounded in the post-punk music scene of 1980s Melbourne. I so appreciated being taking back to those days and more importantly the real, gritty experience, rather than a polished, sanitised version of the past.

Each chapter is titled with a song from the 80s and the music infiltrates the rhythm and direction of the writing. Music is so central to the book that Kirsten has put together a Spotify playlist of the songs to accompany it.  In addition to the musical frame of the book it cross-references visual art, movies, and pop culture making it a brilliant entanglement of arts and culture. Like a good song the book floats you along oblivious to all the mechanisms that have gone into making it such a piece of magic.

The Things She Owned by Katherine Tamiko Arguile

Ashley Kalagian Blunt, Senior Program Officer

Image courtesy of Affirm Press

The Things She Owned is a work of literary fiction from debut novelist Katherine Tamiko Arguile, a Japanese-British-Australian arts journalist and author based in Adelaide. The story weaves together two narratives. Michiko is a young girl growing up in Japan during and after the Pacific War, a victim to her father’s abusive behaviour, which in turn is linked to PTSD stemming from his time in the Japanese military. Meanwhile, Michiko’s adult daughter reflects on her mother’s life from present-day London, where a collection of Michiko’s things – an onigiri basket, a Wedgwood tea set, a knotted ring from Okinawa – mostly collect dust in the corner, along with her ashes. Arguile crafts the English and Japanese settings with vivid detail, and lovingly describes the many Japanese meals over which her characters argue and bond. Through her two female protagonists, she explores the intractability of intergenerational trauma, turning in the final chapters to Indigenous Japanese concepts of healing. 

PS. She’s on Twitter: @KTArguile

One of Us is Lying by Karen M. McManus

Claire Thompson, Program Officer

Image courtesy of Random House

People have been describing the bestselling YA novel, One of Us is Lying by Karen M. McManus as The Breakfast Club with murder thrown in, and I would say that’s accurate. 

The story starts with five kids in detention who all seem to represent the different teen archetypes: the rebel, the jock, the nerd, the social outcast and the pretty, popular girl. I was wary when these characters were introduced, worried this would be a cliché teen story with two-dimensional characters. However, there’s more than meets the eye with these teenagers, just like those teenagers in The Breakfast Club. McManus reveals their hidden sides by telling the narrative through each of their voices. The further you get into this book, the more you start to empathise with each character, yet at the same time, question everything they say and do, wondering if they could be the murderer. 

One of Us is Lying is a fast-paced, page-turner that I couldn’t put down. If you loved the mystery of Pretty Little Liars and Gossip Girl, then this is the book for you. And the best part is, the ending of One of Us is Lying actually makes sense. 

She I Dare Not Name: A spinster’s meditations on life by Donna Ward

Sarah Mott, Project and Communications Officer

Image courtesy of Allen&Unwin

She I Dare Not Name: A spinster’s meditations on life by Donna Ward is a collection of intimate essays that spark an important conversation we need to have. Ward describes a life lived alone in a world that is built for couples and families. This book is not a battle cry for the fabulous single life, or a plea from a lonely place, it is an internal monologue on coming to grips with a life lived alone. It grapples with the ideas of meaning and belonging when society tells you that lovers and family are markers of maturity, home and normality. Ward unpacks the term ‘spinster’ and discrimination this term places on women throughout history. She walks us through loneliness verses being alone, about the idea of home and love as a woman who lives a life you don’t see in the media, books or movies. Ward’s lifestyle is one that is lived by many people in Australia, either ignored or judged by the mainstream, and these voices need to be brought into the spotlight. This book is an absorbing start to this.

When My Brother Was an Aztec & Postcolonial Love Poem by Natalie Diaz

Lou Garcia-Dolnik, Membership and Administration Officer

I’ve just finished Aha Makav poet (and professional basketball player) Natalie Diaz’s two collections of poetry, When My Brother Was an Aztec and Postcolonial Love Poem. I can’t recommend Diaz enough. In moving around her brother’s addiction to meth, her (indigi-)queerness, indigineity/race, family and a deep longing for love and life unhaunted by the spectre of colonisation, her poetry is at once deeply sensual and elegiac, and never fails to embroil its reader in the project of living through matrices of oppression and grief. It’s hard to capitulate the experience of reading a near-perfect collection of poetry, which is testament to her unrivalled skill and aptness for metaphor. I would particularly recommend her lyric prose poems on water and body, which are theses in themselves. I’m rereading Postcolonial Love Poem, not ready to move on from Diaz’s words just yet. Her books can be a little difficult to get ahold of in local bookshops—you can check out her words here and here before committing to ordering them.


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