Favourite things: Book chat

This time last year, I spent a couple of hours reading – and sheltering – inside a large marquee at the Royal Geographic Society for the inaugural Emerald Street Literary Festival. In spite of the damp and dreary weather, I had a lovely time – so much so that as soon as I saw the promotion for this year’s event, I snapped up some earlybird tickets.

In stark contrast, yesterday’s sun cast its benevolent warmth over the RGS marquee as it fizzed with London’s literati enjoying Festival number two. The rooms and theatres played host to author panels, discussions on themes like race, travel writing and witchcraft, and freebies. The Map Room had an Aperol Spritz waiting for each attendee and in the marquee, Headline Publishing were offering a choice of one of six paperbacks for those who’d booked multiple sessions – like me.

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My free book – The House of Birds – thanks to Headline Publishing

After checking out the lay of the land and collecting my book, I headed to the theatre for the first of the four sessions I’d booked for the afternoon. Here’s how it all went down.

1. Why do we love to talk about books?

The winner of the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction was announced this week and this panel was the last of the Prize’s official events. It comprised Kate Mosse – author, Prize co-founder and honorary director – Naomi Alderman – winner of this year’s Prize with The Power (it’s a great read) – and Ayobami Adebayo – whose first novel, Stay With Me, was on this year’s short-list. The trio took to the stage to chat about their own reading and writing and to explore the question: Why do we love to talk about books?

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L to R: Naomi Alderman, Ayobami Adebayo and Kate Mosse

Over the next 45 minutes, these three authors talked about their writing, the rollercoaster of confidence that comes with it and whether/what they actually read when they are writing something. (For each it depended on the draft number but the general consensus was don’t read the same genre as you are writing.)  There was also a really interesting discussion on criticism and I liked the way that Naomi answered this: There’s enormous value in paid-for constructive criticism, ignore the ‘abuse’ at the other end of the spectrum and remember that reader reviews e.g. Goodreads, Amazon etc. are ‘not really for us [the authors]’ but rather for other readers. Ayobami also loved that she’d discovered the mute conversation option on Twitter.

And what about the question at hand – why do we love talking about books? Well, Naomi likened it to finding this amazing new cafe and then telling everyone they should go. She also shared an observation about the personal affront you feel when someone doesn’t really love a book that you did. The chat about this swayed from jokes about ‘we can’t be friends any more’ (Ayobami) and the overwhelming urge to defend and re-sell [them] on your choice of reading material to feeling utterly shocked and deflated (Naomi). Haven’t we all been there!

2. Telling true stories: Explaining narrative journalism

This was a fascinating peek into the world of long-form journalism with Clare Longrigg, deputy editor of The Guardian’s Long Read, and Sophie Elmhirst, a journalist who’s written pieces for The New Yorker, Harper’s Bazaar and The Guardian (just to name a few.)

They chatted first about the difference between a long read and a longer celebrity profile – Sophie particularly talked about the greater amount of time invested in a long read piece to explore whatever the subject matter is (and she’s written on everything from water to Robin Wright). When a person is the subject of her article, she tries to see them at home or do something with them, and also talks to others in that world to get a range of angles to draw from. She mentioned that it’s often the innocuous thing that someone says that breathes life into the piece. For example, did you know that when Richard Dawkins‘ can’t sleep, he goes through the alphabet and assigns mammals to each letter? Well thanks to Sophie, you do now.

3. Essex Girls, Serpents and Writing a Best Seller

Sarah Perry‘s second novel, The Essex Serpent, was on the Prize shortlist in 2016 but at the time, I thought it sounded too primly Victorian to be my cup of tea. How wrong I was on both counts – it was far from prim and I absolutely loved it. So to hear Perry chat with Lucy Mangan – I have been a fan of Mangan’s column in Stylist magazine for a while – was something I was really looking forward to.

I was completely charmed by Sarah. She talked about her unorthodox upbringing, the way she has always like her eccentricity, her curious mind that ‘needed nourishment’ and her drive to explore themes in her writing to make it a worthwhile pursuit.

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Lucy Mangan (L) listens as Sarah Perry (R) reads from The Essex Serpent

Sarah spoke about exploring different sorts of love in her writing – except romantic love. She professed to being bored by exploring this as a writer and as a reader in light of her own smooth path to love and marriage – “I just found a nice man and married him.” She also talked about how her first novel, After Me Comes The Flood was published: After 19 rejection letters, her agent left the firm…and became her publisher.

Sarah’s passion, curiosity and unusual viewpoint made for a delightful 45 minutes – she’s interested in so much and for me, it’s what made her so interesting to listen to.

4. Emerald Street Presents Robin Dalton

I had never heard of Robin Dalton before the festival but she’s 96, grew up in Australia before moving to London in 1946 and has been a literary agent, TV personality, film producer and spy for the Thai government so I figured that it had to be interesting. She was promoting her memoir, One Leg Over, and read a few pages to get things started…

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Kat Poole (L) listens as Robin Dalton (R) reads from One Leg Over

She spoke of her gallivanting during the war years and her lack of ‘ambition’, preferring to live in the moment and see what happened from that rather than making any plans. And she’s had some moments – her society divorce kicked war from the front pages and her reading included anecdotes of time spent with the likes of John F Kennedy and Noel Coward.

Robin also told us that the eyebrow-raising title of the book was not intended to be salacious but rather, it captures a moment – the moment when she’s getting out of the bath, has managed to get one leg over the side and thinks to herself “that’s one leg over”.

So that was the formal part of the day. In between I found a lovely wodge of time to read – in the marquee over lunch and then later in a quiet sunny spot on the steps with a deliciously large slice of coffee and walnut cake – and indulge in a chat or two with some of my fellow bookworms.

Books, cake and glorious sunshine – what a great way to spend a Saturday!

Favourite things: Returning home

I’ve been back home in London for a few days now. The weather is about 30 degrees (celsius) cooler than when I left Melbourne on Sunday and while I love the sun and heat, I have been enjoying feeling the brisk air on my face when outdoors followed by that cosy rush of warmth when I venture inside again. The real test will come tomorrow with temperatures forecast to get down below zero overnight and remain that way for the next week. I’m guessing there will be little opportunity to show off my holiday tan.

Speaking of holidays, I am due a post about my month away – an indulgent week in a Thai resort followed by two and a half weeks in Melbourne with family – and there’s a whole lot of stuff milling around inside my head but it’s resisting taking shape right now. But rest assured that something will appear soon…in some form or other.

But right now, I am battling the jet lag and indulging in some cocoon-like time at home enjoying some of my favourite things to do.

Sleeping

I love a good night’s sleep and I haven’t slept through the night since my return. I went to my first yoga session in a month yesterday – which no doubt will hurt quite a bit tomorrow – and then managed about five and a half hours sleeping straight through last night so it’s all going in the right direction. I am trying to be patient with myself / this but I wish it would all just hurry up.

Reading

After an absolute glut of Kindle reading at the end of 2016, I returned home inspired to read some of the stuff that’s been on my bookshelf for a while. At the moment I am really enjoying Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay before I see him interviewed next week.

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Catch-up telly

My mid-December departure meant that I missed the final episode in season two of the sci-fi series Humans – which has had me glued to my TV screen each Sunday night – and the Strictly Come Dancing Grand Final. Both have been addressed and enjoyed with equal fervor. I also saw that the first episodes of two new shows – The Voice and Let It Shine – had aired so have gotten these under my belt too. My particular jury’s out on these but may return with a more positive verdict in the coming weeks.

Cooking

The thing that I’ve loved the most since being back at home is cooking. I ate so many fabulous meals during my trip but after a month, I couldn’t wait to get back in the kitchen and cook for myself. It was with much excitement that I got my grocery order delivered on Tuesday and made a quick trip to my local fruit and veg shop to fill the fridge again.

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I’ve been planning different meals each night and in my pottering in the kitchen, have managed to try some new things as well.

The day that I returned, I was so pleased to find a portion of my vegetable and chilli mince in the freezer and so I stirred that through some spaghetti for one of my favourite comfort meals.

I’ve also baked some beetroot, a tip I picked up from Mum’s partner Mr Licensed-To-Grill who BBQ’ed these scrumptious suckers while I was Down Under. It was lovely with my crumbed chicken breast and steamed greens. And I’ve been mindful of getting my leafy greens quota up again by stir-frying some chard with onion, garlic, ginger and chilli to have with my Thai salmon fishcake last night. Tonight’s plan is a roasted butternut squash and turkey bacon pasta with a cube of my kale and walnut pesto stirred in…and I can’t wait.

The funny thing about all this is that when I left Australia almost thirteen years ago, my family and friends would never have said that I was great in the kitchen. Oh I could whip up a basic tuna pasta but I was a competent compiler of platters and carpet picnics and the fridge was generally used for wine, cheese and little else. But a penchant for pottering about among the pots and pans has definitely snuck up on me and it was with some surprise that I found myself pining for it.

So until I sort the holiday stories into some semblance of interesting reading, I will be sleeping, reading and wielding my spatula with enthusiasm…and wondering at how Julie Andrews’ trilling about bright copper kettles as one of her favourite things became one of mine.

2016: My year in books

This weekend 2016 drew to a close. It was a year of change and confrontation in the world at large and personally it’s a year that’s been heading towards great change for me as well with the takeover of the company I have worked for at the end of June and my subsequent (and not unexpected) redundancy at the end of November.

I’ve been determined to use this year to explore, expand horizons and experience some new things and I have also applied this philosophy to my reading. My commitment was to read one book a week (that’s 52 books) this year and in an effort to broaden my horizons, I signed up for the Pop Sugar Reading Challenge on Good Reads. It’s a list of 40 prompts – stuff like a novel that takes place in summer, a YA (young adult) award winner, a book recommended by someone you just met, a dystopian novel, a book more than 100 years old etc – designed to encourage exploration outside your normal habits. I discovered new favourites like Veronica Roth’s Divergent (a romance set in the future) and The Keeper of Lost Causes by Jussi Adler-Olsen (a book translated into English) as a direct result of using these prompts to search for books I might not have found otherwise.

With much more time to read than expected towards the end of the year I well and truly overshot my target, ending the year with 75 books under my belt. Of these nine (or 12% for the mathematically-inclined among you) received a ‘coveted’ Gidday 5-star rating.

January started promisingly with three – March Violets by Philip Kerr, A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute and Mr Mercedes by Stephen King. Uncovering the next three was done at a much steadier pace with 5-stars awarded to Ferney (James Long) in May, Divergent in August and Child 44 (Tom Rob Smith) in November. And then just as it began, the year ended with another 5-star trifecta in December – Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian, The Keeper of Lost Causes and The Wonder by Emma Donoghue.

At the other end of the scale, I only awarded one 1-star rating – Snowpiercer vol. 1 (my first, and most likely last, graphic novel) – and six 2-star ratings (which basically means that I finished them and they therefore avoid the ignominy of a single star) which totals just over 9% of my 2016 reading.

When you add those two percentages and consider that almost 80% of the books I read sat in the 3-4 star region, I’d say that rates as a pretty entertaining year.

I also learnt a few things from this year’s literary exploits:

  • I don’t think graphic novels are for me although given this was a survey of one, this is probably not the most well-researched opinion I’ve ever held.
  • I like Le Carre much better on screen than in print with my reading of The Night Manager getting a 2-star rating vs my absolutely loving the BBC adaptation.
  • The two Man Booker prize winners I read this year – 2016’s The Sellout and 2015’s A Brief History of Seven Killings – were not a patch on 2014’s winner, Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Far North which remains one of my all-time favourites.

(If you want to have a sneaky peek at all 75 reads from 2016 and what I thought, you’ll find it all on Good Reads here.)

And last but not least, stretching my reading habit has reaffirmed my love for it. The opportunity to experience the worlds of others whether real, fictional or somewhere in between is an absolute joy. It’s also an awesome privilege and I am incredibly grateful to my parents for the many bedtime stories, the constant encouragement to read out loud and for letting me take a book everywhere we went, the latter being a habit that remains with me to this day.

Anyway, on to 2017.

I’ve upped my annual target to 60 books.

I have signed up to the Pop Sugar Reading Challenge again, am already halfway through ‘a book about an interesting woman’ (The Cavalier Queen by Fiona Mountain) and have identified my next on the list as ‘a book with one of the four seasons in the title’ (The Winter Over by Matthew Iden).

I will also be continuing with my lovely V&A book group so need to read Rudyard Kipling’s Kim by the time we meet in February and am seeing author Michael Chabon interviewed later this month so am keen to get his Kavalier and Clay under my belt before that.

So I’m off to tackle all of these new literary adventures before time gets away from me.

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Sand sculpture from Sand Sculpting Australia‘s Lands of Imagination on the Frankston Foreshore from December 2016

But in the meantime I wish you a 2017 filled with many joys and wonderful adventures, whether they be literary or otherwise.

An anthology of literary ladies

I love to read and those of you who know me even remotely will know this. As a little girl, I went everywhere with a book under one arm (and my favourite doll Cindy-Lou under the other) and whenever we went into ‘town’ (that was Brisbane in Australia peeps), Mum would let me choose one new book to bring home with me. Little Golden Books like The Poky Little Puppy, Dr Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat (and the one where he comes back) and the Meg and Mog series were among my pre-school favourites.

I’ve been doing reading challenges on goodreads over the last few years, essentially setting a target number of books to read each year. I start with the minimum of a book a week with a little extra added for my book-and-beach holidays where the rate can rise to as much as a book a day.

This year, I’ve set a similar target but in an effort to explore new genres, have also signed up for another challenge – to read 40 of these books across different themes: Themes like a book set in your home state, a dystopian novel and a novel with a protagonist who has your occupation. (This last one has me a bit stumped so if anyone knows of a book where the protagonist works in marketing, let me know!)

So far I’ve read twelve from the list of themes (out of the 29 books read so far this year) and loved East of Eden (a classic from the 20th century), A Town Like Alice (a book that takes place on an island), The Lake House (a book with over 600 pages) and Ferney (a book recommended by a family member).

I also love author interviews. Not just the authors I know and/or love like Jo Nesbo, Kate Mosse, Robert Harris and Chimamanda Adichie but also ones I haven’t read like Howard Jacobson or ones whose stories I’ve preferred on the big screen rather than on the page like Helen Fielding (she of Bridget Jones fame).

So yesterday’s inaugural Emerald Street Literary Festival was right up my street. Held in the Royal Geographical Society buildings in South Kensington, the £20 ticket offered three ‘events’, a free drink on arrival and a rather gorgeous outdoor marquee to while away the time in between.

I started my afternoon with the Jessie Burton interview (she wrote The Miniaturist – read it, it’s fabulous) and loved her vivacious and self-deprecating take on changing careers to become a writer.  Her new book, The Muse, is out at the end of this month. I can’t wait.

I had two hours to kill before my next event. I had thought I might dash down the road to the V&A to wander through the Jewellery Gallery (which I’ve wanted to linger over since being marched through by security en route to an evening talk last year). Instead, I spent an entirely pleasant time in the marquee reading (The Book Thief – moving and lovely despite the grim themes) and chatting with the three other ladies sitting at the table about who we’d seen at the festival and what we’d read.

My second event was upstairs in the Library Room with Scarlett Thomas. I’ve not read any of her books but have recently downloaded her latest novel, The Seed Collectors so this was a great opportunity to listen to her chat about all sorts of things.

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The Library Room at the Royal Geographic Society. I still get a bit weak-kneed at the thought of a room lined with books despite my Kindle love.

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Scarlett Thomas (right) chats with Alex Peake-Thompson

Unlike Burton, Thomas is more established in her writing career and I found her refreshingly down to earth as she spoke of her books being borne of the collection of things that she’s interested in at the time – She referred to The Seed Collectors as her ‘Biology’ book. In her reading a few passages from it, she’s moved it up my list into ‘read next’ status. Unfortunately, it doesn’t fit neatly into any of my goodreads challenge categories…oh well.

And finally, it was a return to the theatre to hear from Maggie O’Farrell. I’ve read Instructions for a Heatwave and rated it 4-stars so I was interested to hear O’Farrell talk about her latest (and 7th) novel, This Must Be The Place. Her website promotes the book as being about “who we become as we search for our place in the world” which really struck a chord and listening to her talk about some of the characters and the editing process as she developed the story was fascinating. Even better, there were no spoilers so that’s another one on the “to read” list.

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Maggie O’Farrell reading from This Must Be The Place

After this luscious literary afternoon, I walked back to the tube station full of new things to read and inspired to keep writing (or tap-tap-tapping away as is the case right now). All three authors I saw spoke about the first step being just finishing the d***ed book – word by word, paragraph by paragraph – and the many, many times they wrote snippets on the tube and in the car (in all sorts of places really) which have ended up either in their novels or inspiring some other piece of writing.

And I was left with this thought: who knows what yours truly might end up cobbling together one day…

Patio sessions

It is a gloriously blue sky day here in London and I’m out on the Gidday HQ patio catching up on a spot of reading.

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Whilst Aussie-K came over for a coffee  yesterday – the day seemed too good to waste so we chatted about life’s trials and tribulations and scoffed some millionaire’s shortbread bathed in gentle sunshine – today was the first real patio session of the year. The cushions have been dusted off and placed on the chair and I have a few magazines and a bottle of water at my elbow. It’s only 10 Celsius but sheltered from the wind, it feels warmer so I’ve stretched my luminous winter legs out onto the chair in front of me.

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I miss my patio time over the winter months and as soon as it’s warm enough, I spend my weekend hours out here. As I read my latest issue of Intelligent Life – now with the new moniker 1843 – the washing dries in the sun, the birds twitter and squawk and the neighbour’s ginger cat ventures over to investigate.

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I love my patio. It has played host to celebrations with friends and visits from family. There have been Saturdays full of brunches, lunches and catch up coffees and many solitary Sundays spent trawling through the magazine reading that lapses a little over the winter months. I always promise myself I’ll do it during the week but I can’t help but flick open my kindle for just one more chapter of whatever happens to be my latest commuting addiction as I drop into my seat on the tube.

But most of all it’s my haven and today’s session has invigorated my mind, calmed my soul and given me a little respite from the hurly-burly of life. So I’m hoping that we may have turned the corner into the early stages of Spring and with a few more days like today, I might get on top of the reading pile…

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…eventually.

Five star wordsmith-ery

Last time I posted I was settling into a week of beach and books on the beautiful island of Mauritius.

Reading is my favourite thing to do so while others g0t immersed in the smorgasbord of all-inclusive resort activities or booked in for day trips involving dolphins and catamarans, I found myself a spot on the beach and spent the days – whether basking in the sun or relaxing in the shade – reading. And I read all sorts of things – old favourites, Kindle daily deal finds and even an autobiography that I’ve been meaning to read for quite a while. It was the ultimate indulgence.

I always rate and review my reads – reviews from others help me to choose – and while I love to share an absolutely cracking read, I will also share when my experience is not so great. I don’t go into the detail of the story like most reviewers – I like to discover the story and its characters for myself. Instead I share the experience of reading it and how I’m left feeling at the end.

A lot of my reads rate 3 or 4 stars – I love reading, can be quite eclectic in my choices and like to think that I lean towards being magnanimous in my reviewing – although perhaps I’m not the best judge of this.

There are few that dip into 2-star territory (where I’m left feeling pretty dissatisfied) and even fewer 1-stars where I feel like I’ll never get back the hours I spent wading through the pages or just don’t finish. The latter is rare – I don’t ever want to be tempted to revisit a rubbish read by someone saying ‘oh but it got better in the end’.

And there are the 5-star reads. These are the ones that, when I read the final page, make me go wow. They leave me excited, reflective, profoundly moved and they are the ones I will get evangelical about, saying to whoever will listen ‘you must read this’.

2015 started well with 5 stars awarded in January to C.J. Sansom’s sixth in the Shardlake series, Lamentation. Since then, the wows have come in threes – March/April saw a trilogy of 5-star ratings awarded to The Girl on a Train, The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Labyrinth and then it was August before I was successively thrilled by The Devil’s Star, Far from the Madding Crowd and The Taxidermist’s Daughter.

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I returned from Mauritius relaxed and happy, having soaked up a goodly dose of sunshine whilst devouring a book a day, six of which I gave 4-star ratings . But I felt like something was missing and when I thought about it, I realised what it was – a cracking 5-star read.

It’s been three months since The Taxidermist’s Daughter and by my calculations, it’s time to up the ante with a 5-star read again. I have a Kindle full of choices but what I’m really interested to hear is what you’d recommend. What’s taken your literary fancy of late? What have you read that has had you gripped, delighted, missing your train/tube/bus stop or staying up way too late because you just have to read one more chapter?

I would love to finish the year on a literary high so let me have it peeps – whose wordsmith-ery made you go wow this year?

A contract of invention

In a few weeks time, this year’s Man Booker Prize winner will be announced.

The last two years have seen the prize awarded to antipodean writers with epic tales: New Zealander Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries in 2013 and Australia’s Richard Flanagan with The Narrow Road to the Deep North the following year. It is the latter who will pass the winner’s baton to Marlon James, Tom McCarthy, Anne Tyler, Hanya Yanagihara, Chiozi Obioma or Sunjeev Sahota on 13th October.

I have not read any of this year’s books so cannot offer a view as to who my ‘vote’ would go to, although I have been an on and off fan of Tyler since reading Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant as part of my high school English curriculum. And dipping into prior short lists for reading inspiration in recent years has given me the beautiful prose of Tan Twan Eng (The Garden of Evening Mists was short-listed in 2012 and I then discovered The Gift of Rain) and sent me back to 1982’s winner, Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s Ark, following my visit to Krakow some 30 years after.

But I will say this: the 2015 winner will have big shoes to fill.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North is one of the most extraordinary books I’ve read in a long while. It’s a story that cuts right to the heart of what it is to be human and left me profoundly moved. So I was thrilled to come across an opportunity to see Flanagan interviewed last week as part of The Guardian Book Club.

Flanagan talked thoughtfully and easily for about 90 minutes, answering a myriad of questions with his antipodean twang and laconic Aussie style. I was struck by his open-ness in answering, whether it was his views on books vs movies (thumbs up for books) or research vs invention (the creativity in ‘making it up’ is what he loves).

(Actually, now I think about it, he’d make a great dinner party guest.)

Despite his father’s experiences in a Japanese prisoner of war camp during World War II and his coming face-to-face with his father’s captors during a recent trip to Japan, Flanagan was at pains to say that this was not a researched book and certainly not based on his father’s particular experiences. He talked about daydreaming, imagining the horror of the death railway or catching the moment when the sun caresses a lover’s shoulder as he sat at his table and then setting out to describe what he was seeing in his mind rather than telling the reader what to see or think.

A novel is an invention of the human spirit….a contract between the writer and the soul of the reader who connects to give the story its meaning and depth.

Flanagan described the book as something he tried to escape writing, likening it to ‘a boulder on his chest’ that made it difficult for him to write anything else…since its completion, he mentioned the writing being ‘released’ and that he has a couple of projects in the pipeline.

It was difficult to write that last sentence without making it sound like some melodramatic realisation on Flanagan’s part. I’m not sure I succeeded but it didn’t come across that way at all – it was understated and sincere and I was left with a quiet feeling of admiration for this articulate Australian…and maybe just a little bit of national pride.

There is nothing left for me to say except that in The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan has created a story that is poignant, unyielding and richly-drawn.

Read it – it will touch your soul.

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