Books read in September 2013

Why does WordPress hate freedom, and by freedom I mean consistent paragraph breaks?  FIVE TIMES I have tried to edit this post and get consistent paragraphing!  FIVE!  And it hasn’t worked.  I’m all out of sacrificial goats, so please accept my apologies for the weirdness of the formatting.

The Fabric of Sin Phil Rickman Supernatural
To Dream of the Dead Phil Rickman Supernatural
The Secrets of Pain Phil Rickman Supernatural
Drink: A Cultural History of Alcohol Iain Gately History
Three Dog Night Elsebeth Egholm Crime
Going Clear: Hollywood, Scientology and the Prison of Belief Lawrence Wright Contemporary issues
The Digger’s Rest Hotel Geoffrey McGeachin Crime Australian
Longbourn Jo Baker Historical
Blackwattle Creek Geoffrey McGeachin Crime Australian
Night Games: Sex, Power and Sport Anna Krien Contemporary issues
The Ghost Bride Yangsze Choo YA
A Death in the Lucky Holiday Hotel: Murder, Money and an Epic Power Struggle in China Pin Ho, Wenguang Huang Chinese politics



Thirteen.  That’s thirteen books I read last month, and none of them were graphic novels or re-reads of old and familiar stories.  There’s quantity and quality.  Except that now I have to remember what I was going to say about them.

  • It’s a sad reflection on the state of popular histories in general that I got really excited when Iain Gately’s Drink: A Cultural History of Alcohol devoted an entire chapter to Australia and the Rum Rebellion.  And then split a chapter between China and Japan.  And, um, mentioned Africa.Okay, what I’m saying is that if you’re setting out to write a history of [something] in a Euro-American context, you should say so upfront and not go around calling it something silly like “a global history”.  That way, people won’t be pathetically grateful when you remember there are other parts of the world.Vague observations on the state of popular non-fiction aside, this was a light, breezy read that actually didn’t contain much that I didn’t already know, but it seemed generally accurate and sensible.
  • Exciting news!  I’m now doing the odd bit of guest reviewing for the new Australian crime fiction blog, Reading Kills!  You can find my thoughts on Three Dog Night here, and my review of Safe as Houses will follow.
  • After Three Dog Night, I started reading Mao’s Great Famine by Frank Dikötter, on account of how I enjoy Chinese history and it was ridiculously cheap on the Kobo store.  But it’s a really hard slog, not just because of the subject matter (grim), but because the author occasionally lets his right wing flag fly and makes dubious claims about how great life was under the Kuomintang.  Uh, sure, dude, whatever.So I’ve been alternating that with other books, and let me tell you, going from a history of Mao’s China to Scientology is … not that much of a headspin, actually.  In fact, according to Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear: Hollywood, Scientology and the Prison of Belief, L. Ron Hubbard based part of Scientology’s practices on Chinese brainwashing techniques (the Church of Scientology denies this claim), not to mention the deliberate creation of a cult of personality (the Church of Scientology denies this claim), and the fact that totalitarian systems are all basically alike.

    Going Clear was a good read, but I did have to keep putting it down to text my BFF, who read it before me, going, “BUT SERIOUSLY!”  Of course, any book that heavily relies on disaffected former members of a group is going to have a heavily negative bias, but unless you’re a big fan of self-help systems that drive people to suicide (the Church of Scientology denies this claim), it’s hard to put a positive spin in Scientology.

  • The Digger’s Rest Hotel and Blackwattle Creek by Geoffrey McGeachin are Australian crime novels centred around Charlie Berlin, an ex-RAAF pilot suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder following the Second World War.  The first novel is set in 1947; the second a decade later, when Charlie is married with a family.Both were good reads — I particularly enjoyed the first — and Charlie is a likeable character, although it’s all a bit White Guy Discovers Racism Is Bad.  (It’s saved from being entirely obnoxious by the fact that, while Charlie comes to regard Aborigines and Asians as actual people, he still has a lot of unexamined prejudices.)

    The second book gets into the more preposterous end of Cold War conspiracy theories, which sat rather uncomfortably against the background of 1950s suburbia, but it was quite entertaining.

  • I discussed Longbourn in more detail here.
  • Night Games by Anna Krien examines rape culture in AFL.  Suffice to say, it made me a bit mad.  Not just because of the nature of the issue (although that was a big part of it), but the book is centred around a rape trial, and I wasn’t completely comfortable with the way she covered it.What happened was, after the night of the (tie-breaker) grand final between Collingwood and St Kilda (coincidentally the only year I paid attention to the AFL), two Collingwood players and a guy from a small local team were accused of raping a young woman.Due to what I can only call legal shenanigans, the two Collingwood players were never charged, so this young, unknown bloke was left holding the ball, as it were.The court decided that the events that took place before this third alleged rape could not be mentioned or used as evidence in any way, which basically created a big blank spot in the evening, and created enough doubt that the jury basically had to find the young footballer not guilty.Krien follows the trial closely, and is scrupulous about reporting the accused’s family’s vicious victim-blaming and general unpleasantness.  But the victim didn’t respond to any of Krien’s overtures, plus her evidence was heard in a closed court.  So her voice is, essentially, silent.  And in what purports to be a feminist examination of a rape trial, that’s a pretty big omission.  (I’m not saying that the victim wasn’t perfectly within her rights to decline to speak to Krien, but I think it was a bad idea to persist with the trial as the centrepiece of the book in that case.)

    She does, however, highlight a particular peeve I have with the Victorian legal system.  In this state, a “genuine belief in consent” is enough to escape a conviction for rape.  This has led to delightful circumstances like, “She was unconscious, but she grunted when I undressed her, so she was totally into it, Your Honour.”  I transcribe criminal court proceedings.  I DO A LOT OF ANGRY!TYPING!

  • I talked about The Ghost Bride at some length at No Award.
  • Finally, A Death in the Lucky Holiday Hotel starts with the murder of British businessman David Heywood in China, and the ensuing investigation, cover-up, attempted defection, political headrolling and trials, and puts it all in the context of contemporary Chinese Communist Party politics.Suffice to say, there’s a lot going on here, and it felt rather like three books compressed into one.  If I was the type of person who gave books star ratings, I’d give this … hmm, maybe two and a half, three stars?  The ground it covers is really interesting, from the events themselves to the current and upcoming generations of Communist Party leaders, to the limits of freedom of speech in China and the use of social media to extend them, to the scapegoating of women when a leader falls, to … well, you get my drift.So it was an informative but busy book, not helped by the structure of the chapters:  we’d be told about a person doing something, then we’d be told who that person was and how they fit into the bigger picture, and then I had to go back and reread the beginning of the chapter so I could put their actions into context.  And then I started looking people up, and realised that certain trials were still ongoing, two months after the book was published.

Because Chinese politics and Scientology are apparently BFFs, I’m now reading a Scientology biography.  Stay tuned for next month!

0 thoughts on “Books read in September 2013”

  1. Man, you are a reading MACHINE! I’m glad you enjoyed Blackwattle Creek – I liked it too (though yes, far-fetched indeed!) The author seems quite hilarious in interviews so I’m hoping he publishes another one of his light-hearted books because I never have time to read anything published earlier than yesterday any more.

    1. I don’t know what happened in September — usually I manage about half that number!

      But yes, I second the call for more McGeachin. He seems to have a good grasp of, uh, stuff.

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