What to read: A tale of heaven and hell, and the end of a giant shark

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On a Bright Hillside in Paradise
Annette Higgs, Vintage, $32.99


Winner of the Penguin Literary Prize, Annette Higgs’ On a Bright Hillside in Paradise is a colonial-era novel set in a tiny community that will be transformed by religious fervour. They called it Paradise, although Higgs is alert to the hellish effect of white settlement on the First Nations people of lutruwita (Tasmania), and to how settlers tried to erase and minimise the crimes against them. The reader is taken into the tenuous lives of the Hatton family through the viewpoints of five characters. North-West Tasmania is spectacular and rugged and beautiful, but it is inhospitable too. In the 1870s the settlers who live there face a constant battle to survive in the bush, though many families descended from convicts escaped worse conditions. When the arrival of Christian Brethren sparks an evangelical mania, dramatic questions of faith and family arise in this sensitive, richly imagined historical fiction.

Claire Baylis, Allen & Unwin, $32.99

Four teenage boys have been charged with sexual offences in this courtroom drama. Their alleged crimes stem from a sex game they invented, where they rolled dice and did what the numbers dictated.


Another randomised process, that of jury selection, will determine whether they are found guilty or not guilty, and the novelty in Dice is that the trial unfolds from the perspectives of the 12 jurors. It isn’t simply their vastly different life experiences that will be brought to bear. The machinery of justice will ensure that there is evidence they hear and evidence they don’t. The trial will be long, the arguments complex, the process an ordeal for witnesses and the jury itself. Claire Baylis is a legal expert by day, and her novel hits upon the irresistible idea of turning the reader into a 13th member of the jury, privy to deliberations, and invited to form their own view of the case.

Mistakes and Other Lovers
Amy Lovat, Macmillan, $34.99


Youth comes with plenty of messiness if you’re doing it right. El O’Reilly is doing it right. She’s engaged to her long-term boyfriend, then dumps him the night before Valentine’s Day to pursue an infatuation with a charismatic youth pastor she’s fallen for who, in turn, proposes to someone else, leaving El in the lurch. Pretty soon she’s dropped out of uni, ghosted her family and friends, and fallen into a hedonistic haze of beer, bongs, and bisexuality. Amy Lovat’s Mistakes and Other Lovers is cleanly written and has a teen movie vibe, capturing the high-stakes melodrama and angst of teen socialisation and (a harder thing) just how unformed people can be on the cusp of adulthood. True, the overwhelming focus on sex, romance and partying might miss opportunities for more rounded character development, though it seems realistic enough and will doubtless form part of this emerging writer’s learning curve.

Little Monsters
Adrienne Brodeur, Hutchinson Heinemann, $32.99


On the verge of forced retirement, marine biologist Adam Gardner stops taking his meds for bipolar disorder, embarking on a manic quest to decipher the meaning of whale song. For his 70th birthday, his two adult children make the trip to their remote childhood home at Cape Cod. Conflict is inevitable. Ken is a real estate developer with cashed-up in-laws and an eye on a political career as a Republican. Abby’s an artist whose work will eventually reveal a tightly kept family secret. The novel is set against the backdrop of the 2016 presidential election and political tensions supercharge personal ones. As the author switches deftly between characters, three generations of the Gardner family face fraught revelations they seem ill-equipped to handle. Adrienne Brodeur has written an affecting domestic drama that takes in broader social issues, and the intense ideological polarisation that grips the US to this day.

Big Meg
Tim Flannery & Emma Flannery, Text, $34.99

In his dreams, Tim Flannery uncovers so many megalodon teeth that they spill from his hands and he wakes feeling “wealthy beyond measure”. This elation ripples through Big Meg, the story of a now-extinct giant shark twice the weight of a humpback whale and the largest predator that ever lived.


While dinosaurs have been gone for 66 million years, the megalodon was swimming the seas until 4.5 to 2.5 million years ago. This riveting story had its genesis when the 16-year-old Tim found a fossilised tooth the size of his palm in a creek in western Victoria. His infectious enthusiasm for the monster shark is clearly inseparable from the awe this discovery inspired. He and his daughter, Emma, also a scientist, reflect on our fraught relationship with sharks and probe the scientific questions raised by “big meg”. Why did it grow so large? What did it look like? And why did it vanish?

Forgotten Warriors
Sarah Percy, John Murray, $34.99


A 1917 photo of suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst, militant leader of the frontline fight for women’s rights, with Maria Bochkareva, head of the Russian Women’s Battalion of Death, nicely captures Sarah Percy’s key point about women and war. The exclusion of women from combat and their erasure from its history has gone hand in hand with patriarchy. “Even though women could fight all kinds of battles, and win them, the military ensured that they couldn’t fight real battles – men would still have to do that for them.” In fact, women had been part of the war machine until the 19th century, as leaders, as camp followers on the battlefield, on their home turf during sieges, as cross-dressing soldiers or as undercover operatives. This eye-opening history enlarges our understanding of what it means to be a warrior as it challenges the perception of women as purely victims of war.

You Called an Ambulance For What?
Tim Booth, Macmillan, $36.99


The statistics show that 90 per cent of ambulance callouts are not emergencies and paramedic Tim Booth’s experience bears this out. A man with a blocked nose. A woman with a twinge in her back. People pretending to have seizures or be unconscious after a fight with a family member. Booth nails it when he says, “Modern society is used to having everything on demand … Ambulances have become the Netflix of healthcare.” This selfishness morphs into something close to criminal when Covid hits and the majority of callouts are from unvaccinated people in a panic, although not too panicked to tell Booth that he is brainwashed by the communist government. This nuttiness and the paramedics’ gallows humour, along with the occasional life-and-death drama, make for a wild and instructive ride.

Many Things Under A Rock
David Scheel, Hodder & Stoughton, $34.99

A host of surprising scientific discoveries, not to mention the hit doco My Octopus Teacher, have made octopuses the latest charismatic marine fauna. What distinguishes this book is the way marine biologist David Scheel incorporates Indigenous knowledge of these creatures into the story.


Scheel began researching giant Pacific octopuses after the oil spill from the Exxon Valdez 25 years ago and is now measuring the impact of another threat to their habitat in the form of climate change. Over this period, he has studied many aspects of octopus life from their hunting habits to their decentralised nervous system, yielding valuable insights. But his scientific achievements tend to be swamped by a meandering first-person narrative of his field trips and jarring shifts in time and place, leaving the reader hungry for a more concise and streamlined distillation of his knowledge.

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