Books set in Sicily

Books set in Sicily – a list of pre-trip reading

This post is part of an occasional series where I provide a list of novels or memoirs set in a few of my favourite destinations. In this case, books set in Sicily. 

books-set-in-sicilyOne of the things I like to do before visiting any destination is to compile lists of novels or memoirs set in that place…or interesting books of history which tell the colourful stories. The pre-trip reading of a few titles provides texture to my experience of the destination, and an understanding of some of the more personal stories of those who live (or lived) there.

I didn’t have a chance to read any books set in Sicily before I went there recently, but as I am SURE I will plan a return trip, I’ve made a list of a few titles I’m keen to explore before the next time.

Books set in Sicily

The Leopard (Il Gattopardo) by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (1958)

One of the classics of Italian literature, I don’t think my Italian would ever be up to reading the original, so I would need to read Archibald Colquohoun’s English translation. Interestingly, the literal translation of the title is not ‘leopard’, but the smaller serval cat. The publisher of the translated edition says:

Lampedusa’s masterpiece, one of the finest works of twentieth century fiction, is set amongst an aristocratic family facing social and political changes in the wake of Garibaldi’s invasion of Sicily in 1860. At the head of the family is the prince, Don Fabrizio. Proud and stubborn, he is accustomed to knowing his own place in the world and expects his household to run accordingly. He is aware of the changes which are rapidly making men historically obsolete but he remains attached to the old ways. His favourite nephew, Tancredi, may be an ardent supporter of Garibaldi and may later marry outside his class but Don Fabrizio will make few accommodations for the modern world. Containing, for the first time in any language, the full original text, Tomasi di Lampedusa’s classic tale lovingly memorialises the details of a vanishing world while retaining its melancholic and ironic sense of time passing and the frailty of human emotions.

Sweet Sicily: The Story of an Island and Her Pastries by Victoria Granof (2001)

You don’t have to restrict yourself to novels and memoirs for your pre-trip reading, and with the pastry desserts of Sicily such a strong part of their food culture, this particular title caught my eye. The publisher says:

A lushly photographed exploration of the Sicilian tradition of pastry-making, including methods, ingredients, superstitions, and customs surrounding some of the world’s most beautiful and delicious desserts. Sweet Sicily takes readers on a grand tour of the fascinating island of Sicily – to pastry shops as well as convents, restaurants, and private homes – to discover authentic recipes for desserts and pastries. In this charming cookbook, Victoria Granof serves up 106 dishes that she’s redeveloped especially for American kitchens. Along the way, she offers fascinating historical facts about the island of Sicily, it’s people, customs, and the evolution of the pastry tradition, local festivals involving pastries, advice from the cooks themselves, and American sources for ingredients.

Midnight in Sicily by Peter Robb (1996)

First published in 1996, this non-fiction book tells the story of the Mafia, from its peasant origins through to the 1990s, by juxtaposing essays on food and art with historical accounts such as that of the kidnapping and murder of former Prime Minister Aldo Moro in 1978. The publisher says:

Peter Robb’s journey into the dark heart of Sicily uses history, painting, literature and food to shed light on southern Italy’s legacy of political corruption and violent crime. Taking the trial of seven-times Prime Minister, Giulio Andreotti, for alleged Mafia involvement as its starting point, Midnight in Sicily combines a searching investigation with an exuberant, sensual appreciation of this beautiful and bewildering island.

The Silent Duchess by Dacia Maraini (2010)

I love multi-generational family sagas, and this one certainly sounds like it fits the bill. The story is told through the eyes of a deaf-mute Duchess. The publisher says:

Set in the mid-18th century, Dacia Maraini’s unforgettable novel tells the story of three generations of the Ucria family, seen through the watchful eyes of the deaf-mute Duchess Marianna. Married at 13 to her own uncle and set apart from other people by her disablity, she relentlessly searches for fulfilment in a society where women either face marriage and endless child-bearing or a life of renunciation within the walls of a convent

Beatrice and Benedick by Marina Fiorato (2014)

One of my favourite Shakespeare plays is the comedy, Much Ado About Nothing and it is set in Sicily (as is the first half of The Winter’s Tale). This novel explores the backstory to Much Ado’s lovers Beatrice and Benedick. The publisher says:

Hidden in the language of Shakespeare’s best-loved comedy Much Ado About Nothing, are several clues to an intriguing tale. It seems that the witty lovers Beatrice and Benedick had a previous youthful love affair which ended bitterly. But how did they meet, why did they part, and what brought them together again?Messina, Sicily, 1588. Beatrice of Mantua comes to the court of her uncle Leonato, to be companion to his daughter, Hero. That fateful summer, Spanish lordling Don Pedro visits for a month-long sojourn on the island with his regiment. In his company is the young soldier Benedick of Padua. Benedick and Beatrice begin to wage their merry war of wit, which masks the reality that they dance a more serious measure, and the two are soon deeply in love. But the pair are cruelly parted by natural disaster and man-made misunderstanding. Oceans apart, divided by war and slander, Beatrice and Benedick begin their ten-year odyssey back to Messina and each other. In a journey that takes us from sunlit Sicily to the crippled Armada fleet and from ancient superstition to the glorious Renaissance cities of the north, Marina Fiorato tells a story of intrigue, treachery and betrayal that will shed a new light on Shakespeare’s most appealing lovers.

Inspector Montalbano novels by Andrea Camilleri (1994-2015)

I’ve never read any of these novels, nor watched the TV series, but everyone who does so raves about them. Inspector Montalbano is a fictional Sicilian detective, created by Andrea Camilleri. The series of over 20 novels and novellas have been translated into English, plus many other languages, and are best-sellers in countries right across the world. The publisher says:

Andrea Camilleri is one of Italy’s most famous contemporary writers. His books have sold over 65 million copies worldwide. He lives in Rome. The Inspector Montalbano series, which began with The Shape of Water, has been translated into 32 languages and was adapted for Italian television, screened on BBC4. The Potter’s Field, the thirteenth book in the series, was awarded the Crime Writers’ Association’s International Dagger for the best crime novel translated into English. In addition to his phenomenally successful Inspector Montalbano series, he is also the author of the historical comic mysteries Hunting Season and The Brewer of Preston.

The Godfather by Mario Puzo (1969)

Another classic that I’ve somehow managed to miss reading. The Godfather tells the tale of a fictional Mafia family based in NYC. The head of the family is Don Vito Corleone and this novel covers the years 1945 to 1955, but also provides the back story of Corleone’s childhood (which is where Sicily comes into the story, with Vito Corleone growing up in the Sicilian town of Corleone).  Fans of the movies will be interested to know that the two towns which were used for filming the Corleone scenes were actually Forza D’Agro and Savoca (near Taormina).  The publisher says about this book:

The Godfather—the epic tale of crime and betrayal that became a global phenomenon.
Almost fifty years ago, a classic was born. A searing portrayal of the Mafia underworld, The Godfather introduced readers to the first family of American crime fiction, the Corleones, and their powerful legacy of tradition, blood, and honor. The seduction of power, the pitfalls of greed, and the allegiance to family—these are the themes that have resonated with millions of readers around the world and made The Godfather the definitive novel of the violent subculture that, steeped in intrigue and controversy, remains indelibly etched in our collective consciousness.

Conversations in Sicily by Elio Vittorini (1941)

This novel was written during Mussolini’s reign in Italy, and has since been translated and published in English. The main character, Silvestro Ferrauto works as a  typesetter in Milan, but revisits Sicily after receiving a letter which reveals that his father has abandoned Ferrauto’s mother. Critics interpret the novel as being anti-fascist, and it certainly contains themes of social injustice. The publisher says:

Vividly capturing the heat, sounds and smells of southern Italy, Conversations in Sicily astounds with its modernity, lyricism and originality.
Driven by a sense of total disconnection, the narrator embarks on a journey from northern Italy to Sicily, the home he has not seen in some fifteen years. Through the conversations of the islanders and a reunion with his mother, he gradually begins to feel reconnected. But to what kind of world? Written during Mussolini’s time in power, Conversations in Sicily is one of the great novels of anti-fascism.

Sicilian Lives by Danilo Dolci (1960, reprinted in 1981)

Danilo Dolci was an Italian social activist and sociologist known for his opposition to poverty, social exclusion and the Mafia on Sicily. In the 1950s and 1960s he published a series of books exploring the lives and conditions of Sicilians, and the power of the mafia. The publisher says:

When Danilo Docli, peace worker, organizer, educator, first arrived in 1952 in Trappeto, a village of peasants and fishermen in western Sicily, there were no streets, just mud and dust, not a single drugstore, not even a sewer. (In fact, the local dialect didn’t even have a word for sewer.) Like other Sicilians, the villagers, seen by many Italians as “bandits,” “dirt-eaters,” and “savages,” had, in effect, been mute for centuries. Dolci’s years of work broke this silence. The result is “Sicilian Lives,” a book which reveals the intimate experiences and perceptions of a wide range of Sicilians, rural and urban, through voices that are sometimes frightening, but always fascinating and unexpected. Danilo Dolci has collected a rich panorama of voices–the eloquent testimony of Sicilians who, at last, are speaking out to penetrate the most profound dilemmas of an impoverished land.

That Summer in Sicily: A Love Story by Marlena de Blasi (2009)

This one sounds totally fascinating.  It is based on the journey Marlena de Blasi and her husband took to Sicily to research recipes for a new book. While there, they are given directions to the Villa Donnafugata (literally: house of the escaped woman) and she discovers that the castle-like Villa Donnafugata is the home of eighteen widows and seven men who have been taken in by the owner, Tosca. This book tells of how Tosca came to own the villa, and the story of this unique community. The publisher says:

“At villa Donnafugata, long ago is never very far away,” writes bestselling author Marlena de Blasi of the magnificent if somewhat ruined castle in the mountains of Sicily that she finds, accidentally, one summer while traveling with her husband, Fernando. There de Blasi is befriended by Tosca, the patroness of the villa, an elegant and beautiful woman-of-a-certain-age who recounts her lifelong love story with the last prince of Sicily descended from the French nobles of Anjou.
Sicily is a land of contrasts: grandeur and poverty, beauty and sufferance, illusion and candor. In a luminous and tantalizing voice, That Summer in Sicily re-creates Tosca’s life, from her impoverished childhood to her fairy-tale adoption and initiation into the glittering life of the prince’s palace, to the dawning and recognition of mutual love. But when Prince Leo attempts to better the lives of his peasants, his defiance of the local Mafia’s grim will to maintain the historical imbalance between the haves and the have-nots costs him dearly.
The present-day narrative finds Tosca sharing her considerable inherited wealth with a harmonious society composed of many of the women–now widowed–who once worked the prince’s land alongside their husbands. How the Sicilian widows go about their tasks, care for one another, and celebrate the rituals of a humble, well-lived life is the heart of this book.

Have you read any great books set in Sicily?

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Geisha spotting in Kyoto – a night walking tour of Gion

We had a glimpse into the intriguing world of geisha on this night walking tour of Gion, where we hunted, stalked, spotted a number of Kyoto’s meiko and geiko.

A night walking tour of Gion:

For anyone (like me) intrigued by the culture of Japan’s traditional entertainment district of Gion, a night walking tour is great way to gain an insight into this fascinating world without breaking the bank.  We turned up just before 6 pm for our walking tour with WaRaiDo Guide Networks, paid our 1,000 yen per person and joined the group of fellow travellers, excitedly anticipating a glimpse into the life, history and tradition of Kyoto’s geisha community.


Gion is Kyoto’s most famous geisha district (or kagai) and is located around Shijo Avenue between Yasaka Shrine in the east and the river in the west. Many of the buildings in this area of Kyoto are the traditional wooden machiya merchant houses which were built with narrow facades (5- 6 metres wide) but extend up to twenty metres deep. Gion today is filled with shops, restaurants, and the ochaya (teahouses) where geisha entertain and the okiya (boarding houses) where they live.

A night walking tour of Gion:

Our English-speaking guide, Meiko shepherded our large group of almost 40 through some of the most picturesque backstreets of Gion, explaining the history of kagai  and aspects of the life of meiko (apprentice geisha) and geiko (fully-fledged geisha) along the way.

We were told that if we saw any geisha on the tour (by no means, guaranteed) we could politely take photographs of them, as long as they were on their own. If they were accompanied by a client, photos were a no-go to protect the client’s privacy.  We were encouraged to show respect in our photography, but I have to admit…our group was more paparazzi than Lord Snowdon. (Click here to see the photo and description for our particular tour on the WaRaiDo facebook page.)

Within minutes, a murmur rippled through our group…maiko, maiko, maiko! The cry went out. As a collective group, we raised our cameras and phones and surged in the direction of the spotted quarry.


There we glimpsed the retreating back of a maiko who had (uncharacteristically) stopped momentarily to allow some other tourists to take her photo. She was now clip-clopping briskly down to the street to her appointment at a party, however equally uncharacteristically, she turned back to our crowd on three occasions, smiling and waving.

Meiko was as excited as we were. She explained that it was very unusual for maiko or geiko to stop for photos, as they are on-the-clock and charging the client from the minute they leave their okiya (boarding house) so move briskly and with purpose. This particular maiko, she told us, was currently the No.1 maiko in Gion (yes, this is a formal ranking which is decided annually).

The fact that she turned to wave back to our group suggested to me (who was at this stage feeling a little like I was on a big-game safari) that she was okay with being papped by a tour group. Geisha are revered in Kyoto, and the attention struck me as being very like Hollywood celebrities would get.

So, what is it that geisha are charging their clients for? We learned that geisha attend parties at tea houses, where they are the entertainment and hostesses for the wealthy men there (mostly men – but sometimes there are women). They sing, dance, play traditional instruments, play parlour games, pour tea and chat with the guests. In other words, they are professional party girls and hostesses, schooled in the traditional arts. Contrary to the widely-held belief about geisha, what they don’t do is offer any sexual services.

The training to become a geisha is extremely rigorous, and very hierachical…with young girls from about 15 years starting as shikomi, or girls in training. They go to classes at a special school as well as doing chores and helping out maiko and geiko in their okiya. The okasan (boarding house mother) then decides whether she wants to take them on as a maiko.

A night walking tour of Gion:

Shortly after our first sighting, the eagle-eyed in our group spied a green clover leaf taxi (the brand of choice for geisha en route to appointments) pull up at a nearby venue – and our group surged in that direction. This time it was a geiko (fully qualified geisha).

Meiko explained that geiko dress more simply that the flashy maiko, as they have ‘made it’. They are also self-employed, and can live in their own home, but use their former boarding house mother as their ‘booker’.  While the women are maiko, which is a period of up to five years, all their bookings are made through their boarding house mother who keeps every cent of the booking fees. She, however, also pays all their expenses during that time (hair, make up, dresser, kimono, transport, food, training etc) and actively promotes them to clients.

A night walking tour of Gion:

If I hadn’t done this walking tour, I would probably have walked right past the building above, not realising that it was an okiya (geisha boarding house). However, while we were standing outside, another taxi drew up, and the okasan came to the front door to give instructions to the maiko who got into that taxi.

A night walking tour of Gion:


Likewise, Meiko pointed out this ochaya (above) on the corner of Shijo-dori and Hanamikoji-dori streets – Ichiriki Ochaya. Like most ochaya, this is a very exclusive, invitation only, place of entertainment. The members of this ochaya have longstanding relationships with the establishment, often going back generations, either through family or company ties, and are all very wealthy. It was hard to glean actual figures, but it seemed that hiring a single geisha for a couple of hours of entertainment costs anything from 120,000 yen upwards (USD$1,000+).

A night walking tour of Gion:

Meiko explained that one tradition of ochaya is that the front entrance is washed and left wet prior to a party. Later, when the tour ended and we walked back past Ichiriki Ochaya on our way to a nearby restaurant, I saw a man out with the hose. Sure enough, as we left the restaurant after dinner, we discovered a party had just finished up at Ichiriki Ochaya, and we spotted several more maiko leaving. This time, most were walking with clients, so no chance of photos, but we did get the opportunity to see them super up-close.

A night walking tour of Gion:

This was the restaurant we went to, Yagenbori: near to Ichiriki Ochaya

It was a good night’s hunting.

There’s still much about the geisha life that I don’t understand and am intrigued about, but I am fascinated to find out more and have added a few great books* to my TBR list:

This tour however, provided enough of an insight to whet my appetite and was certainly an entertaining way to spend a couple of hours. Definitely a recommended addition to a Kyoto itinerary.

The details

WaRaiDo Guide Networks – Night walking tour of Gion

Website in English:
Facebook page: There is a fascinating update after each tour of that night’s sightings, or not…
Address: the tour meeting place is in front of Kitaza (178 Tokiwachō (Yamatoōjidōri) Higashiyama-ku, Kyōto-shi, Kyōto-fu 605-0079) and tour ends at Gion Kobu Kaburenjo Theatre
Tour frequency: Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday (except no tours between Dec 31 and Jan 3)
Tour time: tour starts at 6pm (March to November) and 5 pm (December to February) and lasts about 100 minutes.
Cost: ¥1,000 per person, cash only.
Bookings: no reservation required, just turn up to the meeting place about 15 minutes before the start time
Japanese address of meeting place: 井筒八ッ橋本舗北座ビル
Disclosure: * these are affiliate links to 

Do you know much about geisha? Are you as intrigued by their world as I am?

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A night walking tour of Gion:


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Books set in Melbourne:

Books set in Melbourne

Books set in Melbourne:

One of the things I like to do before visiting any destination is to compile lists of novels or memoirs set in that place…or interesting books of history which tell the colourful stories. The pre-trip reading of a few titles provides texture to my experience of the destination, and an understanding of some of the more personal stories of those who live (or lived) there.

This post is part of an occasional series where I provide a list of novels or memoirs set in a few of my favourite destinations. But in this case, the destination is my hometown of Melbourne…so these are some of the books that I have read over the years that resonated with my personal experience of life in Melbourne, or have added to my understanding of the city’s people and its history.  

Books set in Melbourne:

Books set in Melbourne

Monkey Grip by Helen Garner (1977)

Monkey Grip, published in 1977, was much-celebrated Melbourne writer, Helen Garner’s first novel. It is now considered a classic of Australian literature, and was also made into a movie in 1982. The novel is set in 1970s inner-city Melbourne and was inspired by real people and events in 1970s.

The 1970s were a time of radical change in Australian history, as new ways to approach concepts of community, family and relationships were being explored. The main character, Nora is a single parent who works as a teacher, but lives in an inner-city shared house along with students, musicians and actors, some of whom have hardened drug habits.

I first read this novel as a teenager in the mid-1980s. I’ve put it back onto the TBR pile to see how it stacks up 30 years later.

The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas (2008)

This novel polarises readers into those that loved it and those that detested it. I fall into the second camp. However, it has been a best-seller and has been made into a popular TV series, so lots of people disagree with my opinion of it.

At a suburban Melbourne barbecue, a man slaps a child who is not his own. The novel  explores the effect this pivotal event has on a group of (mostly) friends who are all either directly or indirectly affected by the slap. The story is told from eight different points of view.

This is a book that puts middle-class 21st century Melbourne society very squarely under the microscope. But what I disliked about it is that I did not find even one of the characters likable, nor did I feel there was any aspect of redemption within the story. At the end of book, I was left with a very pessimistic and depressing view of the Melbourne community, one which doesn’t equate with my own experience. 

Three Dollars by Elliot Perlman (1998)

This is another not-so-cheery book set in Melbourne. Published in 1998, it won The Age Book of the Year award for Perlman – not bad for a debut novel.

Three Dollars tells the story of Eddie, “an honest, compassionate man who finds himself, at the age of 38, with a wife, a child and three dollars”. The Melbourne it is set in (the early to mid-1990s) was the Melbourne I moved to all those years ago. And it was, at times, a fairly grim and harsh environment. Conditions in the corporate world were tough, there was a lot of downsizing, restructuring, outsourcing and meaningless corporate-speak. But in spite of it all, people retained their humour and humanity and that is what shines through in this novel.

On the Beach by Neville Shute (1957)

While she was filming the movie of this book, Ava Gardner is attributed with one of the most famous quotes about Melbourne (although she never actually said it): “On the Beach is a story about the end of the world, and Melbourne sure is the right place to film it!”, which doesn’t paint 1950s Melbourne in a particularly flattering light!

On the Beach is a post-apocalyptic novel written in 1957 (but set six years into the future in 1963 Melbourne) in which a nuclear war has destroyed most of the rest of the world, and the only survivors remain in southern Australia, awaiting the radioactive cloud which is headed their way within months.

Power Without Glory by Frank Hardy (1950)

Power Without Glory caused a huge controversy when it was published in 1950, ending up in a libel action court case.  The story is set in Melbourne during the period from 1890 to 1950, and charts the rise of a fictitious character ‘John West’ – who, it was claimed, was a thinly disguised version of a real life Melbourne businessman, John Wren.

In the novel, John West rises from slum poverty to immense wealth and political influence, starting off with backyard gambling and police bribery, and moving through corruption of political leaders,  fixing sporting events and violent brutality.

For months an Australian court heard evidence in the libel action brought by John Wren’s wife, claiming that John West was John Wren, and that therefore, the suggestion that West’s wife was having an affair was libelous to her. However, Frank Hardy was acquitted on the grounds that the book was a mix of fact and fiction.

Café Scheherazade by Arnold Zable (2003)

‘In Acland Street, St Kilda, there stands a cafe called Scheherazade.’  This is the first line of Arnold Zable’s novel Cafe Scheherazade. And although that was still true when Zable wrote this haunting novel, sadly it is no longer. For 50 years, Cafe Scheherazade was a St Kilda institution, however it closed its doors in 2008, and is now a St Kilda memory.

In this novel we meet Avram and Masha, who were the proprietors of the cafe, and hear the stories of their customers and how they came to be in Melbourne. The tales they tell are ones resonating with themes of displacement and survival, as they are the stories of Eastern European Jewish refugees who arrived in Melbourne after the second World War. It is a lovely, gentle and very poignant book.

The Getting of Wisdom by Henry Handel Richardson (1910)

‘Henry Handel Richardson’  was actually Ethel Florence Richardson, a writer who was born in 1870 to a reasonably wealthy Victorian family, which later lost its wealth in a stock-market downturn.  During her teenage years, Richardson attended boarding school at Presbyterian Ladies College in Melbourne and it’s the experience of these years that directly inspired The Getting of Wisdom.

The main character, Laura is sent to boarding school, despite her widowed mother being only barely able to afford it. It’s a keenly observed coming of age story, an exposition of turn-of-the-century society’s mores, and includes lovely description of the long-ago past of places I now know well today such as the streets of Prahran and South Yarra, Collins Street and the city.

The Birth of Melbourne by Tim Flannery (2002)

The Birth of Melbourne is an anthology of writings which contribute to an understanding of the early history of the settlement of Melbourne (covering approximately 1800 -1910). The writings are taken from a wide range of sources and authors, offering many different perspectives on Melbourne’s history.  The Birth of Melbourne includes voices that range from Indigenous elders to Governors, businessmen to visiting American writers, female diarists to Chinese immigrants.  It’s the type of volume you can dip into at will, reading just an occasional piece or two…or read from cover to cover for a chronological development.

Bearbrass: Imagining Early Melbourne by Robyn Annear (1995)

Bearbrass is a volume a visitor to Melbourne could almost have in hand and read as they wander around the streets. In fact, the author, Robyn Annear encourages that in the book, by taking the reader to the modern day location, then stripping away the current reality and recreating the village history of that spot: ‘Just a little way down Collins Street, beside Henry Buck’s, is a perpetually dark but sheltered laneway called Equitable Place. Here you’ll find a number of places to eat and drink. Settle yourself in the window of one, shut your eyes, and picture this scene of yore… ‘

Bearbrass was one of the names by which the early settlement of Melbourne was known. In this book, Robyn Annear retells in colourful detail, some of the stories from those days – from the arrival of white settlers in 1835 until the first gold rushes shook the town. Reading it, I was able to vividly imagine the history of the places under my feet as I walked the streets of the 21st century metropolis. Annear has also written A City Lost and Found: Whelan the Wrecker’s Melbourne, a book which uses the story of Whelan the Wrecker (Melbourne’s most famous demolition firm) to uncover the physical history of Melbourne’s buildings.

Lovesong by Alex Miller (2010)

This novel could feature on a list of books set in Paris, as well as this Melbourne list, as the story is set in both places. An Australian tourist (John) lost in a suburb on the fringes of Paris, seeks shelter in a small, rundown Tunisian cafe run by the widow Houria and her young niece, Sabiha – an event which irrevocably changes all their lives.

Years later in suburban Melbourne, John tells the story to Ken, an ageing writer. It is a story about home and family, love, passion and human flaws.

Sunnyside by Joanna Murray-Smith (2005)

Joanna Murray-Smith is best-known as one of Australia’s finest playwrights, but she is also an excellent novel writer. And here in Sunnyside, she turns her attention to contemporary middle-class Melbourne society. The cover of the book contains the line, “It should be nice. But it isn’t.” And that’s a pretty good summary of the novel!

The main characters, Alice and Harry Haskins move to a fictitious Melbourne beachside suburb, where big houses, swimming pools, dinner parties and tennis are the norm. Like a pulp-fiction cliche, the ‘niceness’ all comes undone when one of their friends has an affair with the pool-boy – except in Murray-Smith’s deft hands, it is no cliche. She skillfully skewers the characters with keenly observed detail of contemporary middle-class life.

True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey (2000)

This one isn’t so much set in the city of Melbourne, as in country Victoria. But most visitors to Melbourne will run across at least a reference to Ned Kelly at some point – whether it’s in seeing the famous armor at the State Library or finding out about him and his demise at The Old Melbourne Gaol.

Ned Kelly is the most infamous of Australia’s 19th century bushrangers. To some he is a common criminal, a thief, a murderer…to others he is remembered as a hero of the working class, a larger-than-life figure who defied the oppression of the authorities. Ned’s first stint in prison was at the tender age of 15, and by 26 he had become the most wanted man in the colony of Victoria. He was eventually captured, tried and hanged at Melbourne Gaol in 1880.

In this book, Peter Carey lets Ned tell his own story in a style inspired by Ned’s famous Jerilderie Letter…unpunctuated narrative, packed with 19th century Irish-Australian vernacular.

The Heart Garden by Janine Burke (2005)

Sunday Reed (nee Baillieu) and her husband John are fascinating characters in the history of 20th century Melbourne. Sunday was born into one of the most ‘establishment’ of Melbourne families and was destined to be a society princess. But instead she created a totally different life. In 1935, Sunday and John bought Heide, a weatherboard farmhouse in Heidleberg (which was then semi-rural, but is now a suburb of Melbourne). They lived there until their deaths in the 1980s and their home acted as a focus for a group of artists, including Sidney Nolan, Albert Tucker, John Perceval, Joy Hester and Charles Blackman.  Heide, and its successor the modernist Heide 2 – played a significant role in the development of Australian modernism.

In this biography by Janine Burke, Sunday’s role as the muse to many of the artists and particularly her role in the work of Sidney Nolan is examined. Nolan painted his iconic Ned Kelly series on the table at Heide.

The Heide homes are now open to the public, together with galleries, gardens and outdoor sculpture park: Heide Museum of Modern Art.

Wicked But Virtuous by Mirka Mora (2000)

Artist, Mirka Mora, is one of Melbourne’s living legends. She’s a colourful character, who having narrowly escaped World War II atrocities, arrived in Melbourne from Paris in 1951, with her husband Georges. Together, they contributed significantly to transforming the local art scene and engendering a sophisticated culture in the city. Mirka’s studio at 9 Collins Street in the city became a focal point for many of Melbourne’s artists. As did, at a later point, the Mirka Café in Exhibition Street and the Moras other restaurants, Balzac and Tolarno. Mirka was part of the same group of artists that hung out at Heide, and she counted John and Sunday Reed among her closest friends.

Visitors to Melbourne are likely to encounter one of Mirka’s public artworks around the city, including mosaic murals at Flinders Street Station and St Kilda Pier.

Wicked but Virtuous, is Mirka’s autobiography and is a joyful account of an incredible, bohemian life lived well.  A second book, Love and Clutter, contains her “musings on the extraordinary nature of ordinary objects”.


Have you read any great books set in Melbourne?

The links are to versions of each book available at, or where the book is not available, the links are to the works by that author. These are affiliate links.


This post is linked to:

My Brown Paper PackagesA Hole In My Shoe

Books set in Perth or Western Australia

Books set in Western Australia

One of the things I like to do before visiting any destination is to compile lists of novels or memoirs set in that place. The pre-trip reading of a few titles provides texture to my experience of the destination, and an understanding of some of the more personal stories of those who live (or lived) there.

This post is part of an occasional series where I provide a list of novels or memoirs set in a few of my favourite destinations. But in this case, the destination is Perth (and Western Australia), which is where I grew up…so these are some of the books that I have read over the years that resonated with my personal experience of life in WA and/or added to my understanding of its history.  

Books set in Western Australia (3)

Books set in Perth or Western Australia

The Shark Net by Robert Drewe (2000)

In the 1950s, the author of The Shark Net (Robert Drewe) moved with his family from Melbourne to Perth. He was six years old at the time. His childhood in a middle-class Perth beachside suburb was deeply affected by the serial killings taking place in Perth over a five-year period.  It was a course of events which forever changed Perth’s innocence as a city. The murders were mostly carried out within Perth’s middle-class Western suburbs and created widespread anxiety and gossip. Robert Drewe says that the murders ‘both intrigued me and weighed heavily on me for three decades’. And so, to make sense of it, he had to write about it.

Although a book set against a serial killer’s sinister spree doesn’t sound the most inviting of background reading about a place, in this memoir, Drewe very eloquently captures many aspects of everyday life in the Perth of the 1950s and 1960s. There is an almost palpable sense of Perth being the most isolated city in the world, a fact which pervades and shapes the story.

Dirt Music by Tim Winton (2001)

Tim Winton is one of the most celebrated of Western Australia’s contemporary authors. He has written 11 novels and several short story collections and plays. He has won many awards, including the Miles Franklin Award in 1984 for his second novel, Shallows.  His writing is inspired by a real sense of landscape and place, and most are set in Western Australia.

Dirt Music is set on a dramatic piece of WA coastline and is ultimately a love story about people rendered fragile by grief and regret, who are living in a community which reeks of violent secrets. Over the course of the story, the lure of music looms large, and the story heads uncontrollably towards a dangerous conclusion.

The story is set in White Point; a fictionalized fishing community which is about one hour north of Perth. It is a place where humble fisherman have become very wealthy by catching and supplying crayfish (lobsters) for the Asian market.

As well as painting vivid descriptions of landscape, Tim Winton is very skilled in creating characters that jump off the page. There’s a cast of colourful White Point characters in Dirt Music and I felt they were very finely observed characters typical of parts of rural and regional Western Australia.

Cloudstreet by Tim Winton (1991)

I haven’t yet read Cloudstreet. It is however, one of the next books on my TBR pile – partly because it is one of the VCE English texts for 2015, and Queenie is studying it…so I’m intrigued to know what it is like and have included it here as another example of the works of Tim Winton.  What I do know about it already is that it is considered to be a classic, and is a bit of a family saga which many readers find inspiring.

The novel is based on the Pickle family, who have inherited a big house called Cloudstreet in a suburb of Perth. They are a family which has been touched by disaster and are attempting to rebuild their lives. The Pickle Family take in another family, The Lambs, as tenants. The story spans the years from 1944 to 1964.

Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey (2009)

This coming-of-age novel is set in the summer of 1965 in a fictionalised WA regional mining town. Thirteen year old Charlie Bucktin is woken by knocking on the window of his sleep-out. It is Jasper Jones, bad-boy outcast of the town.

Jasper begs for Charlie’s help, and when he eagerly agrees, Charlie becomes witness to a horrific discovery, one which ultimately creates fear and suspicion in the town.  As the story unfolds, Charlie starts to see aspects of his life in a brand new light – family relationships, inequality, race relations.

The writing in this novel is exceptional and creates a WA small-town environment which resonated with me.

The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea by Randolph Stow (1965)

I first read this novel when I was in school, and have read it a couple of times since, enjoying it just as much on each re-reading.

The novel is set in 1941 in Geraldton, a town on the WA coast. The main character, Rob Coram is six, and the on-going war doesn’t seem to make impact on his life, until his favourite older cousin Rick signs up and goes off to the frontlines. Rick returns several years later, much changed by his experiences and the child, Rob is disillusioned by the fact that his innocent and secure family life is disintegrating around him.

This is a novel which captures very well the impact of the Second World War on the WA homefront, and the aftermath of that War. The isolation of Western Australia proved no buffer for the change that the War brought.

A Fortunate Life by Albert B. Facey (1981)

The memoir, A Fortunate Life is a Western Australian classic which has sold over half a million copies, and been turned into a play and a television series.  It is the simply-written story of Albert B. Facey, who as an eight-year old orphan started working as an itinerant labourer on the WA rural frontier. He went off to World War I, where he fought at Gallipoli and returned (badly injured) to farming, only to lose his farm during the Great Depression. He met his future wife after returning from the War and they went on to have seven children (one of whom was killed in the Second World War). Despite the physical, mental and emotional hardship he endured, Facey is completely sincere in calling this memoir ‘A Fortunate Life’. He truly believed that was what he had experienced.

The simple honesty and courage of this man, told against the  background of the back-breaking development of the Western Australian agricultural industry makes this a compelling read. It was first published in 1981, just nine months before Facey’s death and I remember reading this as a teenager with a sense of gratitude and awe for the pioneers who created the WA I was living in then.

Coonardoo by Katherine Susannah Pritchard (1929)

I’m pretty sure I read Coonardoo in my first year of my University degree. It was considered a very daring novel when it was written as it tells the story of a young Aboriginal woman who is trained from childhood to be the housekeeper at a WA station (ranch) owned by Hugh Watt. A loving and sexual relationship develops between Coonardoo and Hugh – which is a concept that shocked readers in the 1920s. The love between them could never be acknowledged and over the course of the novel, it destroys not only Coonardoo, but also the community they lived in.

The novel was originally submitted under a male pseudonym to the Bulletin Magazine’s annual literary competition in 1928, where it won equal first prize despite one of the judges protesting that “a white man could never feel any ‘higher emotion’ than pity for an Aboriginal woman”. It was serialised in the Bulletin, but public outrage was so inflamed, that publication of it in book form was knocked back in Australia. It was eventually published in London.

A Faithful Picture: the letters of Eliza and Thomas Brown at York in the Swan River Colony 1841-1852 edited by Peter Cowan (1977)

This book, which is relatively difficult to find nowadays (try a library perhaps?) is a collection of the letters of Eliza and Thomas Brown who were early settlers in the Swan River Colony (which became the City of Perth). Written in the second decade of the Colony’s existence, they are  a fascinating insight into day-to-day life for colonial pioneers. Most of the letters are written by Eliza Brown back to her father, William Bussey of Oxfordshire, England, ‘a gentleman of considerable means’.

There is one particularly poignant letter (which I have written about in an earlier post) which describes how she had learned of her brother’s death back in England, months after the fact, via a passing remark in a letter from her brother-in-law.

Kings in Grass Castles by Mary Durack (1959)

Still in a pioneering vein, Kings in Grass Castles is a family biography written  a bit like a novel, and is considered a classic of Australian historical literature. Author, Mary Durack’s grandfather left Ireland for Australia in 1853 and over the next 40+ years built a cattle empire across the northern expanses of Australia. Mary Durack has diligently reconstructed the events of that time, creating a sweeping family saga which not only tells the story of one family, but throws light on the pioneering process of Australia’s Kimberly region cattle industry.

Portrait with Background: A Life of Georgina Molloy by Alexandra Hasluck (1955)

Another book which can be tricky to track down, this biography by Alexandra Hasluck (aka Lady Hasluck, wife of Australia’s Governor-General:1969-74) traces the life of Western Australian pioneer Georgiana Molloy. Together with her husband, Captain John Molloy, Georgiana was one of the small party which colonised Augusta in the south of Western Australia. Leaving a sheltered life in Scotland, this young bride was suddenly faced with untold physical hardship, trials and tribulations. She not only rose to the challenges this life presented, she also went on to become one of Western Australia’s pioneering botanists.

Have you read any great books set in Perth or Western Australia?

The links are to versions of each book available at, or where the book is no longer available, the links are to the works by that author. These are affiliate links.

Novels set in New York City:

Novels set in New York City

Novels set in New York City:
One of the things I like to do before visiting any destination is to compile lists of novels or memoirs set in that place. The pre-trip reading of a few titles provides texture to my experience of the destination, and an understanding of some of the more personal stories of those who live (or lived) there.

This post is part of an occasional series where I provide a list of novels or memoirs set in a few of my favourite destinations. In this case, the destination is New York City. As so many great books are set in NYC, I have restricted my list to novels that I have particularly enjoyed.

Novels set in New York:

 Novels set in New York City:

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (1951)

Hands up who had to read this for English Literature at school? It seems every person I speak to has read The Catcher in the Rye at some point in their life.  Narrated by the 16 year old native New Yorker, Holden Caulfield, this classic 1951 novel chronicles the three days after he is expelled from his Pennsylvania prep school and heads to New York City.  His wry observations about human nature still have currency today, and his voice is the eternal voice of teenage alienation. 

Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote (1958)

This is the original book which inspired the 1961 film starring Audrey Hepburn as the free-spirited Holly Golightly. In this novel we catch a glimpse of the 1940s New York society. Holly is the epitome of an ‘it’ girl – chic, stylish and the hostess with the most-est.  In her Manhattan apartment she hosts madcap parties with a cast of larger than life characters, but really just wants a place of calm where she feels at home and belongs.  The novel’s Holly is a complex character, who can never be bound by convention. It’s a perfectly written novel that held me entranced from beginning to end.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)

And if I thought Breakfast at Tiffany’s was great, I practically hyperventilated over the genius of F. Scott Fitzgerald on display in this stunning novel. The Great Gatsby captures all the decadence and excess of the Jazz Age in New York City.  Through the fate of the main character, self-made millionaire, Jay Gatsby, we see what happens when parts of a society are obsessed with money, greed, and pleasure. His eventual demise becomes a cautionary tale about the American Dream, and given that the Great Depression followed within years of publication, Jay’s demise was eerily prophetic.

There is a scene early on in the novel, where the curtains are billowing at Daisy Buchanan’s house, that I think is one of the most exquisitely written passages of any novel. Plus, of course, this novel was recently turned in a visually spectacular movie version by Australian director, Baz Luhrmann.

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton (1921)

Published in 1921, but set in 1870 New York, The Age of Innocence puts upper-class New York society of that time under the microscope. It was a time when society people “dreaded scandal more than disease”.

The beautiful Countess Olenska returns to New York after a disastrous marriage in Europe, causing ripples in the rigidly conventional New York society. Her young cousin, May Welland is about to become engaged to the eligible young Newland Archer. But, oh no! Newland falls for the older (still married) cousin. Oh dear, what potential for huge scandal…  The novel unfolds as Archer struggles to make a decision between establishment duty and passion.

New York: The Novel by Edward Rutherford (2009)

This is one of those epic saga novels, that take two hands to lift up. At over 1,000 pages it’s a hefty tome. In New York Rutherford tells a 400 year tale of New York City in an engrossing fictional narrative which weaves historical fact with a gripping story.  Through the intertwined multi-generational stories, he throws light on the economic, cultural, social, and political forces and events that have shaped this city.

The novel begins with a tiny Indian fishing settlement and the Dutch traders who travelled up the Hudson for fur skins, and (apparently) ends up with the city we know today. I say apparently, because despite three separate attempts at it, I still haven’t quite finished this novel. It’s top of my TBR pile to complete over summer.  But I love what I’ve read so far. It offers an easy to read and digest survey of the chronological history of this mighty city.

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (2010)

This is one of my all-time favourite books. It’s a quirky novel, written in a seemingly disjointed way from multiple characters’ points-of-view, at different times, and in a variety of styles. Heck, there’s even an entire chapter written as a PowerPoint presentation. Quirky, but so incredibly clever. The over-riding themes are ones of memory and passing time, and the inter-connected stories and characters are all ultimately linked to the New York music industry in the second half of the 20th century. Throughout the novel, music is almost a character itself.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer (2005)

I don’t think it’s possible to visit New York City without gaining some understanding of the effect of the events of 9/11 on the psyche of the city. In this novel, Jonathon Safran Foer tells a story of nine-year-old Oskar Schell whose father is killed in the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Centre.  The precocious (and somewhat unusual) Oskar discovers a key in a vase in his father’s closet, a couple of years after he has died, and sets out to solve the mystery of which of New York’s locks it will open. This is a poignant book which really got me in the guts.

In an interview about the novel with Joshua Wolf Shenk on, Safran Foer is asked whether he feels it is risky to write about 9/11 and he says, “If you’re in my position—a New Yorker who felt the event very deeply and a writer who wants to write about things he feels deeply about—I think it’s risky to avoid what’s right in front of you”.

Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann (2009)

Let the Great World Spin starts as people on the streets of lower Manhattan stand, watching in shock as a mysterious man walks, dances, runs and leaps on a tightrope strung high above the ground between the newly built Twin Towers.  It is 1974 New York, and as the story unfolds we meet and are drawn into the lives of many ordinary New Yorkers, all linked by this event. This novel paints a rich description of New York City in the 1970s and captures the transitional nature of American society at that time.

(The tightwalk aspect of this novel was inspired by true-life events which are documented by Philippe Petit’s memoir To Reach the CloudsIn this book, Philippe Petit recounts the day in 1974 when he illegally walked across a tightrope between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre.)

Sex and the City by Candace Bushnell (1996)

It’s now 16 years since we first met Carrie, Charlotte, Miranda and Samantha on the small screen in the HBO TV series which ran for six seasons. What many people don’t realise is that the characters were first launched onto the unsuspecting public through this book. Bushnell began writing her ‘Sex and the City’ stories as a series of columns published in the New York Observer and loosely based the content on her life and those of her friends (as does the character Carrie in the TV series). It is an insiders’ expose of being young, female and single in the late 1990s in New York City.

The Luxe by Anna Godbersen (2007)

The Luxe is actually a young adult novel which Queenie first read, and I then borrowed from her to read myself. I became so enthralled by the story, I immediately tracked down the other three books in the series and bought those too. The story is set in 1899, and focuses on two upper-class Manhattan sisters, one of whom dies after being thrown from a carriage into the Hudson River.

This series of books is like Gossip Girls set at the turn of the 19th Century: beautiful dresses, deception, romantic entanglements, secrets and scandal. It’s the perfect way for teens to unwittingly gain some insight into the history of New York and its social mores of that time.

The other three books are Rumours, Envy, and Splendor.

The Group by Mary McCarthy (1963)

This novel follows eight graduates from the exclusive, (at the time, all-female) Vassar College as they commence their adult lives in 1930s Manhattan. You could read this as a companion piece to Sex and The City as it is often said that ‘The Group’ are the original ‘Sex and the City’ women.  Through the lives of these women, subjects such as careers, women’s rights, ambition, sex, contraception, motherhood and marriage are explored, and the novel offers a fascinating glimpse of the social history of New York in the 1930s.

Washington Square by Henry James (1880)

This classic novel by Henry James portrays New York in the 1870s. Set in the neighbourhood where James himself was born, this novel tells the deceptively simple story of a plain-looking, young woman, the only child of a rich widower,  who is wooed by an unscrupulous fortune-seeker. Through this story, which is set in the 1840s, James illuminates the manners and behaviour of New York society at the time.

As I walked across Washington Square in April this year, I remembered so many aspects of this novel which I had read many years ago.

The Nanny Diaries by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus (2002)

Traversing Central Park on my first visit to New York in 2005, I noticed all the children in the playgrounds, being supervised by their nannies. I immediately flashed back to The Nanny Diaries, and I hoped their parents were nicer to their nannies than the X’s were to Nan, the main character in this novel. Nanny is in her early 20s, struggling to graduate from New York University and and to pay her rent when she takes a job caring for the only son of a wealthy Park Avenue family.

Written by two former nannies, The Nanny Diaries lifts the lid on the reality behind the glamour of Manhattan’s wealthy.

What are your favourite books set in New York City?

The links are to versions of each book available at These are affiliate links.

This post is linked to:
A Hole In My Shoe