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One Last Spin
Drew Rooke (Scribe, available now)

One Last Spin is our First Book Club pick for August – read an extract from the book here, and stay tuned for a special upcoming podcast recording of our First Book Club event at Better Read Than Dead in Sydney.

It’s an uncomfortable but undeniable truth that much of Australia’s sporting and recreational culture, from the local pub to NRL and AFL clubs, runs on profits from poker machines. Sydney-based journalist Drew Rooke’s One Last Spin gives readers an eye-opening and somewhat harrowing glance inside the world of the pokies, both from the perspective of those who play it, and those who run it, providing a comprehensive investigation into gambling-related issues in urban, suburban and regional Australia. 

With fascinating yet disturbing journalistic analysis, Rooke examines why the pokies are abundant in some places, and sparse in others – in particular, the prevalence of gaming lounges in low-socioeconomic and regional areas. Not only is the gaming industry fully aware of what pokies do these people, they actively design machines to keep gamblers locked in for the longest time possible. Where Rooke is often welcomed by current and former pokie addicts, those who work in the industry are hostile towards his enquiries. He has trouble even gaining access to some venues that have poker machines once his notepad and pen are spotted. These are people who are well aware that they are doing the wrong thing. 

Over the course of the investigation, Rooke reveals the ways in which the ‘gaming’ industry targets people who cannot access alternative forms of entertainment; people who are lonely and just looking for any reason to get out of the house. 

Rooke never stops seeing people as people, whether they are addicts or the people who profit directly from that addiction.

He speaks with people who have lost everything because of their addiction, but doesn’t make a spectacle of the troubles they’ve faced: he treats each of his subjects in a way that feels balanced and respectful. What is especially impressive about this book (and indicative of Rooke’s journalistic skills) is that he treats employees of the gaming industry with a similarly balanced approach, despite their general hostility. There is never a point when he stops seeing people as people, whether they are addicts or the people who profit directly from that addiction. 

I haven’t stopped thinking about this book since I finished reading it. While this book contains many heart wrenching stories of addiction and the detritus the gambling industry has knowingly left all over Australia, it also provides readers with hope. Rooke profiles the venues who are removing pokies from their premises, and replacing them with live music and spaces for the community to enjoy. There is so much potential for change in Australian pubs and clubs, and while it is a book that focuses on a large problem in our culture, One Last Spin left me with sense that change for the better is inevitable.

– Ellen Cregan

Boom and Bust
Royce Kurmelovs (Hachette, available now)

Australia’s mining boom – and its ultimate bust – is a phenomenon that still grips the nation and fills us with awe. But how much do we really know about the industry’s rise and fall and the effect it had on everyday people? In Boom and Bust, Royce Kurmelovs delves deep into the lives of politicians, public figures and  the general populace to understand more about the people who lived through one of the most turbulent times in one of Australia’s most volatile industries.

Kurmelovs throws himself headfirst into the Western Australian landscape. With dry humour, compassion, and unflinching honesty, he describes the desolate expanses of highway, the lack of infrastructure and the ‘cookie cutter’ homes that no one will ever live in. After the boom, mining towns were abandoned almost overnight. The money that once flowed so freely was taken out of the town along with most of the jobs. What Kurmelovs wants to know is what life was like before the boom and what it’s like now. By acquainting himself with the people on the frontline, Kurmelovs seeks an answer to the question of ‘What happens when a small group of people get a lot of money quite suddenly, are promised it is forever, and then it goes away again?’

Each chapter of Boom and Bust focuses on a personal story; some will make you furious and others will break your heart. We hear from Ben, a high school dropout who made $3400 a week in the mines, only to blow it all on partying. Alice, a struggling mother of three, opens up about the difficulties in raising a family on her own while her husband is away in the mines. Al, an immigrant who just missed the boom, talks of his desperate scrabble to find ways to support his family in a town that suddenly has no work. And Michael, the CEO of the Yindjibarndi Aboriginal Corporation, describes the negotiations over the rights of his people’s traditional land. Kurmelovs doesn’t take sides; instead he lays the facts out plainly for the reader, offering multiple understandings of each deeply complex issue.

‘What happens when a small group of people get a lot of money quite suddenly, are promised it is forever, and then it goes away again?’

Boom and Bust is a brilliant achievement that is both political and conversational. It is an insightful exploration of our culture by one of Australia’s most important socio-political voices and a vital read for anyone who is interested in the real people behind the sensationalist headlines.

– Chloë Cooper

Happy Never After
Jill Stark (Scribe, available now)

Read an extract from the book here.

After the success of her bestselling debut memoir, High Sobriety, journalist Jill Stark spiralled into anxiety so debilitating she was forced to leave her job, retreat from her social world and re-evaluate her entire life. 

Publishing her first book – a commercial and critical success – was supposed to be the lynchpin around which all the other shiny, happy parts of her life would orbit. And yet, she was so miserable and anxious she found herself breaking down at work, hyperventilating on the newsroom floor.

‘It was October 2014,’ Stark writes, ‘and I had reached my life’s peak. But I had fallen apart.’

In an ironic turn of events, Stark discovered that, in fact, getting what you think you want – in your career, your bank account, your social life – isn’t necessarily the secret to solving all your existential woes. 

Happy Never After is the result of Stark’s reflection and re-evaluation; it is a book on how to ‘flip the script’ when the fairytale backfires. In this memoir, Stark chronicles her journey through lifelong anxiety, which culminated in her breakdown after the release of High Sobriety, and her ongoing recovery. 

Stark discovered that, in fact, getting what you think you want – in your career, your bank account, your social life – isn’t necessarily the secret to solving all your existential woes.

Stark weaves extensive research into what she calls the ‘happiness myth’ throughout her memoir, examining the impact of early childhood trauma, schoolyard bullying, romantic entanglements and external societal pressures on our internal desire to grasp that fairytale finish. 

The subject matter is certainly prescient; mental healthcare is the third greatest disease burden in Australian society, and suicide kills more young Australians than anything else. Australia has long needed a new compendium of contemporary mental health that we can use to explode discourse and redirect policymakers to make better pathways of support for our mentally ill. I’m just not sure Stark’s Happy Never After is that.

The book is too centrally focused on Stark’s own discontentment, and on this happiness myth, to be broadly applicable to the diversity of Australians suffering even common mental illnesses. To suggest, for example, that a primary reason we’re all anxious and depressed is that we’re rejecting our ‘happy ever afters’ is a rather narrow view of mental illness – and of the mentally ill. 

However sharp and often amusing Stark’s voice is – I did laugh out loud at the image of ‘making your cat slow-dance to Adele songs’ at 4am – at times the slick weekend-journo tone doesn’t quite gel with the crunchy subject matter. 

I suppose it depends what you want from Happy Never After. Stark’s story might be compelling if viewed as straight memoir, or as a tightly focused look on how anxiety affects the middle class; beyond that, you may be left wanting. 

– Matilda Dixon-Smith