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While the Australian Women Writers Challenge is over a year old, this is my first year and I’ve already got a long summer reading list that keeps growing! I started with two biographies that at first seemed completely disconnected – Sally Neighbour’s The Mother of Mohammed and Debi Marshall’s The House of Hancock: The Rise and Rise of Gina Rinehart. Then it occurred to me that this is the great thing about fabulous female writers, who in this case happen to be kick-ass journalists as well, they uncover stories about Australian women.

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I’ll start with Sally Neighbour’s story of Rabiah Hutchinson, an Australian woman who grew up in country NSW and whose life has taken her to Indonesia and Afghanistan during some pretty key historical moments. As an academic, I felt a little frustrated with the author’s journalistic style and her decision to let the subject tell the story through interview excerpts and interviews with family members and friends. But then that is the great thing about biography – it presents an account to challenge, frustrate and inform you in equal parts.

At times Rabiah Hutchinson, who was known as Umma Mohammed (and hence the book title ‘Mother of Mohammed”), comes across as a woman who was looking for adventure and made some ill-informed choices that had long reaching consequences for herself and her children. Certainly as I read the book and followed Rabiah through several marriages, the birth (and death) of children, hardship and uncertainty I was struck by the decisions she made in her life. But all of this turmoil put in context her decision to convert to Islam and the passion with which she embraced her new-found religion. Overall I learnt a little bit more about Islam, Indonesian and Afghan politics from reading this book. On the micro-side I also thought a lot more about how the decisions we make in life shape ourselves and those around us.

This lingering thought about the fate we are dealt set me up well for my next book, Debi Marshall’s The House of Hancock. Having travelled recently to WA, I’ve been more and more curious about the phenomena of mining and am also enjoying the SBS series Dirty Business. Debi Marshall had previously written a biography of Lang Hancock and her latest book focusing on Gina Rinehart draws a lot on this earlier book. She outlines the frustrations of an author who cannot interview her subject and obtain editorial control having turned down an offer to interview the subject but relinquish final editing rights. As a result Gina Rinehart felt absent and present at the same time throughout my reading of this book, which is perhaps a striking metaphor given her reclusive life and her decision to not appear frequently in the media. The author tends to emphasise that to know Gina one must understand her father, which allows for some repetition from her earlier biography.

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Similar to Rabiah Hutchinson, what struck me in the ‘House of Hancock’ were the forces that shaped Gina Rinehart and her passion and determination. In Gina’s case it is the legacy of her father that drives her zeal and whether you think Gina is a feminist or a foe to be feared, she is certainly an influential character in Australian politics and business who I think we should know more about. Debi Marshall’s book is one of few places to find these insights and to understand the family history that drives Gina Rinehart, the business woman of today.

While I thought I’d be done with biography and non-fiction for now it appears I’ve found my groove and have just borrowed the award-winning The People Smuggler by Robin de Crespigny. Stay tuned for the next review.

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“author peruses rather large menu before starting her next AWW read”