Inside the largest people-smuggling organisation in US history

By Cameron Woodhead and Steven Carroll

Books to read this week include new titles from Susan McCreery, Patrick Radden Keefe and Kylie Ladd.

Book critics Steven Carroll and Cameron Woodhead cast their eyes over recent non-fiction and fiction releases. Here are their reviews.

Non-fiction pick of the week


The Snakehead
Patrick Radden Keefe, Picador, $36.99

The eponymous “snakehead” (people smuggler) was known in New York’s Chinatown as Sister Ping, who had landed legally in New York in 1981 and immediately set about establishing what would become the largest people-smuggling organisation in US history.

But Empire of Pain author Patrick Radden Keefe, in this updated version of his 2009 publication, creates a very nuanced portrait of her. To the US authorities, who eventually arrested her and sent her to jail where she died in 2014, she was a criminal who exploited people. To the refugee residents of Chinatown she was the saviour who gave them passage – albeit dangerous – to America.

Thoroughly researched and creatively drawn (some scenes are highly dramatic and vivid) by the New Yorker writer, it is ultimately about the risks these refugees took to play their part in the enduring, grand narrative theme of the American Dream.


Taking Sides
Sherine Tadros, Scribe, $32.99

From the first time she visited the BBC studios and watched news being “made” while completing university in London, Sherine Tadros knew she wanted to be a journalist. Her tale of those years spent with Al Jazeera English and Sky News, is a mixture of memoir, confession and, unsurprisingly, astute political observation.

She documents some very scary moments, especially being almost blown out of a café in Gaza when Israel declared war on Hamas in 2008 and the extremely dangerous profession of being an Al Jazeera reporter in Egypt during the uprising, where she was sexually molested and spent a terrified night on the run from pro-Mubarak protestors.

Along the way she was stood up by her boyfriend on their wedding day. Reporting, in the end, wasn’t enough. She wanted to make a difference, which led to the UN and Amnesty.


Abandon Every Hope: Essays for the Dead
Hayley Singer, Upswell, $29.99

Hayley Singer’s title comes from Dante’s Inferno, and the world the reader is drawn into is, indeed, Dante-esque. Her subject is death, more specifically the global, industrial slaughtering of animals for human consumption. But it is not a polemic, rather an attempt to turn the slaughterhouse – the animal cages, the excrement, the stink, fear and death – into a kind of felt experience, a visceral one.

The result is an uncompromising work, a combination of fragments, journal and reflections heavily infused with literary references, poetic writing and critical theory. Which might sound like a tall order for the reader, but perhaps the best approach is to just go with the imagery, observations and confessions, and register their effect, the way you would a complex, confronting poem.


Daniella Mestyanek Young (with Brandi Larsen), Allen & Unwin, $32.99

This is a harrowing tale about being born into a religious cult, The Family, founded in 1968: a hermetically sealed, hierarchical world in which men ruled and parents known as “aunties” and “uncles” enforced the law.

From a very early age Mestyanek Young was regularly beaten (“spankings”) to keep the devil away, traumatised emotionally and forced to have sex with the men in the commune, although they were told they were “sharing” their sex for God. It’s also a tale of two worlds, the communes she lived in and the outside world – The System.

At 15, she broke free, entered The System, got an education (formerly forbidden) and eventually joined the army in military intelligence, where she met her husband and started a family of her own. Simple, often matter-of-fact writing, documenting her tremendous inner strength.

Fiction pick of the week


All the Unloved
Susan McCreery, Spineless Wonders, $24.99

Susan McCreery’s All the Unloved offers a sharp window onto life in Bondi during the 1990s. Skater chick Jade, on the cusp of adulthood, observes the residents of her apartment block as they come and go – a queer couple on a sea-change, a violinist living in seclusion, a pair of elderly sisters who see all and gossip about all.When a talented author, Rebecca, arrives on the block, the secrets, pains, and passions of her neighbours come to light.

You can tell McCreery has form as a poet and composer of microfiction. Despite evoking the languor of Bondi beachside life, the prose is terrifically compressed, with diamond-like sentences and snippets the reader will pore over at least twice, just to marvel at how much can be conveyed in so few words.

And there’s an emotional intensity to the human drama, as different incarnations of love, from maternal love to the torment of unrequited desire, glint and make plays for the light in a world of surf and sun.


A Man and His Pride
Luke Rutledge, Michael Joseph, $32.99

Published in time for World Pride and Mardi Gras in Sydney, Luke Rutledge’s A Man and His Pride isn’t really a coming-out story – it’s about what comes after that. Coming out of the closet is only one step on the road. Finding your place as a queer person is a much longer odyssey.

For 26-year-old Sean Preston, it happens in Brisbane during the plebiscite on gay marriage. Sean came out years ago, but he can pass for straight and feels no need to advertise his sexuality to all and sundry. A humiliating break-up leads to a cycle of binge-drinking, emotionally unfulfilling hook-ups, and an obsession with the gym.

When he meets a shy and warm-hearted young nurse, William, Sean offers to introduce him to the gay community, but it turns out to be the gentle William who teaches Sean a few lessons about self-acceptance. A Man and His Pride is breezily written, moving queer fiction with a deft light comic touch.


I’ll Leave You With This
Kylie Ladd, Michael Joseph, $32.99

Grief might be a near-universal experience, but it takes an unusual course in the latest book from neuropsychologist and novelist Kylie Ladd. I’ll Leave You With This is partly inspired by lived experience. Ladd’s brother Piers died suddenly and young. He was an organ donor, and the family received an anonymous thank-you letter from one of the recipients, much later, describing how powerful Piers’ gift of life had been.

The four O’Shea sisters are preoccupied by their own troubles. There’s Allison the overworked obstetrician, struggling to balance work and family; Bridie the film director, whose star is falling as her actor husband’s rises; Clare, still in shock when her wife leaves her after yet another IVF failure; and Emma, embracing religion to fill an abyss of loneliness that has consumed her. When their brother Daniel is killed, the sisters drift further apart, but on the third anniversary of his death, the sisters embrace a plan to track down recipients of Daniel’s organs and listen to their stories.

It’s a spirited portrayal of the complex bonds of sisterhood, the pain of bereavement, and the importance of a life-giving decision available to all of us.


The Woman Who Knew Too Little
Olivia Wearne, HQ, $32.99

In The Woman Who Knew Too Little, screenwriter and novelist Olivia Wearne has produced a slow-burn historical crime novel, based on an enduring real-life mystery. The case of the Somerton man – found dead on a South Australian beach in 1948, with a line from Persian poet Omar Khayyam in his pocket – spawned endless theories (including suggestions of espionage at the height of the Cold War) and it assumed renewed interest last year after DNA testing revealed the probable identity of the victim.

Back in 1948, policewoman Kitty Wheeler discovers the corpse on routine patrol and she wants to work the case. No wonder. The usual drudge work given to female officers involves shutting down con artists and psychics, resolving domestic complaints, issuing venereal disease notifications, and checking marriage records to prevent bigamy.

Given we know the mystery won’t be solved, the novel becomes a deep-dive into the patriarchal culture of the late ’40s – a regressive phase of 20th-century history that saw a cultural backlash against women’s freedom during the war – and how Kitty navigates it.

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