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The Arsonist: A Mind on Fire

4.19  ·  Rating details ·  1,256 ratings  ·  146 reviews
On the scorching February day in 2009 that became known as Black Saturday, a man lit two fires in Victoria’s Latrobe Valley, then sat on the roof of his house to watch the inferno. In the Valley, where the rates of crime were the highest in the state, more than thirty people were known to police as firebugs. But the detectives soon found themselves on the trail of a man th ...more
Paperback, 258 pages
Published 2018 by Viking Australia
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4.19  · 
Rating details
 ·  1,256 ratings  ·  146 reviews

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Jaclyn Crupi
Oct 21, 2018 rated it really liked it
Chloe Hooper, I’ve missed your voice and your brain. It has been way too long between books. This is exactly the kind of narrative non-fiction I hunger for.
Michael Livingston
Oct 20, 2018 rated it liked it
This is an incredibly readable, upsetting and sometimes insightful book about one of the fires from Victoria's black saturday and the subsequent investigation and prosecution of the man who lit it. Hooper is a smart and compelling writer - I smashed through this in a day, almost unable to stop myself - but I was left feeling like it was a bit heavy on drama and a bit light on illumination.

Partly this comes from the story she's chosen - the titular arsonist is vague, potentially intellectually di
This book has just been nominated to the Australian Stella Prize longlist for 2019. It deals with some of the events of the "Black Saturday" Victorian bushfires of February 2009. In this investigation Hooper narrows her focus to the Churchill fires and the search for and arrest of the arsonist. While the book starts with plenty of bushfire science and follows arson squad investigators to find the perpetrator it quickly becomes an interesting portrait of how the system deals with suspects that ar ...more
Jaclyn (sixminutesforme)
Feb 19, 2019 rated it it was amazing
“...I’ve nearly finished writing this book, which came in fits and starts, after persuading people to speak, and learning of material that was hard to access, then too hard to deal with. I have spent years trying to understand this man and what he did, my own motivation sometimes as indecipherable as his. And, I wondered, what if, having asked the police and lawyers dozens of questions, then more questions, trying to get tiny details right, I essentially ended up with little more than a series o ...more
Ian Mond
Dec 23, 2018 rated it it was amazing
The tenth anniversary of the Black Saturday bushfires will be in two months. I remember my wife and I melting in our flat in Caulfield North as the temperature soared to 47 degrees. In Melbourne it was the hottest day on record for seventy years, preceded by days of sweltering blazing weather. Coupled with drought conditions and the State was already on high alert. Even so, I’m not sure anyone could imagine how bad it was going to be.

Chloe Hooper’s The Arsonist focuses on one of the outbreaks in
Cassandra Austin
Oct 24, 2018 rated it it was amazing
4.5 stars. I've been waiting to have Black Saturday splayed before me and this is very, very good. But The Tall Man was exceptional. Difficult to judge an author against themselves! Well worth the read.
One of the most riveting sessions at the recent Word For Word Non Fiction festival in Geelong was Chloe Hooper in conversation with Lisa Waller from Deakin.
Chloe Hooper is the author of two novels, A Child’s Book of True Crime (2002) and The Engagement (2012, see my review) but I think it’s safe to say she is best-known for her incisive non-fiction. The Tall Man, Death and Life on Palm Island (2008) (see my review) won a swag of awards, and I won’t be surprised if The Arsonist does the same. It
Dec 08, 2018 rated it really liked it
A compulsively readable retracing of the conditions - in the Latrobe Valley, and in the life of the convicted arsonist - which caused the devastating conflagration in Churchill, Victoria that burnt out an estimated 81,000 acres, and brought death to local residents and wildlife, and destruction to cherished homes and infrastructure.

Although the arsonist's mind is, in the end, unknowable, the individual stories of Black Saturday are the most affecting.

At page 221: "[The prosecutor] went on readi
Rachael Bettiens
Mar 22, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: stellaprize2019
4.5 Stars rounded up.
I'm not sure it was a good idea to read this book in the middle of yet another heat wave in the middle of the hottest, driest summer on record and on a day where the temperatures will be in the mid 40s.
Nonetheless this was a scary book. Scary on the level of uncontrollable violence unleashed by bushfires. Scary on how these fires can start. Scary on the complexity of people who are arsonists.
This is a different book to Tall Man: The Death of Doomadgee made more complex due to the mental state of
Robert Lukins
Dec 18, 2018 rated it really liked it
A fascinating and necessarily incomplete story; a facet of the disaster told in a wildly compelling style.
Mar 04, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I cried a lot reading this. An immensely nuanced true crime account of the Black Friday fires in Victoria, that captures the horror of a fire beyond human control, the way society ostracises those who are different, and the unrelenting grief of those who lost so much.

Beyond even the knowledge that there will always be people who deliberately light fires – and that it’s a difficult crime to predict and prevent – what scares me most is that climate change is already creating drier, hotter conditi
Nov 16, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
It's been quite a while since Hooper's very excellent "The Tall Man", so I was keen to dive right into this book.
While she does briefly mention the systems failures that resulted in so many deaths from one of Victoria's 'Black Saturday' fires, this book focuses on the man who was convicted of lighting it. Whether or not he fully grasps what he did and what the repercussions from his actions were is unlikely to ever be clear.
Her story is well paced and gripping, depicting the main characters well
Dec 01, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This is a lyrically rendered lesson in recounting a crime that's plaintive in its pointlessness. Unsatisfying in a way that's deeply authentic, Hooper has spun up a story that offers no easy insights yet is too idiosyncratic to be imagined. Beautifully written, fast flowing, and filled with feeling.
Jan 27, 2019 rated it really liked it
On February 7, 2009 - a day that would become known as Black Saturday - bushfires burned vast areas of Victoria (my home state). Extreme heat, high winds, low humidity, and severe drought combined to create the worst bushfire conditions in Australia's recorded history (the heat from the fires was equivalent to 500 atomic bombs exploding).

Black Saturday resulted in Australia’s highest ever loss of life from a bush-fire event. Across Victoria, 173 people died; more than one million animals (pets,
Catherine Davison
Feb 13, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Chloe Hooper has honoured all the people whose lives were lost or impacted by this senseless fire setting. She writes in a dignified and enthralling way never ghoulish, never tasteless, hers is a steady hand on the tiller as she tries to navigate a course to shed light on the reasons why this man did what he did. I had put off reading this thinking it would be too difficult to read but it should be read, by all Australians and perhaps lessons might be learned so loners like Sokaluk get treatment ...more
Shirley Bateman
Feb 02, 2019 rated it it was amazing
A stunning analysis of the minds and motivations of arsonists. I felt conflicted throughout. At first, it was easy to deeply dislike Brendan Sokaluk, but at times, I felt sympathy for him. His parents loved him but he was constantly bullied at school and work. His autism and learning difficulties made it very hard to fit in.

Chloe Hooper weaves together all parts of the story with a journalistic perspective. She brilliantly depicts the absolute devastation wreaked by bushfires on communities.
Rick Morton
Feb 05, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Haunting and desperately sad and yet there is so much humanity in there. So much. The best writing shows us into the world of nuance and holds us there. Chloe did just that.
Chee Chee
Jan 09, 2019 rated it really liked it
Compelling and terrifying. In particular, her retelling of the Churchill fire’s impact on families was absolutely devastating.
Ron Brown
Dec 12, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Hooper is writer of substance, her ability to describe characters and situations engages the reader fully. Her descriptions of the fire ruined country are both descriptive and emotional. The opening pages of this book are disturbing and difficult to read. Her ability to capture the voice of the survivors is devastating to read. I had to stop at times to take a breath. Her writing presents portraits of real decent people dealing with shocking moments in their otherwise normal lives. Her accounts ...more
Gayle Parker
Jan 02, 2019 rated it really liked it
What a gripping engrossing book
A joy to read despite the dark nature of the subject
Jen Welch
Dec 25, 2018 rated it it was amazing
The research and investigation that has been undertaken for this book is brilliant. What exceeds this is the compassion, sensitivity and structured interpretation of such massive devastation. Hooper has sieved through so much to try to make sense of so much trauma.
Shereen Lang
Nov 27, 2018 rated it it was amazing
At times absolutely harrowing, this is an extremely well drawn account of a bushfire and its devastating effects, which is perhaps less successful at portraying the troubled man at the centre of it all.
I found the survivors' stories really poignant and at times hard to read. I found myself reading the same lines over and over because I couldn't believe the vastness of the damage and the impact on so many lives. It was definitely tough getting through the survivor statements, and the book's endin
Nov 25, 2018 rated it really liked it
This was my first Chloe Hooper and I was really blown away. It reminded me greatly of Helen Garner's 'This House of Grief' which is my way of saying that it's exceptional non-fiction. Chloe really put you in the moment at all points of this story. She wrote about harrowing situations in a way that's both empathetic but removed enough that you don't feel traumatised by the act of reading. Highly recommended reading for all Australians.
Jan 24, 2019 rated it really liked it
Why did he do it? A simple question, which Chloe Hooper provides a complex answer to. Brendan Sokaluk was found guilty of lighting fires near the east Victorian town of Churchill on what has infamously become known as ‘Black Saturday’, 2009. The Churchill fires killed eleven people, destroyed dozens of homes and incinerated thousands of hectares of forest. Not only does Hooper explore the mind of the arsonist, but the social context that could have caused him to become one. It’s not just Brendan ...more
I think bushfires are the single biggest fear of most Australians when it comes to living in the country. The intensity and frequency of a catastrophic bush fires means it is not only those living in the midst of forests that fear them now.

This is compelling reading. Also thought provoking. Hopper takes different perspectives of those involved at different stages of the process: initial investigation, defence work, court case.

Reading this I had the tense sickening feeling in my gut. The horror
Hannah Banks
Feb 15, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This book wowed me!
Angelique Simonsen
This was easy to read but so so sad for the families etc who were affected. I was struck by the awful scenes as the fire raged through. So hard for me to visualize the absolute devastation.
Had to cry when the two brothers decided to forget saving the house and made a run for it only to be killed in their vehicle while the fire left their house untouched
Jan 30, 2019 rated it it was amazing
My heart goes out to anyone who survived and anyone who lost a loved one in the Black Saturday fires.

I can remember seeing the news about Black Saturday and hearing the stories coming out of Victoria. They were the kind of stories that change your understanding of the world, even a decade later, as people recounted their survivals, and the trail of destruction told stories of lives lost.

Chloe Hooper tells some of these stories as she recounts the events of Black Saturday in the La Trobe Valley
Jan 24, 2019 rated it liked it
3 1/2 stars. An interesting read, but frustrating at times. Not sure what I expected, something meatier maybe, with stronger focus on the investigation and personal accounts, and less of the lawyer/courtroom stuff
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Can't wait to read this one. 1 1 Sep 16, 2018 09:54PM  
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Chloe Hooper is an Australian author. Her first novel, A Child’s Book of True Crime (2002), was short-listed for the Orange Prize for Literature and was a New York Times Notable Book. In 2005, she turned to reportage and the next year won a Walkley Award for her writing on the death in custody of Cameron Doomadgee on Palm Island, an Aboriginal community off the north-east coast of Australia. The T ...more
“one time she heard a policeman giving a belting to teenagers who’d been bullying the boy. Part of her wished someone would do that for her son. When Brendan reached high school age he attended Morwell Technical College, a fifteen-” 0 likes
“radio shock jocks were soon telling an audience eager to believe in their own righteousness and sound mental health that the impairment was fake.” 0 likes
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