Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2019, AWW2020, Book lists, Book review, Emily Paull, Fiction, Focus on WA writers, Fremantle Press, literary fiction, Madelaine Dickie, Margaret River Press, Michelle Johnston, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, short stories, TBR2020, University of Western Australia Press

3 books by Western Australian women writers: Madelaine Dickie, Michelle Johnston and Emily Paull

Last year I decided to embark on a project to read books from my adopted state of Western Australia. And then my plans flew out the window when I started a new full-time job in a new career just a couple of weeks later!

Alas, six months on and my working life is now (slightly) more manageable, giving me more bandwidth to get on with my reading life.

Here are three excellent books I’ve read recently by women writers from Western Australia. They are all highly recommended reads worth seeking out.

‘Red Can Origami’ by Madelaine Dickie

Fiction – paperback; Fremantle Press; 224 pages; 2019. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Red Can Origami is a brilliant, politically motivated novel about mining and the repercussions it has on local indigenous communities and the environment in general. But it’s also a deeply personal story about living in a tiny tropical town, adapting to a new lifestyle and remaining true to yourself.

It’s narrated in the second person by Ava, a journalist, who works on the local newspaper. She later takes a job as an Aboriginal liaison officer for a Japanese firm that that’s big into nuclear power. That firm is going head to head with a Native Title group in a bid to begin mining uranium on country. As the fast-paced plot races its way towards an inevitable showdown between the local community, the white do-gooders and the mining company, Ava finds herself out of her depth — and in love with a local Aboriginal man.

The novel is set in Australia’s tropical north and is as much a love letter to that landscape and climate and remote way of life as it is an exploration of morals and principles and the importance of cultural understanding and awareness. It’s written in rich, vivid language, has a cast of strong, well-drawn characters and covers some pertinent issues without being too heavy-handed. It’s a wonderfully authentic Australian story told with insight and sensitivity.

‘Dustfall’ by Michelle Johnston

Fiction – paperback; University of Western Australia Press; 306 pages; 2018.

Dustfall is set in Wittennoom, the asbestos mining town in the Pilbara region of Western Australia, which was classified as a contaminated site and then degazetted in 2006/7. Its deadly legacy, in which hundreds of miners developed terminal mesothelioma, is the lens through which this delicately rendered story is told.

Split into two distinct time frames — one historical, one current — it looks at two doctors, a generation apart, who go to Wittenoom as a way to distance themselves from mistakes they have made in their medical careers. For Dr Raymond Filigree, working in the town’s small hospital is a way for him to rebuild his confidence, but instead, he finds himself at war with a mining company that has no respect for human life; while for Dr Lou Fitzgerald, the now-abandoned Wittenoom, full of eerie silence and empty buildings, offers a refuge from a career-ending error, but it also opens her eyes to much bigger crimes from the past when she discovers the town’s ruined hospital.

These twin narratives tapped into my own long-held fury about Wittenooom’s deadly blue asbestos mine which has been with me ever since I read Ben Hills’ Blue Murder, circa 1990, and heard Midnight Oil’s Blue Sky Mine at around the same time. Another politically charged novel, Dustfall is eloquently told but brims with slow-burning anger. It’s absorbing, intelligent — and powerful.

‘Well-behaved Women’ by Emily Paull

Fiction – paperback; Margaret River Press; 242 pages; 2019. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Well-behaved women seldom make history, so the saying goes. And that’s pretty much the theme of this collection of 18 short stories, which are mostly framed around women who are, as the title suggests, less inclined to rock the boat.

Many of the characters in these succinct tales live quiet lives with little fanfare, they know their place and don’t seek the limelight, they simply get on with the business of doing what they do. They are the kind of people that go unnoticed, even in death, such as the free diver in “The Sea Also Waits” who goes missing at sea during routine training and whose absence only appears to be noted by her adult daughter, or the female skeleton in “From Under the Ground” who has been buried under a lemon tree in a suburban backyard for so long even the police hold little hope of figuring out who she might be.

Then there are characters who ensure that other women don’t get above their station, such as the bitter and twisted television soap-opera-star-turned-drama-teacher in “Miss Lovegrove” who cruelly convinces her starry-eyed young hopefuls that they will never achieve acting success. “My job is to tell you that the world is sometimes a dirty, ugly place,” she tells one of her charges.

It’s hard to believe that Well-behaved Women is a debut because the writing — in the tone, the prose style and the range of subjects covered — feels so accomplished. There are some real gems in this book and it will be interesting to see what Paull comes up with next. She’s definitely a talent to watch.

I read these books as part of my #FocusOnWesternAustralianWriters. You can find out more about this reading project, along with a list of Western Australian books already reviewed on the site, here

These books are all by Australian women writers. I read Michelle Johnston’s novel for  #AWW2019 (I just never got around to reviewing it last year). The remaining two books represent the 3rd and 4th books I have read this year for #AWW2020 and the 6th and 7th books for #TBR2020 in which I plan to read 20 books from my TBR between 1 January and 30 June. 

Australian Women Writers Challenge, AWW2019, Book lists

26 books by women: completing the 2019 Australian Women Writers’ Challenge

In what has become a bit of a tradition over the past few years, my New Year’s Day post is focused on Australian Women Writers — specifically listing all the titles I have read as part of the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge the year before. (You can see my wrap-up for 2018 here, 2017 here and 2016 here.)

In 2019, I aimed to read 10 books by Australian women writers. At the time I didn’t know I’d be moving back to Australia, so I kept my goal relatively achievable. But when I moved to Fremantle in June I suddenly had access to books — in both the shops and the library — that normally wouldn’t be available in the UK. As a consequence, I read a total of 26 books by female writers.

Here is a list of all the books I read. They have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s name (click the title to see my full review) and I have tried, where possible, to provide information on availability outside of Australia, but note this is subject to change:


‘Little Gods’ by Jenny Ackland (2018)
A gorgeously evocative coming of age story set in Victoria’s mallee region during the 1980s.
Fiction. Only published in Australia. Check bookfinder.com for copies.


‘A Constant Hum’ by Alice Bishop (2019)
The literary equivalent of a concept album, this collection features short stories and flash fiction focused on the aftermath of bush fire.
Fiction. Only published in Australia, but Kindle edition available in other markets.


‘New York’ by Lily Brett (2001)
This humorous and entertaining collection of 52 short articles is largely about the author’s own insecurities, anxieties and dislikes, with a special focus on New York life.
Non-fiction. Widely available.


‘Room for a Stranger’ by Melanie Cheng (2019)
A beautiful, bittersweet story about finding friendship in the most unexpected of places.
Fiction. Only published in Australia, but Kindle edition available in other markets.


‘Wedderburn: A True Tale of Blood and Dust’ by Maryrose Cuskelly (2018)
A deeply contemplative and gripping analysis of a small-town murder in Australia written very much in the vein of Helen Garner’s true-crime style.
Non-fiction. Only published in Australia. Check bookfinder.com for copies.

‘Springtime: A Ghost Story’ by Michelle de Kretser (2017)
A richly written short story about what it is like to begin a new life in a new city.
Fiction. Only published in Australia, but Kindle edition available in other markets.

The Bridge book cover

‘The Bridge’ by Enza Gandolfo (2018)
Moving tale focused on the families whose lives were drastically altered following the collapse of Melbourne’s Westgate Bridge midway through construction in 1970.
Fiction. Widely available.

‘Yellow Notebook: Diaries Volume I, 1978-1987’ by Helen Garner (2019)
This collection of sublime and pithy journal entries spans 10 years of Garner’s life and showcases her ability to capture the tiniest of details to elevate seemingly ordinary occurrences into scenes of extraordinary power.
Nonfiction. Due to be published in the UK in May 2020.

‘The Bride Stripped Bare’ by Nikki Gemmell (2003)
Originally published under the author “anonymous”, this is an erotically charged tale about a married woman’s sexual awakening.
Fiction. Widely available.

‘The Arsonist: A Mind on Fire’ by Chloe Hooper (2019)
A true-crime story looking at the police investigation and subsequent court trial of a man charged with deliberately lighting a fire in Churchill, Central Gippsland that burnt 32,860 hectares and killed 11 people.
Nonfiction. Widely available.

‘Shepherd’ by Catherine Jinks (2019)
A fast-paced chase novel about a teenage poacher from Suffolk who is transported to New South Wales as a convict in 1840.
Fiction. Widely available.

‘Dustfall’ by Michelle Johnston (2018)
A haunting novel following the twin paths of two doctors — 30 years apart — who both settle in the doomed asbestos mining town of Wittenoom to lick their wounds after disastrous career mistakes. (Please note, I never got around to reviewing this one: it’s really excellent.)
Fiction. Paperback available.

‘Pink Mountain on Locust Island’ by Jamie Marina Lau (2018)
The story of a troubled lonely teen living with a drug-addicted father is told in a fragmentary style structured around a series of short vignettes.
Fiction. Only available in Australia, but can be ordered online from Browbooks.com.

‘The Erratics’ by Vicki Laveau-Harvie (2018)
This year’s Stella Prize winner, Laveau-Harvie’s memoir recounts how she had to deal with her Canadian-based elderly parents — one of whom was trying to kill the other — from afar.
Nonfiction. Due to be published in the UK in August 2020.

‘Beauty’ by Bri Lee (2019)
A long-form essay looking at body image and the ways in which young women are conditioned to think that being thin is the only route to happiness and acceptance.
Non-fiction. Only available in Australia. Check bookfinder.com for copies.

‘Eggshell Skull: A memoir about standing up, speaking out and fighting back’ by Bri Lee (2018)
This riveting memoir marries the personal with the political by charting the author’s first year working in the Australian judicial system as she grapples with an eating disorder stemming from her own sexual abuse.
Non-fiction. Only published in Australia. Check bookfinder.com for copies.

‘Too Much Lip’ by Melissa Lucashenko (2018)
Winner of this year’s prestigious Miles Franklin Literary Award, this brash, gritty and hard-hitting novel is about an indigenous family trying to save their land from the local mayor’s plans to build a new prison on it.
Fiction. Only published in Australia. Check bookfinder.com for copies.

‘The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone’ by Felicity McLean (2019)
A disappointing novel about the fictional disappearance of three blonde sisters — the Van Apfel children of the title — from the perspective of their childhood friend, Tikka Malloy.
Fiction. Widely available.

‘The Trespassers’ by Meg Mundell (2019)
A dystopian tale set on a ship filled with Brits headed to Australia, but midway through the voyage, someone is found dead and an unplanned quarantine situation arises.
Fiction. Widely available.

‘Her Father’s Daughter’ by Alice Pung (2013)
This moving memoir explores the author’s early adulthood in Australia, the daughter of two Cambodians who fled the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge when she begins to unearth the story of her father’s frightening past.
Non-fiction. Widely available.

‘Bruny’ by Heather Rose (2019)
A political satire-cum-thriller about a terrorist attack in sleepy Tasmania some time in the very near future.
Fiction. Only published in Australia. Check bookfinder.com for copies.

‘See What I Have Done’ by Sarah Schmidt (2017)
Fictionalised account of Lizzie Borden’s possible culpability of the brutal murder of her father and step-mother in Massachusetts in the 19th century.
Fiction. Widely available.

‘Axiomatic’ by Maria Tumarkin (2018)
A heady mix of storytelling and reportage, this book looks at five different axioms — an accepted truth — and examines, often in great detail and with much intellectual rigour and anecdotal evidence, as to whether they can be debunked.
Non-fiction. Only available in Australia, but can be ordered online from Browbooks.com.

‘Cusp’ by Josephine Wilson (2005)
A beautifully layered narrative about a mother and daughter trying to recalibrate a sometimes fraught relationship.
Fiction. Only available in Australia, but can be ordered online at uwap.uwa.edu.au/collections/fiction

‘The Weekend’ by Charlotte Wood (2019)
A lovely story about friendship and growing old, it focuses on three women in their 70s who spend a weekend together cleaning out the holiday home of their now dead friend.
Fiction. Due to be published in the UK in June 2020.

‘Fake’ by Stephanie Wood (2019)
A respected journalist who dreamt of finding a special man to spend the rest of her life with, Wood fell victim to a charlatan — and this is her raw, unflinching account of their relationship.
Non-fiction. Only published in Australia, but Kindle edition available in other markets.

Have you read any of these books? Or care to share a great read by an Australian woman writer? Or any woman writer, regardless of nationality?

I have just signed up for the 2020 Australian Womens’ Writers Challenge, so expect to see more reviews by Australian women writers to feature on this blog over the course of the year. I am going to aim to read and review 20 books.

If you want to participate, you can sign up via the official website. Please note you don’t need to be an Australian to take part — it’s open to everyone around the world. The more, the merrier, as they say!

Allen & Unwin, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2019, Book review, Bri Lee, long form essay, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Beauty’ by Bri Lee

Non-fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 150 pages; 2019.

Earlier this year I read Bri Lee’s memoir Eggshell Skull, which was long- and shortlisted for many literary awards and was named Biography of the Year at the 2019 Australian Book Industry Awards. It is one of the best books I’ve read this year and will undoubtedly make my top 10 when I compile it in a few days’ time.

Beauty is Lee’s latest work of narrative non-fiction. It’s essentially a long-form essay, which was initially written as part of the author’s MPhil in Creative Writing at the University of Queensland, and has since been published by Allen & Unwin in an attractive small-format book with a striking cover image (the painting is by artist Loribelle Spirovski) and French flaps.

It focuses primarily on body image and the ways in which young women are conditioned to think that being thin is the only route to happiness and acceptance. It charts Lee’s own struggles with body dysmorphia and eating disorders (topics she also addressed in Eggshell Skull) and examines how her own obsession with thinness has eaten away (no pun intended) at her self-esteem and self-worth.

These issues may not be new, but Lee’s book is the first I’ve read that focuses on how the obsession with thinness as a beauty ideal has worsened in recent times thanks to the influence of social media. She talks about the need to be “photo-ready” at every minute of the day because camera phones are so prevalent.

Until the proliferation of smartphones around 2010, we would only feel conscious of being observed in scenarios that were laden with photo opportunities, but now, with social media being the omnipresent mass-reaching norm, we self-police in perpetuity.

She goes on to explain why young women now spend extraordinary amounts of money on make-up and take forever to “put their face on” and highlights how this peer pressure can cripple everyday decisions such as what to wear at work and play.

Admittedly, as compelling and as readable as I found this highly personalised essay to be, it did make me feel about 40 million years old. It’s clear from Lee’s experience that Millennials feel enormous pressure to be thin and that they associate this (wrongly) with being successful, beautiful and sexually desirable.

I grew up in the 1980s. Yes, there was pressure to be thin — mainly conveyed via airbrushed magazine covers — but our pop stars weren’t sexualised (Kim Wilde, my hero at the time, was always covered up in a white t-shirt, and Banarama often wore overalls/dungarees as if they’d just done a shift on a building site). Nor were we under the constant surveillance of social media where our peers could judge us instantaneously and so unkindly. We weren’t living under the weight of having everything we did (or said) validated by a “like” or “share” button.

Nowadays (how old does that make me sound, starting a sentence with that word), it seems that young women feel so little in control of any aspect of their life that the only thing they can attempt to wage war on is their weight and the way they look on Instagram. It just makes me feel desperately sad.

Beauty isn’t pitched at women of my age, but I think it is probably required reading for teenage girls if only to make them aware of the social constructs that can make their lives so miserable and competitive and psychologically damaging. Lee’s experience should serve as a warning that appearances are not everything…

This is my 25th book for #AWW2019.

Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2019, Book review, Helen Garner, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, Text

‘Yellow Notebook: Diaries Volume 1, 1978–1987’ by Helen Garner

Non-fiction – hardcover; Text Publishing; 272 pages; 2019.

I’ve started to write, without thought of form: it keeps coming, I am happy and no longer straining after effect. But each morning I set out for my office weak with fear. I will never be a great writer. The best I can do is to write books that are small but oblique enough to stick in people’s gullets so that they remember them.

If you are familiar with the work of Australian writer Helen Garner you may be surprised by this journal entry, penned in 1983, because it reveals a confronting truth: that early on in her career she was plagued by self-doubt and had resigned herself to never achieving critical success.

Of course, we now know that not to be the case. Garner has achieved rare critical and commercial success over the past 30-plus years — more for her non-fiction than her fiction, it has to be said — but she was on the money about writing stuff that “sticks in people’s gullets” for it’s fair to say she is not beloved. If anything, Garner is a polemic writer, often courting controversy for what is seen as her biased reporting.

I make no bones about being a fan. I particularly like her true-crime reportage (This House of Grief and Joe Cinque’s Consolation are stand-out books in this genre) and the way she tackles the truth — as she sees it — disclosing her own feelings without fear or favour.

When I read her essay collection, Everywhere I Look, published in 2016, I fell in love with her personal diary extracts “all written with the elegance and undiminished wonder of a true writer who revels in the extraordinariness of the every day”. Any wonder then, that I was completely enamoured by her latest book, Yellow Notebook: Diaries Volume 1, 1978–1987, published by Text last month.

Plagued by doubt

The quote at the top of this review is but one example of Garner’s extraordinary self-awareness and of her ability to be critical of her own talents and shortcomings as a writer.

Her take on leading a creative life, the all-consuming nature of it, the self-doubt and the courage of baring your soul to the world, is in sharp relief to her own personal struggles: the tedium of growing old, the loneliness of being in an unhappy marriage, the pain of a divorce and the fear of never finding love again, mixed in with the small joys of raising a daughter.

The entries are not what you might expect of a typical diary. There are no dates (apart from the year) and some entries are no more than a single sentence. But my, how each entry, each sentence sparkles and shines. She captures the minutiae of daily life in a remarkable way, using the tiniest of details to elevate seemingly ordinary occurrences into scenes of extraordinary power.

K and I ate room service food, sitting on the edge of the single bed like two good children.

Her writing is sublime and pithy. It’s confronting and raw and funny and makes you look at the world, domestic and familial, in a fresh, new way. The entire book is totally immersive and a joy to read.

Through the simple art of recording daily thoughts and experiences, Garner hones her writing skills and her powers of observation. Budding writers or anyone interested in the creative process could do worse than read Yellow Notebook: it’s compelling and insightful and full of the lovely, rich detail that makes a writer’s prose come alive. It’s a masterclass in anecdotal writing.

Personally, I cannot wait for follow-up volumes to be produced. If they are anything like Volume I, they will be exceptional reads.

This is my 24th book for #AWW2019.

Allen & Unwin, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2019, Book lists, Book review, Catherine Jinks, dystopian, Fiction, Five fast reviews, Fourth Estate, Heather Rose, historical fiction, literary fiction, Meg Mundelle, Michelle de Krester, Nikki Gemmell, Publisher, Setting, Text, University of Queensland Press

5 Fast Reviews: Michelle de Kretser, Nikki Gemmell, Catherine Jinks, Meg Mundell and Heather Rose

The past two months have been fairly hectic around here, mainly because I started a new job and I’ve had to learn a whole new role in a new industry and I’ve really not had the energy to read books much less review them.

The books I have read haven’t exactly set my world on fire — perhaps because I’ve been distracted by other things — so I haven’t been inspired to write proper full-length reviews. Here’s a quick round-up of what I’ve read recently:

‘Springtime: A Ghost Story’ by Michelle de Kretser

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 96 pages; 2017.

I’ve read a couple of Michelle de Kretser’s novels before — The Life to Come was one of my favourites last year — so I was delighted to find this novella in my local library. Billed as a ghost story, it’s not typical of the genre. Indeed, I’d argue it’s not a ghost story at all but a richly written tale about what it is like to begin a new life in a new city. The “ghosts” — for want of a better word — are the memories associated with the place you leave behind.

The story is about a married couple, Frances and Charlie, who are grappling with a move from Melbourne to Sydney. Everything feels unfamiliar and strange to them. Frances spends a lot of time exploring on foot with her dog — there are lots of lush descriptions of the city’s parks and gardens coming into bloom written with de Kretser’s typical literary flourishes  — and it’s while she’s on her wanderings that she comes across a haunting sight in a neighbour’s garden. This “apparition”, which alarms her greatly, could also be seen as a metaphor for the ghosts in her husband’s past, which she is trying to decipher.

Easily read in a sitting, Springtime is about ghosts of the past haunting a marriage as much as it is about the eerie goings-on in the neighbourhood. I’d argue that it’s really only for die-hard fans of de Kretser; it felt slightly too ephemeral for me to get a real handle on the story. For a more detailed review, please see Lisa’s at ANZLitLovers.

‘The Bride Stripped Bare’ by Nikki Gemmell

Fiction – paperback; Fourth Estate; 375 pages; 2011.

Originally published in 2003 under the author “anonymous”, The Bride Stripped Bare is an erotically charged tale about a married woman’s sexual awakening. Written in diary form as a series of lessons numbered from one to 138, it tells the story of a young woman who has never felt sexually fulfilled in her marriage and then acts, somewhat foolishly it has to be said, on her impulse to take a lover.

Her relationship with Gabriel, a handsome older man who turns out to be a virgin, gives her the chance to explore her own needs and desires without fear of judgment. Intoxicated by the power of her newly developed sexual prowess, she begins to take chances she shouldn’t and the double life she’s leading pushes her perilously close to the edge.

Admittedly, this book got me out of a reading slump, probably because it’s written in a compelling tone of voice (in the second person) and surges along at an octane-fuelled pace, helped no doubt by the exceedingly short chapters, but I didn’t love it enough to want to read the two follow-ups, With My Body and I Take You. And the whole idea that you could find a willing 40+-year-old virgin hanging around London seemed too ludicrous for me to take the story all that seriously…

‘Shepherd’ by Catherine Jinks

Fiction – paperback; Text Publishing; 240 pages; 2019.

Shepherd tells the tale of a teenage poacher from Suffolk who is transported to New South Wales as a convict in 1840. The narrative swings backward and forward in time, detailing Tom’s old life in England, and then contrasting it with his new life assigned to a shepherd’s hut, where he helps to protect a flock of sheep with a trio of violent prisoners.

This fast-paced story is essentially a chase novel, for it follows what happens when Tom becomes caught up in events that may lead to his death at the hands of a vicious killer known as Dan Carver.

Initially, I really liked this tale, especially Tom’s warm, empathetic voice, his wisdom, his concern for the “blacks” and his desire to know the plants and animals of the Australian landscape, but it soon began to wear thin when I realised there was not enough show and too much tell. There was too much violence in it for me, too, and the chase dragged on for too long to sustain my interest. Without wishing to damn it with faint praise, it actually felt like a novel that teenage boys might like, so it comes as no surprise that the author has several award-winning children’s books to her name.

‘The Trespassers’ by Meg Mundell

Fiction – paperback; University of Queensland Press; 278 pages; 2019.

If ever a novel was to be a nod to the shenanigans of Brexit or Australia’s shameful immigration detention policy, this is it. The Trespassers is a dystopian tale set on a crowded ship bound for Australia. Onboard are Brits escaping the disease-ridden UK. They have all been carefully screened, but midway through the voyage disease breaks out, someone is found dead and an unplanned quarantine situation arises.

The story is told through the eyes of three different characters, all superbly drawn, who take turns to narrate their side of events in alternate chapters: there’s a nine-year-old Irish boy who is deaf, a singer-turned-nurse from Glasgow and an English schoolteacher in need of money.

By the time the ship gets to its destination several people have died and there’s no guarantee the immigrants will be allowed to disembark on Australian soil. This is a riveting story that reads like a thriller but has all the intelligence and wisdom of a literary novel not afraid to tackle big issues such as healthcare, immigration, human trafficking and politics. I really loved this book and hope to see it pop up on literary prize lists in the very near future.

‘Bruny’ by Heather Rose

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 424 pages; 2019. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Tasmanian writer Heather Rose will be known to most people for her award-winning The Museum of Modern Love, a book I loved so much I convinced my book group to read it even though it hadn’t yet been published in the UK (we all bought it on Kindle). Bruny, her latest novel, has arrived with much fanfare, but it’s completely different in almost every possible way to what preceded it.

Set in Tasmania some time in the very near future, it tells the story of the bombing of a massive bridge being built to link mainland Tasmania with the island of Bruny, just across the D’Entrecasteaux Channel. The terrorist attack brings the bridge down, but it also brings worldwide attention to this usually quiet and sleepy part of the world. New York-based UN conflict resolution expert Astrid Coleman returns home to help her twin brother, the state premier, soothe troubled waters. Matters are complicated further by a dysfunctional family: her sister is the Opposition Leader; her mother barely talks to her; and her father, who is slowly dying of Alzheimer’s, can only communicate in Shakespeare quotes.

A sharp-eyed and intelligent political satire come thriller (reminiscent of Charlotte Grimshaw’s Soon), the book is fast-paced and written with wit and verve. But as much as I enjoyed reading it, I just didn’t buy the premise — that a massive bridge would be built in this part of the world and that terrorists would take the time to blow it up — and had a hard time taking it seriously. And even though I went to the Perth launch and heard Rose talk about the story in great depth (she was very careful not to give away crucial plot spoilers), I’ve come to the conclusion that the book is simply preposterous — but I’m sure that won’t stop it being shortlisted for awards aplenty.

These books are all by Australian women writers. They represent the 19th, 20th, 21st, 22nd and 23rd books I have read this year for #AWW2019.

Allen & Unwin, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2019, Book review, Charlotte Wood, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘The Weekend’ by Charlotte Wood

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 272 pages; 2019.

The push and pull of friendship between three older women forms the dark, beating heart of Charlotte Wood’s eagerly awaited new novel, The Weekend.

The trio, all in their seventies, have known each other for a lifetime. There is Jude, a bossy, not-afraid-to-speak-her-mind type who was once a famous restaurateur; Adele, a renowned actress with “famous breasts” who is now mostly out of work and struggling to get by financially; and Wendy, an acclaimed public intellectual, who is widowed, largely estranged from her adult children and beholden to an elderly dog that is deaf, arthritic and incontinent.

When they come together for a weekend over Christmas there isn’t much celebrating going on. They’ve been asked to clear out the old beach hut that belonged to their friend, Sylvie, who died about 18 months ago. Thrust together in sad circumstances — and without Sylvie’s patient, diplomatic hand to keep the mood light — tensions and old hurts rise to the surface as they sort through Sylvie’s belongings and recall old times.

By the end of the weekend a lot has changed and the fragile equilibrium between them all is forever altered.

Character-driven novel

In this largely character-driven novel, Wood, who is one of my favourite authors (I’ve reviewed all her books here), explores female friendship and what it is to grow old.

Her characters are painfully real — flawed, emotional, but kind-hearted and well-meaning. Each one is distinctly drawn and vastly different from one another so it’s relatively easy for the reader to get a handle on who is who: Jude is pragmatic and gets things done but lives a secret life; Adele is fit and confident and full of life, the type of woman who has always been the centre of attention; while Wendy, the academic, lives in her head and appears older than the others despite them all being roughly the same age.

Their stories, all told in the third person, are expertly woven together so that each gets an equal amount of time in the spotlight, as it were.

The fourth character is not, as you might expect, Sylvie (we know very little about her), but Finn, the elderly dog, who could be seen as a metaphor for death or at least the decrepitude that awaits them all.

Growing old

What I loved about this book is its authenticity. There’s a lot of quiet observations about growing old that ring true: the moment when you see a friend’s feet and realise she is old; the inability to read your FitBit without your glasses; the envy of seeing younger people who are slimmer and lither than you.

And the fraying tempers and impatience of putting up with other people when you’d rather be doing something else with your time are pitch-perfect.

While it’s not a particularly plot-driven novel it moves forward through a series of set pieces, some of which are blackly funny. There’s a scene in a restaurant in which Jude loses her temper with a waitress who fails to take her complaint about stale bread seriously that had me chuckling away, and another incident in which Adele, desperate to go to the toilet, takes a pee in a park and hope no one sees her!

And, of course, everything is written in Wood’s characteristic rich, exquisitely limpid prose.

If you’re expecting this book to be The Natural Way of Things mark II, you’re going to be sorely disappointed. This is a gentler story, much more reminiscent of Wood’s earlier novels, The Children and Animal People, which were both very much focused on personal relationships within families. But by the same token, it has done something that The Natural Way of Things also did: it has given voice to a cohort of women often much maligned in society — and literature.

This is my 18th book for #AWW2019.

Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2019, Book review, Fiction, Focus on WA writers, Josephine Wilson, literary fiction, New York, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, University of Western Australia Press

‘Cusp’ by Josephine Wilson

Fiction – paperback; University of Western Australia Press; 247 pages; 2005.

Sometimes I pick up a book and it so perfectly matches my mood that I immediately fall in love with it. This is what happened with Josephine Wilson’s debut novel, Cusp, a serendipitous find in my local independent bookshop earlier this week. (Wilson’s second novel, Extinctions, won the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 2017.)

Mending a fraught relationship

Set in 1990, Cusp tells the story of a mother and daughter trying to recalibrate a sometimes fraught relationship.

Lena Hawkins is 27 and has spent the best part of 18 months in New York, trying to reinvent herself as an art curator but is cleaning people’s homes instead and doing admin work because she doesn’t have a Green Card.

Her mother, Mavis, is half a world away — in Perth on the Western Australian coast — and she’s desperate for her daughter to return home. “Come soon,” she beseeches on the phone, before putting $900 on Lena’s Visa card to buy a flight. “Pack up properly, just in case a good job comes up. Or you meet a man. Or something,” she tells her daughter.

Back in Perth, in the height of an Australian summer, Lena finds herself hauled back to a past she’d rather forget, while Mavis struggles to make her daughter see what is right before her eyes.

Reissued edition, 2018

A layered narrative

The beautifully layered narrative, which is composed of vignettes and flashbacks, some set in New York and some in Perth, moves effortlessly between past and present and between two very different points of view — that of Lena’s and that of Mavis’s — from two vastly opposed generations.

What results is a complex picture of two lives inexorably linked but never quite working in unison. There’s a failure to understand one another. Mavis, who had Lena when she was 41 at a time when most women had their children in their 20s, can’t comprehend many of Lena’s life choices. Why did she drop out of university? Why did she have her heart set on such a flimsy career? Why did she go to New York instead of London like every other Australian wanderer? Why hasn’t she found a nice man yet?

While Lena doesn’t understand why her mother settled for such a boring domesticated life and why, now that her father has died (prematurely of a heart attack a few years earlier), she hasn’t used her new-found freedom to do something more exciting. Why, for instance, did she sell up the family home but move to a smaller unit in the same suburb? Why hasn’t she escaped the city she’s always complaining about? Why is she so intent on cleaning things up and throwing things away?

Portrait of a mother-daughter relationship

As well as a wonderful portrait of a mother-daughter relationship, with all its complexities, misunderstandings, tension and love, this book is also an insightful look at the impact of time and place on our lives and the ways in which our personalities and opinions can be shaped by experience, particularly travel.

There are some hard-hitting moments in Cusp, but it’s also full of vividly funny dialogue that often had me laughing out loud.

The characterisation is also superb: both Mavis and Lena feel truly authentic with their flaws and foibles, their little ways and viewpoints, and their inner monologues a curious mix of self-doubt and self-belief. I loved spending time with them.

Funny, poignant and wonderfully compelling, Cusp explores what it is to belong, to be loved and to find your rightful place in the world.

This is my 17th book for #AWW2019. I also read it as part of my #FocusOnWesternAustralianWriters. You can find out more about this reading project, along with a list of Western Australian books already reviewed on the site, here. Unfortunately, if you are based outside of Australia you may have trouble buying this book. I recommend searching for used copies on BookFinder.com, or you can always buy direct from the publisher UWAP, which has a flat international shipping fee.

Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2019, Book review, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, Stephanie Wood, Vintage Australia

‘Fake’ by Stephanie Wood

Non-fiction – paperback; Vintage Australia; 339 pages; 2019.

Love is blind, so they say, and never more so in Stephanie Wood’s case.

A respected journalist who dreamt of finding a special man to spend the rest of her life with, Wood fell victim to a charlatan — a love rat, who took advantage of her compassionate side and told her lie upon lie until she finally woke up to his shenanigans and confronted him about his manipulative behaviour.

Fake — published in Australia last monthis her brutally honest account of their relationship.

A charming man

So there was Joe. What did he look like? Friendly, I think, happy to see me. How did I feel? Curious, nervy, eager to impress. What was the conversation? Fluttery and shallow at the outset, before we started to find common ground — a shared liking for nature, politics, words. He told me that a broadcaster was looking at a script he’d written for a comedy about office cleaners. He said that sometimes he went to the ballet on his own. I told him I liked gardening. He said that, next time, he’d bring me some sheep shit. Something I said gave him an opening to another wacky story: when he was a schoolboy, he let a duck loose in the art gallery where his mother was a volunteer and chaos ensued. And I don’t doubt any of it — why would I? I just laugh and he seems to twinkle before me.

So begins Wood’s first date with the man she met in “the early days of winter 2014”, a man who said he was a former architect turned sheep farmer (hence the mention of sheep poo in the quote above) and property speculator, a man she fell in love with but whom she later realised could never pin down.

Visits to his farm in the Southern Tablelands never quite came off, pre-arranged dates would be cancelled at the very last minute, at times he wouldn’t even show up — and he wouldn’t answer his phone or reply to text messages for days on end. But there was always an excuse, often elaborate but plausible, for which Wood gave him the benefit of the doubt.

But what Wood did not know at the time was that Joe was also involved with another woman and he was stringing her along too. What’s more, his past was somewhat dubious. He hadn’t chosen to swap architecture for farming — he’d been forced out after the firm he ran with his friend went bust thanks to his fraudulent activities.

Riveting exposé of con men

Fake is not just an account of Wood’s unwitting involvement in a sham relationship, it’s a riveting exposé of con men across the world who use their narcissistic powers to take advantage of others for their own end.

She looks at the psychology of such fraudsters and fantasists to try to explain why they behave in such abhorrent ways and speaks to other women who have been similarly fooled, including American journalist Benita Alexander, who fell for celebrated doctor Paolo Macchiarini, who was later exposed as a fake (and which I first read about in 2016 thanks to this truth-is-stranger-than-fiction article in Vanity Fair).

Wood also examines her own heart to work out why she fell so deeply in love with a man who — with the benefit of hindsight — was so clearly not all he was cracked up to be. How could she, as an intelligent woman and a journalist trained to never take things at face value, succumb to his duplicitous ways? Why did she choose to overlook his failings and put up with his bad behaviour? Why did she think she did not deserve any better?

In this brave and honest book, Wood takes a painful episode from her personal life and turns it into something more important: a compelling and well-written study of a behavioural “type” designed to help others recognise when they’re being played. Her advice could, perhaps, be summed up with another cliché to match the one I opened with: if something seems too good to be true, it probably is.

Please note, Fake has not been published outside of Australia, but you can order a copy from Readings.com.au which ships internationally for a flat fee.

This is my 16th book for #AWW2019

Alice Bishop, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2019, Book review, Fiction, Publisher, Setting, short stories, Text

‘A Constant Hum’ by Alice Bishop

Fiction – paperback; Text Publishing; 240 pages; 2019. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Alice Bishop’s A Constant Hum is the literary equivalent of a concept album. Instead of songs expressing a particular theme or idea, it features short stories and flash fiction focused on the aftermath of bushfire.

It is possibly the most quintessentially Australian book I’ve ever read. It hums with vernacular, cultural references — models of cars, brands of ice-cream, the names of TV shows — flora and fauna that are only found on this island continent.

And yet it deals with the universal theme of what happens to people and their communities in the wake of a natural disaster.

Inspired by fire

Taking the Black Saturday bushfires of 2009 (in which 180 people lost their lives) as her inspiration, Bishop explores the tragedy from almost every conceivable angle: those that stayed and fought to save their homes, the nurses who looked after the injured, the firefighters who fought the blaze, the people who lost loved ones, those that survived but felt guilty because of it.

There are 47 stories divided into three sections (all named after the wind that wreaked so much havoc — Prevailing, Southerly and Northerly); most are a few pages long, several are just a few lines and read like exquisite poetry:

In the Ashes

People think it takes away everything, but the colours were unlike anything I’ve ever seen: greys stronger than railway steel, blue-black charcoals, and oranges like tangerines—baked rust by dashboard sun.

All are written with a forensic eye for detail, often focused on finding beauty in grief. There are recurring themes — the intensity of the flames which were so hot they melted metal, the wind shifts, the loss of livestock, the important role that emergency services and community organisations played, those that lost everything having to wear donated clothing that didn’t fit properly — that build a consistent picture of an emergency situation that quickly turned to tragedy.

In fact, the picture that builds is emotionally intense, so much so that I could only read A Constant Hum in small doses, say three or four stories at a time, for this is not a book to plow through, but one to savour, to cogitate on, to mull over.

In the Acknowledgements, Bishop reveals that her family lost a house in the East Kilmore fire on Black Saturday. “I can’t imagine how it would really feel to lose family / friends / a partner in that way—what it would still feel like, today,” she says. I think this beautifully rendered collection demonstrates that she can imagine that kind of loss and she can write about it with care, kindness and great authenticity.

If you liked this, you might also like

The Arsonist by Chloe Hooper: a true-crime tale about the arsonist responsible for one of the most devastating fires on Black Saturday, one of the best books I’ve read this year.

This is my 15th book for #AWW2019. Note it’s only available in the UK in eBook form, but you can buy the physical book direct from the Melbourne-based publisher Text.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2019), Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2019, Book review, Fiction, historical fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Sarah Schmidt, Setting, TBR40, Tinder Press, USA

‘See What I Have Done’ by Sarah Schmidt

UK edition

Fiction – hardcover; Tinder Press; 336 pages; 2017.

When Sarah Schmidt’s debut novel See What I Have Done came out in 2017 it generated a lot of book publicity. This was backed up by a slew of prize listings — including, for example, the Women’s Prize for Fiction, the Indie Book Award for Debut Fiction and The Ned Kelly Awards for Best First Crime. It went on to win two key prizes in Schmidt’s native Australia: The ABIA Literary Fiction of the Year 2018 and the Mud Literary Award 2018.

Set in the US in the 19th century, it is based on a true story: the brutal murder, by axe, of a husband and his second wife in their home in Fall River, Massachusetts. Lizzie Borden, the husband’s 32-year-old daughter, was convicted of the crime but acquitted.

This fictionalised account examines Lizzie’s possible culpability but does not provide any clear cut answers.

Different perspectives

The tale is told from various different perspectives in alternate chapters: Lizzie’s steady and responsible older sister Emma; the Borden’s hard-working Irish servant Bridget, who is saving up to return home; an enigmatic and violent stranger called Benjamin, whom may (or may not) have been hired to commit a crime against Mr Borden; and Lizzie herself.

The narrative, which is divided into three parts, jumps around a bit in terms of timeline, so some chapters are set on the day of the murder — 4 August 1892 — while others are set the day before or the day after. Section three opens almost 13 years later, before spooling back to talk about the day of the funerals.

This backwards and forwards movement gives the reader the opportunity to see how actions can be pre-planned, how things said in the past can take on different meanings in the present, and helps paint a picture of a small but complex family rife with petty jealousies, rivalries and injustices.

Failed to engage 

But I had problems with this book. I just could not engage with any of the characters. I felt like I was always one step removed from them, or that I was watching their movements through a window, never able to quite make them out through the smears on the glass.

I think this was partly to do with the fact that the voices of the characters are too similar. They almost blended into one, so I couldn’t really distinguish them. Only Bridget, with her use of  “ya” and working class English, sounded slightly different to the others.

Australian edition

And the story felt too drawn out. I wanted to hear more about the conviction and the trial, but these are only mentioned in passing right near the end, and I’m none the wiser as to why Lizzie was arrested in the first place, much less why she was acquitted by a jury.

(That said, there’s enough meat here to figure out her motivations for potentially carrying out the brutal deed.)

On a more positive note, I liked Schmidt’s prose style and her ability to paint vivid pictures using fragmentary sentences and original adverbs (“saliva-wet baby hands”, “a red-fox vixen scream”, “her stale-wood dressing table”). There’s a heavy emphasis on odours (the smell of rotting pears, rotted meat), on sounds, on the wetness of things — and both Lizzie and Benjamin seem obsessed with licking whatever they can see. This brings scenes to life, nicely aided by authentic sounding dialogue.

And there are recurring motifs — pigeons, pears, mutton and vomit — that ties everything together.

But on the whole See What I Have Done just didn’t do it for me.

This is my 14th book for #AWW2019; my 6th book for #20BooksOfSummer; and my 25th book for #TBR40. I purchased it in hardcover not long after it had been released because there was such a “buzz” about it. Plus, the hardcover was a thing of beauty, with orange-edged paper and an attractive cover image. But then it sat on my shelf unread and, in fact, it’s still there — in London. The copy I actually read was the Australian edition, large-format paperback, which I borrowed from Fremantle Library last week.