Australian Women Writers Challenge, AWW2020

22 books by women: completing the 2020 Australian Women Writers’ Challenge

For the fifth year in a row, I signed up to do the Australian Women Writers Challenge in 2020. My aim was to read 20 books; I ended up reading 22.

Here is a list of all the books I read; all are fiction bar two. 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:


‘Two Sisters: Ngarta and Jukuna’ by Ngarta Jinny Bent, Jukuna Mona Chuguna, Pat Lowe & Eirlys Richards (2016)
Indigenous memoir about life in the Great Sandy Desert at a time when the arrival of Europeans and their vast cattle stations changed everything.
Memoir. Only published in Australia. You can order direct from the publisher http://www.magabala.com

‘The Killing Streets: Uncovering Australia’s first serial murderer’ by Tanya Bretherton (2020)
Narrative non-fiction that examines, in painstaking detail, a series of violent murders against women in Sydney in the early 1930s.
Non-fiction. Only published in Australia, but can be ordered via Amazon.co.uk

‘Lucky Ticket’ by Joey Bui (2019)
This wide and varied short story collection is written with an eye for the outsider and often championing the underdog or the unseen.
Fiction. Only published in Australia, but Kindle edition available in other markets.

‘Second Sight’ by Aoife Clifford (2020)
Well-plotted psychological crime thriller set in a small Australian coastal town still coming to terms with a fatal bushfire two years earlier.
Fiction. Widely available.

‘Dolores’ by Lauren Aimee Curtis (2020)
A perfectly paced novella about a teenage girl who hides her pregnancy from the Spanish nuns who take her in.
Fiction. Widely available.

‘Red Can Origami’ by Madelaine Dickie (2019)
Brilliant, politically motivated novel set in Australia’s tropical north about mining and the repercussions it has on local indigenous communities and the environment in general.
Fiction. Only published in Australia, but Kindle edition available in other markets.

‘A Week in the Life of Cassandra Aberline’ by Glenda Guest (2018)
A near-perfect novel about a woman coming to terms with her Alzheimer’s diagnosis by taking a long train journey home for the first time in more than 40 years.
Fiction. Only published in Australia, but Kindle edition available in other markets.

‘Below Deck’ by Sophie Hardcastle (2020)
Moving story about a young woman coming to terms with a sexual assault that happened in her past. It is quick-paced but has an emotional depth, and the language, at times, is rich and lyrical.
Fiction. Widely available.

‘The Survivors’ by Jane Harper (2020)
Set on the windswept Tasmanian coast, this is a relatively mediocre murder mystery focussed on two women who lost their lives more than a decade apart.
Fiction. Only published in Australia, but Kindle edition available in other markets. Hardcover due for publication in UK on 21 January.

‘Our Shadows’ by Gail Jones (2020)
Tale of two orphaned sisters raised in the gold-mining town of Kalgoorlie by their grandparents in the 1980s. As adults, they fall out but try to come to terms with their shared history.
Fiction. Only published in Australia, but Kindle edition available in other markets.

‘The House of Youssef’ by Yumna Kassab (2019)
This tantalising short story collection revolves around Lebanese immigrants living in the western suburbs of Sydney, offering insights into home and family life by people often caught between two cultures.
Fiction. Only published in Australia, but Kindle edition available in other markets.

‘The Hunter’ by Julia Leigh (1999)
A disquieting book about a mystery man’s secret mission to find the last remaining Tasmian tiger, which died out in the 1930s but has recently been spotted in the wild. Hypnotic and suspenseful.
Fiction. Out of print. Check bookfinder.com for copies.

‘The Animals in That Country’ by Laura Jean McKay (2020)
Dr Doolittle, eat your heart out! In this wholly original dystopian tale anyone who succumbs to a new flu virus can suddenly understand what animals are saying — and it’s not very nice!
Fiction. Widely available

‘The Spill’ by Imbi Neeme (2020)
Tale of two sisters whose lives go separate ways following an incident in their childhood that has lifelong repercussions for their entire family. Adultery, alcoholism and loyalty all feature. Gripping & original.
Fiction. Only available in Australia.

‘Shell’ by Kristina Olsson (2018)
Set in Sydney in the 1960s while the controversial Opera House was being built, this is a lush literary novel about art, architecture and family, as well as the importance of staying true to yourself and your beliefs.
Fiction. Widely available

‘Well-behaved Women’ by Emily Paull (2019)
A tightly written collection of 18 short stories, which are mostly framed around women who are, as the title suggests, less inclined to rock the boat.
Fiction. Only published in Australia, but Kindle edition available in other markets.

‘There Was Still Love’ by Favel Parrett (2019)
A gorgeous tale about the impact of the Cold War on a family. Set in Prague & Melbourne in 1980, it’s as much a love letter to grandparents as it is to the places we leave behind. A total balm for the soul.
Fiction. Widely available

‘Exploded View’ by Carrie Tiffany (2019)
Strangely hypnotic story about a teenage girl in the 1970s plotting to get the better of the stepfather who is sexually abusing her.
Fiction. Only published in Australia. Check bookfinder.com for copies elsewhere.

‘A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing’ by Jessie Tu (2020)
Shortlisted for the Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction, this debut novel is an uncompromising look at a talented young violinist trying to fill the void left behind when her fame as a child prodigy has died out.
Fiction. Only published in Australia. Check bookfinder.com for copies elsewhere.

‘Elizabeth and Her German Garden’ by Elizabeth von Arnim (1922)
Charming semi-autobiographical novel about an upper class woman establishing a garden of her own at a time when this was definitely NOT the done thing. Of its time, but a gorgeous read.
Fiction. Widely available.

‘The Yield’ by Tara June Winch (2019)
Multi-award-winning, multi-layered, multi-generational story that revolves around grief, loss and dispossession, but gently teases out what it is to be Aboriginal, to have a sense of identity, a true purpose and a language of one’s own.
Fiction. Widely available. Hardcover due for publication in UK on 21 January.

‘Swallow the Air’ by Tara June Winch (2006)
Beautiful, heartfelt coming of age story about a young Aboriginal woman trying to find her indigenous identity told in lush, poetic prose.
Fiction. Only published in Australia, but Kindle edition available in other markets.

You can see all my wrap-ups for previous years of the Australian Women Writers Challenge as follows: 2019 here, 2018 here, 2017 here and 2016 here.

I have signed up to do this challenge all over again in 2021 and will aim to read at least 10 books. You can sign up too –  you don’t have to be Australian or live in Australia to take part. Visit the official website for more info. The more participants, the merrier!

Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2020, Book review, Fiction, Gail Jones, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Text

‘Our Shadows’ by Gail Jones

Fiction – paperback; Text Publishing; 320 pages; 2020.

Love and loss, the goldfields of Kalgoorlie, growing up in outback Australia, and strained relationships between sisters all feature heavily in Gail Jones’ latest novel Our Shadows.

Outback setting

This gently nuanced novel is largely set in the outback gold mining town of Kalgoorlie, about 600km east of Perth, in Western Australia.

Against this dramatic landscape, we follow the lives of two sisters, Nell and Frances, who are raised by their grandparents following the death of their mother sometime in the 1980s. (Their father flees — whether from shock or grief or a refusal to be responsible for his two daughters, we don’t know — and is never seen again.)

It charts the closeness of their childhood, united in orphanhood and by a love of art, reading and a desire to visit the sea. (The print of Japanese artist Hokusai’s The Great Wave, part of which is reproduced on the book’s cover, plays a key role in their childhood fantasy to one day paddle in the ocean.)

But when the book opens, the sisters, vastly different in temperament and personality, are now 30-something adults living in Sydney and they are estranged. Frances, the introverted one, is a widow, her husband having died from mesothelioma, an excruciating lung disease, and her days are now spent visiting her grandmother, Else, who has dementia and lives in a nursing home.

The plot, which is is split into two parts, largely focuses on the sisters’ relationship, how it splintered and whether it can be repaired. It looks at the history of their parents (how they met, fell in love and got married) and their maternal grandparents (who, bowed by grief, had to raise their daughter’s children) to create a beguiling portrait of three generations of the one family.

The second part of the novel looks at Frances’ return to Kalgoorlie to rediscover her roots and find out more about the father she never knew.

Interleaved through this story of an outback family is another story — that of the real-life Irishman, Paddy Hannan, who was the first to discover gold in Kalgoorlie in 1893 and is largely known as the founder of the town.

An unexpected treat

Admittedly I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with this author. I have read four of Gail Jones’ books now and fallen in love with some titles (Five Bells and Sixty Lights), felt lukewarm about others (A Guide to Berlin) and not liked very much at all (Sorry), so I wasn’t sure what to expect with this one. I didn’t have to worry. This was an unexpected treat.

I read Our Shadows on the seven-hour train ride back from Kalgoorlie, having visited for a few days earlier this month, and it certainly captured the feeling of this outback gold mining town with its super-wide streets (so that camel trains could turn around), rich colonial architecture and mining infrastructure, including the super pit gold mine, which is referenced a lot in the story (see my pictures below).

The Super Pit was visible from space. Everyone said so. She remembered the day of the inauguration, the mayor, the mining officials, the politicians in their grey suits, the way her class had to stand in the sun, squinting in lines on a dais, and sing the national anthem. As a child she imagined herself in space with a small rocket strapped to her back; she would look down and see the Super Pit reduced to a dark blot. It reassured her to imagine in this way, lofty and unconcerned.

There’s always something about reading a book set in a place you have visited (or are visiting) that makes the story resonate more, and that was certainly the case with this one.

As ever, Jones’ work is subtle, her writing polished and poetic, and she is an expert at nuance, expertly capturing moods, expressions and the interconnectedness between people that makes life so rich and varied. Her descriptions of people, places and time periods are evocative and her characters all-too-human, flawed but believable.

Our Shadows is not a fast-paced novel and, as such, it is not one to race through. Instead, it’s one to linger over, to savour the language and the feelings the story evokes.

This is my 22nd — and final — book for #AWW2020.

2020 Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction, Allen & Unwin, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2020, Book review, Fiction, Jessie Tu, literary fiction, Literary prizes, New York, Publisher, Setting

‘A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing’ by Jessie Tu

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 304 pages; 2020.

A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing is Jessie Tu’s debut novel. It’s an uncompromising look at a talented young violinist trying to fill the void left behind when her fame as a child prodigy has died out. It’s about trying to find your feet as an adult, breaking free of the shackles of your (infamous) past and starting again. But it’s also about love, sex, self-esteem, self-worth — and self-destruction.

Rebuilding a career

Written in forthright first-person prose, Tu rarely pulls her punches. She lays bare one young woman’s pain and confusion as she tries to rebuild a massively successful career that went bung when she had a breakdown on stage. Here, she presents Jena Lin as a dedicated and hardworking musician trying to reinvent herself in a small, incestuous classical music world in which she’s long been pegged as a child star whose flame has burnt out.

She has twin struggles to juggle. Professionally, she endures a chaotic schedule of rehearsals, concerts, auditions and relentless practice, while personally, she has to “manage” an overly strict mother, who finds it hard to let her little girl go.

One of Jena’s coping mechanisms is to use sex with almost-strangers to make her feel alive or to give her a sense of being grown up. When she meets Mark, a much older man, she becomes consumed by him, to the point that it begins to affect her friendships and her working life, including a potential opportunity to go to New York to join one of the world’s leading orchestras.

Brave and audacious tale

It’s a brave and audacious tale, told in a refreshingly frank voice. I wasn’t sure it would be a story for me. I seem to have read a LOT of novels about millennial young women lately and I didn’t think this would anything new to the mix. But I was wrong.

A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing turned out to be a gripping, occasionally shocking read (there’s a lot of sex in it, you have been warned), but its real strength lies in its perspective of an Asian-Australian trying to succeed in a closeted world dominated by the white and the privileged.

I really loved its originality, its fierceness and its unflinching attitude. I reckon this one might just appear on my Books of the Year list for 2020 I enjoyed it so much.

If you liked this, you might also like:

‘Exciting Times’ by Naoise Dolan: Another story of a millennial woman trying to reinvent herself, who hooks up with an older man before realising her heart desires other things.

‘Adèle’ by Leïla Slimani: A confronting and deeply thought-provoking tale about a married woman who has a penchant for rough sex with a succession of strange men she picks up in the unlikeliest of places.

This is my 5th book for #2020ReadingsPrize for New Australian Fiction and my 21st book for #AWW2020.

Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2020, Book review, Fiction, Julia Leigh, literary fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Setting

‘The Hunter’ by Julia Leigh

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 170 pages; 1999.

Earlier this year the ABC’s streaming service, iView, placed a whole bunch of Australian films online, one of which was The Hunter, starring Willem Dafoe, Sam Neill and Frances O’Connor.

This strangely hypnotic film, where not much seems to happen, is essentially a mood piece about one man’s obsession with finding the last Tasmanian tiger living in the wilderness. The ending left me in a bit of a tailspin and stayed with me for days afterwards.

I immediately decided I needed to read the novel upon which it had been based, and so this is how I came to purchase this disquieting book, which was first published in 1999.

Mystery man on a mystery mission

Julia Leigh’s The Hunter is not quite the same as the film. It’s a little more mysterious in that the so-called hunter is not a North American mercenary working for a bio-tech company; indeed we know very little about him at all. He claims to work for the University of Sydney, calls himself Martin John and says he is studying the Tasmanian devil, not the tiger.

All we know for certain is that he is on a secret mission to find the last remaining thylacine, a carnivorous marsupial, which died out in the 1930s but has recently been spotted in the wild. (You can read more about the thylacine via this Wikipedia entry.)

By John Gould – “Mammals of Australia”, Vol. I Plate 54http://www.museum.vic.gov.au/bioinformatics/mammals/images/Thy_cyno.htm, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3317748

We don’t know the end goal; is it to kill, study or capture the animal? We don’t know the name of his employer. We don’t know who has arranged his accommodation — staying with a single mother and her two children on the edge of the forest — between his 10- to 12-day forays into the wilderness. We don’t know why he does what he does.

Compelling and suspenseful

Much like the film, not much happens in the book. And yet it is strangely compelling — and suspenseful.

It basically charts the man’s expeditions into the forest as he pursues his prey on foot. These trips into the wilderness, in which he is away for up to 12 days at a time setting snares and traps and looking for any signs — footprints, scat and potential lairs — are broken up by short stays with the woman, Lucy, who rarely leaves her bed, and her two wild children, Sass and Bike.

Lucy, we soon learn, is grieving for her husband who went searching for the tiger but never emerged from the forest. It is unclear whether he got lost or succumbed to foul play. This mystery only adds to the forbidding nature of the story.

That sense of foreboding is enhanced by the man’s trips into town, for supplies, where he is treated as an unwelcome stranger and mistaken for a “greenie” responsible for closing the local lumber mill.

The only time the man appears to be at ease is when he’s roaming the wilderness and sleeping under the stars while in pursuit of his prey. But even then you get the impression he’s not entirely normal, that there are other unspoken forces at work.

A mood piece

Leigh is excellent at evoking mood without spelling anything out; in many ways, it’s what remains unsaid that gives this story its power. Her descriptions of the plants and animals and weather are evocative, and her understanding of the hunter’s mindset and practices feel authentic. Her depiction of the male perspective is believable, the man’s moody silences and his inner-most thoughts feel all-too-real.

And while the ending in the book is slightly different from the film, it’s just as thought-provoking, the kind that leaves more questions than answers and stays with you long after the book has been put back on the shelf.

The Hunter was Leigh’s first novel. She has one more to her name, Disquiet, which was published in 2008 and sounds like it is cut from similar suspense-filled cloth. More recently she has published a non-fiction book about IVF treatment called Avalanche.

This is my 20th book for #AWW2020.

2020 Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2020, Book review, Fiction, Joey Bui, Literary prizes, Publisher, Setting, short stories, Text, UAE, Vietnam

‘Lucky Ticket’ by Joey Bui

Fiction – paperback; Text Publishing; 256 pages; 2019.

Joey Bui’s Lucky Ticket is a collection of short stories recently shortlisted for the Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction 2020, which is why I read it.

A Vietnamese-Australia writer, Bui comes to these stories with an eye for the outsider. Her fiction tends to champion the underdog or the unseen.

In the title story, for instance, we meet a disabled old man —  a former foot soldier in the Cambodian War — who sells lottery tickets on a street corner in Sàigòn. He walks around on his knuckles (because he doesn’t have legs), smiling and laughing all day — “That’s a big part of my job” — hoping that people will buy a ticket from him with little to no persuasion.

When a lady buys a ticket from him and hands it over, wishing him good luck, he’s convinced the ticket is a lucky one. He does everything he can to hold onto that ticket, but as he traverses the city, doing business, meeting friends, enjoying drinks, he accidentally resells it — but instead of feeling sorry for himself, he recalls all his “good fortune” in a life that to anyone else would look anything but.

In another story, “Abu Dhabi Gently”, we meet a migrant worker who leaves Zanzibar in a bid to make enough money to provide his wife with a better standard of living. But life in the UAE is a struggle. He gets caught in an infinite loop of red tape that prevents the reimbursement of his recruitment fee — a staggering $US980 — so that he has to work long hours in a university cafeteria to repay back what he has already paid. His passport is held as a form of security, preventing him from returning home.

Meanwhile, he struggles to make friends — “There weren’t many Africans working at the university. Most of the other workers were Filipinos and Indians” — and becomes very lonely. Contact with his wife and his sisters in Zanzibar becomes repetitive and lacks meaning because they don’t understand what he is going through and he isn’t confident enough to tell them the truth. It’s a melancholy story, but one that ends on a hopeful note.

In fact, most of the stories in this collection trade on the idea that life is messy and complicated, that relationships can become strained, that racial identity, gender and socio-economic background can amplify pain, and yet this diverse range of tales and voices is not depressing. Every story ends on a relatively positive note — even if it is just a character coming to terms with their circumstances.

Earlier this year Lucky Ticket was longlisted for the Stella Prize, shortlisted for the UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing at the 2020 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, and won the University of Southern Queensland Steele Rudd Award for a Short Story Collection at the 2020 Queensland Literary Awards. It’s an enlightening collection full of memorable characters and written in a straightforward, forthright prose style. I am hoping this talented writer tackles a novel next; I’d love to read it.

This is my 4th book for #2020ReadingsPrize for New Australian Fiction and my 19th book for #AWW2020.

Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2020, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Jane Harper, Macmillan, Publisher, Setting

‘The Survivors’ by Jane Harper

Fiction – Kindle edition; Macmillan Australia; 384 pages; 2020. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Jane Harper’s latest novel The Survivors switches focus from the Queensland outback of her previous novel to the island state of Tasmania. Here, on the windswept coast of a small local community (the fictional Evelyn Bay) a young woman in town for the summer is murdered, her body found washed up on the beach in the early hours of the morning.

The crime is a reminder of a previous tragedy in which a 14-year-old girl went missing on the night of a big storm 12 years earlier. That same night, two local men, Finn and Toby, also died when their boat overturned in stormy seas.

The timing of the murder is unfortunate because Finn’s brother Kieran is back in town. Kieran blames himself for his elder brother’s death all those years ago and the occurrence of yet another tragedy triggers painful memories for him. He’s arrived in Evelyn Bay from Sydney — with his long-term girlfriend and young baby daughter in tow — to help his mother pack up the family home so she can move her husband, who has early-onset dementia, into a nursing home in Hobart.

The Survivors is essentially a murder mystery focussed on two women who lost their lives more than a decade apart. It’s mainly centred on Kieran and his family, and a small cohort of childhood friends, now adults, who have remained living in the town. It’s a slow burner, the kind of story that unfolds slowly but surely, and is much about guilt, redemption and family loyalty, as it is about trying to solve a murder.

What I liked

The number of potential suspects
The Survivors isn’t a traditional police procedural or even a typical crime novel. It’s essentially a murder mystery that is “solved” by a small cast of characters who piece together clues discovered by the police and their own “investigation” (I use the term loosely). There are plenty of would-be culprits — the mainland genre author who has purchased the big house in town, Kieran’s father who wanders the local area at strange times of the night, the young kitchen hand who drove the victim home from work, and so on. Every one of them could, potentially, be the murderer — and the fun is trying to guess who it might be. The ending, I have to say, is satisfactory — and not the person I suspected at all.

The setting
In previous novels, Harper has faithfully captured a diversity of Australian settings, from a small rural community battling the ongoing effects of drought in The Dry to an outback cattle station that has to generate its own electricity it is so remote in The Lost Man.

In The Survivors, she captures what it is like to live in a small coastal community, some 900-strong, the kind of place that is super-busy with tourists in the summer and quiet and closed-in on itself when the season is over. It’s also the kind of place where everyone knows everyone else’s business (or thinks they do). She nails the gossip, innuendo and rumours that can fester when the facts aren’t truly known, and shows how this can spread like wildfire, especially via community online pages. She also nails what it is like to grow up in those places and to never truly escape them because even if you move away and only return on holiday, the locals think they “know” you and don’t think twice about casting judgement.

The dementia aspect
The depiction of dementia is handled sensitively and clearly shows the burdens placed on the primary caregiver — in this case, Kieran’s 64-year-old mother — and the family members who have to adjust to a new reality in which their loved one barely recognises them.

What I didn’t like

The dead woman trope
The Survivors is yet another crime novel where a dead woman is the central plot point. Harper doesn’t sensationalise the murder and makes reference to the fact that women must negotiate the world in a different way to men (never walking alone down dark streets, for example), but it still remains a story that relies on an old trope that I, personally, am incredibly sick of. It really is time to change the story.

The repetition
There’s a lot of repetition in this story, a lot of rehashing old ground, a lot of telling us that Kieran, for instance, has been wracked with guilt for more than a decade, and that the storm 12 years ago did more than wreck trees and buildings, it wrecked lives too. Lose half the repetition and this story would be not only leaner, but it would also be stronger, too.

The clichés
As much as Harper is great at capturing small-town life, it does seem that she only creates places solely populated by white people. While this story does feature a “half-Singaporean” (this is how Kieran describes his girlfriend), everyone else in this story is white. In fact, everyone in this novel feels like a stereotype: the guys are all sporty types, there’s a town beauty, a hard-working put-upon mother, a bumbling male police officer. Do I need to go on?

An entertaining read

No doubt you are going to see loads of reviews of this book in the coming weeks and months. And it will be nominated for awards and top the best-seller lists both here in Australia and the UK, where Harper has a good following.

But this is a fairly average crime novel. By all means, read it for the setting and the fun of guessing who committed the crime, but don’t expect to have your world set on fire. Sometimes, though, that’s enough, especially if you are just looking for a bit of temporary escapism. The Survivors is an entertaining read, no more, no less.

It will be published in the UK in hardcover next January and the USA next February. A Kindle version is already available in the UK.

This is my 18th book for #AWW2020

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2020), Alan Carter, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2020, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Fremantle Press, Kristina Olsson, literary fiction, Publisher, Scribner, Setting, Weidenfeld & Nicolson

3 Recommended Reads: Alan Carter, Kristina Olsson and Bernhard Schlink

The season has changed and  #20BooksOfSummer is long over, but I am a little behind in my reviewing. That’s why I’ve decided to produce this small wrap-up of the last three books I read as part of that challenge.

The three books featured here are all very different from each other, probably a good representation of my diverse taste, but they do have one thing in common: they are all set in Australia.

The trio includes a page-turning police procedural, a lush literary novel set in the 1960s and a German novel about art and dying. They are all highly recommended reads worth seeking out.

‘Heaven Sent’ by Alan Carter

Fiction – paperback; Fremantle Press; 322 pages; 2018. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Walking the streets of Fremantle, my newly adopted city, isn’t quite going to be the same having now read Alan Carter’s crime novel Heaven Sent. That’s because this gripping hard-to-guess crime tale is about a series of gruesome murders in various locations — all familiar to me — across Fremantle.

All the murders are of homeless people and the killer leaves a calling card, almost as if he is taunting the police by leaving “clues” no one quite understands. To complicate matters further, a local journalist dabbles in the investigation by communicating online with the killer as he plays a dangerous game that puts Detective Senior Sergeant Cato Kwong’s career, family and life on the line.

This is actually the fourth book in the Cato Kwong series, which began in 2010 with Carter’s debut novel, Prime Cut. I hadn’t read the previous two novels but it didn’t seem to matter, for this is a superb, intelligent crime novel, one that marries an authentic, atmospheric setting (Fremantle is renowned for its ghosts and, sadly, it’s homeless population) with a dedicated detective trying to balance his work and home life while carrying out a high-profile investigation. It’s got great pacing, is rich in detail and brims with human emotion — and humour.

‘Shell’ by Kristina Olsson

Fiction – paperback; Scribner; 374 pages; 2018. 

The controversy surrounding the construction and design of the Sydney Opera House in the 1960s forms the backdrop to Kristina Olsson’s lush literary novel Shell. Protests against Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War are also raging, giving the story a rich sense of time and place.

There are two main characters: Pearl Keogh, a newspaper reporter whose involvement in the anti-war movement has led to her being banished to the women’s pages; and Axel Lindquist, a Swedish sculptor who has been commissioned to create a unique piece of work for the Opera House. The pair meet and fall in love, but this is not a typical love story.

Both have significant people missing in their lives and both are on quests to find salvation to personal problems; their romance is almost subsidiary to their individual obsessions. As a result, there is nothing ordinary about their partnership, just as there is nothing ordinary about this gently nuanced novel.

Full of exquisite imagery and the inner-most thoughts of the intelligent people at its heart, Shell unfolds slowly, but rewards the patient reader with a moving story about art, architecture and family, as well as the importance of staying true to yourself and your beliefs. I loved the way it made me slow down and pause for breath, to think about things more deeply and to experience the story’s very many layers of meaning.

‘The Woman on the Stairs’ by Bernhard Schlink

Fiction – paperback; W&N; 225 pages; 2016. Translated from the German by Joyce Hackett and Bradley Schmidt.

I love novels about art and artists, so Bernhard Schlink’s The Woman on the Stairs ticked all the right boxes for me.

But it is a book of two halves. The first reads like a psychological thriller involving the mysterious reappearance in Sydney, Australia, of a European painting (the woman on the stairs of the title) that has been considered missing for decades. The second is a more nuanced, gentler affair about caring for a terminally ill patient in unusual circumstances. How these halves come together is what makes this novel — which is essentially about three men fighting over the one woman — an unusual but compelling one.

The first person narrative, written in a dry, detached manner from the point of view of a lawyer who falls in love with the woman in the painting, gives the novel a confessional feel. I loved its themes of emotional restraint, regret, impulse and obsessions, while its short chapters and fast pace meant I raced through this in just a couple of sittings. This is a good one to read if you are looking for something a little different.

These books represent my 15th, 16th & 17th books for #20BooksofSummer / #20BooksOfSouthernHemisphereWinter. The Kristina Olsson book is my 17th book for #AWW2020

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2020), 2020 Miles Franklin, 2020 Stella Prize, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2020, Book review, Fiction, Hamish Hamilton, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Publisher, Setting, Tara June Winch

‘The Yield’ by Tara June Winch

Fiction – paperback; Hamish Hamilton; 344 pages; 2019.

If you live in Australia, you would probably have to be living under a rock not to know this novel by Wiradjuri author Tara June Winch. The Yield won this year’s Miles Franklin Literary Award, arguably this country’s greatest literary prize, as well as the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction at the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. It has been shortlisted for numerous others, including the Stella Prize and the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards.

It tells the story of August, a young Aboriginal woman, who returns home — after a decade living in London — to help bury her beloved grandfather, Albert ‘Poppy’ Gondiwindi. Poppy was midway through writing a dictionary of his people’s language, but his work has gone missing and August is intent on finding it so that she can finish the task at hand. But back on country, August discovers there are bigger challenges ahead: her grandparents’ house is about to be repossessed by a mining company.

It’s a multi-layered, multi-generational story that revolves around grief, loss and dispossession, but teases out, gently but oh-so surely, what it is to be Aboriginal, to have a sense of identity, a true purpose and a language of one’s own.

I read this rather extraordinary novel earlier this year (as part of my #20BooksOfSummer challenge), but never got around to reviewing it mainly because I couldn’t find the words to do it justice. Since then, I have seen numerous other positive reviews online — Lisa’s from ANZLitLovers, Sue’s from Whispering Gums, Kate’s at Booksaremyfavouriteandbest, and Brona’s at Brona’s Books — all of which are excellent summations of a truly excellent book.

Rather than repeat what others have said, I thought I would quickly describe three things I loved about this award-winning novel so that you get a flavour of what to expect.

1.The Structure

The book has three main narrative threads, which are told in alternate chapters: the first is August’s tale, told in the third-person, covering her homecoming and the pain and anguish she feels upon Poppy’s death, an event that triggers traumatic memories associated with the disappearance of her sister, Jedda, years earlier; the second is comprised purely of extracts from Poppy’s dictionary (more on this later) written in a conversational first-person voice; while the third is a handful of letters written in the early part of the 20th century by Reverend Ferdinand Greenleaf, a German national who established and ran the mission (upon which the Goondawindi family live) in 1880.

This trio of storylines gives us different perspectives — spanning more than a century — on identity and the Aboriginal “problem”.

2.The Dictionary

Poppy’s dictionary, based on the language of the Wiradjuri people, is completely fascinating for anyone who loves words and language. Each entry reads like the sort of entry you’d expect to see in an established English dictionary, such as the Oxford or Macquarie, with the word bolded up and translated into English.

But the definition is written in a conversationalist tone, with Poppy telling a tale from his past revolving around that word. Through these dictionary entries, he is able to share his life story and the importance of culture and language to his being.

sap of trees — ‘dhalbu’ The dhalbu of the bloodwood tree saved some of the Gondiwindi. When we were being gathered up to be taken away and taught the Bible and be trained as labourers and domestic servants, my great aunties were frightened and ran. Tried to hide their light-skinned babies in the bush. Some did get away and were never seen again. And some couldn’t leave in time and disguised their babies as full-blood by painting them dark with the dhalbu. Some of them were later captured. They wander around the river that appears when I travel with the ancestors, blood and sap soaked, hiding in plain sight now but still frightened.

3.The immersive nature of the story

This probably sounds a bit vague, but reading this novel was a truly immersive experience in a way I have rarely known. It’s like a bit of “magic” happened inside my brain as I read it, because somewhere in my mind I was able to triangulate the three storylines to build up an almost complete picture of not only what had happened to the Gondiwindi family over a century of struggle and dispossession, but I could see how it had come about and how resilient these people had become.

I was able to see how the Reverend’s aims, so easily written off as racist when viewed through modern eyes, came from an essentially good, if seriously misguided, place; I could feel inspired by the ever-optimistic Poppy, who had defied everything that had been thrown at him because of the colour of his skin to lead a fulfilling life full of meaning and harbouring next to no bitterness; and I could empathise with August, who ran away from all she knew because that was the only way she could handle a personal tragedy.

For all these reasons, The Yield really is a triumph of storytelling. I particularly loved and admired the ambition of it.

The cover of the UK / USA edition

The Yield has already been published in the USA; it will be published in the UK next January.

This is my 16th book for #AWW2020 and my 14h book for #20BooksofSummer / #20BooksOfSouthernHemisphereWinter. I purchased it from my local indie book shop not long after it was first published last year. I hadn’t really heard much about it at the time; I was mainly attracted to the pretty cover adorned with pictures of brolgas. Shallow? Moi? Never!

2020 Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2020, Book review, Fiction, Lauren Aimee Curtis, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Orion, Publisher

‘Dolores’ by Lauren Aimee Curtis

Fiction – paperback; Orion Publishing; 144 pages; 2020.

It’s really no surprise that I would find much to like in Lauren Aimee Curtis’ Dolores, a perfectly paced novella about a teenage girl who hides her pregnancy from the Spanish nuns who take her in.

It’s written in that stripped-back prose I so adore and the settings — an isolated convent and a South American city — are atmospheric, but it is the third-person “voice” of this story — aloof, naïve, melancholy and occasionally chilling — that makes this such a compelling read.

Adopted by nuns

It follows a 16-year-old who flees her homeland (an unspecified Spanish-speaking country) for a new life in Spain. One 40-degree day she finds herself at the “bottom of a long, sloped driveway” that leads to a convent. Halfway up she collapses. She’s taken in by the nuns, who dub her Dolores, a name that means “aches and pains”:

There she is: Dolores. Newly named. Sitting at the kitchen table inside the convent, conscious of how bad she must smell. Her armpits are wet. Her mouth is dry. The nuns gather around her. Without saying a word, one of them places a glass of water in front of her. Dolores drains it quickly. The nun picks up the glass, slowly, and fills it once more. Dolores drinks. The water runs out the side of the glass and down her neck.

But Dolores’ story doesn’t start here. It’s told retrospectively and is informed by the knowledge, revealed in the opening pages of the novella, that six months after her arrival at the convent she has a baby son — “a small blob of angry flesh” — whom the nuns name Francisco.

Old life

This new life, in the convent, is far removed from her upbringing, where she…

…would buy the ice-cream from the petrol station and then eat it sitting on the bench near the pump because she liked the smell. It was something about the combination. The sweetness of the ice-cream – cold, then melting in her mouth – and the petrol fumes thick in her nose. She would sit on the bench and watch cars come and go, exchanging ceremonious nods with children who looked longingly at her ice-cream while Dolores feigned nonchalance. It really was the highlight of her life.

The narrative spans half a year of convent living interspersed with vignettes from Dolores’ past to create a deftly woven story that contrasts the familiar with the unfamiliar. We learn about her childhood and her discovery of boys and sex at a young age. It is, at times, confronting and alarming. Her boyfriend pimps her out (without payment of any kind) in sordid love hotels, where she grants sexual favours to teenage boys and older men.

This is in stark contrast to her new life, surrounded by women who have taken vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, but where the local bishop is known to be a “nun lover”

This structure gives the story a feeling of suspense, because the reader wants to find out what led Dolores to move continents and to discover who the father of her baby might be.

New life

In the convent, Dolores quickly adjusts to the nuns’ rhythms and daily rituals. She observes that there never seems to be enough food, that the Mother Superior has her favourites (whom she treats differently), that their days are dominated by domestic duties, prayer — and gossip. But she keeps her counsel and does not reveal that she’s carrying a baby. She does her chores, obeys her orders and begins to feel closer to God.

At the end of September, Dolores quietly turns seventeen. She has been at the convent for three months. At five-thirty in the morning, when the nuns wake up, the sky outside is blue-black. In the dim light of a lamp across the room, the nuns dress. Dolores lingers in bed, pretending not to watch.

Dolores is a book that is all about juxtapositions: old life versus new life, moral purity versus sexual promiscuity, obedience versus disobedience. It reads like a simple story, but it’s ripe with symbolism and meaning. There’s a lot to unpack here and I’m tempted to read it again to see what I might have missed the first time around.

It has a rather abrupt ending, but it’s perfect for the story: it lets you, the reader, come to your own conclusion about Dolores’ future, almost as if she walks off the page and into the real world.

I recommend this one if you’re looking for an atmospheric read that will give you plenty to chew on.

If you like this, you might also like this:

‘Mariette in Ecstasy’ by Ron Hansen: A mesmerising story about a 17-year-old girl who joins a convent and then begins showing signs of divine possession. Is it a hoax or a miracle?

This is my 3rd book for #2020ReadingsPrize for New Australian Fiction and my 15th book for #AWW2020.

2020 Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2020, Book review, Fiction, Giramondo Publishing, Literary prizes, Publisher, Setting, short stories, Yumna Kassab

‘The House of Youssef’ by Yumna Kassab

Fiction – paperback; Giramondo; 2019; 275 pages.

What an unexpected treat Yumna Kassab’s The House of Youssef turned out to be.

Shortlisted for this year’s Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction, this short story collection revolves around Lebanese immigrants living in the western suburbs of Sydney.

It is divided into four parts: the first, Motherland, offers little glimpses into the lives of families making their way in life, some of which are only a page or two long; the second, The House of Youssef, is a series of stories focused on the downfall of one Lebanese family told from multiple points of view; the third, Homing, is a longer 30-page soliloquy of an old man looking back on his 37 years in Australia knowing that he will never return to his homeland; while the final, Darkness, Speak, takes the form of a letter from a Lebanese mother to her Australian-born daughter, sharing her insights into what it is like to bring up a family on the other side of the world.

Recurring themes

There are many recurring themes — mainly the joy and heartaches associated with births, deaths and marriages — throughout the collection, but the overriding focus is on what it is to be an immigrant raising children born in a new country and the challenge of passing on traditions, language, values, religion and culture to the next generation who may never step foot in your homeland.

Many of the stories clearly demonstrate the tensions that arise between the generations when parental expectations — about marriage, education, friendship, work and so on — are not met. There are a lot of stories about both men and women being expected to marry early and produce children, of not bringing shame upon the family, of working hard and earning money to better themselves rather than wasting it on ephemeral things. Everything, it seems, is about saving face.

There’s an emphasis on difference and “Othering”, too, as showcased by a wonderful one-page story, Covered. This is about 16-year-old Amina donning a headscarf for the first time, and the very many varied reactions this evokes — from her relations, her school friends, her teachers, her neighbours — which reveals that such an “issue” is not black and white, cut and dried.

Her uncle said about time. You should have put it on three years back.
Her mother said you will grow up to be a good Muslim woman.
Her schoolteacher thought couldn’t this have waited till she left school? Why do they oppress their women in this way?
Her swim coach said her competitive career was over.
Her neighbour thought her father is a brute of a man. They’re always crying next door.
The mosque girls said the robes don’t make the monk and she’s a total slut anyway.

There’s the issue of terrorism and how this prejudice impacts young Lebanese men in a story entitled 9/11: Before and After. In this short tale, a teenage boy discovers that he is no longer seen as an Australian but a potential terrorist by way of his religion and his dark looks — and this curtails the way he lives his life.

Before 9/11: he had been a bearded young man going to university. He had prospects, he had a future. He prayed five times a day, he fasted, he gave from his small income to the poor, he did not drink or smoke.
Post 9/11: he was a man of Middle Eastern appearance. He wasn’t very religious, he no longer prayed, he no longer fasted, he no longer gave to the poor. It was easier this way, safer. He worked, paid his taxes, he ventured no opinion, online or in person. He kept to his family and his friends. He went to places he would not stand out. His imprint on the world was minimal.

Some of the stories are startling in their emotional impact, the anger, the sadness, the melancholy they evoke. One story, Births, Deaths, Marriages, has a stunner of an opening line:

The day he killed his wife, Mohamed goes to visit his cousin.

Other stories have remarkable passages about displacement and what it means to belong.

What is a home? Is it a house? Is it a place? Is it where you are born? Is it where you will be buried? I have spent more of my life here than there but this land is not known to me. It is strange. It does not enter my dreams. Its people are different to me. My children understand them but I do not. They tell me it is my country too but it is not enough to be told you belong somewhere.

Sparse prose

As you might be able to tell from all the passages I have quoted here, the stories in The House of Youssef are written in distinctive, economical prose, with nary an adjective to be seen, but the rhythm and cadence of the sentences and the carefully chosen words give Kassab’s work a strangely beguiling power. I felt myself in thrall to the beauty of her writing and the emotional intensity of the stories.

This is a remarkable first book. I’d love to see her pen a novel next. I would be the first in the queue to buy it!

This is my 2nd book for #2020ReadingsPrize for New Australian Fiction and my 14th for #AWW2020.