Reading Australia 2016

And then we came to the end of Reading Australia 2016

Reading Australia 2016

“How’s your Australian reading year going?”

“Are you sick of reading Australian books yet?”

“Don’t you miss reading books from other places?”

During 2016 these questions hounded me every time I caught up with friends and bloggers who knew I had challenged myself to read Australian literature all year.

My response was always the same. I was enjoying the project so much that even I was surprised at how easy and fun it was proving to be. I did not feel like I was missing out. If anything, I was overwhelmed by the sheer scope and range of books available to me.

Now, looking back on an entire year’s worth of reading, I can chalk it up as one of the best reading years of my life.

Depth and breadth

I read such a diverse range of books, from psychological thrillers to personal essays about eating disorders, that I never once became bored. I was discovering some great new-to-me writers and reacquainting myself with ones I knew from long ago. It made me reassess my opinion that Australian writing was dull and obsessed with its colonial past — an opinion I formed more than 20 years ago when I worked in a book store and shunned the “convict fiction”, as I’d dubbed it, to spend all my money on a steady diet of (predictable) US fiction instead.

Back then I didn’t realise there were Australian writers pumping out edgy crime novels, mind-bending experimental fiction and glorious literary fiction set in contemporary times, or that essay writing could be so intriguing and readable, or that memoirs could be so thoroughly engaging and, occasionally, jaw dropping.

Perhaps in the early 1990s, the publishing industry wasn’t publishing those kinds of books (in 1991 I can safely say that I read just two Australian books that year — Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet and Ben Hills’ Blue Murder), or maybe I was too young and naive to realise there was more to the homegrown literary scene than I imagined.

Whatever the case, this past year of “reading Australia” has reignited a passion for reading books from my homeland. By year’s end I had read a total of 53 Australian books (I also read six British titles and six Canadian titles) and know that I will continue to read many more in the year to come.

Some highlights

  • I read a surprising number of memoirs (eight in total) and a surprising number of short story collections (four).
  • I read a diverse range of true crime, all of it fascinating, well researched and written in an engaging novelistic fashion.
  • I discovered Stephen Orr and now want to read everything he’s ever written.

Some lowlights

  • I did not make a very big dent in my TBR. At the beginning of 2016, the number of Australian titles in that pile was 128. It soon swelled thanks to a few review copies coming my way and the very many purchases I made (well, I had to buy the shortlisted titles for the Stella and Miles Franklin, didn’t I). By year’s end it stood at 116. Oops.
  • I did not read any pre-mid-20th century classics (I had to abandon Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children in the summer when I changed jobs and no longer had the bandwidth to cope with it).
  • I did not read any books by Kate Grenville, Alex Miller or Randolph Stow,  all Australian writers listed on my favourite authors page.

All up it was a brilliant year of reading, and I hope you had as much fun following along as I did in reading and reviewing so many fabulous books. I thought it might be useful to provide a list of everything I read, so here it is. The books marked * made my top 10 favourite reads of the year.





Reading Australia 2016


35 books by women: completing the 2016 Australian Women Writers’ Challenge

Australian Women Writers Challenge 2016 badgeWhen I challenged myself to spend the year reading Australian literature, it seemed logical to also sign up to the 2016 Australian Women Writers’ Challenge — to kill two birds with one stone, as it were.

I thought I should give myself a serious target and aimed to read 30 books by Australian women.

Now that the year is drawing to a close, I’m happy to report I exceeded that self-imposed target: I read 35 books by women — and I loved (almost, but not quite) every one of them.

As well as reading all the titles on the 2016 Stella Prize shortlist, I read a wonderful mix of newly released books and old ones that had been lingering in my TBR for years. These included non-fiction and fiction — mainly literary fiction, with a side order of short stories (I read four collections) and a couple of crime novels.

I really loved taking part in this challenge. It introduced me to some wonderful writers — hello Romy Ash, Jen Craig and Lucy Treloar — and reacquainted me with “old familiars” such as Thea Astley, Marion Halligan and Charlotte Wood.

Here is my comprehensive list. The books have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s name (click the title to see my full review):

Floundering by Romy Ash

‘Floundering’ by Romy Ash
Heartbreaking novel about two brothers “kidnapped” by their cash-strapped mother one hot summer.

Drylands by Thea Astley

‘Drylands’ by Thea Astley
This Miles Franklin winner looks at the humdrum nature of small town life and what happens when its inhabitants stop reading.

It's raining in mango by Thea Astley

‘It’s Raining in Mango’ by Thea Astley
A no holds-barred fictional story of one Australian family from the 1860s to the 1980s.

Six Bedrooms by Tegan Bennett Daylight

 ‘Six Bedrooms’ by Tegan Bennett Daylight
Collection of short stories about teenage girls growing up in the 1980s.

The Other Side of the World by Stephanie Bishop

‘The Other Side of the World’ by Stephanie Bishop
A deeply melancholy novel about emigration, marriage and motherhood set in Perth, Australia in the early 1960s.

Pathers and the museum of fire by Jen Craig

‘Panthers & The Museum of Fire’ by Jen Craig
A bold experimental novel set on a summer’s afternoon as the narrator walks across Sydney to deliver a manuscript to a bereaved family.

Elemental by Amanda Curtin

‘Elemental’ by Amanda Curtin
Gripping historical novel about a Scottish fisherwoman who escapes her circumstances to start a new life on the other side of the world.

Aunts up the cross by Robin Dalton

‘Aunts Up the Cross’ by Robin Dalton
An outrageously funny memoir about Dalton’s childhood in the 1920s and 1930s in Sydney’s Kings Cross.

Viral by Helen Fitzgerald

‘Viral’ by Helen FitzGerald
A confronting revenge thriller about sexual shaming online.

Hope Farm by Peggy Frew

‘Hope Farm’ by Peggy Frew
Fictional tale of a 13-year-old girl and her single mother living in a hippy commune in the 1980s.

Everywhere I Look by Helen Garner

Everywhere I Look’ by Helen Garner
Collection of essays spanning 15 years of Garner’s journalistic career.

What came before by Anna George

‘What Came Before’ by Anna George
Disturbing psychological thriller about a woman murdered by her husband.

Goodbye Sweetheart by Marion Halligan

‘Goodbye Sweetheart’ by Marion Halligan
Unexpectedly charming tale about one man’s untimely death and the effect it has on his loved ones.

The Dry

‘The Dry’ by Jane Harper
Compelling crime story set in rural Australia during the height of the worst drought in living memory.

A few days in the country and other stories by Elizabeth Harrower

‘A Few Days in the Country and Other Stories’ by Elizabeth Harrower
Collection of exquisitely written short stories mostly about women trying to find their place in the world.

Snake by Kate Jennings

‘Snake’ by Kate Jennings
Deeply affecting portrait of a marriage between two incompatible people in postwar Australia.

The Landing

‘The Landing’ by Susan Johnson
Delightfully funny and poignant story about a newly divorced man trying to recalibrate his life.

A Guide to Berlin by Gail Jones

‘A Guide to Berlin’ by Gail Jones
Unusual tale about six Vladimir Nabokov fans from around the world who gather in Berlin to share stories about themselves.

The Family by Chris Johnston and Rosie Jones

‘The Family’ by Chris Johnson and Rosie Jones
An eye-opening work of investigative journalism looking at a cult led by a woman who believed she was the female reincarnation of Jesus Christ.

Leap by Myfanwy Jones

‘Leap’ by Myfanwy Jones
A story about grief, marriage and parkour set in Melbourne’s inner suburbs.

The world without us by Mireille Juchau

 ‘The World Without Us’ by Mireille Juchau
Beautifully constructed novel about family secrets, love, loss, parenthood and community set in rural NSW.

The Golden Age by Joan London

‘The Golden Age’ by Joan London
Story set in a children’s convalescent home during a polio outbreak in the mid-1950s.

The Mint Lawn by Gillian Mears

‘The Mint Lawn’ by Gillian Mears
Award-winning novel about a young woman trapped in a small town with a husband she no longer loves.

The Latte Years by Phil Moore

‘The Latte Years’ by Philippa Moore
Frank and engaging memoir about Moore’s struggle to lose weight, build self-confidence and live what she calls an “authentic life”.

When the night comes

‘When the Night Comes’ by Favel Parrett
Two intertwined stories about grief, kindness and life on an Antarctic supply ship.

Wild Man by Alecia Simmonds

‘Wild Man’ by Alecia Simmonds
A compelling true crime story that follows the coronial inquest into the death of a mentally unstable man shot dead by police on a remote farm.

A Pure Clear Light by Madeleine St John

A Pure Clear Light’ by Madeleine St John
A domestic black comedy about middle-class life in 1990s London.

Reckoning by Magda Szubanski

‘Reckoning’ by Magda Szubanski
Extraordinary memoir about Szubanksi’s life lived in the shadows of her father’s war-time activities in Poland.

Dying A Memoir by Cory Taylor

‘Dying: A Memoir’ by Cory Taylor
Heartfelt and brutally frank memoir by a leading Australian author diagnosed with terminal cancer.

Salt Creek

‘Salt Creek’ by Lucy Treloar
Superb historical novel about one family’s attempt to settle a remote area on the South Australian coast and the dreadful, heartbreaking repercussions that follow.

Hush Little Bird by Nicole Trope

‘Hush, Little Bird’ by Nicole Trope
Deliciously suspense-filled tale about two women sent to prison for two separate but shocking crimes.

Hot Little Hands

‘Hot Little Hands’ by Abigail Ulman
Effortlessly readable collection of short stories about teenage girls or young women trying to find their way in the world.

The media and the massacre by Sonya Voumard

‘The Media and the Massacre’ by Sonya Voumard
A hard-hitting look at the relationship between journalists and their subjects in the context of Tasmania’s Port Arthur massacre.

The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood

The Natural Way of Things’ by Charlotte Wood
Award-winning dystopian novel set in a remote prison for women who have been sexually shamed.

Small Acts of Disappearance: Essays on Hunger by Fiona Wright

‘Small Acts of Disappearance’ by Fiona Wright
Surprisingly gripping collection of 10 essays about the author’s struggle with an eating disorder.

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?

By the way, I plan on signing up for the 2017 Australian Womens’ Writers Challenge in the New Year. If you want to join me, you can sign up via the official website.

Abigail Ulman, Australia, Author, AWW2016, Book review, Fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Setting, short stories, USA

‘Hot Little Hands’ by Abigail Ulman

Hot Little Hands
UK (& Canadian) edition of Hot Little Hands

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 352 pages; 2016. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

When ColmTóibín is quoted on the front of your novel…well, that seems like a pretty solid endorsement to me. “I love how up-to-the-minute and street-wise the stories are, and how frank about sex and girls,” he writes of Abigail Ulman’s short story collection Hot Little Hands

Of course, we all know that a lot of so-called endorsements of this kind are incestuous in the sense that they come from authors sharing the same publishing house — but in this case the connection is even closer. Tóibín was one of Ulman’s tutors during her stint at Stanford University as a Wallace Stegner Fellow in Fiction. I guess you could look at this in two ways: either Tóibín is simply being kind and supportive of his former student, or he genuinely believes her stuff is the real thing. Having read the book, I’m inclined to think it’s the latter.

Blurred lines

There are nine self-contained stories in this collection, most of which are set in Melbourne (where Ulman was born and raised), as well as a handful in the US (where Ulman has studied) and one in Vladivostok. All are about teenage girls or young women trying to find their way in the world — with mixed results. Many of the characters are growing up too quickly and entering the tricky worlds of sex and adulthood before their time; others, such as Claire, a character who stars in several of the stories, are in their mid-twenties and acting immaturely, almost as if they want to remain little girls forever. It is this blurring of the line between adolescence and adulthood that Ulman captures so perfectly — and which makes these stories so effortlessly readable and richly authentic.

Hot Little Hands Australian edition
The Australian edition of Hot Little Hands

I loved all of the stories — for different reasons — but there are a handful that stand out. The Russian story Warm Ups is a spine-chilling tale about a group of four young gymnasts invited to the US to attend a promotional tour. It’s told from the perspective of 13-year-old Kira, whose parents cough up the airfare for the trip because they know this could be the opportunity of a lifetime. Kira trains hard and is talented. She’s full of infectious energy and love — for her boyfriend, her mum, her dad, her grandmother and her cat. She’s sad to leave her family behind, but she’s also excited about the prospect of seeing America. But when the girls arrive in San Diego accompanied by Coach Zhukov and his assistant Xenia things don’t go quite as everyone expected…  It’s goose-bumpingly horrifying — and not in a spell-everything-out way, but in a let’s-leave-things-unsaid-and-you-can-figure-it-out-for-yourself way. *Shudder*

(Another story, Your Charm Won’t Help You Here, about Claire being detained by Customs on her return to the US, is equally chilling. I’d actually like to see Ulman tackle a full-scale suspense novel or psychological thriller; I think she’d be brilliant at it.)

Another story that I particularly liked was Head to Toe — at 62 pages, the longest in the collection — about a pair of 15-year-old girls and what they get up to on their school holidays. It’s one of those stories in which not much seems to happen — they go to a couple of parties, they hang out in a shopping centre, they attend a horse camp for which they’re far too old — and yet so much is encapsulated by their sullen moods, their snappy dialogue, the “wisdom” they impart to younger girls and the ways in which they relate to the adults in their lives — that there’s much more going on than meets the eye. From the opening line — “Elise and Jenni lost their virginity at twelve and thirteen, respectively” — you know that these are street wise teens and yet they shun their peers to attend a horse-riding camp in the country because they still have that kind of affection and passion for horses that little girls possess and to which they seem desperate to cling to for as long as possible. No sooner are they back in the city than they’re attending parties, getting drunk and having sex. Again, it’s another story about blurred lines.

The US edition of Hot Little Hands

Smart, sassy stories

I could go on… but I won’t. Let’s just say this is a collection of smart, sassy stories about young women. There’s sex and alcohol and parties and messy, muddled relationships with boyfriends and lovers. It’s disquieting in places, a little unnerving in others. It’s thrilling and wryly funny. Some readers may cringe in recognition of the behaviours depicted here. Others, like me, may want to reach into the pages and have a quiet (or perhaps a loud) word in certain ears.

Interestingly, despite covering similar ground to another short story collection I read earlier in the year — Six Bedrooms by Tegan Bennett Daylight — this one was so much more engaging and eloquent. Indeed, I found it totally absorbing and loved spending time with these intriguing characters.

This is my 29th book for #ReadingAustralia2016 and my 20th for #AWW2016.