AWW2016

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.

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‘Dying: A Memoir’ by Cory Taylor

Dying A Memoir by Cory Taylor

Non-fiction – paperback; Canongate; 160 pages; 2016. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Reading Cory Taylor’s Dying: A Memoir may not be the most cheerful thing to do on Boxing Day, but this heartfelt, often brutally honest account of what it is to come to terms with your own death is — paradoxically — a life-affirming read.

Taylor is a scriptwriter turned children’s author turned successful novelist. She’s probably best known for her two novels — Me and Mr Booker, which won the Commonwealth Book Prize for the Pacific Region in 2012, and My Beautiful Enemy, which was nominated for the Miles Franklin Award in 2013. (I have not read either book — but do check Lisa’s review of the latter.)

Skin cancer diagnosis

In 2005, shortly before her 50th birthday, she was diagnosed with stage-four melanoma thanks to a cancerous mole on the back of her knee. Three years later the disease turned up in the lymph nodes of her pelvis and a couple of years later it spread to other parts of her body. She had two operations, which helped halt the progress of the disease.

She kept her illness a secret, only telling her closest friends and her husband, Shin. She wrote two novels and found a measure of literary success.

Then, in December 2014, she had a seizure and was told the melanoma was now in her brain. She had the offending tumour removed successfully, but the disease was now terminal. She made her illness “public” and set about writing this memoir, something which took just a matter of weeks.

In fiction you can sometimes be looser and less tidy, but for much of the time you are choosing what to exclude from your fictional world in order to make it hold the line against chaos. And that is what I’m doing now, in this, my final book: I am making a shape for my death, so that I, and others, can see it clearly. And I am making dying bearable for myself.

Dying A Memoir by Cory Taylor, US edition
US Edition, by Tin House Books

A memoir in three parts

Dying: A Memoir is divided into three key parts: the first wrestles with her idea of dying a dignified death even if that means taking things into her own hands (she orders a euthanasia drug from China, pens a suicide note to go with it and locks it away in a cabinet — just in case); the second looks at her parent’s troubled marriage and the tensions that exist between herself and her two older siblings; and the third recalls her childhood growing up in a range of diverse places including Fiji and Kenya.

At all times, Taylor’s voice is self-assured, calm, reasoned. There’s not a shred of self-pity in it:

Mine was the privileged tale of someone who had not truly suffered. The fact that I was dying now was sad, but not tragic. I had lived a full life.

She is always honest, sometimes unbearably so, about the strained relationship she has with her brother and her (late) father, whom she had to cut out of her life when his behaviour became too aggressive and manipulative. But she’s clear-eyed about the reasons for the tensions and knows that under different circumstances the outcomes might have been more positive, but she’s not one for worrying about things she can no longer change.

Yes, I have regrets, but as soon as you start re-writing your past you realise how your failures and mistakes are what define you. Take them away and you’re nothing.

Dying A Memoir by Cory Taylor. Australian edition
Australian edition, by Text Publishing

Moments of joy

Through this all there’s a feeling of love in this book — for her (late) mother, with whom she has much empathy, and her husband Shin and their two sons. But there’s also a lot of love for places (Taylor’s father was a pilot, which meant moving houses a lot as a child) and for travel. She holds special affection for Japan, where she met her husband, and Fiji, where she spent some of her childhood.

And she’s enthusiastic about writing and the way she devoted her life to it, mainly to make sense of the world and her place in it. This rather extraordinary memoir is testament to her talent and love of the English language. It’s also testament to an extraordinary woman not afraid to confront her own mortality and to share what she discovers about it along the way.

Cory Taylor died on 5 July 2016, aged 61.

This is my 51st book for #ReadingAustralia2016 and my 34th for #AWW2016.

Allen & Unwin, Australia, Author, AWW2016, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Setting, Susan Johnson

‘The Landing’ by Susan Johnson

The Landing

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 288 pages; 2015.

“If a separated man — about to be divorced — is in possession of a good fortune, must he be in want of a new wife?”

So begins Susan Johnson‘s The Landing, which tells the story of a well-to-do, good-looking 55-year-old man trying to recalibrate his life after his wife leaves him for a woman.

Jonathan Lott is scared of being alone, but he can’t quite believe that his marriage is over. Seeking solitude  — and a place to lick his wounds — he spends as much time as he can at the couple’s holiday home at The Landing, 150km north of Brisbane.

But in this quiet lakeside community  — with just a few streetlights, a couple of bitumen roads, no reticulated water or sewage and patchy mobile phone coverage — Jonathan’s comings and goings are witnessed (and commented upon) by the locals who live there.

What results is a relatively lighthearted story that is essentially a comedy of manners — when is it socially acceptable to start dating again after you’ve separated, for instance — that focuses not just on Jonathan’s lacklustre love life but the lives and loves of pretty much everyone living in this rural backwater, including: Penny Collins, her demanding and elderly French mother Marie and her shallow and narcissistic daughter Scarlet; Sylv, who runs the only shop in town; Paul Raymond, who leaves his wife to shack up with the much younger Scarlet; Gordie, the Glaswegian doctor, and his pretty daughter Anna; and Giselle, a seven-year-old girl from an impoverished background who roams The Landing in search of company.

The complex nature of love 

The narrative comprises multiple, interleaved layers that to unpick it would be like peeling an onion. But the real strength of this novel lies in Johnson’s ability to capture the nitty-gritty of people’s lives, the often complicated relationships and tensions between different generations of the one family, and the complex nature of love in all its many forms — romantic, sexual and familial.

The frailties of the human heart are captured with insight and delicacy, lifting this story from the bog standard romance the cover might suggest, to one that is full of nuance and humour and moments of pitch-perfect clarity. And all the characters, so richly drawn, feel intensely human.

Combined with such eloquent writing — Johnson’s descriptions of the landscape and the wildlife that abounds in The Landing are particularly evocative and lyrical — makes for a superb, effortless read.

I really enjoyed The Landing, but in the spirit of transparency should point out I know the author. Indeed, we had lunch together when she was en route to Paris to begin working on the edits of this novel. I ended up buying my copy when I went to Australia last year — and couldn’t wait to read it.

For another take on this novel, please see Lisa’s review.

Unfortunately The Landing hasn’t been published in the UK, but you can order a copy via the Book Depository.

This is my 50th book for #ReadingAustralia2016 and my 33rd for #AWW2016.

Australia, Author, AWW2016, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Penguin Australia, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Setting, Thea Astley

‘It’s Raining in Mango’ by Thea Astley

It's raining in mango by Thea Astley

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Australia; 240 pages; 2010.

Reviews of Thea Astley’s novels on this blog are like buses: none for ages, then two come along at once.

First published in 1987, It’s Raining in Mango was Astley’s 10th novel. It tells the story of five generations of one family — from the 1860s to the 1980s — and touches on a wide variety of issues, including racism, sexism and homosexuality, all within a distinctly colonial Australia framework.

As ever, with most of Astley’s novels, it does not make for easy reading, but it will reward those who persevere through at least the first 60 or so pages.

Time shifts

The book’s unusual structure makes it a challenge to read. Instead of telling the story in chronological order, Astley complicates matters by constantly jumping between generations and sometimes letting time frames overlap. This does not make for a straightforward read and requires some effort on behalf of the reader to make things “work”.

Fortunately, there’s a helpful dramatis personæ at the front of the book, which provides the birth and death dates of each character, including the circumstances of their death. Without this I’m afraid I would have been totally lost.

The structure is also more akin to a collection of short stories (it won the inaugural Steele Rudd Award, a literary prize for short stories, even though it’s not branded as such) rather than a novel (a trait shared with her 14th novel Drylands), but the interconnections between characters means that it feels like a cohesive whole.

Reporting on dispossession and slaughter

When the book opens we meet an Irish-born journalist, Cornelius Laffey, who leaves Sydney, dragging his family with him, to set up a newspaper in the goldfields of northern Queensland in 1861. While there he witnesses the violence toward Aboriginals, who are dispossessed of their land and, finding much empathy with their situation, reports on it:

“No attempt is made to understand the feelings or even the natural rights of the indigenous peoples along these rivers. Their fishing grounds have been disturbed. Their hunting areas are invaded. All along the Palmer and the subsidiary creeks they have been pushed off by an army of diggers cradling for gold.[…] For every digger speared or killed along the mudsoaked track to the Palmer, there would be ten or more natives butchered. Many of the butchered are women and children. Blacks are now being shot on sight as if they were some pernicious vermin, and the outraged righteousness of one of our sub-inspectors of police has given sanction to the indiscriminate slaughter of these dispossessed people.”

This brutal, honest reporting results in him losing his job — and so sets into motion the cycle of incredible ups and downs for the Laffey family over the next 120 years.

Heartbreaking individual stories

During the course of this “novel” (I use the term loosely) we meet a wide variety of characters, most of whom are struggling to keep their heads above water, including Cornelius’ wife, who runs a pub, their son and daughter George and Nadine, and their respective partners.

Their individual stories, told in separate chapters, are gritty, often heartbreaking and sometimes violent. Nadine, for instance, has a child out of wedlock when she is 14 and ends up working in a brothel to support herself.

It’s Raining in Mango — the title refers to an imaginary town called Mango in tropical Far North Queensland — also covers the history of an Aboriginal family, whose lives occasionally intersect with the Laffeys. This serves to remind the reader that while things may never be smooth sailing for the Laffeys, things are a lot worse for the Mumblers who have suffered violent dispossession at the hands of white settlers.

What emerges is a portrait of Australia’s hidden history:  of strangers in a strange land trying to make a go of it, and its native inhabitants being massacred in the name of colonial “progress”.

For a much more intellectual — and insightful — take on It’s Raining in Mango, please see this article in the Australian Book Review.

This is my 49th book for #ReadingAustralia2016 and my 32nd for #AWW2016.

Australia, Author, AWW2016, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Penguin Australia, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Setting, Thea Astley

‘Drylands’ by Thea Astley

Drylands by Thea Astley

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Australia; 294 pages; 1999.

Drylands is Thea Astley at her fine, angry best. This novel, which turned out to be her last (she died in 2004, aged 78), earned her the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 2000, a prize she shared with joint winner Kim Scott for his novel Benang: From the Heart.

Astley, it has to be said, is not always an easy writer to read. Her prose is dense and rich in metaphors and her ideas are astute and political, the product of an inquiring and intelligent mind.

But this book, which is set in a small Australian town succumbing slowly to the drought, resonated with me, perhaps because I identified with the themes presented here: of small town loneliness and alienation; of kicking back against a culture too obsessed with sport and too inward looking and parochial to care about the importance of reading and language.

It is subtitled “a book for the world’s last reader” which suggests that it might have a literary slant to it, but even readers — and, in particular, book groups and book festivals — get a (slight) drubbing in this coolly intellectual novel.

A novel made up of stories

The structure of Drylands is unusual. It almost reads like a collection of short stories as we follow the trials and tribulations of a complex cast of well-drawn, intensely human characters living in the “God-forgotten tree-stump of a town halfway to nowhere”.  They include a foreign accountant on the run, the farmer who sells his property in pursuit of a dream, an indigenous man who lives in a broken down shack on the outskirts of town, a writing teacher who bemoans the “humdrummery” of small town life, the publican’s wife who hates sport and a stressed out house wife with six sons who leaves her family in pursuit of a new life.

Their individual tales are recounted by Janet Deakin, who fancies herself as a writer: she spends her days running a newsagency that in another (more literary) place would be a bookstore, and her nights chronicling in her journal the decline of the town and its inhabitants.

She would write a story, she decided, about a woman in an upstairs room above a main street in a country town, writing a story about a woman writing a story.

This “meta” element of Astley’s novel means it’s not clear whether Janet is an actual character or something dreamed up by writing teacher Evie, but whatever the case, Drylands captures a world in which the written word is in serious peril by a small population obsessed with drinking beer and sport, watching TV, videos and Internet pornography, and playing PlayStation games. (I can’t help but wonder how angry Astley would be if she were alive to see how the Internet and social media have become all-consuming vehicles for serious distraction in today’s switched-on digital world.)

Beautiful language

Aside from the scathing anger and the fierce social commentary in this rather wise and knowing novel, I rather enjoyed Astley’s beautiful way with language. I’m grateful that the copy I read was so battered — I bought it in a charity shop for the princely sum of £1.99 several years ago — because that meant I didn’t feel guilty about underlining so much of it in blue pen.

Here’s how she describes what’s it like being surrounded by bush:

A world of gum trees, bark stripping, dangling, their bony limbs rejecting grace, crowded arrogant as beggars in their rags.

Here’s how she describes the view of the Queensland landscape out of a train window:

The countryside was emerging in the pre-dawn light, misty hills and cane fields blurred silver under an uncertain sun blundering its way through clouds.

And, finally, perhaps my favourite sentence in the entire novel:

Along the main street in the clamorous dark the pub was yowling towards its climatic closing time.

Astley is also very astute at capturing human relationships, emotions and motivations. Here’s Evie, the writing teacher, trying to figure out why the women of the town turn up to her classes even though they have little to no creativity in their bones:

Why had they come? What did they expect? She was beginning to understand the isolation of these places that drove people to seize any opportunity to escape from their humdrummery. These four — these pleasant four — were playing truant from husbands who regarded their activity as female folly. They were fighting the darkness.

Did I like this book? It’s hard to say. I think it might be better to say I admired it. I admired the prose, the ideas, the wonderfully rich characterisation, but these stories did not stick, perhaps because the tales felt ephemeral and “untidy” in the sense that there are no neat endings. But, as a whole, Drylands is an evocative, somewhat pessimistic read about a town that grinds everyone down in the end.

For another take on this novel, please read Whispering Gum’s review.

This is my 48th book for #ReadingAustralia2016 and my 31st for #AWW2016.