Australian Women Writers Challenge, AWW2018

19 books by women: completing the 2018 Australian Women Writers’ Challenge

For the past couple of years I have been participating in the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge, which essentially means reading a self-imposed target of books written by Australian women over the course of a year and then reviewing them online. The idea is to redress the balance in terms of the number of female authors who are reviewed and to raise awareness of their writing.

It’s a fun and enjoyable thing to do and has introduced me to an interesting and varied bunch of women writers from my homeland, people who may not necessarily fall under my readerly radar.

In 2018, I set myself a target of reading 10 books by Australian women writers, but without even really thinking about it I managed to achieve that fairly easily and by year’s end had found I’d actually read 19. They’re an intriguing mix of literary novels, crime fiction, memoir, true crime, suspense stories, classics and speculative fiction.

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):

My Mother, A Serial Killer

My Mother, A Serial Killer by Hazel Baron and Janet Fife-Yeomans (2018)
Horrifying true story of a woman who murdered three men in the 1950s but was only brought to justice when her daughter turned her into the police.

The Suitcase Baby by Tanya Bretherton (2018)
Heart-breaking true crime tale of an impoverished Scottish immigrant convicted of the murder of her three-week old baby in Sydney in 1923.

No More Boats by Felicity Castagna
No More Boats by Felicity Castagna (2017)
Literary novel about a postwar Italian migrant railing against foreigners arriving in Australia.

Too Afraid to Cry

Too Afraid to Cry by Ali Cobby Eckermann (2012)
Brave and beautiful memoir about what it is like to be taken from an aboriginal family and raised within a white one.

Terra Nullius by Claire G. Coleman (2017)
Speculative fiction, with a surprising twist, that paints a damning portrait of colonial settlement in Australia.


The Life to Come by Michelle de Kretser (2018)
Award-winning novel about contemporary life, the connections we make and the values we hold, which is written with a biting, satirical wit.

The Donor by Helen Fitzgerald

The Donor by Helen FitzGerald (2011)
Engaging, if slightly over-the-top, story about a man who has to decide which of his twin daughters to save when they both develop kidney disease.

The Lost Man

The Lost Man by Jane Harper (2019)
Soon-to-be-published (in the UK) murder mystery set in the Far North Queensland outback.

The Catherine Wheel by Elizabeth Harrower

The Catherine Wheel by Elizabeth Harrower (2014)
Claustrophobic tale set in 1950s London about a young Australian woman who falls in love with a narcissistic man.

The Last Garden by Eva Hornung (2017)
Otherworldly story of a boy growing up in a repressive religious community following the murder-suicide of his parents.

the well

The Well by Elizabeth Jolley (1986)
Slightly disturbing Australian classic about an eccentric woman who invites a teenage orphan to live with her on a remote farm — with unforeseen consequences.

Storyland by Catherine McKinnon

Storyland by Catherine McKinnon (2017)
Thought-provoking tale that weaves together five interlinking stories set on one tract of land to show the environmental impact over four centuries.

The Tattooist of Auschwitz

The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris (2018)
Fictionalised account of a Slovakian Jew sent to Auschwitz who became a tattooist for the SS and fell in love with a fellow prisoner.

Soon

Soon by Lois Murphy (2018)
Deliciously creepy novel, part horror, part dystopian, set in a country town threatened by an unexplained mist.

The Fish Girl

The Fish Girl by Mirandi Riwoe (2017)
Set in Indonesia, this coming-of-age story is about a young village girl who becomes a servant for a Dutch merchant.

The Secrets in Silence by Nicole Trope (2017)
Domestic suspense novel about a teenage girl and a middle-aged woman whose lives become entwined in a strange and unusual way.

Resurrection Bay

Resurrection Bay by Emma Viskic (2018)
Dark and violent crime novel starring a deaf protagonist investigating the brutal murder of his policeman friend.

Pieces of a girl

Pieces of a Girl by Charlotte Wood (1999)
Highly original debut novel about a married woman recalling her childhood in which her mentally disturbed mother tried to pass her off as a boy.

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 2019 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.  If you want to participate, you can sign up via the official website.

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‘The Lost Man’ by Jane Harper

The Lost Man

Fiction – hardcover; Little, Brown; 384 pages; 2019. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Having read Jane Harper’s previous two novels — The Dry and Force of Nature — both of which I loved, I was super excited to hear there was a third in the offing and managed to secure myself a review copy via NetGalley.

The Lost Man is not part of the Aaron Falk police series so it can be read as a standalone (though, to be fair, they can all be read as standalones, but I would always recommend starting with The Dry first).

It’s set in the Far North Queensland outback and revolves around a trio of brothers, one of whom dies in mysterious circumstances. Essentially it’s a murder mystery, but it’s not a police procedural. Instead, the main “sleuth” — for want of a better word — is Nathan, the older brother, who tries to piece together how his younger brother, Cameron, came to be found on top of the Stockman’s Grave on the border of both their vast cattle properties. Cameron had died from dehydration, but why had he abandoned his vehicle in the heat of the day and why had he visited the grave?

This sounds like an intriguing puzzle to solve, right? I thought it was to begin with, but there’s something about this book that just didn’t work for me. It’s not the mystery, nor the plotting, which is very good and moves along at a reasonable clip. It’s clear the family — three generations all living under the one roof — has a lot of closely kept secrets ready to be exposed and this gives the novel a readerly hook. It’s the flat, clichéd writing — all tell and no show — that ruined it for me.

Stereotypes and clichés

The back stories of the two older brothers are nicely fleshed out, but as characters they are two-dimensional. Subsidiary characters, such as Liz, the widowed matriarch of the family, and Xander, Nathan’s teenage son, are even more thinly drawn.

It doesn’t help that the setting and the livelihoods being described here don’t feel authentic (it’s all so painfully white and there’s not a single mention of indigenous culture or people). And there’s far too much over reliance on worn out tropes — of men not talking about their feelings, of the outback being hot and inhospitable, of women being trapped in abusive domestic situations.

There’s also a tedious romantic theme running throughout — of the exotic European woman who marries the wrong Australian brother — that also lends the story a Mills and Boon flavour.

I know this probably sounds harsh, but I was almost ready to abandon the book about a third of the way in, but kept reading in the hope it might get better. It does pick up slightly towards the end when the pieces of the mystery — all of which I guessed pretty early on — began to fall into place.

Going by other reviews I’ve seen, I’m seriously out of step with common opinion, making me wonder if I even read the same novel.

If you’re looking for a brilliant evocation of outback life, of what it’s like to work in a remote location, struggling with drought and threats of repossession, hunt out Stephen Orr’s brilliant and much overlooked The Hands instead. If you just want an intriguing mystery set in a kind of half-imagined outback, then read this one.

The Lost Man was published in Australia in late October, but won’t be available in the UK until next February 2019 (although you can purchase the Kindle edition if you are that way inclined).

This is my 19th book for #AWW2018 — way more than the 10 that I planned to read.

Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2018, Book review, crime/thriller, Faber and Faber, Fiction, Helen FitzGerald, Publisher, Scotland, Setting

‘The Donor’ by Helen FitzGerald

The Donor by Helen Fitzgerald

Fiction – Kindle edition; Faber & Faber; 320 pages; 2011.

The Donor is typical Helen Fitzgerald fare. It’s dark and edgy and asks the question that all her novels seem to ask: if you were thrust into this moral dilemma, what would you do?

The moral dilemma in this tightly plotted and fast-paced story set in Scotland involves a single father, Will, who has to decide which of his twin daughters, Kay and Georgie, to save when they both develop kidney disease, aged 16.

He comes up with a four-point plan and then sets about putting it into action — with mixed results.

An impossible-to-guess plot

As ever with Fitzgerald, nothing is straightforward — she’s difficult to outguess, which makes her stories unpredictable and exciting.

It’s told from two points of view — Georgie’s, which is written in the first person and gives insight into her rebellious nature, and Will’s, which is written in the third person and paints him as a rather dull and passive character. These voices alternate from chapter to chapter, showing the impact of the situation on both the patient and the parent.

Not surprisingly, there’s nothing obvious about The Donor. It would be too transparent (and the story too short) to have Will donate a kidney to his favourite daughter — the sweet natured studious Kay as opposed to the difficult, often nasty and spiteful Georgie — so instead Fitzgerald has him go in search of his ex-wife, a heroin addict in love with a prisoner, as a first step in finding a suitable donor.

This gives the narrative an intriguing twisty angle, but it also throws the believability of the story into question. Much of the plot, along with its vast array of vividly colourful characters, including Preston the 17-year-old private detective that Will hires to track down his ex-wife, are out-and-out bonkers.

Preston coped very well with stress. In the last twelve hours, he’d bought drugs, killed a man and helped save a woman’s life. In the last two weeks he’d tracked down a missing person across two continents and fallen in love.

But if you suspend your critical faculties and just go with the flow, the book is an engaging — and highly addictive — read. It’s laugh-out-loud funny in places, but it has its serious moments too, not least the way in which it looks at the moral and ethical issues surrounding kidney disease, organ donation and the clashes between the middle classes and the underclass. It’s a great book to get stuck into if you are looking for something a little bit shocking and darkly funny.

This is my 18th book for #AWW2018 — I only ever planned to read 10 this year!

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‘The Catherine Wheel’ by Elizabeth Harrower

The Catherine Wheel by Elizabeth Harrower

Fiction – paperback; Text Classics; 352 pages; 2014.

First published in 1960, The Catherine Wheel features all of Elizabeth Harrower’s literary trademarks: a young woman, a claustrophobic relationship, a brooding atmosphere and brilliant psychological insights.

Set in London during the 1950s, it’s a grim portrait of both the city and the troubled life of a 25-year-old Australian woman who arrives from Sydney to begin a law course by correspondence.

Clemency James moves into a boarding house and has a small circle of friends who keep her entertained. But when she meets Christian, a good-looking man with a much older wife, her quiet, stable and studious existence gets thrown into disarray.

Kind-hearted and somewhat passive, Clem cannot resist Christian’s charms even though she knows he’s trouble, for Christian, an out-of-work actor, has a gambling and alcohol problem. He’s vain, petty and narcissistic.

When Clem agrees to give him French lessons of an evening to sustain her meagre allowance she feeds into Christian’s fantasy of moving abroad and becoming successful. He wants Clem to come with him, and while she realises it’s an unlikely prospect — he’s married after all — she somehow succumbs to his ways and finds herself caught up in a claustrophobic relationship from which she cannot extricate herself.

Her friends, fearful for her welfare, find that whatever they say, Clem takes against them: she truly believes that for all her lover’s faults she’s the one who will be able to change him.

Restrained psychological drama

I’ve read several of Harrower’s books now and like her two earlier novels — Down in the City and The Long Prospect — this one is a slow burner. The author takes her time to not only build up a deft portrait of her characters, she painstakingly sets the scene so that her restrained psychological drama, which plays out in a domestic setting, feels authentic and immersive.

By the time the reader realises that Clem has got in over her head, it’s too late: she’s become blinded by Christian’s woeful behaviour and now there doesn’t seem to be any turning back because even if she does realise what’s really going on, she will have to deal with the slow-burning shame of it.

I admit that this book did try my patience at times, perhaps because it’s slightly too long for a character-driven story, but on the whole I found it a fascinating look at the intricate emotional webs that flawed humans are capable of weaving. It also proves an insightful look at unstable personalities, alcoholism and the far-reaching effects of psychological abuse.

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

This is my 17th book for #AWW2018 and 17th book for #20booksofsummer (apologies, I’m still playing catch-up with reviews; I’ve got two more to go after this one). I bought it a couple of years ago as part of a set of Harrower novels published by Text Classics. She’s promptly become one of my favourite authors and I look forward to reading the remaining two novels I have in my TBR some time soon.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2018), 2018 Miles Franklin Literary Award, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2018, Book review, Eva Hornung, Fiction, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Publisher, Setting, Text

‘The Last Garden’ by Eva Hornung

Fiction – paperback; Text Publishing; 237 pages; 2017.

Eva Hornung’s novel The Last Garden begins in dramatic fashion.

On a mild Nebelung’s afternoon, Matthias Orion, having lived as an exclamation mark in the Wahrheit settlement and as the capital letter at home, killed himself.

Matthias has already shot dead his wife, Ada, and destroyed many of the animals on the Orion’s farm. He commits these violent acts before his 15-year-old son, Benedict, arrives home from boarding school.

The novel charts what happens to Benedict in the year after the murder-suicide of his parents.

Living in isolation

The first thing Benedict does is move into the barn because he can no longer face living in the house where he found the bodies. He withdraws into a world of silence, communicating only with the animals he loves — an assorted collection of chooks, a cat and two horses.

But things go awry pretty early on. The farm falls into neglect, he runs out of food, the chickens get eaten by a fox.

The only kindly face is Pastor Helfgott, the local preacher, who visits often to keep an eye on the boy. The pair develop an odd relationship, dancing around one another and never quite becoming friends.

Over the course of the year Benedict grows up, takes on new responsibilities and faces his demons. The mental trauma of his parents’ deaths begins to play havoc with his mind. The fox that hunts his chickens becomes a metaphor for the ghost of his father: always there and with a whiff of menace about him.

Otherworldly feel

The setting and sombre atmosphere of The Last Garden give it an otherworldly feel. Wahrheit is an isolated settlement of German immigrants who live by a strict moral code which casts out sinners. The community is hard-working and self-sustaining, but their faith is waning because the promised arrival of the Messiah has not yet occurred. Pastor Helfgott is losing control of his flock.

The time period is not specified — it could be the 19th century, it could be sometime in the distant future when fossil fuels have run out and everyone gets around by horse and cart — which adds to the almost dystopian feel of the story.

The structure — 12 chapters, one for each month and with a religious tenet as a preface to each — lends itself well to the novel’s focus on the rhythm of the working day and the passing seasons, drawing on the connections between people, animals (both wild and domesticated) and the power and beauty of nature.

It’s a slow, evocative read, rich in symbolism and brim full of melancholy and restlessness, but ends on a hopeful note. It’s certainly one of the more unusual — and original — novels I’ve read this year.

This is my 6th (and final) book for the Miles Franklin Literary Award 2018, my 16th book for #AWW2018 and my 14th for #20booksofsummer. Technically, I’m not sure this one counts as 20 books of summer because it hasn’t been lingering in my TBR: I ordered it specially when the shortlist for the Miles Franklin was announced (it had to be shipped from Australia) and began reading it the day it arrived. But… if you don’t tell anyone, then I won’t tell anyone…