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.