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!

2020 Miles Franklin, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2020, Book review, Carrie Tiffany, Fiction, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Publisher, Reading Projects

‘Exploded View’ by Carrie Tiffany

Fiction – paperback; Text; 183 pages; 2019.

Carrie Tiffany’s third novel, Exploded View, is a strangely hypnotic story about a teenage girl in the 1970s plotting to get the better of the man who has become her stepfather.

At its most base level, it is a tale of child sexual abuse, albeit done in a subtle, nuanced way (many of the references are elliptical rather than direct), but it’s also a powerful tale of a teenager taking control of her life in the only way she feels is open to her: by sabotaging the car engines her “man father” works on for a living.

It is a book ripe with metaphors and euphemisms. Cars and their mechanical workings feature heavily. The girl’s “man father” runs an unlicensed automotive workshop at the back of the house and she’s often called upon to help out.

Small acts of defiance

In the evenings, she climbs out her bedroom window and tinkers with the engines, removing hidden screws or putting grit in places it shouldn’t go, in the hope this will ruin her man father’s reputation. She even takes various cars on evening joy rides, pushing the vehicles out of hearing distance before turning the key. On weekdays she breaks into a neighbour’s house and makes herself at home, often eating the “fat lady’s” food or watching her TV. It’s hard not to see these acts of defiance as a call for help,.

The girl knows a lot about engines and studies Scientific Publications Holden Workshop Manual Series No. 15, which is secretly hidden under her bed. It is the exploded view diagrams, those that show the spaces between the parts and how they fit together, that she likes best.

It’s hard not to read the descriptions of the way engine parts slide together and move about as thinly disguised euphemisms for sexual acts. Even the bits that explain how to take things apart appear to mirror the pain and hurt that the girl is so carefully disguising.

Any engine can be stripped down and reassembled if you know how. When a human body is taken apart there’s no way it can ever be put back together again.

But for all her acts of defiance, the girl is introverted and quiet, she remains mute for 60 days and watches TV shows — Mash, Matlock, Get Smart, The Brady Bunch et al — to figure out how a girl should act.

She should be cautious, but a girl should not be silent. She should have a voice that tinkles like a bell. Words are made in the head and sent down to the throat for speaking. It happens instantly. Except when a part is broken and the words go around and around inside instead. If they ever found their way out who knows what mess they would make?

A story in three parts

The novel is structured in three parts, one of which describes an agonisingly long road trip — “Eight days in the car. Three days in the house of father man’s friend. Eight days home again” — from the west coast of Australia to the east coast. It is during this journey that the girl feels safe, no doubt because there is never any alone time with her father man; her mother and her brother are always in the car with them.

This trip, detailed in delicious vignettes, is rich with feeling — of claustrophobia, of frustration, of fear — and is littered with descriptions of death — of roadkill, of foxes hung up on fences, of road traffic accidents — but there are also some moments of joy and humour.

When a mother needs to go to the toilet a place has to be found with trees and bushes and everyone has to stay in the car and pretend it isn’t happening. The mother walks in a long way through the bushes, placing her feet carefully between the clumps of grass in case of snakes. It takes a long time. Once, when my mother barely had her legs back in the car, father man drove off because he could see a caravan coming up from behind.

The story culminates in a not unexpected tragedy, highlighting how crimes of trespass — whether human or otherwise — can have long-lasting, devastating consequences.

Exploded View has been nominated for numerous awards, including the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction at the 2020 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards; the 2019 NIB Waverley Literary Award; the 2020 Booktopia Favourite Australian Book; Literary Fiction Book of the Year at the 2020 Australian Book Industry Awards; the 2020 Miles Franklin Literary Award; and the 2020 Australian Literature Society Gold Medal. It won The University of Queensland Fiction Book Award at the Queensland Literary Awards last year.

Please note, it does not appear to be available outside of Australia but it can be ordered direct from the publisher for a flat overseas shipping fee.

This is my 8th book for #AWW2020, my 4th for the 2020 Miles Franklin Literary Award and my 18th book for #TBR2020 in which I plan to read 20 books from my TBR between 1 January and 30 June. I bought my copy secondhand last September.

2020 Miles Franklin

The 2020 Miles Franklin Literary Award longlist

If you follow me on Twitter, you will know that the Miles Franklin Literary Award was on my mind at the start of the month.

Imagine my surprise today to discover the longlist had been unexpectedly dropped via the Miles Franklin Instagram account. (See here.) Of course, I then visited Lisa Hill’s blog to check whether she had any additional news (and to see how many books she had read) and read the official announcement on Perpetual’s website.

There are 10 books on the list and I’ve read three. I have a handful more on my TBR. I’m not sure I will read all the books on the longlist, but will wait for the shortlist to be announced on 17 June and try to read everything on that.

The winner of the $60,0000 prize will be announced on 16 July 2020.

Below is a list of the books, in alphabetical order by author name, with the publisher’s synopsis underneath. Hyperlinks will take you to my reviews.

The White Girl by Tony Birch
“Odette Brown has lived her whole life on the fringes of a small country town. After her daughter disappeared and left her with her granddaughter Sissy to raise on her own, Odette has managed to stay under the radar of the welfare authorities who are removing fair-skinned Aboriginal children from their families.”

Room for a Stranger by Melanie Cheng
“Since her sister died, Meg has been on her own. She doesn’t mind, not really—not with Atticus, her African grey parrot, to keep her company—but after her house is broken into by a knife-wielding intruder, she decides it might be good to have some company after all. Andy’s father has lost his job, and his parents’ savings are barely enough to cover his tuition. If he wants to graduate, he’ll have to give up his student flat and find a homeshare. Living with an elderly Australian woman is harder than he’d expected, though, and soon he’s struggling with more than his studies.”

Islands by Peggy Frew
“Helen and John are too preoccupied with making a mess of their marriage to notice the quiet ways in which their daughters are suffering. Junie grows up brittle and defensive, Anna difficult and rebellious. When fifteen-year-old Anna fails to come home one night, her mother’s not too worried; Anna’s taken off before but always returned. Helen waits three days to report her disappearance. But this time Anna doesn’t come back …”

No One by John Hughes
“In the ghost hours of a Monday morning a man feels a dull thud against the side of his car near the entrance to Redfern Station. He doesn’t stop immediately. By the time he returns to the scene, the road is empty, but there is a dent in the car, high up on the passenger door, and what looks like blood. Only a man could have made such a dent, he thinks. For some reason he looks up, though he knows no one is there. Has he hit someone, and if so, where is the victim? So begins a story that takes us to the heart of contemporary Australia’s festering relationship to its indigenous past. A story about guilt for acts which precede us, crimes we are not sure we have committed, crimes gone on so long they now seem criminal- less.”

Act of Grace by Anna Krien
“Iraqi aspiring pianist Nasim falls from favour with Saddam Hussein and his psychopathic son, triggering a perilous search for safety. In Australia, decades later, Gerry is in fear of his tyrannical father, Toohey, who has returned from the Iraq War bearing the physical and psychological scars of conflict. Meanwhile, Robbie is dealing with her own father’s dementia when the past enters the present. These characters’ worlds intertwine in a brilliant narrative of guilt and reckoning, trauma and survival. Crossing the frontiers of war, protest and reconciliation, Act of Grace is a meditation on inheritance: the damage that one generation passes on to the next, and the potential for transformation.”

A Season on Earth by Gerald Murnane
“Lost to the world for more than four decades, A Season on Earth is the essential link between two acknowledged masterpieces by Gerald Murnane: the lyrical account of boyhood in his debut novel, Tamarisk Row, and the revolutionary prose of The Plains. A Season on Earth is Murnane’s second novel as it was intended to be, bringing together all of its four sections – the first two of which were published as A Lifetime on Clouds in 1976 and the last two of which have never been in print. A hilarious tale of a lustful teenager in 1950s Melbourne, A Lifetime on Clouds has been considered an outlier in Murnane’s fiction. That is because, as Murnane writes in his foreword, it is ‘only half a book and Adrian Sherd only half a character.’ Here, at last, is sixteen-year-old Adrian’s journey in full, from fantasies about orgies with American film stars and idealised visions of suburban marital bliss to his struggles as a Catholic novice, and finally a burgeoning sense of the boundless imaginative possibilities to be found in literature and landscapes. Adrian Sherd is one of the great comic creations in Australian writing, and A Season on Earth is a revelatory portrait of the artist as a young man.”

The Returns by Philip Salom
“Elizabeth posts a ‘room for rent’ notice in Trevor’s bookshop and is caught off-guard when Trevor answers the advertisement himself. She expected a young student, not a middle-aged bookseller whose marriage has fallen apart. But Trevor is attracted to Elizabeth’s house because of the empty shed in her backyard, the perfect space for him to revive the artistic career he abandoned years earlier. The face-blind, EH Holden-driving Elizabeth is a solitary and feisty book editor, and she accepts him, on probation … In this poignant yet upbeat novel, the past keeps returning in the most unexpected ways. Elizabeth is at the beck and call of her ageing mother, and the associated memories of her childhood in a Rajneesh community. Trevor’s Polish father disappeared when Trevor was fifteen, and his mother died not knowing whether he was dead or alive. The authorities have declared him dead, but is he?”

Exploded View by Carrie Tiffany
“In the late 1970s, in the forgotten outer suburbs, a girl has her hands in the engine of a Holden. A sinister new man has joined the family. He works as a mechanic and operates an unlicensed repair shop at the back of their block. The family is under threat. The girl reads the Holden workshop manual for guidance. She resists the man with silence, then with sabotage. She fights him at the place where she believes his heart lives – in the engine of the car.”

The Yield by Tara June Winch
“Knowing that he will soon die, Albert ‘Poppy’ Gondiwindi takes pen to paper. His life has been spent on the banks of the Murrumby River at Prosperous House, on Massacre Plains. Albert is determined to pass on the language of his people and everything that was ever remembered. He finds the words on the wind. August Gondiwindi has been living on the other side of the world for ten years when she learns of her grandfather’s death. She returns home for his burial, wracked with grief and burdened with all she tried to leave behind. Her homecoming is bittersweet as she confronts the love of her kin and news that Prosperous is to be repossessed by a mining company. Determined to make amends she endeavours to save their land – a quest that leads her to the voice of her grandfather and into the past, the stories of her people, the secrets of the river.”

The Weekend by Charlotte Wood
“Four older women have a lifelong friendship of the best kind: loving, practical, frank and steadfast. But when Sylvie dies, the ground shifts dangerously for the remaining three. Can they survive together without her? They are Jude, a once-famous restaurateur, Wendy, an acclaimed public intellectual, and Adele, a renowned actress now mostly out of work. Struggling to recall exactly why they’ve remained close all these years, the grieving women gather for Christmas at Sylvie’s old beach house – not for festivities, but to clean the place out before it is sold. Without Sylvie to maintain the group’s delicate equilibrium, frustrations build and painful memories press in. Fraying tempers, an elderly dog, unwelcome guests and too much wine collide in a storm that brings long-buried hurts to the surface – and threatens to sweep away their friendship for good.”

I reckon this is a really interesting list — there are only two new names to me (John Hughes and Philip Salom) — with a mix of men and women and diverse subject matter. I’m looking forward to reading the books already on my TBR. Have you read any of these books? Or have any piqued your interest? 

Australia, Author, Book review, Carrie Tiffany, Fiction, historical fiction, literary fiction, Picador, Publisher, Setting

‘Mateship with Birds’ by Carrie Tiffany

Mateship-with-birds

Fiction – hardcover; Picador; 224 pages; 2012. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Carrie Tiffany’s second novel, Mateship with Birds, has been nominated for numerous prizes, including the Stella Prize, the Women’s Prize for Fiction and the Miles Franklin Literary Award. I chose to read it on the strength of her debut novel, Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living, which was published in 2005.

Rural Australia

Mateship with Birds is set in rural Australia in the 1950s. It’s a character-driven novel about two lonely people — Harry, a dairy farmer whose wife ran off with another man, and Betty, a single mother raising two children, Michael and Little Hazel — who live next door to each other. The over-riding question is this: when will the two of them get their acts together and transform their friendship into something rather more, well — how shall we say this — sexual?

This rather thin plot line is interspersed with Harry’s observations of a raucous family of kookaburras, which live on his farm. In these iconic birds, he sees the kind of love and interaction he, too, would like to experience — and it is this theme which forms the hub of the novel: what is it that makes a family?

But the novel also centres on sex — to an almost obsessive degree. Mues, a local farmer, exposes himself to Little Hazel; Betty masturbates after work; a patient in the local nursing home (where Betty is employed as an aged-care nurse) plays with his “limp cock” — and this is all by page 45 of my edition. To take it up a level, Harry decides to teach young Michael the finer points of sex education, some of which he writes in letter form to save the embarrassment of conversation. These outpourings are very frank and occasionally very funny.

Vividly descriptive

One of the things I most liked about the book is the delicious descriptions of people, places, nature and birdlife. And having grown up in dairy farming country — albeit much further south than the area of Australia depicted here — I especially loved the way Tiffany conveyed what it is like to live and work on a diary farm. This is not a bucolic view, but completely authentic and real, right down to every last unpleasant detail.

Dairy pastures are difficult to establish in gullies where there is seepage and drainage. They drift like continents; their hides are maps of uncharted countries. Keep the herd on dry ground through the winter. Sunlight shines ginger through their ears. Plant shelterbelts to reduce wind speed. Elastic ropes of snot hang from their nostrils; their hocks are stuck with shit.

The characters are also wonderfully drawn: Betty is desperately lonely and sad, watching herself and her body slide into perceived decay; Harry is an old romantic and rather kind and tender; Mues is appropriately creepy; and the children are inquisitive and naive in the way that only children of that era (before TV, the internet and mobile phones) could be.

Tiffany’s prose style is always interesting. She writes in a minimalist easy-to-understand way (the product of being a rural reporter, no doubt), but finds creative ways to play with the language — for example, “his tongue tasted curdled in his mouth”; a white dress has a “thick, expensive lustre, like icing on a fancy cake”; and two huntsman spiders “prowl Harry’s bedroom ceiling” in “opposing corners like boxers waiting on the bell”.

Harry’s bird watching notes written in an old milk ledger also read like poetry and are typeset in stanzas to convey that impression even more so.

Too much sex

But while there is much to admire about Mateship with Birds, I found that the constant sexual references, allusions and metaphors got in the way of the story. They clogged up the narrative like tipper trucks on suburban streets — a hulking presence that simply could not be avoided. And once you noticed them, they were everywhere.

If I was to sum up the novel in one word, it would be this: quirky.

To see what others think of this book, do check out Naomi’s review on The Writes of Woman, Tony’s on Tony’s Reading List and Lisa’s on ANZ LitLovers.

Australia, Author, Book review, Carrie Tiffany, Fiction, literary fiction, Picador, Publisher, Setting

‘Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living’ by Carrie Tiffany

EverymansRules

Fiction – paperback; Picador; 256 pages; 2005.

Carrie Tiffany’s Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living is a luminous, sparsely written but wonderfully evocative novel set in rural Australia during the 1930s.

Jean, the 23-year-old narrator, is a seamstress instructor on board the government-sponsored ‘Better Farming Train’ that trundles through agricultural districts espousing wisdom on everything from chicken-sexing to baking cakes.

Her colleagues comprise a wonderful mix of eccentric characters which include the matronly infant welfare teacher Sister Crock, the cooking lecturer Mary Maloney, the Japanese chicken-sexer Mr Ohno and the Yorkshire-born ‘agrostologist – a specialist in soil and crop’, Robert Pettergree.

When Jean enters an erotically charged romance with Robert it looks like she is going to live happily ever after. They leave the train, get married and set up home in the Mallee, a wheat-growing region of western Victoria. Together they set out to prove that Robert’s Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living, an article he penned for an agricultural journal, really do convert low-yielding paddocks into rich, productive ones.

But when the local farmers don’t appreciate this new scientific way of thinking, it looks like their efforts may be doomed. Throw in a never-ending drought, the Depression and a looming war, is it any wonder Jean’s new-found happiness soon begins to wear thin? But ultimately it is her marriage that self-combusts because Robert is too emotionally distant to recognise his own – and science’s -limitations…

I read Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living in two short sittings. It’s an easy read, helped in part by the narrator’s delightfully simple voice, which is naive, sometimes pained and at other times full of the wonder of life.

Tiffany’s assured writing perfectly captures the Australian landscape and the era within which the story is set. (I wooped with joy when she name-checked several places in South Gippsland that I know oh-so well.)

And despite the bareness of the prose, her eye for detail manages to convey so much in just a few short words. There’s a lot going on here, so much so I’m tempted to read this book again to see what I missed first time round.

The book is full of quietly understated moments but it’s the tear-inducing emotional punches that deliver the poignancy without sentimentality that makes the story so memorable.

My only quibble is that the narrative seems a little directionless and needs more structure to move the reader along, but that’s a small price to pay for a gorgeous little book that captures the Australian melancholy so effectively. A worthy contender for this year’s Orange Prize.