10 books, Australian Women Writers Challenge, AWW2017, Book lists

10 books by women: completing the 2017 Australian Women Writers’ Challenge

Australian Women Writers Challenge 2017Last year I participated in the 2016 Australian Women Writers’ Challenge and enjoyed it so much that I signed up to do it again this year.

I set myself a target of 10 books by Australian women writers and am happy to report that I achieved that last week.

As well as reading all the titles on the 2017 Stella Prize shortlist (apart from one), I read a couple of newly released books and several old ones from my TBR.

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):

Between a wolf and a dog by Georgia Blain

Between a Wolf and a Dog by Georgia Blain (2016)
Domestic novel about family secrets, grief, betrayal and strained relations set in Sydney on one rainy day.

The Hate Race

The Hate Race by Maxine Beneba Clarke (2016)
Searing memoir of what it is like to grow up black in white middle-class Australia.

The Devil's Staircase by Helen Fitzgerald

The Devil’s Staircase by Helen FitzGerald (2012)
Over-the-top psychological thriller about an Australian teenage girl on the run in London who gets caught up in events beyond her control.

Force of Nature by Jane Harper (2017)
Page-turner about a whistleblower who goes missing on a corporate team-building weekend in the rugged Australian bush.

Down in the city by Elizabeth Harrower

Down in the City by Elizabeth Harrower (1957)
Disturbing story of an unlikely marriage between two people from opposite ends of the social spectrum.

The Long Prospect

The Long Prospect by Elizabeth Harrower (1958)
Meaty postwar novel about a lonely girl who develops a scandalous but platonic friendship with an older man.

An Isolated Incident

An Isolated Incident by Emily Maguire (2016)
Crime thriller meets literary fiction in a narrative that explores the outfall of a murder on the victim’s family and local community.

Wasted

Wasted: A story of alcohol, grief and a death in Brisbane by Elspeth Muir (2016)
Investigation into Australia’s drinking culture framed around the death of the author’s brother.

The Woolgrower's Companion by Joy Rhodes

The Woolgrower’s Companion by Joy Rhodes (2017)
Sweeping saga about a woman’s struggle to save the family farm in the outback during the Second World War.

Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose

The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose (2017)
This year’s Stella Prize winner asks what is art and what is its purpose, framing the story around a real-life performance art exhibition staged in New York by artist Marina Abramović.

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 plan on signing up for the 2018 Australian Womens’ Writers Challenge in the New Year. If you want to participate, you can sign up via the official website.

2017 Stella Prize, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2017, Book review, crime/thriller, Emily Maguire, Fiction, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Picador, Publisher, Setting

‘An Isolated Incident’ by Emily Maguire

An Isolated Incident

Fiction – paperback; Picador; 343 pages; 2016.

An Isolated Incident by Emily Maguire is one of those novels that refuses to be boxed into a single category. It dances a fine line between crime thriller and literary fiction. Its focus is not on finding out who committed a horrendous murder in a small town but on the outfall on the victim’s family and local community. It’s this level of social commentary — think Norwegian crime queen Karin Fossum — that lends the novel a literary quality.

Murder in a small town

The story is set in the fictional country town of Strathdee, in the NSW Riverina, on the road between Sydney and Melbourne.

In this typical close-knit, largely working class community, 25-year-old Bella Michaels disappears one April afternoon after finishing her shift at the local nursing home. Her body is later found at a roadside picnic spot.

Her much older half-sister, Chris Rogers, is called to identify the body, and from there the story splits into two interleaved narratives: the slow unravelling of Chris’s mental state as she seeks answers for Bella’s murder, and the journalistic investigation by May Norman, a young crime reporter from Sydney intent on breaking a career-defining story.

Chris, who is a barmaid and occasionally brings people back to her home for paid sex, tells her side of the story in the first person. Her voice is immediate, unflinchingly honest and distinctly working class:

You know, I’ve often been told I’m too trusting, too generous, too open. I used to think these were compliments, but recently I’ve come to realise that they are not. They say ‘trusting’ and mean ‘stupid’, ‘generous’ and mean ‘easy’, ‘open’ and mean ‘shameless’. All of those things are true and not true. It depends on who you ask, doesn’t it? Ask old Bert at the pub if I’m easy or generous or any of that and he’ll say no. He’ll say, ‘The little bitch slaps my hand if it so much as brushes against her’. Ask my ex, Nate. He’ll tell you a different side.
Look, what I’m saying is that sometimes I am trusting and generous and open and stupid and easy and shameless. What I’m saying is, who isn’t?

Meanwhile, May’s narrative thread is told in the third person and includes all the stories she files for an online news site, giving the novel an authentic, too-close-to-the-bone feel, almost as if Bella’s murder was lifted from real headlines.

What results is a fascinating portrait of two troubled women — Chris is still grappling with the break-up of her marriage to a man with a criminal past; May is reeling from her married lover calling off their affair and falls into her past bulimic behaviour —  in a town caught up by the media’s fear mongering and perplexed by the murder of an innocent woman who deserved better.

Violence against women

What makes this book so effective is the spotlight Maguire shines on misogyny and every day violence against women without being too prescriptive or obvious. Bella’s murder might be the isolated incident of the title, but the thoughtful reader will soon understand that her death is just one in millions of similar incidents across Australia (and, indeed, the world) in which women are victims at the hands of men, many of whom they know personally.

Maguire’s examination of the media’s obsession with pretty young women who suffer violent deaths and the sometimes morally dubious practises of crime reporters  is also deftly handed. Maguire even raises an interesting issue about the ethics of well-meaning groups and activists who use murder cases to promote their own causes without seeking permission from the victim’s family first.

But from my own experience as a journalist, I found May’s news stories false, in need of some strong sub-editing and there was at least one that raised my libel hackles. Don’t let that put you off, though; poorly written journalistic stories in fiction are a pet bugbear of mine. I suspect many readers won’t even notice these minor failings.

The ending, too, is weak; not because it doesn’t tie up all the loose threads, but because it feels slightly rushed and not altogether believable. But on the whole, this is an excellent, deeply unsettling read that explores sex, marriage, prostitution, masculinity, criminality and violence. The strong undercurrent of a troubled society, in which innocent men fail to call out their mate’s misogynistic behaviour, seems timely, calling to mind last year’s Stella Prize winner, Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things. It deserves a wide audience.

Longlisted for the 2017 Indie Book Awards, commended for Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Fiction 2017 and shortlisted for the 2017 Stella PrizeAn Isolated Incident is currently only available in Australia. I ordered mine from Readings.com.au, which charges a flat — and affordable — rate for shipping to the UK.

For other reviews of this book, please see Lisa’s at ANZLitLovers and Kate’s at booksaremyfavouriteand best.

The winner of the 2017 Stella Prize will be announced tomorrow (Tuesday 18 April). I’ve read all but one of the books; you can see my reviews here.

This is my sixth book for #AWW2017.

2017 Stella Prize, Literary prizes

The 2017 Stella Prize shortlist

stella-prize-2017-shortlistThe book world is currently abuzz with news of the Baileys Prize longlist, but I’m here to talk about another literary award for women writers — and that’s the Stella Prize, the shortlist for which was announced in Australia yesterday.

The shortlisted titles are:

  • Poum and Alexandre by Catherine de Saint Phalle

The $50,000 prize is for Australian women writers and only books, both fiction and non-fiction, published in 2016 were eligible. You can read the full announcement on the official website.

I plan on reviewing all the titles. Do keep coming back to this post as I will update the hyperlinks above as and when I review each title.

The winner will be announced on 18 April.

2017 Stella Prize

The 2017 Stella Prize longlist

stella-prize-2017I’m a bit late with this, but last week the longlist for the 2017 Stella Prize was unveiled. (Hat tip to Sue at Whispering Gums whose post alerted me to the announcement.)

The $50,000 prize is for Australian women writers and only books, both fiction and non-fiction, published in 2016 were eligible

I had so much fun following this prize last year (all my posts about it are here) that I thought I might do the same again this year. It helps that I’ve already read a couple off the list thanks to my year-long project of reading books from Australia in 2016. I don’t plan on reading everything from the longlist, but will do my best to read everything that is shortlisted.

The dozen titles on the list include reportage, a biography, several memoirs, a handful of novels, a collection of short stories — and two by authors who have since died.

Below is a list of the books, in alphabetical order by author name, which includes a brief description (taken from the judges’ report) and their current availability in the UK. Hyperlinks will take you to my reviews.

Victoria the Queen by Julia Baird
Victoria: The Queen by Julia Baird (HarperCollins)
“Victoria: The Queen brings into vivid focus a woman whose inner life was intense, sometimes volatile, and inseparable from the strategic exercise of European and colonial power. In Baird’s biography we meet a very young queen, faced with the challenge of guiding her nation at a moment in history that didn’t readily accommodate powerful women. We witness her, throughout her long reign, negotiating individual, national and colonial authority. As depicted by Baird, Victoria was a clever, ambitious woman who took advice from mentors, yet was also an emotional and controlling mother and a passionate wife. This is a rich and compelling biography, based on exhaustive archival research and replete with vibrant prose.”
Available in the UK in ebook.

Between a wolf and a dog
Between a Wolf and a Dog by Georgia Blain (Scribe)
“Between a Wolf and a Dog is an accomplished and sympathetic novel about love and motherhood, therapy, the impact of betrayal, and the choices that arise from acts of irresponsibility, or from careful deliberation. Ester is a therapist, advising her clients on the options available to them that they can’t always see for themselves. Her ex-husband, Lawrence, is a pollster who manipulates his data for the thrill of transgression, but who is ultimately required to perform an unselfish and difficult act. Between a Wolf and a Dog is Georgia Blain’s final novel, and it is a triumph: finely structured, suspenseful and morally acute.”
Published in the UK in paperback and ebook.

The Hate Race
The Hate Race by Maxine Beneba Clarke (Hachette)
“The Hate Race is an important account of growing up in suburban Australia during the 1980s and 1990s. Many of the routines of a suburban childhood will be immediately recognisable to readers, except that the colour of Maxine Beneba Clarke’s skin makes her the target for an astonishing level of discrimination. The combination of a recognisable Australian childhood and a world of bullying, ostracism and casual racism is necessarily shocking, transforming this memoir into a significant indictment of national complacency. The Hate Race is a moving memoir of national significance, grounded in a tradition of Afro-Caribbean storytelling that recognises the importance of the personal account: ‘This is how I tell it, or else what’s a story for.'”
Not currently available in the UK; it will be published in hardcover and ebook on 8 June.

Poum and Alexandre
Poum and Alexandre by Catherine de Sainte Phalle (Transit Lounge)
“Catherine de Saint Phalle’s tender portrait of a lifelong partnership deserves to be an instant classic of the biography genre. De Saint Phalle grew up in Paris, the only child of charming but damaged parents: fragile, death-obsessed Poum and ebullient, older Alexandre, whose lives were ruled by their “sin” of being unmarried. De Saint Phalle’s narrative of an unusual childhood with this haunted, sometimes childlike and deeply bonded couple is remarkable for its lack of self-pity and its depth of recollection. The reader is treated to a study of two wonderfully flawed people, meeting in the aftermath of war and negotiating a peculiar union of love and eccentricity. Always seeing Poum and Alexandre as people first, then parents, her book is both funny and tragic at the same time. De Saint Phalle writes with a clear-eyed humanity and wisdom about human nature that is reminiscent of Nabokov’s account of memory and childhood.”
Available in the UK in ebook.

Offshore by Madeline Gleeson
Offshore: Behind the Wire at Manus and Nauru by Madeline Gleeson (NewSouth)
“Offshore is a rigorous and comprehensive narrative on one of the central challenges of our times: the care of those who seek asylum in Australia when life in their own countries becomes untenable. The book is an extended exposé of the machinery of offshore processing in a context that does not always encourage visibility or, indeed, community confidence. The Regional Processing Units on Nauru and Manus Island are revealed as places of desperation, enabled by impersonal international agreements over the disposition of displaced adults and children. This book offers a potent challenge to Australia’s asylum-seeker policy by detailing the locations and procedures of offshore processing of asylum seekers, and the desperation experienced by those who seek safe haven in Australia.”
Available in the UK in ebook.

Avalanche
Avalanche by Julia Leigh (WW Norton)
“In her first work of nonfiction, novelist and filmmaker Julia Leigh tells the story of what would become a gruelling series of IVF attempts in her late thirties: ‘I did this knowing that no matter how hard I hoped, no matter what I tried, chances were I’d never have a child’. The attempt to become a mother outlasts her marriage and governs a great deal of her life. Subtitled ‘A Love Story’, Avalanche is as much about the desire to be a mother and maternal love as it is a clear-eyed account of a love affair gone wrong and an investigation of a medical industry that trades on hope. Leigh is just as scrupulous about holding her own feelings and choices up to the light as she is in raising questions about the gulf between the promises and hard data of the for-profit IVF industry. In writing one of the first literary treatments of IVF, Leigh creates a lyrical, clear-eyed account that cuts through to the core of an emotionally complex, sometimes obscured subject that is of great significance today.”
Published in the UK by Faber and Faber in hardcover and ebook.

An Isolated Incident
An Isolated Incident
 by Emily Maguire (Picador)

An Isolated Incident is a compelling story that considers the part the media plays in sensationalising crime, the plight of those whose lives are forever changed by an act of violence, and community acceptance of violence against women. It is also a murder mystery that deftly transforms the genre, focusing on the family and friends of the victim rather than the crime itself, and tactically diminishing the perpetrator in a careful withdrawal from the sensational. The novel is a celebration of sisters: Bella, the murder victim, and her sister Chris are very different women, but they have a convincing and touching affinity. May, a crime reporter, is also absorbed by the events surrounding Bella’s death and begins to question the limitations of her profession. Emily Maguire cleverly ties together the experiences of Chris and May, bringing into play the impact of Bella’s murder on other members of the community. Australian society’s attitudes towards violence against women are inevitably at the heart of this topical and accomplished novel.”
Not available in the UK.

The High Places
The High Places: Stories
 by Fiona McFarlane (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

“Fiona McFarlane’s collection of stories, The High Places, is consistently brilliant, inventive and memorable. Representing a decade of work, the stories confidently span different eras and geographies – Sydney; Athens; an unnamed island in the Pacific – and seem to effortlessly represent the inner terrain of people’s secrets and regrets with rich emotional acuity and insight, while also managing to find the black comedy in odd encounters, strange situations and awful reunions. Animals appear throughout: dogs at races; animals in zoos; birds attached to humans. McFarlane uses this motif to show humans acting against their better instincts, often trapping themselves or others in circumstances that should have been avoidable. These are richly observed stories about complex people and situations, told by a gifted writer.”
Published in the UK by Sceptre in hardcover, paperback and ebook.

Wasted
Wasted: A Story of Alcohol, Grief and a Death in Brisbane by Elspeth Muir (Text)
“Elspeth Muir writes, with measured eloquence, of a devastating event: the death of her cherished younger brother who drowned during an alcohol-fuelled celebration of his final university exams. Her family is suspended in a state of painful loss and self-examination. From the particulars of this bereavement, Muir offers an unsparing consideration of the place of alcohol and recklessness in young people’s lives, including her own. If alcohol use is a rite of passage, so is travel, and one of the most engaging aspects of the book is the author’s journey through South America and her keen observations of cultural comparisons. Questions about celebration, bravado and the mitigation of intoxication from within and outside the family are raised in this engaging, generous and multifaceted book.”
Available in the UK in ebook.

The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose
The Museum of Modern Love
 by Heather Rose (Allen & Unwin)

The Museum of Modern Love is narrated by an intriguing unseen presence: an otherworldly companion to artists. This presence describes the intersecting lives of characters who form part of the audience for Marina Abramovic’s remarkable re-enacted retrospective and performance, The Artist Is Present, in 2010 in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Marina Abramovic’s confronting and highly disciplined artwork invited members of the public to sit facing her in the gallery, and the experience provides some of the characters in The Museum of Modern Love with an almost hallucinatory insight into their own lives. The characters are finely developed, and the question of what constitutes art is refracted through their experiences in ways that never seem contrived. This is an ambitious novel that demonstrates the value of art as a catalyst for love, connection, and an apprehension of mystery.”
Available in the UK in ebook.

Dying A Memoir by Cory Taylor
Dying: A Memoir
 by Cory Taylor (Text)

“Brisbane writer Cory Taylor’s Dying: A Memoir, written in her final weeks of life, is a slim but remarkable book. Taylor’s tone is conversational, but her questions and insights are profound. In this most lonely of situations, what possible comfort can we get from others? Why are doctors, who have the task of keeping people alive, so ill-equipped to help us through death? When we’ve witnessed bad deaths, how do we equip ourselves to die well? Armed with reserves of anger, good humour and curiosity, Taylor doesn’t offer easy answers or sentimental stories. What she does offer the reader is a sense of solidarity. This is a rare book about dying that could be given to someone who is seriously ill, confident in its capacity to provide solace and comfort in shared recognition. It is also a book about the gift of writing and reading. In Dying: A Memoir, Taylor has made the concept of dying bearable, and given us something life-affirming.”
Published in the UK by Canongate in hardcover and ebook.

The media and the massacre by Sonya Voumard
The Media and the Massacre: Port Arthur 1996-2016 
by Sonya Voumard (Transit Lounge)

“Twenty years after the Port Arthur shootings, Sonya Voumard returns to this catastrophe and the way it was reported. A journalist herself, Voumard takes the reader through what it is like on the ground, and the decisions that are involved, in reporting from a major event as it unfolds; she also focuses her attentive eye on the relationship between Carleen Bryant, the mother of the murderer, and the two journalists who used her personal manuscript in a bestselling book about the perpetrator, an action that would result in a legal settlement. The Media and the Massacre interrogates both the practice of journalism and the effects on those who are the focus of journalistic attention. It is a searching inquiry into the ownership of stories that also charts significant changes in newspapers and the journalistic profession over the last decade. It’s both a compelling story and a humane and scrupulous investigation into the responsibilities of journalists.”
Available in the UK in ebook.

The shortlist will be announced on Thursday 8 March and the winner named on Tuesday 18 April.

Have you read any of these books? Or have any piqued your interest?