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!

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‘The Survivors’ by Jane Harper

Fiction – Kindle edition; Macmillan Australia; 384 pages; 2020. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Jane Harper’s latest novel The Survivors switches focus from the Queensland outback of her previous novel to the island state of Tasmania. Here, on the windswept coast of a small local community (the fictional Evelyn Bay) a young woman in town for the summer is murdered, her body found washed up on the beach in the early hours of the morning.

The crime is a reminder of a previous tragedy in which a 14-year-old girl went missing on the night of a big storm 12 years earlier. That same night, two local men, Finn and Toby, also died when their boat overturned in stormy seas.

The timing of the murder is unfortunate because Finn’s brother Kieran is back in town. Kieran blames himself for his elder brother’s death all those years ago and the occurrence of yet another tragedy triggers painful memories for him. He’s arrived in Evelyn Bay from Sydney — with his long-term girlfriend and young baby daughter in tow — to help his mother pack up the family home so she can move her husband, who has early-onset dementia, into a nursing home in Hobart.

The Survivors is essentially a murder mystery focussed on two women who lost their lives more than a decade apart. It’s mainly centred on Kieran and his family, and a small cohort of childhood friends, now adults, who have remained living in the town. It’s a slow burner, the kind of story that unfolds slowly but surely, and is much about guilt, redemption and family loyalty, as it is about trying to solve a murder.

What I liked

The number of potential suspects
The Survivors isn’t a traditional police procedural or even a typical crime novel. It’s essentially a murder mystery that is “solved” by a small cast of characters who piece together clues discovered by the police and their own “investigation” (I use the term loosely). There are plenty of would-be culprits — the mainland genre author who has purchased the big house in town, Kieran’s father who wanders the local area at strange times of the night, the young kitchen hand who drove the victim home from work, and so on. Every one of them could, potentially, be the murderer — and the fun is trying to guess who it might be. The ending, I have to say, is satisfactory — and not the person I suspected at all.

The setting
In previous novels, Harper has faithfully captured a diversity of Australian settings, from a small rural community battling the ongoing effects of drought in The Dry to an outback cattle station that has to generate its own electricity it is so remote in The Lost Man.

In The Survivors, she captures what it is like to live in a small coastal community, some 900-strong, the kind of place that is super-busy with tourists in the summer and quiet and closed-in on itself when the season is over. It’s also the kind of place where everyone knows everyone else’s business (or thinks they do). She nails the gossip, innuendo and rumours that can fester when the facts aren’t truly known, and shows how this can spread like wildfire, especially via community online pages. She also nails what it is like to grow up in those places and to never truly escape them because even if you move away and only return on holiday, the locals think they “know” you and don’t think twice about casting judgement.

The dementia aspect
The depiction of dementia is handled sensitively and clearly shows the burdens placed on the primary caregiver — in this case, Kieran’s 64-year-old mother — and the family members who have to adjust to a new reality in which their loved one barely recognises them.

What I didn’t like

The dead woman trope
The Survivors is yet another crime novel where a dead woman is the central plot point. Harper doesn’t sensationalise the murder and makes reference to the fact that women must negotiate the world in a different way to men (never walking alone down dark streets, for example), but it still remains a story that relies on an old trope that I, personally, am incredibly sick of. It really is time to change the story.

The repetition
There’s a lot of repetition in this story, a lot of rehashing old ground, a lot of telling us that Kieran, for instance, has been wracked with guilt for more than a decade, and that the storm 12 years ago did more than wreck trees and buildings, it wrecked lives too. Lose half the repetition and this story would be not only leaner, but it would also be stronger, too.

The clichés
As much as Harper is great at capturing small-town life, it does seem that she only creates places solely populated by white people. While this story does feature a “half-Singaporean” (this is how Kieran describes his girlfriend), everyone else in this story is white. In fact, everyone in this novel feels like a stereotype: the guys are all sporty types, there’s a town beauty, a hard-working put-upon mother, a bumbling male police officer. Do I need to go on?

An entertaining read

No doubt you are going to see loads of reviews of this book in the coming weeks and months. And it will be nominated for awards and top the best-seller lists both here in Australia and the UK, where Harper has a good following.

But this is a fairly average crime novel. By all means, read it for the setting and the fun of guessing who committed the crime, but don’t expect to have your world set on fire. Sometimes, though, that’s enough, especially if you are just looking for a bit of temporary escapism. The Survivors is an entertaining read, no more, no less.

It will be published in the UK in hardcover next January and the USA next February. A Kindle version is already available in the UK.

This is my 18th book for #AWW2020

Book lists

12 books on the International Dublin Literary Award longlist 2020

It’s that time of year again: the longlist for the 2020 International Dublin Literary Award, the world’s richest literary prize, has been announced.

There are 156 titles on the list — from all corners of the world — all of which have been nominated by librarians, making it a proper “readers’ prize”.

Here are just a dozen titles, which I have reviewed on the blog over the past year or so. Note that inclusion here does not necessarily mean I recommend the book, only that I have read and reviewed it.

The books have been arranged in alphabetical order by author surname. Click on each book title to read my review in full.

A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne (Ireland)
Rip-roaring and deliciously entertaining read about a writer with questionable ethics.

French exit

French Exit by Patrick deWitt (Canada)
Delightfully kooky story about a matriarch fallen on hard times who flees to Paris with her adult son and a talking cat.

Washington Black

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan (Canada)
Occasionally preposterous adventure tale focussed on a young slave rescued from a Barbados sugar plantation.

The Lost Man

The Lost Man by Jane Harper (Australia)
Award-winning (but poorly written) murder mystery set in the Far North Queensland outback.

Too Much Lip by Melissa Lucashenko (Australia)
Brash and gritty novel about an aboriginal family fighting to save their land from development.

The Tattooist of Auschwitz

The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris (Australia)
Best-selling tale based on the true story of a Slovakian Jew sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1942.

Convenience Store Woman

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata (Japan)
An ode to remaining true to your self when the rest of the world sees you as an outsider.

Travelling in a strange land

Travelling in a Strange Land by David Park (Ireland)
Evocative and gently written tale of a recently bereaved man driving across the UK in a snow storm to rescue his son who has fallen ill.

Normal People by Sally Rooney (Ireland)
Stylish, award-winning novel that follows an on-off romance between two Millennials over the course of four years.

Lullaby

Lullaby by Leila Slimani (France)
Confronting story that centres around a rather abhorrent crime carried out by a seemingly perfect au pair.

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk (Poland)
A crime story with a difference narrated by an eccentric older woman who lives in a remote Polish village.

The shepherd's hut by Tim Winton

The Shepherd’s Hut by Tim Winton (Australia)
Engaging, fast-paced story about a teenage boy on the run across the Australian outback.

The prize shortlist will be published on 2 April 2020, and the winner will be announced on 10 June. To find out more, and to view the longlist in full, please visit the official website.

Have you read any of these books? Or others from the extensive longlist?

6 Degrees of Separation

Six Degrees of Separation: From ‘The Dry’ to ‘Eugenia: A True Story of Adversity, Tragedy, Crime and Courage’

Six degrees of separation logo for memeI had so much fun doing last month’s Six Degrees of Separation book meme, that I’m back to do it again this month!

Six Degrees of Separation, which is hosted by Kate at Booksaremyfavouriteandbest, is a great way of discovering new books and new authors to read. You can find out more about it via Kate’s blog, but essentially every month a book is chosen as a starting point and then you create a chain by linking to six other books using common themes.

Here’s this month’s meme. Hyperlinks will take you to my reviews.

The starting point is:

The Dry

‘The Dry’ by Jane Harper (2016)
The Dry is a wonderfully evocative literary crime novel set during Australia’s millennium drought. That same drought features in…

The Hands by Stephen Orr

1. ‘The Hands: An Australian Pastoral’ by Stephen Orr (2015)
Set on a remote cattle station in South Australia, The Hands tells the story of three generations of the same family living side by side. It explores the fraught tensions, mainly between fathers and sons, as the drought results in ever-diminishing returns and ever-increasing debts. This struggle to make a living on the land, leads me to…

2. ‘The Tie that Binds’ by Kent Haruf (1984)
Haruf’s debut novel follows the fortunes (or perhaps I should say misfortunes) of a pioneering farming family on the high plains of Colorado. This beautifully rendered drama depicts the loneliness and hardship of rural life, as well as the untold sacrifices one woman, Edith Goodenough, makes for her father and brother to ensure the farm remains operational against the odds. The novel is an extraordinary portrait of an ordinary woman, which is also the focus of…

3. ‘Bird in the Snow’ by Michael Harding (2008)
Bird in the Snow tells the story an 81-year-old Irish woman looking back on her life. Told in a series of vignettes laced with black humour and pathos, it shows how Birdie’s life has been marked by tragedy and other family dramas, but it has also been filled with great happiness, joy and love. Birdie’s reminiscences are sparked by the death of her son. An elderly Irish woman newly bereaved also stars in…

4. ‘On Canaan’s Side’ by Sebastian Barry (2011)
On Canaan’s Side is essentially a confessional written by the elderly Lilly Bere whose beloved grandson, a soldier returned from the “desert war”, has just killed himself. His death leads Lilly to think about her own life, including her early childhood in Dublin and her subsequent immigration to America in the 1920s with a death warrant on her head. Living a life in fear is also the subject of…

Fairyland by Sumner Locke Eliott

5. ‘Fairyland’ by Sumner Locke Elliott (1990)
Fairyland was Locke Elliott’s final novel but it could also be seen as a thinly veiled memoir of what it was like to grow up in the 1930s and 40s hiding your homosexuality from the real world. It is, by turns, a heart-rending, intimate and harrowing portrayal of one man’s search for love in an atmosphere plagued by the fear of condemnation, violence, prosecution and imprisonment. Hiding yourself from the real world is also the inspiration behind…

Eugenia by Mark Tedeschi

6. ‘Eugenia: A True Story of Adversity, Tragedy, Crime and Courage’ by Mark Tedeschi QC (2012)
The subject of this fascinating non-fiction book is Eugenia Falleni, who scandalised Australia in the 1920s when she was charged with the murder of her wife. She had been living as a man for 22 years and during that time had married twice. No one knew her true identity, not even the women whom she married — indeed, her second wife thought she was pregnant to him! As well as being a compelling true crime book, Eugenia: A True Story of Adversity, Tragedy, Crime and Courage is also an important story about a troubled individual, who spent her entire life in constant fear of being exposed, shamed and punished by a society that did not accept difference or anyone living outside the codes of what it perceived as “normal” and “moral” conduct. A completely compelling read.

So that’s this month’s #6Degrees: from an award-winning debut crime novel set in rural Australia through to a true story about a transgender man charged with murder in 1920s Sydney.

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.

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.

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‘Force of Nature’ by Jane Harper

Fiction – paperback; Pan Macmillan Australia; 400 pages; 2017.

Many of you will be familiar with Jane Harper’s debut novel, The Dry, which I read in 2016, long before it started to win every literature prize going, including the 2017 CWA Gold Dagger, the 2017 Australian Book Industry Award for Fiction Book of the Year and The Sunday Times Crime Book of the Year 2017.

I loved The Dry so much — the claustrophobic portrait of small town Australia, the depiction of the landscape and the drought, the wonderful characterisation and the believability of the crime — that I couldn’t wait for the UK publication of her follow-up, Force of Nature, so I ordered it on import at exorbitant cost from Australia. The price, I think, was worth it.

A gripping page-turner

Force of Nature (to be published in the UK on 8 February 2018) is yet another page-turner set in the Australian bush starring Federal Police Agent Aaron Falk.

This time round it’s winter, the drought has broken and a group of people on a corporate team-building exercise in rugged terrain have got themselves into trouble: one of their party has gone missing.

Falk has a special interest in the search-and-rescue mission because the missing bushwalker, Alice Russell, is the whistleblower in a fraud case he is working on with his colleague, Carmen Cooper. Is her disappearance linked to their investigation? Has she met with foul play or done a runner? Or is it purely co-incidence?

Mounting sense of tension

The book is nicely structured, swinging between two main narrative threads: what happens between the corporate team members on the weekend-long hike in the (fictional) Giralang Ranges; and the ensuing investigation by Falk and Cooper.

From the outset we know things are not going to go well on the hike. There are two groups — one comprising solely men, one comprising solely women — who go off in different directions, but the women never make their rendezvous point on the second night. Instead, fraught, frazzled and beset by petty squabbles, they get lost and cannot agree on the best course of action to take: set up camp and wait for daylight, or keep moving.

Meanwhile, Falk’s narrative thread highlights the pressure he is under from on high to solve the fraud case and at the same time we get to see the more human side of him: we learn about his fraught relationship with his late father and come to understand the loneliness of his life and his (unrecognised) need for human companionship.

Brilliantly clever characterisation

What makes this book work is the characterisation. Harper provides intriguing back stories for each character, particularly the women in the corporate group, giving each of them a plausible motivating factor for wanting nasty, short-tempered Alice to “disappear”.

And she does a terrific job of creating not only mounting tension — showing slowly-but-surely  how and why Alice goes missing — but also a sense of foreboding through the clever use of a news story familiar to the women: that of a serial killer, who butchered and buried a number of victims in the Giralang Ranges (loosely based, I suspect, on the real-life backpacker murders of the 1990s).

Force of Nature is not so much a crime novel, but a suspense one — and it’s so vividly drawn and so brimming with atmosphere it will probably deter swathes of readers from ever setting foot on a muddy bush track. (Companies offering corporate team-building exercises might rightly sue for damage, too.)

If I was to have criticise any aspect of the book it would be that we never quite find out what happens to Falk’s fraud investigation. But in the grand scheme things it doesn’t really matter: Force of Nature is a satisfying read, one that will delight fans of The Dry and perhaps attract a new audience to Harper’s work. Call me greedy, but I honestly can’t help but be impatient for the next novel in this intriguing crime series.

This is my my 10th book for #AWW2017 which means I have now completed this challenge for the year. Expect a wrap-up post in a few days.

Reading Australia 2016

And then we came to the end of Reading Australia 2016

Reading Australia 2016

“How’s your Australian reading year going?”

“Are you sick of reading Australian books yet?”

“Don’t you miss reading books from other places?”

During 2016 these questions hounded me every time I caught up with friends and bloggers who knew I had challenged myself to read Australian literature all year.

My response was always the same. I was enjoying the project so much that even I was surprised at how easy and fun it was proving to be. I did not feel like I was missing out. If anything, I was overwhelmed by the sheer scope and range of books available to me.

Now, looking back on an entire year’s worth of reading, I can chalk it up as one of the best reading years of my life.

Depth and breadth

I read such a diverse range of books, from psychological thrillers to personal essays about eating disorders, that I never once became bored. I was discovering some great new-to-me writers and reacquainting myself with ones I knew from long ago. It made me reassess my opinion that Australian writing was dull and obsessed with its colonial past — an opinion I formed more than 20 years ago when I worked in a book store and shunned the “convict fiction”, as I’d dubbed it, to spend all my money on a steady diet of (predictable) US fiction instead.

Back then I didn’t realise there were Australian writers pumping out edgy crime novels, mind-bending experimental fiction and glorious literary fiction set in contemporary times, or that essay writing could be so intriguing and readable, or that memoirs could be so thoroughly engaging and, occasionally, jaw dropping.

Perhaps in the early 1990s, the publishing industry wasn’t publishing those kinds of books (in 1991 I can safely say that I read just two Australian books that year — Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet and Ben Hills’ Blue Murder), or maybe I was too young and naive to realise there was more to the homegrown literary scene than I imagined.

Whatever the case, this past year of “reading Australia” has reignited a passion for reading books from my homeland. By year’s end I had read a total of 53 Australian books (I also read six British titles and six Canadian titles) and know that I will continue to read many more in the year to come.

Some highlights

  • I read a surprising number of memoirs (eight in total) and a surprising number of short story collections (four).
  • I read a diverse range of true crime, all of it fascinating, well researched and written in an engaging novelistic fashion.
  • I discovered Stephen Orr and now want to read everything he’s ever written.

Some lowlights

  • I did not make a very big dent in my TBR. At the beginning of 2016, the number of Australian titles in that pile was 128. It soon swelled thanks to a few review copies coming my way and the very many purchases I made (well, I had to buy the shortlisted titles for the Stella and Miles Franklin, didn’t I). By year’s end it stood at 116. Oops.
  • I did not read any pre-mid-20th century classics (I had to abandon Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children in the summer when I changed jobs and no longer had the bandwidth to cope with it).
  • I did not read any books by Kate Grenville, Alex Miller or Randolph Stow,  all Australian writers listed on my favourite authors page.

All up it was a brilliant year of reading, and I hope you had as much fun following along as I did in reading and reviewing so many fabulous books. I thought it might be useful to provide a list of everything I read, so here it is. The books marked * made my top 10 favourite reads of the year.

FICTION

PSYCHOLOGICAL THRILLER
CRIME
LITERARY FICTION
HISTORICAL FICTION
DYSTOPIAN FICTION
EXPERIMENTAL FICTION
SHORT STORIES

NON-FICTION

TRUE CRIME
ESSAYS
MEMOIR

Reading Australia 2016

10 books, Book lists, Books of the year

My favourite books of 2016

Books-of-the-yearWhat a reading year it has been!

As you’ll no doubt know, I challenged myself to read Australian literature all year — and what an enjoyable, entertaining, intriguing and wonderful exercise that turned out to be. The scope and range of the books I read — both fiction and non-fiction — never ceased to amaze and delight me, so much so I’ll write a separate post about it at a later date.

During the year I also read a handful of Canadian books, thanks to my participation in the Shadow Giller Prize (which I’ve been doing every year since 2011), and five amazing British titles thanks to my involvement in shadowing The Sunday Times/Peters Fraser & Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award 2016.

All up I read around 65 books, which is substantially fewer than my usual yearly average of around 75 to 80. (I can only blame excessive use of Twitter sucking up all my time, a lot of extra-curricular freelance editing on top of the day job in the first six months of the year, and two changes of day job, one in May and one in October.)

Choosing my favourite ten reads was no mean feat. I read so many great books. But here are the ones that have left a lasting impression (note they weren’t all published this year).

The books have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname. Hyperlinks will take you to my full review.

Floundering by Romy Ash
Floundering by Romy Ash (2012)
A woman “kidnaps” her two sons from the grandparents who are raising them and takes them on a road trip one hot Australian summer. It’s narrated by the youngest son, who soon realises their holiday by the sea isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Heartbreaking and poignant, I loved this book and still think about it almost a year after reading it.

Panthers and the Museum of Fire by Jen Craig

‘Panthers & The Museum of Fire’ by Jen Craig  (2016)
This bold experimental novel is set on a summer’s afternoon as the narrator walks across Sydney to deliver a manuscript to a bereaved family. It’s written stream-of-consciousness style and is unlike anything I’ve ever read before. I was gripped from the first line.

Aunts up the cross by Robin Dalton
Aunts Up the Cross by Robin Dalton (1965)
This delightful memoir had me tittering away at every madcap episode and anecdote related in Dalton’s droll, self-deprecating prose. Her tale about growing up in an unconventional household in Sydney’s King’s Cross in the 1920s and 30s is by far the most cheerful thing I read all year. I loved it.

Talking to my country by Stan Grant

Talking to My Country by Stan Grant (2016)
Another memoir, this is the one every Australian should read to find out what it’s like growing up as an indigenous person in a culture so firmly rooted in white colonialism. It’s also a frank examination of black and white relations, and Australia’s failure to reconcile its shared and troubled history. It’s the book that has had the most marked impression on me this year.

The Dry

The Dry by Jane Harper (2016)
One of the best crime novels I’ve read in years, this one — set during the worst drought in a century — rips along at a fair pace and has enough red herrings to keep the most jaded reader guessing. And it’s wonderfully evocative — of both the Australian landscape and the people who inhabit small, rural communities.

The Hands by Stephen Orr

The Hands: An Australian Pastoral by Stephen Orr (2015)
This is — hands down (pun sort of intended) — my favourite novel of the year. In quiet, understated prose Orr presents three generations of the one farming family eking out a living on a remote cattle station in the Australian outback over the course of two years (2004 to 2006). It is, by turns, charming, funny and deeply moving, reminding me very much of the eloquent fiction of the late Kent Haruf.

True Country by Kim Scott

True Country by Kim Scott (1999)
This extraordinary debut novel — Scott has since won the Miles Franklin Literary Award twice —  tells the story of a young teacher who moves to a remote settlement in Australia’s far north to take up a job at a local school. The community is plagued with problems, but Billy sees beyond that and finds himself coming to terms with his own Aboriginal heritage and forging rewarding relationships with the people and the landscape around him.

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith (2016)
A page turner of the finest order, this clever story largely revolves around a painting by a (fictional) 17th century Dutch painter, the first woman to ever become a member of the Guild of Saint Luke in Holland. Spanning three centuries and three cities, it begins as a crime story before it morphs into a mystery-cum-thwarted-romance-cum-cat-and-mouse-suspense tale. It’s a hugely entertaining read.

Reckoning by Magda Szubanski

Reckoning: A Memoir by Magda Szubanski (2016)
This is the third memoir to make my top 10! It is a wonderfully entertaining account of Magda’s life lived in the shadows of her Polish father, an assassin during the Second World War. As an exploration of a father and daughter relationship, it is superb; as an examination of the personal legacy of war and the way that legacy filters down through the generations, it is extraordinary. But it’s also a moving account of Magda dealing with her own demons, including depression and coming to terms with her sexuality.

The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood

The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood (2015)
A rare example of a book matching the hype, I loved Wood’s thought-provoking take on a dystopian world in which woman are imprisoned for their involvement in sexual “crimes” and misdemeanours. Written in a cool, detached voice throughout, the story follows a group of prisoners and their jailers over the course of a year. Fuelled by a quiet rage, this book rails against modern misogyny and should be required reading for men and women everywhere.

I’d also like to award honourable mentions to two more books, both of them non-fiction: Walking Free by Munjed Al Muderis (2014) and Big Blue Sky by Peter Garrett (2015) (review forthcoming). These made me see the challenges facing refugees and politicians, respectively, in a whole new light.

Have you read any from this list? Or has it encouraged you to try one or two? Care to share your own favourite reads of 2016?

I’m taking a little blogging break, but before I go I’d like to thank you for your valued support during this past year. Whether it was by sending me an email, visiting this blog or Reading Matters’ Facebook page, leaving a comment, clicking “like” icons or linking back to me from your own blog, it’s all very much appreciated and makes the whole experience of running this blog so much more enjoyable. 

Here’s wishing you a fabulous book-filled New Year! And I hope to see you back here for more literary chat and great book recommendations in mid-January.