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 Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2020, Book review, Fiction, Lauren Aimee Curtis, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Orion, Publisher

‘Dolores’ by Lauren Aimee Curtis

Fiction – paperback; Orion Publishing; 144 pages; 2020.

It’s really no surprise that I would find much to like in Lauren Aimee Curtis’ Dolores, a perfectly paced novella about a teenage girl who hides her pregnancy from the Spanish nuns who take her in.

It’s written in that stripped-back prose I so adore and the settings — an isolated convent and a South American city — are atmospheric, but it is the third-person “voice” of this story — aloof, naïve, melancholy and occasionally chilling — that makes this such a compelling read.

Adopted by nuns

It follows a 16-year-old who flees her homeland (an unspecified Spanish-speaking country) for a new life in Spain. One 40-degree day she finds herself at the “bottom of a long, sloped driveway” that leads to a convent. Halfway up she collapses. She’s taken in by the nuns, who dub her Dolores, a name that means “aches and pains”:

There she is: Dolores. Newly named. Sitting at the kitchen table inside the convent, conscious of how bad she must smell. Her armpits are wet. Her mouth is dry. The nuns gather around her. Without saying a word, one of them places a glass of water in front of her. Dolores drains it quickly. The nun picks up the glass, slowly, and fills it once more. Dolores drinks. The water runs out the side of the glass and down her neck.

But Dolores’ story doesn’t start here. It’s told retrospectively and is informed by the knowledge, revealed in the opening pages of the novella, that six months after her arrival at the convent she has a baby son — “a small blob of angry flesh” — whom the nuns name Francisco.

Old life

This new life, in the convent, is far removed from her upbringing, where she…

…would buy the ice-cream from the petrol station and then eat it sitting on the bench near the pump because she liked the smell. It was something about the combination. The sweetness of the ice-cream – cold, then melting in her mouth – and the petrol fumes thick in her nose. She would sit on the bench and watch cars come and go, exchanging ceremonious nods with children who looked longingly at her ice-cream while Dolores feigned nonchalance. It really was the highlight of her life.

The narrative spans half a year of convent living interspersed with vignettes from Dolores’ past to create a deftly woven story that contrasts the familiar with the unfamiliar. We learn about her childhood and her discovery of boys and sex at a young age. It is, at times, confronting and alarming. Her boyfriend pimps her out (without payment of any kind) in sordid love hotels, where she grants sexual favours to teenage boys and older men.

This is in stark contrast to her new life, surrounded by women who have taken vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, but where the local bishop is known to be a “nun lover”

This structure gives the story a feeling of suspense, because the reader wants to find out what led Dolores to move continents and to discover who the father of her baby might be.

New life

In the convent, Dolores quickly adjusts to the nuns’ rhythms and daily rituals. She observes that there never seems to be enough food, that the Mother Superior has her favourites (whom she treats differently), that their days are dominated by domestic duties, prayer — and gossip. But she keeps her counsel and does not reveal that she’s carrying a baby. She does her chores, obeys her orders and begins to feel closer to God.

At the end of September, Dolores quietly turns seventeen. She has been at the convent for three months. At five-thirty in the morning, when the nuns wake up, the sky outside is blue-black. In the dim light of a lamp across the room, the nuns dress. Dolores lingers in bed, pretending not to watch.

Dolores is a book that is all about juxtapositions: old life versus new life, moral purity versus sexual promiscuity, obedience versus disobedience. It reads like a simple story, but it’s ripe with symbolism and meaning. There’s a lot to unpack here and I’m tempted to read it again to see what I might have missed the first time around.

It has a rather abrupt ending, but it’s perfect for the story: it lets you, the reader, come to your own conclusion about Dolores’ future, almost as if she walks off the page and into the real world.

I recommend this one if you’re looking for an atmospheric read that will give you plenty to chew on.

If you like this, you might also like this:

‘Mariette in Ecstasy’ by Ron Hansen: A mesmerising story about a 17-year-old girl who joins a convent and then begins showing signs of divine possession. Is it a hoax or a miracle?

This is my 3rd book for #2020ReadingsPrize for New Australian Fiction and my 15th book for #AWW2020.

2020 Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction, Literary prizes

Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction 2020 shortlist

Earlier today Readings independent book store in Melbourne unveiled its shortlist for the Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction 2020.

There are six titles on the list: one novella, two novels and three short story collections.

Joe Rubbo, chair of the judges, described them as “a unique selection of reading – the first and second novels or short story collections by Australian writers. The books published over the year were innovative and challenging, and many shed light on aspects of Australian culture that have long remained in the dark.” (You can read his full comments here.)

The prize is for a book which must be the author’s first or second published work of fiction only. (You can read more about the history of the prize and the rules here.)

Below is a list of the books, in alphabetical order by author name, with the publisher’s synopsis underneath. I have read only one so far — click the pink hyperlinks to read my review in full.

‘Lucky Ticket’ by Joey Bui
“A highly original collection of stories by a talented young writer. In Lucky Ticket, Joey Bui introduces a diverse range of characters, all with distinctive voices, and makes us think differently about identity, mixed-race relationships, difficulties between family generations, war and dislocation.”

‘Dolores’ by Lauren Aimee Curtis
“On a hot day in late June, a young girl kneels outside a convent, then falls on her face. When the nuns take her in, they name her Dolores. Dolores adjusts to the rhythm of her new life – to the nuns with wild hairs curling from their chins, the soup chewed as if it were meat, the bells that ring throughout the day. But in the dark, private theatre of her mind are memories – of love motels lit by neon red hearts, discos in abandoned hospitals and a boy called Angelo. And inside her, a baby is growing.”

‘The House of Youssef’ by Yumna Kassab
“This debut collection of short stories by Yumna Kassab is remarkable for its minimalism. Set in the suburbs of Western Sydney, it portrays the lives of Lebanese immigrants, and their families. The stories revolve around their hopes and regrets, their feelings of isolation, and their nostalgia for what they might have lost or left behind.”

‘The Animals in That Country’ by Laura Jean McKay
“Hard-drinking, foul-mouthed, and allergic to bullshit, Jean is not your usual grandma. She’s never been good at getting on with other humans, apart from her beloved granddaughter, Kimberly. Instead, she surrounds herself with animals, working as a guide in an outback wildlife park. And although Jean talks to all her charges, she has a particular soft spot for a young dingo called Sue. As disturbing news arrives of a pandemic sweeping the country, Jean realises this is no ordinary flu: its chief symptom is that its victims begin to understand the language of animals – first mammals, then birds and insects, too. As the flu progresses, the unstoppable voices become overwhelming, and many people begin to lose their minds, including Jean’s infected son, Lee. When he takes off with Kimberly, heading south, Jean feels the pull to follow her kin.”

‘Smart Ovens for Lonely People’ by Elizabeth Tan
“Conspiracies, celebrities, and therapies underpin this beguiling short-story collection from Elizabeth Tan. A cat-shaped oven tells a depressed woman she doesn’t have to be sorry anymore. A Yourtopia Bespoke Terraria employee becomes paranoid about the mounting coincidences in her life. Four girls gather to celebrate their fabulous underwear. With her trademark wit and slicing social commentary, Elizabeth Tan’s short stories are as funny as they are insightful.”

‘A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing’ by Jessie Tu
“Jena Lin plays the violin. She was once a child prodigy and now uses sex to fill the void left by fame. She’s struggling a little. Her professional life comprises rehearsals, concerts, auditions and relentless practice; her personal life is spent managing the demands of her strict family and creative friends, and hooking up. And then she meets Mark – much older and worldly-wise – who consumes her. But at what cost to her dreams? When Jena is awarded an internship with the New York Philharmonic, she thinks the life she has dreamed of is about to begin. But when Trump is elected, New York changes irrevocably and Jena along with it. Is the dream over? As Jena’s life takes on echoes of Frances Ha, her favourite film, crucial truths are gradually revealed to her.”

I reckon this is an enticing list and I’m going to try to read all of the books on it before the winner is announced in October. Please feel free to join along with me. Have you read any of these books? Or have any piqued your interest? Note, you can buy the complete set from Readings directly, a great way to support an indie book store in lockdown Melbourne as well as lots of new Aussie writers.