Australian Women Writers Challenge, AWW2021, Book lists

27 books by women: completing the 2021 Australian Women Writers Challenge

For the 6th year in a row, I signed up to do the Australian Women Writers Challenge in 2021. My aim was to read 20 books; I ended up reading 27.

Here is a list of all the books I read arranged in alphabetical order by author’s name (click the title to see my full review).

‘Like Mother’ by Cassandra Austin (2021)

Literary fiction meets a fast-paced psychological thriller in this Australian novel about a new mother who misplaces her baby and spends an entire day (in November 1969) trying to find her.

‘New Animal’ by Ella Baxter (2021)

This black comedy about death, grief and bondage follows a 20-something funeral parlour make-up artist whose life is thrown into disarray when her beloved mother dies unexpectedly.

‘After Story’ by Larissa Behrendt (2021)

A charming novel about two Aboriginal Australians — a mother and daughter — embarking on a tour of England’s most revered literary sites.

‘The Husband Poisoner’ by Tanya Bretherton (2021)

This historical true crime book turns a forensic eye toward women who murdered men in post-World War II Sydney using poison as their “weapon” of choice.

‘Mermaid Singing’  and ‘Peel Me a Lotus’ by Charmian Clift (1956/1959)

Published in one volume, these twin memoirs chart Clift’s life on two different Greek Islands with her husband, the novelist and war correspondent George Johnston, as part of a Bohemian set of artists and writers in the 1950s.

‘Scary Monsters’ by Michelle de Kretser (2021)

A story about racism, freedom of movement and the Australian way of life, this novel is split in half —  one half in France in the 1980s; the other half in Australia in a dystopian near-future — and the reader gets to choose which to read first. [This is yet to be reviewed on this blog, but I will add a link when I’m done.]

‘The Night Village’ by Zoe Deleuil (2021)

In this quietly unsettling portrait of new motherhood, a young Australian unexpectedly falls pregnant in London then finds her paranoia kicking in when her boyfriend’s cousin becomes possessive of the baby.

‘My Friend Fox’ by Heidi Everett (2021)

Beautifully written and illustrated memoir explaining what it is like to be a resident on a psyche ward and to live with a complicated mental health condition.

‘Ash Mountain’ by Helen Fitzgerald (2021)

Billed as a “disaster thriller”, this novel revolves around a terrifying bushfire and explores events leading up to the tragedy and what happens on the actual day of the fire.

‘The River Mouth’ by Karen Herbert (2021)

An investigation into the murder of a local teenage boy is reopened when new evidence comes to light in this impressive debut crime novel set in a small coastal town in Western Australia.

‘Bobbin Up’ by Dorothy Hewett (1959)

A richly told collection of interconnected short stories focused on a bunch of diverse female characters who work at a woollen mill in 1950s Sydney.

‘Moral Hazzard’ by Kate Jennings (2002)

This brilliant novella set in the 1990s recounts the story of an Australian woman working in a Wall Street investment bank by day and who looks after her ill husband by night.

‘The Broken Book’ by Susan Johnson (2004)

A complex, multi-layered and compelling story inspired by the life of Charmain Clift, and almost impossible to describe in an 800-word review let alone a single sentence!

‘From Where I Fell’ by Susan Johnson (2021)

An epistolary novel composed of emails between two women on opposite sides of the planet whose correspondence is sometimes fraught but always frank.

‘House of Kwa’ by Mimi Kwa (2021)

An intriguing memoir, one that explores family history, loyalty, patriarchy and tradition, and marries aspects of the historical novel with reportage to tell an epic story spanning four generations.

‘Revenge: Murder in Three Parts’ by S.L. Lim (2020)

A beguiling tale of a Malaysian woman whose parents treat her like a second class citizen on the basis of her gender.

‘The Labyrinth’ by Amanda Lohrey (2020)

A deeply contemplative novel about a woman who builds a labyrinth by the beach as a way to deal with the knowledge that her son committed a brutal murder.

‘A Jealous Tide’ by Anna MacDonald (2020)

In this debut novel, a woman from Melbourne eases her restlessness by walking along the Thames while she is in London working on a research project about Virginia Woolf.

‘The Ruin’ by Dervla McTiernan (2018)

A  compelling police procedural set in Galway, Ireland, in which a jaded Detective Inspector must confront a crime that has haunted him for 20 years.

‘Night Blue’ by Angela O’Keeffe (2021)

Narrated by the Jackson Pollock painting Blue Poles, this highly original novel tells the story of the artwork, which was controversially purchased by the Australian Government in 1973, and the equally controversial artist who created it.

‘The Family Doctor’ by Debra Oswald (2021)

A crime novel about a family GP who decides to take the law into her own hands after dealing with one too many domestic violence victims.

‘The Second Son by Loraine Peck (2021)

An action-packed gangland crime novel set in Sydney’s western suburbs that combines the all-male world of violent crime with the moral and ethical dilemmas this creates for the women who have married into it.

‘Coonardoo’ by Katharine Susannah Prichard (1929)

This notorious Australian classic was the first Australian novel to feature a loving relationship between a white man and an Aboriginal woman — and created a scandal upon publication.

‘One Hundred Days’ by Alice Pung (2021)

A teenage girl living in a high rise flat in Melbourne is smothered by her over-protective mother and forced to stay indoors for 100 days when she falls pregnant.

‘Sheerwater’ by Leah Swann (2020)

A fast-paced eloquently written literary crime novel in which a woman on the run from her abusive husband loses one of her children en route — but did he just wander off or was he kidnapped?

‘The Inland Sea’ by Madeleine Watts (2021)

A coming-of-age story about a troubled young woman working as an emergency call dispatcher at a time of unprecedented ecological disaster.

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

You can see all my wrap-ups for previous years of the Australian Women Writers Challenge as follows: 2020 here, 2019 here, 2018 here, 2017 here and 2016 here.

In 2022 the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge is switching focus to help raise the profile of women writers from the 19th- and 20th-century who may not have achieved prominence in their lifetimes, or whose works have been forgotten and/or overlooked. Visit the official website for more info. 

Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2021, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Loraine Peck, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, Southern Cross Crime Month 2021, Text

‘The Second Son’ by Loraine Peck

Fiction – paperback; Text Publishing; 447 pages; 2021. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Loraine Peck’s debut, The Second Son, is a gangland crime novel set in Sydney’s western suburbs.

The story is framed around a married couple, Johnny and Amy Novak, who are members of an organised crime family headed by Milan Novak, a Croatian immigrant. Amy is particularly keen to shield their young son, Sasha, from the family “business”, which involves running a string of fish’n chip shops as a front for nefarious activities including money laundering and drug trafficking.

The novel begins with the execution-style murder of Johnny’s beloved older brother, Ivan, who is fatally shot one dark evening while doing that most mundane (and unglamorous) of domestic duties: putting out the bins. The hitman is thought to be one of the gang’s Serbian rivals. Revenge is on everyone’s mind and police fear this will be the start of an ongoing tit-for-tat gangland war.

Johnny, who is the second son of the title, needs to prove himself worthy of filling the power vacuum created by Ivan’s death. To avenge his brother and win the trust and respect of his father, he comes up with a plan to carry out a daring heist to steal the Serb’s planned shipment of ecstasy said to be worth $3 million.

But there are complications. Amy, who was warned by her comfortably middle-class parents not to marry Johnny, wants a different life. She sees the violence and the bloodshed, and fears for her son’s future. When their own family home is shot at, she moves out and then issues an ultimatum to her husband: leave this life of crime behind and start afresh on the NSW north coast.

Johnny’s loyalties are torn: he loves his wife and son, but he also knows that he can’t risk the wrath of his father, nor the gangland criminals in his orbit. Whatever decision he makes will have far-reaching, perhaps even deadly, consequences…

Action-packed drama

The Second Son is an action-packed drama that combines the all-male world of violent crime with the moral and ethical dilemmas this creates for the women they have married. For instance, how can you live your life like a normal couple when you know your husband is a criminal even if you don’t know the depth or the details of the crime? Can you simply turn a blind eye, lie to your friends and then hope that none of the fallout will ever effect you?

Told in the first person from both Johnny and Amy’s points of view, Peck explores how these dilemmas affect both parties. Their narratives are told in separate chapters (which are headed “Johnny” or “Amy” accordingly), which helps provide a glimpse of their thought processes and their values, but unfortunately, their voices are so similar (and the present tense so wearing) that the structure didn’t really work for me. I also struggled to believe the male voice, which was too nuanced and too “nice”, and found Amy’s voice repetitive.

The book held the promise of being an intriguing character-led story, but it dissolved into a plot-driven one that didn’t really sustain my interest. I suspect that’s because I simply didn’t care about the characters, but also because the momentum sags in the middle, but picks up again towards the end.

Perhaps I have watched one too many Underbelly episodes or true crime documentaries, or read too many Mafiosa crime novels, but this story lacked the hard-hitting noirish edge I would expect from a novel about organised crime. It didn’t feel claustrophobic or dark enough; there always felt like there was the possibility of escape for the characters — indeed, this is what Amy dreams of all the time — and yet anyone who knows anything about this world knows that that is not possible. There is no escape — except death.

That said, The Second Son would make an excellent film or TV series. It asks important questions about love, loss and loyalty within an organised crime family. And it explores a topic rarely, if ever discussed, in Australian fiction: the ways in which grudges and resentments from the 1990s Balkan civil war continue on the streets of Sydney.

Judging by all the glowing five-star reviews online, I’m a little out of step with this one. For a more positive take, please see Shellyrae’s review at Book’d Out.

About the author¹: Loraine Peck started her career as a portrait painter and magician’s assistant in Sydney. After being sawn in half one too many times, she switched to dealing blackjack on the Gold Coast. Bartending and slinging lobsters in the US lead to a sales job in the movie industry before she was propelled into a career in marketing in Australia, the Middle East, Asia and the US. Consumed by a desire to write crime thrillers, she decided to stop everything and do a writing course—to learn how to write the kind of book she loves to read. (1. Source: Text Publishing website.)

Where to buy: Currently only available in Australia and New Zealand.

This is my 6th book for #SouthernCrossCrime2021 which I am hosting on this blog between 1st March and 31st March. To find out more, including how to take part and to record what you have read, please click here. It is also my 4th book for #AWW2021.