Australian Women Writers Challenge, AWW2019, Book lists

26 books by women: completing the 2019 Australian Women Writers’ Challenge

In what has become a bit of a tradition over the past few years, my New Year’s Day post is focused on Australian Women Writers — specifically listing all the titles I have read as part of the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge the year before. (You can see my wrap-up for 2018 here, 2017 here and 2016 here.)

In 2019, I aimed to read 10 books by Australian women writers. At the time I didn’t know I’d be moving back to Australia, so I kept my goal relatively achievable. But when I moved to Fremantle in June I suddenly had access to books — in both the shops and the library — that normally wouldn’t be available in the UK. As a consequence, I read a total of 26 books by female writers.

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) and I have tried, where possible, to provide information on availability outside of Australia, but note this is subject to change:


‘Little Gods’ by Jenny Ackland (2018)
A gorgeously evocative coming of age story set in Victoria’s mallee region during the 1980s.
Fiction. Only published in Australia. Check bookfinder.com for copies.


‘A Constant Hum’ by Alice Bishop (2019)
The literary equivalent of a concept album, this collection features short stories and flash fiction focused on the aftermath of bush fire.
Fiction. Only published in Australia, but Kindle edition available in other markets.


‘New York’ by Lily Brett (2001)
This humorous and entertaining collection of 52 short articles is largely about the author’s own insecurities, anxieties and dislikes, with a special focus on New York life.
Non-fiction. Widely available.


‘Room for a Stranger’ by Melanie Cheng (2019)
A beautiful, bittersweet story about finding friendship in the most unexpected of places.
Fiction. Only published in Australia, but Kindle edition available in other markets.


‘Wedderburn: A True Tale of Blood and Dust’ by Maryrose Cuskelly (2018)
A deeply contemplative and gripping analysis of a small-town murder in Australia written very much in the vein of Helen Garner’s true-crime style.
Non-fiction. Only published in Australia. Check bookfinder.com for copies.

‘Springtime: A Ghost Story’ by Michelle de Kretser (2017)
A richly written short story about what it is like to begin a new life in a new city.
Fiction. Only published in Australia, but Kindle edition available in other markets.

The Bridge book cover

‘The Bridge’ by Enza Gandolfo (2018)
Moving tale focused on the families whose lives were drastically altered following the collapse of Melbourne’s Westgate Bridge midway through construction in 1970.
Fiction. Widely available.

‘Yellow Notebook: Diaries Volume I, 1978-1987’ by Helen Garner (2019)
This collection of sublime and pithy journal entries spans 10 years of Garner’s life and showcases her ability to capture the tiniest of details to elevate seemingly ordinary occurrences into scenes of extraordinary power.
Nonfiction. Due to be published in the UK in May 2020.

‘The Bride Stripped Bare’ by Nikki Gemmell (2003)
Originally published under the author “anonymous”, this is an erotically charged tale about a married woman’s sexual awakening.
Fiction. Widely available.

‘The Arsonist: A Mind on Fire’ by Chloe Hooper (2019)
A true-crime story looking at the police investigation and subsequent court trial of a man charged with deliberately lighting a fire in Churchill, Central Gippsland that burnt 32,860 hectares and killed 11 people.
Nonfiction. Widely available.

‘Shepherd’ by Catherine Jinks (2019)
A fast-paced chase novel about a teenage poacher from Suffolk who is transported to New South Wales as a convict in 1840.
Fiction. Widely available.

‘Dustfall’ by Michelle Johnston (2018)
A haunting novel following the twin paths of two doctors — 30 years apart — who both settle in the doomed asbestos mining town of Wittenoom to lick their wounds after disastrous career mistakes. (Please note, I never got around to reviewing this one: it’s really excellent.)
Fiction. Paperback available.

‘Pink Mountain on Locust Island’ by Jamie Marina Lau (2018)
The story of a troubled lonely teen living with a drug-addicted father is told in a fragmentary style structured around a series of short vignettes.
Fiction. Only available in Australia, but can be ordered online from Browbooks.com.

‘The Erratics’ by Vicki Laveau-Harvie (2018)
This year’s Stella Prize winner, Laveau-Harvie’s memoir recounts how she had to deal with her Canadian-based elderly parents — one of whom was trying to kill the other — from afar.
Nonfiction. Due to be published in the UK in August 2020.

‘Beauty’ by Bri Lee (2019)
A long-form essay looking at body image and the ways in which young women are conditioned to think that being thin is the only route to happiness and acceptance.
Non-fiction. Only available in Australia. Check bookfinder.com for copies.

‘Eggshell Skull: A memoir about standing up, speaking out and fighting back’ by Bri Lee (2018)
This riveting memoir marries the personal with the political by charting the author’s first year working in the Australian judicial system as she grapples with an eating disorder stemming from her own sexual abuse.
Non-fiction. Only published in Australia. Check bookfinder.com for copies.

‘Too Much Lip’ by Melissa Lucashenko (2018)
Winner of this year’s prestigious Miles Franklin Literary Award, this brash, gritty and hard-hitting novel is about an indigenous family trying to save their land from the local mayor’s plans to build a new prison on it.
Fiction. Only published in Australia. Check bookfinder.com for copies.

‘The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone’ by Felicity McLean (2019)
A disappointing novel about the fictional disappearance of three blonde sisters — the Van Apfel children of the title — from the perspective of their childhood friend, Tikka Malloy.
Fiction. Widely available.

‘The Trespassers’ by Meg Mundell (2019)
A dystopian tale set on a ship filled with Brits headed to Australia, but midway through the voyage, someone is found dead and an unplanned quarantine situation arises.
Fiction. Widely available.

‘Her Father’s Daughter’ by Alice Pung (2013)
This moving memoir explores the author’s early adulthood in Australia, the daughter of two Cambodians who fled the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge when she begins to unearth the story of her father’s frightening past.
Non-fiction. Widely available.

‘Bruny’ by Heather Rose (2019)
A political satire-cum-thriller about a terrorist attack in sleepy Tasmania some time in the very near future.
Fiction. Only published in Australia. Check bookfinder.com for copies.

‘See What I Have Done’ by Sarah Schmidt (2017)
Fictionalised account of Lizzie Borden’s possible culpability of the brutal murder of her father and step-mother in Massachusetts in the 19th century.
Fiction. Widely available.

‘Axiomatic’ by Maria Tumarkin (2018)
A heady mix of storytelling and reportage, this book looks at five different axioms — an accepted truth — and examines, often in great detail and with much intellectual rigour and anecdotal evidence, as to whether they can be debunked.
Non-fiction. Only available in Australia, but can be ordered online from Browbooks.com.

‘Cusp’ by Josephine Wilson (2005)
A beautifully layered narrative about a mother and daughter trying to recalibrate a sometimes fraught relationship.
Fiction. Only available in Australia, but can be ordered online at uwap.uwa.edu.au/collections/fiction

‘The Weekend’ by Charlotte Wood (2019)
A lovely story about friendship and growing old, it focuses on three women in their 70s who spend a weekend together cleaning out the holiday home of their now dead friend.
Fiction. Due to be published in the UK in June 2020.

‘Fake’ by Stephanie Wood (2019)
A respected journalist who dreamt of finding a special man to spend the rest of her life with, Wood fell victim to a charlatan — and this is her raw, unflinching account of their relationship.
Non-fiction. Only published in Australia, but Kindle edition available in other markets.

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 2020 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. I am going to aim to read and review 20 books.

If you want to participate, you can sign up via the official website. Please note you don’t need to be an Australian to take part — it’s open to everyone around the world. The more, the merrier, as they say!

Allen & Unwin, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2019, Book lists, Book review, Catherine Jinks, dystopian, Fiction, Five fast reviews, Fourth Estate, Heather Rose, historical fiction, literary fiction, Meg Mundelle, Michelle de Krester, Nikki Gemmell, Publisher, Setting, Text, University of Queensland Press

5 Fast Reviews: Michelle de Kretser, Nikki Gemmell, Catherine Jinks, Meg Mundell and Heather Rose

The past two months have been fairly hectic around here, mainly because I started a new job and I’ve had to learn a whole new role in a new industry and I’ve really not had the energy to read books much less review them.

The books I have read haven’t exactly set my world on fire — perhaps because I’ve been distracted by other things — so I haven’t been inspired to write proper full-length reviews. Here’s a quick round-up of what I’ve read recently:

‘Springtime: A Ghost Story’ by Michelle de Kretser

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 96 pages; 2017.

I’ve read a couple of Michelle de Kretser’s novels before — The Life to Come was one of my favourites last year — so I was delighted to find this novella in my local library. Billed as a ghost story, it’s not typical of the genre. Indeed, I’d argue it’s not a ghost story at all but a richly written tale about what it is like to begin a new life in a new city. The “ghosts” — for want of a better word — are the memories associated with the place you leave behind.

The story is about a married couple, Frances and Charlie, who are grappling with a move from Melbourne to Sydney. Everything feels unfamiliar and strange to them. Frances spends a lot of time exploring on foot with her dog — there are lots of lush descriptions of the city’s parks and gardens coming into bloom written with de Kretser’s typical literary flourishes  — and it’s while she’s on her wanderings that she comes across a haunting sight in a neighbour’s garden. This “apparition”, which alarms her greatly, could also be seen as a metaphor for the ghosts in her husband’s past, which she is trying to decipher.

Easily read in a sitting, Springtime is about ghosts of the past haunting a marriage as much as it is about the eerie goings-on in the neighbourhood. I’d argue that it’s really only for die-hard fans of de Kretser; it felt slightly too ephemeral for me to get a real handle on the story. For a more detailed review, please see Lisa’s at ANZLitLovers.

‘The Bride Stripped Bare’ by Nikki Gemmell

Fiction – paperback; Fourth Estate; 375 pages; 2011.

Originally published in 2003 under the author “anonymous”, The Bride Stripped Bare is an erotically charged tale about a married woman’s sexual awakening. Written in diary form as a series of lessons numbered from one to 138, it tells the story of a young woman who has never felt sexually fulfilled in her marriage and then acts, somewhat foolishly it has to be said, on her impulse to take a lover.

Her relationship with Gabriel, a handsome older man who turns out to be a virgin, gives her the chance to explore her own needs and desires without fear of judgment. Intoxicated by the power of her newly developed sexual prowess, she begins to take chances she shouldn’t and the double life she’s leading pushes her perilously close to the edge.

Admittedly, this book got me out of a reading slump, probably because it’s written in a compelling tone of voice (in the second person) and surges along at an octane-fuelled pace, helped no doubt by the exceedingly short chapters, but I didn’t love it enough to want to read the two follow-ups, With My Body and I Take You. And the whole idea that you could find a willing 40+-year-old virgin hanging around London seemed too ludicrous for me to take the story all that seriously…

‘Shepherd’ by Catherine Jinks

Fiction – paperback; Text Publishing; 240 pages; 2019.

Shepherd tells the tale of a teenage poacher from Suffolk who is transported to New South Wales as a convict in 1840. The narrative swings backward and forward in time, detailing Tom’s old life in England, and then contrasting it with his new life assigned to a shepherd’s hut, where he helps to protect a flock of sheep with a trio of violent prisoners.

This fast-paced story is essentially a chase novel, for it follows what happens when Tom becomes caught up in events that may lead to his death at the hands of a vicious killer known as Dan Carver.

Initially, I really liked this tale, especially Tom’s warm, empathetic voice, his wisdom, his concern for the “blacks” and his desire to know the plants and animals of the Australian landscape, but it soon began to wear thin when I realised there was not enough show and too much tell. There was too much violence in it for me, too, and the chase dragged on for too long to sustain my interest. Without wishing to damn it with faint praise, it actually felt like a novel that teenage boys might like, so it comes as no surprise that the author has several award-winning children’s books to her name.

‘The Trespassers’ by Meg Mundell

Fiction – paperback; University of Queensland Press; 278 pages; 2019.

If ever a novel was to be a nod to the shenanigans of Brexit or Australia’s shameful immigration detention policy, this is it. The Trespassers is a dystopian tale set on a crowded ship bound for Australia. Onboard are Brits escaping the disease-ridden UK. They have all been carefully screened, but midway through the voyage disease breaks out, someone is found dead and an unplanned quarantine situation arises.

The story is told through the eyes of three different characters, all superbly drawn, who take turns to narrate their side of events in alternate chapters: there’s a nine-year-old Irish boy who is deaf, a singer-turned-nurse from Glasgow and an English schoolteacher in need of money.

By the time the ship gets to its destination several people have died and there’s no guarantee the immigrants will be allowed to disembark on Australian soil. This is a riveting story that reads like a thriller but has all the intelligence and wisdom of a literary novel not afraid to tackle big issues such as healthcare, immigration, human trafficking and politics. I really loved this book and hope to see it pop up on literary prize lists in the very near future.

‘Bruny’ by Heather Rose

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 424 pages; 2019. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Tasmanian writer Heather Rose will be known to most people for her award-winning The Museum of Modern Love, a book I loved so much I convinced my book group to read it even though it hadn’t yet been published in the UK (we all bought it on Kindle). Bruny, her latest novel, has arrived with much fanfare, but it’s completely different in almost every possible way to what preceded it.

Set in Tasmania some time in the very near future, it tells the story of the bombing of a massive bridge being built to link mainland Tasmania with the island of Bruny, just across the D’Entrecasteaux Channel. The terrorist attack brings the bridge down, but it also brings worldwide attention to this usually quiet and sleepy part of the world. New York-based UN conflict resolution expert Astrid Coleman returns home to help her twin brother, the state premier, soothe troubled waters. Matters are complicated further by a dysfunctional family: her sister is the Opposition Leader; her mother barely talks to her; and her father, who is slowly dying of Alzheimer’s, can only communicate in Shakespeare quotes.

A sharp-eyed and intelligent political satire come thriller (reminiscent of Charlotte Grimshaw’s Soon), the book is fast-paced and written with wit and verve. But as much as I enjoyed reading it, I just didn’t buy the premise — that a massive bridge would be built in this part of the world and that terrorists would take the time to blow it up — and had a hard time taking it seriously. And even though I went to the Perth launch and heard Rose talk about the story in great depth (she was very careful not to give away crucial plot spoilers), I’ve come to the conclusion that the book is simply preposterous — but I’m sure that won’t stop it being shortlisted for awards aplenty.

These books are all by Australian women writers. They represent the 19th, 20th, 21st, 22nd and 23rd books I have read this year for #AWW2019.

Book lists

8 great novels written in the second person

Writing a novel using the second-person point of view — where the narrator tells the story to another character using the word “you” — is a difficult feat to pull off. In the wrong hands, it can feel tedious and wearing; in the right hands, it can elevate a novel into something really special, making you, the reader, feel implicated in the tale.

Over the years I’ve read several (mainly Irish) novels adopting this point of view — and they’ve all been exceptionally great tales.

Here is a list of books I have read that use the second-person point of view. They have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s name — click the title to see my full review.


‘Spill Simmer Falter Wither’ by Sara Baume

This debut novel from 2015 follows the up-and-down relationship between one man, a social misfit called Ray, and his rescue dog, whom he dubs “One Eye”, across four seasons — the spill, simmer, falter, wither of the title. Written in the present tense, with Ray addressing everything to the dog, it reveals how loss and loneliness can be alleviated by the love of a loyal pet. But it’s also a dark and disturbing look at what can happen to those people who fall through the cracks, who never fit in and are misjudged or cast out by society at large.

The sound of my voice
‘The Sound of My Voice’ by Ron Butlin

This five-star black comedy, first published in 1987 but reissued in 2018, is very much about the lies we tell ourselves to get by. It is narrated by Morris Magellan, an executive in a biscuit factory, using a self-deprecating voice that is filled with sophistry and self-deception. On the surface, it appears that Morris has it all, including an important job, a devoted wife, two children and a home of his own, but he’s a high-functioning alcoholic whose self-destructive behaviour is at odds with his own high opinion of himself.  The use of the second-person narrative puts us right in Morris’ head, making us complicit in his crimes and unable to restrain the worst of his excesses.


‘Apple Tree Yard’ by Louise Doughty

This dark, smart and sexy psychological-thriller-cum-court-room-drama, full of twists, turns and unexpected shocks, is about an illicit affair between a highly successful geneticist and a man she thinks might be a spy. When this exceptionally well-plotted story opens all we know is that the main character, Yvonne, is in the dock at the Old Bailey, answering to the charge of murder. What we don’t know is who she has murdered and why. The second-person voice that is employed conveys Yvonne’s constant disbelief that her ordinary dull and predictable life has come to this. It makes for a truly compelling read.

Montpelier Parade
‘Montpelier Parade’ by Karl Geary

Set in Dublin in the 1970s, this is an unconventional story about forbidden love, which is melancholy and bittersweet. Written entirely in the second person from a teenage boy’s perspective, it charts the relationship he has with a much older woman whom he rescues after a failed suicide attempt. As well as being about their illicit affair, the novel also explores class differences and what happens when others decide the path we should follow. Perfectly paced, it works its gentle, poetic way towards a heart-breaking climax. Expect to be devastated when you get to the end.

‘The Book of Rapture’ by Nikki Gemmell

First published in 2009, this strangely haunting dystopian novel is narrated in the second person by a married woman whose involvement in a top-secret scientific project has put her life, and the lives of her young family, in danger. To protect her children from the security forces she has them drugged and spirited away to a secret hiding place. The narrator’s omnipresent voice means you experience the children’s actions through the mother’s loving eyes, and so when she is fearful for them the tension ratchets up a few notches, making this a particular heart-hammering read. It’s a tale that explores many issues, including science and religion, but its main theme is about the ability of humans to grow and change — for the better.


‘Bright Lights, Big City’ by Jay McInerney

This black comedy revolves around a young man living a precarious existence in New York in the 1980s. He’s been dumped by his wife but is keeping this fact secret from his colleagues and family. By day he works in the fact-checking department of a prestigious magazine; by night he’s out clubbing with his best friend, doing drugs and trying to hook up with women for one-night stands. The entire narrative — fast-paced and based on a series of set pieces — is told in the second person employing a voice that is, by turns, self-deprecating and pathetic. But while it’s mostly hilarious, the story is undercut by deeper issues relating to our need to fit in, to be accepted by our peers and society as a whole without fear of judgement. It’s also a good examination of how important it is to find meaningfulness in our work, play and relationships. Highly recommended.

‘You’ by Nuala Ní Chonchúir

A lovely, heartfelt and completely engrossing story, You is about a 10-year-old Irish girl grappling with issues out of her control: the loss of her best friend who moves to Wales; the impending birth of a new half-sibling to her father’s second wife; and a new man in her mother’s life. Set in Dublin in the 1980s, it is told in the present tense and in the second person from the viewpoint of the girl, who is feisty, funny, opinionated, cheeky and fiercely independent. You get pulled into the story because of her voice and get to experience everything she experiences, which makes her tale feel particularly immediate, heart-breaking — and real.

‘Ghost Light’ by Joseph O’Connor

Ghost Light charts the rise and fall of real-life Irish Catholic actress Maire O’Neill (1885-1952), who performed under the stage name Molly Allgood and was engaged to playwright John Millington Synge, a Protestant 14 years her senior. Told in the second person, it’s an intimate account of Molly’s life from her time as the rising star of the Abbey Theatre to a now-elderly woman living in London, in such dire straits she’s prepared to sell her most precious possession — a love letter from Synge — in exchange for a bottle of booze. Molly’s feisty, humourous voice, married with her desperation, her poverty and her dependence on alcohol, makes her story an incredibly moving one.

Have you read any of these books? Or can you recommend a great novel written in the second person?

Author, Book review, Fiction, Fourth Estate, literary fiction, Nikki Gemmell, Publisher

‘The Book of Rapture’ by Nikki Gemmell

BookofRapture

Fiction – paperback; Fourth Estate; 269 pages; 2009. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Nikki Gemmell is an Australian author based in London who achieved international acclaim with her 2003 novel The Bride Stripped Bare, which was originally published anonymously on the basis that the subject matter was too provocative.

Prior to this she wrote three other novels — Shiver; Cleave (published in the USA as Alice Springs); and Love Song — none of which I’ve read. However, I’ve long been familiar with Gemmell’s work, mainly as a broadcast journalist, first, on Triple J, the ABC’s youth network, back in the early 1990s (she filed memorable reports on a scientific expedition from Antarctica; her girlie voice used to grate), and second, more recently as a commentator on the BBC’s Newsnight Review.

This latest novel, The Book of Rapture, is a strangely haunting story set in an unnamed country at an unspecified time. It feels dystopian but lacks the true grit and misery of that genre, and yet there’s something slightly creepy and oppressive about it.

The story is narrated in the second person by a married woman whose involvement in a top secret scientific project has put her life, and the lives of her young family and husband, in danger. To protect her children — her daughter Soli and twin boys, Tidge and Mouse — from the security forces she has them drugged and spirited away to a secret hiding place. When the children wake up they find themselves alone in a basement room, where they are supplied with food and occasional companionship by a family friend, B. But when B stops coming they find themselves having to survive without any adult supervision whatsoever, which makes them take risks that other, less resourceful, children would shy away from…

This is a weird premise for a novel but it’s an exciting one. The narrator’s omnipresent voice means you experience the children’s actions through the mother’s loving eyes, and so when she is fearful for them the tension ratchets up a few notches, making this a particular heart-hammering read in places.

But it’s also a highly intellectual read, because this book explores many difficult, rarely discussed topics that are so pertinent to the way we live our lives today. The narrator, having developed a weapon of mass destruction like no other, finds herself questioning her husband’s spirituality, because, to her, religion and science are incompatible. Indeed, she later tells her son that she was wary of religion because

…you hated all the rules and boring lectures, you thought it was a weakness, a lack of intelligence, and you’re not into all that dependent thought. ‘It’s this beautiful, singing lie, my lovely, and eventually all the faiths around us will exist nowhere but the history books’.

The novel also raises questions about whether it is possible to be moral and ethical without believing in God. And it also explores whether goodness can evolve (although, interestingly, it doesn’t look at the other side of the coin: whether evil exists or how it develops).

There’s a lot here about raising children and how their upbringing can shape their world view, as well as the struggle between opposites who are married to one another and the compromises they must make to ensure their love survives.

But the overriding message I came away with was this: that it is possible for humans to grow and change and become less judgmental and more compassionate, and that the differences between people — their races, religions and societies — should be cherished not abhorred.

As you might be able to tell, The Book of Rapture provides much to cogitate on and mull over and digest. It’s quite unlike anything I’ve read before and so it felt entirely new and fresh and experimental, a genuine credit to the writer when you consider how many books I’ve read in my lifetime.