Category Archives: Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013

Australian Women Writers Challenge—2013 wrap-up

awwbadge_2013I signed up for the Australian Women Writers Challenge this year—the first reading challenge I’ve undertaken. I chose the Franklin level, committing myself to read at least ten books by Australian women writers and to review at least six. The year is nearly over, and it’s time to look back at my totals: twenty-three books read, six reviewed. Challenge successfully completed, although clearly there has to be a could do better comment against the reviewing total.

I noticed a couple of things in my pattern of reading. First, it decreased generally in the second half of the year and, especially, in the last two months. I wonder whether that’s just me or if other people experience that same sensation of life speeding up as the year draws to a close, with less time available for reading? And second, I have a bias towards reading Western Australian women writers. I’m sure the same could have been said of my reading in previous years, and I make no apology for it.

And so, here is my summary for 2013, with links to reviews and also to short extracts featured in my Reasons to love a novel series:

Dawn Barker, Fractured (Hachette, 2013)

Emma Chapman, How to Be a Good Wife (Picador, 2013) *extract here

Caroline Hamilton, Consumed (ABC Books, 2008) *reviewed here

Wendy James, The Mistake (Penguin, 2012)

Favel Parrett, Past the Shallows (Hachette, 2011)

Iris Lavell, Elsewhere in Success (Fremantle Press, 2013) *reviewed here

Lynne Leonhardt, Finding Jasper (Margaret River Press, 2012) *reviewed here

Natasha Lester, What Is Left Over, After (Fremantle Press, 2010) *extract here

Kirsty Murray, Vulture’s Gate (Allen & Unwin, 2009)

M.L. Stedman, The Light between Oceans (Vintage, 2012)

Courtney Collins, The Burial (Allen & Unwin, 2012) *reviewed here

Julienne van Loon, Harmless (Fremantle Press, 2013) *reviewed here

Felicity Young, Antidote to Murder (crime fiction, HarperCollins, 2013)

Hannah Kent, Burial Rites (Picador, 2013)

Deb Fitzpatrick, The Amazing Spencer Gray (junior fiction, Fremantle Press, 2013)

Yvette Walker, Letters to the End of Love (UQP, 2013) *reviewed here

Romy Ash, Floundering (Text, 2012)

Kirsten Krauth, just_a_girl (UWA Publishing, 2013)

Marlish Glorie, Sea Dog Hotel (Etext Press, 2013) *extract here

Paddy O’Reilly, The Fine Colour of Rust (HarperCollins, 2012) *extract here

Angela Savage, Behind the Night Bazaar (Text, 2006)

A.J. Betts, Zac & Mia (Text, 2013)

Debra Adelaide, The Household Guide to Dying (Picador, 2008)

These are fine works deserving of acclaim and respect—and my list only scratches the surface of what’s available from Australian women writers. A quick browse through the reviews on the AWWC site will introduce you to many more.

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If there is to be an Australian Women Writers Challenge in 2014, I will sign up again—and resolve to do better with reviews!

elemental_COVERAnd finally, I would just like to acknowledge some of the wonderful bloggers who chose to review or otherwise support Elemental in 2013 (some through the AWWC):

Lisa Hill, ANZ LitLovers LitBlog
Magdalena Ball, The Compulsive Reader
Rashida Murphy, Rashida WriteNow
Serje Jones, Kill Your Darlings
Marisa Wikramanayake, Guys Read Gals
Marlish Glorie, Book Stew
Lynne Leonhardt
Natasha Lester, While the Kids Are Sleeping
Britt Ingerson, Buggalugz Book Blog
Kristen Levitzke
Louise Allan, Life from the Attic
Emily Paull, The Incredible Rambling Elimy
Joy, Book Coasters
John Paul Newbury, Open Writing

A big heartfelt thank-you to you all!

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Australian Women Writers Challenge: April–June progress check

awwbadge_2013I didn’t read as much in the second quarter of 2013 as I did in the first, but I put that down to the lovely distraction of Elemental’s release in May. Even so, I’ve reached my goal for the challenge, the Franklin level: a commitment to read at least ten and review at least six books by Australian women writers in 2013.

The books I read in the April–June quarter were brilliant, every one of them:

Courtney Collins, The Burial (Allen & Unwin, 2012) *reviewed here

Julienne van Loon, Harmless (Fremantle Press, 2013) *reviewed here

Felicity Young, Antidote to Murder (crime fiction, HarperCollins, 2013)

Hannah Kent, Burial Rites (Picador, 2013)

Deb Fitzpatrick, The Amazing Spencer Gray (junior fiction, Fremantle Press, 2013)

Yvette Walker, Letters to the End of Love (UQP, 2013) *reviewed here

My tally now is sixteen read and six reviewed. And there’s still the Stella and Miles Franklin lists to work through, plus a raft of new releases, plus a list of must-reads on that ever-growing pile…

How are you going with various 2013 reading challenges?

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Book review: Letters to the End of Love, by Yvette Walker

9780702249662The difficulty in reviewing this exquisite debut novel by Yvette Walker lies in not giving away too much. I don’t mean to suggest that Letters to the End of Love is a thriller; on the contrary, it unfolds its stories languorously, dwelling in the quotidian details and rhythms of life. It is this narrative act of unfolding—letter by letter—that gives the novel its cumulative power.

Has there ever been a more perfect title, in its literal aptness and symbolic weight? Love is at the centre of each of three stories braided together through a series of letters. In one, the end of love is likely; in one, inevitable; in one, impossible, even in death. The three sets of letters are otherwise unrelated, other than for the appearance of Paul Klee’s painting Ad Marginem in each story, holding a significance for its pair of lovers, and a concomitant suggestion of the power of art itself.

The Cork letters, dated 1969, tell the story of Dmitri, an exiled Russian painter, and Caithleen, his Irish writer wife. Written, at Caithleen’s request, as daily missives to each other, these letters record the ‘ordinary things, ordinary poetry’ that make up a relationship spanning four decades. The past, in all its tenderness and pain, threads around an uncertain present, as Dmitri and Caithleen reveal intimacies and hauntings that are entwined: ‘I don’t know what comes first, love or sadness, they are perfect twin pearls to me’ (Dmitri). I adore the ‘notorious dog’ who shares itself between them and bridges (or so it seems to me) the silent spaces that the letters also seek to bridge.

The Perth letters, 2011, chart the struggling relationship between two women: stay-at-home bookseller, Grace, and her always-travelling partner Lou, part of the entourage of a musician said to be ‘the new Dylan’. Grace initiates the correspondence as an attempt at ‘something old fashioned, something possibly redundant in a world of speed and light,’ and the resulting letters range across memory and aspiration, the minutiae of (vastly different) everyday lives, the longing both women feel. Lou writes:

Loneliness. Its long white feathers drop and gather around my feet, they blow out of the bar, under the hotel doors and out into the street, into the rain. I want you here and I can’t make it happen.

The Bournemouth letters, 1948, are written by John, a retired English physician, to his lost love, David, a German artist, recalling the time they shared in Vienna before the onset of the Second World War. Prompted by the visit of a man carrying a message from David, these are deeply intimate, elliptical communications to which we bring our knowledge of the horror of those times, reading into their heartbreaking gaps.

I am in love with this writing—its scope, its language—often so profound that it forces you to pause, re-read, savour. Here’s an example (John to David):

You told me painting was working the world out. It was diving into cold, clear mountain water. Crying in the night without dreaming. Ducking a fist in the face. It was boxes of old love letters. Leaflets strewn on the streets like yellow flowers. Suitcases stacked at train stations. These things I whispered to Peter, while the fine muslin cloth that embalms me in the world unravelled itself, like so many used bandages, into an untidy mess at my feet.

The fragmentary nature of letters, their assumptions, their confessions, their allusions, creates an ideal framework in which to tell these intimate stories of ‘love as it is, in all of its strangeness.’ I hope this review has given away no more than a taste of what Yvette Walker’s ambitious, enchanting novel has to offer.

Letters to the End of Love by Yvette Walker (UQP, 2013)

ISBN 9780702249662

This review counts towards my total for the 2013 Australian Women Writers Challenge.awwbadge_2013

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What I’m reading: a guest post at Meanjin

When I think of all the voices in all the novels populating this house and studio—narrators lofty or confessional, intrusive or seductive, the sly unreliables, the ominiscients, the limiteds, the multiples—I know there has never been a voice like the one in the novel lying on my sofa right now.

Today I’m guest blogging at Meanjin, in its ‘What I’m reading’ series. Click here to read more about Courtney Collins’s debut novel, The Burial—and to find out why my idiosyncratic book-shelving habits do not impress my librarian sister.

 

 

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Book review: Harmless, by Julienne van Loon

9781922089045_HARMLESS_WEBThe novella has been occupying my mind a lot lately, mostly because I am working on one myself. As a form of fiction that sits in an intermediary place between two others—the novel and the short story—a novella has the capacity to draw on the strengths of both and find its own kind of power.

Julienne van Loon achieves exactly that in Harmless.

The cast of characters is small, and all are people hovering beyond the edges of mainstream society. Rattuwat, an elderly Thai hotel worker, has arrived in Perth for the funeral of his only daughter, Sua. Dave, Sua’s partner, is in gaol for a half-hearted, unsuccessful armed robbery. Rattuwat is collected at the airport by Dave’s children: Ant, a young man heading in the same direction as his father, and eight-year-old Amanda, a child who has ‘no respect’. There is no sign of the grandchildren Sua had written to her parents about.

The action in the present takes place over a single day. Rattuwat and Amanda have set out to drive to Acacia Prison to visit Dave. The story begins when the car breaks down and the two of them, at Amanda’s insistence, attempt to walk to the prison. Rattuwat cannot handle the heat and the long walk; Amanda leaves him behind. Both get lost, and Dave’s allotted visiting time comes and goes.

Through this slender but compelling arc of events, Rattuwat, Amanda and Dave are put under great pressure. Each must come to terms with grief and loss; each must decide whether to give up or keep travelling.

But the present is only part of the story. Through brief glimpses of what has brought each character to this day’s events—memories, vignettes—van Loon pieces together a grim, bruising story of human vulnerability. These are novelistic techniques used in miniature, compressed to the every-word-counts imperative of the short story.

The narrative’s centre is the absent character, Sua, and it is her story that I found the most heartbreaking—perhaps because of the understated way the horror of her past is revealed. Perhaps, too, because in spite of this, she represents redemptive love, especially for Amanda.

Amanda is a beautifully realised character—difficult to warm to and at the same time impossible not to feel the greatest anxiety for. As I read, I kept remembering Rattuwat’s observation of the ‘impatient and rude’ child at Sua’s funeral:

… he couldn’t help noticing the constant stream of tears coming from the girl in the red dress. She keened and sniffled, wiping mucus all over the back of her hand. Watching her caused Rattuwat physical pain. In some way he had yet to fully understand, that little girl surely belonged to Sua.

Abandoned in different ways by her birth mother, her father and Sua, Amanda is truly lost. In a scene towards the end of the novella, she is transfixed at the sight of an injured kangaroo on the side of the road:

When the second fit began it went on and on, so that the shuddering became all there was to the world. It echoed Amanda’s shifting pulse. Shutting her eyes, blocking her ears, nothing helped. But she could not move away. She stood and stood.

It is a pivotal moment when the child’s unbearable, inexpressible helplessness is visible to her, embodied in the suffering kangaroo.

The novella’s ending is open, the fates of its characters unresolved. For Amanda, however, I sensed hope in her newly found anger, its suggestion that she will be helpless no more, and in the knowledge that she is ‘travelling with Sua in her heart’.

Ian McEwan (The New Yorker, 29 October 2012) has described the novella as ‘the perfect form of prose fiction’—‘long enough for a reader to inhabit a world or a consciousness and be kept there, short enough to be read in a sitting or two and for the whole structure to be held in mind at first encounter’. Harmless fully exploits this satisfying architecture, and delivers depth and weight that belie its 137 pages.

Harmless is Julienne van Loon’s third book, following on from the Vogel Award–winning novella Road Story in 2005 and the novel Beneath the Bloodwood Tree in 2008.

Harmless by Julienne van Loon (Fremantle Press, 2013)
ISBN 9781922089045

This review counts towards my total for the 2013 Australian Women Writers Challenge.awwbadge_2013

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Australian Women Writers Challenge: January–March progress check

awwbadge_2013This year I signed up for the Australian Women Writers Challenge, opting for the Franklin level: a commitment to read ten books by Australian women writers and to review at least six. When I did a quick tally of how I’m going, I was surprised to see I’ve already reached my reading target. And what a pleasure it’s been to discover wonderful new writers, as well as catching up with titles I’ve been meaning to read for a while. With some brilliant new releases coming up (I’m looking forward to Julienne van Loon’s novella Harmless and Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites) and the recent announcements of the Stella Prize shortlist and Miles Franklin longlist, there are now so many titles on my ‘to read’ list that I suspect I won’t have any trouble doubling, perhaps trebling, the reading challenge; I just have to keep reminding myself about the reviews!

Here’s my list so far:

Dawn Barker, Fractured (Hachette, 2013)

Emma Chapman, How to Be a Good Wife (Picador, 2013)

Caroline Hamilton, Consumed (ABC Books, 2008) *reviewed here

Wendy James, The Mistake (Penguin, 2012)

Iris Lavell, Elsewhere in Success (Fremantle Press, 2013) *reviewed here

Lynne Leonhardt, Finding Jasper (Margaret River Press, 2012) *reviewed here

Natasha Lester, What Is Left Over, After (Fremantle Press, 2010)

Kirsty Murray, Vulture’s Gate (Allen & Unwin, 2009)

Favel Parrett, Past the Shallows (Hachette, 2011)

M.L. Stedman, The Light between Oceans (Vintage, 2012)

fractured coverhowtobeagoodwife cover165133the mistake cover9781921888540_ELSEWHEREINSUCCESS_WEBSetWidth465-Coverwhatisleftoveraftervulturesgatepasttheshallowslightbetweenoceans

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Book review: Finding Jasper, by Lynne Leonhardt

SetWidth465-CoverI first read Lynne Leonhardt’s wonderful novel Finding Jasper some years ago, when it existed as a stack of A4 pages and had a different title. At the time, Lynne and I were both PhD candidates at Edith Cowan University, Perth. I think I had just handed in my thesis (the creative component of which became The Sinkings), and Lynne was a year behind me but well advanced with her novel. It is always a privilege to read another writer’s work in progress. I felt confident, as I read this one, that it would find a publisher. (I should add, however, that it’s damned hard to do that these days; the hard truth is that not all good manuscripts do get published. As Annabel Smith observed in an interview recently, it often it comes down to the precarious business of finding the one right person who will fall in love with the work.)

Tonight I finished reading Finding Jasper as a published novel—a fine production, Margaret River Press’s first full-length fiction title (2012).

Finding Jasper spans twenty years of the twentieth century—1945 to 1965—and is told in three discontinuous parts representing different phases in the life of its main character, Virginia (Gin). For West Australians, especially those of the baby-boomer generation/s, there is the special delight of recognition in the novel’s evocation of Perth and the South West in these years, but you don’t need to be West Australian to appreciate the richness and authenticity of the re-creation of that past—the prevailing social attitudes to women and children, ‘the Hun’ and ‘the yellow peril’, the ‘long-haired layabouts’ of the sixties; world events (such as war, postwar displacement, the unease of the Cuban crisis period, the Kennedy assassination); the sometimes cringe-inducing idiom (from ‘bally blighters’ and ‘sods’ to ‘tickety boo chums’); the accoutrements of the times, details such as fox furs and Bex, soda siphons and Craven A cigarettes.

The title character, Jasper, is the phantom of the story, a World War II fighter pilot who does not return from his last mission. Although absent, he is central to the lives of his daughter (Gin), wife (Valerie), sister (Attie) and mother (Audrey). But it is not Jasper’s novel; it belongs to these women, each of whom is materially and psychologically affected by that absence. Gin’s loss is perhaps the greatest, as she has no personal memory of her father and must rely on photographs and the stories of others.

 Images of her father were always contained in one-dimensional shapes, missing fragments in a puzzle.

Cross-generational relationships are skilfully drawn, and the casual disregard with which the self-absorbed Valerie treats Gin is often painful to read. I was interested to observe that Valerie provoked some strong reactions at a Perth Writers Festival session recently; however, I found myself feeling some empathy for her. As a homesick British war bride and new mother transplanted to rural Australia, she is a stranger in a strange land at a time of social chaos and emotional upheaval. The property ‘Grasswood’, Jasper’s pride, tended so lovingly by Attie, is remote and, in Valerie’s eyes, desolate, and there are genuine threats from the natural world (bushfire, storms) and the human too (an unhinged neighbour). I was reminded of my late mother-in-law’s stories of having arrived in Australia from London in the 1950s and being sent to a tiny town in the Wheatbelt; the aching cries of the crows were, she said, the loneliest sounds on earth.

In contrast to Valerie’s perceptions are the lyrical passages showing us ‘Grasswood’ through Gin’s eyes.

Down here [at the dam] everything was calm and peaceful and the water looked inviting. Past the oily shallows, green and gold reflections shimmered, undefined, penetrating the constantly merging brown and silver streaks that stretched across the water. Back and forth above the ripples, metallic dragonflies hovered, then darted, their wings a brilliant blur of blue.

Part 3 of the novel, set in the 1960s, charts Gin’s coming of age, and seems to mirror an escalating pace of life. Despite several heart-breaking tragedies in this section, the trajectory is ultimately hopeful, without being prescriptive, and I felt a sense of elation for Gin in the final pages.

If you were to ask me about the changes made between the manuscript I read years ago and this polished debut novel, I could not tell you. Enough time has passed for the experience of reading the work as it stands today to feel brand new. I do know that it would have been honed and redrafted many times, because that is what good writers do. And I can tell you that I was so immersed, again, in Gin’s world that it was a wrench when I had to leave it behind.

Finding Jasper by Lynne Leonhardt (Margaret River Press, 2012).

ISBN 978 0 9872180 5 6

This review counts towards my total for the 2013 Australian Women Writers Challenge.awwbadge_2013

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