Category Archives: Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014

Australian Women Writers Challenge—2014 wrap-up

awwbadge_2014It’s the end of the year and what a wonderful year it’s been for reading Australian women writers. There have been new books from some of my favourites, and I’ve been introduced to writers who I’m sure will be on my future lists of favourites.

But this is a wrap-up post for the 2014 Australian Women Writers Challenge—my second challenge year—and I have to confess that, while I have handsomely exceeded my AWWC commitment to read at least ten books by Australian women writers, I have fallen short of my goal to review at least six. But I’m recklessly going to call it challenge completed, anyway!

Here are the challenge books it’s been my pleasure to read in 2014, with links to my reviews and to new books by Australian women writers featured on the blog this year in my 2, 2 and 2 series.

Debra Adelaide, Letters to George Clooney (Picador, 2013)
Andrea Goldsmith, The Memory Trap (Fourth Estate, 2013) *reviewed here
Andrea Goldsmith, Reunion (Fourth Estate, 2009)
Catherine Jinks, A Very Unusual Pursuit: Book 1: City of Orphans (Allen & Unwin, 2013) *reviewed here
Tracy Farr, The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt (Fremantle Press, 2013)
Carmel Macdonald Grahame, Personal Effects (UWA Publishing, 2014) *reviewed here
Felicity Young, The Scent of Murder (HarperCollins, 2014)
Moira McKinnon, Cicada (Allen & Unwin, 2014)
Brooke Davis, Lost & Found (Hachette, 2014) *featured here
Dawn Barker, Let Her Go (Hachette, 2014) *featured here
Simone Lazaroo, Lost River: Four Albums (UWA Publishing, 2014)
Evie Wyld, All the Birds, Singing (Vintage, 2013)
Fiona McFarlane, The Night Guest (Penguin, 2013)
Inga Simpson, Mr Wigg (Hachette, 2013)
Deb Fitzpatrick, The Break (Fremantle Press, 2014) *featured here
Joan London, The Golden Age (Vintage, 2014)
Danielle Wood, Mothers Grimm (Allen & Unwin, 2014)
S.A. Jones, Isabelle of the Moon & Stars (UWA Publishing, 2014) *featured here
Annabel Smith, The Ark (self-published, 2014) *featured here
Paddy O’Reilly, The Factory (Affirm Press, 2014 edn)
Michelle de Kretser, Springtime: A Ghost Story (Allen & Unwin, 2014)


Personal_Effects_FNL_02_mainEdn1805475520257453lost and found coverLETHERGOjacket




This year I also introduced eight Western Australian women writers with manuscripts that I hope we will have an opportunity to review, as books, in the future: Rashida Murphy and Kristen Levitzke, Amanda Gardiner and Emily Paull, Karen Overman and Kim Coull, and Michelle Michau-Crawford and Louise Allan.

I do intend to sign up for the 2015 challenge and already have a pile of books ready to go.

And as this is the last post from me this year, I’d like to acknowledge the AWWC bloggers who chose to review my own books in 2014. I really appreciate it—thank you!

Sonja Porter, Sonja’s Bookshelf
Angela Savage
Monique Mulligan, Write Note Reviews
Danielle Burns
Bernadette, Reactions to Reading
Natalia Clara

The Sinkings
Karen Has Things to Say

Karen Has Things to Say

elemental_COVERsinkings_cover copyinherited_COVER

Happy New Year, everyone!



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Book review: Personal Effects, by Carmel Macdonald Grahame

Personal_Effects_FNL_02_mainEdnYears ago, on the first festival panel I ever took part in, there was a question from the audience that I had heard many times before and have often heard since: Why don’t writers write about happy things, happy relationships? That first time, another panel member, the prodigiously talented Sonya Hartnett, replied: Because happiness is beige. This is not true in life, of course, but I could see Hartnett’s point when it comes to fiction. When we write narrative, we place our characters under pressure in order to explore who they are, to see what they’ll do. In fact, the narrative arc of fiction is sometimes described as: Something happens. Then things get worse.

That is not to say that fiction must deal solely in sadness, nor that happy couples are unknown in novels. When The Guardian posed the question Can happy marriage ever be interesting in books? earlier this year, readers were quick to offer examples (including a favourite of mine, Carol Shields’s Unless). But, on balance, these are less common, because when things get worse, things often get sad, too. And relationships may be the cause or the casualty of that sadness.

I thought of this when reading Personal Effects, the debut novel of Carmel Macdonald Grahame, because at the heart of this beautiful work of fiction is that rare thing: a very long, very happy marriage.

I have looked at Ross countless times and been struck by the depths of our separateness. I am not you is a thought that still has the power to enchant, easily becomes a desire to say, Come here, you. He has been the great force for tenderness, generosity, consideration and kindness in my life … The result, as it turns out, is this mutual symbiosis that never ceases to astonish me and yet is so perfectly ordinary. We have become These Two, You Two, Those Two. Ross’n’Lilith. Lilith’n’Ross. You and I. Us. We.

Personal Effects is not an extravagantly happy novel, however. There is joy in abundance, but grief, too, as the novel’s narrator, Lilith, meditates on the pushes and pulls, the ordinary and extraordinary, in the life of an individual, a relationship, a family.

Lilith, a ceramic artist and former teacher, and Ross, a geologist, are middle-aged empty-nesters whose two adult daughters are making their own way in the world. And now they’re faced with the prospect of, once again, relocating overseas because of the exigencies of Ross’s work in the resources industry. This latest international move is a return—to Calgary, Canada, where they lived many years before.

The narrative progression of the novel is non-linear and almost tidal in the way it moves in slow swells and glancing ripples, gathering in meaning and depth. Things happen, but the circuitous structure means that crucial events from the past, events that have shaped Lilith, are withheld, to be woven into the story when she finds the words to relate them. This sense of holding back is not merely narrative, either; Lilith knows that survival sometimes depends on things being hidden:

You live in an intimate regime with a man you love and your two daughters, but not even they need to know everything there is to know about you. Not everything can be told.

There is artistry here, in the melding of substance and form.

The quote above hints at ambivalences that the neat term ‘happy marriage’ cannot accommodate. Moving overseas for Ross’s work means the sacrifice of Lilith’s teaching career. Suddenly she is ‘a fully fledged dependent’. In an impressive scene showing a gender divide between two people bound together by love, history and respect, Lilith says:

I have no money in my purse and no prospect of putting any there. You have money in your wallet all the time. Money in this day and age is what keeps body and soul together, and now I have to ask you for it. I have to ask.

The final italicised ask comes as a cry, a humiliation, a protest at frayings in the fabric of a relationship between equals. Such cries can destroy or save, and this one brings for Lilith the realisation that ‘I have to find other, unexpected ways of being independent.’

The Pinnacles

The Pinnacles

One of the pleasures of the novel comes from its descriptions of place—Lilith’s childhood home of Cervantes (a small coastal town of Western Australia about 200 kilometres north of Perth, famous for its proximity to the unique limestone formations known as The Pinnacles), Rottnest Island (a holiday island off Perth with a dark history) and wintry Calgary—and the association of place with notions of home and belonging as Lilith contemplates yet another relocation overseas. As she observes, memories cannot be uncoupled from place:

… everything that happens, happens somewhere, a self-evident fact that strikes me as significant and overlooked. Memories insist on staging themselves, so events, moments, periods of a life come back with their mise en scène.

An image that is introduced early in the novel (page 8) is of the mosaic:

Spode_Bl_Room_Background_Cropped-758x749Pique assiette mosaics, for example, are a mode of recomposition. Like fabric applied to a quilt, pieces of a grandmother’s broken cup, say, can be arranged and rearranged, each bringing its particular accidental shape to the whole and determining form. You take damage and convert it into something that will differently endure. You take what is old and preserve it. You revel in disparity as much as harmony. You transform, reconfigure, complete … You take the past and send it, refashioned into the future.

This evocative passage serves as metaphor for the non-linear structure already discussed, and feels apt coming from Lilith the ceramicist. But the full weight, the richness, of the image is not realised until near the end—and I won’t spoil the impact of that discovery by saying any more here.

Personal Effects is a novel to savour, to rest face-down on the arm of your chair for a pause to allow reflection on what you’ve just read, to hug because it has articulated something true and special and perfect.

Carmel Macdonald Grahame was once my writing tutor, and many years ago she and I belonged to a small writing group for a time, and in both these capacities she taught me infinitely valuable lessons about writing. In Personal Effects, she has continued the lesson.

Personal Effects, by Carmel Macdonald Grahame (UWA Publishing, 2014)
ISBN 978 1 74258 534 5
You can read an excellent review by Lisa Hill here and Annabel Smith’s Q&A with Carmel Macdonald Grahame here.

awwbadge_2014This is my third review for the 2014 Australian Women Writers Challenge.




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Book review: A Very Unusual Pursuit, by Catherine Jinks

Very-Unusual-Pursuit-234x346I used to read more junior fiction when I was editing more often than I currently am. But recently I had the pleasure of being on a panel with Catherine Jinks at the Perth Writers Festival, which prompted me to read the book she was talking about: A Very Unusual Pursuit, Book 1 in the City of Orphans series. Not long after I finished it, I heard that it had won the children’s category of the 2014 Adelaide Festival Award for Literature—a well-deserved win, and congratulations to Catherine!

Set in London c. 1870, A Very Unusual Pursuit gives us a Dickensian grimness leavened by gallows humour, a world sharply divided along class lines, an unsentimental portrait of childhood in which children work or they don’t eat—and, even then, they don’t eat much, or well. There are cafflers (rag-and-bone men) and costers (street sellers), dippers (pickpockets) and toshers (sewer scavengers), lurkers (criminals) and moochers (tramps), mumpers (beggars) and shirksters (layabouts). Nearly all of them are gammoners (liars). There’s Sarah Pickles, a matron with a gang of young pickpockets doing her bidding, and she’s far more ruthless than Fagin ever was. Life is cheap in Bethnal Green.

Into this realist portrait of time and place, Jinks introduces a coexisting supernatural realm held in fear and spoken of in hushed voices, populated by creatures inhabiting dark places like chimneys, drains, privvies. Children go missing here, presumed eaten.

Enter the Go-Devil man, Alfred Bunce, who, for a few shillings and an extra charge for materials (salt), will lure out and exterminate these creatures, generically called ‘bogles’. And what does a bogler use for bait? A child. The novel’s central character is Bunce’s ten-year-old apprentice, Birdie McAdam, whose sweet, pure singing voice draws the bogles from their lairs.

The orphan Birdie is a beautifully realised, wholly believable character. Jinks arms her with a Victorian version of ‘girl power’ that would resonate strongly with young female readers especially (although the book’s appeal is wider than that), but she never breaches the boundaries of plausibility. Birdie is gutsy and forthright but always within the context of her time and place, her social position. If she says too much, if she oversteps the line of authority, the curmudgeonly Bunce hauls her back, and Birdie accepts his right to do so. But it will not stop her speaking her mind or overstepping again.

Birdie is fiercely proud of her work—‘It’s a good living, and a respectable one’—and at the same time is aware of her vulnerability: the threat of the workhouse or Sarah Pickles is always looming should anything happen to Mr Bunce.

A rogue doctor preying on the weak is at the centre of a satisfying plot, but there are subplots involving Sarah Pickles and her interest in Birdie, and a refined lady who also takes an interest in the welfare of the bogler’s girl, and offers a gentler kind of future for Birdie. Miss Eames, a student of folklore and the spirit world, dares to suggest that Bunce might try ‘scientific’ bogle-attracting methods instead of offering up little girls and hoping they’re quicker than the bogle. But Birdie is defensive and suspicious, afraid of losing her much-valued apprenticeship, and more generally, like Bunce, afraid of change.

The language of Birdie’s world is delightful, and, together with the rendering of accents and the singular grammar of the slums, is used to effect in the novel’s strong, vibrant dialogue. An example:

‘Seems to me, if they was moved, they must have come from inside the house.’

‘Or inside the privy,’ Birdie piped up…‘Mebbe that’s where it lives.’

‘But the skipper said as how he slept all night in that privy, and weren’t troubled, save by rats,’ Elijah unexpectedly volunteered.

Alfred frowned. ‘Is he a child, this moocher?’

Jinks gives us a glossary at the back of the book, although in most cases it’s easy enough to discern the meaning of unfamiliar terms through the context in which they’re used.

Catherine Jinks has won the Children’s Book Council of Australia Book of the Year three times, among many other prestigious awards, and has published more than twenty books. I loved this one. If, like me, you’re a bit of a kid yourself, you might love it too.

A Very Unusual Pursuit, by Catherine Jinks (Allen & Unwin, 2013)
ISBN 978 1 74331 306 0
Junior fiction (ages 10–12—and all points beyond!)
There are two more books in this series: A Very Peculiar Plague and A Very Singular Guild.

awwbadge_2014This review counts towards my total for the 2014 Australian Women Writers Challenge.


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Book review: The Memory Trap, by Andrea Goldsmith

This is my first review for the 2014 Australian Women Writers Challenge. My tardiness can, in part, be attributed to the delightful experience of participating in this year’s Perth Writers Festival. And it was through that participation that I had the pleasure of reading the book I’m reviewing here: Andrea Goldsmith’s seventh novel, The Memory Trap.

the_memory_trap_cover1The Memory Trap is an engrossing character-driven novel underpinned by ideas about obsession, memory and memorialisation. Four of the five main characters whose relationships are the novel’s engine are sets of siblings: brothers Ramsay and Sean, and sisters Nina and Zoe, who grow up in suburban Melbourne as next-door neighbours. Ramsay is a child prodigy pianist who is nurtured and cosseted into a musical genius; he is also a poor excuse for a human being. Sean, his acolyte, is cast aside in adolescence and becomes estranged from his brother; he grows up to be a restless, diffident man, a travel writer who spends most of his life away from home and his long-term partner, Tom. Zoe, also a musician (a cellist) but not in Ramsay’s league, loves Ramsay from the earliest days when they played duets together, and her continuing devotion allows little space in heart or mind for anyone else, including her husband and children. Only Nina, it seems, escapes the poisonous influence of Ramsay’s self-absorption and utter disregard for others, but her love for her sister and her closeness to Sean mean that she cannot escape his influence entirely. It is Nina who sets the story in motion when, following the breakdown of her marriage, a work opportunity draws her back from London to Melbourne, back to Zoe, Sean and Ramsay.

The fifth principal character in this web of relationships is Zoe’s husband, Elliot. We first see him through Nina’s eyes as a monster, tormenting Zoe with snide, vicious comments that she, bafflingly, seems able to ignore, even accept. In the first third of the novel, I felt, as Nina does, indignantly hostile towards Elliot and nonplussed at why Zoe would remain in such a destructive marriage. It is a tribute to Goldsmith’s excellent use of shifting points of view that these perceptions changed, to the point where I was able to feel empathy for Elliot.

This shift begins when Nina witnesses a scene between Zoe and Ramsay in which it is painfully clear to her and to Elliot, who is also watching, that Zoe does not love her husband and never has; that she is capable of loving only Ramsay. The story then becomes Elliot’s, and we see the monstrous armour fall away, revealing the naked pain of a man unloved by the object of his obsession.

The use of narrative shifts from character to character works very well, giving us access to interior lives and creating characters of substance (although a short section towards the end of the novel from the point of view of a minor character felt slightly jarring to me).

Some of the novel’s most profound observations about memory come via Nina, who is a much sought-after international consultant to organisations planning to establish a monument to memorialise an event or a life (a role that Goldsmith invented but seems perfectly plausible). In a conversation between Sean and Nina about her work, Sean says:

But remembrance and history aren’t the same thing. Remembrance selects from the past, it appropriates a snippet of history for a purpose, perhaps to justify a grievance or a recent act of aggression, and ignores practically everything else.

As interesting as this is in relation to the building of monuments, it also reflects the way individuals may memorialise their own past, and how obsession can be a trap born of remembering and forgetting.

The notion of entrapment encircles the novel’s two tragic obsessions—Zoe’s for Ramsay, Elliot’s for Zoe. Each is caught in the past, each driven by a memory of a perfect moment that is ultimately shown to have been one-sided, a delusion, not the stuff from which a mutually enriching relationship is possible. And the preservation of that precious memory also requires a determined kind of forgetting. There is no other way to explain Zoe’s continuing adoration of Ramsay after a harrowing scene between them in New York (I don’t want to give a spoiler) that would surely, if not erased from memory, kill all possibility of affection. But Zoe manages instead to enshrine a memory that is, like most memories, partial and selective:

In the years to come Zoe held on to those five weeks with Ramsay in New York as her sojourn in Eden. Brief and complete, that time together remained perfect, a snowdome to be taken out when life weighed in with trouble.

There are interesting ambivalences in the ending of The Memory Trap for all of its main characters—a measure of despair, some reconciliation, some hope, but not of the hearts-and-roses kind. It seems appropriate that this should be so, for sometimes the only hope we have lies in change. As Nina—arguably the novel’s strongest voice—observes on the final page:

So many things—ancient trees, books, memories, monuments—give the impression they’ll endure. But they don’t. And a marriage? You want it to be solid, you want it to be secure. But it lumbers into the future on the back of its past; a past of castles, a past of straw.


Some people say the best endorsement for a book is the desire to track down others written by the same author. So I will just conclude by saying I’m currently reading Andrea Goldsmith’s sixth novel, Reunion (Fourth Estate, 2009), and finding it to be another intelligent, compelling study of character and relationships.

The Memory Trap by Andrea Goldsmith (Fourth Estate, 2013)
ISBN 978 0 7322 9672 8 (pbk)


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Signing on to the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014

Yesterday I learned that a leading Australian bookseller had confessed to not having read a single book by a female Australian writer in 2013. Apparently, nothing interested him. And he didn’t like the covers. So yes, I am signing up for this year’s Australian Women Writers Challenge, a challenge established in 2012  to raise awareness of the exciting and varied work of Australia’s women writers and to redress the gender imbalance in book reviewing in major publications that stats tell us still exists. You can read more about the challenge here.

As I did in 2013, I’m opting for the Franklin level—a commitment to read at least ten books by Australian women writers and to review at least six. In 2014 I hope to better my 2013 totals of twenty-three read and six reviewed.

Already I have a pile of books I want to read, and a long wish list—and 2014 is sure to bring many more. Some of them might even have great covers—hey, you never know.

If you’re interested in joining the 2014 challenge, either as a reader/reviewer or just as a reader, you can sign up here.

awwbadge_2014Happy 2014 reading, everyone!


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