It’s going to be a busy summer of reading. With only eight weeks to go until the winners of the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards are announced on 28 January, twenty-one titles (The Premier’s 21) have been shortlisted across five categories including poetry, fiction, non-fiction, YA and drama. With its wide range, this reading list has something for everyone and you can also choose your favourite by voting in the People’s Choice Award.
Many of the titles by women writers have been reviewed by AWW Challenge participants and links are provided to a selection of these in this roundup; a full list of reviews can be accessed here. As always, please keep your reviews coming in.
Prize for Poetry (Judges: Gig Ryan, Lisa Jacobson, Paul Mitchell)
- Liquid Nitrogen, Jennifer Maiden
- Autoethnographic, Michael Brennan
- Travelling Through the Family, Brendan Ryan
Prize for Fiction (Judges: Blanche Clark, Tony Birch, Peter Mews)
- Burial Rites, Hannah Kent
- The Narrow Road to The Deep North, Richard Flanagan
- Coal Creek, Alex Miller
- The Swan Book, Alexis Wright
- Eyrie, Tim Winton
- Questions of Travel, Michelle de Kretser
Prize for Non-Fiction (Judges: Kristin Otto, Kate Darian-Smith, Belle Place, Michael Green, Kaz Cooke)
- Gardens of Fire: An Investigative Memoir, Robert Kenny
- White Beech, Germaine Greer
- Boy, Lost: A Family Memoir, Kristina Olsson
- Forgotten War, Henry Reynolds
- Madeleine, Helen Trinca
- On Warne, Gideon Haigh
- Commended: Traditional Healers of Central Australia: Ngangkari, by Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Women’s Council Aboriginal Corporation.
Prize for Writing for Young Adults (Judges: Anna Burkey, Hilary Harper, Alice Pung)
- Friday Brown, Vikki Wakefield
- Wildlife, Fiona Wood
- My Life as an Alphabet, Barry Jonsberg
Prize for Drama (Judges: Ailsa Piper, Sian Prior, John Bailey)
- Savages, Patricia Cornelius
- The Secret River, Andrew Bovell
- Medea, Anne-Louise Sarks and Kate Mulvany
Magdalena Ball reviewed Liquid Nitrogen back in December 2012. She loved the collection saying: “There’s something deeply original about Jennifer Maiden’s poetry. Perhaps it’s the way Maiden manages to combine such disparate and seeming unconnected images into a smooth, almost narrative presentation. Perhaps it’s the utterly female way in which the domestic, the political, the personal, and the universal are woven together so that there’s almost no distinction. … There is so much to unpack here in this dense, rich collection which is “stunningly cool but alive/within with information, like/liquid nitrogen.” (80)
At last count, Burial Rites by Hannah Kent had been reviewed by seventeen AWW participants who had a range of responses. The novel is set in early 19th century Iceland and tells the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last woman to be executed there. She was beheaded in 1830 for her part in a brutal crime. There was massive hype surrounding this book — I can only imagine the pressure on the author — and several reviewers mention their anticipation about reading a book bound up in so much expectation.
Historical Fiction author Elisabeth Storrs rated the book 5 stars saying Kent’s “language is lyrical and the character of Agnes is complex and poignant. In a way, there is a cruelty in how Kent draws the reader into Agnes’ soul when one knows the inevitable heartbreak that lies in store for her. The other characters’ gradual affection for the doomed woman is also cleverly evoked. At first I found the interpolation of official records to be distracting but ultimately I found myself returning to them to fully understand the attitudes of the time. We may never really know what Agnes Magnúsdóttir was like, or whether she was complicit in the murders, but Kent is to be lauded for this beautiful rendering of a woman whose life was beleaguered from childhood and had to survive the cold, harsh world of Iceland’s landscape, prejudices and law.”
Author Annabel Smith rated it 4 stars and found much to praise but opens her review with some reservations. She writes: “When a book receives a giant advance and that advance is made very public, it can be difficult for the book to live up to expectations. To me, a book deemed worthy of a $1 million advance should be so amazing it makes my eyeballs pop out. So in measuring my initial response to Burial Rites against the hype, I would have to say I was underwhelmed.” She goes on to say that the story and characters stayed with her, “the research felt invisible” and that the ending, expected as it was, was “deeply moving”.
Having heard and read so much about Burial Rites, Louise Allan was also apprehensive about her response to the book — would it meet her expectations? It did and she says: “I felt desolate as I finished it, and I love it when a book leaves me feeling like that.” Louise particularly loved the final scenes.
Bernadette, a fan of crime fiction and speculative biography, reviews the book positively at Reactions to Reading saying the writing had her sense of smell working overtime: “I swear that as I read I started to smell a combination of bad food and unwashed bodies which is a testament to Kent’s image-laden writing. … In some ways the things I liked most about Burial Rites were the things that weren’t there. It didn’t provide easy answers, its ending didn’t include lurid details (though Kent doesn’t gloss over the undoubted horror of a public beheading) and there were no implausible scenes better suited to the modern day. It is a sad but rich story that offers a glimpse into the world of someone we have to imagine because Agnes Magnúsdóttir is one of the millions of people which official history records precious little about. I thoroughly enjoyed meeting her.”
David Golding reviews The Swan Book by Alexis Wright saying it is “an astonishing novel” which has not yet let him go and from which he is still learning. He says: “Wright captures the rhythms and ironies of Australian speech better than anyone I’ve read. That this is not one speech, but many different idioms, and not pure, is one of the keys to her success here. Even more impressive than this linguistic act is how she seamlessly uses this voice to create a modernist narrative. Too often, European modernist techniques seem inhospitable to kangaroos and Canberra and bush cheek. This is a book that, like its characters, has lived all over, but still knows its country.”
Marilyn del Brady of the Global Women of Color Reading Challenge nominated The Swan Book as a GWC “favourite” saying that is it “another brilliant and beautiful novel by a talented Indigenous Australian who writes about belonging and what it means, to Indigenous people and all of us, to have and to lose a homeland.” She says: “Wright’s skillful writing constantly interweaves the beautiful and the ugliness of life. Her prose is sophisticated, unique, and fast-paced enough to carry readers along with the narrative.”
Miles Franklin Award winner Questions of Travel by Michelle de Kretser which tells the stories of its two protagonists, Australian tourist Laura and Sri Lankan asylum seeker Ravi, was reviewed by Jennifer Cameron-Smith. She rated it highly (4 stars) saying she found Ravi’s story more engaging than Laura’s and that she could empathise more with his situation and choices. “Travel is not just physical, and it isn’t always beneficial. Laura does not seem to develop as a consequence of her travel, and while Ravi finds comparative safety it is not enough.”
Sue of Whispering Gums found this novel “witty, warm and powerful” and “so sweeping in its conception, that it almost defies review.” She writes about the aspect of the novel which most resonated with her — the author’s “exploration of place and its meaning/s in contemporary society.” Sue says: “While the novel’s subject matter is travel, in all its guises and in what it says about how we relate to place and each other, the overriding theme is that literal and existential question, What Am I Doing Here? It tackles the big issues that confront us all every day – Time, Truth, Memory, Death and, of course, the most fraught of all, Other People.”
White Beech: The rainforest years by Germaine Greer is reviewed by Tracy Sorensen at the Newtown Review of Books. Greer’s deeply personal memoir tells the story of how she bought and transformed 50 hectares of Queensland rainforest and gives glimpses into her life through conversations with her botanist sister. Sorensen says: “In White Beech, Greer takes us with her as she dives under the surface of a devastated continent, hunting for signs of the stupendous biodiversity that was here just a couple of centuries ago. … Ultimately, though, White Beech is not about policy but an account of one woman’s passionate, intelligent engagement with the natural world that we are all a part of and that we’re all watching fall apart with a sense of rising despair. Instead of turning away or giving up, we can pay careful attention to what is happening around us. We can try to come to terms with the truth that we’re not only part of the cycle of life but players with the ability, for better or for worse, to alter that cycle. Germaine Greer, arguably one of our most important public intellectuals, has always caught and heightened the zeitgeist.”
Boy, Lost by Kristina Olsson was reviewed by Jessica White. She writes: “Boy, Lost, is a memoir about Olsson’s mother Yvonne who, as a young ingénue, was swept off her feet and carried up north by a man who turned out to be brutal. Just as she found enough courage to escape from him and to head back to Brisbane with their son, Yvonne’s husband tore Peter from her arms on the train. The memoir is an imagining of the circumstances of Yvonne’s life, while charting the impact of that missing child upon Yvonne and her other children.” I added Boy Lost to my reading list after hearing Olsson in conversation with Lily Chan (Toyo) at the Byron Bay Writers’ Festival. Both writers have chosen a particular way of writing memoir, by weaving fact and imaginings together, to construct a life. As White says: “Some readers and critics might quibble with the fictional elements of memoir, but all memory is, in one way or another, a fiction – we can never reconstitute memory exactly as it happened. My impression of this work is that Kris, through conversations with family members and attention to photographic records, evokes personalities and events with sensitivity.”
Sue at Whispering Gums reviewed Helen Trinca’s biography of the trouble Madeleine St John, who produced four novels in six years. Sue writes: “Madeleine was – as Trinca ably, but fairly it seems, demonstrates – a complicated and difficult woman. … Trinca’s biography is a traditional, chronologically told one. It’s tight, with little superfluous detail but enough examples to provide a good picture of Madeleine and her life. I particularly enjoyed the chapters covering the writing and publication of her novels. The book is very well documented, using clear but unobtrusive numbers linked to extensive notes at the end. In her acknowledgements, Trinca details what records she had available and where the gaps are. In addition to the oral history St John recorded (covering the first couple of decades of her life), Trinca had access to letters by and to Madeleine (though many were destroyed) and other documentation such as wills, and obituaries written by those who knew her. Trinca also interviewed many of the significant people in her life.” After having heard Helen Trinca in conversation with Geordie Williamson at SWF earlier this year, I put this biography on my reading list alongside St John’s novels which I also want to read.
Friday Brown, Vikki Wakefield’s second YA book was reviewed here at Under Review. “The book centres on a seventeen year old girl who has spent her whole life moving around rural and remote Australia with her mother, Vivienne. What she knows of life, her life and her mother’s life comes from Vivienne and her stories. Friday doesn’t know why her mother ran away from home as a teenager. … Friday Brown is a beautifully written story. The contrasts between rural Australia and the city are distinct and vivid. We see Friday unsure of herself in the grey of a large noisy city but it is in the country that she stands tall while the silence and vastness scares her companions. There is a mythic quality to the story. Silence is the metaphorical and literal symbol of the invisibility of homeless children. He is not heard and, as we see in the scene where Friday and he meet, he is not seen. Amongst the runaways are other outsiders – a gay young man, an Aboriginal girl, a young sex worker. In the middle is Arden, tough, streetwise and all-knowing. I enjoyed Friday Brown although for me the story comes into its own when the runaways move to the ghost town. This is where Vikki Wakefield’s writing excels and she is able to conjure the mystery and danger of the rural Australia. The excitement of this part is what makes the book “unput-downable”. I’ll definitely be hunting down Wakefield’s book, All I ever wanted.”
Wildlife was reviewed over at First Impressions. “Readers familiar with Fiona’s first book Six Impossible Things will remember Lou, who takes one part of the narrative in Wildlife. The other is taken by newcomer, sixteen-year-old Sibylla. Sibylla is exactly the kind of non-threatening narrator that brings out the protectiveness of readers, pulling them instantly onside. She’s the nerdy, shy outcast, hovering on the periphery of groups and cliques and only ever dragged to social events by the firm hand of her best friend Holly. While the dramatic turbulence of being a teenager/falling in love/finding friendships/accepting yourself is nothing new in the world of YA fiction (or to anyone who made it through high school), Fiona Wood writes about them with a fresh clarity. The relationships aren’t overdone, the drama isn’t the stuff of daytime soaps. Instead the relationships, the dramas and the outcomes feel genuine. Wildlife could well be about the lives of any teenagers I’ve met or in fact my own. I’ve never spent a term at an outdoor ed camp (and frankly I shudder at the thought!), but the story is authentic and familiar and it takes no time at all to become attached to Lou and Sibylla as they brave the wilderness.”
Shelleyrae also liked Wildlife. She writes: “Sibylla is used to people looking past her, around her, through her even, but that all changes the day her face appears on a 20-metre billboard and Ben Capaldi, the most popular boy in year 10, kisses her. It explores the dynamics of self image and self esteem, highlighting how vulnerable teens can be to the perceptions of others. The complexities of teen relationships also come under scrutiny in Wildlife. “Wildlife is wonderful and easily one of the best contemporary young adult novels I have read. It’s authentic, honest and teens will be able to relate to the characters and their circumstances.”
As usual, AWW Challenge participants have been very busy as you can see from all the reading and reviewing that has been going on. And as usual, I have lots of catching up to do!
I’m a freelance book reviewer, journalist, writer and editor. I blog over at Wordsville and can be found on Twitter @PaulaGrunseit