Young Adults (Non-Speculative): Round Up One (2014)

Welcome to the first (non-speculative) YA round up for the year. I’ll be alternating these each month with the Children’s round ups, and it’s really exciting to see the wonderful books which are being reviewed so far.

the-internThere’s been a really interesting mix of recent and less-recent YA books so far this year. Particularly pleasing was catching up with Tien’s review of The Intern by Gabrielle Tozer (which I’ve recently read, but haven’t reviewed yet). Tien was impressed by this debut novel about a young intern taking her first steps into the magazine world, summing her feelings up:

Aaaah… you know that feeling… that wonderful, warm, cuddly feeling at the end of the novel when you found a big silly smile on your face? Yeah, that’s the one! That’s what The Intern has left me with and I can’t seem to get rid of it.

jumping-fences-karen-woodRochelle reviewed Jumping Fences by Karen Wood – the story of Zoe who has woken up after a mustering accident with missing memories. She mentioned that she’s been looking for a book like this – teen rural romance – for quite a long time, and that Jumping Fences didn’t disappoint at all.

Angie introduced the intriguing just_a_girl by Kirsten Krauth, highlighting the mixture of adventures on public transport, attitudes towards identity and relationships and the use of dolls as companions in a lonely life. I think I’m definitely going to hunt this one out.

Amongst a couple of less recent YA books reviewed was Queen Kat, Carmel and St Jude Get a Life (by Maureen McCarthy) which has actually been reviewed twice since the beginning of the year. Liz Barr wrote about how she loved this book as a teenager and that she was interested to return to the book as an adult. Yes, she admits, there are cliches in the book, but they are so well written that you often forget that they are cliches.

She also discuqueen kat carmel and st jude get a life mccarthysses how the book has become richer for her since she moved to Melbourne, now that she knows the streets where the story is set. However,

. . . a lot of their Melbourne is gone.  The department stores where Carmel tries on clothes she can’t afford have closed.  The Chilean cafes in Collingwood and Fitzroy serve Tex Mex now.  These girls were the first wave of a gentrification that has dramatically changed the inner north

This  really encouraged some reflection on how we look back at books with strong settings – particularly books which play such a big part in shaping our images of those places when we are young readers. I’m definitely going to be thinking more about that as I read recent and less recent YA books.


About Me

YA novels were my ticket to ‘coolness’ in high school, when my speed reading led to an invitation to choose new books for the Melina Dschool library. I continued reading children’s and YA books  long after I was supposed to ‘grow up’ – something which served me very well when I became a teacher and was known all over the school as ‘the teacher with the books’. I’m currently on maternity leave, enjoying the rich world of picture books with my toddler and sporadically blogging over at Adventures of a Subversive Reader

2013 AWW Challenge Wrap-up: Diversity

In her essay “Literature as Pleasure, Pleasure as Literature” (Antaeus, 1987), Joyce Carol Oates wrote, ‘Reading is the sole means by which we slip, involuntarily, often helplessly, into another’s skin, another’s voice, another’s soul’.  This is why reading stories is one of the most accessible and enjoyable ways of learning about the lives of other people.  There are many voices that make up Australia, and it’s been great to see so many AWW Challenge participants listening to and reflecting upon them throughout 2013.

Indigenous Authors

Paris Dreaming by Anita HeissOver 2013, there were 45 reviews of works by Indigenous women writers.  Dr Anita Heiss was the most reviewed, with 6 reviewers penning their thoughts on her works.  These included Paris Dreaming (reviewed by Sue), Am I Black Enough for You (reviewed by Marilyn, Sue and Kevin) and I’m Not Racist, But… (reviewed by Phillip and Shannon).

mullumbimbyMelissa Lucashenko’s Mullumbimby was also popular, with reviews by James, Lisamyself and Writereaderly, who delightfully describes it as ‘such a pleasure to read this place [Mullumbimby] rendered with such smart-arsey love. The multifaceted examination of indigenous rights is smart-thinking and smartly plotted, the narrative trips along, the characters are human, the language vernacular and gritty, and the book an accessible, informed, good-timer.’

Sue from Whispering Gums reviewed two of Melissa’s essays, ‘How Green Is My Valley’ and her Walkley-award winning ‘Sinking Below Sight: Down and Out in Brisbane and Logan’ published in Griffith Review.  In the latter essay, Melissa poses the question, ‘what dreams are possible for the Brisbane underclass in 2013?’ and follows the lives of three women living in poverty.  As Sue notes, Melissa’s essay ‘may not be statistically significant from an academic perspective, but anyone who reads contemporary social commentary knows that what she writes rings true’.

heaven-I-swallowed-hennessyOver July we held a focus on Indigenous women writers to celebrate NAIDOC week, and encouraged our readers to pick up a work by an Indigenous woman writer.  Among the books reviewed was Rachel Hennessy’s The Heaven I Swallowed, a story inspired by the author’s grandmother, who was one of the Stolen Generations.  The book was appreciated by both Sue and Shelleyrae.

theswanbook-wrightAnother standout novel was Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book, a speculative fiction novel set in a near future devastated by climate change.  Marilyn Brady, who runs the Global Women of Colour Challenge, named it as one of the best ten novels that she read and reviewed over 2013 not least because, as she writes in her review of the novel, Wright is one of the few Indigenous authors she has read who ‘are using their unique history and culture creatively and experimentally to address universal themes’.

Such an innovative approach can also be seen in Lynette Russell’s Roving Mariners: Australian Aboriginal Whalers and Sealers in the Southern Ocean 1790-1870, reviewed by Janine.  This history, about the South Australian sealing industry, was prompted by Russell’s desire ‘to create a more complex and less linear narrative than has been previously produced for southern Australia’ which required  attention to the particularly unstable boundaries of who was Indigenous and who was not.

The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf by Ambelin KwaymullinaIn other genres, there were reviews of speculative fiction novel The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf (by Mark, Heidi and myself), children’s books such as The Burrumbi Kids (reviewed by Narelle), Oodgeroo Noonuccal’s poems The Dawn is at Hand (reviewed by Philip) and young adult novels such as Melissa Lucashenko’s Too Flash (reviewed by My Book Corner).  This is by no means a comprehensive list, and you can find more works under the heading of Indigenous Writing on our Listings Page.

Authors writing on Indigenous Issues

Red Dirt TalkingA number of readers also commented on works that revolved around Indigenous people, characters or issues, but were not necessarily penned by Indigenous authors.  Marilyn reviewed Jacqueline Wright’s Red Dirt Talking, winner of the Western Australian TAG Hungerford award and longlisted for the Miles Franklin and Dobbie awards, describing it as ‘A complex and entertaining Australian novel about a white woman who comes to an Indigenous community looking for information, only to find herself changed and involved in the concerns of the community.’

Patti Miller’s The Mind of a Thief, about Miller’s exploration of the history of the Wiradjuri people, original custodians of the place where she was raised, was longlisted for the Stella Prize, and was reviewed by Deborah, Melissa and Anna.

Paisley lone protestorThe Lone Protestor, Fiona Paisley’s marvellous history of Anthony Martin Fernando, Indigenous activist in Europe in the first half of the 20th Century, was also reviewed by Jenny and Yvonne.  ‘Creative, intelligent and audacious are some of the words that came to my mind when reading about A M Fernando’, Yvonne writes, for he was a remarkable man whom Paisley brings to life despite, as Yvonne continues, ‘only tiny scraps [of information] hidden in vast archives’.


beloved-faulknerIt was positive to see a novel about disability reaching the limelight.  Annah Faulkner’s The Beloved, about Roberta Lightfoot, who suffers from polio and its ramifications, won the Kibble award and was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin award in 2013, and previously won the 2011 Queensland Premier’s Award (when the awards were still hosted by the premier) for an emerging author.  I was impressed with Roberta’s tough personality and the lush Port Moresby setting, while Maree describes it as ‘a well-written novel with a great heart’.

Other works about disability included Kate Richards’ Madness: a memoir, about the author’s mental illness.  This was thoughtfully reviewed by Stephanie and Christine, who describes the work as ‘not just a plea for understanding but also for the recognition of the complexity of mental illness  that increased expenditure and thought in the mental health field might address’. 

Queer Writing

LettersToTheEndOfLoveWalkerQueer writers, characters and subjects appeared in a wide range of genres, including romance (Anna Cowan’s Untamed, reviewed by Kat), history (Suzanne Falkiner’s Eugenia: A Man, reviewed by Janine), literary fiction (Yvette Walker’s Letters to the End of Love, reviewed by Amanda, Annabel, Jennifer, Emily and myself), poetry (Susan Hawthorne’s Limen, reviewed by Sue and Marilyn), young adult fiction (F2M: the Boy Within by Hazel Edwards and Ryan Kennedy, reviewed by Stevie) and an anthology (Car Maintenance, Explosives and Love, and Other Contemporary Lesbian Writings, reviewed by writereaderly).

We don’t yet have a list of queer women writers on our Reading for Diversity page, but I’m hoping to redress this by holding a spotlight on queer writing in March.  Stay tuned for details! 

Diverse Heritage

unpolished-gemOver October, we held a spotlight on Australian Women Writers of Diverse Heritage, with guest posts from Tseen Khoo, Alice Pung, Malla Nunn and Merlinda Bobis.  Tseen, a researcher and writer on Asian-Australian issues, outlined her frustration with the limited readings of texts by Asian Australian women, such as those by Hsu Ming Teo’s Love and VertigoAlice Pung, author of Unpolished Gem and Her Father’s Daughter, discussed the theme of class and ostracism in relation to Ruth Park’s novels.  Malla Nunn reflected on how her move to Australia gave her the opportunity to write about her childhood in Swaziland, while Merlinda Bobis, author of Fish-Hair Woman, for which she was awarded the Most Underrated Book Award, wrote a post about the influence of her Filipino culture on her writing.  Next year we’ll be holding similar spotlights on lesbian writers (as mentioned above) and women writers with disabilities.

AWW no borderI have loved working with the AWW team this year, and am proud to be part of an initiative that contributes to the fair representation of women writers in Australia’s literary culture.  In addition, even though I’m deaf, by reading I listen to much, much more than I ever could in real life, and I’m indebted to AWW’s readers – your reviews have allowed me to slip into so many skins, voices and souls.

If you’d like to continue the challenge in 2014 (and I do hope you will!), you can sign up here.  For further suggestions as to what to read from a diverse range of Australian women writers, please visit our Reading for Diversity page.  Those who are also interested in Australia’s fantastic women Indigenous authors can head to the Indigenous and Indigenous Issues lists on our Review Listings page.  Do venture forth and explore!

About Me

JessI’m Jessica White, a novelist and researcher, and I’ve been deaf since age 4 when I lost most of my hearing from meningitis.  I have a PhD from the University of London and have published two novels with Penguin, A Curious Intimacy (2007), about botany and lesbianism, and Entitlement (2012), about Native Title and grief.  You can find more information about me at my website.  I’m also on Twitter @ladyredjess.

YA reviews Jul-Nov 2013

Teen cancer and transitioning from female to male; adolescent werewolves and stories which draw on an outback youth; racial tensions and fantasy adventures in suburbia; romance, horror, the “messy and real” – writing for Young Adults in Australia is marked by its diversity.

Many of the books reviewed for the AWW challenge in the second half of last year were published in 2013. These including Text Prize-winner A J Betts’ Zac & Mia, reviewed by VeganYANerds and Rochelle Sharp, described as a “teen cancer” story.


Others are from earlier years.

Award winner Sonya Hartnett’s Thursday’s Child (Penguin 2000) is described by A Strong Belief in Wicker as historical fiction with a dose of magic realism”: “a powerful, moving story” with “beautiful writing [which] stopped me in my tracks on many, many pages”.


Dust by Christine Bongers (Woolshed Press, 2009) was named a Children’s Book Council of Australia notable book. Set in the 1970s in a setting which draws on the author’s childhood in Biloela, the protagonist Cecilia is “on the cusp of moving from primary school to high”.

Bongers has the knack of flipping the switch from larrikin humour to pathos. Of painting her characters in human strokes, the good with the bad with the damn frustrating. Of letting the time go by, incident by incident, letting the allusions grow as the illusions slowly fade. (From a review by Jason Nahrung)


Several more recent novels portray aspects of suburbia, including Hate Is Such A Strong Word by Sarah Ayoub (HarperCollins 2013), the story of a girl from a Lebanese-Australian family who encounters racist stereotyping in reverse (reviewed by Bree).


At times the suburbia depicted has a fantasy element, as in Cheryse Durrant’s The Blood She Betrayed (Clan Destine Press 2013), the debut novel in her Heart Hunter series. This book portrays “thrilling adventures in the everyday suburbs of south-east Queensland” (reviewed by Peta-Jo).

The Blood She Betrayed Durrant

Elsewhere the mix of the fantastic and the suburban is deemed less successful; WriteReaderly describes Anna Dusk’s Un-Human (Transit Lounge 2010) as “an Australian vernacular narrative of adolescent girls being werewolves”:

Teenaged Tassie shazzas being gross and boganly visceral and getting dazzas to ‘put yer cock in me’ in the playground and playing out their teen romance-controversies and rages by eating people…

in human dusk

Other novels are portrayed as having a more serious intent.

Stevie Schafter is impressed by F2M: The Boy Within by Hazel Edwards and Ryan Kennedy (Ford Street Publishing 2009), the story of female to male transitioning:

One of the most interesting elements of the story was tackling anti-trans sentiment from a feminist character.  This is one of the main tensions in the book and I think it’s a smart and jarring inclusion.


Bec Kavanagh considers Simmone Howell’s Girl Defective (PanMacmillan 2013) to be a worthwhile read:

This is a coming of age story where everything and nothing matters all at once. The hormones are so strong that you’ll find yourself fifteen again, looking wildly for that compass to stop the world from spinning out of control around you. It’s brilliant, and messy and real, set in a place that everyone will recognise even if you’ve never been there before.


In total, there were 85 reviews posted as for Young Adults in the July-November period of 2013, so only a fraction of them can be sampled here. The rest can be found on the AWW Review Listing page.


Thanks to all the reviewers and to the people who took the time to seek out, to comment on their reviews and to post links on Twitter using the AWW hashtag. (This year it’s #aww2014.)

Thanks also to Mandy from VeganYANerds blog for her contribution to the round-ups in 2013. As Mandy is unable to fulfil that role in 2014, AWW is looking for a volunteer YA specialist to round up AWW YA reviews each month (or bimonthly) throughout the year. If you’re interested in becoming part of the AWW team, please let us know via the comments or direct message on Twitter @auswomenwriters.

July-Aug 2013 Roundup: YA Non-Speculative Fiction

Zac and Mia BettsFirst up for ths round up is the winner of the 2012 Text Prize, Zac & Mia by A.J Betts. Zac & Mia is the story of two teenagers with cancer and their time in a cancer ward. Rochelle says “It’s a book about living. It’s a book about courage, and hope. It’s about family, friendship, loyalty” and “Raw and honest, Zac and Mia is a must read for all lovers of YA contemporary, both teens and adults alike.”

Next we have Dust by Christine Bongers, reviewed by Jason. Dust is set in a small country town during the 1970′s, Jason writes “Bongers has the knackdust-bongers of flipping the switch from larrikin humour to pathos. Of painting her characters in human strokes, the good with the bad with the damn frustrating. Of letting the time go by, incident by incident, letting the allusions grow as the illusions slowly fade.”

f2m-edwards-kennedyLike Alex as Well by Alyssa Brugman, mentioned earlier in the year, F2M: The Boy Within by Hazel Edwards and Ryan Kennedy, features and intersexed teenager going through their transition. Stevie reviewed it and said “F2M tackles some really interesting topics because the central characters are more involved in social justice movements like feminism.  One of the most interesting elements of the story was tackling anti-trans sentiment from a feminist character.  This is one of the main tensions in the book and I think it’s a smart and jarring inclusion.”

song in the darkAnd finally Song in the Dark by Christine Howe tackles the issue of drug addiction and family tension.  Belle says “Song in the Dark obviously deals with some very heavy issues. But it does so with respect and realism. Paul does some very bad things yet you can’t help but feel for him. It’s a sympathetic portrayal of addiction – something that not everyone views with sympathy. And your heart just breaks for Hetty. The sense of betrayal is gut-wrenching, and yet she still loves and hopes.”

May-June 2013 Roundup: YA Non-Speculative Fiction

It’s time for the non-specualtive YA round up!

The whole of my world hayesThe first review I’d like to highlight is for The Whole of My World by Nicole Hayes. This stort features a teenage girl who is a big fan of football and her relationship with a player. Kate from Books Are My Favourite and Best said “This book is the perfect springboard for so many discussions about issues that are real and current for teenagers.”


Next is Three Summers by Judith Clarke, a story of a young girl raised in a country town, the story spans her life, starting in 1959. Rochelle from Inside my Words wrote “This is a book that should be read for the writing itself. Judith Clarke has a way with words, a poetic like quality that is both beautiful and outstanding.”

The Mimosa TreeAnother YA with a historical element is The Mimosa Tree by Antontella Preto. Set in W.A the

story revolves around Mia, her family, and her first year of university. The Incredible Rambling Elimy reviewed it saying “This is an amazing book and I have been recommending it to everyone I know.  It has a powerful message about overcoming grief, and the obstacles that we place in our own path to happiness.”


Steal my Sunshine by Emily Gale combines a present day story of a teenage girl as well as the history of her family and a time in Australia’s history when single women were forced to give up their babies. Marcia from Book Muster Down Under said “Steal My Sunshine is a lovely YA novel with a good moral message behind Hannah’s story.  Seen through the eyes of a teenage girl whose greatest desire is to belong and be loved, it is also an aching examination of one woman’s shameful deception and painful re-living of a time she would rather forget and another woman’s inability to forgive past transgressions.”

Cry Blue MurderAnd finally Cry Blue Murder by Kiim Kane and Marion Roberts uses a unique format to tell the intense and chilling story of two girls and their interaction online while a serial killer targets teenage girls. Bree from One Girl, Two Many Books reviewed it and said “I could say I loved this book in spite of the ending, but I think that ultimately, I loved it because of the ending. It dared to go there and if it had’ve resolved some other way, it would’ve made me question to decision to go the soft road and it would probably have felt unrealistic.”

March-April 2013 Roundup: YA Non-Speculative Fiction

Hi all,

This recap will be a combination of both March and April reviews. We had some great new YA released during these months and I’ll be highlighting those as well as some older YA reads.

girl-defectiveDuring March there were three releases reviewed: Girl Defective by Simmone Howell – the story of a teenage girl named Sky and set in St Kilda.  Danielle says “Howell writes such sharp characters and dark edges with a wry humour that’s wholly unique and breathtaking.”

Song in the Dark by Christine Howe takes a look at the life of a teenage addict and his family which Bree reviewed “This is a beautifully written novel, one of the few I’ve read that I feel actually captures the difficulty of addiction and the reality of it, especially here in Australia.”

And New Guinea Moon by Kate Constable – set in Papua New Guinea during the 70s. Reviewed by Lauren “I’m so grateful to have discovered this author and wonder why I haven’t picked up any of her earlier titles previously – must rectify that!


Two older books reviews this month include Six Impossible Things by Fiona Wood – Maggie says “This was so witty and heart-warming. I would be surprised that this is a debut novel except that the author is Australian.”

And Louise reviewed Have You Seen Ally Queen by Deb Fitzpatrick, set in W.A. Louise writes  “This is my first reading of Deb Fitzpatrick, I look forward to more of her writing.”

The Zigzag EffectDuring April there were four new releases featured, three of which I read and loved. The Zigzag Effect by Lili Wilkinson is a fun, unique story of a girl, her job with a magician as well as a haunted theatre.

The Mimosa Tree is the debut novel of Antonella Preto. It tells the story of Mira, her life in W.A during the 80s and her fear of nuclear war.

A really unique writing format (mostly emails) allowed for a compelling story in Cry Blue Murder by Kim Kane and Marion Roberts. The story revolves around two teen girls and the disappearances of local girls.

Sweet Damage by Rebecca James, is the story of Tim and the strange occurrences in the house he moves into. Monique says “James writes well and she is especially good at creating an atmosphere of menace in which the house almost becomes a character in its own right.”

And lastly another older book, Saving Francesca by Melina Marchetta, the story of a girl forced to attend a new school that was formally a boy-only high school. Rochelle says “Saving Francesca will make you want to laugh and make you want to cry. It is a book about friendship, family, and first love. It is about finding out who you really are and letting yourself be the real you. It is a must read for all lovers of YA contemporary.”

March 2013 Roundup: Diversity

Readers of the Australian Women Writers blog will have noticed that we’ve been peppered with long listings, short listings, and awards lately.  These are a boost to any writer’s career, but particularly those who might be overlooked on account of their gender, sexuality or race.  The effects of recognition are apparent in AWW reviews, with Subversive Reader writing of  Indigenous author Dylan Coleman’s Mazin Grace, long listed for the Stella Prize:

mazin-graceAlthough Mazin Grace was sad, and at times gut-wrenchingly confronting (and you must read the author’s note at the end), I was left with a feeling of hope – hope because stories like this are entering our consciousness, that writers like this are making long lists for awards, that books like this are available – easily – to readers like myself who don’t always find it easy to go to small or specialist book stores.

How lovely it is to see books that aren’t necessarily mainstream making an impact!

purple-threadsOther reviews of books by Indigenous authors included my own of Janine Leane’s Purple Threads, a gentle and meandering novel about the narrator’s childhood and aunties.  James Tierny from the Newtown Review of Books reviewed Melissa Lucashenko’s newly released Mullumbimby, her fifth novel.  He found it a ‘sure, funny and quietly modulated novel’ which ‘bursts the myth that Indigenous culture must present a unified face to Australia in order to be strong’, but questioned the ‘occasional tendency to use unnecessary adverbs or adjectives when neither the sense nor the flow of the narrative demands it.’  Poet Phillip Ellis reviewed Oodgeroo Noonuccal’s book of poems The Dawn is at Hand, commenting that the volume isn’t ‘simplistic, propagandistic poetry, but poetry that conveys its own worldviews’.  He also posted on Anita Heiss’ I’m Not Racist, But …, a collection of what Heiss terms ‘social observations,’ but which Phillip refers to as political poetry.

Patti Miller, The mind of a thiefPatti Miller’s The Mind of a Thief is about the author’s growing understanding that the country in which she grew up was a place of dispossession.  It was long listed for the Stella prize and, recently, the Kibble prize.  Anna Maria Dell’oso at the Newtown Review of Books wrote an inviting review, concluding with the observation that the novel’s final chapters leave the reader wondering ‘how the chain of human dispossession and thievery will continue to unfold into the stoic Australian landscape’.  Migratory Mel was more uneasy with the author’s stance, commenting that ‘Miller walks a fine line between her own memoir and a non-fiction story of rights to land, native title and registration claims’.  She was also irked by Miller’s ‘constant need to remind us of her own hardship growing up in Wellington (often repeated mentions of no running water, no hot tap)’ as though the author were ‘trying to place herself in a position as an equally hard-done by resident of Wellington alongside Indigenous Australians.’  However Mel also acknowledges that Miller’s honesty about her shortcomings helps the reader ‘to understand how the roles played by Indigenous Australians have been deeply hidden from our history’.  After reading both these reviews, I promptly downloaded the book from my library.

Another book on Indigenous issues reviewed over March was Chloe Hooper’s The Tall Man, reviewed by Nalini Haynes.  Nalini compared the book and documentary versions about the death of Cameron Doomadgee while in police custody in Palm Island, and highlights what she sees as some of the author’s biases.

people-smugglerOn the long list for the Miles Franklin and Stella awards was Robin de Crespigny’s non-fiction work The People Smuggler.  Bree wrote an impassioned review of this account of Ali Al Jenabi, a man who risks all to get refugees from the Middle East to safety in Australia.  She gave it 10/10, and wrote that ‘This book should be mandatory reading for every Australian school student.  It should help provide the one thing that the government does not: the other side.’

Other cultures also featured in the romance genre, with Coleen Kwan’s Short Soup reviewed by Kaetrin, who enjoyed the mix of Chinese and Australian culture. Lauren at The Australian Bookshelf reviewed another romance driven by cultural issues, Arranged to Love by Elizabeth Dunk.  The conflict in the book stems from the Indian-Australian female protagonist’s intention to go ahead with an arranged marriage, until her plans are thrown into disarray by her falling for an Australian man.  Lauren enjoyed the cultural aspects of the story but was frustrated with the characters at times.

let-the-dead-lieAustralian author Malla Nunn, who was born in Swaziland and moved to Perth in the 1970s, is a writer of suspense novels.  Marilyn Brady reviews her work Let the Dead Lie, set in South Africa at the time of apartheid.  The work shows how apartheid shaped people, and how it was never ‘the stark division of black and white people, as … envisioned by its designers’ but rather, ‘as Nunn displays, was messier’.  Marilyn also reviewed Alice Pung’s memoir Unpolished Gem about growing up as a Cambodian of Chinese ethnicity in Australia.  She describes the writing as ‘sure and affective, voicing on paper what could not be explained to non-immigrant friends about her life.’

monkey's mask porterOther issues which were canvassed include those of lesbian desire in Dorothy Porter’s The Monkey’s Mask, reviewed with punch and panache by WriteReaderly: ‘The plotting is smart, the affair is sexy, Sydney is gritty and real, the poems are bitey and sharp – a damned fab book.’  If Not, Read reviewed the same book, and loved it.

Finally, it’s always great to see issues popping up in young adult literature, and Mandee at Vegan YA Nerds couldn’t put Alex As Well down.  This is the story of Alex, who is born intersexed with both male and female genitalia.  Her parents agreed early on she was to be a boy, but as she grows up Alex feels more like a girl and decides to become one.  Mandee found Alex to be ‘a really intelligent girl and she made for an entertaining and honest narrator, who speaks directly to the reader, as if she’s telling us her story. She had so much personality that she was jumping out of the pages at me.’  Sounds like the author Alyssa Brugmann has done her work well!

If you’d like more recommendations for books that cover these sorts of issues, head over to the Australian Women Writer’s ever-growing list of Indigenous authors and authors writing on Indigenous issues, or check out the lists under Reading for Diversity.  And let’s hope that the awards season continues to shower fine writers like these.

About Me

JessI’m Jessica White, a novelist and researcher, and I’ve been deaf since age 4 when I lost most of my hearing from meningitis.  I have a PhD from the University of London and have published two novels with Penguin, A Curious Intimacy (2007), about botany and lesbianism, and Entitlement (2012), about Native Title and grief.  You can find more information about me at my website.  I’m also on Twitter @ladyredjess.

January 2013 Roundup: Diversity

Reviews of books about diversity have got off to a good start this year, with some twenty reviews in January on books either by Indigenous authors, or canvassing themes of Aboriginality, gender and sexuality, disability, and race.

home-larissa-behrendtThere were a few reviews of books by Indigenous authors in January, and more have been coming through this month, which is fabulous. Writereaderly reviewed Larissa Behrendt’s 2004 novel, Home.  Her reaction to the book was ambivalent, finding the framing-story at the beginning ‘heavy-handed’ and ‘infuriating’.  As she continued reading, however, the reviewer became absorbed in the work, commenting that ‘the stories of Garibooli’s kidnapping from her family in the early 1900s, and the trajectories of her children and grandchildren, are diverse, well-informed and emotive without being overly emotional’.  She also suspects it was a ‘successful prize-winner because of a wee bit of white-man guilt.’  Getting the correct balance between style and subject matter is an interesting topic, and one which I hope to write about later down the track, and at least, as she concludes, ‘the awards got more people to read this novel.’  Behrendt’s second novel, Legacy, was also reviewed by Maree Kimberley at GoodReads, who described it as ‘unputdownable’.

Paisley lone protestorThere were several books that addressed Indigenous themes or people, but which were not necessarily written by Indigenous authors.  I was delighted to see a review of Fiona Paisley’s The Lone Protestor, about the life of Anthony Martin Fernando, an Indigenous man who left Australia in the early 20th Century to protest against the injustices done to his people.  Yvonne has written a highly articulate summary of the work, noting the difficulties that Fiona encountered in undertaking her research because Fernando moved across several countries in Europe, and the archives of marginalised groups such as Indigenous people have not been kept because they weren’t considered to be important.  In the case of Indigenous people as well (although not necessarily in Fernando’s instance), their emphasis on oral storytelling means that their history is passed down through voice rather than written records.

secret-riverKate Grenville’s trilogy on the settlement of Sydney and early white-black relations continues to be reviewed.  Buggalugz found the violence of the first of these novels, The Secret River, to be quite confronting, and believed ‘this was probably Grenville’s intention when it came to writing about this aspect of our history; to appeal to the conscience of every person who reads this story.’  Meanwhile, John from Musings of a Literary Dilettante, penned an in-depth review of book three, Sarah Thornhill, and included the interesting link to one of his ancestors who features in the book.  He countered many of the criticisms of the novel, one of which was that the Indigenous people were portrayed as passive.  John notes that ‘The aboriginal stable hands at Thornhill’s farm are indeed meek, yet this is plausible because their lives have been so reduced by working for Thornhill. They must know of Thornhill’s past. To work for such a man would cause a reduction of spirit that we can’t fathom.’  I can’t help but wonder, however, if it is not the task of a novelist, particularly those writing on Indigenous issues, to help their readers understand this ‘reduction of spirit’ (a fine phrase), particularly given the antipathy of many white people to Indigenous people and their losses.

Same, but little bit diff'rentReviews of childrens’ books featuring Indigenous themes include Kylie Dunstan’s Same, but little bit diff’rent, which is reviewed by Subversive Reader (scroll down to reach the review).  She adored this book about Normie from the Top End.  The Barrumbi Kids by Leonie Norrington was reviewed by Narelle M Harris, who spoke highly of its believable representation of kids crossing the cultural divide.

Subversive Reader also reviewed Love Like Water, Meme McDonald’s young adult/adult novel about three characters in Alice Springs.  These include Jay, a successful DJ in Sydney whose urban background differs strongly to that of the Indigenous people in Alice, and who encounters pockets of racism in different contexts.

Tsana’s reviews of the The Fallen Moon series by K.J. Taylor, which includes The Dark Griffin, The Griffin’s Flight and The Griffin’s War, demonstrate how fantasy can also be used to illustrate racism by transposing it into an imaginary world.  In the world of The Dark Griffin, the protagonist Arran is ostracised because of his race even though, as Tsana notes with appreciation, ‘the racism was not based on skin colour’, but rather because he looked slightly different.

eonFantasy is also used to explore issues of gender and disability.  Alison Goodman’s Eon and Eona, reviewed by Nalini at Dark Matter fan zine, follows the protagonist Eon, a girl who masquerades as a boy eunuch to get ahead.  Both books also feature disability which, as Nalini writes, is usually healed with magic in the fantasy genre.  As she rightly points out, this is a little convenient, for ‘in real life people with disabilities don’t get healed’.  She found that Goodman redeems herself by having Eona adjust to her lame body (caused by a badly set broken hip).   I really enjoyed Nalini’s discussions of this issue and, as with her, I’d like to see more realistic representations of characters functioning with their disability in fantasy.  These two books and their themes were also reviewed last year by Tsana.

alex as wellOther portrayals of gender are examined in Alyssa Brugmann’s Alex as Well, a young adult novel reviewed by Danielle (and also mentioned by Amanda in her January wrap up of non-speculative YA fiction).  She was impressed with the book, writing that ‘Putting yourself into the shoes of a transgendered youth is no mean feat, but Brugman accomplishes the seemingly impossible’ and, at the same time, fulfils the important role of creating stories about transgendered youth. As with other young people struggling to define who they are, they need positive stories and representations of themselves, particularly given their high suicide rate.  Meanwhile, Marisa came across a book by Marj McRae titled Not a Man, featuring a eunuch.  Although, she says, it isn’t a book for the faint-hearted, after a while the reader becomes ‘dragged in’.  I have never read a book featuring a eunuch and I, too, was intrigued, not least because of Marisa’s comment that ‘The relationships Shuki has with people are odd to say the least, mostly because as an eunuch, relationships work out very differently’.

Kate Grenville, Sarah ThornhillOn a final note, the Stella Prize longlist has just been released (see Paula’s post at AWW for commentary), reminding us of the need to champion writing by women, as well as that of minorities who do not receive the recognition they deserve.  Sometimes this recognition is mislaid due to marketing by publishers, an issue flagged by John in his review of Sarah Thornhill.  As he notes, the hardback edition features the back of a woman’s head as she looks towards a sepia-coloured river, while the soft cover is of a black and white image of the sea crashing against the cliffs.  John wonders why the more ‘feminine’ cover was changed, as he writes: ‘Although I’d like to say a man wouldn’t worry about such things, I’d say that many would. It’s not one I’m particularly drawn to. I have no idea whether this was done on purpose—to market the book toward readers of what is derisively termed ‘women’s fiction’ (which outsells ‘literary fiction’).’

These comments echo those made by Jane Gleeson-White in her Overland essay on ‘The Year of Australian Women Writers’, in which she compares the reception of Grenville’s first novel, The Secret River, with Sarah Thornhill.  The third novel, she observes, doesn’t seem to have received the same level of critical attention as the first although, in her opinion, Sarah Thornhill was a finer novel.  On contemplating the reasons for this, she comes to the issue of voice:

Grenville has conjured from nowhere, almost, with very few archival records of early nineteenth-century women’s voices, the vivid voice of an early Australian colonial girl, woman, lover, wife, mother. The novel is told in the first person, from the constrained, socially restricted, uneducated viewpoint of a girl. Does such a voice carry weight in our broader Australian literary culture? Not much, it seems. Or not as much as a third person account of Sarah Thornhill’s pioneering, nation-making father, the protagonist of The Secret River.

Huon Dark WetIn the ensuing comments on this article (which add complexity to Jane’s commentary), Emmett Stinson noted that at the Australian Book Industry Awards, Sarah Thornhill won in the ‘General Fiction’ category, rather than the ‘Literary Fiction’ category.  The prevalence of such marketing and pigeon-holing indicates the necessity of the Stella Prize and the Australian Women Writers Challenge, which encourage readers to become more savvy, to recognise that their reading choices are sometimes guided by marketing and culture.  It would be marvellous if, as I mentioned in my review of Jess Huon’s The Dark Wet, a person’s skin colour, sexual orientation, body make-up or gender didn’t package them into checklist-like boxes.  However, the day in which we are all seen as equal is sadly a long way off, and until then, these considered reviews on the voices of diverse people are necessary — and wonderfully interesting — reading.


About Me

Photo JWI’m Jessica White, a novelist and researcher, and I’ve been deaf since age 4 when I lost most of my hearing from meningitis.  I have a PhD from the University of London and have published two novels with Penguin, A Curious Intimacy (2007), about botany and lesbianism, and Entitlement (2012), about Native Title and grief.  You can find more information about me at my website.  I’m also on Twitter @ladyredjess.

January 2013 Roundup: YA Non-Speculative Fiction

Hi everyone! Today I’ll be wrapping up the contemporary YA books reviewed in January for the AWW Challenge.

alex as wellThere are two reviews I’d like to highlight first as they focus on two of my favourite reads of 2013 (yes, it feels a bit early to be making that call!) The first is Alex as Well by Alyssa Brugman, as reviewed by Danielle. The story revolves around intersex teen, Alex, raised as a boy but who identifies as female. This is definitely a subject that I think we will see more of in future YA titles and here’s what Danielle had to say on that topic “Young adult literature is about making connections for young readers who find a little of themselves in these stories and take comfort from reading characters go through similar hardships and survive all the stronger for it. This is perhaps especially important for LGBTQI youth, who already have a hard enough time finding themselves represented in other aspects of society and media.”

The Midnight DressMy second favourite book so far this year is The Midnight Dress by Karen Foxlee. It’s the story of Rose, her alcoholic father, a dressmaker,and a small town shrouded in mystery. Tonile says “This story is about more than a missing girl in a beautiful dress. It’s about broken people and shattered families. It’s about love and the many different forms it can take. It’s about growing up and dealing with the consequences of your actions.” The Midnight Dress is also being published in America, so the international readers will easily be able to get their hands on this wonderful book.

If you’re looking for YA with a good dose of romance then why not try The Boys of Summer by C.J Duggan – it features a sleepy coastal town, the sort of place most Aussies will associate with summer holidays. Antonietta reviewed it and writes “Like most romance novels, I’ll admit it’s fairly predictable, and yet I still loved it because the characters felt fresh and were genuinely interesting.”

The last three books I’d like to talk about have a strong focus on the setting. The first two, Friday Brown by Vikki Wakefield and Love Like Water by Meme McDonald. Friday Brown was a favourite of mine last year but I hadn’t heard of Love Like Water until writing this recap and I’m happy to have another book to add to my ever increasing to-read list. Jacqui says “Friday Brown is a beautifully written story. The contrasts between rural Australia and the city are distinct and vivid.” And Mel says of Love Like Water “This was such a lyrical read, the words often read like music. It was easy to fall into the story and almost let it take you along, even when the story made unpleasant twists.”

alaska-salibaAnd lastly Alaska by Sue Saliba is set in, you guessed it, Alaska, which is probably not the most used setting in YA fiction. The story focuses on Aussie teen Mia who moves to Alaska to be with her sister while their mother is in hospital. On the topic of the setting, Belle writes “The setting of Alaska is one I’ve never read before, but Saliba makes it real and vivid and incredibly beautiful. Her descriptive writing made me feel the exquisite coldness of the frozen landscape, even though I was sitting in 30-degree heat.”

I’ve enjoyed reading the variety of reviews submitted so far and am already looking forward to the wrap up in February.

2012 AWW Challenge Wrap-up: YA non-speculative

I’m finding it hard to believe that 2013 has begun already. 2012 flew by in a blur of excellent books and I’d like to share the highlights of the contemporary and realistic YA fiction reviewed for the Australian Women Writers challenge this year.

holier-than-thouBy far the biggest theme throughout the books reviewed was growing up, and that also often involved relationships, whether it be with family, friends or romantically. Jess from The Readers’ Haven loves  Laura Buzo’s writing and regards Holier Than Thou to be full of “wit, grit and feeling”. Holier Than Thou is a book perfect for those who consider themselves too old for YA (really there is no such thing!), as Laura takes a look at what it’s like for a girl in her early twenties moving out of home, working at her first full-time job, and moving further apart from her childhood friends.

Ill-tell-you-mineOther books that fall into this category include: I’ll Tell You Mine by Pip Harry (reviewed by Bree at All the Books I can Read), Notes from the Teenage Underground by Simmone Howell, One Long Thread by Belinda Jeffrey, Preloved by Shirley Marr (reviewed by Belle at Belle’s Bookshelf), Cargo by Jessica Au (reviewed by Sian Campbell), Losing It by Julia Lawrinson, and Friday Brown by Vikki Wakefield. These books have a focus on family relationships, whether it involves losing a parent, getting to know a parent who was absent from childhood, or the death of a sibling, or an emphasis on the awkwardness, excitement, and pain of growing up.

Reviews of books involving death or mental illness also appeared throughout the year, highlighting these subjects  in an accessible way: Saving Francesca by Melina Marchetta, Shift by Em Bailey (reviewed by Tsana’s Reads & Reviews), Divine Clementine by Hayley S Kirk and Everything Left Unsaid by Jessica Davidson.

cinnamon-rainThis year there have also been some beautiful examples of YA verse: Cinnamon Rain by Emma Cameron and Against the Tide by Irini Savvides. Both capture the essence of Australia so well, and the writing allows the reader to feel as though they are sharing the narrator’s thoughts resulting in a wonderful reading experience.

The reviews showcase many newly released books such as The Reluctant Hallelujah by Gabrielle Williams (reviewed by Danielle at Alpha Reader) and Love-shy by Lili Wilkinson, as well as older titles such as Queen Kat, Carmel and St Jude Get a Life by Maureen McCarthy (reviewed by This Charming Mum), Raw Blue by Kirsty Eagar (reviewed by Liza at Lizabelle), and A Little Wanting Song by Cath Crowley (reviewed by Erin at Healing Scribe).

queen-nightAnd last but not least, two books that are contemporary fiction with paranormal elements are  Queen of the Night by Leanne Hall (reviewed by the Female Factory) and Night Beach by Kirsty Eagar (reviewed by Lauren at The Australian Bookshelf). Both could be enjoyed by fans of either genre, and they are evocative, captivating stories.

2012 has been a fantastic year book-wise and I’m looking forward to reading more Aussie YA by women writers, as well as AWW participants’ reviews, in 2013.

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