Well, here it is March already and I’m bringing you the February roundup of reviews in both the Literary Fiction/Non-fiction and Classic areas. Paula Grunseit, who is responsible for the Classics area, will be posting on some special topics. Adding Classics to my area is a comfortable fit and, anyhow, only one book was classified as a classic by its reviewer this month!

The numbers game

In February, 28 book reviews were tagged as Classics and/or Literary, one more than last month, and again they are broad-ranging. Here are this month’s overall observations:

  • The 28 reviews were posted by 21 reviewers, with 2 reviewers, Phillip A Ellis and Tarla  Kramer posting 3 reviews each.
  • One review, by Le Koala Lit, was written in French!
  • 18 of the reviews were classified as Fiction, 7 as Non-fiction, and 7 as Poetry. (I know this doesn’t add up to 28 but that’s because reviewers can apply multiple categories).
  • 24 authors were reviewed with 3 receiving multiple reviews: Lisa Jacobson (3), Helen Garner (2), and Toni Jordan (2)
  • As in January, 75% of the reviews were for works published in the 21st century, with the rest being from the 20th century.

THE Classic

Henry Handel Richardson's The getting of wisdomJust one review was classified as a classic by its reviewer, and that was Henry Handel Richardson’s bildungsroman The getting of wisdom, reviewed by ifnotread. She (I think ifnotread is a she) identified with poor blue-stocking Laura and the difficulties she faced in trying to fit in. But what I loved most about her review was her concluding comment about enjoying classics over contemporary books:

With the classics and fiction such as The Getting Of Wisdom, I feel like I’m on a sturdy boat, basking in the sun, relaxed, arms stretched out, and enjoying the ride.

This was a nice ride.

I look forward to seeing more reviews of classics from ifnotread.

That diverse bunch we call Literary Fiction

Jacobson, The sunlit zoneThe other seventeen fiction reviews cover a broader range of styles and genres than the January bunch did. While most (8) are for contemporary novels, there are also reviews for two historical fiction novels, two crime/mystery novels, and three reviews for Lisa Jacobson’s speculative fiction verse novel, The sunlit zone. As it’s the most reviewed book of the month in my category and was recently longlisted for the Stella Prize, let’s start with it.

Jessica Wilkinson makes the comment in her review that the Australian poetry scene “boasts a rich and varied tradition of verse novel writing” and she gives examples such as Dorothy Porter’s The monkey’s mask and Les Murray’s Fredy Neptune. I’d add a favourite of mine, Geoff Page’s The scarring. She comments that while they are diverse in poetic approach, they exhibit a distinctly Australian “tongue” and suggests this may help their accessibility. Meanwhile, Tsana went out of her comfort zone to read this book, and was:

surprised how readable The Sunlit Zone was, given that it’s poetry of which I don’t usually read much. If you’re wondering, it’s not rhyming verse, although there are a few occasional scattered rhymes.

However, the ending initially disappointed her, though she suggests that may be because it’s not squarely in the speculative fiction genre. Bronwyn sees the verse novel as “literary fiction in its most evolved state”. She writes that the book:

makes music with language, but that linguistic music resonates with meaning as well—the verse tells a compelling story, with developed and engaging characters and plot lines. Some literary fiction I have read has not held me with the narrative. I have enjoyed the vividness of the writing, but couldn’t care less what happened next. The Sunlit Zone, however, is full of suspense.

This is a book I need to check out.

The other book to receive more than one review is Toni Jordan’s Nine days. Told in nine voices and covering several decades, it’s an ambitious novel. Lisa Walker was expecting not to like Jordan’s departure in this novel from romantic comedy, but she was impressed, saying that

by the end of the book, I felt satisfied with having met such a diverse array of characters and this deepened the impact of the final story when it came.

Like Lisa, Natasha was initially concerned about the nine voices being able to provide enough connection with the reader but she too was won over, describing it as one of the best books she’d read in a long time. I would concur with Lisa and Natasha and say, go read it!

Two books that have featured in recent literary awards were reviewed – Eva Hornung’s Dog boy, which won the 2011 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards, and Favel Parrett’s Past the shallows which was shortlisted for several awards in 2012 and was positively reviewed by Jonathan Shaw. I just have to quote Shannon on Dog boy, though, because this is exactly how I feel about it:

I almost don’t know what to say about this book. It’s powerful and thought-provoking, tragic and wise. It speaks so loudly and clearly and beautifully for itself, what is left for me to say but Read It? I don’t understand why is hasn’t won more awards – it won the Prime Minister’s Literary Award in 2010, but for a work of this scope and depth and sheer literary talent, I can’t imagine why the Miles Franklin and Booker etc. didn’t come knocking, too.

Madeleine St John, The women in blackSurely this book will become a classic …

For the full list of Literary/Classic reviews to date, click this link. You’ll find reviews of such books as Helen Garner’s The spare room, Marion Halligan’s The apricot colonel and P.A. O’Reilly’s The fine colour of rust, among many others. For this post though I would like to finish on Le Koala Lit’s review of Madeleine St John’s The women in black. She praises it for its readability and its evocation of its era:

Madeleine St John reconstitue l’ambiance de ces années 50 à merveille et surtout les préoccupations des femmes de cette époque.

If you want to practise your French, you know where to go …

What about the rest?

Elizabeth Hodgson, Skin paintingThe rest of the reviews are for non-fiction and poetry. These are likely to be covered by other round-ups so I won’t spend too much time on them here. One of the poetry reviews is Magdalena Ball’s of Jennifer Maiden’s Liquid nitrogen in which she praises Maiden for “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”. Another is Phillip Ellis’s review of indigenous poet Elizabeth Hodgson’s Skin painting which won the David Unaipon Award. He writes that:

It is what the internet magazine rabbit calls nonfiction poetry, poetry arising out of and engaging with the poet’s lived experience of the world and her life.

This intrigues me as much of the poetry I’ve reviewed on my blog seems to be like this, and yet nowhere have I seen those books described as “nonfiction poetry”. Perhaps they are and I just didn’t know! Anyhow, Ellis admires the work for “its language and style, its candour and its avoidance of the worst excesses of confessionalism”.

The Resident Judge reviewed Gillian Bouras’ memoir-or-is-it-fiction, A stranger here, which I’ve also read, though eons ago. Based on her time as a wife and mother in Greece, the book explores the challenges Bouras (or her book alter-ego Irene) faces in dealing with her mother-in-law and her friend. The Judge had mixed feelings, asking:

While identifying with it, I did become a bit impatient at the ‘stuckness’ of the narrator in this book and was relieved that it didn’t go on for much longer, even though I was enjoying reading it.  I do wonder if  the author takes the  adage “Write what you know” a little too seriously: can any one person’s ordinary life carry the burden of so many novels???

Readers of my blog know that I regularly read Jane Austen. I love to hear what books or authors, if any, other readers go back to. For Tarla it’s Kate Llewellyn’s The waterlily, a book I’ve often meant to read but now feel inspired to. The Waterlily is a journal, and Tarla says she reads it pretty much every year, “mainly when life is really tough”. She says its “emphasis is on small joys, and the prose is as poetic as a good poet can get away with”. She calls it “literary valium”!

And that, I think, is as good a place as any on which to conclude this roundup. But first, here’s a question: what book, if any, do you come back to again and again, to soothe your soul?

About Me

I’m Whispering Gums and I read, review and blog about (mostly) literary fiction. It was reading Jane Austen when I was 14 years old that turned me on to reading literary fiction/classics, which is why I am here today doing this round-up! Little did Jane know what she started!

My love of Aussie literature started with Banjo Paterson’s ballads and Ethel Turner’s Seven Little Australians in my childhood. But, I didn’t really discover Australian women’s writing until the 1980s when I “met” and fell in love with Elizabeth Jolley, Thea Astley, Olga Masters, Helen Garner and Kate Grenville. Ever since then I have made sure to include a good percentage of Australian (and other) women writers in my reading diet.