The inaugural Stella Prize winner will be announced tonight and in case you missed the timely discussion on Radio National about The Culture of Prize Giving, you can catch up here. Sophie Cunningham (Chair of the Stella Prize), Stuart Glover (Chair of the Queensland Literary Awards) and American academic James English addressed some of the following questions: Are there too many literary prizes and what contribution do they make to our cultural landscape? What about women’s literary prizes — where do they fit in? Do we need them and what is their impact?
Sophie Cunningham says that even though general issues in women’s rights have really reasserted themselves quite dramatically in the public sphere in the last twelve months to two years, in terms of literary prizes, things are actually getting worse for women. She explains: “That is, in the 80s and 90s where there was a lot of discussion about gender, women were getting closer to a third of prizes … Over the last ten years that has really dropped back again. There is a sense that as soon as you stop having conversations, it drops off the radar. I don’t think that people set out to deliberately do this; it’s not like I think there’s some sort of hidden agenda. People sometimes need to be forced out of their comfort zone and consider why they have particular reactions and what kind of books they read.”
Meanwhile, dedicated AWW Challenge reviewers have been ploughing their way through literary award longlists and shortlists, many taking the leap from their reading comfort zones to try unfamiliar genres.
To recap, the shortlist is:
The Burial by Courtney Collins
Questions of Travel by Michelle de Krester
The Sunlit Zone by Lisa Jacobson
Like a House on Fire by Cate Kennedy
Sea Hearts by Margo Lanagan
Mateship with Birds by Carrie Tiffany
You can read more about the shortlisted titles and their authors here and there are author interviews here. What follows is a small selection of Stella shortlist reviews and a reminder that all AWW Challenge reviews (sorted and unsorted) can be accessed here.
Set in the early twentieth century, The Burial by Courtney Collins is inspired by the story of Australia’s last bushranger, Jessie Hickman.
Sophia Whitfield says “The Burial is a richly atmospheric novel that harkens after the colonial past. It has award winner stamped all over it. The Burial is a beautifully written book set to the backdrop of the haunting Australian landscape.”
Angela Meyer of Literaryminded says: “It’s blood, bone, grit and earth, but peacefulness too — the quiet of the dead; of being underground or being far above the world, far up the side of a mountain. The peace of an unexpected friendship, or for the other characters, a respite from your obligations: a beautiful tattooed woman; a drug haze.” Meyer also has a Q and A with the author.
Shelleyrae writes: “While The Burial is dark and melancholic, dwelling on loss and death, it also celebrates the triumph of survival against all odds. Jessie refuses to let go, refuses to give up, no matter the sacrifice and despite being dogged by ghosts, both living and dead. Her bravery and her determination is laudable and her trials unimaginable as she searches for grace and freedom. Gritty yet glorious, The Burial is an impressive debut. Collins has revealed an extraordinary voice sure to be embraced by the literati.”
Kathy from Play, Eat, Learn, Live wrote about Questions of Travel and The Burial in the one review and said Questions of Travel “is, it must be said, the absolute slowest starting book I have ever ended up liking. … There is no denying that de Kretser writes beautifully — her prose is luminous, it’s pleasurable to read — but the lack of discernible plot, and my inability to care one iota about either Laura or Ravi, had me perilously close to giving up on this one at the 25% mark.” She persisted though and enjoyed the rest of the book. “I particularly liked de Kretser’s treatment of the online world and its relationship to metaspace — she manages to say something real without either reifying or decrying the changing ways in which people experience the world and travel.” Kathy alerts readers of spoilers in her review so be forewarned.
James Tierney reviewed the novel at The Newtown Review of Books where he said: “Questions of Travel bubbles with memorable images and sharply turned phrases: a dog called Marmite yips the chorus of ‘Cold, Cold Heart’; laughter tumbles out of a character in lumps, like vomit; money is described as what grownups put in place of childish wishes. But this declarative prose begins to work against the novel as it progresses. Ravi and Laura are boxed in – not fully expressed as characters – by all that isn’t left unsaid. If fiction works to craft resonant questions, then Questions of Travel reads as if it knows its answers just a little too well.”
It’s great to see that The Sunlit Zone by Lisa Jacobson has been embraced by many readers who do not usually read verse novels, poetry or speculative fiction. El says The Sunlit Zone is “a timely reminder to consider the repercussions of our actions, told with eloquence and without judgement. A triumph of fiction rooted in the facts of life and rules of nature.”
Tsana says that The Sunlit Zone is different to the books she normally reads. “It’s written in verse. It’s also much more literary than my usual fare. I really enjoyed reading The Sunlit Zone, but ultimately I was disappointed by the ending. It was a bit too subtle for my tastes. The story is a personal journey for North in which she comes to terms with her past, which is fine. The disappointment comes from the fact that I feel if it was a more science fictional (or fantastical) story, the ending would have been a bit more hopeful and less mundane. Anyway, The Sunlit Zone was overall a good if unusual read. I would recommend it to anyone looking for something different to the usual spec fic fare. I think it’s worth a read purely for the way it’s written (which I suppose is why it made the Stella longlist) and I imagine readers who usually shy away from speculative fiction would enjoy it as literature. It’s not a long read, either, and not the kind of poetry that one has to reread a few times to digest, so I do encourage you to give it a go.”
Bronwyn Lovell loved the book. “It was a pleasure to read, in a quite painful way. It is the story of a woman and a world — both have suffered dreadful loss, but despite everything, keep moving forward, in that exquisite synthesis of fragility and resilience that is typical of nature and humanity.”
Jessica Wilkinson said: “The Sunlit Zone is an engaging and enjoyable read; with a language as lively as the pounding waves that figure so prominently throughout the story, this is a book that appreciates the complexity of human emotions and the difficulties encountered when we try to express and understand them. Jacobson elegantly attests to the power of verse to move us to unexpected depths as she illuminates the rhythmic undercurrents shifting beneath mere communication of story.”
Like a House on Fire by Cate Kennedy has attracted mixed reviews from AWW Challenge reviewers, including some from readers who don’t usually go for short stories. Janine Rizzetti declares she is not a fan of short stories but explains that this anthology changed her. “Perhaps, after fifteen years of being able to indulge my love of reading more fully, I have finally learned how to read a short story. My discovery: one story at a time only, then go on to read a non-fiction book instead. The single story has enough space to expand; it’s not squashed down to fit the next one in. For me, it says a lot that I can flip through the book, glimpse the title at the top of the page and instantly recall what the story was about. I don’t think that I’ve ever enjoyed a collection of short stories so much.”
Sonia, a Cate Kennedy fan, expressed her disappointment with this collection. “I enjoy reading short story collections. I also liked Kennedy’s previous collection, Dark Roots and her debut novel The World Beneath (you know where this is going, don’t you?) but I found Like A House On Fire very inconsistent. I huffed and puffed over this being included [in the Stella]. Kennedy is better than Like A House On Fire. It was the wrong book for the wrong prize. This is a hit-and-miss collection. Kennedy’s skillful writing comes through in some stories but several pieces fall well short of her usual precise story-telling ability.”
Kathy says “Cate Kennedy’s Like a House on Fire is a short story collection of incredible breadth and skill, and I whipped through it at a rapid pace, finding it not only beautiful, meaningful and moving but also, not to put too fine a point on it, a bloody good read. Why? Well, I connected deeply with Kennedy’s stories and her characters; I found some of them unbearably moving, some thought-provoking, some peppered with humour (although on the whole, these are not funny stories) but none heavy handed or contrived. There is a special art to writing the stories of everyday people doing everyday things … and making those stories feel true and compelling. Kennedy has mastered this art thoroughly in this collection.”
Denise, who rarely reads short stories but says that this collection has “sparked off an interest in this genre” would like Cate Kennedy to win the Stella and said: “In one respect, this was a very easy book to read. But in other respects it was also an extremely difficult book, because the stories, in one way or another, all deal with loss and lack. Loss of love, life, youth, health, innocence, dreams. Lack of love, money, resources, security, stability. I should have known when I read the epigraph by Franz Kafka: ‘In the fight between you and the world, back the world’ that this collection wasn’t going to be a picnic in the park.”
She goes on to give some advice. “As other reviewers have suggested, it’s best not to read all these stories in one sitting. After reading several in a row, I ended up feeling like Tyler in the final story Seventy-Two Derwents — ‘like I had a stone inside my stomach.’ To quote from another celebrated writer, T.S. Eliot: ‘Humankind cannot bear very much reality.’ With one exception, all the stories engaged me from beginning to end. But for some reason, I couldn’t connect with White Spirit, despite its seductive title. … I’ll be going back to read Cate Kennedy’s earlier stories, and also her poems.”
Sea Hearts by Margo Lanagan has already won an Indie award and the reviews here at the AWW Challenge show that it is a favourite of many readers.
Kathy says: “I feel I should start my review of Sea Hearts with some full disclosure: I loved this book. Loved it in the kind of bone-deep, part-of-my-mental-landscape kind of way that is usually, for me, an insuperable barrier to writing any kind of useful analysis, let alone criticism. That was a really long-winded and self-indulgent way of saying that this is not going to be an analytical or theoretical review. I am not going to talk about the devices that Lanagan uses or the pacing, style or plotting glitches, if any. This review is going to be about how Sea Hearts made me feel, and why. … Terribly sad. Enormous unnameable longing. Beautiful and powerful. Compassionate, for all the flawed people and all their little sins that led them to this end. It is a wonderful, life-infusing book. I really don’t care if you don’t normally like fantasy or folklore-type fiction; please believe me, this is worth departing from type for. Read it and you will know why.”
Sea Hearts is rated 5/5 at Belle’s Bookshelf. “Sea Hearts explores some pretty significant themes — love, passion, grief, revenge, obsession and even gender roles. It’s intense, but never too heavy. Lanagan’s beautiful way with words, elegant plot structure, whimsical world-building and remarkable cast of characters weave together to form a breathtaking book that I think everybody should read.”
Having read a few reviews of Mateship with Birds, it’s one that seems to polarise readers. Tony from Tony’s Reading List recommends it and liked it better than Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living but found that “It’s not always comfortable reading, but it does come across as the natural way of life out in the country…” He goes on to say: “The book is littered with Freudian allusions, and the focus on sex is almost obsessive, with (it seems) barely a page passing without some sort of mention. Oedipal complexes abound, and the fathers you would expect to see in the story are more conspicuous by their absence. Most of the characters have dreams that any Freudian psycho-analyst would have a field day with, and at one point Harry writes about a childhood memory of his mother doing something very intimate in his presence. Even the baby kookaburra, feeding its mother for the first time, seems to be in on the act…”
Michelle from Book to the Future and Janine from The Resident Judge from Port Phillip are both big fans of Mateship with Birds. Michelle says: “Mateship with Birds is one of those elegant, slow novels I find utterly irresistible. Within a matter of paragraphs, Tiffany’s lush narrative falls into step with the laidback rhythm of country life. But this is not some kind of sentimental, landscape-driven piece, nor is it a romance novel. It’s something entirely different – a devastatingly smart, original work of fiction that speaks in an understated, confident voice. … Disarmingly sensuous, Mateship with Birds isn’t quite like other novels. It’s clever without being showy; it’s delightfully slow without ever losing its momentum. It’s a strange bird indeed, but without a doubt, Mateship with Birds is a thing of rare beauty.”
Janine rated the novel 9/10 and said: “This is a quirky, sly book that had me closing it with regret, with a smile on my lips. It is set in Cohuna in the 1950s and is redolent of long grass, cow-pats, and dusty roads, set to a soundtrack of magpies and kookaburras, country dances and a slow, masculine drawl. … As with her debut book Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living, it is a deceptively simple work with good people and big themes. I hope that it gets the recognition it deserves.”
Wishing all the inaugural Stella shortlistees the best for the big announcement on Tuesday evening! Our very own @margreads will be there and will report back here about the night.
I’m a freelance book reviewer, journalist and editor and have worked as a librarian for many years. I’m always feeling guilty about what I ‘should’ have or ‘should be reading.’ I signed up for the AWW challenge in 2012 and this year, as well as doing my own challenge where I’d like to focus on our long-lost women writers, I will be posting updates about various literary awards and Classics. I blog over at Wordsville and you can find me on Twitter @PaulaGrunseit