Once again there were a wide range of issues represented in the books reviewed this month. Heidi Reads penned a review of Ambelin Kwaymullina’s dystopia The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf, referring to it as ‘utterly brilliant dystopian spec fic’ with ideas that are ‘twisty and fabulous’. Bakir and Bi, written by Jillian Boyd, and illustrated by Tori-Jay Mordey, both Torres Strait Islanders, was reviewed by My Book Corner, who writes, ‘Boyd’s writing imparts a gentle, hypnotic charm as the story of Bakir and his family, set ‘long before the tall ship brought strangers’ unfolds.’ With the illustrations adding ‘a wonderful element of movement and pace’, it sounds like a charming book!
Jenny Schwartz reviewed Aboriginal Environmental Knowledge by anthropologist Catherine Laudine, which examines Aboriginal environmental knowledge as an integrated source of both religious and scientific knowledge. Jenny found it a more scholarly text than she anticipated, but it prompted her to raise an interesting question: ‘How do you shed your own cultural mindset to understand another’s?’ I would argue that reading, and the capacity for empathy, help give rise to that understanding.
There were a few books related to the migrant experience. The Glory Garage: Growing up Lebanese Muslim in Australia, about the lives of young Muslim women in Australia, went into Heidi Reads’ ‘mental pile of books all Australian girls should read’. Meanwhile, Elimy reviewed The Mimosa Tree, the story of Mira, an Italian-Australian who is starting uni and who ‘resents the way that her family’s staunch Italianess keeps her separate from her peers’. However, with her mother’s cancer becoming worse, Mira rallies around. Elimy described the book as having ‘a powerful message about overcoming grief, and the obstacles that we place in our own path to happiness’, and gave it 5 stars.
On the topic of disability, I wrote a review of Annah Faulkner’s The Beloved, a lyrical novel about Roberta, who is afflicted with polio. She overcomes her disability and achieves her dreams of becoming an artist through her stubborn personality and determination. This book was recently awarded winner of the Kibble Award for women writers.
I also enjoyed reading some reviews of books that played around with gender. In the romance genre was Anna Cowan’s Untamed, reviewed by Kat of BookThingo. A cross-dressing duke is enough to make anyone perk up, although, Kat notes, this is used as ‘less an exploration of gender as a plot device’. However, the author explores and undermines gender stereotypes in other ways and, interestingly, what Kat ‘found most beautiful about how each character is placed is that their gendered traits contribute to their strengths, their weaknesses and their conflicts. It wasn’t until Kit had to undress the cross-dressing duke that I found myself enchanted by Cowan’s writing.’ Fascinating stuff, indeed! I’ve read only a smattering of contemporary romance novels, but Kat’s review made me peg this book to my must-reads list.
Another interesting book that features cross-dressing is Suzanne Falkiner’s Eugenia: A Man, which describes the life of Eugenia Falleni (c.1875-1938). Eugenia was reportedly born in Italy and moved with her family to New Zealand, where she began dressing as a boy. She caught a ship to Australia, had a child, whom she left in another woman’s care, and began presenting herself as Harry Crawford. As Harry, she married a woman, murdered her, then married another woman. Harry’s crime was discovered and she was sentenced to death, but this was commuted. When she was released from prison, she assumed the name ‘Jean Ford’.
Eugenia: A Man was reviewed by Janine, who notes the presence of the 1980s in the book’s subject matter, that is, the migrant experience and gender roles of men and women in the early 20th Century. She also recounts a recent review of the book which criticises it for its sentimentality, and counters that this might spring ‘from the emotional investment that any biographer makes in her subject.’ Janine adds that in the 1980s there may not have been the interest or frameworks for queer theory analysis for popular writing. I was also interested to read that, as Janine writes, ‘One thing that came through very clearly was the marginality and fluidity of a working class existence where housing, jobs and, in Eugenia’s case, identities were temporary and rootless.’ I had never heard of this kind of mobility before, and now want to find out more about it.
On the note of queer subjects and authors, there was a query on Twitter recently as to whether we have a book list for books by queer Australian women writers. We are lacking in this department and I’d like to start such a list, so if you have any recommendations, please pop them in the comments box below. One such book might be The Exhibition by Marg Girdwood, reviewed by Dinner at Caph’s, who refers to it as ‘a good story of female friendship, love and solidarity.’
Finally, in tune with NAIDOC week and Brisbane City Council’s Black History Month, this month we have encouraged AWW participants to celebrate Indigenous women writers. There are still a few days left in which to read a book and pen your reviews! You can read my post about it if you’d like some ideas or references, or refer to AWW’s review listings.
I’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.