May has been an exciting month for awards. We saw the announcement of the shortlist for two women-only literary prizes, the Dobbie and the Nita Kibble Literary Awards. Our awards co-ordinator Paula Grunseit wrote these up in a dedicated post at the time. The Miles Franklin Award shortlist was also announced, with four women featuring in the list of six books. Finally, the winners of the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards were announced at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, with the Christina Stead Fiction award and the UTS Glenda Adams New Writing award both going to books by women, Michelle de Kretser’s Questions of travel and Fiona McFarlane’s The night guest, respectively. Are we seeing, do you think, another flowering of women’s writing in Australia, as we saw in the 1980s and back in the 1930s? Anyhow, on with the report.

Mighty May

just-a-girl-krauthHmm … perhaps all this awards excitement went to our heads and impinged on our reading time, because we had only 25 reviews posted during the month. They covered 22 authors. Three books received two reviews: Kate Belle’s Being Jade, Melissa Lucashenko’s Mullumbimby, and Kristina Olsson’s Boy, Lost.

Highlights for this month are:

  • Kirsten Krauth’s clever debut novel, just_a_girl, edged ahead of the field to be our most reviewed book for the year, to date (7). Close behind with 6 reviews are Amanda Curtin’s Elemental and last year’s winner, Hannah Kent’s Burial rites. One review behind these is indigenous writer Melissa Lucashenko’s Mullumbimby.
  • One third of the reviews were for books published by university presses – UQP (5) and UWA (3).

The Classics

Just one classic was reviewed this month – though it’s an unusual one. Reviewed by yours truly, Mary Grant Bruce’s The early tales comprises two pieces of juvenilia published by the delightful Juvenilia Press, which is based at the University of New South Wales. Older readers here are probably aware of Bruce’s Billabong series of children’s books, but they may not be so aware of her writing for adults, of which these two stories are representative. Both stories are about the harsh, isolated and often dangerous life faced by rural families at the turn of the twentieth century. Both were published in Christmas supplements, but Bruce doesn’t let her readers off lightly. As I wrote in my review, these are “well-told stories that have an emotional punch alongside their historical interest”.

Now, how about some more classics for next month. They are just the thing for a cold night in front of the fire!

Literary Award winners and contenders

MullumbimbyMelissaLucashenkoMost of the books shortlisted (or that have won awards to date this year) have been reviewed by our participants. All three short-listed for the Nita Kibble award have been reviewed, with two – Melissa Lucashenko’s Mullumbimby and Kristina Olsson’s Boy, lost – being reviewed this month. Maree Kimberley, who reviews on GoodReads, wrote of Mullumbimby:

I loved the descriptions of the bush and her farm, and the all too realistic depictions of rain (and the mould that always follows it). The characters were all well-drawn, and I adored Jo, the main fabulous character, in all her flawed glory.

Kristina Olsson’s memoir Boy, lost was reviewed by our two historian reviewers this month, Janine Rizzetti and Yvonne Perkins. As historians, they often bring a different perspective to the books they review. Interestingly though, Janine wrote that she first thought she was reading a novel until “some facts seemed so concrete and so banal that I started to wonder if it was non-fiction instead”. Concrete and banal they might have been, but Janine enjoyed the book nonetheless. Boy, lost, for those of you who haven’t caught up with it is about the “stealing” of Olsson’s older brother from her mother by his father (but not hers). Her mother doesn’t see this son for again for 40 years. It is a measure of the book’s success that Janine:

very much enjoyed this book, even though it utilizes two of the stylistic techniques that I usually dislike: very short chapters and use of the present tense.

boy-lost-olssonIn her review, Yvonne discusses the challenge of writing such a story from incomplete evidence. Olsson, she says, admitted that she had to “imagine” some of the story. Yvonne comments that this can be a challenge ethically but argues that it succeeds here because:

The reimagination is used with discipline to convey the emotional truth of the situation facing Yvonne. [Yvonne also being the name of Olsson’s mother!]

She also discusses that other ethical mine-field of memoirs, the reliance on memory of family members. Again, Yvonne feels that Olsson has succeeded, that she:

demonstrates that imperfect memories and the desire to conceal painful episodes means that writing history can never be an exact task and requires what Kristina Olsson has given it in this book – empathy, fairness and a commitment to truth.

Short story collections

inheritedThree short story collections were reviewed this month – Amanda Curtin’s Inherited, Amanda Lohrey’s Reading Madame Bovary, and Deborah Sheldon’s 300 degree days and other stories. I’m choosing to highlight Karen M’s review of Curtin’s collection – for two reasons. I’d like to encourage Karen M who seems to be fairly new to the challenge (welcome, Karen), and, given the popularity of Curtin’s Elemental this year, I thought it would be good to show she has more strings to her bow!

So, to the collection. It has 19 stories, and Karen writes

I read them one per night, so that each could be savoured, considered and felt. And lordy, did I do some feeling!

The collection, she says, is

arranged into seven sections, titled Keeping, Wanting, Surviving, Remembering, Breaking, Leaving and Returning – this should give you some idea of the arc of what is explored in these stories.

Karen is effusive in her praise for Curtin’s wordsmithing. If you like short stories, this sounds like a good one to get your teeth into.

I have of course mentioned only a few of the books reviewed this month. To see all of the Literary/Classic books reviewed this year to date, please check this Weebly page.


About Me

I am 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 been making sure to include a good percentage of Australian (and other) women writers in my reading diet.