July might be the depths of winter here in Australia but the challenge was running hot with reviews posted aplenty, at least in my little corner of the world. July was also significant for the announcement of the National Biography Award, and the Nita Kibble and Dobbie Literary Awards. These awards are all for “life writing”, though the National Biography Award is limited to biography, autobiography and memoir, while the other two are open to both fiction and non-fiction.
The highlights are:
- Eight reviews (nearly 20% of the total) were posted this month for books published ten or more years ago, of which two were identified as “classics”.
- Brooke Davis’ debut novel, Lost & Found, which is being touted as this year’s publishing sensation, received 7 reviews within the first month of its publication. Publisher Hachette is clearly doing an excellent job of promoting this author and getting her book out there.
- Two authors received four reviews during the month: Evie Wyld for her Miles Franklin winning All the birds, singing, and Helen Garner for different works, ranging across her oeuvre.
- Our most prolific reviewer for July was Sh’i D’Amour with 7 reviews, followed by last month’s leader, Jane Rawson, with 3 reviews. Several reviewers posted 2 reviews. It’s encouraging to see such commitment to the challenge continuing into this, our third year.
New works featured in this month’s classics reviewed. One, Katherine Susannah Prichard’s Coonardoo, reviewed by Sh’i D’Amour, is a well-known work. It jointly won, with M. Barnard Eldershaw’s A House is Built, the first Bulletin novel prize in 1929. Sh’i D’Amour writes that it is a book that should be better known, not only because of the way it deals with indigenous relationship with white Australia but for its coverage of other issues such as immigration and domestic violence. D’Amour has some reservations about Prichard’s approach to presenting Coonardoo’s story but concludes positively, arguing that:
It is only by our ability to overcome our own silences that we may reach out to each other with new understanding and new behaviours and attitudes. Let us make the attempt. And let us use such tools as Katherine Susannah Prichard has provided for us to help us along the arduous way.
The second work is a real surprise, Vera Dwyer’s The Kayles of Bushy Lodge. Few Australians, I expect, would have heard of Vera Dwyer, let alone read her. Not so, however, our reviewer Debbie Robson, who writes this:
A little way in, much to my surprise, I discovered that Dwyer’s novel is that rare thing – a novel set during WWI and written only a number of years later! A find indeed. The book’s timeframe is after the Australian soldiers have arrived on the Western Front but the novel’s main concerns are with the families left behind on the home front.
Robson finishes her review saying that it has “a surprisingly modern ending. This book is a delight and deserves to be read by a wide audience”.
Life writing has been increasingly recognised in recent decades as a legitimate form or genre, and is now a subject of serious scholarship. It encompasses all types of writing about a life or lives, in either fictional or non-fictional form, and can include biography, autobiography, memoir, letters, diaries, oral histories, and so on. We have several awards in Australia devoted to the field, of which those mentioned in my opening paragraph are but three. In July, Tasmanian historian Alison Alexander was announced as the winner of the National Biography Award with her book The Ambitions of Jane Franklin: Victorian Lady Adventurer. It has been reviewed twice for the challenge, the second time being this month by Sh’i D’Amour. D’Amour had some quibbles with how Alexander handles Franklin’s not aligning herself with feminism. She enjoyed, however, the story of Franklin, an “intrepid” person, which she defines as having the “ability to see the world differently than most other people around them”.
The winner of the Kibble Literary Award for an established author was Kristina Olsson for Boy Lost: A Family Memoir, while the Dobbie Literary Award for a first published author was won by Kate Richards for Madness: A Memoir. Both winning books happen, this year, to be memoirs though fictional works have won in the past – and both have been reviewed for the challenge, though not this month. Paula Grunseit, our awards co-ordinator, wrote a post on these two books and their awards in July.
As I noted under highlights, I was pleased to see a greater than usual number of older books being reviewed this month. While it is important to support new writers and new works by established writers, it is also critical to the depth of our literary culture that we keep reviewing older works. In July, eight books published 10 or more years ago were reviewed. In addition to the two classics, they include four works by Helen Garner, reviewed by Maureen Helen (2) and Sh’i D’Amour (2), Louise Allen’s review of Joan London’s wonderful Gilgamesh and mine of Sara Dowse’s LA-set novel, Schemetime.
In her review of Garner’s Joe Cinque’s Consolation, Helen briefly discusses the form of the work, “narrative non-fiction”, in which “fact-based stories” are presented in a “compelling narrative” drawn, in Garner’s case, from “her own experience of court hearings, archival research and ‘real-world’ interviews”. Helen describes the book as:
a skilfully written, compelling and very uncomfortable story in which Helen Garner attempts to honour the young man, Joe Cinque, victim of a senseless crime, and his family.
As I did, when I read it a decade or so ago, Louise Allen “absolutely loved” London’s Gilgamesh. A work of historical fiction set in Western Australia and Armenia between the two World Wars, Gilgamesh, says Allen,
can be enjoyed at any level of sophistication. On the surface, it’s an epic story of a young girl’s travels, yet it’s also a multi-layered literary text. It’s one of the best Australian novels I’ve ever read—a masterpiece.
Sara Dowse’s Schemetime is set in LA in the late 1960s and explores the clash of idealism with money – amongst creators (mainly filmmakers), political campaigners, lawyers and businessmen. The main character is an Australian with a dream of making an artistic film, but he has to raise the money to do so. This is a visual novel, capturing something of the way a camera sees. Dowse’s writing is crisp and evocative, and her characters engaging. Unlike Gilgamesh and Garner’s books, Schemetime is not well known, but as a thoughtful book about a significant era, I’d argue that it is well worth the read.
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.
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.