While the number of reviews posted in May did not equal our April achievement, we still had a lovely number of reviews posted, 36 in all. We are rocking in 2015 so far. Well done, team.

As is traditional in May, the shortlist for the Miles Franklin Award was announced. This year’s list of five, as Paula Grunseit has already posted, contained four books written by women: Sonya Hartnett’s Golden Boys, Sofie Laguna’s The Eye of the Sheep, Joan London’s The Golden Age, Christine Piper’s After Darkness. All of these books have been reviewed for the challenge. We will find out in late June who has won.

Marvellous May

Our 36 reviews covered 29 authors, and include a wide variety of works – as you will see!

Highlights for this month are:

  • Six, yes six, classics were reviewed, including a very interesting new author for me.
  • Top reviewer was Jennifer Cameron-Smith (again) with five reviews. Thanks Jennifer.
  • Four books received two reviews – Robyn Cadwallader’s The Anchoress, Kylie Kaden and Justine Ford’s Missing You, Christine Kenneally’s The Invisible History of the Human Race, and Sandra Leigh Price’s The Bird’s Child.

The Classics

looking-for-alibrandiSo the classics. I don’t think we’ve ever had 6 classics reviewed in a month before. Two of the classics are probably borderline, as they were both published in the 1990s. One is Melina Marchetta’s young adult novel Looking for Alibrandi. It was published in 1993, but it has become a significant book that is consistently taught in schools. As reviewer Tracey of Carpe Librum says, it’s considered a modern classic. Jennifer Cameron-Smith reviewed Madeleine St John’s The essence of the thing. It too is a modern classic. It was published later than Marchetta’s book, but was the first book by an Australian woman to be short-listed for the Booker Prize – in 1997. It is set in England, and Cameron-Smith enjoyed “its flashes of humour and neat depictions of relationships and their perils”.

The other four classics, though, are older. I reviewed Dymphna Cusack’s Jungfrau. Published in 1936 it is particularly appropriate for our challenge, because it was written at a time when women’s writing was flowering. Also, it deals with three women living in Sydney at a time when life was opening up for women, but was also offering them new challenges. While I found the language a little overblown at times, I liked its discussion of issues like “economic inequities, abortion, women’s independence, and the meaning of freedom”.

WrightMurderTelephoneChorusAnd then there’s the author I’ve never heard of, June Wright. She wrote seven or eight crime novels, six of which were published between 1948 and 1966. Karen Chisholm reviewed three of the novels – Murder in the Telephone Exchange (1948), So bad a death (1949), and Duck Season Death (written c. 1959 but not published until after her death in 2012) – in the Newtown Review of Books. Crime isn’t a regular visitor to these Literary and Classic posts, but reviewer Chisholm says that Wright was

one of the writers who forged the way for an Australian crime fiction scene that’s vibrant, varied and extremely engaging, and her books really deserve to be better remembered and more accessible.

Chisholm also comments that these books feature “spirited, forthright female central characters”. Wright’s novels are currently being republished by Chorus Press/Dark Passage Books. If you are interested in crime or in the development of Australian genre fiction, you may like to check her out.

It would be great to see more genre classics reviewed for the challenge.

Historical fiction

While on the subject of genre, I thought this post might be the time to highlight some reviews of literary historical fiction. Of all the “so-called” genres, historical fiction is probably the one which features in literary pages and awards more than any other. Think Kate Grenville’s award-winning The Secret River for a start.

the-anchoress-cadwalladerSix of this month’s reviews were tagged Historical Fiction by their reviewers. They are Emma Ashmere’s The Floating Garden, Robyn Cadwallader’s The Anchoress (2), Sandra Leigh Price’s The Bird’s Child (2), and Courtney Collins’ The Burial. For this post I’ll focus on the two which received two reviews.

Cadwallader’s The Anchoress is a debut novel and has already been reviewed five times for the challenge. It’s set in mediaeval England, and is about Sarah who chooses to become an anchoress, that is, walled up in a cell near a church to devote her life to prayer. (Like a nun, but more so, perhaps!) Of, course, her choice does challenge her, and hence the novel’s core. Linda Funnell reviewed it for the Newtown Review of Books and enjoyed it overall. She described it as

a novel of page-turning grace. The language is frequently beautiful, and Sarah’s choices linger long in the mind.

Julia Tulloch Harper also enjoyed it. She described it as “the story of a woman who learns to find freedom in her own choices and in her ability to define her job on her own terms”. She said the history is convincing, and the prose, while “not mind-blowing”, is simple and clear.

PriceBirdsChildPrice’s book, The Bird’s Child, like Emma Ashmere’s The Floating Garden in fact, is set in late 1920s Sydney – in a boarding house comprising “a cast of oddly matched waifs and strays”. Emily Paull (The Incredible Rambling Elimy) said that what she really liked was

the use of voice.  The story is told from several points of view, and begins by alternating between Billy and Ari’s voices.  They’re so distinctively different …

She did though feel the ending was a little rushed.

Lou Murphy reviewed it for the Newtown Review of Books (we have had a lot from them this post haven’t we!) Murphy describes it as “an unusual and imaginative novel [which] traverses surreal territory in a historical setting” and says that Price has created “a magical tapestry of love, mystery, obsession and belonging”.

Christine Kenneally

KenneallyHumanRaceFor my last section this month, I thought I’d focus on Christine Kenneally’s The Invisible History of the Human Race, a non-fiction work which was shortlisted for the Stella Prize this year. It was reviewed twice in May. To use Marion Diamond (Historians are Past Caring)‘s description, it is “part history, part science, with large and important chunks dealing with the contemporary issues thrown up by the new technologies of DNA analysis”. She said that she couldn’t put it down, concluding that:

This is a rich and rewarding book, clearly written and entertaining, but with a good deal of meat on its bones. To my unqualified eyes, it seems about as up-to-date as one can expect in such a fast-moving field. I can’t recommend it too highly.

Michelle Scott Tucker (Adventures in Biography) clearly felt similarly:

This is a book I read late into the night.  Then at the breakfast table and then later in the parked car while waiting to collect the kids.  I feverishly pressed copies onto friends.

Wow, a book about science, DNA, and genetics, garnering such page-turning enthusiasm! I’m starting to understand why it was shortlisted for the Stella. Both reviewers talk of the questions the book raises – scientific, population/social and ethical ones. What happens to DNA data that has been gathered, and who owns it, are two questions both reviewers mention.

Have any of the books highlighted in this round-up caught your fancy?


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.