August tends to be a quiet month here in Literary-Classics land, despite the fact that this is the month in which the Melbourne Writers Festival takes place. Perhaps everyone is attending festivals rather than actually reading and writing reviews!
However, the shortlist for the fourth MUBA (Most Underrated Book Award) was announced. It comprises three books including one by a woman, Isabelle of the Moon and Stars by S.A. Jones. This book has been reviewed twice (by Deborah Sheil and Sonja Porter) for the challenge this year, though not this month. Last year’s MUBA winner was Jane Rawson’s A Wrong Turn and the Office of Unmade Lists, and the award’s very first winner was also by a woman, Fish-hair Woman, by Merlinda Bobis. This is an award that’s well worth watching because “under-rated” does not mean “second-class”. Rather, it recognises that books published by small and independent Australian publishers often don’t receive their “fair dues” when first released. The 2015 winner will be announced in November.
Our August review figures are similar to last year’s – 28 then, 29 now – which is a perfectly fine if not exciting result. The numbers may not be exciting, but the content as always, is. Here are some highlights:
- Three classics were reviewed.
- Five reviewers posted two reviews each: Jennifer Cameron-Smith, Hannah Dudley, Kelly (Orange Pekoe Reviews), Alexandra (Luvvie’s Musings), and yours truly, Whispering Gums.
- Our most reviewed book, and author, this month was Long Bay by Eleanor Limprecht, which garnered three reviews. No other book received more than one review, but one author, Eleanor Dark, had two books reviewed.
- Annabel Smith’s Whiskey and Charlie, the American edition of her popular Whisky Charlie Foxtrot was reviewed by Julie Tulloh, who wrote that she “picked it up in the States instead of back home to support her international sales!”. What a loyal, thoughtful reader, eh? Thanks Julie. (Love that not only was the title slightly changed but they changed the spelling of “whisky” too.)
Three classics this month! Love it! Two were for books by the same author, Eleanor Dark, and both books were read by one of our stalwarts here, Jennifer-Cameron Smith. She read Dark’s best known novel, The Timeless Land, originally published in 1941. It’s the first of a trilogy about the European settlement and exploration of Australia, and is, rather audaciously, told from English and Aboriginal points of view. Cameron-Smith enjoyed this reading as much as her first back in 1970 – and went on to read and review the second in the trilogy, Storm of Time, (1948), which covers 1799 to 1808. She writes:
‘Storm of Time’ is a more complex novel than ‘The Timeless Land’. As European settlement expands, government of the colony becomes more complex. Tensions between convicts and masters, between the Aboriginals and the Europeans are depicted well.
The other classic is a non-fiction work. Written more recently than Dark’s books, it nonetheless qualifies as a classic. I’m talking about Robyn Davidson’s Tracks. Originally published in 1980, it chronicles Davidson’s trek across Australia’s desert with camels. Reviewer Hannah Dudley was disappointed. She found the story “very interesting and inspiring, with beautiful descriptions of the outback” but didn’t warm to Davidson herself.
Most non-fiction books categorised as “literary” for the challenge tend to be memoirs and biographies. However, this month, three books were posted to our “Non-fiction, Other” genre, and flagged as literary. Given this is unusual, I thought I’d highlight them this month.
First up is Debra Adelaide’s The Simple Act of Reading. Adelaide has been reviewed here before for her novel The Household Guide to Dying and her book of short stories Letter to George Clooney. However, she is also an academic with expertise in Australian literature. I first came across her as the compiler of the wonderfully useful, back in pre-Google 1988, Australian Women Writers: A Bibliographic Guide. The Simple Act of Reading is in fact an anthology of essays, which Adelaide edited. Reviewer Suzanne Marks, writing in the Newtown Review of Books, says that the brief was “‘To write about any aspect of the reading life that is meaningful to you, and will be to those interested in what makes writers tick.’” The book includes contributions from Rosie Scott, Kate Forsyth, Malcolm Knox, David Malouf, Gabrielle Carey, Delia Falconer and Andy Griffith. Marks concludes that:
From the warmth and generosity of spirit exhibited by these writers in sharing their deeply personal and richly evolved insights, we learn more about why books and reading are critical to the continuation of a strong and resilient culture.
Next is Ramona Koval’s Tasting Life Twice. It was published in 2005 and is subtitled “Conversations with Remarkable Writers”. Hmm, you can see why this book and Adelaide’s were classified “literary” can’t you? The book draws from interviews Koval conducted when she anchored the book program on ABC’s Radio National. Reviewer Tarla Kramer, after briefly commenting on the content of the book, uses it to discuss an issue dear to the hearts of our challenge – gender imbalance. There are, she says, interviews with 18 men in the book but only 8 women. After presenting some arguments, including those statistics we are now familiar with, she asks why male readers are taken more seriously than female ones, and says she’d be “curious to know what Koval’s own thoughts are on how many women found their way into her book”.
The third book moves into a completely different subject area, asylum seekers. The book, A Country Too Far: Writings on Asylum Seekers, is an anthology of twenty-nine essays, fiction, memoir and poetry edited by Rosie Scott and Thomas Keneally. The contributors are Australian writers like Rodney Hall, Arnold Zable, Raimond Gaita and John Tranter. It was reviewed by Kathy Gollan for the Newtown Review of Books. As is common with anthologies, she liked some contributions more than others, but suggested that part of the point is that these writers participated in the project. She was also disconcerted – as I think I would be – that “without combing through the Introduction and Acknowledgments it’s difficult sometimes to know if a story is true, or is fiction, or when it was written”. I like anthologies to contain this sort of information at the beginning or end of each piece or in a dedicated list at the end. However, overall she liked the book saying that “with a subject that is so contested and heavy with emotion, it is good to have these 29 very different ways into it”.
Eleanor Limprecht’s Long Bay, our most reviewed novel this month, was in fact only published in August. It is Limprecht’s second novel, and is an historical fiction work about Sydney woman Rebecca Sinclair who was convicted of manslaughter, and sent to Long Bay Gaol, for a botched abortion. Michelle of Adventures in Biography was impressed, saying:
Rebecca Sinclair’s urban existence holds precious few moments of fun or happiness. Any short-lived sparks of joy are quickly snuffed out by circumstance or belligerence. This does not, though, make for heavy reading. I devoured this book in two great gulps, sitting up into the wee small hours because I couldn’t bear to put Rebecca down.
Shelleyrae of Book’d Out said the writing was a little dry, but nonetheless found it thoughtful and readable. She recommends it to “readers of both historical fiction and non fiction, especially those curious about women’s lives and issues at the turn of the century”. Similarly Kate of Books are my Favourite and Best felt that she lacked emotional connection with the protagonist, and yet, she said:
My husband noted that I didn’t put it down for two days. True, I tore through the book, keen to see how Rebecca’s story unfolded (even though you know the ending from the outset). It’s easy reading and for those keen on Australian history, is interesting.
Clearly this is a very interesting story that drives its readers on, even those who have reservations about their engagement with the character.
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.