Australian Women Writers Challenge

Australian Women Writers Challenge – 2014 Round Up

It was a strange year for reading and reviewing. I spent a lot of my spare time sewing this year, so I had less reading and writing time. But I was involved in writing round ups for the Australian Women Writers Challenge, so I felt really involved, even when I wasn’t reading or writing.

I read more than I reviewed – and I reviewed more than I managed to get up on the site. (Must fix that up today!) I managed the challenge alright, but I would have liked to review more. I’ve also recently read a bunch of AWW books, which I don’t think I’ll get to review before the new year. Maybe I should reread some of them and review them for the 2015 AWW challenge!

Away from reading and reviewing, I’ve really noticed how contributing in the challenge has had an impact on my family. My husband read a number of AWW books this year (we talked about him reviewing them as part of the challenge, but his work got incredibly busy) and has bought several copies of Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites as presents. We talk more about the books we’re reading at the moment, which is really lovely. My son has discovered lots of new favourite books – he’d particularly like to recommend Sally Morgan and Bronwyn Bancroft’s The Amazing A to Z Thing. And I’ve noticed that my reading is more diverse and in many ways, more interesting. I also asked for 2 AWW non fiction books for Christmas!

In 2015, I’m hoping to put a real effort into reviewing, hopefully with my new blog all set up and working well. I’m sure there’s many wonderful books just waiting for me to read them.

Onto some lists . . .

Books I Read

  1. The Min Min by Mavis Thorpe Clarke
  2. Playing Beatie Bow by Ruth Park
  3. Looking for Alibrandi by Melina Marchetta
  4. The Misogyny Factor by Anne Summers
  5. Moving Among Strangers by Gabrielle Carey
  6. Queen Kat, Carmel and St Jude Get A Life by Maureen McCarthy
  7. Saving Francesca by Melina Marchetta
  8. The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka by Clare Wright
  9. Peeling the Onion by Wendy Orr
  10. Showtime by Narrelle M Harris
  11. The Treasure Box by Margaret Wild

Brilliant AWW books I read but never got around to reviewing

  1. Mullumbimby by Melissa Lucashenko – this book completely floored me, but I could never work out how to put the words together to write about it. Just read it.
  2. The Intern by Gabrielle Tozer – good solid YA
  3. The Amazing A to Z Thing by Sally Morgan and Bronwyn Bancroft – deserves to be on this list due to how many times it’s been reread in our house
  4. Kaleidoscope ed by Alisa Krasnostein and Julia Rios – filled with soooo many great stories, but I particularly recommend Cookie Cutter Superhero by Tansy Rayner Roberts – I’m waiting for the television series set in her world
  5. Sprawl ed by Alisa Krasnostein – the ‘why did it take me so long to read this?’ book of the year
  6. Asymmetry by Thoraiya Dyer – A seriously good read
  7. Head of the River by Pip Harry – more great YA
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Book Review: The Treasure Box by Margaret Wild (Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014)

In my last Children and Young Reader’s round up for the Australian Women Writers Challenge, I challenged people to read and review more picture books. As we’ve been visiting the library more regularly, I thought it was an excellent chance to take up my own challenge.

treasure box

The Treasure Box
Margaret Wild and Freya Blackwood

2013, Library copy

This is, quite simply, a beautiful book. Over the last year I have been falling head over heels in love with Freya Blackwood’s artwork, and this book is another example of how she tells stories through pictures. From the endpapers with their fragments of pages, to the beautiful way the use of colour changes through the book, the first thing that strikes you is how attractive this book is.

Then you read the story. At the heart of it, it’s a simple story of displacement. But, with a closer look you see that it’s much more. The library in Peter’s city is bombed and the only book that survives is held by his father. When they need to leave the city, the book is carefully packed up and Peter’s father tells him that it is a treasure, a record of their people. They undertake a long journey to safety, enduring hardship and loss, until eventually Peter needs to leave the treasure in a safe place until he can retrieve it again. It’s a story that explores loss and hope at the same time.

Interestingly, this book has made me think about how we ‘allocate’ picture books to different ages. When I borrowed it from the library, I wasn’t necessarily thinking of it as a book Squirm would enjoy. I picked it up because I’d read a wonderful review of it and was interested in it myself. I don’t think you’d see this book on any lists of ‘books for 2 year olds’.

But Squirm loves it. He looks through it on his own, he requests it by name. When we read it he points out familiar things in the illustrations and is just starting to talk about what happens. This afternoon we talked about ‘cupping hands’ and what that looks like (the people in the book cup their hands to catch the fragments of books which fall from the sky). Obviously he doesn’t understand about war or enemies or the history of people being forced to move from their homes. But he understands the part about the book being treasure and about them keeping it safe – he builds his story from that point.

It reminds me of my experiences with reading The Red Tree (by Shaun Tan) with children of different ages. I’d read it with children between the ages of 7 and 12 and noticed that their thoughts and reactions were different depending on their age. They borrowed from what they knew – their schema – to make the book work for them. And no matter what their age, they all enjoyed it and made it meaningful to them.

I think in our need to classify things we can be too quick to move picture books (and other books) into age groups and by doing this we can also be too quick to say ‘no, you shouldn’t read that, it’s too old/young for you’. We forget that comprehension is more fluid than test writers would like to believe, completely built on our own experiences. The reader who is two will have a different experience of a book from the seven year old, the twelve year old, the eighteen year old or the thirty year old. But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have the chance to experience the book at all.

This thought also applies to older readers who can read novels reading picture books, or competent readers who are reading adult books going back to read Young Adult or children’s novels. Earlier this year I reread some Robin Klein books which I enjoyed as a child. It was amazing how many things I saw in them that I hadn’t seen before, how many themes I now understood better from the benefit of adulthood. I can’t help but think that it’s important to give our children those experiences as well.

I really recommend The Treasure Box to readers of all ages. It’s a beautiful book for talking about language, for talking about books and stories and how stories are important to our history. It’s a beautiful book for talking about war and displacement and keeping promises as much as you are able to. It’s a beautiful book about hope.

Book Review: Showtime by Narrelle M Harris (Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014)

This year I am reading and rereading children and young adult ‘classics’ written by Australian women. Read more here. However, after reading Alisa Krasnostein‘s brilliant post at the Australian Women Writers’ blog, I resolved to go back and read some of the Twelve Planets series which I had previously bought, but not yet read. This was the perfect kick back into the Australian Women Writer’s challenge

Showtime by Narrelle M Harris

Showtime by Narrelle M Harris
(2012, Twelfth Planet Press)

Own copy

Vampires, zombies, ghosts. We all know them. We’ve all seen the movies, read the books, developed complex theories about them based on the imagination of one creator (thanks, Joss). So, when I opened Showtime, I knew what I was getting into, of course . . .

Except these aren’t quite the stories we’re expecting. They respectfully nod at the stories we know, and then twist and turn them around and add some Royal show cakes for good measure. We open with Stalemate – the story of Helen and her mother Olivia who are revisiting old arguments and frictions with an energy which is both familiar and urgent. This is followed by Thrall which was probably my favourite out of the four stories. Here we meet the traditional vampire, Dragomir who is finding it harder and harder to thrive in the modern world. I love the part where Dragomir expresses his frustration with the way popular culture has messed with the way people look at him:

“All these ridiculously tall and handsome fictional vampires, with their glowing eyes and their impeccable fashion sense. They gave people unreasonable expectations.”

The third story, The Truth About Brains is a fabulous funny story about siblings and childhood relationships. And zombies. Amy decides to leave her brother Dylan behind while she heads out swimming . . . with some rather terrible consequences. The final story, Showtime, is another vampire story set in a modern day setting. Though, this time, instead of the traditional Europe we expect (as in Thrall), we get Melbourne. At their Royal Show.

On the surface, Showtime is a fairly light hearted romp alongside some of our favourite speculative fiction creatures. Underneath that, though, it is a collection of stories about families – the families we would do anything for and they families we would do anything to escape. The families we create and the families which are thrust upon us. The families we love – and the very same families which drive us around the bend.

The other thing that struck me about Showtime was that you know that there’s something you don’t know about each story. But you’re perfectly happy for the story to play itself out – you’re enjoying the world, the characters, the descriptions – and for the twists to come to you. I actually stopped reading for a few minutes after each story, just so I could enjoy them and let them sink in fully before reading the next one.

I often say that I’m not a ‘speculative fiction reader’. I’m starting to question that now. While I don’t read as much speculative fiction, or in some of the same areas of speculative fiction as my friends, I really do enjoy books like this which take the things I think I know and twist them in a beautifully gleeful fashion. Showtime is a really lovely, highly readable collection of stories, and I highly recommend getting your hands on a copy to enjoy.

Book Review: Peeling the Onion by Wendy Orr (Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014)

This year I am reading and rereading children and young adult ‘classics’ written by Australian women. Read more here.

peeling the onion

Peeling the Onion by Wendy Orr
(1997, Holiday House)

Own copy

Peeling the Onion is the story of Anna in the aftermath of a horrific car accident. We first meet Anna in the hospital where no one really seems to know how badly injured she is, and we follow her as she – and the people around her – come to terms with her injuries, their effect on her preferred future and the circumstances of the accident itself.

The title of the book refers to a poem Anna writes and rewrites throughout the story, but it could easily refer to the story itself. As the book progresses, you peel off layer after layer, revealing more of Anna’s life, her feelings about the accident and her resulting injuries and her relationships with the people around her.

This is a really lovely book and one which deserves to be better known than it is. Young people may not go through the horrific event Anna goes through (hopefully), but it would be easy to relate to her changing world and her growing acceptance that things are not going to work out the way she once planned them. I would thoroughly recommend this book to teenaged readers – but also to adult readers. I really hope that its availability in digital form (I bought it on Kindle) means that young people will continue to enjoy it into the future.

Book Review: The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka by Claire Wright (Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014)

This year I am reading and rereading children and young adult ‘classics’ written by Australian women. Read more here. However, I am taking a short break from them to read some of the books from the Stella Prize Longlist. Read more about that here

forgotten rebels of Eureka

The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka by Claire Wright
(2013, Text Publishing)

Own copy

Even thought the Eureka Stockade is supposed to be one of those events ‘everyone’ learns about at school, I must admit that I learned very little about it during my 12 years of schooling. Maybe it’s a Queensland thing. So, I approached The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka with just a little bit of background knowledge – which turned out to be a great way to appreciate this history.

Claire Wright has compiled a vast and impressive history of the situation around and events leading up to the Eureka Stockade. She (successfully) challenges the long held myth that the gold fields were a ‘place of men’, introducing us instead to the many women and families who lived around the gold fields of Victoria- as diggers, shop keepers, theatre owners and writers.

The social history – often including primary sources written by women – of the time is particularly interesting. For so many this was a time of change, with women taking more freedoms than they’d ever had before – freedom from far away families and social expectations, freedom to make money as shop keepers, freedom to take part in the emerging political atmosphere.

With this background, Wright brings us through the chaotic chain of events leading to the Eureka Stockade, showing us that women were there – not just as wives – but as agitators, financial supporters and spies. At times there feels like the point is laboured a bit (the ovulation speculation feels a little out of place) but it is incredibly clear that Eureka is not the ‘men’s story’ so often repeated – that women were both there and vital to the events.

This history is the culmination of 10 years odd work, and it really is impressive. It is strongest when we follow individual women and their circumstances at the goldfields. At times the author moves from a historical/academic style language to a current affairs tone – which pulled me out of the narrative a bit – but the book as a whole is an amazing piece of work and a valuable edition to Australia’s history.

 

 

Book Review: Saving Francesca by Melina Marchetta (Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014)

This year I am reading and rereading children and young adult ‘classics’ written by Australian women. Read more here.

saving-francesca

Saving Francesca by Melina Marchetta
(2003, Viking Childrens Press)

Own copy

This was another reread for me. While I don’t have the same fondness for Saving Francesca as Looking for Alibrandi (there’s always something special about the books you love as a teenager) I always find myself engrossed in Francesca – and staying up to all hours to finish it.

Francesca is starting her second term as one of thirty Year eleven girls at a formally all-boys school. That’s hard enough, but on top of that her formerly energetic and passionate mother can’t get out of bed. Suddenly Francesca is tackling adult tasks in order to protect her mother and dealing with the complete change in her family, all while trying to work out who she is and where her place in the world is supposed to be.

There was an eleven year gap between Alibrandi and Francesca, and you can see the growth of the author in both the quality of the writing and the subtleties of the story. Francesca is a sympathetic narrator and it’s easy to like her. Supporting characters are a real strength of Marchetta’s and you can see that here – from the giggly ‘big-boy’ worship of Francesca’s little brother Luca, to the brisk, but sympathetic supervisor at her mother’s university, to the other students and teachers at her new school.

There are still lots of misconceptions and prejudices around mental illness, and we see a lot of them discussed or put forward here. These misconceptions often makes it harder for Francesca to comprehend her mother’s illness – especially when she doesn’t feel like she’s getting the full story and her father – relentlessly positive – keeps reiterating that everything will be fine – even when it’s clearly not.

Unlike Alibrandi, which now has a lot of outdated references, Francesca is pretty low key with just some references to game shows (which no longer exist) and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. This means you’re very rarely pulled out of the story, and it’s still very readable and relevant now. It would probably make an excellent substitute for schools and teachers who are tired of teaching Alibrandi. It might be a quieter and less applauded book from Marchetta (who went on to write other incredibly popular books after Francesca was published) but I think it’s one worthy of our recognition.

Book Review: Queen Kat, Carmel and St Jude Get a Life by Maureen McCarthy (Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014)

This year I am reading and rereading children and young adult ‘classics’ written by Australian women. Read more here.

(I couldn't find a good image of the cover I have, so I decided to go with this most recent one instead)

(I couldn’t find a good image of the cover I have, so I decided to go with this most recent one instead)

Queen Kat, Carmel and St Jude Get a Life by Maureen McCarthy
(1995, Penguin)

Own copy

(Note: Totally coincidentally, my wonderful friend Liz also read and reviewed this book at the same time. And then I twisted her arm to join the AWW Challenge 🙂 )

This was another one of my favourite books as a teenager and I’ve read it a number of times since. It’s the story of three different girls from a small country town thrown together into a share house in Melbourne for their first year out of school. Carmel is the shy farm-girl, known around the small town for her amazing voice. Jude is the radical, juggling medical studies with protests while being haunted by the violent death of her father. Katrina is from a privileged and well known family, renowned for her beauty and her snottiness. Told from the three different perspectives we follow them up close and through each other’s eyes as they navigate the world after school.

There’s a lot to tackle in this book, and it’s definitely bigger than a lot of similar books. To me, Queen Kat, Carmel and St Jude has always had an almost epic feel – like a fantasy novel without the fantasy. Maybe because of the different journeys we follow over the course of the book – as Carmel becomes more comfortable with who she is; as Jude confronts what her parents went through in Chile; as Kat gets over her head with a ‘fast crowd’ – the reader is pulled along, from one story to another, one place to another.

This time, when I read it, I was struck by how sad Kat was, especially at the beginning of the book. She seemed almost disconnected from herself and from other people, separate from any kind of human emotion. She didn’t want to have anything to do with a school-mate who had lost her father, she broke her mother’s favourite vase because she didn’t feel she was getting her way. She knew how to ‘act’ in social situations – after all, that training would come with being from the eminent family in a small town – but she seemed deeply uncomfortable and unable to deal with human emotion, and humans in general. I think Kat’s story wouldn’t have worked anywhere but at the end of the book, where we’ve been exposed to glimpses of who she is underneath the act – it would have been terribly tiring to read her performances earlier in the book.

Despite the mid-nineties publication of this book, it mostly works as a read for a modern audience, especially (I suspect) a modern audience living outside of Melbourne. (There are a number of settings which have apparently changed significantly in the time, but an outsider reader wouldn’t necessarily know that). The themes themselves are timeless – trying to please parents while forging an identity away from them, learning to live in a bigger world than your school world, finding a voice in a world that often tries to shut people up. The characters, including the supporting characters, are well developed and memorable, and you can often ‘see’ them as you read. And although there are a lot of ‘issues’ explored (especially in Kat’s story) it doesn’t read like an ‘issues’ book.  I’d definitely recommend it to high school students today, and I suspect a lot of them would enjoy it.

Book Review: Moving Among Strangers by Gabrielle Carey (Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014)

This year I am reading and rereading children and young adult ‘classics’ written by Australian women. Read more here. However, I am taking a short break from them to read some of the books from the Stella Prize Longlist. Read more about that here

moving among strangers

Moving Among Strangers: Randolph Stow and My Family by Gabrielle Carey
(2013, University of Queensland Press)

Own copy

When I saw this book on the Stella Longlist, I knew I needed to read it. Midnite by Randolph Stow was  one of the favourite books of my Year 6 teacher, and he read it aloud to our class, as he had read it aloud to my sister’s class the year before. When I became a teacher, I tracked Midnite down at the Lifeline Book Fest and made it part of my classroom library – it was always exciting when a new student discovered this excellent book about a very bad bushranger.

So, a book which was connected to Randolph Stow was an exciting idea. But I had no idea that it was going to be such a wonderful, moving, whimsical and real story of Stow and his connection to the Carey family. Gabrielle Carey opens with a letter that she wrote to Stow when her mother was dying, a letter which sets up a chain of events leading to a literary pilgrimage. Along the way there’s books and poetry and shipwrecks and Australian (specifically Western Australian) history. And it’s sad and uplifting and beautiful.

This isn’t an easy book to summarise, there’s no neat and easy way to explain it. It’s like listening to a wonderful lecture by someone who doesn’t always stay on the same path, but somehow manages to make it all connect anyway. (That reminds me of some of my favourite Ancient History lecturers at the University of Queensland – maybe that’s why I enjoyed it so much). It’s a glimpse into the life of a prolific Australian author who has sadly been forgotten by a lot of Australia and a wonderful, rich family story at the same time.

Carey’s writing style is immensely readable. I devoured this while staying with my in-laws at the beach. Often I take books when we head there with the best intentions of reading them, but get sucked into the allure of napping and come home with a lot of unread books. Moving Among Strangers, though, was stronger than the nap, and I made my way through it quickly (a little too quick – I really wanted more!). I thoroughly recommend this book and hope it gets a big boost with readers thanks to the Stella Prize recognition.

Book Review: The Misogyny Factor by Anne Summers (Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014)

This year I am reading and rereading children and young adult ‘classics’ written by Australian women. Read more here. However, I am taking a short break from them to read some of the books from the Stella Prize Longlist. Read more about that here

misogyny factor

The Misogyny Factor by Anne Summers
(2013, NewSouth Publishing)

Own copy

This was the first of the Stella Prize Longlist I have read, and it was a good introduction to the 12 books selected this year.

Summers tackles the economic aspects of feminism in Australia, detailing the fascinating history of the ‘Equality Project’ through different federal governments, as well as examining the extraordinary treatment of Prime Minister Julia Gillard and the subsequent feminist revival.

This is a short, but beautifully written book, particularly the history chapter which brings political to-ing and fro-ing to life. It can be very easy to get bogged down in details and definitions and Summers avoids that for the most part.

While the writing is engaging, the content is at times problematic. Summers refuses to deal with race, religion or sexuality, leading to a strong impression that this is a book for straight, white, middle/upper class women. Her focus on economic factors leaves one feeling that feminism is all about money – not enough money to be safe or comfortable in the future, but the amounts paid to CEOs and top company board members. (Plus, the impression that we should all be heading for CEO/Board member positions, instead of being happy with ‘lesser’ jobs). To focus on child care did little to offer solutions or alternatives (I really wish we’d talk more about family daycare in those discussions – I have 2 friends with their sons in family daycare – they’re happy and less inclined to get sick than in the big centres, plus it costs a lot less for the parents (and therefore the taxpayer with the rebates) and is a lot more flexible. Worth learning more about)

Particularly insulting was Summer’s attack on women who choose to stay home with children. This is the only time Summers chooses to attack a particular group of women, and it is an attack full of tired stereotypes and generalisations. In the following section, Summers writes that we can judge feminist progress by the respect given to women – while she refused to respect a whole group of diverse women (disclaimer – this group includes me).

This is very much a ‘now’ book – I think its time is already over. The history section was good, but it feels really outdated, considering how much has changed in Australia since January 2013 (The undermining and ‘comeback’ of Kevin Rudd. The amazing grassroots campaign in Indi which unseated one of two women in the then-Opposition ‘line up’. Julia Gillard’s graceful move away from public life) Personally, I’d prefer this book if it had been written more from a historical perspective – it feels a little rushed into publication.

Would I recommend this book. Yes for good non-fiction writing and the historical chapter. Otherwise, hold on for the inevitable books about the Gillard era – a little distance will make for better books in this case.

Book Review: Looking for Alibrandi by Melina Marchetta (Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014)

This year I am reading and rereading children and young adult ‘classics’ written by Australian women. Read more here.

lookingforalibrandi

Looking for Alibrandi by Melina Marchetta
(1992, Puffin Books)

Own copy

When I was younger, we didn’t have a library in our town. Or the nearest town. In fact, our nearest library was a good half an hour away. Instead we had the mobile library, a bus adapted to carry shelves of books instead of people. It visited our town at 9am, Tuesdays, stopping outside our school. When we first moved to that town, the school let kids out of class to visit the mobile library. But that stopped after a few years and I was dependent on my mother to restock my library books.

That’s how I discovered Looking for Alibrandi.

I have an unusual first name – Melina. So when my mother found a new book written by an author called Melina Marchetta, she thought I’d be interested in reading it. (She had some unusual criteria for choosing my books. It usually worked really well for us) She picked really well – I loved the book, rereading it several times between then (1992 or 1993) and now. However, it’s been a couple of years since I read it last, and I was interested in reading it again for the 2014 Australian Women Writers Challenge – this time with a more critical eye.

Looking for Alibrandi is a ‘coming of age’ novel, like both The Min Min and Playing Beatie Bow. However, instead of looking at the emotional coming of age of a 14 year old, we’re spending some time in the life of 17 year old Josephine Alibrandi:  “The seventeen that Janis Ian sang about where one learns the truth”. It turns out to be a tumultuous year for Josie, when she falls in love, learns some serious truths about herself and her family, loses a friend and gains a father she never knew she wanted in her life. It’s also her last year of school, her HSC year, just to add to everything else.

This is a really hard book to review objectively. I loved it when I was younger and I still think fondly of it. However, it’s not the best written book in the world – Marchetta’s later books are much better in terms of writing craft. From what I can tell, though, Looking for Alibrandi was a bit of a game changer in Australian YA books – bringing a very different voice into the arena, and paving the way for a lot of the books which came after. It deals with serious issues – racism, identity, family shame, suicide – but there’s still a lightness over it – Josie is a good person, her family will probably be ok in the end, she’ll probably go on and have a good life. We’ve just had a peak into a difficult time for her.

One of the themes which really resonated strongly for me on this reread was that things aren’t necessarily what they look like on the surface. John Barton (who I was thankfully able to disconnect from Matthew Newton on this reread) isn’t the self-assured debater with a guaranteed future – he’s a deeply troubled kid drowning under a sea of expectations. Josie and her friends aren’t the unpopular outcasts she assumes they are, they are all leaders in their different ways. Her family story doesn’t follow the narrative she thinks it does – there’s a lot more twists and turns and human failings and successes underneath.

There’s parts of this story which don’t work as well today. I’m not sure if Josie’s illegitimacy would be such a big feature, such a big scandal amongst other students at her school (students from different backgrounds to Josie) and some of the references are really dated. But the story of Josie and Jacob Coote continues to ring true in a lot of ways, and I’m still happy with the choice Josie made to do what felt right to her in that situation. (However, the scene where Anna and Josie are threatened at MacDonalds gets scarier as I get older)

I could probably ramble about this book for ages, and go even longer if I introduced the movie. Looking for Alibrandi may not be the best book in the world, but I do think it’s an important one in the history of Australian YA writing. I think it’s essential in telling the very real story of a young woman, while telling the equally real stories of the other women in her life – her mother and grandmother, her friends, even her teachers.