Australian Women Writers Challenge 2016 – I’ve signed up

imageThe year has only just started and I’ve signed up for my third year of participating in the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

I’ve really enjoyed being a part of the AWWC over the past couple of years, and last year I exceeded my nominated limit with ease. What I really liked was that through taking part in the Challenge I discovered some truly great books by truly talented authors, such as The Dressmaker by Rosalie Ham, one of my favourite reads from 2015.

Once again, I’m signing up for the Miles level – committing to read 6 books and write reviews for at least 4 books. I really hope to read more than that, and who knows, maybe I’ll exceed the number of books I read in 2015.

Some people have their books picked out, ready and waiting to be read. Me, I’m not one of those people. I have no list. I’m more haphazard in my approach. I might read a review on someone else’s blog, or see a book promoted in a bookstore catalogue, or even pick up a book in a secondhand store. I discover my AWWC books as the year progresses, some are new releases, some are classics. I really enjoy literary fiction and so many of my choices will come from this genre, but I’ve also got a thing for thrillers.

To see the full list of AWWC books that I read in 2015, check out my AWWC wrap-up.

If you want to know more about the Australian Women Writers Challenge or want to sign up yourself, then check out their sign up page.

All the best with the AWW Challenge everyone, and happy reading in 2016! 🙂

 

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Australian Women Writer’s Challenge 2015 – Wrap up

This is the second year that I have participated in the AWWC and not only did I exceed my nominated level, I thoroughly enjoyed every book that I read.

I committed myself to the Miles Challenge – to read 6 books and write reviews for at least 4 books.

I am happy to say that I read 9 books, and wrote reviews for all of those books. And a big thank you to everyone who read my reviews! 🙂

  1. Isabelle of the Moon and Stars by S.A Jones
  2. Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay
  3. All the Birds Singing by Evie Wyld
  4. Snowy River Man by Lizzy Chandler
  5. What Came Before by Anna George
  6. Questions of Travel by Michelle de Kretser
  7. Springtime: A Ghost Story by Michelle de Kretser
  8. The Dressmaker by Rosalie Ham
  9. The Idea of Perfection by Kate Grenville

 

It’s always such a rewarding experience searching out new Australian women authors to read, or to add a book that’s long been on my reading list to my AWWC list. Joining the AWWC gives me a valid reason to commit to reading (and writing reviews), which isn’t easy when life is hectic and full to overflowing. It’s been a great year of reading and I look forward to participating again next year.

THE IDEA OF PERFECTION by Kate Grenville

The Idea of Perfection CoverKate Grenville is fast becoming one of my favourite authors. I know she’s probably already on a lot of people’s ‘fav author lists’, but it’s only recently that I’ve had the time to read her work. Her writing is captivating in its ability to convey a rich sense of place, depth of characters, and produce a realistic storyline.

The Idea of Perfection is set in the small New South Wales rural town of Karakarook; a town that is slowly dying. But some of the town residents are attempting a last desperate bid at saving their town – they want to save Bent Bridge, certain that it can become a tourist drawcard, and set up a historical museum. Douglas Cheeseman is an engineer who knows all you’d ever want to know about bridges but is socially awkward, middle-aged, divorced, and not on the right side of good looking. He’s been hired to demolish the Bent Bridge and replace it with something more modern, safe and droll in appearance. Harley Savage is an expert in folk artefacts and patchwork quilts and has been asked by the Karakarook historical society to come and appraise the their town artefacts and hopefully put them on the tourist map. She’s tall, broad shouldered, abrasive in nature, and not a what you would call good looking, yet has worked her way through three husbands. Douglas and Harley have their work cut out for them and their clear objectives in work and life soon become clouded as they are drawn into the town’s slow, country life atmosphere, and each other’s company.

There are a couple of things that I really loved about this book: the characters and the small town setting. (I seem to have a growing affection for stories set in small Australian towns that can effectively convey the sense of life in those towns.) This novel is proof that a story doesn’t have to be set in the city, amongst all the buzz and action, for it to be engaging.

What I admired in particular with this novel is that both Harley Savage and Douglas Cheeseman are plain, unattractive – physically and in temperament, people. Their personalities are flawed, in fact all of the characters are flawed. Gone are the good looking, pretty people that feature in many novels. Instead these characters are real, in some ways more real that you want them to be. I rejoiced in this change of format; it was fresh and made for stimulating reading.

The other thing I enjoyed are the descriptions of not just life in a small rural town, but the descriptions of the town itself. Kate Grenville goes to great lengths to slow the pace, to draw the reader into the town and what it’s like to view it from an outsider’s perspective, through the eyes of main characters, but also what it’s like to live there, from the point of view of the locals.

Grenville has also managed to weave in a thread of humour throughout The Idea of Perfection that is subtle but so very rewarding.

There is a wonderfully amusing scene at the local store where Harley attempts to buy a bucket but the shop keeper says he’s out of stock. Harley points to the range of buckets on display in the store window but the shop keeper shakes his head – if he sells one of those then his customers won’t know the full range of colours available. A heated conversation ensues, and despite her best attempts at logic, Harley leaves the store empty handed. Meanwhile, Douglas, out looking at the Bent Bridge, decides to go for a walk, and finds himself in a paddock with a herd of cows, or is it bulls? he’s not really sure – some of them have horns, and he tries to fend off a charging bull by waving around a piece of a tree branch.

In another scene, Douglas is reminiscing about his father, Douglas Cheeseman, the first, who was a war hero. The first Douglas Cheeseman was the pilot of a plane, the Lancaster, which caught fire while flying over France. The pin was stuck in the fire extinguisher, and no one could get it out. The first Douglas Cheeseman stayed at the controls so that the crew could parachute to safety; he died a hero. While Douglas Cheeseman, the second, admires his heroic father, and lives in his shadow, he has his own private and guilt-ridden thoughts about the event.

“It was a thought that had to be suppressed every time it tried to surface: that the men in the Lancaster had not needed courage so much as someone with a bit of mechanical expertise. Someone who understood jammed pins.

An engineer, for example.”

I could go on and on about how much I enjoyed reading this book, but I won’t. You get the picture: it’s a great book, and a jolly good read. Add it to your reading list for 2016.

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My copy of The Idea of Perfection by Kate Grenville (Picador 2000 edition)

ISBN: 0330362062

Awards: Winner of the 2001 Orange Prize for fiction

Author website: Kate Grenville – The Idea of Perfection

Readers Notes: http://kategrenville.com/the_idea_of_perfection_readers_notes

THE DRESSMAKER by Rosalie Ham

 

the-dressmaker cover
Without a doubt, this book is one of the most enjoyable reads I’ve had this year. From start to finish I was captivated by the characters, storyline and the prose.

Rosalie Ham is a writer with a cutting sense of wit and she imbues The Dressmaker with keen observations on life in the small Victorian wheat belt town of Dungatar, of what goes on behind closed doors, and the insidious nature of gossip. With caricature characters such as Mad Molly, who lives on the hill, Miss Dimm, the school teacher, Mr Almanac, the town chemist, and the Pratts, who own the only department store in town, you soon appreciate the sharpness of Rosalie Ham’s pen and imagination.

Myrtle Dunnage, now going by the name of Tilly, returns to her hometown of Dungatar after many years absence. She restores her mother, Mad Molly, to health through the brewing of herbs and concoctions, and attempts to slowly integrate herself back into the small community through her couture dressmaking and design skills. But, the people of Dungatar are an unforgiving bunch, and their scorn for Tilly goes much deeper than her heritage of being a bastard child. In their eyes, Tilly Dunnage is a murderess who should be run out of town. However, the gossiping women’s egos soon take over, dominating the small town’s social circuit, as they compete against each other for Tilly’s fashionable creations and vie to be the best dressed and the most beautiful. There are excellent descriptions of frothing, flowing and sumptuous designs that add a fairytale element (like Cinderella dressing for the ball), combined with humorous jabs at the snooty women’s poorer clothing choices or personal attributes that are as sly as an evil stepsister. Pure magic and devilish delight.

The characters in this book are loathsome, despicable and utterly delightful. Many of them behave in completely inappropriate ways – rummaging through Tilly’s mail and keeping items for themselves, for example. Some of the antics they get up to behind closed doors are outrageous, sinful, cruel, gentle and tender. These moments are a driving force in the book. Also, there is a rich theatrical element with delightful character descriptions that make The Dressmaker such a good read.

Rosalie Ham is not afraid to upset her readers, and there are events within the book that made me want to shout ‘No! You can’t do that!’ but she did, and as devastated as I was, I had no choice to keep reading to see where the she would direct the story.

A dark, sinister undertone accompanies the light, fluffy, fashion-driven moments of silk and lace in this novel. There is tragedy, and then there is retribution, dished out in deliciously satisfying ways. The final act of revenge is a scorcher! I was most impressed at the turns this book took, and confess that I can’t wait to see the movie adaptation to see how they have handled this fantastical, dark-humoured novel.

The Dressmaker by Rosalie Ham (Duffy & Snellgrove 2000)

eISBN: 9780987082039

Author website: Rosalie Ham – The Dressmaker

Author FB page: Rosalie Ham Writer and Novelist

 

SPRINGTIME: A GHOST STORY by Michelle de Kretser

Springtime_coverI was really looking forward to reading Michelle de Kretser’s novella, Springtime: A ghost story. I first fell in love with de Kretser’s writing style while reading Questions of Travel, winner of the 2013 Miles Franklin Award. She has a way of creating magic on the page, her words spinning a world that comes alive, bursting with detail, that captivates me. In this sense, Springtime did not disappoint.

Frances has moved from Melbourne to Sydney with her partner, Charlie, and her dog Rod. Charlie has left his wife and young son to be with Frances and the new relationship and new location are unsettling. The transition is alienating; the Sydney weather, landscape and even the people and are strange, nothing is as it once was.

“She was still getting used to the explosive Sydney spring. It produced hip-high azaleas with blooms as big as fists. Like the shifting sun, these distortions of scale disturbed. Frances stared into a green-centred white flower, thinking, ‘I’m not young anymore.’ How had that happened? She was twenty-eight.”

Frances takes to walking Rod along the river in the mornings in an attempt to get her bearings in this foreign environment. It is during one of these morning walks that Frances feels time stop still. As she looks through the back fence of one of the houses that backs onto the riverside path, she notices a woman in a long, flowing pink dress and a wide-brimmed hat. A white bull terrier stands guard near the fence. He keeps a keen eye on Frances and Rod as they pass by. Rod, a rescue dog, is easily intimidated by other dogs, and Frances is anxious to make sure that he isn’t distressed by the bull terrier. Over the weeks, Frances comes to realise that whenever she sees the woman in the pink dress and her dog, she is always alone on the walking path.

The writing in this novella is distinctive of de Kretser’s style with delightful descriptions that bring moments and locations to the fore, placing the reader squarely in the scene.

“Sydney came to them as a series of visions held in rectangular glass. They were serious Melbourne people. They wore stylish dark coats, and Sydney could seem like an elaborate joke. T-shirts in winter! A suburb called Greystanes! On wet days, gumbooted stumps showed under the striped and sturdy domes of vast umbrellas, while subtropical rain pounded Frances and Charlie’s black foldaways into collapse.”

This novella differs from the long form novel in that the story skips over time, and not everything is clearly explained or laid out for the reader, and this makes for an interesting technique. There are jumps and gaps where I felt I had to fill in the blanks. At times I struggled with this technique – it was like putting together a jigsaw puzzle only to discover that some of the pieces were missing. I wanted to know what had happened in those missing gaps, but this desire was not to be satisfied. This may frustrate some readers, as it did me, initially, but I think it’s important to not let this put you off reading this book. The experimentation with style brings its own rewards, and I think that being challenged while reading a work is a good thing. Rather than let the story simply unfold as I read, I found myself musing on those gaps, filling them in myself with different scenarios. It made me engage with the writing, and pay close attention because I couldn’t rely on all the events being revealed piece by piece. I would have to hunt for clues in this ghost story.

Being a novella, Springtime is a quick read and I finished it easily in a day. It was like a refreshing little break in time, a sojourn to somewhere else in the midst of my day. A pleasurable read, that will delight and surprise.

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Springtime: A ghost story by Michelle de Kretser (Allen & Unwin 2014)

eISBN: 9781743439241

If you missed my review for Questions of Travel, you can read it here.

QUESTIONS OF TRAVEL by Michelle de Kretser

Questions of Travel coverQuestions of Travel is one of those books that touches you, it lingers long after you’ve finished it. I find that images float up and interrupt my day, weeks after reading it, reminding me of the strength of the story, the brilliance of the writing.

This story focuses on the lives of two people, worlds apart. Laura is eager to leave Australia and see the world. Civil unrest in Sri Lanka has devastating effects for Ravi and his family. His world falls apart and he finds himself fleeing Sri Lanka for Australian shores. Both Laura and Ravi become travellers, tourists in other countries, for vastly different reasons. Their lives ultimately come together and they meet as work colleagues at a travel-book publishing house.

A traveller at heart with a fascination for the Other, I related to the concepts of travel, and was intrigued by the questions of why we travel that form part of this story. Laura leaves Australia behind for the excitement and thrill of travel, basing herself in London, and travelling to other exotic parts of the world. She explores many cities and countries but can’t seem to find happiness. There is something missing, it’s indistinct, but haunts her as she moves from place to place.

What I really enjoyed about this novel was the questions of why we travel, and the exploration of Australian stereotypes that made me cringe, partly in recognition of having witnessed this behaviour in fellow Aussies abroad, but also that I may have been guilty of similar behaviour at one point or another. This travel thread is but one part of this rich, evocative novel. There is also the exploration of how visitors feel in Australia, the struggles involved to understand the cultural requirements to ‘fit in’. I particularly liked the portrayal of this aspect because I think all too often as travellers we are quick to cast judgement and opinion about the places and cultures that we visit, yet give little regard for how we might be perceived in the reverse situation. Michelle de Kretser has created a wonderful exploration of culture, looking both outward and inwards that is richly rewarding to read.

The writing in Questions of Travel is alluring, vivid and engrossing. There is a boldness in the depiction of the characters accompanied by a sharp intelligence in the underlying themes and storytelling. I savoured reading this book, and will no doubt re-read it again, and again.

Questions of Travel by Michelle de Kretser (Allen & Unwin 2012)

eISBN: 9781743435182

Questions of Travel Awards:

Winner, NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, Christina Stead Prize for Fiction, 2014

Winner, NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, Community Relations Commission for a Multicultural NSW, 2014

Winner, Miles Franklin Literary Award, 2013

Winner, ALS Gold Medal, 2013

Winner, Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Fiction, 2013

Winner, Western Australian Premier’s Book Awards, Premier’s Prize, 2013

Winner, Western Australian Premier’s Book Awards, Fiction Prize, 2013

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WHAT CAME BEFORE by Anna George

What CameBeforeThe opening sentence to What Came Before was so compelling and powerful
that I started reading and couldn’t stop.

‘My name is David James Forrester. I’m a solicitor. Tonight, at 6.10, I killed my wife. This is my statement.’

Well, no need to worry about spoiler alerts there. The damage has been done. But why? What happened?

David sits in his car talking into his Dictaphone trying to record his version of events. He’s desperate to get the details right and feels certain that he will succeed, that he’ll do this better than all those people he’s represented and all the confessions that he’s listened to. Meanwhile, Elle, his wife lingers in the laundry, hovering above her lifeless body, wondering how things reached this point.

Both David and Elle retrace and reflect on their relationship, on their actions over the past 22 months that lead to the point of David strangling his wife. Elle is a film maker who turned her back on a law career in favour of creative pursuits. She is passionate and won’t settle for mediocrity or misery. David is a lawyer who hates his job but staunchly carries on, denying his desires for creative expression. He is powerful but dark, his anger lurks hidden beneath his charm, and control is what he craves.

This book is a gripping thriller that delves into the dark and sinister topic of domestic abuse, and the devastating effect that this kind of violence has on women, and their family and friends. It is lightened by Elle’s creative pursuits – she loves romantic comedies and her screen idols are Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracey. But the dark side of Elle and David’s relationship soon leeches into her creative pursuits with devastating effects.

There is a lot of societal judgement toward women who stay in an abusive relationship, but often it is not as simple as just walking away. Women don’t fall in love with men who are violent up-front, from the first date. They fall in love with men who are charming, charismatic, caring and tender who over time display tendencies such as derogative comments, isolating women by shutting out friends and family insisting on wanting to spend time alone together, the slow whittling away of self confidence, then the acceleration to violence – heated arguments that escalate to shouting, a push or shove, the firm grip on an arm that leaves bruises, and then slapping, hitting or punching. Afterwards, in the early stages there is intense remorse and guilt followed by good behaviour on the abuser’s behalf. The ‘bad’ man disappears and the ‘good’ man reappears once more, with vigour. This sliding between good and bad can go on for months or years, and this can then escalate from profuse apologies to blame: ‘You made me do it’ or ‘If only you didn’t make me so angry’. By the time the relationship has reached this point, the woman involved has quite often lost her sense of self, her friends have withdrawn because they are frustrated that she can’t see what they can ‘He’s a dick/asshole/loser’, and all she really craves is to be loved, for the ‘good’ man who first swept her off her feet to come back. It’s complex, the threads of abuse run deep and severing those intense emotions and staying strong takes immense courage and willpower.

I loved this book and think that Anna George has done a remarkable job of portraying the weaving, creeping, suffocating impact of being in an abusive relationship and how the impact flows outward in ever-growing concentric circles. The story is told from both Elle and David’s perspectives, and the pace is a clever blend of excruciating tension and  easing off to reflect on happier times, moments of joy,  followed by that slow escalation back to tension. The characters are real, credible. Watching Elle’s slow disintegration of self is frustrating, infuriating and heartbreaking. Her desire for love, her belief in love is so intense that you can understand her desire to try one more time, just one more time. The writing is tight, the imagery strong. There are no wasted words or over-explaining to be found. Anna George’s characters are full, well developed, and they will prompt a response in readers.

This book is so much more than just a murder-thriller. The complex topic will touch a nerve and readers will want to talk about it. Some may struggle with Elle’s behaviour and want to put the book down, or throw it across the room. Me, I felt such deep empathy for her, for her romantic-at-heart notions that I wanted to embrace her and give her the love she so deeply craved and deserved.

Overall, a brilliant book that I highly recommend you read, and I’m not the only one who thinks so. What Came Before was shortlisted for the 2015 Ned Kelly Awards and recently made the shortlist for the Sister’s in Crime 15th Davitt Awards.

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What Came Before by Anna George (Penguin 2014) ISBN: 9781743482780

Anna George Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Anna-George/297768810376242

NOTE: Abuse in any form – emotional or physical – is not okay, and it’s important to seek help. If you, or someone you know, are experiencing domestic abuse, help is available and in Australia and you can find out more here.

Reach Out: Domestic Violence Support: http://au.reachout.com/domestic-violence-support