Friday, 19 June 2020

Miles Franklin Award Shortlist 2020

The 2020 Miles Franklin Award shortlist was announced this week, confirming that I am terrible at predicting which titles would make the cut.

The shortlist is:

  • Tony Birch - The White Girl  
  • Peggy Frew - Islands 
  • John Hughes - No One 
  • Philip Salom - The Returns 
  • Carrie Tiffany - Exploded View 
  • Tara June Winch - The Yield 

I had expected Birch and Winch to make the list, but did not anticipate the others. Despite my poor track record, I reckon Wiradjuri author Tara June Winch will take the prize. She has already received the NSW Premier's Literary Award - Book of the Year, Christina Stead Prize for Fiction for The Yield

The Winner will be revealed on 16 July 2020.

Sunday, 14 June 2020

Awe and Wonder

Julia Baird's luminous book Phosphorescence (2020) was just the tonic for life during the pandemic.  When the world is in peril and life feels out of control, our resilience is tested. Focussing on our internal happiness - the light within - we can navigate dark days and come out the other side.

It is difficult to describe this book as it is so many things. The first quarter is on nature - the awe and wonder that is all around us if we stop and take time to observe. Part two is about telling the stories of our own lives and accepting our imperfections. The third section is on friendship and how vital relationships are. The last quarter is on paying attention, savouring joy, finding our inner strength.

Baird's book is intensely personal as she reveals her experiences with cancer and the difficulty she had as a mother of young children while undergoing surgery and recovery. She found solace in the sea through her early morning ocean swims with a group of women who meet at Manly. She shares stories of her life in New York, her university days, and the friends she has made along the way.

I have previously read Baird's stunning biography Victoria the Queen (2017) which showcased her talents as a researcher, writer and historian.  In Phosphorescence she uses these same skills but adds an element of memoir which draws the reader in.

I was talking with colleagues the other day about the good things about life during the pandemic. We spoke about slowing down, making time to connect and reignite relationships, revisiting hobbies, and finding joy in life's simple pleasures. These are things I want to carry into my post-pandemic life, along with the lessons of finding awe and wonder I was reminded of when reading Phosphorescence.

Monday, 8 June 2020

Safe House

Jess Hill won the 2020 Stella Prize for her remarkable book See What You Made Me Do, an investigation into the causes and impacts of domestic abuse. 

The premise of Hill's investigation is to move away from the 'why don't you leave?' question so often asked of women, to focus on why men perpetrate acts of violence and control on their families. Hill asks: 
Why does he stay? Why do these men, who seem to have so much hatred for their partners, not only stay, but do everything they can to stop their partner from leaving?
Prior to reading this book, I thought I had a good understanding of domestic abuse, through my gender and legal studies and my work. But I see now that I had a limited comprehension of how pervasive the issue is and how destructive its impact. See What You Made Me Do was enlightening on so many levels.

Hill's deep investigation lead her to interview survivors, police, lawyers, judges, social workers and more. In doing so she paints a picture of domestic abuse as a national tragedy for which there is a lack of political will to address.  The family court system hinders women facing domestic abuse. The safety net - shelters, hotlines, services for women and children - has been depleted by funding cuts and cannot keep up with demand.

A large part of the problem of course is that domestic abuse is hidden behind the walls of a family home. Far more pervasive than physical violence is coercive control. Hill writes:
Domestic abuse is not just violence. It's worse. It is a unique phenomenon, in which the perpetrator takes advantage of their partner's love and trust and uses that person's most intimate details - their deepest desires, shames and secrets - as a blueprint for their abuse.
The chapter on the impact of domestic abuse on children was heartbreaking, but the chapter on Aboriginal women and children (Dadirri) was devastating as Hill argues that colonisation brought domestic violence to Aboriginal communities -  'It was a type of violence introduced to Australia like an invasive species.'

I was reluctant to read See What You Made Me Do given the heavy subject matter. However it is such an important, powerful book it should be mandatory reading for every elected official and all who work in the police and judicial system. 

Monday, 18 May 2020

Shakespeare's Sorrow

Eleven-year-old Hamnet Shakespeare is running through the village of Stratford-Upon-Avon. Unable to locate his mother, he seeks out the local doctor to visit his twin sister Judith who is in bed with a mysterious illness. When their mother comes home it will take all of her knowledge of herbs and potions to save her daughter from the plague. While one child is healed, Hamnet succumbs to the illness, leaving the entire family bereft.

Maggie O'Farrell has taken what little is known about Shakespeare's family life and turned it into an extraordinary historical novel. While the book is named for the son, it is his mother Agnes (Anne Hathaway) who takes centre stage. She is known among the townsfolk as a mystic healer, gathering berries and plants from the forest to brew medicinal concoctions which cure all ailments.

When she was 26 she married her brothers' latin teacher, an eighteen-year-old William Shakespeare, and they had their first child a few months later. Unable to be independent of Shakespeare's family, they resided in an apartment attached to the family home. Eventually Shakespeare goes off to London, leaving his wife and three young children behind, and Hamnet tells the story of how his wife endured his absence.

O'Farrell has a beautiful way with words and the way she describes the grief felt by different family members is heartfelt. Shakespeare himself channels this despair into his play Hamlet a few years later. As a reader, I immersed myself in this tale and was transported to sixteenth century England, engrossed in the daily life of this family.

Shortlisted for the Women's Prize, I am thrilled that O'Farrell will get a wide readership with this remarkable novel. A friend introduced me to Maggie O'Farrell in the early years of this century, sending me her debut novel After You'd Gone (2000) and My Lover's Lover (2002). I also really enjoyed The Distance Between Us (2004) and The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox (2007). Hamnet showcases the evolution of her writing.

Wednesday, 13 May 2020

Miles Franklin Award Longlist 2020

The Miles Franklin Award is the most prestigious literary award in Australia, with a cash prize of $60,000 and the opportunity to join the ranks of past winners including Melissa Lucashenko, Frank Morehouse, Tim Winton, David Malouf, Peter Carey, Sofie Laguna and Anna Funder.

The 2020 Longlist was announced today with some incredible authors and titles nominated.

The Longlist is:

Tony Birch - The White Girl - In the 1960s Deane is a dying country town. Aboriginal Odette Brown cares for her granddaughter Sissy, conceived in rape by a white pastoralist. The girl's mother Lila has fled after her trauma. When a new policeman arrives in Deane he is determined to enforce the law, which would see the fair-skinned girl removed from her family. In this novel, Birch explores the horrendous Australian government policy, the Aborigines Protection Act and the impact on Stolen Generations.

Melanie Cheng - Room for a Stranger - Seventy-year-old Meg has been on her own since her sister died. But an intruder causes her to rethink her solo life. She advertises for a room mate and 21 year old student Andy moves in. The two have little in common and have to bridge divides of culture, age and gender to find connection. Cheng is a Melbourne-based writer who won the 2016 Victorian Premier's Literary Award for Unpublished Manuscript for her short story collection Australia Day (2017).

Peggy Frew - Islands - Two sisters, Junie and Anna, observe their family disintegrate. Their parents' marriage falls apart and Helen leaves John in the hopes of finding the life she is after. John is unable to cope and care for his girls. Anna becomes rebellious and at age 15 she disappears from home forcing the family to  deal with their trauma. Frew was shortlisted for the Stella Prize for her previous novel, Hope Farm (2015).

John Hughes - No One - In the wee hours of the morning, a driver feels a thud against his car outside Redfern Station. He eventually stops and inspects the vehicle to find a dent and some blood. Did he hit someone? As the driver searches for his victim, he begins a relationship with a local Aboriginal woman. This novella is written by the award winning author of The Idea of Home: Autobiographical Essays (2004).

Anna Krien  - Act of Grace - In her debut novel, Krien has pulled together diverse characters whose lives become intertwined. Traversing around the globe and across generations, Krien tackles deep themes of reconciliation, climate change and war. Best known for her narrative non-fiction works (Into the Woods, Night Games, Quarterly Essays) she is ambitious in her subject matter. This novel has also been shortlisted for the 2020 Victorian Premier's Literary Award.

Gerald Murnane - A Season on Earth - Published in full over forty years after writing, this is Murnane's unabridged second novel. He had published the first half of it in 1976 as A Lifetime on Clouds, but the second half was never published. Adrian Sherd is a high school student at a Catholic school in Melbourne who fantasises about a girl he sees at mass. Later, he decides to become a priest, but still lives largely in a fantasy world.

Philip Salom - The Returns - Elizabeth is a freelance book editor who rents a room in her inner city Melbourne house to Trevor, a bookshop owner. These two eccentric, middle age house mates are both haunted by their pasts - an absent child, a broken marriage, ailing or missing parents. Author Salom is a poet and novelist who has previous success with his critically acclaimed novel Waiting (2016)

Carrie Tiffany - Exploded View - Set in the 1970s, a young girl lives with her mother, brother and her stepfather in the suburbs. He is a mechanic, fixing cars at the back of their yard. This is a story of childhood trauma and family abuse from the perspective of the girl as the family leaves on a road trip together. Tiffany is a well regarded author and her previous novel Mateship with Birds (2012) won the inaugural Stella Prize.

Tara June Winch - The YieldWiradjuri author Tara June Winch tells the tale of the Gondiwindi family. The ageing Albert wants to pass on language and storytelling to the next generation. His granddaughter August returns home to find the family land repossessed. Through this work, Winch tells a story about the importance of Indigenous identity, language and culture. Winch recently received the NSW Premier's Literary Award - Book of the Year, Christina Stead Prize for Fiction making her a hot contender for this award. 
Charlotte Wood - The Weekend - Wood won the Stella prize in 2016 for her novel The Natural Way of Things - the book I most recommended and gave to others that year.  The Weekend is the story of four older women who have been friends for a lifetime. When one dies, their friendship changes. This is a brilliant novel that I highly recommend (read review).

At this stage I have only read Charlotte Wood's brilliant The Weekend. If I had to guess though, I reckon that Birch, Cheng, Murnane, Winch and Wood will make the shortlist. The Shortlist will be announced 17 June 2020 and the winner will be revealed on 16 July 2020.

Sunday, 10 May 2020

On the Beach

Howard Ingham, having achieved mild success as a novelist, arrives in Tunisia in mid-1967 to work on a film script he has been commissioned to write by director John Castlewood. He sets himself up at a beachfront hotel in Hammamet and awaits news of Castlewood's arrival or a letter from his girlfriend Ina who remains in New York.

While he waits, Ingham starts a new novel about a bank forger, and observes news of the Six-Day War taking place in the Middle East. He befriends an American expat named Adams who resides in a neighbouring beach hut and revels in conspiracy theories. He also comes close to Jensen, a gay Danish painter. Ingham finally receives a letter from home in which he learns that Castlewood is dead. Ingham is at a loss, trying to decide whether to return to Ina in New York or stay on in Tunisia to complete his novel.

Over the days and weeks he spends in Tunisia, Ingham's morality changes. He has much time to himself to observe those around him and reflect on his own thoughts and actions. One night he is wakened by an intruder entering his bungalow. Ingham throws his typewriter at the intruder, knocking him back, and then locks the door. Ingham sits quietly inside as he hears hotel staff removing the intruder, not knowing if the man was injured or dead. This event will haunt Ingham as he does not know the impact of his actions and what will happen to him if discovered.

The Tremor of Forgery (1969) is slow, deep and thoughtful. The reader experiences the same apprehension that Ingham feels, waiting for something to happen just as he waits for letters from home. Highsmith's use of Ingham's novel to explore his own moral ambiguity is a clever device. Along the way we observe the local culture, customs and traditions through the eyes of the protagonist, a stranger in a strange land. Ingham's road trip with Jensen made me long to explore Tunisia.

Patricia Highsmith has crafted a compelling and unique tale of morality, love and self-preservation. The apparent simplicity of the story, despite the deep and complex themes, showcases Highsmith's talents. Highly recommended.

Dark Obsession

David Kelsey has everything going for him. He has a great job as an engineer and is admired by his colleagues. He has purchased and fitted out a lovely home and is planning his marriage to his beloved Annabelle. He just has one problem, which he refers to as 'the Situation'. 

The Situation David has to fix is that Annabelle is not yet his. Despite his letters and calls, in which David confesses his love for her, Annabelle is married to another and does not share his affection. This does not stop David from imagining their life together. Indeed, on weekends when he returns to their home, he pours two martinis and imagines her there with him. 

In This Sweet Sickness (1960) Patricia Highsmith's psychological thriller, she has created a fascinating character in David. Readers begin by empathising with him, feeling as though he has a crush that he will get over. But as the novel progresses you realise how deeply disturbed he is and how he has crafted the identity of his alter-ego, William Neumeister, to be all the things he is not as his mind unravels. 

Of course it wouldn't be a Highsmith novel without a crime and David seems to get away with his, taking increasing risks and telling more lies until he cannot seperate fact from fiction. One has to feel for the women in David's life: Annabelle tries to let him down gently and encourage him to direct his affections to Effie, a local girl who is interested in him. David's obsession becomes more irrational and creepy as the novel progresses.

I really enjoyed this book. If I had one quibble it would be that it peaked too soon with the crime which exposes David/William's double life and loses a bit of momentum before the rapid-pace of the final chapters. But ultimately this is a fascinating character study which gets under the reader's skin.

Saturday, 2 May 2020

The Book of Harlem

Just before the libraries were closed, I borrowed Zora Neale Hurston's collection of stories Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick (2020). I was keen to get my hands on this new release as it has been many years since I last read Hurston.

I usually don't read introductions to books until after I have read the main text. Too often I find introductions serve as pretentious spoilers. I prefer to read, reflect and then read the introduction to see if there was something I missed. But for Straight Lick I began with the forward by Tayari Jones and Genevieve West's brilliant introduction which explained the context in which these stories were written and the ways in which Hurston explored race, gender and class through her narratives.

Hurston published her first short story in 1921, finding her place in the Harlem Renaissance alongside Langston Hughes, Claude McKay and other writers and poets. This collection brings together Hurston's early work and, by presenting her stories in chronological order, readers can see how she honed her craft as her writing evolved.

Her first story, 'John Reddington Goes to Sea' was magnificent. John wants to explore the world, while his father wants him to stay home and marry a local girl. The conflict between the two men is heartfelt, earnest and loving. Hurston's writing took a little time to get used to as she writes dialogue so you can hear the voice of the speaker ('Ah keep telling yur, woman, 'taint so') so reading aloud helps to get the cadence right. Her later stories like 'The Book of Harlem', written in the style of biblical verse, show the maturity and playfulness of her writing talents.

Many of the stories depict the complexities of romantic relationships, domestic abuse, traditional gender roles and infidelity. In ''The Conversion of Sam', 'Under the Bridge', 'Spunk', 'Sweat' and others Hurston is sharp in her portrayal of characters and I have a particular fondness for the strong women she creates.

I really wanted to like this book. While I enjoyed some of the stories, on the whole I was disappointed. There were some tales I struggled to get through and at one stage I considered giving up, but ultimately I am glad I persevered.

Thursday, 23 April 2020

Women's Prize Shortlist

The 2020 Women's Prize shortlist has been announced!

On 3 March 2020, when the longlist for this year's Women's Prize was announced with 16 nominees,  I boldly predicted that the shortlist would feature Enright, Mantel, O'Brien, O'Farrell and Patchett. Well, I was only half right! Anne Enright, Ann Patchett and Edna O'Brien fell off the list along the way.

The 2020 shortlist is as follows:

  • Dominicana by Angie Cruz
  • Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo
  • A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes
  • The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel
  • Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell
  • Weather by Jenny Offill

The two big hitters are the Booker Prize winning authors Evarasto and Mantel and I would be delighted if either won. However, I have a secret hope that Maggie O'Farrell sneaks through. She is a gifted writer and her Hamnet deserves to be widely read and praised.

The winner will be revealed on 3 June 2020. Happy reading!

Thursday, 16 April 2020

Stella Prize 2020

The winner of the Stella Prize was announced this week with Jess Hill awarded the prize for her investigative non-fiction See What You Made Me Do.

Journalist Jess Hill turns the spotlight on the perpetrators of domestic violence seeking to understand why men are abusive and what systems enable them.

The judges described the book as follows:
'See What You Made Me Do' looks at the issue from multiple perspectives, including those largely male perpatrators and asks the government to rethinnk and reframe the measures which have so far failed Australian women. It is a sensitive read, which - whilst confronting - is compelling and hopeful. 

Jess Hill received the award and its $50,000 prize money at a virtual award ceremony which was live streamed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Given the present quarantine requirements and social isolation is putting more pressure on families and there is heightened risk of domestic abuse, this award will hopefully increase attention on this important issue.

Monday, 13 April 2020

Moments That Matter

I first heard of Mandy Ord's book When One Person Dies the Whole World is Over when it was longlisted for the 2020 Stella Prize. I was intrigued by the idea of a year-long diary in the form of a four-panel comic book so picked it up at my local library.

Each day Ord captures snapshots of life - walking her dog Lou, dining out with her partner Jodhi, working at one of her various jobs, watching RuPaul or The Walking Dead while lying on the sofa. In doing so she reveals the little moments so often taken for granted - sunsets, afternoon naps, a favourite song on the radio. She also shares the frustration of traffic jams, the challenge of grumpy customers and the daily grind of many workplaces.

Relationships are essential and Ord lovingly depicts her visits with Grandma, her talks with her sister in Scotland, the trips to see her dad in Sydney, and nights out catching up with friends at various Melbourne cafes and restaurants.

Despite the seeming simplicity of the format, Ord has a lot of important things to say about the casualisation of labour, the necessity of those working in caring professions (one of her many jobs is as a disability support worker), and ageing. Her diary shows how she tries to balance her many jobs and her work as an illustrator and teacher of comic artistry.

I loved Ord's monochrome illustrations - with the thought bubbles and side notes. In reading this book I felt I came to know the author personally and really care about what happened to her.

Reading this book during COVID-19, when the world seems so very small, is a timely reminder to seek out the beauty and joy in the everyday.

Saturday, 4 April 2020

Ms Manners

Before the global pandemic I finished a number of books, but in the past month I have lost my reading-and-blogging mojo. Living constantly in the present, I almost forget what I was doing BC (Before COVID-19). In an effort to get my groove back, I thought I would try and get back to writing about the books I enjoyed before this mess, and find my way back to reading again.

I borrowed comedian Kitty Flanagan's 488 Rules for Life from the library as an escape from some of the more serious literature I was reading. Written as a response to Jordan Peterson's 12 Rules for Life - Flanagan could not imagine there were so few rules to guide one's life by so set out to compile her own. In this delightfully witty book, Flanagan has listed an extensive array of rules for work, home, shopping, relationships, travel, caring for loved ones, eating and so on. In doing so she points out some simple truths like 'don't lie about your age' (R45), 'don't offer up cliches as advice' (R28) and 'cushions are not spiritual advisers' (R26).

Kitty Flanagan writes with a wry humour - poking fun at some sacred cows (sports, weddings and gender-reveal parties) - and making rules related to many of my own pet peeves.  Many of the ideas are ones that would make the world a nicer place if everyone followed them and acted politely. 

Flanagan left plenty of space at the back for the reader to add their own rules. Given the poor behaviour of many Australians during the onset of the pandemic, I would now add rules about only buying what you need (no hoarding toilet paper!), social distancing (get off Bondi Beach!) and washing hands (seriously, did people not do this BC?). 

Sunday, 8 March 2020

The Women's Prize Longlist

The 2020 Women's Prize longlist has been announced! The annual literary award celebrating women writers has previously recognised the talents of so many gifted writers, including these past winners:

  • Tayari Jones - An American Marriage (2019)
  • Lionel Smith - We Need to Talk About Kevin (2005)
  • Andrea Levy - Small Island (2004)

  • On 3 March 2020, the longlist for this year's Women's Prize was announced with 16 nominees. I have a stack of these books at hand, and a couple of others on reserve from my local library. I look forward to exploring these titles.

    The 2020 longlist is as follows:

    Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara
    Deepa Anappara's debut novel is based on the high number of children who go missing in the slums of India. At the end of the purple metro line, nine year old Jai lives with his family. He becomes an amateur sleuth when his classmate goes missing, joining forces with two friends to investigate. As more children disappear, the three detectives may find these crimes lead too close to home. Written from the perspective of Jai, this sounds like a really interesting novel.

    Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner
    Fleishman has been on my list to read for months and this nomination serves as another reminder to hurry up and read! Toby Fleishman is recently separated after a thirteen year marriage and is now keen to play the field. But when his ex-wife disappears he needs to reflect on his role in the marriage.

    Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams
    Queenie Jenkins is a 25 year old Jamaican-British woman living in London, straddling two cultures. She is at a low point, hating her job, at the end of a relationship, and struggling to reconcile her past. One bad choice after another leads Queenie on a quest for love, as she searches for meaning in the modern world.

    Dominicana by Angie Cruz
    On New Year's Day 1965, 15 year old Ana CanciĆ³n marries and becomes Ana Ruiz, and leaves her home in the Dominican Republic to move to a cold New York City. She knows no one other than her husband, Juan, and knows there is no love in this marriage, but Juan is the pathway for her whole family to seek a new life in America. When political unrest back home forces Juan to return leaving Ana behind, she has a glimpse of other possibilities. But every choice involves a betrayal - of her mother or her husband.

    Actress by Anne Enright
    Norah is the daughter of actress Katherine O'Dell, the esteemed star of the Irish stage. Katherine's journey to stardom follows a familiar path - tough times on the local circuit, a big break in London's West End, followed by Broadway and then Hollywood. Norah stands in the wings, keenly observing it all. Later, as an adult, Norah seeks to understand her mother's hidden life. Enright previously won the Booker Prize for The Gathering (2007).

    Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo
    Winner of the Booker Prize 2019 for this novel, Evaristo's Girl, Woman, Other is the one to beat for this award. Following the lives of twelve different characters, this novel provides a history of the black British experience. In weaving this characters together, Evaristo explores themes of race, class, gender, sexuality and more. I am currently reading this book and marvel at Evaristo's writing.

    Nightingale Point by Luan Goldie
    In October 1992, a cargo plane crashed into two blocks of flats in Amsterdam, killing 40 people. Luan Goldie's novel was inspired by this incident. Set in 1996, the residents of Nightingale Point awake to an impending disaster. Told in third person from the points of view of various inhabitants, the story shifts in timeframe from before, during, and after the event. With the Grenfell Tower disaster still so raw, this novel is sure to bring to mind the parallels with this tragedy.

    A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes
    Continuing the trend of retelling of ancient tales from the perspectives of women, Haynes casts a feminist lens over the Trojan War. The main narrator is Calliope, muse of epic poetry. Women impacted by war - widows, mothers, girls, goddesses - who were mere passing references in the Iliad, take centre stage and share their untold stories. Having just read and loved Madeline Miller's Circe, this book is of great interest to me.

    How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee
    Set in Singapore during the Japanese occupation, this novel tells the story of survival. It is 1942 and seventeen year old Wang Di is taken from her village to a Japanese military brothel, forced into sexual slavery for the invading troops. She is silent about all she endured for sixty years until she makes a deathbed confession to her grandson Kevin.

    The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo
    Marilyn and David have been blissfully in love for over forty years. Their four daughters, however, have not found that enduring love and each is unhappy in different ways. This dysfunctional family has its share of secrets, sibling rivalry, hidden resentments and unfulfilled desires. This is Lombardo's debut novel.

    The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel
    Possibly the most anticipated book in publishing, Mantel concludes her historical trilogy of Wolf Hall and Bringing Up the Bodies with The Mirror and The Light. Beginning in May 1536 after the execution of Anne Boleyn, this volume explores Thomas Cromwell's final years. The culmination of 15 years' work, I am sure Mantel's novel will live up to the hype.

    Girl by Edna O’Brien
    Militants storm a girls' dormitory one night and abduct the young women. They are taken from their world, forced into rape, marriage and motherhood and terrorised. Using the 2014 Boko Haram kidnappings of 276 schoolgirls as her inspiration, O'Brien uses her incredibly versatile writing skills to tackle a difficult subject.

    Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell
    Set in 1580s Stratford, Agnes and her her husband have three children. When their son Hamnet dies at eleven years of age, Agnes' husband writes a play called Hamlet. I love Maggie O'Farrell's writing and have had this book on my radar for months. This is quite a departure from her previous novels so I look forward to reading this novel.

    Weather by Jenny Offill
    Lizzie is a librarian at a university, married with one child, a drug-addicted brother, and a mother to care for. She is juggling so many things, plus overwhelmed by everything happening in the world.  Offill received high praise for her previous novel, Dept of Speculation (2014).

    The Dutch House by Ann Patchett
    Taking place over five decades, the Dutch House in the suburbs of Philadelphia was purchased by Cyril Conroy after WWII. Cyril's children Danny and Maeve grow up in this mansion until they are turfed out by their stepmother, forced got fend for themselves for the first time in their lives. Patchett is the award winning author of Commonwealth (2016) and Bel Canto (2001).

    Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson
    In 2001, Melody is having her coming-of-age party as a sixteen year old in Brooklyn. She wears a dress made for her mother Iris, who was a pregnant sixteen year old at her own party.  Woodson's novel covers themes of race, class, family, mother-child relationships and more.

    I have not read any of these titles yet, but have started Girl, Woman, Other, and have Queenie, Dutch House and Fleishman on deck read to go.

    If I had to pick a shortlist, I would bet on Evaristo, Enright, Mantel, O'Brien, O'Farrell and Patchett. The shortlist will be announced on 22 April 2020 and the winner will be revealed on 3 June 2020. Happy reading!

    Saturday, 7 March 2020

    The Stella Prize Shortlist 2020

    The 2020 Stella Prize shortlist was announced on 6 March 2020, reducing the longlist of 12 titles, down to six:

    I have read the books by Rowe and Wood. Both brilliant, I would be delighted if either won. I reckon the other contender would be Jess Hill for her look at domestic and family violence, ever topical.

    For more information, see my post on the longlist.

    The winner will be revealed on 8 April 2020. Happy reading!

    Sunday, 1 March 2020

    Postcards from the Edge

    Here Until August (2019), Josephine Rowe's stunning collection of short stories, has been Longlisted for the Stella Prize. Over ten diverse tales, Rowe transports the reader around the globe to the Nullarbor, Montreal, the Snowy Mountains, the Catskills, and beyond. In these far flung locales, we meet characters at crossroads, trying to navigate the circumstances they find themselves in.

    Relationships are central in all of these stories. 'Glisk' centres on two brothers who communicate in quotes from The Castle as they come to terms with their changing relationship. In 'Chavez' a French woman cares for a neighbour's dog as she hides from the world. A married couple have differing views on an ancient homemade sex tape in 'Post-Structuralism for Beginners'.  'Real Life', about a mis-matched couple in Montreal, reminded me of my university days, visiting friends studying at McGill and Concordia, with Rowe perfectly capturing student life and winter in Montreal.  

    Journeys feature in a number of stories. Two women set off on a honeymoon road trip across America in 'Anything Remarkable', not saying what needs to be said.  In 'Horse Latitudes' two friends travel  across the Nullarbor with an old Cardinal 'canned ham' trailer. While in 'A Small Cleared Space' a woman grieving the late-term loss of her unborn child travels to a remote outpost to spend a winter in isolation. 

    If I had to choose a favourite, it would likely be 'Sinkers', which takes place in a town flooded by a lake to make way for a hydroelectric dam. Christian returns to the lake to remember his late mother with a biscuit tin containing her ashes. 

    Rowe has an incredible eye for detail, capturing the nuances of time and place. Her language is precise and purposeful. She is an extraordinary talent and I am keen to seek out her novel A Loving, Faithful Animal which was longlisted for the 2017 Miles Franklin Award.

    Saturday, 29 February 2020

    The Witch of Aiaia

    When the 2019 Women's Prize shortlist was released last year, I was intrigued by two novels that were feminist retellings of ancient myths.  Pat Barker's The Silence of the Girls and Madeline Miller's Circe were quickly added to my monstrous 'To-Be-Read pile' but Miller was the first one I tackled based on recommendations from my friends in the Twitterverse.

    Ancient myths have always intrigued me. As children, my brother and I spent many lazy weekends watching the Clash of the Titans (1981), marvelling at Ray Harryhausen's visual effects, cheering on Perseus as he battled Medusa and the Kraken. As I got older, my interest waned as mythology always felt so patriarchal, with women portrayed so superficially, largely as immoral or manipulative.

    The retelling of myths, with a more sophisticated view of women, has reignited my interest and I began my adventure with Madeline Miller's Circe.

    Circe is the daughter of Helios, the powerful Titan and god of the sun. Unlike her siblings, Circe is seen is inferior and stupid, dismissed by her father who revels in all that glitters. What she lacks in charisma she makes up for in curiosity, learning how to use herbs to make potions and master her sorcery.  She has a deep empathy for mortals and when she falls in love with Glaucos, a local fisherman, she tries to use her witchcraft to make him immortal so they could be together forever. Instead, Glaucos turns into a god, dumps Circe, and becomes infatuated with the sea-nymph Scylla. In a jealous rage, Circe turns Scylla into a hideous monster, and is exiled by Zeus to the island of Aiaia to live out her days in solitude.

    Circe makes a home on Aiaia and masters her witchcraft;  necessary to fend off the seafarers and marauders that seek to violate and steal from her. Over the course of the novel, Circe meets Prometheus, befriends Daedulus and his ill-fated son Icarus, and beds Odysseus. She crosses paths with Jason, Medea, the Minotaur, Penelope, and many more.

    Writing from a first person perspective allows Miller to let readers inside Circe's mind, to discover how she thinks and feels. Her admirable resilience and fortitude, her generosity and wit, and her longing for connection are very real. Circe was a minor character in Homer's Odyssey, but here she is fully formed and realised. Miller is a gifted writer, breathing life into an ancient tale.

    I absolutely loved this novel and am now on a mission to track down Madeline Miller's previous book, The Song of Achilles (2011), and read Pat Barker's The Silence of the Girls (2018).

    Saturday, 22 February 2020

    Mekong Love

    Joey Bui has been Longlisted for the Stella Prize for her debut collection of short stories, Lucky Ticket (2019). Bui is a Vietnamese-Australian writer who based many of the stories in this book on conversations she had with Vietnamese refugees around the world.

    The title story, set in a Saigon, features an interesting narrator. He is an elderly, homeless, war veteran with no legs, who sells lottery tickets on the street. Despite repeated setbacks he is an optimist at heart. Another standout story is 'Mekong Love', about an arranged marriage between a young couple in rural Vietnam.

    My favourite story was 'Abu Dhabi Gently' about a newly married Tanzanian man who goes to the United Arab Emirates to work. It details the isolating lives of migrant workers, toiling day after day to send funds home to their families, waiting until they have earned enough and their employers return their passports.

    Other stories are set in Melbourne, Buenos Aires, Kathmandu and beyond. Themes of war, separation, identity, privilege and family permeate each tale. Isolation, dislocation and loneliness are global sentiments.

    I love well written short stories and this book appealed to me because the stories give voice to minorities. While I enjoyed some of the stories, the collection as a whole did not entirely gel for me. Bui's writing is thought-provoking and I reckon she is an author to watch.

    Saturday, 15 February 2020

    Circle of Friends

    'Adele and Wendy and Jude did not fit properly anymore, without Sylvie. They had been four, it was symmetrical. When they went on holidays they shared two hotel rooms, two beds each. There were four places at the table, two on each side. Now there was an awful, unnatural gap.' (p71)
    Charlotte Wood's The Weekend (2019) is the story of three friends, now in their seventies, coming together after the death of Sylvie. The women have been friends for decades and have been with each other through life's ups and downs. They gather for one last Christmas at Sylvie's beach house, to clear it out for sale and to remember her.

    Adele is an actress, who had brief fame a lifetime ago and now struggles to pay her way. Wendy was once an admired feminist academic, now widowed with distant children and an ageing unwell dog. Restauranteur Jude is used to being in control and as such doles out the tasks to the others ensure Sylvie's house is cleaned properly, although no one will meet Jude's exacting standards.

    The three women could not be more different and it is a wonder that their relationship has survived for forty-plus years. Sylvie was the lynchpin that held the foursome together.

    Each of the women grieves the loss of their friend in different ways and over the course of the weekend tensions rise, past slights and bitterness come to the surface. Will their relationship endure or will the fragile threads that bind them finally give way?

    Charlotte Wood is a gifted writer, creating deeply real, flawed characters. She writes with wit and insight, offering an unblemished portrait of ageing, loneliness and grief. Even Finn, the ailing dog, is vividly portrayed. The Weekend is tightly written and able to be read in one sitting. It was such a pleasure to read a novel where all the lead characters are vibrant older women.

    The Weekend has been longlisted for the Stella Prize. Wood won the Stella Prize in 2016 for her incredible novel The Natural Way of Things.

    Saturday, 8 February 2020

    The Stella Prize Longlist 2020

    The 2020 Stella Prize longlist has been announced! The annual literary award celebrating women writers of both fiction and non-fiction is named after Australian author Stella Miles Franklin. Past winners include:

  • Vicki Laveau-Harvie for The Erratics (2019)
  • Alexis Wright for Tracker (2018)
  • Heather Rose for The Museum of Modern Love (2017)
  • Charlotte Wood for The Natural Way of Things (2016)
  • Emily Bitto for The Strays (2015)
  • Claire Wright for The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka (2014)
  • Carrie Tiffany for Mateship with Birds (2013)

  • I credit the Stella Prize with introducing me to many authors that I would not have otherwise read.

    On 6 February 2020, the longlist for this year's Stella Prize was announced with 12 nominees. I have already read two of the books and loved them, but many of the other books and authors are unknown to me so I look forward to exploring these titles.

    The 2020 longlist is as follows:

    Short Story Collections

    Joey Bui - Lucky Ticket - This is a collection of short stories from a young Vietnamese-Australian author. The judges described Lucky Ticket as a book 'full of fresh, daring writing and delicious, tangible worlds, and the book and Bui's talent are both absolutely needed on the Australian literary-scape'. I love a good short story so will check this out. (Update: Read Review)

    Yumna Kassab - The House of Youssef - The western suburbs of Sydney is the setting for this collection of short stories which centres on the lives of Lebanese immigrants. Told in a minimalist style with sparse detail, Kassab's debut work has been praised by the judges for her consistency in 'quality, technique and narrative form'. 

    Josephine Rowe - Here Until AugustThis is a collection of short stories set in diverse locations. The judges reported that 'the stories in this collection look at the core aspects of human life - grief, love, sex, sadness, joy and loss. They are deeply reflective with moments of lightness that create an overarching sense of optimism'. Looks interesting, so I have just ordered it from my local library. (Update: Read Review)


    Favell Parrett - There Was Still Love - I see this book everywhere I go - shop windows, booksellers' picks, literary mags. I have been interested in reading it, but always fear I will be disappointed after such hype or genuinely good. Set in Prague in 1938, Prague 1980 and Melbourne in 1980, Parrett explores generations of one family impacted by war and conflict.

    Vikki Wakefield - This is How We Change the Ending - This is a young adult novel which centres on a teenage boy who worries about many things. The judges write that this novel 'tackles the urgent issues for kids today in a way that is relatable. It is an unflinching book that brims with anxieties and attitude, raw angst and gentle refuge.'

    Tara June Winch - The Yield - Wiradjuri author Tara June Winch tells the tale of the Gondiwindi family. The ageing Albert wants to pass on language and storytelling to the next generation. His granddaughter August returns home to find the family land repossessed. Through this work, Winch tells a story about the importance of Indigenous identity, language and culture.

    Charlotte Wood - The WeekendWood won this prize in 2016 for her novel The Natural Way of Things - the book I most recommended and gave to others that year.  The Weekend is the story of four older women who have been friends for a lifetime. When one dies, their friendship changes. I purchased The Weekend and have it on my bedside waiting to be read. (Update: read review)


    Caro Llewellyn - Diving Into Glass
    This memoir is a moving story about mental illness, disability and family. Llewellyn was enjoying life in New York when she collapsed and was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Blindsided by illness, she reflected on the courage of her father who was wheelchair-bound from the polio he contracted at age 20, which gave her the skills to rebuild her own life. 

    Mandy Ord - When One Person Dies the Whole World is Over
    In this graphic work of non-fiction, Ord explores themes of belonging and loss. Taking the form of a diary over the course of a year, this is a record of daily life, relationships, and the ups-and-downs that impact us all. I am intrigued by the idea of this book and have just ordered it from the library.


    Gay'wu Group of Women - Song Spirals
    This is a collaborative project by eight women who have gathered ancient narratives of the land in the form of storytelling through songs. The judges write 'this generous, rich narrative helps readers slow down and open up to deep learning. We believe this is a rare and valuable book that, through the generosity of the writers, will increase the knowledge and importance of Indigenous storytelling.'

    Jess Hill - See What You Made Me Do
    Investigative journalist Jess Hill set out to understand what compels men to violence against women. In switching the spotlight from victim to perpetrator, she explores the systems in place which disservice women and which, if altered, could dramatically reduce domestic violence.

    Sally Young - Paper Emperors
    This book is a historical account of the Australian newspaper industry. Its author is a professor of political science at the University of Melbourne who has written several books on media and politics. Young explores how newspaper owners grew in influence, shaping Australian politics and the national discourse.

    In compiling this longlist, the judges have chosen books that are 'exciting and varied'. For more information and the complete judges comments, see the Stella Prize website.

    The Shortlist will be announced on Friday 6 March and the winner will be revealed on 8 April 2020. Happy reading!

    Friday, 31 January 2020

    A Room of One's Own

    A friend gave me a copy of Lisa Taddeo's best-selling Three Women for Christmas. I read it and passed it on to another friend to read, and we have have been talking about it continuously for the past few weeks. Most of our conversation is about the strange appeal of the book, empathy for the three women, and an overwhelming rage against the patriarchy.

    Journalist Lisa Taddeo has spent ten years following these women and reporting on the 'true story' of their sexual lives. The book purports to be an exploration of female desire, but it is limited in its scope and is definitely not a story of female empowerment. In choosing these three women, Taddeo is not showcasing a full range of female desire. In fact, these women are more similar than not - each is lonely, submissive and consumed by notions of female sexuality stemming from popular culture.

    Maggie was a high school student who was groomed by her teacher. He preyed on her insecurities, played with her emotions, and promptly ghosted her when other teachers questioned the appropriateness of his relationship. Devastated by his absence, Maggie is unable to move forward, drops out of college, pursues a series of dead-end jobs, cannot hold a relationship. Eventually, when she confides in a friend about the relationship, she realises that she was used and attempts to pursue justice in the courts.

    Lina is a young mother in a lonely marriage who dreams of a perfect kiss. She remembers her high school boyfriend Aidan and reaches out to him. She believes she loves him and longs for him to love her too, but deep down she knows he is only interested in a booty call. Lina's story was heartbreaking as she goes to extraordinary lengths to please Aidan who is completely unworthy of her affection.

    Sloane and her husband Richard own a restaurant together. Slim, beautiful and seemingly together, Sloane submits to Richard's desires. He encourages her to have sex with other people that he chooses for her. He will watch and sometimes join in as part of the threesome. While engaged consensually, Sloane also feels overwhelming guilt and shame.

    The book is a bestseller because it contains unvarnished depictions of sex. The voyeurism is more creepy than salacious. Readers will not come away with an understanding of what women want or ideas to spice up your love life. The sex isn't sexy, it is sadly unfulfilling. It purports to be research, but feels more like a gossipy novel. It is an engrossing, page-turning read, but not well written.

    These three women are looking for love and belonging. Maggie believes she and her teacher are star-crossed lovers like Bella and Edward in Twilight. Lina's one (unfulfilled) desire is for a long, deep kiss like in The Princess Bride. Sloane sees herself as the submissive in Fifty Shades of Grey. What they actually want is quite simple, but they are involved with unworthy men.

    I was hoping that the book would end with some kind of redemption - a realisation by these women that they deserve better, that they can be fulfilled without relinquishing themselves, that they can move on. But, after having their stories published I do not think they will find any release. I can only hope that they move out of middle America and find peace for themselves.