2012 – Wrapping up the Australian Women Writers Challenge

I signed up for the highest of the three levels of the inaugural Australian Women Writer’s Challenge which required me to read and review 10 books written by Australian women. I also agreed to ‘dabble’ with genres which meant reading more than one genre but not as many genres as I could find.

In the end I read a few more books than I needed to (which feels pretty good) but I did not come anywhere near the super-human efforts of Shelleyrae of Book’d Out who has, at the time of drafting this post, read and reviewed 106 books by Australian women writers this year! Because that wasn’t enough she also interviewed and/or featured many of the authors at her blog, hosted giveaways of many of the books, designed the challenge logo, kept the Good Reads discussions flowing, tweeted up a storm and generally put the rest of us to shame. I am in awe Shelleyrae and just so you know there were a couple of times during the year when I thought I’d slink away from the challenge due to the various annoyances of the non-bookish elements of my life but I figured if a busy mum of four could find the time to be such a stalwart the least I could do would be to stop my grizzling and get on with it. Thanks for leading the way with such an enthusiastic spirit Shelleyrae..

Before giving you a full list of the 18 books I read I thought I’d tease out some of the reading themes and highlights I noticed:

Meaning to get some of the dreaded genre-dabbling over with early I started out the challenge by plucking a book at random from my library’s shelves that I would not otherwise have bothered with. Caroline Overington’s MATILDA IS MISSING was an unexpected treat, offering genuine insight into family breakdown plus a narrator eerily reminiscent of my own father. Along with Overington’s latest novel, SISTERS OF MERCY, this novel prompted a late-year rant about the dangers of labelling of books as women’s fiction. I am still reflecting on this issue as I think it’s at the heart of why books by women are, still, under represented in wider literary discussions and the subject of such puerile nonsense as this.

As far as demographic groups receiving consideration at any level of politics, the media or wider society women over 60 are not even a blip on the radar. If they appear at all in popular culture they are either kindly, grandmotherly types or crazy cat ladies and are rarely the focus of a single scene let alone an entire novel. But the protagonist of Virginia Duigan’s THE PRECIPICE, octogenarian Thea Farmer, is a vibrant, intelligent, socially awkward, sarcastic, hilarious heroine and is, without doubt, the favourite character of my reading year. She is who I want to be when I grow old (I’ve started early on socially awkward and sarcastic).

This year one of my new favourite authors, Sulari Gentill (whose first book of her 1930′s historical crime series was only released in 2010) released two novels in the series. They were both the kind of great reads I have come to expect from Gentill but the second of them, PAVING THE NEW ROAD, was particularly pleasing. I have railed against authors who hit on a winning formula then keep churning out the same novel time after time in seeming disdain for the intelligence of their readers and with this novel in particular Gentill made it clear I don’t have to fear her treading this path. This novel does have the same core elements as its predecessors – a delightful lightness of tone and an intriguing minor cast of real historical figures to add spice to the adventures of the four key characters – but the tough issues that one might imagine would crop up in a novel set during the rise of the Nazi regime are neither ignored nor turned into ridiculous clichés. It’s a more sombre novel than the earlier ones but still a marvellous read and a great addition to the series.

Living in Australia you could be forgiven for believing that the only places which produce writing worth reading (or even settings worth reading about) are Sydney and Melbourne and so, even though I live in a different under represented part of the country, I am thrilled to see TASMANIA feature so strongly. THE BETRAYAL, PAST THE SHALLOWS and POET’S COTTAGE were all written by women who have lived on the island in the past even if they don’t live there at present and though very different novels all three offer a great sense of their Tasmanian setting. Funnily enough I’ve just today bought what might be my first read for next year’s challenge and it too is set in Tassie. It’s an epidemic!

In the end I read a mixture of crime, historical, contemporary, women’s (ugh to the term) and literary fiction by a nearly even mix of authors I knew and those who were new to me.  I overcame my lingering aversion to literary fiction (thank you Favel Parrett), reconnected with some old favourite authors and found several new authors whose writing I want more of. I am ever grateful to Elizabeth Lhuede for creating the challenge and to these talented women for providing such a plethora of delights for my personal enjoyment. I can’t wait to do it all again next year.

My full list: (in reading order):

  1. Caroline Overington, Matilda is Missing
  2. Sulari Gentill, Miles Off Course
  3. Sylvia Johnson, Watch Out For Me
  4. Kerry Greenwood, Cocaine Blues
  5. Wendy James, The Mistake
  6. Felicity Young, A Dissection of Murder
  7. Virginia Duigan, The Precipice
  8. Annie Hauxwell, In Her Blood
  9. Ellen Mary Wilton, Hysteria at the Wisteria
  10. Sulari Gentill, Paving the New Road
  11. Katherine Howell, Silent Fear
  12. Gabrielle Lord, Death by Beauty
  13. Y.A. Erskine, The Betrayal
  14. Kathryn Fox, Cold Grave
  15. Tara Moss, Assassin
  16. Caroline Overington, Sisters of Mercy
  17. Favel Parrett, Past The Shallows
  18. Josephine Pennicott, Poet’s Cottage

AWW2012 Books Read

Taking on the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2013

australian women writers 2012I must have had some kind of psychic foreboding that 2012 was not going to be an easy reading year for me as I only signed up for one reading challenge rather than the half-dozen or more of recent years. But what I’ve lacked in quantity has been made up for in quality in that this year’s sole challenge, the Australian Women Writers Challenge, has both challenged and engaged me in a way that most of my previous reading challenges have not.

Born out of a frustration about the lack of coverage of books by women in the mainstream media, the challenge’s aim was to raise the profile of Australian women writers and their books in whatever media we could manage. As a participant then the challenge was not purely in reading at least 10 books by Australian women writers (I did that easily last year too) but to ensure that I reviewed them as intelligently as possible and that at least a couple of them were from outside my reading comfort zone. It’s not much of a stretch for me to pick up the latest crime novel by much-loved authors like Sulari Gentill but, especially in a year when I wasn’t reading as much as I normally would, it was much more difficult for me to try new crime writers or, heaven forbid, books that aren’t crime at all! Happily these forays into unfamiliar territories proved a positive experience for me. I even learned something from the one DNF ascribed to this challenge (I will post a formal wrap up of this year’s challenge in a few days…one last book to finish).

The engagement of this challenge was the real surprise though. Spurred on by its passionate creator, Elizabeth Lhuede, the challenge seems to have been everywhere that good books are being discussed:

In short an entire community of people celebrating Australian women writers has been born. Woot as the kids would say (ok they probably wouldn’t actually say that but hopefully you get my point). You can even take a short survey about your awareness and consumption of literature by Australian women!

awwbadge_2013I think it’s wonderful news then that the challenge will be run again in 2013 and I’ll be curious to see what other elements evolve in the year that the first Stella Prize for Australian women’s writing is to be given. I suppose the first change is that next year Elizabeth will be getting some help to keep things ticking along. A swag of readers/writers/bloggers answered Elizabeth’s call to arms and we (yes yours truly will be curating reviews in the crime genre) have agreed to help with the myriad of small but necessary tasks such things demand (website and database maintenance, regular roundups of reviews posted in ‘our’ genres and so on).

I for one can’t wait to participate as both helper and reader next year and hope you’ll consider signing up too. You can get away with reading as few as four books if you like, though I’m aiming for at least 10 again. Even if you’re not going to take the challenge do check out this year’s reviews (the snazzy new database makes it really easy to browse them all now) and find an Australian woman writer or three to celebrate. You won’t regret it.

Books of the Month – May 2012

2012 is turning out to be a very slow reading year for me as May was another month where I read far fewer books than I would normally do.  My evenings have been spent getting ready for moving house rather than my usual pass time of reading. There are many reasons I’m looking forward to being in my new abode in mid-June, not least among them the ability to get back to full reading strength.

My pick of the month for May’s reads is Chris Grabenstein’s FUN HOUSE, the seventh book in the Ceepak and Boyle series set in a fictional resort town on the New Jersey shore where this time out our heroes take on reality television. With many long-running series failing to live up to my expectations I was chuffed to find that the latest book in this series is well and truly up to the usual standard. As more and more crime fiction tends towards the much-celebrated gritty realism (more on that later) I am newly appreciative of crime writers who can entertain and provoke thought without making my stomach churn.

Other books I read this month were

All but 2 of these books were by new-to-me authors, only one of those a début which is also the only book by an Australian author (IN HER BLOOD).
This month’s reading has really got me thinking about violence in crime fiction. A subject I think I will return to in a future blog post when my thoughts have crystallised a little more.

If you want to see other people’s crime fiction picks of the month head over to Mysteries in Paradise for the Pick of the Month meme

Books of the Month – April 2012

After a couple of months of fairly ordinary reading I seemed to hit my stride again in April, in quality at least if not quantity. As I gushed about on the weekend my book of the month is Australian author Virginia Duigan’s THE PRECIPICE. It’s a fantastic tale about an elderly woman who is almost as unlike the proverbial little old lady as it is possible for anyone to be. I fell in love with her in the same gushing way that my 14-year old self fell for Fitzwilliam Darcy (I was a 14 year old girl, it’s in the rule book). This is my second 5-star read for the year and I am recommending it to all.

II finished another 10 books for the month including all of these that I would recommend

The Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012

I’m now up to 7 terrific books by Australian women and I listed them all in a recent post. I’m so impressed with the quality and variety of books I’ve read for this challenge, and am amazed at the variety all the participants have been reading (677 at the time of posting). Australian women writers rock!

Other, non-review related posts this month

I posted about this year’s International Dagger Award for crime fiction translated into English. The shortlist will be announced at the end of May but I have speculated already about its makeup.

I also discussed the iPad and web apps that enhance my reading life. On reflection I suspect this makes me look just a wee bit obsessed. Oh well.

I introduced a new feature here at the blog called book versus adaptation (hopefully the title is self explanatory). I’m aiming to write one of these a month (though I’m not going to kill myself over it) as a justification for having gone a little bit mad buying DVDs and downloaded movies lately. I started out with FIELD OF BLOOD, a book written by Scottish author Denise Mina who was also credited as helping with the TV movie made of the book last year.

Next month?

I’m still trying to read a few more titles eligible for the above-mentioned International Dagger award and I have to read William Landay’s DEFENDING JACOB for book club. Plus I have new books by 3 great Aussie women writers that I want to get to. And tonight I have downloaded an audio book I’ve been looking forward to for months – FUN HOUSE is the new John Ceepak novel written by Chris Grabenstein and narrated by Jeff Woodman. That friends is my definition of happiness.

What about you…was April a good reading month? Did you have a favourite book? Or did you acquire anything you’re itching to read? Any issue you need to get off your chest?

If you want to see other people’s crime fiction picks of the month head over to Mysteries in Paradise for the Pick of the Month meme

An update, and some gushing, on the Australian Women Writers challenge 2012

After several years of signing up for multiple reading challenges this year I wanted a break but felt compelled to join the Australian Women Writers challenge. After all if I, as an Australian woman reader, can’t support this particular cause then who can I expect to do so?

I have so far read and reviewed seven of the 10 books necessary to complete my particular challenge and am struck by the quality I’ve discovered. There is a mixture of familiar favourites and brand new to me authors and I have dabbled in genres beyond my usual reading. There is not a dud book in the bunch.

And while I have enjoyed them all, it is the latest one, Virginia Duigan’s The Precipice, that has won a special place in my heart. It is fan-bloody-tastic. It’s not just my favourite book of the challenge but my favourite book of the reading year so far. I adored its protagonist, eighty-ish loner Thea Farmer, and expect I am going to become quite boring in the repetitiveness of my urging other people to read this book. I have gushed more about it at my other blog.

The books I’ve read so far (* indicates an author I had not read before this year)

Upcoming books for this challenge that I have on my shelves, devices or on order from various purveyors of fine books are a whodunnit set in a lawn bowls club, a story about sexual harassment in the Tasmanian police force, a fictional account of Anne Hathaway’s relationship with the penniless eighteen-year-old son of a disgraced and bankrupt glove-maker and a murder investigation in a remote part of South Africa in the 1950′s. As my niece would say You Go Girls!

Books of the Month – March 2012

The upside of the fact that my February reading slump well and truly leached into March is that I don’t have quite so many finished books from which to make the difficult choice of book of the month. However Australian author Wendy James’ THE MISTAKE could take its rightful place as the best book of any month, being a cracker of a read. It tells the story of a young girl desperate to escape the life of neglect and poverty that she was born to and the secrets she keeps so she can keep her new life. I’d recommend it widely.

In the end I only finished a total of 7 books including that one, and haven’t even found the time to review most of those! I’ll be kicked out of the book bloggers society if I’m not careful. The other books I can recommend are

  • A BALI CONSPIRACY MOST FOUL by Shamini Flint (3.5 stars, no full review but a brief discussion in this post)
  • FEAR NOT by Anne Hold (3 stars, I hope to write a review still)
  • INTO THE DARKEST CORNER by Elizabeth Haynes (3.5 stars – I hope to write a review still)
  • THE BLACKHOUSE by Peter May (3.5 stars? or 4? haven’t decided yet – the review is half written)
  • THE POTTER’S FIELD by Andrea Camilleri (3.5 stars)
  • THE ROPE by Nevada Barr (3 stars)

The Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012

My only novel completed for this challenge was Wendy James’ THE MISTAKE which takes my tally to 5 and puts me half way through the challenge, though I do plan to read more than my allotted 10 books (now that I appear to be out of my slump). There’s still time to join this challenge if you dare.

I’ve also been listening to and reading lots of news about the topic of women writers which seems to be on everyone’s minds at the moment. I was going to post some links here but there seems to be rather a lot of them now that I’m looking so I’ll do a separate post later.

Next month?

At this point I’m just hoping my whole reading (and reviewing) slump and the disgruntlement it causes in my psyche is finished with. I’d like to go back to being gruntled – which means lots of reading and then rambling about it here on the blog (which I have, surprisingly, missed nearly as much as the reading itself).

I’ve got virtual trips to Iceland, Scotland, Washington DC and Sydney planned and then who knows? Got anything to recommend? Rhian over at It’s A Crime has made me very aware that we readers need to support new authors not just our old favourites with her new series of posts focusing on new authors (it’s called Starting Out and the first post was  from an author who has chosen to self publish) so let me know if you think there’s a good debut out there I should read.

What about you…was March a good reading month? Did you have a favourite book? Or did you acquire anything you’re itching to read? Any issue you need to get off your chest?

If you want to see other people’s crime fiction picks of the month head over to Mysteries in Paradise for the Pick of the Month meme

Books of the Month – February 2012

Before I hit my reading slump in the second half of February I did read THE CALLER by Karin Foussm which I thought an outstanding novel. It is about a small community in Norway where a teenage boy starts playing horrid pranks on people (such as publishing a death notice for an elderly woman who is still alive).The impact of these pranks on the victims are profound and the book really did unsettle me in the way it explored the fragility of the lives we create for ourselves, My first 5-star read for the year.

In the end I did finish 11 books for the month including

  • AGENT 6 by Tom Rob Smith (3 stars)
  • CARTE BLANCHE by Carlo Lucarelli (3 stars)
  • SURRENDER by Donna Malane (4 stars, top notch New Zealand reading)

THE CONFESSION by Charles Todd, WHITE HEAT by M.J.McGrath, WILD HORSES by Dick Francis and NIGHT ROUNDS by Helene Tursten were all part of my reading slump (not terrible books just not great) which I finished off by re-reading Christos Tsiolkas’ thoroughly bloody awful THE SLAP, a book that paints a more depressing picture of humanity than any crime fiction I have ever read.

The Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012

I’m now up to 4 books by Australian women this year, though neither of these really falls outside my ‘comfort zone’ of genres so I’ll have to dabble some more next month

Other, non-review related posts this month

I didn’t manage a lot of other blogging in February though did manage to have a whinge about the overt politics of Sara Paretsky’s BREAKDOWN, a book I still haven’t finished.

Next month?

A wise man suggested Andrea Camilleri might get me out of my reading slump and I happened to be next in the queue for the library’s copy of his latest novel THE POTTER’S FIELD and I am already feeling kindly towards reading again. I also picked up Gail Jones’ FIVE BELLS (an Aussie women writer for me to dabble with) and Craig Johnson’s THE COLD DISH on the same trip to the library.

What about you…was February a good reading month? Did you have a favourite book? Or did you acquire anything you’re itching to read? Any issue you need to get off your chest?

If you want to see other people’s crime fiction picks of the month head over to Mysteries in Paradise for the Pick of the Month meme

Books of the Month – January 2012

I struggled to choose a single book for the month, feeling like there were several books equally deserving of the title. But in the end I’ve decided on Sulari Gentill’s MILES OFF COURSE which I finished two weeks ago but which still puts a smile on my face when I think of it. There is something I particularly treasure about a book that makes me happy and this combination of whodunnit, exploration of a lesser-known part of our history and old-fashioned fun is an absolute delight.

I finished 12 books for the month and all the rest are  recommended reads (anything rated 3 or more)

The Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012

Two of the books were by Australian woman (counting towards the total of 10 I’m aiming for) and I managed two genres as well

I also kept up as best I could with what other challenge participants are saying about the challenge in these round-up posts

Other, non-review related posts this month

What about you…was January a good reading month? Did you have a favourite book? Or did you acquire anything you’re itching to read? Any issue you need to get off your chest?

If you want to see other people’s crime fiction picks of the month head over to Mysteries in Paradise for the Pick of the Month meme

Dabbling in writing by Australian women #2

In trying to involve myself in the community component of the Australian Women Writers Challenge (not just the reading and reviewing) I’m doing a semi regular round-up of reviews and other discussion posts that have caught my eye.

Elizabeth Lhuede asked What’s All the Fuss about Geraldine Brooks’ CALEB’S CROSSING, and even though it was one of my favourite books of last year I didn’t take umbrage at Elizabeth’s critique of the book :) (see I can be polite mum). Indeed the post posed some very interesting questions about what makes a book Australian and what things we should expect to see from our Australian writers and what books are deserving of awards for their Australian-ness. I’m still pondering my thoughts on some of these topics.

Jenny Schwartz reviewed NOTORIOUS AUSTRALIAN WOMEN by Kay Saunders and discovered why she prefers autobiographies to biographies. I found this fascinating because I prefer the reverse. I also note that Jenny is a steampunk author so I will pay close attention and maybe I will learn what the term actually means one day.

At The Australian Bookshelf Jayne Fordham bills  SHARP TURN by Marianne Delacourt as Australia’s answer to Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum and is exciting, funny and slightly outrageous.

Meanwhile at Bookstore off Euclid Avenue we’re reminded of one of the classics of Australian fiction, Miles Franklin’s MY BRILLIANT CAREER, the semi-autobiographical tale of a woman whose full name was Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin. In the review the book’s heroine, Sybylla is described as “a cocky teenage girl, all slang and rebellion. She is stubborn, intelligent, and uncompromising”. Given that definition is spot-on I guess it’s not surprising that I can still remember my teachers’ grimaces when I listed Sybylla as my all-time favourite literary character in an essay-writing contest when I was 13 :) The review also reminds us of Franklin’s consummate skill at describing our unique physical environment.

The review of Alice Pung’s memoir UNPOLISHED GEM at a blog called Wallaby has inspired me to add the book to my own wishlist. It deals with Pung’s life as the child of immigrants, straddling the cultures, inheriting the memories of her ancestors.

Meanwhile at Tony’s Reading List I discovered a book called EVERYMAN’S RULES FOR SCIENTIFIC LIVING by Carrie Tiffany which I had never heard of but am now very keen to read. Set in rural Australia of the 1930′s Tony describes it as a book about two people who fall in love, decide to start a farm based on scientific principles but struggle through the Depression and the two cope with their failures differently. Tony says the book isn’t perfect but is compelling and for some reason I really like the sound of it.

It’s not all reviews though, why not check out Tara Moss in conversation with Kerry Greenwood? Two of Australia’s most successful contemporary women writers spend a bit over ten minutes discussing writing, female heroes, being shocked by your own characters and the adaptation of Kerry’s most famous creation, Phryne Fisher, for television.

This is just the tip of the iceberg of reviews and other posts that have been written in the first weeks of the Australian Women Writers challenge 2012; to date 164 reviews are linked at the challenge’s website. It’s not too late for you to join in, or if you can’t do that at least head on over to the challenge website and check out some of the review links. You’re bound to find a recommendation for some great writing by Australian women.

Dabbling in writing by Australian women #1

Because I’ve only signed up for one reading challenge this year I feel I have enough time to check out what other participants are reading and saying about their challenge experience which is something I’ve been pretty slack about in my reading challenges in other years. Part of my reason for diligently checking out as many posts as I can is that I challenged myself to dabble in a few genres for the challenge so I’m actively looking for recommendations for non-fiction plus historical, literary and contemporary fiction that I might like. But I’m also just curious to investigate the breadth of writing by Australian women and I thought I’d occasionally share the posts that interest me most over the course of the year.

One of the challenge’s main champions, Shelleyrae from Book’d Out hosted a visit from contemporary fiction author Lisa Heidke who talked about her horror at seeing her first book cover (which she had no control over). It must so painful for an author to know their work is going to be judged by lots of people based on some aspect that the author has had no say in themselves.

At Whispering Gums I found a review of Francesca Rendle-Short’s BITE YOUR TONGUE, a fictionalised memoir from the daughter of a woman who was an anti-smut campaigner. Starting life so unwillingly absorbed in someone else’s agenda always seems to me to be a tough break and it’s interesting to see how this plays out.

Marg from Adventures of an Intrepid Reader wrote a lengthy review of Anna Funder’s ALL THAT I AM, a historical fiction novel set in Germany in 1930′s as Hitler came to power. The book is one that you see everywhere in book stores here and I must have had it in my hands a half-dozen times but I’ve never walked out of the shop with it, despite the accolades it has received. Marg’s review is not ultra negative but it does take a critical look at the book and I think I’m convinced to try something else instead.

Coleen Kwan assured us all that Jessica Rudd’s CAMPAIGN RUBY isn’t full of political backstabbing and I can’t be the only one who breathed a sigh of relief. For overseas readers Jessica Rudd is the daughter of our most recent ex-prime minister and therefore it was not unreasonable to wonder if the tawdry mess that was his deposing got written into the book but apparently not. Even for a politics junkie like me this would not have been interesting as we all lived through it once :)

Maree from Like the World reviewed Favel Parrett’s PAST THE SHALLOWS which is one of the books I was thinking about when I decided to dabble in genres other than my usual crime fiction for this challenge. It’s literary fiction set in Tasmania and is the story of three brothers who live with their embittered father. The book is by a young Australian woman and everyone was talking about the book last year. Maree has made it very tempting saying “it completely immerses you as family secrets unravel and the boys’ lives are revealed with quiet urgency. This is the kind of book you read in one greedy sitting”

This is just the tip of the iceberg of reviews and other discussion posts that have been written in the first weeks of the Australian Women Writers challenge 2012. It’s not too late for you to join in, or if you can’t do that at least head on over to the challenge website and check out some of the other links. You’re bound to find a recommendation for some great writing by Australian women.