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Craig Cormick and Harold Ludwick, On a barbarous coast (“BookReview)

December 30, 2020

Craig Cormick is a Canberra-based writer whom I’ve seen at various literary events around town, but not read until now, so I was especially glad when Allen & Unwin sent me this book to review. Titled On a barbarous coast, it was written collaboratively with Harold Ludwick, “a Bulgun Warra man whose traditional lands lie west of Cooktown”.

On a barbarous coast offers something a bit different for reviewers. Besides its collaborative nature, there’s its form or genre, which is that sub-genre of historical fiction called alternate (or alternative) history. In this case, it involves looking at a period of Australian history and asking “what if things had happened differently?” Those things, for Cormick and Ludwick, relate to Captain Cook’s exploration of Australia.

The story springs, then, from Captain Cook’s 1768-1771 voyage to Australia to observe the Transit of Venus. During that expedition, in late 1770, the Endeavour was seriously damaged around the Great Barrier Reef, but managed to limp on to Batavia. However, Cormick and Ludwick posit a different scenario, suggesting that the Endeavour was shipwrecked and that only a small number of the crew survived – including Cook, though he remains comatose though much of the story. The survivors make their way to land, and … the question is, as the cover states, “What if there was an alternative ending to Captain Cook’s story?” Would Australia’s history have been different, and how?

While I’ve not read many, I do quite like alternative histories. They encourage us to look at the past from different angles, which can illuminate the implications of decisions made and actions taken.

So, this is how it goes …

The story is told in two alternating first-person voices, Cormick’s being that of American Midshipman James Magra, and Ludwick’s being the young Indigenous boy, Garrgiil.

Magra chronicles the actions and fates of the shipwreck survivors, who very quickly break into two antagonistic camps, while Ludwick shares the thoughts and actions of the local Guugu Yimidhirr people. For the bulk of the narrative, the two cultures remain apart. There is quite a bit of humour in watching Garrgiil’s people trying to decide whether these strange “spirit things” are ancestors or just men. Initially, they feel they must be ancestors, but the way they stumble around, starving while “walking past food every day”, not to mention behaving incorrectly in sacred or special areas, suggests that this may not be the case.

… their presence gives our people great stories of their stupidity and clumsiness to tell around the fire at night. Like the one who stood in the river and let Gandhaar [crocodile] eat him …

Meanwhile, we watch Magra and his co-survivors bickering amongst themselves, trying to plan a solution to their predicament, and sensing the “natives” are out there but not seeing them. The stage is set for a meeting. The question is: how will it go? You will have to read the book for yourselves to find out.

So, how does it all come together?

Magra gets the lion’s share of the story, which could be seen as giving the invaders the upper-hand (yet again) in story-telling. However, I’m going to assume that this was all discussed and agreed between the two authors. Also, I think we could argue that the unequal number of physical pages doesn’t necessarily mean that the emotional impact of the two narratives is similarly unequal. Garrgiil’s voice is strong enough, and compelling enough, to be in our minds, even when he’s not centre-stage.

In the Authors’ Note at the end, Cormick says they “tried to stay as close to known history as possible, both within the known and imagined paths of the story”, which requires a bit of mind-bending but I get what they mean. They drew upon “many existing knowledges” including several journals, such as those of James Cook, Joseph Banks, Sydney Parkinson, and an anonymous journal believed to have been written by James Mario Magra, whom Cormick uses as his narrator. They also looked at the work of Indigenous and non-Indigenous historians, journalists and academics, and at historical accounts of several shipwrecked individuals who had lived with Indigenous people. Cormick notes that while their story divides easily into the two narratives, “it is not so easy to unpick how each of us influenced each other’s work”.

Ludwick adds that his aim was to pull readers into “the world of Guugu Yimidhirr language (which was first recorded in 1770 by Sydney Parkinson and Joseph Banks)”. He says that many of the practices and knowledge he describes in the book are still used by his people. He also says that he wove Dreamtime stories into his narrative to help readers understand his people’s traditional explanations of how the land became what we see today.

The end result is the sort of book I like to read, one that entertains me with its story, while also engaging my mind as I consider what the authors (plural, in this case) were trying to do, how they were trying to do it, and whether they pulled it off. It is an earnest book. Sometimes this comes a bit close to the surface when we are “told” things to make sure we get it (such as “I know the Captain controlled how the stories of our journey would be told”). This – and the strange though interesting little “magical realism” interludes where Magra talks to Gandhaar, the crocodile – creates a little unevenness in the narrative. Also, the use of parenthesis to translate the local language used by Garrgiil felt clunky. Yet, I applaud the book’s extensive use of this language. We need more of it in contemporary Australian literature. As Gandhaar tells Magra:

You create the landscape in your own words. If you don’t know the right words, you will never know the land properly.

But these are minor “picky” things. Cormick and Ludwick have attempted something significant in terms of story, intent, and process, and they pulled it off in a way that engaged me, right through to their considered ending which suggests possibilities, while being realistic about probabilities. Without irony, we could call this book “a grand endeavour”. It is certainly exciting to see such Indigenous-non-Indigenous collaborations happening in our literary sphere.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also found this book intriguing.

Craig Cormick and Harold Ludwick
On a barbarous coast
Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin, 2020
ISBN: 9781760877347

(Review copy courtesy Allen & Unwin)

Monday musings on Australian literature: Australian Women Writers Challenge 2020

December 28, 2020
AWW Challenge 2019 Badge

Once again I am devoting my last Monday Musings of the year to the Australian Women Writers Challenge*. Last year in my opening paragraph, I wrote that I loved the sound of 2020 – and I wished you all a wonderful year to come in whatever form you would like that to take. My, oh my, little did we expect what was going to eventuate (which for me included a personal loss in addition to the impacts of the pandemic and other catastrophes). I no longer like the sound of 2020, and fervently hope 2021 turns out much better for us all. And so, may you all have a positive and fulfilling 2021.

Now, the challenge … it has continued to go very well. The full database now contains reviews for nearly 7,000 books across all forms and genres, from all periods, of Australian women’s writing. This means that the number of books reviewed on our database increased in 2020 by 900 books, which is about the same number added as last year, or just under 15%.

My personal round-up for the year

This year, for obvious reasons, was not my best Challenge year. I posted only 26 reviews relevant to the Challenge over the year, about the same as last year which was also a strange year (but differently). I feel disappointed about all this, but such is life. Anyhow, here they are, with links to my reviews:


Book cover

Short stories

Book cover



Book cover

This year, fiction (including short stories) represented around 61% of my AWW challenge reading, which is a little more than last year and a bit closer to my preferred ratio. I read three Classics. Two were novels and one a memoir, and they were read for Bill’s (The Australian Legend) Gen 3 week and Lisa’s (ANZLitLovers) Thea Astley week. Thanks to Bill and Lisa for the impetus to read these books, because they added a special depth ! In terms of that problematic word “diversity”, I read two novels by Indigenous Australian women, and one translated novel by an Iranian-born Australian writer.

Chloe Hooper, The Arsonist

My non-fiction reading was eclectic, featuring biography and memoir of course, a work of creative or narrative nonfiction, a beautiful collaboration between an artist and a poet, and, unusually for me, also two books that could be seen to be in the self-help vein.

If you’d like to know more about the Challenge, check it out here. We are also on Facebook, Twitter (@auswomenwriters), and GoodReads. Do consider joining us. All readers are welcome.

Finally, as always, a big thanks again to Theresa, Elizabeth and the rest of the team. I (still) love being part of this challenge, partly because equating with my reading goals it is not really a challenge, and also because I enjoy working with the people involved. See you in 2021.

And so, 2021

Challenge logo

The 2021 sign up form is ready, so this is also my Sign Up post for next year. As always, I’m nominating myself for the Franklin level, which is to read 10 books by Australian women and post reviews for at least 6 of those. I expect, of course, to exceed this.

Do you plan to sign up?

* This challenge was instigated by Elizabeth Lhuede in 2012 in response to concerns in Australian literary circles about the lack of recognition for women writers. I have been one of the challenge’s volunteers since 2013. Theresa Smith (of Theresa Smith writes) now oversees the day-to-day management of the blog, but Elizabeth is still an active presence.

My reading group’s favourites for 2020

December 24, 2020

In what is becoming a tradition, my reading group once again voted for our favourites from our 2020 schedule. Given many of us like hearing about what other reading groups do, I’m sharing the results as I did last year.

First, though, here is what we read in the order we read them (with links on titles to my reviews):

I really don’t know what came over us this year, as this is way less diverse than we our usual schedule. Almost all are Australian; all but three are novels; there’s not one translated novel; there’s no classic and indeed all were published in 2017 or later. Fortunately, the first half of next year will see us reading a much greater variety, which is good. Our focus always has been Australian – with a special interest in women – but it was never meant to be quite so narrow as this year.

The winners …

All twelve of our currently active members voted. We had to name our three favourite works, which resulted in 36 votes being cast. No weighting was given to one over another in those three, even where some members did rank their choices. Unlike the last couple of years which saw the the favourite books bunched quite closely to each other, there was a runaway favourite this year:

  1. Too much lip, by Melissa Lucashenko (10 votes)
  2. Overstory, by Richard Powers; and Griffith Review 68: Getting on (5 votes each)
  3. One hundred years of dirt, by Rick Morton, Mammoth, by Chris Flynn, and Phosphorescence, by Julia Baird (3 votes each)

I love that Lucashenko’s book was so enjoyed and appreciated (partly because it was one of my recommendations!) It’s interesting that all three of the non-novels on our list featured among our favourites. What does that say about us, or about this year, or about our time of life? Anything? Nothing? Last year, four books (as against 6 this year) made our top three positions, and all were novels by men!

Every book but one received at least one vote, and that one, Anna Goldsworthy’s Melting moments, got an honourable mention (ie, a sneaky extra vote!) from one member.

Of course, this is not a scientific survey (and it’s a very small survey). Votes were all given equal weight, even where people indicated an order of preference, and not everyone read every book, so different people voted from different “pools”.

Selected comments (accompanying the votes)

  • Too much lip: Commenters used words like “engaging” and “authentic” next to “flawed characters”. Several also commented on the humour, and the originality and freshness of its writing and story-telling.
  • Overstory: Most commented on what they learnt about trees, nature, and wildlife activists. One wrote that in this pandemic year, it pulled her into “trees and nature … at a time when I particularly needed to be there”.
  • Griffith Review 68: Getting on: It’s not surprising that a group of women who are “getting on” liked this read. Commenters said things like “essential reading”, “eye-opening” and “thoughtful ideas on a depressing subject”.
  • One hundred years of dirt: Commenters appreciated Morton’s “heart-rending” honesty about his family’s challenges, and his “tribute to his mum”.
  • Mammoth: Commenters loved that it’s “quirky”, “original”, or, as one member said, “a real work of imaginative and stimulating writing”.
  • Phosphorescence: One member, in particular, “adored” it, calling it “a thought-provoking and thoughtful reflection on life, friendship, children, getting old, nature… a book to keep dipping into” while another said, simply, that “Julia helped me find some truths.”

But wait, there’s more!

As last year, some members of my group named other (ie non bookgroup) favourite reads of the year, and I share them with you (with links to my reviews for those I’ve read):

  • Robbie Arnott’s Flame
  • Thea Astley’s An item from the late news (my review)
  • Elisabeth Tova Bailey’s The sound of a wild snail eating
  • John Clanchy’s In whom we trust (my review)
  • Jeanine Cummins’ American dirt
  • Trent Dalton’s All our shimmering skies
  • Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl woman other (scheduled for 2021)
  • Robert Galbraith’s Troubled blood
  • Vicki Hastrich’s Night fishing
  • Christy Lefteri’s The beekeeper of Aleppo
  • David Mitchell’s Utopia Avenue 
  • Sharon Pincott’s Elephant tracks
  • Lucy Treloar’s Wolfe Island
  • Edith Wharton’s The custom of the country (read, and loved, but long before blogging)
  • Tara June Winch’s The yield (my review)

If you are in a reading group – face-to-face or online – would you care to share your 2020 highlights?

And whether you do or not, here’s to you all for the best sort of Christmas you can muster this year. Hope you can make it a good one. Now’s the time to make good stories of our lives if we possibly can. Look forward to catching you on the other side! 

Monday Musings on Australian literature: ABR’s 2020 Books of the Year

December 21, 2020

The Australian Book Review (ABR) recently published its annual books of the year as selected by 34 of its contributing critics and reviewers, who include novelists, poets, historians and literary critics. Most are known to me, but there are a few newbies too.

I know we discussed the pros and cons of lists in my last Monday Musings post but I want to share this because of the variety and for the value-add of the comments made. I am not going to share every “pick” but just a selection of the Australian ones. Most of the contributors named both Australian and non-Australian books in their mix but two deserve a shout-out, says parochial me, for choosing only Australian books: poet John Kinsella (whose memoir, Displaced, I recently reviewed) and new-to-me historian Yves Rees.

ABR presented its list, logically, by contributor, but for us here, I’m going to organise the Aussie picks by form, starting with novels. Here goes …


Book cover

Only one novel was mentioned more than once, Amanda Lohrey’s The labrynth. Literary editor and critic, Susan Wyndham said Lohrey “shows how art can both destroy and heal”. Poet and critic Felicity Plunkett agreed, saying it “examines the trace and wrack of violence and the counterbalancing creativity that might transmute it”. Historian Judith Brett, describing it as being “about suffering and redemption”, writes that “Lohrey’s social observation is acute and the writing is superb, spare, and filled with light and wisdom.” Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also loves this book.

The other novels named are:

  • Robbie Arnott’s The Rain Heron, which historian Billy Griffiths says “conjures the magic of a Studio Ghibli production”.
  • Garry Disher’s three novels set in South Australia’s dry farming country, Bitter Wash RoadPeace and Consolation. Judith Brett loves the plots, and that Disher’s policeman is “warmer and less troubled than the average fictional copper”, but says “the richest pleasure is Disher’s superb evocation of place”.
  • Gabrielle Everall’s Dona Juanita and the Love of Boys is, says poet and academic, John Kinsella, a “unique, ironic, confronting, frequently traumatic, and dissecting verse novel of sexuality and desire, passion but also abusive invasiveness”.
  • Richard Flanagan’s The Living Sea of Waking Dreams is, says academic Tony Hughes-d’Aeth, a “slow-burning, eerie tour de force”. Again, Lisa liked this too.
  • Sofie Laguna’s Infinite Splendours , is “a brilliant, heartbreaking portrait of a damaged but resilient soul” says Susan Wyndham.
  • Laura McPhee-Browne’s Cherry Beach, “pulled” writer Sarah Walker “into a house vibrating with the rumblings of things going wrong”. “The dreamy, slightly dissociative quality of the writing felt right for this year: hovering above a life that is slipping between our fingers”.
  • Mirandi Riwoe’s Stone Sky Gold Mountain offers, says historian Yves Rees, “a refreshing counter-narrative of the goldfields” from Chinese miners’ perspectives.
  • Jessica Townsend’s Nevermoor series, of which the third of nine, Hollowpox: The hunt for Morrigan Crow, has just been published, “balances”, according to author and critic Beejay Silcox, “sophisticated menace, gleeful morbidity, and guileless wonder”.
  • Tara June Winch’s The Yield was part of Yves Rees’ plan to decentre “whiteness in her reading diet”. Winch’s book made her feel “frontier violence … like never before”. It’s a “reminder that stories trump facts when truth-telling about Australia’s past”. Yes!
  • Davis Wood’s At the edge of the solid world is, writes, academic and critic, Kerryn Goldsworthy, “a detailed study in grief and empathy” and is “utterly original”.

And, for something a little different, author, poet and academic Ali Alizadeh named My favourite work novelist Elizabeth Bryer’s “eloquent translation” of José Luis de Juan’s Napoleon’s Beekeeper, as his favourite work by an Australian author.

Short stories

Book cover

Just one Australian short story collection was mentioned, but it was mentioned four times, Elizabeth Tan’s Smart Ovens for Lonely People. Essayist-critic Declan Fry “liked it even more than Robbie liked Cecilia in Atonement“! Kerryn Goldsworthy liked that its “witty stories are set in a futuristic yet easily recognisable world where the human relationship with technology becomes ever closer and more anxiety-inducing while creating some laugh-out-loud scenarios and lines”. Yves Rees calls it “a romp of dazzling imagination that injected whimsy into my lockdown” and Tony Hughes-d’Aeth liked its “blend of Vonnegut surrealism and Carveresque suburbia”, believing it “is already destined to be a classic”.


Book cover

Poetry was very popular with this set of contributors, with a few collections mentioned more than once. Ellen van Neerven’s Throat, says novelist and academic Tony Birch, shows “yet again, that van Neerven is an important and gifted poet”. Tony Hughes d’Aeth says it’s “the poetry book that spoke most directly” to him in 2020, calling it “wickedly sharp”. Yves Rees admits that “poetry has never been my tipple, but Ellen van Neerven’s Throat converted me. Each line lands like a punch, the whole book an assault on settler complacency”.

Two collections were mentioned twice:

  • Felicity Plunkett’s A kinder sea was named by John Kinsella who described it as “a sinewy book of survival with a deceptive tautness beneath its flows” and poet, critic and musician David McCooey called it “a necessary rejoinder in a year of unkindness, illustrating Plunkett’s ability to write poetry that is both deeply intelligent and profoundly moving”.
  • Jaya Savige’s Change machine is described by poet Sarah Holland-Batt as “an intoxicatingly inventive and erudite collection rife with anagrams, puns, and mondegreens that ricochets from Westminster to Los Angeles to Marrakesh”. John Kinsella calls it “a work of razor-sharp verbal plays and passion for detail shimmering on international wavelengths. It disputes colonial usurpings of language by breaking them down and playing them back in confronting, ironic, and liberated ways. It’s a book of social critique and family, and an incisive investigation of the estrangement and bewilderment many of us feel”. Sounds like it speaks to some of the issues Kinsella cares about in Displaced.

Ten other collections were mentioned but I can’t let this be a tome, so if you are interested, please check the link in the opening paragraph. However, I will share one more, the Indigenous Australian poetry anthology edited by Alison Whittaker, Fire Front: First Nations poetry and power today. Writer and artist A Frances Johnson says the book “dynamically situates seminal poets alongside ascendant talents (e.g. Oodgeroo Noonuccal, Lionel Fogarty, Raelee Lancaster, Baker Boy)” and notes the value added by the essays introducing each section.

But now, non-fiction, which, interestingly, formed the bulk of the named books.


Book cover

Of the many many non-fiction books named, only one received multiple mentions and it’s a surprising one because, although by an Australian historian, the subject is the Fens of England. The book is James Boyce’s Imperial mud: The fight for the Fens. Tony Birch calls it “a wonderful example of history writing embedded in the narratives of place”. Novelist, poet and musician describes it as “a surprising and wonderfully slushy next layer in the ecological oeuvre of my favourite Australian historian”, while historian Billy Griffiths, says it “offers a lively and refreshingly antipodean history of the Fens in eastern England”. Fascinating.

Now what to do? There are far too many books for me to mention here, so I’ll have to be selective. Several of course deal with our colonial history and Indigenous issues in general. Billy Griffiths named other histories besides Boyce’s. He liked Grace Karskens’s People of the river: Lost worlds of early Australia about the “lives, cultures, and histories along the ancient waterway of Dyarubbin”, and Tiffany Shellam’s 2020 Prime Minister’s Literary Award winning book, Meeting the Waylo: Aboriginal encounters in the archipelago, which “searches the silences of colonial archives”.

Meanwhile, the ever-political John Kinsella named Ambelin Kwaymullina’s Living on stolen land as “an essential and clear statement” that “confronts colonial injustice and decisively shows why Australians should understand and address the history of dispossession, the fact of Aboriginal sovereignty, and continuing connection to country”.

There were some books of more literary subject matter which of course interest me. One is on my TBR, Brenda Niall’s Friends and Rivals. Writer Jacqueline Kent suggests that “this study of four Australian women writers working against the grain of their literary times, accomplishes a great deal”, adding that “her sometimes mordant commentary is particularly enjoyable”. Lisa calls it a must-read for Aussie literature fans.

I could go on. There’s so much – on contemporary politics in this oh-so-political year, on environment and climate change issues, on more esoteric topics like the history of Australia’s bad language, and so on. If you are looking for great reads on contemporary subjects, here is a great place to start. I feel like the proverbial child in the lolly shop, so I’ll end with one that sounds quite out there, Ellena Savage’s Blueberries. It apparently defies description but is, basically, an essay collection. Declan Fry says it:

stole my heart. Not surprising, either, given all the larceny it contains: the theft of land that birthed settler-colonial Australia; the theft of time as one’s twenties make way for their thirties; the cruel coercion and theft of self that marks sexual violence.

I do love a challenging essay collection.

Do let me know if anything grabs you from their selections.

My life in books 2020

December 18, 2020

As I started reading other people’s contributions, I said that I might play the “my life in books” meme – and I have not decided that I will! So, thanks to Lisa for bringing it to my attention and to Annabookbel for managing this fun meme.

It’s a simple meme, and goes like this:

Using only books you have read this year (2020), answer these prompts. Try not to repeat a book title. (Links in the titles will take you to my reviews where they exist)

Book cover

I’m sorry about the paucity of images, but darned if I could get the columned gallery work in block editor. WordPress’s support page said that even if you choose the number of columns you want “Your images will automatically arrange themselves to look good no matter how many columns you select.” Well, no thanks, WP. I want the columns to do what I want them to do and not what you think looks nice! (I think it’s to do with desktops vs tablets vs phones, but the end result is no control at all, it seems to me.)

Sue Lovegrove and Adrienne Eberhard, The voice of water (#BookReview)

December 16, 2020

I had planned to post on this beautifully produced book, The voice of water, earlier in the year, but the events of the year threw me completely off track, and here I am at the end scrambling to finish off the posts I planned oh so many months ago.

Created by Tasmanians, visual artist Sue Lovegrove and poet Adrienne Eberhard (who has appeared here before), The voice of water was described by Hobart’s Fuller’s bookshop in their book launch announcement, as “a collection of 30 miniature paintings and poems which celebrate and pay homage to the beauty and ephemeral life of wetlands”. This is a good description of the content, but it doesn’t describe its exquisite production. You can tell that this book was a labour of love by two people who have both a passion for the Tasmanian landscape and an eye for beauty and design.

In their brief introduction, Lovegrove and Eberhard describe their aim as being “to reveal the fragility and fleeting nature of life in a lagoon”, to capture “the constantly shifting light”, “the soundtrack of place from frog call and scratching index legs to the tapping of grasses”, and “the calligraphy of reeds and sedges”. Not surprisingly, they also note the threat to wetlands posed by climate change. They name the wetlands that inspired them, and describe their process:

We spent days simply sitting together or apart, amongst the banksias and tea-trees at the edges, or lying in the sedges and reeds, letting these places seep into our imagination. We waded through ponds and swamps, working side-by-side, drawing and writing, and we had many conversations.

Interestingly, there was an exhibition of Sue Lovegrove’s miniatures at my favourite local gallery, Beaver Galleries, so you can see some (if not all) of the images on their website. The images are beautiful, some having an almost Monet-esque impression of light and water, others being a little more representational, particularly of reeds and sedge. (The original images are watercolour and gouache on paper.) One gorgeous miniature pair features a pond of deep blue with overhead clouds reflected in it. Eberhard’s miniature poem is (without her spacing though I tried):

enamelled sky
where clouds mop
and soak tumbrils
of luminous blue

The words “enamelled” and “luminous” capture the colours perfectly. Other poems convey different watery effects, such as “like textured silk like ruched folds of material”.

Another miniature pair features rows of reeds or grasses in a pond. The accompanying poem is presented on the facing landscape page in portrait mode so that it looks like spikes of grass too. So much attention has been paid to the design, and how design can help convey meaning as much as the works themselves – representing, for example, “the calligraphy of reeds and sedges”. Another poem is arranged in offset columns to encourage us, or so it seems to me, to read the lines in different orders – down one column and then the other, or leaping across the columns – producing slightly different meanings or effects depending on the order.

I’ll share just one more poem, which exemplifies the attention they also paid to the “soundtrack” of the landscape:

jostle of noise a cacophonous counterpoint to the artist’s mark-making scribble and scratch
castanet-clack the scratching of insect legs
ratcheting and tightening an orchestration that ricochets
and rasps phonetics of frog call an infiltration a metronome’s sustaining heartbeat.

The book chronicles the water cycle in the lagoons, the water coming and receding at different times – “lagoon shrinks to water lines washing through reeds” – but this is not a polemical book about climate change. Rather, it is a hymn to what we have now. At least, that’s how I read it.

However you read it though, The voice of water is a gorgeous book to get lost in and carried away by, and I’m sorry I didn’t write it up earlier in the year.

PS I have tagged this “Nature writing”, which reminded me that I have just received advice that submissions are now open for the 6th biennial Natural Conservancy Nature Writing Prize (about which I have written here before). It’s an essay prize, and is worth $7,500 for the winner. This year’s judges are literary critic, Geordie Williamson, and Miles Franklin Award winning novelist, Tara June Winch. Being selected by them would be quite a feather in the cap, I reckon. For more information check the website.

Challenge logo

Sue Lovegrove and Adrienne Eberhard
The voice of water
Published in 2019 with assistance from an Australia Council for the Arts grant
64pp. (unnumbered)
ISBN: 9780646802541

Monday musings on Australian literature: Summer picks 2020

December 14, 2020

For a few years now, I’ve shared ABC book journalists’ top Aussie reads of the year, but this year I’m doing something a little different. I’m sharing picks from three different sources. Most of these include non-Australian books, but I like to share them in a Monday Musings post and focus on the Aussie books among them. So, here goes.

Readings bookshop

Book cover

Readings staff actually shared their favourite Australian books of the year, which is really great of them so they get first billing here. Their list is called “the best Aussie fiction books of 2020” but in fact the text describes the list as their “favourite” books, which puts a different, and better, slant on it I think.

Here’s their list, reorganised into alphabetical order. I don’t know whether their order was by popularity vote, but alphabetical is easier for people to look for their favourites…

  • Steven Conte’s The Tolstoy Estate
  • Kate Grenville’s A room made of leaves
  • Victoria Hannan’s Kokomo
  • Laura Jean McKay’s The animals in that country
  • Kate Mildenhall’s The mother fault
  • Sean O’Beirne’s A couple of things before the end
  • Andrew Pippos’ Lucky’s
  • Nardi Simpson’s Song of the crocodile
  • Elizabeth Tan’s Smart ovens for lonely people
  • Jessie Tu A lonely girl is a dangerous thing
  • Pip Williams’ The dictionary of lost words

I like this selection because, although I’ve not yet read one of them, I have given some as gifts during the year, and I have a couple on my current TBR. Whether I’ll get to them in summer is another thing, but I will get to some …

ABC RN’s Bookshow and The Book Shelf presenters

Book cover

Claire Nichols, Sarah L’Estrange, Kate Evans and Cassie McCullagh put together a list they call “The best books of 2020 for your summer reading list”. It includes books from around the world, but, as I explained above, I’m just going to share their Aussie picks, which are but few!

  • Erin Hortle’s The octopus and I
  • Laura Jean McKay’s The animals in that country, which Kate Evans describes as “Surprising and surprisingly-convincing characters, and a well-realised, inventive premise”.
  • Jessica Tu’s A lonely girl is a dangerous thing, of which Claire Nichols says “the passion and the obsession drips off the page”
  • Pip Williams’ The dictionary of lost words, of which Sarah L’Estrange says, “For lovers of language and the power of words, this story has everything you want”.

Interesting that three of the four here also featured in Readings’ list. Are these the books we are likely to see on awards long and shortlists next year? Interesting too that all are women writers (as were the selectors. I can live with that!)

ANU English Department picks

Book cover

Now this list – on the ANU website, but shared with me by retired University Librarian Colin Steele (thankyou Colin) – is an unusual one, partly because it has very few contemporary (or any other) Australian books. The Aussies are:

  • Gabrielle Carey’s Only happiness here, her biography of Elizabeth von Arnim, though, weirdly, the description doesn’t mention that at all. It just says “a literary sensation of the early twentieth century weaves a wonderful tale of love, pleasure, gratitude and survival that is written beautifully, perfect for the history buffs and women’s literature lovers among us”. Why not mention the name of the “literary sensation” or that it’s a “biography”? It could sound like a novel?
  • Sarah Hopkins’ The subjects, which is on the Small Press Network’s Book of the Year shortlist, is described as “a gripping read, which follows a gifted teenage delinquent down an uncertain path”
  • Michelle de Kretser’s The life to come, which came out a couple of years ago now, is described as “a wickely [sic] funny novel about the stories we tell and don’t tell ourselves as individuals, as societies and as nations”.

On lists …

When is a list not a list? Regular readers here know that I don’t tend to produce my own annual “best of” or “top reads” lists. I prefer to write a Reading Highlights post (which I will do again in early January for 2020). In this post, I don’t rank books or even talk about best books. Instead, I talk about the books and events that made my reading year worthwhile – and, already, I know I will have some interesting trends to comment on for this year. It is, though, still a list, I suppose! Just a very loose, porous one.

For a thoughtful piece on lists, you might like to check out an article written by one of my 2019 New Territorians, Rosalind Moran. Titled “Against best-of lists” it’s available at Overland Literary Journal. While much of it covers thoughts I’ve had myself, it’s beautifully and clearly expressed – and it did give me some additional points to ponder! (Thanks for Lisa for the heads-up).

What do you think about lists? Are some useful, despite their failings? Or, would you prefer to eschew them altogether?

Carolyn Collins and Roy Eccleston, Trailblazers: 100 inspiring South Australian women (#BookReview)

December 12, 2020

South Australia, say the authors of the beautiful coffee-table book Trailblazers, “was an early leader in women’s rights, so it’s no surprise that it has produced an army of trailblazing, inspirational women”. However, they continue, their stories are not well enough told or known, hence this book!

As with any endeavour like this, it was a challenge to limit themselves to 100, but they did. The women they chose cover “an array of fields – from vineyards to laboratories, from the judiciary and politics to schoolrooms, charities and the stage”, with their influence ranging from local communities to the international stage. They make the point that not all the women they chose were born in South Australia or, alternatively, not all those who were born in South Australia made their mark there. They also make the point that although South Australia was the first Australian jurisdiction to grant women the vote and the right to stand for election, back in 1894, “the fight for a ‘fair go’ continues today”. This means, I’d argue, that the women in this book serve as both a record of what has been achieved and as inspirations for what still needs to be done.

Book cover

The women are ordered alphabetically, which is clever as it saves the need of an index (though an index would be good if you seek other information, like writers, politicians, activists, etc. There is an excellent bibliography at the back, organised by subject, so you can quickly check what sources were used for each woman. I was pleased to see, for example, that Desley Deacon who wrote the authoritative (I’d say) biography of Dame Judith Anderson (my review) was used for the Anderson piece. The sources include primary sources, like newspaper articles, from the subject’s time. The book – a heavy tome I must say – is also beautifully illustrated with plentiful photographs.

So, who is here? There are the feminists, of course, including 19th century born Muriel Matters (who was featured in Clare Wright’s You daughters of freedom) and 20th century born Anne Summers (author of Damned whores and God’s police). There are the social reformers, such as Catherine Helen Spence who was also an early Australian woman “novelist, journalist, preacher and teacher”. Born in 1825, she was, as well, an early campaigner for women’s rights. On her 80th birthday in 1905, she described herself as “an awakened woman”:

Awakened in the sense of capacity and responsibility, not merely to family and the household, but to the State; to be used not for her own selfish interests, but that the world may be glad that she had been born.

South Australia has produced many women who have made significant political careers in Federal politics, such as, from recent times, Julie Bishop, Julia Gillard, (the late) Janine Haines, Natasha Stott Despoja and Penny Wong (listed alphabetically to avoid bias!). What a powerhouse of women. What is in South Australia’s water?

There are Indigenous Australian women, such as the activists Ruby Hammond and Lowitja O’Donoghue, Alice (Alitya) Rigney, Australia’s first female Aboriginal school principal, and Faith Thomas, the first Aboriginal woman selected for an Australian sporting team (cricket)

Australia’s beloved cook, Maggie Beer, and fashion icon, Maggie Taberer, are included, as is the Olympian, “Lithgow Flash” Marjorie Jackson, who, among other achievements, was South Australia’s governor from 2001 to 2007.

Book cover

And there are the writers, artists and performers. Mem Fox, author of the children’s classic Possum magic is an example. She was, writes the authors, “fired up over the need for more Australian stories for children”. But also included are the aforementioned actor Judith Anderson, writer Nancy Cato, artists Nora Heyson and Margaret Preston, composer Miriam Hyde, to name just a very few. I knew some of these were South Australian, others, like Margaret Preston, surprised me.

However, there are also the unsung, or lesser-known achievers. Medical workers, lawyers, educators, charity workers, activists and campaigners of all sorts, churchwomen, and more. I’ve never heard of environmentalist Barbara Hardy, or Pearl Wallace who became Australia’s first female riverboat captain in 1947 after passing “a gruelling three-day examination”. Gladys Sym Choon, described, simply, as an “entrepreneur”, was born in Unley in 1905 to Chinese parents. She opened her own store in Rundle Street, Adelaide, in 1923, believing herself to be the first woman in South Australia to incorporate. Doris Taylor, the founder of Meals on Wheels, was called “one of the great unsung heroines of Australia” by the late South Australian premier Don Dunstan.

There are so, so many stories here of women who have strived and achieved, often, of course, against immense odds. Because of its alphabetical arrangement, Trailblazers works more as a reference book, or one to dip into, rather than one telling “a story”, which it might have been under, say, a chronological arrangement or if ordered by spheres of activity or influence. The approach is, in a sense, encyclopaedic, providing brief biographies relevant to each woman’s reason for inclusion. This is not the place for whole-of-life, warts-and-all stories. Nor should it be, as that’s not its intention. However, the writing is bright, engaging and accessible. These authors want you to read about these women, so the pieces launch right in:

Living eight months a year on the Nullabor Plain while your dad hunts foxes and rabbits gives you a great backstory if you’re a kid with ambitions to be a country singer. (Country-singer Kasey Chambers)


When Mary Miller went to work for the war effort in 1942, she was surprised to find her co-workers at the munitions factory were more afraid of their bosses than of the explosives. (Unionist, activist and teacher)

Published just days before last Christmas, Trailblazers probably didn’t make it under many trees, but it would be a great Christmas present for anyone interested in Australia’s trailblazing women, in South Australia’s settled history, or, in fact, in that of Australia as a whole. An enjoyable read.

Challenge logo

Carolyn Collins and Roy Eccleston
Trailblazers: 100 inspiring South Australian writers
Mile End: Wakefield Press, 2019
ISBN: 9781743056905

(Review copy courtesy Wakefield Press)

Monday musings on Australian literature: New England Writers’ Centre

December 7, 2020

I thought I had finished my round-up of Australia’s writers’ centres with my post on the Australian Writers Centre, but then I came across a rather interesting – and active – regional one, and would like to share it with you (as well as document it here). It is the Armidale-based New England Writers Centre (NEWC).

Like most writers’ centres, the NEWC is a membership service, and has been running for over 20 years. It describes its activities very simply, as

delivering writing and illustrating workshops, professional opportunities, fabulous  literary events, showcasing of local talent, and more, to its members. (About Page)

Like the other membership-based centres it:

  • runs a variety of writing and outreach programs, in Armidale and throughout New England, as well as via online technologies
  • offers and/or supports various writing (and associated) awards and fellowships
  • communicates with members via newsletters, emails and social media.
  • provides resources (primarily prepared by Sophie Masson) to all sorts of sites of relevance to writers and illustrators. Check the link to see what I mean.
Arielle Van Luyn, Treading air

The Centre’s current Board includes, among others, published writers, Sophie Masson (who has more than 50 books to her name) and Ariella van Luyn (whose Treading air I’ve reviewed), professional editor Linda Nix, and local publisher (and, love this, “Rolls Royce trained, professionally qualified mechanical engineer”) Peter Creamer.

You may wonder how I came across this regional centre? Interestingly, it was via the new ARA Historical Fiction Prize which I wrote about recently. The prize was established by the ARA Group and HNSA (The Historical Novel Society Australasia), but this Centre was actively involved, by being part of the Prize sub-committee and administering the submissions.

Anyhow, as I’ve done with most of the other centres, I’ll share some of their main programs … but I must say that, as with most organisations this year, it looks like there’s been a bit of rejigging of programs and activities, and a willingness to turn to new forms of communicating and reaching out.

New England Thunderbolt Prize for Crime Writing

This prize seems to be one of their most significant ongoing programs. It has been running for eight years, and is a multi-prize award with the following categories: Fiction, Non-Fiction, Poetry, Youth Award, Emerging Author and the New England Award. The prizes are relatively small – $250 to $500 – but, a prize is a prize, and must help the cv.

Aussies will know of course, but for others, this prize was named for the infamous bushranger, Captain Thunderbolt.

They also offer an Illustration Prize, which is interesting, as I haven’t seen this aspect of writing/publishing supported quite so obviously in the other centres is it seems to be in this one.

Varuna/New England Writers Centre Fellowship

Regular readers here will have heard of Varuna Writers Retreat before, but in 2019 the NEWC established, in partnership with Varuna, a new annual fellowship. The prize is

a week’s inspirational writing residency in the beautiful surroundings of Varuna, in the Blue Mountains, and include full board and accommodation at Varuna, funds towards travel, a one-on-one consultation with a Varuna expert and more. 

Shortlistees receive two free workshops of their choice from NEWC’s program. 

By the Book video series

This is a new program, just launched this month, comprising YouTube videos featuring “local professional writers, illustrators, editors and publishers offering tips and advice on all kinds of aspects relating to book creation and production”. They range from a couple of minutes to six or so minutes. Here is Sophie Masson introducing the series:

Finally …

For a (not so little) region, the NEWC sounds like an impressively active writers’ centre, which supports a wide range of writing activities in the New England area. It’s exciting seeing such energy coming from regional towns and cities, particularly now when regions seem to be coming into their own, with city-dwellers, post-COVID, starting to see the very real benefits of regional living.

Writers Centres posts: ACT, Australian Writers Centre, New South Wales, the Northern Territory, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria, and Western Australia.

Six degrees of separation, FROM Are you there, Margaret … TO …

December 5, 2020

And so, suddenly, it’s December and the last Six Degrees post of the year. What will 2021 bring. This time last year we could never have imagined what 2020 was going to be for us. I hope we don’t have another one like it again, but … it’s not over yet isn it? Anyhow, on to this month’s Six Degrees of Separation meme.  But first, if you don’t know this meme and how it works, please check out meme host Kate’s blog – booksaremyfavouriteandbest.

The first rule is that Kate sets our starting book. This month, she’s chosen a book that’s celebrating its 50th birthday this year – Judy Blume’s Are you there God? It’s me Margaret! I haven’t read it, though I know that Judy Blume is a huge favourite with young adults, or was, in those early days of her writing when YA was a relatively new genre.

What to do? I could go with another book celebrating its 50th anniversary, or a YA novel, but I’m going to look at questions, specifically How, What, When, Where, Why and Who, though many of my titles aren’t actually questions. They just start with a word that often starts a question. Sorry, but you’ll have to live with that, and that the links are simply from one of these words to the next! (BTW See notesinthemargin’s last six degrees post on questions in titles.)

Book cover

So, HOW. Melissa Lucashenko’s essay (not Richard Llewellyn’s novel), “How green was my valley?” (my review) appeared in Griffith Review’s Hot Air issue. It’s an excellent essay that talks about climate change, indigenous Australian culture, and the possibilities of connection between Indigenous and settler Australians to save our country.

Book cover

WHAT. For “what” I go to a favourite writer whom I haven’t read for a while, Haruki Murakami. I love memoirs that aren’t quite memoirs, and Murakami’s What I talk about when I talk about running (my review) is such a book. It purports to be about his running, but you learn a lot more besides.

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WHEN. My next book is another memoir, but a traditional one this time, white Zimbabwean writer Peter Godwin’s When a crocodile eats the sun (my review). It’s a tough book about a tough place, Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe.

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WHERE. This was my biggest challenge, as I’ve not reviewed any book starting with “where”. I nearly cheated and used Helen Garner’s EveryWHERE I look, but then remembered that I had suggested to Kate that we start a Six Degrees chain with Maurice Sendak’s Where the wild things are, so, why not get more mileage out of that! Otherwise, I could have used Delia Owens’ Where the crawdads sing, which my reading group has scheduled for next year.

Book cover

WHY. One reason for not “cheating” with Helen Garner’s Everywhere I look, was that my “why” link was going to be Garner. It’s her powerful Walkely-award-winning essay, “Why she broke: the woman, her children and the lake” (my review). It appeared in The monthly in 2017, and is an interesting companion piece to her earlier longform work, This house of grief. (It doesn’t appear in Yellow notebook, which I’ve used here for its pic of Garner!)

Hartmann Wallis, Who said what exactly

WHO. Like my “How” choice, my “who” title is a real question, though the import of the question is possibly obscure. I’m talking Hartman Wallis’ Who said what, exactly? (my review). It’s a cheeky and challenging book, but, given this month’s starting book, I must share this line from one of the book’s poems:

‘Think about it God is dead 

Hmm … what would Judy Blume’s Margaret say?

So, exactly reversing my usual Six degrees posts, four of my six links here are by men. However, like last month, we have travelled a bit, to Australia, Japan, Africa and the USA. We have also considered, one way or another, quite a few questions, and have, somehow, returned to God. Seems like a good point on which to close this year’s Six degrees. Thanks, Kate, for another enjoyable set of starting books. All being well, I’ll be back in 2021.

Now, the usual: Have you read Are you there God? It’s me Margaret!? And, regardless, what would you link to?