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Jarrah Dundler, Hey Brother (#BookReview)

January 9, 2019

Jarrah Dundler, Hey BrotherIs she ever going to write another actual review you’ve been probably wondering but yes, I am – and it’s for the young protagonist book I mentioned in my recent Reading Highlights post. The book is Jarrah Dundler’s debut novel, Hey Brother, which was shortlisted for the The Australian/Vogel Upublished Manuscript Award in 2017 under the title Tryst. Tryst is quite a clever title: it’s the nickname of the 14-year-old protagonist Trysten, and suggests actual and hoped for trysts between the teen couples, but maybe it also has overtones of something more genre-like so was rejected? As it is, the published title conveys both the familial and broader meanings of brotherhood, which are played out nicely in the novel.

Publisher Allen & Unwin categorises Hey Brother as Popular Fiction, and describes it as “a genuine and compellingly portrayed family drama of a tough kid from rural Australia”. I would describe it, however, as a coming-of-age novel, and it reads to me as more Young Adult than Adult. There’s nothing wrong with this, but it explains my uncertainty about how to read it – or, to be more specific, how to write about it.

So, the book. Hey Brother has a first person narrator, the aforementioned Trysten who lives on a property in northern New South Wales with his mother, Kirsty, and his big brother Shaun. His father, Old Greggy, is there too, but prior to the novel’s start he’d been exiled by Kirsty to a caravan down by the river. So, it’s a somewhat fractured family, but not devastatingly so, because it becomes quickly clear that there’s an underlying love and respect between them all. The novel starts with big brother Shaun going off to fight “the Taliban in Afghanistan”, where he’d “been keen to head from the get-go, back when the dust from the Twin Towers was still settling”.

Into this mix comes uncle Trev who turns up to support his sister, Tryst’s mother who is worrying about her son off at war. Her form of “worrying” includes self-medicating with alcohol and letting her other responsibilities fall by the wayside. Unfortunately, Trev, who has some lovely moments of wisdom, also self-medicates his own demons the same way. It’s not a lethal mix, but it creates its challenges, and in fact offers Trev some insights. There is also Tryst’s best friend Ricky, and, as the book progresses, their girlfriends, Jessica and Jade. It’s a tight little community, and Dundler handles the relationships well. They feel real, with the tensions authentic, understandable, and not over-dramatised. In fact, Dundler’s characterisation is a strong point. His people live and breathe from the moment they appear on the page.

Hey Brother, then, features the typical YA narrative – a young teen meets his first love and is desperate to spend more time with her. But this particular story is complicated by the teen’s relationship with his brother whom he hero-worships but who returns from war psychologically damaged, suffering from PTSD. The novel’s crisis is, in fact, triggered by Shaun’s mental distress, and complicated by the conflict confronting Tryst between his love for Jessica and for his brother.

The novel is told first person by Tryst, in the vernacular of a rural, teenage boy. It’s fresh, direct, immediate, full of the profanity and colloquialisms that are appropriate to the context – but, here’s the thing, it is also more descriptive than reflective. Tryst comes across as a loving, heart-of-gold young man, but he is about the moment. To some extent we can see the deeper issues at play here – the PTSD, the complexity in the adult characters’ lives and relationships – but these are not the novel’s focus. The focus is Trysten, his life and, ultimately, his growth. This, to me, makes the novel Young Adult – and makes it quite different from, say, Laguna’s The choke (my review) where, although the story is young Justine’s, the themes focus on the impoverished environment – economically, socially, spiritually – that makes her life the way it is.

Did, then, I enjoy the novel? Yes, in that its protagonist and setting are foreign to my experience and I like to read about lives different to mine, and because the writing was engaging, lively, and appropriate in language and imagery. Here, for example, Tryst describes Trev confessing to past troubles:

It was like he wanted the words to go straight down the plughole after he’d uttered them.

And Trev, late in the novel, gives Tryst some advice:

‘Decisions, mate. That’s what defines you in the end. Some advice for ya–before you make one, try and give it a little thought beforehand, would ya? ‘Cause, believe me, regret’s a f****n c**t of a thing to live with.’

I also liked that late in the novel, we learn, in passing, that Ricky, Tryst’s friend, is indigenous. The reference is somewhat didactically done, but Dundler clearly wanted to do what we need more of, that is, to include indigenous characters without their indigeneity being an issue in the story. How you do this is the challenge.

However, Young Adult Fiction is not really my interest. Young Adult concerns belong to a long-ago part of my life. I appreciated Dundler’s skills in plotting and characterisation, not to mention his heart and desire to give life and air to some big issues, but I did tire at times of Tryst’s concerns, perspective and voice. Not his fault, mine. I would unhestitatingly recommend this book to YA readers – and would willingly check out Dundler’s next work. A good debut.

For a beautiful post on this book, check out Theresa Smith’s (Theresa Smith Writes).

Jarrah Dundler
Hey brother
Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2018
ISBN: 9781760631123

(Review copy courtesy Allen & Unwin)

Note: The asterisked words in the quote are to defect the wrong sort of hits coming my way.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Some New Releases in 2019

January 7, 2019

I’ve been doing this “new releases” post for three or four years now. As the post title says, it’s about books that will be published this year, but I’ll be selective, focusing on those most interesting to me. This doesn’t mean that I expect to read them all, just that they interest me!! Last year I listed 14 works of fiction, and read four of them, with another likely to be read this month, so, you know, I do get to some!

My list, as in previous years, is mostly drawn from the Sydney Morning Herald, but, because this is a Monday musings on Australian literature post, it will be limited to Australian authors (listed alphabetically.) Do click on the link to see coming releases from non-Aussies, and from those Aussies I’ve omitted.

Links on the authors’ names are to my posts on them.

Nigel Featherstone, Bodies of menFiction

  • Tony Birch’s The white girl (UQP, July 2019)
  • Carmel Bird’s Field of poppies (Transit Lounge, November 2019)
  • Stephen Carroll’s The year of the beast (Fourth Estate, February 2019): the last of his Glenroy novels
  • Melanie Cheng’s Room for a stranger (Text, May 2019)
  • Simon Cleary’s The War Artist (UQP, March 2019)
  • Madelaine Dickie’s Red can origami (Fremantls Press, December 2019)
  • Nigel Featherstone’s Bodies of men (Hachette Australia, April 2019)
  • Peggy Frew’s Islands (Allen & Unwin, March 2019)
  • Andrea Goldsmith’s Invented lives (Scribe, April 2019)
  • Anna Goldsworthy’s Melting moments (Black Inc, July 2019)
  • Peter Goldsworthy’s Minotaur (Viking, July 2019). Haha, father and daughter being published in the same month.
  • Wayne Macauley’s Simpson returns: A novella (Text, April 2019)
  • Andrew McGahan’s The rich man’s house (Allen & Unwin, late 2019.)
  • Gerald Murnane’s A season on earth (Text, February 2019)
  • Elliot Perlman’s Maybe the horse will talk (Vintage, October 2019)
  • Kate Richards’ Fusion (Hamish Hamilton, February 2019)
  • Heather Rose’s new apparently unnamed novel (Allen & Unwin, second half of 2019)
  • Philip Salom’s The returns (Transit Lounge, August 2019)
  • Angela Savage’s Mother of Pearl (Transit Lounge, July 2019)
  • Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie result (Text, February 2019)
  • Dominic Smith’s The Electric Hotel (Allen & Unwin, June 2019)
  • Carrie Tiffany’s Exploded view (Text, March 2019)
  • Lucy Treloar’s Wolfe Island (Picador, September 2019)
  • Christos Tsiolkas’ Damascus (Allen & Unwin, second half of 2019)
  • Karen Viggers’ The orchardist’s daughter (Allen & Unwin, early 2019)
  • Tara June Winch’s The yield (Hamish Hamilton, July 2019)
  • Sue Woolfe’s new apparently unnamed novel (Scribner, November 2019)

There is an oddity. SMH and The Australian say that Anna Krien’s first novel, Act of grace, will be published by Black inc in October 2019. However, internet searches show it as having been published in May 2018, and Readings bookshop listed it last year as coming in September 2018? Was it scheduled for 2018 and it didn’t happen? Anyhoo…

The SMH also lists what it calls “new voices”. These include:

  • Sienna Brown’s Master of my fate (Vintage, May2019)
  • Melissa Ferguson’s The shining wall (Transit Lounge, April 2019)
  • Kathryn Hind’s Hitch (Vintage, June 2019): which won the Penguin Random House Prize
  • Alex Landragin’s Crossings (Picador, June 2019): which “can be read in two directions and covers hundreds of years and multiple lifetimes”
  • S.L Lim’s Real differences (Transit Lounge, June 2019)
  • Felicity McLean’s The Van Apfel girls are gone (Fourth Estate, April 2019)
  • Ruby Porter’s Attraction (Text, May 2019): which won Text’s Michael Gifkins Prize for an Unpublished Novel
  • Tim Slee’s Taking Tom Murray home (HarperCollins, August 2019): who won the Banjo Prize for Australian fiction with Burn. Is this the same book with a new title?

Short stories

Yes, I know these are fiction too, but they deserve a special section!

  • Debra Adelaide’s Zebra (Picador, February 2019)
  • Josephine Rowe’s Here until August, (Black Inc., September 2019)
  • Chris Womersley’s A lovely and terrible thing (PicadorMay 2019)


SMH provides a rather long list of new non-fiction books covering a huge range of topics, so, like last year, I’m going to be very selective, focusing on writers I know or topics that particularly interest me:

  • Julia Baird’s Phosphorescence: On awe, wonder and things that sustain you when the world goes dark (HarperCollins, September 2019): a meditation on maintaining joy (by the author of the recently acclaimed biography, Victoria)
  • Phil Barker’s The revolution of man (Allen & Unwin, February 2019): on Australian masculinity
  • Luke Carman’s Intimate antipathies (Giramondo, first half of 2019): on “the writing life”
  • Jane Caro’s Accidental feminists (MUP, February): On Caro’s generation’s gender politics
  • Sophie Cunningham’s City of trees: Essays on life, death and the need for a forest (Text, April 2019).
  • Ben Eltham’s The culture paradox: Why the arts are the best thing Australia has going for it but no one really cares (NewSouth, August 2019): “a much needed examination of Australian arts and culture” – and a VERY long title!
  • Hannah Gadsby’s Ten steps to Nanette (Allen & UnwinJune 2019).
  • Stan Grant’s Australia Day (HarperCollins, May 2019): follow-up to Talking to my country, apparently
  • Stan Grant’s On identity (MUP, May 2019)
  • Jacqueline Kent’s Beyond words: A year with Kenneth Cook (UQP, February 2019): autobiography
  • Fiona McGregor’s A Novel Idea (Giramondo: April): a photo essay
  • Emily Maguire‘s This is what a feminist looks like (NLA, October 2019): on the Australian feminist movement .
  • Jocelyn Moorhouse’s Unconditional love: A memoir of filmmaking and motherhood (Text, April 2019)
  • Mandy Ord’s When one person dies the whole world is over (Brow Books, February 2019): described as a diary comic
  • Jane Sullivan’s Storytime (Ventura, August 2019): on her favourite childhood books (which sounds just right for me as a new grandma)


  • Mary Hoban’s An unconventional wife (Scribe, April 2019): on “Julia Sorrell, a Tasmanian ‘colonial belle’ who refused to follow gender expectations”
  • Matthew Lamb’s Frank Moorhouse: A discontinuous life (Vintage, December, Vintage): a great title, given Moorhouse often describes himself as writing “discontinuous narratives”
  • Derek Reilly’s Gulpilil (Pan Macmillan, second half of 2019)
  • Margaret Simons’ biography of Penny Wong (Black Inc. October 2019): not sure of the title
  • Anne-Louise Willoughby’s Nora Heysen: A portrait (Fremantle Press, April 2019): on “the first Australian woman to become an official war artist and to win the Archibald Prize”.

There are some great sounding books here. Do any interest you?

Six degrees of separation, FROM The French Lieutenant’s woman TO …

January 5, 2019

Another year, but Six Degrees just keeps on keeping on – or, at least, I’ve decided to keep on keeping on with it for the moment. The Six Degrees of Separation meme is currently hosted by Kate (booksaremyfavouriteandbest). Click on the link on her blog-name to see her explanation of how it works.

John Fowles, French Lieutenant's womanHmmm … we are starting off the year well. Kate has chosen an old favourite for the first book of the year, John Fowles’ The French lieutenant’s woman, but I have not read it. Like most people, though, I have seen it, so that’s better than nothing. You may wonder why I have chosen a Czech cover for my illustration, but all will become clear in the next para …

Jane Austen, PersuasionIf you know The French lieutenant’s woman and you know me, my first link will be obvious. I’d like to have been more creative, but couldn’t resist being obvious on this occasion. My link in other words is to Jane Austen’s Persuasion (my review) which has a major scene occurring on the Cobb at Lyme Regis. The Cobb is seen clearly on the Czech cover for Fowles’ book, which is set in Lyme Regis.

Elliot Perlman, The street sweeperNow, Austen’s main character in Persuasion is the lovely Anne Elliot. She’s a thoughtful but strong, moral person, and I reckon that if she were alive now, she’d rather enjoy the writing of a thoughtful but strong, moral Australian writer whose first name is her last, Elliot Perlman, so it’s to his The street sweeper (my review) that I’m linking next. Fundamentally, it’s about what makes a good person, something that matters to Anne Elliot too.

Rodney Hall, A stolen seasonAnyhow, Elliot Perlman has a new novel coming out in 2019, which is exciting because he’s not what you call prolific, but he always confronts challenging, timely issues. Another established and respected male author who excited me by having a new work come out last year was Rodney Hall. I reviewed that book, A stolen season, very recently.

Heather Rose, The museum of modern loveA stolen season comprises three loosely connected stories, one of which concerns a man who builds an art gallery to exhibit some very special but confronting art. His values are then affected by that art. Heather Rose’s novel The Museum of Modern Love (my review) is about a rather confronting – or at least unusual – performance art piece by Marina Abramović. The art affects Rose’s characters too – in various ways. (Oh, and in a funny synchronicity, Rose has a new novel coming out this year.)

Raphael Jerusalmy, EvacuationStaying on the art theme, Raphaël Jersualmy’s Evacuation (my review) has three artists at its centre: a filmmaker, a writer, and a visual artist. While not specifically about art, the novel pits these artists, their art and the choices they make against the war around them.

Viet Thanh Nguyen, The sympathizerNot surprisingly, given its title, Evacuation commences with an evacuation, one which the three main characters eschew. Another novel which commences with an evacuation – one which most of the main characters are, by contrast very keen to be part of, so keen in fact there’s some skullduggery involved – is Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The sympathizer (my review).

So, this month we started in England (albeit with a French connection lurking in the background) and ended in Vietnam (which has its own French connection!) We spent quite a bit of time in America (as Perlman’s and Rose’s books are set there, and the central section of Nguyen’s book is based there too.) However, we also visited Australia, Israel and, briefly, Belize. Very cosmopolitan we’ve been! Four of my six books were by men, like last month.

Now, over to you: Have you read The French lieutenant’s woman? And, regardless, what would you link to? 

Blogging highlights for 2018

January 2, 2019

Here is the last of my year-end trifecta (the others being my Australian Women Writers’ Challenge wrap-up and Reading highlights posts). This is my self-indulgent post, as I like to document trends on my blog for my own record – so do ignore it if you like.

Top posts for 2018

Barbara Baynton 1892

Baynton 1892 (Presumed Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

I’m intrigued by how little change there is in my top posts. Some have been there for a few years. Almost all are for posts that are over 5 years old.

Here’s my Top Ten, by number of hits in 2018:

Now the usual analysis. Firstly, only two Australian posts appear in the Top Ten, two fewer than last year, as both Hannah Kent’s Burial rites and Barbara Baynton’s The chosen vessel dropped out. Meanwhile, Red Dog just keeps on keeping on. Unbelievable.

Merlinda Bobis Fish-hair woman

Intriguing that Mark Twain’s “A presidential candidate” suddenly popped into the Top Ten. Anything to do with … you know who, I wonder? And, Alice Munro and Jack London also made their way into the list. So, as last year, short stories and essays (seven of them) dominate my top ten. This must surely be because they are set texts?

Several Australian works appear in the next ten, and they are an eclectic lot: Barbara Baynton’s “The chosen vessel”, Merlinda Bobis’ Fish-hair woman, Bruce Pascoe’s Dark emu, Shaun Tan’s Eric, and Jeanine Leane’s Purple threads.

Mirandi Riwoe, The fish girlUnlike last year, my most popular 2018-written post – ranking 23rd – was not for an Australian work, but W Somerset Maugham’s short story “The four Dutchmen”. However, I read it as preparation for my review of an Australian work, Mirandi Riwoe’s The fish girl – and, guess what was the next most popular 2018 post (52nd)? You guessed it, The fish girl. It was closely followed by Claire G. Coleman’s Terra nullius (55th).

For the Monday Musings fans amongst you, my most popular Monday Musings posts were: Novels set in Sydney (posted November 2015); Australian Gothic (19th century) (posted December 2012); and Some new releases in 2018 (posted January 2018). The first two were 1st and 3rd last year.

Random blogging stats

I always share some of the searches that find my blog, so here’s a selection of this year’s:

  • last year several searches included the words analysis or reading guide, but this year the word “summary” was very popular. What does this shift say?
  • searches such as proper way to order food and “I’ll do” order restaurant linguist!: you know what post they retrieve. Apparently a lot of people say “I’ll do” when ordering food!
  • what does the book “the hate race reveal about Australian society”: hmm, sounds like it comes straight from a school assignment question, don’t you think?
  • how to reach and take problems: I have no idea what this was looking for, or, indeed, what it found.
  • salmon gums bakery: I do hope they found the bakery, wherever it is.
  • tara moss tits: oh dear, oh dear…

Other stats. I wrote slightly more posts this year, averaging 14 posts per month, one more than last year’s 13. I think 13-15 posts a month is about right for me.

Australia, the USA, and Britain, in that order, were the top three countries visiting my blog, with Canada regaining its fourth position from India which had edged out Canada last year. The Philippines remains 6th, largely, I think, because of interest in my review of Merlinda Bobis’ Fish-hair woman.

My most active commenters (based on the last 1000 comments, says WordPress) were Lisa (ANZLitLovers), Bill (The Australian Legend), Brian (Babbling Books), Pam (Travellin’ Penguin), Ian Darling, and Buried in Print. As always, a big thanks to them and to all of you who comment. I particularly appreciate the always respectful conversations when we disagree. And thanks the the rest of you too. Whether or not you comment, I love that you visit my blog.

Challenges, memes and other things

I only do one challenge, the AWW Challenge which I wrapped up this week. (Here’s the Sign Up page if you’d like to join us). And I only do one regular Meme, #sixdegreesofseparation run by Kate (booksaremyfavouriteandbest), but I occasionally do others. You can see all the memes I do on my “memes” category link.

I also took part in Bill’s (The Australian Legend) AWW Gen 1 Week, and Lisa’s (ANZLitLovers) Indigenous Literature Week and Elizabeth Jolley Week.

My biggest highlight of the year, though, was being asked once again to be the blogging mentor for a program sponsored by the ACT Writers Centre, the National Library of Australia and the Street Theatre. The program was re-titled to New Territory but its aim remains: “to stoke cultural conversations in the ACT”. I enjoyed working with Amy over the second half of the year. If you’re a regular reader here you will have seen our wrap-up posts (Amy’s and mine). Do check out Amy’s blog, The Armchair Critic. Her thoughtfulness about what she reads and sees makes for excellent reading and she’d love to hear your opinions.

And so to 2019 …

To conclude, a big thanks to everyone who read, commented on and/or “liked” my blog last year – and to all the other wonderful bloggers out there, even though I don’t always manage to visit everyone as much as I’d like. Some people find the Internet and Social Media cruel and unwelcoming, but I don’t find that in our litblogging corner of cyberspace where discussions are lively but respectful (in my experience anyhow.)

And so, I wish you all happy reading in 2019, and look forward to discussing books with you here or there!

Finally, as I concluded last year, a very big thanks to the authors who write the books, and to the publishers and booksellers who get the books out there. I hope 2019 will be satisfying for us all.

Reading highlights for 2018

January 1, 2019

If you are a regular here you’ll know that my Reading Highlights post, which is my answer to those Top Reads posts that many bloggers do, will not contain an ordered list of the books I considered my “best” of the year. I find that just too hard to do (though I did make a stab at it on Amy’s blog last month.) I prefer to talk about “highlights”, that is, those books and events that made my reading year worthwhile.

Literary highlights

Literary highlights mean literary events, and there were many wonderful ones in Canberra this year. I didn’t get to near as many as I’d wish, but I enjoyed those I did attend:

  • Festival Muse: Muse is a cafe, bookshop and event venue, and a popular haunt for Canberra book people. For the second year running they held, in March, their Muse Festival. It’s a busy time of year and a long weekend, so I only attended the opening session, Turn Me On. The aim was for the five speakers to share “the lightbulb moments and hidden drivers” behind what turned them on (of course). The speakers included old hands, like journalist Michael Brissenden, and the up-and-coming, like feminist writer Zoya Patel. A wonderful event.
  • Sydney Writers Festival live streams some of its sessions to regional locations, and Canberra was one of those in 2018. I attended three sessions: Conflicting narratives, Annabel Crabb’s BooKwiz, and Emily Wilson on Translating the Odyssey. How wonderful modern technology is when it facilitates events like this.
  • Canberra Writers Festival about which I wrote six posts. You can find them by clicking this link and then selecting those posts for the 2018 festival.
  • Author interviews/conversations of which I only attended a few of the many offered, but those I attended were nicely varied: Robyn Cadwallader, Nadia Wheatley, and Elizabeth Kleinhenz.
  • Annual lectures: the NLA’s Seymour Biography Lecture, given by broadcaster Richard Fidler; and Manning Clark House’s Dymphna Clark Lecture given by historian Clare Wright. As last year, we had supper at Muse after both lectures.

Reading highlights

And here, as in previous years, is where I share some observations about my reading this year. These aren’t necessarily my “top” reads, but all were good ones:

  • Strange synchronicities (1): Setting: The universe, as I mentioned in one of the posts, is clearly telling me to make good on my plan to visit the Mallee region because every second book I read this year – well, I’m exaggerating a little – seemed to be set in the Mallee or near it: Jenny Ackland’s Little gods, Charlie Archbold’s Mallee boys, Sofie Laguna’s The choke, Emily O’Grady’s The yellow house, and Sue Williams’ Live and let fry. I’m not sure that these books presented the Mallee in its best light – there were a lot of struggling families – but this flat, hot and dry, somewhat remote, self-contained region made an excellent backdrop for drama.
  • Strange synchronicities (2): Narrator: I read a lot of child narrators/protagonists, most of them from the Mallee! How did that happen? Sue Williams’ Live and let fry is the exception, but to the remaining four Mallee-area novels, I add three others featuring young protagonists: Nick Earls’ LA-set novella, NoHo, Wendy Scarfe’s Adelaide-based novel The day they shot Edward and a book I’ve just finished but won’t post until 2019, Jarrah Dundler’s northern NSW set Hey brother. All but two of these were adult fiction. Writing child narrators for adults, without becoming sentimental or being simplistic, is a challenge, but when done well – like, for example, Sofie Laguna’s The choke – these voices add a depth that can open our eyes to the impact of adult actions and/or enable us to see adult behaviour from a different perspective.
  • Exotic places I may never get to, like Beirut in Rabih Alameddine’s An unnecessary woman, and Tel Aviv in Raphaël Jerusalmy’s Evacuation. These two books were revelations, in very different ways, and I’d highly recommend both.
  • Great covers: Covers aren’t ultimately important to me, but I do love gorgeous ones. Two particularly caught my attention this year: Robyn Cadwallader’s Book of colours which conveys a sense of mediaeval lusciousness appropriate to its subject matter while also being modern, clean, fresh; and HC Gildfind’s The worry front which is inspired by the front lines on a weather map. So evocative, so metaphorical.
  • Interesting finds: I read three early twentieth century short stories, two from Trove, “The bridge” (1917) and “Christmas tree” (1919) by Katharine Susannah Prichard, and one sent to my by Pam (Travellin’ Penguin), “The hand” (1924) by ML (Mollie) Skinner. I love reading these writers from the past.
  • Biggest surprise (1): I didn’t plan to read Sarah Krasnostein’s The trauma cleaner because I expected it to be one of those sensationalist stories, but how wrong I was. It’s an intelligently written respectful book about a warm and complex person well worthy of a biographer’s time.
  • Biggest surprise (2): I couldn’t believe that such a dense, contemplative book as WG Sebald’s Austerlitz could be a page-turner, but it was.
  • The odd man: I don’t mean by this that the men themselves were odd but that there weren’t many of them in my reading diet this year. However, I loved reading Rodney Hall again, with his provocative A stolen seasonRichard Flanagan’s First person was an engaging and intriguing read too, and John Clanchy’s novel about women, Sisters, was right up my alley. Then there was the daddy of them all – well, I mean, one of the great writers from the past – EM Forster. Loved re-reading Howard’s end.
  • The ones that got away, or, the books I really wanted to read, but didn’t. There are too many of them, but two that really bother me are Jane Rawson’s From the wreck, and Gerald Murnane’s Border districts.

Michelle Scott Tucker, Elizabeth MacarthurThere were many more great books. Michelle Scott Tucker’s biography of Elizabeth Macarthur was excellent, both informative and engaging, as was Clare Wright’s You daughters of freedom. I read several Australian classics, and was impressed again by works by some of our older, fearless women writers – Carmel Bird, Helen Garner, and the late Elizabeth Jolley.

Some stats …

And here is where there are some surprises (for me, anyhow):

  • 80% of my reading was fiction, short stories and novels (versus 53% in 2017): I said last year that I wanted to rebalance the fiction-nonfiction ratio towards more fiction. I sure did it – and then some!
  • 70% of the authors were women (versus 73% in 2017,  65% in 2016, and 67% in 2015): I like to read women writers and reading them is one of my specific reading interests, but 70% is a little higher than it need be. I’m not unhappy though!
  • 18% were NOT by Australian writers (versus 35% last year and 32% in 2016): Last year, I said that roughly one-third non-Australian, two-thirds Australian felt like a fair ratio. Less than 20%, however, does not feel “balanced” and I’d like to redress it next year.
  • 28% were published before 2000 (similar to last year’s 31%): I’m happy with this.
  • 35% were published in 2018, which seems reasonable.

Last year, I noted that I don’t set reading goals – except a general one of trying, vainly, to reduce the TBR pile – but I did say that I’d like to lift my fiction ratio. I did achieve that. I also increased my TBR reading by 100% – meaning I read 6 books from the TBR pile (defined as books I’ve owned for over a year) compared with 3 in 2017. Woo hoo!

Overall, another good reading year containing some excellent reads. I’m grateful for all of you who read my posts, engage in discussion, recommend more books and, generally, be all-round great people to talk with. Thank you for being here.

I wish you all a wonderful 2019.

What were your reading or literary highlights for the year?

Monday musings on Australian literature: Australian Women Writers Challenge 2018

December 31, 2018

AWW Badge 2018As has become tradition, I’m devoting my last Monday Musings of the year to the Australian Women Writers Challenge* – but, this year it coincides with New Year’s Eve. When this post goes live, who knows what revelry I’ll be up to! Hmm … I can but hope! Seriously, though, I wish all you wonderful Whispering Gums followers an excellent 2019 in whatever form you would like that to take. I also want to thank you for supporting my blog with your visits and comments. You make this blog such an enjoyable experience for me.

Now, the challenge … it has continued to go very well. In my area of Literary and Classics, we consolidated 2017’s impressive increase in the number of reviews posted, with roughly the same number posted again this year. Theresa Smith (of Theresa Smith writes), continued to oversee the day-to-day management of the blog, enabling Challenge founder Elizabeth Lhuede to be less hands-on. Elizabeth is, however, still an active presence, particularly when it comes to resolving technical issues, reviewing our policies (such as “do we need to update our definition of historical fiction”?), and so on. The database now contains reviews for nearly 5,200 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 by 800 books – a 17% increase. Most of these were new releases but older books were also added, making the database particularly rich for readers interested in the long tail!

Most years, I’ve shared some highlights from the Challenge, but this year was more one of consolidation than of many new happenings, so, in the interests of keeping this post short and to the point, I’ll move straight on to reporting on the reviews I contributed for the year.

My personal round-up for the year

Let’s start with the facts, followed by some commentary. I posted 34 reviews for the challenge, four more than I did in 2016 and 2017, but one, admittedly, was a guest post. Here they are, with links to my reviews:

Jenny Ackland, Little godsFICTION


Carmel Bird, Dead aviatrixSHORT STORIES


Amanda Duthie, Margaret and DavidNON-FICTION

This year I reversed the trend of previous years which saw me reading fewer and fewer novels for the Challenge – 48% in 2015, 40% in 2016, and only 34% in 2017 – compared with other forms of writing. This year, however, novels comprised over 55% of my AWW challenge reading, which proportion more closely reflects my reading preferences.

I read no poetry or verse novels this year, but I did read two plays by Garner. I also read fewer short story collections or anthologies, but I did read more Classics, including individual short stories. I’d love to read more of those. My non-fiction reading was more diverse – that is, significantly fewer memoirs than last year.

Claire G Coleman, Terra nulliusI’m disappointed that I only read two books this year by Indigenous Australian women – Claire G. Coleman’s novel and Marie Munkara’s memoir. I’d like to improve this next year – and have two right now on the “definitely-will-be-read pile”, so that’s a start.

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

Finally, a big thanks again to Theresa, Elizabeth and the rest of the team. I love being part of this challenge, partly because I believe in its goals but also because the people involved are so willing and cooperative. They are a pleasure to work with. See you in 2019.

And so, on to 2019

AWW Challenge 2019 BadgeThe 2019 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.

* 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, being responsible for the Literary and Classics areas.

Maria Tumarkin, Axiomatic (Guest post by Amanda) (#BookReview)

December 29, 2018

I am thrilled to host this post by Amanda who responded to my call on the Australian Women Writers Challenge for a review of Maria Tumarkin’s Axiomatic, which won the Best Writing Award in this year’s Melbourne Prize for Literature awards. However, Amanda does not have a place to post reviews on-line, so we agreed that I would post it here so it can then be added to the AWW database. Thanks very much Amanda!

Amanda notes that Tumarkin has her own web page, and that Axiomatic has also been shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards to be announced at the end of Jan 2019.

Amanda’s review

Maria Tumarkin, AxiomaticHaving lived outside Australia for several decades I had not heard of Tumarkin.  A professor in Creative Writing at Melbourne University, she is the author of several non-fiction titles, Axiomatic being her 4th and her first with Brow Books publishing – an independent, not-for-profit publisher dedicated to innovative writing at about marginalised topics.

At the time of this review, Axiomatic had won the Melbourne Prize for Literature’s 2018 Best Writing Award. And Axiomatic is great writing but it is also flawed.

More like a compilation of long essays, the title is derived from 5 axioms which are the themes driving each section of the book. The writer then goes on through the essays to dispel the axiom through a collection of real life case studies and experiences.

She opens with her strongest and most heart-wrenching piece “Time Heals All Wounds” about teenage suicide in Australia. Tumarkin’s writing is a powerful composite of investigative journalism, analytical thinking and literary technique. Brutal and unflinching – delivering a  punch to the gut – Tumarkin is able to conjure in the mind’s eye all the complexities and nuances of grief, love and survival  through snippets of conversation and quotidian details. She includes numerous references to contemporary writers, classical literature, Greek mythology and philosophers, deftly combining both fiction and non-fiction.

In terms of critiques – and there are a few – the writing never lets up. There is no pause, no distraction, no break in the narrative for the reader apart from what is self-imposed. Sentences have been meticulously crafted and her writing sings, but it’s hard to appreciate it all because Axiomatic is so unrelenting.

Tumarkin’s arguments are also often convoluted. She veers off on tangents at the slightest provocation and then expands these into auxiliary sections. Her analysis is at its best in the first three sections when dealing with complex social issues, and is less effective and more self-indulgent when focusing on her personal friendships and relationships. (The last section – “You Can’t Enter the Same River” – seems out of place). The book is uneven in quality.

Axiomatic is not balanced nor fair in its judgments. Some would question Tumarkin’s right to take a position on any of these subject but, as she states herself, this has never stopped her in the past, and it certainly doesn’t now. She likes “to kick the floorboards out from under her readers”, so are the shock techniques of her writing her key selling points? If so, she is selling short the stories of these survivors.

Reasoning aside, what Axiomatic lacks from a visceral perspective is hope. Fictitious happy endings are overrated, but hope is not. Tumarkin puts forth unattainable Utopian standards both for society and its participants in order to fix its ills, and therefore Axiomatic is ultimately nihilistic.

As a reader, the one question I have is – what does Tumarkin wish to achieve with this book? She paints in grim detail an Australian society bereft with failings. The unsung heroes rallying against the system and circumstances are alone. But these problems of teenage suicide, poverty, abuse ,corruption and inadequate systems are perennial and  can be made about many countries.

There are no easy solutions to these problems. Tumarkin does not have the answers. Most readers will be both devastated and frustrated with the pieces – is it meant to serve as a rally cry for the rest of us to do more to rectify these issues? You can’t read Axiomatic and not be moved – but then what do you do with this awareness?

If you’ve read Axiomatic, Amanda and I would love to know what you think about it, and Tumarkin’s intentions?

AWW Badge 2018Maria Tumarkin
Brow Books, 2018
ISBN: 9781925704051