Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012- Completed!

At the start of the year, I heard through the fountain of all knowledge (Twitter) of the Australian Women Writers Challenge. My original post had me aspiring to be a Franklin Fantastic which was to read at least 10 and to review at least 4, dabbling in a variety of genres.

The books I read  and reviewed were

  1. The Freudian Slip– Fiction
  2. The art of being Melbourne– Non-fiction (Art History)
  3. Paris- a guide to the city’s creative heart– Non-fiction (travel)
  4. No sex in the city– Fiction
  5. Melbourne– Non-fiction (History/memoir)
  6. The harp in the south– Fiction
  7. Unnatural habits– Fiction Crime

Along the way I also discovered Kate Morton (The forgotten garden, The House at Riverton ) Caroline Overington (Ghost Child) and Kate Forsyth (Bitter Greens).

With the exception of The Harp in the South and Paris- a guide to the city’s creative heart, all my books were sourced from my local public library, or the library in which I work. The method in which I chose the titles was largely serendipitous- if it came across my path and if the book met the criteria of having been written by an Australian woman writer, then I usually read it with the purpose of reviewing. I am so glad that the collection management policies of my library and my local library were able to help me :).

What have I learned from this challenge?

During the year, I also read more newspaper reviews of titles, taking note of the gender of the author, the author’s nationality, as well as the gender of the reviewer (would a female reviewer be more likely to review books by women writers, or use more favorable language? These are questions which need further exploration). It really heightened my awareness of the number of female authors who are reviewed, and how they are reviewed.

I rediscovered that women’s writing is eclectic, exciting, and wonderful to read, given the chance to be exposed. If this challenge has enabled people to discover new authors, new voices and new perspectives then that’s a wonderful achievement.

Finally I also realised that you cannot be complacent about gender equality. Even if equality may have been achieved legally, indirect and unconscious discrimination  still exists, and you have to be vigilant in fighting the good fight.


Review- Unnatural Habits

Unnatural Habits is the 19th in the Phryne Fisher series by Melbourne writer Kerry Greenwood. Set in Melbourne in 1929, it is a riveting tale of missing journalists, unfortunate girls, sadistic sisters (of the religious kind) and white slave traders.

The Hon. Phryne Fisher is on the trail of Polly Kettle, a journalist with no sense of self-preservation who has gone missing after investigating a spate of missing girls. Following in her footsteps, Phryne and her companion Dot delve into Melbourne’s demi-monde, the Abbotsford convent and end up on a boat bound for the East.

It is the type of book that has me sitting up until midnight to finish it, Mr BG already tucked up in bed :).

One of the things I love about Kerry Greenwood, is her devotion to historical research. She provides a bibliography at the end of the book, with brief notes. The historical accuracy brings a sense of realism to the books, particularly when describing the conditions of laundries operated by religious orders as a means of employing young women whose only crime was that they were single and pregnant.

Above all it is a rollicking read and another page turner from one of the doyennes of Australian crime fiction.

Review- The Harp in the South

the harp in the south

It is a different experience reading a work of literature or fiction for study, or school and reading it for pleasure or recreation. The impetus of the first is to elicit as much meaning and analysis as possible out of the text, and your copy can become well worn and heavily underlined with notes in the margins. The second can be much more of a luxuriating experience, where words can be savoured, and the important criteria is more subjective- did I like it or not?

I had grown up with Ruth Park, reading The Muddle-headed Wombat, Callie’s Castle and Playing Beattie Bow (which remains my favourite of all her books). I studied The Harp in the South for Year 10 English in 1986 and enjoyed it, gave my copy to my sister, and returned by my other books.

It was only after reading Razor by Larry Writer, that my thoughts returned to 12 1/2 Plymouth Street, Surry Hills , the Darcy family and Delie Stock, the brothel madam and sly grog shop owner, who was based upon Kate Leigh and Tilly Devine.

The Harp in the South has never been out of print- a rare achievement for an Australian (well Kiwi, but she had lived most of her life in Australia) woman writer. The passing of Ruth Park has had me revisiting some of my favourite books of hers.

Reading it again, I was struck by its realism and candour. Its description  of the poverty that existed in the slums in inner-city Sydney at the time would have been quite controversial. The story is centred on members of the Darcy family, an Irish-Catholic family living in a terraced house in Surry Hills. Through their eyes, you get to experience the sly grog shops, the backyard abortionists, prostitutes and grime that was the backdrop of everyday life.

Yet it is more than an expose of the squalor that characterised inner-city Sydney. It is also a series of stories about family love, romance and humour that can make you smile- Roie’s first romance, Dolour’s trip to the beach, courtesy of Delie Stock, and Mumma’s search for her boy Thady. It’s a story that has endured because the themes present are familiar to people of today.

Review: Melbourne

How can a place shape a person? Inner-city Melbourne is closely intertwined with the personal history of author Sophie Cunningham who explores her Melbourne in the book of the same name.

Part memoir, part social history, the book covers the course of the year 2009, a year marked at the beginning by Black Saturday bushfires, and towards the end by Geelong winning the AFL Grand Final (huzzah!).

Roads, transport, natural history and planning are highlighted along the way, as is the legacy of Melbourne’s original inhabitants.

An interesting chapter was the exploration of Melbourne underground, starting in Hawthorn. What was funny was to read of Sophie’s somewhat panicked reaction to being back in the suburb in which she had grown up, and her sharing her fear with her companion, Jeff Sparrow, also an inner-city individual who originally hailed from another middle-class suburb.

The book is part of a series in which authors were invited to write about the Australian state capitals,

It is not my history of Melbourne, not having grown up in Melbourne, but rather commuted in, or lived in the suburbs. The inner city and CBD, though has been part of my student and working life, and there are many aspects of the book which strike a key with me.

I recently had dinner with some friends in Carlton and had to dash for the train back to Ballarat. I headed up Elgin to Swanston Street, where I could grab a tram at the terminus outside Melbourne Uni. The facades of the buildings may have significantly altered since I was there nearly 20 years ago, but in that the tram ride, surrounded by students, I felt I was home again. Melbourne is a place that will always be part of you.

Review- No Sex in the City

No sex in the city book cover

Four girls looking for love in Sydney, go on a few disastrous dates, meet Mr Wrong, and eventually find happiness with their careers and with Mr Right. It sounds like the template for any conventional chick-lit title, but this one is slightly different.

Esma, the main character in this novel by Randa Abdel-Fattah, is 28, lives at home with her parents, works in Human Resources, volunteers at a refugee centre and is Muslim. She wants to be swept off her feet, but insists her future husband must be a fellow Muslim. Together with her friends Nirvana (a Hindu midwife), Ruby (Greek Orthodox lawyer) and Lisa(Jewish social worker), she forms a No Sex in the City club.

By taking sex off the menu (unless you’re married), you are left to concentrate on the story, the interpersonal relationships between the girls, Esma’s family and extended community network who are constantly setting her up, and her trials at work with a boss who has no personal boundaries. And it is a good story!

This is Randa Abdel-Fattah’s first adult novel, after a series of novels aimed at young adults. While she has insisted in the afterword it is not autobiographical, she has drawn upon the personal stories of close friends, which gives the story a strong sense of reality.

Coming from a strict Irish Catholic family, I can relate to the emphasis on no sex until you’re married. Unlike Esma, I didn’t last the distance, so to speak… Esma is able to articulate her belief incredibly well when out for post-work drinks with work colleagues. This was probably the only time the book sounds a little preachy, but given the context, it was appropriate.

Randa Abdel-Fattah is a great story-teller and a wonderful voice for contemporary Australian women.

Review- Paris: A Guide to the City’s Creative Heart

I was using any excuse to read books on Paris, guidebooks especially. Combining this with the Australian Women Writer’s Challenge is a win-win situation.

Paris: A guide to the city’s creative heart is a beautiful book to read and  to look at, with photographs and descriptive language that take you on a journey of words along the laneways and boulevards of one the world’s most beautiful cities.

The author and photographer is Janelle McCulloch, who has written several books on architecture, travel and cooking, gardening and interior design. She has used her expertise gleaned from numerous trips to deliver an insider’s guide to one of the most beautiful and stylish cities of the world.

While it is recommended to take with you as a guide, I’d be reluctant to, as it is such a beautiful book and I am afraid it would get knocked about in my luggage. It is a coffee-table style book that is perfect to dip into to while away an hour or so curled up on the couch on a rainy afternoon.

The book is divided into two parts- the first part being a stroll through the arrondissements of Paris- a flaneur’s guide, with the second part a handbook to shops, galleries and museums, bookstores, fashion, fabric and accessories that you will find.

The descriptions of the arrondissements flow- Janelle writes beautifully and evocatively. The photos accompanying the chapters are exquisite, but I would much rather captions with the photos rather than captions at the back of the book.

The maps of arrondissements are hand drawn giving it a bespoke feel. Truly the book befits its subject matter :).

It is a lovely gift for Francophiles, and for those who want to keep their memories of Paris alive!

Review: The Art of Being Melbourne

Maree Coote is a writer, photographer, designer and illustrator, who has used her visual style to create books that can be read and cherished.

Maree Coote’s first book The Melbourne Book: A History of Now (2003) is a celebration of Melbourne’s history, and its icons with some wonderful photography by the author herself.

Her latest book,  The Art of Being Melbourne is a celebration of Melbourne through the eyes of its artists. You can see the city evolving from a village planned along the Yarra with a strict grid structure (thanks to Hoddle) to a bustling metropolis. The minutiae of Melbourne life is also depicted- its trams, streetscapes, bridges and buildings. While there is the occasional figure depicted, the focus of the book is undoubtedly Melbourne.

There are so many notable inclusions in this book, including Frederick McCubbin, Albert Tucker, John Brack, Kenneth Jack and Jeffrey Smart. The art is arranged in a chronological order, which also allows the reader/viewer to see the evolution of artistic styles and influences.

I would have to admit the streetscapes were what interested me the most. I discovered new artists (to me) such as Dora Wilson, Louis Kahn and Mike Barr, whose portraits of Melbourne in the rain are very familiar!

When I saw it at my library, I pounced on it, looking forward to taking it home to savour. It is more than an art book and more than a history of Melbourne. It offers multiple perspectives on a city at a particular point in time by a myriad of talented people. If you love art and Melbourne, this is the book for you.

Review-The Freudian Slip

It is Sydney 1963, and Desi, Bea and Stella are three women working in a Sydney advertising agency. Desi is a North Shore beauty in the television department producing ads, Bea is a copywriter, divorced, but looking  to move on and Stella, a secretary turned copywriter, is ambitious, yet not as talented as her two cohorts.

In The Freudian Slip, Marion von Alderstein draws upon her own experience in advertising in the 1960s to give a realistic portrayal of life and love in 1960s Sydney. In many ways, the story is a familiar and timeless one- girls looking for love and striving for success with mixed results.

The book, for its setting in the advertising world in the 1960s will no doubt attract attention and comparison from Mad Men fans. It does have a unique Australian flavour, with its Sydney setting, its focus on the female characters (rather than the existential angst of Don Draper) and the ladies’ fashion.

There was one jarring note- as someone from Victoria, the mention of AFL footballers in the storyline was a bit of a misnomer as the AFL didn’t have that name until 1990 (it was the VFL in the 1960s).

An enjoyable and well-written book, and my first review for the Australian Women Writers Challenge!