Category Archives: Australian Women Writers 2012 Challenge

‘Black Glass’ by Meg Mundell

2011, 281p

This book is set in Melbourne, but it’s a dissonant Melbourne- recognizable, yet there’s something wrong.  Locations were familiar to me, and yet I think that inhabitants of any affluent city could recognize their own here: every city seems to have a Docklands with high-rise buildings, a ‘Westgate’ bridge or some variation on a similarly anodyne name, malls, a waterfront, a Casino, tourist Ferris wheels [although, unlike Melbourne, most cities seem to have one that actually works.]

In this future Melbourne, the tourist, civic, retail and commercial centres have been made safer by close electronic surveillance and the requirement for official entry documentation. The inner suburbs have been declared an  ‘interzone’, providing residential housing for those permitted to work in the city centre.  Those without the required documents, or the ‘undocs’ are prohibited from working legally and are thus forced into a marginal existence, scrounging for food, working illegally and squatting in disused buildings and under viaducts, bridges and in tunnels.  The proper place for ‘undocs’ is outside the city, in the Regions, where services are non-existent and civic governance seems to have collapsed.

Tally and Grace are teenaged sisters living in the regions, dragged from town to town throughout the Regions by their drug-dealing father.  They had long been planning an escape to the city, even though they would be ‘undocs’, but when their father is killed in a drug-kitchen explosion, they are separated and unsure how to find each other again.  The book traces their two paths as they search, each struggling to find a toe-hold in this dystopian society.

The structure of the book is interesting.  It is divided into 12 chapters, each announced with a rather excessive unnecessary title page, such as you might see when a book has Part I, Part II etc.  Within the chapters, each scene is headed by an annotation of place and people present, as if part of a dossier. Multiple scenes make up each chapter, and this device  quickly contextualized the episode that followed, but also endowed a filmic quality on the narrative.  The scenes were quite distinct from each other, and the writing was so fresh and careful in each one that you almost felt as if they were written, and should be read, each time as a polished episode in its own right.  I don’t normally like such disjointed writing as it sometimes seems a bit of a cop-out from the hard work of maintaining the narrative and moving it forward.  But in this case, each one was so beautifully written and worked well in inching the story forward that it felt like a considered and well-chosen narrative structure.

Tally and Grace and their search for each other lie at the heart of this novel, but there are other themes woven in as well: exploitation, surveillance, dissent and authoritarianism.  Unlike some science fiction (or is it ‘speculative fiction’ these days?) she does not spend a great deal of time on the logistics and details of this chilling world but instead uses it as a backdrop to the story of these two lost sisters.

My rating: 8.5/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

Read because: it is the second book that I am reading for the Australian Women’s Writers Challenge 2012

‘The Voyagers: a love story’ by Mardi McConnochie

2011, 268 p.  Extract here .

I was drawn to read this book, the first as part of my Australian Women Writers Reading Challenge 2012, through encountering the author previously in her earlier book Coldwater, and by the promise of a book that traversed different settings during World War II-  Sydney, London, Shanghai and Singapore. It was ironic then, that the treatment of the breadth of its canvas was what I found to be its weakest feature, even though it was what attracted me in the first place.

In the opening pages Stead, an American sailor, returns to Sydney in 1943 hoping to spend his leave with Marina, a musician  he had taken up with for three days before the war.  When he retraces his steps to her home, he finds that she has been missing for almost five years.  The book then zig-zags back and forth in time, jumping forward and back, tracing between Marina, then Stead as they traverse their own journeys in a ruptured world, oblivious to each other’s experiences, and gradually honing in on their search for each other.

The complexity of this plot was handled well, and I found myself drawn through the book, wanting to know what would happen next and whether they would, eventually, find each other.  The strong emphasis on plot means that I am reluctant to say much more, lest I spoil your enjoyment of the book.

Yet in making these large leaps from location to location, and event to event, the book at time lapsed into an almost documentary flatness.  It was almost as if each new section was introduced by a film-reel summary (think Movietone News) that skated across events, evoking familiarity with images of historical events without actually tying them into the consciousness of her characters.  Big things happened,  in particular in the final part of the book, and yet they were compressed into a rather disengaged, almost saga-like retelling, tumbling quickly one after the other into an “and then…and then….” string of events.  Things happened to Marina especially, but it seemed that it was in the smaller, more intimate events that she seemed more present as a character.

It’s interesting that the author has marked out so clearly in the title that this is “a love story”. In an interview about the book with Angela Meyer on the Literary Minded website, the author explains that the book sprang from a discussion with her book group ladies about the paucity of contemporary literary love stories.  When I saw this, it explained some of the unease that I felt about it- that it seemed almost written-to-order for a female-dominated bookgroup, raising as it does issues of motherhood, careers, loosening boundaries and the artistic life. It was as if it was writing to a genre or niche.

Like the author, I am resistant to the big all-lived-happily-ever-after ending.  In this regard, I think that the heightened  pace and the emotional distancing in the last third of the book worked against the ending.  I did not cry for the Marina we have at the end of the book, but I may have for the Marina we found half-way through.

On the other hand, I think that the title and the cover of the book work well as a marketing strategy in that they mark it out as a love story, if that’s the sort of book you’re looking for.  But I think of other love stories that I have enjoyed- the same love stories that McConnochie herself identifies in her interview (Cold Mountain, The Shipping News, Possession, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin) and with all of them the love story crept up on me unawares, and I think that I appreciated them all the more for that unexpected delight.

My rating: 7.5/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

Read because: I wanted to read an Australian woman author as part of the Australian Women’s Writing Reading Challenge

Funny way to choose a book…

In an earlier post, I mentioned that I had signed up for the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2012.  This involves reading and blogging ten books written by Australian women writers over the year.  There are three Australian history books that I want to read that are general enough to qualify (the books can be fiction or non-fiction) and I’m pretty sure that I’ll read seven others quite easily during the year.

It’s holiday time, so I thought I’d make a start.  There are a few new ones I want to read: Anna Funder, Geraldine Brooks, Rosalie Ham, Charlotte Wood have all had books published last year that interest me.  But, oh dear- they’re all out on loan with multiple holds against them. So up to the library I went, happy to browse the shelves to find something.

I don’t think that I’ve ever gone looking for a book restricted by a particular type of author before- i.e. Australian and a woman.  The library has taken to putting little ‘Australian’ stickers on the spines of books so designated, so that made it a bit easier.  It also meant that once I’d found an eligible author, I was more reliant on the descriptions on the back cover than I usually would be.

I must say, though, that I was not well served.  I’m aware that probably the ‘good’ books would be on loan over Christmas, but everything I picked up seemed so domestic and mundane.  Relationships, relationships, relationships…was there nothing else? Many of them sounded like chick-lit even if they weren’t.  What would denote chicklit to me? probably the design on the cover, and the self-absorption of the main character (particularly the female main characters) and the emphasis on male/female relationships.  If I had limited myself to a different formula (e.g. male Australian; female British), would I have felt equally jaded in reading the book descriptions? I don’t know.  I strongly suspect that the description is the publisher and publicist’s decision, rather than the author’s. I wonder how much say the author has.

In the end, I went for Mardi McConnochie’s The Voyagers: a Love Story firstly because I have read her Coldwater which I really enjoyed, but more importantly because it had a setting that interested me.  The other two books that I chose are largely silent about their setting (Kate Legge’s The Unexpected Elements of Love and Sofie Laguna’s One Foot Wrong).  The description of Legge’s book leaves me underwhelmed, and I only found the description of Laguna’s book just now on the inside opening page- when I was standing by the library shelf, I went by Christos Tsiolkas’ blurb.

So if I don’t go by the demographic profile of the author, how do I choose a book? Largely by reviews in blogs, newspapers and magazines, I guess, and looking for subsequent books after I’ve enjoyed an author previously.  If so, this makes the gender disparity in reviewing even more problematic.

Obviously some people read by genre- hence the identifying labels ‘Australian’ ‘Fantasy’, ‘Crime’ etc. on the spines.  I asked Mr Judge, who is trying to reduce his groaning bookshelves by borrowing from the library too, even though he has a horrendous record of accruing enormous overdue fines.  He said that he goes by back-cover descriptions, but he seemed to be attracted by titles too.

And you?

Count me in too!

The Australian Women Writers 2012 National Year of Reading Challenge sets out to actively promote the reading and reviewing of Australian women’s writing.  It shouldn’t be necessary, but this year’s Miles Franklin shortlist without a single female author and the imbalance of women writers (18/48) in the National Year of Reading’s Our Story  suggests that it is.

The idea is that you  sign up for reading and reviewing books by Australian women writers during 2012.  You can read in one or multiple genres, and you select the number of reviews you’d like to commit to.   There’s genres listed there that I’m not particularly enamoured of (romance, crime, SF) so I’ll limit myself to fiction and nonfiction and aspire to be a Franklin-fantastic Dabbler (i.e. read 10 books and review four).

Gender bias in reading is so insidious.  I would have thought that I already leaned towards female writers in my fiction reading, but when I count through my Australian literature reviews for 2011, I’ve reviewed nine male writers against eight female.  I didn’t include Australian non-fiction largely because I knew that it would make the statistic look even worse!  Given that I try to read the Miles Franklin shortlist each year, the male authors ticked up during the middle of the year and it was only a bout of female writing at the beginning of the year that brought some semblance of balance to my figures.

So here goes in 2012