A year of reading books by Australian women

carry-me-downI have a confession.

Despite calling this blog “Devoted Eclectic”, I’m not very eclectic in my reading tastes. My interests? They’re eclectic. I’m fascinated by science, politics, religion, history, philosophy, psychology and education. But my reading? Not so much, judging by my selections for the Australian Women Writers 2012 Challenge – even though I set out to be inclusive.

Dog Boy cover 2(1)The truth is, I love drama. I love intense, heartbreaking stories like M J Hyland’s Carry Me Down. I love inventive – even dense – language that’s been honed and crafted till it’s so sharp it cuts the reader, like Margo Lanagan’s Sea Hearts. Or crisp prose that sweeps me into the narrative so effectively it’s like watching a movie, as in Wendy James’ The Mistake, Emily Maguire’s Fishing for Tigers and P M Newton’s The Old School. I also like sentimentality; by that, I mean stories that set out to manipulate the reader’s emotions with powerful fictional scenarios that yank your heart out,  leaving you gasping rather than crying – or sometimes both, as in Eva Hornung’s Dog Boy, Margo Lanagan’s Tender Morsels, Kirsty Eagar’s Raw Blue, Virginia Lloyd’s Young Widow’s Book of Home Improvement and Charlotte Wood’s Animal People. All of these books are devastating in some way; I enjoy being devastated.tender-morsels-hc That’s what, for me, makes a great read.

Some genres devastate me more than others. Suspense and thrillers, yes, and family drama with elements of crime. Some historical fiction; some literary fiction; some fantasy. Science fiction? Not so much. Romance and mainstream commercial fiction? Not really. I find much of it readable and enjoyable, but it doesn’t stay with me. There are good psychological reasons why this is so, to do with heightened emotions helping to lay down memory. It’s probably also connected with my traumatic childhood: I crave stories that take me to the edges of human experience and force me to confront what it means to be human, my values, what I aspire to, what I run away from, what I fear inside myself and others. I crave, too, fine poetic writing, the kind that makes me despair of my own ability to write.

No surprises then when I look over my year of reading books by Australian women in 2012 – a year when I thought I was selecting widely – and find the genres I’ve gravitated towards. When it came to reviewing, though, I didn’t manage to review all the ones that really touched me.

animal-peopleThis is my tally of reading for the Australian Women Writers 2012 challenge, with links to the ones I’ve reviewed (17/48).

Crime, mystery, detective, suspense, thriller, family drama with crime:

  1. Erskine, Y A. The Betrayal – crime*
  2. Erskine, Y A. The Brotherhood – contemporary crime
  3. Ford, Jaye. Scared Yet?
  4. Foster, Sara. Beneath the Shadows – suspense
  5. Gentill, Sulari. A Few Right Thinking Men – historical crime
  6. Howell, Katherine. Cold Justice
  7. Howell, Katherine. The Darkest Hour
  8. Hyland, M J. Carry Me Down – historical fiction/thriller
  9. James, Rebecca. Beautiful Malice – contemporary crime
  10. James, Wendy, Where Have You Been? – contemporary crime
  11. James, Wendy. The Mistake – contemporary crime
  12. Johnson, Sylvia. Watch Out For Me – contemporary
  13. Jordan, Toni. Fall Girl – humour, mystery
  14. Newton, P M. The Old School – literary detective*
  15. Overington, Caroline. Ghost Child – contemporary crime
  16. Overington, Caroline. I Came to Say Goodbye – contemporary crime
  17. Overington, Caroline. Sisters of Mercy – crime thriller suspense*
  18. Savage, Angela. The Half-Child – detective literary  – detective
  19. Watson, Nicole. The Boundary – contemporary crime

Literary contemporary fiction:

  1. Jones, Gail. Dreams of Speaking
  2. Jones, Gail. Sorry
  3. Joosten, Melanie. Berlin Syndrome
  4. Leonhardt, Lynne. Finding Jasper
  5. Maguire, Emily. Fishing For Tigers
  6. Parrett, Favel. Past the Shallows
  7. Smith, Annabel. Whisky Charlie Foxtrot
  8. Tranter, Kirsten. A Common Loss
  9. Wood, Charlotte. Animal People

Mainstream commercial fiction – contemporary and historical:

  1. Brooks, Geraldine. Caleb’s Crossing – historical, romantic
  2. Byrski, Liz. In the Company of Strangers – contemporary
  3. Ham, Rosalie. Summer at Mount Hope – historical
  4. Heidke, Lisa. Stella Makes Good – contemporary, Chick Lit
  5. Heiss, Anita. Avoiding Mr Right – contemporary, humour
  6. Morton, Kate. The Secret Keeper – contemporary/historical

Young Adult:

  1. Au, Jessica. Cargo – contemporary YA
  2. Crowley, Cath. Graffiti Moon – contemporary YA
  3. Eagar, Kirsty. Raw Blue – contemporary YA
  4. Gardiner, Kelly. Act of Faith – historical YA
  5. Hornung, Eva. Dog Boy – dystopian speculative YA

Speculative, fantasy

  1. Forsyth, Kate. Bitter Greens – fantasy* historical
  2. Lanagan, Margo. Sea Hearts – speculative historical
  3. Lanagan, Margo. Tender Morsels – speculative, fantasy

Speculative Science Fiction

  1. Brown, Honey. Red Queen – dystopian speculative, thriller
  2. Corbett, Claire. When We Have Wings – dystopian speculative
  3. Mundell, Meg. Black Glass – dystopian speculative/science fiction
  4. Westwood, Kim. Courier’s New Bicycle – dystopian speculative/science fiction

Memoir

  1. Lloyd, Virginia. The Young Widow’s Book of Home Improvement

Children’s

  1. Roberts, Tansy Rayner. Sea Castle

I didn’t make my revised goal of 50 books, and I don’t think I’ll get anywhere near this number in 2013. Instead, I’m looking forward to getting back into my own writing, and of narrowing the focus of my reading, in the hope of discovering more devastating books by Australian women.

25 Comments

  1. Wonderful. I love the concept of being devastated. I would add to that, the concept of entering a different world, one that is recognisable yet different enough to be strange and fascinating; and of course, written from the heart in such a way that, whether I am devastated or not, I am empathically engaged and moved.

    • “Empathically engaged and moved” is a fine description, and perhaps captures my second-tier “best reads”. In that category, I’d include Annabel Smith’s Whisky Charlie Foxtrot, Lynne Leonhardt’s Finding Jasper, Gail Jones’ Dreams of Speaking, Jessica Au’s Cargo and Cath Crowley’s Graffiti Moon, Kelly Gardiner’s Act of Faith… There are so many fine AWW books! Thanks for stopping by, Christina. I look forward to more exchanges in 2013.

  2. Good for you Elizabeth, great to see your round-up …

    I too enjoy being devastated, which is something my husband just cannot understand. Are our lives too easy that we like this? Or is it just that this is the stuff of literature? Sometimes devastation can be quiet, underhand, a chipping away at a sense of self, while other times it can be big and dramatic, violent. Both kinds I love to read.

    I have one query, though, and that is Dog boy. I had never considered it as YA. Is this how it is viewed in the Aus Lit world? I can imagine young adults reading it (like I read Pride and prejudice or Gone with the wind when I was a teen) and being moved by it, but if I had reviewed it this year I wouldn’t have put that category on it!

    • I love that description, too, Sue: “quiet, underhand, a chipping away at a sense of self” – I’d count Charlotte Wood’s Animal People in that category, and Gail Jones’ Dreams of Speaking.

      As for Dog Boy being called YA, it’s about as sensible as designating Margo Lanagan’s Sea Hearts and Tender Morsels as YA. I don’t know where I got it from: I certainly didn’t think of it as YA when I read it. (Perhaps one of the awards? Maybe just a brain snap?)

      • Ah, so it’s something you got from somewhere? It won the Prime Minister’s Literary Prize last year, and I must say I didn’t hear anyone call it YA (not that a YA oriented novel couldn’t win the prize though there is a separate prize for children’s/YA books). I wonder whether, with the rise of YA, people are starting to call books that might be comprehensible to YAs, YA? In the past, young adults mostly read adult books once they’d progressed from children’s books. Is Catcher in the rye YA? It wouldn’t have been called that when it was published but is now set in schools. The book thief was often marketed as YA, partly I think because Zusak had previously written a YA book, but its concerns are far wider though its protagonist is a young girl. Jasper Jones is another, but I can see it being more YA because its focus is very much coming of age. OK I’m rambling now but I’d define YA as books dealing with YA issues or told from a YA perspective. That might be narrow, but I feel that it should be a narrow “genre” otherwise books labelled YA that are more general in appeal will be completely missed by wider audiences. Tricky territory I know but … I’m throwing down the gauntlet.

        Oh, and I must read Animal people. I nearly let my finger do a one-click purchase at Amazon last night but restrained myself!

        And, since I’ve ended up writing an essay, I’ll just add that I love MJ Hyland – she is one devastating but oh so stylish writer!

        • I remember now where I got it from! Dog Boy was shelved as YA at the library (probably because of the non-hardback cover which is pretty infantalising). And so were Sea Hearts and Tender Morsels (which caused a real furore because of the content, but could be construed as YA more easily than Sea Hearts), so I wouldn’t trust the label. I’m happy to go with your definition, as it makes sense. In those lights, Dog Boy is definitely literary.

          • Ah libraries! I think they always struggle with “classifying” fiction but I’d argue with them on that one. I’m glad you found it and read it!

  3. What a fascinating insight into your reading Elizabeth…thanks for sharing it. I share some of your likes, not others…but have never really put too much thought into why but I won’t be able to stop thinking about it now. My immediate reaction was to think I don’t like to be devastated but I’m reflecting now and wondering if there is something in that after all. I shall have to mull this over,

    I sometimes wonder how writers can bring themselves to read other people’s writing…how it doesn’t just make them inert with the fear they won’t be able to do the same…so I admire anyone who reads so widely as you have done and gets on with the business of doing their own thing too, even if you sometimes despair. The teeny hints I have spied in your way with words this year – temporary, transient words for the most part rather than the carefully considered ones of ‘real writing’ – lead me to believe you have it in you too. I hope one day you have to beat publishers off with a stick.

    • Thanks, Bernadette. I hope you’re right about the writing/publishing. I didn’t read many books by Australian women for a long time, perhaps because of this very anxiety. It still remains to be seen whether I can get back into it. I fear I’m a rather “all or nothing” person, so if I don’t review anything for a while, you’ll know it’s because I’m back writing!

      I look forward to hearing more of your “mulling over” – and your recommendations for great crime reading (AWW or not) throughout the year.

  4. Thank you so much for the above. I am going to join but as I hope to begin research for a new novel, I will have to limit the amount I can read. Looking forward to Eleanor Dark’s first though!

    • That’s the beauty of the AWW challenge, Debbie. You can “create your own challenge” – or “read only”. It’s very flexible. Good luck with your research, and I hope to see what you choose to read and review throughout the year.

  5. annabelsmith

     /  January 2, 2013

    Well, you may not read as widely as you aimed to, but I still think you read pretty widely – certainly, I would guess, more widely than the average bear. And definitely more widely than me. For example, I don’t read any crime, any mainstream commercial fiction, or any fantasy. I do like speculative fiction, but really only the ‘literary’ kind.

    I’m very interested by your idea on why you choose the genres you do. Like Bernadette, my initial thought was, oh no, I don’t like to be devastated, thank you very much. And yet, when I think about my all-time favourite books – The Road, What I Loved, Bel Canto – they’re all devastating.

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post, as always. And happy new year! Hope this is a good one for your own writing.

    • Thanks, Annabel. I haven’t read any of the books you mention – more devastating great reads await! (This year I won’t be concentrating on AWW exclusively – the first read for my book club is Hare With the Amber Eyes, and I definitely want to read some Hilary Mantel.

  6. I completely understand your craving to be knocked around by your fiction. I love a book that can do that too. But part of me is sad because I’m not sure I will ever write one sufficiently devastating and I would dearly like you to read something of mine! Oh well, maybe one day! :)

    • You know, Imelda, I think it depends on my mood. I loved Anita Heiss’s and Lisa Heidke’s books – and Kate Morton’s The Secret Keeper, too, even though I saw the ending coming and didn’t find it “devastating”. What I loved about TSK was her sheer storytelling skill (in a commercial sense). I’ll still be dabbling into other genres, I’m sure, as the mood takes me, so I hope to find one of yours. Mind you, I don’t buy many books: mostly I get them from the library. Are yours available in libraries?

      • Not yet, Elizabeth! Only one out to date and it is only digital at the moment. Do libraries do e-loans yet? Despite best intentions, I have not enquired at my local library. Also, it’s a contemporary romance without babies or dogs, so not terribly devastating! There is a cat, but since she mostly limits herself to acting as an externalisation of her owner’s unacknowledged hedonism, she’s not very devastating either. ;) Amusing and a little insightful, was what I was going for. Never mind. There will, one hopes, be print and libraries in my future! Meanwhile, read on and share the results. Always like reading your reviews.

        • Some libraries to loan out e-books (Hills Library in Sydney is one, I think), and there are definitely e-book entries among the listings on World Catalog which is one reason why we’ve chosen to link books to that on the AWW Review Listings page: when Aussie libraries connect to it, it shows holdings of books and e-books in Australian libraries, as well as round the world.

          Thanks for the comments, Imelda, and for your participation in the challenge. Everyone’s writing has a place – and my own is far from being devastating (I wish!). If we get to entertain and divert readers for a few hours – whatever the genre – it’s a privilege. As for devastating books, I only know they’re that in hindsight: I’ll still pick up light reads for fun. :)

  7. I still think 48 books read is a really impressive total Elizabeth. Well done and good luck with the devastating list for this year :-)

    • Thanks, Cathy. I wonder what new treats are in store? I hope when the Stella short list is out, there will be more to discover.

  8. Impressive indeed and a great reference and support for Australian women writers. All the best for 2013.

  9. I love your musings on books Elizabeth. And I agree with you and Christine about being devastated…so many devastating books and such little time! But I do look forward to interspersing Aussie women writers with all the other writers I have on my bookshelf at the moment. If you haven’t yet encountered Amanda Curtin, try her ‘The Sinkings’ for a devastating read…I’m still reeling!

    • Thanks, Rashida. I haven’t read any Amanda Curtin and have taken note of The Sinkings. (Another wonderful author to discover!)

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