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Mini-Reviews: Australian Women Writers

Each of these books deserves a proper, full review, but since they cover a long time period – the first one I read back in March – my memory of each is just not strong or clear enough to do so. So, apologies all ’round. I’m grouping them together for reviewing purposes based on the one thing they have in common: they’re all written by Australian women writers.

fairway to heavenFairway to Heaven by Lily Malone
Lily Malone 2014
282 pages
Contemporary Fiction; Romance

Blurb: It’s golf, but not as we know it.

When Jennifer Gates drives to Sea Breeze Golf Club to kick off date-night with her boyfriend, the last thing she expects is to find Golf-Pro Jack giving one of his lady students a private — and very personal — lesson in bunker-play.

Lucky for Jenn, her best friend gives her the keys to the Culhane family’s beach shack on the white-pepper shores of Western Australia’s Geographe Bay. Jenn hopes a weekend on the coast with her young son will give her the space she needs to rebuild her confidence after Jack’s betrayal.

But she’s not the only person seeking sanctuary by the sea. Brayden Culhane is there too, and Jenn can’t look at Brayden without remembering the tequila-flavoured kiss they shared on the shack steps years ago.

As long-buried feelings are rekindled, and a friendship is renewed, Jenn knows it is more than lazy summer days bringing her mojo back. Romantic sunsets, ice-cold beers and the odd round of golf can only go so far, because this time, trusting Brayden with her heart won’t be enough. Jenn has to learn to trust her body, too.

This is a fresh, realistic and enjoyable romance currently only available as an e-book – though I was happy to see it had been picked up by Harlequin’s Escape Publishing imprint since I’d read it, though with a more conventional cover. This is a romance but not a tired one – there’s something earthy and real about Jenn and her story, and not just because she’s essentially a single mother of a toddler. Her boyfriend and the father of her child, Jack Bannerman, is easy to dislike and even though I can’t say I’ve ever known someone like him, he felt familiar. He was also a source of tension in the novel, he and his awful mother, which helps propels the story forward without reducing it to melodrama.

One of the pleasures of the story was the realism, and the break from a more common formula. This felt like a real woman’s journey to self-discovery and not a happily-ever-after trip to find a better man, which plays out in the ending. For those who are looking for something with solid character development, good pacing, humour and an authentic touch of realism in their romance, I highly recommend this – yes, even if, like me, you don’t care for golf. Meanwhile, I really must hunt down some of Malone’s other titles….

Read in January 2015.

disappearance of ember crowThe Disappearance of Ember Crow by Ambelin Kwaymullina
The Tribe #2

Walker Books 2013
Trade Paperback
437 pages
YA Speculative Fiction; Fantasy; Post-Apocalyptic

The Tribe is my new favourite series, and I am eagerly, impatiently awaiting the next two instalments. Having devoured the first, The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf, in January this year, I quickly went out to get a copy of the second book, which did not disappoint in the slightest.

Following on from the events of the first book, the Tribe is somewhat more structured, involved and purposeful – maybe it’s because I’m currently reading the final Obernewtyn book, but there are similarities between the two series, which only makes me cleave to this one all the more. They are young, they have unique abilities, and they have a deep and profound love and respect for the natural world – and this is a strong component of both the world-building and the Indigenous culture from which Kwaymullina comes.

Ember Crow is Ashala Wolf’s best friend and, in effect, second in command of the Tribe. Now, suddenly, she is missing, and as Ashala and the Tribe track her down they learn incredible secrets about Ember and the ‘family’ she comes from, secrets that open up a whole new dimension to this post-apocalyptic world still in recovery, and reveal a threat they hadn’t known existed.

I honestly couldn’t recommend this series highly enough. It is riveting, engrossing, exciting, surprising, imaginative, intelligent and captivating. Can I squeeze any more adjectives into that sentence? I love the concept, I love the Aboriginal aspects and I love the world-building, but I especially love the characters, who are becoming as dear to me as the Obernewtyn cast is. Speaking of, it is a relief to have another excellent post-apocalyptic fantasy series like this one to go one with, now that the Obernewtyn Chronicles is finally complete. The Tribe books are already on my “I need to re-read ASAP” list, and I’m on tenterhooks waiting for the next two.

Read in March 2015.

hate is such a strong wordHate is Such a Strong Word by Sarah Ayoub
HarperCollins 2013
Trade Paperback
246 pages
YA Contemporary Fiction

This novel came highly recommended by other bloggers, and I sincerely wanted to like it more than I did in the end. It is a coming-of-age story about seventeen-year-old Sophie who comes from a Lebanese-Australian family, living in Sydney. She attends a private Lebanese Catholic school which is so insular, when a half-Australian Lebanese boy joins at the start of Sophie’s final year, he is ostracised and harrassed as an outsider, his mother insulted.

At home, Sophie too experiences oppression: as the oldest of four girls and one boy, Sophie is often responsible for looking after them, and her father refuses to allow her to go out, socialise or befriend people whose families he doesn’t know. They live amongst other Lebanese families who all come from the same village in Lebanon, and her parents like that they know everything about them. The one black sheep in the family is her father’s much-younger sister, Leila, a rebel by his standards with a sketchy history and – shock horror – a tattoo. Leila is the only one Sophie can talk to, and she helps her niece get a job at a Big W, where, it happens, the new boy from school, Shehadie Goldsmith, also works.

Sophie’s tentative friendship with Shehadie confuses and scares her – she’s not one to want to stand out, and while she disagrees with the way everyone treats Shehadie, she doesn’t stand by him by openly being his friend. There are a lot of things in life that Sophie hates, and trying to find a balance between her Lebanese culture and her Australian identity creates an internal conflict for her. Ultimately, she feels that she would be betraying one or the other, that she couldn’t have both. In this coming-of-age journey, Sophie must face up to her fears, and face up to the discrimination she sees around her, from both Lebanese and non-Lebanese Australians.

I found I learnt a lot about life in Australia for Lebanese migrants and their families, and it gave a good, compassionate insight into those, like Sophie, who struggle with the gender roles assigned by her parents’ culture, and what she experiences outside the family home. But her narrative voice became somewhat grating, a bit whiny, and frustrating. Her slowness in standing up for herself and others was the cause of frustration, mostly because it was so obvious.

Ayoub’s debut novel is a promising start to what I hope is a long career, writing novels, but it lacked subtlety for me, as well as an engaging, sympathetic protagonist who endeared herself to me. While I could sympathise with Sophie, and recognise that many of her experiences were irrespective of culture (being more to do with being a teenage girl in a western country), I couldn’t connect as well as I’d like. Since the novel doesn’t have a whole lot of plot, the strength of it rests almost entirely on the main character, and for me, Sophie just didn’t quite engage me.

Read in April 2015.

paper daisiesPaper Daisies by Kim Kelly
Macmillan 2015
Large Format Paperback
413 pages
Historical Fiction

This was a somewhat random purchase made one day, and surprisingly I read it straight away rather than let it languish on my shelves for ages. It turned out to be a thoroughly engaging novel that had me caught up in its web of wonderful characters, beautifully-rendered history and often nail-biting tension.

Set in rural New South Wales in 1900, the story takes place over just a few days. Berylda Jones and her sister Greta live with their Uncle Alec at his house, Bellevue, in Bathurst. Berylda has been away, studying, but returns now for Christmas. What she learns devastates her. Always aware that Uncle Alec is a misogynistic bastard who takes every delight in putting his nieces down, verbally and physically, she now discovers that he has been raping her sister. Greta is a shadow of herself, and Berylda fears she will vanish altogether. Berylda concocts a plan to travel to Hill End where there lives a Chinese herbalist, Dr Ah Ling, to buy poison from him to put in Alec’s tea. But first she must find a way to make Uncle Alec give his permission to a three-day absence, something he isn’t likely to do.

The unexpected arrival of botanist Ben Wilberry and his friend, the artist Cosmo Thompson, create a good opportunity. Himself looking for a particular kind of native daisy, Berylda arranges for them all to go together, along with Buckley, an old manservant, and makes it hard for Uncle Alec to refuse. But the journey is just the first step: putting a stop to Uncle Alec is something Berylda is determined to do, even if it means becoming a murderess.

There is something delightfully gothic about this novel, that I relished. I loved the setting, the atmosphere, the landscape, the characters and especially the ending. I loved that Kelly didn’t hold back, that she doesn’t Austen-ise the world (my way of combining ‘prettify’ and to turn a blind eye to social problems, domestic abuse etc.), that she didn’t make the sisters sound provincial or naive in a misguided belief that such things didn’t exist back then. It was refreshing as well as riveting, and – while I read this before I watched the TV show – settings like Hill End and the herbalist’s abode now remind me of True Detective (the first series). It’s not the swampy American south that does it, but that isolated, almost suffocating atmosphere coupled with a kind of inbred mentality – by that I mean that it’s as if the world outside it doesn’t exit, and weird shit can happen.

Uncle Alec was a boldly drawn, nasty piece of work. He had married their aunt, whose death is pretty clearly suspicious to readers much sooner than it is to Berylda. A hatred of women is at his core, but this is exacerbated by his racist attitudes as well: Greta and Berylda have a Chinese grandmother (the Chinese were early settlers in Australia, though they weren’t welcome at the time or for a long time after), and it’s as if this incites his malice. Both misogyny and racism are at the secret heart of Australian culture, and Kelly makes a brave, intelligent foray into this manly web, which affects men as well as women – men like Ben, whose father is a prick who, as you can imagine, hardly respects his son for becoming a flower-gazer. I have huge respect for Kim Kelly, for aside from Paper Daisies being a wonderful story well told, it carries this strong sense of social justice throughout. The ending surprised me, but in a good way, and it was a true climax, releasing a great deal of tension that had been building up for quite some time. Fantastic read!

Read in April 2015.

burial ritesBurial Rites by Hannah Kent
Picador 2013
330 pages
Historical Fiction

This might possibly be the biggest disappointment of the year, for me – not that I read all that many novels this year! I’d heard so much enthusiastic praise for Kent’s debut novel, but I assure you, my expectations weren’t unreasonably high. It wasn’t the story that disappointed, really: it was the writing. To say it is over-written would be a nice way of putting it. An ambitious first novel that bit off more than it could chew, perhaps.

Set in Iceland in 1829, the story revolves around the true story of Agnes Magnusdottir, the last woman executed in Iceland, for murder. The narrative follows Agnes as she’s shunted from one farm to another to wait out her sentence, finally arriving at a farmstead where the women gradually come to respect and even pity her. The assistant priest, Toti, who is assigned as her spiritual guardian, listens to her story, but more is revealed to the reader than is spoken aloud.

There is a likeness to Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace but whereas Atwood’s writing is effortlessly strong, capable and wise, Kent struggles to bring Agnes to life and too often suffocates the wise insights into human nature with cumbersome descriptions and a lack of subtlety. Shifting between past tense and present didn’t help much, and the final account of what actually happened – the murders – was weirdly anticlimactic. If Agnes had felt more alive the novel would have been vastly improved. Burial Rights makes me deeply wary of trying Kent’s future work.

Read in July 2015.

chocolate promiseThe Chocolate Promise by Josephine Moon
Allen & Unwin 2015
Large Format Paperback
389 pages
Contemporary Fiction; Romance; Chick-lit

I picked this up because of the Tasmanian setting, but it didn’t hurt that chocolate was in the title!

The main character is Christmas Livingstone who runs a chocolate shop in Evandale (Evandale is an old, historic colonial town outside Launceston – a delight if you haven’t visited). Her life is rigidly ruled by ten commandments, the last of which is “Absolutely no romantic relationships”. Christmas has been burned in the past: she had an affair with a tennis pro, got pregnant and was ditched; then she lost the baby. Now she takes solace in The Chocolate Apothecary, and has a strong belief in the medicinal value of chocolate. All’s well until she meets Lincoln van Luc, a botanist who has worked for cacao companies in South America and is writing a book on the plant. His publisher wants him to make it more readable and suggests a ghost writer; he teams up with Christmas who incorporates her own perspective on chocolate into the manuscript. Their meetings show their ease with each other, as well as reveal some sexual tension: could Christmas break one of her rules? The story takes a turn when Christmas goes to Paris for several weeks, mostly to take part in a famous chocolate workshop, which gives her the time to mull things over a bit and think about her priorities.

I enjoyed the first third of this novel more than the last third, when it seemed to lose steam. I loved the descriptions of Evandale and the quirky characters who come into her shop. I loved being able to recognise references to localities that I’m familiar with. Moon doesn’t live here but she did a relatively good job of faking it. I loved Lincoln’s grandmother and her match-making attempts, and the conflicts with another old biddy at the home. There are nice moments of humour and ridiculousness – including the master chocolate maker and chocolatier in France – and even the poor dog Lincoln ends up adopting. There are issues with Lincoln’s dad and Christmas’s mum, and other little details that really bring the characters to life.

Perhaps my slight struggle was partly due to the writing, or the pacing, or the plotting. The construction of the story waxed and waned, and while it wasn’t a slow or arduous read by any means, it wasn’t always engaging. That might also be to do with Christmas – I tend to struggle with these characters who live by a list of rules, which seems an all-too-common trope of chick-lit. I can’t really relate, and Christmas struck me as rather uptight. I’d also like to know how her ‘fairy godmother’ thing worked – sounded like a full-time job to me, and one of the only unrealistic notes in the book. Still, I don’t really have any complaints, it’s more that it didn’t have enough spice to keep me wholly engaged.

Read in September 2015.


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