I really dropped the ball this year with my AWW2014 goals. I planned to finish recording Barbara Baynton’s Human Toll for Librivox, and do at least one other recording. I did neither. It turns out I got side-tracked by the non-official aspects of my AWW reading: I read and listened to a range of books by Australian women writers and rated and occasionally reviewed them on Goodreads.
In total I read or listened to nineteen books by Australian women writers. Six of these were audiobooks from the Makkede Vanderwall crime series by Tara Moss. I wrote some thoughts on the first installment, reflecting on my counterintuitive taste for violent crime where women are brutalised. The answer was that Makkede Vanderwall is kickass and triumphs over everything in the end. Throughout the series, I appreciated the way Moss ensured Mak continued to be motivated by her desire to be a forensic psychologist-cum-private detective rather than some lovelorn appendage to her love interests, Andy and Bogey. Andy was routinely shipped off to the FBI Academy or working in another city, which served the plots well. My only disappointment with the recordings was that Moss didn’t do all of them. The last two missed the mark for me, having the effect of changing some characters in unflattering ways.
I’m not sure how much of a factor the reading was in the audiobook of Marele Day’s The Case of the Chinese Boxes. The central sleuth in this second installment of the Claudia Valentine series struck me as smug and brittle with her cleverness. I didn’t enjoy her archness at all.
Three more of the novels were from the Phryne Fisher series by Kerry Greenwood. I started these because of the TV series, but didn’t stick with them after the third. One of the things I thought more generally about this genre of novel was that it’s a fantasy genre–not officially, of course, but as in the Makkede Vanderwall series, there’s an impossible kind of triumph over evil doers. In the case of Phryne Fisher, I found the class aspects a bit trying. Part of me thinks I should put this aside, because, after all, it is fantasy and it’s nice to see a woman doing all the rescuing, but Phyrne and her military-paced benevolence put me in mind of St Augustine’s aphorism, ‘Charity is no substitute for justice withheld.’
Two of the best books I listened to this year were Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children and Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria. I was very moved by Stead’s classic novel, which I reviewed. What a painfully genius work; I physically ached. I didn’t review Wright’s novel, but not for lack of enjoyment. A Goodreads’ friend described Carpentaria as a ‘stonkingly huge novel’. Yes, it is. In both size and scope. I’m not sure if it does justice to describe the Carpentaria region of the title as the central character, but as a place it suffuses the characters in a way that I can’t think of in anything else that I’ve read. I retain such strong images from this book: Norm Phantom in his fish embalming workshop, Angel Day and the reclaimed Madonna, Elias Smith emerging from the sea, Will Phantom outrunning mining security and living on a floating island of plastic, Mozzie Fishman and his entourage. Again, my response to this book was physical, a kind of swelling and opening of my heart. I’ve come to the conclusion that a physical response is my sole criterion for a five star rating.
I also read and reviewed Burial Rites, The Spare Room, and Ninety9. I’m glad to see that one of my fellow book club members has nominated another Helen Garner novel to read next year–The Spare Room made me love her work.
I read and then Goodreads rated Debra Adelaide’s The Household Guide to Dying and Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock. I did enjoy Adelaide’s work–I thought I’d written a review–but I was disappointed by Lindsay’s classic. Part of me wonders how much of the reverence around Picnic is derived from the iconography of Peter Weir’s film of the novel. I was surprised by the brevity of the scenes up to and including the girls’ disappearance. It became a book about the searchers and the school–and not especially insightful–which left me feeling dissatisfied.
I ended my year of AWW reading by turning to Young Adult literature. I listened to the first two novels in Penni Russon’s Undine series. What I most liked about these was the complexity of the relationship dynamic between Undine and Trout–I was quite awestruck by the fineness with which it was drawn. At the moment I’m finishing Margo Lanagan’s Sea Hearts (The Brides of Rollrock Island), which is yet another YA novel that belies its categorisation. It’ll probably sneak into next year’s challenge reviews.