An avid reader calls it as she sees it on books, publishing and the written word in general.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Australian Women Writers' Challenge - update

It doesn’t seem that long ago that I was signing up to the Australian Women Writers’ challenge, although it was way back in January. My full-of-enthusiasm initial post is here. Now that we’re more than three quarters of the way through the year, I thought it would be a good time to review progress (read – work out whether I need to panic).

There have been a few difficulties along the way. It turns out that funnily enough, not many databases allow you to search by gender or even nationality. When you find a book online or in a bookstore, it’s relatively easy to work out if the author is a woman or not, but trying to find if they are Australian often necessitates trying to deduce from the publisher name or searching for clues in the biography.

So how am I tracking against the goal of reading at least ten books by Australian women writers and reviewing four? I’ve listed them below with genre and a potted summary.


·         Sharp Shooter by Marianne Delacourt (urban fantasy – Stephanie Plum gets psychic)

·         The Spare Room by Helen Garner (literary fiction - heartbreaking story of caring for a cancer patient)

·         A Few Right Thinking Men by Sulari Gentill (historical crime – murder amidst the political intrigues of 1930s Sydney)

Read but not (yet) reviewed:

·         Cooking the Books by Kerry Greenwood (crime – Corinna Chapman solves mysteries while cooking & eating fantastic food)

·         On Passion by Dorothy Porter (non-fiction – poetic musings on the nature of passion in its many guises)

·         Nothing but Gold by Robyn Annear (non-fiction – life in the Victorian goldfields of 1852)

Yet to crack the spine:

·         Diving Belles by Lucy Wood

·         A Beautiful Place by Malla Nunn

So in summary…not quite panicking yet but still more work to do! One more review and four more to read.

One other thing worth mentioning is that the Australian Women Writers’ project recently passed the milestone of over 1000 reviews. That’s an absolutely mind-boggling number and a huge credit to Elizabeth Lhuede and team. I’m proud to be part of such a worthwhile project which is really no chore at all, discovering writers I didn’t know before and fantastic books. I've also been really impressed by the sheer diversity of books reviewed, in all genres, new, old, and classic. So a big congratulations to the good ship AWW Challenge and all who sail in her!

Sunday, August 19, 2012

On Book Covers

Book covers are not something that I pay much attention to any more. On my ereader they tend to render in boring black and white, something to be skipped along with the acknowledgements and the content pages. Perhaps I would pay more attention if they popped up whenever I closed the book (like they do with a Kindle) but on the other hand, once the ereader goes into its case there is nothing to see anyway.

Then recently I saw this cover for Gold by Chris Cleave and I went – WOW. It stopped me in my tracks.

What a killer cover. I’m not entirely sure why I find it so arresting, but it must have something to do with the bright colours and simple design. I like it because it’s not too literal – the obvious thing for a book called Gold would be to have a gold cover (der) or because it’s about two Olympic cyclists, a picture of a gold medal, bike, or at least something vaguely sporty. Hell, for all that the cover tells you, it could be a non-fiction history of precious metals. Instead, the cover makes you curious, and you pick up the book to find out what it’s about. 

The really funny thing is that this seems to be the Australian cover only – the UK cover is a rather strange-looking picture of two girls in silhouette.

There’s no way I’d be picking up that book. I’d think it was some kind of regency romance (been there, don’t want to go back). So they have this dynamite Australian cover, and someone apparently decided, no, the annoying literal one which is gold and has a picture of the two main characters is a much better option. That’s publishers for you.
So apart for my obsession with Gold (which I haven’t yet read), what’s to take out of this? Perhaps the book cover is not dead. Perhaps we’ve just got bored with them because, frankly, lots of them are just not very interesting. Perhaps in the future we’ll see a renaissance in book covers, especially as colour ereaders become the norm. What do you think?

And for the pleasure of your eyes, I’ll leave you with this link from Readings showcasing the best covers of 2012. Enjoy!

Saturday, August 11, 2012

AWW BOOK REVIEW: A Few Right Thinking Men by Sulari Gentill

After you’ve closed the cover it can take a few days to pull free of a really fascinating story. You find yourself musing on the plot, the characters and the setting, and daydreaming about it in absent moments. For all my love for the crime genre, this doesn’t usually happen with crime novels – the main reason that they are my preferred weekday read. However, Sulari Gentill’s historical crime novel A Few Right Thinking Men absolutely captured my imagination.

So what was so unusual about this book? First off, there is the setting. I’ve always thought that Australian history was under-utilised as a setting for historical crime novels, and the thirties are probably one of the least-known eras of Australian history. I would have thought that they are a period not exactly ripe with dramatic potential, except that Gentill so clearly proves me wrong. The rising tensions between the communists and early fascists, played out in the context of a squattocracy with conservative leanings and a bohemian fringe with communist sympathies, make for a gripping backdrop. It’s extra fascinating because you can recognise a cultural discourse that still continues today between left and right in this country.

But of course a setting is nothing without a plot and characters, and these are especially key for crime novels. On the point of characters Gentill really excels. The main character, Rowland “Rowly” Sinclair, is a member of a wealthy squatting family, turned artist. He’s rejected the values he grew up with and almost succeeded at becoming a through-and-through bohemian – except that he still feels the tension of trying to fit in with the artists who have come to live in the family manor. His relationship with his family is hardly easier, as he tries to maintain his independence while not irreparably damaging the relationship. A part of him still seems to long for the gracious country lifestyle of his brother Wilfred, although the two brothers disagree on almost everything. When a murder in the family brings politics into the mix, Rowland and Wilfred seem likely to end up on different sides of the brewing conflict.

In terms of plot, this is perhaps not a classical crime novel. While it starts out with a murder, it soon devolves into an examination of the murky politics of the time. The murderer is discovered in the end, but the book avoids the trap of tying up all the loose ends with a too-neat bow.  However, I do wonder if the plot suffers a bit from the paradox Gentill identifies in her comments at the back of the book: “I found I didn’t need to fictionalise the events of the era…the facts were fascinating and ludicrous enough.” The truth may be stranger than fiction, but ironically it is sometimes less believable than pure invention. While the setting was impeccably drawn and Gentill’s historical research meticulous, I think that the book may have benefited if she took more creative licence with the facts. A final confrontation with Campbell, in many ways set up as the villain of the piece, would have given weight to the ending.

The thing I enjoyed most about the book, the thing that kept me thinking about it for days, was that it gave me an insight into Sydney in the thirties that I’ve never had before. You can read a list of facts, even a historical document, but to get that sense of what it was to be there – that idea of how people thought, acted, the politics of the day, the class divisions at work – you need a book like A Few Right Thinking Men. This is where fiction has a huge advantage over non-fiction, yet the best books still manage to educate as well as entertain. The phrase “bringing history to life” is overused to the point of cliché, but this is truly what Gentill manages. It’s a fantastic achievement.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

On literary novels with plots (and fancy words)

It’s always hard to go against the tide of critical acclaim and declare that in your opinion, the emperor has no clothes. Although Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding has been generally well-reviewed, on Brian Platzer lays into it in rather devastating fashion. In effect, he accuses it of being a genre wolf dressed up in literary sheep’s clothing, a rather original and interesting accusation with several layers. As I haven't read the book myself I'm not in a position to agree or disagree, but I think it's particularly interesting to unpack some of the layers of that accusation.

First off, of course, I need to make the point that I strongly disagree with Platzer’s disdain for genre novels. As any readers of this blog will know, I have broad reading tastes, and in my opinion, genre authors such as Anne Holt or Donna Leon are at least as talented as more “literary” authors. Further, Platzer’s scorn for page-turning plots probably reflects the fact that he’s never tried to write one – I suspect they are harder than they look.  And honestly, what’s the problem with a literary novel with a plot? It reflects a point of view that I thought long-discredited, that a “worthy” novel can’t possibly be enjoyable to read. Surely there are many authors who have proved that point of view to be wrong. The recent Miles Franklin win by Peter Temple's Truth was a fine example, as are many books by such literary stars as Kate Grenville or Alex Miler. The idea still rears its ugly head occasionally of course, like the controversy over the Booker shortlist afew years ago deemed too “readable,” but I would suggest it’s gradually dying out as the publishing industry realises it needs to cater to readers and not the other way around.

So after completely disagreeing with Platzer on this point I then found myself in the strange position of agreeing with him on another. I’m sure he phrased it better (and I do recommend you go read the article) but in sum, he pointed out that fancy words and literary allusions do not literature make. I wholeheartedly agree. While I wouldn’t touch the hot potato of what can and cannot be deemed “quality literature” (this blog does have a lot of quotation marks, doesn’t it?) I do think that authors sometimes think that the more obscure the vocabulary, the more literary prizes the book is likely to win. Or perhaps that’s unkind; I’m not really suggesting that authors write with literary prizes in mind, rather than they are unconsciously influenced by the way that they think a literary novel is supposed to sound.

My view is the exact opposite. In a really good novel, I think the language should be clear as glass, and a reader should not notice it at all. Stopping to wonder about the meaning of a word or unusual word choice jolts you out of the novel. Looking at the literary novels on my bookshelf, the writers I admire all write simply – if you asked me about the way they wrote, I wouldn’t be able to tell you about anything except the story. Siri Hustvedt, Alex Miller, Salman Rushdie and Helen Garner have all written prize-winning novels without needing fancy words, and their work is  somehow the more powerful for its simplicity.

One final thought – for all that I disagree with many of his points, Platzer did a fine job of writing a well-supported, thoughtful negative review of The Art of Fielding, a topic I discussed on this blog recently. Most importantly, it gave me a good idea of whether I would or wouldn’t like the book (a definite no – any book that uses the word “synecdoche” during a sex scene will definitely be struck off my reading list). As a review, there is much to admire in the article. And having ended up reviewing a review I had better finish on that particularly meta note.