Sunday, February 24, 2013

Sunday Salon: The Stella Prize longlist

This week the longlist for the inaugural Stella Prize was announced. Here's a bit about the prize from the website

The Stella Prize is a new major literary award for Australian women’s writing.

The Stella Prize celebrates Australian women’s contribution to literature. Named after one of Australia’s most important female authors, Stella Maria ‘Miles’ Franklin (1879–1954), the prize rewards one writer with a significant monetary prize of $50,000.

The Stella Prize will also raise the profile of women’s writing through the Stella Prize longlists and shortlists, encourage a future generation of women writers, and bring readers to the work of Australian women.

The Stella Prize will be awarded for the first time in 2013, and both fiction and non-fiction books are eligible.

There are, of course, the ongoing arguments about whether such a prize is necessary, whether by excluding men from the prize you demean the value of the of honour. Given that the Orange Prize (or whatever it calls itself these days) still is subject to these ongoing discussions I would expect to hear the same discussion happening here for a long while yet about the Stella.

One that that I do find interesting about the scope of this prize is that it is inclusive of both non-fiction and fiction, and that while I wouldn't go so far as to call it wholeheartedly inclusive of genre fiction, there are a couple of genre entries on the longlist which would suggest that they are not at least dismissive of it! I was interested to see that there were nearly 200 books put forward as part of the nomination process. I would love to know more about this process - questions like how many genre books were put forward for consideration?

As happens whenever we get to longlists for prizes and especially end of year lists, I find that even though I read a lot, there is also a lot that I have missed. This would be my way of admitting that I have only actually read one of the longlisted titles, although I do own one other and have borrowed a third from the library with the intention of reading it a couple of times.

I thought today I would have a brief look at the nominations, with a general comment and the synopsis for each one.

Floundering by Romy Ash (Text Publishing) - A debut novel that I hadn't heard much about before it was long listed.

Tom and Jordy have been living with their gran since the day their mother, Loretta, left them on her doorstep and disappeared.

Now Loretta’s returned, and she wants her boys back.

Tom and Jordy hit the road with Loretta in her beat-up car. The family of three journeys across the country, squabbling, bonding, searching and reconnecting.

But Loretta isn’t mother material. She’s broke, unreliable, lost. And there’s something else that’s not quite right with this reunion.

They reach the west coast and take refuge in a beachside caravan park. Their neighbour, a surly old man, warns the kids to stay away. But when Loretta disappears again the boys have no choice but to ask the old man for help, and now they face new threats and new fears.

This beautifully written and gripping debut is as moving as it is frightening, and as heartbreaking as it is tender.

Mazin Grace by Dylan Coleman (UQP) - Another title I hadn't heard a lot about, although it did win the 2011 David Unaipon Award for Indigenous Writing.

Growing up on the Mission isn’t easy for clever Grace Oldman. When her classmates tease her for not having a father, she doesn’t know what to say. Papa Neddy says her dad is the Lord God in Heaven, but that doesn’t help when the Mission kids call her a bastard. As Grace slowly pieces together clues that might lead to answers, she struggles to find a place in a community that rejects her for reasons she doesn’t understand.

In Mazin Grace, Dylan Coleman fictionalises her mother’s childhood at the Koonibba Lutheran Mission in South Australia in the 1940s and 50s. Woven through the narrative are the powerful, rhythmic sounds of Aboriginal English and Kokatha language.

Mazin Grace is the inspirational story of a feisty girl who refuses to be told who she is, determined to uncover the truth for herself.

The Burial by Courtney Collins (Allen & Unwin) - This is another of the debut novels on this list, and is the one that I own but haven't read yet. It is inspired by the story of one of Australia's female bushrangers and sounds fascinating, although I have heard it is quite bleak. I first heard of this book at a Wheeler Centre event a few months ago. Even when they were introducing the book I knew it sounded like a book for me!

It is the dawn of the twentieth century in Australia and a woman has done an unspeakable thing.

Twenty-two-year-old Jessie has served a two-year sentence for horse rustling. As a condition of her release she is apprenticed to Fitzgerald 'Fitz' Henry, who wants a woman to allay his loneliness in a valley populated by embittered ex-soldiers. Fitz wastes no time in blackmailing Jessie and involving her in his business of horse rustling and cattle duffing.

When Fitz is wounded in an accident he hires Aboriginal stockman, Jack Brown, to steal horses with Jessie. Soon both Jack Brown and Jessie are struggling against the oppressive and deadening grip of Fitz.

One catastrophic night turns Jessie's life on its head and she must flee for her life. From her lonely outpost, the mountains beckon as a place to escape. First she must bury the evidence. But how do you bury the evidence when the evidence is part of yourself?

Inspired by the life of Jessie Hickman, legendary twentieth-century bushranger, The Burial is a stunning debut novel, a work of haunting originality and power.

The People Smuggler by Robin de Crespigny (Penguin/Viking) - One of the non fiction books on the list. I don't read a lot of non-fiction so this one had passed me by.

At once a non-fiction thriller and a moral maze, this is one man's epic story of trying to find a safe place in the world.

When Ali Al Jenabi flees Saddam Hussein's torture chambers, he is forced to leave his family behind in Iraq. What follows is an incredible international odyssey through the shadow world of fake passports, crowded camps and illegal border crossings, living every day with excruciating uncertainty about what the next will bring.

Through betrayal, triumph, misfortune – even romance and heartbreak – Ali is sustained by his fierce love of freedom and family. Continually pushed to the limits of his endurance, eventually he must confront what he has been forced to become.

With enormous power and insight, The People Smuggler tells a story of daily heroism, bringing to life the forces that drive so many people to put their lives in unscrupulous hands. It is an utterly gripping portrait of a man cut loose from the protections of civilisation, attempting to retain his dignity and humanity while taking whatever path he can out of an impossible position.

Questions of Travel by Michelle de Kretser (Allen & Unwin) - Michelle de Kretser is no stranger to literary prizes. I have read one of her earlier books and have this on my list to get to one day.

A mesmerising literary novel, Questions of Travel charts two very different lives. Laura travels the world before returning to Sydney, where she works for a publisher of travel guides. Ravi dreams of being a tourist until he is driven from Sri Lanka by devastating events.

Around these two superbly drawn characters, a double narrative assembles an enthralling array of people, places and stories - from Theo, whose life plays out in the long shadow of the past, to Hana, an Ethiopian woman determined to reinvent herself in Australia.

Award-winning author Michelle de Kretser illuminates travel, work and modern dreams in this brilliant evocation of the way we live now. Wonderfully written, Questions of Travel is an extraordinary work of imagination - a transformative, very funny and intensely moving novel

Sufficient Grace by Amy Espeseth (Scribe Publications) - I heard Amy Espeseth read from this book at a Wheeler Centre event a few months ago and found her descriptions powerful, but the scene she read was one that I found disturbing. This is another debut novel.

Ruth and her cousin Naomi live in rural Wisconsin, part of an isolated religious community. The girls’ lives are ruled by the rhythms of nature — the harsh winters, the hunting seasons, the harvesting of crops — and by their families’ beliefs. Beneath the surface of this closed, frozen world, hidden dangers lurk.

Then Ruth learns that Naomi harbours a terrible secret. She searches for solace in the mysteries of the natural world: broken fawns, migrating birds, and the strange fish deep beneath the ice. Can the girls’ prayers for deliverance be answered?

Sufficient Grace is a story of lost innocence and the unfailing bond between two young women. It is at once devastating and beautiful, and ultimately transcendent.

The Sunlit Zone by Lisa Jacobson (5 Islands Press) - I knew nothing about this book. It is a novel in verse, which I must confess I have never read.

The Sunlit Zone is a moving elegy of love and loss, admirable for its narrative sweep and the family dynamic that drives it. A risk-taking work of rare, imaginative power.

The Sunlit Zone combines the narrative drive of the novel with the perfect pitch of true poetry. A darkly futuristic vision shot through with bolts of light. Brilliant, poignant, disconcerting.
- Adrian Hyland, author of Kinglake 350 and Diamond Dove:

This novel in verse, at once magical and irresistible, draws us in to a vivid future. In Lisa Jacobson’s telling, the Australian fascination with salt water and sea change is made over anew. Romance holds hands with science and takes to the ocean.
- Chris Wallace-Crabbe, author of The Domestic Sublime and By and Large.

Like a House on Fire by Cate Kennedy (Scribe Publications) - A short story collection from an author I have heard of, but never read.

From prize-winning short-story writer Cate Kennedy comes a new collection to rival her highly acclaimed Dark Roots. In Like a House on Fire, Kennedy once again takes ordinary lives and dissects their ironies, injustices and pleasures with her humane eye and wry sense of humour. In ‘Laminex and Mirrors’, a young woman working as a cleaner in a hospital helps an elderly patient defy doctor’s orders. In ‘Cross-Country’, a jilted lover manages to misinterpret her ex’s new life. And in ‘Ashes’, a son accompanies his mother on a journey to scatter his father’s remains, while lifelong resentments simmer in the background. Cate Kennedy’s poignant short stories find the beauty and tragedy in illness and mortality, life and love.

Sea Hearts by Margo Lanagan (Allen & Unwin) - The one book on the list that I have read....and loved! Just never quite got around to finishing my review of the book! This book was also published under the title Brides of Rollrock Island.

'Why would I? People are uneasy enough with me - if I start bringing up sea-wives, they'll take against me good and proper.'
'It could be secret.'
'Could it?'

On remote Rollrock Island, the sea-witch Misskaella discovers she can draw a girl from the heart of a seal. So, for a price, any man might buy himself a bride; an irresistibly enchanting sea-wife. But what cost will be borne by the people of Rollrock - the men, the women, the children - once Misskaella sets her heart on doing such a thing?

Margo Lanagan weaves an extraordinary tale of desire and revenge, of loyalty, heartache and human weakness, and of the unforeseen consequences of all-consuming love.

The Mind of a Thief by Patti Miller (UQP) - Non fiction

A superior memoir by an accomplished writer at the height of her powers

For 40,000 years the Central NSW area of Wellington was Aboriginal – Wiradjuri – land. Following the arrival of white men, it became a penal settlement, mission station, gold-mining town and farming centre with a history of white comfort and black marginalisation. In the late 20th century, it was also the subject of the first post-Mabo Native Title claim, bringing new hope – and new controversy – to the area and its people.

Wiradjuri land is also where author Patti Miller was born and, mid-life, it begins to exert a compelling emotional pull, demanding her return. Post-children, having lived a dream life in Paris, it is hard for her to understand, or ignore, and so she is drawn into the story at the heart of Australian identity – who are we in relation to our beloved but stolen country?

Wellington and the Wiradjuri people are the main characters – and in revealing their complex narratives, Patti uncovers her own. Are her connections to this place through her convict forefathers, or through another, secret history? She sets out on a journey of exploration and takes us with her. Black and white politics, the processes of colonisation, family mythologies, generational conflict and the power of place are evoked as Patti weaves a story that is very personal and, at the same time, a universal story of country and belonging.

The Mind of a Thief is about identity, history, place and belonging and, perhaps most of all, about how we create ourselves through our stories.
An Opening by Stephanie Radok (Wakefield Press)

Artist and writer Stephanie Radok possesses a unique international perspective. For over twenty years she has written about and witnessed the emergence of contemporary Aboriginal art and the responses of Australian art to global diasporas.

In An Opening: Twelve love stories about art, Stephanie Radok takes us on a walk with her dog and finds that it is possible to re-imagine the suburb as the site of epiphanies and attachments.
Mateship with Birds by Carrie Tiffany (Pan Macmillan/Picador) - A few years ago now I read and thoroughly enjoyed Tiffany's previous book Everyman's Rules for Scientific Living. I have had this book out from the library a couple of times. Time to request it again I think.

On the outskirts of an Australian country town in the 1950s, a lonely farmer trains his binoculars on a family of kookaburras that roost in a tree near his house. Harry observes the kookaburras through a year of feast, famine, birth, death, war, romance and song. As Harry watches the birds, his next door neighbour has her own set of binoculars trained on him. Ardent, hard-working Betty has escaped to the country with her two fatherless children. Betty is pleased that her son, Michael, wants to spend time with the gentle farmer next door. But when Harry decides to teach Michael about the opposite sex, perilous boundaries are crossed.

Mateship with Birds is a novel about young lust and mature love. It is a hymn to the rhythm of country life – to vicious birds, virginal cows, adored dogs and ill-used sheep. On one small farm in a vast, ancient landscape, a collection of misfits question the nature of what a family can be.

The shortlist will be announced on March 20 and I have vague ideas of attempting to read the shortlist, although that would mean keeping my schedule clear - something that I am not the best at! The inaugural winner will be announced on April 16

For a wrap up of reviews of the book that have been longlisted and reviewed as part of the challenge, head to the Australian Women Writer's Challenge website.

Currently Reading

Tart by Lauren Dane (why yes I have just talked about all these literature books and then confessed to reading a menage a trois contemporary romance - that's just how I roll!) and listening to Tuscan Rose by Belinda Alexandra

Up Next

Children of Destiny by Paullina Simons


  1. I've reviewed two of them: Questions of Travel (which I really liked) and Mazin Grace (which is good but not great IMO), and - as you know because we were together that night:) - I bought Sufficient Grace by Amy Espeseth despite my misgivings about that scene she read to us. But I haven't made myself pick it up to read it yet! Guns and hunting scenes are SO not my thing, but I read a review of it somewhere and they did say it was good so I'll try to get to it soon.
    The rest of them are a mystery to me except of course I know Cate Kennedy's work through her marvellous novel The World Beneath, but I passed on this title because I don't do short stories. Or verse novels or poetry.
    I read something by Margo Lanagan a while ago and didn't care for it much so I won't be reading that. On the other hand I had The Mind of a Thief by Patti Miller in mind for Indigenous Literature Week when I host it again in NAIDOC week ...

    1. I am contemplating the Cate Kennedy, but in the end I think I will wait to see what makes the shortlist.

      What did you read from Lanagan?

  2. Oops, I forgot, I reviewed Carrie Tiffany's Mateship with Birds too, and liked its edgy plot and characterisation, see .
    I wouldn't like to have to choose between it and Questions of Travel, they're both really interesting books.

  3. I've only read Questions of Travel, which I really enjoyed.
    Good luck with Children of Liberty - have seen mixed reviews and will be interested to see what you think. I disliked her last book intensely, but I love Tatiana and Alexander books, so I'm a bit uncertain...

    1. Sam, I am a little bit apprehensive about Children of Liberty. I haven't read the last book yet, but I didn't particularly like the one before that.

      I am a little bit concerned that I won't like this one either because I certainly haven't seen many rave reviews of it, even from her fans.

    2. I have Children of Liberty to read and am nervous, too -- I've seen very luckluster reviews as well. :/

  4. I read Dark Roots by Cate Kennedy over the Christmas break, in an afternoon. The stories in that first collection were all top notch, so I think I will definitely have to read this latest collection from her. I have De Kretser's The Lost Dog only a third read,on my bookshelf, I just couldn't get into it. Thanks for sharing the long list.

  5. I've only read The Burial and I'm not surprised to see it on the list as it's very much a literary novel. I do want to read Floundering, Sea Hearts adn Mateship with Birds- just haven't gotten to them yet.

    Shelleyrae @ Book'd Out

  6. Pretty much every book on this list looks good. I'm going to have to see if any of them are available in the United States. Margo Lanagan's Sea Hearts (The Brides of Rollrock Island out here) is such an amazing book. Thanks for sharing this with us.

  7. Thanks so much for posting this Marg, and in such detail (you're a woman after my own heart!), it's much appreciated. I hadn't realised it was time for this, it's hardly going to be in the news here (though I have heard of the Stella prize and why). I'm going to have to go through this again more slowly and take note of which ones pique my interest - most of which I'll have to wait till I get hold of anyway! But I do have the Margo Lanagan book.



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