science fiction and fantasy author

Category: Australian women writers challenge 2014

AWW14: Completed

This year for the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge I signed up at the Franklin level – read at least 10 books, reviewing at least 6.

My stats for the year:

Female Australian authors read: 52.

Reviews written: 7.


Links to reviews:

The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf by Ambelin Kwaymullina.

The Other Tree by D.K. Mok.

Peacemaker by Marianne de Pierres.

The Swan Book by Alexis Wright.

The Secret River by Kate Grenville.

Perfections by Kirstyn McDermott.

Mullumbimby by Melissa Lucashenko.


Musings on the challenge

Overall, I’m really happy with my reading year in terms of this challenge.  The total number of books was easy to achieve, since I was judging for the Aurealis Awards both at the beginning and end of the year.

I had originally set up a mental challenge to myself to review at least one book a month, but that unfortunately fell by the wayside.  I feel fairly happy with the seven reviews I got written, though.  I’m especially glad that I picked up more books by Indigenous writers this year, and hope to extend that into my challenge for next year as well.  Of particular note is Mullumbimby, which I picked up specifically because it was linked from the AWW Goodreads page, and was probably a book that I wouldn’t have normally come across otherwise.

Many thanks to the organisers of the challenge, and if you’ve never given it a go, I encourage everyone to.  Even if it makes you pick up one book by a female Australian author, I consider that a worthy accomplishment.

AWW2014: Mullumbimby by Melissa Lucashenko


A darkly funny novel of romantic love and cultural warfare from one of Australia’s most admired Indigenous voices.

When Jo Breen uses her divorce settlement to buy a neglected property in the Byron Bay hinterland, she is hoping for a tree change, and a blossoming connection to the land of her Aboriginal ancestors. What she discovers instead is sharp dissent from her teenage daughter, trouble brewing from unimpressed white neighbours and a looming Native Title war between the local Bundjalung families. When Jo unexpectedly finds love on one side of the Native Title divide she quickly learns that living on country is only part of the recipe for the Good Life.

I’m not going to put anyone in suspense here.  I loved this book.  No, I loved this book.

One of the things I’ve tried to do with my reading for the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge is to expand beyond the normal limits of my reading – which, for me, means picking up more non-speculative work, and especially trying to pick up works by Indigenous authors.

Side note: I’m finding myself staring at the cover of Mullumbimby as I’m typing this.  The image of a bird’s nest woven from barbed wire, but lined with soft feathers and leaves for the baby birds, is one of the strongest in the book.  For me, that single image sums up many of the themes in the book: Jo’s personal struggles as she fights to make her place on her own piece of land, her relationship with her daughter and with the man who comes into her life, Twoboy, and the greater battle Indigenous Australians fight for Native Title, the rights to the land that they believe is theirs by right and that was stolen from them.

Jo Breen is an incredible character.  From the moment she steps foot onto the page she is living and breathing as she fights to establish her farm.  Her love for the land, her daughter and her horses is so incredibly strong, aptly mirroring the strong ties that many Indigenous Australians feel to their native land.

Some reviewers have complained about the choice Lucashenko made to incorporate Bundjalung dialect into the book, but I felt that it served to give the story even more power.  A glossary is provided at the back of the book for those who need it, but I found that Lucashenko’s writing was almost always good enough to divine the meanings of words unknown to me simply by their context.  It’s possible that non-Australian writers may struggle slightly more with this, since both landscape and language could potentially both be unfamiliar. In particular, I believe that the use of dialect highlighted the fact that I, as a white Australian reader, was oftentimes being given a look into a world that both was and was not mine.

There are many extraordinarily powerful moments in this book.  Jo as she works to maintain the cemetary, even as she returns exhausted from that work to wrestle returning her own land to health.  The aforementioned bird’s nest, and the things that Jo experiences in the bush, evidence of the ancient spiritual connections of her bloodline to the land.  All of this works to highlight some of the separation that Jo feels to her own past, which mirrors the breaking of much of Indigenous Australia with the land.

There is heartbreak, and there is struggle and loss as Jo fights for her place in the world.  But at the end, Mullumbimby also gives much hope.  Lucashenko should be commended for the sensitive manner in which she deals with major issues relating to Indigenous Australia.

This is a book that I highly, highly recommend to anyone living within Australia, or with a desire to learn more about this country.


AWW2014: Perfections by Kirstyn McDermott

Note: I was on the judging panel for the 2012 Aurealis Awards which awarded Perfections with Best Horror Novel.


Two sisters. One wish. Unimaginable consequences.

Not all fairytales are for children.

Antoinette and Jacqueline have little in common beyond a mutual antipathy for their paranoid, domineering mother, a bond which has united them since childhood. In the aftermath of a savage betrayal, Antoinette lands on her sister’s doorstep bearing a suitcase and a broken heart. But Jacqueline, the ambitious would-be manager of a trendy Melbourne art gallery, has her own problems – chasing down a delinquent painter in the sweltering heat of a Brisbane summer. Abandoned, armed with a bottle of vodka and her own grief-spun desires, Antoinette weaves a dark and desperate magic that can never, ever be undone.

Their lives swiftly unravelling, the two sisters find themselves drawn into a tangle of lies, manipulations and the most terrible of family secrets.


Perfections is the second novel by Kirstyn McDermott, originally released as an ebook only from Xoum, and recent re-released by Twelfth Planet Press as a gorgeous paperback.   McDermott’s debut novel, Madigan Mine is also being re-released by Twelfth Planet Press as an ebook.

First thing: I am so happy to be able to own a physical copy of this book.  I read a lot of ebooks, but for books that I really love (spoiler: I love this book), I really like having a physical copy on the shelf.  And this is a seriously gorgeous book, with stunning cover art by Amanda Rainey.

Second thing: I am a massive fan of McDermott’s work in general.  In terms of craft, she is extraordinarily talented – at a sentence level, her prose is lyrical and evocative, and her characters are always exquisitely drawn.  From the moment they step foot onto the page, they live and breathe and feel; combine this with the darkness that twines through most of McDermott’s work, and you have something truly extraordinary.

Perfections is what I’ve come to expect from McDermott – grounded in reality, but a reality slightly twisted, threaded through with dark magic.  I don’t want to talk too much in depth about the plot of the book – there are details that aren’t really spoilers, but I believe that the reading of the book is a much richer experience if you don’t know them.

Perfections is, at its heart, a book about sisters, about daughters, about mothers.  It is a book about the way families can twist around secrets (and oh, the secrets that this family has).  The reader moves back and forth between the viewpoints of two sisters, Antoinette and Jacqueline.  Both are skilfully drawn, and it is very easy to feel empathy for both of them and the situations that they are in; especially well done is the juxtaposition between how they see themselves and how they are seen by their sister.

There is darkness here: both of the human variety (and kudos to McDermott for how well she handles some of the true nastiness in her characters – it always makes sense, and is never there for the sake of a character having to be nasty to justify a dark genre), and of the fantastical.  There is some particular imagery from near the end of the book that I will likely never be able to get out of my head (if you’ve read the book, I bet you know what I mean).

And, without spoiling anything, Perfections has a seriously good ending.

Reading as a reader, I was utterly captivated by this world (and loving some of the connections to McDermott’s other work).  As a writer, I was torn between deep envy and deep admiration for just how damn well McDermott writes.  The envy doesn’t last long, of course, especially when an author is as damn nice as McDermott is.

Horror and dark fantasy are genres that have, at times, a bad reputation – I know plenty of readers who won’t even touch something that might be horror.  And honestly, with some of the books and movies that are in the genre, I don’t blame them (reputations are, sometimes, justified things).  And yes, sometimes there is absolutely nothing wrong with gore for the sake of gore, fear for the sake of fear.  I do wish that some of the readers who shy away would pick up books like Perfections and realise that there can be much more to the horror/dark fantasy genre.

Perfections is an incredible book.  It is haunting and evocative, presenting a world that is just so slightly askew from our own, but populated with characters who live and breathe so well that they could be anyone you know.  McDermott is one of Australia’s best writers of dark fiction, and if you haven’t read any of her work, Perfections is an extremely good place to start.  And then prepare to devour everything else.

AWW2014: The Secret River, by Kate Grenville


In 1806, William Thornhill is an impoverished boatman struggling to feed his family. After being caught stealing wood, he is sentenced to be transported to the penal colony of New South Wales. His wife, Sal, accompanies him, along with their first child; when they make land in the colony, her husband becomes her slave.

The two of them and their growing family eke out an existence in this strange new land, their eyes always on the eventual goal of returning home to England. Thornhill eventually earns his pardon, and discovers a stretch of land along the Hawkesbury River, which he becomes determined to settle.

As any Australian should know, the colonists and convicts were not the first people to settle this area, and Thornhill and his family become aware of the indigenous people (or “savages”, or simply the “blacks” as the colonists call them). The colonists are erecting fences and clearing fields on lands the Aboriginal people have roamed through and lived with for generations, and it is inevitable that some conflict will occur.

This novel conveys the horrific events of that conflict in brutal honesty, and juxtaposes it beautifully against the absolute poverty that drove men like Thornhill to thieve (often small amounts) in an effort to try to feed their families.

The ending of the book feels a little rushed and almost unbelievable after the events that preceded it (trying to avoid spoilers here, though one wonders how much you can actively spoil something based on historical events) – but the horrific truth is that it absolutely reflects reality. A wealthy nation was founded, in part, on blood and secrets and brutality, and Grenville does not shy away from that. I can only imagine how difficult parts of this book must have been for Grenville to write, since she drew on her own family history as inspiration.

Highly recommended.

AWW2014: The Swan Book by Alexis Wright

(I had decided to only post my AWW reviews on Goodreads, but have decided to cross-post here as well.  Adding reviews to date.)


The Swan Book is set in the future, with Aboriginals still living under the Intervention in the north, in an environment fundamentally altered by climate change. It follows the life of a mute young woman called Oblivia, the victim of gang-rape by petrol-sniffing youths, from the displaced community where she lives in a hulk, in a swamp filled with rusting boats, and thousands of black swans, to her marriage to Warren Finch, the first Aboriginal president of Australia, and her elevation to the position of First Lady, confined to a tower in a flooded and lawless southern city. The Swan Book has all the qualities which made Wright’s previous novel, Carpentaria, a prize-winning best-seller. It offers an intimate awareness of the realities facing Aboriginal people; the energy and humour in her writing finds hope in the bleakest situations; and the remarkable combination of storytelling elements, drawn from myth and legend and fairy tale, has Oblivia Ethylene in the company of amazing characters like Aunty Bella Donna of the Champions, the Harbour Master, Big Red and the Mechanic, a talking monkey called Rigoletto, three genies with doctorates, and throughout, the guiding presence of swans.

Every once in a while you pick up a book that you immediately want to buy copies of for half (or all) of your friends. This is one of those books.

“The Swan Book” is set in a future Australia, where much of the world has been devastated by global warming and subsequent climate change. Whole nations have been swallowed by the sea, and entire peoples made refugees. Australian Aboriginals are living underneath the Intervention, essentially locked into camps in the north of the country.

Obilivia Ethyl(ene) lives in one of these camps, a collection of people eking out a life around a polluted lake. Gang-raped by petrol-sniffing youths, she reduces her life to myth. She walks through a strange life surrounded by swans, brolgas and owls, where people are not always people, and her path can just as easily be a poem or a song.

This book may not be for everyone: the prose is often poetic, slipping into colloquialisms and stream-of-consciousness and back again, often within the span of one sentence. If you want your story told in a straightforward manner, then you should look elsewhere. But if you are willing to enter a world where myth walks beside reality, and there can be beauty even in the most horrible of things, then “The Swan Book” is for you.

Absolutely incredible, and I am not surprised at all that this has been shortlisted for the Stella Prize.

AWW: Peacemaker by Marianne de Pierres

(I had decided to only post my AWW reviews on Goodreads, but have decided to cross-post here as well.  Adding reviews to date.)


When an imaginary animal from her troubled teenage years reappears, Virgin takes it to mean one of two things: a breakdown (hers!) or a warning. Dead bodies start piling up around her, so she decides on the latter. Something terrible is about to happen in the park and Virgin and her new partner, U.S. Marshall Nate Sixkiller, are standing in its path…

Virgin Jackson is the senior ranger in Birrimun Park – the world’s last natural landscape, overshadowed though it is by a sprawling coastal megacity. She maintains public safety and order in the park, but her bosses have brought out a hotshot cowboy to help her catch some drug runners who are affecting tourism. She senses the company is holding something back from her, and she’s not keen on working with an outsider like Nate Sixkiller

(eARC provided by Netgalley in exchange for a fair review)

In the future, Earth’s wildernesses have been decimated, the landscape dominated by megacities. Only one natural place remains – Birrimun Park. Its senior ranger is Virgin Jackson, a tough-talking, stubborn woman who loves the park, though she is not overly fond of the American West themes inflicted on the Australian park in order to feed the tourist trade.

The park is supposed to be inviolate, a fact that Virgin believes until she witnesses a murder within its boundaries. At the time time, she begins to see Aquila, an “imaginary” eagle that she has seen since she was a child, and relegated to a product of her tempestuous teenage years.

Virgin becomes a target, though she has no idea who is targeting her, and is forced to delve into her own past as well as the mysteries of what happened in the park in order to guarantee her own safety.

Peacemaker sets a hectic pace, with Virgin and Nate stumbling from one dangerous situation to the next. de Pierres manages to balance this tumult of action with calmer scenes, all of which work to develop the world and Virgin herself.

Virgin Jackson is a heroine that science fiction needs to see more of. She is real – she hesitates sometimes, and other times she tumbles head over heels into situations that the reader will fairly be screaming at her to run away from. She gets beaten up a lot, and yet she always gets up again. She breaks gender roles in a multitude of ways, and yet de Pierres hasn’t fallen back on any tropes in making her strong in this sense. She can stand with any of them men in this world, and yet she also possesses a softness and vulnerability that the reader is allowed glimpses of.

Readers will also find the romance in this refreshing – after the first few chapters, I had feared that things were being set up for a love triangle. Nothing of the sort ensues, though the romance is by no means easy or simple.

It is clear that de Pierres has developed a wonderful world here, and it feels very much like this book only skims the surface of it. There are many tantalising hints of depths, especially in terms of the spiritual side of the world, and of Nate Sixkiller.

I am very glad to see that at least one sequel to this book will be coming out, and I hope to see many more after it, de Pierres willing to write more. de Pierres is an extremely talented author who has produced an exceptional variety of works, and if you haven’t read any of her work before, Peacemaker is a great place to start.

AWW2014: The Other Tree by D.K. Mok

(I had decided to only post my AWW reviews on Goodreads, but have decided to cross-post here as well.  Adding reviews to date.)


It’s been four years since Chris Arlin graduated with a degree that most people think she made up, and she’s still no closer to scraping up funding for her research into rare plants. Instead, she’s stacking shelves at the campus library, until a suspiciously well-dressed man offers her a lucrative position on a scientific expedition.

For Chris, the problem isn’t the fact that they’re searching for the Biblical Tree of Life. Nor is it the fact that most of the individuals on the expedition seem to be fashionably lethal mercenaries. The problem is that the mission is being backed by SinaCorp, the corporation responsible for a similar, failed expedition on which her mother died eleven years ago.

However, when Chris’s father is unexpectedly diagnosed with inoperable cancer, Chris sees only one solution. Vowing to find the Tree of Life before SinaCorp’s mercenaries, Chris recruits Luke, an antisocial campus priest undergoing a crisis of faith. Together, they embark on a desperate race to find Eden. However, as the hunt intensifies, Chris discovers growing evidence of her mother’s strange behaviour before her death, and she begins to realise that SinaCorp isn’t the only one with secrets they want to stay buried.

(eARC provided by Netgalley in exchange for a fair review)

“The Other Tree” is Australian author D.K. Mok’s debut novel. Caught somewhere between fantasy and thriller with religious overtones, this books is inevitably going to be compared to blockbusters like “The DaVinci Code”. The bonus here is that Mok’s writing is almost flawless, and her characters live and breathe (and snark at refreshing intervals) and actually act like real human beings.

Chris Arlin is a cryptobotanist who is approached by the company SinaCorp (who seem to be involved in pretty much anything and everything scientific and technical) to search for the real Bibical Tree of Life. Not only does Chris not trust SinaCorp’s motives for searching for the Tree, but she blames the company for her mother’s death, and, naturally, rejects their offer. Instead, she becomes determined to discover the Tree on her own, enlisting the help of conflicted priest Luke, on her quest.

Both Chris and Luke are complex, but extremely believable characters. There are several tropes that I feared would occur during this book – a romance between the two, for example – that Mok, thankfully never goes near. Chris and Luke always act within the bounds of their own beliefs and knowledge, and I never got the impression that either they, or the events of the book, were being forced into situations simply to serve the plot.

Chris, in particular, is a fabulous character. She never wavers from her interests and beliefs, and is more than strong enough to carry the story, even without Luke. Together, they give a fascinating perspective into this Indiana Jones-like quest for the Tree of Life. It would be very easy for an author to lose any character development against the background of such an enormous plot, and Mok never does – these characters remain vivid and real the whole way through.

Recommended for anyone who likes adventures and good, character-based fiction.


AWW2014: The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf by Ambelin Kwaymullina

(I had decided to only post my AWW reviews on Goodreads, but have decided to cross-post here as well.  Adding reviews to date.)



The Reckoning destroyed civilisation. Rising from the ashes, some people have developed unique abilities, and society is scared of them. Guided by the ancient spirits of the land, Ashala Wolf will do anything to keep them safe.

When Ashala is captured, she realises she has been betrayed by someone she trusted. When her interrogator starts digging in her memories for information, she doubts she can protect her people forever. Will the Tribe survive the interrogation of Ashala Wolf?


The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf is the first book in Ambelin Kwaymullina’s post-apocalyptic/dystopian series, The Tribe. The series itself is marketed as YA fantasy, and while this book does technically fit into that category, I believe it would miss a lot of readers who would otherwise enjoy it.

There’s a lot to like about this book. There’s an originality to the world that Kwaymullina creates, even though she uses often standard tropes in its creation. An ecological disaster – never fully defined, but implied to have come about because of mankind pillaging the world through greed, and upsetting the Balance – has changed the face of the world. People, too, have changed, with many developing powers – some can cause earthquakes, others can shape the sky to forms they wish, others can read thoughts, to name just a few examples. Those who have powers are tightly controlled by the government (where control equals living in a detention centre), lest they upset the Balance and cause another apocalypse. Those who flee are Illegals, and hunted.

Ashala Wolf is the leader of the group of Illegals who live as the Tribe. This is the story of her interrogation in a detention centre.

It is a fantastic story: Ashala is a fascinating character, as are the other characters we see over the course of the book. What we see of the world is intriguing: we see the giant lizard saurs, and pieces of the Firstwood. And while this isn’t like to bother many of the YA target audience, sometimes, reading this as an adult reader, I found it frustrating that we *only* get to see these hints. I feel as though Kwaymullin has actually developed this world (which does feel very much like a post-apocalyptic Australia, though Australia itself in this future does not exist), but we don’t get to see *enough* of it. I do hope that more of the worldbuilding will be revealed over the course of the series.

The structure also didn’t quite work for me. It feels very much the debut novel it is, as Kwaymullin reaches to peel back the layers of story and truth in a fashion that *almost* works. I actually found myself having to check several times over the first third of the book that this was indeed the first book in the series, since so much was referred to but not explained. It’s nice not to see huge infodumps, but there could have been some more backstory explained.

Overall, this is a start to a very promising series by an Australian author, and an extremely accomplished debut. I’ve really only deducted a star for the structure that didn’t quite work for me, and I would recommend this whole-heartedly. I know that if I’d read this as a fifteen-year-old, I would have been dreaming of running away to join the Tribe.

Australian Women Writers 2014


I’d debated about whether I was going to sign up for the Australian Women Writer’s Challenge again this year.

Not because I didn’t enjoy the challenge last year, but simply because I want to focus most of my energy on writing this year, and not so much on reviewing.

But then while looking through my Goodreads feed, I found a book that I want to read for the challenge.  And so, I am signing up again.

I am signing up at the Franklin level again (read at least 10, review at least 6) and will be cross-posting my reviews on the blog here (and from here to Livejournal and Dreamwidth and Tumblr) and at Goodreads.

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