Showing all posts tagged: fiction

What about a best of the best Miles Franklin award in 2027?

12 March 2023

Stacks of books in a bookshop

Image courtesy of Eli Digital Creative.

To mark its twenty-fifth anniversary, Britain’s Baillie Gifford literary prize, which recognises excellence in non-fiction writing, is holding a Winner of Winners Award to select the best title — the best of the best, if you like — among the past twenty-four winners of the prize.

Riffing on this idea, Jason Steger, literary editor for Australian newspapers The Age, and The Sydney Morning Herald, suggests the Miles Franklin Literary Award could do likewise to commemorate its seventieth anniversary in 2027. The Booker Prize also did something similar in 2008, for their fortieth anniversary, with the Best of the Booker.

Steger put forward the proposal in his weekly newsletter The Booklist last week. A special panel of judges could create a shortlist of perhaps a dozen past Miles Franklin winners, with a public vote to determine an overall victor:

Like the Booker, choosing a shortlist and a public vote would seem the optimum way to go if the Miles were to do it. A panel of judges would have to be chosen and they could pick perhaps a 10- or 12-book shortlist. And then the likes of you and me would have our say.

Selecting a crème de la crème winner would be a big ask, as would drawing up any shortlist, but anything that boosts interest and excitement in Australian literature can only be a good idea.


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Hydra, debut literary horror fiction by Adriane Howell

11 March 2023

Hydra, by Adriane Howell, book cover

Before she lost her job, Anja sold antique furniture at an auction house in Melbourne, capital of the Australian state of Victoria. The pieces she prepared for sale though were more than mere objects to her. These aged items of furniture, and bric-a-brac, were possessed of intricate histories. Imagine the stories each could tell, were they able to speak.

Perhaps it was partly this fascination with the past that lead Anja to lease a ramshackle old cottage, on a naval base on the Mornington Peninsula, to the south of Melbourne. The cottage’s isolation makes for the ideal place to retreat from the world, something she is seeking right now. Being sacked is not the only misfortune to befall Anja. Her mother died recently, and her marriage also failed.

The cottage is in need of attention, and Anja thinks fixing up the old place could be the beginning of something new. It might also help her keep her sanity. Anja finds a new job, and goes about making a home of the cottage. But strange things seem to be happening, and Anja comes to believe she is not alone on the grounds of the cottage.

She begins looking for answers. Like the history of the antiques she once obsessed over, Anja learns the cottage also has something of a history, a somewhat dark one, at that. Do these alleged past events — which the reader is given glimpses of by way of classified defence department reports — have any connection to what Anja thinks is happening now?

But Anja is a troubled person, and may not be the most reliable of narrators. Hydra, published by Transit Lounge in August 2022, is the debut novel of Melbourne based Australian author and arts worker, Adriane Howell. Howell is also the co-founder of Gargouille, a literary journal she established with Sarah Wreford in 2014.

Hydra, which has been longlisted for the 2023 Stella Prize, has variously been described as mystery, thriller, and literary horror. Anyone looking for slasher variety gore though, may be disappointed. The real horror in Hydra perhaps lies in the protagonist’s struggle to maintain her sanity, and keep a grip on reality.


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The 2023 Penguin Literary Prize shortlist

9 March 2023

The 2023 Penguin Literary Prize shortlist, consisting of six manuscripts by new and emerging Australian writers of literary fiction, has been unveiled:

  • The Elementals by Liz Allan
  • The Boy Who Wept Rabbits by Benjamin Forbes
  • Falling and Burning by Michael Krockenberger
  • Jade and Emerald by Michelle See-Tho
  • Nothing Like The Sun by J.N. Read
  • The Guggenheim by Heather Taylor-Johnson

The winner, to be named on Thursday 15 June 2023, will win a cash prize, and have the opportunity to see their work published.

Update: the winner has been named.


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Thirst for Salt, the debut novel of Madelaine Lucas

8 March 2023

Thirst for Salt, by Madelaine Lucas, book cover

It was the title of Thirst for Salt, published by Allen & Unwin in April 2023, the debut novel of New York based Australian author Madelaine Lucas, that initially piqued my curiosity.

What did the name refer to? Was it a reference to the setting of the story, an isolated coastal town called Sailors Beach. Was the thirst for salt a desire to be near the water, to be swimming in the ocean? Or might the title describe a penchant for things salty, and the partaking of a taste sensation both sweet and sour?

Perhaps a thirst for salt is summation of the romantic relationship central to the novel. The affair a woman in her early twenties has with a man almost twenty years her senior.

She meets Jude, at the beach, after she is stung by a jelly-fish. He takes her home to tend her wound, and there it begins. But Jude soon reveals himself as a far from ideal lover and partner. He is manipulative, demanding, and evasive. He, for instance, refuses to introduce his girlfriend to his family and friends.

But these red flags, these warnings of toxic character flaws, are indiscernible when in the throes of love. They are brushed off, explained away, with an offhanded apathy. It is only in reassessing the relationship more than a decade later when she — the narrator of Thirst for Salt goes unnamed — understands just how much was not right.

But Lucas’ novel is not only a meditation of a romantic relationship. The narrator also ponders her relationship with her mother, and a childhood spent moving from place to place, without the presence of a father.

This is not a book for readers looking for fast paced action, or, for that matter, quotation marks accompanying the speech of the novel’s characters. Thirst for Salt is a contemplative exploration of deep, and complex feelings. It is the recounting of a journey some of us will be familiar with. One we are ambivalent about, but one that is often unforgettable. Perhaps now the idea behind the name of the novel begins to become apparent.


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Every Version of You, speculative fiction by Grace Chan

5 March 2023

Every Version of You, by Grace Chan, book cover

Finding someone to publish science fiction in Australia is difficult but not wholly impossible. A number of Australian authors report difficulty in having works of anything other than contemporary or literary fiction published locally, forcing them to take their work to overseas publishers.

Under these circumstances it would seem Melbourne based Australian author Grace Chan was fortunate. Her debut novel Every Version of You, published by Affirm Press in July 2022, is categorised as speculative fiction after all. Speculative fiction may not be another name for science fiction per se, but speculative fiction is often considered an umbrella term for a number of non-realist fiction genres, including horror, fantasy, and sci-fi.

Every Version of You is set in the late twenty-first century in a world where inhabitants spend most of their time within what is described as a hyper-immersive, hyper-consumerist virtual reality called Gaia. They live almost every aspect of their lives in this digital realm without ever leaving the house. But wait a minute, doesn’t that describe the way many of us already live? Are we not so immersed by the domain on the screen in the palm of our hands that we don’t even blink sideways at the person standing next to us?

Social media gave rise to socialising online, while the COVID-19 lockdowns of recent years made working from home the norm, deepening our engagement with the virtual dimension.

Gaia then sounds very much like an actual place, rather than the product of a speculative fiction writer’s mind. Might these details have somehow escaped the publisher of Every Version of You, who believed the book to be a work of a genre other than speculative fiction? This is surely a hopeful sign for writers of speculative and science fiction in Australia, as their work often explores contemporary, and relevant matters, through a lens other than that of contemporary or literary fiction.

The prospect of uploading one’s consciousness, in a digital format, to the internet, sometimes called mind uploading, is by no means a fanciful notion either. And in the world Tao-Yi, and her boyfriend Navin inhabit, this is something they find themselves grappling with. Tao-Yi, who has reservations about the Gaia concept in any case, is anything but enthusiastic when a technology that allows people to permanently upload their consciousness completely to Gaia, emerges. Navin, in contrast, is all for the idea.

Tao-Yi is confronted with a choice. Follow her boyfriend into this perpetual digital realm, or, like her mother, remain in the real world, but one ravaged by climate change and poverty. Those who reside in the world Chan has created seem to be damned if they do, damned if they don’t.

Chan, who also works a psychiatrist, is a prolific writer of short fiction, with a keen interest in neuroscience, consciousness, empathy, ethics, and the mind-body relationship. One of her short works, He Leaps for the Stars, He Leaps for the Stars, was shortlisted in the Aurealis Awards, a literary prize celebrating the work of Australian speculative fiction writers.

Every Version of You meanwhile has been longlisted for the 2023 Stella Prize. Recognition of a work of speculative fiction by a literary award as highly regarded as the Stellar is certainly positive for writers of the genre in Australia.


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The Wakes, debut fiction by Australian author Dianne Yarwood

1 March 2023

The Wakes, by Dianne Yarwood, book cover

I’m yet to read The Wakes, published by Hachette Australia, March 2023, by Sydney based Australian author Dianne Yarwood, but I’m already convinced it could be adapted to film. I’ve even thought of a name: Four Funerals and a Divorce. I’m not actually sure a divorce even occurs in Yarwood’s fiction debut, there may in fact be two, given the blurb to The Wakes tells us two failing marriages (and four funerals) feature in the story. But back to my big screen adaptation idea.

Since my fanciful film title, Four Funerals and a Divorce, obviously riffs on the 1994 film Four Weddings and a Funeral, directed by Mike Newell, and starring Andie MacDowell and Hugh Grant, the two leads could be invited to participate. The rest of the would-be cast though would of course be Australian. But now back to The Wakes.

Sydneysider Clare has recently separated from her husband. She is happy to accept a call for help from Louisa, her neighbour. Louisa runs a catering business that specialises in wakes, the gatherings that take place after funerals. Louisa is overwhelmed with work. Assisting Louisa is a smart move on Clare’s part for several reasons. Wake catering has to be a growth industry. Further, it is somewhat immune to the threats posed to other forms of employment by the likes of AI Chatbots.

But job security, whether Clare is looking for it or not, is moot point. Wake catering might be about to change her life. For it is at one post funeral gathering that Clare makes the acquaintance of Chris. He is a doctor working in the emergency room of a hospital. Chris sees too much death in his job to want to think about going to funerals, but he decides one day to make an exception.

The Wakes is isn’t all wake catering though. In the mix is love both lost and found, unsuccessful rounds of IVF, and the constant comfort that food can bring to the lives of people whose depleted spirits need a little lift.

Prior to penning her first novel, Yarwood worked in accounting and corporate advisory, both in Australia and Europe. She also has an interest in cooking and catering, which seems to have partly inspired her novel. But there’s more. Her life was once saved by an emergency room doctor, an experience that lead Yarwood to focus on her long held writing ambitions. Along with possibly being the genius behind the character of Chris.

Could we be seeing another instance of art imitating life, as we do in a lot of fiction, among the pages of The Wakes?

UPDATE: after waxing lyrical about the possibility of a film adaptation, a reader messaged to let me know a TV series, based on The Wakes, is in the works. A screen adaptation deal was reached last September, with production company Fifth Season.


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One Illumined Thread, debut fiction by Sally Colin-James

28 February 2023

One Illumined Thread, by Sally Colin-James, book cover

The stories of three women, living millennia apart, form a single, though not immediately obvious, thread that runs through One Illumined Thread, published by HarperCollins, March 2023, the debut novel of Australian author Sally Colin-James.

A young woman living two thousand years ago in Judea, an ancient kingdom in parts of what are today Palestine and Israel, is cast out of her home after failing to become pregnant. She longs to have a child, and as a way of keeping the hope of motherhood in her sights, takes the unusual step of learning the craft of glassblowing.

Fifteen hundred years later, in the Italian city of Florence, a woman is left without any money after being betrayed by her husband. The Renaissance is at its height, but with a son to look after also, she battles to make ends meet. The third thread of the story plays out in latter day Australia. Here a woman, devastated by a loss, working as a textile conservator, faces danger that puts her life at risk.

While the challenges confronting each woman seem insurmountable, the three share a link, even though they are separated by vast periods of time and distance.

The premise of One Illumined Thread brought to mind The Bass Rock, written in 2020 by Anglo-Australian author Evie Wyld. Wyld’s novel, winner of the 2021 Stella Prize, recounts the story of three woman who lived in the North Berwick area of Scotland at various times. Two women, Ruth and Viv, have a family connection, step grandmother and granddaughter, while the third, Sarah, lived several centuries earlier.

But where the ties between the three main characters in The Bass Rock are more apparent, the links in One Illumined Thread are far less so. Here is a story shrouded in mystery.

Before she took up writing, Colin-James worked in events management, and communications, both in Australia, and internationally. In 2020 she won the inaugural Historical Novel Society Australasia (HNSA) Colleen McCullough Writing Residency in the aspiring writer category. The residency, named in memory of late Australian author Colleen McCullough, awards recipients a week on Norfolk Island, where McCullough spent the latter part of her life.

Colin-James has also won the Varuna PIP Fellowship Award, and the Byron Bay Writers Festival Mentorship Award in 2020. In addition, she was also shortlisted in the First Pages Prize for writers who do not have agents, in 2021.


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How to Be Remembered, debut fiction by Michael Thompson

26 February 2023

How to Be Remembered by Michael Thompson, book cover

Tommy is desperate to create a legacy for himself. But he can’t wait until he reaches old age. Tommy needs people to remember who he is sooner than that. Before his birthday, to be precise. For, come the conclusion of each lap of his around the Sun, all memory of his existence is erased from the minds of everyone in the world. No one at all remembers him.

This includes his parents, his friends, and even the girl he has a crush on. As far they’re concerned, he was never there. Every trace of his life is obliterated. Memories. Photos. Shared experiences. Every last thing, including, presumably, a criminal record if he has one. Each and every detail gone, as if it were never there. And you thought you were having a bad day.

But not everything dissolves when the clock ticks over into his birthday. Anything Tommy is in direct contact with, such as his clothes, stays with him. The phenomenon is some sort of enigmatic cosmic occurrence that Tommy has dubbed “the Reset”, and it began the day he turned one.

On his first birthday, his parents woke to find an unknown baby in the house. They had no recollection whatsoever of having a son. Clueless as to who the infant was, they called the police, who sent Tommy to a foster home. And so it went. Every year all traces of Tommy are wiped from the world’s slate, leaving him to spend the following twelve months rebuilding his life.

How to Be Remembered (published by Allen & Unwin, February 2023), by Sydney based Australian journalist and podcast producer Michael Thompson, straight away had me thinking of Harold Ramis’ 1993 film Groundhog Day. Like Ramis’ hapless protagonist Phil, portrayed by American actor Bill Murray, Tommy is aware of his predicament, albeit one that plays out annually instead of daily.

He remembers everything from before his birthday. To him, his life is continuous. He still knows those around him, although they don’t have the faintest idea who he is. Accordingly, Tommy has devised strategies to re-establish himself in the lives of those he was with before the Reset.

But Thompson’s debut work of fiction is not only reminiscent of the likes of Groundhog Day. Parallels have also been drawn with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and even Forrest Gump. The Reset, meanwhile, is another matter. It is a sadistic abnormality that perhaps a serial speedster — seeking only to have an unblemished driving record restored every year — might appreciate.

But it is for that reason I see How to Be Remembered being a story that will excite readers. So much so, that I wouldn’t be surprised to see a screen adaptation in the not too distant future.


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Australian genre fiction authors look overseas for publishers

22 October 2022

If you’re an Australian author, don’t bother submitting manuscripts for anything other than literary fiction to local publishers. Nothing else will be accepted. That seems to be the message from a number of prominent Australian writers, including Stephanie Laurens and Shelley Parker-Chan, who say they had to find overseas publishers for their works of genre fiction.

The local publishing landscape is dominated by trade houses that concentrate on contemporary or literary fiction: books that are often character-driven, serious and contemplative. But these novels are not the most popular. A 2021 survey of Australian readers found crime and mystery was their favourite genre, followed by science fiction and fantasy, then contemporary and literary fiction.

But according to Jo MacKay, the head of local publishing at HQ Books, a division of HarperCollins, the Australian book market is saturated by the likes of fantasy fiction. It may be popular, but no one is buying it, if that makes any sense. And while Australian authors undoubtedly greatly benefit from exposure to markets such as those in America, there are strings attached.

For instance, Laurens reported having to be content with a cover design her publisher thought would be conducive to sales, rather than an option she would have preferred.


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ManyBooks fifty-thousand free fiction titles to read

12 September 2022

ManyBooks is an online book resource offering free access to over fifty-thousand titles. That should keep you occupied for a while.

ManyBooks was established in 2004 with the vision to provide an extensive library of books in digital format for free on the Internet. Many of the early eBooks are from the Project Gutenberg archives, which means you will be able to find a lot of classics on the site.


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