AWW 2014 – signing up

AWW 2014 badge
AWW 2014 badge

Well, this probably comes as no surprise to those of you who follow me on Twitter, but I will be taking part in AWW 2014.

I’ve been tweeting about enjoying hardcopy books again, after finding myself juggling three paperbacks in my reading hours.

They are all books written by Australian women authors, and include crime fiction and memoir/autobiography. They will probably be reviewed during AWW 2014, as this newly created page flags.

What am I reading at the moment?

  1. PM Newton’s The Old School
  2. Michelle Lee’s Banana Girl
  3. Michelle Dicinoski’s Ghost Wife

It’s purely by accident that I’ve ended up in the midst of this fab constellation of writers/books.

1. I finally got into Old School (which I’ve been meaning to read for YEARS, as @oanh_1 will testify…) because I saw that Newton’s second book about Detective ‘Ned’ (Nhu) Kelly was coming out soon.

2. Dicinoski’s book was gifted to me by the author herself after we had a great, energising chat (our first meeting!). I couldn’t resist having a peek at the first few pages and was immediately engaged by the prose and my own Brisbane nostalgia.

3. Lee’s book was a discovery during one of my frantic Xmas bookshopping blitzes. I hadn’t heard anything about this book, but was immediately sucked in by the fact that it was by an Asian Australian woman who lives in Melbourne. Also: the title.

It’s probably an apt time to cut’n paste a reminder about what the AWW challenges are about:

The 2014 Australian Women Writers Challenge was set up to help overcome gender bias in the reviewing of books by Australian women. The challenge encourages avid readers and book bloggers, male and female,

Australian and non-Australian, to read and review books by Australian women throughout the year. You don’t have to be a writer to sign up. You can choose to read and review, or read only. (Suggestions for what makes a good review can be found here.)

The challenge will run from Jan 1 – Dec 31, 2014. You can sign up at any time.

I will (again) be attempting the Franklin (10 read, 6 reviewed), and I’m not opting for particular genres this time. Given my predilections, and initial momentum, I suspect it’ll be heavy on crime/thriller and memoir.

Hope you’ll consider signing up as well, and joining in what has grown into a bustling, chatty, and very supportive community!

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My previous AWW sign-up posts:

AWW 2013 REVIEW – Swashbuckler trilogy (Kelly Gardiner)

Ocean without End (Kelly Gardiner)I’ll admit it. I’m one of those people who has tried to read, but never finished, Moby Dick.

And I’d like to admit further that it has haunted me. It’s one of those books that a person with a literary studies PhD is expected to have read. Along with all the works of Shakespeare, and Austen, Dickens, the Brontes, and – in Australia – White.

I’m not one of those literary studies PhDs. But I digress…

Trying to read Moby Dick and other classics that involved ships and steam-trains caused me to build an aversion to books that featured these things. Seriously. I know it sounds silly. To this day, I haven’t read Murder on the Orient Express, even though I’m a big Christie fan.

So, when I first encountered Kelly Gardiner’s (@kmjgardiner) trilogy and realised ships were involved, I hesitated. But I was won over by the idea of a pirate girl protagonist, and I was on the look-out for books to recommend to my daughter as she moved up the reading levels.

I had intended to dip into the first book and see whether the trilogy would be something I’d recommend to her.

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AWW 2013 REVIEW – Behind the Night Bazaar (Angela Savage)

Behind the Night Bazaar (Angela Savage)I’m a latecomer to Angela Savage’s books, which is part of the joy of discovering them because there are now three novels to relish in the Jayne Keeney series.

The latest, The Dying Beach, launched only recently (mid-July). Here’s Angela’s take on that book’s launch.

The blurb for the first novel goes like this:

“Investigating murder, child prostitution, and corruption—all in a day’s work for kickass PI Jayne Keeney. The first in a series of funny, gripping crime novels set in Thailand, Behind the Night Bazaar introduces us to this likeable thirty-something private investigator, working undercover in a place where she can do anything but blend in.”

I really liked the book.

The narrative pacing, characters, and setting were all well tailored and clever. Jayne, in particular, was presented as engagingly human, complete with the damaging emotional choices she has made in her past and present.

The Thai setting was also given centre-stage in a credible and effective way. It worked well beyond the ‘exotic backdrop’ mode of so many novels set in Asia, where local colour doesn’t impinge on the unfolding narrative. I really appreciated the way Savage’s writing gave texture to everyday life and tension in Thailand, particularly the ways in which the story presented a society that was responding (or not) to fast change and urban drift. The motivations of the characters, embedded with these tensions, are engaging and effective. Sometimes, this was a little too effective and I had to take moments out of the novel because the emotional weight of the issues it deals with got to me.

The thing about this novel that I liked the best was its ability to surprise me. I would be reading along, expecting something that wouldn’t come to pass. A lot of this was due to Jayne being very smart and savvy; perhaps I’m too used to protagonists who get caught out, or exposed? That said, she’s no superhero, nor does she turn out to be a virtuous crusader. And this is all to the good.

I would definitely recommend this book to those who like clever crime, strong female leads (really, what worthwhile person doesn’t?), and immersion in a context fraught with politics and race tensions.

I’m definitely looking forward to spending time with The Half-Child, Savage’s second novel in the Keeney series!

Kids’ books: Spork (Kyo Maclear)

Spork (Kyo Maclear)
Spork (Kyo Maclear)

One of the greatest joys of having children is how I’ve rediscovered the fabulous embrace of public libraries.

It’s a constant enjoyment because the kids are moving through the stacks as they get older and their tastes change.

6.5yo E.’s already dipping into the occasional graphic novel and moving into short novels. I’m finding new authors to catch up on (most recently, Neil Gaiman – I know, I know, I’ve never read Gaiman, but that’s another post). 4yo G. is starting to recognise words and sound them out; he’s moving on from the cardboard books to relatively long narrative picture books.

The other  weekend, I had the added delight of discovering Spork by Kyo Maclear.  The book was on constant rotation when it came home. Usually, little G. eases into the ‘new books’ from the library every week but, with Spork, he was a fan from Day 1. Every night, he’d flip through other books and choose some, but he’d always go to this one and drop it on the bed’s ‘to-read’ pile.

When I saw the author’s name I did a double-take. I know Kyo Maclear. She’s an academic in Asian Canadian Studies. I had read her research, and had colleagues who mentioned Kyo with regularity.

Seeing her turn up as a children’s book author was an absolute thrill. There’s something about finding academics with lives that spill outside of universities that makes me feel better about the world.

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AWW 2013 REVIEW – Antidote to Murder (Felicity Young)

Antidote to Murder (Felicity Young)As you can probably tell from my review of Felicity Young’s first novel in the Dody McCleland series, Dissection of Murder, I’m a fan.

I couldn’t wait to get my hands on this second novel, and it didn’t disappoint.

Well, except that it ended.

Within a few pages, I was back in Young’s evocation of noisome, overheated, early twentieth-century London. As well as the crush and noise, the second-class citizen status of women was immediately clear in Dody’s interactions with hospital staff.

The notoriety of her profession is well layered into the narrative, as is her difficult and often derided role as the first woman in it. Dody is always met with distinct reactions to her chosen lifestyle.

The intrigue starts early with Dody’s beau, police-officer Matthew Pike, doing a runner from the hospital where he was slated for surgery.

We’re quickly into the thick of undercover investigations, illicit drugs, and criminal medical activities. Dody’s sister, Florence, is once again stirring things up, sometimes without realising it. Dody herself is causing more unease than usual by becoming a zealot about sex education and birth control, and who can blame her after the extreme situations that she has to deal with in the impoverished alleyways of Whitechapel.

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REVIEW – Stax Cafe

Cafe Stax - upstairs (Photo by Tseen Khoo)
Cafe Stax – upstairs (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

[I had written this post, queued it for publication, then went there again just recently – the menu has changed! The burger menu I so loved (see below) is whittled down, to the detriment of my all-time favourite…]

If there’s one place near work that I embrace as my regular haunt, it’s Cafe Stax on Little La Trobe Street. I usually cut through Literature Lane, and mosey past two places I frequent less often (WE Cafe [Taiwanese] and Wonderbao).

The first few times I went to Stax, it was because other people had organised meetings or lunches there. While the food and prices were consistently good, I didn’t really like the downstairs seating – too close and noisy. It felt too small.

Then I discovered there was an upstairs!

The upstairs section is rarely brimming with people, much lighter, and had corrugated cardboard furniture. Walls are papered in old comics. I was sold. It’s the first place I suggest to meet anyone.

Though space is at a premium at Stax, the menu is extensive: soups, all manner of burgers, wraps and sandwiches, fish and chips, pasta dishes, salads… I rarely stray from the burgers, but I have tried a few of the things there and they’ve all ranged from fine to really good.

Burger #4 is my favourite, as I’ve mentioned in a previous post:

Burger 4 – Moroccan marinated chicken thigh, grilled haloumi, lettuce, tomato and harissa mayonnaise.

It’s the haloumi and harissa mayo that really lifts this one, and the fact that they use chicken thigh. Most of the reason why I never have chicken burgers is because places tend to use the chicken breast, which I always find too dry/dense/thick. This Stax burger, though, is always tasty and just right. Sometimes, they get super generous with the haloumi. Those are good days.

I try to wean myself off Burger #4 every second visit, but I don’t always succeed. it’s a keeper.

[Further to my earlier note: This burger is no longer on the menu – they do have a 4th burger on the list but it’s a “haloumi burger”, by which I thought they meant a normal burger + slices of haloumi. Meh! Wrong guess. What they meant was a haloumi burger: brioche bun, salad-y stuff, and a thick slab of haloumi. A vegetarian burger. I am not a vegetarian burger eater…]

Another aspect of this cafe that I like is that the service is always very good: friendly, fast, efficient. I’ve never had a hassle with any of my orders (and I’ve been many times now), and the delivery and clearing of food/drink is quick and unobtrusive.

My only caveat about the cafe is that I’ve only ever had lunch there, not breakfast. And an important element, without which I couldn’t be a return customer: Stax coffee is consistently good. [<– I don’t think this has changed – same people running it; just a menu re-vamp]

REVIEW – The Fades (TV series) – SPOILERS

TheFadesHEADER

On my sister’s recommendation, we watched The Fades (2011) recently. I’d heard much positive raving about it on Twitter and elsewhere, and I think it’s worth the cultish hype.

As with some of the best cultural ‘finds’ in my life, I had next to no knowledge about it.

These were the things I did know:

  • There are only six episodes. Ever.
  • It’s supernatural horror.
  • It’s a UK series.

I had deliberately not Googled it after my sis told us about it. From what she was saying, I knew we’d be watching it no matter what.

In the end, we inhaled the series, watching the six episodes over three nights. We’ve had a good run of British horror movies lately (i.e. Daisy Chain, The Broken), so were predisposed to this series.

Summary of the show (my version):

Teenage Paul possesses the ability to see dead people, but it’s nothing like Sixth Sense. These dead people – or fades – are out to live again, even if this means destroying life as they knew it. The core of the narrative rests on the ages-old ‘war’ between the angelics and the fades, but evolutionary changes take place that lower humanity’s survival prospects significantly! Can Paul save the world with his best mate Mac, brand-new girlfriend Jay, queen-bee twin sister Anna, and lugubrious comrade Neil?

What did I think?

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REVIEW – Pappa Rich

Pappa Rich - QV (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

This post is brought to you after lunch at Pappa Rich Chadstone two days in a row.

I had just gone there with my buddy @sommystar and my family felt deprived when I told them that I was going there without them. Hence, a second visit there today.

Our family’s been fans of this franchise since they started opening in Melbourne in March 2012. My first experience was in QV, and the queues are now notorious. @sommystar tells me that the Nunawading restaurant takes bookings, but the ones I’ve been to (QV and Chadstone) do not.

My Malaysian colleagues all love going there, and my family is always happy to make it our go-to place for lunches. The key, of course, is to go slightly earlier than peak – for example, turning up at about 11 or 11.30am guarantees you a good table, but getting there after noon means you may be stuck in the queue (this has been our Chaddie experience). Prices are reasonable, with the drinks obviously a money-spinner (that said, I don’t think I’d find Malaysian-style drinks like this easily elsewhere).

We’ve browsed our way through the menu broadly, with the roti, laksa, and chicken rice staying in ‘staple’ territory. While occasionally transparent in its pre-prepared-ness, the food is tasty, fast, and consistent.

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REVIEW – Auntie’s Dumpling Restaurant (Carnegie)

Auntie's Dumpling Restaurant (Source: The Age review)
Auntie’s Dumpling Restaurant (Source: The Age review)

Every couple of weeks, we’re in Carnegie to visit the library. It’s a great library, with a playground just outside that the kids never seem to get sick of.

While we’re in Carnegie, we inevitably find ourselves at Auntie’s Dumpling Restaurant.

I realised how attached I was to the place when we went there two Saturdays ago.

The place had always had a very lived-in look. Basic and not particularly fab decor, but we didn’t care. It’s certainly not “squalid” or as one would imagine an “opium den”, as another Orientalising fool of a blogger declared.

For Lunar New Year this year, they’d repainted the walls of the whole place. Then, that Saturday, we found that there was all new furniture: wooden tables and chairs that were way better than the old chrome settings.

We sat down, and a guy who’d never served us doled out menus. We probably stared at him too much, all wondering whether there’d been a – *drum-roll* – change of ownership.

Shortly after we got our menus, and were still watching the man suspiciously, our regular server/restaurant manager turned up, hauling groceries and looking harried. We were so glad to see her. SO GLAD.

That’s when I realised how much we liked it, and the familiarity of the staff was fun. They’ve watched our kids grow up over the years, as we’ve divested ourselves of prams, strollers, etc.

We don’t go out much, what with two young kids and living in the ‘burbs. This isn’t a problem, but it does mean that there’s a comfort we derive from  fronting up at Auntie’s every fortnight.

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AWW 2013 Review: The Dreaming series (Queenie Chan)

Cover for 'The Dreaming' omnibus (Queenie Chan)
Cover for ‘The Dreaming’ omnibus (Queenie Chan)

I’ve been wanting to follow up on Queenie Chan‘s work and read her stories ever since I put together the diverse women authors post for AWW 2012, and @tansyrr left a comment that reminded me of Chan’s work.

The Dreaming series, which I read all at once in a single book, has three volumes.

I must admit to not having read or seen much of Chan’s work. I’m also not much of a manga reader, but I know the broad style.

I was immediately struck by how true to the Japanese manga aesthetic Chan’s settings and characters’ expressions seemed to be.

For me, it was quite a twist to discover that this horror story is set in the Australian bush, complete with gum trees, billabongs, and Aboriginal mythology.

Reading the three volumes at once was such quick work that I felt guilty about not spending time appreciating the inkwork and scene transitions. Chan is refreshingly down-to-earth about her practice and skills (see her entry, “How I got started”) and prioritises the narrative above artwork:

I persevered not because I started off wanting to be a great manga-artist and drawing “cool comics” (though that crossed my mind more than several times), but because I had a story I wanted to tell, and wanted to tell it in manga format.

The Dreaming hit many classic creepy notes for me, particularly as it cross-referenced the girls-disappearing-in-the-bush motif (Mirandaa-aaa! – cf. Picnic at Hanging Rock). The superstitions and untold stories added to the narrative tension, as did the leakage of disturbing dreams to waking life.

Chan consistently references Victorian era schoolgirls in bustly dresses with good, chilling effect. What is it about that element that lends itself to a studied creepiness? Perhaps that brandished carving knife didn’t help…

My two caveats about the trilogy: First, I did have some difficulty in the beginning with the immediate introduction to the cast of characters. The girls in the school, especially, confused me because – dare I say this? – they kind of looked the same… I soon depended on their hairstyles to tell them apart. Second, while I was effectively sucked into the narrative, I found the pacing uneven and, at times, repetitive.

In the end, Chan’s back-story for the school and its dark history is satisfying. She tied up many loose ends, but not all. I liked having some questions floating in the mix after closing the covers.

Chan has also drawn several of Dean Koontz’s books, and she recently featured in a women manga artist symposium at the Art Gallery of NSW (January 2013). I’ll certainly be looking out for more of her work in the future, and am considering snagging the Koontz books.

Queenie Chan’s website: http://www.queeniechan.com