Chick-lit to read and review

Chicks we have known

Chicks we have known

Chick-lit is one of my go-to choices for holiday reading. These novels are easy to read. I’m happy to read them by a pool or to shove them in my bag. On the surface, they’re fast and frivolous and often hard to put down. There’s always a strong theme, a fast-moving plot and some lovable characters. The novels are, in a word, entertaining.

The use of ‘chick’ to refer to a young woman comes from 1920s African-American slang. Some people find the term offensive. Women like me who were part  of the Second Wave Feminist in the 1960s and 1970s know how sexist language demeans women. Yet here I am, using a very sexist term because as yet there seems to be no other that quite picks up the flavour of what chick-lit manages to do. The title ‘contemporary women’s fiction’ doesn’t quite work.

Early book about women and language

Early book about women and language

Chick-lit can be defined as a category of genre fiction which examines some of the issues of modern womanhood. It is mostly written by women for women. Although the themes are serious, the novels themselves are often humorous and apparently lighthearted. These novels can be a useful tool for educating women about available possibilities and options.

The term was coined in the 1990s when the genre first appeared. A fore-runner was Helen Fieldings Bridget Jones’ Diary, published in 1996. As most people know, the novel is written in the form of a diary of one year in the life of a thirty-something, single woman.

Now protagonists in chick-lit range from their early twenties to their late sixties. I don’t know if women that old would identify as ‘chicks’. No books in the genre about women in their seventies. Or eighties!

Chick-lit is  sometimes compared with romance novels The difference is that chick-lit deals with more serious social themes of concern to women. In those I’ve read, there has been evidence of considerable research and attention to detail. They often pack a strong punch.

Chick-lit is rarely reviewed by mainstream reviewers and publications. It’s authors are unlikely to be invited to mainstream writers festivals, except, perhaps, Cathy Lette. The much acclaimed Elizabeth Gilbert, who charmed audiences at the Perth Writers Festival 2015, says that her books are sometimes described as chick-lit. You might like to listen to Elizabeth Gilbert as she discusses the label.

Here are two examples of  authors who also write chick-lit

Kathy Lette, chick-lit author

Kathy Lette, chick-lit author

Kathy Lette, in her book Courting Trouble, deals with domestic violence, gender bias in the legal system and mother-daughter relationships. A barrister, sacked from her job, finds her husband in bed with another woman. She takes her child to live with her mother, also a barrister. The women set up a law firm which specialises in working with women and their issues.

Amanda Heiss (Photo by Amanda James)

Amanda Heiss
(Photo by Amanda James)

Anita Heiss is a  member of the Wiradjuri nation of central NSW. She writes delicious stories about Aboriginal heroines. They have interesting careers, travel and enjoy the friendship of other women. Anita Heiss’s stories resonate with me because of my interest in the welfare of Aboriginal people. But they could make interesting reading for anyone.  I have learned much from Heiss’s novels.

I’m looking forward to reading more chick-lit this year. My reading usual material has been drawn from a predictable range for a long time. When I was thinking about the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2015 way back in January, I created a blog with a less conventional ‘to read’ list. You can see it here, The list includes two books from the genre of women’s fiction that is sometimes disparagingly called chick-lit. It also includes books from other genres than those I usually read.

Australian Women Writers Challenge 2015

Australian Women Writers Challenge 2015

Now I think about it, it would be a challenge to rewrite one of my unpublished novels as genre fiction – to attempt to turn it into chick-lit.

 

Sarah Turnbull, All Good Things, – a review

9780730497349

All Good Things is an intensely personal memoir written by Sarah Turnbull, author of Almost French (2002). Sarah was a warm and engaging participant in several sessions during the 2014 Perth Writers Festival and I was very pleased when she offered to pose with me for a photo after she had signed my copy of her new memoir.

Sarah Turnbull signing my copy of her book at the 2014 Perth Writers Festival

Sarah Turnbull signing my copy of her book at the 2014 Perth Writers Festival

In her first book, we read about the protagonist’s move from Sydney to Paris to be with Frederic, with whom she had fallen deeply in love, and her joys and trials as she settled into a new relationship, home and culture.In All Good Things: a Memoir, the reader follows Sarah and Frederic to French Polynesia, where they settle on the tiny island of Mo’orea, a ferry ride from Pape’ete, the capital city of Tahiti. The eventually leave Polynesia and return to Sydney.

While Frederic works in the capital as a lawyer for a Paris-based law firm, Sarah attempts to complete the novel which she began in Paris. Every morning, she swims the same laps in the lagoon. The couple are befriended by local people, entertaining and being entertained as they begin to understand more about the new culture in which they’ve immersed themselves. They learn to scuba dive; they travel around ‘their’ island and further afield.

But underlying this delightful lifestyle is Sarah’s and Frederic’s painful, passionate longing for a child. When Sarah discovers she is already prematurely perimenopausal they understand that she is unlikely to conceive. They almost have given up hope of becoming parents. But after talking with a counsellor Sarah decides to have one final attempt at in vitro fertilisation.

Sarah immerses herself daily in the lagoon. In the same way, she immerses her reader in lyrical descriptions of the natural wonders of the island where she and her husband live. While occasionally humorous, All Good Things: a Memoir is also poignant. Her desire for a baby is almost tangible. I hurt with her longing, felt her anxious impatience as she and Frederic waited until the pregnancy was established, and rejoiced with them when baby Oliver was born.

When I opened this book, I hoped for a continuation of Almost French, which I thoroughly enjoyed when it was first published. All Good Things is not a continuation. It is a stand-alone story, different in many ways from the first, and just as good.

Australian Women Writers' Challenge 2014

Australian Women Writers’ Challenge 2014

 This is the second of my six reviews for the 2014 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

 

2014 Perth Writers Festival – afterwards

Books are piling up on my tablet and beside my bed as a result of the 2014 Perth Writers Festival last weekend. The collection surprises me. At face-value it is such a different selection from my usual choices.

For example, before the Writers Festival I’d almost forgotten my penchant for travel memoirs, although in the past I’ve read dozens of them. I have a special interest because my own first book, Other People’s Country, fits firmly into that genre, although when I was writing it as part of a Writing PhD I vaguely hoped it would also be considered as a ‘literary’ work.

Since publication, Other People’s Country has been acclaimed as journalism and history. And it has ended up on the shelves of university and public libraries in the obscure section on Aboriginal Health, and not as memoir at all. It appears on some university reading lists under ‘community health’, because it is the story about the time I spent working as a nurse on a remote Aboriginal community in the Western Australian desert.

Maybe my newly completed (as yet unpublished) memoir will end up in the ‘romance’ category, or even as ‘chick-lit’. I wonder if there’s word for a story about romance in later life? Surely there’s something more appropriate than ‘chick-lit’.

Following the Writers Festival, there are four travel memoirs on my immediate ‘to read’ list. Travel memoir is in a class of its own when it comes to books and writing. The authors don’t merely recount their journeys like travel writers. Travel memoirists also invite readers to enjoy their stories and adventures and to glimpse their experiences of personal growth as they reflect on  aspects of new and sometimes alienating cultures, and what it meant to immerse themselves in a new place.

9780730497349[1]

Sarah Turnbull’s new book, All Good Things, is a memoir about her life in French Polynesia, where she moved with her husband from Paris. At the Writers Festival, the Australian author explained to her audiences that this new book differs from her first, the highly acclaimed Almost French, because it describes a more personal journey. While her husband, Frederick, was at work all day, she had  time to enjoy beauty of the island and to think. She said All Good Things recounts many intimate details about the longing for a child shared by her husband and her. I will review this book soon for the 2014 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

 

The next three travel memoirs might not have come to my attention if I hadn’t heard their accomplished, highly entertaining authors speak in a session at the Festival. Xavier Toby, author of Mining my own Business, is a comedian who was in Perth for the Perth Fringe Festival that preceded the Perth Writers Festival. His book is about a six-month stint on a mine-site in Queensland, where he went to earn money to repay debts. I was immediately intrigued when I heard him say, ‘Miners talk in anecdotes. They don’t have conversations. I’ve known a few fly-in-fly-out (FIFO) workers, and wonder about the lifestyle, but Xavier Toby seems to have taken it in his stride.

preview_Preview[1]miningmyownbusiness_web

9781408842218[1]


The next author on my list, Tim Cope, is an intrepid adventurer, filmmaker and writer who has to his credit several books and documentaries and a number of travel awards, including the Young Australian Adventurer of the Year, 2002 and the Australian Geographic  Australian Adventurer of the Year 2006. He travelled from Mongolia to Hungary on horseback, an amazing journey if ever there was one. It took almost four years for him to cover the 10 000 kilometres. His book is On the Trail of Genhis Khan, An Epic Journey Through the Land of the Nomads. 

Brendan Shanahan calls himself ‘a reluctant journalist-turned-writer’. His latest book is Mr Snack and the Lady Water Travel tales from my lost years. It is a collection of what have been called ‘darkly wicked’ stories from his travels around the world, including one about buying a house in Las Vegas, unseen, from the internet.  I can’t wait to read a book about which Annabel Crabb has said, “Eccentric and darkly hilarious. I’d read anything Shanahan wrote, but I’d never travel with him anywhere.”

The book for our next book club meeting at the end of March, chosen by a member after several of us heard the author at the Festival, is Jo Baker’s novel Longbourn, and I’m looking forward to that, too. Jo Baker said that this literary novel began from her speculation on the way ‘things got done’ in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice: a letter was delivered; the laundry was done – simple everyday events that seemed to have no agent. She asked herself, ‘Who did that?’ and ‘What would that be like?’ Taking her clues from historical research and the life and novels of Austen, Baker wrote from what she called ‘absences’. She imagined the servants and others who did the hidden work in those days, and the characters in Longbourn began from there.

9781742613093[1]And then there is Debra Adelaide’s collection of short stories, Letter to George Cluny. I’ll review that, too, in the near future, for the AWW Challenge.

There was more, much more, that attracted my attention and compelled my interest at the 2014 Perth Writers Festival. But this list is a good start to my reading plans for the next few months.

Annah Faulkner,The Beloved, a Review

This year I have finally gathered courage to join the Australian Women Writers Challenge and to commit myself to read six books by Australian women writers and review four of them between now and the end of 2014. This is my first review. Chosen by the book club to which I belong for the February meeting, the selection was thrust upon me, rather than a choice I made. But Annah Faulkner’s The Beloved is a treasure.

This beautifully written first novel won the Queensland Premier’s Literary Award for Emerging Author (2011) and a place on the Miles Franklin Literary Award short list (2013) for good reason.

Against a backdrop of life in the 1950s in Port Moresby (where Anna Faulkner spent much of her childhood) with excursions to Sydney, Melbourne and Canada, The Beloved is the story of the protagonist’s somewhat stormy childhood in a family fraught with problems.

Stricken at the age of six with polio, the protagonist, Roberta ‘Bertie’ Lightfoot – yes, really – is left with a disability which means she must eventually wear a boot to correct her gait. Her deformed foot impacts on her perception of herself and how she chooses to dress, as well as forces her to compensate in many areas of her life.

From the outset, the reader is shown Bertie’s exceptional artistic talent. This talent, as 20140130_184853well as the child’s passion for her art, puts her in direct conflict with her strictly controlling mother, who aspires to a career in medicine for her daughter. The conflict is epitomised in the mother’s steadfast refusal to give Bertie the box of 72 coloured pencils for which the little girl longs. The battle between mother and daughter draws the story along at a page-turning pace, ensuring an easy read. Bertie’s deception and secrecy as she pursues her art against her mother’s wishes is at the heart of the novel; but hers is not the only deception.

I loved the way Annah Faulkner portrays her characters, even minor ones, giving them a distinctive life of their own. The author’s passion for, and knowledge about art is apparent throughout the book. But what impressed me most was the fascinating use of the voice of the child to tell this story in first person as she develops from a little girl to a thirteen-year old. For the first few pages, I was unsure of the voice. Once I became used to it, I was impressed with the deft way the author manages to maintain a voice which matures as the girl grows older, and becomes more cognisant of what is happening around her, and the implications of other people’s actions.

This is an excellent book club choice and I look forward to discussing it soon.

Australian Women Writers' Challenge 2014

Australian Women Writers’ Challenge 2014

Joining the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014

Last week, I signed up for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014, which began on 1 January and will finish on 31 December. For this challenge, women and men readers and bloggers in Australia and elsewhere are invited to read and review books in any genre written by Australian women.

The challenge has run for the past two years, and each time I’ve thought of an excuse not to be involved. Laziness, perhaps. I mostly choose to read books by women and talk about some of them at the book club to which I belong. Reviewing is a logical next step.

Australian Writers Challenge 2014

Australian Writers Challenge 2014

Books by male authors in Australia are far more likely to be reviewed than those by women. The stated aim of this challenge is ‘to help overcome gender bias in the reviewing of books by Australian women’. As a woman writer, I have to like that!

In the challenge, there are four suggested levels. The first three are named after Stella Miles Franklin, an Australian writer and feminist who is best known for her novel My Brilliant Career, which was published in 1901. The levels are:

  • Stella: read four books, and if reviewing, review at least three
  • Miles: read six and review at least four
  • Franklin: read ten and review at least six.
  • Create your own challenge,  which could include reading and reviewing an unlimited number of books, or simply reading a few more books by Australian women and reviewing none.

I’ve been very gentle with myself and opted for the Miles level, which means that, in 2014, I’ll read at least six books and review four. Because I write memoirs and sometimes facilitate life-writing courses at Peter Cowan Writers Centre I tend to read more memoirs than books in other genres.

My plans could easily change, but for the challenge I’d like to read and review books from several different genres. Perhaps I’ll find some books written by and about older women. I’ll report my progress and include the reviews in my posts.

There are a few reasons why I’ve joined:

  • The idea of being part of a community of people who are reading and writing about books by women writers appeals
  • Accepting the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014 is an act of solidarity with women writers who are underrepresented in book reviews and on long- and short-lists for most writing awards
  • I like challenges, even small ones.

Anyone reading this blog can join the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014 and read more books by women this year. I know some people would enjoy reviewing the books, as well. For those new to reviewing, there are guidelines on the AWWC website, and there are also numerous websites with information and tips on how to go about it. Perhaps members of book clubs and writing groups could encourage others to join the challenge and support each other’s review-writing.

ps. This is the first time I’ve tried to add links to one of my posts.  I can’t find any way to check until I post this. If I haven’t got it right, I’ll try again. Learning curve!