Tuesday 21 February 2017

Stella Considerations

I really enjoy the idea of the Stella Prize and love the announcement of each year's longlist. I know I will never have the time to read all the books on the list, but I do love how the list helps to push me towards books I may not have tried otherwise.

I have found some real gems thanks to the longlist nominations (Heat and Light by Ellen van Neervan being a case in point).

But there are still some books that are just not for me, no matter how many prizes or awards they get.

I thought it might be interesting to go through a few of the Stella's - longlists past and present - that haven't worked for me for one reason or another.

On this year's longlist, is Emily Maguire's An Isolated Incident.

Having the phrase 'brutal murder' on the back cover blurb is not designed to attract my interest. Normally I wouldn't have gone any further, but now that An Isolated Incident has been longlisted, I took the time to look inside.

The first few chapters track through the sister's bewilderment and grief as her missing sister, moves from being missing, to being a body in the morgue that she has to identify.
The blurb promises that this will be more about the sister's journey through the aftermath of the murder, than about the gory, brutal details, but I quickly realised that I simply couldn't go there.

Tragically our family did go through a brutal murder case about twenty years ago. It still haunts us all in different ways. Books like this don't help at all.

I knew very quickly that no matter how well written An Isolated Incident might be, it's simply wasn't going to get any of my bookish time.

I also read the first couple of stories in The High Places by Fiona McFarlane but found them too languid and slow to build for my taste. Earlier I had started McFarlane's The Night Guest when it was shortlisted for the 2014 Stella. I was enjoying it well enough, but put it down for some reason and never went back to it.

Last year, I got about a quarter of the way through Hope Farm by Peggy Frew but my enthusiasm waned and I couldn't finish it.

Aspects of it appealed to me but I found it to be very inconsistent. Some of the writing was quite lyrical but much of it was just plain flat and formulaic.

There was something about the mother-daughter relationships that bugged me too, but I didn't stick with it long enough to work out what my problem was.

It was a shame, though, because I loved the idea of it and I loved the cover!

I think I may be the only reader left in Australia that hasn't read Burial Rites by Hannah Kent.

I tried a couple of times, but it didn't draw me in at all. I found Kent's language kept me at a distance and I didn't care enough to push through.

But I did care about my friends who raved about it so much - which is why I tried to read it again a year later.

Sadly I had the same reaction.

Recently I attempted to read Kent's latest novel, The Good People, but I failed to engage with the writing in that one too.

Questions of Travel by Michelle de Kretser featured in the very first Stella longlist. It won other awards and accolades but it failed to win me over.

There was nothing in the opening page that urged me to 'read on' or 'read more'.

Perhaps this 'some books I love; some books I don't' thing is what we're actually celebrating in all the Stella longlists to date.
The amazing diversity of women writers in Australia also reflects the diversity of readers out there. Not everyone will like or love all the books, but there will be something on each list to appeal to everyone who cares to look.

It's the joy (and woe) of being an avid reader. The occasional dud only helps you to appreciate the books you love even more.

On a completely different tack, I have noticed a pattern developing with the Stella Prize. There is one word that features at least twice in the titles for each year.

In 2013 the word was Grace
2014 - Night
2015 - Golden
2016 - World
2017 - Memoir

Does it mean anything? Probably not, but birds also seem to feature strongly in Stella book titles.

What have been your favourite and least favourite Stella reads so far?


  1. Read: Guide to Berlin and Burial Rites - disliked them both!
    Conclusion: no one can surpass Thea Astley in my estimation.
    I'm reading ALL her books this year...and leaving the Stella Prize long list on the shelf!
    A Girl With a Monkey (Thea Astley) (1958) - READ 03.02.2017 - excellent!
    A Descant for Gossips (1960) - READ 15.02.2017
    When a books ends...and gives me a 'skin shiver'
    ...then I know I have read genius. Australian writer, Thea Astley
    is not often on 'reading lists', but this one is a #MustRead.
    The Well Dressed Explorer (1962) - is ordered and still waiting for it to arrive!
    ps: love your analysis of Stella Prize trends!

    1. I love your enthusiasm for Thea Astley - I really must read another one of her books!

  2. No. No. You're not the only person left to have not read Burial Rites- naturally there's me! I bought it, and it's been sitting next to my bed for what? Several years now. I've never cracked the spine, so your several bites are way ahead of me. I'm very sorry to hear of your family history of tragedy. I do like the occasional murder/mystery/thriller and am keen for An Isolated Incident. But I've never had anything like that happen to my family, I can see why it would not be an appealing genre for you, best to stay away.

    1. It was one of those weird things Louise, that it wasn't until I wrote this post, that I actually made the connection why I simply cannot read certain types of crime books.

      Everyone else seems to find a lot to rave about The Isolated Incident though. It has become a good book club book for discussions apparently.


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