After the recent slew of award announcements, we’re delighted to have more to share, with a number of our authors shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. Congratulations to all those listed below, as well as all the other authors shortlisted – winners will be announced on 18 May.
Douglas Stewart Prize for Non-Fiction
In My Mother’s Hands by Biff Ward
Longlisted for The Stella Prize this year , Elizabeth “Biff” Ward tells the moving and somewhat harrowing coming-of-age story amidst a family life troubled by mental health problems, here’s what judges say:
Biff Ward’s charismatic father, Russel, was a celebrated, sometimes controversial, historian; her mother, Margaret, suffered from an undiagnosed mental illness for most of her adult life. In the middle years of the twentieth century, the Wards put up a largely convincing facade of respectable family life. But like the prim white gloves with which Margaret hid her mutilated hands, the Wards’ conventional exterior concealed fear, silences and the mysterious death of a baby girl.
In My Mother’s Hands offers a clear‐eyed account of a family’s struggle with mental illness at a time when the nature of that illness was not well understood and difference was stigmatised. Balancing compassion and candour, Ward draws nuanced portraits of both her parents. She recounts the unhappy consequences of her mother’s condition: the ineffective and harrowing medical interventions, terrifying episodes when the illness flared, and the emotional alienation and shame her mother’s peculiarity created within the family. Ward is also frank about her father’s personal shortcomings, while sympathising with his deep sense of frustration and dismay at his wife’s disturbing behaviour. Written without a trace of self‐pity, this is an insightful and moving memoir built around the author’s quest to untangle the puzzle of her sister’s death.
Patricia Wrightson Prize for Children’s Literature
So wonderful to see two of our favourite picture books of the last year make the shortlist, both also recognised on the CBCA awards shortlist, with Rivertime also up for the Readings Children’s Book prize.
Rivertime by Trace Balla
A journey by canoe from the upper reaches of a river to where it meets the ocean is the simple, yet elegantly related story of this book, presented as a graphic novel for younger readers. Clancy, a likeable 10 and a half year old, is initially aghast at the thought of being so far from civilisation, from his computer games, toys and home comforts. Yet in the capable care of Uncle Egg — an admirably kind and empathic male father‐figure — Clancy’s eyes are gradually opened to the unfolding adventure and the wonders of nature, particularly birdwatching, about which Uncle Egg is so knowledgeable. Along the way, electronic games and devices quite forgotten, Clancy sets and achieves his own minor challenge to get from the river onto a wooden wharf without help.
Rivertime works at a number of levels — as an information book, as a ‘road (canoe) trip’, and, with Clancy’s growing engagement with the natural world, as a coming‐of‐age story. Trace Balla’s illustrations work in great harmony with the text she has created, and the book is captivating throughout. The final illustrations are a heartwarming conclusion to this thoroughly enjoyable, informative and beautifully realised work.
The Duck and the Darklings by Glenda Millard and Stephen Michael King
This lovely picture book depicts the poignant story of little Peterboy’s subterranean childhood. He lives in a world ruined by undefined human damage, where he is safely moored by the shelter and love of his grandfather. Early in the story, Peterboy brings optimistic splashes of colour to his cavern home. However, it is the arrival of the little duck (‘Idaduck’) — a symbol not only of nurture, but of the natural world regaining a foothold — that spurs Grandpapa to describe for Peterboy a previous world drenched in the colours of nature.
Whilst Idaduck’s inevitable release into the wild could be a moment of overwhelming sadness, her flight takes the pages from darkness to light. The story’s final sentence is elegantly and quietly optimistic. Glenda Millard’s text is beautifully shaped and has a style all its own; her charming invented words are always immediately understood. The artwork is a crowning achievement for Stephen Michael King — his familiar gentle, quirky style is wonderfully rendered, even on the darkest of pages, and when colour blossoms at the story’s conclusion, it does so with great power.
Ethel Turner Prize for Young Adult’s Literature
Razorhurst by Justine Larbalestier
This fascinating tale set over one day in 1930s Sydney brings to life the meticulously researched world of the Razor gangs of Darlinghurst and Surry Hills, but combines it with a touch of otherworldliness with ghosts playing a prominent part. The judges comments are below:
Kelpie has grown up orphaned in postwar Sydney. Surviving on the tough streets of Surry Hills, Woolloomooloo, Darlinghurst and Kings Cross, she uses her wits and cunning to stay one step ahead of the coppers and warring razor gangs. And ghosts. Lots of ghosts. Vividly characterised and completely immersive, this unusual mix of noir, horror and historical fiction is engaging from the first line. It draws the reader into a version of 1930s Sydney in which ghosts haunt the streets and the lingering remnants of colonialism crash hard against the Jazz Age.
In Razorhurst, Justine Larbalestier has skilfully woven together elements of different genres to produce a work that moves seamlessly between historical reality and fictional imagination. Moments of visceral horror gain impact through the carefully measured pace of the narrative: the story is moved relentlessly forward by a sense of building tension. Kelpie is a lovely example of the naïf narrator, encouraging empathy from the reader as she is drawn ever deeper into events she can’t control.
Cracked by Clare Strahan
A glorious debut from Clare Strahan, Cracked is a charming tale of the challenges faced when growing up in a world that seems to be against you. Here’s what the judges say:
At age 11 Clover experiences the first ‘crack’ in her life: the realisation that the planet is dying, and it’s our fault. Four years later and she’s feeling even more vulnerable, her life broken into fragile relationships: an embarrassingly ideological mother, an absent father, toxic ‘frenemies’, sleazy bullies, and a first love that creeps up on her ever so gently. For Clover, it feels as if she is negotiating her way through shards of glass on the floor. Sometimes she manages to avoid a fragment; other times she’s left wounded and splintered, but for the most part she’s deliberately smashing her way through, hurting herself and others.
Beautifully written and paced, Clare Strahan’s tone is gentle and subtle yet able to pack a punch. She deftly avoids stereotype with her cast of ‘mean girls’, nerds, outcasts and jocks, and gives readers a character who, refreshingly, is not only grappling with the personal, but is struggling to make sense of a way she can reach a world where ‘no one is listening’. That Clover does some incredibly stupid things, while caring so deeply and passionately about the state of the world, lends a deep complexity and authenticity to her character.
2015 Community Relations Commission for Multicultural NSW
A staff favourite from last year, we’re thoroughly looking forward to hearing from Sami at the Sydney Writers’ Festival in May (particularly with Latika Bourke & Munjed Al Muderis). Read an extract about refugees, and here’s what the judges had to say on his entertaining memoir:
I, Migrant is a memoir by Pakistani journalist and comedian, Sami Shah, who, in the wake of bomb attacks and death threats, leaves Karachi to make a new life in rural Australia. Opening with Shah’s near death experience following a threatened collision with a kangaroo, the book takes us back to Karachi where we follow Shah, the journalist, as he grabbles with the news not of Benazir Bhutto’s triumphant return to Pakistan but instead of her assassination. From there, Shah segues into a commentary on the difficulties inherent in changing careers to become a comedian while living in a war zone.
In spite of the often‐traumatic events he recounts, Shah imbues I, Migrant with an intelligent humour that entertains the reader without undermining the gravity of the situations he describes. Shah’s touch is light and warm. The comedian’s voice and style of observation underpins the narrative and comes bursting through at crucial moments as he relates the story leading to his immigration with generosity, humility and wit.