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Western Australian Premier's Book Awards - 2003 Judges' Report

Comments by the Judging Panel

For the 2003 awards, a total of 115 books and scripts were submitted. The judges considered these works in six categories: fiction, poetry, writing for young adults, children's books, scripts, and non-fiction. Almost half of the entries were in the non-fiction category, demonstrating, once again, the wisdom of awarding two prizes for this section. As usual the various sections exposed the judging panel to works of extraordinary variety. The authors varied from established scholars, poets and novelists to near novices. The major publishing houses were all represented, as were individually financed projects and local small publishers. In all categories the judges looked for excellence in writing alongside, where appropriate, commitment to research, originality of material, experimentation with form and creative rethinking of existing genres. The choice of the winning entries for any given category reflects any number of these attributes. Any judging panel would (and should) incorporate a wide range of views and this panel was no exception. Nevertheless, after rigorous debates, the final decisions were unanimous. As in the past, the judges agreed that the entries for this year's awards reflect the ongoing vibrancy and vitality of Western Australian literary output.

Fiction Judge's Report

darcy The Mindless Ferocity of Sharks - Brett D'Arcy
Brett D'Arcy has created a memorably eccentric, tight-knit family defined by surf subculture in this, his second novel. It is a coming-of-age story told from the perspective of eleven-year-old Floaty-boy who has an attention disorder along with the gift of buoyancy, and who chronicles his family's continual dance with disaster. Mother Adelaide, the Old Man and the Cronies display shrewdness, determination, humour, warmth, and a skill for cultivating luck as they evade respectability and avoid the law.  Brett D'Arcy is an outstanding writer whose descriptions of the South Western Coast of Western Australia, where the novel is set, are Winton-like in their passion and perceptiveness.

heymanThe Accomplice - Kathryn Heyman
This is a well-crafted work that combines fiction and history. It tells the story of Judith Bastiaansz who, with her family, embarks on the ill-fated Batavia voyage. After being shipwrecked on the Abrolhos Islands off the coast of "New Holland," she is eventually forced to confront the treachery and brutality of some of her fellow castaways. Kathryn Heyman brings the historical events to life vividly with compelling prose. This is a moral tale regarding the horrible ambiguity of good people caught in evil circumstances.

russellChannelling Henry - Bruce Russell
The Henry of the title is the controversial American author Henry Miller, whose literary ghost haunts this novel. The plot involves a woman from London with a scholarship to study creative writing at a New York University and a writer from Australia whose aunt has bankrolled his trip to New York in order to research and write a crime novel. Bruce Russell has woven these and other characters into a complex plot of stories within stories. Russell is a skilled writer who compels the reader to follow his intricately realised series of events in this uniquely Australian exploration of literary New York. 

Poetry Judge's Report

brownNgarla Songs - Alexander Brown & Brian Geytenbeek
Alexander Brown and Brian Geytenbeek have collaborated to produce a unique collection of Aboriginal songs published in their original language as well as English. Seventy years ago American poet Hart Crane said that poetry could not be modern until it was able to "absorb" the machine. Impressively, some of these Ngarla songs do just that. The songs celebrate the Pilbara and the Aboriginal relationship to that land, covering the range of human emotions and sometimes offering ironic commentary on historical relationships between Aborigines and Europeans.

hetheringtonBlood and Old Belief: A Verse Novel - Paul Hetherington
Paul Hetherington uses his well-honed poetic craft to tell the engaging story of an Australian farming family enduring drought and confronting emotional crisis. Utilising the form of the verse novel, Hetherington's Blood and Old Belief conveys a passionate understanding of the Australian landscape and the intensity of feeling in a family facing disintegration.

kinsellaPeripheral Light - John Kinsella
John Kinsella is a poet of the Australian landscape: he is creating a tradition of Australian pastoral poetry, exploring shades of meaning in his vivid depictions of the Western Australian countryside and country life. Kinsella allows his readers to see familiar landscapes anew through his potent imagery. Peripheral Light is an impressive collection of old and new work that continues Kinsella's commitment to the idea of what he calls "international regionalism."  

Young Adults Judge's Report

bowlesNights in the Sun - Colin Bowles
The setting for Colin Bowles' novel is Broome, 1926.  The central motif for this rite-of-passage narrative is Sun Pictures, an open-air movie theatre.  Its narrator is 14-year-old Sam who is observant, funny, sensitive and credible. The novel describes the racial mix of the town and the accepted social hierarchy reflected in the intricate seating arrangements at the Sun.  While his father works the projector, Sam manages the seating of patrons, in the process coming to realise some of his own romantic needs. But Broome at this time can also be a dangerous place. Life-and-death personal and social history is brought to life in an assured and entertaining way that will resonate with the contemporary reader. 

broomeGracie and the Emperor - Errol Broome
This narrative, in an intriguing mix of fact and fiction, spans six years in the life of Gracie Taverner, a time of awakening for her, when events in which she becomes embroiled cause her to challenge long held attitudes.  The setting for this work is 1815 on St Helena at the time of the exile of Napoleon Bonaparte.  Gracie's father is struggling to make a living from a shop he owns in the island's main centre, Jamestown, and Gracie is forced to seek domestic work. She goes to work at a grand house where Napoleon and his entourage are staying, and is confronted with an old ex-dictator who is sick and vulnerable. This novel takes the reader to a remote and mysterious place at a momentous time in history and we are carried skilfully into Gracie's world.

havelThe Grave of the Roti Men - Geoff Havel
It is the Christmas holidays and Aaron is going to stay with his father on the Indonesian island of Roti. Through Aaron's friendship with a local boy, Hisnu, we learn of the hardships of local, traditional fishermen. We are given an opportunity to "travel in another's shoes" when the question of illegal fishing is visited from the point of view of the Indonesians.  For them it is a livelihood and the inherent dangers are accepted as a matter of course.  In a chilling sequence, Havel describes the horror and power of a tropical cyclone from the open deck of a flimsy, traditional fishing vessel. Havel, in this exciting narrative, has shown us something of the lives of people geographically close to us.  He also deals with a contentious political issue in an engaging and thoughtful way.

Children's Books Judge's Report

forrestalDeep Water, an Eden-Glassie Mystery - Elaine Forrestal
Tori's family is spending a vacation at his uncle's vineyard, Eden Glassie.  Six months earlier local flooding had passed through the region and Tori's dog Axle had gone missing, presumed drowned. However, it is Tori's conviction that Axle survived and he embarks on an adventure to solve the mystery once and for all.  Family dynamics are treated with warmth and good humour and the country lifestyle is dealt with realistically.  Employing realistic dialogue, moments of fear and panic and likeable characters, Forrestal has written a novel that can be readily embraced by the young independent reader.   

greenwoodThe Legend of Lasseter's Reef - Mark Greenwood
This work is a wonderful retelling of a fascinating and tragic chapter in our history. Lasseter's ill-fated expedition to locate an alleged gold-bearing reef in Central Australia is recounted simply.  Greenwood intertwines a wide variety of primary sources: maps, newspaper cuttings, letters, diaries, photographs and art works to bring the many threads of this story together in an exciting and accessible way. Ultimately, this is a mystery story that tantalizes the reader with the question of whether the gold deposit ever existed. The author takes the events of the episode with all its tragedy, courage, foolhardiness and endeavour and presents it directly and without censure. The history, mythology, grandeur and drama of the outback are realized in this attractive hardback book.

staffordGrandpa's Gate - Liliana Stafford, illustrations by Susy Boyer
This is a warm and sensitive picture book for young people exploring everyday aspects of old age.  Suzy enjoys spending time with her Grandpa in his metal working shed.  The illustrations reflect the warmth and nurturing evident as the two share the creative process in developing Grandpa's sculptures. When Suzy and her parents move away the physical gap causes loneliness and pain for everyone. This work explores the deep bonds between young and old. This is an appealing picture book for young people with its straightforward message and powerful illustrations.

polizzottoTrumpet's Kittens - Carolyn Polizzotto and Sarah Spinks, illustrations by Marion Duke
This simple domestic tale of the birth of a litter of kittens is imbued with a warmth and significance that makes it so appealing to young children. While the text is direct (including a fact sheet on the care of kittens) and sensitive to the needs of the very young reader, it is the illustrations that take the telling of this familiar event to another level of enjoyment.  Trumpet's Kittens captures the moods and activities of the mother cat and then the kittens with compelling honesty and beauty.  It is a children's book that can be enjoyed at many levels.

Script Judge's Report

lastcablgeLast Cab to Darwin - Reg Cribb
Reg Cribb has crafted an exceptional Australian play for our time. Using laconic and irreverent vernacular, he explores traditional topics like small-town life and rural decline along with the contemporary debate on voluntary euthanasia. Along the way he reflects on the perennial themes of love, friendship, identity, mortality and, without fuss, race. Although the driving force of the plot is Max's quest for euthanasia, which takes him on a long odyssey in his own taxi through the outback to Darwin, the play is far from morbid: its caricature, humour and satire are suffused with a characteristically Australian humour forged in defiance of adversity. This is a masterful work that continues to linger in the mind. 

Graffiti, Episode 25 of Sleepover Club - Sarah Rossetti
Sarah Rossetti uses a lively narrative style in this television script to present issues of interest to a young audience. This is a well-constructed episode of the Sleepover Club combining a deft use of devices such as flashbacks and a narrative voice that sustains interest while it propels the plot. Rossetti understands her subject exceptionally well and connects with her young audience, drawing them into the lives of the Sleepover Club. This episode of the Sleepover Club is Australian children's drama at its best. 

Japanese Story - Alison Tilson
Western Australia's ruggedly spectacular Pilbara region assumes an important role in this story of the relationship between an Australian woman and a visiting Japanese businessman: their love story is played out in vast tracts of a beautiful but dangerous outback mining region. Japanese Story is about cultural misunderstanding and forbidden interracial romance. The dialogue is sharp, the characters engaging and believable, and it is readily clear to the reader how and why this screenplay has been made into a successful film.

Non-Fiction Judge's Report

briscoe Counting Health and Identity - Gordon Briscoe
Gordon Briscoe's book is the result of his groundbreaking study of the history of Aboriginal health and demography in Western Australia and Queensland between 1900 and 1940. It is a meticulously detailed work that makes a significant contribution to our understanding of Aboriginal history by viewing it through the twin discriminators of "health" and "identity". The quality of the data on Aboriginal health from that era varied directly with the self-interests of those collecting and reporting it, an insight that throws a new light on the practices of various institutions and people, like A. O. Neville. In effect, Briscoe is writing Aborigines into the history of a period when their lives and welfare were generally considered "melancholy footnotes" to the relentless advance of White Australia. 

dowson.pgOld Fremantle - John Dowson
In his Preface John Dowson says that, "Western Australia is poorly represented in the major histories of Australian photography," and he insists that his book "is not a comprehensive history of Fremantle." But Old Fremantle is much more than an enthusiast's portfolio of pictures dating from the time of the introduction of photography to Western Australia. John Dowson guides the reader through the 1850-1950 development of the port city with exquisite and engaging photographs accompanied by precise and accessible text. The book uses images from the past to brilliantly illuminate the social history of old Fremantle.

gilesFresh Milk: The Secret Life of Breasts - Fiona Giles
Fresh Milk is a wonderful book that is in turn witty and anecdotal, informative and analytical. Fiona Giles has created a lively and captivating alternative to the stodgy manuals on breastfeeding. Fresh Milk dares to be entertaining as well as learned in its revelations about the myths, moral dilemmas and social realities of breastfeeding. This is a book that will provoke meaningful debate and dialogue about a topic that until recently was public taboo/practice.

gregoryCity of Light: A History of Perth Since the 1950s - Jenny Gregory
Jenny Gregory has written an absorbing history of the development of Perth over the past half-century. She examines selected, often controversial, events that have shaped the city. City of Light is an excellent example of how a professional academic historian can present social history to the general public. It is a valuable source for anyone who cares about Perth and the struggles of its inhabitants. City of Light examines the history of the city beyond its official public image. This is a book with many insights into how the social and historical character of Perth continues to evolve.

kinnaneShadow Lines - Stephen Kinnane
The shadow lines of the title are, Stephen Kinnane says, "wide lines of negotiation that we all use to make sense of our differences, and our interconnections."  The author tells the story of his maternal grandmother, a Miriwoong woman from the Kimberley, and his grandfather, an Englishman. In tracing their unconventional union, Stephen Kinnane begins to explore his own identity, an exploration bisected on various axes - racial (black/white), cultural (British/Australian) and geographical (Miriwoong/Noongar country). This is a moving account by an accomplished writer of disrupted lives under pressure, and of the triumph of the spirit of individuals over paternalistic official repression.

oliverUnity Is Strength: A History of the ALP and TLC of WA - Bobbie Oliver
Bobbie Oliver has traced the history of the labour movement in Western Australia from its beginnings more than 100 years ago. Unity is Strength identifies the key events, and the people associated with them, in this comprehensively researched work. As a detailed record of the development of the labour movement in Western Australia, Unity is Strength will be an indispensable source for students of politics and history examining the life, battles and fluctuating fortunes of the Australian Labor Party and Trades and Labor Council in this State.

sickertBeyond the Lattice - Susan Sickert
As a Broome bookshop worker, Susan Sickert saw the need for a good accessible history book about the town, and so she wrote one. This is a concise, absorbing and wonderfully presented account of the early history of Broome that goes beyond the lattice on the buildings at the top end of society. Beyond the Lattice looks unflinchingly at the darker side of Broome's history and tells the stories of the battlers and outcasts who helped to make the town what it is today, for better and worse.

drewJames Stirling: Admiral and Founding Governor of WA - Pamela Statham-Drew
This is a monumental work of academic scholarship. Pamela Statham-Drew has documented the life of James Stirling, founding governor of Western Australia, in comprehensive detail. In doing so, she has given us new insights into the character of her subject, as well as the origins of our State. James Stirling emerges from Statham-Drew's book as a man of vision and adventure, compassion and resolve, qualities that enabled him to withstand the vicissitudes of founding a colony in the most remote corner of the British Empire.