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Western Australian Premier's Book Awards - 2004 Judges' Report

Comments by the Judging Panel

For the 2004 awards, a total of 134 books and scripts were submitted, fifteen percent more than in the previous year. The judges considered the works in seven categories: fiction, poetry, writing for young adults, children’s books, scripts, non-fiction and – a category new for 2004 – history, its prize made possible by the Department of Culture and the Arts. More than half of the entries were in the non-fiction category, demonstrating the rationale in awarding two prizes for the section; and, in the event, that category provided all of the shortlisted books for the West Australian History Award. The authors considered for the awards included established and emerging writers young and old, some of them full-time writers, some of them first-time writers, some of them people who combine writing with other full-time activities. Major overseas and Australian publishing houses were represented, including local ones; there were small publishers, local and otherwise, as well as self-published books. The judges, from different backgrounds and professions, brought with them a wide range of complementary knowledge, interests and enthusiasms. Their deliberations, more seminars than debates, elicited clear points of view that were strongly held, and their decisions were collegial and unanimous. The judges were, like their predecessors, impressed by the overall quality of the work, all of which had some Western Australian connection and, in several instances, had received notice and praise interstate and/or overseas.

Fiction

2004Sixty Lights - Gail Jones
(Random House Australia)
Orphaned in Australia at eight in 1860, Lucy Strange, lucid by name and strange by nature, is raised in London by her eccentric uncle and then sent to Bombay for an arranged marriage with his friend, the much-older Isaac Newton (namesake of the eighteenth-century physicist famous for his Opticks). It will be a marriage in appearance only, for she falls pregnant during an affair with a fellow passenger on the voyage out. Then she becomes preoccupied with photography, the powerful technology emerging in her lifetime: photo-graphy/light-writing, a kind of life-writing, becomes a medium whereby she learns to see time differently and is thereby freed from its constraints - until she dies of consumption at twenty-two, as we have known from the beginning she will. "A life abbreviated is not a life diminished," Jones has said, and Lucy's life is "one of extraordinary richness, assertiveness, energy, loving kindness." Jones's Sixty Lights is a meticulous, elegant, and engrossing book.

salomToccata and Rain - Philip Salom
(Fremantle Arts Centre Press)
Phillip Salom, poet and novelist, combines both skills in Toccata and Rain, along with his interests in music and psychology - and architecture, since its protagonist is an architect who has erected two "gaudy [Gaudi?]" eight-metre phallic towers in his back yard. The novel's central tropes are the toccata, a musical composition with fugal implications, and the psychological concept of fugue that can involve a state where an individual develops a counter-identity that causes him/her to lead two lives, only one of them known to the person at any one time. This happens to forty-eight-year-old Simon/Brian who lives in Melbourne/Perth in Salom's complex, layered novel that intercalates his prose with his poetry.

wintonThe Turning - Tim Winton
(Pan Macmillan)
The Turning, a series of seventeen overlapping stories set from the 1970s onward, depicts West Australian life in Angelus, a hopefully named coastal town. The stories capture the claustrophobic nature of such towns, with their disabling secrets, their guilt and shame, and sudden, alarming intimacies. The only disinterested voice is that of the BBC-like recording on 1194 that tells the current time, the "plodding time" of neighbourhoods becoming suburbs, from which so many are desperate to escape. Winton's gift is his capacity to turn the usual misfortunes of ordinary people - failing a university-entrance exam, a wife's death by cancer, two girls wrapping their car around a tree, a wife's death by suicide - into muted tragedies in lives that go dully on.

Poetry

healdFocusing Saturn - Michael Heald
(Fremantle Arts Centre Press)
Michael Heald says that his poems aim toward a disentanglement of the ego from its circumstances, not separateness but "the disclosure of a differently energised participation." The collection is impressive for the range and relationships of people, places and things Heald brings into his focus. Saturn, a metaphor for other apparitions also seen, felt like "a crucial / molecule of me put in place: / its hieroglyph the dazzling correction / of some stupendous error." The poems provide much pleasure and an occasion for deep reflection.

lansdownFontanelle - Andrew Lansdown

(Five Islands Press)
Fontanelle again shows how Andrew Lansdown's acutely seen, hard-edged poems range effortlessly from small epiphanies about nature, to witty haikus - perhaps a hundred of them - about nature and the self, to meditations on the self, home and family. One of his "Thirteen Views of a Grey Heron" asks, "Is it a statue / that concrete-coloured heron / beside the fishpond?" And another answers: "Interrupting / its contemplations, the heron / impales a fish."

loAgainst Certain Capture- Miriam Wei Wei Lo
(Five Islands Press)
Against Certain Capture is a small collection of poems with a gravitas that derives from the intensity of their preoccupation with cultural, legal and biological connectedness in women's lives. A mother, writing to her distant son, sees "[a] faint outline of a person starting to form," and knows how words "flow out of a body and carry the ghost / of fingers, a face, a heart." Those people, those ghosts, are drawn from the lives of Lo's grandmothers: one Chinese-Malaysian, the other Anglo Australian. A collection about how to structure a life, to understand it if not to explain, it is also a collection about forgiveness.

Young Adults

eatonFireshadow - Anthony Eaton
(University of Queensland Press)
This tale draws the reader into two distinct worlds yet manages to balance and interweave them with ease. In a contemporary setting, Vinnie retreats to the bush near Dwellingup to take stock after a terrible car accident has left him physically and emotionally scarred. He settles in an area of forest where a POW camp had existed during World War Two, the area providing the setting for the second story. Here we are drawn into the lives of the camp inmates, but particularly to the story of Erich, a young German soldier captured in North Africa who finds himself in an alien place trying to come to terms with the dishonour of capture. The West Australian bush is evoked powerfully through beautiful descriptive imagery appealing always to the full sensory experience. This is a work that broaches many subjects, including racism, patriotism, nationalism, loyalty, responsibility and sibling love, all with subtlety and sensitivity. Eaton has aimed high with this work and succeeded admirably in his deft handling of a complex plot and descriptive powers that bring people and place alive.

hobbyThe Fur - Nathan Hobby
(Fremantle Arts Centre Press)
This is a first novel which is at once full of promise and innovation but at the same time grounded in the author's own reading history, with homage especially to Salinger's Catcher in the Rye. The setting is post-apocalyptic Western Australia where a frightening plague, the fur, has claimed whole areas of the state, reducing it to quarantine by the Wealth (the Commonwealth Government). These events unfold around the protagonist, Michael Sullivan, who comes of age in these disturbing times. He questions the fundamentalist beliefs of his preacher-father as the family disintegrates after the death of his mother who succumbs to the fur. Michael dreams of escaping to the Eastern States (which remain free of the scourge) and of beginning a new life in Melbourne. He is fortunate, however, in securing one of the few places at Murdoch University where his journey of self-discovery really unfolds. This is at times a dark, alienating world, but it offers hope in the individual's struggle to find a comfortable place within it.

norringtonThe Last Muster - Leonie Norrington
(Omnibus Books)
The Kimberley region of Western Australia is the setting for this narrative, the characters, the language, the situations and the grandeur of the landscape accurately evoking this isolated part of Australia. Shane, the son of a station manager, and Red, the Aboriginal granddaughter of the head stockman at the station for many years, both relish station life. They set out to find and hopefully capture a rogue stallion that has become "the stuff of legend." In helping to muster a herd of wild horses, the young people traverse majestic and unknown territories, and here the author shines in her descriptions of place, always underscored by reference to ancient Aboriginal mythology. The tension in the story comes through the potentially dangerous situations in which Shane and Red find themselves, and the thrill of the chase. In this action they learn much about themselves and are drawn closer. Norrington's characters speak with the authenticity of local speech patterns which are clipped and direct, without embroidery or affectation; a colloquial English and Aboriginal glossary is included. This work takes many of us into a world we know little about and spins a satisfying and believable narrative.

Children's Books

crawfordA Home for Bilby - Joanne Crawford & Grace Fielding
(Magabala Books)
A Home for Bilby is in many ways the archetypal children’s book. In a simple, straightforward writing style, the tale unfolds of a timid bilby who, with the help of some delightful Australian animals, finds the perfect home (and some new friends). There is an underlying tension for the young reader, wondering whether Bilby will find a home, something so basic to happy existence that the relief when the ideal shelter is found is palpable for everyone. The work is instructional on habitat, endangered animals and the value of collaboration. Grace Fielding’s illustrations, an attractive blend of Aboriginal motifs and European figurative traditions, in ochres and browns with splashes of yellows and blues, are redolent of the Australian bush. The attention to production detail and the small drawings included on each page make this book a joy.

forrestalBlack Earth - Elaine Forrestal
(Puffin Books (Penguin))
It is school holidays and Tori and Maddie are spending time with their cousins at the Eden-Glassie winery. This is the third work in a series that has provided fast-paced action and mystery for the young reader. At the centre of this narrative is a series of grass fires that spring up on the property, the children suspecting the work of an arsonist. As they struggle to unravel the mystery, their courage and loyalty is strongly tested. The climax, when fire threatens both life and property, is frighteningly real. Once again, Forrestal shows that she knows her audience well. In a reassuring way, the support and love of the family underpins all of the action as the children both test each other and individually are tested by events outside of their control.

jorgensenThe Call of the Osprey - Norman Jorgensen & Brian Harrison-Lever
(Fremantle Arts Centre Press)
This is a story focussed on the benefits of hard work, patience, and the joys found in bridging the generation gap. The elements of the narrative are an old seafarer, a derelict boat, the Osprey, and Tom, a young boy with time on his hands and in need of a project. With the sea captain's years of experience and his quiet approach as well as Tom's physical energy and willingness to learn, the steamboat is lovingly restored to its former beauty and usefulness. The task of renovating the boat is a painstaking one requiring many skills and occupying a period of years that sees Tom mature to manhood. The water-colour and pencil-line illustrations provide a sure balance to the pace and setting of this tale. The watery hues of blue and green reflect the quiet and beauty of the harbour and are complemented by the interior scenes suffused with warmth in their red and brown tones. This work will reward the careful reader with its gentle messages and attractive, detailed illustrations.

kellyCorroboree - Suzanne Kelly, Angus Wallam & Norma MacDonald
(Cygnet Books (University of Western Australia Press))
As told to Suzanne Kelly, this is the story of Angus Wallam, an Aboriginal elder remembering his childhood. Essentially, it is the straightforward account of preparations for the springtime corroboree through the eyes of Wirrin, a young boy. The importance of learning the traditions and rituals from the elders underscores all of those preparations. As he undertakes special tasks and learns new skills in readiness for the large gathering of family and friends, Wirrrin's excitement is conveyed through word and picture. The pen-and-ink and watercolour illustrations, often in charcoal hues, reflect the fire and smoke that is integral to the experience of the corroboree. In other scenes, the joys of the awakening spring emerge from the page in pastel reds and greens. An important aspect of this work is the recording of the Nyungar language which is used extensively in the text, with sound book design using the endpapers as a glossary.

Script

The Chatroom - Reg Cribb
(Perth Theatre Company)
Cribb’s Chatroom is sophisticated for the way in which it declines the easy option of a paedophilia exposé: it hands that gambit to the husband/father whose attempt to reclaim his family is bungled when he assumes that his teenage daughter’s 40-year-old online companion wants scat rather than chat. Cribb anatomises a modern-day family where the wife/mother is doing her best to start a new life, the boy seems to be getting along well enough, and the daughter is trying to do the same. Then along comes the abandoning husband/father whose belated and inept attempts to show love and concern do not persuade the woman and her son, but rather make clear why the daughter has sought a father-substitute. That her chatroom companion does not welcome his eventual face-to-face meeting with the young girl bespeaks the fact that he is alive to the potential for impropriety (or at least the appearance of it), a possibility the father takes as an accomplished fact when he confronts and assaults him.

Two episodes of Foreign Exchange, "No Return" (Episode 8) and "Heir Today – Gone Tomorrow" (Episode 25) - John Rapsey
(Magma Films/Southern Star Entertainment)
Hannah and Brett’s discovery of a portal between their homes in Ireland and Australia opens the way to adventure as they travel back and forth into each other’s lives. The half-hour children’s television drama series combines the elements that appeal to the young – mysteries, mishaps and, above all, the 14-year-old pair’s constant battle to keep their dual lives secret, especially from the adults. Rapsey keeps the pace clicking along, with short, sharp dialogue and plenty of action. The plots of both episodes are well constructed and the lively writing/dialogue appeals to the audience.

readYandy - Jolly Read
(Black Swan Theatre Company)
Yandy is iconoclastic for its representation of Don McLeod as being "one of them," meaning a white to the Aboriginal people and not the blackfella’s friend he styled himself as. It is refreshing for its naïve representation of Dorothy Hewett as a young reporter for the West Australian who is looking for a story rather than a headline. But most of all it is informative for the way it documents and elaborates the details of the Aboriginal station-workers’ Strike of 1946, sometimes called "the blackfella’s Eureka": how the pastoralists were outraged, how the police took their side, and how the Aboriginal people took a stand and did not give in, not even to this day according to some of the old people who insist that they never returned to work on the stations. A dramatic illustration of how the master-slave relationship is ruptured when the slave says No.

West Australian History Award*

* These books are also considered shortlisted for the Non-fiction Award

barkerBehind the Play - Anthony Barker
(West Australian Football Commission)
Too often sports historians focus on personalities and achievements, avoiding any discussion of the ways in which sport is integrated within society. In evading this trap and by making skilful use of oral history, Tony Barker goes “behind the play” to examine the politics of football, as well as to embed the game in Western Australia’s social history. The result is a masterly study of a major sport – objective, analytical and always entertaining.

House to House - David Black & Phillip Pendal
(Parliament of Western Australia)
Public buildings, especially those intimately associated with the government of the people, are, as Phillip Pendal and David Black suggest, indicative of the economic, social and political circumstances of particular eras. The history of these buildings and the controversies they occasionally provoked are combined with fascinating insights into the lives of those who worked within them, demonstrating the authors’ authoritative knowledge of government in Western Australia.

houghA Dream of Passion - David Hough
(His Majesty's Theatre Foundation)
"An extravagant book for an extravagant theatre". It is appropriate that such a sumptuous history should celebrate the theatre that has been at the centre of Perth’s cultural life for more than a century. Lavishly illustrated and clearly written, the pages glow with illustrations and anecdotes. David Hough breathes life into a wonderfully varied cast of characters in front of and behind the footlights, as well as demonstrating how a theatre can connect a remote city to the cultural riches of a wider world.

ellisMidland Railway Workshops - Nic Ellis & Chris Smyth
(West Australian Newspapers)
Australian mateship may have been forged in the bush, on the beaches at Gallipoli and elsewhere, but it was also nurtured in such places as the Midland Railway workshops. Opened in 1904 and closed amid controversy ninety years later, the workshops were a masculine world of physically demanding labour amid noise, heat, fumes, grime and sometimes dangerous heavy machinery. Almost 100 beautifully reproduced black and white photos, accompanied by an outline text, provide an evocative tribute to an industrial world known to generations of proud workers.

Non-Fiction

cravenConversations with the Constitution - Greg Craven
(University of New South Wales Press)
The job of making the Australian Constitution a lively and interesting topic was a tall order, as Craven admits. Nevertheless, he tackles it with gusto, producing an entertaining and sometimes irreverent look at the issues, from federalism to executive powers, and the main players, from politicians to the judiciary. He concludes that, though it may not be universally loved, the Constitution has served us well and will continue to do so.

darrochThe Boonah Tragedy - Ian McNeill Darroch
(Access Press)
In December 1918 the troopship Boonah arrived at Fremantle from Durban, South Africa, where the deadly Spanish influenza virus was rampant. The men on board, some of whom were infected and transferred to Woodman’s Point quarantine station, found themselves at the centre of an acrimonious debate as Western Australia tried to isolate itself from what soon became a pandemic. Meanwhile twenty-seven soldiers and four of their nurses died. Bureaucratic ineptitude and strained relations between federal and state governments are prominent in this compelling microstudy.

lanceRedbill: From Pearls to Peace - The Life and Times of a Remarkable Lugger- Kate Lance
(Fremantle Arts Centre Press)
Built in 1903 for the Broome pearling industry, Redbill went on to an eventful life that spanned nearly a century and some major historical events. It was requisitioned by the navy during World War II, took part in Greenpeace protests in the Pacific, and was used to raise funds for the East Timorese. At various times it was crewed by troubled teenagers, crocodile farmers, ecologists and others who all fell under its spell. One of those captivated was Lance, who chronicles with warmth and affection its remarkable adventures.

poprzecznyOdilo Globocnik - Hitler's Man in the East - Joseph Poprzeczny

(McFarland & Co.)
This is a passionate and deeply personal biography uncovering the life of one of Hitler and Himmler’s principal collaborators. Poprzeczny labels him “one of the first industrial-style killers in history,” for Globocnik was in charge of three camps in occupied Poland where more than one and a half million people died. It is a conclusion based on impressively detailed research in several countries, leaving no doubt that Globocnik’s importance will never again be overlooked by historians of Nazi atrocities during World War Two.

bentTwo Sisters: Ngarta and Jukuna - Ngarta Jinny Bent, Jukuna Mona Chuguna, Pat Lowe & Eirlys Richards
(Fremantle Arts Centre Press)
The stories of Ngarta and Jukuna are important records of a lifestyle that has all but disappeared from the Great Sandy Desert. The sisters tell, individually and in collaboration with Lowe and Richards, of the survival of their people, the Walmajarri, in a harsh terrain – terrain made more precarious by the menacing presence of two killers – and of their emergence about 40 years ago into an alien and alarming world.

toussaintA Jury of Whose Peers? - Sandy Toussaint & Kate Auty (ed.)
(University of Western Australia Press)
This collection of essays looks at the strengths and weaknesses of the jury system through the eyes of the judiciary, academics, jurors and others. It focuses particularly on the unhappy history of Aboriginals in the justice system and on how juries cope with complexities such as “reasonable doubt” and “the battered-wife syndrome.” The authors raise some troubling questions about justice and juries.