Saturday, 28 September 2019

Book Review: The Burnt Country by Joy Rhoades

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Two years ago, I reviewed a book called The Woolgrower's Companion which told the story of Kate Dowd, a young woman who had to take control of her destiny and begin running her family property during the turmoil of 1945. It remains one of my favourite Australian debut novels (and if you want to know why, you should check out that review.) Imagine my delight to discover that a sequel was due to be published this year.  
The Burnt Country is Kate's story three years later. The war is over, and Kate has been separated from her husband Jack for some time, but that doesn't mean he's leaving her alone. Jack, aware that there is money to be had from Kate and her property Amiens, offers his estranged wife a deal-- pay him ten thousand pounds and he'll let her be the wronged party in their divorce proceedings. But if Kate can't pay, he'll petition for the divorce himself and he'll name her as an adulterer. 

Things are already tough for Kate. Many of her neighbours resent her success, and as a woman alone running a sheep farm, she's subject to all kinds of scrutiny. What's more, Kate publicly acknowledges a young Aboriginal girl, Pearl as her half-sister, as it was discovered in the events of The Woolgrower's Companion that her father Ralph had gotten their domestic, Daisy, pregnant. In order to protect Daisy and Pearl from the attention of the Aborigines Welfare Board, Kate needs to keep her head down. And this means she can't afford people to talk about her and Luca Canali.

In the midst of all this, a bushfire starts on the boundary of Kate's property and her horrible neighbour, John Fleming's property, Longhope Downs.  In the aftermath, and the tribunal that follows, Kate will be forced to take steps to protect the people she loves, even if it means denying herself the great love of her life.

It was wonderful to be back in the company of Kate Dowd, and really interesting to see life after the love story in the first book.  The Burnt Country focusses on Kate, and what life was like for women in the post-war world, whereas in the previous book, there was as much focus on her father's decline and on the love story that developed with Luca as anything else. Kate's struggle to be taken seriously was mirrored by the introduction of a new character, Enid Morrisson, who is also a woman in a man's job.

What Joy Rhoades does incredibly well is explore the relationships between people, and evoke the loyalties that form in complicated ways. There are nasty characters in this book, sure, but there are also kind people like the Riley family and Luca, and Harry's grandmother Mrs Grimes. At times, I found myself thinking about Rosalie Ham's novel The Dressmaker as I was reading this book, as the complexity of a small community played out against the gender politics of the setting. There is much subtle historical detail throughout the book, and the time and place feel real and alive to the reader.

This was a wonderful book and a wonderful companion to The Woolgrower's Companion although I wouldn't read the second one without having read the first.

I gave The Burnt Country four out of five stars.

Thursday, 19 September 2019

On 'The Testaments'...

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Last night, I stayed up late finishing The Testaments  by Margaret Atwood.

Earlier this year, when it was announced, I wasn't that excited by the prospect of a Handmaid's Tale sequel. I had vague memories of having read the first book and not being blown away by it. I would have been about 17 when I read it, and I didn't realise how important a book it was. I remember thinking 'This is speculative fiction and it's too far removed from real life.'

I think that book must have come into my life at the wrong time. I have led a very privileged life, and my reaction to The Handmaid's Tale certainly shows that.

Over the course of the past year, particularly in the re-writing of stories for Well-Behaved Women, I have been thinking a lot about what it means to be a woman. I know that the viewpoints in my short story collection by no means encompass what it's like to be every woman. I can only show quite a limited set of points of view. My characters are all from my own cultural background, though I have experimented with putting them in different positions in terms of their class and age. The more I thought about what it means to be a woman today, and the more I watched what was going on in the world around me-- particularly in relation to what is going on in the United States-- the more I began to feel uneasy.

Did you know that everything that happens in The Handmaid's Tale and The Testaments has a precedent in human history?

I didn't, until last night when I read the author's note at the back of the new book.

The Testaments is a powerful book, and though at times it's horrifying, it also seems to have a message of hope. After I finished reading it, I wanted to hug it to my chest and cry. People have been calling Margaret Atwood a prophet. Perhaps that's a little bit extreme, but she's certainly a very strong, very intelligent woman, and she's living by her own words, that a word after a word after a word is power. I'm going to go back and re-read The Handmaid's Tale now, hoping that I am ready to appreciate it. Ready to learn.

As it says in The Testaments, 'History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes. '

Wednesday, 28 August 2019

Book Review: Love and Other Battles

Love and Other Battles
Tess Woods
HarperCollins Australia, 2019 (My copy courtesy the publisher)

Three generations of women. Three heartbreaking choices. One unforgettable story.

1969: Free-spirited hippie Jess James has no intention of falling for a soldier ... but perhaps some things are not in our power to stop.

1989: Jess's daughter, Jamie, dreams of a simple life - marriage, children, stability - then she meets a struggling musician and suddenly the future becomes wilder and complex.

2017: When Jamie's daughter, CJ, brings home trouble in the form of the coolest boy at school, the worlds of these three women turn upside down ... and the past returns to haunt them.

Spanning the trauma of the Vietnam War to the bright lights of Nashville, the epidemic of teenage self-harm to the tragedy of incurable illness, Love and Other Battles is the heart-wrenching story of three generations of Australian women, who learn that true love is not always where you seek it.


Love and Other Battles is something a bit different for Perth-based writer Tess Woods. While her previous two novels were classed by many readers as romance (though she once told me in an interview that the Romance Writers of Australia would not agree with that definition), her third book is a multi-generational story following three women from the same family. Grandmother Jess Jones is a Flower Child of the late sixties, who never expects the man of her dreams to turn up wearing a military uniform. But it is the time of the Vietnam War, and whether you're for it or against it, the conflict overseas is the topic on everyone's mind. 

In the present day (or 2017, to be more specific), her daughter, Jamie, couldn't be more different. The principal of an elite high school with a competitive music program, she's as straight-laced as they come and has a penchant for fancy shoes. There is heartbreak in her past, with CJ's father, and the possibility of love in her future with a certain charming colleague...

Then there is Jamie's daughter, CJ, who is a student at Jamie's school. She's talented and smart and going places. But when the boy she likes starts paying attention to her, everything threatens to fall to pieces. CJ's relationship with this boy quickly escalates and soon CJ is way out of her depth. After things go too far, CJ takes dramatic action (and thankfully, this book does come with a trigger warning for self-harm and suicide). The character of CJ's boyfriend Finn is chillingly real, a teenage sociopath who can be adorable and sincere one moment and threatening the next. And thanks to social media and mobile phones, CJ finds it almost impossible to distance herself from the relationship, adding to a compelling sense of claustrophobia. It's clear from her handling of CJ's story (and for me, this was the heart of the book), that Tess Woods has a great understanding of teenage girls. 

It would be easy for a novel with three very different strands and storylines to balance to fall apart, but Tess Woods gets the balance just right. This is a powerful portrait of a family of strong women and the hurdles they must overcome in order to succeed. Particularly poignant are Tess Woods' portrayal of granddaughter CJ's struggle with her emotionally abusive new boyfriend and the dramatic consequences of this. CJ's feelings of hopelessness permeate off the page, leaving this reader with a real senes of despair. The modern day storylines affecting CJ and Jamie are interwoven with the then and now of Jess's life story, providing context, perspective and tension to the plot. 

I've never much been interested in the Vietnam War, but this was done exceptionally well. Bravo, Tess! 

Monday, 12 August 2019

The big reveal...

It's here. It's alive! My cover has been revealed to the world and I am so excited that for once I am lost for words!

The cover was designed by the one and only Debra Billson and picked by myself and the wonderful team at Margaret River Press. Now that the cover is in the world, the book is available for pre-order and I know many of you wonderful humans have already ordered yours so a big THANK YOU to everyone who is supporting my book on its journey into the world.

The book will be out in all good bookstores (I hope) in December 2019, but if you'd like to make sure you get your hands on one, do pop over to the website and order a copy, or speak to your friendly local bookseller. Pre-orders help publishers know how many copies to print!


Tuesday, 23 July 2019

The book that I'm publishing and how it snuck up on me...

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In a few weeks, a book with my name on it will be available for pre-order. It has a cover now (not that I am allowed to show anyone yet) and it's been copyedited and rewritten and it's ready for the world to read. But it's not the book that I thought would be my first.

I've always thought of myself as a novelist. I wrote my first 'novel' in high school, a 30 000 word novella called 'Quoting Shakespeare' which was about what I realise now was a toxic friendship between a girl with a strong personality, and my main character, a girl who would do anything to be liked. I did not know what I was doing, but I enjoyed doing it. I printed pages off as I went and displayed them in a folder, harking back to the days when I used to run my own 'publishing house' in my bedroom as a child and design covers for all my short stories. A few years later, I wrote a 50 000 word 'novel' called 'Invisible Girl' which I suppose was urban fantasy, seeing as my protagonist discovered she was working for a benevolent devil when he magically swapped her life with her sister's to help the two of them gain some perspective. I was really proud of this book. I printed it off multiple times, and gave a copy of it to the librarian from my primary school to read. She'd always been really supportive of my writing. I also sent it to Fremantle Press, hoping they would publish it. I bet they're still laughing.

After a trip to Japan in 2008, inspiration struck and I began writing the novel that would become 'Between the Sleepers'. I've now re-written this book eleven times (I think... it's hard to keep track). I've taken it to a residency at KSP, entered it in unpublished manuscript awards, and pitched it to a few agents. And I really thought that this was going to be it. My first book.

Short stories have been the thing that have kept me sane in between the writing of all these novels (and there are three I haven't even mentioned in this post, so I guess I'm prolific). They're also the thing that have given me the chance to flex my creative muscles and discover that this is actually something I can do. When I first got accepted into a literary magazine, I felt relieved. The voice in my head that was saying I wasn't a writer just because I enjoyed writing was wrong. It was that self doubt monster and now I could tell it to go away with confidence. At the first annual Australian Short Story Festival, sitting on a train on my way to the second day of sessions, I thought to myself "I want to do this. I want to have a collection of short stories." A little while later, when Caroline Wood from Margaret River Press asked me if I had a collection of short stories that might be ready for publication, I said yes.

The manuscript that would become Well Behaved Women was not quite ready, and the board rejected it (kindly). Yet that wasn't the end of the road. Caroline was putting in an application for funding to run a mentoring program for three writers who had been published in previous MRP anthologies. She needed writing samples, a letter of recommendation and time. Who would I like to be mentored by? I gave her the information she needed and then I went back to tinkering with 'Between the Sleepers', garnering yet another rejection from an agent I'd set my heart on. And one day in December last year, I got a text message from my friend, Louise Allan, congratulating me on the publication announcement that I had supposedly kept up my sleeve.

This is what I mean when I say that Well Behaved Women being my first book is a bit of a surprise to me. But in many ways, it shouldn't be. The short story form speaks to me, and I've spent painstaking hours honing this craft. I've read widely, I've studied deeply. I'm a person who finds the short story form powerful and moving, and I get excited when I see the number of new collections being published in Australia at the moment. I actually think that short stories are harder to write than novels, though novels may be harder to get published as it turns out. In my case, anyway. The collection, when I finally get to share it with you all, is an archive of my writing life so far, spanning the ten years since I 'decided to give this writing thing a go for real'. It showcases my anxieties, pre-occupations, and sometimes my taste in music. And while it means that I've had to add 'writer of short stories' to my bio in front of 'and historical fiction', I think I'm okay with that.

Because this book that snuck up on me is one that I'm really really proud of.