Sunday, 12 November 2017

What I've Been Reading Lately

It's technically spring at the moment here in Australia, but I think it would be safe to say that summer is here.  It's been above 30 degrees celcius every day this week, and it stays warm and muggy until well after the sun goes down.  It's perfect weather for lazing around under the air conditioning, or outside in the shade with a good book, and that's certainly something I have been trying to do-- I am on track to reach my Goodreads target of 101 books in 2017 with a few extra books up my sleeve, but that's no reason to slow down!  Reading has sort of replaced writing in the last couple of weeks, but I am finding it hard to feel guilty about that.  Since finishing the rewrite of my novel and handing it over to my beta readers, I feel a little bit like a sponge that has been wrung out.  I have no more words for the moment, so I am soaking up other peoples'.

Here's what I have been reading lately:

Bird Country by Claire Aman-- reviewed here on the AU review.

The Liberation by Kate Furnivall

Controversial, but it was a real struggle for me to make myself finish this one.  The dialogue and the writing in general were really over stated and the plot was sensationalised and there was no real sense of time or place.  Plus, the main character was kind of bland and prickly.  I know this author is really popular but I would be hesitant to read her again after this book.  

The Little Book by Selden Edwards

I've read this before, but I can't for the life of me find my copy.  I doubt I would have got rid of it, because it was a book that came into my life at the right place and the right time.  When I saw it on the shelf at the library, I knew I had to take it home and reread it.  And so I did, and rereading was such a treat.  I rarely get to revisit books.  This is a really complicated novel and it's hard to explain without making it sound really ridiculous.  It was Edwards's first book and it took him 36 years to write (so keeping that in mind, I still have time, given that I am coming up on ten years since I started Between the Sleepers...) It follows a character named Wheeler Burden, who is this legendary rock star/ college baseball player/ writer, who suddenly finds himself in Vienna at the turn of the century and gets to witness all of the culture and unrest that are blooming there at that time, but he also has to work out how to get back to his own timeline-- if he even can-- without messing up his own history.  It's not a totally unflawed novel; Wheeler can tend towards being a bit of a male Mary-Sue at times, because he's so handsome and good at everything and women love him just by looking at him, and you can see the hand of the author at work sometimes, orchestrating the coincidences that give the plot its twists and turns, but it's just really good fun.  It sweeps you up in the march of time and you get to be a fly on the wall where people like Mark Twain and Freud etc. are at work.  I've recently discovered that there is a second book which got some absolutely terrible reviews, so I have requested it on inter library loan so that I can find out for myself.  

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan

It's stunning.  There were moments when my heart was beating so fast with excitement, I thought I was going to explode.  It's Egan's first foray into historical fiction, but she does it so well.  This is the story of a young woman who works as one of the first female divers on the naval yards during the second world war, but it's also got love, and gangsters and missing fathers, and it's just so amazing.  I can't rate it any higher.  I read it in 24 hours and could not put it down.  Better go read A Visit From the Goon Squad  soon I think.

Soap by Charlotte Guest

Charlotte is a friend of mine, but she's also an exceptionally talented poet.  What I really like about Soap is that it's accessible and relateable, without being dumbed down.  A lot of people are put off by poetry because it's like some elite club that you have to have the secret codes to get, like poetry is only meant for reading by other poets.  But not this collection.  This collection is personal and universal at the same time.  It's moving and erudite and playful and it lets the reader in on the secret, which I really, really liked.  

In other news, I've started crocheting poppies after doing a workshop with the RSL poppy ladies at my local library.  They need 62 000 before next Remembrance Day to display in King's Park.  I'm going to keep making them for a while, I think.  

Friday, 3 November 2017

"What do we do now?"

You may have noticed that this month, I have completely re-branded this website.

I loved my old blog, and I loved my pseudonym, but a few people had pointed out to me lately that it was time to move on.  I'm starting to make a bit of headway in the world of writing, and that means time for a real, proper, grown-up author page.

I'm not going to say that much more about it, but I do find it interesting that this coincides with the completion of the latest draft of my novel, Between the Sleepers.  While I've been working on this book for what amounts to something like ten years (though there were gaps to work on other projects in between drafts), the draft that I've just completed felt different. 

That comes down, in large part, to the fact that I have been working with a local author who has mentored me through this stage of the project.  I had admitted to myself about a year ago that the book wasn't quite there yet, but that I didn't know how to push myself to that next level.  My female character was thoroughly unlikable to everyone but me, and there was so much melodrama in the storyline that it seemed a little bit like all of my characters were in bad need of an afternoon nap.  But I'd rewritten the thing ten times.  It was my "What do we do now?" moment, only it really felt like there was nothing I could do but shelve the project and move on to something else. 

I tried that for a while, but the knowledge that I was throwing away a story I'd cared about for such a long time, and pretty much undoing all of the good work that I had put into it, including a residency at the Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers' Centre in 2014 just ate at me.  I started looking for help.  I looked at residencies, competitions, and finally, decided on the Australian Society of Authors Mentoring program, where I felt sure that out of the hundreds (possibly thousands) of applicants who put their work forward every year, that I was going to be selected, that I would get to work with someone like Toni Jordan, that my book would be easy to fix and that I'd find myself in the awkward position of deciding which major publishing house to sell to. 

If that was the only reason I was in the writing game, perhaps giving up wouldn't have been such a bad idea...

I did not get the mentorship, but then again, neither did lots of other writers, all of whom probably were just as determined as I was.  They simply could not give a mentorship to every applicant. 

It was while talking to a local author whose work I have admired for a long time that I mentioned this recent disappointment.  This generous person turned around and said that she would be happy to look at my work and perhaps mentor me through the process of another draft.  We worked out a payment that would be fair for the process and negotiated a time to start work that wouldn't clash with the Perth Writers' Festival.  And in February 2017, I handed over my printed and bound manuscript.

It's November now, and last week, I wrote the last missing scene and corrected the last few mistakes in the book, as per my mentor's notes.  I expected to cry, or feel elated.  Instead, I felt sure that there was more work to be done that I was forgetting about.  I checked and double checked.  No.  Nothing.  There was nothing to do but send the book to some friends for a beta-read.

I'm still in that bizarre, twilight space now where I don't know whether to relax and read the hundreds of books I have stacked around the place waiting for me, or to launch myself into my next project.  I keep thinking that an extra lot of edits will come my way.  But all that's left to do is wait.  (And do the dreaded synopsis...) 

For now, it's done.  It's about 20 000 words longer than it used to be, and has some new sub-plots and character relationships which seemed to develop completely on their own, much to my pleasant surprise.  And I can say today, that I am very proud of the book I have created. 

So to my mentor, thank you-- you have helped me rediscover my love of this project, when I didn't even realise that I had lost it.

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Short Story Book Club (The Podcast) Ep 4: The Boat

We're back! I am still learning this podcasting thing, so tonight's recording chops around a little bit and the sound quality changes. I'm sorry about that. I am good with words, not with technology, but I am learning more and more with every episode I record.

 This month, we were reading The Boat by Nam Le, a classic short story collection from 2008. I was surprised by this book, as it wasn't at all what I expected. I was joined at the Centre for Stories by local writer Yvette Diaz and we had a chat about the book and what we took away from it.


 Remember, you can subscribe to this podcast on Apple Podcasts now-- Just search for The Short Story Book Club Podcast. If you like it, you can leave a review which will help other listeners find us.


Friday, 27 October 2017

Book Review: Marlborough Man

Marlborough Man
Alan Carter
Fremantle Press, 2017 (I own a copy, courtesy of the publisher)

I don't usually read crime novels but I do love to support WA Authors, so when the opportunity arose for me to interview Alan Carter in November, I said yes please and hopped to the task of reading his latest book.  Alan Carter is originally from the UK, but now lives in Western Australia.  He is the author of the three Cato Kwong novels, Prime Cut, Getting Warmer  and Bad Seed which examine the fictional seedy underbelly of Perth.  Marlborough Man is described by Carter in his acknowledgements as a 'temporary conscious uncoupling with Cato'-- it follows Sergeant Nick Chester, originally from Sunderland in the UK but now living in the Marlborough Sounds in New Zealand, after an under cover job he did as part of SOCA (Serious Organised Crime Agency, I think...) put him in the cross hairs with a dangerous crime boss.  Nick lives in one of the most beautiful, isolated places in the world, and this setting plays a key part in the story.  It's a good place for him to hide from his past, but it's also a terrifying place to be alone and far from help.  The landscape, as evoked in Carter's writing, possesses a terrible beauty, and a sense of long history.  Some of Carter's descriptive passages had me wanting to hop on a plane and get myself over to New Zealand for a first hand look.  That sort of powerful description is not something you expect from a crime novel, so I was pleasantly surprised. 

The plot of Marlborough Man has many strands to it, but Alan Carter manages to weave these all together in a well-paced and satisfying way.  First, there is the cat and mouse game aspect: Nick, his wife Vanessa, and their son Paulie, are in danger as Nick's past appears to be catching up with them.  Meanwhile, a child murderer known to police as The Pied Piper strikes again.  Nick finds a link to an older crime, and with the aid of his sassy, tough and thoroughly likeable offsider, Latifa Rapata, he befriends members of the local Maori community, when he discovers that the death of one of their own may hold the key.  While I'm sorry to say I did guess who the killer was before the end, the solution to the complex puzzle laid out for the reader had clearly been meticulously planned, and while it wasn't obvious, all the clues were there if you wanted to solve the case alongside the protagonist. 

At times, I found the endings of the chapters a little bit abrupt in this book-- sometimes, this attempt at leaving the story on a cliffhanger hit the mark, and other times, it just seemed to cut off with a bald statement, but this was the only aspect of the writing of the story which jarred with me.  Would I read another Alan Carter novel?  Yes, I think I would. 

I gave Marlborough Man  four stars. 

If you would like to hear Alan Carter speaking about Marlborough Man, you can catch him at the Bassendean Memorial Library on Wednesday November 1. Please see the library's website for more details.  

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Book Review: The Last Act of Hattie Hoffman

The Last Act of Hattie Hoffman 
Mindy Mejia
Quercus, 2017 
I own a copy courtesy of the publisher

In a small town in America, a young woman named Hattie Hoffman is found dead in an abandoned barn.  The Sheriff on duty is Del Goodman-- a Vietnam veteran, and a friend of the Hoffman family.  Del is a good cop, but this case is personal, and his sanity may depend on whether or not he can get justice for Hattie.

Told in three voices, The Last Act of Hattie Hoffman is both a murder mystery and a coming of age novel.

Hattie is a chameleon.  She changes her personality to fit in with the people around her, becoming whatever they want most.  The perfect daughter.  The devoted best friend.  The star pupil.  (In some other countries, the novel is titled Everything You Want Me to Be.)  She is a seventeen year old girl, bright but a bit of an introvert, except when it comes to acting.  The night of her murder, she has been on stage performing in her school's production of Macbeth, and her portrayal of Lady Macbeth has proved to the adults around her that there are hidden depths to Hattie.

Then there is the voice of Peter Lund, Hattie's English teacher and director of the school play.  Peter has moved from Minneapolis so that his wife, Mary Beth, can take care of her elderly mother Elsa.  Elsa refuses to leave the farm where she and her husband had lived all through their married life, and while the arrangement is only supposed to be temporary, Peter watches as his wife slips easily back into the life she left behind.  Feeling like an outsider, Peter turns to online chatrooms, seeking intellectual conversation about books and art, and finds himself embroiled in a digital affair with the charismatic HollyG (as in Holly Golightly- the heroine of Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's.)

The final voice is that of Del Goodman.  While Peter and Hattie's sections span the months leading up to Hattie's death, Del's sections happen after, as he negotiates questioning suspects, digging into the files on Hattie's computer, and the long, painful wait for DNA analysis at the busy Minneapolis crime lab where he has sent all the evidence for testing.  Del finds himself torn between his hurt and anguish over the death of the little girl he once knew, and the truths he uncovers about the young woman she had become in the course of the case.  As all of the pieces slowly begin to fall into place, what we are given is a complex portrait of three emotionally isolated people living in a small town.

This is a stunning, complex novel, akin to Anna North's The Life and Death of Sophie Stark.  It relies on a multi-perspective view of the world which plays with the way that different characters are viewed in different contexts to skew ideas of innocent, guilty, good and bad.  All the while, the book is extremely readable, at times even binge-readable.

By the end of the book, it's clear to see that Hattie Hoffman was a likable sociopath just trying to find her way in the world, and despite the view that readers may have of her behaviour by the end of the book, Mindy Mejia has definitely captured the rift in a community that is created when a young woman is murdered.  The setting of this book- both physical and 'emotional/social' is spot on, and adds to the atmosphere.  I could see this book being adapted for a film easily, and, being an actress, Hattie would probably have liked that.

Filled with intertextual links to books line Jane Eyre, this is a thinking person's mystery, a literary crime, and would probably appeal more to readers of literary fiction than someone craving a straight up mystery.  I found it the perfect blend, and loved getting to know the people as I followed along in the solving of the crime.

The only part of the book which fell flat was related to the ending, and if you haven't read the novel, perhaps now is the time to close the browser and read this interview no more.  The resolution of the book relies on a double twist-- and it simply was not needed.  One twist would have been fine.  The second twist brought the resolution back to a far more basic level and it made everything leading up to its discovery seem like a frustrating waste of words and time. The tragedy of the set up that first twist suggested-- a man in jail after committing to the crime of his wife so that she won't have to raise their baby in jail-- fits perfectly with the rest of the book.  Sure, it's depressing, but it fits.  It was that kind of book.  I love that kind of ending.  But as it was, the new ending was too neat.  Everyone got a fresh start but Hattie (and the killer, of course).

I could forgive the ending, because I enjoyed spending my Sunday curled up with this book, and I think you probably would too, if you've read this far.

I gave this book four stars.