Tuesday, 18 February 2020

Book Review: In This Desert, There Were Seeds


Edited by Elizabeth Tan and Jon Gresham

Published by Margaret River Press in collaboration with Ethos Books
My copy courtesy of the publisher



A short story anthology is a wonderful thing. Authors from different backgrounds with different interests come together to interpret a theme from as many angles as they can, providing the reader with a 360 degree portrait of a cultural moment. The collaboration between Ethos Books and Margaret River Press is just that-- a portrait of a cultural moment-- but its point of difference is the culture that it embeds itself in. In This Desert, There Were Seeds is a collection that celebrates the geographical closeness between Western Australia and Singapore, and a shared vision of our future as both countries face up to the realities of climate change, the shift in what 'community' has come to mean, and the new shape of our political, economic and social structures, as disheartening as these sometimes can be. The twenty stories collected in the book, and curated by Elizabeth Tan and Jon Gresham, show that while perspectives on our past and future dreams are different, at our core, all humanity longs for the comfort of belonging, whether that be with family or loved ones, in the stream of history, or in a place of safety. 


Notable stories in the collection include Alicia Tuckerman's 'Glass', which shows the final dismantling of a relationship played out on a West Australian beach; Yirga Gelaw Woldeyes' 'Maqdala 1868/ London 2018' in which an Ethiopian security guard at the V and A grapples with a growing sense of complicity as he polices the public's involvement with stolen artefacts from his homeland; and 'Flies' by Jay Anderson, a tender portrait of friendship, identity and the pain of being different set against the vivid backdrop of a small Australian town.

The perspectives in these pieces is often confronting or upsetting-- sea levels rise, the government cracks down on a man when an illegal watermelon begins to grow on his verge, a man installs surveillance equipment in the apartments of his neighbours in an effort to help them. These pieces show our future dream as a possible future nightmare, and it is the fact that these things are possible which makes the stories so frightening. Other stories are tender and heartbreaking, such as the opening story, 'Harihara' by Cyril Wong, or 'Death Lilies' by Rashida Murphy, which take the theme back down to a personal, individual level, guiding the reader through the ins and outs of human relationships in gentle, poetic prose, pinpointing the emotional truths in staggering precision.

It is important to take into account also that the collection includes the voices of both established writers and those who are just starting out on their publishing careers. As is the case in any multi-authored anthology, some of the stories resonated with me, while others I struggled to understand. The quality of the writing varies, as does the styles.

Overall, though, this barely matters as the reader is swept up in twenty visions of where we are now and where we are going, and introduces or reintroduces us to some of the most important literary voices of our shared geographical region.

In this Desert, There were Seeds is available now from Margaret River Press and can be purchased with free shipping here. 

Friday, 14 February 2020

14 reasons to love your library on Library Lover's Day

As a child, I used to look forward to trips to the library with Mum or Grandpa, or whichever adult happened to be taking me there at the time. I remember the feeling of browsing the books at the three different libraries I used as I grew up, and have particular memories of the audio tape display at one library, where the cassettes seemed to be suspended in columns from the ceiling.

Photo by Pixabay courtesy of Canva
I was a member of what some libraries refer to as The Lost Generation for a while-- people who stop using the public library in their late teens when their parents stop taking them and they no longer make the effort to go there on their own. Me, I stopped because I had access first of all to my school library, and then, to money of my own with which I started my rather large book collection. I went back to the library in my early twenties, when a friend of mine and I decided that we would read the entire Man Booker Prize Longlist. I did not want to own all of those books, and so, I went to a place where they would let me have them (for a time) for free...

February 14th is Library Lover's Day, and libraries around the country are showing just how creative they are as they plan different ways to celebrate it. But it doesn't have to be February 14th for you to love your library. Here are 14 reasons why libraries are great:

1. They let you borrow books for free

This is a no-brainer. Just don't spill your coffee on the new Charlotte Wood book. And if you have to wait your turn while other people ahead of you in the queue have the book you want, guess what? There are thousands more to read while you do.

2. They help you read more and help you read better. 

Again, this is related to point 1. I don't know about you, but I find that having a finite period within which to read the items I've borrowed helps me consider whether I really want to read something, or once I've started, whether I actually want to finish it.

3. They connect writers with readers.

Whether is this is through putting on an author talk, making a display of new and recommended titles, through a reader's advisory service or however it may be, the main business of libraries is getting the right book into your hands.

Photo by Ming An, courtesy of Canva

4. They connect us with better information.

In the age of Google, libraries may seem to have dimmed in importance, but actually the opposite is true. As the quote goes, Google can bring you back 1000 hits to your search query, but a trained librarian can bring you back the right one. Libraries are committed to helping their patrons get access to the right information, and helping them wade through the proliferation of misinformation that is out there-- and right now that's pretty damn important.

5. They help us stay up to date with technology.

As e-government systems and other e-services gain in popularity, it can sometimes be too easy to remember that not everyone has the same level of technical literacy. Libraries and librarians are on the front line of the effort to make our society more technologically literate, whether it be running classes on smart phones for seniors to coding clubs for young people.

6. They support skill-sharing and those wanting to try something new

If you haven't been into a library lately, you might not know what a hub of activity they are these days. Come in to a library on any day of the week and you might see people learning to knit, people playing Mah-Jong, people doing watercolour painting, people speaking different languages, people doing origami... a library of today is more of a community hub, and more and more free groups are meeting at libraries to sharing their hobbies and pass on their skills. If you're new to a place and looking to connect with people in your area, I recommend you check out your library as a first port of call for social connection.

7. They provide access to computers, internet and study space for those who are job hunting, freelancing, studying, working from home, or just getting started

Don't have a computer at home? No problem. Modern libraries often have computers that you can access, whether you need to type up your resume, do an online course to increase your qualifications, apply for jobs online, or even start your own business. Many libraries also run workshops for job hunters or people starting small businesses or doing freelance work. They also have lots of books about writing resumes and cover letters, improving your English language skills, creating websites and more.

8. They give you access to resources from home

Library closed? No problem. Most libraries give you access to a range of e-resources that can be accessed anywhere on your phone or computer so long as you have an internet connection. Whether it be audiobooks, e-books, movies, music, language learning, computer skills, etc., your library will have something for you to do when you can't visit them in person.

Photo by Pixabay, courtesy of Canva
9. They provide us with a connection to your local history

Most libraries will have a section devoted to the history of the area, and often will have a staff member or two whose job it is to seek out information about what life has been like in the surrounding suburbs over time. If you want to look at the history of your house, do your family tree, or if you're a historical novelist like myself, research places your characters might have been, you can book a consult with your local history librarian who can find you the resources you need. Most libraries also have fascinating collections of old photographs too if that's your cup of tea.

10. They have great activities for kids

If you've ever been to a library on Baby Rhyme Time or Story Time day, you'll know that kids love libraries. Yes, it can get noisy, but libraries are no longer completely silent spaces, and often have a mix of areas for silence and areas for activity and discussion. (Plus, noise cancelling headphones are your friend.) Library programs for children are designed to help children discover a lifelong love of books and learning, and to foster a special connection between children and the parents and grandparents who bring them along. Plus, they often get to make awesome craft creations to take home. The look of joy on children's faces as they carry their macaroni necklaces or egg carton firetrucks out the front doors after Story Time-- that's how you know you've just witnessed a Library Lover in the making.

11. They look after the reading needs of the elderly

Libraries traditionally flourish in two areas-- services for the very young, and services for the older members of our community. A library is usually the only place where older readers can get access to books in the formats they need, such as large print books or audio books on CDs for those who don't have access to, or want to use, a smart phone or tablet. Many libraries also have books on wheels programs, delivering books to patrons in their local council areas who cannot get themselves to the library or do not have family members available to take them. As a keen reader, the idea of being cut of from the thing I love-- books and reading-- sounds like torture, and so I am thankful that these services exist.

12. Librarians

I don't know about you, friends, but I think librarians are pretty amazing, and that's not just because I am training to be one. At primary school, the teacher who had the most impact on me was the teacher librarian, who encouraged me to keep writing and reading whatever took my interest, and was the first person to 'publish' my work when I wrote an acrostic poem for Book Week in Year 3. Think about the librarian in Matilda who lets a tiny, neglected, special child read classics from the grown up part of the library. Think of Giles from Buffy! The Orangutan Librarian in the Discworld novels.

Yep. Librarians are awesome. And they don't shush people anywhere near as much as you'd think.

13. More than just books

Libraries are always looking for ideas to improve the service they provide, and this means at some libraries you can borrow: neckties, briefcases and accessories to complete a job interview book (such as at the New York Public Library), cooking and baking accessories (yes, some libraries in WA do have this) and even humans-- real people whom you can 'borrow' to sit and chat with if you'd like to know their stories. Libraries are interested in providing what their communities want and need them to provide, and as our society changes in response to all sorts of factors, it will be interesting to see what else libraries do for the communities of tomorrow. Got a suggestion? Contact your local library, or make sure you fill in their next survey. Your opinion matters to to the library.

14. They give us some place to go where we don't have to spend money.

The other day I was at an event and I overheard someone say to her friend "I came here on the bus and I was early. I didn't know what I'd do with myself for an hour, and then I remembered I was at a library. I just sat here and read for free, and it was great!"  So long as it's open, you can hang out in your library as long as you want. Read a book. Use the wifi. Stare into space. The library is a place where you are not expected to spend a cent if you want to hang out there. Where cafes will start giving you looks if you're still nursing the same pot of tea in hour three, libraries want you to stay and use their spaces. So next time you find yourself needing a place to go, consider the library.


Let me know why you love your library in the comments below!

Tuesday, 4 February 2020

Doing the 2020 Unread Shelf Challenge

Photo by Jonathan Borba (Canva)
The difficulty with being a person who loves books is that you end up with a lot of them.

As physical objects, they take up a lot of space.

Sometimes, the unread ones stare at me, accusingly. They say things like 'Why haven't you read me yet?' and 'You're not really as big a bookworm as you like to think you are-- you're just a person who likes the idea of owning a lot of books.'

So for the second year in a row, I have committed to doing the Unread Shelf Challenge, an annual commitment to prioritising reading books I already own, and making space in both my apartment and my brain.

The challenge is run by Whitney, a Kansas based booklover whom I first came across on the fabulous What Should I Read Next podcast. She provides you with regular emails cheering you on in your journey to get that Unread number down, as well as challenges such as instigating a 'No Buy, No Borrow' month in January-- which I almost managed to stick to. Let's just say when you've been in a library holds queue for a while and your book finally arrives, it's a bit hard to say 'no thanks'.

I'm finding doing the challenge really satisfying, and I'm learning a few things about myself as a reader, such as the fact that the books I really enjoy reading aren't necessarily the weighty, literary ones that everyone says I should like, that there's nothing wrong with reading a hundred historical romances in a row, and that I really should be finding out if I like an author before buying all their books and storing them in piles.

So here are a few guidelines and tips to help me (and you, if you're joining me) in my quest for a more enjoyable and less cluttered reading life:


  • If you don't like it by page 50, let it go.
  • There is no shame in unhauling a book that you haven't read if you don't remember why you bought it or if it no longer appeals to you
  • You need to count your unread books (but you don't necessarily need to tell anyone what your number is.)
  • If you love an author, read what you have of theirs before you run out and buy something new that's just come out. 
  • Treat your home books like library books-- make a pile that you could reasonably read in a month and if there are any left at the end of that period, sit down and assess why you didn't get to them and if you really still want to keep them. (Have you ever put off a book for ages, saving it for a rainy day because it's supposed to be sooooo goood? Sometimes setting aside a day to read the first few pages of each can save a lot of disappointment in the future!)
And of course, the quintessential tip to help you conquer your TBR--- always carry a book with you!

Thursday, 23 January 2020

January Updates- Back on track with the ms, #authorsforfireys and upcoming appearance at Perth Fest!

I don't know about anyone else, but the last two months have felt to me like they have gone by in a blur.

I've been studying over summer in a (possibly ill-advised) attempt to get my Masters faster, and on top of that, I've been working extra shifts at the day job, which as you may imagine, does not leave a lot of time for writing.  I am slowly getting back on track with the manuscript for my second novel (and third book, I suppose, now that Well-Behaved Women is out in the world), which is an historical novel set in Subiaco around the time of World War One. We're slowly trying to become morning people in our household, so writing time now happens before work, and sometimes even before 7am, where previously it happened around 8.30 at night and the struggle was trying to write enough before the fatigue kicked in. I'm finding that because I am writing early, my inner critic is not completely awake yet which is proving to be very helpful for getting the words down.

Recently I read somewhere that Joe Abercrombie does a targeted multi-draft approach when he is writing a new book-- the first draft is the ideas draft, then he goes back and focuses on character, and then finally he goes back and focuses on plot (I think that's the correct order...) I'm trying out this approach myself and am doing the character draft. I might have to add in a fourth version though as I will need to do a draft where I focus on incorporating research, historical atmosphere and accuracy.

Still would be fewer drafts than I've done on Between the Sleepers!

Speaking of which, I recently came up with a new idea for how to fix the opening of that novel, so I expect to be working on that later this year and then sending it out on submission...

I participated in the #AuthorsforFireys auction this January, where Australian authors, publishers and other book professionals raffled off items raising money for the CFA and other organisations needing help in the wake of the devastating bushfires affecting our country. I decided to raffle off not only a signed copy of Well-Behaved Women but also a hand made scarf, which I'm now knitting as fast as I can so I can send it off to my generous highest bidder, who donated $312 to the CFA. It was really empowering to participate in the initiative and I am grateful to YA authors Emily Gale and Nova Weetman who spearheaded the whole thing and worked tirelessly to keep everything going smoothly. I think the last tally they tweeted about said that we had managed to raise $500 000 -- who said the arts don't matter?!

Photo by Jess Wyld


Finally, the Perth Festival Literature and Ideas Festival program was launched last week and guess who is on it!  (Well, Neil Gaiman, Bruce Pascoe, Matt Okine, Julia Phillips, Holden Sheppard.... But also ME!) I'll be appearing at two sessions-- the first on Saturday at 1.15 pm in the Tropical Grove where I'll be reading you a story, and the second on Sunday at 3.30pm in the Alexander Lecture Theatre, in conversation with Michelle Johnston.  Yes, if you come to my session, you can't go and see Neil Gaiman... but Neil is sold out anyway, so that's hardly my fault!  Please do come and listen to one of those sessions, I'd love to see some friendly faces in the audience and have a chat with you all. I'll even sign books for you.  Not going to lie, I am very excited about being on the other side of the signing table!

That's it for me, this made for a lovely distraction from getting ready for work but I must get back to it. I'll be updating my list of WBW events very soon so if you can't make it to the festival and you haven't come to an event yet, or you'd like to come to another one, stay tuned.

Happy reading, in the meantime, and thanks for all your support in the first two months of my book being out in the world. You are all the best.

Wednesday, 1 January 2020

22 Books to Get Excited About in 2020


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JANUARY

Miss Austen - Gill Hornby

Wild Fearless Chests - Mandy Beaumont

FEBRUARY

The Good Turn - Dervla McTiernan

Weather - Jenny Offill

Escape Routes - Naomi Ishiguro

The Salt Madonna - Catherine Noske

Adults - Emma Jane Unsworth

MARCH

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The Mirror and the Light - Hilary Mantel

The Animals at Lockwood Manor - Jane Healey

The Wreck - Meg Keneally

The River Home - Hannah Richell

APRIL

The Lost Jewels - Kirsty Manning

The Dior Secret - Natasha Lester

Gulliver's Wife - Lauren Chater

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MAY

Katherine Howard: The Scandalous Queen - Alison Weir


JUNE

All Our Shimmering Skies - Trent Dalton

The Lying Life of Adults - Elena Ferrante


JULY- DECEMBER


Transcendent Kingdom - Yaa Gyasi


Hollowpox - Jessica Townsend

Ordinary Matter* - Laura Elvery

The Rook* - Josephine Taylor

The Honeybee* - Craig Silvey



* These titles as called in the Sydney Morning Herald's Books to read in 2020 and may not be confirmed.