Thursday, 16 March 2017

A few thoughts on Difficult Women by Roxane Gay

Difficult Women
Roxane Gay
Corsair Publishing 2017 (I own a copy, courtesy Hachette Australia)

This is not strictly a review of Roxane Gay's collection of short fiction, it's more of a collection of my thoughts.  Since I decided that I was going to put together my own collection of short stories, I've been increasingly fascinated by the ins and outs of single author collections.  What holds the pieces together?  How well does the author manage to differentiate the different voices in the stories?  How do you have a huge impact in a very short space?

The premise of Difficult Women really intrigued me, right from the blurb which reads:

The women in these stories live lives of privilege and poverty, are in marriages both loving and haunted by past crimes or emotional blackmail.  A woman married to a twin pretends not to realise when her husband and his brother impersonate each other.  A stripper putting herself through college fends off the advances of an over-zealous customer.  A black engineer moves to Upper Michigan for a job and faces the malign curiosity of her colleagues and the difficulty of leaving her past behind.  From a girls' fight club to a wealthy subdivision in Florida where neighbours conform, compete and spy on each other, Gay gives voice to a chorus of unforgettable women in a haunting vision of modern America.

That is one spectacular sounding collection.  And herein lies the problem.

Try as I might to let these stories get under my skin, I just couldn't get into any of them.  In fact, I've abandoned the book after 100 pages, and I think I've read all of the stories hinted at in the blurb there, none of which were as interesting as the blurb made them sound like they would be.  Which is weird, when you think about it, because they are stories about really intense subjects like sexual assault, miscarriage, racism, love-- none of those subjects could be called pedestrian.  But each story had a distance to it.  They never really let the reader in.  Through a combination of structural experiments (such as in 'Florida', where the story was broken up into chunks according to which apartment we were glimpsing inside... some of which were in first person and some in third, which try as I might I could not see a reason for) and this detached, almost fable-style tone, the half dozen stories I read did nothing for me.  Which was a shame, because I was really looking forward to this book.

As a wordsmith, it's clear to see that Roxane Gay has a lot going for her, because there were some real gems of sentences in this book, but it wasn't enough.  So many books, so little time, and this one wasn't keeping my attention, so it was a DNF after 100 pages for me.

Monday, 6 March 2017

Film Review: Jasper Jones

Image source:
One of the most hotly anticipated film releases for this year-- for me, anyway-- was the film adaptation of Jasper Jones by WA author, Craig Silvey.  Some of you may know that I wrote my Honours thesis on the novel, back in 2012, so I approached this film with a degree of trepidation.  Whenever a beloved book is adapted for the big screen, there is always the possibility that it will be a let down.  Reading is such a personal experience, whereby the novel gives you just enough information to allow you to imagine its world all on your own-- what the characters look like, what particular events might mean, and why certain things may have occurred.  When those books are adapted for the movies, sometimes what the director and the cast and the screenwriter choose to portray can be in direct contrast with your own thoughts.  And sometimes, that's just a plain disappointment.  Let me just preface this blog post by saying that I am not a professional film critic, and that I am by no means an expert on Australian cinema.  But Jasper Jones has been my favourite novel for a long time, and while I was incredibly excited to see the film, I was also terrified that maybe watching someone else's version of it on the big screen would be a let down, or change the way I saw the book.  

If it sounds like I am setting up to pan the film, you can relax-- I'm not.  Critics have compared the movie to Stand by Me, and I can certainly see where that comparison comes from.  In both films, we are presented with protagonists who are wrenched from childhood by events beyond their control.  In Jasper Jones, that character is Charlie Bucktin, played by Levi Miller who some may recognise as the boy from Pan and Red Dog.  Miller's portrayal of Charlie Bucktin, a deeply introverted and introspective character, is a real highlight of the piece.  Everything he does just flows, it makes sense.  There is never a line of dialogue out of place.  Considering that this is a film with very limited voiceover (I can think of one scene, very early one when it is used), Miller is faced with the enormous burden of conveying Charlie's character non-verbally.  This is a particular challenge, because readers of the novel come to Charlie's character through his voice-- Charlie is the one telling us the story.  But in the film, he can't do that.  He can't explain to us how he feels about Eliza Wishart, or how he's fascinated by Jasper, or how much the racism in the small town of Corrigan makes him furious and confused.  All that considered, I think Levi Miller's performance really made this film.  

Image source: Allen and Unwin
It's worth noting that you can't take an incredibly nuanced novel like Jasper Jones and just squash it into an hour and forty five minutes, so some of the things from the novel have gone or been condensed.  For example, while Charlie tells Eliza that he wants to be a writer, we don't see him trying to write a novel and we don't see him fantasising about meeting Papa Hemingway at a gala in New York with Eliza on his arm (though there is a picture of Hemingway tacked to the wall above Charlie's desk).  The Vietnam War is mentioned but only briefly, and while there are still scenes where the town turns their anger on Jeffrey Lu and his family, these are much reduced compared to how they appear in the novel.  (I was excited to see WA actress Alexandra Jones make a cameo in this film as the grieving mother who yells at Mrs. Lu at the town meeting.  Those of you who saw the stage show Jasper Jones by Kate Mulvany a few years back will know that Alexandra Jones played Ruth Bucktin (Charlie's mother) in the WA performances and did an absolutely amazing job.)  The scenes relating to the Lu family were a key part of the novel for me, but I understand why they may have hit the cutting room floor when the movie had to be condensed.  Just another reason why books are better than movies, I suppose...

One result of the change of point of view afforded by the novel was we got a much more sympathetic portrait of Charlie's mother, Ruth, played by Toni Collette.  In the novel, Ruth is almost an antagonist.  She seems unreasonable and she's always yelling at Charlie for things and meting out cruel and unusual punishments-- such as when she makes him dig a massive hole for no reason and then fill it in.  But in the film, we're not just seeing Ruth through Charlie's eyes, and at first, that really jarred me.  When Ruth tucked Charlie in, kissed him on the head and made him put his book away, I found myself thinking that I was going to have a really hard time hating her later on.  But looking back now, I think that was the point.  The addition of  a scene in which Charlie stumbles upon his mother dancing in the kitchen goes a long way towards explaining why Ruth is so unhappy-- she feels trapped.  She has secret longings.  She's bored out of her mind, and that's why she does what she does-- she leaves.  The moment in the film where she tells Charlie why absolutely broke my heart.  The actors got that scene so right, and while it's different to the book, it works.  In a Q and A session after the screening, author Craig Silvey, who was one of the screenwriters, explained to us that the reaction came from Levi Miller himself.  When director Rachel Perkins asked him to run it again with less emotion, Miller explained that Charlie had just had the most tumultuous week of his young life and that this was the first time he'd had a chance to express that.  And so the moment stayed.  

No, it's not a perfect film, but was any adaptation of my favourite book ever going to be?  It's a movie that bears watching, and I hope rewatching, full of stunning shots that could only have been taken in the South West of WA.  It's a story that could only have happened here, and a story that has captured the hearts of so many readers.  The book is now being studied in secondary schools.  And sooner or later, someone was always going to make it into a movie.  So I'm glad that it was this team, who clearly love what they do, because they've done a wonderful job.    

Sunday, 26 February 2017

Perth Writers Festival 2017- A Wrap-Up

The Perth Writers Festival comes but once a year, and for us writerly types in the West, it can be better than Christmas.  Under the excellent direction of Katherine Dorrington and her team, each year we are treated to a three day program of talks which complement one another in different and sometimes surprising ways, meaning that each year's festival has a distinct personality all of its own.  The 2017 Festival has been no exception, and to me, the theme of this year's festival seemed to be all about the political.  From an opening address by Ben Rawlence on world's largest refugee camp, Dadaab, on the Kenyan border with Somalia, and tonight's closing remarks by Syrian writer and architect, Marwa Al-Sabouni, to sessions on feminism, American politics, Australian politics and more, this was a weekend of big ideas.

For those of us whose interests lay more in the realm of fiction, there was an abundance of sessions to choose from, and some particular highlights for me were the panel on Anti-Heroes, featuring Anna North, Laura Elizabeth Woollett and Ian McGuire, talking to local bookseller and editor Geraldine Blake.  Blake is no stranger to the chair's seat at the festival and her gentle guidance made this panel one which was jam-packed with interesting statements.  While Anna North's novel The Life and Death of Sophie Stark blew me away in 2016 with its unique use of a number of point of view characters to create a picture of Sophie Stark, it was Laura Elizabeth Woollett's book I was most keen to rush home and read, as her stories (about the women who were the paramours of some of history's bad men) have been described as intense and powerful, and when she talked about the researching of and the finding of her subject matter, her eyes had a glimmer in them that I knew meant there would be something very special about this book.  When asked by an audience member about the meaning of the term 'Anti Hero', it was Woollett who hit the nail on the head, defining the term as a character who is not the villain, but who does bad things, and yet we sympathise with them anyway.  I'm keen to see how she applies this to characters who are essentially murderers and criminals.

The next session of the day was Laugh Lines, a slightly comical panel about comedy, in which visiting author Liam Pieper chatted to Toni Jordan, Nathan Hill and Josephine Wilson.  Pieper's interviewing style made for interesting viewing, and I was slightly confused by his process of scrunching up his notes and throwing them on the floor as he spoke.  I loved listening to this panel talk about their novels as they all had such different styles, and through listening to this panel, felt I had to rush out and get The Nix by Nathan Hill right away, if only to read the hilarious publisher character I had heard so much about.  Toni Jordan was a real highlight on this panel, as I simply adore her, and listening to her speak made me want to read Our Tiny Useless Hearts all over again.

In the afternoon I had the absolute pleasure of chatting to Jacinta Halloran, Anita Heiss and Armando Lucas Correa about the enduring fascination in fiction with the Second World War.  All three panellists had a personal connection to the stories that they were writing and their passion for narrative shone through in their readings.  Armando Correa began the session with a power point presentation instead of a reading, to contextualise for us all the story of the real life tragedy that his novel deals with, and if you have not read The German Girl, I do encourage you to check it out because the story of the St. Louis has a very real and very chilling parallel with our world today.

On the Saturday, Geraldine Blake also chaired the panel Past Tense, about the writing of historical fiction with authors Jessie Burton, Hannah Kent and Melissa Ashley.  For me, Jessie Burton was one of the biggest draw cards at the festival.  Her debut novel The Miniaturist remains one of the best books I have read in recent years, and it was a delight to see her speak frankly about the way people's reactions to that book had shaped the way she approached her second novel, The Muse in terms of the way she now thinks about art, creativity and the commodification of artists.  Melissa Ashley held her own on the panel with these two literary heavy hitters, charming audiences with her novel on the life of Elizabeth Gould, wife of the famous birdman, John, who it seems took credit for a lot of his wife's work, leaving her as a footnote in history until now.  I imagine a fair few books were purchased after this session, as Ashley beguiled and entertained us with the story of her book and the research that was involved in it.

On Saturday afternoon it was Jay Kristoff talking one on one with journalist Ara Jansen who stole the show, as he discussed his adult fantasy epic, Nevernight. The two had a real natural chemistry, and Jay's enthusiasm for story and for fantasy was infectious.  I absolutely adored his book with Amie Kaufman, Illuminae, but now that I've heard a little about Nevernight, I suspect I am going to love it all the more.

Finally, today-- a little more worn out, a little worse for wear, but ready for some more, I headed to UWA for one last time to listen to Will Yeoman talk about classical music and fiction with Man Booker Prize shortlistee, Madeleine Thien, and Australian author, Zoe Morrisson, whose book Music and Freedom was released last year to critical acclaim.  As a non-musical person I was entranced by the many subtle ways music could inform writing and was inspired to head home and look up The Goldberg Variations for myself.  It was a nice touch that Will wove short musical interludes into the talk.

Then it was on to Little Magic, where local short story guru Laurie Steed chatted to Ken Liu, author and translator, Julie Koh and Laura Elizabeth Woollett.  The natural rapport between these four was wonderful.  It was like watching four short fiction authors catch up for coffee, and the genuine respect they all seemed to have for each others' work and different styles made for a great discussion.  Ken Liu's insights into his fellow panellists' work was especially interesting, though as always, it was the keen questioning of Laurie Steed which made this session the success that it was.  I was particularly pleased to see so many people attending a panel on short fiction, so well done, Perth!

The final session of the festival for me was one that I chaired.  I was in the Octagon Theatre, talking about Placemaking with Holly Throsby, David Francis and Patrick Holland.  This session was such a pleasant surprise, even for me as facilitator, as the panellists took the questions that I gave them and came up with very rich, well thought out responses.  They built on what their fellow panellists were saying and I am very proud to have been involved in such a wonderful discussion.

After much chatting, eating, sweating (it was 40 degrees on Saturday!!!) and thinking, my weekend came to a close and it was time to go home and get ready to head back to work-- via my desk of course, because it wouldn't be the Perth Writers Festival if I didn't feel like writing afterwards.  A huge thank you to Katherine, Maria and Sava (and the team) for having me along, and I look forward to seeing what they come up with for next year.  (Maybe have a small break before you start working on that though, guys-- you've earned one!)

Friday, 10 February 2017

Book Review: The Possessions by Sara Flannery Murphy

Scribe Publishing 
Published 2017 (I own a copy courtesy of the publisher)

When my copy of The Possessions arrived in the post earlier this week, I stopped reading what I was reading and started it right away.  I have been excited to read this book ever since I first heard it was coming out, late last year.  The Possessions is the story of Eurydice, called Edie, who works as a 'body' for the Elysian Society, a secretive organisation which offers the bereaved the opportunity to speak to their lost loved ones again.  The bodies' job is to channel those spirits.  Edie has been working for the Elysian Society for five years, longer than anyone else has ever stayed, and then she meets Patrick.  Patrick Braddock's wife Sylvia has drowned, and he chooses Edie to be the method he will use to speak to her again.  From the moment Edie first channels Sylvia, she begins to feel different.  Are the strong feelings she is experiencing towards Patrick coming from Sylvia, or from Edie herself?  As Sylvia begins to become stronger in Edie's mind, the reader must ask which of them will prevail.

This is a stunning, genre-defying novel.  It has all the excitement of a thriller, the magic of a fantasy and the beautiful prose of a literary masterpiece.  Through Edie's point of view, we see the world Murphy has created to be her setting with a sense of cool detachment, which creates a growing sense of unease as she begins to realise nothing, and no one are as they seem.  Even Edie.  She is a strong character, likeable to us as the reader, even as she might be seen as distant and haughty by the others at the Elysian Society.  She is calm, intelligent, and though she tries to hide it, deeply saddened by events from her past.  Her guilt over what she did before she became Edie is heavily hinted at throughout the novel, and it appears to be her motivation for wanting to help her clients.

One of the major themes of the novel is the idea of disappearing, of one person's personality being completely subsumed by another's.  We see this in scenes where Edie switches back and forth between channelling Sylvia and being herself, failing at times to recognise herself, and at other times, staring into mirrors and searching for the intersections between the two women's faces.  Rather than being frightened by the idea that Sylvia might want her body permanently, Edie becomes obsessed with her, poring over photographs and even going so far as to investigate the woman's death.

Other characters in the novel are more concerned with the identity of the girl found dead in the building site nearby, whom the press are calling Hopeful Doe.  No one seems to know who she is, but her story captures the hearts of the public.

I don't know much about Greek mythology, but The Posessions appears to be thick with references to it.  All the bodies at the Elysian Society have assumed names.  Eurydice was the wife of Orpheus.  When she died, he attempted to retrieve her from Hades, but had to lead her out without looking back.  Another of the bodies, Dora, is named for Pandora.  In the legend, Pandora opened a box which let all the evils out into the world.  It is Dora's arrival at the Elysian Society which starts Edie questioning her life at the society.  Leander, a potential love interest for Edie before she knew Patrick, and another body, takes his name from the story of Hero and Leander.  Hero was a priestess of Aphrodite, and Leander a young man from across the strait.  He would swim across to tryst with her, but drowned one stormy night in the crossing, perhaps a reference to Leander's quashed chances with Edie.  Ana, whose full name we hear only once, is really Ananke-- the personification of inevitability, compulsion and necessity.  It is Ana who has been breaking the rules at the Elysian Society, Ana who shows Edie what's really going on, and Ana who gives Edie the way to be with Patrick.  The pills the bodies take in order to allow themselves to be possessed are called Lotuses-- a reference perhaps to the lotus eaters, a race of people who lived on an island covered in lotus flowers, who spent much of their time in a drugged state.  And the Elysian Society itself is a reference to the Elysian Fields, where the souls of heroes went to rest.  Much of this is from Homer's Odyssey, which admittedly I have never been able to read, though I like the stories contained within.

Quite simply, I loved this novel.  It had everything.  A love story, a puzzle, the supernatural, a connection with myth, beautiful writing and a character whom I felt connected with the whole way through.  It reminded me of some of the best Margaret Atwood, or of Anna North's The Life and Death of Sophie Stark, which I read and adored last January.  In some ways it also reminded me a little of what Audrey Niffenegger did in Her Fearful Symmetry, but much more satisfying (and a totally different plot.)  I have seen reviews online which say this sounds a little like Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier, but it's not right to say that this book is like any others, because it is wholly original, wholly unsettling and wholly engrossing.  Go pick it up.  It's out February 7th.

Five stars.  Possibly a contender for a top book of the year, already.  

Monday, 6 February 2017

Book Review: The Golden Child by Wendy James

HarperCollins Australia (I own a copy, courtesy the publisher)
Published February 2017

Blogger Lizzy's life is buzzing, happy, normal.  Two gorgeous children, a handsome husband, destiny under control.  For real-life Beth, things are unravelling.  Tensions are simmering with her husband, mother-in-law, and even her own mother.  Her teenage daughters, once the objects of her existence, have moved beyond her grasp and one of them has shown signs of, well, thoughtlessness...

Then a classmate of her daughter is callously bullied and the finger of blame is pointed at Beth's clever, beautiful child.  Shattered, shamed and frightened, two families must negotiate worlds of cruelty they are totally unprepared for. 

Last weekend was a good reading weekend.  Straight off the back of devouring one of my most anticipated reads of the year (The Fifth Letter by Nicola Moriarty), I picked up another HarperCollins new release, The Golden Child, and leap-frogged it up to the top of my to-be-read pile.  I was in the mood for quick, gripping reads, books that would keep me flicking the pages to the exclusion of all other tasks.  I got what I wished for and then some!

Beth is an Aussie expat, living in the US because of husband Dan's job.  She doesn't have a green card and so doesn't work, meaning her days are filled with two things-- looking after her daughters, Charlotte and Lucy, and writing her blog about being an expat Mum.  The book is told in multiple perspectives: mainly we hear from Beth, but there are occasional chapters from other characters as well.  In between these chapters are excerpts from blog posts, some of which are written by Beth about her life and family, and others which are anonymous accounts of how to manipulate and bully others, written by someone identifying only as 'Golden Child.'  After an incident at the girls' school in which an 'initiation challenge' run by Charlotte (Charlie) and her 'gang', Beth begins to see her younger daughter a little differently.  Only twelve years old, Charlie is smart and popular and always seems to have some sort of gang around her, made up of other smart, popular, pretty girls.  But is she also a bully?  Beth is certain that this must all be a misunderstanding, and that Charlie is being punished for something that was truly an accident.

Dan announces that he's being transferred back to Australia, meaning Beth is now going to be blogging about being an ex expat.  She's excited to be moving back to somewhere close to where she's from (Sydney), but less excited to be moving close to Dan's mother in Newcastle.  And if Charlie's school is going to view her as a bully over a misunderstanding, perhaps the move has come at exactly the right time.

At their new school in Newcastle, Charlie (now wanting to be known as Charlotte) immediately finds herself a new 'gang', and Beth manages to find herself a friend too.  Andie is the mother of a girl in Charlotte's year, and so Charlotte and Sophie (known as Slowphie to her horrid classmates) find themselves hanging out.  After Sophie is introduced, we start to see the story through her point of view as well, and we are witness to the horrendous cyberbullying and physical bullying Sophie is subjected to.  The worst of it is, while some of it is anonymous, some of it is coming from Charlotte and her friends.  And because we never see the story from either Lucy or Charlotte's points of view, we never know if Charlotte is lying or not, though we suspect if she is, she's also the 'Golden Child' of the blog.

This is a fast paced and tightly plotted novel, with all the twists and turns perfectly set up for without letting you figure them out too early.  It's a novel that will appeal to readers of Liane Moriarty and Jodi Picoult's earlier work.  Beth's struggle between needing to be responsible for what her daughter may have done, and needing to be a good mother to her and give her the benefit of the doubt is intensely wrought on the page, allowing the reader to really consider what they may have done were they in her shoes.  The contrast between Beth and Sophie, who is mostly happy in her own skin except when she's being tortured by her classmates, really makes you consider which side you are on, and whether or not it's as straightforward as simply picking one.  While Beth is caught in the middle of it all, needing to mother Charlotte, support her friend Andie, and defend Charlotte to Dan, who seems increasingly convinced that she must be guilty, we see her character struggle and grow to new depths.  Meanwhile, Sophie's interactions online force you to realise that all of this is happening to a very young girl, and for many readers, her experience will be all-too familiar.

This is a complex story about bullying which takes a unique perspective-- that of the parent of the perpetrator, asking us if bullies always come from unhappy homes.  I highly recommend this book and gave it four out of five stars.