Sunday, 18 February 2018

Book Spotlight: Dustfall by Michelle Johnston

I may be doing a few of these spotlights this year... it seems a lot of people I know and love are having their books published.  Today, I am shining my spotlight on Dustfall, a beautiful literary novel by Michelle Johnston, who I will also be interviewing next week at the Writers Festival here in Perth. 

Dustfall is the story of two doctors, Lou and Raymond, one in the 'present' day (although I think her story actually takes place in the late 90s) and one in the 60s, at the very tail end of the life of the town of Wittenoom.  We know now that the asbestos mining operation in Wittenoom had an incredibly high, devastating cost for the workers and their families, many of whom would suffer from mesothelioma for the rest of their lives, however long those lives would be. The town has now been degazetted, and does not appear on any maps.  But in Dustfall, Dr Lou Fitzgerald, fleeing a medical error that haunts her, finds herself in Wittenoom on route to a rural medical posting, and decides to stay a while.  Whilst there, she discovers that some people actually do still live in the town, and through talking to a man named Dave, she discovers the terrible past of the ghost town she has stumbled upon.  Meanwhile, Dr Raymond Filigree, newly arrived from England to be the town's medical superintendent, finds that he has his work cut out for him as the Wittenoom of the 1960s is ruled over by a mining corporation who think that throwing money at problems will make them go away.

There is much at work in the story of Dustfall.  It is not only a novel about Wittenoom and what happened there, but a story about second chances, and a story about stories. In writing the story of what may have happened during Wittenoom's last days, Lou is given the chance to take back some control of a narrative, a therapy that she badly needs given that as a doctor, sometimes there is only so much that one can do. In telling the story of Raymond and the town, she gives a voice to the victims of the mining company, and in some small way, gives them justice.  But she also gives herself a gift. It is through this writing about another doctor and another time that she is able to order her thoughts and see a bigger picture, allowing herself to face the things in her own life that trouble her. And though her past errors hang over her for much of the book, the reader begins to trust through the integrity of this woman that they are following from page to page, that perhaps she is being harder on herself than she needs to be.

There is a surprising connection between hospitals and storytelling. The body tells a story when it is sick or hurt, using symptoms to guide doctors and nurses to what it needs to heal.  There is a story in every family member sitting by a bedside.  There is a story in every grief.  There is a story in every exhausted doctor or nurse who sits down to wait for the next emergency. And there is a kind of tragic, heroic beauty in all of these stories, a kind of poetry, which Michelle Johnston understands.  Her writing is masterful.  It is beautiful and elegiac and I hope the Miles Franklin judges for 2018 are paying attention because I have a strong contender for them right here. 

Read Dustfall.  Reread it.  Read some of the passages aloud because there is music in them.  You will be moved.

You can catch Michelle Johnston in conversation with me next Sunday the 25th of February at the Perth Writers Festival.  Tickets can be purchased here. 

You can also catch her at various library events around Perth, including the Cambridge Library on April the 10th. 

Saturday, 10 February 2018

What's In A Name?

Why is it that thinking up a title for your book is so hard?

This is something I have been thinking about this week, as I get ready to start sending out my work to agents and publishers.

It seems to me from talking to people on Twitter this week that there are a few ways of thinking about it.  There are those who say that titles are vitally important, even at this pre-published stage, and that putting the best possible title on your work will give it a great first impression.  But there are also others who say that titles, like covers, matter very little at this stage of the book progress, as they will be changed as part of the publication process anyway.  The trouble is that you have to get a publisher first.

Perhaps the truth of the matter lies somewhere in between these two, or perhaps it even depends, with factors such as the genre of your work, the publishing house you are working with, and what's already on the market all coming in to play.

At the moment, my work is called Between the Sleepers.  It's a title that I chose from a whole bunch of options a few years back, based on the comments that I got on a Facebook post I shared with friends.  Prior to that, the story began its life titled The Compound, which was also the title of an album by a band called Search/ Rescue, whose work I had been listening to when I first planned the book.  (I say planned-- it was a very loose plan as I am what's called a 'pantser' in writing circles.  The book of today bears no resemblance to that early plan.) That was never really a good title for the book, though it did speak to one of the themes that I was trying to build-- that not all prisons have bars.

Other titles I toyed with included The Boy on the Bicycle which I believe is the title of a novel published early last year, and Winston's Way.  But it was Between the Sleepers which best captured the wistful longing that I was going for, and seemed to fit in with other titles of books in my genre which I loved. Some of the best titles I have come across-- ones I wish I had come up with myself-- include The Light Between Oceans and We That Are Left.

I get mixed reactions to my title-- people either love it or they don't quite get it. Earlier this week, a beta reader suggested I try something like The Distance Between Us which is lovely, but not as unique as I had hoped.  But I think one of the things that is hardest to grapple with is the fact that I like my title, and I am hoping to either find a way to keep it, or to come up with something that I love even more.

I will continue to give it some thought in the time leading up to when I hit send...

Sunday, 4 February 2018

Book Review: The Secrets at Ocean's Edge

The Secrets at Ocean's Edge by Kali Napier
Hachette, 2018 (My copy courtesy the publisher)


When Ernie Hass moves his wife Lily and their daugher Girlie to the coastal town of Dongarra (historical spelling of Dongara from the time the book was set) in 1932, it's not in the happiest of circumstances.  Ernie is bankrupt-- his farm was mortgaged up to the hilt and he was counting on subsidies that never came in. He moves them out to a run down property by the beach front, hoping for a fresh start. His plan?  To open a guest house with a little shop.  Yet the reality of the situation seems dire to his wife Lily, who is already feeling the strain on their marriage.  Forced to give up her position in society and all her nice things-- including a beloved sewing machine, which allowed her to design and alter her own dresses, Lily feels more trapped than ever, and her frustration is beginning to seep out and colour her interactions with her family.  When her brother Tommy shows up, suffering from shell shock after having been enlisted during the First World War, it's just one other complication in Lily's plans to make a good start in the new town.

The Secrets at Ocean's Edge is that rare thing-- historical fiction which takes a deep, authentic look at the reality of difficult times in history, rather than looking for the glamour and nostalgia.  It is clear from reading the book that Kali Napier has done her homework. From the descriptions of the town, to the inclusion of Indigenous characters, Napier's approach to recreating Dongarra during the Depression has been done with an anthropologist's eye-- fitting given that she is an anthropologist. If a reader were to pick this book up expecting romance and happy endings, they would be sorely mistaken.  Like other similar books which have come before-- two examples that spring to my mind are The Dressmaker and The Light Between Oceans-- the aim of this book is not to mythologise the past, but to tell a story about what life was really like during this difficult time. And there is extremely little to fault in Napier's recreation of small town life during the time between the wars.  Her attention to detail makes the reader feel like they are truly there.

Napier also has superb control of her subplots, and that is what makes this novel so completely original. The lives of her four protagonists, each of whom tells parts of the book from their point of view though the narration style is third person, are perfectly balanced against one another. For Ernie, this is a book about his attempt to make good after the failure of his farm, and the feelings of inadequacy he faces when he feels he may be unable to be the man of the family and support his wife and daughter. For Lily, it's a story of her attempt to find a good place for herself in the society she has come to, as a means of atoning for marrying a man she believed to be below her station all those years ago. A secret from her past threatens to unhinge her plans. It is very easy to relate to the harsh woman Lily has become once you see how she got to be that way. For Tommy, the story is about trying to find his way back to himself after the war, despite how difficult it now is for him to relate to others. The only person he wants to look after him is his sister, but she is pushing him away.  And for Girlie, it is a story about growing up in a town where you don't fit in, and where people are cruel. Girlie was perhaps my favourite character. She was the only innocent one, though she felt guilty about a lot of things it seemed. Like many children, she was unable to see differences like race, and saw nothing wrong with talking to people from other cultures and becoming friends with them, even though it got her into trouble.  Though perhaps it is likely she would later pick up the prejudices of her parents, for the duration of the story, Girlie is that wonderful creature, pure of heart, who approaches every new person as a possible friend.  It is this combination of characters who carry this story, and make it the book that it is.

I enjoyed The Secrets at Ocean's Edge very much, and my only criticism is that there should have been more of it.  I would have liked to have seen some of the plot lines be drawn out in more detail, and for the climax and denouement to have taken more time to tease out for the reader. To live in the world of this book for only one day simply was not enough.

Four stars.


Saturday, 27 January 2018

Book Spotlight: The Sisters' Song by Louise Allan

I first met Louise Allan several years ago, when we were introduced via Twitter.  I was looking for feedback on my work-- not getting quite what I needed when I asked my family to tell me what they thought of my work in progress.  It was Annabel Smith (author of Whisky, Charlie, Foxtrot) who suggested that I invite a couple of other local writers to meet up and talk writing, and one of those writers was Louise.

From those early meetings, when we swapped manuscripts and navigated the tricky task of giving each other feedback without damaging any egos too much, to today, when Louise's book is in print and is going incredibly well, she has become a great friend of mine: reliable, honest, compassionate and dedicated to the things that she believes in. I feel incredibly lucky to count her among my friends, and am incredibly proud of how far Louise and her book have come.

Louise's novel The Sisters' Song was released in Australia on the 2nd of January, 2018.  It is the story of two sisters, Ida and Nora, growing up in Tasmania in the early 20th Century.  Nora shows an aptitude for music from an early age and dreams of singing on stage one day, just like the great Nellie Melba, while Ida dreams of surrounding herself with a big family.  Yet life, it seems, has other plans for these two sisters.  The Sisters' Song is a beautiful novel about heartbreak, sisterhood, and womanhood.  Of course, it is also a novel about the power music has over us, and there are several stunning passages about the way a person can feel transported by a well-executed performance.  It is obvious from reading that Louise Allan is someone who feels music deeply, and knows it well.  But the themes which stuck out to me the strongest, and the ones that I could relate to the most were about what it means to be a woman, and about what happens when your dreams remain just out of your reach.  Louise Allan explores these masterfully through her two protagonists, and delves deeply into the idea of motherhood and the demands it makes on the individual to give up other things in order to raise a family, particularly at that time, when it was expected by society. The balance between art and motherhood, still a tricky one to achieve today. But it is not a bleak book, for all that it's very realistic. The heartbreak felt by each of her two characters is balanced out by the strength and loyalty that they show towards each other, and the love that they show in holding their family together. 

This is a book that has to be read to be fully understood.  Reviews and blurbs are always fairly reductive, and each reader is going to take away something a bit different from this beautiful, multi-faceted book.  There really is a bit of something for everyone.  It is a book club read, it is a birthday gift, it is a book to sit in a cosy armchair with, devouring a cup of tea and a chocolate biscuit.

I will be treasuring my signed copy of this book and look forward to whatever Louise chooses to write next. 

Sunday, 7 January 2018

Book Review: The Roanoke Girls by Amy Engel

Hodder & Stoughton Publishing, 2017 (I own a copy, courtesy of the publisher)

When Lane Roanoke receives a telephone call from her grandfather, telling her that her cousin Allegra has gone missing, she is forced to confront the things she learned about being a Roanoke Girl eleven years earlier when she ran away from the family home.

Roanoke girls are beautiful, rich and mysterious, but they also have a habit of running away or killing themselves.  The summer that Lane turned 15, when she first came to the Roanoke properly outside Osage Flats, Kansas, she was leaving an unhappy home.  Her mother, Eleanor (also a Roanoke girl), had been plagued by melancholy Lane's entire life.  After her suicide, Lane learns that her grandparents, whom she has never met, want to take her in.  Not just will take her in, want her.  Lane discovers what a happy, loving home is for the first time in her life, and she meets her cousin Allegra who has been a Roanoke girl since she was born.  But while on the surface, the Roanoke family seem to be perfect, Allegra's mood swings and strange stomach illnesses make Lane question what might really be going on.  And when she finds out, she runs away, not to return until Allegra's disappearance.

Some of the covers of this book call it the taboo-breaking thriller of the year. Certainly the ideas in the book are a little confronting, and you'd need to have a strong stomach to deal with the rising creep factor as you read.  But I get the impression that the author has tried to hold back as much as possible when writing about Roanoke's dark secret, because she's given herself the difficult task of having to make the readers understand why anyone went along with it.  And if you're planning on reading this book and don't want to get any spoilers, I recommend that you look away now.  Because Yates Roanoke, the family patriarch, has been carrying on romantic and sexual relationships with all of the Roanoke girls-- and they all believe that they love him.  Some, knowing it's wrong (like Lane's mother Eleanor) escape the house, but can never escape the feelings.  Others end it, like Yates' younger sister Sophia, who could not cope when his attentions began to turn to his daughter-niece, Penelope.  Frankly, it's quite unpalatable, so I am glad Amy Engel chose not to bash us over the head with this dark secret.

Our story is told by Lane, switching between the present day, when she returns to help look for Allegra, and the past, when she first arrived at Roanoke.  Interspersed throughout the book are short pieces from the points of view of other Roanoke girls of the past, telling their stories, telling why they did it. Some are gleeful, and excited about the way things are unfolding. Others are filled with jealousy, or are angry, or sad.  But ultimately, these short segments are just glimpses, and don't give us enough of the picture.

This was a fast-paced read, and Lane's voice was one I enjoyed following. She's a damaged survivor, and her relationship with local boy, Cooper, is one of the most enjoyable parts of the book.  Contrary to the way the set up leads you to believe things will go down, it is not Cooper who saves Lane at the last minute, but Lane who saves herself, and I respect that.  Allegra is a different kettle of fish.  She's manipulative and deceitful and very moody-- harking back to the victim of the eponymous book Lolita if you ask me, right down to the provocative, age inappropriate dress and behaviour.  She treats the people around her extremely poorly, but there's something fragile and vulnerable about her that makes her endearing.  Lane tries to get her out of there, but she's in, she's stuck-- she likes it there-- and so Lane blames herself for leaving Allegra behind.

The writing in this book is good-- not too dramatic, not to sparing.  Engel vividly conjures up the small American town on the page, and fills it with characters who seem to walk and talk on their own.  I think for me, because of the nature of the secret, the plot was never going to be wholly satisfying.

I gave this book three stars.