Friday, 15 July 2016

Book Review: A Chinese Affair by Isabelle Li

A Chinese Affair (Margaret River Press, 2016)
Isabelle Li
(I own a copy, courtesy agent)

Isabelle Li's short story collection, released this month by local powerhouse, Margaret River Press, introduces a new voice to a burgeoning Australian short fiction scene.  These sixteen stories follow characters who have some connection to China, and are navigating the cultural divide between Australia and China, and the temporal divide of past and present.  Li's writing is skillful, and she deftly changes voices, tenses, points of view and even formats to experiment with what her short fiction can do.  Characters often appear as the lead in one story, only to turn up in another role a few stories into the book, reinterpreted again and again from many different points of view.

The collection uses Chinese folklore and superstitions, as well as looking deeply into the role of language and translation.  One of the most prolific characters in the collection, Crystal, works as a translator and a writer, translating Chinese books for an English-speaking audience.  The literal and the exact meanings of words are played against one another to produce different meanings.  On another level, the absence of language is also used to create meaning in Crystal's world, and many of her stories hinge on secrets and on not telling.

There were moments where I was distracted from the true story because I was focused on trying to work out which of the characters had appeared in stories before, and I suppose I had some trouble working out whether all the characters were meant to be linked the way that they would be in a novel in short stories, but there were pieces in this book that really sang.  Highlights were the titular story, 'A Chinese Affair' , 'Pebbles and Flowers' and 'Lyrebird'.  It's certainly obvious that Isabelle Li can write, but there were one or two others in the collection that I didn't connect with quite as deeply.  This did not spoil my enjoyment of the overall book and I devoured the collection in a matter of days.

This is an accomplished collection which absorbs the reader into a rich space and transports them from China to Sydney and back again, over and over.  Isabelle Li will be a guest at the inaugural Australian Short Story Festival held in Perth October 21- 23 2016.

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Book Review: Still Life with Teapot

Still Life with Teapot (Fremantle Press, 2016)
Brigid Lowry
(I own a copy courtesy of the publisher)

I first came across Brigid Lowry's work when I read Guitar, Highway, Rose which I probably found in the treasure trove that was my primary school library.  While I have fond memories of that book, it wasn't until I picked up Lowry's book on writing, Juicy Writing, that I became a fan.  Juicy Writing was far from a technical manual on how to write-- rather it was a manifesto for how to be creative, how to have fun with words, and how to kick start the ideas that would otherwise lie unrealised in your brain.

So when I saw that Brigid Lowry was to publish a book on writing, zen and creativity this year with Fremantle Press, I was ecstatic.  Still Life with Teapot is part memoir, part anthology and part pillow-book, chronicling the writing life of this remarkable woman.  It incorporate's Brigid's own personal history and philosophy as well as the tenets of her zen faith to create a marvellous, heart-warming book that will appeal to anyone who does anything creative, whether it be writing novels or arranging flowers.  At times, the recollections are sad; Brigid brings in family loss and the breakdown of a marriage to the conversation, but demonstrates in the assorted creative pieces peppered through the book that writing and art can be cathartic and healing in their own ways.

People who saw me reading this book on public transport probably thought I was losing my mind, as I frequently chuckled at Lowry's free-spirited take on life.  This was a book which inspired me to embrace creativity in whatever form it came, and to seek out new experiences which would foster my writing.

I highly enjoyed it and gave it four and a half stars.

Monday, 4 July 2016

What Elimy Read in June

I can't believe another month is over.  After the nightmare (okay, so it wasn't that bad) that was May, June was like a dream, and it flew by.

I got lots of reading done, most of it in the last two weeks.  For the last week of June I was enjoying a lovely home holiday, during which I managed to pass 50 000 words on my work in progress and make some important decisions about where this draft has to differ from the previous one.  While I'm not the biggest fan of doing strict research, I am getting a lot better at it, and I took pride this month in straightening out some of the anachronisms I'd accidentally introduced into my work.  I have to say, I am really enjoying overcoming the many, many hurdles that keep popping up as I work on this manuscript.

But this isn't a post about my writing... perhaps if anyone has writing related questions they can pop those in the comments below and I can do a writing update based on things you want to know.

Without much further ado, here it is: another video.

Books mentioned;

The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks (did not like!)
The War of the Roses: Stormbird by Conn Iggulden (loved!)
Eliza Rose by Lucy Worsley (loved!)
A Feast for Crows by George R R Martin
The Sidekicks by Will Kostakis
My Year of Meats by Ruth Ozeki
The Woman Next Door by Liz Byrski
The Paper House by Anna Spargo- Ryan

You can see longer reviews for some of those titles on my blog if you are interested.

In the meantime, let me know what you've been reading and loving.

Happy reading, writing or whatever.

Friday, 1 July 2016

Review: The Paper House by Anna Spargo-Ryan

The Paper House
Anna Spargo-Ryan
Picador 2016 (I own a copy courtesy the publisher)

Ever since Anna Spargo-Ryan popped up on my Twitter radar sometime early last year, I have been dying to read her debut novel, and now I finally have!  Aside from its gorgeous cover, this book features some of the most glorious, original, beautiful prose I have ever had the pleasure of reading, and I can say now that The Paper House was certainly worth the wait.

The book follows Heather and Dave, who find themselves the perfect house and begin preparing for the new life and their new family there.  But when tragedy strikes, everything about this new life becomes unfamiliar to Heather.  Her whole family is worried about her; her rough, unsentimental sister, Fleur, who takes time off from her farm to come and stay with them; her father, who turns up at the door in a florid Hawaiian shirt; Dave, who is sweet and charming and perfect and in many ways has to subvert his own grief in order to support Heather through hers.  As Heather navigates a phase of her life she'd never had to plan for, her new home wraps itself around her.  Meanwhile, old memories begin to play in her mind.

While the story of this novel is deeply moving, it was the sheer brilliance and originality of the writing style that had me dumbstruck as I raced through.  Each metaphor, each description, was stark and dazzling and beautiful.  I am equal parts inspired by Spargo-Ryan's writing and depressed that I will probably never be able to achieve this in my own work.  I don't think that there is anyone out there who writes quite the way she does, and I mean this as the highest compliment.

Add to this that The Paper House takes an issue that in many ways could be categorised as an issue for 'women's fiction' and makes it literary and universal and magical, and I think she has accomplished something amazing.  There has been a lot of talk lately about middlebrow books, and I think The Paper House has well and truly found its place alongside other novels that some have classified as such, but are in fact wonderful masterpieces of the Australian literary fiction scene, books like The Other Side of the World  by Stephanie Bishop and Lost and Found by Brooke Davis.  I'm no fortune teller, but I definitely see prize shortlistings in this book's future.

To those readers who are put off by how sad the premise of this book seems, I urge you to overcome that and allow this remarkable book to take you through a myriad of emotions.  Heather and Dave's journey is sad, yes, but it is a book that deserves to be read and read and reread until the book's beautiful covers crumble and fall off.

This is truly a stunning debut and I cannot wait to see more from this rising Australian star.

I gave it five stars but only because that's as high as goodreads would let me.

Thursday, 30 June 2016

Review: The Woman Next Door by Liz Byrski

The Woman Next Door
Liz Byrski
Pan Macmillan 2016 (I own a copy courtesy the publisher)

Best-selling West Australian fiction writer Liz Byrski is back in July 2016 with her eighth work of fiction, The Woman Next Door, which tells the story of a cast of characters who live or have once lived on fictional Fremantle location, Emerald Street.  As is to be expected, Byrski has created a colourful cast of characters who subvert the traditional tropes about what older characters should be like.  Emerald Street is a loving environment, where neighbours pop in and out of each others' houses with ease, and gates connect backyards to facilitate easier sessions for drinking and gossiping on the veranda.  At the beginning of the book, we meet our four households; Joyce and Mac who have decided to experiment with living apart for a year to pursue separate goals without actually separating; Dennis and Helen, whose move to a picturesque East Fremantle apartment hasn't brought them the marital bliss they'd thought it would; Polly, a biographer and former screenwriter who thinks she may have found love during a fire evacuation; and Stella, once the darling of Australian stage and screen, whose mind is beginning to play tricks on her.

The women, (aka the women next door), are the real stars of the show, though Mac is allowed a little adventure of his own.  My favourite characters were Polly and Stella-- Stella because of her energy and wit, as well as the loving portrayal of the events that befall her, and Polly because I could really relate to her.  Both Polly and Stella are unmarried and have no children, but they've both had long and interesting careers.  When Polly meets Leo and they begin an inter-continental love affair, the thing she most has to be careful of is not subverting her own interests in the saving of his.  Polly writes biographies of women who did unusual and under-represented things, and I could see a parallel between that and Byrski's own previous publication about the nurses at the East Grinstead hospital.

Byrski's handling of Helen, a difficult person and character to like, was extremely well done.  It's not easy to write a character who comes off as both bitchy and sympathetic!   By allowing us to get inside Helen's thoughts, the reader is allowed to see both how unreasonable and how unhappy Helen is, and to have some insight into the things in her life that have made her this way.  I feel like we may all have encountered a Helen in our time, and next time I meet one, I will be a bit more patient with them, keeping this book in mind. (I can't say too much more about this without giving away spoilers.)

There are moments in this book where plot points seems a touch convenient, but this is a feel-good book, and they add to the warmth of the overall effect.  I could easily see this book adapted as a film, as it had a very Four Weddings and A Funeral sort of vibe to it, and touched on a lot of modern themes.  For lovers of Fremantle, the scenery is realistic and recognisable, and the sentiments of the characters (most of them) certainly go with Fremantle's cruisy attitude to life.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and I gave it four out of five stars.

Want to see me interview Liz Byrski about this book on Tuesday July 12th at 2pm?  Click here to be redirected to the event's Facebook page.