Sunday, 5 May 2019

Book Review: Beautiful Revolutionary by Laura Elizabeth Woollett

This review originally appeared on the AU review on 15 January 2019.

Beautiful Revolutionary
Laura Elizabeth Woollett
Scribe Publications, 2018

In the summer of 1968, Evelyn Lynden and her husband Lenny move to Evergreen Valley, California so that Lenny can work as an orderly in an asylum- part of the agreement he has made as a conscientious objector, so that he does not have to go over and fight in the Vietnam War. Their arrival in town is eventful, and they are pulled over by Officer Gene Luce. But Luce fails to notice the ‘Mary Jane’ plant in the back seat, and the couple continue on their way. It is Evelyn’s cool head and her strong will that get them through, and continues to get her through as their lives change in this new town, even if perhaps those changes are not for the better.
The book is Beautiful Revolutionary, the first novel from Laura Elizabeth Woollett, whose debut collection of short stories The Love of a Bad Man was an award winning take on the women who were involved with some of history’s less savoury characters. Jonestown featured in this collection too, but in Beautiful Revolutionary, Woollett focusses not so much on the commanding (and slightly unhinged) figure of Jim Jones, but on the people around him. She seems to be asking why so many seemingly normal people could have been taken along by a person like Jones, and while the answer of why is something we may never actually know, she certainly renders the strange fascination well on the page.
Evelyn Lynden is one of the main characters, although the book is not always told strictly from her vantage point, but again and again, the story returns to her. She is, of course, based on Carolyn Layton who was Jones’ lover and the mother of one of his sons. The daughter of a preacher, and a student of political science, Evelyn should be too smart to be taken in by a con man like Jones, but she is drawn to him in a powerful way, and her marriage to Lenny Lynden falls by the wayside early on.
Other characters whose point of view we see are Rosaline Jones (Marceline), Jim Jones’ long suffering wife and an ex-nurse, who plays a central role in orchestrating the ‘healings’ with which Jones demonstrates his power; Gene Luce; Lenny Lynden; Bobbi Luce and Wayne Bud. If one were interested, it would perhaps be possible to unmask all of these pseudonyms. But the book is a work of fiction, and to do so might be to break the spell. Jim Jones is the only figure in the book who has not been disguised, and Woollett wrote in an article for the Alternate Consideration of Jonestown and People’s Temple website that ‘it feels absurd and disingenuous to call him anything else.’
By hearing from so many different voices surrounding the temple, we get a complex portrait of a community filled with people who needed something that ‘normal’ society was not giving them; people who found a saviour in Jim Jones, for whatever reason, and were willing to follow him to Jonestown, Guyana. But the cacophony of voices, while being in some ways an asset, also makes the book a little hard to get into, giving you no time to identify with characters before it is moving on. It is not a book about  Jim Jones, and yet at times, he is the only constant, even if he’s only in the scene at a distance. The title comes from an oft-repeated nickname that Jones gives to Evelyn, as he believes that he was Lenin in a past life, and that she was his lover then too. The link between Jonestown and Communism/ Socialism is a key part of this book, and was an interesting element for me, as it provided a little insight into the ideology of the people involved.
For those who persevere with the book, readers are rewarded with a rich portrait of a highly mythologised historical incident. The passion that the author has had for her research shines through, and it is the scenes in Evergreen Valley which provide the most interest, as less is well known about the cult’s activities before their mass suicide in 1978. The strength of the author’s talent is in full force here- her sentences hum with energy, and though the build is slow, her characters feel real by the end of the book. I would be unsurprised to see this appear on prize shortlists in the year to come.
For those who are Jonestown experts, perhaps there will be less appeal, as the unfolding drama will be nothing new to you, but for readers who appreciate a well-written, well-researched novel that approaches things from different angles, this book is for you, and you should add it to your summer reading stacks immediately.

Sunday, 28 April 2019

Book Review: Zebra by Debra Adelaide

This review originally appeared on the AU review 11 February 2019.

Zebra and Other Stories
Debra Adelaide
Picador Australia, 2019

Eccentric, heartbreaking and hilarious- this is how Debra Adelaide‘s latest book of short stories is described on the cover by her Picador stable-mate, Jennifer MillsThe book is Zebra and Other Storiesa collection comprised of fourteen stories, divided into three sections: First, Second and Third. These sections refer to the point of view taken in the stories. Adelaide covers a lot of ground in just over three hundred pages.
Her opening story, “Dismembering” is told from the point of view of a woman who suddenly remembers helping her ex-husband to, at some point during their marriage, bury a body in their backyard. She remembers helping him to cut off the body’s arms, legs and head in order to fit it better into the shallow grave they have dug, but oddly, not whether it was wearing long pants or shorts, or who it was, or why they have killed and buried him. Is this a true memory, or a symptom of some other panic? As the woman begins to purge her house of everything that is connected to her ex– right down to the dining room table, the chaos outside of her house, littered with things for her ex to take away, begins to reflect the chaos inside her mind. This story is a powerful note with which to open the collection, rooted in relatable, specific description of suburban life.
In fact, throughout the collection, it is the stories of suburbia that tend to shine– “Migraine for Beginners”, a second person account of the medical back and forth one woman suffers in her quest to be free of the migraines that make her life unbearable, “No Hot Drinks in the Ward”, a starkly honest account of a mother coming to terms with the cancer treatment of her child, and “The Recovery Position”, in which the protagonist must reflect on the way their flaws has torn apart the family that they took for granted.
But, the book is not all suburban interiors. Zebra is a collection which tackles bigger issues as well, with stories such as “The Master Shavers’ Association of Paradise” and “Welcome to Country” attempting to comment on the issues that run parallel to the lives of these other characters but often go unremarked on. “The Master Shavers’ Association of Paradise”, for example, is a heartbreaking account of life in detention. told again in second person, Adelaide puts the reader in the shoes of a man who was an apprentice Barber back home and who has attempted to hold on to some fragments of his dignity, and help those around him, by helping the men in the camp with him shave their faces. The telling of this story is cleverly done, as Adelaide slowly introduces clues that this detention camp is not in some far flung country, but off-shore of Australia, and when the reader realises that they are not reading some historical account, or some dystopian future, the impact is powerful. It is perhaps a shame that this particular piece had been buried so far into the middle of the book.
While not all of the stories in the book strike exactly the chords that they seem to be reaching for, many are almost there– “Festive Food for the Whole Family” is highly relatable and enjoyable, but perhaps the lead is buried by the humourous descriptions of the woman at the heart of the piece trying to make sure she caters for all of the various picky eaters, vegans, gluten free, fruitarian, sugar free, etc… guests at her Christmas dinner. Likewise, the story “Carry Your Heart”, in which a lonely man and woman find that spark that could be the beginning of love in a bookshop and bond over poetry and martinis, feels unfinished and almost unbelievable in its fairy tale-like randomness.
The title story, “Zebra” is more of a novella than a short story, and I have yet to make up my mind yet whether it was wonderful or a little too weird. In it, an unorthodox female Prime Minister is sent a zebra by the owner of a zoo that is closing down on the other side of the world. Meanwhile, she must contend with an outspoken misogynistic neighbour (though his hatred of women is not actually dealt with even after it is described) and the burgeoning romance that may or may not be feasible between herself and her assistant. The zebra itself is extremely interesting, but doesn’t play all that much of a role in the action of the story.
Zebra and Other Stories is a varied collection of stories that showcases the skill of its author across a range of short story approaches and styles. While not every piece resonated with this reviewer, I predict that it will delight all those short story readers across this country, and I do recommend that you give it a read, if only for those stories that really sing.

Sunday, 21 April 2019

Book Review: Exploded View by Carrie Tiffany

This review originally appeared on the AU review, March 27th 2019.

Exploded View
Carrie Tiffany
Text Publishing, 2019

The unnamed protagonist of Carrie Tiffany’s new novel, Exploded View, lets us into her life by increments. Immediately, as readers, we are welcomed into her interior world– a place where the only things that make sense are cars, and engines. It is the late 1970’s, and the girl and her brother watch things like Hogan’s Heroes on the TV, careful to place a tub of ice cream on the top of the television with enough time for it to cool before their mother or the ‘father man’ can discover that they’ve been using it. Money is tight.
Father man– not, in fact, the girl’s real father, nor the romantic hero from the pages of the novels her mother is always reading– makes his money repairing cars. The girl helps, and learns, reading from the Holden manual and studying the exploded views of the engines, in which even the spaces between things have reason and function. The girl does not speak. At night, she drives the cars that Father man repairs, and sometimes, she hurts them.
During a road trip across Australia, this protagonist’s unique viewpoint will turn the reader’s way of thinking upside down. Her clarity of vision, and the matter of fact philosophy that comes naturally to her, make this short book a poetic experience, and while at first glance, it seems like Exploded View does not have much going on in terms of plot, like the diagrams in the manuals, it is the spaces between the text that help make the whole of the book make sense.
Despite this book being set largely in a masculine space– the world of cars, and the father being the dominant figure in the house (he locks the doors at night, and the girl knows that if there were to be a fire, they would all perish in the flames rather than wake him up to let them out), the text contains a lot of subtle and not so subtle references to the female body and the autonomy of it. From the images of small hands being made to fit inside the parts of a car, to the silent handing over of money from mother to daughter to allow her to purchase sanitary napkins at a truck stop, references to the ownership and understanding of female bodies, and the maintenance and protection required to keep them safe and healthy run throughout this text. The true mastery is the way that this ongoing metaphor, the female body as a car in a mechanic’s garage, works to turn the idea of cars and engines as a masculine space on its head.
This is a short, intensely literary novel, more focussed on ideas and characterisation than plot, or even emotional connection. The character, unnamed, undescribed, and unspeaking, is always kept at a distance from the reader, though we know the inner workings of her mind (right down to her sexual fantasy) in great detail. Carrie Tiffany was the inaugural winner of the Stella Prize for her novel Mateship with Birds, and I would be unsurprised to see this book on prize lists in the coming months.
If you’re looking for an entertaining read, something to read quickly and get lost in, perhaps give this one a miss, but if you’re prepared to participate in the slow contemplation of ideas in this unique coming of age novel, then it comes highly recommended, with even a quote from Helen Garner on the cover which reads “Superbly controlled, like dark, secret music rising from an abyss.” If you’re a fan of Australian Literature, this one is not to be missed.

Friday, 12 April 2019

5 Thoughts on Dealing with Deadlines

Like Douglas Adams, I also love deadlines.

Deadlines keep me accountable, and keep me from prioritising binge-watching the entire new series of The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina instead of working on my book.

Because that's the thing about writing-- sometimes, it's the only thing you want to be doing, and other times, you will literally think of any excuse to get out of it.

Up until now, a lot of the deadlines that I have been working with have been self-imposed.  Things like doing Nanowrimo, or entering competitions have provided the external deadlines, but no one has been waiting for me to enter those things. I chose to.  Now, I have a manuscript to deliver to a publisher, and while that's a big exciting step, it's also a lot of pressure. I want to make sure that the book I hand over in a few weeks time is the best book it could possibly be, and that means making some hard decisions.

In this post, I thought I would outline for you a few of the things I do to keep myself on track, and give myself the best possible chance of meeting my deadlines-- although the irony of my writing this post when I could be working on the book is not lost on me!

1. Social Media is a time-suck...

I keep seeing other writers going on Social Media hiatuses in order to focus on their writing, and this is one way to combat this issue. Personally, I find that it doesn't work for me. I'm like a dog without a bone. I keep looking for that little hit of endorphins I get from scrolling through posts, only to find it gone, and then I feel a little lost. Obviously I'm not the type who can go cold turkey, so instead I am focussing on winding back my phone dependence. I'm limiting how long I am allowed on social media each day, using one of the settings in the most recent iPhone update (Screen Time), and when I get comfortable with that amount, I wind it back a bit more.  I'm hoping I can have my daily screen time down to a very small number of minutes by later in the year.

By the same token, as writers, more and more of the marketing of our upcoming books needs to be done by us, and that means that we need to cultivate social media presences on more than one platform if we can. Therefore, I can't cut SM out of my life entirely, but I need to be more strategic about the ways that I use it.

Bit of a conundrum, really!

2. Writing begets writing

A few times this year I have had the alarming thought that my need to write was waning. There's this idea that if you can be happy doing anything else other than writing or making art, then you should do that, and this year I have been extremely happy studying to become a librarian, but I also still love writing-- why can't I do both? The challenge is to make sure that I am finding time for both passions, and with writing, as with many creative pursuits, the more you practice it, the more you create a sense of flow. Going to my monthly Write Nights sessions at the Centre for Stories has definitely helped me to feel connected to writing, as has talking to other writers, and making time for me to sit down with my book and just work.

3. Lists are your friend

When there are lots of things to get done, it's normal to feel completely overwhelmed, as I was feeling earlier this afternoon. Writing a list of everything that I need to get done, and breaking the bigger tasks into their component parts, is something I find particularly helpful. I can see at a glance what I need to do, I can prioritise what needs to be done first and what things can wait until after deadlines have been met, and I know that I am not going to forget something important. When I was doing my honours year, I had an entire notebook devoted to these to do lists because an electronic one just doesn't have the same effect when it comes to focussing me on the task and sticking all of my obligations into my brain. I might start this notebook up again now!

4. Use a calendar

When I am particularly busy, I lose all sense of how close things are together until... disaster! I find myself with a week where everything is on at once and I let myself get run down. Using a desk calendar has really helped me in this regard. I keep it by my keyboard so I can see at a glance when assignments are due, when appointments are, and most importantly, when I have free time!

5. You have to prioritise self care

There is nothing that you can do to totally relieve the pressure that comes with a deadline. You wouldn't want to. That pressure makes your work that little bit better a lot of the time, and focusses you on your work in a way that you just don't get to do when you feel like you have all the time in the world. I have been neglecting exercise in my routine of late, and this is bad because I just feel tired and sluggish and I just can't sit at my desk and work for as long. For other writers, it's sleep that falls through the cracks, or eating properly. I'm not saying break out the face masks and nail polish every single night, but I think it's important to do things that help you take care of yourself as a matter of habit, whether that's going to Yoga, or reading a book before bed at night, or making sure that you're visiting your Mum enough.

With all this in mind, it's back to the editing for me-- let me know in the comments if there is anything else you do to help you feel organised and in control when you're working on a big project or you have a deadline, and I'll hopefully be back with another post sooner rather than later... though that all depends on how deep into the work I get!

Happy writing.

Thursday, 28 March 2019

Q and A with Natasha Lester, author of The French Photographer

Inspired by the incredible true story of Lee Miller, Vogue model turned one of the first female war photojournalists, this is the new novel by the bestselling author of The Paris Seamstress.
Manhattan, Paris, 1942: When Jessica May's successful modelling career is abruptly cut short, she is assigned to the war in Europe as a photojournalist for Vogue. But when she arrives the army men make her life as difficult as possible. Three friendships change that: journalist Martha Gellhorn encourages Jess to bend the rules, paratrooper Dan Hallworth takes her to places to shoot pictures and write stories that matter, and a little girl, Victorine, who has grown up in a field hospital, shows her love. But success comes at a price.

France, 2005: Australian curator D'Arcy Hallworth arrives at a beautiful chateau to manage a famous collection of photographs. What begins as just another job becomes far more disquieting as D'Arcy uncovers the true identity of the mysterious photographer -- and realises that she is connected to D'Arcy's own mother, Victorine.

Crossing a war-torn Europe from Italy to France, THE FRENCH PHOTOGRAPHER is a story of courage, family and forgiveness.

I was lucky enough to be offered the opportunity to take part in the Blog Tour for The French Photographer which meant I got to read an advanced copy of this wonderful novel, and think up some questions for WA author, Natasha Lester, about the writing of the book, the characters, and the history behind it all. Here is what Natasha had to say... 

    EP:  The French Photographer sees you returning to the dual-timeline narrative, something that you also did in your previous novel, The Paris Seamstress. We’re now at a point in time where, if your characters historically are alive during the Second World War, the other timeline has to be somewhere around the early 2000s—what were some of the challenges you came up against when you were writing about 2004, with regard to the availability of technology and so on, and were these harder or easier to write through than the challenges of writing about the 1940s?

NL: The main issue was actually trying to recall the technology limitations of 2004! As my character does need to do a bit of internet searching in her quest for answers, I had to remember that there was no wifi and she would need to plug her laptop into a modem and that phones didn’t generally do anything more than make calls. But those were relatively easy to address; I would definitely say that writing about the 1940s was harder because I had to question every word and phrase - would a character really say this back then, when was this particular word first used etc.

EP: There have been a number of heroines in your books who have been somehow involved in fashion and the arts—first Leo with her cosmetics company in Her Mother’s Secret, then Estella in The Paris Seamstress and now Jessica in your new book, The French Photographer. Where does your interest in this area come from?

NL: I think art just naturally inspires other art. I find fashion to be beautiful and as artistic as any painting. It refills my creative well. Equally, other art forms do the same; I love everything from ballet to sculpture so I draw on those things when I’m writing. I have always been interested in the arts, even as a child. I was a terrible athlete so thankfully I found something else to engage me!

EP: You also have an art handler in your most recent book, D’Arcy, whose job it is to escort some photographs that have been offered to an Australian gallery safely back from France. Do you see your role as a writer of history as a little bit like that of an exhibition curator, in terms of the need to order and frame historical events in order to tell a meaningful story about the past?

NL: I guess, for me, it’s more instinctive than that. I was warned years ago, by a very clever person, to not think about theme too much and focus instead on story. So that means I just throw myself into the characters and the story. But then I usually find so many things in the research that outrage me, as I did when writing The French Photographer. It’s that outrage, a strong need to show everyone what happened to women in history and how they fought against it and sometimes won and sometimes lost, that drives me. The important thing for me is that the frame then be applied to contemporary life so we can see, not just how far we’ve come, but how far we still have to go.

EP: All of your main characters have been women who fight against the constraints put upon their sex by the conventions of their time, and this is especially so for Jess as she is uniquely placed as a female war correspondent to see through the patriotic narrative about men and war, and notice the rampant sexual harassment at play—is it difficult to write a character like Jess who is still of her time, without giving her too much insight into what comes after in the real world?

NL: I didn’t find it hard with Jess because she was, as I say in the back of the book, a rare gift from the writing muse. She really did come to me almost fully formed and didn’t require the same amount of effort to get onto the page as other characters did. This was just as well, because plenty of other parts of the book took all that effort! So, because I really felt like I was inside her when I was writing, I was always seeing through her eyes and hearing her voice, which was different to my voice and different to my eyes. I think that perhaps helped with not giving her too much foresight.

EP; I think the most powerful historical fiction gives us parallels to today that make us see things more clearly—what connections do you see between the sexism Jessica May faces in the book and the world of today?  Do you think that your writing of this book was in any way spurred on by the events of the last few years surrounding women’s struggles for equality in professional fields, and speaking out about sexual harassment and discrimination?

NL: It’s interesting isn’t it? #metoo really began in October 2017 and I submitted this book to my publisher in November 2017, so I had written it all before #metoo began. Then as #metoo unfolded, I couldn’t help but see all the parallels between what Jess faced and what women still face nearly eighty years later. It was maddening and saddening to see that so much hasn’t changed. I think, as a woman, I’ve experienced enough discrimination and harassment in my working life, having worked in accounting firms, engineering firms and advertising agencies, that these types of issues were already ideas that I wanted to explore in fiction.

EP: In this novel you were working with real figures—not only with Lee Miller, who was the inspiration for Jessica May, but also with people you used as characters such as Martha Gellhorn. Was this the first time you had worked with characters who had really lived? What were some of the challenges associated with this?

NL: I have always had a few characters in my novels who are real people. Elizabeth Hawes and Harry Thaw in The Paris Seamstress, for example, but I used real people much more in The French Photographer than I have done in the past. And that was primarily because, as I read about each of these brilliant female correspondents, what they faced and how they fought, I wanted desperately to write about each one of them because they were all so inspiring. In terms of challenges, real people aren’t always where you need them to be at the right time, so that was the main issue, especially as I was constructing a narrative where time needed to both move on and make sense. So, sometimes I would find myself not being able to include a character in a particular scene because it just wouldn’t have fitted with what happened. If I do fudge the facts of history, which I try not to do very often, I note this in the back of the book so readers can see what is real and what isn’t.

EP:  Can you tell me a little bit about what you discovered about the American Paratroopers and what they did in the Second World War during your research?

NL: They were amazing men and I loved writing Dan Hallworth’s character in the book as one of these men. WWII was the first time paratroopers had been used by the US Army and they were a group of specially trained men who were sent in to enemy territory first to secure strategic points, which would then help an incoming invasion force. So the men would jump out of planes over enemy territory and drop to the ground carrying 80kg of equipment - some of the younger men didn’t even weigh that much. And planes aren’t quiet things so they were often shot at in the sky as they were coming down, many of them dying before they’d even seen battle. If they did make it to the ground, they’d have to find the rest of their company, and then accomplish their mission, all the while knowing that if they didn’t, the huge invasion fleet coming in behind them would fail. In their hands lay the fate of the free world in June 1944 as they were dropped all over Normandy in the early hours of the morning on D Day before the troopships arrived.

EP: Your second main character, D’Arcy, has a love of vintage clothes—how does this relate to your own project, My Year of Vintage?

NL: She just struck me as the kind of person who would wear vintage fashion, and it allowed me to indulge my passion for vintage clothes, so it was lots of fun to write!

EP: They say that you should always try to write the kinds of books you most like to read—the dual historical narrative is a style that brings to mind writers like Kate Morton, but who else is a must-read historical fiction author for you?

NL: I do love Kate Morton, and also Hilary Mantel, Amor Towles, Paula McLain, Barbara Kingsolver, Kate Quinn and Elizabeth Gilbert. Margaret Atwood in historical fiction mode is brilliant too.

EP: Will you be returning to France in your next novel? And would you ever write a novel about Australian history?

NL: Yes, back to France for The Dior Legacy, my next book. This one does have an Australian history backstory woven in, to do with Dior, as he actually had quite a strong connection with Australia, which I hope readers will enjoy.

Thank you very much to Natasha Lester for taking the time to answer these questions, which I hope have whetted your appetites to rush out and track down a copy of The French Photographer.  It's in all good bookstores this week.