Sunday, 29 December 2013

The Long and Short of It: The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

BOOK: The Luminaries
FORMAT:  Trade Paperback

This review constitutes part of a challenge series undertaken by myself and Simon from The Blether.

Experts are saying that 2013 was the year of the BIG BOOK and you only have to look at recent release lists to see that this is true.  Weighing in at some 830 pages, The Luminaries is not the largest book on the 2013 Man Booker Longlist, but it is quite possibly one of the longest books ever to win- this tally includes 2009 winner Wolf Hall and it's sequel, 2012 winner Bring up the Bodies, both by Hilary Mantel.  The Luminaries can also claim several other accolades.  It is one of few offerings ever to win from New Zealand, and it's author, Eleanor Catton, was only 27 years old at the time she wrote it.  If that's not reason enough to be jealous, it's also a remarkable book.

In comparison to other books in the shortlist.

Reviews in other news media praise Catton for her use of the astrological calendar, and her structuring of the book along a reverse fibonacci sequence, whereby each part is halved in length from the one preceding it.  The effect is not unlike that of a steam train barrelling along at a seemingly unending velocity.  As a result, what starts as an intimidating and confusing puzzle of murder and opium ends as a fast paced and compelling read.

Walter Moody arrives in the goldmining town of Hokitika in January of 1866 only to find himself accidentally trespassing on a meeting of 12 other men in the smoking room of the Crown Hotel.  These 12 men all know pertinent information regarding the mysterious death of a hermit, the drug overdose of a notorious but beloved prostitute, and the disappearance of a wealthy prospector.  All suspect that something sinister is happening and that it's author is a man named Francis Carver, but no one man holds all the pieces.  Moody, a law man with a recent strife of his own, steps in to play mediator.  He hears all their parts in turn, and as a result, becomes perhaps the only man able to discern the truth.

This is an ambitious undertaking- Catton must keep separate more than thirteen sides to the one story, not including those who are victims and perpetrators of the crime.  She does so with great skill, and carefully guides her readers along, reminding them of pertinent information with an almost Hardy-esque flair for detail and observation.  Indeed this novel is reminiscent of a nineteenth century novel in a number of ways, not withstanding its reliance on unlikely coincidences and the notion that the whole world is in fact like a tiny English village where everyone is connected to everyone else.  Attention to dress and manners is skilfully played; scenes are never padded with unnecessary detail; and each character is as original as the one preceding it.

Eleanor Catton with her prize.

If you have been put off by the size of this book; don't be.  It's a marvellous book- perhaps one of the best things to come out of the Man Booker Prize in a number of years.  More readable than Mantel, and certainly a lot more enjoyable than Julian Barnes, I beseech you to read The Luminaries.

Saturday, 28 December 2013

The Long and Short of It: Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw

These reviews comprise part of a challenge undertaken with Simon from The Blether.

BOOK: Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw
Format: Hardback

There are definite benefits to a diverse longlist.  One of these is the chance for me, as a reader, to immerse myself in the world of another culture completely different to mine, as I got a chance to do this week when I devoured Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw, possibly the best author I had never heard of. 

I think it’s really easy to assume that because we’re talking about books in English, the longlist is going to consist of Americans, English people, Australians, Canadians and even New Zealanders.  But the extent of the prize reaches much further.  This is demonstrated by a varied longlist that includes (as well as lots of Irishmen), a Nigerian novelist, a Japanese Buddhist monk, and Tash Aw, who was born in Taipei and raised in Malaysia.  He now lives in London.  His grasp of the English language is superb for someone to whom it is not a first language; lyrical, rich in concrete imagery and almost poetic particularly when describing moments of tragedy or disappointment.  Five Star Billionaire is a work which is funny, subtle and rich with characters who grow and breathe on the page as you read them.

The novel follows five characters all living in Shanghai around the same time.  Phoebe is an illegal immigrant to mainland China who wants desperately to climb the executive ladder so that she might be something.  She is presented with the opportunity to adopt someone else’s identity, and becomes adept at lying, until it becomes difficult for her to discern the lies from the truth.  Then there is Justin, the oldest son of a successful Malaysian property developer who walks away from the life that he knows and tries to live as a simple man.  He discovers it is not that easy being normal after all.  He is summed up perfectly by one line: “The event organiser sent him copies of the photos- he was frowning in every one.”  Yinghui is a very modern woman for China at this time, but at the same time she is very traditional, choosing to keep her Chinese name rather than adopting a trendy Western one.  Spurred on by her heartbreak (the story of which makes it much easier to like her) and past failure as a cafe owner, Yinghui has risen to be a successful business owner, and is invited to take part in an exciting project with a mysterious billionaire investor.  Gary is a popstar who rose to meteoric fame after winning an Australian Idol style reality show, impressing the crowds with his innocence and beauty.  He grows sick of fame and has a sort of public breakdown that sees him reduced to performing at Red Rooster openings.  Finally, there is Walter Chao, the eponymous Five Star Billionaire himself, raised from humble roots and narrating the frame story of this novel as if he were dictating a self help book for others who want to follow in his footsteps. 

Each of these characters is linked in some way.  Their stories overlap in quite beautiful ways; each one seeming to miss an opportunity to get what he or she wants from one of the others.  All except for Walter.  It is him who seems to be pulling the strings.  He hires Yinghui and she begins to fall in love with him.  He dates Phoebe and she becomes dependent on his money.  He hires Gary to perform at a concert, putting his career back on track.  Only to Justin does his link seem tenuous, grounded as it is in the confusing descriptions of business transactions.  I think these are supposed to be deliberately obfuscating however... Justin and Walter parallel each other, one being the more honest but less successful, and other being rich, but not what he seems. 

The truth about Walter is never confirmed, but very slowly begins to become apparent to the discerning reader.  He seems to be playing them all; he convinces Yinghui to get a bank loan, and the banker has never heard of him.  Phoebe sees the self help books on how to get rich on the floor in his apartment, which has very little furniture.  He is telling us the story of his rise to fame, supposedly, but really he is telling us of his sordid, poverty stricken adolescence, essentially providing us with a clear understanding of the determination never to be poor again. 

All of Aw’s characters are compelling and authentic, embarking on journeys of self awareness in a city that is just not big enough for everyone to make their dreams come true.  The plot is modern without being cheesy, encompassing social media and online dating convincingly at the same time as including counterfeit handbags, reality television, iPhones and all the other modern accoutrements that now go hand in hand with ideas of success.  This is not a rags to riches story.  This is a riches to rags story in many ways.  Will it be the novel to take out the prize?  Well no, because at the time of writing this, it  has already been revealed that this title did not make the short list.  But I sure am glad I read it.  

Saturday, 21 December 2013

2013- The Year in Review

Graduation ceremony- February 2013

Best Books of 2013

1) Barracuda by Christos Tsiolkas

2) The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

3) Elemental by Amanda Curtin

4)  The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

5) The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt by Tracy Farr

6) The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

7) The Shadow Year by Hannah Richell

8) Eyrie by Tim Winton

Knitting for warmth!  Winter 2013 (Thanks for your help, Gma)

   9) Lexicon by Max Barry

   10) Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Notable Writing Milestones

While I didn't manage to get anything published, or even placed in any competitions, I feel as if this year has been about growth.  I have grown as a writer and my support network has grown ever wider.  I am ready for a 2014 full of words and wisdom.

Read my short story 'Pretending' at the
Subiaco Library in April this year,
all thanks to Annabel Smith
 who wrote the amazing novel, Whisky Charlie Foxtrot

People to thank:

Annabel Smith, Iris Lavell, Natasha Lester, Craig Silvey, Amanda Curtin, Amanda (AJ) Betts, Robert , Drewe, Christos Tsiolkas, Susan Midalia, Dawn Barker

Kristen Levitzke, Louise Allan and Glen Hunting

my co-workers: Yvonne, Simon, Kris, Bryony, Dayna, Dina, Rose, James and Judy (and Snowy and Socks of course.)

The wonderful representatives from all the publishers I've met with this year, and all of the lovely customers at the Bookcaffe Swanbourne

Shelleyrae from Book' and Michelle from Book to the Future

Adele Chapman, my ever vigilant twitter buddy.

Nahla joins the family.

And of course, my wonderful and supportive family and friends, who do amazing things like cut articles out of the paper for me, and text me an entry form for the 2014 Premier's Literary Award when my book hasn't even been sent to any publishers yet.  (Love you Dad, you're the sweetest.)  To A.C.- Thank you for putting up with me!

Here's to a wonderful 2014!

Friday, 20 December 2013

The Long and Short of It: The Marrying of Chani Kaufman by Eve Harris

BOOK:  The Marry of Chani Kaufman by Eve Harris
Format:  Ebook (Courtesy Sandstone Press)

The inclusion of The Marrying of Chani Kaufman in the Man Booker Longlist is quite a coup, but will it prove a coup de grace?  First time novelist Eve Harris is represented by independent Scottish publisher, Sandstone Press who were also responsible for 2011 Longlisted title The Testament of Jessie Lamb, distributed in Australia by Allen and Unwin.  As yet, The Marrying of Chani Kaufman is not available through an Australian distributor.

Following the story of 19 year old orthodox Jew, Chani Kaufman, the book is a complex meditation on the meanings of marriage and womanhood among religious Jewish societies in the modern world.  Chani is set to marry Baruch, whom she has met just a few times before his proposal.  She has been rejected by other men in the recent past and views this opportunity as a frightening yet exciting prospect, and possibly her only option.  Chani could be considered a Jewish Elizabeth Bennet- one of eight girls from a family of mediocre income, marriage is considered crucial to Chani’s future happiness.  Baruch Levy, on the other hand, is the son of a Jewish businessman- and after all, a single Jew in possession of a fortune must be in want of wife, right? 

Unfortunately for Chani and Baruch, what happens after the wedding (specifically, right after if you know what I mean) has remained shrouded in mystery thanks to religious dictums that prevent men and women from touching or discussing sensitive matters before marriage.  However, while clearly showing that this puts the children at a disadvantage, the book takes a sensitive approach to the differences between Jewish and non- Jewish societies and argues that despite their relative strictness, there is still a possibility for happiness within an orthodox marriage. 

The three major relationships explored in the novel are Chani and Baruch, an engaged couple; Rivka and Chaim, a rabbi and his wife; and Avromi and Shola.  Avromi is the son of Rivka and Chaim.  At University he meets Shola, a non-Jew, and his fascination with her leads him to sin against his relgion and enter into a physical relationship with her which is close to love.  This love is tainted by Avromi’s feelings of guilt at betraying his upbringing.  He eventually ends the relationship, and when Shola comes to confront him at his home she instead encounters his mother, Rivka, who understands more about the sacrifices of love than Shola had assumed.  Where previously she had seen a tyrannical and unloving system which was willing to sacrifice individual happiness for the greater good, she comes to see that for orthodox Jews, their devotion to Ha’shem is a part of their identity and that the will of society is also the will of the individual, even if they do not know it at first.  Rivka understands this most of all, because before her marriage she was Rebecca, a young woman who came to the love of Ha’shem when she studied in Jerusalem.  Rebecca’s parents had given up their faith in the wake of the Holocaust, but her relationship with Chaim, who becomes more devout as he ages leads her into devoutness as well.  The tragedy of their relationship raises the question: does love of God mean the lessening of the love for another, or does it just make it more difficult to show?  Each character encounters this difficulty, making their personal struggles heartbreaking for the reader who is free to show love but becomes lazy in doing so.  After Rabbi Zilberman’s religious beliefs prevent him from adequately helping his wife in the face of a miscarriage, he realises that his love of his wife might be unknown to her.  A wedge is driven between them which he wishes could be undone:

“Love her, listen to her!  When she needs you, run to her.  Give to her with your whole heart, for if you’re lucky she will be more than a helpmate.  She will be your best friend.  Forget about talking too much to her!  Talk to each other all day and all night if you need to.  You must give even when you don’t feel like giving.  For this is what it means to truly love another.” 

Interestingly, it is Rivka who prepares Chani for her role as Jewish wife, thus instilling in Chani the ability to be a brave and loving wife as well as fulfilling her religious duties.  Chani is as spunky as she can be, given her upbringing, and frequently shows the reader that she is just a girl at the end of the day.  Secretly, she enjoys shopping, and after a stressful trip to the ritual Mikveh to cleanse her body, she goes to purchase some sexy lingerie for her wedding night.  When a nosy Jewish woman threatens to spoil this experience, Chani brazenly flaunts her purchase, asking the woman if she thinks that her husband to be will like her in them. The underwear, Chani’s secret weapon, goes un-noticed in the face of the confusion caused by Baruch and Chani’s first sexual encounter, but when Baruch trips on the bra on his way to the bathroom, he feels hope that he and Chani will one day be more than helpmates. 

The novel is written in a distant, third person voice full of passively voiced statements.  At times the entire novel reads like a summary of Jewish culture, although it gives us merely a surface view.  Stories of childhood and descriptions of religious traditions peculiar to the reader have the most energy, particularly when Chani is first submerged in the Mikveh, and when Rebecca presses her forehead against the wailing wall.   For a large portion of it, the story is character driven, written in interlocking portraits that run back and forth in time, though the novel eventually comes full circle and ends where it begins- at Chani’s wedding.  But towards the end of the book, when Chani must defeat her meddling mother in law, there is more of a plot and I believe the perseverant reader will find this section rich and rewarding. 

The Marrying of Chani Kaufman is an interesting choice for the Longlist, but if it were not included, I don’t think I would have come across it, and that would have been a shame indeed.   

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Book Review: Elemental by Amanda Curtin

Amanda Curtin
UWA Press, 2013

Nearing the end of her life, Meggie Tulloch takes up her pen to write a story for her granddaughter.  It begins with the first years of the twentieth century, in a place where howling winds spin sat and sleet sucked up from icefloes.  A place where lives are ruled by men, and men by the witchy sea.  A place where the only thing lower than a girl in the order of things is a clever girl with accursed red hair.

A place schooled in keeping secrets.

Moving from the north-east of Scotland to the Shetland Isles to Fremantle, Australia, Elemental is a novel about the life you make from the life you are given.

This year there were two notable books that could be described as atmospheric.  The first, for me, was Hannah Kent's highly anticipated Burial Rites.  The second was Elemental.  Written by Perth local, Amanda Curtin, this book takes its structure from the four earthly elements of Water, Air, Earth and Fire and travels almost the entire length of the globe, from Roanhaven Scotland, to Fremantle Western Australia.  Like Annabel Smith's Whisky Charlie Foxtrot, Curtin's book is self reflexive and takes notions of story from it's inherent shape.

Its four sections, Meggie's four notebooks, centre around their designated element.  Notebook one is set in Roanhaven, a fishing village where social and familial cues are ruled by the water which is both a God and a Witch.  Notebook two is set in the Shetland Isles where Meggie moves to be a gutting girl with her sister Kitta.  Admittedly, this section to me also seemed to be water based, although the cold wind, the air, was a strong feature of this section as well as the notion of sailing away.  This section of the book was filled with sadness as well as joyousness.  Births, deaths and marriages.  Misfortune.  In notebook three, Meggie and her husband Magnus move to Fremantle, and later they are joined by Stivvy and Clementina who come to work the land.  The land is cruel and unforgiving and shapes their lives in ways they had not expected.  There is a war.

Finally, fire.  I could not see at first how this section would tie in.  Surprisingly, the narrative jumps forward two generations, to when Laura (the lambsie for whom the story was written) is a mother herself.  Laura's son Cooper (not, it seems, named purposefully for the profession of his Grandfather) is a firefighter who has been burned saving the life of a child.  She waits by Cooper's bedside with his wife, Avril, and the pair of them bond over Meggie's journals which were withheld until now.

The voice of Meggie Tulloch is strong and consistent.  It is easy to imagine her sitting at her coffee table and writing these stories out for Laura.  I could hear her voice as she spoke of quinies, our Kitta, Magnus Tulloch.  As Avril says in part four of the book, "I feel as if Meggie is a friend."  The short sections that diarise Laura and Meggie's interactions in the early 1970s are as heartbreaking as they are tender and familiar.

But heartbreak is the central thread of this novel.  No one gets what they want, all must make do.

I was particularly drawn to the abundance of beautiful knitting metaphors throughout this book, and the skilled way that Curtin had Meggie liken human emotions and betrayal to the process of gutting fish.  It feels as if Curtin has been Meggie, lived inside her skin and felt the things she felt.

This was absolutely the best book of the year for me.

Six stars out of five.

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Saint Nick: A Short Story for Christmas

“What, this?” I said, my arm still awkwardly entangled around Aurora’s waist.  “This is Mrs Claus.”  

The lie even sounded feeble to me, but this kid was young.  Surely she’d believe it.  Her unnaturally dark eyebrows knitted together in a scowl.  She took in Aurora’s costume, the striped candy cane tights, and the plastic pointy ears.  She shook her head. 

“That’s not Mrs Claus,” she wailed.  “That’s an elf!”

Then she screamed.

Perhaps I should start at the beginning, but sometimes it’s kind of hard to pinpoint that moment, isn’t it?  Did this all begin with Natalia, the Spanish chick in my graduating class who, unbelievably, had let me make out with her behind the demountables instead of going to class?  Did it begin with me not getting into University, and failing to apply for TAFE?  Did it begin with my father telling me that he wasn’t going to let me live like a freeloader in the garage anymore, doing nothing but play guitar hero in my underpants, eating Doritos three meals a day?  No.  I think it began with Mum.

Mum, bless her, never could see the evil in people, especially not in her own son.  She worked in administration at one of the bigger shopping centres in the area, calling out number plates over the PA system when they’d left their lights on, or asking parents to collect lost children from security.  She was truly an angel, but at the end of the day, when Dad said no more, she had to comply.  I guess that’s how I got the job.  Who’d ever heard of an eighteen year old Santa anyway?  Centre Management, apparently.  As soon as the director, Dave something or other, heard that I’d taken drama, he said 
“Perfect, perfect” and started measuring me for a costume.  They must have been desperate.  I mean, I’m not even fat, and I’m certainly not jolly.

“You’ll have to get a working with children check, though,” said Dave, scratching his nose, really kind of picking it but thinking I couldn’t tell.  I scowled.  I hate kids. 

“Sure,” I said.  Mum did the application for me that night. 

She was there my first shift, Aurora Borealis.  Of course that wasn’t her real name, but she was one of those hippy chicks who dyed chunks of their hair green and blue and went by obvious fake sounding names so that they seemed all mysterious.  Natalia had moved away by that point, or maybe she’d just told me that she had; either way, she wasn’t returning my calls, and I was bored, and lonely, and it had been ages since I’d had sex.  We had a co-ed change room, really just one of the dressing rooms in Myer that had been commandeered for our use.  She never closed the door to her stall.  I could count the ribs in her back as she bent over in these tiny pink lace undies to step into her tights.  Skinny like a colt, my Dad would have said, but when she turned around… wow.  I’d never seen breasts that big before except on really old, fat ladies who wore cotton printed shifts. 

“Hi,” she said, smirking.  She’d seen me staring.  I blushed and darted into the stall, slamming the door shut.  I could hear her out there, chuckling to herself.  “Are you the new Santa?”

“Yup,” I said, wrestling my shirt over my head so quick it almost tugged my ears off. 

“You’re much cuter than the guy we had last year.”  My blush deepened.  The embarrassing pillow I would have to stuff down my shirt lay heavy in the corner.  Someone had sewn arm straps onto it.  I pulled those on one at a time.  There was a tinkle of bells and suddenly the curled ends of her shoes were visible under the door. 

“How long have you been doing this for?” I managed.  My throat was dry and sticky.

“Oh, donkey’s years.  I’m a professional elf.”

“How can you be?  This gig only lasts one month of the year.”

“There are other gigs.  I also accompany the Easter bunny around.  Sometimes I’m a fairy.  One St Patricks’ Day I was a leprechaun.”

I snapped on the itchy beard, wincing as the elastic pinched my skin.  “Come on, Santa,” she said, “Your public awaits.”

The line snaked around the Boost juice station and all the way back towards the bookshop.  Fidgeting children, all dressed in clothes designed for people much older, pestered their tired, bored looking parents.  Some women were so laden down with plastic bags and children’s backpacks that they had a tilt like a ship about to capsize.  I sat in my ‘ice’ covered throne.

“Ho ho ho!” I said in my deepest Santa voice.  “Merrrrrrry Christmas.  Who wants to sit on Santa’s knee?”

Beside me, Dave, dressed in the least Christmassy suit ever, coughed.  “They’re not allowed to sit on your knee unless the parents sign the permission slip,” he nodded at Aurora, who was handing out slips of green and red paper.  “Don’t want to get sued, do we?” 

Disgusted, I nodded.  “What so, they just have their picture taken sitting… next to… Santa?” 

“Well, standing, but yes.  And then you give them the colouring in, and they post their letters to Santa in the red mailbox.  All for the low price of $30.”


He glanced at the crowd, hushing me.  “They do get unlimited prints of the photo.  Provided they only want four, of course,” he winked.

“What if they want more than four?”

“One for Mum, one for Mum’s parents, one for Dad’s parents.  No one ever wants more than four, four is plenty.  Now smile, here comes your first client.”

Dave took the permission slip from the frazzled looking mother and gestured for the child to climb onto my lap.  He was a small boy, but he dug his palm into my thigh in order to lever himself on.  I winced, then covered it with another “Ho ho ho.”

“What’s your name, little boy?”

“This is Max,” said his mother, as if she were introducing Einstein.  Max looked at me with a dribble of chocolate running down the middle of his chin.  He must have at least been five. 

“Does someone have a tissue?” said Dave, gesturing towards the chocolate.  The mother looked embarrassed.  She fumbled in her purse for a wet one, then hurriedly wiped at Max’s chin.

 “Thank you,” I said.  “Wouldn’t want to get chocolate on Santa’s best suit just before Christmas, would we Max?”

Max smiled.  “Can I tell you what I want for Christmas?”

“Of course you can!  But first, smile for the camera so the elf can take your picture!”
Aurora counted down from three and then there was a blinding flash.  I blinked hard.  One down, only a million to go.  Max shuffled on my leg, his bony bottom digging into me. 

“Ok, so, I wrote this down but… I want a Lego Star wars, and some rollerblades like my brother has got, and a hockey stick, and an eyeball…”

“What, wait, what?  An eyeball?  Why do you want an eyeball?”

Max shrugged.  “The baby sitter says not to try anything because she has an eye in the back of her head.  I want one too.”

Shuddering, I helped Max down from my lap.  “I’ll talk to the elves about that one, but it may be a little bit tricky.”

“That’s okay, so long as I get the Star Wars.”

“Make sure you’re a good boy, Max, and Santa will see what he can do.”

The mother beamed at me.  “Say thank you to Santa, Max,” she said in a simpering tone.

“Later dude,” said Max.  Aurora winked at me over the camera. 

As I disrobed at the end of the day, trying hard not to think about the number of babies with loaded nappies I’d cuddled that day, Aurora popped her head over the top of the stall.  If she noticed I was in my boxers, she said nothing. 

“Great work today, Santa.  You’re a natural.”

“Thanks,” I said.  I pulled my shorts on as quick as I could, hopping about as I tried to jam my legs in.

“What’s your name, anyway?”


“Ha!  Jolly Old Saint Nick.  No wonder they gave you this job.  Maybe you really are Santa.”

“Maybe,” I yawned as I pulled my shirt on.  I was exhausted.  All I could think about was getting home to bed.  A few hours of Call of Duty and I would be set for a great night in. 

“Do you want to go and get a drink?” she said.  “Me and some of the other elves are going.”
I had barely spoken to any of the other girls playing the elves.  One of them, a surly Chinese girl, had sat by the post box watching children post their letters to Santa, sipping from a coffee cup, before disappearing at lunch and not coming back.  I wasn’t even sure what her job was.


“Come on.  It will be fun.”

“Don’t we start really early tomorrow?  It’s Saturday?”

“So?  What do you care you just sit on a throne all day and have your photo taken.”

“Yeah but…”

“Hey isn’t that weird?  That your face is going to be in these people’s family memories forever and ever?  Bizarre huh?”

I swallowed hard, finished tying up my shoe laces and hung up the suit in my stall for tomorrow.  “I hadn’t thought about it, but now I am.  Jesus, thanks.”  She hopped off whatever she was standing on and dragged it away from the door.  I emerged into the hallway.  She was still wearing her elf dress, though the stockings were gone, and she’d left her hair fall free of its plaits.  Her feet were bare.

“You going to get changed?” I asked. 

“No?  It’s one week til Christmas?  Why would I?”

We went to a bar just down the main shopping street.  There were stars and tinsel on every lamp post.  It was mostly filled with older executive types and girls fresh out of high school.  The bartenders wore half waistcoats and red and green bowties.  Some of the girls were wearing reindeer horn headbands.

“Merry Christmas,” Aurora said to one as she dropped off our drinks.  She’d ordered us bright pink candy-cane vodkas.  She raised her glass in cheers.

“Where are the others?” I asked. 

She shrugged.  “I asked them.  I guess they weren’t interested.”

Winking at me, she took another sip of her drink. I raised my glass to my lips-- it was sickeningly minty and I spat it straight back into the glass.

“Charming,” she said.

My whole body felt warm just from being close to her.  I couldn’t help it.  Her elf uniform short and tight, and in the low light of the bar, I snuck a glance at her cleavage. 

She leaned forward.  “What are you looking at?” she said, stirring her cocktail with a straw.

The heat spread to my ears.  “Nothing.”

Aurora downed her drink and then waved to the girl behind the bar, indicating she wanted another.  The bartender nodded.  “I love Christmas,” said Aurora.

“Are you really a professional elf?” I asked.


“Then what do you do?”

She shrugged and smiled mysteriously.  “Fairy at children’s parties.  Easter Bunny.  One time I really 

was a leprechaun.  The rest of the time I’m a law student.” 

Aurora cringed as she said it, as if waiting for something to collapse or explode.  Maybe it was the alcohol, but I reached out and took her hand.  “That’s cool.”

“It’s really not.  It’s the least interesting thing I can think of.  Besides Accounting, but I’m not any good with numbers.  Elfing is the only thing I’m good at.”

“You’re good with the little kids.  Why not be a kindy teacher?”

She pretended to gag.  “Ugh, no.  The kids are amazing, but have you seen some of those parents?  Imagine being responsible for their little darlings and having to deal with their, “Toby doesn’t have dairy after two” nonsense.  No thank you.”

“I spose.”

“What about you?  Are you a professional Santa?”


“What, really?  Professional Santa?”

“No, I… I only got the job because my Dad said I couldn’t live rent free in his house anymore.”\

“Rough break.  Do you go to uni?”


“What so, there’s nothing you care about, nothing you want to do?”

“Not really.”

She let go of my hand.  “Jesus.  That’s rough.”

I nodded, disappointed.  “Yeah, I guess.”

“I’m a law student because I want to be an environmental lawyer, you know.  Stop people dumping toxic shit into the waterways and what not.  Fight for Mother Nature.  Nothing like that?”

I looked at her tanned skin and her free flowing hair.  “I can see you doing that.”

“You really don’t care enough about anything to make it a career?”

I looked at my legs under the table.  “Nope.  I really don’t.”

The next day at work, my head was pounding.  Aurora seemed fine, counting down behind the camera, waving a jingly candy cane to make the star struck babies look her way in time to capture the picture.  My eyes felt like they’d been through the washing machine, and every time I burped, it tasted like minty vodka and sick.  Thankfully, it was Dave’s day off and we’d been left to our own devices, just me, Aurora, and Surly Sue at the post box. I’d been trying to talk to Aurora all morning but she’d been ignoring me.

When Sue went on lunch, Aurora took the opportunity to pull the curtain on Santa’s Wonderland. 

“Sorry guys, Santa needs to check on the reindeer.  We’ll be back in ten.  You can wait here or take a number and come back later.” 

A murmur of dissent spread through the crowd as Aurora slipped behind the curtain herself, sealing us both inside.  I pulled the itchy beard away from my face and scratched for all I was worth. 

“What is it, Nick?  You’ve been doing this weird thing with your eyes at me all morning.”
She was cross.

“I just wanted to tell you something.”

“So tell me.  We’ve got work to do.”

I swallowed hard.  “Music.”


“I thought about what you said, and… music.  I care about music.”

A bemused smirk cracked the veneer of her face.  “Really?”  Laughing she gathered her hair in one hand and leaned forward to kiss me on the forehead.  “That’s so great.”

Her enthusiasm was infectious.  I felt so relieved that I got up off Santa’s throne and gathered her to my fake stomach, hugging her tight. 

“Merry Christmas, Saint Nick,” she whispered, wrapping her arms around my neck. 

That was when the kid came through the curtain, of course.  A little girl in a loose fitting pink dress, white sandals with butterflies on them.  She looked like she hadn’t brushed her hair in a week. 

“What’s this, Santa?!”

“What’s this?” I said, with my arm still around Aurora’s waist, now holding on for dear life.  “This is Mrs Claus.” 

That’s not Mrs Claus!” she cried, grabbing her skirt and pulling it over her face to hide.  Her knickers were huge and white and bunchy. 

“Christ,” I said, and looked away.  “It is Mrs Claus, I’m just giving her a quick cuddle.”

“That’s an elf!”

“Sweetie, why don’t you put your dress down like a good girl,” said Aurora in soothing tones.  The girl complied.  Aurora took her by the hand.  She led the child out of the curtain.  I heard her call to the crowd.  “Anyone lost one of these?”

“Savannah!  There you are.”  There was the clacking of high heels on parquet.  I peered out from behind the curtain to watch, thinking perhaps this was the end.  Of course, Savannah’s mother was a corporate type, possibly in real estate.    

“Mummy, mummy, I saw Santa hugging an elf!”

The mother looked at the daughter, and sighed.  “No, sweetheart.  Santa hugs Mrs Claus.  Mr and Mrs Claus, see? They’re married.  Just like Daddy and I are married and we hug each other.”

“Santa will be back soon, honey,” said Aurora.  The little girl threw her a scowl.  Making sure the mother wasn’t watching, Aurora scowled back. 

“But Mummy!  I saw them!”

“Savannah!  If you’re going to be ridiculous, we’ll go straight home.  No Santa picture.  I mean it.”
Savannah stomped her feet and folded her arms.  The mother looked apologetically towards Aurora.  She picked her daughter up as if she was made of cardboard.  “Thank you.  Sorry.  Goodbye.”

Aurora slipped back behind the curtain. 

“That was close,” I said. 

“Not really,” she replied. 

Outside, the crowd was getting antsy.  Someone’s baby was crying.

“Just remember,” said Aurora, fixing her ears and her lipstick in the reflective surface of a snow flake.  “Shopping centre Santa’s are people too.”

Saturday, 7 December 2013

It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I feel fine...)

I've just recently finished Hugh Howey's Silo trilogy at the recommendation of my significant other, and it's got me thinking about end of the world fiction.  More and more, as I read the second and third novels in this trilogy (Shift and Dust) I became convinced that Hugh Howey must be a fan of Margaret Atwood.  While the Silo trilogy is distinctively American, particularly in its description of the US Government's involvement in the central premise, both novels are anti-establishment and environmentalist in scope.  The end of the world, in other words, has been caused by us.  We have ruined our landscape and made it impossible for ourselves to go on living the way we know.

In Wool, the first of Howey's trilogy, we are introduced to a new way of life.  People live in a silo underground where their way of life is governed by their specific skill set.  Our protagonist, Juliette, is a worker from Mechanical, way down deep towards the bottom of the silo, but she's shown aptitudes that recommend her for a much higher position.  So when the sheriff is sent to "clean" (I'll get to that in a moment), she's given the job, much to her astonishment.

Cleaning is the highest capital punishment in the silo.  People who commit crimes are loaded into space suits and sent out into an atmosphere largely believed to be toxic in order to clean the sensors that project an image of the outside world (a wasteland) to the people in the cafeteria below.  While many say that they won't do this task, without fail, all of them do.

Except Juliette... who is also eventually sent to clean.

You see, the silo system is corrupt, and those the reader comes to see as the good guys can't seem to understand why their simple curiousity gets them sent outside to clean.  Their question asking is ultimately good. Even now, we live in a world where we are taught to rationally assess everything, question things that don't make sense to us... so what has happened?  In this not too distant future, why has the government suddenly become totalitarian again?  And what, exactly, goes on on level 34 where the sinister IT Head, Bernard, works?  (You'll just have to read Wool and find out.)

Shift takes place hundreds of years earlier and looks at the origin of the system- as I said, largely based in the US government.  An unnamed enemy beyond the Silo is introduced, but is it them who has necessitated this?  Congressman Donald Keene begins to doubt this.  Meanwhile, in the future, Troy wakes up and begins his first shift underground as head of the silo, but some things don't add up.  He appears to have someone else's memories of outside... but whose?  (Again, that's all you're getting from me, read the book.)

Dust, the final book in the trilogy, ties the knots between these two narratives, and settles the score once and for all.  Is there any way out of the system?  Can we go back?  Read and find out.  Find out why this sort of literature is so important.  These books are cautionary tales, and speak of the kinds of futures we can expect if we go unquestioning where we are told.  Rebellious and anti-government, maybe.  Necessary?  Yes.

You can read more about Hugh Howey here.

Review: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

The Goldfinch
Donna Tartt
Little Brown and co (Courtesy the publisher)

Cover (Left) and Painting by Carel Fabritius (Right)

I don't recall if I have mentioned this before, but Donna Tartt's second novel The Little Friend was possibly one of the more disappointing novels I have ever read.  Exciting and well written, it is let down by it's strange manipulation of genre; a murder mystery in which the murder is, frustratingly, never solved.  No wonder, then, that I approached this novel, Tartt's third offering in something like 20 years, with trepidation.

I had heard from several people whom I respect greatly that this was an unputdownable novel, exciting, clever and what have you.  The proof copy was no easy acquisition.  And finally, last Friday when I began to read, I was put under it's spell for myself.

The story begins when Theo Decker is thirteen.  Having fallen in with a bad crowd, he's managed to get himself suspended and he and his lovely, idyllic mother are on their way to a meeting with the principal when they happen to stop at the art gallery to see the Goldfinch, one of his mother's favourite paintings.  By all rights, they never should have been there, but they are, and when a bomb goes off in the gift shop... Theo's mother is killed.  Theo, miraculously, survives, and at the urging of a charismatic dying man, he takes the painting, and some instructions to find Hobart and Blackwell.  And after this, his life will never be the same.

Tartt doesn't mince words in the same way that Tim Winton is known for not mincing words.  Her images are sharp and to the point.  Flowery language has no place in this 770 page epic.  The story reads something like a cross between Catcher in the Rye and television's White Collar.  It is exciting, angsty, and authentic, with characters who will stay with me, I am sure, for a long time.  Unlike with The Little Friend, I am left satisfied, and eager to read more of Tartt's work, when and if she chooses to publish.  

Five stars.

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Interview on Spout Art

Check out this interview that I did with Rachael Russell from Spout Art.

So chuffed to be selected to be part of 31 artists, 31 days.

Thank you Rachael!

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

A Great Perspective

This is a post out there for all the aspiring writers for whom it's JUST NOT HAPPENING.

You're frustrated.  I know.  This might totally wreck my credibility as a writer, but in the past twelve months that I have been writing I have not had a single piece published or placed in a competition and so believe me, I get it.  But what I want to share with you today is a little piece of wisdom that's going to help you get over it and get on with it, and the wisdom comes courtesy of Simon from The Blether.

Now as you may or may not know, when I'm not pretending to be an author, I work as a bookseller in one of Perth's better known independent book stores.  I love my job- truly.  It is inspiring to spend my days surrounded by books and people who love books.  But for the same reason it can also be a little daunting.  The world has so many writers in it.  There is no guarantee of a place for me.  Now, you may not know this, but Simon has recently become a bookseller there as well, and last night as we were driving through the dark streets of Mosman Park (aka where the rich people live) we were discussing bookselling, writing, and life in general.  And when I happened to mention that I was getting frustrated by my lack of success in the last twelve months, Simon had the following to say:  (I am paraphrasing.)

"I imagine submitting stories to competitions and magazines is a little like trying to help a customer find a book to read when they're not really sure what they want.  Every customer is different.  At the end of the day, a literary magazine is still a product for sale, and sometimes your piece is not going to fit with what they imagine their end result to look like."

Following on from having this knowledge bomb dropped on me, today I found out that not only had a new magazine rejected my favourite piece of this year, I had also failed to place in a competition judged by one of my favourite Australian writers.  Boo.

But it was pretty easy to shake off this time.

Thanks Simon!