Saturday, 27 December 2014

Book Review: The Book of Strange New Things

The Book of Strange New Things
Michel Faber
Canongate (I own a copy courtesy the publisher)

When reformed drug addict turned priest, Peter Leigh, embarks on a long journey to the new interplanetary colony known as Oasis to serve as a spiritual advisor for the native population, he expects he will be home in a few months.  He leaves behind his wife Beatrice, and his cat, Joshua, and travels via space ship to the USIC base that will serve as his home.  But USIC, a governmental body shrouded in mystery, is far more alien to Peter than his new congregation, and while the Oasans are willing to receive the word of God, Peter's mission grows harder as he learns of the terrible disintegration of life back on Earth. Most alarmingly, his relationship with Beatrice is not faring as well through the separation as he'd hoped.

Told from the point of view of Peter, with several "Shoots" (a kind of email) from both Peter and Beatrice, this novel represents an interesting challenge-- that of explaining the things we take for granted in our day to day lives to an alien population who have not only no context for them, but also limited language in which to have them explained.  Religion, as a framework, provides context that can be common to both the humans and the Oasans, and thankfully for this atheist, it is used in such a way as to not exclude a reader with little to no understanding of the Bible or any of its stories.  I found the book quite hard to get into at first, but I think that was because December is a notoriously busy month.  By Christmas Day, I was wrapped up in it well and truly.

As the story progresses, Peter becomes further and further removed from his life at home, as evidenced by his inability to feel connected to the tragedies that Beatrice describes-- at first in detail, and then, cynically and in passing, as she senses Peter does not want to hear about them, or does not care.  He begins to become alien himself, losing all sense of the emotions that make him human, and he begins to reminisce about his former life, in which he was a drug addict and a thief.  This, however, leads him to think about meeting Beatrice, falling in love with her, and being saved by finding a religion to guide him.  What is beautiful about this novel is that it extols the virtues of passion rather than of the Christian faith itself, and argues for the wisdom of having some sort of guiding ambition in life.  In the novel, the idea of a loving, supporting relationship is closely bound with a worship of God.  While the Oasans have this love of God-- they name themselves Jesus Lover One, Jesus Lover Five, etc.-- they do not seem to have the same system of pair bonding, gender, child-rearing, or any of the other family relationships that humans do, and their love of God is almost soulless in it's clinical application, although at one point one of the Jesus Lovers gives away to Peter that he/she is sad about the passing on of their mother.  Despite this, they have no emotional hang ups about the body once the life has left it, and use the carcass to attract and feed bugs that become part of their diet, a practise which disgusts Peter because of the sentimentality humans attach to the bodies of the dead, and the care with which they are treated.

While at its heart, the novel does deal with the end of the world, and the quote I have on the back of my copy says "I am with you always, even unto the end of the world", I would not say that this is a dystopian novel, at least not in a pure form.  In parts, the need to leave Earth and find a new home, coupled with heartless government programs reminded me of the film Interstellar (thankfully minus Mathew McConaghey's strange smart hillbilly character), and yet there was something quite subtle going on between the lines.  In my last review, I talked about a novel about anthropologists studying tribes being a method of studying the white culture the anthropologists came from.  I think the same thing is at work here.  By studying an alien population, Peter learns about himself and about the people he works for, and comes to the horrifying realisation that it may be too late to go home and save the things he loves.  Tantalisingly, the book is open-ended, but I am trying out optimism, and I would love to think that Peter makes it home and finds Bea, and they both find a way to make it back to Oasis, to live with the natives.

I gave this book three stars.

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Book Review: Euphoria by Lily King

Lily King
Picador, 2014 (I own a copy courtesy the publisher)

In the deepest part of the rainforest, a lone anthropologist named Andrew Bankson decides that he can no longer go on living, and wades into the Kiona River with his pockets full of rocks.  Moments before he drowns, he is pulled from the river by a native man, who laughs and tells him he had better be careful and clear the rocks out of his pockets before he goes swimming, lest he should accidentally drown.  Thus Bankson is prevented from killing himself, and not long after, he is informed of the arrival of two more European anthropologists.  Desperately lonely, he goes to meet them, and everything changes.

Partly inspired by the life of Margaret Mead, Euphoria is a book which uses anthropologists as characters in order not to study a foreign culture, but to study our own.  The book takes place in the 1930s, and in the shadow of the second world war, which seems imminent.  Nell is therefore rather unusual for her time, because as a woman scientist she has been extremely successful, whereas her Australian husband Fen has only published one short paper about a tribe he's studied for several years.  The book's point of view fluctuates between Andrew's first person narration, a third person narration that focuses on Nell, and a few short sections supposedly from Nell's diary-- at first, I found this perspective jarring, particularly because the first chapter sets the book up to be about Nell and Fen, and told in third person, but chapter two is Andrew before he meets them, so even if he is the third person narrator in the other sections, he couldn't possibly have known about their life with the Mumbanyo tribe before he met them, or their sex life on the boat coming down the river.  Yet somehow, it works.  Nell is both the subject and the protagonist, so it's important that we see her in a number of ways, and hear from her.  As a woman, she is privy to certain things in the tribe at Lake Tam that the men cannot be; she ascertains that the society worships its women and she longs for proof of this, devoting herself to work while Fen appears to be doing not much at all.  She speaks to Andrew of a Euphoria that sets in around the two month mark of living with any tribe, the point at which a person feels totally at home and accepted into the way of life in the tribe, and before they realise how much they have to learn.  This period of Euphoria could also be described as the 'honeymoon period' of a new relationship, and it is this kind of relationship that develops between Nell and Andrew right under Fen's nose.

Fen is an interesting character, because he fluctuates between being broody and possessive, and sweet to his wife.  He has the same interests as her, ostensibly, but not the same drive, and it becomes apparent almost right away that he wants for his wife not to be the more successful one in their relationship.  He constantly reminds her that he is her superior, whereas Andrew treats her like an equal.  He seems uncouth and culturally insensitive, and his quest for a magical flute which the natives worship and feed seems almost like some sort of flimsy phallic metaphor, although I assume that this item is based on research.  He wants this item as some sort of trophy, and looks for signs of it with a destructive single mindedness.  This material thing is far more important to Fen than the research he is supposed to be doing.  Fen and Bankson have a shared history, as they both studied together in Australia, and their friendship seems to constitute some sort of rivalry that goes back to Bankson being given Fen's mentor's butterfly net like some sort of prize, an event Bankson does not even remember.  As time goes on, the behaviour of these two men becomes increasingly territorial, particularly when it comes to demonstrating who has more right to Nell.

Andrew Bankson as the point of view character is the most well developed of the cast.  We learn early on that he has a tragic past and a fraught relationship with his mother, and I think what this does is soften him for the reader, and make him seem sympathetic.  Therefore, we don't hate him for falling in love with another man's wife, we see the mere fact of her already being married as a cruel trick of fate.  We know very little about Fen but this doesn't seem to matter, as Nell and Andrew seem perfect for one another-- they share the same passion for research and each have a tragic past, and are now isolated and lonely in their present.  This gradual coming together of characters is gentle and beautifully done, and at it's most basic level, the struggles of the three characters within their love triangle is a great study of human behaviours.

I really enjoyed this book, and I gave it five stars.

Find more information at Lily King's website here.

Friday, 19 December 2014

Reading Round-Up: November/December

I've done it again, left another big stack of books for reviewing next to my workspace, and it's getting so that work in said space is actually becoming difficult.  A lot of these books I read while I was in Residence at the Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers Centre, so if you think I read a lot more than usual this time around (considering this post only actually covers about two weeks of reading) then you would be right!

I love this time of year for reading: there's not a lot going on, so long as you've finished your Christmas shopping, and it's too hot to do anything much.  When I get home from work, I like to change into comfy clothes or pyjamas and curl up with a tea and a book.  Last year, my summer read of choice was Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries-- I spent Christmas day reading it in between visitors and meals, and finished it on Boxing Day when I was sent home early from work (due to lack of customers, not due to a hangover, thanks very much.)  This year, I'm not sure what I'll be reading on Christmas Day, but I hope it's just as good.

You can use this round-up as a Christmas Gift Guide, if you wish, or ask for recommendations in the comments.  Always happy to help.

And now:

Isabelle of the Moon and Stars by SA Jones

Beautiful local book, which is always a great place to start.  I have a passion for books written in or about Western Australia.  This novel is about a young woman named Isabelle who is suffering from depression, and the challenges she faces in trying to navigate a world where people don't really understand depression as a mental illness.  She's recovering from a pretty nasty breakdown, and fears the return of The Black Place.  What I related to most was her pain at having been left by her ex-fiance, Karl, who saw her depression as a weakness rather than a sickness, and I absolutely loved Isabelle's determination to find herself, even if it was a winding path.  This is a book that recognises progress as a spiral, rather than a straight line.  It contained stunning prose and I read it quickly, hungry for more.

The Night Falling by Katherine Webb

Katherine Webb is an author I was already aware of but hadn't picked up to read before.  To be honest, my decision this time was wholly influenced by a redesign of her covers.  I'm a sucker for those stock standard historical fiction/ romance covers.  The story follows Claire, an Englishwoman, who goes with her husband and stepson to country Italy to work on a stately home for an Italian man who has made it big in New York and returned home.  As time wears on, it becomes apparent to Claire that she is trapped there, rather than a visitor, and the suggestion is made that her benefactor might be a member of the mafia.  But while she is there, she meets a young Italian man, the nephew of her host, who is searching for the man who raped and murdered his fiancee and the two of them seem to fall in love almost by accident.  The book is set during the early 1920s and it paints an interesting portrait of life at a time when fascism was on the rise, and to be poor was incredibly difficult.  At first, I found this book incredibly tedious-- the first few chapters could have done with a good edit, I think, but having nothing else to do but read, I pushed through and found myself caught up in the story before long.  What was most interesting was her manipulation of characters.  All I can say is, beware, as things are not always what they seem.

The Year it All Ended by Kirsty Murray

From there, I moved into the research portion of my reading for the month.  I started with The Year it All Ended by Kirsty Murray, a novel about four sisters from Adelaide and the way that their lives change as a result of the First World War ending.  They lose both a brother and a cousin to the war, and what's more interesting is that the family is part German, and their cousin actually fought for the other side, and is viewed as a traitor.  Tiney is the youngest daughter, and she is interested in poetry.  She is determined that they should all go to Europe and find her brother's graves, but there are many obstacles.  While this book is aimed at young adults, it's written in quite a sophisticated way, and it encapsulates nicely the many changes that war brought about in society, in terms of things like morals, art, family life and women's lives.  I was really drawn in by the characterisation, and moved by the tender way that the horror of the First World War was commemorated.

Upsurge by JM Harcourt

Banned in Australia after it was first published for some of the lewd behaviour of its characters, and I suspect also its communist sympathies, this book was published in WA in the mid-thirties and was recommended to me by a reader of this blog.  Amanda Curtin kindly leant me her copy.  I was struck by the almost English sensitivity of the tone of voice used, and also the different attitudes of the characters to things like relationships, work and the law.  It was an interesting experience, reading this book and will no doubt be useful to me in the future.

The Strays by Emily Bitto

I wish I could go back in time and put this book in my top ten for the year, because it is superb.  The book is about a young girl who meets a family of sisters at her new school and through friendship with them, spends time in a building artist's colony run by the girls' parents.  Things quickly begin to get out of hand in the commune, and as a result, Lily and Eva are separated for many years, unable to discuss the trauma of what happened in the end.  The writing in this book manages to be quite modern, despite its 1930s setting, and yet it doesn't feel inauthentic.  The emphasis is on characters and events, rather than setting, although it does rely on our familiarity with the rise of modernism during the period to situate some of the artistic discussions had by the adults.  I loved this book, and found it inspiring.

Haxby's Circus by Katharine Susannah Prichard

While I was staying in Katharine's house, I thought it a good idea to read some of her work, so I took Haxby's Circus along especially for that purpose.  I'd read Coonardoo previously and remembered it being a little hard work, but Haxby's Circus, while a slow read, was somewhat more entertaining.  There were certain sentences in the novel that were like half finished ideas, and the narrative structure of the book was very different to what we're used to today, but I did end up really enjoying this book, and I find it has whetted my appetite for more novels about Depression era circuses.

When War Came to Fremantle by Deborah Gare and Madison Lloyd-Jones

I've spoken about this book before, but it's a recent publication of photographs and oral testimony that documents the port city's interaction with the various world wars.  It was a vital help to my work while I was at KSP and I loved looking at the old photographs.

Railway Man by Eric Lomax

I don't know why I put off reading this book for so long!  It's been sitting on my desk since last Christmas.  I guess I thought it would be too harrowing.  And yes, it does talk about a real man who was tortured for his part in making a radio receiver in a POW camp in Japan, but it also talks about reconciliation, as far as that's possible, and personal strength, and mateship and determination, all the things that make me so grateful to the men who never gave up, right to the end, in the camps along the Death Railway.  Eric Lomax's book was made into a film, which I'm told was atrocious, but I will watch it anyway.

The Road to Gundagai by Jackie French

I remember reading a book I got out of a library when I was quite young, about a girl named Barbara (I think) who runs around a corner and finds herself transported back to 1932, and ends up living in a shanty town during the Depression.  The book was called Somewhere Around the Corner, and it's by Jackie French.  I think I'd decided Jackie was decidedly a children's writer, but this novel, the third in the Matilda cycle, is another one that really could be for both young adults or adults.  It's about a young heiress named Blue Laurence, who is terribly scarred after a fire in her house, but runs away to join the circus where she makes friends with an elephant named Sheba.  At the circus, she learns that someone has been trying to kill her to get their hands on her money, and she hides in plain sight, performing as a mermaid, because her legs are stuck together with scarring.  The Road to Gundagai is a really entertaining book, and I immediately rushed out and bought the next book in the series, To Love a Sunburnt Country, which is about the Second World War.

So that's it!  Thinking about it now, this covers about three week's worth of reading, but I'm pretty impressed with the effort.  If you've read any of these, or you have any questions, let me know in the comments below, and I'll return to longer reviews next week!

Sunday, 14 December 2014


My toughest critic was not invited to participate in the Young Writer in Residence program at KSP Writers Centre, and so I left her at home.

I tried to remind myself, daily, that I had been selected to be there.  I had been given permission to not do laundry or vacuum or cook nutritious meals, and was really, in fact, expected to be writing for a large portion of the time.  It wasn't all that hard to remember.  Katharine's Place is a hub of writerly enthusiasm, and through reading the guest book, I could see my place in a long literary chain of names I knew and names I didn't... people like Tracy Farr, Alice Pung, PA O'Reilly and Annabel Smith.

For the first time, I looked at my novel with properly new eyes.  The pressure was gone.  No, it was not perfect, but it was not awful either, and every new word I put down on the page was a mark of progress and improvement.  The work that I did over the ten days I spent in Greenmount was some of the most inspired and productive I have produced in years.  I felt my priorities properly realigning, and a powerful feeling of purpose underlined the choices I made.

In ten days, I managed to write 40 000 words, advancing me significantly along my planned path- since coming home, I have not quite kept up the same momentum, but I have written a little every day, finding time before or after work, and thinking about the world of my story when I am away from it.  Currently, I am trying to decide whether or not I want to keep the ending to part 4, but I am on track to finish the book by new year, and then the adventure of sending it to agents and publishers awaits....

Monday, 8 December 2014

Top Ten Books of 2014

It seems like this time of year has come far too quickly, but already people are counting down their favourite books, albums and films of the year!  I've just finished one of my New Year's Resolutions, which was to read 110 books this year- 10 more than I planned to read last year.  It seemed pretty ambitious when I set the goal, but there are still a few weeks of the year left and I am very proud of having made it over the line...

When I sat down to look at all the books I read over 2014, one thing struck me about five star books.  There are two kinds.  At the time you finish a book, and you rate it five stars, sometimes it feels like the best book you have ever read, but I wonder if it really deserves five stars if all that impact is gone when you think about it months later?

All the books that made my shortlist this year were books which made me want to read more, write better, and left me with a lingering emotion, whether that be joy or anger (at the truth I'd been shown, not at the shoddy writing) or sadness or hope.  Looking at the list, the majority of them are Australian Writers, and more than half are women.  There are some I hope to emulate in my own craft and others who have impressed me by creating a style so far from my own that it had never even crossed my mind to write in that way!

1. The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

2. My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff

3. Only the Animals by Ceridwen Dovey

4. We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

5. Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth (first published 2012)

6. The Strays by Emily Bitto

7. South of Darkness by John Marsden

8. After Darkness by Christine Piper

9. Longbourn by Jo Baker

10. Lost and Found by Brooke Davis

Honourable mentions have to go to a few other books which almost made the top ten and these are:

The Ark by Annabel Smith
The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells by Andrew Sean Greer 
Nest by Inga Simpson
Cairo by Chris Womersley
Lost Luggage by Jordi Punti

So that's it, another top ten for another year!  If you've read any of these, let me know what you thought of them.

For those of you who might be interested in ways to fit more reading into your life, I am planning a post on that, so please let me know your thoughts in the comments.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Young Writer In Residence

Well, here I am at the Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers Centre in the Perth hills.  I am settled into Aldridge cottage, one of three self contained writing units modelled after Katharine's original studio, which still stands.  I have a large desk, a comfy writing chair, and a kettle; therefore I have everything that I need to write.  And writing I have been.

After spending 24 + hours in the unit between yesterday and today, I felt it was time to venture out this afternoon, under the pretext of taking my rubbish out.  I armed myself with a small digital camera, and as the light was beginning to fade around the house, there was something magical about it.  I decided to explore.

My work station, complete with Hello Kitty folder.

What I can see, most of the day.  It's prettier in real life, I swear.  This is just my inept photography...

See?  Told you the view was better!  This is it, later in the day, as I took in the magnificent sunset with the blinds open.  All of this was on the first day.  

The courtyard at the KSP centre, looking onto the front verandah of the house.  It's really lovely out there, and I'm tempted to go back tomorrow with my lunch.... but there are a few cheeky magpies lurking about so maaaaaybe not. 

Greenery everywhere.  Communing with nature.

A beautiful mosaic of Katharine Susannah Prichard hangs out by the Centre's office.  I did not know that KSP was the first Australian author to have international success with her writing.  Finding that out made me really happy.

On Monday, I joined in a writing group led by local writer Meg Caddy.  The group was for writers under 12, and Meg had us all describe a door, but not what the door led to.  Imagine my surprise, two days later, when I went exploring down the side of the house and found almost the very door I had described!!! This must have been the original front door of the house.  It was like stepping back in time.

View from the verandah down to the cottages. 

Same courtyard as before, this time seen from the way back.  There's something about a set of empty chairs set up like that, as if someone's just been sitting there and walked away, leaving only the intimacy of a recent conversation.

There's a horse shoe like this one on the verandah at my Grandparents' beach house.  Horse shoes should always be worn or placed facing up, otherwise all the good luck runs out of them.  I wonder if a lot of houses had these?

Sunset brings out galahs, the only other birds I've seen apart from the noisy magpie family that lives outside my door.  This fellow wasn't spooked by me, and I had to take a photo, seeing as I'd been writing about pink and grey galahs just the other day.  Oh, I also saw a chicken....

KSP's writing desk, inside her cottage, as seen through a locked door.  It's beautiful in there, but also a little spooky.  Not that I believe in ghosts...

The view from the front door of my cottage.  The building peeking out is Katharine's workspace.  

I am hoping that while I'm here, I might make it past 50 000 words on the latest draft.  It seems achievable.  This morning I passed 30 000, and if I write again tonight, I will most likely pass 35 000.  To those of you to whom this sounds like a lot, it's not.  I redraft using a method that Anthony Marra calls "retyping", by which I mean I work with the previous draft and my notes open beside me as hard copies, and type them out again, making changes and letting my refreshed view lead me on new tangents as I go.  This time around I am indebted to a great number of wonderful people who have given me food for thought.  I can feel my writing muscles flexing.  I can feel myself getting better.  I can see and hear progress, and I am feeling strong.  This is a lovely way to feel.

Saturday, 29 November 2014

Site Based Research Trip: Cliffs at Arthur's Head and Bather's Beach

If you missed the first part of my research photos (some of which were taken by my mum) you can see it here.

It's hard to believe that on the other side of these high, sandy cliffs there is a busy town.  But there is.  At the time these photos were taken, there were three wedding parties trying to take photographs in the middle of the street.  They have to move every time a car came.  In the apartment buildings across the street, a man with long hair was playing his guitar on the balcony.  There was a family of tourists taking photographs just above us, and busy artists studios winding down for the day.  Yet down below the cliffs, there was nothing but the sea and the scrub.

Another view of the ball, which is dropped ceremonially at 1pm, a tribute to the old practise used to signal the time to passing navigators.

The Bather's Bay (formerly Whaler's Bay) entrance to the Whaler's Tunnels.  Sometimes, if you look in here at night, there is an upright piano locked in there.  This tunnel used to be longer but the cliffs have been altered.  It was built in record time, using prison labour.  Sadly, there was a lot of litter in there when we went in.

Ah, the dry prickly trees of the West Australian coastline...

Down on the beach, the air is not quite salty and not quite sweet.  The seaweed on the shore gives of a pickled tang, and the smell of fuel from Fishing Boat Harbour can be detected when the wind picks up.  Sometimes, you can smell the fish and chips.

Garden Island, with a blonde highlight on its tail.  I had a hard time trying to describe this from my character's artistic point of view but I like what I've come up with.  I won't give it away now...

My favourite shot.  Almost certain I took this one.

Anyone else fascinated by lighthouses?  I blame ML Stedman.

If you like this post, and you want to see more of my wanderings while I research this beautiful town, don't forget to leave a comment below this post! 

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Australian Love Stories ed. by Cate Kennedy

Australian Love Stories (Anthology)
Inkerman and Blunt, 2014 (I own a copy)

The Australian short story is in a class of its own these days, and there are a number of amazing journals and anthologies which showcase these if you're interested.  From the Sleeper's Almanac to Western Australia's own Westerly, competition is tight and while it can be hard to break into the scene, it's also incredibly gratifying to read what does make the cut and have the writing take your breath away.  Such is the case with Inkerman and Blunt's recent anthology, Australian Love Stories, which was edited by award winning writer Cate Kennedy, whose collection Like a House on Fire won the Steele Rudd award in 2012.  The anthology features twenty nine stories (if I have counted right), including four from Western Australia, and has been carefully curated to follow the arc of a romance itself; from attraction through to the hardships that test even the strongest relationships.

Donna Ward, the woman behind Inkerman and Blunt, said at the Love in the Orient event which took place in mid November, that the collection "stand[s] in the face of hatred, and transforms it."  It is a collection which is inclusive of all racial backgrounds and sexual preferences, and the pieces selected all show extraordinary insight into the Australian story as a place where all are welcome.

Click on the picture to go to the publisher's website.

Stand-out pieces in the collection include Danielle McGee's funny and surprising piece, 'Gen Y Love' which resonated with me through use of specific events in world news and popular culture to mark the span of the character's romance.  Its gentle treatment of the subject matter made it both surprising and sensitive, and it was my favourite piece in the whole collection.

The vivid world of Leah Swann's "Why Cupid is Painted Blind" took me to a believable but completely foreign place within my own culture- that of the renaissance fair.  Her protagonist's obsessive crush on Karl the folk singer draws the reader past the point of no return, and an ending which might have been predictable in the hands of a lesser craftswoman has them breathing a sigh of relief.  The title, and the way she slipped an explanation of the meaning of it into the text, are extremely beautifully chosen.

J Anne deStaic's "Lover Like A Tree" was the short story I thought I didn't understand at first, but it stayed with me the longest.  In a very small number of words, deStaic manages to tell the reader the story of a love triangle between a man, a woman, and the man's drug addiction, offering no solution to the hardship.  By allowing things to simply be, there is much for us to churn over in our minds, and the story lingers, its images imprinted firmly on the brain.  It is a sombre note which stands out in the collection for its change in tone.  So too the shocking emotional imprint of Toby Sime's "Hooked" seemed to hint at a deeper truth.

The beauty of an anthology is that every reading will get garner something different, and while this time around, I will admit that there were pieces that I did not understand, or had no emotional response to, the experience of reading the collection over all was a joyous one.  I basked in the warmth of reading exceptionally good prose, and was willing to go on the journey that the order of the stories wanted to take me on.  I have no doubt that when I read this again, different sensory impressions will be left on me, and I look forward to that day.

Five stars.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Site Based Research Trip: Fremantle Roundhouse and Historic Buildings

Historical facade of the Fremantle Municipal Tramways, building now apartments and cafe.

View down High Street to the Town Hall.  Note that the historical facades have largely been preserved.

The Fremantle Round House is the oldest permanent building in Fremantle.  The design is that of a Panopticon, an idea attributed to Jeremy Bentham.  It was used as a prison for indigenous and colonial prisons up until 1886., when the Fremantle Prison opened, and as a police lock up until 1900, after which it became a residency for the Chief Constable and his family.  In 1936 it became a part of the Fremantle Heritage Trust, when they decided they wanted to make it a tourist location, but these plans were obviously interrupted by the war, and so when my book begins, it was not in use. It sits atop Arthur's Head, and overlooks Bather's Bay, once known as Whaler's Bay.  Today, it is a popular tourist attraction.  In the book I am writing, it is my protagonist's favourite place to sit and draw.

The Pilot's Cottages, built 1904, were once used as residences for the Harbour Pilots, but now house artist studios and galleries.

This ball was dropped at 1pm every day between 1900 and 1937 to signal the correct time to navigators.  

View from the Roundhouse (North???)   

I have heaps more photos, so I will be putting these up slowly over the next week or so.  Some of the photos are taken by me, and some (the better ones, probably) were taken by my Mum, whose camera we were using.  It was a beautiful day in Fremantle, even though it had been slightly overcast all day, but as Mum said, the clouds were playing for the camera.  The closer we got to the water, the windier it was.  There were at least three weddings going on, and I tried VERY hard not to get these people in my shots because as I kept saying to Mum, they are NOT HISTORICAL.

For those who might not be familiar with the term, site based research is the practise of going to places where your writing is set, and smelling the air, feeling the surfaces, listening for the sounds. So, in Fremantle yesterday, yes, I did sniff flowers and seaweed, lie on the grass with my eyes closed, touch the limestone walls of the cliff at Arthur's Head, take photos and read signs with the other tourists, and in other words, I focussed on being present in the place.  Fremantle as a place has been hugely inspirational to me in writing my book and I couldn't imagine setting it anywhere else.  It saddens me when people talk about how dodgy Fremantle has become, and I have to say, it's not the place that's dodgy, it's just some of the people who go there.  For the most part, Fremantle is artistic, multicultural, it's full of families, and music and beautiful old buildings, and I love it.

Friday, 21 November 2014

Book Review: Zac and Mia

Zac and Mia
AJ Betts
Text Publishing (I own a copy)

After the phenomenal success of John Green's The Fault in Our Stars, you'd be forgiven for thinking there really was no other way to write about teens with cancer.  But for AJ Betts, writing about the C word is a complicated and often humorous process, where the road to universalising terminally ill young adults is not always about heartbreak and lost love.  Zac and Mia was the winner of the Text Prize, a competition which seeks out new and exciting work in the young adult genre, and has also published books such as The Minnow.  It is a novel which is suitable for younger readers but would also appeal to adults.  It is honest, clever and intelligent writing about a difficult subject, and I would argue a more enduring book than John Green's, despite the fuss.

It begins with Zac, who is in hospital to have yet another round of chemo.  He's a veteran of the ward, despite begin only 17, and the youngest there.  He spends his time playing word puzzles and video games with his mother and chatting to the billions of Facebook friends who have come out of the woodwork since he got sick.  Then Mia arrives.  She's angry and everyone knows it.  She listens to loud Lady Gaga, yells at her mother, and resists the staff.  And Zac can't help but wonder about her.  They begin to communicate through the walls of their room in a form of morse code- by tapping and hoping the person on the other side understands.  Soon they are Facebook friends as well, and Zac is intrigued to see that Mia has not told anyone what is going on with her.

For me, Mia's journey was the most interesting, because she starts the book in this angry, scared place and she should by rights be unlikeable.  But because Zac is telling the story, and he likes her, the reader sees the potential for her to be a heroine.  His interest in Mia doesn't stop at the purely sexual, although she's a 17 year old girl and he's a 17 year old guy, so it's not totally out of the realm of possibility either, but is first and foremost from curiousity.  For so long, Zac's been the only kid on the ward, because he's too old for the Children's Oncology unit, and when someone else his age comes in, he wants to bond.  He recognises that she's scared, and frustrated, and reaches out to her and is surprised by what he finds.  And because Zac has such a loving support network around him, he's able to then extend his support to Mia, even if she doesn't know how to accept it.  Slowly, the trust is built between these two characters, and it's really quite nice the way this happens slowly, and almost by accident.  At first, they just talk on Facebook late at night, when they both wake up needing the loo (a side effect of treatment they share) and they provide each other with comfort.  The way Betts writes these social media interactions is really genuine, and it's the first time I've seen Facebook in fiction that has felt like real conversations are actually taking place.  Facebook is not just a device here, but part of the setting, and a natural part of the character's world.  It's really well done.  Then their relationship moves into the real world, and Zac provides a literal safe haven for Mia at his house, which is down south somewhere.  They have an Olive and baby animal farm, and some of the jobs that are described are so unique and believable that I really wanted to visit.  From hitting roo poos with golf clubs to leaving carcasses for the local vixen so she stays away, Zac's home was very real, and his mother and sister were strong maternal forces in his life.  His father and his brother didn't feature so much, although the jokes about his brother were very funny.

The book is sectioned in three parts, part one being Zac, with Mia somewhat obscured, part two being And, when they are getting to know each other, and part three being Mia's point of view when Zac is separated from her and she wants to know why.  This works really well, because the point of the story is not just Zac's experience or Mia's experience, it's both their experiences and what they can learn from each other.

It's a short book, and it's not as emotionally shattering as The Fault in Our Stars, but it feels like it happens all the time, and I loved it.

Monday, 17 November 2014

Book Review: Evergreen Falls

Evergreen Falls
Kimberley Freeman
Hachette Books
9780733630033  (My copy courtesy the publisher)

When I see a book that looks like this one, my heart goes pitter patter.  I know I'm in for a breathless, romantic, historical read.  That, or bitter disappointment.  Thankfully, this time it was the former.

Evergreen Falls is the story of Lauren, a thirty-something year old woman who moves to the Evergreen Falls development site after her older brother Adam loses his battle with a respiratory illness which had him bedridden for the last years of his life. Lauren's life has been put on hold while Adam was unwell (largely thanks to a modern-Mrs Bennett without the social climbing who calls herself Lauren's mother), and so she decides to move to the last place where Adam was happy, the Falls.  It was once the site of a health spa for the rich and famous, and it is being redeveloped by a team of architects for modern living.  Among them is Tomas, to whom Lauren is very attracted.  (Interestingly, Lauren is a virgin, which I found refreshing and also realistic, because the modern 'spinster' character is increasingly rare, and when a fictional woman bemoans her lack of dating experience, it's often an exaggeration.  Lauren's adolescence has been ruled by her mother, who has not let her do much at all, in order to keep her safe, and her sheltered life feels very real.)  The mystery begins when Tomas (who is sexy and Danish) leaves a key on a table in the coffee shop where Lauren works, and she takes it, intending to return it.  But not without looking around the deserted wing of the old hotel, to which the key belongs.  In the wing, she stumbles upon a bundle of racy letters, from a man named SHB to a woman named Violet, and her quest for the story behind them begins.

This novel follows a parallel structure, with a plot in the modern time period, and a plot in the past which the modern characters must piece together.  The experience of learning about the past helps Lauren and Tomas to grow, and find love and friendship, but unlike in other such historical novels, it is not the sole focus of the modern section.  The solving of the mystery is one part of the plot in 2014, but Lauren is also searching for some truths about her brother.  As Adam became sick when she was quite young, she discovers she never knew Adam the man, and goes searching for people who might have known him.  In the process, she must also discover who she is.  The book has strong, fascinating themes, such as the child's discovery that their parent is not perfect, the quest for the perfect love, the loss of innocence, and the surprising consequences of things not going as planned.  The setting was clear and beautifully realised, as well as unique, particular in the 1926 parts where the hotel is snowed in for a number of days.  It is easy to picture the snow covered mountain, the trees, and the freezing, sparkling waterfall.

One thing that I thought was going to be a criticism, but turned out to be a huge strength of the novel was the characterisation of Sam, the SHB of the letters.  Samuel Honeychurch-Black is an opium addict, and a spoilt young rich man who has a sensitive soul.  He falls in love often, and rarely thinks about the consequences of his actions, and he and Violet fall for one another almost instantly, much to the chagrin of his sister Flora who is supposed to be curing him of his addiction.  She bans the romance, but it blossoms anyway, and Sam calls Violet to his room at all hours of the night, takes her virginity and often asks her to do sexual acts which seem exotic, and at first frightening to Violet (don't worry, it doesn't go into a LOT of detail in these sections, but I would recommend that this is not a book for younger readers, or those who object to this sort of detail.)  When Violet begins to be tired from her work as a maid at the spa, she stops coming to his room as night, but Sam grows petulant like a child and says this is evidence she doesn't love him.  He talks of romance, but never gives her a straight answer about marriage.  In short, he manipulates Violet, and at times behaves a little like a predator.  I found him incredibly creepy!  Yet it worked in the context of the novel.  The reader sees what is happening to Violet, but they also see she is totally taken in by it, and that she's caught in the magic, totally out of her depth.  They also see safe, constant Clive, who isn't the man to swoon over, but he's always there, and the two men make near perfect opposite sides to the coin.  When Violet begins to get out of her depth, it is interesting to see the different ways these men come to her rescue.

There was so much to love about this novel, and I think that had I not been told about this story I never would have picked it up.  If you're looking for a Christmas gift for someone who loves history, Pride and Prejudice and the novels of Kate Morton, this would be an ideal gift.

Friday, 14 November 2014

Book Review: South of Darkness by John Marsden

South of Darkness
John Marsden
Macmillan Australia

The pre-teen bookworm in me rejoiced when a copy of John Marsden's first book for adults was pressed into my hands.  South of Darkness tells the story of Barnaby Fletch, in his own words, as he recounts the experiences of his life: from starving orphan in "Hell", the downtown streets of London, to the convict settlements of New South Wales.  Barnaby's voice is warm, intelligent, and surprisingly literate for someone of his station, although the narrator continually hints at a rise in his position.  A modern take on the Dickensian world, this story is realistic, exciting and thoroughly compelling, and I enjoyed it immensely.

It begins with Barnaby telling the reader of his first memories.  His parents are absent and he does not remember them, nor does he know precisely how old he is.  The dirtiest part of London, where he lives, is known to the inhabitants as 'Hell' and here he teams up with Quentin, a boy about his own age who is plagued by the superstitions surrounding a birthmark which covers part of his face.  People think that Quentin's face is a sign of the devil, and his parents abandon him because of it. Barnaby and Quentin make their way in the world by thieving food and pick-pocketing, and in one instance they enter a house when an opportunity presents itself, and proceed to steal the entire meal laid out within.  This experience earns Barnaby the thrashing of his life, which he bears gladly to help his friend escape, and he is repaid by Quentin's kindness in taking care of him.  The boys' lives are a series of bumblings and mishaps that occur as the results of their trying to make their way in a harsh world, from the near drowning of Barnaby after a fight to the unfortunate theft of some counterfeit notes from a drunk which land Barnaby in hot water with the dealer he sells them to.  Despite his pilfering and sneaking, Barnaby is a good hearted character who just wants to survive in the life he has been dealt.

Barnaby takes refuge occasionally in the local church, where he finds places to sleep.  Quentin is too scared to follow him in.  In the church, Barnaby listens to the sermons and is particularly taken with the story of Job, and the horrible ways in which his faith in God was tested.  Barnaby endeavours to be faithful in the face of tragedy, like Job, in the hopes that he will someday be rewarded with the fulfilment of his faith.  This is a major theme in the novel, and yet it is not an overtly religious theme, despite the method of delivery.  Rather, it is a lesson in goodness and persistence, and in integrity.  There are a number of Reverends who work at the church Barnaby frequents, and while two of them are disliked, one, Reverend Johnson is a beacon of inspiration to Barnaby.  The decision to include the religious motif to the story added a layer of versimilitude that I think the book would have been diminished without.  It provided a pathway into the 18th Century mindset for this 21st Century reader.

But the book's most memorable passages were those which recounted scenes of horror- of the trial at which Barnaby must face rape charges falsely levelled at him by his employer, his experience in the infamous prison at Newgate, on board the ship when he is transported, and finally when he is exiled from the penal colony for helping an escapee.  Marsden does not shy from the gory or the improper, instead giving Barnaby his reign to convey his own thoughts on each matter, whether they be resignation, disgust, or pain.  A fine balance is struck in the delivery of these, and the reader is not overwhelmed by distaste.  In fact, it is these scenes of conflict, often taking part during major plot points, which drive the novel forward, as it does not have a typical plot structure.  Instead, the book follows Barnaby's life with no emphasis on climax and resolution, again following with a book style from a much earlier time.  There is even some suggestion in the book's closing, that this story might only be the beginning of the life of Barnaby Fletch.  I certainly hope that this is the case, and I would read a sequel easily.

The book's satisfying conclusion came from the use of two believable coincidences, but to tell you what would be to spoil them, so I will leave you with the recommendation that you read South of Darkness for yourself and find out.

I gave this book four and a half stars.

Friday, 7 November 2014

Monthly Catch-Up: 3 October Mini-Reviews!

I've been a little tardy with my book reviewing this month, and a backlog has begun to accumulate on my desk of books waiting to be written up.  So in the spirit of clearing the desk, I thought I would post them all at once, and do a monthly-catch up!

I managed to read seven books this month, which isn't actually a lot for me, but one of those books was Dragonfly in Amber, which is about 1000 pages long so naturally it took a little longer than usual.  These three books I have for review today were all read in the last week of October, and read quite quickly, and oddly enough all have red spines.  What a coincidence!

A Place for Us by Harriet Evans

A Place for Us is published by Headline books, an imprint of the Hachette book group.  It's about the Winter family, who own quite a large, memorable house in a small English town.  The house is known as Winterfold, which kept making me think of Game of Thrones (There will always be a Stark in Winterfell!).  It begins when Martha, the mother of the family invites all her extended family back home for her 80th birthday celebration and hints on the invite that there will be a big announcement.  No one is able to resist the call of this secret and they all gather at the house to hear what it is.  No one, except the Winter's wayward oldest daughter Daisy.  

Jumping into reading this book straight after Us by David Nicholls, I couldn't help but think that this book did the English family drama in a slightly more kitsch fashion that I am usually drawn to.  The drama of the big announcement kept me reading on, and I have to give Harriet Evans points for her original secret, because it was certainly not what I expected at all, but overall the book was somewhat twee.  The best bits were those about the other daughter, Florence, who was really unconventional, and you could see that to an outsider, quite unlikeable also.  She had a kind of obsession with her coworker, Peter, and as a result was embroiled in a nasty court proceeding with him, and these bits for me had depth and were very new and fresh.  I also pictured Colin Firth in the role of Peter were this made into a movie.  

The Sound of One Hand Clapping by Richard Flanagan

Bit of a change of pace here, but I thought I would celebrate Flanagan's recent Man Booker prize win by reading some of his older work.  I read Narrow Road to the Deep North late last year and loved it, but I do find that Flanagan's relationship with language does take some getting used to.  He writes in a very pared back, poetic style which can sometimes be deliberately obscure, and I find that it takes me about 40 pages to get used to it.  Then, once I am in it, I can finally understand the nuances of what he is saying, and more importantly, what he is not saying.  The Sound of One Hand Clapping is about Sonia Buloh and her father Bojan, refugees from Europe whose lives are shaped by the loss of Maria Buloh, Sonia's mother, when she is three.  Bojan is very flawed as a father figure, but Sonia always sees the great potential in their relationhip, and his failure to live up to her expectations sees them separated for most of Sonia's life.  But in her thirties, she returns to Tasmania, pregnant and looking for answers, and she and Bojan both re-traverse the paths that led them to their misfortunes.  

Flanagan is a beautiful writer, and sometimes the things he says stop me cold with the truth of them.  I also learned recently that he was involved in writing the script of the film Australia, but we'll have to forgive him for that.

The Other Typist by Suzanne Rindell

This was a very interesting book about a girl named Rose, who makes for a likeable, compelling and ultimately unreliable narrator.  (I'm obsessed with those at the moment.)  She is a typist at a police precinct during prohibition, an orphan and a goody two shoes with no charm and no fashion sense, but she's a very proficient typist.  When Odalie is hired to work at the same station, Rose is both drawn to and horrified by her manipulative charm and rich, flashy style, and she both judges her and longs for her attention, keeping a journal of Odalie's movements.  Rose and Odalie become friends, and Rose is soon invited to live with Odalie.  She is taken into a world of speakeasies and bathtub gin, and begins to learn a little more about Odalie's past.  

The narrative style of this novel can sometimes be a little stilted, as it is revealed Rose is telling this story at the behest of her doctor, and she keeps getting ahead of herself and then stopping, and stressing she needs to tell the story chronologically.  I think this was intended to build tension but what it actually does sometimes is jar the reader out of the flow of the story.  I was struck by the similarity of this novel to The Great Gatsby, at least plot wise, and others on Goodreads appear to agree with me, but to be honest, I was thoroughly taken in by this novel and I think it bears rereading, if only just for its sumptuous descriptions and sense of atmosphere.  

Okay, so that's me caught up for the month.  What did you read this month? Have you read any of these?

Sunday, 2 November 2014

To my Toughest Critic-- Myself

Dear Toughest Critic,

I know I haven't been meeting your standards lately.  My desk is always messy and I am pretty much relying on caffeinated beverages to stay awake long enough to do any writing.  When I do write, I delete most of what I've done.  I think you want me to say sorry for this.  Or perhaps you think I need to make some excuses.  I have excuses, but I also know that sometimes it is really important to give myself a break.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the process that I use when I am rewriting.  I said that I manage 1000 words every day.  Almost the same day that I posted that, the process I had outlined fell apart in my hands like a soggy biscuit.  Sure, it's worked for me before, so it was natural to assume that it would work for me again.  But I'm reminded of a quote I once saw on another writer's blog: You are not a tap.  You cannot just turn it on and expect something to come out.  There was a point not so long ago where I reached the absolute bottom of any energy reserve I had saved, and all I wanted to do when I wasn't at work was sleep and read.  I felt ill, but I was in perfect health... I just couldn't face the page.  I think every writer experiences this in their own way.  The thought crosses my mind that this is the point at which, if I was going to give up completely, I could do it.  Instead, I focussed on letting myself repair.  I listened to my body, and it said it was tired, and it was a little scared that the six or seven years of hard work it had been putting into this book might come to nothing, and could it please have a week where it wasn't writing, or thinking, or talking about the novel.

I realise now that I've had breaks from the book before, but they've been active breaks, in which I would collect information in a little space in my mind for my book, and have thoughts like when I start writing my novel again I will...  So I wasn't completely relaxed at all.  This year and last year have been my first full time writing years since I decided on writing as my path.  Which means I've now had more than 18 months of this, 18 months of hearing feedback from readers and even from people in the publishing industry that has been a mix of keep going, you're almost there, and also (dishearteningly) that perhaps this is my practise novel.   Maybe it is my practise novel, but I love it, and I want to feel like I've done the best job I can with it.  So I took last week off, and I am 7000 words behind schedule, and I just plain don't care.  (Okay.... so I care a little.)

I have seen other writers despondent about their own work, work that I know to be of a higher standard of my own, and I feel for them, but I also take comfort in the knowledge that if those better than I can feel this way, then this is normal, and this too will pass.  I am recognising the importance of taking care of myself, of going to yoga, and colouring my hair when I look at myself in the mirror and feel drab, and getting up every day and making an effort with what I put on my body, for it is far too easy to go back to bed when you stay in your pyjamas.  I am learning the fine balance between treating my art as work, and keeping it a form of expression.  I am learning who I am as a writer.

So I just wanted to say, Toughest Critic, thank you for pushing me to be my best, always, because I know you mean well, but please don't feel upset that I am learning when and how not to listen to you.
And please tell your fellows, the Critics who plague my friends and loved ones to go easy as well, because they're all doing better than fine in my eyes.



This post is dedicated to LA and KL with my love.

Monday, 27 October 2014

This Beautiful Book: When War Came to Fremantle

My favourite picture from the book- Dr McKenzie is reunited with his family as the HMAS Fremantle returns AIF and RAAF servicemen from Indonesia in December 1945 (Page 125)

(Also, can I just mention that this is my 500th blog post... yippee!  Thanks for all the page views, I wish I had a cake.)

On Sunday I was lucky enough to go along to the book launch for When War Came to Fremantle, a collaborative history in pictures and text by Deborah Gare and Madison Lloyd-Jones.  This book is a gorgeous photographic and social history of the town of Fremantle and its interaction with different world conflicts, and I just know I am going to love toting this with me in my research bag when I go to KSP later in the year.

When War Came to Fremantle is $45 dollars, and is published by Fremantle Press.