Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Review: The Trouble with Flying and Other Stories

The Trouble with Flying and Other Stories
Margaret River Short Story Competition Anthology 2014, edited by Richard Rossiter with Susan Midalia
Margaret River Press

In a short space of time, the Margaret River anthology has gained a reputation for finding and nurturing talented Australian writers and bringing them together.  This year's anthology is the third that the small press has put out.  In their first collection, Things that are Found in Trees and other stories, Margaret River Press included a story by this year's Vogel Winner, Christine Piper, and judging by the breadth of talent in this year's collection, she won't be their last connection to big time publishing.

This collection of 24 stories represents less than half of all the submissions sent in by new and established short story writers.  It begins with the winning story, Ruth Wyer's "The Trouble with Flying", a story about a girl named Rita who develops a stress-reaction to finishing school and applying for higher education which manifests as a fear of "putting herself down on paper."  At this year's Margaret River Writers Festival, Wyer spoke of having similar feelings to her main characters when it came to writing, and her story is a realistic portrayal of working her way through this 'imposter syndrome' (as fellow writer Kristen Levitzke calls it), and adapting to new situations.  The tone of the story is sombre and somewhat downtrodden, but it works beautifully, and spoke to me as a recent high-achieving graduate now living in a world with new challenges.

Award for the best title in the bunch should have gone to Lauren Foley for her story "Squiggly Arse Crack", which is a story about the disorienting feeling of being a new mum and having no time for yourself.  The character oscillates between concern about the loss of her status as 'woman' and her fierce love for her child.  The narrative voice in this piece is funny, matter of fact, and beautifully consistent.  

Linda Brucesmith's 'Bedtime Story' is another stand-out.  Told from the point of view of a small child, this story is as much about what is not being said as what is.  Two sisters lie in bed one night while their parents have a dinner party.  When they sneak out of their rooms, they witness their father saying something cruel to their mother, and their mother walking out.  The next morning, they are told their mother is unwell and their father has taken her to the doctor.  While I found some of the dialogue confusing, in particular with regards to the overheard conversation between the parents, the subtlety of the mother's apparent suicide juxtaposed nicely with childish fantasies about ghosts, and the ending left a shiver in my bones.

South West Prize winner Rachelle Rechichi's story "My House" was also told from the story of a young child, this time May, who is fighting back against her 'Homes West' upbringing and the way the other girls at school judge her for it.  May is a strong character, determined to make something of herself.  She protects her younger sister from her lecherous Uncle Toad, and when it is asked of her, becomes an unlikely hero, saving both Ellie and her reading book from a house fire.  The voice in this story is compelling, authentic, and invokes an emotional reaction in the reader which makes them stop and think twice about judging people on appearances, especially children.

"Zone of Confidence" by Claire Aman stood out for me because of the Queensland scenery described by the narrator as she rode her partner's motorcycle along the coast, watching for his sails.  She is anxious, and plagued by a feeling that the sea wants to claim him and the little boat he is bringing down the shore for a rich man who has hired him.  Thought her repetition of the term 'babe' grates at first, it soon becomes a part of the rhythm of the story, and speaks of the character's fierce love for her boyfriend, and her almost lioness-like protectiveness against an anthropomorphized sea.  Though her fears turn out to be unwarranted, she proves her mettle, and her worthiness of a man who never even appears on the page.

In Rosie Barter's "Grasping for the Moon", Martha takes in Tandra as a house guest, and begins to take on his Buddhist ways as a new means of falling in love.  She can never fully betray herself and become fully spiritual, but her life is left enriched, and the reader is left longing to know what Tandra writes to her in his note.

"Dot's Garden" by Kristen Levitzke perfectly encapsulates the little mythologies we create in our suburban lives, both in the almost deity-like status of her characters' home's former owner, Dot, whose gardens document the changing of the seasons, and in the narratives of love that exist between long time partners.  Her story draws on deep emotion to tell a tale of infidelity and of friendship and loyalty that outlives faithlessness.  She uses ingenious and original methods to bring about her male character's downfall, and yet makes both he and his wife AND the other woman human.  It is a true testament to the skill of the writer, and makes it no wonder Levitzke finds herself included in the anthology two years in a row.

Glen Hunting's tale of domestic habit, "Martha and the Lesters" features a host of eight legged protagonists, the understanding of which means admittance into a certain club.  There are those who have met The Lesters, and those who haven't.  For Roland and his landlord, Martha, the Lesters choosing to make their home with them is a kind of honour, but to outsiders, they speak of mess and despair.  Will Roland and Martha be able to make the world understand, or are they, as I fear, fighting a losing battle?

The collection ends with Bindy Pritchard's aptly titled "Dying", a story which is so honest it knocks the air out of the room.  When the character tells her husband that she wants him to remarry, you almost scream "No, why!"  The writing in this story comes from a deep emotional space, and to describe it in one word, I would say brave.  It is a perfect story to end the collection on, as it is one of the strongest pieces in the collection.

Once again, the Margaret River short story collection has unearthed an extremely entertaining collection which celebrates all that is wonderful about short fiction.  You can pick this book up where good books are sold, and if you want to see the contributors read aloud from their works, please join us at Bookcaffe Swanbourne this Monday, June 2nd at 2pm.  The book will be available for $24.

Monday, 26 May 2014

Review: My Salinger Year

My Salinger Year
Joanna Rakoff
Bloomsbury, June 2014

In the mid-1990s, Joanna Rakoff was an aspiring poet and recent arts graduate with very little idea about what direction to take in her life.  (A familiar position for some of us, perhaps?  Anyone nodding out there?)  Through serendipity, and a little bit of help from her friends, she lands herself a job at The Agency, one of New York's most well known literary firms.  The Agency's hallowed halls are lined with books by the likes of Judy Blume, all represented by legendary agents of days gone by, such as Dorothy, Claire, and the woman Joanna has come to work for, referred to only as 'my boss'.  But by 1996, the industry has already begun to change rapidly, and as the newcomer, Joanna watches and learns as the younger, more innovative agents begin to surpass her typewriter and dictaphone loving boss, entering the world of multiple submissions, rights auctions, and contracts involving electronic rights despite no one actually having gone so far as having used these yet.  Joanna enters this world somewhat naively, just wanting a job so that she can pay the rent on her slightly overpriced and under constructed apartment, and write poetry in her spare time.  She visualises a job where she will spend her days reading manuscripts and being a part of the process of making a young or first time writer's dream come true.

Instead, she spends her time typing up letters.

Specifically, she spends her days typing form letters to fans of JD Salinger who write in to the agency trying to get in touch with this man.  The letters speak of a longing to be understood, and a sense gained from reading Franny and Zooey and Catcher in the Rye that only Salinger would understand.  Touched by the emotion in these letters, Joanna lets them into her head, and the works of Salinger into her heart, trying to see what they see.

Described as The Devil Wears Prada meets Mad Men and Girls, My Salinger Year is a face paced and often funny memoir which will resonate with anyone who remembers dipping their toe in the deep end for the first time.  Joanna must balance her professional life with her personal life and this doesn't always work out so great.  Unlike in The Devil Wears Prada, where Andy must grapple with her own changing priorities and the numerous side effects they have on her friendships with friends already settled in professional jobs, Joanna struggles to keep her friendships with women who are in the same position as her- newly graduated, moving into serious relationships, and moving to different states.  She also has to deal with her boyfriend Don's obvious unsuitability, although at times one thinks he can't surely be as much of a slug as we are made to think.  A self professed communist or something like that, Don is selfish and childish, and expects Joanna to look after him.  He decides that they are dating and Joanna goes along with it, a symptom of her failing self-esteem and feelings of... what?  unworthiness?... with regards to an idealised college boyfriend for whom she still harbours serious feelings.  Or perhaps it's a fear of commitment.  Whatever the reason, Joanna's relationship with Don appears parasitic right from the moment when Don announces that the apartment will be leased in Joanna's name, seeing as Don has bad credit from not paying his student loans.  He also doesn't have a steady job.  He seems to spend all his time writing his sexist, misogynistic rape/pornography revenge novel about an ex girlfriend he surely made up, and skiving off his responsibilities around the house.  His friends are all dilettantes like him, some of them washed up ex-Upper East Side darlings with drug problems.

The ending of the novel is particularly well executed.  Joanna's success in becoming An Agency Type Of Person proves to her that she can make it on her own if she tries, and so she quits to write her poetry, stating as a reason that if she doesn't do it now, she never will.  This is done in an understated and well-paced fashion, coming at just the right moment so as not to feel trite or like the After School Special package deal forced on the story by someone else.

I read this novel in a single afternoon, laughing out loud and frequently interrupting the reading of others to read parts I loved aloud to them.  This is high praise.  I think this book is great reading, but it would also make a great gift for the graduate in your life.

Five stars.

PS no knowledge of Salinger's texts is necessary for appreciation of this novel

PPS but Salinger is pretty brilliant so you should read some anyway.

Friday, 23 May 2014

Why I Write Historical Fiction

Lately I've been getting asked the same question a lot.  I don't mind, really; it's a fairly obvious question when I tell people what I do, but I find it really hard to answer.  Or answer succinctly.  When I say that I'm a writer, and that I write historical fiction, the response seems to be to wonder why someone "so young" (their words, not mine) wants to write about history.  And the really short answer is, I don't know.  Artists of any kind out there will know what I mean when I say that when an idea takes hold, you don't sit down and analyse why; you take hold of it and you run like hell.  

But seeing as they've asked.  

I started composing this response the other day in my head.  It was swirling around in my mind as I woke and started to prepare myself for work.  Later, I stopped and jotted down a few notes.   It seems to be a combination of factors in my case, including but not limited to: 

* Years of studying Australian history (and being quite good at it sometimes)

* A few books that I read when I was younger, which really stuck with me, such as Amy Amaryllis by Sally Odgers and Somewhere Around the Corner by Jackie French.  For those of you familiar with my thesis, you'll note that I based the title of my creative component, Just Around the Corner on this second one, although this is where the similarity ends. 

* I've always been told that I should write the kind of books I love to read.  There are a few fairly perfect books out there that I wish I had written, but in a way it's nice to be involved in my own work.  It really gives me an appreciation for the amount of work that must have gone into these works that I love.  

* And then there's this idea that I hear Jo Baker talking about at the Perth Writer's Festival this year, about writing myself into the narrative.  My characters are not me, but they do include facets of me. 

There are probably other reasons as well, but these are the ones that spring most to mind.  I can't say that family history comes into it at the moment, but I've been thinking more and more about mining my own family's past for ideas.  A lot of my writer friends are writing about their shared memories, and about things that happened to their loved ones.  They do this with compassion and generosity of spirit, and with beauty, and I have a lot of respect for things, but I am more of a mind to make things up.  I certainly don't wish I was born in another era.  Give me modern conveniences any day; I don't wish I was a POW and I don't wish I was a girl in the 1930s/ 1940s, because I think I would get myself into a lot of trouble.  I wouldn't have been able to study, most likely!  

This post may have been a bit scatterbrained, and for that I apologise.  But there it is.  Your answer, if you were wondering.  My age doesn't really come into it.  

Sunday, 18 May 2014

Margaret River

Despite the fact that my mother was born there, and I have lived in this beautiful state my entire life, I have never been to Margaret River before this weekend.  For those of you not from Western Australia, Margaret River is a beautiful town in the wine growing region which is about three hours drive South of Perth.  It is home to a burgeoning publishing house, Margaret River Press run by the lovely and talented Caroline Wood and her husband John, who publish a yearly anthology of creative writing as well as numerous other titles.  For the last five or so years, Margaret River has also played host to its very own Writers Festival, and this year I was lucky enough to take a road trip down there with my beautiful writing group ladies, Kristen and Louise.  On the drive down, we talked about all and sundry, and listened to a podcast of Margaret Throsby interviewing Richard Flanagan, who is one of my favourite writers.  As the urban landscape gave way to green and brown fields, and cows became more abundant, the weekend away began.

Myself, Kristen and Louise on opening night.

On Friday, we arrived at our lodgings; an idyllic converted train carriage in the middle of the forest with virtually no phone reception.  It even had princess beds!

Why hello, Kristen's finger...

All three of us were really impressed by the setting; it was cosy and it felt a little bit special, which is just the right combination for writing.  As Kristen said, we were so incredibly lucky.  (Although not lucky enough to see any fossicking possums...)

After settling in, we went off in search of groceries and explored the shops along Bussell Highway, including the town's TWO bookshops, River Tales (where I bought a copy of Peter Goldsworthy's Wish) and Bookshop Margaret River (where I bought Alice Munro's Too Much Happiness, Joan London's Gilgamesh and Janette Turner Hospital's The Claimant).  As Kristen said to me, this is why I never have spare money.  We stocked up on the essentials (Vegemite and wine) and then stopped in at Morries Anytime, where we snacked on the most divine Caramelised Pork Belly I have ever had the pleasure of eating.  From there, we made our way to the Cultural Centre for the Festival launch.  

One of the main attractions of the festival was the chance to celebrate the achievement of two members of our writing group.  Kristen Levitzke (who has now had two short stories published in subsequent Margaret River anthologies), and Glen Hunting (who we caught up with at the event), can both be found in this year's book, The Trouble with Flying and Other Stories, available here for the low low price of $24.  Both stories are lingering, thoughtful reads which showcase the immense skill of their writers. 

At the launch, we began collecting people, as creative types tend to do.  After at first mistaking her for Joan London, we made the acquaintance of the Short Story competition winner, Ruth Wyer and fellow contributor Lauren Foley.  After the launch we also introduced ourselves to the talented second prize winner, Bindy Pritchard and her husband.  We continued to see these lovely ladies over the weekend and I was so happy to get the chance to befriend them.  (By the way, if anyone is interested, Kristen, Bindy and Glen will be reading from their stories at the Bookcaffe in Swanbourne on WA Day, June 2nd, between 2 and 4 pm.)

It's blurry, but Ruth is making her acceptance speech...
The Gang of Four (our writing group) went back to the house to drink wine/ tea and catch up, but it wasn't long before the three of us girls were making our way to our beds.

Kristen was up well before sunrise, and was writing by candlelight when I emerged from my bed at 6.30am.  A little bewildered to be awake at such a time on the weekend, I followed her out to the deck and tried to do some scribbling myself. 

Later that morning, we headed back to Margaret River Cultural Centre for a full day of writerly talks.  First we listened to Peter Goldsworthy talk about his extensive and multi-faceted writing career.  He read from his memoir, His Stupid Boyhood, and I knew almost straight away that I needed to buy a copy of the book for my Dad.  I did, and then briefly lost my mobile phone, but luckily some lovely person handed it in.  It is very distinctive....

The next session was a panel discussion about the process of writing.  Ruth Wyer, the South West Short Story winner Rachelle Rechichi, joined a poet and journalist on stage to make their Writers Festival debut, and discuss what it was like crafting their stories.  Their readings really hooked me in and made me keen to read my copy of the collection.  

After lunch, we listened to another panel discussion, this time composed of Peter Goldsworthy, the delightful slam poet Eleanor Jackson, John Mateer, Tim Hawken and Joan London.  My heart gave a little cheer when Joan London told everyone she had worked in New Edition bookshop to support her writing.  It was certainly a more light-hearted discussion than the next session, Robin deCrespigny talking about her biography The People Smuggler, which frankly left me wanting to have a little cry in the ladies' room.  We headed back to the house for a few hours of reading, sleeping and tea drinking, and then headed out for another delectable dinner at Morries because we were OBSESSED.  

My wonderful mother set me a homework assignment that night, to write at least 200 words, and so I did, staying up past midnight writing passionate arguments between ex-partners on a long drive down a dark Margaret River road.  I ended up writing 6 pages!!!  Thanks Mum <3 nbsp="" p="">

But we well and truly save the best until last.

Yes, that's right.  I got to meet Graeme Simsion, author of The Rosie Project.  It was the session I'd been hankering for.  When we got into the auditorium, Graeme had bounded out of his chair and was going up to people in the front row for a chat.  "Hello," he said.  "My name is Graeme Simsion.  I wrote a book called The Rosie Project.  If anyone has a copy of the book they'd like signed, I can do that now."  Out came my book, and he came up to us with a great big smile on his face.  We introduced ourselves and indicated that we'd spoken to him about coming via Twitter.  He asked me what my favourite colour was, and opened his jacket to reveal a line of coloured pens ready for signing.  I chose green.  

Graeme's session was funny, it was insightful, and it gave a lot of depth to a book which can be read on so many levels.  I am now keen to reread it in time for the sequel's release later this year.

Our last session before heading back was Joan London talking about Gilgamesh with Richard Rossiter.  I was really taken in by Joan; she was talking about isolation in Western Australian literature, and the mysticism of the landscape, the need to escape and come back etc... and I felt vindicated because these were the kinds of opinions I had developed in my honours thesis during 2012.  

Louise, Kristen and I went for lunch on the main drag (not Morries this time but Sails), and took a final trip to the Bookshop (where I bought some Alain de Botton and Bill Bryson's dictionary for writers and editors), and then we said farewell to Margaret River for now.  Though I now feel a little as if I have been through the spin cycle in the washing machine, I had a wonderful, inspiring weekend and look forward wholeheartedly to next year's event.

Special hello to all the new friends I made on this trip: Jane, Lauren, Ruth, Eleanor, Rashida, Bindy (and anyone whose name might have been missed off this list in my post festival state....)

Monday, 12 May 2014

Book Review + GIVEAWAY: The Blue Mile by Kim Kelly

The Blue Mile
Kim Kelly
Pan Macmillan

We all know by now that I am a huge fan of historical fiction, and if it's Australian history then I am a happy reader indeed.  I'd never heard of Kim Kelly before, but she's written a few historical novels before this one, called Black Diamonds and This Red Earth.  As she says in the author's notes, her work uses history as a set piece, and occasionally her novels do feature real people from history, but they are works of fiction primarily and need to be viewed as such.

This novel takes place in a fairly under-represented time period in fiction, at least of late, the Depression years.  It is set in Sydney, and the major event of the time is the construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.  The bridge works also stand in as a metaphor for the instability of Sydney at the time, with the trade labour shortage and the political tensions between State and Federal Labor governments.  It is told in the voices of Eoghan (Yo-un) O'Keenan and Olivia Greene, who come from quite different backgrounds.  They are connected by the blue mile that is the bridge.

Eoghan is a poor Irish immigrant who runs away from an abusive home after losing his job at the local bootmaker's.  He takes his younger sister Agnes with him, and they spend a few nights on the swag, sleeping in the Botanical Gardens while Eoghan searches for a job and somewhere to live.  Agnes invents a fairyland in the gardens to look over them, and so when she spots Olivia for the first time, she thinks this is a fairy princess come to life.  Eoghan and Olivia are immediately drawn to one another, but it is Agnes who seals the deal, enchanting Olivia when she agrees to watch her for the day while Eoghan goes to work.  Olivia is a dressmaker and a designer in Sydney's Strand Arcade, who idolises Coco Chanel and eschews the things a girl her age should be thinking about, namely marriage and reputation.  Her mother is in the business of gold-digging, but Olivia is forced to admit that she may actually be in love with her new husband, a barrister named Bart, who takes Emily to London with him.  Olivia convinces her mother to let her stay behind.  She becomes costumier to Lady Game, the governor's wife, and her fortunes wax and wane with theirs as the controversial premier, Jack Lang, begins to make trouble.

This book is fast paced and authentic, without having too much detail in it.  There is a curious balance in the plot between the romance of Eoghan and Olivia and the growing trouble between the government and the trade unions.  Each narrator had a compelling voice which kept me turning the pages, although at times entire chapters were made out of exposition.  Only the character of Agnes kept this novel from falling into cheesy romance territory at times; and even she couldn't change my amusement as Olivia begged Eoghan to "ruin her"  (she meant reputation but it was just too much.)  What I most liked was the way a period of history that I had never done much thinking about was brought to life; I had never realised that the building of the Sydney Harbour Bridge was so dangerous or precarious, and it's symbolism and significance towards National identity are now much more clear to me.

I particularly loved the character of Ollie because she was strong, despite being bullied in the past, and stuck to her dreams.  I could easily see why Eoghan loved her.

I gave this book three stars.


Want to win a copy of The Blue Mile PLUS a bonus surprise novel?

Here's how.

a Rafflecopter giveaway  

Saturday, 3 May 2014

The Book Chain #2: Six Degrees of Separation

May's Book is:  The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

1) We have a beautiful beach house just south of Mandurah which is a summer library of sorts.  It's where books that no longer fit on the shelf at home go to live when our family just can't bear to part with them.  We are big readers on Mum's side of the family, and so we have a lot of books there!  The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath is a book that I found on the shelf down there when I was at a loss for what to read and I adored it!  I'm going to link The Bell Jar to Colleen McCullough's The Thorn Birds, because I have vivid memories of reading both of these books during trips to our beach house.

2)  The Thorn Birds is a big book; a romance novel that is also a sort of family saga.  The first book that springs to mind for me when I think of similar books is Kate Morton's  The Shifting Fog (Also called The House at Riverton).  It's thanks to these two books that I have a lot of love for LOOOOONG historical romance novels, and partly thanks to novels like these that I write what I do.

3) In fact, if I could have written any one book that already exists, I would choose either The Shifting Fog or The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood.  I love the settings of these novels deeply.  They are steeped in nostalgia like old portraits and the way the timeline shifts back and forth to give bits of the puzzle slowly but surely is the perfect plot device for pacing.

4) I only ever borrowed very few novels from the University library in my time as an undergrad, but two that I can remember (that I actually read) were The Blind Assassin and Franny and Zooey by JD Salinger.  I read part of Franny and Zooey in the library one rainy day when I was waiting for a class to start and loved it so much that I copied whole sections out into my journal because they felt so true to me.  I especially liked the description of the kind of person who turns up in academic contexts and tries to bigmouth his way into getting respect.  I wish I knew which journal I'd written these quotes in but I just don't know!

5) There are a lot of books out there whose titles mirror this pattern of naming the story after the main characters; one of my recent favourites is Rainbow Rowell's Eleanor and Park which is a young adult novel about a girl from a troubled home who changes schools and attracts a lot of unwanted attention from the local kids because of her old clothes and cheap haircut.  Eleanor ends up sitting next to Park on the bus and through a love of music they become friends, and slowly fall in love.  It's a book that captures the sense of urgency you feel when you're in high school and you're falling in love and most things feel like the end of the world.

6) One of the major themes in Eleanor and Park is bullying, which is also a theme in Ruth Ozeki's latest novel, A Tale for the Time Being.  When I read this novel I was really shocked by the bullying, or ijime experienced by the young Japanese narrator which at times seemed to border on physical and sexual assault.  It was interesting to note the cultural differences between the types of bullying in the two novels.

The six degrees of separation meme is hosted by Annabel Smith and Emma Chapman.

Want to play?  Here's how:

Well, that's it!  Make sure you post your link in the comments on Annabel or Emma's blogs if you want to play, and I'll catch you next time when we play Six Degrees of Separation.

Thursday, 1 May 2014

Australian Women Writers Challenge Update

If you've never heard of the Australian Women Writers Challenge, then you have probably been living under a rock.  (You know, or you don't spend as much time on the internet as I do...)  Started a few years back in response to the shocking lack of media/ review coverage for books written by Australian Women, the challenge has attracted the attention of readers, bloggers and writers alike, and is well and truly answering the call to fix this imbalance.

I think this is the second year I have participated in the challenge, and I have definitely been slower off the rank this year than I was last year.  While the majority of the books I read are by women, as my Honours project (on Western Australian Creative Writing) fades into the background, my interests have begun to take me to places I can only imagine; places like Nigeria and Mexico.  Every time I do sit down to read a book by an Australian woman, I am reminded of why I love this country... more specifically, why I love the interior landscape of it's literature.  More so than with any other body of literature, I feel like Australian literature is talking to me.

It's not too late to sign up for the challenge if you were thinking of doing so.  In the meantime, here's a list of links to all the books I have reviewed for the challenge so far.

Let Her Go by Dawn Barker

Lost and Found by Brooke Davis

Cicada by Moira McKinnon

Mr Wigg by Inga Simpson