Friday, 25 July 2014

Cracking the Spine: Ten Short Australian Stories and How They Were Written

Cracking the Spine
edited by Julie Chevalier and Bronwyn Mehan
published 2014 by Spineless Wonders

There are many books on the market that claim to tell the budding writer how to write, but few that provide deep insight into the myriad ways that writing actually occurs.  Cracking the Spine, part short story collection and part theoretical essay collection, fills a gap in the market that sorely needed to be filled.

The book begins and ends with two extremely well known Australian writers of short fiction, Ryan O'Neill and Jennifer Mills.  O'Neill's contribution, 'An Australian Short Story' is a pastiche of the Australian fictions which have come before it, and is made up of collaged lines borrowed from famous and well-loved stories.  Ostensibly, the story is that of a failed relationship, but the plot pales in importance when compared to the impact of the structure of the story.  At the other end of the book, Mills' story, Architecture, brings the collection firmly into this century by drawing a comparison between the architecture of a modern city and the complicated structure of the online world, as demonstrated by the fact that her main character is recruited to design a city for a Chinese businessman based on who she knows on Facebook, and the artifice she has created for herself there.  Other notable stories include Maria Takolander's Three Sisters, which is a sort of ode to Chekhov, Tony Birch's Cartography, in which the actual displacement of a migrant child is put in context by his documenting his view of the world in hand drawn maps, and Rjurik Davidson's Twilight in Caeli-Amur, which explores the literary capabilities of the speculative fiction genre.

Each story in the collection is accompanied by a short essay by the writer which goes into some detail on the matter of the story's creation; its inspiration, authors who have influence the writer's style, difficulties, right down to whether or not the writer likes to write on a computer or with a pen and paper.  Even with those stories I felt no connection to, these essays proved invaluable to me as a writer determined to master the craft of short story writing, and I have no doubt that I will be recommending this group to others in the near future.  I would also recommend this book to anyone studying modern Australian literature, as many of the essays provided insight on how stories should be read, and from what angles they might be interpreted, to better understand what they are doing and how.

Cracking the Spine retails for the very reasonable price of $27.99 via the Spineless Wonders website.  (click here to visit.)

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Mini Review: We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

We Were Liars is an amazing book; it kept me up reading past bedtime, and it was the first book to move me to tears in a long, long time, despite starting off as a seemingly generic tale about spoilt, old-money rich kids living on a private island off America's east coast...

The problem is, I can't really tell you what it's about without spoiling it.

So here's a mini review, and a few words to urge you to read it.  And here is a link to the book's page on Goodreads.

Thank me later.

(Four stars!)

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Book Review: Nest by Inga Simpson

Inga Simpson

Earlier this year, I decided to take a chance on a fairly popular novel which didn't really seem like my cup of tea.  That book was called Mr Wigg, and I read it in a day and a night, compelled through page after page of fruit picking, cake baking and iron working by the authentic voice of the eponymous character.

But I didn't know what to expect from Inga Simpson's second novel.  I knew it was called Nest, so it seemed logical that birds would feature prominently, and I did almost wonder if this book would be more of the same but with birds instead of fruit.  How wrong I was.

Nest is a perfect blend of everything that was divine in Mr Wigg and a heartbreaking suburban story.  At times, it reminded me of the ABC television program 'Bed of Roses', because the town it was set in felt exactly the same.  Jen Anderson (who has changed her surname from Vogel, to cut ties with her past) returns to the place where she grew up after many twists and turns in her life.  After the breakdown of her relationship and the death of her mother, she comes home almost reluctantly, and takes up residency in a large property filled with birds.  As an artist, Jen's primary inspiration is these birds, and the different species she draws and observes throughout the book serve as poignant metaphors for the mood of the plot at that time.  Jen takes on a drawing student, Henry, and through him she learns that a little girl named Caitlin has gone missing on her way home from school.  This brings back uncomfortable memories for Jen, whose friend Michael went missing in 1978, two days before her father left town.  As the outsider in town, Jen observes the effects that grief has on the community, and uses it as a catalyst for her to finally work through her own issues.

What I loved about this novel was that while it featured strong characters and imagery, like Mr Wigg, it was heavily plot driven.  Will Caitlin be found?  Will Michael?  Are they alive?  Does Jen's father have anything to do with it?  And yet this is all almost going on in the background of Jen's mind while she gets her house the way she likes it and works on her exhibition.  There is a very masterful balance to this book which doesn't tend towards melodrama.  By no means is this book a detective procedural, or even a thriller.  In a way, the solution to the crime is secondary to the answers that Jen finds about her own concerns (although I did find this somewhat unsatisfying, because missing children do tend to tug at the heartstrings.)  The interplay between Henry and Jen was striking because their relationship was forged on an unspoken bond, and it must be incredibly difficult to write such a thing, particularly given that the age gap between the two characters is quite big, and they aren't related.  In this way it was different to the relationship between the grandfather and the two children in Simpson's first novel.  Jen spends a lot of time watching Henry, concerned, looking for emotions she recognises from when she lost Michael, and she wants to help him but feels helpless herself, so she reaches out through art.  She encourages him to use his emotions, she keeps him busy with projects, and in this way, life goes on.  Art can be a very powerful metaphor in writing, and at times I was reminded of the art exhibition in Natasha Lester's novel If I Should Lose You.

It's not a long novel, and it's a real page turner; perfect for book clubs, or gifts, or just for your weekend read.

Nest will be published in August, and you can pre-order it now.

Five stars.

Friday, 18 July 2014

Book Review: Family Secrets

Family Secrets
Liz Byrski
Macmillan Australia

Western Australian writer Liz Byrski follows on from her previous best sellers with another novel of family and friendship, the themes on which she writes so well.  Family Secrets begins in Tasmania, as the Hawkins family gather to scatter the ashes of their father and husband, Gerald.  Gerald has passed away after a long battle with moto-neuron disease, and the family can finally concentrate on getting their lives back on track now that the burden of his care is over.  But it's harder than they think.  His wife, Connie travels to France to stay with Gerald's estranged sister, bemoaning the artistic life she gave up when she married Gerald.  Meanwhile, Flora has her own unfinished business with him; a lingering sense of her own low self worth impressed upon her by her brother's strong opinion about her sexual orientation that has left her drifting and unable to put down roots.  His son Andrew realises with a shock that he's not been the best husband or father when his wife begins an affair with a surprising choice of man.  And daughter, Kerry avoids the D word (Depression) as a possible cause for her apathy and low moods.  Family bands together to sort out the tangles that come with modern living in this charming story.

Once again, Byrski has brought sensitivity and lightness to her depiction of the Australian family.  Her characters are lifelike, each with strong opinions of their own, and the book is full of examples of these opinions coming into conflict with each other, right from the beginning when Andrew and Kerry argue over where Connie will live now her husband is gone.  Far from the doddering old lady they make her out to be, Connie is still full of life and spunkiness (this reinvigoration of the 'old person' stereotype a common motif in Byrski's work) and she silences them all by making her own decisions to go away for a holiday.  At times, the dialogue of these arguments is loaded with an agenda that is somewhat too explicit for my likings, but it gets the job done.

Like a soap opera, the plot of the novel just keeps throwing challenges at the Hawkins family.  For example, Andrew finds out his wife is cheating on him PLUS his wife throws him out while he's away and lets the disgusting specimen she's sleeping with move in PLUS he finds out the man is cheating on her, using drugs and trashing her house PLUS he's in a bike accident and ends up with pieces of smart-phone embedded in his bottom.  This sort of building of misery is consistent to all of the plots and subplots in the novel, no matter which character is being followed and it makes for a compelling read, but at times it is just a little bit too much.  Without giving away any more spoilers, some of the more major revelations in Connie's life with both predictable and possibly unnecessary to a satisfying resolution of the novel.  However, Byrski has the skill to make these things work within the scheme of her writing, whereas a lesser writer would have bungled them completely.  Within the context of the genre, they make perfect sense, and perhaps it is just that this genre is never my first choice.

The settings of the novel are beautifully realised and brimming with nature, most notably the seaside in Port d'Espirit where so many of Connie and Flora's childhood summers are remembered.  As Flora rides her bike through the town, I can picture life there, and smell the fresh bread.  The world of the story is fully realised in every part of this novel, with no scenes floating out in space.

But most impressive of all is the character of Brooke, who is likeable and realistic and serves as a catalyst for many of the realisations made by the adult characters in the book.  As a device, teenage Brooke ties the disparate adult characters together using technology and insight, and causes them to question their secret keeping and the result it has on their selves.  Brooke is a character who is friendless and likes to be that way, and I instantly liked her despite her outward moody teenager facade.  When she stands up to bitchy Donna, I cheered inside.

I gave this book 3.5 stars but if you're a huge fan of family dramas you'd probably give it 5.

Monday, 14 July 2014

Book Review: The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

The Miniaturist
Jessie Burton

In Amsterdam, during 1686, eighteen year old Nella Oortman travels from the country to the home of Johannes Brandt to take up the position of his wife.  She arrives and is greeted not by Johannes but by his sister, Marin, who it appears will not easily be relinquishing the position of lady of the house.  Also in residence are Cornelia, an outspoken maid, and Otto (Toot), a West African manservant.  More family than mistress and servants, these three draw Nella into a whole new world.  She dreams of love, but when she finally does meet Johannes she discovers that his affections are more of a filial nature.  Bitterly disappointed, Nella despairs of her position in life.  When Johannes gives her a belated wedding gift of a large, ornate miniature of their own house, Nella sets out to furnish it.  If she can have no control over her real home, at least she will have this.  But the mysterious Miniaturist that Nella hires to build her tiny furnishings has more on her agenda than simple service, and soon Nella sees the future predicted in the tiny parcels she is receiving.  Who is the miniaturist?  Can the events these terrible omens predict be stopped?

On the front cover of this book, there is a quote from S.J. Watson which reads 'The kind of book that reminds you why you fell in love with reading.'  I must agree wholeheartedly.  The Miniaturist is the kind of book that keeps a reader up well past her usual sleep time, and compels her to read at every spare moment, including during quiet time at work.  Burton creates a realistic Amsterdam, right down to the smell of herring and gingerbread.  Reading this book is like travel.

Nella Oortman is a lovable heroine; she does not feel sorry for herself despite experiencing loneliness, rejection and ostracism in her new world.  As readers, we see Nella grow from the naive country girl she begins as, to a strong and loyal woman who is determined and overcomes disappointment to help her family (even when sometimes they don't deserve it.)  Through Nella, beauty and softness are introduced into the very masculine world of the Brandt household, where Johannes is the master and his sister Marin is more his unwanted prodigy than demure lady.  Unlikely as it seems as first, these three people learn to rely on one another, and the writing of this burgeoning relationship is done with great subtlety and insight into the human psyche.

Nella Oortman's real doll's house, as displayed in the Rijksmuseum

The Amsterdam of 1686 is a place where 'The Guilder is King' and the burgomasters place strict rules on the trade practices of inhabitants.  As a trader for the VOC (The Dutch East-India Company), Johannes Brandt has made a lot of money for Amsterdammers.  But the country is also extremely religious.  Bans are made on false idols and so gingerbread men, and Nella's miniatures, become dangerous.  And when Johannes is accused of being a sodomite, his fate looks to be drowning in the harbour with a millstone around his neck.  The tension in this novel builds beautifully, with many moments of shock appearing with spine-tingling accuracy.  It is a novel that had the ability to surprise me, a rare feat seeing as studying creative writing appears to have given me the superpower of recognising planted objects in plot which give away the endings.  In many ways, this novel was as thrilling and suspenseful as a Wilkie Collins novel.

I want to read this novel again and again and again.  Its themes are multitude, I can't have picked up on them all.  It is primarily a novel with a very feminist message, about the reality of a woman's place in such a society.  All women, not just Nella Oortman, are miniaturists in their ability to run their tiny kingdoms of the home, since they are excluded from the world at large...which Nella and Marin prove in this novel that they are more than capable of existing in.

Five stars.  I am breathless.

Saturday, 12 July 2014

My Favourite Links on 'Failing'

My most over-used word for June/ July?  Fail.

I think most people are fairly quick to use this word.  I'm having what some writers refer to as a 'dry spell', meaning that I cannot place a story for love nor money (and I'm talking about both journals and competitions here).  It's so easy to just write myself off (no pun intended) and say that it's because I'm no good.... but I'll let you in on a big arrogant secret:  Sometimes I am!  Where does this idea come from, that in writing you're supposed to think you're rubbish, even when you're winning your second Miles Franklin?  Last night I started reading Dorothea Brande's Becoming a Writer (Thanks to Natasha Lester for the recommendation) and she starts off by saying she thinks it's pretty awful that so many creative writing teachers start by saying that 'Genius cannot be taught.'  Agreed!  Even in the 1930s, someone thought that was a bit off, so why is it still happening?  Flannery O'Connor wrote some amazing short stories, but her opinions on student writers were really negative.  I remember reading an article in which she stated that people who think that they can write are usually awful at it.  (I hope it was O'Connor, because otherwise I don't know who it was...)  It's just not always true.

We define our own failures.  To me, not being able to place anything feels like failing because I have such high expectations for myself.  When I started this blog, I said straight out that I was going to have a book published by my 20th birthday.  Well guess what?  I'm 23, and you're no closer to buying my book from your local indie than I am to being a prima ballerina.  But today I'm writing this post to tell myself and anyone who feels like me that this is okay!  In the time since I decided I was going to be a writer for real, I have achieved things that I should be proud of.  So here's today's mantra:

Count your blessings while others are adding up their woes.

And in the meantime, here are my favourite links on 'failing'.

The gorgeous Markus Zusak.

The wise Ryan O'Neill.

The respectable Guardian.

Monday, 7 July 2014

Book Review: The Giver

The Giver
Lois Lowry

In a perfect world in what could possibly be the not too distant future, Jonas is born into a system where everything is organised for citizens by the council, right down to rights of passage like ribbons in the hair and learning to ride a bike.  The story begins when Jonas is an Eleven (eleven years old) and is nervous about his ceremony of Twelve, where he will be assigned his future career based on aptitudes.  He can guess what some of his friends might be given, but Jonas has tried a little bit of everything.  What will he get?

At the ceremony, Jonas's name is not called when it should be.  The crowd is just as stunned as he is.  And then, at the very end of the ceremony, Jonas is given a great honour.  He is named the new Receiver of Memory, a role in the community which prevents chaos and fear.

Jonas works with a wizard like figure, the Giver, whose job it is to hold onto memories from the old world, memories of snow, of war, of things good and bad which have no place in the new society.  Things like Christmas, and grandparents.  His retention of these things keeps the people of the community both ignorant of the good things they are missing, and safe from the pain they are spared.  The elders are particularly hopeful that Jonas will be a good Receiver, as ten years previously a Receiver failed in her task, and the memories she had already been given flooded out into the world and confused the citizens.  Will Jonas succeed?

Or will knowledge set him free?

This young adult novel is a great introduction into the world of speculative fiction and is reminiscent to me of a novel I read earlier in the year, Hugh Howey's 'Wool' (although this was written much much earlier).  The novel critiques the way that modern societies are run and calls into question many of the things we take for granted as fundamental human experiences.  As a writer, Lois Lowry must tackle the challenge of writing a believable narrative where certain experiences that the reader might be familiar with are unfamiliar to her character.  For example, the world is colourless; as time goes on, Jonas begins to see colours, and this fascinates him, but Lowry cannot simply say that is what's happening.  She must show us.

This was incredibly readable and enjoyable, although I think would have made more of an impact on me when I was a teen.  I did notice on Goodreads a few reviewers (one in particular) found the novel propagandistic, but if it was so, I think it was against mainstream political systems and not for them.  It was certainly against government intervention in people's lives.

I would compare this book to Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood (but a children's version) or Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card.

Have you read The Giver?  I'd love to know what you thought.

If you haven't I urge you to read it before you see the film, later this year.

Friday, 4 July 2014

All the things I didn't get to say on the Radio

So if you missed it, this Wednesday past I was an expert guest on the ABC 720 Drive Program... for almost a whole five minutes.

Oh yeah.
Still, someone thought I was enough of an expert on something to broadcast my opinion to a local radio station worth of listeners and that actually was pretty cool.  The topic was reviews, and whether or not reviews in the big name newspapers still equates to anything as far as book sales go.  We also covered the impact of amateur reviewing on the book buying scene.  All of this was prompted by a glowing review of Tim Winton's Eyrie in the Washington Post.

I love reviews.  I have to read a lot for work, but it's kind of a Catch 22, because actually being at work means I am not reading and therefore I don't have enough time to actually read all of the new books that come out.  For people like me, reviews in reputable newspapers are a great time saver, and a great resource for recommending books to customers at the bookshop.  The two main sources that I use are The Guardian and The New York Times.  The Guardian and the NYT often will use other authors as guest reviewers, for example recently Jo Baker reviewed Val McDermid's Northanger Abbey (and made me desperate to read it... too bad I am on a buying ban for all of July) and Val McDermid reviewed Robert Galbraith's The Silkworm.  I have read neither of those books, but it tends to mean something to people when you can say, "Hey, that book you have just picked up, it got an excellent review in the New York Times from this famous author that you've probably heard of, and now I really want to read it too!"  Not only does this open up lines of communication between you and the customer, but it also helps them equate the book they have in their hand, a virtual unknown, with something they already might know.  If this were a mathematical equation it might look something like

If Val McDermid = x and Robert Galbraith = y and y is > or = to x, then $$$$

(Ok, so I'm not very good at maths.  But I think you see what I mean.)

On top of this, if you read a review, you will get an excellent idea of what a book is actually about.  To use the Northanger Abbey example again, Jo Baker tells us some key fundamental points.

1) The book is part of the Austen Project, in which a well known British author updates a Jane Austen classic.
2) She (Jo Baker) is always skeptical of Jane Austen paraliterature but was pleasantly surprised, which means something because her own book, Longbourn, is the most successful Jane Austen paraliterature novel in a very very long time.
3) The book makes some clever points about the kinds of sensational literature that people read now as compared to the kind of sensational reads in Austen's time... so, Twilight versus Dracula.
4) There were some changes to the cultural perception of certain things that required changes in the novel (ie Henry couldn't be a priest because these days that no longer gives him the necessary social standing, so he's a lawyer in the new version) and that these things were done really well.

If you can memorise a couple of points such as these from a review, you can talk with authority about a book you haven't read yet.  Just don't tell someone you actually HAVE read it, because what if you read it later, hate it, and feel guilty for making the customer spend money on something awful on YOUR authority.

In this digital age, when everyone has a smart phone or a portable tablet, I think these overseas reviews take on even more importance than they would have had even thirty years earlier.  Publishing is now not a small English village, but a global one.  If you're in a bookshop, and you pick up a book, you can whip out your phone and Google it, and the most likely thing to come up on top is a review in a fairly well peer-reviewed newspaper.  Or maybe Wikipedia...  Context is everything.  Newspapers like the Guardian, the New York Times, the Washington Post and even the Australian Book Review, hold a lot of clout because people know they have been committed to bringing the best sorts of reviews and information for a long time.  Regular review readers come to know the names of their favourite reviewers.  They learn whose viewpoints they tend to agree with, and who has a similar taste in books.  And if they're a new reader, they know that these publications are highly regarded.

In a small book store, you can walk in on any day of the week and ask the person behind the counter what's good to read.  They'll try their best to help you, but honestly, if you don't know them, sometimes it is hard to catch their enthusiasm.  And if you're shopping online, which I try to ignore people doing these days, but yes it happens, you don't even have that.  So your only resources in choosing quality reads come from

1) Books your friends tell you about
2) The books that are selling well and turn up on the front pages of these websites and
3) reviews

Points 1) and 2) are very likely to turn up the same three books again and again and they will probably be The Rosie Project, Burial Rites and The Light Between Oceans if you live where I live.  Nothing wrong with any of those books, but I just wish sometimes that the people asking for them knew something about them other than that they are best sellers.  The best in best seller stands for a high volume of sales and not necessarily quality.  Remember, Fifty Shades of Grey was once a best seller too, and I bet a lot of people regret reading that.

The people who are writing these reviews most likely have literature degrees and have most likely heard of people like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jhumpa Lahiri and Teju Cole.  Let them introduce you to literature from parts of the world you've never heard of.  You don't have to like it.  Just acknowledge it.  And what about first time authors?  I think here of Brooke Davis and her book Lost and Found.  It's the best selling book in the country at the moment I think, and it couldn't have happened to a more deserving young lady.  It's reviews that have gotten Lost and Found into the public's eyeline; she's been reviewed in the West Australian, the Age (I think) and was on Australian Story (which is not technically a review).  Not all first time authors receive the same review coverage which is a real shame, but just one review can be the difference between no sales, and one.

I think this is a good time to introduce the idea of amateur reviewers here.  Bearing in mind that I count myself as an amateur reviewer (I am not paid for my work, and I publish it myself), I hold a lot of respect for the blogging community.  Aside from the Guardian and the New York Times, the other resource I go to time and time again for quick opinions on books I haven't read yet is Book'd Out, an Australian blog run by Shelleyrae Cusbert.  Book'd Out follows a concise and consistent format, uses star ratings, and the writing of the reviews allows you to get a great feel for the personality of the reviewer.  Because the whole blog is at the control of the reviewer, she is also able to bring in extra content, like interviews and opinion pieces, whereas publications run by newspapers would have to be mindful of space.  Amateur blogs like this one can give a lot more time to less literary genres, and can pay attention to commercial novels that would usually be completely ignored in favour of other more popular books.

Jonathan Frazen, in an essay in How to be Alone which I read in university, talks about the internet and the digital age as being an enabler for amateurism in it's basest form to run riot.  Because anyone can publish anything, the quality of that which the consumer is bombarded with goes down overall.  No one is special because every one is.  I used to agree with him.  Why should anyone care what I write on this blog?  I could write whatever I wanted, not fact check it, and it wouldn't matter because who am I?

But you know who I am.  You've gotten to know my tastes.  You know my writing goals.  You know enough about me to decide if you trust my opinion or not, and if you ever get sick of my blog you can just close the window.  And contextually, you know that the newspapers are products of writers, editors, publishers all working together to make sure the best possible articles come out (which sometimes I guess doesn't come off all that great... but let's just think about the reviews).  You know that they are like apples are oranges.  Both fruit.... but different.

There's so much more I could talk about... Goodreads, the comments on Amazon or Youtube... but I think you know what I'm going to say.  At the end of the day, the person who looks for a book to read, whether it be for Book Club or just for themselves, is capable of making up their own mind, but the availability of reviews is important.  It's about spreading the word, and making sure that the reader has as much information as they want.  They know where to draw the line.

And as for me, I'm just a girl who loves books.  I will continue to write about them so long as I still have thoughts.

What do you think?