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.

Friday, 24 October 2014

Welcome to my Bookshelves with Favel Parrett

I'm joined today by Favel Parrett, author of Past the Shallows, a Miles Franklin shortlisted HEARTBREAKER of a novel, and (more recently), When the Night Comes.  When the Night Comes is a beautiful story of friendship, and of the comforts that can be found in the most unexpected of places.  It begins with Isla and her mother and brother, leaving the mainland and coming to live in Tasmania.  Isla, as a narrator, is lonely and wide-eyed, and perceptive.  She sees that her mother is sad, is dealing with something, but she's not privy to the details.  Her new school is strange, and when tragedy strikes there, the ripples of shock travel through the community.  But then Bo comes.  Bo is big, and Danish, and loves the simple things in life; hot pastry, music, rolling in grass.  His relationship with the family, and most importantly with Isla, will shape that summer in her memory forever.

Inspired by the story of the Nella Dan, a real ship that serviced the Antarctic stations between 1962 and 1987, When the Night Comes is a gentle, elegiac love note to a time, a place and a very special ship.

Favel has very kindly agreed to give us a peek at her bookshelves so without further ado....

Welcome to my Bookshelves, with Favel Parrett

A few well worn books. The Dog is one of my all time favourite books - it’s just a beautiful piece of writing. Most of these books have been read a few times and much loved. Behind the Scenes at the Museum is a book that probably influenced my early drafts of Past the Shallows.

I have been collecting books about The Southern Ocean and Antarctica for a few years now. This is just a small sample of some that I have. Many are out of print these days and are becoming hard to find! I know of a few good shops and dealers that let me know when they find any that mention the Dan ships from Denmark that feature in my newest novel

More of my absolute favourites  - Per Petterson is an author I read over and over and over. I can’t get enough. I think he is one of the greatest writers I have read. Maya Angelou had a huge impact on me - she taught me about rhythm and voice. She still teaches me most days.  We lost a bright light when she died earlier this year. And MAPS - I love maps or all kinds. Old and new.

You can read a review of Past the Shallows here and When the Night Comes here.

You can follow Favel on Facebook here.

Monday, 20 October 2014

Review: Us by David Nicholls

David Nicholls
Hodder and Stoughton (I bought a copy)

After his breakaway hit, One Day, broke our hearts in 2009, David Nicholls has earned the right to be seen as a certain kind of commercial fiction writer.  He almost has his own genre.  In a recent review, the Sydney Morning Herald debated the difficulty of classifying Nicholls's novels-- as outwardly they seem like what gets called "Women's Fiction" (and why, oh why is this even a thing), and yet Nicholls is, surprise, surprise, not  a woman.  His characters are not all women.  His readers are not all women.  Yet his novels are somehow too light-hearted to be straightforward literary fiction, and too... cynically realistic.... to be purely commercial fiction.  And then, of course, his latest novel Us was long listed for the 2014 Man Booker Prize.

Us, a novel about a fifty something year old scientist who embarks on one last tour of Europe with his disintegrating family, did not make the short list, announced September 26th, and I can't say that I am surprised-- not because it is a bad book, far from it-- but because while the Booker judges seemed to act out of character by including not only Us but David Mitchell's quasi-fantasy epic The Bone Clocks, and quickly remedied this change of heart by including only those highest of brow novels on the list.  But good on them for dipping their toes in the water.

Douglas falls madly in love with Connie when he first meets her at a disastrous, artsy, pretentious dinner party thrown by his sister, and she is right from the get go not his type.  Douglas is ordered, scientific, and a little bit of a philistine, although he does attempt to learn about art and music for Connie's sake.  Their unlikely marriage is marred by the death of their first born daughter at a few days old, and while it is never outwardly stated, this appears to be a shadow that hangs over them and their son for the rest of their lives.  The novel begins with Connie waking in the night and announcing to Douglas that she thinks she might leave him.  Douglas, thinking that having Connie is the only thing that makes him worthwhile, the only thing that makes him make sense, is desperate for this not to happen.  The pair embark on a tour of Europe ('like inter-railing with your parents'- Albie says) with their moody teenage son Albie in tow, Douglas determined to win his wife's love back and save their marriage.

The story is told through a series of something like one hundred and thirty short scenes, numbered and titled with bizarre names that make sense by the time you've read them.  It shifts back and forward in time, telling the story of the Petersen's trip in a linear fashion interspersed with relevant past anecdotes; their courtship, the death of their daughter, things that Douglas might have done in the past to make Albie hate him.  At first, it seems like the most obvious of plots, but Nicholls is of the Thomas Hardy school of fiction.  Things are never going to go in the most obvious direction.

One thing that struck me about the novel was that it showcased yet another example of a story about relationships between semi socially-inept scientists and vivacious artistic, chaotic, hot-mess types.  With the recent success of The Rosie Project and its sequel, I couldn't help but think that maybe this book was a kind of higher-brow The Rosie Project; what saved it from being the same old same old was the beautiful setting (both literally, in Europe, and figuratively, in the metaphors evoked by the different artworks.)  Nicholls's settings are almost characters in themselves, something that the publishers have been quite aware of when designing the cover.  Inside the front and back there is a very basic map showing the shape of the journey that Douglas makes, and this is extremely clever as it helps the reader who is unfamiliar with European travel to realise how much Douglas really put into the trip for the sake of saving his family.

As a narrator, Douglas's voice is authentic and while he isn't always the most lovable of men, his actions always make sense to him.  As an unreliable narrator figure, Nicholls is very clever in the way he allows the reader to see Douglas's point of view, but also Albie or Connie's, through the misinterpreted reactions of the other players in the scene.  While it seems like quite a simple book, I imagine it would have been extremely difficult to get right.  There are moments also, when I felt Nicholls expressing his own frustrations-- about fatherhood, about being a husband, being a man, being human-- through Douglas, and these moments were the most insightful, like little beams of light opening up through the book's pages.

I really enjoyed this book, I just hope they don't make a horrible film out of it and ruin it like they did with One Day.

Four stars.

Friday, 17 October 2014

A Brief History on The Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers Centre, and More on the Young Writer's Residency

Early last week I officially announced that I had been selected as one of three young writers for a residency at the Katharine Susannah Prichard centre in the Perth Hills.  

While it's not for a couple of months, this residency means a great deal to me because it is giving me a clear goal to work towards with my novel, currently titled Between the Sleepers.  The overall idea of the Young Writers Residency is to work towards having something ready for publication, and I hope that after a good ten days in the historical home of Katharine Susannah Prichard, my novel will be well on the way of being finished.  Who knows, 2015 could just be The Year of Sending It Out.

Katharine's Place is the home of the Katharine Susannah Prichard Foundation, an organisation which helps to advance the profile of Writers in Western Australia through running workshops, writing groups, competitions, and of course, it's residency.  Each year, the Centre hosts an Established Writer In Residence and three Emerging Writers in Residence, as well as three Young Writers In Residence who stay at the centre all at once.  In 2014, Paddy O'Reilly was the Established Writer In Residence, and through her involvement with the Centre, I gained much more of an appreciation for her work. Writers in Residence participate in workshops and writing groups, as well as attending Literary Dinners with the general public, at which they read their work.  I am quite looking forward to this, although I may be wrong when I picture a Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald type affair at which I am required to wear a sequined ballgown... (But who was it that said one can never be OVER dressed for a social occasion?)

The foundation was set up in 1985- which means that it's been going for nearly thirty years.  My first association with the centre was in January 2008, when I enrolled in the School Holiday Write-a-rama program, after deciding once and for all that writing was the only job for me.  I was the oldest attendee, barring the visiting writers, the co-ordinator, and the University student who was helping her out.  But I still had enormous fun, and the biggest thing to come out of that was the creation of this blog, after local writer Lee Battersby talked to us about the value of a blogging platform.  Katharine's Place was originally built in 1910 as a holiday home for the Headmaster of Guildford Grammar, but it became the home of Hugo Throssell and Katharine Susannah Prichard in 1919, just after their marriage.  It is a beautiful, historical building with wooden floors and sweeping views of the Australian bush as you look out across the backyard.  No doubt I will find this environment very inspiring, very hot (as it will be December), and somewhat scary at night...  

Katharine herself was a prolific writer, and I plan on taking her novel Haxby's Circus with me when I go.  

I want to take this opportunity to thank the KSP board for choosing me, as I am very much looking forward to my stay.  

More later!

***Information in this post came from***

Monday, 13 October 2014

Non Fiction Review: Bad Feminist

Bad Feminist
Roxane Gay
Corsair Publishing 2014 (I own a copy)

I wasn't aware of Roxane Gay prior to the release of this book, but many others would have been.  She is the author of two other books (a novel and a collection of short stories) as well as being published in numerous other places in print and online.  She is a Professor of English and a championship Scrabble player.  Bad Feminist is a collection of essays which draw on her own personal experience, navigating the modern world as a woman, and as Haitian American, through the broader lens of how she sees herself (or not) reflected in popular culture.

Image from Goodreads

Bad Feminist earns its title from the idea that 'Feminism' as it has come to be understood in the broader scheme of things, has gained common use as a kind of insulting stereotype-- angry, unattractive, militant women who don't shave their legs, wear make up etc.  In her opening essay 'Feminism, plural', Gay states that she does not have all the answers to the questions about representation and gender; what matters to her is standing up and having a voice on the issues that are important to her.  She says,

"I disavowed feminism because I had no rational understanding of the movement.  I was called a feminist, and what I heard was, 'You are an angry, sex-hating, man-hating, victim lady person.'" (pxi)

What becomes apparent throughout the collection is that feminism, to the author, is just one part of a grander scheme of humanism, and the right to be an individual, in a world where no one has the right to restrict anyone else's rights.  We life in a culture which can vilify singer Chris Brown for domestic abuse one minute, and let him perform at major music awards the next ('Dear Young Ladies Who Love Chris Brown So Much they Would Let Him Beat Them'); this is fundamentally skewed.  Repeatedly, the point is made that we have terms like 'rape culture' because we do have a culture in which attitudes to rape and to women's bodies invite the wrong sorts of discussion.  We have rape jokes ('Some Jokes Are Funnier Than Others'), and we have victim blaming and victim shaming ('The Careless Language of Sexual Violence').  As I read the essay, 'The Careless Language of Sexual Violence', in which Roxane Gay recounts a news item about the gang rape of an eleven year old girl which focussed on the tragic waste of the lives of the young men who actually committed the act, I found myself thinking it was too horrific, and thank goodness we do not have that kind of thinking here.  Then, a few days ago a story hit our own newspapers about a woman who was murdered and dismembered by her partner, who later committed suicide.  One newspaper (they know who they are) focussed not on the tragic death of this woman through domestic violence, but on the fact that she was transgender, calling her a she-male.  I felt as if my eyes had been opened.  Granted there was enormous backlash against the paper, but clearly we are not going to be throwing stones from our glass houses down under.

The essays are divided into sections, along line of personal essays, essays on gender, essays on race and politics, and a few more essays about Roxane herself.  This structure works nicely, but I found the first half of the book a lot more interesting than the last half.  Her essays on race were full of passion and anger, but as I had not seen many of the films that she was critiquing, I found it difficult to engage (and this did happen with a few of her gender essays as well, but not as many, as her pop culture references were a lot more well known).  The one essay that I am STILL thinking about now is her essay 'The Solace of Preparing Fried Foods and Other Quaint Remembrances of 1960s Mississippi: Thoughts on The Help', in which Roxane angrily decries the inaccurate caricatures of African American characters in the film The Help and the novel by Katherine Stockett on which it was based.  I was taken aback by her upset, because I loved both the film and the book, but I had to second guess myself.  I'm white, and fairly privileged, so am I more likely to accept that these characters are accurate?  Gay talks about the trope of the 'magical negro', who functions as a cathartic personality in the spiritual or moral journey of the white person, in this case Skeeter Phelan. The Help had a cast of at least a dozen characters who fit this bill, and Gay took issue with the use of elements of racial stereotypes, such as a predilection for fried chicken and a sense of joy in raising the children of white people.  It's certainly made me think, and I think when I finally get around to reading Sue Monk Kidd's newest book, this is going to be on my mind.

What I loved most about this book is it is so full of honest emotion.  Less academic essays and more structured conversations, Roxane Gay invites the reader into her life and tells them candidly about her experiences-- including a horrific sexual assault she suffered as a teenager-- and invites the reader to think twice about what they read, watch and dance along to in the car.  Whether it's celebrating Katniss Everdeen, deciding which twin from Sweet Valley High she wanted to be, or lamenting the ever increasing level of violence needed to shock viewers of Law and Order SVU, Roxane Gay is careful, and critical consumer, and these essays have hopefully taught me to be one too.  At times she's angry, but at other's she's very very funny, and although I still don't know what her essay on Scrabble has to do with anything, I would really love to have a cup of coffee with Roxane and ask her about it.

Four stars.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Book Review: The Signature of All Things

The Signature of All Things
Elizabeth Gilbert
Bloomsbury (I own a copy)

Most of us are familiar with Elizabeth Gilbert for her memoir Eat Pray Love which was alternatively raved about and complained about by people all over the English speaking world for being so "innovative."  It was basically the story of Elizabeth's quest to find herself in the wake of a messy divorce, and this spiritual journey involved eating a lot of pasta, praying and meditating, and then falling in love again.  I read it, and there were parts that I really enjoyed, but I didn't find it as life changing as the chatter around me seemed to indicate I would, and I now fall into the camp of Eat Pray Love bashers who equate the reading of that book with reading Twilight unironically.  Still, I have to remember that book-snobbery serves no one but my own ego, and any book that gets people to read is a good book at least in that small way.

The Signature of All Things is not a travel memoir or a spiritual memoir, but in fact a rather weighty historical novel about a woman named Alma Whittaker who is a botanist living in Charles Darwin's times, ie the early 1800s.  Early reviews praised the book's portrayal of a female protagonist in a historical novel who is plain and knows it.  I find this somewhat of an understatement.  Alma is a female character who is out of place in the time period which she has been born into for several reasons.  First there is her unusual plain looks.  Historical novels are usually about shockingly beautiful women.  Then there is Alma's scientific mind.  She frequently challenges the male visitors to her father's home in a very unladylike manner.  And then there is Alma's sexuality.  Suffice to say it is pronounced.  So much so that it almost feels as if Alma's frequent trips to the binding closet in the library to explore herself have been put in to force home a point.  Alma could be said to be a very early feminist, and indeed in many if not all ways, she is not the typical woman of her time at all.  Yet at times, this does nothing for the plot of the book.  Large chunks of the story are spent on describing the unusual things about Alma, but they then do not lead anywhere.  There are two conflicting plotlines at work in this book.  One: Alma's quest to be a botanist and a scientist, in which she works almost parallel to Darwin; and Two: Alma's 'struggle' as an ugly, unfeminine woman in a world where women need to be pretty and innocent in order to get by on the arm of a man.  These plots work fine on their own, and could have worked fine intertwined with one another had the balance been correct.

One strength of the book was characterisation.  The people of this book were vivid and consistent, and some of them were particularly entertaining, such as Alma's father Henry and her Dutch nurse, Hanneke de Groot.  Others were appropriately dull, such as Alma's first love interest.  The curious interplay between Alma and her adopted sister Prudence intrigued me the most, as I believe the relationship between sisters to be one of the toughest to get right.  These two girls were close out of proximity but distant due to differences in their personalities, and despite all this, there was an almost hidden undercurrent of loyalty between them.  In the scenes during which Prudence and Alma become friends with Retta Snow, they are united by their common friendship with this bubbly, pushy figure who reminded me of a feminine, ditzy Pippi Longstockings.  And then as they walk home again without her, they are once more divided by their... what?  competition for their parent's attention?  I cannot be sure how it was done, but that at least was done well.

This was a readable book, and the prose was at times rather beautiful, but I failed to find any satisfaction in the ending because there was no sense of inevitability about it, and by that point I had stopped caring what happened to Alma.  A shame, because such a well-researched book, if better written, could have changed my mind about Gilbert.  As it is, I remain on the fence.

Two and a half stars.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Some Happy News To Share

Dear reader(s),

You may know that over the last few years, I have struggled to find a place for my writing.  I enter numerous competitions, and because I always go into them feeling incredibly confident, I get my heart broken a lot by rejection.  There have been times when I have questioned not only my ability as a writer, but my worth as a human because of it.  Yes, I am that dramatic.

Slowly, I am coming to learn that not getting things published is not always the result of necessarily bad writing.  The market is very competitive, and every single writer goes into the competition with the same good feeling as everyone else.  (Or maybe they don't, but they could.)  Some days, you put your work in, and it gets in front of the wrong person at the wrong time.  Or you put in a piece that is objectively rather good, but there are only 3 places, and there are 3 stories that are exceptional.  It's not your day, and maybe tomorrow won't be either.

I'm trying to learn to accept this.

But in the meantime, I have had a windfall.  Earlier in the year, I posted pictures to my Facebook and Instagram pages of a large yellow envelope containing a lot of paper.  This was my application for the Katharine Susannah Prichard Young Writers in Residence program.  About a month or so ago, I was told I had been shortlisted, pending the results of a phone interview, and not long after that, I was told that I was one of three writers who had been successful!  This in itself was an achievement to dance around the room for, but it felt even sweeter because it was the first time I had received positive critical reactions to my work in about three years, i.e. since I left the junior category of most competitions.

Along with two other writers, I can now look forward to ten days of focussed writing in a retreat in the Perth Hills.  I will be able to participate in activities run by the KSP writers centre, and I will also be doing a one on one mentorship with a local author.  I think I am most excited about the mentorship.  I'm in what I hope will be the final push for my book now, and the extra pair of more experienced eyes might just help make sure I get over the line.  There will be a dinner, put on by the centre, at which the three of us in residence will read our work aloud, and we will also be reading at the Katharine's Birthday celebration the weekend that we are there.  But mostly, I will be reading and writing.  Already I am making mental piles of which books will be the most useful to take with me.

Yours in excitement,


Friday, 3 October 2014

Book Review: Thicker than Water

Thicker than Water
Richard Rossiter
UWA Press, 2014
** I was sent a copy for review by UWA Press**

With a title like Thicker than Water, could Richard Rossiter's novella been about anything other than family?  The story follows Marie D'Anger, an almost thirty-year-old woman from the South West of Australia who has been living in London while she studies, in a kind of exile from a family which has become less than loving.  At the opening of the novella, Marie is returning home to her family to help her mother look after her father, who has had a stroke.  Her feelings about her father are lukewarm at best.  Kenneth has a history of controlling and judgemental behaviour, and his response to Marie's decision to go to London in the first place was to tell her that if she chose to leave she was not welcome to come back.  Yet she comes back anyway, driven by a second motive of escaping the ruins of a passionate relationship which has ended suddenly.  In London, Marie has been seeing a man named Edy Baudin, who seems to constitute a part of her own body.  Their relationship is the stuff of dizzy legend, of hearts beating and bodies responding, and passion measured (as Rossiter says in the book) by the 'length of the line of clothes leading to the bed.'  Edy has ended the relationship, and struggling to understand, Marie returns to Australia.

This review may contain things some readers may deem as spoilers, so if you want to avoid those, stop reading now and go read the book instead.  (Then come back and read the rest of this review...)

She is unable to forget Edy, and his ghost haunts her every move.  Meanwhile a host of other ghosts haunt the rest of the D'Anger family, most notably Kenneth's mother Hetty, whom he largely felt was an absent figure in his life, or perhaps that she did not love him enough.  The reason for her distance is revealed somewhat enigmatically later in the book, when Marie discovers that Kenneth has known all along about Hetty's friendship with Kenneth's father's sibling Henri.  Hetty's constant searching for identity was largely due to her having to give up the relationship with Henri in order to be with the family she has with Frederic.

This pattern of dual loves continues through the family line, first with Kenneth, who meets a woman named Chrysanthe in a chapel in Greece and has a week long affair with her that can only ever be seen as perfect through the lens of hindsight because of its enforced brevity.  He reveals this relationship to his wife, only to have her lament him telling her at all, when they were finally getting along so well.  He also tells her that Chrysanthe wrote him a note after he returned to his family but that he never replied.  Marie also has a splitting of her romantic selves, when she enters into a relationship with Miles, someone with whom she feels comfortable but knows is a place holder, to stop herself thinking about Edy.  She suspects for Miles she is something similar.  In each generation, the D'Anger character finds passionate and dutiful love, but never with the same person, and must give up the happiness of the passion before it sours, turning instead to the reliability and fulfilment that comes with starting a family.

The threads of these three relationships come together when Edy follows Marie to Australia, unable to give her up.  She breaks things off with Miles, breaking the chain of safe, passionless relationships and choosing the bodily happiness of her intense attraction to Edy.  But Edy is not warmly received by Kenneth, and as family mysteries begin to unravel, it soon becomes obvious that like the others, this intense relationship is doomed to be discarded, and Marie will live a half life, always searching to repeat it, like her father and grandmother.

What I love about Rossiter's prose is that when you read it, you feel very strongly that you are in the capable hands of a master of the craft.  You can feel in every line that this is a writer who has read a lot, and read a lot of local and Australian work in particular.  His plots are fairly pared back, although in the hands of a less skilled writer, this novella would have turned into a dramatic, plot driven commercial drama.  Instead, the result is a beautiful, literary work that has the pace of gentle breath.  The sentences wash over you like a breeze, and you can see, hear and smell the South West.  His characters feel very Winton-esque at times, in particular the father, and yet they are too bizarre to be his as well.  Their worlds are much wider than Winton's; the 'promiscuous' grandmother, the meditating, cheerful mother who seems happier after her husband has a stroke.  There is also a strong sense of love in the female characters, a familiarity with their concerns that suggests Rossiter has gone to great lengths to try and write against his own gender believably, and I feel that particularly with Marie, he's done incredibly well.  This is a novella, so the narrow scope of her interests works well, but I think if this had been a longer work, I would have liked to see her (as the protagonist) have more of a life outside of thinking about Edy and remembering her father's past injustices.

I thought this would be a quick read, but instead what I got was a lovely, insular weekend reading prose that helped me slow my heart rate and see the world around me in a different way.  I'm sorry to say I guessed the secret, but as my friends and family know, guessing the twist ending of books has become something of a super power of mine.

I give this book four stars.