Thursday, 31 December 2015

2015 in Review and a December Reading Wrap Up

It's been all quiet on the blogging front from me lately, and for the most part I haven't been writing much of anything else either.

I usually love this time of year.  I love setting goals, I love smashing those goals out of the park.  But I haven't quite learned when to cut myself some slack and I think that perhaps that's a good place to start with goals for 2016.  Right this moment, even though it's New Year's Eve, it just feels like a regular old Thursday.

One of the goals I didn't manage to complete in 2015 was to read 110 books, which was 10 more than the 100 I managed last year.  There are a few excuses I could give, one of which being that I started studying online, on top of continuing to work four days a week.  But at the beginning of December, I was pretty determined that I was going to make it.  I worked out that I needed to read about thirty books in thirty days to make it, which seemed do-able until I realised that one of those books was Jonathan Franzen's Purity which was good, but also quite long.  Anyway, I think I am sitting on a tantalisingly, horrifyingly frustrating tally of 96 and unless I can manage to read fourteen books (or even four) tonight, I am just not going to make it.  I like my sleep way too much.

But the upside of this sudden reading sprint was that I did manage to read fifteen books in December, which is incredible.  I think I was aiming for around ten every month with a bit of wiggle room for big books, and I hardly ever managed it until now.  It helped that I chose real page turners.

So here is Nigel the Santa Gnome, minding the teetering pile of what I read this month.  You can't see them, but on the top of this pile are two short books: Mark Forsyth's The Unknown Unknown and Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche's We Should All Be Feminists.
The World According to Anna by Jostein Gaarder

Aside from the fact that just about everyone I have mentioned this book to has said they always think Jostein Gaarder is a a woman named Justine Gardner, I have really nothing to say about this book.  I found it dull.  It was really hammering home an environmental message, it was told in a confusing manner but using overly simplistic language, and I just found it so bone crushingly dull I couldn't even bring myself to read it on public transport.

Jessica Jones vol 1

Yes, I was one of the hordes who flocked to their television sets when Netflix released its original series, Jessica Jones starring Krysten Ritter and David Tennat.  And it was good.  And I was very much obsessed with it.  It got to the point where I was googling information about all the other Marvel Cinematic Universe films which I hadn't seen in order to try and fill the gaps between them.  But aside from that, that show was so good that I simply had to go to the comic book store and get the first volume of the comic.  (By the way, people who think paperback novels are expensive in Australia, you should try buying comics.  Ouch!)  I read the whole thing in one sitting and I found it really interesting but it did lack some of the grit and sass of the series.  I was pleasantly surprised by the lack of grotesque oversexualisation of the female superheroes, too.  But the series was infinitely more complex.

Clancy of the Undertow by Christopher Currie

You can read my review of this book by clicking here.

Purity by Jonathan Franzen

My first Franzen, unless you count excerpts read in university courses.  Franzen gets accused of being all sort of nasty things, so I didn't really want to find this book so entertaining as I did, but the man can write. This book was about the rise of organisations like Wikileaks, and one of the characters, named Andreas Wulf was an enigmatic figurehead with a questionable past who is frequently compared to Assange.  The story is told from varying points in time and from a few different voices, which was initially confusing but when all of these separate threads started pulling together, it was really quite ingenious.  All his characters are a little disturbed though...

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

This is one of those spooky classics that is published in the popular Penguins range, and I picked it up on National Bookshop Day.  Shirley Jackson was also the author of the short story The Lottery, which was once banned in America, about a small town which once a year holds a rather gruesome raffle.  That story was partial inspiration for The Hunger Games but you will have to read it to see why.  We Have Always Lived in the Castle is about Merricat (Mary Catherine) and her sister, who live in a castle on the top of a hill with their Uncle, avoiding the townspeople as much as they possibly can, as many of the townspeople believe Merricat's sister is responsible for the deaths of the rest of their family who were poisoned one night at dinner.  It's eerie and quite interesting but I wouldn't say I am an instant Shirley Jackson fan.

The Husband's Secret by Liane Moriarty

This is the book that really got everyone talking about Liane Moriarty.  When Cecilia finds a note from her husband which is labelled 'To be opened in the event of my death", she begins to be haunted by the possibilities of what might be contained inside.  Her curiosity will have disastrous consequences and shed light on the answers to questions being asked by several others around her.  Just like when I read Big Little Lies, I was pleasantly entertained by Liane Moriarty's smart and witty approach to domestic fiction.  I can see why Moriarty is a million copy bestseller and would recommend her books as great holiday reads.

The Astrologer's Daughter by Rebecca Lim

This is a brilliant young adult novel about a young girl whose mother (a well known astrologer) disappears without a trace.  Avicenna is not an astrologer but she understands some of her mother's ways, and so she assists the police investigation by reading some of the charts her mother left behind.  This book was so great because it introduced me to a world I had never entered before, and it was a cross of a number of different genres as well.

The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald

Bleak, beautiful, scarily close to the truth.

Breaking the Code by Hugh Whitemore

I've read this before, but this play about the life of Alan Turing was based on Alan Turing: The Enigma, which also inspired the movie The Imitation Game.  Since doing some research of my own for my current work in progress, I've come to feel like perhaps the characterisation of Turing is a little off in the play but I would have to see it performed to know for sure.  There's a film version but it's just not the same.

The Collector by John Fowles

I got inspired to read this when it was used as clues in an episode of Criminal Minds, and now that I have read it I understand why.  Frederick kidnaps the beautiful art student he has been watching from afar and keeps her prisoner in the basement of the mansion he has bought with his lottery winnings.  They form a strange relationship, each based on their need for the other, though Miranda tries time and time again to escape.  The story is told first through his point of view and then through her own diary, and then from his view again.  I don't fully understand why this repetition was necessary, because Miranda's view point only revealed that she was often fooling him, something I already suspected.  But I didn't find the book particularly creepy, and maybe that just means I've watched one too many Criminal Minds episodes.

Rosie Little's Cautionary Tales for Girls by Danielle Wood

Short stories for the modern woman taking elements from classic fairy tales.  Danielle Wood talked about this collection at the Perth Writer's Festival earlier this year and I just knew I had to buy it.  I am so glad I did.

Carol by Patricia Highsmith

This book was originally published as The Price of Salt, and was put out under a pseudonym.  It was Highsmith's second book, right after her hit novel Strangers on a Train, and her publisher didn't want it so she had to take it elsewhere.  To write about a lesbian relationship in the 1950s was risky, but every week, Patricia would receive letters from readers who told her that the book had changed their lives.  And I can understand why-- this book would have been unlike anything anyone had ever seen before.  Not only were the two characters allowed to fall in love with each other, but they were allowed to make a go of it.  Highsmith writes this complex and charming relationship every bit as well as the situation deserves and I don't even know if I want to go and see the film now that I have read this... The book was good enough.

Step Aside Pops by Kate Beaton

I don't know how to review this comic book properly, so instead I will link to Kate's blog.  

The Unknown Unknown by Mark Forsyth

Written in support of independent bookseller's week in the UK, this essay is all about the joy of browsing, and finding a great book you never even knew you were looking for.

We Should All be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Based on her famous TED talk, this essay is rational and makes a lot of sense-- feminists do not all have to be unfashionable, unhygienic, angry, man-hating monsters.  Just look at Chimamanda!  The woman is stylish but she does it for herself.  I think I read somewhere that this essay has been made required reading in some Scandinavian country.

So that's the lot of it.  Phew!  That took forever to write.  It's hard to believe that after all of that reading, I didn't even make it to 100 books this year.  I got so close!

This has been a year of almosts.  I almost read 100 books.  I almost won the John Marsden Award.  I almost won Young Bookseller of the Year.  I almost did a handstand in yoga.  Just some things to think about later tonight when I am setting some new goals, I suppose.

To all of you who are still reading this, Happy New Year.  I hope 2015 has been kind to you, and even if it has not, I hope that good things are coming to you in 2016.

Friday, 11 December 2015

Spotlight on Oz YA: Clancy of the Undertow

I'm often reminded how lucky I am to have grown up a reader in a country like Australia, where there are so many writers publishing complex and diverse books particularly for young people.  Some would argue that on the diversity front, we aren't quite there yet, but through important discussions I see happening every day on social media and at conferences in the non-virtual world, I believe that the YA genre will probably be the first to get there.  Far from being navel-gazing stories which would only interest teenagers, novels in the YA genre deal with issues which affect people of all ages, but look at them through the eyes of teen protagonists, who are often observers to difficult situations but don't always get a chance to make their voices heard.

Clancy of the Undertow by Brisbane writer and bookseller Christopher Currie is a shining example of the power of Young Adult literature.  Whilst reading it, I was reminded of many other great YA novels; those of John Marsden, Vikki Wakefield, and even of my favourite book of all time, Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey.  The protagonist, Clancy,  finds her life turned inside out after an accident kills two of Barwen's elite and popular students and it seems like her father may have had some fault in the incident.  Clancy already feels like an outcast in Barwen  (rural Queensland), and doesn't have many friends.  Her father has been struggling since an accident at work left him with a back injury and her mother had to work extra hours as a substitute teacher to keep the family afloat.  Clancy is the middle child, and her older brother Angus has just moved home again after an unsuccessful stint at a University.  He now seems content to drift, searching for mythological animals in his spare time, and basically just embarrassing Clancy.

Clancy's voice is sassy and genuine, and the use of a first person, present tense voice worked really nicely for this story.  As Clancy's situation grew worse and worse, I found myself identifying with her strongly, reaching a point around 70 or so pages in where I felt so strongly for her that I wanted to cry.  There are also some beautiful moments of joy and hope in the book, and Currie does a fantastic job of developing the supporting characters in a way that makes Clancy's Barwen feel like a real place.  While the story does feel Australian, there's nothing cheesy or overdone about it.  I also have to applaud the lack of insincerity to the teenage aspects of the novel; in so many novels with contemporary settings and teen characters, it's easy to feel like you're bearing witness to a parade of first world problems.  But Clancy's problems are real, and what's more, Clancy is real and you care about her.  What is particularly well done (and I don't think that this counts as a spoiler, because it's on the back cover) is the question of Clancy's sexuality.  While from the get go, the reader is aware that the protagonist is gay, the character herself doesn't feel like she needs to come out and do a monologue about it.  It becomes clear in her actions and her thoughts because it's part of who she is.  I think this is something a lot of writers could learn from.  When it comes to diversity in books, perhaps in particular when the person writing the book is from a heterosexual or cisgendered background, there's this sort of impulse to explain the difference about the character's sexual orientation that never feels quite right.  I don't imagine that LGBTQ+ people in real life go around thinking "I am gay, and therefore I am attracted to this person" so why should the characters?  The development of Clancy's character, and this aspect of it, follows a beautiful arc which is in harmony with the rising tension of the story line and I really enjoyed spending time with her.  I think I have learned a lot from reading this book.

I won't go into too much more detail, but I will say read this book.  No matter what age you are, read it, it's wonderful and engaging and I could hardly bear to put it down to go to work.  I gave it five stars.

Thursday, 3 December 2015

What Elimy Read: November

The days are getting longer and the nights are warm and perfect for reading.  In November, I read a lot of different books, a few of which I probably never would have selected for myself if I were left to my own devices.  There were fewer reviews than normal, but I am slowly getting my mojo back in that area of my life.  Writers block may or may not be an actual condition, or it may just be a convenient excuse to not do any work because I'm scared to fail in my current project, but regardless, November was an abysmal month for writing.  Coincidentally it was #Nanowrimo for many writers and to those of you who participated, congratulations to you for giving it a go.  The book I am working on at the moment began its life as a Nanowrimo project in 2009 and it's getting a restructure now.

But enough about books written.  Onto books read.

The Dressmaker by Rosalie Ham

This is the novel on which the Australian film of the same name is based.  It is the story of a small, remote town in the Australian outback, and the way all their nasty prejudices come back to bite them in the arse when Myrtle 'Tilly' Dunnage returns to town after being sent away as a child for her part in a tragic accident.  This book was all over the place.  There was no clear sense of who the main character was, although we assume it's Tilly because the book is titled after her, and the macabre yet simple plotting and writing style distance the reader so that the events of the novel never really hit home.  One of the book's more upsetting events left me annoyed rather than upset; the death of a fairly major character appeared to come out of nowhere and did not service the plotting or the character's journey in any real way.  Perhaps this book reflected the strangeness of real life, but I've come to respect a degree of clever deliberateness in my novels, no matter the genre.

Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert

I had to declare myself an Elizabeth Gilbert fan after reading this treatise on living creatively.  Liz Gilbert's practical, no nonsense approach to leading the best possible life for nurturing your creativity made a lot of sense and it was incredibly satisfying.  Now if only I could follow her advice and get to work...  This book appeared in my Top 10 for 2015.

The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks

This was my first Geraldine Brooks novel, although I do own a few of her other books, I just haven't got to them yet.  The fictionalised account of King David was told from the point of view of Natan, the prophet, as he collects the stories surrounding King David and his rise and fall.  The book was slow to start and I found the biblical nature of the book a little boring, but at its apex, the book became a riveting work of literary historical fiction and at the end of the book I was glad I had read it.

The Sleepers Almanac Vol. X

The final Sleepers Almanac was published this year, which is quite sad.  I've discovered a number of talented Australian short fiction writers through this publication, which is put out by Louise Swinn and Zoe Dattner of Sleepers Publishing.  Some of my favourite short fiction writers are included in this final edition, including Laurie Steed, Sophie Overett and Ryan O'Neill.  The most memorable story had to be 'The Fat Girl in History', by Julie Koh.

The Mime Order by Samantha Shannon

The second instalment in the epic fantasy series by Samantha Shannon, a British writer who is my own age and has been compared to JK Rowling by reviewers.  I inhaled this book on a flight from Brisbane to Perth and it was just the kind of engrossing fantasy read I needed.  I could barely remember the plot of The Bone Season (book one) but that didn't affect my enjoyment at all.

Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins

I reviewed this book earlier in the month and you can read my review here

Lost in a Good Book by Jasper Fforde

Book 2 in the Thursday Next series.  I found this really strange, and while people think the books are comparable to Douglas Adams, I wouldn't go that far.  I almost gave up on this book, because I found his use of ridiculous coincidences just really bad plotting, but in the end, the sheer awesomeness of literary references (I mean, come on, hanging out with Miss Havisham!) saved the day.

The People Smuggler by Robin de Crespigny

This is the story of one of the most notorious people smugglers ever caught by the Australian authorities, in close to his own words as told to filmmaker Robin de Crespigny.  It is such a readable and relatable account and it really forced me to alter my perspectives.  I think it's a very important book and I am ashamed that before now I'd written it off as something I was never going to read.  Not that I am anti-asylum seeker, but it had never been an issue I wanted to know more about before.  de Crespigny's account changed that.  This was a book club book and we interrogated all aspects of the book at our last meeting, which made for a really successful session.  I saw Robin speak at Margaret River Writers Festival in 2014.

 The lovely poinsettia in the background of this photograph were a gift from the Aussie Orientation Services book club who visit the shop where I work once a month.  So nice!

That's it for now.  Still hoping to reach 110 books completed by the end of the year but being nearly 30 books behind target according to Goodreads, I fear that time is against me.

Friday, 27 November 2015

My Top 10 Books of 2015

2015 is not yet over, but there are people out there desperate for good Christmas reading material!  This list comes early to serve that good cause.

I read very widely in 2015, trying out some new authors and genres, as well as getting excited to read new books by some of my favourite writers.  This list reflects those pleasant surprises I found along the way, and the omissions from it either reflect disappointments, lapses in memory or a busy schedule that hasn't allowed me to read as many books as I would have liked!

Please note that it's too hard to rank these as they're quite different and I love them all for different reasons.  So in no particular order:

1. The Neapolitan Quartet by Elena Ferrante

Picking a four book series is not cheating, okay??

2. In the Quiet by Eliza Henry Jones

3. The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood

4. Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert

5. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

6. The Lake House by Kate Morton

7. Laurinda by Alice Pung

8. The Last Illusion by Porochista Khakpour

9. Only Ever Yours by Louise O'Neill

10. The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan

What were your favourite books in 2015?
Did you read any of these?  What did you think?

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Book Review: Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins

Gold Fame Citrus
Claire Vaye Watkins
Quercus 2015 (I own a copy courtesy the publisher)

I have to admit, the first thing that drew me to this book is the amazing cover.  I am such a sucker for a beautiful book.

The second thing that drew me in was hearing that the writer is the child of two members of the Manson family.  I don't know why that was enticing though, so don't ask...

Claire Vaye Watkins is the award winning writer of short story collection Battleborn, which aside from sharing its name with an album by The Killers I know nothing about... but now that I have read Gold Fame Citrus I will definitely be checking it out.  Gold Fame Citrus is the story of Luz (pronounced Looz as far as I can tell) and Ray, who have stayed behind in California after most of the residents of that state have been evacuated due to vast environmental disaster.  There is a shortage of water, one which has caused a massive 'dune sea' to form, and those who survive out there do so on very little water (although who provides these rations I am not entirely sure.  I assume the Red Cross.  They are mentioned.)  Luz and Ray are in love, and living in the abandoned mansion of a Hollywood starlet.  They are just trying to keep busy.  Ray prescribes projects to keep their minds straight, so Luz spends her days reading obscure books by explorers from the starlet's library and trying on her fancy clothes, none of which have any uses any more.  Ray's jobs are more practical, such as digging latrines, and looking after Luz.  Ray needs to be needed by her.  It is how they function.

One day, they find someone else to need them.  A child, possibly around two years old, and in the company of a rag tag and scary bunch of teenagers.  Her name is Ig, and she latches onto Luz like she's met her somewhere before.  Perhaps it is maternal instinct and perhaps it is boredom, but Luz is convinced that Ig belongs with them.  So they take her and they take off.  Their only chance of a good life is to join the rest of the nation.

Although... there are rumours that somewhere out in the dune sea there is a dowser, a man who can find water, and can keep his people free from needing the handouts provided by the government.

It's very hard to explain this novel but the closest thing I can liken it to is a cross between Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake and Cormac McCarthy's The Road.  It's easy to tell that Watkins has honed her craft on short stories.  Her language is playful but precise and her experimentation with different forms reflects the chaos of the situation faced by the characters.  At times, I felt a few of the shifts of point of view disorienting, particularly when more than 90% of the book is told in third person and limited to Luz's point of view.  There are sections of the book which don't feel like they belong to the book at all, such as the chapter set in the town above the mine, where a 'mole man' joins their midst.  The significance of this scene can only be guessed at, and while I have my explanation, I feel the book would sit just as well without it there at all, as it raises more questions than it satisfies.

The emotional range of this book is very complex, and the character Luz undergoes a journey of self realisation before the eyes of the reader, refreshing given the proliferation of books written today where the characters neither grow nor change over the course of their stories.  I find Watkins' creation of Ig, the toddler found by Luz and Ray to be the most interesting, as she seems to possess mystical significance that is never grasped by any of the people she comes into contact with, and one can never be sure if she is really an omen in human form, or just a slightly messed up child.

It was immensely satisfying to be reading this book last weekend, when temperatures soared in Perth, leading into a harsh summer.  I felt the character's situation on my skin, and while it was uncomfortable, it was real and I enjoyed being immersed in their story.

I gave this book four stars.

Monday, 2 November 2015

October Reading Round-Up

I read six books during October, and for once I have no excuse for not reaching ten, although the first three books were rather large as you will see in a moment.  After a month of rather dark reading material in September, I decided to start with something light, so I went to my favourite cheer-up author, Marian Keyes.  This month I also got to read a new book from one of my all time favourite writers (Kate Morton), and I read my very first Sarah Waters book.  It won't be my last.

Lucy Sullivan is Getting Married by Marian Keyes

Funny, cheeky and peopled with interesting sorts, Marian Keyes was the perfect remedy to my dark month of reading in September.

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

In the years between the wars, Frances and her mother are forced to take in paying guests in order to keep their family home.  The couple who move in are from a different class, and their presence introduces a new chaos to Frances's life.

Sarah Waters was longlisted for the Baileys Women's Prize for this book, and it's no surprise.  While some of the reviews for this book online would lead you to believe that the novel is only interesting for its salacious sexual intrigue, it is a clever, well-researched and well-plotted book and I enjoyed it very much.

The Lake House by Kate Morton

I love Kate Morton novels and this was a great new addition to her repertoire.  You can read my review here.

Asking for It by Louise O'Neill

This book comes with a serious trigger warning.  Louise O'Neill's writing is sharp and visceral but her subject matter in this book is darker even than in her dystopian debut, Only Ever Yours, which I read a while back.  It is the story of Emma, a thoroughly unsympathetic (and yet sometimes likeable) 'mean girl' type character, who we see judging people, being horrible to her friends and family, being vain and greedy and a little promiscuous for the first part of the novel.  One night, at a party, Emma has way too much to drink and the next morning she discovers that she has been assaulted while she was in no position to consent and the images of it are all over the internet.  She becomes 'that girl', and has to decide whether to press charges against the young men who did these things to her even though they are the town football heroes.  This is a realistic and confronting book about the mixed messages young girls get in society and a startling picture of what life is like for sexual assault and rape victims.  I think it adds an important voice to the discussion currently going on, but as I said, it comes with a giant trigger warning and it made me feel quite on edge and angry for a day or two after I read it.

The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanigahara

Yanigahara's second book A Little Life was shortlisted for this year's Man Booker and was hotly tipped as the favourite to win.  After seeing many mixed reviews online, I wasn't sure if I wanted to attempt the 800 + page housebrick of doom and despair in late 80s New York.  While out and about, I discovered this earlier novel, the story of a young doctor who goes on an anthropological expedition to a Micronesian island and discovers what may be the key to immortality.  His discovery has terrible consequences.  This novel is beautifully written and the voice is compelling, but the novel strays into some serious moral grey area, and the narrator's attempts to mitigate the impact of this definitely messes with the flow of the end of the novel.  I still have mixed feelings about whether or not I liked this book and I am inclined to say I did not, if only because the final revelation made me feel betrayed.

Pretty Is by Maggie Mitchell

I just reviewed this one yesterday, so you can read that here, but suffice to say I very much enjoyed ending the month with this novel.

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Book Review: Pretty Is by Maggie Mitchell

Pretty Is
Maggie Mitchell
Orion 2015 (I own a copy courtesy of my mother's TBR pile... thanks Mummy!)

I picked out Pretty Is as a gift for my mother, who is a voracious reader of crime and mystery novels, and has impeccable taste in these types of things... so it can be hard to find new authors for her to enjoy!  Pretty Is has been billeted as perfect for readers who enjoyed The Girl on the Train (which in turn was deemed perfect for fans of Gone Girl) but I think to compare this novel to either of those books, and in fact to compare them to each other is a mistake.  First of all, doing so ignores the fact that all three books are challenging the very genre of the crime/ thriller by questioning the very assumptions that it is built on.  Pretty Is does this, first of all, by making the action take place more than 15 years after the crime is committed.  The story begins when Lois and Carly May, once victims of a bizarre kidnapping, are brought back together by their involvement in a film based on their experiences.  The film is based on a book that Lois wrote under a pseudonym, and Carly May (now known as Chloe Savage) has been cast to play the policewoman who solves the case and rescues the girls-- a character who did not really exist.

But their involvement with the film opens up old cans of worms for both girls, and the most disturbing of these is their lingering feelings of love for their kidnapper.  While he held them captive for six weeks, the girls were never harmed or interfered with, and until this point in their lives, the girls have never spent any time thinking about why.

The book is told in several parts.  The first is set in the present, and flicks back and forth in short segments between Lois's and Chloe's perspectives.  I was struck by how skilfully Maggie Mitchell was able to create these two characters, who were so similar and yet so very different.  Chloe/ Carly May is now an actress living in LA, harbouring resentment not towards the man who took her but towards the stepmother who seemed perfect to everyone but her and has profited from her relationship to Carly in the most heinous way-- with a tell-all book.  Chloe is a B grade actress, famous mostly for how often she has been killed off in her film and TV roles; the movie adaptation of Lois's book will be her big break and while she's tempted not to get involved because of how close it might take her to revealing who she really is, she's also sure that this role is going to be something special.  Carly/ Chloe is angry and untrusting and she also may or may not have a drinking problem (although she doesn't think so, and refreshingly, the author does not view this as some character flaw which must magically be solved when she works through her issues-- realistic and uncommon in this kind of book.)  As for Lois, she at first seems like the shy loner of the pair, and she is quick to tell the reader often that Carly May was the first, always and in everything.  She seems to harbour deep insecurities, seeing herself as the less pretty, the less interesting and the less central to attention.  As a child, she prides herself on being the smarter one, until she discovers that Carly May is intelligent too, and isn't just the air-headed beauty pageant queen to Lois's spelling bee champion.  But Lois has a tendency to position herself as the outsider, and uses her role as a writer to step back and observe people.  She seeks out darkness and trouble the way a moth seeks out a flame, as evidenced by her unwillingness to speak up when one of her students begins to hang around, claiming to know things about her past.  At first, one would be forgiven for thinking that Lois was plain looking, but this isn't the case even in Lois's mind.  In fact, both women know how attractive they are, and at times use this to their advantage.  They are both in control of what happens to them, most of the time, even when what they are controlling is possibly unsafe.

The second section of the book is a short story version of Deep in the Woods, Lois's book about 'Hannah' and 'Callie'-- Hannah being the Lois character, and Callie being Carly May.  Chloe is at first annoyed that her character's name has changed so little when Lois's character's name has changed so much, but later realises that Lois is trying to distance herself from her child self in order to try and write as honestly as she can, something she does not need to do with the Callie character.  But even this version has alterations in it, most notably an omission of a crucial event, and the addition of an escape attempt which perhaps is meant to disguise the unpalatable attachment the girls feel to their kidnapper.

In part three the book is back to switching points of view, as the action begins to ramp up.  Lois's faculty friend Brad, also an English professor, begins to feel like he will turn into a cheesy love interest but thankfully Lois puts an end to that... (and why she and Carly May are unable to form lasting relationships is never hypothesised fully, both characters displaying a disdain for psychoanalysing themselves, though Lois enjoys telling stories to psychologists.)  Lois is writing a sequel to her book, one which hints that something bad may happen to Hannah and Callie as adults, but it seems increasingly likely that the truth is imitating fiction.  As the tension ramps up, both girls escape to Canada, to the set for the film, running away into their pasts as a way to escape their present.  This is part four and I won't say any more about the plot because the book really does need to be read.

I was very impressed by the writing style of the book.  Maggie Mitchell manages to write a crime novel which leans towards a more literary style, and there is hardly a stereotype in sight, though her minor characters pale in comparison to her two leads.  Perhaps Mitchell's background as a short story writer is at play here; the careful reader might notice a reverence for specific details and slow pacing that is usually forgotten in a thriller, and perhaps the crime reader might be infuriated by the lack of answers the story's conclusion provides.  But I enjoyed this book, and I think I have learnt a lot from Maggie Mitchell's style, so I have given this book four stars out of five.

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

A Little Happy News

Today I found out that I have been shortlisted for the 2015 John Marsden/ Hachette Australia Prize for Short Fiction in the age category of 18-24 years.

It's been hard to keep myself from breaking into bad renditions of the Snoopy Dance all day.

I won't say much about the award, but you can read about it here and also see the names of the other young writers who have been shortlisted for their short stories and poetry.  I'm sure they're all as elated as I am.

John Marsden is something of a hero of mine, and I remember reading his Tomorrow series as being a significant moment in my reading history.  Perhaps part of my desire to write even comes from that time in my life.  To be shortlisted in this award is a big deal  and I want to say a heartfelt thanks to all of my friends and family who have been congratulating me and saying nice things about me today.  You all make me feel special.

Thursday, 15 October 2015

The Lake House by Kate Morton

The Lake House
Kate Morton
Published October 2015 by Allen and Unwin (I own a copy courtesy of the publisher)

It's not a secret that I am a huge Kate Morton fan.  I discovered her many moons ago when I picked up a copy of The Shifting Fog at my local bookshop based almost solely on how gorgeous its cover was.  The story inside was the perfect mix of mystery and history and magic, and I was soon engrossed in the tale of two sisters and a poet, and the tragedy that linked them all.  I declared myseld an avid fan, and was even lucky enough to get a reply to an email I sent to Kate full of encouraging words for my fledgling writing career.  (Which remains fledgling to this day.)  In 2010 when The Distant Hours was first published, I bought myself a copy of it in hardback because I simply could not wait for the inordinate amount of time it was going to take for the book to come down in format, and later that same month I toddled off to a literary luncheon with my mother at which Kate discussed her books with Verity James.  Since that time, a new Kate Morton publication has been an event to anticipate with great glee, and this year millions of Morton-ites will be able to unwrap a brand new novel at Christmas time (or before then if they can't wait) when Allen and Unwin published her fifth book entitled The Lake House.

The story begins in 1933, when Theo Edevane is snatched from his cradle on the night of the annual Midsummer's Eve Party at Loennaeth, a lake house in Cornwall.  While a huge police investigation is mounted, no trace of the boy is ever found, and before long the Edevane family pack up their things and move to London, never to return to their beloved home.

Seventy years later, DC Sadie Sparrow goes on a self-imposed exile to Cornwall to stay with her grandfather, Bertie, after her emotional involvement in a case of a missing mother tampers with her judgement, putting her in the line of fire with her boss.  She stumbles across the abandoned lake house, and is drawn to the secrets it keeps about what really happened that night.  Alice Edevane, the second daughter of the family, holds the key to the mystery but she herself is a bit of a puzzle.  Now a successful mystery writer, she seems to have her own secrets to keep from Sadie and the rest of the world...

The Lake House is a thrilling page-turner, and may just be Morton's best work since The Shifting Fog and The Forgotten Garden  launched her as an Australian publishing sensation.  Full of twists and turns, this novel owes a lot to the study of the traditional whodunnit, and its great skill lies in the way the reader is coached into making interrogative leaps using the evidence they have gathered, only to have more equally likely scenarios become plausible just when it feels like the game might be up.  While the novel does exhibit some classic hallmarks of the romantic genre, such as coincidences which could only be believed in fiction, and lucky clues seeming to fall into the detective's lap at times, Morton weaves her web and catches her reader in thrall-- they do not care if the scenario is unlikely, for it is so entertaining, and in context feels so completely right.  When you are reading a Kate Morton novel, you are under her spell.  She creates fully realises worlds and peoples them with intriguing characters, plotting them with such precision, and all the nostalgia of the golden age of Hollywood.  While at times her writing edges towards becoming somewhat cliched and adjective heavy, the flow of her prose works extremely well over time, and this 500 plus page tome was the work of a few days.  Quite simply put I could not put it down.

Morton's work has just reached a milestone, selling more than 10 million copies worldwide and it's no wonder.  The Lake House is sure to become another bestseller but facts and figures aside, it is a sensational novel and I only regret that I may have to wait another two years for another like it.

The Lake House is available to pre-order now at your trusty local bookshop.

Thursday, 1 October 2015

September Reading Round-Up

September was Ferrante month.  I'll try to write a longer post about my love for the writing of Elena Ferrante but I feel that words will probably fail me.  All through this last four weeks, I've been obsessed with her; this enigmatic, reclusive Italian writer who was the greatest novelist I had never heard of.  I read four of her books, out of a total possible seven, and this was no small feat considering that in total I read six books this month.

Those books which were not Ferrantes shared things in common with her work, so I guess she was guiding my choices a fair bit; I read a novel set in Russia during the war and a young adult novel in which a young girl has her hands cut off, so they were both fairly bleak.  But it's important to remember that bleak novels can also be some of the most insightful and most life-affirming.  It's through reading about the misfortunes that did and do still take place in the world that we can expand our worldviews, gain perspective, and leave our own comfortable couch corners.  That being said, it can be taxing, and so to start this month off I am reading a laugh-out-loud funny romantic story by my favourite Irish gal, Marian Keyes.

Uni finishes for the year for me this week, so I think next month will be a better reading month, and I can try to get back up to my goal of ten books in a month.  There are so many great books coming out this time of year and I have some catching up to do!

The Story of a New Name/ Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay/ The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante

Books 2,3 and 4 in the Neapolitan series by Elena Ferrante.  Ferrante herself is as fascinating as her books.  She famously will not do appearances or interviews and very little is known about her personal life, but people have speculated that she and her protagonist Elena Greco share more than just a first name.  The Story of a New Name picks up where My Brilliant Friend left off, with ***SPOILER ALERT*** the girls entering early adolescence and Lila marrying the son of the fearful Don Achille, ogre of their childhood.  Lila's life has diverged from what Elena always expected of her, and she is now the rich and glamorous Senora Carracci, but things are not as they seem on the surface.  The gloss comes off the apple on the night of the honeymoon, and Lila later reveals to Elena that her wedding night was overshadowed with violence and fear.  But trouble is only just beginning for the girls.  Meanwhile, Elena continues to study, making her way through the years of schooling which many of those in Naples do not have access to, and therefore setting herself apart as special.  As the two girls' lives diverge farther apart, they question is, will their friendship survive?

The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly by Stephanie Oakes

This book was the subject of a read-a-long hosted by the Perth YA Book Club (which you can join on Facebook if you're a big fan of YA, they host weekly discussions of great YA books).  It's a novel about a young girl named Minnow Bly who is arrested for assaulting a young man after she escapes from a 'Kevinian' Cult.  Minnow is severely traumatised-- the Prophet who ran the cult has ordered Minnow's father to cut off her hands.  How is a young girl with no hands supposed to survive in a juvenile detention centre?  As she remembers her time in the cult, sifting through what has happened, a clear picture begins to form of what might have caused the devastating fire which destroyed the cult's campsite and killed two of its members.

Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente

Deathless updates the Russian folk talk of Koschei the Deathless, who kidnaps a young woman and takes her to his home in the other world to be his wife; it equates the mythology of Russia with its early twentieth century history, comparing the war between the Tsar of Death and the Tsar of Life with the struggles of the Russian people first under the Bolsheviks and then during the war with Germany.  In particular the siege of Leningrad plays a particular role.  The main character is Marya Morevna, a young girl who has grown up seeing birds fall from the sky outside and become dashing men, who come to the house to wed her sisters.  When it is finally her turn, she realises that the thing she has longed for is much darker than it is romantic and she finds herself performing impossible tasks for the fearsome Baba Yaga in order to get the chance to become Koschei's Tsarista.  I did find this story interesting but I didn't connect with Valente's writing style.  She used some quite odd metaphors, and the narrative seemed to jump from section to section abruptly, weaving together different stories.  I had wished that she included notes about the original myths so that there was something to compare the new version to.  This one was for book club so it will be interesting to see what the other ladies think.

The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante

I thought that the Neapolitan novels were impressive, but this novella absolutely punched me in the guts with the sheer visceral nature of its prose.  I felt Olga's pain, as she experienced her separation from Mario; her pain was not just the heartbreak of being left but also of feeling the life she had been comfortable in for a long time falling apart.  On the worst day of her separation, Olga finds herself unwell and trapped inside the apartment and things begin to get worse and worse for her.  I could not stop reading.  I just had to know whether she was going to be okay.  In the end, I was unable to hold it together; yes, a novel less than 200 pages long made me cry (and desperately want to hug my dog.)  While the Neapolitan novels have become fast favourites, I have to say this novella gets an A+ for impact.

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Book Review: The Natural Way of Things

The Natural Way of Things
Charlotte Wood
Allen and Unwin 2015

Some reviews are incredibly hard to write not because you don't know what to say but because there's too much to say, and the sheer skill of the book itself makes you feel inarticulate by comparison.  This was my experience of The Natural Way of Things, the new novel by Charlotte Wood which will be released at the end of this month.  Don't let the beautiful cover fool you: this is not a happy hop, skip and jump through nature.

But more on this cover later!!!
The Natural Way of Things begins when two women wake to find themselves prisoners in an abandoned rural property, guarded by a strange, mismatched trio of guards.  There are a number of other women imprisoned with them, but the points of view from which we enter the story belong to Yolanda and Verla, with Verla's voice in particular being the one that helps the reader make the most sense of what is going on.   Something has made all of these girls targets for the kidnapping but it takes them time to work it out: each one has in their past a sex-scandal which was reported in the media.  The girls are forced to work on the property by day, getting everything ready for the arrival of their captor-- but who is their captor and what does he or she want with them?  As time goes on and humanity begins to break down the girls must face facts-- they may never be going home.

This is a very powerful novel about the politicisation of the female body and female sexuality, in particular with regards to the commodification of these things in the media.  While in theory, a woman's sex life should be personal, modern media reporting has tended towards making the private public and this doesn't tend to apply in the same way to women as it does to men, feeding into trends like 'slut-shaming'.  This double standard is present as a theme of the book, but it's not an overt message pushed through the plot.  In fact, while I would describe the book as somewhat akin to a feminist Lord of the Flies, I wouldn't pigeonhole the book as capital F Feminist, and I wouldn't say it's a book which only appeals to women, though this will most likely be its primary readership.  Sisterhood in the novel is not presented as a solution to the problems the women face.  It's not even presented as wholly possible.  As personal freedoms are broken down, the women are reduced to more animal instincts, and this means that the societal norms are gone.  What appears to us as bad behaviour is a survival instinct to the characters,

There were a few gripes that I had with the book, and the first of which was a very minor nitpick.  Giving both characters names which were a bit less common made them harder to distinguish, and I felt at times that their backgrounds became confused for me.  I wouldn't say that their voices were completely the same; Wood is a very talented writer and I think the voices she created were very authentic, but it was hard for me to separate these and so I don't think I formed an accurate picture of either of them.  Verla for me was more fully realised and part of this had to do with how easily I could understand her scandal.  Yolanda's scandal was somewhat unclear and I fluctuated between believing she had been sold out by her boyfriend to a bunch of football playing mates, and thinking perhaps she had been date raped by a football team.  I seem to recall that there really was a similar situation to this one in the media not that long ago.  I also wasn't certain how old Yolanda was supposed to be.  These issues, however, had minimal impact on my overall enjoyment of the book.

Now!  The cover!  Look closely and in among the flora and fauna you will see a padlock, chains, keys on a ring and the barrel of a gun.  Not so pretty after all...  I think this cover is a great representation of the story, but that only becomes apparent once you've already given this book a chance.  Perhaps it might prove misleading to the unsuspecting reader, but if they pick it up by accident, they'll be gaining an amazing read.  It's a great metaphor for the book itself in many ways.

The Natural Way of Things does not answer all of the many questions that it raises, but don't fear-- this is in fact one of its strengths, making the novel a frighteningly real possibility.  It could be happening right now and none of us would know.  Animal People, the other novel by Charlotte Wood which I read and loved, was completely different from this book so it wasn't at all what I suspected but I was thrilled and challenged by what I read and I can't wait to see how this book does in stores.

I wouldn't be surprised to see this book on the Stella Prize shortlist or the Miles Franklin shortlist.

Four stars.

Monday, 7 September 2015

My Mum Reviews: Double Madness by Caroline De Costa

Double Madness
Caroline de Costa
Margaret River Press, 2015

My mother, Megan, is an avid reader of crime novels, so when a new one gets sent my way, I defer to her higher knowledge of the genre... here's what she has to say about the new crime novel published this year by local mavericks, Margaret River Press

Caroline de Costa’s first crime novel takes place in and around Cairns in Far North Queensland in the aftermath of Yasi, a category five cyclone which made news around the world due to its level of destruction. 

Dr Tim Ingram and his wife discover the partially decomposed body of a woman in the aftermath of the cyclone, a woman who was not a cyclone casualty.  A missing husband, an abandoned car, a fortress home where the impeccable garden has not been cleaned up after the cyclone, and a bevy of doctors and specialists associated with the local hospital provide mystery and intrigue.  Local Detective Senior Constable Cass Diamond, recently relocated to Queensland with her son, has a central role in untangling the complexities of the crime, and its antecedents, while seeking to identify the dead woman, and manger her own personal life. 

The descriptions of Far North Queensland are carefully crafted, and as one who has never been there, offer beautiful scenery including sounds, sights and smells of the tableland.  This is an asset which, combined with the aftermath of Yasi, provides a great setting for the story. The descriptions of the hospital preparations as Yasi approached, and the forays into the bushland around Cairns provide interest and intrigue beyond the main story. 

There were a small number of factors which did not sit quite right. The title of the book and the psychological disorder explanation at the opening of the book made the solution to the mystery less than surprising.  The title alone would not have been overly revealing, and the explanation of ‘Folie a duex’ should have been placed later, perhaps in the dialogue.  This, explaining things too early, and providing a little too much back story was a factor in the book which do not suit me. I tend to find such approaches contrived.  One main example of this would give away a key tenet of the story so I will refrain, but I tend to prefer the questions to arise for me as the story unfolds, and details of character backgrounds to be revealed without too much “storytelling” before they are needed, an approach which was a bit more subtly carried out with respect to the Hermes scarves in the story.  However the premise for the crime, the discovery of the body, and the police investigating the crime are believable, and the trail from crime to resolution kept me reading. 

Despite my reservations I found this a relatively easy read.  I can see how Caroline de Costa’s medical knowledge has assisted with the development of the plot, and it is clear that she loves the landscapes around Cairns.  I will be interested to see the future development of Cass Diamond as a lead character in subsequent investigations.   

Friday, 4 September 2015

August Reading Round-Up

This month was a busy one-- there's just something about the middle of the year!  I am back studying for another semester (or trimester as they have at Deakin) and this time around I am doing two units instead of one.  Interestingly, this week one of my units is focussing on reviewing!  I still managed to get through a few books in August, and some of them were pretty amazing!  Without any further ado, here are the books I devoured in the last four weeks...

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

There is a lot of buzz around Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan series, which wraps up in September with a fourth instalment.  Ferrante is an Italian literary sensation, and very few people have actually met her or know her true identity.  Notoriously private, she never grants repeat interviews to any publication, choosing to maintain her private life, and allowing people to interpret what they will about her from her books, which seem to be highly autobiographical.  My Brilliant Friend is a powerhouse of controlled prose, and follows Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo through the first phase of their lives, their childhood's and adolescence.  Lila is an enigmatic figure, mysterious and slightly unhinged but seems to have a power over the narrator, Elena.  Ferrante's depiction of female friendship is the most authentic I have ever come across, and while it was her wonderful writing style which pulled me in at first, I have kept reading for the sheer magnetism of her main characters.  I love these books.  I well and truly have what the internet has deemed #ferrantefever.

Some articles for interested parties: 

Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy

Thomas Hardy has by far become my favourite writer from the classical canon.  He was a writer of the Victorian era, but was still alive in the first part of the twentieth century, which blows my mind... there are people alive today who were alive at the same time as Thomas Hardy!  Hardy's own life was intriguing, but it is his unusual characters and his dry humour which make his novels something different.  I had recently seen the recent film adaptation of Far From the Madding Crowd, and while I agree there are significant differences between the two texts, I enjoyed both immensely.  I've made it a new goal to continue reading my way through Hardy's backlist.

Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

My book club book for August/ September, and also my first Murakami.  I don't know what I expected.  This is supposed to be the most realist of Murakami's works and the man can definitely write, but his portrayal of female characters as sexually curious and promiscuous left me wondering how many women Murakami had actually met in real life...  If you were to ignore some of the more lewd scenes, the book is an interesting meditation on the pressures of life, and very readable, but I don't know if I would read it again.

Feet to the Stars by Susan Midalia

I reviewed local author Susan Midalia's third collection here.  Spoiler alert:  I liked it!

The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood

Charlotte Wood's Animal People was a book which really impressed me so I was very excited to get my hands on an early advance copy of her new book, The Natural Way of Things.  This is a very different novel, but very very intelligent.  It is going to be a book that keeps me thinking for a long time and I cannot wait for it to be released into the big wild world.  I plan to do a proper review later in the week, but for now, suffice to say:  The Natural Way of Things is a novel about a group of women who wake up imprisoned in an abandoned shearing station somewhere in the middle of nowhere.  Their jailers are tightlipped about who has ordered their kidnapping or why, and as time wears on it becomes more and more clear that they may be toughing it out for a long time.  The girls gradually grow to realise that what connects them all to one another is that each one has been involved in a scandal with a powerful man.  The novel meditates on the politicisation of the female body and the culture of slut-shaming that we seem to be developing in Australia.  It is a novel which reduces things to an animal level and leaves the reader gasping as they realise nothing that happens is too far fetched to be happening right now without us knowing.

Church of Marvels by Leslie Parry

This is yet another circus novel, in the tradition of The Night Circus, which I loved.  I have been putting off reading it for a while because I very recently read The Gracekeepers and I do not want to get circus fatigue!  This novel uses the historical perspective to gently tease out the implications of circus freakshows, revealing the inhabitants of many of these shows to be people born with disabilities and other minority groups.  There are many surprise revelations in this book and I do not want to give them away by talking too much, so I will just say that I found the topic of the book refreshing, if sometimes a little underdeveloped, and always sensitive.  It's hard to be the first to talk about topics which have been taboo, so this was a great book.

Only Ever Yours by Louise O'Neill

You've probably heard a lot about this book if you're on Twitter (and if you're not following Louise O'Neill, you really should be) because the author has a new book coming out this month.  This novel has been described as Mean Girls meets The Handmaid's Tale and I would have to say that is very accurate.  It's about a future of our society when population growth and environmental instability have lead to the world living in elite clusters.  People have altered their bodies so that it is only possible to give birth to sons, and there are ten young men in every cohort who are so important that science has developed the 'Eves', genetically manufactured perfect women who spend their childhoods in a special school where they learn to be perfect wives for these young men.  There are three times as many young women as there are young men, and those Eves who are not chosen become Concubines (for the sexual gratification of these men deemed inappropriate for Wives) or Chastities, a smaller group who look after the new Eves.  This book is subtle in its subversive themes and at first it seems like just another teen novel about bullying and bulimia.  But through the final year of school for frieda and isabel, as the girls begin to question the system, we see a horrifying process at work.  (The girls' names are never capitalised, as girls are not important.)  O'Neill is not afraid to pull any punches, and this book was a binge read I could not put down.

Saturday, 22 August 2015

Welcome to my Bookshelves- Guest Post by Claire Varley

The Bit in Between by Claire Varley is published by Macmillan (RRP$29.99)

A review of this book was published on August 14th.

Over to Claire!

I buy more books than I can afford and will no doubt end up in the poor house because of it. Online bookstores are my drug of choice and oftentimes books arrive at my door that I have completely forgotten I ordered, thus is the extent of my problem. Every book is special to me – I get upset when people want to borrow books and become anxious they won’t give them back. I share books like a four-year-old only child – begrudgingly and only after being promised sweeties.

Because of this addiction, I have taken to calling my bedside table my BOOKside table (chuckles to self). I am aware that it is actually a chair. We repurpose things in this house because I spend all the actual money on books. Also repurposed are the books propping up my bedroom mirror because there’s no more room on the bookshelves and we aren’t going to mount the mirror on the wall because we would like our bond back. In this picture both my hair and mirror need washing.

In our salon (ie the bit of the unit that is not our bedroom) my books are ordered thus: on the big elegant faux-antique bookcase that I scored after my mother modernised her furniture I have memoirs/autobiographies at the top, poetry in the middle, and hobby books (gardening, sewing etc) at the bottom atop the schmancy wine section we have filled with cleanskins. I like to think of this as my grown up bookshelf – the one I would present to the Queen if she dropped by. To the right of the poetry section you can see my older brother and I being the nineties.

On the BILLY series IKEA bookshelf that has really weird shelf spacing because I assembled it in a windowless room, are the rest of my books. There isn’t much organisation: travel books, non-fiction at the bottom, bath-damaged Penguin classics, then everything else. I arrange my favourites towards the front so that the Queen would be quietly impressed if she glanced over whilst touring the more elegant bookshelf. Above, atop the actual bookshelf, are my boyfriend’s engineering textbooks. I would remove them if I could but I’m too short and the chair is otherwise occupied by the bed.

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Book Review: Susan Midalia's Feet to the Stars

Feet to the Stars (and other stories)
Susan Midalia
UWA Press, 2015

Susan Midalia's third collection of stunning short stories takes its title from a poem by Sylvia Plath-- a poem, which she stressed at the launch of her book, was not about death, but about childhood, and a joyful sense of enjoyment which we seem to lose or forget as we age.

Clownlike, happiest on your hands,
Feet to the stars, and moonskulled

(From 'You're' by Sylvia Plath)

This seems to me an apt metaphor for life, and a moment in time so keenly felt it demands to be captured.  In a sense, this is what a short story is, a moment in time or an intense feeling or a fleeting glimpse of a happening.  Midalia's characters range in ages and are from various backgrounds.  They are female, male, gay, straight, happy, sad, confident, confused, heartbroken and bereft, and it is the variety of this chorus of voices which makes this collection a joy to read.  Combined with the writer's masterful turns of phrase, this collection had me riveted from the very first story.

My favourite stories were 'Because', an account of a young girl coming to terms with having a mother who had been absent for most of her life, 'Feet to the Stars', a story of a teacher who finds new meaning in his life when he learns to interact with a suffering student, and 'Self-reflexivity and other stuff', a darkly comic account of a creative writing teacher who constantly edits even her own thought processes.  It was incredibly hard to choose just these three, as there were many stories in the collection which spoke to me.  In fact, at times it felt like I was in the stories and they were about my life.  I could relate to these characters without any effort.  Their thoughts were things I might have thought, and their fears were things I had feared.  While Vanessa, the teacher in 'Self-reflexivity and other stuff' would cringe to hear me say that stories have messages, it did feel at times like the book was trying to tell me something, and I delighted in attempting to figure out just what.

Short stories are a vastly under-appreciated form, and for me they are sometimes the most enjoyable.  They don't always provide closure in a traditional sense, but the ability to bear witness to a brief moment in time in the span of your average bus ride is a magical contract between reader and writer.  It is like sitting and having coffee with a friend, or remembering a favourite birthday party.  The time it takes is far outweighed by the lingering impression.  Susan Midalia has proven herself to be a truly gifted writer of short fiction, and I look forward to reading her beautiful stories again and again and again.

I gave this collection five stars.  

Feet to the Stars is available now.  

Susan Midalia will be the guest of honour at the next Bookcaffe Book Club.  Click here for details.  

Friday, 14 August 2015

Book Review: The Bit in Between

The Bit in Between
Claire Varley
Macmillan,  (RRP $29.99)
August 2015

'Writing a love story is a lot easier than living one.'  So reads the tag line on the cover of The Bit in Between, a novel that sits somewhere on the spectrum of modern romantic comedies.  Like 2013's phenomenal breakaway bestseller The Rosie Project, The Bit in Between is an insightful exploration of the ups and downs of the modern relationship, and follows two twenty-somethings just trying to find their way.  The writer referred to is Oliver, a Greek-Australian whose first novel was published to critical acclaim but with an ending he felt lacked literary integrity.  After a trip to Greece to visit family and work on his second novel takes a tragi-comic turn, he returns home.  In the airport in Malaysia, he meets Alison, herself returning from a failed romantic experiment in China with a dreamy but self-absorbed poet.  Their meet-cute is anything but; as they wait for their plane to board, Alison vomits violently all over Oliver, thus proving that eating the sun-dried tomatoes you're not allowed to take on the plane is not the best method of disposing of them.  The bit at the beginning, as it is called, does not get off the ground so well.  And yet, over the course of a few hours (the duration of their flight) Oliver and Alison find a connection, and by the time they have landed in Melbourne, they have the potential to be more than friends.  This potential takes them to the Solomon Islands, where Oliver intends to write a novel about the Island's independence from colonialism, and Alison must find something to do other than tag along.  As Alison begins to find her purpose and the words on the page begin to take shape, something bizarre appears to take place; the things that Oliver writes have echoes in the real world.  Can he control the world around him by writing about it?  And should he?

Claire Varley's debut novel has the potential to be a great holiday read, but below the surface of this unusual love story, there are complicated ideas at work.  Through the character of Alison, Varley explores ideas about women, and cultural differences between Australia and the Solomons,  Through Oliver's writing, she investigates the transition that the Islands and their people have undergone since they ceased to be a colony; and yet she does all of this without shoving a history lesson down the reader's throat.  Her setting is a triumph, with all five senses at play in her overseas scenes.

One idiosyncrasy of the novel which I failed to understand was the technique of head hopping after a new character was introduced.  For even transient characters who would not be visited again, the narrative took a short pause in which a paragraph or two was inserted, telling that character's own love story.  This seemed a little unnecessary, and interrupted the flow of the narrative.  Perhaps this was an attempt to showcase the many and varied kinds of love stories that exist in the real world, but the narrative didn't need it.

However, I think this novel was saved by its unconventional ending which allowed the reader to participate actively in how they wanted things to end, and ending which I think even a pessimist and perfectionist like Oliver could be pleased with.  This is not your average romance, and it has many things to recommend it to readers of all genders and ages.  It is a quick read, but as engaging and informative as you want it to be, which is exactly what I needed.

Saturday, 8 August 2015

The National Bookshop Day Bookshop Crawl 2015

Thanks to Lauren and Simon for accompanying me on this bookish odyssey!

Bookshops are an important part of every community.  They are a place where you can find a book to pique any interest, and answer questions that you didn't know you needed to ask.  They are places to escape, places to explore and places to experience.  They are magic.  They cure sadness and loneliness and sometimes even stomach aches!  (True story, I swear)

We didn't make it to all the amazing bookshops in Perth today, as there are only so many hours in a day and that would have been an expensive exercise, but here are some of the places we went.

STOP 1:  Beaufort Street Books, Mount Lawley

The staff at Beaufort Street Books are some of the most well-read in Perth, and they're also responsible for a heck of a lot of great events.  From author talks to movie nights to bookshop yoga and cooking book club, you'll find something fun to do on every visit.  You may even find cupcakes.

Just a rather complimentary paving stone we happened to find on our way to coffee!

STOP 2: Diabolik Books and Records

Perth's newest bookstore, Diabolik also sells cool gifts and an excellent selection of records.  Located in Mt Hawthorn, this store is worth a visit.

STOP 3:  Bookcaffe, Swanbourne  (Where I performed story-time in a mermaid tail)

With a full sized cafe, and a great range of cards and gifts, the Bookcaffe is rather a one-stop shop.  I'm biased, because I work here, but I think this place is a real gem.  It's somewhat out of the way... you're not going to stumble past it unless you're going there, but it's only a hop skip and jump away from Swanbourne train station which is really convenient.  Whether it's a browse or a chat you're after, you're always going to find something here.

 STOP 4: Collins Cottesloe

This wasn't on the original plan, but Simon wanted moooooore bookshops and how can I say no to that?  Collins Cottesloe has a lovely, calm atmosphere which is quiet and serene, and if you hunt around a little bit, you will find original artwork by the amazingly talented Anne, aka Flying Wolf Co.

This artwork is by Anne of Flying Wolf Co, and her website is here.

STOP 5: New Edition Bookshop, Fremantle

Fremantle wouldn't be Fremantle without a bookshop in it, so everyone was very relieved when New Edition was resurrected bigger and better in its brand new High Street location.  The shelves in this shop are packed to bursting and the eclectic mix of music sets the mood just right.  I was very impressed by the array of graphic novels and short story collections in particular, and even more impressed by the mad-recall skills of Alan, the store's owner, when he very nearly managed to find the book Simon was looking for just based on a vague description of where he'd seen it in the store.  The book he thought was the answer wasn't a winner but it was something Simon would have been interested in so I think he still gets points for that.  Alan also owns Crow Books in Victoria Park, one of my favourite Perth bookstores.  It was a pity I didn't get there today!

There are so many more great bookshops in Perth that I just didn't get to!  Shout outs must go to Northside books in Northbridge, Kaleido Books in the Perth train station, Oxford Street Books in Leederville, Crow Books in Vic Park, Subiaco Bookshop in Subiaco, The Well in Applecross and the Lane Bookshop in Claremont (where I tried to go but was prevented by parking chaos!)

Thanks to all of these shops for allowing me to take photos in their stores, and also for just existing in general.