Friday, 27 February 2015

Why the Changes to the WA Premier's Book Awards Will Make Our State Poorer, Rather Than Richer

This piece was written in aid of a feature in the POST newspaper, and thanks must go to David Cohen for turning it into something suitable for that publication.  If you would like to help, please consider signing this petition.

On two separate weekends this month, West Australians have flocked by the thousands to gather together and celebrate the Perth International Arts Festival.  The first occasion was of course the incredible journey made by the Giants as they crossed Perth city; the second was the Perth Writers’ Festival held at UWA between the 19th and the 22nd of February (which was attended by 44 000 people, up from last year's 38 500).  Yet these events coincide with what I hope will be seen as a controversial and indeed upsetting decision on the part of state government to halve funding to the WA Premiers Book Awards.  The decision was announced on the State Library website in a perfunctory statement which reads, “The West Australian Premiers Awards are moving to a biennial format, with the next awards to be presented in 2016.”

Western Australia has a long tradition of playing the poor cousin to its Eastern States counterparts when it comes to the arts.  For most of the early 20th Century, we imported our own culture back from Sydney or Melbourne, or lost our artistic talent who had to move away to make any inroads into their artistic careers.  The geographical isolation of Western Australia made itself felt again and again.  A cut to the funding of the award is a major deterrent to emerging artists in our state, and perpetuates the idea that the arts are valueless, frivolous and dispensable.  It devalues the contribution being made by Western Australian writers to literature as a whole.  But what the incredible turnouts for both The Giants and the Perth Writers’ Festival indicate is that Western Australia is a community of people crying out for more culture, not less. 

As a bookseller, I have seen the increased sales that a book can experience simply through being shortlisted for the award.  Previous winners have included Shaun Tan, Kim Scott, Gail Jones, Dorothy Hewett, and of course, Tim Winton.  A nod from the judges of such an award can make the difference between a great book languishing on the shelf and becoming a best seller.  One only has to think of the meteoric rise of Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North after its recent Man Booker Prize win.  This book also won last year’s WA Premier’s Book Award in the fiction category.  For established writers like Flanagan, perhaps it might be harder to see the impact, but what about last year’s Emerging Writer’s Award recipient?  In 2014, the Award was given to local author Yvette Walker for her book Letters to the End of Love.  Walker says of the experience;

“Winning the WA Emerging Writers Award was the proudest moment of my writing life. In a book market dominated by big name international authors, these awards give West Australian writers three things they lack: recognition, exposure, and money. The WA Premiers Awards show that WA is serious about celebrating and investing in writing talent. Making them a bi-annual prize shows that the current government seriously undervalues the importance and impact of these book awards on WA writing culture. “ (Yvette Walker in an email, 23/2/2015)
In this case, the prize not only provided recognition for an excellent novel, but also to a publisher who has been doing great things for emerging writers—The University of Queensland Press.  Local publishers such as Fremantle Press, UWA Press and Margaret River Press have also presented strong showings in the awards. 

Western Australia has a strong and vibrant writing community, but decisions like this one will harm the great leaps of progress that these communities have made, perhaps forcing more great writers and artists to seek fulfillment elsewhere the way they did in the early decades of the last century.  Perhaps they will go to Queensland, where the Queensland Literary Awards have been established in response to a similar decision made by Campbell Newman in 2012.  Newman infamously scrapped the State Literary Awards, and the community outcry is still being felt today.  Perhaps this is a warning to Colin Barnett—threaten our arts, and we will fight you.

If you disagree with the decision to cut funding from the WA Premier's Book Awards, I encourage you to be be vocal.  Write, blog, tweet or send smoke signals expressing your thoughts, and for any social media posting you may do, I encourage you to add your voice to our hashtag campaign, #savethewapremiersawards

Some interesting articles for further reading:

WA Authors speak out about the changes

UQP declines Campbell Newman's biography on the grounds that it would be a betrayal to the literary community in Queensland to publish it.

Monday, 23 February 2015

Book Review: Mothers Grimm

Mothers Grimm
Danielle Wood
Allen and Unwin (I own a copy courtesy the publisher)

Since when was 2015 the year I was going to become interested in gender theory?  It seems almost completely by accident, my reading habits have started me on a course of thinking that has me fascinated in the portrayal of women in fiction and in culture in general.  I'm not complaining-- after all, I do believe in a need for feminism-- I've just never actively pursued it before.

Take Mothers Grimm for example.  This quartet of stories by Danielle Wood focuses on the idea of the Mother in fairy tales, arguing that 'There is a reason why the good mother is always six feet under.' And it's true.  Think of Cinderella.  The death of her mother is the beginning of her troubles, and her step mother is the biggest problem that she faces on her road to happiness.  In some manifestations of the story (i.e. NOT the Disney version), Cinderella's mother is actually the fairy godmother.  Cinderella goes to the willow tree planted on her mother's grave and asks to go to the ball, and like magic, it is made to happen.  (For those of you who have seen Into the Woods, this is the version being referenced.  I believe this is the Brothers Grimm version but I could be wrong...)

But Mothers Grimm is more than just updated fairy tales, and if you pick up this book expecting Cinderella to have a pumpkin turn into a Porsche so she can go to a rave, you're going to be severely disappointed.  In her opening essay, Danielle Wood meditates on the idea of motherhood in an honest, if slightly cynical way.  Case in point, this exchange between her fictional partner and the second person you who is the subject of the essay

" I think you have a personality disorder," he says.
"Of course I have a personality disorder,"you say.  "I haven't slept for three years."  (p. 8)

This kind of wry humour marks the book, but it belies a quite realistic truth-- the modern woman faces a difficult challenge in trying to live up to the "Good Mother"mythology of our society, and it can be psychologically taxing or even damaging.

In 'Lettuce', Meg attends a prenatal yoga class which is peopled with women she's gone to school with, some of whom are her friends and some of whom aren't.  Meg battles body image issues which stem back to a gluttonous (if somewhat tangential) episode of eating orange cream biscuits with the girl who lived across the road.  Her partner Jason now calls her 'Fat Guts' and 'Porky' in an affectionate way (if such a thing can even be possible), and her self-image issues are made even worse by the appearance of a woman in the Yoga class who seems to have it all.  She nicknames the woman Treasure, because she has a treasured look about her, and begins to craft elaborate stories around her about the baby's father.  The good mother, it appears, has arrived.  But is Treasure really as perfect as she seems to Meg?  This is the question that this story answers, and does so in a quite open ended way.  As for its connection to fairy tales, well-- the title refers to Rapunzel, and Meg and Jason own a nursery, but the link is more thematic than that, and it is up to the reader to decide what is significant or not.

The other stories in the collection are similar, but the real stand out is 'Sleep', a tale of teen pregnancy which is loosely based on the Sleeping Beauty fable.  There are elements of many stories at work in this story, and it is slightly dark and delectable, although it doesn't feel like it could happen here in Australia.  It has an old money, Connecticut, Gilmore Girls sort of feel to it.  The characterisation is delightful and the dialogue, particularly between the girl and her grandmother is snappy and unique.

All of the stories in this collection have slightly ominous endings, but none-- bar 'Sleep'-- feel like the ending is final and irredeemable.

The message in the book is the real star, and hats off to Danielle Wood for making me-- a childless person-- connect with issues of Motherhood so strongly.

I gave this book four stars.

You can also check out a video review of this book done by Natasha Lester here.

Friday, 20 February 2015

A Brief Argument with the Inner Critic

"Writer's block?  What is that?" she said, opening to a fresh page of her notebook and setting out her pens.  She had many of them, two black, one blue and one pink, all with the kind of ink that glides onto a page without having to scrape at it the way a biro does.  She was at the middle page of her notebook or thereabouts, and the previous pages of her notebook splayed open with the strain of a bent spine, revealing dark whorls of writing.  She was smiling at me, waiting for me to answer her, but her smile was fixed, and indulgent.  She wasn't stupid.  She knew what I meant when I said I had writer's block.  

But she'd never experienced it.  

"What do you do?" I said.  "What keeps you writing when you sit down and your mind freezes up like an old computer, so full of viruses that it can't even stay booted up long enough to write your first line?"

"I believe in my ideas.  I know they are good ideas, and they deserve to be told.  So I write them down.  It doesn't matter if anybody ever reads them.  I can decide that later."

"But how?  How do you know that they are good ideas?"

She tilted her head at me, and raised one eyebrow as if she was amused.  As if I was saying this to be funny, when really  I felt so anxious it was like I was holding a stone on the back of my tongue.  

"It's different for everybody, I suppose," she said.  "Some writers feel plagued by doubt.  Others don't."

Now it was my turn to feel quizzical.  I looked at my hands.  I had put on all my silver rings that morning, the way I do when I want to feel exotic.  The more rings on my fingers the more I felt like a gypsy princess.  I saw her glance down at them too.  In an instant, I was like a little girl playing dress ups.  

"You need to make a commitment to writing," she said.  "You need to commit to the idea of yourself as a writer."

"I am.  I do."

"When people ask you what you do for a living, what do you say?"

"I say that I work in a bookshop.  It's true.  I don't make a living from writing.  But if they asked me what I do, I would say that I am a writer."

"Do you though?"  Her tone was soft but accusing. I folded my arms across my chest.  

"Yes.  I do.  I've been very careful to own up to the fact that I am a writer."

"Well what's the problem then?  I don't understand.  You say you're a writer, writers write."

I wanted to cry, or scream, or lash out.  "I don't know."

She shrugged, and her attention was on her own notes again.  There was nothing more she could do for me, no more insight that she could provide.  I was intruding on her work time now.     

I don't talk to my inner critic much any more, but sometimes, like this moment, she seeks me out.  She introduces the niggling doubt into my mind that I can't do it.  She collects quotes.   When she hears "every word written on your blog is another word not written on your novel", she looks at me smugly and says "See?"  She has a very short memory for achievements.  She forgets the time I wrote 40 000 words in ten days, and only remembers that since January 1st, I've barely written a word.  Yet she can remember back through time to all the stories I've started and abandoned.  And when I think I have writer's block, she's merciless.

I find thinking of her as an external person useful.  I wouldn't let a real person be so cruel to me and just accept it, so why should I tolerate bullying from myself?  (It's the same for non writing related things.)

Also, I secretly suspect that like the version of her in the story above, she's a bit of a bullsh*t artist.  I'm sure there are writers out there who don't get writer's block, and good on them.  But a lot of writers do, or they experience doubt, or a piece of feedback really hurts them and they falter a little.  My critic gets defensive because I expect a lot from myself.  And the second I step outside the negative headspace and realise that, actually, I've already achieved lots, she shuts up.

A little bit of the critic can be good.  Too much can be crippling.  But learning to put a muzzle on it is an amazing feeling indeed.

As for me, I've enjoyed my little break from intensive fiction writing, but it's time to get back to it, so my critic and I are saddling up and riding out, wherever the path may take us.

Monday, 16 February 2015

Book Review: The Snow Kimono

The Snow Kimono
Mark Henshaw
Text Publishing, 2014 (I own a copy courtesy the publisher.)

When Auguste Jovert receives a letter from a young woman claiming to be his daughter, he at first dismisses it and throws the letter away.  Too much time has passed.  He is an old man.  What use does he have for dredging up the past?

But then, two unlikely things happen.  The first is that Jovert is hit by a car.  The second is that he is contacted by a neighbour, Mr Tadashi Omura, a former Japanese Professor of Law who wants to tell him a story.  That story, as much as Jovert resists it, worms its way under Jovert's skin, and causes him to realise that we can never truly see ourselves except through the eyes of others.

In fact, this is a major theme of the novel, and the reason why Omura insists on telling his story to Jovert.  While Jovert is the central character of the novel, his is not the central story.  This story within a story frame reminded me very much of the set up in Wuthering Heights, when the stranger who comes to town is told the story of what happened to Cathy and Heathcliff, and then must make his own mind up about what is happening in the house.  But in The Snow Kimono, Jovert seems almost an irrelevance, except to make the crucial point about identity that Omura is constantly trying to make-- that we must see ourselves through the eyes of others.

The story that Omura tells begins with him telling Jovert about his daughter, Fumiko, who is not his daughter at all.  Her real father is a man named Katsuo Ikeda and when Fumiko was still young, Ikeda wrote to her and told her that he was her father and that he was coming out of prison and the first thing he wanted to see was her face.  Omura then goes back to the beginning of the story to tell why Ikeda was in prison in the first place.  It is an intricate and interesting story, beginning with Ikeda's pretensions that he is a great and powerful writer during his student days, and ends in the snowy mountains above Osaka; a story of love, and loss, and mistaken identity, with a little bit of stalking and grooming of small children thrown in just to make it suitably dark.  This is not a novel that bears much discussion in a review, as part of its magic is the subtle dawning of the truth, and I drew immense satisfaction from working this out myself.

However, the frame story, that of Jovert and his daughter, and his estrangement from his ex wife were a drag on the story.  While I liked Jovert as a character, I felt like his personal struggle-- will he find his daughter or leave her be-- was a complete irrelevance.  His function, as the sort of passive detective, the receiver of the story was enough, without him having to have his own story to tell.  I think the tale of Jovert's family is probably a tale for a different book, and probably should have been either toned back or left out entirely.  It detracted a little, a distraction that came right before the stunning revelations about Omura that completely change the reader's (or this reader's) perception of the entire book.  This book is like the snake that eats it's own tale, it begins where it started, what happens at the end has bearing on the beginning, and I think it is a novel that needs to be read more than once.

Other strengths of the book were Henshaw's use of imagery to conjure up the snowy mountains and the beautiful Japanese cities, the University campus and so on.  For those with some knowledge in Japanese culture, there are added nuggets of meaning, such as the fact that Fumiko- who was born in the snow- means Winter Child as far as I can remember, and the fact that the famous Japanese writer Katsuo Ikeda has the same initials as real life writer Kazuo Ishiguro.  (In fact there is a character called Mr Ishiguro as well.)

I really enjoyed this book, and gave it four stars.  The strengths were enough to counteract the strange irrelevance of the frame story, and I understand why this book was given high accolades in many of its mainstream reviews.

Friday, 13 February 2015

Book Review: A Time of Secrets

A Time of Secrets
Deborah Burrows
Pan Macmillan 2015
9781743532997 (I own a copy, courtesy the publisher)

1943 is a dangerous time to fall in love...

With the release of January's The Imitation Game, the intelligence efforts of the code-breakers at England's Bletchley Park are a hot topic of conversation-- but what about the intelligence agencies that existed right here in Australia?  This is the topic of Deborah Burrows' third novel, A Time of Secrets, which centres around an organisation known as APLO, modelled on a real life unit that was of AWAS.  It is the story of Stella Aldridge, a thirty-something widow from the United Kingdom whose background makes her useful to the Lieutenants in charge of the Destro mission in Malaya, as she is a fluent speaker of the Malay tongue.  When Stella overhears some army personnel speaking Malay and plotting to kill a Lieutenant for a bungled mission, she is drawn into a world of double agents, danger, top secret files and possibly love.

But this book is much more than your typical World War Two spy thriller.  For a start, its Australian location makes it unlike anything else available, and Deborah Burrows' has meticulously researched both the time and place in order to create a great level of verisimilitude.  The setting is vivid and easily imagined, as are the people, the fashions, the tram rides and the action scenes-- of which there are a few.  Burrows also takes her reader inside a number of parties, and easily transports them back in time to a period of great social change.

In fact, this social change is a major theme of the work, as it has been in all of her previous novels.  In using strong, forward thinking female characters as protagonists, Deborah Burrows puts herself in a position to question the inherent sexisms of the time-- the questions of morality, of 'ownership' of women by men, and of the limited potential for advancing their employment.  But the sense of outrage at the disadvantages faced by women is at its strongest in this book, with one of the defining themes of the work being domestic violence.  Stella, we learn, is far from the distraught widow, as her husband Frank (killed in North Africa in 1941) was physically and emotionally abusive.  Stella still feels strong trepidation at the thought of a man ever having that much control over her again, even to the point of her being indignant that she does not need a man to take care of her-- she is her own person.  When she witnesses a neighbour being bullied and beaten by her lover (who happens to be one of Stella's superiors at work), she puts herself in a dangerous position by speaking out.  Yet it's important to her character development that she does.  Over the course of the novel, Stella must learn to trust again.  First and foremost, she has to learn to trust herself.  She is a sassy and likable character, an ideal friend and a role model who will appeal to readers of all ages, who is supported by a cast of lovable off-siders, Dolly, Faye and Mary.

As the mystery in the novel unfolds, Stella finds herself growing close to two men from Perth-- one, Staff Sargeant Eric Lund, is a brutal commando killer in his professional life, but claims to hate violence, a personality trait that attracts Stella so long as she can believe that it is true.  The other is her boss, Lieutenant Nick Ross.  Stella's roommate Dolly thinks that Nick is dreamy, and he has a reputation for being a ladykiller, but the more Stella gets to know him, the more she realises that he is sensitive and using his reputation as a cad to prevent himself from getting hurt.  His unwanted advances on Stella feel like a cruel game, and their relationship takes two steps back for every step forward they make.  Nick and Eric's complicated background doesn't make it much easier for Stella to know who to trust, as everyone seems to have their own opinion about what's really happened between them.  On top of this, Nick Ross appears to have made the decision that got a wireless operator killed in the Destro mission, and it's possible he was the Lieutenant whose life was being threatened in the alleyway.

This is a cleverly plotted and engaging novel that is really made by its superb characterisation and research, and I think it will make a great read for book clubs and bookworms alike.

Please join us for the launch of A Time of Secrets!

When:  Tuesday February 24 2015 at 6pm
Where: Mattie Furphy House in Swanbourne

Books will be sold on the night by representatives of Bookcaffe Swanbourne (including myself)

Monday, 9 February 2015

Book Review: The Break

The Break
Deb Fitzpatrick
Fremantle Press, 2014 (I own a copy courtesy the publisher)

Fed up with corporate greed and the humdrum lifestyle of the suburbs, Rosie and Cray pack in their jobs and possessions and move down south to Margaret River.  There, they surf and enjoy the solitude of nature.  Cray seems to love it, but Rosie struggles with the idea of isolation.  Meanwhile, Liza and Ferg's marriage is in trouble, and they think their son Sam has no idea but they're wrong.  When Ferg's brother Mike comes to town, battling demons of their own, things only get worse.  Is life in Margaret River as idyllic as it seems?  These are the questions the characters must ask themselves.

Partly centred around a fictionalisation of the Gracetown cliff collapse that happened in the 1990s, this novel is the perfect mix of tense, family drama and powerful nature writing.  It is peopled with characters who are real, and interesting, and the interactions between them are moving and authentic.  While the natural disaster is a key event of the piece, it is by no means the whole of the plot.  Fitzpatrick uses her character relationships to explore the ups and downs of life outside of the big city.  From the smaller issues, such as the effects of tourists on the lifestyles of the locals to the bigger issues such as the desolation of local landmarks by developers, this book is an in-depth analysis of life in Perth and Margaret River that feels true to the reader.  One of the major themes is the determination of the local media to turn personal tragedy into a circus for the entertainment of readers, and Rosie, arguably the central character, must fight her role in this industry.  While she wants to write, she wants to be the kind of writer who understands the human element of her stories, and not just what the shock value could do for circulation figures.  I believe this attitude mirrors the concern of the writer herself in crafting a book which figures an existing tragedy-- the worst natural disaster in WAs history, in which nine people lost their lives.

The writing style in this book is beautiful, and the clarity of vision in the opening line took my breath away.

"They'd sent Rosie Curran to make a story out of a young man's despair, though not in so many words."

This same clarity is displayed in the ending of the novel, when townspeople must come to terms with the disaster.  While not all the issues are solved, in the summing up of the story, there is the glimmer of hope; hope that Liza and Ferg's marriage will survive, that Mike will shake his demons, and that Rosie will learn to love the Margaret River lifestyle.  I did feel that the disaster itself received less page space than it needed for the emotional impact intended, but overall, I really enjoyed this book.

You can catch Deb Fitzpatrick at this year's Perth Writers Festival, talking about her transition from writing for Children and Young Adults to writing Fiction for Adults.  If you ask me, I would say this has been an extremely successful transition.

Friday, 6 February 2015

Book Review: The Girl on the Train

The Girl on the Train
Paula Hawkins 
Doubleday Books

Rachel rides the slow train to London every day on her way to work.  The journey takes her past a row of houses she knows well-- she used to live in one with her husband, Tom.  Now, Tom lives there with his new wife, Anna and their baby girl.  Rachel doesn't like to think about that house anymore.  A few houses down lives another couple.  To Rachel, their lives seem perfect.  She names them Jess and Jason.  But nothing is as it seems, and when Rachel witnesses 'Jess' kissing another man, she is drawn into a chain events that will have her find out just how far from the truth her little fantasy really was.

Called by many sources 'this year's Gone Girl', The Girl on The Train is an intense psychological thriller where the plot is hinged on three duplicitous narrators.  First, there is Rachel, the eponymous girl on the train.  She's not really a girl at all, she's in her thirties, and she's recently divorced, depressed, overweight, unemployed, and quickly becoming a raging alcoholic.  Then, there is Anna, the second wife of Rachel's ex-husband Tom.  Anna was the other woman, the one Tom left Rachel for after a drawn out period of pain and heartache.  Now, they have a baby.  Their life would be perfect if Rachel would just go away.  But she calls Tom in the middle of the night and turns up at the house, drunk.  She even tried to abduct baby Evie once.  The third voice in the novel belongs to Megan Hipwell, who is known to Rachel as Jess.  Her narrative takes place before the others, leading up to her mysterious disappearance the day after Rachel witnesses her kissing another man.  To Rachel, "Jess" was happy and professional, but in reality, Megan is rapidly losing control of her life.  After an accident that killed her brother, Megan spent most of her early twenties running away from her past.  Her marriage to Scott, aka Jason, doesn't seem to have stopped her troubles, and he suggests she see a psychologist.  But how can you work out what really happened when the story is told from the points of view of a drunk, a cheat and a liar?

At its heart, The Girl on the Train is a powerful novel about emotional and physical abuse.  Each woman has become damaged in her own way because of the way that men in her life have treated her.  Rachel is convinced that she is worthless because her drinking is to blame for the deterioration of her marriage.  She has been told that she hit Tom, abused his coworkers and embarrassed him in public, and as she was so blind drunk she blacked out, she has to take his word for it.  But the further Rachel gets from Tom's influence, the more things start to look different.  The night Megan Hipwell disappeared, Rachel was on their street, blind drunk, and while Tom says he came looking for her and drove her home, she begins to remember things that don't quite fit that explanation.  Did she hurt Megan?  Did she see who did?  The mystery raises more questions for Rachel than just whodunnit.

The writing style in this book could not be described as literary by any stretch of the imagination, and I have to admit I found it hard to get into this book.  Yet just like with Gone Girl, I couldn't look away.  The plotting of the book is clever and tense, leaving you just at the right moment to make sure you turn to the next page straight away.  It was pointed out to me by a friend that I must keep in mind that the narrators are telling the story and the level of language use will be part of characterisation.  In which case, this makes perfect sense.  Rachel is a drunk on a train, she's an ordinary person in crisis, and she isn't going to care about grammar.  Still, I did find this jarring at the start.

I hate Gone Girl, not because it was a bad book but because it made me depressed and disgusted with people... it also had an 'only in America' feel to it... but The Girl on the Train was gripping, cleverly plotted, and had some meaningful themes at work under its surface.  For that reason, I give it 3.5 stars.