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.

Thursday, 6 August 2015

Reading Round-Up: July

I'm a bit late getting this one done.  For some reason July is always my least favourite month.  It's so busy, and it occurs at a point in the year where I can see how few of my goals I have achieved and how many things I still have left to do.  That's not to say some amazing things did not happen this month; for example, I ran an event at work with Stephanie Bishop, whose book The Other Side of the World I really enjoyed.  But on the whole, July was a month of adjusting and stress.

I still found some time to read, so here is a lovely picture of the books I read last month.

Island Issue 136

I bought this issue a shamefully long time ago and it's been my gym book... yes, I do read on the treadmill when I go to the gym and I am sure the other people there are staring at me.  I wouldn't know, I'm too busy reading.  Highlight in this issue is the story by Laurie Steed, which is framed as an interview with Deborah Triesman  from the New Yorker Fiction Podcast.  Laurie gets Deborah's voice so right that you can hear it in your head.  If you're not subscribed to Island, you probably should be.  Geordie Williamson is now the Fiction Editor, which is just the best news ever.

In the Quiet by Eliza Henry Jones

You may have already seen my review of Eliza Henry Jones' debut novel, or the tour of her bookshelf that she kindly did for me, but if you didn't, definitely check them out.  This is an amazing novel, and and incredibly versatile one.  It straddles literary and commercial writing, reminds me of those childhood years I spent wishing I lived on a horse farm, and made me feel all the emotions in the human vocabulary.  Read it read it read it.  I cannot stress this enough. Many people are intimidated by the fact that the narrator is a mother who has died, but this book is heartwarming and uplifting, and really, the best books are the ones which make you cry.

The Bookshop on Jacaranda Street by Marlish Glorie

Finally got around to reading it (sorry Marlish!)  This is a great book for anyone who has ever dreamed of owning their own bookshop, peopled with quirky characters and book snobbery galore.  It's been out for a while now but I have seen a few copies around the place.

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

This is the go to writing book for many writers I know and was recommended to me by writing teacher extraordinaire, Natasha Lester.  Not so much a book on how to write, but a book on how to live, this book raised a lot of emotions for me and sometimes got straight to the heart of the disillusionment I have been feeling.  There were segments that read like a hug and others that were like a kick in the bum.  Definitely a worthwhile read, but don't go into it expecting it to fix all your problems and have you published in an instant.  She makes it pretty clear that is never her aim.  One of the book's best lessons is that no one has to read most of the things you write in order for them to do you good.

The Bit in Between by Claire Varley

This one is a new release, a quirky love story set in Melbourne and the Solomon Islands.  I have a review which will be going up on Friday next week so stay tuned.

Paper Towns by John Green

Everyone is nuts for this book at the moment because the film is out but I have to say it's the least well plotted of the John Green novels, out of the ones I have read.  The climax of the book happens in the first third and we spend the next two thirds slowly petering out.  I have seen criticisms online which say that Q and Margo are basically the same boy and dream girl combo from every other John Green novel, and I can see that comparison with Looking for Alaska certainly.  Not necessarily a bad thing because it's obviously a formula which connects with a lot of readers.  It didn't blow me away the way The Fault in Our Stars did though, and while it served its purpose-- a great pick me up after a terrible week-- I don't know if I'll now read Abundance of Katherines.

The Mind's Own Place by Ian Reid

Ian Reid's new novel, about five individuals in the newly booming Swan River Colony is immensely entertaining.  Ian Reid is the recipient of the Battye Fellowship and is doing intense historical research at our state library.  His efforts in giving fictional lives to real people shows the interesting connections that people had in the early days of Perth, and makes a lot of recognisable places new in their historical contexts.  I really enjoyed this book and learned a lot too.

Books read this month: 7

What did you read this month?  Have you read any of these?  If so, what did you think?  Let me know in the comments.

Thanks for reading.