Thursday, 30 June 2016

Review: The Woman Next Door by Liz Byrski

The Woman Next Door
Liz Byrski
Pan Macmillan 2016 (I own a copy courtesy the publisher)

Best-selling West Australian fiction writer Liz Byrski is back in July 2016 with her eighth work of fiction, The Woman Next Door, which tells the story of a cast of characters who live or have once lived on fictional Fremantle location, Emerald Street.  As is to be expected, Byrski has created a colourful cast of characters who subvert the traditional tropes about what older characters should be like.  Emerald Street is a loving environment, where neighbours pop in and out of each others' houses with ease, and gates connect backyards to facilitate easier sessions for drinking and gossiping on the veranda.  At the beginning of the book, we meet our four households; Joyce and Mac who have decided to experiment with living apart for a year to pursue separate goals without actually separating; Dennis and Helen, whose move to a picturesque East Fremantle apartment hasn't brought them the marital bliss they'd thought it would; Polly, a biographer and former screenwriter who thinks she may have found love during a fire evacuation; and Stella, once the darling of Australian stage and screen, whose mind is beginning to play tricks on her.

The women, (aka the women next door), are the real stars of the show, though Mac is allowed a little adventure of his own.  My favourite characters were Polly and Stella-- Stella because of her energy and wit, as well as the loving portrayal of the events that befall her, and Polly because I could really relate to her.  Both Polly and Stella are unmarried and have no children, but they've both had long and interesting careers.  When Polly meets Leo and they begin an inter-continental love affair, the thing she most has to be careful of is not subverting her own interests in the saving of his.  Polly writes biographies of women who did unusual and under-represented things, and I could see a parallel between that and Byrski's own previous publication about the nurses at the East Grinstead hospital.

Byrski's handling of Helen, a difficult person and character to like, was extremely well done.  It's not easy to write a character who comes off as both bitchy and sympathetic!   By allowing us to get inside Helen's thoughts, the reader is allowed to see both how unreasonable and how unhappy Helen is, and to have some insight into the things in her life that have made her this way.  I feel like we may all have encountered a Helen in our time, and next time I meet one, I will be a bit more patient with them, keeping this book in mind. (I can't say too much more about this without giving away spoilers.)

There are moments in this book where plot points seems a touch convenient, but this is a feel-good book, and they add to the warmth of the overall effect.  I could easily see this book adapted as a film, as it had a very Four Weddings and A Funeral sort of vibe to it, and touched on a lot of modern themes.  For lovers of Fremantle, the scenery is realistic and recognisable, and the sentiments of the characters (most of them) certainly go with Fremantle's cruisy attitude to life.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and I gave it four out of five stars.

Want to see me interview Liz Byrski about this book on Tuesday July 12th at 2pm?  Click here to be redirected to the event's Facebook page.  

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Review: The Sidekicks by Will Kostakis

The Sidekicks (9780143309031)
Penguin Books 2016
(I own a copy)

A few weeks ago, I went along to a session of the Boffins Books Young Adult Book Club featuring Will Kostakis and Shivaun Plozza (author of Frankie).  I had already bought a copy of The Sidekicks when it had first come out a month or so earlier, intrigued by the concept behind the book.

What if three people all had the same best friend, but weren't friends with each other?  What if the best friend died?  Where would that leave the other three people?

These are the questions that Ryan, Harley and Miles must face after the death of their best friend Isaac in an accident.  From the outset, Miles is adamant that the three of them are not friends, but without Isaac around, each of them discovers that the world is a much lonelier place, even if not all of them are totally alone.  Ryan is the school's champion swimmer, a golden boy whose mother also happens to be Head of English at the school.  However, he is far from the classic stereotype of the Australian golden boy-- he eats incredibly healthy foods to keep fit for his sport, is humble towards his fellow students, has an awesome relationship with his mother, and oh, yeah... he's gay and hasn't told anyone yet.  This is perhaps the most fascinating quandary of the whole book.  As an adult, the farther away I get from high school, the less I think about how much of a minefield it could be; but for Ryan, he's reminded every day that to be 'gay' is the greatest slur of all.  It's used by other students to degrade them for having girly surnames, or to describe activities that are unpleasant.  Ryan is not allowed to forget that what he is might be abhorrent to his friends and peers, simply because of the language and stigma that is already embedded in the school's culture.  He's pretty sure his Mum would be okay with it, but he can't take the risk.  Isaac was one of the only people who knew, and he made Ryan feel safe.  Once Isaac is gone, where does that put Ryan?

Then there is Harley, or Scott Harley, the local school rebel.  There was probably a kid like Harley at every school, a kid that other students were simultaneously scared of and thought was a loser.  He's the one with the drug connections, he wears oversized and dirty clothes, he drinks a lot (although he didn't smoke in the book so that was something.)  I liked Harley, because he wasn't a stereotype.  Kostakis allowed him to have his own say about what was happening, and to show that under the tough and grubby exterior, Harley was suffering too.  He felt guilty about what had happened to Isaac, and in his own way, he did something about it.  I do feel that perhaps Harley's drug using and his connection to whatever Isaac had taken the night he died was not as fully developed a character aspect as it needed to be, but then again I need to take into account that this is a book for young adult readers. What I really did like about Harley was his quest for justice-- in as much vigilante fashion as a high school student could be capable of, Harley set out to right some wrongs, and he didn't punch anyone once.  While Ryan was still my favourite character, I quite enjoyed reading Harley's point of view-- spelling and grammar errors (deliberate on part of the author in creating the voice) and all.

The final section of the book is devoted to Miles, who is called The Nerd in the breakdown on the back of the book, but again, this is not a book that contains stereotypes.  Miles reads a lot, and he gets excellent marks at school, but his priorities are not learning.  The grades seem to be what matter to Miles.  He likes being smarter than the people around him, he's sometimes quite abrasive and he corrects people a lot.  I'm not 100% sure why Isaac hung around with him, and I guess that's the point because neither is Miles.  Miles' entire section is told in the form of a kind of screenplay, because Miles' passion is film-making.  In fact, one of the last things he did with Isaac was make a film called Point of View, a film with a split screen showing different interpretations of the same event.  This film structure closely resembles the structure of The Sidekicks, where certain events are seen from three sides and often come off very differently.  For example, in Miles' story, he doesn't say awkward things like "I have a girlfriend" when he's introduced to Harley's friend Jacs at a social function, something which made him come off like a bit of a dickhead in Harley's version of the same event.  Because Miles' story came last, some of the scenes we'd already seen were written in a way that glossed over bits from the other versions, possibly to not rehash dialogue and action, but the effect was that some of the scenes felt quick.  Nonetheless, Miles' way of dealing with his grief was beautifully realised, and some of the scenes in which he re-watched old video footage of Isaac as a way of spending more time with his friend was really heart wrenching.

I also really liked that his mother used a cut out of an underwear model as a bookmark...

This book has a great repertoire of teen voices showcased in its pages, and it's a highly original story about some very important themes.  If you love great Australian Young Adult literature, please give this ago-- even if you don't consider yourself a young adult!

I gave it four stars.

Wednesday, 8 June 2016

A good writing day...

Today was a good writing day.

Not necessarily because I did any good writing.

It was the kind of day, which, at the end of it, left me feeling as if I would actually make progress on my book, if only I could string a few more of these good writing days together.

Every writer is different in their approach to writing.  There are all sorts of bits of advice floating around the internet, everything from "Write in bed" (which I was once a fan of, but now cannot accomplish because I fall asleep) to "Treat it like a job."  I've tried both approaches.  I've tried writing in pyjamas and I've tried writing in a pencil skirt and high heels.  The truth is, all of that is just another way of procrastinating.  And in all projects, there comes a time when the only way to get the book written is to do the work.

I typically have one day a week at the moment which is my Writing Day, and I am fiercely protective of it in the sense that I don't make social engagements on this day.  I commit to being at home.  I commit to writing, or to doing writing related tasks like admin or blogging or research.  Sometimes this goes well.  Other times, it does not, and in very rare scenarios, these days end with me curled in a ball in the foetal position attempting to cram an entire block of chocolate into my mouth at once.  Writing is the most fickle of all mistresses.  But the longer I do this, the more I realise that it's not worthwhile to sit around and wait for the muse to show up.  In fact, if you make a habit of this, of spending your time doing other things until the mood strikes you, the mood will strike you less and less.  Writing begets more writing.  Doing writing related things begets more writing.  Talking to other writers will even occasionally beget more writing.  (Sidebar, I really like the word 'beget' right now, though my red squiggly line is trying to tell me that it isn't really a word.)

While I only managed about a thousand words today towards my goal of ninety thousand (and I want to be at the halfway point by the end of this month), today what I accomplished were two really important things.

1) I started to feel like I was in control of my research and not that it was in control of me.
2) I kickstarted my brain into living in the world of the novel again and carried small thoughts about my WIP with me wherever I went.

I think the way that, as writers, we think about our work is a really key part of the process.  If we think that we can get away with procrastinating the whole way through, odds are in today's publishing climate, we'll end up being writers in name only.  A good work ethic is just as important to an aspiring novelist as it is to any other kind of job.

You have to set your own writerly parameters, and the only boss you have to answer to is yourself, but likewise, you'll be letting yourself down if you don't do the work.

With this in mind, perhaps tomorrow will be a good writing day too.

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

What Elimy Read in May

While I didn't have time to do a video last month for my reading wrap up, I had a few requests for another recording, so for May's reading round up, I thought I would record a podcast! (Upside of a podcast is I don't even have to bother changing out of my pyjamas if I don't want to.)

I'm trying out Soundcloud, though I don't know if that's the best service to be going with so if anyone has any suggestions, please let me know in the comments.

As I say in the video, I only read seven books in May (and three of those were actually in the last week.)  In June, I am hoping to read ten or more.

Books mentioned:

The World According to Garp by John Irving
The Amber Shadows by Lucy Ribchester
Dear Vincent by Mandy Hagar
The Art of the Novel ed. Nicholas Royle
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte
Brooklyn by Colm Toibin
Obernewtyn by Isobelle Carmody

Best book of the month: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte

Have you read any of these books?  Let me know what you thought in the comments below, or on twitter, where my handle is @batgirlelimy