Saturday, 17 June 2017

10 Self Care Tips for Tough Weeks

10 Tips for Self Care in Tough Weeks | The Incredible Rambling Elimy- Book Reviews and Creative Writing
Like most writers, I have a tendency towards being highly emotional.  I'm a naturally anxious person, and I stress out about things a lot.  When I was younger, I thought that these bouts of anxiety were unstoppable.  That once bad things started happening, I just had to ride the roller coaster into periods of feeling depressed or irritable or panicked, and wait for it all to be over.

I know that I'm really lucky-- my anxieties are far less severe than those of others-- but today, I wanted to share with you all some of the things that have really helped me this week (which has been a bit rocky) and at other times of my life when I've felt like I was stuck standing in the path of an avalanche.

I understand that sometimes, things really can get a bit much and that none of these things will help  Different things help different people.  Sometimes, none of these will work for me either.

If you're struggling, the number for Lifeline Australia is 13 11 14.

If you have some tips for things you do that help you feel better, I'd love it if you could share those with me in the comments too.

1. Heat packs

I don't know about you, but I tend to experience lower moods more frequently in the winter.  We've been really lucky (or not, I suppose, if you're a farmer) in Perth this year because this is the mildest winter I can remember.  Today it's about 22 degrees, and my apartment is so warm, I'm not even wearing stockings or a jumper.  One thing that I've found comforting this week has been to take a heat pack with me to bed.  I have two favourites-- one is shaped like a lemur with gigantic eyes which is great for cuddling and smells a little like lavender.  The other is a big pillow shaped like a rainbow unicorn, which is perfect for putting on hunched shoulders or sore lower backs.  Cuddling up to something warm helps to unclench tight muscles or sore, stressed tummies and ensures that I can fall asleep when I need to.

2. Long, rambling walks

Sometimes when I'm emotionally exhausted, one of the best things I can do is to physically exhaust myself too-- to get some sunshine, to look at the scenery, and to pound the pavement.  I'm not naturally a person who enjoys going to the gym (although I know I should be forming a more regular exercise habit), but I do enjoy walking around the area near where I live.  On beautiful sunny days, or even gloomy rainy ones, armed with an umbrella and sturdy boots, I find it relaxing to get outside and walk to places I need to go-- such as the library, the post office, or the coffee shop.  If I'm feeling particularly stressed, I extend this walk and take in the sights.  This morning, I went to the library to return some books and stumbled upon a busting farmers' market.  If I hadn't been walking home, I might have come home with a stack of cute cacti or a knitted coat for my parents' dog...  Seeing the blue sky and all the autumnal leaves, and even the smiling faces of other people out and about walking made me feel pretty upbeat, so I highly recommend this.  If you're like me and sometimes need to avoid silence, try downloading a podcast and listen while you walk.  I recommend The Readers, Adventures with Words or the slightly more risque Banging Book Club.  Better Reading also has some great interviews with authors you can listen to.

3. Pamper

Whatever your personal style may be, there are always some slightly self indulgent things you can do to make your body feel good-- whether that's getting into the shower and washing your hair really thoroughly, or painting your fingernails, or having a bubble bath, or moisturising.  Sometimes, I find that getting into the shower and making myself feel really squeaky clean and fresh is a great way to hit the restart button on a mopey day.

4. Read an amazing book

What kind of a book blogger would I be if I didn't suggest this?  What you want to do during tough times is pick a book that is really going to hold your attention.  If I find myself reaching for my phone to check Facebook every chapter, the book isn't doing the trick.  If the book you've been reading isn't working, try picking up something completely different, a book you've loved in the past or even a childhood favourite.  When in doubt, I always go for Harry Potter, Little Women or Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants.

5. Limit phone use

I've noticed that there's a bit of a cycle with me and my phone going on at the moment.  The more stressed I am, the more I check my phone, which makes me more stressed. There's probably some psychological explanation for this, but for now, all I know is that I need to cut back.  If you're the same, try putting your phone on loud so you don't miss any calls or messages, but leave your phone in another room if you're at home.  Ask a friend or loved one to speak up if they see you've been on your phone a bit much.  If you're out and about, leave it in your bag and try to enjoy whatever it is that you're doing.  Whatever it was that was going on across social media will either still be there later, or wasn't that important to begin with.

6. Do something crafty

I feel less hopeless when I have a project, but if I'm a bit down in the dumps, sometimes it can be hard to get to the desk and write.  One of the other things I really like doing in my down time is knitting and crocheting.  I'm better at crocheting-- I can only knit things that are straight lines, like scarves!  At the moment, I am working on a blanket made of crocheted granny squares, which I am making out of left over wool from other projects.  I'm going to join it together with black wool and make it look like licorice allsorts.  Having this to do with my hands helps me limit my phone use too.

7. Watch something that you can just escape into

I've been watching season 11 of Bones, which in my opinion has lost some of the punch of the earlier seasons-- but I can't stop watching!  Every season, the showrunners tease a plotline that draws me in, so I know I'll watch the final season too, because I've seen they're bringing an old cast member back.  I know that the dialogue is cringeworthy, the cases are a stretch of what's plausible and there's no way that they can do some of the things they pretend to do with technology, but I enjoy watching it because these are characters I've watched for a long time, and it's comforting to see them solving murders, falling in love etc.  Likewise, I used to love watching One Tree Hill, for which I have been teased many times, but hey, for some people it's Bones  and One Tree Hill, for others it's Gossip Girl or Orange is the New Black ... or whatever.  You get the idea.

8. Clean things

Organising my physical space helps me feel like my mind is organised too.  If you're needing a project, try emptying out your wardrobe for a big clean out.

9. A little help from my friends

Talk to someone.  Go for a coffee, write them a letter, invite them over just to hang out.  It's okay to feel down about things, and it's okay to be overwhelmed.  There is no shame in letting people know that you need help, or even just company.

10.  Write about it!

Do you keep a journal?  I do.  Sometimes I can't write about things right away, but if I pour out everything that's been happening, and how I feel about it, onto the page, sometimes it's easier to let go of some of the tension that's built up.  Other things I've found useful this week are:
Making lists of things I need to do.
Writing fiction and getting out of my own head.
Planning upcoming projects and looking ahead.

I hope you're all having a great weekend.   What do you do when you feel a bit overwhelmed?  Let me know in the comments below, or on Facebook, or on Twitter.  (My handle is @BatgirlElimy)

Take care of yourselves.

Sunday, 11 June 2017

What Am I Working On? About Between the Sleepers

In a nutshell...

Between the Sleepers is a wrong side of the tracks love story with a twist.  It follows the story of working class Winston Keller, who falls in love with Sarah Willis, the daughter of a wealthy tycoon. Winston not only has to battle the differences between their social classes, but also the feud that has raged between the two families for a generation. In the midst of all this, World War II breaks out, and Winston finds himself working on the Thai-Burma Railway, while back home, Sarah must work out who she really is and what she really wants.

Between the Sleepers is a 90 000 word Historical Fiction novel set in Fremantle between 1937 and 1945.

It would suit readers who enjoy the works of Deborah Burrows, or The Light Between Oceans by ML Stedman.

About the book...

I've long been a lover of historical fiction.  I remember reading Kate Morton's The Shifting Fog for the first time and being totally blown away by it.  That book has always been a little bit magical to me.  As someone who loves history, the fact that great stories continue to be written which combine the past with the present in such a meaningful and exiting way, is something that makes me extremely happy.

I've been known to describe Between the Sleepers as what would happen if Richard Flanagan's The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Kate Morton's The Shifting Fog had a book-baby.  Those two novels would have to be the biggest influences on this particular work to date.  In writing Between the Sleepers, I've tried to be mindful of the deep reverence Flanagan showed for his subject matter and the scene setting and characterisation in Narrow Road, as well as integrating some of the romance and magic of The Shifting Fog.  

Between the Sleepers begins in 1937 and ends in 1945.  It is the story of Winston Keller, a working class boy with artistic leanings, and Sarah Willis, whose father owns a cigarette factory and is doing quite well for himself.  The two meet at a dinner party and are drawn to one another despite the differences in their situation.  However, Sarah's father isn't particularly keen on the match, and when Winston goes to the Willis house to ask for Sarah's hand, he is sharply rebuffed.  Secrets from his father's past will come back to haunt him in this tale of love, endurance and growing up set in Fremantle, Western Australia.  

Part of this book was written while I was Young Writer in Residence at the Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers' Centre in 2014, and the most recent reworking of the manuscript has been done as part of a mentorship with WA Writer, Annabel Smith.  An earlier draft of my novel was appraised by Deb Fitzpatrick, who wrote that ‘the strengths of this manuscript are many; the clever use of dialogue to reveal characters and keep the pace ticking along is perhaps my favourite.  The authentic detail you populate your scenes with is another.  You are also adept at describing ghastly events…’ 

This is a story that has taken hold of me and won't let go.  I began writing in in 2008 and have rewritten it so many times that I've lost count.  I hope one day I'll be able to share this book with all of you.  

Friday, 9 June 2017

Book Review: Idaho by Emily Ruskovich

Idaho by Emily Ruskovich
Chatto and Windus 2017
I own a copy

Idaho was one of my most anticipated books of 2017.  If I am being totally honest, it was largely due to the striking cover, and the fact that I was seeing it talked about everywhere in the online book reviewing community.  I saw special bound proofs of it on people's Twitter and Instagram feeds (part of a set of YA books being released this year, I think--- bizarrely, as it's not YA at all), and I even saw a few bloggers raving about it early on.

For some reason, I got it into my head that it was an historical novel.  Bizarre, given that American history is seldom something I am drawn to.  But it's not, it's a contemporary novel which switches back and forth over a period of something like forty years.  It's hard to boil down the premise of this book without over simplifying it.  This is a book which is told from multiple perspectives, shedding light on the aftermath of something really terrible that has happened in a particular family.  But, oddly enough, all of the points of view telling this story are removed either by time, or by proximity to the event, so that the perspective being given is really oblique.  The book begins first with a chapter from the point of view of Ann, who is now married to Wade, the father of the family who experienced the tragedy.  Ann was a music teacher at the school where the two girls went, and she taught piano to Wade before the incident.  Ann and Wade were attracted to one another, and in this section, Ann had begun to wonder if perhaps she was somehow responsible for the terrible incident-- I don't think it's spoiling anything to tell you what this incident is, but if you don't want to know, stop reading now.  One day, the Mitchell family go out onto the mountain where they live to chop firewood with their two little girls, May and June.  During this afternoon, the wife, Jenny, kills May with a hatchet and no one is really sure what caused her to do this.  In the confusion, June is left behind on the mountain and never seen again.


And the thing is, the book keeps reiterating the horrible fact of this event, but it doesn't provide us with any resolution.  It's not going to offer you any insight into what happened to June, or why Jenny really did it.  But what it does offer you instead, is a portrait of this really weird extended family, including cell mates and new wives, and then some segments in the past, that tell you a little about the period leading up the event and then the years that followed, without taking you to the event itself.  In the beginning of reading this book, when I was two chapters in and being talked to (in beautiful prose by the way, this woman can really write) by characters who were so peripheral that I felt like nothing was happening, I was tempted to give up this book.  And I thought of all the rave reviews I'd heard and thought to myself, no, there's got to be a payoff.  So I kept reading.

Was there a payoff?  Not of the sort I wanted, but at the same time, I didn't feel ripped off by the ending to this book the way I did with another book that never resolves its trauma which I really loathed-- The Little Friend by Donna Tartt.  I think the real strengths of this book are its prose and its characterisation, but if you go into it looking for plot you're going to get cross.  It's a book you have to read slowly, but if you're willing to do that, there are some real gems to be found.

I gave this book three stars.

Saturday, 3 June 2017

Not a Review: Joiner Bay and other stories

Joiner Bay and other stories
Edited by Ellen van Neerven
Margaret River Press 2017

This is not going to be a review of the 2017 Margaret River Short Story Competition Anthology... because I have a piece in it, and that just wouldn't be fair.  This is just my thoughts... which resemble a review.

But I did want to say that once again, Margaret River Press have done an absolutely stellar job publishing this collection of stories.  From hundreds of entries, the team of judges (including head judge, Ellen van Neerven, who selected the shortlist) have whittled this year's selection down to seventeen different pieces, showcasing the breadth of talent in the Australian short story scene.

Winning piece 'Joiner Bay', by Brisbane-based writer Laura Elvery shows off exactly why Elvery is a name to watch.  With an impressive list of writing credits to her name, including the Griffith Review and The Big Issue, Elvery is a practised hand at the short form.  At the 2017 Margaret River Readers and Writers Festival, Elvery talked a little bit about the inspiration for her piece, which is about a teenage boy who has thrown himself into running after the suicide of his best friend.  But as much as she'd love to chalk it up to snippets of overheard conversations in cafes, it's plain to see from reading 'Joiner Bay' that it's 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration and talent for this writer-- the story reads effortlessly and is a perfect ending to a collection which spans topics of grief, aging, love, survival, confronting past traumas and other such themes.

This collection also features 'Sheen' by Else Fitzgerald, a speculative fiction piece about the not too distant future which took out second place in the competition this year, and 'Harbour Lights' by Leslie Thiele, winner of the South West Writers Prize, sponsored by ECU Bunbury.  In 'Harbour Lights', a clear sense of Bunbury is evoked on the page, as the main character navigates a routine dinner party that takes a nasty turn.

Other stand out stories for me were 'Oh, The Water' by Keren Heenan, which was simple and understated in the most beautiful way; 'Things to Come' by Charlotte Guest, a heartbreaking story about love and the terror of losing control of one's faculties; and 'Still Life with Dying Swan' by Gail Chrisfield, which left me close to tears.

I feel incredibly privileged to have a story in this collection, alongside these writers.

Joiner Bay and Other Stories is published by Margaret River Press, and you can find a copy at any good bookshop.  If they don't have it, make them order it!

Happy reading.

Monday, 29 May 2017

Book Review: Bloodlines by Nicole Sinclair

Nicole Sinclair
Margaret River Press 2017 (I own a copy, courtesy the publisher.)

Nicole Sinclair's debut novel Bloodlines is set between Western Australia and a small island in Papua New Guinea.  It is the story of Beth, who heads to PNG to work with her father's cousin at a mission school, in an attempt to run away from the recent breakdown of a relationship.  From page one, we know that Beth feels guilty for this breakdown, and that she thinks she has done something very bad indeed.  It's a classic tale-- after a life changing event, the protagonist seeks healing through travel.  But there are many layers to Bloodlines besides this.  Told in a literary style, this is a novel which examines the clash between traditional and Western culture, the hangovers of colonialism, relationships, romance, and the power of female friendships.  Strong women abound in the pages of this book, from Beth herself, to her father's cousin Val, who has run the mission school for many years and lives a single but self sufficient life surrounded by the friends she has made, the island women in the compound such as Lena, who makes her own way in the world despite the objections of her brutish and mostly absent husband, and, in flash back, Beth's mother Rose, who leaves home and strikes out on her own in a new state.

The inclusion of the story of Beth's parents' courtship is an interesting stylistic choice, and one which works very well.  Clem and Rose's romance, while following less of a literary bent than the rest of the book, softens what could otherwise be quite a solemn and introspective narrative, and builds on the character of Beth by hinting at the kind of home life she has had and the kind of people who raised her.  While the reader knows from early on that Rose is not alive for most of Beth's life, as their love story progresses, it's easy to enjoy the gradual unfolding of Clem and Rose's courtship.  I admired the simple way that Sinclair wrote these scenes-- there was no purple prose to be found, no sighing, no hearts fluttering.  While the book probably could have functioned without these scenes, I found them a useful inclusion, and they went a long way to making this story an original and familiar one, grounding it in West Australian life.

Truth be told, I didn't expect to enjoy this novel as much as I did.  I've never been particularly interested in books about healing through travel (not since Eat Pray Love...) but Bloodlines won me over.  I found myself bawling in parts, and this is no mean feat-- the only times I seem to cry in books is when dogs die, so for me to cry over the death of a human character is an achievement on the part of the author.

I highly recommend you pick up a copy of this incredible book.

I'll be in conversation with Nicole Sinclair at the State Library of WA on Thursday June 8th at 5.30pm.  You can book tickets here.  

Friday, 26 May 2017

Book Review: Crimson Lake by Candice Fox

Crimson Lake by Candice Fox
Published by Penguin/Random House, 2017
(I borrowed a copy from the library)

I wasn't going to review this book.  In fact, not being a crime reader by nature, I probably wasn't even going to read it, until the lovely Erin chose it for our June Book Club meeting.  That being said, from the prologue, I was totally hooked, and I read the entire book in a twenty-four hour period.  What made Crimson Lake so appealing, I think, mainly comes down to the excellent characters.  We've seen the sleuthing duo trope done many times before, both in books and on television (it's rife on television!  One quirky optimist + one tough pessimist, one or other of them a cop or an ex-cop etc etc) but in Crimson Lake, while this dynamic is still in play, the characters' backstories feed directly into active subplots.  So really, while the plot of Crimson Lake revolves around the disappearance of a Far North Queensland fantasy writer, there are actually three mysteries to be solved by the reader as they follow along with the book.

First in importance to my mind is the mystery of what really happened to Claire Bingley.

Our protagonist and narrator, Ted Conkaffey, has been accused of her abduction, rape and attempted murder but he's innocent (or says he is, but he hasn't revealed himself to be an unreliable narrator to my mind).  It's completely ruined his life.  And while there wasn't enough evidence to go through with the trial (because why risk getting him acquitted?) the police could still pick him up again any time they like.  After spending almost a year in jail, during which his wife has left him, taking their baby daughter with her, Ted moves to Crimson Lake, up in Queensland's top end.  A place where the crocs sing you to sleep of a night and the cops are bent.

Ted is railroaded into teaming up with Crimson Lake's local Private Investigator, Amanda Pharrell.  They have something in common.  A decade ago, Amanda was convicted for the stabbing murder of Crimson Lake teenager, Lauren Freeman.  She spent ten years in jail.

But the more Ted gets to know Amanda, the more he feels there has to be something missing from her story.  She doesn't seem like the kind of cold blooded psycho killer the world seems to think she is.  Mystery number three.

This was a real page turner, and though like many popular crime books these days, the mystery at its heart is a little convoluted (suspend your disbelief and just go with it), I can't wait to read book 2.  Too bad it won't be out until February 2018...

Monday, 22 May 2017

Book Review: The Hope Fault by Tracy Farr

The Hope FaultTracy FarrFremantle Press, 2017 (I own a copy, courtesy of the publisher)

Australia seems to have a habit of claiming talented New Zealanders for their own when it suits them-- but if the talented Kiwi in question is Tracy Farr, I have no problem naming her a West Australian.  After all, she's originally from here.  Tracy's first novel, The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt was longlisted for the 2014 Miles Franklin Literary Award, and remains to this day one of my favourite novels of all time.  Her second novel, The Hope Fault was released early in 2017, and I have been kicking myself for not getting to it sooner.  More experimental in style than The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt, The Hope Fault tells the story of an unconventional family, who spend one rainy long weekend packing up a holiday house ready to sell it.  

Yet, to sum up this novel in just that one sentence seems horribly wrong to me.  This is a slow burner of a novel, and one which takes its cues not just from polished literary fiction styles, but also the techniques of poetry and film, geology and-- dare I say it, cross stitching.  Farr's prose is beautiful, her imagery evocative without being overdone.  Some of her scenes last for less than a page, and yet she tells you all you need to know to get inside the heads of her cast of characters.  

The novel takes place in three parts.  The first part is the first half of the long weekend, and we meet Iris Diamond, her son, Kurt and her ex-niece/ daughter of her best friend, Lucy, as they drive down to the old family holiday home at a place called Cassetown, somewhere in WA's coastal South West.  Cassetown is named for a geologist, Casse, who drowned on an expedition to the bay.  (Fairly certain that Cassetown is not a real place, though it seems to be based on real places.)  Joining them at the house are Paul (Iris's ex-husband/ Kurt's father), Kristin (the woman Paul left Iris for) and their as-yet unnamed baby daughter.  Much of the depth of this novel comes from the nuanced way the writer explores the complicated relationships between these characters, and the way that they have become family despite Paul's infidelity to Iris.  

The second part of the novel follows the life of Iris's almost-100 year old mother, Rosa Golden, who was once Rosa Fortune, author of Miss Fortune's Faery Tales.  Rosa's life is told backwards, in 100 jigsaw pieces, some like confessions or diary entries, and others, letters.  The task of revealing the secrets that have shaped both Iris's and Rosa's lives in this reverse fashion would not have been an easy  one, but Tracy Farr has deftly managed to create tension in her narrative here and the result takes the reader into the third section of the novel searching everywhere for hidden meanings that not even the characters know.  

Section three is the last two days of the long weekend, the aftermath of a large House Un-breaking party held by the Diamond clan to send their house off in style.  I won't say much about this part of the novel, as you need to experience it for yourself.  

While I would have loved more of something like Lena, I enjoyed delving into the world of The Hope Fault, and was inspired by the craft of the novel-- the way that something as simple as a family weekend down south can be fertile ground for a literary fiction novel which I would not be surprised to see on prize shortlists in the near future.  

Thursday, 18 May 2017

18 000 Words In

After months of 'not feeling it' creatively, it's really great to be back at the desk (or the kitchen table), working on a project.

It's great to be reserving more books than I could possible read over three weeks from two different libraries, in order to immerse myself fully in the dialect of the era I am writing about.

It's great to feel my fingers flying along the keyboard, retyping familiar words.  It's even better when they go off script, adding or replacing words which are defunct or have no place.

It's great to be showing my work to beta readers, getting feedback-- though always jarring to hear that the things I thought I'd done well were not the parts that stood out, and things I'd overlooked were the parts that shone.  Writing is bizarre.

It's great to be drinking cups of tea.  It's even great to be getting so caught up in writing that I forget said cup of tea, only to take a tepid sip an hour or two later.

It's great to want to rush home from wherever I am of a night and sit down at my desk (or kitchen table).

I am 18 000 words in, and this is the first night since I got the edits back that I have wondered-- am I making this book better, or am I making it worse?

The only way out is through.

Back to the desk. Or kitchen table.  Or wherever.

Monday, 1 May 2017

Book Review: The Midsummer Garden

The Midsummer Garden by Kirsty Manning
Allen and Unwin 2017 (I bought a copy)

I have been wanting a copy of The Midsummer Garden ever since I saw the cover a few months back.  Yes... I judge books by their covers, or rather, I lust after them and want desperately to have them in my collection.  Never underestimate the value of a great jacket design, folks!  When I read the blurb for this gorgeous looking book, I was sold.  Multi-narrative historical fiction, a found object tying the past to the present-- yes please.  It sounded like exactly my cup of tea.  The kind of book I could get absolutely lost in.

And boy, did this book live up to expectations!

Pip Arnet is given a big set of cast iron pots for an engagement gift.  Inside, she finds papers with French recipes written on them, and is intrigued.  Who wrote them, and how long ago?  The answer, revealed to the reader, takes us back to Medieval France, where Artemesia is cooking a lavish feast for the wedding of Lord Bouchard to Lady Rose, and thinking of her own betrothed, Andreas.  As Pip and her partner Jack navigate the bumpy road that comes after their engagement, their love story is bolstered by the story of Artemesia and Andreas, who in a sense, watch over our modern lovers and influence their love story in more ways than Pip and Jack could possibly be aware of.

First of all, Kirsty Manning can write.  This is a book that is first and foremost about romantic relationships.  Love, marriage, and all the stages that come in between.  But at no point is the writing sodden with soppy adjectives.  Manning writes deftly about the emotions associated with loving someone in a mature, engaging way.  While anguish, confusion and heartache all have their roles to play, the book never thumps you over the head with repetitious, overly emotional descriptions, which seems to be the way with quite a few books these days.  I think it can mostly be put down to the fact that the character of Pip is so well-developed.  Yes, she's following the story line that belongs with her relationship, but she's also got a lot else going on too-- just like a real woman would.  She's trying to finish her PhD in Marine Biology, she's trying to figure out what she wants to do with her life, she's worried about her sister... and of course she's fascinated by these beautiful old recipes that were found inside a set of pots given to her on her engagement.

Second, this book is relatively realistic.  Looking at the acknowledgements in the back of the book, Kirsty Manning has spoken to a lot of experts to get this right.  And unlike in so many books of this historical fiction/ contemporary fiction blend, there is no convenient, overly expositional revelation of the truth behind the manuscript that Pip finds.  We, the reader get to know the truth, but Pip only ever gets part of it, and she does with that what she will, which is great.  As someone who studied history, I only wish that some of the convenient coincidences that happen in historical fiction could have happened to me.  (What?  Your great great aunt wrote this diary and you happen to have the other half which reveals who the murderer was?  Great.  Thanks.  I love that you just happened to live in the same city as me even though the artefact is actually from half the world away.  NO.)

Put simply, I really loved this book and I think that if you enjoyed books like Le Chateau by Sarah Ridout, Labyrinth by Kate Mosse or The Shifting Fog by Kate Morton, you'll really love it too.

I gave it four and a half stars.

Friday, 28 April 2017

Book Review: See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt

See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt
Hachette Publishers 2017 (I own a copy, courtesy of the publishers)

Arguably one of the most anticipated Australian debuts of 2017, the word of mouth marketing campaign for Sarah Schmidt's See What I Have Done began late last year, when the book was featured at the Christmas Roadshow as a book to look out for.  A fictional account of the 1892 murders of Andrew and Abby Borden, allegedly at the hands of Andrew's daughter Lizzie, melds the genres of historical fiction and thriller, providing a tantalising premise akin to that of Hannah Kent's Burial Rites.

For many people, the name Lizzie Borden won't be an unfamiliar one.  She is the subject of a chilling rhyme, and it's from this that the book gets its title:

Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.

And yet, the book calls into question Lizzie's guilt.  Did she really kill her father and stepmother?  And if so, might she have had a good reason.

The answers are not so simple.

Told from four different points of view, See What I Have Done paints a complicated portrait of family life at 92 Second Street, the house where the murders took place.  There is Lizzie, 32 years old and still living at home, teaching Sunday school.  Her voice is an eerily childlike one, hinting at some sort of stunting in her emotional growth.  Then there is Lizzie's elder sister, Emma, also still living at home after a broken engagement.  Lizzie and Emma are close, but Emma often feels stifled by her sister's neediness towards her.  For Lizzie, Emma is a kind of mother figure, as she took over much of the care of her younger sister after the death of their mother at two years old.  Lizzie is not a sweet, innocent kind of needy-- she is in fact a controlling, manipulative and competitive sort, and at times her treatment of Emma is quite cruel.  Yet Emma seems to let her get away with it, and only seems to gain some measure of control over her life once she goes to Fairhaven to stay with a friend.  She has just begun to relish the freedom associated with not replying to Lizzie's letters when the murders occur.  The second point of view in the book belongs to Bridget, a young, Irish maid who appears to be grossly overworked by the Borden women.  She is annoyed by their strict rules of locking all of the doors in the house, and has made two attempts to leave their service, but both times she has been thwarted by Mrs Borden.  The second incident was on the day of the murders.

But it is the final point of view which is the strangest.  It belongs to Benjamin, a young itinerant man who is approached by the Borden girls' Uncle John, and asked to put the hard word to Andrew Borden about the way he treats his daughters.  Benjamin and John travel to Fall River, with the express intention of Benjamin intimidating Andrew Borden, and along the journey, we learn that Benjamin has had a somewhat violent past and has a reputation for being a little bit of a thug.

Not having known much about this story beforehand, I'm not sure if Benjamin was a real character or not, but his presence at the house on the day of the murders does serve an interesting role in getting the story told, particularly when Lizzie's account is less than sound.

If the author's intention here was to leave the reader thoroughly creeped out, then she has certainly achieved her goal.  Lizzie's voice was unsettling and somewhat manic, and led me around and around in circles until I was thoroughly disoriented.  At times, the writing in this novel became almost a stream of consciousness, with certain onomatopoeic words repeated for effect-- such at tick tick for a clock on the mantle.  Most of the action in the novel takes place in the one house or the surrounding area, on the one day, and the result of this plus the off-beat sense provided by the writing style is a kind of tense claustrophobia-- akin to when a secret is being kept by people in close proximity, which in a sense, was true.

This was an interesting novel, but I wasn't as blown away by it as I had hoped that I would be.  Instead of the kind of historical recreation that I adore, this novel took more cues from a kind of tense, domestic thriller, akin to books like Gone Girl, minus a shocking twist at the end.  I think the writing in this book was stunning, the metaphors and similes fresh and stimulating, the characterisation of Lizzie and Emma in particular was spectacular, and the novel completely distinguished itself from anything else out there.  But I wanted more.  I wanted secrets and twists, and the novel just didn't go deep enough into the why for that.

I gave this book 4 stars.

Friday, 21 April 2017

Back Between the Sleepers once more

Those of you I've met around the place in Perth this year will probably know that I've been working on a collection of short fiction entitled "Well-Behaved Women".  This collection, featuring the stories which have been previously published or shortlisted in other places, as well as some new work I've been developing over the last six months, has been a consuming project.  I was inundated with different character voices I didn't know I'd been storing up for later.  All sorts of things were inspiring me.  The news.  Our trip to Albany.  Classic Australian literature.  People I saw on the street.  I was getting close to having enough stories to start thinking about arrangement.

And then everything came to a crashing halt.  

I mean everything.  My short stories, this blog... even writing in my journal.  I was fresh out of ideas, and what's more, I was completely out of words for the stories I was trying to rework.  

All of this happened at around the time of the Perth Writers' Festival which was two months ago now.  

You see, I handed over the manuscript of my historical fiction novel to a local writer who had offered to mentor me.  I thought I would be fine, that I would work away on my short stories, practise my craft, sharpen the knives of my prose on the metaphorical whetstone so to speak.  But the part of my brain that writes fiction seemed to shut down.  

Okay, I thought.  That's fine.  I'll have a break.  I'll read some of the many novels piling up next to my bed and on my desk and in our living room.  I'll write some reviews.  I'll get myself mentally ready for the next draft of Between the Sleepers.  I had a few months.  I would be fine.  

Essentially, I was going to trick myself into writing again, but I wasn't going to be fooled by myself that easily, as it seemed.  

As time wore on, it got worse and worse.  It reached its apex two weeks ago when I couldn't even bring myself to write during one of the fortnightly Write Nights sessions which I help run at the Centre for Stories.  Writing prompts did not move me, writing books did not move me, listening to Elizabeth Gilbert's podcast did not move me and meditation did not move me.  By this point, I was ropeable.  I had a mini tantrum just the other night because I felt like I was turning into a blocked drain with legs.  

And then, like the clouds parting after a particularly vicious storm, a thought came to me while I was sitting at my desk at work.  Just a simple premise at first, but then layers started to build until I had a character and a situation.  I quickly scribbled them down, and that night, when writing time came around... 1000 words came.  

And then the next day, my manuscript assessment came back.  So now, it's time to get down to business on the tenth draft of Between the Sleepers, and wait for the short story well to fill up again.  

Monday, 17 April 2017

Easter Long Weekend- The Four Day Book Binge

I don't know about all of you, but I find it somewhat frustrating when I go a while without finishing any books.  I've had writer's block lately, and I've also been reading really long fantasy novels that were recommended to me, so I actually was reading-- but it had started to feel like all I ever did was sit around watching television.  It's the Netflix curse.  It's far too easy to turn the TV on now and then realise a few hours later that you've forgotten to do vital things like wash clean clothes for the next day, or take a shower, or exercise.  (Just kidding.  You can't forget to do something you had no intention of doing in the first place... although I really should...)

Anyway, with the glorious prospect of a four day weekend ahead of me (thank you, Easter), I decided to hit the reset button, and set myself a reading challenge.  I was going to finish four books in four days.  Or, to be realistic, I knew that I could probably finish two books in that time, but that if I really loved the books I chose, I could probably make it to four.  So I aimed high.

It's been a great weekend.  Many cups of tea have been consumed.  In fact, I have had so many cups of tea this weekend that my boyfriend is sick of making them for me.  (He shouldn't make such delicious tea, then I wouldn't ask him all the time.)  I've eaten WAY too much chocolate (see above comment about exercise.)  And I've almost finished my fourth book.  I also have a slightly sore back from lazing around so much but I'm not going to dwell on that.

Here are the books I read over the long weekend.

Before they are Hanged by Joe Abercrombie

The last book in the the First Law trilogy.  This was a recommendation from the boyfriend, who loved these books he's devoured all three of these, plus the three companion novels, and is currently reading the recently released short story collection from the same universe.  Yep.  He loves them.  And I can see why.  There are a lot of tropes in fantasy, but Abercrombie's characterisation is complex and challenging, and it's not always true that you can see clearly who the good guys are and the bad guys are.  It's hard to guess any of the major plot points in these books but they've clearly been thought out.  I really enjoyed jumping out of my comfort zone and into the realm of epic fantasy... but gosh did these books take FOREVER to read.  Full disclosure, I was halfway through this book when I woke up Friday.

The Hidden Hours by Sara Foster

I think Sara Foster has really hit her stride with her last two novels, which were more firmly grounded in the thriller genre.  She's a master of making you turn the page, enticing her reading through a trail of breadcrumbs to keep going until the whole book has been read in a single sitting.  I loved that the premise of The Hidden Hours was a murder within the publishing industry, because it was that detail which made this reader who usually avoids crime novels pick up this book as soon as the library got it in stock (in fact, she may have asked the library to get it.)  Through a recent trend in domestic thrillers which feature a central character who is not a detective or part of the police, books like this are challenging the typical and frankly sometimes tired murder mystery genre, experimenting with unreliable, inexperienced and sometimes untrustworthy points of view to force the reader to take a more active role in the investigation.  Though the fact that Eleanor, the main character of The Hidden Hours, was unable to remember her part in the crime because of memory loss led me to think of The Girl on the Train, I relished the way that Foster used clever characterisation to flip notions of 'victim' and 'perpetrator' on their heads.  I definitely recommend you read this.  Make sure you have a whole day free.

The Wrath and the Dawn and The Rose and the Dagger by Renee Ahdieh

A YA/ Romance retelling of the 1001 Nights, The Wrath and the Dawn and it's sequel, The Rose and the Dagger tell the story of Shahrzad, who volunteers to wed the caliph of Khorasan, knowing full well that he murders his brides with a silver cord at dawn.  She enters the marriage intent on getting revenge for the murder of her best friend, Shiva, but discovers that there is more to the situation than meets the eye.  But can that ever excuse what has been done?  I've not finished the sequel yet, and I'll be back in the chair after this to do so, but what I love about these books is the way the elements of the setting and the culture have been gently braided into the narrative, the strength of Shahrzad as a character, and the effortless feel of the romance between the two main characters.  There are no heaving bosoms, there are very few cliches, and I completely believe that these characters belong together without the author having to lecture me about it.  She saves her words for more important parts of the plot.  I recommend if you're going to read book one, you have book two ready to go-- don't make the mistake I made, finishing book one when all the libraries and bookstores were out of your reach.

Now that I'm feeling nice and rested (and actually ready to go back to work... who knew!?), hopefully my writer's block will go away.  
Here's hoping!

Monday, 10 April 2017

Progress Report- Most Anticipated Reads

Last December, I posted this piece about the books coming out in the first half of 2017 I was excited to get my hands on.  But like so many bookworms, I have a habit of never getting around to reading all of the things I want to read-- or, even worse, buying them, and letting them pile up and never reading them.  In an effort to keep myself accountable, I thought I'd check in and see how many of the books I wanted to read I had actually read!

I've removed a few that aren't out yet or have only just been released.

The Fifth Letter by Nicola Moriarty

Have I read it?  Yes!

Did I love it? Yes!  I enjoyed this book so much more than the latest book by that other famous Moriarty and I would definitely put another book by Nicola Moriarty on my most anticipated books list again.  


Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Have I read it? No, but I do own it.  I am hoping to get to it very soon!

A little taster from the blurb on Goodreads... On February 22, 1862, two days after his death, Willie Lincoln was laid to rest in a marble crypt in a Georgetown cemetery. That very night, shattered by grief, Abraham Lincoln arrives at the cemetery under cover of darkness and visits the crypt, alone, to spend time with his son’s body. 

The Possessions by Sara Flannery Murphy

Have I read it? Yes.

Did I love it? The Possessions is already a strong contender for one of my top books of the year. It was dark and delicious with this intelligent, Margaret Atwood style writing and I want more. 


The Roanoke Girls by Amy Engel

Have I read it?  Not yet but I do own it.

From the Goodreads blurb: After her mother's suicide, fifteen year-old Lane Roanoke came to live with her grandparents and fireball cousin, Allegra, on their vast estate in rural Kansas. Lane knew little of her mother's mysterious family, but she quickly embraced life as one of the rich and beautiful Roanoke girls. But when she discovered the dark truth at the heart of the family, she ran fast and far away.Eleven years later, Lane is adrift in Los Angeles when her grandfather calls to tell her Allegra has gone missing.

See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt

Have I read it?  It one of the books on my TBR pile next to my bed.  I still can't believe I didn't read this months ago when I first got the proof copy.  

Read more on Sarah Schmidt's blog if you dare!

Difficult Women by Roxane Gay

Have I read it?
Technically yes, but I didn't finish it.  

Did I love it? No.  I was a bit disappointed in this book. 


The Keeper of Lost Things by Ruth Hogan

Have I read it?

Am I still going to? Probably not!  This was a case of cover lust for me and I have to be realistic--- there are only so many books I can read a year.  

You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine by Alexandra Kleeman

Have I read it?
Am I still going to?  Again, probably not.  

Trapeze Act by Libby Angel

Have I read it? No, but I own it and I plan on getting to it soon.

This novel is about a young woman whose mother was a world-famous circus performer, worked out on her lout of a husband while on tour in Australia, and tried to settle down in Adelaide...  sounds great, right?  Hurry up January so I can find out!

Came Back to Show You I Could Fly (Text Classics) by Robin Klein

Have I read it? Yes, I finished it last week and I can't believe I read this in Primary School.  There's no way I would have understood all the references to drugs and clinics and prostitution back then.  Still an excellent book.  I am now pondering whether I want to read all of the Melling Sisters books.  

Her Mother's Secret by Natasha Lester

Have I read it yet?  

Did I love it?  I love all of Natasha's books and always enjoy escaping into them.


Armistice Day should bring peace into Leonora's life. Rather than secretly making cosmetics in her father's chemist shop to sell to army nurses such as Joan, her adventurous Australian friend, Leo hopes to now display her wares openly. Instead, Spanish flu arrives in the village, claiming her father's life. Determined to start over, she boards a ship to New York City. On the way she meets debonair department store heir Everett Forsyth . . . (Goodreads)

Ambulance Girls by Deborah Burrows

Have I read it? Just finished it recently.
Did I love it?  It was pretty delightful and made a great weekend read.  My favourite Burrows is still definitely Taking a Chance though.


From Goodreads: As death and destruction fall from the skies day after day in the London Blitz, Australian ambulance driver, Lily Brennan, confronts the horror with bravery, intelligence, common sense and humour.

Gwen by Goldie Goldbloom

Have I read it yet?
No!  And I have had it since before Christmas.  Shameful.

In 1903, the artist Gwendolen Mary John travels from London to France with her companion Dorelia. Surviving on their wits and Gwen’s raw talent, the young women walk from Calais to Paris. In the new century, the world is full of promise: it is time for Gwen to step out from the shadow of her overbearing brother Augustus and seek out the great painter and sculptor Auguste Rodin. It is time to be brave and visible, to love and be loved – and time perhaps to become a hero as the stain of anti-Semitism spreads across Europe.

The Hope Fault by Tracy Farr

Have I read it yet? Again, no!  I am sorry Tracy.  *Hangs head in shame*

Iris’s family – her ex-husband with his new wife and baby; her son, and her best friend’s daughter – gather to pack up their holiday house. They are there for one last time, one last weekend, and one last party – but in the course of this weekend, their connections will be affirmed, and their frailties and secrets revealed – to the reader at least, if not to each other. The Hope Fault is a novel about extended family: about steps and exes and fairy godmothers; about parents and partners who are missing, and the people who replace them. (Goodreads)

The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O'Neill

Have I read it yet? No, but I just got it for my birthday last week. 

Goodreads says: Two babies are abandoned in a Montreal orphanage in the winter of 1910. Before long, their talents emerge: Pierrot is a piano prodigy; Rose lights up even the dreariest room with her dancing and comedy. As they travel around the city performing clown routines, the children fall in love with each other and dream up a plan for the most extraordinary and seductive circus show the world has ever seen. 

The Woolgrower's Companion by Joy Rhoades

Have I read it yet? No, but I think this will be one I get out of the library at some point.  It is definitely a subject I am interested in but I have been drawn to other sorts of books recently.  

From Goodreads: Kate Dowd’s mother raised her to be a lady but she must put away her white gloves and pearls to help save her family’s sheep farm in New South Wales.

It is 1945, the war drags bitterly on and it feels like the rains will never come again. All the local, able-bodied young men, including the husband Kate barely knows, have enlisted and Kate’s father is struggling with his debts and his wounds from the Great War. He borrows recklessly from the bank and enlists two Italian prisoners of war to live and work on the station.

With their own scars and their defiance, the POWs Luca and Vittorio offer an apparent threat to Kate and Daisy, the family’s young Aboriginal maid. But danger comes from surprising corners and Kate finds herself more drawn to Luca than afraid of him.

Scorned bank managers, snobbish neighbours and distant husbands expect Kate to fail and give up her home but over the course of a dry, desperate year she finds within herself reserves of strength and rebellion that she could never have expected.

The Woolgrower’s Companion is the gripping story of one woman’s fight to save her home and a passionate tribute to Australia’s landscape and its people.

Before You Forget by Julia Lawrinson

Have I read it yet? No, which is ridiculous because it won't take me long and I know I am going to love it.  

I have lost count of how many times I have read Skating the Edge.  A new YA book by Julia Lawrinson is always a must-have for me as her words spoke to me when I was a teen and continue to do so now that I am a grown-up (hey, the numbers say so even if the behaviour doesn't!).  Here's what Goodreads has to say:  Year Twelve is not off to a good start for Amelia. Art is her world, but her art teacher hates everything she does; her best friend has stopped talking to her; her mother and father may as well be living in separate houses; and her father is slowly forgetting everything. Even Amelia.

Scorecard: 6/ 22

Hmmm time to get reading I think!  

Have you read any of these?  Let me know what you thought in the comments.  

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Weekend Read: Ambulance Girls

Ambulance Girls (Ambulance Girls #1)
Deborah Burrows
Ebury Press 2017 

This past weekend, I devoured WA author Deborah Burrows's latest book in a couple of sittings.  It was delightful to escape into the version of World War Two London that this talented author had created, and follow alongside the eponymous Ambulance Girl of the title.  Lily Brennan, a young Australian teacher, has being travelling--  working as a governess in Europe for a wealthy family, learning languages-- but when the Blitz begins, she is a member of the Ambulance service and her job is to go out onto the streets and help those trapped or wounded when the bombs fall.  When we first meet Lily, she is crawling through the remains of a bombed out house in order to rescue two children who have been left stranded inside.  We quickly learn that Lily is tenacious and a woman of great moral integrity.  Lily's partner is David Levy, a young Jewish man whose background causes some unrest among his fellow ambulance station workers.  Anti-Semitism is rife, as is an underlying class-based elitism that Lily finds upsetting and outdated.  When David doesn't show up for work one day, Lily thinks for certain that something has happened to him-- and that it was no accident.

This was a quick read, and light-hearted, but unlike many books that may be considered similar, it didn't rely on easy coincidences or deus ex machina to advance its plot.  The mystery at the heart of the novel was extremely well thought-out and Lily Brennan was a great character to follow along with. Her outsider status as an Australian in Britain provided a lens through which to critique the London attitudes of the time, providing a much more balanced view of Londoners during the Blitz than that which has become so stiflingly common.  As for the love story in this book-- well, there had to be one, didn't there!  And when a character is as lovely as Lily, you absolutely want her to get her man.

A fabulous weekend read, four out of five stars.

Monday, 27 March 2017

Book Review: Her Mother's Secret

Natasha Lester
Hachette Australia (I own a copy, courtesy the publisher)

Image Source: author website
We are extremely lucky in Western Australia to have a thriving literary community, and you would be hard pressed to find another writer in that community who is as generous with their time as Natasha Lester.  Not only is Natasha a writer, she is also a teacher, a mother, a blogger, and I'm sure she finds a few moments of her spare time in which to fight crime as well.  Natasha's first novel, What is Left Over After was the recipient of the TAG Hungerford award administered by Fremantle Press for an unpublished manuscript.  She then went on to publish her second novel, If I Should Lose You with Fremantle Press too.

But for novel three, Natasha Lester chose a different direction for her fiction.  While both previous novels had been well received by critics and readers alike, and Natasha Lester had amassed a following of local writers through her blogs and courses, it was time for a different sort of book.  Both If I Should Lose You and What is Left Over After were more in the literary fiction vein of things.  2016's A Kiss From Mr Fitzgerald was something else entirely.  And so, Natasha Lester almost got to have her debut novel all over again, under the stewardship of the team at Hachette Australia.  An historical fiction novel about a young woman growing up in 1920s New York and dreaming of becoming an obstetrician in a time when women simply did not do such things, A Kiss From Mr Fitzgerald demonstrated the massive commercial appeal of Natasha Lester's writing, putting her in direct comparison with authors such as Kate Forsyth, Kimberley Freeman and Pamela Hart.

This year, Natasha Lester releases her fourth novel, but her second novel in her new genre.  Her Mother's Secret is the story of Leo, a young woman from a small village in England who spent most of the First World War making cosmetics for nurses stationed at the local hospital, using ingredients from her father's pharmacy.  Like Evie in A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald, Leo is a strong-willed woman who is determined not to be restricted by the conventions of her time.  When fate leads her to New York, Leo decides to make a name for herself by starting her own line of cosmetics and attempting to get it into all the major department stores.

Of course, there is also a love story, but this is not simply a romance novel.  Leo's story is not just about whether she gets the man.  Her determination to meet her goals and support herself comes above all things, making her a remarkable character to follow, and one which modern women are sure to relate to.  She's supported by a cast of secondary characters right out of the page of an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel (and though Lester's writing style is very different, the influence of the Gatsby author remains clear), such as Faye, a binge drinking society gal who threatens to crush Leo's future in the palm of her well-manicured hand.

At times, I found the pace of the novel a little faster than perhaps I would have liked, with events seeming to be racing towards the finish line-- though admittedly, this is a novel that has to cover more than 20 years in under 350 pages!  It did mean that some scenes seemed lacking in detail and some of the character's actions and reactions were a little sudden.

Readers who enjoyed A Kiss From Mr Fitzgerald will not be disappointed by the follow up, which demonstrates that Natasha Lester knows how to write a fast paced commercial novel without following the usual old formula.  You will be surprised by the twists and turns this novel takes and the decisions made by its protagonist.  Surprised and, most likely, delighted.

Natasha will be the guest speaker at the Bookcaffe Book Club on April 6th at the State Library of WA.  To book tickets, visit Trybooking.

Thursday, 16 March 2017

A few thoughts on Difficult Women by Roxane Gay

Difficult Women
Roxane Gay
Corsair Publishing 2017 (I own a copy, courtesy Hachette Australia)

This is not strictly a review of Roxane Gay's collection of short fiction, it's more of a collection of my thoughts.  Since I decided that I was going to put together my own collection of short stories, I've been increasingly fascinated by the ins and outs of single author collections.  What holds the pieces together?  How well does the author manage to differentiate the different voices in the stories?  How do you have a huge impact in a very short space?

The premise of Difficult Women really intrigued me, right from the blurb which reads:

The women in these stories live lives of privilege and poverty, are in marriages both loving and haunted by past crimes or emotional blackmail.  A woman married to a twin pretends not to realise when her husband and his brother impersonate each other.  A stripper putting herself through college fends off the advances of an over-zealous customer.  A black engineer moves to Upper Michigan for a job and faces the malign curiosity of her colleagues and the difficulty of leaving her past behind.  From a girls' fight club to a wealthy subdivision in Florida where neighbours conform, compete and spy on each other, Gay gives voice to a chorus of unforgettable women in a haunting vision of modern America.

That is one spectacular sounding collection.  And herein lies the problem.

Try as I might to let these stories get under my skin, I just couldn't get into any of them.  In fact, I've abandoned the book after 100 pages, and I think I've read all of the stories hinted at in the blurb there, none of which were as interesting as the blurb made them sound like they would be.  Which is weird, when you think about it, because they are stories about really intense subjects like sexual assault, miscarriage, racism, love-- none of those subjects could be called pedestrian.  But each story had a distance to it.  They never really let the reader in.  Through a combination of structural experiments (such as in 'Florida', where the story was broken up into chunks according to which apartment we were glimpsing inside... some of which were in first person and some in third, which try as I might I could not see a reason for) and this detached, almost fable-style tone, the half dozen stories I read did nothing for me.  Which was a shame, because I was really looking forward to this book.

As a wordsmith, it's clear to see that Roxane Gay has a lot going for her, because there were some real gems of sentences in this book, but it wasn't enough.  So many books, so little time, and this one wasn't keeping my attention, so it was a DNF after 100 pages for me.

Monday, 6 March 2017

Film Review: Jasper Jones

Image source:
One of the most hotly anticipated film releases for this year-- for me, anyway-- was the film adaptation of Jasper Jones by WA author, Craig Silvey.  Some of you may know that I wrote my Honours thesis on the novel, back in 2012, so I approached this film with a degree of trepidation.  Whenever a beloved book is adapted for the big screen, there is always the possibility that it will be a let down.  Reading is such a personal experience, whereby the novel gives you just enough information to allow you to imagine its world all on your own-- what the characters look like, what particular events might mean, and why certain things may have occurred.  When those books are adapted for the movies, sometimes what the director and the cast and the screenwriter choose to portray can be in direct contrast with your own thoughts.  And sometimes, that's just a plain disappointment.  Let me just preface this blog post by saying that I am not a professional film critic, and that I am by no means an expert on Australian cinema.  But Jasper Jones has been my favourite novel for a long time, and while I was incredibly excited to see the film, I was also terrified that maybe watching someone else's version of it on the big screen would be a let down, or change the way I saw the book.  

If it sounds like I am setting up to pan the film, you can relax-- I'm not.  Critics have compared the movie to Stand by Me, and I can certainly see where that comparison comes from.  In both films, we are presented with protagonists who are wrenched from childhood by events beyond their control.  In Jasper Jones, that character is Charlie Bucktin, played by Levi Miller who some may recognise as the boy from Pan and Red Dog.  Miller's portrayal of Charlie Bucktin, a deeply introverted and introspective character, is a real highlight of the piece.  Everything he does just flows, it makes sense.  There is never a line of dialogue out of place.  Considering that this is a film with very limited voiceover (I can think of one scene, very early one when it is used), Miller is faced with the enormous burden of conveying Charlie's character non-verbally.  This is a particular challenge, because readers of the novel come to Charlie's character through his voice-- Charlie is the one telling us the story.  But in the film, he can't do that.  He can't explain to us how he feels about Eliza Wishart, or how he's fascinated by Jasper, or how much the racism in the small town of Corrigan makes him furious and confused.  All that considered, I think Levi Miller's performance really made this film.  

Image source: Allen and Unwin
It's worth noting that you can't take an incredibly nuanced novel like Jasper Jones and just squash it into an hour and forty five minutes, so some of the things from the novel have gone or been condensed.  For example, while Charlie tells Eliza that he wants to be a writer, we don't see him trying to write a novel and we don't see him fantasising about meeting Papa Hemingway at a gala in New York with Eliza on his arm (though there is a picture of Hemingway tacked to the wall above Charlie's desk).  The Vietnam War is mentioned but only briefly, and while there are still scenes where the town turns their anger on Jeffrey Lu and his family, these are much reduced compared to how they appear in the novel.  (I was excited to see WA actress Alexandra Jones make a cameo in this film as the grieving mother who yells at Mrs. Lu at the town meeting.  Those of you who saw the stage show Jasper Jones by Kate Mulvany a few years back will know that Alexandra Jones played Ruth Bucktin (Charlie's mother) in the WA performances and did an absolutely amazing job.)  The scenes relating to the Lu family were a key part of the novel for me, but I understand why they may have hit the cutting room floor when the movie had to be condensed.  Just another reason why books are better than movies, I suppose...

One result of the change of point of view afforded by the novel was we got a much more sympathetic portrait of Charlie's mother, Ruth, played by Toni Collette.  In the novel, Ruth is almost an antagonist.  She seems unreasonable and she's always yelling at Charlie for things and meting out cruel and unusual punishments-- such as when she makes him dig a massive hole for no reason and then fill it in.  But in the film, we're not just seeing Ruth through Charlie's eyes, and at first, that really jarred me.  When Ruth tucked Charlie in, kissed him on the head and made him put his book away, I found myself thinking that I was going to have a really hard time hating her later on.  But looking back now, I think that was the point.  The addition of  a scene in which Charlie stumbles upon his mother dancing in the kitchen goes a long way towards explaining why Ruth is so unhappy-- she feels trapped.  She has secret longings.  She's bored out of her mind, and that's why she does what she does-- she leaves.  The moment in the film where she tells Charlie why absolutely broke my heart.  The actors got that scene so right, and while it's different to the book, it works.  In a Q and A session after the screening, author Craig Silvey, who was one of the screenwriters, explained to us that the reaction came from Levi Miller himself.  When director Rachel Perkins asked him to run it again with less emotion, Miller explained that Charlie had just had the most tumultuous week of his young life and that this was the first time he'd had a chance to express that.  And so the moment stayed.  

No, it's not a perfect film, but was any adaptation of my favourite book ever going to be?  It's a movie that bears watching, and I hope rewatching, full of stunning shots that could only have been taken in the South West of WA.  It's a story that could only have happened here, and a story that has captured the hearts of so many readers.  The book is now being studied in secondary schools.  And sooner or later, someone was always going to make it into a movie.  So I'm glad that it was this team, who clearly love what they do, because they've done a wonderful job.    

Sunday, 26 February 2017

Perth Writers Festival 2017- A Wrap-Up

The Perth Writers Festival comes but once a year, and for us writerly types in the West, it can be better than Christmas.  Under the excellent direction of Katherine Dorrington and her team, each year we are treated to a three day program of talks which complement one another in different and sometimes surprising ways, meaning that each year's festival has a distinct personality all of its own.  The 2017 Festival has been no exception, and to me, the theme of this year's festival seemed to be all about the political.  From an opening address by Ben Rawlence on world's largest refugee camp, Dadaab, on the Kenyan border with Somalia, and tonight's closing remarks by Syrian writer and architect, Marwa Al-Sabouni, to sessions on feminism, American politics, Australian politics and more, this was a weekend of big ideas.

For those of us whose interests lay more in the realm of fiction, there was an abundance of sessions to choose from, and some particular highlights for me were the panel on Anti-Heroes, featuring Anna North, Laura Elizabeth Woollett and Ian McGuire, talking to local bookseller and editor Geraldine Blake.  Blake is no stranger to the chair's seat at the festival and her gentle guidance made this panel one which was jam-packed with interesting statements.  While Anna North's novel The Life and Death of Sophie Stark blew me away in 2016 with its unique use of a number of point of view characters to create a picture of Sophie Stark, it was Laura Elizabeth Woollett's book I was most keen to rush home and read, as her stories (about the women who were the paramours of some of history's bad men) have been described as intense and powerful, and when she talked about the researching of and the finding of her subject matter, her eyes had a glimmer in them that I knew meant there would be something very special about this book.  When asked by an audience member about the meaning of the term 'Anti Hero', it was Woollett who hit the nail on the head, defining the term as a character who is not the villain, but who does bad things, and yet we sympathise with them anyway.  I'm keen to see how she applies this to characters who are essentially murderers and criminals.

The next session of the day was Laugh Lines, a slightly comical panel about comedy, in which visiting author Liam Pieper chatted to Toni Jordan, Nathan Hill and Josephine Wilson.  Pieper's interviewing style made for interesting viewing, and I was slightly confused by his process of scrunching up his notes and throwing them on the floor as he spoke.  I loved listening to this panel talk about their novels as they all had such different styles, and through listening to this panel, felt I had to rush out and get The Nix by Nathan Hill right away, if only to read the hilarious publisher character I had heard so much about.  Toni Jordan was a real highlight on this panel, as I simply adore her, and listening to her speak made me want to read Our Tiny Useless Hearts all over again.

In the afternoon I had the absolute pleasure of chatting to Jacinta Halloran, Anita Heiss and Armando Lucas Correa about the enduring fascination in fiction with the Second World War.  All three panellists had a personal connection to the stories that they were writing and their passion for narrative shone through in their readings.  Armando Correa began the session with a power point presentation instead of a reading, to contextualise for us all the story of the real life tragedy that his novel deals with, and if you have not read The German Girl, I do encourage you to check it out because the story of the St. Louis has a very real and very chilling parallel with our world today.

On the Saturday, Geraldine Blake also chaired the panel Past Tense, about the writing of historical fiction with authors Jessie Burton, Hannah Kent and Melissa Ashley.  For me, Jessie Burton was one of the biggest draw cards at the festival.  Her debut novel The Miniaturist remains one of the best books I have read in recent years, and it was a delight to see her speak frankly about the way people's reactions to that book had shaped the way she approached her second novel, The Muse in terms of the way she now thinks about art, creativity and the commodification of artists.  Melissa Ashley held her own on the panel with these two literary heavy hitters, charming audiences with her novel on the life of Elizabeth Gould, wife of the famous birdman, John, who it seems took credit for a lot of his wife's work, leaving her as a footnote in history until now.  I imagine a fair few books were purchased after this session, as Ashley beguiled and entertained us with the story of her book and the research that was involved in it.

On Saturday afternoon it was Jay Kristoff talking one on one with journalist Ara Jansen who stole the show, as he discussed his adult fantasy epic, Nevernight. The two had a real natural chemistry, and Jay's enthusiasm for story and for fantasy was infectious.  I absolutely adored his book with Amie Kaufman, Illuminae, but now that I've heard a little about Nevernight, I suspect I am going to love it all the more.

Finally, today-- a little more worn out, a little worse for wear, but ready for some more, I headed to UWA for one last time to listen to Will Yeoman talk about classical music and fiction with Man Booker Prize shortlistee, Madeleine Thien, and Australian author, Zoe Morrisson, whose book Music and Freedom was released last year to critical acclaim.  As a non-musical person I was entranced by the many subtle ways music could inform writing and was inspired to head home and look up The Goldberg Variations for myself.  It was a nice touch that Will wove short musical interludes into the talk.

Then it was on to Little Magic, where local short story guru Laurie Steed chatted to Ken Liu, author and translator, Julie Koh and Laura Elizabeth Woollett.  The natural rapport between these four was wonderful.  It was like watching four short fiction authors catch up for coffee, and the genuine respect they all seemed to have for each others' work and different styles made for a great discussion.  Ken Liu's insights into his fellow panellists' work was especially interesting, though as always, it was the keen questioning of Laurie Steed which made this session the success that it was.  I was particularly pleased to see so many people attending a panel on short fiction, so well done, Perth!

The final session of the festival for me was one that I chaired.  I was in the Octagon Theatre, talking about Placemaking with Holly Throsby, David Francis and Patrick Holland.  This session was such a pleasant surprise, even for me as facilitator, as the panellists took the questions that I gave them and came up with very rich, well thought out responses.  They built on what their fellow panellists were saying and I am very proud to have been involved in such a wonderful discussion.

After much chatting, eating, sweating (it was 40 degrees on Saturday!!!) and thinking, my weekend came to a close and it was time to go home and get ready to head back to work-- via my desk of course, because it wouldn't be the Perth Writers Festival if I didn't feel like writing afterwards.  A huge thank you to Katherine, Maria and Sava (and the team) for having me along, and I look forward to seeing what they come up with for next year.  (Maybe have a small break before you start working on that though, guys-- you've earned one!)