Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Book Review: The Last Act of Hattie Hoffman

The Last Act of Hattie Hoffman 
Mindy Mejia
Quercus, 2017 
I own a copy courtesy of the publisher

In a small town in America, a young woman named Hattie Hoffman is found dead in an abandoned barn.  The Sheriff on duty is Del Goodman-- a Vietnam veteran, and a friend of the Hoffman family.  Del is a good cop, but this case is personal, and his sanity may depend on whether or not he can get justice for Hattie.

Told in three voices, The Last Act of Hattie Hoffman is both a murder mystery and a coming of age novel.

Hattie is a chameleon.  She changes her personality to fit in with the people around her, becoming whatever they want most.  The perfect daughter.  The devoted best friend.  The star pupil.  (In some other countries, the novel is titled Everything You Want Me to Be.)  She is a seventeen year old girl, bright but a bit of an introvert, except when it comes to acting.  The night of her murder, she has been on stage performing in her school's production of Macbeth, and her portrayal of Lady Macbeth has proved to the adults around her that there are hidden depths to Hattie.

Then there is the voice of Peter Lund, Hattie's English teacher and director of the school play.  Peter has moved from Minneapolis so that his wife, Mary Beth, can take care of her elderly mother Elsa.  Elsa refuses to leave the farm where she and her husband had lived all through their married life, and while the arrangement is only supposed to be temporary, Peter watches as his wife slips easily back into the life she left behind.  Feeling like an outsider, Peter turns to online chatrooms, seeking intellectual conversation about books and art, and finds himself embroiled in a digital affair with the charismatic HollyG (as in Holly Golightly- the heroine of Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's.)

The final voice is that of Del Goodman.  While Peter and Hattie's sections span the months leading up to Hattie's death, Del's sections happen after, as he negotiates questioning suspects, digging into the files on Hattie's computer, and the long, painful wait for DNA analysis at the busy Minneapolis crime lab where he has sent all the evidence for testing.  Del finds himself torn between his hurt and anguish over the death of the little girl he once knew, and the truths he uncovers about the young woman she had become in the course of the case.  As all of the pieces slowly begin to fall into place, what we are given is a complex portrait of three emotionally isolated people living in a small town.

This is a stunning, complex novel, akin to Anna North's The Life and Death of Sophie Stark.  It relies on a multi-perspective view of the world which plays with the way that different characters are viewed in different contexts to skew ideas of innocent, guilty, good and bad.  All the while, the book is extremely readable, at times even binge-readable.

By the end of the book, it's clear to see that Hattie Hoffman was a likable sociopath just trying to find her way in the world, and despite the view that readers may have of her behaviour by the end of the book, Mindy Mejia has definitely captured the rift in a community that is created when a young woman is murdered.  The setting of this book- both physical and 'emotional/social' is spot on, and adds to the atmosphere.  I could see this book being adapted for a film easily, and, being an actress, Hattie would probably have liked that.

Filled with intertextual links to books line Jane Eyre, this is a thinking person's mystery, a literary crime, and would probably appeal more to readers of literary fiction than someone craving a straight up mystery.  I found it the perfect blend, and loved getting to know the people as I followed along in the solving of the crime.

The only part of the book which fell flat was related to the ending, and if you haven't read the novel, perhaps now is the time to close the browser and read this interview no more.  The resolution of the book relies on a double twist-- and it simply was not needed.  One twist would have been fine.  The second twist brought the resolution back to a far more basic level and it made everything leading up to its discovery seem like a frustrating waste of words and time. The tragedy of the set up that first twist suggested-- a man in jail after committing to the crime of his wife so that she won't have to raise their baby in jail-- fits perfectly with the rest of the book.  Sure, it's depressing, but it fits.  It was that kind of book.  I love that kind of ending.  But as it was, the new ending was too neat.  Everyone got a fresh start but Hattie (and the killer, of course).

I could forgive the ending, because I enjoyed spending my Sunday curled up with this book, and I think you probably would too, if you've read this far.

I gave this book four stars.

Friday, 6 October 2017

Book Review: We That Are Left by Lisa Bigelow

We That are Left
Lisa Bigelow
Allen and Unwin, 2017
I own a copy courtesy of the publisher

The sinking of the HMAS Sydney was a sobering moment in Australian history.  Mystery and rumour surrounded the loss of the vessel and all 600 + souls on board until the mid-2000s when the wreckage was finally located.  In We That Are Left, the struggles of the loved ones left behind by some of those crew members lost in the tragedy are re-imagined.

We That Are Left is the story of two women.  There is Mae, who is looking forward to her naval engineer husband coming home to spend Christmas with his baby daughter when she hears that his ship, the Sydney is missing.  The other woman, Grace, is a country girl who has come to Melbourne to becoming a reporter, just like her heroine, the movie character Torchy Blane.   She's in the newsroom when the rumour comes down the wire, and watches as the news media are gagged by the Armed Forces, desperate to keep the loss a secret for as long as possible not to damage morale.  Bound to report on the story, Grace must witness first hand the suffering of those left behind. When her fiance is injured in Singapore covering a story, and then captured by the Japanese and held in Changi, she too must endure the pain of waiting for a loved one to return, not knowing if he'll be the same man who left. 

Lisa Bigelow's debut novel brings a human element to a well-known event of Australian World War Two history.  While many of the facts of the tragedy are known, to read about wives and mothers and children who are missing their loved ones and hoping against hope that the ship will miraculously turn up is to really appreciate the impact of the event.  One benefit of a historical novel is the certainty that comes with time.  Writing this piece, Bigelow and her readers know much more about the event than her characters ever will, and it is with great empathy that she evokes this pain and heartache and blind faith in her character, Mae.  While Grace and Mae have several crossovers, they never actually meet within the book, and yet their stories are completely intertwined, bringing home the interconnectedness that always becomes apparent after big events. 

While writing about tragedy, Bigelow's writing is never heavy-handed.  This novel is also rich in hope-- from the support that Mae receives from her family, to the steps she takes moving on to the next phase of her life, or for Grace, the way that her career begins to progress as a woman looking for work in a man's profession when men are scarce.  Far from being a romance, We That Are Left is a novel about two characters who are forced to find the strength to endure the lasting impact that war has on their home lives, and while each woman has her own flaws, there is something very relateable about their journeys.  

This novel is a quick, absorbing read, which will appeal to fans of Deborah Burrows. 

I really enjoyed it and gave it four stars. 

Monday, 25 September 2017

Book Spotlight: Beautiful Messy Love by Tess Woods

Beautiful Messy Love
Harper Collins 2017
I own a copy, courtesy of the author/ publisher

Earlier this year, I received a parcel at work.  It was wrapped in red paper and tied up with a red and white ribbon.  Inside was a copy of Tess Woods' new book, Beautiful Messy Love-- pre-release-- and a dozen or so red rose petals.  There was also a handwritten card from Tess, which to this day, still sits on my work desk.  

I first met Tess Woods late last year when the Bassendean Memorial Library had decided to put on a series of talks called The Literary Lounge, and through the bookstore where I work (which works mostly with libraries), I was brought on board to do the book sales.  Tess's first book, Love at First Flight was about to be published in physical form for the first time, so it must have been about July or August last year, I think.  I'd been seeing Love at First Flight absolutely everywhere.  It was all over my Facebook and Twitter, and many of my author friends were talking about how amazing this Tess Woods was.  We decided to ask her to present at the very first Literary Lounge, and she agreed. 

Now, we're really lucky in Western Australia, because not only do we have a lot of amazing, talented writers living here, they're also really lovely people and frequently give up their time to put on events in bookstores and libraries.  I've met a lot of authors in this fashion and some of them have gone on to become friends.  But it's always exciting to have the opportunity to work with someone new, and introduce them to the audience for the first time.  And we really struck gold with Tess, because she was so warm, and open, and funny, and the audience loved her.  Interviewing her was a dream.  

So fast forward about twelve months to that parcel arriving at my work.  I was excited.  I was already excited about Tess's new book, but to be sent one by the author with a note of thanks for the support I had provided was touching.  (The fact that Tess's acknowledgements in the back of her new book go for several pages tell you a lot about the big heart this lady has.)  I took the book home and I put it on my bedside table, waiting for the perfect, uninterrupted stretch of time to read it. 

Last weekend, the time came and I delved in.  Beautiful Messy Love is a contemporary story of two couples-- Nick and Anna, and Lily and Toby, four young people who live in Perth in the present day.  (Not to spoil anything here, and sorry Tess if it was a secret, but Nick and Lily are actually the kids from Love at First Flight, all grown up.)  Nick, a professional footballer in a fictional AFL team, is recovering from stress fractures in his feet, when he meets Anna, an Egyptian refugee whose mother was once a powerful political figure.  Their romance is tested when Nick's fame and Anna's 'otherness' attract media attention.  Meanwhile, Lily is struggling to become a doctor.  Her serious boyfriend, Ben, has just left her, when she meets Toby in the hospital cafe and they have 'a moment'.  Yet things are never simple, and Lily later learns that Toby has a wife who is dying of cancer in the very ward where Lily is doing her oncology rotation.  

This book is a tribute to how messy falling in love can be, and how beautiful that makes life.  It is a book with complex, nuanced characters and a powerful message.  I wanted to live in the world of this book, and couldn't help but jump back into it at every chance I got.  In particular, Nick and Anna's story moved me.  Tess has obviously done a lot of research into writing about refugees and asylum seekers, and she writes about people escaping persecution and seeking a new life in Australia with generosity of spirit and a great degree of intelligence.  Tess also writes family particularly well, and the scene in Karrakatta cemetery when Lily takes Toby to see her father's grave had me tearing up and thinking about how much I love my own Dad.  (Soppy, I know).  But that's the power of a great book.  It anchors you to the real world, and makes you think and feel things.  

So Tess, if you're reading this-- you have outdone yourself.  And to everyone else?  Beautiful Messy Love is available now at all good bookshops (and if you're in Perth, I think Tess has signed pretty much every available copy), and you should go and pick one up.  

This is not a review-- I can't claim to be unbiased enough to write a review.  iI's a spotlight on a lovely author and her wonderful book, and I can't recommend you read it highly enough.  

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Short Story Book Club (The Podcast) Ep 3: Pulse Points

This month, I was joined at the Short Story Book Club by my dear friend, Belinda Hermawan, to talk about Pulse Points.  This collection, by award winning writer Jennifer Down, provided us with lots to talk about, and we discussed the various ways reading a great short story can benefit your own practise as a writer.

In other news, you can now subscribe to The Short Story Book Club Podcast on iTunes!  Please leave us a review or a rating if you like what we do, because that will help others find us.

Without any further ado, I give you episode 3...

Saturday, 16 September 2017

Book Review The Mitford Murders by Jessica Fellowes

The Mitford Murders by Jessica Fellowes
Sphere, 2017
I own a copy, courtesy of the publisher

With the cinematic remake of Murder on the Orient Express looming, it seems as if Agatha Christie is back in vogue again-- that is, if she were ever out of it, who am I to say?  It's timely, then, that Jessica Fellowes should be launching her new cosy mystery series now.  Set in England in the early 1920s, The Mitford Murders looks to be the first in a series of books following accidental sleuth Louisa Cannon and sidekick, Nancy Mitford.  This first volume introduces us to Louisa, nineteen years old and living with her mother and her Uncle.  Her mother does laundry for some of their more well-off neighbours, and while Louisa has a loving relationship with her mother, the age gap between them is considerably more than between most mothers and daughters of the time. After the death of Louisa's father, Uncle Stephen comes to live with them.  Uncle Stephen is not a very nice man at all, and he owes money up and down the country, with no means of paying anyone back, except by nefarious means.  When he decides to prostitute out his niece to one of the people he owes money to, Louisa knows that she has to make her escape, and so she takes a job at Asthill Manor, the home of the Mitford family.

Of course, the Mitfords are real people-- and a few of the Mitford sisters are rather well-known today.  A few people have remarked in their reviews that the narrative really did not require the use of the real-life Mitford family at all, and I would be inclined to agree.  While I'm a big believe that there IS a difference between history and historical fiction, and that under circumstances, it's all right to play around with people and events (so long as research is done, and no harm comes of it), this story could have been just as entertaining were it about entirely made up people.  The murder at the centre of the plot is real too, and remains unsolved to this day, though the book offers an explanation which is somewhat complicated and fanciful.  In her author's note, Fellowes admits that she manipulated the date of Nancy's eighteenth birthday to suit the plot, which I don't really see a reason for.  Then again, I think most historical novelists must do this sort of thing when they have no alternative, and good on Jessica Fellowes for being upfront about it.

Where Fellowes excels is in her descriptions of the fashions and customs of 1920s life in the upper classes.  Would we expect anything less from the writer of the Downton Abbey companion books?  Her ballroom scenes sparkle, and her social niceties give a lovely authentic feel to the interactions.  However, I couldn't help but feel that an excess of this sort of description obscured the fact that the plot was rather convoluted, and that the point of view of the piece seemed to jump around, sometimes hopping in and out of three or four different heads in the space of one scene.  Louisa herself wasn't much of a protagonist.  While she had strong motivations, in running from her Uncle, and something to look forward to in her relationship with Railway Policeman, Guy Sullivan, I never got a sense of her as a woman.  She had no likes, dislikes, or strong opinions.  She seemed a little like a sounding board for Nancy Mitford to bounce ideas off of, which begged the question of, if writing about the Mitfords was essential, why Nancy was not made the protagonist in the first place.

As far as a light, cosy mystery goes, this one was entertaining so long as it wasn't held up to particularly close examination.  I read it in two days, and was never so annoyed by it that I felt I couldn't continue.  I think readers of Kerry Greenwood or Agatha Christie would probably quite enjoy this book.  At times, I was reminded of the earlier episodes of Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries, and curiously, wanted to either go and reread Love in a Cold Climate (of which I remember very little except being nonplussed) or to begin re-watching Downton Abbey again for the third or fourth time.  Perhaps this series will get better with time, but I think it's safe to say that this series is not for me.

I gave it two and a half out of five stars.

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Mini-Review: Ridgeview Station by Michael Trant

Ridgeview Station by Michael Trant
Allen and Unwin, 2017 (I own a copy, courtesy the publisher)

From Goodreads: Many of Peter and Kelsie Dalton's friends thought they were crazy when they bought Ridgeview Station. But five years on, their hard work, help from Kelsie's parents, and record rainfall have them in high spirits as the summer muster approaches.

Realising they're going to need more help this season, Peter rings around the neighbouring stations to try and find a good worker. After a glowing recommendation, Alexi arrives to give them a hand - and is not at all what they'd expected ...
Everything is going smoothly with the muster before disaster strikes and the Dalton's find themselves battling to save their livestock, their property and their lives.

A few thoughts from me:  Ridgeview Station, the debut novel by Michael Trant, is a portrait of life on a sheep station in Western Australia-- for some readers, such as myself, a setting that is entirely foreign.  Trant tells his story from the heart, and you can feel the deep affection he has for his characters and the work that they are doing.  When disaster threatens to strike at Ridgeview, threatening the livelihood of Kelsie and Peter and their family, the tension is immediate and exciting.  I learned a lot reading this book, and while it's from a genre I wouldn't usually read (my usual wheelhouse being historical novels), I am glad that I picked it up.  Highlights included the four dogs, each with their own personalities, the interactions between Bull (a foul-mouthed visitor to the property) and Lisa, the mother-in-law who keeps everyone in order with a firm but ladylike hand, and the development of the different relationships between the characters.  

I was lucky enough to interview Michael in person at the Bassendean Memorial Library last month, and he was a delight to listen to.  This won't be the last we hear of from this new member of the WA Writing scene.  You can catch Michael Trant at next year's West Coast Fiction Festival.  

Friday, 8 September 2017

Author Interview: Jennifer Down

This week, I caught up with Jennifer Down, author of Pulse Points and the novel Our Magic Hour, via email to talk about her short story collection ahead of the next session of the Short Story Book Club on September the 19th.  Here's what she had to say:

Many people would have first come to your writing when you won the ABR/ Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize for your story Aokigahara.  I have a strong memory of reading that story on my lunch break when it was published online, and being unable to keep myself from crying.  What did winning that award mean for you as a writer?

Jennifer Down: Thank you! It was pretty surreal. I’d entered the prize the year before, too, and maybe the year before that. It was certainly validating, because it’s a prize that doesn’t distinguish between emerging and established writers, and it’s open to international entrants, and because some of its past shortlistees and winners are people whose work I greatly admire. But prizes are inherently subjective, too, and some elements of it do come down to luck and timing.

Saturday, 2 September 2017

Spring TBR

I'm having a good reading year.  I've read about 70 books so far in 2017, and I am on track to meet my Goodreads target of reading 101 books in the year.  It's the same target I set myself last year, but last year I almost didn't make it because it took me almost three whole weeks to read A Little Life-- yeah, thanks for that Hanya Yanagihara.  (In all seriousness though, that book was a dark masterpiece but it should come with a box of tissues, a hot water bottle and some gin.)

This year, though I'm trying to revise Between the Sleepers and therefore writing after work most days, I'm also trying to read a lot more.  I have a lot of books that I 'need' to read, whether it be for Book Club, The Short Story Book Club that I run, for reviews, or for interviews I'm doing.  And because of all that, my TBR pile at the moment looks like this:

That's right.  It's pretty much two piles.

For those of you who can't see what's on there, here's a list.

Doctor Thorne by Anthony Trollope (currently reading/ listening to on audio when I do housework)

One Leg Over by Robin Dalton (Research book but I haven't actually picked it up in months)

Nevermoor by Jessica Townsend (Advanced Reading Copy)

The Strange Case of the Alchemist's Daughter by Theodora Goss (Library)

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein (Library)

Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash by Eka Kurniawan (for review)
Bird Country by Claire Aman (for review)

The Big Issue Fiction Edition

Fortune by Robert Drewe

A Dangerous Inheritance by Alison Weir

Beauty in Thorns by Kate Forsyth (I was so excited to buy this when it came out and I am really sad I haven't been able to get to it yet.  Can we have an eighth day of the week just for reading, please?)

The Lightkeeper's Daughter by Jean E. Pendizwol (for review)

Lady Helen and the Dark Days Club by Alison Goodman

Victoria by Daisy Goodwin (and I also need to watch the miniseries)

To the Sea by Christine Dibley

The Women in Black by Madeleine St John

The Last Act of Hattie Hoffman by Mindy Mejia (for review)

and finally, one copy of The Mitford Murders by Jessica Fellowes (of Downton Abbey fame) which arrived in the post yesterday.  The danish, sadly, has already been eaten, and I am glad to say it was delicious.

So that's what I'll be trying to read over the next few months.  You'll have to picture me reading on the sun lounge, though it's more likely I'll be on the couch or in bed with these books more often than not.

Have you read any of these books?  Which ones appeal to you?

Monday, 28 August 2017

Book Review: The Woolgrower's Companion by Joy Rhoades

The Woolgrower's Companion by Joy Rhoades
Bantam 2017
I borrowed a copy from the library

New South Wales, 1945.  Kate Dowd goes with her father to the train station to meet two new workers coming to work on their station, Amiens.  Bought under the soldier-settler scheme, Amiens is one of the few stations that has been profitable in the area, but with Kate's father seeming to be losing his grip on reality, signs begin to point to that no longer being the case.  Add to this the new workers themselves-- Italian Prisoners of War, Luca and Vittorio.  Kate doesn't trust these newcomers, and worries about being virtually alone with them, many kilometres from help.

I expected good things from this novel.  It sounded exactly like the kind of book I love, and in many ways the premise reminded me of one of my favourite books of all time, The Paperbark Shoe by Goldie Goldbloom.  But I got more than I expected, because Joy Rhoades' debut novel is a marvel.  From page one, I was immersed into the world of the story, both the time and place completely unlike my own.

Kate is an unusual heroine for a novel of this sort.  Rather than the usual fare of historical novels, where women tend to think much like women of today (not that I have a problem with that-- it's a great way to reassess some of the old notions of bygone eras), Kate is a bit more of a product of her time.  She's concerned about behaving like a lady, as her mother has taught her-- so she doesn't know about doing the books and accounts for the farm, and doesn't know much about how it's run on the day to day.  She's also suspicious of the POWs who have come to live with them, suspecting that they will pose a threat to both herself and to their young Indigenous kitchen maid, Daisy.  However, it is through her interactions with these men, Daisy, and young Harry, as well as the necessity for her to take over the management of the station on the sly to cover for her father's declining mental state, that Kate has to decide whether being conventional is more important than her family and her home.  Deciding that it isn't, she takes matters into her own hands.

If I had to find a word to describe Kate at the beginning of the book, I would probably choose prickly.  She's a bit aloof and a bit judgemental, and certainly very proud. Yet by the end of the novel, she's learned to let go a little, and learned where her true priorities lie.  The hardships of 1945 test Kate's spirit, and she comes out the other end of the story a much stronger person, and a much more likeable person.  At the beginning of the novel, much of her thinking about the future involves the fact that her husband, Jack-- whom she met and married whilst he was recovering from an injury, before being sent to Sydney to train troops (meaning they'd only really known each other a few weeks)-- would be returning.  Jack's letters indicate that he wants to move them away from Amiens to start their own life together, but Kate's plans had always involved the two of them staying at her family home.  Jack is an off-the-page character for most of the book, and the reader gets to know Kate's very limited memories of him before they meet the man himself.  As Kate has been trying to ignore burgeoning feelings for Luca, the fact that Jack turns out to be thoroughly not right for Kate is a happy revelation, at least in my view.  And though the ending of the novel, and the resolution as far as this love triangle goes, is not necessarily Kate riding off into the sunset with Luca and Jack having to eat sour grapes alone with his mate from the pub, it's not Kate being bundled into the back of a truck by her husband as Luca waves sadly goodbye either.  You'll have to read it for yourself, because I won't be saying anything other than-- it's realistic and bittersweet.

Clearly a lot of research and thought has gone into the writing of this novel, and I'm almost sad that I borrowed the book from the library instead of buying one now because it's gorgeous inside and out.

I highly recommend this novel and I gave it five out of five stars.

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Short Story Book Club (The Podcast) Ep 2: The Love of a Bad Man

It's back!  The Short Story Book Club was on again for August.  This month, it was all about The Love of a Bad Man by Laura Elizabeth Woollett, and I was lucky enough to be joined by two guests, Leonard and Veronica.  We tried extremely hard not to go off on too many tangents, and hey, I think we did a pretty great job, so here it is for your listening pleasure!

Remember, you can join us next month (September 19) when we discuss Pulse Points by Jennifer Down, and you have plenty of time to pick up a copy from your bookstore of choice and get reading.  Just make sure you register here.
  The Love of a Bad Man was published in 2016 by Scribe.

Thanks to Caroline and Claudia and all of the team at the Centre for Stories.  See you next month!

Leonard and Veronica- Episode 2 Guests

Saturday, 12 August 2017

Unexpected Writing Lessons

So here's a piece of writing wisdom I never expected to pick up:

Sometimes, you have to write it like a midday soap opera.

I don't mean that your book should read like one.  I'm talking about in your early drafts, or perhaps in your middle-of-the-process revisions.

Let me explain.

I'm currently working on the eleventh or twelfth iteration of my historical novel, Between the Sleepers.  The last time I rewrote it, I thought it was done.  I thought it was the best that it was ever going to be.  I'd taken it to a residency at the Katharine Susannah Prichard writers centre, where I'd reworked 40000 words in ten days and gone home feeling like a superhero.  I'd had a feeling in my gut that the book was as done as it was ever going to be.

And I pitched it to a few agents, some of whom even read the whole thing.  It was close.  But it wasn't getting over the line.

Readers, I took a year off from that novel.  It was probably the largest amount of time I'd ever had of not thinking about it since I started working on it back in 2008.

This year, I engaged an amazing local writer to mentor me through the process of revising the novel one more time.  And when I reread my work alongside her comments, I was shocked and embarrassed by the dross on the page before me.

This wasn't the amazing novel that I thought I had written.  This was a script for some soap opera with mistaken identities and identical twins swapping places, and characters being lost at sea for long periods of time only to return at the exact moment their ex-wife was about to marry another man.  (Or whatever actually happens on soap operas, who even knows...)  I had poured everything I had into that novel.  Every big word I knew, every romantic gesture, every seemingly deep thought.

And I had overdone it.

There were a few big factors in the overdoing it recipe.  First of all, I obviously felt the need to describe every little gesture or facial expression my characters had.  It was constant.  And I was taking away from the things that they said and did.

Second of all, my characters spent a lot of time spitting.  Spitting with rage, spitting their words, swallowing their spit when they were nervous.  And as my mentor rightly pointed out, it was a bit uneccessary and more than a little gross.

But the third and most unforgivable sin in this draft of mine was that I felt the need to make my characters go through the entire spectrum of human emotions time and time again when there just wasn't any need for it.

So.  This time around, I sat down and I wound back my novel.  And this weekend, I've realised something very important.

I needed to take my book through that woefully overwritten soap opera phase in order to get to the stage I am at now.  I could not have realised my characters' emotional journeys in the way that I have unless I made them wildly overemotional first, and then wound everything back.   What I now have is an almost complete book that I have been excited to rediscover.  It is a book that I understand better now, and I understand myself better as its writer.  (Corny, I know.)  I have learned through this process that one year ago, I was simply done with this novel.  But when I finish my novel this time around, I will have a book that I am proud of.  A book that I know will be some of the best writing I have ever done.

I almost don't want the process to be over.

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Short Story Book Club (The Podcast): Ep 1- Australia Day + Portable Curiosities (guest- Melissa Davies)

The Short Story Book Club occurs monthly at The Centre for Stories. In July, emerging writer Emily Paull was joined by writer and poet, Melissa Davies, to talk about Australia Day by Melanie Cheng. We then flashed back to the 2017 Perth Writers Festival, where Laurie Steed and Emily Paull caught up with visiting writer, Julie Koh.

To find out more about The Short Story Book Club, visit The Centre for Stories online.  You can join us next month, when we discuss The Love of a Bad Man by Laura Elizabeth Woollett.

To pre-order Melissa Davies' poetry collection, Pineapples in the Pool, please click here.  

Monday, 24 July 2017

Author Interview: Melanie Cheng

‘After all, she had only looked to Cambodia when the hospitals in Melbourne failed to provide the validation she’d been searching for.  At the idealistic age of eighteen, she had chosen a career in health to make a difference, save lives, change the world, and Cambodia, with its reputation for tragedy, seemed like just the place to do it.’ (page 72)

This is part of the story ‘Hotel Cambodia’, one of the stories in the middle of Australia Day by Melanie Cheng.  I caught up with Melanie via email this past weekend to ask her all about this collection, and about the short story as a form.  'Hotel Cambodia' is the story of Melissa, a young Australian woman who goes to Cambodia to ‘make a difference’.  There’s a sort of double awareness in Melissa’s point of view.  On the one level, she’s there to save lives, to help the less fortunate.  But on a deeper level, one which the reader sees through the third person narration, but Melissa doesn’t really say out loud, she’s aware of the hypocrisy of going to a very poor country for the sake of validating her own need to feel helpful and selfless.  This is one of the ideas in Australia Day which was striking to me—the myth of the Western Saviour.  Do you think there’s a tendency in Australia to think that the traditional, White European way of live is ‘better’ than the way of life lived by some of the people living in neighbouring countries, or of those who migrate here from different backgrounds?  Was this something you were intentionally trying to explore in your work?

Melanie Cheng: In 2006 I lived in Cambodia for 5 months doing volunteer medical work with an NGO, and so to a great extent Melissa’s revelations are my revelations. When I arrived, a few people told me Phnom Penh was an NGO Disneyland because there were just so many different charities and organisations operating with little to no regulation. Most people I met had noble intentions but the Western Saviour phenomenon you refer to was a definite driving force. Once there, I felt ashamed for imagining that I—a junior resident with little experience—could have anything to offer the local Khmer doctors. Like Melissa, I was forced to acknowledge that my true motivations were more selfish and na├»ve than I was originally willing to admit. I don’t think the Western Saviour myth is an Australian construct, but rather a Western, developed world phenomenon. And it’s hardly surprising when the mainstream media and much of our popular culture perpetuates and celebrates these myths.

Monday, 17 July 2017

Westerly Volume 62 Issue 1 is here!

... And I am in it!
Front cover image Nina-Marie Thomas, Ten 2017. 

I'm so excited to have had a piece accepted by Western Australia's longest running literary journal, and to have my work published in the same issue as amazing writers like Susan Midalia and Caitlin Maling.

My piece is called 'Sister Madly Deeply'-- it's about the bond between two sisters, and how they cope with a family tragedy.  

You can get a copy from Westerly's website, and I think there are a few bookshops around Perth who stock it as well.

Friday, 14 July 2017

Wimmera by Mark Brandi

Hachette Australia, 2017
My copy was borrowed from the library

Wimmera by Mark Brandi | Book Review by The Incredible Rambling Elimy

Almost overnight, Wimmera by Mark Brandi became one of the most talked about Australian debuts of 2017.  With comparisons to Jasper Jones being bandied around, I couldn't help but be curious.  Wimmera is the story of Ben and Fab, who grow up in a small town in Victoria.  After the suicide of a local girl, a stranger moves in down the road from Ben, and hires Ben to do odd jobs around the house.  Years later, Fab is still living in the town, collecting trolleys at the local supermarket.  When a grisly discovery is made, it draws Fab back into the past and the events of that year, and his friendship with Ben.

Part literary novel, part courtroom drama, part mystery, part coming of age tale, Wimmera has a little something for everyone.  Brandi cleverly evokes the obsessions and preoccupations of pre-teen boys, and switches perspectives with a deft hand, as the novel is broken into several parts and perspectives.  This is a subtle book, and one which allows the reader to draw their own inferences about how the parts are all connected.  The voice of Ben in the early part of the novel is a particular strength.  Ben is a likeable character; he's tough and loyal, good at sport, but also trying to work out his place in the world.  His moral compass is definitely working-- while Ben is big and strong, he's not a bully, though he does resort to violence when it comes to defending his friend Fab.  Fab is cheeky and a source of fun for the local bullies, who call him a 'wog' and tease him mercilessly.  Not that Fab is a meek victim... he has his revenge in other ways.  The second part of the story is told from the point of view of a much older Fab-- a Fab who is going nowhere in life.  He drinks too much, has a terrible job, is in love with a married woman and is still the victim of merciless bullying.  And this time there is no Ben to back him up.

Did I love this novel?  Yes, I did, but I wanted more out of it.  In each of the sections, we see the character narrating the story clearly, but the other character is a little inscrutable.  Some of the scenes left too much up to the reader to work out, and seemed to end abruptly, such as when we're left to assume that Fab is the one who has unscrewed the front wheel on Pokey's bike, causing an accident.  And while the central intrigue of the story was cleverly built, I felt a little like the resolution was over too soon.  This was a powerful novel of friendship, of revenge, of deep hurts, and I loved every minute of it, but now that I've finished, I find I wanted more.  The author did such a fantastic job creating the world, the characters, the situation-- I was transfixed.  I wanted to stay in the world of Wimmera-- gruesome though it was-- for a lot longer.

I gave this book 4 stars.

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Anne Boleyn: A King's Obsession by Alison Weir

Headline Review, 2017
I own a copy, courtesy the publisher.

Of all of Henry the Eighth's brides, Anne Boleyn is probably the most infamous.  Mother to Elizabeth the 1st, Anne was Henry's second wife, for whom he broke with the Catholic Church and set aside his Spanish Queen, Katherine of Aragon.  Of course, she was also accused of adultery and witchcraft, and beheaded.

This is the second book in her Six Tudor Queens series, which will see a book on each of Henry's brides published one a year for six years.  Alison Weir is the one of the top-selling historians in the United Kingdom, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and Sciences, as well as an Honorary Life Patron of the Historic Royal Palaces.  She has published numerous books on the Tudors and the Wars of the Roses, both fictional and factual.  As she explains in her author's note at the end of the book, it is hard for any modern reader to really know what was going on in Anne Boleyn's head during her courtship and marriage to Henry Tudor, as most of her letters have been lost to the years.  Modern interpretations see her portrayed as ambitious, a vixen, wily-- history has not been kind to Anne Boleyn.  We've seen her portrayed by Natalie Dormer (The Tudors), Natalie Portman (The Other Boleyn Girl) and if I'm not mistaken, by Claire Foy (Wolf Hall-- which I've yet to watch, though I've read the novel).  In most portrayals, she is clever and cunning, but not likeable.  She is, in short, a villain.  But Weir's novel, Anne Boleyn: A King's Obsession shows a new interpretation of Anne Boleyn.

It is a long novel, but books of this sort always are.  (I'm looking at you, Hilary Mantel...)  Much of the early parts of the book focus on Anne's early life, first at the court of Margaret of Austria, and then at the French courts of Margaret of Anjou and Queen Claude.  At these courts, where strong women abound and men are unscrupulous and brutelike (there are several accusations of rape, which seems to me a more modern term than perhaps women would have bandied about at the time), Anne learns her own mind, and comes to support some quite radical views.  While she's not a Lutheran in this book as she is in some others, she does support the philosophical underpinnings of church reform, and is also exposed to what could perhaps be seen as an early form of feminism.  Anne's strength of will and character make her a likeable heroine-- for once-- even despite the considerable overlap between this book and the earlier volume, Katherine of Aragon: The True Queen, in which she is despised.

Where the book lagged a little was in the latter parts of the narrative, where she was in favour and out of favour, over and over, and came to be pregnant time and time again to no result.  Unfortunately, this is the trouble with writing about true events-- you cannot bend the narrative to your will unless the history supports it.  As Anne grew more frustrated with Henry's treatment of her, she became less strong in her character, though her final scenes in the Tower of London do give me more respect for this woman and the way in which this fictional version of her met her end.

I loved this book and I can't wait for the next one.  Though I've never been interested in Jane Seymour over much, I am fascinated to see what sort of person she may have been, under the tutelage of the ever-capable Alison Weir.

Anne Boleyn: A King's Obsession is available now.

Four stars.

Sunday, 2 July 2017

Miss Lily's Lovely Ladies by Jackie French

Miss Lily's Lovely Ladies
Jackie French
Angus and Robertson Publishing, 2017

Miss Lily's Lovely Ladies| Book Review at www.emilypaull.com
I have long been a big fan of Jackie French's writing-- I still remember taking a copy of Somewhere Around the Corner out of our local library and inhaling it in a matter of hours.  Perhaps that was even my first encounter with historical fiction, a genre which remains my favourite to this day.  So to discover that Jackie French was releasing historical fiction for adults this year was very exciting for me.  I was not disappointed.  Miss Lily's Lovely Ladies had everything I could have asked for.  It combined the lost world of society drawing rooms, ala  Downton Abbey with the meticulous historical research and fresh interpretation of a Philippa Gregory novel, and this book too, I read quickly and compulsively.  Though it is not a short book (500+ pages), I read it in a matter of three days.

It is the story of Sophie Higgs, the daughter of Australia's largest producer of corned beef, who has money but no 'position' in society.  When she looks to make an ill-advised match with the son of a local politician, her father suggests she first spend some time abroad, with the cousin of his business associate, the Earl of Shillings.  This cousin is the eponymous Miss Lily, a woman whose influence seems to be everywhere, yet her name appears nowhere in Debrett's.  Sophie is charmed by Miss Lily, and soon becomes one of her 'lovely ladies'-- young women who are 'finished' at Shillings and prepared for a London Season during which they will charm and delight, and hopefully, make suitable matches.  But there is more to Miss Lily's students than meets the eye, which is entirely the point.  Using the skills that they have learned at Miss Lily's knee, the young ladies embark on missions of utmost importance, learning and passing information, and using their influence wherever they can in an effort to ensure that a war with Germany which seems inevitable, never comes.

I usually prefer to read novels set during World War Two, but this was a novel which brought the world of World War One vividly to life for me-- not only the horrific scenes of the battlefields at Ypres, but also of the home front, and of the convalescent hospitals fashioned from old country manors.  These hospitals become a lifeline for Sophie Higgs when war is declared.  Cut off from her friends and family, she finds a purpose in caring for others, and turns her keen organisational mind to ensuring that the wounded soldiers under her care are looked after.

Much happens over the course of this book.  There is heartbreak, and there is triumph, but regardless of how the story turns out, Sophie is a heroine to cheer for.  Hers is a tumultuous life, and she takes it all as it comes and weathers it as only one of Miss Lily's students could.  These characters felt as if they could be real people to me, and I enjoyed spending time in their world.  Imagine my joy at discovering there will be two more books.

Jackie French has captivated me again.

Five stars.

Thursday, 29 June 2017

The Love of a Bad Man by Laura Elizabeth Woollett

The Love of a Bad Man 
Laura Elizabeth Woollett
Scribe Publishing 2016

The Love of a Bad Man by Laura Elizabeth Woollett- Book Review by The Incredible Rambling Elimy
The Love of a Bad Man is the first collection of short stories from former Voiceworks editor, Laura Elizabeth Woollett.  It consists of twelve thematically linked pieces, each one told from the imagined point of view of a real female character who was the wife, girlfriend or lover of a notorious 'bad' man.  In this context, bad men generally tend to be killers, and the host of notorious names on the pages of this book range from Adolf Hitler, to Jim Jones, to Charles Manson, and -- closer to home, to Western Australia, where Woollett is originally from-- David Birnie.

This is a chilling collection, but in the most fantastic way.  From page one, Woollett shows that she is skilled at getting inside the heads of different characters.  Each narrative, told in the first person, has its own unique voice, and in many cases, it feels like you are being spoken to directly by the woman in question.  These women were after thoughts or offsiders in the original media reporting of most of these cases, at most, an interesting footnote in the case, or a sidekick to the man who was the brains behind it all.  But Woollett tells their stories in a way which gives them back agency, helping us as readers understand what may have motivated some of these women.  While each story is an interpretation and a fictionalisation, the stories have been meticulously researched and are written in such a way that makes them feel real.  The outcomes vary.  In some pieces, we see the women as victims, such as poor Janice, the girlfriend of Cameron Baker.  In others, they are perpetrators, just as sick and predatory as the men they claim to love, such as Veronica, the young playwright writing letters to Kenneth Bianchi, who was one half of the 'Hillside Stranglers' duo.  By giving them back this agency, Woollett turns the narratives of these women's lives on their heads.

The only story which fell flat for me was the last one, about Wanda Barzee.  It lacked some of the punch of the earlier stories, though I can't seem to put my finger on why.  Highlights of the collection were 'Blanche', which opened the collection, telling the story of Bonnie and Clyde, but also of Buck Barrow (Clyde's brother) and his wife, Blanche, and 'Martha'.  Though I wasn't familiar with every case in the book, it didn't affect my enjoyment of the pieces, and I was able to flick back to the glossary in order to look up who the narrator was and what they may have done.  It would perhaps have been useful to have these descriptions at the end of each piece, but that was only a very minor thing.

I loved this collection as much as someone can love a book about killers.  The writing was fresh and exciting and the characters were unlike any others I'd ever come across.  After a few weeks of reading some fairly average things, it was my absolute pleasure to give this book five out of five stars.

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.