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.