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?