Sunday, 25 March 2018
Susan Midalia is best known for her critically acclaimed short story collections, The History of the Beanbag and other stories, The Unknown Sky and other stories and Feet to the Stars and other stories. In each of these story collections, she has demonstrated her great skill at getting inside the heads of characters from a wide range of backgrounds and ages, and telling their stories. In The Art of Persuasion, her first novel, that character and point of view belongs to Hazel West, a 25 year old ex-teacher who is living in a share house with her best friend Beth and just trying to make it in the world. Once a teacher, Hazel is now not entirely sure what she wants to do with her life, and so to pass the time, she decides to read the classics, starting with A-- so she begins reading Jane Austen. The book in question is Persuasion, Jane Austen's last written novel (for I believe, Northanger Abbey was written first but published last), and arguably one of her more mature comedies in which Anne Eliot must persuade her former admirer Captain Wentworth to fall in love with her again after she sent him away seven years earlier. While this particular book does teach Hazel a few things and makes her think about love, relationships, and persuasion, this is not simply a novel that modernises Austen.
Hazel agrees to volunteer on a doorknocking campaign for the Greens ahead of an upcoming election. There, she must spend time with Adam, a charismatic older man to whom she feels strongly attracted. Can the art of persuasion be used not only to convince voters in the leafy Western Suburbs to care about climate change and asylum seekers, but also to convince Adam to give loving Hazel a chance?
I won't tell you any more about the plot of the book because much of the joy of reading is in the discovery. And there is much to discover and love in The Art of Persuasion, whether it be the clever and satisfying plot, the sassy, witty and strong heroine, whose journey is far, far more than just a quest for love, or even just the love of language, words and literature that come through on the page. I found myself writing down facts about the origins of words, or jotting down the names of short stories to read later, recommended on the pages of the book which was a true delight. Without straying into preachiness, this novel talks about important issues of the day whether they be politics, gender equality, or issues faced by students and teachers in our schools, and it does all of this in a very clever, very entertaining way. The tone of this book is light and funny without being trivial. Quite simply, I could not put this down, and within reading a few chapters, I was already recommending it to friends and co-workers.
So do yourself a favour-- head down to your closest bookshop and ask them to order you a copy of The Art of Persuasion. You won't regret it.
The Art of Persuasion is published by Fremantle Press this April.
Sunday, 18 March 2018
The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart
Harper Collins 2018
Harper Collins 2018
Given the amount of buzz that has already surrounded the release of Holly Ringland’s debut novel, The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart, it would be unsurprising if the book did not live up to the hype. In recent years, booksellers and reviewers have seen the promise ‘the most exciting debut of the year’ emblazoned on numerous covers, and have collectively thought, “surely that cannot be true for all of them.” But when it comes to The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart, the only disappointing thing about it is that readers will have to wait until April 2018 to experience it.
The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart tells the story of Alice Hart, who goes to live with her estranged grandmother after a family tragedy. Traumatised, Alice takes solace in the assortment of women who live at her grandmother’s property, Thornfield, where native flowers are grown and the Victorian art of floriography—or communicating through certain floral arrangements—is practised. The women (and dog) at Thornfield become Alice’s family, and under their care, she grows up and takes her place in a long line of women from Thornfield who have loved and lost fiercely. Partly set at beautiful Thornfield, a sprawling inland property with a river at its heart in more ways than one, and partly set at a National Park in the Northern Territory, Alice’s story is one which is bound up in the language of Australian native flowers, their hidden meanings, their connection to Australia’s history, and the people of the present day.
But perhaps the best thing about The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart is that it is a story about stories. The flowers tell stories, and help Alice to communicate when she cannot find the right words, but storytelling also makes appearances in other forms. There is family history running through this book, and the reader gets to know (albeit briefly) four generations of Thornfield women, as well as the histories of The Flowers—the women who call the property home. Then there are story books and fairy tales. For Alice, books have always been a refuge, and discovering the town library is a turning point in her young life, a way of taking back some of her independence. When she moves to the National Park and has to make her home feel more like her own, one of the things she does is to furnish it with as many books as she can afford, bringing to mind the CS Lewis quote—“When I get a little money, I buy books, and if there is anything left over, I buy food.” Fairy tales and classic stories are alluded to everywhere in this novel, from the allusions to Jane Eyre made subtly by the naming of the flower farm, to the not so subtle hints at Alice being named after the heroine in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. For anyone who has found a friend in stories, or an escape, or whatever they needed, Alice’s story will be a familiar one. She is a heroine to fall in love with, to root for, and to care deeply about.
This is a novel written with love and with a skilled hand. It is whimsical without being silly, magical without being far-fetched, beautiful without being filled with purple prose. I adored it, and I cannot wait to read it again in April.
Sunday, 11 March 2018
I don't think it would be incorrect to say that Laurie Steed's debut book has been a hotly anticipated one. And I say book and not novel here, because for the longest time, I think a lot of people thought that the first thing we saw from Laurie would be a collection of short stories. He is the short story maestro, the guru, the go-to person for all things short fiction in Perth. And yet, his recently publishing novel, You Belong Here is in fact... a novel.
Perhaps it would be more correct to say it's a novel in stories. There's a bit of room to move there, which I like.
It is the story of the Slater family, Steven and Jen and their three kids, and follows snippets of their lives (the good times and bad) over a couple of decades, all set to an atmospheric soundtrack which I am informed is also available as a Spotify playlist. Steven, who dreams of being a pilot, works in air traffic control and over time becomes less and less available to his wife (literally and emotionally) as she struggles with the pressures of new motherhood in a brand new city after they move to Perth. The implosion of their marriage will have aftershocks which shape the lives of their three children, Alex, Emily and Jay, right through to adulthood.
Yet, while this story is often one about bad things happening, it's also about the ways that love can get a person through those bad times. It's about the bond between siblings, about the love between parents and children, and it's about friendship in all its guises.
Be warned, dear reader, you will need a box of tissues at your side as you read You Belong Here.
Laurie Steed is a writer who does not waste words. It is easy to see that this book has been painstakingly and lovingly revised, and the end product is a perfect little novel that feels effortless to dive into. My only criticism would be that I wanted more-- I wanted to stay with this family for longer than the length of the book could allow. Which means that I will be going back and rereading it again and again, I am sure.
One thing that totally amazes me about the book is the skill with which Laurie Steed has crafted his characters. They are all relatably human, and even when they do terrible things or hurt one another through carelessness, you can understand them, and feel sympathy for the situations they find themselves in. By using multiple perspectives, and shifting the point of view of the story in each chapter, you get to see the character as they view themselves, but also as they view each other, making for a more even, nuanced portrait of complicated people. They feel so real that it almost seems you might walk past them on Beaufort Street should you head there after reading.
You Belong Here has been a long time coming, but it's worth the wait.
Five stars, and well done Laurie!