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Innocent desire clashes with the wider world – My review of ‘Deeper Water’ by Jessie Cole

27 Jul

cov_deeperwater (1)‘They say every hero has to leave home, but what those first steps are like I’m yet to know,’ reads the first line of Jessie Cole’s second novel, ‘Deeper Water’.  Jessie draws us at once into the distinct and unusual world of her protagonist, Mema. Already we can intuit that this is a novel about awakening.

Mema lives with her mother in an isolated valley in northern New South Wales – a place of green hills and flooding creeks. Home schooled and naive for her age, Mema has an almost pagan attachment to her land, to the creek that runs through it and the animals –native, feral and domestic – which it supports.

Men are always passing through Mema’s world, only the women stay. Her four brothers and various fathers are long since gone, swallowed up by the wider world. But when she rescues a stranger whose car has been washed off a bridge, just like that everything changes. Even though the stranger, Hamish, is the most ‘passing through’ of men he captures Mema’s interest. A tentative longing builds for Hamish and what he represents – the outside world.

Despite the beauty of Mema’s creek-side home, it is no rural idyll. Their local town has an ugly side and the ‘knowns and the unknowns’ in Mema’s past form a darker undercurrent to the story. Mema’s relationship with Anja, a wild girl who grew up sleeping in a tree hollow, also adds tension. Threatened by the addition of Hamish to their tight friendship, Anja creates ripples that spread in unpredictable directions.

Like Jessie’s first book, ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’, this novel is distinctive for its careful observations that bring us into Mema’s world. Mema listens to the chickens’ ‘morning clucks’ and imagines her siblings’ fathers ‘washed up like survivors of a shipwreck, lost and beaten by the waves.’

The writing is candid about the pain of first love and longing. But this is not only a story about sexual awakening; ‘Deeper Water’ also explores environmental themes with a light-handed touch. Hamish, an environmental consultant, clashes with Mema over his views on cats and cane toads. Gender relationships are also questioned – when seeing Anja, Hamish comments on her beauty. But Anja is many things, Mema thinks, and beautiful is only one of them.

‘Deeper Water’ is a sensuous portrayal of what happens when innocent desire clashes with the hardened edges of the wider world. Mema will linger in your mind for some time after you close the pages.

 

‘Deeper Water’ will be launched at the Byron Bay Writers Festival this Friday. Read more about Jessie here. 

This is my third post for the Australian Women Writers Challenge
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Tenderness, suspense and dementia – my review of ‘The Night Guest’, Fiona McFarlane

20 Mar

the night guestThe Night Guest is the debut novel by Australian author Fiona McFarlane. This surprising and assured story has just been short-listed for this year’s Stella Prize for Australian Women Writers.

The protagonist of the novel, Ruth, is an elderly woman living on her own in a house by the sea, somewhere on the New South Wales coast. One night she wakes up, thinking she hears a tiger in the house. But she is just imagining it, she tells herself.

Next morning, a woman called Frida arrives at her door. She has been sent by the government, she says, to care for Ruth. Frida appears to Ruth to be Fijian, a characteristic which evokes her trust. Her childhood memories of Fiji press in on her more and more as she ages. But the longer Frida stays, the more reality and fantasy become confused in both Ruth’s and the reader’s mind.

Frida is a character who bursts from the page. Sometimes tender, sometimes fierce, she kept me entranced wondering what she was going to do next. A chameleon, Frida changes her hair daily and shrinks and grows almost magically, in Ruth’s eyes. Suspense grows as she gradually chips away at Ruth’s independence.

Ruth’s wandering lucidity makes her the perfect unreliable narrator. While the reader can fill in some gaps it is hard to know exactly what is going on. A scene where Frida fights the tiger filled me with dread, while doubting its reality at the same time. This element of the story adds a touch of magical realism which is left to the reader to interpret as they will.

The Night Guest was a standout read for me. Something of a psychological thriller, it also covers a wide emotional territory. Ruth’s memories of her first love Richard and her life with her husband interweave with her increasingly bizarre daily life. The story raises themes about aging, trust and dependence

McFarlane tells this story in simple but evocative prose. Inspired, she says, by both her grandmothers having dementia, it is a finely wrought picture of a mind coming undone.

This is a hard book to review without spoilers so I’m going to have to leave it there. Eerie, suspenseful and thought-provoking, I suspect that The Night Guest will be one of my top reads for this year.

My own story about dementia, which coincidentally also features a tiger and Fiji, featured in The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald on March 14. Read it here

This is my second post for the 2014 Australian Women Writers Challenge

A Story within a Story: The Storyteller and his Three Daughters by Lian Hearn

14 Dec

the storytellerLian Hearn is the author of the best-selling Tales of the Otori series, which sold over four million copies worldwide. Her latest book, The Storyteller and his Three Daughters, is also set in Japan. The date is 1884 and the storyteller of the title is Sei, a master of the art.

While Sei is renowned for his storytelling, he is starting to feel that times are changing and his old way of telling stories is no longer enough. People in these modern times are craving more excitement, more drama, and more passion. Can he reinvent himself? Sei wonders.

Luckily, or unluckily for Sei, he has three daughters who bring plenty of problems into his life. Two of his daughters leave their husbands. One wants to become an author while the other thinks her husband is in love with his young male assistant.  His third daughter is married to a Kabuki theatre manager who is struggling to keep his show running in the face of rivalries and romance between his players.

The history of the time also provides an added layer of interest. Tensions between Japan and Korea escalate as Japan comes out of its period of isolation and embraces European ways. An English storyteller, Jack Green, gathers a wide audience while Sei ponders how painful those trouser things must be. Hearn’s own passion for Japan is evident as she immerses us in this fascinating culture.

The Storyteller and his Three Daughters is told as a story within a story. It is a reflection on the process of finding stories and telling them and how truth turns into fiction. Lian Hearn has talked about how she found this story. She had a number of the characters in her head – a former samurai, a female medical student, a Korean boy and a Japanese man who loves France – but it was only when Sei, the storyteller started to speak to her that she saw how they could all fit together.

This is a light hearted and in some ways whimsical book with many humorous moments. Lian Hearn is so clearly in charge of her own storytelling that she can take liberties that perhaps a lesser writer could not. Witty, romantic, suspenseful and thought provoking – what more could you ask for from a story?

This is my tenth (and probably final ) review for the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge 2013.

Happy Christmas and I hope Santa brings you lots of books. I’m planning on tackling ‘The Luminaries’ by Eleanor Catton, which should keep me going for a while.

Vivid and sensual – The Pagoda Tree by Claire Scobie

1 Nov

the pagoda treeThe Pagoda Tree is the first novel by journalist Claire Scobie, whose previous book was a travel memoir, Last Seen in Lhasa. Here, Scobie turns her gaze from Tibet to India.

The novel is set in 1765 and is the story of Maya, who is destined from birth to become an Indian temple dancer or devadasi. Scobie’s inspiration to write the book came from a visit to a temple in Southern India. Here she saw the names of 400 dancing girls engraved upon the 11th century walls. From this starting point grew Maya’s story.

Highly trained in dancing, music and love-making, the temple dancers were married to the God Shiva and often became courtesans of powerful men. Devadasis had a level of control over their lives not given to other Indian women and were the only women taught to read and write at the time.

Mentored by Palani, a powerful devadasi, Maya becomes a dancer of rare beauty and skill. But while she is destined to be given to the prince, the turbulent times cast her adrift. Set during the British colonial era, the book shows the effect of the occupation on Indian traditions.

Maya’s dancing captivates the Europeans as well as the Indians. In Madras she forms a risky liaison with a young British trader. This clash of cultures drives the story. Her lover, Thomas, is torn between his desire for Maya and his ‘true life’ waiting for him back in England. His choice is complicated by the birth of their daughter, a girl with no status in either culture.

This carefully researched novel provides an insight into Indian culture. The title of the story refers not only to a temple but also to a common expression among the British of the time. ‘Shaking the pagoda tree’ was a term for making quick, easy money. The cruelty of some of the British colonial practices forms a backdrop to Maya’s story.

Scobie says that researching the story was hard due to the lack of historical records about the dancing girls. In writing The Pagoda Tree she sought to bring their untold story to life. This is a vividly told and sensual novel which will be especially enjoyed by those with an interest in India.

For those in the Byron area, Claire Scobie is conducting a workshop on travel writing in Byron Bay on the 7th of December. See www.nrwc.org.au

My blog seems to have become strangely popular in Mauritius and Trinidad and Tobago of late. So if you’re reading this from there – a big hello to you! I’m glad to be getting to some exotic locations, if only in spirit. 

Dark Fairy-tales – ‘The Wild Girl’ by Kate Forsyth

19 Jul

WildGirl_COVERKate Forsyth has written over twenty books for children, young adults and adults. Her latest novel, ‘The Wild Girl’ is the story of Dortchen Wild, who was the childhood sweetheart and, later, wife of Wilhelm Grimm, one of the Grimm brothers of fairytale fame. Dortchen has been credited as the source of many of the stories in the Grimm brothers’ fairytale book. Forsyth says that she was enchanted to learn that Wilhelm married one of his key storytellers, a girl who grew up next door, and that is when she decided to write Dortchen’s story.

Forsyth has blended the known facts of Dortchen’s life with fiction to produce a compelling tale. Set in Germany during the Napoleonic Wars, The Wild Girl is both a love story and an insight into a tumultuous time in history. Dortchen’s brother Rudolf is sent into Russia as part of Napoleon’s army and few return as winter catches them on their retreat.

While Dortchen is in love with Wilhelm from the moment she meets him as a girl, a happy ending is a long time coming. Dortchen’s tyrant of a father forbids her marriage to a poor scholar with no prospects. The legacy of his treatment of Dortchen lingers after his death, keeping the lovers apart.

Historical fiction is not my usual fare, and I did find the scene setting a little dense first up, but I was soon engrossed. The story is both well researched and skilfully told. Not only a story about fairytales, The Wild Girl is an epic tale of love, loss and families. Scattered with accounts of dark tales like, The Maiden with no Hands, it is no wonder that it gave the author nightmares.

It was interesting to learn how the Grimm’s fairytales evolved from a scholarly recounting to something lighter and more suitable for children. The dark and frightening original stories are echoed in Dortchen’s own life, but Wilhelm’s retelling of the story Many Bits of Fur offers her a gift — a chance to break free of her past.

Forsyth is currently undertaking a doctorate on fairytale retellings. The afterword where she talks about how she came to tell Dortchen’s story after reading a psychological study on the therapeutic uses of fairy tales to help victims of abuse is fascinating.  This complex story offers satisfaction on many levels.

 

This is my 7th review for the Australian Women Writers Challenge

Not long now until the Byron Bay Writers Festival. The pre-festival workshop program is looking very exciting. I will be running a workshop on the 29 July and will be part of a panel for ‘Nuts and Bolts’ on Thursday 1st August. On Friday 2nd August I will be on a panel called ‘One is the Loneliest Number’ with Susanna Freymark and Graeme Simsion  and will be attempting to remember everything I ever knew about Australian Women’s Literature at the Stella Trivia Night. On Saturday, I’m hosting Pitch Perfect and am on a panel with Anita Heiss, Martin (Ed) Chatterton and Colin Falconer. Phew. 

On Sunday, I rest. Hope to see you there!

 

 

 

Finding joy in simplicity – My review of Mr Wigg

1 Jul

mr wiggMr Wigg is an enchanting new novel by Queensland author, Inga Simpson. Set in 1971, the story takes place on Mr Wigg’s farm in South-West NSW. Here he grows a range of stone fruit, listens to the cricket on the radio, bakes with his grandchildren, reminisces about his life and works hard on a secret project.

‘Mr Wigg had squandered his life’ reads the first line of the book. And for some it might seem so. He has led a quiet life on the farm with his wife, Mrs Wigg, who died a few years ago. He has no great achievements to show for himself, just his orchard and his family. His son thinks it’s time he moved into town.

But Mr Wigg has a special relationship with all the fruit trees in his orchard and each has its own personality and quirky ways. The younger trees, the peaches and nectarines, tend towards silliness, while the older trees are wiser but sometimes impatient. Rhubarb, meanwhile, is characterised by a lack of manners. ‘Rhubarb’s speech was crude, and muted by soil.’

Things even get a bit saucy in spring, when the pears and apples get taunted by the trees which don’t need cross-pollination. ‘His books didn’t have much to say on the sexuality of fruit trees. Mr Wigg figured it was best to keep quiet until the storm of pollen had settled.’ Who knew that life on an orchard could be so intriguing?

Simpson tells us the story of an ordinary man in an extraordinary way, casting a light on the little events that make up a life. Whether it is meeting Mrs Wigg at a dance, making strawberry tarts with the children or telling mythical and magical tales about fruit, each moment is beautifully rendered. The outside world intrudes from time to time; his neighbour’s son is drafted for the Vietnam War and the Springbok’s tour is cancelled after protests.

Mr Wigg is poignant, a little sad, but having the still quality of a meditation. It says on the cover that this is, ‘A novel that celebrates the small, precious things in life.’ And so it does. Quietly contemplative, Mr Wigg is about simplicity; taking joy in the moment and each day as it comes. Turn off the computer and read slowly with a peach to hand.

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Inga Simpson will be appearing at the Byron Bay Writers Festival 2-4 August.

This is my sixth review for the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge. On a related note, I have been co-opted onto the panel of the Stella Trivia Night at the Byron Bay Writers Festival where I will be quizzed about my knowledge of Australian Women’s Literature. Scary stuff but should be a fun evening with lots of audience participation.

And for anyone interested in unleashing their inner chick-lit goddess, I’ll be running a half-day workshop on Monday 29 July as part of the Festival. Learn how to find humour in everyday situations, make your dialogue sparkle and give your character’s sex lives a little more sizzle. Come on, you know you want to…

Here’s hoping the rain abates before the marquees go up!

Hard to put down – ‘The Husband’s Secret’ by Liane Moriarty

31 May

the husband's secretThe Husband’s Secret is the fifth novel by bestselling Australian author, Liane Moriarty, but it is the first I have read of hers. The premise is a cracker – what would you do if you discovered a letter from your husband with this written on the front, ‘For my wife, Cecilia Fitzpatrick. To be opened only in the event of my death’? Why, open it at once, of course!

Cecilia, the main protagonist of this story, is the perfect wife – a P and C President and Tupperware party queen who also keeps her sexual techniques up to date. Clearly she is a better person than me, because she does struggle with herself over what to do about the letter, which she discovers while her husband, John-Paul is overseas. But when she asks him about it and senses he is lying, well…

The novel opens with a short excerpt of the story of Pandora, who famously opened a box that would have been better left shut. With this metaphor in mind, clearly Cecilia would have done better to forget about the envelope but of course she can’t. And once the secret is out, the ripples spread.

I read this novel in two sittings and only just restrained myself from staying up all night to finish it. Moriarty interweaves Cecilia’s story with that of the other characters to great effect, so that you just have to turn the page to find out what happens next.

The other major players are Tess, who has come back to Sydney, her home town, because her husband has fallen in love with her best friend and Rachel, an elderly woman who is still mourning the death of her teenage daughter many years before. Rachel’s dead daughter, Janie, also appears as a point-of-view character from time to time.

All of these strands are deftly handled, taking on the terrain of grief, infatuation, love and mid-life crisis in a simply-told but honest and affecting style. Each of the characters grows and learns throughout the novel, coming to grips with their particular problem.

Be warned that the pace of the novel accelerates towards the end, so clear your diary; you won’t be going anywhere until you finish it. ‘The Husband’s Secret’ is a ripping yarn and I’ll certainly be going back for more of Liane Moriarty.

This is my fifth review for the Australian Women Writers Challenge. 

Cheeky and enlightening – my review of ‘Mullumbimby’ by Melissa Lucashenko

14 May

mullumbimbyMullumbimy is Melissa Lucashenko’s fifth novel and is, as the name suggests, set in northern New South Wales.  The protagonist, Jo Breen, is an Aboriginal woman who uses her divorce settlement and the money she earns mowing grass at the Mullumbimby cemetery to buy a block of farmland. She sees this as her own way of reclaiming Bundjalung country and the process of returning her land to health is deeply satisfying.

Jo’s life is already complicated by her artistic and moody teenage daughter and becomes more so with the arrival in town of an outsider, Twoboy. Twoboy and his brother are down from Brisbane to initiate a land claim which stirs up a hornet’s nest of conflicting interests in the area. Jo is reluctant to get embroiled in what promises to be a messy fight. Twoboy, however, is dreadlocked, devastatingly handsome, heterosexual and apparently single. This is practically a miracle as far as Jo is concerned.

Jo also has to come to terms with her new neighbours, including the farmer Rob Starr, who wears expensive boots and erects fences where none seem needed and Granny Narrung, an Aboriginal Elder who Jo initially dismisses for her old-fashioned and uptight Christian ways.

The book is full of cheeky humour and witticisms, such as when Jo first sights Twoboy coming out of a bookshop and immediately wants to rush in and find out what he bought, ‘… hoping – please, oh please – that it wasn’t Armistead Maupin.’

I enjoyed the way Lucashenko used Bundjalung words throughout the novel. This added richness to the story and a glossary at the back provides a handy reference. Jo is troubled by how little she knows about the spirituality of Bundjalung culture and is wary of the looming peak of Wollumbin. ‘She knew Wollumbin was strong men’s business, and to be avoided at all costs.’ The difficulty of maintaining Bundjalung culture and links to land is an ongoing theme throughout the book. The fraught issue of native title is also handled with honesty and insight.

This book can be enjoyed simply as a well-told yarn, but particularly for those of us who live in this area, it is so much more. Mullumbimby offers a window into the living Bundjalung culture and the meaning of the Country which I found both moving and enlightening. It is also a page turner – highly recommended.

This is my fourth review for the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Literati on the Gold Coast is on this Friday and Saturday! I will be talking about ‘Character Care and Maintenance’ on Friday with Jessie Cole and Paula Weston and on Saturday I join a lovely cast of romance writers – Helene Young, Anna Campbell and Keri Arthur on ‘A Course of True Love’. If you’re in the area, I’d love to see you.

It’s a cracker – Steeplechase by Krissy Kneen

25 Apr

 

steeplechaseSteeplechase is Brisbane author, Krissy Kneen’s first novel, and her first non-erotic work. Her previous books are a memoir, Affection and Triptych, a collection of erotic stories.

Bec Reich is a forty-year-old lecturer in art, whose own art career has stalled. Bec is getting over surgery when her sister Emily, a famous artist who she hasn’t spoken to for twenty-three years, calls and invites her to the launch of her new show in Beijing. Emily is also famous for being schizophrenic and Bec, too, hints at mental illness in her past. Emily’s call awakens Bec’s memories of their strange childhood and the games, fantasies and delusions which they shared.

 

Cut off from social contact, the sisters are brought up by their grandmother, a woman who locks all the doors and windows every night and forbids them to venture off the family property. The family live in small-town Queensland where the townsfolk assume they are part of a strange religious group.

 

As the story alternates between the past and the present, the reader slowly learns more about the sisters. Bec adores her older sister and would do anything to be included in her games. Emily is horse-mad and initiates a game of steeplechase where she forces Bec to play the part of the horse. ‘I am a bad horse, a lazy horse, a slow horse, and I take the whipping silently because it is true. I am a bad horse. I am not any kind of horse at all,’ says Bec. I enjoyed the contrast between the voices of the teenage Bec and the older Bec. A sub-plot relating to Bec’s relationship with a much-younger student is also well-drawn.

 

This story was so skilfully told so that I never knew quite which parts were reality and which parts delusion. Reading it was like putting together a puzzle. Kneen’s writing is both simple and evocative, creating a sense of lurking threat behind everyday actions. A scene where Bec listens to a phone’s ring tone, imagining she can hear someone breathing is particularly chilling. And what about Raphael, the lover the sisters shared, did he really exist?  As Bec joins Emily in Beijing, the story races towards a startling and satisfying conclusion.

Steeplechase is both beautifully written and a page-turner that provides insight into madness and art. I couldn’t put it down.

This is my third review for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013

For those in the Byron Bay area, Krissy Kneen will be in conversation at the Northern Rivers Writers’ Centre on the 10th of May and running a workshop on erotic writing on the 11th of May. Details here

Book review – ‘Losing February – a story of love, sex and longing’ by Susanna Freymark

17 Feb

Losing February is the debut novel by Susanna Freymark. As advertised on the back cover blurb, this is a story of love without sex and sex without love.  Bernie, a journalist, lives in the small fictional town of Repentance Creek, not too far from Byron Bay. Recently separated from a husband who didn’t love her in the way she needed, Bernie tries to find her way again in the world. When she makes contact with an old university friend a lingering passion reignites. A flurry of emails, texts and frustratingly sexless encounters draw Bernie into an obsessive love; ‘…there is a moment… starting in the month of February when I felt so deeply loved, I thought the world was mine and anything was possible.’

But this is no fairytale romance – Jack is married and guilty as hell about their involvement. Although Bernie and Jack search for a way to stay together, the end is inevitable. When Jack calls it quits Bernie’s love implodes in a binge of risky sexual behaviour. In an effort to pull herself out of depression, Bernie makes mistake after mistake with a series of unsuitable, predatory and uncaring men she meets over the internet. Most of these men seem almost as sad as Bernie herself. The plentiful, varied and explicit sex in this book is only sometimes erotic. More often it lends itself to the depressing conclusion that there is a whole lot of bad sex going on out there. The close first person voice of the story makes this an almost voyeuristic experience for the reader.

I was gripped from the first sentence of this book as Freymark skilfully captures the emotional rollercoaster of an adulterous affair. The highs, the lows, the guilt and shame – it’s all there. While the story is grim in parts, this is tempered by some beautiful writing on the transformative nature of love; ‘It spins you around and changes every cell in your body. … you’re never the same once you’ve been in love.’

Losing February could be read as a morality tale – no good can come from adultery – but it is more about the inevitability of love when it strikes. I found it a raw and honest portrayal of the grief that comes from loving the wrong person.

This is my second review for the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge 2013losing february.

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