Thank you to everyone who visited my blog and a big thanks to Shellyrae from Book’d Out for hosting the blog hop. I have randomly chosen a winner and it is Gemmie Alliston. Congratulations Gemmie, I’ll have that book on it’s way to you very soon!
Over the last ten years or so it seems like everyone I meet has just done, or is about to do, a pilgrimage. Those who have returned talk about it ecstatically – it was life changing, they say. The idea attracts me. I visualise the experience as a chance to take stock and maybe change direction.
Some say the modern-day rush of pilgrims began in 1987 after Paulo Coelho’s book ‘The Pilgrimage’. The Camino pilgrimage in Spain now has over 200 000 pilgrims each year, compared to 600 in 1985. But the phenomenon is broader than this. The Shikoku pilgrimage in Japan, a 60 day trek to 88 temples is also booming. Over a decade its numbers have tripled to 150 000 pilgrims every year.
Traditionally, pilgrimages were taken in order to cleanse the pilgrim of their sins. They offered a state of transition which led to transformation. Bad luck with jobs, health or romance are common reasons for pilgrims to set out on the Shikoku walk. Young Japanese women commonly walk alone to recover after a breakup.
A few years ago, inspired by pilgrims’ tales, I started to write a novel about a woman walking the Shikoku pilgrimage. I bought a lot of books and became quite an armchair expert, but I could never find the time to go. The book was on a roll so, loathe to put on the brakes, I got creative and changed the setting.
Arkie, my protagonist, travels no further north than Noosa and no further south than Sydney. She is a ‘do it yourself’ pilgrim, finding transcendence on the highways and byways of my local area on her way to the next ‘big thing’.
In a stroke of serendipity, my husband, my two grown-up kids and myself have now found ourselves perfectly timed to take ‘a gap year’ together (actually a gap six months.). We are planning to do a pilgrimage walk in Japan and also walk the Camino.
Leave a comment on this blog to go into the draw for a copy of ‘Arkie’s Pilgrimage to the Next Big Thing.’ The prizewinner will be announced on this blog on January 31st. And go to Book’d Out to check out the rest of the blogs with giveaways on the Australia Day Blog Hop.
My story ‘Romantic’ appears in the Review of Australian Fiction this week, partnered with a story by Emma Ashmere, ‘Seaworthiness’. Emma’s first novel, ‘The Floating Garden’ came out this year and you can find my review of it here.
The Review of Australian Fiction is an online magazine that aims to support Australian fiction by publishing stories by established writers partnered with an emerging writer of their choice. In 2012 I was published in the RAF as an emerging author, introduced by Venero Armano and three years later, I am now honoured to be able to introduce Emma.
The Review of Australian Fiction operates by passing royalties on to the authors of the stories so you can subscribe, happy in the knowledge that you are keeping an author in coffee!
Read a preview here.
If you’re heading along to the Byron Bay Writers Festival and you wouldn’t mind a 5 night luxury holiday then this ‘finish the story’ competition is for you. All you have to do is pop along to the Elements of Byron tent and register, read the beginning of the story which I’ve written and then write a 500 word ending within 2 weeks of the festival. The details of the competition are here. And that picture is me in the setting of the story.
This is how the story starts…
I wake from a dimly remembered dream. There was a whale. And a rainbow. As I drink my morning glass of water and lemon juice it comes back to me. The whale had blown a rainbow out of its spout. I wash my glass in the sink. The image delights me.
On my train to the city I ponder the dream. It was a sign, I decide. I need to do something inspiring. Go somewhere that will lift my spirits. I fold my newspaper as the train pulls into Town Hall. I have it – I will go whale watching. In Byron Bay.
The idea dances in my head as I jostle my way up the stairs. Byron Bay – it must be twenty years. Had I really partied on a beach-front roof as lightning forked across the sky then stripped off and run naked into the sea? I shoulder my bulging handbag as I push through the turnstile. It’s hard to imagine now.
That evening after dinner I buy flights on impulse in a mid-winter sale and pick a place on the internet. It looks beautiful – nestled next to the beach, amongst paperbark forest and wetland. Perfect. I book for three nights – Ruby will love it. I imagine us bonding again as whales leap in front of us. We had so much fun together on that whale-watching trip to Nelson Bay, six years ago when she was ten.
Ruby has been so moody since the divorce. Even when she’s home she shuts herself in her room and barely speaks to me. I miss her – this holiday will be my chance to get to know her again.
The Floating Garden is the debut novel by Northern Rivers local, Emma Ashmere. It is set in Sydney in the 1920s, where the arches of the Harbour Bridge are still making their way through the air towards each other. Down below in Milson’s Point, a colony of misfits are losing their homes as construction proceeds.
The Floating Garden interweaves the stories of two women. Ellis is an eccentric who runs a boarding house for women and girls while Rennie is an artistic Englishwoman in an unhappy marriage. When Rennie plucks up the courage to leave her abusive husband, she finds a temporary home in Ellis’s guesthouse, which is about to be demolished.
Both women look to each other to provide security – Ellis needs money, while Rennie needs a bolt-hole to hide out from her husband. As her Milson’s Point home disintegrates, Ellis relives her escape to Sydney at the age of sixteen. Her unlikely saviour was the charismatic, scheming theosophist, Minerva Stranks. She also hints at a troubled liaison in the past with Minerva’s protégé, the fragile Kitty.
I loved so many things about this book, but the characters were especially delightful. Ellis has many secrets, not least of which is her anonymous authorship of a controversial gardening column under the name of Scribbly Gum. The flamboyant Rennie hails from a life of privilege and has a hard time adjusting to her new circumstances in the poorer part of town. Her effort to blend in and cope with her situation provides a subtle touch of humour. I also enjoyed learning more about theosophy – a spiritual belief system which was very popular in the 1920s.
An early review has compared this book to Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet and there certainly are some similarities. Both books explore the wider events in society through the lens of the people affected and both focus on a working class group of colourful individuals. Like Tim Winton, Emma Ashmere has a fine hand with exuberant Australian types.
The author has a PhD focusing on the use of marginalised histories in fiction and her novel does a superb job of bringing this fragment of our past to attention. The Floating Garden is a beautifully written, gently humorous and highly detailed slice of history. It also has an absorbing story-line which kept me turning the page.
This is my third review for the 2015 Australian Women Writers Challenge.
‘Home Truths’ is Mandy Nolan’s third comedic memoir, following hot on the heels of ‘Boyfriends We’ve All Had (But Shouldn’t Have)’ and ‘What I Would Do If I Were You.’ In ‘Home Truths’ she turns her shrewd gaze to all things domestic. And as it turns out, the home is a very funny place.
As a child, Mandy used to wander the streets at night, looking into other people’s windows. She enjoyed the surreptitious peek into their private world. This book is an extension of that early fascination, asking the question – who are we when we close the door?
Mandy introduces us to her childhood, in a small town near Kingaroy, which was of course Joh Bjelke-Petersen heartland at the time. Here in Wondai, she develops a syndrome that stays with her – Fear of Missing Out on Living Somewhere Better.
Leaving Wondai for university, she hooks up with a wild bunch of girls in a share house in Brisbane. This quickly becomes a squalid mess, with a special feature ‘poo corner.’ The girls are too lazy to train their cats to use the kitty litter. This hideous living experience is the harbinger of Mandy’s later self-confessed cleaning fetish.
Moving up in the world, we venture into the stressful territory of home building. Here Mandy meets the ‘coping guy’ who she imagines as, ‘some sort of super dude who can handle demanding, difficult and obstreperous women like me. I’m up for the challenge…’
Via homelessness and living alone we land in the fashion-challenged life of the ‘at home worker.’ Popping down for a coffee in a pair of black pyjamas Mandy is told that she looks ‘very corporate.’ It’s easy to let standards slip in a town like Mullumbimby.
Mandy delves deep into the psyche of the home – the psychology of missing socks, the optimum number of decorating cushions and the difficult art of Feng Shui. ‘Why change your behaviour when all you have to do is move the bed?’ Boarding up her daughter’s room seems the best solution to a tricky Feng Shui problem in her house.
Full of laugh out loud and uncomfortably honest moments, ‘Home Truths’ is an incisive and exuberant examination at our homemaking instincts.
This review first apppeared in the Northern Rivers Echo.
Mandy is launching ‘Home Truths’ in Lismore on May 14. Tickets from the Book Warehouse on 66214204.
I will be on a panel with Mandy Nolan at Bellingen Writers Festival on June 7.
This is my second review for the 2015 Australian Women Writers Challenge.
‘His Other House’ is Sarah Armstrong’s second book, coming ten years after her Miles Franklin shortlisted debut novel, ‘Salt Rain.’ Both books are set in the Northern Rivers Region and the lush environment is an intrinsic part of the story.
‘His Other House’ is a tense domestic drama focusing on a love triangle of sorts. The book was inspired, Armstrong says, by a news story she read about a man who lived a double life with two wives and two families for many years.
Quinn is a doctor whose marriage is pushed to its limits by efforts to have a much longed-for child. A succession of IVF rounds and miscarriages leave him drained and needing a break, but his wife Marianna wants to press on with another attempt. She can’t see how her life will ever be complete without a child.
While Quinn lives in Brisbane he is doing a stint as a visiting doctor in Corimbi, a town much like Mullumbimby. Here he meets Rachel, a disillusioned journalist taking a break from her job. A night-time swim in the town pool leads to an unplanned kiss and soon Quinn and Rachel are involved in a passionate affair.
Quinn’s intention to leave Marianna is tested when she unexpectedly falls naturally pregnant. It is at this stage that the tension ratchets up. Quinn decides to keep his relationship with Rachel a secret, a decision which involves him in a web of lies. ‘He was dismayed how readily he took to lying. He’d always thought of it as a decisive abandonment of the truth. Instead, he realised, it was simply a matter of one word slipping into the place of another.’ While it would be easy to judge Quinn, by now we know him so well that we can only empathise, even if we suspect that it’s going to end badly.
The time this novel has taken to come to fruition shows in its insight and many delightful turns of phrase. As in ‘Salt Rain’ Sarah’s writing is evocative and striking. While all the characters are believable and finely drawn, it is the children who linger most strongly in my memory. ‘His Other House’ is both a page-turner and a powerful story of morality within relationships.
This review originally appeared in the Northern Rivers Echo.
In my book, ‘Arkie’s Pilgrimage to the Next Big Thing’, my protagonist Arkie and her friend Haruko are sometimes bemused and sometimes captivated by the Big Things they encounter on their journey. While they agree that some Big Things are better than others, it turns out that even the most lacklustre have their attractions. The Big Pelican has eyelashes to die for and a rather flirtatious look about it and inside The Big Shell, Arkie can hear the roar of distant seas. The Big Prawn is rather intimidating. A twenty-five metre prawn would be enough to make me flee the water forever, Arkie reflects.
While Big Things first started in America it is probably safe to say that no other country has embraced them with quite the gusto of Australia. Big Things were originally conceived of as extra-large agricultural products, designed to show travellers how country folk live. They were, in effect, farming theme parks. But that original intention later expanded to embrace practically anything that could be reproduced in a super-sized form.
Big things kicked off in Australia in the 60s with the Big Scotsman, The Big Banana, the Big Stubby and the Big Staircase. While some folks were sporting Afros and peace symbols, eating pork with prunes and carrying flowers, others were busy building Big Things.
The 70s was the decade of pet rocks, hot pants, pineapple cheese balls, curly perms and platform shoes. It also brought us the Big Captain Cook, the Big Crab, the Big Macadamia Nut, the Big Pineapple, the Big Penguin, the Big Mower and the Big Cow. Quirky times.
Some will remember the 80s as being all about pedal pushers, Rubik’s Cube, prawn and avocado cocktail, big hair and acid-wash jeans. But, more importantly, this decade also brought us nineteen big things including the Big Bulls, the Big Mandarin, the Big Avocado and the Big Chook. It’s a wonder people got anything done at all in the 80s with all those Big Things to build.
To me there is something quite surrealistic about Big Things. They raise questions such as, why would you build a Big Cow? Or a Big Prawn for that matter? I suspect that the answer is, Why not? As Arkie says, they are an opportunity to reflect, Magnified to many times its normal size, a cow forces me to consider the essence of ‘cowness’. Cows of course are sacred to Hindus and are often revered as a symbol of wealth and abundance in other religions too. Is building a Big Cow therefore a subconscious effort to call forth good fortune?
Even if you don’t believe, like Arkie, that Big Things are deeply meaningful, you may still think, as I do, that there is something weird and sweet about them. I don’t know about you, but somehow they always make me smile.
PS. The photo is taken circa 1972 of my sister and I with my mother at the Big Banana.
This blog originally appeared at Starts at Sixty.
This post originally appeared on Book’d Out.
In ‘Arkie’s Pilgrimage to the Next Big Thing’ my protagonist, Arkie, meets her friend, Haruko at Byron Bay railway station on New Year’s Eve. Haruko introduces Arkie to her own way of celebrating. First there is bingo at fourteen minutes past nine, then soba noodles at fourteen minutes past ten and a prayer at fourteen minutes past eleven. At fourteen minutes past midnight Haruko gives Arkie a present in a drawstring bag – the Seven Lucky Shinto Gods. These gods become a touchstone for Arkie on her journey. There is fat and happy Hotei, whose stomach you rub for good luck, Ebisu, the god of fishermen, Bishamonten, who heals the sick and Fukurokuju the god of wisdom. Arkie’s favourite, the only goddess in the group, is Benzaiten. Benzaiten is the goddess of everything that flows, her shrines are usually situated near water. She is fertile and a competent wife. Everything I am not, Arkie thinks.
Haruko tells Arkie that every New Year’s night the Lucky Gods travel around to houses on their treasure ship. Arkie must draw a picture of the Lucky Gods and place it under her pillow. If she has a good dream then it will come true.
I was drawn to the Lucky Gods because I kept seeing them everywhere I went in Japan. Sometimes they were ancient statues covered in snow, sometimes little models for sale on the street. I began to notice how the individual god’s names popped up everywhere. Ebisu, for example, is both a brand of beer and a locality in Tokyo. I bought a model of the Lucky Gods and brought it home. It sat next to my computer while I wrote the novel and gave me inspiration when I flagged.
Haruko’s present becomes an integral part of Arkie’s journey but she also introduces her to many other facets of Japan. When Haruko writes a trendspotting proposal about pilgrimages she includes a picture of Tori gates – archways which guide you from the everyday world to the spiritual. The picture is from a temple near Kyoto where you walk through hundreds of Tori gates on your way to the shrine at the top of a hill. This shrine, called Fushimi Inari, is for the fox goddess, Inari, who is also associated with fertility.
Inari appears in my story in the form of a white foxy dog with a mysterious influence.
‘Inari possesses you through your fingernails,’ Haruko says.
‘What happens if you are possessed by Inari?’ says Arkie.
‘You go a little crazy,’ says Haruko.
Strange things start to happen. Each way Arkie turns she finds a little bit of magic. A dusty teapot picked up on the side of the road could be Tanuki, Haruko tells her. Tanuki is a racoon dog who is a bit of a trickster. Tanuki takes many forms and often turns himself into a teapot, Haruko says.
Under Haruko’s guidance Arkie’s pilgrimage becomes much more than just a journey to the Big Things. Two worlds merge and every day is filled with new revelations.
I will be talking with author Jennifer St George and the always hilarious Mandy Nolan at Mary Ryans Bookshop Byron Bay at 5.30pm on Thursday 12th of March. Join us to explore the joy of books, writing and love.
This is a free event, but bookings essential on 6685 8183.
Roxanne Gay’s debut novel is the story of Mireille, a woman of Haitian descent, who is kidnapped when she and her American husband return to Haiti to visit her wealthy parents. Haiti, it turns out, is the kidnapping capital of the world. Mireille is held for ransom, ‘by a gang of fearless yet terrified young men with so much impossible hope beating inside their bodies it burned their very skin. . . .’
Mireille’s father, she knows, has always made a point of his refusal to negotiate with kidnappers. For thirteen days, while her father rejects ransom demands, she is held captive.
‘An Untamed State’ is both gripping and difficult to read. The graphic descriptions of the sexual and physical abuse Mireille suffers at the hands of her captors are haunting. As her days in captivity pass, Mireille loses sight of her own identity. Freed at last, she believes it is too late, she is already dead.
The complex characters are a strength of the novel. Flashbacks to Mireille and Michael’s courtship and to that of her parents allow us to understand better the situation they are now facing. Mireille’s father believes he has to save the whole family, not just Mireille. He tells the story of a colleague who paid out kidnapper after kidnapper until he was bankrupted. He needs to show that he will not be broken. There is a protocol to follow – a negotiator is hired.
Michael, Mireille’s husband, loves and cares for her, but is initially able to deal with the broken remains of his wife when she is finally released. Ultimately, it is Mireille’s relationship with Michael’s mother which is to prove most important to her. Gay clearly has a good understanding of the lingering effects of rape.
The novel paints a stark portrait of Haiti, a place of ‘so much beauty, so much brutality.’ One of the most shocking parts for me was the way in which bystanders watched passively as Mireille was dragged from her car in the street. Even when she escapes from her captors, she can find no help in the slum where she is held.
While the violence in the novel means that it is not for the faint-hearted, ‘An Untamed State’ is a feisty, intelligent and page-turning read.
I have been out and about talking about ‘Arkie’s Pilgrimage to the Next Big Thing’ and still have a few events to go on the Gold Coast, Brisbane and Byron Bay (see below) so if you’d like to come along I’d love to see you there.
Thursday 26 February 2015
10:30 AM Event – Elanora Library, The Pines Shopping Centre Guineas Creek Road, Elanora QLD
This is a free event but bookings are recommended by phoning the library on (07) 5581 1671.
Friday 27 February 2015
10:00am Victoria Point Library, 7/15 Bunker Road, Victoria Point QLD 4165
This is a free event but booking are recommended on (07) 3884 4000
Thursday 12th March