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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.

It’s getting hot out there – review of ‘Madlands’ by Anna Rose

20 Sep

Madlands is a behind the scenes look at the ABC documentary – I Can Change Your Mind on Climate Change. To produce the program, climate change campaigner Anna Rose and climate sceptic and Liberal Party powerbroker, Nick Minchin lived in each other’s pockets for four weeks. They travelled from a parched farm in New South Wales to a climate station in Hawaii to the Barrier Reef. The premise of the program was that each of the protagonists would get the chance to try to change each other’s minds by introducing them to experts in their field. This is Anna’s account of that journey.

Anna Rose has been an environmental campaigner since the age of fourteen. She has always been driven, she says, by a sense that she can make a difference.

While I already had an interest in climate change, I found this book an eye-opening window into the world of the climate sceptic. If over 97% of scientists are convinced and countries like Tuvalu and Bangladesh are feeling the effects of rising sea levels, how is it that many people are so apathetic?

While most European countries are embracing renewable energy, Australia, the third most energy hungry economy in the world, lags behind in its dependence on coal. With the possibility of transitioning to renewable energy within ten years, Anna believes it is time for those who say we can’t to get out of the way of those who can.

Well written, engaging, and filled with the author’s passion and urgency, I found Madlands a page turner. Driven by a sense that time is running out, Anna Rose spent her honeymoon in Byron Bay writing this book. As she says, ‘The best time to act was yesterday, but the second best is today.’

On a personal note, I am currently attempting to write a romantic comedy about climate change as part of my Masters in Creative Writing at the University of Queensland. Possibly a strange idea, but someone had to do it.

This is my 12th review for the Australian Women Writers Challenge. 

Men and Babies – ‘Sweet Old World’ by Deborah Robertson

14 Aug

David, a freelance journalist and writer, lives on Inishmore, a harsh island off the coast of Ireland.  A place where people come ‘for the wild beauty and the five thousand years of history, the Celtic legends and the burial sites of saints. They’re coming for the drink and the sex and the craic.’ David has come to live there in order to help his divorced sister, Orla, run a guesthouse.

David is forty-three years old. With many unfulfilling relationships behind him, he is now yearning for something more. Not satisfied with being a much-loved uncle to his three nephews, he wants a child of his own. ‘He is full of hope. And this is what he doesn’t talk about: he wants to be a father, now, not later. He doesn’t want to waste one more minute of his life.’ David is conscious of aging – he has a back injury incurred on the same night he realised his desire to have a child – but thinks there is still time.  He imagines a phantom child running through the house.

When Ettie, a seventeen year old Australian girl, has a serious accident after leaving David’s house, her mother, Tania, comes into his life. As a tentative love unfolds between them, David dares to imagine a long-desired future – a baby in his bed. But Tania starts to question his motives and, even to the reader, they are not totally clear. Small events begin to erode her trust.

The author has said that she started this novel as a story about three sisters grappling with infertility, but became bored with it, realising that the male view on this subject was one that interested her more. The desire of single, heterosexual men to have children is not one that is much explored in our culture.

Sweet Old World is Deborah Robertson’s second novel. Her first, Careless, was short listed for the Miles Franklin in 1998 and she has also published a book of short stories, Proudflesh.

                I read this book in one flu-bound day in bed and shed a few tears at the end. Like all good fiction, Sweet Old World drew me deep into another reality. Beautifully written, complex and subtle it explores a little known emotional realm. A lovely, lyrical, heartfelt story about loss, longing and hope.

This is my 11th review for the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

I will be at the ARRA mega book signing event on the Gold Coast this Friday (17th). Do say hello if you’re there!

Masculinity, sexuality and tenderness – ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’ by Jessie Cole

19 Jul

A crashed car on a country road, a fragile young woman and man who collects broken things… These are the elements which introduce Jessie Cole’s debut novel, Darkness on the Edge of Town.

Vincent is something of a drifter, a handyman on the cusp of forty, unpolished, but tender. From the moment he stops to help the young woman he finds sitting beside her crashed car, his life takes a new direction. Rachel, brittle and grieving, returns to Vincent’s house and a strange and intense relationship develops between them.

Vincent’s daughter Gemma is sixteen, and entering the unknown land of male and female relationships. She wonders how she can spend all night talking to a boy and then, ‘at school he acted like he’d never seen me before…’ Gemma has watched Vincent move from woman to woman in the town, always choosing ones with, ‘a half-crazy edge’.  ‘I used to wonder what it was about my dad that attracts these women… But lately I’m thinking maybe I should be worried about what it is that he needs from them.’ Gemma watches with apprehension as the dynamic between Vincent and Rachel changes.

The story is told from the alternate voices of father and daughter. Both voices are strong, distinct and totally authentic. There are some beautiful moments between Gemma and her father such as when Vincent tries to tell her how he feels about Rachel. ‘…I can never explain it, and the more I’d try the weirder it’d sound.’ All three characters struggle to communicate their feelings – the gaps between what they say and what they feel ring loudly.

Set in an isolated valley in the Northern Rivers, the novel explores themes of masculinity and sexuality, communication and miscommunication. In the style of writers like Tim Winton, it is a tense and gripping portrayal of the current that lies beneath relationships in the smallest of towns.

The theme of male violence also pervades the book. Vincent, though compassionate and principled, is quick to anger. I read the book with a knot of apprehension which grew as the story progressed. But what touched me most was its quality of transience. As Vincent reflects, lying next to Rachel, ‘I lay there, still and quiet, knowing that nothing lasts forever, but sort of hoping that it could.’

This is a novel you’ll read quickly and then wish you’d read slowly because you don’t want it to end.

 

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

 

Join Jessie and I in conversation at Lennox Head Library 10.30am on the 24th of July or Lismore Library 5.30pm on the 26th July. Free events. All welcome.

Or, otherwise at the Byron Writers Festival 3-5th August.

Hope to see you there!

 

Review – Mad Men, Bad Girls and the Guerrilla Knitters Institute By Maggie Groff

23 Jun

Mad Men, Bad Girls etc. Is the debut novel by north coast author, Maggie Groff who has previously written two bestselling works of non-fiction.  The novel is a comedy crime caper set between Byron Bay and the Gold Coast.

Freelance journalist Scout Davies works at a desk which ‘overlooks Byron’s main thoroughfare, Jonson Street, where the muse in charge of fabulous things has dropped the biggest fancy-dress party in the world.’ Given a job to investigate a dodgy American cult, The Luminous Renaissance of Illustrious Light, which has moved to the Gold Coast, Scout sets to work.

Scout’s sister Harper (her parents were fans of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’) also needs her help with an underwear cutter on the loose in her school. This unleashes a second plot strand of cyber-bullying and school politics. Scout goes on the hunt to solve these mysteries, following a number of clues and red herrings.  Adding difficulty is the fact that Scout is an insulin-dependent diabetic. Naturally this creates difficulties out in the field.

There is plenty of danger and intrigue as Scout infiltrates the cult, coming face to face with its ‘Mystic Master’ Serene Cloud, a man who, ‘in another place, in another colour (would) have made a fabulous Santa Claus.’ Also fun is Scout’s mission with the Guerrilla Knitters Institute, a group that leaves stealthy graffiti ‘yarn bombs’ around the town and her banter with her cat and side-kick, Chairman Meow. I enjoyed the Byron Bay flavour as Scout picnics at Wategos and chats with locals.

Mad Men, Bad Girls is a witty, fast moving romp. It has plenty of great lines and a very sexy love interest in the form of a local cop, Rafe, who is possibly a little too good to be true, but who cares? Neither Scout nor Rafe seem to struggle too much with the fact that Rafe is a friend of Scout’s long-term boyfriend who is currently on assignment in Afghanistan.

The plot motors along with almost all of the strands satisfactorily resolved by the end. We leave Scout in love with two men and with an ample cast of lively characters to explore in the next book, which I believe is in the pipeline.  This is light hearted crime in the mode of Kerry Greenwood. Curl up on the couch and enjoy.

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

Walking with Ants in Tasmania – Cate Kennedy’s ‘The World Beneath’

7 Jun

I loved Victorian writer, Cate Kennedy’s, short story collection, Dark Roots, so I was keen to read her debut novel. Cate’s short stories exhibit a wry eye for the minutiae of human flaws. This skill is deftly at play in The World Beneath which was published in 2010.

The story is told from three points of view. Rich and Sandy are an estranged mid-forties couple who met on the Franklin River Blockade in 1983.  This was the zenith of their lives – nothing has come close since. As Sandy says; ‘What do you do when you’ve experienced that? What do you do for the rest of your life?’ Mid-life meltdown here we come.

Sophie, their daughter, is an angry teenager searching for the father she has never known. Rich roared off in his Kombi when she was a baby. Brought up on tales of the blockade, Sophie is deeply cynical. Her unflinching gaze tarnishes even this hallowed moment.

Wanting to bond with Sophie, Rich induces her to go on a six day walk in Tasmania. On arrival, he is insulted to find the wilderness pre-packaged for a too-large audience. Tension builds as Rich’s desire to impress Sophie with a ‘real’ experience drives him into risky behaviour.

Kennedy gleefully skewers Sandy’s political correctness. She envies the way her friend has her baby’s placenta swaddled to him in fabric from Rajasthan; ‘a very ancient tradition.’ If only she’d thought of that. Rich’s pretensions to ‘hipness’ are also cringe-inducing.

Anyone who has bushwalked will recognise the know-it-all walker. Wondering how many days of rain the park got? Unsure whether to boil the water? Mildly interested in birds? ‘Russell was your man.’ Having bushwalked in The Labyrinth myself and experienced the amazing frenzy of the ants, I also enjoyed these scenes.

Underneath the humour is a question that will resonate with many in Rich and Sandy’s age group; what does it mean to give up your freedom by having children? Whose life has more meaning, Rich’s or Sandy’s? Rich has tripped around the world, but missed its significance. He wonders if, rather than an anchor, Sophie would have been ballast; something to steady him in life.

While there are no answers here for the mid-life crisis, there is plenty of fuel for reflection on relationships, delusion and family ties.

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

Lusting after the TV weather man – ‘Yearn’ by Tobsha Learner

9 May

I loved the cover of Yearn so much I just had to pick it up. The voluptuous, tattooed woman floating with a crimson parasol had the allure of the off-beat. She promised a lot, but could she deliver?

Erotic fiction is difficult. Badly written, it is smutty, embarrassing or just plain boring. Too much sex and it becomes the opposite of erotic. I am reminded of the over-achieving couple who doggedly set out to have sex every day for a year. Ho hum, I bet the champagne corks were popping at the end of that year. Anais Nin, anyone? Let’s face it, if you can do this genre well you’d be mad not to build a career around it. Tobsha Learner, a part-time Australian, is the bestselling author of four novels and two previous collections of short stories, Quiver and Tremble. She’s good with titles too.

Not only erotic, many of the stories in Yearn play with magic and fantasy. Ink is the story of a young biographer using ancient sex magic to get revenge on an older and more famous rival. In Fur, a girl is transformed by the visits of a fantasy lover with some connection to her cat. In The Alchemy of Coincidence a sculptor conjures up her dream lover while preparing for her new collection.

Other stories are more romantic. In Barrow Boy a self-made man has an epiphany after reuniting briefly with his childhood sweetheart. Pussy and Mouse is a surprisingly moving account of a lonely call centre worker finding love online and in Flower, an older woman learns to appreciate her body’s beauty. There is sensuality as well as sexuality; ‘The woman didn’t walk so much as flow… an assemblage of fluid molecules seamlessly gliding through space.’

I enjoyed the way Learner plays with sensuality – fur, porcelain, weather… Who hasn’t been stirred by a warm breeze or a sudden storm? In Weather, a woman fantasises about the TV weatherman. ‘Fog was interesting – a short push with both hands… suggesting that … he might be capable of a little rough play…’ There is also humour; ‘…don’t forget the patches of fog in the north-east… oh yes, oh yes, sweeping rain, and yes! The breaks of sunshine!’ Weather has never been so sizzling.

Learner’s writing is good enough to avoid the perils of purple prose. Plenty of variety, no ho hum. Read this one in private.

 

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

Hanging on for the knicker sale – ‘The Fine Colour of Rust’ by PA O’Reilly

29 Apr

‘The Fine Colour of Rust’ is a departure from literary fiction for Paddy O’Reilly, who has previously written a novel and a short story collection. Hence she is writing as P.A., rather than Paddy.

The book is the story of Loretta Boskovic, who lives in Gunapan, a dusty town in north-west Victoria. Loretta describes herself as an ‘old scrag standing with her hands on her hips, pursing her thin lips, squinting into the sun. You could make a statue of that. It would look like half the women in this town.’

Gunapan is full of single mothers. As Loretta says; ‘It’s been so long for most of the single mothers in this town we’ve forgotten what it was that husbands do to make us mothers in the first place.’  Loretta fantasises about leaving her children in an orphanage and riding off into the sunset with a man on a Harley. The highlight of her year is the annual K-mart underwear sale in nearby Halstead. This is a finely judged affair as ‘the elastic only lasts ten to eleven months, which makes these last few weeks before the sale pretty dicey.’

‘The Fine Colour of Rust’ reads a little like a TV series, there are episodes rather than plot. The prodigal son returns after doing time in jail, the local councillor is a dodgy operator, a refugee family from ‘Bosnia Herzegobble’ appears, creating conflict in the community.

There are also a host of charming, idiosyncratic characters. Loretta’s closest friend is Norm, who runs the local junkyard. The new mechanic, Merv Bull, a single and passably attractive man is flooded by business as women desert the old eighty year old mechanic in search of a ‘tune up’.  Loretta’s two kids and her family in Melbourne add to the drama. One of Loretta’s former babysitters returns to the town to set up business as a witch.

This is my sixth review for the Australian Women Writers Challenge. I’ve got a feeling I said I’d only do six, but what the hell, I’m going on!

A woman with strong sense of injustice, Loretta tries to rally the town behind her to save the school, which is slated for closure. This leads to one of the funniest scenes in the book, when the Minister for Education comes to town. Treated to a butchering demonstration, he is left shocked and ‘festooned with a morsel of raw steak glued to his upper lip.’

I enjoyed the Australian character and light-hearted appeal of this book. If you liked ‘The Castle’ you’ll love Loretta.