Tag Archives: Australian Women Writers

An insightful look at morality – His Other House by Sarah Armstrong

29 Mar

his other house‘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.

This is my first review of 2015 for the Australian Women Writers Challenge. Better late than never!aww-badge-2015

Release day – it’s a pilgrimage to what?

1 Feb

eiffel tower small 2It’s taken about four years for ‘Arkie’s Pilgrimage to the Next Big Thing‘ to come from first idea to publication. This is a good thing in a way as it’s given me plenty of time to get used to the idea that I’m going to have to answer the question – what is your book about?

What I usually say is – ‘It’s a story about a woman doing a pilgrimage to the Australian big things.’ I’ve noticed when I say this that people often look puzzled, so then I add, ‘you know, the Big Prawn, the Big Pineapple…’ And then their faces clear.

But before the Big Things, there was the pilgrimage…

Undertaking a pilgrimage usually hints at a desire for transformation or redemption, which is the case for my protagonist. The story opens at Byron Bay railway station on New Year’s Eve where Arkie plans to end it all. However, as you may know, you’d be waiting an awfully long time to throw yourself under a train in Byron Bay. Arkie is a trendspotter who has carelessly lost in quick succession her husband, her lover and her ability to spot trends,. Hence the need for a pilgrimage.

When I originally started writing this book, I envisaged a story about a woman walking the Shikoku pilgrimage in Japan, which is a trek taking 60 days and going to 88 Buddhist temples. I read a lot of books about it and it sounded wonderful, but I wasn’t sure when I was ever going to find the time to do it. So, rather than hold off writing the book until I could research the pilgrimage, I decided to write about someone who wants to do it, but can’t. Arkie, I decided, would have her pilgrimage right here in Australia.

The idea for the big things came to me one day as I was driving past the Big Prawn — more or less as it does for Arkie in the book.

So that’s what my book’s about – a pilgrimage and big things.

PS. The Eiffel Tower is not one of the Big Things in the book, but I was there and my book was there and I couldn’t resist…

 

I will be doing a number of events in the coming weeks and I’d love you to come along. Here are the details:

 

Tuesday 10 February 2015 – Sydney

1:00 PM                Ashfield Library – Details here.

6:30 PM                Margaret Martin Library (Randwick)

This is a free event however bookings are required online  http://randwickcitylibrary.eventbrite.com

 

Thursday 12 February 2015 – Lismore

12:00 PM             Literary Lunch

La Vida Restaurant and Bar, 3/178 Keen Street, Lismore, NSW 2480

Tickets are $35 and include a two-course lunch and a glass of wine. Tickets are available via the Book Warehouse Lismore, (02) 6621 4204.

 

Thursday 26 February 2015 – Gold Coast

10:30 AM            Elanora Library

This is a free event but bookings are recommended by phoning the library on (07) 5581 1671 or online here.

 

Friday 27 February 2015 – Victoria Point, Qld

10:00 AM Victoria Point Library

This is a free event but bookings are recommended by phoning the library on (07) 3884 4000

 

I am also doing a blog tour, starting today! Hop over there if you’d like to follow along.

best wishes,

Lisa

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. 

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!

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.

Book Review: Fall Girl by Toni Jordan

7 Apr

What’s not to love about a good romantic comedy? You know that the girl’s going to get the guy and there’ll be some laughs along the way. Toni Jordan has positioned herself as the thinking woman’s rom com author of choice. Her first novel, Addition, was a best seller and Fall Girl is a worthy follow up.

The plot centres on Della Gilmore, part of a family of con-artists, as she attempts to pull off the biggest con of her life. Her ‘mark’ is Daniel Metcalf, a millionaire with a penchant for the Tasmanian Tiger. Enter Doctor Ella Canfield, evolutionary biologist. Boy, has she got a proposition for him.

Della is a loveable character who carries the story. Her supporting cast of con artists are also fun as they pretend to be PhD students in biology. I found Daniel Metcalf a little undefined but I was enjoying Della and her gang so much I didn’t really care.

Della’s masquerade as a field hardened researcher is hilarious. Take this dialogue, when faced with a river in need of crossing. ‘This is a minor problem. When I was at Harvard researching I walked all day to a skunk research site, then I had to wade a raging river carrying my tent over my head. Alone. In the dark. If I remember right, it was raining. That was fairly hard.’

The plot unfolds with twists and turns as Della suspects that Daniel, too, is not who he seems to be. Her growing interest in Daniel is nicely drawn. ‘I watch the way his shoulders tense and flex through his shirt… It is somewhat compelling, the sight of him, merely because this part of the trail is boring and there is nothing else to look at but trees trees trees.’ The reader’s expectations are playfully subverted; ‘I catch a glimpse of Daniel’s face and am not surprised to see desire etched there. He’s also looking at the water.’

Jordan’s writing is fresh and original. It is also very, very sexy. In fact her sex scenes are some of the best I’ve read.  I was tempted to quote from one, but this being a family blog… In short, if you want a light, humorous read that won’t insult your intelligence, Fall Girl is for you.

‘Fall Girl’ is the fourth of my book reviews for the Australia Women Writers Challenge

I will be on a panel at the Gloucester Writers Festival on the 6th of May with another Lisa, Lisa Heidke. The topic we’re discussing is… ‘Chick lit is not Dumb lit’. Indeed! Love to see you there if you’re in the vicinity. 

Book Review: The Freudian Slip by Marion Von Adlerstein

22 Mar

Marion Von Adlerstein is the author of two other books on shopping and etiquette. The Freudian Slip is her first novel. It draws upon her own experience in a territory familiar to viewers of Mad Men – an advertising agency in the early sixties.

Set in Sydney, the novel revolves around three women. Desi is a television producer, Bea a copywriter and Stella, an ambitious ‘want to be’ from the wrong side of the tracks. Stella’s efforts to establish herself as part of the creative team at the agency generate most of the plot momentum.

While Stella has boundless energy and willpower, originality is not her strong point. Elevated from typist to copywriter, she soon learns that the package rules over the product – a message she apples to updating her look. Her outdated fifties beehive hairdo and princess-line dress make way for the a-la-mode look of the sixties. ‘Which persona to adopt? … an impersonation of Jeanne Moreau would be unsuitable. Jean Shrimpton? She no longer found that role model exciting. Then she remembered Audrey Hepburn…’

As with Mad Men, the role of women in the agency made me a little uncomfortable, but no doubt it was true to the time. Women are regularly described in terms of their vital statistics. Men are predatory and blatantly sexist. The agency’s male executives enjoy long boozy lunches while the women hold the fort. The social mores of the time regarding sex make interesting reading. A divorced woman is ‘spoilt goods’ and an affair with a married man is headline grabbing social death.

I enjoyed the period details of clothing and food which Von Adlerstein obviously remembers well. ‘Onion dip, devilled eggs and stuffed tomatoes were ready before the first guests were due. Swedish meatballs and cocktail frankfurts were standing by to be re-heated. A dozen bottles of sparkling Barossa Pearl sat among ice in a large tub…’ The brainstorming around the ad campaigns was also fun. The Freudian Slip of the title is a daring label for a new line of underwear.

The novel had a fast pace and enough intrigue to keep me turning the pages. The characters’ career and relationship dilemmas provide plenty of action. Von Adlerstein’s copywriting background shows up in the easy to read prose. This is a lively and entertaining book for those in the mood for a light-hearted romp.

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