Tag Archives: fiction

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. 

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. 

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. 

Laughing about Climate Change – ‘Solar’ by Ian McEwan

25 May

A new Ian McEwan novel is always an event, although I must confess that this one is not very new – it was published in 2010. The world (well, me anyway) has been waiting for a long time for the great climate change novel and if anyone can do it, McEwan can.

Ian McEwan is known for his grasp of science and novels that interweave rational argument and emotion. Enduring Love features a science writer, Saturday a neurosurgeon and now, with Solar, we meet Michael Beard, a Nobel prize-winning physicist. So how does McEwan tackle this most complex and rather boring subject? Dystopian futures and eco-thrillers have been the main weapons of choice for climate change novelists, but McEwan does something different – he makes us laugh.

Michael Beard is a fat, randy has-been who has done nothing significant since his prize winning Beard-Einstein Conflation many years ago. Offered a place on an artist’s trip to the Arctic to examine the effects of climate change, Beard jumps on a jet to Norway (carbon off-set of course). Soon he is getting his delicate parts caught in a zip while urinating at minus forty degrees and fleeing a hungry polar bear on his skidoo.

Getting on board the solar bandwagon, Beard reassures his business partner; ‘Here’s the good news.  The UN estimates that already a third of a million people a year are dying from climate change. Bangladesh is going down because the oceans are warming and expanding and rising. There’s drought in the Amazonian rainforest. Methane is pouring out of the Siberian permafrost… Now the eastern Antarctic is going.’

Yes, this is black comedy at its best. The boot room on the frozen-in boat where the artists are staying becomes a metaphor for the planet as it descends day by day into further chaos. ‘How were they to save the earth,’ Beard wonders, ‘when it was so much larger than the boot room?’ There is also a laugh out loud moment when Beard helps himself to a stranger’s chips. This in turn becomes a metaphor for our need to re-examine known facts in light of new evidence.

While Solar might not be the hallelujah moment in fiction that climate change activists would hope for, it has does carry an important message – a flawed scientist does not mean that the science is wrong.

You can also just read it for laughs.

For people in the Ballina area, I’ll be talking about my writing at Ballina Library at 10am on the 4th of June. Do pop along if you can!

Book Review: A Most Immoral Woman By: Linda Jaivan

15 Apr

Linda Jaivan is best known (by me, anyway) for her erotic comedy. Since reading Eat Me in the mid-nineties, I get a tingle every time I go into the supermarket fruit section. Those who associate Jaivan with raunch may not know that she is also a serious scholar of all things Chinese. A Most Immoral Woman brings together her two diverse talents.

This well researched story is set in the ‘floating world’ of foreigners in China in the early 1900s and based on real people and events. It gives an insight into a part of history I knew little about – the war between Japan and Russia for control of Manchuria. And then, of course, there’s the sex…

Jaivan tells the story from the point of view of the Australian war journalist, ‘Morrison of Peking’. The ‘most immoral woman’ in question is Mae Perkins, an American heiress. Maisie, as Morrison calls her, is a free spirit who takes and discards men as she pleases. Morrison battles to resist Mae’s charms, but even her frank admission that she spreads her favours widely can’t quench his ardour. Maisie boasts that the Captain of her ship kissed her all the way fromHonolulutoPeking. In telling Morrison this, she sets him a challenge; ‘kiss’ being a euphemism for her favourite form of pleasure…

Written in overblown prose which mirrors that of the period, the book offers up a myriad of sights, sounds and smells. ‘Shanghai, with its steamy, moist exhalations, was yin. A woman, and a loose one at that. Anyone could have her.’

Morrison was a trifle dull as a character, but perhaps that was true to his nature. The exuberant Maisie was much more fun. And she alone questioned her society’s focus on sexual morality, while the ethics of a war in which so many died went un-noted.

While erotica and history is a not uncommon mix, Linda Jaivan gives it her own stamp. So is it naughty? Yes, but far from the graphic detail of Eat Me. I found A Most Immoral Woman to be a witty and sexy romp through history.

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

I’m sorry, Madam, but your novel is picaresque

12 Mar

A few months ago I received a rather long report from my publisher in regard to my next novel. I can now share with you that it will be called ‘Sex, Lies and Bonsais’. Probably. Titles are funny things, but that’s another story…

The length of the report was scary enough, but there was one section in particular that had me worried. ‘Your novel is picaresque.’

Picaresque! Oh no. I must have looked like that painting ‘The Scream’ by Munch. It can’t be. Please tell me it isn’t true. Eventually I calmed down enough to Google the word. Here is what I found.

‘of or relating to an episodic style of fiction dealing with the adventures of a rough and dishonest but appealing hero. Usually satirical.’

    I’d never thought of my heroine as being like that. Appealing, yes (hopefully), but rough and dishonest, no. Well, maybe just a little. I Googled more and found examples such as Don Quixote and Huckleberry Finn described as picaresque. At least I was in good company.

As I looked into it further, I realised that a lot of chick-lit could actually be described as picaresque. Rather than following a traditional three act – beginning, middle and end structure, it relies on the charm of the    protagonist to carry the reader through their rough and tumble life. Bridget Jones’s Diary is a classic example.

It’s funny how once your mind is open to a word it starts appearing everywhere. Almost every novelist I read now seems to be described as picaresque.

Who have you heard described as picaresque lately?

 

If you would like to learn more about picaresque fiction (among other things) I am running a workshop called ‘Beyond Sex and Shopping: Writing fiction that sells’ this Saturday – the 17th of March in Byron Bay. Contact the Northern Rivers Writers Centre.

Book Review: ‘A Common Loss’ by Kirsten Tranter A Common Loss By: Kirsten Tranter

2 Mar

A Common Loss is Australian author, Kirsten Tranter’s second novel. Her first, The Legacy, was an assured, fresh retelling of Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady.

A Common Loss tells the story of five friends who meet at university and keep in touch over the next ten years. Following the death of one of their number, Dylan, the friends re-group for their annual visit to Las Vegas.

The story starts with the narrator, Elliot, remembering a car accident the five had together. The driver, Cameron, swerves to avoid a deer and they crash. Cameron has been drinking, so Dylan claims to be the driver. As the years go by, whenever Elliot remembers the crash, it is Dylan who he sees at the wheel. This trick of the memory becomes a motif for the story.

Elliot, a professor of literature, sees himself as a bit of an outsider in the group. With Dylan, who Elliot idealised, removed, tensions rise and relationships buckle under strain. Elliot discovers that not all of his friends viewed Dylan the same way he did. Dylan’s death sets events in train where each friend is forced to reveal long-hidden secrets.

The first part of the book seems a little slow, as Elliott comes to terms with Dylan’s death. Passages of introspection set the scene; ‘I felt strangely paralysed in that way that you feel in dreams sometimes, wanting to move and yet unable to take a step. Was this another symptom of grief, I wondered, catalogued and tagged somewhere?’

However, once the friends gather in Vegas it gets on quite a roll.  I enjoyed the observations on Vegas – how it all seemed like a stage set, changing rapidly from glitter and glitz to ‘desperation and emptiness’. ‘Backstage should be hidden with a curtain or a door from the audience, surely; it shouldn’t be so – well, just so easy to see all the crap and falling-apart stuff out the back,’ Elliot observes.

Essentially a psychological suspense novel, the narrative drive comes from waiting to see how the friendships will react to pressure. Tranter’s writing is clever and insightful. She digs deep into the undercurrents of friendship, guilt and shame. An enjoyable and thought-provoking read.

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

Finding my Mojo (and other serendipitous events)

28 Feb

I think every writer has them – moments when life imitates art in a way which raises hairs on the back of your neck. Coincidences multiply until you start to feel that the act of writing is almost magical – a prediction of events to come.

I have been struggling away for over a year now, on a novel about a woman who loses her mojo. I feel like it has been the hardest of my novels to write (I have written five previously), but perhaps I always feel like that. Perhaps the act of finishing a novel is like childbirth and you instantly forget the pain that came before.

Yesterday, to clear my head, I went down to the beach for a swim. I threw down my bag and noticed next to it an abandoned dog collar. The tag on the collar read – you guessed it – mojo. I FOUND MY MOJO. Perhaps I have been on the north coast too long, but I find this, like, totally amazing.

This is not the first time I have had this type of rather woo woo experience. Another scene in this novel requires my mojo-less heroine to visit the Big Redback in Brisbane. I wrote this scene before I went there, adding a garden gnome, which I described in some detail, to serve the needs of the story.

I got to the Big Redback, had a bit of a look around, and was just about to drive off when I saw it – hiding shyly among the ferns – the gnome just as I had already described it.

And wait, there’s more! Those of you who have read Liar Bird – check out this link. If you haven’t, hold off so you don’t spoil the story.

Have you had any similar bizarre cases of life imitating art?

 

I am running a workshop called ‘Beyond Sex and Shopping: Writing fiction that sells’ on the 17th of March in Byron Bay. If you are interested, contact the Northern Rivers Writers Centre.