In Meg Mundell’s dark and stylish debut, two sisters and a cast of characters from different tiers of society fight for survival, recognition and connection in near-future Melbourne. The novel is in some ways about maintaining some kind of hope or dreams in a fractured, controlling cityscape – whether those dreams are getting home, finding the person you’ve lost, or ‘making it’ with dignity in media or entertainment. Like all good spec-fic, the novel subtly comments on and exaggerates issues and potential issues of our time; and like all good fiction it also has strong characters, is expressed imaginatively, and elements of the world it paints – casinos and carnivals, backstreets, department stores, a run-down pension, a rooftop, the CBD – are vivid and memorable.
Meg has previously been published in The Age, The Monthly, Meanjin and more. Meg is also a PhD candidate at the University of Western Sydney, in the Writing and Society Research Group – we began at the same time and met on the bus out to Bankstown. I got in touch with Meg to ask some questions about Black Glass…
A: There’s a huge range of vivid settings in the novel, and the way city space is governed is one of the book’s themes. You start out in ‘the Regions’ and on the open road, and then the reader enters the city at the same time the characters do. Can you tell us about building this near-future Melbourne? And those smaller spaces within it: a casino, a rooftop, an abandoned glass factory, and so on?
M: I’ve always been fascinated by places, how we imagine and respond to them – and vice versa, how they affect us. Black Glass could be set in any near-future city, but I chose Melbourne as a way to anchor it in a specific setting. I kind of overlaid my own mental map of Melbourne onto the story, inventing and distorting things as I went. I drew this quite detailed map, too, with all the key locations on it.
Another thing is that I love exploring, finding hidden or strange sites, places with an interesting atmosphere. You might climb fences and sneak into industrial zones, or hang around in the casino, or it might just be a glimpse out the train window. Some of those places stick in your mind, get mixed up with ideas and images – about gambling, flight, broken mirrors, or whatever – and turn up as settings in the book.
A: Tied in with these settings, you raise interesting ideas about space, particularly with the character Milk and his profession as a ‘moodie’. I really enjoyed the sections where he is ‘tuning’ an environment. Can you tell us about him and why these ideas are essential to the novel?
M: With the tuning I wanted look at how space is controlled and manipulated on a subliminal level, and how this might play out, or go wrong. As a moodie, Milk gets paid to tinker with the atmosphere of spaces, to covertly influence people’s behaviour. We’re already seeing this in real life, with marketers using certain aromas and audio to influence our spending decisions, plus the rise of surveillance and its growing ties with commerce. So I wanted to magnify that and see where it could lead.
Milk is a bit of an enigma. He sees himself as an artist, but like most of us, he’s also vulnerable to flattery and coercion and the lure of money. So his role is quite conflicted, and things don’t always work out the way he plans. I suspect this moodie idea came partly from working as a DJ, which I used to do. You’ve got the room under control, everyone’s dancing, then suddenly you pick the wrong record, the mood slips and you struggle to fix it. Yikes! Only in Milk’s case, the stakes are much higher.
A: The main characters are the sisters Grace and Tally. Their quests thread through the narrative, though many other events and characters also propel it forward. Through them you’re partly giving a face to a kind of growing marginalisation that is occurring in the world of the novel – by showing the kinds of things they have to do to stay fed and alive. Were Grace and Tally there from the beginning of the novel? How did their story form?
M: The sisters were there from the start. They always came through very strongly for me, especially Tally. As a sister myself I value that bond – nobody better mess with my sis! – and that’s what drives Tally. Daily survival becomes their first priority, but that bond, and whatever might threaten it, is what really pushes the story along.
Having a homeless main character wasn’t a conscious decision, but was probably influenced by the years I spent at The Big Issue [as deputy editor and staff writer]. The editorial team shared a building with the magazine’s vendors and we got to know a lot of them. Their resilience and humour, the tough things they’d been through and how they’d survived, made a big impression on me. The line between ‘us’ and ‘them’ is a very thin one.
A: The novel is written in a fragmentary style – notebook pieces, bits of narrative from different points of view, conversations. How did you make it effective? Was there more that you wrote and abandoned? How did you choose which fragments and points of view were essential?
M: That fragmented approach fitted nicely with the idea of surveillance, one of the book’s main themes. So you get snatches and glimpses, like you’re an eyewitness, but certain information’s missing, stuff happens out of frame. Sometimes you’re spying on the characters, but that voyeurism doesn’t automatically reveal the full story. The reader has to fill in the blanks and piece things together themselves.
While writing I didn’t throw much out, it was more a case of revising repeatedly, and filling in gaps, until the puzzle pieces came together. To balance out the different voices and narrative modes I imagined a piece of music, where you have various instruments or melodies playing, and you bring them in and out to form a pattern that is hopefully harmonious and compelling. The more important voices, like Tally’s, have solo parts. The minor ones are just samples, overheard snippets.
A: I think many people have an idea of spec fic or sci-fi these days, forgetting that so many classic ‘literary’ writers wrote speculative stories, from Nabokov, to Janet Frame, to Kafka and of course Orwell and Huxley. When writing, did you think of the novel as fitting into a specific genre? Are you a reader of speculative fiction? Or did the genre simply fit the themes?
M: The genre fit the themes this time, I think. With Black Glass I didn’t deliberately set out to write ‘speculative fiction’, it just happened that way. But I do like the possibilities it offers a writer – you can put your characters in extreme situations, really explore that ‘what-if’ element. Although even ‘realist’ fiction is not truly ‘realistic’, it just works very hard to conceal its artifice. In a way I guess all fiction is speculative. It’s all made up!
I don’t have a favourite genre. I’ve done historical short fiction, journalism, memoir, the odd poem. Early on, like most kids, I didn’t think about genres, I just loved reading. Certain ‘literary’ works: To Kill a Mockingbird, Crime and Punishment, Catcher in the Rye, Lord of the Flies. Some sci-fi and fantasy too – Orwell, Huxley, Wyndham, Wells, Tolkien, CS Lewis, Lewis Carroll – and some classic popular or genre stuff: Anne of Green Gables, Nancy Drew mysteries, Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Stephen King. My tastes are more ‘literary’ now, but that early mix made me a pretty open-minded reader. And I still read trashy magazines!
A: I just re-read your piece ‘Tumbleweed’ in Harvest: Issue One. I always liked it. It’s from a book you’re writing on trucking culture, right? Can you tell us about it?
M: Sure, the trucking book is called Braking Distance. It’s non-fiction – partly memoir, partly a collection of ‘road stories’ about trucking life. To research it I spent three months travelling outback Australia with long-haul truck-drivers. It was amazing, despite a couple of dicey moments. Right now I’m doing a PhD on sense of place in literature, but I’m about to take time off to finish the trucking book.
A: This is your first novel and in it, characters struggle to hold onto their hopes and dreams in a difficult world. What are some of your hopes and dreams, as a person and as a writer?
M: Umm… personally I hope things go well for my loved ones, that’s important. And I want all that deceptively simple stuff, like feeling happy and fulfilled and useful. Writing-wise I want to publish more books and stories, keep learning, and maybe do a screenplay one day – I love films. As for dreams… I have lots of flying dreams, but you have to be practical. So I’d also like a hot air balloon, please.
Thanks so much Meg.
Recently I was a guest of the Australian Publishers Association at the Social Media Marketing seminars in Sydney and Melbourne. There were all sorts of speakers – writers, booksellers, publishers, a ‘guru’ and someone like me who sits in the middle of everything, wearing several hats at once. I spoke briefly about LiteraryMinded in the blogosphere and in the social media realm, and then gave some ‘dos and don’ts’, from my own experience, on using social media. Basically I spoke about having genuine conversations, providing insight, and engaging with books and with readers. Charlotte Harper over at the ebookish blog has done a nice write-up of my talk. Check it out here.
My latest publication is in the NSW Writers Centre print magazine Newswrite. It’s called ‘Bringing the Letter Back’. In it, I write a letter to my old Dolly pen-pal Kristal, telling her why I think the letter should make a comeback. I talk about the Women of Letters events, run my Marieke Hardy and Michaela McGuire; and I mention Beth Sometimes’ postcards, Nabokov’s forthcoming collection of love letters, letters between Miles Franklin and Katherine Susannah Prichard and ideas about the link between letters, zines and vintage. I hope you guys get a chance to read it.
Feb 23, 2011
Richard Goodwin, of Perth. The winner was drawn randomly. Richard had this to say about his favourite hidden place: 'When we’re visiting Victoria, we love to go to a place called K
Richard Goodwin, of Perth. The winner was drawn randomly. Richard had this to say about his favourite hidden place:
‘When we’re visiting Victoria, we love to go to a place called Kyo down on the Bellarine Peninsula. It’s a warehouse full of old furniture, fittings, fabrics, work equipment and art/craft items from northern Asia, the Middle East and South America. And there are loads of the stuff. Forget how we first stumbled upon it but arty collectors and fossickers would have a ball here.’
Read the other comments and learn about the Hide & Seek: Melbourne books on the original post.
Other People's Words
Feb 22, 2011
Reviewed by Matthia Dempsey
Laura van den Berg has particular skill in capturing the strangeness that can come at times—the sense of being a stranger to your own life and the world. For many of the women in her stories this feeling is the result of a specific grief, but it also confronts characters who cannot point to an easily identified cause.
In ‘Up High in the Air’ a woman who finds herself being unfaithful to her husband and ‘taking her life apart piece by piece’ captures this strangeness when she describes her ideas about what to do next as being ‘at once intensely possible and as intangible as fog’. In ‘Still Life With Poppies’ a woman whose husband has left her and disappeared struggles to adjust: ‘Her marriage ending was not a shock. It was the spectacular strangeness of it that had left her staggering. She had been an ordinary person with an uneven marriage and a good job and the occasional adventure, unprepared for this life of peculiar and slippery grief.’
Van den Berg’s protagonists are women who have found themselves in lives they don’t want and in cities or countries they don’t belong, from Scotland to France, the Congo and Madagascar. Some have left a former existence willingly and others have had new cities, countries and responsibilities bequeathed them by circumstances such as death, separation or the will of another. Some know exactly how they ended up where they are, others try painfully to puzzle it out.
Peculiar and slippery grief is everywhere here. In the opening story a would-be actress jokes about channelling personal pain into her performances. ‘Only it turned out that nobody wanted to see real suffering, that no director or casting agent wanted the kind of pain that would, even for an instant, make anyone want to turn away.’ Van den Berg’s sights are fixed firmly on this kind of pain. In ‘Goodbye My Loveds’, a young woman who has taken on the care of her younger brother after the death of their parents wants to tell someone how ‘sometimes it felt like we were the only people out there with losses so raw and gaping’, but senses the woman she is talking to will not want to hear it.
The story brings us close to heartbreak, not because of the young woman’s grief, but because her experience is that universal one of responsibility versus freedom, writ large: ‘It still came on every now and then when I watched Denver toss in his sleep or stare too long at his map of South America—nothing more than a shudder of strange, liquid energy, but sometimes I had to stand outside the apartment until it passed, the air sweeping into me like some kind of cleansing light, pushing out thoughts about voices and solitude and the possibility of living a different kind of life’.
In this, my favourite story, and in others, van den Berg acknowledges not just the way grief can change a person, but ‘the way one life can collapse into another and different people can stir within the same body, like bats thrashing inside a secret hollow’.
Read in one sitting, the narratives in What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us can blend together. Themes overlap and images echo across stories. A character in the opening tale dreams of a time when the world was nothing but water, and in the closing story a woman gives her daughter a postcard with the eponymous description of the world without any water left. Husbands and partners in these narratives are dead, missing, have left or been left.
Mythical creatures recur too, from the aspiring actress who dresses up as Big Foot and scares hikers who have paid for the privilege; to the narrator of ‘The Rain Season’ who watches locals in the Congo draw pictures of the fearful Mokole-mbembe in the dirt; in ‘Up High in the Air’ the narrator’s husband becomes obsessed with the fabled mishegenabeg of Lake Michigan; and in ‘Inverness’ a group of scientists search for the Loch Ness Monster. The search for mythical and not-so-mythical creatures—scientific adventure is a recurring thread too—provides a sense of purpose for many of the secondary characters in these stories, but the women themselves are usually at a painful loss for anything more than survival to give their lives direction.
Early in the book a character says she feels as if there is ‘no room for anything except staying above the tide’ and the phrase seems to apply to each of these women; for tales so packed with myth and exoticism, there is little sense of wonder. It’s not that these women aren’t searching for precisely that, and in some stories there are flashes—the thrill of a watching a meteor shower, delight in watching a tropical fish, bought on impulse—it’s just that through grief or, it sometimes seems, an inability to look in the right places, these moments of wonder are few. Instead, in personal relationships we hear ‘the truth’ about ex-husbands’ irritating qualities, but little about what made them loved in the beginning. In exotic locations we frequently find the mundane. In the end, it makes for bleak reading.
The modern world can be this strange and stark, where endless freedom of choice still runs up against a reality in which people die, people leave, wars break out. Van den Berg captures that disconnect: her women are surviving the big tragedies of their lives while second-guessing the steps along the way, trying to work out where they’ve taken the wrong path, with a sense that if they could just stop a moment they could work out how to get back on track.
This is where the strangeness comes from—the gap between a life where an endless ability to choose gives the illusion of control, and a concurrent life in which the big events are uncontrollable. How to find meaning? Van den Berg gets this messy struggle onto the page. The result is a collection of stories where ‘strangeness is everywhere and everything makes you tired in the end’.
The following three books are some of the new ones I’ve read in preparation for Perth Writers Festival (5 to 7 March). I’ll be chairing panels featuring the authors. Find out more about those panels on this post.
I’m a huge Marilyn fan but was at first skeptical of this book. A book from the point of view of Mafia Honey, the dog Marilyn owned in the last years of her life, seemed like such a novelty. But I was surprised by what this book actually was. In the vein of Sam Savage’s Firmin, our narrator Maf is wordly, philosophical and political (a Trotskyist) and most definitely literary minded. His beginnings were bohemian, in the home of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant. In his ensuing adventures with Marilyn he comes across many writers and intellectuals including Allen Ginsberg and Carson McCullers. Not to mention Hollywood figures like Frank Sinatra (who gave Marilyn the dog), Natalie Wood, Elia Kazan and Shelley Winters (to name just a few).
If you already have an interest in early 1960s America – a time of great change and wonder (think: space travel, drugs, UFO sightings) and specifically in literary, filmic, philosophical and political matters, there is a lot here for you. If you know a little about the Actor’s Studio and Lee Strasberg; if you know a little about the people around Marilyn such as her analyst Marianne Kris and later doctor, Dr Greenberg (and have an interest in psychoanalysis or at least its hold on the era), again, there is much here for you. And if you like dogs – there is certainly much here for you. The book is packed with asides and footnotes of dogs in history, dogs in literature and dogs on film and TV.
If you wonder how Maf is so knowledgeable, O’Hagan has an answer for that. He imbues dogs with absorbent, intellectual, empathetic souls. They can understand any language, can read thoughts and moods (though of course cannot see colours). Cats speak in poetry, while dogs speak in prose, which is a nice touch. What this means is that Maf becomes a kind of omniscient narrator – attuned to the stories, memories and emotions of characters, expressing them through the taint of his very specific (and charming, I thought) personality. I didn’t always agree with Maf’s assessments of Marilyn (but Marilyn fans get like that) but I did find his observances of Lee Strasberg, Sinatra, Kennedy, and many other characters hilariously spot on. I thought this would be a light book but while it is funny it is definitely an intellectual book. I think, if you weren’t ‘into’ many of the things Maf is into, you may find some sections long winded. But I thought it was simply darling.
Scandal focuses on a social ‘season’ in London in the early 18th Century and the plot is based around political and social intrigue, personal ambitions, and public scandal. The narrative flits between characters, from the celebrated beauty Arabella Fermor, to the charming Lord Petre, and the poet Alexander Pope. It is Pope’s satirical observations of this season (in The Rape of the Lock) that form the literary/historical basis for this novel. Gee gorgeously describes the dirty streets of London, the bedrooms, the ballrooms, the dresses and more. One of her main strengths is dialogue – it’s sparkling and clever and thus so much fun to read. It was amusing going from Portrait of a Lady to this. In Portrait, James could only allude to the nature or relations between the characters (which is still lovely and allows room for imagination), but reading this straight after was like going from a PG to an MA movie – loosening the stays and peeking under layers of skirt. A ‘witty and diverting’ read, to use the language of the era in which it’s set.
The Roosevelts had 40 years of marriage and held positions of power and influence in a time of great upheaval and change in American and world history. Rowley takes a look at both of them in detail, and the unconventional relationship they had. I was particularly interested in Eleanor – her ‘goodness’ and her hardness, her exposure to progressive ideas at boarding school, her romantic friendships with men and women, her causes. She stood behind FDR and his public choices (and Franklin struggled with being progressive while keeping the vote of the southern states) but worked behind the scenes on civil rights, women’s issues and more. FDR was elected president though he could barely walk on his Polio-ravaged legs (it was carefully concealed), and there were many milestones in his presidency – the end of the Great Depression, the end of prohibition, World War Two, to name a few! There were plenty of personal hurdles, too, and it’s fascinating to read about these two personalities and the community of people who surrounded them – the ‘inner circle’ and all its strange dynamics. There could be whole books on Louis Howe (FDR’s long-time assistant and campaign manager) or Missy (who devoted her life to FDR and whom everybody loved), or even the Whitehouse housekeeper Mrs Nesbitt, whose terrible food was legendary. Not only is the book informative, but it’s warm, and the story unfolds like a novel. It makes you think deeply about people and power, and about history and change. This one is highly recommended.
On Saturday afternoon G & I traversed the streets, alleys and stairwells of Melbourne for the launch of the Hide & Seek Melbourne books Feeling Peckish, Night Owl, Treasure Trove and Hit the Streets. The series (after the popular, original Hide and Seek: Melbourne book) take a look at some of the city’s hidden, cool and quirky gems. It was a really fun afternoon. A huge thanks to series editor Melissa Krafchek and Explore Australia for having us along.
We started out in Federation Square where we were introduced to Melissa and three of the Hide & Seek writers: Mellie and Dan Teo (of Tummyrumbles) and Ryan Smith. I was the first to get my shoes shined by Neill Martin, who rightfully suggested I take better care of my soft Italian leather. The man himself, who you can find at 101 Collins St from 10-5 Monday to Friday, was soulful and grisled. How did he come to be shining shoes? As a punishment, originally. But when he found himself homeless, with a cavalcade of dirty shoes going by, he decided to make the most of what he’d learnt. ‘The amount of people I see and meet is amazing’, he said. He asked what I do, and when I told him I was a writer he told me he’d began writing a book of his life, but it was too painful. He once shined Jerry Lewis’ shoes. ‘I don’t care who you are or what you are, if you’ve got dirty shoes…’ His own shoes were a beautiful cherry red, with lambskin across the top. He really knows his leathers. On the first Tuesday of every month he shines all shoes for $5. Get along and have a chat with him.
While getting my shoes shined, too, I was handed a great big ricotta cannoli, which I munched while talking, and later regretted eating so fast because it was so spectacular. It was from T Cavallaro & Sons in 98 Hopkins St, Footscray. They can be found in the Feeling Peckish guide.
Our second and third stops were in the Nicholas Building (37 Swanston St, one of my favourites in Melbourne as it houses the Collected Works bookstore and Retrostar Vintage Clothing). First we visited Leanne at the Kimono House (room 7, level 2). Leanne’s passion is the Japanese kimono. Not only does she sell vintage kimonos sourced from Japan (mainly in Osaka), but an array of beautiful, original fabrics and other items made from them. You can also buy DIY kimono kits. Workshops in fashion and textiles, Japanese crafts, and how to wear a kimono are held in the store. There was a lovely, heavy fabric smell in the small store, and Leanne spoke passionately about the kimono, Japanese textiles, and her business. Kimono House is featured in the Treasure Trove guide.
Buttonmania (room 7, level 2) was a real treat. Kate, the owner, has a purple fringe and a deep knowledge of buttons, buckles and eyelets. She uses 100-year-old machines to manufacture buttons you can’t get anywhere else in the world (she’s checked). She let me use one to make a gorgeous little button of my own. I’m thinking of sewing it on a hat. Kate has, over the past 16 years, bought nine button businesses and combined them into her own. She had an impressive button cabinet, the size of a wall, which she gained along with one of these businesses. She’s made buttons for all sorts of people, including designer Collette Dinnigan, but my favourite story she told was one about making buttons with letters and money inside them as sweet, secretive little gifts. (Also in the Treasure Trove guide.)
We ducked by Zoologie, a clothing store and label run by husband and wife team George and Bonita. Their aim is to produce laid-back clothes not dictated by fashion or trends. And from the quick browse-through I could also see that the clothes were affordable (certainly for locally-made, anyway). I didn’t see any item over $100. The shop is located in Manchester Lane, as are other shops in the Treasure Trove guide.
We picked up our coffee order at STREAT: Food Cart With a Heart. Streat is an eco-friendly business (of food and coffee carts) and all their profits go to helping the homeless. ‘STREAT is a social enterprise providing homeless youth with a supported pathway to long-term careers in the hospitality industry. We run street cafes in Melbourne where youth get their hospitality training. Our food is inspired by street hawker food from around the world.’ My soy cap was really delicious and I thought the concept was so wonderful. The coffee cart is in Melbourne Central, and the food cart is in Federation Square. Read more about them on the website (right-click to open in new window). They’re in the Feeling Peckish guide.
Next, we went up a few flights of stairs to level 2, 387 Lt Bourke St, to Spellbox: the Witch’s House. We were greeted by a tall, smiling blonde woman in stockings and lace who told us about the ‘witchcraft company’ (also located at shop 17, Royal Arcade). They are a retailer of supplies such as herbs, resins, oils and so forth, but the space is also used for workshops – and sometimes people just come to sit and soak up the energy, we were told. There were certainly some ‘vibes’ going on in there; we were all smiling stupidly, inhaling sweet, heady smoke and whiffing the potion we’d just placed on our ‘third eye’. (Apparently we were also getting good vibes because they clean the air by ‘smudging’ it with crystals…) I’m generally a skeptic, but am easily won over by people who find unconventional ways to spread happiness, love, positivity – whatever. So it was nice being in there. I spun the ‘wheel of fortune’ and was told things are going to change…
We met two of the other women who worked there, one who took us to the rooftop to show us where they had full-moon gatherings, with dancing and howling. In winter they had a true fiery cauldron up there. Weird to imagine there is magic going on in the heart of your own city. The other lady, warm as the rest, was a psychometrist. A psychometrist reads your personal objects to ‘connect to your own intuitive voice’, bringing ancestors and your higher self into the reading. They don’t really focus on the future, or ‘predictions’ but emotions and the ‘here and now’. The woman told us that many psychometrists and psychic practitioners come from a social work or counsellor background. The Spellbox is hugely popular – booked-out by corporate functions, individuals, hen’s parties and so on. You can find them in the Hit the Streets guide.
We then went in an elevator up to level 3, 428 Lt Bourke St, to Dansk Restaurant, and were served an amazing snapa (schnapps meets tapa) and then two ‘smushis’ each (open sandwiches). I had the prawn salad, dill and caviar on one (OMG yum) and roast beef, horseradish and fried onion rings on another. Amaze. Chef Bente Grisbæk combines new wave Nordic cuisine with Australian produce, not always an easy task (it took her one year to perfect her rye bread) but it’s well-worth visiting (or even joining the Denmark House, which the restaurant is a part of) and sampling her delicious menu. Being part-Norwegian, I was particularly tickled by this visit and jumped in when everyone asked what the Scandinavian word for ‘cheers’ was. ‘Skál!’ I shouted. You can find the Dansk in the Feeling Peckish guide.
The final stop was the Design Dispensary at 322 Lt Lonsdale St. Here we found original, quirky, and interesting designs, sourced mainly from Germany, but also Japan, Italy, the UK and others. There were chopping boards, bottle candle-holders, sexy storage boxes, decorations – well, all sort of things. It’d be the perfect place to find a unique gift. It can be found in the Treasure Trove guide.
It’s great to have adventures in one’s own city (makes it seem ever-fresh) and I’m excited to flip through the rest of the books and discover even more places of interest. I think they’ll be a great thing to pull out when friends from out of town come to stay. There is going to be a public launch, if you’re interested, on the 1st of March at 24 Moons. It will be ticketed, but there will be heaps of stuff included in that. See the Hide & Seek website for details.
G and I both got a set of the books, so we’re happy to give one set away to you! To enter the draw, leave a comment on this post telling me about your absolute favourite place in your city or a city you’ve been to, before 8pm (AEDST) Monday 21 Feb 2011. Give me as much detail as you’d like. The winner will be drawn randomly.
Here’s the second batch of mini reviews I commissioned from some of my Twitter followers. They get a free book, I retweet the review to my followers and publish it here (slightly edited). It can be over two tweets. Enjoy!
Kate Atkinson’s Started Early, Took My Dog is a clever crime novel with a complex plot that spans over three decades with its many intricacies and references making it a highly interesting read, exploring kidnapping, murder, mystery & human emotion.
Australian Encounters by Shane Maloney & Chris Grosz is a witty book about notable encounters featuring prominent Australians, featuring clever cartoons and a tongue-in-cheek writing style, full of humourous references. Informative, amusing & great for conversation.
Fallen angels may be the new vampires, but the heroines are as passive and insipid as ever. Sadly formulaic, Crescendo by Becca Fitzpatrick is just another YA novel, three parts teen angst and one part cliche.
Fury by Shirley Marr: Furious trio exact revenge on monstrous rich kids in gated community in a suspenseful, twisted thriller
Document Z by Andrew Coombe vividly sets the spy novel on Australian soil through retelling the Petrov Affair. Remincent of reading le Carre in my youth, the intrigue, drama and politics held me to the very end.
Reviews + Analyses
Feb 10, 2011
I recently reviewed Tobsha Learner’s new collection of sexy short stories, Yearn: Tales of Lust and Longing, for Bookseller+Publisher. They’ve put it up now on their Fancy Goods blog.
‘Yearn is a collection of fun, imaginative and sexy stories by the author of Tremble and Quiver, Tobsha Learner. Learner’s stories are not purely erotic, but romantic and often other-worldly. Fate and magic have their parts to play in this collection…’
Read more at the Fancy Goods blog.
20 Classics in 2011
Feb 8, 2011
I’m reading 20 classic, modern-classic or cult books in 2011. Read more about this project here.
‘A great many people give me the impression of never having for a moment felt anything’ – Isabel Archer, The Portrait of a Lady.
Why did I want to read it?
Well, first of all, Henry James is one of the ‘great’ novelists and I have never read anything by him. I was also interested in reading it as Kirsten Tranter’s The Legacy is based on Portrait. Kirsten and I have another panel together at Perth Writers Festival in March.
When was it published?
It was first published (as a serial) in 1881, and a revised edition was published in 1908. My edition is from the Vintage Classics range. All Vintage Classics (with their gorgeous covers) are now only $12.95. Overseas readers, check out Amazon and Kindle editions (+ UK).
What’s it about?
Isabel Archer comes from America to England to stay with her aunt, uncle and cousin. From the outset she is painted as someone with a hunger for knowledge and experience, who would be unwilling to sacrifice her independence for marriage or anything else. She has a preference for solitude, is very self-aware and in many ways ‘modern’ and she has a complex nature which admires both those who are outspoken and vivid, and those who are respectful, ‘decent’ and quiet. Two-hundred pages into the novel, there is a large shift in her situation. It seems as though she will be much freer to pursue her ‘ideas’, but other hands come into play, other influences…
Tell us more about the author.
Like many of his characters, Henry James moved from America to England, and spent the last 40 years of his life there. He was a key figure of 19th Century realism, and apparently his novels were some of the first to go into such depths of consciousness and perception (through the musings of the characters). He wrote many respected novels, but also short stories, reviews, biographies, plays and travel books. He was born to a wealthy, intellectual family on 15 April 1843 and lived to 28 February 1916.
So, what did I think? Does it deserve to be a classic?
‘Do you know where you’re drifting?’ Henrietta pursued, holding out her bonnet delicately.
‘No, I haven’t the least idea, and I find it very pleasant not to know. A swift carriage, of a dark night, rattling with four horses over roads that one can’t see – that’s my idea of happiness.’
I found this a very absorbing read. James creates a complete world – from the details of afternoon tea in the opening pages, to the way he dips in and out of settings and the thoughts of the characters. In some chapters you wonder – ‘why am I with this character now and how is it relevant?’ But everything ties back in with, and has an effect on, our protagonist, Isabel.
It is so interesting to read this now, in a feminist sense – we cannot help but cheer Isabel on in her hunger, in her desire to be true to herself. And James allows her decisions to appear complex and murky. Her feelings change – she changes – through the course of the novel, and it is so sad. I read it and thought of all the women reading it over the years – young women at the turn of the century, travellers to Europe, women who’ve come into money, married women in all different eras. Sure, everything in society has changed. We no longer have to pretend that we’re okay for the sake of decency, when we’re unhappy. Or do we? We no longer have to choose between travel and self-development, and the ties of marriage. Or do we? The book still has the ability to make you think about your position.
The other characters in Portrait – Isabel’s cousin, Ralph; Lord Warburton; Madame Merle; Osmond – display a range of multilayered (though self-serving) motivations, and Isabel is caught up in their web. Isabel’s opinionated and outspoken writer friend Henrietta Stackpole may be the only character who gets what she desires, in the end.
I could say a lot more – particularly about desire and gender roles – but I don’t want to spoil it for you. I went in knowing nothing and it takes some time for events to unfold (but how rich the set-up is) and it was better not knowing.
What I will say, is how much I enjoyed the descriptions, not just of the characters, who are so well-sustained, but of the house at Gardencourt, of Florence and Rome, of items of clothing. The novel is detailed but not florid, sentences are lengthy yet elegant. A few times reading on hot days I found myself lost and had to go back a few paragraphs, but on the whole it’s extremely readable.
I have a great deal of preparation to do for Perth Writers Festival, but I think the next books will be Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray.
Have you read Henry James? What are your thoughts? Let’s allow spoilers in the comments…
Other People's Words
Feb 3, 2011
reviewed by Lisa Down
Remember the old saying, ‘Write what you know’?
It’s an adage former AFL player, author and columnist Tony Wilson must have taken to heart. His latest offering, Making News, revolves around, well… a retired soccer player, an aspiring young columnist and an author, who make up the not-so-happy Dekker family.
Aussie Charlie Dekker was an international level footballer and has recently retired. He’s married to Monica, a self-help guru whose pro-marriage treacle sells like hotcakes, though she doesn’t always practice what she preaches. There are two Dekker children, toddler Alfie and 17-year-old Lucas. Lucas is a shy but deeply intelligent wannabe columnist. When he wins a writing competition with the chance to apprentice at one of Britain’s trashiest tabloids, his parents are reluctant to support him as they’ve been targets of the very same rag. But it’s the big break Lucas can’t turn down, and it will set off a chain of events that will drop the Dekkers into worldwide scandal and threaten to destroy them as a family.
There’s a whole lot to like about this book, which came as a bit of a surprise to me. Usually if given a choice between something that features sport or reading about gynaecological instruments, I’d choose the latter. Despite the constant sporting references and the book’s light-hearted tone, there’s a lot of worthy matter being explored. And there is certainly nothing wrong with a book that chooses not to beat you over the head with the serious stuff.
At the heart of it all are the Dekkers. As individual characters they aren’t necessarily fascinating but when brought together and examined as a family unit, they become interesting. That’s because they are under tremendous strain; picture perfect on the outside but struggling terribly to stay together. Monica, for instance, is peddling self-help nonsense she doesn’t even believe in. The results are hilarious and like something straight out of a Dr Phil episode: ‘a family is a river system, and in order to sustain the health of the system, one had to exalt and nurture each individual tributary’. It does make her something of a hypocrite, albeit a wealthy one.
Charlie is grappling with the yawning hole left by retirement and the emasculating knowledge that Monica is now the breadwinner. A principled man, he’s willing to consider some dubious media offers just to feel like he matters. Warped and changed by the realities of adulthood, Monica and Charlie have become victims of their own compromises and ambitions, and now struggle to understand themselves and each other.
In stark contrast to this is Lucas. He’s young, talented and as yet unpolluted by the pressures of adulthood and ambition. He wants to be more than the son of famous people and his drive will be part of the reason why the family descends into further disrepair and eventual scandal.
It all sounds fairly dramatic. But even in its most dire moments, Making News never makes you feel morose thanks to the persistent levity of the third-person narration. This makes it a fun read, but the narration doesn’t really foster a powerful emotional engagement with the characters. They’re likeable, but not always absorbing.
The colourful supporting characters help the story along, such as Charlie’s manager, Phil, who is more interested in his fantasy league team than his client. Senior tabloid hack Christine, mentor to Lucas, is an absolute firecracker. She attacks stories with gusto and provides some of the funniest moments in the book. When writing about a Tourette’s support group she likens their symptoms to ‘that fairground game where chipmunks pop up and you have to knock ’em down with a mallet. Except the Chipmunks swear’. She’s the embodiment of our love-hate relationship with tabloid media; tasteless and utterly crass, but we just can’t look away.
As Making News proceeds to the finale, it doesn’t really quicken the pace or explode with plot. The third person narration keeps it at the same, easy-going pace for its entirety, with an ending that ties up all the loose ends neatly and stops just shy of ridiculous. At times the narrator’s voice is a little too overpowering and threatens to stifle the characters. This is made less of an issue thanks to the snappy, funny and tightly written dialogue that is clearly Wilson’s strength.
Wilson has been compared to Ben Elton and it’s a fair comparison as he is just as engaging, witty and readable. He is also deeply rooted in his context, with references to the Iraq War, the 2006 World Cup in Germany and other sportspeople caught up recently in scandal. These mentions don’t detract at all from the plot but it will be interesting to see whether or not the book will one day feel dated.
Making News won’t transform you or the way you look at the world, but I don’t think it aspires to do that. It does deliver an intelligent read that appeals to anyone, particularly men, with its lashing of sport and (light) sprinkling of boobs.
Lisa Down has just started working in the Australian bookselling industry. She loves social media and has an unashamed obsession with literature.
How’s your year so far? I’m having a great time with this classics project, though it’s hard to know what to do with all the new books I’m being sent. Here’s a pile:
Of course, I’ll get as many as I can out to guest reviewers, and I’ll fit some in myself. At the moment, though, I’m busy working on the second draft of my novel and also preparing for some seminars in Sydney and Melbourne for the Australian Publishers Association, and for the Perth Writers Festival.
The Perth Writers Festival runs from 5 to 7 March and the program is out now. Check it out here. On the Saturday, I’ll be chairing a Masterclass with Kirsten Tranter and Sophie Gee, who will talk about classics and masters and the legacy of good writing; I’ll also be chairing a session called American Icons, with Andrew O’Hagan (hooray – talking about Marilyn Monroe on stage!) and Hazel Rowley. On Sunday I’m appearing on a panel called The Death of Print – uh-oh – with three fantastic, experienced critics and writers Lev Grossman, Geordie Williamson and James Bradley. In my dreams we go afterwards to a small bar with brown chairs, we drink whiskey and smoke cigars and discuss… well, books. And maybe the Coen Brothers and HBO TV shows. But really, I can’t get drunk because in the afternoon I’m chairing Desert Island Desires with Sophie Gee, Brenda Walker, and the person I’m stoked to finally be on a panel with, Toni Jordan. They will not be discussing their work (well, maybe a little bit), but discussing their favouritest books. Big authors like Armistead Maupin and Annie Proulx will be in Perth, too. I hope we all stay at the Duxton again, I loved the hotel so much I’m writing a series of short stories inspired by it.
* late addition* Also now chairing the whole publishing day on Friday. Lots of great guests: agents, publishers etc.!
The weekend of the 11 to 13 February is going to be a busy one. On Friday I’ll be attending the Wheeler Centre‘s Gala Night of Storytelling: Voices from Elsewhere. Hope to see some of you there. Over the weekend, Writers at the Convent is on, and I’d really like to get along to see Daniel Akst, author of We Have Met the Enemy: Self-control in an Age of Excess, and also UFOlogist Martin Plowman. Other writers in attendance include Kate Holden, Stephanie Dowrick, Michael Leunig, Meg Mundell, Angela Savage, Damon Young and Shaun Micallef. On Saturday, too, I’ll be going on a walking tour of Melbourne courtesy of the Hide & Seek Melbourne book series (released Feb). I’m sure that’ll be something to blog about.
While we’re on Melbourne, the Wheeler Centre have released their new program, and it’s a good’un. I’m particularly interested in The Late Great Patrick White, Leaving Microsoft to Change the World, Erotic Fan Fiction GLTBI edition, The Only Gay Book in the Village (both part of Big Gay Week), The Good Life: David Malouf & Raimond Gaita, and Ben Pobjie: In Defence of Offensiveness – but there’s plenty there for everyone, and mostly free! Armistead Maupin and Annie Proulx are dropping into Melbourne, too.
Did you catch me in the Age‘s Melbourne magazine last Friday? It was lovely of them to include me in their piece on Melbourne bloggers. I’ve put some dodgy pics of the article up on the Facebook page, if it’s of interest.
The other fun thing in my week was meeting artist Lily Mae Martin. Her work is really wonderful. See her website, and also her Facebook page. She also has a lovely, very honest, blog. And she has such a cute little baby. I have a major friend-crush on her and can’t wait to catch up with her in Berlin in August.
Oh yes – flights are booked! G and I will be in Europe from early June to late August. Not sure what I’ll do yet about all the books coming in… but of course I’ll be taking you all with me.