Heartbreaking & necessary: Fire anthology review

Last month I had the great fortune to be part of a launch of this profound anthology hosted by Eltham Bookshop and the Eltham Library. The event was well attended, booked out, standing room only in fact. Five of the seven Victorian authors included in the anthology were in attendance, three of us gave readings. The readings held the audience  in thrall.

Fire - published by Margaret River Press

Fire – published by Margaret River Press

Part of the magic of the kind of work presented in this anthology is voice. Each piece presented is unique, whether it be poetry, short story, photography or an artwork. Within each piece is a clearly articulated voice, carrying it’s own weight and tone, conveying it’s own message. A new voice emerged with each reading from Fire. As each author’s voice resonated around the room the scent of smoke seemed to manifest and emotion ran high. Each of us felt and heard the experience of waiting, of fearing, of deciding, descend upon us with every uttered word. Eyes were damp, hearts were blown open and we were reminded, again, of our human frailty.

The work contained in Fire: a collection of stories, poems and visual images, is not confined simply to the human experience of bushfire, although that is a prevailing theme. The voices within this anthology speak of interactions with fire in the present and past. David Milroy’s Warlardu and Karla imbues a contemporary man’s grief with a beautiful, ancient Aboriginal myth of love, Cassandra Atherton’s Raining Blood and Money… gives a bone-chilling account of the 1911 Shirtwaist fire in the US, Brooke Dunnell explores the devastating consequences of our contact with fire in The Pressure Suit.

Images are striking, even heart-stopping at times. John Gollings’ aerial photo of Kinglake after Black Saturday shows ‘red strokes…the residual ash from burnt out and fallen limbs and trunks of particular genus of pine tree whose ash is red/orange’. It is beautiful, stark and tragic.

Poetry touches places other forms can’t. Carmel Macdonald Grahame’s Coming Down to Earth reflects on the sense of esoteric pointlessness of choosing new bathroom fittings. Miriam Wei Wei Lo uses words like lassoes and whips in her shimmering poem, Playing with Fire, drawing the reader in then shocking them back out again.

Fire is not a book to be consumed all at once. It’s chocolate is way to dark for that. It’s best read in small bites, followed by time for digestion and reflection. It is an important piece of work, reminding us that we live in a dangerous time in our history and we are less in control of our surroundings than we believe ourselves to be.

My own copy has become quite dog-eared, it’s been carted around so often from place to place, which is why I recommend it.

Purchase Fire: a collection of stories, poems and visual images from Margaret River Press or your local indie bookshop.

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My Hundred Glorious Phrases – review My Hundred Lovers

I love Susan Johnson. Sorry, I haven’t started batting for the other team. Let me qualify. I love Susan Johnson’s writing.

It took three library borrows to find the time to read this book and now that I have it’s on my list of books to own. I consumed My Hundred Lovers with a passion I usually reserve for expensive wine. Aside from the delicious poetry of her writing, Johnson had a way of delivering this story that made it read like a degustation menu. Each chapter was served like a delectable morsel with its own particular flavour within a broader and very satisfying narrative.

The premise of the story is a woman turning 50 reflecting back over her experiences of love, or what she thought was love, throughout her life. While the work is rich with eroticism, it’s no romance. This is an exploration of what it feels like when love, and it’s elusive sisters, beauty and sensuality, come to visit.

Johnson’s mastery of erotic language transforms ordinary things – grass, sunshine, a bridge – into living entities, imbuing them with a soul and memory of their own. Each chapter describes an experience of love, often erotic love, of men, women, buildings, history, family, words, bodies, cities, wine, cigarettes and her son. The story of a woman’s ordinary life unfolds in the context of extraordinary history – from the 1960’s to present day – placing her ancestral history within the bigger political and social movements of each decade.

Interwoven in the narrative a kernels of life truths that rang so true I copied many of them down:
‘I was born preferring death to surrender.’
‘…love was supposed to mean desiring the happiness of the lover as much as one desired it for oneself…let the lover be himself or herself, unopposed!’
‘Love lives in the body and when love dies the body is the first to know.’

There was more to my love of this book than just the writing. I related to the story being told through the experiences of the protagonist on a very personal level. It was one of those reading experiences littered with ‘ah-huh’ moments. I felt Johnson was able to beautifully articulate the impulsive confusion of desire that ignites most love affairs – especially the bad ones. The sense many of us get at a certain age that we a ‘destined to live out life within the poor confines of unwitting compulsions.’ And the point (which I am quickly approaching) when we realise we must live with the consequences of these compulsive decisions, the poor choices of lovers in whatever form they came, and the inevitable truth that the heat of youth is cooling in our veins.

The ending seemed particularly poignant to me. She (the protagonist) identifies that her true love has always been romantic love, and that it will ever be unrequited because it ‘naturally and properly never gave me what it promised’. Given much of the content of my own work focuses on unrequited love, this admission resonated strongly with me. Our obsession with romantic love, our unending belief in soulmates and love at first sight, renders us children in the face of real love. While we believe in such fantasies we keep ourselves forever in desire (a not unpleasant place to be for some) and never able to recognise the very ordinary nature of love when it comes our way.

My Hundred Lovers has to be my favourite book for this year. In the words of Molly Meldrum, do yourself a favour.

Fluffy love: review URL Love

Let’s get one thing straight from the outset. I’m not a huge fan of traditional romance. The almost-holding-hands and occasional kiss just doesn’t quite do it for me. If there’s no bodice ripping by the third page I’m yawning – or yelling at the characters to just get their knickers off.

Which is why I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this little gem, URL Love. Yes, I have a story in it, and yes I have a vested interest to like it, but even without those things I still very much enjoyed chewing over these stories. They are a perfect accompaniment to a glass of wine and a late night read.

The premise of the collection is online romance. How do we seduce each other in the 21st century, now we have access to the likes of Facebook, Twitter and email? After reading these stories two subtle themes struck me. One: how we try to create our ideal persona online only to have to face the terror of meeting love interest in the flesh with all our warts on display. Who we are and who we think we are, are clearly two very different things. And two: how social media has made it easier to reconnect with a love interest of yesteryear. I think anyone over 35 can relate to that one.

Each story is unique in character and setting and I think it’s that diversity that makes the stories work together as a group. Generally it’s all about happy endings, with some LOL humour and a few hot scenes for perverts like myself. In fact, my story stands out against the others only because it’s much darker, it has a full sex scene (no holds barred people) and it’s the only one that ends sadly. (I’ll leave you to come up with your own theories about that.)

The anthology starts with a bang (literally) with Jacquie Underdown’s, Digital Intercourse. The title alone did it for me. Jacquie creates a self-assured hero that made me want to eat him (not literally):

‘His desire was palpable… warm, sensual energy that Sammy could touch and taste, so thick she could wring it between her hands…’

I couldn’t go past Buzz by Ros Baxter for another sexy treat. I always thought yoga retreats were hot-beds of sexual tension and this story proves it in spades. She describes the invisible lover as a ‘…dark streak of sexy menace…’ (love it!) and when he finally gets to our heroine this is how he does it (her) ‘One leg pushed between hers, opening them with bone-melting slow insistence.’

My absolute favourite though was Melanie Saward’s very cute Twitter tale, M@tchmaker. No sex in this one, but a whole lot of funny. The story is cleverly told in a series of revealing tweets and reflects exactly the kind of chat that goes on in that medium. It’s the last story in the collection and left me smiling as I turned out the light last night.

URL Love is fluffy, there’s no denying it. But it’s quality fluff, an easy pre-bedtime or public transport read to be consumed in small bites or swallowed in a sweet lump, like your favourite chocolate cake. And at $2.99 it’s a lot cheaper than the cake.

Available from all good e-tailers such as Apple and Amazon. Go grab one – you know you want to. 😉

For the love of a brumby

Review: Brumby’s Run by Jenny Scoullar

Confessions first. Jenny Scoullar is a mate of mine. We’re in the same writing group together – the inimitable LLG’s (Little Lonsdale Group). Jenny’s first book, Wasp Season, a contemporary environmental thriller, was published in 2008 and I’m ashamed to admit I’m yet to read it. From the small excerpts I have read, I notice that Jenny writes about the natural world, animals in particular, with an intense familiarity that’s quite unique in the literary field.

When I came to read her second novel, the recently released ‘Brumby’s Run’, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Knowing that it is a rural romance, I wondered if Jenny would still manage to capture her clear passion for the world of animals within the context of a traditional love story. I can honestly say that she not only managed it, she trumped it with gusto.

If you’ve ever loved horses, longed to work with them or own one, you will love this book. If you are a lover of wilderness and the freedom that comes with wandering uninhabited places, you will love this book. If you enjoy a tender romance and the tangle of family tensions and secrets, you will love this book.

Brumby’s Run pays homage to the complexity of the Australian rural landscape and the people who live within it. Sam and Charlie are twin sisters, separated at birth and by upbringings that couldn’t be more different. The story opens when Sam, who has always believed she is the birth child of her parents, discovers she is adopted and her ill twin sister needs her help to get well. Sam escapes the suffocating expectations of her mother and moves to Charlie’s birthplace, Brumby’s Run. While the focus of the novel is on the budding romance between Sam and nearby neighbour, Drew, Jenny doesn’t balk from confronting the issues that face our wild Australian brumbies and the preservation of the sensitive high country environment. Jenny’s awareness of the lives of these magnificent horses and the impact of high country grazing on native flora and fauna is palpable through the eyes of her characters. It’s a hard topic, particularly in this genre, and she tackles it with grace, empathy and beautiful prose. While this genre isn’t really my thing, I can’t help but admire what Jenny has achieved with it, and I can’t wait to see what she’ll tackle in her next book, Firewater, due out with Penguin in 2013.

Choccie Royal & a cuppa? Review The Fine Colour of Rust: Paddy O’Reilly

I had occasion to meet Paddy O’Reilly late last year. At the time I had to hide my gob-smacked ‘WOW A REAL WRITER’ sentiments as she awarded me my first major short story prize (see 10 Dec 2011 post The One that Won). What impressed me about Paddy was her no-nonsense, down-to-earth passion for writing. Here was someone who spoke to me seriously about my writing, was genuinely interested in my career as a writer and wanted to support me in achieving my publishing goals. What a cool drink of water!

This impression was reinforced when I again connected with Paddy at the Emerging Writers Festival in May. I was impressed she a) remembered me, and b) listened to how my writing was going without her eyes glazing over (not an experience I’m used to in daily life).

Paddy is one of Australia’s national treasures when it comes to literature. She’s won a stack of national and international awards with her long list of publishing credits. Over the past ten years her work has become an integral part of Australia’s cultural landscape (check out her website for the long version of her accomplishments).

It took me too long to get around to reading this book, but I’m so glad I did. Beforehand I’d been trailing through erotic fiction (including the notorious 50 Shades), so The Fine Colour of Rust came as a welcome relief from the adolescent ‘Holy crap – Whoa – Arrrrggghhh’ I’d been subjecting my poor mind to.

O’Reilly’s taste for all that is quintessential about Australian character is palpable in this book. It’s a relief to read about uniquely Australian characters without the sentimentality or stereotyping so common in Australian narratives. These people are flawed and funny and believable because of it. It’s a laugh out loud story filled with recognisable characters and laconic dialogue reminiscent of Sea Change (still one of my all time favourite TV series).

The main character, Loretta Boskovic, a self-proclaimed ‘old scrag’, thinks and speaks in vivid country town lingo. Having grown up in the country myself, there is much I recognise about the landscape, social mores and way of life at the centre of this story. It was like coming home to visit rellies I haven’t seen in a while. City life brings a pace and sophistication that has no place in a town like Gunapan (the fictitious town where Loretta lives), and it was nice to be able to put my guard down for a while and join in the scoffing of Chocolate Royals and tepid tea.

This book is filled with golden moments of insight and humour – from Loretta’s two inherited lawn mowers (goats) named Panic and Terror; to the hilarious account of Hector the butcher dismembering a cow carcass in an effort to impress a visiting Minister; to the heart wrenching effects of illness on Loretta’s special relationship with Norm the junk man. This book’s honesty is what makes it funny. The prose literally sparkles with wit and is littered with gems like this one:

‘…clustered around the small waterhole like ants at a droplet of sugar water.’

It was the kind of book I couldn’t wait to get back to, yet savoured slowly because I didn’t want it to end. Moreover, I highly recommend it as a perfect remedy for mental indigestion caused by over consumption of low-brow popular erotic fiction.

50 Shades of Pink

No prizes for guessing what this post might be about. Not that the damned book needs any more lip service at 10 million copies (yep that’s TEN MILLION people, nearly half the population of Australia!). Rather than simply wonder what the buzz was about I bought a copy (which I paid far too much for and still resent) and read it.

Well… all I can say is I fully expect to see second hand book stores and edgy op-shops brimming with pre-‘loved’ copies of this thing in about 12 months time. These will be all the people, like moi`, who got sucked into buying the damned thing to see what the fuss was about, read it, and were left wondering what all the bloody fuss was about. Believe me these cast off’s will probably number in their millions. This is not literature written to stand the test of time. The story isn’t timeless – unless men are still trying to control women’s sexuality in 2254, which I hope won’t be the case. The fuss is nothing but a media storm.

How can I be so sure? Because I’ve read quite a lot of erotic literature, and a smattering of commercial erotic books, and some porn, and I’ve got a little secret for ya. E L James hasn’t done ANYTHING new. Zip, nadda, nothing. It’s all been said and done before. Many times. And better (anyone remember Story of O?). The only difference is different people are reading it. And I suspect the audience think they are reading something new, so the whisper got out to the media that a bunch of nearly middle aged career girls and married women were getting all hot and bothered over some sexy book and a whole lot of wind was created. 1 + 1 = 10 million copies.

There are a few frightening things about this phenomena. One of them is that it was the highest selling book in Australia for Mother’s day. I don’t know about you, but I think there’s something vaguely disturbing about giving a book about a BDSM relationship to your mother as a token of your affection for Mother’s Day. But hey, I could be wrong, so sue me.

A second is that, even though I know there are thousands of women out there reading it, I’ve not seen a single copy being read on the train. Which seems kind of odd given how much reading is done on trains and the sheer numbers of this book that are out there. What’s been said is true – women are ashamed to be seen reading it.

Not me. I boldly took my copy on the train every day. I scanned the crowd, looking in vain for a fellow 50 shades reader with whom I could give the ‘nod of understanding’ as we indulged ourselves in wild sexual fantasies on public transport. And found no one. I was alone. And all my blustering about how silly it was to be ashamed of reading this stuff in public went out the window. I persisted, but I made sure the cover was flat on my lap so no one could see it. And if I put the book down I made sure the back was facing up. I’m horrified to admit that even cocky little me gave in to social pressure and tried to hide the fact I was reading 50 shades.

BUT WHY?? It’s only sex, for God’s sake, it’s not like the rest of the peak hour passengers in my carriage hadn’t done it or thought about it or read about it at some stage of their lives. Sex isn’t uncommon and neither are fantasies about control, bondage and restraint. So why is this readership, so hungry for this trilogy, so ashamed of it? Why was I ashamed of it?

I think it’s got to do with us girls just not being particularly proud of our sexuality. Everybody else owns it. Female sexuality is a public and commercial commodity, so no wonder we are all a bit shy about it. We’ve been told a million times that nice girls don’t like to have too much sex (and men don’t marry sluts) and what a load of crap that is, but culturally it seems we’ve bought the BS wholesale – no return.

A very good friend of mine LOVES this trilogy. She regularly visits the fan site (of course there’s a fan site, silly) and informed me that a couple of larks have registered Twitter accounts in the names of @AnaRSteele and @ChristianTGrey (complete with dashing photos of handsome models). She told me some interesting things. Like a lot of women, since having kids her libido had gone AWOL. Reading this book reawakened her natural longing for good & interesting sex. Which is pretty nice for her, I think. She was also grateful for the e-format, so she didn’t need to feel ‘outed’ when reading in public. And when I mentioned I’d heard the book wasn’t well written, she said, ‘Well Kate, I wouldn’t know’.

So there it is. Married women, middle aged women, career women – conservative women who would normally read straight romance – have discovered the joys of erotic literature compliments of E L James and her 50 shades trilogy. If nothing else, you’ve got to give it that. If it means women can reclaim/rediscover/own a greater portion of their sexual selves as a result, then I’m not one to argue. I just hope no damage is done along the way. There are plenty of men out there who don’t have the faintest idea of the difference between a ‘sensual’ smack and a ‘punishment’ smack (Christian Grey’s words, I assure you) and would relish the opportunity to punish a woman while she’s aroused. The line between domination with permission and pure domination is faint, if it exists at all.

The next step is twofold. Get some good quality erotic stuff onto the commercial market because these women deserve a well-written story, then get this readership to be proud enough to read the stuff in public. And I’m leading the charge. No more pink cheeks for me! 🙂

Another Australia

“I want our people to have books, their own books, in their own communties, and written by our own people. I want the truth to be told, our truths, so, first and foremost, I hold my pen for the suffering in our communties. Let it not be mistaken: suffering is widespread in our communities.”  – Alexis Wright

There is a reason (other than school holidays) for my long absence of recent weeks. I’ve been reading a modern epic. I’ve been lugging it around on the train, to bed, to work, to cafe’s, pretty much anywhere I could find a few moments to get through a few more pages (a chapter would be too ambitious).

Carpentaria is the fourth novel I’ve read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012 (if you want to join it’s not too late!). I’ve been wanting to read it for years – because it’s a Miles Franklin winner (2007), because it’s by an Aboriginal author(many of whom deserve to be more widely read), and because it was an underdog.

The manuscript was rejected by every major Australian publisher before being picked up by small publisher Giramondo. At the time of publication it got caught up in the controversial Angus & Robertson decision to play hardball with small press publishers by refusing to stock their books unless the publishers paid a fee. The big book giant was aiming to clear shelf space by getting rid of those pesky lesser known Aussie authors with small print runs to make way for the block buster international authors with high sales volumes. It caused one hell of a ruckus and had the effect of significantly lifting Carpentaria‘s sales figures.

Carpentaria is everything its shout lines promise it to be – part epic, part scripture and brimming with vivid characters that dominate its equally vivid landscape. It is an Australian literary triumph, the likes of which I’ve not read for a very long time.

However, at 518 glittering pages it is a big – no enormous – reading commitment to undertake, especially in these days where the quick fix read reigns supreme. It took me exactly 6 weeks (two library borrows) to finish it, but finish it I did and because I wanted to not because I felt I had to (although there was an element ‘I won’t let this thing beat me’ to it).

Alexis Wright is incapable of writing a boring sentence.

It was refreshing, and eye-opening, to read a story that has a contemporary Aboriginal world view at its heart. There are some challenges here for those who are unfamiliar with some of the core aspects of Aboriginal culture. The prose careens between the real and the unreal, integrating the ancient lore of a dreamtime landscape with modern Australian cultural life, and the divide between black and white that persists, particularly in the northern parts of this land.

Wright’s characters are complex and intensely imagined, like their names – Normal Phantom (seaman and fish embalmer), Angel Day (femme fatale and Queen of the rubbish dump), Bruiser (the bully-boy Mayor), Truthful (the failed policeman), Mozzie Fishman (the cultural Law Man).

‘This was the only man they knew who lived in the world of marine splendour, riding the troughs on God Almighty seas, surviving cyclones one after another, following a fish to where other fishing men had perished just for the sake of it, once in a while, returning to port to check on the family, before leaving the very next dawn. What a man! An asset to the town, an asset to his race, mind you.’ (re: Norm Phantom)

Entire communities become single characters in this novel, acting as one with various cultural voices combining to create a picture of a mob acting in its own best interests. Even the landscape, teeming with stories and spirits, is a character in this novel. Powerful beings from the Dreamtime move within and over the land, ghostly ancestors traverse the space between dreams and reality and interfere with the daily lives of human beings. There are pages devoted to the whims and rages of spirits of the sea and land and the violence of their jealousies, furies and kindnesses.

The story Carpentaria tells is enormous too. The prose is riddled with beauty and insights as Norm battles with his belligerent wife, Angel Day, and his disowned activist son, Will Phantom. The characters personal battles are fought within the larger landscape of the songlines of the land and sea and the clandestine activities of a vampire-like, morally bankrupt mining company. Sound familiar? Because it is. This is a tale that is fast becoming part of the Australian landscape – the mining company dominating political and social debate, drowning out the voice of the citizens of this country no matter what their colour.

“You know who we all hear about all the time now? International mining company. Look how we got to suit international mining people. Rich people.”

Wright has plenty of fun at the expense of the blundering, supercilious white inhabitants of the town of Desperance and her tongue in cheek moments are evenly and appropriately placed. She shows clearly how silly Australian mainstream culture can be, how ridiculous some of our social rules are and how smug are the generations of Australians who have grown up feeling entitled to their sanitised, abridged version of Australian history.

‘Remember! Who bloody knows what kind of traditions people have, who say they came from nowhere and don’t believe in their own God anymore.’

‘What could they do? It looked like defeat was imminent. And, that same old defeated look, two centuries full of it, began creeping back onto their faces.’

The rhythm of the prose required me to read differently. Perhaps it was the earthy vernacular, or the unfamiliar spirit beings and landscape, or just the lengthy chapters. There were two parts of the story I struggled with, both set in a cyclone, but that might have had more to do with not having the time to sit and consume it as a single chunk. Nonetheless, because the prose was such a pleasure and the story a challenge to read I never contemplated putting the book down.

If you can, make the time to ingest the world of Carpentaria. It won’t cease to surprise with its vast narrative and beautiful prose, and it will introduce you to a new way of looking at Australia and its people.

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