Review: Floundering

flounderingFloundering by Romy Ash

Text Publishing, 2013

I really wanted to like this book. I heard Romy read some of her writing aloud at an event at the Melbourne Town Hall earlier this year and her story about a river, someone drowning in a river, was haunting and beautiful. If only my memory wasn’t so vague I’d link to it here.

So I was looking forward to reading her debut novel Floundering, especially as it was shortlisted for so many prizes (Miles Franklin Award 2013, Prime Minister’s Literary Award 2013, Commonwealth Book Prize 2013, etc).

‘Tom and Jordy live with their gran. Their mum, Loretta, left them on her doorstep.
Now she wants her boys back.
Tom and Jordy hit the road with Loretta in her beat-up car. They journey across the country, squabbling, bonding, searching and reconnecting.
On the west coast they stop. They take refuge in a beachside caravan park where, at last, the reality of the situation sets in. And now the boys find they have new threats and new fears to face.’

Unfortunately though, the book just didn’t do it for me. And it wasn’t the dark themes or depressing storyline that put me off, but the writing. I didn’t get a clear image of Tom, the point-of-view child character, until much too far into the book. I found he had an inconsistent voice, alternating ‘piss’ and ‘wee’, holding hands with his mum but swearing at his brother, scared of monsters but coming out with literary phrases like ‘he gives me a slippery smile’ and ‘there’s shiny teeth in her grin’. His grammar alternated between ‘Loretta doesn’t ring Gran’ and ‘Loretta don’t let us call her ‘mum’’, while describing characters as ‘slim’ and sunburn as ‘blooming’, which to me doesn’t ring true for a pre-pubescent boy. I had no idea of his age until he described his 11th birthday cake. Perhaps this inconsistency is intentional—Tom is bridging the cusp between childhood innocence and imitating his more worldly 13-year-old brother—but to me it was inauthentic and unclear.

The overwhelmingly descriptive writing style intrigued me at first, pulling me deep into that hot, sticky, smelly, uncomfortable roadtrip across Australia. I felt the Twisties powder on my fingers, tasted the Coke that was as hot as tea, and was disgusted at the service station meat pie that had pastry like flakes of skin. I understand the reason for this writing—the poor kid’s world is reduced to the inside of this car, against his will, so much of the story is told through intense descriptions of his immediate surroundings.

Some of it I loved:

‘The lemonade dries and sticks my legs together and to the seat. Then dirt sticks to the lemonade. I try and shuffle out of the lemonade patch, but my skin’s already sticky and there’s no shuffling out of my skin.’

‘The seat is rough against my cheek. It smells of off orange juice—like a school bag.’

But some of it drove me mad.

‘My school bag is squashed under Jordy’s seat. I pull it out. The zip makes that zip sound.’

Seriously? The zip makes that zip sound? Is that really necessary? I found myself walking around with this sentence rhythm in my head, narrating my every move like Tom would. ‘My tea is cold. I stand up. I stub my toe. It makes a stubbing sound.’ I drove myself mad.

I was hoping by the time they got to their destination, something would start happening. And it sort of did, but not really— all the action was dreamlike (the shark, the run-ins with Nev, the search for Loretta in the dust storm) and a bit unbelievable. The atmosphere remained hot and uncomfortable and boring and for the boys the days went slowly, and for me, unfortunately, the book went slowly.

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Review: Mullumbimby

MullumbimbyMullumbimby by Melissa Lucashenko.
UQP, 2013

This is Lucashenko’s fifth novel, but the first of hers I’ve read. It was on the list for the EWF Bookclub night to be discussed by Tony Birch, Ronnie Scott, Anna Heyward and Estelle Tang. I hadn’t quite finished reading it when I went along to the event, but still enjoyed the discussion.

It’s the story of Jo Breen, a light-skinned Goorie woman, who bought a property in the Byron Bay hinterland in order to leave her city life behind and be closer to her ancestral land. The novel explores clashing notions of belonging and ownership, and love and learning to trust again, as well as not judging anyone on face value. On the night, Ronnie Scott summed it up as a “land-rights romcom”.

A subplot revolves around a new relationship with Aboriginal man Twoboy who is caught up in court cases trying to gain a Native Title claim over nearby land, and it is this part which least interested me as I found the dialogue a bit didactic. As discussed in the bookclub, the panel agreed they’re not keen on issues-based fiction that shunts characters to the side as issues come to the front, but that Mullumbimby treads this line carefully.

Jo’s relationships with the land, her family, horses and history were beautiful and delivered in a strong voice. The chapter dealing with the death of a young horse is heartbreaking, and is the chapter in which I most empathised with Jo.

As a protagonist, she’s strong but not all that likeable. As Estelle commented on the night, “Unlikeable characters are all the vogue.” Jo’s selfish, pushes people away from her (including her teenage daughter), prickly, and cynical (towards people of all skin colours). She’s angry a lot of the time. The point of view is third person, but from inside Jo’s head, so the descriptions of things and narration come in her words. Occasionally though, it does offer some interiority into a few other character’s heads, like Twoboy and Ellen. Despite—or because of—these flaws, the character of Jo is realistic and impossible to side against, especially when we see how far she’s willing to go to protect her daughter.

Lucashenko seamlessly wove  Aboriginal English into the dialogue, giving the story a very strong and authentic voice.

sacred site

no pucken business

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Who disfla?

 

 She also introduced a lot of indigenous language, trusting the reader to deduce meaning from the context. I learnt words like dugai for white people, yarraman for horse, and warrigal for dog. I grew up near a Warrigal Road, and never had any idea it was an Aboriginal word.

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Why I need to break up with Game of Thrones

I don’t normally write about TV. But I’m still not over it, 12 hours after watching this ep. So this is writing therapy. 

I’ve tried to be vague. But you may infer some spoilers, so don’t read unless you’ve watched Season 3 Episode 9. And if you haven’t watched it, don’t watch it. Spare yourself. Go and do something that makes you happy. 

OH DEAR GOD. Game of Thrones has done it again. I should have quit watching the show back in Episode 9 of Season 1 when the only good guy got an unfair offing. But no, I kept watching, and hoping, and cheering for the nice ones, the honest ones, the brave ones. I foolishly let myself get ATTACHED to those characters.

I feel like I’m in an abusive relationship with the TV show. It keeps treating me so badly, leaving me upset and frustrated and disappointed, but teasing me with glimmers of hope that everything can be okay again. It builds up this hope and lulls me into such a sense of security that I don’t even see the obvious coming. I was clearly in denial: in hindsight all the signs were there. It was Episode 9, which always seems to be a game changer. The characters had a break from war, there were moments of humour and intimacy and improving relationships. It was all going so well for once.

Then BAM. I was left sobbing in the darkness as the credits rolled. In absolute shock at what had just happened. What I had allowed myself to go through, again. It was horrific. It was unforgivable. I’ve never known a show or book to treat its characters like this.

Why can’t I just walk away?

Apparently readers had the same response to this scene in the book when it first came out, 13 years ago. George RR Martin says that a lot of people quit the series at this moment, threw the book at the wall or in the bin, or better yet, in the fire. But, smugly, he says they all came crawling back… buying the book a second time to keep reading.

I’m done with it! I can’t take it anymore! Daenerys can just come and kill the lot, I don’t even care.

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JK Rowling vs George RR Martin

 …But if she does, I want to see it.

Looks like Twitter agrees.

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EWF: Writing for Young Adults

My ears perked up as soon as Penni Russon (Only Ever Always, Undine trilogy) said she did the PWE course at RMIT, through which she got a placement at Allen & Unwin in the Children’s/ YA department, through which she was eventually offered a job as editor. Reading so many manuscripts, she said, “allowed her to pop open the bonnet and have a look at the story-writing engine to see how it worked”. Now she writes YA novels. Sounds like my ideal career path.

“I never grew out of reading YA,” she said. “When I started writing YA fiction I was 24, and I wrote in that voice because I wasn’t very far away from it. I feel like I know the YA voice, and that’s what comes naturally. I don’t feel like I know 20, 30 year old voices!”

“I write stories for grown-ups too, but seeing as I still call them ‘grown-ups’, I think that says something.”

Why does she like writing for YA audiences?

“Teenagers are interested in the world, despite their bad rap for being self-obsessed. They’re often fascinated with dystopian worlds, because they can relate to injustice, and to having no political power. There’s an intensity of feelings in YA. Teens are experiencing all these intense emotions, and they’re experiencing them for the first time. It’s hard for them to imagine that once, their teachers and parents went through these feelings too.”

What about writing sex for YA?

It’s so much more powerful. Sex in adult lives can be mundane, it’s just a part of domestic life. But not for teens. They’ve got all these hormones pumping for the first time, everything is new and meaningful.

What’s the difference between writing for children and young adults? Where’s the line? Is there an age cut off?

“I think in children’s writing, there has to be a higher order. There’s parents, or teachers, protectors. The story is set in a protective space. YA writing deals with the loss of this protection. It’s when their world blows up. They discover there is no higher order, or it’s not as it seemed. There’s divorce, or death, or the truth. It deals with how people can function within this.

“The Harry Potter series becomes YA when Dumbledore dies. And Harry finds out stuff about Dumbledore’s past, which shakes his understanding of the world. I don’t think it could have been a seven book series without this realisation happening.”

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Emerging Writers’ Festival: Seven Enviable Lines

EWF_Web_Banner-fixedEWF Conference. Two packed days of sitting and listening and jotting and tweeting. All that inspiration, it was pretty exhausting.

The Seven Enviable Lines panel was a great way to start the weekend: what writing-related tips would you tell a younger You?

Here are my favourites.

Melinda Harvey:

“A career in writing is not like winning Tetris—you don’t automatically go up to the next level.”

“You’ve got to be at your desk/computer/notepad to write. Inspiration can strike, but like lightning it’s rare. First, you’ve got to produce the right climatic conditions…”

John Safran:

“Here’s what’s wrong with you. You’re lazy, and too in love with your one stupid idea.”

Khairani ‘Okka’ Barokka:

“Take care of yourself, write clearheaded. You might think tortured writing is the best, but usually it’s delusional and self indulgent.”

“Back up your files. Type up your notepads. Go through the archives and tease out the old threads.”

Jennifer Mills:

“Persistence is more important than talent.”

“Being a writer is not an excuse for being an asshole! Be nice to your families, partners, friends. They are the ones that will support you.”

Walter Mason:

“Run, don’t walk. Don’t wait until the time is perfect. Don’t put it off. You can do amazing things by yourself online, and you can do them tonight when you get home.”

“If invited to book/writing/publishing events, never give into the impulse to stay at home.”

“I’ve never once been hired on my skills. Fabulousness has always won out over literary prowess.”

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Review: Burial Rites

burial-rites

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent.

Picador, 2013

I’d been waiting to read this since I saw Hannah Kent in conversation with Estelle Tang last year at the Wheeler Centre. Kent is a beacon of hope for debut novelists, having had an international bidding war over her first book resulting in an alleged seven-figure deal. For a first book! In this publishing climate!

I bought the novel at Readings, an honour usually only bestowed on books that I have read and decided that I need to physically own. But I knew I’d want to keep it, even if I didn’t like the story or the writing, as a reminder of optimism and faith.

Physically, the book is beautiful. The front cover is matte and sort of shimmery with an embossed title. If my eyes aren’t deceiving me, the internal pages also glitter with a subtle sparkle in the paper stock. The serifs on the font slant upwards on the small capital A’s, giving the English language a foreign feel as they almost imitate accents.

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accents on A’s

Kent used a narrative technique of splitting scenes between Agnes Magnusdotttir’s first person point of view, and then third person point of view from others  (Toti, family members at Kornsa). In this way the reader witnesses a scene through Agnes’ eyes, then slips out and watches it play on from someone else’s shoulder. Or vice versa. Sometimes the points of view overlapped for a short period of time, so I’d experience the same action repeated, from two different points of view.

The landscape was an integral character in the novel and I shivered in bed imagining being shut out naked in the snow, seeing dead bodies stored frozen in the wood shed, hearing howling snowstorms and waking up with ice on my blankets. But it’s not just the cold that gives the book its heartache; it’s the country’s isolation, both externally from the rest of the world (as shown through painfully slow correspondence with Copenhagen) and internally, with the small farm communities completely cut off from one another in bad weather, and the psychological effects of loneliness which played out at Illugastadir.

From having no idea about 18th century Iceland, I felt fully immersed.

At moments I kept feeling hope: that everything would be explained and Agnes’ name would be cleared, but then I remembered the description of the book so excitedly thrown around for months before it was published: the story of the last woman executed in Iceland. And yes it made me cry.

It’s lyrically written, and at times I felt almost too many images were being crammed into a sentence so I had to re-read it a few times. But most of the time it was sparse, beautiful and nuanced. And what a killer story.

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gasping sounds

Note: There’s a pronunciation guide in the start of the book, but I think a little like Hermione in Harry Potter (Hermi-on to me), there are going to be lots of personal pronunciations going on in people’s heads as they read.

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Editors Vic dinner meeting

59095_409435612461438_158118939_nA few classmates from RMIT’s Professional Writing and Editing course and I tagged along to last week’s Editors Victoria dinner meeting.

The focus of the evening was Carrie Tiffany and Toni Jordan discussing the process of writing fiction and how they teach creative writing, in conversation with freelance book editor Nadine Davidoff.

Having seen Carrie and Toni around uni (they are both grads of our PWE course, have published novels, and both now teach at RMIT) and having heard Nadine speak in one of our editing classes, I jumped at the chance to hear them all together in one room.

And at the chance to act like a real life editor. We wore nametags and got a free glass of wine and everything.

Here are some paraphrased notes from the conversation.

On why they write:

C.T: I wouldn’t say I enjoy writing… But I do enjoy having written. The most important thing is when you write and find out something that you didn’t know before you wrote it. You surprise yourself.

On following rules and advice for writing a novel:

C.T: I follow Oscar Wilde’s thinking: “It is always a silly thing to give advice, but to give good advice is fatal”. The ‘novel’ means the ‘new’. If you’re committed to writing the book, you’ll write the book, and you’ll work out how to do it on your own.

T.J: Even when you’ve written a book, the next one is just as hard. I felt like I was getting dumber after each book. I couldn’t remember how I started them. I ended up calling my poor husband and asking things like ‘when I was writing the first book, what did I have for lunch?’ But the most important thing is to keep promises to yourself. Treat yourself like a business associate. Don’t give yourself an untrustworthy reputation by falling through on promises you make, like word counts. Take yourself seriously, and deliver on your promises, as if they were for a business.

On inspiration and the quote of the evening: ‘The pages are still blank, but there is a miraculous feeling of the words being there, written in invisible ink and clamouring to become visible.”

Ruth Stone. photo source

Ruth Stone. photo source

Nadine tells an anecdote of American poet Ruth Stone who grew up working in the fields in rural Virginia, and who would feel a poem coming at her like a ‘thunderous train of air’. She’d have to run inside and get pen to paper so when the poem ‘barrelled through her’ she could collect it on paper. Sometimes she missed it and she felt the poem thunder across the landscape looking for another poet. And sometimes she’d just catch the tail end of the poem, and pull it backwards, and it would appear on the page perfect and intact but backwards, from the last word to the first…

T.J: Yes! I feel like this. Once I was on a train with only a tiny little handbag and no notepad or pen and I just needed to write, and was trying to memorise all the words going through my head, but of course by the time I got to a newsagent to buy a pen and paper they were gone..

C.T: No. It’s 100% hard work and no magic. Of course I think there are subconscious aspects where you don’t know a character’s name or something about them until it appears on the page, but they are just hidden in your subconscious, they don’t come out of nowhere.

On teaching creative writing:

They both agree writing has everything to do with reading, and you can’t write a good sentence until you’ve read a lot of other sentences first. C.T suggests the first year of any writing degree should be only reading. T.J has students read novels aloud in class to understand rhythm. She also suggests keeping two books on your desk at all times when you’re writing: one inspiration book (if I can write something 1/10th as good as this it will be worthwhile) and one confidence book (if this **** got published… I’ve got a chance!).

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