Friday, January 16, 2015

Review - Love in the Time of Contempt

Joanne Fedler's latest offering Love in the Time of Contempt is part pep-talk, part personal memoir and an open invitation to consider yourself a part of the club devoted to the 'Raising of Teenagers'.

The book can be enjoyed from many points of view; that of the parent in the midst of raising teens, that of the parent who is done with that particular challenge, and that of the parent (or non-parent) remembering their own teenaged years. The stories in this book can't help but jog your memory about your own behaviour during those tumultuous years, and your feelings about your parents at the time. If by chance you had not already thought back to those times and, if you've parented teenagers yourself, felt a touch of empathy for your parents and what you put them through, then you certainly will after reading Fedler's book.

This is not a how-to manual on parenting 13-19 year-olds. There is no magical handbook to follow that will make you an expert at getting yourself and your children through this challenging stage of their development. Teenagers are a social grouping not a collective noun. They are as individual as snowflakes or fingerprints. Ironically, many would protest against this individualism, preferring instead to belong to a group, to fit, to follow the crowd. Funnily enough, being like everyone else often becomes the basis of the teenager's identity.

What you will learn within these pages is that 'this too shall pass'. There is no avoiding this challenge. The good news is that most who go through it do so without any lasting damage. It is important to separate ego from parenting. It is not a competitive sport. You don't need to outshine your children. Be fair. Say sorry. Admit when you are wrong. Show your vulnerability. Give them respect and expect it in return. Compromise. Relax.

Love in the Time of Contempt reminds us that we are not alone. The writer is sharing her own experiences with us in a way that says, "Look. I'm doing this too, and guess what, none of us are perfect". I have always felt that this is an important lesson to share with your children no matter what their age or stage of development: 'Yes, I'm an adult, but I am also a person. I make mistakes. If I treat you unfairly I will apologise to you. I'm not perfect, so I don't expect you to be.'

When your children become adults your relationship changes. Yes, they will always be your babies, but the relationship between you matures; you become equals in a way, and it might surprise you that you may eventually need them far more than they need you. Thankfully, if you have raised them with more love than anger, with fairness and respect, when that time comes they will be there for you.

Fedler's writing is honest, humorous, and insightful. She shares her experiences generously, without being didactic. With warmth and a touch of irony she gives the reader that sense of solidarity and support that, during what is often one of the most difficult stages of parenting, we are not alone. In the end we are all in this together. As parents, we just have to do the best we know how to do, learning on-the-job, while staying open and available to our teenagers.

I highly recommend Love in the Time of Contempt.

Find out more about Joanne here.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Review - The Swarm

I am a fan of the short story. I read them. I write them. I have no doubt they are here to stay and will continue to be published. I don’t buy into the idea that the short form is an endangered species, and here’s why.

In our busy twenty-first century lives, the short story is just the right length to fit into those brief moments when we stop and catch our breath between our daily responsibilities. The short story, regardless of whether it is five hundred or five thousand words long, can slot comfortably into these spaces. We all like to finish things, and being able to start and finish a story in one sitting is satisfying. Where a novel takes an extended commitment of concentration and time, the short story asks much less of you, yet offers so much in return.

Done well, a short story will grab you by the scruff of the neck and press you hard up against life, in all its beauty and ugliness. Andy Kissane’s collection, “The Swarm”, did just that. The opening story, “In My Arms”, deals with the loss of a child – the most painful grief imaginable – yet there is light and hope at the conclusion of the story. By cleverly linking the first and last stories, Kissane brings the reader full circle, creating a feeling of completion.

The last story, “A Mirror to the World”, stayed with me long after I had read that final sentence and closed the book. “In My Arms” was equally as affecting, though in a different way, as if it had taken an alternate route to my heart. Both stories are filled with sadness and loss, with some of the worst experiences the world can present to us. The actions and reactions of the characters are to be expected given the situations they have been written into.

One difference I felt between the two stories was the way I read them, the way I felt while reading them. With “In My Arms”, I had the sense of looking down and watching the events unfold, of being ‘apart from’, rather than ‘immersed in’, the story. A detached observer, though the sadness still reached me.

The opposite was true of “A Mirror to the World” – which is what most writers do with their writing; show the reader a reflection of the world around them. I experienced this story more closely, intimately. This may, in part, have been the form the story took, which was a writer (Kissane) writing about a writer, writing. This can be tedious when done badly or for no real reason, but I felt Kissane knew exactly what he was doing. By structuring the story in this way, he has helped the reader take it in less quickly. By slowing us down, he has allowed us to digest the tragedy in bites, rather than choke on its intensity.

The difference in the way I experienced these two particular stories could simply have been the order in which I read them. When I read the first story, Kissane was a author that was new to me. By the last story, I was more familiar with the writer and his style; this may explain why I felt more immersed in the final story of the collection. Also, knowing the book was coming to an end, perhaps I wanted to savour that final story, like the last spoonful of desert at the end of a good meal.

The character M. Chagall in “The Illusive Tenant” was particularly interesting to me. Though he was not a major player in the story, the front story at least, he plays such a large part within the context of it. His surrealist art leaches out into the fabric of the story until the story itself becomes a written version of surrealism. It was surprising and entertaining. For me, this story stood on its own, spot lit, within the collection.

Kissane’s stories are not complex or filled with action and movement, but each satisfies in its own way. They encourage the reader to participate, imagining what lies outside the confines of the words on the page. As Samuel Johnson once said, “A writer only begins a book. A reader finishes it”. I’m glad I had the opportunity to read “The Swarm” and become familiar with this writer’s work. There is a skill to writing a good short story. Every word must count; must earn its right to be there. Kissane clearly knows this. There is nothing superfluous here.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

2013 - The year that was...

Horrible to tell the truth, but in amongst all that horrible there was a silver lining. Books, beautiful books - a salvation, in and of themselves.

My reading list shows that I read forty-two books. That's a little low for me, but as I said...horrible... What I actually read was a little different to most years too. I read twenty-three novels, three collections of short fiction and three poetry collections. Everything else was non-fiction.

About half way through the year I developed a 'minor' obsession with organising and decluttering my home (which includes a home business). In a crazy couple of months I read seven books from that particular section of the self-help genre. Books that, lets face it, were much the same as each other. There was a lot of the standard advice, such as: one in - one out, use it or lose it, if you don't love it why is it taking up space in your home, put a "No Junk Mail" sign on your letterbox.

There was much repetition throughout these seven books and one book in particular was pretty much a big block of cut & paste from chapter to chapter. Two hundred odd pages could easily have been condensed into 80 - 120 pages. Seriously. The repetition was that bad. I felt cheated - felt the author had cheated. It seemed like such a shortcut to writing a book. Perhaps she thought she was being paid by the word!

I also read a couple of interesting books on habits, personalities and human behaviours. I've always enjoyed that insight into the minds of others. I find it fascinating, and it's helpful when developing characters for your own stories.

Of the twenty-three novels I read in 2013, nine were YA novels, and eleven were penned by Australian authors. The poetry and short fiction were all written by Australians. I love being able to use my love of reading, together with my love of writing, with social media to promote and recommend books by Australian writers. I wrote three reviews for Rochford Street Review, which was a rewarding experience. I hope to write more reviews this year.

I've started off my reading year with Maggie Stiefvater's trilogy (finally) and 'bucketloads' of poetry.

I have my fingers crossed for a much more upbeat and positive year in 2014, and I hope you all enjoy the same.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Review - Undertow

Even though poetry is something I’ve not attempted to review in the past, I read it regularly and know what I like, and what I don’t like. I found there was much to like in the poems in Susan Austin’s Undertow.

Austin’s poetry is frank, honest and accessible. Perhaps I’m a lazy reader, but I’ve never been a fan of the vague, the intellectual; the type of poetry that must be read and reread, and read yet again in the hopes of discerning just an inking of what the poet is writing about; the kind of poetry that leaves me with a headache and the uncomfortable feeling that I am more than a little stupid.

Austin’s poetry is anything but the brain-bending kind, and yet that doesn’t mean it is all too obvious and boring. In fact there is much subtlety here. The subject and content of the poems varies, but all are created from the details – big and small – of everyday life; of love and loss and sadness; universal themes that we can all relate to as emotional human beings. Poetry’s power lies in its ability to get under our skin, to touch something deep within us, to remind us that we are all connected through our experiences.

Anyone who has suffered from depression or debilitating inertia would feel an immediate connection with Austin’s poem Couched (pg7).

I am testing my body-to-couch solubility / I join those
with schizophrenia and others on soporific drugs / scores
of thoughts about what I could do / should do / oscillate in
my dizzy head / only my internal systems move / slowly /
clogged with toxins / lethargy / negatives /

I could do that / should do that / not doing that / an hour
has passed / still not doing that / with effort I put the
washing on / but not out / the machine guards its sodden
inmates / the clock watches me / I don’t have the energy to
take the batteries out or turn it to the wall / damn clock /

If, like me, you prefer poetry to be a warm and welcoming embrace, rather than something that keeps you at arms length, then you could do a lot worse than to pick up a copy of Susan Austin’s Undertow.

These poems don’t wear gaudy colours or shout from the rooftops to be noticed. Nor do they attempt to confuse, or baffle. These poems hold the door wide and welcome you in. There is something for everyone in this collection.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Jeremy C. Shipp

Jeremy C. Shipp is the Bram Stoker Award-nominated author of Cursed, Vacation, and Sheep and Wolves. His shorter tales have appeared or are forthcoming in over 60 publications, the likes of Cemetery Dance, ChiZine, Apex Magazine, Withersin, and Shroud Magazine. Jeremy enjoys living in Southern California in a moderately haunted Victorian farmhouse called Rose Cottage. He lives there with a couple of pygmy tigers and a legion of yard gnomes. The gnomes like him. The clowns living in his attic–not so much.

You write what's known as 'bizarro' fiction.

~ What is it?
  I see bizarro as a category for stories that can't be categorized. This is paradoxical, but that's not a problem. Bizarro fiction eats paradoxes for breakfast.

~ Who else writes it?

All sorts of people, penguins, and robotic parsnips.

~ Is it as fun to write as it sounds?
Writing bizarro fiction is as fun as riding on a woolly mammoth through a forest while snacking on magic apples.
How many books per year do you read?
I read at least 50 books a year. If I don't read at least 50, the coconut monkeys in my office will come alive and go on a rampage. And that's never a good thing.

How do you choose what to read next?

Ordinarily, I leave my reading decisions to the tiny raccoon who lives under my top hat. But when he's out of ideas, I'll read books that my friends recommend. Or I'll read random novels from the library.
What are you reading now?
The Neverending Story. A Clash of Kings. The Mists of Avalon.
I read that you and your wife ran a pet-sitting business. Do you have any pets of your own?

I have two cats: Lattis and Oliver. Lattis enjoys terrorizing crickets, sniffing ankles, and staring at light bulbs. Oliver enjoys eating with his paw, plopping over on his side, and stealing my seat. And I also have a tiny raccoon who lives under my top hat.

Name five of the best magazines currently accepting unsolicited bizarro short stories.

The magazine of bizarro fiction, the magazine of bizarro fiction, the magazine of bizarro fiction, the magazine of bizarro fiction, the magazine of bizarro fiction.

What was it like to be nominated for a Bram Stoker Award?

Getting the nomination was like hugging a sloth. I love sloths.

You're a big fan of kindle and ebooks in general.

Getting the nomination was like hugging a sloth. I love sloths.

You’re a big fan of kindle and ebooks in general. Do you still believe in traditional publishing?
I like ebooks, print books, films, plays, shadow puppets, etc. As long as my stories are reaching my readers, I'm happy. The world of publishing is ever-changing, and survival is a matter of talent and adaptation.

Who publishes the print editions of your books?

Some of my print publishers include Raw Dog Screaming Press, Evil Jester Press, and Redrum Horror.

~ Are they available in stores or only online?

Some of my print books are available in stores and libraries and magic forests.

As a storyteller, what do you hope people will 'get' from reading your stories?

I want them to look into the funhouse mirrors and see truth in twisted and grotesque reflections.

What are you working on at the moment?
I have a book of horror stories coming out soon called Monstrosities. And I'm editing a new fiction anthology that will be published by Evil Jester Press. I have a few other projects in the works, but I can't say more about them yet.

If there was a message you could leave the world, what would it be?
Never insult a demon's mustache.

What would you like written on your headstone?

Here lies the body of Jeremy Shipp.
He ate a magic apple and choked on a pip.

PS: Yard gnomes. Attic clowns. Dragon. Please explain.
Yard gnomes wear neat hats. Attic clowns live in my attic and torment me every chance they get. In Jeremyland, 'dragon' means awesome.
Peanut butter and watermelon sandwiches? Really??
According to legend, my grandfather invented the pb&w sandwich many years ago. They're the best sandwiches ever, even tastier than smurf brain subs.

Find out more about Jeremy here.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Review - The Midnight Dress

This book broke my heart.

The Midnight Dress is a story about many things – friendship, loss, secrets, betrayal – but most of all, love. The writing is emotive, evocative, atmospheric. I couldn’t read Rose’s story with half my attention on what I would say later in this review. I couldn’t help but become fully immersed in the world of the story.

This is the story of a motherless girl (Rose Lovell) and a fatherless girl (Pearl Kelly) who meet when Rose’s drifter father Patrick decides to stop in a small Northern Queensland town. Rose is, at first, reluctant to attend school. She is also reluctant to become friends with Pearl – a friendship that begins pessimistically, based on a snap decision Rose makes on the first day she attends Lenora High.

“Geography or French?” asks Pearl. “French,” says Rose. Pearl even asks Rose later in the book – “What if you had chosen Geography?”

It’s sugarcane country, and the annual Harvest Parade (something else Rose would much rather avoid) is the celebration that the story builds towards. However, as the reader, you know in advance that this won’t be all celebration, as right from the beginning you are privy to pieces of the later parts of this story. The tragedy that unfolds alongside the more hopeful story of Rose and Pearl’s growing friendship has your mind already searching the text for the clues that will solve the crime.

I was amazed by how well the unusual structure of this story worked. At first I found it a little odd that so much of what’s to come is divulged to the reader at the beginning of each chapter. Half to a few pages of italicized text that clearly begins somewhere near the end and outcome of the story, creating tension, building backwards chapter by chapter, until it meets up with the forward story and propels you towards an ending that has become inevitable.

The first sentence of the first chapter is “Will you forgive me if I tell you the ending?”

These chapter prologues (for want of a better description) are told from the POV of the all-seeing, all-knowing omnipotent narrator – in this case the author herself. Author intrusion doesn’t usually work, but for this story, even though – or more likely because – the structure is so unique, it works. Even so, at one point early on I wondered if I should skip them and just read the story through to the end. I wondered if that was a choice the author intended by structuring the novel in this way. I wondered if it would make a difference to the reading experience.

The other star of this story is Edie. The girls all need dresses for the Harvest Parade. Most girls travel into the city to get their gowns, in the hope of being chosen to be one of seven Harvest Princesses, but Rose has neither the money nor the inclination. She is told of a local dressmaker who may be able to help her with her dress. This is Edie, an elderly woman living a lonely life as an outcast – someone to be whispered about in the streets by the locals. Edie is different and we all know that society is intolerant and suspicious of difference, and these feelings are even more pronounced in a small town setting.

Edie’s history – a love story of sorts – is woven through the narrative during Rose’s visits. The making, by hand, of the Midnight Dress becomes a kind of meditative therapy. Edie becomes ‘mentor’, and Rose changes – becomes smoother, less sharp-edged – as the dress takes shape. Edie lives in squalor, yet seems happy surrounded by her ‘things’. She feels safe with the mountains and rainforest at her back. This is her home – however dysfunctional. She has grown roots here.

Edie’s house became, for me, a character in its own right. It was a living, breathing thing that I could picture in my mind as though I was right there looking at it, walking through it – which would be difficult with all of Edie’s things cluttering it up. The quality of the description of this relic of a house only proves how fully the author imagined it – with all of her senses. Edie tells Rose of the ‘spell’ the rainforest cast over herself and her mother; the same spell that Rose inevitably falls under. The same type of spell is cast by this author.

Foxlee masterfully gathers the threads of her story together to give the reader an ending that may not be unexpected yet is still extremely satisfying. Rose loved words – collected them in her green notebook. Foxlee loves words and has a knack for using the perfect one. I gave The Midnight Dress 5 stars on ‘Goodreads’ and I believe it deserves every one of those stars. I highly recommend this book.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Josephine Rowe - Author Interview

Josephine Rowe is a Melbourne based writer of fiction, poetry and non-fiction. Her recent work appears in Best Australian Stories, Best Australian Poems, Meanjin, The Iowa Review and Harvard Review. She is the author of short story collections How a Moth Becomes a Boat (Hunter Publishers, 2010) and Tarcutta Wake (UQP, 2012).

Is writing in the short-form something you plan or is it more organic than that? Is there a reason for the brevity? Can you describe your process for me?

A lot of my fiction is poetically-influenced, and in some ways my methodology for fiction writing—the polishing of fragments, the assembling followed by the endless paring back—is not dissimilar to the way I construct poetry. But I’d consider myself as a fiction writer foremost, whereas poems for me are mysterious creatures that come largely unbidden, and I might only write a handful of them a year.

That fragmentary element is a constant, whatever form I’m working in (non-fic included), but beyond that, the processes differ depending on the piece. Within my shorter stories, or those strange beasts that exist in the space between poetry and fiction, it’s what I call ‘cold drip’ writing; a slow filtration process where the end result is very dense, very sensory; ‘overfull’ (‘Atlantic City’ might be a good example).

More recently I’ve been writing longer stories (long for me is a few thousand words), and I think that in part, the length corresponds to how deeply the story is rooted in a particular landscape (‘TarcuttaWake’, for instance). Something about that geographical grounding invites sprawling. I’m thinking of the root systems of trees here, their relationship to the canopy.

As for brevity, I’ll be honest and say I don’t know the reason for it beyond instinct. Perhaps it can be narrowed down to two basic things: a dislike of waste, and a dislike of condescension—I can’t stand fiction that overexplains.

Raw. Honest. Exquisite. Emotional heart. I’ve read your work and in my opinion these are all accurate descriptions. When you sit down to write are you writing for yourself, for the sake of the story, or do you have an audience in mind? Do you have an ‘ideal’ reader?

‘For the sake of the story’—that’s wonderful, I haven’t been given that option before! For the sake of the story, always. A question that’s often asked is ‘what should a good short story do?’, and I don’t believe there is a form-specific function, or if there is, it’s so broad as to be meaningless (to entertain, to move, etc., etc.). The beauty of the short story as a form is how open and adaptable it is, and I think readers are more willing to go into unfamiliar territory—be it stylistically, linguistically or thematically unfamiliar—purely because of that brevity. Look at Eudora Welty’s ‘Where Is the Voice Coming From’, which is an incredibly brave and troubling story told from the p.o.v of a thoroughly reprehensible ‘other’. No way would you want to spend a whole novel with that narrator, but to spend those few pages with him, that’s manageable. 

In regards to readers, I’m mindful of ‘a’ reader, that the story has to be communicable. But no, I don’t have a particular audience in mind when I write, nor an ideal reader.

Do you ever suffer self-doubt? How do you deal with/push through it?

My self-doubt is highly-evolved, and has the astonishing ability to adapt to any environment. Did I say the right thing? Do I actually take X up on her invitation to drinks/dinner/etc., or was she just being polite? Is this the right brand of tumeric to buy? It’s a running joke, old enough to be funny despite the real and measurable setbacks.

When it comes to writing, it is certainly the biggest inhibitor. A bad morning or a bad day is small change; I might try to shake myself out of it with a walk, a phonecall to a friend or a visit to a gallery. Or I’ll put on some music or the radio and try to do boring admin things, so at least something productive gets done (again, that dislike of waste—what was it that Hemingway said about wasted days?)

But sometimes that doubt proves unshakeable, and it might settle in for a week or even months. I’m getting a little better at riding those dry spells out. They used to terrify me; I thought I’d never write another good thing. But the older I get—well, ha, I’m twenty-eight but please humour me—the older I get the more time I feel I have, the more time I feel I can and should take, and any urgency comes from outside; from deadlines, commissions and such. I sometimes see those unproductive periods as almost a sub-conscious intervention, a kind of opening up to let the rest of life in.

Do you think there is still a market for short stories? Give your reasons.

Are we talking about the Australian market or the global market? We do seem to have it a bit trickier here. I certainly think the short story is still valued in Australia, but ‘short story market’ is something of an oxymoron. Nobody puts out a short story collection in response to the demands of the market—rather, the market demands to know why you aren’t writing a novel. But short stories are still being written and published and read, and will continue to be written and published and read. I do two of those things avidly, and I’d do all three if I had the funds. My advice is to ignore the market and write for the love of it. Let the marketing folks worry about the market.

What are your thoughts on the publishing industry at this time? Indie vs Mainstream? Paper book vs ebook?

I haven’t known the publishing industry at any other time, so I don’t have the strongest grounds for comparison, beyond what I’ve read and what I know from older writers and artists. But I get the sense that the same crises are on something of a rotating roster—the novel has been dying for decades. There has never and will never be a market for short stories. There has always been a treacherous smoking chasm between industry standards of pay and actual pay*, so why don’t we all just burn our manuscripts and take up law?

As mentioned in the last question, I don’t think all that much about markets and the state of the industry (which can’t be all that miserable if million dollar book deals are becoming passé). I just write as well as I can, and try to maintain some perspective—nine years of writing, that’s an eyelash. I plan on sticking around long enough to be painfully embarrassed by everything I’m writing now.

Recently, I came across a quote from Dorothy Hewett in a 1998 interview with Overland: “…there will always be little presses, I believe this. There will always be people who believe in us, in creativity, who set up with virtually no money and just enthusiasm and idealism, to get out books.” That’s still very much the case, fifteen years on.

I don’t see paper books as being in competition with ebooks; the two are simply different platforms for the same content, both with their own limitations and possibilities. I am a paper book buyer and borrower, and imagine I always will be. But I appreciate that ebooks allow for greater accessibility, so I’m not going to launch bottle rockets into the e-camp. It doesn’t have to be an either or.

Name the last five collections you have read. Which was your favourite and why?

Alice Munro The Love of a Good Woman
Ali Smith Free Love
Stephanie Vaughn Sweet Talk
George Saunders Tenth of December
Chris Somerville We Are Not the Same Anymore

Let me clarify/fess up by saying that these are the five collections I am currently jumping between. It’s rare that I’ll read a short story collection straight through, unless it’s for review, or it’s my sole companion on a long-haul flight, or I have to give it back to someone very quickly. All the abovementioned authors are wonderful, but George Saunders… I think anyone who has read or is reading Tenth of December will appreciate my hesitation to talk too much about him here, lest I gush. So I’ll just say that this is the best collection I’ve read since Alistair MacLeod’s Island, and that it is nothing at all like Island, except inasmuch as both works show astounding generosity and humanity, even when dealing in the devastating and the mediocre.

*actually, if there was less of a treacherous smoking chasm between industry rates and actual rates of pay for writers, that would be great. Jennifer Mills has a great post about it here.

Learn more about Josephine here.