Sunday, August 14, 2016

Review - Silence is Goldfish

Silence is Goldfish by award-winning novelist - Annabel Pitcher, author of - My Sister lives on the Mantelpiece & Ketchup Clouds.

Fifteen year old Tess accidently discovers that her Dad Jack is not, in fact, her Dad. She was conceived with donor sperm and Jack’s honest account of his feelings at the moment of her birth leave a lot to be desired.

Tess is a fat girl, bullied by the most popular girl at school, Anna. Tess’s best friend is Isabel is a quirky Tolkien fan who is rarely serious about anything. Tess is quite immature I think, but that can be common for teens with low self-esteem. Rather than confront her ’dad’ about her discovery or speak to her mother about it, Tess takes a stand in a selfish way that affects all of her relationships. In some ways I think she is rather self-indulgent and melodramatic, but then I try to put myself in her shoes. She is shocked. She is hurt. She is confused. She has only one friend, who seems unable to be serious for long enough for Tess to confide in her, so she has to deal with this all on her own, whilst being bullied and ostracised. Those teen years can be rough.

She shuts down, shuts off. Selective mutism. An extreme effect of the shock of finding out the secret. A plastic torch in the shape of a goldfish becomes a ’security blanket’ item for her.

Many fifteen year olds have probably felt the urge to run away and find a different family, a new - better - nicer - mum or dad. Tess is looking at every blonde-haired male of the large-boned variety to see if their eyes are brown, meaning they could possibly be her father, after discovering the six-hundred and seventeen secret words Jack has typed into a file called DCNETWORK on his computer.

The age-old “who am I” question features large. Who am I, and where do I fit in, is a question many teenagers face in the search for their identity, within and outside of their families. The journey from child to adult is not measured in years alone. There is no magic time span to calculate it. Adulthood is not achieved like a level-up in a computer game, a pre-destined, pre-determined path to reach a certain point and win a prize. Let’s face it, if adulthood is the prize, many of us would feel pretty ripped-off. The maturity and self-awareness that marks us as adults, takes longer for some than it does for others. This transition is painful. For Tess, the pain factor shoots through the roof and her mind becomes obsessed with the fact that Jack isn’t her father, and that a substitute teacher might be.

Tess is a girl striving for authenticity, but it’s hard to be your authentic self when you’re not sure who you are. She’s lost her sense of belonging, and in her search for it she becomes obsessed with the relief Math teacher Mr Richardson, but he has secrets of his own. The only person left in her word that she trusts is her Gran, and she worries that her parents are going to put her into care.

This story proves the idea that people never say what they mean. This is true of the adults in Tess’s life, especially Jack and the neighbour Andrew. They exchange what might seem like morning pleasantries between neighbours, but are more about what isn’t said, and are rather passive-aggressive. Tess’s parents have been trying to push her to fit in. But is ’this’ what fitting in looks like?

Jack tries too hard. He signs her up for things ’he’ did in high school, like theatre and dance. He is trying to make her be like him because she is clearly ’not’ like him, which only reminds him that she is not his trueborn daughter.

Tess’s voice carries the story even though she is mute for the better part of the book. Her interior dialogue and ’conversations’ with Mr Goldfish carry the story forward towards its climax. My favourite Tess-ism is “...and that’s a hard fact sitting in my brain, giving me acid indigestion of the mind...”

I found Silence is Goldfish to be compulsively readable, due more to the writing style than the story itself, which did drag at times and seem somewhat repetitive.

It’s a quick read. The writing style is chatty from the first person POV. Being mute, being silent, changes Tess. She becomes stronger, braver, if a little crazy with her back and forth discussions with Mr Goldfish, the kids torch she bought on the night she meant to run away. Tess is a likable character, introverted and a little nutty but kind-hearted. She learns a lot about listening while she is mute. Adults become a little too free around her. She is either forgotten or taken advantage of. Either way she learns a lot about adult relationships and secrets. She finds an unexpected ally along the way. Tess’s safe, insulated, world is turned on it’s head by a secret that is not run of the mill for a story like this; but like most teenagers going through the angst of family drama, and school, and friends, her world rights itself in a way that is realistic and ultimately a satisfying conclusion. I enjoyed it.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Review - The Sky So Heavy

The Sky So Heavy by Claire Zorn. UQP. 2013

‘You never know how strong you are until being strong is the only choice you have.’

This is the story of seventeen-year-old Fin and his twelve-year-old brother Max, a nuclear ‘accident’ and the events that follow. Written by an Australian author, set in an Australian landscape – The Blue Mountains – this is a dystopian survival story that piqued my interest from the start.

Zorn is quick to establish her characters ‘normal’ world – school, friends, crushes, and home life – before dropping them into a survival situation. Nuclear winter. These boys must quickly learn to fend for themselves without the aid of adults. Their parents are absent and it is soon apparent that the adults remaining cannot be relied on to behave in the usual way. Even the police can’t be trusted.

Tragedy and disaster have a way of bringing out the best and the worst in people. There are two ways people commonly react, they can become selfish, fearing only for themselves and their own situation, or they can become selfless, banding together to help those in need.

‘The true measure of a man is how he behaves when no one is watching.’

Take Starvos, the local shop owner, for instance. At first he is only concerned with how much money he can make. He makes a show of caring about everyone in the community by limiting the number of items people can buy at any time, yet he immediately doubles his prices. Later, with no idea how long the current situation will continue and concerned only for himself, he closes his shop, hides the food out of sight and is prepared to kill to protect it.

The tension builds steadily as the food runs out and people become desperate, but after reading more than 100 pages I began to wish something new would happen. There wasn’t enough action and the same goals and obstacles were repeating themselves. Thankfully, it wasn’t long before the story shifted. Along with Lucy, Fin’s crush, and a boy from their school, Fin and Max finally leave the mountains and head for Sydney in search of their mother, who incidentally works for the government.

Survival of the fittest.
Dog eat dog.
Every man for himself.
Us and them.

These are the clichés and themes that filled my mind while reading The Sky So Heavy. The idea that some people are more deserving of life than others, more worthy of being saved and protected, is the refugee situation at its core. I’d be blind not to see the parallels between this fictional story and the plight of those seeking Asylum on our own shores. Zorn shines a light on Australia’s Asylum Seeker situation and the way fear and greed and misinformation can be used to support the ‘us and them’ mentality. Inhumanity.

This is our Country.
These are our resources.
You don’t deserve them.
You are not one of us.

Segregation is not a new concept in society, but the divide between the haves and the have-nots has never been more obvious. The outsider, the old, the sick, the young, the disabled, the injured – who is useful, and therefore worth saving, worth spending money (resources) on, and who is not, is reminiscent of Nazi Germany.

Zorn undertakes an unflinching dissection of human behavior under extreme conditions. People either keep their humanity in the face of incredible challenges, or they lose it, and in doing so lose themselves. It’s these near-future potentially possible scenarios that frighten us most I believe, simply because they are believable. The likelihood of them happening within our lifetimes is real. And that is terrifying.

In a world, fictional or otherwise, where money no longer has power, it is those who control the giving or withholding of our basic human needs, such as food, water, shelter and safety, who hold the balance of power. How willingly they reject those in need reveals all.

It’s a harsh world, cruel at times.

It’s been said that ‘truth is stranger than fiction’, but it’s also been said that ‘fiction shines a light on the truth’. Zorn has positioned her spotlight well.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Finding my Focus or Being Creative is Hard!

Hi, my name’s Lisa and I am a art/craft/aholic. My entire life I have been drawn to all things artistic. Singing, acting, drawing, painting, crafting, playing music, writing, creating, designing... Lots and lots of things ending in ing. I can’t help it. It’s who I am. As my childhood came to a sudden and dramatic end at the age of sixteen and I had to enter the grown-up world of working to pay for grown-up things like food and rent, I had to give up on that creative side of me. There wasn’t time for artsy-fartsy stuff. I didn’t have the room or the funds. I had to make money and be responsible. Looking back, I’m not sure how I coped without art in my life, except to say I took up a well-used adult coping mechanism, drinking. Hmmm.

Anyway, here I am hundreds of years later (okay, thirty-ish), with the kiddies all grown up and not needing Mum so much, and I have time to do all the things again! It doesn’t hurt being able to afford to buy all the wonderful supplies for doing the things either, I tell you, but I have come up against a bit of a problem of late. Too many strings! I have more strings to my bow than the entire string section of the orchestra. Okay, slight exaggeration, but not by much. 

I have time, but I don’t have endless, unlimited time. I have money, but again, not endless or unlimited. I am lucky. I know how lucky I am. I have a room in my house (thanks for leaving home kiddies) dedicated solely to me for whatever purposes I wish to use it for. It is sometimes referred to as the art room, sometimes the craft room. This room is, a)well organised, b)well stocked, c)has natural light, d)is comfortable all year round. 

So what’s the problem? you may cry, especially those arty-crafty people out there, wishing this was their room. TOO MANY STRINGS! I apologise for yelling, but to give you an idea of what’s going on in this mythical place of creativity, this creation hub, I’ll make a list.

- art journalling
- painting
- drawing 
- collage
- stencilling
- stamping
- stamp carving
- monoprinting
- scrapbooking
- card making
- mixed media
- fashion design
- refashioning
- sewing
- jewelry design
- jewelry making
- sculpting
- writing

Sometimes I can’t sleep at night because my brain is buzzing with ideas for the next thing I’m going to create. I have idea after idea and I beging to think I can do everything, and maybe I can - except I can’t - because time is not infinite. Sometimes I avoid my wonderful room because chosing what to do stresses me out, which defeats the purpose of having this space in the first place. I wonder if other creative people struggle as much as I do to pick just one or two outlets for their creative ideas. To work on one or two projects at a time and ignore all the other things they could be doing. Or is it just me?

Anyway, in keeping with this blog being mostly about books, here are some of the most inspiring art books I’ve read over the last year or so.

Drawing & Painting Beautiful Faces - Jane Davenport
The Art of Whimsical Lettering - Joanne Sharpe
Brave Intuitive Painting - Flora S. Bowley
Adventures in Mixed Media Art - Amy O. Jones
Mixed Media Revolution - Darlene Olivia McElroy
The Complete Guide to Altered Imagery - Karen Michel
The Cloth Paper Scissors Book - Barbara Delaney
Taking Flight - Kelly Rae Roberts

As with all subject-specific books, the more you read, the more they begin to blend into one another. Take your fill, but when you begin to feel like you've heard it all before, know that it's time to stop. And if you find the secret for staying focussed on one project at a time, please let me know.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Review - Llewellyn's Magical Sampler

Delve into the brilliant minds of the most popular magical writers and discover powerful tips, techniques, and lore for important esoteric topics. With more than seventy articles organized according to the four elements, this book is an indispensable collection of magical ideas for casual magic users and aficionados alike. - From the back cover

This book is exactly what its title says it is - a 'Magical Sampler'. 

Llewellyn have long been associated with all things esoteric, and in this title they have brought together a sampling of the very best articles from their publication, the Magical Almanac. These selections were made from a twenty-five year history of the Almanac. The big names of the magical arts are here - Raymond Buckland, Scott Cunningham, and Silver Ravenwolf, along with lesser-known writers on the subject.

The contents are divided into four sections - Earth. Air. Fire. Water. - and include articles on divination and meditation, health and healing, and personal power, to name just a few. You will find instruction for simple rituals, spells, natural remedies, various types of divination, and even recipes. You will learn how to cleanse your environment and your body, and protect your home. There are also articles exploring history and superstitions. 

Dip in and out as you please. Each article is short (nothing over ten pages), specific and focussed. Whether you call it witchcraft, paganism or spiritual practice, this book is a wealth of knowledge, presented in an engaging way, making it a good introduction to the mind, body, spirit work of the modern practitioner, or an entertaining read for those who are merely curious.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Review - The Best Australian Stories 2014

2014 was a great year for stories.

The Best Australian Stories 2014, edited by Amanda Lohrey, is my favourite in this series to date. I look forward to the release of these anthologies each year. They are one of my annual must-reads; the other being the poetry anthology by the same publishers, Black Inc. 

I don’t remember ever reading an anthology that gripped me as tightly as this one did. I loved every story. Every story. There are twenty-three of them in this marvellous book, written by a variety of talented Australian writers, or should I call them storytellers? There are no weak stories in this collection. Each is strong enough to hold its own beside the others. Of the twenty-three stories, thirteen of them had been previously published in some of Australia’s best literary journals, including Meanjin, Overland, Island and The Sleepers Almanac.

These stories are vividly imagined, with an emotional depth that is sometimes lacking in the form. The characters are complex, both harsh and vulnerable, confident and confused. There is a sense of loss and sadness throughout many of the stories, but overall you don’t mourn these characters. They are living life, every gritty, messy, real moment of it.

My favourites were too many to list in detail here. As I said, I loved every story, but there were a few in particular I’d like to mention. Blood and Bone by Lisa Jacobson, a simple story of a son called back from the city to the family farm to carry out a task his father is unable to perform. A story I would suggest you do not read on the train or in the lunchroom at work. The Panther by David Brooks, a fantastical tale that mirrors an urban myth many country Victorians have heard, but also a tale about faith and trust. Something Special, Something Rare by Rebekah Clarkson, where a boy constantly in trouble becomes the catalyst for the reimagining of a family.

I love anthologies. It’s a chance for a reader to sample an array of writers they may never have come across individually. Being able to dip in and out at random is the fun part. I’ll often begin with the shortest tales, checking the page numbers to determine which story to read next. In this way I move through the collection both forward and backwards. Having been on an editorial team for an anthology, I understand that Lohrey would have careful chosen the order of stories so apologies to her, but I think half the fun of reading collections like these is the freedom you feel in making these decisions for yourself. Lohrey did such a wonderful job of chosing what to include that it mattered not, at least to me, in what order the stories were consumed. Each course was a tasty delight to the senses. 

If you are looking for your next read, you can’t go wrong here.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Review - Blogging for Writers

Is ironic the correct term for me writing a review on my blog about a book called 'Blogging for Writers'? I don't know. It kind of seems that way. Especially when I am returning to blogging after a long hiatus. Hmmm... Maybe it's just a coincidence.

Blogging for Writers by Robin Houghton is exactly as the title would have you believe, a book on blogging, aimed at writers. The subtitle catagorises it even further - how authors & writers build successful blogs. However, I would argue that this book provides useful information within its pages for a far broader readership. It is filled with basic 'how-to' information for creating your first blog on two of the most well known blogging platforms, Blogger and WordPress. 

The scope of instruction provided ranges from a simple thing like naming your blog, to promoting it via other forms of social media, to monetising it and even selling it. I can't think of any reason a writer would sell their personal blog, after all, it is part of their online identity, their brand. This further supports my earlier idea that this book is useful for anyone wanting to start a blog, any kind of blog.

The chapters are sequential. (No, I don't mean by numbers.) Each builds on the last. There is no jumping forward into information that you haven't understood to that point. Everything makes sense. The information is set out in a visually pleasing way, and there are real blogs given as examples for the reader to check out. 

Screen shots of the blog platforms are included, with detailed information about the various tools used in creating, customising and posting to your blog. Houghton has given the reader over 170 pages of information and inspiration, including a glossary and resorces section. Even a novice could create a dynamic blog by using the information packed into these pages. 

You will learn the difference between a hosted and self-hosted blog. You will be shown how to use and modify a template, how to add images and video, plugins and widgets. Then there are the things that help people find your blog, like catagories, tags, metadata and search engines.

If some of those terms didn't make sense, and/or you really want to create your own blog, then this is the book for you. Check it out!

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Yes, I'm still here...

It's been over a year since I last posted! To tell you the truth, that year went by in a haze of family craziness, stress and drama. Life's like that sometimes, isn't it? Every year I try to start with a positive spin, that things will be better - because they can't get any worse, can they - wrong. The last few years have been a roller coaster ride. I normally love a good, scary roller coaster, but this has been more along the lines of a roller coaster in an abandoned theme park that you know is broken and you may or may not make it out alive... Oh, well. 

I've been doing a lot of reading, as usual, and not so much writing, which bums me out. I have taken up art journalling and have rediscovered my love of drawing. I am experimenting with mixed media and have fallen in love with watercolors, they are just so versatile. So while I may not be writing as much, I am still connecting with my creative self and finding time to do the things that give me joy.

I have every intention to recharge and revamp this blog with more author interviews and book reviews. I hope you'll be patient with me and stick around. I am in the process of setting up a special corner in my home for this purpose solely. I need to motivate myself every day. No one else can do this for me. 

So here I go. I will take that creative leap and hope for the best.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Review - When the Night Comes

I received an electronic review copy of When the Night Comes many months ago. Again, due to some personal issues, I have taken far too long to post my review, but here it is at last. Apologies to the Author and Publisher.

This is a story of friendship between a man and a girl. Bo is a cook on a ship called the 'Nella Dan' that travels between Tasmania and Antarctica, delivering supplies and crew to work at the station there. Isla and her brother have moved from the mainland to Tasmania with their mother, for a 'better' life.
It’s obvious there is a romantic relationship between Isla’s mother and Bo, but the real story focuses on the connection between Bo and Isla. Bo expands Isla’s life. Her view of the world is broadened simply by his presence, the stories he shares with her of his life and travels. He brings colour into an otherwise monotone world. It’s an easy intimacy that grows between them; the silences, the acceptance, a familiarity that would be expected between family members, or people who had known each other a very long time. 

The actual timeline of the story is brief - two summers. Not much appears to happen, yet for these two characters everything changes. Isla grows into adolescence - beginning grade 6 at the start of the book and finishing her first year at Secondary School by the end. This is a time of great change for someone of Isla’s age, and the influence of a man like Bo on her life, in the absence of a father, is profound. As the story ends Isla has been 'called by the sea', just as Bo was, just as his father was before him. The world has suddenly become large for Isla, and filled with possibilities.

When the Night Comes is not a plot-driven story. If you are looking for action and drama, then perhaps this book is not for you? The tension is understated. Emotion is the main focus. It is the story of a man and the effect he has on a young girl at her most impressionable. Parrett didn’t clutter her story with unnecessary characters; indeed, most of the secondary characters hover on the periphery. The characters she does focus on, however, are no cardboard cutouts. They are living, breathing, feeling human beings laid out on the page in a way that reminds the reader that the smallest happening can sometimes have the largest impact. 

The way the writer draws you in is so subtle that you don’t even notice it. I cared about these characters. I wanted them to be together, for Isla and her brother to have this father-figure in their lives, and yet the underlying sadness, the restlessness of the adults was such that I was not surprised at the ending. The writing is lyrical, soulful, real. The characters were filled with heart. Parett’s storytelling is gentle, yet masterful, with its ability to draw you in so deeply with very little going on.

It is said that everyone who enters your life is either there for a reason, a season, or a lifetime. Bo opened up the world for Isla. He helped her to dream big dreams and to be unafraid of following them. Isla helped Bo realise that he wanted to have a family of his own and to raise them where he was raised, share the traditions and experiences his father shared with him. 

The lives of these two characters were made better by simply knowing one another.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Review - Are You Seeing Me?

I was given an electronic review copy of this book many months ago. Unfortunately, due to some personal problems and lack of time-management or a concrete deadline, I have been remiss in not posting this review until now. Apologies to the Author and Publisher.
I was such a fan of Kindling that I was automatically interested in reading Are You Seeing Me? I was not disappointed. Groth has created a story with heart. Family is the main focus, but in particular, forgiveness.
Justine and Perry are twins. Unknown to Justine, their father has made previous arrangements for Perry, who has a disability, to move into assisted living when he reaches adulthood. Unfortunately their father dies just before the twins 18th birthday, leaving Justine to follow through on his plans, which she is reluctant to do. She takes Perry to America for a holiday when they are 19, with the secondary motive of having him ’meet’ their mother - who left when they were four years old. Justine doesn’t want Perry to move into 'Fair Go' and is trying to arrange an alternative future for him. Perry wants wants Justine to have a 'normal' life. He wants her to be happy. He thinks the only way she can be free, and live the full life he wants her to have, is for him to leave. He is especially trying to 'cope' with things that might happen on their trip because he is worried that Justine will use any problems he might have as an excuse to keep him with her.
The author's use of the twin's father’s letters and journal add an extra layer to this dual narrator story. This pertinent back story flows naturally into the fabric of the linear story without interrupting the narrative. The theme of independence is a big one. This is something most parents want for their children, something that sometimes seems impossible for children with disabilities. The truth is, though, that no one is ever truly independent. When faced with difficulty, we all need someone’s support, regardless of how capable we are to function in the world as independent adults. Regardless of our ability or inability to care for ourselves, regardless of diagnosis.
Perry has two special interests; earthquakes and mythological sea creatures. During their trip he predicts an earthquake and his prediction comes true. Justine is hurt during the earthquake. She isn’t breathing. Perry, rather than melting down in this high stress situation and failing to function, revives Justine using CPR and gets the help of a stranger to get her to the hospital. These are things he would normally have problems with, things Justine would never expect him to be able to deal with on his own, but he does. He even calls his Mum to let her know what has happened. He had earlier found out about Justine's plans and the Skype calls she has been having with their mother. Not surprisingly, Perry is able to recognise the feelings of overwhelm that his mother experienced when they were young, feelings that so 'disabled' her that she chose to leave her children.
Perry has far more self-awareness and empathy than those around him can understand. Though Justine says, on multiple occasions throughout the book, that he is capable, I’m unconvinced in her belief. She seems unaware of just how capable he can be until he is put to the test. Perry can be calculated and selfless, he can imagine lives and scenarios in the future and how they will differ without him being there, being a problem - his sister and her boyfriend for instance. If I was to criticise the book at all, it would be the spiel that Justine uses to explain her brother’s behaviour to strangers. I don’t particularly like the rote nature of it or how often and how quickly she jumps into it. Perhaps the writer wants the reader to be annoyed with her. I certainly was.
There is a difference with being independent and being interdependent. I learnt this while studying Disability Work. Independence suggests you do everything for yourself without the need for assistance. Interdependence is the skill of being able to ask for the help you need when you need it. I believe this is far more important. Perry proved he is capable of doing just that. He saved his sister’s life. She has to respect and admire him for that. He is not the ’little’ brother she’s always taken care of anymore, he’s much more than that. He’s a man.

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.'

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.