Jacob’s Room is Full of Books by Susan Hill

This is a book of (mostly) gentle anecdote as Susan Hill discusses books she is reading, and has read, the comings and goings of animals and birds around her house, and reflections on writers she has known (quite a lot of well-known ones such as J B Priestly, Iris Murdoch and Julian Barnes) – all set amidst the changing seasons. Of course she also reflects on her own writing and her writing life, quite amusingly about being pestered by school students to explain the meaning of ‘The Woman in Black’ which is a set text (it would never have crossed my mind to do this when I was a student but email is a double-edged sword). There is a sense of nostalgia but she is never sentimental and, to me, there is something very satisfying about an intelligent person just speaking her mind as though you are a long-standing friend who doesn’t require being pandered to.

Reviewed also at Goodreads

Big Issue Fiction Edition

Currently available from your friendly Big Issue vendor – The Fiction Edition 2017. This comes out once a year and is a best seller for The Big Issue and great for the writers involved (including yours truly this year) because it has a wide readership. As well as some ‘big names’ like Matthew Riley, Elliot Perlman and Toni Jordan, other writers are selected through a submission process – there are 14 stories in total. I got stuck into my copy, reading the other writers’ stories on the long commute home from the launch, and was totally absorbed. The short story is a really great way to fill in time this way. What a pity, then, they are not included regularly in magazines and newspaper as they were in the old days (I am always amazed when I read about the writing life of authors in the 50s, 60s and 70s and they seemed to have actually been able to make a living from selling short stories to these outlets). Now you have to submit to the rare anthology by people like the Margaret River Press, to competitions or to literary magazines – all of which have fairly small readerships.

Stories that stood out for me in this issue were Toni Jordan’s beautifully paced and atmospheric ‘Sound is a Pressure Wave’ (gorgeously spooky) and Nina Cullen’s acute and funny story about a mother and daughter trying to overcome misunderstandings while doing a meditation session together, called appropriately ‘Breathe’. I also liked Emily O’Grady’s ‘Blue India’ where your sympathy is first with the father/grandfather who visits his son’s family for Christmas from his care home, but as the story progresses your sympathy is tested. On a similar theme of aged care, Allison Browning writes a beautifully poignant story about one partner of an elderly gay couple having to make the awful decision on behalf of the other. Couples is also the theme of

Nina Cullen and me (r) with BI vendor.

Romy Ash’s story ‘I Bought These Dogs to Show Him How to Love’ where a young city couple encounter a rough-around-the-edges older couple who are selling their service station business to them ‘in the middle of fuck-off nowhere’. The young couple are maybe seeing their future in the bickering older two, but nah, they’re not like that. Understated and done mostly through dialogue, this is great short story craft.

The the Big Issue vendors will keep a few copies of the fiction edition to sell alongside with the usual editions over an ended period of time.

Top books 2015

A_Thousand_AcresIt’s probably a bit late in the day for this but here goes. Of course I loved all seven of the Harry Potters as I unabashedly admit here – they will always have a place in my heart. Nevertheless, my top read for 2015 was Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres. I had heard of this book, first published in 1991, so I bought a secondhand copy that, unfortunately had Michelle Pfeiffer and Jessica Lange in a schmaltzy embrace on the cover, so I put it aside (I seem to have missed ‘winner of the Pulitzer prize’ at the top). For some reason I picked it up early last year. I was sucked in to this muscular family saga immediately. She’s such a great writer – her characters might, at first glance, look like all-American mid-west people, but they are anything but – they seethe with ambition, jealously, violence, lust. With resonances of King Lear (a father who decides to leave the running of the rich family acreage to his three daughters) it zings with tension and betrayal. Smiley is Book-cover-Wildwriting a new family saga trilogy starting with Some Luck and Early Warning. They are big books so I’m leaving a bit of space before I tackle them.

My second favourite book for the year was Wild: Lost and Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed. Some readers might be put off by the ‘self-help’ implications of the title but this is an extremely cleverly-written book. Just how Strayed can make a story of walking by herself through the wilderness for a couple of months so compelling, to my way of thinking, is a masterclass in non-fiction writing. By the end, you’ve really gone on that body-breaking trip with her: she’s an everywoman of her time. I did cry when she came to the end of the trail and the story.

My top book for 2014

bright star window readMy New Years resolution as always is to watch less television and to read more books. There are very few television dramas, and even documentaries, for that matter, that can match the enjoyment, creativity and soul-uplifting moments of a good book. Yes, there’s Game of Thrones, I’ll give you that and I did like The Code and Homeland but the rest I can live without (I took objection to True Detectives).

So of the books read in 2014, which stood out? There are three that I loved and admired. The wonderful and gut-wrenching Nigerian saga Half of a Yellow Sun. This is one of those books you can just immerse yourself in confident the author knows her stuff and will take you into another world. You go along with the characters of the sisters Olanna and Kainene, and their torrid downfall from middle-class women to desperate refugees, but it is not depressing – the beauty of Nigeria, the hope of a new, fairer state and the interesting, complex characters make this such a rewarding book. After I’d finished reading it I felt an interest in Nigeria, the way you do when you visit a country, and then somehow feel you have a stake in it, so immersive, wide-ranging and detailed is this book.

My next standout was The Bees by Laline Paull. I so admire how Paull managed to make a fascinating and compelling drama out of life in a bee hive, yet she managed this brilliantly. From the first page we are right in there in the life of our heroine Flora 717. Like all good heroines Flora has something to hide so that she is the odd one out so that we see the hive, with its strict hierarchy, from an outsider’s point of view. The life of the hive is wonderfully realised, from the pheromones the Queen emits to keep all the bees compliant, to the tough ‘sages’ who protect the Queen, to the freedom felt by flora when she becomes a forager bee going outside the hive for the first time. Paull’s imaginative recreation is completely stunning.

But, I must say, my top book for 2014 was The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane. This is a small book in scope (the life of an elderly woman and the ‘carer’ who comes to look after her) but huge on control and nuance. I loved the pace of this book and how cleverly McFarlane spooled out the narrative. The novel is all about controlled point of view so that the mystery of who is telling the truth and what exactly is going on is kept in balance right until the end. I love this type of book because there can’t be one wrong note – it has to be as taut as a wire, and The Night Guest achieves that.

So the top three:

  • The Night Guest
  • Half of a Yellow Sun
  • The Bees

BTW – for those interested in the gender issue – 23 female authors read, 10 male. I guess I’m typical there.

The Great Unknown – review

The Great Unknown_edited by Angela Meyer

The problem with a lot of literary anthologies is that they are very diverse. This showcases a range of writing but most readers will only find a few stories in the collection that speak to them. Angela Meyer’s anthology of ghost/speculative/strange/uncanny stories circumvents this. If that’s the kind of writing you like, you can read The Great Unknown from cover to cover.

The writers in this collection were asked to take as a starting point the sort of eerie, otherworldly feel that the TV series ‘The Twilight Zone’ produced. As such, you know that these stories are not going to follow conventional trajectories.

Kathy Charles’ story Baby’s First Words starts off with an everyday situation. A dad is picking up his young child for an access visit. From the beginning Charles’ deftly builds up the tension between the mother and the father. The wife needs the husband to look after the daughter but she tries to keep him talking at the front door unsure about him. He gives one-word answers but the reader has access to his thoughts and he’s ranting and bitter. As he drives away with his daughter he fumes about how his wife thinks the child has learning difficulties because she can’t talk. The reader is fearful for the child but is it the child we should be worried about? I loved this story.

Krissy Kneen’s ‘The Sleepwalker’ deals with an annoying but benign problem—Emily and Brendan are grappling with Emily’s habit if sleepwalking. The easy, mundane relationship of the couple is counterpointed to the growing strangeness of Emily’s behaviour. She starts to take photographs when sleepwalking but Brendan laughs it off—the photos are mostly blank. Then Emily develops some more and they see something in them. From there the story only gets creepier.

Damon Young’s ‘Art’ is clever and scary but not in the way the reader initially believes. It blurs the line between the erotic in art and the response in the viewer. Ben’s excitement at the artworks he sees at an exhibition spills over to what he feels towards a girl he’s just met outside the gallery. As in Baby’s First Words, the reader is led to be so afraid for a particular character that we don’t see the blow when it comes.

Ryan O’Neill’s ‘Sticks and Stones’ starts with the wonderful trope of so many horror stories—finding an unusual book in a second-hand bookstore. Blackwood, a philology professor, takes home Ten Terrifying Tales but finds what’s written in the margins more interesting than the stories themselves. The ‘anonymous critic’ purports to know enough about black masses to suggest the description in the book is inaccurate. Blackwood is amused by this, until he turns around and sees a row of letters written across the blank wall behind him. After that the words come after him. This is a clever and satisfying mirror within mirror story.

P. M. Newton’s story ‘The Local’ also uses a horror/mystery staple—small (almost empty) pub in the country, the out-of-towners who come in for a drink, the strange stories, a mysterious figure who seems to know more than he should about bizarre weather phenomena, the people who don’t listen to the warnings. Newton builds a hot, fetid atmosphere effectively.

One of my favourites in the book is the beautiful story by Marion Halligan ‘Her Dress was a Pale Glimmer’. The setting for the story is a simple one—dinner in the garden of a restaurant with a father and his two grown-up daughters—but the description of the girls’ dresses, the beauty of the evening as they begin their meal, and the lusciousness of the food imbues the scene with a fairytale feel.

The sun was low in the sky, nearly setting, shining under the branches into [my father’s] eyes but he said it didn’t matter, it would be gone in a minute. It took longer than that but finally it went down behind the mountain with very little colour, the light became pearly grey and the candles winked in their little glasses.

The beauty is muted because they are sad. The mother has disappeared some time ago and they don’t know whether she is alive or dead. Then one daughter gets a cryptic, yet lovely, message on her phone and all eyes are on the empty chair at their table.

The achievement, and the satisfaction, of these stories is that they take the everyday, the quotidian, and slowly and relentlessly turn it into anything but.


True North – The Story of Mary and Elizabeth Durack

True_NorthTrue North by Brenda Niall is a joint biography of the writer Mary Durack (Kings in Grass Castles) and the painter and artist Elizabeth Durack. The north that is referred to in the title is the Kimberley region and the Durack cattle stations at Argyle and Ivanhoe carved out by their grandfather Patsy Durack in the 19th century. By the turn of the 20th century their father MPD Durack was running Argyle Downs and Mary and her older brother Reg spent time there when they were very young. However MPD thought his wife shouldn’t live in such rough conditions and he set her and the children up in a grand house in Perth while he remained for most of the year in the Kimberley.

The north, and the family history in the area, was a potent idea for the children, and they loved it when they could stay with their father on the stations (taking a steamer up from Perth to Wyndham). Two sons, Reg and Kim, fell under the spell so much that they tried, with varying degrees of success to make a go of it in the north. The stations, though, were not as lucrative as they once were and the family (once one of the top pastoralists) suffered straitened circumstances.

Mary and Elizabeth longed for the north and were averse to the Perth socialite scene, so when they left school they went to work on the stations as cooks and general help. It was only for two years, and the conditions were very primitive, but this time impressed itself indelibly on both women.

For Mary it would eventually prompt her to write her family’s history in Kings in Grass Castles and to write her children’s books about Aboriginal themes such as The Way of the Whirlwind. Elizabeth collaborated with Mary doing illustrations and covers and when Elizabeth struck out on her own as an artist the royalties from these joint projects kept her going.

The biography shows Mary to be the more considered and sociable of the two, and a ‘soft touch’. She had six children with an older man who chose to live in Broome for most of their married life while Mary remained in Perth, trying to write and raise the children. Elizabeth, by contrast, was more of a free spirit, acting rashly and repenting at leisure (she fell in love in the outback with an attractive but unstable man who’s wealth basically allowed him to drink himself to death). After the death of her first love she then fell for the bohemian writer Frank Clancy but Elizabeth was too much of a free spirit even for him, and the marriage failed leaving Elizabeth broke with two small children. She slowly built up a career as an artist but she was never really financially secure until much later in life.

By entwining the lives of the sisters, Brenda Niall is able to portray a picture of the whole family, and how the bonds of the sisters enriched their respective creative careers (lucky for Niall the sisters wrote prolific letters to each other). Niall also explores how encountering so potent an idea/experience when young can determine the direction of the rest of one’s life.

A Kingdom by the Sea – Nancy Phelan

Nancy Phelan was born in 1913 and wrote this memoir of her childhood at The Spit on Sydney Harbour in 1969. The book captures the enthusiasms, the excitements but also the discomforts and questionings of childhood and adolescence. But perhaps the strongest thread is her love for the beautiful setting of their house by the harbour, and summer days spent exploring and swimming. In the 1920s, this area of the North Shore on the harbour was semi-bushland. Nancy’s father was a keen sailor and much of Nancy’s time was spent on boats, where she and her siblings were expected to become expert sailors.

Nancy’s childhood was also populated by numerous aunts and uncles, many of them eccentric figures. Her mother’s sister was Louise Mack, Australia’s first female war correspondent, romance novelist and writer of books for girls. Her novel Teens (1897) figures sporadically in A Kingdom by the Sea and was obviously a favourite with Nancy and her sister Sheila (they could work out the thinly disguised portraits of their relatives). Another of her mother’s sisters was Amy, much more lovable than the mischievous Louise. Amy edited the women’s page of the Sydney Morning Herald for many years and wrote bushland stories for children.

Nancy’s childhood home was full of music with the children able to sing the scores of Mozart and Bach. Her mother missed out on the literary careers her sisters achieved but channelled her creativity into music. Both parents were eccentric in their ways. The father was a successful lawyer but, in the manner of the times, Nancy knew nothing of his work and indeed he didn’t bring it home, instead indulging in amateur inventions, sailing, reading and listening to music in his spare time.

Nancy also creates a loving but complex picture of her mother: sharp of wit, given to mockery of others, like her sisters, but also reserved and timid. Nancy gives the anecdote of going to the theatre with her mother and her Aunt Louise. Louise decides to sit in better seats belonging to someone else. Nancy’s mother doesn’t stand up to the usher and allows him to move them, to the utter scorn of Louise:

“I told you so!” Louise hissed white with rage as we trooped back the way we had come. “I told you not to ask! You should have just looked as though they were our seats!” Nor did the arrival of owners in any way lessen her fury.”

Nancy writes that she was singled out by Louise to be a writer early in the piece, and while her aunt was placing a burden on young shoulders, such encouragement did send Nancy out on a life of travel and adventure. She travelled extensively through the South Pacific and wrote about this in Atoll Holiday (1958). She also travelled through Turkey on her own and related this in Welcome the Wayfarer (1965). Her experience of post-war Japan appeared in Pillows of Grass  (1966).

But this was all in front of Nancy at the time of A Kingdom by the Sea. By the end of this memoir Nancy is on the brink of adulthood, and that cusp between the security of childhood and the opening up of the future is beautifully portrayed:

Months passed without a sense of time, golden days running together. Each morning I looked out on the glittering bay, the eternal dark form of the fisherman in his frail boat, each night fell asleep to the sound of water, whispering, washing the sand…

… though the sun shone, the bay glittered and living went on, I knew that childhood was over.

This is a lovingly remembered portrayal of childhood, funny and insightful, which captures the young Nancy’s paradoxical naivety and shrewdness. It is also one of the most effective portrayals of the beauty of Sydney Harbour in the 1920s. In one chapter the older Nancy, who is writing the memoir, goes back to try to find an aunt and uncle’s grand house and garden in Hunters Hill. There is, of course (and this is in the sixties) precious little left.

In the wilderness is a grove of Kitty’s camellias, high and covered with buds. It is astonishingly poignant that they should have escaped, gone on growing without her. Trying to get my bearings from here, from the pine, the ghost of the lawn, I stand wondering. Where was the house? If I could just find a trace, a tangible sign. Nothing. Only the adamant arch of the new Gladesville Bridge overhead, the crumbling stone embankments above the drive, which, in my childhood, were covered with moss and ferns.

This nostalgic regret, the modern reader feels at Nancy’s depiction of the lush wildness of a bygone harbour, and simple lifestyle of sun, bush, sea, music and literature.

Reviewed for Australian Women Writers Challenge

Disturbing and funny – Fay Weldon’s Chalcot Crescent

My first introduction to Fay Weldon was Puffball way back in 1980. We were well into second-wave feminism and Weldon’s witty take on exploitative relationships wrapped in elements of a sort of magic realism, had a great impact on me. But when I look at how much of Weldon’s prolific output I’ve actually read it over the years (that I can remember) it adds up to only six novels in all, including: The Life and Loves of a She Devil 1983, The Cloning of Joanna May 1990, Growing Rich 1992 and The Bulgari Connection 2001. Weldon has written over thirty books.

I thoroughly enjoyed Chalcot Crescent but it reminded me how strong Weldon’s voice is; she’s opinionated and she’s going to tell you exactly what she thinks. That’s probably why I can only read one or two of her novels every ten years. Her outspokenness has got her into trouble over the years – I recall she made some comments on immigration that caused a stir and, recently, she put the cat amongst the pigeons by saying women should pick up men’s socks. Her argument was probably that it’s not worth the effort of trying to get men to change their bad habits, but it’s not surprising the remarks were jumped on.

Luckily, Weldon has the vehicle of novels to convey her (more nuanced) ideas. The narrator of Chalcot Crescent, a dystopian novel set in a near future (2013) Britain, is an 80 year old woman, Frances, whose reminiscences closely resemble the life story of Weldon herself. I’m sure Weldon doesn’t give a toss whether we think the narrator is Weldon or not. In fact she has a lot of fun in the book playing with the idea of whether memory is reality, or whether a narrator’s version of things is truth or not. The book itself is a manuscript the narrator is compiling on her laptop for posterity consisting of revisiting things past, relating what’s currently happening, and ‘fictional’ accounts of things that might or might not be occurring in the lives of those around her. She’s housebound in her crumbling terrace, so she has no choice but to make these bits up.

Weldon also has a lot of fun portraying the ramifications of left-leaning ‘nanny state’ governments and the financial crisis, taken to the extreme. In her dystopia, Britain is running out of food and fuel, and a National Unity Government (NUG) is taking over every aspect of life, including providing a national meatloaf rumoured to be created in vats from stem cell-created flesh (which, Frances says, tastes remarkably good).

Holed up in her house with the electricity out and bailiffs at her door, Frances ponders her complicated past of lovers and children, plus what might or might not be going on with NUG. She has some inside knowledge because her son-in-law is high up in the National Institute for Food Excellence (NIFE). Yes, prior to joining NIFE he was a genetic researcher. And her grown-up grandchildren appear to be involved with Redpeace, a political offshoot of Greenpeace. The narrative is convoluted and the many stories of the family difficult to slot into place, but you go with it because Frances’ acerbic, ironic wit is so compelling. At 80, Weldon still has plenty to say about sexual and national politics and it’s well worth listening to.

Australian Women Writers Reading Challenge

I’m joining the Australian Women Writers 2012 Reading and Reviewing Challenge. A quick look at my reading for 2011 shows I read seven books by Australian women across several genres including the recommended The Three Miss Kings by Ada Cambridge, Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, and a book I had meant to read for years, Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock. There were also the guilty pleasure reads of Kate Morton’s The Distant Hours and Jesse Blackadder’s bloodthirsty historical thriller, The Raven’s Heart.

I’ll have to up the ante for this year so I’m committing to read 10 books by Australian women writers and to review at least four at Bookwoods (apparently this category of the challenge is a Franklin-fantastic).

I have wanted to reread Tirra Lirra by the River by Jessica Anderson for some time, so I’ll definitely do that. I’m also keen to read some more 19th century women writers. I’ve been intrigued for some time by, but have never read, Handfasted by Catherine Helen Spence, an early Australian speculative fiction work, so I hope to read that if I can find a copy. I’d also like to get in some contemporary writers: Kirsten Tranter’s The Legacy, has been on my ‘to read’ pile, as has Michelle de Kretser’s The Lost Dog. A recommendation on Waleed Aly’s ABC RN program, for Honey Brown’s The Good Daughter also interested me.

I’d definitely like to read some more women’s fantasy novels. We have top fantasy women writers here: Isobel Carmody, Glenda Larke, Fiona McIntosh, Traci Harding, Kim Wilkins, Kate Forsyth to name a few, so I’m spoilt for choice.

The eye or the ear?

I’m not really a devotee of audio books but having had Elizabeth Kostova’s long novel The Swan Thieves on my ‘to read’ shelf for over a year, and seeing the audio book was available, I thought, why not?

My experience of listening to this audio book has made me muse over the difference between reading and being read to.

I loved Elizabeth Kostova’s first book, the literary vampire novel The Historian so I expected to also love The Swan Thieves – but I didn’t. I thought the story was very slight for a lengthy book, it was painfully detailed, the main narrator, a psychologist called Marlow, was uninspiring and terribly middle-American, and the sections set in late 19th century France were unconvincing.

In Kostova’s favour is a wonderful eye for detail, an ability to construct a beautiful sentence and to write authentically about art.

In the end, having merely listened to the book, I was unsure whether my impatience and ambivalence was really about the book itself or about the reading. This particular audio book was read by five actors/readers representing the different narratorial voices in the novel. Did I really hate Marlow the character, or Marlow the actor? Were the French parts really as bad as I thought, or were the Americanised French accents what turned me off?

Ultimately I can’t unequivocally say the book was as weak as I think because I can’t ascribe it all to Kostova. It does make me think that, just as I look for a narratorial voice I like when I select a book I want to read, I should also check an audio book for a reader whose ‘take’ on the narrative is sympathetic to my own.