Pigface and Other Stories review

Like most anthologies, there is a great variety of stories here: realist and more fantastical, bush and city, sad and amusing. ‘Pigface’ by Andrew Roff (the winning story of the Margaret River short story prize), is a great piece of controlled prose, and unfolding tension. Kat is a ranger in an eco-resort; she knows she has a good job but the pushy guests she takes on a bush walk test her patience: she tells them about the plant pigface and a guest ‘stabbed a question at her-“Latin name?” Like a fork pointed across a dinner table’. Luckily, she knows the answer! Of course, tension builds and tempers flare as the walk goes on and I, for one, hoped one or two of the guests would get their just deserts.

In another story, ‘Living With Walruses’ by David Wright, a group of walruses inexplicably takes over the beach of a small coastal town. The locals love it (it brings tourists) but soon the smell and noise turn them against the creatures. It’s a quirky story about tolerance and cruelty, with a slight supernatural edge. I also loved ‘Setting Sail’ by Zoe Deleuil, a quiet story where a gentle encounter with a neighbour offers hope to a woman in a controlling marriage. ‘Descent’ by Fiona Robertson is a wonderfully tight, controlled story where the whole relationship between a father and his young son from a previous marriage is revealed in one bush walk up (and down) a mountain. The father is a great character – self-absorbed and obnoxious – and his relationship to his new wife and young daughter is acutely observed, as is the character of the teenage son (whose growing confidence in standing up to his father is the centre of the story).

In a more amusing vein, ‘Small Fish’ by Penny Gibson skewers a particular type of Aussie male – here seen on a fishing trip – although, in the end, the story is more poignant than harsh. I didn’t think I would feel empathy with any of these men but the author achieves this. I also enjoyed Tiffany Hastie’s ‘The Chopping Block’, a moving, beautifully-written story about a woman and her dog, and loneliness and resilience. An underlying sense of tension is built (and a certain amount of blood spilt!). ‘Habitat’ by Cassie Hamer is a clever piece of writing that covers a lot of issues on a small canvas – it, almost imperceptibly, builds up a sense of unease and angst in the everyday life of the main character.

Margaret River Short Story Competition

Congratulations to the winners of the Margaret River Press Short Story Competition 2018. I’m pleased to say my story ‘On Either Side’ was shortlisted and will appear in the anthology that comes out in June this year. Margaret River is a small press but has a good reputation for publishing interesting titles. Their yearly anthology of short stories is one of the few remaining ones that come out in book form (I can think of ‘Best Australian Stories’ and ‘Award Winning Australian Stories’ …). The complete list of shortlisters and winners is below.


  • Jessica ANDREATTA – Ring Pull Art
  • Judith BRIDGE – Foodies
  • Abigayle CARMODY – No Harm Done
  • Zoe DELEUIL – Setting Sail
  • Penny GIBSON – Small Fish
  • Ashley GOLDBERG – Soap
  • Cassie HAMER – Habitat  *Second Prize*
  • Tiffany HASTIE – The Chopping Block  *Southwest Prize*
  • Tee LINDEN – Bounds
  • Miranda LUBY – The Sea Dragon
  • Helen RICHARDSON – On Either Side  
  • Fiona ROBERTSON – Descent
  • Sue ROBERTSON – Le Micocoulier de Provence
  • Andrew ROFF – Pigface  *First Prize*
  • Kit SCRIVEN – The Fate of Angels
  • Warwick SPRAWSON – Cracked Head
  • David Thomas Henry WRIGHT – Living with Walruses

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.

My top book read in 2016

a-golden-ageMy criteria for top book is simply the book I loved the most. I guess that is the book that resonated the most, that moved me, that drew me in to an absorbing, interesting world, that had characters I wanted to spend time with. On the whole I don’t read a book unless I think I’m going to enjoy it. The only exception is our book group books which I’m obliged to read. Luckily this year they were all good and interesting in their own way: Ferrante’s ‘My Brilliant Friend’, Lily King’s wonderful ‘Euphoria’ (based on the life of Margaret Mead), Eggers’ spot-on Facebook/Google satire ‘The Circle’ and Imbolo Mbue’s flawed but fun migrant story ‘Behold the Dreamers’.

The first three are all honourable mentions as is Margret Atwood’s acute and wonderful ‘Stone Mattress’ (the book, a collection of stories, is uneven, though, but the title story is brilliant). Commendations also to Lucy Wood’s ‘Weathering’ – an atmospheric, moving and spooky tale set in a rain-drenched fenlands, and Atwood’s other wonderful and strange classic ‘Surfacing’ that somehow I had missed out on reading all these years – first published in 1972, if you can believe it. Joanne Harris’s ‘Gentlemen and Players’ was a satisfying, twisty thriller that I think they are making into a film.

But drum roll, or, more aptly, sit down quietly under a mango tree and sip a cup of Darjeeling – my favourite was ‘A Golden Age’ by Tahmima Anam. This wonderfully moving, sad and understated novel follows the lives of a mother Rehana and daughter Maya and son Sohail, at the time when Bangladesh was fighting for it’s independence from Pakistan. The novel captures you from the opening lines:

Dear Husband, I lost our children today …

How would she begin to tell him?

She got back into the rickshaw with the children … the graveyard was dotted with dusk mourners. They tossed flowers on the wet pelts of grass that grew over their loved ones. In the next row a man in a white cap cried into his hands. Beside him, an old woman clutched a spray of bokul.

Rehana held the round palms of her children.

‘Say goodbye to your father,’ she said, pointing to Iqbal’s grave.

The rest of the novel is Rehana’s explanation to her dead husband about what happened to her and their children. To get her children back from the court who has given custody to her wealthy brother in Lahore, Rehana scrounges money to build a house in her backyard that she rents out so that she can say she is financially independent. She is happy to be a widow cooking and having friends over and bringing up her children – feminist Maya and university radical Sohail. History, of course, steps in.

I’m conscious that this description would probably not draw anyone to read this book but, as with the best novels, it is not the plot: it is the atmosphere, the characters who get under your skin, the sense of the richness in human existence, shadowed by things none of us want to face.

I have Anam’s follow-up novel ‘The Good Muslim’ that follows Maya’s life to read this year.

  • For the stats. Five male writers out of 33 books. Two memoirs, one non-fiction, one classic, eleven fantasy or spec fiction, three crime, the rest general fiction. I will try to up the classics in 2017.



The Trouble With Flying – Review

BigTroubleWithFlyingFinalCoverwebRichards Rossiter and Susan Midalia (eds)

The Trouble With Flying is the third anthology published from winning entries to the Margaret River Short Story competition. As such, this handsomely-produced book, is an eclectic mix of stories from WA-based writers, and Australian writers, more broadly. There are many forms of trouble in this collection: the trouble with children, the trouble with parents and the elderly, the trouble with the bush and the city, the trouble with love, sex, sickness and death.  Most of the writers here have found fresh angles on their chosen themes, while others take us off on strange and new paths. What they all have in common is accomplished writing that engages and interests.

The title story, Ruth Wyer’s ‘The Trouble With Flying’ features odd-girl-out TAFE student Rita trying to fit in with her new classmates and forming an uneasy relationship with punk-music mad Milo. The fine line of Rita’s life—to fit in or to forever be a loner—is somehow linked to the fate of two birds; a panicked pigeon stuck in a TAFE corridor and a seagull on a beach. This is a moving, tone-perfect story.

Linda Brucesmith’s ‘Bedtime Story’ is another beautifully-pitched story about two young sisters, supposedly asleep, listening to their parents’ dinner party downstairs. The opening line, ‘Don’t dream about ghosts’—the admonishment of Caitie to her sister Poppy—sets up the unsettled tone. Brucesmith pits the limited knowledge of the girls, against the reader’s suspicions, to create a tension and a mystery. What Poppy sees through the bedroom window at the end of the story, may or may not answer the initial statement.

The anthology places two bushfire stories side by side—the ambitious but flawed ‘Firestick Farmer’ by Peter Curry and the gentler, more subtle ‘Butcher’s Creek’ by Mark Smith. The average person pitted against the ferocious unpredictability of fire is a trope in Australian fiction but Smith adds an extra dimension to build tension in his story of a city-slicker couple trying to make it in the bush. They are warned off by a local who used to own their property, but, as is often the case, the well-meaning newbies cross an invisible boundary and are made to pay for an older, harsher reality, not of their making.

Claire Aman’s ‘Zone of Confidence’ belies any tropes; it’s a beautifully-written character study of obsession. The narrator is riding her boyfriend’s motorbike up the Queensland coast, following him as he sails a boat to Cairns for a client. In Aman’s deft hands, we accept the narrator’s actions as reasonable and feel her growing anxiety for the boyfriend’s safety:

The clouds are unpleasant with their grey bellies. I suspect them all. They’re questing for a tiny boat, your brave little sail under a puffy sky. I push them away from the coast. I’ve hurt my throat shouting warnings to you about storms boiling up in the west, and now I’m like a dog without a bark.

The bike ride becomes harder and harder with a resolution that, when we see it, we realise is strangely appropriate.

‘Red Saffron’ by Isabelle Li also stands out for taking on new ground. It is an unusual, elegantly written piece that canvasses an array of ideas from food, to religion, to poetry, to infidelity. It is Li’s achievement that she can make her unsympathetic narrator so compelling and interesting. The character’s wit, keen observation and unflinching self-possession seduces the reader, as it will no doubt also seduce her next intended conquest.

In Rosie Barter’s ‘Grasping for the Moon’ we are back in familiar territory— older woman’s infatuation with a younger man—but the muscular writing and engaging main character juggling Buddhist philosophy and her own desires, make this an enjoyable and taut story. Take this scene where Martha sneaks into the room of her new housemate and finds him asleep naked:

She must not look; but she does. One second, five, ten, she does not know; but when a sudden impulse charges his body, jerks his head towards the wall and he rolls over from her gaze, she jumps. Hand on her thrumming heart she backs out of the room …

Stories about death and dying are hard to pull off. They tend to be overly sentimental, too oblique or they use the inherent emotional reverberation of the subject matter as the only point of tension. Melanie Kinsman’s ‘A Paper Woman’ avoids the pitfalls; while it is the story of a young woman with cancer, it is also about someone falling in love, who thought she never would. The narrator’s pragmatism and clear-eyed observations encourages you to go along with her willingly on her tough journey:

The first time you saw me naked, I was afraid. I had not warned you of the scar. I quivered before you in the room, raw and unclad, afraid of disgust and shock in your eyes. I was a paper woman, thin and flammable. Your gaze was a match.

While you could feel exploited, you never do with this story; it is moving and ultimately uplifting.

The elderly narrator in Kathy George’s ‘Walking the Dog’ isn’t at death’s door, but he’s getting there and he knows it. Concerned with the small things of life, he keeps his head down, making sure things tick over for as long as they can. As with the birds in ‘The Trouble With Flying’ it’s an animal that reflects and elucidates the character:

There’s a guest in the bathroom. A moth. It has large dark wings like a dinghy with sails. Becalmed, it sits on the cistern lid and watches the dribble of my slow pee. When I flick the light switch it bangs and crashes around as if it is blind. It will damage its wings if it’s not careful.

George gives a cleverly nuanced portrayal of the relationship between the narrator and his adult daughter, worried about him but still at the stage where she has to give him room to live his own life. When he makes a joke and she laughs he thinks, ‘It’s nice to know I can still be funny’. Like the moth in the bathroom he knows that his time is limited.

There is a lot of talented writing in The Trouble With Flying, some exceptional. The editors have thought carefully about the placement of stories and this enhances the reading experience. The breadth of the stories on offer means that diverse readers will find something of interest in this anthology to engage and stimulate.

This review is also on Goodreads.

The Long & the Short – Peaches by Dylan Thomas

A series analysing short stories

young-dogThis story comes from the autobiographical collection Portrait of an Artist as a Young Dog first published in 1940.

The story starts with the young narrator sitting on a cart in a laneway while Uncle Jim goes into a pub leaving the boy alone in the growing dark. As the lane gets darker, the men he has seen through the lighted window playing cards turn into grotesques:

… the swarthy man appeared as a giant in a cage surrounded by clouds, and the bald old man withered into a blank stump with a white face.

We have also seen a glimpse of ‘a pink tail curling out’ of a basket the boy’s uncle takes into the pub.

There are further scary intimations on the slow ride home, with Uncle Jim stopping outside a house and telling the young Dylan that ‘a hang man lived there’.

The only comforting things are Dylan’s own imaginings—‘A story I made up in the warm, safe island of my bed’, the steady clop of the mare drawing the wagon on: ‘the old broad patient nameless mare’, and running into his Aunt Annie’s arms when he arrives clutching his ‘grammar school cap’. This latter gives the clue that he is visiting the farm for holidays.

To Dylan’s over active imagination the farmyard in the dark is nightmarish:

The cobbles rang, and the black empty stables took up the ringing and hollowed it so that we drew up in a hollow circle of darkness and the mare was a hollow animal and nothing lived in the hollow house at the end of the yard but two sticks with faces scooped out of turnips.

The next day everything seems more normal, although it is apparent the farm is terribly rundown and life there threadbare, until we meet the unsettling cousin Gwilym. Gwilym is a young man studying for the church with a disquieting propensity to mix up sex and religion.

Dylan gets on reasonably well with Gwilym although his description of him suggests a critical distance: ‘a thin stick of a body and a spade-shaped face’, but when Gwilym uses an unused barn as a chapel and a cart as a pulpit, and preaches to Dylan, the boy goes along with it, letting his imagination run as it always does.

Thomas (the writer) has now set up the story. All is not well in the trope of child goes to farm for holiday. Uncle Jim, we suspect is a drunk (Dylan finds out from Gwilym that he is surreptitiously selling piglets for drink) and Thomas uses the wonderful predatory imagery of a fox to describe him: ‘Uncle Jim came in like the devil with a red face and a wet nose and trembling hairy hands’. Gwylim’s preoccupations are worrying, and, although Aunt Annie is well-meaning, she is downtrodden. Despite all this, Dylan is not threatened in reality—they are his relatives and he is accepted there—he is only threatened imaginatively, through his night fears and his overactive imagination.

At this point in the narrative Thomas introduces a new element. Into the world of Gorsehill Farm comes Dylan’s best friend from school, Jack Williams, dropped off by his wealthy mother to spend the holidays with Dylan, and here we also encounter the peaches of the title.

The peaches are in a can left over from Christmas and kept for a special occasion by Aunt Annie. Mrs Williams, of course, can’t wait to get away from the ‘good room’ with its dust and bedraggled stuffed fox and refuses the offer of the peaches. When she bends down to kiss her son goodbye he tells her she’s wearing perfume, a clue to why she’s dumping Jack at the farm for two weeks.

The boys start off in high spirits playing games and running around but when Dylan initiates Jack into the mock chapel in the barn things go awry. Gwylim tries to get the boys to confess their sins, and Dylan goes through a litany of them in his head from stealing from his mother to beating a dog to make him roll over but, when pressed, can’t admit them:

‘Go on, confess’

‘I won’t! I won’t’

Jack began to cry. ‘I want to go home,’ he said.

Dylan has suffered a lack of imagination in being able to make up a sin and caused Jack to want to go home. Back in bed that night, however, the boys do confess to each other and then Dylan goes on to says he’s killed a man—his imagination running free again symbolised by the sound of a stream he thinks he can hear running next to the house.

But just as Jack’s fears are assuaged, Uncle Jim comes home drunk and there is a row downstairs. When Jim hears about the peaches he lets fly:

‘I’ll give her peaches! Peaches, peaches! Who does she think she is? Aren’t peaches good enough for her? To hell with her bloody motorcar and her son! Making us small.’

The next day Dylan tries to play with Jack but Jack won’t talk to him:

Below me Jack was playing Indians all alone … I called to him once but he pretended not to hear. He played alone, silently and savagely.

Jack calls his mother from the post office and she comes to pick him up. Dylan waves his handkerchief as they drive off but Jack ‘sat stiff and still by his mother’s side’.

Dylan’s way of dealing with the threat of the adult world around him is to see it through the filter of his imagination which can be both threatening and amusing. The reader can see how parlous the situation at the farm is, but Dylan is matter of fact about it—everything can be made different and interesting by seeing faces like spades and his uncle as a fox eating piglets and chickens. We feel sad when Jack won’t go along with it. When Jack sees the threat from Uncle Jim, he leaves, breaking the compact with Dylan. Both boys have to deal with their own situations as best they can, and Dylan’s fantasy world can only ever be particular to him.

© 2014 Helen Richardson

The Great Unknown

The Great Unknown_edited by Angela MeyerPlease keep a look out for the anthology of ghost, fantasy and horror stories The Great Unknown edited by Angela Meyer and published by Spineless Wonders (and which includes my story ‘Navigating’). These stories were all inspired by the Twilight Zone television series and so are creepy, uncanny and scary. What more do you want for those cicacda-filled nights in the beach house over summer? In bookshops now or from Spineless Wonders. (or click the image below in the sidebar).

From Angela Meyer’s blog Literary Minded:

‘In Paddy O’Reilly’s ‘Reality TV’, a guest is confronted with her husband’s infidelity under bright lights, while Ali Alizadeh’s ‘Truth and Reconciliation’ satirises American talk shows and a cultural obsession with sporting ‘heroes’. Chris Flynn’s ‘Sealer’s Cove’ has a nudist caught in a time slip. Carmel Bird evokes Edgar Allen Poe when oversized hares incite the folk of rural Victoria to commit criminal acts, and in ‘Sticks and Stones’ Ryan O’Neill has an academic attacked by a demonic alphabet.

There are darkly seductive artworks, disappearances and reappearances, altered realities, future visions, second chances, clever animals, knowing children, and strange presences in photographs and abandoned motels, in these stories by established and emerging writers. Contributors include Marion Halligan, Krissy Kneen, AS Patric, Damon Young, Chris Somerville, PM Newton, Deborah Biancotti and Kathy Charles.’

New outlet for stories (but there’s a catch or two)

Since the digital/ebook revolution (you know the one that took Australian publishers two years to catch up with) I’ve thought about ways this could be made to work for we struggling writers. Also, being a long-distance commuter, I saw how much reading people did on the train. I’ve also been very frustrated at the few outlets for writers and their short fiction in Australia. Tens of thousands of students stream out of creative writing courses every year all competing to get their stories into the, maybe, ten literary journals that take two or three stories each.

With digital publishing it’s cheaper and easier to publish works plus the constraints of the ludicrously small word count for short fiction (usually 2,000 to 3,000 words) don’t apply – there longer possible word count means there is space for meatier, more complex stories. The problem of course is how to get these stories out to a readership, and how to get the readership to pay.

Shortfire Press did it one way in the UK (the press is run by an ex-mainstream publisher so she had contacts which is a big start). They set up a website and sold stories off the site in various e-publishing formats for 99p a pop. They got quite good media coverage of their venture plus some fairly well-known contributors, although they do take unsolicited submissions as well. They have been going for over a year and I would have expected them to have hundreds of stories to choose from on their site by now but if you have a look you’ll find they have thirty or forty, not a critical mass. Lately they have also sold some of their stories through Amazon for Kindle. But somehow to get the model to work you have to have readers subscribe to stories on a regular basis like they might subscribe to a newspaper.

This brings me to the new venture called Review of Australian Fiction. This is a digital-only publication that delivers two pieces of short fiction per issue for $2.99. The idea is to have one established writer (so far Christos Tsiolkas and Georgia Blain) and for these writes to nominate one emerging writer (Kalinda Ashton and P M Newton) for the second story. If you subscribe you will get two stories every two weeks. AFR has used the Booki.sh format so you don’t download the stuff to your device but have to log on to the web every time you want to read your purchase.

This is a good option for those with tablets or who are prepared to read fiction on their smart phones, or anyone who reads stories on their laptops (does anyone?). It will be interesting to see what the take up is for this, and while I commend the emerging writer thing and think it’s good to use established writers as the bait (OK, the cherry), it is a blow for other writers that inclusion is by invitation only. If you subscribe you will automatically get new stories every two weeks.

If the subscription model works, then I think that is the way to go but, personally, I don’t like the Booki.sh route. I have bought a couple of things through Booki.sh to read on my iPad but I’m always forgetting the log on when I’d think of reading something while I’m out. I’d much rather get the stories on my Kindle all in one place with my other reading matter.

Best reads 2011

My book reading for 2011 was rather sparse for some reason – so many books in the world, so very few read. The top book from those I read this year is Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. This was the novel that affected me the most and, I thought, was the most masterfully conceived and written. A quite good film was made of it and released during the year, and it is well worth checking out but, of course, it’s better to read the book. The book is written in the somewhat prosaic voice of Kathy who is an orphan (we think) living in a boarding school in the English countryside. From her limited perspective we find out more about the children in, what becomes more and more apparent, is a very strange institution. The reader is very subtly brought into this unsettling world, so that the horrifying is normalised. I thought the novel was beautiful, sad and very challenging on a number of levels.

In supporting short stories I commit to reading one short story a week. Not a lot, I know, but I find I’m always reading a novel and it’s easy to forget stories. There is an idea going around that short fiction will come into its own in the age of the smart phone and the tablet, peoples’ busy lives and a commuting culture. Let’s hope so. Okay, my favourite short story for the year is one I just chanced upon while browsing the net. The story is “One Last Winter Moment” by Kathleen Kennedy and this was publishing online in the Canadian Room Magazine. So you can enjoy it yourself here. It’s poignant, sad and beautifully written.

Short stories online

Three stories from The Sleeper’s Almanac 6 were reprinted in The Age last week and are up to read on The Age website. “Tiny Acts of Redistribution” by Samantha Dagg here, “Heirloom” by Fran MacDonald here, “The Doctor” by Terry Donnelly here and Uncle by John Bauer here. Happy Reading!