The China Garden wins Jefferis Award

The China Garden by Kristina Olsson has won the 2010 Barbara Jefferis Award ($35,000) for ‘the best novel written by an Australian author that depicts women and girls in a positive way or otherwise empowers the status of women and girls in society’.

UQP notes: When her mother dies, Laura returns to her coastal hometown. At the reading of the will, Laura discovers that her mother had a child that she adopted out. She also bequeathed a painting to someone who is a stranger to Laura. These revelations completely shift Laura’s understanding of her mother. Her life becomes entangled with the lives of Cress, an older and respected member of the community, Kieran, Cress’ intellectually disabled grandson, and Abby, a teenaged girl who has become friends with Kieran.

The judges said: ‘The title refers to Angela’s garden and its broken pieces of china. This evocative image suggests that beauty can be created from what is broken and apparently irretrievable, but also the danger and sharpness of buried secrets. … Without feeling the need to resolve every absence or mystery, Olsson gently suggests that it is always possible to make new things out of the past, however fractured or painful.’

The other finalists were: The Lost Life, Steven Carroll, Swimming, Enza Gandolfo, The World Beneath Cate Kennedy and Headlong, Susan Varga.

Review – The Owl Killers

The Owl Killers by Karen Maitland, Michael Joseph 2009

The Owl Killers is a medieval thriller set in the early thirteen hundreds in a small village in South East England. Into this closed world where Christianity and paganism are in uneasy co-existence, come a group of Beguines from Bruges. They set up a community of women on land they have inherited near the village. Not surprisingly when disease and famine beset the village, the Beguine women are easily demonised as causing the misfortune. Despite fearing the women the villagers still surreptitiously bring their sick to the Beguinage, under the cover of night, to be healed. To complicate matters a fraternity of masked “Owl Masters” terrorise and extort from the villagers, and there is evidence that a pagan monster called the Owlman is preying on victims in the area.

The story is told through the points of view of five characters: Servant Martha the leader of the Beguines, a morally compromised priest, Father Ulfrid, Agatha the disgraced daughter of the local landowner who joins the Beguines, Beatrice, another of the Beguines, and a small village girl, Pisspuddle. The device of five different voices allows Maitland to build up the story from both the villagers’ side and from point of view of the Beguines, withholding vital pieces of information along the way to keep the reader guessing.

The novel has fantasy elements — the flesh-ripping Owlman, a “witch” with second sight, a wild forest girl who can control the weather — but these are explainable by the superstitious beliefs of the time. Maitland is also adept at portraying medieval life in all its smelly, gory detail.  From this mixture she weaves a fast-paced, tense, intriguing story. It might get bogged down in places with too many strands in play but for the most part I couldn’t put the book down. The Owl Killers will appeal to historical fiction fans who like their stories dark and to fantasy buffs who don’t mind a dose of reality.

Cherry blossom in Zimbabwe

Petina Gappah’s An Elegy for Easterly was published April 2009 in the UK and was available here from Allen and Unwin in paperback C format with the same cover. The book won the 2009 Guardian First Book Award and is available here now in paperback B format.

But compare the two covers. I picked up the book under the first cover in a bookshop thinking that it was set in the either China or Japan — the stylised trees looking like cherry blossom in snow and the red patch of sun is very Japanese — only to be confused by the description of the stories on the back cover. The second cover places the book firmly in Africa from where, indeed the author comes. Petina Gappah is a Zimbabwean writer now living and working in Geneva and An Elegy for Easterly is a book of short stories set in Zimbabwe.

Going to Petina’s blog I now realise the row of trees on the first cover is an avenue of beautiful Jacarandas.

Here’s what Petina says on her blog about the new cover: “Here is the cover of the paperback version of “An Elegy for Easterly”. I love it in a million different ways. Thanks to the support of all my readers, we are approaching the end of the print run for the trade paperback (that’s the Jacaranda trees cover), just in time for the launch of this paperback, which goes on sale on 7 January 2010”.

Re-imagining or rip-off?

Is a novel called 60 Years Later: Coming Through the Rye in which Holden Caulfield, now 76 years old and escaped from an old peoples’ home, wanders through New York an infringement of J D Salinger’s copyright?

My immediate response is of course it is, and a court in the US agreed, according to ABC Radio National’s The Law Report Unauthorised Sequels. Open and shut case you’d think but that ruling is now under appeal.

Copyright, as we now all know from the infamous Kookaburra flute riff in Men at Work’s Down Under, is the reproduction of a substantial (read “important, essential or distinctive”) part of the original material. But what if the work doesn’t actually use the words of the original text but builds on/uses as an imaginary base the original work? Referencing other literary works after all is a long-standing writerly device.

The Law Report notes that J K Rowling also won her copyright case when Steven Vander Ark, a Harry Potter-ophile, tried to publish The Harry Potter Lexicon. This book was based on information gathered on a Potter fansite over seven years. The judgement in that case found that, on the whole, authors do not have the right to stop publication of reference guides and companion books about literary works. However he found that the Lexicon did infringe fair use provisions and “because the Lexicon appropriates too much of Rowling’s creative work for its purposes as a reference guide” he would put a permanent injunction on it to “prevent the possible proliferation of works that do the same and thus deplete the incentive for original authors to create new works”.

Shaun Miller, the media and entertainment lawyer, interviewed on The Law Report also noted somewhat wryly that it’s not surprising that most sequels or prequels, or reimaginings, of other literary works are written on works by authors out of copyright: March by Geraldine Brooks, an off-shoot of Little Women and Emma Tennant’s Austen/Bronte books (Pemberley, or Pride and Prejudice Continued and Thornfield Hall among them) not to mention the zombies and sea monsters of recent publication, are prime examples.

Susan Hill published Mrs de Winter with “the sequel to Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca boldly emblazoned on its cover in 1993. This was four years after Du Maurier died and, while Hill’s book was approved by the Du Maurier estate, it was apparently written in the 1980’s when Du Maurier was still alive and not published then. It is obviously easier to take on a dead author than a live one, especially when the live one is wealthy, influential and possibly cantankerous. Coincidentally enough, Du Maurier herself was accused of plagiarism over Rebecca by a Brazilian writer, Carolina Nabuco who said it borrowed from her novel A Sucessora.

In Australia it appears that there is a lot of fuzziness around the interpretation of what a “substantial” part of a copyrighted work means for the purpose of establishing an infringement – that’s where the “important, essential or distinctive part” comes in. According to the Australian Copyright Council “if only part of your material has been used, you may need advice about whether that part is ‘substantial’ before taking action” and “someone may have copied only the idea behind your material, and not infringed copyright”.

The legal cost, on both sides, is the only real deterrent.

If there is no real way to protect the “idea” behind a work of fiction, it would appear you could write a sequel to a work of fiction still under copyright and get away with it.

In the J D Salinger case it was argued that copyright was breached both through the character of Holden Caulfield and through similarities in style, plot etc of Coming Through the Rye.

Salinger won on both counts and the author Frederik Colting, writing under the pseudonym J D California, lost on his ‘fair use” defence and his defence that the new book “wasn’t derivative, but…was transformative, and therefore an essentially new work was created”, according to The Law Report.

US publishers are anxiously awaiting the result of the appeal because the Salinger case has implications for freedom of literary expression. “There’s a general tension between copyright law which protects the reproduction of someone’s literary work…but there’s also the freedom of expression imperative in America…which says that people should be able to contribute to…literature generally, and to the culture generally.”

CAL-lous or what?

The Copyright Agency Limited (CAL) was set up to recoup money for authors when schools, universities etc use their copyrighted material.

How annoying it is therefore to read in The Australian newspaper that more money (ie public institutions’ and authors’ money) goes on salaries at the agency then goes towards author payments.

CAL’s chief executive, for example, earned more than $350K last year, while two other staff members received salaries of between $250K- $299K and $200K-$249K respectively, and five more got between $150K and $199K and a further 21 between $100K and $149K.

All this in a country where the average writer earns less than $20K per year. Sure we do it for the love of it, and we don’t need to eat either!

 See the article here.

Females sans heads

What is it with girls and women without heads and book covers? Is it because a face is too specific and can thus be off-putting to a reader, legs or a torso being generic and therefore acceptable? Never mind what feminsim has argued about the objectifying of women and girls. Another reason might be that designers think parts of bodies can be arranged into more pleasing designs.

The literary lottery

The critic Geordie Williamson writes at the end of his article “Writing to Win” in the February 2010 Australian Literary Review about how literary prizes have skewed the publishing landscape for fiction, and even what writers choose to write:

Prize culture, like aristocratic patronage, makes a lottery of literature, in which one, sometimes unworthy, winner obliterates the hopes of a thousand others.

See the entire piece here.

One could substitute “Australian publishing” for “prize culture” and it would be equally true. Publishers seem to select one or two novels that they promote to the hilt while at the same time reducing their fiction lists and letting other books fall by the wayside through lack of any sort of marketing.

Fugitive Blue

I just finished first time novelist Claire Thomas’ novel Fugitive Blue and it struck me how close in structure it was to Geraldine Brooks’ People of the Book. Claire Thomas’ book was promoted quite heavily by Allen&Unwin when it first came out in 2008 but sales, I think, were disappointing. Could this be because of the wishy-washy cover? It shows no hint that this is essentially a historical novel but suggests it is some high brow literary affair on the nature of art. Compare this to the cover for Brooks’ immensely popular People of the Book. There is immediately human interest, the marks of age and the clues the protagonist finds in the ancient text she is restoring (insect wing, a strand of hair).

Fortuitously I went to Claire Thomas’ website and found that A&U are reissuing FB in paperback B format this year and guess what? They’ve changed the cover. This one is better. At least we have an image of a woman (possibly supposed to be the narrator or the 15th century painter of the panel she is restoring) even if we only get her back view but the colour is still insipid. In the novel the colour in question is ultramarine, originally made from crushed lapis-lazuli, which I thought was a darker blue but I could stand corrected on that.

Animals in fiction

There are an estimated four million dogs and two and a half million cats living with us in Australia, and two thirds of homes have a pet (although the 11 million fish inflate this figure!). So why do animals not feature more prominently in writing? We share ‘treetops’ here with a short-legged black dog, Milton, and a long-legged cat, Pippa and I must admit I haven’t thought about featuring them in fiction. I did consider, though, a story about two previous cats, now deceased. One was a big black one who arrived as a stray at six months old, the other a petit tortoiseshell I’d had from a kitten and whom I’d got to keep me company during a year I took off to stay at home and complete my university thesis.

The little one was loving and shy, the big black, tough and streetwise. The stray came to our door one wet, windy winter. Feeling sorry for it, but not really wanting another cat, I put a box with a towel in for it on the porch outside the back door so at least  it could sleep somewhere out of the rain. One morning I got up looking for the little cat only to find her curled up in the box with the stray … Continue reading “Animals in fiction”