Lost & Found by Brooke Davis: Book Review

I love original Australian literary voices and I’ve found a new one I fancy … Brooke Davis., a prize-winning writer of fiction with a PhD from Curtin University in WA. Lost and Found is, in her words, her ‘first proper novel’ and what a corker it is. My little margin notes include lots of ohs and wows, *s and !s, omgs and clevers.

Incidentally, Yvette Walker’s Letters to the End of Love, which I reviewed here, also emerged from the same program at Curtin University as Lost and Found.

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Lost and Found is about life and love and loss. It’s about character, in all meanings of the word (Collins English Dictionary: a combination of qualities, one such quality, reputation, representation of a person, an outstanding person and [even] a symbol used in writing [refer to Karl the Touch Typist]).

After I read the story, I realised what a great job Christabella Designs have done with the cover design. Perfection.

Let me introduce you to Davis’s characters:-

Millie Bird

Millie is a little abandoned girl with spunk and attitude and a way with words.  When Millie saw an old man killed (hit by a car) “He looked back at her like he was only a drawing.  She ran her fingers over his wrinkles and wondered what he’d used each one for.”(5)

Millie is trying to find a place for herself in the world, endeavouring to understand why adults act the way they do.  She ruminates on existing words and why you can’t use them all.  Without a guiding book, “you were just supposed to know” (104-105) which words were not okay.

Examples of things you weren’t allowed to say, to anyone, at any time:
How fat are you?
Do you have a vagina or a penis?
What kind of funeral do you want when you die? (105)

Karl the Touch Typist

Karl grieves for his wife. “It felt strange to breathe when she couldn’t.” (20) He touch-types on all manner of apparatus, from thin air to small children’s heads. Wondering about himself, about his life, about his place in the world, Karl thinks that “In the world of punctuation, he might have been a dash – floating, in between, not necessarily required.” (87) What a delightfully clever gem of a sentence that is.

Agatha Pantha

Agatha has been alone for years, trapped in her house with television static, yelling to everyone and no-one as she moves between her Chairs: of Disbelief, of Degustation, of Discernment, of Resentment, of Disagreement, of Disengagement. Agatha’s dissertation on funerals and their aftermath of people “hulking casseroles full of dead animals, and pity” and materialising in her house, “cocking their head to one side and clawing at her” (53-54) is both hilarious and sad.

These three beautifully sketched characters – Millie, Karl and Agatha – collide; their personalities and peccadillos bouncing around off one another, forming a vortex of comedic possibilities.

Cameo Appearances

The dieting Helen:
The Atkins one? Is it Atkins? Or CSIRO? You get to smell all the food you want.” (41).
While purchasing cake: “They’re not for me, Helen says. I’m on a diet.  The North Beach one? Kate Moss uses it.  You can hold all the food you like.” (44)

Manny: Yes, he might be plastic but he has a definite presence (with or without all his limbs).

Karl’s wife Evie left him a pouch of letters – F I G T R O O – a mystery for him to solve, a life puzzle perhaps? Evie was a calm and stable person:

Every word felt measured out, like she’d poured her words into measuring cups and flattened out the tops of them before she upended them into the world. (167)

Stella is a platinum-hearted bus driver who has a bath in which, according to Mille, one can make “entire cities out of bubbles”. (136)

Lost and Found is a showcase for Davis’s superb sense of humour, her perfect grasp of craft, and an originality that makes me positively green.

The structure is interesting.  In part one, the ‘Millie’ chapters are divided into the days of waiting, interspersed with facts that she knows.  Agatha’s time is broken into days and, within those days, into sections of time. And Karl is sectioned by things that he knows: things he knows about love, for example, and things he knows about sadness.

Davis knows how to worry away at your heart-strings, like when Millie has an overwhelming urge to snuggle up to a woman who “smells like a mum” (183)

But you should be able to hug all the mums who aren’t yours, because some people don’t have mums and what are they supposed to do with all the hugs they have? (183)

It’s a page-turner too.  Just like Millie, we feel compelled to find her mother.  But it also becomes increasingly important to find out the meaning of the jumble of letters Karl’s wife left for him.

There was a point (about half way through part three) where I wondered if the story had become a bit too farcical. Karl and Agatha start yelling on the train, Derek the conductor is stamping his foot and throwing paper, and Manny is flung over Karl’s shoulder.  It was just a little too slapstick for a few pages and it’s just not a style I’m comfortable with. The writing here seemed very visual, clashing a little with the rest of the novel.  I also thought it took a detour into some sort of ‘Kids Own Adventure Tale’ with Millie and her friend Jeremy each taking on Superhero status. Minor quibble and I’d be interested to know if anyone else agrees.

I love how Agatha’s rigid time frames (e.g. “6.25: Pours the remainder of her Bonox down the sink. 6.26: Removes all her clothes” (68)), goes through various degrees of rigidity before segueing to “Morning(ish) Agatha Standard Time” (252).

And you’ve just got to check out Millie’s idea of constructing a poem.  Brilliant. I can’t stop doing it myself now … in the supermarket, on the train. Delicious fun.

Reviewing for The West Australian, Ian Nichols writes: “The painstaking care that went into the novel is evident in the poetic, economical prose.”

Rosemarie Milsom (for Newcastle Herald) wasn’t always fond of Davis’s supporting cast of “quirky, laconic characters” and found Manny to be a “jarring” inclusion (conversely, I loved them, especially Manny).

The novel generated a big buzz at the London Book Fair and has been sold around the world, being translated into 20 languages.

BOOK DETAIL:
Davis, Brooke Lost & Found, Hachette Australia, Sydney, 2014.
ISBN: 978 0 7336 3275 4
Thanks to Lisa Hill at ANZLitlovers (where my review is cross-posted) for the opportunity to review this gem of a book.

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The Trouble With Flying and other stories: Book Review

Kate Rotherham’s ‘Potholes’ is a standout piece in the 2014 Margaret River Short Story Competition collection (The Trouble With Flying and other stories).  Perhaps it has something to do with its upbeat humour amongst some melancholy, introspective stories.  Maybe it is the even pace. Or the originality. I suspect it is all of these things and much more.

Harry has read a magazine article entitled ‘Ten ways to a happier life’ and these numbered suggestions (such as express yourself creatively and find your passion) thread their way in and out of ‘Potholes’.  Harry does indeed find a way to express himself creatively and ticks another of the recommendations by practis[ing] senseless acts of beauty.

Harry’s father Les is one of those in-my-day, too-busy-working kind of dads common to his milieu who’s “never met a child yet who didn’t have ADHD” (127).  After retirement, Les was bombarded with options, all of which he declined to embrace; his response to the idea of a Wednesday evening watercolour class being “I’d rather stab myself in the eyeball with a fork” (129), and when he finds an excuse to visit his old workplace he realises that, without him, the place has become “officially Aspergers Central” (129).

‘Potholes’ is a beautiful, uplifting, original story that made me laugh.  I find myself thinking about Harry as I go about mundane tasks. It is pleasant to be reminded of the possibility of beauty in the prosaic.

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I have had a soft-spot for Margaret River Press since I reviewed their first collection in 2012, followed up by a review of the 2013 competition collection as well as their first full-length work of fiction, Finding Jasper by Lynne Leonhardt.

There’s always something a little bit quirky to love about the actual printing of the books. In the case of this 2014 collection, it’s the beautiful bird headpiece that ‘plumbs’ onto the reverse and flows through the book in the form of arty section breaks. Both the impressive cover and the text design are by Susan Miller. Clever.  Perfect.

Back to the stories . . .

Claire Aman gets a nod for the originality she conjured in ‘Zone of Confidence’, a love story written with the same chutzpah afforded its spunky protagonist. I delighted in this poetic sentence I found hidden amongst more direct text: “At least there are no clouds marauding in the sky, only a white daytime moon tossed up high” (176).

‘My House’ by Rachelle Rechichi tells the story of a family in the grips of despair and, while seemingly vulnerable, there is a deep underlying strength evident in the narrator, May.  Strangely, the tale is ultimately uplifting.  I think it is because of the survival instinct we can read into May’s personality.

Melanie Kinsman’s ‘A Paper Woman’ is a poignant tale of a narrator battling disease. The story opens with a punch:

Before you came I spent a bitter winter.  My heart froze in my chest. The hospital sheets lay thin and flat against my ribcage. My breasts had been cut off, and a slash of a scar lay in their place. (228)

Kinsman’s words cut precisely to the heart of illness and its surrounding accoutrements, the narrator’s hospital stay a “macabre vacation” (230) from her usual life as she felt like a “fledgling woman: unmade, unfinished, an amputee” (230).  She later describes herself as “a paper woman, thin and flammable”, to which her lover’s gaze is a match (235).

In ‘Tear Along the Dotted Lines’, Melanie Napthine uses clever simile, metaphor and imagery.

  • Ants that might be attracted by food left out … “would have the bench coated in them, a sheet of shifting black like the hair of a drowned girl” (269)
  • A watermarked ceiling sports a “swinging nude globe blindly supervising” (270)
  • A “train arrives, with a difficult slowing that its cool silver skin contradicts” (267-8)

I thoroughly enjoyed Glen Hunting’s ‘Martha and the Lesters’.  The story tackles a difficult theme with great humour.  It’s narrated by Roland (his family was “fairly progressive by wheatbelt standards” (304)) who lodges with the feisty Martha and a collection of spiders who Martha says don’t love her. “They’re only here for the books.  I’m certain they come down and pore over them at night when I’m asleep” (305).

Anyone who has suffered severe pain will likely relate to the protagonist’s predicament in the simply and aptly titled ‘Dying’ (Bindy Pritchard). “She learnt how to chase her pain, dip under it and fly beside it until it fitted her body perfectly.” (338)

It is interesting that, of my favourites singled out in this review, Pritchard and Rechichi are the only prize-winners (Pritchard scored second place for ‘Dying’ and Rechichi won the prize for the best story from a South West resident with her story ‘My House’).  That’s why I enjoy short story collections. You might not love all the stories but there are usually some that resonate.  And there’s lots to love in this collection. I even enjoyed the introduction (quite out of character for me) by Richard Rossiter and Susan Midalia.

So there you go . . . my love affair with Margaret River Press continues.

Check out their website where you can purchase The Trouble with Flying and other publications, find stockists, and read about forthcoming events.

The winning entry in this 2014 competition is, as the title of the book suggests, ‘The Trouble with Flying’ (a coming of age tale) by Ruth Wyer. Congratulations to the Sydney-based ‘fledgling’ writer. When you purchase the book, make sure you check out her bio which is quite a hoot. 

BOOK DETAIL
The Trouble with Flying and other stories. Ed. Richard Rossiter with Susan Midalia, Margaret River Press, Witchcliffe, WA, 2014.
ISBN 978-0-9875615-2-7

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The New Media Landscape

I have done very little posting of late. And that’s not changing right this minute.

This not-really-a-post is more of a sign-post for anyone who is interested in the changing face of journalism to check out this post at ANZ LitLovers.

Online journalism and the demise or otherwise of print media is an interesting and challenging topic and something worth thinking about and commenting upon.

 

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Soapbox # 3 Road Signs

Every now and then, I wander off my usual writing topic when I feel the need to vent about something. I’ve been doing a spot of driving of late so from my soapbox I have these four points to make:-

  1. In Australia, there is a very simple rule when driving on our roads: Keep left unless overtaking. At least I think it is simple, but it seems to me that every second driver cannot grasp the concept.
  2. Why, oh why, must we have lights flashing constantly to tell us to pay our tolls, watch our speed, don’t drink and drive! The lights give me a headache which makes me dangerous on the road. Yesterday, I copped Distracted Drivers Die flashing till it almost blinded me in one eye. Well, if distracted drivers die, why are you distracting me by flashing these words when I’m trying to concentrate on the road at 110ks per hour?
  3. Speaking of distractions, it might be time to outlaw the erection of crosses and flowers and other monuments on roadsides. These sideshow alleys of mourning on public property do not enhance either our concentration or our driving skills.
  4. Speed Camera ahead. Okay, if you must raise extra revenue. For Road Safety. What the? Every time I come across a speed camera sign, I see people jamming on their brakes (even though they were not speeding in the first place), putting other drivers in jeopardy and slowing the previously perfect pace of the flow of traffic. For Road Safety indeed! Really? At least be honest.

I’ll climb down of the box now and go and have a nice cup of tea.

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Six Degrees of Separation (via the printed word)

When I saw my book mentioned in a ‘six degrees of separation’ post at ANZ Litlovers, I was rather chuffed, so I’ve decided to have a go myself.  Run by Annabel Smith and Emma Chapman, this month’s book is Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar.

bell jar

Any mention of Sylvia Plath brings to mind her battle with clinical depression and her ultimate suicide, a subject which is beautifully captured in Antonella Gambotto’s The Eclipse: A memoir of suicide.

eclipse

Gambotto’s name reminds me of an interview I read in an anthology of hers a long time ago. It opens with a quote from Richard Neville who says: ‘I think everyone wants to be Oscar Wilde’. Dear Oscar, a man so widely quoted.  Despite a wide body of work, I think he only published one novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, which is usually classified as Gothic Horror.

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A classic Gothic Horror novel (and one of my favourites) is Bram Stokers Dracula, a story told largely through documents and letters (epistolary).

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A great contemporary novel written in the epistolary form is Lionel Shriver’s 2003 novel We need to talk about Kevin which won the 2005 Orange Prize.

talk about kevin

Whenever I think about the Orange Prize, The Idea of Perfection comes to mind written by Kate Grenville, one of Australia’s best known authors.  I can’t think of a better place to end.

TheIdeaOfPerfection

Fancy having a go yourself? Here’s the rules…

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Josephine Ulrick Shortlist Announced

The 2014 Griffith University Josephine Ulrick Literature Prize shortlist has been announced.

Unfortunately, my name is not on that list.

We send out our ships and hope that one comes home with the goods…

Sigh.

Congratulations to Loren Clarke, Nicholas Brooks, Madelaine Lucas, Luke Johnson and SJ Finn. The winner will be announced on 9th May. Good luck all and I look forward to reading your short stories.

 

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The Big ‘I’

Yes, I am trumpeting myself but the ‘I’ actually stands for Issue.

A short piece of mine has been accepted by The Big Issue for its next run which is set to hit the streets on 2nd May. So, if you live in the city, make sure you grab a copy from your favourite vendor and see what you think (Don’t forget, half of your purchase price provides direct earnings for the homeless, marginalised or disadvantaged vendors).

And for fellow wordsmiths, check out the call for fiction entries. Last year’s fiction edition was a real treat.

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