Monthly Archives: April 2012

Congratulations ANZ LitLovers

Wonderful news.  My favourite Literary blog is also – as it turns out – the favourite of plenty of other people.

ANZ Litlovers has been nominated as one of the Top 5 Australian blogs  in the ‘Words’ Category.

That is exciting news in itself for me.  Lisa Hill works tirelessly in championing good Aussie writing.  She introduces us to writers with her ‘Meet an Aussie Author’ series (I had the privilege of being featured myself), participated in the Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize and The Shadow Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and posts fantastic reviews week after week (I confess that I am in awe of her reading and reviewing speed).

The finalists in all categories were published by The Australian.

I am also extremely chuffed … ahem … to see she gave me a lovely thank you on her post for my guest reviews which I have been extremely honoured to contribute. 

Congratulations to Lisa.  She deserves a big thanks from writers, publishers and readers for her hard work.

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A Tiger in Eden by Chris Flynn: Book Review

I was delighted – once again – to be given the opportunity to review for ANZ Litlovers where you will find heaps of terrific reviews as well as information aplenty on Australian Literature and Literature in general.

Note to Self:  Never judge a book by its opening pages.

Don’t get me wrong, Chris Flynn’s opening paragraphs – like the rest of this novel – are well-written.  It’s just that a misogynistic narrator, together with the street-smart argot of an Irish thug, complete with top-of-the-scale expletives would normally lead me to put such a book back on the shelf.  Thank heavens for these book reviewing opportunities, without which I would have missed out on a story with real depth.

A Tiger in Eden is a relatively short novel, packed with powerful imagery and it addresses the rather “big” themes of loyalty, violence, love and redemption with elegant wit.  It is the humour that makes the horror palatable.

Flynn employs – with a gentle touch – a recurring motif of Hollywood film characters to lighten some dark moments and offset the otherwise serious subject matter.  In referring to the delusional nature of English lads travelling around Thailand annoying everyone with their “shouting about En-ger-land and how they’re going to win the next World Cup”, the narrator – Billy Montgomery – says “They can’t handle the truth, like yer man Jack Nicholson says in that film”. (23)  And later, when Billy smartens himself up with a fresh white shirt and a pair of Ray-Bans to impress a couple of Dutch back-packers, he thinks he’s looking pretty good “like yer man Pierce Brosnan or something, even though he’s a Fenian and in some soft shite movies” (39).

Due to the bluer than the sky language, I won’t quote from one of the funniest passages but midway through the book when Billy muses about three Polaroid shots that might be helpful in deterring pestering sex workers, it is  – despite the blush-worthy subject matter – hysterically laugh-out-loud funny.

When he goes on retreat in a monastery, he finally confronts his demons with a terrible sense of sadness and loss.  He recalls – in a quiet deadpan fashion – his involvement in Ireland’s ‘Troubles’ and I was reminded of Mugabe’s youth militia and the child soldiers in many African countries and other parts of the world who undertake the most heinous crimes because they are programmed to obey; because it becomes unthinkable for them not to.  It is gut-wrenching stuff.

Despite trying to lose himself and bury some shocking memories as deep as he can, Billy is under no illusion as to what he is (or has been).

I suppose I was a kind of soldier even though there were some who would have said freedom fighter and others who would have said terrorist or paramilitary, I never really thought about  it in them terms in fact I didn’t like thinking about it at all. (82)

His experiences in the monastery are conveyed with a gentler comicality.  The Irish tough-man voice is still loud and clear but – somehow – Flynn manages to show us a softer compassionate side to his narrator.  In one of my favourite monastery allegorical episodes, a delightful red ant with a big attitude is symbolic in Billy’s getting of wisdom.

The author has provided some background to his novel: “The Story behind the book”, which clarifies firstly that Flynn knows more about the Troubles in Northern Ireland than anyone would wish and secondly, that he is not Billy.  I’m not sure that either clarification is necessary.  Flynn knows how to tell a story and whether a novel is based on fact, personal experience or exceptional research is not, in my opinion, overly important. 

I understand that a tattooed strong-man who doesn’t seem to know how to react without violence doesn’t sound like a sympathetic character but under Flynn’s pen it is hard not to care about yer man Billy and to care deeply; to hope he will succeed in overcoming his demons and putting his past to rest.

Text Publishing’s author blurb tells us that Flynn (Books Editor at The Big Issue) was once a sumo-wrestling referee in a travelling fair.  There’s a novel in that, for sure.

BOOK DETAIL:
Flynn, Chris. A Tiger in Eden, The Text Publishing Company, Melbourne, 2012.
ISBN 9-781921-922039

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A New Map of the Universe by Annabel Smith: Book Review

Spurred on by Lisa Hill’s review at ANZ Litlovers, I finally got myself a copy of Annabel Smith’s ‘A New Map of the Universe’ and I am thrilled with it.

How’s this for beautiful writing?

She dreams him every night the same, his eyes with the bright look of morning.  Or she dreams him every night differently.  It looks like him but his voice is wrong.  Sometimes he is there but he looks like someone else and she does not recognise him.  Or he does not know her, turns away when she speaks to him.  She wakes up aching.
(42-43)

The lives of Peter, Madeleine and Grace are traced with such depth and beauty that we know them intimately and care about them greatly and I confess to the odd tear.

The narrative switch between present and past tense is seamless, the hard work by the author providing a gentle and easy reading experience.  As a writer, I know this would not have been easy to accomplish. The novel (published in 2005 by UWA Press) was written with the support of an Australian Postgraduate Award and an Edith Cowan Priority Research Scholarship and it is thrilling to see such an innovative writer get the backing she so richly deserves.

I was forewarned about a beautiful love scene in the opening pages and it lived up to my expectations, taking my breath away.  A new map of the universe indeed!  I am not going to share it though; you really need to read if for yourself but I will tantalise you with its aftermath:

Painted by his hand and his tongue, imprinted with his myths, her skin feels different.  She examines it, like a new tattoo. (9)

As Molly Meldrum would say… ‘do yourself a favour’ and buy the book.

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Gillian Mears

 

A friend has leant me Gillian Mears’ Collected Stories and I am loving each perfectly selected word in the beautifully constructed sentences.

Not too long ago, I read Foal’s Bread and, because it was an uncorrected proof copy that came with some rather strict instructions, I wasn’t game to do a review.  I couldn’t resist a comment at the time though.

I thought I’d share a couple of sentences with you from one of the stories in this collection (USQ, 1997) titled ‘Rosemarion’.

Walking past the fruit store I can smell the strawberries turning dark and soft and violent. 

From the nose and thumbprints smudging the glass I see I’m not the first person to backtrack here this morning.

The cakes are a perfect weight in my hand.

I lie backwards and see the sky, blue and furrowing, move towards me.

Mears is a joy to read.

 

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True Blue Tucker by Campbell Jefferys: Book Review

There’s a strange sense of synchronicity that saw this particular novel land on my desk for review, not least the fact that the central character – Darius Tucker (Digger) – grew up in the same West Australian wheat-belt town as my husband. Deja vu moments abound as I stumble across scenery taken straight from my memory bank and characters that seem far too familiar.

At times, the imagery in Campbell Jeffery’s novel is sublimely perfect, such as Digger’s memory of his aboriginal mother just before she left home:

Her feet were bare, her soles a deep shade of sandstone and just as cracked, and her shins and calves the colour and texture of dusty chocolate.  She stood at the edge of the veranda, searching the darkness. (4)

The mining town where Digger and his mate (the gorgeously named “Humphrey Boragart”) worked for a time was, “a mess of houses built somewhere else and then thrown together here in the guise of frontier prosperity” and the miners who lived there “happily pissed their wages away or threw them up”. (17)  As someone who has lived and worked in the mining towns of old, I can vouch for the aptness of Jefferys’ description. I hasten to add that modern-day mining towns are different animals than they were ‘back in my day’.

The story is full of contradictions and I haven’t worked out yet if I did a poor job of reading between the lines or if I was trying to find things that just weren’t there.

Examples:

  1.  Digger’s father – a thoughtless and wasteful alcoholic – failed to garner any sympathy from me so when, in later life, the son looks up to him, idolises him in fact as some sort of hero, I was left cold.
  2. I was convinced from the beginning that Humphrey was gay (and I thought perhaps Digger was too) and yet they both spend their time chasing women.
  3. I felt there was more to the relationship between Digger and Humphrey (a homosexual tryst perhaps?) but, despite what I gauged as subtle hints, nothing was revealed.  At the very least there was an underlying sexual tension that the author “put out there” but then didn’t follow up on (or so it seemed to me).

Some of the later chapters become a little self-indulgent, giving me a sense of a man settling a few old scores.  And I felt the cultural and historical Australian facts were not couched convincingly within the lines of dialogue so that some of the speech seems contrived and unnatural.  The attempts by Humphrey and Digger to educate people via their restaurant come across as just a little too “worthy” and the speed with which some acquaintances drop years of dogma, capitulating because of a few words spoken by a weird restaurant-owner, isn’t quite believable.

In places, the writing was vibrant and interesting, in others stilted.  A good editor would have taken the author to task over the sex-scenes.  “Squishy”?  Possibly true, but not OK.  “The first squelchy, tingly thrust”?  More than a bit off-putting, I thought.

Speaking of editing, the whole book would have benefited from a good bit of topiary, bringing it to a more shapely and intriguing 200 pages, rather than the full 379 (including appendices and notes) presented here. 

A case in point:

He made himself a roll to take with him.  Humphrey went and got dressed, taking his half a roll with him.  When he came back out of his room, Darius was standing by the door. (271)

This passage and others like it add nothing to the story and should have been chopped out altogether.

Occasionally, I was nonplussed by odd word choices such as a panty-line “shimmering from side to side” (273).

I liked the way the book was structured with chapters that give the readers their geographical bearing (“Up North”, “Down South” and “The Mountains”) as well as psychological co-ordinates (“Bloodline” and “Truth Soup”), interspersed with conversational interview vignettes. 

I believe this is Jefferys’ third book and I understand he has had a number of short-stories and articles published.

True Blue Tucker is available from Rippple Books.

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Lowering your anti-poetry protective shield

If the word “Poetry” is a complete turn-off for you, I urge you to check out this fifteen minute TED video.
Poetry-lovers will, of course, enjoy it too.

I think the animated form fits perfectly with good, short, succinct poems and I’d love to see more of it. 

“Forgetfulness”, around six-and-a-half minutes in, is not only delightful but perfectly, sadly, completely, true in my case.

I also love the mouse in “The Country” (at around the 9 minute mark) who becomes the torch-bearer.  Wonderful!

Many readers (and reviewers) are terrified when confronted with poetry because it can be so subjective and seemingly introverted but as Billy Collins shows in this video, it can become crystal clear via an animated backdrop.

Collins’ final poem is recited without animation but it connects powerfully nevertheless. And anyone who’s ever parented a teenager will have a good chuckle.

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