Monthly Archives: May 2013

GOOD ON PAPER by Andrew Morgan: Book Review

Thanks to Lisa Hill at ANZ Litlovers (where this review is cross-posted) – who is undoubtedly the ‘go-to girl’ in all things Australian Literary – for the copy of this book for review.

Writers can sometimes be a little recalcitrant and uncharitable when it comes to the winners of writing grants (okay, jealous will do as a word choice, if you insist).  So it is particularly gratifying when one reads a book that won the Melbourne Lord Mayor’s Creative Writing Award and one discovers it is an exceptional piece of work.  To learn that the author was a recipient of an Australia Council Varuna Writers’ Centre mentorship reinforces a faith that we writers simply have to maintain; good, decent, talented writers do win awards.

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In his opening salvo, Morgan punches out:

The crumbling, Art Deco monochrome of Melbourne’s inner city, trimmed below with a technicolour lacework of graffiti.  Or in the lingo of editors, that over-baked, undernourished dialect used to communicate with publicists, writers and such-like pests, it was simply urban bohemia (3)

Touché!

This is a book filled with biting wit, priceless metaphor and perfectly-drawn characters.  The first half in particular is a master-class in the economy of words.  Phrases like “I was not one of his many creditors” (3-4) say so much with so few keystrokes that the cleverness is hidden.  The description of an author who is a “recognised brand name” gets the retort “like Thalidomide” (5).  Bottles of booze encircle a chair “like a miniature picket fence” (92). Sometimes, it’s the single simple word choice that is so perfect you almost miss it: string that is “confining” a manuscript (29), “charcoal” pouches under eyes, a “pendulous” earlobe (47).

The humour that peppers Morgan’s writing is evident in the chapter headings too which run from ‘The Hangover, the Harangue, and the Hanger-on’, to ‘Surprise!’ The final chapter title is – fittingly – ‘The Beauty of Independent Publishing’.

Something as simple as a fly entering a room is elevated literarily under Morgan’s pen:

Roused by my entrance, a blowfly disconsolately circled yet another naked light globe before hurling itself in suicidal despair into a drift of cobwebs above the window.  But it seemed the arachnid owner-builder had perished or moved out.  The blowie complained bitterly for a few seconds then succumbed to ennui. (53)

The main players in this comedy are:

  1.  Nettie, the editor who spent her teenage years “interred in Sydney’s western suburbs”   and who insists that her daughter use “correct grammar and punctuation” in her text messages (10)
  2. Said teenager – Charlotte – who sarcastically texts “Where, oh where, art thou, Mommy Dearest (10)
  3. Josh Henry, the writer.  Perhaps the least realised character for me.  I found him a little predictable with his temper tantrums and his fondness for booze.  I wondered if it was a little harder for Morgan to invent this character.  Perhaps it was too close.  Perhaps we really are all predictable.  Having said that, Josh Henry does have one of the funniest lines. When Nettie rattles a pill bottle, asking if the writer had been contemplating suicide, Josh Henry blows a raspberry and says “I’d probably just fuck it up anyhow, and end up a vegetable.  Or a publisher. (94-95)” Due to my possibly warped sense of humour, I almost choked on my morning cuppa!
  4. The loveable independent publisher Augustus who puffs on his cigarettes like a “well-tailored industrial complex” (102)

Bit players include the rough-diamond aspiring writer Keith with his “elephantine footfalls” (39) and Xanthe, Nettie’s impeccably dressed and somewhat predatory (and predictable?) ex-mentor.

If the plot seems a little slight and unrealistic – an infamous writer getting a second shot at the same manuscript – it doesn’t matter: it simply adds to the rollicking good fun the reader has on the journey. It is a small book (just 183 pages) and it is easy to read in one sitting, not because it is a page-turner in the conventional sense but rather that you can’t wait to see what the next perfect word choice or simile might be.  It’s like watching a good comedian; you just want one more laugh.

I have given more direct quotes throughout this review than I normally do for one simple reason:  I find I cannot do justice to Morgan’s unique style.  So it seems more prudent to let the writer speak for himself.  Here’s just one more snippet:

“Lying in bed I lapsed into that semi-conscious, airport transit lounge state, where reality and unreality start looking and acting like mischievous name-swapping twins.” (150)

I worry that my effusiveness may come across as one of those ‘writers-being-nice-to-other-writers’ reviews so I hasten to assure you that I wouldn’t know Andrew Morgan from a drunken hamster.   There is a saying that comes to mind … so-and-so is ‘a man’s man’.  In a similar vein, I’m thinking that Morgan is a writer’s writer and so I will be interested to hear what other (non-writer) readers think of ‘Good on Paper’.

In one of her musings over Josh Henry’s work, Nettie thinks “If the author is the stunt pilot, the editor is the mechanic” (115).  I’d say Andrew Morgan has a few good “mechanics” on his team (and he does thank a few of them in his acknowledgements).  There is no doubt that he’s pretty good at Cuban 8s and Barrel Rolls (yes, I googled aerobatic stunts) and I can’t wait to see what manoeuvres he comes up with next time around.

BOOK DETAIL
Morgan, Andrew. Good on Paper, Hunters Publishers, Melbourne. 2013.
ISBN 978-0-980740-54-7

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The China Factory by Mary Costello: Book Review

Tiny frissons of recognition hit you at unexpected moments as you dip into the lives of Mary Costello’s ordinary men and women.

The twelve short stories woven together in The China Factory have a deeply personal feel, as though the author has spent some time exploring the slow ‘going’ of lives and relationships.

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Mothers and fathers and siblings come under Costello’s unwavering gaze but its husbands and wives that sit most starkly in the light her telescopic lens.  In ‘Things I See’ we feel a husband’s slow distancing, the threads of a relationship that become something less because “with every new night and every new wind I know that I am cornered too, and I will remain, because I cannot unlove him” (56).

In the title story, the casual convenience of a tentative friendship between a young girl and an older man – workmates, distant relatives and driving companions – forms the backdrop to a coming of age story that focuses on duty and the burden of loyalty.

The narrator and Gus (a behemoth of a man) both worked in a China factory so, later, the things that become Gus-reminders seem at once both obvious and subtle.

“The sight of a bible in a hotel room now, or a drunk in a doorway, or my mother setting down her china cups, or even King Kong, all call Gus to mind.” (20)

It is a tale about moving on – geographically and personally – and what and who we leave behind, why they are left behind, and what we take of them with us.

“I would like to have mitigated the loss and the guilt I felt at leaving them behind, the feeling that I was escaping and walking away.  It is not an easy walk, I longed to tell them, but I’m not sure anyone was listening.”(21)

‘This Falling Sickness’ is my favourite story from the collection.  While its subject matter of death – not one, but two  – is a harrowing one, Costello’s understated method bites.

Upon hearing of her ex-husbands death,  Ruth “stared at the floor and felt herself folding” (72).  As Ruth copes with this death, she relives the more harrowing one in the distant past, the deaths connected by blood.

Costello effortlessly segues between the two deaths and captures grief so perfectly;  the detailed pictures of ‘before’ and the snapshots that collect around the fuzziness in the ‘after’ when  Ruth sees her mother’s shoes sinking into the clay, hears her sister’s voice crack as she reads a poem at the graveside and the roar of the traffic beyond the walls of the cemetery.

A husband’s adultery closes out the grief, a liaison that Ruth choses to see as “not unforgivable” because, she decided “it was easier to be the one hurt, than the hurter” (85).

‘This Falling Sickness’ brought me, as the saying goes, undone.

Light creeps into the shadows behind everyday façades as Costello quietly shocks with deft pauses and the great unsaid.  Beautiful.

My thanks to Lisa Hill at ANZ LitLovers for the opportunity to read Mary Costello’s first book of stories.  This review is cross-posted there.

BOOK DETAIL
Costello, Mary. The China Factory, The Text Publishing Company, Melbourne, 2012.
ISBN 9-781922-147417

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