Tag Archives: Fiction

Lost Boy & Other Stories, edited by Estelle Tang: Book Review

If, like Sylvia Plath, you have feared “the death of the imagination”, rest easy: it is thriving and flashing itself in the latest collection of shorts released by Margaret River Press.

One of my annual highlights is to receive the Margaret River Short Story Competition anthology. I have had the pleasure of reviewing the collections since the inaugural 2011 competition and this year I am, once again, not disappointed.

lost boy

In the imagination stakes, the winning story Lost Boy is a tour de force.  Who conjures this boy who speaks in a language of stick figure sketches? What acute observational eye brings to life the kind hearted cop who …

 … felt an almost talismanic attachment to the boy, not only because he’d picked him up, like a lucky coin, but also because he’d been the first to extract conversation, of a sort, from him. (15)

or the foster parents …

 … Lorraine – dumpling of a woman, with a shrewd, weathered gaze – and Doug – big, silent and marked as an old tree. (16)

Who is this writer brave enough – assured enough – to leave the reader with …

 … the empty sound of a case file slid into a drawer among a hundred other finished or unfinished stories. (25)

so that we may savour our own creative juices? Who is this story-teller confident to resist the temptation to settle every piece of the puzzle into place?

It’s Melanie Napthine. The Melbourne-based writer’s ‘Tear along the dotted line’ was featured in the 2014 anthology The trouble with Flying where it glittered amongst the many gems for its clever simile and metaphor. Her winning entry this year (Lost Boy) is, I am delighted to say, completely different in style but no less impressive and, in my humble opinion, a worthy winner. The angles and slants of my literary leanings are mine alone so it is thrilling when a judge’s favourite resonates with me as a fellow writer, reader and reviewer.

There is great diversity in this year’s collection (titled, as always, by the winning story); from Susan McCreery’s frightening scenario of intrusion which becomes something altogether different (‘The Uninvited’) and the ultra-short, surreal ‘The Ginkgo Tree’ (Paige Townsend)  to the gritty reality and subversive menace of Eva Lomski’s ‘The Trapper’ (which was awarded second place).

The gripping horror of Lomski’s story is cleverly emphasised by the structure and cadence of its sentences.

Clamped around her right boot, a steel-jawed trap. No pain yet. Numb. Think systematic. (28)

and this:

Metal snap of a trap. Cried out. He was there, standing over her, springy as a jockey, lifting a shovel to waist-height. Black. (30)

The Southwest prize was awarded to Carol McDowall for ‘Bringing Home the Ashes’, celebrating the love between grandfather and granddaughter with humour.

Two highly commended stories are ‘Ash Miss’ and ‘Mojitos in Tehran’.

Claire Aman’s cleverly titled ‘Ash Miss’ is a tale of a disenfranchised boy (“Something is careful in him.” (113)), a grey budgerigar and a damaged and understanding woman (“Neila, droopy cardigan and slippers, one hand missing” (116)).

In ‘Mojitos in Tehran’, Magdalena McGuire tackles a difficult subject, far removed from everyday life for most of us, with great delicacy and depth of understanding. It is a multi-layered story that tackles some rather large themes with understated – yet intense – brevity.  A remarkable feat in just eleven pages.  An old woman and a baby:

They seem to recognise something in one another, making me think that the end of life and the beginning are closely linked. This is true in more ways than one. A pregnancy is an end of sorts though everyone calls it a beginning. (229)

The narrator finds the blazing supermarket lights “optimistic. They are not afraid to go all the way” (233) and the battles she struggles with as she teeters on the precipice of a new life are both ordinary and extraordinary.

There it is: the old life. Too close to ignore, too appealing not to touch, and yet clearly slipping away. (238)

The juxtaposition of the subdued art of crossword completion with the exhilaration and exuberance of hang gliding works as a clever contrast in ‘Glory Season’ (Cassie Hamer). Wind (“a Westerly, soft as a baby’s breath” (73)/”obliterated by a tsunami of aerial turbulence” (79)) is woven throughout this rather uplifting story about grief.

Beverley Lello shows originality and cleverness with her fragmented set-piece ‘Scenes from a Disappearance’, opening with A possible prologue and ending with the cryptic A possible ending but for only one part of the story. (Lello penned the delightful ‘Things that are found in trees’ which won the first Margaret River Short Story Competition).

Erin Courtney Kelly’s ‘Hot and Cold’ is a luminous lingering allegory, featuring rhubarb, no less! I.N. Murray, with a deft hand, carves out a coming-of-age scenario in ‘Skeleton Creek’ and Michelle Wright’s labels in ‘To call things by their right name’ are clever. There’s always a story that can sidle up beside me and give me a punch I didn’t see coming. Jane Downing delivers the blow in ‘An Undelivered Letter to the Future.’ Knocked the stuffing out of me.

Louise Hodge had me laughing out loud with:

Mum has got a new friend called Dawn who is a bit of a feminist and I am sure she is giving Mum some bad tips. Mum used to dye her hair with tropical Copper Glow, but Dawn said Mum should be true to herself, which happens to be a pretty unattractive shade of grey. (‘Lagoon Dreamer’, p. 197)

Twenty-four stories…too many to comment on every one, but every one with merit.  Laurie Steed and Richard Rossiter had the job of forming a longlist from the 323 entries, with Estelle Tang making the final judgement and editing the collection. With a forward by Director Caroline Wood and a succinct introduction by Estelle Tang who resisted (thank you!) that age-old temptation to tell us all about the stories before we read them, it’s a varied collection, an imagined universe of beguilement, grief and humour. Much like the universe we know. If, like me, you love the short form, then you will not be disappointed. Lost Boy & other stories is available from Margaret River Press.

 

 

 

 

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The Tasmanian Writers’ Prize

Delighted to discover that my short story ‘Dear Ethan’ has been Highly Commended in the Tasmanian Writers’ Prize. A real thrill.

Congratulations to the winner

Rachel Leary (VIC) A Concrete Aborigine.

The winning entry will appear in the June edition of Tasmania 40° South

The other selected entries will appear in the Forty South Short Story Anthology 2015 – to be published in August/September. They are, as listed:-

HIGHLY COMMENDED

Karenlee Thompson (Qld) Dear Ethan 

Melanie Cheng (VIC) The Honeymoon

FINALISTS (alphabetical order)

Jamieson Allom  (TAS) In Two Minds

Verity Croker (TAS) Grasskiller 

Keren Heenan (VIC) The Island

Carmel Lillis (VIC) Island seeks Island

Andrea McMahon (TAS) Penal Colony

Andrew Stiggers (NZ) Island of Flowers

Simon Stuart (VIC) True North

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A Couple of Shorts

Despite the lack of online posts while studying these past months, I have been writing (I don’t know how to ‘not write’) and I’m pleased to report that a couple of my babies have found a home. The Education department has accepted two of my short stories for youngsters: Cars in a Bucket and The bewildering case of the beeping at dawn. The School Magazine has a long lead time – usually over six months but I’m looking forward to seeing them in print.

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AUSTRALIAN LOVE STORIES Edited by Cate Kennedy:Review

Love, luv, lurve.

I adore a good love story. And the short form is perfectly suited to the genre, as this collection will attest. Destiny, heat and lust, cold betrayal, unrequited. It’s all here.

Cate Kennedy’s introduction is superb and I hope other Editors will take note of it. There is no need for spoilers and academic dissections. Nor do we need explanations about how the reader should interpret any given story or what we should expect to gain from the read. I have always felt that writers prefer their work to be interpreted by the reader; it allows for so many possibilities. Kennedy (award winning writer and poet) clearly understands this and she gives us a beautifully written introduction on what it means to be entrusted with so many pieces of work, juxtaposed with the interpretation of love itself, and a vignette on her considered approach to choosing the stories to be included in the collection. She writes:

‘They’re not all pretty, any more than love is always pretty, but look, here they are, miraculous, tumbled and shining, from a stranger’s cupped hand to yours.  I hope you love them.’ (6)

The grouping of the stories into what Kennedy calls a ‘narrative arc’ is uncontrived and gives the Contents pages the look of a poem with stanzas introduced thus: ‘That Sensuous Weight’ and ‘The Unbroken Trajectory of Falling’ book-ending seven sections in total. Beautiful.

Are they all love stories? That will be up to the reader to determine but I wasn’t sure about a few. ‘Is that what you call love?’ I asked myself. I was sometimes puzzled. Are all these stories Australian? Not necessarily in setting, so the Australian of the title perhaps relates more to authorship.

Minor quibbling. Let’s get to the nitty-gritty. Let’s look at some of these stories.

australian-love-stories-edited-by-cate-kennedy

I am going to start with my favourite. As I began to read Susan Midalia’s A BLAST OF A POEM, I felt my spine relax. Aah. This is the one I’d been waiting for.  Other readers will have a completely different aah moment I expect. ‘A Blast of a Poem’ starts off in a domestic setting with ‘creamy songs’ of ‘moons and stars and rivers’ and ‘one that made me shiver without knowing why’ (179) and with paragraphs beginning ‘When I was fourteen years old and gushingly romantic…’ (179) or ‘When I was twenty-four and my heart was shattered…’ (180). There are layers of love, set over yet more layers, gently and succinctly unfurling a life for us to see in all its sweetness, heartache and devotion. The story takes us from the undoing of a poem to primal sex, and to a few places in between. There are so many beautiful phrases and sentences and words I could offer you here as a sample.  I have chosen this one, not because it is necessarily the best, but because it gives you an idea of it all, without spoilers:

As the weeks became months and the months became years, my life began to feel like an old time movie, in which the leaves of a calendar are ripped off and tossed aside by some cruel, invisible hand. (185)

 

Here are some other standouts:

LOVER LIKE A TREE
J Anne deStaic’s haunting tale of addiction left me breathless. Here’s a man caught in ‘his own private storm’ (56), his veins like ‘wide highways painted blue’ (54). Here’s a woman who lays beside him watching him breathe. She remembers ‘the heat of his skin on hers when all that will fit between them is one layer of sweat’ (56). All the man wants is ‘morphine and a lover like a tree’ (58).

DAWN
Bruce Pascoe
allows the reader into the bed of the narrator and into the depths of his thoughts so that we can see beyond what may seem like simple, everyday actions, to the enormity of the emotion that propels them.

HAMMER ORCHID
Sally-Ann Jones
has given us a hint of star-crossed lovers of different shades. A ‘Ten Pound Pom’ (130) and an older Aboriginal farm hand. Love barely hinted at, barely understood. ‘Biscuits’ (as the farm hand is known) is cool and knowing; he’s warm and open, he’s understanding and closed. ‘Don’t look at me, kid,’ he tells her (136) when ‘she was sixteen and he was twenty-four’ (135). And much later when she goes to visit him, he warns her to stay away.  She tries to entice him into what she has always yearned for on the eve of her wedding. ‘It could be a wedding present,’ is her desperate enticement. ‘No’ is his succinct response (138-139). Sexy. Intriguing. Sad, in a way. But is it optimistic as well? Maybe.

THESE BONES
Allison Browning writes of mature weathered love. Enzo has dementia and the home is both alien and familiar. He wants to awake beside his partner Nev but time warps and memories waver and he is constantly distressed by the current self and the self of his dreams. ‘He is no longer the young man he was moments ago, without lines and the notations that time leaves.’ (224) But Nev still sees him through eyes of love: ‘He looks worn, his body deflated, but the essence of him fills the space somehow like the echo of laughter in a room’ (233).

A LITERARY LOVE STORY (memoir)
Catherine Bateson’s
entry (which I read as a letter to a younger self) gives a nod to the Bronte sisters and [French novelist] Colette and, as the title suggests, literary allusion and metaphor abound. ‘Once I woke with a French phrase clinging to my morning mouth, the only language for unrequited love.’ (21) Strangely though, it is wonderfully Australian.

MOSES OF THE FREEWAY
David Francis knows how to amuse. Gorgeously laugh-out-loud politically incorrect at almost every turn.   Can’t resist these quotes:-

  • The lesbians just look awkward as usual (142)
  • Next came the photo of the foundling called Marvel from El Salvador (143)
  • I, myself, can’t go to the gym. It isn’t safe. I end up backstage in the showers for hours, wondering if I shouldn’t just stay there forever, have my mail forwarded. (146)
  • My own pittance sent each month to Amalia from Manila. Lagoon eyes and a slightly snotty nose. Save the Christians probably added the snot for the photo. (146)
  • Bette’s vaguely bipolar in a subversive downtown beatnik sort of way, her hair a tangled mess. (148)

A GREEK TRAGEDY
Claire Varley
. Beautifully written. Beautifully sad.

WHERE THE HONEY MEETS THE AIR
Carmel Bird’s stream-of consciousness comic monologue is fun.  I adore its word play and jokes about topics as varied as ‘Elizabethan roots’, dictionaries and bees and ‘the merry media, social and anti-social’ (288).

There’s a good review at Musings of a Literary Dilettante.
My review is cross-posted at ANZ LitLovers.

BOOK DETAIL:
Kennedy, Cate (Ed).  Australian Love Stories. Inkerman and Blunt, Carlton South, Aust, 2014.
ISBN: 9 780987 540164

 ***

In the interests of full disclosure – one of the fundamentals of journalism – I confess to entering into the call for short stories about love, boots and all, but my ‘baby’ didn’t make the cut. I certainly didn’t take it personally and recalled a 2006 interview with Jane Sullivan (the Age) during which Kennedy talks about one of her short stories finding a place in The New Yorker after it had failed to make a mark in a number of Australian competitions. Ruminating on the lesson to take these knock-backs in a professional manner, she said it was a case of ‘Some other time, some other place’.

 

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The Big Issue Fiction Edition

 

In my diary, is a note for the Brisbane Launch of

THE FICTION EDITION OF THE BIG ISSUE

which will be on Thursday 4th September 4pm

at Auditorium 1, State Library of Queensland

HOPE TO SEE YOU ALL THERE

For my Southern friends, here’s a note for your diary:

the launch will be at the Melbourne Writers Festival on Friday 29th August 2014 at 4pm

The theme for this year was ‘TAKE ME AWAY’ and I’m sure the stories will be as captivating as always.

1 0 T H A N N I V E R S A R Y

 

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MONA by Dan Sehlberg: Book Review

Dan Sehlberg’s Mona is the first book of a two-part thriller, its sequel Sinon being due for release this year.

mona

The plot is breathtaking in its frightening possibility:

Eric is a computer science professor who invents a thought-controlled system for browsing the web and, while some readers might think this is merely imaginative sci-fi, the truth is it is far too close to reality for comfort. Eric’s system collides with Professor Samir Mustaf’s newly-created computer virus with catastrophic results and it is just a matter of time before the lives of Eric and Samir become entwined.

When Eric’s wife Hannah becomes infected with a mystery virus, Eric is convinced that his browsing system has somehow become involved in passing the latest sophisticated computer virus on to her.  No-one believes him so he embarks on his own quest to find answers and to save his wife who has drifted into a coma.  In the process, Eric has to deal with Mossad, Hezbollah and the FBI nipping at his heels.

The intrigue and espionage extend to a Palestinian spy in the highest levels of the Israeli government and a ruthless Mossad assassin – Rachel Papo – who, despite being psychopathic in intent, finds some softness in her heart when it counts most.

There are a number of extremely contrived plot devices and, while it is difficult to settle into an easy belief and relax into the ride, accepting the coincidences that help us on our journey, it is not so difficult to accept the credibility of the fantastic results of the meeting of the virus with the thought-control program.

There’s something of the fairy-tale twist in the denouement that is unfortunately rare in real life, particularly when we are dealing with the volatility of the middle-east. If only these two men from opposite sides of the ideological, philosophical and religious spectrum could so easily bury their differences. If only two men could alter such catastrophic events. If only life were so simple.

The Style

I didn’t find much in the way of Literary style in Sehlberg’s prose but I know little about the translation process and, as I cannot read the novel in its original, there is no way for me to tell how much of the style is completely Sehlberg’s and what – if any – is as a result of the translation. The translator Rachel Willson-Broyles, was lauded for the exceptional job she did with Jonas Hassen Khemeri’s 2011 novel Montecore.

Word choices and sentence structures are sometime jarring.

‘Parents – exclusively women – were standing nearby or sitting on benches, and talking to each other on phones.’ (320) Wouldn’t those ‘parents – exclusively women’ be ‘mothers’? Or ‘women’?

‘Jens hugged him as heartily and roughly as always.  His rough beard scratched Eric’s cheek.’ (40). Most editors would have marked ‘roughly’ and ‘rough’ for a rethink. ‘Eric returned to his car, which had received a parking ticket. He left it where it was and backed out of the parking area.’ (162) Clunky and uninspired.

Occasionally, a gem of a sentence emerges. For example, ‘She was Jewish, with all of Europe running through her veins’ (25-26), imparts the information in a less pedestrian form than elsewhere throughout the book. And this: ‘But when he woke, reality waited restlessly for him with sharp claws and a wide sneer.’ (129). For the most part, though, I found the prose style to be a little dull.

Still, you don’t need Literary style to make a Hollywood movie and that’s where Mona is headed. There’s quite a buzz around Swedish story-telling lately but let’s be clear; Sehlberg is no Stieg Larsson and Mona is a far cry from The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo. Nevertheless, Mona is a page-turner and it comes as no surprise to me that, according to The Hollywood Reporter, ‘New Regency’ has picked up the movie rights.  I can definitely imagine a good Hollywood thriller in a Matt Damon or Mark Wahlberg kind of way and, if Angelina Jolie would take on a less starring role, she’d glint like sharpened steel as the ruthless Rachel Papo. This is likely to be one of those rare cross-overs where the movie will upstage the book.

Throughout the story, I often found myself thinking back to the prologue, in which a little girl in Lebanon brings a tin can home to her mother and grandmother.  She’d found the can while chasing a striped cat through a muddy field.  In that creative way of children, she has imagined the cat as a tiger and the can as its cub.

[she] saw her mother’s tears.  She looked nervously at her grandmother, and heard her prayers.  Then she extended the hand with the tiger cub.  That wasn’t a tiger cub.  That was a can. That wasn’t a can.  That was a grenade from an Israeli cluster bomb. (2)

Such imagery is so close to the reality for many families in the Middle East today, on both sides of the fence. It is gut-wrenching.

Thanks to ANZ Litlovers (cross-posted) for the reviewing opportunity.

BOOK DETAIL:
Sehlberg, Dan. Mona. Lind & Co, Sweden, 2013
Translated by Rachel Willson-Broyles, Scribe Publications, Brunswick, Aust. 2014.
ISBN 9 781922 070975

 

 

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THE GLASS KINGDOM by Chris Flynn: Book Review

In closing my review of Chris Flynn’s novel A Tiger in Eden, I referred to the author’s bio which tells us that he was once a sumo-wrestling referee in a travelling fair and I noted there was a novel in that, for sure.

While The Glass Kingdom is not about a sumo-wrestling referee, it does centre on a travelling carnival.

glass kingdom

Part One is narrated by Corporal Benjamin Wallace, a man I warmed to immediately (although if Ben was real, he wouldn’t take kindly to my choice of words there). I felt a great empathy for this big bear of a disfigured soldier, despite the fact that he’s a hell of a bad-assed drug dealer. Flynn is good at getting the reader to care about what should be an unsympathetic character.  He certainly did that in A Tiger in Eden and he’s done it again here in The Glass Kingdom. However, my sympathy and empathy didn’t quite extend to Mikey Dempster (more about him later).

Benjamin’s injuries (sickening burns and psychological trauma) come courtesy of his tour in Uruzgan but there are other injuries dating back to his childhood when this son of a “tattooed lady who swallowed swords and danced wearing naught but her ink” (104) and a repugnant and controlling father, tried to run away from the travelling show.

Benjamin/Ben/Benji/the soljer has a way of looking at the world through blood-tinted glasses.  He’s a sharp-shooting, hard-living, tough-talking guy who tells it like it is, sometimes with a wry smile:

Just as well nine mils weren’t available to young blokes in Australia.  There’d be no men aged fourteen to thirty left standing.  The dickheads would all shoot each other. (11)

The travelling carnival can be a lively affair but there are nights when drought and poverty and unemployment can be a drag on the spirits.  Flynn has the down-and-out country family down pat:

The kids would stare at the shiny rides with their hollowed-out eyes and occasionally risk a pleading stare at their fathers.  The men would gaze into the middle distance, giving a shake of the head. (15)

Inside a country pub, Ben elbows his way through “a crowd of flannel shirts” (25) where the dance floor is “obscured by a forest of thin denim legs” (27) and you can soon tell that, with his sidekick Mikey on the loose, the proverbial is going to hit the fan.  When it does, the fight scene comes to life frighteningly on the page.

It’s a very Australian novel in a kind of outback, commodore-loving, laconic way where drivers chuck “a skidding uey” (52) and fights break out in pubs at the drop of a hat.  “A Mustang’s all well and good,” muses Ben about his girlfriend’s dream car “until the fucken exhaust falls off in the middle of the Hume” (48).

In this first part, the character of Mikey is an absolute gem and a perfect foil for the taciturn Ben. Mikey, with his outrageously funny hip-hop rap is basically a “grommet from Freo” (13) [for those unfamiliar with Aussie slang; that’s a young surfer from Fremantle in Western Australia] who’s hoisting up his pants and puffing out his chest and trying to make some sort of mark on the world without expending too much energy.

Part Two ‘Voltan, Master of Electricity’, is narrated by an ageing electrician and life-long member of the travelling Fair whose memories will fade as his dementia increases and this section serves as a clever device to highlight some of the difficulties Ben endured as a youngster.  Voltan’s reminiscences help to solidify our sympathy for Ben:

He left the Kingdom for good, one fateful autumn day, and he died, that boy, in some foreign desert. I mourn his passing when I think of him.  Someone else came back, you see – a man none of us knew, a man utterly changed, a young prince returned from the great war of our time to reclaim his throne. (116)

Voltan has a story of his own and when I read “That tale is for another day…” (105), it occurred to me that it might not be the last we hear of this quirky character.  I am confident there would be a worthy story in the life of this son of a miner who was followed to Australia across the ocean by “something of the dread atmosphere in the mining village” (105).

Part Three is narrated by Mikey (AKA Mekong Delta) and it is here where my interest in the story waned. I enjoyed Mikey when I saw him through Ben’s eyes “(there was a tiny bit of handsome hidden underneath that fake-gangster exterior)” (20) but couldn’t warm to him on his own. The argot of this wannabe US gangster-rap hip-hop Aussie lout, while perfectly realised, becomes too much of a strain to read, once his character becomes the focus.  In addition, I couldn’t find the sympathy I’d mustered for Ben and I just yearned for the soldier to come back and take the starring role again.

When Ben did eventually return in ‘O Dark Hundred’, it didn’t satisfy me.  He seemed to have lost his original voice and slightly morphed into something half Ben/half Mikey with a bit of silliness thrown into the mix.

In a desperate bid to get some perspective on my ambivalence toward the latter part of the book, I searched for any similar questions raised by other reviewers.  Of the few reviews I found, no-one’s climbing in my boat. Tony Birch reviewed The Glass Kingdom for the Australian Book Review and Alan Vaarwerk (who found Mikey to be a “real stand-out”) reviewed for ReadingsJames Tierney (Sydney Morning Herald) goes so far as to dub part three, in Mikey’s voice, as “quite simply a tour-de-force”.  So, clearly, I am alone on choppy seas when it comes to my dislike of the manic Mikey and my resentment that he played such a big part.

I am pleased to say that my non-relationship with Mikey was not enough to negate the fascinating, rampaging romp that is the first part of the novel and, coming on the back of A Tiger in Eden, I feel The Glass Kingdom has cemented Flynn as a writer of considerable muscle. Can’t wait for the next one.

My thanks, once again, to ANZ Litlovers where this review is cross-posted.

BOOK DETAIL:
Flynn, Chris. The Glass Kingdom, The Text Publishing Company, Melbourne, 2014.
ISBN: 9 781922 147882

 

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