Tag Archives: short stories

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 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.

SetHeight200-1462TroubleWithFlyingFinalCoverweb

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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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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Meatloaf in Manhattan by Robert Power: Book Review

The title story in Robert Power’s 2014 collection (Transit Lounge) took out second place in The Age short story award in 2011.  The tale spotlights both the gullibility and the callousness of a young man visiting the Big Apple. What better place than New York to purchase dried onion rings masquerading as weed and to pose as a blind guy as a pickup ruse, only to let it all loose with barely a flicker of guilt after Budweiser and Wild Turkey work their magic. It’s a sad tale in a jaded sort of way but also quite funny.  The hallway in the apartment in which Frank dosses is piled high with newspapers,  ‘A bit like the trenches in the First World War, but drier’ (25) and the mattress sports ‘cigarette burns that look like bullet holes’ leading Frank to picture it as an execution backdrop (26).

Meatloaf

Firenze & Snowball is a bittersweet tale of the lure of alternative lives available in online worlds.  In this case, the online world is ‘Alterlife’ which is, as far as I can ascertain, a fictional account of ‘Second Life’.  Some years ago, I did an anthropological study of ‘Second Life’ and can attest to its ability to provide a completely believable alternative universe (in which one can easily and subconsciously replicate unwanted traits and experiences).

In the case of Power’s story, Snowball (so called because ‘he’s so white on account of being indoors so much with his head in a computer’ (14)) scores a gig for his ‘songwriter Goth’ best friend.  Circumstances cascade until the fictional singer/songwriter ‘Firenze’ hits the big time.  It is a story about money and what it can and cannot buy, and it has something profound to say about friendship and happiness.

In ‘She calls her boy Amazing’, Ny is a young Vietnamese boy adored by his mother despite a ghastly conception at the hands of bedraggled and filthy men with ‘sea-madness in their faces, deep scars on their souls’ (38)’.  When Ny finds himself motherless, Old Man Luc becomes his guardian and mentor.  Luc eventually arranges for Ny to go to school in Ho Chi Minh City. ‘And then, who knows how wide your wings will spread, how far you will fly?’ (45). Luc assures his young charge, who has never stopped hoping for his mother’s return, that he will watch out for her every night. ‘I will go to the platform and tell her of your progress and she will smile and be at peace’ (45).

I will be in Vietnam next month and will quite possibly scour the railroad platform in Danang looking for an ‘Old Man Luc’ to sell me a bouquet of flowers and I will think of a little boy like Ny far away at school.

‘The Visit’ showcases an unusual playing with the narrative mode so that the narrator speaks of his mother thus:  ‘Once, though it feels like an age away now, she was tall and strong and as sharp as a pin’ and then switches (within the same paragraph) to ‘How I loved being with you then’ (48-49). This she/you switch is clever and seems to complement the flow of the narrative beautifully.  Power’s word choices and sentence structures throughout ‘The Visit’ indicate an unhurried and well-edited manner of working.

I sit opposite the woman who is my mother.  Her hair, long whitened by the twist of her mind, is now yellowed by surrender.’ (47)

‘The I Zingari Cap’, ‘Zorro the Chess Master’ and ‘Synge’s Chair’ all touch on father/son relationships and the circle of life, and ‘The Shoe Lovers’ is delightfully clever with the twist it hints at in the opening paragraph and the altogether unexpected one that is delivered on the closing page.

‘Grooming’ is more of a plot-driven piece (where most of the other stories seemed to explore character to a greater extent) and the plot is just a little too contrived. Conversely, ‘Buffalo Bill and the Psychiatrist’, while obscure, is both darkly funny and maddeningly thought-provoking.

One of my favourite shorts in this collection is ‘The Postman Gets a Letter’.  The Postman is a beautifully realised character who has tried to make life easier for his depressed wife by finding her a caravan by the sea where she can nurture her wounded soul.  At the same time and in the absence of romance, excitement and/or children, he has channelled his energies into the all-consuming hobby of chronicling the history of the country town in which he lives.

The Postman’s wife reveals her unhappiness – and eventually the secret she has kept from him – by way of a letter she writes from ‘down on the tip of Port Phillip Bay’ (174) with ‘the waves heaving back and forth, oblivious forever to the fears and joys of those passing by’ (165-166). Her demons are stronger than their love, she writes to her husband.  When she tells him of the back story she has invented of a ‘tall, handsome, teenage son’ (169), it’s time for the tissue box. This mythical son has a name and a sense of humour, and she has a reserve of created ‘memories’.  It is, indeed, heartbreaking.

The Postman has a secret of his own and it is amusing to wonder about the impact of his secret on the lives of so many people.  There could be another set of stories in that.

This collection was produced with the assistance of the Australia Council for the Arts.  It’s engaging short fiction and I’m sure I’ll be dipping back into it from time to time.

My thanks to Lisa Hill of ANZ LitLovers where this review is cross-posted.

BOOK DETAIL:
Power, Robert. Meatloaf in Manhattan, Transit Lounge, Melbourne. 2014.
ISBN: 978-1-921924-64-4

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KNITTING and other Stories (Ed. Richard Rossiter): Book Review

There was one little book that packed a powerful punch for me last year.  It was the compact, concise, compelling collection of short stories Things that are Found in Trees (my review).  The stories were selected from entries to the inaugural Margaret River Writing Competition.  I loved the book and I’ve had a bit of a soft spot for Margaret River Press ever since so I was delighted to be asked to review the anthology resulting from this year’s competition.

Knitting and other Stories is a larger collection (24 stories) presented in conventional paperback form with a great knit-look cover (designed by Susan Miller).

Knitting

Barry Divola’s winning entry ‘Knitting’ is a brilliant stand-out story.  He nails his characters, from the perfect depictions of a bogan neighbour (who is basically a language-challenged, ugg boot wearing mother of a scowling five year old in a Hello Kitty T-shirt), to an aside on gallery openings:

The cheap wine, the cheap opinions, the cheap people.  And the horror of someone coming up to you as you’re looking at a picture and asking ‘So what do you think?’ (21)

‘Knitting’ is beautifully structured with a mystery posed early by way of ‘seven years of silence, no reconciliation’ (23) between mother and daughter:  the same mother and daughter who had once silently knitted together, their needles forming a ‘soft click-clack like a morse code from one to the other.’ (22)  The narrator’s recollection of the man ‘who called himself Blaze (when his name was Craig)’ (23) is hysterically funny.

Sally Naylor-Hampson won second prize for ‘Laps’, a story of a secretive sexual awakening: ‘I could think of nothing but naked breast against steering wheel.  Bare back to dashboard.  Heaving thighs on seat.’ (156-157).

‘I Shine, Not Burn’ (Vahri McKenzie) won the South West Writer Prize with an introverted look at life and death and memories.  Here’s the narrator reminiscing after her grandmother’s death: ‘She made the best of a bad lot and stoically refused to name the bad lot for what it was.’ (101)

Kristen Levitzke was Highly Commended in the Open Category for her haunting depiction of postnatal depression in ‘Solomon’s Baby’ and I think this is my favourite from the collection for the emotion it sucks from the reader and the questions it leaves.

I was honest, I didn’t lie.  ‘I did it.  It was my fault.’ And I said it over and over, ‘My fault. My fault…my fault…’ I know I alternated the intonation like a song, but it was all that I said, one confession strung like a pearl to the next. (47)

Not easily forgotten.

Jacqueline Wright shows finely-honed word skills in ‘My Mother and the Robber’. A city apartment is described thus: ‘It was Fort Knox material soaring fifteen stories into the belly of a midsummer Perth Sky’ (68).  Ultimately though, the story left me slightly baffled and unsatisfied, as did Gemma Nisbet’s ‘Walking Home’ and ‘Playing with Ramirez’ by Paulette Gittins.

Hilary Hewitt shows a wry humour in ‘The Cushion Phase’: ‘…his eyes are the most tempting colour, like seventy per cent Lindt.  Google is quite clear about the beneficial effects of dark chocolate.’ (114). I enjoyed Margaret Everingham’s humour too in ‘Father Figure’.

Another standout is Barbara Knight’s ‘I am Alien’, a clever look at the influences that shape us, from our families to our peers.  The story shows how easily innocence can rupture through little more than apathy, with corruption and sordidness speedily replacing it.

There are certainly some fine stories here. But I have one concern; the seemingly contrived way each story segues from its predecessor.

For example, ‘Laps’ (Naylor-Hampson) features a young surfer and is preceded by another surfing tale (‘That Summer at Manly’ by John Jenkins). A Pregnancy is central to Divola’s ‘Knitting’ as it is to the story that follows, ‘Off the Map’ (Dorothy Simmons).  Amanda Clarke’s ‘The Girl on the Train’ is immediately followed by another train story ‘Kissing Tracks’ by Alyssa Davies. Two thirty-nine-year-old women in Paris (‘The bees of Paris’, Bindy Pritchard), are immediately followed by ‘Francesca Lombardo, aged thirty-nine’ (292) in John Dale’s ‘Expressway’(which is an entertaining and humorous contemporary tale about a Virgin Mary shrine or a murky stain on the concrete wall of the expressway, depending on your point of view).  One father story is followed by another, drugs features in a story and the next one runs with the same theme. After a while, it starts to resemble tag team story-telling.

I find it disconcerting to see themes and patterns emerging from what should be an eclectic collection and I’m not convinced that stories from different authors (competition entries) need to be presented in this way unless they are pieces written to a specific theme.  Still, it’s a minor quibble.

After completing my review, I searched the net to see what others think but didn’t stumble across anything, apart from a considered review from Anne Skyvington in which she names her three favourites.

So I figured I would do the same as Skyvington and share my favourites here, along with some info from the ‘Notes on Contributors’ (which I didn’t read until I’d picked my three):

  • Kristen Levitzke for ‘Solomon’s Baby’. Perth-based teacher, writer, mother. This is a superb story that I don’t think I will ever forget. ‘Solomon’s Baby’ is fearless and thought-provoking.
  • Barry Divola for ‘Knitting’.  Sydney working journo with seven books to his credit. “one wife, one daughter, one cat and no hair”.  I would have preferred to give another writer a ‘moment in the sun’ but I just can’t go past this judges’ favourite.
  • Barbara Knight for ‘I am Alien’. Ah! What a joy to include a ‘late bloomer (75, writing seriously for just eight years), and a fellow Tasmanian to boot! (Incidentally, if you had asked me which story was written by a 75-year-old retiree, I would never have guessed it was ‘I am Alien’).

I hope some of my blog visitors (or visitors to ANZ Litlovers where this review is cross-posted) will purchase this latest publication from Margaret River Press (available here) and, if you do, please come back and let us know your three favourite stories.

BOOK DETAIL:
Knitting and other stories. Ed, Richard Rossiter, Margaret River Press, Witchcliffe WA, 2013.
ISBN 978-0-97872180-8-7

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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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REVENGE by Yoko Ogawa: Book Review

There are some shocking passages in this collection of interwoven short stories from Yoko Ogawa but the one that has lingered longest in my mind is the one I unwittingly stumbled into first.

‘Afternoon at the Bakery’ is full of beauty, appealing to the senses with a sky that is a “cloudless dome of sunlight”, the gentle sounds of a woman knitting and a man making balloon animals, the sweet scent of vanilla in the bakery, two women talking softly, casually.  One of the women has come to buy two strawberry shortcakes for her son’s birthday.

‘How old is he?’ asks her fellow customer.

“Six.  He’ll always be six.  He’s dead.”(4)

The three little sentences stunned me.

The reaction of the other woman is interesting, totally unconventional, and yet somehow fitting.  And the glimpses we are given into the reconciliation of the bereaved woman with her grief are heart-wrenchingly believable.

‘Fruit Juice’ is a strange tale that I read twice but I am still not sure if the messages I took from it were intended by the author.  “I could only watch and wait until she ate through her sadness” (23) led me to reflect on the debilitation of anorexia, bulimia and overeating but ‘Fruit Juice’ also has something to say about the passage of time and its effect on grief so that tears are finally released as “sadness was coming to her peacefully from the distant past.” (24)

Ogawa seems to have fun weaving the fabric of her stories from within and without so, for example, a mother’s death from an infection in the nose translates thus:-

“Until that woman came to live with us, a mother to me was no more than a metallic sensation in the back of my nose.” (41)

‘Broken Heart’ is almost too surreal for words: a heart that sits on the outside of a body, an obsessive bag-maker, and a dead hamster somehow all combine to tell a story, the point of which totally eludes me.  I get an understanding of the literality of a broken heart but not enough for this piece to work for me.

There is some sublime writing.  This from ‘Welcome to the Museum of Torture’:-

“But the air was stale, as though the room were holding its breath, and the only thing that moved was the light from the windows when the oak leaves fluttered outside.” (87)

‘The Man Who Sold Braces’ perfectly captures the romantic adventurousness of an uncle who materialises every so often and brightens up the mundane life of his nephew. But, ultimately, it is a sad story in a ‘cats in the cradle’ kind of way.

Kind of creepy, sometimes scary, occasionally downright weird, Revenge is a wildly thought-provoking work written, I believe, by someone who is no stranger to grief. Now that I come to think of it, the collection could just as easily have been given the title of Grief as Revenge.

Some reviews of interest:

For Rhoda Feng at the Huffington Post – ‘Reading Yoko Ogawa is akin to watching a film by David Lynch’

Stu at Winstons Dad – likens the collection to a Japanese puzzle box.

I agree with Lisa Hill when she writes in her review at ANZ LitLovers that the Revenge Collection does seem ‘Japanese’ in its preoccupations, despite not being overtly so in setting.

BOOK DETAIL:
Ogawa, Yoko. Revenge, translated to English by Stephen Snyder, Harvill Secker, 2013.
ISBN 978-1-846-55502-2

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