Sunday, 17 April 2016

Lives of Girls and Women

Tegan Bennett Daylight's collection of short stories explore the messiness of growing up, the awkward age between teen and adult, and the angst of figuring yourself out. Six Bedrooms (2015) is a delightful read and a worthy contender for the Stella Prize.

The ten stories that make up the collection have a central coming-of-age theme. Characters recur across the stories, tying the stories together. When we first meet Tasha in "Like a Virgin" she is fifteen years old, drinking with her friend Judy. She appears again in "Firebugs", "the Bridge" and finally as an adult with a child herself in "Together Alone". While we witness Tasha growing up and maturing, the characters in the other stories tie in well.

Many of the stories are set in Sydney in the 1980s and 1990s. The protagonists are misfits, stumbling along, trying to fit in despite their lack of confidence. There are recurring themes -  loss from absent friends and family, self-doubt and inexperience, sexual desire and betrayal.

My favourite stories in the collection were "Six Bedrooms" about living in a Sydney share house, a situation that was instantly relatable, "J'aime Rose" about unrequited love, and "Trouble" about sisters living in London. The glimpses into the lives of flawed characters resonated long after the story ended.

What I really liked about Daylight's writing is how crisp she is with her prose. She treats the reader intelligently and does not over-explain. Leaving space for the reader to reflect and draw our own conclusions, she presents these vignettes like memories from old postcards or photographs - incomplete yet vivid. The best short story writers, like Alice Munro, do this exceedingly well.

I have not read Daylight's previous novels Bombora (1996), What Falls Away (2001) or Safety (2006) but I have heard her speak at the Sydney Writers' Festival and elsewhere. She is incredibly gifted and I look forward to exploring her other work.

Monday, 11 April 2016

Cyber security

Growing up in Toronto in the 1980s there were a number of kids my age abducted and killed. Leslie Mahaffy, Alison Parrott, Kristin French, Sharin' Morningstar Keenan are just a few of the girls whose tragic ends were embedded in my mind as a cautionary tale against stranger danger. In those days, we kids would play outside in laneways and parks until the streetlights came on, we were all too aware of the looming threat of creepy strangers.

Today there are still a lot of creeps, but they lurk in different shadows, behind proxy servers, pseudonyms and online identities. They troll the internet and engage in predatory grooming of unsuspecting young people who are just looking for friendship, love or adventure.

Fleur Ferris'debut young adult novel Risk (2015) centres on two fifteen year old girls who have been best friends since birth. Sierra is gregarious, full of life and always up for excitement. Taylor is more reserved, living with her mum after her dad's passing a few years earlier. Both are navagating the awkward teenage years of high school, first loves, parents and friendships.

Sierra has been grounded and is not allowed to use the Internet. So one day at Taylor's, Sierra strikes up an online chat with a man named Jacob Jones. He says he is only a year or two older, goes to a local school and has a lot in common with her. Jacob sends Sierra a photo; she swoons and makes plans to meet him on Friday after school. When Sierra doesn't return from her date, Taylor gets plunged into the world of online predators. 

RIsk is an interesting novel. Admittedly I am not the target audience for this book, but I really enjoyed it. The novel could have been preachy and dull, instead it gave a solid message to young people about online safety. The characters felt real and believable. The story keeps momentum and comes to a satisfying conclusion. 

Ferris herself has an interesting backstory. Before turning to writing she was a police officer and a paramedic. She is acutely aware of the dangers young people can face and the need to talk openly with children about cyber safety.  I would recommend this book, especially to parents and young people.

Saturday, 9 April 2016

Ready for SWF2016

The program for the Sydney Writers' Festival was officially released on 31 March 2016. With hundreds of events over a week of literary festival goodness, it is really hard to choose what to see. Plus, with so many good sessions pitted against one another, and popular talks starting to sell out, I had to decide, coordinate with festival friends and get my tickets booked.

Fortunately I am able to take some time off work so I can attend four full days of the festival and maximise my literary overload. I will be tweeting and blogging from the event, but thought I would give a quick preview of who I will be seeing at the festival.

  • Emma Alberici, Australian journalist and Lateline host
  • Julian Barnes, Booker prize winning author
  • Rosie Batty, Australian of the Year 2015
  • Tegan Bennett Daylight, Australian fiction writer 
  • Stephanie Bishop, Australian author
  • Bob Brown, environmentalist and former Greens leader
  • William Boyd, author and screenwriter
  • Julian Burnside QC, barrister and human rights lawyer
  • Annabel Crabb, Australian journalist
  • Matthew Condon, author and journalist
  • Marie Darrieussecq, French novelist and Charlie Hebdo writer
  • Jonathan Franzen, bestselling American author
  • Anna Funder, award winning Australian author
  • Peter Garrett, Midnight Oil frontman, former MP
  • Ann Goldstein, translator for Elena Ferrante
  • Elizabeth Harrower, legendary Australian author
  • Paula Hawkins, journalist and author
  • Marlon James, Booker prize winning author
  • Deepti Kapoor, Indian novelist
  • Paul Kelly, editor at large The Australian
  • Herman Koch, screenwriter and columnist
  • Benjamin Law, screenwriter and journalist
  • George Megalogenis, award winning Australian Journalist
  • Drusilla Modjeska, Australian author
  • Frank Moorhouse, Australian author and screenwriter
  • Tara Moss, Canadian/Australian novelist
  • Susie Orbach, Feminist icon and psychotherapist
  • Yeonmi Park, human rights activist and North Korean defector
  • John Purcell, Australian author
  • Leigh Sales, Australian journalist
  • Margot Saville, political commentator
  • Niki Savva, Australian journalist
  • Babette Smith, historian
  • Tim Soutphommasane, Australian Race Discrimination Commissioner
  • Gloria Steinem, Feminist icon
  • Samanth Subramanian, Indian journalist
  • Mark Tedeschi, barrister and true crime author
  • Lucy Treloar, Australian author
  • Peter van Onselen, Australian journalist
  • Jeanette Winterson, award winning British author
  • Fiona Wright, Australian poet
  • Xu Zhiyuan, Chinese intellectual

So now I have six weeks left to finish reading the many books I bought at last year's festival to free me from any guilt about buying more. Who am I kidding? I never feel guilty about buying and reading books!

Also: my blog posts from the 2015 Sydney Writers' Festival are available.

Thursday, 7 April 2016

Miles Franklin Award Longlist 2016

Since 1957, the Miles Franklin Award is a leading literary prize in Australia established by the estate of Stella Miles Franklin. Recent past winners include:
  • Sofia Laguna for The Eye of the Sheep (2015)
  • Evie Wyld for All the Birds, Singing (2014)
  • Michelle de Krester for Questions of Travel (2013)
  • Anna Funder for All That I Am (2012)

On 5 April 2016, the longlist for the 2016 Award was announced with 9 nominees, including several that are also in the running for the Stella Prize for women. The longlisted titles are:

Ghost River by Tony Birch
A coming of age story centring on the friendship between two boys, Sonny and Ren. Set in Melbourne in the late 1960s, the two boys spend their days on the banks of the Yarra, befriending some homeless 'river men'. Tony Birch wrote Shadowboxing (2006) and Blood (2011), the latter was shortlisted for this award.

Coming Rain by Stephen Daisley
Set in wheatbelt of Western Australia in 1955, two shearers have been travelling and working together since they were boys. This is a story of mateship, loss, and the environment. Daisley originally hails from New Zealand. His first novel Traitor (2011) won the Prime Minister's Literary Award.

Hope Farm by Peggy Frew
In this coming of age story set in the 1980s, thirteen year old Silver is taken to a hippie commune by her mother.  Silver longs for stability, while her mother is infatuated by the new man in her life. Mother-daughter relationships, growing up, belonging and first loves are explored. This is the second novel from Frew, after her award winning debut House of Sticks (2010). Frew's book is shortlisted for the Stella Prize.

Leap by Myfanwy Jones                         Twenty-two year old Joe is existing, not living. He works dead end jobs, lives day to day, and has abandoned all ambitions. He is struggling with grief, loss, and guilt. Elsie too is struggling through a  bad marriage, spending her days watching tigers at the Melbourne Zoo, trying to cope with her grief. Author of The Rainy Season (2009), Jones is a Melbourne based writer.

The World Without Us by Mireille Juchau
Juchau is a well regarded Australian author who has previously been shortlisted for various literary awards. This, her third novel, is about the Muller family who reside on a farm on the north coast of New South Wales. Grieving the loss of a child, Evangeline is no longer able to paint and struggles to care for her remaining daughters. Her apiarist husband also mourns and seeks solace in drink.
The Hands - An Australian Pastoral by Stephen Orr
Set on a cattle station in western South Australia, this novel explores the relationships between three generations of one farming family. Orr is the author of Time's Long Ruin (2010) - about the disappearance of the Beaumont children - and crime novel One Boy Missing (2014).

Black Rock White City by A C Patric                A Serbian couple have migrated to Melbourne after the Bosnian war. Jovan is a cleaner at a hospital while Suzanah is a carer. Both have unseen scars from the trauma of war, as they rebuild themselves in a new land. AC Patric is an award winning author of short stories, including Las Vegas for Vegans, and this is his first novel. 

Salt Creek by Lucy Treloar                                     It's 1855 and fifteen year old Hester Finch lives in Adelaide with her family. Her father decides to move the family to Salt Creek, a remote property in South Australia. Here they learn about the Ngarrindjeri people and adapt to a new life. Treloar is best known for her short stories. Salt Creek is her debut novel.

The Natural Way of Things
 by Charlotte Wood  (read review)
Wood's novel has been compared to Margaret Atwood's A Handmaid's Tale and as such is definitely on my reading list. Two women are drugged and taken to an isolated property where they find they are imprisoned with eight other girls. Each has a common past for which they are being punished in this powerful feminist novel.

The Shortlist will be announced in May 2016 with the prize announced in June 2016. My money is on Charlotte Wood.

One other note: the Miles Franklin Award has its own website, but this year all info appears to have been directed to a section of its trustee Perpetual's website. Why?  This is rather disappointing and  points to a degree of commercialism that distracts from the rich history of the award. Just sayin'.

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Newcastle Writer's Festival

Last weekend I travelled to Newcastle to attend a couple of sessions at its annual writer's festival on a whim. I had only heard about the festival a few days earlier, but quickly booked into two sessions on the last day of the event and organised my travel. It was an early start, leaving home shortly after 5am to catch the train north in order to get to Newcastle before 10am. The Festival was held in the beautiful Civic Theatre.

The Independent: Tony Windsor in conversation with David Marr
Our first session was with former MP Tony Windsor. Apparently the original session was to be Sarah Ferguson talking about her book The Killing Season Uncut - based on her series about the Rudd/Gillard years. The book is not yet published so she didn't appear, but Ferguson is scheduled for the Sydney Writer's Festival in May and will come back to Newcastle for a standalone event.

Tony Windsor was an excellent choice for her replacement. He is warm, personable, intelligent, honest and passionate. Plus, he has just announced his intention to run for office again against Deputy PM Barnaby Joyce. David Marr is always delightful as he probes and ponders and keeps the momentum going in the conversation.

They spoke about Windsor's book, Windsor's Way, based on his time in the hung Australian parliament. Marr half-jokingly referred to the book as Windsor's re-election manifesto.

Windsor shared tales of the negotiations for the balance of power and the difference between Gillard and Abbott's approach. Integrity, honour and commitment are clearly important to Windsor. Abbott wanted to be Prime Minister and would do anything for it. Windsor felt that any commitments Abbott gave were untrue. Gillard, on the other hand, spoke about what she wanted to do for Australia. She was interested in policy not position. Ultimately, Tony Windsor and Rob Oakshot felt Gillard was more trustworthy, with clear policies, and so handed her the hung parliament.

On Gillard, Windsor said he had immense personal regard for her. She has a strong intellect and can get across issues quickly. He recounted how she would face all sorts of pressure from the media and the opposition and was working in a really toxic environment, but then would sit down with him and have a cup of tea. He never felt like she was disinterested or didn't have time.

The reason for returning to politics is because he cannot sit by and watch what is happening in Canberra. He wants to stand up for Gonski reforms, the original NBN, water rights, climate change and regional issues. As a farmer, he is passionate about environmental and connectivity issues.

The hour with Windsor and Marr went too quickly. I would have liked to have heard more from both of them. But I will watch the upcoming election with interest and wish Windsor well in his attempts to regain his seat.

Tony Windsor and David Marr

Reality Bites: Fiction writers inspired by real life
The next session was a panel discussion about how real life inspires and informs fiction writing. Angela Savage, crime writer, chaired the panel and asked insightful questions of the guests.

Rod Jones spoke about how his family inspired his latest book The Mothers.  The story focuses on three generations of women in working class Melbourne. Alma falls pregnant during WWI and her daughter is born in secret and given up for adoption. In 1952 Anna goes to a Salvation Army home for unmarried mothers when she has her baby. In 1975 Cathy and David are unmarried and expecting a child.

Each generation of the story was inspired by Jones' life and the history of adoptions, hardships and the institutionalisation of young women that shadows Australia. Jones said that he used 'autobiographical writing to explore the dark corners of myself'. He spoke of the difficulty in exploring these dark corners and the challenge of pulling the novel together. He said he had no qualms about drawing on real life in his family, and that while there are facts within this novel it remains fiction.

Fleur Ferris is a former police officer and paramedic. She has written a young adult novel Risk which focus on two fifteen year olds that meet a man online with disastrous consequences. A mother to three daughters, Ferris was inspired to write this because of her background and real events she had heard about. For example, she knew of a teenager that was a good kid, not looking for trouble, but trouble found her when she began sharing photos to a man she met online. Ferris wrote this book to speak about internet dangers and now spends time speaking to school groups about internet dangers.

Charlotte Wood spoke about her book The Natural Way of Things which was inspired by the Hay Institution, where young women were incarcerated and subjected to sadistic brutality. She said she started writing a historical book, but when she heard of the woman in the Army who was punished for speaking out about rape - the so called Skype Slut - she realised that this was a contemporary tale.  Wood said she writes fiction to process how she feels about things. She also said she did not feel that she could write a historical fiction set in the Hay Institute because many of the women there have gone on to write their own accounts and she did not want to take away their story when they already had so much taken from them.

Jaye Ford is a crime writer and her latest psychological thriller is Darkest Place. She was inspired to write this because she had a 'creepy thought' about what it would be like to feel like there is a stranger in your house but be unable to prove it. She then came across a newspaper article about a man who had broken into a number of homes to watch women while they slept. Her creepy thought expanded and became the novel. In the book Carly Townsend has moved into a new apartment in Newcastle and wakes to find a man standing over her. The police search the home and find nothing. When it happens again, the police begin to doubt her and think she is seeking attention.

The panel spoke about the importance of character, the ethics of writing from real life and the challenges of fictionalising real events. It was an interesting session and I am glad I attended, although it was sad that there were so few people in the audience. Of the panelists, I had only known of Charlotte Wood, so it was wonderful to be introduced to new Australian authors.

Angela Savage, Rod Jones, Fleur Ferris, Charlotte Wood and Jaye Ford

After the session I purchased a copy of Fleur Ferris' Risk and a copy of Charlotte Wood's earlier novel Animal People, and got these signed by the authors. I started reading Risk on the train ride home and will blog about that shortly.

It was a lovely day and, after a pub lunch in a micro-brewery, we had a quiet afternoon strolling Newcastle's sunny streets and beaches.

Nobby's beach, Newcastle
The Newcastle Writers Festival is a much smaller event than the Sydney Festival and has a different vibe. I was saddened to see such low attendance at a the event and the Twitter backchannel was not very active. While I only saw a small snapshot of the Festival, I would definitely come back to Newcastle for future festivals and would encourage greater attendance at this literary event.