BIG SKY

Right there on the cover it says ‘A Jackson Brodie novel”.

But Jackson Brodie is just one circle in an intricate Venn diagram of characters. From the first page, the diagram is proliferating and intersecting wildly. Private investigator Brodie (ex-army, ex-police) is bruised but not beaten by life. He’s moved to a small seaside town in North Yorkshire. His days are spent in undemanding snooping – such as keeping an eye on an unfaithful husband. There’s his teenage son Nathan and elderly Labrador Dido, visiting courtesy of ex-girlfriend Julia. Then there are golfing chums Tommy, Andy and Vince and their wives Crystal, Rhoda and Wendy. Their lawyer mate Steven. Police officers Reggie and Ronnie. Tommy’s son Harry. Drag queen Bunny. Russian sisters Katja and Nadja. Washed-up comedian Barclay Jack. Undercover operative Tatiana. And more.

Big Sky is fast, surprising and amazingly, all the separate threads (different metaphor now, sorry) link these diverse characters. It’s also at times almost comical in its plot contrivances and coincidences. Often it’s just plain funny. All this, in a novel that involves child sexual abuse and sexual trafficking.

I raced through Big Sky. Now I’m determined read back through the Jackson Brodies – Case Histories, One Good Turn, When Will There Be Good News and Started Early, Took My Dog. By the way, isn’t Kate Atkinson great with titles?

Also read: The Weekend by Charlotte Wood.
Three women, friends since early womanhood, gather to clean out the house of their dead friend Sylvie. They share a long history because they’re all in their seventies.  Jude, now retired, ran a famous restaurant; Wendy is a renowned writer and academic: Adele is an actor, once sought after, now past her prime. It’s a familiar set-up for movies and popular fiction but don’t expect an uplifting Big Chill vibe. It’s not that kind of book.
Wood is a skillful and perceptive writer; her powers of observation are acute and often hilarious; she’s able to skewer pretensions and self-delusions with steely accuracy. There were also a couple of set pieces that had me in awe of Wood’s skill and perception. The hellish drinks party had me squirming but the scene where actor Adele re-experiences the rush – the ultimate high – of access to the spiritual, universal, creative power at the centre of her art is an amazing piece of writing.

I’ve read reviews that praised this novel for its compassion but I have to say I couldn’t find much. Maybe as an older woman (and I must say, one who is delighted to be alive, upright and have a Senior’s Card) I baulked at the many descriptions of the female body in decline. Crepey necks, bulging flesh, aches and pains and weak bladders… However, I suppose the tone of repulsed fascination is an accurate reflection of the way, in our society, we fetishise the young and the beautiful and reject the old.
My colleague at the bookshop loved this novel; I said I found it cruel. I told her, “I just wanted to save the characters from their creator!”
And she pointed out that meant Wood had succeeded at the highest level; I thought Jude, Wendy and Adele were real.

 

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BRUNY

A Tasmanian political thriller?
How unexpected. And not what I would have predicted as a follow-up from Heather Rose, who was awarded the 2017 Stella for Museum of Modern Love. Bruny is a gripping novel about corruption and influence and dirty deals of world-shaking importance set – I have to say this again – in Tasmania. Who would have thought?

A massive bridge, costing billions, is being built to connect the mainland of Tasmania to Bruny Island, using Commonwealth funding and Chinese steel.  The local community is divided. Various protest groups have formed to protect the beautiful, isolated island and its picture-postcard lifestyle from change. Other groups and individuals in this most impoverished state are pro-development. State and federal politicans are also predictably divided along party lines. As the novel begins, an explosion destroys part of the bridge – and no-one claims responsibility.

This is where the narrator, Astrid Coleman (“Ace”) returns to Tasmania from New York, where she’s lived for many years. She’s a UN mediator, called in to “manage” the situation. She’s also the daughter of an ex-Tasmanian Labour premier, and the sister of the current Liberal premier. She steps into a tangled web of political corruption and intrigue and family drama.

I won’t give spoilers. This was perfect rainy weekend reading, with fast moving plot, uncomplicated and easy-to-read prose and a real currency in the central issues. Astrid is a compelling narrator;  professional, intelligent, world-weary  – but still optimistic – and her family complications add a touch of humanity to the political sleaze and slime. Some of the plot did, on reflection, strain credibility but then I sometimes have a great sense of unreality when I read the news. Bruny is fun and thought-provoking, a good mix.

Bruny by Heather Rose, Allen&Unwin 2019 $32.95

 

 

 


 


 

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ISLAND STORY

I’ve vowed to read more. All of this (cold, cold) winter and now into spring, I’ve spent many hours in the comfy chair knitting and watching British crime. Enough. I’ve made a decision; it’s time to read. I mean, really read, consistently. More new releases, more Australian writers. And more women. Thus Wolfe Island, the second novel by award-winning Melbourne writer Lucy Treloar.

Salt Creek, Treloar’s debut, was a historical novel set in the first half of the 19th century in the Coorong of South Australia. Wolfe Island is set a few years into the future, when low-lying land is being lost to the rising seas of the anthropocene.  The island is an imaginary place set in the real Chesapeake Bay in the US. Kitty Hawke, the last resident, lives a solitary life with her wolfdog Girl, patrolling the edges of her shrinking, sinking realm of marsh, shore and derelict houses. She’s fiercely independent, solitary, taciturn. A difficult woman? She’s also an artist, and her  sculptures – made from natural and found objects – she retrieves on her daily walks – are sought after by collectors.
Kitty wasn’t always alone. She maintains tenuous links with her husband Hart and daughter Claudie, with a couple of friends. Like all the other islanders, these people live on ‘the main’. Her son Tobe is dead.

One night her solitary life is disturbed.  A small boat arrives. It contains her teenage grand-daughter Cat, Cat’s handsome boyfriend Josh, and two strangers, Luis and his little sister Alejandra. It doesn’t take Kitty long to realise that Cat is pregnant: that Luis and Alejandra are ‘runners’, hunted by sinister law enforcement agents: and that they are all in big trouble. With the violent, unstable world outside Wolfe Island coming closer, it’s time to leave. They make the perilous journey to a border station so that Cat and her new baby, with Luis and Alejandra, can begin their a new life, in freedom.
But then, after Kitty’s done all she can for the young people, she has to get home. And it’s winter…

This novel is currently my top pick for customers looking for a literary novel. I tell them, think of Emily St John Mandel’s Station 11 or Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, only different. Lucy Treloar’s writing is precise, poetic and intensely lyrical. I lingered over her descriptions – the island world of marsh, shore, sea and marginal land; the badlands of ruined houses and farms; the scary little towns and settlements – all beautifully realised. But not slow or indulgent; the writing turns sharp and powerful it needs to, to show brutality, menace and danger. Suspense and action are layered with memory and history and meditation.  Wolfe Island is beautifully told, utterly believable, moving, memorable, profound. There’s so much here to think about. What kind of future are we sleepwalking into? Read it!

Wolfe Island by Lucy Treloar, Picador, 2019, RRP $29.99

 

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BIG MAGIC

I’m reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic, which I thought I’d read before, but maybe I hadn’t, because I thought I didn’t like it, but actually, now –  I think it’s great. Since so enjoying City of Girls and The Signature of All Things, I have a real liking for this writer and I thought I’d give this book another try. So glad I did. It’s full of funny, wise, sensible, utterly relatable advice about creative life.

Like this, on perfectionism.

…We don’t have time for perfect. In any case, perfectionism is unachievable. It’s a myth and a trap and a hamster wheel that will run you to death. The writer Rebecca Solnit puts it well: “So many of us believe in perfection, which ruins everything else, because the perfect is not only the enemy of the good; it’s also the enemy of the realistic, the possible and the fun”.

Perfectionism stops people from completing their work, yes – but it stops people from beginning their work. Perfectionists often decide in advance that the end product is never going to be satisfactory, so they don’t even bother trying to be creative in the first place.

The most evil trick about perfectionism, though, is that it disguises itself as a virtue. In job interviews, for instance, people will sometimes advertise their perfectionism as if it’s their greatest selling point – taking pride in the very thing that’s holding them back from enjoying their fullest possible engagement with creative living. Their wear their perfectionism like a badge of honour, as if it signals high tastes and exquisite standards.

I see it differently. I think perfectionism is just a high-end, couture version of fear. I think perfectionism is just fear in fancy shoes and mink coat, pretending to be elegant when actually it’s just terrified. Because underneath that shiny veneer, perfectionism is nothing more than a deep existential angst that says, again and again, “I am not good enough and I will never be good enough.”

My big breakthrough as a writer was when I decided to answer that voice that kept speaking over my shoulder. It whispered, or even sometimes shouted, “This is rubbish, this is crap, this is nonsense, this is so so so bad.” I didn’t dispute. I agreed!

“Yes, it’s crap, it’s rubbish, but you know what? I’m going to finish anyway.”

And I don’t think I’m going too far to say that “I’m going to finish” changed my life.

Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert, Bloomsbury 2015, pp166-7

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ARE WE BEING GOOD ANCESTORS?

I’d been planning to go to the Melbourne Climate Strike today ever since I heard it was on. This time, many adults were going to be there to support the school children. So I’m feeling sad today, as well as sore and sorry, because a nasty little virus had other plans for me.

Fittingly, I’m reading new climate change fiction – Lucy Treloar’s Wolfe Island – and I’ve just finished Robert MacFarlane’s astonishing Underland.

I’ve long been a fan of MacFarlane’s books. Wild Places and The Old Ways had me raving, recommending them to customers, friends, acquaintances, blog readers and just about everyone I knew. The bookshop where I work has these two titles shelved with Travel. But it’s not the best fit. In all of MacFarlane’s journeys there’s an exhilarating combination of adventure, physical challenge and even danger (so much of the latter, at times, that I’ve found myself thinking, “Robert, Robert, for God’s sake, you’ve got kids!”) with his extraordinary range of interests. How does this man know so much about paleontology, history, science, geography, geology, philosophy, mythology, art and literature?
We could of course shelve him in General Non-Fiction but that sounds a bit lame when you think about how much ground he covers.

In Underland, MacFarlane journeys underground. The underland, he writes, holds what we wish to protect, but also what we want to conceal; what we want to extract, but also what we want to lay to rest. He goes down to sites where the ancient dead were buried with love and care. To places where the bodies of people murdered in wartime were dumped, where cars and household rubbish have been tipped, where radioactive waste is buried to wait out the thousands of years it will take until it decays. To mines that spread out far under the earth and under sea,  and into vast caverns and through claustrophobically small underground passages. He explores the invisible city under the streets of Paris, starless rivers in the north-east of Italy, the hollow land under beautiful beech woods and mountains in Slovenia where bodies and relics of both world wars are entombed.

This seems to me the most personal of MacFarlane’s books. He reveals more of his emotions – wonder, joy, fear, anger and above all, sadness – and they are movingly and profoundly expressed. This is especially so in the final sections of the book, where MacFarlane journeys into the fjords and glaciers of the Arctic Circle. Impressively, amazingly, Macfarlane’s words are equal to the awe.

(Reading made me think about my visit to the Arctic Circle, to the town of Churchill on the shores of Hudson’s Bay in Canada. It was spring, and I travelled two days on a train from Winnipeg, though northern forests, then tundra. The Bay was still frozen. The sea, frozen. I stood for hours on a little rise next to the cemetery, staring, trying to comprehend. I saw Inuit people go out onto the ice on motorised ski vehicles. I saw an old man go out with his dog sled; I knew I could have stood on the rise watching that same sight a thousand or more years ago. The sight of a frozen sea was mind-blowing. As in, I couldn’t get my head around it. Stupidly, last year I burned my travel diary of that trip, but I do recall struggling for words, writing along the lines of, ‘I don’t have the language to tell about what I am seeing’.)

Ice has a memory and the colour of this memory is blue.
The colour of deep ice is blue, a blue unlike any other in the world, the blue of time.
The blue of time is glimpsed in the depths of crevasses.
The blue of time is glimpsed at the calving faces of glaciers, where 100,00-year-old ice surge to the surface of fjords from far below the water level.
The blue of time is so beautiful that it pulls body and mind towards it.

I read far into the night, and finished feeling elated by such wonderful thinking and imagining and writing, and also depressed. Are we being good ancestors? Hell, we’re not even being good parents, if it’s the children who have to march and make placards and wave banners.

 

Dr Jonas Salk, polio vaccine pioneer: In our work, in our policies, in our choices, in the alternatives that we open and those that we close, are we being good ancestors? Our actions, our lives have consequences, and we must realize that it is incumbent upon us to ask if the consequences we’re bringing about are desirable.

 

 

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CITY OF GIRLS

I hadn’t really read anything by Elizabeth Gilbert before this novel. Not quite true – I’d flicked through Big Magic, her book on creativity, and not liked it very much. And I was snobbish about Eat, Pray, Love because of the movie, which I didn’t like at all.

But I loved reading City of Girls. At first, it seemed like an enjoyable romp – despite its size, a ‘light read’ – a big, fat, luscious, high-spirited and sensuous coming-of-age novel.
We follow the adventures of 19-year-old Vivian Morris through glamorous, exciting pre-WWII New York.  She’s been exiled by her straight-laced family for misbehaviour at her straight-laced women’s college. But exile in New York is no exile at all, because she goes to live with her Aunt Peg who owns a run-down theatre, the Lily Playhouse.

With her sewing machine and her genius for dressmaking, Vivian soon becomes an essential part of the ensemble of actors, showgirls, singers and dancers, writers and assorted hangers-on. As a textile-aholic myself, I loved the descriptions of costumes, clothes, fabrics, haberdashery, trimmings. But back to Vivian’s education of the body, heart and mind. If she’d been misbehaving before – well, wow. She enters into the louche bohemian life with abandon, stepping out with her showgirl buddy to parties and clubs and shows, entering into a string of sexual liaisons and encounters with no shame and much pleasure. So far so good – a celebration of young womanhood and youth and sexuality and fun. Vivian’s scandalous fall, when it comes, is shocking. Shame, judgement – and as other reviewers have pointed out, such very gendered shame and judgement – threaten to overwhelm her life.
But that’s not the end. The latter part of the novel, showing Vivian in middle and old age, is sobering and even sad – but to my mind, beautiful.  Vivian’s developed from a beautiful  and passionate young girl into this older woman who’s suffered and survived and made her life meaningful. She is so very surely her own self. This rounds this story into something more than just a romp. Please note that in the more sombre middle section of the book, Gilbert isn’t showing us the “just punishment” for Vivian’s sexual experimentation. She’s highlighting the difficulties women faced (and still face) in simply being who they are, in particular in expressing sexual desire (and perhaps also ambition) in a society that seems to hate and fear female agency.
I ended the book pondering on the vital importance of work, of friendship and love, of endurance, persistence and courage. And haberdashery.

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DREAMING IN COLOUR

The knitting obsession was intense this winter.

Not only has it been cold, but the world seems to be getting madder and badder with Trump, Brexit, the climate emergency, the Religious Freedom bill, the men still stuck on Manus…I could go on but I won’t. The soothing rhythm of the needles has been therapy.

This year, too, I’ve embraced colour like never before. And enjoyed Kaffe Fasset’s autobiography Dreaming in Colour.
What a happy man. How lovely, just occasionally, to read about an untormented childhood.
He was born in 1937 to bohemian parents who ran a famous restaurant, Nepenthe, on an undeveloped part of the Californian coastline near Big Sur. (They bought the land from Orson Welles!)
Their children got to play and explore in the natural world of sea and forest and beach, express themselves with dance, music, art and crafts, and mingle with Nepenthe’s clientele of artists, film makers, actors, writers and other creative people. After going to the local public school, he attended a boarding school run by disciples of Indian guru Krishnamurti. He was never going to be ordinary, was he?
Kaffe was always going to be gay, too – but (in this autobiography, at least) he writes as if this was unquestioningly accepted. He seems to have lived a kind of charmed life, full of serendipitous meetings and connections and much generosity and kindness. His early paintings – mainly still life –  are beautiful but often restrained in palette. It is when he discovers wool that he goes wild with artful and often explosive combinations in knitting and tapestry. The encouraging thing is that so much beauty can be produced using only stocking stitch, and pretty simple shapes. Inspiring and cheering and utterly lovely for the darker days.

I have new little great-niece, so I made her a little hat.

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WINTER

Winter goeth on and on!

Over thirty years ago, when I was in freezing and still actually frozen (lakes, rivers, snow everywhere) Canada in early spring, I vowed not to whinge about our winters here. But…
With a just few bright days to remind us how lovely it really is up here, the dull, grey, miserable and chilly weather grinds on.

I am reading a lot, as you do when it’s cold outside.

Book group title was Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson; a sweet and funny and very English seniors-in-love story. I’m not sure that it will generate a lot of discussion, however…for me, it was a kind of woolly knee-rug and hot-cup-of-tea book, a welcome rest from the heavier stuff. Which we all need – or at least, I do. In winter, especially. Comfort reading. Though, oddly, it’s crime fiction I find the most comforting a present. Watching Shetland on DVD – addictive – and I’ve just read a couple of Ann Cleeves’ Shetland novels as well.

 

 

 

 

Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb was a therapist’s tale of seeking therapy for herself. Entwined were the stories of her own clients – the self-absorbed LA film producer, the young newlywed with a terminal diagnosis, the guilt ridden older woman, the  self-destructive millennial. Moving, uplifting, honest and surprisingly humorous. We humans are a funny lot!

 

 

 

 

With After Buddhism: Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Age by Stephen Batchelor, I continued my decades-long habit of dipping my toe into Buddhist spirituality when life just seems to be too much. I am yet to submerge or even really step in, but everything I read about the dharma makes so much sense, and I suppose that little by little by very little I incorporate some of what I’ve learned into my days.

 

 

 

 

 

And Wordslut: A Feminist Guide to Taking Back the English Language by Amanda Montell  was smart, funny, eye-opening and potty-mouthed (that’s a good thing!) while seriously exposing the ways in which language is gendered.

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HOW TO FAIL

I’ve been failing rather a lot lately. Or so I tell myself, in that nasty scolding tone that all-too-often characterises my internal dialogue. And that voice is especially loud when it comes to my writing. I’m not meeting goals, not applying myself, not disciplined enough, not planning properly, not proactive in trying to build or maintain a brand, a profile… You get the picture.
It doesn’t actually help when I remind myself of just how productive I can be. From 1987 to 1997, I had 8 children’s books published. And from 2004, another 5 published, with a further 2 novels unpublished. Between those two very active periods, however, there were 7 years of little creative writing and no publishing. (I must add that they were years during which I had a baby and completed a post-graduate diploma in children’s literature and moved our family to help my parents age in their own home. Busy? Very!)
For the past 15 years I haven’t had a break from major writing projects. When, at the end of 2017, the children’s book I’d been working on for a couple of years didn’t come off (I’ve tried to use another word for ‘failure’!) I thought that a break of six months…or even a year…would do me good. Then I could re-launch. But, disappointingly, none of the three projects I’ve been working on have taken off. Thus the hectoring tone of my self talk. Just get over yourself, and get on with it, woman!
Am I a failure? Have I failed? No, of course not – and yes, absolutely. My Verity Sparks books did unexpectedly well…but the final book is now out of print, so I guess that’s the end of Verity. My adult novel How Bright Are All Things Here didn’t sell well at all – but I love the story and the character of Bliss; I’m so glad that I wrote it. My two unpublished books were a colossal waste of time and energy, but I learned an enormous amount from writing them.
Perhaps I’m due for a break. Perhaps I should give myself a break, too, from my own self-imposed expectations? After reading How to Fail, I think – not perhaps – definitely.
How to Fail by Elizabeth Day is a lovely, funny, wise reminder that things go wrong all the time. She takes a range of ‘failures’ – from the heart-tearing loss of her dream to have a child, to the laugh-out-loud attempt to live like Gwyneth Paltrow for a week – and shows us that without failure, none of us would learn, grow or thrive.

 

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STAYING

“…just because you love something you cannot make it stay.”

Jessie Cole grew up in idyllic circumstances. A secure and happy childhood in a small town in northern New South Wales. Loving, relaxed, hippie-ish parents. A family home set in acres of rainforest garden she was free to explore. Carefree days spent with her younger brother, playing and exploring, swimming in the waterhole, observing animals and insects, attuned to the natural world. Cole writes compellingly of this childhood realm, in a way that tugged at my heart. I was reminded of my own growing-up days by the beach at Chelsea, and our house and garden that was a sanctuary and a kingdom.

But from the first pages of Staying, the reader is aware of tragedy that blights this perfect existence and slices her life apart. First her older step-sister commits suicide. Then her father, a psychologist, unravels. He becomes another person, abusive and unpredictable. When he also takes his life, the grief, shock and trauma take years for the remaining family to absorb and heal.

All of which sounds heavy – and it is – but this is also a tender story of loss and healing and home.

Staying by Jessie Cole, Text 2018, $32.99

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