HOUSE OF HOLLOW

When I asked my old editor what her publishing company had been excited about in 2021, she recommended two books, one junior fiction – A Glasshouse of Stars –  and the other, House of Hollow,  YA.  I ordered them both. And both are amazing.

 

The three Hollow sisters – Grey, Vivi and Iris –  disappeared as children. Just like that, on the street in Edinburgh; they were there and then they weren’t. The trio reappeared, naked and with small wounds at the base of their throats, a month later. They were never able to remember what happened to them.
Skip forward a decade. Grey is now a world famous model with her own fashion label and her face on the cover of Vogue magazine. Vivi is a rock star. Iris, the youngest, who narrates the story, is in her last year at school. All three girls are strange; not only arrestingly beautiful, but possessed of a kind of glamour – in the old sense of enchantment. They cast a spell, even when – like Iris –  they don’t want to.
When Grey goes missing, Iris and Vivi go looking for her. Only to find out that someone – or something – is on the hunt, too.

And that’s where I should stop, for fear of spoilers. Except to say that this book introduced me to a new sub-genre;  body horror. The flowers growing out of live flesh were especially disturbing. The words dark, haunting and chilling come to mind.

I don’t read a lot of YA fiction. I don’t read a lot of horror. I must change my ways. House of Hollow was addictive; a darkly twisted fairytale, an inventive mixture of archetypal and mythic themes entwined in modern lives, written in gorgeous, lush prose. Never have decay and putrescence seemed so deliciously sensual.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

A GLASSHOUSE OF STARS

You can’t judge a book by its cover.
The really lovely illustration by Cornelia Li for A Glasshouse of Stars speaks of sweetness, magic and whimsy. Which are certainly here in Shirley Marr’s new junior novel. But it’s a much meatier story than you might expect.
Meixing Lim, her father and pregnant mother have been left a house in the New Land by First Uncle. As soon as they arrive from their island home, problems arise and multiply. Everything is different and strange; language, food, money, school, shops. There’s racism to contend with. Anti-Asian posters are plastered in the street; her father can only find a labouring job, and he’s bullied on the site. Money is tight, and her parents begin to quarrel. Stressed and anxious, neither have much time for their daughter’s fears and worries. Meixing’s trying to cope with the new language and a vastly different school system, as well as nasty girls and no friends, but it’s a struggle.
However when she comes home, another reality awaits.
The house, which Meixing names Big Scary, seems to be alive. Rooms change in size and colour and location according to mood and need; a window is an eye, the carpet is fur. The abandoned glasshouse in the garden is even more magical.

The first thing you think is that it is much bigger in here than you thought it would be…
Spread out before you is an entire orchard. You stare in surprise at what is in front of you…
A pink serpent, looking for all the world like it escaped from the neon glow of Big Scary’s wardrobe, hisses at you as you approach. You take a step back and it disappears into the branches of a tree. You aren’t scared because the sun is spreading reassuring rays over to you from the east. This is a sun you can stare straight at, and she has a beautiful face.

The glasshouse contains the sun and the moon and the stars, First Uncle himself and a library of magical seeds. It’s more than a bit psychedelic, but makes perfect sense. Meixing is (adult-speak here!) suffering trauma, dislocation and loneliness. She’s a child burdened with outsize responsibilities and challenges. She’s also brave and very imaginative. Her magic greenhouse is healing, consoling and uplifting.

For all the beauty of the magical greenhouse, there are some dark and difficult themes. Meixing’s family endures a shocking tragedy, her mother’s mental health unravels, there’s  racism and bullying – including an attack on Meixing and her mother –  and an unplanned home birth. There’s also a lovely optimism. A kind teacher, who makes a real difference. A principal who believes Meixing and Kevin rather than the white girl. A firm friendship with Kevin and Josh, also from immigrant families. The loving embrace of family (those amazing Aunties!). And the magnificent power of creativity and imagination.

At the end of the book, Meixing says:

When Big Scary is sad, she shrinks. When she is happy there is no limit to how big she can get. I have realised she is only a reflection of ourselves. She is not prefect, but she is only human. I am thinking of changing her name to Little Scary.
I have a magical greenhouse in the backyard that is filled with magic seeds of the imagination. You only need to plant them for ideas to grow. I go there when I’m feeling sad. I’m not scared when it gets dark inside, as that’s when the stars shine the brightest. Maybe one day I won’t need to go there any more, but I hope that I always need to dream. Even when I’m an adult.

Shirely Marr has written a really special book, blending the trippily magical with a gritty immigrant story. I won’t be surprised if A Glasshouse of Stars wins numerous awards; it deserves to be widely read and appreciated.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

A TOWN CALLED SOLACE

My second holiday book, read in a day and an evening.

A Town Called Solace is set in a small town in rural Northern Ontario during the 1970s. It opens with seven-year-old Clara keeping a vigil at the living room window.  All day. The only time she willingly leaves her post is to go next door, to feed her neighbour’s cat.

She’s watching and waiting for her older sister, rebellious teenager Rose, to return. Rose has run away before, but this time, it’s different. The police, local and provincial, are involved. There are articles in the papers. But her parents, trying to protect Clara from their terrifying and realistic fear that she has harmed or even killed, won’t tell her the truth about Rose.

Or about their elderly neighbour and Clara’s good friend Mrs Orchard. Clara believes she’s looking after Moses the cat until Mrs Orchard, who’s in hospital, recovers and returns home. But Elizabeth Orchard is already dead.

She’s given her house and willed her estate to a man called Liam Kane, who she briefly cared for when he was a child. Liam is newly divorced, has quit his unsatisfying career in accountancy, and is at one of those junctures in life when everything’s in flux. Cleaning up and selling the house will occupy his time, so he travels to Solace and moves in.  Clara is outraged.

That’s the setup. Told through the eyes of three characters – Clara, Liam and Elizabeth – A Town Called Solace takes the elements of a humdrum domestic drama and spins it into a moving, profound and deeply involving novel. Longlisted for the 2021 Booker, no less. Past and present loop backwards and forwards for the dying Elizabeth Orchard, and as the novel ends the mystery of her connection with Liam is solved. As Liam tries to solve his own mystery – the failure of his marriage, his discomfort with emotions –  his initially tentative connection with the Solace community blossom into real relationships.  I thought it was in her depiction of Clara that Lawson’s perception shone. Clara, increasingly desperate in her attempts to reconcile her child’s understanding with the mystifying adult world, adopts increasingly extreme measures in order to keep fear and anxiety at bay. And Lawson treats Clara’s struggles with personal honour – keeping secrets, keeping promises – with a beautiful seriousness.

As an exploration of love, both familial and romantic, A Town Called Solace complements and contrasts with my other great holiday read, Sarah Winman’s Still Life. That book was rambling and rambunctious, with larger than life characters, a dazzlingly beautiful setting and writing that oozed with wit and wordplay and style. A Town Called Solace is a quiet book. Constrained by its characters ‘ordinariness’ and the rural setting, with no stylistic bells, whistles and fireworks, Lawson’s writing has so much precision and clarity that I barely noticed it. Of its kind, perfection, like looking through clear water to the bottom of a lake.

Both novels were loaned to me by my dear friend and partner in crime Kirsty, who told me I’d love them. I did. So a shout out to your very fine taste in books, KK.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

HOLIDAY READING

Returned from five days in the Grampians. First holiday with my husband (except a one-night camping trip at a friend’s farm) for over 18 months. Plans during lockdowns just kept falling through, and with our ageing dog, it was all just too hard to get away.
Being away from Castlemaine felt novel and just a bit surreal. There’d been a Tier 1 exposure site in Hall’s Gap so that some of the eateries were shut and the town and National Park were quiet but we weren’t there for cafe society or crowds. The weather was marvellous.
Rocks and mountains, trees and wildflowers, lakes and streams and waterfalls, clouds, sunsets…the full catalogue of natural wonders. Spent a lot of time looking through our window to watch joeys almost too big for the pouch nevertheless scrambling in and out, hop-skip-and-jumping (and tumbling head over heels) as if mad with joy. And duck parents superintend their babies’ progress around the property with possessive zeal. Laugh out loud stuff. One morning early, a deer and I eyeballed each other under the carport of our cabin. Emus left incredible amounts of poo. Ducks; smaller deposits, but everywhere. The manager’s husband was out with a pooper scooper twice a day.

I came back home with an extra kilo (snacks), a sore back (overestimating fitness) and two novels under my belt. I haven’t read much adult fiction lately, but my two holiday novels have kicked me off into what may well be a catch-up binge.

Sarah Winman’s Still Life was a great dive back into fictional worlds. A gloriously big, sprawling. loose novel, spanning thirty odd years, about life and love (familial, platonic, sexual; for art, literature, beauty) – and Florence.

In 1944, as the German army retreats from Italy, a young British soldier called Ulysses Temper encounters sixtyish art historian, Evelyn Skinner in a Tuscan villa. As bombs fall, the two share an unforgettable evening of conversation about art, beauty and love. And somehow that evening reverberates through both their lives over the next forty years.

Ulysses returns to smog-bound austerity Britain, to a London pub, the Stoat and Parot and its endearing, eccentric cast of characters. There’s Pete the pianist; Cressy who talks to trees; Ulysses ex-wife, the tragic, fascinating, mercurial Peg; Alys, Peg’s daughter from an ill-fated affair with an American soldier, who Ulysses adopts; a parrot named Claude.  Swirling storylines see all of them weave in and out of each other’s lives and finally intersect at an apartment in Florence during the devastating floods of 1966. Art and literature (the ghost of Forster and A Room with a View) are integral to the saga, but touched on lightly.

Still Life is joyful and moving and sexy and funny, reminding me of how life enhancing a good book can be.

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

BONE MUSIC

She felt like a ghost. She woke in the night. What was that music? Some troubled beast? Some strange bird of the night? Some lost soul wandering on the moors? Just her dreams?
What wild and weird things existed here?
Sylvia got up from her narrow bed, went to the window, held open her thin curtains, dared to peep.
Nothing. Darkness everywhere.
Darkened street below, darkness of the undulating land, blackness of the forest at the village’s edge, light of a farmhouse far, far off, pale glow on the southern horizon, immensity of stars above.

Sylvia is stuck in a village in the wilds of Northumberland, a place of hills, forests and moors with appalling mobile reception. Her mother needs a break from the city, but Sylvia doesn’t want to be there. She misses her bestie Maxine, she misses her circle of friends, her city life of music, gatherings, protests.
But a different kind of life calls to her.

The first she knows about it is the music in the night, played by the strange boy Gabriel on a bone flute.

As their friendship develops, Sylvia finds herself responding to the ancient landscape as if she belongs to it. As if she can go back and become a girl of that time.
Almond shows Sylvia discovering the wildness and beauty of nature alongside the ugliness, violence and brokenness of today’s world. For some readers, passages like this may be too explicit:

She felt the closeness of the trees to herself, of the earth to herself, of the air to herself. She was not just Sylvia. She was these things too. They were her. She was the forest, she was the earth, she was the air. They gave each other life. She wanted to love them and they wanted to love her. Why did we not realise that when we do things to the earth, we do things to ourselves; when we harm the earth, we harm ourselves?
It was like a veil had fallen from her eyes.
She was seeing beauty like she’d never seen it before.

But I felt it captured the clear-eyed idealism of the young climate campaigners. A kind of sad and bewildered non-comprehension. How can we keep doing this to our world? I thought of the young girls in our hometown who organised the school strikes.

This is a beautiful YA novel. Would young adults like it? I don’t know.  Many reviewers have remarked on Almond’s singularity; his books really are like no others, written with the immediacy of poetry and a strange and otherworldly flavour all his own which may not be to everyone’s taste.  Bone Music is short, and for some readers it may also be short on story – it’s more atmosphere and feeling than plot.
I loved it.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

MY SENSE OF JOY PERSISTS

Poets seem to be able to capture the flash, the illuminating instant, the second when an emotion – in this case, joy – pierces the heart.

Walking yesterday to pop a note in a friends letterbox, I noticed blobs of white in the greenery along the fenceline of an empty block. I waded through the long grass to look. Turned out to be these single roses on a rampant climbing bush. And I was surprised by joy.

Not an original phrase. I looked it up – Wordsworth; “Surprised by Joy”; a poem telling of his impulse to turn to a beloved person to share something wonderful, only to be hit by the realisation that he can’t. They are dead.

Surprised by joy – impatient as the Wind
I turned to share the transport – Oh! with whom
But thee, long buried in the silent Tomb,
That spot which no vicissitude can find?

Not the right joy poem, then.
Joy and William Blake go together, right?

He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy.
He who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sunrise.

Not quite. I am not clutching the moment, though I did photograph it with my mobile.

I turned to one of my notebooks. I used to scribble down little scraps of poetry, though sometimes I didn’t note the details. Like the name of this poem, from which I’d excerpted a few lines

….and still and still my sense of joy persists.

Yes. That’s it. My sense of joy persists. Still.

I did note the poet’s name, however. He is Vivian Smith, born in Tasmania in 1933, for many years a professor at the University of Sydney, author of many collections of poetry and books on literature.

…and intertwined with every rooted ‘why’ 
such tenderness, such joy exists.

At present, with a “rooted ‘why'” at every turn, there are so many reasons to despair or rage. Or just be incredibly grumpy and turn to chocolate.  So it astonishes me that I am still capable of being ambushed by this feeling I call joy. It’s usually small scale. Often, a response to looking at the plants or insects or stones I see on the ground. That goes back to my earliest memory. Three? Four? Squatting on my fat little legs to study bugs in the garden. My source of joy persists, too. I thank and bless the star sign or deity or genetic happenstance – whatever it was – which  implanted in me  this capacity for finding joy in small things. May it continue in its persistence.

Thank you, Vivian Smith, and I am sorry that I did not note the name of your beautiful and appropriate poem.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

THE KITE AND THE STRING

Writers don’t need rules as much as we need the freedom to take risks and to make simple decisions for simple, practical reasons. If a piece of writing is a kite that the strong winds of feeling are blowing across the sky, we need a string to grasp. We need freedom above all, but we also need control

I’m reading about writing, because I’m writing again.
I’ve read a lot of books on the topic over the years. Perhaps I’ve been longing to find the holy grail, the ultimate guide to better, quicker, more efficient fiction writing. Certainly, some of the books I’ve read market themselves this way. Story engineering; nuts and bolts manuals; if you do this, and this, and this – voila! not just 65,000 words but a shapely, structured, novel. It’s seductive.
I have tried. I really have.  I love the idea of sitting at my computer for my writing session knowing exactly what’s going to happen and happily tap-tap-tapping away until it has.

Alas, my few experiments with this kind of superior planning have been notable failures. I’ve felt constricted. My characters veer off the straight and narrow plot paths into unexpected and unplanned-for directions. I had to ditch a disappointingly large chunk (around 15,000 words and many, many hours of research) of one of the Verity Sparks novels because my sub-plot didn’t work. I mean, for me. It was exciting and mysterious and dovetailed beautifully into the main story but it just wasn’t right. Disappointing, but as I always tell myself, in writing nothing’s lost. (This is the compost theory of creativity!)
I also know that outlines, timelines, story maps, story blueprints, diagrams, character arcs and all of the other planning tools can be useful to me once I’ve got started, if I’m in a mid-book slump, and especially when looking over a messy first draft. I’ll give a little shout out to Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel by Lisa Cron. I’ve found some of her pre-writing exercises really helpful, even if I’ve done them post- instead of pre-writing.

I guess that really, I know what to do – it’s bum on seat, mainly – but it’s always good to have a little wind in your sails.
This book – subtitled How to Write with Spontaneity and Control – and Live to Tell the Tale – by Alice Mattison is like having a long conversation with a kindly, calm, ‘older and wiser’ fellow writer. A mentor. She wants the reader/writer to approach their work with ‘more confidence, excitement and hope’.

 The qualities a writer primarily needs, both you and I – not just in order to sit down on the chair but to produce good work – are emotional as much as intellectual. Often the next task is not to learn a technique but to find the courage to use one you already know. New writers speak of the need to find the courage to write, but once they’ve shown up at an MFA program or a writer’s conference…they may think that the emotional work is done and they can now follow prescribed rules…if only they can find out what those rules are.
Writers must be at peace with the process, so they trust themselves when they come up with an idea for the next scene – which may well turn out to be wrong, but which may suggest something right. We need the courage to waste time, even though we have so little of it. It takes time to discern what’s obscured in the dark at the back of the mind, but it is what the piece needs…

I’ve come away from reading this book encouraged to persevere with my own process, even though it’s often messy and time-wasting. Courage, mon capitaine! as my dear old Dad used to say.
Bum on seat, Susan – you’ll get there in the end.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

DEREK JARMAN’S GARDEN

At first, people thought I was building a garden for magical purposes –  a white witch out to get the nuclear power station. It did have magic – the magic of surprise, the treasure hunt. A garden is a treasure hunt, the plants the paperchase.
I invest my stones with the power of those at Avebury. I have read all the mystical books about ley-lines and circles – I built the circles with this behind my mind. The circles make the garden perfect…

Modern Nature by Derek Jarman was a mash-up of memoir and making art, gay history and gossip  and gardening. In Jarman’s garden on the inhospitable shingle and sand of Dungeness, opposite a nuclear power station, the seasonal parade of birds and insects and flowering plants is made more poignant by the spectre of death. Not just ‘death’ in general, in the future, but imminent and awful. Jarman was himself HIV positive; friends were dying. It’s difficult now to remember that AIDS in the early 1990’s was (to most of the ones who contracted it) genuinely a death sentence. I lost a handful of beautiful friends. It’s so different now.

Derek Jarman’s Garden is his last book. He wrote the text and the photographs are by his friend Howard Sooley.  While the shadow of death is there, so is the joy of designing and planning a vision of paradise. Cobbled from found objects, driftwood, stones and shells, planted with the area’s indigenous flora – aka, in many cases, ‘weeds’ – as well as introduced plants, it looks like a magical place.

I’m finding gardening, and reading about gardening, is both soothing and addictive in these strange unsettling times.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

TEN THINGS ABOUT

I know Joanne Harris mainly as the writer of Chocolat. But she’s written heaps of books, including this one, Ten Things About Writing, which began as part of a regular Twitter hashtag series. That last should be in quotes, actually – and here it is, ‘part of a regular Twitter hashtag series’ because I’m quoting from her introduction and I have no idea what a Twitter hashtag series is. But I’m guessing it’s, like, a series. On Twitter. Anyway, without further exposing my idiocy it’s now a book. Books I can understand.

And this one is a useful guide from an experienced writer of the aforementioned heaps of books. After thirteen books published, I guess I am also an experienced writer but I can always do with a little help. Sometimes there’s just the one little gem that makes sense; sometimes it’s more that reading about writing is a way of getting back in touch with my writerly self. Sparkling away in the section on Permission was this, at #4.

Stop comparing yourself to other writers. Compare your work to the last thing you wrote. If you’re improving (and you are), you’re doing fine.

As a perennial self-doubter and second-guesser, it’s a fine piece of advice. All I need to do is my personal best.

The ‘ten things’ format means it’s succinct and structured and decimal (or do I mean metric?) so that the ten parts divide neatly into ten sections. Why ten? Why not, I say. It’s not too many and not too few. I was delving into my filing cabinet the other day and found a series from the Guardian that I copied way back in 2015. It was Ten Rules for Writing Fiction from many famous novelists, the likes of Hilary Mantel and Ian Rankin and Sarah Waters. Some were generous and serious in their approach to these ‘rules’; others, like Phillip Pullman (‘My main rule is to say no to things like this, which tempt me away from my proper work’) more or less said “Nick off.”

The book also made me think about my own Ten Things and Ten Rules. I spent years teaching creative writing in community settings and dishing out the advice, which was mostly not my own but synthesised from  other sources, like that article in the Guardian. These days I’d probably say that my Things About Writing  vary from day to day, depending on how the work is going. Today, I was at my laptop editing and formatting a short story and struggling with auto-correct and footers and headers so I’d probably emphasise the sheer slog and bum-on-seat and ‘do it when you don’t feel like it’ aspect of writing. But on Saturday, I was on a roll joyfully inventing and creating and making stuff up out of thin air, scribbling cryptic notes and ideas into an exercise book. Quite a different Thing.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

THE DOG RUNNER

The Red Fungus has devastated grain crops and grasses world-wide. In Australia, drought has added to the disaster and now, with food running out, society has broken down and it’s every man, woman and child for themselves. Ella and her older half-brother Emery are faced with a world that’s scary and dangerous, so they stay holed up in their city apartment with their three big dogs. When their father – gone to find Ella’s mum – doesn’t return, Emery and Ella are faced with a decision. Stay, as the city becomes more and more violent and dangerous, or leave to travel up-country to Emery’s mother?

They go. Across the dry, barren and desolate landscape, Ella and Emery travel with their three ‘doggos’ on a dry-land sled. It’s a dangerous journey – a bit like The Road for little ones – and McDibble keeps the pace break-neck and the suspense ratcheting. The pair have to evade desperate gangs who think nothing of killing for food and supplies; they have to find sustenance for themselves and the three doggos; they have to navigate an unforgiving land. When Emery is injured, Ella must find all the courage and ingenuity she can muster. This is a kid’s book, and so it doesn’t end in death and disaster (whew!); they reach Emery’s mum and the whole family is reunited.

And they get to eat a decent meal at last. I’ve long been the butt of (affectionate!) jokes in my family for my obsession with food. There was the camping trip where we were almost at starvation point because there was only one can of baked beans and some noodles when we packed up to go home. There’s my chirpy “What will we have for dinner?” at breakfast time. And my stern disapproval of the world-building in The Lord of the Rings because  – well, where are the market gardens of Rohan?

Emery’s mum farms mushrooms in caves and grows pumpkins. Emery is of Aboriginal and Afghan heritage and – in a nod to the work of Bruce Pascoe and others in educating Australians about the Aboriginal agricultural practices – Emery’s Ba (grandfather) experimented with growing, harvesting and storing native grass seeds. The Dog Runners ends on a hopeful note.

McDibble’s earlier book, How To Bee, also had a serious message about the effect of global environmental degradation on food security (what’s going to happen to the world’s food supply without bees to pollinate plants?). It was a great read as well.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment