Cloudwish by Fiona Wood

First published 2015 by Macmillan Australia

cloudwish

I did not enjoy this book at all at first. So I was mystified to see that 9 out of 10 people gave it five stars on Goodreads, and for a while I felt like Elaine from Seinfeld when she went with her boss to see The English Patient.

Cloudwish is about a Vietnamese Australian named Vân Uớc (excuse me if I don’t have the right letters, but anyway it’s Vietnamese for ‘Cloudwish’), who wishes that a certain boy, Billy Gardiner, would find her fascinating. Immediately he does. The rest of the book is what happens as she deals with unexpected attention of Billy, as well as the jealous reactions of the cool girls. Meanwhile at home her mother is dealing with some mental health issues, but they don’t seem to intrude on the Billy storyline, or even have anything to do with it.

Admittedly I had just finished a book by Tim Winton and before that one by Vikki Wakefield, and in comparison found Cloudwish rather ordinary. In addition I thought it was too politically correct, too didactical, and contained too much information of the boring variety. For some reason Wood felt some obligation to include all these ‘diverse’ characters such as Jess, the Vietnamese Lesbian-in-waiting. While they may be winning her a few awards, to me it seemed like she was trying a little bit too hard to be inclusive of minority groups.

I also prefer not to be force-fed chunks of feminist theory or any other sociological blah blah – for  example in chapter 11, we are introduced briefly to a Dr Fraser, a teacher with short orange hair…”and right now she was telling the class, incandescent, evangelistic, about how the allocation of space in department stores was just one more manifestation of the pressures put on women to conform to external social constructs.” Please! Why can’t a novel just be a novel? Like Jane Eyre. Tiddas by Anita Heiss was another shocker. Write me an essay, don’t hector me in fiction.

I did however enjoy the rich versus poor content, and always have been interested in social class in Australia, given that we lie to ourselves about not having any, so I thought the subtleties relating to class were presented rather well in Cloudwish.

And as for Cloudwish herself, what a sweetheart! Pity I still don’t know how to pronounce her name. Is it Van you-OCK or Van oo-OCK? We were told only that it is not Van-ock. Maybe Fiona Wood doesn’t know how to pronounce it either!

About 80 pages in I put the book down to read something else (Awful Auntie by David Walliams) and when I went back to the book, it had grown wings. From then on, it stuck to the story, and I was into it at last. I did not even mind the ending.

Advertisements

Inbetween Days by Vikki Wakefield

First published 2015 by The Text Publishing Company

Inbetween days.jpg

I’d heard great things about this Vikki Wakefield over the past couple of years, so when I came across her three YA novels at the Jamestown Library I thought, you bewdy!
The writing is so good that all professional envy is wiped away, and all that is left is awe and respect.

My favourite is the first one, All I Ever Wanted, which while not overly complex (which suits me fine BTW) is brimming with hope and contrasting lives. These people had their troubles but things were only going to get better by the end. And just before the end you find out some startling piece of information that makes you want to start the book over, with new info in hand.

Friday Brown was a completely different kettle of fish. I was at odds with the street kids from the start, and being out of a familiar environment, I was wanting Friday to be gone from them, but I did not get my wish. Altogether it was a bit too Lord of the Flies for me; I still haven’t recovered from reading that almost 30 years ago.

Inbetween Days for me was an in between novel. I liked the slower pace of it, and with such a title any other pace would have been wrong. It is set in a small town and the main character Jacklin is living with her older sister Trudy, and working at a roadhouse. Each Sunday she meets with a guy named Luke from the next town; Inbetween Days not only refers to the days she spends waiting for Sunday to come, but to this time she spends waiting for her ‘real life’ to start. And as the story unfolds this day to day life gradually goes to shit and she is unable to do anything about it. She feels rejected by her family and friends and ends up spending time with Jeremiah, the boy next door who is home from uni for the summer, Jeremiah’s friend Roly, Pope who is camped in the nearby ‘suicide forest’ and Mr Broadbent, her boss’s father who has dementia. Rather than risk giving out any spoilers I’ll just add that the novel did had a hopeful ending, a good one, in fact. Jacklin manages to find herself and make peace with pretty much everyone.

This novel is different to the other two in that the main character has a father around. Neither Mim from All I Ever Wanted or Friday Brown knew their fathers at all, nor had they much interest in having anything to do with them. Friday loses interest in her father all too quickly, which made me wonder about Wakefield herself and what father-related baggage she carries around (but I’d be too scared to ask such a personal question).

The town the novel is set in is named Mobius, and is a dying town people might be able to leave occasionally, but somehow they end up back where they started. I love the line, ‘people drove in by accident and left on purpose’. Another sentence that stood out was ‘Mrs Gates had a big mouth and reserved seating at the bar’. The book is also full of clever little insights such as when Jeremiah says, “Your problem is you still insist on mapping your own position relative to everybody else’s. It’s no wonder you’ve lost all sense of direction…you’re always checking who’s behind you and who’s in front. I just keep my head down and read my own compass.”

When it comes to settings, a novelist can be vague or they can be specific and use one of those map pinpoint things. Wakefield has opted to be vague. While All I ever wanted seemed to be set squarely in the northern suburbs of Adelaide, down the hill from where I grew up (Modbury), the city in Friday Brown could have been any of our big cities with a river, although I was imagining something south of the Murray in Victoria for the country setting. As for Inbetween Days, I spent most of the book ranging the mountains with a pinpoint in my head, trying to work out where exactly in the Great Dividing Range it could be. It’s humid but Jacklin thinks she can smell snow at one point. I think I settled on somewhere in NSW in the end. But am not sure which real life town Mobius might be near.

She has not stated when the novel is set either, and I can only guess by the landline and phone boxes, as well as the drive-in being closed but still able to function, that it is somewhere in the 80s, when Wakefield was Jacklin’s age. But I like the timelessness of Wakefield’s novels, and that they are not bogged down with social media which will make them seem dated very quickly. The beginning of Dirt Music by Tim Winton is spoiled somewhat by the main character’s surfing the internet pre web 2.0. For me it warns against a reliance on current technology in novels, yet such things are so integral to our lives now that it is a tricky thing to avoid. So hats off to Wakefield for succeeding in her novels.

The downside to reading Vikki Wakefield is the effect on whatever book I read next – the writing seems pedestrian; she ruins it for so many other authors! And for me too, I mean what is the point in trying to write…?

The Messenger Bird by Rosanne Hawke

First published 2012 by UQP.

messenger bird

As I will be taking Writing Young Adult Fiction with this author in the new year through Tabor Adelaide’s Creative Writing program, I borrowed a few of her books of hers to read over the holidays. This is one I loved from the start.

It has everything I want in a novel: history, mystery, a crumbling old house with a secret garden, and a little romance. And all set in a South Australian landscape.

There is a girl who needs saving and some men who would like to save her – if only she would let them. The girl is Tamar, a musically inclined wearer of floaty dresses who has lost her brother Trystan in a car accident the previous year. She and her father are struggling along at home while the mother is away for a few weeks. She is lost and withdrawn while her father is keeping himself busy renovating the place. He also wants to restore some basement rooms which have been closed up for over a century. And in an old fireplace, they find a photo of a young man and some sheets of handwritten music.

Tamar hasn’t played any music since her brother died, but she has a go at this piece, The Maiden’s Prayer by Tekla Bądarzeweska-Baranowska, and something unexpected happens. The young man from the photo turns up, straight out of 1887. He too, has had a recent tragedy in the family, and Tamar and her time travelling visitor (Nathaniel) lean on each other as the book progresses until both are ready to face the griefs that they had been hiding from.

Not all the chapters are written from Tamar’s perspective – many are told from the point of view of Gavin, a new arrival to the area (north of Kapunda) whose family lost their farm near Orroroo. He made a nice hero, a good sensible farm boy who is only interested in Tamar and barely looks at other girls. The world could do with a few more Gavins. Nathaniel, being from the past, is slightly more interesting, and he is also a gentleman. There are also a couple of chapters from 1886 included.

Other characters are the old olive tree and Henry the cat, who clues us in on the fact that Nathaniel is not a ghost, but a messenger bird. The title refers to the willie wagtail, which Aboriginal people said brought news of death. We’ve had one appear unexpectedly in the garden on the morning of an impending death.

I’ve always loved a good grief book, and even before I went through any myself, as a teen I loved Tiger Eyes by Judy Blume. A death is not a bad way to start a book. And I love it when a main character rises from the bottom of the pit and begins to restore their life.

From the moment I opened the book I was captivated, and was back in an earlier place in time, that being when I really started loving books around age 10. I still re-read some of the books I loved then, just to recapture the joy I felt disappearing into another world. Over the years I have picked up a few books for young people, hoping to feel that same feeling again. Most of them were let downs. Even the Harry Potter books. While the second book was really good, somewhere in the fourth book the story headed to places too dark and disturbing for my liking.

So to read The Messenger Bird was wonderful – it not only revived my appetite for reading fiction (I mainly read memoir these days), but it has made me excited about writing it again. I am now itching to finish the novel I started a couple of years ago, and can’t wait to get studying next year.

Some years ago I wanted to write for young people but was hesitant, mainly as I had not yet ever sent a text at that time. Roseanne’s work shows me that I don’t need to get hung up on whether I can do social media or use a smart phone, as none of this stuff is present. Just the house, the vets and the past. And the creek, the secret garden and the old olive tree groaning in the wind.

As for the music itself, when I looked up The Maiden’s Prayer on YouTube, I wondered what there was to like about it. I had hoped to find it more moving, so that was a bit of a letdown. But there must be other people out there who love it, as this obscure piece of music is still around.

Tasting life twice by Ramona Koval

First Published 2005 by ABC Books.

tasting life twice

Tasting life Twice: Conversations with remarkable writers gets its title from a quote by Anaïs Nin, ‘We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospection.’ I found this book in an obscure corner of the Tea Tree Gully library, and what a find it was. 26 interviews with some of the biggest names in writing. Originally for ABC Radio National, these interviews were conducted around the turn of the millennium, and were later turned into this book.

At the time of writing this blog post, 12 of the writers have passed on, and of the 14 who are left, most are aged about 80, with the two ‘babies’, Ian McEwan and Martin Amis being old enough to get the pension. And I was dazzled, absolutely dazzled that Koval even managed to get this opportunity to meet these people in the first place, and she does the job well, and asks the sorts of questions that make the interview very interesting. She goes beyond the nuts and bolts of writing and gets to the deeper philosophical reasons why these people are writers and the other things that make them tick.

But then that old issue of gender raised its head. While I am glad the author has made the book her own without giving into the dreadful business of political correctness, and that whinge about there not being enough coloured or gay or whatever people represented, I would like to reflect a little on how it might have worked out that 8 women and 18 men were included.

Continue reading

The dreaded TBR pile – saved for a rainy day

Today has been one of those rare rainy days that we get here, and at some stage I went through the pile of books in the little cupboard next to my bed.

P1180100

I set up this little bookshelf early 2012, taking anything I had not yet read out of my main bookshelf and storing it here. At the time I declared that I would not go back to the library until I had made my way through most of these, but I only read one or two. This is what is left, and the pile continues to grow while the library keeps tempting me to go astray. And before my Kobo fell from a great height and died, I had another stash of ebooks, all those lovely free classics, and only a couple of them were finished also.

Of the books pictured here, most were from secondhand bookshops, a couple were new, some were gifts from my mother and others gifts to my father (he returns them a few months later, so this influences what I buy him now!) Some I’ve had sitting around for almost 15 years. Naughty me! The stack at the front are books by AWWs (Australian Women Writers), so I might spend the rest of the year working through these, as I’ve only done one book review for #AWW2015 so far, and have five more to go!

I wonder at this tendency of mine to hoard books though. I live in such a dry place that when I save them for a rainy day, this is the result. But at the heart of it is fear I think, a  fear of what the future might bring. Perhaps I’m anticipating a future without libraries or bookshops or even books. So should it come to pass, well, you know where I’ll be!

Her Father’s Daughter by Alice Pung

First Published 2011 by Black Inc.

her father's daughter

I was dazzled by her first book, the memoir Unpolished Gem. The line that stuck in my head was the part where she had “a funeral in my brain and we hadn’t even studied Emily Dickinson yet.” I was also dazzled by her bio – her being a writer and lawyer, yet to see her on the telly speaking at some writer’s festival, I was struck by what a nice down to earth person she seemed to be.

Despite all that, I must have borrowed Her Father’s Daughter five or six times before I finally read it. There were little things that put me off starting, such as her use of the third person, I mean who writes about themself as if they were someone else – except when preparing a bio of course! Another thing that made me bump the book in favour of others was the alternating perspectives, daughter-, father-, daughter- etc.

However the real reason if I look a little deeper, was that one of the settings was Cambodia, a place I wasn’t sure I wanted to go, after what I had heard.

But Cambodia lurks all through Unpolished Gem, although it is carefully stepped around. As the story progresses it is the elephant in the room, the why of half of the odd quirks of Pung’s family.

Her Father’s Daughter begins with a few introductory chapters, in which the overprotective behaviour of Pung’s parents continues well into adulthood. This part where she tries to break away is easy and pleasant reading. Then finally, we must bite the bullet and face the horrors of the killing fields, and her father’s story of the suffering that went on is one the reader must grit their teeth to get through. No wonder her father didn’t ever speak of it. But it seems that only after Pung delves into this history and visits the country is she finally allowed to grow up.

Having now read both books I find that neither of them can really exist without the other. You could read Unpolished Gem as a standalone book, but more depth is obtained through reading Her Father’s Daughter. Her Father’s Daughter is not a book that can be just read either, it needs the scene setting of Unpolished Gem.

AWW 2014 – Challenge Complete

Hurrah, the day I have been waiting for, as the year is almost up and I had to get on with completing what I set out to do, which was the Franklin level – read 10 and review at least 6.

The books I read and reviewed were:

The People Smuggler by Robin de Crespigny

All the Rivers Run by Nancy Cato

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Am I Black Enough For You? by Anita Heiss

Me of the Never Never by Fiona O’Loughlin

The Young Widow’s Book of Home Improvement by Virginia Lloyd.

The books I read but didn’t review were:

Playing With Water by Kate Llewellyn (yet again!)

Hannah and the Tomorrow Room by Libby Gleeson (and Hannah the Famous)

A Fig at the Gate by Kate Llewellyn

Tiddas by Anita Heiss

P1150947

Writing and reading is so often a one-way street, author writes the book and you the reader reads it, and never the twain shall meet – especially if the author is late. But this year I was blessed with some form of contact with almost all the AWWs on the list (with the exception of Cato (deceased), Gleeson and Kent). This was in the form of emails or twitter conversations, and one face to face meeting when Fiona O came to Quorn last Thursday.

heiss twitter

But the most surreal moment of the year was turning up in A Fig at the Gate by Kate Llewellyn!

P1150973