Wednesday, June 14, 2017

A lot of movement, very quickly

The past two weeks (and the two to come) have been absolutely packed with stuff changing, stuff happening and stuff being foreshadowed.

Some of it is not things I can talk about publicly, but some of it is. Things like booking travel to Japan, confirming our hosting of an exchange student, and getting serious about my poetry book that I am going to self publish (to the extent of hiring an editor and a designer).

There have been no less than three major new work opportunities arise for quoting on. There have been cons attended  (Continuum) and cons booked / anticipated  (ComicCon at the end of this month, and the Return to the Gate 20th Anniversary Stargate con in August, which I am taking my eldest daughter to because YES we are just that nerdy). There have been books read and reviewed and a book group project started successfully. There have been debates won. On Saturday, there will be the first adult dinner party I have hosted in many years as a How to Host a Murder party game.

I feel pleased that life seems so ... unstuck ... all of a sudden, even though I am also a bit breathless at the relentless pace of it all. (I am also more than slightly terrified at what I have to do financially in the coming month, as I pay for our Japan flights, make my annual super contribution, pay school and extracurricular fees, and pay my quarterly tax bill).

When things start moving they often seem to keep going quite fast for a while, or at least that has been my experience. Between work - if even one of the three opportunities come off, I'll be moderately busy, and I think I am likely to get two of the three, which means very busy - the exchange student, family birthdays, poetry book, cons, and our planned Sydney holiday, I do not realistically expect to draw breath before October, and that's if I'm lucky.

None of this is bad. Indeed, most of it is very, very good. Bit tiring, but good! The trick is not to get so lost in it all that I lose my grip on myself though.

Monday, June 12, 2017

A Sevenling Before Solstice (Poem)

Early winter is not, traditionally, one of my better times of the year. I usually improve a little once we're past my birthday and the winter solstice. However, right now, days can be good, but nights are just not - it's high-tide for night panics and anxiety, which means insomnia +++. Plus side - I get lots of reading and poeming done, so.

I know three things about the night in winter:
it is sharp with tooth-bright stars; its reach is endless;
its cold is deathless, and whispers death to all that yearns for light.

I dream three things on winter nights:
monsters red in tooth in claw; a sadness that never ceases ever;
the death of love and all loved things.

the wolf has eaten the sun, and the darkness will not die tonight.

- Kathy, 12/06/17

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Continuum 2017


I had myself the loveliest little nerdy writerly day today. I went to Continuum 13, the Australian speculative fiction conference.

The con runs over the Queen's Birthday long weekend each June, and I have wanted to go for literally *years*. But the kids were too little to leave for a while ... then I was too sick for a couple of years ... then it collided with OzComicCon, at which I have standing duties helping out at a friend's merch stall.

This year, the stars finally aligned and I was able to get in for a full day today. Truth be told, I could've gone for two days if I had wanted to, but I felt bad about leaving my family for too much of the long weekend, and I have found in the past that two days of a con often exhausts me. So, after perusing the program, I picked today to go, and I had just the best time.

Writer / reader cons like this are such a different beast to the pop culture nerdcons like ComicCon and Supanova, with their teeming thousands. This was a small, intimate con - panel audiences ranged from maybe 25 to 80 in size, and there was ample opportunity to talk to panellists both within sessions and afterwards. People were chatty, and the atmosphere was friendly. Blessedly, it was not crowded at any time - that was a huge plus for me.

The con's guest of honour was prolific urban fantasy, horror and sci fi writer Seanan McGuire (who also writes as Mira Grant). I have read, and liked, several of McGuire's books, and really enjoyed her Newsflesh canon as Mira Grant (it has the distinction of being literally the only zombie series I have EVER enjoyed, or indeed finished). I was perhaps not as huge a fan as some of my friends, although after her highly engaging, entertaining and insightful (not to mention funny) keynote, I am now! I'd heard she was a good speaker but the reports failed to do her justice - she was excellent. Her session was my biggest highlight of a day that wasn't short on good moments.

I also went to panels on:

- Fairytales and fairytale retellings: This was terrific, and has inspired me to go back to my Month of Poetry poems from this year.

- White-washing in speculative fiction: This was interesting, if a little diffuse.

- Journey to the West: This was a great session on the Chinese classic novel that has been adapted multiple times for multiple media - the best-known version to Western viewers being the Monkey TV series.

- Cli-Fi: This panel, about climate change fiction, was probably really good, but as I couldn't hear most of it, I wouldn't know. The room it was in had no soundproofing and was directly adjacent to the very noisy dealers' area.

- Women in Star Wars: This was just pure fun. One of my friends was a panellist, and I could've listened to the 5 panellists talk for a LOT longer.

- Cityscapes: I almost didn't hang around for the last session but I am so glad I did - this was fantastic, probably the most thinky panel of the day, and I am still musing on it.

Overall, it was a day exceedingly well spent in terms of enjoyment, inspiration for my own writing, and connection. I will 100% be back next year!

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Reading Notes: Where the Trees Were (Inga Simpson)

This review is my third from the Miles Franklin longlist. For earlier reviews, please see here:
The Easy Way Out
Hold

This is, in some ways, the most difficult book yet of the Miles Franklin bunch for me to review, because I am torn between wanting to praise it for its considerable virtues, and my unceasing irritation at one central stylistic device that kept pulling me out of the story over and over.

The book, like The Easy Way Out, tackles an issue that is of great interest to me and of great relevance to contemporary Australia (hence, one suspects, its landing on the MF list, which is supposed to prioritise books that speak to the Australian experience in some substantial way). While The Easy Way Out tackles assisted dying, Where the Trees Were takes on cultural appropriation within museology, and the argument for repatriation of cultural artefacts that belong to indigenous people.

It also uses this as a lens to talk to some extent about Australia's dismal history, and indeed contemporary situation, of mistreatment of indigenous people and culture, but strangely, given the scope, the book is much less about that than it could've been. Primarily, this is a story about growing up in the country in the same Australia, era-wise, as when I was doing my growing up in the city; about the losses that shape and mould an ordinary life; and about how the truths we learn in childhood are both powerful across our whole lives, and dreadfully unreliable in the wider world.

The central protagonist is Jayne - farmer's daughter; part of a crew of close-knit friends from surrounding properties and one from the town; and, later, museum curator in Canberra. The story is unusually rich in well-developed secondary characters - child/teen Jayne's friends, Kieran, Ian and Josh; adult-Jayne's partner, semi-spy Sarah; and Jayne's farmer parents, are all fully realised, complex people. The interplay between Jayne and her supporting cast is written beautifully and with a surety of touch that makes all the relationships feel authentic. I felt like I actually knew all these people by the novel's close, in a way that rarely occurs for books that have a single key protagonist.

There are many minor details in the book that feel unforced but are so resonant (to me, as an Australian who grew up in the same time period, albeit a different place). It is a book embedded in Australia - in chocolate bullets and illegal fireworks, in cycling in Canberra, in the Brindabella bushfires, even in the school texts under study (Jayne, like me, studied Z for Zachariah as her year 7 English text, a traumatising selection that I am still bemused by, as a generation of kids were introduced to the Coming Nuclear Apocalypse at the ripe old age of 12). I enjoyed this aspect of the book immensely - it's one of relatively few I have read that has related the period of my own adolescence in such seemingly casual but beautifully artful detail.

The plot itself concerns the existence on Jayne's family farm of a series of arboglyphs - tree carvings made by the Wiradjuri people to mark the gravesite of a fallen member. The arboglyphs' impact eddies throughout the book, affecting families and relationships, shaping Jayne's career choices, and, indirectly, leading to the most crushing of the traumas of the group's early teen years. It would not be untrue to say that Jayne becomes who she is because of the glyphs.

The pacing in the story works well on the whole, but the way in which it is accomplished brings me to my chief criticism (indeed, only significant one, but it's a biggie) of this novel - IT CHANGES POINT OF VIEW WITH THE ONE PROTAGONIST. By this I mean - Jayne remains the central subject throughout, but the book cuts between the storyline that occurs from the end of her primary schooling up until she leaves high school, which is told in the first person, and adult Jayne's storyline in Canberra, which circles around to meet up with the junior story and is told in the intimate third person. So when we're with 14-year-old Jayne, it's all "I did this and I saw that", then in the next chapter we're rocketed into "Jayne saw the door close behind the security guard" etc.

I am going to slightly belabour this point, because I think it matters. It seemed to me that Simpson is breaking one of the most basic rules of fiction writing (yeah, yeah, rules are made to be broken, but...) in not "agreeing in person", and unlike some other examples of rule-breaking I can think of, she doesn't get away with it.  I have read many a novel that head-hops and shares the POV successfully between multiple characters; I have even seen a person-POV change between different protagonists work, although less commonly (one example is Penni Russon's beautiful Only Ever Always, which has two mirror-protagonists who are usefully separated by the change from third to second person as we move between them.)

But not maintaining agreement in person for the same central protagonist is a serious irritant, as a reader. It drags you out of the story. It doesn't serve to emphasise the time gap between the two halves of the story (I assume that was the intention) - it just serves to create a sense of muddlement in the novel as a whole around what Jayne is trying to do and why, and indeed what the book is trying to do and why.

For me, the first-person POV is markedly more successful, and I think it would've translated extremely well into adult-Jayne's storyline (it's intimate third person as it is - we are never inside anyone else's head, just Jayne's). I feel this would've been a much more coherent, powerful novel without the POV flips, and first person would've been the best choice for the whole thing.

Overall? A good book; an interesting story, well-told, with a notable strong suit in character development, but let down from being the excellent book it could've been by its weird choice with POV. I give it 7/10.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

The week in review, the week in view: Week ended 4 June 2017

This week was dominated by the prolonged illness of my 12 year old, who started with a heavy cold last weekend but, but Sunday night, had clearly progressed to a secondary infection in the throat. She was extremely ill, poor poppet - other than the doctor on Monday, to get prescribed her penicillin, she didn't leave the bedroom / bathroom again until Thursday, and even then, was couch-bound.

I worked at home every day except Tuesday to take care of her, when my husband worked at home as I had client site meetings to attend. It was quite challenging, especially on Monday when I also had a rather aggrieved 8 year old home from school on a curriculum day (she had been promised a "Mummy and kid day", which didn't really happen, although we did cuddle up on the couch with popcorn and watched Zootopia for a couple of hours while 12 year old slept).

My little bit of respite came on Wednesday night, when I took my eldest to her third inter-school debate for the year (it was great, she did wonderfully, and they won handily) and then came home to engage with the first meeting of my Online Book Club. It was fantastic - so enjoyable. I did pay for my huge day (work / caretaking / debate / OBC) on Thursday with a day-long stinker of a headache, but it was pretty much worth it.

The 12 year old has finally pulled up, and was able to get to both her extracurriculars this weekend (chess and ice skating), and we even managed a nice family lunch at Bopha Devi in Docklands today, taking advantage of the flawlessly beautiful day.

This weeks is around 3 days of work again, with one full day onsite to a client; all the usual suspects re extracurriculars; and I am optimistically hoping to take a half-day off on Friday to go see Wonder Woman with my husband, and then to spend the Sat-Sun of the long weekend at Continuum, the speculative fiction convention. I am prepared to be derailed on either or both of these, but it's important to have goals.

The term is marching on apace - it's only 2 weeks now until exam week for the eldest as well as grading assessments for jujitsu and skating, and a week after that, holidays start. Second term usually drags more than this for us, so I guess that's something to be grateful for. I am taking 10 days off - the last two days of the school term and the first week of the school hols - and I am looking forward to it, although not in the tongue-hanging-out-desperate way that I was coming up to the Easter break.


IN REVIEW
- 3 days billable work performed (1 day client site)
- Gymnastics - youngest (Weds), jujitsu - eldest (Fri), chess - middle (Sat), ice skating - middle (Sun)
- Interschool debate for eldest (Weds) - they won and eldest got Best Speaker!
- First Online Book Club meeting (Weds) - Discussing Steven Amsterdam's The Easy Way Out
- Wrote, and published here, two book review posts (The Easy Way Out and Hold), which gave me a lot of satisfaction
- Family lunch at Bopha Devi and walk at Docklands (Sun)

IN VIEW
- 3 days work booked (1 day client site)
- Personal training
- Gymnastics - youngest (Weds), jujitsu - eldest (Fri), chess - middle (Sat), ice skating - middle (Sun)
- Hoping to get to see Wonder Woman on Friday with husband
- Continuum Speculative Fiction Convention (Sat-Sun)

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Reading Notes: Hold (Kirsten Tranter)

This review is my second from the Miles Franklin Prize Longlist 2017. For my first review, of Steven Amsterdam's The Easy Way Out, see here.

I was interested in Kirsten Tranter's novel as soon as I read the precis, for one important reason: this book features a hidden / secret room device.

One of my most recurring dream tropes is that of the "found room". This is not an uncommon dream archetype, and has a range of possible meanings, but it's something that has permeated my dreaming life for many years.

In my dreams, I am usually in my own current house, or occasionally in the house I was brought up in. I discover a door in the wall of a familiar room - a door I have never noticed before. I go through and find an unexpected new room - sometimes it's tiny, airless and claustrophic, like a little boxroom, whereas sometimes it's a long low narrow room, like an enclosed sun-porch.

My reaction to finding the room varies, presumably depending on what Jungian symbolism my psyche is using to convey meaning at the time. These dreams are, however, always extremely vivid, and feel significant - they are less a jumble of sense impressions and more an assertion of truths absorbed subconsciously, trying to work their way up to the surface.

Although the hidden / found room in Tranter's novel is not a dream, it has a definite dreamlike quality to it, and its function in the story is both Jungian and (depending on your interpretation) Freudian. Hold is, at its heart, a story of life after loss, and coming to terms with grief; the found room occupies a central symbolic role in the journey of the protagonist to make some sense of, and begin to transition through, the past in which she is mired.

Hold is an intelligent, sensitive and only occasionally over-egged novel. The disparate elements are woven together skillfully to reinforce the overall affect, which is a combination of yearning, melancholy and detachment from life. That said, while Shelley, the book illustrator / designer protagonist, is detached, it is in a completely different way to The Easy Way Out's Evan. Shelley's emotional flatness is a response to, and is fuelled by, the opening event of the novel, which is the drowning death at Bronte Beach of her boyfriend Conrad.

The novel is slow to start - for me, it began to get really interesting only when Shelley and her new partner, the oily David (did NOT like him), have moved into their shared terrace house and Shelley has discovered a hidden room, accessible through a stiff door hidden in the wardrobe of the master bedroom, and started to connect the small, secret space with her own emotions. Three years after Conrad's death, Shelley is not over him, or her loss - Tranter does a very subtle and effective job of showing this, rather than telling - and the room becomes the locus of the part of her that is not past this experience and is holding on to Conrad, holding tightly and painfully, despite repartnering.

Where this book is most effective - and to be clear, I think it is, on the whole, very effective - is in the way it delicately connects the small, brooding room with Shelley's fixations around Conrad. The introduction of the character Kieran, with his striking physical resemblance to Conrad, could have felt contrived, but it's a testament to Tranter's skill that it doesn't - rather, it evokes a strangeness and lucid-dream quality that serves the novel's overall trajectory well. The weaving of the fracturing relationship with David, the almost other-wordly interactions with Kieran and the oddball artist neighbours Rob and Alicia, the subplots with stepdaughter Janie and old friend Tess, is done in sepia tones that adds enormously to the effect.

There are a few moments where Tranter does strain the friendship a little - the loop-closing with Tess is a bit forced, and the resolution to the neighbour plot sits a bit too pat for my taste. But the power of the closed room as a central device never wavers throughout the whole unfolding of the story. Quiet, dim, imbued with a breathing, waiting presence of its own, the room is a character in the story in its own right, and in many ways, the most important character of all to Shelley's eventual resolution.

The ending of the novel (this is not a spoiler, all the surprises are revealed long before this) has Shelley swimming in an ocean pool at a Sydney beach, the salt of it on her skin and in her eyes, and finally, her heart shaken free from the frozen limbo she's existed in since Conrad's death. It is a good ending, satisfying, fitting to the story. And it is a good novel; a very good novel, in fact. It well deserves to be on the Miles Franklin list, and I'd like to see it shortlist.

Score: 8/10
Would recommend for all adult readers

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Online Book Club Reading Notes: The Easy Way Out (Steven Amsterdam)

The brand spanking new Online Book Club that I'm a part of convened for the very first time last night, with six out of the seven members able to make the chat.

It was a fantastic experience for me, and I hope for them. I love nothing better than a good dissection of a book, preferably with intelligent people who've read it, but physical book clubs have proven prohibitively challenging for me in the last 15 years, due to child-rearing / health / distance constraints.

Being able to participate in a wide-ranging and complex discussion *at my own desk* while my kids slept / prepared for bed was exactly what I needed, and I'm just annoyed that I didn't think of it years ago.

As a group, we've decided to use the Miles Franklin longlist as our guide, at least initially; we were all keen to read new Australian fiction and this seemed like a good place to find some. For our inaugural session, we settled on Steven Amsterdam's The Easy Way Out, a novel about assisted dying - partly because two of our members are nurses, and we thought the subject matter of the book could make for some interesting discussions.

The Easy Way Out is the story of Evan, a nurse who, as the book opens, has just commenced employment in a pilot program at Generically Named Made Up Hospital as a "dying assistant". The book's premise is that assisted dying has been legalised within strictly controlled circumstances, and that the hospital is rolling out one of the first such programs.

Evan is, as protagonists go, remarkably flat in his affect, and not particularly likeable at any time. (Some of our group members warmed up to him by the very end of the book, but the majority of us didn't). He has trouble with, ironically, both boundaries and attachment; his difficulty observing the hospital's protocols around the assisted deaths is counterpointed to his drifting, emotionally distant interactions with people in his private life. In particular, we were all at least annoyed, if not repulsed, by his apparent disinterest in the effect his actions have on his long-suffering partners, Lon and Simon - at least two of us (me being one!) were firmly of the view that Lon and Simon were much too good for Evan. The fact that they keep loving him and wanting him despite his apparent inability to really reciprocate is both a tender note in the book and a frustration.

The book provides ample explanation for why he is as he is - Evan suffered an extravagantly damaging childhood with his feckless, although very amusing and likeable, mother Viv. His father committed (unackowledged) suicide when Evan was 10, leading to a dislocated, always-moving, fractured youth for him. Indeed, the "damaging-childhood-inadequate-adulthood" motif is so strongly emphasised, it becomes one of several areas in which the book over-eggs itself. This heavy-handedness does not help the flow of the story, although it is easy to see how (and why) the author made the narrative choices he did. Evan's remarkable emotional flatness is hard to understand otherwise, and his actions almost inexplicable.

The narrative of the book weaves Evan's experiences working in the hospital program, and later, working with the illegal covert Jaspers group who assist at deaths that don't qualify for the hospital program's stringent conditions, with his personal crises. Viv, Evan's vibrant, selfish, but affectionate mother, has Parkinson's Disease, and is declining at a rate of knots - at the book's opening, she has not long relocated to a nursing home, and is chafing against it. Evan's relationship with Viv seems oddly muted for much of the book, but on the basis that actions speak louder than words, it's evident that Viv is the one person for whom he does feel something profound, and accepts his interconnectedness with her. He never abandons his responsibility to Viv, even at the end (no spoilers, but the end is either a let-down or a transformation, depending on who you ask).

On the whole, we felt as a group that the treatment of assisted dying as an issue was handled very clinically and not very completely. One of our group has worked as a palliative care nurse, and felt that there were many nuances and dimensions that the book missed or chose not to deal with (we did wonder if this was intentional though - was Amsterdam, himself a palliative care nurse, trying to make a point about how legalised assisted dying could change the way palliative care is delivered?)

The hospital program, and its manager Nettie, seemed distasteful in a way that we found hard to pin down, but when Evan moves on to working illegally with the Jaspers, our repugnance was much stronger - the unregulated deaths seemed, to all of us, like suicides with someone there to watch, and at least two of those who died would have been ineligible for "controlled" assisted dying for sound reasons. We also struggled with the issue of payment - the Jaspers are given "donations" by their clients, but there is a smell of mercenariness to the way this was handled that sat very uneasily with us.

Overall, we ended up giving the book 6-7/10 - averaging, it'd be 6.5. We thought it had some interesting ideas and posed some good ethical questions, but didn't really stick the landing in terms of exploring the full gamut of its own plot.

Did it perhaps start to go there at the end? Maybe it did. One of our members wrote, "I wonder if in the end, the author wanted to show that when death seems the logical option, it still may not be the most meaningful one", and I think that perhaps sums it up best of all.  Where the book succeeds, it succeeds on ethical philosophy grounds; where it fails, it fails because it vastly underplays the emotional content of human lives and deaths, and all that implies. At the end of the day, it's an interesting book, not a lovable one. I'd recommend it, with some reservations, but do I think it should win the Miles Franklin? No.