Saturday, January 21, 2012

Summer At Mount Hope

My favourite book is the Dressmaker by Rosalie Ham. I have just finished reading Rosalie's second novel, Summer At Mount Hope. It has the same sense of humour, the same chatty pace, and the same social commentary that I enjoyed so much in her first novel.
   I highly recommend this story to anyone wanting to read a truly Australian novel. It deals with the drought, pastoralists and squatters, the depression and itinerants, shearers striking and demanding more money, suffragettes campaigning for women's rights, and the advent of new technology. Despite being crammed full of issues, Rosalie balances everything very well.

   Surrounded by sheep farmers, Phoeba Crupp's father grows grapes. She is strong and plain, and very intelligent. Her younger sister is the opposite. Phoeba wants to inherit her father's farm and grow grapes. She wants to be free, and she only wants to marry if she is deeply in love.
   The community is struggling with the drought, and what the weather does is crucial to their survival. Their lives are turned upside-down, and Phoeba thinks she has been dispossessed and makes a compromise. It all seems kind of sad, and certainly isn't very emotionally satisfying. But this is what I enjoy most about Rosalie Ham's writing: she's realistic. Not everyone's perfect, and not everyone gets to live happily ever after. But the ending of this novel shows that Phoeba's compromise must have resulted in a very prosperous and rewarding life. Hopefully she was happy.
   I can't wait to read Rosalie Ham's latest novel: There Should Be More Dancing

Why I Read and Review

I have frequently commented in various posts that I am trying to read broadly to improve my writing. I am reviewing so that I am consciously doing something more than just enjoying the story. In doing so, I hope that I can also offer some guidance to other readers, but that is not my primary goal.

   Part of my creative writing course with Griffith University has confirmed this practice:

The kind of reading practice that is beneficial to a writer involves something more complex than simply enjoying the story. As beginning writers, we may be content to read in our preferred genres, whether that is crime fiction, romance, spy, war, science fiction or fantasy, biography, memoir or other non-fiction writing. But if we continue to read only in our preferred genres we run the risk of reproducing exactly the same kinds of writing, necessarily devoid of the creativity that variety brings...

   Maybe you've heard people say of Picasso's cubist or surreal periods that 'my daughter could have done that'. But the truth is that Picasso used these styles because he chose to, not because it was all he could do. He was an accomplished painter of conventional works [as well]. He was master of his tools and could paint in any style he chose.

   Think of your writing skills in this way. The skilled writer is not the one who can product only children's books, or poetry, or reviews. The skilled writer is one who has mastered the skills of writing.
   And, like a painter, you can expect that as your writing life progresses you will move from phase to phase, developing your technique as you go...
   To achieve this you must step away from the comfort of what you know. If your favourite reading is science fiction, examine how thrillers use action and pace to drive narrative forward. If you favour biographies, explore the character development techniques of good historical novels. If you read only prose fiction, try a book of contemporary poetry to learn how other writers manipulate both language and structure...
   Each new genre of writing you encounter, each foray out of your comfort zone into unknown territory can help you think more critically about your own writing, and give you new tools, ideas and techniques with which to improve your writing skills.

So my blog is less about the books I read and the reviews I make than my own writing. By reviewing others' writing, I am developing the skills to critically review my own writing, and develop more techniques and tools to improve my writing skills.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Animal Farm

As part of the Classics Challenge that I'm participating in this year, I finished reading Animal Farm by George Orwell. The additional post as part of this challenge included responding to a prompt about the author: my post is here.

This is a very entertaining book with strong political and social themes. Parallels are drawn between the animals on the farm, that rise up and throw out the human farmer and run the farm themselves, and communist Russia. They have great ideals and commandments, but these change over the years, and in the end the hypocritical pigs merely replace one form of dictatorship (human farmers) with another (themselves). The commandments are gradually changed, giving rise to one of the most famous lines from the book: All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.
   In is such a quick read, and very very clever. The language is simple, the pace is good, and I am so glad that I finally read this book!

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Rules according in Orwell

It's a bit of a coincidence. I am participating in the 2012 Classics Challenge and wrote a post on George Orwell a couple of days ago.
   As part of my goal to be a writer, I am doing a unit with Griffith university in creative and professional writing. My compulsory reading this week involved reading a George Orwell essay: "Politics and the English Language"!
   Here are some rules that Orwell thinks we should follow as writers, to improve the English language:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print;
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do;
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out;
  4. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent; and
  5. Break any of the above rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
These rules sound elementary, and so they are, but they demand a deep change in attitude in anyone who has grown used to writing in the style now fashionable.
   Coincidence that I'm being saturated by George Orwell at the moment.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Claudia's Big Break

I was lucky enough that Lisa Heidke, the author, sent me a copy of Claudia's Big Break that should be available commercially in March 2012. I really enjoyed Stella Makes Good, which I read last year, and is now available. Claudia's Big Break had the same great pace, and candid humour that I enjoyed in Stella Makes Good. It was such a great read whilst on holiday, or if you just want to relax the brain for a while.

The blurb: Seeking time and space to think about new possibilities in her life, Claudia Taylor jets off to glorious Santorini with her two best friends, Tara and Sophie.
   Sophie and Tara also hope a break from the daily grind will help them make some major life decisions. Sophie, a former high-flying career woman turned mother of one, is no longer sure what the future holds. And Tara is toying with the idea of leaving her less-than-satisfying job to try and realise a long-held ambition to be a writer.
   Claudia's Big Break is a funny, thoughtful novel about friendship, romance, laughter and loyalty. It's also a breezy account of three women taking stock of their lives - with a bit of drunken karaoke thrown in.
   For Claudia and her friends, life will never be the same after their much-needed holiday in paradise.

Lisa Heidke is a brilliant character-developer. The three ladies in Claudia's Big Break are so real, they jump off the page. The reader can see part of themselves in each of the women (or at least someone they know). For me, I have Tara's fashion sense, Claudia's feeling that I'm still a silly young girl in an adult world, and I'm terrified that I will be like Sophie if I have a child.
   This novel is a bit more of a romance than Stella Makes Good. It is not as powerful in some ways, but much more engaging in others (I love indulging in a good romance novel sometimes).
   Claudia's Big Break has also found me at a time in my life when I am reassessing where I live, and my career choices, just like the women in this novel. I'm inspired that the women are strong enough to make decisions about their future that will change their lives. At the moment, I feel stuck. If only we were all in a financial position that we could decided to study something else and pursue a different direction. If only I could get my novel finished ...

Sunday, January 8, 2012

A Classics Challenge

As part of my participation in the 2012 Classics Challenge, the host will be asking for a post each month based on a guided topic or questions. Here is the link to the first challenge: The Author.

I am reading Animal Farm by George Orwell as my first classic for the year. Luckily, the edition of Animal Farm that I have chosen has notes on the text in the front, so I have a lot of information on George Orwell already to answer the questions posed.  I also utilised Wikipedia.
   'George Orwell' is in fact the pen name of Eric Arthur Blair, born in 1903 in India. His father was working in the civil service, and moved the family back to England in 1907. Eric won a place as a King's Scholar at Eton in 1917, where he remained until December 1921. He then joined the Indian Imperial Police in Burma until 1927, when he contracted dengue fever and moved back to England. He lived for a time in England, then Paris, then back to London. He died aged 46, after various medical complications during his life.
   Although best known in England for his journalism, essays, reviews and columns in newspapers and magazines, he also wrote the following novels and narrative documentaries:

  • 1933 - Down and Out in Paris and London
  • 1934 - Burmese Days
  • 1935 - the Clergyman's Daughter
  • 1936 - Keep the Aspidistra Flying
  • 1937 - The Road to Wigan Pier
  • 1938 - Road to Catalonia 
  • 1939 - Coming Up For Air
  • 1945 - Animal Farm
  • 1949 - Nineteen Eighty-Four
Eric liked to stir and provoke argument. He is widely remembered as being a socialist, but his political views actual swung a lot over his lifetime. He proclaimed himself an anarchist at one point. He was anti-Stalin, supported the war against Nazi Germany, opposed British imperialism, opposed the Anglo-Soviet alliance, and was highly critical of governments generally.
   Apparently, the British intelligence group, MI5, monitored Eric for about 20 years for his "advanced Communist views".


Nearly at the three year anniversary of Black Saturday, I felt comfortable enough to read Kinglake-350 by Adrian Hyland. I read it in two days, whilst I was camping. I'm glad I had no access to the internet whilst I was reading it, because I was worried about Roger Wood's family from the outset. The other surreal thing about reading this book whilst camping, was that I was breathing wood smoke for most of the time. Ever since Black Saturday, an unexpected whiff of wood smoke has made me nervous.

Any trauma that I may have suffered does not compare to that suffered by those directly affected, and I understand that Adrian Hyland was a local, I was only living a few kilometres up the road at the time of the fires, near Broadford. I was awake all that night, watching the CFA website. Little did I know how useless that exercise was, until I read this novel.
   Although written as a novel, it is a true account from the point of view of various survivors.
   Obviously, the book is very emotional and confronting. But, Adrian Hyland has balanced the writing very well. He provides a lot of factual slabs of information, giving you a well-timed break from the pace of the story. He has researched weather, fire, Australian flora, and the history of fire in our country.
   This novel also asks a lot of questions, raised by Adrian Hyland. He tries to balance anger and the laying of blame very well. He asks relevant questions. He is concerned about the increased likelihood of a fire storm in years to come, and he encourages us to take responsibility in our role in creating the conditions for the same. Rightly, he encourages us to stop trying to find an individual or corporation to blame, but instead understand the multiple factors that brought about this disaster and trying to find a way to prevent another fire storm from taking so many lives.
   All people living in Australia should read this book, particularly those living in southern New South Wales and Victoria.

Friday, January 6, 2012

2012 Aussie Author Challenge

This is my third (and probably final) reading challenge for 2012. I'm participating in the Aussie Author Challenge, hosted by Booklover Book Reviews, and I'm aiming to be Dinky-Di!

I participated in this challenge in 2011, as a late entrant. In 2012, I'll be able to kill two birds with one stone by doing the Aussie Author Challenge as well as the Australian Women Writers Challenge. But to be as true to form as possible, I will try my hardest to not include any novel in both challenges. So, I will try to read 12 Australian novels for the Aussie Author Challenge, and 6 novels for the Australian Women Writers Challenge.
   This should certainly expand my reading a fair bit!

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Blood Meridian

In my pursuit of reading broadly, I read Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy over the Christmas period. Not the nicest of stories to be reading during a time when everyone is in a festive mood. This novel certainly put me in a reflective and withdrawn mood. It also took me a while to read, because the language is complex, and the lengthy descriptions caused my mind to wander.

Like The Road, this book leaves you feeling disturbed, and like you are surfacing from a nightmare every time you put the book down.
   Also like The Road, the main character is never named (perhaps so we don't get too close to him, or give him a real identity), and only ever referred to as 'the boy'.
   This story is about the good and evil inside men. On the surface, is follows 'the boy' over a period in his life when he joined a group of men hunting and killing and scalping native Americans for money. There is blood dripping from every page of this book. The landscape is bleak, and there are bodies piled up everywhere. But underneath the gore and the horror, this book is about good and evil.
   The kid has a taste for mindless violence, but I believe this is due to his isolation and his youth. He later derides another young man for his admiration of 'meanness'.
   I've read a few other blogs that have been written on this novel, and I did not interpret the character of 'the judge' in the same way as others. The judge is a formidable character, and completely unbelievable. He is seven foot tall, completely hairless, highly intelligent, can speak multiple languages, a great musician, an agile dancer, a lawyer or judge (he knows a lot of law), a mediator, and many other things. I think he is either the devil, or a fallen angel. He thinks that things shouldn't exist unless he is aware of them. He thinks that war is the primary nature of man. He leads all the other characters is the novel astray. Blood and violence is all around him, and he manipulates situations to increase violence (despite not often participating in it himself). He is responsible for many children going missing and being killed (but tortured first) throughout the novel.
   This is more than a horror novel. It is difficult to read, and quite subtle. As it says on the front page, this is 'unlike anything I have read ... an extraordinary and breathtaking achievement'.