past, present and future with graeme simsion

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the rosie effect

Past, Present and Future is a (mostly) fortnightly series of posts in which a very special guest comes time travelling with me.

The idea is surprisingly simple – every second Monday, I ask someone bookish to spill the beans on the book they’ve just read, what they’re reading right now and what they’re planning to read next.

This fortnight’s guest is none other than Graeme Simsion, author of the wildly successful (not to mention incredibly enjoyable) smash hit The Rosie Project, and its much-anticipated sequel, The Rosie Effect – which I just so happen to be reading right now!

Curious? Of course you are! I know I am! Here’s what Graeme’s been reading…

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When I took a comedy class with Doug Anthony All Stars legend Tim Ferguson a few years ago, he warned us, ‘You may never laugh again.’ There is a general truth here: once you know how the trick is done, it loses its power. And artists look at others’ work with a professional eye.

Reading has not been the same for me since I became a novelist and, and, particularly, an editor of my own and others’ work. I’m constantly examining the craft. What techniques is Ms Tartt using to hold my attention? Why the sudden change of point of view, Mr Larssen? Are all those colons and semicolons a deliberate stylistic choice, Ms Mantel?

For relaxation, as distinct from education, I’m more inclined to pick up non-fiction, or fiction that’s a long way from what I’m trying to write myself. My kids gave me a copy of The Annotated Alice (Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass with notes by mathematician Martin Gardner) for my birthday, and it filled both criteria.

But, as it happens, my last book was a novel. So…

 

Past

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

The cover of my edition has a bet each way: “One of the best twists in years – Stylist magazine” and “Shortlisted for The Man Bookcompletely beside ourselveser Prize 2014”. Maybe that confused positioning is why it has apparently disappointed many readers, who have given it a rating of 3.5 stars on the Australian Amazon site. Perhaps they were expecting a thriller (which it isn’t) or a more literary style of writing.

But it’s a five star book as far as I’m concerned. Effortless, clean writing, a distinct and sassy voice (it’s in first person) and a highly original premise that provides a base for an emotional journey, reflections on the human condition and liberal doses of comedy. A family makes a big, and in hindsight, disastrous, decision and does its best to manage the consequences. It was a situation I was familiar with from non-fiction. Beside Ourselves brings a different –and arguably more pertinent—perspective.

I can’t write much more about the plot without revealing the twist (many of the reviews contain the relevant spoiler, so read them later). That said, I had been made aware of it before I started reading, and, beyond missing out on one ‘whoa’ moment in many hours of reading, I didn’t feel my reading experience was compromised. Of all the books I’ve read this year, it’s the one I’d most like to have written.

Twists… They’re a vital part of plots in certain genres, but a big twist does not a story make, at least not for me, and the author needs to be careful not to break faith with the reader by being seen to withhold information that should have come out in the normal course of narration. Beside Ourselves’ twist breaks this rule – in spades – but it happens early and we are given a good reason for the deception. I bought it, but not everyone will.

The outstanding “twist-based” success of recent years has been Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, and, again, the twist has pulled attention from what a good thriller – and intelligent study of narcissism – this book actually is. In fact, I’d argue that the mid-way twist denies us the possibility of empathising with the Amy character, and that the book is weaker for it. I’d have killed that darling – but it’s hard to argue with that grip it’s got on the number one spot on the New York Times bestseller list.

 

Present

the-assassination-of-margaret-thatcherI can’t write as much – or as reflectively – about what I’m reading now. It takes time to absorb a book, and sometimes years to understand its impact. I read Albert Camus’ The Plague when I was fifteen, and still reflect on it. But when I was briefly addicted to Robert Ludlum thrillers, I’d have been hard pressed to recall the plots a week later.

I’m a parallel processor. The stack of books beside my bed is embarrassing (in height, not content). I’m dipping into Hilary Mantel’s The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher but tonight I’ll resume reading How Plays Work by David Edgar. It’s one of several ‘craft’ books beside the bed, including two on comedy writing and one on screenplay.

I’ve always been interested in the theory, the foundations of what I’m doing. That’s not to dismiss the value of intuition or the unexplained moment of inspiration but I want to save my limited creative resources for when they’re needed. The more I can do consciously, purposefully and in a way I can understand myself, the better. And it gives me a language to discuss what I’m doing, and to coach others.

 

Future

once-upon-a-time-the-lives-of-bob-dylanNext on my list is a manuscript I’ve been asked to read. In the last year I’ve done this for my partner (Anne Buist) and a member of my writers’ group (Tania Chandler). Their novels, respectively Medea’s Curse (Text) and Grunge (Scribe) will be published next year. Reviewing manuscripts constructively is a big job, and I only do it for people I know well (or owe a favour!). I suspect this sort of work is what’s made me such a picky reader, but, truth to tell, it’s good for my own writing.

After that, I’ll probably pick up Ian Bell’s two-volume Lives of Bob Dylan. I’m a Dylan aficionado (falling short of Dylan tragic, I hope), and recently selected his album “Live 1966: The ‘Albert Hall’ Concert” as a favourite work of art to discuss on Radio National’s Masterpiece programme.

As a baby boomer, it’s hardly original to have Dylan as my creative hero, but he provides a model for reinvention and for continuing to do fine work as he ages (I’m talking about the song-writing and recordings – I won’t argue about the concerts!). And every time I prepare to do another bookshop talk, I remind myself that he’s getting up on stage every night at 72.


 

Thanks for stopping by to take part in Past, Present and Future, Graeme!

What do you think of Graeme’s choices? Are you a fan of novels (or short stories, for that matter) with plot twists? And how out of control is the stack of unread books beside your bed? Seriously, if mine collapsed on me during the night, I might not survive… (but what a way to go!)

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past, present and future with susan whelan

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It’s time again for Past, Present and Future, the fortnightly post in which I invite someone bookish over for a little chat about what they’ve read recently, what they’re reading at the moment and the books they’re planning to read in the future.

This fortnight, I’m rather chuffed to be hosting one of my favourite literary bloggers, Susan Whelan from Reading Upside Down! As a reader of pretty much everything, I was expecting Susan’s response to be somewhat eclectic. As it turns out, I wasn’t wrong…

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I generally have several books that I’m reading at any given time. My work at Kids’ Book Review means that I regularly read picture books as well as junior, middle and YA fiction and every now and then I even manage to squeeze in some adult fiction. It probably goes without saying that the pile of books on my bedside table is formidable.

Past

Picture Book – The Wonder by Faye Hanson: Such a beautiful picture book, all about valuing creativity and imagination. I love books that encourage children to think creatively and the illustrations in this story really capture the wonderful way children’s imagination can make ordinary things extraordinary.

Junior Fiction – Thursdays with the Crown by Jessica Day George: This is the third book in a junior fiction series that balances all the stereotypical elements of a fantasy story for girls – a magical castle, princesses, mythical animals, dresses, handsome princes, etc – with a great adventure and a really strong, smart, brave, interesting female protagonist.

Middle Fiction – Finding Darcy by Sue Lawson: This book offers an interesting perspective on wartime experiences for older primary and tween readers. It really conveyed how the impact of the husbands and fathers who didn’t return home from the war flowed down through subsequent generations of families, affecting how they interacted with each other and the choices they made in their own lives.

Young Adult – A Thousand Pieces of You by Claudia Gray: I finished this book today and have found it hard to put down as I followed the unfolding story founded on the premise of travel between parallel universes. I really enjoyed the way that the characters worked through not only the physical aspects of interdimensional travel, but also the ethical and emotional issues it raises. Lots of tension, a little romance, and some unexpected plot twists mean that I’m already looking forward to the sequel to see how the story continues.

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Present

Junior Fiction – Journey to Eos by Paul Russell: This is the first book published by Blueprint Publishing, brought to my attention because the author attends my local CBCA (Children’s Book Council of Australia) meetings. I really like to read books by local writers when I can, and I’m quite enjoying this story about the adventures of a little girl and her guardian fairy.

Young Adult – Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld: I’m 120 pages into this book and I’m still trying to work out how I feel about it. The book features two complete stories, told in alternating chapters –a novel written by a fictional debut author (Darcy Patel), and the fictional account of Darcy’s journey to publication. I loved the beginning, but I’m finding that I’m losing any sense of tension or pace because of the dual storyline. I’m hoping that as I continue some link or parallel will develop between the two storylines to tie things together. I’m finding that even though I’m interested in how the story will develop, I’m not feeling compelled to keep reading and I’m easily distracted by other books in my TBR pile.

Adult Fiction – The Rosie Effect by Graeme Simsion: I loved The Rosie Project, all the more because I heard Graeme Simsion talk about the process of developing the story at a local library event not long after it was published. I was keen to read The Rosie Effect and, while it doesn’t feel as fresh and exciting as The Rosie Project, I am enjoying the opportunity of revisiting these characters. I’m a little over halfway and I’m enjoying the humour of the story as well as appreciating the opportunity to view life from a different perspective. The well-known quote from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird comes to mind as I read these books (“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” ) and I think beyond the story itself, there is value to be gained from the opportunity to view life through Don Tillman’s eyes and perhaps gain a little insight into what everyday life is like for those who don’t instinctively understand social cues and emotional nuances.

Adult Fiction – The Wives of Los Alamos by TaraShea Nesbit: This novel reads like non-fiction as it gives an account of the experiences of the wives at Los Alamos, the partners of the men involved in the development of the atomic bomb. The story is told from the group perspective, merging experiences and perspectives in a way that is a little offputting at times, but I’m finding the concept and insight into the experiences of these women quite fascinating.

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Future

Junior/Middle Fiction – Race to the End of the World (The Mapmaker Chronicles #1) by A L Tait: I’ve heard good things about this fantasy action/adventure story for older primary children and as I chat with the author occasionally on Twitter and Facebook, I couldn’t resist picking a copy up when I saw it recently.

Middle Fiction – Tiger Stone by Deryn Mansell: Set in 14th Century Java, this book caught my attention as an interesting and unusual setting for a middle fiction novel. Books are such a wonderful way to connect readers with history and other cultures. With so many books set in Western countries and cultures, I’m looking forward to reading a novel with an Indonesian focus.

Young Adult – The Raven’s Wing by Frances Watts: I was chatting with Frances Watts at a writers’ festival recently and she mentioned this novel set in Ancient Rome. I enjoy Frances’ picture book and junior fiction novels, so I’m keen to read this tale of ‘marriage, murder and intrigue’.

Young Adult – Spark by Rachael Craw: An enthusiastic review on Kids’ Book Review from one of our team as well as several interesting, and at times hilarious, conversations with Rachael Craw on Twitter have moved this novel to the top of my TBR pile. I’ve heard lots of good things about this book, so I’m really looking forward to finding time to read it myself.

Non-Fiction – A Slip of the Keyboard by Terry Pratchett: Terry Pratchett books are a foundational part of my reading journey. I have been reading Discworld books since they were first published and I’ve also enjoyed reading several other books written by Pratchett, fiction and non-fiction. This book includes a collection of essays and non-fiction articles by Pratchett that I’m really looking forward to dipping into regularly, like the hidden chocolate stash in my pantry.

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Susan Whelan9Susan Whelan is a freelance writer, blogger and children’s author. She maintains a book/personal blog at Reading Upside Down as well as a professional website focused on her own writing and general writing tips for authors, particularly those writing for children and teens. She is the Managing Editor of Kids’ Book Review, a popular Australian children’s book review website.

Susan’s first picture book, Don’t Think About Purple Elephants, is illustrated by Gwynneth Jones and will be published by EK Books in April 2015.


Thanks for being a part of Past, Present and Future, Susan. I feel somewhat inadequate now because I strictly read one book at a time! In comparison, my bedside table is a rather sparse affair. Anyway, you should also follow Susan on Twitter too.

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past, present and future with rebecca james

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cooper-bartholomew-is-deadIt’s time again for Past, Present and Future, the semi-fortnightly post in which I invite a very special guest over for a chat about books and a bit of time travel.

Just in case you’re new around these parts, here’s how Past, Present and Future works. Every couple of weeks, I ask someone bookish to share with me a little bit about the book they’ve just read and the book they’re reading right now, as well as the book they’re planning to read next. Or, in other words, their past, present and future books.

This edition of Past, Present and Future just happens to be a bit of a Halloween special! Joining me is one of Australia’s biggest names in young adult literature, Rebecca James. Her third novel, Cooper Bartholomew is Dead was released earlier this month.

Somewhat fittingly for Halloween, each of Rebecca’s choices explores the darker side of human nature…

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Past

this-houseI’ve just finished reading This House of Grief, Helen Garner’s latest non-fiction book. It’s about the trial of Robert Farquharson who drove his three children into a dam on Father’s Day. It’s a bleak book, the subject matter so terrible it’s almost impossible to believe and even harder to understand.

I very much like Helen Garner’s journalistic style. I admire the way she puts herself into the story, showing her own biases, her own sometimes ungenerous thoughts and judgements. It has the effect, I think, of placing the reader right there in the story too, making you question your own prejudices and assumptions. It can be quite confronting. Ultimately, though, I found it an unsatisfying book. Robert Farquharson came across as completely opaque and unknowable and that left me frustrated.

I wanted some answers. I wanted clearer lines between right and wrong and what was true and what was false. I wanted things to be tied up neatly, I wanted to know what really happened and why.

And yet, it’s no doubt unreasonable to expect or want ‘satisfaction’ from such a story. This is real life, not fiction. There are no easy answers or definite conclusions. And I guess that’s the whole point, isn’t it? We can never really know or understand why people do such horrendous things.

Present

I’m currently reading Fatal Vision by Joe McGinniss, about the case of Jeffrey MacDonald who was cfatal-visiononvicted of murdering his wife and daughters. It’s another true crime book which is an unusual choice for me because, apart from Helen Garner’s books, I very rarely read it.

(I’ve tried several true crime stories in the past and have always given up. It’s altogether too disturbing and it gives me nightmares. Funnily enough, I have no such problem with crime fiction.)

This book stirred up quite a controversy because the author, Joe McGinniss, was initially hired by Jeffrey MacDonald (the accused) to write a book which told his side of the story and argued for his innocence. MacDonald’s plan backfired because in getting to know MacDonald and attending his trial the author became convinced of MacDonald’s guilt. The book is, apparently, ultimately quite condemning.

Fatal Vision is, in a way, linked to the Garner book because I decided to read it after watching a recent interview with Helen Garner on Jennifer Byrne’s book show. During the interview Garner talked about her influences and mentioned a book called The Journalist and the Murderer by Janet Malcolm. The Journalist and the Murderer is a rumination on the inherent immorality of journalism, and examines, in detail, the dodgy ethics involved with the McGinniss/MacDonald case.

Once I’d decided to read The Journalist and the Murderer I decided I should read Fatal Vision first. I wanted the complete picture, the full story.

Future

journalistmurdererNext up, and this is going to come as no surprise, I plan to read The Journalist and the Murderer.

I’m fascinated by Malcolm’s premise that every piece of journalism involves an act of betrayal, and if the first line is anything to go by — ‘Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible’ — it’s going to be an engaging read. I have it all ready to go on my e-reader, I just have to get through the heavy-going, almost 1000 pages of Fatal Vision first.

My reading choices aren’t normally so orderly or structured. I usually skip randomly from one book to the next, picking up whatever takes my fancy. I might read a classic one day, a thriller the next, a chick-lit book the next. It seems strangely serendipitous to be asked to write this piece when my choices are so linked up and planned out. It makes me seem far less chaotic than I actually am!

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rebecca-jamesRebecca James is the author of Beautiful Malice, Sweet Damage and Cooper Bartholomew is Dead. You should take a look at her blog, lollygag, where she writes about the publishing process, writing and more.

You can also get to know Rebecca on Twitter (she’s one of my favourites!) and read this brilliant profile piece by Nigel Featherstone in The Age.

Thank you so much for sharing your reading with me, Rebecca!

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2014 – the wonders – paddy o’reilly

Wonders

The stare is a different thing altogether. Leon had come to think of the stare as admiration Maybe Kathryn was right. A child uses the stare as a tool of curiosity and wonder. The grotesque is wonderful. The malformed is wonderful, the unexpected is wonderful and so is the beautiful. There is far less judgement in the unguarded stare of a child than the hush-ups of their adult companions.

He told Kathryn how, at a private dinner, a child who was waiting in the corridor for her waitress mother to finish work had asked him if he was a robot. That made him laugh. ‘Is your brain made of metal too?’ she asked. She was five, the age when the questions pour out of a child like milk out of a jug. ‘Do you eat nails? Why did they put it in that way? Do you have feelings?’

‘Oh yes,’ Leon answered her. ‘I have so many feelings that sometimes I think I’ll burst.’

‘Me too, she replied gravely. She touched his hand and looked up at his face with serious eyes. Eyes that didn’t waver. Eyes that never flickered once to the hole in his chest

Earlier this week, I reviewed Paddy O’Reilly’s The Wonders for Newtown Review of Books. It’s a novel so full of ideas it might burst. If you’re interested, head over and take a look.

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