another year over, a new one just begun

War is Over was my favourite Christmas song as a child. Maybe it still is. I heard it on the radio while I was on the bus to work a few days before Christmas and I might have become a little teary.

The lyrics always confused me. Why, I remember asking my grade two teacher, did the man in the song say a new year had “just begun” when the song says that it’s Christmas?

My teacher had no answer for me. I mentally filed War is Over along with all the other vaguely ridiculous Christmas songs – like the one about “dashing through the snow” I remember singing at a sweltering end of year school assembly, the heat of the asphalt radiating through the soles of my school shoes.

I dread those “Oh, where has the year gone?” conversations that I’m often dragged into around the beginning of December. There’s something about that empty kind of chit-chat that I can’t stand. That, and it makes the feeling of time being dragged away from me worse.

But right at the heart of things, I think that’s what John Lennon was on about in those first few lines of War is Over – the way a year can seemingly whiz by in a flash, leaving you to begin again just as you were finding your way through a year that feels like it’s only “just begun”. Leaving you to ask yourself…so, what have I done?

For me, the answer is always the same: not enough. I’m hoping that at the end of 2015, I’ll have more to show for myself.

Before the New Year runs away from me, there’s some unfinished business I wanted to take care of first. In no particular order, here are five of the books I enjoyed the most in 2014.

The Summer Book – Tove Jansson

The highlight of my reading year was discovering Tove Jansson.

After my beautiful grandma passed away in the final weeks of 2013 – after the funeral, after the strangest Christmas ever – I found myself in the first days of 2014 standing in front of my bookshelf, looking for solace. The calm cerulean blue spine of Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book appealed to me, and I started reading.

The Summer Book is a series of scenes that take place on a remote island in the Gulf of Finland, inhabited only during the summer by one family – a grandmother and Sophia, her granddaughter. There’s also Sophia’s father, an artist, but he plays little part in the plot. In the opening moments of The Summer Book, we learn that Sophia’s mother has recently died. With the link between generations missing, Sophia and her grandmother begin to explore the island they share, as well as the gap left by Sophia’s absent mother.

On the second page, Sophia asks her grandmother:

“When are you going to die?” the child asked.

And Grandmother answered. “Soon. But that is not the least concern of yours.”

“Why?” her grandchild asked.

She didn’t answer.

There was something about seeing that exchange, the directness of it there on the page, that knocked the air from me. I remembered asking my own grandmother the same question when I was very young.

As Sophia’s life is beginning, her grandmother’s life is coming to an end. Over the course of The Summer Book, we watch as Sophia’s grandmother becomes weak, sick, forgetful. And Sophia has no idea it’s happening, because that’s what it’s like to be young.

Beautiful and devastating, The Summer Book is a contradiction; direct and oblique at the same time. It was the first book I read this year, and remains my favourite – a life-changing experience that came along right when I needed it the most.

Also in 2014, I read Jansson’s short story collections Art in Nature, Fair Play and A Winter Book (in the winter, of course). I also read her novel, The True Deceiver and reviewed Tove Jansson: Life, Art, Words, a biography published last year to coincide with the hundredth anniversary of Jansson’s birth. I could make up a top five for the year featuring only Jansson’s books, but I’m restricting myself to just one book per author. The Summer Book will always be special. It was the book that sparked a literary love affair.

Arctic Summer – Damon Galgut

arcticsummercoverOn the subject of literary love affairs, as a devoted fan of E M Forster, when I first heard about Damon Galgut’s Arctic Summer – a fictional look at Forster’s life during the writing of A Passage to India, the last of his masterpieces – I knew I had to read it.

I was always going to have strong feeling about this novel. Arctic Summer didn’t disappoint. From the very beginning, Galgut’s inelegant, introspective Morgan Forster won me over completely. Arctic Summer is an understated, quiet book that left me flailing and defeated in its wake.

Arctic Summer might not be for everyone (last year’s Man Booker judges, for instance – Galgut didn’t even make the Booker longlist) but this novel is definitely for me. You can read my review over at Newtown Review of Books if you like.

The Swimming-Pool Library – Alan Hollinghurst

Talking of the Man Booker prize, I mightn’t have read this year’s winner, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, but at least did I read Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty this year which won the Booker Prize back in 2004. It seems I have ten years to catch up.

I read Hollinghurst’s The Swimming-Pool Library and The Line of Beauty in quick succession early last year and utterly lost myself in Hollinghurst’s immersive prose. I enjoyed both novels, but because I have to choose just one book per author, I’m putting Hollinghurst’s debut on this list.

The deliberately archaic register of The Swimming-Pool Library immediately had me feeling as if I was reading something set in another alternative existence – which, in a way, I guess I was. Hollinghurst’s characters inhabit a risky world of double meanings, codes and glances; a world where every action speaks of a hidden desire. It’s irresistibly dark and inviting, and I was drawn under its spell.

The Woman Upstairs – Claire Messud

Every time one of those “best opening sentences of all time” articles makes its way around literary Twitter, I can’t stop myself from rolling my eyes. I hate the way these articles reduce books to just a few words, when a book is about so much more than that.

the-woman-upstairsThat said, Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs has one of the best opening pages I’ve ever read. As far as I’m concerned, any novel that opens with the sentence “How angry am I?” and rounds off its first page with the words “FUCK YOU ALL” gets my vote.

Messud takes this initial momentum, this anger, and carries it over 301 furious pages. It’s the literary equivalent of a raised middle finger and from the very first page, I was swept up, tumbled over and over like being caught by a wave.

But as triumphantly, deliciously angry as the novel is, there’s a lingering sadness at work in The Woman Upstairs. It’s this element of frailty that binds this novel together and adds yet another dimension to this story of a vulnerable woman betrayed by art and by life.

Messud’s novel is twisted and seething and incandescently brilliant – and I couldn’t get enough of it.

The Night Guest – Fiona McFarlane

Ruth, an elderly woman, wakes in the early hours of morning to the unmistakable sounds of a tiger moving about her house. The next day, the tiger has gone and Frida arrives, sent by the government to look after Ruth.

I really admire The Night Guest – possibly because this is the kind of book I’d love to have written myself. The psychological tug of war that takes place between the two women; the way we watch, helplessly as Ruth’s memory slowly begins to unravel and retreat from her; even the beach setting, the way the sand dunes begin to invade Ruth’s home – all of the elements that make up this novel come together in such a perfect way that I was left in awe.

The Night Guest is close to flawless. If you haven’t already picked it up, add it to your list.

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Anyone who knows me will know by now that I can’t possibly write a list of five books without naming a heap of honourable mentions, so here are another a few other books that I loved this year…don’t tempt me to keep going, or I’ll just list everything I read…

Trumpet – Jackie Kay

trumpetWhen the love of your life dies, the problem is not that some part of you dies too, which it does, but that some part of you is still alive.

Millie’s husband, famous jazz musician, Joss Moody has died, leaving a scandal in his wake. Distraught and grieving, Millie retreats to the holiday house she and Joss shared in Scotland to hide from the paparazzi while she begins to deal with her husband’s loss. Meanwhile, the son she and her husband adopted is processing his grief in a different way.

If you don’t already know what Trumpet is about, it’s best to keep it that way. Don’t read reviews. Don’t read the blurb. Just read this book.

Trumpet is a love story like no other – though doubtless there are many more love stories like it, just waiting to be told.

Cracking the Spine

Each of the short stories in this collection from Spineless Wonders is accompanied by an essay by the author. Some authors explain the story – how it came to be, how it was written, the thought process behind it – while other authors take am entirely different approach. In Cracking the Spine, fiction and non-fiction blend with fascinating results. I’ve got a half-written review of this sitting on my computer’s desktop – I’ll get to finishing it soon.

The Neighbour – Julie Proudfoot

Will I ever forget this chilling novella? I sincerely doubt it. More on The Neighbour soon – it’s another review-in-progress.

Captives – Angela Meyer

These tiny little stories have been carefully pared down to the barest of bones, but they’re still incredibly effective. I reviewed Captives for Newtown Review of Books and I’m quietly crossing my fingers that Meyer has Captives part two in progress, because I’m eager for more.

And because I really can’t resist adding even more names to this already lengthy list, I also really enjoyed Paddy O’Reilly’s The Wonders (which I also reviewed) and Ellen van Neerven’s Heat and Light.

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I’m only one week into the New Year and already my schedule’s looking excitingly, terrifyingly crowded. I worked through Christmas and the New Year, so I’ll be taking some time off soon. I’m hoping to catch up on a few of the titles I’ve been eager to read for a long time, like Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle series, Ali Smith’s How to be Both and Lorelei Vashti’s Dress, Memory, which has been sitting patiently next to my bed for the longest time. I’d also like to read more current science fiction, so if you’ve got any recommendations, let me know.

Then, of course, I’ve got a heap of excellent books to review. There’s also the small matter of rethinking my blog’s focus and working out what I really want to do with this space in the year ahead. So, you know, no pressure at all…

Welcome to 2015. Let’s hope it’s a good one.

book to the future bookmarks 11 – the spring cleaning edition

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No, I can’t really believe it’s been close to two months since I last wrote anything either, but that’s how it goes.

Things are, of course, still piling up around me – the garden needs weeding, the house needs cleaning, books need reading and words need writing, but I’m getting there, one task at a time. Which is the only way to approach these things, really.

After a short, unintentional winter hibernation, I’m back, and it’s spring and I’m feeling better for the much-needed rest. I’ve even given Book to the Future a bit of a facelift. I hope you like it!

I know it’s not much of a Book to the Future Bookmarks post without a heap of links, but in the spirit of spring cleaning, I deleted my unread bookmarks. All five hundred and seventy two of them.

So, I’ll leave you with one link only this time around. But I promise, it’s a good’un.

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Zadie Smith. Image source here.

Very slowly a pair of profoundly blue eyes rose to meet Miss Adele’s own green contacts. The blue was unexpected, like the inner markings of some otherwise unremarkable butterfly, and the black lashes were wet and long and trembling. His voice, too, was the opposite of his wife’s, slow and deliberate, as if each word had been weighed against eternity before being chosen for use.

“You are speaking to me?”

“Yes, I’m speaking to you. I’m talking about customer service. Customer service. Ever hear of it? I am your customer. And I don’t appreciate being treated like something you picked up on your shoe!”

The husband sighed and rubbed at his left eye.

“I don’t understand – I say something to you? My wife, she says something to you?”

Miss Adele shifted her weight to her other hip and very briefly considered a retreat. It did sometimes happen, after all – she knew from experience – that is, when you spent a good amount of time alone – it did sometimes come to pass – when trying to decipher the signals of others – that sometimes you mistook–

Zadie Smith’s latest short story, Miss Adele Amidst the Corsets, has been shortlisted for the BBC’s National Short Story Award. It’s also, of course, amazing. It’s published in full right here. Make sure you put aside some time to read it – it’s a treat.

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I might not have been writing, but I’ve been reading constantly over the last couple of months. Last week, I finished Cracking the Spine, a collection of short stories accompanied by essays written by their authors, and I’ll be writing a review soon. I’m also slowly making my way through The Big Issue’s annual Fiction Edition, as well as catching up with my Review of Australian Fiction subscription (one of the smartest things I’ve done this year was subscribe to RAF). And, as if that’s not enough short stories, Australian Love Stories is right near the top my pile of books to read. I’ve been swimming in short stories, and I couldn’t be happier.

There are novels on my pile of books to review soon, too – like, for instance, Jessie Cole’s Deeper Water. Cole is the kind of writer who makes me forget I’m actually meant to be a reviewer; she pulls you into her world everything else just sort of falls away. But the novel you can expect to see reviewed next on Book to the Future…isn’t actually a novel at all. It’s a novella – Julie Proudfoot’s The Neighbour. I won’t say too much about The Neighbour. I’m saving it up for my review.

Anyway, this is all just a long, roundabout way of saying that life can be overwhelming, but stories, long and short, are the best way of escaping from it all.

I’ve got a lot of catching up to do, but it’s good to be back.

(One other thing: I’ve just added a heap of new blogs to my Required Reading list over in my sidebar. If you’re looking for links, that’s the ideal place to start!)

past, present and future with julie proudfoot

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the-neighbourPast, Present and Future is the fortnightly series of posts in which I invite a very special guest to grab a cup of tea and come time travelling with me. I ask someone bookish to tell me about a book from their past, the book they’re reading now, and a book they’re planning to read soon. Hence the name – past, present and future.

It seems pretty much everyone’s talking about this fortnight’s guest, Julie Proudfoot. She’s the author of The Neighbour – one of four novellas published as a part of Seizure’s second Viva la Novella competition. Here’s what Julie’s been reading.


I love a good exploration of the psyche, especially by Australian women, with that jolleyessence of Australia that you won’t find anywhere else: honesty and courage. The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead, anything by Charlotte Wood, Kate Grenville, Margo Lanagan, and, always Elizabeth Jolley. I used to wonder about those layers of personality and emotion that Jolley put into her characters, what did she draw on? And now, after her passing, and new stories about Elizabeth Jolley have surfaced, it all makes sense.

I was lucky enough to interview her once for an American magazine. My instructions were to interview high profile authors. When I snapped the Elizabeth Jolley interview I was super excited (this WAS in the Eighties) but when I put it to the editors their response was that nobody in America had heard of her. So they didn’t print it. I have it on my blog now, and the most blissful part about it all was that due to Jolley’s hectic schedule at the time we ended up doing the interview rabbits weddingby letter. (She wasn’t a fan of email.) Her assistant was on holiday so she hand-wrote the letter with the answers, and I still have that now. Anyway, did I cry the day she passed…

I can’t speak of the past without a nod to the first book I ever loved. It was given to me by my Nanna. Nanna would purchase a huge pile of tumbling books every Christmas that she placed on a trestle table for all the cousins to choose from, and we’d take it to her for her to write in. The one I love is The Rabbits’ Wedding. I love rabbits, have had many as pets, and I always weep like a sooky at weddings.

Present

This very minute I’m in deep with Anna Krien’s Night Games. I’m reading it for Kirsten nightgamesKrauth’s book club. I’m only four chapters in, and already I’m feeling uncomfortable. It’s about sex, consent and power within sport. The book centres on a rape trial after an incident that occurred during celebrations after an AFL Grand Final. We all know the kind of story; we’ve cringed as they’re displayed on our screens. It reminds me of Helen Garner’s The First Stone the way it teases out the issues that no one wants to talk about; a powerful theme. I don’t want football ruined by this stuff, but it needs to be exposed.

I’m also reading three books for a panel I’m chairing at the Bendigo Writers Festival in August entitled Girl You’ll Be A Woman Soon: Kirsten Krauth’s just_a_girl, Jenny Valentish’s Cherry Bomb, and Nicole Hayes’ The Whole of My World. Each is sweet, gutsy and loveable in its own way – the books and the authors!

Future

Dawn Barker’s Fractured waits patiently on my tall to-read pile, and I’m so looking forward to it, but I needprivacy to get on it quick because her second book has just been released. I love a good psychological analysis and that’s what I’m led to believe Fractured is, among other themes.

Genna De Bont’s Privacy is waiting on my Kindle, it’s based in country Victoria, and I love that about it. The blurb says it all to me:

For readers of thought-provoking literary fiction, this is a novel that challenges the boundaries between snooping and surveillance.

…how can you not read that?

Okay, also in my future is a book that is an interactive app. Annabel Smith’s third book,the ark The Ark, is due out in September. It’s to be published not only as an e-book, but as an interactive app. What will this mean? Who knows, but I’m looking forward to finding out, come on September!

Last month I picked up The Loud Earth by Elisabeth Murray at The Novella Prize event at the Emerging Writer’s Festival. Elisabeth began her reading by saying ‘I’m going to lower the tone of the room now,’ with that I was hooked! I was lucky enough to chat with Elisabeth afterwards and sign each other’s books, which has to be one of the coolest things for writers to do.

I’ve opened up Murray’s book, and pulled out a sentence or two to show off, and if this is anything to go by we’re in for a ride.

…I heard her moving about, small movements that I
had taken for granted so many evenings but that could have brought me to tears. Then silence. The storm was brutal and I didn’t want it to end. It was keeping her here. It was tying her hands behind her back and gagging her with cloth…It got late. There was all this silence in the house. The blood on the floor. It was dark and they wanted me.

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Julie Proudfoot’s first novel, The Neighbour, was recently published and announced as winner of the Seizure Viva La Novella Prize 2014. She will be appearing at The Bendigo Writers Festival this year as chair of the panel, Girl You’ll Be a Woman Soon and will also be hosting the official launch of The Neighbour, a free event, all welcome. Julie blogs at http://proudfootblog.com/ and you can follow her on twitter @ProudMumbles


Thanks Julie! All of these books sound excellent. Here’s a link to the Bendigo Writers Festival website, where you can find out more about Julie’s panel (I wish I could go!).

past, present and future with elizabeth lhuede

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ppandbttfimageIt’s Past, Present and Future time again.

Every two weeks, I invite someone bookish to come time travelling with me, asking them to tell me a little bit about the book they’ve just read, the book they’re reading right now, and the book they’re planning to read next. Hence the name – past, present and future.

This fortnight’s guest is none other than Elizabeth Lhuede. She’s the founder of the Australian Women Writers Challenge – as well as a soon-to-be novelist.

Here’s what Elizabeth’s been reading…


Pastbetween the cracks

In the last couple of weeks, I’ve devoured three books that have been sitting on my e-reader for ages, each by Australian women. It’s a sure sign that I’m procrastinating with my writing. I’ve hit that point in my novel where I can’t bear to look at it, let alone work out what’s wrong and decide how to fix it. Luckily, I’ve found some of Australia’s most talented women suspense writers to ease the pain.

The books I’ve just finished reading and reviewing are all 2014 releases, Honey Brown’s Through the Cracks, Wendy James’ Lost Girls and Dawn Barker’s Let Her Go which is just about to hit the bookshops. It the lost girlswas only because of my determination to finish my draft that I didn’t get to the first two sooner, as I’m already a fan of each of these writers’ work. I loved Brown’s Red Queen and Dark Horse, was riveted by James’ The Mistake and Barker’s debut novel Fractured was one of my top reads for 2013. These latest books are equally compelling.

What I particularly like about these authors’ books is that each reflects aspects of Australian culture that I recognise. They create suspense by depicting the extraordinary out of the ordinary, portraying dramatic events experienced by characters whose lives are suburban and familiar, and who speak in idioms I hear around me. As a reader, I’m enthralled. As a writer, I admire their techniques and try to employ them in my own work. As a blogger, I enjoy comparing my responses with those of like-minded readers, particularly those whom I’ve met through the Australian Women Writers Challenge.


Cop Town
Present

Currently, I’m reading Cop Town by best-selling US writer Karin Slaughter. It’s not my usual thing as, although I’m a suspense and thriller fan, I prefer up-to-the-minute novels set in Australia, the UK and Scandinavia.

Cop Town is set in Atlanta, Georgia, in the 1970s, a hell-hole of bigotry, racism, misogyny, homophobia, religious sectarianism and class suspicion. At times the graphic violence in this novel, especially violence by and towards women, has me wanting to throw the book against the wall (which I would, if I weren’t reading it on my iPad). What I appreciate about the novel isn’t its serial killer motif (which I find problematic), it’s the sociological portrayal of a power structure on the wane; a white, patriarchal hegemony which centres around a police department in Atlanta, but which is emblematic of US society in the 1970s. Such a sociological perspective involving police work is one which P M Newton portrays in The Old School, set in Sydney in the early 1990s, the difference being that Newton’s book is a lot better written.

Future

While I really should finish writing my book before I grab another novel off the shelves, I the-neighbourhave a huge “to be read” pile to choose from. On offer are: Clare Wright’s Stella Prize winning history, The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka; Kate Forsyth’s The Wild Girl (though I’m even more attracted to the title of her latest, Dancing on Knives); Kate Belle’s Being Jade; John Safran’s Murder in Mississippi; and a couple of shorter works, Sarah Drummond’s Salt Story, Angela Meyer’s The Great Unknown and Julie Proudfoot’s recently released novella The Neighbour. And that’s just in hard copy. My e-reader has even more.

If past behaviour is the most reliable predictor of future behaviour (as I’m assured it is), then I’ll probably read something with suspense, such as Julie Proudfoot’s The Neighbour. It recently won the Seizure Novella prize and sounds intriguing:

When Luke is implicated in the tragic death of a child, he struggles to assert his innocence to those around him. While the accident invokes haunting memories of Luke’s late brother, who died when they were children, he strives to maintain a grip on reality as his relationships begin to unravel. Set in contemporary suburbia, The Neighbour is an astute psychological drama that offers a powerful and literary meditation on the nature of guilt and responsibility.

Acute psychological drama set in suburbia? That sounds like my kind of book.

Thanks Michelle, for a wonderful blog and for the opportunity to share my love of reading.


awwbadge_2014Elizabeth Lhuede recently had a novel accepted for publication by Escape Publishing. A romance with suspense elements, the novel will be published under her pen-name, Lizzy Chandler. Elizabeth is still hoping to be published in her favourite genre, psychological suspense. Her reviews can be found at her blog, Devoted Eclectic.

In 2012 Elizabeth founded the Australian Women Writers challenge with the aim of helping to overcome gender (and genre) bias in the reviewing of books by Australian women. The challenge, now in its third year, is jointly run by a team of book bloggers. In January 2014, the AWW website earned well-deserved recognition by being selected for preservation by the Australian National Library’s archive, PANDORA.

If anyone’s interested, it’s not too late to sign up to read and review for the challenge. (You can read more about it here.) Apart from being for a worthy cause, it’s a great way to meet other avid readers; aspiring, emerging and established authors; and book industry professionals. 


A worthy cause indeed. If you’re not aware of the Australian Women Writers Challenge, you really should take a look. Thank you Elizabeth – and good luck with your writing!

Coincidentally, Julie Proudfoot’s The Neighbour is on my To Read pile too, and, like Elizabeth, I’m really looking forward to reading this one…