• Books and reading,  Life: bits and pieces

    An exploration of art: Book review ‘The Museum of Modern Love’ by Heather Rose

    Australian author Heather Rose’s 2016 novel The Museum of Modern Love’ is her eight novel and the winner of the 2017 Stella Prize.

    Published by Allen & Unwin 2016

    It is unlike any book I have read before. Literary in its style, it is an accessible read and populated by a varied cast of characters, most of whom could be described as ‘creative types’ – musicians, artists, writers, poets, broadcasters, journalists. The novel takes the viewpoint of several characters, though it circles back to two main protagonists: Arky Levin, a film score composer, and Marina Abramovic, a well known performance artist.

    Now, part way through the book I had to stop and ‘Google’ Marina Abramovic. I needed to check if the performances described by Rose in the novel were based on real events. They struck me as especially far-fetched. To my astonishment, there they all were, listed on various websites describing Abramovic’s artistic career. For example, Let’s See what happens, 1972, in which the artist sat in a room equipped with seventy two items (including wine, scissors, a knife, a whip, a gun – with a single bullet – paper, flowers…) and invited people to use the objects on her as they wished; Balkan Baroque, 2000, in which the artist sat scrubbing an enormous pile of cow bones; and the performance at the centre of this novel, The Artist is Present, which took New York by storm in 2010.

    In this piece, Abramovic spent seventy five days in a bare room, at a table with two chairs facing each other. She sat in one, and audience members took turns to sit in the other. During each sitting, the artist and participant did nothing except gaze on each other’s face. A sitting could last between several minutes to several hours. When one participant vacated the seat, another took their place and the gazing resumed. Abramovic kept up this still, silent sitting every day until the Museum of Modern Art closed each evening. She did not move, drink, speak, visit a toilet – she did nothing but sit and gaze at the revolving cast of people in the chair opposite.

    Before reading this book, I knew very little about performance art, and thought even less of it, to be honest. If asked, I probably would have dismissed it as ‘indulgent nonsense.’ While I’m not sure that this novel has convinced me to rush to the next performance art piece I hear of, but it has made me stop and reflect on the place and value of art – in all its forms – in our human world.

    In The Museum of Modern Love, Heather Rose describes the impact of sitting across from the artist, on those who chose to do so and those who watched but did not participate. A surprising number were visibly moved or shaken by the experience. In the novel, we get an inside view of this impact, from the point of view of several of the characters.

    Reading this book has made me realise that art can take many more shapes than I had previously thought, that it is not always static – as in looking at a painting or sculpture, or listening to a piece of music, for example. It can also be an exchange between two or more people. Each participant will take from the experience their own meaning.

    The other pleasure in this novel is Rose’s beautiful language. Here is just one example:

    He saw how her students must see her. This bird of a mind leaping from branch to branch.

    And here’s another little snippet, which I think sums up one of the main themes of the novel:

    Art is really a sort of sport. To master the leap is essential. It is the game of the leap. Practice, practice, practice,then leap. The starting point may be different for each, but the goal is the same. Do something worthwhile before you die.

    As an aside – a shout out to Blue Mountains Library Services, who have introduced a range of books printed in a font style that is easier for readers with dyslexia. The copy of The Museum of Modern Love that I borrowed from there just happened to be in that format. What a great innovation!

  • Books and reading,  History

    Book Review: The French Photographer by Natasha Lester

    The French Photographer by Natasha Lester. Hachette, published 2019.

    The French Photographer is this Perth-based author’s fourth work of historical fiction. Her books have been published in fairly quick succession from 2016-2019. I do marvel at such an output, as Lester’s novels are meaty with historical detail which would involve much research (although, as she pointed out at an author talk at Newtown’s ‘Better Read than Dead’ bookstore recently, research involving travel to Paris and a French chateau isn’t all hard slog.)

    Her historical fiction works are also lush with settings like New York, Paris, and the French countryside, handsome heroes and beautiful protagonists. Now, if that sounds like a recipe for your classic ‘romance’, perhaps think again. Yes, her novels have a strong romance element with love and heartbreak often sharing the stage. The covers are lusciously beautiful, something I greatly enjoy. What I most enjoy about books like The French Photographer, though, is that they pay homage to those women from the past, who chose a path not normally available to women in their time.

    In the case of The French Photographer, the heroine is Jessica May, fashion model turned war photographer and correspondent for Vogue magazine during the Second World War. Inspired by and based on the life of real-life model turned war correspondent Lee Miller, Jessica’s path takes her from posing for photographs to taking them, and from New York’s high life at the beginning of World War Two, to the blood, filth, butchery and despair of the war fronts in Italy, Belgium, France and Germany. On the way she meets and eventually falls in love with Dan Hallworth, the requisite handsome hero who becomes her loyal and honourable friend, then lover.

    Amidst the political nonsense and misogynistic attitudes of the US Army, and concerted efforts to prevent women correspondents from getting anywhere near the war action in order to write about it, Jess has to fight her own battles, just to be allowed to do her job. The author has researched this aspect of the story particularly well and readers can trust that the more outlandish sounding reasons why women were not allowed the freedom to do this work properly, were actually trotted out at the time. Some of it is jaw dropping stuff.

    Like her previous novel The Paris Seamstress (2018), this one has a dual timeline and involves complicated relationships between a modern day granddaughter, D’Arcy, her mother Victorine, and her grandmother. I won’t spoil the ending for anyone who has not yet read the novel by saying more about that. But I will mention that the character Victorine is based on a little girl that the author saw, in a newsreel about the exodus from Paris as the German army approached.

    Natasha Lester’s admiration for Miller, the woman who inspired this story, shines from every page. Miller did not have an easy life and after the war, her ground-breaking work, photographing and writing about what she saw and experienced in Europe, was virtually forgotten. Jessica May, similarly, faces heartbreak and loss. There is no ‘happy ever after’ ending in this story – perhaps another feature which distinguishes it from the conventional romance story arc.

    As with all good historical fiction, while reading this book I was inspired to look up Miller, to learn more about her and to see examples of her astounding photographic work, as well as her pre-war work as a model.

    So thank you, Natasha Lester, for opening another door in the hidden history of women.


  • Books and reading,  History

    Book Review: ‘Fled’ by Meg Keneally

    Published by Echo Publishing 2019

    What a rip-roaring tale this is! Based on the adventurous and tragic life of Mary Bryant, a convict in the First Fleet, this historical novel tells the story of Jenny Trelawney, a Cornish woman transported for ‘highway robbery’ on the First Fleet ship Charlotte.

    Author Meg Keneally says in her author’s note that she chose to fictionalise her protagonist because it felt better to have a fictional character who could fully own her ‘thoughts, emotions and beliefs’. This speaks to how rare it is to find first person accounts by convict women. We have written records (journals, letters and so on) by privileged women, such as Governor Macquarie’s wife Elizabeth amongst others, but very few accounts by the less fortunate women who made the trip from England, Scotland, Wales or Ireland in the hold of a convict ship, rather than as free emigrants. I assume this is, in part, because many convict women could not read or write. Perhaps the expense of paper and ink was another barrier to recording their experiences. And I can also guess that the crowded, often damp convict quarters below decks would not have been kind to paper, had they been able to afford it.

    Meg Keneally has done a sterling job of working with the historical records as they stand, and imagining the rest. She has changed some historical events and timelines to better fit her narrative.

    We meet Jenny in her home town in Cornwall, coping with the death of her father and then of her baby brother, and her mother’s subsequent descent into depression, poverty and self neglect. Jenny begins thieving to support herself and provide food for her mother. And then she is caught, arrested, tried and sentenced. Off to the new colony of New South Wales, the great social and judicial experiment embarked on by England to rid itself of its ‘criminal class.’

    Jenny is a not entirely sympathetic character, but we quickly begin to empathise with her and her situation. She falls pregnant to a man on the hulk she is imprisoned on before her transportation and so bears a daughter on the voyage to Australia, a girl named for the ship on which she is born. Jenny survives the horrors of the voyage and on arrival at Sydney Cove, almost immediately marries a convict. This was a choice made by many convict women – marriage offered some protection in an environment in which there was almost no duty of care shown by guards and officials towards the convicts.

    Jenny and her husband Dan have a son, but little Emanuel is born into a colony facing starvation. Watching her children become thinner and weaker by the day, Jenny makes a decision – she and her husband must take the two little ones and escape. As they are both from Cornwall, skilled at fishing and boats, the logical escape route seems to be by the sea itself.

    And that’s what they do – steal the government cutter and some supplies, and in the dark of night they sail out of Sydney Heads and set their course north. And here their adventures begin…as if they had not already had enough adventures for one lifetime!

    I won’t give away any more of the plot, although if you know the original Mary Bryant’s story you can guess at much of the rest, with a few differences. It’s a tale of heroism, determination, tragedy and love, with some stupidity and cruelty thrown in. Another reminder of the dramas of our history – crammed full as it is with ordinary people facing the sorts of dangers and hardships that most of today’s Australians could only try to imagine.

    Meg Keneally has done a wonderful service to this incredible, larger- than- life story. Her Jenny Trelawney is an Australian literary heroine to be proud of.

  • History,  Writing

    The lure of information: an Archives story

    Another branch of my research tree: a talk and tour at the NSW State Archives & Records at Kingswood in Western Sydney.

    For my current work in progress I’ve made use of the many records that have been made available online and last year, I paid a visit to the Archives centre.

    But during this visit on the weekend, I got to see ‘backstage’ – beyond the reading room, to the highly secure and atmosphere controlled spaces where the precious documents are stored.

    The technical details of what is kept, and how, were interesting. But I admit to a particular thrill at being up close and personal with books such as the Parramatta Gaol description books from the 1800’s, and the registers of Conditional Pardons from that period. These books would almost certainly contain the names, descriptions and other details of some of my story’s characters, based as they are on real people.

    The volumes – faded, torn covers and all – impart a tangible sense of the people named between their covers: the lives they lived, their mistakes and their second chances.

    I’ll be back to find more details about my characters’ lives, so today was a good taster and a reminder that, while the ease of access to historic documents via digital sources is wonderful, there’s nothing quite like the original paper, book or map to create a link between now and then.

    If you’d like to check out the NSW State Archives website, go here

  • History

    The intriguing mystery of Margaret Catchpole

    In the kitchen at ‘Durham Bowes’ in Richmond, the historic home built in 1812 where Margaret worked.


    How can someone be raised in a district and know so little about the stories of the people and places in its past?
    I was born and raised in the Hawkesbury, arguably one of the most historically rich regions in Australia in terms of European settlement and early contact with our nation’s First Peoples. I learnt the basics in school of course, about Governor Macquarie’s ‘Five Towns’, of which Richmond was one.

    But I certainly didn’t learn much about some of the more colourful personalities of these times. Margaret Catchpole is a case in point.


    Margaret arrived on the Nile in 1801, transported for escaping from gaol, after being imprisoned for stealing a horse (while dressed as a boy). Remarkably, she was one of the relatively rare convicts who could read and write, and exchanged many letters and gifts with her old employer in Sussex – from whom she had stolen the horse! There must have been a warm relationship between these two women, for the ostensibly wronged one to continue to write to an ex-employee who had stolen from her family. Even more remarkably, she kept Margaret’s letters, so historians have had the opportunity to learn about convict life and experiences at this time.

    On a recent tour organised by the Hawkesbury Historical Society, I had the opportunity to discover Margaret and walk around the spots where she lived and worked.
    You can check out the Historical Society’s website here: https://www.hawkesbury.net.au/


    Margaret worked for some of the most prominent English settlers around the Hawkesbury, for whom many roads and other features are named: the Dight, Pitt, Faithful, Skinner and Wood families. She delivered babies, cared for small children, cooked, nursed sick family members, and performed many other tasks for her assigned masters and mistresses. She apparently made several trips into Parramatta or Sydney from the Hawkesbury – on foot. No mean feat considering the distance, the dangers and the isolation at that time.


    She also helped save several members of the Dight family, helping them to the roof of their cottage on the Richmond lowlands during the devastating flood of 1806.


    She eventually received a pardon in 1814. She was 58 years old by then and sadly only lived another five years as a free woman. She is buried in the first cemetery established in Richmond, across from St Peters church. The mystery surrounding her actual burial site is another aspect of her story, one that continues to intrigue today.


    I have a sneaking suspicion that Margaret (or someone very much like her) might become a character in my next fiction project, which will be set in the Hawkesbury district.

  • Books and reading,  Life: bits and pieces

    Local treasures

    It’s not too often I get a thrill from reading my local newspaper, Blue Mountains Gazette. I did last week, though,when I came across an article about the awarding of an honorary doctorate degree by Western Sydney University, to Blue Mountains author Jennifer Rowe.

    Blue Mountains Gazette 1/5/19

    At first Ms Rowe’s name didn’t register, until I read on further and realised that she is also known as Emily Rodda.

    Now, if you have children who like to read, that is a name you’ll recognise. When in primary school, my son and his friends loved her Rowan of Rin books, first published in 1993. She is also the author of the very popular Deltora Quest series. Emily Rodda has written over 50 books for children and young adults and is a five times winner of the Children’s Book Council of Australia Younger Readers Award. And this year, 2019, her most recent book His Name was Walter, was shortlisted for the Children’s Book of the Year.

    So, quite a writing career. You can learn more about Emily Rodda here:http://www.emilyrodda.com/about

    And as Jennifer Rowe, she writes crime novels for adults.

    The WSU Honorary Degree was awarded in recognition of that significant career and her contribution to Australian literature. In January 2019, Jennifer Rowe was also made a Companion of the Order of Australia for her services to literature.

    And until last week, I had no idea that she lived in the Blue Mountains, just up the road! Of course it matters not where she lives. But I did get a little thrill. There is something about stumbling across someone you admire, in whatever field or pursuit, and finding out that you are almost neighbours.

  • Books and reading

    Book Review: ‘Nevermoor’ by Jessica Townsend

    ‘Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow’ by Jessica Townsend

    LothianBooks 2017

    This is the first in the Nevermoor series of YA/children’s author, Australian Jessica Townsend. It has won many awards and commendations, including: Winner, Dymocks Book of the Year 2018, QBD Children’s Book of the Year 2018, Book of the Year for Younger Children, ABIA 2018, Indie Books Awards 2018, Aurealis Awards 2017, Waterstones Children’s Book Prize (UK) 2018, a CBCA Notable Book.

    I don’t read a lot in the fantasy genre nowadays, but this book was recommended to me by a friend. It is a rollicking tale of magic, centred around the adventures of young Morrigan Crow, who lives an unloved life in a drab and predictable town. Marked at birth as a ‘cursed child’ along with others born on Eventide, held to be an unlucky day, Morrigan is blamed for all the misfortunes of others, and doomed to die on Eventide when she turns eleven.

    Enter Jupiter North, her mysterious rescuer, who whisks Morrigan away from the threat of the Hunt of Smoke and Shadow and brings her to the magical city of Nevermoor. Here Morrigan is ensconced in the Hotel Deucalion, which magically changes the shapes of its rooms and fittings, and she learns that she must pass a series of trials if she is to be allowed to remain…

    I liked several things about this book. One is the humour that imbues every chapter. Despite some scenes that are a bit scary, even younger readers will appreciate the insouciance of Jupiter, the mild cynicism of his nephew Jack, the daredevil nature of Morrigan’s new friend Hawthorn, and especially, the sarcasm and bossiness of Fenestra, the giant Magnificat in charge of hotel housekeeping.

    Another is of course, the magic. Occasionally reminiscent of the brilliant world building to be found in the Harry Potter novels by JK Rowling, Nevermoor’s magic is nonetheless unique, surprising and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny.

    Morrigan is an endearing protagonist. Smart and brave but full of self- doubt and uncertainty, she yearns for friendship and belonging, both of which she finds in Nevermoor. There are plenty of heart-warming moments, along with the magic and quirky humour.

    And speaking of heart, a real theme of the novel is exactly that. There is a strong element of exploration of what it means to belong. Because Morrigan has not yet successfully completed the trials which will allow her to remain in Nevermoor, she is dogged by the City’s police force for being a ‘filthy illegal’. Inspector Flintlock berates Jupiter North for not handing Morrigan over for immediate deportation: reminders of the decidedly unmagical and unsympathetic scenes being played out in real life, all over our globe. So, while Nevermoor is a fantasy novel, it manages to hold within it messages to us all about caring, humanity and belonging.

  • Writing

    Short Story: ‘Mystery Flight B’

    airplane-backlit-clouds-1262304

    April’s Furious Fiction

    Guidelines for this month were that each story had to include three pieces of dialogue, taken from Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by JK Rowling, One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest by Anthony Burgess, and Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty.

    Here’s my effort:

    Mystery Flight B

    “What’s it going to be then, eh?” The ticket seller tapped his foot, waiting for a response.

    Rod hesitated. “What’s today’s choice again?”

    “Mystery Flight A, return; or B, one way only.”

    Rod heard the tumour speaking to him through his stomach wall. Take B! You don’t need to come home…

    “OK… I’ll take B, thank you.”

    The man looked pleased. “Good choice! Not many taking that one nowadays, but still, you never know.”

    No, Rod thought, you never know.

    Three hours later, he was in a cramped seat, the belts clicked, ready to fly. As he waited for the pre-flight checks to be done, he thought about his sister’s reaction when he’d called her.

    “You’re WHAT?”

    He’d repeated it.

    Silence. Two beats, five. A rustling as she covered the phone’s mouthpiece, turned to someone, probably Phil.

    “He’s never done anything like this before,” she whispered.

    “Ros? I’m leaving in a couple of hours. I wanted to say…goodbye…Not sure when I’ll be back.”

    “How are you going to live, wherever it is you’re going?” Her panic zinged through the air between them. He was surprised: he hadn’t thought she’d care that much. Since both their parents had died, there wasn’t a lot holding them together. And Phil hated him. Rod shrugged. He didn’t have much time for his brother-in-law either, so that was fair.

    He said, “I’ll manage. I’ll find something to do.”

    “Well…will you at least let me know when you get there? Let me know how you get on?”

    “Of course I will,” he promised. He would if he could. “Better go now. Say hi to Phil. Look after yourself, OK?”

    The pilot’s voice came through the intercom. Professional, reassuring. “Good afternoon, folks. Welcome on board today’s Mystery Flight B. It’s a beautiful day for flying so be sure to take a peep out the window. Enjoy the flight.”

    Rod smiled at the elderly man who’d taken the seat beside him. The man smiled back. He had a mane of snowy white hair and a long, snarly beard. He looked very…dignified.

    Rod leaned back in his seat as the sounds and sensations of take-off started. He closed his eyes. When he opened them, the light had gone from outside. Had he fallen asleep? He pressed his face to the window. Gave an involuntary gasp as he took it all in. Glimmers from floating stars. Earth, a blue and white marble far below, floating on a sea of inky dark velvet. The paper-thin layer of atmosphere, once a cradle of protection, now a toxic soup that threatened all life beneath it.

    The man next to Rod leaned forward to look. “It is a beautiful and terrible thing, and should therefore be treated with great caution,” he said.

    Rod only nodded and turned his face to the window again.

    Just for fun, let me know in the comments if you worked out which bit of dialogue comes from which novel.

     

  • History

    A weekend of heritage

    This weekend I enjoyed a two day blitz of exploring local heritage. All in the name of research, of course. From a curated tour of the history of medical care in Parramatta, to an Open Day at Australia’s Pioneer Village at Wilberforce, one of the towns proclaimed by Governor Macquarie in 1810, I was able to absorb the sights and stories of colonial times.

    While it’s hard to create completely authentic replicas of how settlements might have looked and felt in the nineteenth century, the Pioneer Village comes close, in part because most of the buildings there were not fabricated, but original cottages and businesses from around the historic Hawkesbury. They were brought to the site to create what looks and feels like a real nineteenth century village streetscape.

    Adjacent to the Village is Rose Cottage, built in 1811 by Thomas Rose who, with his wife and family, emigrated to the colony. It still stands on its original site and was occupied by members of the family for 150 years.

    For someone writing about people and places of our past, the Pioneer Village and heritage sites such as those preserved in Parramatta, are a real boon.

    The colonial post office

    Perry House, built in 1856, was the first building to be moved from Richmond to the Village. Originally a saddlery with residence upstairs, then Perry’s Tailoring, a brothel, and lastly a grocery store.

    Colonial bedroom – the beds always look horribly uncomfortable to my twenty first century eyes!

    Streetscape at Australian Pioneer Village

    Rose Cottage, still standing where it was built at Wilberforce in 1811.

  • Life: bits and pieces,  Writing

    Some (reassuring) advice from a best selling author

    We’ve all heard of Markus Zusak, right? The Australian author of the runaway best-selling book of 2005, The Book Thief. It’s won numerous awards, been translated into multiple languages and made into a feature film. His new book, The Bridge of Clay, was published in October 2018, amid high anticipation. So the author would be well entitled to consider himself as having ‘made it’ in the world of publishing, surely?

    I was listening to a podcast today (Writes4Women) recorded at a fundraiser for the inaugural 2019 StoryFest Festival to be held in Milton, on the beautiful South Coast of NSW. Markus Zusak was the guest speaker at this event and the talk was recorded for the podcast. You can listen to it here:

    http://writes4women.libsyn.com/bonus-storyfest-2019-launch-with-markus-zusak

    Some of what Markus Zusak says in this talk came as a bit of a surprise to me. For example, the author says:

    I don’t think of writing (for me, anyway) as an art form. I’m a tradesman and I go to work and I just keep chipping away, waiting for the moment to come…but it won’t come unless you’re there, doing the work. The biggest effort can be just getting to the desk, and making that commitment and being prepared to fail. It’s a trade that you’re always working on and trying to get right…I can love the effort even if I don’t always love the result.  Markus Zusak

    These words are balm to the soul of anyone having more of the “I can’t believe I wrote this mess!” days than the “Wow, look at what I wrote!” ones. Just turn up. Keep plugging away. Commit. Learn to do it better. And then do it all again, on the next draft, and the next…

    It doesn’t have to perfect or even very good. Be proud, still, of the effort and the improvements you make.

    And actually I think this can apply to any endeavour in life. Art, music, writing, gardening, a profession, a job.

    As Markus Zusak says, “Love the effort.”

  • Writing

    Update on ‘Write Your Novel’ program

    It’s in!

    Back in January I gave an update marking the halfway point of the ‘Write Your Novel’ program I’ve been working through, with the Australian Writers’ Centre.

    This week my classmates and I have to submit our full manuscript for workshopping in small groups. So, we each submit our manuscript, and we have a month to read and comment on manuscripts submitted by two to three of our classmates.

    A few minutes ago I clicked the ‘Submit’ button. How did it feel?
    Scary – no one has as yet read my full draft. Will they like it? Hate it? Feel indifferent?
    Exciting – the workshopping and feedback process in this program has been so useful to date. I just know I’ll get back comments that will help me make my story stronger.

    There’s also a sense of responsibility to my classmates: to provide honest, worthwhile feedback to assist them in the way I hope to be helped along by them.

    The feedback I’ve received on this program has been very worthwhile and certainly helped me to improve my writing.

    As our online tutor, Cathie Tasker, has said:

    It’s the arrogant authors who don’t make it.

    Find the Australian Writers’ Centre programs here:
    https://www.writerscentre.com.au/