Wednesday 29 May 2024

It's been rather a long time....


Yes, it's been ages since I posted here. I've been pretty busy. 

At the beginning of the year the committee of the Society of Women Writers Victoria began its work as usual after the Christmas break ready for the first meeting of the year in February. Then our president stepped down which left rather a gap. And I stepped up! So here I am, the Interim President until the AGM later this year. I felt a bit like a politician who takes over mid-term. But one thing I can promise, I'll do a better job than the UK Prime Minister who was in the role for a mere 44 days. To be fair she didn't set the bar very high so I'm not promising the impossible.

As well as undertaking lots of governance issues, which thankfully another committee member (also called Lindsay) understands far better than I do, we have just run a short story competition, have undertaken a member survey and are planning not only our regular monthly meetings but some additional ones too. So there's a fair bit going on as well as the admin that goes with changes of office. 

Needless to say I haven't done as much writing as I'd like, but was pleased to have two acceptances to Australian anthologies, Older (Bequem Publishing) and Is This Working (Tiny Owl Workshop) to be published later this year. A small prompted piece was showcased in the most recent Furious Fiction competition - 55 hours to write up to 500 words. Mine was done in less than five hours as inevitably the timing coincided with others matters requiring attention. Yes, there have been rejections too, but there's no point dwelling too much on those. 

I have been focusing on a family story. It started out as a single short story but the members of my writing group (within SWWV) suggested I expand it so the episodes keep coming. This means lots of research as it's set in the early years of the 19th century and is set in England and Australia. 

I've attended some good local author events too - including Alice Pung and Kylie Orr - there's never a shortage of bookish events here in Melbourne. And of course there are plenty of great books to read. 

So that's my 2024 so far. Hopefully it won't be six months before my next post. 

Wednesday 20 December 2023

This year's favourite books.

The end of year book lists are ubiquitous - I often wonder whether those by literary figures really do feature the books they liked the most or ones they want the public to think they liked the most because their lists always feature books that have won lots of acclaim. But many good books don't get much of a look in!

My year's reading has been good - I've read 61 books
with only one prize-winning novel abandoned as I couldn't stand the characters. This has been my reason for giving up on several books - they've been well-written and have often won prizes or the acclaim I mentioned above but the characters are just so annoying I don't care what happens to them. 

I'm perfectly able to like books with irritating or unlikable characters because something else is at stake and that keeps me reading. Just like life, sometimes we bear with people who annoy us because there is a reason to persist but if there is no upside why keep them in your life? 

Anyway here is my list and because I don't mind if people don't consider me a literary force, I have chosen the books I enjoyed the most - not all from this year - and yes, some are those major prize winners! Of course there are loads of excellent books that I haven't read yet (some of which, I'm sure, are on my TBR pile.)

Thanks to library loans, community book shelves, gifts and purchases, here is my top ten in no particular order.:

Shankari Chandran: Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens (independent bookshop purchase)

Vicki Petratis: The Unbelieved (bought at author event)

Bonnie Garmus: Lessons In Chemistry (online purchase)

Barbara Kingsolver: Demon Copperhead (independent bookshop purchase)

Celeste Ng: Our Missing Hearts (library loan)

Toni Jordan: Prettier if She Smiled More (chain bookshop purchase)

Lisa Genova: Left Neglected (op shop purchase)

Pip Williams: The Bookbinder of Jericho (chain bookshop purchase)

Christian White: The Nowhere Child (gift)

Kerryn Mayne: Lenny Marks Gets Away With Murder (library loan)

Sunday 26 November 2023

In Praise of Postcards

My mother had an extensive collection of 'tourist' postcards stuck on one wall of her kitchen - with five children and eight grandchildren who all travelled it was a worthy collection boasting pictures from numerous countries as well as UK. 

When she left her flat for a residential home many of our postcards were returned to us if we wanted them so I have my cards from Mongolia and Timbuktu among others. 

I always liked receiving postcards from friends and family on holiday and I used many cards of iconic views in my speech therapy work with people with aphasia making interesting naming activities and stimulating conversation. 

I recall a collection of old postcards in the attic of the farmhouse where I grew up mostly addressed to the previous resident before her marriage. The messages weren't from holiday makers but were used as a quick way of sending notes in the pre-telephone era when there were up to four deliveries a day including an evening delivery. A local card could be posted and delivered on the same day.  One of my sisters rescued some of them and the messages are a mixture of banal and intriguing. 

This one dated 15th November 1914, says "This is some of the wounded I saw at Southend, Our Police Court Case came off this week. I am so glad it is over, although it is always in my thoughts. 20 months hard labour for each. Much love, Ida."  One can only wonder.

Another of my postcard collections is my art cards. A regular visitor to art galleries since my teens I always purchase a few of my favorite or particularly interesting pictures and some I have received from friends. One such card of a Waterhouse simply reads, 'We must do this again, J.' To my shame I have no recollection of J or indeed what we did or whether we ever did it again! Perhaps it was a visit to the Tate but I really don't recall visiting with a J. (I do recall visiting with a witty R and a rather tedious R and an M who kept making stupid comments which I was only able to turn off by visiting the cafe like the French and Saunders sketch.)

My travel card collection hasn't grown lately as people don't seem to send cards from their travels any more and many aren't travelling so much nowadays so receiving cards is infrequent - or was until I discovered PostCrossing 

This world-wide organization allows you to sign up with your address and a few details about yourself including languages in which you can communicate. You are assigned a person to whom you send a card. When it is received and registered on the site your name will be assigned to someone so for every card you send, you receive one. Over 74 million cards have been sent through the scheme.

This is a world-wide scheme but you are limited by language – English is of course a world language which is an advantage. Cost is something to bear in mind. Some PostCrossers have sent thousands of cards – perhaps their postage is cheaper or they think of it as a hobby worth the cost.

So far, I’ve sent and or received cards from 33 countries. One to USA, one to Slovakia and one to Thailand have gone astray but sometimes they do turn up eventually. I received one from China that took 84 days and one I sent to China arrived after 111 days. I wonder where the missing cards  are lurking!

On my profile I mentioned liking art cards and several of those sent to me are cards of artworks, some of which I knew while others have added to my education.

Further reading:

Two books detailing postcards dating from around 1911 and the stories behind them.

Posted on the Past & Second Delivery by Helen Bagott. 

A book about the history of postcard published in USA: Postcards The Rise and Fall of the World’s First Social Network by Lydia Pynel

Sunday 24 September 2023

 Cuckoo in The Nest:   Fran Hill.     

Narrated by fourteen-year-old Jackie, Cuckoo in the Nest is the story of Jackie, an aspiring poet who is wiser beyond her years. She’s had to be since her mum died and her father slid into alcoholism alternating between violence and helplessness. Jackie has kept the pair of them going but when the authorities eventually step in, she is fostered by Nick and Bridget Wall whose daughter Amanda does not welcome the newcomer.

 Set in Britain’s heatwave summer of 1976, there are plenty of cultural references including music for those of us who remember this era, and setting the scene for those who don’t. (Gammon slices with pineapple sauce, anyone? Or a drive in a mustard-coloured Ford Escort?)

As Jackie negotiates her new situation, she is aware that her foster parents also have to find their way with the arrangement as much as she does herself. Amanda does too but without any consideration towards Jackie or, indeed, her parents.

Jackie gets through the days guarding her emotions carefully, but we see small snippets of her pain and vulnerability – always understated but saying so much. ‘It was about finding Carolines or perhaps Janes or Marions with my dad and wearing my mother’s silk dressing gown.’   

As the story unfolds, we see that Bridget is hanging onto her middle-class aspirations by her fingernails. How does she negotiate the minefield of a resentful teenager and the proverbial cuckoo in the nest when things go awry?

Jackie narrates her story with sardonic humour although occasionally I found this a little too adult for even a bright and precocious fourteen-year-old. However, it didn’t mar my enjoyment of reading.

This story is fiction but Cuckoo in The Nest is informed by the author’s own experience of living with a foster family, giving it authenticity and allowing the reader insights into the experiences of children in the care system and perhaps breaking down preconceived ideas about children in care.   

Thursday 11 May 2023

My First Post in Ages

St Kilda
I've just passed my fourth anniversary of my move to Australia so thought I should update this blog. I haven't been posting because there hasn't been a great deal of writerly news. I've been busy but not achieving much to shout about.

Back in March I enjoyed presenting a talk about older women in fiction, or rather the lack of them, to a small group who tuned in on Zoom for my IWWGs Women's History Month event. I read one of my stories about Lorna aged 64 (which also features the pier in the picture) which went down well. I also raised the issue of how women of all ages have typically been missing from history books.

Older women are in novels, although they are massively under-represented - but it's how they're portrayed that interests me and often bothers me. Do we lump all 'older' women in one group like so many tick boxes on forms where there's one last box: 60+ - as if a 60 year old is the same as a 99 year old or a 109 year old. Many portrayals are somewhat negative. The film industry seems to have taken to older women, providing of course they are Botoxed, glamorous and extremely wealthy. They don't seem to have have aching joints like many real older women do, but tear around like teenagers which I find equally irritating. 

If you're interested in older women in fiction do check out BookWord that shows a variety of books with older women in them, although not all are positive portrayals.

Then there is the matter of older writers and especially older women getting published. Again, there has been some improvement lately and I welcomed the article published by The Guardian not long ago which you can read here. More recently of course is the good news of the competition from Jenny Brown Associates Literary agents for novelists over 50 here. It's open only to UK residents so I am not eligible but I'd have definitely submitted otherwise. I look forward to hearing the results.

What of my own writing this year? Not much, I'm afraid. I pitched my novel and did get a call for the first three chapters, synopsis etc but alas it got no further. 

I've had three small pieces published online including Much Time Has Passed and have been longlisted in a Brilliant Flash Fiction competition. 

There have been plenty of rejections as always. Some disappoint but most roll off the proverbial duck's back. They should as I've had enough since my first rejection in 2005. 

To date I've made 367 submissions to competitions, journals and magazines. 74 were accepted and published online or on paper plus 20 competition long-listings or short-listings. If I add those in to the success mix, my very poor mathematical skills make that around a 25% success rate or a 75% not success rate. 

I'll keep going though.

Saturday 21 January 2023

Every Family Has a Story


My story of my grandmother was included in this publication from Family History ACT. The 110 stories it contains are from those entered into their 2021 competition.

The book is full of fascinating narratives about ordinary - and sometimes extraordinary - people whose lives have not made headlines or been included in standard historical records but greatly add to our understanding of the past. 

I wrote my story as I believe such accounts are important to those who come after - so much gets lost through verbal retellings as I have mentioned on this blog before

There is no doubt that researching our ancestors' lives has been made much easier by the online websites such as Ancestry. One of my sisters did a great deal of research that has added to our family story, and has partially resolved one mystery. But as some  questions are answered, new questions arise.

My story.

Accessing some of the public family trees featuring various of my ancestors also shows that there are many mistakes made by other researchers, muddling names, dates and so on. Some errors have no doubt arisen because deciphering the handwritten records is difficult, others because of families tending to use the same forenames - sometimes a child born after a sibling has died was given the same name. The spelling by recording clerks was often inaccurate too. Family legend had it that my great-aunt was named Lilian Lucy Helen but the person who registered her birth was not very articulate and the clerk wrote Ellen instead of Helen. Records confirm this!

But research is fascinating and my own dabbling on sites such as Ancestry and Trove digitalised newspapers has given me some small gems which I've added to our family archive. It also pointed to more of my great-great-grandmother's family members emigrating to Australia in the nineteenth century than we previously knew about. I wish I knew their stories too.

Thursday 29 December 2022

Books I Enjoyed This Year

Book lists are ubiquitous but mine aren't lists of best-sellers - although one or two may feature. They aren't prize winning lists, although maybe a couple of titles are on those lists too. They aren't only books published this year, although some may be.  

This year I've read 77 books, most of which I've enjoyed. I select books not necessarily because I consider them to be the best written but because they're the ones I have most enjoyed reading. Those that have given me food for thought, pleasure, education and, in several cases, the delight of something refreshingly different. 

The books I've read this year have taken me to a number of different locations in the UK, USA and Australia plus Ireland, Sweden, Mustique, Guyana, Spain, Botswana, Zimbabwe, India, Crete, Hungary, Germany and New Zealand. I've been back and forward in time!

I couldn't decide on a Top Ten so it's a Top Twelve in no particular order.

Femlandia - Christina Dalcher. The author's third dystopian novel.  Like all in this genre, it is not so far-fetched as we might initially think. Thought provoking to say the least.

Still Life - Sarah Winman. I found this book of unlikely friendships compelling and delightful. It's also a love letter to the city of Florence.

Remember Me - Charity Norman. The story of a daughter and father and learning the truth of a twenty-five year old mystery. Sad and beautiful to read.

The Secrets of Elephants - Vasundra Tailor. A story of three generations of a family spanning two continents with courage at the story's heart. 

Dinner With the Schnabels - Toni Jordan. Funny but examining difficult issues with a few twists along the way.
Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray - Anita Heiss. An historical novel on displacement and the clash of cultures between Wiradjuri people and white settlers. 

Small Pleasures - Clare Chambers. Capturing the 50s beautifully, as well as the character of Jean who feel life has passed her by, the story revolves round a real article about parthenogenesis and a woman's belief that she had a virgin birth. 

The Crimson Thread - Kate Forsyth. A wartime novel focusing on bravery of locals and hidden soldiers during Nazi occupation of Crete.

The Giver of Stars - Jojo Moyes. Women of the packhorse library on East Kentucky in late 30s. Female friendship and resilience. 

The Dressmakers of Yarrandarrah Prison - Meredith Jaffe. Quirky and feelgood. 

Once Upon A Camino - Matthew S Wilson. Tom's pilgrimage on the Camino Santiago takes the reader on an adventure as surprising as Tom's.

After Story - Larissa Behrendt. After grief and trauma comes healing and understanding. Plus a literary tour of the UK and stories of one of the oldest story-telling cultures of the world.