Monday 28 December 2020

This Year's Reading in Lockdown.

Like many of us, my reading increased this year, eight months of which were in some degree of lockdown. When I totted up the books I'd read I was surprised to find it fewer than I'd anticipated, coming in at 70 although that includes the wonderfully mighty tome of A Suitable Boy. I'm so glad I read it before the drama series popped up on Netflix, which I loved, although I felt Lata's mother was not so large as life as in the book. 

I wasn't able to travel using my passport or, for several weeks, venture further than 5 km from my home, but reading took me to many parts of Australia, New Zealand, India, United States, UK, France, Sweden, Israel, Afghanistan, Kenya, Nigeria with brief visits to Thailand and Indonesia, Ethiopia and Brazil as well as in transit from Syria to UK. 

Most of my reading was set in recent years but I also travelled back to the early nineteenth century, late nineteenth century, the early twentieth century, 1920s, the 60s and even did a bit of time travel back and forth and into the future. 

My reading has been largely catching up with the dozens of fabulous Australian authors I'd not come across before, indeed, some of my reading being debut novels just out. Women authors far outweighed males in my choices, not because I was aiming to read women, (or avoid men,) but because their books  appealed to me. 

I've also read many more short stories and flash fiction than usual in online journals. While I read some brilliant flash fiction and short accounts of people's Covid lockdown experiences on 100wordsofsolitude and The Cabinet of Heed's stream-of-consciousness-special (and had a piece of mine published in the latter) I tended to avoid these after a while, opting for non-related themes. 

Here are the twelve books That came top in my enjoyment rating.

Vikram Seth: A Suitable Boy

Pip Williams: The Dictionary of Lost Words

Leah Kaminsky: The Hollow Bones

Leah Kaminsky: The Waiting Room

Charity Norman: The Secrets of Strangers

Christina Dalcher: Q

Delia Owens: Where The Crawdads Sing

Tara June Winch: The Yield

Leah Purcell: The Drover's Wife

Inga Simpson: Where The Trees Were

Craig Silvey: Jasper Jones

Joanna Nell: The Great Escape From Woodlands Nursing Home

And in case the worst happens and we get another lockdown, I still have War and Peace on my shelf and I was given an epic 933 pager for Christmas, Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts. Let's hope I can read them without any constraints around me, although neither will be my first choice to read on the train as they won't fit in my bag.

Tuesday 24 November 2020

A Very Special Book - Animals Make Us Human


Leah Kaminsky, author of two excellent novels, who I follow on Twitter began tweeting about a forthcoming book Animal Make Us Human that she and fellow author, Meg Keneally were editing.  Comprising a number of essays about animal encounters accompanied by beautiful photographs, the book was conceived to raise money for the Australian Marine Conservation Society and Australian Wildlife Conservancy. 

The plight of Australian wildlife came to prominent attention almost a year when wildfires swept through much of Australia. The loss of 173 human lives was devastating. This shocking number was massively outstripped by the loss of wildlife. An estimated 3 billion mammals, reptiles, birds were decimated. Retiles and amphibians were the hardest hit.

The desire to help raise money for the important work that conservation agencies were doing to help animals injured or orphaned by the fires along side general conservation projects resulted in the idea for the book and the call went out for contributions that soon came pouring in.  

Australia's unique wildlife has been under threat since colonisation. Massive loss of habitat and introduction of non-native species as well as hunting of animals considered to be a threat to farming has wreaked havoc on Australia's fauna for over two centuries. People are increasingly urbanized and dislocated from nature. 

My own knowledge of Australian flora and fauna is limited - something I found quite hard when I first came to live here last year. Although no expert on British wildlife, I could identify a number of trees, wild flowers, birds and butterflies. Arriving in Australia I was surrounded by plants and trees new to me. Staying in a Melbourne AirB&B three years ago, I woke to some exotic birdsong. Internet research told me it was a magpie. So different from the British magpies that rattled away in my North London garden ash tree, I wasn't sure if I could believe the information, but observation soon showed me it was indeed the large Australian magpie.

The first bird I saw in the tiny garden of my new house just over a year ago was a - blackbird. I'm very pleased to hear his beautiful song as he sits in a tree-top and sings his heart out but I confess I was hoping for a uniquely Australian bird. They soon arrived. Not many, but so far the garden has hosted  red wattlebirds, a very noisy little wattlebird, butcherbirds, a pied currawong, (seen and heard only once) annoying little common mynahs (non-natives) and nearby I see and hear beautiful rainbow lorikeets, magpies, magpie-larks, galahs, sulphur crested cockatoos and, once, a sighting of a beautiful blue superb fairy wren. Venturing further with my sister, an expert birder, I saw and learned to identify a number more, although she saw far more than I did!

Back in my garden, skinks and huge woodlice hide beneath stones and golden orb spiders spin webs. A few butterflies flit around (not yet all identified as they will not keep still) and bees visit my lavender. 

Encounters with mammals have been more limited. The lettuce and tomato-seedling eating possums bouncing over my roof at night did not endear themselves to me, but now my tomatoes are flourishing in a cage and my lettuce garden lives in a hanging basket we are on better terms. Sometimes at night we examine each other through my window.

Before lockdown, I met the famous bats/flying foxes of Kew (who now have their own Twitter account after a very nasty local MP suggested exterminating them.) On our walk in Cranborne Gardens, my sister and I encountered a large wallaby, and on our trip on Puffing Billy the train stopped for an echidna to take its time to cross the line. I've encountered an Australian fur-seal having a bask in the sun on a hot day and enjoyed seeing pods of dolphins on a cold grey day while walking the Bay Trail. Now we are able to get out and about I hope my wildlife encounters will significantly increase.

Reading this beautiful book, my knowledge and appreciation of Australia's wildlife is developing rapidly. I've learned of species I'd not been aware of and am learning more about their habitat and nature but this isn't a text book. It's a book of wildlife encounters, some by experts who are studying animal behaviour, others by writers, many of whom have written books I've mentioned on previous blog posts, who have enjoyed unexpected relationships with the animals who live in their gardens or local environment. 

This important book is also a call to help make us all more aware of the plight of Australian wildlife. I for one don't want my granddaughters to read about animals that once lived in the country of their birth but are now extinct.

This is a book to dip in and out of, to savour and to come back to again and again. It's fast becoming one of my precious books.  

Animal Make Us Human, published by Penguin Life 2020 is widely available in bookshops. 


Thursday 22 October 2020

The First Blue Dress

This week sees the publication of one of my short stories. Another is to be published in the very near future. The two stories are written in different styles and were submitted to different publications at different times and accepted at different times so it wasn't until news of their publication coincided that I realised both stories featured blue dresses. Very different dresses though. One is a dull blue with white spots, which the wearer hates. The other is a beautiful long dress, the colour of bluebells, which the wearer loves but feels might not be suitable for a midweek morning. 

A Girl Can Dream is published this week in Yours Magazine (edition 361) in the UK. 

The story, originally titled A Dress Made for Dancing was inspired by a real person I met through my work. Cathy, a wheelchair user also had dysarthria, a speech impairment, as does my story's Cathy. She also had an admirer called Alan but the rest is imaginary. One memory of the real Cathy, which isn't in my story, is how her speech would improve after a vodka and orange or two when we went for a jaunt to the pub. Sadly, it didn't prove to be an efficacious universal therapy tool for speech and language therapists. 

Both Cathy and Alan died many years ago but I deliberately used their names in their memory. I hope they would both approve of the story.  

Having said that, there have been a number of edits to my original story. One or two are fine, but many  I hate. I wasn't surprised to see it changed from my first tense to past tense but the number of clichés, including its new title, that are now dotted throughout are horrible. The final sentence too, has been changed into another cliché! My image of Cathy in her beautiful blue dress was a lot more glamorous than the illustration. I wanted my story to show a wheelchair user looking absolutely fabulous, and I think the blue cardigan (which was originally a little shrug) is more like the warm winter cardigan I've been wearing during lockdown than anything Cathy would have chosen! 

Wednesday 5 August 2020

Coping with Stage 4 lock-down.

I know I'm one of the lucky ones. Stage 4 lock-down was inevitable owing to the soaring rates of Covid-19 here in Melbourne but although I miss seeing friends and family, my income has not been impacted. My daily life has been curtailed but I have enough resources to be productive and creative. My ability to be content relies on seven things: regular conversations with my daughter; reading; writing; taking part in online events (I love Zoom;) streaming films/TV/live theatre events, my solitary walks and my little garden.

The amount of online events, many of them free, is staggering. I've listened to podcasts of author interviews, attended Zoom book launches, taken part in Zoom writing time and formal writing workshops (the downside here being, of course, not getting to chat to other participants.) As a result I've come across many more Australian authors and inevitably have bought their books. My book purchases have been - ah, rather frequent - in the past five months. (On the other hand I've bought only one tank of petrol during the same time - judging by my recent mileage I won't have to visit a petrol station until next year!)

I have been a beta reader for someone's debut novel and hope my feedback was helpful. I have a load of other events earmarked for future listening/viewing.

So what have I been reading? As usual a mix of old and new, authors from many different countries, some bought, some borrowed (I managed a trip to my local library during the brief period it was open) some downloaded. I'm continuing my Australian education so here are my books by Australian authors plus a couple of New Zealanders. Unlike my previous list these are not all set in Australia.  There are more awaiting me on my shelves!

Tabitha Bird: A Lifetime of Impossible Days
Alice Bishop: A Constant Hum
Emily Brewin: Small Blessings.
Liz Byrski: Trip of A Lifetime
Marele Day: Lambs of God
Shirley Hazard: The Transit of Venus
Sally Hepworth: The Family Next Door
Sally Hepworth: The Mother-in-Law
Leah Kaminsky: The Waiting Room
Leah Kaminsky: The Hollow Bones
Maya Linell: Wildflower Ridge
Fiona Lowe: Home Fires
Liane Moriarty: Truly, Madly, Guilty
Liane Moriarty: The Last Anniversary
Kate Morton: The Shifting Fog
Joanna Nell: The Last Voyage of Mrs Henry Parker
Charity Norman: The Secrets of Strangers
Stephanie Parker: Josephine’s Garden
Leah Purcell: The Drover’s Wife
Angela Savage: Mother of Pearl
Graeme Simsion: The Rosie Result
Christos Tsiolkas: Damascus
Pip Williams: The Dictionary for Lost Words
Tara June Winch: The Yield
Charlotte Wood: The Weekend

One book, Kate Morton's The Shifting Fog, seemed rather familiar. I realised I had it read back in UK some years ago under a different title - The House at Riverton.  It was borrowed from my local community library, and fortunately was well worth a second read before returning it.  

There is one more book to mention, a non-fiction, Jess Hill's Stella Prize 2020 winner See What You Made Me Do, an in-depth investigation detailing domestic abuse. Not the happiest of reading, certainly but an important contribution to understanding another type of pandemic which has sadly increased world-wide during the 2020 coronavirus pandemic. 

Saturday 27 June 2020

Where the Sun Always Shines

At the beginning of the world Coronavirus pandemic, Crystal Kirkham came up with the idea of putting together a free online anthology containing a mix of feelgood poems and short stories to lighten the darkness many people were feeling.

Included is a story I submitted 'George's Letter' that is based on the story of my grandmother, that my mother told me as a child. I have added bits from my imagination and made a few tweaks but the basics are all true!

To download a free PDF copy go to:

Saturday 9 May 2020

A year on....

Flowering gum tree.
May 9th 2019 didn’t really exist for me. I left London on the 8th and arrived in Melbourne on the 10th. The 9th passed somewhere in the sky.

I have been here in Melbourne for a year. On my arrival, none of us would have guessed how we would all be living a year on.

People have asked if I feel settled here and my answer is yes. I have my family and I have made new friends and enjoyed seeing my UK friend Claire who lives here too. I’ve yet to find my writing tribe. I joined a large writing group but its activities are more social than writing/peer reviewing. Another, nearer home, was simply writing time in a café with no sharing or feedback which wasn’t what I was after. I’d just joined a new local group but before we could meet it had to be put on hold. Hopefully we can meet in the not too distant future and I’ll see how it works but I may need to start my own group as Rosie Canning and I did back in 2009 with Greenacre Writers.

Explorations of my new city and it environs have had to stop for a while of course and, like everyone else, my social life has ground to a halt but there have been a few compensations in this stay-at-home time.

I’ve had plenty of reading time and at last read A Suitable Boy which I started years ago but somehow got side-tracked and abandoned it having lost the thread of the story when I next picked it up. So glad I tackled it again. 

I’m still discovering Australian authors and have a (quite large) number of new books by my side – how grateful I am that we can still buy books.

My holiday in March had to be cancelled and my theatre tickets have been refunded but I’ve watched some of the National Theatre productions, streamed for all to see, and Australian productions too. I was also able to see Alex Wheatle’s Crongton Knights. When I heard this was to be staged I jokingly asked if he could please bring it to Australia, but I would rather it wasn’t because of a pandemic.  

I took part in a writing time session in UK’s Stay At Home Literary Festival and as a member of Writers Victoria, I join twice weekly for writing time via Zoom and recently took part in a day course led by Fiona Lowe which would have been in person but was also Zoomed. It was an excellent course which I hope to use to kickstarting a rewrite on my second novel which has been languishing in a file for ages. The upside of Zoom was that we didn’t have to venture out in the wind and rain although I was looking forward to meeting other participants in person.

My writing hasn’t been a huge success but at least I’ve been doing some. A lovely acceptance came early in the year for a short story (the first thing I wrote in Australia) but is yet to be published, and I’ve had a couple of minor non-fiction acceptances. I've been disappointed by several rejections but received an acceptance from Cabinet Of Heed’s Covid-19 Stream of Consciousness challenge the following week. 

It’s been a year of exploration and change for me in more ways than one, with the biggest here at present but I hope that this time next year we will all look back on the early months of 2020 and feel that we gained something even among the many sad losses.

Saturday 14 March 2020

The Mysterious Case of the Invisible Boomer.

We are increasingly aware that some verbal discrimination may be unintentional. Making uninformed assumptions, some people may not realise (or even care) that what they are saying is biased and can contribute to harmful perceptions of others. It’s being called out and challenged time and time again and yet there still seems to be one form of ‘ism’ that occurrs frequently and remains largely unchallenged. Ageism.

As I grow older, I’ve become more and more aware of ageism, much of it I’m sure is unintentional, but it would seem it’s way down the list of taboos. Recently there has been a ridiculous stand-off on social media between older people moaning about so called Millennials and Millennials whining about Boomers. And perhaps by using the word moaning in relation to the older generation and whining in relation to the younger I have just displayed a form of ageism myself. (I was trying to be a good writer and not re-use a word.) A young Tweeter recently announced that ‘OK Boomer is not OK anymore.’ It never was OK! Currently there's a particulary nasty hashtag regarding Boomers  on Twitter being used by a few members of a younger generation. But far from all and neither do I assume that all Millennials do nothing but eat avocados. 

Ageism can be aimed at and disadvantage people of any age but in literature older people often find themselves totally invisible or if they do exist, depicted as the elderly eccentric or a stereotyped ‘amazing older person’ who pluckily joins in the action and surprises everyone including themselves! (Not that I’m against being bold or eccentric as I grow older but I’m not quite ready for that portrayal.) Literature’s older people are often written only as minor characters or in unflattering lights, or where there is an older main character, the content is often them recalling their youth. Their current life is of little or no interest and they are merely waiting out their last years until death like the charming Mrs Palfrey at The Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor.

Some authors have successfully bucked this trend. Harold Fry certainly took advantage of his retired years (The Unlikley Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce) as did Allan Karlsson (The Hundred-Year-Old Man who Climbed Out of a Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson, along with his fellow Swedes featured in Catharina Ingleman-Sundberg’s The Little Old Lady Who Broke All the Rules and its sequels, albeit in a somewhat surreal world!

Joanna Cannon’s Three Things About Elsie and Emma Healey’s Elizabeth Is Missing were poignant and had beautifully portrayed characters that showed a realistic, but nevertheless frail depiction of older age.   

Joanna Nell’s comedy The Single Ladies of Jacaranda Retirement Village and Josephine’s Wilson’s Extinctions take a much more positive view, although they are realistic in that issues we may experience as we age are never far away, in these two very different books set in Australian retirement villages.

I have recently come across another Australian author, Liz Byrski, whose characters are mostly women in their 50s to 70s and are shown in positive ways, even when illness or other issues affecting older people are evident, such as bereavement after a long marriage. Their friendships grow and they overcome barriers as they take on new challenges.

Hilary Boyd’s novel Thursdays in the Park features 60-year-old grandma, Jeannie, who falls in love with a fellow grandparent after several meetings at the park with their respective grandchildren. Published in 2012, the book received some harsh criticism, presumably from younger people, because it was about people in their 60s having and enjoying sex. Apparenty that's not allowed. Someone called Lindsay Mannering on CafeMom website claims she's 'all for the elderly going at it' but I doubt she believes they do as she goes on to write:

So! All you blue hairs out there! Or you yet to be blue hairs who think you're too old to read Fifty Shades! Sounds like this gran-lit book is right up your alley. As America's baby boomers settle into retirement, maybe this book can help them visualize a sexy-time life outside of playing bridge and yelling at the news, or whatever it is that retired people do.”

It might be allowable for a few Boomers to have a moan about this Millennial's attitude. Eight years on, I hope Jeannie’s having a better sex life, none of which was explicit in the novel, than this person who admits she hadn't read the book.

I've read books with older characters, indeed I read one claiming to be a comedy that even had Boomer in the title. I thought it was dreadful, mainly because the characters all behaved like very immature 20 somethings or were the stereotype quirky eccentric. It wasn't funny either. 

Recently on Twitter a writer asked what age were the protagonists in people’s WIPs. Joanna Nell’s was the first response I saw with ‘89.’ There were 266 responses (at the time of writing this) and I jotted down the answers. I don’t know the genres of the responders’ WIPs but some were evidently fantasy and otherworld writers as characters were ranged from 130 years old to 12,000!

I guess a number of WIPs were aimed at children and YA genres as children and teens were well represented. I wasn’t surprised to learn that characters in their 20s and 30s were the most represented, 40s less so but still a fair number. I spotted only one protagonist in their 50s. Mine at 60 were alone as was the 89-year old! Now this may tell us more that the writers who happened to see that tweet were themselves the younger writers out there, which is good to see. But are older writers writing older main characters? And if we are, are we getting published? I’ve had no success with my novel about a 60-year old so far!

Let me know if you have written novels with older protagonists or have recommendations (with links to reviews, if available) about good novels with interesting characters in their 50s to 70s so I can do a follow up post.

Tuesday 25 February 2020

Learning about Life from Novels

The first five questions of the quiz left me flummoxed. I had no idea which of the three named towns had the largest population or which was furthest north. (I'd come across only one of the towns!) Nor did I know the founder members of Cold Chisel or which city had a suburb called Erindale. I'd never  heard of a Hills Hoist, let alone knew when it was first maufactured.

I might have known more than a lot of people about the country in which I was soon going to live but the quiz nights I attended back in early 2018 when I was staying in Melbourne soon showed me how much I didn't know about this country. While I could answer some of the quiz's general knowledge questions, the world geography and classical literature, the local knowledge questions that most Aussies could tackle with an educated guess if nothing more left me floundering.

Since I arrived to live in Australia last May, about half of my reading material has been Australian novels and my knowledge gained from these has helped enormously. From slang to recent history, from geography to common culture, natural science to urban issues, novels have filled many gaps and helped me to feel at home. Of course my search engines have been busy too but information gained through reading novels has often been the instigator to further research.

I was having a conversation recently with a chap who reads non-fiction but was dismissive about fiction. I said I was learning a great deal from fiction but he couldn't seem to understand that fiction could be informative! Perhaps he sees the world only in facts and figures. But for me, reading about ordinary people, and one or two extraordinary ones, in realistic situations from recent history to present day, in cities, small towns or the outback have all contributed to a common culture that those who have lived in this coutry for a long time, even if not born in it, can take for granted. It's not just events or places but ways of thinking and attitudes. All have infomed my perceptions of this country and its varied people. Watching Australian dramas on TV has been informatve too.

I always get a thrill from visting places I've seen illustrated and read about in books and when I see a place I've been to in a film or on TV it's always 'Ooh, I've been there!' The same with books; if a book has real place settings and mentions specific locations I can see the character in the places I know and now I'm finding I can sometimes do that with books set in Melbourne and even, to a lesser extent, Sydney!

For those interested in the Australia stories I've read, here they are in alphabetical order. Some I've loved, some not so much but all have given me useful information and insights, food for thought and, of course, hours of enjoyment. Here's to the next 25.

J D Barrett: The Secret Recipe for Second Chances
Tony Birch: The Promise
Tony Birch: Common People
Liz Byrski: A Month of Sundays
Liz Byrski: Belly Dancing for Beginners
Nicholas Drayson: Love and The Platypus
Kate Grenville: The Idea of Perfection
Jane Harper: The Lost Man
Jane Harper: The Dry
Robert Hillman: The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted
Catherine Jinks: Shepherd
Toni Jordan: Nine Days
Manfred Jurgensen: The Last Australia Day
Janet Lee: The Killing of Louisa
Eleanor Limprecht: The Passengers
Liane Moriarty: Big Little Lies
Joanna Nell: The Single Ladies of Jacaranda Retirement Village
Peter Polites: The Pillars
Lisa Reece-Lane: Milk Fever
Holly Ringland: The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart
Kate Richards: Fusion
Inga Simpson: Where The Trees Were
M.L. Steadman: The Light Between the Oceans
Josephine Wilson: Extinctions
Tim Winton: Dirt Music

Monday 6 January 2020

Australia is on Fire: how people are responding.

Sylvan Dam (1931) by Arthur Streeton.
This morning I attended a writers' get together at a cafe about 10 minutes drive from my home. As I drove home through the drizzly and smoky air, I wondered whether there was enough rain to help where it is needed in East Gippsland.

I reached home and looked about my little house that I bought 4 months ago. Smaller than I would like, still needing some finishing touches, it is nevertheless, home. How grateful I am to have it. Many people have lost theirs in Australia's rampaging fires. Everything gone. Seeing some of the TV footage, people talking about their experiences with smouldering, collasped buildings behind them is heartbreaking. Some people were clearly disorientated and traumatised, some unbearably sad and others angry. I have never been impressed by outbursts of hysterical weeping or by those who rant, but these people all moved me beyond words because each was in their own way incredibly dignified.

People are angry at the Prime Minister's poor response. I am too but this post isn't about that. It's about other people - those who are doing something. Every locality, it seems, has a facebook or other social media page for donations for the Emergency Relief Groups. These seem chaotic at first glance but my local one is well organised. All groups need to liaise with official authorities such as the State Control Centre (SCC) to ensure the right things get to the right places at the right time. Transporting items has to be done without hampering rescue vehicles or those needing to evacuate from endangered areas.

From food and clothing for those who have lost everything, supplies of snacks, drinks and toiletries for the fire-fighters - known here as fireys, suitable supplies for the vets and animal shelter staff helping the injured and orphaned animals, wildfood balls - made to specified recipes for wild animals and fabric joey pouches or woollen nests for injured animals and birds, the response has been incredible.

Centres have been inundated with goods and many have now put out pleas for no further donations, other than cash which goes directly to the various official accounts via one of the banks or directly to the County Fire Authority.

Authors have joined in with an auction on Twitter #AuthorsForFireys which is happening all this week until 11th January. See how it works here. (Many of the fireys who are fighting these fires are volunteers. Highly trained, but still volunteers, who have other jobs. Many, of course, have been released from those jobs during the emergency.) From signed books to feedback on manuscripts, there are all sorts of things up for bidding. I've made bids, but much as I would like to win my items, I'm very happy if I'm outbid too. Many, although not all, items can take bids from outside Australia, so hoping my UK friends might be interested in taking part too.