Wimmera: book review


A proof copy of a Mark Brandi’s debut novel, Wimmera, landed on my desk a few ago. What a gorgeous cover. If you like a bit of Australian rural noir, check it out. It’s out in June through Hachette.

Here’s my review from Goodreads:

There seems to be a recent surge of excellent Australian debut novels. Wimmera by Mark Brandi is no exception. This coming of age/murder mystery fusion is set in Stawell, a country town in the Wimmera region of Victoria. The Grampians loom large as a backdrop to the relationship of Ben and Fab. We follow them as they tread their path from young boys yabbying in the local dam, discovering their sexuality and negotiating life at home and school onto an adolescence marked by an experience that will haunt their troubled adulthood. From the outset of the novel we know there is a brutal discovery waiting to unfold but this sits lurking quietly behind the scenes, never dominating the narrative. It is not your typical whodunnit, the story instead centering around the relationship of the boys. I enjoyed the nostalgic thread of pop culture references and the playful vernacular language in Brandi’s novel. This is a ripping yarn, quietly menacing, and neatly resolved. I’m looking forward to Brandi’s next novel. This one will appeal to fans of Jane Harper’s The Dry.

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Author in conversation: Kirsty Murray


I spoke to author Kirsty Murray about her award-winning YA novel, India Dark, at M Pavillion on 2 December 2016.

In our conversation, Kirsty shares the scandalous story of Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Company, 29 Australian child performers that worked the Empire circuit from Melbourne to India in 1909, on which her novel India Dark is based. 

We also talk about India, colonialism, writing and Kirsty’s involvement in projects such as Bookwallah

The recording includes a short reading from India dark and Q&A with the audience. 

Listen to our conversation here.

ALIA Information Online 2017

I didn’t hear a single presentation pondering the future of libraries at the ALIA Information Online conference this year. What a relief! The profession seems to finally be stepping out with confidence and just getting on with things.

There were a few years there where everyone was anxious about the future relevance of the library. Perhaps that was a natural reaction to, dare I say the word, disruption. We took a good look at ourselves, had a shake up and now we are moving ahead.

I tweeted my takeaways themes from the conference. 

The stand-out theme for me was prototyping and experimenting, having a minimal viable product, and being quick to market. This theme came up in a number of talks including Paula Bray’s keynote.

Slide from Paula Bray’s keynote

Perhaps the newly embraced confidence of the profession means we are finally willing to let go of perfection, loosen up and experiment more.

Copies of the papers and presentations I co-presented are up on the conference site. The New UX at State Library Victoria gives the inside story on our in progress major redevelopment project. Around the world in not-quite-80 libraries looks at major trends in library spaces across North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand.

Check out the conference program for the latest thinking and interesting projects in the Australian library sector.

No Novel is an Island: Digital Writers Festival


How can libraries, writers, readers and publishers evolve together through online writing communities? In late 2016, I was part of an online panel discussing this question at the Digital Writers Festival. The event is available to watch online. The audio is a bit dodgy to begin with but it improves, I promise!

Here’s the blurb from the festival website:

‘Writing no longer needs to be a solitary occupation. The digital age has allowed writer’s groups and communities to spring forth across time(zones) and space. Society, friends and family can be part of the process, in fact online communities can grow audience, expand craft, and build a publishing career. Just like the writer, libraries are evolving too. But how can libraries, writers and publishing evolve together? This panel discusses untraditional collections, the value of audience, and innovation within independent publishing.’

I hope you enjoy the chat. We did.

An Isolated Incident: review

Although in style Emily Maguire’s novel, An Isolated Incident might fit into the psychological thriller genre neatly alongside Jane Harper’s The Dry, I think that is a short sell for this complex novel. Maguire’s book grapples with a broad range of social and cultural issues including misogyny, violence against women and the portrayal of women in the media. It is more akin in substance to Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things if I was searching for a contemporary stable mate.

When 25-year-old Bella Michaels is brutally murdered in the truck-stop town of Strathdee, half way between Sydney and Melbourne, she leaves behind her sister, Chris. The novel is party told in the first person from Chris’s perspective. Chris is one of the most compelling and finely drawn characters I have met in a novel for some time. Maguire completely nails her voice. I loved her vernacular and sassy turns of phrase. We discover that Chris is equally tough and scared, independent and needy, street-wise and shielded. Her sister’s death sends her into a spiral of grief as she grasps onto the threads of her life, not knowing who to trust. I was hooked by Chris immediately. I was propelled along on her narrative at the speed of the road trains thundering along the highway into Strathdee.

The balance of the novel is told in the third person from the perspective of May, a journalist from Sydney who arrives in Strathdee to cover Bella’s murder story and to escape her miserable love life. At first I found the shift in perspective from Chris to May jarring, but came to appreciate the relief of stepping off the juggernaut of Chris and her terrifying crash through life. May is a secondary character, and honestly it would be difficult to compete with Chris, who was such a perfectly realised protagonist. May’s character did serve to expand the plot and gave Maguire the opportunity to explore some themes that otherwise would not have had breath in the novel.

What makes this novel captivating and unique is Maguire’s choice not to shine all of the focus on discovering the perpetrator of the crime. This thread runs quietly in the background. However, the main focus is squarely on the aftermath of Bella’s death and how it affects her loved-ones and her community, and how the murder fits into a broader social context. At its core this novel asks questions about how women are treated in their personal relationships and by society. There is anger in these pages.

I read this novel in two sittings and I adored it.

This review is part of my participation in the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2017.

What I learned in 2016

GLAM Blog Club has thrown out the challenge of reflecting on what we learned in 2016. Where to start? It was a huge year.

I certainly learned a lot about building projects, change management and philanthropy as we continued our $88m, 5-year building redevelopment at the library. I have co-authored a paper to present at ALIA Online on this project if you would like to hear the behind-the-scenes story on that.

The most important lesson I have learned from the project is that even monumental and seemingly insurmountable challenges can be solved simply by taking one step at a time, by having faith and confidence in yourself, and by asking for help when you need it. I also learned that the best ideas are found within the organisation, you just need the right ways to help them emerge. On the flip side, there are times when for all the best intentions, the skills or knowledge are not available to be tapped within the organisation. Finding the right external expert can kick-start an idea and give it momentum.

So many magical and astonishing moments happen at the library every year, choosing highlights (and their lessons) is tricky. One event sticks with me as fertile ground for learning. In 2016, the library was the hub for Melbourne Music Week. I will be honest, it is not easy for a 160-year-old library to transform itself into a music venue. Not everything went to plan, but it was phenomenal. The punters loved it, the crowds were huge, the media coverage was positive. The lesson? Big, brave ideas are worth pursuing, go in knowing it won’t be perfect, work through the issues, and keep smiling.

Queen’s Hall, State Library Victoria, Melbourne Music Week

In 2016, I was fortunate to visit public and academic libraries in Canada and New Zealand. I learned about the library systems in both countries and brought/stole some great ideas home with me. Canada inspired me with ideas around making/creating/innovation spaces and services. New Zealand is streets ahead of Australia in indigenous collections, services and programs. Also in New Zealand, I visited the construction site for the new Christchurch Central Library. It was fascinating to learn about planning a new central library from scratch in a city that has been without a central library for over 5 years, since the earthquake. I was particularly interested in the thinking behind designing jobs and an organisational structure starting from a blank page.

I have traveled for work and visited many libraries in North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand over the past few years. To share some of what I have learned I have teamed up with an American colleague who has also visited many libraries around the world. We will present on this at the ALIA Online conference this year. The most important lesson for me? Libraries in Australia, and particularly in Victoria, compare positively to other libraries. I believe we have some of the world’s best libraries right here.

During 2016 I spoke at the Digital Writers Festival and Remix Sydney on panels, did a keynote at Pivot Summit in Geelong (with a smoke machine!) and PauseFest, chaired a panel (outdoors, freezing Melbourne night) and hosted an author conversation at M Pavilion, and was a guest speaker at Vancouver Public Library, Auckland Public Library and the University of Auckland, as well as speaking at a whole range of State Library events. What did I learn from these? Public speaking used to be my arch nemesis. Now, I rarely feel nervous before public speaking and actually enjoy it. It is one of those fears you have to face and just keep practicing. The way I think about it – it’s a privilege to have a voice and to be heard. Many people do not have a voice. Use it wisely.

Staying warm under our blankies at M Pavilion

On the personal side of things, I had three goals for 2016: read more, exercise more and write more. The main barrier to each of these goals was time. With a full-time job and two young kids, all of these activities fall down low on the priority list. So, the challenge was to somehow find more time.

Here is how I did it. I gave up watching television, I limited my time on social media, I started waking up an hour earlier (5.30) and I stopped working every evening after the kids went to bed. I learned that I could carve out quite a bit of extra time to focus on my goals, even when I did not stick to my guns all the time. Some mornings I slept later, I occasionally watched trashy tv or disappeared time on social media, and sometimes it was inevitable that I had to work at night.

Besides lack of time, the other barrier was permission. I learned that it is important to give myself the permission to spend more time doing the things I love. As a parent, this can feel like an indulgence. I learned to block out the little voice on my shoulder whispering about guilt into my ear.

So, how did I go on my goals?

Read more: I signed up to Goodreads to track my reading and set myself a goal of 100 books in the 2016 Reading Challenge. I got through 43 books, not quite my target, but many more books than the previous year. Here are the books I read. I also wrote a couple of posts on my blog about some of my favourite reads. I had a wonderful reading year and relished my time spent with my head in a book.

Exercise more: by going to the gym before work and on weekends, I averaged 5-6 gym sessions a week. Some weeks it was less or not at all, but mostly I stuck to my routine. I also improved my diet. On the positive side, I lost 6 kilos and got much fitter. On the down side, none of my clothes fit me anymore (ok, not so bad, it gave me an excuse to buy new clothes).

Write more: this one was trickier. I kicked off the year with a positive start by doing Catherine Deveny’s Gunna’s Writing Course. But I did not stick to my plan to write a little every day, and then I just didn’t write at all. I partly resurrected my goal towards the end of the year by doing National Novel Writing Month aka NaNoWriMo. I knew I would not make the 50,000 word target because of other commitments, but I decided to give it a crack anyway. I got to 30,000 words – not a bad effort for my first go. I have also been writing more on my blog.

The one final lesson I learned both from my professional and personal experiences in 2016 is that sometimes to get where you want to go, you have to be willing to push through the pain barrier. Whether it is a spin class, a piece of writing, a challenging project, or public speaking, it pays to persevere. Take one step at a time and be strong.

What does 2017 bring? I will write about that in my next GLAM Blog Club post…

Between a Wolf and a Dog: review


The terrible story behind this book is well known. Georgia Blain writes a novel about a character with brain cancer, and then gets diagnosed with brain cancer herself. She finished the book knowing her diagnosis. The reviews of Blain’s book led me into the Readings store at the State Library one lunchtime to buy it. I took it home on the tram, wrapped in its crinkly brown paper bag, holding it with the anticipation of reading. 

That evening my mother rang me to tell me she had been diagnosed with cancer. I tucked the book still in its paper bag onto my bookshelf. The book sat ticking like a time bomb on the shelf while I did my best to ignore it. I did not read it.

The terrible story behind this book is well known. Blain died of brain cancer in December 2016. Her mother, Anne Deveson, died just days later. I took the book down from the shelf and unwrapped it. Maybe reading it now would somehow honour Blain’s and Deveson’s memories. I decided to face it.

The novel winds through a day in the life of a dysfunctional family (what family isn’t dysfunctional?) as the family members struggle through their individual and collective turmoils, some ordinary, some monumental. The most monumental being the family’s matriarch coming to terms with her diagnosis of cancer, alone. 

The narrative is drenched in a Sydney deluge that falls in sheets against the windows, floods through the gutters and gardens, and courses along the streets. Will the spring rain drown everything or is it cleansing and a promise of new growth?

Blain’s writing is poetic and lucid. Her characters are flawed, caught in conflicts of pain and joy. She treats them sympathetically but not sentimentally. This is a tender novel and full of beauty. It is much more about living than it is about dying. 

The terrible story behind this book is well known. I am grateful that Blain wrote it in the face of her diagnosis. I am glad to have honoured her by reading it. My mother continues her cancer treatment.

This review is part of my contribution to the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2017.

The Hate Race


With a population of close to 2 million, Greater Western Sydney is a key influencer of election outcomes, yet the voices of people living there are rarely represented in Australian literature. Maxine Beneba Clarke’s memoir, The Hate Race, is the voice of growing up black in the white suburbs of western Sydney in the 1980’s. As Beneba Clarke states on her Twitter profile ‘I try to write beautifully, about ugly things’. Her story is dark but her voice sings with West Indian lyricism.

In her memoir, Beneba Clarke relates episodes of cruel bullying and racism directed at her throughout her school years. These range from name-calling, nasty notes, and exclusion to physical abuse. Perhaps more disturbing are the tales of inadvertent racism delivered obliviously by children and adults. They are not meaning to be cruel but their racism is ingrained and seeps out through their pores.

Beneba Clarke is resolute. She learns to direct her anger from these experiences into being better than her tormentors. I’m sure others who have had similar experiences have instead directed their anger inwards and carried this burden through their lives.

The memoir is not all bleak. There are moments of real joy and humour shining through the cracks, lighting Beneba Clarke’s path.

I also grew up in western Sydney, a few years ahead of Maxine. It was not a place that embraced difference, despite the growing multicultural diversity of its population. Neither was it a place that celebrated academic achievement or ambition. Given that context, it would be simple to dismiss Beneba Clarke’s bullying experience as typical of schoolyards of the time and place. Certainly, that’s what her teachers do. She is an easy target because of the colour of her skin. But racism doesn’t stop at the school gates, it is insidious and stretches into every experience of her childhood, and reaches beyond childhood into her adult life in suburban Melbourne.

I escaped the western suburbs of Sydney as soon as I had the chance. I have not returned for over 20 years. It is a mythical place to me now, a dreamscape. Beneba Clarke’s memoir brought that dreamscape back into focus for me, flickering memories of the ugly things I experienced. It also reminded me that as a white girl, I got off lightly.

This review is part of my participation in the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2017.

Australian Women Writers Challenge 2017

The Australian Women Writers Challenge encourages participants to read and review books by Australian women. In 2017 the challenge also focuses on classics and diversity. 

This year, I have signed up for the first time. I kicked off my reading year with Maxine Beneba Clarke’s memoir, The Hate Race

Last year I read 13 books by Australian women, all new releases. I didn’t review any. Now I have signed up for the challenge, I plan to read more books by Australian women in 2017, dip into some classics, and write some reviews too.

The challenge, along with the Stella Prize, are fantastic ways to promote Australian Women Writers and their books. Reading more Australian women writers increases books sales and supports authors, bookstores and the local publishing industry.

Your local library also has a strong selection of books by Australian women writers. And here is an insiders tip – if they don’t have the one you want, you can always ask for it to be purchased for their collection.

Happy reading!

The books I loved in 2016 published in other years

I shared my favourite newly released books of 2016 in an earlier post. This year, I also read some crackers published in other years. I had a little excursion into Canadian Literature thanks to a visit to Canadian public libraries and the excellent recommendations of their librarians. I also met a super helpful sales assistant at the John Fleuvog store in Gastown, Vancouver. You have to love a city where you can get good shoes and great CanLit recommendations in one place.

As a result, three of the six books I have chosen are by Canadian authors. Two others are memoir, and one is an Australian crime fiction classic.


A Complicated Kindness, Miriam Toews

I adored A Complicated Kindness. This CanLit classic came up as a recommendation from everyone I asked in Canadian libraries, as well as being a winner of the Governor General’s Literary Award. It is a coming of age story set in a cloistered Mennonite community in the US. Funny, dark and heart-breaking. Do yourself a favour and read this one.


February, Lisa Moore

Another CanLit recommendation, February, is a story of grief and loss set on the Newfoundland coast in the wake of a catastrophe. Playing with time and switching between the present day and flashbacks, chronology in this novel is less important than the emotional trajectory. It is beautiful and poetic. 


Indian Horse, Richard Wagamese

I asked for some First Nations CanLit recommendations and Indian Horse was suggested by several people. This story of cultural alienation, separation from traditional land, and the reality of life as a First Nations aspiring hockey player is full of sorrow and hope. Beautifully set against the the Canadian wilderness, it draws on myth and magic. A great introduction to First Nations literature.


Wild, Cheryl Strayed

I read Wild while travelling through Canada. Some of my journey took me close to the Pacific Crest Trail where Strayed heals her grief through an onerous and sometimes joyful thousand-mile solo trek. I spotted the mountain tops of the Cascades as I traveled by train through British Columbia. Seeing the landscape while reading the novel made me appreciate the scale of the task she had set herself without any training or support. I enjoyed Strayed’s humour and self-deprecating writing. A great travel read.


Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal, Jeanette Winterson

Jeanette Winterson is one of my all-time favourite writers. I don’t love all of her books equally. I have my favourite children, so to speak, but this one is an absolute stand-out. This memoir is the auto-biographical version of her novel Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit and is the story of her growing up in a strictly religious family with a domineering and clearly mad mother. It is the story of her searching for her biological mother. Most importantly, it is the story of her finding a way to love herself and others. Every sentence in this book is perfect and devastating. The best memoir I have read? Possibly.


The Broken Shore, Peter Temple

2016, the year I finally got around to reading The Broken Shore. I don’t read a lot of crime fiction so I can’t claim much knowledge about the genre beyond a dedicated love of Raymond Chandler, however, I think I can say this would have to be the quintessential Australian crime fiction novel. I loved the men of few words, the Australian landscapes, both rural and urban, and Temple’s writing style. There’s even a scene in the State Library Victoria! I have Jane Harper’s The Dry on my summer reading list so I can expand my adventures into Australian crime writing.