Meanjin: what I’m reading

I wrote a ‘What I’m reading’ column for Meanjin this week, reflecting on some fiction and non fiction books that explore the topic of loneliness. 

Just a warning: it’s a little bleak. Here’s a link to the piece.

Books featured are:

From The Wreck by Jane Rawson

The Wanderers by Meg Howrey

A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit

Lonely City by Olivia Laing

Future Sex by Emily Witt

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Podcast: The future of publishing

What’s the future for reading and writing in the digital world? What are digital writing communities all about? And why is the State Library Victoria involved?

I had a chat about these questions with Jemma Birrell from Tablo on Radio National’s Books and Arts program, hosted by Michael Cathcart.

You can listen to the podcast here.

If you would like to find out more about the Tablo State Library Victoria community, you can explore the community on Tablo or read this article on FutureBook.

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.

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.

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.

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.

My favourite books of 2016

This year I tried to carve out more time to read. I abandoned television. I limited my time on social media.  I traded movies on long-haul flights for novels. I snuck to my bedroom when the inlaws were visiting to read (okay that isn’t a new strategy). 

In 2016 I also started tracking my reading on Goodreads. I set myself a target of 100 books, which I failed to reach, but I definitely read more this year than the past few years. Hoorah!

These are my top picks for 2016, followed by my favourite 2016 ‘best books’ listicles, and a quick look at my TBR (to be read) pile for summer.


Autumn by Ali Smith

Easily my favourite author at the moment. Autumn is Smith’s post-Brexit novel and the first in her planned quartet of novels, each named for a season of the year. Smith’s writing is electric, and this reads like one long poem. Whenever I finish a Smith novel I immediately want to start re-reading it again. Her books are so richly layered I feel like I have only scratched the surface.


Everywhere I Look by Helen Garner

Everywhere I Look is a collection of essays, observations and diary entries by one of the greatest non-fiction writers. Sharp, honest, precise. When I read Garner I wonder why anyone else even bothers writing. If I could rub a magic lamp and have any wish granted it would be to write like Helen Garner.


The North Water by Ian McGuire

A rollicking, brutal and rancid tale of life on a 19th century whaling ship headed for the Arctic. Murder, violence and extreme weather create the perfect setting for a heady thriller. It’s hard to beat the 1800’s for savagery. I loved being cast into the rank world of The North Water.


My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

My Name is Lucy Barton was my first dip into reading Strout and now I’m wondering why I haven’t read anything of hers before. This was a quiet book that crept up on me. I read it straight after Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk, which may have been an overdose of back-to-back dysfunctional mother-daughter relationships, but I enjoyed this more than Levy. I know that will get me into trouble with everyone who loved Hot Milk, but there, I said it!


The Many by Wyl Menmuir

I would not have discovered this gem of a novel had it not been on the Booker long list. I reserved a bunch of long list titles from my local library and this was one of the first that was available. A beautiful and subtle story set in a parochial English coastal village. The village is haunted and the protagonist who arrives from out of town is haunted. At only 143 pages, The Many can be inhaled in one sitting.


His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet

More 19th century murder and mayhem. His Bloody Project was another Booker long list discovery. The narrative is crafted through a set of (fictional) primary source documents including court transcripts and medical reports and presented as if it is a true crime tale. I consumed this book and carried the story around in my head for some time afterwards.


Heroes of the Frontier by Dave Eggers

A woman runs off to Alaska with her two kids in a campervan without telling anyone where she is headed. Not your typical road trip story. I read this while travelling through Canada so the landscape resonated with me. Some reviews have called Heroes of the Frontier a dark comedy, but I don’t think that label is quite right. It is dark, and it is funny, but it is also tender. The small family moving through the vast landscape captured me from the outset. I was cheering them on all the way.


Serious Sweet by A.L. Kennedy 

Serious Sweet is a day in the life of two anti-heroes negotiating through their lives in London. I have been a fan of A.L. Kennedy since I first read her short stories. Reviewers call her tricksy and her novels do take some work, but I think they pay back the effort. The narrative switches in and out of the characters’ rambling inner voices but once you get into the rhythm you really feel like you are inhabiting the minds of Jon and Meg. Whether you want to be caught there is another question.


The Wonder by Emma Donoghue

The Wonder was a final trip back to the 19th century, which seemed to be familiar territory for me to visit in my reading this year. I wasn’t immediately sold on this novel, but before I knew it, it had carried me away. I won’t give away any spoilers with the story line but I was captivated by this tale of life in a small Irish village where everything isn’t quite what it first seems on the surface.

Those are my picks for 2016, keeping in mind I still have a huge TBR pile of 2016 books to catch up on over summer.

Here are my favourite books I read in 2016 that were not new releases.

If you would like to check out other people’s 2016 favourites, here is my master list of listicles. You can also catch me on Radio National talking about some of these.

And my summer reading plans? Here are the 2016 books currently on my TBR pile. I’m sure I will add to it once I have another look through the listicles over the summer break.

Cars

Our family has a bad track record with cars. My maternal grandfather died in a car accident on the way to visit my mum and me in hospital when I was born. He never looked in the rear vision mirror. A truck took him out. The cops said it was the worst smash they had ever witnessed.

Mum took valium to deal with the grief. She remarked to her friends that I was a calm baby and a wonderful sleeper. She was breastfeeding.

The phone call came in the middle of the night. It was just past midnight, which made it my birthday. It was my father’s ex. She said there has been a car accident. Head-on with a tree. Your father is dead. I had trouble finding your number. I didn’t believe her. My father was very well organised.

Later that day I got a birthday card from my father, posted just before the accident.

I delivered his eulogy holding my 18 month-old son, who my father only met once. We had been estranged for over 10 years. I said you might want to meet your grandson. Two weeks after my father died, I fell pregnant with my second son.

I had a nasty legal battle with my father’s ex over his meagre estate. In the end, she got the house and I got the superannuation. A few years later she sent me a friend request on Facebook. I didn’t accept.
This piece was originally published on Catherine Deveny’s website.