Archive for 2013

I heard about this book when Shannon originally signed her seven-book deal (!!), and it was all over the publishing news. The fantasy nerd in me got very excited, and now the first book has landed. This was the book I took on the plane to New York with me; I was convinced it would be perfect plane reading.

I was half right. The premise is intriguing; Paige Mahoney is a dreamwalker, a mental ‘hacker of sorts’ who can read the ‘dreamscapes’ of non-clairvoyants – here called amaurotics. She lives in the London of 2067, which is governed by an anti-clairvoyant institution called Scion. Scion seeks and captures clairvoyants – or ‘voyants’ – like Paige just as a police force does criminals, and puts them to work against other voyants, or disappears them. Ironically, the only way Paige can feel like she belongs in this oppressive society is as part of London’s underground voyant crime syndicate. By day, she tells her Scion-employed father she works at an oxygen bar, but after hours she surveils voyants in her precinct for a crime lord. Soon, though, she discovers that Scion is just one layer of a deeper, more nefarious plan.

Broadly speaking, this book is structurally sound. There is plenty of tension and action to keep the reader turning the pages, and some sympathetic characters to root for along the way. The narrative retains integrity even though not far into the book Paige’s circumstances, and her understanding of the world around her, changes dramatically. I know this has irritated some readers, but in principle I had no issue with this; it is rather a dizzying turn of events that gives you the tight-chested ‘what on earth is she going to do?’ feeling.

But my main issue with this book is that it felt undercooked. The finer details of the world-building, in particular, needed more attention. For example, Shannon has created an extremely granular and complex taxonomy of voyants, given as a family-tree-style chart at the beginning of the book. It’s an overwhelming introduction, so it’s puzzling that many of these divisions are inconsequential, story-wise. In fact – and I admit I was reading this in holiday mode, so I may have just missed it – there are some terms that I can’t even remember being used. (I also realise this is a seven-book series, so there’s an argument for including everything, but I’m not sure it works here.)

This may seem like a minor quibble but, on the flipside, weirdly, there’s some vagueness around what Paige’s dreamwalker abilities are. To some extent, there are plot reasons for this, but if a protagonist’s powers are so desirable and fascinating to everyone around her that she forms a kind of centrifugal plot force, as Paige does in The Bone Season, they should be as plain as could be for the reader. Similarly, two races that are introduced later in the book could have been handled more confidently; their clairvoyant qualities are not that well elucidated, and this makes the ending feel rushed and sloppy.

All this is not to be discouraging or horrid. I’m really talking about finessing and general tightening rather than integral problems. I did, though, feel that there were enough elements requiring polishing or rethinking that I came out of the reading experience a bit confused and not quite satisfied. Yet the pacing and action kept me going. So for the purposes of being distracted on a long trip, The Bone Season worked. I didn’t even write any notes as I was having a nice old time with it. But reading a book that isn’t quite ready for publication really makes it clear what kind of genius writers like Tolkien and Martin have (or perhaps reflects the time they’ve spent with their manuscripts, or the time allowed by a less pressure-cooker publishing process): absolute control over and knowledge of their worlds; and the understanding of what parts of it the reader needs to know about, and when.

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September 12, 2013

Hi there! What’s been happening?

Me? I moved to New York this week.

Also, I wrote:

+ a review of Alissa Nutting’s Tampa 

+ a review of Chris Womersley’s Cairo

+ a little essay about ‘Lolita’s children’

and interviewed Tavi Gevinson at the Melbourne Writers Festival (also available on iView for Australians).

I’m going to be doing some more reading though. I’ll knock it OUT OF THE PARK like a BIG READING BATTER (IS THAT WHAT THEY CALL THEM SPORTSPERSONS??)

I’ll also be appearing at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in October. And starting my own poodle-grooming business. (One of these is a lie.)

Speak soon,

Estelle

 

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June 24, 2013

Hello! I’m doing a couple of things you might be interested in. If you want to learn more about freelance writing or want to share your nostalgic love of cult film The Craft, scroll down.

Freelance Writing for Print and Online (Writers Victoria)

Wednesdays, 6.30–8.30pm, 10–31 July

Are you keen to become a freelance writer, but not sure how to get started? In Freelance Writing for Print and Online, you will learn how to write reviews and articles, blog posts, opinion pieces and essays for print and online. Edit your writing, explore publication opportunities, develop pitches, build a writer’s toolkit and promote yourself and your work. In this course, you’ll craft editor-ready pitches and have the opportunity to prepare a publishable piece.

Taught by me!

Book online now using the fast, secure TryBooking service.

The Witching Hour: Remembering The Craft

On July 4 1996, a little movie called The Craft was released in Australia, cementing witchy bonding and black rags as staples of Gen Y teen life.

We’ve asked some of our favourite Melbourne writers to wax nostalgic on the film that made us all obsessed with black lipstick, floating above the ground and walking in groups of four. Our guests will be:

Rebecca Harkins-Cross (film editor, The Big Issue; theatre critic, The Age)

Ronnie Scott (contributor, The Believer, Meanjin, the Australian, ABC Radio National, and Lucky Peach; founder of The Lifted Brow, a freeform arts, culture, fiction magazine)

Bethanie Blanchard (freelance writer and critic; literary blogger for Crikey with Liticism)

Zora Sanders (Editor, Meanjin)

AND MORE!

Join as we talk spells, teenage friendships, questionable fashion choices, hysteria and Neve Campbell. COSTUMES ENCOURAGED.

Hosted by Stephanie Van Schilt and Estelle Tang.

Thursday July 25
7-9pm (Kitchen open 6-10)
Gasometer Hotel
cnr Smith St & Alexandra Pde
Collingwood
$8 online pre-sale / $10 on the door

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I have been quite annoying lately, telling everyone little factoids I picked up from this book. Did you know alcohol is a carcinogen? Did you know the recommended average number of standard drinks you should have per day is two? And no more than four in any one sitting? I’m great company. But I was very impressed by this book: it’s Age journalist Jill Stark’s account of a year spent sober, after one toxic hangover too many. And it wasn’t just hangovers she was suffering; the panic attacks and memory gaps Stark experienced were increasing in their frequency and severity. So she decided it was time for three months off the booze, an experiment that morphed into the full year’s experience.

Stark is articulate and curious, which is to be expected from a journalist – a journalist, no less, whose expertise is, ironically, reporting on Australia’s booze-soaked culture. This book is readable and interesting, with Stark’s personal journey making the necessary facts and figures digestible, but it’s also savvy publishing. At a time when Australians are drinking a lot, and starting early in their lives, this book ticks the feature-writer’s ‘interesting to everyone’ box. When discussing High Sobriety with friends, I’d mention the trouble Stark had fending off well-meaning friends’ insistence that she have a drink at celebrations, or the discomfort others would have around her when they were drinking, and everyone would nod in recognition. Though abstaining from alcohol for a year is a social and psychological feat that many wouldn’t consider possible in their own lives, the Australian cultural bias towards drinking would be recognisable for most. How you take a bottle of wine to dinner, without fail. How you have a beer after knocking off work any night of the week. How you have a glass of champers when a friend turns 29. A friend’s book launch. A bad fight with your brother. How anything, and everything, is an excuse to have a glass or four.

The book is split into chapters reflecting each month of Stark’s sober year, but each chapter also takes a different focus, whether it’s the similarities between the drinking cultures of Scotland and Australia (Stark is Scottish), the medical issues facing heavy drinkers, Stark’s search for love while sober, and the interesting role of drinking in the blokey world of journalism (for one thing, Stark describes a drinking game called ‘ottering’ that is enough to keep you off the sauce for a while). The honest and well-researched account makes it easy – even imperative – for a reader to consider her own drinking life.

For example, here’s an account of my drinking in the week after I finished reading High Sobriety.

Sunday: Share a longneck of alcoholic ginger beer that I bought a food and wine expo the week before. Though my share’s less than a standard drink, I have it before dinner and, before long, my head is spinning. I am writing, and when I look over my work the next day, it seems I temporarily forgot how to use full stops or, indeed, any punctuation at all.

Monday: It’s a public holiday, but no drinking. I’m determined not to have had a drink every day of the long weekend.

Tuesday: A board meeting. It’s going to be my final one, so I have one-and-a-half glasses of wine. Usually I’d have two, but – High Sobriety. It’s hard not to keep going, but I am proud of my restraint. It’s the first time I’ve put a hand over my glass in a long while. But then I end up having dinner with a friend who’s also on the board, instead of the bachelorette dinner at home I’d planned. Dinner is a friend’s birthday celebration, so I have another glass of wine.

Wednesday: I catch up with a writer I know. I am having dinner with my boyfriend’s boss and his family later, so I intend not to drink anything. But she offers to buy me a drink and I hesitate, unsure whether she will accept my refusal. Instead, I go to the bar and buy myself a vodka with soda water. At dinner, I have two glasses of very delicious Shiraz. I don’t intend to have any more than that, but when there is a glass and a half left in each of the two bottles remaining on the table at the end of the night, Sam’s boss asks me if I can ‘help out’ so the wine won’t go to waste. I say yes – another half glass.

Thursday: A glass of red at a pub with colleagues. Our plans to have Korean for dinner are set aside when we realise trivia’s on in the next room (and it’s raining). Two more bottles of wine are purchased, but I only have one more glass.

Friday: No more fucking drinking, thanks. My housemate offers me some pinot noir, but I say no, a halo appearing above my head. My only evening plans are to go to the gym and read my book. I don’t go to the gym. I succeed in reading about forty pages of my book, but not before pouring myself a half nip of Lagavulin. I don’t drink it, though – I fall asleep at 8:30pm.

Saturday: Movie night at our house. I plan to have no more than one mixed drink and one beer. We’re watching The BIg Lebowski so my housemate is making White Russians. I ask for a tiny one – I don’t like milk – and he obliges. I have a couple of sips and leave it – it’s gross. The dude doesn’t abide. I have one beer during the movie.

According to the new national guidelines for alcohol consumption, I’ve probably had just on the recommended amount throughout the week, and I don’t think I’ve had more than four standard drinks in any sitting. I’ve had two alcohol-free days, also recommended, but only because a) I really thought about it and wanted to achieve it, and b) I fell asleep. The thing that surprises me about this little journal is how much I had to advert to my alcohol consumption to get anywhere close to adhering to the guidelines. Although this is probably a more social week than most, I know I could easily have had three or four more drinks on top of what I did have.

High Sobriety is a book so thought-provoking that it may well do for drinking what Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals did for eating meat. (Lots of people I know have already said they don’t want to read it for that reason.) I’m not yet going booze free, and I doubt I ever will, but it’s good to know that I’m armed with the knowledge to drink as healthfully as I can.

Bonus points: Also good is Steph Van Schilt’s review of the book at Liticism.

 

I’ve recently finished researching and writing an essay about the zoo, based on the Wheeler Centre/Melbourne Zoo writing fellowship I did at the end of last year. This ended a huge stint of reading mostly zoo-related fiction and non-fiction, and all of a sudden I was at liberty to read whatever I wanted. So obviously I read a book about animals. New habits die hard, or something. Anyhow, I picked this up because obviously Sedaris is fun, and I needed something fun and light. The last book I read for research was a long novel that was far out of my comfort zone (i.e. I hated it), so I wanted just to ease back into leisure reading.

Anyway, Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk isn’t really about animals. Sedaris, the great observer and self-analyser, doesn’t totally abstain from his great human-centred talents here. This is an Aesop-like collection of tales, updated for the modern reader. Like Aesop’s, Sedaris’ animal characters illustrate very human foibles. Readers who are dissatisfied with their hairdresser might recognise many irritating traits in ‘The Cat and the Baboon’, in which the baboon, grooming a snooty cat, gossips and hedges and changes her mind. Here, though, Sedaris also satirises some pretty modern personality quirks. In ‘The Parrot and the Potbellied Pig’, the pig, a museum curator, is not troubled by the parrot journalist’s defamatory remarks about his ‘Vietnamese’ heritage, but rather is anxious about being called ‘potbellied’ when, really, he thinks himself rather slim.

The illustrations are by Ian Falconer, who is the author and illustrator of Olivia (!!), so the illos are wonderful, natch. (Apart from the horribly gory one for ‘The Sick Rat and the Healthy Rat’, which reminded me way too much of George Saunders’ short story ‘Escape from Spiderhead’ for comfort.) A variety of adorable, nasty, catty or lively animal portraits accompany each story.

I could take or leave a couple of the first stories, which are piquant but lack the heart that make ‘The Cow and the Turkey’ and ‘The Grieving Owl’ the very best and most moving in the book. The owl story is also the funniest, and made me LOL about four times. I had already heard ‘The Cow and the Turkey’ on This American Life, but the tale about barnyard animals who decide to play Secret Santa still affected me. The owl in ‘The Grieving Owl’ is a autodidact who lets his prey go if they can teach him something about the world, leading him to form an unlikely friendship with a gerbil and a hippo who lives in the zoo. (Anal leeches also make an appearance, I’ll warn you.) Who knew anthropomorphised cross-species friendships could be so heart-warming? David Sedaris, that’s who.

Great for those who are interested in a different slant on the meaning life. To show you what I mean, from ‘The Grieving Owl’: “To live in a damp crowded asshole and sing – if these guys don’t know the secret to living, I don’t know who does.”

 

April 29, 2013

When I first got my iPad, I accidentally bought a self-published book on Amazon. I started sweating profusely and googled ‘how to get refund for wrong purchase Amazon iPad’. Luckily, it was a straightforward and quick process, and Lust’s Labours Lost (well, that wasn’t what it was called, but essentially it was, or similar) went back into the great book warehouse in the sky.

Self-publishing cops a lot of flak, and I guess I’m receptive, to a degree, to the charges of low quality and other misdemeanours laid at the door of books produced this way. This is partly because I know how much work goes into editing, designing, publishing and marketing a book, and self-published books often (huge generalisation again, I know) miss the mark in some of these areas. It’s pretty rare that I read a self-published book, although I have a few that I’m dying to read sitting on my bookshelf. Anyhow, what I’m saying is that although I’m aware of the general feeling towards the sector, I’m not really an expert in the area – not in terms of books, anyway.

What I really wanted to talk about (or, rather, had a brief thought about it and am now trying to flesh out into an actual idea) was the idea that blogging is self-publishing. This seems so obvious that you are all welcome to type “*facepalm*” into the comments section if you are so inclined. But what is blogging but self-publishing? The blogger is at once their own writer, editor, publisher, design coordinator and publicist. From that angle, I see self-publishing as one of the most powerful, freeing things a writer can do. Obviously blogging – at least, the way I do it – is a vastly different affair to writing a book-length manuscript and seeing it through to publication. But just as blogging has reached a level of ubiquity and diversity that is now recognised as valuable by previous pooh-poohers, I found myself wondering when self-publishing will reach a similar acceptance by the broader public. Even given the successes of DIY writers like EL James, and Darrell Pitt’s recent eight-book deal with Text Publishing (Pitt’s books were popular before he was signed by a publisher), there’s a lot of snobbery and a lack of familiarity with the possibilities of self-publishing.

Anyhow, I hadn’t meant to draw such a big bow: I know that blogging and self-publishing are oranges and apples, and there’s little point in comparing them further here, except for in how valuable they are for the authors themselves (a difference being that self-publishing may involve more costs on average, especially if print copies are involved, than blogging). In classes I’ve taught, I’ve put a lot of emphasis on how I wouldn’t have any kind of writing opportunities or balls if I hadn’t started this blog. That’s me personally, as I am a wimp, but the blog was a way to hone my craft, do it regularly, and try to do it better each time.

One of the challenges of being a writer is trying to find the right publisher or publication for your work. This can be incredibly intimidating and stressful if you’re starting out, and the pressure of performing well for editors you’d like to impress can be counterproductive or painful if you’re not even sure if you have writing chops. I’m not saying that emerging writers should aim low when starting out — not at all. But for an anxious little bud like me, the lessons of blogging have been invaluable in writing for publication and in publishing others. Among other skills, I learned how to come up with ideas, how to come up with appropriate titles, how to write for a specific audience and how to deal with external stakeholders like publicists and media. You learn what is interesting and important to you, and what is not. You learn what is interesting and important to readers, and what is not. You develop a voice. You have a space to publish writing that is more experimental in nature, time-sensitive, or can’t find a home for elsewhere for whatever reason. And of course, the most important thing is that I am, no word of a joke, ten times better at writing now than I was when I started blogging.

As the Emerging Writers’ Festival rocks up again for another fantastic year, I’ve been thinking about what I can take away from my experience, especially the things that I never really thought about before doing them. Blogs aren’t for everyone; not everyone is comfortable writing online, or often, and not everyone has enough leisure time to devote to blogging. But it’s been a really useful tool for me while writing. I never set out to ‘become a writer’; I just wrote, and waited to see what happened, and my blog was the first step. And it’s been pretty good so far.

 

March 18, 2013

I pretty much always finish books – like, always. Even if I don’t buy the characters or if there’s something structurally awry or other significant issue X, Y or Z. I’m a completer-finisher, what can I say. (Obviously, when I’m reading a book for work – say I’m reviewing it or interviewing its author – I always finish it.) But it’s been a really long time since I didn’t finish a book I was reading for leisure. In fact, I can’t even remember the last time that happened.

This seems to put me in the minority: a lot of people I talk to generally put a book down and either forget about it or don’t pick it up again for whatever reason. Possibly I’m good at picking books I know I’ll like and avoiding books I know won’t suit me, and/or I’m bloody-minded enough to forge on with something I’m not really into just so I can understand why it didn’t work for me. I tend to think it’s more the former, because I rarely feel like I would be better off not finishing a book than I would be finishing it.

Buuuuuuut I recently read three books that I really didn’t want to finish. I felt a bit bad about it but I knew from what non-finishers said that I was feeling the same way they did when they put a boring/bad/not right for them/not right for them at that time book down (and never pick it up again). And I think it had a lot to do with style. I read fairly broadly, across a range of genres, so I am open to a lot of things: clichéd storylines, experimental writing styles, a bit of pretension here and there, irksome authorial quirks. As long as a book has something I’m invested in, be it one character or story arc or whatever, I’m generally in for the long haul.

Here’s how I know I didn’t want to finish them. Tiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiimmmmmmmmmmmmmeeeeeeee wwwwwwwwwwwweeeeeeeeeennnnnnnnnntttttt bbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy sooooooooooooooooooooooooo slooooooooooooooooooooowwwwwwwwwwlllllllllllllllllllllyyyyyyyyyy (and time can do so much).

I did actually finish one of the books. It was White by Marie Darrieussecq, she of the Google-by-necessity surname. I’d been really wanting to check out her work for a while and when I was trawling the library for books about far-flung places, a novella based in Antarctica seemed like just the thing. I think you’d have to do a fair bit to make a book about Antarctica boring, but I struggled to finish this book. Really struggled, like at the end I just wanted to push the book violently away from me.

As I said, this was mostly because of the prose. The premise is interesting: two people running from secrets in their respective lives decide to join a working team on the French base in Antarctica. Edmée is French, and as the only woman in the team, who is also charge of expensive, limited communications with the rest of the world, she piques the interest of the others. Peter is in charge of keeping everyone warm, the weight of which responsibility is one of the most convincing personal tensions in the book. The plain facts in this book are actually fascinating. Two images from White have stayed with me: a bottle of champagne exploding in the fat cook’s hands as he leaves the plane and finally steps foot in Antarctica; and Antarctica’s five suns. These scientific and experiential details are based on Darrieussecq’s husband’s real-life stint in Antarctica, and are totally interesting.

It’s in every single review, and on the back cover blurb, so it’s no spoiler to say that Edmée and Peter end up having an affair. In the build-up to this, Darrieussecq allows Edmée and Peter to consider their pasts, including present and past partners, but the affair is scarcely affecting – apart from the logistical issues it raises in a small, isolated Antarctic camp – because these portraits are so sketchy. Many critics praised Darrieussecq’s evocation of isolation in White, but I am not sure that isolation is a powerful narrative pressure if the characters it acts on are so thinly sketched. One interesting, but still frustrating, element, is that the narrators are the ghosts of those who have died in Antarctica. Their voice is not quite funny, and not quite serious, playing havoc with the assumption that their deaths were noble – or even the convention for choric narrators to be simply elegant or angelic. Again, though, the variation and inconsistency in the voice gets a bit frustrating.

Above all, though, it was the image-heavy prose that made me stabby. It’s just not my favourite style, especially juxtaposed with the theme of isolation and barren images of Antarctica. To give you a taste, here’s a section that Michael Worton excerpted in his (very positive) Guardian review:

The colour of the leaves of crumpled skin fluctuates, beige/purple; curtains, hangings, shutters. If he leans more heavily on her thigh, the leaves open, one tautens, the other wrinkles up a little more, and their pearly pink interior is revealed to be almost blue there where, like a highly polished slide, the vagina begins.

It’s not my thing at all, and the whole book is like this: little, shardy, decorative sentences/sentence fragments. So when I finished the book (only about 110 pages or so) I felt like I had run a marathon. Still, even though I wasn’t keen on this book, I’m still interested in reading her other books, including her new one and the first novel, Pig Tales, which is a Metamorphosis-style tale of a woman’s transformation into porcine being.

The next book I didn’t want to finish – and didn’t – was also French: David Foenkinos‘s The Erotic Potential of My Wife. I’m going to be brief about this one, because I don’t think it’s as interesting as White. On the back cover blurb, there’s a quote from a French magazine that claims Foenkinos is France’s Philip Roth. Honestly, if I were Philip Roth, I would find this epithet so amusingly inapt that I would frame it and put it on my wall. (I don’t know, maybe he’s more of a throw-into-the-fireplace kind of guy.)

This book’s hero is Hector, the survivor of a suicide attempt and a recovering collector. Hector’s psychological profile is more like a couple of dots on a piece of paper; this book is not a serious look at mental illness. Not that it’s supposed to be; it’s billed as a comic novel. But it’s not even funny, containing laboured jokes that almost seem to come with a belated clash of cymbals as you turn the page. It’s the kind of book that might work as a kind of cutesy Amélie-style film, with lots of visual gags and colour, but the writing doesn’t hold up. I think I got about 50 pages through.

Finally, a book I only got about 10 pages through. Super disappointing in this case, because I’d bought it when it came out and was desperately awaiting a gap in my reading so I could get cracking. However, Jenny Lawson’s Let’s Pretend This Never Happened and I are just never going to be friends. It’s like when you meet a rad person at a party but you don’t quite hit it off? And then you later reflect that it was probably for the best? It’s like that. Lawson’s ‘mostly true memoir’ is written in a hugely over-the-top style (which is probably what bagged her the book contract). Lots of italics and avowals and rambling digressions, peppered with wit and references to eighties fashion. I can’t speak too much to the content, because obviously I didn’t read much of it, but Lawson talks charmingly about her childhood in a very small West Texas town. Though she seems like a very cool person, Lawson’s storytelling style lacks panache. Some of the tales she tells are undoubtedly funny, but she overdoes the humour to the extent that I thought the actual situation was probably much funnier. As I told a friend, Lawson makes things less funny than they probably are, as opposed to someone like David Sedaris, who makes mundane things seem hilarious.