Author, Book review, Cathy Sweeney, Fiction, Ireland, Publisher, Setting, short stories, Weidenfeld & Nicolson

‘Modern Times’ by Cathy Sweeney #ReadingIrelandMonth22

Fiction – hardcover; Weidenfeld & Nicholson; 148 pages; 2020.

This is why I love browsing in the library so much; I would not have discovered Cathy Sweeney’s Modern Times otherwise.

First published in the Republic of Ireland by Stinging Fly Press and now reissued by W&N, it is a collection of short stories with an absurdist and often risqué slant.

The suggestive cover art — designed by Steve Marking / Orion — is perfectly appropriate, for the very first story, “Love Story”, opens like this:

There was once a woman who loved her husband’s cøck^ so much that she began taking it to work in her lunchbox.

How’s that for an opening line?

Tales about taboo subjects

There are other stories that revolve around sex and love affairs and lust. Most are only a few pages long, but they are shocking, confronting and wickedly funny by turn.

In “The Birthday Present”, for instance, a woman buys her husband a sex doll called Tina for his 57th birthday and keeps it locked in the guest room for his personal entertainment. But when he dies unexpectedly, she has to keep “Tina” hidden from her adult children.

In “The Handyman” a divorcee wonders what it would be like to have sex with the handyman she invites into her semi-detached house to fix up a few things before putting it on the market, while in “A Theory of Forms” a teacher reminisces about the illicit sex she used to have with a teenage boy who had learning difficulties.

In “The Woman with too Many Mouths”, a man plans to end his affair with a woman who has two mouths — “She was, as I said, not my type” — while in “The Chair”, a married couple take it in turns to administer electric shocks as a substitute for sex:

When it is my turn to sit in the chair, I am almost relieved. In the days leading up to it I become irritable, angry, even on occasion experiencing violent ideations. Often, during this period, I think of leaving my husband, of breaking everything. But when the time comes to sit in the chair I do so without protestation. A sensation of release and expanse overtakes me, as though I am swimming effortlessly in a vast blue ocean, obeying laws of nature that are larger than me, larger than the universe.

A little bit bonkers

Not all the stories are framed around these taboo subjects. Some are truly bizarre and best described as OFF THE WALL, bonkers or just plain WIERD.

There’s a story about a palace that becomes sick evident by a “dark discolouration” spreading through the bricks at the top of its tower. Another story revolves around a manuscript that is found wrapped in newspaper and hidden behind a boiler in a house recently “vacated” by an old man. In another, a son returns from boarding school and is instructed to supervise his mother at a family celebration for fear she will get up to “her old antics, letting the whole family down”.

Out of the 21 stories in the collection, my favourite is “The Woman Whose Child Was A Very Old Man” in which an unmarried mother escaping a “dull provincial backwater” moves to a city bedsit and takes a job at a local shop. She can’t afford childcare, so while she is at work she puts her baby in the freezer and as soon as she gets home she thaws him out.

Well, human nature is human nature, and anything can become normal. Soon putting the baby in the freezer was part of the rhythm of life. There were no various side effects. The baby went into arrested development while frozen, but then caught up easily when thawed out. When the woman had a day off the baby sometimes outgrew a romper suit in an afternoon or learned to crawl in an hour.

Eventually, this pattern of freezing and growing gets out of whack, and the child grows — and ages — too quickly. And then the woman gets distracted by her new career as a writer and forgets her child in the freezer, only to return years later to find he’s become a very old man. Yes, I told you the stories were bonkers.

Wholly original

The blurb on my edition suggests that Sweeney’s stories are reminiscent of Lydia Davis, Daisy Johnson and Angela Carter, but having only read Carter’s The Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault I don’t know how accurate that comparison is. They do bring to mind the genius that is Magnus Mills, perhaps because of the simple, fable-like prose in which they are written. Regardless, they are wholly original — and totally memorable.

Modern Times is a refreshing palate cleanser offering a quirky, inventive take on the short story. It is great fun to read! I hope Sweeney writes a novel next so she can give extended reign to that vivid imagination!

^ I’ve inserted a special character so my content isn’t deemed “unsafe” by search engines.

I read this book as part of Cathy’s #ReadingIrelandMonth2022. You can find out more about this annual blog event at Cathy’s blog 746 Books.

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, Focus on WA writers, Penguin, Publisher, Reading Projects, Robert Drewe, Setting, short stories

‘The Bodysurfers’ by Robert Drewe

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 176 pages; 2009.

Robert Drewe was born in Melbourne in 1943, grew up in Western Australia and became an award-winning journalist on the east coast before he turned his hand to fiction. The Bodysurfers, first published in 1983, is a collection of loosely connected short stories and I loved it.

There are 12 in total, each around 10 pages long, and they are mainly set in the coastal suburbs of Perth and Sydney, though there’s also a story set on the Californian coast. The beach is a central theme (surprise, surprise) and there are lush, vivid descriptions of the sandhills, the surf and the dangers that lurk within.

Intrigued as I am by the ocean, I am not an enthusiastic surf swimmer. […] Surf and tides turn malign too suddenly, waves dump you, sandbanks crumble in the current, undertows can catch you unawares. […] It isn’t the waves or the undertow that worry me when I do, however — it’s sharks. I imagine they’re everywhere. In every kelp patch, in the lip of every breaker, I sense a shark. Every shadow and submerged rock becomes one; the thin plume of spay on the edge of my vision is scant warning of its final lunge.

And while the stories are varied in style and point-of-view (some are third-person, others are first-person, and one — Sweetlip — is written in the style of a confidential report), the ways in which men navigate changed circumstances is a central focus. In these tales, men lose jobs, lose wives, lose their sense of purpose or pride.

In one story a prisoner adjusts to life outside by ogling bare-breasted women at the beach, in another a man has an affair with a woman whom he suspects is cheating on him.

In Shark Logic a man stages his own disappearance following financial irregularities at the school at which he was the headmaster and begins living a low-key invisible life by the sea;  in The Last Explorer an elderly man lying in his hospital bed recalls his past achievements — specifically crossing the continent from east to west in a 10-year-old Model T-Ford in the 1920s — and cringes when the nursing staff ask if he’s “done a wee this morning”.

The Lang family chronicles

And threaded throughout these various tales are recurring characters from three generations of the same family. We meet the Langs in the opening story, The Manageress and the Mirage, when three children — Annie, David and Max — are taken to a beachside hotel for their first Christmas dinner after their mother’s death. Their father, Rex, is keen to maintain certain festive traditions, but what he doesn’t tell them is that he is having an affair with the hotel manageress, a dark-haired woman in her 30s, who pays them too much attention and actually joins them for dinner.

She announced to me, ‘You do look like your father, Max’. She remarked on Annie’s pretty hair and on the importance of David looking after his new watch. Sportively, she donned a blue paper crown and looked at us over the rim of her champagne glass. As the plum pudding was being served she left the table and returned with gifts for us wrapped in gold paper — fountain pens for David and me, a doll for Annie. Surprised, we looked at Dad for confirmation. He showed little surprise at the gifts, however, only polite gratitude, entoning several times, ‘Very, very kind of you’.

In later stories, we meet Max and David as adults, navigating their own marital problems and affairs, and in another — named Eighty Per Cent Humidity — it’s David’s son Paul who plays a starring role:

On Paul Lang’s worst day since being extruded from the employment market he makes several bad discoveries. In ascending order of disruption and confusion rather than chronologically they are flat battery in his old Toyota, the lump on his penis and the lesbian love poem in his girlfriend’s handbag.

This loose collection of stories offers an insightful glimpse into the lives, attitudes and obsessions of white middle-class heterosexual Australian men from the mid-20th century to the early 1980s. They’re occasionally witty, sometimes terrifying and often focused on jealousy, love, lust or death.

The Bodysurfers has been adapted for film, television, radio and the theatre. I have seen none of them.

I read this book as part of my #FocusOnWesternAustralianWriters. You can find out more about my ongoing reading project here and see what books I’ve reviewed from this part of the world on my Focus on Western Australian page.

Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, Fiction, Magnus Mills, Publisher, Setting, short stories, UK

‘Screwtop Thompson’ by Magnus Mills

Fiction – hardcover; Bloomsbury; 128 pages; 2010.

There are no Magnus Mills’ novels left for me to read, so I thought I would give his short story collection Screwtop Thompson a go, having picked it up at a second-hand book sale earlier in the year for the princely sum of $3.

Mills is one of my favourite writers. He’s got a style all of his own. Part fable, part absurdist. Always original and hugely humorous.

He is an expert at looking at our overly complicated society (or British culture), honing in on a particular issue and then reducing it down to something super simple, as if to say, have you ever thought about things like this? (And the answer is always, “no”.)

In his novels, he has covered everything from bus timetables to record collecting, British exploration to time-keeping, and always with an eye to the ridiculous.

This short story collection is more of the same but has a domestic, rather than societal, focus.

For instance, in the opening story, Only When the Sun Shines Brightly, an enormous sheet of plastic — “industrial wrapping, possibly twenty yards in area” — gets caught high up on a viaduct wall and causes noise and disturbance as it flaps in the wind. A business owner who works below the viaduct tries various methods of reaching the plastic to pull it down, all to no avail. People complain about the eyesore and the noise, but nothing is ever done about it. Then, when it is miraculously removed, the narrator of the story complains it’s now too quiet to sleep!

In another, At Your Service, a short man called Mr Wee (LOL) asks his friend to help cut a few branches off a tree that is obscuring the view from his second-floor flat. Getting access to the tree — “a great overgrown thorny thing” — proves farcical, but when at last the bowsaw is used, Mr Wee is not happy: so much light now floods into his flat he has to keep the blinds down!.

Another story, Once in a Blue Moon, is a bit more off-kilter.

My mother’s house was under siege. One chill Friday evening in November I arrived to find the entire neighbourhood in a state of high alert. The police had blocked the street at both ends. A helicopter was circling overhead, and there were snipers hidden in the garden.

The narrator manages to convince his mother to let him into the house — after she’s shot out the upper-storey bedroom window — by asking her what she’s planning to do at Christmas. Her guard down, she invites him in, makes him a cuppa and answers his question — all the while keeping the gun levelled at him. It’s a quirky story, but not out of keeping with the kinds of absurd situations Mills normally puts in his novels.

My favourite story, Hark the Herald, will resonate with anyone who’s stayed in a British B&B and endured the passive-aggressive nature of the hosts, in this case, Mr Sedgefield and his partner, who put on a polite act, all the while treating their guest with thinly veiled contempt. It’s Christmas, and the narrator is looking forward to socialising with other guests, but despite being promised he will meet them on numerous occasions, he always seems to miss them, begging the question, do they even exist or are they a figment of Mr Sedgefield’s imagination?

Anyway, you get the idea…

There are 11 stories in this quirky little collection, most of which are only 10 or so pages long, so the volume is a quick read. Some of them feel a bit thin, almost as if they are sketches rather than fully formed ideas, and occasionally the endings are too abrupt.

On the whole, I’d say Screwtop Thompson was for true Mills’ aficionados, rather than for those who have never read his work before.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2021), Adam Thompson, Australia, Author, BIPOC 2021, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, short stories, University of Queensland Press

‘Born Into This’ by Adam Thompson

Fiction – paperback; UQP; 210 pages; 2021.

Born Into This is a collection of short stories by Adam Thompson, an emerging Aboriginal (Pakana) writer from Tasmania.

Identity, racism and Aboriginal heritage are key themes, with many of the stories focused on First Nations characters caught between two worlds. All provide a refreshing perspective on Australian life and the ways in which we navigate society and find (or don’t find) our place within it.

The loss and destruction of the natural world is another topic that features throughout.

But despite the sometimes heavy subject matter, the collection is not without humour and pathos. There is tenderness and gentleness, too, and above all, there’s big-heartedness. Reading it is a bit like going on an emotional roller coaster in which you experience everything from anger to sadness,  guilt and shame, often within the space of a single story.

Stories of our time

Of the 16 stories in the collection, Invasion Day not only packs a hard-hitting political punch, it could be seen as a microcosm of Australia’s current situation: two opposing sides (black and white) not able to reconcile their differences in order to move forward together. This evocative story focuses on a protest held in Hobart on Australia Day. There is much jeering and name-calling from the sidelines.

The crowd booed. Someone yelled out ‘Shame’. The footpath became a bottleneck as the police blocked us from walking on the highway. Up ahead, the dancers and the kids holding the large ‘Invasion Day’ banner started crossing, moving down towards Parliament House Lawns. The march had stretched out to almost a kilometre, and I was somewhere in the middle. The chanting had ceased as we walked across the highway, but as the lawns and the gathering crowd came into view, the loudspeakers sparked up again, and the progressing throng found their second wind.

It ends with a rousing, hopeful speech from ‘stiff-legged Jack’ — who tells the crowd “There is, indeed, hope for the future” — and then the unnamed narrator takes to the microphone, pulls out an Australian flag and does something drastic.

Another story, Kite, also set on Australia Day, takes on a more humorous note.

In this black comedy, a man flies a kite made for him by his young nephew. The centre pole of the kite sticks out further than other kites and is sharpened to a fine point to prevent the kite snapping when it hits the ground. The man goes to the beach to fly it, but other beach goers are angry at him, thinking he’s making a political point, for the kite is in the colours of the Aboriginal flag and this is Australia Day. He ignores them. He’s there to have fun, not protest.

But when the kite comes down at an incredible speed and the protruding tip kills a dog, it’s going to be hard not to associate his actions as an Aboriginal man deliberately spearing someone’s pet.

An affinity with nature

Several of the stories are set on the islands off the coast of Tasmania, where Thompson’s eye for detail brings the natural world to life. In these tales he skewers the idea that all Aboriginal people, particularly those who have grown up in cities and who have lost touch with cultural traditions, have a deep affinity with being on country.

In the opening story, The Old Tin Mine, for instance, the Aboriginal narrator is leading a survival camp for six teenage Aboriginal boys from the city, helping to get them back in touch with their heritage and the old “blackfella ways”. But he’s constantly being undermined by the white guide accompanying him who seems to know more about survival techniques and nature. To save his pride, the narrator is having to live up to a certain expectation, deemed by the colour of his skin, that he can’t quite fulfill — with disasterous consequences.

Many of Thompson’s tales also highlight the ignorance of white people who have no idea of the cultural significance of many aspects of Aboriginal life. In Honey, Nathan helps a white friend with his bee-keeping exploits, but is horrified to discover that he wants to market the honey under “the Aboriginal word for honey” because it will be a “good gimmick […], I reckon, ‘specially with the tourists”.

He’s later even more horrified, pained and appalled to discover that his friend, as a child, destroyed Aboriginal middens along the river by skimming the stones, including ancient stone tools, on the water. His uncle had told him that it was important to get rid of these — “bury ’em or throw ’em in the river” — in the mistaken belief that it would prevent Aboriginals from claiming land rights.

An extraordinarily good collection

I could go on and dissect every short story in Born Into This, but I won’t. This is an extraordinarily good collection, one that benefits from a close second reading (I have re-read the short stories named in this review, and they actually benefit from another reading).

There’s so much to discuss in them and I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to see things from the other side, as it were. It’s clear that the author isn’t doing this to be mean spirited or spiteful, but in a genuine attempt to show how things look through First Nation eyes, to open a discussion that will benefit us all, black and white.

This is my 1st book for Lisa’s #IndigLitWeek2021, which runs from July 4 to 11. It is also my 3rd book for #20booksofsummer 2021 edition. I bought it from Dymocks in February shortly after publication because I had heard good things about it and I am keen to read (and support) work by First Nations writers. This is also my 6th book for #BIPOC2021, which is my plan to read more books by black, Indigenous and people of colour this year.

This review is featured by Twinkl in their blog about the latest must-read books. See more recommendations and get involved at Book Lovers’ Top Picks For Your 2021 TBR List.

2020 Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2020, Book review, Fiction, Joey Bui, Literary prizes, Publisher, Setting, short stories, Text, UAE, Vietnam

‘Lucky Ticket’ by Joey Bui

Fiction – paperback; Text Publishing; 256 pages; 2019.

Joey Bui’s Lucky Ticket is a collection of short stories recently shortlisted for the Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction 2020, which is why I read it.

A Vietnamese-Australia writer, Bui comes to these stories with an eye for the outsider. Her fiction tends to champion the underdog or the unseen.

In the title story, for instance, we meet a disabled old man —  a former foot soldier in the Cambodian War — who sells lottery tickets on a street corner in Sàigòn. He walks around on his knuckles (because he doesn’t have legs), smiling and laughing all day — “That’s a big part of my job” — hoping that people will buy a ticket from him with little to no persuasion.

When a lady buys a ticket from him and hands it over, wishing him good luck, he’s convinced the ticket is a lucky one. He does everything he can to hold onto that ticket, but as he traverses the city, doing business, meeting friends, enjoying drinks, he accidentally resells it — but instead of feeling sorry for himself, he recalls all his “good fortune” in a life that to anyone else would look anything but.

In another story, “Abu Dhabi Gently”, we meet a migrant worker who leaves Zanzibar in a bid to make enough money to provide his wife with a better standard of living. But life in the UAE is a struggle. He gets caught in an infinite loop of red tape that prevents the reimbursement of his recruitment fee — a staggering $US980 — so that he has to work long hours in a university cafeteria to repay back what he has already paid. His passport is held as a form of security, preventing him from returning home.

Meanwhile, he struggles to make friends — “There weren’t many Africans working at the university. Most of the other workers were Filipinos and Indians” — and becomes very lonely. Contact with his wife and his sisters in Zanzibar becomes repetitive and lacks meaning because they don’t understand what he is going through and he isn’t confident enough to tell them the truth. It’s a melancholy story, but one that ends on a hopeful note.

In fact, most of the stories in this collection trade on the idea that life is messy and complicated, that relationships can become strained, that racial identity, gender and socio-economic background can amplify pain, and yet this diverse range of tales and voices is not depressing. Every story ends on a relatively positive note — even if it is just a character coming to terms with their circumstances.

Earlier this year Lucky Ticket was longlisted for the Stella Prize, shortlisted for the UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing at the 2020 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, and won the University of Southern Queensland Steele Rudd Award for a Short Story Collection at the 2020 Queensland Literary Awards. It’s an enlightening collection full of memorable characters and written in a straightforward, forthright prose style. I am hoping this talented writer tackles a novel next; I’d love to read it.

This is my 4th book for #2020ReadingsPrize for New Australian Fiction and my 19th book for #AWW2020.

2020 Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2020, Book review, Fiction, Giramondo Publishing, Literary prizes, Publisher, Setting, short stories, Yumna Kassab

‘The House of Youssef’ by Yumna Kassab

Fiction – paperback; Giramondo; 2019; 275 pages.

What an unexpected treat Yumna Kassab’s The House of Youssef turned out to be.

Shortlisted for this year’s Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction, this short story collection revolves around Lebanese immigrants living in the western suburbs of Sydney.

It is divided into four parts: the first, Motherland, offers little glimpses into the lives of families making their way in life, some of which are only a page or two long; the second, The House of Youssef, is a series of stories focused on the downfall of one Lebanese family told from multiple points of view; the third, Homing, is a longer 30-page soliloquy of an old man looking back on his 37 years in Australia knowing that he will never return to his homeland; while the final, Darkness, Speak, takes the form of a letter from a Lebanese mother to her Australian-born daughter, sharing her insights into what it is like to bring up a family on the other side of the world.

Recurring themes

There are many recurring themes — mainly the joy and heartaches associated with births, deaths and marriages — throughout the collection, but the overriding focus is on what it is to be an immigrant raising children born in a new country and the challenge of passing on traditions, language, values, religion and culture to the next generation who may never step foot in your homeland.

Many of the stories clearly demonstrate the tensions that arise between the generations when parental expectations — about marriage, education, friendship, work and so on — are not met. There are a lot of stories about both men and women being expected to marry early and produce children, of not bringing shame upon the family, of working hard and earning money to better themselves rather than wasting it on ephemeral things. Everything, it seems, is about saving face.

There’s an emphasis on difference and “Othering”, too, as showcased by a wonderful one-page story, Covered. This is about 16-year-old Amina donning a headscarf for the first time, and the very many varied reactions this evokes — from her relations, her school friends, her teachers, her neighbours — which reveals that such an “issue” is not black and white, cut and dried.

Her uncle said about time. You should have put it on three years back.
Her mother said you will grow up to be a good Muslim woman.
Her schoolteacher thought couldn’t this have waited till she left school? Why do they oppress their women in this way?
Her swim coach said her competitive career was over.
Her neighbour thought her father is a brute of a man. They’re always crying next door.
The mosque girls said the robes don’t make the monk and she’s a total slut anyway.

There’s the issue of terrorism and how this prejudice impacts young Lebanese men in a story entitled 9/11: Before and After. In this short tale, a teenage boy discovers that he is no longer seen as an Australian but a potential terrorist by way of his religion and his dark looks — and this curtails the way he lives his life.

Before 9/11: he had been a bearded young man going to university. He had prospects, he had a future. He prayed five times a day, he fasted, he gave from his small income to the poor, he did not drink or smoke.
Post 9/11: he was a man of Middle Eastern appearance. He wasn’t very religious, he no longer prayed, he no longer fasted, he no longer gave to the poor. It was easier this way, safer. He worked, paid his taxes, he ventured no opinion, online or in person. He kept to his family and his friends. He went to places he would not stand out. His imprint on the world was minimal.

Some of the stories are startling in their emotional impact, the anger, the sadness, the melancholy they evoke. One story, Births, Deaths, Marriages, has a stunner of an opening line:

The day he killed his wife, Mohamed goes to visit his cousin.

Other stories have remarkable passages about displacement and what it means to belong.

What is a home? Is it a house? Is it a place? Is it where you are born? Is it where you will be buried? I have spent more of my life here than there but this land is not known to me. It is strange. It does not enter my dreams. Its people are different to me. My children understand them but I do not. They tell me it is my country too but it is not enough to be told you belong somewhere.

Sparse prose

As you might be able to tell from all the passages I have quoted here, the stories in The House of Youssef are written in distinctive, economical prose, with nary an adjective to be seen, but the rhythm and cadence of the sentences and the carefully chosen words give Kassab’s work a strangely beguiling power. I felt myself in thrall to the beauty of her writing and the emotional intensity of the stories.

This is a remarkable first book. I’d love to see her pen a novel next. I would be the first in the queue to buy it!

This is my 2nd book for #2020ReadingsPrize for New Australian Fiction and my 14th for #AWW2020.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2020), Author, Book review, Colm Tóibín, Fiction, Ireland, Penguin, Publisher, Setting, short stories, Spain

‘The Empty Family’ by Colm Tóibín

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 224 pages; 2011.

Colm Tóibín’s The Empty Family is a collection of exquisitely written short stories all framed around the idea of people — alienated and alone — seeking love or solace or a semblance of normality.

Many of them are set in Spain (Tóibín lived there from 1975-1978, as detailed in his travelogue Barcelona), with the rest in his native Ireland. They depict “lost” characters beset by family problems or issues — estrangements, absences, death — which have dominated and shaped their lives.

Each story is as finely crafted as his novels (many of which are reviewed here), written in that same eloquent prose and focusing on many of the themes that often occur in his work — missing mothers, childhood abandonment, unconventional families, hiding your homosexuality and exile abroad, just to name a few.

There are nine stories in total — all bar one (“Silence”) are set in the modern-day — and they vary in length from around 30 pages to 60 pages, but the last story (“The Street”) is 150 pages and has previously been published as a novella by Tuskar Rock Press. A handful feature explicit gay sex — you have been warned.

The New Spain

Rather than outline every story, I am going to focus on one that I really admired.

“The New Spain” examines what happens when Carme Giralt, a Catalan woman who has spent eight years living in London, returns to Spain after the death of her beloved grandmother.

Carme had previously been banished from the family home for being a Communist and was taken in silence to the airport by her father — “his rage against her palpable and elemental as he stood watching to make sure that she made her way through the departure gates” — but her grandmother sent her money every month to help her out.

In her will, her grandmother has left the family holiday home, on the coast in Menorca, to Carme and her sister. Carme has very fond memories of this house, of the sunshine, of the seafood, of endless days swimming at the beach. When she returns to the house after a long absence, she finds her parents holidaying there, along with her sister and her sister’s children. Her welcome is not a warm one. There are unspoken tensions.

Carme is surprised to find that the home, once surrounded by olive trees, is now surrounded by rows of new houses that obstruct views of the ocean. Even the path to the beach has become blocked by development. When she expresses her displeasure at the way in which this holiday spot has become an eyesore she is warned not to complain because her grandmother sold the land to developers so she could afford to send monthly payments to Carme in London. Her father was part of the development scheme and now he’s in financial trouble and wants to sell the bungalows.

Her family bemoan the fact that the area has changed, that it has become beset with tourists and now they prefer to swim in their own pool rather than go to the beach, yet they fail to see the role they have played in facilitating this change.

The story focuses on Carme’s decision to continue to do her own thing, to defy her family’s idea of what she should be and how she should behave. It looks at what happens when she discovers she now has power over her father for she’s inherited a clause that says if he wants to sell any of the new houses that he has built he requires her signature, as part-owner of her grandmother’s house, to do so.

Tóibín writes about complicated family situations so well, and he does a good line in fierce, independent women — this short story exemplifies this. What I also love about Toibin’s writing is that he manages to create entirely believable worlds and backstories, dripping with melancholia but never being too bleak, and often filled with tender moments. There is always a sense of hope, of optimism that things will turn out okay in the long run.

The New Spain highlights how a person’s interior world can barely compete with the change that happens in the exterior world. I liked how Tóibín juxtaposes the politics of Communism with the get-rich-quick-schemes of Capitalism without ever being obvious about it. He does everything in such a nuanced way, never shying from the contradictions and complexities that life and politics throw at us.

In fact, that could be said of all the stories in this collection. Nothing is black and white, cut and dried here, in much the same way as our messy family lives are just that — messy. I loved spending time in these perfectly encapsulated worlds.

The Empty Family was shortlisted for the 2011 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award.

This is my 11th book for #20BooksofSummer / #20BooksOfSouthernHemisphereWinter. I purchased it in paperback circa 2012, but read the Kindle edition, which I purchased in June 2019 having forgotten that I had a copy already. Does anyone else do this?

Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2019, AWW2020, Book lists, Book review, Emily Paull, Fiction, Focus on WA writers, Fremantle Press, literary fiction, Madelaine Dickie, Margaret River Press, Michelle Johnston, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, short stories, TBR2020, University of Western Australia Press

3 books by Western Australian women writers: Madelaine Dickie, Michelle Johnston and Emily Paull

Last year I decided to embark on a project to read books from my adopted state of Western Australia. And then my plans flew out the window when I started a new full-time job in a new career just a couple of weeks later!

Alas, six months on and my working life is now (slightly) more manageable, giving me more bandwidth to get on with my reading life.

Here are three excellent books I’ve read recently by women writers from Western Australia. They are all highly recommended reads worth seeking out.

‘Red Can Origami’ by Madelaine Dickie

Fiction – paperback; Fremantle Press; 224 pages; 2019. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Red Can Origami is a brilliant, politically motivated novel about mining and the repercussions it has on local indigenous communities and the environment in general. But it’s also a deeply personal story about living in a tiny tropical town, adapting to a new lifestyle and remaining true to yourself.

It’s narrated in the second person by Ava, a journalist, who works on the local newspaper. She later takes a job as an Aboriginal liaison officer for a Japanese firm that’s big into nuclear power. That firm is going head to head with a Native Title group in a bid to begin mining uranium on country. As the fast-paced plot races its way towards an inevitable showdown between the local community, the white do-gooders and the mining company, Ava finds herself out of her depth — and in love with a local Aboriginal man.

The novel is set in Australia’s tropical north and is as much a love letter to that landscape and climate and remote way of life as it is an exploration of morals and principles and the importance of cultural understanding and awareness. It’s written in rich, vivid language, has a cast of strong, well-drawn characters and covers some pertinent issues without being too heavy-handed. It’s a wonderfully authentic Australian story told with insight and sensitivity.

‘Dustfall’ by Michelle Johnston

Fiction – paperback; University of Western Australia Press; 306 pages; 2018.

Dustfall is set in Wittennoom, the asbestos mining town in the Pilbara region of Western Australia, which was classified as a contaminated site and then degazetted in 2006/7. Its deadly legacy, in which hundreds of miners developed terminal mesothelioma, is the lens through which this delicately rendered story is told.

Split into two distinct time frames — one historical, one current — it looks at two doctors, a generation apart, who go to Wittenoom as a way to distance themselves from mistakes they have made in their medical careers. For Dr Raymond Filigree, working in the town’s small hospital is a way for him to rebuild his confidence, but instead, he finds himself at war with a mining company that has no respect for human life; while for Dr Lou Fitzgerald, the now-abandoned Wittenoom, full of eerie silence and empty buildings, offers a refuge from a career-ending error, but it also opens her eyes to much bigger crimes from the past when she discovers the town’s ruined hospital.

These twin narratives tapped into my own long-held fury about Wittenooom’s deadly blue asbestos mine which has been with me ever since I read Ben Hills’ Blue Murder, circa 1990, and heard Midnight Oil’s Blue Sky Mine at around the same time. Another politically charged novel, Dustfall is eloquently told but brims with slow-burning anger. It’s absorbing, intelligent — and powerful.

‘Well-behaved Women’ by Emily Paull

Fiction – paperback; Margaret River Press; 242 pages; 2019. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Well-behaved women seldom make history, so the saying goes. And that’s pretty much the theme of this collection of 18 short stories, which are mostly framed around women who are, as the title suggests, less inclined to rock the boat.

Many of the characters in these succinct tales live quiet lives with little fanfare, they know their place and don’t seek the limelight, they simply get on with the business of doing what they do. They are the kind of people that go unnoticed, even in death, such as the free diver in “The Sea Also Waits” who goes missing at sea during routine training and whose absence only appears to be noted by her adult daughter, or the female skeleton in “From Under the Ground” who has been buried under a lemon tree in a suburban backyard for so long even the police hold little hope of figuring out who she might be.

Then there are characters who ensure that other women don’t get above their station, such as the bitter and twisted television soap-opera-star-turned-drama-teacher in “Miss Lovegrove” who cruelly convinces her starry-eyed young hopefuls that they will never achieve acting success. “My job is to tell you that the world is sometimes a dirty, ugly place,” she tells one of her charges.

It’s hard to believe that Well-behaved Women is a debut because the writing — in the tone, the prose style and the range of subjects covered — feels so accomplished. There are some real gems in this book and it will be interesting to see what Paull comes up with next. She’s definitely a talent to watch.

I read these books as part of my #FocusOnWesternAustralianWriters. You can find out more about this reading project, along with a list of Western Australian books already reviewed on the site, here

These books are all by Australian women writers. I read Michelle Johnston’s novel for  #AWW2019 (I just never got around to reviewing it last year). The remaining two books represent the 3rd and 4th books I have read this year for #AWW2020 and the 6th and 7th books for #TBR2020 in which I plan to read 20 books from my TBR between 1 January and 30 June. 

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2019), Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, short stories, TBR40, Viking, William Trevor

‘Last Stories’ by William Trevor

Fiction – hardcover; Viking; 224 pages; 2018.

Willam Trevor’s Last Stories are literally that: the last short stories he penned before his death in 2016. They were published posthumously as a handsomely bound collection by Viking last year, and have now been reissued as a paperback by Penguin.

As you may know, Trevor is one of my favourite authors and earlier this year I went through a bit of a phase reading his first three novels: The Old Boys (1964), The Boarding House (1965) and The Love Department (1966). But this is my first foray into his short fiction.

10 tales

There are 10 rather exquisite tales in this collection. Most focus on love — particularly love less ordinary — and are written with a deft eye for detail and a storyteller’s regard for the bittersweet and the unexpected.

There’s a watchfulness at work here, because Trevor is focused on the small happenings in people’s lives, but that is not to say these stories, nor the lives depicted within them, are small. Indeed, it’s often the accumulation of small happenings that leads to bigger things — domestic dramas, marriage break-ups, even death.

As ever when it comes to short story collections, I find it difficult to review them because I’m never quite sure what to focus on and what to leave out. Rather than give you a detailed account of every story, let me single out the one I found most memorable.

The paperback edition

It’s the second story, The Crippled Man, which represents William Trevor at his very best.

In roughly 24 pages he lays out a tale that feels quite run-of-the-mill, of a woman living in an isolated farmhouse with her crippled cousin, whom she cooks and cleans for. But by the time you reach the conclusion, you realise that this is no ordinary tale: it’s slightly creepy and malevolent and has a delightful little twist at the end. I immediately wanted to re-read it again to see what I had missed the first time around.

The story goes something like this. The woman, Martina, is having a long-term love affair with the local butcher. One day, when she’s out visiting him, her cousin hires two men — brothers — to paint the house. He thinks the men are Polish, but they’re actually Roma and have never done a job like this before. The immediate assumption the reader makes is that they are up to no good and that they will rip off the crippled man. This is what Martina thinks too. She is angry at her cousin for making this decision without her input.

The men, however, do a rather good job painting the house, but mid-way through the job they are puzzled by a bizarre change in Martina’s behaviour. She stops bringing them their tea at the agreed times of 11am and 3.30pm and often just leaves a tray on the doorstep for them to find. One day the younger brother spots her through the window “crouched over a dressing-table, her head on her arms as if she slept, or wept”.

Later they realise that they have not heard the voice of the crippled man — who has only paid them half the agreed price —  for quite some time and they’re fearful something has happened to him. They are also fearful that they will not be paid the rest of the money owing them when the job is complete.

The clincher at the end — which I won’t reveal here — is akin to a penny dropping in the well, but Trevor writes in such a deeply understated way it comes as quite a shock that such a calmly told tale could deliver such a deliciously dark blow.

If you’ve not read Trevor before and want to get a feel for his style, I’d recommend reading The Piano Teacher’s Pupil, which is in this collection but has also been published in The New Yorker (which is where I read it first). It showcases to perfection the way in which he tends to focus on people’s unexpectedly dark character quirks and highlights how we often fail to confront those who have wronged us because we can’t quite believe their bad behaviour.

This is my 9th book for #20BooksOfSummer; and my 28th for #TBR40. I treated myself to the hardcover edition for my birthday last year, but that copy is still in London. A few weeks ago I bought it on Kindle — it was the 99p daily deal — so I could read it here in my new home in Fremantle. 

Alice Bishop, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2019, Book review, Fiction, Publisher, Setting, short stories, Text

‘A Constant Hum’ by Alice Bishop

Fiction – paperback; Text Publishing; 240 pages; 2019. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Alice Bishop’s A Constant Hum is the literary equivalent of a concept album. Instead of songs expressing a particular theme or idea, it features short stories and flash fiction focused on the aftermath of bushfire.

It is possibly the most quintessentially Australian book I’ve ever read. It hums with vernacular, cultural references — models of cars, brands of ice-cream, the names of TV shows — flora and fauna that are only found on this island continent.

And yet it deals with the universal theme of what happens to people and their communities in the wake of a natural disaster.

Inspired by fire

Taking the Black Saturday bushfires of 2009 (in which 180 people lost their lives) as her inspiration, Bishop explores the tragedy from almost every conceivable angle: those that stayed and fought to save their homes, the nurses who looked after the injured, the firefighters who fought the blaze, the people who lost loved ones, those that survived but felt guilty because of it.

There are 47 stories divided into three sections (all named after the wind that wreaked so much havoc — Prevailing, Southerly and Northerly); most are a few pages long, several are just a few lines and read like exquisite poetry:

In the Ashes

People think it takes away everything, but the colours were unlike anything I’ve ever seen: greys stronger than railway steel, blue-black charcoals, and oranges like tangerines—baked rust by dashboard sun.

All are written with a forensic eye for detail, often focused on finding beauty in grief. There are recurring themes — the intensity of the flames which were so hot they melted metal, the wind shifts, the loss of livestock, the important role that emergency services and community organisations played, those that lost everything having to wear donated clothing that didn’t fit properly — that build a consistent picture of an emergency situation that quickly turned to tragedy.

In fact, the picture that builds is emotionally intense, so much so that I could only read A Constant Hum in small doses, say three or four stories at a time, for this is not a book to plow through, but one to savour, to cogitate on, to mull over.

In the Acknowledgements, Bishop reveals that her family lost a house in the East Kilmore fire on Black Saturday. “I can’t imagine how it would really feel to lose family / friends / a partner in that way—what it would still feel like, today,” she says. I think this beautifully rendered collection demonstrates that she can imagine that kind of loss and she can write about it with care, kindness and great authenticity.

If you liked this, you might also like

The Arsonist by Chloe Hooper: a true-crime tale about the arsonist responsible for one of the most devastating fires on Black Saturday, one of the best books I’ve read this year.

This is my 15th book for #AWW2019. Note it’s only available in the UK in eBook form, but you can buy the physical book direct from the Melbourne-based publisher Text.