lizabelle: (Default)
In case the subject header doesn't tip you off, this post contains material that may be triggering for people in similar situations. Please read (or don't) with care.

June is MND Awareness Month, and this week the Motor Neurone Disease Association is encouraging carers to speak about their experiences. My dad died eleven years ago, finally losing a battle that lasted somewhere between six and ten years, depending on your perspective.

I can’t speak for my sisters or my mum – their experiences are not mine to appropriate. Nor can I speak for anyone else caring for a loved one who has MND. Every experience is subjective. So this is how it felt for me.

I remember the tears in my dad’s eyes when he told me, over lunch, that he had MND. “The doctor says I’ll be in a wheelchair in two years and dead in four.”

I can’t remember my reply. I was twenty-three, with no idea of how to deal with this. I probably said something trite, made an attempt to be reassuring. I’m sure I was no help to my dad.

By this point he was already debilitated, although the disease was to a large extent invisible.

When he got home that day, my mum rang me. “Make sure he doesn’t walk so far next time,” she said. “He can’t do hills.”

My dad was a marathoner; less than a year previously he’d run the Great North Run (again – as a north-easterner, he ran it most years). Now he could barely walk up the hill from my parents’ house to the pub a couple of hundred metres away.

Cut for length: It was the late 1990s, the early days of the social internet. )

We did the best we could for him. It never feels like enough.

Me and Dad
lizabelle: (Sparkly flowers)
Trigger warning: this post is about death and bereavement. Please skip it if you need to.

I barrel into the living room, my borrowed dressing gown hanging loose despite the chill in the air.

“He’s gone,” I say breathlessly. My sister – tense, exhausted, pregnant – stumbles up from the sofa and into the first spontaneous hug we’ve shared in years.

“Mum says, do you want to see him,” I add, and she nods, already turning toward the staircase, while I head off in search of our other sister. We are both scrubbing away tears.

Upstairs, the nurses move unobtrusively around the bed, somehow giving us space to gather, privacy to cry if we need to. But after the initial flurry of tears, mostly we don’t cry. This morning has been nearly a decade in the making, a strained, inexorable, torturous toil for all of us - me, my two sisters, my mum - but most of all for my dad, who is no longer lying in the bed, although his body, emaciated and ravaged by motor neurone disease, remains there.

It’s six years since he was diagnosed with motor neurone disease, aka ALS or Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Eight, maybe nine years since we noticed the personality changes that turned out to be the results of the disease. Six and a half years, I think, since he collapsed on the Metro after running his last Great North Run. Eight years of anxiety, denial, heartbreak and horror as our worst fears were realised without any of us, least of all Dad, being capable of stopping them.

Our family has been devastated, all of us broken open.

It’s 2003, February 24, and my beautiful, open-hearted dad is dead.


This afternoon I am hunched over my laptop, trying to work out how to pay tribute to him. It’s been ten years, and I feel I should be able to say something meaningful, something to celebrate his life rather than grieving, as I still seem to be, over his death.

But I am still grieving. I am still angry and heartbroken that my dad, who was the kindest, bravest person I’ve ever known, could suffer and die the way he did – slowly, terrifyingly, humiliatingly. I am not sure I will ever not be angry. Not so much with the people who failed him, who were only doing their best. Not so much with myself, although it’s taken years to stop reproaching myself for not being a better daughter; for not spending more time with him and giving him more of my love while I could. For not making everything better.

Basically, I’m angry with life itself for dealing him such a rotten card. Why should it be him, of all the people in the world? When he devoted his life to doing good; when he wandered the streets of Newcastle, unafraid and without judgement, offering aid wherever he saw a need? When his name was a byword for compassion, why was life so cruel to him, in the end?

It’s been ten years. I’ll never get an answer to that question. All I can do is remember.

So for starters, here’s a song he loved, and which I also love.

This weekend, I am spending my time with close friends who have supported me in some of the toughest moments of my life. I entered a 10 km race this week, because my dad taught me that it doesn’t matter if you’re slow, as long as you keep going until the end. Tomorrow, I will be working on translations, as always, because he introduced me to the most beautiful language in the world. I’ll be reading poetry and remembering the poems he wrote for me when I was a little girl. I will be writing, proud in the knowledge that he was a published writer and it’s OK for me to aspire to emulate him. And that it'll be OK even if I never do, as long as I write from my heart.

I will be going out into the world and trying to be the best, most compassionate person I can be, because of his example. That’s the best tribute I can pay him right now.

If you want to know more about motor neurone disease or would like to support those who are living with the disease, the Motor Neurone Disease Association is a good place to start.

ETA: Here's an English translation of one of the poems I linked to, Pär Lagerkvist's Det är vackrast när det skymmer - thanks to PM Newton for the link.
lizabelle: (Default)
How do teenage boys think? This is something I'm pondering at the moment, for my own nefarious reasons, and, as in most things, my first thought was to read about them. Or rather, to read books written from their points of view.

But when it came to compiling a list of books to read, I was very short on ideas. So I asked my lovely friends on facebook and twitter to suggest fiction with a male protagonist/narrator aged 14-16, and this, supplemented with some research of my own, is the result:

List of books with male protagonists aged 14-16 )

Thanks so much to everyone who contributed to this list! I'm off to the library now, but I'm still taking suggestions, so feel free to add yours in the comments or by contacting me on twitter.


Nov. 20th, 2012 12:12 am
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"So how are you finding being back in the UK?" I've been here five months now, and I get this question a lot, often with an ancillary comment about the weather.

I understand why people ask it, and I also understand that, often, what they really want to know is whether I'm all right, after turning my life upside down the way I have done. And sometimes I'm all right and sometimes I'm not; things have been tough, and will be for a while.

But to answer the question literally, let me tell you what being back in the UK means to me:

It's walking down a busy street with two kids I adore waving and shouting at me from across the road. It's the ache when my newest niece smiles and snuggles into my shoulder. It's spending time with the sisters I've missed so much. It's knowing I can be there for my mum.


It's renewing old friendships and forging new ones. It's being honest with people, because I no longer have to pretend that I'm happy to be where I am. It's growing in confidence, because life is hard and sometimes sad but I am doing this by myself.

It's dozing in the park or drinking by the river with friends. It's finding beauty in the heart of London and escaping to the country for weekends. It's snuggling up to my friend's dog or walking him through the fields. It's the spark of bonfires or a friend's cigarette smoke. It's running in the rain, through the petrol fumes and chilly air.

It's being caught up in the autumn reds and a robin hopping across my path. It's a cat curled next to me, not caring how I look as long as I have love to share. It's jumpers and scarves and wearing short skirts, and it's a room of my own with bookshelves to spare.

It's the most beautiful train journey I've ever known. It's people being polite on the Tube.

It's drinking wine with my friend and reading to her daughter before bed. It's texts from my niece, kisses from my nephew, late night chats with my sisters and friends.

It's watching Wimbledon in real time and football in pubs. It's talking writing on the South Bank with talented women, and talking books in beer gardens as the evenings draw in. It's twenty gigs to choose from, it's the city-smoky air, and it's the river, the river, the river.


It's building a life. It's being home.
lizabelle: (Old coat new book)
You may remember that I really loved Pip Harry's update of the traditional boarding school story, I'll Tell You Mine, which I reviewed a few months ago. At that point it was only really available in Australia, but it is now out as a Kobo ebook, meaning it's available worldwide. So if my review piqued your interest, check out the link.

If you're not ready to buy it yet, goodreads is also hosting a giveaway of the book: click here to win a copy of I'll Tell You Mine.

While I'm here, Nina D'Aleo's The Last City is currently available for free at Amazon UK, Amazon US and the Apple Store.

I don't know anything about the author, but the blurb sounds great, so I have downloaded and will report back.

Here's the blurb:

"Scorpia – the last city of Aquais – where the Ar Antarians rule, the machine-breeds serve and in between a multitude of races and species eke out an existence somewhere between the ever-blazing city lights and the endless darkness of the underside.

As a spate of murders and abductions grip the city, new recruit Silho Brabel is sent to the Oscuri Trackers, an elite military squad commanded by the notorious Copernicus Kane. But Silho has a terrible secret and must fight to hide her strange abilities and monstrous heritage."
lizabelle: (Book and sea)
If I close my eyes I can imagine crashing. I see it in slow motion, like a crash-test dummy reconstruction where I'm the dummy. The Laser swerving across the road to hit a brick wall - the one near the sports grounds at the back of Seaforth - yellow bonnet crumpling, metal screeching, indicator lights exploding and spraying orange glass. My neck whiplashes forward, the windscreen shatters and the car presses in around me like a cocoon. Tight, tight, tighter, the warmest hug in the world.

It scares me. I don't want to do it. But sometimes I think it's the only way I'll be able to turn off what's in my head.

(From chapter 2 of Raw Blue.)

Carly is living a half-life, working dead hours in a restaurant so she can surf during the day, and generally trying to get by without being noticed. Surfing is the only way she knows to be happy, because it allows her to forget the awful thing that happened to her - the thing she refuses to talk about, but which permeates every aspect of her existence.

Despite her best efforts, Carly becomes pulled into the lives of others, most notably a lonely woman in the flat above, an oddball kid and an attractive surfer with a mysterious past of his own.

The thing about hiding from your trauma is that it doesn't go anywhere. It stays in your head, taking up more and more space, becoming more and more impermeable, until inevitably you crash into it. In Raw Blue, the reader can see the crash coming from chapter one, but the narrative is so compelling, so exquisitely, quietly painful, that (to adopt a cliché) it's impossible to look away.

Because Carly's narrative, filled as it is with the minutiae of a life unlived, is hugely compelling. Her uncertainties and fears (what will happen if she does this? How will someone react if she puts a foot wrong?) are exaggerated versions of those faced by many of us as we navigate the world on a daily basis. She is smart but vulnerable and dedicated to being invulnerable, constantly prepared to forestall the next bad thing that might happen to her.

From Carly's viewpoint even her escape (surfing) is fraught with tension. Take the line-up of surfers, with its internal politics and suspicion of outsiders, women and children. The chaos of the ocean despite Coastalwatch's best efforts at prediction. Carly's attempts to stay under the radar, which are continually thwarted by the attentions, well-intentioned or not, of her fellow surfers. However hard she tries, she can't avoid bumping up against other people and her own past.

As a first novel, Raw Blue is seriously impressive - and I haven't even mentioned a lot of the things I liked about it, so I'll just list them briefly here: the setting (Sydney's Northern Beaches), the taut, compelling writing, the understated anger (so understated that you get the impression even Carly doesn't realise it's there) in the narrative voice, the way what was done to Carly is dealt with, the very lovely (and yet imperfect) Ryan, Eagar's obvious love for the ocean. This is the first of Kirsty Eagar's books that I've read, and I will be on the lookout for more.

Version I read: Catnip Books paperback won in a competition held by Shelleyrae of Book'd Out. The book is available in Australia, the UK and I believe also in the USA.
To learn more about Kirsty Eagar, check out her website.
lizabelle: (Old coat new book)
Most of my reviews are confined to GoodReads these days, but I haven't talked about Justin Cronin's The Passage here, and apparently I need to.

I've just finished reading it for the third time, which should tell you something (possibly that I have too much time on my hands). It stands up to re(re)reading pretty well, despite a couple of parts where I wished Cronin's editors had been stricter with him. For such a lumbering giant of a story, Cronin's writing is surprisingly lyrical, his tone wistful as he describes a world full of lost people - which later becomes, literally, a world of lost souls.

Note: there are minor spoilers below, but only for the first part of the book, and nothing that you wouldn't find in a regular newspaper review.

The premise - a government experiment goes horribly wrong, releasing a plague of vampire-like creatures ("virals") that destroy civilisation in a few short years - is simultaneously preposterous and in keeping with the slightly apocalyptic feel of our own world, with its melting ice, polluted cities and religious conflict. Cut for length )

Even at the third time of reading, I was caught up in the action and emotions of the story. I didn't want it to end.

So it's a good thing that the sequel, The Twelve, is due out very shortly.
lizabelle: (Book and sea)
I haven't had much emotional space for writing recently (at least, not for fiction-writing; I've filled reams of journal space), and am only now starting to delve back into my long-term projects. I'd forgotten how much strength it takes to break through those initial barriers, and to ignore the voice that demands, "Why am I doing this and why do I think anyone would ever want to read it?" Not to mention the one that says, "You will never write anything worth reading."

Which is why I'm lucky that some of the efforts I put in before blowing my life up have born fruit. They've given me something to cling to, and I shall post them here so I can keep clinging when I need it.

I had an article published on Australian women's lifestyle website The Hoopla: My Dad. What might have been. It's the first time I've written openly about the most terrible time in my life, so putting the story out there was nerve-wracking, to say the least, but I also received some wonderful feedback and, perhaps most importantly, discovered I'm not alone. (I also discovered that sometimes people will pay you for your writing, which was nice.)

One of my short stories was recently shortlisted for the Pittwater Short Story Award. It didn't win, but it's the first time (to my knowledge) that anything I've written has been shortlisted, so I'm looking on it as progress. It was also lovely to share the shortlist with my friend and fellow writer, Zena Shapter. Another new, positive experience. :)

Small steps. But a few droplets of success, quenching my thirst just enough to keep me going.
lizabelle: (Old coat new book)
I've recently turned my life upside down by moving back from Australia to the UK. It's been a stressful, turmoil-filled few months, but I'm all moved into a new flat with a very nice landlady, two cats and a beautiful garden, which gives me a base from which to start rebuilding.

While I did ship back some books (yet to arrive), I couldn't justify the expense of shipping everything I really wanted to keep, and arrived in London with precisely one book, which I'd borrowed from a friend for the plane journey. Feeling naked, I headed to the nearest Waterstones to pick up some reinforcements, coming away with Patrick Gale's latest and Veronica Roth's Divergent.

It felt so liberating to have an excuse to buy books for the first time in years. I'd been under a self-imposed book-buying ban in Sydney, although in practice what this meant was that I bought one or two books a month instead of four or five. Suddenly I had no teetering stacks to reproach me or remind me how much I'd overspent my book budget by.

I wandered through Oxfam bookshops and charity shops; I splurged on a three-for-two offer in Foyles. I sought out independent bookshops near my temporary home in South London, and made sure I bought a full-price book from each one that I found. I was given books by friends. I acquired literary prizewinners and out-of-print children's books, poetry and non-fiction, old favourites and books I may never read. I bought titles that had been on my to-read list for years and ones I'd never heard of before, adding them all to the pristine shelf in my new bedroom.

Now the honeymoon is over. Last night, I glanced up and discovered that I now own a shelf's worth of books, very few of which I have actually read. Since I don't have money (or shelf space) to burn, it's time to scale back the buying and enjoy the books I actually own. Time to limit myself again, although I haven't yet decided where that limit will be set.

But it's been a giddy, beautiful few weeks.

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Boarding schools. They have captured my imagination ever since, aged seven, I was heartbroken to be told by my mum that I couldn't go to St Clare's because it didn't exist.

Part of me likes to think that somewhere in the Bernese Oberland the Chalet School is going strong, still churning out trilingual girls who become teachers and then marry doctors. And that on the Cornish coast, Rebecca Mason is still practising her tennis while the other girls learn to surf.

One of the reasons I initially fell in love with the Harry Potter books was because of the way JK Rowling plays with the boarding school trope. Hogwarts is basically an old-fashioned boarding school that happens to teach magic, and Rowling sticks to the academic year structure throughout the books (although oh, how I missed the school setting in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows).

In I'll Tell You Mine, Pip Harry brings the boarding school trope bang up to date and into the southern hemisphere. Fifteen-year-old Kate Elliot has done something terrible: so terrible that her family is shunting her off to the local boarding school so they don't have to deal with her. As you would expect, she is not happy about this, and things don't get any better when she finds herself sharing a dormitory with the in-crowd and another girl who's as much of an outcast as herself.

Kate is a goth -- which, at school, makes her a freak. Worse than this, boarding school also presents a major obstacle to socialising with her friends, fellow goth Annie and musician Nate. Obviously, Kate isn't going to take all this lying down...

I loved Kate as a character, even if sometimes I wanted to shake her. She's sad and snarky and vulnerable -- and completely believable at every turn. And as we gradually learn more about the events leading up to her banishment, we realise that no one person is to blame.

I think that might be my favourite aspect of the novel. Pip Harry writes all the characters sensitively; even the people who initially seem to lead charmed lives are flawed and they all do bad or stupid things, but as a reader I could always understand why they did them. The progression of the relationship between Kate and her mother is truly touching, and I speak as someone who had a torrid relationship with her own mother in her teens. Nothing is straightforward, and this novel reflects that perfectly.

Kate's voice comes through very strongly right from the first page -- but despite the teenage diction that peppers the pages, the writing feels very precise, as if every word has earned its place. Similarly, Kate's family history feels fully realised, but there's no superfluous information. Everything she tells us is for a reason. One of the more beautiful moments of the book -- Kate's memory of a family holiday, in which, "Liv was too young to have a go [at surfing] on her own but Dad chucked her on the front of his wide Mal and pulled her up to her feet. She was screaming with excitement when she crested down the front of the wave with Dad's hand clutching at the back of her bathers." -- is principally there for contrast. "That was a highlight." The rest of the holiday is memorable, not for its good moments, but for its failures and for what Kate learned about her parents' marriage.

To return to the boarding school setting, I loved that the school remained a character until the end. Sometimes with YA literature it feels as if the author can't wait to get the characters away from the constraints of school, but here, Pip Harry uses every aspect of boarding school life to broaden the story. And despite Kate's mixed feelings about it, I've added Norris Grammar to my mental list of "schools I would like to have known". Which is about the best compliment I can pay the book, really.

Version I read: University of Queensland Press paperback from Kinokuniya Sydney. Also available online at
Pip Harry blogs at
lizabelle: (Book and sea)
My second book for the Australian Women Writers challenge was Margo Lanagan's Sea Hearts, published internationally as The Brides of Rollrock Island. I'm afraid this isn't going to be so much a review as an "I adored this book and please everyone read it" post, but I will link to a couple of other reviews to compensate.

I knew I was in for a treat from the opening pages of this book, when I found myself highlighting passages because I loved the evocative writing so much. Like this: "The sea was grey with white dabs of temper all over it; the sky hung full of ragged strips of cloud." I do enjoy a book that really makes me relish the language as I read.

But it takes more than inventive writing to make me fall in love. Lanagan quickly sets an elegiac mood with the opening chapter, which takes us into an island world in which a group of boys roams the shore looking for "sea hearts" to appease their mothers, watched bitterly by the old witch, Misskaella.

We soon learn that Misskaella, an abused, disregarded girl with a strange affinity for the local seal population, has found a terrible way of gaining agency in the community.

But the story isn't just about one deprived woman's need for agency; it is also about what happens when the men in a community reject real, human relationships in favour of other, more passive ones in which their partners have no agency. It's about the implications for that community, for the rejected women and the men themselves, for the children born of the various unions, and for "the mams" brought from the sea and prevented from returning.

It's a beautiful, thought-provoking, heartbreaking book, and I would love as many people as possible to read it. I just wish I could articulate why more clearly.

A couple more reviews that do the book better justice than I can: from Sean the Bookonaut and Krissy Kneen.

Edition I read: Kindle ebook. Margo Lanagan blogs at Among Amid While.
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In my first read for the Australian Women Writers 2012 challenge, I picked up a book I've been meaning to read for a while: Equilibrium, by Meredith Shayne.

I don't often read romance, so I'm not terribly familiar with the conventions of the genre, but I very much enjoyed this story. Small-town New South Wales seems like the perfect place for veterinarian Michael to escape his demons - especially when he meets ex-policeman Ryan Mitchell, who is steady, kind and gorgeous. But when a family crisis hits, so do Michael's demons, and suddenly it looks as if he might lose everything, past, present and future.

Shayne has a knack for creating realistically flawed yet sympathetic characters. A possible exception to this is Ryan, who seems to have no flaws at all - but as he's my dream steady, supportive male character, I can't really complain about that! The supporting cast are briefly but believably drawn, particularly Michael's sister and best friend.

The writing is solid throughout - quietly evocative without ever feeling showy. I liked the slow build of the romance, and I thought the sex was well done; I often cringe away from sex scenes in books, but there was no need for that here.

The ending didn't quite work for me, in that it felt slightly rushed. Part of that is a function of the format of the story, in which the action is divided across twelve months. But I felt a little more attention could have been given to wrapping things up. I gather there is a novella sequel to the story, which I'll be looking out for in the next few months; I'd happily read much more about these characters!

Summary: An excellent, satisfying read for anyone who likes m/m romance. I will definitely look out for more from Meredith Shayne in future.
Edition I read: Kindle ebook. The paperback version is available from Dreamspinner Press, where you can also read an excerpt from the book.
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I've been quiet here because I've been 1) busy and 2) trying to figure out what to do with this journal. The upshot is that I really do love books and talking about books, so I'm going to keep that up when I can. Hopefully more frequently than I have been doing recently. :)

I am also taking up the 2012 Australian Women Writers challenge. Many people will be aware of recent publicity surrounding the imbalance between male and female reviewers and authors of books reviewed in major publications worldwide (if that's passed you by until now, start here). In Australia, a movement has gradually been building to combat the difficulties faced by women writers in many aspects of the literary world. The Stella Prize is one such initiative to have broken ground recently (see my own post on the subject here); the Australian Women Writers challenge is another.

The challenge "hopes to help counteract the gender bias in reviewing and social media newsfeeds that has continued throughout 2011 by actively promoting the reading and reviewing of a wide range of contemporary Australian women’s writing."

I'm going for the Franklin-fantastic level (read 10 and review at least 4 books, including at least one substantial review).

One of the great pleasures of moving to Australia, for me, has been discovering the depth and beauty of its literature. I'm looking forward to building on that over the next few months, with a particular focus on women writers. I have a fair few books in mind at the moment, and I may as well list them here, for my own convenience. I'll be focusing on new books, but may also use the challenge as an opportunity to catch up on a couple of classics.

List under here )

Those are off the top of my head, so I'll keep adding others to this list as they occur. I'd be happy to hear suggestions from others, as well!

If you are interested in the challenge as a whole, more information is here.
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I'm currently working my way through volume one of Lucy Maud Montgomery's journals. Most of you will know her as the author of the Anne books, some of my most beloved childhood reads.

Maud herself is a delight - full of the passion for life and stories that shine through in Anne. Here she is on 4 April 1899, talking about stories:

"I have no doubt that it is a wise ordinance of date - or Providence? - that I cannot get all the books I want or I should certainly never accomplish much. I am simply a "book drunkard"...the first new story I read in '99 was "Phroso" by Anthony Hope. I...sat up in bed until two o'clock, shivering and freezing but quite indifferent to it, and finished the book before I could sleep. It was a glorious yarn - full of life and "go". It was romance pure and simple, without any alloy of realism or philosophy. I like realistic and philosophical novels in spells,but for pure, joyous, undiluted delight give me romance. I always revelled in fairytales."

Sound familiar to anyone? :)

It's also fascinating to see how she takes her own experiences and remodels them for her stories. A description of her thoughts on hearing of the death of a would-be lover (dated 24 July 1899) could come straight from the end of Anne of the Island:

"There would be no answering smile on his pale cold lips, no tender light in the dark blue eyes whose flash used to stir my heart into stinging life. Oh,kneeling there I thought it all over - that winter in Bedeque with its passion and suffering, all its hours of happiness and sorrow. I lived again in thought every incident of my acquaintance with Herman Leard from first to last - all those mad sweet hours and those sad bitter hours."

For me, the Anne books were as much about Prince Edward Island as they were about Anne. Here is LM Montgomery letting the words flow in another entry from 1899, describing what would become Lover's Lane in the Anne books:

The old spring, deep and clear and icy cold, is on our path. The brook purls softly by and the old firs whisper over it as of yore.... )

Highly recommended!
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I wrote this non-spoilery review a while ago for Meet at the Gate, website of the excellent Canongate Books. I'm reposting it (finally) in case anyone still needs persuading to read this book, which is one of my all-time favourites.

The Book Thief is set in Molching, a small town in Nazi Germany that is far enough from Munich to avoid political significance, but close enough to Dachau that Jewish prisoners are occasionally marched through there. It's a town full of ordinary people who are struggling to survive a war - like the mayor's wife, who might almost seem to have given up on life...except for one small act of rebellion. Like Rosa Hubermann, who insults everyone impartially but loves warmly. Like Rudy Steiner, a boy trapped in a world he can make little sense of. Like Hans Hubermann, impoverished house-painter and accordionist, caught out by an old promise and his own sense of honour. And at their heart is Liesel: fierce, passionate, a lover of words and stealer of books.

When we first meet Liesel, she is nine and reeling from the loss of her family. Delivered to the fostering authorities, Liesel is thrown into a new life which, while poverty-stricken and plagued by Hitler's apparently arbitrary edicts, is a step up from her old one. At a funeral she steals a book, which turns out to be a handbook for gravediggers. It is the beginning of a journey in which Liesel, and eventually many other characters, find power through the written word while the world collapses around them.

Given the setting, it is perhaps appropriate that the narrator of The Book Thief is Death. Zusak isn't the first writer to make use of Death as a character, but he puts this narrative twist to excellent use here. To Death, humans are objects of curiosity, to be viewed (but not always kept) at a distance. Because Death is in turn relating Liesel's tale, it's hard to know from whom the descriptions originate, but they are always memorable: Rudy has hair the colour of lemons; Hans has eyes made of silver and kindness; Rosa is wardrobe-shaped. Words have power: they literally tap people on the shoulder, or even slap them across the face.

This is a story about death and about Death. But it is also a love letter to the human spirit: to the individual heroism that makes us human in the face of mindless mob brutality.
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Are you wondering where to get your literary fix now that the Sydney Writers' Festival is over for another year? Never fear; there are loads of events to choose from, and I've listed as many as I could find below.

I did this last year as part of my post-writers' festival comedown and it seemed fairly popular; I may even try to keep the list updated this time.

Upcoming literary events in Sydney:

08 June: Paul McGeough talks about his book, Infernal Triangle at Gleebooks; arrive 6 pm for 6.30 pm. Details and bookings here.

09 June: Samantha Brett and Donna Sozio at Dymocks George St, 6 pm. Info here.

09 June: Dominic Smith talks about his book, The Bright and Distant Shores at Gleebooks; arrive 6 pm for 6.30 pm. Details and bookings here.

09 June: Betty Churcher and her Notebooks at Berkelouw Mona Vale, 6.30 pm. More info here.

10 June: Launch: Sex, Genes and Rock and Roll by Robert Brooks at Gleebooks; arrive 6 pm for 6.30 pm. Details and bookings here.

14 June: Nick Dyrenfurth and Frank Bongiorno on the Australian Labor Party at Gleebooks; arrive 6 pm for 6.30 pm. Details and bookings here.

Lots more under here )

Did I miss anything? Let me know by leaving a comment - or catch me @liza_belle on twitter.
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I was a starry-eyed, unquestioning reader growing up, always ready to absorb suggestions for my next read. I read books because my teachers told me to, because my parents loved them, because professors told me they were great works of literature. Obviously, like any kid whose happiest moments were spent sitting in front of the shelves in her local WH Smith, I also read plenty of books that I found without guidance. But that was different - those were the books I adored, books that I reread until they fell apart. They were the kinds of books I stayed up late writing sequels to in my imagination; the kinds of books for which I rewrote the ending so that a certain character didn't die*. In this post, I want to talk about the other kind: the kind of book you read because someone - a teacher, a parent, a mentor, a cute girl or guy - tells you it's great.

I read a lot of those books, too, and often, my mentors were right. Some of my favourite pieces of literature are those I studied for A-level English: Mrs Dalloway, Bleak House, Antony and Cleopatra, Thomas Hardy's poetry. The best book I read last year was Wolf Hall, which everyone from my friend's mum to the Booker judges told me I should read, and yeah, I loved it.

But sometimes, also, I read these books and did not get them. They didn't do anything for me, and yet for a long time I slogged on, because this was literature, and I wanted to be literary. I wanted to be the kind of girl who could converse with the literati without looking silly or naive. Let's face it, I wanted to write literature, and so surely I had to understand the literary canon, didn't I? Because if I couldn't read, digest and discuss every single book that the (until recently, primarily privileged, white and male) establishment has decided is literature, it meant I wasn't intelligent enough; the problem wasn't with the books, it was with me.

That's changed lately. I'm not entirely sure why, but it probably has something to do with my ever-growing to-read pile, and also with the fact that I've done a lot of writing myself recently. I know how I look on a reader's interpretation of my writing: if they didn't get it, it's not their fault. Maybe they weren't in the right space to read it; maybe they need a little time; maybe I didn't communicate as effectively as I'd hoped to; maybe they're just never going to like the kind of writing that I produce - but if it's anyone's fault, it is mine, not theirs.

At any rate, several times in the past year, I've found myself realising early on in a book that it is not working for me. Perhaps some day in the future it will work for me as a reader, but right now it does not. So I put the book away and pick up another that appeals to me, rather than bemoan the hours lost to a book I didn't enjoy. It doesn't matter what the book is; if I'm not getting anything out of it, away it goes.

There are many ways to write a sentence, and to read it. It feels liberating to realise that.

*Dear LM Montgomery: My heart is still broken. Yours, etc.
lizabelle: (Old coat new book)
My last day at the Sydney Writers' Festival began with AC Grayling, who spoke without notes for an hour on the origins of his The Good Book and its reception. His intent was to create a kind of humanist equivalent of the King James bible which, instead of telling people how to live in order to succeed in the hereafter, would offer up thinking material so that they could decide how to live in the here and now.

Living in this way entails a responsibility to own our decisions. Grayling quoted Socrates, who said that "The unexamined life is not worth living." Each individual is capable of doing the thinking and making the choices which, when acted upon, will add up to a well-lived life.

I have often said that I try to treat others the way I would like to be treated - to be honest, this is pretty much my mantra for living. According to Grayling, however, George Bernard Shaw said that this was a bad idea, because others may not like being treated in that way. It's a joke, but there's a serious point to it, which is that making oneself (or one anything: you as a person, a single religion, a totalitarian ideology) the benchmark of how you like to be treated, is a very distorting, one-sided view. We need to respect difference, not try to suppress it. Grayling expressed this as the need to "be generous and capacious in our understanding of human variety."

Proving this point later that day was Mardi McConnochie, who cited a lack of empathy with the boat people around whom so much Australian political debate is centred as one of her reasons for writing The Voyagers. She asked herself when "nice, ordinary white people" were last displaced on a large scale, and came up with the Second World War. Her novel is in part an attempt to comment on the effects of war and suffering on those who live through it.

McConnochie set out to write a love story that was both satisfying and literary, using the theme of music to represent a kind of order in the face of war as a chaotic, destructive force. Music is a "heart" form of art, she said (as opposed to writing, which is more cerebral). Music is the language that the characters speak; it is their common currency. As someone who has always loved music, perhaps too much in some ways, I really enjoyed this part of the conversation.

Music allows the characters of Mandy Sayer's latest novel to connect and break out of their assigned roles - roles assigned both by the war and by society. Love in the Years of Lunacy also deals with the effects of the Second World War on ordinary people, this time in Sydney. The setting allows for another theme to emerge: the fact that US military is fighting fascism overseas while practising its own form of fascism in the form of racial segregation - segregation that Australia was required to enforce by, for example, providing separate bars for Black and white Americans.

Obviously, Australia has its own murky race issues. Nicole Watson turned to writing after being frustrated by her work as a case manager on the Native Title Tribunal. She felt that the process was not an empowering one for Aboriginal people, and imagined a situation in which the tables were turned. With her book, The Boundary, she wanted to write a story in which the Aboriginal characters had agency.

PM Newton's The Old School also features a non-white protagonist, half-Vietnamese Nhu (inevitably nicknamed Ned) Kelly. While Nhu's heritage was a conscious choice on Newton's part, she also pointed out that it is dangerous to envisage characters purely as symbols. The character has to live, breathe and speak as well as represent something. Similarly, place can play a major factor in many crime novels, but this isn't (or shouldn't be) just about the scenery. For true resonance, you need to tie the sense of place to a period in time and the issues relevant to people at that time. Her own novel is set in 1992, when the New South Wales police force was facing a major corruption inquiry, and the characters' awareness of that investigation and its implications underpins the entire story. Newton cited Michael Dibdin as a good example of this kind of crime writing, saying that the crimes in his stories could only happen in that place, to those people, at that particular time.

Shamini Flint commented that Asian novels tend to be sweeping, exotic epics covering several generations in a manner that she dubbed the "over-exoticisation of Asia for western audiences". She is more interested in the way historical strands play out in contemporary society in Asia. Each of her "Inspector Singh Investigates" novels is set in a different place (so far all in Asia), and she roots at least one motive for the crime in the society about which she is writing.

I've already read (and highly recommend) PM Newton's The Old School. After Sunday's festival sessions, I added books by Mardi McConnochie, Mandy Sayer, Nicole Watson and Shamini Flint to my to-read list; it was great to see so many articulate, entertaining women committed to using their writing to say something about the world in which we live.

And that was my last day of the writers' festival. Sixteen events and many inspiring, impassioned speakers on writing, beauty, politics, the environment and the future of humanity. Time to get out there and live. :)
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I've finished all of the big write-ups I'm going to manage for the Sydney Writers' Festival, so this post and the following one will attempt to summarise some of the other sessions I attended.

That means I'm not going to say much about David Mitchell and Michael Cunningham, but that's all right, because if you're interested you can read LiteraryMinded's gorgeous post entitled The epic qualities of outwardly ordinary lives: By Nightfall and Michael Cunningham in Australia, and watch the entire David Mitchell session I attended, The Thousand Styles of David Mitchell, thanks to SlowTV*.

Onto things I actually am going to talk about. One of the best things about the festival, for me, is seeing writers engaging with one another's work. One reason the Jennifer Mills and Lyn Hughes panel worked so well was that each writer seemed to genuinely love the other's work and be interested in discussing it. The two novels (Flock, about a group of conservators restoring a historic house, and Gone, about a man released from prison who hitchikes across Australia) are ostensibly very different, but they both comment on the theme of memory: how our mind suppresses things, and what happens when those things come back to haunt us.

Writing is a lonely business; Hughes described writers as moving in parallel worlds, obsessed with a story that (while unpublished) no one else is interested in. On another level, this story also contains characters who have their own obsessions and parallel worlds. Added to this is the effect of the human memory, which is ever unreliable. As humans, we confabulate; we reconstruct our past in our present mind, but it is never quite accurate; it always contains an element of story. It is only natural for characters to do this, as well.

David Mitchell described the process of absorbing "stuff" from your immediate surroundings - "found stuff", he said, is the best stuff to use as a writer. He quoted (paraphrased?) Picasso, who said "First I find something, then I go looking for what it is" as a good way of figuring out writing - which also ties back to something Lyn Hughes said: "Write in wilful ignorance, and then ask why."

Michael Cunningham wins my prize for most beautiful use of words when talking about writing as art. His latest book, By Nightfall, begins with a Rilke quotation: "Beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror." In the panel, "On Beauty", at which he appeared with art critic and gallery director Betty Churcher, he described his fascination with "annihilating beauty - a sort of miraculous, terrible angel that swoops on us with a sword of light and leaves us ravaged and altered forever."

Someone in the audience asked whether beauty was dependent on craftsmanship. Michael Cunningham said that he sees beauty in the gap between what the artist set out to do and what he/she achieved. As a novelist, he describes an idea for a novel as "a cathedral made of light and fire" hovering above his mind; what he gets down on paper becomes "just that book". But to him, that's part of what makes any work of art interesting - what it says about human limitation.

This, for me, was the heart of the festival: the intersection between what we are (human beings) and what we can achieve with that humanity.

*SlowTV will be uploading other videos from the festival, so keep an eye on the site if you're interested.
** If you want to melt, watch 9:00-9:20 of the David Mitchell video.
lizabelle: (Default)
This event was the highlight of the festival for me: three intelligent, strong, compassionate women all speaking eloquently and movingly on subjects close to their hearts. It's another long post, because almost everything they said felt important to me.

Maxine McKew kicked off proceedings by asking all three panellists to give their reactions to the death of Osama Bin Laden. Ingrid Betancourt said that she did not feel Bin Laden's death should be celebrated, with which the other panellists agreed. Aminatta Forna contrasted this case with that of Charles Taylor, who in 2006 was flown into Sierra Leone to face war crimes charges in the Special Court for Sierra Leone. The people came out onto the streets to watch, Forna said, because this was a time when you could literally see that justice was being done. That court was funded by the US, and yet it seems the US did not want to take the justice route with Bin Laden.

Fatima Bhutto agreed with Betancourt and Forna, and observed that she is more concerned about the current violence in Pakistan than with Bin Laden's death. People are shot every day, and the situation is exacerbated by US drone strikes - she alleged that these have killed over two thousand people in Pakistan, largely civilians, since 2006.

The conversation moved onto the personal tragedies that the three women have experienced. In captivity, Betancourt felt that she had a responsibility as well as a right to be free. Even though she knew that any rescue attempt might mean her death, she preferred to die in the struggle for freedom rather than remaining a captive for, say, another twenty years.

She also praised the courage of her rescuers, who pretended they were working with the FARQ in order to gain access to her, and were completely unarmed when they executed their plan. They are the true heroes, she said.

More under here )

Hope, she said, comes from ordinary people. And in these three extraordinary women, ordinary people like me can certainly find plenty of inspiration and hope.


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