Children’s Book Festival 2015

Kidsbookfest 2015 AS & GW

My fangirl moment with Gabrielle Wang

‘So what are you doing today Mum?’ Miss Nine asked as we walked to school the morning after the 2015 Children’s Book Festival.

‘I’m going to spend the whole day writing.’

‘That sounds boring.’

‘No way. It’s my favourite way to spend the day. If I could, I’d spend every day writing.’

‘Well, you’d better read a lot, too, if you’re going to be a writer.’

I have Gabrielle Wang to thank for this gem, offered as advice to young writers in her ‘Meet the Author’ session at the Children’s Book Festival.

The annual festival, now in its fifth year, is a collaboration between the Wheeler Centre for Books Writing Ideas and the State Library of Victoria.

Gabrielle Wang's notebook for the Meet Poppy books

Gabrielle Wang’s notebook for the Meet Poppy books

Gabrielle Wang’s author talk, and meeting her at the book signing afterwards, were my personal highlights of this year’s festival. Miss Nine and I are both fans of her standalone novels, as well as her Meet Poppy and Meet Pearlie books in the Our Australian Girl series, and it was fascinating to hear her life story and learn about how she has drawn on her experiences in her writing. Her tale of breaking into a haunted mansion with her best friend Wendy fired my daughter’s imagination. As well as encouraging aspiring writers to read, Gabrielle advised them to work on their stories ‘a little bit every day’ and, if things are not working, ‘to leave it alone for a week or two and then come back to it.’ Good advice for all writers, young and old alike.

Nicki Greenberg reveals the art of expression

Nicki Greenberg reveals the art of expression

Advice that resonates and inspires is just one of many reasons to love the Children’s Book Festival.

Another is the wonderful array of activities on offer to fire the imagination. This year for us it was a workshop with graphic artist Nicki Greenberg, deftly facilitated by Bernard Caleo. Nicki showed us how to read faces and create expressions with simple lines. She encouraged us to let our imaginations run wild in creating kooky characters. Children and adults alike responded warmly to her prompts — the delight in the room was palpable — the little ones lining up to show her their work.

Upstairs in the library’s Cowen Gallery, my eight-year-old nephew was inspired by The Suburban Field Guide To Miscellaneous Oddities to create his own miscellaneous oddity for a giant story book, and write a museum-style entry to go with it. Meanwhile, Miss Nine and a friend had found their way to the Publishing House in Queen’s Hall, where they made their own books.

Kidsbookfest 2015 5 crop

Kids book rock gods Terry Denton (L) & Andy Griffiths (R)

We spent time on the State Library lawns in front of an outdoor stage, being treated to a terrific range of talent — Peter Combe and Becky Hoops put in appearances while we were there — with Josh Earl doing a hilarious job as host. His songs were a highlight for Miss Nine.

For the grand finale, we attended a session with the rock gods of the Australian children’s book scene, Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton. Despite having spent the previous five hours signing books, Andy and Terry managed to light up the room, alternately badgering each other and the audience, mixing it up with funny drawings and their trademark bum jokes. Andy introduced the session by saying he had run out of ideas for the soon-to-be-written The 78-Storey Treehouse, and gave the audience thirty minutes to come up with 13 new levels. Terry drew the ideas on the spot, using a ‘visualiser’ to project the images. Among the winning suggestions were rooms filled with spare body parts, a giant spiderweb, and a kid-eating forest*.

Denton_Kid eating forest[*I’m not sure how Miss Nine came to be in possession of Terry’s drawing of the kid-eating forest; so guys, if you’re reading this and you want the drawing back, the ransom note is in the mail.]

Most of all I love the Children’s Book Festival for its celebration of writing, drawing, reading and listening — elements that enrich my life and that will, I hope, enrich the life of my daughter for years to come.

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Review: e-baby

e-baby, a new play by Australian journalist and cartoonist Jane Cafarella, does a brilliant job of laying bare the complex issues involved in commercial surrogacy arrangements, even when, as in this story about Australian IM (‘intended mother’) and American surrogate, the two parties share a common language and the best of intentions.

Aromababy - Ebaby PosterCatherine, vividly portrayed by Carolyn Block, is a 46-year-old lawyer, based in London, who is desperate to have a child but knows her chances are fast running out. ‘My mother told me the house is so quiet after the children leave home,’ she says. ‘Well, it’s also quiet when they never arrive.’ Catherine’s yearning leads her to an agency in the USA and ultimately to a young woman, Nellie — a spirited performance by Sarah Ranken — who agrees to act as surrogate for Catherine and her husband.

The play is told from the two women’s points of view, both actors on stage for the entire performance, monologues alternating with conversations between the two women by phone, Skype, and in person during periodic meetings in New York, where Catherine travels for work. Nellie’s soliloquys often take the form of her video blog posts (‘Follow me at Nellie’s Belly’) as she goes online for advice and reassurance from other surrogates.

Carolyn Bock as Catherine

Carolyn Bock as Catherine

One of the most striking scenes takes place when Catherine negotiates ‘the fine print’ of their contract. This includes discussion on what to do if tests reveals foetal abnormalities — Nellie states her opposition, as a Catholic, to abortion — and contingency planning in case of the death of the surrogate mother and/or intended parents. Catherine’s businesslike tone sits uncomfortably with the affective subject matter, paving the way for some heartbreaking decisions that lie ahead.

Catherine is a less sympathetic character than Nellie, and while I felt at times that her character veered towards stereotype as a high-flying career woman and control freak, it’s also a strength of the play that Cafarella doesn’t sugarcoat her. It made me question my own standards in terms of whether a person’s likeability affects the degree to which I take their pain and grief seriously. And there is a moment in the play — a powerful, wordless scene involving a silhouette projected on to boxes — where Catherine’s grief is palpable.

Sarah Ranken as Nellie

Sarah Ranken as Nellie

Nellie’s character is a God-fearing, working-class mother, typical of the profile for surrogate mothers in the US. But whether defending her preference for heavy metal music during the birth, trying to keep her family buoyant, or grappling with moral dilemmas, she is shown as competent and nuanced, her faith in ‘God’s plan’ tested by her experience.

For me, e-baby succeeds as a riveting play that doesn’t tell the audience what to think, with an ambivalent ending that befits the subject matter.

Jane Cafarella said in a panel discussion following the session I attended, ‘My intention [in writing this play] was not to say “Think this”, but “Look at this”.’ It is a measure of her success that while one surrogacy abolitionist on the panel saw the play as ‘a strong indictment against surrogacy’, both a woman who had been an altruistic surrogate and an IVF clinician said the play resonated strongly with their experiences.

e-baby is inspired by Cafarella’s experience as a journalist — she was one of the first to interview sisters Maggie and Linda Kirkman, who made history in Australia in 1988 when Linda carried baby Alice for Maggie — particularly by an interview with an expatriate woman in Bangkok, who’d had both her children via a surrogate in the USA. As Cafarella explains on her website,

Intrigued by her story, I spent hundreds of hours reading posts from surrogates and intended parents via online communities.
I found myself drawn into a world with its own language and rules and which challenged the definition of families and motherhood.
It is this world I have tried to portray in e-baby

Even for those who don’t share my passionate interest in the topic of commercial surrogacy, e-baby is a highly entertaining and provocative play that not only challenges  definitions of families and motherhood, but also explores issues of consent and control, generosity and grief, and the limitations of buying power in a world where everything seems at risk of being reduced to markets. Highly recommended.

e-baby is showing at Chapel Off Chapel in Prahran until Sun 15 March. Details and tickets here.

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Setting: Creating a sense of place

PIC_Ballade Gourmande 10I’ve spent the past week developing the program for a workshop I am running in Melbourne on Sun 19 April 2015 at Writers Victoria on Setting, part of their First Draft: Novel in a year series.

As anxious as I get when not actually writing fiction, I admit I’ve enjoyed the experience of taking time out to reflect on the process, scrutinizing my own and other writers’ work in order to articulate why setting matters, and how to create a strong sense of place. As I figured out what to teach, I have inevitably learned a great deal, too.

As I wrote in the blurb for the Writers Victoria website, a strong sense of place helps transport readers into the world created by a novel. Without it, readers can feel lost, frustrated, and the pleasure of reading is diminished.

But description for its own sake tends to fall flat and risks becoming what Elmore Leonard referred to as ‘the part readers tend to skip’.

In my workshop, I’ll be looking at how to bring a place to life and create an evocative sense of place without sacrificing plot or pace.

I’ll also be dealing with the nitty gritty of powerful writing, tips that I hope will be of use to participants whatever they are writing.

For more information on the workshops, or to book for the morning session (afternoon session is sold out), click here.

I’ll be using a selection of excerpts from literary and genre fiction, including crime fiction, to illustrate various points in the workshop. But I’d like to leave participants with further reading: a list of writers who do a great job of evoking setting, or specific works (short fiction or novels) with a a strong sense of place.

What would you put on that list?

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I’m special, so special*

For those of you who’ve been meaning to read my novels for ages, Text Publishing’s Deal of the Week sees all three available at the special price of AUD$14.99 each, with free delivery anywhere in the world.

Special deal bannerNow’s the perfect time to get hold of a copy of  Behind the Night Bazaar, my debut novel, which introduces Bangkok-based expatriate PI Jayne Keeney. Behind the Night Bazaar won a 2004 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award as an unpublished manuscript, and was later short-listed for the 2007 Ned Kelly Award for Best First Book.

‘Coolly elegant with a lovely sense of place, Savage directs her authorial tuk-tuk into the literary precinct without sacrificing the requisite violence, corrupt police, edgy social commentary and the need for her heroine to become a lonely social crusader in the best hard-boiled tradition.’ — Graeme Blundell, The Weekend Australian

Or maybe with all the talk of intercountry adoption reform in Australia, you’d like to read my second novel, The Half-Child, which deals with this very issue. The book also contains the seeds of a romance between Jayne Keeney and handsome Indian bookseller and ICT specialist Rajiv Patel. The Half-Child was shortlisted for the 2011 Ned Kelly Award for Best Fiction.

‘This is a gripping novel; an unromanticised travel guide to today’s Thailand; a critique of Western missionary endeavours; and a warning to naïve young people who stumble into volunteer work without the necessary skills.’ — Australian Bookseller & Publisher

The books are part of a series but can be enjoyed as standalone novels, too, meaning you could even start with the critically acclaimed third novel, The Dying Beach, set in Thailand’s exquisite southern coastal provinces. Wrapping environmental questions around a whodunnit, The Dying Beach was shortlisted for both the 2014 Ned Kelly Award for Best Fiction and the Davitt Award for Best Adult Fiction.

‘Angela Savage [takes the reader for a ride]…with wit and a meticulous attention to detail, her gracefully written novels, set so perceptively in Thailand, folding and unfolding in surprising directions…. Savage writes with dry humour and a beguiling sense of place, but a hard-boiled quality of menace underpins the light cleverness of her prose.’ — Graeme Blundell, The Australian

‘With its intricate narrative structure, use of multiple points of view and flashbacks, this is Savage’s most ambitious and accomplished crime novel to date.’ —  Sue Turnbull, Sydney Morning Herald

And did I mention free delivery worldwide?

What are you waiting for? Click here and enjoy!

* Taking a leaf out of crime fiction blogger extraordinaire Margot Kinberg‘s songbook (pun intended), the title is a line from ‘Brass in Pocket’ by the Pretenders.

Posted in Angela Savage, Behind the Night Bazaar, Books, crime fiction, special deal, The Dying Beach, The Half-Child | 4 Comments

Summer reading

The year is six weeks old already, and a blog post is long overdue. I blame it on the PhD: I’ve spent most of the past six weeks preparing for my confirmation panel next month. Still, I did manage to get in some great reading over the summer — none of it crime fiction. I didn’t plan it that way, but I usually end up setting aside one month each year to be crime-free, so to speak, and this year, January was it.

merciless godsFirst up was Christos Tsiolkas’s short story collection, Merciless Gods (2014), which I finished over the new year. In fact, the first fiction I read in 2015 was ‘Saturn Return’, a story told from the point of view of a young man travelling from Melbourne to Sydney with his partner, Barney, to be with Barney’s father when he dies. En route, they visit the remnants of the migrant camp at Bonegilla, ‘a hateful place’ where the narrator’s father had been sent after migrating to Australia. The story was so moving, it made me cry. A great start to the new reading year!

‘Saturn Return’ is only one of many riveting stories in this collection. Normally, I dip in and out of short story collections, but this is one I read cover to cover. Hypnotic.

laurindaNext up, Laurinda (2014) by Alice Pung. Set in an exclusive girls’ school, Laurinda is narrated by Lucy Lam in the form of a conversation with her alter-ego, Linh. Lucy/Linh is Laurinda’s inaugural ‘Equal Access’ scholarship recipient, and the novel covers her experience of Year 10, her first year at the school, as she tries to fit in without losing herself.

The prospect of reading a novel set in an exclusive girls’ school wouldn’t normally excite me, but Pung turns this into a meditation on class, race and power that is sharp and satisfying. Plus her prose makes me swoon. A novel that will appeal equally to young adults and not so young adults alike.

the-narrow-road-to-the-deep-northThe Narrow Road to the Deep North (2013) is a novel I bought about a year ago on the recommendation of Kirsten Krauth, who spotted its brilliance long before it won a swathe of awards, including the 2014 Man Booker Prize — a worthy winner in my opinion.

The central character is Dorrigo Evans, a doctor in the Australian army, who is taken prisoner by the Japanese during World War, and sent to the notorious Death Railway camp in Thailand. The story interweaves this horrific experience — told from the point of view of Dorrigo and fellow Australian prisoners, as well as the Japanese camp commander Major Nakamura, and his superior Colonel Kota — with a love story that precedes the war, and an account of both Dorrigo and Nakamura’s post-war lives.

A number of readers I know concurred that the novel gets off to a slow start before hitting a point where it’s hard to put down. I found myself coming to the end of a long reading session, only to realise I’d been holding my breath.

This novel ticked all my boxes: heart-stopping, intelligent, innovative and deeply moving. I can’t believe it took me so long to get around to reading it.

Nice WorkMy other fiction read of the last six weeks is Nice Work (1988) by David Lodge. I also read Lodge’s wonderful work of literary criticism, The Art of Fiction, over the summer (a great resource for writers) and I was at a point in my PhD research where I needed to escape into fiction without straying too far. Nice Work is a novel about the relationship between Dr Robyn Penrose, a feminist lecturer of English literature theory at the fictional Rummidge University, and Victor Wilcox, Managing Director of a struggling engineering plant. The two meet through a PR exercise designed to bring the Industry and the University closer at the time, under Thatcher, when both the Industry and the University are threatened by government cuts and the rising power of financial services industries.

Nice Work is engaging, witty and unpredictable, and has the added bonus of explaining aspects of literary theory, making me feel that, although I was reading it for pleasure, I could count it as study. Satisfying on both counts.

I read a hell of a lot of academic writing over the summer, too, but I’ll spare you those details. As for my current read, it’s a thriller with a twist. But more on that later…hopefully within the next six weeks.

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Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014 wrap-up

awwbadge_2014It’s appropriate that Amanda Curtin has reminded me to write a wrap up of my Australian Women Writers Challenge reading for 2014, seeing as how her stunning novel Elemental (2013, UWA Publishing) was the first book I read and reviewed for the challenge. I’ve spent the rest of the year raving about it, recommending it and buying gift copies. I’m delighted to report that everyone I’ve recommended it to has loved it, especially my mother for whom the character of Meggie Duthie Tulloch rivals Anne Elliot in Jane Austen’s Persuasion as her favourite ever literary heroine.

Like Amanda, I read more books by Australian women writers than I reviewed, though the absence of a review is no indication of my feelings about the book. Again, I’ve raved about, recommended and bought gift copies of several books by Australian women writers, which I have not reviewed.

Overall, I read 20 books for adults written by Australian women in 2014, 11 crime novels, four literary works–three of them short story collections, and five non-fiction books.

Here are the nine books I did mange to review (or write up an author interview) on this blog for the AWW Challenge; those marked with an asterisk, I also reviewed for Radio National Books and Arts Daily:

Elemental — Amanda Curtin (2013, UWA Publishing)
The Lost Girls* — Wendy James (2013, Michael Joseph)
Holiday in Cambodia — Laura Jean McKay (2013, Black Inc.)
Beams Falling* — PM Newton (2014, Penguin)
Through the Cracks* — Honey Brown (2014, Penguin)
Every Word — Ellie Marney (2014, Allen & Unwin)
A Morbid Habit* — Annie Hauxwell (2014, Penguin)
What Came Before* — Anna George (2014, Viking)
Let Her Go* — Dawn Barker (2014, Hachette)

The following books by Australian women writers I didn’t manage to review but did mention in end of year wrap-ups:

A Murder Unmentioned — Sulari Gentill (2014, Pantera Press)
Foreign Soil — Maxine Beneba Clarke (2014, Hachette)
Only the Animals — Ceridwen Dovey (2014, Penguin)

Other books by Australian women writers I read this year (with links to writers festival write ups, where relevant):

Madame Bovary’s Haberdashery — Maurilia Meehan (2013, Transit Lounge)
Moving Among Strangers: Randolph Stowe and My Family — Gabrielle Carey (2013, UQP)
Last Bets — Michaela McGuire (2014, MUP)
Where is Daniel? — Lindsay Simpson & Jennifer Cooke (2014, Pan Macmillan)
Honeymoon Dive — Lindsay Simpson (2010, Pan Macmillan)
The Zigzag Effect — Lili Wilkinson (2013, Allen & Unwin)
The Lying-Down Room — Anna Jaquiery (2014, Mantle)
A Second Chance for Justice — Asher Flynn & Kate Fitz-Gibbon (2013, Cambridge Scholars Publishing)

Finally, it would be remiss of me not to mention the wonderful books for young readers by Australian women writers, which I’ve enjoyed reading with my daughter Miss Eight in 2014, including:

The Garden of the Empress Cassia — Gabrielle Wang (2002, Puffin)
The Pearl of Tiger Bay — Gabrielle Wang (2004, Puffin)
The Ghost in the Suitcase — Gabrielle Wang (2009, Puffin)
The Meet Pearlie books in the Our Australian Girl series — Gabrielle Wang (2013, 2014, Puffin)
Truly Tan Spooked! — Jen Storer (2013, HarperCollins)
Truly Tan Freaked! — Jen Storer (2014, HarperCollins)

Here’s wishing all the Australian women writers and readers of Australian women writers a wonderful New Year in 2015.

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Books that blew my mind in 2014

It’s a gift for a reader to pick up a book that takes you by surprise and blows your mind.

I had the great fortune in 2014 to stumble upon several books that did this — all of them short story collections, three released in 2014, five by Australian authors. I cannot recommend these books highly enough.

short stories 2014Sightseeing by Rattawut Lapcharoensap (2006, Grove Press) was one the first anthology to blow my mind in 2014. It contains seven beautifully crafted stories, most set in Thailand. Lapcharoensap’s stories tackle injustice and inequality at times with poignancy, at times with humour, always with bite. (See here for a full review).

Holiday in Cambodia by Laura Jean McKay (2013, Black Inc) is a stunning collection of intimate stories set in different historical periods in Cambodia, told from the points of view of Cambodian and non-Cambodian characters. (See here for a full review).

The Weight of a Human Heart by Ryan O’Neill (2012, Black Inc) contains some of the most striking and innovative work I’ve ever read. What O’Neill does with the short story form is almost beyond belief, and every story packs an emotional punch. Breathtaking.

Maxine Beneba Clarke says she tries ‘to write beautifully about ugly things’, which is exactly what she does in Foreign Soil (2014, Hachette). Stories of heartbreak and horror are told in the language of poetry and hope. Riveting.

Only the Animals by Ceridwen Dovey (2014, Penguin) got bumped up my TBR pile when it was shortlisted for the 2015 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for fiction. Each story is told from the point of view of a different animal associated with a significant historical figure, many of them writers. Crazy, brazen and astonishingly good.

Merciless Gods by Christos Tsiolkas (2014, Allen & Unwin) will see me out for 2014, a remarkable collection from a writer who can be relied on for pushing readers out of their comfort zone.

Heartfelt thanks to all these authors for inspiring me, as a reader and a writer. I take joy in commending these books to others.

Now it’s your turn. Did you read any books, short story collections or otherwise, that blew your mind in 2014?

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