Review: Death in the Rainy Season

Death Rainy SeasonFor a number of reasons, the most significant being the need to focus my reading and writing time on my PhD while also making a living, I made it a rule not to do any unpaid reviewing this year. But a rule is worth nothing unless you break it now and then, and this week I’m making an exception for an exceptional novel.

Death in the Rainy Season is Melbourne-based writer Anna Jaquiery’s follow up to her 2014 debut, The Lying-Down Room. Both novels feature Parisian detective Commandant Serge Morel, whose late mother was Cambodian, and whose French father is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. (Jaquiery, herself of French-Malaysian descent, spent time in Cambodia as a child prior to 1975). Where the first novel, set in France, was a slow burner, Death in the Rainy Season, set in Cambodia, sets a cracking pace from the first chapter and doesn’t let up.

Morel is on leave, visiting the Angkor temples of Siem Reap, when Frenchman Hugo Quercy is murdered in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh. Quercy, the charismatic and outspoken head of a well-respected non-government organisation (NGO), also happens to be the nephew of the French Interior Minister. Morel is dispatched by his boss to join forces with local Police Chief Chey Sarit in investigating Quercy’s death.

Quercy was found brutally beaten to death, in a hotel room that he’s checked into under a false name. He leaves behind a pregnant wife, Florence; close friends Paul and Mariko Arda, who followed him to Cambodia from France; a team of dedicated, if envious staff; and any number of enemies. Sarit is keen to see the case explained as ‘a settling of accounts between barang. Westerners.’ But it emerges that Quercy has been both pursuing foreign paedophiles and investigating forced evictions, which multiples the number of possible motives for his murder, at least as far as Morel is concerned.

There is so much to like about this book. The atmosphere, culture and politics of the Cambodian setting are vividly brought to life. A place where ‘the rain came with a sudden roar’, so heavy it made ‘the world disappear’. Where ‘people could be matter of fact about flesh and blood, but spirits were another matter’. Where activists are shot with impunity and the government is accused of ‘selling the country bit by bit’.

The novel also sheds a revealing light on NGO culture, examining the complex mix of evangelism and ego, altruism and avoidance, that draws people to this line of work. As someone previously immersed in that world, for me Jaquiery’s observations are authentic and insightful.

Morel is a wonderful character, flawed by in ways atypical of crime fiction detectives (he drinks in moderation and has given up smoking). He is reflective, astute, and inclined to melancholy, dealing with the secrets and lies of his own family, as well as Hugo Quercy’s.

Compelling, clever and captivating, Death in the Rainy Season is a deeply satisfying read. Highly recommended.

Published in Australia by PanMacmillan, released April 2015.

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Meet Angela Savage

Angela Savage:

I was delighted to be interviewed recently by Nicole Melanson for her terrific blog, WordMothers http://www.wordmothers.com, a site dedicated to showcasing women’s work in the literary arts around the world. I recommend following her to find out more about women writers everywhere. Thanks, Nicole, for the following post.

Originally posted on WordMothers:

Interview by Nicole Melanson ~

Interview with writer Angela Savage by Nicole Melanson - photo by Jo Sheather

Angela Savage is a Melbourne writer, who has lived and travelled extensively in Asia. Her first novel, Behind the Night Bazaar, won the 2004 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript. All three of her Jayne Keeney PI novels have been shortlisted for the Ned Kelly Awards, with The Dying Beach also shortlisted for the 2014 Davitt Award. She won the 2011 Scarlet Stiletto Award for short crime fiction. Angela is currently studying for her PhD in Creative Writing.

Angela Savage’s website

Facebook: /angela.savage.925

Twitter: @angsavage

Writer Angela Savage Book Cover - Behind the Night Bazaar Behind the Night Bazaar by Angela Savage

HOW DID YOU GET STARTED?

I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember; I still have a book of bad poetry I wrote when I was ten, complete with “about the author” blurb on the cover.

I wrote off and on for years until 1998, when…

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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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