Desert Nights, Rising Stars – Day 1

Simon Ortiz, photo courtesy of Kevin S Moul

Simon Ortiz, photo courtesy of Kevin S Moul

The Desert Nights, Rising Stars (DNRS) conference opened today at Arizona State University (ASU), with afternoon workshops, followed by a reception and a keynote address by Acoma Pueblo Nation poet Simon Ortiz.

I started my conference experience at a session with TM McNally, author and director of the ASU’s Creative Writing Program, on ‘Lyrical Fiction’. TM quickly rejected popular notions of ‘lyrical fiction’ as referring to the use of poetic language, redefining it as fiction that ‘says more than it says…[that] conveys the most essence in the least amount of space.’ Just as I was thinking, Surely he’s going to quote Hemingway, he quoted Hemingway — specifically, his desire to ‘make people feel something more than they understood’.

Lyricism, TM suggested, is about efficiency. To illustrate, he handed out some lyrics from a Colin Hay song:

I drink good coffee every morning
It comes from a place that’s far away
And when I’m done I feel like talking
Without you here there is less to say

Old Main, DNRS venue

Old Main, DNRS venue

He suggested that all we know about the speaker in the song comes from what is not said in this passage — that what is most powerful is what is implied or conveyed.

TM went on further to suggest that anything that happens in a story happens for three resasons:

1. Because it is true (true = feels real)
2. Because it is necessary to propel the plot
3. Because it is emblematic, i.e. works on a metaphorical level

Following TM’s session, I ran a workshop called ‘Never just description: Using setting to enhance your story’; and as it happens, I made similar points, quoting Andrew Cowan (from The Art of Writing Fiction) on the use of detail in story. Cowan suggests detail must:

1. Be concrete and appeal to the senses (aka “feel real”)
2. Advance or enhance the story telling (propel the plot, shed light on character)
3. Signify or resonate at the thematic level (be emblematic)

img_9524In fact, the resonances between the two sessions were so strong that a number of participants asked if TM and I had planned it that way. We hadn’t, of course: I don’t even known his real name!

My workshop was attended by 35 people, and the feedback suggested it was well-received and useful. I was really impressed with the level of participation and the quality of the writing in the exercises that people read out. For the most part, they even understood my accent. (I didn’t actually know I had an accent until I arrived in the USA!).

After the sessions, we all attended a reception featuring smoth jazz and fabulous food — hominy grits with jalapeños, tacos, tamales — and where I enjoyed meeting and chatting with some local emerging writers.

Kenny Dyer-Redner & Simon Ortiz: fighting words

Kenny Dyer-Redner & Simon Ortiz: fighting words

Simon Ortiz then gave the keynote address, which was really a call to arms. His resounding message was, ‘Speak truth to power.’ He cited the Cheyenne River Sioux protest at Standing Rock against the Dakota Access Pipeline (#NoDAPL) as an example of speaking truth to power, and spoke of knowledge — particularly ancient knowledge invested in Indigenous peoples — as ‘sorely needed in the world’.

Simon also suggested that ‘literature is essential to inclusivity’ — an assertion I’ve heard echoed by people of colour and Indigenous writers in Australia. He challenged the DNRS conference to become more truly inclusive of Indigenous/Native American writers. A powerful and eloquent address that I hope will set the tone for the conference as a whole.

I’ll do my best to keep blogging the conference sessions, but if I fall behind, check Twitter under #dnrs2017 for more.


The Poisoned Pen

img_9500 My online friend Kathy in New York told me about The Poisoned Pen when she learned I’d be visiting Phoenix. The famous bookstore in the suburb of Scottsdale was founded by Barbara Peters in 1989, who later went on to establish the Poisoned Pen Press, which publishes several Australian crime writers, including my Sisters in Crime, Kerry Greenwood and Sulari Gentill. (In fact, I tried to convince Sulari to come with me to Phoenix and play Louise to my Thelma, but in the end, I had to settle for delivering a gift to Barbara on her behalf.) It seemed all roads were leading to The Poisoned Pen and, with my dance-card soon to be filled by the Desert Nights, Rising Stars conference, tonight was the night to visit.

fullsizerenderThe Poisoned Pen is a treasure trove of crime fiction in all its forms, with sections dedicated to Southwest crime, historical crime and signed first editions, as well as a vast collection of contemporary crime fiction. It is also renowned for its author events. Photos of famous authors hang from the rafters, and I took vicarious thrills in standing in the same room that had hosted the likes of Sara Paretsky, PD James, Michael Dibdin, Philip Kerr, Ian Rankin and Patricia Cornwall — to name only a very few. Barbara says there are only two days in the calendar that don’t work for author events: Valentine’s Day; and April 15, known in the USA as Tax Day — the day tax returns are due.


With The Poisoned Pen founder Barbara Peters

Tonight’s author event was with Mark Greaney, author of the military thriller Gray Man series, Tom Clancy’s collaborator on his final three books, and author of several new Jack Ryan novels. Not my style at all. But Mark was an engaging interviewee, and thanks to Barbara’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the genre, the ensuing discussion was very interesting, ranging from story arcs and settings, to the differences between UK and American spy thrillers, and the subgenre known as ‘K and R’ (Kidnap and Ransom). Mark did make me smile when he said that he’s always looking forward to writing the next book because, ‘The next novel I write is going to be so much fun, unlike the one I’m currently writing, which is a hard slog.’

Mark Greaney & Barbara Peters

Mark Greaney & Barbara Peters

On the subject of K and R, both Barbara and Mark spoke highly of a new novel by KJ Howe called The Freedom Broker. The author is due to appear tomorrow evening (with Charles Cumming) at The Poisoned Pen, and Barbara made the point that the best time to meet an author is when they’ve just published their first novel. She went on to describe not-then-famous authors The Poisoned Pen had hosted in the past, who drew only tiny crowds — no one other than staff were on hand at the first Lee Childs gig — but who, because they were supported at the onset of their careers, have remained loyal to the bookshop.

Today's gratuitous cactus shot: Organ Pipe, near The Poisoned Pen

Organ Pipe, near The Poisoned Pen

As it was, this Wednesday evening gig drew 30 people, some driving significant distances to be there. (I caught the bus from Tempe and chatted with the loveliest driver!). And it seemed everyone was buying at least one book. I bought three, including Phoenix Noir, which was edited by Patrick Millikin, who has worked at The Poisoned Pen for 22 years. I couldn’t resist a signed copy!

I finished off my night with dinner at Restaurant Mexico in Tempe, which boasts ‘Homemade Mexico City and Jalisco Style’. Not only was the food delicious, but I got a hot (no pun intended) tip from owner Juan Carlos on how to grow jalapeños for Mexican cooking: apparently, to get a hot rather than sweet taste, you have to ‘punish the chillies’ by depriving them of water. This turns them from jalapeños into chipotles.

Is it just me, or does ‘Punishing the Chillies’ sounds like it could be the title of a short story in a Phoenix Noir anthology?


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I’m bound to cross the line*

Haydeb Butte, Phoenix.

Haydeb Butte, Phoenix.

I made landfall in America, as many before me have done, at Los Angeles International Airport aka LAX, where I was photographed, fingerprinted and treated to a full body scan sans shoes. While I get the need for security, I found it disturbing that everyone wishing to enter the US is expected to surrender such bio-data without question. I want to know what the implications are, how long my data will be stored… There was one moment of levity, however, when a male border security officer asked, ‘Are you travelling with any Tim Tams today, m’am?’

From LAX, I flew to Phoenix, Arizona, to be collected by the hotel’s complimentary shuttle bus…only it’s not quite complimentary as you’re expected to tip the driver (I checked). The whole tipping culture does my head in. I’m appalled that American workers have to rely on discretionary funds like tips to make a living wage. At the same time, the monetisation of (almost) every interaction leaves me wondering if people are genuinely friendly and helpful, or just faking it for the sake of a good tip.

fullsizerenderI promised myself I wouldn’t make generalisations, but I was struck today by how literal some Americans can be. Many people I met today explained what they were going to do before they did it, talked it through while it was happening, then reported back on what happened — even when the content was the same at all three stages. It might be politeness; or maybe it’s about risk management and an aversion to surprises, something they have in common with Thai people in that regard. I’m thinking of signs at the airport, ‘warning’ commuters that an electronic walkway will come to an end in 30 feet; or that plane exhaust, which is carcinogenic, can sometimes enter the gangway of the plane. Do I/we really need to know these things? Then again, I’m the sort of person who likes surprises.

img_9477And I got a surprise today, while waiting to check into my hotel room, when I witnessed an argument between one of the male hotel staff and a woman returning a hire car, which basically boiled down to a dispute about manners. The man (wrongly) accused the woman of profanity, adding, ‘We don’t tolerate profanity in this hotel’ (‘Fuck,’ I thought privately, ‘I’m in trouble!’); the woman took great offence, insisting she didn’t use profanity ever. And all the while I’m thinking the equivalent exchange in Australia would consist of little other than a string of profanities!

Anyway, despite having slept badly (if at all) on the plane, I took the advice of receptionist Patrick, and delayed checking in for an hour so I could get a room with a view of Hayden Butte (pronounced ‘beaut’). I killed the hour walking around Tempe, getting money changed (I live in fear of running out of small notes for tips), and accidentally choosing a img_9458vegan place to eat lunch at the Desert Roots Kitchen. There I met Des, a Navajo, and the cafe managers/staff Travers and Christian. They fed me a steady stream of tips for my time in Phoenix, while serving up a magnificent hummus plate, including a sample of peanut butter and jelly hummus they insisted I try and that, I have to admit, turned out to be delicious, as unlikely as it seems.

Travers recommended a walk up Hayden Butte, my enthusiasm for which was cemented when I looked out of my hotel room and saw the cacti on the slopes. The climb was a good work out and worth the climb to the summit, both for the cacti, and for the the stunning views of red mountains that encircles Phoenix, AZ. Gasp out loud greatness.

Now to sleep and renew my energy for more exploring tomorrow.

* I’ve taken a leaf out of Margot Kinberg’s book and used a line from one of my favourite Bob Dylan songs, ‘Shelter from the Storm’, for this blog post title. The complete line, ‘Well, I’m living in a foreign country / but I’m bound to cross the line.’
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Olga Elizabeth Whelan

Olga & Mervyn, 1938

Today marks 100 years since my grandmother Olga Elizabeth Whelan (née Patten) was born. Although she died in 2006, a few months shy of her 90th birthday, my memories of her remain fond and vivid. I knew her as Nana, a loving grandmother, a handsome and engaging woman with an eclectic range of interests and a great sense of fun. To celebrate the anniversary of her birth, I though I would share a few personal memories.

Olga was born in Narrandera, NSW, on 4 February 1917. By the time she married at the age of 19, her family had moved to Barellan, Griffith and back to Barellan. I remember her telling me she travelled to school by horse and cart, and at some point I discovered she was dux of her primary school. Olga’s father was a butcher, which may account for her lifelong appreciation of a good steak. In her later years, her favourite place to satisfy her red meat craving was Sydney’s Grotta Capri restaurant (ironically, the restaurant was also the favourite of organised crime boss Robert “Aussie Bob” Trimbole; and Olga, the wife of a policeman!). She lunched there regularly, chose it as the venue to celebrate her 85th birthday, and flirted with the waiters who knew her by name. Though I’ve never stopped missing her since she died, I was glad she didn’t live to see the Grotta Capri close in 2010.

Celebrating Nana’s 85th birthday at the Grotta Capri, Sydney, 2002

That said, I am sorry she missed the exhumation from under a car park of the remains of Richard III. She would’ve loved that final chapter in a story that had long intrigued her.

The mystery surrounding Richard III was one of her passions. Others included the Tudor period, particularly Henry VIII and his wives (she’d have loved Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy); Native American history; singer and civil rights activist Paul Robeson; playing Five Hundred; and water and sanitation, particularly as it impacted on women’s lives. When she gained control of her finances after the death of my grandfather, clean water supply was one of the causes she supported. She was an avid reader and her favourite tipple was Brown Brothers Moscato.

She married said grandfather, Mervyn Joseph Whelan, early one morning in November 1936 in Barellan. They honeymooned in Sydney and then moved to Narrandera, where the first of their ten children, my late aunt Margaret, was born in December 1937. Her brother Greg followed in 1939. My mother Olgamary (named after her mother and my grandfather’s sister) was their third born 1941 in Albury. In more or less two year intervals came Ruth, Monica, Marie, Paul, Dominica, Carmel (who died soon after birth) and Michael.

My grandmother moved frequently during her lifetime, based on where my grandfather was posted. I once sat her down and got her to dictate a list of the places she’d lived after they married. She remembered them all:


Nana with her children, on her 60th wedding anniversary in 1996 (my grandfather’s arm is just visible on the right).

Narranderah, NSW
Albury, NSW
Sydney – Bondi Junction
Barellan, NSW
Sydney – Earlwood
Corowa, NSW
Sydney – Green Valley
Broken Hill, NSW
Goulburn, NSW
Sydney – Moorebank
Sydney – Turramurra
[four-month cruise]
Sydney – Killara
Sydney – Narrabeen
Sydney – Rose Bay
Sydney – Vaucluse
Sydney – Eleanora Heights
Sydney – Kensington
Toowong, QLD
Sydney – Dee Why
Sydney – Randwick

In the 60 years she spent with my grandfather, Nana lived in 22 different houses. Her last domicile, and the place where she died, was Mount St Joseph’s Home, an aged care facility in Randwick.

Nana loved poetry. One of her favourites was When I Am Old, which opens with the line, “When I am an old woman I shall wear purple”. Purple was Nana’s colour, and purple flowers — lilac, violets, mauve roses, purple irises — still make me think of her.

She was a devout Catholic, with a literal sense of faith: when my grandfather died in 1997, she wrote in her diary of their daughter who’d died at birth more than 40 years earlier: “At last Carmel will get to see her father’s face.”

One of my favourite photos of Olga: in dress ups at a family reunion, Jindabyne c. 1982

I loved my grandmother for her big heart and open mind. While my grandfather had a knack for shutting down conversations, my grandmother encouraged us to talk. She’d often say, ‘I like to know what the young people are thinking’ — a curiosity I try to emulate, now that I’m middle aged myself. And while some family members kept things from her, I always found Nana willing to listen to ideas, even if she didn’t agree with them.

She had many sayings, some of them pretty dodgy: ‘Beauty is only skin deep, but ugliness cuts to the bone’ is one I remember. She wasn’t materialistic, but she liked nice things. For birthdays, she would ask her family only to give gifts she could eat, drink or spray on. She had a great sense of occasion and enjoyed an outing, especially to the Grotta Capri.

When my parents took their first overseas trip together in 1976, Nana came to stay and look after me and my brothers. Her visit involved a lot of red meat: she allowed me and my brothers, Julian and Luke to take turns to choose the nightly meal, which apparently meant beef stroganoff, shepherd’s pie and chops respectively. What I remember most fondly is sitting up late watching old movies with her.

Nana lamented that she only ever met her own cousins at funerals. In addition to her 10 children, she had 19 grandchildren and for many years, the extended family would gather together for regular reunions in different parts of NSW. Nana wanted us cousins to grow up knowing each other. This year, we are reviving the reunion and planning to meet up annually into the future. The cherished relationships I have with my cousins are an important part of Nana’s legacy, and a reunion seems a fitting tribute in this 100th year after her birth.

Nana with her great-granddaughter in March 2006, the last time we were together

The last time I saw my Nana was when I took my then three-month-old daughter to Sydney to meet her. My daughter’s birth came after three miscarriages: Nana had prayed for St Catherine of Siena to intervene, St Catherine being one of 13 children and the patron saint of miscarriages (who says Catholics don’t have a sense of humour!). She was so happy for me and complimented me on my ‘beautiful baby’.

Six months later, I returned to Sydney with my beautiful baby for Nana’s funeral. The solemn funeral mass, hosted by the religious order who managed the nursing home where she died, struck me as a dissonant note on which to end. So I was delighted when my nine-month-old daughter piped up with ‘Blah, blah, blah’ to enliven the bishop’s dull sermon.

Laughter and the chatter of babies were a much more felicitous send-off for such a woman.

Do you have memories of Olga Elizabeth or your own grandmother you’d like to share? Use the comments section below.

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By the time I get to Phoenix…

Next month I will visit the USA to attend the Desert Nights, Rising Stars Writers Conference at the Arizona State University in Phoenix. As the conference website blurb says, Desert Nights, Rising Stars ‘brings together writers, readers, and lovers of literature for three days of instruction, inspiration, and community. By creating an intimate and accessible space where conference-goers can make real, personal connections with award-winning authors, industry experts, and the larger community of peers, attendees gain practical tools to develop their craft, professional knowledge to further their careers, and determination and purpose to move their writing forward.’

dnrs-title-banner_2This amazing opportunity came about through my PhD supervisor, Dr Chandani Lokugé, and when it did, I felt the urge to grab it with both hands. I mean, just look at the conference logo (left) — how could anyone resist? And it’s called Desert Nights, Rising Stars for heaven’s sake (no pun intended).

As part of the conference program, I will be taking a one hour class I’m calling ‘Never Just Description: How Setting Can Enhance Your Story’. To give potential participants a taster, I wrote a blog post for the conference website:

My novels are set in Thailand, and readers often comment on their strong sense of place. But this wasn’t always the case. In a rejection letter for an early draft of my manuscript, later published as Behind the Night Bazaar, the reader commented, “I didn’t really feel that I had been taken to Thailand… I think there needs to be more of a sense of the sights and smells of Thailand, of being taken to a different land.”

At the time, I was writing straight off the back of six years in Southeast Asia, including 18 months in Thailand. In retrospect, I realise I was too close to the environment I was writing about. I had to take a step back, remember what it was like when I first arrived, try to conjure the little things that made the place unique…

Read the rest of the article here.

I’ll also be appearing on a panel with crime writer Kwei Quartey to discuss ‘Writing Culture for Other Cultures’. I’m currently reading the first in Quartey’s Darko Dawson series, Wife of the Gods, set in Ghana — not only a great read, but it’s taking me to a country I know nothing about.

As a conference participant, I’m looking forward to attending sessions with Malinda Lo (Writing with Diversity: How to & Why Not), Goldie Goldbloom, Dominic Smith, Adrienne Celt, Alissa Nutting, Elizabeth Evans and Benjamin Percy — to name a few. My biggest task will be choosing which of the great sessions on offer to attend.

This will also be my first ever trip to the USA; somehow, I’ve managed to visit Central and South America, but never the United States. As it’s taken me 50 years to get there, I plan to make the most of it and stay on for a week afterwards to do some sight-seeing. I will visit the town of Sedona, in addition to Phoenix. And weather permitting, I hope to get to both Monument Valley and the Grand Canyon — or ‘Thelma and Louise country’, as I like to think of it (though I intend to avoid going over any cliffs for the duration of my stay).


In addition to Kwei Quartey’s novels, I’m also planning to read Tony Hillerman’s Navajo Tribal Police series in preparation for my trip.

What about you? Have you ever been to Arizona? Do you have any tips or recommendations for my trip? Pre-reading for me? Songs for my playlist?

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The Reading Bingo Challenge 2016

I was alerted to the Reading Bingo Challenge by a blog post from the fabulous FictionFan and figured this would make a fun alternative to the usual ‘best of’ lists to broadcast some reading highlights of 2016. So here goes…

reading-bingo-smallMore than 500 pages
Off to a bad start, I’m afraid. Nothing I’ve read this year qualifies. And I suspect I won’t be reading anything of more than 500 pages until after I’ve finished my PhD.

turtle-beachA forgotten classic
Turtle Beach by Blanche D’Alpuget is a multi-award winning novel that proved remarkably difficult to source, even at the library, which makes me think it qualifies as ‘forgotten classic’ (I have Jo at Blarney Books to thank for my copy). The novel is set in Malaysia in 1979 and deals with the international refugee crisis following the Vietnam War. I’m a few chapters in and it’s an intriguing read.

Became a movie
goodmuslimboycover1I had the great fun of interviewing Osamah Sami at the Melbourne Writers Festival this year, which alerted me to his astonishing memoir, Good Muslim Boy. Osamah is an Iraqi, born in Iran during the Iran-Iraq war, ‘so I’ve always been at war with myself’, he writes in the opening chapter. Good Muslim Boy is a moving, alternately tragic and hilarious account of Osamah’s struggles to reconcile the demands and desires in a life lived across borders and cultures. An episode in his memoir inspired the film Ali’s Wedding (on general release in March 2017), billed as Australia’s first Muslim rom-com. Osamah stars in the film and won an AWGIE award with Andrew Knight for most outstanding script for an Original Feature Film. A prodigious talent.

the_permanent_resident_coverPublished this year
I read 16 books published in 2016, but the one I’m going to highlight here is The Permanent Resident, a collection of short stories by Roanna Gonsalves. I was fortunate to be at the Canberra launch of the collection and hearing Ro read from the collection was enough to make me buy it on the spot. These bittersweet, at times breath-taking stories are beautifully written, especially at their most confronting.

Number in the title
scarlet-stiletto-8th-cut-2016Scarlet Stiletto: The Eighth Cut is the latest in a series of anthologies published by Clan Destine Press, featuring the short stories that have won the Sisters in Crime Australia Scarlet Stiletto Awards. I had the pleasure of launching Cuts 3-8 at the SheKilda one-day crime spree in November. The Eighth Cut contains the 2016 prize winning stories, including Ruth Wykes’s first prize winner ‘Stone Cold’, and Jacqui Horwood’s ‘Diving for Pearls’, which won a special Silver Stiletto award to mark 25 years of the Sisters in Crime.

Written by someone under 30
Memory Artist
The Vogel Prize is an Australian literary award for unpublished manuscripts by writers under the age of 35. I know for a fact that this year’s winner is under 30 because it was won by my friend and PhD study buddy Katherine (Kate) Brabon for her stunning novel, The Memory Artist. Also making ABC TV’s First Tuesday Book Club’s Top 10 Books for 2016, The Memory Artist is a sad and beautiful meditation on memory, trauma and the place of art in Soviet Russia.

Non-human characters
Thank heavens for Pow-Wow the Power Saving Panda in Briohny’s Doyle’s debut The Island Will Sink or I wouldn’t have been able to tick this bingo box. An apocalyptic novel bursting with questions about climate change, cultural homogeneity and how we define real-life in a screen-saturated culture, The Island Will Sink is the first novel to be published by The Lifted Brow.

Funny book
indexRobert Gott’s Will Power series features a character whom Shane Maloney once described as ‘Australia’s first dickhead detective’. I was sharing a hotel room with my mother in Hobart while reading the latest installment, The Serpent’s Sting, and had to put it aside because I was laughing so much, I was keeping her awake. Recommended as the perfect read for a happy festive season.

Female author
when-michael-met-minaHow is this even a bingo category?! Sixty-eight per cent of the books I read this year were by female authors, including most of the academic ones. The book I’m highlighting here is When Michael Met Mina by Sydney author Randa Abdel-Fattah. Pitched at a YA audience, it’s a terrific story Romeo and Juliet story for our times. Michael’s father is a founding member of anti-immigration group  ‘Aussie Values’. Mina’s family came to Australia as refugees from Afghanistan. In lesser hands, this could have been a ‘heavy’, didactic read. Instead, it’s a vibrant and engaging story, peopled with credible teenage characters.

With a mystery
cover_rules-of-backyard-cricketI read fewer crime novels than usual this year (11 out of 50 books, 15 if you count short story anthologies), although a number of the literary novels I read used crime as a plot device, including Miles Franklin winner, AS Patric’s beautiful and brutal Black Rock, White City; Stella Prize winner, Charlotte Wood’s unsettling, The Natural Way of Things; and one of my favourite literary reads of 2016, Peggy Frew’s Hope Farm. But my bingo pick is Jock Serong’s The Rules of Backyard Cricket. The novel opens with Darren Keefe in the boot of a car, tied up and shot through the knee, watching the white lines of the Geelong Road through a hole in the tail-light. He can feel a shovel and a bag of lime next to him. How the hell did he get there? What the hell happens next? Shortlisted for the 2017 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards, this is one to keep you awake at night.

avalancheOne-word title
I read more memoirs than usual in 2016 (8 out of 50 books), one of which was Julia Leigh’s Avalanche, about her experience of IVF and her decision to stop treatment. Leigh writes beautifully about the liminality of infertility and the grief of letting go. Deeply personal and also generous, this small book was one of my favourite reads of 2016.

Short Stories
cracking-the-spineI’ve become evangelical about Cracking the Spine, one of six short story books I read this year. Published in 2012 by Spineless Wonders and edited by Julie Chevalier and Browyn Mehan, the anthology features ten stories by outstanding Australian writers — including Ryan O’Neill, Maria Takolander and Tony Birch — each accompanied by an essay on how the story was written. Compelling and illuminating, Cracking the Spine is an invaluable resource for anyone writing short stories and/or teaching short story writing.

gunshine-state-paperback-wraparoundFree Square
I’m allocating my free square to Gunshine State, the second novel by my partner in life and crime fiction, Andrew Nette. Queensland’s Gold Coast is just one of the settings vividly evoked in this classic heist novel, described by Jock Serong as ‘gruesome, visceral fun’ that ‘never lets up for a second’. The perfect summer holiday read.

ruinsSet on a different continent
This is another one of those ‘duh?’ bingo squares for me. In 2016, I read 17 novels set in Australia and 11 set elsewhere. One of the most compelling was Rajith Savanadasa’s debut Ruins, set in Sri Lanka. Ruins took me to places I could never imagine, an intimate portrayal of a troubled family and country, with a denouement that took my breath away.

I had the honour and pleasure of interviewing Magda Szubanski as part of the Schools Program at Melbourne Writers Festival this year, about her extraordinary book Reckoning. Both a biography of her father, a member of the Polish resistance, and a memoir of Szubanski’s own life, Reckoning is an intriguing, often poetic exploration of how history and trauma in one generation impacts on the next.

First book by a favourite author
harmony-silk-factoryI discovered Malaysian novelist Tash Aw while in Thailand this time last year, stumbling upon his Map of the Invisible World in a secondhand bookshop on Koh Chang. I subsequently tracked down his multi-award winning first novel, The Harmony Silk Factory. The epic tale of Johnny Lim — ‘textile merchant, petty crook and inventor of the Amazing Toddy Machine’ — told through the eyes of his son, his wife Snow Soong, and expatriate Englishman Peter Wormwood, is also the story of Malaysia from the 1940s to the present. Simply stunning.

Heard about it online
giant-octopus-momentWhen I started writing my PhD, a Google search for novels about surrogacy brought up the oddly titled Her Giant Octopus Moment by Kay Langdale. Set in the UK, the story centres on the relationship between eleven-year-old Scout and her mother Joanie, a surrogate mother who had a change of heart about relinquishing the baby she’d agreed to carry. As a result, Joanie and Scout had been living on the run. A mediation on what makes a parent, the novel turned out to be an unexpected delight, due largely to wonderful characterisations. The ‘giant octopus moment’, when it came, was genuinely moving.

Best seller
last-painting-of-sara-de-vosMy bingo pick for this category is New York Times bestseller, The Last Paining of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith. A rare seventeenth century painting links three lives on three continents over three centuries in this absorbing and ingenious book. I was subsequently thrilled to learn that Smith, an Australian writer now based in the US, will be at guest at the Desert Nights, Rising Stars conference I’ll be attending in Phoenix, Arizona in February 2017.

Based on a true story
FerrisRiskFleur Ferris’s Risk was inspired by true stories of online predators and love gone wrong, derived from the author’s experiences as a former police officer and paramedic. As the mother of a ten-year-old girl, I found Risk genuinely frightening and something of a wake-up call. The thriller element is enhanced by the characters’ experiences of guilt and grief. A worthy winner of the Sisters in Crime Davitt Awards for Best Young Adult Novel 2016 and joint winner of Best Debut Book 2016.

Bottom of the TBR pile
flynn_tigerinedenGiven our proximity to and engagement with Asia, there is comparatively scant fiction published in Australia that is set in Asia, even less Asian-Australian authored fiction, and Asian fiction published in Australia. Whenever I come across Australian novels set in Thailand in particular, I try to read them, and this year I finally got to Tiger in Eden by Chris Flynn, published in 2012. It’s hard to know how to describe this novel. The central character, Belfast-born Billy Montgomery, is a criminal, but it’s not a crime novel. Billy is unlikeable, but you can’t help liking him. The Thai setting is filtered through Billy’s voice, which is rough and sweary, alternating between hilarious and excruciating.

cosmopolitanismYour friend loves…
Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers by Kwame Anthony Appiah was recommended to me as a wonderful read by my PhD supervisor, academic and novelist Chandani Lokuge. It is not only a wonderful read, it is the first theoretic text I’ve read that makes sense of my experience. This one’s for life, not just for Christmas the PhD.

Scared me
golden-childIn preparation for our panel together at SheKilda 3 on domestic noir, I got to read an advance copy of Wendy James’s new novel, The Golden Child. Not only was it a compulsive read, it was so scary, it gave me nightmares. It’s Mildred Pierce meets The Bad Seed in the digital age. They* don’t call James Australia’s Queen of Domestic Suspense for nothing.

* It may have actually been me who first called Wendy James Australia’s Queen of Domestic Suspense, but the title has certainly stuck.

More than 10 years old
julia-paradiseIn preparation for interviewing Rod Jones at the Newcastle Writers Festival (are you starting to see a pattern here?), I read not only his poignant latest novel, The Mothers, but his award-winning debut Julia Paradise, first published in 1986, and re-published as part of the Text Classics series. Set in Shanghai in 1927, Julia Paradise is like no other book I’ve ever read. Erotic, unsettling, and entirely transporting. A hell of a find.

Second book in a series
Dead Men Don't Order FlakeI had the great pleasure of launching Sue Williams’s Dead Men Don’t Order Flake, the second novel in her cosy crime fiction series featuring takeaway owner-operator cum private investigator Cass Tuplin. With its vivid small town setting, colourful cast of characters, cracking pace and laugh out loud humour, I had no hesitation recommending Dead Men Don’t Order Flake for the Sisters in Crime Hot Reads for Summer.

Book with a blue cover
skylarkingStrangely, quite a few of the books I read in 2016 fit this description, making me think I must be subliminally attracted to blue covers. The one I’m allocating to this final bingo square is actually on the top of my summer reading pile for 2017: Skylarking by Kate Mildenhall. I had the great pleasure of hearing Kate speak about the book at a symposium on ‘biofiction’ (fiction based on the lives of real people) and rushed straight out to buy it.

What were your reading highlights for 2016? And what’s on the top of your summer reading pile?

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SheKilda 3…where a criminally good time was had by all

This post is based on an article that appeared on the Sisters in Crime Australia website, with editorial comments as noted.

Sisters in Crime celebrated its 25th birthday in style at SheKilda3: One-day Crime Spree at St Kilda Town Hall on 19 November.

The verdict has been unanimous: SheKilda3 was outstanding – top level panels and discussion, a great Great Debate, inspiring Scarlet Stiletto Awards, a warm and inclusive atmosphere, productive networking, fabulous food, and marvellous fun…


The Great Debaters: (L-R) Sue Williams, Leigh Redhead, Robert Gott, Jock Serong, Angela Savage, Andrew Nette & Vikki Petraitis

Sisters in Crime President, Vivienne Colmer, said SheKilda3 had exceeded the wildest expectation of the organisers.

“Authors and crime buffs came all over the country – from Cairns to Hobart, Sydney to Perth – with everyone commenting on the stimulating debates, both on stage and elsewhere. The authors and other speakers raved about how inspiring it was to get together with their peers – on both a professional and social level. One author declared it was ‘life-changing’.

“Authors talked eloquently about their books and their works-in-progress and even ideas for new projects they got just from attending. It was exciting to see how many professional connections between writers, editors, publishers and producers were forged,” she said.

“The hall looked amazing with scarlet stilettos big and small everywhere we looked. Everyone felt welcomed, whether they were veterans or newbies.”

Participants complimented Sisters in Crime on the excellent organisation and “top-class” panels. Author Maryanne Ross described SheKilda 3 as “the absolute best writers’ event I have been to for many years… great value for a writer (other writers’ festivals are really for readers) – eight high quality panels very insightful re writing process, with deep discussions about challenges and how they were overcome, as well as exploring personal courage. Also, great networking with other writers at all stages of their careers.”

[Ed’s note: I had the great pleasure of chairing a panel on Domestic Noir, featuring three of my favourite local writers of the sub-genre: Wendy James, Honey Brown and Anna George. As well as discussing its antecedents, we also speculated on the current popularity of domestic noir, which Anna linked to women’s ambivalence about power and the gains we have and haven’t made in recent decades. Other memorable lines: “Domestic violence is the underbelly of romantic love” (Anna George); “To be a creative person you need to have a dodgy moral compass” (Honey Brown); and Wendy James on why she struggles to see her work as ‘noir’ in the classic sense: “I’m writing about women in dressing gowns that aren’t see-through!”]

Back: Wendy James & me; front: Anna George & Honey Brown after talking Domestic Noir

Back: Wendy James & me; front: Anna George & Honey Brown after talking Domestic Noir

SheKilda3 was actually a day and a bit with crime writing workshops run by Ellie Marney and Professor Christina Lee at St Kilda Library on Friday afternoon. Everyone got into the mood for the convention with an engrossing session early Friday evening with Melina Marchetta, the YA author who has just turned to (adult) crime. (Catch up with Sue Turnbull’s review if you missed the session).

The pitching sessions to the publishers were a popular addition with 21 women and two men pitching to five publishers. The pitching session to the producers was also great fun and allowed everyone to dream bigger than their novel. All sorts of possibilities may ensue. One producer pitched to two authors during a smoko on the Town Hall lawn. Another producer has asked for a list of all the ‘pitchees’.

In her opening address, Vivienne acknowledged Janelle Colquhoun, Sisters in Crime’s Queensland convenor, who travelled from Brisbane, and Rose Stone (below), a founding member who turns 95 in March and until recently rarely missed an event. As Vivienne said, “Clearly having a criminally good time keeps the ageing process at bay.” (Click shekilda3-welcome-vivienne-colmer for the full speech.) [Ed’s note: I was delighted to meet and talk with Rose, whose main tip for a long life was to have fun].


Me with my new nonagenarian role model Rose Stone.

Professor Sue Turnbull presented the keynote address about the state of Australian women’s crime writing (click shekilda3-keynote-address-sue-turnbull to read) and, to her surprise, was presented with a Life Membership and also made Sisters in Crime’s inaugural ambassador. Sue’s colleagues at the University of Wollongong are apparently now referring to her as ‘your excellency’.

One of the highlights of the day was the Great Debate where the Dames – Vikki Petraitis, Leigh Redhead and Sue Williams – argued the toss with the Dicks – Robert Gott, Andrew Nette and Jock Serong – on the topic, Dicks should stick to writing hardboiled and dames should stick to writing cozies.

Leigh Redhead took issue with Dicks’ Team Leader Robert Gott whom, she said, had claimed that Leigh had won previous debates by wearing low cut frocks and flashing her breasts. She donned a nun’s habit and then quoted Seneca! Robert almost brought the house down when he told Leigh he had attended a Christian Brothers’ College, with the implication that the nun’s habit wasn’t so much a turn-off, as a turn-on…

The Dicks’ team was the best ever assembled for a Sisters in Crime event but the Dames narrowly won when it came to the clapometer. Now everyone wants to buy Andrew Nette’s hard-boiled cookbook!

[Ed’s note: As compere of the debate, I’m sorry in retrospect that I didn’t call it a draw; definitely the best Dicks this Sister has ever seen. Just look at the audience reaction in the photos below.] audience-10

audience-4SheKilda3 climaxed in the Scarlet Stiletto Awards for short stories. Nicole da Silva (Frankie in Wentworth) won everyone’s hearts with her honesty, charm and commitment to stories told by women for women. She has recently set up a production company to get more women’s stories to the screen.

The Scarlet Stiletto Awards reminded us again how crucial they have been in providing a springboard for emerging women writers. It was particularly inspiring to hear how Year 12 student Jenny Chen [Youth Award Runner Up] decided to enter after a school visit from Cate Kennedy, the doyen Australian short story writers, who got her start by winning the first – and then the second – Scarlet Stiletto Awards back in 1994 and 1995.

All panels were videoed by long-time Sisters in Crime member Leslie-Falkiner-Rose and her daughter Zarah. Filmmaker Pippa Wischer interviewed a number authors for her film project, A Murder of Crime Writers [Ed’s note: I was thrilled to be part of this and can’t wait to see the finished project]. Her colleague Nick did vox pops with convention-goers about Sisters in Crime. Videos and podcasts will available in the New Year.

Many thanks to SheKilda3 sponsors:
Criminal Accomplices: Bonnier Publishing; Harper Collins Australia
Criminal Associates: Text Publishing
Criminal Line-Up: Blarney Books & Art
Criminal Reputation: Clan Destine Press; Dennis Jones & Associates; Sun Bookshop

To our sixteen criminal consorts who kindly made donations to help with the cost of the event: Maggie Baron, Suzanne Bozorth-Baines, Tony Berry, Ann Byrne, Mirna Cicioni, Aoife Clifford, Vivienne Colmer, Ayala Deasey, Caroline de Costa, Annie Hauxwell, Claire Hill, Anne Holmes, Editors Victoria, Vicki Skidmore, Jaz Stutley and Ann Turner.

To the SheKilda3 committee: Carmel Shute, Michaela Lobb, Lindy Cameron. Caz Brown, Sandra Nicholson, Vivienne Colmer and Robyn Byrne, and to all the volunteers.

A reliable source informs us that the last SheKilda3 attendees standing were still laughing and singing at 4am… [Alas, I was not among them: after teaching in Geelong the day before, and being at SheKilda to chair a panel, compere the Great Debate, and launch the Scarlet Stiletto e-books, I crashed early.]

See here for my Scarlet Stiletto e-book launch speech; and here to buy the books.

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