Reading Bingo 2018

reading_bingo_2018The guys at the gym laughed when I told them we don’t do footy tipping in my workplace: we do competitive reading. The competition involves my colleagues at Writers Victoria, together with the staff and volunteers of all the co-resident organisations in The Wheeler Centre where we are located. I read 45 books this year (that I can remember), a couple more than last year, but nowhere near as many as the front runners. And once again, I’m choosing ‘Reading Bingo’ as a framework for reflecting on my year of reading.

A book with more than 500 pages
Daughters_cvrClare Wright’s You Daughters of Freedom clocks in at 560 pages but reads with the pace of a thriller. The book captures a time when a newly Federated Australia took pride in championing progressive politics, not only leading the way on delivering political rights to (white) women, but taking the success of our suffrage campaign overseas. The story is told through through the eyes of five movers and shakers — Vida Goldstein, Nellie Martel, Dora Montefiore, Muriel Matters, and Dora Meeson Coates — whom I hope will become household names, thanks to Wright’s outstanding research and story telling. I had the great pleasure of being in conversation with Clare about You Daughters of Freedom at the Word for Word Festival in Geelong in November and could’ve talked with her all day about this book.

A forgotten classic
Watch Tower_cvrElizabeth Harrower’s novel The Watch Tower was first published the year I was born, and re-released in 2012 as part of the Text Classics series — which I believe qualifies it as both forgotten (albeit temporarily) and a classic. Set in Sydney in the 1940s, The Watch Tower is a terrifying study of power and control, rendered in exquisite prose. The Watch Tower was Michelle de Kretser’s choice for a book club session at this year’s Melbourne Writers Festival, which I was fortunate enough to host. Elizabeth Harrower’s own advice to anyone who’s even thinking of being a writer is to ‘read endlessly and read great books forever’. I’m grateful to Michelle, herself a writer of great books, for drawing my attention to this great book.

A book that became a movie
the-ruin_cvrI didn’t read any books that became movies as such in 2018, but if I was to wager on which of the books I read might become a movie, I reckon Irish-born, Western Australian author Dervla McTiernan’s gripping debut crime novel, The Rúin, would be a strong contender. In 1993, rookie cop Cormac Reilly is sent to a house in Galway, where he finds two neglected children, their mother dead in her bed from a drug overdose. Twenty years later, having forged a successful career in Dublin, Reilly returns to Galway, where another death forces him to revisit the case that still haunts him. I could see Colin Farrell or Cillian Murphy in the lead role, with maybe Saoirse Ronan as Aisling Conroy…

A book published this year
The Fireflies of Autumn (online)_cvrJust over half the books I read this year were published in 2018, or are slated for publication in 2019 — a perk of my job. The 2018 release I’m highlighting on this bingo square is The Fireflies of Autumn and Other Tales of San Ginese by Italian-born Australian writer Moreno Giovannoni. Giovannoni won the inaugural Deborah Cass Prize for Migrant Writing, and his winning entry forms part of this fresh, unsentimental though lyrical and often funny collection of stories. This was a book I savoured, reluctant to finish and thus be forced to wrest myself away from San Ginese and its beguiling, sometimes baffling occupants. The Fireflies of Autumn also has one of my favourite cover designs of 2018.

A book with a number in the title
a-honeybee-heart-has-five-openings-9781471167713_lgAfter leaving this square blank in 2017, I’m able to complete it this year with A Honeybee Heart Has Five Openings by UK writer Helen Jukes. Honeybee Heart is a memoir focusing on a year in which Jukes, an overworked staffer at a UK charity organisation, decides to keep bees in her Oxford garden. The book draws on ancient history, natural history and linguistics in its study of the relationship between humans and bees and what it means to ‘keep’ wild creatures, though much of Jukes’s story is about finding connection—the ‘unpredictable, knotty business of attachment’. I had the pleasure of interviewing Jukes at a Melbourne Writers Festival (MWF) session called ‘Birds & Bees’, at which she made a compelling case for ensuring the survival of her beloved species.

A book written by an author under thirty
Pink mountain_cvr
Jamie Marina Lau was 21 when her novel Pink Mountain on Locust Island, was published this year — not that it shows in her prose. The story centres on Monk, a teen living in Chinatown with her washed-up painter father, and their uneasy relationship with an interloper called Santa Coy. I felt the same way about the book as reviewer Ellen Cregan: ‘Where this book shines most clearly is on a line level. I read the whole thing very quickly … and occasionally I had to consciously slow myself down in order to enjoy the wonderfully abject prose. Lau’s writing is something else. She doesn’t sound like anyone I’ve read before … Anyone interested in writing that is formally experimental should put this book at the top of their reading pile.’

A book with non-human characters
Birdwatcher_cvrAnother square I left blank last year is this year claimed by The Birdwatcher by William McInnes, which features a curlew called Picnic, who likes being read to, especially from Ian Fleming’s novel Goldfinger. One of the main human characters, Clare, notes that, ‘As an audience, Picnic has been pretty good, tilting her head this way and that, only occasionally needing a bit of biscuit.’ I came across this absolutely charming novel in the course of preparing to interview Will for the MWF session, ‘Birds & Bees’ alongside Helen Jukes. I subsequently sent The Birdwatcher to my mum, who was going through a rough health patch, and she confirmed my instinct that this is a great read for hard times.

A funny book
Drovers Wives_cvrFor the second consecutive year, I’m allocating this square to a work by Ryan O’Neill: this time to The Drover’s Wives, O’Neill’s 2018 release, which features 99 riffs on the Henry Lawson classic Australian short story, ‘The Drover’s Wife’. Before I’d even read this book, I gave it to a friend for his birthday, and we laughed till we cried just skimming through the table of contents. Reading the stories, I laughed even more. Among my personal favourites: ‘The Drover’s Wife’ as ‘A Year 8 English Essay’ (No. 4), as ‘Editorial Comments’ (No. 17), and as ‘An Amazon Book Review’ (No. 42), the latter written in all caps and opening with the line ‘DON’T READ THIS BOOK. NO, REALLY. DON’T!’ By contrast, my advice is READ THIS BOOK. NO, REALLY. DO!

A book by a female author
Terra Nullius_cvrYet again, I wonder how ‘a book by a female author’ can even be a bingo reading category, given 35 out of the 45 books I read this year were written by women. I’m allocating this square to a work by Noongar author Claire G Coleman, Terra Nullius. I met Claire at the start of the year at the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards, where Terra Nullius was highly commended. In the novel, Claire uses speculative fiction to devastating effect to illustrate that what settler Australians think of as dystopian, Indigenous Australians experience as reality. A timely and powerful book.

A book with a mystery
The Fragments_cvrToni Jordan’s new novel, The Fragments, is a literary thriller — one of my favourite sub-genres — set between Brisbane in 1986 and New York in 1938-39. In Brisbane, Caddie Walker is obsessed with author Inga Karlson who, after publishing a sensational debut novel, perished in a warehouse fire in New York in 1939 in mysterious circumstances, together with all known copies of her second novel. In New York, we follow Inga through the eyes of Rachel, whose relationship with Inga transforms her life. The story is an exquisite evocation of time and place, and a reflection on the power of books and stories. ‘Books are time travel and space travel and mood-altering drugs,’ writes Jordan. ‘They are mind-melds and telepathy and past-life regression.’ A truly gorgeous read.

A book with a one word title
Preservation_cvrAnyone who knows me well knows that I’m a huge fan of Jock Serong’s writing. His latest novel, released in September, is Preservation is a historical thriller based on a real-life shipwreck in 1797 off what was then Van Dieman’s Land. Seventeen men — British merchant seamen and Bengali lascars — set out from the wreck to travel to Sydney. Months later, three survivors are picked up just south of the colonial town. Serong fills the gaps in the historical account with a tense, sometimes menacing narrative, told from the point of view of different characters, including one of the lascars and the wife of a lieutenant in Sydney assigned to investigate. Particularly powerful is his imaginative evocation of south coast Aboriginal nations prior to settlement. Highly recommended.

A book of short stories
Portable_cvrOf the four short story collections I read this year, I’m highlighting Julie Koh’s stunning collection, Portable Curiosities. Koh’s creative choices are mind-bending — if you’ve ever wondered how the narrative voice of a pair of perfect breasts might sound, look no further — her prose lyrical, often breathtaking. I had the pleasure of meeting Julie briefly at the Newcastle Writers Festival in April, where she spoke on a panel, together with Ryan O’Neill and Jane Rawson, called ‘Outside the Square: Is experimentation in Australian literature dead?’ Judging by both the size of the audience in Newcastle and the strength of Koh’s collection, the answer to that question is a resounding ‘no’.

A free square
Growing up Aboriginal
I’m allocating my free square this year to the anthology, Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia, edited by the luminous Anita Heiss, with whom I had the great pleasure of sharing a panel at the Word for Word Festival in Geelong. Growing Up Aboriginal is, to borrow a current affairs cliché, a book no Australian can afford to miss. The collection of personal essays shines a light on the breadth and depth of the Aboriginal experience in Australia, not to mention the significant talents of our First Nations people. Not all contributors are writers, but all are storytellers, and their stories are enlightening, often moving and sometimes enraging.

A book set on a different continent
Wish Child_cvrFourteen of the 36 works of fiction I read in 2019 were set outside Australia, including The Wish Child by New Zealand author Catherine Chidgey. The Wish Child tells the story of two children: Sieglinde, who comes from a middle-class family in Berlin, her father working as a censor for the Third Reich, and Erich, who lives in rural Germany with his mother, whose stories collide as Germany comes apart. Part of the novel’s power comes from recounting the Nazi propaganda through the children’s eyes. But the real suckerpunch is the revelation of the narrator at the end of the story. When I interviewed Catherine Chidgey at Adelaide Writers Week in March, she mentioned that The Wish Child had not been reviewed in Australia, a shame as it deserves way more attention than it has received here.

A book of non-fiction
Skin in the game_cvrI read nine works of non-fiction this year, most in preparation for writers’ festivals, including Skin in the Game: The Pleasure and Pain of Telling True Stories by Sonya Voumard, whom I interviewed on a panel at the Word for Word Festival. Voumard’s collection melds personal essays with political commentary to great effect, documenting both her life as a journalist and demise of print journalism. Particularly intriguing are Voumard’s encounters with Helen Garner, whom she interviewed for a university essay in 1980, incurring Garner’s wrath in the process — an experience she revisited with Garner 31 years later. This process renewed Voumard’s appreciation of her interview subjects, aware that interviewing is ‘often intimate, provocative and invasive’.

The first book by a favourite author
Wrong Turn_cvrI’m not sure if this category refers to a debut novel by an author whose work you already admire, or the first book you’ve read by an author who is destined become a ‘favourite’. I’m taking it as a combination of both. Jane Rawson is a person I’ve admired for some time, having seen her interviewed at festivals, listened to her on radio, followed on Twitter, but never got around to reading. This year, I finally got to her debut novel, the wonderfully titled A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists, winner of the SPN award for the Most Underrated Book of 2014. On the strength of this darkly humorous, deeply unsettling story, I feel Jane is destined to become a favourite author.

A book you heard about online
Dragon and KangarooI’ve mostly ceased reviewing on this blog, due to time constraints, combined with the sensitivities of trying to reflect critically on works when you also head up the peak body for writers in the state. However, I’m still on the mailing list for a number of publishing houses, giving me access to information on books I might not otherwise hear about. One example that came through from the publicists at Hachette is Robert Mackin’s Dragon & Kangaroo: Australia and China’s shared history from the goldfields to the present day. This important study does not make for easy reading, dealing as it does with historical atrocities and successive waves of racism directed at the Chinese in Australia. But like all good histories, it is both engaging and enlightening.

A best selling book
The-Nowhere-Child-by-Christian-WhiteAt the Small Press Network conference in November, Bianca Whiteley from Nielsen BookScan reported that Christian White’s debut, The Nowhere Child (Affirm Press), was not only the highest selling adult fiction title for a small Australian publisher in 2018, but the highest selling book by small publishers overall. So I bumped it up my TBR pile. Nearly 30 years after two-year-old Sammy Went disappears from her home in small town Kentucky, Sammy’s brother approaches Melbourne-based Kim Leamy, convinced she is his missing sister and giving her enough grounds to travel to the USA to investigate. Growing darker as it closes in on the serpent handling religious cult of which Sammy’s family was a part, the plot kept me guessing, while delivering a satisfying twist at the end. I can see what all the fuss is about.

A book based on a true story
Billy-Sing-front-cover-for-publicityIt was in Dragon & Kangaroo where I read about William Edward ‘Billy’ Sing, an Australian-born Eurasian of Chinese and British parentage who was the most celebrated ANZAC sniper of World War I. Chinese-Australian writer Ouyang Yu’s Billy Sing (Transit Lounge) consciously resists any notion of the ANZAC legend, however, in favour of what reviewer Terri Ann Quan Sing (quoting one of Yu’s poems) calls ‘a a sniper’s rifle that shoots a ‘fuck you’ into the heart of White Australia’. The power of this novella is in the narrative voice, described by Quan Sing as ‘poetically playful, painful, gruff, churlish, and sometimes obscene’. Based on a true story, but revealing deeper, more uncomfortable truths as a work of fiction.

A book at the bottom of your to be read pile
The Strays_cvrI’d been meaning to read Emily Bitto’s award-winning debut novel The Strays since it won the Stella Prize in 2015. I booked Emily to teach a workshop for Writers Victoria in 2018 on ‘Writing Exquisite Sentences’, which proved so popular, we ran it three times. Signing up to volunteer at the third workshop, prompted me to read The Strays at last. I’m so glad I did: I loved the story of Lily, an only child, whose life is transformed by her friendship with Eva, daughter of Bohemian artists in 1930s Melbourne. A meditation on art, class, childhood, friendship and legacy, the writing also demonstrates why Emily Bitto was the perfect tutor for writing exquisite sentences (and it was a fabulous workshop).

Honorable mentions, too, to Heather Rose’s Museum of Modern Love and Extinctions by Josephine Wilson, both wonderful book previously on, and now off, the TBR pile.

A book your friend loves
Little Paradise_cvrUsually, I fill this square with a book recommended by my mother, but this year, it’s one recommended by my daughter. Both of us are long-standing fans of Gabrielle Wang’s books for young readers (Ghost in My Suitcase, In the Garden of Empress Cassia, and the Our Australian Girl: Meet Pearlie series being among our favourites), and though my daughter and I rarely read the same books now that I no longer read aloud to her, she urged me to read Little Paradise, too. Inspired by a true story (the front cover features a photograph of Wang’s mother), Little Paradise is set in Melbourne and Shanghai during the 1940s. Shedding light on the civil war in China, it is at its heart a beautiful love story. Highly recommended by me and Miss (Then) Twelve.

A book that scares you
The books that scare me usually do so because of their political implications — Kamila Shamsie’s depiction of the radicalisation of young Muslim men in Home Fire being the perfect example. But this year, I’m giving this square to The Nowhere Child, as it contains what is for me one of the most horrifying scenes in literature since Winston Smith entered Room 101 in George Orwell’s 1984.

A book that is more than 10 years old
The Watch Tower was the only book I managed to read this year that was more than ten years old. I might have to aim for a ‘classic’ or two in 2019.

A book with a blue cover
Lucy Barton_cvrI feel like I already covered this with Little Paradise, so I’m going to mention a book with some blue on the cover. In addition to Michelle de Kretser’s book club at Melbourne Writers Festival, I also put up my hand to host a session with Sarah Krasnostein — mostly because it meant I would prioritise reading Kranostein’s multi-award-winning book The Trauma Cleaner about the life of Sandra Pankhurst. This was reward enough. But Sarah’s choice of book for discussion, Elizabeth Strout’s By Name is Lucy Barton, also blew me away. I read it from cover to cover in one sitting, then read it again a few weeks later. My Name is Lucy Barton is a poignant story that sheds light on how poverty shapes lives, while Strout’s prose demonstrate the power of simple language used to full effect.

In terms of holiday reading, I’ve just finished Katherine Collette’s debut The Helpline, which was funny and heartening — the perfect leisure read. Next up is Warlight by Michael Ondaatje, my Christmas present from my mother.

What were some of your best reads of 2018?

Here’s wishing you a New Year filled with great reads.




Mother of Pearl to be published by Transit Lounge in 2019

Contract happiness

The joy of signing a publishing contract

I am absolutely delighted to share the news that my new novel, Mother of Pearl, will be published by Transit Lounge in July 2019.

Mother of Pearl was written as part of my PhD in Creative Writing at Monash University, and explores the complex and contentious topic of overseas commercial surrogacy.

Here’s the elevator pitch:

Mother of Pearl tells the story of three women. Mukda is a single mother in provincial Thailand, struggling to make ends meet. Anna is an aid worker, trying to settle back into life in Melbourne after more than a decade in Southeast Asia. Meg, Anna’s sister, holds out hope for a child, despite seven fruitless years of IVF. The three women’s lives become intimately intertwined in the unsettling and extraordinary process of bringing a child into the world across borders of class, culture and nationality.

Here’s what my thesis examiners had to say about the novel:

‘A considered and accomplished piece of work’

‘Characters are deeply imagined and plausible.’

‘The plot is well-handled, with the movements back and forth between Thai and Australian settings and characters, and between time frames, highly effective…

‘As the story develops, readers (at least this reader) are held in thrall, as issues of pregnancy, desired motherhood, and birth are all dealt with in convincing and
empathetic ways.’

And this from Christos Tsiolkas:

What I find remarkable about this novel is how it refuses easy and lazy judgement, how it takes seriously questions of loss, longing, and our human need to connect with each other. The writing is moving and powerful, the story riveting, and the execution both daring and engrossing. It is a book that is both devastating and hopeful. It is a wonderful read.

I’m very grateful to my agent Fiona Inglis at Curtis Brown for helping to find the right publisher, and to Barry Scott and his team at Transit Lounge for their vote of confidence in a book that was a labour of love for me (no pun intended). Barry was charged with administering the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Unpublished Manuscript when I won back in 2004, an award that launched my writing career, with the publication of my first novel, Behind the Night Bazaar (Text, 2006). So it seems fitting that Barry should publish a work that is, as a non-genre novel, a new beginning for me.

I have many other people to thank, but I’ll save that for the acknowledgements section of the novel. In the meantime, I’m simply delighted to share this news.

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Creative Lives: Interview with Sulari Gentill

I had the great pleasure recently of interviewing award-winning Australian writer and my dear friend Sulari Gentill for the Creative Lives series.

Sulari_headshotCreative Lives: The Interview Series is an initiative of the South Asian Diaspora International Researchers’ Network (SADIRN), a global network hosted by Monash University. The series aims to shed light on the ‘magical space’ that is the creative mind of the South Asian diasporic writer, where characters lurk, plots unwind, and critical thinking shimmers.

Sri Lankan born Australian novelist Sulari Gentill is the author of the award-winning Rowland Sinclair series of historical crime fiction, the first of which, A Few Right Thinking Men, published in 2010, was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Book. The ninth book in the series, All The Tears in China, will be released in January 2019. As SD Gentill, Sulari has also published The Hero Trilogy, a YA fantasy series based on a retelling of ancient Greek myths. In August 2018, she won the Australian Crime Writers Association’s Ned Kelly Award for her standalone novel, Crossing the Lines. I interviewed Sulari the day after the awards night [read her account of the night here]. In this interview, Sulari talks about ‘the deliciousness of writing’, reflecting on her creative choices, the relationship between authors and their characters, and the disturbing parallels between Australia in the 1930s and today.

Angela Savage: Sulari, congratulations on winning the Ned Kelly Award for Best Crime Novel. By my calculations, you are only the third woman, and the first woman of colour to win in this category since the awards began in 1995. For some time, you were the only South Asian diasporic writer working in the crime genre in Australia, and you’re still one of only two that we know of. How do you account for this?

Sulari Gentill: Well, I don’t account for it, to be honest, I’m not sure that I can. I did have a discussion with Malla Nunn, who’s another writer of colour who writes in this genre, about this some time ago and we were talking tongue in cheek about the fact that quite often writers of colour, particularly writers of South Asian origin, are too snobby to write anything but literature.

Angela: Well, I did wonder if it reflects a lack of prestige accorded to genre fiction over literary fiction in South Asian diasporic communities.

Sulari: Perhaps, but I don’t know whether people necessarily think in those terms. It did not occur to me, when I started writing that I was choosing to write genre fiction. I was just writing. I can’t imagine people sitting down and thinking, ‘I want to write. What am I going to write? I’m going to write something worthy.’ It seems to me a very artificial construct.

I do wonder whether it’s a feeling of where you will be welcomed. I know we had this discussion recently about the concept of “the other” and I do think that literature, and high literature in particular, whilst it is viewed as worthy, and award worthy, and grant worthy, and something to be aspired to, is also considered as the “other”. It’s not something you necessarily read when you’re tired or in need of comfort. You don’t necessarily read it to feel at home, indeed, quite often it’s the opposite—you read it when you want to be extended, or challenged or made to learn.

When you’re tired and you need comfort or a good laugh you turn to genre, and genre is family. So, perhaps it is that writers of colour in the Western context are more easily accepted into a writing form that is other, that is expected to be exotic and unfamiliar, rather than a writing form that is “family”.

Read the rest of the interview here.

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Where’s Angela?

Around the middle of each year, I put together what I call ‘The Spreadsheet of Doom’ in an effort to organise my calendar of literary and cultural events. This year didn’t look too bad, with only 30 or so commitments between July and November…

Batlow Book FestivalThese included a long weekend at the Batlow Book Festival, ‘Doors to Other Worlds’, (mentioned in a previous post) with my partner in life and crime fiction, Andrew Nette. Andrew and I joined a select group of guests in the foothills of the Snowy Mountains in NSW, including John & Ali Green, Robert Gott, Dan O’Malley and Elise McCune, with Sulari Gentill doubling as guest and host, together with her friend and co-director Sarah. We enjoyed superb hospitality, friendly and engaged audiences, and pleasing book sales — all good reminders of the joys of regional literary festivals.

MWF birds & bees

With Helen Jukes & Will McInnes at Melbourne Writers Festival

Late-July/early August found me at a flurry of wonderful cultural events, from Bell Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (a pretty good production of a wonderful play) to Mama Mia: The Musical (boundless fun, with the audience on its feet, dancing in a shower of glitter) and a concert with Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan (seems we caught him on a good night). The icing on the (birthday) cake was my father taking me to see the Melbourne Theatre Company’s glorious production of Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband. This turned out to be good preparation for my stint at the Melbourne Writers Festival where I interviewed, among others, actor and author William McInnes, who had a role in the play.


MWF book club 1

Fangirling Michelle de Krester & Sarah Krasnostein at MWF

I was fortunate to be invited to chair three events at the Melbourne Writers Festival: a book club with Michelle de Kretser discussing Elizabeth Harrower’s The Watch Tower; a second book club with Sarah Krasnostein, discussing Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton; and a panel at the Animal Church called ‘Birds and Bees’, talking with Will McInnes about his novel The Birdwatcher and his stint as host of ABC TV’s Hello Birdy: A Boofhead’s Guide to Birdwatching, and UK author Helen Jukes about her lyrical memoir, A Honeybee Heart Has Five Openings. The book club events, a new format for the festival, were highly enjoyable for both hosts and participants, creating an intimate space for the exchange of ideas and opinions over wine and cheese. And the ‘Birds and Bees’ session was a hoot — great buzz in the audience (#sorry #notsorry). I also attended some wonderful festival events as an audience member and danced the night away at the closing party.

In the midst of all that, I gave an author talk at the Coburg Library and had the great pleasure of awarding the Moreland Short Story Writing Competition prizes. I also helped launch the Margaret Egan Young Writers Award in the City of Hume, thanks to founder, Caroline van der Pol, author of Back to Broady. And last week I gave my first ever webinar, an online workshop on writing about place as part of my work for Writers Victoria (available on YouTube).

Next on the horizon is Dames versus Dicks Great Crime Writing Debate: Who does it better? part of St Kilda Writers Week, on Sunday September 30. On trial is the wit of some of Australia’s finest crime writers. The Dames and The Dicks argue each other’s case for Who does it better?, the question that lies at the criminal heart of the battle of the sexes.

And that covers pages 1 and 2 of The Spreadsheet of Doom. Page 3 coming soon!

What’s on your horizon?



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The Half-Child, re-birthed

Writer Angela Savage Book Cover - The Half-ChildMy second novel The Half-Child is probably my personal favourite of my books, so it’s always a particular source of delight when it rates a mention on the internet and/or in real life. The book was published in 2010, making this particular ‘baby’ an unbelievable eight years old. Despite receiving good reviews at the time and being shortlisted for the 2011 Ned Kelly Award for Best Fiction, The Half-Child did not sell as well as my other novels, due largely to the timing: 2010 was the year the book was declared ‘dead’ and, with it, publishing as we know it. Although reports of these deaths turned out to have been greatly exaggerated (to paraphrase a misquoted Mark Twain), a general slump in the sale of books (and rights) in 2010 affected many titles released that year, The Half-Child just one of them.

BatlowBookFest 1

So I was rapt to see The Half-Child mentioned in a recent blog post, Expat Crime Fiction in Bangkok: Recommended Reads, on the Expat Focus website — especially to have it mentioned alongside John Burdett’s Bangkok 8 and Timothy Hallinan’s The Queen of Patpong, two novels I greatly admire. In addition to the Expat Focus site, Margot Kinberg also referred to The Half-Child in a recent post about kinship in crime fiction on her wonderful blog, Confessions of a Mystery Novelist (I’m always grateful for Margot’s periodic mentions of my novels). And last weekend, I had the great pleasure of being a guest at the Batlow Book Festival, where one of the organisers, award winning author and dear friend Sulari Gentill, paid me the great compliment of describing The Half-Child as one of her favourite books. In public. In front of a crowd. (In the above photo, The Half-Child comprises the roof of a house, part of the brilliant decorations illustrating the Batlow Book Festival theme, ‘Doors to Other Worlds’).

I’m grateful to all involved in re-birthing The Half-Child.


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The cave

Thai cave boys 1

Photo: AFP, VOA News

Like so many around the world, I have been riveted over the past two weeks by the story of the junior soccer team and their coach, trapped deep in the Tham Luang Nang Non cave in Thailand’s Chiang Rai province for nine days, before being reached by rescue teams. At the time of writing, various plans are being mooted to bring the boys back to the surface, which include teaching them to swim and dive, with and without SCUBA tanks. A challenge in itself, but rescuers are also racing against the clock, with fears that impending monsoonal rains will complicate the rescue efforts and prolong the entrapment.

The story unfolds like an implausible thriller — testament to the maxim that truth is stranger than fiction.

Media reports suggest the boys are in sound mind and good spirits, and I am filled with awe and admiration for them. Their coach, Ekaphol Chanthawong, aka ‘Coach Eak’, has been credited with keeping the boys calm and hopeful by teaching them meditation.

Reflecting a wonderful array of Thai nicknames, the 12 boys in the cave are:

Chanin “Tun” Wiboonrungrueng, aged 11
Sompong “Pong” Jaiwong, 13
Duangpetch “Dom” Promthep, 13
Panumas “Mick” Saengdee, 13
Adul “Dul” Sam-on, 14
Mongkol “Mark” Boonpiam, 14
Nattawut “Tle” Takamsai, 14
Prajak “Note” Sutham, 14
Ekkarat “Bill” Wongsookchan, 14
Phiphat “Nic” Photi, 15
Pornchai “Tee” Kamluang, 16
Peerapat “Night” Sompiangjai, 16

Letters from the boys to their parents mention missing family members and food, together with requests for teachers not to give them homework.

KB cave temple 3

Temple cave, Kanchanaburi province, Thailand

The cave in which the boys are trapped is part of a vast complex of karst mountains (defined by Wikipedia as “a topography formed from the dissolution of soluble rocks…[and] characterized by underground drainage systems with sinkholes and caves”) formed thirty million years ago when the Indian subcontinent collided with mainland Asia. I try to imagine what it would feel like to be trapped for so long underground in those labyrinthine caves. I first encountered caves like this on a visit to Chiang Rai province in 1992, when locals took a Canadian friend and I to visit a temple cave. I’ve since visited mountain caves throughout Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and Malaysian Borneo. In my third novel, The Dying Beach, a mountain cave complex in Krabi province allows the antagonist a temporary reprieve from his pursuers.

He walked several metres into darkening shadows, inching forward, anticipating the bump on his forehead where the gap in the rock narrowed. He was vaguely aware of voice in the cavern behind him as he dropped to the floor, crawling on his hands and knees through cool, damp stone.
…No one would dare follow him this far and a few more metres writhing like a snake would bring him to another cavern, where he could catch his breath and wait them all out in the welcome cover of darkness. (2013, pp. 175-6)

I’m conscious that ‘the welcome cover of darkness’ for my fictional character must, in real life, be disturbing, if not terrifying for the trapped boys.

There are many remarkable aspects to this still unfolding story. This morning I read about a group of birds’ nest collectors from Ko Libong, nearly 2,000 kilometres away, who are lending their rock-climbing efforts to the rescue mission, scaling the mountain where the boys are trapped to look for a hole or ‘chimney’ that might provide an alternative escape route. The birds’ nest hunters apparently organised ‘a whip around’ their village to pay for their flights to Chiang Rai after seeing the boys’ plight on the news.

I have great respect for the resilience of the boys and the coach, their families, the Thai Navy SEALS, and all those in Thailand and from around the world who have turned up to help. I hope for the sake of the boys and their families that they will soon re-emerge into the light. Failing that, I hope their resilience can sustain them for as long as it takes for them to be rescued.


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Bad Diaries Salon: First

FIRST-2I was fit to burst with excitement when author Jenny Ackland (Little Gods) recently invited me to be part of a Bad Diaries Salon in Geelong next month.

Bad Diaries Salon was established by Jenny in mid-2017 with a call out on Twitter: were there any writers who still had their old, bad teenage diaries, and would they be prepared to read them live? As noted on The Bad Diaries Salon Facebook page, the response was overwhelming.

(You can read more about the history of Bad Diaries Salon on Jenny’s blog).

The theme of next month’s Bad Diaries Salon is FIRST. I’ll be joining my friends and fellow authors Robert Gott (The Port Fairy Murders), Rosalie Ham (The Dressmaker), Tracy Farr (The Hope Fault), Jock Serong (The Rules of Backyard Cricket), and Leah Kaminsky (The Waiting Room), to read for ten minutes each from our early, unedited works; Jenny Ackland will moderate.

First draftsTo prepare for the FIRST Salon, I have (literally) dusted off the early notes for my three novels. I managed to find some field notes from my visit to Chiang Mai in 1999, which inspired the plot of my first novel, Behind the Night Bazaar. These notes morphed into the first draft of a scene in the book as I wrote them. Spoiler alert: it’s all telling, no showing.

My first draft notebooks contain some truly awful material. I wonder if I will have the guts to read it out loud…

Bad Diaries Salon: FIRST takes place on Wed 11 July at 6.30pm at the Geelong Library and Heritage Centre. Bookings here.


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