Margaret Ann Spence Coming Home
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Problems

By Jade Sharma Coffee House Press, 2016 Reading this book is like being inside someone else’s skin. It’s not comfortable. Maya, the book’s protagonist, is a heroin addict. She also eats Xanax and other prescription drugs like candy, all to numb herself from an existence she appears to hate. She’s bored with her husband, Peter, though he seems a nice guy, if ineffective and alcoholic. After only seven months of marriage she takes a lover. Ogden is sixty-ish and her professor. At the beginning of this novella, Maya has failed to finish her thesis. It doesn’t take much to understand that this is because graduating would force her to grow up and actually do something in the world. I wanted to shake Maya. She’s bored because she’s boring. On page 1 she describes herself in her living room, “where I lay around, hardly living.” Apparently (we are told) a good writer, she is mired in a loop of self-loathing. Locked in her own misery, she is unable appreciate anything. At the end of page 1, “Sometimes in the early morning, a man somewhere in the building would yell about the music being too loud. But I never heard any music. I only heard him yelling.” This is a plain enough sentence. It is fantastic writing. By the end of the first page, despite the fact that we already know Maya has really heavy problems, we are locked into her world view. She never hears the music, only the yelling. Maya is self-destructive because she never feels skinny enough, pretty enough or white enough. She’s Indian, married to a Caucasian man. Her mother is critical of her and her deceased father ignored her. By page 23 we know that Maya knows that Peter will eventually leave her and that Ogden, her “safety net”, will do so also. Maya is the classic unreliable narrator because while she believes she’s hateful, her husband’s family is actually very kind to her. But if you believe the worst, it will happen. The rest of the book chronicles the inevitable result and the consequences. The book is structured in a series of paragraphs rather than chapters. Told in the first person, in the past tense, then the present tense, the story switches to the second person in the last two pages as Maya looks to the future. The second person narrator, in which the protagonist is “you” is unusual in literature. It distances the reader from the narrator. Sharma is showing that “you”, meaning the future Maya, is not someone she recognizes, because it describes someone who is relatively healthy. Maya is brutally honest in her existential angst. She’s also occasionally witty. The link between drug addiction and mental illness is apparent, arousing our compassion. Jade Sharma has managed quite a feat here – to write a page-turner about an unsympathetic character. This book is beautifully produced by Coffee House Press. This non-profit organization, which “champions transgressive, genre-blurring writing by (mostly) women,” has produced a winner in Problems. Hopefully Jade Sharma will write more.

Everything We Keep

By Kerry Lonsdale Lake Union Publishing August 2016 Amazon alerted me to the upcoming publication of this debut novel. Normally I read randomly, although constantly, and am usually way behind. But this was a book of Women’s Fiction and though I don’t know Kerry, I recognized her name as a founder of the Women’s Fiction Writers’ Association, to which I belong. This story grabbed me from the very first sentence, “On our wedding day, my fiancé, James, arrived at the church in a casket.” Aimee and James had known each other since childhood, and both were expected to carry on their respective family businesses. But with James’ demise, Aimee’s life-plan has to undergo a radical change. It takes her a while to get there. While this quick summary may lead you to think that the ending is inevitable, it was not. The plot twists and turns and I really did not guess quite how it would turn out. Everything We Keep is a page turner. Somehow the expression “page swiper” does not have the same ring. Yet that is how we read on the e-reader. So page-turner it remains. Enjoy.

Summer In The Garden

Garden MintLinda Larson, fellow gardener, fellow author, and most importantly, my friend, sent me the loveliest note about my book reviews on this blog. She said, “I just loved your book reviews, your voice was so engaging, so specific about what you loved in the books.  It was like I was sitting in your living room hearing you tell me about the books.” Thank you, Linda! Actually, I thought about Linda and her passion for gardens when I wrote my last post on the Cambridge Botanic Garden. The link between gardens and writing is not just that they share the word “plot.” Both are creative, deeply idiosyncratic endeavors. Done well, they survive the seasons, offer variety and surprise, and calm the soul. Linda writes about gardens in her blog, A Traveling Gardener (www.travelinggardener.com). She and her photographer/wood-and- metal artist husband Rich have visited public gardens around the world. She shares what they learned and saw in her beautifully illustrated book, available on Amazon, The Traveling Gardener, Wandering, Wondering, Noticing…: A Collection of Essays and Photographs Celebrating Gardens Near and Far. It’s July, and gardens are in bloom. I planted herbs in pots today – can never have enough.  

The View From The Cheap Seats

By Neil Gaiman William Morrow, 2016 While we were in England I picked up a copy of Neil Gaiman’s collection of essays and speeches, The View From The Cheap Seats. These delicious thoughts, on the value of reading, on the importance of libraries, on imagination, are balm for the writer’s sometimes self-doubting mind. Gaiman recalls spending his school vacations in his local library, and while the librarians to whom he gave this speech hastened to remind people that municipal libraries are not to be used as free child-care, the point remains. Only by reading do writers develop. The English language is a wonderful instrument. In Neil Gaiman’s hands it creates music because you can almost hear him speaking in his British accent as you read this book. Good writers bring us into worlds we never knew existed. They exist, whether real or not, in the imagination of their writers. Words have a life of their own, creating a collaboration between the author and the reader, as Gaiman points out. A young man of my acquaintance, Ben, aged almost seven, was just learning to read last Christmas. As we went through the book I had given him, he sounded out the letters. I said to Ben, “Aren’t these letters amazing? They are just squiggles on paper. But when you learn to arrange them in order you can make them say anything you want, anything in the world.” He looked at me with shining eyes and said, “I want to be an author.” Then we went to the Library and Ben came home laden with books. All fiction of course. Letting him into the imagination of others. Only by doing that can we cooperate with one another and create civilization. As Gaiman says in a later point in his book, reading enables empathy. Gaiman is funny and thoughtful. If in this collection he repeats some his jokes, because he gave speeches to different audiences, each version is still delightful. This is a book to savor, to reread on your summer vacation. Absolutely wonderful.

Plots and Plotting

Cambridge University Botanic GardenJust got back from a trip to Europe. Spent the last few days in Cambridge, England. My photos reflect the cool gray rain-filled skies. My novel, Lipstick On The Strawberry, is set partly in Cambridge. There’s a scene in the beautiful Cambridge University Botanic Garden. As I walked that garden the other day, I thought, a good novel is like a well-planned garden. No wonder the word “plot” is used for both books and gardens. In the Cambridge University Botanic Garden, gravel and woodchip paths wind past a pond, rock gardens, formal lawns and beds of flowers in full bloom. Trees, strategically planted, obscure the planting beds around corners, drawing the visitor forward to see what is around the bend. That’s what I hope readers will do with my novel – turn the page to see what happens next!

The Grass Castle

By Karen Viggers Allen & Unwin, 2015 This is the second novel by Karen Viggers reviewed in these pages. I have not met Karen, but she is the neighbor of my sister-in- law, Philippa, who told me about her remarkable books. She’s an author who deserves wider recognition. As in her previous novel, The Lightkeeper’s Wife, the Australian countryside becomes a character in itself in this book. Most Australians are city folk, but Karen Viggers grew up in the cool, forested mountains. There, she says in her acknowledgements, she roamed freely on her little pony. A veterinarian, she imbues her writing with her unsentimental knowledge of the natural world. The novel starts with the killing of a kangaroo. The animal is hit by a car, but Abby, a graduate student studying the species, must finish it off. This vivid opening scene sets up a theme of the book. Kangaroos lack predators now that aboriginal boomerangs no longer bring them down. The ecological balance in which the hunters held the land is upset and the animals overgraze the land, particularly in a drought. Should they be culled? The interplay between nature and science, between a holistic view of the world and the individualistic one of modern society is explored here through Abby and her friendship with Daphne, an elderly woman. As in The Lightkeeper’s Wife, Karen Viggers creates two central characters, one an older woman, and one a younger person who has trouble with romantic relationships, or with relationships in general. Abby, prickly, lonely, intelligent, is pursued by Cameron, a journalist, but the events of her family life haunt her, and only through Daphne’s loving friendship can she confront them and heal. This is a book that goes far beyond a woman’s individual journey. This is also a book about ideas. Endlessly topical conflicts about animal rights vs. human needs, country vs. city, gun ownership and the right/need to hunt, all these are shown here in dialogue, and the reader wants to join in the conversation. This is a very good book. I look forward to reading more of Karen Vigger’s work.

The eBook vs. the “Real” Book

There is no question that the invention of the word processor enabled people to write more easily and quickly. Correction becomes a breeze with a tap on the keyboard. Revision leads to better writing. But the invention of the e-reader has not had such a happy result. Electronic readers have increased reading, probably, and have certainly democratized publishing. All that is to the good. But the actual reading device is now on an “improvement” kick that has diminishing returns. I almost lost it when I purchased a new Kindle last month. I was buying an average of two books a week to read on the Kindle. Then I stupidly left mine on a plane. So I ordered a replacement. I bought the Kindle Paperwhite. I chose this device because it has better lighting, and I need bright light to read. I found the new device almost impossible to use. There are no navigator buttons. This Kindle came with no instructions. Even if there were instructions, I could not access them with this ipad- like interface. I don’t need a keyboard. But navigator buttons, such as “Menu” or “Home”, “Forward” and “Back,” which were on my old Kindle, actually helped. I am lost without them. I learned to read when I was six years old and have been an avid reader and writer ever since. For most of my life, it was good enough to be able to buy or borrow a book, open the pages and read till the end. Then Kindle came along and opened a way to read many more books – and yielded Amazon a very nice profit. That is fine. Until the customer is forced to buy an updated model. In the end, my in-house technical director, my husband, came home and showed me how to use the new Kindle. We registered it. But I find that I am buying more and more books the old fashioned way. That is, books on real paper. I like to see where I am in the book – by page number, not by percentage of book read. I like to be able to go back – easily – and reread a particularly striking passage. I like to deconstruct books to see how they are put together. I can share them with others, I can give them away, and I can exchange them for other books at our wonderful local independent bookstore, Changing Hands. All that, paperbacks and hardbacks make it easy to do. I am not alone. My wonderful webmaster, Kristen Burkhart, sent me an article this morning. Do read it. My point exactly. Science Has Great News for People Who Read Actual Books What do you think?

Daughter of Australia

By Harmony Verna Kensington Publishing Corp. 2016 In February I happened to be in Fremantle, Western Australia, visiting relatives. Browsing the internet, something stopped my fingers on the keyboard. A debut novel was about to hit the bookshelves, and its title was Daughter of Australia. Naturally that got my attention. But there was more. The novel begins in a remote township of Western Australia – Leonora. I could not believe it. My father spent his teenage years in Leonora and its sister township, the gold-mining hamlet of Gwalia. Virtually unknown outside Western Australia, this tiny town has a surprising connection to the United States. President Herbert Hoover made his name in mining there when, as a young geologist, he purchased the Sons of Gwalia mine for his employers in 1897. It became one of the richest mines in Australian history. Hoover’s name lingers in the “White House Hotel” in nearby Leonora, and the house Hoover built for his bride is now a bed and breakfast. The 31st president does not feature in this work of fiction. But the harsh life of the miners, contrasted with the wealth of the owners, does. Harmony Verna, an American who has never visited Australia, has managed to capture aspects of the desert landscape and its plants and animals. Her characters are complex and vivid. Billed as a worthy successor to Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds, Daughter of Australia tells the story of an abandoned little Australian girl who, since no one knows who she is, takes the name Leonora after the tiny speck on the map where she was found. She is adopted by a wealthy American couple, marries unhappily, and returns with her husband to the land of her birth. Drama, based very loosely on historical events, follows in this fast- paced story. Set a hundred years ago, the story fleshes out contemporary concerns of immigrants vs. nativism, capitalism vs. workers’ rights, poverty vs. wealth, racism and misogyny. At its core, though, is a love story. This is a first novel for Harmony Verna. I wrote to her after I started to read the book, and we are now happily corresponding. I am so glad to have made Harmony’s acquaintance. I invite you to read her book, and to visit her website, www.harmonyverna.com to sample more of her writings.

Desert Rose RWA

This week’s blog post isn’t about a book. It’s about the amazing power of books and the awesome energy of the Romance Writers of America. I spent the past few days at the Desert Dreams Conference in Phoenix, Arizona. The biennial conference of the Desert Rose RWA is a small one, and a good place to meet literary agents. It was a productive conference for me. At the Friday night dinner, I looked around and said to my companion,” Isn’t it amazing, each one of these women had a secret as a child – we liked to read.” Yes, we were the kids who loved the library, who snuck away to our rooms when other kids played, who read on the swings, who read and read and read, and when we got tired of that, we scribbled journals and diaries. All those women became writers. In Phoenix this weekend we were lawyers and college professors, salespeople and computer programmers, farmers and jewelers, teachers and librarians and psychics, there were tattooed women, women with big hair, and some with very little hair, women wearing cowboy boots and women in high fashion, women of different ethnicities and faiths. One woman had a service dog and a blind writer crocheted a baby blanket as she waited to see an agent. The best-selling mystery author J.A. Jance told her life story on Friday night, then sang  Janis Ian’s “At Seventeen” in a haunting alto, and the pathos of the song made me want to cry. Kris Tualla, the president of Desert Rose RWA, was teary when she thanked Judy Jance and said that song spoke to the audience. “Because,” she said, “writers often feel like outsiders.” Authors are readers first and foremost, who were captured young by the magic of words, which, simply rearranged on a page, can take a person into an imaginary world. Not everyone understands the need for fiction. But fiction is just human experience transmuted into hypothetical situations and characters. Only writers understand the labor and love that goes into creating a book. Each of the writers present this weekend in Phoenix loved the worlds she’d created, and the agents who came from New York to find the next great author love those imaginary worlds also. Romance writing is sometimes mocked in the literary universe. Nevertheless, romance writing and its sister, women’s fiction, is a skill that must be learned and practiced. RWA chapters provide a place where writers can take lessons on craft and keep up with publishing trends. RWA provides learning by doing opportunities for people who can’t afford to take an MFA degree. Fundamentally, however, RWA understands the writer’s need for community, for validation for the lonely hours spent at the keyboard. Writing’s a competitive business, but one thing was clear to me this weekend. It’s a big tent, and there will always be room for new writers and new books. Here, everyone who believes in the power of words is welcome. Thank you, RWA.

Paperbark Shoes

By Goldie Goldbloom Picador Press, 2011 Have you ever heard of a place called Wyalkatchem?  I had not, until I read the novel Paperbark Shoes by the extraordinarily gifted writer Goldie Goldbloom. But as soon as I read of kerosene drums used as water pails, flour bags recycled into clothing, a sixteen hour train journey over desert, I knew I was reading about Western Australia in the first half of  the twentieth century. That’s because my father grew up in such a place, a tiny, isolated, hot and dusty township, hundreds of miles from a city, thousands of miles from the events of the wider world.  (Actually, Dad grew up in several of these hamlets, as my grandfather moved from one struggling gold mine to another, hired to bring them back to profitability.) Wyalkatchem, population “sixty eight adults and forty-three children, counting the ones in the cemetery” is a real place in the Western Australian wheatbelt, but Goldbloom has created memorable fictional inhabitants of its surrounding countryside in the sheep farmer Agrippas Toad, a short, bumbling man who keeps a collection of women’s corsets in his shed, and his albino wife Gin. Gin grew up in privilege in Perth, but her albinism made her a social pariah, and, improbably placed in the “madhouse” by her stepfather, she leapt at the chance of rescue by Toad. He proposed when, visiting someone at the mental hospital, he heard her play the piano. The story begins in 1943 with the arrival of Italian prisoners of war, who were sent to help work the isolated farms, which struggled to survive when their own employees were conscripted. Given the desert and the distance, it was not thought likely that the prisoners would escape. It is always an interesting situation when people are forced together in mutual incomprehension and with their own longings, and Goldbloom creates a surprising, emotionally truthful tale about the Toads and the two Italian men sent to their farm. Goldbloom’s gorgeous prose makes this remote place come alive. The writer’s choice to make Gin an albino offers a double metaphor. The condition causes low vision, difficulty with bright sunlight and skin so pale that desert living must be excruciating. So it is with Gin. Her blindness to what’s happening, as well as her hyper-sensitivity to the township’s hatred of anyone different, fuels the plot. Gin, short for Virginia in this story, is also a derisive, offensive term for an Aboriginal woman used for sex by white males. The term was common in that part of the world in the early part of the twentieth century. Whether cognizant of this or not (I suspect she is), Goldbloom uses the word as a double entendre. Gin’s extreme whiteness is as different and therefore as unpalatable to the prejudices of Wyalkatchem as the indigenous people who seem to have abandoned the landscape of this novel. Goldbloom writes short stories and non-fiction, but Paperbark Shoes is her first novel. First published in her native Western Australia, it won the Independent Publisher’s Association Foreward Magazine’s Literary Novel of the Year in 2011 and the 2008 AWP Novel Award, and has also been published in the U.K. and in French translation. Do read it.