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Margaret Ann Spence > Articles by: Margaret

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.

This House of Grief – The Story of a Murder Trial

By Helen Garner The Text Publishing Company, 2014 When Australian author Helen Garner checked her junk mail at the beginning of March, she saw a note that she had won a prize. She had never heard of it. This was the Yale-based Windham-Campbell Prize, and was worth $150,000 US dollars. Garner, one of Australia’s best known novelists and essayists, received the prize along with other English-language luminaries such as British novelist Tessa Hadley, as well as Jerry Pinto from India, and Americans Branden Jacob-Jenkins, C.E. Morgan, Hilton Als, and Stanley Crouch, playwright, novelist, writer/editor, and poet/literary critic respectively.  The Windham-Campbell prize is unusual in that there is no submissions process. Winners are selected by the judges from works in English, published recently. When she realized the prize was not a hoax, Garner was of course relieved and jubilant. She had after all, spent at least a full year at the trial and retrial of Robert Farquharson before writing her riveting account of the trial and the personalities involved. Farquharson, a divorced father of three young sons, living in the quiet country town of Winchelsea, Victoria, had his boys for Father’s Day, 2005, (Father’s Day is in September in Australia) and was driving them home when his car went into a dam. Farquharson escaped the sinking car, but the three boys, aged eleven, seven, and two, drowned. Their father said he had been overcome by a coughing fit and blacked out. He was charged with murder. Helen Garner unpacks the arguments of the prosecution and the defense in light of the gradually emerging personalities of Farquharson, his ex-wife Cindy Gambino and the witnesses for each side, and through the lens of her own rich experience ( Garner is a grandmother, several times divorced) and her compassion. It is the compassion for all the parties involved that drives this book. I won’t be a spoiler and say whether Farquharson was found guilty or not. The writer powerfully leads the reader on, page after page.  At the same time, she brings her own sensibility to the story, wondering, as she goes home after a draining day at the trial about her own young grandsons. She wants to hug them, trying to imagine “How can such wild, vital creatures die? How can this hilarious sweetness be snuffed out forever?” Two chapters later, she relates how “rage blinded” her when the children would not obey her. Garner is known for the emotional honesty of her writing, and this book demonstrates this over and over again. But this is not just outstanding journalism. Garner brings to her descriptions of place a lyrical quality. Like Garner, I, too, am a native of Victoria, that southern state of Australia which belies the image of a “sunburnt country.” It is very often cold and windswept in this area near the Otway Ranges, which fall sharply to the sea. Garner conjures up the feeling of hopelessness that must have befallen Robert Farquharson as he sat with his sons in the car, listening to the football, that long ago Sunday afternoon. She remembers, and it brought it all back to me, too, “winter Sunday afternoons in that part of the country, their heavy melancholy…. The air is still and chilly. The steel-cloud-cover will never break. Time stalls. There is no future. One’s own desolation is manifest in the worn-down volcanic landscape. The life-force burns low in its secret cage.”  Surprising imagery, like a spear-point in its accuracy.  Garner never spares herself in her dedication to this dreadful story and its penetrating grief. At the end of the book she almost apologizes to the boys’ parents, acknowledging that the grief she felt in hearing their story cannot be compared to theirs. “But no other word will do,” she says. “Every stranger grieves for them. Every stranger’s heart is broken.” This book richly deserves its prize. Very highly recommended.

My Name Is Lucy Barton

By Elizabeth Strout Random House, 2016 A sense of melancholy infuses this extraordinary book from one of America’s most original writers. It is told from the point of view of Lucy Barton as she looks back ( for most of the book) to a period in the nineteen eighties when she was hospitalized for nine weeks for a persistent infection after surgery. Her children were small and cared for by her husband, who rarely visits the hospital. Her mother, from whom she has been distant, visits, and their conversation reveals Lucy’s longing for love. This conversation, in which Lucy appears to bait her mother to reveal more of herself, to wrap Lucy in the maternal love she willingly gives her own daughters, occurs over only five days. Within it, and around it, as Lucy obsesses years later on her marriage, her parents’ marriage, her love for her own children, Elizabeth Strout muses on poverty. Physical poverty – the lack of enough money – leads to being cold and hungry. Physical poverty and its corollary, emotional poverty, lead to isolation, to being jeered at within the community, to a sense of being unworthy. Ripples of this sense of unworthiness fan out in the story, as Lucy considers the AIDS epidemic, raging at the time of her hospitalization, as the legacy of Nazi atrocities echo in the story, and even in the sense of vulnerability that Lucy feels as her short stories are published. For the artist exposes his or her innermost self for the world to see and judge even as the work itself is a construct – a not-real thing, a work of the imagination that a world valuing material things may laugh at and consider unworthy of the effort. Like Strout’s first best-seller, Olive Kitteridge, My Name Is Lucy Barton defies the structural norms of fiction. Olive Kitteridge was a series of stories about a woman of emotional economy. Barton’s story doesn’t so much as progress as reveal itself in flashbacks and musings by the protagonist. As it reveals so much about the human being’s primal need for parental love, social acceptance, and respect for creativity, one gradually feels an unconditional love for Lucy. This is marvelous achievement in a novel.

Food In Fiction

I’ve been reading a lot in my genre of Women’s Fiction lately, and the mother in me is now going on a rant. Especially as it’s January, when everyone goes on a diet. I am going to scold my writers. Their characters eat junk. Junk, junk, and more junk. No wonder this country has an obesity problem. In Mary Ellen Taylor’s Alexandria series, the baking McCrae sisters are delightful. Their eating habits leave much to be desired. I know, they run a bakery. But I lost count of the donuts, sweet rolls and cake the characters consumed. And never gained a pound. I recently finished Rainbow Rowell’s Landline. Her protagonist, the Los Angeles-based screenwriter, Georgie, can’t boil an egg. Her sister asks her, sarcastically, if she waits for her husband to put breakfast out for her. But both this sister and Georgie consume pizza, waffles, Pringles, tacos, tuna mac and cheese (hold the peas!)  No wonder Georgie has to wear her mother’s velour jogging pants and an oversize T-shirt to go to work! The probably semi-autobiographical novel, Reality Jane, by Shannon Nering, notes the odd eating choices of the worker bees that bring Americans Reality TV. Also set in Los Angeles, this novel chronicles the adventures of Canadian journalist Jane Kaufman, after she lands a job as a producer of reality television. At times hilarious, at other times poignant, Jane has a distinctive voice. She alters her diet over time from French fries and burgers and coffee with “an inch of cream and three sugars” to less fattening fare, but still, the bad diet was there in the first place. This is Women’s Fiction. Writers want readers to identify with their protagonists. We want readers to get inside their heads, to feel as if they are in their actual bodies, even though the characters are just a bunch of words. As readers we love characters that stumble and fall and ultimately triumph. Seems to me the ultimate universal connection point would be in what we all need – good food. It should not be so hard to create something readers would like to eat.

The Lightkeeper’s Wife

By Karen Viggers Allen & Unwin, 2012 Don’t be misled by the title and cover of this rewarding book, which is set in a place most of us will never visit – the closest land mass to Antarctica and the land of the South Pole itself. Seems to me that publishers should be aware of other books with the same title before a book’s launch. Another book named The Lightkeeper’s Wife, written by Sarah Anne Johnson, was published in 2014. Karen Viggers, an Australian veterinarian, wildlife scientist and writer, should be annoyed about this, because her book with this title was first published in 2001 and reissued by Allen & Unwin in 2012. Also confusing is the cover of Vigger’s book, which features a dreamy-eyed young woman looking wistfully into the distance. In fact, the lightkeeper’s wife of this novel is a seventy-seven year old woman facing imminent death and looking back on her life. Furthermore, Mary Mason is not the narrator of the story. Her portion of the book is told in close third person, while the first person part of the narrative is told from the point of view of Mary’s son, Tom. Tom is a most unusual male character –  a shy, melancholic, sweet-natured, diesel mechanic. He’s devoted to his mother, was dutiful to his deceased father, is a bit in awe of his much older brother and sister (though he is forty-two) and has been divorced for some years. That much I can tell you without divulging any more of this story. The book’s strengths lie not only in its intricate tracing of Tom’s character, but its breathtaking descriptions of Antarctica, and in the dramatic coastline of Cape Bruny on the southern tip of Tasmania. A lighthouse was built there in 1838 and was operational until 1996. The fictional lighthouse keeper and his family of the book seem to have lived there in late nineteen fifties to the seventies. Viggers writes brilliantly of the birds and other wildlife of Bruny, constantly buffeted by winds from the Southern Ocean, carrying with them the fierce cold of the Antarctic, which lies directly south of Bruny Island.  It’s still a long way from the world’s southern most landmass, as Viggers makes clear, describing a boat trip of seven days from Hobart to the beginning of the ice pack, and then two to three weeks of cutting through the bergs to get to the scientific stations near the South Pole. Antarctica is so different from the rest of the world, so cold that people have never settled there, that the experience must almost be like going to the moon. Put athletic young men and women together in isolated conditions doing intellectually challenging work they have chosen to do, in a searing cold that makes snuggling in a single sleeping bag the most logical thing to do, and the inevitable happens. Viggers explores the confusing emotional dynamics of the Antarctic experience and the difficulty of re-entry to the “real” world. She’s coupled this unusual human experience with the veterinarian’s  understanding of animal emotions and an Australian’s love for her country’s extraordinary landscape. Recommended.

Bonds of Love & Blood

By Marylee MacDonald Summertime Publications, Inc. Travel exposes us to ourselves. We visit other places to escape the everyday, or to put a problem in perspective. Stripped of the props of habit, our foibles and fears come to the fore as we interact with foreigners and navigate strange roads. Marylee MacDonald holds up a mirror of self-discovery for the varied and idiosyncratic characters in this magnificent collection of short stories. From Angela, a postal inspector, who left “an absolutely dead and vacant life” to vacation in Istanbul, where her married Turkish lover tries to part her from her money, possibly for charity, probably not, to Lana Buskirk, a single mom on holiday in Key West with Todd, her college student son, to Walter, who is disfigured by a birthmark, MacDonald introduces us to complex characters whose desire to escape comes up short when their innate behavior patterns lead them to tangle with strangers and travel companions. In this collection of stories, travel is a metaphor for life, as the characters bump up against each other in mutual incomprehension. It is so hard for us to live with one another, so terrible to be alone. Creating a unique and compelling story world in a limited number of pages is the challenge of the short story. In this book, each tale is remarkably original and brilliantly written. Marylee MacDonald links them with the theme of connection and aloneness, the  yin and yang of the self, facing outwards to an often hostile world, nourished inwardly by the bonds of love and blood we share.  

Reality Jane

By Shannon Nering Bancroft Press 2011 If you’ve ever wondered how realistic “reality tv” is, I have a book for you in Shannon Nering’s Reality Jane. I was unable to put down. It is a story about greed and ambition, the unreality behind “reality tv” and it seems so authentic I didn’t have to wait to read about the author at the end of the book to discover that she has actually been a producer for well-known television shows. In fact, she is still in the biz in her native Vancouver. Jane Kaufman, the protagonist of Reality Jane, is a Canadian broadcast journalist who gets her big break as a production assistant in Los Angeles. Throughout this satire on Hollywood, Canada is in the background as a true reality, a place of reason and sanity in Jane’s mind as she navigates the snake pit of television. A telling moment is the Grammys, to which Jane and her friend and colleague Toni have been invited by their boss. Jane goes to the bathroom, and returns to her seat, only to find it has been filled. Such is life for someone climbing the ladder in a world of rapidly shifting loyalties, back-stabbing and sycophancy, brutal eighteen hour workdays, almost daily airplane flights, and a diet of junk food, interrupted on occasional weekends by alcohol – fueled parties. According to Toni, Jane is to be envied. Beautiful and talented, Jane has to fend off boyfriends (she has three in the course of the book), and is able to see through the clutter so that she runs with opportunities when they are mere shadows. Eventually she becomes a producer on a famous self-help reality show. When the true nature of that show – and celebrity- become obvious to her, she must make a decision about how to live her life. Told in a rapid-fire way, with one dramatic scene leading to the next, snappy dialogue, and some terrific writing, this story struck me as original and compelling, even as the reader wants Jane to slow down and realize what is happening to her. If you want to know how behind-the-scenes television works – and what it does to those who spend their days making entertainment for the rest of us, this book is a fast and enjoyable read.

Landline

Landline By Rainbow Rowell St. Martin’s Press 2014 When I read an interview with the author Rainbow Rowell in which she said her mother was very strict and she wasn’t allowed to watch much television or see many movies, I was surprised. Because Georgie, the protagonist in Rowell’s perceptive and amusing novel Landline, is a television comedy writer and her children seem to do little but watch television. You think the world of scriptwriting is glamorous. Think again. Think of wearing the same ratty jeans to work day after day, eating tuna casserole and sleeping in your old bedroom at your mother’s house because it’s too far to go home ( you’re so busy!) and working day in and day out with a writing partner who, a flirtatious male to your plain married self, teases you about not making the coffee. Forget Christmas parties, caroling, or even spending the holiday with your husband and children. I use the second person because the character Rowell has created in her heroine, Georgie, is so engaging we’re right there with her in her black Metallica tee shirt. Rowell shows us a Los Angeles where success is always just around the corner. If Georgie can just work harder, eschew the Christmas break or any kind of  social life and allow her husband to question their marriage, she’ll get the deal. The novel begins at this crisis point, when Georgie, bemused by promises that her new show with writing partner Seth is about to be picked up by a big producer, decides not to accompany her family to Nebraska for Christmas, so she can keep on working. Georgie has been married for fifteen years to Neal. But despite loving Neal ( so she insists) her soul-mate is her business partner Seth. Georgie and Seth met in college and now, seventeen years later, his behavior, and to some extent hers, remains sophomoric and self-deluded. Neal is withholding. Georgie’s incessant “I love you’s” to Neal ring hollow when she allows Seth to badmouth him constantly. It is a toxic mix, yet this story does not go where you might expect it to. Kudos to Rowell for that. Georgie is the breadwinner in the family. Her work is writing gags and scenes for situation comedies. We fiction writers understand how we can get caught up in thinking a bunch of words we’ve made on the page actually matter. Somehow, making those words intended for television trivializes them and makes Georgie’s choices seem less than wise. Rowell good-naturedly mocks the writer’s profession and the story spins on what might have been. Rowell is a master of dialogue. Yet serious themes underlie the banter; the absurdity of a culture in which work trumps all, the difficulties of a marriage in which one partner is needy and the other passive-aggressive, the failure of feminism to truly deliver gender equality. And as in so many current novels, the technology of the phone is key to the story. The reader notes in the back of the book ask, “Are you old enough to remember talking on a landline?” That about sums up the YA target audience for whom Rowell usually writes. She reaches here for a group that still struggling to grow up. That’s reflected in the characters, who all display a strange lack of worldliness despite being old enough to be married and to contemplate divorce. Still, the immediacy of Rowell’s writing sparkles and her characters, flawed as they are, are all endearing. You’ll enjoy this one.