Rewriting History

Genre: Historical Fiction

Author: Geraldine Brooks

Publisher: Viking Adult

Year: 2011

RRP: $26.95

Geraldine Brooks falls into that Australian pool of talent who have become expats, left and gone on to greater things. Her latest novel Caleb’s Crossing, looks sure to be another one of those successes she can add to her list.

The novel is loosely woven from fact and revolves around Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk, the first native American graduate of Harvard, who astoundingly completed his degree in 1665- a mere 30 years after Harvard’s establishment and 300 before the civil rights movement.

Its not the first time that Brooks has taken pieces of American history as the inspiration for her books.  In 2006 she won a Pulitzer prize for fiction for her novel March, a retelling of the American classic novel Little Women told from the perspective of the March girls’s father, who goes to fight in the American Civil War.

This time however, Brooks takes this single thread of history and weaves an entirely fictional story around it. It’s told from the perspective of Bethia Mayfield, a curious pioneer girl growing up amid puritans, who encounters Caleb after secretly stealing away to the beach.

The two form a hidden friendship as Bethia’s pioneering father begins trying to convert Caleb’s tribe, the Wampanoag, to the western way of living- and part of this project is the education of Caleb. The young boy becomes drawn and torn between the two cultures as Bethia watches on, desperate for the kind of education that is for her impossible because of her gender.

Set in Martha’s Village where Brooks resides with her family, the historical fiction novel is an exploration of place, the past and the imagination: as much about a deep affinity for history as it is love for the place that Brooks now calls home.

Caleb’s Crossing will be released in Australia on the 3rd of March.


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Free Comics in Sydney

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Comic book fans- you’re in luck this weekend, with the annual Free Comic Book Day being held this Saturday, May 7th.

Three Sydney locations will host the international event, which showcases free comic book giveaways from a list of featured titles.

Comic Kingdom on Liverpool St, Kings Comics on Pitt St and Kinokuniya Bookstore in the Galleries Victoria will be giving away comics for the event, which is aimed at promoting and celebrating the uniqueness of the comic book format.

Other stores throughout suburban Sydney and Australia will also be involved in the event.

Manager of Pulp Fiction Comics in Adelaide, Peter Moore, told the Adelaide City Messenger that the event is important in promoting this important creative medium.

“What better way to celebrate the comic book medium than to walk into a store and get comics for free,” Mr Moore says.

This  year, more than 40 titles have been produced by comic book publishers which will be avaliable for free including the Amazing Spiderman, Avatar the Last Airbender and the Green Latern Flashpoint.

The event began in 2002 in the US and has been running annually on the first saturday of May ever since. It has also been in Australia for several years.

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A Reunion of Sorts

Genre: Young Adult Fiction

Author: Melina Marchetta

Publisher: Penguin Australia

Year: 2010

RRP: $24.95

For teenage girls everywhere Melina Marchetta’s Saving Francesca was like reading your own diary. Inside the pages of the novel were the romances you never had, the friends you always wanted and the family you grew up with. Which is why Marchetta’s latest novel will be a reunion of sorts.

The book The Piper’s Son takes us back to our favourite family of characters from Saving Francesca through Thomas Mackee- a side character who was left at the end of the previous novel as a 17 year old in high school. It’s five years later and, far from content, Thomas is falling apart. After he is kicked out by his flat mates, Thomas goes to live with his single, pregnant aunt Georgie and tries to forget his absent parents and a conveyor belt of one night stands.

He also gets a job at the Union pub and it is here that he reunites with his school friends- Francesca, Siobhan, Justine and yes, Tara with whom he shared a very young romance with until he left her two years ago, after his uncle’s death in the London bombings.

The themes in The Piper’s Son are much the same as in its predecessor: friendship and family as a means of healing. But like her original fan base Marchetta’s cast of characters are now a little bit older, their lives a little bit more gritty and their problems a little more complex. It’s a novel that manages to grow while remaining nostalgic. After all, there is something comforting about returning to your favourite characters after such a long period of time. Something a little bit like coming back home.

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Jonesing for a Mystery? Then Meet Jasper

Genre: Historical Fiction

Author: Craig Silvey

Publisher: Allen & Unwin

Press Year: 2009

RRP: $32.95

It’s 1965. Charlie Bucktin lies safe in his room where there is a knock at his window. An indigenous teenage boy is there, with a secret. They steal into the night, and the boy shows Charlie just what he is hiding- a young, beautiful girl is in a secret grotto, hanging from her neck.

This grizzly scene is what Craig Silvey confront his reader with just 3 pages into his novel Jasper Jones, a book that is itself one of those fascinating creatures you can’t pull your eyes away from. It’s hauntingly, disturbingly, hideously beautiful; a horrifying roller-coaster that grabs you from the throat right at the beginning and refuses to lesson it’s grip.

The novel is told from the perspective of Charlie Bucktin from Corrigan, a fictional hick-town in Western Australia. His perspective guides the mystery from the first scene where the boy of the novel’s namesake barges into Charlie’s life with an uncomfortable secret, when he discovers the mysterious death of Laura Wishart.

Laura’s death isn’t the only mystery here because the notorious Jasper Jones isn’t Charlie’s friend but an almost town myth: a “half-caste” delinquent whom entire small country town have turned against, just as notorious as Corrigan’s own Boo Radley, Mad Jack Lionel.

It is for this reason that the plot thickens. Jasper convinces Charlie that if they tell the police about Laura’s body, they’ll blame him without a second thought. Instead, the boys hide the girl and seek to uncover the mystery themselves: made all the more emotional for Charlie who is in love with Laura’s younger sister Eliza.

Jasper Jones is a historical fiction and interweaves several plotlines around the central one. Right from this disturbing introduction the stories are full of dark topic matter: incest, abuse, racial discrimination, suicide and adultery. But these topics are done with the kind of delicacy that doesn’t make it seem like a burden. Silvey doesn’t harp on these moments of drama, instead the tragedies are left to simply hang as they would in life, to describe an Australia on the outskirts both morally and geographically.

But the novel also isn’t all doom and gloom. Silvey’s characters are young and so he uses the kind of humour that only children can have in times of despair to his advantage. It’s never black, it’s never sarcastic- it’s fun, lighthearted, witty and incessantly intelligent. This provides great moments for Silvey to show off a little, and the prose is riddled with literary intertextuality from Batman to Capote.

Most of this comes from Charlie’s best friend, the Vietnamese Jeffery Lu. Silvey could have reduced Jeffery to a comedic sidekick but instead, Jeffery and the rest of his family are given substance by being the point of tension in the small rural community. Their presence serves to show the reactions of white Australia to the Vietnamese in the midst of the Vietnam War.

Jasper Jones is not without its flaws. There are times where the witty banter between Charlie and Jeffery is so hideously overdrawn that you stop paying attention to it entirely. And the sheer impossibility of Jasper Jones’s quick-sticks friendship with Charlie is an oversight that Silvey never really aims to correct. But the novel is so compelling and rich that you forget these tiny oversights, and become entrapped in whatever Silvey wants to tell you next.

All of this pulls you into a poignant ending where all the teens lie in the grass after the impossibility of what they’ve just faced, and stare up into the moonlight in a silent vigil.

It is these kind of moments that make you realize that Jasper Jones is not a gem of a novel: it is a seed, not unlike a peach pit stolen by the boys of Corrigan from Mad Jack Lionel’s yard. It is warm, spawn from the fruits of books before it and full of sentimentality beyond its years.

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The Shortest List

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The Miles Franklin Award shortlist has been revealed and it seems that this year it is called a short list for a reason.

Only 3 of the 9 long listed nominees made the shortlist of the prestigious award, making it one of the shortest seen in many years.

Making the cut was The Age journalist, Chris Womersley (above) for his second novel Bereft.

The novel tells of an exiled son, during the 1919 plague of Spanish Influenza and has been described by the award’s judging panel as  “a beautifully written book, spare and compelling”.

Past winners, Kim Scott and Roger McDonald are the other nominees for 2011.

Scott, who previously won the award in 2006, has been nominated for his novel That Deadman’s Dance, about a young Aboriginal boy in the 19th Century during colonization.

Rodger McDonald’s first Miles Franklin win came in 2000, and this year his nomination has come for the novel When Colts Run, which chronicles the life of a boy in the Australian outback, and has met the acclaim of the judges.

The Miles Franklin award judges nominated all the novels for the next round of the award based on their ability to capture Australia- the core quality judged in the competition

“The shortlisted books this year are like barometers of the state of our culture: they take the readings, and give them back to us in fiction of extraordinary accomplishment” they said.

“They force us to look again at ourselves, and to think – hard.”

The winner of the award will be announced in Sydney, in June of this year.

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Meet Matilda…

Meet Matilda Grogan: a creative writing student from the University of Wollongong, who is currently on exchange in Norfolk, United Kingdom, at the University of East Anglia. I spoke with her about her inspirations, the difficulties of breaking into the literary scene and the influence of travelling on her writing.

Describe the last thing you wrote?

The last thing I wrote was a set of six poems for a uni assignment – it was a challenge because I hadn’t written poetry since my first year of uni, but I took a poetry class this semester and I really enjoyed getting back into it.

What was the inspiration?

Well, because it was a set without a unifying theme, there wasn’t one single inspiration that kind of inspired the whole thing – I wrote them over a period of a couple of weeks and when you work like that it’s easy to be inspired by one thing and then have the final product end up in a completely different place that has nothing to do with the original.

What were the major themes/message?

In terms of themes or messages, one thing that really emerged within several of the poems that I wrote was the death of my grandfather. He passed away, quite unexpectedly actually, two months before I left home last year to come to Europe – so being away from my family has been complicated by this huge event that kind of surprised us all. One of the poems specifically is about a time when I called my grandmother at home, it was very early in the morning, and I just had this image of her alone in her house in my head. So I guess one of the major themes within the poems is loss. I’m not sure that I would have written that if I had been away from home, though – travelling has definitely had an effect on what I want to write about. This was also the first time that I had written about real-life experience, something I usually never do. In the past I have much preferred to write from imagination, although I’m sure there have always been elements of character or experience from my real life. But this time I actually wrote about things that really happened to me, and since then I have found it difficult to return to writing from imagination – I think something about it feels more superficial now.

What would be your favourite genre/style to write in?

I like to write in a pretty lyrical style – I like figurative language and unusual details. I get inspiration from music and poetry and also just from situations that I come across or if I look at an object and think it kind of looks like something else. I used to have this problem where I’d get really excited about describing things in a really unusual way and just end up with this whole story full of metaphors and stuff, and a plot that didn’t fully make sense or wasn’t very interesting. Hopefully now I’m learning how to balance them out in a better way. The story I had published in Voiceworks last year was about a woman who’s recently been left by her husband, and returns home to see her father, who has been living alone since her mother, who was not a very nice person, died several months earlier. The father is hoarding all of his dead wife’s belongings, like the house is just full of stuff, whereas she wants to just clear this ex-husband out of her life and chuck it all out. So it’s kind of about the different ways that people deal with losing others.

Why do you write?

I’m still working out why I write but I always seem to come back to situations where people have to deal with something tough – one other story I wrote was about a woman whose husband cheats on her with her sister and she pretends not to know about it for like twenty years. Just examining how people function and relate to one another. That kind of thing is probably at the heart of it.

Any future ideas for stories?

I just spent a couple of weeks in London, Paris and Amsterdam and I have a few story ideas from that – I’m glad I’ve kind of opened myself up to writing from real life, because you just have so many experiences when you’re travelling. I also have a very underdeveloped idea for a longer work that I’d eventually like to turn into a novel that’s kind of lurking at the back of my head.

Have you ever tried to get anything published? If so, where?

I had a story published in the Australian youth literary journal Voiceworks last year. Other than that, just stories and poems in university publications, like Tide, which we produce here at UOW, and Windmills, which is a publication from Deakin University in Melbourne.

Do you find it difficult to break into the Australian writing industry?

It is difficult to break into the Australian writing industry because it’s such a small industry and there are so many people who are trying to break into it. But I think the hardest thing about it for me at the moment is the fact that I’m living in Wollongong and it seems like the centre of literary culture – all of the panels and workshops and that kind of thing – are all in Melbourne. So it’s hard in that way because we’re disadvantaged here by not being able to go along to that kind of thing and make connections and meet people who are trying to do the same thing. I’m not saying there’s a complete absence of that stuff in New South Wales, there are some really good things going on in Sydney for example, but Melbourne definitely seems to be the hub.

What kind of a career path would you like to break into?

Honestly, I still don’t know what kind of career path I’d like to take. I’m torn between wanting to teach creative writing, for which there’s not a lot of opportunity; get into the publishing industry, or try to pursue writing full-time, which basically nobody accomplishes.

What strikes you as a similarity/theme amongst Australian novels?

I think it’s hard to generalise that ‘place’ features predominantly in novels – certainly there needs to be a sense of it within almost every novel, Australian or not. I think the sense of ‘place’ within Australian novels, however, tends to be that kind of suburban sense of everyday life and family and experience, rather than the outback or anything like that.

Do you find that any Australian themes filter into your work? Why/why not?

I do find that Australian themes filter in to my work – probably because I often write about people in close familial relationships and because I grew up in Australia that’s all I really know. It’s not something I’ve ever tried to make a point of – hopefully it’s at least a little bit subtle. But I have noticed the differences between Australians reading that kind of thing and other people, for example the British people in my classes in the UK – there are definitely things that they pick up on in a different way to the Australians in my classes at home who have read the same stories.

What is your favourite book and why?

In terms of favourite books, I can’t separate Cloudstreet by Tim Winton, and The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy – they are both incredible and are probably the books I wish the most that I had written myself. Those two authors have probably influenced me the most, as well. Tim Winton for the very genuine and familiar way he writes about Australian family life, and Arundhati Roy for the incredible way she uses language and the kind of magical quality in her book.

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Bringing Writers to the Region

The finest writers in the country will now have the opportunity to be a part of the University of Wollongong after it’s writing school was awarded a residency grant.

The Cultural Fund of the Copyright Agency Limited awarded the Faculty of Creative Arts a $60,000 grant, to enable writers from across Australia to stay and work at the University.

Professor of Creative writing and Deputy Dean Catherine Cole said the grant would enhance the knowledge base for students and staff in the faculty.

“Students will have access to Australia’s leading writers who will provide a range of opportunities including mentoring, workshops, feedback on their work and discussions about heir own practices and books.”

The Creative writing program already attracts major writers including journalist and crime writer Shane Maloney who recently joined the university to complete his PhD.

Professor Cole hopes that the grant will continue this trend.

“We’d like writers from all forms and genres. Younger generation writers as well as more established ones. We also want to engage the new media writers and those working in non-traditional forms,” she said. “The more diverse the better.”

The faculty will also be holding a number of seminars and events through out the year to create a creative dialogue between the university and writers in the Illawarra.

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