Road Story by Julienne van Loon – Book Review


It’s like a dream or perhaps a nightmare. Diana Cooper has fled a car accident and disappears, eventually finding herself at a remote truck stop. She takes a job in the kitchen and hides, wondering what happened back in Sydney. What is more painful – not knowing and imagining or having her worst fears realised?

I’m a huge fan of Van Loon’s writing. I like the way she releases the story piece by piece, and when punch is thrown, it really lands hard. Road Story is a short novel but so deep and painful.

Road Story won The Australian Vogel Literary Award and was shortlisted for several other awards.

Melbourne Writers Festival 2013 – What I saw.

The Moth Mainstage


The Moth podcast is one of my absolute favourite podcasts. It was taken from the weekly radio show, which has come, in turn from the live stage show. The by-line for The Moth is “True Stories, Told Live, Without Notes”. I was totally and utterly excited by the idea of getting to attend a Moth Mainstage before I go to New York. (One day, I will go to New York, and there I will attend a Moth Mainstage. I’ve promised myself this)

The Moth Mainstage was hosted by New York comedienne Ophira Eisenberg, who was totally and utterly hilarious. Her stories tied together the whole event and had the audience roaring. The first of the local storytellers was Melissa Lucashenko, indigenous author who told of her fraught relationship with her daughter, who suffers from depression and other mental health issues. Sounds depressing? That’s the amazing thing about The Moth – the stories are structured in such a way that, while they bring  a tear to your eye, they also make you laugh. Where is the humour in this story? Let’s just hope that it gets podcast sometime so everyone can hear it. Luscashenko was followed by Tony Wheeler, founder of The Lonely Planet series of books. His story was of his various adventures travelling around the planet with his family. There were laughs and emotions, but Wheeler’s story didn’t grab me in the same way as Lucashenko’s or that of the final storyteller: Magda Szubanski. Szubanski was, by far, the major drawcard for most of the audience. Her story included much that was her father’s story – this is a man who survived World War One in Poland as a teenager, spending some time as an assassin, killing collaborators. Wow. Totally and utterly amazing. This evening was an amazing way to start the festival.

A Reading Life

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Author Michael McGirr interviewed Ramona Koval about her life as a reader. Koval is one of Australia’s most respected interviewers in the arts, having headed ABC radio’s The Book Show for many years. I’ve enjoyed several of McGirr’s books and so I was looking forward to both sides of the conversation. It was a very relaxed Sunday morning, although I find that when it is overcast, the Deakin Edge (formerly BMW Edge) can be difficult to bear with such large windows. Yes, I’m complaining about a room I love – but it was so glarey I wanted to close my eyes, and whilst I’m not that old, it’s a short step from having closed eyes to being asleep.

Romana Koval is so very, very funny. It was a real surprise – I had seen her at women of letters a while back and her story had been funny, but I had no idea she would be so consistently funny.

First Flight

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Last year, I enjoyed the session on newly published authors. I don’t think it’s just that I’m  imagining myself up there in a year or two; it is really interesting to hear how people write and how they took their work from conception to publishing. Lucy Neave’s book is called Who We Were and follows a woman through various stages of her life, but focusing on the time she and her husband spent in New York working as biologists in the Cold War. Inheritance by Balli Kaur Jaswal follows a Punjabi family in Singapore over several decades of change both within the family and beyond. John Weldon‘s Spincycle a modern man-book (no, no-one has ever called them that. But it is a book about a man and it is modern. Could this be a new genre?) about a man in his thirties who has broken up with his girlfriend, quit his job and needs to find his place in the world anew. The session was hosted by one of my new favourite authors, Julienne van Loon, author of Road Story, Beneath the Bloodwood Tree and Harmless.

There was something about this session that didn’t flow all that well. The questions didn’t seem to lead into a conversation, and think that there was a concern that all authors got equal time, which I think was not necessary. Plenty of information came across – I was particularly interested in the courses that the authors had undertaken as they wrote. Sometimes, I think three people on a panel for one hour can be too many, also. They all have a lot to say, perhaps two would be better.

Modern Love

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Along with The Moth Mainstage, this was my favourite session by far. I started reading ‘Beyond Heaving Bossoms: The Smart Bitches Guide to Romance Novels’ by Sarah Wendell just before the session and had to repress my laughter in the festival hub at Beer Delux lest anyone think I was insane. The website is marvelous – established by Sarah Wednell and Candy Tan in 2005, they are two normal (no, awesome) chicks who love romance novels but are prepared to rip apart bad romance, clichés and some of the more awful elements. Including the good and the bad and the very ugly euphemisms. You must check out this site. Marjorie M Liu is an extremely cool chick. Not only does she write romance, notably paranormal and urban fantasy; she also writes X-Men comics. If you don’t think either of those things are cool, don’t talk to me. The conversation was chaired by Stephanie van Schilt, not that she got a chance to say anything. Once Sarah and Marjorie started talking, there was no stopping them.

It was like an awesome force of nature. They clearly have a lot of respect for each other, for their readers and for the genre. It didn’t matter that the conversation was mostly between the two guest panelists, the whole audience felt totally included. It was inspiring and fun and introduced me to a concept that I need to work on to get my head around; romance is a feminist genre. Yup. I’ll be working on that for a while.

The Morning Read

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I was heading in for a couple of sessions on the Friday and thought I’d get there a bit early and check out one of the free sessions. Thuy On introduced a series of authors who read their own work. One thing I have learnt about this festival is that having written a book does not automatically mean you can read it aloud to an audience with a strong sense of the book itself. But enough of this.

Fiona Capp kicked the reading off with the epilogue of her novel, Gotland. This section was of a new Prime Minister’s wife as she settled into The Lodge and tried to figure out how they would deal with her recent issues. It certainly raised my interest about what came before – and it seems that it may be a particularly apt book for the moment. Next was Jane Rawson with her book A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists. This book sounds absolutely fabulous – absurd and comic. Set in a Melbourne of the future which is unlivable and following  (amongst others) a man who travels between the folded pages of a map… well, I don’t think I need to say anything more. The third reader was Zane Lovitt, an Australian crime writer who has written a book that I recall him describing as a series of stand alone chapters which, when read as a whole, paint a big picture. I hope I got that vaguely right. Finally was Tao Lin, a poet and writer from New York reading from his novel Taipei. See Generation Now below – I think he is a hugely respected and recognized author internationally, but he cannot read his own work aloud, which I find amazing.

Why I Read

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Why I Read was a session that I booked essentially to make my Paperback Pass worthwhile and didn’t really expect to get a lot out of it. After all, I’ve only heard of Maureen McCarthy and so the others were an unknown quantity, but it was extremely interesting. To hear three authors of different backgrounds and interests talking about books they have read, that have inspired them from their childhood through to what they are reading now. I kept a series of notes in my phone during the session (which made me feel very naughty, even though my phone was on airplane mode) of different inspiring books. Eventually, I may get through all the books on it. If I live to a hundred and can still read, that is.

The Politics of Sex

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What an amazing session. To listen to two inspiring women talk about their area of expertise – it was truly fascinating. This is one of the few sessions where I made a chance to read at least some of each panelists book, so I had some idea of where they were coming from. Shereen El Feki wrote Sex and the Citidel: Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World, which looks at sex in Egypt and other Arab countries. I found it a bit dry and academic at times, but the anecdotes were fabulous – sometime hilarious. It was especially interesting to hear what El Feki had to say after the recent events in Egypt.

Then there was local author Anna Krien whose book Night Games looks at the attitudes in elite sport, most specifically AFL and NRL. It follows one case of a girl who reported being sexually assaulted by several Collingwood players and a non-player, and it was the non-player who ended up in court. What is interesting about the book is that it talks about the overall culture of sport and the AFL, and attitudes toward women in general. It is depressing, but there is a sense of hope.

Generation Now

Generation Now was my dud session of the festival. My understanding is that Tao Lin is considered very highly in the literary world. Until The Morning Read session yesterday, I hadn’t heard of him (although that doesn’t mean a lot, I know). He read the same section from his book, Taipei, that he read yesterday, and it was just as bad. Throughout the discussion and questions, everything seemed to be very much directed toward him despite his stop-start, monotonous answers that often missed the question altogether. I wanted more from Bethanie Blanchard. She writes for Crikey and sounds fascinating, but she seemed to be all but overlooked.  The whole event was frustrating for me as I felt I was the only one not hero-worshipping Tao Lin. I wonder if they enjoyed it more than me.

A Year of Stella

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Aviva Tuffield was part of a group that came up with the concept the Stella Awards in response to the current male author domination of reviews, award nominations and awards. The Orange award for literature was started in the UK in 1996 in a similar vein. Interestingly, I found that it is now called the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. Ah, sponsorship.

I find the conversation about gender of authors an interesting one. If a book is good, who cares who wrote it? Over the last few years, I’ve read and heard several discussions regarding this, including an excellent episode of Romana Koval’s The Book Show that has stayed in my mind. One thing which is apparent is that women will read (and review) both male and female authors whilst men tend to read (and review) only male authors. Certainly, a majority of non-fiction tends to be written by men. Does this mean that an award should be given for ladies? If I find myself questioning this, I remind myself that any money for the arts is a good thing. And as a woman who writes, I’m certainly not complaining of the opportunity to be recognized.

At any rate, Tuffield and her group pieced together a panel with several members to judge the first award, which was presented earlier this year. Amongst those selected was Claudia Karvan, the actress and producer who was on the panel as a non-author person of note.  Karvan and Tuffield were joined on the panel by shortlisted author Cate Kennedy and winner Carrie Tiffany. Karvan read from Kennedy’s Like a House of Fire and Tiffany’s Mateship With Birds. It was a very interesting  session which had these four fascinating woman talking about their processes, the history of the prize and where to from here. Plus, I got two books. Oops. My bank account is really not very happy with this festival; my bookshelf is, though!

Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living by Carrie Tiffany – Book Review



Australia, 1934. Jean Finnegan is a quiet young woman who has taken a post on the ‘Better Farming Train’ – a train that travels around rural areas presenting information for those in these areas. When the men attend talks on grain and animals, the women learn about sewing, cooking and child rearing. Over months, Jean finds herself with two male admirers; the mysterious Japanese chicken sexer, Mr Ohno, and the odd grain and soil expert, Robert Pettergree. She marries Robert and set up their own farm, where he experiments with his theories on grain production. Both discover things do not always go to plan.

Tiffany’s writing is beautiful and to be savoured. Throughout the novel, she builds up a tension in Finnegan that is subtle yet all-consuming, and I just wanted to grab her and shake her and tell her that she had other choices, other options. For me, this is what fiction is all about; getting caught up in the life of a character and wanting to be involved.

Tiffany won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript for Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living. It won a number of awards and was shortlisted for both the Miles Franklin Award and the Orange Prize for Fiction.

Night Games : Sex, Power and Sport – Anna Krien – Book Review


Football is so important. Sport is so important. I write this and am torn between genuinely feeling that football, and sport in general, is both extremely important in our society and far too important. Sport gives people the chance to bond, to grow in ways that other activities can’t. There can be life-long bonds formed, and people from many walks of life can come together. I personally would argue that this could be said for many group activities where the group has a common goal, but sport really is important. With the popularity of AFL in Australia (and many other codes both in Australia and worldwide), the players are seen as gods by many and loyalty to the code and the team is above all else. So, what happens when women are involved?

Over the last few years there have been numerous sex ‘scandals’ (although, as Krien points out, rape is a lot more serious than simply being a scandal) involving players, sometimes several players involved in the same incident. Some people cry that the women want it; stalking the players at nightclubs and wanting an AFL star as a notch on their bedpost. But there is a lot more to it than this. There is a whole culture involved with footy; a culture that Krien has managed to peek into.

The main part of the story follows a non-AFL footballer who, after partying with some of his professional playing mates, is charged with rape of a woman in an alley outside the party. Krien is conflicted in covering this in her book as the victim and her family would not talk with her, but the accused and his family embraced her. Yet it is such a key part of the culture Krien was looking into, I’m glad she wrote it as she did.

This is a book that will disgust you, but really make you think. There are a lot of changes that need to be made within this kind of sporting culture, and Night Games gives some suggestions. Definitely worth a read, especially for anyone involved in elite sport.

Sex and the Citadel : Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World by Shereen El Feki – Book Review


This is a non-fiction dive into the world of sex, religion and the law across many Arab countries, although focusing mostly on Egypt. Though, this makes it seem like it is a dry, academic work. Shereen El Feki is interested in people; their beliefs, their contradictions and generally the way they work together. El Feki grew up in Canada with Egyptian and Welsh heritage, and has worked in broadcasting and other fields, including serving as vice chair of the UN’s Global Commission on HIV and the Law. This gave her a unique way in to talk to people in the region about sex, and led to some very interesting insights.

I found that I skip-read the book – that is, that the bits I really enjoyed were the anecdotes and the interviews, but a lot of the history and context I didn’t engage with as much. I feel as though I’ve had a bit of an insight, however this is still a world that is a mile away from my own.

The session at MWF with El Feki and Anna Krien was fabulous. El Feki is an extremely interesting, passionate woman whose enthusiasm for the topic was obvious in the way she talked and engaged with both the panel and the audience.

Harmless by Julienne van Loon – Book Review


Eight-year-old Amanda and Rattuwat, an elderly, Thai man are walking across unfamiliar landscape after his car breaks down on the way to visit her father in jail. Gradually, it is revealed that Rattuwat’s daughter was in a relationship with Amanda’s father before he was put away. She has recently passed away and Rattuwat is trying in his own way to find a future for Amanda.

The book is told in chapters from the point of view of different characters in the story, and it keeps you guessing right until the end. It is heartbreaking – so much pain and devastation. Some is brought by their own actions and some is uncontrollable, but all is painful. For such a small book, Harmless packs an incredible punch and still brings a tear to my eye when I think on it for too long.

Julianne van Loon will be appearing at the Melbourne Writers Festival at The Morning Read on Friday August 23 at 10am at Beer DeLuxe, Asian Stories Australian Postcodes on Saturday August 24 at 10am at The Cube, ACMI, The Morning Read on Saturday August 24 at 10 at Beer DeLuxe and is hosting First Flight on Sunday August 25 at ACMI. For tickets and more information visit MWF.

Beneath the Bloodwood Tree by Julienne van Loon – Book Review


One of the things I really love about Melbourne Writers Festival is that it introduces me to the work of authors I did not know previously. Thanks, MWF, because I now know Julienne van Loon, and I suspect I will be a lifelong fan.

Beneath the Bloodwood tree is set in Western Australia in Port Hedland, looking at life over a few months through the eyes of several characters; there is Pia Ricci, the dentist of Chinese/Italian background who is conducting a casual affair with a married man whose wife lives out-of-town; Joachim, the Dutch nurse who enters into a more serious relationship with Pia with unexpected consequences and the widow Barnes who lives mostly in her own mind with the ghosts of her past.

I love the pacing of van Loon’s writing. Information is drip fed, but not in the way that makes you want to race to the end and pull it to pieces. Instead, she directs you in each direction, letting you see a little and then taking you elsewhere until eventually, you realise you’ve seen the whole picture, and it is not what you expected.

Julianne van Loon will be appearing at the Melbourne Writers Festival at The Morning Read on Friday August 23 at 10am at Beer DeLuxe, Asian Stories Australian Postcodes on Saturday August 24 at 10am at The Cube, ACMI, The Morning Read on Saturday August 24 at 10 at Beer DeLuxe and is hosting First Flight on Sunday August 25 at ACMI. For tickets and more information visit MWF.

Who We Were by Lucy Neave – Book Review


The story starts in rural Victoria, with Annabel newly finished high school and heading home in a truck with her brother and his mate, Bill Whitton. She and Bill quickly fall for each other, but World War Two starts and they are separated. Annabel goes to university, studying science. When Bill returns, their love affair recommences. They marry and move to New York to help Bill escape the constant memories he suffers after spending years in a POW camp.  There, they both gain work in chemical labs, but Annabel is never quite sure who she is working for on in what capacity. It is the Cold War, the commission in anti-American activities is in full swing and nothing and no-one is what they seem to be.

I absolutely love an unreliable narrator, and Annabel is most certainly one. She is an extremely intelligent woman, however she is in denial about what is happening around her, both in her marriage and in the world. As long as she was confused, I was confused; but for me, this was far from unpleasant. It was like reading a murder mystery only without the murder; when I wasn’t reading the book, I was wondering who each character really was and what was driving them. This is Lucy Neave’s first book and I am most certainly looking forward to reading more of her work.

Lucy Neave will be appearing at the Melbourne Writers Festival 2013 at The Morning Read on Sunday, August 25 at 10am at Beer Deluxe and First Flight on Sunday, August 25 at 11:30am at ACMI studio 1. For tickets and more information visit MWF.