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BOOK REVIEW: The Extremely Inconvenient Adventures of Bronte Mettlestone by Jaclyn Moriarty

Friday, August 17, 2018

 

The Blurb (From Goodreads):

Bronte Mettlestone's parents ran away to have adventures when she was a baby, leaving her to be raised by her Aunt Isabelle and the Butler. She's had a perfectly pleasant childhood of afternoon teas and riding lessons - and no adventures, thank you very much.

But Bronte's parents have left extremely detailed (and bossy) instructions for Bronte in their will. The instructions must be followed to the letter, or disaster will befall Bronte's home. She is to travel the kingdoms and empires, perfectly alone, delivering special gifts to her ten other aunts. There is a farmer aunt who owns an orange orchard and a veterinarian aunt who specialises in dragon care, a pair of aunts who captain a cruise ship together and a former rockstar aunt who is now the reigning monarch of a small kingdom.

Now, armed with only her parents' instructions, a chest full of strange gifts and her own strong will, Bronte must journey forth to face dragons, Chief Detectives and pirates - and the gathering suspicion that there might be something more to her extremely inconvenient quest than meets the eye...

From the award-winning Jaclyn Moriarty comes a fantastic tale of high intrigue, grand adventure and an abundance of aunts.


My Thoughts:

I have always thought that Jaclyn Moriarty has one of the freshest and most original voices in Australian children’s literature and so was eager to read her latest children’s fantasy, beautifully presented as a hardback with whimsical illustrations by Kelly Canby. The book did not disappoint – it was a sparkling delight from beginning to end, with lots of unexpected discoveries, wondrous encounters and madcap adventures.

The story begins:

I was ten years old when my parents were killed by pirates. This did not bother me as much as you might think - I hardly knew my parents.

Bronte’s parents had run away to have adventures when she was just a baby, leaving her to be raised by her Aunt Isabelle and the Butler. But their last will and testament says she must set out alone, on a solitary quest, to take a farewell gift to each of her ten other aunts. Her parents’ will has been bordered by fairy cross-stitch, which means calamity will befall her home town if she disobeys. So Bronte sets out to fulfil her parents’ dying wish (although, really, it is extremely inconvenient). Before long she is grappling with dragons, Chief Detectives, spell whisperers and pirates. Luckily, Bronte is very resourceful and determined as well as kind-hearted and clever, and so she deals with one troublesome aunt after another with aplomb.

The world-building in this book is so rich and inventive it could easily support a dozen other books, and so I hope that The Extremely Inconvenient Adventures of Bronte Mettlestone is the first in what will be a long series. This is the perfect book for a sensitive imaginative bookworm who is not yet ready for Harry Potter but wants a story filled with magic, adventure, humour and whimsy (the kind of kid I was when I was eleven!)

I was lucky enough to interview Jaclyn for the blog this weeks, you can read it here.

If you like the sound of this book, you might also be interested in my review of Nevermoor.

Please leave a comment and let me know what you think.


INTERVIEW: Jaclyn Moriarty

Friday, August 17, 2018

 

Today I welcome Jaclyn Moriarty, author of The Extremely Inconvenient Adventures of Bronte Mettlestone and A Corner of White, among others. 

Are you a daydreamer too?
Yes. Lately my daydream has been about getting struck by lightning and being perfectly all right except that now, suddenly, I can sing beautifully. Like, an astonishing voice, the voice of an angel! In addition, I find that I can now speak the language of musical instruments, so that all I need to do is pick up an instrument, study it a moment, tilt my head towards it, smile softly, and then I can play it beautifully. Like, the Berlin Philharmonic are begging me to join! So, anyway, in the daydream, I go on Australian Idol and I’m on the stage being very open about how this was all just a lightning strike-- previously, I couldn’t sing a note! I was practically tone deaf! And rhythm? Forget about it! -- and they’re all laughing along. And then I become thoughtful and I query aloud whether it’s fair, that the other competitors have worked so hard, for so many years, to reach this point, whereas for me, it was just, you know, a lightning strike? ‘Quite literally,’ one of the judges murmurs. Shots of audience members nodding, seeing my point. But then I strum my guitar (or raise the bow to my violin, or blow a single, haunting note into my lur (a Viking wind instrument which was used to sound war calls in the Middle Ages) -- it depends which instrument I’ve chosen for tonight’s performance) and begin to sing...

So, if you see me walking around my neighbourhood, with a little frown creasing my forehead, it’s because I’m wondering whether it is fair, that I’m so good, when others have worked hard all their lives to achieve a level that doesn’t even approach my skill; or else I’m fretting about which of the many, many available instruments I should play for my audition---or how many I could reasonably incorporate into the audition? Could I run from one to the other or would that just become ridiculous?; or I’m really at a loss about what exactly Simon will have to say about it all. So many questions.

Have you always wanted to be a writer?

Yes, for as long as I can remember. Well, actually, I remember being in a high chair and throwing a plate of food onto the floor, and I don’t think I wanted to be a writer at that point.

Tell me a little about yourself – where were you born, where do you live, what do you like to do?
I was born in Perth, Western Australia. There was a serious earthquake in the area a few days later. This was to welcome me to the world, and I’m very sorry about the $ 2.2 million worth of damage, and the 20 to 28 people who were injured.

I live in Sydney, on the north side of the harbour, and I like to sleep in, read, eat chocolate, bake, hang out with my 11-year-old, Charlie, chat with friends, see movies, snow ski, ice-skate, meet up with my parents, sisters, in-laws, nephews and nieces, in sunny parks, and watch the children kick balls around or listen to them compliment my chocolate brownies (not Charlie - he kicks the ball around but is very dismissive of my baking).

How did you get the first flash of inspiration for this book?

A reader sent me an email about my books, and mentioned she was drinking a cup of cloudberry tea. I had never heard of cloudberry tea before, and I replied that I was going to put it in a book one day.

How extensively do you plan your novels?
For my first book, Feeling Sorry for Celia, I had a two page outline. With each book since, my plan has grown longer and longer. So, for the Colours of Madeleine trilogy, the plan took a year to write and was over 200 pages. However, with the Extremely Inconvenient Adventures of Bronte Mettlestone, I decided I would not plan it at all. I wrote each chapter in a different cafe in my neighbourhood and I imagined that I was following Bronte around, from cafe to cafe, waiting to see what she would do.

Do you ever use dreams as a source of inspiration?
Sometimes, but more the mood of the dream than the plot. I am also inspired by ideas that come to me when I am in a half-awake trance in the mornings. That’s a big part of why I like to sleep in, or anyway that’s the excuse I give for it.

Did you make any astonishing serendipitous discoveries while writing this book?

Well, even though I was trying to write each chapter of this book in a different cafe I did return to Coco Chocolate, the tiny chocolate cafe in Kirribilli, over and over. I kept finding myself drawn back to it. While I was writing the book, I didn’t have a title, so I kept referring to it as ‘my pirate book’ (because it opens with Bronte’s parents being killed by pirates). ‘I’m just going back to the chocolate cafe to write my pirate book,’ I kept saying to people, and to myself. I wrote the final words of the book in Coco Chocolate, and looked up and said to the owner, ‘I’ve just finished my pirate book!’ She reached across me and picked up a package of gold chocolate coins and handed them to me. And I realised that there’d been a treasure chest of gold coins sitting right in front of me the entire time I was writing my pirate book.

Where do you write, and when?
I used to always plan in a cafe each morning, and then write in my study at home each afternoon. However, with Bronte, I actually started bringing my laptop along to the cafes and writing there, and I loved it. I still write at home every afternoon but lately I’ve been writing at the dining room table, instead of my study, because my study is ice-cold and the dining room table is bathed in winter sunshine.

Everything changes.

What is your favourite part of writing?

The hot chocolate at Coco Chocolate.

What do you do when you get blocked?
Run around the block or up and down a flight of stairs; eat fruit and chocolate; draw colourful pictures. If that doesn’t work, I stop writing altogether for half a day and sit on the edge of the harbour staring at the water. In a serious case, stop writing altogether for a week or more and do household administration, wash the skirting boards and read novels and poetry instead.

How do you keep your well of inspiration full?

Reading across all genres, especially science, history and poetry; having a lot of conversations with my bright and funny friends; eavesdropping on strangers.

Do you have any rituals that help you to write?

I always have a cup of peppermint tea and a blue bowl of fruit and chocolate beside me, plus a jug of water and a glass. I usually go for a walk that takes me near water before I start writing. I change into my most comfortable tracksuit pants first.

Who are ten of your favourite writers?
Diana Wynne Jones, Carol Shields, Joan Aiken, Jane Austen, Rachel Cohn, Garth Nix, Elizabeth McCracken, Geraldine McCaughrean, Laura Bloom, Kate Clanchy, Louis Sachar, E. Nesbit, Tom Stoppard, P.G. Wodehouse, Liane Moriarty, Nicola Moriarty, Dylan Thomas, Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf.

What do you consider to be good writing?
Writing that takes you sideways out of life and that is fearless and true.

What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?

Read widely across all genres; set rules for writing times and stick to them, but don’t be hard on yourself if you break them. Be kind to yourself, be delighted by what you’re writing, but then step away for a week or more, come back, and be a bit ruthless. Continue to be kind to yourself even when you’re being ruthless.

What are you working on now?

I’m just finishing up with copy-editing and proofs of two books -- one is a follow-up to Bronte. It’s called The Slightly Alarming Tale of the Whispering Wars, (it will just be called The Whispering Wars in the US and Canada) and takes place in a different part of the Kingdoms and Empires, before Bronte was born. In the town of Spindrift, Honey Bee lives in the exclusive boarding school, Finlay lives in the orphanage, and the Whispering Wars are about to begin.

The other book is an adult novel called Gravity is the Thing which is about a woman who signs up for a series of seminars that promise to teach her the secret to human flight.

You can read my review of Jaclyn's latest book, The Extremely Inconvenient Adventures of Bronte Mettlestone, here.


BOOK REVIEW: The Trauma Cleaner by Sarah Krasnostein

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

 

The Blurb (From Goodreads):

Before she was a trauma cleaner, Sandra Pankhurst was many things: husband and father, drag queen, gender reassignment patient, sex worker, small businesswoman, trophy wife…

But as a little boy, raised in violence and excluded from the family home, she just wanted to belong. Now she believes her clients deserve no less.

A woman who sleeps among garbage she has not put out for forty years. A man who bled quietly to death in his loungeroom. A woman who lives with rats, random debris and terrified delusion. The still life of a home vacated by accidental overdose.

Sarah Krasnostein has watched the extraordinary Sandra Pankhurst bring order and care to these, the living and the dead—and the book she has written is equally extraordinary. Not just the compelling story of a fascinating life among lives of desperation, but an affirmation that, as isolated as we may feel, we are all in this together.


My Thoughts:

I had some time free at the Sydney Writers’ Festival and so slipped in to hear Sarah Krasnostein talk about her debut work of biography, The Trauma Cleaner. I had seen people talking about it and recommending it on social media, and I knew it had won the $100,000 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award, but otherwise I knew very little about it.

Sarah Krasnostein spoke so intelligently about her transformative journey in writing this book that I bought it at once, and asked her to sign it.

Basically, Sarah was at an academic conference one day when she saw a tall blonde woman sitting at a table with an oxygen mask and a fanned-out pile of brochures about her company. ‘Specialised Trauma Cleaning Services’. Sarah was intrigued, picked up a copy and read it through several times.

“People do not understand about body fluids,” the brochure read. “Bodily fluids are like acids. They have all the same enzymes that break down our food. When these powerful enzymes come into contact with furnishing and the like, deterioration is rapid. I have known enzymes to soak through a sofa and to eat at the springs, mould growing throughout a piece of furniture and I have witnessed the rapid deterioration of a contaminated mattress.”

Wanting to know more, Sarah rang the tall blonde woman – whose name was Sandra Pankhurst – and asked if she could interview her.

I find this action of hers intriguing as well. Sarah Krasnostein was not a journalist or a writer by trade. She was a law lecturer and researcher with a doctorate in criminal law. What deep psychological need in Sarah drove her to want to meet a trauma cleaner, and then spend the next four years following her around?

Whatever her own motivations, Sarah Krasnostein has an infallible instinct for a good story. Sandra Pankhurst’s life was shocking, heartbreaking, and powerful. Born a boy, adopted at birth, abused and neglected, he became a husband and father, then a drag-queen and sex-worker, and then undertook gender reassignment surgery and became a woman. Totally reinventing herself, Sandra began to work at a funeral parlour and then married a man she met at his wife’s cremation. Energetic and ambitious, she runs a business with him and stands for local council. When the business fails, she begins a cleaning company to support them both, and soon realises that the real money is in trauma cleaning.

So what does a trauma cleaner do? Her business card says:

* Hoarding and Pet Hoarding Clean up * Squalor/ Trashed Properties * Preparing the Home, for Home Help Agencies to Attend * Odor Control * Homicide, Suicide and Death Scenes * Deceased Estates * Mold, Flood and Fire Remediation * Methamphetamine Lab Clean Up * Industrial Accidents * Cell Cleaning

For three and a half years, Sarah Krasnostein followed Sandra Pankhurst in and out of filthy, stinking houses and watched as she returned them to sparkling, sweet-smelling order. The first job Sarah attended was the apartment of a 35-year-old heroin junkie who had overdosed and her body had not been found for two weeks. Sarah was 35 at the time herself, a confronting parallel.

A chapter about one of Sandra’s clients is followed by a chapter about Sandra herself, the two timelines weaving in and out of each other until we reach the end of the tale.

Sandra is an unreliable narrator, and so not an easy subject for a biography:

‘Many of the facts of Sandra’s past are either entirely forgotten, endlessly interchangeable, neurotically ordered, conflicting or loosely tethered to reality. She is open about the fact that drugs may have impacted her memory … It is also my belief that her memory loss is trauma-induced,’ Sarah Krasnostein writes. So The Trauma Cleaner is also a meditation on memory and forgetting, trust and lies, and this philosophical element of the book adds an extra depth and interest.

Bu the real star of the book is Sandra Pankhurst herself – her warmth, humour, compassion and grit. This is truly an astonishing life story, discovered by accident and told with real grace and thoughtfulness.


I was lucky enough to interview Sarah Krasnostein for the blog this week, you can read it here.

Please leave a comment, I love to know what you think.



INTERVIEW: Sarah Krasnostein

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

 

This week I'm very excited to welcome Sarah Krasnostein, author of The Trauma Cleaner, to the blog.

Have you always wanted to be a writer?
Pretty much! I've schlepped a notebook around with me since I was seven years old - recording dialogue, descriptions, ideas, observations, books I've read, books I want to read. The only real difference between now and then is that now I use the notes app on my phone. And my spelling has moderately improved.

How extensively do you plan your novels?

Well, I only have one book at the moment, but the process of writing that had much in common with writing my doctoral dissertation, and the long form pieces I'm writing currently. My impulse, coming from an academic background, is to ' do all my homework' - i.e., the research - and then write everything up neatly. But that type of perfectionism will stunt you because, with long works, the writing is the thinking. So I do plan where I want a piece to go, but I try to remain sufficiently open to what the material is telling me that I am able to restructure as I go.

Where do you write, and when?

For the past decade, I've written on a crappy Ikea particle board that rests on a crappy filing cabinet at either end. But I sit under a glorious and very long Anne Lamott quote which I printed out long ago and stuck above my computer. I'll set the first part out here in case it's of use to anyone else:

"Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won't have to die. The truth is you will die anyway and that a whole lot of people who aren't even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they're doing it..."
- Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird (1994)

As to when I write, I have a very young child. So whenever I get time to write, that's when I'll be writing!

What is your favourite part of writing?

Reading. I think we get trapped into thinking about writing as 'content' or 'output'. I certainly do. And when that happens I remind myself of Stephen King's advice - which I'll probably butcher here - but the essence was that if you don't have time to read, you don't have time to write.

What do you do when you get blocked?
See above. I read. Being inspired by the work I love reminds me why I write in the first place. I'm a lawyer and an academic by training, so I have the type of personality that wants to drill down harder into the task when I find Im not getting anywhere. But that's not how a creative process works, unfortunately, so I've had to learn to be looser. I'll get up from the desk and go read or walk, spend time with my family, do chores from the never-ending 'to do' list. When I take the pressure off and engage with the world, I find that connections in the material Im working with are easier to make, and that'll allow me to get back into it.

Who are ten of your favourite writers?
I love and fear this question. Ideally it would be, "Who are ten thousand of your favourite writers". In no particular order: Gay Talese, Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, Shirley Jackson, James Baldwin, WG Sebald, Susan Sheehan, Elizabeth Strout, Nicole Krauss, Mary Oliver, John Jeremiah Sullivan...

What do you consider to be good writing?

Control and the confidence and originality that comes from depth in feeling or scholarship. I'm always drawn to the ways those qualities are conveyed at the sentence level.

What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?

At some point, you will want to stop. In fact, you'll find very good reasons to stop. That voice is a liar. Keep going.

You can read my review of The Trauma Cleaner here.


BOOK REVIEW: The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose

Friday, August 10, 2018

 

The Blurb (from Goodreads):

A mesmerising literary novel about a lost man in search of connection - a meditation on love, art and commitment, set against the backdrop of one of the greatest art events in modern history, Marina Abramovic's The Artist is Present.

Arky Levin is a film composer in New York separated from his wife, who has asked him to keep one devastating promise. One day he finds his way to The Atrium at MOMA and sees Marina Abramovic in The Artist is Present. The performance continues for seventy-five days and, as it unfolds, so does Arky. As he watches and meets other people drawn to the exhibit, he slowly starts to understand what might be missing in his life and what he must do.

This dazzlingly original novel asks beguiling questions about the nature of art, life and love and finds a way to answer them.


My Thoughts:

I love art in all its forms, and had heard so many wonderful reviews of The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose (which won the 2017 Stella Prize) that I had been wanting to read it for a long time.

However, I did not buy the book until after I interviewed Heather Rose for Word of Mouth TV earlier this year and was fascinated by the story of the book’s inspiration and long genesis.

The story is centred on the true-life art performance ‘The Artist is Present’, in which Serbian-born artist Marina Abramovic sits silently on a chair at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York for seventy-five days, without speaking or moving or showing any outward sign that she is alive. People visiting the museum have the chance to sit with her and look into her eyes, but are not permitted to speak or act in any way.

This act of silent connection proves extraordinarily moving and inspiring for many thousands of people, who queue up day after day to watch and participate. In all, 1,500 people would sit with Marina Abramovic and more than 850,000 people watched, some returning day after day after day (including Heather Rose who sat with the artist four times).

In the world of Heather Rose’s extraordinary, luminous novel, we met several imaginary people who are also drawn to watch. Among them are Arky Levin, a film composer separated from his wife, and Jane Miller, a widow who had once been a teacher. Both are struggling with loss and grief; both are drawn to Marina Abramovic’s installation for reasons they do not fully understand. They meet when Jane, annoyed by a stranger’s patronising remarks about modern art, turns to Arky and says, ‘I think art saves people all the time.’

I think art saves people too. I think it has saved me more than once. And so this is a book that resonated with me on so many levels.

Arky and Jane do not fall in love. Their lives touch only briefly, yet both are changed by their encounter, with each other and with ‘The Artist is Present’ installation. So too are the lives of others in the crowd, some of whome we meet only briefly. Without moving, without speaking, Marina Abramovic is an agent of revelation and transformation.

‘It is her metier to dance on the edge of madness, to vault over pain into the solace of disintegration,’ Heather Rose writes of her.

Other voices who speak in this beautiful and beguiling novel are the ghost of Marina Abramovic’s mother, a fierce and unrelenting woman who had been a Serbian war hero, and an unnamed narrator who acts as a muse to Arky and other struggling artists.

‘Pain is the stone that art sharpens itself on time after time,’ the muse says at one point.

These elements of magical realism are interwoven so delicately and surely that they do not disrupt the narrative flow at all, but add intensity and pathos as well as a sense of wonder and amazement at the extraordinary way art and creativity can shape and succour the human psyche.

After I finished The Museum of Modern Art, I too was fascinated by Marina Abramovic and read or watched numerous articles and documentaries about her. I love a book that drives me to learn more.

It took Heather rose more than eleven years to craft this exquisitely written novel, a testament to the depth of her obsession and the dediction to her craft. It is definitely one of the best books I’ve read this year. Quite possibly, one of the best book I’ve read ever.

If you like books about art, check out my review of The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith.

I was lucky enough to interview Heather Rose for the blog this week, you can read it here.

Please leave a comment and let me know what you think.


INTERVIEW: Heather Rose

Friday, August 10, 2018

 

Today I welcome Heather Rose, author of The Museum of Modern Love, to the blog.

Are you a daydreamer too?
Absolutely.

Have you always wanted to be a writer?
Yes!

Tell me a little about yourself – where were you born, where do you live, what do you like to do?
I was born in Tasmania and I live by the sea just two kilometres from my old family home. Mind you, I went around the world to arrive back here. I love beach walks, painting, meditating, reading, swimming, making cakes, time with my children and teaching writing. I also love solitude, kindness, sunshine and friendship.

How did you get the first flash of inspiration for this book?
At the National Gallery of Victoria staring at a photograph.

How extensively do you plan your novels?
Not at all.

Do you ever use dreams as a source of inspiration?
Yes. It’s curious how they show up with helpful metaphors at times.

Did you make any astonishing serendipitous discoveries while writing this book?
There are always astonishing serendipitous discoveries and that’s how I know I’m on the right path with a novel. I think of writing as psychic orienteering. I have to trust my instincts and the path appears. The Museum of Modern Love took eleven years – and the discoveries kept unfolding.

Where do you write, and when?
I write at home in a room overlooking the sea. I like to get to my desk at 9am and not finish until at least 3pm. But sometimes, if the day got away, I’ll start around 7pm and work til 1am. I try to write every day – even weekends. I don’t always succeed, but novels are long and even a little every day really helps.

What is your favourite part of writing?
The writing. Finding myself immersed in the characters and the plot for hours on end. Bliss. When I emerge it’s as if I have spent the day visiting friends in other places. It’s the ultimate time travel.

What do you do when you get blocked?
Make tea. Go for a walk. Meet a friend. Go to a movie. Read a great book. Have a nap. Take a break for a few days, or even a week. Work on something else. The next bit always comes. It’s just a matter of being patient and listening.

How do you keep your well of inspiration full?

I meditate every day. I read a lot. I love movies. I walk and swim too. I love escaping into nature on a beach or in a forest. (It’s easy in Tasmania!) I also procrasti-bake. Cooking is a great way for me to nurture ideas.

Do you have any rituals that help you to write?

A pot of tea, a jug of water, toast and marmalade and I’m away. Lighting a candle is also helpful on the long nights.

Who are ten of your favourite writers?
Such a painful question. So many favourites. Here’s 12 with apologies to all the omissions: Virginia Woolf. Haruki Murakami. Kazuo Ishiguro. Elizabeth Gilbert. Helen Garner. Elizabeth Strout. Cormac McCarthy. Toni Morrison. Edith Wharton. George R.R. Martin. Gabriel Garcia Marquez. George Eliot.

What do you consider to be good writing?
Writing that touches my heart, transports me to other worlds and awakens me to new ideas.

What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?
Read excellent writing. Carry a notebook and pen. Write something every day. Repeat.

What are you working on now?
Novel #8. And a couple of non-fiction projects.

You can read my review of The Museum of Modern Love here.

BOOK REVIEW: White Houses by Amy Bloom

Friday, August 03, 2018

 

The Blurb (From Goodreads):

Lorena Hickok meets Eleanor Roosevelt in 1932 while reporting on Franklin Roosevelt's first presidential campaign. Having grown up worse than poor in South Dakota and reinvented herself as the most prominent woman reporter in America, "Hick," as she's known to her friends and admirers, is not quite instantly charmed by the idealistic, patrician Eleanor. But then, as her connection with the future first lady deepens into intimacy, what begins as a powerful passion matures into a lasting love, and a life that Hick never expected to have. She moves into the White House, where her status as "first friend" is an open secret, as are FDR's own lovers. After she takes a job in the Roosevelt administration, promoting and protecting both Roosevelts, she comes to know Franklin not only as a great president but as a complicated rival and an irresistible friend, capable of changing lives even after his death. Through it all, even as Hick's bond with Eleanor is tested by forces both extraordinary and common, and as she grows as a woman and a writer, she never loses sight of the love of her life.

From Washington, D.C. to Hyde Park, from a little white house on Long Island to an apartment on Manhattan's Washington Square, Amy Bloom's new novel moves elegantly through fascinating places and times, written in compelling prose and with emotional depth, wit, and acuity.


My Thoughts:

White Houses by Amy Bloom is a novel inspired by the true-life love affair between Eleanor Roosevelt and her ‘first friend’, Lorena Hickok. I love books that tell the untold story of real women’s lives, and books which illuminate history in new and fascinating ways, and White Houses did both for me. I’ve not studied US history in any depth, and so the Roosevelts are just names to me. I had no sense of shock in learning that the wife of the 32nd President of the United States kept her lesbian lover in the White House. I felt only curiosity and a sense of wonderment that their love affair is not better known. I cannot imagine that happening today!

The novel is told from the point of view of Lorena Hickok, known as ‘Hick’ to her friends. The first woman to have her byline featured on the front page of the New York Times, Hick had grown up dirt-poor in South Dakota and dragged herself up through her own indomitable will and razor-sharp wit. She first met Eleanor Roosevelt in 1932 while reporting on Franklin Roosevelt's first presidential campaign, and before long the two are going on holiday together and Hick has given up her career to move into the White House.

The book is not told in a linear fashion. It moves back and forth in time, much as a woman remembering her own life would tell it. Hick tells the story of her father’s abuse and abandonment, her first sexual experimentations while working in a circus, her love affairs and the difficulties of being a lesbian in 1930s America. Her voice is jaded, cynical and yet also lyrical:

‘Every women’s body is an intimate landscape. The hills, the valleys, the narrow ledges, the riverbanks, the sudden eruptions of soft or crinkling hair. Here are the plains, the fine dry slopes. Here are the woods, here is the smooth path to the only door I wish to walk through. Eleanor’s body is the landscape of my true home.’

The relationship between the two women was kept hidden for many years, but in 1979 the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library uncovered eighteen boxes of letters exchanged between Eleanor and Hick. During the thirty years they knew each other, the two women wrote nearly 4,000 letters to each other. Here is one excerpt:

Hick darling, Oh! how good it was to hear your voice, it was so inadequate to try & tell you what it meant, Jimmy was near & I couldn’t say ‘je t’aime et je t’adore’ as I longed to do but always remember I am saying it & that I go to sleep thinking of you & repeating our little saying.

White Houses is only a slim book, but it delves deep into the interior lives of the two women, their heartaches and mistakes, their betrayals and failures. Hick is such a complex, difficult and vulnerable character, and her love for Eleanor is achingly real. A really fascinating read.

You might also be interested in my review of The Aviator's Wife by Melanie Benjamin.

I was lucky enough to interview Amy Bloom for the blog this week, you can read it here.

Please leave a comment and let me know what you think.

INTERVIEW: Amy Bloom

Friday, August 03, 2018

 
Photo by Elena Seibert 2017

This week we welcome Amy Bloom, author of White Houses, to the blog.

Are you a daydreamer too?
I am not much of a daydreamer, except when writing. Most of writing is daydreaming the actions and words of your characters.

Have you always wanted to be a writer?
No. I wanted to be a professional reader (not an editor, just a reader.) when it became clear, that wasn't a thing, I gave up. I found my way back to writing in my mid-30s.

Tell me a little about yourself – where were you born, where do you live, what do you like to do?

I was born in New York City, NY and grew up in the suburbs--lovely and sometimes loathsome--right outside the city. Now, I live in what seems to be a transplanted, eccentric seaside English village, complete with people in pyjamas happily walking their corgis. I like to do pretty much what I get to do: garden, waste time, write, read, go out for pizza, see action films, chill with my family.

How did you get the first flash of inspiration for this book?
I was researching the 30s and 40s in America and kept stumbling over the Roosevelts, who so dominate that period in our country. This lead to Blanch Weisen Cook's great bio of Eleanor Roosevelt, which led me to the 3,000 letters between Mrs. Roosevelt and her lover and dear friend, Lorena Hickok, who actually lived IN the White House for all of their love affair and some years after. I thought: what an extraordinary love story and how hard people worked to hide it.

How extensively do you plan your novels?
I hope for the best. Sometimes I have a map. Sometimes I follow it. My life is easier when I plan.

Do you ever use dreams as a source of inspiration?

I love my dream life but it rarely features characters from my novels. My late parents and extended family show up in eveything from costume drama to Sondheim musicals.

Did you make any astonishing serendipitous discoveries while writing this book?

I felt deeply, that no love is wasted--which is a good way to find oneself feeling, in mid-life. But, no, no serendipity. Also, since coincidence doesn't matter much to me, I wasn't looking.

Where do you write, and when?
I write 5-6 days a week, at my desk, in my dinky office with a beautiful view of the harbor.

What is your favourite part of writing?
Like most other writers--after. I do appreciate, and cherish, the opportunity for revision.

What do you do when you get blocked?
Watch TV, read poetry, call my sister--but all while sitting near my desk. Cant give up entirely, even if it's going horribly.

How do you keep your well of inspiration full?
I wish I could. Sometimes, one stares at a blank, unyielding wall. I do some laundry, cook dinner and keep staring, studying the cracks, while fooling myself that I'm not.

Do you have any rituals that help you to write?

I take a nap almost every day that I write. Maybe it's helpful--it's certainly a fact.

Who are ten of your favourite writers?

Auden, Austen, Kenyon, Hirshfield, Roberston Davies, Carol Shields, Val McDermid, Colwin, Wilde, Percival Everett.

What do you consider to be good writing?

Please see the above exemplars.

What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?

Welcome the chance to re-write that first, awful draft. Get that first awful draft written. Rememebr that no one cares about your writing except you; if you dont protect it and support it, no one will.

What are you working on now?
ARGH! Getting the research done for a novel and doing some TV work as well, without letting my right hand bump into my left hand.

You can read my review of White Houses here.

BOOK REVIEW: Women of the Silk by Gail Tsukiyama

Wednesday, August 01, 2018

 

The Blurb (From Goodreads):

Sent by her family to work in a silk factory just prior to World War II, young Pei grows to womanhood, working fifteen-hour days and sending her pay to the family who abandoned her.

In Women of the Silk Gail Tsukiyama takes her readers back to rural China in 1926, where a group of women forge a sisterhood amidst the reeling machines that reverberate and clamor in a vast silk factory from dawn to dusk. Leading the first strike the village has ever seen, the young women use the strength of their ambition, dreams, and friendship to achieve the freedom they could never have hoped for on their own. Tsukiyama's graceful prose weaves the details of "the silk work" and Chinese village life into a story of courage and strength.


My Thoughts:

A slim volume of interconnected stories about young women working in a silk factory in China in the 1930s, Women of the Silk begins when a young girl, Pei, is sold by her father and goes to learn the craft of weaving silk. Heartbroken and alone, Pei eventually makes friends and settles into her new life. The work is hard and poorly paid, and most of Pei’s income is sent to her family. She finds a sisterhood of women, who all have their own stories of cruelty and loss to tell. The years pass, and Pei grows up. China is beginning to change, and the women of the silk change with it. They go on strike for better wages and working conditions, and some fall in love or die. Then the Japanese invade China in 1937, and Pei and her friends must try and escape.

A story as beautiful and delicate as the silk the girls spin, Gail Tsukiyama’s novel gives a glimpse into the lives of young women struggling to survive in a culture that does not value them. The result is slow and elegiac and unforgettable.

You might also be interested in my review of The Moon in the Palace by Weina Dai Randel.

I was lucky enough to interview Gail Tsukiyama for the blog this week, you can read it here.

Please leave a comment and let me know what you think.

INTERVIEW: Gail Tsukiyama

Wednesday, August 01, 2018

 

Today I welcome Gail Tsukiyama, author of Women of Silk, to the blog.

Are you a daydreamer too?
I don't believe you can be a writer without being a daydreamer...and a nightdreamer! When you're in the midst of writing a book, you're constantly between worlds, carrying the characters and their stories with you as you go through daily life.

Have you always wanted to be a writer?
Yes, I've always wanted to tell stories, but I didn't follow a direct route to writing novels. While I always wrote short stories as a young girl, my first impulse was to tell them through film. I wanted to be a filmmaker. Once in college, I quickly learned that the technical aspects of making films took away from the creative process of putting words on a page to create a story. I've always loved writing narrative descriptions that pushed a story forward, all the significant details that create a sense of place, tone, character. While you can do it visually and through dialogue in film, words on a page allows for even more breath and depth. Once I transferred to the English Department, I fell madly in love with poetry, and spent my undergraduate and graduate years writing poetry and honing my love of language. It still amazes me how so few words can say so much. Poetry provided a great foundation in learning to use language sparingly. It led to my writing more short stories and then progressing to writing novels.

Tell me a little about yourself – where were you born, where do you live, what do you like to do?
I was born in San Francisco, California and continue to live in the San Francisco Bay Area. My mother was Chinese from Hong Kong, and my father was Japanese from Hawai'i. I like to travel, spend time with family and friends, read, walk, work in the garden, and have a good glass of wine at the end of the day. I also run a nonprofit called, WaterBridge Outreach: Books + Water. We do water projects and library and book projects in developing countries. It's a wonderful addition to my writing life that allows me to give back.

How did you get the first flash of inspiration for this book?
Women of the Silk was my first novel and all I knew was that I wanted to write about the Chinese side of my culture. I was primarily raised in the Chinese culture. I didn't want to write about my family so I began to research. The flash of inspiration took me six months to find, but I knew I would write about these silk working women as soon as I read two lines about them in an autobiography of writer, Han Suyin. I was immediately intrigued that these Chinese women were able to live independent of family and marriage for roughly 100 years in a society based on the traditional bonds of family and marriage. I loved the way they were able to remake their lives to continue those same bonds within their own society. They were early feminists without even knowing it.

How extensively do you plan your novels?
A great deal of research has gone into all the novels I've written. Women of the Silk was especially difficult because at the time it was written, there was very little published information about them as a sub-culture. I almost gave up until I was referred to an essay written specifically about the silk workers published in a book of essays by women anthropologists in the 1940's. I was so fortunate to find it at a library in Berkeley. I don't plan extensively, if a novel is set in a particular place that I want to highlight, I usually begin researching from there. I research throughout the writing of my novels, which have been mostly set in either China and Japan. One of the most wonderful gifts of being a writer is discovering things along the way, not only about your story and characters but about yourself. That's why I plan just enough to get me started, allowing the characters and their stories to lead me forward and tell the rest of their story.

Did you make any astonishing serendipitous discoveries while writing this book?

As a first novel, I was just delighted I could actually write a novel!

Where do you write, and when?
I write at two different homes surrounded by books. One is closer to the city and the other in the country. I try to write during office hours, but find the most productive time for me is between 11:30 pm and 1:30 am when it's completely quiet and I'm not tempted to look at e-mails.

What is your favourite part of writing?
Seeing how the words come together on the page to become a world of its own. I'm always thrilled when I've written that right line that illuminates a character or moves the story forward in just the right way.

What do you do when you get blocked?
Instead of fighting it for too long, I usually move away from the writing. I clean house or watch a movie or work on another project or go for a walk. Getting away from the work for a bit always refreshes the thought process when I return to it.

How do you keep your well of inspiration full?
I read other writers who inspire. Movies work in the same way and the nonprofit work adds another kind of inspiration. I also have a group of writer friends who I get together with once a year for a writers' retreat. We write and talk about our work and all the challenges that come with it.

Who are ten of your favourite writers?
Jane Austen, Willa Cather, Wallace Stegner, Geraldine Brooks, John Steinbeck, Louise Erdrich, E.Annie Proulx, Edwidge Danticat, Toni Morrison, Ian McEwan and the list goes on...

What do you consider to be good writing?
When a writer intimately connects a reader emotionally to a character and story line.

What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?

To always tell the truth of the story. To never give up the passion.

What are you working on now?
I'm working on a book set on the Big Island of Hawai'i in the 1930's.

You can read my review of Women of Silk here.

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