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Hellooooo, muse!

A few days ago I heard of an equestrian short story competition which closes in a couple of months’ time. Regular readers of this blog – hah! All two of you! – will realise I haven’t written either a short story or blog post here for ages. I’ve had a painful start to the year, losing my Mum over Christmas, and my muse simply threw up her hands dramatically and flounced off. For the last five months I couldn’t so much as write ‘bum’ on a wall. 

However … the short story competition has piqued my interest. Back in the 1980s I used to write horsy stories and had them regularly published in The Horse Magazine under various noms de plume (I didn’t want to seem too greedy, having half a dozen stories published per year under my own name). It’s been a while since I’ve been in the saddle, holding the reins and riding a horsy plot. So I got thinking. And plotting.

I’ve had for a while ideas for a story – or novel – set in a fictional town in NSW in the 1950s. I have misplaced the notebook I wrote them in, so I can truthfully say I’ve lost the plot! The competition meant a bit of a rethink around some of the elements I’d scribbled down for my novel. And oh bliss, the muse came back (a little frustrated with me, and nagging me to pull my finger out and keep it out), and I had a plot. I also had 6,000 words to play with, which gave me plenty of scope for character development and action. So I wrote. And wrote. I have a first draft for the competition. It’s 5,997 words. I had to edit it down to get under 6,000 as the muse was shouting loudly at me and distracting me.

Obviously I can’t publish it here as it may (oh, I hope!) get selected on a shortlist for the competition. If it doesn’t, you’ll see it here. If it wins, you can buy it on Amazon, with proceeds going to charity.

Back to editing now…

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Book Review: Puberty Blues by Kathy Lette and Gabrielle Carey

Puberty BluesGabrielle Carey is often unfairly referred to as ‘the other writer’ of Puberty Blues (first published in 1979), overshadowed by the effusive Kathy Lette, who has written a series of laugh-out-loud best sellers. While Gabrielle might prefer a life with less publicity, she is no lesser a writer.

I first read Puberty Blues in 1981, and on re-reading it this year to coincide with the new Channel 10 miniseries based on the book, it’s hard to see where Kathy stops and Gabrielle begins, and vice versa. This is a seamlessly co-authored book about a no-holes-barred coming of age.

It’s Sydney in the 70s. To be correct, it’s The Shire in the 70s – the Sutherland Shire for those who are unfamiliar with the term; a parochial and rather picturesque waterside part of Sydney’s sprawl, south of the city. The Shire doesn’t really associate itself as being part of Sydney, it’s its own entity, but that’s by the by.

Debbie and Sue are thirteen and best friends. Like any teenage girls in their first year in high school, they are desperate to fit in, to be accepted, to be two of the cool kids. Most of all, they want to be part of the gang that hangs at Greenhills beach at North Cronulla, where the best surfers and the coolest chicks spend their lives on the beach. Long blonde hair, a deep suntan and a packet of Malboros are de rigeur.

They were the ‘uniform’ of “little white shirts, short-sleeved jumpers, thongs and straight-legged Levis covering little black bikinis“, signalling they are cool Cronulla girls and not “Bankies” from the western suburbs who wear flared Amcos. They are slaves to their surfie-chick lifestyle and slaves to the surfies, fetching the boys food such as Chiko Rolls but not eating themselves. “Girls never ate in front of their boyfriends. It was unladylike to open your mouth and shove something in it. We were also busting to go to the dunny but that was too rude for girls. Our stomachs rumbled and our bladders burst. It was a great day at the beach.” Women’s lib may have been turning around the lives and careers of their mothers, but surfie culture saw girls taking a back and very adoring seat to their boys. Being surfer chicks meant not going in the water oneself. Debbie and Sue are destined to sit on the beach, not even taking a dip on the hottest days; picking up a surfboard themselves is totally out of the question. They are subservient but they love it, they are living their teenage dream.

Cheating in an exam and not dobbing on other cheaters gets Sue and Debbie into the coolest gang, the one that sits at the back of the bus. “The best thing about being in the gang was that all the spunkiest guys on Cronulla Beach were in it. It didn’t matter what boy picked you, ’cause in the looks department, you never got a bummer.

They’re longing to lose their virginity – boys have already ‘titted them off’ and put hands down their pants, but they haven’t gone the whole way yet; they have, however, progressed to dry roots on Cronulla beach. But now it’s time for the “spreading of the legs and the splitting up the middle“.

Debbie is ‘chosen’ by Bruce, who is 17, and Sue by Danny. A kiss and “Will you go round wiv me?” is standard courting practice. The boys, note, choose the girls and not the other way around. The girls are delighted but also pragmatic about sex. “You had to ‘go out’ with a guy for at least two weeks before you’d let him screw you. You had to time it perfectly. If you waited too long you were a tight-arsed prickteaser. If you let him too early, you were a slack-arsed moll. So, after a few weeks, he’d ask you for a root, and if you wanted to keep him, you’d do it.”

For Debbie, Bruce’s panel van is the chosen venue; first attempts don’t go well. This is an underdeveloped girl who hasn’t even had her first period, but she is too embarrassed to admit it.

Parents and family barely feature in Puberty Blues. (In the 1981 film and in the current miniseries, parents and family play a much larger role) For teenagers, your gang and your friends are your life. We meet Sue’s mother Mrs Knight, briefly, as the girls and their friends and boyfriends huddle together in the family’s tv room downstairs. When Mrs Knight comes downstairs with a packet of chips the kids spring off each other, hastily zippering up Levis.

Debbie’s parents, who are apparently reasonably well-off with a three storey brick house and a swimming pool, disapprove of Bruce and his panel van with sex posters on the walls. She reverts to subterfuge, meeting him on the corner of her street instead.

Parents who read this book when it was first released were horrified to find out that this work of fiction was based on reality and the behaviour of kids in the Shire at the time. Underage sex, gang rapes, drugs, cigarettes, alcohol (Brandivino! My God, I’d forgotten it existed!). Debbie and Sue lie cheerfully to their parents about spending evenings at the movies as they wander through a world of sex and surfers. When I first read this book I was 19 and had endured a very strict North Shore upbringing; hell, I wasn’t allowed out in daylight at 13 or 14, let alone at night. I was at first envious of the freedom Debbie and Sue had, then sorry for them, as fitting in with the cool kids doesn’t always bring happiness.

Debbie is still mortified that every time Bruce tries to root her, he can’t get in; she’s just too small and he’s too big. Finally he drops her, and she ‘goes round’ with Garry instead, becoming real friends with him. After three months together she and Garry haven’t had sex and Debbie is concerned Garry will drop her. Finally she has sex with him at Sue’s parent’s holiday house.

But times are changing. The girls turn fourteen and suddenly marijuana is in fashion. “Garden hoses all over Sylvania started shrinking. If we didn’t bong it, we smoked it in a joint.” Garry, however, has gone one step further and discovered heroin although Debbie doesn’t realise it at the time. She finds him remote and unaffectionate, and then finds Wayne instead.

As her body develops Debbie discovers she enjoys sex after all, and she and Wayne use every opportunity to root. She finds out she’s pregnant and can’t tell her parents, but miscarries almost immediately, to her relief. As a reader I was surprised that something so major could be covered in less than a page and rather unemotionally at that. In fact the book rushes to a conclusion in the last third at a pace that suggests to me the authors just wanted to get it finished.

Seeing Garry stoned out of his brain in the street is a wake-up call for Debbie and Sue; if they keep getting stoned on marijuana themselves and work their way up to heroin this could be them. He is pale and thin, his surfie physique now a ‘soggy slouch’. “He lifted up his blank face and seemed to stare straight through me.”

“It stinks,” I said, stamping out my cigarette.

“What?”

“Everything.”

So Debbie and Sue pool their money and buy a surfboard. Practising with the nerds first on South Cronulla, they work their way up to Greenhills beach. Their gang drops them. Their boyfriends drop them. Girls don’t surf, remember? The girls have a brilliant time on the board that afternoon. The reader gathers they’ve decided they don’t need boys, drugs or booze to be happy, they want to do their own thing and be respected for it, and they walk away from the beach leaving the others there. The End. An epilogue reveals that other characters in the book end up on drugs, in jail or unmarried mothers. Debbie and Sue, however, drop out of school and write this book when they are 18. As school dropouts, they have done much better than their old friends, which is scary in itself as a concept.

What I did love about re-reading this book was the language. It’s the language of my own teens, the slang, the way everything was unrool and guys were spunks and you didn’t have sex or make love, you rooted (which confused Americans!). If you’re not Australian you won’t get it. Um, if you’re not of a certain age you mightn’t get it either. Maybe it should come with footnotes or a glossary!

It’s not a long book – in fact it took me less than two hours to read it – and the voices in it are authentic. It’s funny as hell. I would love to see the term ‘slack-arsed moll’ come back into usage! It’s also scary as hell; as a semi-autobiographical novel, you ache for what these girls go through.

While Debbie is the main narrator, the book switches occasionally from first person to third when an episode concerns Sue; this can be a bit annoying and I’m surprised it wasn’t edited more carefully to make it more fluent and flowing.

It’s a time capsule of the 70s, with sexist attitudes and behaviour, but the issues for girls these days haven’t changed much. There is still the pressure to fit in with peers, although these days it’s likely to be having the right smartphone or the right charms on your Pandora. There is still the pressure to have sex with boys, to take drugs. Teenagers still sneak out the window at night and roam the streets. For teens there will always be a subculture adults can’t comprehend, and Puberty Blues captures it beautifully. It’s unrool. Deadset.

(I read Puberty Blues as a Kindle e-book.)

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Review: The Cartographer by Peter Twohig. Fast, furious and funny.

The CartographerModern Australian society saddens me. Kids aren’t allowed climb trees any more in case they fall and injure themselves. You can get arrested for letting your eight year old walk, alone, 200 metres to the newsagent to pick up the Sunday papers or buy himself some sweets. Gone are the joys of being a primary school kid and riding your bike, alone, to school. Is my generation one of the last where kids had freedom and the great outdoors in which to let their imaginations run wild?

A chapter or two into first-time novelist Peter Twohig’s The Cartographer and I was filled with joy. The hero, a kid whose first name we never learn, is a right little ratbag with a vivid imagination and a penchant for getting into rough and often dark places. Literally dark. This kid likes drains. Bless him.

It’s Melbourne in 1959.  Our young hero is eleven, and still burdened with the guilt of his twin Tom dying the year before in an accident with monkey bars at a local playground. Our hero couldn’t lift up the bars to save his brother’s life, and part of the kid’s character is twisted up in his brother’s character as well. He thinks and acts for both of them, despite Tom no longer being around.

While exploring a house with a wild, jungle garden, the kid watches a murder take place. Now most kids these days would be scarred for life and sent straight to counselling, but our little hero’s imagination and curiosity view the deed with an almost scientific dispassion; his quick wit and quick actions save his own life when the murderer discovers the kid is watching the whole scene unfold.

And that’s where the action really starts. A little later when the kid sees another murder take place I was thinking it was all a bit too much and a bit too far-fetched; chases through drains and tunnels, through the back streets of Melbourne’s seedier suburbs, the kid outthinking and outrunning the baddies. I felt a bit overwhelmed by all the action and violence and wished the kid would spend a week living like a normal child his age, you know, sitting at home with a comic book and taking pot shots at tin cans with an air rifle.  But then I kept reading, and I wasn’t disappointed.

Imagining himself as a super hero – The Cartographer, who uses his journeys to build a map of Melbourne which is subterranean as well as on top of the ground – the kid eludes the murderer.  His map grows as does the danger he is in. Around him a web is slowly closing though; the kid is at the centre of something bigger than himself, through no fault of his own.

There are some superb laugh out loud bits in this book which relieve the tension. And tense it is; beautifully crafted cliffhangers keep you turning the page when you really meant to stop five chapters ago.

There is also authenticity, in the trams, the tv shows, the movies, the sweets and lollies, the very life of late 50s Australia. There’s a larrikin sense of freedom in this book and in its young hero. The kid’s family – his mother, estranged father, grandfather – are people you’ll know if you’re an Aussie of a certain age. Everyone has met people like them in their youth.

There is also harshness typical of the kid’s generation; in the murders, in the matter of fact way the kid talks about the deaths he has seen and the death of his first dog, the breakup of his parent’s marriage.

And there’s darkness; physical darkness in the drains but I think echoed in the kid’s head as he copes with murders, crooked cops, and being truly himself.

In the end, after rollicking chase after rollicking chase, after little snippets of information fed delicately to make a complete picture, I adored this book and the ‘voice’ of its hero. You can buy it at all good bookstores or find out more about it here at The Cartographer website. There are also a number of scary questions on the official website for book clubs, which make me feel completely dumb for enjoying this book as I did; as an action-packed coming of age comedy drama about a kid with a dead twin and a brilliant imagination.

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Fabulous Phryne – Cocaine Blues by Kerry Greenwood – a review

Cocaine BluesWith the ABC tv series Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries bringing a Hispano-Suiza load of class to the telly this year, ten of Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher series of books have been re-released with covers that tie in to the tv episodes. It may sell more of them – and Essie Davis is perfect, truly perfect, Phryne to the life – but Beth Norling’s original artwork is a delight, so I’m sticking to the original cover art here.

The tv show has been a big success for Aunty, but as any reader of the Phryne books knows, you can’t cram one of the books into 57 minutes. For anyone who has viewed the tv show and hasn’t read the books, discovering them will open up a treasure trove of pleasure. I’ve been enjoying them since 1990 and now have my husband hooked on them too.

So we’ll start at the beginning, Cocaine Blues, in which Phryne arrives in Melbourne in 1928. She’s a Melbourne girl from birth but the War which removed many of the males from her family tree saw her impoverished father and family elevated to the nobility and a big house in England when Phryne was twelve. She’s a woman who can mix with the nobs and the nobodies; she’s lived in both circles.

Phryne agrees to travel to Australia at the request of a friend of her father’s, worried about his daughter Lydia who has had mysterious bouts of illness. Could Phryne find out more? Is Lydia in danger? Bored with London society and chinless wonders, the trip seemed like a good idea and would put 12,000 between Phryne and her family  (and the chinless wonders).

It doesn’t take long for Phryne to make the acquaintance of red-ragger taxi drivers Bert and Cec, and persuade troubled young woman Dot Williams not to knife her errant boyfriend. (Incidentally, Dot is Dot Bryant in this novel… she mysteriously becomes Dot Williams in later novels. Oops.)

In her first adventure Phryne helps Bert and Cec track down an illegal abortionist, has an affair with a delectable young Russian dancer, breaks a cocaine ring and in doing so discovers Lydia isn’t the innocent woman she appeared to be. Phryne, at one point, fears for her life. It’s a long way from polite dinner parties in London. From the decadent Windsor Hotel to seedy back alleys, Phryne triumphs with panache and silk underwear.

Phryne is rich. She can afford the finest and if you think you’ll find that off-putting, think of something else. Her wealth gives her the freedom and power to investigate and also to help others.

This book is divine escapism. The light wit throughout nods politely to Dorothy Sayers, queen of golden age crime, and Kerry Greenwood has researched her chosen year very well.  All the Phryne books are carefully researched, and you can rest assured that the gorgeous clothes Phryne wears are very much 1928 and that the Melbourne described is the Melbourne that was.

The language is the language of Australia in the 20s – you won’t find people saying “OK”, for example. Bert and Cec in particular use the vernacular of the time, e.g. ‘bonzer’.

The mystery itself, while a good one, almost plays second fiddle to Phryne herself, to Melbourne in 1928, to characters like Bert and Cec and Dr MacMillan.

If you have enjoyed watching Phryne on television, give yourself a real treat and read the books – starting from the beginning. You’ll have another 20-odd to look forward to!

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On course, actually. Miles off Course by Sulari Gentill

Miles off Course by Sulari GentillThe third Rowland Sinclair novel by Sulari Gentill sees high adventure in the high country of southern NSW, an area the author knows well.

It’s 1933 and artist Rowland is enjoying a Blue Mountains break with friends Clyde, Milton and Edna when he learns that his family’s trusted employee Harry Simpson has vanished. Harry’s been kidnapped, and Rowland finds himself in danger as he heads to the bush in search of Harry.

It seems that Harry’s kidnapping is part of a bigger plot and once again NSW politics – as crazy then as it’s ever been or is – is part of it. One way or another, Rowland’s in trouble up to his neck and finds himself captive with Harry deep in the bush… miles from anywhere, miles off course.

This is a rollicking read, galloping along with the pace of a stock horse on the top of a hill. As with her two earlier books Sulari Gentill has researched the era thoroughly, from clothing and food and mannerisms to the seething boiling pot of politics and the delicate subject of treason. A visit to Clyde’s family in rural NSW, for example, is beautifully drawn; the working-class cottage and the slight awkwardness with which rich Rowland is received by the family is a delight and full of attention to detail.

Sly grogger Kate Leigh makes an appearance as does author Miles Franklin – I do love the way Sulari introduces real characters into her books. Even better is the beginning and end with conversations between Norman Lindsay and his wife; I laughed out loud.

And Rowly makes his feelings for Edna very clear, without realising he’s doing it. You’ll have to read the book to find out the how, why and when for this moment!

I picked the villain quite early; the oily little bugger just didn’t seem right, but I didn’t pick the WHY. The unravelling at the plot near the end was thus very satisfying and much bigger than I expected. I was sorry to finish the book and it certainly deserves a re-reading by me sometime soon, when I can savour it and read it more slowly rather than avidly gobbling it.

In the meantime, Sulari Gentill is working on the fourth book in the series which takes Rowly, Milton, Clyde and Edna to Munich in 1933. I foresee some spectacular action!

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Captivating. Foal’s Bread by Gillian Mears

Foal's BreadI’m a fanatical reader. A fast reader. A reader who gobbles books, burps and looks for more. I am an insult to authors because they spend months if not years writing a book and I whizz through it with unseemly haste.

Last Christmas, however, I received a book I salivated over, took my time with, savoured. I made the glorious pleasure of reading it last for a week. Foal’s Bread by Gillian Mears totally captivated me.

Mears is an Australian author; she hasn’t been hugely prolific but what she has published is magical and Foal’s Bread is probably her best to date. Heartbreakingly Mears suffers from Multiple Sclerosis, and writing this novel, her first in sixteen years, has taken her a long and laborious time.

Foal’s Bread, as the name suggest, is about horses. Specifically, it’s set in the years before, during and after World War II in northern NSW, on the high-jumping show circuit. High-jumping was banned in the 1950s but before then it wasn’t uncommon for riders to set their horses at obstacles seven feet high or even more. It was a spectacle, and part of carnival folklore now consigned to history along with the freak tent.

The heroine is equestrienne Noah Childs, who marries fellow high-jumper Roley Nancarrow. Noah is looked down on by Roley’s family but she’s tough mentally and physically. She has to be… for Roley gradually loses the use of his legs, and the dynamics of family and love change as a result, as do the dreams Noah and Roley have chased for years.

Mears has done her research extraordinarily well. She has caught the authentic language of the era, the slang, the drawl, the cadence, the very fabric of people living in the bush and in country towns in the mid twentieth century. You can smell the dust and grass, the sweat on the horses’ necks , the stench of beer at the bar at the local pub, the parched earth soaking in a thunderstorm. Her writing soars like a horse heading for an eight-foot jump – it has the freedom that she physically doesn’t.

This isn’t a sweet love story; it’s a harsh love story, a tough love story, with occasionally cruel images. It’s enthralling. Read it. You’ll have an exhilarating ride.

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Green(eyed) Tea

There’s a party next week and Gina’s Little Black Dress is about to become Gina’s Busted Seam Black Dress. But a chance visit to a Chinese food store and the impulse purchase of Dieter’s Tea will change all that…although perhaps not quite in the way Gina expected.

1. Finding the right mantra
The South East Asian food store smelt interesting, enticing. Its interior, so dark compared to the blinding, sunny white tiles outside, held a promise of spice, a soupcon of cheong-sam, a steaming bowl of noodles.
Gina swept aside the awful plastic flaps of fly curtain; her shoes sounded hollow on the old lino. She drew a deep breath of spilled soy sauce and dried mushrooms, and almost sighed in delight. Like so many other Asian corner stores, the shelves were piled to the ceiling with packaged goods, many of them labelled in Chinese or Korean or Thai. Several had English subtitles along the lines of “is good taste yum yum!” which were so endearing she was tempted to buy them anyway, regardless of whatever mysteries hid inside the tin. Continue reading

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