What We're Reading / April 2018

The staff at Writing NSW share what we’ve been reading this April.

Each month, the Writing NSW staff share what we’ve been reading. On our bookshelves this month are Closing Down by Sally Abbott, Vanessa Berry’s Mirror Sydney, How I Rescued My Brain by David Roland, Pink Mountain on Locust Island by Jamie Marina Lau, A Safe Girl to Love by Casey Plett and Frogkisser! by Garth Nix.

Julia Tsalis, Program Manager

Closing Down by Sally Abbott won Hachette’s inaugural Richell Prize for an unpublished manuscript in 2017. I have to admit that I approached reading it more with a sense of duty than anticipation. Even so, the book surprised and impressed me.

Set in a near dystopian future, climate change and corporate interests have damaged the world to the extent that towns in regional Australia are being shut down because it’s too expensive to keep them open. The Australian government is largely run by corporations, with China also having a major interest. All over the world refugees are swarming from one unliveable place to another. Entire countries have become refugee centres. People are being herded into cities to live in small high-rise apartments. Living in towns, in places with nature, has become untenable due to the climate and the cost of meeting new regulations. People are constantly monitored, all interactions with the government are via phones, and personal connections have been minimised. There is no free press: fines for journalists are too high and the laws stacked against them.

The closeness and familiarity of this bleak and heartless future is confronting. Tempering it all are stories of personal acts of kindness and generosity, and moments of magical realism – ghosts, cats, wandering people. I enjoyed Closing Down much more than I expected. There was relief in the human connections and a sense of hope. But it did seem that the hope, and possibility of a good life, was dependent on being really rich. Perhaps only money can save us from the horror.

Aurora Scott, Project & Communications Officer

Images of Sydney often include sparkling views, spectacular constructions, and/or glamorous bodies. Mirror Sydney by Vanessa Berry sketches a lesser-seen city. For her, Sydney is a palimpsest: a multitude of histories to trace with keen observation and infectious curiosity. Supported by diligent research, Berry unfolds the spaces Sydneysiders move amongst in their day-to-day lives, delivering the same attention to oddities such as the Travelator beneath The Domain, or the abandoned theme park in southwestern Sydney, as many have to the Harbour Bridge or the Opera House. This book is a local gem and a special experience to read.

Ashley Kalagian Blunt, Program Officer

Australian author David Roland’s How I Rescued My Brain is a memoir of the author’s stroke and mental illness, and his gradual recovery. Roland was a psychologist who developed post-traumatic stress after working with violent offenders in the prison system, as well as traumatised patients. This and other stressors, including financial ruin and the breakdown of his marriage, likely played a role in the stroke that reduced his cognitive capabilities.

Roland’s gentle narrative explores both the devastating effects of his conditions and the steps he took toward wellbeing, including mindfulness meditation. He traces his research into neuroplasticity, and how he used his understanding of this new area of science to rewire his struggling brain. Having suffered frustrating cognitive limitations myself as a result of illness, I appreciated Roland’s direct, clear descriptions of his cognitive symptoms. He separates these into three categories: the general confusion of fog brain; rubber brain, the inability to take things in; and sore brain, the physical hurt that cognitive strain would cause, even for a task as simple as making lunch for his children. I would recommend the book for anyone wishing to better understand their own brain, but especially for anyone struggling to understand the cognitive challenges of a loved one struck by illness, whether physiological or mental.

Annie Zhang, Communications Intern

I have been reading the strange and trippy stumble through adolescence, art and Chinatown that is Pink Mountain on Locust Island by Jamie Marina Lau, recently published by Brow Books. Our protagonist is fifteen-year-old Monk who lives in a Chinatown apartment with her Xanax-addicted father. Then the eccentric and artsy Santa Coy (who loves hot sauce) enters their lives, and the apartment begins to fill with his artistic creations as well as his strange energy. A series of surreal adventures follow—cakes are iced, pasta is cooked, videos are made, dull teen parties are attended, drugs become involved. The book is split into nine chapters, which are further divided down into even smaller sections that are usually one to two pages long, each detailing intense snapshots of Monk’s life. The book’s greatest strength is its jarring and unique prose.

Catherine Bouris, Program Intern

A Safe Girl to Love is a collection of short stories about transgender women by Casey Plett. This unique premise would be enough to make the book notable, but the stories are wonderfully written and refreshingly realistic, while also being imaginative – my favourite is a story that is largely told from the perspective of a cat!

Settings for the stories vary from a rural Canadian Mennonite town to Brooklyn, and each story is compelling in its own way. The characters and their relationships with each other feel thoroughly three-dimensional, and this combined with Plett’s prose style makes it feel like you’re catching up on the antics of old friends. A Safe Girl to Love is one of the best pieces of LGBT fiction I’ve read, and is a must-read for anyone interested in writing by LGBT authors.

Lucie Towers, Membership Intern

Tricksy transformation spells. Evil step-step fathers. Fairy tales with a twist.

If you’re after an enchanting read, Garth Nix’s YA novel Frogkisser! conjures up a welcome change to the fairy tale adventure genre.

Frogkisser!’s fantastical tale follows Anya, a willful young princess on a mission to save her sister’s ‘love’, Prince Denholm, from a frog transformation curse placed upon him by their nefarious step-step father, the dark mage Rikard. Which means kissing, maybe. Probably. I’ve not finished it yet, but the title may be a clue.

A few chapters in, I’m finding the characters of Frogkisser! just delightful – each eccentric, memorable and fully fleshed out in their own way (think: a band of Heralds called Harold, Associations of Responsible Robbers, and one endearingly over-enthusiastic guard-dog). The witty dialogue is sharp as a hunter’s knife, the writing consistently brilliant. It’s pure story. Garth Nix grabs you right from the opening line and, like a royal dog with a hambone, never lets you go. Frogkisser! is a page-turner. I should know. I can’t put the thing down.

In fact, it’s almost as if I can’t stop. As if I’ve been… enchanted… I… can’t stop… turning pages… can’t stop… I… I…

(One thing’s for sure – I’m finding Frogkisser! so far to be a book of pure magic. Garth Nix has really got me under his spell).

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