10 Books: #8 The Secret River

And now for something completely different.

The Secret River

The Secret River

Kate Grenville

I’m going to qualify my inclusion of this book by reiterating these posts are about 10 books that have had a significant impact on me. And this one absolutely did. It is an incredible book. The writing is top shelf. The story is compelling. The characters have depth and substance. They are human and monstrous. It is a very hard book to read, and it hurts to think about. This book opened my eyes to the depth of the injustices done to Australia’s Aboriginal people by white settlers and the awful, unhealed wound of the atrocities white settlers visited upon them (read this & you’ll understand why it can’t heal. Yet, anyway.)

But.

In posting about this book, I acknowledge that the very fact it took a book by a non-Aboriginal woman to bring me to this place of understanding and awareness is, in itself, a perfect example of how the problem – the roots of which are so eloquently and awfully laid bare in this book – continues to exist and perpetuate in Australia today.  Some voices are not given the opportunity and the platform and the amplification that other voices seem to so easily find.

I used to think this was a book every non-Indigeous Australian should read. And to a certain extent, I still do. This is a brilliant book. By all means, if I’ve intrigued you with this post, read it. But what you should do is start with one, or all, of these.

 

 

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10 Books: #7 Harry Potter

All of them. For so many reasons.

Harry Potter

Harry Potter and All Of The Things

J K Rowling

A friend lent me the first three HP books when he was heading off on an overseas trip. The fourth one was due out whilst he was away, and he promised me I’d have bought it before he got back. I had resisted reading them until then, thinking “Surely they can’t be all that.” Well, yes. Gregg you smug bastard.

What a comprehensively wonderful story world lives in these pages. This book (by which I mean the entire series), more than any other, encapsulates for me the idea of the story world as a character all on it’s own. I don’t re-read this so much to re-live Harry’s adventures as to just immerse myself in the world, explore Diagon Alley, hang out with Hagrid in his hut, try & find the Room of Requirement, open up the Marauder’s Map to find out who is sneaking around Hogwarts after hours…

10 Books: #6 Howl’s Moving Castle

This book contains my favourite story hero, my favourite sidekick and one of my favourite story magic-systems ever.

Howl's Moving Castle

Howl’s Moving Castle

by Diana Wynne-Jones

If for nothing else, you have to read this book to meet Calcifer. Calcifer is worth the price of entry alone. And that’s all I’m going to tell you about Calcifer.

This is one of those stories that left me gasping at the ingenious complexity of the plot at the end. Yet the key elements are deceptively simple. The characters are also completely ingenious. Take Howl himself, for example. There are so many aspects of his character that should render him completely repugnant – he’s vain, arrogant, autocratic… Yet he is so utterly and incorrigibly kind-hearted, he’s adorable. And Sophie. Oh Sophie. I can’t even begin to tell you how wonderful Sophie is. You just HAVE to read it.

Calcifer

 

Book 10: #5 Persuasion

The first Jane Austen book I ever read.

Persuasion

Persuasion

by Jane Austen

I can’t believe it took me so long to find her. I was in first or second year at uni when this came up on my set list. Oh my goodness. It completely swept me away. It remains my favourite Austen novel (along with P&P). But the romantic tension in Persuasion is certainly the most exquisitely excruciating of any book I’ve ever read. And it doesn’t matter how many times I re-read it, Captain Wentworth’s letter to Anne – oh my heart – sweeps me off my feet every time.

10 Books: #4 Beauty

Just one more fairy tale before I move onto other books (I can’t promise there won’t be more later.)

Beauty

Beauty

by Robin McKinley

This is my own rather battered and much-loved copy of this beautiful tale.  I first read it in high school after finding a copy of the hardcover in the library. I probably borrowed it and read it again at least four or five times after that. This book was an utter revelation. This wonderful, beautiful genius of a writer, this word-sorceress named Robin McKinley, had taken a fairy tale – my favourite fairy tale, no less – and turned it into a whole entire novel. I hadn’t known you could do that. It’s this book, more than any other, that made me want to be a writer and taught me what I wanted to write.

And look where I’ve ended up. 🙂

10 books: #3 Red As Blood

Time for a book for grown ups.

Red As Blood

Red As Blood

Or, Tales from the Sisters Grimmer

by Tanith Lee

Tanith Lee is one of my favourite authors, and this is the book that kicked it all off for me. It absolutely taught me that fairy tales could be dark and luscious and very, very adult. These stories also taught me that fairy tales aren’t museum pieces, locked away in amber, forever preserved and unchangeable. This collection showed me how all the stories and motifs I loved in the tales I’d been reading since childhood could be fractured, tilted and tipped over to reflect new themes, or old ones in unexpected ways. Discovering this book was like being Alice and stepping through the looking glass to find  a whole new world of fairy tales to explore that was just as rich and delightful as the world I was familiar with, but with new surprises around every corner.

10 books: #2 The Ordinary Princess

I was a huge reader as a child. So naturally when I think about the 10 books that had the most significant impact on my life, I’ve gone right back to where I started falling in love with stories.

The Ordinary Princess

M. M. Kaye

The Ordinary Princess

I was given this book (with this cover) either for my birthday or for Christmas when I was 6. I still have it. 🙂

I think it might be perfect.

It’s a fairy tale (tick), but it totally subverts all the usual elements of fairy tales (tick) and does so with the most delightful, gentle-yet-slightly-snarky, understated humour (tick). It’s romantic (tick). It’s beautiful (tick). It’s got a strong, independent heroine who isn’t going to let other people’s expectations mess with her life choices (tickety tick tick tick). It’s got castles and forests and fairies (cranky ones) and climbing out of windows and running away…

This story absolutely set my ideal of exactly what a fairy tale princess is supposed to be.

10 books: #1 The Enchanted Wood

There’s a Facebook thing I got tagged in recently, where you put up ten posts of books that have had a significant impact on your life. But I’m a multi-platform kinda girl, so here you go.

The Enchanted Wood

The Enchanted Wood

by Enid Blyton

This was the first chapter book my mother ever read me. I can remember sitting in bed, feeling nervous because she was holding a book that didn’t really have any pictures in it. It’s OK, she told me. There are a few. And she showed me the simple line drawings – maybe one per chapter – that seemed utterly inadequate to my four year old mind.  I mean… there were whole pages in there with no pictures. How…? What…?

Oh my sweet summer child.

I have subsequent memories of sitting in bed begging her for just one more chapter PLEASE!!! And I’m pretty certain she ended up reading me the entire series more than once. Then I probably read it a few times myself.

This book is absolutely one of the flames that ignited my imagination. I’m sure I owe my fascination with forests to it. Also, it’s a sterling example of my favourite kind of fiction: stories set in an immersive world that is a character all of its own. Just thinking about it takes me back to leaning out the cottage window, seeing the trees with leaves of a darker shade of green than usual, and hearing the sound of their leaves rustling, wisha-wisha-wisha, as though they are whispering secrets to each other…

Touchstones: Chris Breach

I’ve been thinking a lot about story touchstones this year, starting with my post from a few months ago on Sapsorrow’s Dress. As well as exploring some more of my own imaginative touchstones, I decided to ask a bunch of other writers about theirs. This week I’ve invited one of my 2016 HARDCOPY buddies, Chris Breach, to share his thoughts on something that inspires him and captures something of what he aspires to in his own writing.

Hey Chris, thanks for coming! OK… What is your touchstone?

Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are.

I love that book. When did this book first emerge as a source of inspiration for you? Where did it come from?

Well, it’s a classic, one of those books you read without thinking about how good it is, necessarily. It was not until I started reading it to my kids (multiple times, night after night) that its genius began to reveal itself. For example, have you ever realised that each picture is a different shape or size? The first image is the size of a postcard, roughly, then each picture increases until you reach the three full pages where there is no text at all—just Max and the wild things roaring and dancing to the moon, swinging in the trees and parading around. Then the pictures start to shrink again as he returns across the ocean and back to his room. These sorts of intricacies reveal themselves with multiple readings, which is something I love in anything I read.

Why do you think it resonated with you so strongly?

I think we share a similar outlook on life, for whatever reason. I did not lose the majority of my family in the Holocaust, I was not traumatised by the Lindbergh baby kidnapping and murder in 1932 (as Sendak has said he was)—but I also believe that life is not fair, that it is, for the most part, a challenge, but one that has its moments of joy and tenderness and love in amongst the shit. We are both pessimists, I suppose, and attracted to the dark instead of the light. It has been worth remembering that he once vowed he wouldn’t write stories of sunshine and rainbows, because that’s not real life.

How has Where the Wild Things Are inspired your writing? Have you ever written directly about it, or does it lurk in the background of your stories?

Sendak has a control, a tightness, in his writing that is inspiring to me. I love reading short, tightly controlled narratives, and I aspire to that same succinctness in my own writing: to be able to say the most with the least number of words. I could have easily picked Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey or Cormac McCarthy’s The Road for great examples of taut storytelling, but there are—surprisingly—a large number of similarities between my latest manuscript (a verse novel about racism and mass murder) and Where the Wild Things Are—they both feature morally ambiguous characters, a story without a clear resolution, and benefit from repeat readings. They have an unsettling element of fear that permeates the narrative but is never explicitly stated. And most of all, Sendak has a fearless approach to his writing that is inspirational, refusing to follow established patterns in the publishing industry (which, incidentally, got his books banned more than once).

I’ll leave you with, perhaps, my favourite quote from any author, living or dead:

I know my work is good. Not everybody likes it, that’s fine. I don’t do it for everybody. Or anybody. I do it because I can’t not do it.

Something for all us writers to aspire to.

Chris BreachChristopher Breach was the overall winner of the Lord Mayor’s Creative Writing Awards in 2011. He was selected as a participant of HARDCOPY in 2016, a manuscript development and industry information masterclass. He participated in The Lost Art of Letter Writing as part of the Shepparton Art Festival 2016. He was a finalist for the ACU Prize for Literature in 2014 and for the University of Canberra Vice-Chancellor’s International Poetry Prize in 2015.

Epilogue

Just as I was prettifying this post for publication, Chris alerted me to this beautifully timed piece of exciting news…

 

Luc Besson meets Labyrinth, but BETTER

This is so exciting. I have been waiting for this. Robin Shortt’s Wellside came out yesterday from publishers Candlemark & Gleam! I am gonna be heading down to my local bookstore TODAY to badger them into getting it in for me so I can dive into this exquisite, crazy world again. Think: if Luc Besson made Labyrinth….

Wellside_FC3-SM

I say “again” because I read an early draft of Wellside, which went through the CSFG’s novel critiquing circle in the same year as my own The Beast’s Heart. And that draft of Wellside blew me away. Robin’s writing is nothing short of magic. He creates these complex, mind-blowingly inventive worlds for his characters to explore that you can just smell as you turn the pages. I have only read a handful of books in my life that are as utterly immersive as Robin’s. I am all about immersive fiction, so if you are too, you have got to read this.

And then there’s the characters. Oh. My. God. He’s got that knack of coming up with characters that are at once familiar and utterly strange. That kind of awesome that floors you with inventive brilliance while simultaneously somehow feeling just right. I don’t know. Think… Calcifer out of Diana Wynn-Jones’ Howl’s Moving Castle. Or Augra from The Dark Crystal. Or Harmony, out of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer.

I don’t make these comparisons lightly: Robin’s stuff is just that good.

Oh, I can’t wait.