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Posts Tagged ‘Graeme Simsion’

Lost and Found by Brooke DavisTake the whimsy of Inga Simpson’s Mr Wigg (my review here) and multiply it, then add the quirky-character humour of Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Project (read, not reviewed here), and you’ve got Lost and Found by debut Australian author Brooke Davis. Exploring the theme of grief and how we deal with it, the story is a romp, told from three perspectives—the young Millie Bird, and the elderly Karl the Touch Typist and Agatha Pantha.

Wearing her favourite red gumboots, red-haired Millie is seven years old and struggling to understand the death of her father when her mother abandons her in a department store. Millie writes all the dead things she sees in her Book of Dead Things. Her dog Rambo is #1 in the book; her father is #28. Like some young children, she is kept away from her dad’s funeral, and is confused about where he has gone.

One of the things she struggles with, and another theme of the novel, is the way adults talk down to her. She asks a lot of questions, as children are apt to do, and the answers she gets are often misleading. In one very humorous exchange with her father when discussing the demise of Rambo, which spills into a discussion about what happens to people after they die, her father talks about Heaven and Hell thus:

In Heaven, you hang out with God and Jimi Hendrix, and you get to eat doughnuts whenever you want. In Hell, you have to, uh … do the Macarena. Forever. To that ‘Grease Megamix’.

Where do you go if you’re good and bad?

What? I don’t know. Ikea?

Millie is a wonderful character. She creates delightful ‘secret’ poems made from snatches of overheard conversation. She lists ‘facts about the world Millie knows for sure’. One of these is ‘everyone knows everything about being born, but no one knows anything about being dead.’  In one scene, she visits a cemetery and realises there are different heavens for different (religious) groups of people and worries she might not go to the same heaven as her dad when she dies. Her habit of telling people they’re going to die doesn’t go over well with most, and culminates in a hilarious announcement she makes over a train’s PA system.

Millie somehow manages to stay overnight in the department store without anyone noticing, except, that is, for Karl who is also sleeping there after leaving the old persons’ home his daughter-in-law effectively put him in. Millie meets Karl in the department store café. Karl is 87, and is missing his late wife, Evie. Karl is particular. He’s in the habit of typing out everything he says with his fingers (he met Evie in a touch-typing school). There are some lovely moments in Karl’s story where he remembers the time he had with his wife before she died of cancer. The way he had proposed to her is wonderful.

Millie still hopes her mum is coming back to get her, and everywhere she goes she puts up a sign, saying ‘In here, Mum’ (which you might see in bookstore windows promoting Davis’s novel). After two nights in the store, Millie and Karl are discovered. Karl is naturally suspected of being a paedophile, but he manages to create a diversion for Millie to escape. She runs back to her home to find her mum has disappeared. The escape scene is one of many hilarious set-pieces, some of which might stretch plausibility but are fabulously entertaining nonetheless. On their break, Millie asks Karl to steal a mannequin, which he subsequently names Manny.

Millie’s return home is noticed by Agatha Pantha, who lives across the street. Agatha has not left her house in seven years, shutting down after the death of her husband, Ron. If Karl is particular, then Agatha is a force of nature, always yelling her displeasure at her perceived failings or shortcomings of people passing by her house. Like Millie, she has her own book to record her ageing, including her flabby arms and other bodily measurements she makes daily.

She has a fixed daily routine, and her chapters are almost diary entries for specific times of the day. She names the chairs she sits in. There are the Chairs of Disbelief, Degustation, Discernment, Resentment, Disappearing, Disappointment, Disengagement, and so on. (It probably would have been better if they were all named using words starting with ‘D’.) At the end of each day, at 9:23 pm, ‘Agatha allows herself to be lonely.’  Davis walks a fine line with Agatha, because she’s not very likeable at first glance, but her personality quirks come from her bewilderment of what life has become. Her loneliness is heart-breaking.

Agatha is aghast when Millie walks up her garden path and asks her to make sense of a piece of paper she has found, which is an itinerary of her mother’s ‘runner’ to the USA via Melbourne (the story begins in south-western Australia). Agatha then tells Millie to go away, but she eventually marches across the street to Millie’s house and tells her to pack her bags because they are going to find her mum.

Thus begins a road trip like few others, with Karl, who has escaped arrest, catching up with Millie and Agatha, bringing with him Manny the mannequin (who I love… #teammanny!). The trio, or should I say foursome!, rub against each other in funny and moving ways as they stay on the run from the authorities and others. Millie’s conversation with Agatha, when she asks if she can start a new family, is a hoot, as the increasingly exasperated Agatha tries to explain that she is too young to start a family and the biological reasons for this and how it all involves the government.

Do things get a little over-the-top? Maybe for some they will, but I enjoyed the majority of the climactic scenes. Millie, Karl and Agatha all transform in satisfying ways, and there is a well-balanced ending, including a nice pay-off from Evie’s puzzled message for Karl that he finally decodes. Out of the grief each of these characters suffer at the open comes a life-affirming message: that while death catches up with us all in the end, until it does we can change in ways that will surprise, perhaps shock, us, and live life to the absolute fullest. If there is a fault, for me some aspects of the relationship between Karl and Agatha strain credibility in an otherwise assured debut.

awwbadge_2014Lost & Found will win many hearts. Like The Rosie Project, it has been sold into multiple countries and will find many readers. Where does Davis go from here? More whimsy? More humour? Many readers will hope for precisely that.

Brooke Davis has followed in the footsteps of Hannah Kent with a profile on the ABC’s Australian Story titled ‘Driving Miss Davis’, which you may still be able to catch on i-view or on the Australian Story website. She talks about the loss of her mother in a tragic accident, the way people respond to grief, and her rather special relationship with her mother’s old car.

Davis is discussing Lost & Found at Berkelouw Books in Leichhardt with Susan Wyndham this coming Wednesday (16 July) evening. It’s ticketed, so call ahead.

Lost & Found by Brooke Davis

2014

Hachette

263 pages

ISBN: 9780733632754

Source: review copy provided by the publisher

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Mr Wigg by Inga SimpsonConfession time… I have a thing for pears. And so while I’ve read many fabulous Aussie debut novels over Christmas, such as Graeme Simsion’s chuckle fest The Rosie Project, Hannah Kent’s finely wrought Burial Rites, and Courtney Collins’s captivating gothic work The Burial, I thought I’d skip reviewing these given the weight of press each has received, and write up some thoughts on the charming Mr Wigg by Inga Simpson. This is in part because Mr Wigg has a thing for pears too, although he also has a fancy for, let me see, just about every kind of fruiting tree you can think of, from apricots to nectarines, from persimmons to quinces. His speciality, though, is peaches.

Set in 1971, the story is split into the four seasons, starting with summer. The narrative voice has a whimsical storybook quality to it, partly because Mr Wigg is always referred to as ‘Mr Wigg’, and partly because he tells his grandchildren Lachlan and Fiona a fable about the mythical Peach King while the three of them bake, which, it has to be said, is often. I must admit, the voice took a bit of getting used to. Like its country setting, the story comes to you slowly, simply. But once I got used to the rhythm, it seemed perfect to me. It’s a bit like us city folk needing to adjust to a rural pace whenever we get out of the big smoke.

The whimsy comes in the form of the fruit trees, who talk to Mr Wigg and each other. Here’s some of the pears in action:

The pears had always been sensitive during spring, as they were not self-fertile, like the others, but required cross pollination. ‘It’s no laughing matter,’ Bon Chrétien muttered. Bickering like a long-married couple most of the year, the pears began dipping their branches at each other in early September. Beurré Bosc recited sonnets in that particular tone and Bon Chrétien responded with made up songs about the qualities of pear blossom.

Mr Wigg has his challenges. He lost his wife to cancer the previous year and is still coming to terms with the loss. His son wants him to consider moving into a old person’s home in town. And Mr Wigg is estranged from his daughter after a falling out over an inheritance. He knows he’s getting on, but he’s determined to die in his own home. He thus fights for his independence. To prove he’s not past it, in between baking sessions with the grandkids he takes on a creative project, firing up the forge in the shed with touching results that bring together Mr Wigg’s Peach King tale and his own life story. The ending is pitch-perfect.

Mr Wigg is a little gem. A story with heart. Reading it awwbadge_2014makes you want to plant an orchard, preserve some fruit, and get baking while the cricket is playing on the radio (Mr Wigg would be very proud of our Aussie boys thrashing the poms in the Ashes these past weeks!). It makes you thankful for the little things, the slow things, the moments between you and those you love. And being reminded of these things is never a bad thing.

To top it all off, I even learned a few new things about pears!

Mr Wigg by Inga Simpson

2013

Hachette

292 pages

ISBN: 9780733630194

Source: the bookshelf rainbow (aka purchased)

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SWF LogoThe theme of this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival was ‘have we got a story for you’. Right from an opening ‘address’ that was performance rather than talk from story-teller Daniel Morden, which you can listen to here, the tone was set.

My highlights:

1. James Wood’s finger drumming. (Oh, and his thoughts on Winton, Stead, Carey, Naipaul, Sebald, Franzen, DeLillo, Austen, Auster, Zadie Smith, Lydia Davis (winner of 2013 Man Booker International), and his love for Keith Moon’s drumming.)

2. Novelists Edward Rutherfurd and Hannah Kent ‘sparring’ with Oxford University historian Faramerz Dabhoiwala on the nature of truth in history fact and fiction. I say ‘sparring’ because at times they seemed to be in agreement: Rutherfurd argued history students should be made to write a short story every term so they can visualise the past rather than recite mere facts and figures. Dabhoiwala responded by saying he has his students write the history of today or tomorrow in order to show them that writing history is indeed a matter of perspective and selection. I’ll be writing more on historical imagination soon.

3. Carlos Ruiz Zafón, a literary gentleman, talking lovingly about old book stores, the art of translation, the fact his Shadow of the Wind series will never be made into films because it would be a betrayal of the books. What resonated most, though, was him urging us to resist the ‘cultural deforestation’ underway at the hands of global technology companies.

4. The annual book design panel, with design luminaries like Hall of Famer W.H. Chong from Text Publishing, which you can read more about here.

DSC03676 - Saturday sun

Saturday sun @ SWF

5. The Silent History story ‘app’ as one possible future avenue for e-books. Purely digital, its serialisation is nothing new — Dickens and others used to sell stories in the same manner. But the geo-delivered ‘field reports’, which are an adjunct to the serialised story and which you only receive to your phone or tablet if you’re standing within 10 metres of a particular point, is exciting. They can provide a sort of fictional walking tour of places you visit.

6. ‘Love and laughter’ with Graeme Simsion and William McInnes. There was plenty of both. When he was bored working on an old TV series, McInnes used to write disturbing fan letters to fellow cast members! Simision wrote the screenplay for The Rosie Project but couldn’t find funding for the project, so asked his agent if writing it is a book would help, to which the agent said, ‘Only if it’s a bestseller’. The rest as they say is history. The movie rights have been optioned, and there are two book sequels in the pipeline as well.

DSC03668 - Saturday sun at SWF

Sun-spangled waters @ SWF

7. The Sydney Morning Herald’s Best Young Novelists, and in particular Majok Tulba, a Sudanese-born Aussie, with a wonderful smile and charming nature, who spoke of how he came within an inch of becoming a child soldier, and how that experience inspired his Beneath the Darkening Sky; how a friend in a refugee camp showed Majok a book and told him there were machines you could speak into that made your voice into a book; and how, despite the struggle  to learn English, the real struggle was to get the painful images of civil war onto the page.

8. Gillian Mears discussing Foal’s Bread. Heart-rending and heroic. I’ll never forget it. For more, click here.

9. Daniel Morden’s performances, both the opening night ‘address’ and his (unbelievably free!) rendition of (most) of Homer’s Odyssey. There was good reason the likes of Cate Kennedy were in attendance to hear the epic tale retold. It was spellbinding stuff, proof of the power of story-telling and of aural story-telling in particular. If it goes up on a podcast, check it out. Also, Morden has put many stories, including The Odyssey into book form for young (and young-at-heart) readers.

DSC03688 - Vivid Customs House in Circular Quay

Vivid Customs House in Circular Quay

10. Talking books against the backdrop of Sydney Harbour under clear skies (on the weekend at least!), with the amazing Vivid Festival adding even more interest for both locals and visitors after dark. In response to The Guardian’s quip that Sydney doesn’t do rain well (true) Carlos Ruiz Zafón said that Sydney was beautiful even in the wild rain we had on Saturday night. As for sunshine…well, we do that pretty well!  

Did the Sydney Writers’ Festival have a story for us? No. It had hundreds of them, enough to sustain us until next year’s festival. The 2013 edition was a resounding success for new director Jemma Birrell. Congratulations to her and her team. And a huge thank you to all those blue-shirted volunteers.

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SWF LogoOne of my favourite sessions at each year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival is the session on book design, which typically follows the Australian Publisher Association’s Book Design Awards night. This year was no different, with some engaging presentations from award winners as well as the added perspective of design from a publisher’s point-of-view, in this instance from Helen Boyle.

Book design is such a crucial part of getting books into the hands of readers. The old adage ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ might well be true of people, but it’s certainly not true of books – as Boyle noted. I think we need to put a spotlight on the tremendously creative people who create the not just the face of our books but the entire look and feel of them, cover to cover. Seven Little Australians by Ethel Turner - designer Allison Colpoys

The first talk was by the charming Allison Colpoys, a freelance book designer and illustrator, whose slide on the creative process was hilarious (including one section whose name I can’t repeat and another called ‘panic’. It provided a great framework for discussing the process she went through in designing Penguin’s Australian Children’s Classic series, which won the award for Best Designed Children’s Series.

Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay - designer Allison ColpoysShe described the limited colour palette that was chosen to give the series a vintage look and feel, and commented that the vintage look was becoming more widespread in book design. There are ten works in the Penguin series, and she showed the rules for colour, text panels, as well as icons and section break ‘dinkuses’. She showed some of the options developed for Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock. Allison also showed two of the new additions to the series, A Fortunate Life and The Power of One.

Sufficient Grace by Amy Espeseth - designer Allison ColpoysAllison was also the joint winner of the award for Best Designed Literary Fiction Book for her cover for Sufficient Grace by Amy Elspeseth, with its striking shadowed trees and drips of blood. It really sets a mood for the story and wants you to pick up the book.

Things I Love by Megan Morton - by Lantern BooksOur next speaker was Daniel New from Lantern Books. He also spoke about series design, offering six categories, from brand series (such as Penguin orange classics), through figurative (think Peter Carey’s newer covers), to genre conventions, to decorative, to conceptual (such as Penguin’s blank white covers that asked readers to draw their own covers and send them into Penguin), to creative partnerships.

Evi Oetomo from Lantern won the Best Designed General illustrated Book for Things I Love. One of the elements of good one-off cover design, Daniel said, is the notion it could easily be made into a series. He offered several images of potential titles in the series that used Things I Love‘s design as the template. Very interesting.

We then heard from Helen, from Templar UK, who backed up what I’ve been hearing at these sessions for the last three years, namely that book design is increasingly important in the digital age, particularly in the thumbnail version of the cover design. She spoke about some trends in UK publishing, particularly in YA fiction, with a predominance of black covers. Ironically, she noted, the ones that have white covers stand out much more now next to their black-faced neighbours, a fact she proved with a shot of a stand of such books.

The Voyage by Murray Bail - designer WH ChongThis sense of trends in cover design was picked up by our final speaker, WH Chong, who has been working for Text Publishing for ‘twenty years’, and is responsible for many of the covers we all know, such as Kate Grenville’s The Secret River and all seventy(!) covers for the Text Classic series. Chong was the other joint winner of the Best Designed Literary Fiction Book, for his cover for Murray Bail’s critically acclaimed The Voyage. He was also inducted into the Joyce Thorpe Nicholson Design Hall of Fame last night. That there are only seven others who have received such an honour speaks volumes for Chong’s work over many years. A hearty congratulations, Chong!

Sarah Thornhill By Kate GrenvilleChong spoke about Stephen Romei’s recent piece in The Australian on the prevalence of the backs of women in current fiction covers, and the debate over softening of books marketed toward women.

I was expecting him to go on to explore his cover for Sarah Thornhill but he went instead to other covers, exploring the question of publishers not wanting to show a face because it potentially creates an image in the mind of the reader as to what the heroine (or hero) looks like.

Stasiland by Anna Funder - designer WH ChongOne fabulously striking cover that slipped through this filtering was Stasiland by Anna Funder. Chong also mused about covers for Kate Holden, Madeleine St John, and one that we’ve all seen recently: Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Project, throwing up some international (Canadian and Taiwanese) versions to show how the local design has been translated overseas.

The Spare Room by Helen GarnerHe also mentioned Helen Garner’s quote at the recent Stella Prize award night, where she pined for a day when book “designers no longer reflexively put a picture of a vase of flowers or a teacup on a woman’s book cover, even when the book is about hypodermics and vomiting and rage and the longing to murder”.

Her most recent book is The Spare Room (my review), about a cancer sufferer and her carer friend – which Chong designed. It was an interesting discussion, and Chong at times questioned himself in an admirable way, believing it was not a reflexive image, but that it might have been trying to soften the theme for the audience (he offered up some mocked alternatives of possible covers showing angst and suffering which provided a stark alternative from a marketing/aesthetic point-of-view. It’s not easy selling a book whose front image is one of suffering.

And of course selling is want authors want, what publishers want, want the marketing departments want, and what is front and centre in all design briefs given to our book designers. No pressure then!

The Secret River by Kate GrenvilleI was going to ask Chong about the different briefs he received for Kate Grenville’s The Secret River (a perfect cover in my view) and sequel Sarah Thornhill, books tied together by story and theme but receiving such different cover treatments. Alas, time was called before I had a chance to ask.

There is a huge amount of thought that goes into good book design. It is, of course, much more than just cover designs. But for a work of fiction the cover is the most important aspect of design. A successful cover is more than reflective of the book’s content or theme. It is a marketing tool, requiring careful positioning, focus groups, and the ability to turn heads. Our panel of talkers had this ability in spades. If you ever get a chance to attend this session at future SWFs then I’d highly recommend it.

Congratulations to all the book design award winners, which you can have a look at here.

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