Dying: A Memoir – Cory Taylor

Another of the Stella Prize short listed books on my reading list, Dying: A Memoir was surprisingly a very short book. A very short book that manages to share a great deal in it’s 147 pages. Cory Taylor was an award winning Australian novelist, who started with TV and film writing, moved to children’s book and eventually turned to novels after being diagnosed with melanoma back in 2005. This book was written in a only few weeks and was published in 2016 months before she passed away. I didn’t quite know what I was expecting with this novel but it certainly was not what I imagined, it was so much more.


What strikes me about this novel is the stoic way in which Taylor writes. Don’t get me worn there is sadness and longing for more time to send with her family, to finish out her life but it is a more wistful sadness, an understanding and acceptance, rather than a heart-breaking  realisation that she intends to fight to her last breath. Her analysis of what it is to be dying, what has ran through her head since she realised it was an inevitability is so astute, so insightful it blew my mind. She touches quite a bit on the debate regarding euthanasia, and if anyone is qualified to express their opinion on this topic, Taylor is the one. Her thoughts regarding this topic are so penetrating that I dare anyone opposed to the idea to read her words and tell me why this should not be an option for the terminally ill. The first section gave me much to think about and just blew me away with passage after passage of some of the most pellucid writing that I have ever experienced.


What really makes these points so powerful, so unforgettable is the eloquent prose of Taylor. This book may have been written in a few weeks but it is clear these thoughts had been developing over a long time and their is a fluidity of the writing that is beautiful. It is clear that despite her late start, Taylor has had a life-long love affair with writing, with words. In fact she recall beginning writing back in high school, trying her hand at poetry. This clear affinity for the written word makes her book a pleasure to read, even just for the way the words form on the page.


The second two parts of the book discuss Taylor’s family history and her life growing up and as an adult. Clearly Taylor, and her parents, all lived full and fascinating lives, yet she keeps these stories succinct and personable. The reader is not allowed to get bored or have their attention wander. Taylor completes this memoir with skill and precision, not wasting an unnecessary word nor drawing out her story needlessly. She shows remarkable restraint and is part of what keeps this book memorable. Each passage is important, each passage in interesting and each passage teaches the reader something. It leaves me wanting more and I fully intent to read her two other novels.


Dying: A Memoir is a unique look into a life shortened, yet well lived. The prose is masterful and memorable. Taylor’s explanations of what it feels like to know your life is limited, how she has dealt with it and her reasons for why she thinks it should be legal to choose your own demise in a terminal situation are compelling and well-executed. I urge you all to give this book a go and give Dying: A Memoir four airplanes taking Taylor all over the world.


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Women of Writers Week

Despite writers week and International Women’s day both being a distant memory, I feel compelled to write a post about my amazing experience of listening to so many amazing and inspiring women tackling relevant cultural issues in their fiction. Melina Marchetta, an old favourite author of mine tackles the very relevant issue of Islamophobia in her novel Tell The Truth, Shame The Devil. Maxine Beneba Clarke discusses the heart-breaking institutionalised and casual racism that she experienced growing up and how it shaped her as a person in her captivating memoir The Hate Race. Inga Simpson captivated me with her beautiful novel Where The Trees Were which revolves around the destruction of aboriginal heritage, particularly in the time leading up to the landmark “Mabo” ruling. This loss of heritage and identity is still felt today and is still relevant as we continue to not recognise our countries original landowners in our Constitution. Emily Maguire investigates violence against women, victims blaming and the stereotyping that plays a role in how the media reports these stories in her novel An Isolated Incident. Sara Taylor takes on gender and the voice of the minority that encompasses the LGBT community in The Lauras. Jessie Burton explores the idea of (shock, horror) a male muse/female artist relationship in The Muse.


John Marsden told an anecdote during his session that, long story short, explained how adults feel the need to put a moral lesson within their stories. While this may not alway be required for children, or even adults, I still find it amazing that these women are writing gripping, relatable, funny stories on a superficial level. While still leaving the reader to ponder the deeper ideas and meaning behind their words. We can all use a little perspective and understanding of the lives and issues of those around us and I feel these novels help do that in a non-intimidating way that conversations sometimes cannot.


So lets hear it for these amazing female writers who give voice to the minorities and important issues in such an eloquent and entertaining way. I appreciate you all.


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South of Darkness – John Marsden

Recently all my teenage dreams came true when I was able to meet and listen to John Marsden speak at Adelaide Writers Week. I grew up reading his young adult work, most notably the Tomorrow series. He is an exemplary example of young Australian writing that is accessible, relatable and endearing. His most recent novel is his first foray into adult novel writing with South of Darkness. South of Darkness is the story of Barnaby Fletch, a thirteen-year-old orphan living on the tough street of London in the late 1700s. After a serious mis-step he decides that the best way forward is to start a new life on a new continent and so his commits a crime intent on being shipped out to Botany Bay. The novel follows his life in London all the way to the convict colony of Australia.


This was an interesting read, one that I finished in a day. It was an enjoyable read and I would recommend it, particularly if you have an interesting in early colonial life in Australia. Marsden did discuss his pains to research and write this in a way that it is quite representative of the era. I have to say the element missing for me was the emotional connection. This I think is due to the fact that it is a written account similar to a diary of the time, that was not particularly emotive, more fact-telling than anything. This is not a real criticism – Marsden has clearly captured the nature of his chosen format and it reads like any other historical account.


One aspect that Marsden does really well is not shy away from any harsh realities of what life really was like. The travel by boat was the most fascinating part of the novel for me, an aspect that could seemingly be overlooked but was a crucial part of the story. Marsden did not shy away from any uncomfortable truths in this part of the journey and details just how alluring young Barnaby was to many of the other more serious and depraved criminals  on the boat. Not the nicest of aspects but a realistic one.


There were a few plot twists that were thrown in towards the end. They were perhaps a tad unrealistic, however, did tie the story together perfectly. Overall, this was a very enjoyable and easy book to read with, dare I say, an opening for a sequel? If that is so I would not hesitate to pick it up. Do read this is if you have an interest in what life was like back in Australia in the very early days or if you want to know what crime may have sent a child half-way across the world. I give South of Darkness three koalas, for Barnaby an alien animal in an alien country.


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An Isolated Incident – Emily Maguire

An Isolated Incident by Emily Maguire has been short-listed for this year’s Stella Prize. I discovered this novel after hearing Maguire speak at Adelaide Writers Week and became intrigued after hearing her speak out it. This novel is a psychological thriller that follows Chris in the aftermath of her sister Bella’s murder. Bella was the perfect victim: young, naive and innocent. Everything that Chris is not. What follows is the mystery that is what happened to Bella, how Chris deals with her grief and how the media reacts to this horror.


After hearing Maguire speak about this novel it was clear just how passionate Maguire is about violence towards women, how it is dealt with in the media and the victim blaming that occurs. Maguire captures perfectly what it is to be a women. How it feels to know you should be cautious of strange men, how the men in your life can keep you safe and protect you, that it until they don’t. How it is instilled in the female psyche to be cautious, to now walk alone in the dark, to walk to your car with a key between your knuckles because with out the caution you are vulnerable. But with that caution comes feelings of guilt, of being over sensitive and a bit ridiculous, that is until something happens. She gives fascinating insight into how these thoughts all play out in your mind. Interestingly Maguire pointed out that in the book she does not describe what happens to Bella that night. There are references to the horror, yet no specific descriptions. Depressingly enough there is no need, we in society know all to well what violence, both physical and sexual, towards women looks like all too well. No description is necessary.


Maguire provides an intimate and accurate insight into grief and how it manifests in us. Chris unsurprisingly experiences psychological trauma as a result of her sisters murder and the reader follows her on this rollercoaster ride. Her visit to the police station, to the site where Bella’s body was dumped, the long hours alone with only her thoughts and of being so distraught missing her sister that it almost feels like she is still there with her. The reader gains an understanding of what these families and people left behind must go through. From the way they are treated by friends, neighbours and colleagues, to the effects that media coverage and other people’s agendas, no matter how well they mean, can have.  I would highly recommend picking this up just to gain a different perspective from the typical story starting with a murder and going from there. This book explores those left behind.


A highlight in this novel for me was the way Maguire perfectly captures the language that would be best described as Aussie bogan (I say this as I am fluent in it myself and grew up in a country town). The tone of Chris’ inner monologue is so accurate I feel like I have met her myself down the pub, pouring my pint of West End. She hits this and the small town descriptions right on the head. “Pete – plumber Pete – not bottle-o Pete” was one line that stuck in my mind as authentically small town, capturing the essence of what it is to be a resident in a place like this. Overall, this is a very strong novel with some relevant concepts that we should all be considering in today’s society. I would highly recommend picking this up and familiarising yourself with Maguire’s work. I give An Isolated Incident four beers that Chis pulls at the pub.


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Wine & Words Wednesday 22/03/17

Wine Wednesday is here again, lets do a little happy dance and proceed to cracking a bottle. What am I cracking today? Well, a pretty special bottle in my opinion. Hahndorf Hill Winery is a boutique winery just outside the historic town of Hahndorf in the Adelaide Hills. This is a beautiful winery that uses sustainable practices such as sheep for seeking and guinea foul for insect control. The cellar door is in a beautiful building overlooking the vineyards and with the unique ChoccoVino experience. Chocolate paired with wine? Yes, please! Their wines are delightful, in fact I wanted to take one of everything home. Instead, sadly, I had to limit myself to only a couple including the one I am discussing today. The Hahndorf Hills Winery Blueblood Blaufrankish 2013 is an exceptional bottle of wine I immediately fell in love with. Blaufrankish is a red grape varietal hailing from Austria. Hahndorf Hill Winery was the first winery in Australia to grown this particular varietal which debuted in 2008. With a nose of blueberries and black cherry this is the perfect bottle of red fit for a king.


What might I be pairing this tantalising wine with? Well a wine fit for a king that is named blue blood could only be paired with the most noble of novels. The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory tells the story of Mary Boleyn, who catches the eye of Henry VIII and enjoys his attentions until his interest begins to wane and she has to step aside for her sister and rival, Anne. This is an epic story of intrigue, gossip and drama. A story made for an entire bottle of wine. Set yourself up in your favourite reading chair, back tall and draped in your best throw rug. Crack a bottle of Blaufrankish and pour into your finest crystal wine glass and sit back and revel in the story of the Boleyn sisters trying their best to hold the affections of a capricious king. You certainly will not be disappointed, wth your wine or choice of entertainment.


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Brain on Fire – Susannah Cahalan

Brain on Fire is a spine-tingling memoir of twenty-four year old Susannah who wakes up one day strapped to a hospital bed unable to speak. She has just lost a month of her life and what follows is her recovery and journey to investigate her lost month. What started as a headache spiralled into a terrifying psychosis that stripped Susannah of her independence, the independence that many of us take for granted. The ability to live on our own, go out where and when we feel like it, even express ourselves and communicate with those around us.


What makes Brain on Fire so captivating is the fact that this could happen to any of us at any time. In fact, as Susannah points out, what happened to her was so relatively unknown and under researched at the time how many people are out there in mental institutions suffering from the same affliction? Something that can be quite treatable? This though terrifies me and makes this novel scarier than any horror book I have ever read.


I read many criticisms of this memoir on the writing style. This is not a literary work of genius. This is one girl investigatory tale of trying to regain her lost time. This is not fiction with flowery prose. It is what it is and does not pretend to be anything more. There is medical jargon and explanations to make what happened understandable that is necessary and really not tedious at all. Realistically it is fascinating understanding how something like this can be missed. It also highlights to the reader just how complicated the medical field is. How many tests were conducted and tried again in an effort to diagnose something? Can you blame how it may be mis-diagnosed as some psychotic disorder? Well, read the book and find out.


Brain on Fire is a fascinating insight into the pieces of the puzzle than is diagnosing a rare, relatively unknown disease. What we, as readers (or less politely, as book nerds) can learn from this is to never judge a book (or diagnosis) by its cover. This was a terrifying and informative journey into a painful but defining event in one woman’s life. Something that could happen to anyone at anytime. There is something in this memoir for each of us to take away and I urge you all to give it a go. I give Brain on Fire four apples, which Susannah craved so desperately in hospital.


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The Shifting Fog – Kate Morton

After falling in love with Kate Morton earlier last year with The Lake House and then solidifying the obsession with The Secret Keeper I added The Shifting Fog to the collection. It may have sat there for a good 6 months on my shelf, but I finally picked it up recently and rekindled that love. The Shifting Fog, published as The House at Riverton internationally, is Kate Morton’s first novel and in my opinion she started off with a bang. The Shifting Fog is, as always, cross generational with perspectives told from the 1920’s when society sisters Hannah and Emmeline witness the suicide of a young but notorious poet and from Grace, a servant in the household, in the present day as an older lady in a nursing home. The infamous events of that night back in 1924 are being adapted to the screen and Grace is sought out for her inside information as the only surviving witness from that night. Slowly the mystery from that night is revealed across the five hundred plus pages.


I have to be honest, every novel by Morton I have devoured within two days maximum. Her stories are so intriguing that I can’t put them down and often only do so if I absolutely must. Morton has a talent for transporting you to these different times and places and putting you in the shoes of each of her characters. Not many authors boast the same talent that she clearly has. This particular story had me on the edge of my seat, coming up with wild theories trying to guess what might happen. I really enjoyed the interactions between the two sisters and their maid. Hannah and Emmeline are polar opposites, both as intriguing as each other. Grace plays the role of a maid in those days perfectly and her insight is fascinating. All the peripheral characters were rich and complimented the plot well.


If you love a whimsical mystery then this book is for you. IF you like a realistic mystery this may not be for you. The pieces of Morton’s puzzles always fit together perfectly, if not pragmatically, but they leave you scrambling to see if you can solve it first. Despite having read two of Morton’s novels already I still failed at trying to predict the outcome and it certainly did not disappoint. I highly recommend all of her works so far and urge you to pick up The Shifting Fog (or even The Lake House). I give the Shifting Fog four notebooks full of Robbie’s poetry.


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