Emma Ashmere

writer | author | novelist

Tag: book reviews

Choosing favourites: Three Summer Reads

Local ABC breakfast radio has been asking authors to choose their three favourite summer reads. With so many fantastic books published during COVID – thankfully – it was very tricky to narrow it down. So, as we dive into autumn here, I’ve stretched three books to four – plus a few others.

WEATHER by Jenny Offill

Lizzie is a university librarian in New York dealing with pompous professors, poverty-stricken students, and occasionally drinking too much with her female friends in bars on the rare nights away from her husband and young son. She feels she should probably be doing greater things. During this short book which zigzags between wit and tragedy, we slowly find out why.

Lizzie’s old mentor Sylvia is an ecologist and runs a podcast on climate change. Sylvia contacts Lizzie occasionally – to see if she’s still squandering her opportunities.

But when Sylvia burns out – she asks Lizzie to answer the deluge of podcast comments flooding in from evangelical Christians, doomsday preppers who stockpile chewing gum, helicopter parents, and trillionaires who want to know which mountain peak or chunk of island they should buy to escape the coming catastrophe.

So Lizzie dives down into the mine-pit of information and misinformation while she juggles work. She’s also bringing up her small serious son who attends a large school, and keeping things in sync with her warm and bookish historian husband. She also goes to mediation classes, avoids the over-competitive parents in the school yard, and the neighbor who ambushes her in the corridor to talk about hateful things.

And then there is Lizzie’s brother, a recovering addict, who needs to move in to their already tiny New York apartment.

This wonderful narrative is told in small bursts of prose. It builds up slowly, a mosaic of information, lists, stories, jokes, anecdotes, politics, poetry.

It cirlces around climate change but also about everything else that swirls through contemporary life and distracts, delights and keeps us awake. The succinctness and weaving of glittering threads creates an enthralling whole.

Jenny Offill describes herself as a ‘merciless editor’ and pares everything back. Every line zings or stings.

A novel for now, yesterday, tomorrow, and too late – it’s a meditation on the natural world and the unnatural world – and how we live in it, and treat it – and who and what we leave behind.

Song of the Crocodile by Nardi Simpson

The Song of the Crocodile is about the First Nations Bilymyl family living on the edge of the small Australian town of Darnmoor. The living conditions are relentlessly tough in this vibrant community.

We meet Margaret who works at the local hospital, and Celie, and Mili. The women set up a successful wash house for the town – literally doing everybody’s dirty laundry – which also gives them access to rich white people’s houses.

This is all about small town politics, and prevailing white Australian myths. There’s the push for redevelopment that will benefit some of the townsfolk – but not the First Nations community.

The author Nardi Simpson is a Yuwaalaraay storyteller, musician and performer living in Sydney. This is her debut novel. This multi-generational epic story captures the searing hypocrisy of race relations and small town politics, the secrets that ooze beneath the surface and the past injustices that persist, deftly told through an ensemble cast of brilliantly drawn characters. I could hear them speaking as I read.

A gripping and engrossing read.

Interspersed with this tough and delicate narrative, are lyrical passages about the ‘eternal spirits’. As a non-Indigenous reader, I loved this interleaving, and how it weaves and deepens the narrative.

A powerful important book, The Song of the Crocodile was long-listed for the Stella Prize.

THE VANISHING HALF by Brit Bennett

Stella and Desiree are identical sisters, born into a southern American town that doesn’t really exist on the map – and is home to a proud population of fair-skinned African Americans.

As children, Stella and Desiree witness a horrific act of racially-targeted brutality committed against their father. The sisters carry that event as they navigate different paths.

The Vanishing Half opens with one sister striding down the Mallard’s main street after many years away, alongside her young daughter. The author captures the potent atmosphere of small town politics – the rumours, the stories, the whispers, assumptions, the ambivalence and the mystery rippling behind the curtains along the street,

We cut to the past, taking us to 1960s New Orleans when the sisters ran away from their home town. But at some point, the sisters separate.

One sister discovers by accident she can pass as white, and moves into the very white world of work, marriage, money, polite suburbia, keeping her heritage secret even from her husband – while the politics of the 1960s civil rights movement erupts. Her carefully curated façade threatens to crack.

The other sister’s story takes us to the 1970s LA drag scene, exploring issues of gender, sexuality and identity, mixing in a world of people who are marginalized in some way, helping each other, finding and building community and solace as they try to survive.

Both sisters challenge the limitations others persist in trying to set for them in their own ways.

This book is all about compassion, and pride, generosity. It is never judgmental about people’s actions and the choices they make or the relentless difficulties they the face. It’s about finding your way and taking up your place when much of the world dismisses your worth.

It’s also about the legacies all of us inherit from our families, strangers, neighbours, larger forces such as daily cultural bias and the complexities of politics – whether we live in towering crowded cities, in perfect-looking suburban estates, or in small towns with deep histories, and powerful rivers running through them.

Brit Bennett’s debut novel The Mothers won a swag of awards.

The Vanishing Half is in production as a TV series.

HAMNET by Maggie O’Farrell

Hamnet opens in 1596 in Stratford upon Avon with 10 year old Hamnet Shakespeare wandering through the empty house in a slow panic. His twin sister Judith has just fallen very ill. He can only find his angry grandfather – but there’s no sign of his mother Agnes Hathaway.

The story spirals between time and place and characters, but we centre on Agnes and Hamnet, and the daily lives in the years of the plague.

William Shakespeare is never named in the book, but referred to as ‘the Latin tutor’ or ‘the husband’. He is cleverly kept off camera, and described as being impractical. He feels trapped in his life, and despises his brutal father who is in debt.

Agnes, however, is pragmatic. We first see her walking in the forest with a kestrel on her arm. Shakespeare thinks she’s a boy – then realizes it’s the wild woman he’s heard rumours about. Agnes has grown up motherless, using the forest as her pharmacy, sanctuary, and her school. There are stunning descriptions of the natural world.

This is a novel about grief, and how different people to react to great loss, trauma and sadness. One person’s reactions can feel inexplicable to one another – especially within a shattered family. Hamnet charts how a wife and husband distance themselves and yet retain a connection.

Shakespeare disappears to London. Art is a salve for him. The famous play Hamlet emerges, and the internal unspeakable turmoil is turned into something that can be seen and articulated.

For Agnes, healing gives her continued purpose.

Hamnet is a New York Times bestseller.

Other recommendations:

Fire Front – edited by Alison Whittaker

On Connection by Kae Tempest

Intimations by Zadie Smith and The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy.

****

Exif_JPEG_420

Join authors Victoria Purman, Pip Williams, and Emma Ashmere for Down the Rabbit Hole: History & Fiction Writing hosted by History Trust South Australia Tues 20th April 2021 @ 5.30pm (Adelaide time). Free zoom.

Emma Ashmere was born in Adelaide, South Australia on Kaurna land. Her 2020 short story collection DREAMS THEY FORGOT is published by Wakefield Press. Her stories have been widely published including in the AgeGriffith ReviewOverlandReview of Australian FictionSleepers AlmanacEtchingsSpineless Wonders#8WordStoryNGVmagazine, and the Commonwealth Writers literary magazine, adda. She has been shortlisted for the 2019 Commonwealth Writers Short Story Award, 2019 Newcastle Short Story Award, 2018 Overland NUW Fair Australia Prize, and the 2001 Age Short Story Competition; and longlisted for the 2020 Big Issue Fiction Edition, and the 2020 Heroines Prize, with another story forthcoming in the NZ/Aust Scorchers climate change anthology. Her critically acclaimed debut novel, The Floating Garden, was shortlisted for the Small Press Network Book of the Year 2016. See more of Emma’s posts about books and writing here.

Chronic Uncertainty: Books I Wish I’d Had When (Nearly) Everything Changed

 

Today I’m celebrating the international day of people with disability in all its pride and diversity by recommending a few wonderful books written by people with lived experience of disability and chronic illness. The term in this post’s heading ‘chronic uncertainty’ is borrowed from Jacinta Parson’s excellent new memoir Unseen, mentioned below.

It’s been 16 years since my own health changed and I began losing the ability to walk unassisted, back in 2004. But it wasn’t until 2010 that I found a book that told me I was not alone.

That book was the memoir The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by US author Elisabeth Tova Bailey.

THE SOUND OF A WILD SNAIL EATING by Elisabeth Tova Bailey

Struck down by a virus while travelling, Elisabeth Tova Bailey instantly becomes a ‘horizontal person’. Her world shrinks to the size of a terrarium of potted violets next to her bed, a gift from a friend. But then she hears a sound. A snail is munching through those violets.

Her diminished view opens up into the broader natural world of snails, gastropods, connecting with scientists and readers alike. The image which resonated with me the most was her idea of while so many of us exist in isolation, we are like thousands of lights burning all over the world.

In 2010, I wrote a review of this book for a local newspaper – a job I was offered which changed my life. Every month I was paid $20 per 400 word review and allowed to keep the book – important because I could no longer afford to buy books. This was a tiny but huge step in rediscovering my fragmented writer self, piecing together a purpose, and a regular pattern to my month.

 

HOTEL WORLD by Ali Smith

Scottish author Ali Smith is one of my all time favourite writers. Best known for her prize-winning brilliantly political, witty and structurally ingenious books, she’s also had Chronic Fatigue Syndrome/ME. I didn’t know this until I read the opening lines of the chapter ‘Future Conditional’ in her 2001 Booker shortlisted novel Hotel World – lines which could only be written by one who know how it is:

About you – continued…

If you need help filling out this form, or any part of it, phone…

Tell us about yourself.

Well. I am a nice person.

The protagonist is trying to explain to the government welfare officers why she can no longer do her job at a hotel. Her head feels ‘like a bison’, and she exists between worlds, lost in her room at her mother’s house, not fitting into anyone’s definitions, including her own. She hesitates over the welfare application form. Will she write ‘I am a nice person’ or will she cross out the word ‘nice’ and replace it with ‘sick’? She’ll do it in a minute, except she can’t remember how many minutes there are in an hour, how many hours in a day… etc.

 

SO LUCKY by Nicola Griffith

UK-born writer Nicola Griffith’s 2018 book So Lucky packs a punch. The protagonist Mara works at a not-for profit LGBTQIA+ health support organization. On the very day her wife walks out of their marriage, Mara feels a weird sensation in her leg. She’s diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS), and so begins her reckoning with an ableist world – including her own office colleagues who can’t see the need to install a ramp – and her own changing sense of self. Here’s my review of So Lucky on Newtown Review of Books.  

Nicola’s best known book is the much-acclaimed historical novel Hild set in the Dark ages. Apparently there’s another novel on the way. Nicola’s blog posts ‘Lame is so Gay: A Rant’ and ‘Coming Out as a Cripple’ and her work on own voices is essential reading for any writer or reader who might assume they know what living with a disability is like. Highly recommended.

(Thanks to Nicola Griffith’s help, I finally wrote about my health, publishing the short story ‘Standing Up Lying Down’ in Overland, based on my own experiences back in the early 2000s trying to discover why I couldn’t walk.)

New Books

This year there’s been a crop of excellent Australian books – books I wish had been around when I was navigating the health maze.

SHOW ME WHERE IT HURTS by Kylie Maslen

Kylie Maslen’s memoir ‘Show Me Where It Hurts: Living With Invisible Illness’ peels back the layers of being young and working through multiple health problems, and the labyrinthine process of trying to find out what is going on. Eventually the author learns she has endometriosis, and bi-polar. She has so much to juggle here, including the changes and losses of identity, work, income, and a presumed future. There’s also the beautiful interweaving of the things that get her through – including Beyonce.

The line in this book which resonated with me the most was about the author finally finding a diagnosis and how that offers her a chance to connect with others.

If you’ve ever been told “the diagnosis doesn’t matter… we’re just going to continue to treat your symptoms” you’ll know exactly what this means.

 

 UNSEEN by Jacinta Parsons

Broadcaster Jacinta Parson’s new memoir ‘Unseen’ details her rocky path through the medical and social world, and the many challenging physical difficulties of managing Crohns Disease. There is much to unpack here, including the history and politics of women’s bodies, the need to be listened to and believed, the tensions between independence and reliance on others, and making a new life in work and with family.

The zinger is her comment about being diagnosed with a chronic condition is like being diagnosed with ‘chronic uncertainty.

In the To Be Read Pile

After tuning in to the recent Politics of Health session run by the Feminist Writers Festival, I’m looking forward to reading Katerina Bryant’s new memoir Hysteria, about living with a rare form of epilepsy and the history of pathologising women.

 

 

Books Coming Soon

Growing Up Disabled In Australia will be published by Black Inc in February 2021. Edited by appearance activist, writer, and speaker Carly Findlay, this is latest in the Growing Up series, and showcases over 40 pieces of writing from emerging and established writers.

‘One in five Australians has a disability. And disability presents itself in many ways. Yet disabled people are still underrepresented in the media and in literature.’

I’m also looking forward to Anna Spargo Ryan’s new memoir A Kind of Magic (Picador) July 2021, which was at the centre of a heated publishers’ auction.

 

More Favourites

There are so many other excellent books on disability and chronic illness. They’ll continue to resonate and change lives because of their authors’ honest and generous insights into living in a world that does not always respect, value, accomodate, or adapt to those of us deemed as ‘different’.

 

Favourites include: Jo Case’s wonderful memoir Boomer and Me: A Memoir of Motherhood and Asperger’s, the ground-breaking Say Hello by Carly Findlay, Susan Varga’s exquisite poetry collection Rupture on recovery from a stroke, and Jessica White’s hybrid memoir on deafness Hearing Maud: A Journey Through Voice – which has just been shortlisted for the Prime Minister’s Literary Award.

Many things need to change for everyone living with a disability and chronic illness, whatever our particular needs, aims, and situations.

Perhaps now that millions more people have had a taste of what it’s like to live with sudden restrictions, multiple losses, and chronic uncertainty – including the emergence of Chronic Fatigue-like post-COVID ‘long haul’ conditions –  there’ll be more understanding for those of us who live with versions of these limitations every night and day, regardless of whether COVID is there or not.

These books will help.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A note about me:

Here’s a photo of me in 2006 in my freezing cold Melbourne lounge-room – ready to submit my PhD. After I began losing the ability to walk in the early 2000s, I had to leave my full time job. For 10 months I worked for 20 minutes most days to finish my thesis and PhD novel. These four PhD tomes were too heavy for me to deliver in person – you can’t carry much when you use a walking stick. By then, I could no longer drive or take the bus because of loss of balance. The tram was better, but the tram stop was too far away. A dear friend drove me to my university, but we weren’t allowed to park in the Disabled parking because I didn’t have a permit, which wasn’t possible to arrange by phone or online. We managed to persuade a security guard to let us park briefly by a door. The lifts to the English Dept were actually working, and we moved slowly along endless corridors until we came to one of my two wonderful supervisors’ offices, and celebrated the moment with tea and cake. Since then, I’ve regained the ability to walk unassisted, and continue to live with several health conditions including Chronic Fatigue/ME.

Emma Ashmere was born in Adelaide, South Australia on Kaurna land. Her new short story collection DREAMS THEY FORGOT is published by Wakefield Press. Her stories have been widely published including in the AgeGriffith ReviewOverlandReview of Australian FictionSleepers AlmanacEtchingsSpineless Wonders#8WordStoryNGVmagazine, and the Commonwealth Writers literary magazine, adda. She has been shortlisted for the 2019 Commonwealth Writers Short Story Award, 2019 Newcastle Short Story Award, 2018 Overland NUW Fair Australia Prize, and the 2001 Age Short Story Competition; and longlisted for the 2020 Big Issue Fiction Edition, and the 2020 Heroines Prize, with another story forthcoming in the NZ/Aust Scorchers climate change anthology. Her critically acclaimed debut novel, The Floating Garden, was shortlisted for the Small Press Network Book of the Year 2016. See more of Emma’s posts about writing here.

The Raven’s Heart by Jesse Blackadder

www.australianbookreview.com.au/programs/51-march-2011/270-jesse-blackadder-the-raven-s-heart

Emma’s short stories have been widely published including in The Age, Commonwealth Writers Magazine adda, Griffith Review, Overland, Review of Australian Fiction, Sleepers Almanac, and on three Brisbane billboards for #8wordstory. She was shortlisted for the 2019 Commonwealth Short Story Prize, 2019 Newcastle Short Story Prize, 2018 Overland/NUW Fair Australia Prize and 2001 Age Short Story Award. Her debut novel The Floating Garden was shortlisted for the 2016 Small Press Network MUBA prize. Her short story collection Dreams They Forgot will be published in May 2020 by Wakefield Press.

The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey

www.echonews.com.au/news/the-sound-of-a-wild-snail-eatingelisbeth-tova-bail/846358 

Emma’s short stories have been widely published including in The Age, Commonwealth Writers Magazine adda, Griffith Review, Overland, Review of Australian Fiction, Sleepers Almanac, and on three Brisbane billboards for #8wordstory. She was shortlisted for the 2019 Commonwealth Short Story Prize, 2019 Newcastle Short Story Prize, 2018 Overland/NUW Fair Australia Prize and 2001 Age Short Story Award. Her debut novel The Floating Garden was shortlisted for the 2016 Small Press Network MUBA prize. Her short story collection Dreams They Forgot will be published in May 2020 by Wakefield Press.

The Invisible Circus by Jennifer Egan

After Jennifer Egan won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for her novel ‘A Visit from the Goon Squad,’ her many fans rushed to read her earlier works. Egan’s debut novel ‘The Invisible Circus’ was first published in 1995 and has now been rereleased. Read the rest of this entry »

Stone Arabia by Dana Spiotta

Dana Spiotta’s very cool new novel ‘Stone Arabia’ zeroes in on the life of Nik Worth, a self-styled ‘secret rock star’. It all starts on Nik’s tenth birthday when his usually-absent father shocks everyone by appearing and giving him a guitar. By 1973, Nik has left behind his MAD comics and formed the band The Demonics. They soon score a regular warm up gig in a cruddy bar Read the rest of this entry »

Mateship With Birds by Carrie Tiffany

Carrie Tiffany’s eagerly anticipated second novel ‘Mateship With Birds’ concerns the small Australian town of Cohuna huddling beneath a ‘condensed blue sky’. It is 1953. Magazines are seducing their readers with images of new shiny things for neat clean-cut families. But not everybody fits the mould. Read the rest of this entry »

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson

‘Our life at home was a bit odd,’ writes Jeanette Winterson in her marvellously titled memoir, ‘Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?’ It is the growing awareness and later struggle with this ‘oddness’ which lies at the heart of this compelling book. Read the rest of this entry »

Love in Years of Lunacy by Mandy Sayer

Seventeen-year-old Pearl Willis thinks she plays hotter saxophone than her twin brother Martin. It is the 1940s. They both perform in separate bands at Sydney’s famous Trocadero Club. When the club’s revolving stage turns, Martin’s all boy band disappears and Pearl’s all girl band pumps out the jazz.

But it is not all fun and late night jam sessions in Mandy Sayer’s novel Love in the Years of Lunacy. Sydney is a city gripped by war.

When Japanese submarines attack Sydney Harbour, houses are abandoned. Cellars become air raid shelters. Streetlights are covered with metal guards. Food rationing begins to bite. Money is tight. But there are plenty of American GIs swarming the streets looking for entertainment – and some of those GIs are black.

One night, when the Willis twins finish their stints at the Trocadero, Martin smuggles Pearl into the sole venue where a girl can sit in and play with the band. The Booker T. Washington Club is also the only place “in the state” where black people are allowed.

It is here Pearl meets the hugely talented James Washington. A bebop player from “Looozy-anna”, James has played on records with Count Basie and other jazz greats. After a shaky start, James concedes Pearl plays a “mean axe” and agrees to teach her to take more risks by “following the shadow of a tune rather than the tune itself.”

Their clandestine liaison blossoms, but there is no avoiding the daily realities of racism. When James asks permission from his CO to marry Pearl, his request is denied and he is transferred to New Guinea.

The second half of the novel plunges us into the wilds of New Guinea. Sayer’s absorbing and unorthodox take on the Second World War centres on the motley members of an Australian military band. We follow them lugging music gear through “lush wet steeples” of forest and mosquito-infested swamps while dodging sniper fire, as their uniforms rot. Not everyone is delighted when reinforcements arrive bearing saxophones and ventriloquist dolls, instead of guns and medicine. But as Sayer suggests, the soldiers “needed music as much as they needed morphine or antibiotics.”

Inspired by stories of her musician father, Sayer says this novel took “ten years to think about” and another ten to write. Never afraid to push the boundaries, the author’s plot twists, humour and frankness resonate with the rich, surprising, bittersweet texture of jazz.

Published in the Northern Rivers Echo

Emma’s short stories have been widely published including in The Age, Commonwealth Writers Magazine adda, Griffith Review, Overland, Review of Australian Fiction, Sleepers Almanac, and on three Brisbane billboards for #8wordstory. She was shortlisted for the 2019 Commonwealth Short Story Prize, 2019 Newcastle Short Story Prize, 2018 Overland/NUW Fair Australia Prize and 2001 Age Short Story Award. Her debut novel The Floating Garden was shortlisted for the 2016 Small Press Network MUBA prize. Her short story collection Dreams They Forgot will be published in May 2020 by Wakefield Press.

13, rue Thérèse by Elena Mauli Shapiro

Elena Mauli Shapiro’s novel, 13, rue Thérèse is full of tricks. Facts blur into fantasy. The past slips into the present and back again. Photographs of quirky objects and handwritten documents play with the idea that the camera never lies. Read the rest of this entry »