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Sam van Zweden

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short stories

Review: Pulse Points, by Jennifer Down

In the moments before a plane takes off there’s a pause, where it sits at the end of the runway. This is my favourite part of any flight. It’s better than the clouds or the glimpses of ocean or city below. That runway pause is a deep breath full of hope and heartbreak, where you learn a lot about yourself and your fellow travellers. It’s the moment before the impossible thing happens. Jennifer Down’s second book, Pulse Points, inhabits a similar space. Many of its stories live in the moments before epiphany or cataclysm – the telling moments. With a knack for the old advice to enter a scene late and leave it early, what’s offered in this collection are flashes of incredible truth which suggest that the most important moments in life aren’t necessarily the loud ones.

Pulse Points coverAs demonstrated in her debut novel, Our Magic Hour, Down explores expressions of grief with great skill. In Pulse Points, grief shows up again and again, but it never quite looks the same in any given story. ‘Vox Clamantis’ sees Johnny grieving his dying mother as he races to her bedside from across the country, ‘with the pain in his lungs, bellowing out smoke from the grief’. ‘Aokigahara’ frames a sister’s grief after her brother’s suicide as some liquid thing, ‘rising in weak spasms’, making itself known in dreams of ‘flooded fields … water-damaged crops’. Every story in Pulse Points contains this creeping sense of loss in some way – in facing death; in separating from an old sense of self either by choice or force; in surviving. Continue reading “Review: Pulse Points, by Jennifer Down”

Review: Shibboleth, ed. Laurie Steed

shibbolethIn Jo Riccioni’s short story, ‘Shibboleth’, ex-lovers visit the Tate Modern to see Doris Salcedo’s installation, ‘Shibboleth’. The story’s protagonist feels ‘a primal shock, the life-sized rupture of it in all that civilised space’. The story runs for a short 12 pages, but gestures far more widely than those confines without feeling too ambitious. A shared past is cobbled together from snippets. The dialogue glows with the warmth and idiosyncrasy of talk between familiar people. This is the story that won the 2016 Margaret River Short Story Competition, and the story which provides the title for a new book from Margaret River Press, compiling outstanding entries from that competition.

I know little-to-nothing about what happens in the writing world of Western Australia, and I’m both apologetic for and embarrassed by this. I suspect it’s unconscious urban south-eastern literary snobbery at work. But WA accounts for such a large portion of our country, it’s silly not to make a priority of knowing what’s happening there – such as the good work done at Margaret River Press. This collection features writers from Australia and New Zealand, but also (importantly) new and exciting voices from WA, including the winner of the Southwest Prize, awarded to a writer from south western WA (this year, Phil Sparrow’s story ‘Theo’).

The vast majority of writers in this collection are female. The experience level of the writers included varies greatly, ranging from a first publication, through to the winner of this year’s VPLA for an unpublished manuscript, and others with major awards and big-name publications under their belts. Casting an eye over the author bios at the back of the book, it looks like this collection could, in years to come, be a bit of an early who’s-who in the world of Australian fiction.

Salcedo’s art work, alluded to in Shibboleth’s cover art, is a huge installation. It’s a fissure in the gallery floor, the kind of damage done by a massive earthquake, only this is man-made. It’s a stunning image that stands at the centre of the award-winning story, but it also provides a wonderful unifying motif for all the stories in the collection.

Again and again, these stories riff on that gap – for better or worse. Maybe it pulls people apart. Maybe it’s something to be overcome. The crack’s still there though. These stories acknowledge the existence of the gaps, and all our attempts and failures to bridge them. In ‘Shibboleth’ it’s what comes between the central characters, and its protagonist scoffs at the tactless metaphor. Throughout the collection, these chasms also exist between carers and patients (’It Used to be a Boyd’, ‘Flight’, ‘Theo’), and between who we are and who we’d rather be (’Teacher’ and ‘Fork in the Path’). It’s the space between the limits of human behaviour – the awful, as in ‘Fork in the Path’ and ‘Composition’, and the redeeming, as in ‘Teacher’ and ‘Flight’. Between the familiar and the strange; exploring the rub of strange places and new experiences, or the moments where the the repetition of the same-old reaches breaking point. Sometimes it’s literal, where physical structures separate us, like animal enclosures (‘Thirsty’) and wards (‘Theo’). Or perhaps it’s the space either side of death (‘Flight’ and ‘A House’) or grief (’Before they had Teeth’, ‘The Sea also Waits’). Again and again, the stories in Shibboleth act as meditations on what brings us together and what sets us apart. It looks at the tears – large and small – that appear in the fabric of the things that make us human. The faults and cracks. And the tiny, skipped rhythms of everyday life.

The Southwest Prize winning entry, ‘Theo’ (Phil Sparrow) is about the ease with which we can slip away from being able to care for ourselves. It talks of those complacent to this reality as ‘They who thought they were safe’. Shibboleth, as a whole, cumulates as a study in the faults in that safety. At any moment things could change; these stories are pivotal moments.

The collection is at its best when the stories act as a catalogue of things that the form does so well: tiny moments of unease, glittering language, and stunning central images (such as Shibboleth, or the baby trees at Tana Toraja).

I didn’t love all the stories in this collection – with 24 stories in there, that was always unlikely. But the ones that got me really got me. ‘Le Farfalle’ and ‘Before they had Teeth’ both left me wanting more. My favourite story, ‘It Used to be a Boyd’ is about a mock wedding that happens every week in a nursing home, because ‘everyone loves a wedding’. The aged care worker at its centre, and the resident with whom she connects, felt very real.

There’s a paradox in really good short stories where they manage to feel bigger than they actually are, for their gesturing beyond the bounds of their page length. At their longest, the stories in Shibboleth run for 12 pages. At their shortest, just four. They’re very ‘just-one-more’ish, and fit easily into commutes or before-bed reads.

In just a few sittings, Shibboleth took me around the world, into lives I’d never heard of. It introduced me to characters both sympathetic and not, and to writers I can’t wait to hear more from (Magdalena McGuire and Cassie Hamer, I’m looking at you!). It pivoted gracefully around the chasm introduced in Jo Riccioni’s title story, and made me consider the turning points and breaks in my own life.

Entries for next year’s Margaret River Short Story Competition are open, with Ellen van Neerven editing. If this year’s shortlist is anything to go by, the competition will be fierce.

Penguin Specials Launch

Last night I was lucky enough to ride on the coat-tails of my more successful friends (congratulations again, Jo Day, Veronica Sullivan and Tully Hansen!) into the launch of the latest Penguin Specials range of ebooks. The launch was for a whole bunch of new shorts available in digital form. The good people at Penguin have included the shortlisted and winner of the Monash Prize as part of the Specials range, and it’s available on Amazon, Kobo, iTunes, etc etc – all the platforms. Of course, you’d expect a company the size of Penguin to be inclusive of all the relevant platforms when they publish digitally. Less expected is the fact that they’ve given this awesome opportunity to emerging writers – nice work, Penguin!

I’m starting to get used to the faces at the writing events I go to, but when I left the Moat last night I was feeling a little star-struck and small fry. The launch included readings from Sonya Hartnett (tiny! Who knew?!), Robert Drewe, and Tully Hansen. With some familiar faces, many I hadn’t met yet (like… famous people), and the sampler of the publications doing the rounds on iPads, it was a really fun night. Free wine helped. It’s also really nice to know that being published digitally doesn’t mean the publishing company won’t splash out and celebrate your awesome achievement. The writers included in this series of Penguin Specials have a lot to be proud of.

Penguin seem to have their heads screwed on about what the strengths of ebooks are with their new and upcoming releases. There’s a new imprint coming for romance books, which is a smart move – there’s a huge market there, because it allows all the things ebooks do well anyway (cheap, portable collection), but also opens up the possibility for people to read romance/erotica in public, or to read around family and friends without having reading choices scrutinized. Also, the readers I know who are into romance are pretty voracious about it, and finish one book needing to slip straight into the next one. Ebooks make this a little easier than a trip to the book store. I’m not super-excited for myself about the romance imprint, but I certainly think that Penguin are onto where the money’s at, rather than just making their entire catalogue available and hoping for the best. (Though… I think perhaps for the most part they do this anyway?)

What’s relevant for me as a writer, and for all writers of short stories, is that short stories are now being published in single volumes, per story. Portability is a great strength of eReaders, and to make short stories available for this platform plays to this strength. A short story is a great way to spend time on public transport, and unlike a novel, you can possibly finish it in one sitting. For a long time people have been mourning the lack of publishing opportunities for short stories outside of journals – collections just don’t sell the way that novels do. Hopefully this (and, of course, things like Smashwords, where many authors publish single stories) are a way for short story writers to regain those opportunities.

The Specials are available now, and for a short time the sampler (including Tully’s amazing work, and extracts from others) is available for free.

An Emergency In The Form of a Bright Blue Box Set

There’s many book shop loyalty programs. They all basically work on the idea that as you buy books, you get “rewards” (points of some sort which can be redeemed at that book store for more books).

A quick scan through my wallet shows the following book-store loyalty cards:
BORDERS: One stamp for every book you buy over $20. When you get to a certain amount (I think it’s 7), you get a free book of a value under $20. It’s pretty rare for Borders to charge under $20 for anything decent, plus this is only valid if you earn those rewards within a three-month time frame. No thanks.
ANGUS & ROBERTSON REWARDS: One point for every dollar you spend. Good deal, no? No. It takes 100 points (that’s $100, kids) to earn your “reward” – a $5 A&R voucher. That’s a lot of money for little payoff. Really.
DYMOCKS BOOKLOVER: I’ve been a member of is for such a long time, and it’s still not such a bad deal. Dymocks give you 5 points for every $1 you spend. Every 100 points equates to $1 credit on your card. As I said, not such a bad deal.
VWC MEMBERSHIP: This is an inappropriate plug for how great it is being a member of the Victorian Writer’s Centre. For those of us on concession cards, it’s only $45 a year, and that pays itself off SO quickly. Not only do you get sent special publications all about the writing industry, and get cheaper tickets to workshops etc AND access to the kick-ass library they’ve got up at the Wheeler Centre, but you also get 10% off at Paperback Books on Bourke Street. The Paperback is one of my favourite book shops in Melbourne, and this 10% off makes it so much better shopping there. Rant Fin.

My favourite rewards card though? Easily
READER’S FEAST PRIVILEGED READER: You know those book guides that Reader’s Feast put out each season? That gets sent to you in the mail. Along with invites to special events, such as discount shopping evenings and writers’ appearances. On top of this, every dollar that you spend at Reader’s Feast gets tracked on your card, and twice a year 10% of the amount you’ve spent gets reimbursed as a Reader’s Feast book voucher. If that amount is under $5, they send you a $5 voucher anyway. Forgot to bring your card? No worries, they’ll look you up on the computer.

So, all that being said, I know my top two choices for Christmas shopping!

Last week in the mail I received the above mentioned seasonal book catalogue. In the same envelope were two invitations. One to a special evening where you partook in “Christmas cheer”, “light refreshments”, shopped, and received a $5 voucher just for coming. Unfortunately, I was working that night and missed it. However, the other invitation was for “End of Year Bonus Time”. Between the 21st of November and the 5th of December, Readers Feast are boosting the Privileged Reader’s rewards to 20% credit, rather than the usual 10%.

Today I headed in. I’ve been eagerly awaiting having enough cash to buy the whole Black Inc. “Best Australian…” box set, containing the collected essays, short stories and poetry. I’ve been unreasonably excited about this – when I received this “20%!” invite, I had to have in. I had the cash, I had the time, I went and got my box set. The box set, worth $70, is now sitting next to me on my couch waiting to be cracked open. Not only do I own this box set, but $14 of the purchase price will soon come back to me in the form of a Reader’s Feast book voucher. $14! That’s SO MUCH!

I’m proud of myself, folks. And I’m giving you a kind heads-up. Things you should take from this post:
– Join Reader’s Feast Privileged Readers reward program. It’s free, and so very awesome.
– Join VWC. They’re so plain awesome that they snuck into this post uninvited!
– Buy the “Best Australian…”  collection. In a box-set this year! It’s so pretty. So very, very pretty.

SO pretty, in fact, that I’m settling down with a coffee to get stuck into them right now. Boss, if you’re reading this, I may not be in to work tonight, I might have “an emergency”…in the form of a bright blue box set.

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