Review: The Sisters’ Song by Louise Allan

When I was growing up, my Dad would mostly read biographies of prominent people: actors, musicians, politicians, public figures. But every now and then he would casually pick up one of my sister’s chick-lit books and have a bit of a gander. He was unfazed by the branding; he blithely called them “human interest” novels. I always thought this was kind of cool.

Perhaps this is why, when I was told that The Sisters’ Song by Louise Allan was a book about motherhood and sisters, aimed primarily at women who were likely to be mothers themselves – and not at young childless men like myself – I wasn’t overly fazed. In fact, I was quite interested to experiment with reading beyond the borders of my usual genres and see what this story was all about.

And I’m bloody glad I did.

I was especially keen for two reasons. Firstly, since I kept seeing stuff on social media about people bursting into tears when they were reading it – which is a damn strong reaction for a book to provoke, and probably the one that must engender the most pride and satisfaction in an author.

Secondly, the author, Louise Allan, is well-known in Perth writing circles and I have a great deal of respect for her. Not only is Louise a fervent supporter of new and budding writers on Twitter, especially locals, she is also one of those people who radiates an aura of kindness. Before making a mid-life career change into becoming an author, she was a doctor, and I can only envy the empathy her patients must have received in those years. Most doctors usually just grunt at me.

So – what’s The Sisters’ Song about? *cough* SPOILERS AHEAD *cough*

Initially set in rural Tasmania in the 1920s, the novel centres on the relationship between two young girls, Ida and Nora. After their beloved father passes away, their mother becomes a bit of a useless mess and they are cared for primarily by their grandmother. During this time and during the post-grief haze, the girls’ personalities start to shine through: Ida is a nurturer, loves her doll, and wants to have a family; Nora, meanwhile, is a talented singer and pianist. With the encouragement of her grandmother, she pursues a career in opera singing – leading to small rifts with Ida and a more profound separation from her mother. As the girls reach adulthood in the late 1930s, it seems the book has set everything in motion for the rest of the novel: Ida is married to Len Bushell, she’s preggo and finally about to start a family of her own; Nora’s at a conservatorium in Melbourne, her singing having brought her wide acclaim and a ticket to a different life on the mainland, and she’s fallen in love with one of her tutors, the seductive Marco.

Forgive me for being a dunce, but I figured the rest of the novel was going to be about Ida raising rosy-cheeked babes in the dewy mists of Tasmania, planting her bulbs and scouring her pots while listening to an operatic coloratura on the gramophone. And Nora would wed Marco in the spring, continue swanning around the conservatorium in a sparkly red dress and then graduate to singing her own coloraturas on the stages of Milan and Vienna and New York, a regular Dame Nellie Melba.

Well, fuck me sideways. This is when the novel decides to punch you right in the guts, and then as you’re keeling over on the bitumen with spittle dangling from your broken jaw, it kicks you in the teeth for good measure.

Everything turns to shit!

At the beginning adult life, just as both girls seem to be on course to get everything they’ve ever wanted, it gets cruelly ripped away from them both. Ida miscarries tragically, and we experience the crushing lows of that. Just in case the author hadn’t beaten us into emotional submission already, Ida miscarries twice more, culminating in a breathtaking scene where she essentially races through a hospital against the Matron’s wishes to see her baby’s dead body. It is horrific.

Meanwhile, Nora’s career is torn from her when she falls pregnant to her tutor, Marco, only to discover he is married and she has been carrying on an illicit affair. The conservatorium is shamed by her female whoreish-ness and gives her the boot – because, in that era, Marco’s affair and her pregnancy are entirely her fault, of course, and in any case, premarital sex is unbecoming of an opera singer. In one fell swoop, Nora loses the love of her life and her dream of being a singer, and is left with a bitter reminder of the life she could have led in Teddy, her first son, and Alf Hill, the stoic miller who agrees to raise Marco’s son as his own.

This cruel irony – that Ida is left childless and aching for children, while Nora pops out three and couldn’t care less – is the source of the tension that drives the rest of the novel forward. Over several decades, the flowers borne from the seeds of this mutual bitterness wreak havoc with their relationships with their husbands, with their mother, with the children, with each other and, most importantly, with their own selves.

Louise Allan has woven a masterful tale here: a piece of realist fiction that offers a crystal-clear window into the traumas that bind and shape a family. Her prose is direct and clean – my favourite kind of prose. Her taut writing is especially effective in the novel’s more emotional scenes (and there are many): she makes more from saying less, and the novel is much stronger for it. The pacing is good, although (and I think this is my only feasible criticism of the novel) I think the first act, before the shit hits the fan, could have been a little shorter; it moved a little slower, whereas parts two and three I read at a cracking pace because the pace of the action was so absorbing. I absolutely loved the strength of Ida’s voice, the gentle humour that lifted the reader through the gaps between the more painful scenes, and the unexpected twists and turns this story takes as the years progress.

TSS folded pages
I told myself I’d fold the corner of the page of The Sisters’ Song each time something powerful happened. It ended up looking like this … (the top is the end of the book)

In fact, what makes this story feel so realistic is that the cruel shifts of fate were not hammered in relentlessly, but rather were spaced out strategically (and rhythmically). This is what happens in most families, I think. There were massive downs: not just the aforementioned traumas, but stuff like the girls’ mother eventually passing away, and Nora’s abuse of her children, their fear of her, her mental illness, and even what happens to Ted and, ultimately, Alf, later in the novel. And possibly the most heartbreaking moment in the novel: Ida racing down the street after the Doctor. Breathtaking.

But for most, family (and life) is not typically a purely harrowing experience, and Allan reflects that so well here. Like any family, there are seasons of joy, brief moments when things seem to be tolerable and perhaps, optimistically, on the upswing. This happens for both girls, whether through Ida being able to care for Nora’s children and pretend they are her own, or Nora later developing a new lease on life and playing the piano for her local church again.

Ultimately, the ebbs and flows of family over a long period of time were so well-drawn here, and as someone with a sprawling Sicilian-Australian family, I really related to that aspect of the novel. I felt like I was peering through a window into another family’s actual life, and there were times when I wondered if maybe Ida and Nora could have been real people back in the day. I could certainly imagine them as real.

Moreover, the novel’s undulations are relatable because, sadly, this is sometimes how life goes. Hopes and dreams can be dashed, and this is one of the cruellest things about being a human being. People’s lives are ultimately marked by how they respond to their own devastation: defeat and surrender, or hope despite the pain, or stoic resilience (resilience being, I think, an underlying theme here, too).

This, actually, is what I feel is the main point of the novel, in a way: how we deal with the damage done to us by life. Both Ida and Nora, and even Len and Alf, are wounded humans, trying to continue on in spite of their own ongoing pain. Mental illness stalks the edges of this story, only being named as such once, really, when Nora is in hospital, but it’s everywhere. Ida suffers terribly from the grief of her miscarriages; Len is deeply hurt by her excursions to the country to take care of Nora’s kids instead of him; Nora’s twice-broken heart (love and career) bleeds all over her life; and Alf …

Man, I feel like I could write a separate essay just about the character of Alf Hill. In some ways, he is the most tragic character in the novel. His moment near the end of the novel absolutely knocked the air out of my lungs: he is a good man and his life is an example of what stoicism can do for men – for better, and for worse. He was very relatable.

Likewise, I found myself relating to Ted as he reached adulthood. It’s not often I read about another seventeen-year-old Italian-Australian who is bookish and angsty and has both an attitude problem and an identity crisis. I became quite fond of him, which I’m not sure was supposed to happen, but I think I am drawn to tragic boys for some reason.

Speaking of relating – I can see why the marketing arm of Allen & Unwin would pitch this kind of fiction to women and mothers, as they would be the primary market that relates to a tale like this. But I want to say here that I related to this story a lot as a young man, and I suspect that gets overlooked in the (entirely necessary) discussion about how to position a title in the market. I’ll admit the specific motherhoody aspects are less relatable for a male audience, for sure – although the amount of times Ida had to scour a pot did successfully put me off ever doing the dishes again. But moreover, so much in this novel – from the mental health stuff, to the resilience, to parental disapproval and family breakdown, to Ted’s angst – is actually quite relatable for a male reader because all this stuff happens to us, too.

Even the prominent role opera music plays in this story resonated with me. I don’t think I know a single opera song, or if calling it an “opera song” is even correct, but as a big fan of rock music I know that my world has been torn open by guitar riffs and solos, and I could relate so much to both Ida and Nora’s relationship to music.

And stuff that is probably meant to be specifically relatable for a female audience can sometimes be entirely universal. A scene early in the novel, where Grandma offers her old red gown to Nora, but not to Ida, struck a very deep chord in me. Not because I am sensitive to the correct handing-down protocol of ancient frocks, but because there is a universality in feeling what Ida felt in that moment: that her family/parent figure did not regard her as the special one; that she was not as loved as her sibling.

This, really, is Louise Allan’s strength in writing: she can take the minutiae of quotidian life and spin up a moment as poignant as an operatic crescendo.

The Sisters’ Song is a triumphant debut novel by a talented West Aussie (and Tasmanian) author. I loved it, and I recommend reading it if you are in possession of a pulse.

Holden

“I’d never join a club that would allow a person like me to become a member”

Both Woody Allen and Groucho Marx are credited with the quote in this blog post’s title, so pick your favourite and it can be attributed to them.

Personally, I’m gonna side with Groucho on this one, only because he’s funny like Eddie Murphy or Tina Fey are funny. Whereas Woody Allen is funny like the-wasted-hobo-screaming-racial-epithets-on-the-street-is-looking-at-me-kinda-funny.

Anyway, all of this is to say I joined a bunch of stuff this week and it makes me feel much more writery. I feel no more cultured and no more intelligent, mind, but I feel like I’m at least doing the stuff that a 21st Century Digital Writer should do (free lamingtons if you get the punk reference).

The first thing I did was join WordPress at last. I knew I’d eventually need to start a damn blog like all the cool writers, but I kept putting it off the way you put off a trip to the dentist. The thought of having to write stuff that wasn’t fiction on a regular basis was literally as frightening to me as a root canal. Or that giant suction tube they stick down your throat. *shudder*

But now that I’m here, I can see that a blog, like brushing my teeth and flossing regularly, is actually pretty good for my health. I think I’m gonna like it here.

Then I joined Goodreads. That is a brand new experience for me, as both a writer and a reader. I’m still getting my head around how massive that site is. Especially how many levels of groups and discussions there must be. I did, however, introduce myself in a thread only to have another user recognise me from Twitter, so that was interesting to see how the social circles for writers must be quite small.

I do have a confession about Goodreads though. When they asked me to review like 20 books before I could continue to the next step, I randomly clicked on stuff that I *thought* would be okay. As in, I hadn’t actually read some of them. I thought The Martian by Andy Weir was probably a good book since the movie, uh, was a big deal and had Matt Damon in it. I didn’t realise this shit was going on my permanent record! Like, everyone can see it. So I’ve now had to go back and unrate all these rando novels because the guilt was just too much. (NB: This is what being raised Catholic can do to you.)

Last of all, as I’m *ahem* a full member of the Australian Society of Authors, I set up my new member portfolio on their website. It’s actually incredibly schmicko and looks ace. It’s an excellent, brief summary of my background, publishing history and credits, and my relevant skill set. The best thing is, employers can find me, so if they’ve got some doubloons to ditch at a penniless author at some point in the future, I might just be that author! Check it out here – and if you’re an Aussie author, get yourself signed up for one of these bad boys.

So it’s been a week of joining all these gnarly new platforms. Now I gotta start bloody well using them. 😀

‘Cause I’m a 21st Century Digital Boy

I don’t know how to get published but I’ve got a lot of online platforms …

 

 

 

Review: Secret Men’s Business by John Marsden

As a teenager I was so ashamed of reading this book, I hid it with my porn stash.

Whoa, did this book have an incredible impact on me as a kid.

When you’re a teenage boy, there are so many things you want to ask about being a bloke. secret men's business cover

You want to ask your dad, your brothers, your cousins, even your mates – but you don’t, because this is a verboten topic. You’re expected to know how to become a man without ever talking about it – because to talk about being a man means you must still be a boy, and the last thing a teenage boy wants to be called is a boy and not a man.

I remember finding Secret Men’s Business in the town library and being fascinated that a man had actually sat down and written all of this for us boys to just pick up and learn what we wanted to know. What an absolute champion. Marsden’s book tackled a wide range of topics, from the emotional to the sexual and highly visceral – the stuff you really couldn’t talk about with your dad. It was a thrilling, captivating read and it hit the mark.

My most vivid memory of the book is of hiding it. I don’t think my parents or anyone else knew I was reading it. I only read it in bed, after everyone in the house was asleep. It was hidden in a secret place in my bedroom. In fact, I hid it where I hid my porn magazines, and I would have probably had the same reaction if either item had been unwittingly found. There was a shame that came with reading this – because I felt like I should have already known it all: that manly wisdom should arrive via osmosis or telepathy, not from a book.

But despite that, I was still compelled to read this book. I had to know all the secret stuff about being a man – the stuff that nobody talked about. This book had it all. And I felt better once I’d finished it. I was less insecure; more confident. This book helped shape me as a man. It also helped shape me as a writer. I wanted to incorporate some of these themes, some of this masculine wisdom, some of this unabashed honesty, into my fiction – if I could find a way to do it well, of course.

John Marsden found a niche with this excellent book, and I’m so glad, because it changed my life for the better.

Holden

What I Learned From Failing NaNoWriMo

So, I failed.

In November 2016, I set myself the challenge of writing 50,000 words of a novel in one month – thirty friggin days! – as part of National Novel Writing Month, or as it is better known, NaNoWriMo.dane swan fail - Copy (2)

Three times before, I’ve hulk-smashed this challenge like no-one’s business.

In 2009 and 2011, I belted out the final book of a fanfiction series I’d been writing since I was a teenager. It was a huge sense of achievement to complete something I first set my mind to at the age of 13. That work was never designed to go further; it just tied the bow on that green-stemmed part of my journey as a writer. In those NaNoWriMos, I even posted on Facebook saying the 50K limit was “too easy”. (2016 me wants to strangle 2011 me. YOU KNOW NOTHING, JON SNOW!)

In 2014, I tackled the first draft of my first real proper grown-up honest-to-God NOVEL. Again, I hit 50K. And I spent the following December and January clattering on the keyboard like a possessed monkey until I completed that first draft.

NaNoWriMo has given me some of the most exhilarating, rewarding, exhausting days of my life thus far. My past attempts were characterised by pulling all-nighters as I fuelled myself with bucketloads of black coffee (usually instant … love me some bitter, cheap-arse Nescafe …) punctuated by (far too) frequent smoke breaks. Sheer determination to not be a failure of a writer – which is all I felt I was at that point – drove me to keep putting words on the page until I met that goal.

But my attempt at NaNoWriMo this year ended in failure. My word count maxed out at 18,126 words. I didn’t even make it halfway there. Jon Bon Jovi is gonna be pissed.

I could list reasons as to why this happened, but for someone who hates to fail at anything, any reason will sound like an excuse. And I don’t like excuses.

The truth of the matter is this: it hurts. It hurts to fail.

Of course, the sharp sear of failure isn’t a new feeling. I wasn’t born yesterday and I haven’t had a privileged or sheltered or easy life. Like my fellow meta-humans – er, humans – I fail all the time, but I usually fail at other stuff. And those day-to-day fuck ups bother me less because they aren’t linked to the glowing talisman that buoys me through my quotidian routines – which is writing.

And failing at a writing challenge feels like I’m failing at the thing I was born to do.

(Incidentally, I’ve used the word failure a lot in this post, but I can’t think of a decent synonym for this context other than échec, which is French and won’t make any sense, and fuck-up, which isn’t quite right. Microsoft Word is suggesting I use catastrophe, fiasco or miscarriage, which seems pretty savage for a piece of software. Shut up, Word. Maybe I need to invent a politically correct neologism for failure to bubble-wrap my feelings. I’m success-challenged. No, better yet, success-diverse.)

It’s been nearly two weeks since NaNoWriMo ended, and I’ve been thinking about what I can take away from my 2016 misfire (there we go). The sting of defeat is only useful if you learn from it, after all.

So, what have I learned? Four things:

1) I need to make more time. My mantra for the past couple of years has been: “You don’t find time to write a novel. You make time.” I firmly believe this, and I’ve made time over the last two years to work on my writing. But I didn’t make time this November. On the contrary, I filled it up with work and other stuff – and I won’t make excuses (insert teeth grinding sound) but some of it wasn’t avoidable. I didn’t make enough time, so I didn’t write enough.

2) I need to fuel up. My hectic month didn’t lend itself to input, and output-only mode is not sustainable for a writer. As little time as I had to write, I had even less – none – to top up my tank. Good writing is fuelled by two things: life experience and imagination, which is spurred on by vicarious experience – reading books. I didn’t make time to live or to read. These things are vital to producing work as a writer.

3) I need to acknowledge the successes as well as the failures. Ultimately, writing 18,126 words in a busy month is better than writing zero words because I foresaw a hectic time and didn’t give it a bash at all. And writing at the rate I did, I would finish the first draft of this second novel in five or six months, which is actually not bad at all. I need to stop self-flagellating over my perceived disappointments and realise just how much I’ve achieved.

4) I need to go easy on myself because life can be a bastard. Sometimes life throws you a curve ball. And sometimes it likes to throw a dozen at you, all at the same time, just to fuck up your sense of balance. And it usually does this just around the time when you look around all wide-eyed and go, “Hey, things aren’t going too badly right now.” BAM. Life enters. And that means plans don’t always work out. I just have to adapt and adjust and keep moving towards the real goal – which was never to finish my second novel in a month, really. It was to finish my second novel. As long as I keep doing that, I’m on track.

I’m ultimately proud of my failure this month. Not because it’s fun (yay! I suck!) but because it has galvanised my resolve, made me more determined than ever, and made me keen not to repeat the same mistakes next year – which means I will be making changes in my approach come January.

2017 is going to be an epic year in a lot of ways. I can’t wait to get started.

Holden

“So, what’s the go with your book?”

Being decently vocal about working on a novel (okay, really vocal), I’ve been fielding this question for some time. It comes in various forms. “So, what’s the go with your book?” “Are you published yet?” “Will you sign a copy for me?” “Do I get a copy for Christmas?” and the perennial favourite, “Fuck’s sake, are you still not done?”frodo 2

Given it’s been two years since I began writing my work-in-progress (and just over a year since I last posted anything concrete about it), I thought it was time for an actual update. In October 2015 I posted a ludicrously inaccurate meme of Frodo Baggins against the backdrop of the flames of Mount Doom. “It’s done!” poor exhausted Frodo – and poor exhausted me – declared.

I’d finished the second draft of my first novel. A day or two later I printed the manuscript and made some reference to it being corporeal. Well, it was corporeal alright, but it was still a hot mess, and at 140,000 words it was a gigantic slab of text no publisher would look at from a first-time novelist.

I won’t belittle the sense of achievement that second draft offered me. In keeping with the Middle Earth references, the first draft was both exciting and daunting, but it was like The Fellowship of the Ring, where the landscape is still fresh and green and everyone’s swanning around that elf palace and nobody’s really died yet.

Conversely, the second draft was like taking my hairy bare feet on a months-long trek over the savage hot stones of Mordor while a murderous Gollum taunted me. It hurt. I fell down. I failed. I gave up half way through and had to put it aside for a few months. My brain told me I sucked. I frequently believed it. Then I got up and kept writing while I gnashed my teeth.

So finishing that second draft felt like I’d reached the summit at long last. But in the coming weeks and months, I realised it was more like one of those adventure movies where the heroes crest a sand dune in the desert and see a thousand more dunes ahead, each as dry and desperate as the last.

I had to keep working. After giving myself a couple of months to be a human being again, I began a third draft in early 2016. That one was bloody hard work. I erased some characters from existence. I deleted entire plotlines. For the first time, the manuscript seemed to be taking proper shape.

Then came the real learning curve. I applied for a mentorship with the Australian Society of Authors, and was successfully paired up with an experienced editor. Actually, that undersells her: my mentor was an absolute gun editor – a former commissioning editor at one of Australia’s major publishing houses and a legend of the Australian publishing landscape. She was also the editor of one of my favourite novels of all time, which may have resulted in some incidental fanboying on my part.

And she liked my manuscript. She really liked it.

But that pleased and stung me in equal measure. Like wasn’t good enough. I needed this manuscript to be great, not just good.

So I worked with my mentor for the better part of five months. There were emails and phone calls and Skype calls. Microsoft Word track changes became my bread and butter. I worked during the day then came home and smashed away on the laptop like a monkey at a typewriter. It was gruelling work. I was constantly overtired and irritable, and I’d quit smoking, so I was occasionally ready to kill.

During 2016, my mentor guided me through my fourth, fifth and sixth drafts. At a glacial pace, my manuscript got better and better. I feel like I grew up during the mentorship. Despite having a couple of short stories published and an Honours degree in writing behind me, this was the first real developmental edit I’d had to help me become a novelist. And it was one of the most worthwhile things I’d ever done.

To supplement the mentorship, I also spent the remainder of my ArtStart grant money on a whole series of PD sessions: mostly webinars, some pre-recorded, some live. I heard directly from published authors, agents, editors and publishers. I immersed myself in blogs, website subscriptions, magazines and mailing lists. I learned about the Australian publishing landscape. I learned about the American market. I learned where my manuscript would fit among it all.

In early October, I finally had a polished and completed sixth draft. My final Skype call with my mentor told me everything I needed to know: she loved it now. And I loved it, too. The novel was in great shape. It was lean and mean at 112,000 words, and we were both proud of it. The action was high octane, thrilling, explosive. The characters were well-drawn, realistic, and worked well together. The plot made sense. The voice was unforgettable. The narrative was finally singing like I wanted it to.

My final step was to seek a copy edit from a reputable editing service over east. This was to tidy things up: fix typos and grammar and syntax, flag continuity problems, and so on. It was due back in early November, but I received the edited manuscript three weeks early, with a note from the editor: she’d loved it so much she’d taken her laptop to bed to keep reading it, hence the rapid turnaround.

And so, exactly two years since I began this novel, I find myself in the final throes of editing my seventh draft. Namely, this is going through and reviewing all the track changes the copy editor made. I have one scene to edit significantly; most of the rest is grammatical and stylistic. Apparently I have beaten the comma to within an inch of its life (kind of the way J.K. Rowling used/abused the semi-colon, but less elegantly). I need to do some hardcore comma purging.

What’s next? Well, once that’s done, that Frodo Baggins meme will actually be applicable. I will be done. My manuscript will be as finished as I can make it. And it will be time to seek publication for my debut novel.

But a novelist doesn’t make a career from one book (well, except for Harper Lee). There’s no rest planned. I’m about to start work on my second novel. I’m trying my hand at a thriller. Further up and further in.

So that’s the go with my book. And while there won’t be copies flung around as povo Christmas presents this year, I can say this with confidence: Yep, once it’s released, I will totally sign a copy for you.

Holden