A Sentimental Thief

The perfect book for me is one that reads like a film. But I should preface this by saying that my tastes in music, television and books are all pretty similar. I like to be taken to dark places.

front-cover-9780778315865-copyAveril Dean’s debut book, Alice, Close Your Eyes is aptly titled, because there are things in this book that will make you want to close your eyes.

If it were a movie, it would be an erotic psychological thriller in the tradition of film noir, and Lana Del Rey’s Born to Die would be the soundtrack.

Stay with me.

Alice presents as a woman who has everything. She’s financially independent in her own right. Street smart. At ease with the night and, admittedly, nursing an odd break and enter obsession.

We’re gripped from the first page as she runs her gloved fingertips over the well placed furniture of her latest target’s house, looking for the box containing treasures “of no value to anyone but me and the guy who collected them.”

A guy, we soon find out, whom she intends to seduce.

But what would drive such a woman to seek out a liaison with someone she already knows to be a dangerous man?

The need for an answer to this question drives us, along with Jack, into a rapid spiral of darkness that has us hooked to the last page.

There’s a sense of detachment as you read, that gets ever more chilling as you realise the reasons why Alice does the things she does.

Del Rey’s lyrics haunted me all the way through this book.

“You’re not good for me, but baby I want you, I want you…”

From the James Dean figure in Blue Jeans, to the crazy Ride Alice takes with him, it’s all there. The need to self-destruct.

A ceiling high painting of the raven on its perch, the rabbity pink of the albino’s blue eyes, the strawberry red spots of blood in snow are clues along the way, to a story unfolding like a Del Rey clip.

A chic, gritty, twisted paradise.

Alice may not be the one who pulls the trigger, but she is certainly the one holding the gun.

She is far from passive. She is a woman so much in control that even she doesn’t realise how much she craves letting go. Handing it over to someone bigger and more powerful. And she has good reason to want to.

She has the kind of history you like to think doesn’t happen to real people. Though you know it does. And that in itself is disturbing.

Alice is not just a woman on a mission for revenge or scary kinky sex. She’s a woman seeking to reclaim what was lost in childhood. A sentimental thief, in more ways than one.

The things Alice does are not pretty. But they are understandable. And this book neither redeems, nor judges. It simply bids us take a ride in Alice’s shoes.

Her story taps in to the nihilism of our present day world – the one Del Rey inhabits. It’s what happens when you get the dream that you’ve been living for, only to realise – too late – it wasn’t quite what you imagined it to be.

Alice’s world is a microcosm of what ails our society – the things we like to close our eyes to, which is another reason why this book makes for a compelling read.

As Del Rey says in the opening to her clip, “it takes getting everything you ever wanted, and then losing it, to know what true freedom is.”

Alice, Close Your Eyes is a film waiting to happen. You can picture every frame of it. And you can’t stop yourself from looking, even when you know it’s going to hurt.

If you want to take a ride on the dark side, then this book is for you.

Do you read to escape, immerse or be confronted? What does it for you, as a reader?

2014. Let’s Go!

So 2014 has powered on, oddly indifferent to my wish to turn back time.

I feel like I am starting off where I was last year, and 2013 was an anomaly, a jump in the track, one giant *bleep* to

‘Let’s start over, shall we?’

This is a year for coming to one’s senses. Starting with a resolution to combat a certain DVD addiction by reading one book for every program watched.

My inspiration for this comes from Nina Badzin, who reminded me that, once upon a fairytale ago, I used to be a member of the “Society of Late Night Readers”. I wanted in again.

But, as she so rightly pointed out, new year resolutions take more than a vague intention just to ‘read more books’.

In the spirit of ‘doing’ instead of ‘dreaming’, let me introduce you to a deliciously irreverent Australian writer.

Mr Harry Pants (or iPants as he’s known on the blog) promised me “a crazy, stupid love story”.

midlife-front-cover-300wide2

What I got was a swift trip through the divorce induced midlife crisis of a tragically endearing Wallace.

He’s an old dog who doesn’t really want to learn new tricks, or meet bald rats, or encounter the sharp end of his gardener’s… Well anyway.

Life has a funny way of making us do things we don’t want to do, to find out what we DO.

The story is LOL funny in an Aussie, oh-so-wrong, politically incorrect way.

But if you can (ahem) swallow all of that you will find a vulnerable, honest, touching tale of humanity in a world designed for cyborgs.

Three words.

Irreverent. Uplifting. Life-changing.

When I read Midlife, in Wallace’s words, “I had that feeling I was falling behind, too slow for my life as it unfolded before me”.

That was right before we both threw back a large shot of scotch.

And decided – time to wake up and get on with it!

There’s a video nearing completion (sing hallelujah), a blog somewhere in the imaginary phase of a major design overhaul, a toy dog size series yelping at me to be freed from digital dust mites.

LSAH-Pepi

You may find me a little quieter than usual while I do all that. But in the meantime, I hope you will be brave and take a little trip with Wallace.

You can find Midlife here, and word has it the price has been reduced to 99 cents just for you.

Ready. Set. Let’s Go!

What’s in store for you in 2014?

Anchoring the Happy

Accidents happen every day.  Just before Easter, a gust of wind caused a wall in Melbourne to collapse, crushing a brother and sister, aged 18 and 19, and another 30 year old woman.

People with their lives ahead of them.  Gone forever, leaving in their wake a wide network of grief stricken family and friends.

I’m fortunate never to have experienced this kind of grief.  But even the momentary unexplained absence of a loved one is enough to provoke the terrifying “What if?” of unexpected loss.

This is a central theme to Coleen Patrick’s debut YA novel, Come Back to Me.

ComeBackToMEWhitney is a young senior a semester away from graduation.  Her parent’s golden child, she has a scholarship and a bright future ahead of her, filled with happy, a best-friend and a bucket list…

At least, that’s how it was.  Before.  Before the accident that turned what should have been a momentary rift…into one big “morning after hangover” of regret and unresolved grief.

Come Back to Me is a story that explores the tough issue of grieving for someone who’s left you on bad terms.  It’s about forgiveness, letting go, and finding your path back to happy.

The topic is dark, yet Coleen infuses the story with a sense of humour and hope.  It’s perhaps her own experience holding onto happiness that shines through.

Coleen is no stranger to grief.  She lost her brother to a brain aneurysm, aged 31.  It was sorting through the pages of his life via his journal that she found the courage to write again.

“Life is for enjoying,” he wrote.
“Write, damn you. Write! Anything, something, Please!”

So write she does.

Last year she managed 72 blog posts, drafts on three different stories, and final edits on Come Back to Me.

Frankly, I’m in awe.

But there are other challenges, too.

For the past couple of years, Coleen has been struggling to find answers to a cocktail of unsettling health symptoms – neck pain, short term memory loss and nerve numbness.  “Kind of like trying to find Waldo”, she jokes.

Only when the doctors find Waldo, he turns out to be an ‘idiopathic’ neurological disease for which there are no real explanations or solutions.

What might be enough to propel me under the covers for good, Coleen greets with her usual sweet stoicism.

Honey soaked challah.

“A little sweet can go a long way,” she says.
“Just the idea of it offers up HOPE”.

There’s a scene in Come Back to Me where Whitney, as part of her rehabilitation, has to climb a rock wall.  She’s encouraged to see each carabineer as a clip that grounds her to the happy moments of her journey.

rockclimb

“What would I ‘clip’ in place as my anchor in order to move onwards and upwards?” she asks herself.

This is what inspires me about Coleen and her writing.  Whether it’s honey dipped challah or ladybugs, it’s the sweet little things behind her self-confessed smiley addiction that power her forward momentum… 🙂 .

I ask her about the motivation behind her story.

When my brother died, that grief was very normal. It was shared and acknowledged. That experience made me think of times in my life when I’d felt a pain that wasn’t shared. Something I’m sure everyone has felt, but not everyone knows what to do with.

Many years ago, during a lecture in college, a history professor of mine said something along the lines of – you can’t help what you feel, but you can help what you do about those feelings. This has always stuck with me. I think it’s empowering, because it gives you permission to feel and then the opportunity to choose – even if that first step is simply acknowledging that your feelings are real. That opportunity allows room for hope – and hope is another part of the story’s inspiration 🙂 .

ladybug

Come Back to Me is available now on Amazon, Smashwords, Barnes & Noble, Apple i-Bookstore and Kobo.  Also, if you’re looking for a daily dose of smiles, I encourage you to check out Coleen’s blog.

What keeps you anchored to your happy?

Born like a Bug…

There’s nothing quite like the first autumn rains in the Antipodes to get you in the mood for cosy.  Lying in bed with a book and a blanket, and reigniting one’s love affair with words.

It reminds me of a book I bought for my niece.

It’s the kind of book that you can pick up and feel the scratchiness of wool, smell its musky dampness and be taken back to those cosy afternoons around the pot belly, when Grandma taught you to crotchet.

But that’s beside the point.

One of the karmic traits passed down through my family is a trademark shyness.  Even my niece, little G, who is the talkative one of the bunch, sometimes forgets to speak.

Like the day we visited the Frankston Creepy Crawlies Sand Sculpture Exhibition.

The kids were busy, making art of multi-coloured sand, and I spotted G, eyes boring holes into a group of girls.

“Sweetheart, say hello to the girls,” I say.  They look at her expectantly, then frown, affronted, as she gives them another once over and runs away.

It’s that moment you remember your own discomfort around strangers, growing up.  How do you break the curse?

BugsinablanketBugs in a Blanket, written and illustrated by Beatrice Alemagna, is an endearing, original book about a community of bugs who live in a mouldy blanket at the bottom of the garden.

They have an opportunity to meet for the first time when they are invited to Fat Bug’s birthday party.

From the moment Fat Bug opens his burrow to welcome his guests, he is confronted by the fact that not one of his guests looks at all like him.

Tongue tied and exasperated, he triggers a line of questions passed from bug to bug, each accusing the other of being weird and ugly.

When the circle is complete, all bug eyes are boring into him.  Why is he fat like a hippopotamus?

It’s a comical moment, when Fat Bug realises what a stupid question he has asked.

His answer reverberates with a domino effect around the burrow.

“I don’t know, I was born this way,” they all begin to say.  And with that, the bugs get on their freak and start to dance…

Actually, the book was published before the song, so maybe that’s where Mother Monster got her inspiration from – a few wee little bugs boogieing in a blanket 😉

The message is as simple as a smile.  At least, if we’re going to share this musty old blanket, we might as well accept each other’s differences.  Starting with ourselves.

Do you have a trademark freakishness?  When was the last time you let it loose?

Love. Unconventional.

Love is a hot topic, this week.  But, if you’re anything like me, mention of Valentine’s Day tends to bring on that sweaty-palmed feeling – for all the wrong reasons.

How are you supposed to distil what someone means to you in one day, or one gift, or a few scribbled words on a card?

Any other day I could spontaneously cook a fine meal, or buy some special music or write a piece of poetry.  But when I’m expected to say ‘This is how I feel?’

It’s times like these I turn to the allegorical tale for answers.

Following through on my promise last week, my Valentine’s share is a story on Love. Unconventional.

the-lion-who-wanted-to-loveThe Lion Who Wanted to Love, by Giles Andreae and David Woitowycz, is a rhyming tale about Leo – a cub expelled from his pride on account of his tendency to hug, instead of hunt, other animals.

I am a vegetarian, so of course the story appealed to me.  But the true magic has nothing to do with that at all!

In the wild jungle, Leo finds himself rescuing young antelopes, injured giraffes and thirsty hippos.  He wins them over with his love – and in return, they feed him.

We won’t analyse what it is they feed him – wild berries, I presume.  But the power of the story is demonstrated by one simple principle.

It is in giving freely of himself, without expectation of return, that Leo wins the loyalty and support of his friends.

When Leo gets into trouble, they are there to rescue him, and his family finally see the value of his loving ways.  In the end, he is crowned king of the pride!

Accompanied by colourful and endearing illustrations, the verse slips off the tongue – and if you prefer to listen than read, there is also a CD.

The book has been a big hit with my nephews for some years now.  The eldest must have taken the message to heart, because one birthday he started giving away his gifts to thank his friends for coming to his party!

Luckily, he doesn’t yet know what really happens when a lion befriends an antelope in the wild… 😦

Personally, I’m going with the make believe version – but not just because it’s warm and fuzzy.

Sometimes, Love – well, it’s bigger than we are.  No matter how we try, it won’t be boxed into a neat little package with a bow on it.

And that’s okay.

I don’t know about you, but I feel better already.

How important is Valentine’s Day to you? Any tips for those of us who struggle to express ourselves?

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If you haven’t already, pick up a copy of the first three e-books of the Hello Pepi Series – available on Amazon.  It’s all about the love

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Once Upon a Child…

Until I was about twenty one, I spent most of my life without television.  Growing up, I was convinced this was a form of child abuse.

Though we did have a black and white TV for a few years when I was a kid, it sat in the corner with a cloth over it – a mostly forbidden delight.

My entertainment came in the form of records and books, and even then, the repertoire was limited to a revolving loop of favourites.

There were Uncle Arthur’s Bedtime and Bible stories and the Little Golden Books.

Songs, like This Old Man and The Old Lady who Swallowed a Fly, that are still burned in my brain.

As I grew older, I practically learned by heart The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.  Devoured my way through Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys and the Famous Five.  Read, on repeat, a few classics, like Jane Eyre.

On the odd occasion, when the folks weren’t home, I’d sneak a peak at Disney’s cartoons.  Though my favourite forbidden pleasure was those little possessed puppets down at Fraggle Rock.

Instead of wide, I learned to read deep – and, perhaps because my influences were so few, their impact stands out vividly.

As an adult, I’m clearly not over it.  Ever since I became an aunt, I’ve found myself indulging my inner deprived child with things meant for much younger minds.

I spend hours in the kids’ section of bookstores, utterly breath taken and unable to choose.

Wall-E and Fraggle Rock  have somehow made it into my private DVD collection.

Then there are those CDs I meant to give my nephews and niece – Pure Imagination, by Michael Feinstein and, ahem, Schnappi und Seine Freunde.

People think I’m strange.  Adults aren’t supposed to like this stuff.  Right?

As we get older, we learn to put things in their place.  Categorise and label our lives into neat unrelated boxes.  Kids.  Grownups.  Play.  Work.  Fantasy.  Reality.

There’s this prevailing view that to understand children, you must be a parent.  As though adulthood automatically divorces us from our past.

When Maurice Sendak died, I read an article about his life and work.  Of course, I can’t find the exact one now, but the part that struck me was the motivation behind his writing.

He never forgot what it was like to be a child.

Pop psychology is always urging us to get in touch with our inner child.  So if you ask me, reading children’s books is the perfect self-help therapy.

Allegorical tales cut through all the outer complications and connect with the inner emotional reality of our lives.  They give form to demons that haunt our dreams.  Help us to imagine ways to deal with them.

Pepi's First Things

Mona and Pepi – from Book 2 in the Hello Pepi Series

If in any doubt, do a Google search on ‘Inner Child’.  There’s even an IMDb list made for “people whose inner child still exists”.

This is opposed to a search for ‘Adult Fairy Tales’ that will take the whole topic way beyond PG.  But that’s beside the point.

Since I like to read them, and I also like to write them, in the coming weeks, I’ll be introducing you to some of the children’s stories that captivate my imagination.

I’m calling it self-help.  You can call it research, and use your kids as an excuse if you prefer 😉

Do you like kids’ stories and fairy tales?  What were your favourites as a child?

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If you haven’t already, check out the first three e-books of the Hello Pepi Series – available at Amazon:

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The Stories that We Tell

On Monday, I went to see Life of Pi, the film.  As I haven’t yet read the book, I didn’t know what to expect.

But from the opening scene to the end, I was drawn in to a beautiful, magical tale about the art of storytelling itself.  About our place within a grander narrative – that space where the line between fiction and reality is blurred.

Following on from last week’s theme, I can’t seem to let it go.

In 2003, I had my first attempt at visual storytelling.  My mother and her twin were turning sixty.  And along with organising a weekend getaway for both our families, I decided I would make a video.

The timing was terrible.  I’d just handed in the final assessment for the Bachelor of Arts I took too seriously.  Negotiating with my long lost cousins had turned into a circus.  And my personal relationships were a mess.

On the drive down, my mind was anywhere but on the drive.  Somehow I had turned off the main highway on a road to who-knows-where and was collected by a car through a roundabout.

It could have been fatal.  But apart from a bit of whiplash, luckily neither of us were hurt.

The weekend was a train wreck, as far as I was concerned.

While the family carried on as though nothing had happened, the best I could manage was to tremble absentmindedly behind camera.

Back home, as I trawled through hours of shaky footage, a story started to take shape.

Twins

Mum (right) and her twin sister

Two sisters, separated by a stretch of sea between Melbourne and Tasmania, reunited with their families for the first time in years.

Slowly the sequence of events started to be rearranged.  Hours reduced to moments, obscuring memory.

Awkward empty laughter became witty repartee.

The disgruntled old fellas turned kindly and ineffectual.

Some things were left out.

The part where no one prepared their speeches.

The pained expression on my mother’s face upon hearing how her sister is the “Mum away from Mum.”

Activities and chores that in reality dragged now speed by to the “Flight of the Bumblebee“.

Rare moments of affection, old photos and a child’s lopsided grin slow to the sound of a collective heartfelt tune.

“My island home, my island home
My island home, is waiting for me…”

Neil Murray
covered by Christine Anu

Somehow, a melange of a family reunion is turned into a nostalgic longing for our place of origin – for home and belonging.

By the end of the edit, even I am moved!

What I didn’t expect was that ten years on, the video would become the stuff of family legend.  Apparently, my little cousins (even the new ones) still watch it every time they visit their gran.

Little surprise, then, that they want to do it all over again for the impending 70th.

I’m a little worried about their expectations.  I feel like I made a propaganda film.  Will they be disappointed when they see our family for what it truly is?

But what is that, exactly?

At the end of Life of Pi, we are presented with two possibilities for the story that was told – a realist version, and the magical tale.  In either case, the essential elements of the story remain the same.  So we are left with a choice.

Reality, or the story that elevates reality to a place of understanding?

Surely this is the point – to understand each other from the stories that we tell…

“The world isn’t just the way it is. It is how we understand it, no? And in understanding something, we bring something to it, no?

Doesn’t that make life a story?”

– Pi Patel, Life of Pi by Yann Martel

What do you prefer? Fact or fiction? Should we write grand narratives, or are they all a lie?

Orchid Children and the Power of Quiet

My brother and I were sitting in my living room one day, discussing his little cherub.

By the age of 3, he was already a great conversationalist, and by age 7 had lists of families he wanted to invite for Sunday brunch.  My nephew’s Sundays involve more socialising than I do in a month, and that is to say nothing of his after school activities.

Luckily for him, this child is no introvert, because suddenly my brother blurted out:

“I would hate to have a quiet kid,” he laughs, “Imagine that, sitting there, reading all his little books and doing all his homework – I couldn’t think of anything worse!”

Right at that moment, the chasm between my brother and I couldn’t have been wider.  I mean, he basically just described my entire childhood, so I’m tipping I wasn’t his ideal kind of sis….

Fast forward a couple of years, and imagine my delight when, in the middle of some Amazon research, I click on a cover entitled Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain.

This may be old news already – it was Amazon’s best book of the month in January this year.  But the book is profound enough for me to want to share it anyway…

All these years, while I was whining about being misunderstood, Susan Cain was going to the trouble of researching and writing an eloquent paper on the plight of us quieter types.

This is not an objective review.  As Hallie Sawyer points out in her post on reviews vs recommendations, that would involve a degree of impartiality when, actually, I’d already decided the book was great based on its cover.  Having now read it, permit me to make a bold recommendation:

Everyone in the ‘Western’ world should read this book.

The stunning thing about it is the clear and intricate story Susan Cain weaves through an array of otherwise complex studies.  It includes:

  • An historical analysis of the “extrovert ideal” in America, revealing ways in which it may have failed introverts and, by extension, their society.
  • A look at the distinction between shyness, sensitivity and introversion, allowing for a wide variance on the introvert/extrovert continuum.
  • A helpful questionnaire for those who don’t know where they sit (if you answered ‘True’ to all questions as I did, you are one of the unlucky ones).

But two chapters stand out for me.

One is her analysis of cultural differences in extroversion.  While trying to avoid fixed lines between East and West, Susan finally explained to me some reasons why I’ve always found myself gravitating towards people of ‘other cultures’.

Apparently, it’s not just about cultural cringe 🙂

More revealing still is the chapter that explores the role of biology and environment in forming temperament.  It highlights profound differences in the way extroverts and introverts process ‘stimuli’.

This means, amazingly enough, there is actual science behind the fact that I’m not into Friday night bar crawls!

The great news is it’s not the end of the world for those of us born with more ‘reactive’ or ‘introverted’ temperaments.

We are “more like orchids: they wilt easily, but under the right conditions can grow strong and magnificent”.

The place Susan arrives at is a beautiful balance between nature and nurture – and a highly empowering statement.

For me personally, it is all the more empowering for the way that we are left with the feeling that being a little quieter, or slower, or less social than others is not a crime.  In fact, we’re needed just the way we are.

Yes, Susan Cain is critical of a cultural imbalance towards extroversion.  But she’s not the enemy of extroverts (and nor am I, in case you’re wondering).  We simply would not survive without the buzz of our near and dearest extroverts.

And therein lies the key to the power of this book.  What we are left with is a refreshing guide for harmonious relationships, making clear the onus is on both us ‘types’ to make it work.

Thankfully, this also includes tips for parents with my brother’s ‘worst nightmare’ type of child.  So should Karma ever bring him an orchid child, instead of just smiling smugly, I can at least buy him a copy of Susan Cain’s book 😉

For those of you who are – or know – an orchid child, maybe this resonates?  Feel free to share some stories, or tips on how to help them bloom…