AWW2015: Rupetta by Nike Sulway

Rupetta

Four hundred years ago, in a small town in rural France, a young woman creates the future in the shape of Rupetta. Part mechanical, part human, Rupetta’s consciousness is tied to the women who wind her. In the years that follow she is bought and sold, borrowed, forgotten and revered. By the twentieth century, the Rupettan four-fold law rules everyone’s lives, but Rupetta—the immortal being on whose existence and history those laws are based—is the keeper of a secret that will tear apart the world her followers have built in her name. The closeness between women is mirrored in the relationship between Henri and Miri, a woman at the college with whom she fall in love, and also between mothers and daughters and grandmothers and granddaughters – a heritage of affection that loops down over the centuries.


 

This review is presented as part of my commitment in the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2015.  I purchased this book.


In 2013, Nike Sulway won the Tiptree Award for her novel Rupetta, becoming the first Australian to win the award.  Rupetta was also shortlisted for the Aurealis award for best science fiction novel, and won the Norma K. Hemming Award in 2014.

I purchased an ebook of Rupetta soon after the Tiptree win, and it was left lingering in my virtual to-be-read pile for too long (along with way too many books).  This year, I’m trying to make inroads into reading through my to-be-read mountains, and Rupetta was a good place to start.

And I am now kicking myself for not reading it sooner.  I actually almost wasn’t going to write a full review of this book, simply because I wasn’t certain that anything I could write would truly reflect how achingly beautiful this book is.  I fell deep in love with Sulway’s extraordinary prose from the first page, and deeper still with Rupetta, Henri and their world.  As soon as I finished the ebook, I hunted down a physical copy as well, just so I can have this gorgeous book on my shelf.

This book isn’t going to be for every reader.  The prose is dense, oftentimes reading more like poetry than anything else, and the storyline isn’t linear.  Each chapter feels very much as though it is a cog in part of a grand machine, like Rupetta herself.  I feel very much that this is a book that will benefit from much reading and rereading in order to see the full pattern of that machine.

Women are the central focus of this book.  Rupetta was created by a woman, and requires a psychic bond with a female Wynder in order to run.  Generation through generation we follow the Wynders, each of their stories unique and compelling.  Their bond to Rupetta, and Rupetta’s very existence, shapes the society around them.

The story is told in alternating chapters, one from Rupetta’s point of view following her history, and the next from Henri’s point of view.  Henri longs to be an Obanite Historian like her mother, to be Transformed by having her heart replaced with a clockwork version.  We follow with her as she rebels against her father’s wishes and enrols.  As she delves deeper into history, she discovers more about the truth of Rupetta and the Obanites, as well as of her mother’s life.

None of the magic in this world is explained – not how Rupetta came to be, not how Rupetta bonds with her Wynders.  I suspect this will frustrate some readers, but for me, the mystery of it only added to the enchantment of the book.  My only real issue is that the ending didn’t quite draw together completely, but I feel that the sheer beauty of Sulway’s writing and the strength of the world and main characters more than makes up for this.

Sulway writes in an elaborate filigree which is not quite like anything else I’ve read.  The closest I can come is comparing her to authors like Catherynne M. Valente and Sophia Samatar.  Rupetta is fully deserving of the awards it has won, and I look forward to Sulway’s future books.

 

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Some recommendations for writers, especially short story writers

First, this is somewhat relevant to the panel I was on at Swancon about what makes a good short story, today’s daily writing kick from David Farland which discusses how to judge a story.  And for anyone who’s trying to work their way up in the writing field, I can highly recommend subscribing to David Farland’s daily kicks emails.

Second, something I actually meant to mention on that panel was Forever magazine, a reprint-only magazine recently launched by Neil Clarke (of Clarkesworld).  I’ve been a long-time subscriber of Clarkesworld and subscribed to Forever when it first came out.  And I have been utterly astonished at the brilliance of the stories that have been reprinted.  You want to know what makes a good story?  This is a really good place to start looking.  It’s subscription-only, but cheap and in my opinion, worth the money.

And third, I’d also like to recommend the new podcast by Mur Lafferty (of I Should Be Writing and the Shambling Guide books) and Matt Wallace – Ditch Diggers.  I’ve listened to every episode of I Should Be Writing and highly recommend it for all writers (and especially beginning writers, it’s very worth getting access to the archives by supporting Mur on Patreon and listening to all the episodes).  Ditch Diggers aims to explore writing as a business, and is highly entertaining besides.  Kameron Hurley and Chuck Wendig have guested, and the latest episode has an interview with Brianna Wu.  Go and listen and learn.

 

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Guest Post: The Myths of Disability in Life and Fiction by Holly Kench

City overlooking desolate desert landscape with cracked earth

Apocalypse fiction rarely includes characters with disability, chronic illness and other impairments. When these characters do appear, they usually die early on, or are secondary characters undeveloped into anything more than a burden to the protagonist. Defying Doomsday will be an anthology showing that disabled characters have far more interesting stories to tell in post-apocalyptic/dystopian fiction.

Defying Doomsday will be edited by Tsana Dolichva and Holly Kench, and published by Twelfth Planet Press in mid 2016. Defying Doomsday is currently crowdfunding via Pozible. To support the project visit: http://pozi.be/defyingdoomsday


 

The Myths of Disability in Life and Fiction

by Holly Kench

There’s nothing black and white about disability. I don’t think it’s the sort of topic that many people would assume is black and white, and, yet, that’s definitely how it tends to be treated by a lot of society and mainstream culture.

It’s sometimes hard to see beyond our limited expectations, though, when all we are offered are clichés, stereotypes, and cardboard characters. There are so many damaging myths surrounding disability, as much in real life attitudes as in fiction, and both perpetuate each other.

What myths am I talking about? Gosh there are lots. From the broadly offensive myths that all disabled people are helpless, in need of pity, or objects of inspiration, to impairment specific misconceptions like all people in wheelchairs have no use of their legs or all deaf people are fluent in sign language.

When we accept these myths, it’s as though we are accepting ‘rules’ for how people experience disability. And by accepting these rules, we are doing a lot of things: We’re suggesting a scale of disability (suggesting that some people are more or less disabled than others), or even suggesting that, if someone doesn’t fit our black and white view of disability, then they aren’t disabled at all. We’re suggesting that we know better about how other people live their lives than they do. We’re doing a whole lot more too, but most of all, we’re suggesting disabled people have no experiences to offer other than the two dimensional characterisations we’ve assigned them, in life and in fiction.

The awesome thing about sharing narratives in fiction is that we can help break this myth cycle. We can write characters who have complete experiences, experiences which include the realities of being disabled, and experiences which show being disabled is just one aspect of any character’s narrative.

There are two ways we can include narratives of disabled characters in fiction: 1. We can use cardboard cut-outs that perpetuate the myths I’ve described above, or 2. We can look at the experiences of disabled characters like we should any other characters, and realise there are shades of grey to all experiences, and our characters are more than just one character trait.

Tsana Dolichva and I are editing an upcoming anthology exploring narratives of disabled characters in apocalypse fiction. Most importantly, it will be an anthology of stories that break myths and bust stereotypes, with disabled characters who are more than just a one-dimensional view of disability. Defying Doomsday will be an anthology of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic stories, featuring disabled, chronically ill, mentally ill and/or neurodiverse protagonists. We are currently holding a crowdfunding campaign through Pozible to fund the anthology. To support the campaign or to preorder a copy of Defying Doomsday, visit: http://pozi.be/defyingdoomsday

Your support is greatly appreciated! You can find out more about Defying Doomsday at our website or follow us on Twitter and Facebook.

 

 

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Swancon, and the writing of short stories.

swancon

Yesterday I made a somewhat wobbly appearance at Swancon, as evidenced by my badge (with similarly wobbly name written by me!).

Things of awesome in this photo: shiny Ditmar pin!  I count my chance of winning a Ditmar as being slim, but I am so damn chuffed to be nominated (technically twice, since I was part of the Snapshot team which also garnered a nomination this year).  And the cute little chicken, which I got as a bonus for funding Defying Doomsday (link goes to the Pozible campaign, which you should totally fund if you haven’t.).

I also sat on a panel on the writing of good short stories.  During which I recommended a bunch of authors, so I figured that I might make some notes here, in case someone wants to chase up the authors that I spoke about.  Helen Stubbs also posted about the panel briefly here and tweeted some really useful pieces of advice (and posted a photo in which I manage to look utterly bored, heh).

One of the things we talked about was the need to read a lot of good short stories to get a good idea of what makes a good short story.  Juliet Marillier recommended the work of Thoraiya Dyer and Robert G. Cook in particular, and I recommended Juliet’s “By Bone Light”, as well as work by Angela Slatter (whom I think we all pretty much mentioned at one point or other as being one of the outstanding writers of short fiction in Australia), Lisa L.Hannett, Kirstyn McDermott, Stephen Dedman (who was on the panel with us, and is a massive font of useful knowledge about writing in general) and Martin Livings.  Shirley Jackson and Angela Carter also got a mention.  I wish also that I could go back in time and add Helen Marshall and Kelly Link to the list, but we did mainly try and constrain ourselves to Australian authors.

I also may have confessed to hating short stories at one point in my life.  Which is true, and, thinking more on it, I blame it mostly on the kinds of short stories we had to read in high school.  I got truly lucky and got to read some amazing poems and novels during my school years, but the short stories left me cold.  It was starting to read some of the amazing short story writers publishing in Australia that really got me into the genre.

We also made much mention of how lucky we are to have some amazing small presses in Australia helping to publish short fiction.  I talked up Twelfth Planet’s Twelve Planets a lot (I’m sorry, I cannot help how much I love with them I am!), and we also mentioned Fablecroft and Ticonderoga (in particular the Australian Years Best that have been coming out from them).

And some other general pieces of advice, as I remember them:

  • Read good short stories.  You cannot learn how to write short stories from reading novels, and you cannot compact a novel into a short story length.
  • The beginning and end of a short story are the crucial points.  The beginning must hook a reader – whether with an actual catchy hook, some beautiful imagery or gorgeous writing (or all three).  Vague meandering at the beginning will make many readers put down the story – we need something to care about or be interested in.  And likewise, a strong ending will linger in the mind long after the story has been finished.  Stephen Dedman described a story as being a bridge, with the beginning and end anchoring everything.
  • You need to take out everything that does not serve the story.  You’re constrained by word length, and things cannot take up space without needing to be there.  However, Juliet Marillier warned that you shouldn’t go too far and take out all of your beautiful prose and kill the voice of the piece.
  • I talked briefly (and probably too vaguely) about resonance.  One of the things that gets me about a truly good story is resonance – having a deeper meaning or layered connections.  Tangentially, we also talked about a good story feeling like a gut punch (I believe these words were Stephen Dedman’s, and I agree with them wholeheartedly).
  • You need to know the basic rules of writing before you can break them.  And short stories are a great place to break them and experiment.  I have problems writing longer pieces in anything but a linear fashion, but in short stories I really like fragmenting time lines.  You can write stories in any fashion you like – linearly, backwards, inside out.  Learn the rules, and then have fun.

I’d like to thank everyone quickly who came to the panel yesterday, and all of my fellow panel members.  I really loved being on it, and I hope that it was useful for the people who attended.

 

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March in review

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Physical books received this month.

 

And here we are, somehow (almost) at the end of March.  Where is this year going?

Writing

  • I finished the zero draft of Never.  Which is terrible, as all zero drafts ought to be, and littered with notes to myself on the things that I need to fix.  I’m aiming to let it rest a little longer before I come back and start the next draft, but we’ll see where my head goes.
  • I spent some time after that draft meandering about in the between projects abyss, but have just found my way into a short story that I’m writing to submit to an upcoming anthology.  It may be one of the most depressing things I’ve ever written.
  • I also finished editing the novella I’ve been working on for the last *mumblemumble* and have sent it off into the aether.  I have no idea what its chances really are, but I have a massive amount of respect for the editor in whose virtual desk it rests.
  • I got to announce that I’ll be part of the TOC of the upcoming Ticonderoga Press anthology Hear Me Roar with my story Broken Glass.  I am so chuffed to be in this anthology, I don’t even have the words.
  • And Escapement (one of my weird dystopia/steampunk series of stories, and the first to see publication) garnered a Tin Duck nomination in addition to its Ditmar nomination.

Reviewing

  • A quieter month for me reviewing, since I’ve been devoting a chunk of my reading time to research for the short story I’m working on.
  • Only one Netgalley review this month (though technically I also originally got an eARC of one of my AWW books from Netgalley, too): Aquila.
  • Australian Women Writers (AWW) Challenge reviews: Graced by Amanda Pillar and Liesmith by Alis Franklin.  Spoiler: I loved them both.

Miscellaneous

  • I received my lovely hardcover copy of Cranky Ladies of History in the mail, which is on my pile-o-stuff to review soon.  It is a truly beautiful book.
  • I’ve been catching up on a lot of podcasts.  Finally started (and finished) listening to Serial  and started listening to Alisa Krasnostein’s new podcast Champagne and Socks.  Champagne and Socks is really enjoyable – and I don’t even craft (yet!).  I have wanted to learn to crochet for ages (though I don’t know how my fingers and wrists would hold up to it) and I should get back into knitting.
  • And we have been playing a lot of Diablo III.  Like, a lot.  It’s just fun to play when my brain needs a break.
  • I have been doing a lot of decluttering, including starting to get ruthless with books.  I’ve long since run out of book shelf space (despite having a lot of it) and I have no choice but to get rid of stuff that I know I’ll never read.  I also need a proper organisational system, since everything is everywhere.  I did have books loosely shelves by genre, but that system broke down as shelves started to explode.  I need Compactus shelving.  Ana a librarian.
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AWW2015: Liesmith by Alis Franklin

liesmith

Working in low-level IT support for a company that’s the toast of the tech world, Sigmund Sussman finds himself content, if not particularly inspired. As compensation for telling people to restart their computer a few times a day, Sigmund earns enough disposable income to gorge on comics and has plenty of free time to devote to his gaming group.

Then in walks the new guy with the unpronounceable last name who immediately becomes IT’s most popular team member. Lain Laufeyjarson is charming and good-looking, with a story for any occasion; shy, awkward Sigmund is none of those things, which is why he finds it odd when Lain flirts with him. But Lain seems cool, even if he’s a little different—though Sigmund never suspects just how different he could be. After all, who would expect a Norse god to be doing server reboots?

As Sigmund gets to know his mysterious new boyfriend, fate—in the form of an ancient force known as the Wyrd—begins to reveal the threads that weave their lives together. Sigmund doesn’t have the first clue where this adventure will take him, but as Lain says, only fools mess with the Wyrd. Why? Because the Wyrd messes back.


 

Note: An eARC of this book was received from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. I have since purchased my own copy.

This review is presented as part of my contribution to the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2015.


Liesmith is Australian author Alis Franklin’s debut novel.  It is the first book in the urban fantasy series, The Wyrd.  Two more books in the series are forthcoming.

Let’s get one thing up front: I make no secret of the fact that I am really, really burned out on a lot of what passes for urban fantasy these days.  I am tired of love triangles and of seeing characters doing dumb things to perpetuate love triangles.  I am tired of seeing mythology thinned, turned into yet another cookie-cutter book filled with the same old tropes.

And so I approached Liesmith with some trepidation.  Worried that this would be yet another same-old same-old.

I shouldn’t have worried.

Because seriously, Franklin has knocked this one out of the park.

Sigmund Sussman is a geek.  He works in IT – and worse, the brand of “Have you tried turning it off then on again?” IT – he’s chubby, somewhat awkward with non-geeks, and he plays DnD.  Refreshingly, though he’s unashamedly geeky, he’s not portrayed as a loner – his two best friends, both female gamers, Wayne and Em, are always there for him.  Sigmund can also always sense when someone is lying, an ability that he keeps to himself.

Enter Lain Laufeyjarson, hipsterish new addition to the IT department.  Sigmund brushes Lain off originally (at which point I was pretty much cheering because no love at first sight trope!), but Lain is immediately interested in Sigmund.  He slowly takes his time getting to know him (double hooray!) and the two of them are drawn together.

You make think this is a standard romance, but beneath Lain’s skin lies someone – and something – else, and Sigmund and his friends are thrown into a world of monsters where gods can be reincarnated and not everything is as it seems.

First of all, the romance in this is wonderful.  There’s no love at first sight, just a believable growing together of two people.  Without spoiling anything specific, Franklin could very easily have thrust these Lain and Sigmund together, but she chooses not to, instead creating a very gradual relationship (including the awkward moments that happen in any nascent relationship).  This is no stereotypical Powerful Character falls in love with Squishy Mortal story, but something that feels very, very real.  The fluid treatment of sexuality is also to be commended.

The fantasy elements in this are also amazing.  Franklin has taken the Norse myths and created something pretty damn amazing.  What lies beneath Lain’s skin is monstrous, but there’s a deep humanity to him, even in his most inhuman moments.

I seriously do not have enough words for how much I love this book and want to thrust it at everyone I know who reads urban fantasy (and those who don’t).  The romance is wonderful, all of the characters are well-rounded (including Wayne and Em, who could have easily been just so much window dressing in a lesser writer’s hands), and the fantastical elements are original and solid. On top of everything, the writing is brilliant, and there’s fun and humour and darkness in just the right balance.

Franklin is most definitely a writer to watch.  She brings something truly fresh to urban fantasy in Liesmith and I hope we get to see many more books by her.  Based on Liesmith alone, she’s on my instant buy list for life.

 

 

 

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Hear Me Roar table of contents announced

I am very happy to announce that I’ll have a story appearing in the upcoming anthology from Ticonderoga Press, Hear Me Roar, edited by Liz Gryzb.

The TOC announcement can be found here, and the TOC is copied below:

  • Cherith Baldry, “Star Bright”
  • Jenny Blackford, “The Sorrow”
  • Kay Chronister, “Dustbowl”
  • Stephanie Gunn, “Broken Glass”
  • Kathryn Hore, “Generation Zero”
  • Kathleen Jennings, “A Hedge of Yellow Roses”
  • Faith Mudge, “Blueblood”
  • T R Napper, “The Silica Key”
  • Rivqa Rafael, “Function A:save(target.Dawn)”
  • Alter Reiss, “Catalysis”
  • Jane Routley, “Barista”
  • Cat Sparks, “Veteran’s Day”
  • Kyla Ward, “Cursebreaker: The Mutalibeen and the Memphite Mummies”
  • Marlee Jane Ward, “Clara’s”
  • Susan Wardle, “A Truck Called Remembrance”
  • Janeen Webb, “A Wondrous Necessary Woman”
  • Eleanor Wood, “The Fruits of Revolution”

 

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AWW2015: Graced by Amanda Pillar

gracedcover

City Guard Elle Brown has one goal in life: to protect her kid sister, Emmie. Falling in love–and with a werewolf at that–was never part of the deal.

Life, however, doesn’t always go to plan, and when Elle meets Clay, everything she thought about her world is thrown into turmoil. Everything, that is, but protecting Emmie, who is Graced with teal-colored eyes and an unknown power that could change their very existence. But being different is dangerous in their home city of Pinton, and it’s Elle’s very own differences that capture the attention of the Honorable Dante Kipling, a vampire with a bone-deep fascination for a special type of human.

Dante is convinced that humans with eye colors other than brown are unique, but he has no proof. The answers may exist in the enigmatic hazel eyes of Elle Brown, and he’s determined to uncover their secrets no matter the cost…or the lives lost.


 

An eARC of this book was provided by Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.  I also subsequently purchased a copy of this book myself.

NOTE: I was an beta reader for this book and have worked with Amanda Pillar as an editor, and consider her a friend.  Neither of these things have influenced my review.

This review is presented as part of my commitment towards the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2015.


Graced is writer and editor Amanda Pillar’s debut novel, and is published by Momentum Books.

At first. the world of Graced looks much like many other urban fantasy/paranormal romance worlds.  There are vampires who live in an aristocratic society, there are werewolves, and there are humans.  But here is where Pillar brings something new to the genre: within the humans are a subset of magically talented people known as the Graced, identifiable by their coloured eyes (Non-Graced humans have brown eyes).  The Graced believe that their powers are secret, and want to keep it that way.

Elle Brown is a City Guard working in the primarily vampire-occupied Pinton.  Her primary concern in life, other than keeping the peace, is the wellbeing and happiness of her much younger sister, Emmie.  Their Grandmother, Olive, a strong Green (a Graced with green eyes, and strong powers), believes both of her granddaughters to be useless.  Elle has hazel eyes and no powers, and Emmie has unusual Teal eyes, but appears to only have latent powers.  Olive has far-reaching schemes for the Graced, and invites the werewolf Clay Lovett to Pinton.  Elle and Clay meet, and there is instant chemistry between them.

Meanwhile, the vampire Dante Kipling is growing curious about humans with coloured eyes – he suspects that the colours must mean something, but he doesn’t know what.  His experiments result in the deaths of two Graced, and Olive sends Elle to spy on the Kipling family in disguise as a servant.

And, quite simply, all hell breaks loose.

At first, I wasn’t quite sold on the idea of the Graced – special eye colours are a well-worn trope, and I feared that I would be seeing the same-old same-old here.  I shouldn’t have feared, because Pillar adds so much originality and meaning to an old trope – and there are hints that there are deeper threads again to the Graced (and I hope very much that Pillar revisits this world to explore them).

All of the characters are amazing.  Elle is a fabulous strong (in the literal meaning of strong) female character, and her love and protective instincts for Emmie make her very relatable.  Clay is charming from the moment he steps onto the page, and the chemistry between he and Elle is palpable.

There has to be a mention about the diversity of sexualities in this book.  There is little shame in sexuality, and we see characters who are bisexual (and use the word to describe themselves, which happens far too little) as well as asexual.

The setting of this world feels a little nebulous at first – very much like any alternate earth.  But as the story progresses, there are hints and clues that this is not just an alternate earth, but in fact something else.

There is much that could easily have become problematic in this book.  The implication that a young girl could possibly be bred with an older character is there, but strongly objected to by many characters (so many that you know as a reader that it’s never going to happen).  There’s also a good portrayal of a character with a physical disability, who is never maligned for it (except by himself).

This is a fast-paced, fun read that will likely appeal to fans of work such as Anne Bishop’s Black Jewels books (without their problematic issues).  Pillar brings a new voice to urban fantasy and has introduced readers to a fabulous new world that I truly hope she returns to.  Highly recommended.

 

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February in review

February books

Books received in February.

 

I’ve decided to start a new blog series this year, just keeping track of everything.  Also known as “Oh hell, it’s *insert month here* already???

Somehow, it’s the end of February already.  Yeah, I don’t know how that happened, either.  My son started full time school this month, which means that I now have more time to work on everything.  Which means that this has been one of the most productive months I’ve had in a long time.

Writing

  • I have written 46,687 words on the Zero Draft (of utter crapness) of Never.  It is literally the worst draft I have ever written and I do not care.  I have a metric tonne of notes to myself scattered through the Scrivener file for things I need to fix on the next draft.
  • I have managed to work myself up to a minimum of 2k written per day, with some days creeping closer to 3k.
  • A cycle of edits on a novella based on some beta feedback.  It just needs a final going over and I can start trying to find it a home.
  • Have also been pounced on by two ideas for short works, one of which will probably be a novella, the other a novelette.
  • There is also good writing news that I am not at liberty to share yet ;)
  • And Escapement got nominated for a Ditmar!  And the anthology it was part of, Kisses by Clockwork, was just nominated for an Aurealis Award.

Reviewing

Reading

  • You can see above a photo of the books I physically received this month.  I also received a bunch of eARCs from Netgalley.
  • Also purchased on the kindle: Graced, by Amanda Pillar, Daughters of the Storm by Kim Wilkins, A Darker Shade of Magic  by V.E. Schwab, Havenstar by Glenda Larke and How to be Both by Ali Smith.
  • And my ecopy of Cranky Ladies of History also arrived in my inbox (I took part in crowdfunding the anthology, and if I remember correctly, I should also be getting a hard copy.  Trusting my memory is rarely a good thing, though).
  • Yes, that is a lot of books.  I know.
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AWW2015: In My Mother’s Hands by Biff Ward

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There are secrets in this family. Before Biff and her younger brother, Mark, there was baby Alison, who drowned in her bath because, it was said, her mother was distracted. Biff too, lives in fear of her mother’s irrational behaviour and paranoia, and she is always on guard and fears for the safety of her brother. As Biff grows into teenage hood, there develops a conspiratorial relationship between her and her father, who is a famous and gregarious man, trying to keep his wife’s problems a family secret. This was a time when the insane were committed and locked up in Dickensian institutions; whatever his problems her father was desperate to save his wife from that fate. But also to protect his children from the effects of living with a tragically disturbed mother.

In My Mother’s Hands is a beautifully written and emotionally perplexing coming-of-age true story about growing up in an unusual family.


 

This review is presented as part of my commitment to the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

I purchased this book.


 

When the Stella Prize longlist for 2015 was announced, I went through and downloaded samples of the books that interested me.  This is the first book for which I read the sample and had to keep on reading.

Biff Ward grew up in a house that was unlike the houses of the people she knew.  There was the shadow of her sister Alison, said to have drowned in her bath as a baby when her mother fainted.  And there was Biff’s mother, a woman who always seemed distracted, apart from her family.  At times this distraction broke and became something else: a paranoia that they were being watched, that people were coming to get them.

As Ward grows up, her mother becomes more and more detached, more unstable.  She begins to gouge at her hands, pare back her nails with a razor, trying to rid herself of a “rash”.  She wears gloves all the time that she is not gouging.  Ward’s father copes as best as he can, though at times this “coping” seems to veer very close to abuse.  He has a string of affairs, but he always returns to his wife, this woman who seems empty, who seems so incredibly sad.

It is as an adult, living apart from her mother, that Ward sets off on a journey to discover what really happened to Alison, what really is wrong with her mother.  As she uncovers the truth, there is an indescribable sorrow that flows beneath the words of the book.  Sorrow for Ward and her brother, essentially growing up without a mother.  Sorrow for Ward’s father, who sought to protect his wife from a state asylum, the only treatment for mental illness at the time.  And sorrow most of all for Ward’s mother, suffering most likely from postpartum psychosis and schizophrenia.

Ward draws parallels between her life and Jane Eyre, with the mad wife Bertha locked in the attic.  Reading this book, I wonder how many Berthas there have been, essentially locked away for lack of real treatment for mental illness.  Ward’s mother lived in a time before antidepressants and antipsychotics, a time when mental illness was hushed up, swept beneath the rug, hidden by gloves.

This is an incredibly important memoir, and I can only begin to imagine how painful it must have been for Ward to write.  Without real help, her whole family suffered because of her mother’s mental illness.   There is no blame in this memoir on Ward’s part, just that deep sorrow for the woman her mother might have been, if there had been real help for her at the time.  Ward is to be thanked for her honesty and strength.  This is not an easy read, by any means, but it is a book that is very much worth reading.

 

 

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