AWW 2013 REVIEW – Behind the Night Bazaar (Angela Savage)

Behind the Night Bazaar (Angela Savage)I’m a latecomer to Angela Savage’s books, which is part of the joy of discovering them because there are now three novels to relish in the Jayne Keeney series.

The latest, The Dying Beach, launched only recently (mid-July). Here’s Angela’s take on that book’s launch.

The blurb for the first novel goes like this:

“Investigating murder, child prostitution, and corruption—all in a day’s work for kickass PI Jayne Keeney. The first in a series of funny, gripping crime novels set in Thailand, Behind the Night Bazaar introduces us to this likeable thirty-something private investigator, working undercover in a place where she can do anything but blend in.”

I really liked the book.

The narrative pacing, characters, and setting were all well tailored and clever. Jayne, in particular, was presented as engagingly human, complete with the damaging emotional choices she has made in her past and present.

The Thai setting was also given centre-stage in a credible and effective way. It worked well beyond the ‘exotic backdrop’ mode of so many novels set in Asia, where local colour doesn’t impinge on the unfolding narrative. I really appreciated the way Savage’s writing gave texture to everyday life and tension in Thailand, particularly the ways in which the story presented a society that was responding (or not) to fast change and urban drift. The motivations of the characters, embedded with these tensions, are engaging and effective. Sometimes, this was a little too effective and I had to take moments out of the novel because the emotional weight of the issues it deals with got to me.

The thing about this novel that I liked the best was its ability to surprise me. I would be reading along, expecting something that wouldn’t come to pass. A lot of this was due to Jayne being very smart and savvy; perhaps I’m too used to protagonists who get caught out, or exposed? That said, she’s no superhero, nor does she turn out to be a virtuous crusader. And this is all to the good.

I would definitely recommend this book to those who like clever crime, strong female leads (really, what worthwhile person doesn’t?), and immersion in a context fraught with politics and race tensions.

I’m definitely looking forward to spending time with The Half-Child, Savage’s second novel in the Keeney series!

Kids’ books: Spork (Kyo Maclear)

Spork (Kyo Maclear)
Spork (Kyo Maclear)

One of the greatest joys of having children is how I’ve rediscovered the fabulous embrace of public libraries.

It’s a constant enjoyment because the kids are moving through the stacks as they get older and their tastes change.

6.5yo E.’s already dipping into the occasional graphic novel and moving into short novels. I’m finding new authors to catch up on (most recently, Neil Gaiman – I know, I know, I’ve never read Gaiman, but that’s another post). 4yo G. is starting to recognise words and sound them out; he’s moving on from the cardboard books to relatively long narrative picture books.

The other  weekend, I had the added delight of discovering Spork by Kyo Maclear.  The book was on constant rotation when it came home. Usually, little G. eases into the ‘new books’ from the library every week but, with Spork, he was a fan from Day 1. Every night, he’d flip through other books and choose some, but he’d always go to this one and drop it on the bed’s ‘to-read’ pile.

When I saw the author’s name I did a double-take. I know Kyo Maclear. She’s an academic in Asian Canadian Studies. I had read her research, and had colleagues who mentioned Kyo with regularity.

Seeing her turn up as a children’s book author was an absolute thrill. There’s something about finding academics with lives that spill outside of universities that makes me feel better about the world.

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AWW 2013 Review: The Dreaming series (Queenie Chan)

Cover for 'The Dreaming' omnibus (Queenie Chan)
Cover for ‘The Dreaming’ omnibus (Queenie Chan)

I’ve been wanting to follow up on Queenie Chan‘s work and read her stories ever since I put together the diverse women authors post for AWW 2012, and @tansyrr left a comment that reminded me of Chan’s work.

The Dreaming series, which I read all at once in a single book, has three volumes.

I must admit to not having read or seen much of Chan’s work. I’m also not much of a manga reader, but I know the broad style.

I was immediately struck by how true to the Japanese manga aesthetic Chan’s settings and characters’ expressions seemed to be.

For me, it was quite a twist to discover that this horror story is set in the Australian bush, complete with gum trees, billabongs, and Aboriginal mythology.

Reading the three volumes at once was such quick work that I felt guilty about not spending time appreciating the inkwork and scene transitions. Chan is refreshingly down-to-earth about her practice and skills (see her entry, “How I got started”) and prioritises the narrative above artwork:

I persevered not because I started off wanting to be a great manga-artist and drawing “cool comics” (though that crossed my mind more than several times), but because I had a story I wanted to tell, and wanted to tell it in manga format.

The Dreaming hit many classic creepy notes for me, particularly as it cross-referenced the girls-disappearing-in-the-bush motif (Mirandaa-aaa! – cf. Picnic at Hanging Rock). The superstitions and untold stories added to the narrative tension, as did the leakage of disturbing dreams to waking life.

Chan consistently references Victorian era schoolgirls in bustly dresses with good, chilling effect. What is it about that element that lends itself to a studied creepiness? Perhaps that brandished carving knife didn’t help…

My two caveats about the trilogy: First, I did have some difficulty in the beginning with the immediate introduction to the cast of characters. The girls in the school, especially, confused me because – dare I say this? – they kind of looked the same… I soon depended on their hairstyles to tell them apart. Second, while I was effectively sucked into the narrative, I found the pacing uneven and, at times, repetitive.

In the end, Chan’s back-story for the school and its dark history is satisfying. She tied up many loose ends, but not all. I liked having some questions floating in the mix after closing the covers.

Chan has also drawn several of Dean Koontz’s books, and she recently featured in a women manga artist symposium at the Art Gallery of NSW (January 2013). I’ll certainly be looking out for more of her work in the future, and am considering snagging the Koontz books.

Queenie Chan’s website: http://www.queeniechan.com

REVIEW – Ghost Money (Andrew Nette)

Ghost Money (Andrew Nette)

I must admit to being initially interested in reading this novel because Andrew Nette and I follow each other on Twitter, and I’ve always appreciated, and been curious about, his obsession with pulp culture.

I knew he wrote crime fic and I am a total sucker for many shades of crime fic.

It was when I read one of the first reviews of the book (by Fair Dinkum Crime’s bernadetteinoz), however, that I dashed off straight away to buy a copy.

The triggers that set me off in bernadetteinoz’s review?

A Vietnamese Australian protagonist, the Cambodian setting – all bundled together as a noir crime thriller. It ticked a lot of boxes for me.

Kicking off with a dead body in Thailand, we find ourselves quickly in Cambodia as Max Quinlan, a fresh private investigator, traces Charles Avery’s whereabouts. Avery’s sister had made the initial approach to Quinlan, and offered him a conversational snapshot of her brother as an ambitious and morally grey character.

Of course, all is not as it seems, and the increasingly complicated figure of Avery is nicely unpacked as the narrative rolls out.

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AWW 2012 Review – The Lion Drummer (Gabrielle Wang)

The Lion Drummer (Gabrielle Wang)

Like the typical assiduous parents of today, we’ve been reading to the kids since they were babies.

Having our eldest – who turns 6 at the end of this year – learn to read and write this year has been a magical time for me. Her reading is improving in leaps and bounds, and the hesitancy with which she used to read the one-sentence books she brought home is now gone.

When we go to the library each week, she’ll often find a few books, settle into a beanbag and start reading to herself. Tonight, she read five small books. Just because she wanted to. She reads to her little brother. He’s a big fan.

She still wants to throw a few ‘younger’ books in the pile as she loves the illustrations (as I do), and I’ll find a few short novels that I think she’ll like.

I’ll tell you the narratives I tend towards because I know the topics contrast with what she’s usually immersed in with her peer group: time travel and dinosaur tales, monsters and aliens (particularly dragons), mad scientist and experiments gone wrong, (G-rated) kungfu novels…the ones that are usually badged/branded as “for boys”.

The girls’ novels are all horrendously pink and sparkly and…I just can’t do it. She chose a fairy book last time and I threw in another book about pirates for good measure. Yes, I may be fighting a losing battle. Let me retain a bit of hope for the moment.

ANYway, I recently also found Gabrielle Wang’s The Lion Drummer, on the shelves. I chose it in the hopes that E. would find it fun and interesting and possibly reflecting a life in Australia that had similarities with hers. I try not to be too sledgehammery in my quest to ensure that the kids have a diversity of narratives and characters in their books. I’ve not focused on Chinese Australian or Asian Australian children’s lit. to any great degree, but I am aware of mixing up the material that crosses their cultural radars.

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Launch of Chi Vu’s Anguli Ma

Anguli Ma (by Chi Vu; Giramondo, 2012) Image sourced from Giramondo Publishing website

It’s probably appropriate that the evening of Chi Vu’s booklaunch for her Gothic novella was a dark and stormy night.

On 24 April, upstairs at the Sidney Myer Centre, we were cossetted from the fickle weather and treated to drinks and nibblies before the main event.

The launch was hosted by Asialink and Giramondo Publishing, and was a full house.

Giramondo has published quite a few Asian Australian literary works to date, including Adam Aitken (Eighth Habitation), Kim Cheng Boey (Between Stations), Brian Castro (Shanghai Dancing, The Garden Book, and The Bath Fugues), and Tom Cho (Look Who’s Morphing).

Chi’s novella is part of a new series by Giramondo that focuses on shorter works (including poetry, memoir and fiction). Also included in the ‘shorts’ series are Eliot Weinberger’s Wildlife and Michael Wilding’s Wild and Woolly: A Publishing Memoir. There are many more in the pipeline, if the entries on Giramondo’s website are anything to go by.

The formal blurb on Chi (from Giramondo) reads:

Chi Vu was born in Vietnam and came to Australia in 1979. After studying at the University of Melbourne, she worked as a theatre maker, dramaturg, writer, artistic director and arts administrator. Chi Vu’s plays, which include the critically acclaimed and widely studied Vietnam: a Psychic Guide, have been performed in Melbourne and Sydney, and her short stories have appeared in various publications, including The Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature.

Chi’s adept practice across forms and projects is infused with a consistent awareness of the constructedness of culture and language, a fierce engagement with emotion, and careful attention to the texture of interactions.

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Fiesta Malaysia 2012 – One view

I found out about Fiesta Malaysia 2012 the way I usually find out about events these days: on my Twitterfeed. While our household still gets the paper delivered every day, I never read it anymore. My mum does, and so does my partner. My kids like cutting it up and using it for projects, or mucking around with strips to make papier-mache animals.

I’ve acquired some bower-bird habits since becoming so dependent on Twitter. One of them is noting things for the different feeds I maintain (current count: 4), which is what I used to skim my email for. Usually, this noting doesn’t mean I intend to act on events/gigs myself. My weeks are usually fully subscribed with work, kiddie time, family time, writing, and occasional other things.

Lygon St bombing (Photo by Tseen)

Something that did catch my eye, though, was the Fiesta Malaysia the other weekend (23-25 March).

My partner and I used to be great food/culture festival people, then we had kids. But it’s not as if the kids kept us from going anywhere; we just ended up going to different events: local school fetes, shopping for an endless parade of shoes, library-runs, zoo trips…

Anyway, we thought this might be fun, and my mother would definitely want to go along, if only to declare that her char kway teow was better.

We made it to Fiesta Malaysia on its last day – Sunday – and arrived just as it started at about 11am. We’d parked at the Melbourne Museum and had a glorious stroll to Lygon Street, encountering some great yarn-bombing on the way (pictured left).

That day also happened to be the Melbourne City Romp and spotting marauding crazy-hatted / costumed teams can sure whet one’s appetite for roti.

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AA meetup – Melbourne – July 2011

I’ve been organising a few informal meetups for AASRN and former asian-australian_discuss folk around Melbourne this year. Now that I’m based in the the city for work, it’s much easier to get people together over a lunchtime and see them more regularly. I’m greatly enjoying the proximity to my colleagues that being CBD-based offers, and am particularly liking the monthly AAI 4 and AAFF ‘work’ meetings.

On Monday this week, long-time AASRN member and Sydney-sider, Francis Maravillas was in town in a leisure capacity, which is a much nicer term than we were using in face-to-face conversation…! It was envy speaking, pure and simple. You can find out more about Francis at his International Network for Diasporic Asian Art Research (INDAAR) profile. We met at RMIT’s Pearson & Murphy’s cafe, which was absolutely busting at the seams with customers. That’s what the first day of second semester will do to a place. I imagine it will go back to its buzzy but civilised self by next week. As well as Francis and me, several others from AASRN and the now defunct asian-australian_discuss group came along to the meetup: Caitlin Nunn (who I hadn’t seen for AGES, and who I’ll be seeing again on Friday at her seminar for the MMRN gig), Oanh Tran, Jen Kwok, May Ngo, and Chi Vu (who’s doing a play reading at VCA on 19 August). Even with a fairly cosy group, it’s hard to find the time to chat with everyone in a hurried, slightly harried lunch hour. I do miss my 3-hour lunch meetings from the research fellowship days! It’s always a good thing, though, to leave always wanting more, and the others stayed on when I had to scurry back to my desk.

I was going to give up organising these events because I thought it was about time someone else did it – it has been me for the most part over the last 10 years, after all. What I’ve come to realise, and it’s even more true now that I’m in a non-academic role, is that I really want them to happen. I find them nourishing and fun. It keeps me in the loop about what people are doing, and it drives me to retain my interests in the field.

I’m very lucky in my work because it is academically focused all week, even though it may not be my academic work that’s under scrutiny. It keeps my focus on scholarly skills, the strategies in the university game, and reminds me constantly that I can’t stereotype people by the work they do.

I was asked – with some trepidation – by a colleague today: Why am I in the job I’m in, when I’ve done so much else in research and academia? It was strange trying to answer that question in a succinct way. I don’t think I did. My answer prompted him to chat about his career and life choices, as well as giving me valuable insight into how he might work with others and his research interests. It was a good conversation, all told. The most unfortunate aspect of it is that it took place in an open-plan office, which is very much the  wrong place for any meaningful discussion.

Frys aplenty

Since I started commuting into the city every day, I’ve worked my way through a large pile of books. None of them were hardcopy editions. Now I find the thought of balancing my bag, myself, and a book on a peak hour train unfeasible. Flicking through a single screen of text at a time is actually the best way for me to get things read! The added plus is that the kids can’t steal my bookmarks.

Right now, I’m more than half way through the second of Stephen Fry’s autobiographies, The Fry Chronicles (2010).

We had given it to a younger relative as a birthday present, and I’m not sure if she has read it. She hadn’t known who Stephen Fry was.

I had finished reading Fry’s first autobiographical instalment, Moab Is My Washpot (1997), not long before. I’ve found them both to be highly enjoyable, about a charmingly awkward and flawed person, and written very much in the ‘voice’ that we have come to know so well. Because Fry has a gift with language, his lyricism and philosophical observations aren’t mawkish, which is something of which he accuses himself with regularity. The story of the mole at the beginning of Moab is one that will stay with me. This is partly because our 4yo is starting to participate in ‘show and tells’ at her kindy, and mostly because the incident bespoke a certain desperation in Fry that is sustained through all I’ve read thus far.

The insight into his Cambridge days in Chronicles is a lot of fun, made all the more so because of the appearance of his long-time partner in wit, Hugh Laurie, and assorted others such as Rowan Atkinson, Emma Thompson and Ben Elton). Our household has long been a bastion of Blackadder fannishness, particularly of Series 2, and Lord Melchett (Fry) was always a favourite. I do love Tim McInnerny (as Percy), too.

I’ve watched the documentary, The Secret Life of the Manic-Depressive (2006), which was fronted by Fry, and the revelations about himself from that show also populated my mind as I was reading his life narratives.

I’m not sure where to go after finishing Chronicles.

Just after reading Moab, I’d finished Gok Wan’s autobiography, Through Thick and Thin (2010). I never thought of myself as much of an autobiography reader, and now I’ve almost finished three in a row! A well-written autobiography is a wonderful thing.

I wonder if Fry’s work has now spoilt me for the average celeb tell-all?

WRAP-UP: Asian Australian Forum + Amerasia Launch


Monday 4 October was the Asian Australian Forum + Amerasia launch that I convened at the newly refurbished Museum of Chinese Australian History, Cohen Place, Melbourne. It was a privilege to hold the event in a space that contained so much community history and aspired to transform conceptions of who an ‘Australian’ could be.

The forum was very busy, fun, exciting, satisfying and so worthwhile. It was a half-day event that featured three sessions (you can view the event information HERE for the Asian Australian Forum), and ended with the launch of the first issue ever of Amerasia Journal that engaged specifically with Asian Australian content. Continue reading “WRAP-UP: Asian Australian Forum + Amerasia Launch”