My Cupboard is a Space-Rocket

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My cupboard is a space-rocket.  Most of the time I can convince my intrepid astronauts to stick to the bottom-level/shelf which I keep empty.  But occasional trips to the moon require more space, so the clean towels end up on the floor as they branch across a second shelf.  When I come to investigate I am warned to stand back, because the fire from the rocket might burn me.  So I keep my distance, and we count-down to take-off together.

My bed is a mountain in Nepal.  I walk in and can see the little lumps moving under the sheets, as they hide in their ‘tent’ from Snow-storms and Yetis.

My lounge room is an ocean filled with Islands, that to an untrained eye might first appear to be rugs and couches.  The preferred method of movement across the seas is swimming, although an esky lid makes an excellent boat, a toy railway track doubling as an oar.  There is good fishing to be found on those floor-boards, though you must watch out for sharks and crocodiles. You find out about the said predator’s arrival, when the room is filled with shrieks and laughter, and everyone makes a run for it through the shallows.

My house is big and old.  It is sometimes clean and rarely tidy.  It is draughty and in winter we balk at the gas-bill (but turn up the central-heating anyway).  The best thing that can be said about the carpet is that it hides stains well.

One day an owner will knock it down and build a mega-mansion.  It is the story of all the other old houses in our street.

But until that day, it is our little Wonderland.

 

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6 Senses of my Mum

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Taste

There are a thousand tastes, so many years and meals and memories. But if I had to settle on one, I would have to say croissants.  Buttery and flakey and straight out of the oven.  The pastry made the night before, then up at 6am to form it into it’s perfect little crescents, ready to rise then finish baking just before we arrive for morning tea.

“Who makes their own croissants?” My husband asks.  “My Mother.” I answer with a grin.  Mum who plans and kneads and crisps her love into every meal she offers.

Smell

Lady Grey tea.  Not that she drinks it, she prefers the smokiness of Russian Caravan.  It is me who loves the bergamot with a hint of citrus.  But I associate it with her, because whether it is home or on a family holiday, she never forgets to make some for me.

One day she arrived just as I hit my peak state of panic, overwhelmed with one hundred jobs and no clue where was the logical place to start.

“I’ll make you a cuppa.”

“I don’t have time.”

“Sit down.  Have a cup of tea.  It will help.  Trust me.”

And I do.  So we sit, two steaming cups between us, and as we talk the mountain becomes a hill and the impossible is possible once again.

Touch

This is the hardest one to narrow down, but I think it is the brush of a warm scarf around my neck.  Mum aways carries a folded scarf in her bag just in case, and I’ve lost count of the times that she has pulled it out when I have once again mis-diagnosed the Melbourne weather.  Nice to go out in the cold with someone who is always prepared, when your mind is permanently positioned in another realm.

When I was in hospital, ill and trapped and wondering when my tiny twins would enter the world, Mum would visit.  She brought along a half knitted scarf, and as we sat and talked she would work her way along another row.  Now it sits on my shoulders on the coldest days of the year, a happy memory from one of the hardest times of my life.

Hearing

Music.  No one song.  Hundreds of songs.  Ones that played on the CD player while we cleaned the kitchen in-between our dance steps.  Breaking into song half way through a sentence when we recognise a line from a song.  Even my son’s singing, because he is like his beloved Grandma, a sponge absorbing every tune he hears.

Sight

Red.  Bright, exuberant red.  For both of us.  Not just because it suits our identical colouring, but because it is us.  Enthusiastic, optimistic and occasionally a bit too loud.  Like Mother like daughter.

 

But there is a sixth sense.  Not telepathy.  A feeling.  An emotion.  A sense that comes when I see her smile or when I hear her voice on a phone.

Peace.

 

The Steven Bradbury of Writing

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It has been one of the those weeks.  A week where I haven’t enjoyed writing.  Where I have felt discouraged.  Where I felt overwhelmed with the fact that there is no way to know for sure that I will ever get published.  Where I read a great book and wonder how I think I can ever compete?  Where the idea of handing work to my writing group makes my fingers shake above the keyboard?

When I first started writing I followed a pattern:

  • Write regularly for a while.
  • Have one of those days where everything I wrote and everything I read that I had wrote seemed awful.
  • Stop writing for two months out of discouragement.
  • Open the document again and decide maybe it isn’t that bad.
  • Write regularly for a while.
  • And repeat…

And surprise, surprise, I never got my novel done.

I know that every writer feels this way and that I am not the best judge of my writing.  But at the same time it is hard to work towards something that seems so out of your control.

It has been a while since I’ve had such a difficult time of it, but this last month all those doubts and feelings have come back to haunt me.  But I have kept writing, kept ticking back the words, and managed to keep focused on getting work done.  My mind-set has changed.

If I think about how hard it is to be published, I will find it hard to write.  If I compare myself to others, I will find it hard to write.  But I have a new technique, a new philosophy that is keeping me on the keyboard.  A new mission.

I will be the Steven Bradbury of Writing.

Steven Bradbury was the first Australian to win a Gold medal at the Winter Olympic Games.  He was a speed-skater, and was expected to finish last in the final.  How then did he win?  Well, there are a collision and the other skaters all crashed just before the finish-line.  Steven remained standing and crossed the line first.

At the time, it became a huge joke, because it seemed like the most hilariously Australian thing to win something because everyone else fell down.  But of course it was more than that.  Steven was a veteran of his sport, and a hard working athlete.  He was happy to be there and just wanted to do his best.  But he knew there was always a chance of a medal if he just kept standing.

See where I am going with this? 🙂

I have decided I am going to be the Steven Bradbury of writing.  I may not always feel like the best writer in the race.  But the race hasn’t finished yet.  So I will keep writing.

Maybe I don’t know everything there is to know about writing.  So I will take every opportunity to learn everything I can.  And I will keep writing.

When I get negative feedback on my novel, I will not let it stop me.  I will work out what I need to improve it and I will make it sing.  I will keep writing.

When, exactly like I feel as I write these words, the words seem too hard to get out and I want to go to bed and dream of being a writer instead of writing?  I will work towards the dream.  I will keep writing.

Stephen King says the difference between the talented and successful individual is a lot of hard work.

And hard work I can do.

I will keep writing.

(I had fun reliving SB’s exciting race while thinking about my new philosophy and this post.  Here is a wonderful little Youtube video about Steven Bradbury’s history and the race)

 

The State of Grace by Rachel Lucas

I am an unreliable narrator when it comes to reviews.

I love things too much.  I have a natural ability to get lost in a world and sucked into a story and it means I sometimes enjoy things more than they deserve.  And while this adds to my enjoyment of life and its experiences, it means you can’t always trust my opinions on things.

I remember watching “The Muppet Movie” with my husband.  The Muppet character was singing “Am I a Man or am I Muppet” and the actor who played Sheldon Cooper appeared in the mirror.  And I began to laugh hysterically and my husband laughed and whispered in my ear “It was funny, but it wasn’t that funny.”  And I grinned back because for me it was that funny and it was one of those times when I thought “I am so glad I am Belinda Grant.”

But even with that caveat I think you can trust me when I say that “The State of Grace” is a superb read.  I cannot recommend it enough.

Grace is a nearly sixteen year-old girl who is on the Autism Spectrum.  She loves horses and Dr Who, has super smell and hearing, and finds everyday interactions incredibly draining and hard.  She likes routine and predictability.  So when her Mother and sister start acting weird,  and the cute new boy at school starts paying attention to her, she finds it difficult to cope.

This book is written from Grace’s point of view and has a real “stream of consciousness” feel to it.  I found her voice so addictive I keep having to stop myself writing in the same style in this review!  Her emotions are very raw and there were lots of both “aha” moments but also moments of guilt when I realised how little I understand of the Autistic experience.

From the very first page you get a sense of what life is like for Grace.

“I’ll be mid conversation and listening and responding in all the right places, then someone will say something on the other side of the room- a snatch of something that my brain will pick up.  I’ll lose the thread for a second, and when I tune back in I’ve lost my way.  And then the other person might- for a split second- look at me oddly or scratch their nose and I’ll start thinking, No Grace you’ve lost it, and by then I’ve fallen even further behind, and I remember that my face has probably stopped making the appropriate shapes (interested, listening concerned, thoughtful- I have the full repertoire, as long as I don’t get distracted) and then I panic” (page 1)

The hardest thing about reading “The State of Grace” is that we are in her head and everyone else is not. And because communicating is so hard for her, and social norms so confusing, she is unable to express what she is feeling.  We are sitting in her head, knowing she likes this boy, but she doesn’t know how to make that obvious, so he is confused.  Or she is sitting in class and can’t listen because of the smell from next doors construction work, but she can’t tell the teacher that and so the teacher is yelling at her and I want to scream “Don’t you get it? She isn’t naughty, she is overwhelmed.”

And that is the power of this book.  I didn’t just get to see inside Grace’s head, I got to experience a tiny taste of what it would be like to be a girl on the Autism spectrum.

One aspect of the book that surprised me is how positive it is. Grace has a team of people who are on her side.  The owner of the stable where she keeps her horse.  Her best friend Anna.  Her sister.  Her Grandma.  And they aren’t just on her side, they love and appreciate her for exactly who she is.  And that isn’t surprising because she is awesome.  This meant that amidst the cringe-inducing mix-ups and challenges there is lots of feel-good “awws…” moments that make it an incredibly uplifting read.

Her Mum is both infuriating and relatable.  She is going through her own drama, and despite trying to do all the right things for her daughter, she is dealing with a teenager she doesn’t understand and she is always letting Grace down.  Her entire life revolves around her daughter’s diagnosis, and Rachel artfully explores her mother’s experience without disrupting the story or taking away from the fact that this is Grace’s tale.

There are some not-so-subtle digs at societies failed attempts to care for the Autistic community.  There are references to her inappropriate therapy experiences, and how there are so many more materials and support for her Mother parenting a child on the spectrum than there ever were for her.

Rachel Lucas, who had previously written adult fiction, wrote this book after both her and her daughter were diagnose as being on the Autism Spectrum.  I heard about the book from an excellent interview in the “So you want to be a Writer” podcast.  You can listen to it Here on episode 166 (it is the second half of the podcast).  In the interview Rachel talked about how there weren’t many books that fit her or her daughters experience and how one day she just heard Grace’s voice talking in her head and the book came very quickly after that.  This is part of the power of the book.  There is lots of information out there about Autism, but the voices of the Autistic are often left out of the discussion.  It is important to hear those voices and that is what this book does.  And as society is only just starting to acknowledge the significant difference between girls and boys experiences of Autism, and having a book that acknowledges the particular struggles and strengths of girls is timely and important.

 

One reason you will find me an unreliable reviewer for this book is because there are people in my life who are on the spectrum and anything that helps me to understand and care for them is like the most precious gold for me.  But that is another reason I recommend it.  I don’t care if you will enjoy the book (though you probably will).  I don’t care if it is beautifully written (which it is).  I just want you to read it, because I want you to experience life in Grace’s world.

And maybe if you do, you can make this world a little more bearable for all the wonderful Grace’s in it.

 

Where you are

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Reflections on a Day at “the Prom”

He is up on his toes, his eyes looking forward at the waves ahead.  His stripy undies sag with the weight of wet sand and water.  “There is another one.  Let’s jump!”  So we do.  My legging are drapped over my shoulders and I’ve stopped worrying about the waves lapping against the hem of my dress.

I’ve stopped worrying about most things.

It didn’t occur to me that the water would be this warm, or that he would want to be in it.  But here we are.  There is no wind, so it doesn’t matter that we are half in and half out.  The sun sits low over the rocks and sends it’s perfect yellow light over the two Oberons.

He is happy and brave.  When the wave knocks him to his seat he stands up and calls out “never-mind”.  As if he is a wave-jumping veteran and not the same boy who barely touched the retracting waves over Summer.

He is getting tired, now he wants to jump up into my arms.  Normally I would say “No, Mummies back will get sore.”  But today I want to hold him as much as he wants to be held.

That night the three guitars come out.  The first few choices are obvious.  “The Boxer”. “Fire and Rain”. I look around the room.  You can spot those with Clarke blood.  Those who married-in might nod and smile and hum the eighties tunes.  But those of us raised by a Clarke brother can’t help singing along.  Seventies and Eighties folk was our childhood bread and butter.

We do Annie’s song.  The words are so simple, and yet always make me a little teary.  Particularly here, where nature is just on the other side of the cabin door.  You fill up my senses, like a late-night wombat hunt.  Like Squeaky beach in autumn.  Like the view from Telegraph Saddle.

We end with Paul Kelly’s “How to make Gravy”.  We can’t go on after that, we are all in tears, thinking about that poor imaginary man stuck in jail as his family celebrates Christmas.

So much of life is looking forward or back.  Waiting until we get to go to this place or experience that adventure.  Voyerising those who are currently where we want to be, or who are doing the things that we long to do.

But not always.  Not this weekend.

Because sometimes where you want to be is exactly where you are.

Four Kids

When people ask me what it is like having four kids under five, I tell them that it is like being a Triage Nurse in an Emergency Department.

You know the one.  S/he is the gatekeeper who decides which cases are the most important.  So when my son broke his arm, the Triage nurse sent him straight through to the Emergency Doctor.  Even though he had only just arrived, the nurse decided his case was more important than Mr Forty with an unexplained rash or Ms Seven with a pea up her nose.

That is my life at the moment.  I am an Emergency room Triage nurse.

Let me illustrate.

I am sitting on the couch feeding my youngest.  Child A says he’s hungry.  Child C says she wants a drink of milk.  Child B wants me to read a story.

I triage and read the story while feeding the baby.  The others must wait then I get child C her milk (because thirst trumps hunger) and then get Child A their snack.

Or the house is a mess and one child is wearing no pants but another child is crying from a bump and the baby needs a change and another child wants to tell me about a bug he just found.

I first comfort the crying child, then change the baby nappy while listening to the bug story, then I find the pants and assist the child to put them back on.  The house remains a mess.

Or One child wants a push on the swing while another is wearing no pants and another wants a drink and the baby is awake.

So I get a drink for the thirsty child and put the baby on the mat outside while I push the other child on the swing but wait I forgot the pants just wait a minute darling I’ll be back in a minute I just need to dress your brother/sister.

And of course, different things take precedent at different times.  If someone is coming over then tidying and wearing pants goes straight to the top of the triage list.

But then sometimes one child is reading a story while another is singing to the baby and another is telling me the names of all the train stations from Belgrave to the City.

And then it is just the best.

2017 Writing Lessons- The Power of Distance

It says something about the start of 2018 that I am only just getting around to this post.  Blogging has once again dropped down my list of priorities, as I navigate life with 4 kids and settle my boys into a new kinder year.  But I am keen to blog, and I thought the best way to start the year was to give you a picture of how my writing life has been tracking.

2016 ended with the excitement of knowing that I had actually finished something.  A full first draft of “The Librex”; my first novel.  There were no such exciting milestone’s last year. Yet 2017 was probably one of the most significant years in my writing life.  I decided to take a little break from my work-in-progress (WIP) to work on other projects.  I though it would be prudent to do some more formal learning, so I enrolled in an on-line Fantasy writing course.

The lessons that I learnt last year will be crucial tools in the years to come.

One of those lessons was the power of distance.

One of the most repeated suggestions for editing a first draft is that you need to have a break from it to get some perspective.  That distance can help you to see it in a realistic light.  But having just finished my first ever novel draft I was itching to work on it, to make it better, to bring it closer to the stage where I might actually be able to get it published.  But I made myself promise to leave it alone for three months, while my sister and husband read through it and gave me their feedback.

That three months became six months because my husband was still finishing off his feedback.

Then six months became almost a year because editing is soul-crushing and writing from scratch is much more fun.

But as 2018 begins, I am beginning to edit.  And I am amazed at how helpful a bit of distance has been in how I edit my novel.  I am willing to scrap. I am willing to change. I have the gained the ability to read my work almost as if it wasn’t me who wrote it.

A year ago, changing the name of a character seemed impossible because I-love-that-name-I-picked-it-because-of-XYZ-He-Just-Couldn’t-Be-Called-Anything-Else.  Now I am willing to cut characters, scenes and events, because I am more committed to what the book can be, than to what I originally wrote.

Though changing the name of that character is still heart-breaking!

I may not always have the time or opportunity to get a years break from a writing project.  But I’ve found a little distance is a great gift to the editing process.

Review: Carve the Mark by Veronica Roth

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Reading books is an absorbing experience for me.  I find it very hard, in the middle of reading a new story, to put it down and return to the real world.  Reading new books usually involves sneaking off to my room to avoid interruptions, nights of “just one more chapter” insomnia, and doing all my daily task and human relating through a fog of other-worldliness.

So as much as I love diving into new fiction, I have to pick and choose when is the right time to do it.

Walking through the seaside town of Lorne on holidays, I walked into a bookstall and saw Veronica Roth’s new book “Carve the Mark”.  It had been on a list of “Most anticipated YA books of 2017”.  That was enough for me to get it, and my family had spacey-other world Belinda for the next day and a half.

I had enjoyed Veronica Roth’s first ever novel Divergent, though the subsequent novels in that series had lacked a bit of the originals spark.

But Carve the Mark is a much more complex, clever, and entertaining than her previous books.

Carve the Mark takes place in space, on a series of planets that are part of the “current”.  The “current”, which appears as a visible coloured line in the sky, runs through people and is viewed as almost a spiritual essence.  It can power ships, it can be used in weapons, and it even causes flowers to bloom at the right time.

When every child in the galaxy comes of age they receive a “current” gift, an super-natural ability that comes from the current and continues with them for the rest of their lives.

The book follows two main characters, shy Akos of the Thuvhesit and Cyra of the Shotet.  They are two people groups, living on the same planet, and great enemies.  When Akos and his brother are kidnapped and held captive by the Shotet royal family, these two characters are forced together and must decide if they will remain enemies or will work together.

Cyra’s  current gift that doesn’t feel like a gift at all.  The current exists as pain on her skin, she is in constant agony and whenever she touches a person that pain get’s past on to that person.  This “gift” would be terrible enough fate, but as the sister of the tyrant ruler of the Shotet, her gift is used as a means of control and torture.

But Akos’ own current gift could prove to be the solution she has been craving.

I loved Carve the Mark.  It is such a creative, different world.  The concept of character’s developing magical skills when they come of age is not new in Fantasy stories, but the idea of the current’s role and the sheer scope of unusual manifestations is one of the highlights of the book.

The two main characters come from warring enemies, with negative views of the cultures they have observed from afar.  But as the two observe each other, they see a different side to the culture they have loathed, and to take a more critical eye to their own deep-seated prejudice.

A key example of this is the “mark” in the title.  The Shoet people carve a tattoo to mark every life they have taken.  For Akos with his preconceived notion of this “warrior” race, he viewd this as an aggressive boast.  Yet as time goes on, he learns to appreciate it, as he sees the appropriateness of having a physical and ceremonial acknowledgement of the cost of taking a life.

The highlight for me was the unique cultures of the book, how their histories informed their practices, and particularly how each had such a different take of the role of the current in their lives.  The book has faced some criticism of racism based on some misunderstanding of the basis of the two main races.  Veronica’s response is worth reading not only for her humble, thoughtful reply, but also for the insight into her process of creating the languages of the people.  Her post has helped me think more carefully about the way I create cultures within my own series.

My bug-bare is that while this book is the first in a series, there was no indicator on the book that it wasn’t a stand-alone book.  It is frustrating to get to the last page of a book and say, “Wait a minute, you mean they are not going to resolve that?” The ending would have been much more satisfying if I had been prepared for it.

It is very much a young adult book, filled with teenage hormones and complicated romance.  I found those aspects of the Divergent series not particularly subtly done, and while Carve the Mark was a step up, it still jarred occasionally.  The concept of two enemies learning to respect and then care for each other is not new, but the way Veronica uses their gifts and cultures in their relationship is entertaining and new.

As someone who has friends who struggle with chronic pain conditions, it was helpful to get a window into the life of Cyra and to see the impact of her “gift” on her.  Veronica even acknowledges her friends with chronic pain at the end of the book as the ones who inspired her to write of Cyra.  But I did have some hesitation about this connection.  Chronic pain is a difficult thing for much of the community to grasp.  I worry that some of the story elements of the gift (that it is somehow ‘chosen’ by Cyra and the ‘romantic’ source of relief), makes trite  a very serious and debilitating reality.

If you liked Divergent, or if you just like Young Adult/Teenage books with a little with a fantasy and/or space thrown in, then I recommend Carve the Mark as an entertaining example of the genre, and a very enjoyable way to loose yourself for a few days.

The first fear hurdle

Dreams are delightful.  They start when you are young.  For me it was always the dream to be a famous author.  When I realised I didn’t have the face for TV/Movies, or the voice for singing, I was left with writing.  But don’t misunderstand me, it was not the poor cousin!  Writing was the best of the lot.  Books were magical. They transported you into a new persons head and let you live out their interesting/scary/powerful/exciting lives.  The idea that I could make such a power object was a rather delightful fantasy, even as a small child.

And dreams are a lovely distraction.  Walking along my leafy street, pushing a heavy pram filled with heavy children, it is wonderful to dream of a possible future time where people might want to read my books.  Of book-signings and fans and travel and money.  And even knowing the reality that at least number 4 is unlikely to happen, it is still delightful to dream.

And the beautiful thing about writing a novel is, that for most of its creation there is no one to question your dream.  There is no objective voice saying “I’m not sure you are really capable of this task.”

And then you finish.

On the 1st of Jan this year, I stood by the desk at Officeworks, chatting with a friendly shop assistant about why I wanted two bound, identical copies of my 400 page document.

“I wrote a novel.”

“Oh, really, I want to read it.”  She grins and turns to the screen between us

“No, don’t.  I’m embarrassed.  It’s only a first draft” I splutter, throwing up my hands to block my words.  She frowns and nods, and then begins to interrogate me about how one goes about getting such a thing published.

I answer, the awkwardness of the exchange fading.  But it hit me then what it meant to be finished.  Suddenly my novel wasn’t just my novel, and my dreams weren’t just a fun distraction from the ordinariness of life.  My novel and my dreams were going to be tested.

I have taken the first step of that testing, passing those 400 pages on to my sister and my husband.  And as much as I love them and they love me, it was a terrifying step.  There has been helpful and painful feedback, in fact some of the most helpful feedback has been encased in some painful truths.  But this is only the beginning.  Not just for my novel but for the short stories that I am currently writing.  They will be sent out to magazines, and according to every authors biography that I have ever read, they will be rejected.  And people who have no interest or investment in my dreams will read my novel and decide that it is “not a good fit” or worse, “not of a publishable quality.”

There is a great deal of fear that I must push to through if I am ever going to get my novel published.

One hurdle down.  Many, many more to go.

Welcome to my new blog.  This blog will be a reflection on writing, some reviews and reflections on books and television, and bits of everyday life as well. Thanks for reading 🙂