Saradha Koirala

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Stuff I’ve Been Reading on the Train #2

I’ve recently moved house, but thankfully this hasn’t compromised my reading on the train time. As term 2 gets underway, I thought it timely to update you on my commuter reading habits this year. (You can read about the stuff I was reading last semester here).

Goodbye, Perfect – Sara Barnard

Goodbye, PerfectI felt very invested in the action of this YA novel. Narrated by Eden, whose usually “perfect” best friend has run off with the hipster music teacher, the old “trying to help someone who doesn’t want to be helped” tension was developed in a way that rang disturbingly true. Eden was a lovely nuanced character too, in foster care with a family who carved out a symbolic piece of garden for her to work and dealing with her own own feelings of imperfection.

Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen

Who doesn’t love Austen? I’m looking forward to teaching this next term.

I am Thunder – Muhammad Khan

I am ThunderThis is not my favourite recent YA novel, but I was drawn along by the tension and themes that feel important in understanding Islamic points of view. The main character struggles with controlling parents and, as a result, gets swept up into a world of extremism. The characters don’t quite feel real at times, with some clunky teenage dialogue, but the action progresses at a good pace and the choices and conflicts for the main character are important to consider.

Persepolis (books 1&2) – Marjane Satrapi

PersepolisPersepolis 2I enjoyed teaching this last term. Satrapi’s Graphic Memoir is another often neglected worldview – the effects of the Iranian Revolution on the population and, in particular, how these event shaped a childhood. Satrapi doesn’t portray herself as a perfect character, but she’s hugely likeable and struggles with all the normal teenage issues on top of bigger issues, such as faith, war, political beliefs and loss of family members. So many excellent scenes and the visuals are charmingly simple and affecting.

Homo Deus: A brief history of tomorrow – Yuval Noah Harari

Homo DeusI’m now currently reading Harari’s Sapiens, which is the back story in some ways to this. Homo Deus looks at where homo sapiens have come from and where we are potentially going, in a world where things like Google know more about us than we know ourselves; where we strive for immortality; where we’re creating artificial intelligence beyond our own abilities. Harari makes connections between topics that you never see coming, but are so convincing when they’re drawn together. This was an intense reading experience, as I couldn’t stop thinking about it and almost every conversation I had at this time seemed to be able to link to an idea from the book.

Take Three Girls – Cath Crowley, Simmone Howell & Fiona Wood

Take Three Girls.jpgThree YA authors each create a character who’s figuring themselves out and developing a relationship with the others. It’s not uncommon these days for YA novels to flick point of view every chapter and sometimes this feels pointless, especially if the voices are not particularly distinct or add interest to the story. But this works really well as the authors have their own voice and style for their characters and they interact beautifully. The book looks at some important ideas and the girls are drawn together initially by a “Wellness” class – a clever device for allowing them to be cynical and then accepting of self-care and relationship lessons.

The Shepherd’s Hut – Tim Winton

The Shepherd's HutI read this straight after hearing Tim Winton introduce his character and talk about toxic masculinity. I’ve loved Winton’s work for ages, and hearing him talk is so moving, as he’s a powerful blend of humble, intelligent, heart-felt and funny. The Shepherd’s Hut follows Jaxie Clackton as he attempts to cross the saltlands of Western Australia, escaping the home that has nothing left for him. He’s a deeply troubled boy, but I felt incredibly warm towards him and hoped only for his safety. The voice is authentic and consuming and the landscape – so often a character of its own in Winton’s work – stark and uncompromising.

Men Explain Things to Me – Rebecca Solnit

Men Explain Things to Me.jpgSolnit has become my go-to on US political commentary recently, but it was also useful reading her essays on the back of Winton’s talk, as she reiterates the problem of the patriarchy, reminding me that these ideas and facts need to be voiced by everyone, before change can happen. She’s scathing and funny, but hits you with the reality of a society where it’s all too common to silence women.

The Natural Way of Things – Charlotte Wood

The Natural Way of Things.jpgThis had been on my “to read” list for a while and I’ve been wanting to read more Australian writers since moving here. This might not have been a good place to start! I was engrossed entirely and compelled to finish to ensure everyone ended up okay, but it was a rather harrowing read with very little sense of hope. The detached almost dreamlike narrative was appropriate for the characters who, given their circumstances, were trying to escape mentally and physically, but felt a bit too removed at times. As with Winton’s work, the Australian landscape is characterised as a harsh and unforgiving factor to be endured or overcome. Don’t let me stray too far into the outback, okay?

Windfall – Jennifer E. Smith

Windfall.jpgI read this as much needed fluffy light relief and it did the trick. It’s very much a teen love story, which I’m not usually a fan of, but there are some beautiful moments and incredibly well-written dialogue. I admire an ability to capture authentic teen voices and show the rapport and easy connection between characters with clever banter. Teenager wins the lottery, but realises love is the real  prize in life. Aww.

Love Poem for Taika

Stuff I’ve Been Reading on the Train

When I got my new job at the end of June, the hour’s commute was initially daunting to small-town me. I talked about moving to Richmond, I investigated cycle paths (and therefore a new bicycle), I accepted rides from kindly colleagues, but ultimately the silent hour each morning on a train with a book won me over. Here’s what I’ve been reading en route to work:

Cargo – Jessica Au

Cargo.jpgSet in the 90s and beautifully, gently written, Cargo tells the story of Gillian, Frankie and Jacob one summer by the sea. This is a coming-of-age novel in dreamy long sentences and alternating points of view (something I can either love or hate in a novel). Jessica Au is a Melbourne writer and Cargo, her first novel, was highly commended in the 2012 Kathleen Mitchell Award for a writer under 30. http://www.jessicaau.com

Slaughterhouse Five – Kurt Vonnegut

Slaughterhouse fiveI had been meaning to read this for a while. Obviously it’s a classic, but I wasn’t expecting it to be so post-modern in its telling (self-conscious narrator, leaps in time and perspective, historical fact mixed with absurdist fiction) and funny in that dark and quirky Vonnegut way. Not your average war story and probably hugely therapeutic to have written.

Will Grayson, Will Grayson – John Green and David Levithan

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Somehow I have a class of Year 8s who are convinced I’m in love with John Green. It’s not even an English class! I guess I haven’t convincingly argued to the contrary, because seriously… he is wonderful. This book is so charming and funny and important. Written in alternating chapters by two outstanding young adult authors, the voices of the two Will Graysons are distinct and believable. It made me teary at times and the sweetness and bravery between the two boys who fall in love is pretty inspiring.

The Ties That Bind – Melbourne Social Writers’ Group

I’ve been so lucky to be part of two very active and supportive writing groups, both of which put together an anthology this year – no mean feat! The Ties That Bind is the second anthology from the Melbourne Social Writers’ Group and includes a range of work from writers at all stages of their craft. https://www.facebook.com/MelbWriters/

Wild Surmise – Dorothy Porter

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This is an amazing work. A verse novel in different voices, following the characters, Alex, Daniel and Phoebe. It has a marriage breakdown, astrobiology, space travel, poignant poetic references, explorations of sexuality, death, love. The verse style is almost operatic and allows the tone to shift from light-hearted to heartfelt to heart-breaking, page by page.

The Transmigration of Bodies / Signs Preceding the End of the World – Yuri Herrera

Herrera.jpgTwo novellas from a Mexican writer, I confess I’d never heard of before. I found this a bit of a stretch for me and out of my usual realm of poetic stories about human interaction. It had a fable-like quality with the main character called The Redeemer on a journey to restore peace. It’s hard to put my finger on the actual style of this, but I’m always happy to be challenged thusly!

Funny Girl – Nick Hornby

Funny Girl.jpgShout out to Nick Hornby in the title of this post, by the way (‘Stuff I’ve Been Reading’ is a phrase that belongs to him http://lumiere.net.nz/index.php/stuff-ive-been-reading/ ). I enjoyed the lightness of this novel, which is both about and in the style of a 1960s sitcom. The main character is a determined young woman with a robust sense of humour. This is the kind of book most people probably read on the train – pure entertainment, leaving one with enough brain power to function effectively at one’s destination.

In the Dark Spaces – Cally Black and Because Everything is Right, but Everything is Wrong- Erin Donohue

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In the dark spacesAnother slightly-out-of-my-comfort-zone book, In the Dark Spaces is YA sci-fi, while Erin Donohue’s debut novel is a poetic, gentle treatment of mental illness. You can read my full review of both of these here at The Sapling.

 

Midnight’s Children –Salman Rushdie

Midnight's Children.jpgI’m supervising a student who is writing an essay on the narrative voice of this novel. It’s so complex and clever and in talking to my student I have a deep appreciation for the way Rushdie has combined so many styles and techniques to create a character who creates a world. Describing the first 30 years of India’s Independence by personifying it through Saleem, born at the exact moment of independence, the world seems to revolve around his every move. Every sentence is packed full and perhaps takes a little more concentration than standing on the train at 7am allows.

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How Not to be a Boy – Robert Webb

I’m a big Webb fan, as in Mitchell and Webb, as in Peep Show, as in Jez. This is Robert Webb’s memoir, interspersed with reflections on masculinity. Webb’s trademark humour is present throughout, but particularly in describing awkward interactions and encounters. Typically too, he is quick to acknowledge his privilege and careful not to come across as too complainy. An important read in this era of calling men out on their behaviour – I recommend this interview as a taster: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4A4KHm3brJE&t=16s

A New Beginning – Women Who Write, Melbourne

A new beginning.jpgThe first anthology from the second writing group I feel so lucky to be part of! Another lovely collection and so much work has gone into making sure it’s a polished and cohesive range of writing, on the theme a new beginning. Women Who Write is a non-profit supportive group for women in Melbourne. They hold regular meet-ups and currently have over 600 members https://www.facebook.com/groups/wwwmelb/

 

 

Blackcurrant Honey

Here’s another little snippet of my somewhat-unwieldy current work in progress, called Dear Billy… This scene is set in 1991.

(You can read another scene from this here, set in 1996)

I’m pretty sure Danny woke me, but he’s teasing that I woke him when I traipsed clumsily down the hallway. Mum’s out of bed now too and we’re all eyeing up the Christmas tree in the semi-dark.

Danny says he was just getting a drink of water.

‘Well I can’t sleep,’ I whine

‘It is technically Christmas day,’ he says pointing at the glowing digits on the microwave that shine out a time so unfamiliar it takes me a while to figure out.

‘It’s past three in the morning!’ Mum wraps her dressing gown tighter around her, frowns, and folds her arms.

‘Yes, technically Christmas day.’ Danny knows how to disarm Mum, with his cheeky smile that comes out so rarely these days. ‘And we are all up,’ he says.

Mum rolls her eyes, but it’s already decided and there’s no going back once she’s flicked the switch on the kettle. My brother gives me a wink.

We agree the first thing we should open is the gift basket from one of Mum’s colleagues, since it’s covered in cellophane and we can mostly see what’s in it already. The rustle of unwrapping wakes the butterflies in my tummy. Mum pulls out some boring looking crackers, a small bag of candied nuts, a solid brick of real coffee that smells horrible and some nougat. Pretty disappointing.

‘Where’s the chocolate?’ I ask, rummaging through the discarded cellophane.

‘Ooh this looks good though – blackcurrant honey,’ Mum reads from the label. ‘Yum!’ She leaps up suddenly with the jar in her hands and heads back to the kitchen, which is now full of steam from the franticly boiling kettle. She pops some bread in the toaster.

‘I’m having blackcurrant honey on toast!’ She calls out.

We laugh at her excitement. I don’t think I’ve ever seen my mum at three in the morning before.

‘Okay, well, me too!’ I call back.

‘Okay.’ She whispers loudly and peers around the kitchen door. ‘But, let’s not wake…’ she points to the ceiling which represents the couple upstairs. Our landlords.

‘Okay.’ I whisper back

‘Okay, okay.’ We whisper at each other and laugh.

I choose the next present to open and hand it to Danny. I’m grinning with excitement as he takes it and feigns complete shock at receiving something. I can’t sit still. He unwraps it carefully, knowing how long I spent in my room wrapping and compiling the items from my trip to the mall last week. He probably knows how long I’d been saving my pocket money for too, since he’s had to do the same. His reaction when he opens it is better than I could have hoped for.

By the time the sun comes up the three of us are a pile of shiny new things and ripped wrapping paper, sticky with blackcurrant honey. Mum’s beaming smile at every silly little gift she opened from us was completely priceless. She’s had a million cups of tea and no one’s even mentioned the gap under the tree where presents from Dad should’ve been.

Looking up

Did you see me at the platform

as your window approached, passed?

 

Or was my head down as you boarded

same train, different carriage.

 

I’ve taken a vow of silence in your direction

shifted bags so someone else can sit.

 

Conclusions are drawn

with sweeping gestures in the street

 

sparkly things catch my eye, I won’t stoop to collect

it’s enough just to know they’re there.

 

The optometrist prescribed looking up more

and I don’t blame her.

 

Look out the window through your own reflection

she could have said

 

focus your gaze beyond the tips of your fingers

as you stand, core engaged, legs strong

 

eyes on that chunk of universe

floating just ahead.

 

It always helps to know which station

is the one before yours

 

and which you’ll be at if you’ve gone too far.

A Brief History of Seven Killings

That summer I was reading A brief history of seven killings, a weighty hardback issued from the library. Too heavy to lug out to parks or café courtyards, it anchored me into my new home. I lounged on the daybed and when people asked aloud what I’d been doing, the book’s title drew out my kiwi accent almost as thick as the tome itself. A reminder of the recency of my migration.

An odd choice of book, perhaps, but held in place by it I felt the sun pass through the house and, when I needed a break from the intensity, I walked to the supermarket in my new neighbourhood; each day a little taller, feeling more present. Roses bent their heads over picket fences and I learnt to recognise those worth stopping to breathe with. I took in the street names, smiled at locals, became one.

See-saw

Here’s a little snippety-bit of a scene I wrote this morning, from a larger work-in-progress called Dear Billy… This scene is set in 1996.

 

Harriet’s dancing self-consciously in the kitchen, still with bottle in hand and white dress looking only slightly worse for wear. Mark catches me watching him watch her and smiles, but only with his mouth. He pushes himself up from his doorway lean and moves over to me.

‘How are you still so compos mentis while your friends are completely wasted?’

‘Who said I was compos mentis?’ I’m not entirely sure what it means, but it doesn’t sound like how I’m feeling right now. The room is spinning gently and I’ve been standing at the kitchen bench gorging on corn chips like an animal.

‘You look very together. You can hold your booze.’ I can’t tell if it’s admiration or accusation as he looks me up and down.

‘I haven’t had that much to drink,’ I lie.

Mark leans across the bench towards me, which forces me to lean in too, his warm whispery breath is on my cheek and I close my eyes. The room spins more predictably now. Like I’ve tuned into the rhythm of it and it kind of makes sense. His voice is soft and low.

‘Most of the people here are morons, Sam Knox. Killing off their brain cells and flailing around.’

I smile, but keep my eyes closed, keep still. His breath smells boozey and smokey. He uses words no one else does.

‘I’m not saying I’m any better than any of them, Sam, but you probably are. You look like someone with better things to do.’

I open my eyes and shake my head, ‘No, no I’m having fun. It’s a good party.’

Mark grins at my protest, ‘you don’t have to be polite. Parties can be stupid. Wanna go for a walk?’

Outside I think about the cuddly jersey lying on the floor of my room. At least I have stockings on, but my skirt is short and jacket open.

‘Love the Soundgarden t-shirt, by the way.’ Mark says this without looking at me but puts his arm out just in time for me to grab as my shoe fails beneath me.

‘Thank you.’

Ant gave me the t-shirt for our four month anniversary, but something stops me from adding that piece of information. I mean it would be the perfect opportunity to mention my boyfriend. I let go of his arm.

‘Maybe walking wasn’t the best idea.’ He looks at me now. There’s that slightly creepy edge again and I wonder if it’s actually just how he smiles. ‘Those are very high shoes.’

It’s true, but his noticing makes me feel silly and girly. Who am I tonight anyway?

At the end of the street is a small park. There’s something invigorating about the cold air and starless night. Mark holds the end of a see-saw down for me and I get on, hitching my skirt high without even thinking about it. He gets on the other end and slowly bends his knees to lift and lower me. My feet don’t quite touch the ground when I’m in the air and that moment of lost control makes my stomach flip a bit.

‘So what’s your life like, Sam Knox?’ Up.

‘My life?’ Down.

‘Yeah, your life. Is it good, bad, has life been kind so far?’

I give it a moment’s thought as my legs dangle. How can I even be the judge of that?

‘I guess life’s been kind. I mean my dad’s a jerk, but he hasn’t come round in a while. My mum’s cool and my brother’s super smart.’

‘Ah family eh. What about you though? Who are you?’

‘Ha I’m Sam Knox!’ It comes out louder than I mean it to and I quickly cover my mouth with my hand, losing balance on my end for a moment.

‘Woah! Are you okay?’ Mark asks but simultaneously jolts the see-saw. I squeal and grab on tight. He jolts again and my heart starts to pound.

‘Wait stop!’ He doesn’t. ‘Stop! I said stop!’

‘Okay sorry, sorry.’ He straightens his legs so he’s at the top and I’m on the ground catching my breath. ‘You’re okay?’

I quickly clamber to my feet before he can move us again. My end of the see-saw rises and Mark ends up on the ground.

‘I’m okay.’ I look beyond him to the dark tree shapes, their leafy tops flailing gently.

‘Sam Knox.’ He says. ‘You’re Sam Knox.’ When I look at him he’s smiling, eyes and all. I almost smile back.

Bio

Mostly it’s easy, the days I mean

text book teaching senior biology

free periods in the staffroom. It’s a good life

I state as fact, not like saying, ‘she’s lovely…’

an epigraph to the gossip I write.

 

Suspicious of superlatives, endlessly

but hard-wired for romance

tell me I’m capable, resourceful, reliable

adore the way I follow through with things I say I’ll do

let my eyes be an after-thought.

 

And I’m probably on the brink again

because what else is there to do with this

flesh-covered universe we call body?

System of lungs and blood and gravity

tugging at us to love.

 

Anyway, turn to p80 that picture of the genome

looking to you like Dante’s hell

long-limbed chromosomes

tumbling headless towards a fiery cell

because you’re still sixteen

and haven’t understood any of this.

 

 

Vitamins

(hello) apparently there’s only so much

the body can absorb

excess passes through the system

pointless, flushed

 

I overdo it anyway, hedging my bets as always

conversation plates spinning across platforms

waiting for someone to fall

for me, me for them

 

now here I am living in the cadence

of your poetry

like a blush of tulips brought to my door

when I thought I just needed tissues

 

soft & gentle steeped in aloe vera, but still

just tissues I thought.

 

So I’ll learn to accept chocolate bunnies

perhaps even eat them – and the deeper meaning of emojis

(am I really so awkward, so unused to sweetness?)

 

Run through thunder to hear you read

make plans to catch trains irl platforms

irl smiles, trade a giggle for the view across your pillows.

 

Lonesome When You Go – on tour!

 

Lonesome When You Go is on tour this week around some of NZ’s top children’s book blogs!

The tour comes hot on the heels of Lonesome receiving a Storylines Notable Book Award – one of only two Young Adult novels this year! It was such a great ceremony to be part of and I personally had an amazing weekend in Auckland catching up with family and meeting some of the other wonderful writers, publishers and supporters of NZ literature.

Lonesome at StorylinesThe tour includes interviews with me and began yesterday with a review at Kids Books NZ. The schedule for the rest of the week is:

Lonesome When You Go is published by Makaro Press and can be found and purchased here!