Tag Archives: literature

Million Dollar Mom


Rebecca James never intended to be a writer. She spent her 20s experimenting, from teaching English overseas and waitressing to starting and stopping several university degrees. But she is being touted as the next big literary sensation. Sara Veal talks to her.

It’s the kind of story Hollywood would snap up the rights to and cast Cate Blanchett in. Last year Rebecca James, then 39-year-old Australian mother of four young sons, and her partner Hilary Hudson were facing dire financial straits when her second novel to be published, Beautiful Malice, spurred an international “million-dollar” bidding war.

Within a week the family’s lives were changed forever – although it actually was a lifetime in the making, with James’ two years in Jakarta and becoming a mother figuring significantly in her development as a writer.

“I’m a restless person, the path I wanted to take just wasn’t clear, and lots of things interested me, so I was easily led into other routes. Writing is just something I have stuck at and now that I will stick at – I love it,” she says by phone from her home in Armidale, a cathedral city north of Sydney.

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Turning the page on the Asian mystique


Between the covers of countless books lurks a mystical creature with multiple masks. Submissive and beautiful. Cunning and domineering.  Shy virgin. Adventurous lover. She is the Asian woman. Or rather what passes for her in fiction. Sara Veal lifts the veil on the inscrutable images.

For thousands of years, ever since the West encountered the East, an exotic vision of the Asian woman has inhabited Western literature, symbolizing the allure, danger and mystery of the unknown.

“In the Western mind, the fictional image of the ‘Asian woman’ is the most imagined, misunderstood and ‘fetishized’,” says Sheridan Prasso, author of The Asian Mystique: Dragon Ladies, Geisha Girls, and Our Fantasies of the Exotic Orient (2006), adding this ultra-feminine exoticism has been juxtaposed onto the Asian male, “effectively wiping out his masculinity in Western culture”.

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Author Notes: Chris Cleave


Sara Veal

Chris Cleave has been a barman, a long-distance sailor, a teacher of marine navigation, an internet pioneer and a Guardian columnist. Now the 36-year-old is an acclaimed novelist, as well as a proud husband and father-of-three. Incendiary, his debut novel, won several prestigious awards and was adapted into a film starring Ewan McGregor and Michelle Williams. His second and most recent novel Little Bee is the current #1 The New York Times fiction bestseller for the third week running, as of the time of writing.

What led you to write Little Bee?

I wanted to put a human face to the world’s refugee crisis. There is so much conflict in the world now, and the media tends to focus on the noisy, violent episodes, rather than the quieter and more emotionally-challenging lives of the people who are displaced by those episodes. But I believe that those human stories are the real story of our world right now, so it was something I felt urgently drawn to write about. And I think that’s something one can do in fiction: to tell a story that is entertaining, enlightening and emotionally true, about events in our real world. On a personal level, I became involved with refugees for the first time in my early 20s, when I worked for a few days in the kitchen of an Immigration Detention Centre in the UK. It opened my eyes to a hidden world.

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Sweet, stinging look at a swarm of issues


Sara Veal

In this information age, we are all aware of the world’s horrors. Villages razed to the ground, in the name of oil. Starving, swollen-bellied children too frail to brush away the flies that feast on them.

We’ve read these stories in newspapers, watched these images on television. Maybe even seen or experienced them firsthand. Unfortunately this deluge of poignant sights and sounds tends to have a desensitizing effect. It’s hard to think of the sea of sadness as consisting of individuals.

Chris Cleaves’ Little Bee, the follow-up to his best-selling debut Incendiary, turns up the volume of one of the voices among these masses – that of a Nigerian 16-year-old girl who seeks asylum in the UK. He pairs her with her superficially polar opposite – an upper-middle-class Englishwoman – and builds around the two women an affecting, often humorous tale that never sinks under the weight of the heavy matters it addresses.

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Mona Sylviana: Challenging ‘Chick’-Lit


Sara Veal

Think of women writers, and the phrase sastra wangi (fragrant literature or “chick-lit”) is likely to come to mind.

Authors like Mona Sylviana aim to dispel such dismissive and sweeping stereotypes, and their non-chick-lit writings will be showcased in a new short story collection that reflects what editor and publisher John H. McGlynn describes as a post-New Order willingness to confront “societal problems head on”.

“In my opinion, some examples of Indonesian women’s literature are referred to as [chick-lit] out of prejudice. And prejudice comes from discrimination,” Mona says.

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Return to the rabbit hole


Sara Veal

Adapting books for the screen is tricky, even with big bucks and star power there is no guarantee of getting it right.

Time and time again, audiences excited to see their favourite story brought to life have left the cinema disappointed, cursing the director for failing to match what their minds had conjured up.

Once upon a time, I would have said, without hesitation, that the combination of Tim Burton and Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland was a match made in adaptation heaven.

In Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice, The Nightmare before Christmas, James and the Giant Peach, The Corpse Bride and Big Fish, Burton spun magical, edgy worlds where you were never quite sure what would happen next, ideal for the irreverent Victorian fantasy. But Charlie and the Chocolate Factory left a nasty taste in my mouth, which overpowered my appetite for Roald Dahl and the delicious Johnny Depp.

So, I reserved my expectations. And Burton proved me wrong yet again – his latest attempt to adapt a children’s classic is a triumph, remaining true to the spirit of the source material while offering something new.

We first encounter an Alice much like the one in the books, at seven, complete with blue pinafore dress and buckets of curiosity – and suffering a constant dream about a strange land of wonder.

Twelve years on, Alice (Mia Wasikowska) is still curious, which puts her at odds with her peers and the starched white environment full of rules she is forced to inhabit.

Alice’s mother and sister hope she will marry a chinless aristocrat whose family now owns her recently deceased father’s company. Before she has to make a decision, she falls down a rabbit hole into Underland, a place she remembers from her dreams.

Or does she? As Alice surrenders to the oddly familiar world she finds, dream or not, she is expected to attempt a heroic feat, the success of which will decide the Underlanders’ fate.

Burton has fashioned a plot out of the book’s series of mad, vaguely connected events, one that well sustains audience interest in the 108-minute running time, without losing the essential whimsy. Absurdity is ever-present, provoking helpless giggles, and blended with plenty of heart that will ensure you care about what happens.

The plot-driven narrative suits Alice’s journey from uncertain girl to empowered heroine, transformations the Australian Wasikowska deftly manages, whether physical or mental. Her Alice is strong without being spunky – she is realistic despite her surreal surroundings.

There’s an unsettling hint of romance between Alice and Depp’s Mad Hatter, but overall the two have winning camaraderie, and you understand their support for one another without need for exposition.

Depp, forever a Burton muse, disappears into the makeup-heavy role, projecting pathos as the post-traumatic-stress-disorder-suffering Hatter. His English accent has come on in leaps and bounds since Sleepy Hollow, however his Scottish one needs more work – the instances in which the Hatter lapses into an angry Braveheart are only the false notes in an otherwise faultless performance.

Wasikowska and Depp take care not to overshadow the galaxy of supporting stars, most of whom are digitally manipulated or animated, mixing seamlessly with each other and the fantastical environment.

Helena Bonham Carter (Burton’s wife) as the toddler-like and decapitation-demanding Red Queen, is both villain and comic relief – and somehow sympathetic. The White Queen, the Red Queen’s rival and sister, allows the oft-sweetly neurotic Anne Hathaway to try something new – she is ethereal and a touch psychotic, like most of the Underlanders.

Crispin Glover’s Knave of Hearts is enjoyably deplorable, while the Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry) and the Caterpillar (Alan Rickman) are languidly voiced. The White Rabbit (Michael Sheen) is suitably antsy and the March Hare (Paul Whitehouse) is completely bonkers.

The often hangdog Timothy Spall works well as the voice of Bayard, a kindly canine who has to balance helping the Underlanders’ cause and looking out for his family. Little Britain’s Matt Lucas is especially entertaining as bantering twins Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee – or “fat boys” as the Red Queen amusingly refers to them.

Underland is gorgeously rendered, a shadowy rainbow place that sharply contrasts with the prim and proper Victorian world above. Within Underland are rich environs that reflect characters, such as the Red Queen’s psychedelic palace, the Hatter’s decrepit Tea Party and the White Queen’s austere castle, adding to the texture and expansiveness of the imaginary world.

The 3D is not integral, but there were moments when I tried to dodge “flying” objects. The CGI is a tad video-gamey at times, especially at the Red Queen’s palace, where Carter’s digitally oversized head bobs along unconvincingly against a painfully color-schemed backdrop. At other times, it’s eerily tangible, as when Alice steps on corpse faces in the moat surrounding the same palace.

More consistently impressive than the CGI is the makeup and costuming, particularly with Alice’s outfits as she shrinks and expands, and enters new places, nonchalantly donning couture outfits that fashionistas would give their eyeteeth for, and add to her development and the wonder of Underland.

Perhaps the best thing about the film is that it achieves closure – a rarity in this sequel-driven age. Burton may take two hours to tell Alice’s story, but he wraps it up, and treats the audience to many ingredients while he’s at it – a coming of age, an epic battle, hilarity, thrills and enough visual eye-candy to land you in a sugar coma. It satisfies while leaving you wanting more.

Future novel-to-film adaptors would do well to take a page out of Burton’s book – he’s created something existing fans will likely love, balancing admirably between faithfulness and originality.

Verdict: Maintains the magic of the book while offering surprises, adding up to a weird and wonderful ride you’ll want to return to.

Alice in Wonderland (Walt Disney Pictures, 109 minutes)
Directed by Tim Burton
Produced by Richard D. Zanuck, Joe Roth, Suzanne Todd, Jennifer Todd
Written by Linda Woolverton (screenplay), Lewis Carroll (book)
Starring Mia Wasikowska, Johnny Depp, Anne Hathaway, Helena Bonham Carter, Crispin Glover, Michael Sheen, Stephen Fry


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Unravelling an embroidered puzzle


Sara Veal

Brunonia Barry’s The Lace Reader, a delicately crafted mystery about generations of women in Salem, Massachusetts, is deceptively light, yet intricately patterned, much like lace itself. A mesmerizing first novel, it casts a powerful spell with its involving exploration of memory, misogyny and magic.

Like all the women in her family, Towner Whitney can read the past, present and future in patterns of lace, particularly in the Ipswich lace handmade by the ladies of Salem using centuries-old methods.

It’s a curse as much as a gift, with a disturbing vision catalyzing her departure from Salem 15 years previously. She returns home when her beloved great-aunt disappears, an event that forces her to confront her fractured and forgotten past, and discover what really happened to her twin sister all those years ago.

The Lace Reader reads like a dream, with misleadingly simple prose. While a sense of melancholy pervades and many dark subjects are addressed – loss, abuse – it’s also often funny, with an appropriate touch of wit breaking through like sunshine though heavy clouds.

Although the tale is full of magic and witches, it’s the kind that exists in real life, the kind that is part of modern Salem life, both for the benefit of tourists – tarot readings, historical recreations – and as an expression of the characters’ beliefs and insight.

Lace reading is heightened intuition – Towner remarks that everyone has a capacity for it – and seemingly fantastic events – disappearing acts, hauntings – are plausibly explained. Barry also sees and reveals the magic in reality, such as a “sparkling trail” of phosphorescence that follows a pair of lovers as they swim, which adds a fairytale quality.

As one might expect from a novel revolving around crafts – witchcraft and handicraft – women dominate the narrative. Most of the women are damaged in some way, victims of the men in their lives, much like the persecuted Salem “witches” of the past. Yet many are also strong, channelling their power through creativity and solidarity.

The main women in Towner’s life are warriors in their own way. Her mother May, though a hermit on her own island, rescues battered women and facilitates their completely self-reliant lifestyle – they grow and pick their own food, and even make the flax for their lace.

Great-aunt Eva is a Salem institution, able to pull strings to help others, and acting as a guide in both etiquette and matters of the heart. Though she disappears at the very beginning, she retains a strong presence throughout, guiding Towner and the reader towards the truth.

Lyndley, Towner’s long-deceased twin, recalled in flashbacks, is vivacious despite her difficult home life. Ann Chase, the most famous witch in Salem, is witty and supportive, a source of occasional refuge for Towner as she readjusts to her return.

Angela Rickey, a waif who also disappears, acts a thread that reconnects the women, demonstrating the way history inevitable repeats itself when patterns are kept intact.

While misogyny is explored – especially through the figure of Cal Boynton, a charismatic cult leader who has cast a dark shadow on the Whitney women’s lives – the men also receive nuanced characterization.

Detective John Rafferty, a transplanted New Yorker who has been assigned to the case of Eva’s disappearance is compassionate and curious. Beezer, Towner’s brother, has his own ways of dealing with their shared history and displays constant concern for his family. Jack LaLibertie, Towner’s first love, is both Prince Charming and pathetic, as trapped by past events as she is.

Towner herself is elusive, unsure of her past and – like the author – has a gift for writing that allows her to embroider her history, mending the many holes with her active imagination. The reader can never be sure of her interpretation of events – and neither can she.

This tale’s mystery and complexity is deepened by the layered narrative, which comprises Towner’s unreliable narration, Rafferty’s third-person perspective, police reports and excerpts of Towner’s journal and Eva’s The Lace Reader’s Guide.

Clues and revelations are artfully hidden throughout – the reader is invited to play both detective and lace reader, gazing into the story’s patterns to find the truth. Once the bigger picture becomes clear, you’ll want to re-read again and again – and will likely be able to see something different each time.

The lace motif is effectively exploited, working as metaphor, plot device and clue. Towner receives a piece of lace before she returns to Salem, which acts as a net to draw her back into her past. She clears all the lace from Eva’s home as if they were cobwebs. The Ipswich lace is often described as imperfect and flawed – yet beautiful – like Towner and May’s girls who have revived the tradition.

The lace, particularly through Eva’s guide, also serves as a unique lens through which to view Salem’s long history, hinting at the hardships the colonial women endured and the creative ways they adapted – another reflection of female power, specifically the power of the Whitney women.

This historical background adds to the strong sense of setting. Barry vividly evokes Salem and its small town life, depicting the continuation between its troubled past and touristy present, which later emphasizes the terror of a modern-day witch hunt towards the novel’s climax.

Salem and its islands are stunning, but full of dangers, from minor ones like rabbit holes to inescapable ones like abusive fathers. It’s an effective backdrop for Towner’s memories of her alternately idyllic and horrific childhood and adolescence.

Thanks to Barry’s deft handling of difficult subject matter, The Lace Reader ultimately succeeds in delivering a hopeful message. By unravelling a destructive, complicated pattern, it ends with a kind of freedom for its heroine.

The first thing you’ll want to do when you’re done is read it again.

The Lace Reader
by Brunonia Barry
Harper Press, 400 pages

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