Book review – Billy Summers, by Stephen King

Title: Billy Summers

Author: Stephen King

Publisher: Hodder and Stoughton

Stephen King’s stories sometimes aren’t so much about the journey but the people and places we encounter along the way, and Billy Summers may fall into that category. Not that there’s an issue with the story. King knowingly, overtly – his protagonist knows the narrative he is playing out – lets us know this is the story of a hitman lining up his last hit and hoping to bag a retirement nest egg in the process.

Of course it’s going to go wrong, of course the hitman is going to try to save his neck, maybe take some revenge, right some wrongs. There will be complications.

But this is not, as Summers himself says, a Sly Stallone movie. King keeps it down to earth – with the exception of one little decorative aside, a nod to one of King’s early great successes – and provides the signature touches to freshen up this well-worn path.

STEPHEN KING READS FROM BILLY SUMMER

at youtube

King’s hitman is softened for the reader, a Marine with Iraq under his belt, a man with, as one character remarks, a moral code. He is fallible. What’s more, Summers is well read, a budding writer. And so the story swings, in beautiful rhythm, between key events in Summers’ past and his current predicament. Summers, well versed in the genre of his life, has an almost meta awareness of the role he is playing out, the dichotomy of being, if not a bad man then not a good man, who only kills bad men for his living. That awareness and his experimentation with writing allow for occasional ruminations and insights into the writer’s life, and reminders that this is not a Hollywood script – if he is writing the story of his life, it is not a fanciful tale; likewise, this tale in which he is starring is not fanciful.

Further elevating the story is King’s ability to present human characters – the warmth of relationships, the care for each other – and that sublime power of description. If a scene is a paint by numbers image, Kings know he needs fill in only sections 3, 4 and 7 for the reader to get the full picture, whether its street-to-street fighting in Fallujah or an unassuming rental in a middling neighbourhood of a nondescript American town.

And so we have it: set up, incident, aftermath, leading to the inevitable final comeuppance and the question of will he or won’t he, and the damage done along the way. And finally there’s the conclusion and the epilogue, which are pure killer.

Reviewed by: Jason Nahrung

Jason is Ballarat Writers Inc. publicity and communications officer

Review copy provided by the publisher

Book review – The Final Revival of Opal & Nev, by Dawnie Walton

Title: The Final Revival of Opal & Nev

Author: Dawnie Walton

Publisher: Quercus Editions, 2021

The Author

Dawnie Walton is an American freelance journalist and fiction writer living in Brooklyn, New York.  Walton’s status as a low-profile celebrity and storyteller has been significantly boosted by her debut novel, The Final Revival of Opal & Nev.  If you have a watch list for authors, Dawnie Walton is worth putting on it.

The Book

From page one Walton draws the reader into the lives of the characters inhabiting this book.  Love them or loathe them, you will get to know them.

There are effectively two interconnected narratives running through this book. The most obvious is the retrospective stories of Opal Jewel and Nev Charles, rock stars, who had collaborated, infamously, early in their careers.  The second is the personal journey experienced by high-flying magazine editor Sunny Curtis as she pieces together the lives of Opal and Nev for a book intended for publication in conjunction with Opal and Nev’s reunion performance.

Walton has Curtis present the underlying story of Opal and Nev as a series of interviews with them and their contemporaries. This gives the reader a broad view of the pair and is a convenient way of dealing with the expanse of time.  Curtis, who is the interviewer, is connected with the Opal and Nev story through the father she never knew.  Gradually Curtis learns “the truth” behind the defining incident in the early careers of Opal and Nev.

This is a very complex piece of writing, but a delight to read. It is easy to follow – the complexity comes from the multi-layering and intertwining of the stories of the major characters, including Curtis.

10 books about music and musicians, selected by Rebecca Kauffman

at the guardian

On the bell curve of normality Opal and Nev are both outliers.  The struggle for acceptance is a dominant theme.  In some ways the protagonist in this book could be the marginalised, and the story arc, how they come to grips with their struggle for a place in society.

To me this book shows us that love, ambition, jealousy, empathy are all common human traits, regardless of background; shades of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice “if you prick us, do we not bleed”.  However, there is no stepping away from the everyday struggle of black people, especially women, to overcome implicit bigotry and bias.

I thought Walton did a fantastic job in developing the characters; by the end of the book I was concerned for Curtis, she still has a lot to learn. As for Opal and Nev, I was less forgiving, especially Nev. Opal’s self-honesty is redeeming. This is probably not the result Walton would expect, but each to their own. We value diversity provided it is respectful, which I think is the point of the story.

Reviewed by: Frank Thompson

Ballarat Writers Inc. book review group

Review copy provided by the publisher

Book review – The Mind Travellers, by Phillip Boas

Title: The Mind Travellers — Book 1: Zed and Olaria

Author: Phillip Boas

Publisher: Shawline Publishing Group

Mind Travellers is a thought-provoking debut novel by Trentham’s Phillip Boas. Written as a science fiction tale, the story leverages Phillip’s experience as a psychologist, management consultant and leadership specialist.  These experiences have led him to consider how society might work if, from the boardroom to the bedroom, there were fewer ulterior motives, less deception and less duplicity in people’s lives.

Mind Travellers is set in the not-too-distant future.  An overcrowded Earth is struggling environmentally. Corporate dynastic families dominate the world; they see shifting people to other planets as a solution to overcrowding and a way of generating even more wealth for themselves.

The story’s main character, Dr Zed Eko, is a crew psychologist with Space Fleet Command. We first meet Zed as he boards the spacecraft Sunstreamer before it heads off on a special mission to investigate anomalies on a newly discovered planet. 

Arriving at the new planet, Zed and the mission crew meet the Olarians, a human- like race with powerful telepathic and telekinetic abilities. Knowing what everyone’s thinking makes it difficult to be deceitful.  Despite their abilities, the Olarians have problems of their own. 

What are we thinking? More books about telepaths!

at goodreads

Zed forms a relationship with the Olarian leader Olaria, which takes on another dimension when Olaria enables Zed’s latent telepathic abilities. From this point Zed’s life becomes complicated as Zed and Olaria become instrumental in influencing the relationship between humans and Olarians.

Phillip’s depiction of senior leadership personality traits is masterful. His portrayal of the head of Space Fleet Central Command has a disturbing degree of reality about it.  At times, Phillip is rather clinical in laying bare the games and subtle strategies of subterfuge used by senior leaders. 

Mind Travellers is an interesting read because of the values and concepts presented for conducting human relationships. There is a lot of emphasis on openness, honesty, and trust, something many might agree is lacking in our society today. While there are displays of telepathic force by Olaria and later Zed, Phillip has exercised restraint, recognising that one cannot make the ills of society better by waving a magic wand or simply wishing it so. 

This is a book written by a person who has had the opportunity to observe life at many levels, there is wisdom within its covers – it is well worth a read.

Reviewed by: Francis Thompson

Ballarat Writers Inc. Book Review Group

August Members’ Night goes online

With new lockdown restrictions ruling out our usual meeting at the Bunch of Grapes, our monthly Members’ Night is going to Zoom on Wednesday 25 August. Details have been sent via newsletter, so please let us know if you have not received them or need assistance with navigating the Zoom environment! Fingers crossed we will be back at the table in September!

Book review – The Turnout, by Megan Abbott

Title: The Turnout

Author: Megan Abbott

Publisher: Hachette/Virago

Megan Abbott made her mark early with noir novels and more recently splashed onto Netflix with the adaptation of her novel Dare Me, set in the world of cheerleading. 

Here, she combines those influences with a contemporary Gothic atmosphere centred on a ballet school run by the sisters Dara and Marie and Dara’s husband, Charlie. All three have risen through the dance ranks under the tutelage of the girls’ mother, the pains, scents, jealousies and beauty of the art beautifully evoked as the school prepares for its signature annual production, The Nutcracker.

Tchaikovsky’s ballet is, we are told by one of Abbott’s characters, in part an exploration of desire, and Abbott makes full use of this as The Nutcracker infuses the story in theme and imagery. As with The Nutcracker, so too ballet; even the chapters are cut into small steps, each dramatically opening with a drop capital but the whole coming together in a smooth movement under Abbott’s assured direction.

Repetition in words and phrases adds to the lyrical quality in Abbott’s prose that may, very occasionally, make a small misstep but never stumbles. It’s an exquisite rendering, the book’s title itself a reference to a key ballet stance given extra meaning in Abbott’s skilled hands. 

The school, dated and drafty, and the trio’s home, even more tired and still echoing with the girls’ parents’ tumultuous relationship, form the key sites of this claustrophobic tale. We see, hear and smell these locations through Dara’s point of view as she stoically maintains the school’s tradition alongside the impetuous Marie and impaired, beautiful Charlie. 

The trio’s relationship is increasingly brought under pressure by the arrival of a stranger into the school and their lives. There are secrets and there are tragedies, and while these are unlikely to surprise, they do unfold in perfect timing across the novel’s four acts, allowing the sisters to have, like The Nutcracker’s heroine Clara, their journey from childhood to a newfound maturity and freedom. (It is no coincidence that Marie is an alternative name for the Nutcracker‘s Clara.)

This being an Abbott book, such a journey of discovery does not come without a cost, and nothing is assured. In this, the story again mirrors ballet: beauty built on pain, a journey that entrances every step of the way.

Reviewed by: Jason Nahrung

Jason is BWI communications officer / Review copy provided by the publisher

Book review – Sugar Town Queens, by Malla Nunn

Title: Sugar Town Queens

Author: Malla Nunn

Publisher: Allen & Unwin, 2021

Malla Nunn is a film director and multi-award-winning author of adult crime novels, plays and film scores and, more recently, two young adult novels. Sugar Town Queens is the second of these. She was born and raised in Swaziland before migrating to Western Australia with her family where she finished school and commenced her university studies. Since then, Malla has studied and worked in the USA and Zanzibar and is now settled with her husband in Sydney.

Like Malla herself, the protagonist of this story, Amandla, is a mixed-race girl. She lives with her mother, a white woman, in a one-roomed shack on a lane that has no name in a township a few miles from Durban. Their poverty is palpable. However, Amandla, despite the difficulties of her life – and there are many – points out that they are not the poorest, there are others even poorer.

As the story unfolds the reasons for their dire situation are revealed. These reasons revolve around events that occurred before Amandla’s birth fifteen years earlier. Something back then caused her mother, Annalisa, to develop gaps in her memory and to behave in some unorthodox ways. A white woman living in a township is the first of these, as is the isolation she imposes on Amandla and herself from the rest of the community. The book revolves around Amandla’s efforts to discover the reasons for her mother’s mental state and their living situation.

Amandla faces a range of issues in her quest for the truth. These include both overt and covert racism, the structural inequalities that still exist in Nelson Mandela’s South Africa of ‘rainbow people’, and her mother’s obvious mental health problems. A severe lack of physical and financial resources is more than met by the resourcefulness of Amandla herself, and the group of friends – the queens of the title – she gathers around her as she discovers facts important to her history and her future, and creates community for her and her mother. The strength and resilience of young people, particularly the young women of the story, as they cohere as a group is powerful. This is particularly so when they deal with a violent incident.

The writing is gripping, with well-rounded characters and (mostly) believable situations. Nunn’s depiction of family relationships in all their complexity is deft and nuanced. She weaves the larger issues of family, community, belonging, self-discovery and social inequality into the weft of a highly personal narrative. The exploration of characters who tend not to adhere to what is deemed acceptable adds to the complexity of the story without being heavy-handed.

Reviewed by: Elisabeth Bridson, June 2021

Ballarat Writers Inc Book Review Group

Southern Cross Short Story Competition 2021

Ballarat Writers Inc. (BWI) invites writers to enter the 2021 Southern Cross Short Story Competition.


Opening date:            1 August, 2021

Closing date:              30 September, 2021


Short stories to 3000 words on the theme, TURNING AWAY.

First prize –                $1000 AUD

Second Prize –          $400 AUD

Third Prize –              $100 AUD

Two Highly Commended certificates will also be awarded.

To be announced November 2021

Entry Fee to be paid online at: https://www.trybooking.com/BSYVW

Ballarat Writers Inc is a non-profit organisation, Incorporation No. A001874SK

2021 JUDGE – JULIE KOH

Julie is the author of two short-story collections. Her full-length collection Portable Curiosities was shortlisted for numerous awards, including the Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction 2016 and the Queensland Literary Awards – Australian Short Story Collection – Steele Rudd Award 2016. Portable Curiosities was one of The Guardian’s Best Australian Books of 2016.

Julie’s short stories have appeared in many publications, including The Best Australian Stories in 2014 to 2017, Best Australian Comedy Writing, The Sleepers Almanac 7 to X, The Canary Press, Liminal, Meanjin and The Lifted Brow. 

She judged the 2017 Monash Undergraduate Prize for Creative Writing, Writing NSW’s Varuna Fellowships 2017, the Sweatshop Youth Week Writing Competition 2018, the 2018 Stella Prize, the 2018 Woollahra Digital Literary Award – Flash and Short Fiction, and the 2019 Liminal Fiction Prize.

More at https://jylkoh.com/

WINNING WRITERS AND STORIES

The winning stories will be announced at an award presentation in Ballarat in November 2021. The full results and judge’s report will be published on the Ballarat Writers Inc website www.ballaratwriters.com in December 2021.

COMPETITION GUIDELINES

  1. Competition is open to anyone over the age of 18 years as of 1 August, 2021
  2. Entries must be NOT MORE THAN 3000 words including the title
  3. All entries must have a title
  4. Entries must be the original work of the applicant
  5. Entries must not have been published anywhere, broadcast, or won a prize in any competition
  6. Entry fee for non-BWI members is AUD$20 per story/entry
  7. Entry fee for BWI members is AUD$15 per story/entry
  8. Entrants may submit up to three entries, each at the specified entry fee
  9. The entry fee is payable online by credit card before midnight on the closing date 30 September 2021 – refer to submission instructions below
  10. Entries must be emailed to the email address below, before midnight on the closing date 30 September 2021 – refer to submission instructions below
  11. All entries to be in English, double-spaced and using the standard 12 point font ‘Times New Roman
  12. Entrant’s name must not appear on/in the story
  13. Fees will not be refunded
  14. No corrections will be accepted, or correspondence entered into
  15. Results will be announced on the website: www.ballaratwriters.com in December 2021
  16. Copyright remains with the author
  17. The judge’s decision is final
  18. Neither the BW Competitions Co-ordinator nor any person involved in pre-reading or judging of entries may enter.

N.B. By submitting an entry, or entries, to this competition, you give permission for your work to be published in part or in full on the Ballarat Writers Inc website, and/or in any Ballarat Writers Inc publications, and you further agree and declare that the work submitted is your own original work and has not been copied in part or in full from any other source.

SUBMISSION INSTRUCTIONS

The 2021 submission process has two parts:

  1. PAY the entry fee online by credit card through Trybooking. A booking fee of 50 cents applies to each entry. See below for the payment website.
  2. EMAIL your story to the email address below (ballaratwriterscompetitions@gmail.com). Save your story as a PDF file, and attach it to your email. In the subject title of your email, put ‘Southern Cross Competition 2021’. In the body of the email, include your full name and address, the title of the story and the word count. The email address by which you submit your entry will be the email address we use to contact you if necessary.

Both parts above must have been completed before midnight on the closing date 30 September, 2021.

Failure to follow/abide by any of the stated rules may make your entry, or entries, ineligible.


Submissions:
PAY fee online at: https://www.trybooking.com/BSYVW
EMAIL  story to: ballaratwriterscompetitions@gmail.com

Queries:

Email: ballaratwriterscompetitions@gmail.com
Competition website: www.ballaratwriters.com

Book review – Widow Land, by C.J. Carey

Title: Widow Land

Author: C.J. Carey

Publisher: Quercus, 2021

C. J. Carey is the pseudonym of Jane Thynne,  British novelist, journalist and broadcaster who has also written a number of fictional historical series.

Widow Land is heavily reminiscent of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale but there are significant differences. Instead of being set in a dystopian American future it looks back to an alternative outcome in real-life history where an alliance is made between England and Germany, and World War II is avoided. Real personages are referenced from history among both the English and German aristocracy and including politicians at the time who supported Nazi beliefs. In Widow Land Prince Edward and his American socialite wife Wallis Simpson will be crowned King and Queen of England.

In the early days of the Alliance every female over the age of 14 has to present for Classification. At the bottom of the new caste system are the Friedas who live in a decrepit area outside the city called Widowland. The Friedas are ‘the widows and spinsters over 50 who had no children, no reproductive purpose, and who did not serve a man’.

The main character, Rose, is a Geli, an elite, and the book begins with her unthinking acceptance of the new regime, protected by her status, endeavouring constantly to stay within the protocols demanded of them all. She accepts without question the caste system that relegated all women to rules which affected every second of their lives ranging from how many calories they received daily to denial of any rights over their baby’s lives.

Though the Gelis are more protected than the others they are also little more than playthings for the mainly older SS men who pick and choose among them for potential girlfriends or wives. The threat of demotion hangs consistently over their heads should they fail to find a man willing to marry them. They are also unable to keep any child born of their liaisons.

Rose works for the Culture Ministry editing the work of the great writers ranging from Virginia Woolf to the Greek and Roman classics. Her task is to rewrite anything that presents women as strong and independent, preferably replacing those characters with representatives of the Protectorate.

She is sent to to Widowland to question a group of older women living there suspected of writing the slogans taken from literary classics mysteriously appearing all over London. When she arrives she discovers the women she is sent to interview are living lives of quiet rebellion, and a life more genuine than her own, despite the strictures under which they labour.

At the same time she has her own secret. Alone in her room each night she has begun to explore writing, something forbidden to all women. Initially motivated by the stories of dragons she makes up for her beloved niece Hanna she keeps a journal, writing fragments mainly detailing private and daily aspects of her life. The introspection and honesty it allows slowly strips away her unthinking view and she begins to see more clearly what is around her.

The novel is well crafted, particularly in how it depicts how Rose moves from blind acceptance to awareness that, despite her hitherto precious privileged status, her life prospects are severely crippled and her future uncertain. Also how that realisation comes from the illegal texts she works with and her own writing practice. The weaving of historical reality in an imaginative framework is particularly skilfully done.

Widow Lands is both entertaining and informative, and chilling in the way it exposes the very real methods used by many in power in the past to manipulate the way we think.

Reviewed by: Rhonda Cotsell, July 2021

Ballarat Writers Book Review Group

Changes to our regular programming

MOVES AFOOT AT LATE NIGHT LINES CRITIQUE GROUP
Late Night Lines will NOT be running on Friday night, 30 July. Rather, this monthly critique gathering is now planned for Thursday 19 August, still at 7pm at the North Britain Hotel, 502 Doveton St Nth, Green Room – to be confirmed closer to the time and dependent on restrictions. It will shift to the third Thursday of the month from then on.

WRITERS CORNER POSTPONED

Writers Corner, to have been held on Tuesday 3 August, has been postponed to Tuesday 7 September due to coronavirus restrictions. The subject remains family history!

Be it a memoir or a story of adventure and mayhem, Family History is a popular topic, bringing a lot of people to the activity of writing.

Motivation can include simple curiosity, a desire to document notable events or the opportunity to tell your side of the story. Many people simply want to preserve their story for future generations.

And there are as many approaches to telling a family history as there are motivations – memoir and narrative, story form, and historical fiction, to name a few.

The hows and whys, the joys and pitfalls, of writing family history will be on the table for Writers Corner on Tuesday 7 September, a casual, loosely moderated discussion that is open to members and prospective members of Ballarat Writers. It runs at the Bunch of Grapes hotel, Pleasant St, Ballarat, from 2pm to 4pm.

Please register your interest at the Facebook event, or feel free to turn up on the day.

Book review – The Others, by Mark Brandi

Title: The Others

Author: Mark Brandi

Publisher: Hachette, Australia, June 2021

The author

The Others is Mark Brandi’s third novel. His first, Wimmera, won the British Crime Writers’ Association Debut Dagger and was released in 2017. His second, The Rip, was published in 2019. Mark’s shorter work has been published in various publications within Australia. He lives in Melbourne.

The book

The Others is a tormenting story of childhood naivety and trust—almost.  A diary, which the young boy keeps, is the narrative to his unusual existence. Jacob, an eleven-year-old boy, lives with his father on an isolated bush property refusing outside contact. His mother died when Jacob was a small child; he has vague memories of her. 

Sometimes, Jacob’s father leaves the property without him to collect sparse supplies in a nearby town. He promises to take Jacob with him on one of the next rare visits, but it never happens. He tells Jacob of fleeing the plague and that the outside world is unsafe. The boy’s knowledge consists of what his father has taught him in their home school lessons, often referring to the ‘others’, who can’t be trusted. The boy’s love of animals and his gentle, intuitive nature are woven cleverly into a rather harsh tale. 

Read a review of Mark Brandi’s first book, Wimmera

by sue turnbull, smh

Jacob learns to tread carefully and watch for signs of his father’s agitation. The boy suspects that something is going on when his father starts to frequent a certain area on the property that he is forbidden from. Jacob eventually follows his father and learns that all is not as it should be.

Mark Brandi has subtly combined the complex issues of child abuse and innocence with mental health. He also subtly identifies the futuristic time frame of the story by using the current pandemic as a past event.

Reading this novel is like riding a bike without brakes, down a long, sloping hill, knowing something is going to happen but unsure of what and when. The tension and truth the writer creates through the voice of a young person is superb and keeps the reader page turning to the very end. The Others is a book worthy of much acclaim.

Review by: Heather Whitford Roche, July 2021

Ballarat Writers Book Review Group

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