Christy Collins

Thoughts on books, writing and life



Publication day

It must’ve been in July 2012 that I first heard the story of a bird species that was holding up the approval for a mosque development, which means that today – publication day of “The Price of Two Sparrows” – is eight and half years later.

There have been many people who have helped in many different ways over those eight and half years but for today the crew at Affirm Press, and especially my wonderful editor Ruby Ashby-Orr, should be celebrated. I’m so grateful to Affirm for their commitment to finding manuscripts and turning them in to books and then getting them out in to the world and into readers’ hands. Ruby, I’ve loved working with you on “Sparrows”. Thanks for your hard work, patience, persistence and enthusiasm.

Here’s hoping “The Price of Two Sparrows” finds some readers and starts some conversations out in the world. I’m very grateful to all who’ve helped get it to this stage.

The Stella Prize

In a few days the Stella Prize shortlist will be announced. A perfect opportunity to boost your reading of books by Australian women surrounded by the excitement and buzz around this prize. I followed the announcement of the longlist, on twitter, from home with a celebratory gin and tonic to hand. I plan to do similarly with the shortlist. Literary prizes are strange things and though I have sometimes been disappointed by the Stella lists (more by what was left off them, than what was on them), I very much admire the amount of interest, and the sense of celebration of books by women, that the team have managed to generate in the few years the prize has been running. Following the Stella is also a great way to encounter new books especially if you, like me, mostly read novels because the prize includes short stories, memoirs and non-fiction in its remit. This year in particular there seem to be a high proportion of non-fiction offerings on the list.

I’m excited to see who makes the shortlist next week. Good luck to everyone on the longlist!

Interview: Katherine Johnson

I recently interviewed Katherine Johnson about her new novel, The Better Son.

Katherine is a Tasmanian author and a fellow PhD student at the University of Tasmania. Her book is a fast-paced, sometimes claustrophobic, read and it brings to life a small corner of Tasmania, which she had a very interesting time researching.

If you are looking for a novel about families that never drops its pace, this is the book for you. I read it in a single day.

The full text of the interview is on the Australian Women Writers Challenge website.

52 Films by Women

We are coming up on 1/4 of the way through the year and it’s a good time to take stock of progress on things we’ve committed to for 2016. For me this includes a pledge to watch 52 films directed by women (I tweet about them using the hashtag #52filmsbywomen) and to read, a rather modest, four books by Australian women, reviewing three of them. The books are proving relatively easy – there’s an abundance of great books that fit the bill and I’ve already read Gap by Rebecca Jessen and The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead as well as the two books I’ve reviewed on this site Leap and The Submerged Cathedral and I have many, many more on my To Be Read (TBR) list – most of which are already on my bookshelf.

But the films are proving more challenging. It’s not that there aren’t many films directed by women but more that they form a much smaller percentage of the films out there than one might expect. No doubt that’s the point of the challenge in the first place. So, even if 52 films seems a bit much, I encourage you to have a think about who is getting to head up the film projects you’re consuming. And if you are looking for something to see at the cinema right now, you could do worse than check out the stunning SHERPA directed by Australian Jennifer Peedom. My full review is forthcoming on the Togatus website but in the meantime I would certainly recommend it, especially if you’ve ever thought of trying to climb Everest.

How to read a book you don’t want to read


Generally, for adults, I’m an advocate of reading what you enjoy and putting aside books that aren’t “doing it” for you in one way or another. But there are exceptions and, for the last few years my life has been full of them: book club selections (even my own) that fail to interest me, books my supervisors recommend, gifts or recommendations from family or close friends, books I need to teach. I find that often, despite my initial reluctance, I end up enjoying these books more than I would have initially expected. Indeed some of my  favorites are books I may well have set aside if there wasn’t some outside pressure to push on. So if you have something on the “must read” list here are some suggestions of how you might get through it:

  1. Download the audiobook and squeeze it in to your commute, your exercise time or while you’re doing the housework. I used this recently to re-read something my bookclub had selected that I’d read a few years back and it gave me a new level of appreciation for the book and let me experience it in a slightly different way than I had the first time around.
  2. Read it very quickly – at least to start with. This is a trick I learnt at university when tackling the more difficult sections of ‘The Sound and the Fury.’ For a first time reader Benjy’s section can seem impenetrable and the harder you try to sort it all out the more frustrating it is. And then a professor recommended reading it quickly and without worrying too much about the meaning line by line. Suddenly the meaning started to become clear and once it did I found I could slow down and still be able to follow. You can always go back and re-read it so, if you’re struggling try reading it very fast to see if that helps.
  3. Read in patches and skim in between. I find this works well for books others have recommended but that don’t immediately appeal to me. I skim, looking for sections of particular interest or relevance; I read these more closely and then continue. I will confess that this is not usually a very enjoyable way to read – or at least not for fiction – and I find it does not (unlike some of the other techniques I mention here) help me come to a good appreciation of the merits of the book. Very often, if I’ve done this, I seem to remain mystified as to why others speak so highly of it. I don’t know if this is just because tastes differ, or if it’s because this technique really doesn’t give a genuinely good book a chance to reveal itself to me. I save this method for things I am really not enjoying but must give at least a cursory reading. It allows you to have a semi-intelligent conversation about it with someone (perhaps the person who recommended it) down the line.
  4. Start again. Sometimes if I’m 30 pages into a book I’m not enjoying, the best thing to do is turn back and start again. Usually on a second reading I find it easier to get on the book’s on-ramp and pick up momentum. Not all books are initially appealing, not all open up in the same way with a first reading and by the time I’m at page 30 (or 50 or 100) hopefully I’ve learnt a little bit about what the book is doing, which helps me to approach it with more appropriate expectations the second time around. If you need to give a book a good read for whatever reason, I recommend this technique for getting a lot more out of the book than perhaps you might if you try the next method on my list.
  5. Give yourself a daily page goal and push through. This is a tip from one of my thesis supervisors and I do not enjoy doing it but it will get you to the end of the book. Read perhaps 25 pages a day. When you reach your daily target you can stop (though if you’re lucky enough to be in a section you’re enjoying you might consider pushing on).
  6. Read a review or listen to a podcast about the book. Maybe you’re missing something. Maybe the reviewer might offer you a way into the book you hadn’t seen. Is the author doing something particular with the language you hadn’t noticed? Be careful to avoid spoilers if these will slow you down further (podcasts are more likely to spoil books than newspaper reviews but usually they will warn you up front if they are the type of format that reveals spoilers). That said, the promise of an interesting plot point further down the line might be what you need to to be able pull yourself through a book you’re not enjoying.
  7. If you have time: put it away for a while. Maybe the time is wrong. If you don’t have to read it this month, you might enjoy it more in 6 months time. Books don’t go off. Often they get better with a bit of waiting.

Usually, when I’m able to push through a book I’m not enjoying I find it pays off in one way or another. Many people have the experience that a book they initially resisted, or that they had to put away for a few years, turns out to be one of their favourites so stay positive and read on. You might be pleasantly surprised.

Book review: The Submerged Cathedral, Charlotte Wood

Though I did not live in Australian when it was published, I am still a little surprised that I had never heard of Charolotte Wood’s 2004 novel The Submerged Cathedral, if only because its concerns closely echo my own: the sacred, the environment, travel and displacement, and the fragility of human relationships.

In the first section of this book Martin and Joss meet and begin to build a life together. Gradually, against a backdrop of family obligations, they begin to make some compromises which challenge the couple, both together and as individuals. Every interaction and every relationship dynamic in this first section felt so honest and true that it almost ached to read it.

Later, as Joss’ and Martin’s lives begin to push out into the world in various ways, the book seems to empty out. Martin follows the sacred, Joss the dream of a garden. Both of these paths seem hollow and though they each encounter symbols of the others’ path – for Joss her fascination with cathedrals, for Martin his work cultivating a vegetable garden – Woods allows her characters no shortcuts. She misdirects their correspondence and isolates them geographically so that the ache continues but now it is the ache of loss, emptiness and not knowing.

Martin’s journey in the centre of the book is difficult for the reader to understand. His life takes a turn that seems insufficiently motivated and the reader is simply asked to go with it, which perhaps compromises the resonance that this section might have had if we felt Martin’s own commitment to his new life, or the strength of the convictions he apparently holds.

The brief closing section of this book is earned and still it feels a little unsatisfactory. Somehow the emptiness of their time apart moves in to inhabit the book and a bittersweet, lonely, loss-filled close refuses to deliver the dream that The Submerged Cathedral allowed us to dream – that of a sacred and beautiful place where Joss and Martin might be finally allowed to find a home. Perhaps Wood herself could not quite believe in her own scaffolding. Perhaps she could not quite credit the idea of a real-world equivalent of the cathedral of the title, or of the Eden to which Joss constantly returns in her thinking, without it’s counterweight: Gethsemane. In the end it is emptiness and perhaps even the idea of being submerged, that remains.

I am very glad to have discovered this book and I know I will return to it.



Upcoming events and happenings

I’ll be giving away a copy of The End of Seeing as part of the Australia Day Bloghop hosted by Book’d Out. Pop back on the Australia Day weekend (24-26 January) to try your luck.

Join me and the other 2015 Viva La Novella authors on Thursday 25 February at The White Rabbit in Kensington, Vic. This event is hosted by Wayward Books.

All the Viva La Novella books and authors (ever!) will be represented at Clunes Booktown held in Clunes, Vic on the weekend of 30 April to 1 May. I’ll be there on the Sunday. By all reports this is a really fun weekend for booklovers and Clunes is now serviced by V/line so you can take the train.

Book Review: Leap, Myfanwy Jones

I picked up Leap because the cover, with it’s tiger stripes on midnight blue, kept jumping out at me. Jones is a Melbourne writer and Leap is on the Victorian State Library’s list of Summer Reads.

Leap deals with grief through an intertwining of two connected stories both set in Melbourne. Joe, in his early twenties, has paused his life due to regret and loss. He lives in a share house and keeps busy with his job in a restaurant, mentoring a young person, and training in parkour. On the other side of the city, empty-nester Elise’s marriage is breaking down but she finds solace in watching the tigers at the zoo.

The prose is clean and the book reads quickly. The relationships in the book are engaging and complex though I sometimes found the characterisation a little thin. We understand characters mostly through other character’s eyes, which fairly frequently led to my having revise my picture of a character well into the book. But perhaps this is intentional.

I had the sense that I was reading a book set as a high school text and I can’t quite put my finger on why. It’s not that the characters are young adults, but somehow the view of the world the book adopts seemed to fit that mold. Perhaps this is because Joe has been held in a sort of suspended adolescence due to his loss of his girlfriend in his own final year at high school.

I think Leap is probably quite a good selection for the Summer Reads program – it is clear, it reads quickly and is set locally – but it is not quite my type of book. I felt it wanted to manipulate me and I didn’t particularly enjoy the sense I got, about a third of the way in, of being ahead of where the author wanted me to be in understanding how the two worlds fit together. I think I would have enjoyed this book more if I had encountered it when I was in high school or perhaps my early twenties. That said Jones’ prose is skillful and her flair for storytelling is clear. I’ll be interested to see what she writes next.





Favourite books (that I read in) 2015

I can’t resist adding another list of books that you might want to consider adding to your Christmas reading list.

If you are wondering which books to buy (or indeed give as gifts) and which to pick up from the library, consider buying the books by authors who are still alive and picking up the classics from the library. This plan has the added advantage that you probably won’t have to wait on long reserve lists for new releases.

  • Outline, Rachel Cusk – in my opinion this is the most interesting of the recent crop of “somewhere between fiction and non-fiction, first person narrative” books making their mark on the literary awards lists this year. The narrator, a creative writing teacher, tells a story about the people around her and it is in the outline left by these stories that we are able to discern her shape as the book unfolds. A perfect summer read as it’s set in a summer-soaked Athens.
  • The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty, Vendela Vida – with many resonances with Cusk’s Outline and Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station this book, too, communicates through its silences. A fast, pleasurable read with a quiet intelligence to it.Short Stories
  • The Beggar Maid: Stories of Flo and Rose, Alice Munro – an old-y but worth looking up if you’ve missed it. Linked short stories by an undisputed master of the form.Novellas
    I love novellas and this year has brought me two very different new favourites:
  • Italo Calvino’s Under the Jaguar Sun is an intoxicating, sensual read, I’d feel light headed when standing up after reading it.
  • Another book which had a similar effect for a different reason was Rawson’s Formaldehyde – which requires the reader’s full surrender to its strange alternate universe(s).
    I love racing through a shorter book and both of these are a dream, almost literally, to read.Favourite re-read
  • I re-read Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap, this time on audiobook.  I greatly admired it once again, especially the interesting structure he manages to pull off with each character given only one chance to speak. A very cleverly told story of a small community that definitely holds up in the re-read.Favourite YA
  • This is not my usual reading fare but I have read a couple of Young Adult books this year and especially enjoyed the freshness of Ward’s Welcome to Orphancorp which I’ve posted about seperately here.Favourite audio book
  • This is a new format for me and I am learning to love a good audiobook for long bus and train trips and lazy afternoons. My favourite so far has been Eleanor Catton’s The Rehearsal which is a complex book, especially given the author’s young age, but which holds up in this format, perhaps even gaining something from the “performance” of the work, which echoes some of the themes of the novel.
    A late addition
  • I’m adding one final novella that I’ve just finished reading: Jenny Offill’s Department of Speculation – an exercise in “telling it slant” and in compression. Offill’s beautiful writing style, and the way she manages to reach out in so many directions at once, puts this book in the “I wish I wrote that” category for me. Highly recommended and a delightfully fast read that will have you wanting to re-read some or all of it even as you are reading it the first time around.

    Happy reading!

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