Oh What A Night!

The Children’s Books Council of WA’s annual A Night With Our Stars event was held on Friday 18 March at the Bendat Parent and Community Centre in Wembley. En-masked, sanitised and socially distanced teachers, librarians, publishers, booksellers, writers and illustrators were out in force, and those of us lucky enough to present were boggled at seeing the list of more than 75 – count them, 75! – books by Western Australians published in 2021. We really are punching above our weight in this state, and Friday’s event showcased a mere sliver of the talent out there.

Some of the presenters, mind you, were alone the producers of two (Amy Calautti, Aśka, Alicia Rogerson, Cristy Burne and Denis Knight) or even, ridiculously, three (Karen Blair, Jasmine Berry, Kitty Black) books in 2021 – although utter ridiculousness was reached only by Briony Stewart, who published four books with three different publishers.

I was the last presenter of the evening, talking about Mel and Shell, and rather felt the weight of the highly entertaining presenters before me. I was gratified at the response I received from the assembled crowd, perhaps because they were eager to return to the glories of the catering and wine supply – and I was even more gratified when a number flocked to my ABBA record display and fondly recall which they had possessed back in the glory days of the Swedish superstars.

Thank you CBCWA for organising another smashing event, and to everyone who shared in the joy. I leave you with a couple of happy snaps to recall the energy of the evening.

Thanks Bianca!
Ask H M Waugh how many times she’s been kidnapped
Seasoned professionals
You can tell we’ve entered a new phase of the pandemic
Not terrified of her first presentation at ANWOS, no!

How to Avoid a Happy Life: the blog

Dear Reader,

Shortly I will be launching a new blog here, detailing my trials, tribulations and hopefully triumphs in writing in a completely new genre, the memoir. I am debating whether to create a blog separate to this website so that the kids’ content and the more adult-oriented content is elsewhere. At the moment I think I’ll start here, but comments on the wisdom or otherwise of this approach are most welcome.

Here is some feedback from my mentor, Howard Norman, with whom I am immensely privileged to be working this year. This comment is both an indicator of what a fabulous mentor he is, able to wittily and aptly pull quotes to demonstrate his analysis, and also a pointer to what some of the memoir will contain:

I kept thinking, it is amazing how the narrator has stayed alive; I mean by that, it is a story of recklessness and survival, or, as A.S. Byatt put it, “testing the possibility of survival through bad decisions.

I look forward to being able to share this process with you – especially if you are in the process of writing a memoir yourself. Here’s to all the bad decisions, and surviving them!

Update: the blog is live(ish!) here.

Best Books of 2021

It’s the time of the year for best-of lists. Here is my selection of books you won’t (in my opinion) be sorry to read. This is based on my version of Tony Thompson’s version of Goodreads’ version of a list 😊

First book of 2021: My first 2021 books were published in 2020. The first was Death Leaves the Station, an absolute cracker of a first novel by Alexander Thorpe, witty and suspenseful both; and Cassandra Pybus’ heartbreaking and fascinating exploration of the life of Truganini, which both describes, as far as is possible from the limited records we have, the lives and rituals of the Nuenonne in Tasmania and the soul-curlingly cruel treatment they and all the other original inhabitants received from the white ‘settlers’.

Last book of 2021 (probably): Natalia Ginzburg’s Happiness, As Such: if you haven’t read any of her work before, I urge you to – her ascerbic and hilarious observation translates from last century and from the Italian effortlessly.

Best Novel: Karen Foxlee’s Dragon Skin. If you loved Lenny, you’ll love Pip. This book rent my heart from the first page, and ends with Foxlee’s trademark, hard-won optimism that is absolutely respectful to readers old and young.

Best Non Fiction: Maria Konnikova’s The Biggest Bluff, about decision making with reference to poker.

Best Memoir: I can’t possibly name the best one: I’ve read some astonishing ones this year (some I’ve been slow coming to) including: Kathryn Heyman’s Fury; Archie Roach’s Tell Me Why; Vicki Laveau-Harvie’s The Erratics; Damian Barr’s Maggie and Me (thanks Amber!); Alice Pung’s Unpolished Gem; Georgia Pritchett’s My Mess is a Bit of a Life (which had me snorting my coffee out of my nose more than once); and Miriam Margolyes This Much is True. I have also (see below) re-read Howard Norman’s I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place.

Author Most Read: Howard Norman, for reasons which will become clear in 2022. Howard Norman is a novelist from the US: his books aren’t widely available here, but when I first read The Bird Artist, which was a finalist in the National Book Award (USA) in 1994, I was entranced by the lyricism, poignancy and deep humour in his work. A friend (thanks Loraine!) recommended him and we are both of the opinion his work gets better and better.

Book I Couldn’t Put Down: Patricia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This. Take Meg McKinlay’s advice: do NOT look up any reviews/spoiler alerts before you pick this one up.

Most Thought Provoking Books: Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age, Tara June Winch’s The Yield; Yuot A Alaak’s Father of the Lost Boys.

Best Book about Elephants: James Foley’s Stellarphant (which everybody should buy for the child in their life).

Book I’m Still Reading: The 35 books in my TBR pile.

For the category of Worst Book, I quote Tony Thompson: Books take a long time to write and people should be kind. If you don’t like a book, there is no need to give it one star on some vile website and be horrible about it. No one sets out to write a lousy book.

To which I would add: Even if you don’t like a book, it doesn’t mean other people shouldn’t read it, or won’t love it, or won’t have their lives changed by it. Even if others don’t like it either, it won’t do them any harm to find that out all by themselves. And also, be kind.

As good as Dancing Queen

Hello dear Reader!

As of tomorrow, I am transitioning into full time writing/presenting/consulting, after a truly hectic couple of years/decades of juggling the various aspects of my life.

I am pleased that I will be able to go and talk to kids in schools more often now, and to be able to give proper time to my writing and research.

In celebration, my chosen mother fittingly sent me this, which is what I would wish for us all:

Mel and Shell: more reviews! More ABBA news!

What a time, dear Reader!

Not only has Mel and Shell made its way into the world, thanks to the superlative Fremantle Press, with the grooviest, ABBA-est cover ever!, but ABBA released two singles the day after its publication! AND they have announced concert dates in London in 2022 (I do not care if it is their avatars, naysayers – it will be an EXPERIENCE).

There are not enough exclamation marks or capital letters in the world to express my utter delight at this wonderful synchronicity. Nobbly (my Frida) and I have been messaging each other from opposite sides of the world, crying and laughing at the hope this package of events have engendered in us. And to those of us of a Certain Age.

And the singles are so perfectly ABBA:

The reviews of Mel and Shell thus far have been so lovely: from Wendy Jeffrey at ReadPlus, Anastasia Gonis at Kids’ Book Review, Sam at Lamont Books, Sarah Stivens at Reading Time, WritingWA and more. The review in Magpies by Alison Paterson says:

Award-winning author Julia Lawrinson has penned a tale of serious middle-grade issues in a light-hearted approach that ensures and engaging and enjoyable reading experience for the audience … with historical themes relevant to the Australian Curriculum. Humorous interactions between the often-melodramatic Shell and her more mature best friend Mel ensure that Mell and Shell will be a fabulous book to read aloud.

There have also been interviews: a fun Meet the Author at Alphabet Soup, and an audio from my favourite radio station, RTRFM, in which I am giddy from just having heard the first new ABBA single. I recently met with the delightful Chenée Marrapodi to talk about writing processes, ABBA, leaving school, horses and more: the link is here.

All this on the back of having a very busy Book Month: the pic below was taken on the last day at Karratha Senior High School, where I had the privilege of spending a couple of days with keen readers and writers.

Happy reading, all, and happy first spring if you’re on Noongar Boodjar.

Mel and Shell: the first review

Any writer knows the most important review is the first one. You’ve spent all these years working on your manuscript, and, beyond managing to interest a publisher, you don’t know how it will be received.

So I was surprised and delighted to receive this from Jan Nicholls for the Children’s Book Council of WA here and below:

Mel and Shell is a new book by Julia Lawrinson to be released by Fremantle Press on 1 September. Aimed at middle readers, and a must for ABBA fans, it encourages us to examine the past with fresh eyes.When you’re ten in WA in 1979 it can be tricky navigating friendships, coping with changing family dynamics and learning to roller skate but Shell finds unexpected comfort in her school history project. Charged with writing to a pen pal from 1829 to commemorate 150 years since settlers came from England, Shell embarks on a one-sided correspondence with Mary Ann Swift who sailed from Plymouth on the HMS Sulphur. Interspersed with letters describing the trials and tribulations of her daily life, her best friend Mel and their mutual love of ABBA and her long-held desire to ride a horse, Shell also enlightens Mary on some of the technological advances since her own childhood in a ‘Things that would surprise you’ section. Items such as telephones, washing machines, toys and electronic games are described in vivid detail that, as well as a hearty dose of nostalgia, also provides a fascinating history lesson for the reader. The interactions between the somewhat melodramatic Shell, her articulate and more mature best friend Mel and their nemesis Scary Sharon provide humour and pathos in equal proportions in this adventurous stroll down memory lane. Perfect to share as a read aloud this book deftly explores themes of loyalty and honesty and would make the ideal catalyst for family discussions about what it was like in ‘the olden days’ and what has changed since mum and dad were young. Fremantle PressJulia Lawrinson#CBCAWA

Jan Nicholls

It’s hard to come across a better endorsement than that.

Merry in March: Mel and Shell

Happy equinox to you, Dear Reader!

I am fantabulously excited to let you know that the ABBA novel, as was its working title, now has not only a launch date (September) but an actual cover (see below). The blurb and a sample chapter is now available here. Thank you Fremantle Press for such an inviting cover to the story of Mel, Shell and Scary Sharon; horses, rollerskating, and puppies; and how we think about the past in the present.

1979 was the year of ABBA’s Voulez Vous, rollerskating, Skylab (incomparably written about by Meg McKinlay), the Mucky Duck Bush Band, Leela as Tom Baker’s companion in Dr Who, and the Year of the Child.

[Aboriginal readers please note: the text below contains references to people who have died].

If you were a primary school kid in Western Australia in 1979, it was hard to miss the whipped up enthusiasm around the celebrations of 150 years of white settlement.

Less commonly mentioned in schools was that at 1979’s New Years Eve concert, Noongar leader Ken Colbung, hired to play the didgeridoo, handed the Governor an eviction notice, wittily reproduced on the same form as those presented to Aboriginal people being evicted from Homeswest properties.

Thanks to Hesperian, Creative Commons

I remember wondering (possibly due to reading the Little House on the Prairie series) what had happened to the Aboriginal people who had been around in 1829, and dug in the banks of the Canning river to see if I could find their artifacts (I didn’t realise their descendants were all around, despite the government’s best efforts). I tried to imagine what Perth would have looked like without all the roads and buildings, and felt sad, imagining how those people would have felt, watching the boats come in.

I am so proud of this book, and grateful for the continuing connection I have with old primary school buddies who helpfully supplied memories, anecdotes, cartoon names, and jingle earworms. Thanks to the fun nostalgia of the Perth Reflects Facebook Group (and Warren Duffy). Thanks to the patient staff at the State Library of WA for providing a haven and microfiche self service 🙂

And most especially, thanks to Dr Nobbly James, to whom the book is dedicated, and whose continuing friendship, wisdom, wit, and ABBA paraphernalia is appreciated beyond words.

2020, that’s a wrap

Well, we made it.

It’s been a year.

For those of us in Western Australia, we’ve had a temporary reprieve, of sorts, that the rest of the world has not been so lucky to have (and has led to some golden Mark McGowan-inspired comedy, the best of which has been by Jones of ARK.)

Western Australia hasn’t been immune in other ways: we’ve been restricted from seeing our loved ones, mental health presentations have been off the charts, and our frontline health workers are exhausted. But we know we’ve got off (to date) relatively lightly. Splendid isolation comes into its own.

I am grateful to be surrounded by creatives who have made something in the face of all this, or been recognised for what they have done, like my old comedy buddies Nikki Jones (see above and below) and Judith Bridge, who were awarded lifetime membership of the Laugh Resort recently.

Further afield, my oldest friend Nobbly has been creating a series of educational historical videos in the UK, and we managed to dress up in our respective parts of the world and appear together through Magic (see here at 1.30), throwing in an ABBA joke to conclude.

The Literature Centre, the Board of which I now have the honour of chairing, has managed to come through a tough year with support from our funding bodies. The Centre will be returning to renovated premises in the new year, and back into schools to deliver its outstanding range of programs with an outstanding range of writers and illustrators and storytellers. There are also now online programs available that open up the possibilities for more students to explore the pleasures and challenges of writing, without leaving home (or at least their classrooms!) COVID win!

Personally, I was incredibly grateful to that Maddie in the Middle was commended in both the older and younger readers section of the Australian Association of Family Therapy Award for Children’s Literature, as well as its earlier Notabling in the Children’s Book Council Awards. It is particularly cheering having news of this while I’m working the final edits of Mel and Shell (or whatever its final title ends up being!) over the summer, as well as writing what may be unpublishable reflections on the comedy of errors that comprises my life.

Let’s hope 2021 delivers us health (really), contentment, and dogs.

Ah, August!

Dear Reader, what a time it has been. I hope you are all right, whether you are in COVID hotspots or blessed, as we currently are, to be in Western Australia in sorta-kinda normality.

The difficulty of the year has been compounded for me by navigating the rocky and twisty paths that comprise coming to terms with my mother’s death, including the fun experience that is reliving childhood trauma. To this extent COVID-disruption has felt continuous with my personal sense of dislocation, loss and more or less utter weirdness. I have been lucky, however, to have been profoundly supported by my loved ones, my colleagues, and logical (chosen) family. For this I am grateful. If you’re not in the middle of pain and grief of your own, I say to you: do not underestimate the difference you can make to others with the smallest of kindnesses.

There are signs of improvement. For one thing, I am delighted to announce that Squiggly and Shell (aka the ABBA/rollerskating/horseriding/WAY 79 novel) will be published by the awesome Fremantle Press in September 2021. I can’t wait to share this with you: it has been so much joy to write.

Lifelong ABBA enthusiasts

Also, I have used iso-learning opportunities to complete the Australian Institute of Company Directors course, start learning Indonesian, and begin Zoom lessons on this beautiful instrument, which I have always wanted to play.

In any case, I wish you well, where ever you are. I am writing a memoir with which I hope to entertain you in the future, tentatively entitled ‘How to Avoid a Happy Life: a Comedy in Parts’. Stay tuned!

Fabulous February News

Dear Reader, it has been an eventful time between last entry and this.

But before I give further details on the nature of the eventfulness, the Fabulous News is this:

Maddie in the Middle is a 2020 Children’s Book Council of Australia Notable Book, in and among a record field of entries!

I am so grateful to Fremantle Press and the CBCA for giving Maddie her chance to shine.

I am also utterly delighted to be on the Notable list with fellow Freo Press creators Holden Sheppard and Kelly Canby (whose name in my opinion invites an echo – Kelly Canby, Kelly Canby, Kelly Canby – no? Just me?), as well as our fellow Western Australians Megsy Caddy, Meg McKinlay (twice, as usual), Sally Morgan, Karen Blair, Michael Speechley and Briony Stewart.

This news followed the most fabulous Literature and Ideas weekend (formerly Perth Writers Festival) during which I communed with my writing tribe, met new members of the same, and fangirled Christos Tsiolkas and Rick Morton. A J Betts (whose Rogue should also have been on the Notable list, just by-the-by) and I had a great talk on controversy (Prince earworm) and then I was interviewed alongside Ingrid Laguna by our Curated by Kids hosts.

However (see above), when I got the news of Maddie’s Notable listing, the first person I wanted to call was my Mum. Which I could not do, as she died after a sudden and horrible illness on Boxing Day (having very thoughtfully delayed her exit so as not to coincide with my daughter’s birthday mere days before). A friend said to me that losing a parent is like having a nuclear bomb go off in your brain, and this is apropos.

My childhood best friend said: ‘Right now you are carrying a sack of boulders. One day it will be a small pouch full of precious jewels. But the rocks have to pound each other and you first, and let them. Grief knows what it is doing.’

Mum told me to remember the good times, and I suppose at some point I will be able to with some equanimity. In between times, love, friendship, kindness and yoga are getting me through. And this new addition to our family also: 2020 Annie and Truffle