julia tulloh

writer and coffee-drinker and bat-fan.

Review: Meg Mundell’s ‘Things I Did For Money’

I first encountered Meg Mundell at last year’s Melbourne Writers Festival, where she interviewed Scottish writer Janice Galloway. Galloway has such a big personality – loquacious, hilarious – that I imagine an interviewer could easily feel overwhelmed by her. But Meg was present the whole time, with carefully-prepared questions, a warm and welcoming demeanor, and the ability to enter a proper conversation with Galloway – so many interviewers fail to actually listen to what their guests are saying, but the way Meg handled it made it feet as though the two were old friends. Afterwards, I bought books by both Galloway and Mundell: here are my thoughts on Mundell’s second work of fiction, but first volume of short stories, Things I Did For Money, which was released as an eBook by Scribe last year.

Mundell

Things I Did For Money is a short collection – only eight stories – but sticks in the mind well after it ends. Directly or indirectly, each tale addresses forms of work and the different way people earn their living. Mundell’s prose style is easy-to-read, but laced with intricate details: she seems to have thoroughly researched a range of different professions, and the integration of information feels smooth rather than contrived. Examples include the description of aquatic life and diving gear in ‘Narcosis’, the process for making waffle cones in ‘The Cone Machine’, and the way guns work in ‘The Chamber.’

My favourite stories were the first and last of the collection. ‘Nightshade’ is a haunting tale of a woman who sells men – for what we don’t know, but the suggestion is some sort of labour or sex trade. The story appears set in an older time, but in the familiar setting of Port Philip Bay: protagonist Port-Wine Annie rows drugged men and boys across the water each night in exchange for coins. There are hints that Annie herself has previously been bought and sold, perhaps as a prostitute, and that her choice was to either remain a commodity, or treat others as a commodity. I liked this story because it had no real closure, and it also didn’t give away what Annie was actually doing: we know she brewed a potion to knock men out, but we never really know what she’s selling the boys for. Mundell gives readers enough information to be drawn in, but little enough that we must use our own imaginations. It’s very haunting.

The final story in the book is called ‘Small Change,’ and was a speculative, futuristic tale of a woman who attends a clinic to have a whole-body cosmetic procedure, including ‘facial elevation,’ ‘dermal illumination’ (a process which gives skin a radiant glow’) and skin whitening. The clinic is fine-tuned to convince clients to spend their money. From a control room, a man called Jack alters lighting, releases certain scents and sounds that are registered only subconsciously, and controls the cameras that reveal the client’s body on a big screen. I found it interesting how it was a distant yet omnipresent man that sought to control this woman’s choices about her own body – and yet, Jack’s just trying to make a living too. Again, Mundell doesn’t provide too much closure – we’re left to consider this potential future for ourselves, and what it suggests about our own society.

Other stories didn’t grab my fancy to the same extent – ‘Soft Landing’, about an alcoholic clown, had some great moments, but overall I don’t think it quite escaped the ‘scary/sad clown’ cliché. ‘The Tower’ was a page-turner – it made my heart race! – but I found the ending a little neat. On the whole, though, Things I Did For Money matched my expectations – I’ll certainly be reading Mundell’s novel, Black Glass, at some stage soon.

Review: Evie Wyld’s ‘All the Birds, Singing’

I was excited when I heard that Evie Wyld’s second novel, All the Birds, Singing, was a contemporary gothic thriller about a woman in the wilder parts of the English country side who is haunted by a strange beast in the woods. I love scary novels with female protagonists, and having lived in Scotland, was excited to see how the landscape might be used to explore psychological terror. The book was also shortlisted for this year’s Miles Franklin Award and longlisted for the Stella Prize and the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, which lent it some extra kudos.

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The story follows Jake, a sheep farmed living on an isolated farm on a dark and stormy island (somewhere in the UK, it’s suggested). She’s reclusive, introverted and uninterested in making friends, and someone (or something) is killing off her sheep and leaving their bloodied carcasses about the paddocks. The visceral nature of the opening sentence makes the sheep-mauler seem very real (‘Another sheep, mangled and bled out, her innards not yet crusting and the vapours rising from her like a steamed pudding’) but we never really know if the creature actually exists. Even though Jake has seen a new fox lingering at the edges of her property, she also has extreme nightmares each night, and seems to hallucinate at times, running outside in the middle of the night to protect her sheep, only to find there’s nothing there.

As the story progresses, it becomes clear that Jake is recovering from (or fleeing) past trauma. The novel is structured through parallel stories, narrated through loosely alternating chapters: the first thread is set in the present, tracing Jake’s life at the farm and her quest to determine what’s terrorising her animals. The second begins in the past, on a sheep station in the Australian outback, each successive chapter going back in time – Memento style – to reveal the origins of Jake’s suffering.

I found the backwards-trajectory narrative about Jake’s life in Australia far more engaging (and disturbing!) than the sections of text set in the present. The scenes set in Australia are richly detailed, and evoke the starkness, beauty and devastation of the Australian outback. I also developed a far stronger sense of Jake as a character in the Australian chapters – her temperament, longings and desires apart from (but also including) her fear and trauma were clearly articulated through relationships with friends, lovers and family. The Aussie sections also contained interesting details around the sheep industry – how to shear so you don’t nick the sheep’s skin, how to remove maggots from the sheep’s bottoms, etc. The specificity and detail in these sections made me feel like I was there with Jake, really rooted me on a cattle station, or in Darwin, or in a pizza place – wherever she happened to be.

The gloomy, rain-covered UK island lacked the specificity and sense of narrative drive that characterised the Aussie sections. Of course, one could argue that the static narrative might well reflect Jake’s inability to move forward or develop as a result of her trauma, but there was something about the clouds and the weather that seemed a bit too predictable, too obviously a metaphor for Jake’s state of mind, to be convincing.

During the Aussie thread, as we moved back in time, Wyld created an incredible sense of tension. Wyld has a great knack for providing enough information to tantalise and terrify, but never quite enough to know exactly what’s going on. I found Jake’s encounter with Aussie sheep farmer Otto one of the most unsettling relationships I’ve ever read about – it still haunts me, and makes me feel a little sick, weeks after reading the novel – and yet it’s hard to put my finger on exactly what was so off about it. I actually found Otto far more disturbing than the original, earlier source of Jake’s pain (which I won’t spoil).

On the island, though, the ol’ ‘is the monster real or a manifestation of protagonist’s psyche’ felt a bit worn and predictable. Sure, Wyld didn’t provide details about it, but it was nowhere near as frightening as the events in the Aussie chapters. This is probably because about a million writers have used the ‘haunting beastie’ trope, including Tim Winton, but also about half of all 18th and 19th century gothic novels ever written. To be honest, if Wyld had published All the Birds, Singing as a novella that only included the Australian sections, it would have been just as good. Nevertheless, I enjoyed this book: it’s just that my hopes of a scary landscape were met in the outback, rather than the English hills.

2014 Emerging Writers’ Fest – Pop Culture Panel

TEW-Cover-shotI’m thrilled to say I’m appearing at the Emerging Writers’ Festival again this year! I’m participating in ‘Pop Topics’, a panel discussion on popular culture. It’s part of the main conference section of the festival (the National Writers’ Conference) and should be loads of fun, especially for me, since I’ll be able to publicly proclaim the merits of genre fiction and pop music. Tix are $45/$55 – expensive, but you get access to all the conference events that day (list here). The festival has a great program with stacks of incredible Aussie writers.

If you want to come along, please do, and support emerging writers in Australia! Here are the details:

“I have come here to chew bubblegum and talk about pop culture. And I’m all out of bubblegum!” What is it about pop culture that inspires us? These writers are no snobs and take the power of pop as serious as can be. Featuring Patrick Lenton, Julia Tulloh Harper and James Robert Douglas.

‘Pop Topics’ at the National Writers’ Conference

2pm, Sunday 1st June

Yarra Room, Melbourne Town Hall

Bookings online

Recent Columns

The year is up and running and I’m having lots of fun writing pop culture columns for Kill Your Darlings. My favourite ones to write were about cats and BuzzFeed. Here’s a little peek…

From ‘BuzzFeed Quizzes Understand Me’:

If you use social media regularly – Facebook, in particular – you’ll have completed a BuzzFeed quiz during the past month. Don’t deny it. Even if you didn’t share your results online, deep down you’re still feeling smug because the ‘What Should You Actually Eat For Lunch?’ quiz confirmed that eating ice cream was, in fact, an appropriate meal for your personality type. Or because you’re most similar to 1980s Batman (as opposed to all the other Batmans).

From ‘Cats are Popular and Always Have Been’:

The online cat photo is now officially more popular than the selfie, The Telegraph reported two weeks ago. According to research undertaken by the Three network, 3.8 million cat photos or videos are shared each day by British web users, compared with only 1.4 million selfies. This is unsurprising – whether you like cats or not, it’s likely your Facebook feed is inundated by Lolcats or videos of large cats squeezing themselves into fishbowls at any given time.

So far, I’ve also written about Justin Timberlake, and girl bands, and Justin Bieber going to jail. Next week I’m writing about my fave reality TV show.

A belated theatre review: Sarah Nagorcka’s ‘Love in a Time of MRSA’

Last year, I attended two shows at the Melbourne Fringe Festival. The first was an interactive, semi-contemporary interpretation of Alice in Wonderland, which was fun (the characters served us tea and later made someone eat cold spaghetti) and starred impressive actors (they could sing, dance and backflip) but still felt like an amateur/student production – the actors appeared as though they were still learning, rather than having mastered, their craft. And since I hadn’t been to a Fringe show for a few years, I just assumed that was what all Fringe shows were like.

The second play I saw, though, showed me how wrong I was! Love in a Time of MRSA, written by Sara Nagorcka and directed by Peter Blackburn, was as professional as it gets and reminded me of the magic of theatre. Via a love story between nurse Amy (played by Julia Grenda), and Jack, her sometimes-boyfriend (Arthur Giamalidis) who has been hospitalised with golden staph, the play explores anxieties around the prevalence of MRSA (better known as golden staph infection) and the increase of antibiotic resistance.

MRSA, better known as golden staph, is a type of bacteria that is resistant to antibiotics. The resulting infections are very hard to treat and often life threatening; the bacteria can spread within hospitals, and state health care systems both here and overseas have been criticised for failing to prevent to the spread of the infection.

Rather than pointing the blame at any particular party, Love in a Time of MRSA explores the complexity of antibiotic resistance by exposing the multiple factors that contribute the spread of the infection. Jack frequently blames ‘the government’ for not doing something about the rise of golden staph; Amy, whose father is a local MP campaigning against the spread of infections in hospitals, reminds Jack that the government is made up of individuals, implying that systemic policy change is difficult and potentially ineffective. The hospital staff, including Amy, go to extreme lengths to prevent the spread of the infection (‘they don’t allow ties anymore because they spread bacteria,’ Amy explains to a patient) but the patients keep piling up; there is also the vague suggestion that Jack may have encountered MRSA during his many overseas travels and brought it back with him. Furthermore, when Amy gives Jack the wrong dose of medication, things go terribly awry (she also panics and does little to amend the situation), and the implication is that individual error (rather than problems embedded in broader systems like health care or government policy) is also a contributing factor to the spread of the infection.

Jack’s journey with infection also functions as a metaphor for his relationship with Amy. At first, the illness is novel, and almost funny: he and Amy crack jokes about what country the shape of his infection looks like. Soon, though, it becomes more serious, and the small decisions or actions of one party can have serious ripple-like effects for the other. Even though Jack recovers from his illness eventually, the outcome of his and Amy’s relationship is not predictable, much to Nagorcka’s and Blackburn’s credit.

The play was staged in the kitchen of a church hall, which had white lino, tiles, a sink and exposed piping, making for a very convincing hospital setting. The dialogue was extremely natural and the acting impeccable (the play also starred Helen Bongers and Amanda Mackay), and the seriousness of the play’s themes was nicely offset by the script’s humour – each scene was very witty, and the character of Mrs Smith (Bongers), an old woman and golden staph patient, brought particularly light relief through her doddering political incorrectness. Mostly, I was impressed by the way Nagorcka’s writing and Blackburn’s direction seamlessly wove the elements of a complex social issue into a love story about two individual people. I look forward to what they bring us next.

2014!

Beyonce.

Beyonce.

I’m stoked to announce that Kill Your Darlings journal have taken me on board as their Pop Culture columnist for 2014. This means I’ll be writing short pieces for their blog each fortnight, and my first one was published today – it’s a review of Beyoncé’s new visual album, which she sprung upon fans before Christmas. You can read it here.

I’ve also had a couple of reviews published in Zadok Perspectives, a Christian social issues journal – one review was of three feminist books from last year (Destroying the Joint, Anna Krien’s Night Games, and Women and Power from the Griffith Review) and the other review was of Tim Winton’s Eyrie.

MORE on Doctor Who!

I followed up last month’s essay on the hype leading up to the Doctor Who 50th anniversary special (published in Kill Your Darlings No. 15) with a review of the actual special, which I was lucky enough to see at the cinema.

Here’s my run down of the film!

I also have some very exciting news about writing next year … so watch this space.

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Billie Piper as ‘The Moment’ in the Doctor Who Anniversary Special.

Politics, monies, and humanities research

I’ve never written directly about politics before, but I gave it a crack over the past few weeks after the Coalition announced it would be slashing ‘ridiculous’ humanities projects that ‘left taxpayers scratching their heads’.

Mainly I was annoyed that a) politicians were using a pre-existing social bias against the worth of humanities in order to garner votes, b) politicians were making claims about research they know nothing about, without consulting experts and c) politicians did not discuss importance of the humanities. Even though the study of politics is part of the humanities. Read the deal here at the KYD blog.

New article out – Doctor Who turns 50!

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The latest issue of Kill Your Darlings has arrived – and features my essay about Doctor Who fandom over the past fifty years. I wrote this in celebration of the Doctor Who 50th Anniversary special to be screened in November this year. Read an extract of the article here, order a copy here, or pick up a copy from Readings.

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KYD Panel Success

JulesKYD

Photo taken by the lovely Meaghan JR Young.

Here’s a photo of me from three weeks ago at the 2013 Emerging Writer’s Festival (EWF), taking part in the TV Night with Kill Your Darlings - a panel session about TV criticism which was hosted as part of the “Late Night Lit Mag” series. I am, in this picture, rockin’ out with host Steph Van Schilt, former Online Assistant Editor at KYD and current Deputy Editor at The Lifted Brow (right) and Mel Campbell, author of Out of Shape (left). Aussie writers Luke Ryan and Rochelle Siemienowicz were also on the panel. Much fun was had, and Doctor Who was mentioned (several times). A wrap-of the evening can be read here at the EWF Blog.

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