Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Being a hobbyist in a professionalising sphere

I am a hobby blogger.

By this I mean that my purposes in maintaining this blog are exclusively connected to enjoyment, interest and personal imperatives; that I explicitly do not make money (or any of its derivatives) from this blog, and do not seek to; and that I do not adopt, or try to adopt, a professional approach to blogging.

By not-professional or amateur, I hasten to add, I don't mean not-ethical. I hold myself to the same ethical standards here as I do in every other area of my life, including my actual professional life. I am no more likely to write irresponsibly, dishonestly or libellously here than I am in a  workplace document (which is to say, not at all, or so I hope). My name may be partial here and tied to a pseudonym (ZucchiniBikini), but it is my online identity and I would no sooner trash it than I would my full legal persona.

No, what I mean by non-professional is that, for me, blogging is an avocation, not a job. It holds the same place in my life that trainspotting does for my friend the rail enthusiast (by day, a senior public servant), or embroidery does for my friend the needleworker (who is, by day, a corporate lawyer). It means that I choose to what extent I concern myself with things like stats, SEO, and audience building (the answer is usually patchily, and sometimes not at all) based on little more than whimsy. It means that the ways in which blogging is important to me - because it brings me pleasure, because it satisfies a need to express views and thoughts, because it creates an enduring record of my family's life, because it lets me engage with communities of thought in many areas but especially about books - are not amenable to being constrained to rules of successful blogging as it's currently defined.

Sometimes it can be a bit strange, being a dedicated hobbyist in what is a professionalising sphere. Blog conferences and meet-ups are mostly about branding and brand relationships and building your blog and its readership; they are also about nuts and bolts stuff, writing, and telling stories, which are awesome things, but the underlying drive is about building numbers for possible monetisation, and that creates a certain ... I don't know ... tenor in the conversations. I see myself as a fish, not quite *out* of water, but gasping in a very shallow pool sometimes. I feel a little as I imagine that volunteers on archeological digs must feel - so enthused, even rhapsodical, about the story that underlies the bones, but confused and bewildered by the professional constructs of archeological discipline that go around it.

Because what I'm looking for, when I go to blog events, is only one thing really - connection. I'm not looking for PD for my microbusiness, and I'm not even really looking for ways to "improve" my blog or grow it. I want my blog to be what it is, and to grow and change as I do, but I don't want - I *actively* don't want - to systematise it, theme it, constrain its content or scheduling, or build networks with it. My blog isn't beautiful and it doesn't pop. Not caring to change these things makes me weird at the moment in the personal / parenting blogging arena (although not so much in the other blogging world I overlap - lots of book bloggers are avowedly non-professionalised).

It's not that I think that professionalising is bad (or good) - it is just not what I want to do, and I feel very sure about that. I think there's still a worthwhile place for hobbyists like me in the blogosphere - I think there are readers who want to read the amateur just as there are writers who choose to write that way. I also think hobbyists, particularly politically engaged ones (not me so much, although sometimes) can speak truth to power sometimes, and act as agents of disruption, in the subjects they choose and the ways they engage them. It's not that professional bloggers can't do these things - plenty of the great ones do - but hobbyists have the luxury of never having to think twice about the financial implications of posting unpopular or controversial things ... or even just boring things, frankly.

But it's true, at the same time, that I feel a bit like the odd one out these days, as a long-term hobbyist in a fast-professionalising sphere.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Happy birthday Miss Butterfly

For C on her birthday (A haiku set, of sorts)

four years ago now
in heat and sweat I birthed you
screaming life out loud.

a white gold baby, you
looked like a sister. but which?
your bones shape-shifting.

in you, I always see
the bright light of summer days
the heart of a star.

strong, you stand, and brave
a voice and will of your own
the sun ascendant.

beautiful, of course,
the warmth of February
flashes its fish tail.

if only I knew
the words with power enough
to speak my love true.

if only I could
write it on the sea, the sky
to read forever.

four years ago now
I said I love you so
and kissed your fingers.

more, and more, and more
wide as world and deep as time
with each passing year

do I love you, dear
butterfly in gloried flight
my wonderful girl.

- Kathy, 23/02/13

Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Stella Prize 2013 Longlist: Another reading challenge!

The 12-book longlist for the inaugural Stella Prize, a major new literary award for Australian women’s writing, was announced today. I am excited and raring to go on another longlist reading journey!

I'm actually starting ahead of where I was with last year's Booker Prize longlist, because I've already read 2 of the 12 titles. Buuuuuut, the Prize is announced on 16 April - a mere 7 weeks, 5 days from now - and I am rather extremely busy with work, life, and things, so it'll be a bit of a push. Still, I like a challenge, and it's books, after all - how bad can it be?

The two longlisted titles I've read are:

1. Romy Ash, Floundering
I reviewed this book last June, and it's haunting. A very worthy prize entrant. My review is here.

2. Margo Lanagan, Sea Hearts
Oh, how wide, how deep is my love for this book. My review is here.

The other 10 titles, in no particular order, are:

3. Dylan Coleman, Mazin Grace
4. Courtney Collins, The Burial
5. Robin de Crespigny, The People Smuggler: The True Story of Ali Al Jenabi
6. Michelle de Kretser, Questions of Travel
7. Amy Espeseth, Sufficient Grace
8. Lisa Jacobson, The Sunlit Zone
9. Cate Kennedy, Like a House on Fire
10. Patti Miller, The Mind of a Thief
11. Stephanie Radok, An Opening
12. Carrie Tiffany, Mateship with Birds

Based on the descriptions, it is a cracking list. There are at least 4 debuts by my count (and I'm not sure about Radok's book, it might be a first too, which would make 5). There are 5 books that feature the Australian landscape in very different ways (I'm highly intrigued by the blurb on The Burial in this context), and two that evoke the wonders of the sea (Sea Hearts and The Sunlit Zone). No less than 9 of them purport to deal with "a terrible secret", "a painful truth" or "a line that's been crossed" - dark and moody FTW, it seems. There are short story collections, non-fiction, memoirs and fiction. There are, indeed, two books with Grace in the title :-) It is, as I said, a diverse, fascinating list, and I'm eager to get going on it.

I've picked out the two that grabbed my interest most based on their little write-ups on the Stella site to start off: Courtney Collins' The Burial and Michelle de Kretser's Questions of Travel. Both are safely downloaded to my e-reader, awaiting the weekend and my first reading opportunity. I'll probably review them as a pair, unless I am so enamoured of either that I feel they need a post all to themselves.

This is going to be fun :-)

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Reading Notes: Bud and Roo's Spectacular Adventures - The Beach

Disclosure: I was provided with a copy of Bud and Roo's Spectacular Adventures: The Beach for review purposes by Bugle Boy Publishing. No financial incentive was offered or accepted for this post, and all opinions expressed are entirely my own.

Jessica Valentine, the author of this sweet little picture book, contacted me on Twitter a while back and asked if I might be interested in reviewing Bud and Roo. I am usually up for a picture book offer, so I said sure, and soon enough an exciting international post envelope turned up for me from the UK.

The first thing to be said about this book is that it is very visually appealing. The illustrations look (according to my 7 year old, and I agree) like they have been drawn with textas, which creates a friendly, home-made feel to it all. The two dog main characters, Bud and Roo, are cute, although one small criticism I would make is that is is not clear which dog is which, a fact that bothered my 4 year old immensely. The oft-used "This is Bud. This is Roo" device doesn't appear, and to be honest, it's a classic for a reason - it lets kids quickly identify characters with their pictures, and this helps with story recognition later on.

In all other ways, though, the book is charming, simple and well crafted. I think it would best suit early readers or pre-readers - it's got a few words per page, a nice linear story with plenty of visual cues and repetitions, and a clear large font. It's not as quirky or complex as some of our favourite read-alouds, but for those very reasons, I've put it in the self-reading shelf along with the Spot the Dog and Scooby Doo early readers for 4 year old C to pick up. It'll suit her well as she starts to crack the code of written language.

This book retails in the UK for £5.99/$10.99 at Waterstones, WH Smith, Barnes & Noble, and independent booksellers. The ebook edition is available from Amazon.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

No more creche

I have made a decision. It wasn't the easiest decision in the world, but I think it's the right one. I certainly feel a great sense of relief and peace about it, which is usually a sign that it's right for me (I felt the same on tendering my resignation from my last salaried job in November 2010, for instance).

Two weeks into term, C is now all settled into her kinder program, which runs 15 hours a week, across three half-day sessions and one 5-hour session. She is loving kinder intensely - adores her teachers, is making little friends, and is keen and eager to go every time. She's also doing very well with her Monday afternoon gymnastics class and her Wednesday dancing class.

However, her resistance to her remaining creche day (on Thursdays) is exactly the same as it's been since she first "went off" creche in September of last year or thereabouts. She never wants to go - ever. Sometimes she throws a meltdown about it, sometimes she's more quietly resistant. I never leave her in tears, but I often leave her looking somewhere between cranky and morose. And although her carers tell me she has good days when I go, and she's usually all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed when I pick her up, I can't get over my feeling that this is no longer something that's good, or necessary, for her.

So I have decided to discontinue her creche place. From next week onwards, C will have her three half-days, and one longer session, at kinder, but other than that, she'll be with me. I will book client site visits on her long kinder day (Fridays), or if not then, on Tuesdays or Wednesdays when my partner can work at home (with notice) and take her to afternoon kinder.

Losing Thursdays as a consolidated work day means I will have to go back to regularly working at least half a day on Sundays, and often a full day, as well as my usual 6-8hr Saturdays. This has its drawbacks, of course, but after all, it's only 10 months more of juggling like this - I won't take on any January work, and next February, my baby C will be at school. (Which hardly seems possible!) I can make it work for this year, and I will. It is nice to think that she and I will have that extra time together in this last precious stretch before she's a schoolgirl.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Butterfly cake, gluten free

My baby C will turn 4 in 9 days, and we're having her party a week early for various reasons. Which made this week Cake Making Week!

This year, C decided she wanted a butterfly cake. A brief amount of research on Pinterest revealed to me that there are several ways of making a butterfly cake, ranging from meticulous hand carving of a sheet cake to the use of individual cupcakes to create a pointillist effect. I concluded that simplicity was king and picked the method that seemed the easiest - making two heart-shaped cakes to serve as the wings, and cupcakes to form the body.

C asked for chocolate mudcake as the base, so on Tuesday, she and I mixed and baked two fairly modestly sized heart shaped gluten free mudcakes, and commandeered 4 of a large batch of gluten free vanilla cupcakes made for the party, in preparation for our friend K's now-traditional visit to help us decorate the cake on Wednesday night.

Set up, the cake looked like this:

The next step was to douse it thoroughly in buttercream. I make my buttercream with margarine, icing sugar and hot water - I don't use milk, as I find it makes it too runny. Coated, our butterfly looked like it was all meant to be one cake - bonus!

Now comes the fun part! Using my friend K's colour gels (soooo much better for colouring fondant than liquid colouring), we made yellow, blue, pink, purple and orange fondant. C wanted a yellow-winged butterfly with a purple body, with coloured dots and stripes!

We have found that kids, even pretty young ones, can help knead the colour through the fondant and enjoy doing so, but a strong recommendation is to use disposable gloves, otherwise all kneaders end up with rainbow hands that aren't easily purged :-)

K rolled out the fondant to the appropriate thickness and width, and carefully transferred fondant to the cake. The yellow base going on started to smooth out the shape:

Next was the decorating! The three girls cut multi coloured circles and applied them at will. 7 year old E made eyes and a face for Miss Butterfly, which C loved, and we strategically applied stripes and more dots to cover any incipient cracks in the base. (Decoration covers a multitude of sins!)

Now finished, the cake is snuggled up in the fridge next to my rice milk, waiting for Saturday.

To make this cake gluten free, there are really only a few things to remember:

- Make the base cakes gluten free!
- Use a brand of white icing / fondant that is gluten free. I use the Orchard brand that you can buy in most supermarkets.
- Use pure icing sugar, not icing mixture.
- Doublecheck your colourants to make sure they are gluten free. (Most of the colour gels are).

The cake looks nice - not cake-shop nice, but hand-made nice - and even better, the kids got to be involved in every stage of the process, which means that, for C, it's much more special than a cake that we bought or that Mummy made by herself. This is Cake Team Effort, and it's become part of our birthday ritual over the last three years, one that we all look forward to.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Reading Notes: The Blessing File

This review forms part of my commitment to complete the Australian Women Writers Challenge in 2013.

I mentioned to my local librarian that I was doing the AWW Challenge this year, and was on the look-out for authors and titles to try that were new to me.

"What sort of books do you like?" she asked musingly.

"Oh, crime ..." I said. "Fantasy, science fiction, YA, literary fiction, historical fiction. Travel writing, humour, good non-fiction. Pretty much anything except straight romance, really."

The librarian immediately started recommending authors at a furious pace - very knowledgeable people, librarians! - and one I picked up from her list was Melbourne writer Carolyn Morwood, author of (I think) 5 mystery novels published between 1998 and 2012, comprising three different female lead characters (two of them are in two books apiece). I decided to start with her first book - 1998's The Blessing File, mostly because I was intrigued and charmed by the idea of an antiquarian bookseller as the main detective-protagonist.

The Blessing File is the story of Lyn Blessing, antiquarian bookseller in a shopfront in the heart of Melbourne's laneway culture, and the mysterious and frightening events that begin to entangle her, kicked off by the weekly presence in her shop of a girl who stays for a few moments, looks at a book, then leaves without saying a word. She comes at the same time every Friday, and Lyn finds her puzzling and strange; but, to employ a back-of-book-blurb-style sentence, her curiosity draws her into deeper waters than she could have ever imagined.

The plot is reasonably engrossing without being stunning, with a satisfying enough twist to keep me happy, but what elevates this book beyond "nice enough read" to "actually really good" is two things - the character of Lyn herself, who Morwood draws as a complex, interesting person, and the deep sense of Melbourne as a place and of the moment in time in which the book is set (the early 1990s). It's obvious that Morwood, like me, is a lanewayphile; her loving evocation of what I've often called "Melbourne Below" (why yes, that *is* a Neil Gaiman reference) is beautifully realised and very attractive.

Reading books set in my own city isn't a new thing for me, but I think this may be one of the first I've read that's set not just in my place, but my time. I have vivid memories of the early 90s in Melbourne - the changing landscape of the city as Southbank was constructed, the push to build more city residential spaces, the beginning of the Docklands behemoth. I remember that old-world, musty feel that a lot of the smaller laneways and side streets used to have. I remember the feeling of stepping out of the world that you got when entering some of those longtime shops, selling fabric, books, tea, shoes, tailor-made coats.

I think this is the reason I cottoned on to this book so much. Morwood has a real gift for effective characterisation and for bringing a place in time to life, and I related to Lyn and her world so quickly, recognised it so viscerally, that it was easy to be charitable about the telegraphing and stumbles in the plot itself (of which there are a few). I admit I was disappointed to find that this appears to be the only Lyn Blessing book out (happy to be corrected if I'm wrong), but I'll definitely give Morwood's other series a try based on this one.

So, with Behind the Night Bazaar and The Blessing File both being definite ticks for me, the library is scoring well - 2 from 2 so far...

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Observed, on the train

On Thursday morning I went to the city on the train for an 8:30am breakfast business meeting. (It turned out to be devoid of actual breakfast, although full of useful information ... but that's not what this story is about).

I don't normally travel at the same time as business people going to work or school people going to city-side schools, but climbing aboard a 7:20 train, my carriage was full of both - a sea of blazers and black suits, iPhones and briefcases, bulky schoolbags and strongly scented deodorant. Settling into a seat, I let my mind drift, as is my wont on early train trips. The buzz of conversations in the carriage washed over me, really just background noise to my thoughts.

About six stations out from my destination, though, as room in the train became more constricted and I could no longer see past my feet for the press of people, I was brought back into awareness of the dialogue around me. One conversation, between two people I couldn't see well at first, riveted me.

"So you know they hooked up at that party? The one where everyone was out all night? You know, you were there..." (Male voice, something in the tone strikes me as - wheedling? insinuating?)
A female voice, young. "Oh. No, I didn't realise -"
He: "They're still together, you know. They've been together since that night."
She says something too low for me to catch.

Just then the two people who'd been standing between me and the two speakers got off the train, and I have a clear view of a schoolgirl, maybe 14 or 15, and a guy in business attire who looks like he's in his late 20s / early 30s, although here I confess I am very bad at estimating mens' ages and he could easily have been as young as 25 or as old as 40.

"Hey, you remember X, at the party? Who you talked to for a while? You know he kept going on about how grown up you were, how he could have an adult conversation with you, how you were just like an adult!" He smiles at the schoolgirl and touches her upper arm, quickly. "I said, sure, she's very mature, beyond her years." He waits, expectantly, for her to respond to what he clearly considers a massive compliment.

"Mmmmm ..." she says, and shifts slightly. "So did you hear that [Name Which I Heard But Will Not Record] is out of rehab? Doing very well, they say. Maybe back to work soon."

He, "Oh, that's good news."

Therein follows 3 minutes or so of innocuous conversation about the doings of what are clearly mutual acquaintances. This person is going overseas, that person is studying law, the other person is moving house.

She mentions an essay she has to work on, "for practice VCE, know."

"That's right!" he exclaims. "You're doing it a year early, next year, aren't you? Because you're so smart -" he touches her again "- and mature."

She laughs. It is not a happy sound. A woman opposite me catches my eye and raises an eyebrow; I'm not the only one picking up a skeevy vibe here. I mentally calculate that if the girl is doing VCE a year early next year, my age estimate was about right, she's probably 15.

We're nearly at my stop, so I get up to go, and the guy starts moving towards the door too. Then he turns back and plants a kiss on the schoolgirl's cheek. "If you need any help with that essay, you call me, OK?" he breathes. "I really want to read it when it's done and help you do it, OK darling?"

The girl makes a noncommittal noise and sits down hard in the seat I've vacated. The woman I exchanged glances with shoots Our Sleazy Friend a death glare and smiles reassuringly at the girl, positioning her body so he would have to push her aside to touch the girl again. He doesn't try to, though - he gets off at the same station I do, whistling cheerily, and heads off down the street, fingers tapping away on his phone.

And as I wend my way to the meeting, I think -

Should I have said or done anything? It seems so black and white in the abstract, but when you're actually in the situation, it's very grey. Clearly the two were acquainted - how, who knows - and this was not a stranger hit. And the girl seemed capable of turning the conversation back to preferred subjects when she chose. The situation was not one that lent itself to immediate physical danger. Buuuuuut...

That's what creepers play on, isn't it? The powerful social taboos against buying into other people's business? The social programming that told that girl that she needed to make nice and chat to this guy because she is acquainted with him, even though he was absolutely crossing boundaries throughout their entire interaction?

I remember being 15. I remember the mingled curiosity, excitement and dread that attention from a much older man inspired. I remember being at once cackhandedly flirtatious, testing my wings, and a little repulsed and terrified, and not knowing what to do with those feelings. I also remember my bone-deep conviction that I had to please men to be a "real" woman. And I know now that there were at least two occasions, at that age, where I narrowly escaped being abused by a man in their 30s due to the inadvertent but serendipitous intervention of friends. (And it would have been rape, not only because of my age, but because I was not ready for sex and would not have consented). A man who I knew socially. A man who had groomed me, and other teenagers in my circle, some of whom they did end up sleeping with.

I was a fairly naive and sheltered teenager in many ways. Perhaps this girl is not. Perhaps her feelings are nothing like mine, and that's OK. It doesn't change for one second the skeeviness of a grown adult hitting on a legal child, though.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Living today, one eye on tomorrow

One of the things about being a freelancer is that it's a life is that trades off stability and certainty for flexibility and independence. Not many salaried people get to just take 6 weeks off over summer to spend with their kids and recharge their batteries - but I could, because I ruled off my job book and didn't take on new projects in that time. Not many salaried people, working fulltime or close to fulltime hours, get to be there for school and kinder pick up almost every day, and fit in short daytime volunteering tasks at school, kinder and in the community, but I do - I can opt to use an hour at midday doing these things and just pick up the time later in the evening. All of this is great and lovely, and one of the primary attractions for me of contracting.

However, the flipside is that as a freelancer, your income and work-life pattern is only as good as the next job - and you never really know when, or what, the next job will be. (And many freelancers, myself included, suffer from the conviction that every job you get will be THE LAST JOB EVAH, despite any evidence to the contrary). If you are, like me, a sole trader, without business partners to push work out to, and with many family responsibilities, this is also complicated by the fact that you need to be careful not to take on too much at any given time, otherwise you are at risk of not delivering (which is very bad) or really burning out (a fate I escaped by a whisker last year, in fact). So while you need to start thinking about the next job/s while completing the current job/s, it's also important not to jump too early and start quoting or or accepting work while heavy-duty projects are still in full swing, especially very time sensitive ones.

It's a fiendish balance to try and strike - keeping one hand in tomorrow while still giving today all of your energy - and I think it's the freelancing skill that is coming hardest to me. I have quoting, reporting, liaison, project managing, billing and delivery fairly well sorted now, but I still struggle to intuit the right moment to start looking for, or saying yes to, new work. I have to keep reminding myself to build in not just my work commitments but periods of peak demand with family things (ie C's 4th birthday is coming up later this month, and the time required for party planning, food preparation and logistics has to be factored into my calculations about available working time).

On the other hand, I think it's good for me in a lot of ways. I am such a risk averse person - cautious +++, as one of my high school teachers fairly described me once - and the absence of certainty about my work future past the end of my current booked jobs in early May is both challenging me and also growing my capacity to deal equably with change, risk and variation. Learning to cast my line into tomorrow without knowing what I'm going to catch is quite invigorating, and teaches me skills I can use in the chaotic system that is family life (where every day is a box of chocolates ... you never know what you're gonna get).

It's funny - I never expected to embrace uncertainty, but here I am, pointing it sunny side up, as I continue in my freelancing life.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Reading Notes: Sea Hearts

I feel I should start my review of Sea Hearts with some full disclosure: I loved this book. Loved it in the kind of bone-deep, part-of-my-mental-landscape kind of way that is usually, for me, an insuperable barrier to writing any kind of useful analysis, let alone criticism. I tend not to review books, or films, or tv shows, which have snarled themselves this deeply into my affections; firstly because I find it hard to quantify, let alone qualify, my praises, and secondly because it almost feels transgressive to write about stories that have crossed the eye-heart barrier, as if I'm giving away more of myself than when I write about good, interesting, but ultimately less important (to me) texts.

That was a really long-winded and self-indulgent way of saying that this is not going to be an analytical or theoretical review. I am not going to talk about the devices that Lanagan uses or the pacing, style or plotting glitches, if any. This review is going to be about how Sea Hearts made me feel, and why.

The story that Lanagan tells in this book is a riff on the folktales and mythology about selkies: the seal women, who live as seals in the sea but are capable of shedding their sealskins to assume human form. Setting her tale on a remote fishing island, Rollrock, Lanagan has adopted many of the key elements of traditional selkie mythology - the beauty of the selkie women, their desire to return to their seal form and the sea, the human men being besotted with them and hiding their sealskins to prevent their return. What she's changed, however, adds a power and aching to the story that carries out out of "well-told folk story" into something truly great. In Lanagan's conception, the selkies do not simply and voluntarily come forth; they are called out of their seal skins by the skill, or magic, of Misskaella, a local woman who is rejected by her own community for being strange, unlovely, and weird, in the old sense of that word.

Oh, Misskaella. Was ever a character more completely drawn? From when we meet her, as a dumpy, persecuted child, to her death near the end of the book, Lanagan never stops adding layers and twists to this woman. To me, she is the main character of the book, although others might disagree (and, truth be told, it is an ensemble cast - a book about a community and how it works, not about individuals as grand isolated forces). The power that infuses Misskaella, the ability to see the potential human form inside the seal's body and to draw it out with song and charm, is nothing she asked for, but she makes it do her dismal work, calling forth sea maiden after sea maiden to the ultimate fragmentation of the whole island. Rejected and reviled, she bites down on her sorrow and rage and, with ice cold prescience, sets in motion the events that will drive all the "red women" from Rollrock, and inflict permanent pain on all the men. She does this knowingly and greedily, and profits enormously by it.

Yet she's not hateable, not to me. Here is the woman who sings forth a seal man for herself, in her loneliness, and discovers that she is beautiful, worthy, despite what she has been taught:

And here was a wonder, that a man so well-conformed himself should be so eager to embrace what I had always been told was a poorly-made body, laughable, even disgusting. But I delighted him; he travelled my curves, weighed me in his hands, pressed me and gasped with me as I yielded. Open-faced he looked into me, his eyes empty of the scorn I was used to seeing, in women's faces as well as men's. Instead he was only another creature discovering skin ... Exultant, I watched as my life tore free like a kit from its string and flung itself up into the windstorm that was the future.

Here is the woman who births selkie-sons in secret, and has to return them to the sea so they might survive as seals:

He broke my heart with his celebrating - how little he needed me, how perfectly happy he was now, as he had not been before, in my house, at my breast! I was glad of his gladness, and that he would be cared for, but how would I live without him, the little prince who had ruled my days and nights?

Here, too, is the vengeful woman, who brings the first selkie to shore knowing the effect she will inevitably have on every man who sees her, and how this will, in time, create a society of seal-wives and human husbands. All these sea-born mams with their ineffable beauty and pliancy and sadness; all the daughters that must be returned to the sea, like Misskaella's sons; all the longing that will poison the well of happiness on this island, build life on a false rock of seeming and magic rather than red-faced reality.

The resolution of this multipartite tragedy feels both inevitable and excrutiating. I'll avoid spoiling too much, but suffice to say, those born of the sea return to it. Trying to explain to his father, the selkie Neme's son, Daniel, says:

'You want me to say she missed you. But do you want me to lie? I did not see it. But did that mean she didn't grieve after you? ... But as for how was she? She was her own self in the sea, that's all.' I tried to find a way to explain it. 'She was not in pain, you know, from her feet, and she could move, so well and so easily, not like under the blankets here, all weighed down -'
'She was happy, then,' he said.
I shook my head. 'Not even that. But she was freed of ... she didn't have the sadness that she carried around up here. So I suppose, yes, she was happy...'

The unwisdom and ultimate misery of trying to deny nature, and the painfulness of dividing a heart between two worlds, underscores all the plaintive emotion in this book. Ultimately, Misskaella's charms serve as a kind of sickly glamour that can only be cured by the love of a son for his mother, a love and sacrifice that he exercises in the same way that the witch herself gives her beloved sons back to the sea. It is such a powerful, heart-tearing cycle, and Lanagan lets it settle in without ever over-egging the pudding, allowing the many strands of this tangled web to reveal themselves as the story progresses.

As to how this book made me feel: Terribly sad. Enormous unnameable longing. Beautiful and powerful. Compassionate, for all the flawed people and all their little sins that led them to this end.

It is a wonderful, life-infusing book. I really don't care if you don't normally like fantasy or folklore-type fiction; please believe me, this is worth departing from type for. Read it and you will know why.