Wednesday, 8 August 2018

Book Review: The Tattooist of Auschwitz

The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris
Echo Publishing, 2018

This book has well and truly taken the world by storm.  It is a best seller most of the world over and has been for weeks on end, and if you want a copy from your local library, be prepared to wait a few months for your turn.  I decided this weekend to check out what all the fuss was about...

It is the story of Lale, a young Slovakian Jew who is taken to the Auschwitz concentration camp in April of 1942 where he is given the opportunity to become the Tatowierer, the tattooist who must write the numbers onto the arms of the new prisoners who arrive day by day.  Because this job falls under the offices of the Political Wing of the SS, Lale is afforded a degree of freedom which allows him to do his bit to try and keep his fellow inmates alive, even when it means risking his own life.  It is while he is redoing the tattoo on her arm that he meets Gita, the love of his life.

The book is based on a true story, and was told to Heather Morris by Lale in the months before his death in 2006.  Initially the subject of a Kickstarter campaign, it was eventually picked up by Echo publishing and Bonnier Zaffre. 

There are many novels and books out there about the Holocaust, and while this one had an added layer of being part-biography, at times I found it hard to connect with the characters on an emotional level.  The story was told almost as a stream of facts; there was little to show us the landscape, or the emotions that the characters were going through, and instead the book moved along in dialogue and big events in the character's lives.  I kept thinking of books such as Elizabeth Wein's Code Name Verity  and Rose Under Fire, and thinking about how those books broke my heart and made history real.  Perhaps because I have read so much on the subject already it was hard to be shocked by what I read, but in fact I think it was more that the novel has such a distancing style, more suited to a news article or perhaps to the screenplay Morris initially intended to write.  Yes, I am still impressed by Gita and Lale's story and their survival, and yes, what happened to them was dreadful, but as a novel, this simply did not work for me.  It would have been better framed as biography.

Saturday, 4 August 2018

Book Review: The Peacock Summer

The Peacock Summer by Hannah Richell
Hachette Australia, 2018

If, like me, you feel the September release of the new Kate Morton novel is just a little bit too far away, you'll be happy to hear that there is a new novel by Hannah Richell.  Following on from The Secret of the Tides and The Shadow Year, this third novel from the bestselling author is her strongest yet.  The Peacock Summer is the story of Lillian Oberon, who at 26 finds herself the wife of a rich and powerful man and lady of a beautiful manor house called Cloudsley.  While life at Cloudsley is not as idyllic as it seemed on the surface, there are many things tying Lillian to the house, not least of which is the love she develops for her young stepson, Albie, who is the closest thing Lillian will ever have to a child of her own.  When Charles, Lillian's husband, hires a local up and coming painter for an ambitious project that will see him moving into their house for a summer, Lillian's life is turned on its head and she is forced to confront certain things in her life which she had previously thought settled.

Alongside this historical narrative, we are given the storyline of the present day in which Maggie Oberon returns to her childhood home to take care of her ageing grandmother, Lillian, who is beginning to lose her memory.  Returning to Cloudsley means that Maggie must confront people from her past and try to make amends for the things that she has done.  Along the way, she learns much about the strong woman her grandmother was, and the sacrifices she had to make, giving her much needed perspective on the events in her own life.

This is a beautiful, atmospheric novel which captivated me from beginning to end-- it was near impossible to put down and had me up reading well past my bed time.  The best parts of the novel were the historical portions, and I thought Richell did an excellent job of setting up the situation for her characters without making any of it seem melodramatic.  She also captured the glamour of the age, from the fashion to the dinner parties to the cars.  In comparison, the modern day storyline almost felt unnecessary at times, and it was hard to spend time away from the beautiful 1950s love story that had been set up.  The modern storyline however gave some balance to the dark elements of the historical portion, and without the possibility of happiness in the future, the events of the past may have been difficult to take all at once.  Evoking some of my favourite multi-linear historical novels, The Peacock Summer perfectly satisfied my historical fiction cravings and demonstrated what strong and unrestrained writing could do.  Read it this weekend-- you won't regret it.

Tuesday, 24 July 2018

Book Review: The Desert Nurse

The Desert Nurse
Pamela Hart
Hachette, Australia 2018

As you may know, I have been on the look out for novels set in Australia during and around the First World War.  So when a copy of Pamela Hart's newest novel arrived in my mailbox, I made time to read it right away.

The Desert Nurse is the story of Evelyn Northey, the daughter of a doctor living in Taree in the early Twentieth Century.  She longs to become a doctor herself, but after her mother passed away, her father insisted on her leaving school to help run the household and take care of her younger brother.  Evelyn dreams of the day that her inheritance from her mother will become available to her so that she can use the money to go to University and become a doctor.  But she's in for the shock of her life on her twenty-first birthday when she discovers that the terms of her mother's will state that she will only get the money when she turns thirty or when she marries-- meaning that she is to be at the mercy of her father or her husband until it may well be too late.

Desperate to follow her dreams, Evelyn trains to be a nurse at the Manning District Hospital, and thanks to the assistance of one of the doctors there, becomes a certified nurse.  When war is declared and nurses are needed, despite her father's protestations, Evelyn enlists.  It is at her medical examination that she meets William Brent, a doctor who is unable to enlist himself because of a childhood bout of polio that has left him with muscle damage in one of his legs.

William and Evelyn meet again, however in Egypt, after Dr Brent decides to just show up at one of the hospitals and offer his services.  With the incoming casualties from Gallipoli and the Dardanelles, the army find they are unable to turn away the talented surgeon, and soon he and Evelyn are working side by side in theatre.

Pamela Hart's books move along at a cracking pace.  Her books always follow a strong, lovable heroine doing something against the restrictions imposed on her by society, and I really enjoy putting myself in the shoes of a person who lived long before me.  At times, the pace almost seemed too quick in this book, particularly in the early parts, but I was soon swept away once the novel and its cast made it to the war.  One thing that is very clear is that Pamela Hart has done a lot of research, particularly about medical procedures and wartime hospitals.  The places and the people in them felt supremely real.

As is normal in Pamela Hart's books, characters from her previous novels The Soldier's Wife and A Letter From Italy made cameo appearances.  If there was mention of the characters from The War Bride, I missed them as it's been a while since I read that book. 

The Desert Nurse is a quick read but a heartwarming one and one I am going to return to again in the future.  I loved getting a woman's perspective on the war and on what it was like to be a woman around that time.  It made a lovely counterpoint to a book I read earlier in the year, The Daughters of Mars by Tom Keneally.  While both essentially dealt with a similar situation, the books were very different in their scopes and styles.

I look forward to more books from Pamela Hart.

Sunday, 15 July 2018

Book Review: The Coves

The Coves
David Whish-Wilson
Fremantle Press, 2018

David Whish-Wilson is a respected name in Australian Crime Fiction, and his trio of novels Line of Sight, Zero at the Bone  and Old Scores shine a light on the possibilities of a seedy Perth underbelly in times of recent memory.  In his fourth novel, The Coves, just recently published by Fremantle Press, he takes a slightly different angle with a foray into the genre of historical crime.  The Coves is the story of twelve year old Samuel Bellamy, who makes his way to San Francisco aboard a ship full of convicts during 1849 with the intention of finding his mother, whom he believes to be among the Australians living there. 

Drawing from the historical record, Whish Wilson vividly recreates the 'Australian quarter' of San Francisco, a town run by the Sydney Coves, or the Sydney Ducks as they were sometimes called.  The novel is peopled with murderers, drunks, prostitutes and scoundrels, and all are seen through Sam's keen eyes, helping the reader to go beyond these labels and understand that people are not always who they appear on the surface, though it may be a matter of survival for them to appear this way.  From the prostitute who becomes like a surrogate older sister to Sam when he is alone in this new place to the lawmakers who serve their own interest, the cast of characters in The Coves is almost Dickensian, but with a tough, Aussie Larrikin twist here and there.  No wonder the early praise for this novel has been garnering comparisons to Oliver Twist.

For me, the novel more strongly evoked echoes of Peter Carey, with strong literary writing that sometimes required deep focus to get at the heart of what was really being said.  It takes great skill to write characters who are wise beyond their years, but with Sam, David Whish Wilson has achieved just that.  He is not as innocent as perhaps a twelve year old may be today, instead streetwise and savvy through necessity, yet his perspective on the world is not yet jaded like some of his older counterparts, and his capacity to still believe in the possibilities of love, happy endings, reunions and so forth drive the story forward.  This is the story of a young man who could turn to crime because of the childhood he has had, but instead tries to do the right thing always (at least from a moral point of view if not a legal standpoint); a young man who is loyal, observant and loves his dog. 

If you're interested in hearing David Whish Wilson talk about this book, you can still get tickets to hear him speaking to Tim from Dymocks Subiaco this Wednesday night at BARK on Hay Street.  Follow this link for more.  

Tuesday, 26 June 2018

How My Writing Process Has Changed Over Time (Part Two)

If you haven't read part one of this series, you can find it here.

In early 2018, I finished writing the eleventy-billionth draft of a novel-length project that I had been working on, on and off, for about a decade.  Okay.  So it was the eleventh draft.  But it felt like a lot more.

Something felt different about finishing the story this time.  Wiser writers than me have said before that when something is finished, you know.  There is a severing of the cord that binds you to it.  And while I know that if my book is picked up for publication I will likely have to work on it a few more times, the sense that I have right now is that I have taken it as far as I could have.

I learnt a lot writing this particular book, and I had a lot of great milestones whilst working on it too.  I have always prided myself on having a great memory, but funnily enough, when I began writing about the process of working on this book, I realised that I can't remember the whole process in order.  There are things that stand out to me, like the ten days I spend revising while on a residency at the Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers' Centre in Greenmount, or the time I was asked to do a presentation on writing historical fiction at the History Teacher's Association Conference at St Hilda's.  But I don't think about these things as a timeline.  They are more like a montage.  Picture me, hunched over a desk, standing at a lectern with a powerpoint presentation, drinking tea, all the while 'Eye of the Tiger' plays in the background.  Maybe, in the end, that is what writing is like.  There's no one way to do it.  You can't follow the instructions step by step.  Sometimes, you do things out of order (like research... but I'll get to that.) . Sometimes, you repeat things that you thought you'd only have to do once.

There are things that I can take away from the last decade of calling myself a writer that hopefully will serve me well for the next one.  Things like, first of all, calling myself a writer.  I think I've mastered that, thanks in no small part to great teachers like Natasha Lester, who gave me the skills I needed to concisely explain what I write-- as that is the inevitable follow up question when you tell strangers you write books.  I've made some great connections too, in bookselling and publishing. 

But of course, there are a few things that I've learned NOT to do, as well.  Things like:

- Not sending the book out before it's ready.  Not to beta readers, not to friends and family and CERTAINLY NOT to publishers.

- Not to take criticism personally.  You waste a lot of time and emotions feeling like everyone who dislikes your book also dislikes you.

- Not to seek the kind of intense feedback this work requires from close family and friends

And finally...

- Not to feel like there is a prescribed way to research. 

I write historical fiction, and getting history right is important to me.  One of things I am encountering writing The Turning Tide (working title for book two) is that I don't yet fully know the time and place I am writing about.  I know roughly when it is set, but I haven't yet settled on a suburb.  Between the Sleepers was set in Fremantle, and it's tempting to go back there... but I'm also wondering about setting the book in the suburb where I live now, and taking myself on long walks, imagining the past and my characters a bit closer to home. 

If I were to set myself the impossible goal of getting all the facts right the first time around, I would never start writing.  There are always going to be things I don't know.  And if I wanted to just write facts, I would have become an historian.  History and Historical Fiction are different.  They have different purposes.  What interests me about historical fiction is the way that writers use it to help me connect with the past through characters, and feel empathy for people who died before I was born.  I can read historical fiction for hours, whereas non-fictional accounts are more suited to short bursts of reading, at a desk with a notebook and pen.  I did history and writing for undergrad, and the biggest appeal of the history degree was fodder for stories, so I think that tells you all you need to know.

Sometimes, I need to give myself permission to just write.  To get facts wrong.  To have people wearing clothes with zippers before they were invented, to have the drinking age wrong.  Those things will be fixed later.  And if the historical facts make the scene impossible, maybe somewhere down the track it gets thrown out.  Some of my favourite darlings have been killed this way. 

This is the stumbling block I keep hitting with the newest book.  I start to write and then I am suddenly confronted by the gaps in my knowledge.  I'm trying to remind myself that it's okay to get things wrong, but the part of me that just spent a few years fixing those sorts of mistakes keeps piping up.

So I'm researching the way I like best-- reading stories set at the time, watching films, reading old newspapers online.  It's immersive research.  I'm not taking notes at this stage unless something really great stands out to me and I jot it down for a scene idea.  The heavy lifting-- the fact checking and getting all the dates right-- that bit comes later. 

First drafts are shit but they can also be fun.  If I let myself get back into that first draft mode (and forget I've done this all before) I know I'll be in for a treat.