Sunday, 17 December 2017

Book Review: The Cottingley Secret

The Cottingley Secret
Hazel Gaynor
Harper Collins, 2017 (I own a copy courtesy of the publisher)

Though I watched the movie Fairy Tale: A True Story (1997) many times as a child, it wasn't until the news of this book coming out did I think to check if the story of Frances and Elsie and the Cottingley fairies really was based on a true story.  In 1917, Frances Griffiths and her cousin Elsie Wright stunned the world by photographing themselves in the company of fairies down at the 'beck' (an old word for stream) at the back of Elsie's family home in Cottingley, Yorkshire.  These photographs soon came to the attention of the local Theosophical Society, and were certified as genuine by a Mr Snelling-- an expert in photography.  They also came to the attention of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes books, who went on to publish these photographs alongside two articles which he wrote for The Strand, as well as a book called The Coming of the Fairies which was released in 1922.  Many may find it strange to think that the author who created one of the greatest deductive and logical minds in fiction could believe in the supernatural, but it must be taken into account that these photographs appeared at a time of grief, near the end of the First World War, where every town had lost loved ones.  Conan Doyle was no exception, his own son having died.  The film Fairy Tale touches on this a little by introducing the character of Harry Houdini, who makes it his mission to debunk the phony psychics who claim to be able to channel the voices of loved ones, taking advantage of the grief being felt world-over.  When Conan Doyle (played by Peter O'Toole) asks Houdini (Harvey Keitel) if he truly believes Conan Doyle could have been tricked into thinking a phony psychic was speaking to him in his own child's voice, Houdini replies "You wouldn't be the first." 

In the 1980s, Frances and Elsie admitted to staging the first four photographs, creating the fairies out of illustrations from Princess Mary's Gift Book which Elsie had drawn on sandwich paper and propped up using hat pins.  But the girls have always maintained that the final photograph, called 'The Fairy Bower' in Conan Doyle's accounts, was genuine.  In this image, faint shapes that resemble female figures can be seen gathered around the outside of what looks like a bird's nest in the grass. 

If you would like to read more about the Cottingley Fairies, or see the images taken by Elsie and Frances, you can do so here

One hundred years on, Irish author Hazel Gaynor reimagines the story of Elsie and Frances for her latest historical novel.  The Cottingley Secret is a beautiful, multi-layered story which follows Olivia Kavanagh in the present day and Frances Griffiths back in 1917.  When Olivia's grandfather dies, he leaves her his second hand bookshop, Something Old, as well as a manuscript and a mystery.  The manuscript turns out to be Frances' account of the Cottingley incident, during which she and her cousin Elsie staged fairy photographs in order to convince their families that they really did see fairies down at the beck.  The fairies themselves being too difficult to photograph, Elsie and Frances resorted to making their own fairies to ensure they would get the proof they needed. Frances begins to have strange dreams of the fairies, in which a little red headed girl hands her flowers and repeats 'For my Mammy'.  Neither Frances nor Elsie could have predicted the flurry of attention their photographs would bring, nor the way that their story would captivate the hearts of a nation.  Meanwhile, as Olivia reads Frances' words to her grandmother, now in a nursing home with severe dementia, she begins to find out the secrets of her own family's past.  Olivia too begins to dream of the red headed child and the flowers.  Who is she?  What connection does she have to both Frances and Olivia?  And is it really the fairies who are making magical things happen in the window of Something Old?

The Cottingley Secret is a perfect escapist read.  At times, the prose can be a little clunky, and I found the first few chapters a bit cliched, but once I was into the flow of the narrative, it was the story that carried me along.  It has a bit of everything-- history, magic, romance and a family saga, as well as some great literary references thrown in.  It's also a love story to bookshops, and I have to love that!  Some of the plot points were a tad convenient, and I did get annoyed with the ending to Frances' manuscript having notes tacked on from both Olivia's mother and grandmother, just to ensure you felt like weeping a bit (I didn't though-- not quite).  I think many of the things about this book that I found not quite satisfying are traits of the genre, and within that, were done quite well.  But perhaps it's time to move on from a few of them, hey?  We don't always need to find the letter that explains everything.  History is never truly neat and tidy like that.

While it's no Kate Morton novel (and speaking of which, hopefully we are due for another one of those soon, hint hint), The Cottingley Secret hit the spot, and I would be intrigued to read more from this author, especially seeing as she's also written a novel about the Titanic.

I gave this one three and a half stars. 

Monday, 4 December 2017

Books of the Year: 2017

There are still four weeks left in December, so maybe I am jumping the gun by writing this list.

Books are funny things.  There are some that you love in the moment, but can't recall the plot of months or even days later.  There are others that frustrate you to no end while you're reading them, but you can still find yourself dwelling on years down the track. And because books have such a profound effect on their readers, every year I like to do a shout out to the books that have moved me over the course of the year.

These are in no particular order, and I couldn't limit myself to just ten-- I give you the 17 books I read in 2017 that I would recommend to all of you...


The Possessions by Sara Flannery Murphy

Portable Curiosities by Julie Koh

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

My Cousin Rachel by Daphne Du Maurier

The Wonder by Emma Donoghue

The Weight of a Human Heart by Ryan O'Neill

Bloodlines by Nicole Sinclair

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

The Love of a Bad Man by Laura Elizabeth Woollett

Miss Lily's Lovely Ladies by Jackie French

Australia Day by Melanie Cheng

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

The Woolgrower's Companion by Joy Rhoades

Code Name Verity & Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein

Beautiful Messy Love by Tess Woods

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan

Bird Country by Claire Aman


Monday, 20 November 2017

The Long and Short of It

On writing both novels and short stories, and learning the differences between them

Let's be real here.  A short story is not the practice form that you need to master before you can go on and write novels.


Sure, there are novelists out there who also write short stories.  And there are short story writers who also try their hands at novels.  Just look at George Saunders.  He's just published his first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, and it went and won the Man Booker Prize.  Bravo, George, bravo.  (As a side note, it excites me that he's done this, because now maybe people who have discovered him through the prize will go and read his amazing short fiction.)  There are plenty of great writers who write both, and there are plenty of writers who stick to the one form.  But I can't think of a single one who cut their teeth on short stories, then worked up the courage to write a full-length novel and announced to themselves and the world "Okay, that's it-- I've hit the big time, now.  I've written a novel.  I don't need to work on short stories any more."

Firstly, anyone who does that, and whose name isn't JK Rowling would be a bit silly.  There is no 'Big Time' in writing.  The idea that our success is measured by the 'size' or the volume of sales we can achieve is a self-fulfilling prophecy for failure, because the publishing industry is one in which only a handful of authors ever make it 'big'.  Most authors, particularly in Australia, don't make enough money from book sales to support themselves.  If you want to know a bit more about how making money works as a writer, you can check out this excellent post by Annabel Smith about advances, the first part in a series about how authors make their money. 

Secondly, I wonder what would make them think they have any control over it?  As someone who writes both novels and short stories, in my experience the idea itself always suggests what form it would like to be written in.  I'm not a spiritual person, so I am not talking about muses or divine intervention here.  But some ideas are more powerful in longer pieces and some are more powerful in 3000 words or less.  Some ideas, you actually have to sit down and try to write them before you realise that you've started in the wrong form. 

Heck, maybe that idea you thought was going to be a novel was really an essay or a poem.  But you don't know until you start to play, and see the possibilities. 


I've heard it said by many writers that short stories can be harder to write than novels.  I say it depends on the short story.  When I write a short story, often it's about an idea that's been obsessing me, or it brings together a bunch of ideas that I've been ruminating on in the back of my mind for a long time.  When I finally sit down at the keyboard, it all just comes out, and I write until I get to the end of the reserves of words that have built up.  Because I've been doing it for a while, the stories that I write often come out at between 2000 and 3000 words now, but when I first started, sometimes it would take me a lot more words to get to the heart of what I was trying to say.  That's where the revision comes in.  What is definitely true about the short story form is that it takes a different skill set to writing a novel.  You need to have a sense of economy in your word use.  3000 words is not a lot and some publications and competitions will actually give you less than that, so you cannot waste a single word.  Whatever it is you're trying to say, try to say it in the most economical way, but also the most interesting way that you can.  This applies to character development too.  We don't need to know what happened to your narrator on a foggy night back in mid-July, unless what happened on that night led directly to their actions and reactions in the piece you are writing.  But hey, it's good that you, the writer, know all of that backstory.  It helps your character and their voice explode onto the page and start in media res

Short stories, like novels, have beginnings, middles and ends, but not necessarily in that order.  I once tried to write a short story completely backwards, scene by scene.  I never finished that piece -- it was about a disgruntled former employee throwing a rock through the window of a small business-- but that wasn't because it wasn't a good idea.  It was because I let the steam go out of my enthusiasm for the idea.  Maybe I'll try the backwards trick again some time.  I'm sure I wouldn't be the first person to. 

The thing about the short story form is, I think, that once you discover you love it, it never lets you go.  It always astounds me when people say they don't like short stories.  'Short stories' is not a genre in the same way 'romance' is-- it's a genre in the same way 'fiction' is.  There are fantasy and science fiction short stories, realist short stories, Westerns, historical short stories, and there are even some kinds of short stories that meld non-fiction and memoir into the mix.  For people who think they don't like the form, I think the issue is that they haven't liked what they've read so far.  Like poetry, the short story can seem from the outside like an exclusive club.  You must be this smart to read.  And some of them really are in that hyper-literary vein-- there are certain writers who enjoy making the reading of their work an act of engagement.  But there are other writers who just want to entertain.  This is what I love most about short stories.  There is something for everyone, and you can read an entire narrative in the time it takes to finish your lunch hour. 

When I work on longer pieces, compared to when I work on short stories, I feel like I am using my brain differently.  There is still an element of collecting ideas, bringing them together unconsciously until I am ready to write, but because the story arc must be a lot longer, I have to think more actively about the plot points I am going to use to get there.  The internal logic of a longer form piece has to be thought about.  The writer must keep track of multiple characters, multiple subplots, sometimes multiple timelines.  It takes a lot longer to finish that first draft.  For me, my first draft of a short story can take anywhere from an hour to a month.  For a novel, we're looking more at a year, but that could be because as an unpublished writer, I've never had to deliver a novel on a deadline. 

I don't plan my novels in the sense of plotting out every single scene, though I do have certain scenes I know I need to get to in order to tell the story that is begging to be told.  I do always know my ending, roughly.  But I never plan my short stories.  The ending will announce itself to me.  I will write a sentence, fully intending to write another one after it, but the sentence will say "Here I am.  Stop now."  This sense of performing a magic trick is another reason why I love short stories. 

Any form you write in, if you practice it enough and with the right intentions, will teach you things about who you are as a writer, and each draft you do will make you a better writer.  Writing short stories doesn't prepare you to publish your breakout novel, but what it will do is teach you to love the sound of language and to use it deliberately.  To notice pertinent things.  To create large than life characters.  And-- as I am finding, as I return to short stories now that my novel rewrite is in the hands of beta readers-- it will help you feel the magic that makes you rush to the keyboard each day, to see what your brain has in store.



A reading list for those wishing to pick up a short story collection this week:

* The Weight of a Human Heart by Ryan O'Neill
* Feet to the Stars by Susan Midalia
* That Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
* The Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
* Bird Country by Claire Aman

Sunday, 12 November 2017

What I've Been Reading Lately

It's technically spring at the moment here in Australia, but I think it would be safe to say that summer is here.  It's been above 30 degrees celcius every day this week, and it stays warm and muggy until well after the sun goes down.  It's perfect weather for lazing around under the air conditioning, or outside in the shade with a good book, and that's certainly something I have been trying to do-- I am on track to reach my Goodreads target of 101 books in 2017 with a few extra books up my sleeve, but that's no reason to slow down!  Reading has sort of replaced writing in the last couple of weeks, but I am finding it hard to feel guilty about that.  Since finishing the rewrite of my novel and handing it over to my beta readers, I feel a little bit like a sponge that has been wrung out.  I have no more words for the moment, so I am soaking up other peoples'.

Here's what I have been reading lately:

Bird Country by Claire Aman-- reviewed here on the AU review.



The Liberation by Kate Furnivall

Controversial, but it was a real struggle for me to make myself finish this one.  The dialogue and the writing in general were really over stated and the plot was sensationalised and there was no real sense of time or place.  Plus, the main character was kind of bland and prickly.  I know this author is really popular but I would be hesitant to read her again after this book.  

The Little Book by Selden Edwards

I've read this before, but I can't for the life of me find my copy.  I doubt I would have got rid of it, because it was a book that came into my life at the right place and the right time.  When I saw it on the shelf at the library, I knew I had to take it home and reread it.  And so I did, and rereading was such a treat.  I rarely get to revisit books.  This is a really complicated novel and it's hard to explain without making it sound really ridiculous.  It was Edwards's first book and it took him 36 years to write (so keeping that in mind, I still have time, given that I am coming up on ten years since I started Between the Sleepers...) It follows a character named Wheeler Burden, who is this legendary rock star/ college baseball player/ writer, who suddenly finds himself in Vienna at the turn of the century and gets to witness all of the culture and unrest that are blooming there at that time, but he also has to work out how to get back to his own timeline-- if he even can-- without messing up his own history.  It's not a totally unflawed novel; Wheeler can tend towards being a bit of a male Mary-Sue at times, because he's so handsome and good at everything and women love him just by looking at him, and you can see the hand of the author at work sometimes, orchestrating the coincidences that give the plot its twists and turns, but it's just really good fun.  It sweeps you up in the march of time and you get to be a fly on the wall where people like Mark Twain and Freud etc. are at work.  I've recently discovered that there is a second book which got some absolutely terrible reviews, so I have requested it on inter library loan so that I can find out for myself.  

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan

It's stunning.  There were moments when my heart was beating so fast with excitement, I thought I was going to explode.  It's Egan's first foray into historical fiction, but she does it so well.  This is the story of a young woman who works as one of the first female divers on the naval yards during the second world war, but it's also got love, and gangsters and missing fathers, and it's just so amazing.  I can't rate it any higher.  I read it in 24 hours and could not put it down.  Better go read A Visit From the Goon Squad  soon I think.

Soap by Charlotte Guest

Charlotte is a friend of mine, but she's also an exceptionally talented poet.  What I really like about Soap is that it's accessible and relateable, without being dumbed down.  A lot of people are put off by poetry because it's like some elite club that you have to have the secret codes to get, like poetry is only meant for reading by other poets.  But not this collection.  This collection is personal and universal at the same time.  It's moving and erudite and playful and it lets the reader in on the secret, which I really, really liked.  




In other news, I've started crocheting poppies after doing a workshop with the RSL poppy ladies at my local library.  They need 62 000 before next Remembrance Day to display in King's Park.  I'm going to keep making them for a while, I think.  





Friday, 3 November 2017

"What do we do now?"

You may have noticed that this month, I have completely re-branded this website.

I loved my old blog, and I loved my pseudonym, but a few people had pointed out to me lately that it was time to move on.  I'm starting to make a bit of headway in the world of writing, and that means time for a real, proper, grown-up author page.

I'm not going to say that much more about it, but I do find it interesting that this coincides with the completion of the latest draft of my novel, Between the Sleepers.  While I've been working on this book for what amounts to something like ten years (though there were gaps to work on other projects in between drafts), the draft that I've just completed felt different. 

That comes down, in large part, to the fact that I have been working with a local author who has mentored me through this stage of the project.  I had admitted to myself about a year ago that the book wasn't quite there yet, but that I didn't know how to push myself to that next level.  My female character was thoroughly unlikable to everyone but me, and there was so much melodrama in the storyline that it seemed a little bit like all of my characters were in bad need of an afternoon nap.  But I'd rewritten the thing ten times.  It was my "What do we do now?" moment, only it really felt like there was nothing I could do but shelve the project and move on to something else. 

I tried that for a while, but the knowledge that I was throwing away a story I'd cared about for such a long time, and pretty much undoing all of the good work that I had put into it, including a residency at the Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers' Centre in 2014 just ate at me.  I started looking for help.  I looked at residencies, competitions, and finally, decided on the Australian Society of Authors Mentoring program, where I felt sure that out of the hundreds (possibly thousands) of applicants who put their work forward every year, that I was going to be selected, that I would get to work with someone like Toni Jordan, that my book would be easy to fix and that I'd find myself in the awkward position of deciding which major publishing house to sell to. 

If that was the only reason I was in the writing game, perhaps giving up wouldn't have been such a bad idea...

I did not get the mentorship, but then again, neither did lots of other writers, all of whom probably were just as determined as I was.  They simply could not give a mentorship to every applicant. 

It was while talking to a local author whose work I have admired for a long time that I mentioned this recent disappointment.  This generous person turned around and said that she would be happy to look at my work and perhaps mentor me through the process of another draft.  We worked out a payment that would be fair for the process and negotiated a time to start work that wouldn't clash with the Perth Writers' Festival.  And in February 2017, I handed over my printed and bound manuscript.

It's November now, and last week, I wrote the last missing scene and corrected the last few mistakes in the book, as per my mentor's notes.  I expected to cry, or feel elated.  Instead, I felt sure that there was more work to be done that I was forgetting about.  I checked and double checked.  No.  Nothing.  There was nothing to do but send the book to some friends for a beta-read.

I'm still in that bizarre, twilight space now where I don't know whether to relax and read the hundreds of books I have stacked around the place waiting for me, or to launch myself into my next project.  I keep thinking that an extra lot of edits will come my way.  But all that's left to do is wait.  (And do the dreaded synopsis...) 

For now, it's done.  It's about 20 000 words longer than it used to be, and has some new sub-plots and character relationships which seemed to develop completely on their own, much to my pleasant surprise.  And I can say today, that I am very proud of the book I have created. 

So to my mentor, thank you-- you have helped me rediscover my love of this project, when I didn't even realise that I had lost it.

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Short Story Book Club (The Podcast) Ep 4: The Boat

We're back! I am still learning this podcasting thing, so tonight's recording chops around a little bit and the sound quality changes. I'm sorry about that. I am good with words, not with technology, but I am learning more and more with every episode I record.

 This month, we were reading The Boat by Nam Le, a classic short story collection from 2008. I was surprised by this book, as it wasn't at all what I expected. I was joined at the Centre for Stories by local writer Yvette Diaz and we had a chat about the book and what we took away from it.

 Enjoy!

 Remember, you can subscribe to this podcast on Apple Podcasts now-- Just search for The Short Story Book Club Podcast. If you like it, you can leave a review which will help other listeners find us.

 

Friday, 27 October 2017

Book Review: Marlborough Man

Marlborough Man
Alan Carter
Fremantle Press, 2017 (I own a copy, courtesy of the publisher)

I don't usually read crime novels but I do love to support WA Authors, so when the opportunity arose for me to interview Alan Carter in November, I said yes please and hopped to the task of reading his latest book.  Alan Carter is originally from the UK, but now lives in Western Australia.  He is the author of the three Cato Kwong novels, Prime Cut, Getting Warmer  and Bad Seed which examine the fictional seedy underbelly of Perth.  Marlborough Man is described by Carter in his acknowledgements as a 'temporary conscious uncoupling with Cato'-- it follows Sergeant Nick Chester, originally from Sunderland in the UK but now living in the Marlborough Sounds in New Zealand, after an under cover job he did as part of SOCA (Serious Organised Crime Agency, I think...) put him in the cross hairs with a dangerous crime boss.  Nick lives in one of the most beautiful, isolated places in the world, and this setting plays a key part in the story.  It's a good place for him to hide from his past, but it's also a terrifying place to be alone and far from help.  The landscape, as evoked in Carter's writing, possesses a terrible beauty, and a sense of long history.  Some of Carter's descriptive passages had me wanting to hop on a plane and get myself over to New Zealand for a first hand look.  That sort of powerful description is not something you expect from a crime novel, so I was pleasantly surprised. 

The plot of Marlborough Man has many strands to it, but Alan Carter manages to weave these all together in a well-paced and satisfying way.  First, there is the cat and mouse game aspect: Nick, his wife Vanessa, and their son Paulie, are in danger as Nick's past appears to be catching up with them.  Meanwhile, a child murderer known to police as The Pied Piper strikes again.  Nick finds a link to an older crime, and with the aid of his sassy, tough and thoroughly likeable offsider, Latifa Rapata, he befriends members of the local Maori community, when he discovers that the death of one of their own may hold the key.  While I'm sorry to say I did guess who the killer was before the end, the solution to the complex puzzle laid out for the reader had clearly been meticulously planned, and while it wasn't obvious, all the clues were there if you wanted to solve the case alongside the protagonist. 

At times, I found the endings of the chapters a little bit abrupt in this book-- sometimes, this attempt at leaving the story on a cliffhanger hit the mark, and other times, it just seemed to cut off with a bald statement, but this was the only aspect of the writing of the story which jarred with me.  Would I read another Alan Carter novel?  Yes, I think I would. 

I gave Marlborough Man  four stars. 

If you would like to hear Alan Carter speaking about Marlborough Man, you can catch him at the Bassendean Memorial Library on Wednesday November 1. Please see the library's website for more details.  

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Book Review: The Last Act of Hattie Hoffman

The Last Act of Hattie Hoffman 
Mindy Mejia
Quercus, 2017 
I own a copy courtesy of the publisher

In a small town in America, a young woman named Hattie Hoffman is found dead in an abandoned barn.  The Sheriff on duty is Del Goodman-- a Vietnam veteran, and a friend of the Hoffman family.  Del is a good cop, but this case is personal, and his sanity may depend on whether or not he can get justice for Hattie.

Told in three voices, The Last Act of Hattie Hoffman is both a murder mystery and a coming of age novel.

Hattie is a chameleon.  She changes her personality to fit in with the people around her, becoming whatever they want most.  The perfect daughter.  The devoted best friend.  The star pupil.  (In some other countries, the novel is titled Everything You Want Me to Be.)  She is a seventeen year old girl, bright but a bit of an introvert, except when it comes to acting.  The night of her murder, she has been on stage performing in her school's production of Macbeth, and her portrayal of Lady Macbeth has proved to the adults around her that there are hidden depths to Hattie.

Then there is the voice of Peter Lund, Hattie's English teacher and director of the school play.  Peter has moved from Minneapolis so that his wife, Mary Beth, can take care of her elderly mother Elsa.  Elsa refuses to leave the farm where she and her husband had lived all through their married life, and while the arrangement is only supposed to be temporary, Peter watches as his wife slips easily back into the life she left behind.  Feeling like an outsider, Peter turns to online chatrooms, seeking intellectual conversation about books and art, and finds himself embroiled in a digital affair with the charismatic HollyG (as in Holly Golightly- the heroine of Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's.)

The final voice is that of Del Goodman.  While Peter and Hattie's sections span the months leading up to Hattie's death, Del's sections happen after, as he negotiates questioning suspects, digging into the files on Hattie's computer, and the long, painful wait for DNA analysis at the busy Minneapolis crime lab where he has sent all the evidence for testing.  Del finds himself torn between his hurt and anguish over the death of the little girl he once knew, and the truths he uncovers about the young woman she had become in the course of the case.  As all of the pieces slowly begin to fall into place, what we are given is a complex portrait of three emotionally isolated people living in a small town.

This is a stunning, complex novel, akin to Anna North's The Life and Death of Sophie Stark.  It relies on a multi-perspective view of the world which plays with the way that different characters are viewed in different contexts to skew ideas of innocent, guilty, good and bad.  All the while, the book is extremely readable, at times even binge-readable.

By the end of the book, it's clear to see that Hattie Hoffman was a likable sociopath just trying to find her way in the world, and despite the view that readers may have of her behaviour by the end of the book, Mindy Mejia has definitely captured the rift in a community that is created when a young woman is murdered.  The setting of this book- both physical and 'emotional/social' is spot on, and adds to the atmosphere.  I could see this book being adapted for a film easily, and, being an actress, Hattie would probably have liked that.

Filled with intertextual links to books line Jane Eyre, this is a thinking person's mystery, a literary crime, and would probably appeal more to readers of literary fiction than someone craving a straight up mystery.  I found it the perfect blend, and loved getting to know the people as I followed along in the solving of the crime.

The only part of the book which fell flat was related to the ending, and if you haven't read the novel, perhaps now is the time to close the browser and read this interview no more.  The resolution of the book relies on a double twist-- and it simply was not needed.  One twist would have been fine.  The second twist brought the resolution back to a far more basic level and it made everything leading up to its discovery seem like a frustrating waste of words and time. The tragedy of the set up that first twist suggested-- a man in jail after committing to the crime of his wife so that she won't have to raise their baby in jail-- fits perfectly with the rest of the book.  Sure, it's depressing, but it fits.  It was that kind of book.  I love that kind of ending.  But as it was, the new ending was too neat.  Everyone got a fresh start but Hattie (and the killer, of course).

I could forgive the ending, because I enjoyed spending my Sunday curled up with this book, and I think you probably would too, if you've read this far.

I gave this book four stars.

Friday, 6 October 2017

Book Review: We That Are Left by Lisa Bigelow

We That are Left
Lisa Bigelow
Allen and Unwin, 2017
I own a copy courtesy of the publisher

The sinking of the HMAS Sydney was a sobering moment in Australian history.  Mystery and rumour surrounded the loss of the vessel and all 600 + souls on board until the mid-2000s when the wreckage was finally located.  In We That Are Left, the struggles of the loved ones left behind by some of those crew members lost in the tragedy are re-imagined.

We That Are Left is the story of two women.  There is Mae, who is looking forward to her naval engineer husband coming home to spend Christmas with his baby daughter when she hears that his ship, the Sydney is missing.  The other woman, Grace, is a country girl who has come to Melbourne to becoming a reporter, just like her heroine, the movie character Torchy Blane.   She's in the newsroom when the rumour comes down the wire, and watches as the news media are gagged by the Armed Forces, desperate to keep the loss a secret for as long as possible not to damage morale.  Bound to report on the story, Grace must witness first hand the suffering of those left behind. When her fiance is injured in Singapore covering a story, and then captured by the Japanese and held in Changi, she too must endure the pain of waiting for a loved one to return, not knowing if he'll be the same man who left. 

Lisa Bigelow's debut novel brings a human element to a well-known event of Australian World War Two history.  While many of the facts of the tragedy are known, to read about wives and mothers and children who are missing their loved ones and hoping against hope that the ship will miraculously turn up is to really appreciate the impact of the event.  One benefit of a historical novel is the certainty that comes with time.  Writing this piece, Bigelow and her readers know much more about the event than her characters ever will, and it is with great empathy that she evokes this pain and heartache and blind faith in her character, Mae.  While Grace and Mae have several crossovers, they never actually meet within the book, and yet their stories are completely intertwined, bringing home the interconnectedness that always becomes apparent after big events. 

While writing about tragedy, Bigelow's writing is never heavy-handed.  This novel is also rich in hope-- from the support that Mae receives from her family, to the steps she takes moving on to the next phase of her life, or for Grace, the way that her career begins to progress as a woman looking for work in a man's profession when men are scarce.  Far from being a romance, We That Are Left is a novel about two characters who are forced to find the strength to endure the lasting impact that war has on their home lives, and while each woman has her own flaws, there is something very relateable about their journeys.  

This novel is a quick, absorbing read, which will appeal to fans of Deborah Burrows. 

I really enjoyed it and gave it four stars. 

Monday, 25 September 2017

Book Spotlight: Beautiful Messy Love by Tess Woods

Beautiful Messy Love
Harper Collins 2017
I own a copy, courtesy of the author/ publisher


Earlier this year, I received a parcel at work.  It was wrapped in red paper and tied up with a red and white ribbon.  Inside was a copy of Tess Woods' new book, Beautiful Messy Love-- pre-release-- and a dozen or so red rose petals.  There was also a handwritten card from Tess, which to this day, still sits on my work desk.  

I first met Tess Woods late last year when the Bassendean Memorial Library had decided to put on a series of talks called The Literary Lounge, and through the bookstore where I work (which works mostly with libraries), I was brought on board to do the book sales.  Tess's first book, Love at First Flight was about to be published in physical form for the first time, so it must have been about July or August last year, I think.  I'd been seeing Love at First Flight absolutely everywhere.  It was all over my Facebook and Twitter, and many of my author friends were talking about how amazing this Tess Woods was.  We decided to ask her to present at the very first Literary Lounge, and she agreed. 


Now, we're really lucky in Western Australia, because not only do we have a lot of amazing, talented writers living here, they're also really lovely people and frequently give up their time to put on events in bookstores and libraries.  I've met a lot of authors in this fashion and some of them have gone on to become friends.  But it's always exciting to have the opportunity to work with someone new, and introduce them to the audience for the first time.  And we really struck gold with Tess, because she was so warm, and open, and funny, and the audience loved her.  Interviewing her was a dream.  


So fast forward about twelve months to that parcel arriving at my work.  I was excited.  I was already excited about Tess's new book, but to be sent one by the author with a note of thanks for the support I had provided was touching.  (The fact that Tess's acknowledgements in the back of her new book go for several pages tell you a lot about the big heart this lady has.)  I took the book home and I put it on my bedside table, waiting for the perfect, uninterrupted stretch of time to read it. 


Last weekend, the time came and I delved in.  Beautiful Messy Love is a contemporary story of two couples-- Nick and Anna, and Lily and Toby, four young people who live in Perth in the present day.  (Not to spoil anything here, and sorry Tess if it was a secret, but Nick and Lily are actually the kids from Love at First Flight, all grown up.)  Nick, a professional footballer in a fictional AFL team, is recovering from stress fractures in his feet, when he meets Anna, an Egyptian refugee whose mother was once a powerful political figure.  Their romance is tested when Nick's fame and Anna's 'otherness' attract media attention.  Meanwhile, Lily is struggling to become a doctor.  Her serious boyfriend, Ben, has just left her, when she meets Toby in the hospital cafe and they have 'a moment'.  Yet things are never simple, and Lily later learns that Toby has a wife who is dying of cancer in the very ward where Lily is doing her oncology rotation.  


This book is a tribute to how messy falling in love can be, and how beautiful that makes life.  It is a book with complex, nuanced characters and a powerful message.  I wanted to live in the world of this book, and couldn't help but jump back into it at every chance I got.  In particular, Nick and Anna's story moved me.  Tess has obviously done a lot of research into writing about refugees and asylum seekers, and she writes about people escaping persecution and seeking a new life in Australia with generosity of spirit and a great degree of intelligence.  Tess also writes family particularly well, and the scene in Karrakatta cemetery when Lily takes Toby to see her father's grave had me tearing up and thinking about how much I love my own Dad.  (Soppy, I know).  But that's the power of a great book.  It anchors you to the real world, and makes you think and feel things.  


So Tess, if you're reading this-- you have outdone yourself.  And to everyone else?  Beautiful Messy Love is available now at all good bookshops (and if you're in Perth, I think Tess has signed pretty much every available copy), and you should go and pick one up.  


This is not a review-- I can't claim to be unbiased enough to write a review.  iI's a spotlight on a lovely author and her wonderful book, and I can't recommend you read it highly enough.  

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Short Story Book Club (The Podcast) Ep 3: Pulse Points

This month, I was joined at the Short Story Book Club by my dear friend, Belinda Hermawan, to talk about Pulse Points.  This collection, by award winning writer Jennifer Down, provided us with lots to talk about, and we discussed the various ways reading a great short story can benefit your own practise as a writer.

In other news, you can now subscribe to The Short Story Book Club Podcast on iTunes!  Please leave us a review or a rating if you like what we do, because that will help others find us.

Without any further ado, I give you episode 3...


Saturday, 16 September 2017

Book Review The Mitford Murders by Jessica Fellowes

The Mitford Murders by Jessica Fellowes
Sphere, 2017
I own a copy, courtesy of the publisher

With the cinematic remake of Murder on the Orient Express looming, it seems as if Agatha Christie is back in vogue again-- that is, if she were ever out of it, who am I to say?  It's timely, then, that Jessica Fellowes should be launching her new cosy mystery series now.  Set in England in the early 1920s, The Mitford Murders looks to be the first in a series of books following accidental sleuth Louisa Cannon and sidekick, Nancy Mitford.  This first volume introduces us to Louisa, nineteen years old and living with her mother and her Uncle.  Her mother does laundry for some of their more well-off neighbours, and while Louisa has a loving relationship with her mother, the age gap between them is considerably more than between most mothers and daughters of the time. After the death of Louisa's father, Uncle Stephen comes to live with them.  Uncle Stephen is not a very nice man at all, and he owes money up and down the country, with no means of paying anyone back, except by nefarious means.  When he decides to prostitute out his niece to one of the people he owes money to, Louisa knows that she has to make her escape, and so she takes a job at Asthill Manor, the home of the Mitford family.

Of course, the Mitfords are real people-- and a few of the Mitford sisters are rather well-known today.  A few people have remarked in their reviews that the narrative really did not require the use of the real-life Mitford family at all, and I would be inclined to agree.  While I'm a big believe that there IS a difference between history and historical fiction, and that under circumstances, it's all right to play around with people and events (so long as research is done, and no harm comes of it), this story could have been just as entertaining were it about entirely made up people.  The murder at the centre of the plot is real too, and remains unsolved to this day, though the book offers an explanation which is somewhat complicated and fanciful.  In her author's note, Fellowes admits that she manipulated the date of Nancy's eighteenth birthday to suit the plot, which I don't really see a reason for.  Then again, I think most historical novelists must do this sort of thing when they have no alternative, and good on Jessica Fellowes for being upfront about it.

Where Fellowes excels is in her descriptions of the fashions and customs of 1920s life in the upper classes.  Would we expect anything less from the writer of the Downton Abbey companion books?  Her ballroom scenes sparkle, and her social niceties give a lovely authentic feel to the interactions.  However, I couldn't help but feel that an excess of this sort of description obscured the fact that the plot was rather convoluted, and that the point of view of the piece seemed to jump around, sometimes hopping in and out of three or four different heads in the space of one scene.  Louisa herself wasn't much of a protagonist.  While she had strong motivations, in running from her Uncle, and something to look forward to in her relationship with Railway Policeman, Guy Sullivan, I never got a sense of her as a woman.  She had no likes, dislikes, or strong opinions.  She seemed a little like a sounding board for Nancy Mitford to bounce ideas off of, which begged the question of, if writing about the Mitfords was essential, why Nancy was not made the protagonist in the first place.

As far as a light, cosy mystery goes, this one was entertaining so long as it wasn't held up to particularly close examination.  I read it in two days, and was never so annoyed by it that I felt I couldn't continue.  I think readers of Kerry Greenwood or Agatha Christie would probably quite enjoy this book.  At times, I was reminded of the earlier episodes of Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries, and curiously, wanted to either go and reread Love in a Cold Climate (of which I remember very little except being nonplussed) or to begin re-watching Downton Abbey again for the third or fourth time.  Perhaps this series will get better with time, but I think it's safe to say that this series is not for me.

I gave it two and a half out of five stars.

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Mini-Review: Ridgeview Station by Michael Trant

Ridgeview Station by Michael Trant
Allen and Unwin, 2017 (I own a copy, courtesy the publisher)

From Goodreads: Many of Peter and Kelsie Dalton's friends thought they were crazy when they bought Ridgeview Station. But five years on, their hard work, help from Kelsie's parents, and record rainfall have them in high spirits as the summer muster approaches.

Realising they're going to need more help this season, Peter rings around the neighbouring stations to try and find a good worker. After a glowing recommendation, Alexi arrives to give them a hand - and is not at all what they'd expected ...
Everything is going smoothly with the muster before disaster strikes and the Dalton's find themselves battling to save their livestock, their property and their lives.


A few thoughts from me:  Ridgeview Station, the debut novel by Michael Trant, is a portrait of life on a sheep station in Western Australia-- for some readers, such as myself, a setting that is entirely foreign.  Trant tells his story from the heart, and you can feel the deep affection he has for his characters and the work that they are doing.  When disaster threatens to strike at Ridgeview, threatening the livelihood of Kelsie and Peter and their family, the tension is immediate and exciting.  I learned a lot reading this book, and while it's from a genre I wouldn't usually read (my usual wheelhouse being historical novels), I am glad that I picked it up.  Highlights included the four dogs, each with their own personalities, the interactions between Bull (a foul-mouthed visitor to the property) and Lisa, the mother-in-law who keeps everyone in order with a firm but ladylike hand, and the development of the different relationships between the characters.  

I was lucky enough to interview Michael in person at the Bassendean Memorial Library last month, and he was a delight to listen to.  This won't be the last we hear of from this new member of the WA Writing scene.  You can catch Michael Trant at next year's West Coast Fiction Festival.  

Friday, 8 September 2017

Author Interview: Jennifer Down

This week, I caught up with Jennifer Down, author of Pulse Points and the novel Our Magic Hour, via email to talk about her short story collection ahead of the next session of the Short Story Book Club on September the 19th.  Here's what she had to say:

Many people would have first come to your writing when you won the ABR/ Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize for your story Aokigahara.  I have a strong memory of reading that story on my lunch break when it was published online, and being unable to keep myself from crying.  What did winning that award mean for you as a writer?

Jennifer Down: Thank you! It was pretty surreal. I’d entered the prize the year before, too, and maybe the year before that. It was certainly validating, because it’s a prize that doesn’t distinguish between emerging and established writers, and it’s open to international entrants, and because some of its past shortlistees and winners are people whose work I greatly admire. But prizes are inherently subjective, too, and some elements of it do come down to luck and timing.

Saturday, 2 September 2017

Spring TBR

I'm having a good reading year.  I've read about 70 books so far in 2017, and I am on track to meet my Goodreads target of reading 101 books in the year.  It's the same target I set myself last year, but last year I almost didn't make it because it took me almost three whole weeks to read A Little Life-- yeah, thanks for that Hanya Yanagihara.  (In all seriousness though, that book was a dark masterpiece but it should come with a box of tissues, a hot water bottle and some gin.)

This year, though I'm trying to revise Between the Sleepers and therefore writing after work most days, I'm also trying to read a lot more.  I have a lot of books that I 'need' to read, whether it be for Book Club, The Short Story Book Club that I run, for reviews, or for interviews I'm doing.  And because of all that, my TBR pile at the moment looks like this:

That's right.  It's pretty much two piles.

For those of you who can't see what's on there, here's a list.

Doctor Thorne by Anthony Trollope (currently reading/ listening to on audio when I do housework)

One Leg Over by Robin Dalton (Research book but I haven't actually picked it up in months)

Nevermoor by Jessica Townsend (Advanced Reading Copy)

The Strange Case of the Alchemist's Daughter by Theodora Goss (Library)

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein (Library)

Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash by Eka Kurniawan (for review)
Bird Country by Claire Aman (for review)

The Big Issue Fiction Edition


Fortune by Robert Drewe

A Dangerous Inheritance by Alison Weir

Beauty in Thorns by Kate Forsyth (I was so excited to buy this when it came out and I am really sad I haven't been able to get to it yet.  Can we have an eighth day of the week just for reading, please?)

The Lightkeeper's Daughter by Jean E. Pendizwol (for review)

Lady Helen and the Dark Days Club by Alison Goodman

Victoria by Daisy Goodwin (and I also need to watch the miniseries)

To the Sea by Christine Dibley

The Women in Black by Madeleine St John

The Last Act of Hattie Hoffman by Mindy Mejia (for review)

and finally, one copy of The Mitford Murders by Jessica Fellowes (of Downton Abbey fame) which arrived in the post yesterday.  The danish, sadly, has already been eaten, and I am glad to say it was delicious.





So that's what I'll be trying to read over the next few months.  You'll have to picture me reading on the sun lounge, though it's more likely I'll be on the couch or in bed with these books more often than not.

Have you read any of these books?  Which ones appeal to you?

Monday, 28 August 2017

Book Review: The Woolgrower's Companion by Joy Rhoades

The Woolgrower's Companion by Joy Rhoades
Bantam 2017
I borrowed a copy from the library


New South Wales, 1945.  Kate Dowd goes with her father to the train station to meet two new workers coming to work on their station, Amiens.  Bought under the soldier-settler scheme, Amiens is one of the few stations that has been profitable in the area, but with Kate's father seeming to be losing his grip on reality, signs begin to point to that no longer being the case.  Add to this the new workers themselves-- Italian Prisoners of War, Luca and Vittorio.  Kate doesn't trust these newcomers, and worries about being virtually alone with them, many kilometres from help.

I expected good things from this novel.  It sounded exactly like the kind of book I love, and in many ways the premise reminded me of one of my favourite books of all time, The Paperbark Shoe by Goldie Goldbloom.  But I got more than I expected, because Joy Rhoades' debut novel is a marvel.  From page one, I was immersed into the world of the story, both the time and place completely unlike my own.

Kate is an unusual heroine for a novel of this sort.  Rather than the usual fare of historical novels, where women tend to think much like women of today (not that I have a problem with that-- it's a great way to reassess some of the old notions of bygone eras), Kate is a bit more of a product of her time.  She's concerned about behaving like a lady, as her mother has taught her-- so she doesn't know about doing the books and accounts for the farm, and doesn't know much about how it's run on the day to day.  She's also suspicious of the POWs who have come to live with them, suspecting that they will pose a threat to both herself and to their young Indigenous kitchen maid, Daisy.  However, it is through her interactions with these men, Daisy, and young Harry, as well as the necessity for her to take over the management of the station on the sly to cover for her father's declining mental state, that Kate has to decide whether being conventional is more important than her family and her home.  Deciding that it isn't, she takes matters into her own hands.

If I had to find a word to describe Kate at the beginning of the book, I would probably choose prickly.  She's a bit aloof and a bit judgemental, and certainly very proud. Yet by the end of the novel, she's learned to let go a little, and learned where her true priorities lie.  The hardships of 1945 test Kate's spirit, and she comes out the other end of the story a much stronger person, and a much more likeable person.  At the beginning of the novel, much of her thinking about the future involves the fact that her husband, Jack-- whom she met and married whilst he was recovering from an injury, before being sent to Sydney to train troops (meaning they'd only really known each other a few weeks)-- would be returning.  Jack's letters indicate that he wants to move them away from Amiens to start their own life together, but Kate's plans had always involved the two of them staying at her family home.  Jack is an off-the-page character for most of the book, and the reader gets to know Kate's very limited memories of him before they meet the man himself.  As Kate has been trying to ignore burgeoning feelings for Luca, the fact that Jack turns out to be thoroughly not right for Kate is a happy revelation, at least in my view.  And though the ending of the novel, and the resolution as far as this love triangle goes, is not necessarily Kate riding off into the sunset with Luca and Jack having to eat sour grapes alone with his mate from the pub, it's not Kate being bundled into the back of a truck by her husband as Luca waves sadly goodbye either.  You'll have to read it for yourself, because I won't be saying anything other than-- it's realistic and bittersweet.

Clearly a lot of research and thought has gone into the writing of this novel, and I'm almost sad that I borrowed the book from the library instead of buying one now because it's gorgeous inside and out.

I highly recommend this novel and I gave it five out of five stars.

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Short Story Book Club (The Podcast) Ep 2: The Love of a Bad Man

It's back!  The Short Story Book Club was on again for August.  This month, it was all about The Love of a Bad Man by Laura Elizabeth Woollett, and I was lucky enough to be joined by two guests, Leonard and Veronica.  We tried extremely hard not to go off on too many tangents, and hey, I think we did a pretty great job, so here it is for your listening pleasure!

Remember, you can join us next month (September 19) when we discuss Pulse Points by Jennifer Down, and you have plenty of time to pick up a copy from your bookstore of choice and get reading.  Just make sure you register here.
  The Love of a Bad Man was published in 2016 by Scribe.

Thanks to Caroline and Claudia and all of the team at the Centre for Stories.  See you next month!

Leonard and Veronica- Episode 2 Guests

Saturday, 12 August 2017

Unexpected Writing Lessons

So here's a piece of writing wisdom I never expected to pick up:

Sometimes, you have to write it like a midday soap opera.

I don't mean that your book should read like one.  I'm talking about in your early drafts, or perhaps in your middle-of-the-process revisions.

Let me explain.

I'm currently working on the eleventh or twelfth iteration of my historical novel, Between the Sleepers.  The last time I rewrote it, I thought it was done.  I thought it was the best that it was ever going to be.  I'd taken it to a residency at the Katharine Susannah Prichard writers centre, where I'd reworked 40000 words in ten days and gone home feeling like a superhero.  I'd had a feeling in my gut that the book was as done as it was ever going to be.

And I pitched it to a few agents, some of whom even read the whole thing.  It was close.  But it wasn't getting over the line.




Readers, I took a year off from that novel.  It was probably the largest amount of time I'd ever had of not thinking about it since I started working on it back in 2008.

This year, I engaged an amazing local writer to mentor me through the process of revising the novel one more time.  And when I reread my work alongside her comments, I was shocked and embarrassed by the dross on the page before me.

This wasn't the amazing novel that I thought I had written.  This was a script for some soap opera with mistaken identities and identical twins swapping places, and characters being lost at sea for long periods of time only to return at the exact moment their ex-wife was about to marry another man.  (Or whatever actually happens on soap operas, who even knows...)  I had poured everything I had into that novel.  Every big word I knew, every romantic gesture, every seemingly deep thought.

And I had overdone it.

There were a few big factors in the overdoing it recipe.  First of all, I obviously felt the need to describe every little gesture or facial expression my characters had.  It was constant.  And I was taking away from the things that they said and did.

Second of all, my characters spent a lot of time spitting.  Spitting with rage, spitting their words, swallowing their spit when they were nervous.  And as my mentor rightly pointed out, it was a bit uneccessary and more than a little gross.

But the third and most unforgivable sin in this draft of mine was that I felt the need to make my characters go through the entire spectrum of human emotions time and time again when there just wasn't any need for it.

So.  This time around, I sat down and I wound back my novel.  And this weekend, I've realised something very important.

I needed to take my book through that woefully overwritten soap opera phase in order to get to the stage I am at now.  I could not have realised my characters' emotional journeys in the way that I have unless I made them wildly overemotional first, and then wound everything back.   What I now have is an almost complete book that I have been excited to rediscover.  It is a book that I understand better now, and I understand myself better as its writer.  (Corny, I know.)  I have learned through this process that one year ago, I was simply done with this novel.  But when I finish my novel this time around, I will have a book that I am proud of.  A book that I know will be some of the best writing I have ever done.

I almost don't want the process to be over.

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Short Story Book Club (The Podcast): Ep 1- Australia Day + Portable Curiosities (guest- Melissa Davies)

The Short Story Book Club occurs monthly at The Centre for Stories. In July, emerging writer Emily Paull was joined by writer and poet, Melissa Davies, to talk about Australia Day by Melanie Cheng. We then flashed back to the 2017 Perth Writers Festival, where Laurie Steed and Emily Paull caught up with visiting writer, Julie Koh.

To find out more about The Short Story Book Club, visit The Centre for Stories online.  You can join us next month, when we discuss The Love of a Bad Man by Laura Elizabeth Woollett.

To pre-order Melissa Davies' poetry collection, Pineapples in the Pool, please click here.  

Monday, 24 July 2017

Author Interview: Melanie Cheng

‘After all, she had only looked to Cambodia when the hospitals in Melbourne failed to provide the validation she’d been searching for.  At the idealistic age of eighteen, she had chosen a career in health to make a difference, save lives, change the world, and Cambodia, with its reputation for tragedy, seemed like just the place to do it.’ (page 72)

This is part of the story ‘Hotel Cambodia’, one of the stories in the middle of Australia Day by Melanie Cheng.  I caught up with Melanie via email this past weekend to ask her all about this collection, and about the short story as a form.  'Hotel Cambodia' is the story of Melissa, a young Australian woman who goes to Cambodia to ‘make a difference’.  There’s a sort of double awareness in Melissa’s point of view.  On the one level, she’s there to save lives, to help the less fortunate.  But on a deeper level, one which the reader sees through the third person narration, but Melissa doesn’t really say out loud, she’s aware of the hypocrisy of going to a very poor country for the sake of validating her own need to feel helpful and selfless.  This is one of the ideas in Australia Day which was striking to me—the myth of the Western Saviour.  Do you think there’s a tendency in Australia to think that the traditional, White European way of live is ‘better’ than the way of life lived by some of the people living in neighbouring countries, or of those who migrate here from different backgrounds?  Was this something you were intentionally trying to explore in your work?

Melanie Cheng: In 2006 I lived in Cambodia for 5 months doing volunteer medical work with an NGO, and so to a great extent Melissa’s revelations are my revelations. When I arrived, a few people told me Phnom Penh was an NGO Disneyland because there were just so many different charities and organisations operating with little to no regulation. Most people I met had noble intentions but the Western Saviour phenomenon you refer to was a definite driving force. Once there, I felt ashamed for imagining that I—a junior resident with little experience—could have anything to offer the local Khmer doctors. Like Melissa, I was forced to acknowledge that my true motivations were more selfish and na├»ve than I was originally willing to admit. I don’t think the Western Saviour myth is an Australian construct, but rather a Western, developed world phenomenon. And it’s hardly surprising when the mainstream media and much of our popular culture perpetuates and celebrates these myths.

Monday, 17 July 2017

Westerly Volume 62 Issue 1 is here!

... And I am in it!
Front cover image Nina-Marie Thomas, Ten 2017. 

I'm so excited to have had a piece accepted by Western Australia's longest running literary journal, and to have my work published in the same issue as amazing writers like Susan Midalia and Caitlin Maling.

My piece is called 'Sister Madly Deeply'-- it's about the bond between two sisters, and how they cope with a family tragedy.  

You can get a copy from Westerly's website, and I think there are a few bookshops around Perth who stock it as well.

Friday, 14 July 2017

Wimmera by Mark Brandi

Hachette Australia, 2017
My copy was borrowed from the library


Wimmera by Mark Brandi | Book Review by The Incredible Rambling Elimy

Almost overnight, Wimmera by Mark Brandi became one of the most talked about Australian debuts of 2017.  With comparisons to Jasper Jones being bandied around, I couldn't help but be curious.  Wimmera is the story of Ben and Fab, who grow up in a small town in Victoria.  After the suicide of a local girl, a stranger moves in down the road from Ben, and hires Ben to do odd jobs around the house.  Years later, Fab is still living in the town, collecting trolleys at the local supermarket.  When a grisly discovery is made, it draws Fab back into the past and the events of that year, and his friendship with Ben.

Part literary novel, part courtroom drama, part mystery, part coming of age tale, Wimmera has a little something for everyone.  Brandi cleverly evokes the obsessions and preoccupations of pre-teen boys, and switches perspectives with a deft hand, as the novel is broken into several parts and perspectives.  This is a subtle book, and one which allows the reader to draw their own inferences about how the parts are all connected.  The voice of Ben in the early part of the novel is a particular strength.  Ben is a likeable character; he's tough and loyal, good at sport, but also trying to work out his place in the world.  His moral compass is definitely working-- while Ben is big and strong, he's not a bully, though he does resort to violence when it comes to defending his friend Fab.  Fab is cheeky and a source of fun for the local bullies, who call him a 'wog' and tease him mercilessly.  Not that Fab is a meek victim... he has his revenge in other ways.  The second part of the story is told from the point of view of a much older Fab-- a Fab who is going nowhere in life.  He drinks too much, has a terrible job, is in love with a married woman and is still the victim of merciless bullying.  And this time there is no Ben to back him up.

Did I love this novel?  Yes, I did, but I wanted more out of it.  In each of the sections, we see the character narrating the story clearly, but the other character is a little inscrutable.  Some of the scenes left too much up to the reader to work out, and seemed to end abruptly, such as when we're left to assume that Fab is the one who has unscrewed the front wheel on Pokey's bike, causing an accident.  And while the central intrigue of the story was cleverly built, I felt a little like the resolution was over too soon.  This was a powerful novel of friendship, of revenge, of deep hurts, and I loved every minute of it, but now that I've finished, I find I wanted more.  The author did such a fantastic job creating the world, the characters, the situation-- I was transfixed.  I wanted to stay in the world of Wimmera-- gruesome though it was-- for a lot longer.

I gave this book 4 stars.

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Anne Boleyn: A King's Obsession by Alison Weir

Headline Review, 2017
I own a copy, courtesy the publisher.

Of all of Henry the Eighth's brides, Anne Boleyn is probably the most infamous.  Mother to Elizabeth the 1st, Anne was Henry's second wife, for whom he broke with the Catholic Church and set aside his Spanish Queen, Katherine of Aragon.  Of course, she was also accused of adultery and witchcraft, and beheaded.

This is the second book in her Six Tudor Queens series, which will see a book on each of Henry's brides published one a year for six years.  Alison Weir is the one of the top-selling historians in the United Kingdom, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and Sciences, as well as an Honorary Life Patron of the Historic Royal Palaces.  She has published numerous books on the Tudors and the Wars of the Roses, both fictional and factual.  As she explains in her author's note at the end of the book, it is hard for any modern reader to really know what was going on in Anne Boleyn's head during her courtship and marriage to Henry Tudor, as most of her letters have been lost to the years.  Modern interpretations see her portrayed as ambitious, a vixen, wily-- history has not been kind to Anne Boleyn.  We've seen her portrayed by Natalie Dormer (The Tudors), Natalie Portman (The Other Boleyn Girl) and if I'm not mistaken, by Claire Foy (Wolf Hall-- which I've yet to watch, though I've read the novel).  In most portrayals, she is clever and cunning, but not likeable.  She is, in short, a villain.  But Weir's novel, Anne Boleyn: A King's Obsession shows a new interpretation of Anne Boleyn.

It is a long novel, but books of this sort always are.  (I'm looking at you, Hilary Mantel...)  Much of the early parts of the book focus on Anne's early life, first at the court of Margaret of Austria, and then at the French courts of Margaret of Anjou and Queen Claude.  At these courts, where strong women abound and men are unscrupulous and brutelike (there are several accusations of rape, which seems to me a more modern term than perhaps women would have bandied about at the time), Anne learns her own mind, and comes to support some quite radical views.  While she's not a Lutheran in this book as she is in some others, she does support the philosophical underpinnings of church reform, and is also exposed to what could perhaps be seen as an early form of feminism.  Anne's strength of will and character make her a likeable heroine-- for once-- even despite the considerable overlap between this book and the earlier volume, Katherine of Aragon: The True Queen, in which she is despised.

Where the book lagged a little was in the latter parts of the narrative, where she was in favour and out of favour, over and over, and came to be pregnant time and time again to no result.  Unfortunately, this is the trouble with writing about true events-- you cannot bend the narrative to your will unless the history supports it.  As Anne grew more frustrated with Henry's treatment of her, she became less strong in her character, though her final scenes in the Tower of London do give me more respect for this woman and the way in which this fictional version of her met her end.

I loved this book and I can't wait for the next one.  Though I've never been interested in Jane Seymour over much, I am fascinated to see what sort of person she may have been, under the tutelage of the ever-capable Alison Weir.

Anne Boleyn: A King's Obsession is available now.

Four stars.

Sunday, 2 July 2017

Miss Lily's Lovely Ladies by Jackie French

Miss Lily's Lovely Ladies
Jackie French
Angus and Robertson Publishing, 2017


Miss Lily's Lovely Ladies| Book Review at www.emilypaull.com
I have long been a big fan of Jackie French's writing-- I still remember taking a copy of Somewhere Around the Corner out of our local library and inhaling it in a matter of hours.  Perhaps that was even my first encounter with historical fiction, a genre which remains my favourite to this day.  So to discover that Jackie French was releasing historical fiction for adults this year was very exciting for me.  I was not disappointed.  Miss Lily's Lovely Ladies had everything I could have asked for.  It combined the lost world of society drawing rooms, ala  Downton Abbey with the meticulous historical research and fresh interpretation of a Philippa Gregory novel, and this book too, I read quickly and compulsively.  Though it is not a short book (500+ pages), I read it in a matter of three days.

It is the story of Sophie Higgs, the daughter of Australia's largest producer of corned beef, who has money but no 'position' in society.  When she looks to make an ill-advised match with the son of a local politician, her father suggests she first spend some time abroad, with the cousin of his business associate, the Earl of Shillings.  This cousin is the eponymous Miss Lily, a woman whose influence seems to be everywhere, yet her name appears nowhere in Debrett's.  Sophie is charmed by Miss Lily, and soon becomes one of her 'lovely ladies'-- young women who are 'finished' at Shillings and prepared for a London Season during which they will charm and delight, and hopefully, make suitable matches.  But there is more to Miss Lily's students than meets the eye, which is entirely the point.  Using the skills that they have learned at Miss Lily's knee, the young ladies embark on missions of utmost importance, learning and passing information, and using their influence wherever they can in an effort to ensure that a war with Germany which seems inevitable, never comes.

I usually prefer to read novels set during World War Two, but this was a novel which brought the world of World War One vividly to life for me-- not only the horrific scenes of the battlefields at Ypres, but also of the home front, and of the convalescent hospitals fashioned from old country manors.  These hospitals become a lifeline for Sophie Higgs when war is declared.  Cut off from her friends and family, she finds a purpose in caring for others, and turns her keen organisational mind to ensuring that the wounded soldiers under her care are looked after.

Much happens over the course of this book.  There is heartbreak, and there is triumph, but regardless of how the story turns out, Sophie is a heroine to cheer for.  Hers is a tumultuous life, and she takes it all as it comes and weathers it as only one of Miss Lily's students could.  These characters felt as if they could be real people to me, and I enjoyed spending time in their world.  Imagine my joy at discovering there will be two more books.

Jackie French has captivated me again.

Five stars.