Friday, 31 August 2018

Writing Update: Or, the month I got distracted by Plantagenet politics

The problem with being a history nerd is that there's a lot of historical time periods to get excited about.

My current era of fascination is The Great War.  That's not a sentence I ever thought I would be saying, but here we are, three or four months in to the writing of Book Two and things are beginning to fall into place.  I have done all my usual little 'new book' things, like collaging the front cover of a spiral bound notebook, and purchasing/ borrowing from the library all the relevant books I could find.  I've been on Trove.  Gosh, that's a rabbit hole!

I had forgotten how unsettling it can be to begin writing a book set in a time you know nothing about.  It's a little like beginning to walk across a tightrope with no safety net.  One moment, you're off and travelling and the next, you come to a wobbly halt.  Hang on, you think, Can my characters be doing that?  Did that actually exist?  It's a stop-starty way to write a book, that's for sure.


Earlier in August, I happened across a story saved in my inbox from an online writing course I had done more than a year ago with Jen Campbell, a fabulous author and Youtube book reviewer based in the UK.  Jen's specialty is Fairy Tales, and in this course, she'd challenged us to try transposing a fairy tale into a different time period.  At the time, I'd been struggling through Conn Iggulden's Wars of the Roses novels, and I'd been struck by the image of King Henry the VI's illness being described as one of an unnatural slumber.  The two things came together, and I wrote half of a fairytale.

Yes, that's right.  I wrote half.  And then I abandoned the rest because the course was over and life was busy and all the usual excuses.

But there's nothing like being stuck on one writing project to reinvigorate you for another one, is there?  So I turned my attention to this story, sitting waiting in my email inbox for a couple of years, and I finished it.  But the process of finishing it sent me back down the road of a full on obsession with the Plantagenet era-- I read books on Margaret of Anjou, I watched Starz's adaptations of The White Queen and The White Princess and my Wikipedia search history is now filled with questions like "Was Perkin Warbeck really Richard of York"  and so on. 


It's not that I've forgotten about my book... but I did take a really big detour.

Back to it in September.  It would be good to get a complete draft done by Christmas, but as the Masters degree is in full swing and I haven't decided if I am enrolling in anything for the summer session of classes, we will just have to wait and see... and read... and dream. 

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. 

Monday, 25 June 2018

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

Writing a second novel is a little bit like learning to write all over again.

I'm in that frustrated space right now, where my enthusiasm for the idea exceeds my knowledge of the topics and time periods I want to write about, and my brain is thinking of scenes and new characters faster than I can work out where they need to go.  I keep thinking to myself 'I don't know how to do this anymore.  I don't remember how I did it the first time.'  They say much of writing is an act of faith that things will come together in the end, and I am certainly putting that to the test now.

When I began writing Between the Sleepers, I was still in high school, though only just.  I'd written 'novels' before.  Not to go into too much embarrassing detail, but I'd written one novella length YA story called "Quoting Shakespeare" which I printed off and put into a folder and felt very proud of, and one urban fantasy 'novel' (probably about 50 000 words) called "Invisible Girl" which I actually had the gall to send off to a local publisher in the hopes that they would publish it.  I've always liked having a project.  It's the same with reading books.  When you finish one, you need to move straight on to the next one.  Not being in the middle of a book, or not being currently immersed in a project feels to me like that dream where you turn up at school and realise that you've forgotten pants.  It's incomplete. 

The idea for BTS came from an album.  It was an album by a small independent band I'd discovered through (of all places) MySpace, whose music I had needed to track down when my family took a trip to Japan because it wasn't available in Australia.  When I listened to that CD, I heard a story.  It was like each song on that album was a chapter, and I wrote down the 'synopsis' of that story and that was my first plan.  It was a plan I quickly deviated from.  I wrote without really knowing where my story was taking me, knowing only that I needed to go with these characters I had dreamt up.  And I knew where the story was going to end, roughly.  (As a side note, that ending stayed the ending until the most recent draft, when my clever mentor dared me to try out a different ending just to see what it was like.  Of course, her way was better.)

So I wrote the first draft.  I remember coming home from school and doing my homework and then sitting at my desk, which was in the corner of my room squished in next to my bed.  I had a clip on lamp that attached to the bookshelves above me and it cast this warm yellow light over my workspace.  I still associate that sort of light with working until I get too tired to keep my head up.  I wrote that draft, and then I finished it and I printed it off and I gave it to some people to read.  Those people-- my mum and my grandparents-- gave me feedback.  I think I probably cried to hear that I hadn't written a bestseller in one go without really knowing what I was doing.  It wouldn't have been the last time I cried over book feedback.  But even if at the time I thought to myself 'I can't do this, I need to start thinking about a real job,' inevitably I ended up back at that desk.

I am going to skip over the parts where I put my work aside for months at a time to let it breathe, but between each finished draft, there were times where I worked on other projects like the currently sidelined Alan Turing project, or my recently rediscovered (and not half bad) Nanowrimo novel 'The River.'  I also wrote a lot of short stories.

I like to use a method of editing that I have heard Anthony Marra call re-typing.  I print out the manuscript and I open a fresh Word document.  I type out the story to myself as I read as if I am reading it for the first time, fixing, changing and deleting things as I go.  I think with BTS, I may have done this process ten times.  Each time I finished a draft, I went to someone I trusted for feedback.  At one point, I was working at a job that required me to leave the house extremely early to beat traffic and get to the other side of town.  During that time, I hand wrote parts of the novel out to myself and I would type those sections up when I got home.  I got feedback from bosses, family members, friends-- and then I found a writing group.

The first time my writing group read my novel, they didn't get it.  On the night it was my turn to hear feedback, I sat at that table in the cafe listening to them raise questions about my character's motivation and I felt personally attacked, even though they were given their feedback as gently as they could and being constructive.  But I'd never been in a good critiquing group before.  Any writing group I had been in previously had been one where I was the person who took the task of writing most seriously.  And when the rest of the group doesn't take things seriously, 'That was good, I really liked it' is the brunt of the feedback you'll get.  Yes, I did go home from writing group and announce that I didn't want to go back, and yes I did lie on my bed in the dark with tears in my eyes, but you know what?  In the morning, I had realised that there was still work to do and I had found people who knew how to help me get it done.  Kristen, Louise and Glen, I will always be grateful to you for being tough but fair!  I can now take fair criticism of my work on the chin... most of the time. 

Like most writing groups, ours ran its course.  Work and family schedules changed and it became harder to meet.  Some of us met new people whose writing we clicked with.  Along with my friend Belinda, I began a regular writing group called Write Nights, where the aim became not getting feedback from other writers, but actually making sure I put my bum on a chair and wrote something at least once a fortnight.

Slowly, slowly, the words eked out. 

Each time I had finished a draft, I had thought it finished, but the most recent draft was like a severing.  It was like the mental cord that bound me to the story had been cut.  I was satisfied.  I used to think about my characters, wondering what they would have been doing during certain events or how they felt about things, but after this draft, I stopped wondering because I knew that they were okay.

Then there was blankness, where I didn't think of any new ideas.  I began to worry that I would never have a new idea ever again and my journal entries became exercises in futility.

But then, several months ago, a scene came to me.  From that scene, I had my character and my set up.  There were a few 'research obsessions' I had been pursuing.  I suddenly realised that they were for my book, this book, the one I had been working on in the back of my mind without realising.

I began to write...

Saturday, 16 June 2018

The Lily and the Rose by Jackie French

The Lily and the Rose
Jackie French
Angus and Robertson Publishing, 2018

If you haven't read the previous book in this series, you can read my review here.

Sophie Higgs, heiress to the Higgs Corned Beef Empire was a Rose of No Man's Land during the First World War.  She set up and ran successful field hospitals, and even found herself dashing across occupied France in an attempt to stop an attack of mushroom gas against soldiers in Ypres.  Now, the war is over, and Sophie must find a way to return to her normal life-- if life for Sophie can ever be anything like normal again, that is.  When she receives word from Germany that her friend Hannelore, the Prinzessin von Arnenberg and a fellow graduate of Miss Lily's Lovely Ladies, may be in trouble, she resolves to rescue her and take the former Prinzessin, now without lands or income, home with her to Australia.  Accompanied by the wife of an English aristocrat who has a penchant for violence, as well as two of the servants whom she met and befriended at Shillings while living with Miss Lily, Sophie dashes into a Germany which has been irreparably changed by the war, before heading home to Australia to convince her father that she is ready to take over the family business, despite her gender. 

I enjoyed reading the next chapter of Sophie's adventures, but at times, the plot of this second novel was a little all over the place.  Rather than being one grand narrative, the sequel follows a number of smaller episodes, and covers themes such as domestic assault, the rise of the labor movement in Australia, women in politics and business, the plight of returned soldiers, and the rise of a new order in Germany.  It's a lot to take in.  I read this novel quickly and eagerly, but did not feel quite the same way as I did when I finished book one.  I think in the future I would be inclined to reread the first book but would perhaps not go on to reread further than that. 

Sunday, 3 June 2018

Things I Have Been Reading Lately

I haven't been much in the mood for blogging lately-- this time of year has been extremely busy, and when I get home from work, all I want to do is either read or watch television.  My programs of choice lately have been 'Sweetbitter' and 'Silicon Valley', and maybe this tells you a lot about my state of mind, but all I have wanted to do is watch episode after episode until I fall asleep.  Sadly, even in this age of binge-watching and Netflix, shows run out of episodes eventually.

But outside of TV time, I have been reading some excellent books lately, so in lieu of a proper review, I thought I'd let you know what's been on my nightstand lately, and give you a quick little update of what I thought.

Trick of the Light by Laura Elvery

I met Laura a year ago on a panel at the Margaret River Readers and Writers Festival.  She'd just won the Margaret River Short Story Competition, and so we were book mates in Joiner Bay and Other Stories, Laura having written Joiner Bay.  She did tell us then that she had a full length collection in the pipes, and in March this year that collection was released by UQP.  It is quite an interesting collection, encompassing stories that use a few different approaches to the form, including some magical realism and some historical pieces.  No surprises there that my favourite pieces were 'Trick of the Light", about women working in a watch factory, painting the radium on watch dials in the early 20th Century, and 'Brushed Bright Bones', about reincarnation and Richard the Third.  These stories do tend to favour the 'moment in the life of' style, and don't necessarily offer closure or enlightenment, but if that's your cup of tea, you will be delighted because Laura has a way with words.

The Girls in the Picture by Melanie Benjamin

After saying that I loved Melanie Benjamin's books and being really excited about her new book, this one was a bit of a disappointment.  It wasn't one I was tempted to devour in a single sitting like this author's previous books and I found some of the writing really clumsy and overblown.  Perhaps it was because I'd just come off such a literary book and I was making unnecessary comparisons.  If you're new to Melanie Benjamin, maybe start with Alice I Have Been instead.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

I love this book so much, I love its turns of phrase, I love its portrayal of a marriage tested, I love the statement that it makes about the racial politics of America and I just love it, so go read it.  Thanks to Amy from my Book Club for picking it for this month.

Redemption Point by Candice Fox

I've been waiting for this sequel since reading Crimson Lake last year.  I don't usually read crime, but I really like these.  Maybe it's the fact that the main character has pet geese?

The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer

My first Meg Wolitzer book but it won't be my last.  This was the book that I needed, when I needed it.  It's about a young woman who meets a feminist icon when she's at college and has been going through a tough time, and the trajectory that this meeting sets her on, and the way that it prompts her and the people around her to make changes and enrich their own lives.  It's also a cautionary tale about hero worship.  It's bloody good.

So that's me over the last month or so... what about you-- what have you all been reading?

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Sunday, 13 May 2018

Book Review: Afternoons with Harvey Beam

Afternoons with Harvey Beam
Carrie Cox
Fremantle Press, 2018

There would be few vehicles less perfect to write a book about the dysfunction of modern life than making your protagonist a talkback radio host. 

Harvey Beam, once the star of a Sydney commercial radio station, begins his journey back to his old home town of Shorton in disgrace.  His father, Lionel, is dying in hospital and so Harvey steps away from an employer who wants to replace him and returns to the place where it all began.  Not much seems to have changed, except for Harvey himself.  His two sisters, Naomi and Penny are still engaged in a never-ending argument, his brother Bryan is still sitting on his high horse and relishing being the favourite brother, and it's still impossible to get a decent cup of coffee anywhere in the town.  Yet compared to Sydney, Shorton is a breath of fresh air for Harvey.  Though at first he resents the idea of having to go back to a small town in the middle of nowhere, where he's not a big shot anymore, it takes getting away from Sydney and big city life for him to realise just how fed up with it he is.  Shorton still has a few surprised in store for Harvey, not least in the form of Naomi's rarely before sighted husband Matt, whom Harvey views as one of the actual few interesting people he's ever met.  And then there's Grace.  What began as a conversation between neighbours on the plane flight in seems as though it may blossom into something more.

Told through alternating snippets of the present day in Shorton, and in notable moments of Harvey's radio career as a talkback host, the novel uses the medium of radio programs to introduce topics like big city versus small town mentalities, 'no go' zones when it comes to dating a friend's ex, social customs regarding funerals, the value of arts degrees and so on.  Harvey seems to have a clear ethos when it comes to what makes good radio, and how best to get people talking, but the longer he stays in Sydney, the more he comes off as a privileged shock jock and towards the end of his career at the commercial station, he begins to make several newsworthy blunders.  It is only when he is back on Shorton radio once more that he realises criticism is not conversation, and his attitude towards life does not endear him to others.  This is a technique that works really nicely for the novel, barring in one section towards the end of the book, where the talkback topic is September 11-- the connection to the progress of the plot was lost on me there, and it almost seemed like a forced grab at depth which the novel really didn't need.  I got more from the talkback segment on Wayne Carey's infidelity with a team-mate's wife, which had a direct link to a decision Harvey was trying to make.

As the novel wraps up, there seems to be a race for the finish line, and though a few questions remained unanswered, for the most part, it seemed like characters ended up where they needed to.  A few things which were established in the final chapter through summary might have warranted their own scenes.

Afternoons with Harvey Beam is a frank, funny, and very Australian family drama.  As the Beam family gather around the bedside of Lionel to say their long goodbyes, the reader is given access to a complicated family history, involving divorce, abuse, favouritism and the fierce bonds that can form-- or not form-- between siblings.  As Harvey reflects on the relationship he had with his father and the trajectory his life has taken since he left his home town, he is forced to compare his own performance as a father and as a man.  Though not always reliable when it comes to doing the right thing, Harvey is a sympathetic character, and one whose actions are easy to understand when you look at what he has been up against.  By the end of the book, it's clear to see that change and redemption are possible for Harvey Beam, though not every relationship in his life has been sorted out come the close of his father's funeral.  Akin to Jonathan Tropper's This is Where I Leave You but with more of the community feeling evoked by a setting of a stinking hot town with one pub, Afternoons with Harvey Beam will appeal to readers young and old, and is a perfect choice for book clubs. 

Saturday, 21 April 2018

Books set during World War One

Recently, it was beginning to bug me that I had read so many more books about World War Two than I had about World War One.  I don't mean non fiction because generally, I don't tend to read a lot of whole books from the non fictional side of life anyway.  But in fiction, I felt like this constituted a rather large gap in my reading, particularly for someone who identifies as a historical fiction writer.

I've just started sketching out ideas and scenes for a new book, and this one is going to be set between the years 1913, when my protagonist marries and 1921, when her husband (who was reported dead in 1916) is found to be suffering from amnesia and living in a private home in England.  Obviously as I have barely written any of this yet, these details may change.  I am now in what I like to think of as the 'woolgathering' phase of the drafting process, in which I read as much as I can to immerse myself in the mindset, and write snippets of scenes in my notebook.

For anyone else out there, who, like me thinks of World War One as a more sparsely populated fictional setting, here is a list of books I have set myself the challenge of reading.

The Secret Son by Jenny Ackland

Set between the early 1900s and the present day, this novel follows up on the premise: what if Ned Kelly had a secret son who fought at Gallipoli, and who stayed behind in Turkey after the war?  It's an interesting concept, and quite enjoyable to read.

The Regeneration Trilogy by Pat Barker

The Lie by Helen Dunmore

Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks 

Bereft by Chris Womersley

A Letter from Italy and The Desert Nurse by Pamela Hart

The Desert Nurse will be released in June and I am really excited to read it.  Pamela Hart's historical novels are always extremely entertaining and well researched.

The Daughters of Mars by Tom Keneally

Strange Meeting by Susan Hill

A Fortunate Life by AB Facey

Like most Western Australian readers, I've actually read this one before, but Fremantle Press are rejacketing the book this year and will be releasing an edition for younger readers.  It's a memoir, and shows in great detail what life was like in WA during that time.  I think it's time for a re-read...

Traitor by Stephen Daisley

Wake by Anna Hope

Thanks to Rosemary for the recommendation on this one-- it sounds amazing and I just saw that there is a copy in my local library. 

Hettie, a dance instructress at the Palais, lives at home with her mother and her brother, mute and lost after his return from the war. One night, at work, she meets a wealthy, educated man and has reason to think he is as smitten with her as she is with him. Still there is something distracted about him, something she cannot reach...Evelyn works at the Pensions Exchange through which thousands of men have claimed benefits from wounds or debilitating distress. Embittered by her own loss, more and more estranged from her posh parents, she looks for solace in her adored brother who has not been the same since he returned from the front...Ada is beset by visions of her son on every street, convinced he is still alive. Helpless, her loving husband of 25 years has withdrawn from her. Then one day a young man appears at her door with notions to peddle, like hundreds of out of work veterans. But when he shows signs of being seriously disturbed—she recognizes the symptoms of "shell shock"—and utters the name of her son she is jolted to the core...

This is but a selection of some of the reading I will be doing over the next few months.  If you have a favourite book set during World War One, do let me know in the comments below, and in the meantime, happy reading!  

Sunday, 15 April 2018

Book Review: The Wicked Cometh

The Wicked Cometh
Laura Carlin
Hodder & Stoughton, 2018

When Hester White is hit by a horse and carriage on the streets of London in 1831, she is brought into the home of the Brock siblings, Calder and Rebekah.  Calder, a surgeon, entreats his older sister to become a teacher to Hester, whom he mistakenly believes to be an uneducated member of the poor working class, given the area of town where he came across her.  In truth, Hester is the orphaned daughter of a pastor, who was taken in by her father's former gardener and his wife. Fearful of being sent away to the Society for the Suppression of Mendicity, she plays along with the scheme, adopting the mannerisms and speech of her friend Annie.  The more time she spends with Rebekah Brock, the more she feels a connection to the woman, but the connection is of a nature that confuses and frightens Hester, and for much of the early part of the book, Hester is uncertain of whether or nor she can be trusted.

Alongside this Victorian love story, there is also a mystery.  People have been disappearing all over town, and handbills litter the streets asking for information on the whereabouts of loved ones.  Rebekah and Hester both have connections to missing people, Rebekah having lost contact with two previous ladies' maids under suspicious circumstances, and Hester having made a commitment to meet a cousin to seek employment, finds it strange that said cousin has not turned up in the three weeks since he was supposed to arrive. 

The Wicked Cometh is a modern attempt at the Victorian sensation novel.  It has elements of Conan Doyle and Du Maurier, as well as paying homage to Dickens and Wilkie Collins.  At times the language of the book can tend to be a little florid, but the story itself is compelling enough to make up for this in my opinion.  While it has been compared to Tipping the Velvet and The Crimson Petal and the White, I would argue that this piece is a lot more plot driven than at least the second of those as it is not a novel that functions on quite so intellectual a level, instead choosing to draw the reader along by emotion.  One thing that did strike me as a little strange was the choice to tell a historical story in the present tense.  This is an unusual technique and I struggle to think of other examples where it has taken place.  However the author, Laura Carlin, has done an excellent job not only of evoking Victorian London, but of building a sense of atmosphere that heightens the development of the mystery at the centre of the plot.  Perhaps a little too much time was spent early on in the romance aspect of the novel (for little pay off, may I add), and this meant that the solution to the mystery did seem to come all at once in a late chapter, explained by a very minor character.  I did very much enjoy this book, despite its flaws and I would certainly read another book by Carlin were she to write about this era again.

Highlights of the book for me included the link to real history, such as the Anatomy Act of 1832 and the Mendicity Society, the well crafted setting, and the development of two compelling characters in Hester and Rebekah.

I gave this book 3.5 stars.

Thank you to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for this review. 

Friday, 30 March 2018

Where do ideas come from?

Finishing a big project is a funny thing.  First of all, it's incredibly hard to know when you are finished as a writer, unless the option to make changes is taken away from you... say if your book is actually published and for sale in book shops.  Even then, you can still make changes, but what's the point, really?  But up until you get that magic 'Yes', it sometimes feels like you may be moving those commas around forever.

For all intents and purposes, right at this moment, Between the Sleepers exists in a temporary 'finished' state.  I know that there will be more work to do, but I hope that the next time I work on it, it may be under the guidance of an agent or publisher.  Who knows though, it could just be me and my red pen working on draft number twelve...

The other thing that is funny (as in funny strange, not funny haha) about having finished a project is the sense of being untethered that comes with it.  I've been working on that book on and off now for pretty much a decade, though I haven't been working on it solely that whole time.  No matter what else I have been working on, I have always come back to those characters and what they are up to.  This time actually feels a bit different.  I am not sick of them, but I feel like they have been fully fleshed out and that I have given them a good story and a good ending... which means that it's time to start something new.

I realised the other night that I have been rewriting this novel for so long that I don't remember what it's like not to have a novel on the go.  What did I used to want to write about before I started working on Between the Sleepers?   I don't know, though I do have some memories of the 'mini-novels' I wrote as a teenager, once of which (urban fantasy about body-swapping that was truly terrible) I actually sent to a publisher and received nice correspondence about, possibly because they could see I was only 15. 

Ideas are fickle creatures.  Sometimes you have so many of them that it's hard to keep up and write them all down.  It seems some days like the more ideas you have, the more you get, like the ones you have time to write properly bring their friends and you end up with an unruly idea party.  And then other times, you sit down at the computer thinking 'okay, time to write' and nothing happens.  I like the idea that you need to fill the well before you can start another book.  That's quite a comforting way to think about it.  That you need to read a lot of things and do a lot of new things and talk to a lot of new people in order to be as full of material and thoughts and words and 'newness' to write the next book as you were when you sat down to write the first.  That you are not a tap that can just be turned on and books come out of you on demand.

So, for now, I am well-filling, and I am starting down that path of re-discovery once more.  Excited to start a new book and a little unsure if I'll be able to repeat the magic trick, but hoping I can-- because to be truly immersed in a project is a wonderful thing, and I am looking forward to getting there again.

Sunday, 25 March 2018

Book Spotlight: The Art of Persuasion by Susan Midalia

A Book Spotlight is not a review, but a feature of a book by a person I know and admire.

Susan Midalia is best known for her critically acclaimed short story collections, The History of the Beanbag and other stories, The Unknown Sky and other stories  and Feet to the Stars and other stories.  In each of these story collections, she has demonstrated her great skill at getting inside the heads of characters from a wide range of backgrounds and ages, and telling their stories.  In The Art of Persuasion, her first novel, that character and point of view belongs to Hazel West, a 25 year old ex-teacher who is living in a share house with her best friend Beth and just trying to make it in the world.  Once a teacher, Hazel is now not entirely sure what she wants to do with her life, and so to pass the time, she decides to read the classics, starting with A-- so she begins reading Jane Austen.  The book in question is Persuasion, Jane Austen's last written novel (for I believe, Northanger Abbey was written first but published last), and arguably one of her more mature comedies in which Anne Eliot must persuade her former admirer Captain Wentworth to fall in love with her again after she sent him away seven years earlier.  While this particular book does teach Hazel a few things and makes her think about love, relationships, and persuasion, this is not simply a novel that modernises Austen.

Hazel agrees to volunteer on a doorknocking campaign for the Greens ahead of an upcoming election.  There, she must spend time with Adam, a charismatic older man to whom she feels strongly attracted.  Can the art of persuasion be used not only to convince voters in the leafy Western Suburbs to care about climate change and asylum seekers, but also to convince Adam to give loving Hazel a chance?

I won't tell you any more about the plot of the book because much of the joy of reading is in the discovery.  And there is much to discover and love in The Art of Persuasion, whether it be the clever and satisfying plot, the sassy, witty and strong heroine, whose journey is far, far more than just a quest for love, or even just the love of language, words and literature that come through on the page.  I found myself writing down facts about the origins of words, or jotting down the names of short stories to read later, recommended on the pages of the book which was a true delight.  Without straying into preachiness, this novel talks about important issues of the day whether they be politics, gender equality, or issues faced by students and teachers in our schools, and it does all of this in a very clever, very entertaining way.  The tone of this book is light and funny without being trivial.  Quite simply, I could not put this down, and within reading a few chapters, I was already recommending it to friends and co-workers.

So do yourself a favour-- head down to your closest bookshop and ask them to order you a copy of The Art of Persuasion.  You won't regret it.

Five stars.

The Art of Persuasion is published by Fremantle Press this April.

Sunday, 18 March 2018

Book Review: The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart

The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart
Holly Ringland
Harper Collins 2018

Given the amount of buzz that has already surrounded the release of Holly Ringland’s debut novel, The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart, it would be unsurprising if the book did not live up to the hype.  In recent years, booksellers and reviewers have seen the promise ‘the most exciting debut of the year’ emblazoned on numerous covers, and have collectively thought, “surely that cannot be true for all of them.”  But when it comes to The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart, the only disappointing thing about it is that readers will have to wait until April 2018 to experience it. 

The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart tells the story of Alice Hart, who goes to live with her estranged grandmother after a family tragedy.  Traumatised, Alice takes solace in the assortment of women who live at her grandmother’s property, Thornfield, where native flowers are grown and the Victorian art of floriography—or communicating through certain floral arrangements—is practised.  The women (and dog) at Thornfield become Alice’s family, and under their care, she grows up and takes her place in a long line of women from Thornfield who have loved and lost fiercely.  Partly set at beautiful Thornfield, a sprawling inland property with a river at its heart in more ways than one, and partly set at a National Park in the Northern Territory, Alice’s story is one which is bound up in the language of Australian native flowers, their hidden meanings, their connection to Australia’s history, and the people of the present day.

But perhaps the best thing about The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart is that it is a story about stories.  The flowers tell stories, and help Alice to communicate when she cannot find the right words, but storytelling also makes appearances in other forms.  There is family history running through this book, and the reader gets to know (albeit briefly) four generations of Thornfield women, as well as the histories of The Flowers—the women who call the property home.  Then there are story books and fairy tales.  For Alice, books have always been a refuge, and discovering the town library is a turning point in her young life, a way of taking back some of her independence.  When she moves to the National Park and has to make her home feel more like her own, one of the things she does is to furnish it with as many books as she can afford, bringing to mind the CS Lewis quote—“When I get a little money, I buy books, and if there is anything left over, I buy food.”  Fairy tales and classic stories are alluded to everywhere in this novel, from the allusions to Jane Eyre made subtly by the naming of the flower farm, to the not so subtle hints at Alice being named after the heroine in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.  For anyone who has found a friend in stories, or an escape, or whatever they needed, Alice’s story will be a familiar one.  She is a heroine to fall in love with, to root for, and to care deeply about. 

This is a novel written with love and with a skilled hand.  It is whimsical without being silly, magical without being far-fetched, beautiful without being filled with purple prose.  I adored it, and I cannot wait to read it again in April.

Five stars.  

Sunday, 11 March 2018

Book Spotlight: You Belong Here by Laurie Steed

A Book Spotlight is not a review-- it's a feature of a book by a person I know and admire.

I don't think it would be incorrect to say that Laurie Steed's debut book has been a hotly anticipated one.  And I say book and not novel here, because for the longest time, I think a lot of people thought that the first thing we saw from Laurie would be a collection of short stories.  He is the short story maestro, the guru, the go-to person for all things short fiction in Perth.  And yet, his recently publishing novel, You Belong Here is in fact... a novel. 

Perhaps it would be more correct to say it's a novel in stories.  There's a bit of room to move there, which I like.

It is the story of the Slater family, Steven and Jen and their three kids, and follows snippets of their lives (the good times and bad) over a couple of decades, all set to an atmospheric soundtrack which I am informed is also available as a Spotify playlist.  Steven, who dreams of being a pilot, works in air traffic control and over time becomes less and less available to his wife (literally and emotionally) as she struggles with the pressures of new motherhood in a brand new city after they move to Perth.  The implosion of their marriage will have aftershocks which shape the lives of their three children, Alex, Emily and Jay, right through to adulthood. 

Yet, while this story is often one about bad things happening, it's also about the ways that love can get a person through those bad times.  It's about the bond between siblings, about the love between parents and children, and it's about friendship in all its guises.

Be warned, dear reader, you will need a box of tissues at your side as you read You Belong Here.

Laurie Steed is a writer who does not waste words.  It is easy to see that this book has been painstakingly and lovingly revised, and the end product is a perfect little novel that feels effortless to dive into.  My only criticism would be that I wanted more-- I wanted to stay with this family for longer than the length of the book could allow.  Which means that I will be going back and rereading it again and again, I am sure. 

One thing that totally amazes me about the book is the skill with which Laurie Steed has crafted his characters.  They are all relatably human, and even when they do terrible things or hurt one another through carelessness, you can understand them, and feel sympathy for the situations they find themselves in.  By using multiple perspectives, and shifting the point of view of the story in each chapter, you get to see the character as they view themselves, but also as they view each other, making for a more even, nuanced portrait of complicated people.  They feel so real that it almost seems you might walk past them on Beaufort Street should you head there after reading.

You Belong Here has been a long time coming, but it's worth the wait. 

Five stars, and well done Laurie!

Sunday, 18 February 2018

Book Spotlight: Dustfall by Michelle Johnston

I may be doing a few of these spotlights this year... it seems a lot of people I know and love are having their books published.  Today, I am shining my spotlight on Dustfall, a beautiful literary novel by Michelle Johnston, who I will also be interviewing next week at the Writers Festival here in Perth. 

Dustfall is the story of two doctors, Lou and Raymond, one in the 'present' day (although I think her story actually takes place in the late 90s) and one in the 60s, at the very tail end of the life of the town of Wittenoom.  We know now that the asbestos mining operation in Wittenoom had an incredibly high, devastating cost for the workers and their families, many of whom would suffer from mesothelioma for the rest of their lives, however long those lives would be. The town has now been degazetted, and does not appear on any maps.  But in Dustfall, Dr Lou Fitzgerald, fleeing a medical error that haunts her, finds herself in Wittenoom on route to a rural medical posting, and decides to stay a while.  Whilst there, she discovers that some people actually do still live in the town, and through talking to a man named Dave, she discovers the terrible past of the ghost town she has stumbled upon.  Meanwhile, Dr Raymond Filigree, newly arrived from England to be the town's medical superintendent, finds that he has his work cut out for him as the Wittenoom of the 1960s is ruled over by a mining corporation who think that throwing money at problems will make them go away.

There is much at work in the story of Dustfall.  It is not only a novel about Wittenoom and what happened there, but a story about second chances, and a story about stories. In writing the story of what may have happened during Wittenoom's last days, Lou is given the chance to take back some control of a narrative, a therapy that she badly needs given that as a doctor, sometimes there is only so much that one can do. In telling the story of Raymond and the town, she gives a voice to the victims of the mining company, and in some small way, gives them justice.  But she also gives herself a gift. It is through this writing about another doctor and another time that she is able to order her thoughts and see a bigger picture, allowing herself to face the things in her own life that trouble her. And though her past errors hang over her for much of the book, the reader begins to trust through the integrity of this woman that they are following from page to page, that perhaps she is being harder on herself than she needs to be.

There is a surprising connection between hospitals and storytelling. The body tells a story when it is sick or hurt, using symptoms to guide doctors and nurses to what it needs to heal.  There is a story in every family member sitting by a bedside.  There is a story in every grief.  There is a story in every exhausted doctor or nurse who sits down to wait for the next emergency. And there is a kind of tragic, heroic beauty in all of these stories, a kind of poetry, which Michelle Johnston understands.  Her writing is masterful.  It is beautiful and elegiac and I hope the Miles Franklin judges for 2018 are paying attention because I have a strong contender for them right here. 

Read Dustfall.  Reread it.  Read some of the passages aloud because there is music in them.  You will be moved.

You can catch Michelle Johnston in conversation with me next Sunday the 25th of February at the Perth Writers Festival.  Tickets can be purchased here. 

You can also catch her at various library events around Perth, including the Cambridge Library on April the 10th. 

Saturday, 10 February 2018

What's In A Name?

Why is it that thinking up a title for your book is so hard?

This is something I have been thinking about this week, as I get ready to start sending out my work to agents and publishers.

It seems to me from talking to people on Twitter this week that there are a few ways of thinking about it.  There are those who say that titles are vitally important, even at this pre-published stage, and that putting the best possible title on your work will give it a great first impression.  But there are also others who say that titles, like covers, matter very little at this stage of the book progress, as they will be changed as part of the publication process anyway.  The trouble is that you have to get a publisher first.

Perhaps the truth of the matter lies somewhere in between these two, or perhaps it even depends, with factors such as the genre of your work, the publishing house you are working with, and what's already on the market all coming in to play.

At the moment, my work is called Between the Sleepers.  It's a title that I chose from a whole bunch of options a few years back, based on the comments that I got on a Facebook post I shared with friends.  Prior to that, the story began its life titled The Compound, which was also the title of an album by a band called Search/ Rescue, whose work I had been listening to when I first planned the book.  (I say planned-- it was a very loose plan as I am what's called a 'pantser' in writing circles.  The book of today bears no resemblance to that early plan.) That was never really a good title for the book, though it did speak to one of the themes that I was trying to build-- that not all prisons have bars.

Other titles I toyed with included The Boy on the Bicycle which I believe is the title of a novel published early last year, and Winston's Way.  But it was Between the Sleepers which best captured the wistful longing that I was going for, and seemed to fit in with other titles of books in my genre which I loved. Some of the best titles I have come across-- ones I wish I had come up with myself-- include The Light Between Oceans and We That Are Left.

I get mixed reactions to my title-- people either love it or they don't quite get it. Earlier this week, a beta reader suggested I try something like The Distance Between Us which is lovely, but not as unique as I had hoped.  But I think one of the things that is hardest to grapple with is the fact that I like my title, and I am hoping to either find a way to keep it, or to come up with something that I love even more.

I will continue to give it some thought in the time leading up to when I hit send...

Sunday, 4 February 2018

Book Review: The Secrets at Ocean's Edge

The Secrets at Ocean's Edge by Kali Napier
Hachette, 2018 (My copy courtesy the publisher)

When Ernie Hass moves his wife Lily and their daugher Girlie to the coastal town of Dongarra (historical spelling of Dongara from the time the book was set) in 1932, it's not in the happiest of circumstances.  Ernie is bankrupt-- his farm was mortgaged up to the hilt and he was counting on subsidies that never came in. He moves them out to a run down property by the beach front, hoping for a fresh start. His plan?  To open a guest house with a little shop.  Yet the reality of the situation seems dire to his wife Lily, who is already feeling the strain on their marriage.  Forced to give up her position in society and all her nice things-- including a beloved sewing machine, which allowed her to design and alter her own dresses, Lily feels more trapped than ever, and her frustration is beginning to seep out and colour her interactions with her family.  When her brother Tommy shows up, suffering from shell shock after having been enlisted during the First World War, it's just one other complication in Lily's plans to make a good start in the new town.

The Secrets at Ocean's Edge is that rare thing-- historical fiction which takes a deep, authentic look at the reality of difficult times in history, rather than looking for the glamour and nostalgia.  It is clear from reading the book that Kali Napier has done her homework. From the descriptions of the town, to the inclusion of Indigenous characters, Napier's approach to recreating Dongarra during the Depression has been done with an anthropologist's eye-- fitting given that she is an anthropologist. If a reader were to pick this book up expecting romance and happy endings, they would be sorely mistaken.  Like other similar books which have come before-- two examples that spring to my mind are The Dressmaker and The Light Between Oceans-- the aim of this book is not to mythologise the past, but to tell a story about what life was really like during this difficult time. And there is extremely little to fault in Napier's recreation of small town life during the time between the wars.  Her attention to detail makes the reader feel like they are truly there.

Napier also has superb control of her subplots, and that is what makes this novel so completely original. The lives of her four protagonists, each of whom tells parts of the book from their point of view though the narration style is third person, are perfectly balanced against one another. For Ernie, this is a book about his attempt to make good after the failure of his farm, and the feelings of inadequacy he faces when he feels he may be unable to be the man of the family and support his wife and daughter. For Lily, it's a story of her attempt to find a good place for herself in the society she has come to, as a means of atoning for marrying a man she believed to be below her station all those years ago. A secret from her past threatens to unhinge her plans. It is very easy to relate to the harsh woman Lily has become once you see how she got to be that way. For Tommy, the story is about trying to find his way back to himself after the war, despite how difficult it now is for him to relate to others. The only person he wants to look after him is his sister, but she is pushing him away.  And for Girlie, it is a story about growing up in a town where you don't fit in, and where people are cruel. Girlie was perhaps my favourite character. She was the only innocent one, though she felt guilty about a lot of things it seemed. Like many children, she was unable to see differences like race, and saw nothing wrong with talking to people from other cultures and becoming friends with them, even though it got her into trouble.  Though perhaps it is likely she would later pick up the prejudices of her parents, for the duration of the story, Girlie is that wonderful creature, pure of heart, who approaches every new person as a possible friend.  It is this combination of characters who carry this story, and make it the book that it is.

I enjoyed The Secrets at Ocean's Edge very much, and my only criticism is that there should have been more of it.  I would have liked to have seen some of the plot lines be drawn out in more detail, and for the climax and denouement to have taken more time to tease out for the reader. To live in the world of this book for only one day simply was not enough.

Four stars.

Saturday, 27 January 2018

Book Spotlight: The Sisters' Song by Louise Allan

I first met Louise Allan several years ago, when we were introduced via Twitter.  I was looking for feedback on my work-- not getting quite what I needed when I asked my family to tell me what they thought of my work in progress.  It was Annabel Smith (author of Whisky, Charlie, Foxtrot) who suggested that I invite a couple of other local writers to meet up and talk writing, and one of those writers was Louise.

From those early meetings, when we swapped manuscripts and navigated the tricky task of giving each other feedback without damaging any egos too much, to today, when Louise's book is in print and is going incredibly well, she has become a great friend of mine: reliable, honest, compassionate and dedicated to the things that she believes in. I feel incredibly lucky to count her among my friends, and am incredibly proud of how far Louise and her book have come.

Louise's novel The Sisters' Song was released in Australia on the 2nd of January, 2018.  It is the story of two sisters, Ida and Nora, growing up in Tasmania in the early 20th Century.  Nora shows an aptitude for music from an early age and dreams of singing on stage one day, just like the great Nellie Melba, while Ida dreams of surrounding herself with a big family.  Yet life, it seems, has other plans for these two sisters.  The Sisters' Song is a beautiful novel about heartbreak, sisterhood, and womanhood.  Of course, it is also a novel about the power music has over us, and there are several stunning passages about the way a person can feel transported by a well-executed performance.  It is obvious from reading that Louise Allan is someone who feels music deeply, and knows it well.  But the themes which stuck out to me the strongest, and the ones that I could relate to the most were about what it means to be a woman, and about what happens when your dreams remain just out of your reach.  Louise Allan explores these masterfully through her two protagonists, and delves deeply into the idea of motherhood and the demands it makes on the individual to give up other things in order to raise a family, particularly at that time, when it was expected by society. The balance between art and motherhood, still a tricky one to achieve today. But it is not a bleak book, for all that it's very realistic. The heartbreak felt by each of her two characters is balanced out by the strength and loyalty that they show towards each other, and the love that they show in holding their family together. 

This is a book that has to be read to be fully understood.  Reviews and blurbs are always fairly reductive, and each reader is going to take away something a bit different from this beautiful, multi-faceted book.  There really is a bit of something for everyone.  It is a book club read, it is a birthday gift, it is a book to sit in a cosy armchair with, devouring a cup of tea and a chocolate biscuit.

I will be treasuring my signed copy of this book and look forward to whatever Louise chooses to write next. 

Sunday, 7 January 2018

Book Review: The Roanoke Girls by Amy Engel

Hodder & Stoughton Publishing, 2017 (I own a copy, courtesy of the publisher)

When Lane Roanoke receives a telephone call from her grandfather, telling her that her cousin Allegra has gone missing, she is forced to confront the things she learned about being a Roanoke Girl eleven years earlier when she ran away from the family home.

Roanoke girls are beautiful, rich and mysterious, but they also have a habit of running away or killing themselves.  The summer that Lane turned 15, when she first came to the Roanoke properly outside Osage Flats, Kansas, she was leaving an unhappy home.  Her mother, Eleanor (also a Roanoke girl), had been plagued by melancholy Lane's entire life.  After her suicide, Lane learns that her grandparents, whom she has never met, want to take her in.  Not just will take her in, want her.  Lane discovers what a happy, loving home is for the first time in her life, and she meets her cousin Allegra who has been a Roanoke girl since she was born.  But while on the surface, the Roanoke family seem to be perfect, Allegra's mood swings and strange stomach illnesses make Lane question what might really be going on.  And when she finds out, she runs away, not to return until Allegra's disappearance.

Some of the covers of this book call it the taboo-breaking thriller of the year. Certainly the ideas in the book are a little confronting, and you'd need to have a strong stomach to deal with the rising creep factor as you read.  But I get the impression that the author has tried to hold back as much as possible when writing about Roanoke's dark secret, because she's given herself the difficult task of having to make the readers understand why anyone went along with it.  And if you're planning on reading this book and don't want to get any spoilers, I recommend that you look away now.  Because Yates Roanoke, the family patriarch, has been carrying on romantic and sexual relationships with all of the Roanoke girls-- and they all believe that they love him.  Some, knowing it's wrong (like Lane's mother Eleanor) escape the house, but can never escape the feelings.  Others end it, like Yates' younger sister Sophia, who could not cope when his attentions began to turn to his daughter-niece, Penelope.  Frankly, it's quite unpalatable, so I am glad Amy Engel chose not to bash us over the head with this dark secret.

Our story is told by Lane, switching between the present day, when she returns to help look for Allegra, and the past, when she first arrived at Roanoke.  Interspersed throughout the book are short pieces from the points of view of other Roanoke girls of the past, telling their stories, telling why they did it. Some are gleeful, and excited about the way things are unfolding. Others are filled with jealousy, or are angry, or sad.  But ultimately, these short segments are just glimpses, and don't give us enough of the picture.

This was a fast-paced read, and Lane's voice was one I enjoyed following. She's a damaged survivor, and her relationship with local boy, Cooper, is one of the most enjoyable parts of the book.  Contrary to the way the set up leads you to believe things will go down, it is not Cooper who saves Lane at the last minute, but Lane who saves herself, and I respect that.  Allegra is a different kettle of fish.  She's manipulative and deceitful and very moody-- harking back to the victim of the eponymous book Lolita if you ask me, right down to the provocative, age inappropriate dress and behaviour.  She treats the people around her extremely poorly, but there's something fragile and vulnerable about her that makes her endearing.  Lane tries to get her out of there, but she's in, she's stuck-- she likes it there-- and so Lane blames herself for leaving Allegra behind.

The writing in this book is good-- not too dramatic, not to sparing.  Engel vividly conjures up the small American town on the page, and fills it with characters who seem to walk and talk on their own.  I think for me, because of the nature of the secret, the plot was never going to be wholly satisfying.

I gave this book three stars.

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

Book Review: A Vineyard in Andalusia by Maria Duenas

Scribe Publishing, 2017 (I own a copy courtesy of the publisher)

Scribe Publishing, 2017
I was in the mood for a big, historical novel when I chose A Vineyard in Andalusia off my teetering TBR pile just before the new year. Clocking in at a little over 500 pages, this novel promised adventure and romance, and to top it all off, it had a recommendation from Kate Morton on the cover. Expectations were high. And for once, I was delighted in having those expectations surpassed. A Vineyard in Andalusia is so much more than a light-hearted historical romp-- it has a bit of everything, and in following the travels of Mauro Larrea, I constantly found my thoughts shifting to reading one of my favourite classics, The Three Musketeers.

The book is set around 1860 and follows Don Mauro Larrea, a mining mogul from Mexico who has just learned that the big financial risk he took, commissioning mining machinery from an American despite the threat posed by the civil war, has left him totally bankrupt. He has no choice but to sell everything that he owns and try to find some way to rebuild his family estate. But, he is rich and powerful in his home town, and had the fates of his two children to think of, so he and his estate manager, Andrade, try to save face. Larrea takes out a loan from a notorious money lender, and promises to pay one third of it back in four months, or else risk losing his family home entirely to the money lender and his family.  Then, he tells everyone that he is off to seek investment opportunities in Cuba. What he finds in Cuba will set in motion a string of events that will take him half way around the world, and help him find a love he was not even aware he was looking for.

On the surface, this had the potential to be quite a dry book, a lot of it being about money and property transations.  But Larrea is a bit of a rogue, he takes risks, he broods, and he doesn't always play by the rules.  He is both a fiercely loyal friend and father, and a formidable opponent.  Following his exploits through the 500 or so pages, we see Larrea seducing the daughters of government officials, besting his rivals at all night billiards games, kidnapping, climbing tall buildings to rescue a damsel (and her husband) in distress, freeing slaves, and so much more.  Taken into its parts like that, it sounds a little bizarre, but it is the skill of Duenas' world building, and of course of the translation, as this book was originally written in Spanish, that make it a romp of a read.  Duenas' settings of Mexico, Cuba and Spain are richly peopled and feel right both for the time and place that they are supposed to be. Her characters are interesting and larger than life-- I think this book would make an excellent Netflix mini-series just for the sake of seeing who they would cast to play Carola Gorostiva, the slightly unhinged femme fatale. 

The trick to this book, perhaps, was not overdoing it with flowery descriptions, and leaving the lushness of language to the dialogue-- giving the speech of certain characters a more appropriate feel for the mid 19th Century setting, while also lending a hint of foreignness to this English edition.  The romantic element of the story too was understated, and felt natural.  While there were occasional descriptions of heaving bosoms, it was right for the story, and the swashbuckling tone that had already been set.

I expected to find this book so so, but instead, raced through it and found myself eager to return to its pages each time I had to take a break. 

I gave A Vineyard in Andalusia 4.5 Stars.