Elizabeth Jane Corbett

writing her way home

Month: January 2017

An S.O.S. from Biskit the family dog

Help! If you are reading this, I’m in danger. The only place I feel safe is rolling around in the dirt beneath the house. But now Andrew’s setting booby traps. No, I’m not joking. It’s real. All around the world, small white dogs who were originally bought for the youngest daughter who left home are under threat. Seriously, Andrew’s on the phone at the crack of dawn and late into the night. He speaks in code, of course. Uses phrases like site remediation and safety procedures, but I hear those American accents and know he’s operating on a global scale.

We had explosions the week after Christmas, then there was thunder. I managed to force my way through the barriers along the sides of the house only to find miles of deadly blue cabling had been installed. I had to chew my way out. Liz doesn’t realise. Why doesn’t she realise? She thinks this is about dirt and fleas. I dragged a length of cabling out to demonstrate the situation. The next morning the secret international phone calls stopped. Andrew hunched over his mobile phone trying to communicate with the outside world. He said he’d have to ‘go into the office.’ Liz didn’t seem too worried. She never does. She just flipped over to 4G and kept on reading. About Owain Glyndwr, for heaven’s sake, a fourteenth century Welsh malcontent. She needs to forget about Wales and  and start focusing on what’s happening in her own backyard.

When Andrew got home from ‘the office’, that night, he found the cable. Grim. That’s the only word for his face. He hammered on Liz’s study window. Called, it an ADSL line. Used the words, No WIFI, No phone. Liz turned pale, saw the effect it was going to have on her social media profile. She sided with Andrew. Yes, you heard me. She sided with Andrew. Called the ADSL police. Had those trip wires re-installed in no time. Now my days are numbered. I’m hacking into Liz’s blog to get my message out. She’s going to be furious. I’ll be kept in close confinement from now on. But if you’re reading this, you’ll know the truth. So, please, please, please come and rescue me.

Salt Creek by Lucy Treloar – a tender loss of innocence

Having grown up in South Australia on a surfeit of Colin Thiele novels and having endured too many bleak windy drives along the Coorong, Lucy Treloar’s Salt Creek wasn’t initially appealing. In fact, I returned it to the library unread on that unsound basis. A few days later, however, when discussing my desire to find a recently written, Australian historical fiction coming-of-age novel (to be absolutely specific), I decided that decision needed to be re-visited. ‘It is nothing like Storm Boy,’ my friend assured me, ‘and it may well have the coming-of-age elements you are looking for.’

Set in the 1850’s the majority of Salt Creek’s narrative takes the from an extended flashback written from the first person viewpoint of fifteen-year-old, Hester Finch, as she and her family struggle to recover debts by attempting to farm the isolated, sandy reaches of the Corrong. As the family seek to make their peace with their reduced situation and the demands of their primitive location, they come into contact with mixed race aboriginal boy Tully. In line with Hester’s father’s seemingly enlightened principles, the family attempt to civilize the local Ngarrimderji. But when tragedies strike and events spiral out of control the true character of their ‘civilizing principles are exposed.

On the surface, this book may sound not unlike many other early Australian revisionist narratives that are being written in a much needed attempt to scrape away the white-washed veneer of Australia’s colonial past. However, to put this book in a more-of-the-same category would be mistake because, despite the familiar issues, it is fresh, interesting and unsurpassed on a number of levels.

Voice

Hester Finch’s looking-back-on-her-youth voice is unique and distinctive. We get a sense that she is at once young and old. Although the the main action in the book starts quite slowly, and there are some passages where the narrative seems to lose direction and become a little too detailed, we get a sense that Hester can be trusted. That this interesting, intelligent, unorthodox young woman will not waste our time telling a story of no consequence. Here is how she introduces the innocent character around which the plot of the novel turns:

‘Tull was already quite tall and narrow. He was no one in particular to us and over some months it was as if he were resolving under Fred’s microscope, until he was part of us and moving among us. A remarkable person: he altered our course, not only on the Coorong, but for always.’

Prose

Treloar’s prose is simple and unlaboured. But it has a quiet beauty that made the writer inside me weep with envy.

‘Her skin took the sun, turning dusky, and her eyes were pale as a calm sea close to shore, like the sea glass I found one day among the shells. Who knew where it had come from or where it had been? I also kept a piece of driftwood, which was differently transformed. It had turned to silk and weighed nothing at all. When I stroked it against my cheek it was like the touch of another.’

Characterization

Hester, her parents and siblings are all delightfully non-cliche both in their appearance and interests. Added to which, Treloar uses their spectrum of responses to the Ngarrindjeri people to add nuance to the homogenized view we are often given of frontier society. Her characterization of the aboriginal boy Tully is the triumph of the novel. Tully is at home in his original culture and increasingly with the Finch family, joining the children in their lessons, learning chess and reading Darwin’s Origin of the Species. His dialogue is refreshingly clear of awkward pidgin English attempts to show that he is a second language speaker, Treloar preferring to show this by an occasional search for unfamiliar words. When he froms an attachment for which he is eminently suitable – hard working, knowledgeable, intelligent, tender – apart from the  matter of his skin colour, we feel the sting of injustice.

Dialogue

The final wow factor of this novel is its dialogue. I’m hard pressed to find a single example as it generally flows gently out of the prose and slips back into the stream of introspection without a ripple, giving us tiny unexpected glimpses of character and theme at every turn.

‘What are rules?’ Tull asked.

‘The things people may and may not do.’

‘Oh yes. We have that too. A tendi.’

‘I did not know.’

‘We don’t eat some birds.’

‘Why not? Is the taste bad?

‘No. They make us sick. Boys, like me. Men can eat them. Other things too, some animals.’

‘Which animals?’

‘I don’t remember.’

‘We have so many rules I can’t remember them all. About manners and clothes and respect. People may not kill other people, or take things from them. That is stealing. We may not steal. And other things too.’

‘Take what?’

‘Well, cattle – kill and eat them that is. And we may not take your possessions.’ I could not think what they had that we might wish for. One black had a shell necklace that I admired. I had heard people in Adelaide liked the carvings on their weapons and collected them. ‘Your spears and clubs for instance. But you can sell them, if you like.’

‘Fish? Kangaroos? You kill and eat them?’

‘They are wild. They are on our land, but you may eat them Papa says.’

 

 

Since publication, Salt Creek has received wide acclaim and, having overcome my post traumatic experience of sitting in Mrs Morphett’s grade four classroom listening to my classmates taking turns to massacre Colin Thiele’s prose, I can heartily recommend it. Salt Creek is a novel that sits way above the ordinary. And as Lucy Treloar will be one of the speakers at the Historical Novels Society of Australasia Conference in September, I can look forward to hearing all about her writing journey.

 

Why did I ever leave it so long? A review of the Rowland Sinclair mysteries

I can’t believe I took so long to start reading Sulari Gentil’s Rowland Sinclair series. I’d heard Gentil speak at the 2015 HNSA conference, had listened to readers sing her praises and had loaned the books out to every one of my crime-reading, housebound library clients, without ever having read them. But December arrived and, with my husband away, my mum terminally ill, and me sitting on the exciting but not yet signed news of a publishing contract, I needed a distraction. I downloaded the first book, A few right thinking men, on impulse. Within minutes of meeting, Rowland Sinclair, the wealthy, self-effacing, piercing blue-eyed, Sydney based, artist and his bohemian friends, I was hooked.

There is something almost Whimsyesque about Rowland Sinclair. Possibly it’s the impeccable tailoring of his suits, or era he lives in, or the gentility of old money, maybe the unrequited love interest? The Australian sleuth, is every bit as captivating as Lord Peter Whimsey. The feel of the novel as authentic as if it had indeed been written in Dorothy Sayers’ day. If Rowland is Whimsyesque, his three friends – Clyde, Edna, and Milt, are somewhat Blytonesque. In saying that, I’m not implying that Rowland’s circle of friends are childlike. However, I do not believe there was ever a Famous Five adventure in which all four cousins did not participate. As Rowland’s friends sit on the end of his bed, drinking beverages that only occasionally involve cocoa, they make false assumptions, take wrong turns, get caught in cliff hanging situations and solve mysteries in settings as divergent as Germany, Paris, London and Sydney. They are, at once, a well crafted complimentary group and complex individual characters. It is though the group’s eyes that we get a fuller image of Rowland Sinclair.

However excellent Gentill’s characterisation, to me, the wow factor of this series lies in its historical detail. Set between the wars and succinctly chronicling the rise of fascism amid the widespread fear of communism, each mystery is interwoven with real 1930s historical events. Chapters begin with a series of newspaper snippets. Participating in each self-contained mystery are historical figures such as Norman Lindsay, H.G. Wells, Eva Braun, Eric Campbell, Charles Kingsford Smith, Somerset Maugham, Albert Göring and Unity Mitford, just to name a few. The skilful interweaving of the characters with the fictitious plot lines lifts the Rowland Sinclair  books above being just-another-crime-series, and gives the reader a seemingly behind-the-scenes glimpse at historic events.

The final feather in this series’ cap is its subtle humour. There is a delicious sense of tongue in cheek throughout the series’ pages. For example, on page 128 of A few right thinking men, after struggling to paint an accurate portrait, of triple-chinned, buck toothed, squint eyed Lady McKenzie that was also pleasing to the eye, Clyde, presents the finished work to his friends.

“Lady Mckenzie is finished, at last,” he announced. “I’m taking her to be framed with the most lavish gold leaf frame known to man.”

“So let’s see her.”

Clyde swivelled the canvas round. For a moment there was silence as they gazed at the dreaded portrait. Rowland broke it first.

“Clyde, old boy, you’re brilliant!” He applauded.

Clyde had depicted Lady Mckenzie accurately, but she was no longer the focus. The foreground was now dominated by a poodle with large beseeching eyes which, by distraction, softened its owner’s severe and unwelcome features.

“My friend, you have painted Medusa without turning us all to stone,” waxed Milton.”

The classical allusion was lost on Clyde, but he gathered it was a statement of approval nonetheless. “I don’t know why I didn’t think of it earlier,” he grinned. “She loves that mutt.”

“She’ll be happy with it, Clyde,” said Edna. “It’s such a cute dog.”

“It’s a vicious smelly beast, actually,” Clyde replied, “but its a lot prettier than the good lady.”

The former is smile worthy. But it is not the end of the poodle joke. On page 162, Rowland’s sister-in-law, Kate, is trying to set him up with Lucy Bennett, a suitable young woman from his own social class with whom she hopes he will settle down and forget his bohemian lifestyle. In an effort to draw Rowland into the scheme, a naive Kate suggests he paint Lucy. Flicking through Rowland’s notebook, Lucy quickly becomes alarmed at the suggestion.

“No, I really couldn’t,” she said. “I just couldn’t.” She pushed the notebook back across the table towards Rowland.

Kate looked at her friend, dismayed. Wilfred appeared distinctly disgruntled. Rowland’s lips hinted a smile, but he tried to seem politely disappointed. He slipped his notebook back into his pocket. He knew Lucy had found the pencil studies he’d done of Edna for the nude he’d given his uncle. He was relieved. There was nothing interesting about Lucy Bennett; nothing worth capturing on canvas. As far as he knew, she didn’t even own a poodle.

There are seven books in this series, so far. I read them all in quick succession, during which time, I found myself glancing over my shoulder, fearing dead bodies, ghosts, would be assassins, Hitler’s brownshirts, Moseley’s fascists, and members of the Australian New Guard to attack me. Thankfully, they were too busy beating up Rowland Sinclair. So, I headed over to his Facebook fan page and left this message.

To which the author kindly replied:

 

 

Getting back on the horse – the 2017 Australian Women Writers’ Challenge

Confession: I failed. In 2015, I jauntily signed up for the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge. I committed to writing four reviews of historical novels by Australian women – four measly reviews! I only wrote three. To be fair, I went to Wales mid 2015 and, although it was possible to keep reading Aussie books, it made more sense to be reading local ones – particularly of the Welsh language variety. I read my first non-learners, Welsh language novel during my seven months in Wales and my first non-learner’s adult biography as well as a host of magazines, articles and shorter language learner novels. In effect, 2015 became a year of living, speaking and reading in Welsh. That final elusive fourth review never materialised.

What about 2016? Well, I blinked and missed it. I’m not sure how. But somewhere amidst the arriving, adjusting, trying to pick up the pieces, I realised it wasn’t possible to just carry on as before. I spent the year re-calibrating my priorities. So, I failed, fell of the horse. Or maybe I jumped off into an alternative language and cultural field? The mode of descent is not important. Only the fact that I am now ready to get back on the horse. That’s what you do when you fall off, isn’t it? You get back on.

The impetus for the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge started late in 2011 when after reading a blog about the gender imbalance in the reviewing of books written by women Elizabeth Lhuede, an Australian poet, academic and romance writer, was forced to examine the gender imbalance in her own reading choices. The outcome,  the Australian Women Writers Challenge – a blog dedicated to the reviewing of books by Aussie women.

In 2017, I plan to review at least four books by Australian women in the historical fiction category. This is not many titles (yes, I have commitment issues). But I have an article on coming-of-age novels to read for. And I’m still trying  to read some books in Welsh. And I do like to read books written further afield. But, despite this, I fully expect to read more than four historical novels by Australian women as the Melbourne, Historical Novels Society of Australasia conference will take place in 2017. From my experience as a librarian, I know that you engage better with the conference if you are familiar with the authors’ works. My first review will be of an historical crime series. But I’m not going to talk about it now as it deserves a post all of its own. I’m simply asking you to watch this space.

Thanks #aww2017 for letting me get back on the horse.

Eureka! She’s signed a publishing contract

So, you decided to write a novel – an historical novel. The first piece of fiction you have written since a dreadful short story in year eleven. You have an idea of a time period. You begin to research. But actually you have no idea what you are doing. You just write. You get some early encouragement. Get shortlisted for awards. Win a short story prize. You keep on writing. You have a full, redrafted manuscript before you realise that the whole damned publishing industry is market driven — the manuscript you’ve written won’t fit neatly on the bookshop shelves.

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You should have known this. You are a librarian. You are used to putting books in categories. But the truth hits home at the Historical Novels Society of Australasia Conference as you listen to a grim publishing panel rip your colleagues’ work apart. They tell you most Australian book sales take place in Kmart or Big. There is a big demand for rural romance, why not try your hand at that?

You realise your manuscript is going to be hard to pitch — an historical coming-of-age about fairy tales and facing the truth. With both adult and young adult viewpoint characters. Like, what were you thinking? You sink to the bottom of a dark pond. You drive your room mate crazy with your OMG why-didn’t-I-realize script.

You attend MWF — a session on publishing perspectives. You are told colouring books are artificially inflating print book sales. That mainstream publishers can’t take a risk. They have to make money. This is the era of the small press. Hadn’t Black Rock, White City, just won the Miles Franklin Award?  A small press! You remember the only smiling face on the HNSA panel was a publisher from an independent press.

You Google the Small Press Network, start sending out query letters. You also attend a Literary Speed Dating Event at Writers’ Victoria. You get quick responses from the small presses – far quicker than you get from the established publishers. They’re working smarter, electronically. You get loads of encouragement. Rejections too. You start a new project. That’s what you do, isn’t it? Move onto the next book. You consider self-publishing. Remember how much you suck at administration. Still you are waiting. A few, independent publishers have asked for your full manuscript. You notice that opening your email makes your tummy ache. You consider staying in bed. Forever. You think maybe you’re not cut out for this.

Then an email from Odyssey Books arrives. The opening line says:

“Thank you for sending us “The Tides Between”.

You brace. Think the word “Unfortunately” is going to come next.

“It’s an original concept with a great voice and well-developed characters. We love it and would like to publish it.”

Publish? You blink, shake your head. Read again more slowly. Publish! A mercury shot of realization. You leap out of bed, calling your husband’s name. He’s not in his office. You turn, this way, that. Search the garden, the shed, his bike rack. Gone. He’s gone. You are shaking, crying, running in circles. You think frenetic is a good description. You send a text to your husband, ring your mum, tell your writing buddies, put the news on the family Viber group, answer responses. Then you sit, letting the news sink in. Your book may not be Kmart or BigW material, neither is it a rural romance. It certainly doesn’t fit neatly on the bookshelf. But someone loved it, enough to publish it. You think this truly is the era of the small press. That Michelle Lovi at Odyssey Books has just become your new best friend.

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