Elizabeth Jane Corbett

writing her way home

Tag: australian women writers challenge

HNSA 2107 – my subjective wrap-up

Last weekend, I attended the 2017, Melbourne, Historical Novel Society of Australasia conference. It was fun, informative, encouraging, and utterly exhausting. I can’t begin to imagine how shattered the organisers must feel. It’s taken me days to recover. Partly because my library service has a shortage of casual librarians at the moment and I am doing more than my usual number of shifts. Partly, because I’m that kind of girl. While my writing buddy, Chris, was banging out a blog the day after the conference (no, I didn’t even like her anymore :-)), I sat tufty haired in my desperately-in-need-of-laundering dressing gown, hands curled around multiple cups of strong coffee, in an attempt to re-boot myself for the week ahead. Only now, a week later, am I ready to do a wrap-up.  So, this blog isn’t exactly hot off the press.

The 2017 conference was the second HNSA conference and, although the inaugural conference in Balmain, Sydney was amazing, I enjoyed this one more. Why? Need you ask? We all know Melbourne is best. Okay, so that is a little subjective. But I’ve started now so I may as well continue in that vein.

Friends

In 2015, my (now, ex) writing buddy, Chris, and I booked our accomodation, met at the airport, purchased bus tickets, found our hotel, clacked along the footpath to the NSW State Library in high heels and cocktail dresses, and attended the opening night together. I vaguely knew a few people through reviews and articles I’d written for the Historical Novel Review. Chris knew others through the Society of Children’s Book Illustrators and Writers. But, I’d have to say that first evening, friends were a  bit thin on the ground. I don’t think we were alone. It was the first ever conference. The first time we’d met under the banner of the Historical Novel Society Australasia. Over the weekend, we met loads of people face-to-face for the first time. Through social media, we’ve kept in touch. As a consequence, there was a genuine sense of community at this second Australasian conference. Bron, a Kiwi I’d met briefly in 2015, shared a Welsh heritage. We swapped manuscripts, did seperate stints at Stiwdio Maelor, and took part in shared discussions on the Heritage and History of Wales Facebook group. It was wonderful having her stay with me during the 2017 conference weekend.

Involvement

They say, you get out of life what you put in. Although, I’d be wary of advocating this principle universally, I have no hesitation in applying it to conferences. I was thrilled to be part of the 2017 conference social media team and also to help out with the HNSA blog in the lead up to the conference. Through the 2017 AWW Challenge, I’ve also been reading heaps of historical fiction by Australian women. I was therefore ready to immerse myself in topics such as authenticity and accuracy, whether you can defame the dead (apparently not in Australia), the tightrope of cultural appropriation, the use of sensitivity readers (I will definitely need this with my next novel), research methods and how other authors found inspiration. I was part of the social media team during the conference and enjoyed posting live from within each session. Here is how I wrapped up the keynote address by indigenous memoir writer, Lesley Williams:

 

Wagging

A couple of weeks before the conference, I received a message from my Welsh speaking, originally German friend, who’s been living in Sydney, to say she was coming to Melbourne for a final visit before heading back to the UK. I explained it was the HNSA conference that weekend but, if she could get to Hawthorn, I might be able to slip away for an hour or two. When our friend Karla (recently returned from two months in Wales) agreed to join us, the date became set in cement. As the weather was fine, we sat out on roof-top of a bar on the corner of Glenferrie and Burwood roads, laughing, chatting, sipping wine and butchering plurals* in God’s own language. At one point, the waitress, a backpacker, judging by her accent, said:

‘Oh, you’re not speaking English.’

‘No.’

‘What Language are you speaking?’

‘Welsh.’

She laughed, relieved. ‘No wonder I couldn’t understand a word you were saying.’

The Next Step

One of the final conference sessions was a panel of agents and publishers. I recall at the last conference, this session and the First Pages Pitch Session, plunged me into a pit of despair. See, it had begun to dawn on me that I’d written an unusual novel – an historical coming-of-age novel about fairy tales and facing the truth, set entirely in the steerage compartment of a nineteenth century emigrant vessel, which had embedded Welsh fairy tales and was written from both adult and young adult viewpoints. Like, where was it going to sit on the book shop shelves?

As I sat in the 2017 conference, listening to agents and publishers talk about their selection process, I was struck by the same overall impression – the publishing scene in Australia is small, exclusive, and completely market dominated. Yet I didn’t experience the same level of despair as I had in 2015. Because although I didn’t get much interest from mainstream publishers, I’d had interest in my manuscript from more than one small press. The book was eventually picked up by a feisty, innovative publisher called Odyssey Books and will be published on October 20th, 2017. For me, this took the whole desperate I’ve-spent-ten-years-of-my-life-writing-a-book-no-one-will-ever-read sting out of the experience. So, if you were sitting in last Sunday’s auditorium, thinking: this is hopeless! Don’t despair. There is a whole new publishing world emerging  – one that is not nearly so conservative, or market driven. One that is ready to take a risk on outliers. I’m lucky enough to be part of that world. Maybe you will be too! Meanwhile, we have HNSA 2019 to look forward to.

***

The Tides Between is available for pre-order  through Novella Distribution.

*In Welsh you don’t simply stick an S on the end of a word to create a plural. A plural version of a noun can end in: au, iau, ion, on, i, add, odd, add, ed, od, iaid. Not to mention words where a vowel changes in the middle to indicate a plural, or simply gets truncated (eg. coeden – a tree, coed, trees). If Welsh is your mother tongue, you simply learn these plurals, without thinking, through hearing them used in everyday conversation. However, when three second language Welsh speakers (albeit fairly fluent second language speakers) get together there are inevitable moments of plural confusion. We run through various possible word endings, trying to decide which sounds right, until one of us eventually caves and looks it up.

An interview with Rachel Nightingale author of Harlequin’s Riddle

I first came across Rachel Nightingale at the inaugural Historical Novels Society of Australasia  Conference in Sydney. As a writer with a background in re-enacting, she was selected to read segments of the first chapter pitches for assessment by a panel of industry experts. Mercifully, I hadn’t submitted a first chapter because the fall-out was brutal. But I can remember thinking Rachel had the best job, simply reading out the entries. Since then, we’ve both had our debut novels picked up by Odyssey Books and, as we’ve presented together at events, and sat together on an Odyssey Books table, and, as I’ve picked Rachel’s brain about what to expect from the editing/launching/marketing process, I couldn’t wait to interview her about Harlequin’s Riddle. Let’s start with the blurb:

The Gazini Players are proud to present

For your Edification and Enjoyment

Tales of great Joy, and of great Woe

Ten years ago, Mina’s beloved older brother disappeared with a troupe of travelling players, and was never heard from again.

On the eve of Mina’s own departure with a troupe, her father tells her she has a special gift for story telling, a gift he silenced years before in fear of her ability to call visions into being with her stories.

Mina soon discovers that the travelling players draw their powers from a mysterious place called Tarya, where dreams are transformed into reality. While trying to solve the mystery of her brother’s disappearance, she discovers a dark secret to the players’ onstage antics. Torn between finding her brother or exposing the truth about the players, could her gifts as a story teller offer a way to solve Harlequin’s riddle?

What historical era/place is this story based on?

Harlequin’s Riddle is based on events and life during the Italian Renaissance. The Commedia dell’Arte were travelling players who roamed the country performing improvisational theatre during that time. The Punch and Judy show that still survives today is a fragment of the original playing. There are theatre troupes around the world who still train actors in Commedia techniques. And of course the masks of Venice’s famous carnival are linked to Commedia characters – you can still see people dressed as Harlequin or Pierrot during Carnivale today.

Would you call it historical fantasy, or simply fantasy?

If I’m being very specific, I think it’s officially second world historical fantasy. Second world, in that the story takes place in a country very like Italy, called Litonya, which bears many of the hallmarks of the country but has its own geography and customs. Historical in that the events are based on the lives of performers and other artisans of the time, and the descriptions of buildings, costumes and food are based on the Renaissance world of Italy. Fantasy, because there is a mystical element that overlays everything and drives the story. Tarya is a realm that sits beside the real world setting – a place where artists who are in flow can uncover unexpected powers and create change in the world through their art.

Can you tell me the point at which the history ended and the fantasy started?

I have to be careful what I say here because my answer could give away spoilers for the third book! As with any writing, Harlequin’s Riddle is a mix of many influences, including research into the setting and artforms of the time, my own experiences as a performer and audience member, my lifelong fascination with Pierrot and with masks, and of course letting my imagination roam. The idea for Tarya itself grew out of reading an interview with Alan Cumming, the Broadway and Hollywood actor, who spoke about that moment before you go onstage as offering a chance to enter another world – I asked the question ‘what if this place was real?’ and my world building grew from there. This otherworld was crucial to the story, so I made the choice to step away from the real Italy, and the real Renaissance era, because it would make it easier for readers to accept the mystical aspects of the story. That said, I still researched and incorporated aspects of Renaissance Italy to create the setting. One of my characters, Isabella, is based on a real Commedia actress of the time (although I’ve taken liberties with her personality!) and some of the player families’ names can be found in Italy’s theatrical history. I could describe it as similar to building an old-style animated movie – the historical research allowed me to paint the backgrounds, whilst letting my imagination roam in service to the story (the fantastical aspects) created the movement in the foreground.

What inspired this novel? How has your outcome veered away from the initial conception? How has it stayed true to your original vision?

As I mentioned, the idea of Tarya grew from the interview with Alan Cumming, but I have collected masks most of my life – they intrigue me in the way they conceal or change identity, so that became part of the way people can reach Tarya, for everyone except Mina, my central character. And there’s a wonderful musical called The Venetian Twins, by Australians Nick Enright and Terence Clarke, which is based on the Commedia dell’Arte, and which I was lucky enough to see in Sydney with the incredible Drew Forsyth and Johnathon Biggins. That was what first showed me the magic of the living Commedia, beyond the romantic images that people are familiar with. I recently looked back at my early notes for the first book and saw how much had changed – and how some ideas that were there at the beginning remained through many edits. What has remained have been core ideas about theme. Change is very much an organic process as you keep writing and editing, and then again as you get others to read your work so it can be difficult to realise how much has shifted unless you do look back.

What did your research process look like?

I use a range of processes for research, as I mentioned in an earlier question, but probably the most fun is being a re-enactor. One of my hobbies is making late period garb, as in Renaissance and Tudor dresses. I was probably influenced by watching Zeffirelli’s lavish movie version of Romeo and Juliet in high school, because Italian Renaissance dresses are my absolute favourite. I’ve made three dresses and two overdresses so far. This sort of research involves looking at portraits from the time and trying to work out how garments were constructed, as well as reading about how things were worn, the sorts of fabrics used and so on. I avoid commercial patterns because they tend to add in things like darts or shaping that weren’t used at the time. There are patterns available that are far more historically accurate. Wearing a boned corset or walking around in a skirt with three petticoats is a really good way of getting inside a character’s head, because you have to move differently, hold your back straighter and possibly overheat!

Tell me about the Inamoratas and their costumes and the type of theatre you are depicting in general?

To understand the Commedia dell’Arte my critical resource was an actor’s handbook by John Rudlin, although my background in improvisational theatre allowed me to understand what I was reading at an experiential level, which was important in being able to get inside the actors’ heads. The name Commedia dell’Arte roughly means ‘comedy of the artists’ but the ‘Arte’ part also signified that this group of actors had official approval to perform, which is important in the Tarya trilogy, where the question of who has the right to make art becomes increasingly important as the books progress. Rudlin says the Commedia began around the mid-16th Century as an entertainment in market places, so those involved had to be good at drawing a crowd. The performers take on stock characters such as the trickster Harlequin or the rich banker Pantalone, and these have standard costumes, movements and speeches so the crowd can easily recognise who is who. Of course, as with movies and books, love is a central concern, and the two young lovers, the Inamorati, are always at the whim of fate, trying to find a way to be together regardless of the many characters and events that conspire to keep them apart. You could say I took a Commedia approach with the book, because I too used a framework (the Renaissance and the history of the Italian players) and then improvised a fantastical world and events around them.

Harlequin’s Riddle was a delight to read – well structured, historically robust, yet  inventive in its fantasy elements – and above all compelling. I can’t wait to read the next instalment. It is available though Odyssey Books, all good bookstores, and in the usual online locations.

 

A review of Nicole Alexander’s An Uncommon Woman

I had never any of read Nicole Alexander’s work, despite that fact I’d heard her speak at the HNSA conference and had seen her books lining the library shelves. But when asked whether I’d like receive a reviewing copy, I readily agreed. I’m not sure why? Maybe just the offer of a free book? I don’t generally read rural romance (like where are the Welsh characters?) and I knew Alexander’s books were set in outback Queensland. The accompanying press release confirmed this knowledge. Adding that her latest novel, An Uncommon Woman, was inspired by Alexander’s own challenges as a grazier in a man’s world. I imagined a tough, fictionalised, version of a Sara-Henderson-like story with “romantic” elements.

As it turns out, I was wrong. On a number of counts.

An Uncommon Woman tells the story of Edwina, the nineteen-year-old daughter of money lender, social climber and small town outsider Hamilton Baker. Edwina works the land alongside her younger brother Aiden. The property is overrun by prickly pear. Edwina has ideas for its improvement but they are met with stony resistance, not only from her father, but also from the less-than-visionary heir to the property, Aiden. The siblings have lived in comparative isolation since their mother’s death years earlier. When the circus comes to the nearby town of Wywanna both are keen to attend. The circus is out of the question, according to Hamilton, who leads a secret double life in town. But his prohibition is met with opposition. As the siblings rebel in their unique ways, a train of events is set in motion from which there can be no easy escape.

So, what did I like about this book?

Characterisation

Edwina’s third person viewpoint is delightful. She is practical, entrepreneurial and yet delightfully naive and feminine. It is not easy setting an ambitious female protagonist in a time when women were not supposed to stand out but Alexander manages to pull it off. Under her careful pen, Edwina’s prank in Wywanna, her reactions to her two would be suitors, her tender memories of her mother, and her driving ambition are all eminently believable.

Hamilton Baker is a singularly unlikable character. At first I couldn’t work out why Alexander insisted on telling half the story from his viewpoint. But as the narrative unfolded, her purpose became clear. Although I can’t say I liked Hamilton by the end of the novel, I liked what Alexander did through him. His alternating viewpoint lifted the story above being a simple romance and gave it a complexity I hadn’t expected.

Relationships

There are “romantic” elements in An Uncommon Woman, from both Edwina and Hamilton’s points-of-view. Through snatches of quirky dialogue, Edwina’s two potential suitors spring to life, as does Gloria, Hamilton’s delightfully strong and no-nonsense mistress. Alexander develops these relationships in a way that emphasises choice and strong character without robbing them of their romance. Here is a segment in which the sheltered Edwina she is forced to cut Will’s hair:

“Keeping equal distance between hair and shirt-collar Edwina did her best to curtail the thoughts that came with each snip of the scissors. Novelty mixed with self-consciousness, as her fingers grazed sun-burnt skin. She cut slowly, and methodically, noticing the twirl of his ear, the thinness of the lobe, the fine ceases on a neck that for some inexplicable reason she wanted to touch, and all the while brown hair fell in clumps onto the towel about Will’s shoulders. She dusted away the thick locks, blowing softly on his neck, watching as the silky tufts fell to the ground.”

Playfulness

The blurb on my copy of the novel concluded with the words:

“And when the night ends in near disaster, this one act of rebellion strikes at the heart of the Bake family. Yet it also offers Edwina the rare chance to prove herself in a man’s world. The question is how far is she prepared to go, and how much is she prepared to risk?”

Blurbs are hideous to write, filled as they are with adjectives and obligatory melodrama. On the basis of the blurb, I expected death or significant impairment to follow the circus incident, with Edwina rising impressively to the occasion (think Sarah Henderson meets Places in the Heart). Yet, the near disaster Alexander gives us involves champagne, circus characters, a slow building scandal, and a missing lion cub whose reappearance at various points in the story give the narrative a playful air. Add to this, identity confusion, boundary disputes, and a mute station-hand, and there is barely room for stereotypes. Even the nasty overseer is not quite as he seems.

Descriptions

I like a novel with a strong sense of place and from it’s opening lines:

“The land was thick with aged trees and prickly pear. The smaller succulents grew in dense clumps, fleshy and spine-covered, while others stretched skyward, tangling with their brethren ten foot into the air so that the way ahead resembled an ancient forest.”

 To its nicely interspersed descriptions:

“Beneath the wooden bridge boys fished for yabbies in the yellow green swirl, a mother hollering at the group to come home and do their chores. The wind gusted hot and dry across the fringes of the town. Grasses bending. The sky a razor’s edge of blue steel.”

There is never any doubt that An Uncommon Woman is set in Queensland where the weather is hot and people’s lives shaped by their hardships. I could almost feel the dust settling on my skin as I turned the book’s pages.

Clearly, I enjoyed this novel. To the point that I will keep an eye out for Alexander’s future works. The only thing lacking was a Welsh character. But, hey, we can’t all have Welsh heritage. 🙂 What Alexander gives us, is a non-stereotypical, historical rural romance which is a quirky, easy read, that defies the blokey white, Aussie-male-battler myth. Which makes it a pretty close second in my opinion.

In flight entertainment – a review of Kim Kelly’s Paper Daisies

I boarded flight QF 9 to London with lofty intentions (I always do), reading journal articles about Welsh soldiers in the Hundred Years War as I waited to board our delayed flight. I even pulled out my battered paperback copy of Life on an English Manor and started making notes in the margins. But there is something mind numbing about a long-haul flight and after I woke from my first crick-necked sleep and realized there was nothing I fancied on the inflight entertainment, I gave myself over to the pleasures of Kim Kelly’s Paper Daisies.

Set at the turn of the century, on the eve of Australia’s Federation, Berylda Jones has passed her first year at Sydney University with flying colours. She is returning to the home of her despised uncle Alec for Christmas. Meanwhile, botanist, Ben Wilbery, fulfills his mother’s dying wish by heading to Bathurst in search of a rare wildflower. Perpetually awkward with women, Ben is enraptured on meeting Berylda and agrees to accompany her on a journey to the old gold rush town of Hill End, little realizing the excursion is part of a desperate plan to free her sister from their guardian’s sadistic clutches

“How odd, it’s no man I have ever seen before, here or anywhere, yet there is something strangely familiar about him. Long flaxen hair like a traveling minstrel, tweed britches and a haversack, he’s travelled of the pages of some great, strapping Walter Scott adventure and up to our yard.”…

… “I lose my way on the words as I look back at the girl and see she is not a girl at all but a young woman, compactly made. She is wearing a blue dress, a blue gown; she is a piece of the sky drifted down onto this chocolate box verandah.”

Inspired by the misogyny experienced during Julia Gillard’s prime ministership, Paper Daisies is a mesmerizingly meditative novel about the powerless of women that is set against the backdrop of the early Australian struggle for women’s franchise. Told in the alternating first person viewpoints of Berylda and Ben, Kelly manages to capture the male-dominated political atmosphere of rural Australia, the violence and abuse against women that ofttimes went unchecked and the courage of those who fought to overcome their desperate situations. The relationship between Ben and Berylda is a necessary silver thread against the dark subject matter of this novel yet despite its tenderness the narrative is never in danger of becoming a tale of about a man rescuing a woman.

Once embarked on this novel, I couldn’t stop its pages from turning. Though I did allow myself a few writerly sighs of envy at the fiercely drawn characterization, the unique viewpoint voices and the delightful freshness of Kelly’s prose. As we begin our descent into Heathrow, I can honestly say that the hours spent on this flight have not been wasted, even if I did not fulfill my lofty intentions. I am also painfully aware that as a writer I have a long way to go.

Lady Helen and the Dark Days Pact – a review of Alison Goodman’s latest book

Confession, I don’t generally read paranormal fiction. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind a bit of era-appropriate mysticism within well-researched historical novel. But not a complete cosmic struggle that has no basis in reality. However, having enjoyed enjoyed Alison Goodman’s first paranormal Regency adventure novel, Lady Helen and the Dark Days Club, I decided to dip my toe in the alternate genre-pool for a second time. I wasn’t disappointed. Why? I will list my reasons below. But first, let me set the scene.

Having come into her full Reclaimer powers, on the eve of her presentation ball, in a most scandalous manner, Lady Helen Wrexhall has been banished from her family and forced to take up residence in the fashionable seaside resort of Brighton. Under the pretext of a restorative holiday, Lady Helen is in fact being trained to fight dangerous energy-wielding Deceivers under the auspices of the Dark Days Club. But the Dark Days Club is riven by tensions. The most alarming being the violent and erratic behaviour of Lady Helen’s Reclaimer mentor Lord Carlston. When Lady Helen is given a secret commission by Mr Pike of the Home Office, she is unsure whether her actions will pull the afflicted Lord Carlston back from the brink, or lead to his complete destruction.

Enticing? Indeed! Here are some reasons to take the plunge:

Historical authenticity

Despite its paranormal elements, the Regency setting of Lady Helen and the Dark Days Pact and, indeed its predecessor, Lady Helen and the Dark Days Club,  are impeccably researched. The  voice is third-person narrative voice is well pitched, the Regency manners exquisite, and the description of the clothes tactile. You can almost hear the rustle of the women’s dresses. Despite the fact that, Lady Helen has supernatural abilities that take her into most unladylike situations, she never  loses her Regency sensibilities. Here is a section from when she meets Mr Pike from the Home Office:

No bow from Mr Pike. Not even an acknowledgement of her arrival. She knew this game: her uncle used to ignore people when they came into the room too. A way to assert his authority.

She crossed to the damask armchair set opposite its matching sofa and noted a portable mahogany writing box on the low marble table, with trimmed pen, inkwell and sand pot laid out. Mr Pike had come prepared but for what?

‘Geoffrey,’ she said over her shoulder to the footman. ‘Tea please.’

‘No,’ Pike said. ‘No tea. I do not want interruptions.’

Helen paused in taking her seat. The man was a boor. ‘As you wish. No tea, Geoffrey. You may go.’

The footman bowed and withdrew, closing the door. At the corner of her eye, Helen saw Mr Hammond take up a position beside her chair — an unmistakable declaration. The lines were drawn.

Skilful Weaving of Fact and Fiction

Far from being divorced from history, the deaths, scandals, and political tensions attributed to the Deceivers are linked to real events, such as the rise of Napoleon, Luddite demonstrations, the notorious Ratcliffe Highway Murders, and even unexplained violence associated with real members of the nobilty —such as the Comte and Comtess ‘dAntraigues. Although, I did not for a minute believe these forces actually existed, the skilful interweaving of fact and fiction enabled me to suspend disbelief for the duration of the novel.

Non-cliche paranormal elements

I’m not big paranormal reader, as stated, but, I’ve read enough to have a fairly good idea of the tropes — an encroaching darkness, the rise of a redeemer with special powers, cursed artefacts, forbidden bonds, mentors, secret initiation ceremonies, special training…I could go on. Goodman’s talent is to render these tropes in tactile and non-cliched forms. To take a string of pearls, for instance, and to bring them to life as she did in her Eon/Eona duo-logy. Or craft an enchanted knife with curved glass blade and ivory handle made by Josiah Wedgwood.

URST (that’s unrequited sexual tension in writers speak).

Take two handsome, well dressed upper-class men, one with a dark troubled past and a dead wife, whom he is accused of murdering, the other kind, protective and determined to save Lady Helen from the fate of the aforementioned wife, and you have a situation. Add in supernatural powers, a forbidden bond and the constraints of well-bred Regency society and you have dynamite. Having lit the fuse, Goodman lets it sizzle towards an agonizing conclusion, which left this reader crying no! no! no! As a consequence, I will now be hanging out for the next instalment.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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:

 

 

Call to Juno – the culmination of a new publishing journey

Having reviewed Elisabeth Storrs‘ first two novels, The Wedding Shroud and The Golden Dice, I was thrilled at the prospect of reading an advance copy of Call to Juno. A postal error saw my hard copy of the title being sent to Wales where I am no longer residing (sob). When Storrs offered to send me a second, digital copy I asked if she would also answer a few questions for my blog.

Set in 396 BC, with the Etruscan city of Veii surrounded by Roman armies, Call to Juno, continues the story of Caecelia, a Roman treaty bride who defied the gods by choosing an Etruscan nobleman, over her family and heritage. As Caecilia’s royal husband Vel Mastarna seeks an alliance that will break the siege of Veii, Caecelia and her household are trapped within the city walls, facing hunger and disease. Meanwhile, Vel’s treacherous brother, Artile, seeks to undermine Veii’s hopes of military success by luring their goddess Uni to the Roman cause.

Call to Juno is an impeccably researched, page-turner that richly imagines the ancient world, weaving the actions of the gods and the multiple viewpoints of its characters into a seamless narrative. The personalities of its characters are flawed and unforgettable. Themes such as sexuality, unrequited love, fate and choosing your own destiny are handled with depth and and sensitivity. Its battle depictions are awe spine tingling and its religious ceremonies tactile. The conclusion Storrs gives us is at once devastating and hopeful. Call to Juno is a must read for anyone with an interest in the ancient world – indeed for anyone looking for a good historical read.

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In keeping with the ancient setting of her novels, Storrs publishing journey has also taken on a mythic quality. Beginning life as a traditionally published novel, The Wedding Shroud was released at the time of the Borders’ collapse. Storrs’ watched helpless as her publisher, Pier 9, an imprint of Murdoch Books was engulfed by the digital revolution. When the opportunity came to reclaim her author rights, she jumped at the chance, setting in motion a process that would see her three books picked up by Amazon’s Lake Union. I asked Storrs to tell me about her publishing journey.

The Wedding Shroud, the first book in the saga, took ten years to research and write (I rewrote it three times!) I approached agents instead of publishers because I believed I had a better chance of avoiding the slush pile. […] I soon learned that it was incumbent on an author to do most of the publicity for their books themselves as publishers channel the majority of their marketing budget into best sellers rather than their mid lists. I knew The Wedding Shroud was a ‘slow burner’ so when the opportunity came to reclaim the rights after the Pier 9 imprint folded, I jumped at the chance.

As a person who also used up double figures to write and re-write her first novel, I found Storrs’ journey encouraging. I asked how the Indie publishing experience differed from the traditional publishing model.

I finished The Golden Dice within eighteen months and published it and The Wedding Shroud across all retail platforms in both digital and paperback editions. It was the best decision I could have taken as I suddenly was able to reach historical fiction fans across the world. I also realised that I had to adopt the attitude that I was running a business which required me to produce high quality books that were professionally edited and proof read. I hired the same freelance editor who worked on The Wedding Shroud for Pier 9, and then an US editor to ‘Americanize’ my prose as this catered to the ease of reading of my largest audience. I also retained a professional graphic designer to produce my covers. Marketing the books also required me to understand the strategies behind bargain promotions, social media campaigns and subscription emails. For those who are interested in self-publishing, I recommend joining the Alliance of Independent Authors to access wonderful resources to assist you on this path.

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Storrs’ hunch paid off. her ‘slow burner’ gained over two hundred reviews on Amazon which attracted the attention of the commissioning editor at Lake Union, the historical fiction imprint of Amazon Publishing. It was a dream come true! Stores signed a three book deal to re-release the first two books and write Call to Juno. I asked Storrs how the experience of working with Lake Union differed from he other two publishing models she she had experienced.

The Lake Union team have been delightful. They are courteous, respectful, professional and very enthusiastic. Additionally, they understand the value of bargain promotions which achieve visibility in the digital world. This makes a huge difference compared to the prevailing belief of traditional publishers who eschew such marketing. Thanks to Lake Union, my Tales of Ancient Rome saga is reaching an even larger audience than I could ever have anticipated 6 years after The Wedding Shroud was first published. And now audio editions are being produced as well.

With a string of successes under her belt, I’d say Storrs is definitely on a winning streak. I asked her to tell me about her next project.

I am taking a break from Rome and Etruria for a while. I have always been fascinated by the story of Trojan gold which was smuggled from Turkey to Germany by the archaeologist and gold seeker, Heinrich Schliemann. The treasure was subsequently stolen during the Battle of Berlin by the Russians. I will be delving into the dark world of Nazi archaeology and the quest by both Hitler and Stalin to loot millions of pieces of art throughout Europe during the war.

***

elisabeth-storrsElisabeth Storrs has long had a passion for the history, myths and legends of the ancient world. She graduated from University of Sydney in Arts Law, having studied Classics. Elisabeth lives with her husband and two sons in Sydney, Australia, and over the years has worked as a solicitor, corporate lawyer and corporate governance consultant. She is one of the founders of the Historical Novel Society Australasia, and a former Deputy Chair of the NSW Writers’ Centre.

Feel free to connect with her through her website or Triclinium blog. You can find her on Facebook, Twitter @elisabethstorrs, Bookbub  and Pinterest. Subscribe to her monthly Inspiration newsletter for inspirational interviews and insights into history  – both trivia and the serious stuff! You’ll receive a free 80 page short story, Dying for Rome: Lucretia’s Tale.

 

The Anchoress – by Robyn Cadwallader

The author’s name first attracted me to this book. Surely she was a Welsh woman? On investigation, however, I found the her to be an Australian. Oh well, dim ots, that made the book a possibility for the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge. Everyone was talking about it – a debut novel, such an interesting topic, so richly imagined. I confess to an interest in medieval monasticism. I have no illusions about my suitability for such a life. But something about the silence and the simple rhythms calls to me. I put my name down on the library reservation list and prepared to wait my turn.

The book when it arrived had a visual appeal. An interesting prologue illustrated the reason for the swallow depicted on the cover. Using the metaphor of a jongleur, the Swallow, who had fallen when learning to tumble and broken his nose with his own knee, Sarah, the Anchoress says

“Here [In my cell], like Swallow, I was body without a body. Even inside the thick walls of my cell I felt I could see the sky all around me, blue and clear, and I thought I had what I wanted

“I didn’t know then that I had landed on hard ground and broken my bones with my own body.”

Having watched her mother and sister suffer in childbirth, Sarah, daughter of a wealthy cloth merchant, has always sought a life apart. Having secured a wealthy patron she is nailed into her Anchorhold on Faiths’ Day, 6th October, 1255. Her purpose being to pray for her patron and the people of the village in which she has been enclosed. Sarah has her rule to guide her and two maids from the village to care for her physical needs. Father Peter, a wise elderly priest from the local priory, is her confessor. But Father Peter’s health is failing and when he is replaced by a younger more physically able priest, his gentle counsel is withdrawn.

I had been told in hushed tones that this book was set entirely within the few square feet of Anchorhold. This didn’t impress me overly. With memories and flashback an author can inhabit a number of different worlds. This potential was not wasted on Cadwallader. Through Sarah’s viewpoint we get a strong sense of the surrounding village, her past life, and the threat posed by her one time suitor and now patron, Sir Thomas.

Cadwallader also uses the third person viewpoint of Father Ranaulf, Sarah’s replacement confessor. Through him we see the corruptions and the preoccupations of the medieval monastic life. We learn how women were viewed by the church in this era (not pretty reading).

Cadwallader’s initial impetus for writing this novel grew out of her PhD research into the life of St Margaret of Antioch, a virgin who was raped and tormented by the man she refused to marry. When Father Ranaulf is commissioned to write St Margaret’s story for Sarah, he sees it as a chance to instruct her. But as the events of her life unfold and as Ranulf is drawn into the secrets surrounding the other women who have lived in the Anchorhold, the story becomes a powerful metaphor for male power and injustice.

The Anchoress is a literary novel full of subtle imagery and hidden meaning. Despite it’s exposure of corruption and injustice, it is also a book about faith and about making small but powerful shifts in order to survive. By the end of the book both Sarah and Father Ranaulf have changed. Their eventual actions may not satifsfy the sensibilities of a modern reader – why the hell is she still shut away from the world? – but they are true to the era and the prevailing belief system and therefore satisfy on a different level.

 

The Railwayman’s Wife – a review

I had never heard of the acclaimed author Ashely Hay, prior to reading The railwayman’s wife. An arresting cover image of a veiled woman above a misty seascape, overlaid with a deep, cranberry title, caught my eye durIng library shelving time. I picked the book up. Not unusual, I often finish shelving with a trolley full of maybes. Would this do for Mrs Jones? I wondered. Or Mrs Smith? I read the blurb on the back cover. A historical novel, Australian author, hmm…the book was ticking a number of boxes. Maybe I should read it first?

Yes, why not? I checked it out on my card and took it home.

The railwayman’s wife is set in Hay’s home town of Thirroul, during the years immediately following World War Two. Having survived the war in this idyllic setting, Anikka Lachlan’s life is shattered by a sudden, unexpected loss. Returning to the Thirroul at this time, is Roy McKinnon, a war poet and one time school teacher, who is struggling to come to terms with beauty after the violence and horror of war. As Roy struggles to find his voice. Anikka struggles to rebuild her life. Both find solace in the railway station’s library.

The novel unfolds through the third person viewpoints of Annika, Roy and Annikka’s husband, Mac. In addition to its shifting point-of-view, the narrative also switches between past and present tenses, giving the whole a dreamy reflective feel, that is in keeping with its themes of grief and loss. Not an easy book to write. Or read. But once into the groove, its clear, shining, cut-glass prose, lift the novel out of the ordinary. The railwayman’s wife is a homage to literature and, as such, is strengthened by references to novels and poetic works. When in the course of the novel, Roy McKinnon, writes a poem, I found myself consumed by writerly envy.

Not only can this woman craft can a good sentence she’s a poet too!

Turns out this wasn’t the case. Hay had a go at writing a poem and couldn’t quite pull it off. She went in search of a poet who was willing to write a bespoke poem and found it in the person of Stephen Edgar. Edgar’s poetry immortalises the voice of Roy McKinnon, giving the novel a delicacy that could not have been achieved through prose alone. I was not surprised to learn that since its 2013 publication, The Railwayman’s Wife has been awarded the Colin Roderick Prize. It also won the People’s Choice Award at the 2014 NSW Premier’s Prize, was longlisted for this year’s Miles Franklin and Nita B. Kibble awards, and shortlisted for the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction in the NSW Premier’s Prize.

In addition to writerly envy, I now felt a flush of librarian’s shame.

How had this writer escaped my notice?

As a librarian, I often have people come to the information desk and ask: what’s a ‘good book’? Here’s the catch: one person’s ‘good book’ is another person’s yawn-fest. To what subset of readers would I recommend The railwayman’s wife? It isn’t a plot driven novel. Indeed, there is a section immediately after the set-up where it may have been possible to stop reading. The urgency of the tale picks up once the friendship between Annika and Roy is established. Hay teases her reader with the possibility of a happy ending. Then brings us to a climax that is breathtakingly, shocking. I wouldn’t be recommending it to readers who like a feel-good story. The Railwayman’s wife is literary novel, rich in words, imagery and ideas, suitable for those who like to read prize winners and to members of book groups. It offers the potential for much in-depth discussion.

 

 

Australian Women Writers’ Challenge 2105

The statistics compiled in conjunction with Australia’s Stella Prize paints a sobering picture of reviewing patterns in Australia. On average, more books by male authors are reviewed by predominantly male reviewers. Why does this concern me? I am a woman. I write. I am also a librarian. On anecdotal, whom-I-serve-at-the-desk evidence, I encounter more women, than men. These women have longer books lists. They read across a range of genres. Many belong to book groups. But let’s move away from anecdotes.

In my capacity as a Home Library Service Librarian, I select books for housebound members of our community. Of the thirty two housebound individuals serviced through our local branch, five borrowers are men. Twenty seven are women, in case your maths is as bad as mine, that’s eighty five percent. It’s my job to know what is available and to develop and in depth understanding of what my borrowers like to read. One of the ways I do this, is by reading reviews.

So, male or female, what’s the difference? A good review is a good review isn’t it?

Maybe.

Or maybe male reviewers favour books by men? Maybe there are broad gender differences in reading tastes? Maybe, more women read literary fiction than men? Maybe more read romance? Or follow crime series? Maybe, some favour books about relationships? Inner growth over action? Maybe these women want to hear what other women think about the books they are reading?

Enter the Australian Women Writers’ challenge a website established to raise the profile of Australian Women Writers. Elizabeth Lhuede, the site’s founder, realised she was guilty of gender bias in her reading choices. Lhuede read fewer books by women – particularly, Australian women. In 2102, she decided to redress this balance, contacting librarians, booksellers, publishers, book bloggers, authors, teachers and inviting them to examine their reading habits. She asked them to join her in reviewing books by Australian women. By the end of 2012, 1500+ reviews were linked to her blog. In 2103, the number had risen to 1800+ books, reviewed by over two hundred reviewers, only seventeen of whom were men. In 2104, these figures increased.

Now it’s 2015 and I’m jumping on the bandwagon.

  • I am committing to reading four books by Australian women in 2015 and reviewing at least three of them.
  • Four? That’s nothing!
  • I agree.
  • I expect to read more titles but…I have committement issues.
  • Most of these will be historical fiction titles because that’s what I like reading.
  • In addition to the four books by Australian women, I will also read four books by Honno the Welsh Women’s press
  • Why not?
  • I am going to the first ever Historical Novels Society of Australasia conference in March.
  • I’ll be living in Wales for the second half of the year.
  • I’m not saying I won’t read books by men. I mean, McCall Smith might bring out a new title.
  • But basically, I’m going to be exploring books written by women
  • And talking about them
  • So, watch this space

 

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