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How to be Happy with a Book Part 2: Does the book deliver?

Does that book make you happy?

A couple of posts ago, I wrote about reading happily, and how to choose a book that was most likely to please you. That was Part One of my meanderings about How to be Happy with  Book (click the link if you’d like to refresh your memory about that).

First, a reminder about the things I consider when faced with that delicious choice – which book next:

Clare’s three questions for being happy with a book:

  1. Do I want to read this book? … cover, genre, look & feel, reputation
  2. Is the book well written and appropriate to its genre? … writing quality, genre stylistics, expression, editing, production values
  3. Was this book a success? … thoughts about plotline, characterisation, suspension of disbelief, resolution, afterglow

Today’s post looks at the second list of criteria. That is, does the chosen book deliver what you expected? Let’s look at the writing quality and think about whether the book matches its promise.

Two books

Choose your next book to make you happy

Writing Quality Matters

There is no escaping the readerly expectation that books should be well-written and well-edited. We expect nothing less.

Production values

We like the book to look and feel good in our hands or on our screens. I talked about covers last time, and I want to add that I often look again at the cover while I’m reading. Does the cover represent a specific scene? Perhaps it shows me what a character looks like. Maybe it simply sets the mood.

If you don’t refer often to the cover, or you’re not really into visual mood-setting, this may not bother you. But…

When a cover doesn’t match what’s inside in any of those ways, I feel let down.

Writing values

What is it about good writing? To me, it’s a bit like listening to speech. When I was a speech pathologist, I used all sorts of cues and markers to diagnose speech problems. However, most listeners wouldn’t even hear what I was hearing. For example, it’s not until a speaker is less than 96% fluent that ordinary listeners might think they are stuttering.

The same with writing. I have studied the craft, and although there are much better editors than I am, I can spot writing problems – especially in other people’s writing! Not so much in my own… Many readers will be made uncomfortable by ungrammatical writing or too many swear words. They may not be able to pinpoint the problem, but they will say that the book is not well-written, and they will ditch it.

For us writers, getting it right means endless rounds of editing and polishing.

open book

Reading is one of life’s joys

Editing values

Poor layout and frequent typos present another barrier to the enjoyment of a story.

To some extent this is due to the disruption of the publishing industry and the rise of self-publishing. But that’s a long discussion for another day.

If typos and shoddy layout don’t bother you, you’ll be fine with anything. That’s not what I hear or see in the world of books, though.

Let’s just say that too many typos are a big turn off for dedicated readers. Look at the review websites to see the loathing. Hmm.

Genre matching

Sometimes it’s wonderful to be surprised, sometimes not. The example I often use is the Game of Thrones (GOT) fantasy series.

On first reading, you might expect that the story will follow the traditional hero journey of mainstream fantasy. There, good triumphs over evil, after a series of horrendous trials, strange meetings and sad events. Well, the death of Ned Stark at the end of the first GOT book put paid to that expectation. Not to mention the random slaying of baby dire wolves early on. Eek!

Millions of readers were enthralled about the reversal of the typical storyline of the genre, thrilled by the way the story played with fantasy conventions, and excited by loads of extraneous sex and violence that raised the stakes higher and higher. Other readers not so much, because they invested heavily in Ned Stark and felt short-changed.

I’m not going to decree whether meeting or flouting expectations is good or bad. However, if you particularly want a certain type of reading (such as a happily-ending Regency romance), you probably shouldn’t choose one with zombies included.

Levitation in historical fiction?

When to DNF

I try my very best not to choose books that I can’t finish. As I said previously, a DNF is a disappointment for both the reader and the author. I can generally judge whether I’m going to enjoy the book by using all the cues I mentioned in the first post about How to be Happy With a Book, and reading the first page/few pages/chapter.

I am so excited when I realise that YES, this book is going to be fabulous!

I hope you get that feeling often too.

Next time, let’s talk about how to reflect on the book … and a little bit about reviewing.

 

 

Daughter of the Times: Louise Fein

Real people living though unprecedented times – sound familiar? This is what author Louise Fein brings to life in her novel People Like Us  (see my review of this wonderful book here). Inspired by her family’s real life travels and tribulations, Louise looked at the historic events of Nazi Germany from both sides, creating wonderful characters who will resonate with readers. How can such things happen to ‘people like us’?

Welcome, Louise, lovely to speak with again. I see mention of your novel everywhere  such as in the latest issue of the Historical Novel Society journal. I’m so glad to see it getting the attention it richly deserves. You came to writing later, after studying your masters – what advice would you give an aspiring writer?

Author Louise Fein

Author Louise Fein

LOUISE: My advice is: persist, persist, persist. Writing is a long game, so don’t be in too much of a hurry. Read as widely as possible, it’s the best and most vital way to becoming a writer. Set yourself easily achievable targets. Ones which don’t seem too daunting. You most likely have a job or busy life around which you must write, so at the end of a long day, you probably won’t want the prospect of writing 2,000 words. But, if you set a target of just 500 words a day, four days a week, you will easily have a first draft within a year. A comfortable target means you are less likely to bail or procrastinate. Then, once you have a first draft, even if it’s terrible (and most, certainly mine, are) you will have something to rewrite, edit and polish. Only when it is as good as you can get it, should you consider sending it out.

Yes, I agree, and I’d probably add that you need to put it aside for a little before sending. How much research is involved in your writing?

A lot! I am currently writing historical fiction, so it’s a huge part of the process. For People Like Us, I travelled to Leipzig twice to conduct in depth research there; I read everything I could get my hands on about Leipzig in the 1930s, as well as fiction and non-fiction set in that time period. I listened to people’s recollections, read contemporaneous diaries, letters, official documents and even Mein Kampf, to really understand the mindset of the Nazis. My current novel is set in 1920s England and I’m having to do just as much research for that, although a totally different subject matter. Luckily I love the research part of the job.

Daughter of the Reich by Louise Fein

Published as Daughter of the Reich in the US

Can’t wait to see the new one! I guess that’s part of your writing goal for the next twelve months?

I am in the editing cycle for my second novel. I am excited for this book, but can’t say too much about it at present. I am also thinking ahead to my third book, and doing some early research for that. I have a setting for it, a premise and rough outline of a story, which is how I usually start. The early research is quite general but helps me to hone the story. I will then write a pretty rough first draft which will be a chance for me to explore my characters and story lines. Most of it will end up being ditched, but it’s part of the process. When I write the second draft, I will do more specific and detailed research as required. I will finesse and add depth and detail to the storyline. I will do at least three drafts, probably, before I feel ready to submit to my agent and editor. There will be further edits after that following their input.

And that process is why your writing is so good! Is it easy for you to meet other writers?

Before I started my master’s degree, I didn’t know any other writers. Through the course, I soon had a core group of writing friends and we continued to meet up long after the course had finished to critique each other’s work and to support each other in our journey to publication. Since getting my publishing deal, I have met a great many other writers, both virtually and in reality. They are, in my experience, THE most supportive, generous and lovely group of people who cheerlead each other. Writing is a lonely job and chatting to others who understand the writing life is crucial for me!

I find the #writingcommunity wonderful! Do you belong to a book club?

I belong to three! Reading is my passion and I also love chatting to likeminded people about books.

Three book clubs! That’s very keen. Where do you write?

I am very lucky in that I live in a 400-year-old converted watermill. In the garden we have an Elizabethan barn (dating back 500 years), beneath which runs a small stream, and which used to house a horse and some farm equipment. It has been converted into a library-style writing office, where I have my desk, a rug, couple of sofas and shelves full of books. I share the barn with some tiny birds who nest in the rafters and the odd bat! It is wonderfully peaceful and the perfect place for creativity, although, despite being heated, it is a little cold in the winter! My dog always accompanies me, curling up and sleeping in her basket at my feet while I type. Walking with her helps me solve many a plot hitch.

Writers and their dogs – a heavenly match. If I wanted to interview one of your characters, who would you suggest?

I think I would have to choose Erna. She is the best friend of my main character, Hetty. Erna is incredibly brave, selfless and a brilliant friend. We get to know Hetty in the book very well, having access to her inner thoughts and feelings. It would be great to know more about the lovely Erna.

I loved Erna, she’s great character. Do you send out a newsletter to readers?

I do. I send a quarterly newsletter to my readers who sign up to my website: www.louisefein.com You will receive a free WWII themed short story if you sign up and I promise, I won’t spam you!

That sounds like a wonderful deal! All the best, Louise, and let us know when Book #2 is here!

 

Louise’s Links:

To find out more, you can follow Louise on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/louisefeinauthor/  or Twitter: https://twitter.com/FeinLouise or visit her website: www.louisefein.com

You can buy People Like Us from the following booksellers, or ask at your local independent store:

UK

https://www.amazon.co.uk/People-Like-Us-Louise-Fein/dp/1789545005

https://www.waterstones.com/book/people-like-us/louise-fein/9781789545005

https://www.hive.co.uk/Product/Louise-Fein/People-Like-Us/23814992

Australia

https://www.harpercollins.com.au/9781789545012/people-like-us/

https://www.amazon.com.au/People-Like-Us-Louise-Fein/dp/1789545013

USA

https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0062964054

https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/daughter-of-the-reich-louise-fein/1132922940?ean=9780062964052 

https://www.harpercollins.com/9780062964052/?utm_campaign=aps&utm_medium=athrweb&utm_source=aps

 

 

How to be Happy With a Book: a guide for readers and reviewers in three parts. PART ONE

In these days of lockdowns and revisiting old pastimes such as board games, knitting and baking, many of us* have been doing more reading. But are we enjoying our books?

*Well, not me, because I am a lifetime book addict and I can’t see how I could possibly do more reading. At least as long as eating and personal hygiene remain important.

How to be Happy with a Book PART ONE

I write books, and I love the fact that complete strangers read and review them – reviews are a kind of currency among authors. Most authors also read a lot, and a second aspect of my writing practice is book reviewing. To me, ‘book review’ = ‘book critique’ where ‘critique’ = ‘analysis and assessment of a book, including virtues and shortcomings’. In this series of posts, I want to talk more how to choose books better so that you spend more time reading books that suit you, and waste less time on the DNF* stories. This is about finding a book that makes YOU, dear reader, happy.

*DNF = Did Not Finish. A disappointment to the reader, and a cruel blow to any author…
Pile of books I have read this year

Some of the books I have read so far this year

As a reviewer, I see my task as working out which readers would like this book, and then telling them why. I don’t see the need to find fault, because I know that different readers like different things (gore, violence, swearing, romance, magic, philosophy, spirituality – you name it!). It’s a rare book, in my experience, that has nothing for anyone. I concentrate on finding out what’s good about this book, for which readers – hence the title of this series: how to be happy with a book.

As well as book reviews in print, there are also many online platforms to share our thoughts about books. Some readers check Goodreads reviews before they buy; others look at the Amazon scores. Authors sift through their reviews for good quotes to use on their book descriptions and some book bloggers check what everyone else thought about a particular book before they weigh in on one side or the other.

Reviews are not always positive, and authors are advised not to read reviews.* While it’s a fact that not every reader will love our books, we still like to see what others think.

*We do (read reviews of our books)

 

I read and review about 80 books a year. You might think that’s  a lot, but it’s perhaps a quarter of the books I’d like to read each year. How do I choose the ones that will please me best?

Clare’s three criteria for being happy with a book:

  1. Do I want to read this book? … cover, genre, look & feel, reputation
  2. Is the book well written and appropriate to its genre? … writing quality, genre stylistics, expression, editing, production values
  3. Was this book a success? … thoughts about plotline, characterisation, suspension of disbelief, resolution, afterglow

 

This post is Part One: choosing a book*

*I’m imagining that you have strolled into a bookshop or library, or you are scrolling online, just browsing for something to read. If you are looking for a specific author or title, you are way ahead.

 

First, look at the cover: The old adage that you can’t judge a book by its cover has lost most of its power now that book production is streamlined with access to high resolution images, huge banks of attractive fonts, and the growing language of cover art. You will know what kind of book it is by the look of the cover. For example, a cover that features the back view of a young woman walking away from us into a dark street will be a crime thriller. The cover with the hovering dragon will be a fantasy. The cover with the pretty blue and pink border around a scenic view will be a romance, and the cover with the little white cottage surrounded by a flower garden is probably a cosy mystery.

Add to this the helpful work of bookshop staff and librarians who shelve novels under genre categories*, and you should recognise immediately what kind of book you are looking at, even before you pick it up.

*Genres are often imposed by libraries and bookshops. Many authors, myself included, just write the next story that comes along. Then we have to propose that story to a publisher, who wants to know ‘what genre’? Good question!

You, dear reader, now have a decision to make. Do you like reading this genre? Perhaps you have never read anything in this genre and you’d like to try it. Are you going to pick up this book, turn it over and read the blurb? If the book looks promising so far, then onwards!

Next, read the blurb: The blurb is part of the cover. Often written by a marketing staffer, sometimes by a bemused author, the blurb conveys the essence of the book in a way meant to entice the reader. The relationship of the blurb to the contents is not fixed. The blurb is as accurate as the ad for your local pizza chain. Do they serve the best pizzas in your town? The answer will be different for each reader, or pizza eater as the case my be. The blurb is to ‘sell’ the book to you, not to summarise the story.

Then check out the inside: The look and feel of a book is important too, especially in physical books. The artwork, the paper weight, the font, the ink quality, the layout – all of these can have an effect on your reading experience. I find that the font and layout of e-books is important too, and the quality of the illustrations is paramount for graphic novels in electronic form. I would usually read the first paragraph too, to see if the style of writing is one I can easily engage with.

Reputation: Have you heard of this title? Heard of the author? Heard of the publisher? What about any recommendations printed on the cover or on the inside? What do these things tell you about this book – do you think you’re likely to agree with the puff statements? Maybe you’re looking for an Australian book, or a quick read, or an elevating challenge. You can usually discover quite a lot about a book without even reading its first page.

PART ONE SUMMARY:

So, we’ve had a look at the book and we should now be able to decide whether or not to give it a go. Remember, our goal is to have a happy reading experience. I don’t mind passing on a book that others rave about, if my reconnaissance tells me it’s not going to make me happy. After all, I can only do justice to 80 books a year!

Next time, I’ll look at Part Two: Is the book well written?

Until then, happy reading!

 

It’s Here! People Like Us by Louise Fein

Earlier this year I had the great good fortune to review an astonishing debut novel: People Like Us by Louise Fein. You can read my review here, where I describe this as a heartbreak of a book. It’s so much more, and I recommend you read it too.

People Like Us is being released worldwide this month, and I’m thrilled to have Louise on board in this special Something to Say post. Here she isto tell us a bit about the background of the novel and how is came to be published.

Welcome, and congratulations on your novel, Louise. It must be exciting to finally have it launched, even into a world filled with strangeness. Can you tell us a bit about the process and the story behind the story?

Louise: I’m delighted to announce the publication of my debut novel, People Like Us (in the USA, it has a different cover and the title Daughter of the Reich). Like so many authors, having a book published has been my ultimate lifelong dream. As a child, my ambition was to become an author and I spent many hours writing stories, usually based around the subject of ponies. But then I grew up, needed to earn a living and the appeal of ponies dwindled (well, only a little), so the writing took a back seat for a while.

The appeal of ponies never really dies. But you did get back to writing?

The writing bug never left me, and over the years I wrote ideas for novels, poems, diaries and stories, in and around work and family commitments. But I never fully committed to writing a novel until I finally took the plunge and began a master’s degree in creative writing at St Mary’s University, London. It was then that I began work on People Like Us. My idea, initially, was that I would have the novel finished alongside the MA in a year. How naïve I was!! The first draft took around two years to complete, after I ditched the first attempt half-way through my MA year. But it was just that. A first draft. It required a lot more work, many re-drafts, and a good deal more research, until finally I had a manuscript ready for submission to agents.

I haven’t found the agent road an easy one to travel. How did you get on with it?

It took essentially another year to find an agent. There were many rejections, but I also had interest from some and that spurred me on to keep going and keep submitting. I carefully selected agents I would really like to represent me, and I was very lucky that one of my favourite agents liked my work. Much of the agenting and publishing world works very slowly, but sometimes it moves at the speed of light. I sent my manuscript to the agent who is now my agent one Friday afternoon, and I heard back from her the very next morning that she loved my book. The same process happened when I went on submission to publishers. Within a week there was interest from a publisher in the UK and then I went on submission to the US and there was interest the same afternoon. In the end the book was pre-empted by William Morrow (imprint of Harper Collins).

That’s such a great story! Rejections to instant acceptance – definitely the stuff of dreams.

My dreams had more than come true, they had exceeded all my imagination. On top of that, I have also had some wonderful foreign translation deals (eight to date) and these really have been the icing on the cake. So what I would say to any unpublished authors out there: Keep going: keep improving your work, keep submitting. What feels like an impenetrable wall can be breached. I was hooked off the slush pile and knew nobody in the publishing or agenting world at all. It is all possible, but it’s a long game.

That’s such an affirming story, thank you, Louise. Now about the book…

So, a little bit about People Like Us. It’s a story of  forbidden love, set in the tumultuous backdrop of 1930s Leipzig. The novel is told from the point of view of Hetty, a young girl who has grown up on a diet of Nazi propaganda and is hungry for a part to play in Hitler’s thousand-year Reich. Until, that is, she encounters Walter, a friend from her past, a Jew. As the thirties spiral ever deeper into anti-Semitic fervour, Hetty and Walter’s developing relationship puts her beliefs into stark conflict and danger forces them to make choices which will change their lives forever.

People Like Us by Louise Fein

People Like Us by Louise Fein

I believe you have a family connection to this story?

The book was inspired by the experiences of my father’s family, Leipzig Jews, most of whom fled Germany for England or America during the 1930s. Whilst the story and the characters are fictional, the setting is authentic, and it is based around real events. My father died when I was only seventeen and he never spoke of his experiences of living in Nazi Germany.

Instinctively, I knew the book should be fictional, but its form and content were shadowy. I read Mein Kampf and learned about the experience of growing up under Nazi rule; I travelled to Leipzig and met with experts; devoured family papers and listened to the memories of survivors. The characters of Hetty and Walter came to me, and with them their story. The more I read, the more interested I became in trying to understand how a democratic, civilised nation could, in just a few short years, overthrow democracy, demonise the Jews (and others), and descend into a violent, fear-filled fascist state who aimed to exterminate the Jewish race. I felt my story would be powerful if told from the point of view of a young, innocent girl, brought up to fear and hate perceived difference. What could possibly change her beliefs?

It’s a story of the fragility of freedom, and the ease with which one group can de-humanise another to the extent of un-imaginable horror. But it is also the story of friendship, hope, and above all, the power of love.

It’s a very important book, I think, and I’m so glad that you wrote it. Thank you for telling us about the release, and I look forward to speaking with you again soon about how it’s going. Stay safe, Louise!

You can discover Hetty and Walter’s story here:

UK

https://www.amazon.co.uk/People-Like-Us-Louise-Fein/dp/1789545005

https://www.waterstones.com/book/people-like-us/louise-fein/9781789545005

https://www.hive.co.uk/Product/Louise-Fein/People-Like-Us/23814992

Australia

https://www.harpercollins.com.au/9781789545012/people-like-us/

https://www.amazon.com.au/People-Like-Us-Louise-Fein/dp/1789545013

USA

https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0062964054

https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/daughter-of-the-reich-louise-fein/1132922940?ean=9780062964052

https://www.harpercollins.com/9780062964052/?utm_campaign=aps&utm_medium=athrweb&utm_source=aps

The Stars and Anzac Day

This week, we will mark Anzac Day in Australia and New Zealand. For the first time in over a century, there will be no attending official services. The pandemic changes how we mark historic events, just as it changes how we celebrate or grieve personal events. I’m aiming to be up at 6am next Saturday, to watch dawn from my front garden and to think about the enduring legacy of war, and how world events affect us here Down Under.

Just in time, there is a fabulous new review of my WWI Anzac story.

My heartfelt thanks to Baffled Bear Books for this brilliant, thoughtful review of The Stars in the Night.

The Stars in the Night is indeed a tale of enduring love. This review is well worth a read. I’m very grateful to find such wonderful readers!

https://baffledbearbooks.com/2020/04/18/stars-in-the-night-by-clare-rhoden-a-story-of-broken-lives-and-enduring-love/

10 of the Best Books I read in 2019

It’s 2020! I’m not sure how we suddenly arrived at 2020, but here it is. A new month, a new year, a new decade.

And many, many new books to read. Yay!

2019 was a stand out year for me in both reading and writing  (see next week’s post for more about that). I met many great books, and authors, for the first time. In this post, I’m listing my Top 10 of 2019. I’m dividing them My Way, in alphabetical order by genre, because numbers are too hard, don’t you think? I’ve already made a resolution to do a top 20 at the end of this year … 10 is too few!

All of these books found me with a permanent smile of pure enjoyment on my face, cover to cover. Except when things got scary, of course. I recommend them all, especially if your taste in reading matter matches mine.

Dystopian

I thoroughly enjoyed A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists by Jane Rawson, which is set in a future Melbourne with recognisable characters, a neat twist of time-and-space travel through a folding map, and a great deal of wit. It’s tender and thoughtful and clever. I loved it. This was one of my Aurealis reviews.

Fantasy

Too many to choose from, of course, when we start talking about my favourite genre. However, for sheer ingenuity and enjoyment, I’m nominating Desdemona and the Deep by CSE Cooney. I loved every baroque word of this glorious adventure. I reviewed this for Aurealis and named it one of my two favourite ‘books of the year’. Yes, we were allowed to choose TWO.

Only two! LOL

Middle Grade

This was quite a crowded field for me this year. The story which has lingered longest  is Voyage of the Dogs by Greg Van Eekhout. I just loved the Barkonauts on the crippled spaceship Laika trying their best to find a home. Dogs and space travel. How could I resist? Read my review here.

Historical Fiction

This is of course another favourite genre for me, which always makes it difficult to choose. Yes, I know: all these are difficult to choose. Right up there is The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker. I am a dedicated reader of Barker’s wonderful writing, and this did not disappoint. A clever and touching re-telling of the Trojan War story. Read my review here.

Re-Read of the Year

Even with so many new books to devour, I regularly go back to old favourites (as described in my little visit to Sandra Danby’s Porridge & Cream blog!). There’s something ultimately comforting about meeting old friends again and seeing them reach their satisfying conclusion. My favourite re-read of 2019 was Cotillion by Georgette Heyer. I hadn’t touched this for quite a while and I’d forgotten how much I love Freddie and Kitty. Talk about a feel good story! When I feel low, I read Heyer.

Romance

This year it was Probably the Best Kiss in the World by Pernille Hughes. I loved the slightly prickly heroine Jen and the irresistible setting of Copenhagen – not to mention the divine Dane, Yakob. Sassy, engaging, and very satisfying. Read my review here.

Sci Fi

My second nominated ‘book of the year’ for Aurealis was Icefall by Stephanie Gunn. Maggie and her wife Aisha travel to the planet of Icefall so that Maggie can climb the mountain that nobody has ever survived … I was enthralled! Space, diversity, adventure, romance, and AI. Perfect.

Science-History-Speculation

Yes, how to categorise this book? I absolutely loved Bone Lines by Stephanie Bretherton. Science, pre-history, suspense, survival, adventure, mystery … all intelligently written and wrapped in an engaging novel. Read my review here.

Series Conclusion

I was lucky enough to read the whole series for Aurealis this year, and Queens of the Sea by Kim Wilkins was a fabulous conclusion to a sword-and-sorcery adventure about five royal sisters. My favourite is of course Bluebell who is the warrior sister, with her own special magic.

Witchcraft

Can you believe I’ve started reading some witchy books? My 2019 favourite was The Lights Go Out in Lychford by Paul Cornell.  This short novella, which I reviewed in Aurealis, is very well crafted and great fun, and definitely makes me want to read more about the Witches of Lychford. You’ll devour it in one gulp and come up slightly scared, mostly reassured, and looking for more.

That’s the list for 2019. I’ve already started a list for 2020, but more about that next week. In the meantime, happy reading, happy writing.

Gillian Polack: fruitcake that sparkles

Gillian Polack is passionate about people, about books, about history. An Australian writer and editor, Gillian works mainly in the field of speculative fiction. She has published four novels, numerous short stories and nonfiction articles, and is the creator of the New Ceres universe. I first encountered Gillian’s work when I reviewed her novel The Year of the Fruitcake for Aurealis magazine. I started my review by saying that the book ‘fizzes with smart, sparkling prose and razor wit’, and finished it with this: ‘one of the most innovative, droll and appealing voices you’re likely to encounter in modern speculative fiction. To read a page of Polack is to enter a world both astute and delightful.’

As you can imagine, I’m enchanted to host Gillian today.

Welcome, Gillian, and thank you for joining me. Can you tell us something about yourself that you think anyone who reads your book/s really ought to know?

Gillian: My novels are not about me. So many readers read one of my contemporary novels and say “Autobiography!”

This became so common that I started playing a guessing game with readers.

“Which bits of the novel are from my life?” I asked, and now I often intentionally put something in my fiction, to keep the guessing game going. In July I said, “I should stop doing this,” but I haven’t quite decided if I should stop, or if I should still add small and unpredictable bits of my life to my fiction and see if readers will ever work out what is borrowed from reality and what is invented.

Very, very few readers guess right. The most common (and entertaining) incorrect guess is about the character who swims naked in the Murrumbidgee River. I do not know how to swim and I’m exactly the wrong person to take off clothes in a public place.

Now I’ll be looking for clues! What is your favourite scene from your own writing? Why?

I am stumped every time someone asks me my favourite book, because I’m not good at choosing just one. I’m like that with most things. Favourite food. Favourite season. All difficult. My favourite scenes, plural (for each and every novel) they’re the scenes that take me into the book, every time. In my perfect world, every single word of fiction I wrote would do this to me. I’m working on that.

It’s very hard to pick favourites, I agree. If I told one of your characters (you get to choose which one) that they were imaginary, how would they respond?

Polack-JewishWomen-200x300I wanted to give you the response of my very political character in The Wizardry of Jewish Women for she would argue gloriously and precisely and with much passion to prove her existence. Then I thought of giving you the answer Melusine would give from The Time of the Ghosts. “You’re not from this universe, are you, dear? Let me make you some coffee. If you’ve the time, I’d like to ask you if you’ve seen someone who might have travelled your way.”

These are not the most interesting answers, however. My mindwiped alien (in a perimenopausal human body) in The Year of the Fruit Cake would on some days be very distressed that she’s considered fictional, on others she’d discuss it rationally and at least once a week she’d hurt so much that she didn’t understand what you were trying to say. On her best days, she’d look at the evidence, work out the mathematics behind it, and agree with you. Most of this doesn’t show in the novel, but she’s an exceptionally courageous alien and every day she doubts her reality, she handles that doubt with style.

Fruitcake

As you handled that question with style! Can you think of any books and/or writers who inspired you on your path to be an author? Can you tell us about that?

 So very many books…

I’ve known I was going to be a writer since I was eight. Since before then, actually, because I was eight when I made my big decision. I wasn’t taught to read until I was five, so every book I encountered before I was eight was critical. I read Enid Blyton and I read Edith Nesbit. I read Mary Grant Bruce and Elyne Mitchell. I read the complete series of lives of famous scientists my family owned, and I read history books about the Holocaust. No book I was able to read was banned, and I went from John and Betty (the first book I ever read – I remember learning to read with it, and then I remember helping my younger sister when she learned to read) to reading everything within reach in no time at all.

My biggest shock in between eight and thirteen was The Constant Nymph  by Margaret Kennedy (which was shelved in the children’s section until I asked a librarian to explain some critical plot points), and it was one of the books that taught me I didn’t want to write like another writer.

By the time I was thirteen I was reading Tolkien and Tolstoy and Dickens and every single science fiction and historical fiction and fantasy writer I could get my hands on. I had run out of books in the children’s section of the library, you see, and was given permission to borrow books from the adult section.

I can’t imagine life without books. What I knew when I was eight was that this was my playground and my life. That it was all the writers (except a certain few) who inspired me, not any single one. They still do. I have six piles of books to read and when I finish answering these questions, I’m going to start one of them. Today I want to read a book by Meg Keneally and one by Nick Larter. Yesterday, my reading was Kyla Ward and Jeanette Winterson. Tomorrow’s reading is Jo Zebedee and I want to re-visit Ruth Frances Long and maybe, if there’s time, read another Meg Keneally, for a friend just pointed out I hadn’t read her favourite Keneally novel yet.

There are a lot of books by Irish writers on my reading piles this week because of my research – I use my research as an excuse to find new writers. I never want to lose that spark that made me need to write, nor my love of the books of others. Each and every one of them inspires my own writing. 

What a fantastic list and a great approach to reading. Take yourself back ten years – what would you like to tell yourself?

I’ve had a scary-bad ten years. So much near-death. So much being physically incapable of doing things. I’ve found a way of surviving, and so I’d like to please tell me back then:

Life is going to throw shit at you. It will be foul and smelly and will never stop. Turn it into fertiliser and grow flowers. The earlier you start doing this the less you will hurt. The shit won’t stop, so you will have plenty of fertiliser. You’re going to grow an amazing garden.

My garden is flourishing. Like all gardens, this takes hard and constant work. This week I’m growing roses. 

Polack-Time of Ghosts1400x2100_preview

Resilience and determination combined with creativity – perfect for gardens and life. What’s next for you in the world of writing?

Three things. I always have a novel happening, and I’ll talk about that in a moment (my summer novel).

The real writing world contains problems for writers like me: I’m a niche writer (many readers love my work, but have trouble finding it, because big publishers do not often take on voices like mine) and I am physically not capable of pushing my barrow much in public (disability sucks, and living in Australia also has its limitations). Next for me, therefore, is trying to find ways of getting my books to the people who want them. I want people to enjoy my books and that means being visible. That’s the hard work bit of what comes next for me. Trying to be visible. Several publishers are helping me with this and I have novels coming out in at least two countries.

The novel I’ll be working on this summer is not going to be angry. It’s going to give some of my characters some happiness. Also, I’m going to try to not kill anyone off.

How am I going to achieve these things? I’ve noticed a lovely theme that goes through some types of teen fiction and through some Korean drama, where people find happiness with each other, as a group. I would like to give this happiness to adults who travel, each of them alone, to another world. I want them to come back changed, but with each other.

This is quite different from my third activity for the next little while. Poison and Light will be released very soon, and I need to help it on its way. It’s about the last artist from Lost Earth, it’s about the way we hide in the past when we can’t face the present, and it’s about life on a distant planet. Life with highwaymen and swordfights and amazing publishers. My favourite part of it right now is the cover art: Lewis Morley didn’t just design a street scene: he built it and photographed it. My world lives.

9781743340455_Ms Cellophane_coverThat sounds awesome, Gillian. Finally: Who would you be if you were a fictional character – one of yours, or someone else’s?

I would be someone else’s fictional character. I don’t know whose, but I know precisely what. I’d have all the things I’ve missed out in this life: beauty, health, perfect eyesight, fabulous romance, awesome clothes and strange magic that changes the world. I suspect I’d be the somewhat sarcastic heroine of a steampunk Regency novel.

 

I can see it! And I want to read it! Thank you so much for sharing with me today, Gillian, and more power to you.

Gillian’s links:

Website: http://www.gillianpolack.com

Blog: http://www.gillianpolack.com/blog/

Twitter: @GillianPolack

History speaks through S.C. Karakaltsas

Sylvia Karakaltsas writes cracking historical novels – you can see my review of her fabulous and moving book A Perfect Stone here. I’m thrilled to have the chance to meet up with her, especially as we have discovered that we both live in Melbourne and can now be coffee mates!

Welcome, Sylvia. Can you tell us something about yourself that you think anyone who reads your book/s really ought to know?

I guess the main thing is that I write historical fiction and short stories. My short stories are not, however, historical. If anything they tend to be contemporary fiction based on current day observations. 

The two historical fiction novels I have written are both set in 1948 so I guess you could say, I like 1948. It’s not so much the year that’s fascinating but the time just after the war when there was still so much turmoil in the world and I find it rich for stories.

I think you have a great grasp of the period. What is your favourite scene from your own writing? Why?

I don’t necessarily have a favourite scene as such but there are scenes which have moved me.. In Climbing the Coconut Tree, two Australians were murdered on a Pacific island and the funeral scene for me was quite emotional to write. 

In A Perfect Stone, there are scenes where young children are killed and writing them moved me to tears. Putting myself right in the scene affects me so much that the scenes are, I think, very powerful. 

If the author is moved, then the scene has power indeed. Now, if I told one of your characters (you get to choose which one) that they were imaginary, how would they respond?

I think Jim from A Perfect Stone would growl and tell me in no uncertain terms how ludicrous I am.  After all he can be cantankerous. He’d probably then add that he liked my new haircut.

He definitely would! He’s such a character! Can you think of any books and/or writers who inspired you on your path to be an author? Can you tell us about that?

I’ve always loved reading. When I was a young girl, I devoured anything by Enid Blyton – who hasn’t? My goal had never been to be a writer, I had other things I wanted to do and the only constant was my love of reading. 

 I came to writing just over five years ago and dug into the books and the authors I had loved to study the art of writing. Inspiration came from Anthony Doer, Sonya Hartnett, Emily Bitto, Hannah Kent, Sophie Laguna and Nicole Hayes. Nicole in particular guided me with all three of my books I have the utmost admiration for her incredible skills. 

That’s a great road for an author. Take yourself back ten years – what would you like to tell yourself?

Getting older is so much better than everyone said and that you never stop learning and growing.

How lovely to hear. What’s next for you in the world of writing?

I am well into my next novel. The character, Lucille, seems to be writing her own story despite me trying to send her in lots of directions. She pulls me right back where she wants to go and guess what, we’ve landed again in 1948. I just shake my head and wonder where she’ll take me next. 

And finally:Who would you be if you were a fictional character – one of yours, or someone else’s?

I’d probably be Helen from my novel A Perfect Stone. Although she’s probably more tolerant and nicer to her father Jim than me. 

There’s a lot of Helen in you, I think. Or maybe vice versa! Thank you so much for sharing with us on Last Word of the Week. Coffee next week?

S.C. Karakaltsas Links

Sylvia’s website: https://sckarakaltsas.wordpress.com/

A Perfect Stone: https://sckarakaltsas.com/my-books/a-perfect-stone/

Climbing the Coconut Tree: https://sckarakaltsas.com/my-books/climbing-the-coconut-tree/

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/skarakaltsas/

Twitter: @SKarakaltsas

The Stars blog tour continues

This week it’s all about the fabulous blog tour … The Stars in the Night is visiting the real world of readers and bloggers.

Many great links will be added here so you can see what happens when you go on tour. This time, what goes on tour comes home very happily!

Jo at Jaffa Reads Too: https://jaffareadstoo.blogspot.com/2019/04/blog-tour-and-giveaway-stars-in-night.html

Dragon Rose Books Galore Reviews: https://dbgreviews.blogspot.com/2019/04/blog-tour-stars-in-night-by-clare.html

Literary Flits: http://litflits.blogspot.com/2019/04/the-stars-in-night-by-clare-rhoden.html

Julie at Northern Reader: https://northernreader.wordpress.com/2019/04/21/the-stars-in-the-night-by-clare-rhoden-the-reality-of-loss-and-survival-in-war-and-peace/

Stacy is Reading: https://stacyisreading.blogspot.com/2019/04/book-review-stars-in-night-by-clare.html

Cheryl M-M’s Book Blog: https://cherylmmbookblog.blogspot.com/2019/04/blogtour-stars-in-night-by-clare-rhoden.html

My thanks to Harry’s travel agent, the lovely Rachel at Rachel’s Random Resources.

My 10 best reads of 2018, just in time for the holidays

You will have noticed that this is not your regular ‘Last Word of the Week’ fix. As December draws to a close and everyone gets busy with end-of-year tasks and (for the lucky ones) holiday preparations, we’re putting LWOTW away for this year. In its place, I thought I’d give you a quick overview of my ten top reads of 2018. My aim was to read 60 books this year, but I am currently at 75 and hope to get a couple more in before 2019. Books are addictive, yes?

Not all of these books were published this year, but with TBR lists growing faster than I can read, it’s not always easy to keep up.

1. Station Eleven, Emily St John Mandel

mandelMy best read of the year. First published in 2014, this book was recommended to me by word of mouth from a trusted friend. I found it to be: Wonderful. Uplifting. Thoughtful. Perceptive. Clever. Kind. Worrying. Sad.

It’s a perfectly comprehensible tale of the advent of the apocalyptic virus and the world inherited by the survivors. There is a large cast of characters, and at times it seems they have no connection, but their lives do intersect – as all of ours do, in truth. The hope and desolation of this novel will stay with me for a long time.

I’m so glad I read it.

 

2. Record of a Spaceborn Few, Becky Chambers

chambersThis is an amazing book, and I loved every minute of it. It’s my first Becky Chambers and now I have to read more. It’s rare and wonderful when fantastic books — and I mean fantastic in the sense of books that aspire to a different realism — speak to the reader in her own life. This book does.
Here are my three top quotes:
“Yet it was a quiet grief, an everyday grief, a heaviness and a lightness all at once.”
“That’s how we’ll survive, even if not all of us do.”
“Our species doesn’t operate by reality. It operates by stories.”
Yes!
I loved the cast of diverse characters and the plot threads that connected them all. I loved the worlds and the perspectives, and the clarity of this story. I was a little impatient with teenager Kip, but hey, that’s what teenagers are for! The alien viewpoints were also fascinating.
One of the best reads of 2018, for sure.

3. La Belle Sauvage, Philip Pullman

pullman

 

I am glad that I waited a bit to read this wonderful book, because now (I hope) I will manage the wait for the next of the trilogy. I confess guiltily that it’s my first Philip Pullman (he’s been on my TBR list for a long time) and I’m hooked. I could tell by the first page that this was exquisite, assured writing backed by a huge, compassionate, intelligent imagination.

The characterisation is masterly and Pullman doesn’t offer any short cuts or quick fixes to the dire circumstances of living in the time of a totalitarian government. I am in love with the daemons too. More please! Oxford forever.

 

4. From the Wreck, Jane Rawson

rawsonI really loved this extraordinary book. The dovetailing of historical family story plus alien lifeform may not be for everyone, but it really is worth trying. Some of the sentences will stay with you for a long time, even if you’re not entranced by the combination of alien and history. Personally, I LOVED it.

I don’t do spoilers if I can help it, so I won’t go into detail. I just want to say that this book makes the reader ask all the important questions. As in, what is life all about? What is our place in the universe? Are we the cosmic specks we sometimes feel? What about love and care for others? How do we take care of ourselves and our loved ones in the face of the vast majesty of life?

 

5. Winter, Ali Smith

smithali

I fell in love with this book, after being a little puzzled at the start. Don’t get too caught up in the whys and wherefores in the beginning. A floating head? Why not? All will become clear.  I soon got into the swing of things and enjoyed every nuance. Essential reading for the Christmas holidays – thoughtful and compassionate, interesting and tender.

 

6. Den of Wolves, Juliet Marillier

marillier

I very much enjoyed this third book in the Blackthorn and Grim trilogy – all of which I have now read. However it is so neatly written that it would stand alone. Very good consistency of characterisation, and the ending wasn’t squibbed. Loved it!

I pick up every Marillier book I see and have had some glorious times reading her wonderful, rich, insightful prose. This is the type of fantasy that resonates across the ages.

 

 

 

7. The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman

gaiman

I absolutely loved this book from the very first line. Neil Gaiman’s writing is exquisite. Everything he writes about magical events seems so right that it sinks in. Of course the world is as he says it is.
You will love the Hempstocks and you will also be able to use ‘Ursula Monckton’ as an epithet for any annoying person you know!

8. The Orchard Underground, Mat Larkin

First up: I knew this guy in a former life, so I had some trepidation reading Mat Larkin’s debut middle grade novel. What if I didn’t like it? What could I say? I planned some soothing platitudes in advance, crossed my fingers and eyes, and started to read…
Well, all my planning was a waste of time. The Underground Orchard is seriously good. It’s smart, funny, accessible, well-structured and a wonderful read. I’m SO sorry that I didn’t get to read books like this when I was in middle school. Sure, I made a heroine out of Mary Grant Bruce’s Norah of Billabong (who could ride horses, muster cattle, AND cook!), but where was Attica Stone, with her confidence, succinct way with wirds, love of strong black coffee, and refusal to give up?larkin
You’ll love Pri Kohli and his quirky way of talking, and his world-view completely immersed in the town of Dunn’s Orchard. You will meet the amazing Attica Stone, and the wonderful Slotcar character (who reminds me a bit of Luna Lovegood in the Harry Potter series). Pri’s parents – it’s nice to have a middle-grade protagonist with parents, just for a change 🙂 – are doing their best to stay cool while he navigates the craziness of the Razz Wood and does his best to save his town – or the wood – or the orchard – or his friends – or … but no spoilers here.
Read it. Read it to yourself, read it aloud to others. Nobody needs a backup plan with this excellent offering. I have my fingers crossed that Mat has more adventures planned for Pri, Attica and co.

 

9. The Cruel Prince, Holly Black

26032825CPThis novel has given me much to think about. I am so enthusiastic at the brilliant writing and the neat characterisation, but the plot is pretty dark. It’s my first Holly Black, and perhaps I need to read one or two more to delve a bit deeper. I wrote a blog about it, which you can read here — warning, *spoilers*.

That said, I’ve rated this book 5 stars on Goodreads, because I couldn’t put it down. It’s like George RR Martin, Juliet Marillier, and Paula Hawkins got together to write a completely captivating dark thriller set in Faerie.

By the way, I adore the cover.

I think if you love GOT, you will love this. So that’s most people!

10. Dyschronia, Jennifer Mills

I devoured this fascinating book, and I’m still thinking about it. That’s a sign that it has some important things to say, I think. There are also many phrases that I noted as worth re-reading, and adding to my list of cool things written by excellent authors.
The story in this novel is like a cracked mirror – there are shards of time and we don’t always exactly know where or rather when we are – but every piece shines with reflections of reality that we almost recognise, but of course everything looks different now that reality has been broken apart and reassembled.

mills
This novel charts the dystopian future of a careless Australia, where the environmental damage is so gross that there is no future to be had. The wondrous, worrying dreams of local girl Samandra (Sam) are dismissed as, Cassandra-like, she debates how much to tell the people around her, people who prefer not to believe. Her mother Ivy in particular is determined to be head-in-the-sand, spending years trying to have Sam’s migraines diagnosed correctly. The resulting pronouncement of ‘dyschronia’ never quite settles the question, for Ivy, of whether Sam is truly foreseeing the future or just dreaming vividly and strangely. The entrepreneur Ed (who is meant to be charming, but I have pre-raised hackles about this kind of guy) is a credible saviour-cum-villain, or is it villain-cum-saviour, of the town. Sam’s best friend Jill is probably the most likeable of all the characters. I loved the device of the ‘chorus’ of locals whose comments intersperse Sam’s dreams and Sam’s story.
Equally prescient of a dire future and nostalgic of the simple ignorance of the past, this elegant story of loss and the inevitability of bad choices deserves an enduring place among the best Australian books of recent years.

 

So that’s it for another year! I can’t wait to see what 2019 brings in terms of new, re-discovered, and old books. Then of course there’s my TBR pile waiting patiently.

Safe and happy times to you all!