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Death and Adventure: WWI through the eyes of Australians

Recently, I reviewed Golgotha, a WWI trench murder mystery by Australian author Phil Hore. You can read my review here.

Born in 1969, Phil was one of the last children born before man walked on the moon. Working at Australia’s National Dinosaur Museum since 2000 and as an educator at the Australian War Memorial since 2006, he has previously worked at Questacon Science centre and could be seen haunting the halls of London’s Natural History Museum and The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. Here he even played famed palaeontologist O. C. Marsh during the Smithsonian’s centenary celebrations. When asked why the 19th century palaeontologist was speaking with an Australian accent, Phil blithely stated that everyone on the 19th century spoke with an Australian accent.

Published in newspapers and magazines across the globe, Phil is the paleo-author for the world’s longest running dinosaur magazine, The Prehistoric Times. He has also been a comic shop manager, a cinema projectionist, a theatre technician and gutted chickens for a deli. All of these influences seem to make an appearance in his writing, especially the chicken guts bit.

Congratulations on the publication of Golgotha.

What inspired you to write this story?

PHIL: Thanks, I’m so pleased how this story came out. I have worked for museums all over the world for the last three decades and was lucky enough to work as an educator at the Australian War Memorial for a decade. I was always looking for interesting stories to pass on to the AWM visitors. During my research I found several stories, and further research led me to even more oddities. Many of these I used in my tours, but some I filed away for later use.

The story of a crucified soldier was the first of these, but I do have a few more that will hopefully make an appearance with my international team of investigators in the near future.

Golgotha is set during the First World War.

Why are you interested in the war, over a hundred years later?

The War Memorial in the Victorian country town of Stawell

The War Memorial in the Victorian country town of Stawell
Photo by Clare Rhoden

PHIL: OK, this may get deep. Working in places like the London Natural History Museum made me confront the lack of history I feel connected to. Not only am I am Australian – so part of one of the youngest nations on the planet – but I’m also from Canberra – arguably the world’s youngest city/capital. Certainly, our country is old, and the indigenous have some serious history, but in many ways, I feel that’s not my story to tell.

I collect stories, and many of these I find in strange locations, meaning they are often unreported. This has led me to creating a new history for Australia for a podcast I’m about to release … and it will all be bizarre Australian history that I’m certain many have never heard about, and all real. A samurai invasion of Australia decades before Cook arrived, the Fall of the Roman Empire leading to the Dutch landing in Western AustraliaNapoleon sending an invasion fleet to Botany Bay … all true.

All of this has led me to understand – as many of us do – that our identity as Australians really did begin with Gallipoli. It’s when we first started to think of US and not THEM. The First World War is our American and French Revolution, our Civil War – it’s the conflict that forged us into the nation we know today, I mean, even the word ANZAC has become something for more than its original meaning, its something sacred.

VC Corner on the Western Front

VC Corner on the Western Front
Photo by Clare Rhoden

Do you think that WWI still has lessons for us today?

PHIL: HELL yes. I believe statics show that, by population, no Allied nation lost more in the Great War than Australia. Similarly, no nation (that wasn’t physically part of the battle – like France) is still as affected by these losses as Australia.

Drive through many rural towns today in Australia and you’ll see a large monument in the town square noting their losses. The monument is often full of men with the same last name. Entire generations from these towns joined up and were often buried together in some field overseas.

 

These towns never truly recovered from their losses and rural Australia still feels underpopulated.

I feel this has all left something of an emotional national scar. One way we have been dealing with the great loss is the way we reverently look on those who served.

I feel what other nations can learn by this is perhaps the way we use the past, but we are not tied to it. Mateship is part of our national identity, but rather than let us restrict who we include into this circle, we try tp be inclusive.

Plaque at Villers Brettoneux

This plaque at Villers Bretonneux commemorates the actions of Australian soldiers in re-taking the village from the Germans on Anzac Day, 1918 (photo by Clare Rhoden)

 

I think our natural outlook towards others, which is usually friendly, is why Australians worldwide are beloved.

Very interesting reflections, thanks Phil.

Now a bit about you! If you were stuck on a desert island

– or maybe in lockdown LOL –

what five books would you want with you?

PHIL: Ouch … only five … actually, challenge accepted.

  • The Black Company by Glen Cook.
    I love this series and it’s been a massive influence on me. The way Cook uses a bare-bones way of writing his stories is something I really have taken form heart. Don’t waste your time getting your characters from A to B – just get them there and move on with your story. I also just love his characters and the entire story line … this leads me to
  • Old Tin Sorrows by Glen Cook.
    This book and this entire series is da’ bomb. It’s also part of the inspiration for my first novel, Brotherhood of the Dragon. The books are about a fantasy hard-boiled detective called Garrett. I recall reading ‘Old Tin Sorrows’ when it suddenly struck me that many of the plot points were from Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. In fact, the entire series is also heavily influenced by Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe books, so I decided I wanted to join in the fun and also use these mechanics in Brotherhood.See if you can spot them? Golgotha also has similar influences – most notably the Third Man with Orson Welles.
  • Cetaganda/A Civil Campaign by Lois McMaster Bujold
    Ok, I may be cheating here, but let me explain. The Vorkosigan saga is one of the greatest novel series ever put to paper (and not just Sci-fi, but all series). Each one takes on a different theme. Cetaganda is pure political/detective thriller. There are plots within plots and action and intrigue and red herrings and Mile Vorkosigan mentally pulling it all apart and finding the truth. Great stuff. The next book though is a romance/political thriller with plots within plots and intrigue and red herrings and Miles fumbling his way to asking the lady he loves to marry him. It’s the funniest book I have ever read and pure genius. I’ll also cheat here and suggest you get the audiobooks. Both of these I listen to at least once a year.
  • Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis    Possibly the most influential book on this list. Moneyball is about baseball statistics…and yet it’s so much more. The lesson it teaches is anything can be interesting if you find the right angle. Moneyball is about how to win when you’re losing, how to change tac when you realise you are going in the wrong direction, how to create something from nothing, how to make a weakness a strength and how to tell just a great freakin story. You can watch the movie – its great too – but honestly, read the book – especially if you are interested in facts more than fiction – you simply won’t regret it!
  • The Gilded Dinosaur by Mark Jaffe   The history of palaeontology bookended by the greatest battle in science – the intellectual war between ED Cope and O C Marsh. Dinosaurs, palaeontology, cowboys, train robberies, explorers, nation building, the Smithsonian, political intrigue … and did I mention dinosaurs? What’s not to love?

 

You write across genres and have a wide range of amazing interests.

How do you juggle all of these with work and writing?

Do you have some time management or focus tips for us?

PHIL: Well, for one thing you will never suffer from writer’s block … you can always move onto another subject for a while and get refreshed/re-inspired.

That’s the cheat answer. To be helpful, I guess I would say work smart.

Research is fun but can create a serious freeze on your brain as you find yourself swamped by too much info. You will take notes – so many notes – well put them in Word! DO NOT USE A NOTEBOOK! Trust me, I’m a researcher and I love carrying around a notebook. The problem is, you end up with lots of notebooks – but do you ever look in them? And do you find what you’re looking for? So, work smart – put them in Word and then you can word search later for what you’re looking for.

Keep folders. You will be astonished how often you will be looking for some info, and you’ll find something that links into something you are working on. Don’t stop what you’re doing, cut/paste/save– take a screen shot or a photo – but save that info in the folder you have for that project and then get on with what you’re doing.

And this brings me to my most important point.

Finish your projects. Don’t get distracted, and I mean distracted by outside as well as internal influences. If you are working on a crime story, don’t start watching documentaries about the First World War, even if that’s something you are also going to work on. You’ll get distracted/inspired and lose your train of thought.

Stay on point – stay on theme – and you’ll get an astounding amount of work done.

 

Wow, Phil, thank you so much for your insightful answers. Wonderful!

And thanks in advance for sharing a chapter from Golgotha, which I know is wonderful.

 

Golgotha by Phil Hore Extract:

Chapter Seven

Just one more to join our happy band of adventurers, Fitzhugh thought as they entered the Australian lines. They were immediately joined by several large men wearing the quintessential slouch hats the antipodean troopers favoured.

These men referred to themselves as ‘six-bob-a-day tourists’, referencing their daily wage, and their service meant the Australian government and senior commanders treated them with more respect than other nations treated their own men. The most obvious example was that no Digger could face a firing squad for any offence without the permission of the Australian government, and that permission was never forthcoming, despite the pleas of generals like Douglas Haig.

Golgotha by Phil Hore

Golgotha by Phil Hore: a WWI trench murder mystery

Soldiers being soldiers, the Australian servicemen took full advantage of this leniency by rarely saluting their officers and hardly ever answering with the proper use of rank. Instead, the Aussies called their commanders by their first name, never wore their uniforms in the ‘correct’ by-the-book-way, nor took part in much of the silliness that soldiers from other nations had to endure.

Fitzhugh knew full well the reputation of these men, both on and — in this case — importantly off the battlefield.

At one point, the unruly Diggers had found themselves located in the lines near the 10th Royal Fusiliers, and here they became concerned for their fellow soldiers when the Fusiliers commander ordered them to parade every morning. The very English and newly minted colonel had decided he would have his men march a full-dress parade, with spit-and-polish uniforms, during their morning mounting of the guard. This was all done as the unit’s brass band played a merry ditty for the Fusiliers to march back and forth under the braying vigilance of Sergeant-Major Thomas Rowbotham. A lifelong military NCO, Rowbotham agreed with his colonel that strict discipline within the ranks was the only way to go.

Amid the mud, carnage, and death on the Western Front, the Diggers watched these parades with growing incredulity. Stationed next to each other, the two units inevitably began mixing and the Aussies eventually had to ask their British comrades if they enjoyed all that marching and dressing up.

‘Not on your life!’ replied one of the Fusiliers.

Another jumped in. ‘We have to do the parade during our downtime. Even at rest, we’re busy polishing buttons and boots, all so our bloody officers can feel like they’re leading proper soldiers.’

One burly Australian grinned an evil grin at his new friends and, slapping the much smaller man on the back warmly, said, ‘Right-o, cobber, we’ll fix that for you.’

The next day, Sergeant-Major Rowbotham called his men into parade. The Fusiliers all dutifully filed in and the regimental band lifted their instruments, awaiting the Sergeant-Major’s signal. As Rowbotham lifted then dropped his arm to signal them to play, he was greeted by a cacophony of what some would later recount fondly as noise.

Marching up and down behind Rowbotham were the Australians, playing what could be kindly described as instruments. Most were rusty and showed the signs of a hard life, but none of this mattered as the Aussies couldn’t play them anyway. Instead, they just blew and banged as hard and loud as they could, to drown out Rowbotham’s orders. Each time the makeshift orchestra began to wane, and the Sergeant-Major tried to regain control of the situation, the Australians began playing again with even greater vigour. After nearly half an hour of this, the Sergeant-Major, in utter defeat, finally strode away in a huff and the Fusiliers were never called to parade again. The Australian trench band was always watching and ready to start up their battlefield symphony if they did.

‘Can I help you, gentlemen?’ one of the Australian soldiers asked.

‘No, thank you, just passing through,’ Fitzhugh answered as Andrews manoeuvred to place himself between the two men.

‘What have we here? It seems the officer is taking his dog out for a walk,’ another Aussie said. ‘Down there, Fido. Sit!’

Another of the soldiers asked, ‘Does your dog do any tricks?’

‘Sergeant,’ Fitzhugh cautioned, as Andrews took a threatening step toward the jokester.

‘Nice leash, puppy,’ the Australian said, indicating Fitzhugh with a nod of his hat.

‘Actually, perhaps you men can help me?’ the captain asked, his tone remaining warm.

‘What’re you after? A German flag? A helmet? We got lots of souvenirs to impress the folks at home. You can even say you collected them yourself, you big brave British soldier you.’

‘Even have an officer’s uniform. It’s still a little bloody from where Barney here gutted the bloke.’

Ignoring the clear threat, and taking the statement as a joke, thus passing the test the Australians had laid out, Fitzhugh replied sincerely, ‘No, no, do not offer me any of your baubles. I was hoping for some information. Do any of you men know Sergeant Hank Ash?’

‘Now what would a proper British officer like you want with Mr Ash?’ the soldier called Barney asked with a heavy Irish accent.

Both Fitzhugh and Andrews caught the sudden change in attitude. All had gone from casual, fun-loving jokesters to rigid and aggressively hard.

‘I’m here to try to save his neck!’

***

The newly demoted Private Hank Ash sat in his cell, his sleeves sporting discoloured sections where his sergeant chevrons used to be. Two armed English guards stood directly outside his cell, situated in a small outbuilding of the farm that was being used as a temporary prison behind the Australian lines. Outside stood more guards, while the farmhouse itself had been converted into a makeshift barracks.

Through a small field that should have been full of feeding chickens and a garden, but now housed a small latrine on one side and a smouldering fire on the other, Fitzhugh, Andrews, and their Australian retinue marched. Approaching the farmhouse door, Fitzhugh took off his cap and stepped inside, returning the salute of the guards as he did. His retinue moved on to the barn, calling out to their mates inside.

Walking into the prison’s makeshift office, Fitzhugh found an English major with a Douglas Fairbanks moustache taking a cup of tea from a brawny NCO.

‘No milk in mine, Corporal,’ he said, inviting himself to sit down at the major’s desk.

The corporal looked from one officer to the other, not sure if he should be turfing the intruder out and hoping for a cue from his commander as to what to do. The major flicked a look at the door and the man left.

‘Perhaps a little sugar if you have it, Corporal,’ Fitzhugh called after the departing man, ‘and a bikkie.’

‘How can I help you, Captain…?’

‘Fitzhugh, Major Preston.’

‘It would seem you have me at a disadvantage, Captain Fitzhugh.’

‘So it would seem, Major,’ Fitzhugh replied, mirroring the senior officer’s reference to his rank to let the man know he knew that trick and wasn’t about to be cowed by an officer just because he had a little more brass on his shoulders.

‘How can I help you?’

‘Well, sir, I’m here to take Sergeant Ash off your hands.’

‘Very funny, Captain. Now, why are you really here?’

Rather than repeat himself, Fitzhugh removed a letter from his breast pocket, unfolded it, then slowly and deliberately smoothed its creases before handing the paper over. As the officer read the letter, Fitzhugh could tell when he read the name scrawled on the bottom of the page, as his eyes suddenly grew very wide.

‘This is signed by Haig.’

‘General Haig.’ Fitzhugh smiled warmly, continuing their game a little longer.

‘Are you sure it’s Ash you want?’

‘I have been hearing that question a lot recently. Absolutely it is Ash I want.’

‘And you know what he did?’

‘Let me see, he was wounded at Gallipoli after showing enormous courage, and has been serving very bravely here since….’

‘Since he broke a lieutenant’s jaw–’

‘From what I heard, the lieutenant deserved a broken jaw.’

‘He was still a superior officer,’ Preston said.

Senior officer, Major. I’m not too sure how “superior” the man was. Let’s not be conjuring facts we have no actual evidence. Personally, I refuse to condemn a man standing against a practice more in tune with the brutality of the inquisition. Now, I believe Sergeant Ash is yet to be convicted of this crime?’

‘That’s true.’

‘May I ask why it’s taken so long to court-martial a man who struck an officer? The official report is frustratingly vague on why he has missed his last three court appearances. For that matter, how are you still in charge, having failed to get your prisoner to his hearing…if I may be so bold as to ask?’

‘Very simple.’ The major opened his hands, as though displaying something on the table before them. ‘My predecessor was a total and utter moron.’

Biting off a laugh from the unexpected comment, Fitzhugh regained control of himself. ‘Care to elaborate, sir?’

‘The buffoon arrested Ash and placed him in this stockade, a stockade, I’d like to point out, that is surrounded by the entire 1st Australian Division.’

‘Gotcha,’ Fitzhugh said, realisation striking.

‘Every time we have tried to move ‘Private’ Ash, those bloody Australians have intercepted us. It seems they are determined to make sure he never sees the inside of a courtroom, and their own officers are uninterested in doing anything to help clear our path.’

‘How are they stopping you?’

‘Well, you may have noticed the Aussies have men posted along every route into and out of this place, and they seem to be ready to move on a moment’s notice if they sense we are up to something. The first time we tried to take Ash to his court appearance, we found nearly a thousand men choking the road, doing the finest parade drill I have ever seen. Every time we tried to cut through them, some unseen voice would order a platoon to move into our way, and they would begin vigorously marching.’

No longer interested in hiding his mirth, Fitzhugh asked, ‘And the next time?’

‘We tried to sneak him out after making sure the time of his hearing was never announced. Somehow, when we went to move him, we suddenly had hundreds of Australian soldiers pushing into the little courtyard out there. They managed to never disobey an order, as the ones who could hear us became hopelessly trapped by the men at the rear continuously pushing forward. It took hours to disentangle everyone, and by then the court had dispersed for the day.’

‘So, I assume you next tried to bring the court here?’

‘We did, and here’s why I really hate those fucking antipodeans.’ The major almost spat. ‘Clearly, they have either befriended or bribed some of my guards, as no sooner did I have it planned for the court to visit us, the Australians struck again.’

‘Struck?’

‘Well, of course, I have no proof of this, but I find it suspicious that the horses the court were going to use to get here disappeared, and of course, they refused to walk all the way, and vehicles would never have made the journey through the trenches.’

‘The Australians stole the horses?’ Fitzhugh asked, grinning.

‘They steal everything not tied down, bloody convicts.’ Sensing he may have said too much, the warden backpedalled. ‘Well, as I said, there’s no proof. Though the Aussies did seem to eat well for the next few days. They had themselves a grand barbeque. They even invited us for a meal.’

Fitzhugh gasped and looked toward the heavens. ‘Thank God!’

‘Captain?’ the major asked, a little confused.

‘Sorry, sir, I was just thanking the Almighty that they’re on our side, because I wouldn’t want to be facing the bastards if they ever got really angry at us.’

‘I hadn’t thought about that,’ the warden said. ‘Thank God!’

 

This is a great read. I hope you enjoy it.

 

Phil’s Links:

Phil Hore website

Phil on Facebook

Phil on Twitter: @Phil_Hore

 

Also, don’t forget that as a special for July, Golgotha is included in the Fromelles Anniversary Book Bundle from Odyssey Books – along with my novel The Stars in the Night, and Jim Ditchfield’s Nursing Fox. Something for everyone!

Fromelles Anniversary Book Bundle

Fromelles Anniversary Book Bundle from Odyssey Books: three fascinating WWI stories from Australian authors

 

 

 

Ocean Currents: inspiration by Rebecca Fraser

The lure of the ocean and a love of speculative fiction combine in the works of Australian author Rebecca Fraser. But these are not this writer’s only strengths. I recently read and reviewed Rebecca’s book of short stories Coralesque and Other Tales to Disturb and Distract for Aurealis magazine, using words like:

“Fraser’s insight and eye for detail imbue every story, and her imaginative scope encompasses a prodigious variety of settings and characters. Keep this little book of horrors close.”

Going forward with the idea of an inspiring 2021, I recently asked Rebecca to contribute to my blog with a reflection about what inspires her writing, and – you guessed it – a bonus FREE EXTRACT! Read on…

Inspired by Life

REBECCA: Thanks so much for having me on you blog, Clare. I always love reading answers to this question! For me, inspiration is usually drawn from multiple sources. Sometimes it’s a snatch of overhead conversation (I’m a dreadful eavesdropper, but aren’t all writers?), that inspires the kernel of a story. An article or news item might trigger inspiration, or sometimes a random sequence of words strike me as an intriguing story title. I often glean glimpses and glimmers of inciting incidents or thought-provoking situations from random sources, and little building blocks of plot and setting start to form a framework.  The characters always seem to come later.

Rebecca Fraser, Australian author, lives on Victoria's beautiful Mornington Peninsula

Rebecca Fraser, Australian author, lives on Victoria’s beautiful Mornington Peninsula

I walk a lot too—for physical and mental exercise. There are some lovely walks that surround my home on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula, and when it’s just me alone with my thoughts, immersed in nature, this is usually when the threads of a story come together, or when I get resolution to a plot point that might have been proving problematic.

As far as what I find inspiring on a personal level, it’s often drawn from deep wells where people have thrown off the cloak of repression or revolted against the abuse of power and privilege and marginalisation, sometimes at enormous sacrifice and cost. It’s people at their best versus people at their worst—the human condition is a perennial source of fascination to me. Courage, retribution, and comeuppance often find a place within my stories.

 

The gift of an extract

REBECCA: This is the first chapter of my middle grade fantasy adventure Curtis Creed and the Lore of the Ocean (IFWG Publishing Australia, 2018).

Front Cover_Curtis Creed and the Lore of the Ocean

Curtis Creed and the Lore of the Ocean

I chose this piece as the events, characters, and setting are a fusion of my love for the ocean and my love of speculative fiction. Much of my work carries a nautical theme or features a coastal setting, so it was a pleasure to write in familiar territory.

I also wanted to tackle issues and themes that are relevant to today’s youth, and thirteen-year-old Curtis Creed proved a worthy vehicle to use for this. The book highlights several themes: the acceptance of great loss, the differing effect grief can have on family members, courage in the face of adversity, self-worth, self-belief, self-acceptance, and respect for our environment.

On a lighter note, Curtis Creed and the Lore of the Ocean is predominantly a fun, fast-paced fantasy adventure story, filled with characters I hoped many readers would be able to relate to.

It’s set in Queensland,  in the fictional coastal township of Midnight Cove. I’m a former Queensland girl, so I feel like I’ve walked the shoreline of Midnight Cove many times, and delved deep into the hidden world of rockpools. Perhaps, like Curtis, I should have delved deeper … who knows what I might have found? 😊

 

EXTRACT from Curtis Creed and the Lore of the Ocean

Curtis Creed stood at the water’s edge. Come back to me, the ocean sighed. Come back to me. But he couldn’t. Not today. Not ever.

He squinted against the afternoon sun and focused on the line-up of surfers gathered out past the second break. Even though they were far offshore, Curtis’ trained eye was able to pick out their various techniques—weight transfers, body positions, timing. It was second nature. If you weren’t in the surf yourself then you were watching other surfers; scrutinising their moves, checking out their styles.

He’d stood at the shoreline for so long his feet had become anchored, buried ankle-deep in the sand with the ebb and pull of the tide. Out among the breakers, a surfer powered down the face of a beautifully formed wave before disappearing into the pipeline. Remember that feeling? the ocean breathed. Remember? Of course he remembered, but he couldn’t return to the surf. He just couldn’t.

Instead the school holidays dragged along—lonesome days spent wandering the shoreline of Midnight Cove or sitting high up on The Bluff, watching others chase waves. Sometimes, when the surf was really pumping, his sense of loss and failure was so suffocating it was easier to avoid the beach altogether.

Thwack. A wad of wet sand hit Curtis hard in the back, right between his shoulders. His buried feet caused him to lose balance and he pitched forward. He flung his arms out to steady himself too late, and landed in the water on all fours.

“Whatcha doing, Shark Crumb? Looking out for sharks?” The hated nickname. Loud guffaws. It was Dylan and his moronic mates. Why couldn’t his brother just leave him alone?

“Yeah, Shark Crumb. Seen any sharks lately?”

“Better get out of the water, Shark Crumb. They’ll smell your fear.”

Curtis stood up. His board shorts and the front of his singlet were soaked. He turned to face his tormentors. Dylan was flanked by Blake and Jordo, two of his mates from high school. They were fresh from the surf with wetsuits pulled down around their waists. Water dripped from their hair and trickled down their torsos. The boys had pressed their surfboards into the wet sand, where they stood upright like silent sentinels.

Then Curtis noticed Dylan was using their father’s surfboard and anger boiled inside him like lava in a volcano. The thruster stood between Blake and Jordo’s boards, a falcon between two pigeons. It was handcrafted for speed and could cut down the face of a wave like no other. Dimples of wax glinted from its surface, wax that remained from another time, applied in dawn’s first light by their father’s hand. The image sliced Curtis’ heart as cleanly as the board’s fin cut through water.

“Why have you got Dad’s board?” He was screaming now. He couldn’t help it. Didn’t care.

“What’s it to you? You never use it.” Dylan folded his arms across his chest.

“That’s not the point.” Curtis took a step closer to Dylan. “Dad left it to me. To me.” His voice was shaking now. Blake and Jordo circled like a pair of seagulls, cawing out the familiar taunt Shark Crumb, but Curtis barely heard them.

A tendon in Dylan’s neck began to pulse. He shaped up to Curtis so closely he could see the peppering of blackheads across Dylan’s nose. “Dad never would’ve left it to you if he knew you were going to turn into such a pussy.”

Before he’d even thought about what he was doing, Curtis punched Dylan in the face as hard as he could. The swing harnessed every ounce of his rage and the punch landed with a clap. Dylan fell backwards. His eyes widened with surprise then quickly clouded with danger. A droplet of blood fell from his nose and made a coin-sized stain on the wet sand.

It was time to go. Curtis turned and pelted off down the beach. Behind him he could hear Blake and Jordo give chase, but he knew he could outrun them. The stupid nickname rang out behind him, but as the distance grew the voices became fainter until they were eventually torn away by the ocean breeze.

He ran without looking back. His breath hitched in his chest. A ball of embers burned the back of his throat, but still he ran. Tears stung his eyes, but he also felt a thrill of exhilaration. He’d hit Dylan before, of course, and received his fair share back. Heck, they were brothers. They’d grown up with horse bites, birthday punches, Chinese burns, and the dreaded typewriter. But he’d never all out hauled off and decked him. It had felt good, but the brief rush of exhilaration was quickly replaced by terror at the thought what awaited him when he returned home. Especially as he’d managed to floor Dylan in front of his mates. His brother would no doubt have all kinds of retribution in store.

He decided to delay for as long as he could. As he rounded the southernmost end of Midnight Cove he slowed to a jog. Here the long stretch of beach gave way to a rocky shoreline heavily strewn with ancient lava boulders and rock pools. The rock shelf—a labyrinth of stones and shallows—skirted the great cliffs that rose to form Midnight Bluff, the town’s highest point.

The ocean’s teeth had gnashed the cliffs for thousands of years carving an alien landscape of rock face and rivulets. The rock pools closest to the sandy beach made safe watery playgrounds for children to explore with buckets and spades. Further round the headland, however, access was difficult and discouraged. The gentle waves that undulated through the bay had nowhere to go when they met land here, and they boomed and crashed over the rocks. The boulders were larger and denser, filled with ankle-breaking crevices and rock pools that were deceptively deeper than their beach-hugging counterparts. They filled and drained with the tide’s highs and lows.

Curtis knew Dylan wouldn’t follow him here. It wasn’t just the difficulty of access that would stop him, there were too many memories.

Curtis ignored his aching fist as he jumped gazelle-like from boulder to boulder. The ocean’s salt-tinged air whipped and whistled and he ventured deeper into the network of rock pools until the beach was completely out of sight.

***

Oh my goodness, that’s an exciting extract! Thank you so much, Rebecca, for sharing it with us today.

You can find Rebecca’s work at the links below. Enjoy 😉

 

Front Cover_Coralesque

Coralesque and other tales to disturb and distract, by Rebecca Fraser

REBECCA’S LINKS


Website:
  https://writingandmoonlighting.com/

Curtis Creed and the Lore of the Oceanhttps://www.amazon.com.au/Curtis-Creed-Ocean-Rebecca-Fraser/dp/1925759032

Coralesque and Other Tales to Disturb and Distracthttps://www.amazon.com.au/Coralesque-Other-Tales-Disturb-Distract/dp/1925956709

Songbird Inspiration: J Victoria Michael

My author friend Judith Michael is a New Zealand-born writer now living in Melbourne.

Judith is fascinated with other dimensions, time travel and unexpected, remarkable talents. She writes as J Victoria Michael.

Inspirational

Judith has a passion for epic stories that stir the imagination, so we have a lot in common! Judith’s imagination takes her into shadow worlds where strange things happen, and words make music. She’s very musical and loves dance as well. The GriffinSong Trilogy is her debut as a novel writer. Judith’s short stories have been awarded and published in hard copy and e-zines.

You can read my review of the first novel in the series, Songbird, here. I loved it!

I asked Judith to tell me about what inspires her. She responded by explaining all about the main protagonist of the GriffinBird world, Irenya O’Neil. Here’s what Judith told me.

Irenya O’Neil

Who is she, and how did a thirty-one year old Melbourne mother, teacher and musician finish up in a story with fantasy elements?

Irenya O'Neil from the GriffinSinger Trilogy by J Victoria Michael

Irenya O’Neil from the GriffinSinger Trilogy by J Victoria Michael

Irenya and I agreed to meet up early in the writing of GriffinSong Trilogy. She arrived, carrying her own chair, which was one of those wickerwork things with thin cushions. It didn’t take much to get her talking. Here’s some of what she told me…

David and I were planning to marry soon, but I’ve had problems. The panic attacks were getting worse. I was shit-scared of dying – still am – and the anti-depressants were doing piss-all to help me. Supermarkets are the worst. It’s that Musak. Does my head in. Same as my grandmother. What if our little boy has inherited this too? It worries me sick. Then, just before Christmas, and with no warning, I finish up in this place called Dar Orien. Trying to find my way home is exhausting. If I was one of those show-off, kick-ass teenagers, I might find life in another world interesting. But I have a 15-month-old son, for Pete’s sake, and I miss him so much. All I want is to go back home. Now you’re telling me there are two more volumes to my journey here…”

Irenya doesn’t realise it but she is on a liminal threshold. As the year 2020 has shown us, the shift from one reality to another can be long-term and devastating. You may no longer be sure of where you are, or even who you are, as Irenya discovers in Songbird the first volume of my trilogy.

Liminality

Liminal exactly describes Irenya’s journey. Arriving in the alternate world of Dar Orien means she has crossed a physical threshold, but has yet to complete the transition across mental, spiritual and sensory boundaries. She is standing on the threshold between two worlds, on the verge of something new, and praying for the chance to return home, unaware that what she is waiting for is transformation. For her, it is a state of being that is painful, distressing and exhausting. It’s a state that threatens to tear a vulnerable woman to pieces.

Liminal also describes the realm of Dar Orien and its inhabitants. They too, are on a threshold, waiting for transformation, yet hamstrung by their inability to see beyond the tenets they have accepted for millennia.

The liminal state does not allow a return to where you were.

That particular place and moment is gone, as Irenya comes to realise. There is only one direction she can go, and that’s forward. As for her being in a story with fantasy elements, I am an author who loves stretching my imagination. Apart from that, it was luck of the draw.

In my latest release GriffinSinger (GriffinBird #2), Irenya finds a new state of grace, which, in the year 2021, is something we’re all hoping to find.

Fleetwalker (GriffinBird #3) is due for release this year.

 

Thanks Judith, that’s so interesting. And now for a gift extract!

Songbird by J Victoria Michael

Songbird by J Victoria Michael

 

From Songbird (GriffinSong Trilogy #1)

Elaaron clasped his hands together, his expression changing from courteous to grim. His cool gaze was unsettling. ‘Tell me about Tire. When were you last there?’

It was several seconds before Irenya could reply. ‘Wh… Where’s that? In this valley?’

‘Tire is a town more than one hundred leagues from here.’

She tried to work out the difference between leagues and kilometres. ‘I’ve been here all the time. The physicians will confirm that.’ She waved a hand at the snow-capped mountains outside the windows. ‘Why do you think I’ve been anywhere else?’

‘I have come from Tire. You were seen there four summers ago.’

She wanted to laugh, but his manner did not invite that response. ‘And…?’ she prompted.

‘I spoke with several of the townspeople who remember a woman who fits your description. Your face. Your voice. Your name. They were describing you.’

‘I… I’m sorry. I just have to laugh because that’s impossible. A long way from here and four years – I mean four summers ago? I haven’t been here anywhere near that long. It can’t have been me. It…isn’t…it just can’t…’ She subsided. Her face was beginning to overheat. In the prickly silence she felt a bead of perspiration run down the nape of her neck.

He unclasped his fingers and placed his hands palm down on the table, precisely shoulder-width apart. ‘Do you deny that you and your brother, Mikey, were in Tire four summers ago?’

‘What! My brother died when we were children. And my son, Mikey, is still an infant. Yes, I do deny it, because it’s impossible.’

To distance herself from his outrageous claims, she pushed her chair back from the table, folded her arms tightly across her chest and squeezed her eyes closed. She heard the chime of glass and the gurgle of poured liquid. A cup of water appeared before her. He clasped his hands again.

‘So.’ She met his gaze. ‘According to the good people of Tire, I was there four years ago – summers, years or whatever – with a child I would not conceive for some time.’ She raised the cup and drained it. It was his word against hers, and in this place, he was the authority.

‘Did you bring me here?’ The question had hung in her mind for days.

‘No.’ He shook his head once, the movement glancing light off the single gold earring he wore. ‘Meia willing, I hope I am never called upon to keep a mother from her child. Why did you choose to come here?’

‘You think I just came to Dar Orien? As if this is a holiday!’

He had shaken her with the Tire story. His constant scrutiny and his claims were exhausting. She looked at him, wanting him to give her the faintest ray of hope, anything that might tell her how she could go home.

He made a study of her face before replying. ‘You came here for a purpose,’ he said. ‘Though being here appears to constantly surprise you.’

Irenya was silent. The only surprise she wanted was to find herself back in Melbourne, one second after she’d left. How that might work, and what their problems might be here, was not her concern; she wanted to go home to David and Mikey.

‘Now, he said. ‘The seer, Fis… If the accounts I have are correct, she may still be living in northern Ishter, possibly over the border into Midrash. Given the slowness of our communications I can give you no assurances. I plan to journey north with a small company in spring. You should travel with us.’

‘Spring!’ She reeled in shock. ‘I don’t even want to be here then, let alone searching for a seer who may or may not be able to help me. Can’t we go now?’

‘We do not have a choice in this. The mountain pass is already dangerous, even for an experienced rider. We cannot leave until the spring thaw has melted most of the snow. I will not risk lives. Talk to Leachim. Ask him to tell you everything he knows about the Gifteds, and the fleetwalkers. After all, he was one.’

This was not the first time she’d heard words that filled her with dread, words that opened chasms beneath her feet. Living in this world was like walking on ice with no idea how thin it might be. Each step she took could land her in danger. She had already experienced that.

As if he had read her thoughts, he said, ‘If the MageGate had survived the invasion it would not have been necessary to test you with primitive fire. Though I apologise for the ill treatment, I would not wish to mislead you. Had I judged you harmful to this realm, I would have let the flames take you.’

Her skin prickled hot then cold and her throat tightened.

‘Lady,’ he continued. ‘I will overlook your tendency to appear disrespectful, on the grounds that you are unfamiliar with our customs. Be mindful, and do not give others cause to complain. We are living in hard and testing times.

‘With regard to the mirror, it has been fixed to that wall for a very long time. It is no more than an ornate, oversized looking-glass. I believe it is a portal that you alone may open. If someone did not send you through the mirror, then you must surely have journeyed here yourself. That leaves two questions. Why did you come here? And why do you deny yourself a passage home? Open your mind to what makes Dar Orien different from your world.’ He sat back in his chair and she sensed a dismissal.

She rose to leave, thanked him for his time and his advice. The squire reappeared and Irenya stepped into the passage, acutely conscious of the intense blue stare at her back. He can’t help me, yet my life is in his hands…

Thank you so much for sharing! Here are some links to Judith’s books.

Highly recommended!

Judith’s Links

Judith’s author site:   www.jvictoriamichael.com
Songbird:   www.odysseybooks.com.au/titles/9781922311078/
GriffinSinger:   www.odysseybooks.com.au/titles/9781922311276/
Find Judith’s books on Amazon:  https://www.amazon.com.au/J-Victoria-Michael/e/B08BJX2XJJ/

A Circus Load of Inspiration

The Last Circus on Earth leapt out of my reading pile last year and filled me with that rarest commodity of 2020: delight. You can see my review here.

Today author Ben Marshall is treating us to his take on inspiration, and a Fabulous Extract from the novel.

I know you’re going to enjoy this!

Welcome to the blog, Ben. Can you tell us what most inspires you?:

Ben: Connections inspire me. Between people, nature and ideas.

Lichen photographed by Ben near Loongana in Tasmania

Lichen photographed by Ben near Loongana in Tasmania

Science, art and gardening are three great ways to connect.

Also pubs.

I guess pubs are actually places of connection, so I see a theme.

Now for our special treat: an extract from The Last Circus on Earth. The story is told by Blanco, a surprisingly likeable killer … Yes, I know! But I truly do love him 🙂

 

In Blanco’s Words:

Strombo smiled at the Gaffer; a nasty smile what promised nothing but bad stuff for Sparrow. ‘I’ll give her a test run, eh?’
Which is when I lost it.

Later on, Madam Tracey explained to me I got what the head doctors call ‘impulse control problems’. But when she said it, there was a hint of a smile in her voice, like she approved but couldn’t let herself show it. Don’t get me wrong, I know what I done was stupid, but that’s what comes of no sleep, no food, murdering people, dealing with psychopaths, and having the girl you like kiss you.

Strombo didn’t know what hit him. Me—with a punch that had my heart and soul in it. For a big bloke he stayed upright what seemed like a long time. But his eyes were glazed over and all of us could see he wasn’t with us no more. Like a big tree chopped at the base, he slowly toppled, and everyone jumped out of the way because Strombo’s big enough to kill you even when he’s unconscious. Time sped up again as the Gaffer turned, knuckle-duster in place, and threw a feint with his right before launching the metal with his left. Normally, I’d let him graze me, then roll myself up for the beating. But this time I was angry in a way I never been before, and I let my reflexes do their thing. I sidestepped, drove a fist into his solar plexus, brought me shoulder up into his chin and finished him off with a Glasgow kiss.

Madam Tracey’s jaw dropped, the Professoré’s eyebrows went up and stayed up, and Mala and Milosh looked impressed—and like they were ready to finish me off if it came to it.

As the Gaffer hit the deck, I dropped my fists, opened up my stance and looked into Milosh’s eyes. ‘If anyone ever looked the wrong way at Mala, would you do any different?’
In the split second it would’ve taken him to bury a blade in me, he didn’t. Milosh don’t hesitate when there’s trouble—he’s in there and it’s all over. This time he just shook his head. ‘You just make bad trouble.’
I shrugged and walked away. ‘Trouble’s me middle bleedin’ name.’

I finished my prep and sat with the rest of the freaks, waiting for the axe to fall. We all agreed I’d basically given myself two choices—do a runner, or stay and be killed. If I stayed, the Gaffer would put me in the circle with Strombo for a straight-up bare-knuckle fight. Then it’d be on until someone—me—got beaten into a coma.
There’s a code, see. You do a colleague an injury like what I did to Strombo and the Gaffer, and there’s consequences. It’s like an old-fashioned duel except you’re tied together, and instead of a neat bullet hole I’d have Strombo’s ham-like fists tenderising my skinny body into sausage meat.
I cuddled Daisy, letting her lick the cold sweat off my face, and considered my fate. Baba Yaga brought me a concoction she said would clear my mind, which it didn’t, but Moineau—Sparrow—come in all done up for her Nightingale act looking right serious.
‘Madam Tracey tells me what you just done.’
I shrugged, brain jammed with misery and fear—not for me but her. ‘You need to run, Sparrow. Tonight. Now.’
‘Madam Tracey said otherwise.’
‘You’re not safe here.’
‘Nor you, you big pillock. Always looking after other geezers, you are. Which proves you is a diamond geezer and worth likin’. A lot.’
I kept looking away, stroking Daisy, who was cheerfully chewing my thumb. I couldn’t answer Sparrow because she made my head spin.
She kneeled and looked up into my dial. ‘You been protecting me. Now it’s time I helped you.’
‘You can’t, Sparrow. I’m done for. If not this time, the next.’
‘Listen—I been stuck inside this head of mine watching and listening. And what I don’t know about the people in this circus in’t worth knowing. I also know you in’t just strong in here.’ She thumped my chest. ‘You is smart up here.’ She tapped the side of my head. ‘And people likes you—even if you is a misery sometimes—because you care. It’s inside of you to look after other people. You can’t help it. So maybe it’s time to see Splinter again—get him to sort things for you, so we can start working on a new Steering Committee.’
I looked up, startled, and the freaks, all listening intently, looked to each other. They were shocked by what she said, but not so shocked they were shutting her down. Baba, Erik and Methuselah nodded first, then Elasto, Lobby and Dislocato followed suit.
‘You’re all madder than me,’ I said. ‘You’d be cutting your own throats going against them lot.’
Methuselah cleared his throat. ‘Splinter is mortal and will, or so you tell us, die sooner rather than later. The Gaffer will then become a power greater than he already is, but without Splinter to check his excesses.’
Baba Yaga nodded. ‘The Gaffer rules by fear. I don’t like.’
‘He’s already in the top job, if you ask me,’ I argued. ‘He does Splinter’s evil will, so he might be a better Gaffer when Splinter’s dead.’
Sparrow snorted. ‘Either way, you won’t be around to see it if you don’t sort this beef you got with him and Strombo. You need to talk to Mister Splinter.’
I shook my head. ‘Nothing short of a gun in me back could make me go in there and face him again.’

A minute later, there I am, standing on the steps of Splinter’s caravan, Sparrow prodding me in the back. ‘Go on, Blanco. What’s the worst thing what can happen?’

***

Isn’t that marvellous? Whatever is happening, the wry, sassy voice of Blanco makes me smile.

Thank you so much Ben for sharing.

The Last Circus on Earth by BP Marshall

The Last Circus on Earth by BP Marshall

Now here are some links that you’ll love to follow up

benmarshallwriter.com
http://briobooks.com.au/booklist/lastcircus
https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/54584809-the-last-circus-on-earth

Love Books? Keep them coming!

It’s no secret that I love books.

This year I’m sharing some bookish ideas for end-of-year gifts, for yourself or others.

I recently heard society philanthropist Lady Primrose Potter interviewed. She’s an interesting person. One comment that stayed with me was that if you love something and you want it to last, do everything your power to support it.

We all have different amounts of power.

Lady Primrose is an important patron of the arts in a number of fields. While I don’t have that kind of might, I can give my love to books in other ways.

I buy books, I read books, I review books, I recommend books, and I do my best to help fellow authors with purchases, reviews and shares. I know how much effort goes into writing.

But buying books costs money

Which is wonderful if you have it. If you don’t, you can truly support books (and authors) for FREE – see the tips at the end of this post. It all helps, truly!

Books to Buy

There are so many good books out there! If you need help deciding which book to buy for a particular person, I recommend that you check out the reviews and recommendations from the independent booksellers such as

Readings: https://www.readings.com.au/newsletters-and-e-news

Here you will find the archive of their newsletters with reviews of 2020 publications in all genres and age groups.

Independent BookSellers Australia: http://indies.com.au/catalogues/

Listings of 2020 books in every genre, with extra attention to Australian authors and presses

Small Press Network Book of the Year: https://smallpressnetwork.com.au/book-of-the-year-award/book-of-the-year-2020/

Supporting small independent presses in Australia, the Indie awards are highly regarded

My 2020 Reviews on Goodreads: Clare’s Books

You will be able to see my short reviews and ratings of the 89 books that I’ve read this year, and the 300+ that I’ve rated on this site since joining in Dec 2016. Feel free to follow my reviews on Goodreads into 2021 and beyond!

Buying Books:

You choose the source: e-books are of course online, and print copies can be found via online retailers, department stores, OR YOUR HEROIC LOCAL BOOKSHOP.

My courageous local bookstore is Benns Books of Bentleigh. They supported me throughout lockdown with local deliveries to my door, yay. Their excellent Christmas Gift Guide is here.

 

Free bookish gifts for authors

Finally, some suggestions to cheer up the writers in your life with some free love.

  1. Use the local library, because authors get a tiny percentage of a cent for each borrowing.
  2. Suggest titles for your local library to buy, because authors will get a little percentage of the cover price for every sale.
  3. Use a free reading platform to rate the books you read, such as Goodreads, BookBub, or Voracious Readers.  If you happen to ever buy anything on Amazon, you can probably post a star rating or even a review on there too. These days, ratings and reviews help sell books.
  4. Share the books you have. The author won’t get another sale but they will get another reader, maybe with a word of mouth recommendation or a library borrowing of their other books. Chances are that the person you lent the book to wouldn’t have bought it or even found it on their own.
  5. Recommend our books. You have access to readers that your writer friends will never meet, especially if you are a member of a book club. More readers is always better for writers, even if it isn’t more book sales. See above: borrowing from the library helps support us too!
  6. Invite us to talk to your book club, especially virtually in these times of virus. We would love to go viral online! Zoom me in, Scotty.
  7. Drop us a line. Let an author know, by email or tweet or Facebook follow, that you enjoyed our books. One of the most satisfying email I ever received was from a reader who told me that my book The Stars in the Night had helped her understand her grandfather, a veteran of WWI. This actually made me cry. All my efforts were worthwhile!
  8. Share our Beautiful Covers: Instagram and TikTok are great platforms for sharing lovely images of the books you’ve enjoyed. #booklove, #bookstagram, #amreading are all useful. Oh, pro tip: if you wish to tag, please tag the title or the publisher, not the individual author. Some algorithms will demote a post that tags individuals as a friend-share, not a customer recommendation. Hey ho.
  9. Enjoy Reading. Keep it going. Like many other industries, publishing has struggled with new releases this year. Online launches sell about a quarter of the books sold in real-life launches. Love your books and pass on the love.

Happy Reading! I look forward to seeing you in 2021.

Until then, love your books to life.

 

All Your Little Lies: Marianne Holmes is Back

All Your Little Lies!

Starting a post with these words might make you think that I am about to interrogate any one of the cornucopia of currently important affairs that clog our social media and our thoughts. Pandemic, anyone? Perhaps the effectiveness of hotel quarantine. I certainly have a lot to say about local journalism standards.

But not today.

I’m pleased to say that my mind has been more enjoyably occupied with a Good Book!

Book Review

Marianne Holmes has returned with an engrossing thriller called All Your Little Lies. This is the story of a woman who wants to help, but is so enmeshed in the lies at the heart of her life that she becomes hopelessly entangled in the investigation of a child’s disappearance.

The plot

Annie seems incapable of telling the truth. Socially awkward, she live alone and clings on to her one friend in a leech-like manner, terrified of being completely isolated from the rest of the world.

Annie is unable to form close relationships, and everything she says comes out wrong. Excruciatingly so! At first I wondered whether this was simply an awkward personality trait of hers, but I later discovered that her personal history has just as much impact on how she relates to the world. This story’s a fascinating look into the effects of crime on personal relationships and emotional health.

When Annie seems to be the last person who might have seen a child who has disappeared, her own secrets muddy the truth about what she does know and what she should admit.

My thoughts

This novel starts dramatically, and to me grippingly, with Annie inside her boss’s flat. At first I thought she was looking at her partner’s things. No! Stalker-like, she moves around Paul’s place touching everything and generally pretending that she lives there.

That’s the start.

Events get much more complicated from then on, as we learn more and more about the Annie of today, and also her hidden past.

Finally

I found this book an intriguing exploration of a complex case and the after effects of tragedy on lives many years down the track. The events past and present are literally life-changing and gave me much to think about. I’ll be reflecting on this story for a long time.

A wonderfully engrossing read.

Thank you to Agora Books for the opportunity to read and advanced copy, and congratulations to Marianne Holmes on this excellent follow up to her first novel A Little Bird Told Me (see my review here).

Author Marianne Holmes

About the Book

ALL YOUR LITTLE LIES

When everything you say is a lie, can you even remember the truth?

Annie lives a quiet, contained, content life. She goes to work. She meets her friend. She’s kind of in a relationship. She’s happy. Not lonely at all.

If only more people could see how friendly she is — how eager to help and please. Then she could tick “Full Happy Life” off her list. But no one sees that side of Annie, and she can’t understand why.

That all changes the night Chloe Hills disappears. And Annie is the last person to see her.

This is her chance to prove to everybody that she’s worth something. That is, until she becomes a suspect.

Drenched in atmosphere and taut with tension, All Your Little Lies takes a hard look at why good people do bad things.

Published October 22 2020 by Agora Books

 

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