Death and Adventure: WWI through the eyes of Australians

Australian headstones at Tyne Cot cemetery

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

 

 

 

How to be Happy with a Book Part 3 – Reflection: a guide for readers and reviewers

Title: how to be happy with a book part 3

You might remember my previous posts about being happy with a book. In Part One, I covered how to choose a book that’s likely to give you joy. Then in Part Two I posed some questions about whether the book’s writing quality met your expectations.

Today I’m going to dig a bit deeper into the final response to the book. Was this book successful? Did it deliver what I wanted?

Child laughing with book
Books can make you happy

First let’s recap this how to be happy project:

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

This post is about how to reflect on the success of the book you just finished. You might be considering recommending this book to a friend. You might want to write a review, or perhaps you have a task to review it. Time to think about what was good.

Or not.

My reviewing rules

I read in excess of eighty books every year, and a lot of other material too. My reading is for pleasure, for learning, to support fellow writers, and to write reviews. My reviews appear on Goodreads, here on my website, in Aurealis magazine and on the Historical Novel Society website.

Finished a book? What was it like?
Finished a book? What was it like?

I don’t review every book I read. You might see that my Goodreads average rating is quite high, because I concentrate on rating and reviewing only those books that I really enjoyed. Plus the ones that deliver what they set out to do.

What if it’s awful?

If I really don’t like a book, then I try to think: Who would like this? For example, I don’t like gratuitous or graphic violence, but some readers love that kind of story. I might say that it’s ‘a book for lovers of action who don’t mind graphic violence’.

Not the best read
Not the best read?

Or perhaps I’ll choose not to review at all. I don’t like giving low ratings or over-critical reviews, because I know how much work goes in to writing a book. Most books find their audience. We don’t all have to love all of them.

Some questions to ask

Now you’ve finished the book. Hooray! What are your thoughts?

Some readers are quite intuitive about how much they enjoyed a book (or not) and happily land on a star rating. Others could use some structure to sort out their reactions, especially if the book is complex.

If you would like a tick list of questions, I happen to have one right here LOL!

  1. Does the plot makes sense, with all loose ends tied up?
  2. Are the characters believable and engaging? Did I care what happened to them?
  3. Did the story pull me in? Can I accept its world building? EG its magic system, its police procedure, its logical structure, its historical recreation, its planetary set up and so on.
  4. Was the end satisfactory? Perhaps not all is resolved, but the story is complete.
  5. How did that book make me feel? Your expectation of feeling relies on what you’ve been promised: a chilling thriller, a sweet Regency romance, an exciting adventure in deep space? Your lasting emotional response to the book says a lot.
Finishing a book
Who would like this book?

You could do worse than give each of these criteria a number from 1 (weak) to 5 (excellent) before deciding your final star rating for the book as a whole. [HINT: authors love star ratings]

These criteria also provide beginnings for a text review. [HUGE HINT: authors love text reviews!]

Finally

Before you reach for the next delight from your TBR pile, a final thought could be: who would I recommend this book for?

The reading community is very diverse. Even the book you really don’t like will be just right for someone else. And that’s OK!

What’s even better is for you to give them the heads up that you’ve found a book just right for them. The ‘if you like X, then you’ll like this’ statement can be very helpful not only to other readers but also to authors.

[LAST HINT: authors love you to recommended their books to readers who will like them!] 

I’d love to know if you have any techniques for rating and reviewing books that you could share with me. And of course I’d love to know how you make yourself happy with a book.

Until next time, happy reading!

 

All Your Little Lies: Marianne Holmes is Back

All Your Little Lies cover image

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

 

The Snow Fox Diaries by Jan Mazzoni

The Snow Fox Diaries cover, detail

The Story

Katie, a thirties-something estate agent, loses her job and with it, her sense of purpose. Trapped in indecision and depression, she agrees to take on a project for her husband’s cousin: to resurrect a decrepit family farm house for eventual sale. Katie trained as an interior designer, and the break from London life coupled with a chance to flex her creative skills draws her out of her shell and into tentative action.

The farmhouse, naturally enough, is in the country. Despite country holidays as a child, Katie discovers that country life is as confronting and relentlessly demanding as her city existence. She faces the realities of farming and of nature. Animals are assets if they can be used for economic gain, and native wildlife such as foxes and rabbits are vermin which can be slaughtered at will.

Then, just as she rediscovers her appreciation of nature, she sees an albino vixen with her two albino cubs. Katie’s desire to protect the creatures, no matter the cost, consumes her.

My Thoughts

Much more than a commentary on nature and humanity’s place in it, The Snow Fox Diaries slowly unpicks Katie’s uncertainties and confusions. The tiny (and not so tiny) cracks in her marriage resurface. Katie wants to resist societal expectations on women but she doesn’t dare say so. The loss of employment shattered her confidence. She calls herself ‘middle-aged’, but she’s not yet forty and children are still a possibility. This mindset shows that Katie thinks of herself as useless. Her time has come and gone.

Like the vixen held captive ‘for her own good’, Katie struggles to see a future for herself. Eventually Katie accepts the fundamental impermanence of life, a resolution that is much stronger than an easy happy-ever-after outcome.

Katie can be prickly, and recognises how difficult and whiny she can be. Her husband Ben is perhaps my favourite character. Katie’s city-accustomed eyes confront the impact of humans on the natural world. Secondary characters carry the refrains of the countryfolk giving a more balanced view.

Finally

The Snow Fox Diaries doesn’t beat you over the head with an environmental message, but  opens up nature to view while telling an intriguing story of a marriage several-years-old. Reflections are inevitable.

The Snow Fox Diaries by Jan Mazzoni
The Snow Fox Diaries by Jan Mazzoni

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!

 

The Sealwoman’s Gift by Sally Magnusson

Sealwoman's gift by Sally Magnusson cover

This story is based on what is (to non-Icelanders) a little-known piece of history: Turkish pirates raided Iceland in the 17th century to capture slaves – slaves for sale in the open markets.
Slavery was big business at the time. Many colonial powers were raiding Africa and any poorly-defended island or beach they could find to capture people for the slave market. Horrifying but true. Exploitation that was open and ‘fair game’ to the slave traders who thought nothing of capturing humans for sale. Slavery continues in many places and across many societies, and I wonder whether we are more civilised or less civilised than our predecessors just because we push it out of sight. But back to the book!

Sealwoman

The evocation of Icelandic life is wonderful, and I was fully immersed in the characters (who are based on historical figures hinted at in old records) and their reactions to the raid. Asta, the preacher’s wife who is our main interest, is quite complex and not always as obedient and hard-working as she ‘could/should’ be, according to the standards of the village and the time. She is a bit of a dreamer, and that helps her survive the horrific events of the raid, the repulsive sea journey, birthing a child onboard, the slave market and her life in captivity (which is not as grim as it might have been).

There is a also a bit about the politics of Iceland and a fair bit about seafaring. I didn’t find the sea pirates very sympathetic although it is clear that we get many sides of the story. I didn’t quite feel Asta’s attraction to her captor, who had sold off her son and kept her young daughter in his harem, but the scenes of her inner struggles with her circumstances were intriguing.

A lot remains unresolved at the end of this story, but this is a great way into Icelandic history. Highly recommended.

The Ochre Dragon by VE Patton

VE Patton The Ochre Dragon cover

Prepare to be entranced by this multi-layered, feisty story – a masterpiece of world-building on a complex and engaging scale.
Three women – Ali, Merindah, and Dee – and their three dragons live on different worlds. Each world is imperilled, and each woman can act to stave off the danger, but only at enormous cost to herself. Add to this the tiny but rather important fact that they all share the one soul, and you begin to realise the enormity of the challenge ahead of them. As in the best of quest adventures, there is also a time limit for them to reunite their divided existences.

Ochre Dragon
This is intelligent high-fantasy-sci-fi-dystopian-‘hopepunk’ that defies categorisation as it cleverly employs and exploits elements of many genres. I also like the Australian influences, especially because the timelessness of the land and the richness of the indigenous cultural history are woven into the story so seamlessly.
The novel benefits enormously from foregrounding three complicated, strong and self-determined women, although of course I am (somewhat guiltily) just as in love with the dragons.

 

Oooh, did I mention there are DRAGONS? 🙂
There are multiple points of view and a few timelines for the reader to navigate, on top of the three struggling worlds that our three protagonists inhabit. Hang in for a little and you will be completely captured by this world.
This is the first of the Opal Dreaming Chronicles and it will be interesting to see how the author manages the combination and the threads of the plot in the next (and I hope a third). This is such a rich story that it deserves at least three books – and maybe more. I am reminded of Katharine Kerr and her Deverry series such as my favourite Daggerspell, where there are wonderful characters, manifold timelines, reincarnations galore, and – you guessed it – dragons! I think I have discovered a new favourite.

I can’t wait for book two…

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.

Probably the Best Kiss in the World by Pernille Hughes

best Kiss Pernille Hughes

This is probably the best romantic story of the decade, and definitely the best of the year. I know it’s only April, but contenders have a lot to beat with this sassy, funny, thoughtful and brilliantly executed novel.
From the very first page, Pernille Hughes captivated me with her perfectly imangined and expressed ensemble cast. Jen (our heroine) has a boss who is a complete incarnation of the rich, entitled, beautifully coiffed business woman who ‘has it all’ (money, looks, great staff, children, show-off-able partner) but doesn’t actually understand the real life costs of her way of living on people who are less privileged. In a short, brilliantly witty scene, the author tells us all this without an excess word or a hint of judgement. It’s all there for the reader – we are trusted to suss out these characters and enter their ways of thinking and behaving. Brilliant! I thought, I’m going to love this book.
And from there it only gets better.

best Kiss Pernille Hughes
Jen is very engaging and her relationship with her sister Lydia provides a context and emotional depth that is too often missing in modern romance. Jen is REAL, and fully understandable, even if we don’t always agree with her choices … which of course she manages to repair by the end. Lydia is a wonderful, inspiring character (who really deserves a book of her own – I would definitely read it!). Jen’s other dedication – to her dream of a micro-brewery – is also a clever addition, giving her even more depth and purpose.
The scenes in Copenhagen are very grounded and charming, making me sigh with the remembered pleasure of my last visit there. I’m sure this book should entice many an English-speaking traveller to explore Denmark – maybe the Danish tourist board should hand it out at promotional events. If only we could all meet the perfect Dane. Ah, Yakob. Hamlet, you are SO old hat with your hand-wringing style of romance – poor Ophelia. Move over and let lucky (and deserving) Jen and Yakob get on with it.
All in all, this is a pleasure to read and wull brighten anyone’s day. Satisfying all the needs of the genre, Probably the Best Kiss also manages to deliver more depth and engagement than many in this mode. I will be looking out with great interest for this author’s next book.

Clarissa’s Warning by Isobel Blackthorn

Clarissa’s Warning is the best sort of read: apparently staid bank-teller-now-lottery-winner Claire Bennett buys a crumbling ruin on the stark, beautiful island of Fuerteventura. She has grand plans to restore the building’s glory, only to find that the ghosts of inhabitants past are apparently set against any such ideas.

What an adventure! I am reminded of Mary Stewart at her best (My Brother Michael, Airs Above the Ground etc). Lone woman faces danger with grit and intelligence. Lovely!

Paranormal mystery spices the intrigue as Claire strives to bring her dream to reality. Despite the reluctance of the owner to sell, the dire warnings of her supernaturally-gifted aunt Clarissa, the superstitions of the local workment, the greed of the local council, the general unhelpfulness of the people in the neighbouring village, and the sheer scale of the project, our heroine buckles up for the long ride. Claire is a doer, and a brave one at that, and she spends much of the story relying on her own ingenuity and heart. Her unresolved grief over her mother’s death (when Claire was only seven) lends emotional depth and context to her experiences with the spirits of the place.

Clarissa

Are there ghosts – poltergeists who cause damage and mischief? Or is there a malign human involved? What of love interest Paco … is he too good to be real? The agreeable builder Mario – is he up to something? What about that reluctant former owner who had to ditch his plans to demolish the place? Is he the one scaring off the workmen and doing his best to terrify our Claire?

No spoilers here about the answer, but it is a very satisfying one. (I love the last line!) As well as this bounty of story, we are also treated to a divine immersion in the stern romance of the Canary Islands, and discover the interesting history of the Spanish dominion over the area. The house has its own special history, a fascinating one worthy of its own tale. I remember feeling just such a fascination many years ago on reading Norah Loft’s The House at Sunset, one of my all-time favourites.

House at Sunset

Isobel Blackthorn has delivered in spades and I will be recommending this to so many of my reader-friends. A very enjoyable read!