Australia Day Book Giveaway Blog Hop

imageI’m participating in Book’d Out’s Australia Day Book Giveaway Blog Hop over on my Lizzy Chandler author site. Please visit for your chance to win a copy of Snowy River Man or (for Australian residents) another book of your choice.

Before I Met You by Lisa Jewell

imageIt’s probably not fair to an author to start a book in the week leading up to Christmas, especially when you’re in the middle of moving house. That may explain why Lisa Jewell’s novel, Before I Met You, took me a few days to get into. Once I had a stretch of a few good reading hours, however, I became absorbed.

Before I Met You begins with the story of Betty who, as a child, goes with her mother and step-father to the Channel Island of Guernsey to live with her ageing step-grandmother, Arlette. Arlette lives as a near recluse, occupying a suite of rooms in a crumbling old house perched on a cliff facing the sea. Although she appears to dislike almost everyone, she takes a shine to Betty. She introduces her step-granddaughter to “glamour” and fashion, even though, by all accounts, she has never left Guernsey.

Reaching adulthood in the 1990s, Betty has grown fond of Arlette, even though the old woman is increasingly frail and suffers from dementia. After taking it upon herself to stay on the island to look after Arlette until her death, Betty is rewarded with a small legacy and a mystery: she must look for a girl by the name of “Miss Clara Pickle”, to whom Arlette has left part of her fortune. If Clara cannot be found within a year, the inheritance will be Betty’s. Her last known address is in London’s infamous red light district, Soho.

Eager for adventure and wanting to solve the mystery of the bequest, Betty travels to London and settles in Soho, using almost all of her legacy to rent a tiny studio. Before she can look into the mystery, she must first find a job, and this proves difficult. Eventually, she progresses from flipping burgers at Wendy’s to being the nanny for an estranged celebrity couple. In her spare time, she befriends a DJ who helps her follow clues Arlette has left as to Clara Pickle’s identity. Along the way, Betty discovers that her grandmother, far from being a recluse – albeit with a taste for finery and red satin shoes – once led a totally different life, one of excitement, fashion and glamour.

Running parallel to Betty’s story is the story of Arlette’s youth which is dramatised in interleaving flashbacks. Having come of age in the years following World War One, Arlette, a great beauty, travels from Guernsey to London to live with the family of an old friend of her mother. There, at the beginning of the jazz age of the 1920s, she meets Gideon Worsley, a Bohemian artist from a well-to-do family who insists on painting her portrait. Gideon introduces her to one of the great jazz musicians of the age, a black clarinet player from the Caribbean, whose stage name is “Sandy Beach”. Alongside Gideon and “Sandy”, Arlette – a shop girl, by day – frequents the fashionable night clubs of the era, mingling with the famous people who make up the fashionable pre-Bloomsbury set.

As the novel progresses, the two narrative threads converge and the mystery surrounding Arlette’s will is explained. In a dual climax, Betty and Arlette, their lives separated by a gap of seventy-five years, individually face difficult choices which will set the course for their futures.

Before I met You gives us a glimpse of post-World War One London when women were experiencing new freedoms, both in terms of economic opportunity and of social mobility; it also conveys the constraints facing women of that time. The lasting impression of the story for me, however, is one of sadness, with the realisation of how quickly and easily the lives of one generation may be forgotten by subsequent generations. It makes me wish my father’s mother, a contemporary of Arlette, had recorded her life story. It would fill in so many gaps.

~

Author: Lisa Jewell
Title: Before I Met You
Publisher: Century, Random House Group
Date: 2012

I borrowed a copy from the library.

 

Golden Boys by Sonya Hartnett

golden boys hartnettThere are some books I know, if I don’t attempt to review them straightaway, I won’t end up reviewing them at all. It’s because the impact is so powerful, the language so beautiful, I grow afraid I won’t do them justice. Golden Boys by Sonya Hartnett is one of those books.

I picked up this novel not knowing what audience it was written for – the only other book by Hartnett I’ve read is a children’s picture book. But this novel is no more suitable for children than Lord of the Flies. (Though I did read that when I was twelve.)

Golden Boys isn’t nearly as graphic and violent as Lord of the Flies, but its themes – including family violence, grooming, loneliness, isolation and dislocation – are pretty adult. So is the language. It’s rich, poetic, dense. And the pace is slow. Nothing much happens – and yet, everything happens; everything that is painfully ordinary, quotidian, that conveys the angsts and traumas of growing up and learning where one fits in the world.

The protagonists of Golden Boys are a group of kids in a working-class Australian suburb in the not-so-distant past. It is a time before the internet and Facebook, when children were allowed to roam the streets unsupervised, the era of the author’s own childhood, perhaps. It is also an era, seemingly, pre-multiculturalism and pre-contraception. Several of the children, Declan, Freya and Syd, belong to one household, a working class home with a drunken father, a harried mother, and too many younger siblings. Hartnett is precise in her description of the chaos that is the Kileys’ family life, with “the mess which finds its way through the house like the ratty hem of a juvenile junkyard”. When working-class Syd Kiley meets the neighbourhood newcomer and private-school educated Bastian Jensen, Hartnett deftly conveys their differences:

Syd and Bastian look at each other, and it’s like a Jack Russell being introduced to a budgerigar: in theory they could be friends, but in practice sooner or later there will be bright feathers on the floor.

But the conflict between the two families, the Kileys and the Jensens, isn’t due to class. The Jensens have moved into the neighbourhood to escape something, as Bastian’s older brother Colt becomes dimly aware. That “something”, barely acknowledged but frightening, provides one of the core tensions of the novel, and has to do with Colt’s father, Rex, a dentist. Rex has filled their new home with toys, bikes, skateboards, racing tracks; and their backyard will soon have a pool that all the neighbourhood children are invited to use. As Colt reflects:

His father spends money not merely on making his sons envied but in making them – and the world seems to tip the floor – enticing. His father buys bait.

It is how Colt responds to this growing awareness that leads to the climax and denouement on the novel. The ending is dramatic, though not externally earth-shattering, and conveys a sense of truth about the complexity of family loyalties and the burden of carried shame.

I was wondering, as I read the novel, whether it might be useful for HSC English teachers teaching the new “discovery” module. It deals with the theme of discovery in a number of ways: a new neighbourhood, how different classes live, as well as the discovery of growing up and taking responsibility. It’s also packed with language forms and features which students could explore. I read an ebook copy and kept interrupting my reading to highlight Hartnett’s skillful use of rhetorical devices, similes and metaphors. (A whole post could be devoted to such an analysis.)

Apart from its promise as an educational text, it is a worthwhile and moving book to read.

This is my first review for both the 2015 Australian Women Writers Challenge and the Aussie Author Challenge.

~

Author: Sonya Hartnett
Title: Golden Boys
Publisher: Penguin
Date: August 2014
ISBN: 9781926428611

Review copy kindly supplied to me by the publishers via Netgalley.

Happy birthday Dorothy Wall, creator of Blinky Bill

imageDorothy Wall, author, illustrator and creator of the much-loved children’s book, Blinky Bill, was born on 12 January 1894 in Wellington, New Zealand, and first migrated to Australia in 1914. She died on 21 January 1942 at her home in Cremorne and was buried in the Northern Suburbs Cemetery.

  • Her entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography states that, at one time, she was a resident in the Blue Mountains at Warrimoo. (I wonder if her homes are still standing and whether either has a plaque?)

imageIn 1985, Australia Post issued a commemorative stamp honouring the character Blinky Bill.

The text of Blinky Bill and its sequels are now out of copyright and are available for free download as ebooks from Project Gutenberg Australia:

I remember having Blinky Bill read to me as a child but, I confess, I can’t remember much of the story. (Mary Grant Bruce’s novels, which I read for myself, made a greater impression.)

Have you read any of Wall’s work. What did you think?

The Tenth Circle by Jodi Picoult

imageI don’t know how I’ve missed reading a book by Jodi Picoult till now. She has been on my radar ever since I read her comments some years ago about the US literary establishment’s treatment of popular fiction written by women. Yet it took one of the members of my Facebook book group to highly recommend her latest novel, Leaving Time, for me to track down her books on the library shelves. The Tenth Circle, published in 2006, was the one I came home with.

Reading The Tenth Circle gave me the same pleasure that I used to derive from the best of Dean Koontz and Stephen King. Immediately, I felt myself to be in the hands of a gifted storyteller who combines readability, powerful emotion and a fascination with the nature of evil.

The Tenth Circle is all about evil – or, to put it differently, it dramatises the clash between an individual’s wants and needs and those of others; and the limits to which ordinary people might go to save face, to hide from the truth, or to protect themselves or those they love. It uses the trope of a comic book artist who brings to life in a graphic novel a modern-day version of Dante’s trip to the nine circles of hell. Aspects of the artist’s life are reflected in each of the circles. These include what happens to his fourteen-year-old daughter after she tries to get back together with her ex-boyfriend at a friend’s party; the artist’s rocky relationship with his unhappy English-professor wife (who teaches Dante); and the secrets of his troubled childhood growing up as the only white boy in a Yup’ik village in Alaska.

The setting shifts from small-town Maine where everyone knows everyone else’s business, to an even smaller town in Alaska, a desolate but beautiful place which promises escape, tragedy or redemption. The Tenth Circle is a murder mystery, a coming-of-age story and a domestic drama. It’s also about metamorphosis, it brings myth to life and questions what it is that makes us human.

The story is gripping, the characters believable and sympathetic. Picoult’s prose is lucid and sometimes displays flashes of poetry than had me wishing I were reading an ebook so I could highlight lines for future reference. It’s the very best kind of popular fiction.

No wonder her books are New York Times best sellers.

Guess what I found on Goodreads?

Snowy River Man ChandlerGuess what I found on Goodreads over the weekend? My cover for Snowy River Man.

I’m thrilled!

It won’t be available until February 22nd, but if you’re a member of Goodreads you can add it to your “Want to read” shelf.

If you’re a book blogger and would like to request a review copy, please let me know.

Getting excited…

Meanwhile, if you want to check out what romance novels were reviewed for 2014 Australian Women Writers Challenge, you can read my wrap-up here.

Happy Birthday Ethel (Henry Handel) Richardson

henry handel richarson

Ethel Richardson by Rupert Bunny, 1920s nla.pic-an8136809

The Australian author, Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson – better known by her pen-name, Henry Handel Richardson – was born on this day, 3 January, in 1870.

In 1988 the Australian Dictionary of Biography published a piece on Richardson’s life by Dorothy Green, a version of which is now available online here. The piece is strangely dated in both language and values, with its references (emphasis?) on the achievements of the men in Richardson’s life and the defensive (dismissive?) references to speculation of ‘deviance’ in Richardson’s relationships with women. It does, however, mention the key events of her life, including her expatriate stays in Germany and England, her novels and her interest in music, so it still works as an introduction to the novelist.

Richardson died in 1945 and her novels, now out of copyright, have been made available free online as part of Project Gutenberg Australia.

Some have also been recorded and are available as Mp3s through Librivox.

Ethel would be 145 if she were still alive today.

Reblogged: Thank you for 2014! What’s new for 2015

AWW 2015 badge

AWW 2015 badge

Reblogged from the new Australian Women Writers website.

In 2014, the Australian Women Writers challenge attracted 1578 reviews of books by Australian women (and there may be more to come). That’s a fantastic achievement and I want to thank you all – readers, bloggers, writers and the AWW team volunteers.

As you probably know, the AWW challenge was established at the end of 2011 in response to discussions about gender bias in the reviewing of books by women. (If you’re new to the challenge, you can read more here.) Although I ran the challenge for the first year, it has always been a team effort, with the real work being done by the many book bloggers – mostly women and a few men – who for the past three years have been reading and reviewing books by Australian women. We have posted our reviews on blogs, Goodreads and other platforms; chatted about them on Twitter and Facebook; talked about the challenge at festivals; seen it mentioned on writers’ centre websites and in mainstream media; and we’ve encouraged others to join us – both as participants and as volunteers to help run the challenge websites. Behind the scenes, the AWW team has been posting regular round-ups of the reviews linked to the challenge, updating the database with images of book covers, and checking links entered in the “Link Your Review” form.

In my case, as well as contributing to the above tasks, I’ve tried to read posts by challenge participants, responding sometimes with a “like”, sometimes with a comment. Via Twitter, I’ve broadcast reviews of participants who tweet including “@auswomenwriters” or the challenge hashtag, and I’ve kept an eye on the AWW Facebook page. As much work as this involves, I know there are many reviews I haven’t read or responded to, and I feel I’ve done comparatively little to show challenge participants how much their efforts are appreciated. At least one person I know, an early member of the challenge, didn’t sign up this year after noticing their “likes” and “comments” on their reviews on Goodreads had dropped off.

This signals to me the importance of continuing to invite others to help build a community of readers, and show participants just how much their reviews are contributing to something bigger. This year saw the #readwomen2014 campaign on Twitter, a global movement with similar aims to the AWW challenge. It was a great success, but ongoing work is still needed. Both VIDA and the Stella Award published counts of reviews in literary journals during 2013. The counts demonstrate that the number of reviews of books by women continues to lag behind the number of reviews of books by men. We won’t know the count for 2014 until next year – and hopefully there’ll be an improvement. But whatever it is, we can be confident that we’re doing our bit to help raise the profile of this important issue.

Why is it important?

Let’s not even go down the track of discussing the gender pay gap, statistics on violence towards women, the decreasing number of female CEOs and parliamentary ministers, or how the lack of acknowledgement of women’s achievements generally may help to perpetuate entrenched injustices. Let’s focus on the writers. The AustLit account on Twitter recently noted that its database has entries for 38 500 individual Australian women writers. (There are probably more, but some women aren’t identified as they published using initials.) But how many of those have you heard of? How many have you read? This morning, I was trawling through Librivox and Project Gutenberg Australia for free audio and ebooks of out-of-copyright books by Australian women. Just a quick glance at the lists makes it obvious how few books there are by women in comparison to books by men. If we want the voices of Australian women of the twenty-first century to go down in history, the work starts now, with us. Without records, without evidence books by Australian women are being read and appreciated, historians of the future may think they weren’t good enough to be remembered, when clearly this isn’t true.

The AWW Challenge will continue in 2015, with the aim of continuing to promote and support books by Australian women. Until now, we’ve had two websites, one for the blog and one for the review lists (or three, if you count the AWW Challenge Goodreads page). The new site is a work in progress, but it will have a searchable database, making it easier for readers to find participants’ reviews. My hope is readers – librarians, teachers, bloggers, writers and researchers – will follow the links and show appreciation by “liking” or commenting on the reviews of the books they discover. This will help consolidate and grow the AWW reading community. I’d also encourage people to subscribe to the AWW blog via email (see side bar) and discuss their reading on social media using the challenge hashtag: #aww2015. If you have any other ideas how we can raise the profile of Australian women writers, or if you’d like to volunteer to help behind the scenes or contribute to the AWW blog, please let me know.

So, who’s in for 2015? You can sign up here.

The Winter House by Judith Lennox

imageI’m continuing my binge of books by authors recommended by members of my Facebook group for fans of Nicci French. The group’s readers are an eclectic lot – the recommended authors don’t all write psychological suspense.

This week’s new (for me) author is Judith Lennox whose historical fiction saga, The Winter House, was published in 1996. I haven’t read a historical saga for years. I don’t know why. I used to love them.

The story opens with three friends, Robin, Helen and Maia, who, at the end of the First World War and on the verge of adulthood, vow to celebrate the great milestones of their lives: their first jobs, travelling abroad, losing their virginity. Robin is a pacifist from a progressive family whose two brothers fought in the war, one never returning, the other coming home with shell shock. Helen is the only child and dutiful daughter of the widowed local rector, a man who believes himself a cut above the rural labourers and artisans who inhabit the run-down cottages of their marsh-surrounded village. Maia is the beauty of the trio, a girl brought up to expect the finer things in life only to be abandoned by her profligate father in the worst possible way.

Each girl has a dream. Robin dreams of escaping the academic fate her father has planned for her and moving to London to become involved in activist politics, to do something that makes a difference in the world. Helen dreams of having a home and family. Maia wants the security of wealth that she knew as a child, and is prepared to do what it takes to get it.

As the girls become women and pursue their dreams, each has to make choices and compromises, face hardships which test their endurance – and their friendship. The adolescent vow of celebrating milestones isn’t forgotten, but it becomes representative of the naivety – if not always innocence – of their youthful hopes, as well as the differences in their personalities, upbringing and values.

The story covers the period of the aftermath of the First World War, through the twenties and into the Great Depression and the Spanish Civil War, and ends with Europe on the brink of another war. These great events aren’t just a backdrop to the story; they play a significant part in Robin’s and Maia’s lives, while Helen’s eventual questioning of her faith is indicative of a broader wave of secularism that reflects the changing values of this time.

The Winter House is an interesting and engrossing story, easy to read and, in parts, moving. It makes me wonder why I don’t read more historical sagas.

~

Author: Judith Lennox
Title: The Winter House
Publisher: Severn House
Date: 1996
576 pages

I borrowed a copy from the library

The Watcher by Charlotte Link

imageSince I finished my latest novel and sent it in to the publisher, I’ve been on a thriller-suspense reading binge. Most of the authors have been recommended to me by my “fans of Nicci French” Facebook group, but I can’t always find their novels at the library, so I’ve taken a few chances, too. Some have paid off; others, not.

A book cover that shows a solitary figure walking through a wintry forest has some appeal when you’re sweltering through the hot, humid days of early summer in Sydney. So does “16 million books sold”. Charlotte Link’s The Watcher must have something going for it, right?

Maybe it’s the translation from the German; maybe it’s the time-lag between when it was written and when it became available in English; maybe it’s the fact that a German writer has chosen an English setting for her story; whatever it is, Link’s book struck me as a little old-fashioned. And it never really grabbed me. There are dead women. There are women in danger. There are strangely fixated men and men with shady pasts. There are issues: domestic violence, marital discord, loneliness, isolation, paedophilia. The novel examines the question of envy in a way that I should have found more interesting.

Maybe I’ve just been spoilt by having read a few really engaging and structurally more challenging books lately.

The Watcher is absorbing enough for me to have read over a couple of days, but I have a sense it won’t stay in my imagination for long.

~

Author: Charlotte Link
Title: The Watcher
Publisher: Orion/Hachette
Date: 2013

I borrowed a copy from the library.

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