The Locksmith’s Daughter by Karen Brooks

Secrets, Lies and Deceptions in Elizabethan England.

Secrets, Lies and Deceptions
‘And if dreams were locks, we’d all possess keys.’
I  loved Karen’s The Brewer’s Tale (Harlequin Australia, 2014) so I was looking forward to reading The Locksmith’s Daughter (2016, Harlequin) and it didn’t disappoint.

SEE AND KEEP SILENT

The Locksmith's Daughter

The Plot:
The Locksmith’s Daughter is set in the Elizabethan era, when locks were handmade, not picked up from your local Coles. Mallory Bright, only daughter of Gideon Bright, a locksmith in London,  becomes a master locksmith under her father’s tutorage.
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After she runs off with a total cad, Mallory has become a disgraced woman and feels rejected by her emotionally distant mother. Francis Walsingham, protector of Queen Elizabeth 1 (one of the true figures from history that Karen intertwines her fictional novel around) enlists Mallory to engage in spying for him. After Mallory is witness to a public execution of Jesuit priests, she finds herself questioning the work she has been engaged to do. She realises she is entangled into a violent and sinister world, where people she previously trusted, like Sir Francis, may prove to become fatal enemies.
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Karen evokes setting so well. You’re transported into Elizabethan London, a world of suspicion and fear ruled by political and religious biases.
This from a scene where The Locksmith’s daughter has just left the fabulously named Seething Lane (a true London lane that Karen visited on her research trip), on an early spying assignment with one of the servants, Casey:
The smell from the butcher’s stalls lining Cheapside was pungent. Blood, offal and all manner of refuse flowed from the tables where  freshly slaughtered carcasses were hung on huge hooks to drain or flung upon blocks to be dismembered. The dull thuds of blades hewing through bone and gristle were percussive, interrupted by the loud conversation of the men, their calls to attract custom, the clink of coins and the banter of buyers. In the dark alleyways and ginnels, the plaintive bleats of animals could  be heard, as if they knew what was in store. I maintained a stoic expression and forged ahead, as if it were my practice to pound these streets each day, seek out fare for my household and barter with a ruddy-faced and grime-covered butcher.
I was glad when we reached the conduit and turned into Walbrook Street. Casey steered me into the smaller lanes, away from the press of bodices, carts and horsemen, taking us past St Pancreas. Vendors stood beside stalls or outside shops crying out their wares; women lifted ripe fruit from laden baskets, tempting passerbys with cries of ‘oranges and lemons’, ‘apples for sale’; strings of onions dangled, plump radishes, grey oysters, drooping coneys and pigeons by the brace. Still others sold ribbons, lace, cloth, iron nails and candles.’
Character descriptions of people, both fictional and historical are also deftly done. Consider here this portrayal of the Queen:
Her Majesty was nothing but a grotesque parody of womanhood. Wrinkled like a beldame, she was stick thin, her flesh capturing the power and creams in which she was liberally doused. Her whitened cheeks were sunken, her dark eyes were cold and lifeless stones that scoured the people at her feet but didn’t see them. The brows arched above her deep-set eyes were almost non-existent. God forgive me, but the men who set such store by my Queen’s grace and beauty were either bewitched or engaged in gross falsehoods.
Only her hands, one clasping an elegant fan, the other raising the pomander to her nose, suggested something of these lyrical descriptions. They were long-fingered, creamy, be-ringed and elegant.
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Warning! – there are some very graphic stomach-turning scenes. One was when Mallory drags her friend Caleb to witness the execution of the priest Campion and his conspirators who are executed publicly with evisceration. This scene is really shocking as Brooks doesn’t hold back on any of the gruesome details. Karen, really makes you feel as if you’re witnessing the execution.
Karen writes about the effect of the execution on Mallory:
I’d seen death before, many times. Mamma’s wee babes, precious little scraps of bloody flesh that never breathed. When Goody Kat next door died, I helped prepare her body. Oft-times, the poor passed where they slept, propped against a house or church only to be found once their skin was cold, their eyes opaque, the following morning. The streets were littered with dead animals: cats, dogs, butcher’s refuse, rats, their corpses pecked by  hungry birds. Then there were the plague carts rumbling through the lanes, the white-blue limbs of the dead jutting from beneath the cloths thrown over their indignity. Aye, death haunted the sky and our lives the way the mist did the winter morns.
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Equally disturbing are the scenes where Mallory is tortured in the Tower of London by  sexual sadist, Richard Topcliffe. Having visited the Tower of London, it’s too easy to imagine the cruelty that people endured within its stone walls. Topcliffe was, horrifyingly, a real person and claimed a friendship with Queen Elizabeth, even boasting the Monarch allowed him to touch her breasts. The mention of his name evoked terror, but he was protected and even given his own torture chamber in his house to ply his trade. He was described as a ‘cruel creature, who thirsted for the blood of Catholics’. Chillingly enough, Karen says in her detailed Author notes, that the descriptions of Mallory’s encounter with the sadist can’t match the real reports on some of the depravities he inflicted upon women.
Seething Lane Skulls

Seething Lane Skulls

All of the characters are complex, with shades of shadow and light. The anti-hero, Nathaniel is a pirate figure and a very endearing rogue. Mallory isn’t some unblemished maiden but is a fully fleshed out woman with a murky past.
Karen Brooks
Karen writes a detailed Author’s Note at the end describing how she combined fictional and factual characters. Her inspirations and very thorough research make for fascinating reading. I loved discovering more about the locks themselves in the story and the often deadly poisons and traps within the locks used in the Elizabethan era. The spying trips that Mallory embarks on, are also suspense-filled.
A really engrossing historical read containing meticulous attention to research but is also a page-turning story to lose yourself in.
  The website of Karen Brooks  HERE
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Dark Places

The Days were a clan that mighta lived long
But Ben Day’s head got screwed on wrong
That boy craved dark Satan’s power
So he killed his family in one nasty hour
Little Michelle he strangled in the night
Then chopped up Debby: a bloody sight
Mother Patty he saved for last
Blew off her head with a shotgun blast
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Baby Libby somehow survived
But to live through that ain’t much a life
– schoolyard rhyme, circa 1985 from Dark Places
I’m not easily scared by books, but Dark Places had me so terrified by the time I reached the final twist I couldn’t sleep and had to leave lights on.
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My heart  pounded so hard as I neared the end I thought I was going to have a heart attack. It didn’t help that I read the book late at night, with everyone asleep, on Boxing Day Night.
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By the end of the story, I felt my brain needed to take a bath to rid itself of some of the more disturbing images planted by Gillian Flynn. In a lesser writer, Dark Places would have been a grisly story like some 80s slasher film, but Flynn elevates the material she is working with to a book that is gripping, disturbing and heartbreakingly poignant.
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The story is narrated in multiple viewpoints alternating between Libby Day in the present day , the survivor of the grisly murder of her mother and two sisters in 1985. Michelle Day, the eldest girl, is strangled. Nine-year-old Debby is killed with an axe and Patty Day, the matriarch is stabbed, hacked and shot as she tries to protect her children. Patty and Ben, Libby’s older brother, relate their points of view in the back story from the time leading up to the Day Family Massacre.
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The family’s farm in Kinnakee, Kansas, has been going under along with several others. Patty Day, suffering from depression can barely function or care for her children. Ben, 15, a moody, devil-worshipping, heavy-metal listening misfit, is involved with the wealthy, bad-arse kids at his school. Ben is accused of the murders and seven-year-old Libby’s testimony puts him in gaol.
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In the present day thread, twenty-five years later, Libby, in need of money, is contacted by The Kill Club, a group of obsessives who specialise in killings and crimes they wish to solve and role-play. When she first meets with the creepy secret society, Libby rejects the idea that Ben could be innocent. But as she investigates further, she begins to doubt her own statements from the time. She meets several key players from the 80s, who were all involved directly or indirectly with the Day massacres. She travels from strip clubs to abandoned tourist towns in her quest to discover if her brother Ben was really innocent.
This is a book about poverty and how it bankrupts you on all levels. My heart was breaking for Patty, the mother, as she struggled to keep her farm afloat and bring up four children as a single mother. And also her neglected children who have to suffer a myriad of humiliations daily from other children.  It also deals with themes of drug use, Satanism, heavy-metal music, farming and under-age sex. The violence is depicted so graphically that I couldn’t read some of the animal torture scenes. It was hard enough to read about a child being axed to pieces while her mother fought to try to save her children with her own fatal injuries.
The tone of the book draws you in. Flynn is a great storyteller and her language is powerful. Her characters are repulsive and dysfunctional but also realistic. There are few likeable characters with most of the children playing dark roles in the tragedy that follows. The only part that fell down for me slightly was when Libby in the present day visits Diondra. I’m still undecided if the book really needed that scene. I found my credibility stretched here as this scene dipped into horror genre territory, but I still awarded Dark Places five stars.
Gillian Flynn on right with Charlize Theron.

Gillian Flynn on right with Charlize Theron.

Dark Places will haunt you. It’s not a book that you’ll put away and forget, even if you wish you could. I loved it more than Gillian Flynn’s first book Sharp Objects (which I also really enjoyed) and I also preferred it to the more commercially successful Gone Girl. Try to read it in sunshine on a crowded beach so you don’t suffer the same experience I put myself through. But I do think I have to re-enter the Darkspace of Dark Places to examine how devious, dark and twisty Flynn managed to pull it all off.
“I have a meanness inside me, real as an organ. Slit me at my belly and it might slide out, meaty and dark, drop on the floor so you could stomp on it. It’s the Day blood.” Libby Day

Paula Hawkins in Angel Place

I love a publishing story where an author has worked hard on their craft for years and then breaks though in some Charlie & The Chocolate Factory scenario. Even though I know there’s often another story behind the official story in publishing, I still find massive inspiration in their journey. I’m always impressed by those writers who never give up. I began my Ride the Rhino Series on this journal, to hopefully inspire creatives with similar stories of determination and resilience. Yes, I know Ride the Rhino went quiet for awhile, because I moved to the country and my own book deadlines, but it is returning. Resilience is vital for a writer. It’s a tough business and you do need the soul of a rose and the hide of a rhino.
image of Paula Hawkins via The Times

image of Paula Hawkins via The Times

On Saturday 21st May, I travelled down the mountain to Angel Place in Sydney to see Paula Hawkins, whose psychological thriller, The Girl on the Train, was a New York Times bestseller, selling in the millions in the US ALONE, as a guest of The Sydney Writers’ Festival.
Angel Place's uplifting bird installation.

Angel Place’s uplifting bird installation.

Foreign rights for The Girl on the Train have been sold in 34-plus countries, and a movie by Dreamworks, will be released in October this year through Universal Studio.
Because I’m so busy with my current book and because I now reside above the clouds, I could only commit to one panel at this festival. But I didn’t want to miss Paula because I love her inspiring story.
I become the girl on the train.

I become the girl on the train.

For those who couldn’t make it, I have written out some of my notes from the talk. It was recorded for ABC Radio National. Please keep in mind that this is my paraphrasing of Paula’s conversation with Kate Evans.
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Paula was born in Zimbabwe and moved to London in 1989. Paula’s early career involved working as a financial journalist. The germ of an idea for The Girl on the Train aspired when Paula’s train broke  down and she spent a lot of time looking out of the window at an uninspiring view, hoping something interesting would happen – but it never did.
She always had a hankering to tell stories.
Paula wrote several other books (‘chick-lit’) under a pseudonym, Amy Silver. These books were good training and sold reasonably well, but she didn’t feel her heart and soul were in them. She’s not that interested in romantic comedy and had always wanted to explore darker psychological territory. Her fourth Amy Silver book bombed, selling under 1000 copies.
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Her agent was very supportive and pushed her to do the thriller that Paula said she always wanted to write. The agent also encouraged her to bring in a secondary character from one of the Amy books she had liked a lot, who drank. The agent thought that character had legs and was going to go far, and so they put ‘the drunken girl on the train’.
Paula at this stage was feeling totally wretched about her career. She was in debt and had to borrow money off her father, which was dispiriting at her age. All that misery went into writing The Girl on the Train.
She wanted the reader to think they knew the character, and then as they progress through the book realise they don’t know the character at all.
The rhythm of the train journey gave the book its structure.
She was interested in the memory loss from drinking. Also, that drinking can give you blackouts and make you vulnerable.
Paula believes you don’t have to like a character, but you do have to find them compelling.
Difficult women tend to be interesting characters. Women traditionally have been told to be compliant. Paula, however, is not interested in writing about meek docile, pleasing people.
For the structure, she mapped out the book starting with Rachel’s voice, then Megan.
When Paula began talking about Megan, she started gesticulating with her hands and became very animated.
There were lots of timelines that had to correlate and it was in the writing that the architecture of the story formed.
She did know ‘whodunit’, but she had to work out the rest as she wrote. She talked about how thriller-writing is about pace, and drip-feeding key bits of information at different points.
With The Girl on the Train, it was as if anyone could have done it.  She wanted a Hitchockian feeling to the book and an atmosphere of paranoia and self-doubt.
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Writers influential for Paula include: Agatha Christie initially for her ingenious plots. Kate Atkinson for her believable characters. Pat Barker, Cormac McCarthy (who can say in ten words what most of us would take pages to say). Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller is a favourite book of Paula’s.
There were misogynist accusations against her, and Gillian Flynn as well for Gone Girl. Paula said nobody accused Brett Ellis of being a misogynist for American Psycho. It’s understood he’s writing a character and not saying that all men are like that.
Her current book is more difficult to write, because of more demands on her time, such as this very talk. It takes you out of the head of the character that you’re with when you’re having discuss a book you wrote years before. It becomes a disjointed process and a new pressure is a readership around the world waiting for the new book, which will be a psychological thriller concerning sisters and memory. She is interested in the different perceptions siblings have of shared events in their lives. It deals with family, memory, and our sense of self.
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When it was time for questions from the floor the questions concerned such topics as:
Techniques applied when writing The Girl on the Train that she could share.
Paula replied: short chapters, always leaving each chapter on a note – even just a line that left the reader intrigued. Paula had never done any courses in fiction writing. Her agent, however, was a real help as she isn’t just about taking her cut of the money but is also interested in the editorial side of a book. Paula made the point that it’s incredibly difficult to write a novel (especially a first novel) without some editorial help.
There was also a question about her daily writing routine. Paula’s reply was that when the book is going well it’s a wonderful feeling. When it’s going badly it’s appalling. There is always a point in every book she writes when she sits at the desk and sobs.
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She was also asked about her feelings regarding the movie version (starring Emily Blunt) which unlike the book is set in America. Paula said she’s not as upset as some of her readers and that the movie is a different format to the book. She thinks the movie, which features very pretty white-picket-fences location of the commute into a US city, will be equally, if not more visually interesting than the more gritty English look (which I was visualising as I read The Girl on the Train) as it represents the darkness beneath the pretty façade.
Personally, although I love the casting of Emily Blunt, I would’ve preferred the original setting for this book. To me The Girl on the Train’s appeal was its very Englishness. It was reminiscent of that great English eccentric Alfred Hitchcock, and also Agatha Christie’s 4.50 From Paddington where Miss Marple’s friend Mrs McGillicuddy witnesses a murder as she travels on her train. A 1961 movie, Murder She Said, was based upon 4.50 from Paddington.
Some of my take-aways from Paula’s talk. I already know these, but it always helps to have them emphasised again:
‘Failure’ is not necessarily a negative. If her ‘chick-lit’ had sold through the roof, Paula would be under pressure to continue writing them and we would never have had The Girl on the Train.
Write to your strengths and your influences. If your heart isn’t in romantic comedies, then go where the passion and drive is leading you.
A good agent is essential. Not someone who is going to show you the door if your first books don’t sell, but someone who is prepared to support you as you find your voice, and also offers editorial support if needed.
Characters that might be secondary in one book could have life and wonderful legs if used again, so be open to characters wanting their own book and space to breathe.
Nothing is ever wasted. No experience is unimportant or seemingly ‘negative’.  If your train breaks down, don’t just browse your Facebook page. Stare out of the window and get really bored because that perfect idea might be lurking hoping to grab your attention. Don’t miss it through overstimulation of your brain and a stranger’s status update. JK Rowling would testify to that one as well.
Twitter can be a writer’s friend. This endorsement tweet from Stephen King would have helped propel The Girl on the Train’s massive success.

THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN, by
Paula Hawkins: really great suspense novel. Kept me up most of the night. The
alcoholic narrator is dead perfect.

And finally:
Never Give Up
Never Give Up
Never Give Up
I hope you enjoyed reading my notes from Paula’s talk. Please share with any kindred spirits you feel might be interested. It’s obviously so much better to see the author talk in person and Paula said a lot more on the day which I missed here as I was so interested listening (which is exactly how it should be). I am really looking forward to Paula’s next book and also the movie version of The Girl on the Train

Wisdom from The Company of Wolves

Little girls, this seems to say / Never stop upon your way / Never trust a stranger friend / No-one knows how it will end / As you’re pretty, so be wise / Wolves may lurk in every guise / Now as then, ’tis simple truth / Sweetest tongue has sharpest tooth.
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Granny: Your only sister, all alone in the wood, and nobody there to save her. Poor little lamb.

Rosaleen: Why couldn’t she save herself?

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Rosaleen: And then they lived happily ever after?

Granny: Indeed they did not!

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Rosaleen: Is that all you left of her? Your kind can’t stomach hair, can you? Even if the worst wolves are hairy on the inside.

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The Quality of Silence

Rosamund Lupton is one of my favourite authors of literary psychological suspense novels. I loved the gripping Sister, an international bestseller, and her brave, quirky Afterwards, and so couldn’t wait to read her latest book, The Quality of Silence published by Little, Brown.
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The plot sounded outlandish. Yasmin and her deaf daughter Ruby arrive in Alaska in search of Yasmin’s husband,  wildlife documentary maker Matt. Despite all evidence to the contrary, Yasmin believes Matt survived a gas explosion and catastrophic fire in the village Anaktue where he was staying. All the inhabitants of Anaktue were reported to have been killed.
image via Rosamund Lupton

image via Rosamund Lupton

Refusing to listen to the authorities, and trusting only her instincts, Yasmin heads into Alaska’s frozen wilderness to find her husband. She manages to secure herself a 18-wheeler truck, driven initially by a poetry-loving Afghan, Adeeb, who falls ill. Yasmin quickly teaches herself how to drive it, enduring a treacherous storm in her quest to find her husband.
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As their journey progresses, mother and daughter slowly realise they are being followed by a malevolent, silent presence. Disturbing, graphic images of mutilated animals are posted to their computer. The bleak, blistering hardships of their alien icy landscape is now matched by the equally chilling knowledge they are being stalked. Despite my early reservations about whether a mother would expose a vulnerable ten-year-old child to such a treacherous expedition, Rosamund’s writing is so evocative, I was soon absorbed in this unusual story.
Duel

Duel

This book reminded me of a literary version of the 70s Spielberg movie, Duel, in which Dennis Weaver is pursued and persecuted by an anonymous truck driver. Scripted by Richard Matheson (who also wrote the original short story published in Playboy), Duel haunted me when I was a teenager and is a cult favourite. It has parallels to The Quality of Silence with its silent menace, and unbearable tension of how quickly you can become prey to a stranger. Spielberg understood that people fear the unknown more than the known. The unknown of  the blue lights following Yasmin’s truck and why tortured animals are being sent to their computer provides page-turning tension in The Quality of
Silence.
“He is right behind me. My legs are too heavy to move. I can’t run away. The monster clamps his jaws all the way around my face and my arms and legs and his scissor-teeth are biting into every part of me.”  Rosamund Lupton – The Quality of Silence
map of Alaska via author's website

map of Alaska via author’s website

The Quality of Silence is also about the connection we share on earth. The potential we have to destroy ourselves is always pulsing beneath the words of the novel. We are not separate. In our most isolated places on earth we are able to communicate by means of the internet, and we have more power than we realise to make effective change or create total destruction.
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The book is a split narrative between third-person, the mother and daughter and both voices and their alternating  perspectives work beautifully.  I loved Ruby’s thoughts on language and her Twitter feed – @Words_No_Sounds is one I’d follow in a heartbeat.
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All the characters are strong. Yasmin is described as a ‘gutsy-lady’ by other truckers. Ruby is eloquent, off-beat and a victim of bullying at her school. The Inupiaq people are absorbing to read about. There is a sub-plot where Matt has kissed one of the Inupiaq women, and some reflection on marriage, family and communication in all its forms, both internal and oral language. But even the strong characters and plot take a back-seat to stunning descriptions of the wilderness which becomes a looming, fantastically beautiful character in itself. The heart of this novel is the descriptive phrases of the Alaskan winter landscape.
“Early one morning, the snowy landscape had eyes, looking at him with bright intent. Only when the snow moved did he see that a part of the snow was the feathers of a white ptarmigan, nesting a few feet from him.
In summer he’d come here and seen fawn-feathered ptarmigans and brown-furred hares and tawny-grey foxes and brindled wolves ; now their feathers and fur were white, as if they were made out of the snow itself. On his final evening, he’d seen a snowy owl in flight, it’s white wings spanning five feet across ; it was as if the bird had been cut from the sky.” – Rosamund Lupton -The Quality of Silence 
As always, Rosamund’s eloquence evokes the images that make this book such a scintillating pleasure to read.
I didn’t see the denouement coming and the twist was a satisfactory conclusion to a poetic and thrilling read.
Once again Rosamund Lupton has trumped with an innovative, dazzling, elegant page-turner.
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Rosamund Lupton was found to be deaf in one ear when she was in Primary school. She has an interest in stars and this darkly imaginative novel, set in the Alaskan frozen wilderness, arrived in her head almost fully formed as she drove down the motorway in London.
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 Rosamund Lupton’s website HERE

Black Rabbit Hall

I discovered Black Rabbit Hall on an outing to the Blue Mountains, after finishing my train book on the journey up. Fellow bibliophiles will understand my panicked dash to the local bookshop before my city train was due. fef106c85135361ed6ff421611acb10d   Browsing in Blackheath’s Gleebooks, I picked up Black Rabbit Hall with its intriguing title and lovely cover design. I was instantly hooked by the synopsis: mysterious Cornish mansion near creepy woods, the shadow of the past creeping into the present, family secrets held over decades – exactly the sort of book I love to read and write. Also the blurb by acclaimed Tasmanian John Harwood – who has achieved international success with his literary Gothic novels The Ghost Writer, The Séance and The Asylum  – decided me. I’d never heard of Eve Chase, which isn’t surprising as Black Rabbit Hall is her debut novel, but it was proof that you don’t necessarily need glossy author photos and a large publicity campaign to sell a book. Sometimes the product sells itself. 11326661_676156795853799_628218284_n   My trip back down the mountain passed in a blur as I lost myself in the world of Black Rabbit Hall. I was disappointed to find myself back in Central Station in Sydney, as I wanted to keep reading. aa70e1d1c7967ed897b1c8e71cb78eca   The books parallel storyline is set between the 1960s and the present day. Lorna Smith in the present-day thread is scouting a suitable venue for her wedding, and finds herself drawn to the mysterious, crumbling, faded gentry beauty of Pencraw House (Black Rabbit Hall) against her fiancée’s wishes.

A Black Rabbit hour lasts twice as long as a London one, but you don’t get a quarter of the things done. ’

In the 1960s thread, the Alton Family, who spend country holidays at Black Rabbit Hall, suffer a tragedy. Life for the Alton children alters forever, and the families destiny entangles with Lorna Smith’s in the present day thread. 8f94d9b1d1bbe1753f8168deb6961db1   Black Rabbit Hall is an intrinsically English novel, and does remind me in tone of Dodie Smith’s, I Capture the Castle. The 1960s thread, narrated by the very likeable Amber Alton, is strong and I revelled in the description of the the kitchen at Black Rabbit Hall, with ‘cornflower-blue walls – blue to keep the flies away – and a larder with broken lock. Bread dough rising in china bowls like pregnant bellies: pig guts soaking in salted water before being stuffed and turned into hog’s pudding; tin buckets writhing with conger eels, buckets of crabs.’ And Cornish food such as the dreaded ‘Kiddly’ broth. Eve Chase deftly brings the mysterious hall, with its groaning pipes, black and white tiled hall and constant power cuts to life with lines such as: ‘drawers stuffed with all manner of odd things: ration books, gas masks, a loaded pistol, a sheaf of golden curls from a dead baby, who, Daddy says, would have been our great-aunt had she lived. Oh yes, and Princess Margaret’s glove. That’s about as exciting as it gets.’ d6a8963aa6f44ea027001aea699cc89e

‘The temperature drops, the sea changes from clear blue to murky dark green, like a glass of paintbrush water.”
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I enjoyed the slightly surreal touches, such as the image of vast amount of rabbits around the hall at dusk. The hall faces west, and the silhouetted rabbits resemble shadow puppets, giving Pencraw House its name. Time is ‘syrupy slow,’ none of the clocks work properly, and nobody seems to care.

Ghosts are everywhere, not just the ghost of Momma in the woods, but ghosts of us too, what we used to be like in those long summers.’

It’s a beautifully written page-turner. My only very slight gripe was that the ending was a little too tidy and happy-ever-after for my taste, but I loved the journey into Black Rabbit Hall and it has stayed with me. This is one of those plot-driven story books that you want to gobble up, and keep the pages turning past the witching hour. 320ea507194ad7c1f881b39901df1c75   I look forward to reading Eve’s next novel. Black Rabbit Hall is published by Michael Joseph. “If Daphne Du Maurier and Ruth Rendell in Barbara Vine mode had been able to collaborate, they might have come up with something like Black Rabbit Hall: Rebecca meets A Fatal Inversion, so to speak. But Eve Chase is very much her own novelist, as fascinated by the varieties of love and affection that hold families together as by the forces that can tear them apart. A remarkable debut from an exceptionally talented and accomplished author.” —John Harwood, author of The Ghost Writer Eve’s website can be found HERE All images in this post with the exception of my train book photo via Eve’s Pinterest Inspiration boards.  HERE.

An Escape to Somewhere at the Winter Solstice

I love Winter when the sky turns to grey and a chill laces the air. We’ve been house-hunting, which has been a disruption to my writing. I’m a quarter of the way through my new book. It’s slightly behind, but the 1800s thread involves a lot of research, not being a period I’m familiar with.
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Life is challenging with several major transitions and changes still waiting to occur. I feel as if I’m in a frustrating holding pattern. But three things have remained constant: my love of reading, writing and nature. I greatly enjoy seeing the book emerge like a photograph developing. I just need to be patient and appreciate the fact that every book has its own timing and rhythm.
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So many beautiful things to notice when I slow down to appreciate their quiet blessings. Rain falling in my winter garden and its mesmerising lullaby on our tin roof. Bare branches in dark spiderwebs against the sky. Manuka honey and tea brewed in a gypsy yellow tea-pot while perusing glorious new book friends like The Cottage Under the big Pines by Susan Southam and Sally Mann’s photographic memoir Hold Still. Sourdough rolls dunked into homemade winter soups.
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Art deco buildings against a brilliant blue sky at the Winter Magic Festival in Katoomba.
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The Blue Mountains whose pulsating, shimmering energy never fail to remind me of the perfect pattern of all things when I gaze upon their mysterious vistas in challenging times.
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My beautiful daughter and the winter ocean in Sydney for reflective walks.
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Stories from other writers and my own words. Nights snuggled in bed with a variety of books.
Thank you for visiting and may the Solstice award you strength and vision for any transitions and challenges in your life and creative projects.
RUMI QUOTE
Finally, this extract from Neil Gaiman’s talk for the Long-Term Thinking Project via the extraordinary Brain Pickings website. So profoundly eloquent and I really needed to hear his words as I’m sure many other artists do.  All Solstice blessings to you.
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Gaiman illustrates this with the most breath-stopping testament to what we endure for stories as they in turn help us endure, by way of his 97-year-old cousin Helen, a Polish Holocaust survivor:

“A few years ago, she started telling me this story of how, in the ghetto, they were not allowed books. If you had a book … the Nazis could put a gun to your head and pull the trigger – books were forbidden. And she used to teach under the pretense of having a sewing class… a class of about twenty little girls, and they would come in for about an hour a day, and she would teach them maths, she’d teach them Polish, she’d teach them grammar…

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One day, somebody slipped her a Polish translation of Margaret Mitchell’s novel Gone with the Wind. And Helen stayed up – she blacked out her window so she could stay up an extra hour, she read a chapter of Gone with the Wind. And when the girls came in the next day, instead of teaching them, she told them what happened in the book. And each night, she’d stay up; and each day, she’d tell them the story.

And I said, “Why? Why would you risk death – for a story?”

And she said, “Because for an hour every day, those girls weren’t in the ghetto – they were in the American South; they were having adventures; they got away.

I think four out of those twenty girls survived the war. And she told me how, when she was an old woman, she found one of them, who was also an old woman. And they got together and called each other by names from Gone with the Wind…

We [writers] decry too easily what we do, as being kind of trivial – the creation of stories as being a trivial thing. But the magic of escapist fiction … is that it can actually offer you a genuine escape from a bad place and, in the process of escaping, it can furnish you with armour, with knowledge, with weapons, with tools you can take back into your life to help make it better… It’s a real escape – and when you come back, you come back better-armed than when you left.

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Helen’s story is a true story, and this is what we learn from it – that stories are worth risking your life for; they’re worth dying for. Written stories and oral stories both offer escape – escape from somewhere, escape to somewhere.

Anna Romer and The Eye of the Rhino

Hello, Happy New Year Greetings. With all the traumatic events happening globally I’ve felt in need of creative and soul inspiration, and so I’ve begun a new series on Tale Peddler called The Eye of the Rhino. It’s from Stella Adler, who said success in the arts requires ‘the skin of a rhinoceros but the soul of a rose’. IMG_1671   One observation I’ve made with my creative friends is they are tenacious. Creative success seems to involve a synthesis of Talent, Timing, Tenacity and Luck and it’s the tenacity aspect that interests me. What inspires some individuals to pursue their dreams despite inevitable disappointments along their path? I say inevitable as I’ve observed that even among my more successful creative friends, they have still had to overcome obstacles that you would never hear about on their social media accounts. I hope you enjoy this series and get as much inspiration from it as I do. First up is Anna Romer. ANNA ROMER   I’ve known Anna for many years. I thought she’d be an interesting artist to begin with as she had a long apprenticeship until her success with her book Thornwood House, an Australian Gothic mystery published by Simon and Shuster in September 2013. Thornwood House broke though Anna’s years of writing in oblivion and was a bestseller. Anna was a graphic artist and has travelled widely. In an alternative career path she’d have made a powerful energetic healer as she does unforgettable massages (personally experienced). Anna’s a highly individual person and one of the more interesting authors I’ve met. Shunning a lot of technology, she prefers the rhythm of her own imagination and the pulse of the bush that permeates her writing. Lyrebird Hill (her second novel, also an Australian Gothic mystery) was released in September 2014.  Anna and I share a love of communicating by letters, Spirituality, Joseph Campbell. I’m delighted Anna accepted my invitation to discuss her creative inspirations for Eye of the Rhino.

J – I know your writing path wasn’t a smooth trajectory. You spent many years working on another project which hasn’t yet been published. Can you talk about how it felt to work on that project and what it was like to cross over to the new genre you are working in with Thornwood House and Lyrebird Hill?

You’re quite right, my writing path was long and winding – and there were times I was convinced it was leading nowhere. Luckily for me, I’m utterly addicted to the writing process, and that’s what kept me going.   One of my great passions along the way was a historical novel I worked on for many years. It was an adventure story set in a time when people were restrained by archaic traditions and strict social laws. My favourite thing about writing this story was developing characters who were feisty and strong-willed, who flouted those laws and went their own way.   The research for this project was intensive. I spent years losing myself in books and pictures and movies, drawing maps and diagrams and timelines and, even dreaming about my characters until they felt like dear old friends. I was totally obsessed!   Sadly, the plot was very flawed. In my mind’s eye I could see a beautiful, richly-layered adventure story, but I didn’t have the skills back then to pull it into shape. My agent suggested I set the story aside for a while and work on something with less demanding research. So I dumped my beloved project in the bottom drawer with all my other rejects, and went back to the drawing board.   I decided my next novel would be set in Australia – a simple mystery story about a woman who inherits an abandoned house. I would throw in all the elements I loved: forgotten old letters, a buried diary, an overgrown garden, and a star-crossed love story. Most importantly, I’d keep my research minimal.   Famous last words. Before I knew it, my story had grown convoluted roots that reached back to the 1940s. Suddenly I had a mountain of memoirs and war diaries and biographies to read!   I wasn’t really fazed about tackling a completely new genre. Early on I’d attempted to write a horror-thriller (while I was under the thrall of Stephen King), and when that bombed I tried my hand at romance, crime, fantasy. Each of the seven novels in my reject drawer is a different genre!   But thanks to the lessons I learned from all my failed projects, I developed a much better grasp on how to structure a novel. I learned that each genre has its own specific requirements; romance focuses on the relationship, while a thriller constantly threatens the hero’s life.

Joseph Campbell

Joseph Campbell

  And yet the core of any story is the same. I’m a huge fan of Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” which explores the idea that all stories – myths, fairytales, and legends – share the same basic components. A troubled character embarks on a quest to solve her problem; she undergoes a series of tests that ultimately transform her; by sacrificing what she wants, she achieves what it is she most needs – and in the process, she becomes whole. THE HERO'S JOURNEY   This theory sounds formulaic, but I found it wonderfully freeing. Once I started working with it, all other elements specific to genre fell into place. Suddenly my plot was holding together. The characters were making sense. The story had purpose, and because I now knew where I was going, the process became much more fun. JOSEPH CAMPBELL BOOK J – What has kept you going throughout all the years you have worked away in solitude on your books? What helped to foster your own self-belief in your talent and enabled you to have a rhinoceros skin?

I’d always loved romantic adventure stories that changed the way I thought or felt – and that’s what I wanted to write. But my early attempts made it clear how much I needed to learn! The thing that kept me going all those years, was the challenge of somehow achieving my vision. It was like a carrot dangling just ahead of me, always out of reach – but soooo delicious-looking. I wanted to do justice to the stories I could see in my head, and the only way to do that was to develop my storytelling skills.   I embarked on a mission, reading every how-to book I could lay my hands on, trying every technique. More importantly, I wrote and wrote. And whenever I looked back over my work and found even the tiniest improvement, a fresh rush of excitement would spur me on.   I was never under the illusion that I was a particularly good writer. My self-belief fought a constant battle with my self-doubt. But I really loved learning about plot and structure and character development … I still do! Concepts such as Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey were endlessly fascinating to me. I was like a drug addict, continually seeking my next fix of story know-how. Even if I’d wanted to stop, I couldn’t have.  

J – Love of the Australian bush permeates Thornwood House. To me, the book really  throbs with nature cycles. How important is it to you as an artist to live in the bush in the solitude you obviously enjoy? Could you have written Thornwood House in a city? 465       I’m a huge fan of Diana Gabaldon who wrote the immensely popular Outlander series. Her first book is set in Scotland in the 1600s, and it grippingly evokes the life and culture of that time.

Diana Gabaldon

Diana Gabaldon

  I was fascinated to learn that Diana wrote her first book in the series without ever having visited Scotland. I read about how she listened to folk song recordings to hone her ear to Scottish accents. She quizzed experts, and no doubt used her own formidable researching skills to make her story world so believable.   This taught me that it’s possible to write convincingly about any location or historical period or life experience – if you do enough research.   But for me, as with most writers, immersing myself in a location brings additional insight and depth to that research. I love to sit and observe. I love to drink in the smell of wildflowers, or walk through the bush at night without a torch, or fire off a few rounds from a double-action revolver, or pick up an eastern brown snake so I can confidently describe the fine velvety nap of its skin. EASTERN BROWN SNAKE   Besides all that, I’m the sort of person who thrives in a natural environment. If I spend a lot of time in town I get frazzled; there’s too much sensory input. My brain likes wide open spaces, and the sound of wind in the trees, and the pebbly smell of the river. I need to be among those nature cycles to understand them and allow them to permeate me. I know I sometimes get carried away with my descriptions, waffling on about leaves and flowers – but that’s how I write. Without the energy of the natural world flowing through my stories, I would quickly lose my excitement for them. IMG_3192   J – Do you have any advice or insight for anybody who is contemplating changing their career and embracing a more creative path? Go for it! For me, the best advice regarding creativity comes from Joseph Campbell: “Follow your bliss.” FOLLOW YOUR BLISS     If you hanker to paint, then paint; if you yearn to tell stories, then do that. If you want to knit, or cook, or lose yourself in the garden – then embrace your creative yearnings with a full heart. Invest a lot of love into what you do, and don’t worry if you have to spend years working other jobs to support it. Walking a creative path is not always easy, but it’s a worthy challenge. Your life will be all the richer for it. And if it makes your soul sing, what is there to lose?

Anna Romer, Josephine Pennicott and Anna's sister Sarah who looks after her social media presence. Lucky Anna!

Anna Romer, Josephine Pennicott and Anna’s sister Sarah who looks after her social media presence. Lucky Anna!

  J – I know you don’t have a very active online presence; although you’re blessed with a sister who maintains your Facebook page. What is your take on social media for artists?     I’m certainly blessed with a wonderful sister! In fact I have two wonderful sisters who rave about my books to everyone they meet – lucky me! Sarah saves my poor old brain cells by managing our social media page, which allows me to focus more on my writing. I find the energy of the Internet disrupts my creative flow. I get jittery when I’m online, and afterwards my thoughts feel quite scattered. For inspiration to flow, I need to be relaxed and centred.   As an artist, you have to weigh up the benefits of spending time promoting your work on social media, against the advantages of using that time to develop and layer your work. For me, my stories are simply more important. I don’t consider myself a natural-born talent at writing. I have to work ridiculously long hours, drafting and re-drafting and editing my stories into shape before I’m satisfied that they’re ready to present to my readers.   I’m always acutely aware that for a reader, a book is an investment. Not just of money, but of many hours of their time. I want to give my readers my very best, and this requires that I sacrifice nonessentials such as social media. I’m also a strong believer in word-of-mouth – if you hone your craft and put your heart and soul into creating an entertaining story, then there’ll be readers who will utterly love your books … and that’s really what it’s all about, isn’t it? THORNWOOD HOUSE   J – Thornwood House has a dark mystery at its foundations. How tightly do you plot your books? Are you somebody who likes to free-fall into the story and allow it to come through you; or do you prefer a more tightly-plotted book? How did writing Lyrebird Hill differ from the first book? I start any project with an enormous amount of brainstorming, researching, and planning where I want the story to go. By the time I’m ready to begin, I have a tightly plotted outline. But when I’m writing I tend to lose myself in the story. I forget all my well laid plans and get carried off by the adventure. Sooner or later I hit a brick wall, which sends me scurrying back to my outline. I replot, work out how to tie up the new loose ends I’ve created, and then freefall back into my characters’ lives. LYREBIRD HILL   Lyrebird Hill was a very different writing experience to my first book; with Thornwood House I had the luxury of time. Years, in fact. The tight deadlines on Lyrebird Hill gave me no choice but to knuckle down and get the story written as quickly as possible. I didn’t have time to stop and agonise over the plot, or waffle off on tangents. I wrote only what I believed was necessary, and as a result went through a huge learning curve. It was crazy, daunting, obsessive … and bucket-loads of fun! And I think the story is better because of it. ANNA SIGNING BOOKS     J – Are you a notebook person, or a writing online type of person? Do you prefer to draft on paper or computer?

I’m very much a notebook person. I usually have several notebooks per novel, which I refer to constantly. I love the tactile feeling of writing on paper – scribbling over words and rewriting, cutting out bits and moving them somewhere else, gluing in photos, drawing maps and diagrams and charts… bliss! Being a visual person, I love the chaos and colours of my notebooks and find working in them a very relaxing way to let the ideas flow.   I seem to be sensitive to electronic equipment, and because I spend so much time staring at a computer screen – drafting or transcribing my handwritten notes or editing – by the end of the day I end up feeling very drained. Breaking up my computer time with other activities such as drawing maps or filling out charts in my notebook helps to keep my mind fresh. GHOST MUSE J – How do you feed your Muse? And what does your Muse look like? I know we share an interest in spiritual matters and so do you use that element of yourself in your writing process?  I imagine my muse to be a sort of wild ghost-like creature in photo-negative form. I feed her on a varied diet of books: biographies, history, how-to manuals, as well as  fiction – classic, popular, and sometimes downright trashy. She regularly feasts on films and a smorgasbord of music. She responds well to a hot bath, a walk in the bush, a river swim, or some therapeutic opp-shopping! She’s also fond of conflicting emotions, arguments, love gone wrong, betrayal and disappointment – so occasionally I let her binge on one of these as well.   I believe that our creative selves are very much grounded in the spirit. For me, writing a book is a magical sort of experience. It requires a lot of trust in yourself to embark upon such a huge task and commit to finishing. And it also requires that you set aside your fears and expectations, and surrender to the process.  I spend a lot of time reading books about how to improve the craft of writing, how to strengthen my weaknesses and hone my skills. But I think the success of any creative project really relies on less tangible elements. Instinct, impulse, intuition. It’s exhilarating to connect with your spiritual self and allow it to guide you; to follow those improbable threads of thought that you know will eventually weave something special into the story.   I find that when I let go of all the writerly rules that I’ve learned in my how-to books, and instead focus on the pleasure my writing brings me, I can relax and enjoy the process. I trust my muse to guide me, and that’s when the magic really begins to happen. 

J – If you need to have the hide of a rhinoceros and the soul of a rose to succeed in the arts: how do you see your rhino hide as being? What are the qualities that have kept you going and where do you think you have gained those qualities from? And also ? how would you see yourself as the soul of a rose? What are your more sensitive qualities? THE HERMIT   I’m probably the opposite – with the hide of a rose, and the heart of a rhino! I seem to absorb everything around me, as if there’s no filter between me and the outside world. Sights, sounds, smells … are all vibrant and mesmerising, and all too often overwhelming. I pick up other people’s moods, and I’m sensitive to vibes between others. That’s why I’m such a hermit – I need to remove myself from the fast pace of the world so I can reflect and channel my energies into my work. If I don’t, I burn out very quickly.  I suppose my rhino hide is really a cloak of determination. It’s the one quality that’s kept me going. Whenever the cold winds of doubt or disappointment begin to blow, I draw my cloak more tightly around me and march on. Determination is a quality I’ve learned from the women in my family – my granny, my grandma, my mum. Incredibly resilient women, who forged on no matter what. I’m blessed to have been close to all three, and the qualities they passed along to me are among my most treasured possessions. STRINGYBARK BLOSSOMHAKEA FLOWER   Jo, I love your image of an artist’s soul resembling a rose … but mine doesn’t feel very rose-like. I’d say it’s closer to a stringybark blossom or hakea flower – thrives in the bush, is quietly productive, and mostly drought-hardy!

Thank you, Anna Romer for sharing your inspiration with us.   Thank you Jo, it was my pleasure.

And so I hope you enjoyed the inspiration from this post. Thanks again Anna for your generous sharing and if you did enjoy, please share with your social media friends who may also benefit. Look out for my next Eye of the Rhino post with another special guest. Anna Romer’s  website is HERE Love, Light and Peace, Josephine xx

This interview with Anna is part of my Australian Women Writers Challenge for  2015.2015 AWW badge

quote joseph campbell

Dancing on Knives

I originally read Dancing On Knives in its earlier incarnation as Full Fathom Five, published by Harper Collins Australia under Kate’s maiden name Kate Humphrey in 2003.

KATE HUMPHREY USE

I loved it and so was curious to read the revamped Dancing on Knives, published 11 years later by Random House. DANCING ON KNIVES   Sara, the lead character, suffers from panic attacks and hasn’t left her family home in five years. From the opening paragraph we learn Sara is afraid of many things. She reads the Tarot and has psychic gifts inherited from her Spanish Grandmother Consuelo – who bequeathed Sara her cards with the message that the Tarot will help her to see more clearly. Sara’s father, the tempestuous and self-centered  Augusto Sanchez, a well-known artist, is discovered hanging upside down from a cliff in suspicious circumstances. On the night his body (half-alive, half-dead) is discovered, Sara draws three Tarot cards: the Emperor, the Tower and the Hanged Man. A clear signifier of Change, conflict and catastrophe. This is the set-up for a contemporary mystery set on the South Coast of New South Wales. THE HANGED MAN TAROTTOWER CARDTHE EMPEROR TAROT   I loved the evocative descriptions of Sara’s readings:   Gently she opened the box. A faint, evocative smell of cinnamon, saffron and bay leaves rose from within, a smell that conjured powerfully the ghost of Consuelo Sanchez. Sara inhaled, holding the sweet, dusty spiciness deep in her lungs as  if it was incense, her fingers resting on the silk-wrapped cards within. After a long moment she let her breath escape in a sigh, took the pack of cards out and unwrapped it from its shroud of silk. She turned the first card over.    Dancing On Knives is rich in poetic imagery. I enjoyed passages describing Sydney, and the Manly Aquarium, the giant sharks and stingrays which added a delicious otherworldly texture.  And this passage below where studying one of her father’s paintings, Sara mourns her mother’s death:   Memories crowded in on her. Flashes of her mother’s voice, a strand of red hair, smothering velvet, smoke against a blue sky. It seemed to Sara that memories sank to the depths of the sea and hardened there to strange shapes. What was once a coin became a worthless disc of rusted green. What was once an anchor became a corroded crucifix. Nothing stayed the same. aquarium vintage MANLY   Kate has previously written a book of poetry and one reason I enjoyed Dancing On Knives was the poetic feel to the story. It does have a sense of gripping tides and dark shadows in the writing. I also delighted in magical elements such as the description of Consuelo’s recipe book, which brims with remedies, love spells, shampoo, beauty aids and herbal lore. THYME   Consuelo still visits Sara after her death as a ghost, with tips such as advising her to make Thyme tea with honey for courage, or wear a sprig of Thyme in her hair. SPANISH WOMAN   I loved the character of Consuelo and the rich relationship between her and Sara. I could envisage a whole book on Consuelo’s back story alone. RECIPE BOOK   Augusto, with the face of a Spanish aristocrat, thin arrogant nose and cruel, sensuous mouth is an unlikeable character with his selfish treatment of his family. But you feel more sympathetic towards him when he has to mix with his conservative country in-laws, the Hallorans. Augusto loves to discuss God, Art and Death whereas the Halloans’s interests lie more in football and fishing. Augusto is intolerant of anybody who bores him and the Hallorans bore him intensely. Bridget, Sara’s mother, forces Augusto to move from Sydney to Narooma on the South Coast, where his in-laws live, to take up residence in the farmhouse left to Bridget by her father. The move proves disastrous. Augusto is a man who likes to not only paint women, but also to have sex with them first, believing the only way to know a woman is to bed her. When Augusto’s in a good mood he is passionate and King of Hearts, but he can swiftly transform when painting into the Demon-God. He mocks Sara’s attempts at art. His sons (the elder, Joe, and twins Dylan and Dominic) and Sara’s half-sister Teresa fear and despise him. NAROOMA   Sara’s panic attacks are also described when she is bullied at school. Throughout the novel we come to understand the source of Sara’s original trauma.  A character deftly drawn, Sara craves order and predictability.  She’s an avid bookworm – mainly romance novels that Augusto sneers at. She can read up to six in a day, ‘lighting one on the butt of the last until she feels sick and nauseated.’ She reminded me of other children with creative bohemian parents such as Arkie Whiteley. Her romantic reading serves as a kind of mind-opiate but then she discovers the world of literature via a found copy of DH Lawrence’s Women In Love.  This book is a revelation to Sara of the power of words and storytelling to resonate in the human soul: WOMEN IN LOVE At once she had felt an oddness in the writing. It was quite unlike anything she had ever read before. It was not just that the two sisters in the book did not talk like anyone Sara knew, nor look like anyone with their white dresses and their brightly-hued stockings, grass-green, rose-red, cornflower-blue. It was not just that the words on the page waltzed round and round, pirouetting on points, turning and returning ever again to the same grace notes, building to a mordent melody that thrummed chords in Sara’s own shadow-bound soul, strumming music from keys that had long lain silent and still, coated in dust. In their hearts they were frightened.   Enamoured of Women In Love, Sara comes to realise that she is not alone in her terror of the world – all the characters in Lawrence’s world are afraid. She wonders if Lawrence knew the pain she experiences of ‘the horror of other people, the world being too bright and sharp, as if every step brings pain. Like the character of the little mermaid who had her tongue cut out and had to dance on knives.’ vintage mermaid

By the book’s climax we come to discover the truth behind Augusto’s fall over the cliff.

 SOUTH COAST

The Tarot card drawn at the novel’s end is The World.

THE WORLD TAROT Dancing On Knives is a sad book in many ways, but also a hauntingly sensitive story of dysfunctional families, creativity, the shadow side of art and the longing we endure for self-actualisation and our soul’s true yearning. It is a book that will resonate with all who have experienced the pain of feeling frozen, and not being able to speak your own truth and feeling the outsider in a world that is too sharp and bright. A multi-layered, lyrical, gripping literary mystery from Kate Forsyth. I highly recommend it.

Kate Forsyth’s website can be found HERE

For an interesting interview Kate gave about Dancing on Knives see HERE

KATE FORSYTHAustralian Women Writers Challenge

This review was part of my Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2014

Thank you for visiting me.

Love and Light,

Josephine

Can you Hold Caller? I have Murder on the Line.

June Wright’s debut novel Murder In The Telephone Exchange was a bestseller in 1948. Sales in Australia outstripped even those of the Duchess of Death, Agatha Christie. She bought a fur coat with the royalties and remodelled her kitchen. I love the combination of practical and glamour in her spending.   June Wright one   June wrote six more murder mysteries between 1948 and 1966, introducing a Catholic nun detective for her fourth novel, but when she died in 2012, her name was forgotten to most modern mystery and crime readers. Her slide in obscurity seems a shame, considering that in her heyday, along with her well-reviewed novels, she was treated to promotional lunches comprising of oysters, lobster and the Lord Mayor of Melbourne, Sir Raymond Connelly thanking June for publicising Melbourne. June enjoyed lots of favourable publicity throughout her career along the lines of “wrote thriller with baby on her knees.” June had six children, one disabled. Her son described her as a bit of a ‘media tart’ and she was ahead of her time in knowing how to hook the media with an angle to promote her work. She would most likely have thrived in this modern culture of author platforms and branding.

June Wright at work

June Wright at work

In one rather amusing incident, she entitled one of her books Who Would Murder a Baby? When challenged on the title, June replied: ‘Obviously you know nothing of the homicidal instincts sometimes aroused in a mother by her children. After a particularly exasperating day, it is a relief to murder a few characters in your book instead.’ June was happy to play up to her domestic house Queen of Crime label, describing to reporters her daily routine which involved caring for her six children and rising at 5.30 am to light the copper and write at night for two to three hours. She aimed to write 1000 words a day. Quite an inspiration for modern day writers, who don’t have to worry about lighting coppers at the crack of dawn.

1940s bar Melbourne

1940s bar Melbourne

A religious woman, she contributed several articles to Catholic Magazine Lay and despite the hardships of her life, she maintained her faith. When she was forced to give up her writing after six novels and return to work to help the family finances after her husband lost his job, she appeared to have done so with little regret.

Swanston and Collins Street Melbourne

Swanston and Collins Street Melbourne

I really enjoyed this bouncy and quirky mystery novel. A telephone exchange is a perfect setting for the novel and the building itself, where the murder takes place,  takes on a slightly ominous atmosphere in the Melbourne heatwave. There were some wry and classic lines:   “There was definitely something wrong in the Trunk exchange, for no-one is as sensitive to atmosphere as a crowd of females; especially when those females are telephonists.   switchboard-21   Knowing June is drawing on her personal experience in her experience as a telephonist,  also makes it an absorbing read. I’d never considered before how frantic and overwhelming it could be for switchboard operators working through bushfire seasons, and international crises. The pressure seeing the girls collapsing from exhaustion, the stress on the late roster girls when the evening shifts are cut right back, the strained concentration you need when you have half-a-dozen lines under your fingers… Not to mention of course, the girls who love to listen in on socialites’ private calls. And little details like the possessive emotions the Hello Girls foster towards their telephone sets. And Maggie, the hero of the story, laughing over that wherever she goes, she runs into somebody from the telephone exchange, including when she went to New Guinea on a trip. You can really touch the author herself through those little flourishes, and they make for authentic insights into a particular era and career. And it is through her knowledge of the telephone exchange that Maggie Brynes, the book’s hero is able to help solve the crime.

Melbourne trams

Melbourne trams

Maggie is bouncy and a real character. When she discovers the body of her colleague , her head bashed in quite viciously, with an exotic sounding Buttinski (I’d never heard of such an object, so if you’re curious, buy the book) she first faints and then recovering swiftly, finds the situation both intriguing and exciting. She is forthright in her opinion to all and sundry that the victim was an abominable character. This is a world of milk-carts, and boarding-houses for girls from the country under the supervision – and prying eyes – of landladies like Maggie’s, Mrs Bates. Women are mocked for being spinsters and cold cream is applied at night to keep wrinkles at bay. Gloves are worn in the street for all occasions, and a favourable blessing reflecting the fashions of the time was, ‘may all your children have curly hair.’

Telephone Exchange Melbourne

Telephone Exchange Melbourne

Inspector Coleman, the shabby-looking Inspector in charge of the case is a well-sketched character. The most untidy man Maggie had ever seen, she came to realise that the more haphazard he appeared to be, the closer he had his nose to the scent. Although I still can’t quite fathom out why the investigating police needed Maggie (who was obviously a suspect in the case) and took her along on their investigation to the victims room to help them out with identifying notes. Modern readers used to short chapters and plots that crack along faster than their Twitter feed may find themselves sighing over longer chapters and a complex plot that is content to unwind leisurely. Although I picked the murderer before the denouement, I still enjoyed the puzzle. I found the book unexpectedly  intense and gripping in places and although Maggie’s unflappable perkiness could be irritating, I  enjoyed slipping into an authentic mystery novel of this era. She was a great forerunner for Melbourne female crime writers such as Kerry Greenwood. Hats off to Verse Chorus Press for resurrecting and reintroducing Ms June Wright to a new audience. See the link to Janet Walker’s article below for an interview with Steve Connell from the publishers to discover why an American Publishing press is publishing Australians.

Melbourne 1946 by the Yarra

Melbourne 1946 by the Yarra

And the link below also to Lucy Sussex’s analysis of June’s work. Lucy was fortunate enough to meet June and interview her before her death and I enjoyed reading her impressions on this writer: ‘A charming, elegant, eloquent old lady, as sharp as tacks. We got on well – I knew her type well–that generation of women born in the shadow of WW1, growing up in the Depression, marrying during WW2. They were tough and resourceful. She told me she had a good life, and seemed very contented. Indeed, she said the writing had not been getting any easier, rather harder, as she continued in her career.’  It’s heartening to think that June Wright’s contribution to the field of crime and mystery writing in Australia will not be lost thanks to the vision of this American publishing team – a sweetly ironic twist they are American as June was never picked up by the US in her career – which may well have made a difference to her being able to continue her work. I look forward to reading all of June Wright’s books, if they continue to publish her list. And I leave you with June’s typical astute and wry comment that housewives were well suited to writing, because: ”they are naturally practical, disciplined and used to monotony – three excellent attributes for budding writers”.   Murder in the Telephone Exchange

Some links you may enjoy to explore more on June Wright:

The Lady Vanishes from the Sydney Morning Herald HERE

Juggled Crime Fiction with Motherhood from the Age HERE

– Janet Walker’s article on The Culture Concept Circle on June and an interview with Steve Connell of Verse Chorus Press HERE

An interview with Melbourne Sister in Crime, Mandy Wrangles with author, editor and historian, Lucy Sussex on June, her importance and why she has been overlooked. HERE

Damned to Literary Obscurity by Andrew Nette who examines the cultural cringe towards Australian writers at home and the bias against Catholics that may have prevented June Wright from continuing her writing. HERE

This review is part of my Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2014.

Australian Women Writers Challenge

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Love and Light,

Josephine xx