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Resurrection Bay by Emma Viskic

It is little wonder that Emma Viskic has received such critical acclaim for this debut novel, winning three Davitt awards and the 2016 Ned Kelly Award for Best First Fiction. The plot was gripping from the outset and its central protagonist, Caleb Zelic, a man on the edge, struggling against the odds to find out what has happened to his childhood friend and work colleague Gary, desperately missing what he’s shared and lost with his ex-wife Kat. Caleb himself is profoundly deaf and seems to be surrounded by friends and family who are equally challenged, some by drug and alcohol addiction, others by their own internal demons. In this highly packed, tightly woven plot, the stakes were always high, but with Caleb’s hearing difficulties and the fragility of his relationships with fellow investigator Frankie, his brother and ex-wife, the stakes shoot through the roof.

Resurrection Bay is a great read which I would not hesitate to recommend. I am already looking forward to reading another crime busting masterpiece in Viskic’s next novel, ‘And Fire Came Down’. Big thanks and enormous respect to Emma Viskic!Resurrection Bay

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Skylarking by Kate Mildenhall

‘The sky was clear and blue forever that day. Clear and blue and so bright. Sunlight fell through the leaves, forming dark shadows and spots so blindingly white they forced me to look away.’

With the opening words of Skylarking, Kate Mildenhall had me spellbound and I knew I was safe in the hands of a masterful storyteller. This novel entranced and enchanted me, holding me in its delicate grasp from start to end … and I really didn’t want to end …

It is based on a real historical event and people living in a small lighthouse community on the east coast of Australia in the 1880s. Rather reflective of her opening sentences, Mildenhall brings a wonderful chiaroscuro light and dark to this tale. The lens through whom events are narrated, is the head lighthouse keeper’s daughter, Kate Gilbert. From the outset we are aware of the claustrophobic intensity of relationships in the lighthouse community, but never more more so than between Kate and her only other female friend, Harriet Walker, daughter of the assistant lighthouse keeper. Despite their characters being so contrasting – Kate is headstrong and yearns for adventure, Harriet is ‘domestic’ and bordering on prissy – they are the closest of friends and share everything. At the outset, their world is bright and innocent and full of childish fun.

The relationship between the two girls falters when enigmatic fisherman, Daniel McPhail takes up residence in a nearby cove. On the brink of womanhood, Kate’s insecurities about her own development and femininity, and her fear of being ‘left behind’ by Harriet, both physically and geographically, muddies the relationship between them. You can almost feel the undercurrents tugging, as the bonds between them start to fray. What unfolds is a terrible tragedy, but not at all what you might expect.

Kate Mildenhall does a brilliant job of building tension and drama, luring you in towards the treacherous end. Her complex characters are riven with turbulent, conflicting emotions; they are endearing because of their honesty.

Skylarking is a powerful story about friendship and growing up, love and loss. It casts an illuminating beam across history, that resonates today: the turbulence of teenage years and the blink of an eye in which anyone’s course may founder.

I loved this novel even though I felt emotionally wrung out by the end.

Literally shipwrecked!

 

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The Nowhere Child by Christian White

Don’t you love it when you pick up a book with little to no expectations … and it then effectively picks up you, refusing to let up or let go from start to finish. This was exactly the case with The Nowhere Child. Debut author Christian White is most definitely ‘going places’ if his novel The Nowhere Child is anything to go by. The premise behind the story is what if you discovered you were abducted as a child and the people you think are your parents are in fact your kidnappers? Sammy Went is a two year old toddler who goes missing in America in 1990. Kim Leamy is a Melbourne-based teacher of photography who is informed she is probably that missing child. Unconvinced? So was the protagonist to begin with, but when the evidence points its gnarly finger Kim is compelled to follow. The novel is two-fold in that it interweaves the stories of Sammy’s abduction and Kim’s journey back to her Kentucky roots.

If I’m being honest, I don’t think the cover is the most enticing (I wonder if White feels the same way?) and the only thing that might have persuaded me to pick this one up amidst all the other wonderful novels in a bookshop is the fact that it won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award in 2017. However, being someone who likes to support my local bookshop (Farrells in Mornington) and intrigued by authors’ stories of their inspiration and publishing journeys, especially local writers such as White (a former Mornington Secondary pupil) I had decided to go along to a talk he was giving in the shop – hence the purchase of The Nowhere Child. For a while the novel sat around on the pile of books, a nowhere book, by my bedside …

But, when I finally got around to reading it (last night – seeing as the bookshop event is next week) I couldn’t have been more pleasantly surprised – surprised being the operative word. White knows how to hook you in and keep you glued. There are unexpected twists in every chapter, cliffhangers that keep you turning the page so you are forced to read on and read late – late, late, late into the night (thank you for that Christian!). I had the chills, I had a bubble of nervousness that sat on my chest as I read, I was moved to tears and I laughed at his pithy humour. I cannot stop thinking about it …

Supposedly influenced by the likes of Stephen King and Gillian Flynn, White builds a  tense, believable and compelling literary world, that of the religious cult and he does it just as well as either of those authors. The characters in the novel prod and poke your sensibilities. The settings make your feel claustrophobic and on edge. The story does not loosen its grip. For a debut novelist White’s control of his craft seemed effortless and masterful; my control over my own reading was not – my pace progressed from walk, to trot, to canter, to a flat out gallop to the finish. As much as I was loving The Nowhere Child I could not slow down.  I went on to read the author’s note and the acknowledgements. I hated that I had finished it! I shall just have to read it again, to unpick how on earth White did it…

Congratulations to Christian! The Nowhere Child definitely achieves a double thumbs up – I wish I had more than two hands. It was a cracking read, a breath-taking rollercoaster, and I’m already on the task of spreading the word – read it! Christian White has stepped onto the literary podium and this is one to shout about…

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The Lace Weaver by Lauren Chater

Lauren Chater knows how to spin a great yarn…

In her debut novel, The Lace Weaver, Lauren Chater brings us a fresh perspective of World War 2, as it was experienced in Estonia. The story of two women, Katarina and Lydia, is interwoven into a gripping tale about friendship and survival. With their lives shattered by the oppressive occupying regimes of first communist Russia and then fascist Germany, the two women struggle to make sense of their existence amid the horror of war and losing loved ones. Chater’s writing is compelling and focuses on both the physical and emotional battles these women are subjected to. Kati and Lydia demonstrate both inner resolve and great determination, however their strength is also shown in their unity, the bonds of the lace-weaving group, and the support the women in that ‘sisterhood’ show for one another. The motif of lace-making is woven throughout, from spiders’ webs, to the lace-weaving sisterhood and friendships, to the intricate fabric of Estonian life. Particularly resonant for me, was the way Chater highlighted war not just being about those bearing arms, but more often, about the people caught up in its web, the unspoken heroines and heroes, who must also fight their own battles to find a way through.

Lauren Chater has written a stunning debut in The Lace Weaver and  I would not hesitate recommending it. She is currently working on her second novel and the dangling thread is that it will be another women’s story of friendship and survival, but this time set amid the chaos of midwifery in eighteenth century England, told from the wife’s perspective when Gulliver returns from his travels …

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The Strays by Emily Bitto

Recently, I was fortunate enough to experience the immense pleasure of participating in a writing workshop with Emily Bitto, courtesy of the Faber Allen and Unwin ‘Write a Novel’ course. Having read and been enthralled by her novel The Strays, you can imagine my excitement…and she didn’t disappoint. In class we investigated, unravelled and played with ‘writing style’ be it ‘plain’ or ‘elaborate’. No doubt this is something she has examined herself, in detail, during the course of her creative writing phd. The Strays is a novel rich in characters, but it is Emily Bitto’s style of writing, a slow-gathering in, an enveloping arm, that is both alluring and slightly claustrophobic, and has stayed with me long after reading The Strays.

Although the novel starts in 1980s Australia, it is effectively a retrospective of the art scene, particularly the Heide circle of the 1930s. The story is told through the naive eyes of Lily, a girl who befriends Eva Trentham on her first day of school, and is immediately enraptured by both her and her artistic family, the Trenthams. The way they live their lives is at complete odds with the way in which Lily has been brought up; it is easy for the reader to sympathise with her outsider view and the notion that ‘other families’ and ‘other people’ live richer lives than her own. Despite her ‘ordinariness’  the Trentham family welcome her into their Bohemian bosom without so much as a blink. But from the outset, because the reader is aware that something has happened to derail this relationship, there is a constant underlying tension that both unsettles and at the same time cajoles you into wanting to know more.

The Strays is a compelling novel about art, about conventional and unconventional notions of family, about love, friendship and loss, and about the paths we choose. The reading of it is intoxicating and the style full-bodied as a rich claret.

 

 

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The Choke by Sophie Laguna

Sophie Laguna is the highly acclaimed Australian author, who won the Miles Franklin award for her novel The Choke in 2015. She appears to be very comfortable in the limelight – not surprising really as she spent several years acting, before becoming an author. She talks lightly and eloquently of her writing craft. At a recent literary event she spoke about using that same headspace so necessary as an actor, to get inside the heads of the characters she creates on the page. In The Choke Sophie brings her characters to life with vivid and enthralling depictions which literally seem to step from the pages.

Sophie chose to name her book The Choke after a point in the Murray River where the banks draw together and the water surges through a narrow neck. As well as the location for the setting of her novel, how apt that the story has you in its grip, choked, from the first scene in which its main character, Justine, is play fighting with her half brothers. The reader is immediately aware of the precarious balance that is Justine’s life: so close to being overpowered, treading a fragile path, but ultimately not intimidated by the strong male figures surrounding her. Justine is a girl struggling to keep her feet, while life and people surge around her, continuously threatening violence or to drag her under.

You cannot help but sympathise for Justine’s plight: dyslexic and struggling at school, abandoned by her mother and with a father who only seems to show up to cause more trouble or intimidation. Justine’s life seems to hang forever on a thread,  brought up by her gruff grandfather and trying to eke out an existence for herself. Her innocence and resilience both confound and enthral you. I loved the ease with which Sophie’s writing pulled me into the plot and bound me to her central character to the end – no spoilers here…

This story is both heart-achingly warm and gut-wrenchingly sad.  A compelling read with earthy notes bound to the Australia landscape. Unforgettable.

 

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WIP or RIP?

Sometimes your ‘work in progress’ can feel like it’s killing you. You are not alone. Sharing the suffering, myself and some of my fellow romance writers crack the WIP in our latest blog:

Upcoming Romance Writers’ blog their WIPs

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Romance Writers of Australia Conference – to attend or not to attend?

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Trying to make your mind up whether or not to attend the RWA Conference this year? Early bird tickets end tomorrow (31st May)! It’s no small expense, but our blog might help you to make that decision.

RWA Conference 2018 Sydney

Grab your tiara or tuxedo! Look forward to seeing you there.

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Passing it on…

Personally I’ve always found Earnest Hemingway’s attitude to writing reassuring: The first draft of everything is shit.  I’m not in a position to offer writing advice confidently or with the benefit of hindsight…but nevertheless I’ve learnt a thing or two from my Upcoming Famous and Fabulous Romance Writing friends and as a group of writers, obsessed with writing and improving our craft, we’ve collectively amassed some useful tips. If you too are interested in the writing, you might find our latest blog provides some valuable advice.

Read the full article. Upcoming Famous and Fabulous Advice

 

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Review of Black Rock White City by A.S. Patrić

A.S. Patrić won the Miles Franklin award with his fifth novel Black Rock White City in 2016. I gifted it to myself as a Christmas present (!) that same year, so why has it taken me so very long to persuade myself to read this novel? Not because of the jumble of books already lying beside my bed also waiting to be read. In truth it has sat there, buried like a land mine, buried like something waiting to be disinterred, because I may have been a little scared.

As someone who spent a considerable amount of time in Bosnia during the conflict in the 1990s, I suspected I might find ‘Black Rock White City’ confronting and I wasn’t wrong.  It could have jarred disappointingly, but I was relieved to find that A.S. Patrić handles both the horror of the Bosnian War and the impact conflicts such as these have on humanity with stark prose: his brevity of words penetrate and resonate more deeply for it.

The story depicts the lives of two Serbian refugees, Jovan Brakočević and his wife Suzana. As is the case with so many refugees forced to flee their homes for countries such as Australia, they find their qualifications and work experience rendered worthless, even their closest work colleagues cannot be bothered to learn to say their names correctly, and their ability to communicate with those around them is frustratingly shackled.  It is particularly pitiful when we learn that in his former life in Bosnia Jovan was a poet and both he and Suzana worked as teachers at Sarajevo University. Living now in Frankston, they are barely existing, eking out their days in a sort of shadowy ‘afterlife’ where they clean up other people’s detritus and  ‘it isn’t about words any more’. To make matters worse, we learn that although they have survived the war, their own children have not. But Patrić doesn’t labour the point. It is what he does not say which stabs deepest. When describing how Jovan sets a child back on his feet after he has accidentally crashed into him chasing a cricket ball, Patrić simply writes:

”Dear heart’ he calls the child – words he hasn’t used since his own boy died.’

Add to the painful mix someone (Dr Graffito) at the hospital where Jovan works leaving malicious messages and threats, that soon escalate into acts of violence, and this story had me in its pincers.

My only minor reservation after reading Black Rock White City would be to say that in terms of the author’s hold on the reins of suspense, his grasp slackened towards the end of the book, leaving some questions still unanswered and finishing a little too abruptly for my taste. Having said that, he did end the story on a hopeful note for Jovan and Suzana’s future together, for which I was thankful.

Throughout the novel, Patrić deals with the brutality of the war in Bosnia and the humiliation of being a refugee set adrift in a foreign country, with a sensitive and deft touch, the sort of touch that raised hairs on the back of my neck. His prose was often masterful; his observations unnervingly on point. Was it an enjoyable read? Not really – for me personally, it was like extracting a splinter. Did it make me sit up and pay attention? Absolutely. Did it disappoint? Not at all.

Black Rock White City is disturbing and evocative, a powerful lens not only on Australia, but on humanity as a whole.

 

 

 

 

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Social? Who me?

This month on the RWA blog a handful of aspiring writers (myself included) try to get to grips with the thorny subject of social media. To say I am social media awkward is something of an understatement but if I’m willing to spill my guts are you willing to spill the beans?

What are your thoughts? Is there a right or wrong way of doing websites, twitter, instagram etc? What do you think is the current trend? Or the place to be heard?

I would love to know a few tricks and tips from those of you writers (most of you!) with a lot more experience at this than me. And most of all, what tips would you give to a writer who has not yet been published? Should she or he bother? How much time should we commit to this thing? Is it worthwhile or an unhealthy obsession? Please spill the beans…

Meanwhile, it might interest you to read how those us aspiring-to-be-someday-published authors are approaching social media. If I keep rubbing shoulders with the right people do you think some of this will rub off on me…?

Upcoming Famous and Fabulous Romance Authors

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FFS – For Feedback’s Sake!

Screen Shot 2018-02-16 at 12.07.17 amThis month, in the Upcoming Romance Writers Blog we discuss critique and feedback. It would be great to hear your thoughts on the subject.

Towards the end of last year I participated in an online ‘edit and pitch your novel’ course with a well known provider of writing training, but unfortunately I received zero feedback from the experts on any of my written work. As a consumer that left me feeling somewhat frustrated and hard done by (FFS!). As a writer I know that this is often going to be the case and I have to do my best to gird my loins and develop rhinoceros hide. It’s not always easy. However at least I received some valuable feedback from my cohort of aspiring authors.

Like a spotlight, constructive critique can brighten the darkest of hours and in terms of improving craft it can highlight areas that need, well, editing.  In this blog we would be delighted it you read, digested and fed back your own thoughts on the gnarly subject of giving and receiving critique…

FFS – For Feedback’s Sake. Aspiring writers talk about critique