Category: Reviews

Reviews of books… Books that I loved years ago, that have lured me with their siren song to revisit them and bring them back into the light of awareness. Many of these are young adult novels that I encountered in primary school. Or fantasy books that I’ve encountered over the years that I’ve thought were brilliant, for the writing, the concepts, the world building, the descriptions… Or new releases that have surprised me with their wonder.
So not really focusing solely on new releases, but definitely focusing on the fantastical, the magical and stories of wonder. There may occasionally be reviews of non-fiction books, but they would have to relate to these sorts of novels, or to the craft of writing. I also won’t be reviewing any books about football.
I am also a reviewer for the Children’s Book Council of Australia, so if you want to read any of my reviews of books for upper primary age readers you can find them at Reading Time, the online magazine of the CBCA.

All Manner of Things: A Review

All Manner of Things: A Review

Wendy Dunn is an Australian author who, up til now, has focused on the Tudor era. (I say up til now because I know she has other stories bubbling away and I am DESPERATE to read them. Hint, hint!) Wendy has felt a lifelong affinity with Anne Boleyn. Her first two books, Dear Heart, How Like You This?, and The Light in the Labyrinth, told Anne’s story. But it was told from the point of view of those who loved her, Thomas Wyatt, and her niece, Kate Carey. Her new series, beginning with Falling Pomegranate Seeds, takes the same approach with Katherine of Aragon.

All Manner of Things is the second, concluding book about Katherine, Henry VIII’s first wife. It picks up where Falling Pomegranate Seeds ends, with teenage Catalina of Aragon’s arrival in England. She is there to marry Prince Arthur, eldest son of Henry VII.

As with her earlier books, Dunn takes a familiar story and renders it fresh by presenting it from a different perspective. In this case, Katherine’s story is told by her lifelong friend and companion, Maria de Salinas. Maria is as accomplished as her dear friend. She is a scholar and medical practitioner, and a woman of great intelligence, which shines through in her account of all manner of things.

Active, Relatable Characters

Maria has grown up with Katherine and remains beside her through all the events of her life. She sees her friend’s great love for her young husband Arthur, and the great happiness of the young couple. She supports her friend through the bleak years of waiting as Henry VII uses Katherine as a pawn after Arthur’s early death. Finally Katherine marries Arthur’s younger brother Henry. But Maria observes the early years of glory and love turning to dust when Henry becomes king. His increasing obsession with fathering a son leads to the downfall of many.

None of this is to say that Katherine or Maria are passive women as the events of history happen to them. Katherine is an incredibly strong woman of faith, endurance and dignity. She has been raised to be a queen, and always behaves as one, no matter what. Maria de Salinas is educated, dedicated and passionate. Yet Katherine struggles with doubts and dark shadows. Her fear that she has inadvertently caused a man’s death haunts her throughout her life. Maria also battles her shadow side. For many years she fights against her passionate love for a man she should not have feelings for.

All Manner of Things

Writing historical fiction requires the ability to offer not only convincing details, but the flavour of the time. Dunn does this beautifully. All Manner of Things transports the reader to Tudor castles and concerns. Dunn’s writing uses a more archaic style, which doesn’t fit with modern expectations. But this style adds, along with her extensive research, to a deeply real sense of time and place. The story is filled with evocative description. You can almost taste the food and feel the rushes under your feet. It’s also fun to play ‘spot the historical character’ as figures appear on the sidelines who have a larger role to play in the story we are familiar with.

What Wendy Dunn does so well is create stories with a lot of heart. Relationships are at the core of this retelling: from passionate love to deep, abiding friendship. The result is that the known events of history are brought to life in a meaningful way, with emotional depth and believability.

Of unicorns and moonstones: the tale of Winterhued

Of unicorns and moonstones: the tale of Winterhued

Winterhued: A glorious first novel by E.H. Alger

I don’t normally post reviews on my blog, but occasionally a book crosses my path that I want to share with those who love fantasy as much as I do. Winterhued is one such book.

The path to discovering independent authors is difficult. Their books aren’t easily available in book stores. Online search results are weighted towards known books. Sometimes a little luck and a dash of magic are needed to uncover new and wonderful writing.

A dash of magic…

Since the publication of Harlequin’s Riddle I’ve attended various festivals, conferences and markets. Recently I attended Golden Owl Event’s Mythical Market, a magical day out in the Dandenong Ranges. Stallholders and market-goers alike wore costumes: there were fairies, unicorns and other mythical beings roaming everywhere.

One attendee wore an outstanding steampunk outfit. Being a costumer myself I couldn’t help but admire her costuming skill. The conversation soon turned to books, and how difficult it is to be noticed as an author when you aren’t published by one of the big publishers. We each talked about the stories we had written. Before I knew it, I was holding Winterhued in my hands.

First impressions

Winterhued is a stunning book. At 464 pages and trade paperback dimensions it feels solid, promising a substantial read. The cover is immediately intriguing. A tired looking knight seems to be returning from weary travels, and a looming dragon perches, almost camouflaged, above the broken window. Illuminated scrollwork decorates each chapter title. Section dividers depict various characters and items that appear in the book. And, like all good fantasy, there is a detailed map to orient the reader to the world.

Before turning to novel writing, E.H. Alger worked as an illustrator for many of the big publishing houses, and her eye for design is evident in the beauty of this book as a physical artifact.

The tale of Winterhued

Princess Winterhued lives with her father in Castle Lawhill. Though she is wise and just, loved by her people, her father is self-centred and bitter, clinging to the throne to the detriment of all. King Gers is a despot, unable to accept his waning faculties. Worse, his advisors are trying to turn him against his daughter. He is even considering taking a new wife in hopes of fathering a male heir.

When an unseen creature attacks the castle matters the conflict between Gers and his daughter worsens. Half the castle lies in ruins and many of its people are dead. Strong leadership is needed, but Winterhued’s father can think only of himself, and undermines any of his daughter’s efforts. It soon becomes apparent that the whispers are true. The castle was attacked by a dragon, and the beast is still in the area. Trapped within the broken castle, Winterhued seeks help from a lowly servant-boy. Her plan might be their only chance to escape alive.

Fantasy that takes its time

Writing, as with food and fashion and home decorating, has waves of fashion. What is being published now tends to be minimalist. Publishers tell aspiring authors to delete all adverbs, avoid long descriptions, and dive straight into the action. Stories move at a fast pace. Once upon a time fantasy wasn’t like this. It took its time. It lovingly built worlds and drew the reader deep into them. Reading fantasy such as that by Tolkien was like going on a boat journey. Part of the pleasure was in the travel. Now, we often fly by plane when we read, racing through the story at speed.

A moonstone pendant plays an important role in the story. Image by Stefan Schweihofer from Pixabay

Winterhued is a novel in the best tradition of Tolkien-esque fantasy. The world is lovingly, carefully wrought. A dazzling cast of characters people the land of Manydown. The reader has to pay careful attention to understand who is who and how they are connected. At first the tale moves around the castle, showing the experiences of those who have survived the dragon’s attack. Like a tapestry woven from many bright colours, the pattern is indiscernible at first. Patience is required as the field is prepared, then the picture starts to emerge, layer upon layer.

Questions arise as the elements of the story are laid down. What is the significance of the moonstone necklace? Who is the unnamed knight who is making his weary way towards Lawhill? What is the hidden grief in Winterhued’s heart? Finally, in the most satisfying way, the whole becomes clear.

A tale to cherish

Being used to more minimalist modern fantasy, it took me a few chapters to acclimatise to a book with a different pace. Initially I struggled with the use of medieval-style dialogue. But the beauty of the writing quickly drew me in and I found myself immersed more and more in the tale. I wasn’t reading to reach a destination, the denouement of the story or the solution to the mystery. I was reading because I cared deeply about Winterhued and Brenn, Ancaios and the unnamed knight. Because the land of Manydown had come alive in my mind. And because every word, every chapter was a joyous pleasure. And that, I think, is true magic.

Supanova – Stars, Geekdom and Cosplay Mania

Supanova – Stars, Geekdom and Cosplay Mania

I live in a house full of geeks. We are proud of our geekdom. We have been Supanova attendees for years. But this year was a different experience for me, because I booked a table in artists’ alley. Together with fellow Odyssey authors, Carolyn Denman and Elizabeth Jane Corbett, I got to sit back in a reverse goldfish bowl and watch the amazing parade pass by.

I love Supanova because everyone gets to celebrate their favourite fandoms. As Elizabeth said, it’s like book week, but for grown ups. The Cosplay ranges from minimal effort to awesome. There are heaps of opportunities to hear big name stars talk and even to get up close and personal. And there is merch. So much merch. From amazing original artwork (I’m looking at you Samantha of!) in all sorts of styles, to star photos, DVDs, life size replicas, pop vinyls, pillows, Cosplay accessories… aargh! There are too many tempting things.

So here’s my wrap up of the best of Supanova:

Most amazing Cosplay:

Mary Poppins. Played by a little girl who was about 5 at a guess. The costume was perfect, right down to the decorations on her hat and the full Victorian skirt.

Most common Cosplay:

Captain America. Last year it was Game of Thrones. This year GoT barely got a look in. Cap was the man of the weekend. Although running a close second was the Tardis. Usually as some form of dress. Although I did love the one where someone had a galaxy print dress, and a tiny Tardis sitting in her hair.

Most gender-swapped Cosplay:

Loki (of course!). Most surprising was Kiki (of Delivery Service fame).

Unbelievably awesome turn your head accuracy:

Moss. With the internet. Enough said.

Most awesome event of the entire Supanova weekend:

When my niece said, “You know, I’m allowed to have 2 people with this token. Do you want to come and have a photo with Peter Capaldi?”     YEEEEEEESSSS! I first saw Peter Capaldi long before he was Doctor Who, in a movie called Local Hero, in 1983. Check out a young Peter Capaldi on IMDB by clicking here. Getting your ‘photo with a star’ is very rushed, but I told him I’d been a fan since Local Hero, and I got the inside scoop – they’re making it into a musical next year. I may look a tiny bit awestruck in the photo.

I also loved getting to chat with the denizens of Artists’ Alley. There are so many amazingly talented writers, artists and artisans out there. It was also great to see a lot of the crowd supporting them, buying small press or independently produced books, prints and crafted pieces. This is where you will find originality in storytelling and art. Sure it’s great to see the figurines from Weta or the 4 billion (and counting) pop vinyls, but if you buy from an independent artist you are helping them live their dream. And that’s a great superpower to have.

Of course my post wouldn’t be complete without mentioning that Harlequin, who is the ambiguous trickster at the heart of Harlequin’s Riddle, got to meet Harley Quinn. So that was pretty cool.

Living with a Creative Mind

Living with a Creative Mind

Recently I did a workshop called “Living with a Creative Mind”, with Julie and Jeff Crabtree, and I found it really valuable so I thought I’d share a couple of the insights from the day. Julie is a psychologist who has undertaken research into mental health and creativity, and Jeff is a professional musician. Through their work they aim to “help creative people to lead a long and productive creative life while avoiding the pitfalls and the perils” (from their website).

By the way, I’m not getting any sort of payment or benefit from this post – I just want to share what I think are some valuable things to understand about your creative mind.  Sometimes it’s a hard slog. The drive to create can feel like a burden as well as a blessing. These ideas really helped me. I’m only going to touch on two concepts but there were so many great ideas in the workshop it’s definitely worth exploring their work further. For more information I’d recommend you go to their website, try to get along to one of their workshops (they are based in Sydney but they travel) or buy their book.

The Creative Ecosystem of the Mind

I found the term ‘ecosystem’ a bit strange, but it’s basically the ecosystem that exists in the creative mind. However, I love cycles as a conceptual tool. I’ve spent many years using and teaching Action Research, which is a cyclical process. So I found the notion of the Creative Ecosystem, which is cyclical, really easy to grasp. The idea is that there are four stages to the creative process: seeing, thinking, making and curiosity. Like the action research cycle, these can happen in any order, but they are all necessary. I know in my writing a lot of ideas are triggered by asking ‘what if?’ For the Tales of Tarya, it all began when I asked, what if you did enter another world when you took on a character onstage? The seeing part, for me, is when you watch the world, or do research, and take in what you are discovering. Years of doing theatre meant I knew how a show comes together and what it takes to perform. The thinking part is that stage in the process where you tease your ideas out, make links, ask further questions to develop your story. I think this is the hardest part for me. I can feel like I’m trudging through quicksand. Finally, comes the making, the stage we tend to think of as our creative practice. Yet as this cycle shows, this is only one stage in the process.

I think this is very freeing, as it means it’s okay (and in fact vital) not only to spend time on research, but also on daydreaming and questioning and playing with ideas. And watching people! Curiosity is a core part of the process. The cycle also offers a solution to creative blocks. As Julie and Jeff said, if your creativity is not working, you can ask yourself which part of the cycle has fallen down. It also means it’s really important to keep your curiosity engaged – go out and experience new things. A great excuse to travel (not that I need an excuse)!

Nine Aspects of the Mind

Much of the focus of this workshop was looking at the nine core aspects of the mind: sense, focus, emotion, ego, energy, attitude, space, action, and thought. These aspects are based on the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who is best known for his work on flow. Flow occurs when someone is so immersed in what they doing that they achieve a state of energised focus. There’s a great post about what flow means for writers by author Isobel Blackthorn, here (click to follow the link).  You can find out a lot more about the nine aspects of mind on the Crabtree’s website and in their book, but for now the important idea is that each of these is a continuum. For example, the aspect of sense (how we connect to the world through our senses) can be insulated (ie not feeling very much at all, protected from input) or skinless (feeling everything).

What I found revelatory was that creative people tend to live at both ends of the continuum, sometimes swinging between them and sometimes feeling both at the same time. For example, in terms of ego, they can feel incredibly confident, almost arrogant, in their creative abilities, but also feel an incredible level of self-doubt. I’ve recognised these sorts of dualities in myself across the different aspects of mind, and I’ve always felt like I should be trying to find balance and stability. But this workshop pointed out that when you are going through your creative cycle, you need the different extremes at different times in the cycle – you may not want to feel emotionally raw while you’re doing your thinking and planning, but it can be very useful during the making. The solution is to recognise that a creative life is a tidal life, and to accept the tides as part of your creative practice. This is very freeing. Becoming aware of your tides, you can start to recognise what tidal phase you are in, and plan your creative practice to suit.

For me these ideas are really valuable. They take the pressure off – I don’t have to try to be a particular way in order to create. I can recognise where I’m at in terms of my cycles and tides and use that energy. If you’re curious to know more, follow the links in the post to learn more about how to live with your creative mind.




Wander from the Beaten Path in 2018

Wander from the Beaten Path in 2018

Have you made your New Year resolutions yet? If not, I have a suggestion for you. Alongside all the usual ones, can I suggest you wander from the beaten path in your reading habits this year?

I was lucky enough to become a published author in 2017, a dream come true. There were some unforseen side effects as a result, one of which I had never imagined. I discovered I had become part of a family. Odyssey is a small press and to be honest, I hadn’t heard of it until I started exploring publication options beyond the big five mainstream publishers. I had received rejections from all the mainstream publishers I could access (which weren’t many due to their submission policies). So I looked at who else was out there. A fortunate conversation with Tamasine Loves, author of the timeslip novel Remhurst Manor (Made Global Publishing) led me to discover Odyssey.

I loved what I saw on their website – the tagline ‘where books are an adventure’, caught my attention immediately. Their submission page begins with ‘we love stories’. Since my central character, Mina, becomes an accomplished story teller, this felt like a perfect fit. And it’s been wonderful being with a small press. Harlequin’s Riddle has beautiful production values. I’m proud that it sits alongside many amazing books on the Odyssey list.

The only frustration I have is that not enough people know about Odyssey and their authors. This is not just an issue for Odyssey though – it’s a problem for any smaller publisher or independent author. Marketing costs money, but that’s not all – many bookshops are very conservative in what they will place on their shelves (and according to some blog posts there may be financial incentives for certain books to be given more exposure). I’ve had some wonderful responses from booksellers when I ask if they can stock my book, but others have been less than receptive. Big publishers have easy distribution channels. They have large marketing budgets and interest from mainstream media. But that doesn’t mean their books are necessarily any better.

Does marketing prove a book is good?

I was in a chain bookstore recently and I realised that I was struggling to find anything that wasn’t by a ‘name’ author. We’ve moved into an age where everything’s worth is related to its potential to make money, not its literary merit or being a damn good book. It strikes me as a catch-22 situation. Certain books are hyped as ‘the next big thing’ and they sell really well. But are they selling because they are good, or because they are being given a lot of attention? You may think these books rise to the top because they are the best out there, to which I could respond with certain inevitable examples of terrible books that have sold enormously. But I don’t need to name names- just go to any op shop (thrift store) and you will find them in large quantities. You know which books I mean.

For some big publishers, the marketing department is influential in deciding which authors will be offered a contract. The decision then becomes ‘will it sell?’ instead of ‘is it a great book?’ The beaten path is safe, but it can begin to look ‘same-y’ after a while. Small presses take more risks. They value good writing and great stories. They champion unknown writers. They champion books that are a little different.

So be brave…

Since it’s the end of 2018, I’ve seen a number of people posting ‘books I read in 2017’ lists, and I’ve been dismayed at how mainstream their reading choices are. Few lists have had books on them that I haven’t seen marketed to death. This dismays me because there are wonderful books that are languishing simply because people don’t know about them. So in 2018, I encourage you to leave the beaten path. Explore the websites of small presses and splash out on a book from an unknown author. When you find books you love, tell people about them. Give great writers who aren’t with the big publishers a chance for recognition and a future where they get to keep writing books.

Some great Aussie small presses include: Odyssey Books, Christmas Press Picture Books, Eagle BooksCSFG, Clan Destine Press and IFWG Publishing Australia.

There are some fabulous books at Made Global Publishing (UK) too.