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BOOK REVIEW: The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

Friday, October 28, 2016

There’s been a lot of buzz about this book, which has been a global bestseller. I’ve also really liked other books in this new genre they’re calling the ‘domestic thriller’ (books like Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty and The Quality of Silence by Rosamund Lupton). So I read this ahead of Paula Hawkins’s appearance at the Sydney Writers Festival. I enjoyed it immensely. It’s told from the point of view of three different women, but the primary narrative is the story of Rachel, a divorcee and a drunk, who catches the same train every day. She looks out on to the backyard of a row of houses in an aspirational suburb and imagines the lives of the people within. One day she sees something … and so we enter a world of lies, deceit and murder, set in a world instantly recognisable to most of us. A really good quick read.

BOOK REVIEW: Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert

Thursday, October 27, 2016

I asked the twittersphere to tell me the most inspiring book of the year and Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert won hands down. After that, I felt I simply had to read it. I haven’t read anything by Elizabeth Gilbert before, though I had watched and loved her TED talk about creativity. So I was not really sure what to expect. I whizzed through the book in a night – and found myself nodding my head to many of the things that she says about creativity, living bravely, trusting in the story, and trusting in yourself. Gilbert has a warm and engaging style, and she talks about her own failures and successes openly and frankly, which I liked. Not only did I really enjoy Big Magic, but I’m now curious to read more of her work – and I’m very sorry I missed hearing her speak in Australia recently.

BOOK REVIEW: Flaubert’s Parrot – Julian Barnes

Wednesday, October 26, 2016


Which of two stuffed parrots was the inspiration for one of Flaubert's greatest stories? Why did the master keep changing the colour of Emma Bovary's eyes? And why should it matter so much to Geoffrey Braithwaite, a retired doctor haunted by a private secret? In "Flaubert's Parrot", Julian Barnes spins out a multiple mystery of obsession and betrayal (both scholarly and romantic) and creates an exuberant enquiry into the ways in which art mirrors life and then turns around to shape it.


I saw Julian Barnes at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, and he was such a fascinating speaker I was most curious to read some of his work. I bought the last copy of Flaubert’s Parrot in the bookshop, and found it a really interesting and unusual 

read. In some ways, it is a metafictive biography of Gustave Flaubert, the author of Madame Bovary, told through lists, letters and diaries real and imagined, as well as more conventional biographical techniques. It is, however, also a work of fiction, telling the story of Flaubert-tragic Geoffrey Braithwaite who becomes obsessed with tracking down the real stuffed parrot that inspired one of the French writer’s most famous stories. The quest is, of course, both ludicrous and futile, as is the life of poor Geoffrey (and, one could infer, the work of any biographer). Geoffrey Braithwaite is a classic unreliable narrator, adding another level of interest to the narrative.

BOOK REVIEWS: The Marvels by Brian Selznick

Tuesday, October 25, 2016


Two seemingly unrelated stories--one in words, the other in pictures--come together. The illustrated story begins in 1766 with Billy Marvel, the lone survivor of a shipwreck, and charts the adventures of his family of actors over five generations. The prose story opens in 1990 and follows Joseph, who has run away from school to an estranged uncle's puzzling house in London, where he, along with the reader, must piece together many mysteries. 


Brian Selznick is an artist as well as an author, and his books combine words and pictures in the most wonderful of ways. The story in the first half of The Marvels is told entirely through exquisite pencil drawings. Storms at sea, shipwrecks, angels, babies abandoned at theatres, old lunatics in the basement, a devastating fire … all is revealed through one delicate complex drawing after another. The second half of the story is told in words, and turns everything the reader thought they knew upside down and inside out. I can’t express just how brilliant this book is … but I will tell you I turned the last page with a lump in my throat and tears on my face. This book is not just for children … it is a tour de force, a work of genius, and a collector’s item. Buy his other books at the same time - The Invention of Hugo Cabret and Wonderstruck – for extraordinary works of art unlike anything else in the world. 

BOOK REVIEWS: Death in Devil's Acre by Anne Perry

Monday, October 24, 2016


When a doctor is found brutally murdered, even the neighborhood's most hardened residents are stunned. But three more bodies are found, killed the same inexpert way, and Inspector Thomas Pitt and his wife Charlotte race against time to find the killer, as a treacherous mystery unfolds. No one, not the lowest brand of ruffian or the most established aristocrat, will come out unscathed....


I bought a whole pile of Anne Perry’s Victorian-era detective series second-hand for a pittance, and have been reading my way through them in order. Death in the Devil’s Acre is the seventh in the series, and the weakest so far. Although the murder is macabre enough, the denouement felt rushed and unlikely, and the Victorian world was not brought to such vivid and effective life as previous books in the series. That said, it may be the result of reading too many back-to-back! And I have about 15 more to read…

BOOK REVIEW: Nest by Inga Simpson

Sunday, October 23, 2016


Once an artist and teacher, Jen now spends her time watching the birds around her house and tending her lush sub-tropical garden near the small town where she grew up. The only person she sees regularly is Henry, who comes after school for drawing lessons.

When a girl in Henry's class goes missing, Jen is pulled back into the depths of her own past. When she was Henry's age she lost her father and her best friend Michael - both within a week. The whole town talked about it then, and now, nearly forty years later, they're talking about it again.

Everyone is waiting - for the girl to be found and the summer rain to arrive. At last, when the answers do come, like the wet, it is in a drenching, revitalising downpour.


Inga Simpson is an Australian writer and Nest is a rhapsody about the importance of being at one with the natural world. The protagonist Jen is a middle-aged artist who has retreated from the world after a bitter break-up. She lives on the edge of a sub-tropical rainforest, which she has turned into a paradise for native birds and animals. Hers is a quiet life; she watches the birds, teaches a local boy to draw and paint, and practises her own art when she can. One

 day a local girl goes missing, and Jen’s tragic past collides with the present. Somehow she must find peace with her own father’s disappearance many years before, and find the courage to push the boundaries in both her creative and personal endeavours. Simple, elegant, wistful, Nest is as delicate and as nurturing as the birds’ home it describes. 

BOOK REVIEW: The Secret Lives of Emma by Natasha Walker

Saturday, October 22, 2016


Thirty-something Emma Benson is a free spirit. For her a good life means a life of sensuality. So it's a surprise to everyone when she marries David, a successful businessman, and settles down in the suburbs. One year on, and she's trying so hard to be loyal to her man. Not easy to do when you're passionate and uninhibited. 

But then, while sunbathing in her garden, her neighbour's eighteen-year-old son appears. And Emma has found her new project. She will be his perfect teacher. 


Natasha Walker is the pseudonym of John Purcell, and The Secret Life of Emma is a hugely successful series of erotic novels about free-spirited Emma and her sensual adventures. The series encompasses three books – Beginnings, Distractions and Unmasked – and I read the third. Emma has fled her life as a suburban banker’s wife in Mosman and headed to Italy to try and discover what it is she really wants. She meets a young Italian artist and begins a steamy affair, while her husband David follows her, regretful about his own affair with her best friend. Amatory adventures abound, until David learns to accept Emma for who she is and they discover a new world of sensual exploration together. The Secret Life of Emma is definitely for Adults Only, but it has a lot to say about sexual freedom and honesty, and the importance of being true to oneself. For anyone who has ever dreamed of running away to Italy and having a scorching-hot illicit affair. 

BOOK REVIEW: A Bad Character - Deepti Kapoor

Friday, October 21, 2016


She is twenty, restless in New Delhi. Her mother has died; her father has left for Singapore. 

He is a few years older, just back to India from New York.

When they meet in a café one afternoon, she—lonely, hungry for experience, yearning to break free of tradition—casts aside her fears and throws herself headlong into a love affair, one that takes her where she has never been before. 

Told in a voice at once gritty and lyrical, mournful and frank, A Bad Character marks the arrival of an astonishingly gifted new writer. It is an unforgettable hymn to a dangerous, exhilarating city, and a portrait of desire and its consequences as timeless as it is universal. 


One of the wonderful things about the Sydney Writers Festival is that it introduces you to a lot of books and authors that you might not otherwise discover. I chaired a panel with Deepti Kapoor, Toni Jordan and John Purcell called ‘Who’s Been Sleeping in my Bed?’, talking about contemporary depictions of love, desire and sex in fiction. A Bad Character is the story of a love affair between a young woman and man in modern-day Delhi. It begins: ‘My boyfriend died when I was twenty-one. His body was left lying broken on the highway out of Delhi while the sun rose in the desert to the east.’ Then, in a series of small broken scenes, expressed in concentrated language that is poetic in its intensity, the narrator tells the story of how she came to meet her boyfriend, their passionate and ultimately destructive relationship, and the damage left behind. The city of Delhi is brought to vivid and pungent life, and so too is the inner life of this one young women caught between tradition and a longing to be free. Beautiful and full of pain, A Bad Character is a dazzling debut.

FILM REVIEW: Jack Reacher: Never Go Back

Thursday, October 20, 2016

As you may know, I've spent the last six months either deep inside my writing cave, finishing my next novel ... or on the road, travelling to England, Wales, France, Byron Bay, Brisbane, Mudgee, St Albans, Melbourne ...

My husband and I have been the proverbial ships-in-the-night.

So when Paramount Pictures & Penguin Random House very kindly invited me along to see a preview of the new Jack Reacher movie, I was very excited. 

Can I bring my hubby? I asked. Thinking: Date Night!

They said yes, and so we scrubbed up and went along to the Paramount offices in Pyrmont where they have a very dinky little movie theatre. We had a couple of glasses of wine and settled in to watch.

Action thrillers are my very favourite type of movie. I did not see the first Jack Reacher movie, and I've never read one of the Lee Child books before, and so I was not quite sure what to expect, apart from Tom Cruise, a gorgeous kick-arse girl, fight scenes, chase scenes, and maybe an explosion or two.

And that's exactly what I got.

Tom Cruise was great. His character was intense, moody, yet with hints of vulnerability and loneliness. I've heard that Jack Reacher fans were unhappy with him in the role, because apparently in the book, the man is a big hulking kind of a guy. Not having those expectations, I was very happy watching Tom for a few hours. He has a lot of charisma, and throws himself into whatever he's doing with everything he's got. The fight scenes were ferocious. I amused everyone around me by hiding my face in my husband's arm a few times. 

I also loved seeing Cobie Smulders playing the role of the gorgeous yet tough major, falsely accused of treason. I watched her for years in 'How I Met Your Mother', and it's so great seeing her getting such a meaty role.

Although she's playing second fiddle to Tom, and so is rescued by him and, as she says at one point, patronised by him, she was still a strong character and ran just as fast and punched just as hard. We don't get to see much of her back story, so she remains one-dimensional, but it's a very enjoyable one-dimension.

The bad guys were suitably bad, and the movie moved along so fast there's not much time to stop and worry about some of the implausibilities in the plot. 

One of these implausibilities is, without a doubt, the addition of Sam, the 15-year old girl who may or not be Jack Reacher's daughter.  

Played by Danika Yarosh, she too was drawn in broad brushstrokes - sweet-faced but sassy, tough but vulnerable, super-smart yet underprivileged, with a good heart but sneak-thief fingers - yet she raised the stakes for Jack and for the audience, and helped us see Jack's softer side. 

I'd have liked a bit more romance, and a little more of a connection between Jack Reacher, ex-major, and Major Susan Turner to explain why he got himself so involved in her business having never met her before ... but it seems that Jack Reacher being lonely and on his own, travelling the world and righting wrongs, is what the character is all about and too much sappiness would undermine that rough-hewn independence of his. 

Though, mind you, Tom allowing his character Jack to be beaten up, to be wrong, to be hurt, to show his weariness and loneliness, and yes, even his ageing, were the best parts of the movie for me. It made the character and the situation just that little bit more real ... which I like in a good thriller. 

So, all in all, I enjoyed it hugely. 

It's actually one of the best thrillers I've watched for a while, because - while the plot is undeniably slight - it had a lot of heart and two great female actors were given a whole lot of screen time in a genre that often fails in this area. And Major Susan Turner kept her clothes on (much to my husband's disappointment).  




BEAUTY IN THORNS: Writing the first draft

Thursday, October 20, 2016


This week I delivered the manuscript of my novel Beauty in Thorns to my agent and publisher, and now I am gnawing my fingernails to the knuckle waiting for their response. It's always hard, delivering a book. I've laboured away on it so long, dreaming about it, planning and writing and re-writing, polishing each sentence still it shines, cutting, putting back in, cutting again ... 

The book is not finished yet. In a few weeks time, I'll be getting back my editorial report and then I'll be working away on the book again, listening to the advice of people I trust and trying my best to make the book as good as I can get it. I love the editorial process (many writers hate it!) - but it is long, hard, finicky work and sometimes it is difficult (but necessary) to cut or change things you loved writing.

So these next few weeks are a space of calm for me, a chance to rest and recover after the last few exhausting months, and a chance to reflect on far I have come. 

My books often have a very long gestation phase. This is partly because ideas come to me when I'm deep in the writing of another story and so I need to wait till I am free to concentrate on them. And this is partly because I like to wait until the book is as fully realised in my imagination as possible, so that I can write as swiftly and freely and powerfully as possible. 

I first got the idea of doing something with the Pre-Raphaelites in June 2013, when I was researching the chapter on William Morris for my study of 'Rapunzel' for my Doctorate of Creative Arts, which was later published as The Rebirth of Rapunzel: A Mythic History of the Maiden in the Tower. William Morris wrote the first creative response to the 'Rapunzel' fairy tale when only a young man. I'd always loved the Pre-Raphaelites, and my research for my doctorate reminded me that they had always been fascinated by fairy tales and mythology, just like me. 

Around eighteen months later, on 1st August 2014, I was looking back over my diaries, wondering what novel I should write next, when I came across the scribbled note in my diary. It said: 'Ideas for Novels - Pre-Raphaeltite fairytales ...' Then after a few other ideas, I listed some of my favourite old stories. One of them was Sleeping Beauty.

'The Rose Bower' by Edward Burne-Jones

I began to play with the idea in November 2014, which was when I first read about Edward Burne-Jones and his lifelong obsession with the' Sleeping Beauty' fairy tales. I knew at once I had found my story. I bought a new silver filigree notebook, and began my research. Boxes of books about the Pre-Raphaelites began to land on my doorstep, and I began to build my timeline and cast of characters (always the first thing I do). 

I pitched the idea to my publisher in March 2015, and work got underway in earnest. I was reading, wondering, daydreaming, playing and beginning to plan.

On 8 April 2015, I got the first inkling of my first line (I cannot write a word until I have my first line and, hopefully, my last line).

In June 2015, I did my first research trip to the UK. I went to art galleries, libraries, museums and visited places like Red House, Kelmscott Manor and Buscot Park, where the penultimate quartet of Sleeping Beauty paintings are hung. 

I wrote the first chapter on 5th January 2016 - almost a year after first beginning to work on the novel. I always wait to start writing until I have a very strong sense of my characters and their voices and inner lives, and until I have the story arc planned. 

This is not to say that my story does not change and develop as I go on. My plan is ever-evolving.

For example, I had initially planned to have thirteen points-of-view, to reflect the thirteen fairies in the Grimm brothers' tale 'Briar Rose.' However, within a few weeks I knew that was far too many and so I chose eight points-of-view, which is the number in the Perrault version of the tale, 'The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood'. 

By the end of March, I had written 73,000 words - and knew that I had to re-think my strategy else the book would end up being far too long.   So I spent a few days re-assessing my plan and, with much regret, reducing the number of viewpoints in the book. This is the wonderful thing about having a plan - it helps you know when you need to stop and group and rethink your ideas, before you write 100,000 words you will need to cut later (I still had to cut a great many words!)   

I wrote steadfastly, and my story slowly grew. I continued to read and research and adapt my plan as needed, and in June 2016 I travelled to the UK again for my final research trip. Among other things, I visited Lizzie Siddal's grave in Highgate Cemetery and in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, I read Dante Gabriel Rossetti's love poems to Janey Morris, handwritten in a small leather-bound notebook for her.    

I finished the first draft on Saturday, 1st October - the day of my deadline - with a massive manuscript of 186,814 words. 

I then spent the next few days reading it through, editing it and cutting it back. I ended up making the difficult decision to lose one more character (the funny and earthy Fanny Cornforth), to deliver a much more reasonable manuscript of 165,000 words. 

And now I'm letting my imagination lie fallow for a few weeks, while I wait for my editorial report!

I've made a little video about my creative  process that I hope you'll enjoy - two years of hard slog reduced to four swift minutes;


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