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BOOK REVIEW: The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith

Saturday, May 23, 2015




The Silkworm (Cormoran Strike #2)
by Robert Galbraith (Pseudonym of J.K. Rowling)


THE BLURB
Private investigator Cormoran Strike returns in a new mystery from Robert Galbraith, author of the #1 international bestseller The Cuckoo's Calling.

When novelist Owen Quine goes missing, his wife calls in private detective Cormoran Strike. At first, Mrs. Quine just thinks her husband has gone off by himself for a few days—as he has done before—and she wants Strike to find him and bring him home.

But as Strike investigates, it becomes clear that there is more to Quine's disappearance than his wife realizes. The novelist has just completed a manuscript featuring poisonous pen-portraits of almost everyone he knows. If the novel were to be published, it would ruin lives—meaning that there are a lot of people who might want him silenced.

When Quine is found brutally murdered under bizarre circumstances, it becomes a race against time to understand the motivation of a ruthless killer, a killer unlike any Strike has encountered before...

WHAT I THOUGHT

Robert Galbraith is, of course, the pseudonym of J.K. Rowling. Like much of the world, I was interested to read her take on contemporary crime and so grabbed a copy in the airport one day. 

I enjoyed it immensely. The characters are all interesting and well-drawn, and the actual murder mystery ingeniously plotted. I enjoyed the wintry London setting, and the interplay of human relationships between the one-legged private detective Cormoran Strike and his pretty red-headed assistant Robin. I really enjoyed the subtle poking of fun at the world of publishing, and loved the mix of humour and pathos. In fact, it’s one of the best contemporary crime novels I’ve read in a while. I’m now tracking down the first in the series The Cuckoo’s Calling. 

BOOK REVIEW: The Sleeper and the Spindle by Neil Gaiman

Friday, May 22, 2015



The Sleeper and the Spindle

by Neil Gaiman; illustrated by Chris Riddell 


THE BLURB

A thrillingly reimagined fairy tale from the truly magical combination of author Neil Gaiman and illustrator Chris Riddell – weaving together a sort-of Snow White and an almost Sleeping Beauty with a thread of dark magic, which will hold readers spellbound from start to finish. 

On the eve of her wedding, a young queen sets out to rescue a princess from an enchantment. She casts aside her fine wedding clothes, takes her chain mail and her sword and follows her brave dwarf retainers into the tunnels under the mountain towards the sleeping kingdom. This queen will decide her own future – and the princess who needs rescuing is not quite what she seems. Twisting together the familiar and the new, this perfectly delicious, captivating and darkly funny tale shows its creators at the peak of their talents.

Lavishly produced, packed with glorious Chris Riddell illustrations enhanced with metallic ink, this is a spectacular and magical gift.


WHAT I THOUGHT
This exquisitely illustrated hardback edition is published by Bloomsbury, illustrated by Chris Riddell, and written by Neil Gaiman with all his characteristic flair. 

In this retelling of ‘Sleeping Beauty’, Neil Gaiman has allowed his dark and macabre imagination to run free. Accompanied by the extraordinary illustrations of Chris Riddell – at times beautiful, at times funny, at times disturbing – the story twists the old tale in unexpected ways, to wonderful effect. This was my favourite of the two books, both because of its beautiful production and also because of the way the story is turned inside out. Magical. 

BOOK REVIEW: The Devil in the Marshalsea by Antonia Hodgson

Thursday, May 21, 2015



The Devil in the Marshalsea (Tom Hawkins #1)
by Antonia Hodgson

WINNER OF THE CWA HISTORICAL DAGGER AWARD 2014.


BLURB

London, 1727 - and Tom Hawkins is about to fall from his heaven of card games, brothels and coffee-houses into the hell of a debtors' prison.

The Marshalsea is a savage world of its own, with simple rules: those with family or friends who can lend them a little money may survive in relative comfort. Those with none will starve in squalor and disease. And those who try to escape will suffer a gruesome fate at the hands of the gaol's rutheless governor and his cronies.

The trouble is, Tom Hawkins has never been good at following rules - even simple ones. And the recent grisly murder of a debtor, Captain Roberts, has brought further terror to the gaol. While the Captain's beautiful widow cries for justice, the finger of suspicion points only one way: to the sly, enigmatic figure of Samuel Fleet.

Some call Fleet a devil, a man to avoid at all costs. But Tom Hawkins is sharing his cell. Soon, Tom's choice is clear: get to the truth of the murder - or be the next to die.

A twisting mystery, a dazzling evocation of early 18th Century London, THE DEVIL IN THE MARSHALSEA is a thrilling debut novel full of intrigue and suspense.


WHAT I THOUGHT

I met Antonia Hodgson at the Historical Novel Society conference in London last year and – after hearing her speak about her novel The Devil in the Marshalsea – had to buy it straightaway. I’ve finally had a chance to read it, and can strongly recommend it to anyone who loves a really top-notch, fast-paced, and atmospheric historical thriller. 

The novel is set in London in 1727, soon after the death of King George I and before his son was crowned George II. Most of the action takes place in the sordid Marchelsea debtors’ prison. The story’s hero, the young, handsome and raffish Tom Hawkins, has been clapped in irons due to his predilection for wine, women and gambling. The Marshalsea is a dangerous place at the best of times, but a violent murder has just taken place within its walls … and Tom is sharing a cell with the prime suspect. 

All the action takes place over just a few days, and the plot twists and turns with ferocious speed. I could not put it down once I started. It is without doubt one of the best historical thrillers I’ve ever read and a highly deserving Winner of the CWA Historical Dagger award for 2014. 

BOOK REVIEW: Half a King by Joe Abercomrbie

Wednesday, May 20, 2015




Half A King 
Joe Abercrombie

BLURB

‘A fast-paced tale of betrayal and revenge that grabbed me from page one and refused to let go’ GEORGE R.R. MARTIN

Prince Yarvi has vowed to regain a throne he never wanted. But first he must survive cruelty, chains and the bitter waters of the Shattered Sea itself. And he must do it all with only one good hand.

Born a weakling in the eyes of his father, Yarvi is alone in a world where a strong arm and a cold heart rule. He cannot grip a shield or swing an axe, so he must sharpen his mind to a deadly edge.

Gathering a strange fellowship of the outcast and the lost, he finds they can do more to help him become the man he needs to be than any court of nobles could.

But even with loyal friends at his side, Yarvi’s path may end as it began – in twists, and traps and tragedy…


WHAT I THOUGHT

I was on a few panels with Joe Abercrombie at the Perth Writers Festival, and so I was sent his latest book to read. I had heard a great deal about him, as his books had been making big waves in the international fantasy scene. His first book The Blade Itself had sold for a five-figure deal in 2005 (or, as Joe likes to say, ‘a seven-figure deal if you count the pence columns’) and has sold, I am told, more than 3 million copies. 
I just loved Half A King. It was tightly constructed, quick-paced, and surprising – qualities that can sometimes be rare in a fantasy novel. It was also beautifully written. I’m really looking forward to reading the next in the series, Half A World, and discovering his earlier book as well. A must-read for fantasy lovers.

BOOK REVIEW: Resistance: Memoirs of Occupied France by Agnes Humbert

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

  

Resistance: Memoirs of Occupied France 
by Agnès Humbert, Barbara Mellor (Translator), Julien Blanc (Afterword)



BLURB

A real-life Suite Française, this riveting diary by a key female member of the French Resistance in WWII is translated into English for the first time.

Agnès Humbert was an art historian in Paris during the German occupation in 1940. Though she might well have weathered the oppressive regime, Humbert was stirred to action by the atrocities she witnessed. In an act of astonishing bravery, she joined forces with several colleagues to form an organized resistance—very likely the first such group to fight back against the occupation. (In fact, their newsletter, Résistance, gave the French Resistance its name.)

In the throes of their struggle for freedom, the members of Humbert’s group were betrayed to the Gestapo; Humbert herself was imprisoned. In immediate, electrifying detail, Humbert describes her time in prison, her deportation to Germany, where for more than two years she endured a string of brutal labor camps, and the horror of discovering that seven of her friends were executed by a firing squad. But through the direst of conditions, and ill health in the labor camps, Humbert retains hope for herself, for her friends, and for humanity.

Originally published in France in 1946, the book was soon forgotten and is now translated into English for the first time.  Résistance is more than a firsthand account of wartime France: it is the work of a brave, witty, and forceful woman, a true believer who refused to go quietly


WHAT I THOUGHT
I’ve had this book on my shelves for a long time and finally picked it up to read over the summer holidays. Agnes Humbert was an ordinary woman in her late 40s when German troops invaded Paris in June 1940. She was an art historian, married with two sons, who loved to paint. After the Fall of Paris, Agnes began to scribble down her thoughts and feelings in a notebook. She would go mad, she wrote, if she did not do something to resist the Germans. 

She and a few friends began to meet, to make plans to defy the Germans, and to print a newsletter called Resistance. It was the first resistance group in France. Eventually they were betrayed, and Agnes was arrested and imprisoned in April 1941. After a mock trial, the men in the group were all shot and the women were sentenced to five years hard labour. 

The diary ends at this point, and moves to being a memoir of the following horrific years. Agnes and her fellow prisoners were used as slave labour in such appalling conditions she almost died several times. Starved, beaten, and injured by the work, she somehow managed to survive. After the work camp was liberated by the Americans in June 1945, Agnes set up soup kitchens for refugees and helped the Americans hunt down and prosecute war criminals. Her extraordinary strength, courage and humour shine though on every page, making it a very moving and heartwrenching tale to read. 

BOOK REVIEW: The Light Between the Oceans by M.L. Stedman

Monday, May 18, 2015




THE LIGHT BETWEEN THE OCEANS
M.L.Stedman 


BLURB:
After four harrowing years on the Western Front, Tom Sherbourne returns to Australia and takes a job as the lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock, nearly half a day’s journey from the coast. To this isolated island, where the supply boat comes once a season and shore leaves are granted every other year at best, Tom brings a young, bold, and loving wife, Isabel. Years later, after two miscarriages and one stillbirth, the grieving Isabel hears a baby’s cries on the wind. A boat has washed up onshore carrying a dead man and a living baby. 

Tom, whose records as a lighthouse keeper are meticulous and whose moral principles have withstood a horrific war, wants to report the man and infant immediately. But Isabel has taken the tiny baby to her breast. Against Tom’s judgment, they claim her as their own and name her Lucy. When she is two, Tom and Isabel return to the mainland and are reminded that there are other people in the world. Their choice has devastated one of them. 

M. L. Stedman’s mesmerizing, beautifully written novel seduces us into accommodating Isabel’s decision to keep this “gift from God.” And we are swept into a story about extraordinarily compelling characters seeking to find their North Star in a world where there is no right answer, where justice for one person is another’s tragic loss. 

The Light Between Oceans is exquisite and unforgettable, a deeply moving novel. 


WHAT I THOUGHT:
This novel has at its heart a disturbing moral dilemma. A young woman married to a lighthouse keeper longs for a child of her own, but has lost all of her own babies. One day a boat washes up on their remote island. Inside the boat are a dead man and a baby, who is very much alive. The lighthouse keeper and his wife take in the founding child and, before long, Izzy begins to pretend the little girl is hers. The consequences of that decision will change their lives forever. 

The 1920s setting of a small Western Australian town, and the remote island with its lighthouse, is brilliantly evoked. The loneliness of Tom and Izzy’s life on the island, the vast stretch of sea and sky, the comfort of its routines, all are brought vividly to life.

The story is simply but powerfully told, and the slow-building suspense soon has the pages turning fast. Each step the characters take, each choice they make, is utterly in character, giving the story the feel of an inescapable fate, like a Greek tragedy. The Light Between the Oceans really is a superb book, so tightly constructed that not a word feels out of place. I am very curious to see what M.L. Stedman writes next, as this is an astonishingly assured debut. 



WRITING ADVICE from Kimberley Freeman

Friday, May 08, 2015

To celebrate the launch of Kim Wilkins's wonderful new book Daughters of the Storm, I'm running a vintage post from her with some very useful writing tips. Enjoy!



As you will know, Kim Wilkins is the author of  some of my all-time favourite books, including 'Angel of Ruin' and 'The Autumn Castle' - books which entwine history and the supernatural with intoxicating results.




In recent times, she has been writing books with a greater emphasis on romance and suspense rather than magic, under the name Kimberley Freeman, using her beloved grandmother's surname. I love these books just as much as I do her earlier books. Although they do not have that chilling supernatural twist, they are still books that utterly refuse to be put down - utterly compelling  and readable.

Her most recent novel, 'Lighthouse Bay' was one of the Best Books I Read in 2012, while I can also strongly recommend her previous book, 'Wildflower Hill'. 




Born in London, Kim grew up in Brisbane and has degrees in English Literature and Creative Writing. I first met her in Melbourne when both of our first books were short-listed for the Aurealis Prize for Excellence in Speculative Fiction. Kim won, drat her.  

Since then we try and see each other whenever we can. We always talk long and hard about the craft of writing, something we both feel very passionately about. 



Here are Kim's top writing tips:


Look to your verbs. If you read a page back and it seems lifeless and flabby, find every verb on the page and see if you can improve it. Make a point of collecting great verbs every time you read or watch a movie or have a conversation. Verbs like gasp, surge, quiver, and drench work so hard. Verbs are the muscle of a sentence, and can punch up dull writing in a moment.

Chillax on chapter one. Easily the most common writing problem I see is the writer trying far too hard to impress in the first few pages of a story. Many stories warm up and get fantastic after page five, but by then the publisher has already put you on the "reject" pile. Often your first chapter is so overworked that it's uncomfortable to read. My advice is to finish the book, then scrap the first chapter all together and write it again without looking at the original.

Don't write all your fun scenes first. Write in order. If you give a child her custard first, she's probably not going to be all that interested in her Brussels sprouts.

Be in a viewpoint, always. At the start of every scene make sure you know exactly whose viewpoint you are going to be in, and write the scene from inside their head. A story details a relationship between characters and events. The most impact is always achieved from describing that relationship from the inside.

Plan your story in advance, even if it's only loosely. It will save you so much time and heartache and, contrary to popular belief, it's actually MORE fun to do it this way. When you know that an exciting turning point is approaching, the scene and the ones around it can play out in your mind over and over as you think them through, becoming richer the more you anticipate it.

Most important of all: keep going. This is a tough craft, and it's an even tougher business. Dream big if you want, but your dreams can't sustain you on a day-to-day basis. The only thing that can sustain you is the work. Do it because you love it; because not to write hurts. Do it because you are mad about your story and obsessed with your characters. Don't make it another chore to fit into your busy day: make it the special place you go when your day has been rubbish. Keep going and keep going, and then keep going some more.
 

SPOTLIGHT - How grim were the Grimms' fairy tales?

Thursday, May 07, 2015



Just how grim are the Grimm tales?

* In the 1812 version of the Grimm’s tale ‘Little Snow-White’, it is the heroine’s own jealous mother that wants her dead. She tells the huntsman to bring back her daughter’s lungs and liver, for her to eat. Wilhelm Grimm later changed the mother to a step-mother.

* The jealous queen was punished by Little Snow-White and her prince by being forced to dance in red-hot iron shoes till she died. 

* In the original (1812) version of ‘The Frog King’, the princess does not kiss the frog to change him into a prince. Instead, she throws him as hard as she can against a wall. 

* In ‘Aschenputtel’, the Grimm’s version of ‘Cinderella’, one wicked stepsister cuts off her toes to try and make the slipper fit and the other cuts off her heel. In the end, they have their eyes pecked out by pigeons.

* In a later edition (1857) of ‘Rumpelstiltskin’, the dwarf tears himself in two when the queen guesses his true name. This detail was added in by Wilhelm, quite possibly because he thought it was funny 

* in one Grimm tale, ‘The Maiden Without Hands,’ a girl’s hands are chopped off by her own father

* The villain of ‘Fitcher’s Bird’ is a sorcerer that travels about the countryside, kidnapping girls and hacking them to pieces in a hidden room. 

* In ‘All-Kinds-of-Fur’, a girl disguises herself in a coat made from the fur flayed from a thousand animals in order to escape the incestuous desires of her father

* in many cases, Wilhelm made the stories more violent – particularly the punishments for witches and evil step-mothers

Nonetheless, nearly all of the tales end happily, with the hero or heroine triumphing because of their courage, goodness, and wit.

My novel THE WILD GIRL tells the astonishing untold story of how the Grimm brothers came to collect their world-famous tales - and the young woman who was their most important source. Its a story of love, war and the redemptive power of storytelling. 

    

PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT - I LOVE TO KNOW WHAT YOU THINK!

SPOTLIGHT: Fairy Retellings

Thursday, May 07, 2015

FAIRY TALE RETELLINGS

A few months ago, I gave a speech on fairy tales at the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne. I've had a lot of queries from people who were unable to make it for various reasons (including vast distances) and so I've summarised my speech into a couple of blogs so everyone may enjoy.  Here is a brief rundown on fairy tale retellings and ways to use them in your own creative work ...



A fairy tale retelling is a story which retells or reimagines a fairy tale, or draws upon well-known fairy tale symbols and structures.


Fairy tale retellings deal with personal transformation - people and creatures change in dramatic and often miraculous ways. Many fairy tales hinge upon a revelation of a truth that has been somehow hidden or disguised. 

Fairy Tale Retellings are most often written as a fantasy for children or young adults.


        

Some of my favourite fairy tale retellings for young adults


Not all, however. In recent years, there have been a number of beautiful, powerful and astonishing fairy tale retellings for adults too. 

          
      

Some of my favourite fairy tale retellings for adults

My own novel BITTER GREENS is a sexy and surprising retelling of the 'Rapunzel' fairy tale, interwoven with the true life story of the woman who first wrote the tale, the French noblewoman Charlotte-Rose de la Force . It moves between Renaissance Venice and the glittering court of the Sun King in 17th century Versailles and Paris, imagining the witch of the tale as a beautiful courtesan and the muse of the Venetian painter Titian. 

      

There are many different ways to draw upon fairy tales in fiction. Here is a brief overview: 


“Pure” Fairy Tale Retellings
A retelling of a fairy tale in which few changes are made to the best-known or ‘crystallised’ sequence of action and motifs. Changes tend to be small and subtle, such as adding dialogue or rhymes, naming characters, describing the setting more vividly, or smoothing out any inconsistencies. My picture book TWO SELKIE TALES FROM SCOTLAND, beautifully illustrated by Fiona McDonald, is an example of a "pure" fairy tale retelling. 



Fairy tale Parodies
Stories in this genre parody fairy tales for comic effect – they are usually done in picture book form, though sometimes writers do so in longer fiction also. 



Fairy Tale Pastische
A pastiche is a work of literature which celebrates the work that it imitates i.e. it is a new work which copies or mimics the style of an older literary form. A fairy tale pastiche therefore sounds like it comes from the ancient oral tradition, but is entirely new 



Sequels, prequels and Spin-Offs

Many fiction writers take a well-known fairy tale, and then create new stories that tell of the events which happened before or after the pattern of action in the 'crystallised' tale. 




Fairy Tale Allusion & Intertextuality

Some novels can draw upon fairy tale motifs, metaphors and plot patterns in more subtle ways. 

A girl may wear a red hoodie, or red dancing shoes. 

A young woman may be poor and under-valued, yet still win the heart of the most eligible bachelor

A dark forest may be a dark city … a tower may be a hospital …

My novel DANCING ON KNIVES is a contemporary romantic suspense novel set in Australia, yet it draws upon Hans Christian Andersen's well-known fairy tale, 'The Little Mermaid'. My heroine Sara is not at home in the world. She feels as if she cannot breathe, and every step causes her pain. She is haunted by the ghosts of the past, and must learn to be brave before she can begin a new life for herself. The fairy tale elements are used only as allusion and metaphor, and as a structural underpinning of the story. 




Retelling well-known tales from another Point of View

Another way to reinvigorate a well-known fairy tale is to tell the story from an unexpected point of view. I was always interested in the motivations of the witch in 'Rapunzel', and so knew right from the beginning that she would be a major point of view in BITTER GREENS. Here are a few other books which make the villain the protagonist of the story: 

      


Retelling well-known Fairy Tales in unexpected settings

Another way to revitalise a well-known fairy tale is to set it somewhere startling or unexpected. I have spent the last year working on a retelling of the Grimm Brothers'version of 'Beauty & the Beast', set in Nazi Germany.  THE BEAST'S GARDEN will be released in late April 2015.





Books About Fairy Tales & Their Tellers

As I noted earlier, BITTER GREENS is a retelling of the ' Rapunzel' fairy tale interwoven with the true life story of the woman who first wrote the tale, Charlotte-Rose de la Force. As an author and oral storyteller, I am very interested in the tellers of the tales. In my novel, THE WILD GIRL, I tell the story of the forbidden romance between Wilhelm Grimm and Dortchen Wild, the young woman who told him many of the world's most famous fairy tales, against the dramatic background of the Napoleonic Wars in Germany. 

      
   


Retelling Little Known Fairy Tales

You do not need to only drawn upon the best-known fairy tales. There are many hundreds of beautiful, romantic and beguiling fairy tales that are not as well-known as they should be. In THE GYPSY CROWN, I retell some old Romany folk tales. In THE PUZZLE RING, I was inspired by Scottish fairy tales and history. In THE WILD GIRL, I shine a light upon some of the forgotten Grimm tales. In THE IMPOSSIBLE QUEST, I play with old Welsh tales. 

The only limits are your own imagination!

FURTHER READING:




INTERVIEW: Kim Wilkins, author of Daughters of the Storm

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Please welcome Kim Wilkins, one of Australia's finest writers, to the blog today!

Kim and I have known each other for many years! Our first novels were published in the same year and were both shortlisted for the Aurealis Award. Although Kim won, I forgave her and we've been friends ever since. 

Kim is here to talk about her new book Daughters of the Storm, a magical action-packed epic fantasy set in a world much like Anglo-Saxon England.



 

Kim, what is your latest novel all about?

It's about five daughters of a tribal warlord, in a world based on Anglo-Saxon England. Their father falls gravely ill and Bluebell—the eldest daughter and the hard-arse, smashed-nosed, tattoo-covered soldier—is convinced it's an enchantment. The five of them start out on a journey to find their long-lost aunt, who is rumoured to be a powerful undermagician, to help save him. But they find more than they bargained for along the way, and betrayals and bad magic split them apart.

How did you get the first idea for it?
I am borderline obsessed with Anglo-Saxon literature, but it's never about women. So I began to make character sketches about possible interesting female characters, and I particularly wanted to write about a female soldier who was complex and interesting and not the typical "strong female warrior", so I made her ugly and tall and sweary and fiercely loyal and I fell in love with her and decided to write a book about her. Along the way, I came to love all her sisters too: Ash with her terrible burden of magic, Rose who thinks with her downstairs parts, Ivy who is a silly coquette with no idea of how dangerous her ideas are, and the slightly unhinged pious Willow, who hears voices in her head and tries to do what they tell her.



What do you love most about writing?
Everything! Coming up with story ideas, talking about story ideas, writing down story ideas! I feel as though at birth I got the full complement of human emotions—love, anger, fear, wonder—and this extra one called story. Writing makes me feel story and it's the best feeling! Though story also means you always worry when your loved ones are ten minutes late, because you can too easily imagine scenarios where they are horribly killed.

What are the best 5 books you've read recently?
I loved Bitter Greens by you, Kate. So much so that I set it on my undergraduate creative writing course, where my students are currently falling in love with it too. I loved Jo Walton's My Real Children, which is kind of like "light" alternative history but refracted through the very personal and intimate journey of a single woman through the late 20th century. I recently read Jon Ronson's nonfiction book So You've Been Publicly Shamed, which is a very clear-eyed examination of social media culture and mob mentality. I finally got around to The Hunger Games over summer. I usually don't read YA, and I feared it was going to be like Twilight, but it was brilliant. Genius plot, fabulous main character. And over summer, too, my husband read The Lord of the Rings out loud to me. I hadn't read it since I was a teenager and it was amazing to revisit it, but also to hear the rhythms of the language allowed. One of my all-time favourite stories.



What lies ahead of you in the next year? 
I am just in the starting phases of the sequel to Daughters of the Storm, tentatively titled The Sea of Wings. I will be writing large portions of it in the west of England in the second half of the year. Very excited!

PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT - I LOVE TO KNOW WHAT YOU THINK!


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