Join Kate’s VIP Club Now!

Follow Me


Kate's Blog

Subscribe RSS

BOOK REVIEW: The Brutal Telling by Louise Penny

Saturday, August 25, 2018


The Blurb (From Goodreads):

Chaos is coming, old son.

With those words the peace of Three Pines is shattered. As families prepare to head back to the city and children say goodbye to summer, a stranger is found murdered in the village bistro and antiques store. Once again, Chief Inspector Gamache and his team are called in to strip back layers of lies, exposing both treasures and rancid secrets buried in the wilderness.

No one admits to knowing the murdered man, but as secrets are revealed, chaos begins to close in on the beloved bistro owner, Olivier. How did he make such a spectacular success of his business? What past did he leave behind and why has he buried himself in this tiny village? And why does every lead in the investigation find its way back to him?

As Olivier grows more frantic, a trail of clues and treasures— from first editions of Charlotte’s Web and Jane Eyre to a spider web with the word “WOE” woven in it—lead the Chief Inspector deep into the woods and across the continent in search of the truth, and finally back to Three Pines as the little village braces for the truth and the final, brutal telling.

My Thoughts:

I’ve really enjoyed all of Louise Penny’s earlier books in the Inspector Gamache crime series, but have had this one sitting on my shelf for ages, waiting for me to read. Having met Louise Penny at the Perth Writers Festival this year (she is lovely!), I decided to catch up on the series.

Her books have mostly centred on the fictional town of Three Pines in the province of Quebec in Canada, with an array of loveable and eccentric locals who appear again and again. They include a gay couple who run the local bistro, a warm-hearted second-hand bookseller, a couple of married artists, and a foul-mouthed old woman who is an award-winning poet and has a pet duck called Rosa. Describing the series in this way, the books sound like cosy murder mysteries, and there is certainly plenty of warmth and humour. However, the depth of characterisation, the lyrical writing, and the darkness of the human psyche revealed both in the murders and the inner lives of the characters lift this series out of the ordinary.

The Brutal Telling centres on the murder of an old hermit who has lived hidden away in the forest outside Three Pines for decades with no-one – or nearly no-one - aware of his existence.

To Inspector Gamache’s surprise, he discovers the old man’s wooden hut is filled with antique treasures (such as a priceless first edition copy of Jane Eyre published under the pseudonym Currer Bell, something I myself would very much like to own.) His quest to find the murderer also leads him to follow in the footsteps of Emily Carr, the first Canadian artist to embrace Fauvism and Post-Impressionism. I have been interested in Emily Carr since reading The Forest Lover, a novel by Susan Vreeland that is inspired by her life, and so was really intrigued by this section of The Brutal Telling. This combination of warmth, intelligence and psychological depth combine to make Louise Penny’s books a cut above most contemporary crime novels and so I urge you to read one if you’ve never tried her before. But start at the beginning, with Still Life, as this series has a strong character arc.

You might also be interested in my review of The Ruin by Dervla McTiernan.

Please leave a comment and let me know what you think.

INTERVIEW: Gabbie Stroud

Wednesday, August 22, 2018


This week I welcome Gabbie Stroud, author of Teacher, to the blog.

Are you a daydreamer too?

Yes!! I am forever imagining. I am particularly curious about people. I could watch people all day and I find myself trying to imagine where they’ve just come from, or where they’re hurrying off to. I wonder what secrets they’re keeping, when they last laughed and how their face might look when they cry. Sometimes I find I’m so busy imagining I forget that I am present in the world myself!

Have you always wanted to be a writer?
Yup! Ever since I could reach the pen and notepad on the telephone table in our family home. My mum, who keeps everything, still finds notepads I filled with my pre-writing scribbles.

Tell me a little about yourself – where were you born, where do you live, what do you like to do?
I was born in Cooma hospital on the 4th of July in 1977. I came along ten years after my closest sister and twenty years after my eldest. Skip forward forty one years and I live 90 minutes drive from Cooma in a beautiful coastal town on the far south of New South Wales. I am a mother to two beautiful young girls named Olivia and Sophie. Together we love to read and write and dance and sing. It’s a very vocal household with lots of laughter and theatrics!

How did you get the first flash of inspiration for this book?
I struggled to understand how I was going to write a book about my life without making it sound dull and linear. Beautiful Kate Forsyth listened patiently as I lamented over this problem with her and then suggested that I might try exploring the opening of the story from an unexpected place! She drew my life as a narrative arc and then touched her pen to the graph, right before the climax. “If you imagined your life at this point of the story, what would be happening here?” I thought for a moment and said – that’s probably when I had been teaching for ten years and this little boy named Grayson threw his shoe at me and I felt something snap inside me and I threw the shoe out the door. Kate smiled at me and said, “That sounds like an interesting story to begin with. Why don’t you try starting there and then take us back to your childhood?” And so I did… and it worked.

How extensively do you plan your novels?
I have discovered that I cannot plan my novels too much. The characters and the plot seem to find a life of their own. I sit at the key board panicking most of time and wishing I could control things, but I am beginning to resign myself to the fact that – for me – writing is as much about making discoveries as it is about making choices.

Do you ever use dreams as a source of inspiration?

I tend to use my subconscious more so than dreams. If I am struggling with something creatively I will journal the problem before sleeping and actively ask my ‘back brain’ to work on it while I am sleeping. Then, either just as I’m falling asleep or on waking, the answer or solution will come to me… often like a blinding flash of the obvious. It can be exhilarating because occasionally the response is surprising. I marvel at the ability of our brains to work for us, even while we sleep!

Did you make any astonishing serendipitous discoveries while writing this book?
Yes – every day! ‘Teacher’ is the creative non-fiction memoir of my life, so you would think it would be fairly familiar material to me. But what I discovered was that I had great power in making choices as to how I would tell my story. I was able to choose where I would shine light and what things I would keep in shadow. I was also able to thread different episodes together and make connections between different points in my life. I discovered things about myself as a person, a teacher and a writer. But jeepers – it was a grueling process!

Where do you write, and when?
I wrote much of ‘Teacher’ at the local Library. I would arrive and set up my work space (always aiming to be there at 9:30 but never managing anything earlier than 10). I would plug in my headphones and click into my “white noise” website. Some kind of pavlovian response would kick in and the words would usually tumble onto the page.

What is your favourite part of writing?
Reading back the words I’ve put on the page at the end of the day. I am amazed that I can stir feelings within myself; I can delight myself, amuse myself and entertain myself. I am often surprised by the quality of my writing.

What do you do when you get blocked?

How do you keep your well of inspiration full?
I read.
I observe people and the world around me.
I exercise.
I eat well.
I talk with my children – and really listen to them!
I think a lot.
I ask questions and remain curious.
I seek beauty.
I listen to music and take note of the lyrics.
I attend galleries, museums, festivals, concerts, shows, workshops, markets… whatever I can whenever I can.
I talk to other writers and nurture my friendships with them.

Do you have any rituals that help you to write?
I use a white noise website to help me block out the world when I’m writing in a Library or café. I use sticky notes relentlessly once I start editing!

Who are ten of your favourite writers?

Sue Townsend – who introduced me to Adrian Mole, a character who made me laugh and laugh and laugh!
Mem Fox – who has helped me keep many a Kindergarten class entertained.
Kate Forsyth – who has taught me so much through my reading of her writing.
Liane Moriarty – who examines the human condition every time she writes.
John Marsden – who wrote the books I devoured during high school and beyond.
Helen Garner – who is gritty and unflinching and yet so easy for me to relate to.
Sofie Laguna – who gently takes your hand and says ‘come look at this ugly thing I have found’.
Jesse Blackadder – who creates beauty with her words and scenes I cannot forget.
Judy Blume - who I read and read and read and now my daughter reads and reads and reads.
Marcus Zusack – who gave us all The Book Thief.

What do you consider to be good writing?
Good writing stays with me. It moves something within me. I know I’ve read a good book when I turn the final page and realise I am not the same person that I was when I started the book.

What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?
Writers write.

What are you working on now?
I am developing a contemporary fiction for adults. It’s still without a title, but it is set in a primary school. I’m hoping it will be a book about the real work that teachers do and the impact that teachers have on their students. The book explores the lives of six teachers and their shared journey through the academic year. When a tragedy befalls the school community, each of the teachers are called to question the work they do, their failings and their truth.

You can read my review of Teacher here.

BOOK REVIEW: Teacher by Gabbie Stroud

Wednesday, August 22, 2018


The Blurb (From Goodreads):

In 2014, Gabrielle Stroud was a very dedicated teacher with over a decade of experience. Months later, she resigned in frustration and despair when she realised that the Naplan-test education model was stopping her from doing the very thing she was best at: teaching individual children according to their needs and talents. Her ground-breaking essay 'Teaching Australia' in the Feb 2016 Griffith Review outlined her experiences and provoked a huge response from former and current teachers around the world. That essay lifted the lid on a scandal that is yet to properly break - that our education system is unfair to our children and destroying their teachers.

In a powerful memoir inspired by her original essay, Gabrielle tells the full story: how she came to teaching, what makes a great teacher, what our kids need from their teachers, and what it was that finally broke her. A brilliant and heart-breaking memoir that cuts to the heart of a vital matter of national importance.

My Thoughts:

I first met Gabbie Stroud when we were on tour together with the Byron Writers Festival. She had written a personal essay for Griffith Review about her decision to quit teaching, which had always been her life vocation. Her essay stirred up a lot of controversy, as more and more teachers began to criticise Australia’s education system. Allen & Unwin asked her if she’d be interested in extending her essay into a book-length memoir, and Teacher is the poignant and powerful result.

All Gabbie Stroud ever wanted to do was teach our children, and inspire them with her own big-hearted warmth, generosity and love of learning.

Instead she found herself broken by a system that cares more for data and demographies than young minds and spirits.

Interweaving her own personal journey towards being a teacher with anecdotes from the classroom, Teacher illuminates the enormous difficulties our teachers face today. Sometimes their students are hungry, bruised, or afraid. Sometimes they are sick, angry, or struggling. Their teacher needs to keep them and their classmates safe and calm, while still trying to instil learning. Teachers are burdened by administrative tasks, curriculum demands, difficult parents, and large numbers of students. They end up exhausted, overwhelmed, and stressed, and often completely burned-out.

Gabbie Stroud shines a penetrating light on all that is wrong with the Australian education system and how it fails both our children and our teachers. Impossible to read without choking up, this is an eloquent rallying cry for change and should be mandatory reading for all politicians and policy-makers. Luminous and heart-rending.

I was lucky enough to interview Gabbie Stroud for the blog this week, you can read it here.

Please leave a comment!

BOOK REVIEW: The Extremely Inconvenient Adventures of Bronte Mettlestone by Jaclyn Moriarty

Friday, August 17, 2018


The Blurb (From Goodreads):

Bronte Mettlestone's parents ran away to have adventures when she was a baby, leaving her to be raised by her Aunt Isabelle and the Butler. She's had a perfectly pleasant childhood of afternoon teas and riding lessons - and no adventures, thank you very much.

But Bronte's parents have left extremely detailed (and bossy) instructions for Bronte in their will. The instructions must be followed to the letter, or disaster will befall Bronte's home. She is to travel the kingdoms and empires, perfectly alone, delivering special gifts to her ten other aunts. There is a farmer aunt who owns an orange orchard and a veterinarian aunt who specialises in dragon care, a pair of aunts who captain a cruise ship together and a former rockstar aunt who is now the reigning monarch of a small kingdom.

Now, armed with only her parents' instructions, a chest full of strange gifts and her own strong will, Bronte must journey forth to face dragons, Chief Detectives and pirates - and the gathering suspicion that there might be something more to her extremely inconvenient quest than meets the eye...

From the award-winning Jaclyn Moriarty comes a fantastic tale of high intrigue, grand adventure and an abundance of aunts.

My Thoughts:

I have always thought that Jaclyn Moriarty has one of the freshest and most original voices in Australian children’s literature and so was eager to read her latest children’s fantasy, beautifully presented as a hardback with whimsical illustrations by Kelly Canby. The book did not disappoint – it was a sparkling delight from beginning to end, with lots of unexpected discoveries, wondrous encounters and madcap adventures.

The story begins:

I was ten years old when my parents were killed by pirates. This did not bother me as much as you might think - I hardly knew my parents.

Bronte’s parents had run away to have adventures when she was just a baby, leaving her to be raised by her Aunt Isabelle and the Butler. But their last will and testament says she must set out alone, on a solitary quest, to take a farewell gift to each of her ten other aunts. Her parents’ will has been bordered by fairy cross-stitch, which means calamity will befall her home town if she disobeys. So Bronte sets out to fulfil her parents’ dying wish (although, really, it is extremely inconvenient). Before long she is grappling with dragons, Chief Detectives, spell whisperers and pirates. Luckily, Bronte is very resourceful and determined as well as kind-hearted and clever, and so she deals with one troublesome aunt after another with aplomb.

The world-building in this book is so rich and inventive it could easily support a dozen other books, and so I hope that The Extremely Inconvenient Adventures of Bronte Mettlestone is the first in what will be a long series. This is the perfect book for a sensitive imaginative bookworm who is not yet ready for Harry Potter but wants a story filled with magic, adventure, humour and whimsy (the kind of kid I was when I was eleven!)

I was lucky enough to interview Jaclyn for the blog this weeks, you can read it here.

If you like the sound of this book, you might also be interested in my review of Nevermoor.

Please leave a comment and let me know what you think.

INTERVIEW: Jaclyn Moriarty

Friday, August 17, 2018


Today I welcome Jaclyn Moriarty, author of The Extremely Inconvenient Adventures of Bronte Mettlestone and A Corner of White, among others. 

Are you a daydreamer too?
Yes. Lately my daydream has been about getting struck by lightning and being perfectly all right except that now, suddenly, I can sing beautifully. Like, an astonishing voice, the voice of an angel! In addition, I find that I can now speak the language of musical instruments, so that all I need to do is pick up an instrument, study it a moment, tilt my head towards it, smile softly, and then I can play it beautifully. Like, the Berlin Philharmonic are begging me to join! So, anyway, in the daydream, I go on Australian Idol and I’m on the stage being very open about how this was all just a lightning strike-- previously, I couldn’t sing a note! I was practically tone deaf! And rhythm? Forget about it! -- and they’re all laughing along. And then I become thoughtful and I query aloud whether it’s fair, that the other competitors have worked so hard, for so many years, to reach this point, whereas for me, it was just, you know, a lightning strike? ‘Quite literally,’ one of the judges murmurs. Shots of audience members nodding, seeing my point. But then I strum my guitar (or raise the bow to my violin, or blow a single, haunting note into my lur (a Viking wind instrument which was used to sound war calls in the Middle Ages) -- it depends which instrument I’ve chosen for tonight’s performance) and begin to sing...

So, if you see me walking around my neighbourhood, with a little frown creasing my forehead, it’s because I’m wondering whether it is fair, that I’m so good, when others have worked hard all their lives to achieve a level that doesn’t even approach my skill; or else I’m fretting about which of the many, many available instruments I should play for my audition---or how many I could reasonably incorporate into the audition? Could I run from one to the other or would that just become ridiculous?; or I’m really at a loss about what exactly Simon will have to say about it all. So many questions.

Have you always wanted to be a writer?

Yes, for as long as I can remember. Well, actually, I remember being in a high chair and throwing a plate of food onto the floor, and I don’t think I wanted to be a writer at that point.

Tell me a little about yourself – where were you born, where do you live, what do you like to do?
I was born in Perth, Western Australia. There was a serious earthquake in the area a few days later. This was to welcome me to the world, and I’m very sorry about the $ 2.2 million worth of damage, and the 20 to 28 people who were injured.

I live in Sydney, on the north side of the harbour, and I like to sleep in, read, eat chocolate, bake, hang out with my 11-year-old, Charlie, chat with friends, see movies, snow ski, ice-skate, meet up with my parents, sisters, in-laws, nephews and nieces, in sunny parks, and watch the children kick balls around or listen to them compliment my chocolate brownies (not Charlie - he kicks the ball around but is very dismissive of my baking).

How did you get the first flash of inspiration for this book?

A reader sent me an email about my books, and mentioned she was drinking a cup of cloudberry tea. I had never heard of cloudberry tea before, and I replied that I was going to put it in a book one day.

How extensively do you plan your novels?
For my first book, Feeling Sorry for Celia, I had a two page outline. With each book since, my plan has grown longer and longer. So, for the Colours of Madeleine trilogy, the plan took a year to write and was over 200 pages. However, with the Extremely Inconvenient Adventures of Bronte Mettlestone, I decided I would not plan it at all. I wrote each chapter in a different cafe in my neighbourhood and I imagined that I was following Bronte around, from cafe to cafe, waiting to see what she would do.

Do you ever use dreams as a source of inspiration?
Sometimes, but more the mood of the dream than the plot. I am also inspired by ideas that come to me when I am in a half-awake trance in the mornings. That’s a big part of why I like to sleep in, or anyway that’s the excuse I give for it.

Did you make any astonishing serendipitous discoveries while writing this book?

Well, even though I was trying to write each chapter of this book in a different cafe I did return to Coco Chocolate, the tiny chocolate cafe in Kirribilli, over and over. I kept finding myself drawn back to it. While I was writing the book, I didn’t have a title, so I kept referring to it as ‘my pirate book’ (because it opens with Bronte’s parents being killed by pirates). ‘I’m just going back to the chocolate cafe to write my pirate book,’ I kept saying to people, and to myself. I wrote the final words of the book in Coco Chocolate, and looked up and said to the owner, ‘I’ve just finished my pirate book!’ She reached across me and picked up a package of gold chocolate coins and handed them to me. And I realised that there’d been a treasure chest of gold coins sitting right in front of me the entire time I was writing my pirate book.

Where do you write, and when?
I used to always plan in a cafe each morning, and then write in my study at home each afternoon. However, with Bronte, I actually started bringing my laptop along to the cafes and writing there, and I loved it. I still write at home every afternoon but lately I’ve been writing at the dining room table, instead of my study, because my study is ice-cold and the dining room table is bathed in winter sunshine.

Everything changes.

What is your favourite part of writing?

The hot chocolate at Coco Chocolate.

What do you do when you get blocked?
Run around the block or up and down a flight of stairs; eat fruit and chocolate; draw colourful pictures. If that doesn’t work, I stop writing altogether for half a day and sit on the edge of the harbour staring at the water. In a serious case, stop writing altogether for a week or more and do household administration, wash the skirting boards and read novels and poetry instead.

How do you keep your well of inspiration full?

Reading across all genres, especially science, history and poetry; having a lot of conversations with my bright and funny friends; eavesdropping on strangers.

Do you have any rituals that help you to write?

I always have a cup of peppermint tea and a blue bowl of fruit and chocolate beside me, plus a jug of water and a glass. I usually go for a walk that takes me near water before I start writing. I change into my most comfortable tracksuit pants first.

Who are ten of your favourite writers?
Diana Wynne Jones, Carol Shields, Joan Aiken, Jane Austen, Rachel Cohn, Garth Nix, Elizabeth McCracken, Geraldine McCaughrean, Laura Bloom, Kate Clanchy, Louis Sachar, E. Nesbit, Tom Stoppard, P.G. Wodehouse, Liane Moriarty, Nicola Moriarty, Dylan Thomas, Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf.

What do you consider to be good writing?
Writing that takes you sideways out of life and that is fearless and true.

What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?

Read widely across all genres; set rules for writing times and stick to them, but don’t be hard on yourself if you break them. Be kind to yourself, be delighted by what you’re writing, but then step away for a week or more, come back, and be a bit ruthless. Continue to be kind to yourself even when you’re being ruthless.

What are you working on now?

I’m just finishing up with copy-editing and proofs of two books -- one is a follow-up to Bronte. It’s called The Slightly Alarming Tale of the Whispering Wars, (it will just be called The Whispering Wars in the US and Canada) and takes place in a different part of the Kingdoms and Empires, before Bronte was born. In the town of Spindrift, Honey Bee lives in the exclusive boarding school, Finlay lives in the orphanage, and the Whispering Wars are about to begin.

The other book is an adult novel called Gravity is the Thing which is about a woman who signs up for a series of seminars that promise to teach her the secret to human flight.

You can read my review of Jaclyn's latest book, The Extremely Inconvenient Adventures of Bronte Mettlestone, here.

BOOK REVIEW: The Trauma Cleaner by Sarah Krasnostein

Wednesday, August 15, 2018


The Blurb (From Goodreads):

Before she was a trauma cleaner, Sandra Pankhurst was many things: husband and father, drag queen, gender reassignment patient, sex worker, small businesswoman, trophy wife…

But as a little boy, raised in violence and excluded from the family home, she just wanted to belong. Now she believes her clients deserve no less.

A woman who sleeps among garbage she has not put out for forty years. A man who bled quietly to death in his loungeroom. A woman who lives with rats, random debris and terrified delusion. The still life of a home vacated by accidental overdose.

Sarah Krasnostein has watched the extraordinary Sandra Pankhurst bring order and care to these, the living and the dead—and the book she has written is equally extraordinary. Not just the compelling story of a fascinating life among lives of desperation, but an affirmation that, as isolated as we may feel, we are all in this together.

My Thoughts:

I had some time free at the Sydney Writers’ Festival and so slipped in to hear Sarah Krasnostein talk about her debut work of biography, The Trauma Cleaner. I had seen people talking about it and recommending it on social media, and I knew it had won the $100,000 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award, but otherwise I knew very little about it.

Sarah Krasnostein spoke so intelligently about her transformative journey in writing this book that I bought it at once, and asked her to sign it.

Basically, Sarah was at an academic conference one day when she saw a tall blonde woman sitting at a table with an oxygen mask and a fanned-out pile of brochures about her company. ‘Specialised Trauma Cleaning Services’. Sarah was intrigued, picked up a copy and read it through several times.

“People do not understand about body fluids,” the brochure read. “Bodily fluids are like acids. They have all the same enzymes that break down our food. When these powerful enzymes come into contact with furnishing and the like, deterioration is rapid. I have known enzymes to soak through a sofa and to eat at the springs, mould growing throughout a piece of furniture and I have witnessed the rapid deterioration of a contaminated mattress.”

Wanting to know more, Sarah rang the tall blonde woman – whose name was Sandra Pankhurst – and asked if she could interview her.

I find this action of hers intriguing as well. Sarah Krasnostein was not a journalist or a writer by trade. She was a law lecturer and researcher with a doctorate in criminal law. What deep psychological need in Sarah drove her to want to meet a trauma cleaner, and then spend the next four years following her around?

Whatever her own motivations, Sarah Krasnostein has an infallible instinct for a good story. Sandra Pankhurst’s life was shocking, heartbreaking, and powerful. Born a boy, adopted at birth, abused and neglected, he became a husband and father, then a drag-queen and sex-worker, and then undertook gender reassignment surgery and became a woman. Totally reinventing herself, Sandra began to work at a funeral parlour and then married a man she met at his wife’s cremation. Energetic and ambitious, she runs a business with him and stands for local council. When the business fails, she begins a cleaning company to support them both, and soon realises that the real money is in trauma cleaning.

So what does a trauma cleaner do? Her business card says:

* Hoarding and Pet Hoarding Clean up * Squalor/ Trashed Properties * Preparing the Home, for Home Help Agencies to Attend * Odor Control * Homicide, Suicide and Death Scenes * Deceased Estates * Mold, Flood and Fire Remediation * Methamphetamine Lab Clean Up * Industrial Accidents * Cell Cleaning

For three and a half years, Sarah Krasnostein followed Sandra Pankhurst in and out of filthy, stinking houses and watched as she returned them to sparkling, sweet-smelling order. The first job Sarah attended was the apartment of a 35-year-old heroin junkie who had overdosed and her body had not been found for two weeks. Sarah was 35 at the time herself, a confronting parallel.

A chapter about one of Sandra’s clients is followed by a chapter about Sandra herself, the two timelines weaving in and out of each other until we reach the end of the tale.

Sandra is an unreliable narrator, and so not an easy subject for a biography:

‘Many of the facts of Sandra’s past are either entirely forgotten, endlessly interchangeable, neurotically ordered, conflicting or loosely tethered to reality. She is open about the fact that drugs may have impacted her memory … It is also my belief that her memory loss is trauma-induced,’ Sarah Krasnostein writes. So The Trauma Cleaner is also a meditation on memory and forgetting, trust and lies, and this philosophical element of the book adds an extra depth and interest.

Bu the real star of the book is Sandra Pankhurst herself – her warmth, humour, compassion and grit. This is truly an astonishing life story, discovered by accident and told with real grace and thoughtfulness.

I was lucky enough to interview Sarah Krasnostein for the blog this week, you can read it here.

Please leave a comment, I love to know what you think.

INTERVIEW: Sarah Krasnostein

Wednesday, August 15, 2018


This week I'm very excited to welcome Sarah Krasnostein, author of The Trauma Cleaner, to the blog.

Have you always wanted to be a writer?
Pretty much! I've schlepped a notebook around with me since I was seven years old - recording dialogue, descriptions, ideas, observations, books I've read, books I want to read. The only real difference between now and then is that now I use the notes app on my phone. And my spelling has moderately improved.

How extensively do you plan your novels?

Well, I only have one book at the moment, but the process of writing that had much in common with writing my doctoral dissertation, and the long form pieces I'm writing currently. My impulse, coming from an academic background, is to ' do all my homework' - i.e., the research - and then write everything up neatly. But that type of perfectionism will stunt you because, with long works, the writing is the thinking. So I do plan where I want a piece to go, but I try to remain sufficiently open to what the material is telling me that I am able to restructure as I go.

Where do you write, and when?

For the past decade, I've written on a crappy Ikea particle board that rests on a crappy filing cabinet at either end. But I sit under a glorious and very long Anne Lamott quote which I printed out long ago and stuck above my computer. I'll set the first part out here in case it's of use to anyone else:

"Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won't have to die. The truth is you will die anyway and that a whole lot of people who aren't even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they're doing it..."
- Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird (1994)

As to when I write, I have a very young child. So whenever I get time to write, that's when I'll be writing!

What is your favourite part of writing?

Reading. I think we get trapped into thinking about writing as 'content' or 'output'. I certainly do. And when that happens I remind myself of Stephen King's advice - which I'll probably butcher here - but the essence was that if you don't have time to read, you don't have time to write.

What do you do when you get blocked?
See above. I read. Being inspired by the work I love reminds me why I write in the first place. I'm a lawyer and an academic by training, so I have the type of personality that wants to drill down harder into the task when I find Im not getting anywhere. But that's not how a creative process works, unfortunately, so I've had to learn to be looser. I'll get up from the desk and go read or walk, spend time with my family, do chores from the never-ending 'to do' list. When I take the pressure off and engage with the world, I find that connections in the material Im working with are easier to make, and that'll allow me to get back into it.

Who are ten of your favourite writers?
I love and fear this question. Ideally it would be, "Who are ten thousand of your favourite writers". In no particular order: Gay Talese, Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, Shirley Jackson, James Baldwin, WG Sebald, Susan Sheehan, Elizabeth Strout, Nicole Krauss, Mary Oliver, John Jeremiah Sullivan...

What do you consider to be good writing?

Control and the confidence and originality that comes from depth in feeling or scholarship. I'm always drawn to the ways those qualities are conveyed at the sentence level.

What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?

At some point, you will want to stop. In fact, you'll find very good reasons to stop. That voice is a liar. Keep going.

You can read my review of The Trauma Cleaner here.

BOOK REVIEW: The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose

Friday, August 10, 2018


The Blurb (from Goodreads):

A mesmerising literary novel about a lost man in search of connection - a meditation on love, art and commitment, set against the backdrop of one of the greatest art events in modern history, Marina Abramovic's The Artist is Present.

Arky Levin is a film composer in New York separated from his wife, who has asked him to keep one devastating promise. One day he finds his way to The Atrium at MOMA and sees Marina Abramovic in The Artist is Present. The performance continues for seventy-five days and, as it unfolds, so does Arky. As he watches and meets other people drawn to the exhibit, he slowly starts to understand what might be missing in his life and what he must do.

This dazzlingly original novel asks beguiling questions about the nature of art, life and love and finds a way to answer them.

My Thoughts:

I love art in all its forms, and had heard so many wonderful reviews of The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose (which won the 2017 Stella Prize) that I had been wanting to read it for a long time.

However, I did not buy the book until after I interviewed Heather Rose for Word of Mouth TV earlier this year and was fascinated by the story of the book’s inspiration and long genesis.

The story is centred on the true-life art performance ‘The Artist is Present’, in which Serbian-born artist Marina Abramovic sits silently on a chair at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York for seventy-five days, without speaking or moving or showing any outward sign that she is alive. People visiting the museum have the chance to sit with her and look into her eyes, but are not permitted to speak or act in any way.

This act of silent connection proves extraordinarily moving and inspiring for many thousands of people, who queue up day after day to watch and participate. In all, 1,500 people would sit with Marina Abramovic and more than 850,000 people watched, some returning day after day after day (including Heather Rose who sat with the artist four times).

In the world of Heather Rose’s extraordinary, luminous novel, we met several imaginary people who are also drawn to watch. Among them are Arky Levin, a film composer separated from his wife, and Jane Miller, a widow who had once been a teacher. Both are struggling with loss and grief; both are drawn to Marina Abramovic’s installation for reasons they do not fully understand. They meet when Jane, annoyed by a stranger’s patronising remarks about modern art, turns to Arky and says, ‘I think art saves people all the time.’

I think art saves people too. I think it has saved me more than once. And so this is a book that resonated with me on so many levels.

Arky and Jane do not fall in love. Their lives touch only briefly, yet both are changed by their encounter, with each other and with ‘The Artist is Present’ installation. So too are the lives of others in the crowd, some of whome we meet only briefly. Without moving, without speaking, Marina Abramovic is an agent of revelation and transformation.

‘It is her metier to dance on the edge of madness, to vault over pain into the solace of disintegration,’ Heather Rose writes of her.

Other voices who speak in this beautiful and beguiling novel are the ghost of Marina Abramovic’s mother, a fierce and unrelenting woman who had been a Serbian war hero, and an unnamed narrator who acts as a muse to Arky and other struggling artists.

‘Pain is the stone that art sharpens itself on time after time,’ the muse says at one point.

These elements of magical realism are interwoven so delicately and surely that they do not disrupt the narrative flow at all, but add intensity and pathos as well as a sense of wonder and amazement at the extraordinary way art and creativity can shape and succour the human psyche.

After I finished The Museum of Modern Art, I too was fascinated by Marina Abramovic and read or watched numerous articles and documentaries about her. I love a book that drives me to learn more.

It took Heather rose more than eleven years to craft this exquisitely written novel, a testament to the depth of her obsession and the dediction to her craft. It is definitely one of the best books I’ve read this year. Quite possibly, one of the best book I’ve read ever.

If you like books about art, check out my review of The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith.

I was lucky enough to interview Heather Rose for the blog this week, you can read it here.

Please leave a comment and let me know what you think.

INTERVIEW: Heather Rose

Friday, August 10, 2018


Today I welcome Heather Rose, author of The Museum of Modern Love, to the blog.

Are you a daydreamer too?

Have you always wanted to be a writer?

Tell me a little about yourself – where were you born, where do you live, what do you like to do?
I was born in Tasmania and I live by the sea just two kilometres from my old family home. Mind you, I went around the world to arrive back here. I love beach walks, painting, meditating, reading, swimming, making cakes, time with my children and teaching writing. I also love solitude, kindness, sunshine and friendship.

How did you get the first flash of inspiration for this book?
At the National Gallery of Victoria staring at a photograph.

How extensively do you plan your novels?
Not at all.

Do you ever use dreams as a source of inspiration?
Yes. It’s curious how they show up with helpful metaphors at times.

Did you make any astonishing serendipitous discoveries while writing this book?
There are always astonishing serendipitous discoveries and that’s how I know I’m on the right path with a novel. I think of writing as psychic orienteering. I have to trust my instincts and the path appears. The Museum of Modern Love took eleven years – and the discoveries kept unfolding.

Where do you write, and when?
I write at home in a room overlooking the sea. I like to get to my desk at 9am and not finish until at least 3pm. But sometimes, if the day got away, I’ll start around 7pm and work til 1am. I try to write every day – even weekends. I don’t always succeed, but novels are long and even a little every day really helps.

What is your favourite part of writing?
The writing. Finding myself immersed in the characters and the plot for hours on end. Bliss. When I emerge it’s as if I have spent the day visiting friends in other places. It’s the ultimate time travel.

What do you do when you get blocked?
Make tea. Go for a walk. Meet a friend. Go to a movie. Read a great book. Have a nap. Take a break for a few days, or even a week. Work on something else. The next bit always comes. It’s just a matter of being patient and listening.

How do you keep your well of inspiration full?

I meditate every day. I read a lot. I love movies. I walk and swim too. I love escaping into nature on a beach or in a forest. (It’s easy in Tasmania!) I also procrasti-bake. Cooking is a great way for me to nurture ideas.

Do you have any rituals that help you to write?

A pot of tea, a jug of water, toast and marmalade and I’m away. Lighting a candle is also helpful on the long nights.

Who are ten of your favourite writers?
Such a painful question. So many favourites. Here’s 12 with apologies to all the omissions: Virginia Woolf. Haruki Murakami. Kazuo Ishiguro. Elizabeth Gilbert. Helen Garner. Elizabeth Strout. Cormac McCarthy. Toni Morrison. Edith Wharton. George R.R. Martin. Gabriel Garcia Marquez. George Eliot.

What do you consider to be good writing?
Writing that touches my heart, transports me to other worlds and awakens me to new ideas.

What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?
Read excellent writing. Carry a notebook and pen. Write something every day. Repeat.

What are you working on now?
Novel #8. And a couple of non-fiction projects.

You can read my review of The Museum of Modern Love here.

BOOK REVIEW: White Houses by Amy Bloom

Friday, August 03, 2018


The Blurb (From Goodreads):

Lorena Hickok meets Eleanor Roosevelt in 1932 while reporting on Franklin Roosevelt's first presidential campaign. Having grown up worse than poor in South Dakota and reinvented herself as the most prominent woman reporter in America, "Hick," as she's known to her friends and admirers, is not quite instantly charmed by the idealistic, patrician Eleanor. But then, as her connection with the future first lady deepens into intimacy, what begins as a powerful passion matures into a lasting love, and a life that Hick never expected to have. She moves into the White House, where her status as "first friend" is an open secret, as are FDR's own lovers. After she takes a job in the Roosevelt administration, promoting and protecting both Roosevelts, she comes to know Franklin not only as a great president but as a complicated rival and an irresistible friend, capable of changing lives even after his death. Through it all, even as Hick's bond with Eleanor is tested by forces both extraordinary and common, and as she grows as a woman and a writer, she never loses sight of the love of her life.

From Washington, D.C. to Hyde Park, from a little white house on Long Island to an apartment on Manhattan's Washington Square, Amy Bloom's new novel moves elegantly through fascinating places and times, written in compelling prose and with emotional depth, wit, and acuity.

My Thoughts:

White Houses by Amy Bloom is a novel inspired by the true-life love affair between Eleanor Roosevelt and her ‘first friend’, Lorena Hickok. I love books that tell the untold story of real women’s lives, and books which illuminate history in new and fascinating ways, and White Houses did both for me. I’ve not studied US history in any depth, and so the Roosevelts are just names to me. I had no sense of shock in learning that the wife of the 32nd President of the United States kept her lesbian lover in the White House. I felt only curiosity and a sense of wonderment that their love affair is not better known. I cannot imagine that happening today!

The novel is told from the point of view of Lorena Hickok, known as ‘Hick’ to her friends. The first woman to have her byline featured on the front page of the New York Times, Hick had grown up dirt-poor in South Dakota and dragged herself up through her own indomitable will and razor-sharp wit. She first met Eleanor Roosevelt in 1932 while reporting on Franklin Roosevelt's first presidential campaign, and before long the two are going on holiday together and Hick has given up her career to move into the White House.

The book is not told in a linear fashion. It moves back and forth in time, much as a woman remembering her own life would tell it. Hick tells the story of her father’s abuse and abandonment, her first sexual experimentations while working in a circus, her love affairs and the difficulties of being a lesbian in 1930s America. Her voice is jaded, cynical and yet also lyrical:

‘Every women’s body is an intimate landscape. The hills, the valleys, the narrow ledges, the riverbanks, the sudden eruptions of soft or crinkling hair. Here are the plains, the fine dry slopes. Here are the woods, here is the smooth path to the only door I wish to walk through. Eleanor’s body is the landscape of my true home.’

The relationship between the two women was kept hidden for many years, but in 1979 the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library uncovered eighteen boxes of letters exchanged between Eleanor and Hick. During the thirty years they knew each other, the two women wrote nearly 4,000 letters to each other. Here is one excerpt:

Hick darling, Oh! how good it was to hear your voice, it was so inadequate to try & tell you what it meant, Jimmy was near & I couldn’t say ‘je t’aime et je t’adore’ as I longed to do but always remember I am saying it & that I go to sleep thinking of you & repeating our little saying.

White Houses is only a slim book, but it delves deep into the interior lives of the two women, their heartaches and mistakes, their betrayals and failures. Hick is such a complex, difficult and vulnerable character, and her love for Eleanor is achingly real. A really fascinating read.

You might also be interested in my review of The Aviator's Wife by Melanie Benjamin.

I was lucky enough to interview Amy Bloom for the blog this week, you can read it here.

Please leave a comment and let me know what you think.

Subscribe RSS

Recent Posts



Blogs I Follow