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INTERVIEW: Holly Ringland

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

 

Today I welcome Holly Ringland, author of The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart, to the blog.

Are you a daydreamer too?

Oh, yes. Daydreaming has been an escape and salvation throughout my life, like books. I had a boyfriend once, when I was younger, who’s favourite criticism of me was that I always had my head in the clouds, in 'Holly-land'. It’s taken twenty-something years for me to realise what a gift an active imagination is; to be able to daydream, and wonder, and ponder is the best way I know to enrich our interior lives.

Have you always wanted to be a writer?

Ever since I was a child. My mum taught me to read when I was three (thank you, Mama!) and it was then that I first grasped an understanding of what an author was. It was Sungglepot and Cuddlepie that did it. Lately, Mum has been joyfully recalling how, aged three, I walked out of my bedroom clutching my May Gibbs books and announced with great ceremony I was going to grow up and be like her. I don’t remember ever knowing anything else about myself so surely: I have 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 Gladstone, Queensland. Now, I live between Manchester, England, with my English partner, Sam, and the Gold Coast hinterland, Queensland, with my parents who very kindly share their home with me as my base when I’m, in Australia. It’s heaven. Three acres, Mum’s garden, and our three dogs. I feel so incredibly lucky every time I get on the plane here or there. I love to read, write, garden, cook, hike, swim in salt water, travel, and be with people I love.

How did you get the first flash of inspiration for this book?
It’s strange feeling that rises when I think about what my answer is. This is my first book and so, in some ways, it feels like this story has been brewing in me all my life. The genesis of this novel was trauma. I’ve lived with male perpetrated violence for a lot of my life, which silenced my voice, courage and the dream of being a writer I’ve had since I was a child. In 2012, I started a PhD in Creative Writing. I used my research to look at the relationship between traumatic experience and the process of writing fiction. It was through this research that I discovered Tom Spanbauer’s concept of ‘dangerous writing’, which is the idea of going into the sore place we all have inside of us, and writing from that place; using fiction as the lie that tells the truth. I realised that I’d never written from the sore place. If anything, I’d written around it, aside it, in spite of it. Never from it. So, my research became my own call to arms, but threw up all kinds of questions for me. What would become of me and my life if I wrote the thing I was most scared to write? What story would emerge, and how might it live in other people’s hearts, if it ever saw the light of day? What else can trauma be made into, other than unrememberable memories? These kinds of questions are why I wrote The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart.

How extensively do you plan your novels?

I handwrote the first 11,000 words of Lost Flowers in May, 2014; they poured out, and then dried up. I knew enough to know not to force it, and to take care of my mental health (I was bereaved at the time) so I stepped away from writing prose to focus instead on daydreaming. You were such a force for good in teaching me this, Kate. I did that for about 14 months – vividly dreaming the story to life – before I returned to writing in August 2015. I wrote the 100,000-word first draft in the following three months, finishing at the end of October. I didn’t plan it extensively, but while I was gathering and developing the story in my mind I did uncover major skeletal bones before I went near my keyboard. I’ve learned about myself that I can’t write blind to find where I'm going… when I’ve done that in the past I just end up writing hundreds of thousands of unnecessary words, trying to find my way. I believe nothing is wasted, all of those words got me to where I needed to be, but writing is enough of a leap of faith as it is, I don’t need extra fodder for the anxieties and doubts in my mind. I find writing to be more joyful when I know vaguely where I’m going in the story, versus writing through darkness to find my way.

Do you ever use dreams as a source of inspiration?

In the past, I have. Usually I’m driven to write by the kind of dreams that are so potent and so vivid that they don’t leave you alone the next day. They haunt me with their realness, even if they’re not frightening in nature. They’re the dreams I know I can only exorcise by writing them out.

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

Many. Writing Lost Flowers changed my life in innumerable ways.

Where do you write, and when?
If I’m not in a project, but am free-writing, I will write whenever and wherever I can. Like, a café, or a library, or a hotel room, or my Mum’s kitchen table. When I’m in a project, I need a base camp, like my office, where I can pick up and leave off and pick up what I’m working on, on a daily basis. I seemed to need that stability when writing Lost Flowers. Maybe the process will be different with my next work. Sometimes the creative process is a wonderful mystery!

What is your favourite part of writing?
The daydreaming and the researching and the connecting and the imagining. I can’t get enough of that time when everything is possible. Also, I love observing how my natural response to being in that phase means that I physically embodying the story. While I was writing it, Lost Flowers spilled over into all areas of my life, which is no bad thing! My wardrobe has never contained so many florals/birds/butterflies/books motifs. Our dreams are worth working hard to honour and enjoy. And embodied, if we so like.

What do you do when you get blocked?

I step away from the keyboard and deliberately redirect myself to spend time with my imagination in a gentle way. I deliberately make space and time to do other things that feed my senses, like going to a plant nursery and getting into the garden, or, I go to the art gallery and sit to look at the corners of paintings where the details are, or I go to a stationery shop (because the smell alone of crayons and pencils and paper can be enough to cause a shift), and I carry a notebook and pen just in case. But I keep a close ear to my inner self talk and storytelling and make sure the loop tape that is play is kind. Self-flagellation and writing don’t work for me. My writing blocks are nearly always connected to anxiety so when I’m blocked, I know my mind needs compassion and I’m learning how best to respond.

How do you keep your well of inspiration full?

I really believe in the adage, input is output. If my output is thin, I know it’s time to go foraging. I take my cues from bowerbirds, except rather than gathering to dazzle and impress a mate, I gather to dazzle and impress myself. Whether it’s going for a slow walk in the golden hour and taking photos, or cooking something delectable no matter how long it takes or the mess it makes, or doing yoga with candles, or wearing red lipstick, or listening to live music, or travelling to a place I haven’t been before, I find inspiration by feeding my mind things that awaken my sense of wonder.

Do you have any rituals that help you to write?

If possible, I burn essential oils and make the space I’m writing as aesthetically lush and bright as I can. That doesn’t only mean having a space near natural light, or a vase of fresh flowers on my desk, or a stack of the books of that most inspire me but also having evocative writing tools within reach, like a notebook with sumptuous creamy pages, or a pen with glossy black ink. I need both analogue and digital. Sometimes I work in silence, but most often I listen to classical music, or soundtracks, whatever it is, it has to be music without lyrics.

Who are ten of your favourite writers?
Alice Hoffman, Brooke Davis, Myf Jones, Favel Parrett, Ali Cobby Eckermann, Kate Forsyth, Inga Simpson, Zora Neale Hurston, Eliza Henry-Jones and Anthony Doerr.

What do you consider to be good writing?

To be frank, writing that I take with me to pee. If I can’t bear to be away from something I’m reading for those ten seconds, I know it’s good. When I was writing Lost Flowers and I was asked what kind of book I wanted to write, my instinctual answer was, something readers can’t put down, but then when I thought about what that actually looked like for me, it was the book you take with you to pee. But also cook, or fold laundry, or do anything that requires you should technically put down your book, but you just simply cannot.

What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?
You are braver than self-doubt will have you know.
Give yourself the love and kindness you didn’t receive.
The answers can always be found in books.
Fear will never go away, it’s part of the process. Offer it a seat, buckle it up, give it an iPad to watch, and get in the driver’s seat. This is your road trip; fear doesn’t get to dictate where you go.
Your first draft is perfect, it only has to exist: you can’t edit a blank page.

What are you working on now?

I’m daydreaming to life the bones of my next novel. At the very beginning of gathering and researching. Protecting the seeds before they sprout. It’s the most delicious time.


You can read my review of The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart here.

Please leave a comment and let me know your thoughts!

BOOK REVIEW: The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart by Holly Ringland

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

 

The Blurb (From Goodreads):

The most enchanting debut novel of 2018, this is an irresistible, deeply moving and romantic story of a young girl, daughter of an abusive father, who has to learn the hard way that she can break the patterns of the past, live on her own terms and find her own strength.

After her family suffers a tragedy when she is nine years old, Alice Hart is forced to leave her idyllic seaside home. She is taken in by her estranged grandmother, June, a flower farmer who raises Alice on the language of Australian native flowers, a way to say the things that are too hard to speak. But Alice also learns that there are secrets within secrets about her past. Under the watchful eye of June and The Flowers, women who run the farm, Alice grows up. But an unexpected betrayal sends her reeling, and she flees to the dramatically beautiful central Australian desert. Alice thinks she has found solace, until she falls in love with Dylan, a charismatic and ultimately dangerous man.

The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart is a story about stories: those we inherit, those we select to define us, and those we decide to hide. It is a novel about the secrets we keep and how they haunt us, and the stories we tell ourselves in order to survive. Spanning twenty years, set between the lush sugar cane fields by the sea, a native Australian flower farm, and a celestial crater in the central desert, Alice must go on a journey to discover that the most powerful story she will ever possess is her own.


My Thoughts:

An astonishingly assured debut, The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart is a story of love, loss, betrayal and the redemptive power of storytelling. It is both heart-breaking and life-affirming.

A coming-of-age story with a vividly evocative Australian setting, this novel follows the story of Alice Hart who must learn to escape the shadows of an abusive father in order to build a life for herself.

At the age of nine, Alice suffers the tragic loss of her mother and baby brother. She is taken from her seaside home to live with her grandmother, June, who grows bush flowers and takes in battered and abused women so they can heal in peace. June has developed a secret language of Australian native flowers, to help say the things that are too hard to speak aloud.

Mute and damaged, Alice slowly begins to recover from the wounds of her past, but there are too many secrets, too many shadows. Hurt and betrayed, Alice flees the flower farm and heads into the hot red heart of the Australian desert. She begins to rebuild her life once again, and falls recklessly and dangerously in love.

Sensitive, sympathetic, and vulnerable, Alice is like so many young women, struggling to make sense of their life, wanting to love and be loved but hurt by the danger of feeling so deeply, and needing to find their own voice so they can finally speak up and tell their story. Her journey is one that feels so familiar, and yet is uniquely and powerfully her own.

The Australian landscape, and its strange and beautiful flora, also has a potent presence in the novel. I absolutely loved the use of the secret language of flowers, and how it helped those inarticulate with pain and grief find a way to speak out, tell their story and so find release and healing. The sparkling waters and deep dragging undertow of the seashore, the dull green-grey of the bush with its hidden beauties only visible to those who take the time to see, and the extraordinary fierce grandeur of the red heart of Australia were evoked with such clarity and intimacy, I could feel the heat on my skin, taste the dust on my tongue, smell the tang of eucalyptus and salt in the air.

The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart is beautiful, powerful, intense, and tender, a book to shake your heart and bring a lump to your throat.

You might also be interested in my review of Sixty Seconds by Jesse Blackadder.

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

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

BOOK REVIEW: Becoming Marie Antoinette by Juliet Grey

Friday, May 18, 2018



The Blurb (From Goodreads):

This enthralling confection of a novel, the first in a new trilogy, follows the transformation of a coddled Austrian archduchess into the reckless, powerful, beautiful queen Marie Antoinette.

Why must it be me? I wondered. When I am so clearly inadequate to my destiny?

Raised alongside her numerous brothers and sisters by the formidable empress of Austria, ten-year-old Maria Antonia knew that her idyllic existence would one day be sacrificed to her mother's political ambitions. What she never anticipated was that the day in question would come so soon.

Before she can journey from sunlit picnics with her sisters in Vienna to the glitter, glamour, and gossip of Versailles, Antonia must change everything about herself in order to be accepted as dauphine of France and the wife of the awkward teenage boy who will one day be Louis XVI. Yet nothing can prepare her for the ingenuity and influence it will take to become queen.

Filled with smart history, treacherous rivalries, lavish clothes, and sparkling jewels, Becoming Marie Antoinette will utterly captivate fiction and history lovers alike.


My Thoughts:


As the title suggests, Becoming Marie Antoinette is biographical fiction inspired by the life of the ill-fated queen of France, who lost her head to the guillotine during the French Revolution.

It is one of my favourite periods of history (I’m actually writing a novel set during the Terror now), and I read many novels inspired by her life by writers like Jean Plaidy and Victoria Holt when I was a teenager. I have also read many biographies by historians such as Antonia Fraser and Evelyne Lever, as well as life histories of her hairdresser, her perfumerer and the like.

Juliet Grey’s novel is the first in a trilogy, and begins when Maria Antonia is still a child in the court of her mother, the formidable Empress of Austria. Impulsive, warm-hearted and mischievous, Maria Antonia knows her destiny is to be married for political gain and hopes that her chosen husband will not be too old or too unkind. Her mother begins negotiations with the French king, Louis the Fifteenth, for a betrothal with his grandson, the young Dauphin. Marie Antonia begins her journey of transformation, having her teeth straightened, her posture corrected and her meagre education rectified. She is only fourteen when she is married by proxy and sent off alone to Versailles, and Juliet Grey brilliantly brings her sweetness, naïveté and natural charm to life.

Versailles is, of course, a gilded trap for the young dauphine, and she makes many mistakes by trusting too easily and not submitting to the strict etiquette of the court. Even worse, poor Marie Antoinette fails to entrance her awkward, immature 14-year old husband and the marriage remains unconsummated.

Light, sparkling and yet psychologically acute, Becoming Marie Antoinette is the best novel I have yet read about the young Austrian arch-duchess’s journey towards becoming the most infamous French queen in history.

You might also be interested in my review of The Wardrobe Mistress: A Novel of Marie Antoinette by Meghan Masterson.

I was lucky enough to interview Juliet Grey, you can read it here.

Remember to leave a comment and let me know your thoughts!

INTERVIEW: Juliet Grey

Friday, May 18, 2018

 

Today I welcome Juliet Grey, author of Becoming Marie Antoinette, to the blog.

Are you a daydreamer too?
I’ve always been a daydreamer. I daydream even when I’m walking down the street. And when I’m in a place I don’t want to be, even in a city I don’t want to be living in, it gets me through the day. Being an actress as well as a writer, I live inside my head a lot.

Have you always wanted to be a writer?

No, although I have writers on both sides of my family and my paternal grandfather always encouraged my writing when I was a little girl. He was a humorist and a poet and taught me various poetic forms (such as the limerick, sonnet, and ballade – I was a huge fan of Cyrano de Bergerac): I began life as a professional actress, which is what I have also been for years as I pursued writing as an additional career. I find that each discipline feeds the other. And I also narrate audiobooks, so that marries both careers splendidly.

Tell me a little about yourself – where were you born, where do you live, what do you like to do?

I was born in New York City and that will always be my home no matter where I live. The soot of the subway is embedded in my veins. Central Park is my spiritual plot. I live in Denver now, because that’s where my husband got a terrific job; but I am not terribly outdoorsy—not a hiker, biker, or skier, and the thin air just isn’t for me. I don’t know whether it’s a chicken and egg thing, as I write historical books (fiction and nonfiction) I’m drawn to old places or whether it’s the other way around; but I love exploring the oldest part of a city and walking in the footsteps of those who have been there before me. I never met a museum I didn’t like. I love to travel to old cities like Bath and Venice and hunt around for the untouched bits where I imagine people in period costumes will emerge from ancient buildings. I love water, too. I am inspired by looking at the sea, or by rivers. The view calms my soul.

How did you get the first flash of inspiration for this book?
I was writing a chapter on Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI for NOTORIOUS ROYAL MARRIAGES, my second nonfiction book on the loves and lives of European royalty, and I was so struck by how young they both were (she only 14; he, 15) when they were forced into a loveless marriage as so many royal marriages were, by what was ostensibly an international peace treaty between France and the Austrian empire—entities that had been enemies for more than 950 years. And these 2 teens were expected to make a go of it and cement a national friendship? From the start, it was clear that these two children were caught in a web of events not of their own making and that were so much larger than them; and moreover, that their lives, especially Marie Antoinette’s –the foreigner in France, the “other” from the start—were so propagandized and distorted—and that was the story of them that has been handed down through the past several centuries as fact that I felt compelled to tell their story. Their true story. And the only way I felt I could do that was by writing historical fiction so I could get inside the characters’ heads and hearts and minds and souls, while still sticking to the historical record.

How extensively do you plan your novels?
I tend to be a bit more of a pantser because I become impatient to start writing already! That said, I take extensive handwritten notes; I research my books for several months before I begin writing, and when I’m writing a novel based on someone’s life I know what the arc of the story will be and where I want it to end, or where it has to end, but I have to plan where the breaks will be (chapter breaks, and for the Marie Antoinette trilogy, what will be in each of the 3 novels themselves). With my historical novels I am extremely keen to get the details right. I try to locate portraits of the characters so I know what they really looked like (it drives me crazy in TV or movie versions where the creators didn’t even bother to cast actors who resemble their real-life counterparts: it takes me right out of the story!). And I have a strict rule for my own writing: if it did happen or could have happened, it’s fair game for inclusion in the novel. If it never could have happened, I would never play fast and loose with the historical record. I will add an author’s note at the back of the book explaining where I may have truncated a timeline, for example. But I will not move a major battle for the sake of expedience and therefore alter history; or have a character survive when we know he or she was executed, just to provide them with a happy ending!

Do you ever use dreams as a source of inspiration?
I’m sure I do; I just can’t think of any examples right now. I always hope that a convenient dream will help me out of a stick plot situation that I can’t seem to fix in my waking hours!

Did you make any astonishing serendipitous discoveries while writing this book?
Marie Antoinette actually had to undergo an extensive physical “makeover” in order to be considered physically attractive enough to be a suitable bride for the Dauphin of France, the grandson of the reigning monarch, Louis XV. The match was arranged when she was only 10 years old and after the French received a portrait of her, the king dispatched a hairdresser to Vienna; a dentist, Pierre Laveran, was sent to straighten her teeth (18th c. orthodontia!) a dancing master was hired to teach Marie Antoinette all the court dances she would need to know in France, a tutor was hired to cram academics through her brain; and Empress Maria Theresa, Marie Antoinette’s mother, made the miscalculation to hire a pair of actors (!!) to train her youngest daughter in elocution. Actors—as we all know—were the second lowest life forms for centuries (only a step above beggars and prostitutes). With my mania for adhering to the historical record, I researched and found, then used in the novel, the names of each of the men who were actually involved in Marie Antoinette’s makeover. When it came to the actors, these two Frenchmen were performing with a troupe in Vienna. I had their actual names, but knew little more, so I began to ascribe fictional personalities to them. Then I delved deeper and discovered that one of the actors had been a vicomte in France but had fallen madly in love with an actress and gave up his cushy life and title to marry her and become an itinerant player! The real backstory was heaps better than what I’d invented for him!

Where do you write, and when?

I always write in my home office, which is another bedroom in our apartment. So far, except for brief periods when I’ve been moving and been between apartments (in corporate housing where I didn’t have a separate room to write in), I’ve had, as Virginia Woolf declared of paramount importance, “a room of one’s own.” It’s my sacred space with many of my bookshelves (the rest of the bookshelves are in our living room; I own about 2000 volumes). I need light and air. And wherever we move, I tend to let the room itself tell me how it wants to be decorated. It’s been different in each city. I write like a shark moves. It has to keep swimming or die. I must keep writing or die. Any and all times of day, 7 days a week, except for the middle of the night. I have no specific times of day, or days of the week when I write.

What is your favourite part of writing?

When the ideas are flowing and I am not “thinking about writing.” I adore researching. I love writing dialogue for characters and getting inside their minds. I am not one of those writers who loves editing.

What do you do when you get blocked?
Go to a museum. Change my view/the scenery. Bake. Do needlework (I learned when I played Jane Austen in a two-character play that she did the same thing until an idea came to her again). Act. Something else that is creative or viewing the creativity of others often unblocks my creative issues.

How do you keep your well of inspiration full?
See the question above! And travel! I love to travel.

Do you have any rituals that help you to write?

If I am writing something historical I like to collect totems that belonged to, or remind me of the characters or the era in which I am writing; scented candles, period-appropriate music. When I wrote a novel about Emma Hamilton and Lord Nelson, I had their autographs sitting by my computer, as well as a bust of Nelson that had been made from metal melted down from his flagship, the Foudroyant.

Who are ten of your favourite writers?

I am only going to name deceased writers because they are the ones who inspired me as a child and as a young woman, and whose work I loved performing—and also because it’s also a loaded question to ask an author who hates to discuss her colleagues’ work. I never name any living colleagues on a “best of” list because there are invariably those who wonder why their names are not on it.

William Shakespeare, George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, Noël Coward, Antoine de St. Exupéry, Jane Austen, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Earnest Hemingway, Molière, A.A. Milne.

What do you consider to be good writing?
Writing that takes me on a journey. Writing that has a strong, unique author’s “voice” that sounds like no other “voice”. Complex, nuanced characters. Atmosphere that is a character in itself. Writing that makes me think, feel, question, and that I remember long after I close the book.

What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?
Write. And if you are serious about getting published, get a literary agent. And write.

What are you working on now?

Promoting my current nonfiction title, AMERICAN PRINCESS: The Love Story of Meghan Markle and Prince Harry. It’s been a whirlwind. I had only 1 month to write and deliver the manuscript; then we went into edits and copyedits, and promotion. After the royal wedding, I will need a nap!

You can read my review of Becoming Marie Antoinette here.

BOOK REVIEW: Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

 

The Blurb (From Goodreads):

The coachman tried to warn her away from the ruined, forbidding place on the rainswept Cornish coast. But young Mary Yellan chose instead to honor her mother's dying request that she join her frightened Aunt Patience and huge, hulking Uncle Joss Merlyn at Jamaica Inn. From her first glimpse on that raw November eve, she could sense the inn's dark power. But never did Mary dream that she would become hopelessly ensnared in the vile, villainous schemes being hatched within its crumbling walls -- or that a handsome, mysterious stranger would so incite her passions ... tempting her to love a man whom she dares not trust.


My Thoughts:

I have set out to read my way through Daphne du Maurier’s novels again, and am so enjoying the exercise. Jamaica Inn is one I have not read since I was a teenager, and I love the dark brooding windswept atmosphere of the moors, the tightening screw of dread and suspense, and the psychological strain of cruelty, murder and madness.

The story begins with a young woman, Mary Yellan, in a coach, driving away from her home and towards an uncertain future. Her mother has died, and she is honouring a promise to go and live with her maternal aunt, Patience. All is dark and wild and stormy, and the coachman is reluctant to set her down at her uncle’s residence, Jamaica Inn, for it has a bad name and an evil prospect.

The heightened atmosphere, the brooding sense of tension, and the foreshadowing of wickedness to come is all set up in this opening scene – and, once Mary meets her uncle, a sense of impending sexual danger as well. It’s a tour de force in neo-Gothic narrative art, mirroring the opening scenes of Bram Stoker’s Dracula and the hero’s approach to the vampire’s castle. It also, of course, has echoes of Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre’s journey to Thornfield Hall.

Jamaica Inn
is Daphne du Maurier’s fourth novel, and was published when she was only 29. It has all the suspense, ambivalence and thwarted desire of her more famous novel, Rebecca, published two years later. She is often dismissed as a writer of romance, but I find her inventions dark, haunting and powerful.

You can read my review of Rebecca here.

Please leave a comment and let me know your thoughts.


BOOK REVIEW: The Wardrobe Mistress: A Novel of Marie Antoinette by Meghan Masterson

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

 

The Blurb (From Goodreads):

It's Giselle Aubry's first time at court in Versailles. At sixteen, she is one of Marie Antoinette's newest undertirewomen, and in awe of the glamorous queen and her opulent palace life. A budding designer, it's a dream come true to work with the beautiful fabrics and jewels in the queen's wardrobe. But every few weeks she returns home to visit her family in the Parisian countryside where rumors of revolution are growing stronger.

From her position working in the royal household, Giselle is poised to see both sides of the revolutionary tensions erupting throughout Paris. When her uncle, a retired member of the secret du roi, a spy ring that worked for the old King, Louis XV, suggests that she casually report the Queen s actions back to him as a game, she leaps at the chance. Spying seems like an adventure and an exciting way to privately support the revolution taking the countryside by storm. She also enjoys using her insight from Versailles in lively debates with Leon Gauvain, the handsome and idealistic revolutionary who courts her.

But as the revolution continues to gain momentum, and Giselle grows closer to the Queen, becoming one of the few trusted servants, she finds herself dangerously torn. Violence is escalating; she must choose where her loyalty truly lies, or risk losing everything...maybe even her head.

The Wardrobe Mistress is Meghan Masterson's fascinating and visceral debut, not to be missed.


My Thoughts:

I am currently working on a novel set during the French Revolution, and so I am deeply immersed in books on the subject. As well as plowing through all the in-depth biographies and histories I can find, I am also reading novels set during the period. The Wardrobe Mistress is a new addition to the oeuvre, by debut author Meghan Masterton.

The book is told in first-person by Giselle Aubry, a young woman who is employed by Marie Antoinette to help look after her sumptuous wardrobe at the royal court in Versailles. Giselle is therefore perfectly placed to see the dramatic events of the French Revolution unfolding. Her uncle asks her to spy on the queen, so that the family may know how best to react to any news, and in a spirit of adventure, Giselle accepts the role. However, Giselle finds herself torn between sympathy for the heady new principles of liberty and equality, and empathy for the beleaguered queen and her children. This ambivalence is only complicated by her attraction to a young and handsome revolutionary, Leon. Somehow Giselle must navigate her way through these conflicting loyalties as the revolution escalates towards violence and bloodlust.

I love the idea of showing the Revolution through the eyes of an ordinary young woman. Giselle’s bedazzlement by the glamour of the queen and her desire to please her family ring so true for the time, as does her confusion and anxiety over the right thing to do. I loved all the descriptions of court life and the queen’s gorgeous clothes, and also how the fashions of the time became a political statement. Meghan Masterson does a brilliant job of bringing to life many of the cataclysmic events of those years, without weighing down the narrative with too many characters or too much historical explanation. The Wardrobe Mistress is perfect for anyone who is intrigued by the French Revolution and wants a fast-paced and romantic tale set during its tumultuous era.

For another great read set during the French Revolution, check out my review of The Chateau on the Lake by Charlotte Betts.

Please leave a comment and let me know your thoughts. 

BOOK REVIEW: The Paris Seamstress by Natasha Lester

Friday, May 11, 2018


 

The Blurb (From Goodreads):

How much will a young Parisian seamstress sacrifice to make her mark in the male-dominated world of 1940s New York fashion? From the bestselling author of A KISS FROM MR FITZGERALD and HER MOTHER'S SECRET.

1940. Parisian seamstress Estella Bissette is forced to flee France as the Germans advance. She is bound for Manhattan with a few francs, one suitcase, her sewing machine and a dream: to have her own atelier.

2015. Australian curator Fabienne Bissette journeys to the annual Met Gala for an exhibition of her beloved grandmother's work - one of the world's leading designers of ready-to-wear. But as Fabienne learns more about her grandmother's past, she uncovers a story of tragedy, heartbreak and secrets - and the sacrifices made for love.

Crossing generations, society's boundaries and international turmoil, THE PARIS SEAMSTRESS is the beguiling, transporting story of the special relationship between a grandmother and her granddaughter as they attempt to heal the heartache of the past.


My Thoughts:

A dual-timeline novel that moves between the 1940s and contemporary times, The Paris Seamstress is a gorgeously rich and romantic novel about young women finding their way in the world.

The story begins with Estella Bissette, a young apprentice seamstress working with her mother at a fashion designer’s atelier in Paris. Her metier is creating silk flowers, but she dreams of designing her own dresses and takes every opportunity to practise her craft. But the Nazis are closing on France, and no-one knows what the future will hold. One day Estella gets caught up in a mysterious errand that smacks of intrigue and resistance … and meets a handsome stranger. With her life in danger, she must flee France, and with her mother’s help, gets a bunk on the SS Washington - the last American ship to leave French waters – with nothing more than a suitcase and a sewing machine.

The other narrative thread concerns Estelle’s granddaughter Fabienne, who arrives in Manhattan from Sydney for a celebration of her famous ancestor’s fashion designs. Fabienne is puzzled by some mystery in her grandmother’s past which the recent death of her father has revealed to her, and wishes to question her … but Estella is elderly and frail, and talk of the past upsets her. At the gala event, Fabienne meets a handsome stranger … but her own life is full of problems and troubles, and it seems unlikely their paths will ever cross again.

From that point onwards, the two stories cross and part and cross again, full of sensual descriptions of fabulous clothes and evocative descriptions of Paris and New York, then and now. I loved the story of how determined Estella builds her career from nothing, despite obstacle after obstacle, and I empathised with sensitive Fabienne, trying to step out from her grandmother’ shadow.

Much of the pleasure of this book is the wish-fulfillment fantasy it offers many women – the chance to imagine oneself in a swishy satin gown, drinking cocktails with high society in New York, flitting off to Paris on a whim and meeting the man of your dreams, inheriting palatial residences in two of the city’s most glamorous and sophisticated cities, making a name for oneself with your talent and hard work. The secret at the heart of the novel is not one of those surprising, oh-my-god-I-never-saw-that-coming plot twists that leaves you gasping – it’s more of a device to put the two women’s journeys into motion. But both of those journeys are so beguiling, I didn’t mind that at all.

And I just loved Estella’s final words to her granddaughter:

‘Be brave. Love well and fiercely. Be the woman I always knew you would be.’

These are wise and beautiful words indeed.

I was lucky enough to interview Natasha Lester for the blog, you can read it here.

And you can read my review of her earlier work, A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald, here.

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

INTERVIEW: Natasha Lester

Friday, May 11, 2018



Today I welcome Natasha Lester, author of The Paris Seamstress, to the blog.

Are you a daydreamer too?

Yes! I always have been. My daydreams were somewhat dramatic when I was younger, and spurred on by whatever I was reading - when reading Little Women, for instance, I daydreamed about having a sister who died; when reading What Katie Did I daydreamed about breaking my back and lying in bed for months on end. Thank goodness none of it actually happened to me, but I think my daydreaming habit is part of what made me want to be a writer – it’s the chance to, through words and stories, always be living another life besides your own as you write each book.

Have you always wanted to be a writer?

Another yes! My mum has kept lots of little books and stories and poems that I wrote when I was younger. I was always writing or reading and I dreamed of one day being able to do, with words, what other writers had done for me: sweep me away to another world for a few hours.

Tell me a little about yourself – where were you born, where do you live, what do you like to do?
I live in Perth and was born in Perth; I’ve lived in London and Melbourne too but Perth is definitely home. I love to read - of course! - and I also love to drink tea, go to yoga, go for long walks by the water, cuddle my gorgeous children, travel and collect vintage fashion.

How did you get the first flash of inspiration for this book?
I had the first flash of inspiration for The Paris Seamstress when watching the documentary, Dior & I, about Raf Simons’ tenure as Creative Director of the House of Dior. While watching the movie, I had a vision of a mother and daughter working together in a Parisian atelier and, while it took me months to work out who they were and what their stories might be, the seed for The Paris Seamstress was sown in that movie theatre.

How extensively do you plan your novels?
I don’t! I write a synopsis for my publisher and then I throw that away and start writing. I have tried to plan but it just doesn’t work for me; I can’t see the story in advance of writing it. I have to feel my way into it by getting the characters onto the page, by getting to know them, by letting them show me what the story actually is.

Do you ever use dreams as a source of inspiration?

Rarely, but I had a very vivid dream that prompted the contemporary storyline in The Paris Seamstress. Up until that point, the book had been just a historical novel but I dreamed one night about a new character, the main character Estella’s granddaughter in fact, and it was so vivid and so compelling I had to get up at four in the morning and write it all down. It was the most productive sleepless night I’ve ever had!

Did you make any astonishing serendipitous discoveries while writing this book?
Yes! When I began writing The Paris Seamstress, Estella, the main character, was going to be a traditional seamstress. But I went to Paris to research the book and a tour guide took me to an atelier where they practice the traditional métier of artificial flower making.

If you’ve ever seen a picture in a magazine of a Christian Dior or a Chanel gown in particular, you’ll notice that they’re often decorated with flowers. Haute couture has eight traditional métiers and flower making is one of them and the process was so fascinating that, as I sat in the atelier watching the women work, I knew Estella would have to do that same thing in my book. I went to New York after Paris and visited The Met, which always has a fabulous costume exhibition. Their exhibition that year was on the traditional haute couture métiers and featured an extensive collections of dresses featuring flower-work. The universe was definitely telling me it had to be Estella’s job!

What is your favourite part of writing?
Rewriting. I do love the flow of the first draft once I get to about 50,000 words. But because I am an inveterate pantser, I find first drafts quite scary as I never know if the story will work out. With redrafting, I have the story there and all I need to do is make it into the best possible version, which is a process I much prefer.

What do you do when you get blocked?

Because I only write in school hours (I have three young kids), I never have enough time to write so I never get blocked. If I’m facing a tough scene and I don’t know how to write it, I’ll go for a walk or go to yoga. Quiet thinking time, while doing something meditative like walking or swimming or yoga or even washing the dishes, is the best way to solve story problems.

Who are ten of your favourite writers?

Margaret Atwood, Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, AS Byatt, Dorothy Dunnett, Kate Atkinson, Joan Didion, Hilary Mantel, Paula McLain, Shirley Hazzard

What do you consider to be good writing?
When you forget you’re reading a book and feel as if you’re actually living in the world of the story.

What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?
Don’t give up! Dani Shapiro calls this, more elegantly, endurability. It means that you have to write for the love of writing itself, not for anything else. That love will sustain you through all the highs and lows and thorough the long years it takes to both write a book and have it published. If you give up, you just never know what might be around the corner, and you should never give up on something you love.

What are you working on now?
A book called The French Photographer, which is inspired by Lee Miller, a Vogue model turned photojournalist in WWII. She was an incredible woman and while my book isn’t strictly based on all the events of her life, my main character is heavily influenced by Lee’s work.


You can read my review of The Paris Seamstress here.

BOOK REVIEW: The Lace Weaver by Lauren Chater

Wednesday, May 09, 2018

 

The Blurb (From Goodreads):

Each lace shawl begins and ends the same way - with a circle. Everything is connected with a thread as fine as gossamer, each life affected by what has come before it and what will come after.

1941, Estonia. As Stalin's brutal Red Army crushes everything in its path, Katarina and her family survive only because their precious farm produce is needed to feed the occupying forces.

Fiercely partisan, Katarina battles to protect her grandmother's precious legacy - the weaving of gossamer lace shawls stitched with intricate patterns that tell the stories passed down through generations.

While Katarina struggles to survive the daily oppression, another young woman is suffocating in her prison of privilege in Moscow. Yearning for freedom and to discover her beloved mother's Baltic heritage, Lydia escapes to Estonia.

Facing the threat of invasion by Hitler's encroaching Third Reich, Katarina and Lydia and two idealistic young soldiers, insurgents in the battle for their homeland, find themselves in a fight for life, liberty and love.


My Thoughts:


A heart-wrenching novel of love, war and resistance set in Estonia in the 1940s, The Lace Weaver tells the story of two very different young women and their struggle to survive in a country caught between two of the greatest evils of the 20th century: Stalin’s Red Army and Hitler’s Third Reich.

The story begins in 1941, when Estonia is under Russian rule and suffering brutality, hunger and mass murders and deportations. Kati and her parents are doing the best they can by keeping their heads down and doing as they are told. Kati quietly rebels by keeping her beloved grandmother’s lace weaving circle alive, with a group of women meeting in secret to make the exquisite lace shawls that Estonia is famous for. The lace patterns become a repeating motif throughout the book, with each section named after one of the designs: Wolf’s Paw, Ring Pattern, Peacock’s Tails, Spider Stitch, Ash Pattern, and so on. I really love this aspect of the book, as the patterns became symbols for what the characters endured.

Meanwhile, in Moscow, another young woman named Lydia is living a life of ease and privilege with the bejewelled cage of the Stalinist elite. She longs to escape, however, as she gradually becomes aware of the cruelty of the Russian dictatorship. Eventually, she and her old nurse Olga escape to Estonia, only to be caught up in that country’s struggle for liberation.

For the oppressed Estonians, the news that Hitler’s forces are marching towards them brings hope and jubilation. It is not long, however, before they realise that they have exchanged one cruel regime for another. And Kati and Lydia are caught in the maelstrom, struggling just to survive.

This is a novel of love and war, heartbreak and hope, and the bonds between women, delicate as lace and yet as unbreakable as steel. Powerful, subtle and beautifully written and composed.

I was lucky enough to interview Lauren Chater recently, you can read it here.

You might also be interested in my review of The Betrayal by Kate Furnivall.

Please leave a comment, I love to know your thoughts!

INTERVIEW: Lauren Chater

Wednesday, May 09, 2018

 

Today I welcome Lauren Chater, author of The Lace Weaver, to the blog.

Are you a daydreamer too?

I’ve always been a daydreamer. When I was a child, I would make up songs and spells out of nonsense words just to see whether they ‘fit’ together. Reading books gave me permission to turn my daydreams into something more focussed and I would happily get lost for hours in stories by Enid Blyton and Ethel Turner during the school holidays. As I’ve gotten older, I actually think my capacity to daydream has increased to the point where I will very often have to ask someone to repeat a question because I’m still thinking about a story idea or something I’ve read. My husband finds it annoying but thankfully he’s learned to live with it and I’ve learned to stop apologising. It’s the writer’s curse (and blessing).

Have you always wanted to be a writer?

I often dreamed of being a writer when I was a kid, but it wasn’t something I took seriously until I had my son when at 28 years of age. It was more of a hobby, something I dabbled in now and then. Now I look back on all those wasted years and think, ‘what was I doing? I could have been honing my craft!’ The truth is, though, that I was gaining life experience in my twenties – traveling, falling in love, falling out of love, making friends and then losing them, living in a unit the size of a shoebox and one which was a veritable roach motel, getting married and trying to forge a corporate career and having babies. I didn’t realise it at the time but all those experiences have helped me understand more about myself and others and I wouldn’t trade them for anything. When I need to imagine what life must be like for one of my characters, I have a wealth of experience to draw on. After I made the decision to try my hand at writing novels, I did a lot of courses (many of them yours!) and I’m also going back to uni this year to complete my Masters in Creative Writing so I think my path is set now. Writers don’t just write; they live in the moment and observe. So I like to think that’s what I was doing all those years I wasn’t putting pen to paper.

How did you get the First Flash of inspiration for this book?
The idea for this book came to me as I was shelving books at my local library (where I was working at the time). I was in the craft section and a book called Knitted Estonian Lace caught my eye. I was intrigued enough by the title to pull it down and have a quick skim through. What I read there – the brief history of a little Baltic country which had been occupied by first the Russians then the Nazi’s during WW2 and the tradition of knitting lacy shawls which was passed down from mother to child, convinced me that there was a story waiting to be told. As I did more research into the terrible atrocities that were committed by the Soviets in the Baltic states, I began to wonder if the shawls could be a voice for the women who were oppressed. It seemed to me to be a topic which was worth exploring and writing about.

How extensively do you plan your novels?
I would like to say ‘a lot’ but the truth is that I’m quite an organic storyteller. I don’t like to know all my character’s secrets – I prefer them to be revealed to me as the story unfolds, at least in the first draft. My method is sketchy at best; I start by researching and allowing my mind to circle lots of different possible ideas and then I’ll hone in on certain events or motifs that whisper to me ‘I’m important!’ I think our subconscious actually knows a lot more than we give it credit for! So I like to give it a bit of free reign in those early stages as it throws up lots of interesting ideas I might not have hit on if I was plotting it all out in a very organised way. I also think following my main characters is important; if I know their history and their background, then the actions they take and the decisions they make within the world of the story will emerge naturally rather than feeling forced. I have no idea if this is a very efficient way to write (I suspect not) but it’s my process and I don’t think I can change it. I did read something that Joanne Harris (author of Chocolat) wrote the other day which I found very validating. It was, ‘Whether you consciously structure your plot or whether you allow it to develop more organically, chances are the end result will [be] the same.’ That’s not to say that writing courses and workshops and textbooks aren’t vital to understanding structure – they are – but once you’ve absorbed the knowledge of how story works it should really just fall into place as you write. I think paying attention to your own response to what’s happening on the page is important. The writer is really a reader, too so as I write I ask myself, ‘am I getting bored? Does this feel natural? Would she really say that?’ If the answer is no it’s back to the drawing board – or in my case, the keyboard.

Do you ever use dreams as a source of inspiration?

I have in the past. They’re certainly good for providing the initial rush of ideas to be explored. I’m a little more wary of them now as we’ve all had those dreams that we think will make BRILLIANT pieces of fiction and then when we sit down to write them they fall flat… I think they can be really helpful in untangling plot points and specific problems but it’s rare that I’ve dreamed up a whole story or a novel from start to finish. I know you (Kate) have found dreams to be instrumental in your practice. Maybe you should give some classes on how to access the liminal dreaming space. I’d sign up in a heartbeat!

Did you make any astonishing or serendipitous discoveries while researching your novel?
Haha because I research and write in that very intuitive way it feels like every discovery I made on this journey was serendipitous and astonishing! But no, there were some things which really made my skin tingle and gave me goosebumps – that’s when I knew I was onto something. Discovering that there was only a week between when the Soviets deported thousands of Estonians and when the German Nazi’s invaded Russia and occupied Estonia? That gave me goosebumps. What an astonishingy awful thing to go through; losing your friends and family, who’d been deported to Siberia, and then having to deal with the incoming occupied forces… That was a bit of a turning point in the narrative. Then of course traveling to Estonia and seeing the lace shawls, visiting the knitting museum in Haapsalu, a little seaside town on Estonia’s western coast, felt particularly significant. And then on the last day, our tour guide managed to locate a man whose father had been a forest brother. This man was now a ranger, and a conservationist and he knew a lot about the forest, the flora and fauna. It was wonderful to be able to ask questions about native plants and he took us deep into the forest and showed us an old bunker where some members of the Soviet anti-resistence movement had lived until they died in a shootout with the KGB. As we emerged from the forest later, I saw an old farmhouse with a thatched roof and lots of sheep dotting the fields and my heart lifted because it was exactly how I imagined Kati’s farmhouse might have looked. And they were sheep farmers, too! That felt an amazing moment of serendipity.

What do you write and when?
I write mainly historical fiction because that’s what I love to read. I do like to branch out and practice writing contemporary short stories but every story requires such a great amount of energy that I have to really concentrate on the historical in order not to fall behind deadline. As a completely different thing, I’m also writing my first non-fiction book, a little baker’s compendium called Well Read Cookies which features biscuits I’ve baked inspired by my favourite books. It’s coming out later this year also through S&S and it’s SO MUCH FUN… It’s totally whimsical and combines my love of baking with my love of reading. I can’t wait to share it! I write three days a week during school hours and sometimes on the other days, if my mum can babysit, but not in the school holidays. It’s just too hard with little people demanding my attention (which they have every right to do, I’m their mum!)

What is your favourite part of writing?

I love the feeling that comes when something is working in my writing; when I’ve pulled the strings together and it’s starting to feel real. It’s euphoric, like falling in love and for a short while, time ceases to exist and it’s just me and the page. Then of course, I have to go pick my kids up and I read over my work later and reality comes crashing down. Oh no, I think. It’s terrible! It’s not the wonderful, perfectly crafted piece of prose I thought it was! Then I laugh at myself and try to remember that everything can be edited once you’ve got something to work with.

What do you do when you get blocked?
I used to believe in writers’ block but now I don’t. My advice (to others and myself) if I get stuck is to just keep going. If you sit there long enough at your desk and keep writing, something will happen. You actually will find a way around the obstacle. Sometimes the obstacle might be not enough research but I just keep going in those cases and make a note to come back and check the facts later. It’s true, what they say about writing being rewriting. Almost everything needs to be rewritten at some stage so I try not to get all panicky and worried about that and I just move forward with the project. As a last resort, a deadline is a great way to punch through a mental block. Who has time to worry when you’ve got to deliver a manuscript in a month? You just do your best and the rest will come.

How do you keep your well of inspiration full?
I love doing courses and workshops, but they can get expensive and also they’re quite time-consuming, so if I can’t get out I just read, read, read. That keeps my well full! Reading books both in and outside of my genre has really helped me improve in my approach both to the writing and the structure of my novels. I’m always on the lookout for good recommendations from people I trust, be they booksellers, librarians, authors or bloggers. I recently read The Wonder by Emma Donoghue which you recommended and I absolutely adored it. It was incredible! It’s great when you stumble across someone who has the same taste in books so you can stalk their reading pile… and if buying new books is costly there’s always the library.

Do you have any rituals that help you write?
I don’t need much in order to write; just Word on my laptop and a quiet space. I know some writers are very ritualistic and I often look at pictures of their beautiful desks scattered with crystals inside their dedicated study-rooms and I sigh with longing… But my house is chaos when my children are around and I don’t have time to worry about the perfect conditions so as soon as they’re at school, I just roll up my sleeves and get to work. One day I will have a study of my own and I do dream of that day. Hopefully it comes sooner rather than later!

Who are ten of your favourite writers?
Only ten? I’ll have to shut my eyes and ramble them off before I start second-guessing myself! Ok… Tracy Chevalier, Geraldine Brooks, Kate Forsyth, Alice Hoffman, Sarah Waters, Isabel Allende, Virginia Woolf, Toni Morrison, Neil Gaiman and Hilary Mantel.

What do you consider to be good writing?

Writing is so incredibly subjective so the notion of what is ‘good’ will differ from person to person. For me, good (fiction) writing isn’t just about smooth and perfect prose that won’t ‘offend’ the reader or jolt them from the narrative. It’s about channelling an idea or telling a story that twists in surprising and unexpected ways. My favourite kind of writing always has an element in it that I think of as The Weird. The Weird is what makes a story stand out amongst the many hundreds of stories I’ve read before. It might make the reader uncomfortable or unsettled - and that’s ok. At least it’s provoking a response! Fiction shouldn’t just be about telling the same comfortable stories over and over. It should engage and inspire and enlighten us as readers and remind us that there is hope, even when things are bad. My favourite books all do that is some way.

What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?
Start by taking short courses. The State writers’ centres are a good place to start and there are professional organisations who run weekend workshops, too. Go along with an open mind and absorb as much as you can from your teachers. They are wise and wonderful people who have walked the path you want to tread. Then read, read, read and practice, practice, practice. Share your work with (certain) people that you trust or, if you want someone to give you objective feedback, see if you can arrange a manuscript assessment. It’s so hard to know what’s working and what’s not when you’re too close to the manuscript. This is true of published authors as well as emerging which is why editors exist. Editors are your friend. Listen to what they say, even if you don’t agree, and then go back and read your own work, imagining that you are a reader with no pre-knowledge of what the piece is about. Also, be humble about your achievements and friendly to other authors you meet. It’s a small industry and there are enough readers to go around. Another author’s success in your genre benefits everyone because it means readers will be out there wanting to find a similar book – and maybe, with luck, it will be yours.

What are you working on now?

I’m currently working on finishing off my non-fiction book, and then I’m diving back into the last half of my draft for my second novel, Gulliver’s Wife, which tells the story of Gulliver’s Travels from the perspective of his long-suffering spouse. It’s a bit different to The Lace Weaver, in that it’s set in 17th Century London, but there are similar themes which run through it such as the nature of women’s work, female friendship and forging your own path against the odds. It’s totally ambitious and I don’t know if I can pull it off but I’m going to try!

You can read my review of The Lace Weaver here.

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

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