Join Kate’s VIP Club Now!

Follow Me


Kate's Blog

Subscribe RSS

BEAUTY IN THORNS: Love Triangles of the Pre-Raphaelites

Thursday, September 06, 2018

The National Gallery of Australia has just announced a major exhibition of Pre-Raphaelite art will open in mid-December, and so - being the world's most passionate lover of Pre-Raphaelite art - I thought I would share with you some of the incredible stories I discovered while researching my novel, Beauty in Thorns, which tells the story of the women of the Pre-Raphaelite sisterhood.    

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was a secret society of young and idealistic artists and writers which formed in 1848, in the hope of revitalising British art. It was a time of great social unrest, with bloody revolutions sweeping across Europe and uprisings protesting the impact of the Industrial evolution on the lives of ordinary people.

Self-portrait, drawn by Dante Gabriel Rossetti 

At the heart of the Brotherhood were three artists who were all students at the Royal Academy of Art. Named John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, they wished to discard the heavy brown tones and rough brushwork of most Victorian paintings and return to the luminous colour palette and lapidary detail of late medieval and early Renaissance art.

Lizzie Siddal painted as Ophelia by John Everett Millais

Millais, Hunt and Rossetti were inspired by myths, legends, fairy-tales, history and poetry, and – in the beginning, at least – had high moral ambitions, striving to paint with seriousness, sincerity and truth to nature.

The other members of the brotherhood were Rossetti’s younger brother William, who kept a diary of their meetings; the painter and art critic Frederic George Stephens; the sculptor Thomas Woolner; and the painter James Collinson, who resigned after breaking off his engagement to Rossetti’s sister, Christina. 

Although the Brotherhood dissolved in the early 1850s, it was to prove highly influential on a younger generation of artists, including Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris — two divinity students at Exeter College, Oxford— who gave up their studies to pursue careers in art. They hero-worshipped Dante Gabriel Rossetti and forged a close friendship with him that led to a new flowering of creativity.

An angel painted by Edward Burne-Jones

They painted, wrote poetry, and designed wallpaper, soft furnishings and stained-glass windows and furniture for the company they set up together, Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. (which was later called Morris & Co.). 

These three men of the later Pre-Raphaelite circle were also joined together in complex romantic triangles. After Rossetti’s first wife Lizzie died, he embarked on a passionate affair with Morris’s wife Janey. Morris turned to Burne-Jones’s wife Georgie for comfort. Burne-Jones, meanwhile, dallied with one of his favourite models, the sculptor Maria Zambaco. Their liaisons scandalised Victorian society as much as their radically different art.

Jane Morris painted by Dante Gabriel Rossetti  

My novel Beauty in Thorns tells the fascinating story of these three couples – Gabriel and Lizzie Rossetti, William and Janey Morris, and Edward and Georgie Burne-Jones – who lived and loved freely and ardently whilst creating some of the most sublime art the world has ever seen. 

Want to see more of Pre-Raphaelite art? Check out my Beauty in Thorns Pinterest page!

BOOK REVIEW: The Silent Invasion by James Bradley

Wednesday, September 05, 2018


The Blurb (From Goodreads):

It's a decade from now and the human race is dying. Plants, animals and humans have been infected by spores from space and become part of a vast alien intelligence.

When 16-year-old Callie discovers her little sister Gracie has been infected, she flees with Gracie to the Zone to avoid termination by the ruthless officers of Quarantine. What Callie finds in the Zone will alter her irrevocably, and send her on a journey to the stars and beyond.

My Thoughts:

James Bradley is one of the most thoughtful, bold and unpredictable writers working in Australia right now. I loved his novel Wrack, about an archaeologist who is searching for the 400-year-old wreck of a Portuguese ship off the coast of New South Wales, but finds the body of a murdered man instead. It’s not a crime novel, though it has a mystery at its heart. It’s not a romance though it’s about love. It’s a difficult, genre-transcending book about cruelty and loss and longing. His novel The Resurrectionist was a dark and surprising exploration of grave robbers in Victorian England. His novella, Beauty's Sister, is the story of Rapunzel told from the point of her darker, wilder sister Juniper. It’s powerful, unexpected and rather sinister. Then there’s Clade (which I’ve not read yet) but which is described as a near-future novel about the effects of climate change which disrupts expected narrative structures.

The key words here are surprising, genre-transcending, unexpected, disruptive.

I really love boldness and unpredictability in a writer, because it’s a quality that requires nerves of steel and a strong sense of one’s creative vision. So many writers find themselves scurrying in a mouse-wheel of market expectations, churning out one similar book after another, second-guessing what readers want, caught up in competing for the ephemera of prizes, grants, bestseller lists, review inches. To write what inspires and excites you, to test boundaries and expectations, to stretch your creative muscles to straining point and beyond – that takes courage, and James Bradley has it in spades.

He is also a beautiful writer, elegant and restrained.

So I was drawn to reading James Bradley’s new dystopian novel for young adults, The Silent Invasion, not because I like YA dystopia (I don’t really), but because I admire his writing and I was interested to see what he’d do with the conventions of this rather over-crowded genre.

The story is told from the point-of-view of sixteen-year-old Callie. She lives in the near-future, at a time when the world has become infected with the spores of some kind of alien intelligence. The first signs are phosphorus on the skin, a strange glow in the eyes. Anyone showing signs of being infected is taken away by Quarantine officers. No-one knows where, or what happens to them. Callie’s own father – a scientist studying the spores – was taken away, and now Callie is being looked after by her step-mother and her boyfriend. She loves her little sister Gracie deeply, and when it becomes clear Gracie has been infected, Callie does her best to save her.

It’s a race against time. Callie is chasing rumours and speculations that there is a safe place, a Zone, where Gracie will be safe. They meet a boy, also running, and a clever and relentless Quarantine officer determined to stop them, and various people, some kind, some unspeakably cruel. It’s intense, fast-paced, politically aware, and heart-breaking. Callie is tough and yet vulnerable, intelligent and yet prone to impulse, loving but still afraid to surrender herself to love. And the writing is as beautiful and thoughtful as I hoped for. So many writers for teenagers sacrifice lyricism for pace. They are not mutually exclusive. In fact, a perfectly turned sentence has its own unstoppable force:

‘Sometime deep in the night the moon rose, and for a time I lay staring up at it and the great girdle of the Milky Way. Its brightness stretched from horizon to horizon, and I imagined myself falling upwards, leaving all of this behind and losing myself in its light. Once we had dreamed of travelling to the stars, of becoming explorers; now we scrabbled and fought to survive. What else lay out there, I found myself wondering. Were there other worlds, other possibilities? Or was this all there was, this chaos and fear and sense we were running from something we could not outrun? At some point I realised I was crying; surprised at myself, I tried to wipe my face, but the tears kept coming.’

The Silent Invasion reminded me of some of the great science fiction books of my own adolescence. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle and The Giver by Lois Lowry. I hope it strikes as strong a chord.

James Bradley's earlier book, Beauty's Sister, appears on my best books of 2013 list. You can read it here.

BOOK REVIEW: The Botanist’s Daughter by Kayte Nunn

Saturday, September 01, 2018


The Blurb (From Goodreads):

Discovery. Desire. Deception. A wondrously imagined tale of two female botanists, separated by more than a century, in a race to discover a life-saving flower . . .

In Victorian England, headstrong adventuress Elizabeth takes up her late father's quest for a rare, miraculous plant. She faces a perilous sea voyage, unforeseen dangers and treachery that threatens her entire family.

In present-day Australia, Anna finds a mysterious metal box containing a sketchbook of dazzling watercolours, a photograph inscribed 'Spring 1886' and a small bag of seeds. It sets her on a path far from her safe, carefully ordered life, and on a journey that will force her to face her own demons.

My Thoughts:

One of my favourite genres of fiction are books that weave together two separate narratives, one set in contemporary times and one set in the past. I also really love books about gardens and flowers and secrets and danger. So I had high hopes for Kayte Nunn’s new book, The Botanist’s Daughter, which promised so many elements I love.

The story begins in present-day Australia, when Anna finds a mysterious old notebook and an engraved metal box hidden inside the wall of her dead grandmother’s house. The box is locked, and Anna does not have the key.

The narrative then moves back in time to Cornwall, 1886, and the story of Elizabeth, a strong-willed heiress and the daughter of a botanist who has recently died. The metal box is hers, and contains boots that she hates. Chafing against the constraints of Victorian society, as exemplified by those tight, uncomfortable boots, Elizabeth decides to set out on her father’s last planned expedition, to Argentina and Chile …

It’s a marvellous beginning, and the story gallops on from there. Elizabeth discovers her father was searching for a rare flower with miraculous powers, and that many other dangerous men are also on its trail. Anna – who is a botanist herself - discovers that the box contains a sketchbook of exquisite botanical drawings, a photograph, and a bag of seeds. She is intrigued despite herself, and begins to try and unravel the mystery. But Anna has secrets of her own, and her quest threatens to bring them out of the shadows.

The Botanist’s Daughter is an utterly riveting story of two women, divided by a century in time, but united by their quest to discover a rare and dangerous flower said to have the power to heal as well as kill. Fast-moving and full of surprises, The Botanist's Daughter brings the exotic world of 19th-century Chile thrillingly to life while delivering a poignant and heart-warming story of romance and new beginnings in its contemporary thread. A must-read for lovers of Kimberly Freeman and Mary-Rose MacColl.

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

You might also be interested in my review of Kayte Nunn's earlier book, Rose's Vintage.

Please leave a comment and let me know your thoughts.

INTERVEW: Kayte Nunn

Saturday, September 01, 2018


This week we welcome Kayte Nunn, author of The Botanist's Daughter and Rose's Vintage, to the blog.

Are you a daydreamer too?
Card-carrying. I feel like I’ve always lived in my own head. Being sent to boarding school at the age of eleven meant that I spent a lot of time in a world of my own, pretending I was anywhere else but there. In the dorm at night we used to tell each other stories, often a continuing saga that was told night by night for weeks on end. I still daydream, but these days it is more about my characters and who they might be, what they might be doing and saying to me.

Have you always wanted to be a writer?

I’ve always loved words and books and reading, and had a secret dream to be a novelist, but thought that it was something other, far cleverer people than me did. As a child I wrote stories, and even made and illustrated a couple of children’s books, one of which I still have.

I studied English and publishing at uni and worked as an editor and writer of non-fiction before finally summoning the courage to write fiction, and I’m so pleased I did – writing fiction fills me up like nothing else can.

Tell me a little about yourself – where were you born, where do you live, what do you like to do?
I was born in Singapore, as my father was in the British RAF and stationed there and then grew up mostly in England. I moved to Australia – for love – in my mid-20s and never left. My family and I recently moved from Sydney to the NSW Northern Rivers where we are about to build an eco-home on a few acres in the countryside. When I’m not writing, I love to bake – cakes, cookies, pies and tarts. I also try and run and hike to work off the effects of the baking! Oh, and I’ve always got a pile of books to read.

How did you get the first flash of inspiration for this book?
A little over three years ago, I took my youngest daughter on a picnic in the Botanic Gardens in Sydney. It was to be one final mother-daughter day out before she started school. It was a hot, sultry day and we were looking for fairies – as you do with a four-and-a-half-year-old – when we found ourselves at the herb garden. At the centre is a beautiful cast bronze sundial with a relief of herbs around it. I put my hand on the warm metal and immediately saw an image of a young girl in an English walled garden, where there was a similar sundial. I walked around the rest of the day in a daze as I began to wonder what her story was.

How extensively do you plan your novels?
I do plan them, but bit by bit as they unravel. By the time I’m about 25% in, I have a clearer idea of where I’m headed. I have a white board, divided into segments (like acts of a play) where I work out what is happening and when in the story, to ensure that the underlying structure works, and that rising and falling action occurs when it should. I worked really hard on the structure of The Botanist’s Daughter, and it helped enormously when it came to the editing process.

Also, Kate, you very kindly gave me some extremely helpful advice when I first started this novel, about tackling a dual timeline, and I wrote one narrative first before starting the other. I wanted each story to be able to stand on its own, and I think this approach really helped.

For my next book, I actually had to write a blurb about it (which I love doing, as it’s something I used to do often for other books when I worked in publishing) as my publisher asked what else I was working on, and having that succinct synopsis really helped my focus.

Do you ever use dreams as a source of inspiration?
Not so much dreams, but I love your practice of liminal thinking, the daydreamy state you have just before going to sleep or just after you’ve woken up – I find that time incredibly helpful when I’m imagining a story into life.

Did you make any astonishing serendipitous discoveries while writing this book?
When I was in the middle of writing the book I visited Kew Gardens and came upon the wonderful Marianne North Gallery. She was a 19th-century botanical artist and adventurer and I knew that that someone like Elizabeth in my book really had lived then.

I also happened to be talking about the idea for the book to my neighbour, who mentioned that Cornwall is known for its remarkable gardens. I had spent many childhood holidays there, so knew the area, and as I researched more about plant hunters in the 19th century, realised that it was the perfect place to set part of the story.

When I was researching 19th-century Chile, I came across a diary of a widowed sea captain’s wife who spent several months in Valparaiso in the 1850s. Her descriptions of the flora and fauna of the area, and everyday life there, were absolutely invaluable in helping me imagine the city and landscape at that time. Her fortitude in the face of losing her husband and being in a foreign country was also inspiring and I realised as I was finishing the book, that The Botanist’s Daughter is about courage – both large, obvious acts of courage as well as smaller, but no less remarkable ones.

Where do you write, and when?

I write in my living room, in cafés occasionally, in the car at soccer practice, by the side of swimming pools … anywhere I have a spare few hours. A large part of The Botanist’s Daughter was written in the prosaic surrounds of a shopping centre food court near where my daughter was doing gymnastics several times a week! Having worked in busy magazine offices, I can fairly effectively tune out the noise around me.

When I first started writing, I did it in addition to a busy freelance writing and editing load, but I’m lucky enough that now I write pretty much full time in school hours, with only the occasional freelance job when it arises. It’s meant a few changes for our family, and sacrifices, but it is starting to come good.

I set myself a daily word count and don’t quit until I reach it. I don’t write particularly fast – I fight for every word – but I’ve found that it results in a fairly tight first draft that doesn’t need too much jettisoned.

I’m still trying to work out how to combine writing with school holidays!

What is your favourite part of writing?

The feeling of having written!

Also, when my characters come alive and start to talk to me – I hear lines of their dialogue at random times of the day and have to scramble to get them down before they float away.
Writing the final lines of a first draft.

What do you do when you get blocked?

I go for a walk and think about my characters and what should happen next. Usually by the time I’ve been out for half an hour or so I can come back and sit down and write again. Also, when I’m feeling really inspired, I write outlines of where the story needs to go so that I know what to write next when I’m struggling.

How do you keep your well of inspiration full?
I’ve been lucky so far that a new idea for a novel has come to me as I’ve needed it. But in the background I am reading, reading, reading, as well as watching documentaries, news stories and making notes of my ideas and thoughts.

Do you have any rituals that help you to write?
I find I need a calm mind, so I try to get any niggling chores and admin out of the way (though I make sure really time-consuming chores are done away from writing time), and I always hide my phone as it’s too tempting to check it when I get stuck. Other than that, it’s just me and a laptop and somewhere comfortable to sit.

Who are ten of your favourite writers?

Elizabeth Goudge, Daphne du Maurier, Jilly Cooper, Laurie Lee, Maria Semple, Celeste Ng, Isabelle Allende, Geraldine Brooks, Cormac McCarthy, Tim Winton… but there are so many more.

What do you consider to be good writing?
Language and stories that transport you to another world, that seem more real than the world around you and that you don’t want to leave when the book ends. I do like a book that affects me so much that it makes me cry.

What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?
If you’re writing for publication: Do the work – learn the craft. Do short courses, read books on craft, read fiction critically – read books that you love and work out what it is about them that achieves that.

Go to writers’ festivals and listen to other writers talk about their work.

Be aware of what is currently selling well, but write what you love – the book you’d most like to read.

Be brave. Start with a few short stories if the thought of a whole novel is overwhelming.

Don’t give up, even when you doubt yourself. When I started writing, I had a small yellow post-it on my laptop that said ‘play big’. Not ‘dream big’, which felt too wishy-washy, but ‘play big’.

What are you working on now?

I’m in the middle of edits for my next novel, which is about a bundle of unsent love letters discovered in an old suitcase on a remote British island, and then I am at the start of a story set in an English boarding school that is about to admit girls for the first time.

You can read my review of The Botanist's Daughter here.

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.

Subscribe RSS

Recent Posts



Blogs I Follow