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BOOK REVIEW: Love & Hunger: Thoughts on the Gift of Food by Charlotte Wood –

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

 

The Blurb (From Goodreads):

The award-winning author of The Children and Animal People, explores the solitary and shared pleasures of cooking and eating in an ode to good food, prepared and presented with minimum fuss and maximum love.

'What's important is the fact of eating together - the gathering at the table, the conviviality.'

Love & Hunger is a distillation of everything Charlotte Wood has learned over more than twenty years about cooking and the pleasures of simple food well made. In this age of gastro-porn and the fetishisation of food, the pressure to be as expert as the chefs we've turned into celebrities can feel overwhelming.

An instant antidote to such madness is this wise and practical book - an ode to good food, prepared and presented with minimum fuss and maximum love.

Cooking represents 'creativity in its purest form'. It is meditation and stimulation, celebration and solace, a gift both offered and received. It can nourish the soul - and the mind - as well as the body. Love & Hunger will make you long to get into the kitchen to try the surprising tips and delicious recipes, and will leave you feeling freshly inspired to cook with joy for the people you love. Love & Hunger is a gift for all who value the solitary and shared pleasures of cooking and eating. Like a simple but glorious meal, this feast of a book is infused with warmth and generosity.

Acclaimed and award-winning novelist Charlotte Wood also writes the popular cookery blog How to Shuck an Oyster and is a brilliant home cook and food enthusiast. An invitation to dinner at Charlotte's house is always cause for celebration.


My Thoughts:

Charlotte Wood is best known as the Stella-award-winning author of The Natural Way of Things, but she is also a brilliant cook and food writer. For quite a few years, she wrote a food blog called ‘How to Shuck an Oyster’ in which philosophical musings on the importance of food and eating were mixed with helpful tips on how to be a better cook.

Love & Hunger grew out of this blog, and is a warm, wise, personal and practical collection of essays, recipes and cooking advice. Charlotte shares her own discovery of the art of cooking, gives guidance on how to be a good host, offers shrewd insights into the causes of picky eating, mediates on the fear of death in the disgust of offal, and brings me to tears discussing the best way to cook for people who are ill and dying.

I love to cook myself, and relish reading books about food and cooking. It is rare, however, to find one written with such intelligence, sensitivity, and skill. There is not a sentence in the whole book that is not beautifully constructed, and not an essay which does not enlighten and inspire. Love & Hunger is a book to be read in a single gulp, and then returned to again and again for savouring.

For another great food-inspired read, check out my review of Picnic in Provence by Elizabeth Bard.

Please leave a comment, I love to hear your thoughts.



BOOK REVIEW: Peach by Emma Glass

Friday, July 13, 2018

 

The Blurb (From Goodreads):

Something has happened to Peach. Staggering around the town streets in the aftermath of an assault, Peach feels a trickle of blood down her legs, a lingering smell of her anonymous attacker on her skin. It hurts to walk, but she manages to make her way to her home, where she stumbles into another oddly nightmarish reality: Her parents can't seem to comprehend that anything has happened to their daughter.

The next morning, Peach tries to return to the routines of her ordinary life, going to classes, spending time with her boyfriend, Green, trying to find comfort in the thought of her upcoming departure for college. And yet, as Peach struggles through the next few days, she is stalked by the memories of her unacknowledged trauma. Sleeping is hard when she is haunted by the glimpses of that stranger's gaping mouth. Working is hard when her assailant's rancid smell still fills her nostrils. Eating is impossible when her stomach is swollen tight as a drum. Though she tries to close her eyes to what has happened, Peach at last begins to understand the drastic, gruesome action she must take.


My Thoughts:

An extraordinary, savage, and surreal novel by a young British debut author, Peach is quite unlike any novel I’ve read in a long time.

A young woman named Peach stumbles home, blood trickling down her leg, language shattering to pieces in her head: ‘Thick stick sticky sticking wet ragged wool winding round the wounds, stitching the sliced skin together as I walk, scraping my mittened hands against the wall. Rough red bricks ripping the wool. Ripping the skin. Rough red skin. Rough red head.’

There is a sense that whatever has happened to Peach has been so traumatic, so destructive, that her very sense of the world has been broken open and rendered inchoate.

She makes it home, and stitches herself closed. Normal life seems abnormal. Her parents are oblivious, self-obsessed, sex-fixated. All Peach’s perceptions seem preoccupied by thoughts of food. Her baby brother is jelly: ‘his jelly body jiggles.’ Her boyfriend Green is a tree: ‘He kisses my mouth and I taste twigs. His brown eyes take root in mine.’ Her teacher Mr Custard is, unsurprisingly, ‘yellow goop’. Her attacker is a sausage, and his lingering ‘smell of rotting pig meat’ overwhelms her.

In an interview with The Sydney Morning Herald, Emma Glass said she wanted to create a ‘sensory experience’ by focusing on language rather than a conventional plot. In this she has succeeded. The staccato sentences, relentless repetition, and adroit word play create an intense, raw and visceral tone. Nothing and no-one seems real. Peach has staggered into a nightmarish and absurdist world. ‘Everything that was up is down. Gravity is gone.’

It is not an easy book to read, because of this intensity. I kept having to put the book down, to try and settle my stomach and my mind, only to pick it up again, troubled but riveted. Her stream-of-consciousness style reminds me of James Joyce, William Faulkner, Toni Morrison and Arundhati Roy. It is written in language cracked by violence and cruelty. As Emma Glass said herself, it is ‘the language of ordeal’.

A tour-de-force in experimental writing, Peach is bold, surprising, and unsettling. Not for the weak-stomached.


You might be interested in reading my review of The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy.

I was lucky enough to interview Emma Glass this week, you can read it here.

Have you read Peach? Please leave a comment and let me know what you think.

INTERVIEW: Emma Glass

Friday, July 13, 2018

 

Today we welcome Emma Glass, author of Peach, to the blog.

Tell me a little about yourself – where were you born, where do you live, what do you like to do?
I was born and raised in Swansea, South Wales. I’ve lived in London for seven years where I work as a children’s nurse. I’m still figuring out how to be both a writer and a nurse, my work is essential, it’s an amazing source of inspiration and makes me feel like a useful, helpful person. Writing is my escape, but I wish I had a little more balance in my life as I rarely have extended periods of time to write. When I’m not nursing or writing I like to run on Hampstead Heath and spend time cooking and eating.

What is your favourite part of writing?
The best part of writing is finishing a piece and having someone read it, that’s when the writing becomes a story.

What do you do when you get blocked?

Cry. Learning how to be a productive writer is still a challenge for me. The best advice I heard from another writer to avoid block is to stop writing when you realise you’re on a roll. It’s much more appealing to go back to writing something you’re excited about than to go back to something you feel stuck on.

Who are ten of your favourite writers?
Patrick DeWitt
Magnus Mills
George Saunders
Margaret Atwood
Roald Dahl
Gertrude Stein
James Joyce
Shirley Jackson
Ann Patchett
Joan Lindsey

What do you consider to be good writing?
Writing that doesn’t just open up your imagination, but evokes reactions that you can feel in your body, something that stays with you a long time.

What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?
Don’t compromise on your art. Take advice on titles for your work. Always have a back up plan; writers need food and water, like plants and flowers.

What are you working on now?

Hopefully a ghost story!

You can read my review of Peach here.

Please leave a comment!


BOOK REVIEW: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

 

The Blurb (From Goodreads):

In nineteenth-century China, in a remote Hunan county, a girl named Lily, at the tender age of seven, is paired with a laotong, “old same,” in an emotional match that will last a lifetime. The laotong, Snow Flower, introduces herself by sending Lily a silk fan on which she’s painted a poem in nu shu, a unique language that Chinese women created in order to communicate in secret, away from the influence of men.

As the years pass, Lily and Snow Flower send messages on fans, compose stories on handkerchiefs, reaching out of isolation to share their hopes, dreams, and accomplishments. Together, they endure the agony of foot-binding, and reflect upon their arranged marriages, shared loneliness, and the joys and tragedies of motherhood. The two find solace, developing a bond that keeps their spirits alive. But when a misunderstanding arises, their deep friendship suddenly threatens to tear apart.


My Thoughts:


This extraordinary novel was first pubished in 2005, and gained a great deal of attention at the time, becoming a New York Times bestseller and being made into a movie. It was a book I always meant to read, but never picked up, until my own trip to China this month encouraged me to give it a go (I always like to read books set in the country to which I am travelling.)

It is an absolutely riveting read, telling the story of a long friendship between two Chinese women in the nineteenth century. At the age of seven, Lily is paired with another girl of the same age named Snow Flower. Their relationship is one of laotongs or sworn sisters, with a signed contract between them akin to that of marriage. "A laotong relationship is made by choice for the purpose of emotional companionship and eternal fidelity. A marriage is not made by choice and has only one purpose – to have sons." Snow Flower introduces herself to Lily by sending her a silk fan on which she’s painted a poem in nu shu, a secret language written only by Chinese women so they can communicate without men knowing.

The two girls have their feet bound on the same day, and their shared agony knot their lives together even more closely. This chapter is one of the most powerful and heartrending in the book, and dissects an appalling cultural practise that literally crippled girls so that they were kept closely constrained within the house and family. Not banned in China until 1912, foot-binding today seems barbaric but Snow Flower & the Secret Fan shows how deeply entrenched it was in some sections of Chinese culture. This unflinching honesty and historical accuracy is one of the great strengths of the novel, and truly transports the reader back in time.

As the years pass, Lily and Snow Flower continue to write their clandestine language on the fan, recording their hopes and dreams and fears and failures. Both have marriages arranged for them, both have children, and both carry secrets that will ultimately damage their deep bond.

Intense friendship between women is not often depicted in fiction, and that alone makes Snow Flower and the Secret Fan remarkable. I was also utterly immersed in the world of nineteenth century China, and its fascinating beliefs and customs. I feel I learned so much, and understood an aspect of human life that had always been closed to me before. This is what great historical fiction does for its readers – it teaches and illuminates as well as engaging and diverting. Haunting, heartbreaking and enthralling, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is utterly brilliant in every sense of the word.

For another great read about female relationships, check out my review of Louise Allan's The Sisters' Song. 


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

Please leave a comment and recommend me some similar books!


INTERVIEW: Lisa See

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

 

Today I welcome Lisa See, author of many books, including Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, to the blog.

Are you a daydreamer too?
Absolutely. I don’t know how a writer could not be a daydreamer. We’re daydreaming all the time.

Have you always wanted to be a writer?
I knew three things about myself when I was growing up. I never wanted to get married, I didn’t want to have children, and I always wanted to live out of a suitcase. I took two years off from college to travel in Europe. The whole time I was wondering how I was going to make my life work the way I envisioned it and how I would be able to support myself. One morning, when I was living in Greece, I woke up and it was like a cartoon lightbulb had gone off in my head. I thought, Oh, I could be a writer! But clearly I didn’t know myself very well, because I also got married and had children. I still spend an awful lot of time living out of a suitcase though!

In one way, I was extremely fortunate with my first book. In another way, I’d already worked a very long time as a writer. To backtrack… I had worked as a journalist for many years and had been the West Coast correspondent for Publishers Weekly for about eight years when I started On Gold Mountain. Like I said, I’d already been working a long time as a professional writer, so people in publishing knew me and my work. (They may not have known me personally, but they read me almost every week and knew, among other things, that I could meet a deadline.) I also benefited from the success of Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club. Publishers were actively looking for more Chinese-American stories. Amy’s agent was Sandy Dijkstra. Sandy has a great American art collection, and she helped me with some of the art sources for On Gold Mountain. After two years of work—doing interviews, traveling back to the home village, searching out what I could find in archives, and then writing the proposal—I thought that Sandy would be the perfect person to sell the idea. There was an auction—a miracle as far as I was concerned. So, hard work, timing, and good luck.

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

I was born in Paris, but I consider myself to be a fifth generation Angeleno and sixth generation Californian. My parents were traveling when I was born. I spent my first six weeks sleeping in a dresser drawer. I live in Los Angeles. I love to hike, go to movies, eat fabulous food. I love being in nature. I love to travel. Most of all, I love to spend time with my family.

How did you get the first flash of inspiration for this book?
I first heard about nu shu – the women’s secret writing that was invented, used by, and kept a secret by women in one small county in Hunan province for a thousand years – when I reviewed a book for the Los Angeles Times on the history of footbinding. It was just a short three- or four-page mention, but I thought, how could the secret writing exist – the only writing system to have been found anywhere in the world used exclusively by women – exist and I didn’t know about it? Then I thought, how could this exist and we all didn’t know about it? Because so often we hear that in the past, there were no women writers, artists, historians, chefs, and the list goes on and on. Of course, women did these things, but that work has been lost, forgotten, or deliberately covered up. Nu shu, on the other hand, was an example of something that women had invented, used, and kept a secret for a thousand years. That amazed me, and I have to say I became totally obsessed. That obsession is what led me to write Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.

How extensively do you plan your novels?
I usually start with a seven-page outline. It has the main characters, the relationship I want to explore, the historical background, and a bit of a sense of the beginning, middle, and end. Then I start to do research. Without question, research is my favorite part of the process. I never know what I’m going to find. There are days when I’m hidden in the UCLA Research Library and I’ll come across something and think, Oh, I’ve got to use that! What this means is that the research helps build the plot. These things start to become signposts along the way. The outline begins to grow to sometimes as long as fifty or sixty pages. As I write, I’m slowly moving from major signpost to the next major signpost. In the day-to-day writing, my imagination takes over as I think about my characters moving toward that next signpost.

Do you ever use dreams as a source of inspiration?

Rarely. But sometimes when I’m stuck I’ll task my sleep time with trying to figure out what should happen next or how to solve a plot problem. Sometimes it takes a few nights of sleep, but then one morning I’ll wake up and I’ll think, Aha! Problem solved!

Did you make any astonishing serendipitous discoveries while writing this book?
Not so much with Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, but it certainly happened with my most-recent novel, The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane. That book has a character named Deh-ja, who’s banished very early in the novel. After she was banished, I thought that was the end of her character. But things don’t always turn out as I plan. Years (and many chapters) later, when Li-yan, the main character, is walking to Thailand, who does she bump into? Deh-ja! That totally surprised me, but it made me very happy to see her again. Then, many years after that, when Li-yan is on the steps of the Social Welfare Institute in Menghai, who’s there? Deh-ja! Again! I was even more surprised. She wasn’t in my plot outline, and yet she kept elbowing her way into the story. As Li-yan says to her, the fact that they kept bumping into each other in the most unlikely places had to mean something. For Li-yan, that meant taking Deh-ja home with her. For me, it meant Deh-ja needed to be in the story. And for Deh-ja, it meant that her persistence had won.

Where do you write, and when?

I have an office at home. We have a beautiful garden, but my desk faces the wall because I don’t want to be distracted by the beauty outside my window. I get up early and work on my e-mail for an hour or two. Then I write 1,000 words a day. That’s only four pages. Some days I write more, but I try never to write less. I write from beginning to end without stopping to edit. Some writers won’t move forward until they get the first sentence, then the first paragraph, then the first page absolutely perfect, but I think you can spend a lot of time questioning yourself doing that. Also, if you write straight through, you allow magic – those unexpected things that pop up – to happen.

What is your favourite part of writing?
The research! I’ve gotten to travel to some really interesting places. But more than that, I just love the discovery of new things.

What do you do when you get blocked?
I’ve never had writer’s block. (And please don’t jinx me now!) That doesn’t mean that some days I don’t feel like writing or that I think what I’m writing sucks and will eventually be cut. Even when it’s going badly, I feel it’s really important to just keep writing that 1,000 words a day. This is not to say that sometimes I don’t get stuck: how am I going to physically get a character from here to there, what is the importance of an object and how does it play out in the story, why is a character behaving so badly? When these things come up, I don’t panic. I allow myself to daydream. (I find I have the best daydreaming when I walk, am stuck in traffic, or am in the shower. In other words, placed where no one can interrupt my imagining mind.) And I tell myself to let my sleeping mind figure it out.

How do you keep your well of inspiration full?
This is a great question, because it applies to every part of our lives. To me, the answer all boils down to keeping your heart and mind open. That means literally being open to new ideas, new artists, new art, new emotions, new—and different—everything.

Do you have any rituals that help you to write?
Not really. I make myself a great cup of tea. I try to close out the rest of the world. (My desk facing the wall instead of the garden, as I wrote earlier). I only type with three fingers. (That’s right. Eleven books with only three fingers!) I play music as long as there are no words in it or I can’t understand the language. Geez! I guess I have rituals after all!

Who are ten of your favourite writers?
I’m going to put these in alphabetical order so no one has their feelings hurt (assuming they’re still alive): Bob Dylan, E.M. Forster, Rudyard Kipling, John Lennon, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Nina Revoyr, Carolyn See (my mom), Wallace Stegner, Amy Tan. For my tenth favorite, I’m going to say all the other wonderful writers out there.

What do you consider to be good writing?
I love books that when you open them you step into another world, another culture, another time. A truly good writer is able to take me to those places. Great writing allows me to connect to a character who’s real or imagined. What are we doing as readers when we’re making those connections? I believe we’re thinking about what we would do in that situation. Would we rise to the occasion or fail? Would we be loyal or betray someone? What I believe we’re doing in those moments is connecting to what it means to be human. We’re connecting to this greater thing we call humanity. That to me is good writing, and it’s what I strive for in my own work.

What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?
Write a thousand words a day, five days a week. That’s only four pages a day. At the end of a week, you’ll have a chapter. Write what you really care about. You need to be passionate, because it takes a long time to write a book and a lot of bumps happen along the road to publication. Love, love, love what you do.

What are you working on now?
The next novel, THE ISLAND OF SEA WOMEN, takes place on the island of Jeju in South Korea. Jeju is home to the haenyeo—women who free dive for up to two minutes on a single breath. The island has a matrifocal society, meaning that the culture is centered around women. It’s the women who earn money and provide for their families, while the men take care of the children, cook, and do the housework. It used to be that haenyeo retired at age fifty. Now the youngest ones are fifty! This is extremely dangerous work. The women go down sixty feet (again on a single breath) to harvest sea urchin, octopus, and abalone. When I was on Jeju, I got to interview several haenyeo who were in their eighties and nineties. The novel explores the bonds of friendship and how historic events affect people and those they love.


You can read my review of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan here.

BOOK REVIEW: The Jade Lily by Kirsty Manning

Friday, July 06, 2018

  

The Blurb (From Goodreads):

In 2016, fleeing London with a broken heart, Alexandra returns to Australia to be with her grandparents, Romy and Wilhelm, when her grandfather is dying. With only weeks left together, her grandparents begin to reveal the family mysteries they have kept secret for more than half a century.

In 1939, two young girls meet in Shanghai, the 'Paris of the East': beautiful local Li and Viennese refugee Romy form a fierce friendship. But the deepening shadows of World War Two fall over the women as Li and Romy slip between the city's glamorous French Concession and the desperate Shanghai Ghetto. Eventually, they are forced separate ways as Romy doubts Li's loyalties.

After Wilhelm dies, Alexandra flies to Shanghai, determined to trace her grandparents' past. As she peels back the layers of their hidden lives, she begins to question everything she knows about her family - and herself.

A compelling and gorgeously told tale of female friendship, the price of love, and the power of hardship and courage to shape us all.


My Thoughts:

I flew off to China on a research trip last month, and so Kirsty Manning’s new book arrived with perfect timing to pack and take with me.

A parallel narrative moving between Australia and China, and modern day and the 1930s, The Jade Lily is a rich and evocative story of family secrets and love.

In 2016, Alexandra returns to Australia to be with her grandparents, Romy and Wilhelm, in the final weeks of her grandfather’s life. As she spends time with her grieving grandmother, Alexandra begins to wonder about some of the hidden mysteries of the past. Alexandra’s mother was adopted in China after the war, but Romy has never wanted to talk about why a young Western couple should bring home a Chinese baby at such a tumultuous time.

The narrative then moves to Romy’s point-of-view in 1938, when she and her parents are forced to flee Vienna after Kristallnacht brings violence and tragedy into their lives. Unable to find asylum anywhere, the family finds their way to Shanghai, the 'Paris of the East', the only place offering still visas to Jewish refugees.

Shanghai is strange and exotic to Romy’s bewildered eyes, but it is not long before her father, a doctor, finds work, and Romy begins to make friends with the beautiful Chinese girl next door, Li Ho, and her dreamy artistic brother Jian.

Meanwhile, in modern times, Alexandra has moved to Shanghai with her work and is taking the opportunity to research her mother’s true identity. Every avenue of enquiry ends in a dead end, but she too makes new friends, among them a handsome landscape designer who creates extaordinary gardens mingling Eastern and Western traditions.

As with Kirsty Manning’s first book, The Midsummer Garden, a great deal of the pleasure of reading The Jade Lily comes from the lush sensuality of her descriptions of food, cooking, gardens and healing herbs. The air of Shanghai is redolent with spices, Romy learns to make chrysanthemum tea, and Alexandra discovers the delicious local cuisine while strolling through crowded markets hung with red lanterns inscribed in gold. The two Shanghais – one modern and cosmopolitan, the other old and filled with fascinating traditions – are both brought to vivid and compelling life. Utterly sumptuous.

You can read my review of The Midsummer Garden here.

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

Please leave a comment, I love to hear your thoughts.

INTERVIEW: Kirsty Manning

Friday, July 06, 2018

 


Today I welcome Kirsty Manning, author of The Jade Lily, to the blog.

Are you a daydreamer too?
Yes indeed. I think this was the most frequent comment on my school reports. It wasn’t a compliment at the time, but it has served me well over the years.
Although, my kids often stop and ask me who I’m talking to when I’m alone.
I’m often caught walking, or driving along having animated conversations with people who don’t exist.

How extensively do you plan your novels?

I like to have a rough idea of the line of my story before I start. The Jade Lily is historical fiction and set in Shanghai during the Sino-Japanese War and the Pacific War (WW2) so there were specific dates that had to be hit, for obvious reasons!

The book opens with Kristallnacht in Vienna and I had a very clear idea of the opening scene. I then had some specific scenes planned, plus a rough idea of how the book would end. I used Scrivener this time, and found it very helpful to map out scenes and move them around. I’ve learnt after two books I tend to write the opening, then a loose ending … then I patchwork the two storylines together. I’m never quite sure of how it will turn out, but a plod away and somewhere in the writing some magic happens to join all the dots up. It’s a delightful surprise (and a hell of a relief!) when it all comes together in the end.

Did you make any astonishing serendipitous discoveries while writing this book?
I spent time speaking with Sam Moshinsky in Melbourne, author of Goodbye Shanghai, and a Russian Jew who grew up in Shanghai’s French Concession. He was delighted to meet me over coffee and tell me about his time in Shanghai and he then went on to read a draft of the book and answer questions ranging from Jewish rituals, to the tiny minutia of life in Shanghai under the Occupation.

Sam introduced me to Horst Eisfelder, a former German refugee who spent time in the Shanghai ghetto. It turned out Horst had arrived in Shanghai on the same Italian ocean liner, Conte Verde, as my imaginary Romy … and also, his family had owned the real café in the ghetto my character Romy visits, Café Louis.

Where do you write, and when?

I have a small office—basically a corridor—that overlooks my deck and the garden. It’s like working in a glass treehouse. When I’m at the early stages, and also when I’m editing, I like to work here as it is filled with reference books and it is easy to access the bookshelf.

When I start a book, the office is impeccable. During the last draft and editing, you can hardly see the desk or floor as it is covered in scrawled notes and annotated pages.

I write during school hours for the initial drafts, then in a mad frenzy whenever it is close to submission. I always promise myself that I won’t work right up to the deadline like a crazy person, but I always do.

What do you do when you get blocked?

I do feel full of self-doubt at times. I worry I’ll never find a satisfactory path to the end of the novel. But I’ve learned there is no divine inspiration involved. For me the key is discipline.

I avoid being blocked because I sit down and treat writing a novel like the job it is … just as if I were required to submit an article when I was a freelance writer. I give myself a task every day, or word count, and I methodically work away at it. Some days are better than others

It helps when I start on the book to dive in and stick at it until I nut out the characters. I’m always dreaming about my novel, and talking to myself trying to figure out how to make it work. Much of the work is done when you are doing other things, like driving, weeding and cleaning. Sounds mad, but true!

How do you keep your well of inspiration full?

Reading widely, walking and gardening.

I love being in my garden, doing hard physical work. It forces me to slow down. Gardening is a little like writing in some ways—it’s not instant results. You have to have an idea, and break it down to plant out or weed section by section. It’s easy to be overwhelmed if you try and do it all at once.

In my writing, I try to capture that old-school idea of how plants can uplift us and create something special.

I adore being in different landscapes, and I’m always peeking at gardens down lane ways and over fences when I travel. I just can’t help myself. Plants and landscape really inspire me every day.

Who are ten of your favourite writers?

Oh, that’s tough. I love writers across a range of genres. In no particular order: Geraldine Brooks, A.S. Byatt, Michelle de Kretser, Jodi Picoult, Michael Robotham, Richard Flanagan, Ian McEwan, Harper Lee, Richard Ford, Kate Grenville and Isabel Allende. That’s eleven, but seriously … who would you cut from that list?

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

1. Read widely. Most writers I know are great readers across every genre, not just the area they write in. I read biography, historical fiction, commercial, literary fiction, poetry and crime. Study how great writers perfect their craft and then step away and find a way to make it your own.

2. Be disciplined and do the work. There are very few writers who have the story just pour from their fingertips. Most rewrite and re-work and massage until it is ‘just so!’ It will likely take far more time, and far more re-writing than you expected.

3. Learn the craft. There are so many amazing writing courses around, along with online writing communities. Try both, if you can.

4. Write what you love. Writing is a long game. Chances are you will spend years lost in the story and characters. So don’t write what you think you should, write what you love because you will spend a hell of a lot of time with this story every day. (Dare I use the word, obsessed?)

5. If your children are old enough, teach them to cook. Trust me, meal prep can be time-consuming and you can buy yourself an extra hour of writing time while they get busy in the kitchen. My kids enjoy planning meals, especially in the holidays. Extra points if they can do all the housework too.

What are you working on now?
My third novel, with a dual timeframe narrative. This one centres on another forgotten corner of history, and tries to solve a centuries-old mystery.

I’ll be exploring themes of truth, beauty, globalisation and identity. Sounds very Keatsian, doesn’t it? My readers will expect a couple of exotic destinations, a generational conundrum, lovely gardens and some mouth-watering food. I’m doing my best to research it all now. Particularly the food. I always start to cook the dishes of the countries I am writing about. I like to lose myself in the scents, the textures, the rituals … it is all part of the process.


You can read my review of The Jade Lily here.

Please leave a comment!


INTERVIEW: Ann Cleeves

Wednesday, July 04, 2018


 

Today I welcome Ann Cleeves, author of Raven Black, to the blog.

Are you a daydreamer too?
Not so much a daydreamer as an observer. I love watching people and finding new places that might become a part of the book.

Have you always wanted to be a writer?
I've always wanted to write, which is a little bit different. It never occurred to me that I might get published, and I was astonished when my first book was accepted for publication.

Tell me a little about yourself – where were you born, where do you live, what do you like to do?
I was born in Herefordshire, a rural county in the rural Midlands, but we moved to North Devon when I was still a child. My father was a village school teacher. I live on the North East coast now, in Vera-land. I love this part of the country, the big skies and empty landscape.

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

Are we talking Raven Black? I first went to Shetland more than forty years ago. I'd dropped out of university and quite by chance was offered a job as assistant cook in the bird observatory in Fair Isle, the most remote Shetland island. The book came much later, though. My husband was a passionate birdwatcher and we went to Shetland to see a rare bird. It was mid-winter, dark and it had snowed. Then the sun came up and it was a beautiful still clear day. There were ravens, very black against the snow. Because I'm a crime writer, I thought, if there were blood as well, the scene would look almost mythic.

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

Do you ever use dreams as a source of inspiration?
No, I don't usually remember dreams.

Did you make any astonishing serendipitous discoveries while writing this book?
No.

Where do you write, and when?
I write early in the morning at the kitchen table.

What is your favourite part of writing?
I like the very first ideas and sketching them out, but I enjoy editing my own work too, once I have the structure in place, trying to make the language sing.

What do you do when you get blocked?

Go for long walks. Long train journeys are very good too.

How do you keep your well of inspiration full?
Inspiration is easy. Turning the inspiration into 100,000 words that people might want to read is the tricky bit.

What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?
Read a lot. Eavesdrop. Get to the end of the book before you start re-writing and tweaking.

What are you working on now?
A new series. I'm not quite ready to talk about it!


You can read my review of Raven Black here.

Ann and Kate will be appearing at the Bendigo Writers Festival in 2018.

BOOK REVIEW: Raven Black by Ann Cleeves

Friday, June 29, 2018


 

The Blurb (From Goodreads):

Winner of Britain’s coveted Duncan Lawrie Dagger Award, Ann Cleeves introduces a dazzling new suspense series to mystery readers.

Raven Black begins on New Year’s Eve with a lonely outcast named Magnus Tait, who stays home waiting for visitors who never come. But the next morning the body of a murdered teenage girl is discovered nearby, and suspicion falls on Magnus. Inspector Jimmy Perez enters an investigative maze that leads deeper into the past of the Shetland Islands than anyone wants to go.


My Thoughts:

I am a big fan of the British crime dramas, ‘Vera’ and ‘Shetland’, both of which are inspired by the work of writer Ann Cleeves, and yet I had never read one of her books. Being in the mood for an atmospheric murder mystery, I grabbed a copy of Raven Black at the airport.

The story begins with two drunken teenage girls knocking on the door of a lonely old man at midnight on a bitterly cold New Year’s Eve. The following day one of the girls is found dead, within sight of the old man’s house. The tightly knit community of the island of Shetland remembers another girl who went missing many years before, also within sight of Magnus Tait’s house. Suspicions flare and tensions mount. Inspector Jimmy Perez – who despite his name comes from a long line of Shetland islanders – begins to investigate the girl’s death and uncovers long buried secrets that change his understanding of everything to do with the murder.

I remembered the TV show inspired by this book vividly, and so I knew right from the beginning who the murderer was. Discovering the culprit is not the only pleasure in reading a tightly plotted murder mystery, though. The bare, brooding atmosphere of the Shetland islands, the sharply drawn characters, the masterly laying of clues and red herrings, and a warm and sympathetic protagonist in Jimmy Perez all contributed to a very enjoyable few hours of reading. I’ll be reading more by Ann Cleeves.

For another great crime read, this one set in Australia, check out me review of And Fire Came Down by Emma Viskic.

You can read my interview with Ann Cleeves here.

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

BOOK REVIEW: The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

  

I went to see Amy Tan speak at the Sydney Writers Festival a few years ago, and bought The Valley of Amazement then. It was her first book in eight years and, like many of her earlier works such as The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God’s Wife, was inspired by her own Chinese heritage. 

At almost 600 pages, the book is not a light read and this may explain why it sat on my to-be-read bookshelf for four years without ever being picked up. Every year, as the Sydney Writers’ Festival approaches once more, I try and read any books I bought there in previous years so that I don’t feel so guilty about buying another dozen or so. My own trip to China, and my desire to read novels set there, moved The Valley of Amazement to the top of the pile. 

Spanning more than forty years, The Valley of Amazement is a sweeping, evocative family epic that tells the story of a half-Chinese, half-American girl who is kidnapped and sold into a Shanghai courtesan’s house at the tender age of fourteen. Unable to escape, she is trained in the ancient art of seduction before her virginity is sold to the highest bidder. Strong-willed, impetuous, and determined, Violet becomes one of the city’s top courtesans before she falls in love with a rich American. He is trapped in a loveless marriage, but he and Violet make a life for themselves in Shanghai and have a daughter together.

Tragedy and drama follow in a long chain of events, as Violet’s life is affected by betrayal, revolution and war. The most pivotal moments in 20th century Chinese history are brought to life on the page, from the dissolution of the imperial dynasty to the rise of the Republic. Some of Violet’s adventures seem contrived merely for the chance to examine another aspect of Chinese culture and society, but Amy Tan’s writing style is so engaging this is easily forgiven. 

At her session at the Sydney Writers Festival, which moved me to buy the book, Amy Tan explained that she was inspired to write The Valley of Amazement after seeing a photograph of Shanghai courtesans in a book. She realised that the costumes worn by the courtesans was identical to an outfit worn by her grandmother. She later discovered that no ‘respectable’ woman would ever have gone to a Western photographic studio. She began to wonder if her grandmother had once been a courtesan, and what her life would have been like. Although she was never able to discover the truth, that moment of wondering became the impetus for writing her novel.

Amy Tan's depiction of the life of a Shanghai courtesan world is colourful, bawdy, funny, and heartbreaking. I was at times furious at both Violet and her mother for their stupidity in trusting bad men so easily, but then also uneasily aware that I may well have made the same mistakes, given the circumstances. Violet’s longing for love and freedom is surely universal, and China in the early 20th century was not an easy place to be a woman. 

For another great read set in China, check out my review of The Moon in the Palace by Weina Dai Randel.

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





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