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BOOK REVIEW: Poet's Cottage by Josephine Pennicott

Friday, July 20, 2012

Title: Poet’s Cottage

Author: Josephine Pennicott

Publisher: Pan Macmillan

Age Group & Genre: Historical Murder Mystery/ Gothic 


The Blurb:
Poets had always lived there, the locals claimed. It was as if the house called to its own… 
When Sadie inherits Poet’s Cottage in the Tasmanian fishing town of Pencubitt, she sets out to discover all she can about her notorious grandmother, Pearl Tatlow. Pearl was a children’s writer who scandalised 1930s Tasmania with her behaviour. She was also violently murdered in the cellar of Poet’s Cottage and her murderer never found. Sadie grew up with a loving version of Pearl through her mother, but her aunt Thomasina tells a different story, one of a self-obsessed, abusive and licentious woman. And Pearl’s biographer, Birdie Pinkerton, has more than enough reason to discredit her. 
As Sadie and her daughter Betty work to uncover the truth, strange events begin to occur in the cottage. And as the terrible secret in the cellar threads its way into the present day, it reveals a truth more shocking than the decades-long rumours. 
‘Poet’s Cottage’ is a beautiful and haunting mystery of families, bohemia, truth, creativity, lies, memory and murder.


What I Liked About This Book
I really loved this book, which I would describe as a Gothic murder mystery set in Tasmania. It’s a parallel story, moving between modern day and the 1930s.  When Sadie inherits Poet’s Cottage, a house in a sleepy village of in Tasmania, she moves there with her teenage daughter in an attempt to start a fresh life after her marriage break-up. However, all is not well at Poets’ Cottage. Sadie’s grandmother, Pearl Tatlow, was murdered there years earlier, and many believe the cottage is haunted. Pearl was a popular children’s author, ambitious, strong-willed and selfish. The events leading up to her murder are told from the point of view of the woman who became her biographer, Birdie Pinkerton, but there are clues that she may not be a reliable narrator. Slowly, Sadie finds the events of her own life shadowed and haunted by the violence and tragedy of the past, as the reader comes ever closer to discovering the identity of Pearl’s murderer. Poets Cottage is a clever combination of historical murder mystery, family drama, and Gothic ghost tale – I’d really recommend it. 

What I Didn’t Like About This Book:
Poet’s Cottage has a complicated plot line, with lots of mysterious and macabre elements. By the end, when the murderer is finally revealed, the reader has become a little hardened to all the twists and turns and so the surprise does not perhaps have the same impact as it would have had if there had not been so many other strange and spooky happenings. However, this didn’t stop me from really enjoying the rollercoaster ride. 

Other blogs on this book you may find interesting:
AustCrimeFiction





Books I've Been Reading in 2012

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

When I started this blog, I planned to list every book I read every month, but somehow the year is more than half over & I haven't listed any. So here's the list for the first half of 2012 - I have read at least 38 books so far this year (I know I've forgotten a few!)


January 
1. The Reasons for Marriage by Stephanie Laurens
2. A Lady of Expectations by Stephanie Laurens
3. An Unwilling Conquest by Stephanie Laurens
4. A Comfortable Wife by Stephanie Laurens
 I opened my reading year by devouring four Stephanie Laurens book back to back over the course of two days – excellent way to recover after a very busy Christmas and New Year. I’m not normally a big Stephanie Laurens fan – I find them too thin on story and too thick on sex – but I enjoyed these, which I think are among her first published books. 


5. Vienna Waltz by Teresa Grant
Vienna Waltz is a very enjoyable murder mystery set during the Vienna Congress of 1814. It has a fascinating mix of true historical figures, such as the Russian Czar and Prince Metternich, and imaginary characters such as our heroine, Suzanne Rannoch, who has a rather shady past. With lots of descriptions of gorgeous clothes, diplomats dancing at glittering balls, and skulduggery in dark, stinking alleyways, the setting is vivid and believable, and the mystery itself an intriguing puzzle. 

6. Tales of Passion, Tales of Woe by Sandra Gullard
This is the second book in Sandra Gullard’s trilogy about the Empress Josephine, one of the most fascinating women in history. Told in first person, in diary form, the book has an immediacy which brings the character of Mrs Napoleon Bonaparte vividly to life. I think it helps to know the story well; I’ve read biographies of Napoleon and Josephine before and am studying the period, and so find it intriguing to have the story told in such a fresh and engaging way. However, if you are interested in knowing more about the period, these books may well be a good place to start. 

7. The Spymaster’s Lady by Joanne Bourne
An engaging and suspenseful romance novel set during the Napoleonic Wars, with a particularly charming heroine, The Spymaster’s Lady is one of the best romance novels I’ve read in a while. Joanne Bourne is particularly good at dialogue, which I think is the skill that always lifts one romance above another. 


February
8. Sea Hearts by Margo Lanagan
Sea Hearts is wonderful, in all senses of the word. It’s a dark, moody, storm-wracked book of love, longing, desire, and wickedness. Its central character, Misskaella the sea-witch, is one of the most powerful fictive creations I’ve read in quite some time. Her story - and that of the selkies and the men who covet them – is heartbreaking in its sadness, yet also so hauntingly beautiful, so filled with the sweeping rhythm of the sea, and pierced here and there with shafts of light, that  the lingering feeling is one of awe and wonderment.


9. The Noble Assassin by Christie Dickason  
Christie Dickason has carved out a niche for herself writing historical novels set during the Stuart period, which is just as bloody, romantic, tragic and interesting as the more popular Tudor period. I’ve always loved the Stuart period, and so I’ve been reading my way through all of her books, and loving every one of them. The Noble Assassin has as its heroine the beautiful and clever Lucy Russell, Countess of Bedford, a real historical figure, with the poet John Donne taking the role of romantic hero. Fabulous! I loved it. 

10. The Burlesque Napoleon, Being the Story of the Life and Kingship of Jérôme Napoleon Bonaparte, Youngest Brother of Napoleon the Great by A Hilliard Atteridge
I think the title says it all.

11. A Few Right Thinking Men by Sulari Gentill
The first in a series of murder mysteries set in 1930s, featuring the artist and dilettante Rowland Sinclair, whose fortune allows him to support his friends – a Communist poet, an alluring sculptress and a painter. With newspaper snippets of the times heading each chapter, the mood of the times is well-expressed. I must admit I was hoping it would be funnier and faster-paced, with less about politics and more about parties, but it was an engaging read. 


March
12. The Perfect Rake by Anne Gracie
I have to tell you I spent Sunday in bed reading ‘A Perfect Rake’ and I loved it. Such lightness and deftness of touch, such wit and warmth – I had a little tear in my eye at the end. I’d like to read another

13. What happened in London by Julia Quinn
Another light-hearted and deftly written Regency romance that helped me happily while away a few hours. I’ve never read Julia Quinn before but I’ll be reading more.

14. Princess of the Midnight Ball by Jessica Day George
A lovely retelling of the Twelve Dancing Princesses fairytale, Jessica Day George has a light touch, a sweet romance, and a clever use of knitting – I’d recommend this to anyone who loves YA fantasy and fairytale retellings. 


15. Stealing Athena by Karen Essex
This novel tells the fascinating story of the famous Elgin's Marbles and how they came to be brought to England. This narrative thread is interwoven with another set in Ancient Greece. I didn't enjoy this second thread as much as the fist, and was often skipping to get back to the story set in the early 19th century. I think the writer should be commended for her daring, though, and would recommend it to anyone who loves historical fiction

16. Clara and Mr Tiffany by Susan Vreeland
I love Susan Vreeland’s books. She is interested in art and poetry and history, all the things which I love too. Her books always feel like a journey of discovery for me, illuminating the forgotten life of some brilliant, creative, unknown woman. Her latest book is called Clara and Mr Tiffany, and it brings to life Clara Driscoll, the woman behind the beautiful and exotic stained glass lamps that the House of Tiffany produced just before the turn of the century. 



April
17. The Crown by Nancy Bilyeau
A historical thriller set in Tudor England, this novel features a beautiful young nun, Sister Joanna, as its heroine. The book begins with the burning of Joanna’s cousin for treason, and sees our intrepid nun being thrown in the Tower and then coerced into a hunt for a mysterious crown thought to have supernatural powers. The book moves swiftly along, with lots of danger, suspense, and a little romance. An engaging read.

18. With Violets – Elizabeth Robards
This novel tells the story of Berthe Morisot, the only female artist to be exhibited with the Impressionists, and her scandalous love affair with Édouard Manet. Set in Paris in the 1860s, it was a time of political and artistic turmoil. I had high hopes for the book, since I love books about art and history and creativity, but overall I was disappointed with this – it was very slow in the beginning and then rushed to the end as if the author had grown tired of her own story. 

19. Poet’s Cottage – Josephine Pennicott
I really loved this book, which I would describe as a Gothic murder mystery set in Tasmania. It’s a parallel story, moving between the point of view of modern day Sadie and her grandmother’s life in the 1930s. Sadie’s grandmother, Pearl Tatlow, was a popular children’s author who is violently murdered, and the murderer never caught. Slowly, Sadie finds the events of her own life shadowed and haunted by the violence and tragedy of the past, as the reader comes ever closer to discovering the identity of Pearl’s murderer. 



20. The Lady’s Slipper – Deborah Swift
Set in 1666, soon after the restoration of King Charless II, this novel tells the story of how Alice – a young wife and talented painter - discovers a rare orchid, the Lady’s Slipper, growing in a nearby wood. She is captivated by its beauty and wants to paint it, but the owner of the wood —a Quaker called Richard Wheeler, is determined to keep the flower where God intended it to grow. So Alice steals the flower, and sets off a chain of events including murder, riot, witchcraft, betrayal and exile. 


21. A Discovery of Witches – Deborah Harkness
I’m not really a fan of books with vampires in it, but I’d heard such raves reviews of this book, I thought I’d give it a go. Certainly it’s a cut above most vampire romances, with handfuls of science and history thrown in, but I still found it rather slow and predictable. 


22. Raven’s Heart by Jesse Blackadder
I was sure I was going to love this book as soon as I read the subtitle: ‘The Story of a Quest, a Castle and Mary Queen of Scot’. And I did love it! A fabulous, dark, surprising historical novel, with a hefty dose of mystery, intrigue, passion and cross-dressing. This was one of the best reads of the year so far.  


May
23. Where Shadows Dance by C.S. Harris
The latest in a series of great Regency murder mysteries featuring the aristocratic detective Sebastian St Cyr. I really enjoy this series, and buy each new one as soon as it comes out. Begin with the first in the series, What Angels Fear, as part of the pleasure are the unfolding relationships. 


24. The Apothecary’s Daughter – Charlotte Betts
A historical novel set in one of my favourite periods of history, the Restoration, this is a vivid and intriguing novel about a young woman and her struggle to make her life for herself during the late 17th century, a time of plague, fire, turmoil and prejudice against women. I really enjoyed it!


25. A Room with a View – E.M. Forster
An old favourite of mine and one I like to re-read every few years. A beautiful, subtle love story set partly in Italy and partly in England, with a gentle satire on English manners and mores – a wonderful book.


26. The Last Great Dance on Earth - Sandra Gullard
The last in Sandra Gullard’s fascinating trilogy about the life of Empress Josephine, Napoleon’s first wife., I’d recommend this to anyone who wants to know more about life during this turbulent period. Make sure you read them in order though! Start with ‘The Many Lives and Secret Sorrows of Josephine B’. 


27. Bride by Mistake – Anne Gracie
Another sparkling Regency romance from Anne Gracie, who is fast becoming my favourite contemporary romance novelist. I really enjoyed this one, which has a great balance of humour, pathos, romance and intrigue.


28. My Lord & Spymaster – Joanna Bourne
I had enjoyed Joanna Bourne’s earlier book, The Spymaster’s Lady, but was disappointed in this one. It was too similar to the one before, and felt a little slow.


29. The Garden Intrigue – Lauren Willig 
A new Lauren Willig book is always cause for celebration. This one happily takes us back to France and the intrepid Pink Carnation herself, with cameo appearances by the Emperor Napoleon, his wife Joséphine, and various members of his family. The hero is a poet, the heroine a scandal-smirched widow, and the romp as enjoyable as ever. 


30. The Crowded Grave – Martin Walker
The latest in the delightful Bruno Courreges mysteries set in the Perigord in southern France, this one seems a little darker in tone than the previous ones, with terrorists, animal rights campaigners and archaeologists keeping Bruno busier than ever. There are the usual wonderful descriptions of French food and French countryside, and a little romance – I’m just hoping Martin Walker is writing fast. 


June
31. The Treasure Hunters – Enid Blyton
An old childhood favourite of mine that I read to my 8 year old daughter – we both loved it! 



32. The Forgotten Pearl – Belinda Murrell 
The most recent book by my beautiful sister, Belinda, The Forgotten Pearl is set in Darwin and Sydney during the Second World War. The heroine, Poppy, is a young girl who faces danger, loss, grief and new love during one of the most tumultuous times in Australian history. She lives through the bombing of Darwin and is evacuated to Sydney where she must learn to make a new life for herself. I always judge a book by whether it brings a prickle of tears to my eyes, and this book did that a number of times – a beautifully written historical novel for children set during a fascinating and largely forgotten period of Australian history. 


33. The Perfect Waltz by Anne Gracie
Another wonderful Regency romance by Australian author Anne Gracie, telling the story of Hope Merridew, the younger sister of Patience, the heroine of The Perfect Rake. I’m ordering the rest of this series – I’ve loved it so far!


34. The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey 
What a wonderful, amazing, magical book! I just loved this and think it’s one of the best books I’ve read in a long while. I wish I’d written it. A retelling of the Russian fairytale, the Snow Child, set in Alaska at the turn of the 19th century, it seems far too accomplished to be by a debut novelist ... I can only look forward hopefully to many more books by Eowyn Ivey.


35. Shadowfell – Juliet Marillier
The latest book from one of my all-time favourite authors, Shadowfell is a magical quest set in an otherworldy Scotland. I loved it!


36. The Ordinary Princess – M.M. Kaye
I’ve had this old classic on my ‘to be read’ list for a long time and finally ordered it over the net. It’s a lovely, charming tale about a princess who is cursed to be ordinary, but how she manages to have adventures and find love anyway. Gorgeous.


37. Lady of the Rivers – Philippa Gregory
I love Philippa Gregory, and think she has really returned to form in this series of books set during the War of the Roses, a period of time I’ve never really understood. Philippa Gregory has illuminated it beautifully for me, bringing to life the key characters, their fears and motives and various obsessions – this book focuses on Jacquetta Woodville, the mother of Elizabeth Woodville whose story was told in ‘The White Queen’. Excellent historical fiction. 


38. Bright Angel – Isabelle Merlin
The fourth in a series of funky romantic suspense novels for teenagers, all set in France, all featuring mysteries that have both a supernatural element and a very modern take with features such as Youtube videos, blogs, and other technologies. Highly enjoyable and a little bit different to the usual YA fare.


BOOK REVIEW: The Emerald Atlas by John Stephens

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Title: The Emerald Atlas

Author: John Stephens 

Publisher: Corgi Books

Age Group & Genre: Fantasy for age 9+ 



The Blurb:

Three Children. Two Worlds. One Prophecy.

They were snatched from their beds in the dead of night, when the world was covered in snow.
Ten years on, Kate, Michael and Emma have grown up in a string of miserable orphanages, and all memories of their parents have faded. Arriving in the eerily silent Cambridge Falls, the children quickly realise there is something strange going on...

With the discovery of an old leather book, an ancient magical prophecy is set in motion which will take them on the the adventure of several lifetimes, to worlds outside their own. Only they have the power to save the town - and their own future.

A spellbinding, action-packed page-turner in the epic tradition of C.S. Lewis and J.K.Rowling


What I Liked About This Book:
I really loved this book! It’s funny, scary, adventurous, and full of unexpected twists and turns. The characters of the three children are all believable and well-drawn, and the story itself full of mystery, danger, humour and magic. Although the plotline feels familiar – three children find magical book and must stop it falling into the hands of the baddies – what lifts this book out of the ordinary are the array of eccentric characters, the fresh, funny dialogue, the roller-coaster pace, and the true heart of the book, the sense that the children have felt sorrow and fear and anxiety, and yet manage to overcome these emotional obstacles on their journey. 


What I Didn’t Like About This Book:
Like many writers whose characters move about in time, John Stephens got a little muddled with time travel theories and so it can be hard to follow what's happening with the Emerald Atlas, and with the hopping about in time. However, as long as you just read on at breakneck pace and don't think about this too much, it doesn't detract too much from the overall enjoyment of the story.

Some other blogs that have reviewed this book: 


The Book Smugglers


Official websites:


INTERVIEW: Geraldine Brooks

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Geraldine Brooks is one of my absolute favourite writers and so I am absolutely delighted that she agreed to an interview with me. She is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the novels Year of Wonders, March, People of the Book, and the non-fiction books Nine Parts of Desire, and Foreign Correspondence. Born in Australia, she lives in Martha’s Vineyard, in the US.

 

Are you a daydreamer too? 
When I was a child I lived in daydreams.  These days my work is a kind of extended reverie so outside of that, I find I'm attracted to tactile, in the moment things, like horse riding and gardening where your focus tends to be very much on what you are doing now, and now, and now...
 
Have you always wanted to be a writer?
A journalist, yes, from the time I was eight years old.  The ambition to be a novelist came on me in midlife, unexpectedly.

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

For Caleb's Crossing, it was a notation on a map, marking the birthplace of the first Native American graduate of Harvard, in 1665.  I was immediately engaged--how had this come about?

 

How extensively do you plan your novels? 
Not at all, really.  I have the shards of historical fact, in as much as they are known.  But I proceed from there instinctively, feeling my way day by day.
 
Do you ever use dreams as a source of inspiration? 
I wish my dreams were interesting enough.  Sadly, they're not. Recently I hit a nadir of banality.  I dreamed I was reading the paper.

Where do you write, and when? 
I have a study, but these days I find I move around a lot, especially if no one else is home.  If the weather's nice, I sit in a big old cane chair under the apple tree and write.  If it's cold and grim outside, I sit at the kitchen table with a wood fire burning.   I work when the kids are at school.  Simple as that.

What is your favourite part of writing? 
The surprise as you uncover the story.  The freedom--the fact that it is entirely up to you, no excuses, but no answering the bell, either.
 
What do you do when you get blocked? 
I remind myself that there's no hairdressers' block, or panel beaters' block, or radiologists' block, and I just get on with it.
 
How do you keep your well of inspiration full? 
That thankfully hasn't been a problem.  There are so many good stories in the world.  People are infinitely interesting.
 

Who are ten of your favourite writers? 
Tim Winton, Jane Austen, Marilynne Robinson, Eva (Sallis) Hornung, Helen Garner, Andre Makine, Gerard Manly Hopkins, Yeats, Shakespeare, Mary Renault

 
What do you consider to be good writing?
The kind you feel on your skin.
 
What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too? 
Take some good books, put them in your backpack and go, as far as you can afford to.  Get a job in an unfamiliar place.   If it doesn't work out, quit and get another one. Learn another language.  Write something every day.  You have to write badly before you write well, so don't be discouraged.
 
What are you working on now?  
A novel set in Iron Age Israel.

Geraldine Brooks website

If you liked this post, you may also like:

Interview with Susan Vreeland

MOVIE REVIEW: Brave

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Yesterday I took my three children to see the new Pixar movie, 'Brave'.

Of course I loved it.

It could have been based on one of my own books - the flame-haired heroine, the Scottish setting, the theme of shapeshifting and transformation, and the message that one must have courage.

'Brave' tells the story of the Princess Merida, the red-haired rebellious daughter of King Fergus (voiced by Billy Connolly) and Queen Elinor (voiced by Emma Thompson). Given a bow as a little girl by her father, Merida would rather be off practising her archery in the forest and galloping about on her horse than learning how to be a princess.  

The true story begins when Merida learns it is time she beame betrothed  to the son of one of the chieftains. She is determined to defy convention, but her act of wilfulness sets in chain a string of events that result in the cursing of her family. Merida must  find a way to lift the curse before it is too late.

The things I liked best about this movie:

* Of course, the importance of being brave, a song I sing all the time.

* the foregrounding of the relationship betwee Merida and her mother, and how realistic the tension between them was, and also their deep love for each other. Few movies (or books for that matter) show a positive mother-daughter relationship and this was one movie I was really glad to be sharing with my own daughter.

* the way the movie showed the tension between individual freedom and family duty, a tension that many women (and, I am sure, men) must feel. I loved the wild, free, bold spirit of Merida, but I also felt the need for her to learn that we are not islands, but all joined together in a complex web of social relationships, and that tearing apart that web can cause deep and lasting damage

* the gorgeous Scottish landscape

* her unruly red hair 

* the importance, in the movie, of storytelling as a way of acquiring wisdom. This is encapsulated in the lines, which I wish I had written myself, 'Legends are lessons. They ring with truth.'   

As far as the craft of storytelling goes, 'Brave' shows very clearly my mantra that the true narrative arc is always the transformation of the protagonist - their growth and change over the course of the story.

COMPETITION: Are you Australia's biggest Harry Potter fan? Say so & win!

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Bloomsbury is celebrating the 15th anniversary of the publication of the first Harry Potter novel with a competition to find Australia and New Zealand's biggest fan.

The competition is going to be fierce. 

Harry Potter novels have now sold approximately 450 million copies worldwide and have been translated into 73 languages. 


You need to write a letter of no more than 50 words explaining why you love Harry Potter. Bloomsbury is looking for the most creative, clever and entertaining reasons and entrants are encouraged to draw, doodle and make their letters as elaborate as possible (without crossing the 50 word limit).
 
You can only enter by visiting a local bookshop and posting your letter in the specially designed postboxes. Over 400 bookshops have already signed up to take part. The competition will run from Tuesday 26th June to Tuesday 31st July 2012 , with the winner and runners up  announced on Saturday 1st September.


For more details, check out their website at: http://www.kateforsyth.com.au/Admin/www.bloomsburyanz.com/harrypottercompetition

Winners will receive a leather-bound, signed, dedicated and numbered 15th Anniversary Edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. The limited number 15th Anniversary Editions are exclusive to the competition and cannot be purchased elsewhere. 

Winners will also receive a Harry Potter Special Edition Boxed Set (value AU$470/NZ$550) and a Harry Potter signature edition audio box (value AU$800/NZ$990). 

There will be one winner in Australia and one winner in New Zealand. 

Three Runners Up will receive a leather-bound, signed, dedicated and numbered 15th anniversary edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.

Notes:
 
Entry to the competition is only available through bookshops. Terms and conditions apply, and no purchase is necessary. Other international competitions will be running in other territories. 
 
Bloomsbury will be unable to return any entries. All entries become the property of Bloomsbury Publishing Pty Ltd; by participating in the competition, entrants consent to the use and publication of their names and contributions by Bloomsbury.
 
 
 
 

INTERVIEW: With Susan Vreeland

Monday, June 25, 2012

Interview with Susan Vreeland

 

I first fell in love with Susan Vreeland’s work when I read Girl in Hyacinth Blue which was just the most extraordinary book. It told the story of a painting, going backwards from contemporary times to the day the painting was created. Each chapter is complete in itself, making it a collection of interlinked short stories, each detailing the impact the painting made upon an individual. Some of the stories are hauntingly sad, others filled with small pleasures and preoccupations. I absolutely loved the book, and so whenever a new Susan Vreeland book came out, I would buy it at once. This is a rare occurrence. Since Girl in Hyacinth Blue was published in 1999, Susan Vreeland has published only five new books. All of them have a preoccupation with art and artists, and all of them bring a place and a time vividly to life.

Just briefly, here are a round-up of her other books:

The Passion of Artemisia (2002) which tells the life story of Artemisia Gentileschi, a woman painter in the Renaissance. She was raped at 18 by her father's colleague and had to endure a trial in which she was tortured to see if she was telling the truth. She went on to paint some extraordinary paintings, and to become the only woman ever to be accepted into the Florence salon. Brilliant!

The Forest Lover (2004) is told from the point of view of the Canadian Impressionist painter Emily Carr. I had never heard of Emily Carr before I read this book. Afterwards I was googling her paintings and could not believe that this feisty, strong-willed, pig-headed and vulnerable woman was not more widely known. Her paintings are extraordinary - bold, unconventional and filled with light and mystery.

Life Studies (2005) is a collection of short stories revealing the inner and outer lives of well-known Impressionistic painters. Luminous and entrancing.

Luncheon of the Boating Party (2007) looks at Renoir's famous creation of the painting of the same name. The cover shows a replica of the painting – I was constantly turning the pages to stare at the cover and identify each character – and I marvel at her skill at turning this summer in Renoir's life into a compelling page-turner.

Finally, her new book Clara and Mr Tiffany (2012) which looks at the unknown woman designer of the famous Tiffany leadlight lightshades. It’s another piece of forgotten art history illuminated and brought to life. I loved it:

Here are Susan’s answers to my questions:

 Are you a daydreamer too?
I sometimes work myself into a quiet mental space whereby the next chapter of a novel will come to me, or the next thing a character says or does.

 Have you always wanted to be a writer?
No. The urge started in 1984 when I was forty.

 How did you get the first flash of inspiration for this book?
By seeing Clara's gorgeous lamps in an exhibit at the New York Historical Society in 2007, the exhibit that introduced her to the world.

 How extensively do you plan your novels?
I make a list of chapters or scenes, but this list constantly is altered as I proceed.

 Do you ever use dreams as a source of inspiration?
My own dreams? No, but I like to have my characters dream.

 Where do you write, and when?
I have a beautiful office with wood built-ins. From my desk, I can look through the glass French doors onto a patio. When? Morning, noon, and night, my dear.

 What is your favourite part of writing?
Rewriting.

 What do you do when you get blocked?
Change activities, while keeping the chapter that comes next floating in my thoughts.

How do you keep your well of inspiration full?
I remind myself to listen to the one divine Mind of the universe which is offering me ideas and directing me. I deeply feel gratitude to this source for what I've just written.

 Do you have any rituals that help you to write?
I try to do some reading of a spiritual nature in the morning before I start work.

 Who are ten of your favourite writers?
Virginia Woolf
Shakespeare
Robert Frost
Sena Jeter Naslund
Stephen Dunn, poet
Emily Dickinson
Emily Carr, Canadian painter
Harper Lee

What do you consider to be good writing? 
A delicate touch of imagery, a compelling story, a handful of themes that resonate currently even though the work may take place ages ago, an appealing voice, an occasional surprise.

 What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?
Read, read, read, keep a journal of favorite sentences or passages arranged by topic. Readers can email me for my list of topics.

 What are you working on now?
LISETTE'S LIST, a novel taking place in Provence, France, of two generations who own a small collection of paintings by Pissarro, Cézanne, Picasso, and Chagall, and what happens to their lives and the paintings during and after World War II.

A link to Susan Vreeland's website describing how she came to write Clara and Mr Tiffany:

 Susan Vreeland's website

You may also like:

My review of 'Clara and Mr Tiffany' 

My review of 'Vienna Waltz' by Teresa Grant

My Midwinter Feast

Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Midwinter Solstice
Today is the midwinter solstice in the Southern Hemisphere, and I always like to celebrate by cooking a special meal for the family. This is what I plan to cook this year: 

Midwinter Feast
Roast beef & mushrooms
Roast potatoes, onions, carrots and pumpkin 
Green beans & peas


(Photo by John Paul Urizan)

For Pudding:
Apple & rhubarb crumble with cream

(I like to cook warm-coloured vegetables like pumpkin or rhubarb to remind us of the return of summer)

Midwinter Wish
The whole family will eat by candlelight, and then, whoever wants to, will write a wish for the coming year on a piece of paper and burn the paper in the candle flame. Simple!

REVIEW: 'Clara and Mr Tiffany' by Susan Vreeland

Wednesday, June 20, 2012


Title: Clara and Mr Tiffany
Author: Susan Vreeland 
Genre: Historical Fiction
Pages: 432 
My stars: 4/5 stars 

The Blurb:
Against the unforgettable backdrop of New York near the turn of the twentieth century, from the Gilded Age world of formal balls and opera to the immigrant poverty of the Lower East Side, bestselling author Susan Vreeland again breathes life into a work of art in this extraordinary novel, which brings a woman once lost in the shadows into vivid color. 

It’s 1893, and at the Chicago World's Fair, Louis Comfort Tiffany makes his debut with a luminous exhibition of innovative stained-glass windows, which he hopes will honor his family business and earn him a place on the international artistic stage. But behind the scenes in his New York studio is the freethinking Clara Driscoll, head of his women's division. Publicly unrecognized by Tiffany, Clara conceives of and designs nearly all of the iconic leaded-glass lamps for which he is long remembered. 

Clara struggles with her desire for artistic recognition and the seemingly insurmountable challenges that she faces as a professional woman, which ultimately force her to protest against the company she has worked so hard to cultivate. She also yearns for love and companionship, and is devoted in different ways to five men, including Tiffany, who enforces to a strict policy: he does not hire married women, and any who do marry while under his employ must resign immediately. Eventually, like many women, Clara must decide what makes her happiest--the professional world of her hands or the personal world of her heart. 

My Feelings:
I love Susan Vreeland’s books. She is interested in art and poetry and history, all the things which I love too. Her books always feel like a journey of discovery for me, illuminating the forgotten life of some brilliant, creative, unknown woman. Her latest book is called Clara and Mr Tiffany, and it brings to life Clara Driscoll, the woman behind the beautiful and exotic stained glass lamps that the House of Tiffany produced just before the turn of the century. The Mr Tiffany in this case is the son of the famous Mr Tiffany of the well-known aquamarine box. He was an extraordinary character too, and the relationship between him and Clara is quite fascinating. He made it a rule that none of the women artists working for him were permitted to marry, so that Clara was constantly having to choose between her art and love.  I really loved this book, and look forward to Ms Vreeland’s next wonderful creation. 



A Rapunzel poem by Adele Geras

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Adele Geras, a UK writer whose work I admire greatly, sent me this beautiful Rapunzel poem. I just wish I could have included it as an epigraph in Bitter Greens!

WHITE TOWER

          There were stairs
               on the way up.
               I am sure of it.
 
               I can see the wall.
               Beyond the wall
               there must be something,
               but I cannot say
               exactly what it is.
 
               There was a door
               on the way in.
               I am sure of it,
 
               but thorn trees have grown
               as quick as weeds
               and covered it.
 
               The stairs have melted.
               Your footsteps, as you left,
               turned them to wax,
               which has blocked the stairwell
               and set in every crevice.
 
               You have made the tower
               your particular candle.
               Presently,
               my hair will flare to gold.
 
               There were other places
               before this room.
               I am sure of it.
 

'Rapunzel' drawing by Isobel Lilian Gloag


Adele Geras has written a fresh and inventive retake on Rapunzel called The Tower Room, which is set in a 1960s English girls’ school. The story draws upon the key motifs of the fairytale - the tower, illicit love, an angry mother-figure - while still telling a compelling coming-of-age story. 

Adele Geras's website




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