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BOOK REVIEW: The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris

Sunday, July 29, 2018

 

The Blurb (From Goodreads):

The Tattooist of Auschwitz is based on the true story of Lale and Gita Sokolov, two Slovakian Jews who survived Auschwitz and eventually made their home in Australia. In that terrible place, Lale was given the job of tattooing the prisoners marked for survival—literally scratching numbers into his fellow victims' arms in indelible ink to create what would become one of the most potent symbols of the Holocaust. Lale used the infinitesimal freedom of movement that this position awarded him to exchange jewels and money taken from murdered Jews for food to keep others alive. If he had been caught, he would have been killed; many owed him their survival.

There have been many books about the Holocaust—and there will be many more. What makes this one so memorable is Lale Sokolov's incredible zest for life. He understood exactly what was in store for him and his fellow prisoners, and he was determined to survive—not just to survive but to leave the camp with his dignity and integrity intact, to live his life to the full. Terrible though this story is, it is also a story of hope and of courage. It is also—almost unbelievably—a love story. Waiting in line to be tattooed, terrified and shaking, was a young girl. For Lale—a dandy, a jack-the-lad, a bit of a chancer—it was love at first sight, and he determined not only to survive himself but to ensure that Gita did, too. His story—their story—will make you weep, but you will also find it uplifting. It shows the very best of humanity in the very worst of circumstances.

Like many survivors, Lale and Gita told few people their story after the war. They eventually made their way to Australia, where they raised a son and had a successful life. But when Gita died, Lale felt he could no longer carry the burden of their past alone. He chose to tell his story.


My Thoughts:

The Tattooist of Auschwitz is inspired by the true story of Lale and Gita Sokolov, two Slovakian Jews who met and fell in love in Auschwitz.

Lale’s first sight of Gita was her thin pale arm, held out to him so he could tattoo her prisoner number upon it. She was No 36902. Lale was the camp’s tätowierer or tattooist, and every day he inscribed the camp’s dehumanising set of numbers upon the skin of his fellow inmates.

In time, Lale and Gita would escape the camp, somehow miraculously find each other, and marry and move to Australia, where Lale would tell his story to author Heather Morris. It is an astonishing saga of love, resistance and survival, and proof that the Holocaust still has many more stories to be heard.

Heather Morris originally wrote this book as a screenplay, and it shows. The writing is spare and blunt, with a colloquial tone that may be inspired by Lale’s own voice. The atrocities of Auschwitz are described with detachment, as if Lale’s mind has seen so many horrors it can no longer feel any pain. This emotional distance made it difficult for me to connect with the characters and the story as much as I wanted to; I did not feel the urgency of dramatic tension or wrenching of the heartstrings that I expected.

However, the simplicity and reserve of the narrative voice rings true. Many Holocaust survivors find their story difficult to tell, and language breaks down under such a heavy burden of memory.

And the book is as much about hope and courage and escape as it is about heartbreak and brutality and imprisonment. Lale and Gita Sokolov’s extraordinary story deserved to be told, and its message of love triumphing over cruelty is one that should never be forgotten.

You might also be interested in my review of The Passengers by Eleanor Limprecht.

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

BOOK REVIEW: The Juliet Code by Christine Wells

Wednesday, June 13, 2018



The Blurb (From Goodreads)

1947. The war is over, but Juliet Barnard is hiding a secret. While her family believed she was helping the war effort from the safety of England, in truth Juliet was a trained wireless operator, dropped behind enemy lines in Paris to spy on the Germans. But the mission went critically wrong when Juliet was caught and imprisoned in a mansion in Paris's Avenue Foch. Now she can't - or won't - relive the horrors that occurred there, and the people she betrayed . . .

The last thing Juliet wants is to return to France, but when ex-SAS officer Mac begs Juliet to help him find his sister, another British agent who is still missing, she can't refuse. And in retracing her past, Juliet begins to realise that in wartime, the greatest enemy isn't always the one that you're expecting to fight.


My Thoughts:

Australian author Christine Wells has been making a name for herself writing intelligent, suspenseful historical novels. Her latest offering, The Juliet Code, begins in 1947 when a young woman named Juliet Barnard is being interrogated about her role as an undercover wireless operator in Nazi-occupied France during the war. She is wracked with guilt and remorse over the disappearance of a friend and colleague of hers, and so agrees to help to her friend’s brother track down what happened to her.

The narrative moves back and forth between Juliet’s interrogation and subsequent return to France, and the events of 1943 when Juliet was first parachuted into France. She is young and naïve, but acutely aware of the danger if she should be caught by the Germans. Eventually her luck runs out and she finds herself a prisoner. Unable to escape, drugged and tortured, Juliet cannot help but betray her friends. This disloyalty haunts her. She blames herself for the deaths and disappearances of other secret operatives, and so when an ex-SAS officer named Mac begs for her help, Juliet reluctantly agrees – even though she is afraid of the horror of the memories it will rake up ... and the chance she may find herself in danger again.

I love books about resistance fighters and spies in World War II, and The Juliet Code is a fine addition to my collection. I really liked the fact that Juliet was not a particularly good secret operative, but determined to do her part. Her bravery, resolution, and quick wits prove to be more valuable than strength and ruthlessness. The tender love story at the heart of the book adds poignancy and warmth, without crowding out the true narrative arc – a story of an ordinary young woman who does her utmost to help and save those whose lives are torn apart by cruelty and war.

I also loved reading Christine Wells’s ‘Author’s Note’ at the end of the book which reveals the true-life inspirations for Juliet, Felix and Mac.

You can read my review of Christine's earlier book, The Traitor's Girl, here.

And I was lucky enough to interview Christine for the blog this week! You can read it here.

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

BOOK REVIEW: The Passengers by Eleanor Limprecht

Wednesday, May 02, 2018

 

The Blurb (From Goodreads):

Sarah and Hannah are on a cruise from San Diego, California to Sydney Australia. Sarah, Hannah’s grandmother, is returning to the country of her birth, a place she hasn’t seen since boarding the USS Mariposa in 1945. She, along with countless other war brides, sailed across the Pacific to join the American Servicemen they’d married during World War II.

Hannah is the age Sarah was when she made her first journey, and in hearing Sarah tell the story of her life, realises the immensity of what her grandmother gave up.

The Passengers is a luminous novel about the journeys we undertake, the sacrifices we make and the heartache we suffer for love. It is about how we most long for what we have left behind. And it is about the past - how close it can feel - even after long passages of time.


My Thoughts:

A young woman and her grandmother travel on a cruise together from the USA to Australia. For Sarah, it is a journey to the country of her birth, a place she has not seen since she left as a war bride in the 1940s. For Hannah, it is a chance to leave behind old hurts and discover a new land. Each tell their own story, in their own voices, each regretting mistakes they have made and people they have left behind.

Sarah’s story begins as a girl on a diary farm in New South Wales. Times are hard, and her father sells the farm and moves his family to Sydney. Sarah is forced to leave her beloved cattle dog behind. She finds work, and dreams of marriage, putting a white dress on layby. Sydney is full of American soldiers. There are fights and dances and flirtations. She falls in love and marries, and has just one night with her new husband before he is shipped out to Papua New Guinea. When the war ends, Sarah must leave her home and family and travel thousands of kilometres to a place she has never been, to live with a man she hardly knows.

As Sarah tells her story to her granddaughter, Hannah reveals some of her own secret vulnerabilities. Slowly the two stories echo and reflect each other, in clear lucid prose that glows with its own inner light.

You might also be interested in my review of The Pearler’s Wife by Roxane Dhand.

Recently I was lucky enough to interview Eleanor Limprecht, you can read it here.

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

BOOK REVIEW: The War I Finally Won by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Wednesday, January 31, 2018


The Blurb (from Goodreads):

When Ada’s clubfoot is surgically fixed at last, she knows for certain that she’s not what her mother said she was—damaged, deranged, crippled mentally as well as physically. She’s not a daughter anymore, either. What is she?

World War II continues, and Ada and her brother, Jamie, are living with their loving legal guardian, Susan, in a borrowed cottage on the estate of the formidable Lady Thorton—along with Lady Thorton herself and her daughter, Maggie. Life in the crowded cottage is tense enough, and then, quite suddenly, Ruth, a Jewish girl from Germany, moves in. A German? The occupants of the house are horrified. But other impacts of the war become far more frightening. As death creeps closer to their door, life and morality during wartime grow more complex. Who is Ada now? How can she keep fighting? And who will she struggle to save?


My Thoughts:


The sequel to Kimberley Brubaker Bradley’s Newbery-Honor-winning book The War That Saved My Life, this lovely children’s novel continues the story of Ada, crippled from birth with a clubfoot and cruelly mistreated by her mother. Ada and her little brother Jamie have found refuge in the country with Sudan, a clever and sharp-tongued woman with a lot of love to give. She arranges for Ada to have the surgery she needs to correct her deformed foot, but the scars from Ada’s childhood are clawed deep into her psyche, and there is no surgery for emotional wounds. Ada must learn to trust others, and to understand the hidden hurts of those around her, all while living through the horrors of the Blitz. I had not thought the sequel could possibly live up to the power and beauty of the first book, but The War I Finally Won had me blubbering like a baby. These books are destined to be classics of children’s World War II evacuee stories, up there with Carrie’s War, Goodnight, Mister Tom and When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit.


You can read my review of The War That Saved My Life here. 


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



BOOK REVIEW: The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Friday, January 26, 2018


The Blurb (from Goodreads):

An exceptionally moving story of triumph against all odds set during World War 2, from the acclaimed author of Jefferson’s Sons and for fans of Number the Stars.

Nine-year-old Ada has never left her one-room apartment. Her mother is too humiliated by Ada’s twisted foot to let her outside. So when her little brother Jamie is shipped out of London to escape the war, Ada doesn’t waste a minute—she sneaks out to join him.

So begins a new adventure of Ada, and for Susan Smith, the woman who is forced to take the two kids in. As Ada teaches herself to ride a pony, learns to read, and watches for German spies, she begins to trust Susan—and Susan begins to love Ada and Jamie. But in the end, will their bond be enough to hold them together through wartime? Or will Ada and her brother fall back into the cruel hands of their mother?

This masterful work of historical fiction is equal parts adventure and a moving tale of family and identity—a classic in the making. 


My Thoughts:

The War That Saved My Life is the favourite book of the daughter of a friend of mine. She has read it dozens of times. I am always interested in knowing what books kids are reading and loving (as opposed to the books adults think kids should be reading), and so I bought it with a sense of great interest and curiosity. It is set in England during the early days of World War II (a period of time I am always interested in), and tells the story of Ada, a poor girl from the East End who is evacuated to the country with her little brother Jamie.

Ada has a clubfoot. This is a congenital deformity which means that she was born with the sole of one foot twisted inwards and upwards, so that she must walk with the soft upper flesh of her foot pressed into the ground. A clubfoot can be corrected by surgery, but Ada’s mother chose instead to keep her daughter locked up in their one-room flat. Ada has never been outside, never seen trees or meadows or the stars, never been taught to count or read, never been loved.

When word comes that London children are to be evacuated, Ada seizes her chance and runs away. Or, rather, hobbles away. She and her brother end up being housed by Susan Smith, a woman who is crippled by grief. Together, Ada and Susan learn a great deal about their unknown inner strength, kindness and wisdom. Ada is given a crutch and is taught to read, and finds joyous liberation learning to ride (which reminded me of the great Australian children’s classic, I Can Jump Puddles, inspired by author Alan Marshall’s struggle to overcome his crippling poliomyelitis). 

The War That Saved My Life is simply and sensitively written, the kind of book that leaves you with a big lump in your throat. It was a Newbery Honor Book in 2016, and became a New York Times bestseller. I loved it so much I went straight out and bought the sequel the day after I finished it. One of the best children’s books I have ever read.

Please check out my post, The Best Children's Books Set in World War II for more recommendations.

Are there any other similar books that you'd recommend? Let me know in the comments! 


BOOK REVIEW: The Betrayal by Kate Furnivall

Wednesday, January 17, 2018



The Blurb (from Goodreads):

Could you kill someone? Someone you love?

Paris, 1938. This is the story of twin sisters divided by fierce loyalties and by a terrible secret. The drums of war are beating and France is poised, ready to fall. One sister is an aviatrix, the other is a socialite and they both have something to prove and something to hide.

Discover a brilliant story of love, danger, courage ... and betrayal.

This epic novel is an unforgettably powerful story of love, loss and the long shadow of war, perfect for readers of Kate Morton and other exceptional historical fiction.


My Thoughts:

I bought this novel at the airport, having finished the book I had taken with me to read. I had never read anything by Kate Furnivall before, and bought it because the cover and the blurb made it sound like the kind of book I would like to read: a story of love, danger, courage and betrayal set in Paris, 1938.

The story begins with the brutal murder of the father of seventeen-year-old twins, Romaine and Florence. The family’s Arabic gardener is guillotined for the crime, but the twin sisters know that he is innocent.

Eight years later, Florence is a rich socialite married to a Nazi sympathiser, and Romy is an impoverished, reckless, hard-drinking aviatrix who flies guns and supplies to the rebels of the Spanish Civil War. From that point on, the plot gallops along with lots of surprises and nail-biting suspense. The contrast between the characters of the sisters is fascinating, while their love and support for each other is – by the end – heartbreaking. I particularly loved Romy: wild, passionate, loving, haunted by the past and determined to, somehow, make amends. This is historical storytelling at its best, and I am very keen now to read more by Kate Furnivall.


If you're interested in the lives of women during WWII, please take a look at my post about Women of the German underground resistance. 

Remember to leave a comment - I love to know your thoughts!

BOOK REVIEW: The Alice Network by Alice Quinn

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

The Blurb (From Goodreads):

In an enthralling new historical novel from national bestselling author Kate Quinn, two women—a female spy recruited to the real-life Alice Network in France during World War I and an unconventional American socialite searching for her cousin in 1947—are brought together in a mesmerizing story of courage and redemption.

1947. In the chaotic aftermath of World War II, American college girl Charlie St. Clair is pregnant, unmarried, and on the verge of being thrown out of her very proper family. She's also nursing a desperate hope that her beloved cousin Rose, who disappeared in Nazi-occupied France during the war, might still be alive. So when Charlie's parents banish her to Europe to have her "little problem" taken care of, Charlie breaks free and heads to London, determined to find out what happened to the cousin she loves like a sister.

1915. A year into the Great War, Eve Gardiner burns to join the fight against the Germans and unexpectedly gets her chance when she's recruited to work as a spy. Sent into enemy-occupied France, she's trained by the mesmerizing Lili, the "Queen of Spies", who manages a vast network of secret agents right under the enemy's nose.

Thirty years later, haunted by the betrayal that ultimately tore apart the Alice Network, Eve spends her days drunk and secluded in her crumbling London house. Until a young American barges in uttering a name Eve hasn't heard in decades, and launches them both on a mission to find the truth ...no matter where it leads.

My Thoughts:


The Alice Network
is one of the best books I’ve read this year. An utterly enthralling tale of love, courage, resistance and redemption, it begins in 1947 with the story of Charlie St Clair, who has been taken out of college because she is pregnant and does not know who the father is. Taken to Europe by her mother ‘to take care of the problem’, Charlie rebels. All she wants to do is try and track down her cousin, Rose, who went missing in Nazi-occupied France during the war. Charlie has only a few clues, but one of them leads her to the house of Eva Gardiner, a scarred and dangerous drunkard.

Eva then begins to tell her story. In 1915, she is a brilliant young woman hampered by a profound stutter that leads most people to think she is stupid. Fluent in both German and French, Eva is recruited as a spy for the British and sent into Occupied France to work for the Alice Network, an underground resistance group run by Lili, an audacious young woman with the codename of ‘Alice’. Cool-headed, smooth-faced Eva is a natural, and begins to acquire useful information as she works as a waitress in a restaurant frequented by the top-brass German officers, who do not realise she speaks their language. Despite all her care, Eva catches the attention of the restaurant owner, a suave, sophisticated – and deadly – French collaborator named René.

The novel moves fluidly back and forth between the two historical periods, the suspense building as Charlie’s search for her cousin becomes entwined with Eva’s search for René, a man she had thought was dead. I just could not put this book down and found myself reading it when I had a million other things to do. I particularly loved the depiction of Eva’s struggle with her stutter, as this has been a lifelong fight for me also. Stutterers are rarely given heroic status in fiction or film, and indeed often appear only for comic purposes. It’s really refreshing to see someone with a speech impediment portrayed as clever, quick-witted and incisive. A stumbling tongue does not mean a fumbling brain.

The Alice Network was the first of Alice Quinn’s books I’ve read, but it will not be the last. I’m hunting down all her other books as we speak!



If you're interested in history, you may also enjoy reading my review of A Letter from Italy by Pamela Hart, another great read set in WWI.

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

THE BEAST'S GARDEN: How a book can change your life

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Sometimes a book can change your life.


The Diary of Anne Frank was that kind of book for me. 


I read it when I was twelve years old.  I can still remember the awful shock of reaching the end, and finding out that Anne did not escape her attic, that she died in Bergen-Belsen when she was only a few years older than I was. 

I had never read a book like it before. It felt like I had been punched hard in the solar plexus. I could not breathe, I could not cry. My very heart felt bruised.


Anne Frank


I began to write my own diary a few days later. Anne Frank had written hers as a series of letters addressed to an imaginary friend named Kitty. I did the same, but addressed mine to “Carrie”. The first entry was written on 15/8/1978 and began ‘Dear Diary, your name is now Carrie. You’ll be my confidant and my port in which to lay my head and my poor worn-out hopes, thoughts and ambitions …’ 


I have written in my diary nearly every day since. That is thirty-seven years of consecutive diary writing, much more than the two years so tragically given to Anne Frank.


Her diary also sparked in me a lifelong fascination with Hitler, and those few brave people who tried their best to resist Nazism. I began to collect a library of books to do with the Second World War, many of them first-hand accounts and memoirs. I was particularly interested in stories of ordinary people who found within themselves extraordinary courage and strength. I knew that one day I would try and write a novel about someone like Anne Frank. 


The years passed, and I wrote a great many books. More than thirty-five at last count. My books range from picture books to poetry, and from heroic fantasy for children to historical novels for adults. I have written books set in Renaissance Venice and at the court of the Sun King in Versailles, in the English Civil War and in the perilous reign of Mary, Queen of Scots, in the Napoleonic Wars, and in worlds of my own imagining. Yet the Second World War never loosened its hold on my imagination. I continued to read as many books as I could find set at that period, and to continue to think about writing one of my own. 

Fairy tales are another long-held passion of mine. I have just completed a doctorate in the subject, and many of my novels have fairy tale motifs and metaphors entwined through their stories. 


The Wild Girl tells the story of the forbidden romance between Wilhelm Grimm and Dortchen Wild, the young woman who told him many of the world’s most beloved ‘wonder tales’. She told him stories like ‘Hansel and Gretel’, ‘Rumpelstiltskin’, ‘The Frog King’, ‘Six Swans’, ‘The Elves and the Shoemaker’, and ‘The Singing, Springing Lark,’ a beautiful variant on the tale we know as ‘The Beauty and the Beast’. 

Arthur Rackham's illustration for 'The Singing, Springing Lark' 


In this story, the father catches a lark, rather than stealing a rose, and the beast of the tale is a lion by day and a man by night (an arrangement which I always thought might have its compensations). The greatest difference, however, is the ending. In Dortchen Wild’s tale, the heroine must follow a trail of blood and white feathers her lover leaves behind him, and then outwit the enchantress who first cast the curse upon him. The heroine is given three gifts to help her: a dress as golden as the sun, another as silver as the moon, and a griffin on which to escape. 


Writing a novel always throws up many unexpected ideas as well as unforeseen problems, and The Wild Girl was no exception.  Taking place over twenty years, and told from the point of view of a young woman forgotten by history, The Wild Girl was very research-intensive indeed. And, for a long while, I did not have a strong sense of the narrative structure. I knew I wanted to retell one of Dortchen’s stories in some way; I did not yet know how. 


While researching the Grimm Brothers, I was distressed to learn their tales had been banned in Germany after the Second World War, as part of the Allies’ Denazification program. Hitler had loved the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales and had recommended all German households have a copy on their shelves. I went to bed that night troubled and upset. I loved the Grimm tales too. In times of darkness and fear, they had given me light and comfort. Yet I had always hated the Nazis and all they stood for, including their burning of books. 


I could not get to sleep that night, my mind in turmoil.  Eventually I got up and found myself a novel to read. I chose an old World War II thriller, about the Danish resistance to the Nazis. I read the whole book through, finally going to sleep long after midnight. Just before I fell asleep, I thought again about the novel I was struggling to write and about the beautiful tales Dortchen Wild had told Wilhelm Grimm. I said to myself: “Trust in the universe. The answer will come.” 


The next morning, as I drifted in that hypnopompic state between sleeping and waking, an image rose up in my mind’s eye. I saw a beautiful young woman, wearing a dress as golden as the sun, singing in a vast dark hall. Her audience were German soldiers in black SS uniforms. I knew instinctively that she was some kind of spy, or resistance fighter, and also that she was German herself. 


I wrote in my diary that day, Monday 3rd October 2011: ‘I couldn’t sleep last night for worrying about Wild Girl … I need something new, strange, unexpected, surprising … I woke this morning and lay in that dim borderland between awake and asleep, that place of creative dreaming, and the idea came to me – why not have the secondary tale set in WWII … perhaps she has to flee and live wild in the woods – or joins the German Resistance - & she carries everywhere a copy of the Grimm fairy tales, as a kind of talisman … it feels good, it feels right, it feels hard and scary – but absolutely seems it have some kind of power to it …’  


My unconscious mind had put together two very different desires – wanting to write a novel about resistance to the Nazis and wanting to retell one of Dortchen Wild’s fairy tales – and come up with something quite unexpected. 


That was the beginning of my novel The Beast’s Garden, a retelling of the Grimms’ version of ‘Beauty and the Beast’, set in the German underground resistance to Hitler.


That vision, that not-quite-a-dream, was the beginning of an extraordinary journey of discovery for me. At first, I thought that this story of courage and resistance would be the second narrative strand in The Wild Girl. Slowly I came to realise it was a novel in its own right. I had to put the idea aside as I wrote The Wild Girl and finished my doctorate in fairy tale studies. The idea would not leave me alone, however. I began to read as much as I could about the German Resistance. 


I discovered, rather to my surprise, that many Germans abhorred the Nazis and risked their lives to stand against Hitler. I read about the Swing Kids who played jazz and danced swing in basements and cellars, despite the threat of arrest. The White Rose group of students in Munich printed leaflets calling the German people to rise up against the Third Reich. The Edelweiss Pirates in Cologne did battle with the Hitler Youth and hid deserters from the army. The Baum group in Berlin blew up one of Goebbels’ exhibitions. Other resisters smuggled Jews out of Germany, or hid them in their houses and gardens. Most of them paid for their defiance with their lives.

One of the most successful groups of resisters was based in Berlin. The Gestapo called them the Red Orchestra. They called themselves the Zirkel, which simply means circle. Their members were writers, actors, journalists, musicians and sculptors. Their leaders were a Luftwaffe officer called Harro Schulze-Boysen, his young aristocratic wife Libertas, and their friends Arvid and Mildred Harnack. Mildred would earn the terrible distinction of being the only American woman to be executed by the Third Reich.


Harro & Libertas Schulze-Boysen, who were both executed for their resistance to the Third Reich

I imagined a young German woman (the Beauty of the tale) who marries a Nazi officer (the Beast) in order to save her father. But secretly Ava helps her Jewish friends whever she can. One day she meets Libertas, and is drawn into the dangerous world of the underground resistance. Living a double life, she must spy on her husband Leo in order to help save whom she can. Gradually she comes to suspect her husband is himself involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler. When the plot fails, Ava must risk everything to try and save her husband from a cruel traitor’s death. 


The Beast’s Garden was in many ways the most difficult book I have ever written. I found the research utterly harrowing. For months, every day was spent reading about Hitler, about the Gestapo, about the Holocaust. I wrote the first draft entirely in first person, as if it was a diary or a memoir. But then I found it was too limiting, trying to tell such a big story from just one person’s point of view. I rewrote the entire book, in just six weeks, from a number of different points of view, including that of a Jewish girl in hiding. 

On Thursday 12 February 2015, I wrote in my diary: ‘I finished the novel last night, at 1am … and could not sleep afterwards … very tired now, but oh so happy …’


The Beast’s Garden is my paean to all those ordinary people who found such extraordinary courage and strength of spirit within them during the dark days of the Third Reich, including, of course, Anne Frank and the people who hid her and her family. 


You can read more about my liminal dreaming here and more about my research books for THE BEAST'S GARDEN here


PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT - I LOVE TO KNOW WHAT YOU THINK!

THE BEAST'S GARDEN: How liminal dreaming brought me a story of love, war & resistance

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY OF THE BEAST’S GARDEN

The first flash of inspiration for my new novel THE BEAST’S GARDEN came to me while I was drifting in that shadowy place between being asleep and being awake. 

There are two such liminal borderlands. 

The first is called hypnagogia which means “leading toward sleep”; the second is hypnopompia meaning “leading away from sleep.”

I consciously use both of these twilight zones as a time and a space to daydream about my story. I run my narrative thread through my mind, testing for weaknesses, playing with alternatives, thinking about my characters and their fears and desires, rearranging words and images, allowing my mind to wander and to wonder …

Kinuko Craft 

The hypnagogic state (falling asleep) is the best time to ponder problems thrown up by the day’s work and to look over work that has already been written. I like to lie still in the dark silence, and consciously open my mind up to new images or visions. 

Sometimes I deliberately set about unlocking my unconscious to see what lurks within. I imagine myself walking down a flight of steps into shadows. There is a door at the end of the steps. It is locked, but I hold the key in my hand. The door is always different – sometimes a gateway through a yew tree, sometimes a great Gothic door with heavy iron hinges and a huge keyhole. The key might be as long as my arm, or so small I can scarcely grasp it with my fingers. I unlock the door and open it … wondering what I will find inside. Often it’s a garden, with a path that leads to a mysterious house. Sometimes, it’s a lake under a starlit sky, surrounded by sharp-etched mountain peaks. 

With each novel I write, the scene within will be different … and the more I unlock that door, the more vivid and real the scene within will seem.

Sometimes I choose what I will find; most times, what I find is a surprise. 

The hypnopompic state (rising from sleep) is very different. I am closer to the dream world, deeper within the dark vault of the subconscious. I float in darkness as if in a vast subterranean ocean, rising and falling, images and ideas drifting to the surface then falling away again like the undulation of bioluminescent jellyfish in the midnight tide. 

Sometimes the visions I have in that hypnopompic phase are extraordinarily vivid, filled with light and sound, like a brief glimpse of a film through the half-open door of a movie theatre. Sometimes they are strange and eerie; sometimes terrifying. 

I call it ‘liminal dreaming’, for want of a better term. It’s not quite a dream, not quite a daydream, but something in-between, a rite of passage between the conscious and the unconscious mind.

Henry Fuseli: The Nightmare


It was the 3rd November 2011. I had gone to bed the previous night unhappy and troubled by the novel I was then writing, THE WILD GIRL, which tells the story of the forbidden romance between Wilhelm Grimm and Dortchen Wild, the young woman who told him many of the Grimm brothers’ most famous fairy tales. I did not yet see the shape of my story, my narrative structure, which meant I could not begin writing the novel. I can never begin until I see the story’s whole shape. 


I went to sleep repeating to myself: it’s all right, trust the universe, the answer will come, the answer will come …


As I lay in the dim borderland between awake and asleep the next morning, an image came into my mind. A young woman, dressed in a sinuous golden silk dress, leant on a black piano in a dark and smoky nightclub, singing a sexy jazz number, while men in the severe black uniforms of the SS watched her. She had a flower in her hair, which was worn loose in heavy 1940s waves. 

An old photo of actress Ida Lupino 

As I came closer to being awake, my conscious mind reached for more images, more ideas. I saw her hugging a tattered book of fairy tales to her chest and weeping, I saw her living hand-to-mouth in the bombed-out rubble of a city, hiding in a dark forest, being chased … I saw her crouched beneath the weight of a heavy dark fur-coat, cramming food into her mouth … I saw books being burned in a bonfire and the girl, white-faced and desperate, trying to save her book …


I sat up and reached for my diary, and tried to write down all the phantasmagorias that had come so swift and bright into my mind’s eye. I wrote five pages: ‘why not have the secondary tale set in WWII … she has to flee and live wild in the wood – or joins the German Resistance – and she carries with her everywhere a copy of the Grimm fairy tales, as a kind of talisman … I have to say this new idea – so fragile and damp still – it feels good, it feels right, it feels hard and scary – but absolutely seems to have some kind of power to it.’


In my diary, I speculate where this idea came from: I had always wanted to write a book set in the Second World War; I’d always loved stories about resistance to Hitler; I had just read a page-turning World War II thriller about the Danish resistance; and I had been reading about the Grimm brothers and how their fairy tales were ‘used by Nazi Germany in a way they could never have imagined’. By this, I was referring to Hitler recommending all Germans had a copy of the Grimm brothers’ tales in their households, and how, after the war, the Allied had banned the Household and Children’s Tales as part of their denazification program. 


At first, I thought this liminal dream was a second narrative thread to be woven into THE WILD GIRL. I was planning to use ‘All-Kinds-of-Fur’, a story about a king who wanted to marry his daughter that Dortchen had told to Wilhelm just days before the fairy tale collection was rushed to the printers in 1812. I wrote in my diary two days later, ‘I’ve been thinking about my WWII idea and have that bright panic in my veins that means it’s a good one. Already I can see a narrative arc.’  


On 7th October 2011, I wrote another four pages in my diary, outlining the basic sequence of events. I began a new notebook for it, filling its pages with research about Hitler’s rise to power and circles of German resistance. I began to try and weave my two stories together.


On 22nd February 2012, I wrote in my diary: ‘I’m rethinking the Nazi resistance strand of the story – I’m already at 69,000 words (of THE WILD GIRL) & the novel is growing slowly – I don’t want it to be too long - & I’m wondering if the two strands of my story shouldn’t be Dortchen as a grown woman and Dortchen growing up  … I’m going back to my original idea of having my opening scene being Dortchen dancing in a black dress in a winter forest with ravens crying overhead (my dream) … I can write the German resistance idea as a separate novel – rather than trying to weave 2 separate stories together …’ 


On 1st July, my diary reads ‘I’ve also been thinking a lot ‘The Singing, Springing Lark’ and what a beautiful YA book it would make. Oh, if only I had more time. All these books I want to write.’ 


(‘The Singing, Springing Lark’ was an unusual and very beautiful variant of the ‘Beauty & the Beast’ tale, told by Dortchen to Wilhelm on 7th January 1813).


A few days later (10th July 2013), I wrote: ‘I’ve been thinking about my German resistance story & wondering if I can do it as a retelling of ‘The Singing, Springing Lark’ – German girl married to a ‘beast’ – a German officer – to save her father – she is frightened of him – but really he is working to help people – inadvertently she betrays him and must go on quest to find him again – the celestial gifts – golden gown – what could the chicks be? Saves him from female Gestapo - & so on. I think it could work incredibly well.’ 


So that was how I got the idea for the story that became THE BEAST’S GARDEN. A liminal dream that was discarded, then transformed into something else through the strange and inexplicable creative process. 


It was a harrowing book to write, for many reasons, as I’m sure you can imagine.  Researching Hitler and the Holocaust for months on end was enough to give anyone nightmares … particularly someone who is used to consciously unlocking the gateway between the conscious and the subconscious …

So it was that, every night, as I walked down my shadowy steps to a mysterious locked door … it was the iron door to a Gestapo cell … and I would stand, paralysed, too afraid to open the door … 

In the end, I gave this particular liminal dream to my heroine, Ava … I gave her the strength and courage to open that cell door and rescue her love, who is imprisoned within … and so I was able to exorcise that waking nightmare …


And now, each night, as I walk down the twilight steps towards the gateway, I wonder … what new story awaits for me beyond the threshold ...

BOOK REVIEW: A Letter from Italy by Pamela Hart

Thursday, August 03, 2017


A Letter from Italy – Pamela Hart

Blurb (from GoodReads):

Inspired by the life of the world's first woman war correspondent, Australia's Louise Mack, the most sweeping love story yet by Pamela Hart

1917, Italy. Australian journalist Rebecca Quinn is an unconventional woman. At the height of World War I, she has given up the safety of her Sydney home for the bloody battlefields of Europe, following her journalist husband to the frontline as a war correspondent in Italy.

Reporting the horrors of the Italian campaign, Rebecca finds herself thrown together with American-born Italian photographer Alessandro Panucci, and soon discovers another battleground every bit as dangerous and unpredictable: the human heart.


My Thoughts:
A passionate and poignant love story set on the beautiful Italian coast by the bestselling author of The Soldier's Wife and The War Bride. Pamela Hart has been making a name for herself by writing vivid, compelling and gorgeously romantic historical fiction novels about the lives of Australian women during the First World War. Her first two – The Soldier’s Wife and The War Bride – were set in Sydney during and just after the war years. Her latest, however, is set in Italy, and was inspired by the true story of Louise Mack, an Australian journalist who became the world’s first female war correspondent. 


The heroine is a strong-willed Australian journalist named Rebecca Quinn who has followed Jack, her war correspondent husband, to the frontline of the war in Italy. He goes undercover in Albania, leaving Rebecca alone in Brindisi, an Italian port town about halfway down Italy’s boot-heel. She is determined not to be sent home, but women journalists are not welcome and so she must prove herself even while struggling to stay safe. She begins to work with a talented Italian-American photographer named Sandro, racing to get scoops before any other journalist and finding herself in the heart of the action. Meanwhile, Jack goes missing and Rebecca finds her emotions in turmoil


The pages seemed to turn themselves, and I found myself sneaking off to read when I was meant to be working. A really thoughtful and subtle historical romance with lots of brains and lots of heart. 


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