What a glorious book this is.
Published in 2014, this beautiful, engrossing novel by American author Sue Monk Kidd (author of the best selling ‘Secret Life of Bees’) tells the story of the Grimke sisters. Sarah and Angelina were born into South Carolina’s ‘aristocracy’ – the slave owning, wealthy, pious and cultured families of Charleston in the early 1800’s. Yes, before the Civil War. But not, as I learnt from this book, before some people in both Northern and Southern states began speaking out against the evils of slavery.
I also learned that the Grimke sisters were among the most reviled women in America during their long campaign for abolition – and also among the earliest feminists in that country. They campaigned, not just for the abolition of slavery, but against racism in all its forms, and also for the right of women to have a voice and a vocation.
Why had I not heard of them before now? I felt better on learning that the author herself – Southern raised and living in Charleston – had also not known about them until she went to an exhibition commemorating historical women of note. There, she read about Sarah and Angelina and a little seed of an idea she’d had for a novel (‘I want to write about sisters’) grew to encompass their extraordinary story.
Another woman’s story is told alongside the sisters’. Monk Kidd learned that Sarah had been ‘given’ a slave named Hetty, a girl of the same age as herself – for her eleventh birthday. The real Hetty’s life was not a long one- she died young- but in the novel, she becomes the girl called ‘Handful’ by her mother Charlotte, also a slave. Handful and Sarah grow up together across a seemingly insurmountable divide – the free and the enslaved. The two women’s stories weave around each other throughout the book, with chapters alternating between the voices of Sarah and Handful.
I listened to the audiobook version of this novel, which gave me the added pleasure of hearing it narrated by two different women – one with the cultured Charleston accents of Sarah, and the other the ‘slave voice’ of Handful.
This book did for me what good historical fiction should do. It made me wonder, imagine – and seek out more information on the real Grimke sisters, their lives and the society in which they lived and tried to change. Monk Kidd does not shy away from the brutal realities of the laws and practices of slavery as they were then, nor does she romanticise the relationship between Sarah and Handful. Despite, or perhaps because of this, the book is ultimately about hope.
Here’s a quote from the novel which absolutely sums up how I feel about historical fiction and, really,
history in general:
If you don’t know where you’re going, you should know where you came from.
This is Handful’s mother Charlotte speaking to her daughter as she relates the stories of ‘Granny Mama’, her African grandmother, about their history and culture before enslavement.
If you are looking for a novel to inform, inspire, educate and entrance, I’d suggest ‘The Invention of Wings’.
The rules for this month were:
500 words or less.
First word must be ‘new’.
Story must include a list of some kind, and the words ‘present’ and ‘desert’.
For more info on Furious Fiction, go here: https://www.writerscentre.com.au/furious-fiction/
And here’s my little story:
STRAWS by Denise Newton
“New wife, new life, New wife, new life, new wife…” I mutter the words from Ed’s email like an evil mantra.
His new partner, his new life. I’m stuck here in this endless loop of single parenting, unless Ed stoops to the occasional visit; grocery shopping (also endless); laundry and housework (ditto). Nineteen years of marriage and guess who drew the short straw?
“Where’s the list?” I ask Elsie now. She’s wriggling in her seat belt like she wants to escape. It’s hot, the temperature gauge tipping 42 degrees. The Saturday morning traffic belongs in one of Dante’s circles of Hell. The backs of my legs are sticking to the car seat. A mistake to wear a skirt today. I thought it’d be cooler. But no, my legs are in their own special desert under the dash, manufacturing sweat like we truly are arriving at Inferno Central.
I grit my teeth.
“I’m thirsty, Mum,” she says again, in that particular tone that is like pressing on a bruise. “Can we stop at McDonald’s for a slushie?”
“Elsie, have I ever taken you to McDonald’s?”
A small silence.
I pull into the car park and let out a quiet groan. The only free space is a long walk from the cool of the air-conditioned shopping mall. I rummage in the messy back seat of the car, retrieve the shopping list, grab some bags, turn to Elsie.
Grit my teeth again.
“Come on, let’s go in and get this over with.”
She scrambles out, a little monkey in her purple shorts and blue Peppa Pig T-shirt.
Forty minutes later we are through the checkout, shopping bags stacked in the trolley. I stop at the automatic door, turn to look at my daughter.
“Hey, before we go out and get hot all over again, what say we get milkshakes at the cafe?”
She gives me a huge smile.
We order chocolate milkshakes and I lean back in my seat, looking at Elsie.
“You know Charlotte?” she says to me through the straw. I nod. Charlotte is Elsie’s third best friend. When you are in Year One, there is a strict pecking order of friendship that must be observed.
“Charlotte’s birthday is in three days and she can’t stop talking about the presents she wants.”
“Oh?” I know where this was leading – a wish list, a none- too- gentle hint for her own upcoming birthday.
Elsie says, her mouth all chocolatey, “I told Charlotte that I don’t want lots of presents for my birthday this year. I want to have a day with you at the mall, shopping and stuff. And milkshakes.” She beams. “I really like shopping with you.”
Now I know who got the short straw.
For those who haven’t come across her work yet, Sulari Gentill is the Australian author of the Rowland Sinclair series. Beginning with the first title, A Few Right Thinking Men, published in 2011, the (to date) nine books relate the adventures of Rowland Sinclair, “an artist and a gentleman…with a talent for scandal”. (from the cover blurb)
Along with his friends Edna (a talented sculptress and Rowland’s model for his many nude portraits as well as a possible love interest), Clyde (Communist Party of Australia member) and Milton (wannabe poet) Rowland travels Australia and further afield, stumbling into crimes that need solving.
The books are all set in the 1930’s, the time of the Great Depression, battles between the Far Right (The New Guard and Antipodean Nazi sympathisers) and Communists; seances and spiritualism; stockmen, gangsters, and bitter politics. Gentill immerses the reader in the thinking, politics, places, fashions and fads of these turbulent times.
The settings of the novels are wonderful: from the leafy Sydney suburb of Woollhara to the grimy streets of Sydney’s slums; from the new national capital of Canberra to the heart of the ‘squattocracy’ at Yass; from the opulence of the Hydro Majestic Hotel at Medlow Bath ( my fellow Blue Mountains readers will know this one) to sailing on the Aquitania; Shanghai; London; even to Munich as Hitler rises to power.
Gentill has the knack of weaving compelling crime stories with spot- on historical detail and wry humour, all told through the eyes of her very likeable character and his chums.
I greatly enjoyed this series and can’t wait to hear the author talk about her newest title, All the Tea in China, published January 2019.
I might see some other Blue Mountains readers at the Author Talk on 9th March at 2pm. Let me know in the comments below if you are planning to come.
Last year I wrote a post about a new online program I was about to start with the Australian Writers’ Centre, called ‘Write Your Novel.’ I’m now almost half way through this six month course and I’m pleased to report that it is proving to be a worthwhile venture.
When I began the program I had a first draft manuscript of over 119,000 words. Yes, I know, far too many words. I knew I needed to redraft, edit, cut and whittle away a whole lot of those words…words that I’d sweated over and celebrated as the word count mounted. Odd, now that I’m celebrating as the word tally goes down…
Anyway, as this was my first novel, I was a bit lost as to how to set about this (mammoth) task. How to critically examine my story’s plot, structure, characters, dialogue, description. How to make sure all the parts work together to make a satisfying whole. What are the themes of my story and how to ensure they shine through? And of course, how to tighten the language.
This is where the ‘Write Your Novel’ program has been invaluable. I’m in an online classroom with eight other aspiring authors. We have an online tutor, Cathie Tasker, an editor with many years of experience in publishing. Cathie gives each of us feedback as we take turns to submit segments of our manuscripts. And, we all workshop each others’ work and provide feedback on what works well and what needs more work. Already I have learnt so much – from giving feedback and receiving it, and reading the comments given by my classmates on others’ work as well.
I’m happy that I’ve already trimmed over 14,000 words, mainly through tightening language, deleting those pesky repetitious or unnecessary words and checking my overuse of adverbs! And I’ve been able to write more convincing characters by getting closer to their point of view.
Lots more work to do, of course. But I’ve been pleased at the things I’ve learnt so far and confident that I can keep applying this to my writing, even after the program finishes.
To find out more about the ‘Write Your Novel’ program or other classroom and online courses at Australian Writers’ Centre, go to their website: https://www.writerscentre.com.au/
(I promise I am receiving no payment of any kind for this mention! I spent ages online trawling through writing courses and was happy to discover the AWC, so I’m sharing the love. 🙂 )
I’ll be back in another few months to update my progress.
This is Holly Throsby’s second novel, following her debut Goodwood. Like it’s predecessor, Cedar Valley is set in a small Australian country town. In an interview I heard with Throsby, she admitted that she’d not lived in rural Australia, but is drawn to small towns in her writing. She does capture the feel of small town life very well in this novel.
The book’s plot is an interesting mix of ‘coming of age’ (the story of Benny, a young woman seeking information and connection with her lost, dead mother by returning to the town where her mother once lived) and gentle mystery/police investigation story (local cops trying to figure out the identity and story behind a man who arrives, and dies, in the town on the same day.)
I say ‘gentle’ because this is not a crime novel. There is no blood, no murder weapon, no tense climactic scene. The stories of Benny and the mystery man gently unfold throughout the book. Seemingly unconnected, there is a ribbon of plot that ties them together in the end. The conclusion is nicely done.
Throsby’s style is almost ‘naive’, if that’s a term that can be used in literature. The book moves slowly, as Benny absorbs the sights, sounds, and people of the town she has come to live in for a while. The mystery plays itself out in a measured, thoughtful way, never taking over from the emotion of Benny and the other characters, but somehow, in odd ways, drawing the town’s population together as they variously try to puzzle out the story of the man who died in front of the Antiques shop.
I enjoyed this book. I read it in between Kristina Olsson’s Shell (slow moving plot but exquisite language) and Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things (an important but harrowing book). It contrasted nicely with both.
This is a short story I submitted in the ‘Furious Fiction’ at the Australian Writers Centre in August 2018.
The prompts for that month were:
The story had to be 500 words (or less)
The sentences “The door was locked” and “It felt familiar” and “She laughed” had to be included.
To find out more about Furious Fiction, go here: https://www.writerscentre.com.au/furious-fiction/
It’s free, fast and fun.
Here’s my story.
I didn’t know what to do. The door was locked. I rattled the handle, twisted it hard. Emma, behind me on the step, jostled my elbow. I turned to her, scowling.
“We can’t get in,” I muttered.
She laughed. “What’s it matter?” she called as she bounced back down the stairs, landing on the pavement with a “Ta da!”
Emma always found the laughter. It’s what most people love about my sister. She is slow, and a bit chubby, and her face has that flattened look. And she knows how to be happy.
“Emma, it’s not funny.” I tried to scold, and failed as usual. Emma never allows words to penetrate when she is in her happy place.
She said “Let’s go to the park!”
“We promised Dad we’d clean up this afternoon,” I reminded her.
“We can do that later!” She was off, running down the street towards the park; one of her favourite places.
Sometimes, Emma can be very tiring.
Mum’s house was too far to walk to, and she wouldn’t be back to pick us up for another two hours – which would’ve been plenty of time to clean up the mess in Dad’s kitchen that we – or really, Emma – had made yesterday. He’d been angry when he got home. I could understand why. It couldn’t have been great, getting home after work to find Emma, dusted head to foot with flour, looking like a walking snow cone, with egg shells, vanilla essence, mixing bowls and dirty spoons scattered all over the bench tops. The look on his face… poor Dad.
Mum had arrived then, and the tension between them was a razor blade, invisible but deadly. It felt familiar. I’d said, quickly “We’ll come tomorrow after school, Dad, we’ll clean it up, promise!”
And now, here we were: locked out.
I heard the low throb of Dad’s car and spun around, grabbing Emma’s elbow to steer her back to the house. She beamed at Dad and rushed to him, her little arms hugging his legs as he tried to get out of the driver’s seat.
“Hey, Daddy!” He put his hand out to smooth her hair, his eyes meeting mine above her head.
“Hey, baby,” he said softly. I could tell he had forgiven her. That felt familiar, too.
This is a ‘Strange New Year message’ because it’s all about ‘lasts’. Usually, as a new year rolls in, we are caught up in thinking about everything new and shiny: new year plans, resolutions, a new calendar on the wall…
And I’ve been doing all that too, of course. I’ve set my goal for 2019: to have a completed and edited manuscript of my first novel, and be well and truly on the path to approaching agents and publishers to gauge interest in the story.
For this post, though, I want to write about ‘last’ things.
How do we know when its the last time we do something, see something, speak to someone?
I ask this because last night, I called to wish Happy New Year to an elderly person in my life. After I had hung up the phone, I began to wonder if this was to be the last New Year greeting I would exchange with that person, who is not in the best of health and approaching the grand age of 90.
Would knowing that it was the last time I wished her a Happy New Year, change the way I did so? Or the way I act before or afterward? Probably. But of course I don’t know, and generally speaking, we never do. Which is, perhaps, for the best.
That got me thinking about other ‘lasts.’
The last time I might kiss someone hello, or goodbye.
The last breakfast I might eat.
The last coffee I enjoy.
The last swim ( I’m writing this post after 20 laps at my beautiful local pool, and it’s mid summer here in Australia, so swimming is definitely on my agenda right now)
The last piece of beautiful music I hear.
The last book I read.
Disappearing down that particular rabbit hole has me reflecting on what I would choose, if I knew that a book was to be my last one ever…and I truly don’t know the answer! Would I choose to re- read a well loved favourite, perhaps one I hadn’t read in a while? Or would I elect to tackle one of the many, many books on my ‘to be read’ list?
Even thinking about that incites a little bubble of panic. I always say, only partly joking, ‘So many books, so little time’. But of course I never really think that I won’t actually have enough time to read all the books I want to. Despite being perfectly aware of the reality that we all leave this life some day, I have never truly considered the fact that there will be a last book. So, which one would I choose?
Which book would you choose for your last book ever? Let me know in the comments.
And, Happy New Year to you and yours.
Here’s my little entry into the December ‘Furious Fiction’ at the Australian Writer’s Centre. 500 words, the story had to be set on Christmas Eve, either 40 years ago or 40 years in the future.
When Greg Stopped Believing in Santa By Denise Newton
I looked out at the red and green tinsel around my neighbour’s front window and the Merry Christmas written in white window spray in the centre of the pane.
“Merry Christmas,” I said, to myself—not aloud. Greg always said it’s safer to keep some things to yourself, in case people get the wrong idea about you. Greg was so wise for his age. Missing him was a sharp hurt, a pain deep in my chest. He was so far away this Christmas. All the way across the Nullabor. Past the Great Australian Bight. I’d never been but he described how it looked from the plane window when he and Sally flew there to start their new life in Perth. He’d said perhaps, I could go and visit them one day, stay for a couple of weeks.
Greg had gone away the year after he stopped believing in Santa. Well, okay—maybe a few years after…perhaps twenty years…but I found it hard to believe it was that long.
One Christmas Eve, he was staring, rapt, out our back door at the garden, the grass made dewy by the cool of the night.
“Look, Mum!” he breathed. “Santa’s sled tracks on the grass.” He pointed to a spot in the middle of the lawn, little finger trembling with joy. I couldn’t see anything but I smiled and ruffled his hair, loving his willingness to believe.
“Best be off to bed, then, love. Santa doesn’t stop at homes where the children are still awake.”
And he raced to leap into bed where he lay, eyes pressed closed in case Santa peeked through the window.
The next Christmas he was silent and embarrassed if Santa was mentioned. I knew he no longer believed but didn’t want to hurt my feelings. Sweet boy.
And then, what seemed like the very next year, he was off to Perth, he and Sally together. I was glad for his new job, his new city, his new wife. Sally with her miniskirts and her glossy hair piled high in the beehive hairdo that was all the rage now. She loved Greg—that was what mattered. Still, I hurt inside, though I never said it aloud. I’d learnt that from Greg. He called every Christmas Eve and all the other special days and I loved hearing his voice, though it never made the hurt go away.
Seems we are galloping towards the end of another year. The big speed bump before we get to the festivities of New Year is, of course, Christmas.
I know that this time of year is not easy for many people. Sometimes it’s agony to spend time with family, when you might prefer to be elsewhere. For others, it’s missing a loved one. And for other people it’s just a crazy busy period, full of family and food and festive spirit, and nowhere near enough time to sit down and really enjoy it all.
For some, Christmas is a time of quiet reflection, even welcome solitude.
Some hearts may be full of regret for mistakes made during the past year, or longing for better times to come.
Some folks choose to spend Christmas Day with strangers – handing out Christmas hampers, for example, or helping serve a Christmas meal to people who would otherwise have a lonely day with no special food or decorations to mark it as a special day.
(Shout out here to the Wayside Chapel in Sydney, which every year hosts a street party, complete with Christmas dinner, for those doing it hard on Christmas Day. You can find more about the Wayside here)
However you might spend your Christmas this year, I wish you a beautiful one…and perhaps a book or three under the tree for that precious summer reading time.
I was surprised to learn that the author of this 2018 published book is Australian. It is set in a town in the US state of Ohio and Foxlee captures the atmosphere of an American town in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s so well.
But,to the story…
What a lovely read this is.
The story centres around a young girl, Lenny Spink, who lives with her struggling single mother Cindy and her younger brother Davey. The family dynamics (siblings sharing secrets from the grown ups, occasional bickering, the kids’ more or less missing father, Cindy’s wannabe suitor, financial struggles and Cindy’s constant worrying) are portrayed from the viewpoint of Lenny, resulting in warm humour, the wisdom of children, and real sadness.
Davey suffers from a condition (unnamed at the book’s opening) which causes him to grow and grow and grow. Lenny reports on her brother’s growth and unusual physical appearance in a matter of fact way but the reader senses her fear and confusion.
There are moments of humour, too, in the sometimes odd, sometimes endearing, sometimes unsympathetic neighbours and others who people Lenny and Davey’s world: their babysitter Mrs Gaspar from Hungary, the revolting Mr King, ‘Great Aunt Em’, Peter Spink the absentee father, Lenny’s friends CJ and Mathew from school, the kindergarten teacher, the children’s unseen grandmother Nanny Flora…and of course Martha, from Burrell’s Publishing Company, who sends weekly issues of the Burrell’s Build-it-at-home Encyclopedia. The two children explore the world through the pages of this publishing marvel as they receive issues covering the A’s right through to ‘WXYZ’. They weave fantasies about things they are learning into their everyday lives with humorous and at times, heartbreaking effect.
The book describes a more innocent time, when home encyclopedias were to be treasured for the knowledge they held. At the same time we, the readers, wish that the setting was a modern day one because of advances in medical science that might, just might, save Davey.
This is a sweet, funny, sad and hopeful book.