Books and reading

  • Books and reading

    Lives of crime: ‘Sanctuary’ by Gary Disher

    Gary Disher writes the kind of crime stories I like best: ones that focus on the people more than the crimes. He manages to show the how and why of the crimes committed, sure; but also the impact on both perpetrators and victims. This is meaningful fiction, not showcasing crime for its own sake, but to say something about humans and why they do the things they do.

    Sanctuary is unusual for this genre in that the workings of the world of law enforcement are of minimal importance to the narrative. It centres on several people whose stories overlap, though for much of the book we don’t necessarily know how or why.

    There is Grace, formerly known as Anita, who grew up in an unlovely and unloving foster home, along with Adam. They become a team involved in petty crime, just the two of them against a hostile world, until Anita meets a man who teaches her the tricks of a higher level criminal life. When she decides she has had enough of this man’s cruelty and control, she becomes Grace and continues her life of crime alone.

    But Adam harbours a grudge and when they inadvertently cross paths on a ‘job’, she runs again, fearful of what he might do.

    So begins a series of intricate and well planned moves; staying several steps ahead, constantly checking on surrounds and on people, distrusting of others, always looking for an escape, adopting a series of disguises.

    Disher vividly conjures the loneliness and insecurity of this life, and we feel some sympathy for Grace as she tries to adopt another way of being, the kind of ‘legitimate’ and ordinary life that she now longs for. It takes enormous mental and physical energy to live like this. I was reminded of Maxwell Smart in the 1960’s cold-war spoof series Get Smart, in which he often says of the ‘baddies’: If only they could use their cleverness for niceness instead of nastiness.

    Through the viewpoint of another character we are given insight into the mind of someone who indulges in digital stalking and illegal surveillance of people. It’s an unpleasant place and I was always relieved to move onto another scene, away from this sordid and rage-filled character’s world view. But I am very aware that sadly, technology has provided increased opportunities for people like this to frighten and hurt others.

    The tension mounts as the trajectories of Grace, Adam and other characters head towards collision, with complications cleverly woven in.

    The resolution does not tie everything up in a neat bow; that would be unrealistic and too tidy. But we are left with a hope that perhaps, at some future time, Grace and Adam can find a more satisfying way of being in their world.

    Sanctuary is published by Text Publishing in April 2024.
    My thanks to the publishers and to NetGalley for an early review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    ‘Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind’ by Yoval Noah Harari

    While we homo sapiens might feel pleased to be the species that has seemingly evolved to ‘rule the world’, this book should give pause for thought.

    It’s a sweeping story of our history: how we evolved and separated from other human species such as the Neanderthals, why we have paid a price for the development of our relatively large brains, how the ‘cognitive revolution’ distinguished our species from other animals (and what we have done with this advantage since), how and why myths such as gods, race, nationalities, money and human rights were created.

    There are some ideas that I am certain would be controversial to some, including:

    • the ‘agricultural revolution’ actually resulted in humankind spending more time and effort feeding itself than in hunter-gatherer communities
    • it is possible that, far from grains such as wheat or rice being ‘domesticated’ by humans, it could be the other way around: that these grains trained humans to spend huge amounts of labour tending them, allowing them to become masters of the grain world.
    • the three unifying forces of humankind have been money, empire and religion, and of these:
    • capitalism is the most successful religion invented by humans, requiring high levels of trust to operate effectively.

    Sapiens is definitely a thought-provoking book. Always interested in the ‘back story’ in how things came to be as they are, I found the historic elements deeply fascinating.

    The last section of the book ventures into territory which for me was far less comfortable, involving scary questions about the future of humankind, as technological developments seemingly outpace our collective ability to predict where they might lead or to place conditions on their use.

    First published in 2015, the questions in this book are now more relevant than ever, surrounded as we are by the growth of cyborg, genetic and other technologies which could conceivably lead to the end of homo sapien and even devolution into a new species.

    More questions than answers; but perhaps a book of this nature needs to raise issues that can’t be easily addressed. If the idea is to make readers sit up and take notice, to think more deeply about the rapid pace of change, and to appreciate our collective past as a species, Sapiens achieves this very well indeed.

    Books like this should be read by scientists, ethicists, teachers, medical professionals and legislators, because these are the people holding the reins of our collective future.

    Sapiens was published by Vintage (an imprint of Penguin Books.)
    I listened to the audiobook version, also released in 2015 and read in English by Derek Perkins.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    Book bonanza: Five new picture books for littlies

    I’ve had these newly published picture books on my desk for a little while, waiting for the opportunity to read through them and put my thoughts in a post. Finally I got to them and as always, it was an absolute pleasure to see such beautiful work created for our littlest readers.

    In no particular order, here they are:

    Little Book Baby by Katrina Germein and Cheryl Orsini is all about the fun of books, from waking to a cuddle and book with mum, books in the car and on a picnic, book and playtime on the rug, squeaky book at bath time, and a goodnight book with dad. The scenes pretty much sum up any book lover’s ideal childhood, and show how sharing books together can add so much to family or play time.
    Published January 2024.

    As Bright as a Rainbow by Romy Ash and Blue Jaryn explores the idea of gender, and how individuals can express their gender in a multiplicity of ways. It might seem like a hard concept for very young children, but let’s not forget that by the age of two or three most children have been socialised in being a ‘boy’ or ‘girl’ in the ways sanctioned by their own culture. This book offers the view that rather than being an ‘either/or’ proposition, gender is more like a circle: we can be anywhere in that circle. Offering examples from the world of nature, where there are many different shades of colours like blue or green, it’s a gentle way to introduce the idea that each person can ‘just be yourself.’
    Published January 2024.

    Mimi and Buwaarr, Mother and Baby is another offering by Melissa Greenwood, a taste of Gumbaynggir culture and language. A mother (mimi) shows her baby (Buwaarr) the wonders and beauty of the world around them, especially their totem, the ocean (Gaagal) which heals and cleanses the spirit. The sun, the moon and the land offer wisdom to help a little one move into the world with love. The illustrations by the author are absolutely gorgeous, little works of art in themselves.
    Published March 2024

    My Dream for You by Ash Barty with Jasmin McGaughey and Jade Goodwin. Most Australians celebrated the news when tennis champion and all-round star Ash Barty had her first baby. This book celebrates the special bond between mum and baby and the hopes and wishes a new mother holds in her heart for her child. The illustrations by Jade Goodwin are sweet and soft.
    Published March 2024

    How to be Invisible, another in the Bunny and Bird series by Nick Bland, continues the friends’ story. This time Bunny is wearing a hat that he thinks will make him invisible. Bird has to do a lot of convincing to make Bunny see that he’s not, actually, invisible. As in the earlier Bunny and Bird book, How to Hatch a Dragon, there is tongue in cheek and visual humour that sharp eyed youngsters will appreciate.
    Published March 2024

    Australian children’s literature is in pretty good shape, as these new picture books show.
    All published by HarperCollins Children’s books.
    My thanks to the publishers for the review copies.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Fitting end to trilogy: ‘The Settlement’ by Jock Serong

    The Settlement is the conclusion to a trilogy of historical fiction novels by award-winning Aussie author Jock Serong. Set in early colonial times in Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) the three books tell the uncomfortable story of the violence of the colonial project, the evil manifested by those involved, and the defiance of the island’s First Nations.

    I can’t recommend the first (Preservation) and second (The Burning Island) highly enough. If you enjoy both historical and crime fiction these novels are for you.

    The Settlement again moves forward in time to the 1830’s, where we meet the real-life George Augustus Robinson, the evangelistic character who took it upon himself to try to solve the problem of spiraling conflict between First Nations people and the settlers in Van Diemen’s Land.

    The so-called ‘Black Line’ – a very expensive and (for the British authorities at least) completely unsuccessful attempt to corral and capture Aboriginal people to eliminate the problem, had been a failure. Robinson convinced the authorities to allow him to locate and meet with the leaders of the groups posing a threat to white settlement, with the aim of convincing them to quit their homelands and move to a settlement on an island in the northeast.

    So the ill-fated and eponymous settlement of ‘Wybalenna’ on Flinders Island was established.

    The narrative moves between key characters: Robinson himself, and other historical figures including leading First Nations figure Mannalargenna, among others; and fictional characters such as two Aboriginal orphans, Whelk and Pipi. A sympathetic, if powerless and conflicted character is the settlement’s Storekeeper, who wrestles with his conscience and his own personal issues throughout the novel.

    Robinson himself, now called the settlement’s Commandant, also struggles with the morality of his actions, but always manages to hide behind his religious beliefs and expediency, with an eye to his future position and legacy. He becomes an illustration of the moral blankness at the heart of colonisation.

    The chilling character of the Catechist is a remake, of sorts, of the evil figures from the first two books. I heard the author in an interview describe this recurring / reincarnated character as embodying the evils of colonialism and the violence inherent in it. Or, as described in this novel, as an embodiment of the place, the hands and face of an otherwise formless despair. (p108)

    The scenes involving the death and funeral of Mannalargenna are almost unbearable, lifted only by the strength and dignity of the man’s spirit even as his body fails, and beautifully conveyed:

    Mannalargenna cared little for displays of suffering. He continued to use the grease on his skin and the ochre in the short tufts of his hair, in defiance of the Commandant’s wishes. He persisted in adorning himself in other ways, and in speaking language. Far from rendering him an alien in their midst, it made aliens of his captors. Like a holed and smoking ship of war, he would slide beneath the waves imperious.

    The Settlement p174-175

    Jock Serong has again woven a dark story around the equally dark bones of historical fact. He has cemented his place as one of my favourite Australian contemporary authors.

    The Settlement was published by Text Publishing in August 2023.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Claiming independence: ‘All the Golden Light’ by Siobhan O’Brien

    All the Golden Light is the story of one Australian woman, Adelaide Roberts, towards the end of the First World War. In a way, it’s also the story of a whole generation of women, who came into adulthood amidst the turmoil of war, a newly Federated nation, and who had to battle for the right to direct their own lives.

    We might think that Adelaide’s hopes are modest. She simply wants the right to choose her own life, to marry whom she pleases, to live a life in keeping with her own desires. In other words, freedom.

    At the turn of the twentieth century, though, these simple ambitions were beyond the reach of many women.

    Like many others, she is manipulated by family and circumstance into marriage with a man she does not love. She has met a man who fascinates her, but her future is not her own to choose.

    As events overtake her, her options seem more limited than ever, leaving her in a situation that becomes more dangerous by the day.

    The novel is set in the south coast of New South Wales, Australia, and the beauty of the islands, coastline and bush of this region is brought vividly to life.

    The terrible toll wrought by the war on small communities and the men and women affected by the conflict is also very clear.

    There is plenty of drama and tension in this novel, and readers will understand the many barriers facing women who want to live an independent, free life at this time.

    I found it difficult to relate to Adelaide and some of the other characters, and I’m at a loss as to why. It may have been just me, or what was going on for me at the time I was reading this book. But despite this, Adelaide’s predicament and struggle felt very real.

    The irony of her awakening to the women’s suffrage movement and her strong desire to exercise her own rights, while simultaneously being pushed into situations not of her choosing, is also very real:

    An image of her teenaged self came to her. She was around sixteen and huddled under the back verandah with a copy of Vida Goldsteins’ Women Voter magazine…Everywhere, women were being tortured, force-fed, imprisoned and sexually assaulted…
    In that moment, under the house, fury about the oppression that these women had endured surged through Adelaide’s veins. The world she knew, or at least she thought she knew, shifted. She realised women didn’t need to blithely adhere to convention. There was another way forward.

    All the Golden Light p 104

    All the Golden Light was published by HarperCollins in January 2024.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading

    When the past bites: ‘Tipping Point’ by Dinuka McKenzie

    I’m now a definite fan of Kate Miles, the central character in this third novel by Aussie author Dinuka McKenzie featuring this determined, but very human, police detective. You can read my thoughts about Taken, book 2 in the series.

    Once again Kate is on her home turf in the fictional town of Esserton, in the NSW Northern Rivers region. She is still juggling her very demanding job with two young children while trying to be more present for them and her husband Geoff. Not an easy task.

    In this story, her birth family and its complications feature heavily and place more demands on Kate. Her brother Luke, long estranged from their father, returns to Esserton for the funeral of one of his two closest friends during their school years. A few days later, the third in their old friendship trio is found dead.

    Luke has many other issues he is trying (not very successfully) to deal with, and it’s not surprising when the shadow of suspicion falls on him.

    While Kate attempts to convince Luke to help himself, things begin to spiral out of control. Her impartiality and professionalism is brought into question as another death in the town rocks the community.

    Events from Luke and his dead friends’ pasts become inextricably linked with these tragedies, in ways the characters struggle to understand.

    The novel nicely meets the requirements of a page-turner, but as always for me it’s the characters who are the most important, especially Kate and her family. She is entirely believable and relatable and I found myself cheering for her the whole way through.

    She knew that Geoff would love her to give up the police force for a profession that placed less strain on their family life and removed his constant worries about her welfare and safety. But that would mean throwing away all the years of slog, the slow and patient climbing, dealing with all the bullshit and dick swinging and bureaucracy to prove her worth. It felt like so much of her life and identity were tied up in proving herself against those jeering voices that told her it was her skin colour, her gender and her father’s influence and not her ability that had got her there. To give it up now felt nigh-on impossible.

    The Tipping Point p99

    The Tipping Point was published by HarperCollins Books in January 2024.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Tale of two cities: ‘Edenglassie’ by Melissa Lucashenko

    It felt quite appropriate that I was finishing this new book by Goorie author Melissa Lucashenko just as the annual public holiday of ‘Australia Day’ (also known as Invasion Day or Survival Day) dawned.

    Given that the day is supposedly Australia’s national day, but is held on January 26th, the day that Governor Phillip planted the British flag on a Sydney beach and claimed the place for the British, it raises many questions of the kind also found within this novel.

    When does colonisation of a place end – if it ever does?
    Has the modern nation of Australia moved beyond its undeniably racist beginnings?
    Who has the right to tell whose stories?
    Can we see vestiges of the past in our current cities and landscapes? What lies beneath the concrete and tall buildings?
    Can past hurts ever be healed?

    Edenglassie was a name used briefly in the early years of colonisation for part of what is now the city of Brisbane. The novel has two timelines: a current day one, and a second narrative taking place in 1855, just a few decades after the first British convicts, guards and settlers established a settlement there.

    Mulanyin is a kippa, a young Yugambeh man from the coastal region around Nerang, who has been living at Edenglassie, gone through ceremony there, fallen for a young woman, Nita, and plans to marry her, save enough money to buy a boat and return to his saltwater home. He’s received good advice from his elders, especially his Big Father, who warns him: Think hard before you pick up the things of the dagai, especially those that seem entirely pleasurable.

    He is hot headed and must learn to control his impulses, especially when he sees wrongdoing against his fellows or himself. He comes to learn that while the Law imposes bonds and obligations that chafe, it also binds all Goorie people together and protects them and their civilisation. There is a lot of information given here about some of the precepts of Aboriginal culture: the importance and purpose of ceremony, the intricate rules of kinship and marriage, the careful tending and protection of natural resources.

    It is effortlessly woven in with Mulanyin’s story, as is the language scattered liberally throughout. We learn that jarjums are children, jalgany is an Aboriginal woman, pullen pullen is a space set aside for ceremonial combat. There is no glossary – we get the meaning from context and repetition throughout the novel; the best way to learn.

    The mid-nineteenth century was a time of increased tension and conflict in areas of Australia where European settlers were pushing further, taking more land, squeezing the First peoples out of home and livelihood. Inevitably Mulanyin is caught up in some of this with tragic consequences for his people.

    His story carries through, indirectly to begin with, into the modern-day narrative. This is actually where the novel opens, in 2024, with an elderly woman known as ‘Granny Eddie Blanket’ suffering a fall in the city that sees her in hospital for most of the rest of the novel.

    Granny Eddie is a formidable woman in her nineties, with a granddaughter, Winona, who is a strong activist. A young doctor, Johnny, provides care while exploring with Winona his own search for his indigenous ancestors. While a white journalist plies Granny Eddie with questions, hoping for a story on ‘Queensland’s Oldest Aboriginal Woman.’

    Through sometimes heated discussion we hear debate on issues like cultural appropriation, ‘wannabe blackfellas’, government hypocrisy, does DNA make you Aboriginal? contemporary blak activism… This part of the narrative is both hard-hitting and frequently very funny, often at the same time.

    Granny Eddie chastises Winona for her scorn at Dr Johnny’s attempts to get closer to indigenous ancestry:

    ‘I can’t come at it, Gran,’ she finally muttered. ‘It just feels all wrong. Invasive.’
    “Yeah, I know it does,’ Granny nodded. ‘But believe me, girl. You’re thinking like a whitefella when ya close him out. That’s not our way. We bring people in, we bring our Mob home, and we care about em. We teach em how to behave proper way. So, you just knock orf and be nice to him!’
    But what if they’re the same mob that stole our Home in the first place, Winona burned to retort. What if they’re white, Nan.
    But instead, she sat down and shut her gob and stayed ning, just like a real Goorie must do when growled by her Elder.

    Edenglassie p148

    Last year I hear Melissa Lucashenko interviewed in which she described how it is for an Aboriginal person walking around modern Australia, aware of all the history under their feet; the ancestors’ birthplaces and burial sites, the places that once nurtured whole communities and were nurtured in return. Edenglassie is a novel that helps white Australians catch a glimpse of what was there before the dispossession and the violence and theft that came with invasion and colonisation.

    And, we can get a tiny glimpse into the way that ancestors’ stories and teachings are carried though into modern day lives.

    Edenglassie was published by UQP in October 2023.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books,  History

    Lest we forget: ‘Secret Sparrow’ by Jackie French

    The publishers had this to say about Australian author Jackie French’s latest offering for middle grade readers:

    This is the story of women who fought during WWI, but not as nurses or ambulance drivers.

    In 1917 sixteen-year-old Jean McLain is working as a post-office assistant in England. But when she wins a national Morse code competition, the British army makes a request Jean cannot refuse – to take a secret position as a signaller in France.

    If Jean can keep the signals flowing between headquarters and the soldiers at the Front, Britain might possibly win the war.

    From Secret Sparrow blurb, HarperCollins Australia

    I sometimes think that if Jackie French was not an author, she would have made a wonderful archaeologist or even miner: she is forever digging out long-buried nuggets of wonder and creating compelling stories to bring to life little-known events or circumstances from the past.

    Secret Sparrow tells the story of young Jean, whose character stands in for the women who were sent by the British to work as ‘signallers’ in WWI. Working at base camps but sometimes near or on the front lines, they operated the morse code machines, sending and receiving coded messages that were crucial in the days before mobile technology or even telephones were widely used in warfare.

    Most of these women were employed by the postal service, although on temporary ‘secondment’ to the army. This meant that they were paid at the normal rate for their postal worker job, received no special conditions and – shockingly – were not paid pensions or medical expenses due to them after injury, or at the end of the war.

    A shortage of recruits with signalling skills meant long shifts of twelve hours or more, with no toilet or meal breaks. Signallers needed to be fast and, importantly, accurate – a slip could literally be the difference between life and death for soldiers. It was crucial work.

    To add insult to injury, in researching this history, the author learned that the majority of records relating to the women signallers’ service were destroyed after the war. Was this to evade responsibility for paying pensions to these women? Or embarrassment that the authorities had needed to recruit women for what were seen as men’s jobs, due to the danger and skill involved?

    Jean’s story takes us to the heart of trench warfare in France in 1917 and the author does not try to tidy it up for younger readers. The mud, rats, lice, horrific injuries, chaos, death and fear are all there. But there is also comradeship, and kindness, and bravery.

    There are moments of humour:

    ‘Toodle-pip, ma’am,’ Sergeant Peartree said to Mrs Reynolds with a half-salute, half-wave. Jean had a feeling that he thought a woman administrator was not worth a proper salute, or possibly he simply didn’t know which one was due to her – an ignorance shared by almost the entire army, the generals included. Those worthies had not decided whether the female administrators were officers, non-commissioned officers or ordinary troops. Apparently they were simply to be treated like unicorns: a species you didn’t have to acknowledge might exist.

    Secret Sparrow p93

    Jean’s wartime story is told by her to a young Arjun, a boy she helps when they are both caught out in a flash flood in rural NSW, Australia. It is 1978 and Jean is now an older lady, who has not lost her quick thinking and survival skills. She is able to look at her wartime experiences in a nuanced way which she shares with Arjun:

    It was a stupid war, fought in stupid ways, and mostly run by stupid men… The stupidity of the battle I was in – multiply that by every battle in the war… So yes, we had to fight. But we shouldn’t have had to fight like that. England and Germany were ruled by elites, and those elites weren’t very good at ruling. They’d got the job because they were born into it, and so millions of people died.

    Secret Sparrow p226

    Lest we forget, indeed.

    Secret Sparrow was published by Angus & Robertson, an imprint of HarperCollins Children’s Books, in November 2023.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading

    ‘Question 7’ by Richard Flanagan

    As I began to think about describing this book, I struggled to come up with a name for its form. Is it memoir? Non-fiction? Narrative non-fiction? Something else entirely…or all of the above?

    The publisher, Penguin Books Australia, offered this:

    At once a love song to his island home and to his parents, this hypnotic melding of dream, history, place and memory is about how our lives so often arise out of the stories of others and the stories we invent about ourselves.

    Penguin Random House

    Readers of two of Flanagan’s earlier works, Death of a River Guide (1994) and The Narrow Road to the Deep North (2013) will recognise two occurrences referred to in this, his latest work. One is his near-drowning when he was a river guide on Tasmania’s wild Franklin River. The other is his father’s ordeal as a Japanese prisoner of war, first on the Burma ‘Death Railway’ and later, as a slave worker in a Japanese coal mine.

    These traumatic experiences are woven together with reflections on his own childhood in rural Tasmania in the 1960s and 70s, his family (especially his parents), Tasmania’s beginnings as a far-flung outpost of the British Empire and the resulting attempt to exterminate the island’s First Peoples, and the historic seeds of the process of scientific conjecture, discovery and work that culminated in the explosion of the first atomic bombs over Japan, which finally brought World War II to an end.

    On this last point, there is quite a lot made of the romance between the famous (and married) author HG Wells with another writer, Rebecca West in the early 1900’s, as Flanagan follows the normally unseen path that led from an affair between writers to the spark of an idea that resulted in the atom bomb.

    Unlikely? No more so than any other ‘coincidences’ of life. This author’s genius allows his readers to follow a wandering pathway between events, people and places, and see them as he does. As a reader, I had to trust that this was a writer who knew what he was doing, who could guide me along a seemingly disconnected series of events and thoughts and bring me through to the other side. In the end it all made perfect sense, even within the context of the chaos and ultimate meaninglessness of so much of the world.

    The result is like an artwork: a tightly bound, circular structure in which each apparently disparate element affects and shapes all the others.

    And the title?

    It comes from a quote by Anton Checkov in which he is sending up the kind of school mathematics problems I always loathed:

    Wednesday, June 17, 1881, a train had to leave station A at 3am in order to reach station B at 11pm; just as the train was about to depart, however, an order came that the train had to reach station B by 7pm. Who loves longer, a man or a woman?

    Question 7, loc 9%

    There are almost unbearably poignant moments, especially those concerning his parents; sadness for the lost world of his childhood; anger at certain cynical aspects of the publishing world, deep respect for the written word combined with a wry understanding that the words of a book are never the book, the soul of it is everything. (loc 58%)

    There are so many snippets of prose that are beautiful or brilliant, too many to make choosing a quote an easy task. Here is just one:

    My mother and father had a similar gift, of stitching together torn fragments into some harmony amidst the melee of daily life. My mother and my father in their stories and jokes, in their generosity and kindness to others, asserted the necessary illusion their lives might mean something in the endless tumult of this meaningless universe. For them to live, love had to exist, the love they valued above all other things; they lived that love and they fought for that love and defended that love. With the passing of time this illusion became their hard-won truth. It was a form of magic and they were magicians. In my vanity, I had always thought of them as naive. Only now writing these words do I finally see the naivete was all mine.

    Question 7 (ebook version) loc. 67%

    Question 7 was published by Penguin Random House in October 2023.

  • Books and reading,  Writing

    Insights on writing and indie publishing: Interview with Aussie writer HR Kemp

    Recently I read and reviewed a contemporary thriller/crime novel by Aussie writer HR Kemp, who has chosen to publish independently. You can read my thoughts on Deadly Secrets here and check out the author’s website here.

    I was interested to know about the author’s writing inspirations and processes and also, insights and learnings about the world of independent publishing.

    I hope you enjoy the interview.


    Q. What was the inspiration for the story; where do you get your ideas for your writing?

    I’ve always been drawn to mystery stories. As a child, I started reading Enid Blyton and (my parents would be horrified to know) I found some Raymond Chandler books and read them from cover to cover (they didn’t do me any harm – at least I don’t think so.) As an adult, I’m attracted to complex thrillers that have social justice themes, like John le Carre and Peter Temple.

    It seems only natural that that’s what I like to write.

    I didn’t take creative writing seriously until late in life. I didn’t see it as a legitimate career ambition; instead, I immersed myself in the sciences – something that could earn a living.

    When I retired, I found discarded notes, novel plot ideas, scraps of dialogue, character ideas, and scene descriptions, sitting in the bottom drawer of my desk at home. I call them my brain leaks. They weren’t part of one story but had one thing in common. They were story ideas provoked by real issues that concerned me e.g. the fate of whistleblowers, climate change denialism, domestic violence, drug trafficking, government scandals, and the dehumanisation of asylum seekers.

    For years, I mulled over a complex novel plot idea, inspired by what I saw happening around me. I’d play with these social and political issues (mostly involving controversial events or scandals) and ask ‘What if’ questions like; what if – the politicians weren’t honest – had their own agenda – were using the policy to manipulate people – and so on? My collection of plot ideas grew into a compelling outline that was plausible and big enough for a whole novel.

    I drew on my Public Service experience, news reports, my travels, general life experience, conversations with experts and friends, and non-fiction books. My research led me to ‘Dirty Money: The True Cost of Australia’s Mineral Boom’ by investigative journalist, Matthew Benns, and all of these contributed to the different layers of the story.

    Once I started writing, the plot expanded and took interesting twists which sometimes surprised me too. It is after all a work of fiction.

    My storylines are built around the theme of perpetual vigilance and finding the courage to fight huge odds to do what’s right. I’m drawn to writing in the Crime genre because justice prevails.

    I try to build in plenty of intrigue, suspense, and adventure in my stories although they are also described as page-turners and slow burn.

    Q. Place features in this novel, including Paris but especially Adelaide. How did you create the settings for the action of the story?

    I find the setting is an important component of a scene. It can affect the mood and feel of the action.

    I used both Adelaide and Sydney as the Australian locations because I know them well, so when I’m writing a scene it’s easy for me to identify the location that best fits the mood or adds interest.

    One of the scenes in Deadly Secrets is set in a hotel in the east end of town. I was having lunch there with my husband when I noticed an area with a sofa and a TV mounted on the wall. I could imagine my characters sitting there discussing a very important development and it seemed just right. This location made it into Deadly Secrets.

    Of course, Adelaide readers tell me that they love reading a story set here. It’s not something they see often.

    My international settings have a similar story.

    I have travelled to Paris many times, it’s my favourite city, and on one visit I witnessed a demonstration (and another in Brussels that same trip). The feel and sight of that demonstration sprung to mind when I started writing Deadly Secrets. It was the perfect way to start Shelley’s journey, especially remembering the French fervour and passion during that protest. It was both scary and inspiring which made it a big challenge to capture the sense of chaos and action in my scene.

    I write a travel diary for every trip with pages of notes per day. I love diving into those memories to pull out a location, be it a special café or place, to use for my chapters. The Café Procope in Paris is one of my favourites and I found a way to incorporate it into Shelley’s story too.

    Luckily, I also take copious photos (I even surprise myself with how many) and they give me visual cues for my descriptions. You can see some of the travel photos that inspired story scenes in the photo gallery on my website.

    Q. Were any of your characters inspired by real people?

    None of my characters are actual people that I know. I’d find it too limiting especially because I’d feel compelled to make the character act true to the way the real person would.

    I do draw on real people, it’s just that my fictional characters are a combination of traits and mannerisms I’ve seen in real life and I put them together in a different and unique way to create my fictional personas.

    It’s easy to find the traits to create my main characters as everyday people. I don’t like to write the traditional thriller heroes of FBI or CIA agents, Police Officers, or law enforcement professionals. My characters have ordinary jobs and lead everyday lives. The fun part is writing how they will react when they uncover an extraordinary situation/issue and are challenged, at great personal risk, to do what’s right. That’s where research and imagination have to help.

    I admire whistleblowers and read about real-life heroes. I also research scandals and difficult events for insights into how different people cope and manage life-threatening situations. This kind of research and reading helps me to craft realistic characters and to conceive their reactions.

    I sat through an entire criminal trial from the early Voir Dire stage (reviewing what evidence would be accepted at trial) to the selection of the jury to the hearing through to the final verdict, and filled a notebook with all kinds of detail. It not only provided context for the story I was writing but gave me examples for my characters as well.

    Q. What are some of the challenges and benefits of publishing your work independently? Can you briefly discuss the key learnings about the process for you?

    Being an indie author has been a big learning curve, but I’ve loved every minute of it (well, maybe not every minute, but almost). There were certainly challenges. Self-publishing is not for the faint-hearted.

    At my age, technology is almost like a foreign language, and self-publishing means I’ve had to learn a lot. Whether it’s been loading books onto retailers’ sites, building a website, using paid ads, or using social media, it’s taken time and energy to learn. There’s a lot of work involved in developing an author platform and promotion and marketing, and it’s all new to me. Although there are courses and helpful websites, I still had to work through them. (It’s not only self-published authors who need this, most traditionally published authors have to market and promote themselves too.)

    The launch of my debut novel, Deadly Secrets, was a massive learning process. I’d contemplated holding a launch party then suddenly along came Covid and lockdowns and it was no longer an option. Then while I was trying to get my head around what I needed to do, bushfires raged through my daughter’s property (their house was safe), and my husband was diagnosed with lung cancer and underwent an operation (luckily it was caught early). As you can imagine, it was a very stressful time. Perhaps one of the things I learned was that not everything had to be perfect from the start.

    It’s great seeing my ebook, paperback, and/or audiobook online and on shelves. I can’t always control the price though (at launch, online retailers listed the Deadly Secrets paperback at $56 – no one would be buying my book at that price. I couldn’t do anything about it and it took a stressful several weeks for the price to drop to the one I’d set.) At the moment, I’m still waiting for Audible to load my audiobook even though it’s available from other retailers.

    I’m a natural networker. Giving author talks, interacting with readers at markets, and generally talking books to anyone who’ll listen, is a joy. It’s hard work to organise these myself, but they are definitely worthwhile. I’m keen to talk to book clubs if they are reading one of my books too.

    As a self-published author, it’s hard to get my books into bookshops around the country. You won’t find my books in the airport, they don’t stock indie-published books. That said, the local bookstores have been a great support and stock (and sell) my books on consignment.

    One of the biggest ongoing challenges in self-publishing is getting reviews. It’s a big part of online retailers’ algorithms, especially Amazon, and they help to make the book more visible. Thank you to the readers who take the time to post a review, it helps a book to be discovered by those who’d enjoy it.

    Despite the hard work, frustrations, and complications, I’m glad I self-published. The feedback from readers makes me glad I put my books out there.

    One of the most important things I’ve learned from this adventure is that I can achieve more than I thought. Also, I’ve learned that I don’t have to do it all, I can buy in expertise when needed.

    I love that I have creative control. I’ve paid professionals to edit the manuscript, design a cover, and format the book for eBook and print versions. These professionals have expertise that I happily draw on, but I get to decide the final look and feel of my book. It’s also been a pleasure to connect with the broader writing community. They have offered important support and help along the way. Organisations like ASA (Australian Society of Authors) and ALLi (Alliance of Independent Authors) are a great resource and support.

    I’m still learning how to balance all the different roles and tasks of self-publishing. I love doing courses and learning but this needs to be in addition to making time for marketing/promotion and writing the next book. I don’t always get that mix right and of course, there’s never enough time.

    Q. Hints about your next project? 

    I have two projects (but it’s four books) that are competing for my attention.

    I’ve started what will be a 3 (or maybe 4) book series. The main characters are Zelda, a 65-year-old woman, and her neighbour Candy (a 20-something young woman), both live in Adelaide. Again they are amateur sleuths who stumble upon a complex crime/conspiracy, actually, it will be 3 or 4 different crimes, one for each book.

    It’s taken me a little time to get into this project but once I realised it was three separate stories instead of one book, it fell into place. The first book is set in South America and Adelaide, that’s if I don’t change my mind about which story will be book 1. I’ve done that once already.

    The other story has been very patient. It has been sitting in the back of my mind since before Deadly Secrets was written. It is a standalone dual timeline story with one timeline set in Vichy France. It needs a lot of research before I can start, but it has me hooked.


    My thanks to HR Kemp for this fascinating glimpse into the world of writing and of independent publishing.

    Do check out the books currently available at the author’s website.