• 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,  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.

  • Books and reading

    Deep questions: ‘What Happened to Nina?’ by Dervla McTiernan

    Irish-born Australian author Dervla McTiernan writes gripping crime fiction with well drawn characters and vivid settings. What Happened to Nina? is set in a snowy Vermont winter, and centres around the main character, twenty year old Nina.

    The prologue tells us much of what we need to know about the story. Nina lives with her mum, stepfather and younger sister Grace. She has a boyfriend, Simon Jordan, and they both love rock climbing.

    One weekend they go away to stay at Simon’s family holiday cabin to climb and spend time together. Only one of the pair returns from that weekend away.

    So, what did happen to Nina?

    The narrative takes the reader into the aftermath of crime: the devastation wreaked on a victim and their family, as well as on the perpetrator’s. To a certain extent, the novel keeps us guessing, as both Nina and Simon’s families have different versions of the events that played out that weekend.

    In essence, it is a story of the awful acts that people can commit, and the lies they can tell to avoid responsibility. As readers we are invited to step into the shoes of the main people involved: Nina’s parents and sister, and Simon, his mother and father. How do you move on from tragedy? How can justice be best served? What lengths would a parent go to, to protect their child?

    It also touches on the power of social media to work both for and against victims of crime and their loved ones.

    It’s the kind of crime fiction I enjoy, raising deep questions about human behaviour and asking the reader to reflect on those questions. I found it compelling, the characters believable and in some respects, the events all too familiar.

    What Happened to Nina? is published by HarperCollins in March 2024.
    My thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for an advance review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    He put Australia on the map: ‘Flinders’ by Grantlee Kieza

    Imagine being proposed to by letter, then marrying in a small and hasty ceremony, acting on your new husband’s assurances that you would be joining him on his next voyage on a British naval ship; only to learn that you would not, in fact, be granted permission to do so. You bid a sad farewell to your beloved, having been married a matter of weeks. Off he sails, to explore and chart a vast southern continent on the other side of the globe.

    You do not see your husband again for nearly a decade.

    This is what happened to Ann Chappelle, who married Matthew Flinders in Lincolnshire, England, in 1801. To say that her new husband was impulsive and careless, as Kieza describes him, is an understatement. However it is also true that he was a man of his age, ambitious, curious about the world, passionate about science and the sea, keen to venture into the unknown. And there is no question that he adored his wife.

    Reading this detailed and vivid account of the life of an extraordinary figure of Australia’s early colonial history, I discovered some personal links with my own family history. One is that he came from the same part of England from where my paternal ancestors migrated in the mid-1800s, the marshy fens of Lincolnshire. His lifelong mentor, the botanist Joseph Banks, was also born there.

    From an early age Matthew wanted more than a small life in a small village, working as a physician like his father. He was attracted to the sea and inspired by the adventures of Captain James Cook and Banks on the Endeavour, and he joined the navy when he was sixteen.

    He first served under another famous figure, William Bligh, experiencing terrifying battles against the French, voyages to Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania), Tahiti, the Cook Islands, Tonga, Fiji, through the treacherous reefs of the Torres Strait, to Jamaica and then back to England. In most of those places there were encounters with the original inhabitants, as well as astonishing new sights, sounds, smells and foods, and Matthew developed his charting skills which would become such an important part of his work. It is hard to overstate how much these experiences would have affected a youngster from a small, quiet corner of England.

    He was to have command of his own ships of exploration: most famously the tiny Tom Thumb, on which (along with surgeon George Bass) he explored areas around the Sydney settlement and beyond. Later they circumnavigated Tasmania and proved it was an island, separate from the mainland of ‘Terra Australis.’

    Subsequent voyages took him to parts of the continent still relatively remote today: up the Queensland coast to the furthest reaches of Cape York Peninsula and the islands of the Torres Strait, across the Gulf of Carpentaria to Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory, and around the southern coastline of the continent. On these voyages he was accompanied by the famous Trim, the black-and-white cat who became Matthew’s beloved and loyal companion for many years.

    He experienced shipwreck, sickness, injury, thirst and near starvation. None of these deterred his passion for life at sea and for exploration.

    Everywhere he ventured he created charts and kept detailed notes of his observations. It’s difficult for us in today’s connected world to understand that to Europeans at that time, ‘Terra Australis’ was largely a mystery – thousands of kilometers of coastline and a vast interior which was – what? Desert? An inland sea? A network of rivers? No Europeans knew.

    Another significant feature of Matthew’s experiences was the help given to him and his crews by the indigenous people they encountered. Interactions included warning shots from muskets and some occasions that came close to outright armed conflict; but many times the British mariners had help in the form of fresh water, guidance through difficult country, or exchanges of European goods for food.

    Indeed, it is significant that one of the first times the word ‘Australians’ was used, it was to describe First Nations people near what is now called Port Lincoln in South Australia.

    And what of Ann, his wife in far-away Lincolnshire?

    The couple exchanged letters, full of longing and (on Ann’s part at least) occasional exasperation. The wives of British sea captains had to resign themselves to long periods of separation, though for Ann, this was further prolonged, when on his homeward voyage in 1803, Matthew put in to the French-controlled island of Mauritius for emergency repairs and reprovisioning, only to be placed under guard as a potential British spy. Because news from Europe took so long to reach British colonial outposts, Britain and France were again at war, but Matthew had not known of it.

    He was to spend seven long years in captivity of varying degrees of discomfort, before finally being released in 1810.

    He and Ann were at last reunited and set up house together, Ann giving birth to a daughter at the relatively old age (for a first-time mother in the 1800s) of nearly forty-one. Matthew’s health, though, was badly affected by his trials at sea. And sadly, he had to battle with the Admiralty to be given the pay owing him while he’d been imprisoned by the French, and for due recognition for his work in mapping Australia.

    Matthew Flinders died in 1814 from renal failure following years of kidney and bladder problems. He was only forty years old.

    He led an extraordinary life, voyaging through seas and territories previously unknown to Europeans, experiencing many dangers and hardships. He adopted the name Australia for the southern continent he spent so much of his time exploring and he urged the authorities to do likewise.

    The aspect of Flinders’ personality that I most admire, though, is that he was a man whose greatest wish was that his work, his charts and discoveries, would be used for the benefit of science and the greater knowledge of humanity in general, not for warfare or domination. In this, of course, he was disappointed, but he lived his life in the service and pursuit of knowledge.

    Flinders is a finely researched and well-written account of a fascinating figure of Australian colonial history, the man who – quite literally – put Australia on the map.

    Flinders was published by HarperCollins in November 2023.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading

    Questioning truth: ‘Reckless’ by Marele Day

    I fell into this book, in the sense of immediately feeling comfortable and keen to read on. The opening pages are like an invitation to come into the author’s lounge room, have a cup of tea and hear her stories.

    This memoir is a collection of stories from author Marele Day’s life, from a childhood of treatments and operations for wandering eye; first romantic relationship and crippling grief when her love is killed in a car accident; to spur-of-the-moment (reckless?) decisions made, which lead her in very unexpected and sometimes unwelcome situations.

    We can probably all look back to our youth and wonder at some of the choices we made then. In this book, the author shares her own What was I thinking? moments. Prominent among them is a voyage by catamaran from Darwin to Sri Lanka, with a skipper and crew mates she had only just met. Perhaps unsurprisingly, as the route covers territory known for pirates, and with few places to safely refuel and replenish supplies, they end up in danger on more than one occasion.

    Why did she do it? There was the sense of invincibility that comes with young adulthood. There was a need to do something very different, to break out from the grief that threatened to imprison her after her lover’s shocking death.  And there was a need to be Elsewhere, to Go with the flow.

    The trip, in spite (or because of) its dangers and hardships, resulted in a friendship with Jean Kay, the catamaran’s owner; a connection which lasted thirty years and crossed continents and oceans. On that fateful voyage together in the 1980s, she realises that there is a lot about Jean that is mysterious, contradictory, or hidden from view.

    Later, she decides to dig deeper into his life, in particular one episode in his chequered career: a heist that saw Jean and three accomplices steal millions from an account owned by one of France’s richest businessmen.

    After that, Jean spent years on the run from authorities, living and travelling under an assumed name. In tracing the events surrounding the robbery, Marele begins to doubt what she thinks she knows about her friend and his past.

    In the process she must interrogate her own experiences, beliefs and values.

    The pages of this book held many moments of recognition for me. The foolishness of our younger selves; moments of quiet rebellion (Jean’s school photo conjured a memory of myself aged 17, annoyed by the photographer’s instructions to students to fold hands the same way, deliberately crossing my hands the ‘wrong’ way in my lap.) The need for regular doses of solitude and quiet. A shared appreciation of words and their power:

    Some words were so potent they could only be whispered, matchsticks that ignited fires. I had no idea what a divorce was, but if Aunty Marjorie was getting one it must have been something special. When I whispered the word to the hydrangea bushes near my grandmother’s front steps, it conjured up a mighty wind. I felt the way God must have felt creating the world. All God had to do was say the word and it was so.

    Reckless p86

    My beliefs about an afterlife are also similar:

    The only certainty I feel on these long walks is this: that our bodies, our ashes, are returned to the earth, to nurture new life. All of us, every living creature, becomes part of the ongoing whole. This is enough.

    Reckless p307

    Reckless is a very readable mix of true-crime investigative writing, personal memoir, and philosophy. It’s like an afternoon spent in the company of an engaging friend who has lived an interesting life and met some memorable people, and is a gifted storyteller into the bargain.

    Reckless was published by Ultimo Press in May 2023.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Truth-telling: ‘Killing for Country’ by David Marr

    Squatter.

    If you are Australian, that word probably conjures images of sheep or cattle farmers on large tracts of land in the 1800’s. Men (always men) who heroically ‘opened up’ new territory, braving dangers and isolation, finding new and productive areas to settle. Improving the land: fencing, clearing, building homesteads and woolsheds. A national economy ‘riding on the sheep’s back.’ If you grew up in the 1960’s and 70’s, you may even have played the board game by that name.

    Some of these things were true.

    But so many other things about squatters were resolutely ignored or buried, until relatively recent years. One of the distressing truths about squatters ‘opening up new land for settlement’ and other aspects of our colonial history, is that all this was accompanied by sustained campaigns of brutality and murder. This is the main topic of David Marr’s book Killing for Country.

    The subtitle is ‘A Family History’ and given that the narrative covers regions from the Hunter Valley to Queensland, the Gulf Country, the Northern Territory and the Western Australian goldfields, readers might wonder why. The reason is that the story is also about several of his ancestors: Edmund Uhr and his sons Reginald and D’arcy. Marr was shocked to discover that these forebears were officers of the ‘Native Police’, a brutal collection of militia groups under the direction of white officers, established to protect squatters and their livestock.

    This protection was provided by clearing squatters’ runs, or occupied lands, of Aboriginal people.

    To be blunt, clearing most often meant killing: men old or young, women, children. It also meant destroying or stealing property and campsites. It meant kidnapping and raping Aboriginal women, and sometimes children.

    I heard David Marr interviewed about his book on the Guardian newspaper Big Picture podcast on 10th October this year, and I knew I had to get a copy.

    Why? Because in my family history tree, one family in particular were squatters, firstly around Maitland and Singleton, then up in the northwest of NSW near the Namoi River. Regions where violence between black and white was bloody and sustained.

    When my copy of the book arrived in the mail, the first thing I did was check the index for that family’s name. It wasn’t there. I felt a mixture of relief and disappointment : relief that so far, I’ve not found evidence that my ancestors were – directly – involved in these war-like events; disappointment because I am seeking the truth and accurate sources are hard to find.)

    The second thing I did was to look through the book’s many hand-drawn illustrative maps of regions being discussed, for the area where my family had squatted and grazed livestock. On the map showing the lands of the Wonnarua and Kamilaroi peoples in the Hunter region, there are three marked sites of slaughter – one of them twice over. On the page showing the Namoi, Peel and Gwyder Rivers, there are eight massacre sites.

    If anything, the picture becomes even grimmer the further north the story goes. As the author describes events before, during and after the establishment of the new colony of Queensland in 1859, it is clear that the violence increased; the role of the Native Police and its officers grew murkier and more shameful as the weeks, months and years passed and the death toll climbed.

    There were protests about the increasing violence. There were settlers, journalists, missionaries, officials, even some squatters, unhappy about what was going on. For some it was for moral reasons – the violence was illegal and simply wrong. For others, it was because the actions of the Native Police all but guaranteed continuing problems, because raiding and killing by white men so often resulted in retribution in kind by black men, and vice versa.

    There was no empty territory for Aboriginals to retreat to. Everywhere was black country. For one people to move onto the lands of another was an unpardonable violation of law. Stay or go, the people…faced reprisals. Fighting to stay was the most honourable course.

    Killing for Country p179

    One of the most frustrating and distressing aspects of this story is that so often, the carnage could have been averted or reduced if there had been decisive action by authorities in Britain or the colonies. Time and time again, those who could have stopped it chose to turn a blind eye. A succession of weak, indecisive, or corrupt officials at all levels failed to act.

    The squatters wanted an empty landscape for sheep to graze. It was an article of faith…that peace was only possible if the blacks were gone. From time to time, squatters were reminded that the terms of their leases guaranteed the rights of the first inhabitants of the country to continue hunting and fishing on their land. This was ignored. Already it was being taken for granted in Australia that the men of the bush could decide which laws applied to them. Stockmen and shepherds were armed and put to the task. So were the Native Police.

    Killing for Country p272

    This is a big, masterful, detailed and grim book. It is not an easy story to read because the enormity of what happened in this country can come as a shock, including for readers like myself who have learnt something of the more shameful aspects of our nation’s history. When the appalling events are laid out over 400-odd pages, revulsion and dismay are natural responses.

    In his Afterword, Marr says:

    I have been asked how I could bear to write this book. It is an act of atonement, of penance by storytelling. But I wasn’t wallowing in my own shame. None of us are free of this past.

    Killing for Country p408

    I take heart from the fact that today, when I checked out the website of the publishers, Black Inc Books, this book was listed as ‘Out of Stock’. I hope that means many purchasers and many readers. Hard as it is, it is a story that needs to be told.

    Killing for Country is published by Black Inc Books in 2023.

  • Books and reading,  History,  Life: bits and pieces,  Writing

    The beauty of finding your ‘tribe’: Historical Novel Society of Australia conference

    I was craving connection with fellow lovers of historical fiction. To talk books, history, writing.

    In 2019 I’d found my happy place at the Historical Novel Society Australia (HNSA) conference, held at Parramatta. Two days in the company of my tribe: people like me who adore reading and writing stories set in the past. Here’s my summary post from that weekend.

    Then COVID. Say no more.

    This year, the conference organisers decided to make it a hybrid event (both in-person and online.) Thank you!! I was unable to attend in person due to a family medical circumstance, so thank you for making sure that I and others did not miss out.

    Okay, so online is not the same as being in the room. You can’t go to have books signed by your favourite author, or chat to another aspiring writer/dabbler in the coffee line. You can’t applaud vigorously to show your appreciation for a particular speaker or topic.

    But you can listen to two days of absorbing discussions and debates about all things history and books. Bliss.

    My highlights?

    Top of my list is the welcome emphasis on truth-telling and uncovering hidden or lost stories. This included a compelling Welcome to Country by Gadigal woman Madison Shakespeare, a discussion with award-winning writer Melissa Lucashenko, and listening to Claire Coleman (Noongar, Western Australia) and Monty Soutar (Maori academic and writer from New Zealand) on blurring the line between realism and fiction when writing about ancestors and First Nations experiences of colonial rule.

    There were some great tips on building memorable characters in the session called ‘Angels and Demons’ from Nicole Alexander, Kelly Rimmer and Victoria Purman. These authors, and others, work at bringing to life the stories of women in the past, which I particularly enjoy.

    This year’s Guests of Honour were Tom Keneally, Anna Funder, Judy Nunn and Melissa Lucashenko: all writers of absorbing, varied fiction.

    Some quotable moments:

    • Melissa Lucashenko: You think you know a place but maybe you don’t…As Aboriginal people, as we walk around in the contemporary world, we think of what was here before bitumen and skyscrapers. We always walk in two worlds, past and present. This (her latest book ‘Edenglassie’ about the origins of the Queensland city of Brisbane) is my attempt at telling an Aboriginal truth about what happened in the mid 1800’s.
    • Katrina Nannested (author of a trilogy for middle grade readers set in WWII Europe : It’s exciting for a writer to come across a story that hasn’t been told before…The real power of historical fiction is that a story can be the start of a journey of discovery and learning. (Yes! Every time I read a fiction book set in a place or time or canvassing events I’m unfamiliar with, I get busy with Google, to find out more.)
    • Jock Serong (author of trilogy exploring stories of colonial Tasmania): I was struck by how human behaviours keep on occurring and how we fail to learn.
      When I come across the ‘do not write this’ moment – it shows what people had chosen to write down or not. As a writer I want to restore that moment. It’s a kind of bearing witness. But the joyful process of being an historical fiction writer can become a very dark process.

    Thank you to the HNSA committee and the conference organisers for a value-and-ideas-packed, absorbing conference. Even though I could not be ‘in the room’ I was (at least virtually) in the company of my tribe.

    The 2023 HNSA Conference was held in-person at Sydney’s Hurstville, and online, on 21/22 October. You can find out more from the website and on Facebook to keep in touch with upcoming events.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    For young travel-lovers: ‘Ruby Red Shoes Goes to Paris’ by Kate Knapp

    Ruby Red Shoes is a series of beautifully illustrated books for very young readers by Australian author and artist Kate Knapp.

    To celebrate the 10th anniversary of Ruby Red Shoes Goes to Paris, a special edition has been released.

    Ruby is a white hare with special shoes that love to take her to new places.

    She travels to Paris with her grandmother, where they meet up with her Babushka’s brother and his grandson Felix. Ruby and Felix explore Paris, where they see, hear, feel, smell, and taste everything that city has to offer.

    Ruby is an intrepid traveler and records what she experiences in her special travel notebook.

    I love the sly nods of humour which will appeal to older people perhaps reading the story aloud to a littlie, such as the airline (‘The Flying Hare’) they travel with, or the carrot flavoured toothpaste Ruby packs for her trip.

    The pictures are the type you can get lost in, rich with detail and evocative of Parisian sights. It’s a fabulous introduction to traveling and to the City of Love. The text expands youngster’s vocabulary: Ruby is ‘fizzing with excitement’, she climbs the ‘narrow, twirling staircase’ to their apartment, Babushka must ‘tussel with the old keys and creaky lock.’

    Ruby Red Shoes and the others in the series are perfect to plant seeds of wonder and exploration in emerging readers. The special anniversary edition is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in October 2023.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    African adventures: ‘Kip of the Mountain’ by Emma Gourlay

    I love that Melbourne author Emma Gourlay has chosen to set this middle-grade story in the land of her birth, South Africa. It’s pretty rare for Australian children to be exposed to stories of that country, so in itself that is a plus. Another is the occasional word in Afrikaans sprinkled throughout – especially buffel, which apparently means a ‘special, rare creature.’

    In Kip of the Mountain, Buffel is the name Kip gives to a tiny creature that comes to her via a mysterious bottle in the forest, near the side of Table Mountain where she lives.

    She spends her twelfth birthday wondering what her Something Odd will be – a tradition in her hometown is that everyone receives a Something Odd on their twelfth birthday. When she finally realises that the strange little creature that cracked out of the egg in the bottle is, in fact, her Something Odd, she decides she will love him forever.

    First, though, she has to keep him hidden from her dad, who has a ‘no pets’ policy, but who is busy as always in his shed, trying to build a flying machine. Then she must avoid the mean kids and even meaner teacher at school, who tease her about her hair and her family background of black dad and white mum.

    Last but certainly not least is the threat to Buffel’s freedom when he is kidnapped. To rescue Buffel she must travel away from her beloved mountain to a strange island across the sea.

    Kip is a shy loner who learns that good friends can be made and that doing the right thing can be hard but is always the most rewarding.

    The story is set in the 1980’s when the hideous apartheid regime was still in force, and there are references to this which introduce the concept to young readers, but very much from a child’s perspective. It offers a way to open discussion about hard issues like institutionalised racism, bullying and discrimination to younger readers, while encompassing them in an adventure story full of magic and wonder. The black and white illustrations by Kate Moon brings scenes to life throughout.

    Kip of the Mountain will appeal to young readers who like their stories sprinkled liberally with zany characters and adventure.
    It is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in October 2023.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Why I am thankful for feminism: ‘Restless Dolly Maunder’ by Kate Grenville

    Kate Grenville’s latest offering is a novel woven from family stories of her grandmother, who was born into rural poverty towards the end of the nineteenth century.

    Readers of The Secret River will recognise Dolly as the granddaughter of Sarah Wiseman, the daughter of that earlier book’s fictionalised protagonist based on Solomon Wiseman. Solomon, the author’s ancestor, was an emancipated convict who settled in the upper reaches of the Hawkesbury River in a spot later named for him – Wiseman’s Ferry.

    The novel describes in painful detail the restrictions on women in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, especially (but not exclusively) for poor women.

    The small worlds they inhabited, the never-ending chores it was assumed they’d be responsible for simply because they were born female; the limited options for their futures – marriage, or spinsterhood while working as a nurse or teacher.

    Girls were of no account, you learned that early on. Good enough to make the bread and milk the cow, and later on you’d look after the children. But no woman was ever going to be part of the real business of the world.

    Restless Dolly Maunder eBook location 14 of 293

    Dolly is born wanting more, wanting movement in her life when the world tells her she must be still, be satisfied with her lot. Whip smart yet denied an education past 14 years, and lucky to get that, being young enough to benefit from new government laws that required all children under 14 to regularly attend school.

    As always with this author, the prose is uncannily evocative: Grenville has the ability to climb right inside her characters’ heads and make the reader feel they are there as well. Simple language but always the exact right word chosen for the right moment in the story.

    Dolly is a prickly character, not particularly likeable at any point in the story. But the author’s skill is to make us care about her anyway. There is an especially poignant moment in her author’s note, describing a childhood encounter between the young Kate and her grandmother, where she looks back with empathy and wishes in retrospect that she had responded differently. I am sure we have all experienced such moments, haven’t we?

    Dolly experiences the ups and downs of economy, drought, commodity prices, war, Depression; all of which impact on her and her family.These are factors beyond her control but she brings to bear her characteristic decisiveness (and restlessness) as she tries to respond to these big picture challenges.

    All you could say was, you were born into a world that made it easy for you or made it hard for you, and all you could do was stumble along under the weight of whatever you’d been given to carry. No wonder at the end of it you were tired, and sad. But glad to have done it all, even the mistakes.

    Restless Dolly Maunder loc 281-282

    This book made me feel, once again, deeply thankful for the achievements of feminism that have allowed women in the western world, at least, to move beyond the small worlds prescribed for them.

    She thought of all the women she’d ever known, and all their mothers before them, and the mothers before those mothers, locked into a place where they couldn’t move. My generation was like the hinge, she thought. The door had been shut tight, and when it started to swing open, my generation was the hinge that it had to be forced around on, one surface grinding over another. No wonder it was painful.

    Restless Dolly Maunder loc 281

    We have a long way to travel yet, and so many women around the world still experience difficulties and disadvantages because they are female. Restless Dolly Maunder shows us why that is not acceptable.

    Restless Dolly Maunder was published by Text Publishing in July 2023