• Books and reading

    Art + History + Crime = ‘The Engraver’s Secret’ by Lisa Medved

    This first novel by Australian author Lisa Medved shines with historical detail and the beauty of the artworks which are the main subject of the plotlines – two plotlines, as it is a dual timeline novel.

    The modern-day story features art historian Charlotte, recently arrived in Antwerp in Belgium. Recovering from the death of her beloved mother, Charlotte has just landed her dream job at the university, and hopes to do more research on her artistic hero, Rubens, while in the city where he created so many of his famous works in the seventeenth century.

    She is also nursing a secret: an unwelcome last minute disclosure by her mother about the identity of her father – a man she had been led to believe was ‘no good’ and long dead.

    While at the university, she discovers a clue that could lead to a ground-breaking discovery about Ruben’s work, and his relationship with the eponymous engraver who worked in his studio for many years.

    This is where the second timeline comes in. It’s the story of Antonia, a teenaged girl living in Antwerp in the 1620’s, the daughter of the engraver, Lucas Vosterman. Raised by her father to pursue academic and artistic interests, she later finds that the options available to a young woman are much more limited. And like Charlotte, Antonia is the recipient of an unwelcome admission by her father – a secret that she must carry to her grave.

    As Charlotte sets off on a quest to find the centuries-old clues that could establish her career as an art historian, she experiences the serious consequences of the competition and professional jealousy amongst her colleagues at the university.

    Meanwhile, as Antonia deals with her own heartbreak and the barriers to leading a fulfilled life as an independent woman, she must struggle with the consequences of her father’s behaviour:

    I owed him my gratitude and loyalty, yet something inside me – my ingrained stubbornness, whispers of doubt, a yearning for independence – stopped me from fully submitting to his will. How can I remain loyal to my family and stay true to myself?

    The Engraver’s Secret p 371

    Underlying both stories is the relationship between the two protagonists and their fathers, and the constraints imposed by the times and places in which they live.

    I loved the mysteries at the heart of the novel; the wonderful detail provided of seventeenth century life and culture in (what was then) the Spanish Hapsburg Empire; the descriptions of the beautiful artworks and their creators. The author has a background in both art and history and her knowledge and love of these subjects inform the book in a natural and accessible way. As always I enjoyed reading about places and historical periods that I know relatively little about; it always makes me want to know more.

    But most of all I enjoyed the very human dilemmas of the two women and the relationships at the heart of their stories.

    The author’s next book will be set in Vienna and feature the artist Gustav Klimt. I can’t wait to read that one!

    You can find out more about Lisa Medved and her work here.

    The Engraver’s Secret is published by HarperCollins Australia in April 2024.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    As I sit down to write this review, it is leading up to ANZAC Day in Australia, an annual day of commemoration of those who served in military campaigns in Australia’s name. Up until recently, those who served as medical staff and nurses in wartime seem to have been ‘add-ons’ in our military histories.

    Take the story of Sister Vivian Bullwinkle. Her name should come easily to Australians thinking about their nation’s involvement in war, like Simpson and his donkey in the ANZAC story, or ‘Weary’ Dunlop in WWII.

    There is now a statue of Sister Vivian in the grounds of the Australian National War Memorial. But when it was unveiled in 2023 – last year! – it was the first statue of a woman at the memorial.

    I’ll move on from my bewilderment at why it took such a long time to recognise this woman, and onto Grantlee Kieza’s story of her life. What a tale it is.

    Vivian Bullwinkle completed her nursing and midwifery training at Broken Hill Hospital in the 1930s. Then came the announcement in September 1939 that Australia was at war with Germany. From the Melbourne hospital where she was working, Viv enlisted as an army nurse. By 1941 she was on her way to Singapore, where she would face the new enemy of the war, Japan.

    The book includes vivid descriptions of the rapid and vicious attacks on Malaya and Singapore by Japanese troops. On reading these pages I had a sense of the fear that must have been in every heart, knowing that the Japanese were moving south at a rapid rate, killing anyone who stood in their way. I also felt anger at the apparent lack of preparation on the part of Allied authorities; the complacent belief of Western superiority which was then prevalent, certainly worked in favour of the Japanese. Rumours began spreading about the merciless nature of the Japanese soldiers.

    On a personal note, an uncle of mine was involved in that first encounter with the Japanese on Singapore Island; he was reported missing, presumed dead; a fate confirmed by the Australian Army at the war’s end. His mother and siblings never got over the loss of smiling, kind, lovable Ernest Harvey Newton, known as ‘Snow’ to his family. Learning about the cruelty inflicted on those who survived encounters with the Japanese, perhaps Snow’s fate was preferable. Who can say? All I know is that the whole thing was an shocking savagery that should never have happened.

    Eventually the nurses were evacuated from Singapore; it is telling that they apparently felt great reluctance and shame to be leaving the sick and wounded soldiers they’d been caring for. The author paints an appalling picture of the chaos and desperation of a defeated Singapore. The nauseating smell of death and raw sewage, oil fires and explosions, terrified civilians climbing over each other in their panic.

    Worse was to come for Sister Vivian and her comrades. Put aboard the Vyner Brooke, formerly a royal yacht of Sarawak, over two hundred people endured a terrifying voyage from Singapore heading for the relative safety of the Indonesian islands not yet occupied by Japanese. The stories of those on board are poignant: sixty-five Australian nursing sisters, including one who was seven months’ pregnant; a family of Polish Jews who had fled to the assumed safety of Singapore only to find themselves refugees once again; and many women and children.

    The ship was bombed by Japanese aircraft and went down off the coast of Bangka Island near Sumatra. Viv and her nursing colleagues tried to assist the wounded and terrified civilians, before the inevitable order to abandon ship as it broke up underneath them.

    But Viv had never learnt to swim.

    Somehow, she survived, with the aid of a life jacket and an upturned lifeboat, despite continued bombing from above and the threat of sharks below. She stumbled onto a beach where she recovered enough to find other survivors washed up on the island by the strong currents. At least twelve nurses had died in the water that night. With no food, shelter, and with many needing urgent medical care, the survivors agreed that they had to surrender to the Japanese and hope that the rumours they’d heard about the Japanese taking no prisoners were not true.

    What follows is a story of unbelievable cruelty, even sadism, by some of the Japanese they encounter. Men and women alike were coldly gunned down or bayoneted on Radji Beach, left to bleed out in the shallow water or drift off on the tide. Twenty-one of Viv’s nursing companions were murdered that day.

    Amazingly, after being hit through her middle by a machine gun and left in the water, Viv did not die. Some instinct told her not to show that she was alive, and even though she couldn’t swim, she allowed herself to float until the men with guns were satisfied that they had killed everyone. Eventually she was taken to a prison camp where she was reunited with others of her nursing sister colleagues.

    Moved from camp to camp, starved, with no medical care, minimal fresh water, no way to preserve their hygiene and health, beaten and abused…this was the experience of nurses and civilian refugees on Bangka Island and Sumatra for three and a half years. They survived by caring for each other, pooling any resources they could scrounge, making efforts to raise the spirits of their companions, burying the dead as one by one, women began to succumb to the ravages of malnutrition, tropical diseases and mistreatment by their captors.

    It’s a terrible story of unimaginable hardship and suffering. As I read, I often wondered ‘What would I do in this situation? Could I endure it? Would I have survived?’

    It’s also about stoicism, bravery, sacrifice and the comradeship that we often hear about amongst soldiers, but is less often applied to those who care for the sick and wounded.

    Of course the war did end, Japan surrendered, and the prisoners were eventually found and returned to Australia. We should remember that in the midst of their suffering, none of the nurses knew what would happen. They had no way of knowing what the eventual outcome of the war – and their fates – would be.

    After the war, Viv’s strength of spirit, her compassion and her pride in the nursing profession, did not abate. She devoted the rest of her working life to improving the standing and professionalism of nursing in Australia, as well as speaking at many memorials and events where she kept the memory of her dead sisters alive.

    And in 1975, aged nearly sixty, she played an instrumental role as one of twelve nursing volunteers in Operation Babylift, the mass evacuation of orphaned babies and children from South Vietnam, aboard a chartered Qantas jet from then Saigon to Sydney.

    I was so happy to learn that just a year or so later, she married and was able to enjoy more than twenty years with husband Frank Statham.

    Sister Viv is a gripping account of a woman who endured great suffering but went on to live a full and productive life in spite of her awful wartime experiences. Grantlee Kieza has written a biography worthy of this truly remarkable Australian.

    Sister Viv is published by HarperCollins in April 2024.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • 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

    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

    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.

  • 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.

  • 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

    Australian thriller: ‘Deadly Secrets’ by H.R. Kemp

    It’s refreshing to find a complex, character- and- plot focused novel set in an Australian city, featuring characters not usually encountered in a typical thriller or crime novel.

    H.R. Kemp’s Deadly Secrets is just such a read.

    The setting is Adelaide, regarded by many Australians as a quiet and tame city. This novel digs deep into another side of the city – one that travel companies and city authorities would rather keep out of sight.

    The strapline for Deadly Secrets reads: ‘What unspeakable truths lurk beneath the lies?’

    Shelley, the main character, is about to find out. Initially she is protective of her safe, quiet and ordinary life in Adelaide and her public service career in the Department of Immigration and she can’t imagine stepping outside the boundaries of the expected and accepted.

    When a former client, a refugee who Shelley helped to resettle in Australia, dies suddenly, Shelley is unhappy with the official explanations for the death. When she digs a little deeper, a chain of events is unleashed that changes her life forever.

    In the process she encounters corruption at high levels in politics and corporations, cynical use of misinformation to promote and protect the powerful, but also people determined to shine a light on the murkiness at the heart of power. The novel canvasses modern issues such as asylum seeker policy and the treatment of refugees, the practices of mining companies, and the insidious changes that have weakened Australia’s political, public service and law enforcement sectors. Family, relationships and domestic violence are also part of the story.

    These are all entirely recognisable and believable to anyone who has been following Australia’s political, social and corporate landscapes over the past few decades.

    Shelley is a relatable character: she has a desire to live a more adventurous life but is uncertain of herself and her future. She struggles with the need to hold onto her government job, even when the policies she must implement sit uneasily with her. Her involvement in the action at the heart of the story is not immediate, but we see her gradual transformation as she begins to embrace her own agency and recognise the need to change.

    Place is important: the novel opens in Paris as Shelley experiences her first solo travel experience and is unwittingly caught up in a major protect action on the city’s streets. Much of the novel is set in Adelaide and readers who know that city will enjoy moving vicariously around there as the action develops.

    I ‘read’ this novel via the Audiobook version, narrated by Lisa Armytage, who competently handles the various accents and voices of the cast of characters.

    Deadly Secrets tells a tightly woven tale of crime and abuse of power without the usual car chase scenes (yawn!) bombings, gunfights and male machismo (double yawn!) I appreciated the fact that the ‘heroes’ at the heart of the novel are otherwise very ordinary people, doing their best to make things better. Even better, it’s a team effort – no glorious heroes off on their own. Everybody who counts in the story has moments of bravery, but they must work together to achieve real change.

    Deadly Secrets is independently published by the author and you can read about H.R Kemp and check out her other projects here.

    My thanks to the author for a copy of the audiobook to review.

  • 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.