Monthly Archives: May 2012

Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth: Book Review

Kate Forsyth’s Bitter Greens is so well-researched and beautifully written that I have sought special permission to quote.  My copy is another of those uncorrected bound proofs but it would be a great disservice to Forsyth to review this work without giving some samples of her prose.

 With the publisher’s permission, here’s an excerpt from one of my favourite passages:-

Words.  I had always loved them.  I collected them, like I had collected pretty stones as a child.  I liked to roll words over my tongue like a lump of molten honeycomb, savouring the sweetness, the crackle, the crunch. (444)

 Between the pages of this substantial novel you’ll find a re-imagining of the Rapunzel fairytale interwoven with a fictionalised account of the life of French writer Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de la Force, complete with the intrigue and scandal that accompanied her life at court under the regime of Louise XIV.

 Let’s talk about Charlotte-Rose first; a feminist before the word existed; a feisty passionate woman; a lover of words and art, sex and life.  In the opening pages, Charlotte-Rose is being shipped off to a nunnery upon the orders of the King.  She is still unsure if her punishment is for some impious carols she had written, a rumour she was having an affair with the King’s son, or merely her bold expression of her views.  She wonders if her words – written and spoken – had grown too sharp.

 As a writer, I felt a personal joy in Charlotte-Rose’s love of the implements of her craft:-

My writing tools were my most precious belongings.  My best quill pen was made from a raven’s feather. [. . .] I was often so poor that I could not pay my mantua-maker, but I always invested in the best ink and parchment.  I smoothed it with pumice stone till it was as white and fine as my own skin, ready to absorb the rapid scratching of my quill. (26)

 Forsyth’s imaginative turns of phrase infuse the novel with a deep lyrical quality.  When Charlotte-Rose is awoken in the middle of the night, she lies disorientated and afraid and her mind is ‘filled with the flapping rags of dreams’ (38).  A blown-out candle leaves ‘a question mark of smoke in the air’ (107) and dawn ‘slithered in like a fat grey slug’ (423).  In her prison tower, hunger becomes for Margherita ‘a hot presence in the room, a companion that never let her be’. (187)

 Forsyth is currently undertaking a doctorate in fairytale retellings at the University of Technology in Sydney and her knowledge of the subject, together with the historical background of the Huguenots of France and Venice Renaissance life, gives believability to the lives of the central female characters. Period detail is imparted with beautiful subtlety:

Soeur Seraphina gently removed my lace fontanges. It was named for the King’s mistress Angelique de Fontanges, who had lost her hat while hunting one day and had hastily tied up her curls with her garter.  The King had admired the effect, and the next day all the court ladies had appeared with their curls tied back with lace. (21)

The author resists the urge to rely on the fairytale stereotypes of good and evil, giving sympathetic back-stories to dark characters like La Strega.  One chapter, titled ‘Love and Hatred’, is so perfectly circular it could form a self-contained short story.  After opening with ‘Love and hatred were the witch’s currency,’ the chapter closes with the young La Strega in-the-making becoming an apprentice by day and a courtesan by night. ‘One I loved and the other I hated.  A good training ground for a witch’. (235)

 Bitter Greens is a page turner.  Charlotte-Rose is such a loveable character, that it becomes imperative to know her fate, along with that of Rapunzel.  You may think you’d be well aware of what happened to Rapunzel but there are so many different takes on this fairytale and, in Forsyth’s capable hands, the tale could have finished any number of ways.

 Some other reviews you might like to check out:-

Thuy Linh Nguyen for Kill Your Darlings.
Christine Cremen for Sydney Morning Herald
Tania McCartney for Australian Women Online

BOOK DETAIL:
Forsyth, Kate. Bitter Greens, Random House, North Sydney, 2012.
ISBN 978 1 74166 845 2
Uncorrected Bound Proof

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Get Thee to a Writers Group

I have been writing, in one way or another, for more years than I care to count.  During that time, I’ve dabbled on the outskirts of writing communities: a workshop here and there; an editing group, online courses; once, a writing circle via mail.  But I had never found the opportunity to be involved with a writers group, partly due to my penchant for living away from metropolitan areas for much of my adult life.

I would read with envy about writers spending weeks at retreats, days working on communal projects, evening soirees with like-minded souls but, as a full-time worker living away from the cosmopolitan enclaves of the city writers, such opportunities were harder to come by.

As friends and regular readers would know, I always refer to myself as a late bloomer so it probably comes as no surprise that I am finally turning up [very late] to the table of a writers group. In fact I formed the group myself and waited nervously on that first night, trying to anticipate and imagine the people who’d indicated they’d come along, wondering how we would all fit together.

What a delightful bunch they turned out to be!

Our Stanthorpe Writers Group is a band of a dozen at the moment (with room to grow a little) and we are a mixed bunch with poets, journos, short-story writers, a historical novelist and memoirist amongst our numbers. 

We have had some wonderful presentations by group members on subjects as diverse as research, characterisation and flash fiction.  I learn something new at every monthly meeting and I get great enjoyment in critiquing work by other writers and having my own pieces picked over.  It improves our writing enormously to have input and suggestions from others.

So, to come back to my headline, if I had one piece of advise for young writers it would be to Get Thee to a Writers Group immediately and soak up the information, advice and friendship.

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Make Every Day Special

Happy Mothers Day. 

I’m not always one to celebrate specific days with presents or flowers.  I like to think any day can be Mothers Day.  When you see a special top in your mother’s size in that perfect purple colour that she loves AND it’s on special, then grab it.  When you cook a delicious lamb and rosemary casserole from one of her recipes, remember to ring and tell her about it.  When you see an article she might like in a magazine, snip it out and send it to her.

Thoughtful gifts are welcome any time throughout the year.  Phone calls and letters are always special and, if you live close by, then the best gift you can give your Mum is some precious time. 

I wonder if my mother breathes a sigh of relief on mother’s day when she remembers that her children are all grown up and she won’t have to endure soggy vegemite toast squares and a lukewarm cup of tea in a chipped mug for breakfast.  I think she’ll have herself a very civilised breakfast before spending precious time with her youngest daughter (a mother herself), probably enjoying some roast pork and crackling.  I will be with them in spirit.

To all mothers…whatever you do, wherever you are…Happy Mothers Day.

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The Soldier’s Wife by Joanna Trollope: Book Review

In The Soldier’s Wife, Joanna Trollope revisits the themes that first surfaced in The Rectors Wife written around twenty years ago (primarily the difficulties of being married to a man with a ‘calling’).  The two book titles point out perfectly the similarities and differences between these current book-ends of Trollope’s writing career.

Alexa is the soldier’s wife, a young widowed mother who falls in love with an army career man.  She lives with her twin daughters in the supportive yet claustrophobic surrounds of the army village, while her older daughter is away at boarding school.  As an almost army-wife myself, I can relate to the camaraderie of the wives and the loyalty of the men to their fellow soldiers, their units and their professions.  The close confines of the small towns that spring up around the central hub of the barracks carry unique experiences; both good and bad.  My experiences were forged in Australia and, thankfully, in peace-time but I understand the challenges. 

Initially, I sympathised greatly with Alexa.  Even after making allowances for her husband’s defence of his country and the enormous responsibility he has as a commanding officer, I found it difficult to conclude that he is anything less than self-centred and self-absorbed when it comes to his family (the way he deals with subordinates and comrades is a different story altogether).  Alexa is an intelligent woman who’s forsaken her own career to become ‘The Soldiers Wife’ and she has either merged her needs and wants with her husband’s or has buried them so deeply that even she forgets [for a time] what they are. 

However, as the story progressed, my sympathy toward Alexa waned due mainly to her treatment of her daughter (Dan’s stepdaughter).  Poor Isabel.  She struggles to even be seen, let alone listened to.  Her mother – an educated and otherwise capable woman – proves completely ineffectual at dealing with her daughter’s problems and Isabel’s voice remains unheard.

This novel is about more than the struggle of the nurturer and home-keeper in the family.  It is as much about the pressures facing returning soldiers as they attempt to fit back into their family and into some sort of ‘normal’ life after the extremes of war.  Trollope drives home effectively the inability of these servicemen to completely ‘return’ (and I use the masculine term purely because this is a book about returning male soldiers).  These men leave parts of themselves behind (sometimes literally) in the far-flung battle grounds.  An even greater part remains with their fellow soldiers and – in the case of Alexa’s husband Dan – their subordinates for whom they feel enormous responsibility.

With an almost journalistic fanaticism, Trollope seems determined to tell all sides of the story – the soldier, the wife, the senior officers, the wives of fellow soldiers – and for the most part she succeeds, capturing the relationship dynamics perfectly.  

Dan’s tour of duty in Afghanistan with the British Army  brings currency and a sense of immediacy to this novel but Trollope resists the urge to wander into the Big Picture, concentrating instead on the family tableau.

I usually like to quote from the books I review but my copy of The Soldier’s Wife is an uncorrected bound proof which comes with a warning to ‘check any quotations or attributions against the final published copy of the book’, so I will resist the urge.  Suffice to say that the author knows her audience and fans will be pleased that she continues to deliver with panache.

Incidentally, Trollope’s The Soldier’s Wife is not to be confused with Margaret Leroy’s novel which shares the same title in the US but is sold as ‘The Collaborator’ in the UK.

BOOK DETAIL:
Trollope, Joanna. The Soldier’s Wife. Doubleday, London, 2012.
ISBNs: 9780385618038(hb) 9780385618045(tpb)
Uncorrected Bound Proof supplied by Random House.

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Congratulations!

Congratulations to Lisa Hill at ANZ LitLovers for winning the Best Australian Blogs competition in the Words Category.

Well done.

Apologies for the shortest post ever but I wanted to share the news.

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Building Paradise by David Macfarlane: Book Review

In Building Paradise, David Macfarlane brings to the page his twelve-year love affair with a little slice of heaven he carved out for himself and the world on Long Island on the Great Barrier Reef. 

Let me first say something about the presentation.  Published by Wakefield Press, Building Paradise has an elegance to it; from the cover shot of a kangaroo knee-deep in the pristine blue shallows to the lovely monochrome photographs pertinent to each chapter (photography is by Tero Sade, Ian Stone and Macfarlane).  But – and isn’t there so often a but? – I found the end-of-line hyphens a little off-putting (especially when a couple of particularly awkward ones hit you in the face on the page one prologue).  A minor quibble.

In the early part of the book, the author gives us a quick history of Airlie Beach and a bit of a run-down on its social demographic.  As someone who visited there in 1980 (loved it) and revisited in the early nineties (hugely disappointed), I can attest to the changes that catering to the back-packing set had on the area. But Macfarlane soon leaves Airlie to be what it is and the rest of the book is centred around his nirvana on Long Island.

A range of characters step onto the shores of Paradise Bay, from wealthy American tourists looking for something more luxurious than the eco-lodge had to offer in its infancy, to bored television “personalities” and aging hippies as well as the ubiquitous back-packers.  There’s an Irishman concerned about snakes who emerges from his room “looking like a post-modern Ned Kelly[…]decked out in a full bodysuit of thick plastic, knee-length rubber boots, full-face helmet with visor, and gloves thick enough to handle spiky sea urchins” (41).  The lodge’s first skipper is “a huge man-of-the-sea with a gruff manner and hands the size of large mud crabs” (44).  There are wildlife characters too like the orange-eyed green tree frogs who determinedly ride the surf of the toilet flush, and the goanna ‘Fat Bastard’. The finest character of all is Myrtle the pet kangaroo who overseas the building works while “lazing on her soft foam mattress grooming her delicate forearms” (53) and who is fiercely jealous of all the females who turn up to work on the island.

Macfarlane encounters more than his fair share of hurdles along the path to success, the most frustrating and confounding being a businessman with appalling morals and a Queensland Parks and Wildlife Services bureaucrat with the personality of a Nazi. According to Macfarlane, the former uses rumour, lies and dirty-tricks to jeopardise the success of the lodge, while the latter wields his power in the form of petty rules bent to serve his own vindictive ends.  I don’t know if the author has altered names to protect his nemeses.  If not, I hope their friends enjoy reading about them.   It’s certainly an interesting way to settle some old scores.

The writing style is generally entertaining but there is the occasional hiccup.  “A colourful [real estate] flyer jumps out at me like a neglected child” (7) is a strange analogy which just didn’t work for me but the author redeems himself with “A cluster of half a dozen old cabins, a small house, and a large junk-filled shed hide like timid refugees in the northern corner of the site” (11).

Mcfarlane doesn’t mind having a laugh at his own expense.  I had a chuckle over the large grey stingray he pointed out to his guests that was gliding beside the boat:-

It was following us.  I’ve never seen a ray do that before.  After half a minute and dozens of photos, one of the guests disdainfully announced: ‘Dave, I think that’s the anchor.’
I’d forgotten to pull it in before leaving the beach. (101)

 The author touches on some serious subjects: – ecology and sustainability, solar power, population growth, the unreality of Reality TV.  I was interested to read his take on the aftermath of the nine-eleven attacks and, particularly his analogy of a huge luxury glasshouse that someone dares to shatter.  His preferred reaction may seem simplistic but no more so than the Western world’s actual reaction, and a hell of a lot less devastating.

This is a book for anyone who has a dream to pursue.  It’s a tale for people who care about the environment, a story for animal lovers.  Actually, it is difficult to categorise.  A quest to build an environmentally sustainable eco-lodge on the Great Barrier Reef is not something I’d normally go out of my way to read but Building Paradise is an interesting story well-told.

As always, thanks to ANZ LitLovers where this review is cross posted.

BOOK DETAIL:
Mcfarlane, David.  Building Paradise, Wakefield Press, Kent Town, SA, 2012.
ISBN: 9-781743-050187

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