Authors’ pick 22: Sheryl Gwyther

La Rumeur de VeniseToday’s authors’ pick has been chosen by Sheryl Gwyther.

How to pick one from my mostly brilliant reads this year? So tricky – they were all a joy. Books like Cass Moriarty’s moving debut novel, The Promise Seed; Claire Zorn’s YA novel, The Protected; Michael Robotham’s Close your Eyes, and Meg McKinlay’s A Single Stone.

In the end, my very favourite read was a children’s picture book… La Rumeur de Venise, by the award-winning Swiss illustrator, Albertine. I knew it had a fair chance of being special – her other works (mostly co-creations with her author partner, Germano Zullo) all have a unique way of seeing the world.

The Rumour of Venice’s images cleverly capture the pervasiveness of gossip. No words are needed as a rumour about a giant fish caught by a fisherman floats from one canal dwelling to the next, and each person’s re-telling bringing increasingly bizarre. A funny, witty concertina book adults will appreciate; and a game as children follow the action, La Rumeur de Venise is a delight. And especially so if you are open to Albertine’s magical combination of colourful collage and whimsical drawings set in Venice. A book to keep.

Award-winning author, Sheryl Gwyther writes children’s novels, short stories, school plays, and Flash Fiction for adults. Her website is at:  www.sherylgwyther.net

Sheryl Gwyther image

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Authors’ pick 21: Yangsze Choo

IMG_0189Today’s Authors’ Pick has been chosen by Yangsze Choo. 

I must confess that I haven’t read much fiction recently. This is because I’m struggling to finish my second novel, a giant doorstop which I keep telling myself is almost done, but continues to expand in alarming ways as I try to squeeze in just one more plot twist. The situation is worsened by my frequent attempts to seek “inspiration” in dark chocolate… I need to go on a diet in more ways than one, which is why my book pick for 2015 is a cookbook.

Madhur Jaffrey is my favourite Indian cookbook writer – over the years, I’ve cooked my way through many of her books, always with good and very authentic results – so when I realized that she had a cookbook called “Vegetarian India”, I rushed off to get it. Our family has been trying to move towards a more vegetarian diet (one of the reasons I’ve so enjoyed Sophie’s food blog featuring her lovely garden) and this book is stuffed with delicious ideas. In fact, when I first got it, I made the roasted cauliflower with Punjabi seasonings that’s featured on the cover three times in one week. Tossing cauliflower with lemon juice, cumin, coriander, ginger, turmeric and olive oil results in a sizzling pan of crusty goodness that’s quickly devoured in our house, even by small children who claim they will never, ever eat cauliflower.

Like Madhur Jaffrey’s other cookbooks, each recipe comes with a little backstory or some helpful tips, and there’s enough variety from rice dishes to hearty vegetarian mains and pulses, to cook an entire dinner banquet, if you’re so inclined. Or you can just do what I’ve been doing and add an extra veggie dish or two on weeknights.

So, if your New Year’s resolution is to eat less meat and more healthily, I highly recommend this book! Happy reading and eating 🙂

Yangsze Choo’s first novel, The Ghost Bride, was published in 2013. She loves to eat and read, and often does both at the same time. She lives in California with her husband and children, and a potential rabbit.

yangsze choo colour

 

Authors’ pick 20: Stephen Whiteside

fanny stevensonToday’s Authors’ Pick has been chosen by Stephen Whiteside.

My best read of the year, without a doubt, was “Fanny Stevenson – Muse, Adventuress & Romantic Enigma” by Alexandra Lapierre, translated from the French by Carol Cosman, published by Fourth Estate, London, in 1995.

Fanny Stevenson was the wife of Robert Louis Stevenson, author of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”, “Treasure Island”, “Kidnapped”, and so many other fabulous adventure stories.
Fanny was American born, and unhappily married when she met R.L.S. (nine years her junior) in France. She was an absolute dynamo – a turbo-charged autodidact. It took my breath away reading what she achieved from very humble beginnings and minimal outside assistance. Whenever I feel I have hit a roadblock in my life, I suddenly think of Fanny, and realise I have probably only explored about one tenth of the possible solutions!
Mind you, it took its toll on her. She suffered from mental illness off and on throughout her life. Her principal pattern was loss of memory at times of stress. Putting my doctor’s hat on for a moment, I suspect she might have been suffering from a condition called TGA – total global amnesia. Then again, there was also talk of hallucinations, which complicates the picture.
In addition to her many other skills and passions, she was a consummate home-maker and (self-taught) cook.
Here is one of my favourite passages from the book:
With a cigarette between her lips, her sleeves rolled up, a battery of casseroles in progress, she lit up her ovens. Alchemist or magician, this time her bisques, her sauces and roasts reached perfection. She no longer improvised recipes but was inspired by the cookbooks she received from France and laboriously translated, with much reliance on dictionaries. She corresponded with three chefs from Louisiana, comparing their techniques, their utensils, their ingredients. Another aspect of Fanny’s originality, and one particularly unusual in the nineteenth century, was her interest in international cuisine. She was a passionate admirer of Asian cooking, and shopped in the swarming markets of Chinatown where no white woman dared set foot. She jotted down her research, her experiments, her failures, despairing of her groping efforts, aimed at excellence, and, without being in the least conscious of it, struggled to turn her culinary gifts into an art.
 
Stephen Whiteside’s collection of rhyming verse for children, “‘The Billy That Died With Its Boots On’ and Other Australian Verse”, was published by Walker Books in 2014, and won a Golden Gumleaf for “Book of the Year” at the Australian Bush Laureate Awards during the Tamworth Country Music Festival in 2015.
 

Authors’ pick 19: Kelly Gardiner

H_is_for_Hawk_cover-2Today’s Authors’ Pick has been chosen by Kelly Gardiner.

My favourite reading experience of the past year has been Helen Macdonald’s award-winning H is for Hawk, a memoir about grief, the vanishing British countryside, and a goshawk called Mabel. I’ve long been fascinated by the traditions of falconry, an ancient form of hunting in many cultures that became a sport of royalty in Europe in the middle ages.

H is for Hawk acknowledges this lineage, but more importantly it focuses on the relationship between raptor and trainer, taking us through the process and also tapping into the rich tradition of writing about hawks and falcons.

Chief among these is the work of T H White, author of The Once and Future King and other brilliant historical fantasies. His 1951 book, The Goshawk, was based on the journal tracing his own training of Gos – a troubled, tumultuous process that nearly finished off both of them.

Helen Macdonald weaves the story of White and Gos through her own reflections on the relationships between humans and wild creatures, and one another, as she learns to live with the sudden loss of her father, while Mabel and White reflect aspects of her own life back to her.

It’s brilliant, fascinating nature writing wrapped up in a poignant memoir about grief and belonging.

Kelly Gardiner’s books include Act of Faith and The Sultan’s Eyes, both of which were shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. Her latest book is Goddess, a novel based on the life of the seventeenth century French swordswoman, cross-dresser and opera singer, Mademoiselle de Maupin.

2015-gardiner-kelly

 

Authors’ pick 18: Lucy Sussex

SutcliffToday’s Authors’ Pick has been chosen by Lucy Sussex.

I revisited Rosemary Sutcliff’s THE RIDER ON THE WHITE HORSE this year, after having mislaid it for some time. I wanted to know how I would read it after a long absence, if what I remembered still impressed, and what might have diminished with my increased craft/critical acuity. The answer is, very little.  The book is about the English Civil Wars, of two well-documented figures from the Roundhead side, General Sir Thomas Fairfax and his wife Anne. At the beginning of the conflict, in his native Yorkshire, Fairfax campaigned with his family, Anne and their small surviving daughter–which led to Anne being captured by the Royalists under the command of the Duke of Newcastle (later to marry another formidable woman, writer Margaret Cavendish). From the existing sources and her own imagination, Rosemary Sutcliffe wrote a portrait of a marriage, and with considerable emotional subtlety, for the romance is one-sided. The Fairfaxes have an arranged marriage, as was usual for the gentry, but while Anne loves Thomas, he is only grateful to her—or is he?

When working in the rare books section of a library, I had occasion to read some of Sutcliff’s source matter, Thomas Fairfax’s own memoirs. It showed me Sutcliffe’s fidelity to history, and at the same time how she imaginatively breathed life into it. In the battle of Wakefield town, Fairfax narrowly escapes capture by jumping his horse over a garden wall. In the book he finds the incident absurdly funny–as is quite clear from his own words. Sutcliff stages the scene brilliantly.

The novel is unquestionably for grown-ups, a story of unrequited love within a marriage. It also contains superbly realised battle scenes, vivid depictions of nature, and regional dialects reported without condescension.  It is immersive history, without the post-modern intrusion, as when Hilary Mantel has Henry VIII describe Jane Seymour as  his little “bun-face”. That is not Tudor language, and while absolutely right in terms of the lady, it jars. Similarly Cromwell, from his visual image–and Holbein was an acute observer–was a bit of a brute. Mantel depicts him as quite feminine in that people confide in him, and he listens, without interrupting. Fairfax is contradictory, a masculine man of war, a berserker in battle, but also gentle in his manners, kind.  Anne conforms to the gender expectations of her time, while not concealing her intelligence, nor her forcefulness–she is deeply involved in the political/religious struggle.  And yet she can be very obtuse.

Were this book published now, would it rate in the Bookers?  Surely yes, if the author’s genre/readership placement did not get in the way.

One final comment. Writing the pre-Enlightenment is tricky, as to be strictly accurate the religion would dominate the world-view, in a fashion incomprehensible to us rational post-moderns, wringing our hands over IS.  So while the title of Sutcliff’s book comes from Revelations, the wild religious discourse of the Civil Wars is downplayed.  But she does it, as she does with so much in this book, subtly and intelligently.

Lucy Sussex’s most recent book is the award-winning Blockbuster (Text, 2015), about crime writer Fergus Hume, and his Mystery of a Hansom Cab.

Lucy Sussex with portrait of herself by artist Dora Levakis, from the Archibald Prize's 'Salon des Refusés'

Lucy Sussex with portrait of herself by artist Dora Levakis, from the Archibald Prize’s ‘Salon des Refusés’

Authors’ pick 17: Amanda Bridgeman

Station-Eleven-CollageToday’s Authors’ Pick has been chosen by Amanda Bridgeman.

This year I really enjoyed reading Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel. It’s the story of how a deadly flu epidemic sweeps the world killing the majority of the population. Told half in the post-apocalyptic world, and half in the pre-apocalyptic world, the story follows several characters who are linked in one way or another with one central character, an actor by the name of Arthur Leander. I thought Mandel captured the flu epidemic perfectly (it was scarily realistic), and I found the characters’ stories, of how they try to survive (or don’t as the case may be) in a world gone to hell, very interesting. It’s a great examination of the human spirit, of how through the chaos, hope can still shine on.

Amanda Bridgeman is the author of the character-driven space opera ‘Aurora’ series.

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A literary gift for the festive season

For all the readers who have enjoyed my blog this year, and all those writers, illustrators and publishers who have so generously helped to make Feathers of the Firebird as interesting and informative as it can possibly be by giving of their time, expertise and experiences in fabulous interviews and guest posts, I’d like to thank you by offering a literary gift of mine for the festive season. And in the tradition of the season, which likes to weave in some delicious chills amongst the festive jollity, it’s a spooky story! Set amongst the pulsing heat of an Australian sub-tropical summer, this story, Mel, brings the shiver of ancient myth and legend into the everyday…

Enjoy! And very best wishes to all for a wonderful Christmas, Hanukkah, New Year and all other seasonal festivities!

creekMEL

by Sophie Masson ©

 

Every summer evening, we village kids used to meet down at the creek. Most days, you could strip off and have a swim, or if you didn’t feel like that, just lie on the grass and drink Coke out of paper cups, and talk. The creek was a great place, really private, with high banks and tall trees growing right to the edge of the water. All of us used to come–from the smallest Grant kid to Mary, my sister, who at 18, and apprenticed to a hairdresser in town, considered herself rather above us all.

Last summer was a really hot one, one which started early. A corrugated iron sky, a sunflare of white fire. A bit of a disaster for our parents, whose avocados and bananas were shrivelling up before they could be properly formed. A bit of a disaster for school, because the teachers were all as unpredictably shrill as cicadas. But a wonderful time for our creek meets, for in that place, the tall trees shaded us from the worse of the glare, and the water was always there, cool as a magpie’s call. We spent as much time as we could down there, eating huge slices of watermelon, drinking huge slices of watermelon, and talking our heads off. Sometimes the little kids would come and drip coldly on to us, and then run away, yelling with laughter, but it didn’t stop our talk. There was more than usual to talk about that summer. Well, the heat, and the strange feeling of heavy waiting in the air, and a tiny prick of danger at the thought of the snake.

We were used to snakes, we sub-tropical North Coast kids. Some of us even kept carpet snakes as pets. But the one we were talking about, then, was different. It had already bitten a couple of people,two middle-aged women from the surrounding area. Both had died. .

Taipan. One of the deadliest snakes in the world. Not supposed to live this far south, it wasn’t, but this one had somehow found its way. It had bitten its second victim one hot night, as she walked barefoot over the grass to the outdoor toilet. Her husband had seen it, rearing, its bright body twisting. That’s how they’d known it had been a taipan. But since then, no-one had seen it, or come across it at all. Taipans were quiet snakes, kept out of the way, experts told us. But if they were cornered, or if you came on them unawares. .

The creek bank was beautiful, not only to us but to other creatures. We knew that snakes came down there to drink, in the cool of the evening. It had never bothered us before. But that summer, we were all a bit jumpy, and the gossip that filled our mouths was sharp and a bit spiteful. If Mary, my sister, wasn’t there, the others would start on her, on her impossible beauty, her impossible haughtiness, her impossible impossibility. And Mary was impossible. When she came down to the creek, she would lie there in her white bikini, her bright, fine hair like red ferns on her brown shoulders. She paid no attention to us. She just wanted us to admire. I know that, even if I am her sister.

Ever since I can remember, people had flocked around Mary. Teachers gave her silver stars simply for being who she was. Strangers in the street stopped and said, ‘Oh, what a lovely child!’ their glance sliding past me, fat little baby and plump toddler that I was. My parents gazed at her sometimes as if they couldn’t believe their eyes. And as she grew older, boys came to her, blundering like moths around a light. And they burnt themselves, too, I can tell you. For our Mary is bright and pitiless as a flame. Sometimes, she’d talk to me, late at night, and giggle about the latest moth that had knocked itself out, and even though I was flattered to be confided in by Mary(see, I was bitten by the same bug as everyone else!)I couldn’t help squirming. There was something sad and embarassing about the thought of those boys, something which I knew Mary couldn’t see. And the strange thing was that I started to feel afraid, somehow, for Mary. I couldn’t have told you why I did; I suppose it was some sort of vague feeling that she was going too far, was tempting fate, if you like. . .

One day Mary turned up with a boy–actually, more a young man, whom none of us had seen before. He was tall, his cap of hair the colour of honey, his eyes a light, rich brown. He was beautiful. I’d never seen such a beautiful person before–except for Mary. Together they stood, seemingly serenely unaware of the effect they were having on the rest of us.

Naomi from next door nudged me painfully in the ribs. ‘What a hunk, hey!’ she mouthed. I didn’t say anything. I didn’t want anyone to say anything. I could just stare at him, mesmerised, and as if he knew, he gave me a little corner smile that vanished almost as soon as it had appeared.

‘This is Mel,’ Mary said. ‘He’s come to live in the old Stevens place. ‘

That dump! It was an old house that had not been lived in for a long time. When we were little, we used to sometimes go up there to play games of let’s pretend. Now, hardly anyone used it, because the forest had just about taken it over, and there was something odd about the place, something that kept even the secret smokers or lovers away. I think it was because it was almost house, almost forest, not quite one or the other, just something in between, that you couldn’t put a name to. . Fancy anyone wanting to live there!

‘I inherited it,’ Mel said. He had a soft, slow voice, and I let its softness wash over me, like a wave. ‘I like it there. It’s very quiet. ‘ Continue reading