Link to Stories Connect film: and happy New Year!

I’ve put a new page on my blog for videos (of interviews and other things) and the first thing I’ve put up  is a link to the beautiful Stories Connect film, about a unique project which I was proud to have co-ordinated for the New England Writers’ Centre. Have a look at it here.

And while I’m here, I’d like to wish all my readers a very happy, healthy and inspiring new year!


A Christmas story to enjoy: Barney Brown and the Christmas Cake

It’s become a bit of a tradition for me to feature on Christmas Eve on this blog one of my Christmas stories, and this year I’d like to feature one which was published in the fabulous anthology A Christmas Menagerie(edited by Beattie Alvarez, Christmas Press, 2017) and illustrated by the wonderful Ingrid Kallick. It’s called Barney Brown and the Christmas Cake. The gorgeous illustration featured here is from the published story in the anthology, and you can also get it as a poster, card, print, Tshirt, phone case and lots of other things at Ingrid’s Redbubble store. (By the way, the story is also available–without illustrations–at that fabulous site Read Me A Story, Ink.)

So here it is, my story of a young bear unexpectedly waking up to a surprise Christmas…Hope you enjoy it. Merry Christmas, happy New Year, and wonderful, peaceful holidays to all of you, and many thanks for visiting Feathers of the Firebird in 2019!

Barney Brown and the Christmas Cake

By Sophie Masson

Barney Brown woke up suddenly. The sun shone through the windows of his den and he thought it was spring. So up he got and looked out.

‘Oh my goodness,’ said Barney Brown. It didn’t look like spring out there. Yes, the sun was shining but the ground was all snowy and so were the fir trees. It was still winter!

‘Dearie me,’ said Barney Brown, and he was about to go back to bed when all at once he spotted something bright, at the corner of the glade. It was a tree, a small tree, but not covered in snow, like the others. This tree sparkled in the sun with what looked like red and green and silver berries. And under the tree was a little table, with a little man in a pointy cap standing behind it. On the table was a tray of round dark things.

‘What’s that?’ said Barney Brown, wrinkling his nose, for just then, a smell came to him. A rich, wonderful smell! A smell that made his stomach rumble and his mouth water.

Out stepped Barney Brown, into the winter snow. He’d never gone outside in the winter before and it felt funny, though of course he had a fur coat on so he wasn’t cold at all.

Pad, pad he went, making big paw-shaped patterns in the soft snow.

‘Mmm, mmm,’ said Barney Brown, as he got closer and closer to the sparkly tree, and the little table, and the glorious smell. Oh, the glorious SMELL!

‘Hello,’ said Barney Brown, politely, to the little man in the pointy cap. Now any other person might have run away, seeing a big brown bear come lumbering up, but not this person. Oh no! He was a Christmas elf, and they are not scared of anything.

‘Hello back,’ said the elf. ‘Have you come for one of my Christmas cakes?’

‘I think I have,’ said Barney Brown, happily, looking down at the table.

‘Good.’ The elf picked up a cake. ‘That will be one silver coin,’ he said.

‘I don’t have any money,’ Barney Brown said, sadly.

‘Then take a cake with my compliments,’ said the elf. ‘After all, it’s not every day a bear wakes up in winter.’

Barney Brown didn’t wait to be told twice. The cake tasted as delicious as it smelled and he licked his lips to catch the last crumb. Then he looked longingly at the rest of the cakes. He could easily have eaten them all!

‘Sorry,’ said the elf, ‘but that’s it. It’s Christmas Eve and all my other customers will be coming to pick up their Christmas cakes. Besides, they might be a bit scared if they see a bear out and about in winter.’

‘I see,’ said Barney Brown, even more sadly. But as he turned to plod off, the elf said, ‘Wait!’

Barney Brown thought he had changed his mind. But no, the elf just handed him a leaflet. ‘Christmas cake recipe’ it read.

‘Oh. Thank you,’ said Barney Brown, doubtfully.

‘Now you can make your own, with this magic recipe,’ said the elf. ‘Merry Christmas!’

Back home, Barney Brown looked at the recipe.

‘Flour, butter, sugar, eggs, dried fruit, nuts,’ he read out loud. ‘And some honey,’ he added. ‘It doesn’t say honey in the recipe, but I’m sure that’s a mistake. All cakes must have honey.’

He opened his cupboards. There was plenty of honey. Jars and jars of it. And some flour and sugar. Even frozen butter he’d forgotten in the back pantry. But no eggs. No dried fruits. No nuts.

The elf had said the recipe was magic. But how?

Barney Brown waved the recipe about. ‘I need eggs, fruit and nuts,’ he told it. Nothing happened. ‘Abracadabra, eggs, fruit, nuts!’ he tried again. Nothing happened.

‘Oh dear,’ said Barney Brown. ‘I think the elf made a mistake. The recipe isn’t magic at all. Now let me think. If it was spring, I could go into the forest and find birds’ eggs. If it was summer, I could find berries. If it was autumn, I could find nuts. But it’s winter, and I don’t know what I can find. Maybe I have to get someone to help me. Someone who is usually awake in the winter.’

He went out again. The table was gone, and the cakes, and the elf. But the sparkly tree was still there. And a fox was sitting under it. A fox with a beautiful white coat.

‘Hello,’ said Barney Brown.

‘Hello back,’ said the fox, a little surprised to see a bear out and about.

‘I wonder if you can help me,’ said Barney Brown. ‘I’m making a Christmas cake, and I don’t have any eggs or fruit or nuts.’

‘Well,’ said the fox, ‘There are some hens I know. They’ll give me eggs.’

‘Really?’ said Barney Brown, politely. ‘That is very kind of them.’

‘I will bring you back a basket full,’ said the fox, and she trotted off.

How nice people are, thought Barney Brown and he was about to plod off again when a voice said, ‘Has Belladonna gone?’

‘Er—maybe. Only I don’t know who Belladonna is,’ said Barney Brown, looking around for the person who had spoken.

‘That fox,’ said the voice. A lump of snow moved. Only it wasn’t a lump of snow, it was a hare, with pure white fur.

‘Hello,’ said Barney Brown.

‘Hello back,’ said the hare. ‘Why aren’t you sleeping? Bears always sleep in the winter.’

‘Yes. Only today I woke up. Because I smelled a smell,’ said Barney Brown. ‘Christmas cake smell! And now I’m going to make my own. Only I haven’t got any fruit, or nuts.’

‘I’ve got some fruit,’ said the hare, at once. ‘Blackberries in a jar. Will that do?’

‘Oh yes!’ said Barney Brown. ‘That will do very well.’

‘Then I’ll fetch it,’ said the hare, and off he bounded.

People are really very nice, thought Barney Brown, just as a squirrel hopped down from a branch of the sparkly tree. She had been hiding behind a red bauble almost the same colour as her fur.

‘Hello,’ she said.

‘Hello back,’ said Barney Brown.

‘I heard everything,’ said the squirrel.

‘Oh,’ said Barney Brown. ‘I’m sorry to disturb you.’

‘Not at all,’ said the squirrel. ‘Now then. Snowy has blackberries, and Belladonna has eggs. Guess what I have?’

‘Nuts?’ asked Barney Brown.

The squirrel looked a little disappointed that he’d guessed so easily, but she nodded. ‘Yes. I have nuts! Lots of nuts! A pantry full of them! How many do you need?’

‘I think a few,’ said Barney Brown, cautiously.

‘Very well. I’ll bring lots!’ said the squirrel. ‘Never let it be said that Hazel Conker is stingy!’ And off she scampered.

People are very very nice indeed, thought Barney Brown, as he went padded off. Now I can make my Christmas cake.

Back home, he took out a bowl, and put in the flour and the sugar. He melted the butter. Just then there was a knock on the door. It was Belladonna, with six eggs. Two brown eggs and two white eggs and two speckled eggs.

‘Thank you,’ said Barney Brown. ‘And please stay,’ he added politely.

Now came another knock on the door. It was Snowy the hare, with a jar of blackberries. ‘Thank you,’ said Barney Brown. ‘And please stay.’

Snowy looked at Belladonna warming herself by the stove. ‘It’s all right. We are all friends here,’ said Barney Brown. ‘Isn’t that right, Belladonna?’

‘Of course,’ grinned the fox.

Just then came the third knock on the door. And there was Hazel Conker, with a bag of nuts that was almost as big as she was.

‘Thank you,’ said Barney Brown. ‘And please stay.’

While his new friends watched, Barney Brown chopped and mixed and beat and stirred. In went the nuts and the fruit and the eggs, joining the butter and the sugar and the flour. ‘And last but certainly not least,’ said Barney Brown, ‘in goes the honey.’

‘It looks wonderful,’ said Hazel and Snowy and Belladonna, crowding around to look.

‘But the smell,’ said Barney Brown, anxiously. ‘What about the smell?’

‘You have to wait,’ Belladonna said.

‘For the cake to cook,’ said Snowy.

‘Put it in the oven,’ said Hazel.

So Barney Brown did. While they waited for that cake to cook, they played cards and drank pine tea and talked. When night fell and the stars came out, it was time for Barney Brown to open the oven. All his new friends crowded around, sniffing the air.

‘That smell!’ said Belladonna, as Barney Brown lifted the cake tin out.

‘That amazing smell!’ said Snowy, as Barney Brown put it on the table.

‘That is the best smell ever!’ said Hazel Conker.

But Barney Brown could not speak. That glorious smell was filling his nostrils and he had new friends around him to share the delicious cake they had made together. And it seemed to him he could hear an elf’s voice on the air: I told you it was a magic recipe. Merry Christmas, Barney Brown!

The year’s favourite books: Leah Kaminsky

Today I’m delighted to welcome Leah Kaminsky to my blog, to tell us about her favourite book of the year.

My Favourite Read of 2019

FLAMES by Robbie Arnott (Text Publishing)

I love brave, imaginative writing that takes wild risks, and Robbie Arnott’s Flames ticks all these boxes. Weaving magic and stark realism with suspense, he has created a polyphonous novel, that shifts from a generation of women who catch on fire when they are enraged, to a talking rakali and a curmudgeonly coffin-maker. The prose is poetic and fresh, without ever becoming pretentious. Flames captures the beauty of the wilds of Tasmania and calls us to pay urgent attention to both the awe and fragility of nature. A novel very much for our times.



Leah Kaminsky’s debut novel The Waiting Room won the Voss Literary Prize. The Hollow Bones won the 2019 International Book Awards in both Literary Fiction & Historical Fiction categories and the 2019 Best Book Awards for Literary Fiction.  She holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. (

The year’s favourite books: Jenny Blackford

Today I have the pleasure of welcoming Jenny Blackford to my blog, to introduce us to her favourite book of the year.

Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life (Doubleday, 2013) is a near-perfect historical novel, full of far more than the standard number of what-ifs through the magic of lives rerun over and over again. It’s also incredibly moving on the horrors of World War Two, particularly in blitzed London. The sequel, A God in Ruins, is even sadder and more beautiful.

Jenny Blackford’s middle-grade adventure novel full of spooky spiders has recently appeared from Christmas Press.


The year’s favourite books: Anna Thomson

Today I’m very pleased to welcome Anna Thomson to my blog, to introduce us to her favourite book of the year.


My favourite read this year was the non-fiction book “Why We Sleep,” by Matthew Walker. I began to read it as research for my writing and was riveted. It’s a fascinating and accessible insight into our current knowledge of sleep, what it is and why we need it.

Walker covers research into not only sleep but dreams and the role of sleep in the prevention of serious diseases. There’s also discussion of how many great thinkers have recruited their subconscious and pre-sleep states to assist in problem solving.

I often hear people say “This book changed my life.” This one actually did change mine and I recommend it frequently! It made me fundamentally rethink my (lackadaisical) attitude to getting enough quality sleep, and reassess its importance for wellbeing, clear thought and creativity.


Anna Thomson (who writes as Anna Bell) is the winner of the inaugural Varuna/New England Writers’ Centre Fellowship. A a freelance editor and writer, she has an honours degree in literature. She has three published short stories, White Christmas, Santa’s Little Helper and The King of Winter in anthologies by Christmas Press. Anna lives in New England with her husband and a giant homicidal house plant.

The year’s favourite books: Trish Donald

Today I have the pleasure of welcoming Trish Donald to my blog to write about her favourite book, or in this case, books, of the year.

Ash dresses her friends – Fu Wenzheng

This children’s picture book is charming and sweet. Ash is lonely but through the kind act of sewing beautiful shirts and other cloths for animals, along with helpful things like a cover for a chair and a tiny blanket, she is able to make friends. The size of the animals helps to move the story forward. At the beginning Ash is tiny next to an elephant, and then, as the book progress and the animals get smaller, she eventually becomes the giant next to a tiny mother and baby snail.

I find myself revisiting this book because I love the illustrations so much. The limited colour palette of striking red depicting strong bold patterns, against the soft grey brushwork is striking and beautiful. Red also punctuates the pages in the form of spotted mushrooms, red cherries, and Ash’s little red jacket!   Elements such as Ash sitting in a chair in her nest made of sticks with a vase next to her are also beautifully drawn.

Fu Wenzheng is Chinese and her story has been translated into English.

Illustration from Ash Dresses her Friends


Tales from the Inner City – Shaun Tan

Well, this book confirms yet again why Shaun Tan is my favourite author and illustrator! Tales from the Inner City is a combination of illustrated short stories which capture humanities relationship to animals. Whether it be crocodiles or dogs, snails or a parrot, each story poignantly reveal something about our inner nature and our bond or rejection of animals. We save them and they save us. We destroy them and they destroy us. The animals reflect our love and they reflect our greed. We are them and they are us.

Cats in sea, from Shaun Tan’s Tales of the Inner City

Shaun Tan has a way of tapping into the readers’ heart. For me, this is particularly true with the illustration of the cat, swimming in a stormy sea, a mini mother clutching her child protectively upon its head. The dramatic lighting reveals their peril as the wave’s tower above them, yet, the cat swims on, with just its head above the water. We cannot see the cat’s face, but to me it appears unyielding and brave as it faces this danger. I find this scene extremely touching.

The size of the animals often contrasts with their size in reality which serves to deepens the stories meaning. The textures on these illustrated paintings are delicious and his use of colours exquisite. In true Shan Tan masterfulness, the lighting creates drama which in turn helps to support and reveal each story.

I received this book from my teenage children last Christmas. As the year progressed I visited and revisited it, taking pleasure in the stories and the illustrations, finding new colours, new textures and new meaning. This book will always be a treasure for me.

Trish Donald is an author, illustrator and graphic designer. Her first picture book, Tissy-Woo and the Worry Monsters(which she wrote and illustrated) was published in 2018, and her second picture book, Squitty Fish, with text by Jill Eggleton, was published in 2019. Her website is at


The year’s favourite books: Pamela Freeman

Today I am very pleased to welcome Pamela Freeman to my blog, to introduce us to her favourite book for 2019.

My favourite book this year was one which left me in a sobbing mess.  I cried so hard that my husband came in from the next room and asked if I was okay. ‘It’s so saaaadddddd,’ I wailed.
Which book? Kelly Gardiner’s Goddess. As Kelly says on her website: Goddess is a novel based on the life of the remarkable Julie d’Aubigny, known as Mademoiselle de Maupin – swordswoman, opera singer, occasional nun and seventeenth century superstar.
Impeccably researched and brilliantly imagined, Goddess made me laugh a lot as well as cry (but seriously, I haven’t cried that hard since Black Beauty died). Highly recommended.
PS  I’ve also tucked away Kate Forsyth’s The Blue Rose as my Christmas reading treat!
Pamela Freeman is an award-winning children’s and fantasy writer published worldwide. Her most recent children’s book was Amazing Australian Women, and next year she will publish Dry to Dry: The season of Kakadu. As Pamela Hart, she also writes historical novels and murder mysteries. Her upcoming Pamela Hart book is The Charleston Scandal, set in London in 1923 – where the world of theatre and aristocracy collide (featuring Fred Astaire and the Prince of Wales). Her last book was The Desert Nurse.  Pamela is proud to be a Second Look Publishing author (The Fastest Ship in Space).

The year’s favourite books: Ian Irvine

Delighted today to welcome Ian Irvine to my blog, to talk about his favourite book of 2019.


Dark Emu (2nd Ed, 2019) by Bruce Pascoe. The most enlightening book I’ve read in 2019 – a revelation about the massive extent and scope of Aboriginal agriculture, their construction of dams and vast fish traps, land management, building (including permanent houses and towns of a thousand people and more) and so on. Much of the information comes from the journals of the early explorers, in direct quotations of their observations. A must read. I can see why it’s had 31 printings in five years.





Ian Irvine, an Australian marine scientist, has also written 34 novels, an anthology of shorter stories, and various other short stories for children and adults.





The year’s favourite books: Hazel Edwards

Great to welcome Hazel Edwards to my blog today, to introduce us to her year’s favourite books.

From Hazel:

I’m recommending ‘first’ books by two new writers because often it’s harder to find books by small publishers and new authors. I’m a ‘readaholic’ and prefer inspirational (but modest & humorous ) autobiographies, well written mysteries with authentic  geographic or historical settings and books which take me into different cultures.

The first recommendation:

Maribel Steel, Blindness for Beginners,  BookPOD

Best problem-solving book of strategies I’ve read in last two years.  Who else would sew bells on toddlers’ socks, so you didn’t lose them? The toddlers not the socks.

A great title. ‘Blindness for Beginners’ applies to those losing their sight and those who need insight into how to live or work effectively with a person who is blind. But this autobiography is also relevant to a broader audience of those wishing to solve problems more creatively. It offers strategies.

Maribel is a creative-problem- solver in any culture. She began to lose her sight at fourteen, a crucial age of self awareness. Being prepared to volunteer and try new challenges such as technology, is a survival skill. So is challenging misconceptions about ‘labels’. Even getting the terminology right is a challenge for those outside a culture. Do you say ‘blind’ or ‘ partially sighted’ or ‘disabled’ or….?

Maribel’s writing strength is the day-to-day anecdotes of creative problem-solving and the humour with which it is shared.  (Maribel has four adult children now). Being prepared to learn new technology like ‘Where the Hell am I?’ app or mastering JAWS, the digital device turning printed words into sound. And being willing to take on invitations such blind cooking on TV, or  speaking at an international conferences and actually travelling there, complete with humorous cartoons on a Powerpoint. And the chapter from the guide dog’s viewpoint provides another insight.

Maribel autographing books with technological aids

Maribel capitalizes on her strengths. And we all need to do that. Her acute hearing, singing voice, musical understanding and trained memory have enabled her to devise new ways of participating both in work and social life. She’s willing to ask for help, or to decline it because she has worked out the best way beforehand. Preparation meeting opportunity is an apt definition of success.

I first met Maribel about ten years ago at a Christmas drinks party for the Australian Society of Authors. Her organized approach to writing and even getting around with minimal fuss impressed me. Occasionally I gave her a lift and once I got lost, even using my GPS.  Maribel got us to the event at the right location, on time that evening.

The significance of Maribel’s book is not only that she has physically written it, despite visual challenges, but that the content is likely to inspire others to find their individual solutions to lifestyle challenges whether blind or sighted.

Maribel with Hazel at Writers Victoria launch of the book

The most uplifting self-help book I’ve read this year. And the autobiographical anecdotes are the most inspiring part, such as colour coding her clothes and having her handbag with tagged items., and a ‘feelie’ kitchen.

I’ve learnt a lot.  Courage is about being prepared to try within the limitations you are given. And ‘Blindness for Beginners’ gives insight.

This Christmas, friends will get the print book, autographed on Maribel’s amazing enlarger attachment on her computer. But it’s also an audio book, which makes sense.





The second recommendation is:

Darren Arnott,  No Regard for the Truth,  BookPOD.

Few locals today know that an Italian Prisoner of War camp existed in outer suburban Melbourne at Rowville. Even fewer knew about the fatal shooting which occurred and the legacy of the romance between a local girl and Rodolfo Bartoli ,an Italian POW awaiting repatriation to Italy after the war ended.  Author Darren Arnott located the now 90 something ‘girl’ in Queensland and her relatives attended the launch.

Has made an excellent podcast with Melbourne’s Herald Sun and was featured in their Black and White Column in early December 2019.The Italian community has been delighted featured it in Il Globo  and this book is already reprinted.

No Regard for the Truth: Friendship and kindness. Tragedy and injustice. Rowville’s Italian prisoners of war.

Who had no regard for the truth?

The bureaucratic authorities or the camp commandant of the Italian POW internment camp in Melbourne’s outer suburb of Rowville after WW2 in March 1946?

A young Italian POW was fatally shot for dubious reasons near a disputed camp boundary. His Australian girlfriend’s family were not the only ones to mourn.

Well crafted ,historical detective work based on court reports and archival photos, which enable the readers to come to their own decision, so the writer Darren Arnott does have a regard for the truth.

A poignant romance but also an historic story which raises questions about inept administration having tragic consequences.

Darren Arnott workshopped his manuscript at the Public Record Office ‘Complete your book in a year’ class and utilized the Archives for photos, transcripts and fact checking. Arnott is very even -handed in the way he presents the evidence in the form of court transcripts, letters, photos and interviews. This impartiality enables the readers to make their own decisions on whether the shooting of Rodolfo by Captain Waterston the camp commandant of the internment camp was the inept action of a drunken , bullying officer or an accident. And whether the subsequent reports were cover ups or mismanagement.Many quotes included from the Inquiry. The Inquest report was marked Secret due to censorship controls being lifted and concern former POWS would read the report and cause a fuss.

But the real story is a romance of the author following clues to find the former Australian girlfriend who is now a 90 year old woman living in Queensland. And Arnott’s tactful interviewing. Supported by the careful accumulation of evidence.

Darren Arnott with Hazel at launch of book

Arnott is not of Italian heritage but he did live in Rowville as a child and was intrigued by the camp remains near his front yard. He has since revisited the historic markers mentioned in his book. A Melbourne based IT Consultant, Arnott enjoys clue seeking and has also studied archeology.

No Regard for the Truth is likely to be of interest to historical writers for the research techniques used, the Italian community ,military historians and those locals who might be surprised what happened earlier in their own suburb. Poignant stories have to happen somewhere, even in what is now suburbia, but was formerly a wartime internment camp.



Hazel Edwards(front of pic) at Vision Australia Radio and podcast

Best known for ‘There’s a Hippopotamus on our Roof Eating Cake’ (PRH) which celebrates a 40th anniversary in 2020  , Hazel Edwards writes for all ages and takes cultural risks with subjects. Co-written with Muslim librarian Ozge Alkin, junior novel  ‘Hijabi Girl’ has been adapted for a puppet musical by Larrikin Puppeteers for Book Week 2020 and ‘The Boy Within’ is a comic graphic novel about trans youth coming of age  just funded by Creative NZ and  inspired by ‘f2m:the boy within’ will be out 2021. Co-written by transguys Ryan Kennedy and Sam Orchard.

Hazel Edwards’ latest adult mystery publication is ‘Wed, Then Dead on the Ghan’ (KINDLE) a mini sequel featuring her diverse gender sleuth Quinn who solves mysteries and the occasional murder at weddings, funerals and naming ceremonies.

‘Celebrant Sleuth: I Do or Die’ is now available on AUDIBLE,  for details.

The year’s favourite books: Edwina Shaw

Today I’m very pleased to welcome Edwina Shaw, to tell us about her favourite book of the year.

Too Much Lip by Melissa Lucashenko stayed with me long after I read it. It deservedly won the 2019 Miles Franklin Award with a mixture of dark humour, violence and family secrets. Too Much Lip made me laugh, but it also moved me deeply and even better, helped me to understand the experience of First Peoples here in Australia in a very human way. I loved these characters on the edge of destroying themselves and each other. I felt for them and wanted things to go their way. A compelling plot brings Melissa’s beautiful writing to life as the Salter family struggle against the system, small town corruption and each other in a fictional town in Northern NSW. Kerry, the protagonist on a stolen Harley, has a soft spot for her young nephew Donny. His fragility and need for guidance and love also endeared him to me and his transformation throughout the novel is both powerful and symbolic.  Too Much Lip is an important and valuable contribution to Australian literature and a ripping good read.



Edwina Shaw is the author of Thrill Seekers, In the Dark of Night and over 40 short pieces that have appeared in literary journals and anthologies including Best Australian Stories. She is the commissioning editor of Bjelke Blues. She teaches creative writing at UQ and also runs Relax and Write Retreats.