Five Favourites 21: Claire Corbett

Today Claire Corbett is presenting her five favourites.

Elidor–Alan Garner–the anti-Narnia

This novel introduced my child self to the grown-up pleasures of having your heart broken by a book. Elidor, a slim novel published in 1965, is one of the greatest fantasy novels ever written. It lures you in by beginning as a classic portal fantasy: that is, the main characters enter Elidor, ‘Green Isle of the Shadow of the Stars’, through a ruined church in the bombed-out suburbs of post-war Manchester. The four children find themselves in an eerie, dying land and encounter trials of evil magic before being entrusted with four relics they must guard back in Manchester to keep the last of the light alive in Elidor. But the darkness of Elidor follows them into their seemingly dull everyday world. Here the book becomes more SF horror than high fantasy (its moments of suburban satire intensifying the terror), with its ending modulating to tragedy in the key of Celtic Twilight.

This perfect book is described by Garner himself as the ‘anti-Narnia’. It is scary and sad and refuses the child reader the pleasure of exploring its fantasy world. Instead its terrors erupting onto the streets of Manchester are gripping; only as adults do we see how Elidor not only  parallels postwar England, but is of course itself England, with the adults in that fantasy land having no more idea of how to hold back the darkness than did the adults during World War Two. Garner has talked about how he used scientific parallels for magic in the book with static electricity being one form that Elidor’s magic takes in Manchester. This is how Garner weaves SF into his fantasy, and it’s a very powerful device, making the magic feel real in his modern setting and denying the reader the comfort that scientific rationality will defeat the darkness.

Comet in Moominland – Tove Jansson – the Romantic Sublime

All of the Moomintroll books are enchanting but this book deals in the Romantic sublime. This captivated my child’s imagination before I ever heard of the concept of the sublime – the shiver of awe we feel at the beauty and terror of that which is great beyond human understanding: sheer mountains, vast Deeps, the infinite reach and darkness of space. This book delivers all of that as Moomintroll and his friends go on a quest to the Lonely Mountains to ask the astronomers what to do about the Comet threatening Earth. This book even has a kickass heroine in the form of the vain Snork Maiden, who saves Moomintroll from a giant octopus.

The Silver Chair – CS Lewis – Plato’s cave

The darkest, most Gothic and most convincing Narnia tale. I loved it for its epic quest through terrifying settings and its philosophical meditations on the nature of reality. Its pivotal scene is a gripping retelling of the parable of Plato’s cave (of course as a child I didn’t know this). As always with Lewis, the villain, challenging male authority, is a beautiful powerful woman, in this case a witch who kidnaps Prince Rilian, son of King Caspian. Using her engine of enslavement, the Silver Chair, she plans to turn the Prince into her puppet to allow her to rule Narnia.

Two children, Eustace Scrubb (the reformed brat from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader) and fellow victim of bullying Jill Pole, are sent on the quest to rescue Rilian by teaming up with one of Lewis’ most charming creations: the hilarious Marshwiggle Puddleglum, whose idea of looking on the bright side results in ghastly statements worthy of Eeyore such as: Now a job like this–a journey up north just as winter’s beginning, looking for a Prince that probably isn’t there, by way of a ruined city that no one has ever seen–will be just the thing. Puddleglum, one of the great pessimists of English literature, turns out to be the bravest and most stalwart friend any frightened child, or Prince, could ever wish for.

The Silver Brumby – Elyne Mitchell – the beauty of wildness

As a girl I loved horses and riding above anything except swimming. The thrill and danger of riding, the scent of gum trees and saddle leather and horse sweat, the exhaustion at the end of each day, all this was exhilarating. When I wasn’t riding, I loved reading horse books – Thunderhead by Mary O’Hara and the Black Stallion books by Walter Farley. When I came to Australia I was enchanted by the Silver Brumby books which not only thrilled me with tales of wild horses in the Snowy Mountains (I preferred wild horse stories) but introduced me to the beauty of the Australian bush.

1984 – George Orwell – language can corrupt thought

Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength. War is Peace.

This may seem an odd choice for a childhood favourite but so it was. I read it when I was twelve and instantly its images and lines and ideas were engraved on my brain. How true and how loud do those slogans ring now in our post-Trump election, post-truth world? For a writer, 1984 is the key text, its meditations on the relation of language to politics and consciousness some of the most important ever written: But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. Orwell is one of our greatest writers whose work keeps language bright and sharp as a weapon against lies, a tool for truth against those who want to enslave our minds.

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Five Favourites 15: Elizabeth Hale

Today Elizabeth Hale is introducing us to her five favourites.

 

The Swish of the Curtain, by Pamela Brown.

About a group of kids who find an abandoned hall, turn it into a theatre and put on plays.  As a child, I loved reading about their cameraderie and creativity.  Written in post-War Britain, and gives a wonderful snapshot of the period.

The Stolen Lake, by Joan Aiken.

I loved everything I read by Joan Aiken, but this one stayed in the mind.  Dido Twite finds herself on a ship heading to Hy Brasil, a colony on the coast of a South American country.  Ruled over by an ageless queen who dines on a porridge made of the bones of children.  Gruesome and fascinating.  Dido helps break the spell.  The book’s spell was harder to break!

The Old Joke Book, by Janet and Allen Ahlberg.

My family loved anything by the Ahlbergs.  This was our favourite.  Like a Victorian almanac of jokes, full of fairy tales, monsters, talking animals, and above all jokes.  ‘Why wasn’t Cinderella chosen for the football team? Because she was afraid of the ball.’  ​Monsters who say ‘fangtastic’ when they’re pleased.  ‘Waiter, waiter, this egg is bad.  Don’t blame me, sir, I only laid the table.’

Under the Mountain, by Maurice Gee.

Redheaded twins with telepathic abilities save Auckland from destruction by totalitarian mud-dwelling worms called the Wilberforces.  I still see it in my mind’s eye when I visit Auckland.

A Little Princess, by Frances Hodgson Burnett.

This could be any of a number of iconic nineteenth-century books (Anne of Green Gables, Heidi, etc etc).  I loved this book.  I loved Sara, the regal storyteller, her dignity under pressure, her kindness to others.  The scene that still makes me cry: when Sara finds a coin enough to buy some buns, and she gives them away to a girl even hungrier than she is.

Anna Daniels on her book Girl in Between

Today I’m very pleased to be hosting debut novelist and experienced comedic screenwriter and presenter Anna Daniels in a guest post as part of her blog tour for Girl in Between, her first novel, which she describes as ‘a rom-com set in Rocky’ . Read on to know more!

Girl in Between…the rom-com set in Rocky!

by Anna Daniels

It’s wonderful to be with you, Sophie, and your Feathers of the Firebird followers!

My debut novel, Girl in Between, is a rom-com largely set in my hometown, Rockhampton…the Beef Capital of Australia!

For anyone who hasn’t been to Rocky, it’s a tropical city of about 70,000 people, situated on the Tropic of Capricorn in Central Queensland. There’s a wonderful larrikin element to Rocky, heightened by the bull statues astride the roundabouts, and the sense that everyone knows everyone

Jerry Seinfeld has a theory there are some cities in the world, like New York, which are just funny. For me, Rocky fits that bill…it’s just funny!

In deciding to set Girl in Between in Rocky, I wanted to capture the town, with all its quirks and landmarks, so that it was easily identifiable, but I also wanted to make the setting accessible to anyone who’s spent time in any regional Australian city.

I had great fun conjuring up characters and names for the places they work. Ruth, for example, runs a one-woman car wash on the corner of Fitzroy and Albert Streets, and hosts an annual Suds ‘n Thuds disco; Colleen, Ruth’s best friend, works at the popular Rocky café, ‘Bits n Pizzas’, and the central characters, Lucy and Rosie, often have wild nights out at their local, The Whipcrack Hotel.

I remember Gina Riley and Jane Turner, the creators of Kath n Kim, once saying their series was an affectionate look at suburbia, and I like to think that’s how my portrayal of regional Australia in Girl in Between will be viewed….as one of great affection!

Best wishes!

Anna x

Girl in Between by Anna Daniels is published by Allen & Unwin, RRP $29.99, available now.

More about Girl in Between:

Life can be tricky when you’re a girl in between relationships, careers and cities… and sometimes you have to face some uncomfortable truths. The sparkling debut from comic TV and radio presenter, Anna Daniels.

Lucy Crighton has just moved in with some gregarious housemates called Brian and Denise… who are her parents. She’s also the proud mother of Glenda, her beloved 10-year-old… kelpie. And she has absolutely no interest in the dashing son of her parents’ new next-door neighbour… well, maybe just a little.

When you’re the girl in between relationships, careers and cities, you sometimes have to face some uncomfortable truths… like your Mum’s obsession with Cher, your father’s unsolicited advice, and the fact there’s probably more cash on the floor of your parents’ car than in your own bank account.

Thank goodness Lucy’s crazy but wonderful best friend, Rosie, is around to cushion reality, with wild nights at the local Whipcrack hotel, escapades in Japanese mud baths, and double dating under the Christmas lights in London.

But will Lucy work out what she really wants to do in life and who she wants to share it with?

Anna Daniels is a natural-born comedian. She originally set out to write a screenplay that was part Muriel’s Wedding, part The Castle. Instead, she wrote Girl In Between, which was shortlisted for the 2016 Vogel’s Award. She says ‘I’ve always loved comedy which not only makes you laugh but also pulls at your heartstrings. I think a lot of people may be able to relate to Lucy’s story!’

Girl in Between is a warm, upbeat and often hilarious story about life at the crossroads. Featuring an endearing and irrepressible cast of characters, it will have you chuckling from start to finish.

More about Anna Daniels:

Anna Daniels has enjoyed great success as a comedic storyteller since kicking off her career by winning the ABC’s ‘Comedy Segment of the Year Award’ for an interview with Russell Crowe. She then went on to co-create the ABC’s first online sketch comedy series ‘Tough at the Top’ with Melbourne comedian, Anne Edmonds. For several years Anna wrote and presented funny upbeat stories for The Project, winning over viewers with her warm, silly, endearing style.

Having grown up in Rockhampton, she particularly championed the stories and characters of rural and regional Australia with affection and humour. As well as The Project, Anna has written, presented and/or produced radio, TV and online content for Queensland Weekender, Red Symons’ Breakfast Show, and the BBC One series, ‘John Bishop’s Australia’. Anna continues to report for The Project and often presents on ABC Radio Brisbane.

  • Twitter: @annadtweets
  • Insta: @annamdaniels
  • Website:annamdaniels.com

 

 

 

 

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Five Favourites 5: Adele Geras

Today, it’s the turn of Adèle Geras to tell us about her five favourites.

Is there a woman writer of a certain age who won’t have LITTLE WOMEN by Louisa May Alcott among her favourites? I don’t think so. They generally love the book because of Jo, and her burning ambition to be a writer, but for me the attraction was more the four sisters living together through good times and bad and getting irritated with one another but still remaining loving throughout.  I am an only child and this book paints a portrait of life with siblings that felt magical to me when I was very young and still does.

TALES OF TROY by Andrew Lang.  This book was given to me in 1951  when I was 7. It has coloured my entire life. It’s the story of the Trojan War with the most beautiful illustrations by H.J. Ford. I knew whole passages of it by heart by the time I was 8.  It was the beginning of my love affair with the legends and stories of Ancient Greece and then later, Rome. But this was the start of it and I still have the book on my shelves. It’s been a huge inspiration to me, leading directly, I think to my own books set in Ancient Greece: TROY, ITHAKA and DIDO.
 THE MALORY TOWERS series by Enid Blyton.   I had to re- read one of these books about twenty years ago for a conference at which I spoke about them. And I was shocked to discover that (unlike Little Women and Tales of Troy) they did not stand up to adult scrutiny. They struck me as paper thin, rather shoddily written and clichéd in every way. But….but but but. I loved them with a passion as a child, and this passion didn’t dim when I went to boarding school myself and found it to be not a bit like Malory Towers. Blyton has created a world that swallows up young girls and transports them. She fills it with characters who are readily identifiable and when I was about 8, this was so enchanting that I hold the world the books made in my head  quite separately from the rather thin gruel of the actual text. That is Blyton’s magic. She created more readers than anyone before or since, except for J. K. Rowling.
BALLET SHOES by Noel  Streatfeild. Oh, my goodness how I adored this book! I’ve also read it as an adult and it’s just as good as it ever was because Streatfeild was such a wonderful writer. Here again we have siblings, albeit not birth siblings but three girls collected by an eccentric explorer with a kind heart. The whole set up struck me as thrilling. The grown ups were amazing: different from most other grown ups in books. They were bohemian and strange and did unexpected things. And the dramas of the ballet classes and the fact that one of the sisters went on to become a pilot…it was, in every way, a brilliant wish -fulfilment book and also beautifully written.  When I first read it I was determined to be a STAR and I identified with  that side of the novel  completely.
Nowadays, we have box sets. Back in the late 50s and early 60s we had series of books. I loved John Galsworthy’s FORSYTE saga but mostly at school the books that kept us  going, that we passed around the class, discussing every turn and twist of the plots till we were blue in the face, the books that preoccupied us most were the WHITEOAKS books by Mazo de la Roche.  They were set in Canada and the house the Whiteoaks family lived in was called Jalna. I can’t now recall how many books there were but they seemed never to stop. My own favourite character was Rennie, who was a dangerously attractive red-headed man and RENNIE’S DAUGHTER was my favourite of the series, though I also loved FINCH’S FORTUNE. Finch was the pale, rather more weedy and intellectual brother of Rennie, if I remember correctly. These books were, in the words of my elder daughter: heaven on a stick. Big house, slightly tyrannical matriach, lots of different siblings and assorted in – laws. Difficult children. And lots of romantic sexual simmerings. Fabulous stuff!  I have never revisited these books. I daren’t…I want the spell to be unbroken. I doubt if anyone under 60 will ever have heard of Mazo de la Roche. Sic transit gloria…

Five Favourites 2: Libby Gleeson

Today’s selection of childhood favourites is by Libby Gleeson.

 

The Story of Ferdinand Author: Munro Leaf. Illustrator: Robert Lawson
        This one of a bull which didn’t want to fight in the bull ring but rather to sit and smell the flowers really delighted me. He grows up to be the biggest and strongest bull    in the field but still remains one who would rather smell flowers. He sits on a bee on one occasion and the sting sends him leaping and charging around the field and so he’s seen as aggressive and is taken to the bull ring. He still only wants to smell flowers and so those organising the bull fight are thwarted.

Anne of Green Gables. L M Montgomery

       I loved this story of a red headed outsider who was determined to make her way. Anne had been adopted by Mathew and Marilla to help on their farm but they had  thought they were adopting a boy. Despite initial difficulties, Anne – with an ‘e’ – stays and develops friendships. I loved her disdain for her classmate Gilbert, knowing they’d get together in the end.

A Little Bush Maid. Mary Grant Bruce
        This is the first in the long series of Billabong Books and I devoured every one. Norah Linton is growing up on a station in Victoria in the early years of the twentieth century. She is doted on by her widowed father and her brother Jim when he comes home from boarding school on holidays. He brings his friend Wally with him and  the three of them have fairly standard bush adventures together.  Old fashioned values towards race and class persist and I remember feeling a bit uncomfortable but   I envied Norah, wild on her horse, and so I ignored them when I was a child.

The Enchanted Wood. Enid Blyton
        I read all the Enid Blyton books I could get my hands on but this is the one that stayed with me. I think it’s the best book she ever wrote – and she wrote hundreds. It’s the first in the Faraway Tree series and introduces us to Jo, Bessie and Fanny and their cousin Dick. (names are sanitised in modern editions.) The children find a tree in a wood and when they climb it they meet all kinds of fantasy creatures such as Mrs Washalot, Moonface and Saucepan Man. A ladder at the top of the tree  leads to lands that circulate so a different land may be at the top at any time. The children must leave before the land moves on from the top of the tree. I thought  it was brilliant when I was a child and I still do!

A Girl of the Limberlost.  Gene Stratton Porter
        This was my most favourite novel of my early teenage years. Elnora Comstock lives with her widowed mother on the edge of the Limberlost swamp land. Elnora is   bright and wants an education but her mother believes it to be a waste of time for a girl. Elnora fights and argues with her mother and pays for her education by gathering artifacts and moths from the swamp. She grows in her understanding of the world of nature and in her confidence as she becomes a woman. This is a dramatic, gothic novel, so unlike the sweet rolling green hills of much English fiction I read. I loved it.

Claire Corbett and Watch Over Me: blog tour interview

Today I am delighted to welcome Claire Corbett to Feathers of the Firebird, to answer questions about her extraordinary, genre-bending new novel, Watch Over Me, as part of her blog tour for the book.

First of all, congratulations on Watch Over Me, Claire! It’s an absolutely superb novel, highly-charged, atmospheric, passionate and thought-provoking, and I was gripped from the very beginning. How did the idea first come to you, and how did it develop over time?

Thanks, Sophie. It’s probably hard to know the true answer to that question. I’ve been thinking about elements of the story for years, probably since I was a child and heard stories about the war experiences of my grandparents and their families, especially my great-uncle, who was shot down over Belgium and hidden by a farming family that was part of the Resistance.

The ideas in it also grew out of so many things, from the family stories to feminist ideas on the roots of violence both personal and political and partly crystallised by what Kurt Vonnegut said in his novel Bluebeard, that one of the main purposes of war, which is rarely admitted, is to put women in that vulnerable, desperate position, depending on men for protection and even food.

It’s amazing how this is celebrated, you know, all the valorisation of American soldiers handing out stockings and candy bars. Australian soldiers used to boast about how cheaply they could buy Japanese women during the Occupation of Japan: ‘a girl will go all night for one bar of chocolate,’ they’d say. As if exploiting a young girl’s hunger was something to be proud of.

My parents grew up under the German occupation of France, and the stories they told about the complexities of it and the interactions of their families, friends, neighbours, whether willing or not, whether positive or negative, with the invaders, have always haunted me. I found many echoes of those complexities in Watch Over Me, and in fact at one stage you make a specific reference to the famous retort by the actress Arletty at her post-Occupation trial, defending her sexual history during the Occupation. In recent years there has been a great deal more subtle exploration than there used to be in France of the themes of collaboration/resistance, with publications such as Suite Francaise and screen-based narratives such as Un Village Francais. All this is a longish prelude to asking you, was the Occupation a major influence on the themes of your book, and in what way?

Yes, it was a huge influence and I’m pleased it resonated for you. It’s the example that looms so large in our psyches of a complex Occupation between two peoples who have culturally similar backgrounds – it’s not the same as the Occupation of Japan or Americans in Saigon or Baghdad. The French and the Germans understand each other in quite a different way and have so much shared history and I wanted that ambivalence in Watch Over Me. Hiroshima Mon Amour blew me away when I was younger. I didn’t know you were allowed to admit that a French girl could fall in love with a German soldier. Films of treachery and collaboration or even just having to live alongside each other such as Au Revoir Les Enfants, or Lacombe Lucien were a big deal. And that incredible documentary Weapons of the Spirit about the little Huguenot village of Le Chambon whose people hid and saved around 5,000 Jewish kids and adults during the war.

Also, I knew a very interesting French Jewish artist who grew up during the German occupation of Paris and he had many striking stories about that. Again, with the love and hate – they took his father away to Mauthausen concentration camp but the German officer down the street brought his hungry family food and so on. So, his feelings were mixed, to put it mildly. Like so many French people he reserved his real hatred not for the German Army but for the French government and its over-enthusiastic cooperation which he felt went far beyond what they had to do. He’d point out to us the bullet holes in the walls of houses near where he’d lived, show us where the American tanks had only just been able to fit through the narrow streets. As a kid he’d been given food by both German and American soldiers, he saw some of those correspondences.

So, you can see traces of that in the book and of course my reaction to the way women who had relationships with the occupiers were treated after the war by a nation which had done far worse than have sex with the Germans. I recently found out that Norwegian women who had relations with Germans – and the poor kids that resulted – were treated viciously after the war. I was shocked by how victimised the children were.

There are also many other cultural/historical influences I could see in Watch Over Me: American occupations in Afghanistan and Iraq, hints of Russian adventurism in Ukraine and the Arctic, (and if I’m not mistaken, a saying or two from Russia!) Inuit and Sami influences…How did you go about weaving these threads together to create the particular cultural atmosphere of your fictional society?

Yes, you’re right about the Russian sayings! Well, of course the Russians and Ukraine and the Arctic is all real and happening now and shows the plausibility of my story but the funny thing is that I’d written much of it and worked the story out before events in Ukraine. It was weird and kind of scary watching my story come to life. The energy geopolitics underpinning the tale are real – the Lomonsov Ridge, the jockeying for the resources of the Arctic, that is all real.

In terms of cultural atmosphere Port Angelsund has to be a Scandinavian city. I began with my own memories of growing up in Canada – I’m a person with a northern heritage too so I understand some of that – but then I did a lot of research. I made it as real as possible. Every detail is as true to my fictional city’s real location as I could make it. Reflector Awareness Day is real, how they deal with the light and the dark winters, the names of the cakes – all that reflects the reality of the place.

Having said that, it has a mythic quality too. The one violence I did to my city to make it mine was importing the great castle of Prague, which became the Berg. I had good reasons for that and anyone who knows their World War II history will quickly work out why. My real model city for Port Angelsund does not have a castle but some Scandinavian cities do, of course. One way I wove my cultural threads, as the Berg shows, was by layering time – my novel is a book of modern war but it also reflects on wars that affect the history of the West, so there is The Iliad and echoes of WWII and the Balkan wars.

Recognition of the Sámi people was important – there are Indigenous peoples in Europe too and they have lots to teach us about occupation. Again, that reflects my growing up in Canada and Australia – these vast settler societies that base their modern existence on taking entire continents away from their original peoples. We cannot forget that and it shouldn’t be forgotten in Europe either.

The world of the novel mixes glancing mentions of real places—Paris, Finland, for instance—with the much more delineated fictional places, especially ‘Port’ of course, but also the Sequestered Forest, Heartland etc. Though the fictional places have echoes of real places—Scandinavia, the Arctic, the US—they are also very much themselves, jolting the reader out of assumptions based on place. This also occurs with the opposing forces, Garrison and Coalition, which are never associated with any particular ‘real’ nation. Why did you choose to do this, and how did you go about the landscapes and histories of your world?

In a way you’ve answered the question very well – ‘jolting the reader out of assumptions based on place.’ That’s exactly right. I wanted the nations to be unnamed because it could be any nation. All nations are capable of war crimes but we seem unable to think about the morality of actions free from the bias of nationalism. It’s still controversial to call the way Germany was bombed in WWII, the firebombing of Dresden and so on, a war crime but it was.

The My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War was not an aberration, for example. Equivalents to My Lai happened if not every day than every few weeks. In fact there were far bloodier massacres than My Lai but they were covered up http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-23427726 . The scale of the slaughter was industrial because the US had no other measure of success than body count: kill anything that moves, was the motto of many US commanders. Dead civilians were counted as dead enemy combatants to keep the kill counts up.

If you read what happened at My Lai, over five hundred civilians – women, children and old people – were rounded up and gunned down in a ditch, women raped, toddlers crawling away being dragged back to be shot, entire families, three generations, wiped out http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/03/30/the-scene-of-the-crime. What kind of soldiers and what kind of war crimes does that remind you of?

Over a hundred and seventy children were executed, including fifty-six babies. We want to believe My Lai was an aberration but it was not and there are tens of thousands of pages of formerly classified documents proving it was not. And yet in a presidential proclamation on the Pentagon’s official Vietnam War Commemoration website, President Obama described American soldiers in that war as ‘fighting heroically to protect the ideals we hold dear as Americans.’ That same site refers to My Lai as an ‘incident.’

People are still whining about popular protests against the Vietnam War. They don’t say that ‘incidents’ like My Lai are what people were protesting about. Protesters didn’t want babies and pregnant women being gunned down and having their skin burnt off by napalm in their name. Imagine that. Those who criticise the protesters choose to ignore that many leaders of the anti-Vietnam War movement were veterans themselves, returned soldiers who knew exactly how bad the war was and what evil was being done.

And this is not even to mention the drenching of those Vietnamese provinces in Agent Orange, which is still causing birth defects. Are we interested in labelling any of this as criminal, as evil? Are we interested in holding anyone to account? Clearly not. There are many more examples that are more current, from the suffocation of hundreds or thousands of Taliban prisoners in shipping containers at Dasht-i-Leili to the agony going on now in Syria and Yemen.

When the US uses napalm or phosphorus or depleted uranium or massacres over 250 civilians in a strike on Mosul or bombs a hospital somehow we’re okay with this. I’m not sure why. But when the ‘bad guys’ do this kind of thing we are shocked. Shocked and angry.

So, I wanted the reader to be uncertain. To suspend judgement. Surely that’s the only way we can learn anything.

I went about the landscapes and histories of my world as I described above – I made every bit as real as possible, based on research on the city that was my model for Port as well as real wars happening now. When I made a big change, like the Berg, I had specific reasons for doing so.

Like your earlier novel, When We Have Wings—which I also loved—this novel is a rich, heady hybrid, blending aspects of speculative fiction and realism. Watch Over Me also stirs in elements from historical fiction, Scandi-noir and highly-charged, and disturbing, romance. How did you keep all these elements in balance?

With a lot of research and writing and then a lot of cutting, including the help of my wonderful editor, Ali Lavau, whom I trust completely. It was the hard work on the editing that made balancing all those strands complement each other.

Watch Over Me unflinchingly yet never simplistically explores the complicated relations between men and women in wartime, and the way in which ‘normal’ gender relations are both upset by it and yet reinforced. This happens both between occupier and occupied, and between the occupied themselves, including the Ultras, with their macho rage against the occupier turned all too often against their own countrywomen. The vulnerable position of children is also poignantly explored. All this is brought out powerfully through the characters, not only the central ones of Sylvie, her family, friends, and her Garrison lover and his mates, but also through a host of beautifully-drawn minor characters, brought to very human and complex life. Can you tell us more about your creation of your characters? Were there any that were particularly hard to portray?

I loved all my characters and found them so fascinating that it made them easy to write – Max the pompous but passionate journalist, brave Erik, sturdy and gifted engineer Gull, my poor forest wild child Goran, the chorus of young single mothers, troubled Vick and even more troubled Captain Elias. I had difficulty with my confused rich girl Karin until I hit on her rebellious support for the Ultras. Of course she would be like that, it came to me, and all at once she came to life. I did have some lovely animal characters too but many things had to be cut.

Will was the hardest to portray because I had to create such a balance of attraction and anger and resentment on both sides. He has to be believably arrogant and capable of violence and full of self-confidence as a young, cocky officer. He is Special Forces, after all. As an occupier he is experiencing what it’s like to be one of the Lords of Creation. And he is young. It is going to go to his head. It would’ve been too easy to make him hateful but I wanted the reader to understand his magnetism for Sylvie, how much she wants to feel his power not so much over her but enveloping her. I wanted to open a gap between his institutional power as an occupier and the sense of him as a person too.

But then there was the opposite danger of idealising Will. Too many novels written about these kinds of relationships try to soften it by making the occupier, the soldier, into a romantic paragon so that it’s okay for the heroine to love him – there’s a bit of that in Suite Francaise. The German officer is too good to be true – a sensitive composer and so on. I made Will a real soldier; he’s not some poet in disguise. It’s heart-breaking that Irene Nemirovsky, who was killed in Auschwitz, writes sympathetically about the German soldiers, sees them as people, people alas who did not see her as a person.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Just that I love how much Port Angelsund itself is a character in the novel. I think we can all relate to that – how a city in wartime – London say, or Paris, becomes even more beloved, and that it changes irrevocably and is both mourned and celebrated. These cities wear their layers of history like geological strata. I felt so grateful, visiting Kyoto, that it hadn’t been hit with a nuclear bomb. Apparently, it was top of the list of targets for atomic weapons and the story goes that American Secretary of War Henry Stimson took it off the list, arguing its cultural importance, and the military kept reinstating it as a target and finally Stimson had to go directly to President Truman to take it off. Some say he’d visited the city, even had his honeymoon there, and understood what would be lost by bombing it.

Paris of course has a similarly incredible story, told in the book Is Paris Burning? Hitler wanted the city destroyed out of pure spite as the Allies advanced. The city was wired to be detonated – TNT in the crypt of Notre Dame! We need to remember how evil the military mindset can be. According to the book, Paris was saved by German General von Choltitz who kept stalling on Hitler’s increasingly furious insistence that the city be blown up. Some dispute this version of events, pointing out von Choltitz had been a ruthless Nazi up until that point http://cultureandstuff.com/2010/02/12/is-paris-burning-did-a-german-general-save-the-city-of-light/. Whatever the truth, there isn’t much doubt that he could have followed Hitler’s orders and left de Gaulle and the Allies to face the French capital’s blackened ruins. And he didn’t.

And that’s finally the point of fiction, of writing, isn’t it? To show the variability of the human heart, to show how critical each and every individual decision is: not to destroy Kyoto, not to destroy Paris, even in the face of so much tragic devastation. That is so important to remember. Even if you are part of great evil, you can still do a good thing. Hundreds of millions of people owe so much to Stimson and von Choltitz yet they will never know those men’s names. How I wish our current crop of politicians would take that idea to heart instead of doubling down on all their horrendous decisions.

Watch Over Me by Claire Corbett is published by Allen & Unwin, RRP $29.99, available now.

More about Watch Over Me:

The pressure of my blood, the beat of my heart, is a message to you. You read each second of my body’s life.

It is the present day. The foggy northern city of Port Angelsund is under occupation by the soldiers of Garrison. Sylvie is a young woman just trying to survive. When she is singled out for punishment at a Garrison checkpoint, a young lieutenant rescues her from torture. Though she knows the terrible risks of collaboration, she cannot stop herself from falling in love. Watched by Garrison’s vast machinery of surveillance, Sylvie discovers she is also under the protective and suspicious gaze of her lover. When her older brother returns on a terrorist mission that will throw the city into chaos, Sylvie’s loyalties are tested beyond breaking point. Her deep bond with her brother and her illicit passion for her Garrison officer are loves that cannot coexist. Whatever she does is betrayal.

In the spirit of Hiroshima Mon Amour and Suite Francaise, this sensual and heart-breaking novel brings the classic conflicts of war and occupation, devotion and treachery, up to the present minute. While the unimaginable power of modern warfare advances, Watch Over Me reminds us that the things at stake—survival, refuge and love—remain the things worth fighting for.

More about Claire Corbett:

Claire Corbett was born in Canada and has worked in film and government policy. Her first novel, When We Have Wings, was published in 2011 and shortlisted for the 2012 Barbara Jefferis Award and the 2012 Ned Kelly Award for Best First Fiction. Her recent fiction and essays have been published in a range of journals, including The Best Australian Stories 2014/2015, Griffith Review, Southerly and Overland. She has written on defence and strategy for The Diplomat, The Strategist and The Monthly.

Website: www.clairecorbett.com

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/clairecorbettauthor/

Twitter: @ccorbettauthor
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The Magic Carpet revisited

And for the third and final(for the moment anyway) of my revisited original tales inspited by fairytale/folktale elements, here’s The Magic Carpet, which was published in The School Magazine and was inspired by my childhood love of The Arabian Nights.

THE MAGIC CARPET

by Sophie Masson

Once upon a time, a boy called Hamid lived with his uncle and aunt in the very middle of a great city. Hamid’s uncle and aunt kept the best-known carpet shop in that great city, and people came from near and far, just for a chance to look at their marvellous carpets.

Hamid’s uncle, who was as thin as a stick of cinammon, and his aunt, who was as round as a honey cake, greeted everyone at the door with a bow, and a smile, and a flash of gold teeth. They dressed in fine, silken clothes, and Hamid’s uncle wore a tall dark-blue silk turban, and his aunt a gauzy, spangled scarf.

But poor Hamid had no silken clothes, and no dark blue turban, and he was hardly ever allowed in the shop, only occasionally at night, when no-one was about. His uncle and aunt said he was very lucky, for they had taken him in when his parents had died. Hamid had to spend his days in the kitchen, cooking the nine different dishes his uncle and aunt demanded each evening.

Every afternoon, Hamid went to the market to buy the food for the next day. This was at the time when his uncle and aunt closed their shop and slept in their grand, silken-hung bedroom. But Hamid was never allowed to sleep or rest in the day. When he wasn’t cooking, he had to take bundles of laundry to the washer girl, or polish silver till his arms ached, or beat carpets until his face was covered in dust.

Yet Hamid loved the carpets. He would have stayed all day in the shop, if he had been allowed, fingering the rich stuff of the carpets and dreaming of the places from where they came. Sometimes, when he did this, there were pictures in his mind of another time, another place when he had been happy, when gentle arms had held him, and soft voices whispered to him. But the pictures were like shadows, or dreams; unable to be grasped. And if his uncle-as-thin-as-a-stick-of-cinammon or his aunt-as-round-as-a-honeycake saw him dreaming, they would shout, and order him back to the kitchen.

One afternoon, as he made his way back from the market, a figure came walking up the street towards him, with a parcel under its arm. As the figure came closer, Hamid saw that it was a woman, a young, lovely woman, though he could see only her eyes, and her hands. She was dressed all in dusty grey, and her eyes above her veil were of a most surprising colour, almost as blue as the lapis lazuli necklace owned by Hamid’s aunt. She stopped in front of Hamid. She did not say anything, but her eyes looked both sad and smiling, all at once.

Hamid’s heart fluttered a little as he looked at her; for he thought that somewhere, sometime, he had seen her. He said, “What is it you want? Are you a beggar? For I have no money. ” Still, the young woman said nothing, but she touched Hamid lightly on the arm, and her eyes filled with tears.

“Are you ill?” he said. She shook her head. She held out the parcel she was carrying.

“This is not mine,” he said, and he tried to give it back to her, but she shook her head, and put her finger to her lips. Then she stroked him–very, very gently–on the hair, and vanished, completely.

Hamid stood on the road, his heart thumping even louder. The touch of her hand had remined him of those dreams he had, those dreams of a happier time, when he was loved. As if in a dream, he walked back to his uncle’s and aunt’s place.

Alas! When he got back to his house, his uncle and aunt were both awake, and as bad-tempered as usual, only more so, because their midday sleeps made them feel hot and sticky. Hamid had no time to hide the parcel, and they ripped the covering off it, only to reveal an extremely old, faded, dirty carpet whose pattern could no longer be distinguished.

Hamid’s aunt boxed his ears, then, and his uncle called him sixteen different kinds of idiot. When they were out of breath, they told Hamid he was to stay in his room until the next day; they would go out to eat in a restaurant. And they tossed the old carpet out the back door, where it landed with a soft plop on top of a pile of compost.

Now normally, Hamid was a cheerful boy. But today, his cheer seemed to have deserted him. He lay on his straw bed and thought about his life, and how he wished…

Suddenly, he jumped off the bed and went outside to the back courtyard. Gently, he lifted the old carpet off the compost pile. Even though it was so old, and worn, it was the very first thing he had ever been given for himself. Perhaps, if he cleaned it well, it would look better?

And so, he fetched buckets of water, and soap, and a hard brush, and kneeling on the cobblestones of the courtyard, he began to scrub at the carpet. Scrub, scrub, scrub, he went, and soon he began to see a pattern emerging. “Oh,” said Hamid to himself. There was a curly golden pattern on a bed of deepest blue, and at the sides, something else, a red creature with a horn of purest white. Hamid kelt on the wet carpet and scrubbed gently at it, watching, absorbed, the colours, the patterns emerging from the old grime and dust. Why, he thought as he scrubbed, it was beautiful! He got a sponge, and tenderly began wiping away the soap from the other parts of the carpet.

He was so absorbed that he did not hear his aunt and uncle returning. They had gone into restaurant after restaurant and found fault with each, till at last the exasperated owners told them to go. So, dinnerless and more bad-tempered than ever, they had come home, intending to force Hamid to make something for them. What was their surprise and anger to find him not in his mean room, but out in the courtyard, wasting good soap and water on an old bit of rubbish! Hamid’s uncle reached over to pull his hair, and his aunt opened her mouth to call him twenty different kinds of rude names, till all of a sudden they saw the carpet properly for the first time.

Their mouths closed; their arms dropped. They stared at the carpet, and at Hamid, who did not even look frightened. He stroked the carpet, and said, “It is strange, it is almost as if I know this carpet, already. . ”

“Don’t be stupid!” said his uncle, fetching him a stinging blow on the ear. “Don’t be absurd!” said his aunt, pulling at his hair. Hamid, looking up in pain and surprise, saw that his uncle-as-thin-as-a-stick-of-cinammon and his aunt-as-round-as-a-honeycake had gone white as salt. He wiped a tear from his eye and stood up, sad but no longer afraid.

“You will put this old bit of rubbish on the fire!” his aunt commanded, her three chins wobbling like almond jelly.

“At once!” added his uncle, his eyes as round as if he’d seen a ghost.

But Hamid shook his head. “No,” he said, “it is mine. ”

His uncle and aunt goggled at him. “But,” said the uncle, with a cunning, cruel smile, “You are our servant. ”

“It is therefore ours,” agreed his wife, her cold eyes snapping.

“Give it to us,” said the uncle-as-thin-as-a-cinammon-stick, advancing on Hamid. “Yes, give it here,” said the aunt-as-round-as-a-honey-cake, clawing towards Hamid. But Hamid grabbed the carpet and held it tight.

And then came a voice from the back door. A tired, used-to-commanding voice. “Is there no one to help a customer, in this place?”

Instantly, the uncle’s and aunt’s faces changed. From being white-mean, tight-cruel, they smoothed out into smiling brown masks. “Oh, Your Highness,” simpered the uncle. “Your Gracious Lordliness,” wheedled the aunt. “It is only this silly boy of ours, who will not drop his bit of old rubbish. Come, Hamid,” she said in a silky voice.

The man at the door frowned. Hamid saw a short, grey-haired man, wearing splendid clothes and a vast white turban. There were lines on his face, of crossness and something else, something deeper and sadder. The man looked back at Hamid. He blinked, wiped his hand across his forehead, and said, “I came. . to buy a carpet. If this is the way you treat your. . ” but then he stopped. He said,still looking at Hamid, “Strange. . oh, you remind me so much of. . but no, it isn’t possible. . . ”

“Oh sir,” said Hamid, feeling a curious sort of emotion, which filled his eyes and his chest, but to which he cpuld not put a name. “Sir, it is only that I wish to keep this most beautiful carpet. . ” And before his startled aunt and uncle could stop him, he had unrolled it, almost at the man’s feet.

The man started violently. He looked at the carpet, at Hamid, at the uncle and aunt, and then he did the strangest thing. He burst into tears! Then he took Hamid in his arms, still crying, and said, “My son, oh my son. . ”

Hamid, clutched in the man’s arms, full of a warm, surging wonder, said, as if he were trying the words out, “Father. . is it really you, Father?”

They went on in this way for quite some time, but at last they thought of the uncle, as thin as a stick of cinammon, and the aunt, as round as a honey cake. And do you know, those two had simply disappeared, leaving everything in their shop, their money, their fine clothes, everything except what they had on them!

And then the man told Hamid that his son had been kidnapped as a small child. Although a huge ransom had been paid, the boy had never been seen again. His wife had died of grief, and he himself had become sad and empty and impatient of life. “And now, my son,” he said, weeping, hugging Hamid-who–was–his son, “here you are, and there is the carpet, the very carpet on which you had been lying, when you were taken!” And from the big pocket of his robe, he had taken out a miniature of a young woman, and shown it to Hamid–a young woman with a soft, round face, and amazing lapis lazuli eyes that seemed to smile right into Hamid. And then Hamid recognised her, and knew why his heart had been thumping, in the street, that afternoon. In his mind, came a picture of her–not sad anymore, but smiling, her sky-eyes sparkling as a spring morning. And in his mind, she held out her hand to him, and whispered, “My son. My son. My dearest son. ”

And when Hamid and the man-who-was-his father were back in the prince’s(for he was a prince, you see) marvellous marble-and-filigree palace, they talked long into the night of the wonderful and terrible things that had happened. And so long as they lived, the old carpet had pride of place in the most beautiful hall of the palace, under the portrait of the princess, Hamid’s mother, with her lapis lazuli eyes…

But as to the uncle-as-thin-as-a-stick-of-cinammon and the aunt-as-round as-a-honeycake, why, nothing was heard from them again, at least not in that country. But I have heard it whispered that in a cold and dusty and forgotten corner of a far-distant land, there is a greasy restaurant with a dirty kitchen where, day after day, a bent man as dry as a stick of thin grass and a woman as squashed as a melting cake stand in front of a vast pile of dishes, and wash, and wash, their arms up to the elbows in scummy suds.