2017 Book Discovery 2: Kathy Creamer’s pick

Kathy Creamer is writing about her 2017 book discovery today.

Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee

 It was a world full of glass, sparkling and motionless. Vapours had frozen all over the trees and transformed them into confections of sugar. Everything was rigid, locked-up and sealed, and when we breathed the air it smelt like needles and stabbed our nostrils and made us sneeze.

I first discovered Cider with Rosie when I was fourteen, and I was immediately hypnotized by the glorious visions that Laurie Lee’s deliciously descriptive language created in my mind. Through his words, I can go back to the Cotswolds, re-enter childhood and remember the taste of snowflakes on my tongue, glimpse the shimmering icicles that once hung down from thatched roofs, smell the enticing spices of Christmas and touch the gentle face of my long departed grandmother.

I’ve read all of Laurie Lee’s other works, As I walked Out One Midsummer Morning, A Moment of War, I Can’t Stay Long, Village Christmas, and most of his poetry, but Cider with Rosie has remained one of my favourites, a feast for the senses, and it’s a place I like to go to for comfort. I’ve never been without a copy. This Christmas I shall be re-reading, and remembering that long ago, there was once a place as sweet and intoxicating as apple cider.

Kathy Creamer is an illustrator and writer whose work has appeared in numerous books, in Australia and overseas. Most recently, she has illustrated the new edition of Max Fatchen’s A Pocketful of Rhymes(Second Look, 2017) and her work has also appeared in the anthologies A Toy Christmas(Christmas Press, 2016) and A Christmas Menagerie(Christmas Press,2017).

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2017 Book Discovery 1: Natalie Jane Prior’s pick

Today, Natalie Jane Prior is writing about her book discovery of 2017.

The Lodger, by Marie Belloc Lowndes, 1913.

I’d never heard of this book, or its author for that matter, but a passing reference in something else I was reading piqued my interest enough for me to download the ebook.

Mr and Mrs Bunting are at the end of their resources. Middle-aged former servants, their London lodging house has failed, and they have been reduced to surviving on furtive trips the pawnshop, when miraculously, a new lodger arrives and takes all four empty rooms in the house. Mr Sleuth is a gentleman of quiet habits, much given to Bible reading, an educated person who needs the space for his unspecified scientific “experiments”. Best of all, he pays his account regularly in gold sovereigns.

Of course, it’s all too good to be true. Mr Sleuth may be quiet, but he also has a habit of creeping out of the house in the middle of the night, and he does strange things like turning all Mrs Bunting’s chocolate box pictures of ladies to face the wall (so their eyes don’t follow him around). There is also the matter of sinister little bag he arrived with, his only luggage, which so mysteriously disappears soon after his arrival, and the horrible smelling smoke he creates in the kitchen in the early hours of the morning. It doesn’t take long for the Buntings to start suspecting there may be a link between their perfect lodger, and the Avenger, perpetrator of the string of horrific murders of women that is currently terrifying London.

While Marie Belloc Lowndes has loosely based her story on the Ripper murders of a generation before, The Lodger is surprisingly bloodless. It’s a psychological parlour piece, taking place almost entirely in the claustrophobic setting of the Buntings’ sitting room, bedroom and kitchen, in which first the wife, and then the husband move from relief and delight in their good fortune to unease, concern, suspicion, fear and finally, guilt and complicity. For underlying everything is the Buntings’ own vulnerability as respectable working class people with limited resources. The failure of their lodging house has pushed them to the very brink. They’ve stared the poorhouse in the face. Where will they find themselves, if they’re revealed to have harboured a monster?

It’s easy to see why this scenario attracted a young Alfred Hitchcock; he evidently made a silent film based on the book. I remain mystified, however, that The Lodger is not better known. I sat up until the small hours reading it, and my first reaction was to wonder why, when there are books like this about, anyone would bother reading modern period crime fiction. Not only because the novel itself is so good, but because a modern author, relying on research and bringing contemporary prejudices to the exercise, could not hope to get the nuances that are so effortlessly reproduced here. For example, one can immediately see why Buntings have failed to get lodgers just from the description of the furniture and interior decoration. They’ve taken a house in a “better” part of town to attract a “better” class of lodger, but the ugly secondhand Victorian furniture Mrs Bunting has filled it with (both because she can afford it, and because it will last—which indeed it does, because I’ve got a houseful of it) would clearly have been a total turnoff to her prospective clientele. Then there’s the Buntings’ precarious situation. Mr Bunting was a middle aged butler who married a middle aged maid. How could a modern author possibly latch onto the fact that their options are limited because positions in service for married couples are invariably for a manservant and cook?

 The Lodger is available as an ebook in the Gaslight Crime series. I hope lovers of crime fiction are tempted to give it a go; it deserves to be better known.

(Note from Sophie: it’s also available as a paperback online)

Natalie Jane Prior is the author of many books, and is best known for the Lily Quench series, which has half a million copies in print around the world. Her most recent titles are the picture book Lucy’s Book  and the picture story book The Fairy Dancers: Dancing Days, both illustrated by longtime collaborator, Cheryl Orsini. 

Another lovely review for Two Rainbows

I was delighted to read another lovely and perceptive review of Two Rainbows this morning. It’s on The Bottom Shelf blog.

Here’s an extract:

This story is a marriage of text and illustration, each interdependent as they should be in quality picture books.  At first the little girl sees only the rainbow, even though there are other spots of colour around her, as she thinks nostalgically of the colours of the country but as she starts to see more of her environment, so too the colours in the pictures increase although the city remains grey and the country bathed in light. And as her thoughts slowly attune to the city environment she begins to see more objects, different from the farm but perhaps with something to offer as she peers over the blue fence and sees a treehouse with a rope ladder and maybe a friend.

You can read the whole review here. 

Writers reviewing books–an interview with Linda Newbery, Celia Rees and Adele Geras

Book reviewing is a real art, and one that in the last ten years or so has undergone many changes. In the past, most book reviews were published in print—in newspapers and magazines, as well as, occasionally on radio and TV. But today, as space in newspapers and magazines has shrunk, most book reviews are published online, on specialised sites, online publications, and blogs.

Today I’m interviewing three distinguished UK authors, Linda Newbery, Celia Rees and Adele Geras, who together have created a great new book review blog, called WritersReview. I was asked to be a guest reviewer on the blog recently, was intrigued by the concept, and wanted to know more!

linda-celia-adele

Left to right: Linda, Celia and Adele

Can you tell me about how and why you started WritersReview?

Linda: Recently I added a blog to my own website. I’d never had a blog before but I liked the idea of using mine for reviews, with maybe a post of two about my own work in progress or backlist titles, and contributions from writer friends. When I mentioned this to Celia, she came up with the better idea of a joint review blog. This appealed at once, as I knew that a joint blog would reach more readers and attract more contributors than I’d achieve on my own. Next time Celia and I met, we talked about how to organise the blog and decided to invite Adele to join us, knowing that she reads widely and enjoys reviewing.

All three of us have published widely for children and young adults but are now writing adult fiction, and our reviewing here is a way of extending our range. Collectively we have a great many contacts, which should make it easy to keep things turning over.

Celia: Linda and I don’t live too far from each other and we meet up every now again for a writerly chat. During one of our talks.  We started talking about reviewing, specifically online reviewing.  We both agreed that good reviewing sites were few and far between and that much of the reviewing was poor and unfair. We were both taken with the possibility of setting up a review site where writers could review other writers. Writers tend to be keen readers and are often experienced reviewers and would offer fairer, more balanced and better informed reviews than many to be found online. Linda went away and came back with some ideas for the review site. She suggested we invite Adele to join us as she’s an avid and omnivorous reader and highly respected reviewer. We would each invite other authors to make guest posts, to add variety, keep the posts current and gradually build the site. Adele and I are both History Girls and are familiar with Blogger, so that was the site we chose to use. Linda did the hard work, designing and setting up the site, sorting out teething problems and posting the first reviews.

Adele: It was really Linda’s brainchild and when she asked me to join in, and mentioned that she was asking no Celia too, I was really delighted. I’ve long felt that there were too few outlets for people’s opinions about books. Newspaper reviews and much that’s online concentrates on the eye catching, the best-selling, the obvious. Linda made her offer seem attractive by telling us we can write about what enthuses us, whatever it might be.

Another of her good ideas was to give us a chance to invite other writers to contribute as well. She did all the heavy lifting, setting up the site and making sure it looks as good as it does.

What is your vision for the site? And how do you think it might develop?

Linda: I’d like it to be wide-ranging and friendly. We, and our guests, can choose anything we like to review – anything, that is, other than children’s books (not because we have anything against them but because there are plenty of other sites that specialise in children’s). I’d like to include biography, nature writing and other non-fiction, possibly poetry – whatever we or our guests want to write about. And the books don’t have to be newly-published – part of the point is for writers to share their own enthusiasms and draw attention to books that have inspired or influenced them, or deserve to be read more widely.

I hope, as we go on, that we’ll build up a list of regular guests and that maybe people will even approach us, wanting to contribute. I hope, too, that readers will comment on our reviews and add their own opinions.

I’d love it if our blog became known and respected and if we saw our reviews quoted in publicity releases!

Adele: I’m hoping it’s the sort of site readers might go to a) to see what we’d enjoyed b) to get ideas about what they might enjoy c) to be able to comment freely about what they saw there.

Celia: From the first, we decided to review books for adults, rather than children’s or YA. That was the only rule. I guess we hope that the site will attract people who are interested in what we have to say about the books we review and to counterbalance some of the ill-informed and occasionally malicious reviews to be found in other places online. I would like to see Writers Review become a site that readers can trust and use as a guide to books that they might want to read.

How do you choose books for review? Are there types or genres of books you particularly want to concentrate on?

Linda: Many of the books won’t be chosen by us, but by our guests. We won’t, on the whole, allocate titles to reviewers, though there may be some exceptions.  I hope contemporary fiction will be well to the fore, but we’ll see how things develop without our intervention.

Celia: Other than the books have to be for adults, we can review what we like, any genre, fiction or non-fiction. The books can be newly published or old favourites. There is no pressure to review current books. Our choices are made on our own preferences, what we might be reading at the time, work we admire, books that we have enjoyed and think other readers might like, too.

Adele: It’s about sharing enthusiasms. Fiction or non-fiction, but books for adults. We are known mainly as children’s or YA writers, but wanted to go outside our perceived boundaries.

What do you think of the current situation for book reviewing today, against the background of the contemporary publishing climate?

Celia: I think that there has been a marked falling away in the standard of reviewing. The broadsheet newspapers remain the gold standard but book review space continues to be squeezed. The plethora of online reviewing sites is patchy at best and can be downright destructive and malicious. Real reviewing appears to be a dying art. Too few reviewers understand that a good review is more than an exhaustive synopsis and a few subjective opinions, or arbitrary judgements based on personal preferences, or trivial concerns like print quality or length. We have all seen shocking examples of books condemned, their star rating brought down for the most irrelevant and trivial of reasons and behind that is always the lurking spectre of sock puppetry. I’m also uneasy about the possible influence of the big publishing houses through the blandishments of their publicity departments, particularly on book bloggers. We might be swimming against a tsunami but I don’t think readers like to feel manipulated (I certainly don’t) and I hope that a site like ours might be trusted and valued by readers and publishers alike.

Adele: I think it’s very patchy. I’m not 100% sure how much reviews contribute to the success of a given book, but am sorrowfully concluding: not very much! How otherwise to account for so many LOW LOW sales for extremely well-reviewed books?

Linda: It seems that publishers have come to value review blogs, with space for print reviews so much in demand, and that online reviewing can be quite influential in passing on word-of-mouth recommendations. In the press, some books are widely reviewed while others get no coverage at all, and might as well be invisible. The ‘blog tour’ for a new book is now quite common, even for high-profile authors. So a blog like ours is likely to be appreciated by authors as well as by publishers.

Authors’ pick special edition reprise: Susanne Gervay

boy in striped pyjamasToday I’m reprising the authors’ pick series with a special post from Susanne Gervay, looking back at her favourite book of 2015.

 

A book that has left its mark on me is a small paperback with a simple blue and white striped cover. ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’ by John Boyne changed me and it will change you.

It’s  a simple fable like ‘Animal Farm’ that holds deep truths of humanity.  ‘Animal Farm’ exposed Russian communism. ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’ exposes the Holocaust. Through the friendship of two boys, Bruno and the boy in the striped pyjamas we see the beauty of friendship.  Within the landscape of their relationship, there is the background of the ‘Jewish solution’. The gripping climax to the story is poignant and compelling reading. This book is highly recommended for all ages, from children to adults. When you shut the book, it will remain with you, making you question prejudice, racism and war.

Multi-award-winning author Susanne Gervay’s books for children include the very popular I am Jack series, which has also been adapted into a play. She is co-president of the Society of Women Writers NSW, Regional Advisor for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, a Room to Read ambassador, and a former Chair of the NSW Writers’ Centre Board.

susanne gervay

 

Authors’ pick special edition: Angela Slatter

wolfwinterOkay, so I know I said that Matthew Thompson’s Authors’ Pick was the final in the series, but I’ve just received this fabulous review by Angela Slatter of her favourite book of 2015, and so here it is, in special edition!

 

“It’s the kind of winter that will remind us we are mortal,” he said. “Mortal and alone.”

One of the books that stuck with me from my 2015 reading pile was Wolf Winter by Cecilia Ekbäck (Hodder and Stoughton). http://www.ceciliaekback.com/

 Set in 1717 in Swedish Lapland Wolf Winter seamlessly blends history, mystery, and speculative elements. Recent settler Maija and her daughters Frederika and Dorotea are left alone on Blackåsen Mountain when Maija’s husband leaves to find work. The women must face a dreadful winter, roaming wolves, and, perhaps most terrifyingly, the other folk who live on Blackåsen.

 Life as outsiders is difficult enough, but when Frederika discovers one of the other settlers, Eriksson, murdered things become more complicated. Not only is Maija stubborn, refusing to let the mystery of Eriksson’s death go unsolved, but Frederika begins to manifest eldritch powers; worse still, Eriksson has returned as a ‘heavy’ ghost and only she can see him. He was not a nice man in life − death hasn’t improved him − and he insists that Frederika solve his murder. It’s the only way she can be free of him, but there’s more than one secret on the mountain and their keepers will do anything to ensure they remain hidden.

 There is a wonderful clarity to Ekbäck’s prose; it is stripped back to its essentials but still lovely. It never feels sparse or lacking or cold, the landscape and its characters come through strongly and always seem real and relatable. She covers the historical detail with a light hand so you never feel as if the writer’s going, “Look at all the research I did! Look at it!”, but rather it’s woven beautifully into the fabric of the tale. Highly recommended.

Angela Slatter is: the author of six short story collections and a debut novel that’s coming out in 2016; a PhD survivor; an occasional award-winner; a lover of coffee; http://www.angelaslatter.com/; @AngelaSlatter.

angela slatter

 

Authors’ pick 24: Matthew Thompson

Ted Hughes Bestiary coverToday’s authors’ pick–and the final one in this series–has been chosen by Matthew Thompson.

A Ted Hughes Bestiary, poems selected by Alice Oswald.

The revelation of Ted Hughes and his exquisitely poised and powerful animal poetry was a long time coming. For decades a clear, open-hearted view appreciation of the crow poems and other work was not possible for me, due to the grip of Sylvia Plath’s fierce and tragic legend.

I did glance at Hughes’ poems now and then but my sight was displaced and distorted by the mythos of sadistic, maddening selfishness – even more so when I learned of how the woman that displaced Plath in Hughes’ affections, AssiaWevill, murdered their daughter and killed herself (and how quadruply weird to consider that Hughes and Plath’s son, Nicholas, eventually hanged himself in Alaska).

Age has taught me to let complexity be, even complexity of torment, instead of pruning it back to ready-understandability or by gripping isolated strands of it in order to haul oneself up to a fake height of mind.

So, a few months ago, decades after first reading Hughes, and while in Melbourne researching the life of a long-term recidivist prisoner for a book I’m writing, I slid from a bookstore shelf the slim hardback of A Ted Hughes Bestiary, Alice Oswald’s selection of Hughes’ animal poems.

Amidst the stark and ruthless crowscapes sat “The Jaguar”, a glimpse of a zoo-held beast seething with itself. I couldn’t help but think of my writing subject, a man who in his younger years could not be tamed, could not be contained, whose will was harder than the bars and walls around him.

…there’s no cage to him

His stride is wildernesses of freedom:

The world rolls under the long thrust of his heel.

Over the cage floor the horizons come.

But the prisoner’s jaguar days are gone.Sentenced again, this time to so long in isolation that even the judge said it would damage his mind, the man now sits spiritually detached from, but physically within spitting distance of, the predatory world of crime and jail. So attuned, he can sense when someone who, unlike battered old him, still hungers for prey: someone whosegrimacing face has not yet been smoothed. A blood-thirsty hunter in a moment that brings to mind the opening of Hughes’ “And Owl”:

Floats, a masked soul listening for death.

Death listening for a soul.

Yet it would be too limiting to keep relating these poems to men, to humans. Their centre is not anthropomorphic and in reading them, in handling them, DH Lawrence’s poem, “Fish”, comes to mind: specifically, its message that other beings inhabit their own universes, have not gods or not the same gods, are sometimes older and more purpose-made than we can comprehend. Lawrence’s narrator marvels at his witnessing of fish:

Loveless, and so lively!
Born before God was love,
Or life knew loving.
Beautifully beforehand with it all.

Joyce Carol Oates uses that line about a time “before God was love” to describe the severe and profound world of boxing, a world for its enthusiasts that remains beautifully before today’s widespread cringing avoidance of harm. The animals are not emotional about their pain or plight. They are clarity of instinct.

And over it all, unblinking in their exactitude, are not just Hughes’ famous crows but his hawk, who in “Hawk Roosting”, flies up to:

…revolve it all slowly –

I kill where I please because it is all mine.

Of course, there is so much more, including tales of animals lower on the food chain, but you’ll have to read them yourself. I have too much work to do.

 

Based in the small NSW town of Dungog, Matthew Thompson is the author of Running with the Blood God and My Colombian Death and a journalist whose recent work has focused on the violent intrigues of the Sulu Archipelago in the southern Philippines. For more information, see www.matthewthompsonwriting.com

Matthew Thompson