The Tower by Marguerite Steen

In The Tower, Marguerite Steen provides the contemporary reader with her valuable insights into the world of the struggling if moderately successful artist of 1950s Britain, a time of post-war transition in society and the art world, as abstractionism grew in ascendancy.

“Painter Tom Proctor and his wife Antonia are among innumerable victims of the so-called Welfare State, their problem complicated by their child, Noelle, who is in desperate need of care. Tom’s career has arrived at an impasse, in which his sole support is the steadfast belief of Antonia in the value and honesty of his work.

Torn between duty to wife and child and artistic integrity, Tom is about to play for safety by accepting a salaried job in an art school. In The Tower, Marguerite Steen delicately explores domestic tension and the strength that comes from a loving relationship against an artistic backdrop she knows so well.”

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In The Tower Marguerite Steen demonstrates considerable literary prowess, painting in words a character riven by situations and conditions beyond his control. Tom Proctor is enduring a form of mid-life crisis. With mounting debts and a wife and child to support, he is torn between satisfying convention and taking risks. He’s broody, wary, given to intense moods, staunch when he can’t afford to be, and prone to bouts of drunken recklessness. His angst centres on finding ways to earn a living from his art in a changing world. He hankers after a past, his own in those early years before the birth of a severely disabled daughter, Noelle, and for a time in the art world when primitivism was valued over abstraction.

The reader senses early in the narrative that Tom’s explanations and justifications for his various decisions take the form of an elaborate excuse for something disastrous. He is confronted with a decision, a fork in the road, two futures presenting themselves, one of security and stability, the other its opposite. What ensues has the flavour of a descent into desperation without redemption.

In Tom Proctor, Steen balances ruthless honesty and self scrutiny with equally acute observations of other characters, particularly the pretentious upper classes in the art and theatre milieu. Proctor’s observant eye is that of a painter regarding his subject and the result is a novel filled with evocative depictions of setting and character.

The Tower is not a work of perfection. Some of the transitions between scenes could have been more deftly handled. At times the narrative feels hurried, some plot points skated over rather than dwelt on, yet if they had been explored in more detail, the narrator pausing, attending, then The Tower would be a different book, and not what it is, a masterful portrayal of one man’s account of his motivations, apprehensions and misgivings in the face of an art scene filled with dilettantes, and a post-war society in transition. Steen provides an intimate tale of an artist battling with authenticity versus compromise, with his conscience, with his own artistic temperament and with his domestic responsibilities.

The re-release of this novel will satisfy a new wave of readers hankering after works composed in a richer style of prose, those who seek not only an entertaining read, but a work that stimulates the imagination and ignites the intellect.

I’d like to thank NetGalley and Odyssey Press for my review copy.

Cassandra by Kathryn Gossow

Kathryn Gossow is a masterful storyteller who displays great insight and sensitivity in her handling of difficult themes. The result, her debut novel Cassandra, is an extraordinary and engaging coming of age tale.

“On a remote farm in Queensland, Cassie Shultz feels useless. Her perfect brother Alex has an uncanny ability to predict the weather, and the fortunes of the entire family hinge upon his forecasts. However, her own gift for prophecy remains frustratingly obscure. Attempts to help her family usually result in failure.

After meeting with her new genius neighbour Athena, Cassie thinks she has unlocked the secret of her powers. But as her visions grow more vivid, she learns that the cost of honing her gift may be her sanity.

With her family breaking apart, the future hurtles towards Cassie faster than she can comprehend it.”

There is much to love in this novel. The reader is enchanted from the opening scenes, of a very young Cassie playing where she isn’t meant to, under the house; of her encounter with a snake and the nightmare that follows; of her innocent curiosity. “A crackle of excitement pops in her belly. Like Coco-Pops when the milk first goes on.”

Through the early chapters, Cassie soon grows into a teenager, and it is this lonely, rebellious, confused girl eager to belong, who experiments with her own abilities in an attempt to understand them.

Cassandra is laced with evocative descriptions of rural Queensland. Gossow’s characterisations are convincing and her pacing measured. Early suspense shades into a textured exploration of clairvoyance, dreams, trance states and the predictive powers of Tarot, as Cassie tries to get a handle on her own inner powers; her friend, the ever doubtful Athena, egging her on. These moments are convincingly portrayed, never overplayed, each adding another dimension to the fabric of the paranormal. In this fashion, tinges of Jungian psychology and Greek mythology are blended seamlessly into a family drama.

Cassandra rises and flows, rises and flows, the reader held in a deep ocean swell. When the end of the novel is sensed on the horizon, this swell breaks into great waves that eventually deposit the reader on the shore of normality, somewhat transformed by the experience.

A novel with broad appeal, Cassandra is told in well-crafted, elegant prose. The reliance on simile to create a childlike atmosphere works well in my view. Think Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things.

Gossow’s literary skills shine in her portrayal of Cassie’s altered states of awareness. It is in these scenes that the author demonstrates much empathy, empathy needed in order to render authentic the inner experiences of the protagonist. In this aspect, I am reminded more of Madeleine Thien’s Booker-shortlisted Do Not Say We Have Nothing than I am Paula Hawkins’ bestselling The Girl on The Train. Through all of the numerous scenes of other-wordly introspection, Kathryn Gossow reveals a fine literary talent.

The reader is gifted a gem of a story in Cassandra.  Highly recommended.

I’d like to thank Odyssey Books for my review copy.

Visit Kathryn’s website here.

Buy her book on Amazon here.

RESPECT at Pave Festival

When musical duo Savannah Rose invited me to speak at their RESPECT show I was honoured and baffled all at once. What would I talk about?

With their smooth and dulcet harmonies, Suzanne Diprose and Bree Cleal sing dark and old-school country. Their awareness-raising show depicts how women are portrayed in song lyrics. They are joined by Moonshine Coalition, Heidi & Jules, and The Borrowed Boys. I needed to fit into all that and I don’t have a country bone in my body.

But I am a story teller. I’ve led a rich and interesting life. So I decided to write a five-minute memoir. My life, through the lens of song lyrics.

I’ve a tiny part in a grand event filled with fun and games and lots of laughter. The show packs a punch too. The message is strong. Especially for songwriters!

The RESPECT show’s next date is at Emerald’s Pave Festival, Thursday 6th April 2017 @ 7.30-9.30pm. $12 entry ($10 conc).

I’m donating 20% of all book sales to White Ribbon Australia to help raise awareness about domestic violence.

 

 

The Cabin Sessions coming soon

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It’ll be worth the wait.

Dark fiction for people who want their characters twisted…

 

Set at an open mic one stormy Christmas Eve, The Cabin Sessions is a story of menace and dark secrets. While 12 regulars play their sets and the night rolls on, Adam Banks is anxious for his own safety. Back at home in her brother’s house, Eva Stone reveals the horrible truths about the town and her own family…

 

Picking up the breadcrumbs

Can’t believe a whole year has gone by… #TheDragoTree

ISOBEL BLACKTHORN

Yesterday we took a tour of the island’s north, where the malpais (bad land) fans to the coast, the legacy of eruptions of a chain of volcanos about 5,000 years ago, two of which form the view from our farmhouse, to the west and the north. It is the route Ann took in the first chapter of The Drago Tree, only in reverse.

We set off, heading north to Ye, passing through a narrow valley between La Corona, the largest volcano in the chain, and the rounded peaks of the massif. The road is narrow and edged with low dry stone walls. Beyond, the fields of black were alive with euphorbias, the lichens on the rocks bright splodges of white, yellow and orange. Wild grasses and flowers everywhere, the result of recent rain. Usually, there is little green save what the farmers plant and tend.

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Ye is the same as…

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Isobel Blackthorn speaking at Belgrave library – feat. Savannah Rose

What does an audience expect an author talk event will be like? Will there be a powerpoint presentation? A slide show of images of old drafts, with bits of text crossed out and heaps of writing in the margins? Will the author explain her writing process and provide insights into her creative journey?

I’ve never created a power point presentation in my life! And we can forget the slide show of drafts. I do have a writing process and I’ll definitely be talking about that, but what I most want to share are my sources of inspiration.

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I am profoundly inspired by setting. For me, writing a novel is like moving house and relocating somewhere else. I have to enjoy the new space I’m inhabiting. I really have to want to be there.  My most recent novels were inspired by the time I spent living in the Dandenong Ranges and the Yarra Valley east of Melbourne.

Music also inspires me. Both novels have strong musical themes. So I’m delighted that musical duo Savannah Rose have offered to come along and play a few songs. Especially because duo member Suzanne Diprose played a major role in the creation of both stories!

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I’m very pleased to have been invited back by Belgrave library. I’ve decided to make it a special occasion and have a one-off book sale to celebrate. Come along if you’re in the area, and grab a bargain!

Thursday 9th March @ 6pm

entry is free.

The Cabin Sessions in Fear Front’s Spring line up!

When Fear Front offered to publish my first horror novel, The Cabin Sessions, a few days ago, something in my personal universe shifted, as though a cog turned and I was moving forward again. Fear Front are an America-based dedicated horror imprint publishing top notch literary horror. Their offer was a rock solid stamp of endorsement, telling me that I had, in fact, pulled off a work in a very special genre.

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All the genres in fiction have their rules. Bend them as you wish but break them at your peril. Every author knows it’s hard to attract a publisher if your work is not an easy fit or straddles two genres, not quite ticking the boxes of either one. I knew this when I started writing The Cabin Sessions so I read up on the ‘rules’ of horror and fixed them in my mind. Plenty of dread. Lots of mini-horror moments along the way…

But what is horror? There are so many kinds and I had to choose my specialism. I was never going down the path of gore and neither was I drawn to the supernatural. Alien predators or military horror were not for me either. I was drawn to psychological horror and to the horror of perversion, and I ran with both concepts as I plotted a story.

Whatever I had in mind was soon distorted by an apparently minor character that I inserted to give a bit of backstory to one of the protagonists. Straight away she took over the narrative and my imagination along with it, and The Cabin Sessions is what it is because of her.

The Cabin Sessions will be released this spring (that’s autumn in the southern hemisphere). Meanwhile, I’m feeling so inspired I’m now at work on my second horror novel.