Book Review: The Keeper of the Way by Patricia Leslie

I’m delighted to share my latest review. I’m a fan of this author after reading a previous work, A Single Light, which inducted me into Urban Fantasy. Her latest, Keeper of the Way (Crossing the Line Book 1), is historical urban fantasy.

 

“After news of grave robbing and murder in Dún Ringall, the ancient stronghold of Clan McKinnon on the Isle of Skye, Rosalie realises it is time to share her family’s secrets. Descendants of the mystical Ethne M’Kynnon, Rosalie tells of a violent rift that occurred centuries earlier, splitting Ethne from her sisters forever and causing relentless anguish and enmity between ancient families.
Meanwhile, Algernon and Clement Benedict have arrived in Sydney searching for the lost relics of their family. They are driven by revenge and a thirst for power, and will take what they can to reinstate their family heritage. Their meddling with ancient magic will have far-reaching effects, as they fail to realise ther role in a far greater quest.
In the grounds of Sydney’s magnificent Garden Palace, danger grows as an ages-old feud of queens and goddesses heats up. The discovery of arcane symbols bring the distant past in a foreign land to Australia and will cause a profound struggle with tragic results, a surprising new recruit from an unknown world, and the complete destruction of the palace.
Set around stories and characters in 1882 Sydney, Keeper of the Way includes current affairs, people and buildings long gone, and gives a voice to people history doesn’t always listen to.”

My thoughts:

From the opening scenes, Leslie takes the reader back to the ancient customs of the Scottish highlands while making full use of Scotland’s tempestuous weather as Lord Algernon Benedict sets off for the Isle of Skye to find out what happened to his great-grandfather who disappeared after reaching the shores of Loch Slapin. Three decades later, in Sydney in 1879, Rosalie Ponsonby wanders through The Garden Palace in the Botanical Gardens on the eve of an international exhibition. There she pauses to observe the statue of Queen Victoria. She’s the proprietor of The Garden Arms and she’s a witch.

Much of the action plays out in the The Garden Arms. Here, Leslie creates a homey feel, female and strong. The story unfolds from multiple viewpoints, the reader sharing in the perspectives of Algernon, his son Clement, Rosalie and her daughter, Florentine. All the characters, major and minor, are well-crafted and convincing. The pace is slow but never falters. Sydney in the late 1800s is brought to life with evocative and sharply crafted descriptions. The writing style suits the era yet avoids flowery writing or laboured sentences.

“The Botanical Gardens were a forest of trees and shrubbery, drawn from England and forced into a lifetime of servitude on the other side of the world where winter was as summer in their homeland.”

Through such prose Leslie provides a portrait of the emergence of Australian society in Sydney, a bustling southern city delightfully tinged with decadence, receiving waves of migrants as its indigenous population is thrust aside. Leslie handles this transition with sensitivity and insight.

Descriptions of fantastical transfigurations are portrayed with equal finesse. The reader is lured into magical realism, the transfixed observer. Grimoires, incantations, invocations, sigils and demonic spirits infuse the historical narrative, as the ancient ways of witchcraft – healing and life-giving – are pitted against a male counterpart that is dark and destructive.

In all, Keeper of the Way is a pleasurable read from start to finish. I recommend it to lovers of historical fiction, magic realism and urban fantasy alike.

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#AWW challenge completed!

I signed up late to the 2017 Australian Women Writer’s challenge. Despite those lost months, I committed to reviewing at least six books by Australian women authors, which is known as the ‘Franklin’ challenge. I ended up reviewing seven titles and I would have written more had I not found myself unexpectedly moving house!

What a delightful experience the #AWW has been! I’ve ventured into genres I wouldn’t normally read. I’ve found many absolute gems along the way.

I began with Kathryn Gossow’s Cassandra, an absolutely charming literary coming of age story. “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.”

From there I ventured into crime with Sandi Wallace. I ended up reviewing two titles by this author, Tell Me Why, and Dead Again .  “With wit and a sharp eye for the essentials, Wallace has built a story world that feels real. A page turner with much to savour, Dead Again is a moving and highly engaging read.”

For literary fiction, I turned to Heather Rose’s The Museum of Modern Love “Rose is a masterful writer, her depictions of incidental characters sharply observant, yet her prose is always gentle, haunting. The Museum of Modern Love is a meditation, on art and creativity to a large extent, but above that on pain, physical and emotional pain, the anguish of loss and grief.”

The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose, winner of the 2017 Stella Prize. Read more of my reviews at https://isobelblackthorn.com/my-book-reviews/

I went back to crime with L.J. M. Owen’s Mayan Mendacity  my review appearing on the Sisters in Crime Australasia’s website. “In all, I found Mayan Mendacity difficult to put down. Owen has provided her readers with an entertaining story that also informs, without allowing exposition to put a brake on the narrative. Pulling off a story laden with this much technical detail and maintaining a fast pace is quite a feat.”

I then took a detour into historical fiction, unable to pass up the opportunity to review Elisabeth Storr’s  Call To Juno an absolute feast of a read. “This is a story for those who enjoy their historical fiction rich with fine and accurate detail. Call to Juno is intensely visual, bringing ancient Rome to life, composed by an author who clearly knows her subject.”

Finally, I was treated to Elizabeth Jane Corbett’s The Tides Between “The Tides Between pulls the reader in two directions, the desire to continue turning the pages at odds with an equally a strong wish to pause and reflect on its various intricacies, its depth. The only difficulty faced in reviewing a book of this quality is putting it down long enough to scribe reflections. A work I would describe as literary historical fiction, The Tides Between, is a captivating and immersive read.

The Tides Between by Elizabeth Jane Corbett

I am delighted to share my review of Elizabeth Jane Corbett’s debut novel, The Tides Between.

“In 1841, on the eve of her departure from London, Bride’s mother demands she forget her dead father and prepare for a sensible, adult life in Port Phillip. Desperate to save her childhood, fifteen-year-old Bridie is determined to smuggle a notebook filled with her father’s fairy tales to the far side of the world.

When Rhys Bevan, a soft-voiced young storyteller and fellow traveller realises Bridie is hiding something, a magical friendship is born. But Rhys has his own secrets and the words written in Bridie’s notebook carry a dark double meaning.

As they inch towards their destination, Rhys’s past returns to haunt him. Bridie grapples with the implications of her dad’s final message. The pair take refuge in fairy tales, little expecting the trouble it will cause.”

My Review

Told from three viewpoints, Elizabeth Jane Corbett’s debut novel is a fearless yet endearing exploration of the day-to-day existence of a small cast of characters, each with their troubles, who are incarcerated along with numerous families in the steerage deck of a ship bound for Australia. The Tides Between is an ironic tale in some ways, for the duration of a voyage that spans half the globe, the epic journey that unfolds is one situated at the hearth of human existence.

Corbett writes with a deft pen. The author is unafraid to expose the reality of life for working class migrants making the treacherous voyage to Australia. In true literary fashion, the narrative presses forward through the unfolding realisations of its characters, the backstory interwoven in fragments.

The Tides Between opens with fifteen-year old Bridie clutching a notebook of fairy stories she was forbidden to keep as she boards a ship bound for Port Phillip. What unfolds is in part a coming of age story, as Bridie learns to handle the grief she feels at the loss of her father, and accept the benevolent affections of her stepfather, Alf. Yet The Tides Between is less a story of one girl’s entry into adulthood and more a meditation on trauma and its consequences, and on identity and the power of myth.

These themes are strikingly played out through Rhys, a young Welshman and miner’s son crippled by claustrophobia.  His wife, Sian, is pregnant, as is Bridie’s mother. Will either woman manage to safely birth her child before the ship pulls in at its destination? Will Rhys transcend his anguish? Will Bridie shake off her adolescent ill humour? Can Alf, a man strangled by his sense of duty and obedience, find the courage to confront the ship’s surgeon?

Corbett carries her plot forward with intricate attention to emotional detail. The heaving waters of the various oceans traversed a powerful metaphor for those heaving in the hearts of protagonists Bridie, Rhys and Alf.

Corbett’s writing is visual, metaphoric and intelligent.

“The night air fell like a chill shawl on her shoulders. Turning back towards the hatchway, she heard an eerie drawn out sound from beyond the deckhouse. She halted, nerves feathering her spine.”

It is in this fashion that dramatic tension is maintained, the reader treated page after page to Corbett’s elegant prose.

The theme of fairy tales is prominent, but these are not the stories of children’s books. They are powerful myths rich with significance. Bridie strives to make sense of the world and relationships through the lens of fairy tales, questioning, comparing, speculating. Corbett juxtaposes Bridie’s musings with the reality of her situation, conveyed through the harsh, albeit sensible worlds of her mother.    Meanwhile, Rhys grapples with his own demons. The only time he can cope with being in steerage is when he is on stage, telling Welsh fairy tales to a captive audience. Through the friendship that grows between Bridie and Rhys, Corbett explores the healing power of fairy tales, a release as much for the teller as the listener.

In one respect, The Tides Between is a vivid portrayal of life in steerage. The reader is there with the stench and the lice and the privy buckets. Just as she is unflinching when it comes to portraying the physical hardships onboard, Corbett casts a microscopic eye over the complexities of grief and shame, taboos and social rejection.

Despite its heartrending moments, The Tides Between is ultimately a story of redemption, transformation and hope.

“She had begun to treasure their moments together, like bright beads, slipping through her fingers and puddling at the bottom of memory’s purse.”

The Tides Between pulls the reader in two directions, the desire to continue turning the pages at odds with an equally a strong wish to pause and reflect on its various intricacies, its depth. The only difficulty faced in reviewing a book of this quality is putting it down long enough to scribe reflections. A work I would describe as literary historical fiction, The Tides Between, is a captivating and immersive read.

 

About the author

When Elizabeth Jane Corbett isn’t writing, she works as a librarian, teaches Welsh at the Melbourne Celtic Club, writes reviews and articles for the Historical Novel Society and blogs at elizabethjanecorbett.com. In 2009, her short-story, Beyond the Blackout Curtain, won the Bristol Short Story Prize. Another, Silent Night, was short listed for the Allan Marshall Short Story Award. An early draft of her debut novel, The Tides Between, was shortlisted for a HarperCollins Varuna manuscript development award. Elizabeth lives with her husband, Andrew, in a renovated timber cottage in Melbourne’s inner-north. She likes red shoes, dark chocolate, commuter cycling, and reading quirky, character driven novels set once-upon-a-time in lands far, far away.

BUY your copy here

Artefacts and other stories by Rebecca Burns

I’m delighted to share my review of Artefacts and other stories by Rebecca Burns

 

 

That dandelion. A flash of stubborn yellow in a dark box of space. It had promised sunshine but had tasted sour. Artefacts. A dandelion. A mayfly. A family, bereft. Items and mementos of a life, lived hard and with love, or long, empty, bitter. In these sharply drawn and unflinching short stories, Rebecca Burns unpicks the connection between the lives we live and what we leave behind.

My Review

The short story form is hard to master. There are many strictures and the word length alone demands taut and pointed prose. Few can manage the heights of Alice Munro. The reader waits for that release of breath as the author provides an astute observation or an elegant and original turn of phrase. Which is why, when I read this latest offering from Rebecca Burns, my mind was switched to critical.

Yet from the first, Burns satisfies the aspirations of the short-story reader, with sublime writing and masterful control, finely balanced with moments of apt poetry.

“She soothed his craggy face into easy, jelly smiles.”

And

“A quick tongue ready to cut through the fudge of clerical life.”

Alice Munro writes of everyday life in Canada. In a similar fashion, Burns turns her attention to the everyday lives of her characters, many set in the period of the world wars, others in the collieries of central England. All her stories are told with sensitivity and compassion. If there was one word to sum up this beautiful collection, it is depth, for Burns has plumbed to the nadir of her own self in the writing, at once never failing to miss a moment of irony. Highly recommended.

Find out more about the author  – http://www.rebecca-burns.co.uk/

BUY Artefacts and other stories

Call to Juno (A Tale of Ancient Rome Book 3) by Elisabeth Storrs

I am delighted to share my review of Elisabeth Storr’s Call to Juno, the third book in the Tales of Ancient Rome saga, which includes The Wedding Shroud and The Golden Dice. I haven’t read the first two in this series.

“Four unforgettable characters are tested during a war between Rome and Etruscan Veii.

Caecilia has long been torn between her birthplace of Rome and her adopted city of Veii. Yet faced with mounting danger to her husband, children, and Etruscan freedoms, will her call to destroy Rome succeed?

Pinna has clawed her way from prostitute to the concubine of the Roman general Camillus. Deeply in love, can she exert her own power to survive the threat of exposure by those who know her sordid past?

Semni, a servant, seeks forgiveness for a past betrayal. Will she redeem herself so she can marry the man she loves?

Marcus, a Roman tribune, is tormented by unrequited love for another soldier. Can he find strength to choose between his cousin Caecilia and his fidelity to Rome?

Who will overcome the treachery of mortals and gods?”

My Review

Call to Juno opens on a simple domestic scene, a mother watching over her squabbling children. A scene universal and timeless, yet one that is situated firmly in an Etruscan court. All the indicators are present, in the richly described and meticulously accurate details of the setting, the reader left in no doubt that she has been transported back to ancient Roman times. In this fashion the third in Storr’s series is staged, as Caecilia, a Roman treaty bride, helps her husband Vel Mastarna prepare for an important ceremony.

The reader is led through the details of the previous titles in the series with finesse. If at first the various characters are confusing, the story soon settles in and the drama plays out. The battle scenes are depicted in fine detail, themes of love, betrayal, fate and destiny deftly handled, and the characters carefully crafted and believable.

It is refreshing to read of Roman times from a distinctly feminine perspective, one that captures the intimacy of motherhood and domesticity as much as it does the political horrors of war.  Storrs maintains narrative control throughout, displaying that necessary skill of the historical fiction author, a deep empathy with the times she has chosen to set her work.

This is a story for those who enjoy their historical fiction rich with fine and accurate detail. Call to Juno is intensely visual, bringing ancient Rome to life, composed by an author who clearly knows her subject.

You can buy Call to Juno at Book Depository

And catch up with Elisabeth Storrs at her website – https://www.elisabethstorrs.com/

I would like to thank the author for my review copy

Charles La Trobe and my visit to the State Library of Victoria

It’s funny, the places a writing project will take you, especially when the project is historical fiction. Last week I visited the State Library of Victoria. I wanted to view the building, explore the library and talk with librarians. I didn’t allow sufficient time. I needed a whole day.

To start my little tour, I went to stand by the statue of Victoria’s first governor. Charles La Trobe is a member of the aristocratic La Trobe-Bateman family. He and his cousin, book illuminator and garden designer Edward La Trobe, both came to Australia in the 1800s, while the rest of the family remained in Britain. It was Charles La Trobe’s idea to have a public library built in Victoria. His statue depicts him in glorious fashion, the sculptor obviously wanting to appeal to the governor’s vanity. Other artists have been less kind, as can be seen on the front cover of his newly published biography, La Trobe: traveller, writer, governor,  composed by John Barnes, Professor of English at La Trobe University.

 

From my vantage beside the statue I took in the library in all its grandeur. It’s impossible not to be impressed with the building, designed by Joseph Reed in Roman Revival style. It was officially opened in 1856, although not in its current form. The building is constructed from Tasmanian freestone, replete with rounded arched windows, and Ionic fluted columns on the portico. I admired the checkerboard tiled floor, which seemed to mirror the chess games being played, large scale, out on the grounds.

Redmond Barry Reading Room
Redmond Barry Reading Room

Inside, the library was filled with readers. Most had their heads bent over a book. The cavernous room absorbed much of the sound but the room lacked the hushed quality I was looking for. I headed straight on through to admire the Redmond Barry Reading Room, a later addition to the original building. There too, every desk was occupied, but readers were more subdued and the magnificence and architectural uniformity of the mezzanine, and the glass-covered atrium, seemed to quieten the spirits. Here was not a room to rush around in, and my own footsteps on the polished wooden floor seemed overly loud!

 

I went next to the La Trobe Reading Room, my final destination, and where I sat for quite a while. The room felt higher than it was wide. Octagonal in shape, all the desks radiate from a central podium like spokes of a wheel. There were far fewer people about. I wondered if that had anything to do with the more austere atmosphere and less comfortable seats.  My photos, taken on my phone with the permission of security, scarcely do the room justice. I took strange angles as I was after images I could later use for descriptive purposes. Besides, I am not a photographer.

I didn’t want to take photos. It felt wrong. Instead, I wanted to go up and explore the books on the balconies. I wanted to run about, my head appearing in all those arches. I wanted access to all the parts of the building closed off, sometimes padlocked as if to stress the point.

I reigned in my urges and went back to the information desk in the first room. There I introduced myself to the librarians. What a fine complement of staff the library has! I made some inquiries and was given vital information for my book. Now I have more questions. I might do a guided tour and see if that gives me access to some secret places. Whatever the case, I shall return.

You can visit their website to find out more. https://www.slv.vic.gov.au/about-us/history-and-vision

My venture into historical fiction begins

I have a little announcement, and I’m feeling awfully nervous.
For the past few weeks I’ve been throwing obstacles in the path of this. I’m beginning the demanding task of turning my doctoral thesis into a novel. Well, sort of.
My thesis concerns a corpus, a body of obscure texts. My novel will attempt to embody the life of the author. Her name is Alice Bailey. She’s a highly controversial figure nobody outside New Age and conspiracy theory circles has heard of. Yet her writing has been enormously influential on the world stage and it is easy to show how. Her life is colourful and interesting too, with themes many will relate to, including domestic violence, elitism and exclusion, jealousy and malice.
What is challenging is that I am treading the controversial path of ‘faction’ – inspired by  Heather Rose’ The Museum of Modern Love, and Melissa Ashley’s The Birdman’s Wife, both prize winning books. I am indebted to the authors for tamping down the grass on this narrow rocky path, impressing us all with the results of their hard labours. I’ve reviewed both works and I have become so enthusiastic in my praises, the authors might be wondering ‘who is this nut who keeps liking my short-list announcements with “told you so” comments?’
In reviewing these works, it appears I’ve been set a high bar.
My story will be structured differently. There will be echoes of The Chemistry of Tears by Peter Carey, for mine is a frame story. I have chosen this approach as I want to tell a little of Alice Bailey’s legacy. Creating a narrative frame set in the present seems to me the only way to achieve this.
I have the title.
I’ve conjured a protagonist to put in the frame. I already love her to bits.
I’ve completed my research on the life of Alice Bailey. I have it all written up in a submittable draft, what I thought was a submittable draft.
I’ve storyboarded the chapters.
I am about to invoke the voice of Alice Bailey.
Nothing in my literary journey to date has been more daunting and more compelling than this project.
Will I pull it off? If I do, will anyone, other than me, be interested in this mysterious woman whose story has gone untold for many decades?
So here I go, bathers donned despite the cold, facing the choppy waters of historical fiction. Already, there’s a storm on the horizon.