Book review: Grasping at Water by Carmel Bendon

I do enjoy reading novels with strong mystical content. Especially when, as is the case with Grasping at Water, the author has profound knowledge of her subject.

About Grasping at Water

When a young, unidentified woman is pulled alive and well from Sydney Harbour in 2013, the connections to another woman – found in similar circumstances forty years earlier – present psychiatrist Kathryn Brookley with a terrible decision as the events of the present and past begin to mirror each other and the gap between truth and illusion shrinks.

When the young woman goes further and declares that she has lived continuously since coming to ‘understanding’ in the 14th century, her vivid accounts of life, love, childbirth, and loss in the Middle Ages seem so authentic that they test Kathryn’s scientific objectivity to the limit. As Kathryn delves she discovers that she is not the only one whose habitual assumptions about life have been torn asunder by an apparent experience of the miraculous in connection with the mystery woman.

My thoughts

Grasping at Water is an unusual book, possibly one of its kind. Told in the form of a mystery, what unfolds is so much more, as Kathryn, a traditional psychiatrist with all of the typical objectivist trappings of her job, is called in to assess a mysterious woman dragged out of Sydney Harbour. What unfolds will intrigue and fascinate the receptive reader.

The mystical theme is present early in the narrative through this mysterious un-drowned woman who eventually names herself Sophia (wisdom). The tales she tells at first mystify and puzzle, then reveal, slowly, fragment by fragment profound truths. Kathryn is at first reluctant and disbelieving, but her own prejudices are soon tested and she finds herself questioning her own rational understanding of the world. She notices coincidences, particularly of dates, the usual point of entry into the world of the unknown. From there Kathryn finds herself introduced to the anchoresses of medieval Europe immured in the walls of churches, and she is exposed to a feast of extraordinary knowledge as she grapples with her own life story.

Bendon deploys good pacing and plotting throughout, with believable and well-crafted characters. The protagonist, Kathryn, and the mystery woman, Sophia, are especially well-rounded. The style of prose is for the most part chatty and informative and easy to read. It is difficult to insert the theme of mysticism into the genre of a mystery and I commend the author for doing so.

The novel’s strength lies in the narrative control in the scenes exploring mysticism. The strange, mystical world Bendon portrays is utterly convincing, placing the reader right in amongst things. The insights into spirituality and mysticism contained in Grasping at Water are profound and important. Where else is the average reader to be presented with an engaging understanding of Julian of Norwich and anchoresses like her? I am reminded of L.J.M. Owen’s Dr Pimms’ series, in which the author draws on her extensive knowledge of archeology.

Grasping at Water is a story of loss, grief and acceptance, on one level a feel-good mystery to warm the heart. On a mystical level, here is a story of a rite of passage, one that will leave the reader questioning their everyday reality. A fascinating read.

 

You can purchase a copy of Grasping at Water on Amazon.

Find out more about Carmel Bendon here

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Book Review: Columbine’s Tale by Rachel Nightingale

Having read and thoroughly enjoyed Harlequin’s Riddle, the first in the Tales of Tayra series by debut author, Rachel Nightingale, it was with much anticipation that I opened the second, Columbine’s Tale.

“For three hundred years the travelling actors of Litonya roamed the land entertaining crowds, but secretly leaving devastation in their wake. Is Mina the only person with the power to stop them?

In the ethereal otherworld of Tarya, Mina begins to master the rare, inexplicable powers  attached to her gift for storytelling. She discovers she can touch dreams, influence the real world, and perhaps find out who is manipulating Tarya for dark purposes. In the waking world Mina is on the run, beset by divided loyalties between the travellers, and caught between two men she could love and a brother who desperately needs her help.”

My thoughts:

As with all series, the reader should have read the first Harlequin’s Riddle. In Columbine’s Tale a short prologue provides a concise and engaging summary for the purposes of catch up, with many useful reminders of the story so far. Columbine’s Tale opens with Mina on the run, determined to find her brother, Paolo, and this time, she believes she knows where he is. She’s being pursued, too. Thinking she knows who by, she’s in terror for her life as she tries to escape the clutches of the Gazini players who are determined to keep her. Then Mina encounters Sofia, a master story teller, and together with their team, the two travel the countryside and, through the power of telling stories, hand back dreams stolen by the players. Mina is determined as ever to undo the wrongs of others, and her quest leads her into increasing danger. Mina’s quest is thwarted by menace and betrayals and as the story unfolds, petal by petal, old betrayals are healed and new secrets revealed.

Through Mina and Sofia’s eyes, Nightingale portrays story telling as a gift, one that gives something to the listener, which she juxtaposes with the approach of the players who steal peoples’ dreams and hand them back to audiences as entertainment. But that is only the tip of this complex, intriguing and beautifully told novel.

Columbine’s Tale is told from multiple points of view and the main plot lines are carefully interwoven. The use of jump cuts works well as does the building of suspense, culminating in a dramatic edge-of-seat flourish and a denouement that leaves the reader wanting the third and last in the series.

Nightingale’s characterisation is impeccable, and with the fewest words she conjures a convincing three-dimensional cast. Descriptions are detailed and evocative, providing the reader with a powerful sense of place. Nightingale makes not only her imaginary Italy alive in the mind of the reader, but also her etheric realm, Tarya, in all of its layers and complexity. The prose is gentle, soft and acts on the psyche like balm. Tales of Tarya is a series to sink into and savour.

Nightingale plays with the fourth wall as Mina learns to tell stories from master story teller, Sofia, and here the reader is introduced to the craft of story telling and finding the heart of a tale from a special and mythic perspective. The metafictional element works and invites the reader to consider the true value of the narrative form.

Ultimately, Columbine’s Tale is about creativity and healing, of good versus evil, of the use and misuse of magical powers – the power to create and to destroy – and the all-important moral message underpinning the series, that creativity should be life-giving, not life-taking. In all a delightful and insightful read.

Here’s my review of Harlequin’s Riddle

Find the author, Rachel Nightingale here

Purchase your copy here

Review: Harlequin’s Riddle by Rachel Nightingale

Here’s my review of a sensational debut novel by Australian author and award-winning playwright, Rachel Nightingale. It might look like a YA fantasy novel, but don’t be fooled! Read on and discover why I am in rapture over this book.

“The Gazini Players are proud to present
For your Edification and Enjoyment
Tales of great Joy, and of great Woe

Ten years ago, Mina’s beloved older brother disappeared with a troupe of travelling players, and was never heard from again.

On the eve of Mina’s own departure with a troupe, her father tells her she has a special gift for story telling, a gift he silenced years before in fear of her ability to call visions into being with her stories.

Mina soon discovers that the travelling players draw their powers from a mysterious place called Tarya, where dreams are transformed into reality. While trying to solve the mystery of her brother’s disappearance, she discovers a dark secret to the players’ onstage antics. Torn between finding her brother or exposing the truth about the players, could her gifts as a story teller offer a way to solve Harlequin’s riddle?”

*****

It is a stark fact that for the last few decades the major players in the book publishing industry have chosen to be led by their sales teams, and commissioning editors must bow to their publisher’s bottom line. Editors may fall in love with a story, want to praise it from the rooftops, but they are stuck with having to tell the author the harsh truth that their sales department, not known for vision and decidedly risk averse, have deemed the work unsaleable. It happens time and again that a truly great work slips through the cracks and ends up – because it IS truly a great work – being picked up by one of the lesser known small presses. If you want to read excellent original fiction, hunt out works released by reputable small presses.

Harlequin’s Riddle is one of those books, for Rachel Nightingale has composed a work of remarkable vision and depth of insight, a work narrated in an accessible and enchanting style; gentle, inviting, sensory, like silk and gossamer. The pace is slow at first, but never meandering, and quickens at each plot point, as what begins as a quest evolves into a dark mystery.

 Harlequin’s Riddle is a story of illusion and make believe in art and theatre. The novel opens with Mina watching a travelling theatre troupe perform in her village as she misses her older brother, Paolo, who took off with a troupe a decade before, and never returned. She was seven when he left, and she’s seventeen when with her mother’s blessing she joins the theatre troupe in the hope of finding him. The reader is swept along on the aspirations, hopes and dreams of innocence, a false innocence for Mina’s childhood scars are many, and the grief and anguish and betrayal are buried so deep Mina is numb to them, until they surface and form a destabilising force, propelling her into understanding and ultimately wholeness.

Despite the fictitious setting, Nightingale paints an evocative portrait of medieval Italy with its rugged coastline, its quaint villages, forests and northern lakes. The author’s depiction of the theatre troupe with their colourful sets and costumes is vibrant and alive and enthralling, the reader provided a privileged view, looking over Mina’s shoulder at the other players and the audience. Much of the story involves the travellers journeying in their wagons to the Festival of Lights held in the large city of Aurea, and again, the reader is swept along for the ride as the troupe cope with various dramas and adventures along the way. There is much here to entertain every reader, young and old, the final quarter of the novel dripping with visual splendour.

On another level, Harlequin’s Riddle is less a tale of Mina’s quest to find her brother, and more a study of the nature of imagination and creativity, that curious moment of conjuring, bringing into being that which we inwardly see, and seeing that which we inwardly describe – words and pictures, which comes first? The creative process, at the moment of conception, differs between the arts and among artists, but always there is a point of manifestation and it is this that fills the pages of Harlequin’s Riddle.

Coupled with the theme of creativity and the creative process are ideas of spirituality and healing, the very quality we access when we transcend ordinary reality in creative imaginative acts, is also a powerful source of beneficial transformation and healing. Nightingale calls this multidimensional realm Tarya. It is what esotericists call the ‘inner planes’, and it is here that the deeper essence of Harlequin’s Riddle is apparent. 

Entering Tarya involves altering your state of awareness, undergoing an out of body experience, and engaging in astral travel. Tarya is the realm of the shaman, the magus, the trickster, the psychopomp. Here is a small taste of Tarya.

“A subtle buzzing of hidden energy surrounded her. She looked down on distant mountains, and nearby trees, and people, many people, and each shape glimmered with light, layer upon layer of light, blurring outlines of real objects. There were intricate spiderwebs laid across the whole scene, gold threads wrapped around and over everything.”

In the villages, the players are feared for it is known they have occult or arcane power, one that destroys as it sets out to give joy. Unlike the players, Mina has the gift of storytelling, and she accesses Tarya differently, going far beyond the realms accessed by the players, realms that are connected to the  living earth, to enter the purer planes of existence, where spiritual wisdom resides. This innate ability sets her apart, leads her into danger and ultimately drives her quest.

There is much to reflect on in Harlequin’s Riddle, and much to appreciate. Harlequin’s Riddle  is a story to lose yourself in, and can be read on many levels. It isn’t necessary to understand anything about the occult or arcani to appreciate the novel, although the astute reader will recognise Harlequin’s Riddle  as a transpersonal journey, one of initiation and healing. Nightingale has penned a unique and exquisite tale that deserves to be widely known, a story with a depth of awareness and understanding that will hold special appeal to those with an interest in alternative spiritualities. In the final analysis, Harlequin’s Riddle a work of intelligence and refinement that I can only compare to an Ursula le Guin, with overtones of Umberto Eco in theme but not in compositional style. A visionary fiction masterpiece.

Harlequin’s Riddle is available through all good booksellers.

Buy your copy here

Find Rachel Nightingale here

 

A Perfect Square – review by Suzanne Diprose

I’m delighted to share this thoughtful review of A Perfect Square by Suzanne Diprose.

This book held me captive as I read about the primary relationships between two different mothers and their daughters through time, different countries and challenges. It was intriguing to explore their particular journeys and tensions through life’s stages and the resilience of the relationships during these challenges and responsibilities. I can see shades of so many of us in these descriptive stories within the book.

The rich vignettes provide details that allow the reader to build an understanding of the characters, their backgrounds with its impact on their daily choices and selected lifestyles. The story engages you and the descriptions held so true.

We have visions of earlier inner city Melbourne, Sassafras and Dandenong Ranges, plus locales in rural Britain. When reading from my armchair I was transported to the UK or up the main street in Sassafras and right into the art gallery, garden shop, antiques shop and tea rooms.

As a local of the Hills I appreciated how Isobel depicted the environment, the early evenings and how dusk rolls in over the mountains every evening. Also Isobel’s words describe shades of people we rub shoulders with regularly up here in the hills. There are some great names to be on the lookout for – start collecting them as you read through! I kept diving back to see who would I meet!

The interwoven stories provide an insight into the essence of a creative and quirky soul with deep thinking, rich patterns, and concerns. Isobel is not afraid to outline the uneasy and challenging questions and parts of the mother and daughter relationships that span 30 or 40 years. A great read.

a perfect square can be purchased at the book depository, amazon and through all good bookstores. For a signed copy, contact the author via this site.

A Perfect Square coming soon…

There’s been a circularity at work in the creation of my latest novel, A Perfect Square, ever since the ideas first came to me in 2014. The essence of the story was formed out of my daughter Elizabeth Blackthorn’s Honours thesis in Music. Now that the book is written, Elizabeth has composed and recorded the music to go with it. A link to access her work will be included in the book. A Perfect Square will be released in 10 days. Meanwhile Elizabeth created this book trailer. Her mum is forever grateful 🙂 X