December: Initiations, curses, resolutions and a heatwave

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December was ridiculously busy. It felt like there was a Christmas morning tea or lunch on every other day. There were events to attend, catch-ups to be carried out, cards to write and send, and trees to decorate – and I still didn’t get around to honouring every social engagement. While it was in parts the Christmas season was very enjoyable it was also very rushed – I seemed to be always looking ahead to what needed doing instead of being a bit more present and enjoying the moment.

Of a weekend there were markets, meet-ups with friends and family, and an ever-growing list of mundane home-related tasks that required my attention away from work and the trusty laptop. So many, in fact, I wondered if there was time for sleep during the heady four weeks of December.

And then there was the heat – the unrelenting 30C-40C+ string of days that left us (pet friends included) wilting like old lettuce. Just this very evening – New Year’s Eve in fact – a thick mist has rolled in and cotton-balled our house, finally driving the temperature down a few degrees. We’re still sweating it out, but looking forward to ringing in 2017. If you’ve read this far – Happy New Year! May the next 12 months be all that you hope for (in my case that is, among other things, a lot cooler!).

As for New Year’s resolutions, I’m working on a few. Remember, if rats can learn basketball, then you and I can too!

Writing

I’ve been exploring the nature of curses (important research) and, as I have all year, the relationship we have with our ‘Good Neighbours’ aka faeries. My passion project has been penning a series of interlinked stories for a dark little novella that combines folklore and fantasy. Hopefully it works – my reader guinea pigs report back that they love it.

I’ve also been working on developing an outline for a cosy mystery, something that has been boiling away on the rear hotplate of the stovetop that is my brain.

I’ll be honest, I’m a very confident writer in the realm of non-fiction but when it comes to fiction I have always felt out of my depth. I have a major case of the ‘not good enoughs’. I think they call it imposter syndrome? Anyway, I don’t want to sound too whingey, I’ll slay my own dragons. I’ve never been a big believer in Writer’s Block, I think it should be renamed ‘Writer’s Apathy’, which is spot on the money. You can write your way through anything. Writer’s Anxiety, though, that’s another thing altogether!

Reading

Not so much of this went on as I would have liked, but I did need to fit in some sleep this month along with everything else. Here’s what I did read and enjoy…

Initiation by Ly de Angeles (Createspace) – A ripping read. You can peruse my standalone review here.

I came across a few more Rebecca Tope books, which I have now passed on to my mother. It turns out quite a few of my friends are also fans of her writing. So do yourself a favour! These two books form part of Tope’s ‘West Country Mysteries’ series and don’t feature Thea Osborne but one of them does take us back to Drew Slocombe’s earlier days:

A Death to Record (A West Country Mystery) by Rebecca Tope – Talk about your twisted love triangles! I really enjoyed this mystery, which followed Detective Sergeant Den Cooper’s investigation of a murder on the farm of a man who is now dating his ex-fiance. Awkward. All of Tope’s skills and experience come to bear in this book, which leverages her insights as a former undertaker and farmer (she really should have had a stab at policing as well, but she also explores that POV quite well regardless). A riveting read.

Dark Undertakings (A West Country Mystery) by Rebecca Tope – Working as a freshly minted undertaker must be challenging enough but what do you do when you suspect a death that has been judged a heart attack by a respectable doctor may, in fact, have been a poisoning? Tope loves to put her characters in difficult and often dire straits, and this novel is no different. Drew Slocombe follows his gut instinct and while investigating lays bare a string of family secrets in a small village.

The holiday reading pile beckons!

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My Summer Reading Pile…

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I hate being without a book to read. I hate it so much that when I’m commuting to work I usually have two or three stashed in my bag ‘just in case’.

So when the Christmas break approaches – however short it may be – I usually have a ready pile of reading matter stacked neatly next to my bed or stowed in my travelling case.

This Summer in no particular order I’ll be reading:

The Hanging Tree by Ben Aaaronovitch (Finally! Been waiting for ages…)
Dark Matter by Michelle Paver
Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye
The Good People by Hannah Kent
A Most Magical Girl by Karen Foxlee (The hardcover edition is seriously pretty!)
A Very British Murder by Lucy Worsley
Fashion On The Ration by Julie Summers (You can read my thoughts on Jambusters here.)

So you can see, a nice broad cross-section of fiction and non-fiction covering everything from ghost stories, crime, and war to fantasy, superstition and folklore.

What about you? If you have any good book recommendations I’d love to hear them.

Happy reading!

A Christmas Mystery…help me solve it!

I love old things, and I especially love collecting vintage religious icons – pictures mostly, things of beauty. Today, this very moment, I have just picked up my latest find and, dear reader, it seems to have a lovely little mystery attached to it…

On the back of this lovely gilded wooden frame (approx. 32cm high and 14cm wide) featuring an angel with a trumpet are the remnants of a letter written on 22 December, 192- to a Miss Owen, sent with warmest wishes and deepest thanks from a number of Japanese people. The year is partially obscured because the paper has been cropped at some point and glued to the back. The yellowing paper is delicate, probably too much so to pull the letter from the frame.

It reads:


My Dear Miss Owen,

We are sending you a Christmas angel with our warmest greetings and best wishes for the New Year.

Thanks for all you have done for us.

Cordially yours,

Clara D. Loomis                   Yoshii Masujama
Gingko Akatsu                      Kimiko Nemoto
Hide Asami                           Hisa Toyoda
Fusako Fukuzaura              Ayako Takeuchi
Katori Hashimoto               Shuko Kawayuchi
Miyoko Masuchi                  Fumi Odato
Yone Sugiri                            Kimmi Kitaori
Nobu Kawasumuru

So who is Miss Owen? What did she do? And who was the group that sent this beautiful gift to her?

I bought this piece from another collector in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, Australia, and she’s also none the wiser to its origins. I can only surmise that Miss Owen is Australian, but of course, she could easily be British, Canadian, Kiwi or some other nationality altogether.

I’m a little in awe of the synchronicity – a Christmas angel gifted to another has fallen into my hands almost 100 years later to the very day!

So do you know who Miss Owen is? Are you a relative? Do you know any of the senders? Can you help with the spelling of the Japanese names? I may have bumbled some of them as the legibility varies.

Drop me a line and let me know. A history mystery is the very best kind!

And may I take this moment to wish you and yours a Merry Christmas and a prosperous New Year in 2017.

Initiation – Book Review

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Initiation’ is a blisteringly raw autobiography that reflects not only on a personal journey but a fascinating social history of occult Australia.

Ly de Angeles is many things but readers of her books (or those for whom she has read the tarot) will know her as a witch and psychic, and a magical veteran of the antipodean witchcraft scene.

In print Ly comes across as smart and fierce and more than a little wild, with a disarming frankness whether speaking of politics or personal relationships. She’s a champion of Celtic history, a swordswoman and martial arts practitioner, and so much more. Forget the ‘Renaissance man’, Ly offers up an alternative portrait – one of a curious mind twinned with a strong and determined spirit, a scholar, a poet and a modern-day gypsy with a feverish passion for myth and life.

And life for Ly has been a series of initiations from girl to woman, woman to witch, witch to mother, mother to warrior, warrior to scholar – not that all of these passages have been mutually exclusive.

Underneath this story is a steady thrumming, an undeniable and potent energy pouring from the pages. There are many lessons to be learned here, and knowledge to be shared about birth, life, death and everything between and beyond. Predictions manifest, frequently. As do challenges. But Ly’s human too; making the same mistakes we all do, but learning from them as she finds and breaks with destructive patterns and partnerships.

Ly dispenses with the blinkers of convention and deftly explores the world’s liminal spaces and places, guided by intuition, ancestry and an animistic kinship to the natural world. ‘Initiation’ makes for an engaging memoir, certainly the best I have read in a long time.

* Did I mention she’s a Charles de Lint fan? She can do no wrong!

My Monday-Friday writing day

Can’t find time to write? Snatching at the coat-tails of the day? Me too.

I start early and finish late, but there’s no writing studio like the quiet carriage in the Blue Mountains train. A couple of hours snatched at either end of the working day is better than nothing. That would be between 6.30am-8.30am and 5.30pm-7.30pm!

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November: Book readings, Grammarly, novels and NANOWRIMO

 

 

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I don’t normally write by candlelight on an old typewriter – but when I do it’s with a wine glass balanced on top! Not a bad way to spend an evening. Pic: Tim Hartridge

 

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November was action-packed. And hot! I attended the Sydney Storytellers event at the Stoneleigh Hotel, an immersive installation set up in a historic building in Kensington Street, Sydney (renamed ‘Spice Alley’, for those in the know, and bursting with tasty, colourful eateries).

New Zealand-based Stoneleigh Wines was behind the venture and ensured the vino was flowing all night, complemented by a giant cheese platter. It was one of the hottest evenings I’ve spent in Sydney and there were many shiny faces as we tried to compensate for the humidity by drinking more chilled sauvignon blanc (perhaps not the wisest move, there was a slight hangover the next day). All in all, it was a brilliant night. Wine and writing, the ultimate pairing!

 

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Authors Anna Westbrook, Sulari Gentill, Alexandra Joel and Josephine Pennicott read pieces from their latest work while the audience waited to have books signed. Pic: Rebecca Lang

 

Writing

November means Nanowrimo, but despite my best effort, I didn’t quite nail those 50,000 elusive words. I blame work. And stuff. General tiredness. Sunshine and flowers. Distractions. Food. But it was still a pretty productive time. I was still writing and progressing my urban fantasy piece.

I’ve also been trialling Grammarly’s free Grammar Checker app. Occasionally it’s distracting, particularly when it tells me to change my words to American spellings (sorry American friends, for us it’s colour not color). On the whole, though, it’s a neat little tool that, I’m pleased to say, I don’t have to rely on too often – only when I type too fast and leave a litany of typos in my wake.

 

Reading

Some great books found me in November.

Superfluous Murder by Hazel Holt (Macmillan London) – I’d previously never heard of Hazel, mother of novelist Tom Holt, who wrote a series of books based around a village detective character not unlike Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple mysteries. Holt’s Sheila Malory is a slightly more modern, and younger, take on the elderly single female sleuth. The style is engaging and the twist/murderer reveal, while I picked it, would have been a pretty fresh take in 1995 when this was first published. I found this book up at my local train station book exchange for free, so I’ll be chasing up Holt’s other books online.

The Three Miss Allens by Victoria Purman (Harlequin Mira) – This is a story that spans generations and families with plenty of romance and history, not to mention a mystery! (Some unintentional rhyming going on there.) The book is set in one of my favourite time periods, the 1930s, and follows Roma Harris in the present-day as she moves to the small town of Remarkable Bay in South Australia. Roma runs into her distant cousin Addy who, like her, is bunkering down and taking time out from life. When the pair discover an old guest book with a family name they don’t recognise, they set out to solve a family mystery.

Wayward Pines trilogy by Blake Crouch (Thomas & Mercer) – It’s hard to convey just how much I enjoyed this series. As thrillers go, it certainly was a heart-pounding read. I actually had to put one of the books down as I was reading it in bed and knew with my heart rate skyrocketing the way it was,  I’d never go to sleep! I devoured the books in the space of 10 days, fitting in readings on train journeys and before bed. I’d recommend writers seeking to improve their pacing and sense of suspense use these books as a template for manipulating the blood pressure of readers. Now I’m hunting down the new Wayward Pines Fox adaptation starring Matt Dillon and directed by M. Night Shyamalan.

 

 

October: Bush sojourns, second-guessing and jambusting

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October was a relatively quiet month – I went camping with some friends, had a friend from interstate come stay, and did some exploring close to home. I love living in a national park, there’s so much to see and do here, it’s never dull. And Spring was springing all over the place – we chanced across some amazing waratahs in bloom. I also had a bit of home time and pawed through boxes of old books, some I’ve been carting around since I was 10 years old! Sadly the rats in the shed also enjoyed some of my books, turning my old paperbacks into true pulp fiction.

Writing

A bit of progress on the writing front with some short stories and a larger story arc. Sometimes it doesn’t pay to keep re-reading your work. Listen to all of those gurus who tell you just to purge the story from your mind before you set about reworking sentences and perfecting dialogue. The muses won’t linger…

Reading

October was a good month for books.

Dead Water by Ngaio Marsh (St Martins) – I love new reads but I compulsively pick up lots of vintage mysteries thanks to my local train station book exchange and the many antique and op shops I haunt on a regular basis. New Zealand-born Ngaio Marsh is one of the four original ‘queens of crime’ – the others being Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers and Margery Allingham. Dead Water starts off with a village miracle (or is it?), which divides the islanders. When a murder occurs, it draws the attention of Inspector Alleyn. A golden age whodunnit, we sort through the red herrings and suspects one by one before our killer gets the collywobbles and…well, you’ll just have to read it.

Pagan Spring by GM Malliet (Minotaur Books) – I am a solid fan of GM Malliet whose wit and beautiful writing make reading her Max Tudor novels such a delight. Max is a priest and ex-MI5 agent who left the grim work of a spy to pursue a spiritual calling. Thankfully Max is an Anglican (potential for wedding bells!) so the books include a bit of romance with the local pagan hippy shop owner Awena Owen. In Pagan Spring, a washed-up actor returns to Nether Monkslip and is later found dead. Max must investigate to restore order to his picture-postcard English village. Malliet is also the author of the St Just mysteries (which I’ve also dipped into) and a writer to follow. The first book in that series, Death of a Cozy Writer (we’ll forgive the American spelling just this once), picked up an Agatha Award. Let me quote the New York Times here because this pretty much sums up the author and her writing: “There are certain things you really want to have in a village mystery: a pretty setting, a tasteful murder, an appealing sleuth, a festive event, some eccentric locals, a dash of humor and maybe a nice map. G. M. Malliet delivers…” She sure does!

Jambusters: The story of the Women’s Institute in the Second World War by Julie Summers (Simon & Schuster) – For historians, historical re-enactors, feminists and Home Fires fans, this book is a must! Julie Summers’ history of the Women’s Institute and its amazing work during the war years in Britain is absolutely fascinating. There was nothing this army of women couldn’t do to keep those proverbial home fires burning while their menfolk were away fighting in the trenches. I can see why the book was the springboard for the equally engaging TV series Home Fires (sadly axed after two seasons). Julie is the author of many books including Fashion on the Ration, which is next on my history reading list.