September: Spring, gardens, and Ben and Elly’s bookageddon!

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Spring in the Blue Mountains is quite the occasion. The European plantings explode into leaf and bloom, creating a riot of colour amid the ever-present blueish haze that inspired the area’s name. I took the opportunity to visit the Leura Gardens Festival and it was…bloody freezing! But beautiful. And, in the case of Blue Vista (pictured above), quite breathtaking. Great weather for bulbs. And hot chocolate, soup, cake and wood fires.

Writing

Not so much. You’ll see why.

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Reading

September was indulgent. A HUGE reading month. Lots of Elly Griffiths and Ben Aaronovitch goodness! Talk about a binge. This is what happens when, in the winter months, the weather is nippy and you’re stuck inside with online access to your bank account and numerous online bookstores. Several weeks later the bounty arrives. Bookageddon!

The Elly Griffiths books – I love the Dr Ruth Galloway series. As a one-time archaeology student and crime novel fan, the series is a delightful fusion of all the things I enjoy in a suspenseful read. There’s even a bit of illicit romance and some pagan hijinks. And the body count is especially high given all of the neolithic remains littering Galloway’s Norfolk neighbourhood. Rather than give a rundown of every title, I’ll just say that as a series, there is a strong ensemble cast, the characters mature nicely as the books progress, and the plots have a wonderful mysterious-verging-on-the-supernatural edge. Fans of Phil Rickman will especially enjoy the series.

The Ben Aaronovitch books – As you get older you can convince yourself that you have found all the good writers there are to find, and you’ll never, ever, ever feel passionately about another writer’s work again. Hah! I had Aaronovitch’s first book in his Rivers of London series on my wishlist for a long time. A really long time. I finally bought it and sat it on the shelf for an equally long time, mostly because my dear friend Erina had read it before me and loathed it (although her sister loved it). Hmmm. I was torn. Eventually one week I ran out of other books to read and Rivers of London made the great train journey east with me on a foggy Monday morning and – shazam – I had a new favourite. The books catalogue the adventures of PC Peter Grant, who stumbles upon a world of wizards and magic sitting cheek-by-jowl with urban London. Peter, and policing, will never be the same again. I quickly snapped up the rest in the series and zipped through them like a packet of Tim-Tams. Ahhhhh.

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August: Welsh border, neo-gothic mansions, ghosts and gnomes

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I spent three glorious weeks in the UK from July-August so a bit more of that here, not least because I went on something of a book-buying binge. I also visited a lot of sites along the Welsh border featured in the books of Phil Rickman (thanks John), whose writing I have been reading since I was given a book review copy back in the mid ’90s by a work colleague at my old haunt, The Canberra Times.

I’m an affirmed anglophile and always enjoy my UK trips, crammed as they are with visits to old buildings, museums, bookshops and  wild, out-of-the-way places. Even my UK friends marvel at the catalogue of places I fit into every visit, inspiring them to venture further afield in their own country.

This trip included a spontaneous visit to the set of Broadchurch (thanks Kara and Julian), sojourns to neolithic stone circles including the Nine Ladies (thanks Caitlin), Stanton Drew (thanks Gordon), Arbor Low (thanks Lisa), and the Rollright Stones (thanks Carl and Sue), a trip to the Scottish Highlands (thanks Denis and Tania), a long-awaited visit to Talliston (more on that separately) as well as some of my favourite book haunts: Treadwells, Watkins, Atlantis, and the many shopfronts in book town Hay-on-Wye. My friends were generous with their time and enthusiasm, sharing with me their favourite local destination. And it was lovely to enjoy so many home-cooked meals instead of the usual holiday menu of takeaway food.

Writing

I had the pleasure of spending some writing time in a glorious neo-gothic manor in Dorset, but honestly the views were so distracting it was more fun poking around outside and later inside, exploring all the rooms as I had the whole place to myself. This also meant that it was slightly unnerving as the sun set, especially when I realised all I had for security was a flimsy chain on the door. Eek!

Travelling with the laptop also meant that I forgot to write some postcards. Don’t get me wrong, I bought plenty of them (an old habit in the event a camera malfunctioned or *retro reference* I ran out of film) I just didn’t send any, so I have a nice pile of images – castles, seals, hares and stone circles – for my collection.

Reading

September was another quality month for books. I always read a lot more than what I share on the blog, I just pick out the gems. I don’t see the point in reviewing books I didn’t like – why waste my time and yours?

The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches by Alan Bradley (Hachette) – If you haven’t read Alan Bradley’s wonderful Flavia de Luce mystery series then you really have something very special to look forward to. Set in the early 1950s, Flavia is the youngest child of a gentrified family, and an aspiring chemist with an obsessive interest in poisons. The disappearance of Flavia’s mother Harriet when she was a baby looms large for this junior detective who, along with solving murders, discovers tantalising tidbits about her own family mystery as the series progresses. There are some wonderful supporting characters – I particularly love ‘Dogger’, the war veteran and manservant of Flavia’s father whose presence is as much a part of Buckshaw as the memory of Harriet. The Flavia de Luce mysteries are must-reads.

Moon Over Soho by Ben AaronovitchMoon is the second book in the Rivers of London series and as good as the first, and has magician PC Peter Grant tracking an unknown killer stalking jazz musicians in the streets of Soho. Told in a narrative style, the story zips along thanks to witty dialogue and plenty of action. Being a policeman’s hard work, but being an apprentice wizard is a lot harder! There are at least five books so far in this series so plenty more books to enjoy!

Shadows in the Cotswolds by Rebecca Tope (Allison & Busby) – Rebecca Tope is a favourite author of mine. Her Thea Osborne series follows a young widower and some-time house-sitter as she takes on housesits across the Cotswolds in the UK with her loyal hound Hepzibah. Inevitably Thea or someone she knows stumbles across a dead body, and this book is no different – this time the corpse, a neighbour she met only a few hours earlier, turns up in the garden of a home she is looking after. Dog-lovers, those in the thrall of the Cotswolds, and dedicated cosy mystery fans will enjoy the series (12 books and growing). Thea’s own personal romantic and family relationships ensure character growth, and there are plenty of tricky social situations interwoven with each mystery to keep things interesting.

Ghosts: Mysterious Tales from the National Trust by Sian Evans (Pavilion) – What else do you read when you’re staying alone in a neo-gothic manor house? Although I confess I ended up swapping this for my Rebecca Tope novel, and revisiting the scary stories during daylight hours. Yeah, I know – wimp! But I really needed a good night’s sleep while travelling. Anyway, it’s a lovely read with some suitably atmospheric shots of National Trust properties. It reminded me of Living with Ghosts: Eleven Extraordinary Tales by Prince Michael of Greece, which is full of infrared photographs of lovely old (and ghost-ridden) European castles and buildings.

Gnomes by Rien Poortvliet and Wil Huygen (Abrams) – I ended the month discovering one of my all-time favourite childhood books (borrowed but never owned) in a secondhand shop. Gnomes is based on Poortvliet and Huygen’s ‘scientific observation’ of their local gnome population in Holland. Beautifully illustrated, it was a book I coveted as a child, so driven by a wave of nostalgia, I snapped it up. It’s as gorgeous as I remember. So gorgeous, and loved, the publishers reissued a collector’s edition in 2011.

July: Midwinter rites in Tasmania, UK trippin’, and a good month for murder

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It was a busy month as I headed 40-degrees south (to Tasmania) for the annual Huon Valley Midwinter Festival sponsored by MONA and held at iconic The Apple Shed. I’ve been going to the event since it kicked off three years ago as an offshoot of the month-long Dark Mofo Festival during June in Hobart. The Midwinter Festival features Morris dancing, wassailing, costumes, brilliant bands and plenty of high-quality locally produced food and drink (my favourites include Willie Smith’s Organic Cider and Moo Brew). It’s a great weekend, and this year I convinced a group of fellow mainlanders to come down. They enjoyed it so much I expect to see them there next year as well.

Of course my Tasmanian sojourn was just the start of a lengthy break I really needed. Next stop, London!

Besides my usual slew of bookshops and some friends to drop in on, my itinerary was pretty much a case of pin the tail on the GPS, and saw me stopping over at places en route to other places. First stop though was Oxfordshire to stay with some good friends and acclimatise to the English summer (ha!). It turned out to be a scorching 35C and the hottest day on the English calendar!

I spent some time exploring some villages in the area including Hanwell and Banbury (well, Banbury is technically a town). Y’know, ride a cock horse to Banbury Cross? Well I didn’t quite do that but I did visit a statue of the lady who apparently did! I also drove to Cheshire and visited Alan Garner’s neighbourhood and walked the beautiful forest of Alderley Edge and had a cider at the Wizard of Edge pub. You’re more likely to see a WAG (wives and girlfriends of rich football players) in the Alderley environs than a wizard or King Arthur himself, but it was fun to walk the landscape that fed Garner’s imagination when writing The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath. For the record I can’t quite bring myself to read Boneland, the third in the trilogy…I don’t want to ruin the high the first two books gave me! Then it was off to Edinburgh for the weekend to catch up with more friends and enjoy some nice walks around the city (and some more pubs).

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Writing

Nil writing – at least I’m honest! There was far too much driving and socialising going on to retreat to my keyboard for anything more than proof-of-life emails home and a bit of social media.

Reading

Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch – Well this is the start of something good. I’m now ridiculously addicted to following PC Peter Grant’s wizarding adventures all over London. And thanks to this music video, I can’t but help picture Peter as being played by the handsome and supremely talented young comedian Ben ‘Doc Brown’ Smith (who, in a nice crossover, for me anyway, had a starring role in the Phil Rickman Midwinter of the Spirit TV adaptation in 2016). Word is some kind of TV series might be in the offing. Let’s hope so! In the meantime, I have several more books to read…

A Good Month for Murder: The Inside Story of a Homicide Squad by Del Quentin Wilber – A real life fly-on-the-wall true crime read that follows the threads of 12 separate homicide cases from the perspective of one busy homicide unit in Prince George’s County. It was an eye-opening read for me, even as a former police rounds journalist, and offered a unique perspective. Camaraderie and commitment are the two main themes that are woven through these stories – the mateship of the detectives and their unwavering dedication to solving the crimes on their patch.

I also dove deep into a pile of True Detective mags this month courtesy of my local stationmaster, who happened to be dispensing with his private stash. Freaks, the pair of us. I’ve been a fan of the mag since my early teens, when I bought my first copy in a UK paper shop while on holiday. Disturbing reading!

Speaking of disturbing, I also read this online collection of creepy phone calls – how unsettling! Deliciously so…

June: Winter Magic, classic crime and folk traditions

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June in the Blue Mountains is a cold affair, but that’s why we love it. Come the Winter Solstice, Katoomba hosts its annual Winter Magic festival to cheer us all up and remind us that it’s all downhill after that (which is not strictly true by the way, some of our coldest days have been recorded after the shortest day/longest night). It’s a brilliant day out and the population of K-Town swells by several thousand as people turn out – many in costume – for the poet’s breakfast, market stalls, bands, and street parade. I always tour the stalls, grab a hot chocolate at The Paragon then watch the parade pass by. Some years I end the day with a glass of red at The Carrington and catch the fireworks, other years (like this year) I retreat home to put my feet up with a good book and a Milo. I love the cold weather but I don’t love being cold.

June is also when the charming Rick Rutherford puts his tinsel out for the first of two annual Christmas decoration previews, which consist of wine, nibbles and first dibs on his latest glittery sparkly seasonal stash of wreaths, candles, pictures, figurines, baubles and kitchenalia. It never disappoints and over the years I have dragged various relatives and friends along for the retail ride to his Lawson shop. So yes, Christmas DOES come twice a year here or as I prefer to call it for seasonal reasons, Real Yule (June) and Faux Yule (December).

Snow fell – whoohoo! Living in the Southern Hemisphere, I get very excited about snow. It never hangs around long enough here to be a major inconvenience and it makes the ‘hood look like Narnia for 24 hours which, for a C.S. Lewis fan, is immensely exciting. Fortunately, we have a decent supply of wood on hand so the slow combustion has been going 24/7 to keep us warm and cosy.

In other excellent news, a proper full-length series of MC Beaton’s Agatha Raisin starring the amazing Ashley Jensen was announced and debuted in the UK. The ABC must have heard us Aussies whingeing because news swiftly trickled through that Aunty had purchased the cosy crime series and it would air in Oz at a future date. Oh jubilation!

And two cats joined the household – Puck, a black one-eyed wonder, and Ash, a topaz-eyed grey brindle – much to resident feline Grimalkin’s surprise. The three are quickly becoming inseparable. It pays to have close, cuddly, furry friends in this weather. Am I a crazy cat lady? I don’t believe so, surely that’s five or more…anyway, all of my boys have come from the Mini Kitty Commune, a brilliant Sydney-based charity run by the indomitable Mel and Derek and their many loyal supporters. Support them if you can, they really do restore my faith in humanity.

Writing

I did get quite a lot of writing done this month – must be the proximity of my favourite writing desk (the kitchen table) to the slow combustion fire. I’ve been plotting, planning and very slowly writing a string of interconnected short stories that will result in a novella-length book. Well that’s the plan…

Reading

I read some fascinating articles including this piece by China Miéville on the savage violence of nature – very folk horror. And then there was this charming piece about ‘late-bloomer’ author Lilian Jackson Braun, who started writing at age 53 and published a string of successful books about a feline detective, a Siamese cat named Kao K’o-Kung, and his human sidekick Jim Qwilleran, a hard-drinking journalist.

Meanwhile, in the book department…

Traitor’s Purse by Margery Allingham This book is one of a crime series following the exploits of Allingham’s protagonist Albert Campion. First published in 1941, it’s feeling every one of its 75 years since publication. Albert is suffering amnesia and is niggled by the feeling he has forgotten something very important (in this case he’s on a mission to avert an internal act of terrorism on the UK economy, he just can’t recall it for most of the novel). There’s also a love triangle, lots of Sinister Men, and a secretive Mason-like order holding sway over a small village where most of the story is set. To be honest it was a slog to read it but I must have liked something about the story because here I am reviewing it. Allingham is one of the four ‘queens of crime’ and she does keep the action pulsing if nothing else. I would love to watch an old movie adaptation of this story but alas none was ever done. Drat!

Death and the Lit Chick by GM MallietMalliet is a favourite author or mine. Her crisp, clean and clever prose is well-endowed with humour and a pleasure to read with well-drawn characters who are (when they’re not being killed off) a lot of fun. This is the second book in her St Just series (the first was Death of a Cozy Writer), and kills off a rather annoying chick lit writer at a writers’ conference. One can’t help feeling that perhaps this is a fond wish of many a writer! GM Malliet is a worthy investment of your time and money. I’m off to find some more books…

Arcadia Brittanica: A Modern British Folklore Portrait by Henry Bourne and Simon Costin – This is more coffee table book than solid read, but it’s beautifully photographed and captures a colourful part of English folk heritage. Photographer Henry Bourne travelled around to some of Britain’s greatest folk events and captured revellers in all their glory with pagan, historical and nature-inspired costumes, elaborately made-up and sporting impressive hairdos. It’s a rarely seen side of Britain, but one that should be recorded, celebrated and where possible preserved.

The Garden Awakening: Designs to Nurture Our Land and Ourselves by Mary ReynoldsI’d never heard of Mary Reynolds before until I chanced upon a book review in a Grass Roots magazine (at least I think that’s where I spotted it). Reynolds is a ‘reformed landscape designer’ and permaculturist with a bit of a mystical bent. Harking from Ireland, the land of the fey, she does weave some impressive magic in her gardens. I suppose you’d call this a sacred gardening book, which I certainly like the sound of – it would seem the ultimate conceit to suppose a patch of dirt is simply and only ever that. Reynolds encourages gardeners to develop a relationship with their land and tap into the ever-present energy and wildness. It’s thought-provoking, well-written and beautifully presented. An ideal gift for green thumbs.

Shifting deadlines, and ALLi in Oz

 

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Sometimes real life intrudes in unexpected ways, and the best laid plans…well, they just don’t happen. That was the second half of 2015 for me!

A house move, job change and hosting the annual family Christmas gathering pretty much cruelled all of my creative ambitions. I couldn’t see my way straight to settle down and meet my own writing deadlines when there were rooms to paint, boxes to unpack, and a menu to organise.

Blink.

And now it’s 2016, and the year is already well and truly advanced – it’s March already, Summer in the southern hemisphere is leaving us in a fiery, defiant blast with a string of days of 30C+ temps, while the shops try and sell us new Winter coats before we’ve even put away our swimmers.

One thing I have managed to do this year is settle in for a chat with the wonderful Sophie Masson (pictured), who approached me to talk about The Alliance of Independent Authors and my role as a regional representative.

I never quite worked up the nerve to actually tell Sophie I’m a big fan of her writing (I read Clementine and The Green Prince many, many years ago and loved them dearly). Since then she has published quite a few books spanning various genres, and been pretty busy behind the scenes as well participating in various publishing groups.

And here’s something I didn’t know about one of my favourite authors – she has been dipping her toe into the waters of digital publishing with an exciting new venture, Sixteen Press, her own e-publishing platform.

Anyway, to hear more about ALLi in Australia, and author-publishing in general, hop on over to Sophie’s excellent and charmingly named blog Feathers of the Firebird.

 

A nod to a contemporary ghost story

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It’s a long time between drinks here on the blog – I think I should rename this little corner of the Internet ‘The Inconstant Blogger’; a faithful online diarist I am not.

Anyhoo, just thought I’d break the drought and post a quick nod to one of my long-time favourite authors Phil Rickman.

I’ve been a fan for more than 20 years (yikes!) and I’m pleased to have watched the growing popularity of such a talented and exceptional writer who has gathered about him a passionate and very active fan base of readers.

His latest book, Night After Night, is classic contemporary ghost story fare by someone who knows his terror from his horror, and when to play up each element to full effect.

I’ve just posted my review over at Amazon.com. But for the lazy, here it is:

A tightly written, suspenseful ghost story with a twist, Night After Night leaves the reader questioning what’s real, and what’s unreal.

We’re quickly drawn into the cut-throat world of reality television, which serves as the platform for a ‘Big Brother’ style program that places participants – fading celebrities, skeptics and believers alike – into a so-called haunted house for several weeks in the pursuit of ‘great telly’.

Drawn into this circus are old-school spiritual warriors Grayle Underhill (journalist) and Cindy Mars Lewis (a cross-dressing shaman), two faces already well-known in the Rickmanverse as stalwarts of his ‘Will Kingdom’ novels, Cold Calling and Mean Spirit. By the by, if ever two characters deserved more than a couple of books, it’s the colourful Grayle and Cindy (and their associates).


Rickman skillfully weaves the many strands of this well-plotted story, which features, as always, the landscape as a character – in this instance the brooding Belas Knap, a nearby neolithic burial mound.


Nobody explores the foggy, grey boundaries of crime and the supernatural better than Rickman.

Bring on the next one!

Be warned, once you read one of Phil’s books you’ll be hooked, but it’s okay because Rickman has quite the backlist so you’ll be entertained for some time to come.

If you’re all up to speed on your Rickmans then head on over to your reviewing platform of choice and share the love. Reviews help sell books, and nothing’s sweeter than word-of-mouth endorsements.

And if you’re still hankering for a fix and want to keep your head in the spooky, dark Rickmanverse, I highly recommend joining and participating in the Phil Rickman Appreciation Society (aka PRAS, a Facebook-based fan group that PR himself visits from time to time). A friendlier bunch of book lovers with discerning musical and fashion taste you will not meet…

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Easter, anthologies and Amanita

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This weekend while everyone else has been looking for chocolate eggs in the tall grass, I have been busy trying to weave together stories for two anthologies I’m editing.

I have always enjoyed reading, and there’s something rather special about pulling together the work of other writers in relation to a particular theme.

Specifically, I’ve been tinkering with the adrenalin-pumping non-fiction tome Call of the Wild, and my creepy M.R. James tribute anthology of short stories, both of which have attracted some very high calibre offerings from both new and established writers.

And while my house has (rather unthinkably) been caffeine and chocolate-free, there have been bunnies aplenty – wild brown rabbits darting across in front of our car when we nipped out for a Saturday drive (no mean feat on the Easter long weekend when my neck of the woods becomes choked with cars heading east and west).

After the rabbits zipped by (egg-less, they must have already done the bidding of the Easter Bunny), I noticed we had stopped out the front of an old miner’s cottage, and the road had turned into a dirt track. In front was a magnificent old pine tree, and gathered around its roots like a colourful skirt were lots of Amanita muscaria, pretty red and white toadstools of the kind always seen decorating faerie bowers.

Sometimes the magic happens when you least expect it.