Sunday, April 15, 2018

My reading for this past month...

I started this month by reading The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel by Deborah Moggach, a book that was previously published as These Foolish Things and was later transformed into the wildly successful movie. I was interested to see how similar the book was to the film and to note the differences.

First up, I should say that I enjoyed the book just as much as I did the film, although I note that, on Goodreads, not everyone agrees with my reaction. The basic premise is the same for both book and movie – a conglomerate group of ageing British folk settling into a 'retirement hotel' in India. The setting is similar, although it moves from Bangalore in the book to Jaipur for the movie. And for the most part, the mix of characters remains much the same. There's a character who dies, a couple who split up, and another character with a secret – but these story lines are moved to different characters for the film, no doubt to suit particular star actors.
I won't burden you with too many details, but I'm glad I made this little case study and I thoroughly enjoyed the read and then watching the film again. It's all part of my self-motivated, ongoing education as an author.

Next I read another book for my book club. Mateships with Birds by Carrie Tiffany is an award winning novel (including the Stella Prize). It has a rural setting and is about relationships between men and women (as well as being about birds) and, for these reasons, I should have enjoyed it, but I'm afraid I didn't. 

I believe the author deliberately explored everything that is ugly and unattractive about relationships and sex. No doubt this was a direct, post-modern reaction to romance novels (I know we are criticised for making life too beautiful and happy) but it wasn't done cleverly enough to impress me. Most members of our book club agreed.

Over Easter I wondered into a secondhand book shop in Yungaburra and found MyDear, dear Betsy; A Treasury of Australian Letters .This gem, compiled by Warwick Hirst, is quite, quite fascinating, with letters from Captain Cook and Convicts right through to Lloyd Rees (talking about the insecurity of an artistic life) and other 20th century notables.

But the letter that really spoke to me was from Banjo Paterson to the author Ethel Turner. As a child I adored Ethel Turner, who wrote Seven Little Australians etc. I read most of her books, including Family at Misrule, Little Mother Meg and my second favourite was The Little Larrikin.

I remember Ethel died when I was in Gr 4. Our teacher was Charles French, a WW1 veteran who’d been brought out of retirement because of a shortage of teachers. (He also owned the land that my high school at The Gap was later built on and was memorable because he was SO old.) When he asked us if anyone knew of a famous Australian who had died that day he was quite surprised that I knew (I’d heard it on the news) and had read her books. It was one of those moments from childhood you somehow never forget, when you realise you’ve made an impression. Mind you, he later sent me back to Gr 3 because I talked too much in class and I had to beg his forgiveness (sobbing) but that’s another story.

The above is just context for my appreciation of the letter that Banjo Paterson wrote to Ethel T about her book, which I think expresses sympathies we all understand  and just proves that feel good stories and happy endings will never go out of fashion.

Here's just a snippet of what Banjo had to say. 'For myself I candidly say I like the good old style of story – more beautiful women and finer men and more extraordinary things than one meets in real life – Stories where people don't have luck at the end annoy me.'

This month I've also reread the famous Australian classic, My Brother Jack by George Johnston. I'm mainly reading this as research to help my husband who, like Johnston, was a journalist and has written his memoirs, but is now exploring the possibility of turning them into a work of fiction. Johnston's classic is wonderful inspiration.

Right now I'm reading So Good They Can't Ignore You by Cal Newport, which is basically a study into achieving job satisfaction by working hard at your craft, loving what you do, and gaining control over your work.

And next up, I'll finally be rewarding myself with a book that I know will be luscious, moving and
beautiful. A regency romance – Marry in Scandal by Anne Gracie.

I hope you've had a great reading month. I'd love to hear your recommendations.

Monday, April 09, 2018

My love affair with autumn...

To Autumn

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close-bosom friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;
To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel, to set budding more,
And still more later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For summer has oe-r brimmed their clammy cells.

First verse from the poem by John Keats.

I have always loved autumn. I guess, being a Queenslander, I'm always relieved to finally arrive at cooler days after the long, hot summer. And John Keats's poem has always been a favourite since my school days. 
Seasons of mists and mellow fruitfulness... 

That opening line is so evocative, isn't it?

Here, in the Far North of Australia, our autumns aren't quite as Keats describes - we don't have apples or hazelnuts. But I live in the mountains, so we certainly have mists and we grow pumpkins and sweet potatoes (they count as gourds??)

  and we have a tree laden with  macadamias.

We do have afternoons where the sun still lingers, but now the days are shortening, I'm starting to think about making soups and about collecting fallen pine cones - they're such great firestarters.

And while your'e here, I thought I'd show you a scene of my favourite view (and tree), painted by a young cousin, Carmen Hannay. Check out Carmen's website Isn't she brilliant? Her work is diverse and gorgeous and she's just leaping from strength to strength.

My kids commissioned her to produce this painting for a significant birthday ( quite a few years back now) and I love it. Carmen really captured the whimsical feel of the landscape without ever having been here.

What's autumn like at your place? Do you have lots of gorgeous colour? Or what's your favourite season? I'd love to hear.

Friday, April 06, 2018

A favourite weekend breakfast...

I guess I'm lucky that Mr H is one of the band of happily retired guys who take an interest in cooking. This is especially handy when I'm sunk deep in writing and it is, no doubt, assisted by the fact that he also raises some of our meat, but I'll talk about that another time.

Today, I thought I'd share his favourite weekend breakfast. It's simple and delicious and probably not especially original, but it's so useful, I thought it was worth passing on. We call it an omelette, but it's certainly nothing like the delicate and fluffy French style omelettes you're served in a restaurant. I guess it's closer to a Spanish omelette, which we first encountered when we were on long service leave from our “real jobs” many (OK, let's be honest – twenty) years ago.
We still remember that wonderful concoction, eaten for breakfast in a pretty hillside town in the south of Spain – all sunshine and white walled houses with cats curled on doorsteps and distant views of the Mediterranean. That first omelette was served on a terrace and filled with thin slices of potato (probably fried) and accompanied by a glass of sherry. Yes, sherry for breakfast! When in Spain...

OK... I guess our omelettes are actually almost frittatas, but thinner, as we only use three eggs when it's just the two of us, although this can be expanded exponentially to feed as many as you like and spread into several pans. And they really are one of the easiest breakfasts to serve up to a horde.

 Basically, it's just a matter of using whatever vegetables are to hand. It can remain vegetarian, but is also yummy with a little chopped bacon or salami or cold sausage, or even smoked salmon.
Our staples are red onion and a chilli from the garden, plus whatever herbs are in season in the pots at our kitchen door. At the moment we have garlic chives and thyme. The chillies are fine even when they've started to dry and shrivel on the bush, by the way. They're not quite so hot, which is sometimes a good thing.

We often add capsicum or sliced tomato and Mr H loves to include capers and green olives, which really do add a special tang.

All this is gently fried. (Please excuse our elderly, battered frying pan. It still works! )

Then eggs are whisked and added. 

These are cooked gently in the frying pan until it begins to set and then popped under the griller with cheese on top to brown. Yummo!

This isn't a cooking blog, so I haven't set out a proper recipe, but I'm sure you get the idea. And after a substantial brekkie like this, (I should add that we don't need toast) we are set for the day!

Friday, March 30, 2018

My new book...

It's always a thrill for an author to see the cover their publisher has proposed for their new work. So much effort goes into the writing over many months and to see that effort encapsulated in a graphic image is quite momentous.

I'm pleased to say I'm almost always pleasantly surprised and never more so than recently, when I opened an email to discover this...

I love the beautiful blue of the water and the eye-catching splash of red on this cover. And I love that the figure in the foreground  is dressed elegantly in black and is a little mysterious. I think it perfectly matches the title, The Summer of Secrets, don't you?

I'm pleased to report as well that the beautiful lakes on the Atherton Tablelands where I live do play a role in this story.

And here's the back cover blurb.

Sydney journalist Chloe Brown is painfully aware that her biological clock isn't just ticking, it's booming. When her long term boyfriend finally admits he never wants children, Chloe is devastated. Impulsively, she moves as far from disappointment as she can – to a job on a small country newspaper in Queensland's far north.
The little town seems idyllic, a cosy nest, and Chloe plans to regroup and, possibly, to embark on single motherhood via IVF. But she soon realises that no place is free from trouble or heartache. The grouchy news editor, Finn Latimer, is a former foreign correspondent who has retreated after a family tragedy. Emily, the paper's elegant, sixty-something owner, is battling with her husband's desertion. Meanwhile, the whole town is worried when their popular young baker disappears.

As lives across generations become more deeply entwined, the lessons are clear. Secrets and silence harbour pain, while honesty and openness bring healing and hope. And love. 
All that's needed now is courage...

This story has been nagging at me for years, actually. For ages now, I've been wanting to write about a city journalist who finds herself working on a small country newspaper - part of a dying breed. But my muse can be a tricky creature. While she dangles carrots before my nose, she holds back on details, so I could never quite find the whole story.

While I was writing The Country Wedding, however, the character of Finn Latimer, editor of the Burralea Bugle took shape. I could see him quite clearly - tall, with shaggy dark hair and a lone wolf vibe - and by the time I finished that book, I was already a little smitten by him. I knew I had to find the rest of his story - and the characters who would join him. When a writer mate recently asked me about my new book, expressing hope that I'd given that sexy journo a run, I knew I'd made a good choice.

I'm so looking forward to sharing Chloe and Finn and the rest of this new cast with you. In the weeks to come, I'll come back here to blog in more detail about my inspiration for this story, about some of the research it involved and I'll give you a deleted scene or two, as well as extracts from the finished work. So check back, won't you? Or better still follow the blog by email.

The Summer of Secrets will be released on July 30th, but you can preorder it from Penguin Australia, Booktopia or Angus & Robertson

Ebooks will be released on July 25th, but you can also pre-order.

Oh, and a reminder that my short stories Meet Me at the Teahouse and Coming Home are both FREE at all ebook stores. These links will take you to but they are at iTunes and Kobo as well and they're just the right length for reading while you put your feet up with a cuppa.

And on a side note, if you're looking for foodie inspiration, I love this blog Cookie and Kate. I'm not even vegetarian, but Kate's recipes completely inspire me to create all kinds of delicious salads and soups and dishes with lentils etc. Just gorgeous. Even my carnivore hubby is impressed.

Monday, March 19, 2018

My home on the hill...

It's been a season for anniversaries. March is my birthday month, but this year, March also marks twenty years since a publisher rang offering to buy my first book. And it's also thirteen years exactly since we bought our little place on a hillside in the country.

This is a glimpse of how our home looks these days. But it was quite different at the start.

At the time of purchase, the dwelling was little more than a shed on a bare hill with a lovely view and we only thought of it as a weekender. Perhaps we should have known we would fall in love with living in the mountains and we'd want to move here full time.

Back then, at the start, when we returned to our city apartment, we hurried straight to the library to take out books about gardening and landscaping. We knew the Tablelands' high rainfall and volcanic soil were ideal for gardening - but among the first books  we devoured was one about making dry stone steps and walls. We were immediately entranced by the idea, and my husband raced off and bought some of the necessary tools, almost before we got anything else - even a spade!!.

I have always admired the work of EdnaWallingwho was a famous Australian landscape designer.
was very fond of country style cottages with leafy natural gardens and her designs nearly always involved the use of stone in walls and steps and paths.

I can't show you a picture of Edna's work without invading copyright, but our aim was to create something simple and rustic, not unlike the pic above. At the same time, Elliot and I began transforming our shed into a cottage - with the help of a builder, of course. We had fun scouring through secondhand shops and demolition yards, finding old windows and doors to give our home that nostalgic country feel. 

And we also followed up on the urge to make some dry stone steps. We were raw amateurs, of course, but here are some pics to show you how "we" went about it. :)

The picture above is of Elliot digging out the site. I was very impressed by how professional he was, using stakes and string to mark the area! And then, laying the first, all important stone.
I was foreman and chief photographer - which meant I worked out which stones went where, I carried them to the site and shovelled the sand that was used to build them and generally bossed my poor hubby around. We erected a tarp to keep the site shady while we worked.

Here you see where the steps fit into the general scheme of things here - part of a bank that we hoped would one day be covered with interesting plants - and that gorgeous view in the background.

And this is the original, final product, which looks pretty higgedly piggedly but we were insanely proud of ourselves. We hoped would look so much better when the banks on either side were planted up with greenery to soften the stones. We christened the steps that evening by sitting on them and having a glass of wine while we watched the sunset. Unfortunately, while the jacaranda planted at the foot of the steps grew quickly, it fell victim to Cyclone Larry.

And as you can see from these photos, over the years, the garden has indeed taken over, so these days it's more about subtracting and cutting back than planting.

Since the step building project, we've discovered the wonderful Jana, an amazing young woman who laid the rest of our stone paving and built this retaining wall. 

I'm afraid Jana was a tad dismissive of our less than professional steps – but we still love them. And I think dear old Edna might have approved.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

What have I been reading?

I started this month by re-reading one of my favourite books from 2017. When we were planning our writing retreat, one of my author mates, Marion Lennox, proposed that we discuss this book, and I was more than happy to dive in again.

I found Eleanor Oliphant is CompletelyFine a refreshingly different story, with a wonderful character I could easily empathise with, even though her life experiences are miles from my own. Despite being severely handicapped by her past, Eleanor has a wryly humorous and perceptive take on the world, which I and my friends all enjoyed.

Mind you, some members of our group were not as enamoured with Eleanor as I am. One fellow romance author found the story too dark. And yes, there is a very dark undertone. Another felt that some of Eleanor's reactions were out of character. But one thing we all agreed on was the brilliance of the writing and the appeal of the character Raymond.

I'm sure Gail Honeyman deliberately broke every convention of the romance genre when she created a computer nerd hero with a soft tummy and cigarette breath, but we are all romance writers and every one of us loved him, despite these flaws. I know a huge number of readers have already enjoyed this book, and if you haven't read it, I strongly recommend it.

The next book I read was also in preparation for our writing retreat. I was tasked with heading a discussion on author anxiety. Yes, alas, our dream job isn't completely stress free.

I found this book fascinating as it explains the science behind what's actually going on inside our heads. I learned about the instinctive reactions of the amygdala – which would explain my behaviour if anyone near me is foolish enough to put a plastic bag over their head – and how these impulses can be quite separate from the activity in the cortex where all our thinking and worrying happens. In fact, I found a better understanding of these “mechanics” could be quite calming.

For me, the very best thing about this book was that suddenly all the advice about meditation, regular exercise and a good diet (the advice we hear all the time and think yeah, yeah..) suddenly had a fresh impact. The book explained the scientific reasons why these virtuous activities work. It also gave helpful strategies for dealing with quite specific problems. One thing that really resonated was the suggestion that we should actively work to replace familiar worrying thoughts with “coping” thoughts. Worth a try, I reckon.

By coincidence, the next book I read was about a neurosurgeon. I read this for my book club and I've found that a great thing about being in a book club is that it pushes me to encounter books I might never normally pick up. And often (not always) I'm pleasantly surprised.

When Breath Becomes Air is a memoir and it's a sad book. There's no getting away from that. From the start we know that the author dies and that this is a story about his youth and hopes and then about his experience of dying. But what sets it apart is the power of his writing and his message. Paul Kalanithi didn't merely study medicine, he had degrees in Literature and Philosophy from Stanford and Cambridge. If he'd lived, he'd hoped to become a full time writer in the second half of his career. So he brought incredible word power and deeply profound thinking into play as he wrote about his situation.

For me, the simple but inspiring message from this book is that none of us knows how long we have to live and, by example (by extreme example in his case), Paul Kalinithi shows how to make the most of each day and to not waste our talents.

I don't usually read back to back non-fiction books, unless I'm researching for one of my novels, and I was about to slip back into fiction when Michelle Douglas distracted me on Facebook with a post about this book – The Year of Less.

I had heard the idea of a year without money on Radio National and was totally intrigued. It reminded me of the hippie movements of the sixties, but with a new, anti-materialist slant. Since moving to the country, I'd been conscious of spending much less on going out to restaurants or movies and the theatre, and although I sometimes miss these things, on the whole I've embraced the alternatives, which mostly involve having friends over to dinner, or singing in our local a capella group.

So, I couldn't resist taking a peek at Cait Flanders's book which outlines how she spent a whole year without spending her hard earned cash on anything more than basic necessities. Cait had already managed to clear her huge credit card debt and to lose 30 pounds in weight and during this particular year, she also massively de-cluttered her house. For a twenty-nine year old, these were impressive achievements and she's certainly got me thinking about my (sometimes impulsive) spending habits.

Now, I'm looking forward to returning to fiction and to Lucy Diamond's The House of New Beginnings. I discovered Lucy Diamond during the Christmas holidays and she quickly became a firm favourite. 

I think this is the fifth book of hers that I've read now and I know I'll love it. Simple chick lit, with lovable characters and cleverly written. 

So what about you?What are you reading? I'd love to hear.

Monday, March 05, 2018

Writing retreats...

I am lucky enough to belong to a group of authors who meet each year for a writing retreat. We've been doing this for eleven years now and we just feel so lucky to have found each other.

This started when a couple of authors in Victoria decided to invite fellow romance authors who were isolated and who might benefit from the chance to connect and share. Wasn't that big hearted of them? Here's a pic from last year when we celebrated ten years of friendship. Yes, a little wine is involved in our gatherings, although less and less as we get older. :)

Our group has members from all over Australia and even a New Zealander. I live in Far North Queensland, I have very little chance for regular face to face contact with other published authors in my genre, so I was thrilled to be invited.
Of course, the venue helps.

For the past five or six years, we've chosen Coolangatta, as we can have inspiring beach views and a range of shops and cafes in easy walking distance, as well as swims and/or beach walks for those all so necessary between writing  refresher breaks. Also, there's an airport with direct flights for all of us. Bonus!

So what do we do on these retreats? Just write? Well, no. There's plenty of writing that gets done, for those who need or want to, and lots of brainstorming too - either helping each other to flesh out new ideas, or to tussle with plot holes or other knotty issues. But we also have quite a businesslike agenda with other writing related issues to discuss and share.

Among this year's topics, for example, our topics include a book discussion (like a book club); publicity and promotion; getting rights back and self publishing; estate planning (tricky for writers with royalties trickling in); useful pointers for giving workshops; websites and associated tools; dealing with stress and anxiety (no job, no matter how idyllic it looks from the outside, can be free of this). So you can see, we're quite professional.

And then there's the friendship factor... over the years we've come to know each other very well, sharing the ups and downs of each other's real lives (as friends do) and that's invaluable, isn't it?

For me, the final bonus is that I have family in SE Queensland and I often get a little bonus time with them as well. Here, I'm cuddling the latest family member. Isn't she gorgeous?

Meanwhile, at home (back at the ranch, ha, ha), my husband continues to care for the little granddog we're babysitting, taking him for walks along our drive (on a lead because there are dingoes about) and generally spoiling him. How could he help it? Louis is so cute. :)