Archive for the 'Novels' Category

Book review: Return to Me by Lynn Austin

Return to Me (#01 in The Restoration Chronicles Series)

Return To Me by Lynn Austin (Restoration Chronicles #1)

This was the first of Lynn Austin’s books I have read. It is the first of her trilogy in the Restoration Chronicles. Having read the first one, I am sure I will read the following two in the series. I am particularly interested in the third book which features the life of Nehemiah, one of my favourite people of the Bible. The book of Nehemiah is one of my favourites in all of the Bible.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and will probably read more of her works in the future. This book is a fictional account of the first group of Jews to return to Jerusalem from captivity in Babylon. It is very true to the historical Biblical account.

The main character of the story is Zechariah. The plot follows his early life growing up in Babylon with all of the hardships endured there, including the pressures to conform to the social moralities of the Babylonian culture and religion, including astrology. The sudden change on the part of King Cyrus is greeted with great joy by the Jews in captivity, and plans are immediately made for them to return to Jerusalem to begin life anew in their home country. The author cleverly portrays the family conflicts which arise, with families being torn apart, some remaining in Babylon, with others leaving for the long journey home.

The reader is given an in-depth impression of the physical hardships endured on the journey and the subsequent struggles to establish themselves in Jerusalem and in the surrounding countryside. The author never shirks from also drawing out in depth the spiritual pressures placed upon this band of people, especially the constant exposure to the paganism and astrology of the neighbouring Samaritans. The stark contrasts between the Jewish faith and the faith of other people living near Jerusalem is explored in many ways in the novel.

Zechariah features prominently in this account. Towards the end of the story, we see him as the prophet whose book we read in the Old Testament. The author strongly portrays a young Zechariah in the early stages of his developing spirituality, and how he has a growing awareness of his special relationship with God. Austin never strays from showing the internal spiritual struggles of Zechariah, as well as his grandfather and mentor, Iddo.

I only have one little criticism: the frequent changes of point of view can take a little getting used to, but overall, this is a very well written and enjoyable account. The novel has one enduring strength: by being written as fiction, the author can draw each character in compelling and intriguing depth, while never losing sight of the facts of the historical foundations of the narrative.

Highly recommended.

Reflections on an old story

Australian Magpie

Australian Magpie

Memory lane

I have been having a trip down memory lane in recent days. I have been typing up an old story I wrote many years ago. In fact, the only copy I appear to have is a typed copy with 1989 on the title page. I was shocked to realise that this story was written nearly 28 years ago. It has languished ever since as one or two copies stored in boxes in our garage. The copy I am using was printed on an old dot-matrix printer. Remember those old clunkers?

Early computers

This story, called Magpie Farm (hence the photo of an Australian Magpies above and below), was typed on either a borrowed Commodore 64 computer or on the Amigo 500 I bought around that time. I can’t remember. I think that it was written during a school holiday break; I was a classroom teacher at the time. Those old computers were wonderful, and I learned so many things about the digital world from them. I still have the old Amiga – in working condition too, though I only fire it up every five years or so. Sadly, the old Amiga discs are not compatible with today’s PCs, hence the need to retype this story.

First novel

I am sure that this was my first attempt at writing a novel for children. At just under 10,000 words it is probably better described as a chapter book. I have since written several more novels for children, of varying lengths and subject matter. I am planning to prepare these for publication sometime this year. They will initially be in eBook format with print on demand paper copies also available.

Background to Magpie Farm

As I type up this story, I recognise many incidents from real life. The main character is a young boy who is afraid of magpies. Some Australian Magpies are notorious for their tendency to swoop people during the breeding season. The boy’s family move to a small farm and he is horrified that there are magpies on the farm. Some of the incidents I have included in the story are drawn directly from my own family’s experiences. A few years before writing this story, we also bought some acreage, though five acres (two hectares) can hardly be called a “farm”. We did have some sheep for a while; I’m not sure if that qualifies it as being a farm.

A problem

I have a serious problem with the story. Several problems, actually.

It is terrible.

Honestly – it needs some serious editing, rewriting and restructuring. The problem is that I have decided to be very strong as I type it up. I tend to edit as I type. This applies to most of my writing these days. The first draft is often very close to the final draft. I rewrite, edit, proofread and so on as I go. Not always, but usually that is my preferred writing style. This time I decided to be very strong and resist all urges to stop and rewrite, edit or change anything. Those steps will come later.

Why is it terrible?

As I type, I find myself wincing often. How could I have written such terrible prose? The dialogue between characters is not all that bad, but the rest of it is quite naive – almost childish. This shows up three basic things:

  • I have certainly progressed a long, long way as a writer in the intervening years.
  • There is much good material in the story which can be vastly improved.
  • I now know what is wrong with the story and the writing, and how to fix it; that comes with experience and heaps of writing practice (over 3 million words later, and counting).

Where to now?

I still have a few chapters to type up. Then I will spend a week or two rewriting whole slabs of the text to bring it up to publishable standards. Later will come the proofreading and copy editing stages before I send my baby out into the world. After that, I have two other longer novels written several years later and they will both need the same treatment.

Is it all worth it?

If the story as it stands now is so terrible in my own eyes, is it worth pursuing and putting in all that work? I believe so. I take this attitude, not because it was my first serious attempt at a novel, but because of feedback from readers.

  • At the time I printed out a number of copies and handed them out to friends. They all commented how good it was, and how much they enjoyed it.
  • I also read it to several classes I was teaching at the time of writing. I still have contact with many former students who remember the story well.
  • I was asked recently by one former student if I had published this story. He added that it had a profound, positive effect on him. It inspired him to become a writer. He has published some of his writing, he has participated successfully in performance poetry events, and he wrote and performed in a musical which was showcased last week at the Adelaide Fringe Festival. This festival is regarded worldwide as second only to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
  • Wow! I love feedback like that.

Stay tuned

I plan to publish this chapter book (novel?) in the near future, so stay tuned. The launch will be announced on this site, and it will be available through this site.

Good reading. Good writing.

Trevor

Further reading:

  • Trevor’s Birding – check out another blog of mine where I also write regularly about Australian birds. I showcase many of my bird photos on that site.
Australian Magpie

Australian Magpie

Australian Magpie

Australian Magpie

 

Book review: The Valley Between

THIELE The Valley Between HC

Book Review: The Valley Between by Colin Thiele, published by Rigby Publishing in 1981.

Biography

Last week I reviewed the official biography of Colin Thiele. You can read that review here. I found this biography to be very interesting and quite inspirational. Thiele was a prolific writer despite also being a full-time teacher and a much-in-demand public speaker. In his day, he was a much-loved author, particularly regarding his works for children of all ages. His new books were always eagerly awaited and sold out quickly. I believe that his writing is still held in high regard, though many younger readers have probably not heard of him. Even younger teachers may not be aware of the huge contribution Thiele made to Australian literature.

Inspired

After reading his biography, I was inspired to reread some of his works. I have a few in my own library, but for some titles, I had to go to my local public library. Not all of his books are available here locally, so I am grateful for the provision of interlibrary loans. (We have access to all the books held in public and some school libraries throughout our state of South Australia.)

The Valley Between

One of the books I choose to read was The Valley Between a novel for children set in the mid-north of South Australia in the 1930s. The valley in the title refers to the Barossa Valley about an hour’s drive north of Adelaide. This is a world famous wine region. Thiele grew up a short distance north of this valley. He was born in 1920 and so this book very much reflects his boyhood experiences and exploits. It would be interesting to know how much is from personal experience, and how much is from his very fertile imagination. This story roughly continues from his earlier and better-known novel, The Sun on the StubbleBoth were later adapted into a television series. Probably his best-known work is Storm Boy which later became a very popular film of the same name. A remake of the film is under way this year (2017).

Vignettes

The narrative of The Valley Between is mostly in short vignettes of the happenings in the life of the protagonist, Benno Schulz. Each chapter is an episode in itself, but the over-arching storyline follows Benno’s first experiences after leaving primary school. In those days, many children did not go on to secondary or tertiary education.

While each chapter can be read in isolation just like a short story, several characters appear in each episode, intersecting with the life of Benno as he grows up on a farm near the imaginary town of Gonunda. The town is quite clearly reflective of the town of Eudunda where Thiele grew up. There is a statue of Thiele in a park of the town.

German influences

Many of the characters in the story are descendants of the German settlers who came to South Australia in the 1800s. Thiele uses their distinct dialect, a mixture of English, German and mash-ups of both languages to great effect. He has even included a glossary of German words at the back. I, too, have the same heritage, so the language is easy for me to read. Contemporary readers may struggle a little until they get used to it. This is a small price to pay for reading this delightful story. Many incidents are laugh out loud moments as Benno gets into all kinds of adventures, both deliberate and inadvertent.

Descriptions

Colin Thiele is known for his rich descriptions of the environment in which his stories are based. His words sing with metaphors and similes which bring his settings to life. His wonderful characters come to life through his words and their sometimes bizarre actions and attitudes. While I have said that this book is somewhat episodic in structure, the narrative carries the reader on to the satisfying conclusion.

When I first came across this title in a list of his works, I thought that I had missed reading this title. On getting about half way through, I realised that I had read it, albeit several decades ago, possibly when it was first published. It is well worth tracking down a copy to read.

Further reading:

Colin Thiele

The importance of revising your writing

A love of writing

One of the reasons I am a writer is that I really enjoy the process of writing. I love the creative process that occurs when an idea pops into my head. It does not matter if it is a poem, a short story, a novel, a blog post, a non-fiction article or even an email to a family member, the same joy of creating is there. This joyful feeling is what keeps me going. It has enabled me to write almost three and a half million words in the last twenty-four years. It has kept me pressing on while spending over twenty thousand hours at my computer keyboard.

The unexpected creative process

One of the exciting things I find about writing, especially when writing fiction, is that I discover unexpected outcomes via the creative process. I might have a general idea of where the story is heading, I may even have a clear plan of the plot, when suddenly a character does or says something unexpected, out of character or just plain startling. The plot can take some bizarre and unplanned twists when this happens. I even find that my thoughts can be railroaded into a side-track when writing blog posts or other forms of non-fiction. It’s all very exciting.

A Problem

As fascinating as this is, such a sudden turn of events, or change of direction, or unplanned content to one’s writing can have a serious repercussion. The writer can get seriously off-track. A short story about a woman’s struggle with depression (yes, I have had one such story published) could take off in the direction of telling all the woes of her childhood. This is back-story; it is probably not necessary in a 2000 word story. In a 100,000 word novel – perhaps.

The importance of revision

I have discovered over many years of writing that revision is crucial to the whole process of the art, as is rewriting, editing and proofreading. I should write articles on all of these aspects of writing – and I probably have over the years. (You can find them by using those terms in the “search” box at the top of the page.)

In this article, want to focus just on “revision”.

What is Revision?

The process of revision can include the following:

  • Reading back over the piece of writing, checking for errors of fact, especially in non-fiction. It can also be crucial in fiction, too; you can’t have a character using a mobile phone if the story is set in the 1960s – unless it is a time travel story, but then, the phone wouldn’t work.
  • Correcting the wrong use of words, or constant repetition of words and phrases.
  • Recasting sentences which demonstrate poor grammar.
  • Checking for spelling mistakes and typos (though this is usually regarded as editing or proofreading, two other important processes of writing).
  • Deleting a sentence, a paragraph or even as much as a whole chapter which is unnecessary to the whole work. In one novel I wrote, I had to delete large chunks because it read like a travelogue and didn’t advance the plot.
  • Rearranging the order of sentences, paragraphs or chapters to create a more logical flow.

How other writers revise their work

I have included only a few ways in which one can revise your writing. There are many different ways of doing this important process. Each writer is different, and individual writers can vary their own approach, depending on what they are writing.

I recently came across an article 12 Contemporary writers on how they revise. Each writer has a different approach to the same process. At the end of each writer’s segment, there is a link to further articles on that writer, including blog posts, podcasts, interviews and more. I hope that you find it useful.

Further reading:

 

 

Book review

To Kill a Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.

I must say from the beginning that this is more of a personal response than an actual review. I have done many book reviews on this site over the years, and I plan to continue writing reviews from time to time. So much has already been said about this novel that what I could possibly add would be lost in a very crowded space.

Why did I read this book now?

I had always intended reading this classic. I just never got to read it. Throughout my other life as a primary classroom teacher here in South Australia for 35 years, I mostly read children’s books. After one disastrous event, I always made it a personal policy to read a book myself before reading it to my class. It had to be suitable and appropriate for those in my class. Now in retirement, I am enjoying being able to read anything that interests me. Because of all the hype about Harper Lee’s recently released second novel, Go Set a Watchman, and her more recent demise, I thought that it was about time I focussed my attention on her classic.

I am pleased that I did.

Classic status

I am not a good judge of what constitutes a classic piece of literature. I will leave that to the experts in the field. As with art, I am more of the “like it” brigade; I know what I like, and if I don’t like it but others do, then that merely shows a difference of taste and opinion. Let’s not get too upset with one another.

By any of the standards that I judge a book by, this has to be a classic work. It certainly has stood the test of time and is possibly more popular and more widely read than ever before. It is certainly well written and engages the reader like any great book should. It has memorable characters that stay with you forever – or certainly for a long time after reading. It has a simple premise and an intriguing plot. The story line carries the reader on, always turning the pages to see what happens next. I could go on, but I promised a personal response.

My response to this book:

In the previous paragraph, I indicated some of the elements that make this book a memorable classic work of literature. While I certainly concur with all of these statements, for me this book was far more than that. It has left a lasting impression. It is a glimpse into the times and culture of a small American town in the 1930s. It has made me realise the importance of the little events of life which have such an impact on ordinary people. I couldn’t help thinking of my own period of growing up in a small Australian farming community in the 1950s, and comparing the two.

Racial tensions

The most outstanding theme of this book – and arguably what makes it so outstanding – it the author’s portrayal of the racial tensions of the times in which it is set. The contrasts are stark. The legacy seems to be ongoing. (That’s if I read the current American culture correctly.) The inequalities and differences between all levels of society are certainly drawn starkly, and the reader is left in no doubt about those divisions.

Australian literature

Australia has been largely free of racial tensions until the last few decades. And so far, we do not have an outstanding classic work of literature which has addressed the obvious tensions in our society. Layered upon that is the multicultural aspect of modern Australia and we have a simmering melting pot. Our country is ready for such a work as this. Or am I being too critical of Australian literature? The only works which seem to come close to Mockingbird would be Kate Grenville’s The Secret River and David Malouf’s Remembering Babylon. Remember, though, I have not yet read widely in classic Australian literature, so listing only two titles seems rather inadequate.

Conclusion

In summary, I can now understand why To Kill a Mockingbird has received so many accolades. I can appreciate its place in the annals of American literature; indeed, it stands tall in the literature of the world. It is one of those books which should appear on every “Top 100 Books You Must Read” list.

One question remains: Did I enjoy the book?

To that I give an unqualified “YES”.

Readers

Questions for my readers:

  • What are your responses to this book?
  • What about the book did you enjoy – or hate?
  • Leave a few comments, please.

Good reading – and good writing.

Trevor