I’m proud to announce that Awesome Indies have given their Seal of Approval to my Sandra Mahoney mystery novel, The Fourth Season. A book has to achieve 5 stars to be included on the Awesome Indies site, and reviews are rigorous and professional. I can now tell readers that my book ‘has been awarded a place on the Awesome Indies list of quality independent fiction.’
You can read the review here.
Thank you, Awesome Indies!
I’m proud to say that I’ve been chosen as one of the judges for this year’s Barbara Jefferis Award.
The following information is copied from the Australian Society of Authors website.
‘Barbara Jefferis was a feminist, a founding member of the Australian Society of Authors, its first woman President and, in the words of Thomas Keneally, ‘a rare being amongst authors, being both a fine writer but also organisationally gifted. She was a professional and internationally published writer long before most of us dreamed of such things.
The Award is paid from the Barbara Jefferis Literary Fund, which has been established as a result of a bequest from Barbara Jefferis’s husband, ABC film critic John Hinde, who died in 2006. The Australian Society of Authors is Trustee of the Fund. In 2014 the Award is valued at $50,000.’
And this year ebooks can be submitted, for the second time – the first was in 2012. For the first time, self-published books can also be submitted, subject to conditions detailed in the submission guidelines. As a judge and as an author, I applaud these developments.
The ASA offers its members the chance to publish their own ebooks under Authors Unlimited, and is very supportive, in other practical ways, of Australian writers attempting to understand and navigate the digital revolution.
Most of the time I feel energised and excited by the new possibilities and opportunities. Ebooks have given me, and countless others like me – some formerly published in print and some not – a way to think of the future and an expanded horizon.
I can’t help recalling Miranda, watching the strange, exotic ship on her horizon.
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in’t.’
These lines from Shakespeare’s The Tempest are ironic, according to some interpretations, and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, published in 1931, famously turns irony into satire. It’s easy to satirise and deride ebook authors and their hopes of setting sail, but I prefer to look on the bright side.
The Fourth Season, the fourth and last book in my Sandra Mahoney quartet, has a good review in MBR Bookwatch. The reviewer is Diane Donovan.
‘The Fourth Season, a Sandra Mahoney mystery, represents the fourth book in Dorothy Johnston’s mystery quartet, beginning with The Trojan Dog, then The White Tower and Eden. (The other books have not been seen by this reviewer).
It opens with a compelling first-person reflection: “The story I’m about to tell begins and ends by water….(sic) Over time, the two deaths ran together in my mind and I came to think of them as the water murders. The name conjures up an image of fluidity; but could as well suggest stagnation; or the leaching away of what is held to be precious by those most in need of it. I don’t mean life itself – that absolute division – or not only that. I mean that which gives each individual life its meaning.”
Through this introduction readers receive fair warning that this mystery is anything but formula writing: it blends in philosophy and life associations and thus its plot incorporates far deeper significance than your usual ‘whodunnit’ focus on methods and perps alone.
Sandra Mahoney is a private investigator (of course) who finds personal meaning in the discovery of a floating body: a body which was once her partner’s lover, making Ivan an immediate suspect, with no alibi.
To complicate matters further, she’s investigating a second murder AND juggling the needs of two children also affected by Laila’s death: a six-year-old and an adolescent. There’s a lot of emotional reaction on all sides; and all this overshadows and complicates what is already a challenging investigation, blending personal into professional concerns and creating more than a series of conundrums for Sandra.
Dorothy Johnston should be commended, first of all, for using the first person as a vehicle for presenting all these emotions. It brings out inner feelings without the distance of using the third person and it adds fire and passion to her story: “What does it mean to be told too little? What does this particular lack mean to an adolescent boy, or to his mother, who happens to be a person endeavouring to make her living by collecting information? It was an endeavour that, for years up until that moment, had sustained, if only just, both my life and that of my children – sustained in a thousand practical, easily overlooked ways.”
Dorothy Johnston is equally powerful at displaying her investigator protagonist’s emotions throughout the course of events: another strength that separates The Fourth Season from your typical murder mystery: “I wanted to come face to face with that killer now. What man or woman, known to me perhaps, had that degree of nerve? Was it possible to deduce this from the outside? My experience told me no, of course it wasn’t. Did other people look at me and ask themselves: could she? Would she? I asked myself then: what are you capable of, if sufficiently pushed? I didn’t know the answer. I hoped it wasn’t murder. I hoped I knew myself well enough for that.”
As events unfold and add layers of complexity to Sandra Mahoney’s life, they successfully engross readers in not just a singular murder investigation, but a unified survey of everyone emotionally shaken by death. It’s this approach that makes The Fourth Season a powerfully different story, highly recommended for any who seek more complexity in their murder reading.
Oh, and if you think you need previous background from the other books in the quartet, be advised: this stands well on its own. Also be advised: once you read The Fourth Season you most likely WILL want to pick up the others to see what you missed!’
The Fourth Season is also garnering some good reviews on Amazon. Thanks to those ebook authors and reviewers who have taken the trouble to read my book.
Since launching off into the brave new world of digital publishing, I’ve met some great ebook authors.
My first effort was to self-publish a collection of short stories, Eight Pieces on Prostitution and now Wakefield Press has released all four books in my Sandra Mahoney Quartet. It’s a steep learning curve, but an exhilarating one as well.
From time to time I’ll be posting reviews I’ve written of ebooks that have captured my attention, beginning with – aptly named – Beginnings: Where A Life Begins by Gary Heilbronn.
Beginnings: Where A Life Begins is an ambitious, multi-layered novel about the workings of genetic memory through many generations of women. The novel deserves a wide readership not only because of its original and audacious premise, but because each historical episode is vividly imagined, and the female characters, linked in ways they recognize but do not fully understand, are remarkable inventions in themselves.
The novel is predicated on the controversial idea that Mitochondrial DNA, transmitted from mothers to daughters, is understood, by certain outstanding women of their times, as an accumulated heritage. These women know the line they come from even if they cannot explain this knowledge; it gives them courage and it makes them proud.
Many of the women Heilbronn portrays as young, athletic warriors, but the main protagonist, Maria, a Basque refugee from Franco’s Spain, is of a different type. She suffers the tumultuous war years, having barely escaped across the border into France, and wishes only to remain unobtrusive and unnoticed by those who have the power to do her and her daughter, born shortly after her arrival, harm. The story moves in a wide arc, returning to Maria and Anna at various points. It is while Maria is giving birth to Anna – in a kind of trance – that the first return to deep genetic memory is accomplished, to the Cantabrian Mountains in about 10,000 BC. Other sections include ‘Coming of the Phoenicians’, Siege of Saguntum, (in the third century BC) and the Spanish Inquisition in the fifteenth century. Each is conveyed with an eye for detail, while the forward momentum of the story is maintained. Mt favourite section tells of the coming of the Phoenicians to the northern coast of Spain. The many differences between the indigenous people and the Phoenician traders, the troubles in which they find themselves, and in particular the character of Hannh, the young female warrior, made me want this section to continue.
At the end of the chapter describing Maria’s escape, readers are introduced to ‘an original, ornate dagger’ which, like the characters’ elusive yet crucial memories, has been handed on through thousands of years and will continue to play its own part in the story.
In an afterword, Heilbronn gives an account of the historical and scientific background to his novel, with particular reference to the meaning of genetic links in people like the Basques, ‘whose ethnic identity and genealogy have been insulated and isolated through millennia.’ Beginnings is complex and full of intriguing concepts and characters, yet at the same time emotionally vivid and fast-paced. Heilbronn has the ability to carry his readers along no matter if the scene is set in Palaeolithic times or the 1950s, with the rise of the Basque separatist movement. I highly recommend this book and look forward to its sequel.
My Sandra Mahoney quartet is now for sale on Amazon, including the new and final book, The Fourth Season. And I already have four great reviews! You can read them here.
In her review, Joan Kerr makes a telling point, but one I hadn’t given much though to – not conscious thought anyway. Each novel in the quartet is set during a particular season. The Fourth Season is autumn. ‘The charms and stresses of each season operate as a symbol for the characters’ emotional lives’, Joan says, and of course this is true.
In talking about my quartet with friends and readers, I’ve been drawn back into remembering how it began. I didn’t set out to write one mystery novel, much less four! Some time in the late 1990s, I decided to write a short story from the point of view of a computer virus, and in the middle of it Sandra appeared. Not only that, she appeared with a new job in a government department threatened with the axe, a husband who’d scarped off to America and a son with reading problems. Far too much for a short story!
At the time, I was having a lot of difficulty finding a home for One for the Master, my novel set in a Geelong woollen mill. Post-modern ideas and tastes were dominant and my book was dismissed as social realism. (Never mind that it starts off with a ghost.) I turned to crime writing because, though there are obviously rules, I found within the genre an openness that I felt was lacking in literary fiction at the time. And I found an organization, Sisters in Crime Australia, happy to welcome newcomers.
I didn’t turn my back on literary fiction – I have never done so – but neither do I regret my years spent with Sandra and her investigations into the underside of Canberra.
And with One for the Master I was vindicated finally, as was Wakefield Press, the independent Australian published who took it on. One for the Master was shortlisted for the 1998 Miles Franklin Award and set on the VCE syllabus.
Wakefield have released, as ebooks, all four novels in the Sandra Mahoney Quartet and are offering a special launch price of 4 for the price of 3.
Sandra Mahoney has gone digital – all four books at once!
The Fourth Season, the last book in the quartet, is new, and ebooks of the first three have been published to co-incide with its release. It was always my intention to write four books, one for each season, and now I’ve achieved my aim.
Here’s a brief outline of The Fourth Season.
When the body of a young female environmental activist and science student, Laila Fanshaw, is found floating in Lake Burley Griffin, security consultant Sandra Mahoney’s life is turned upside down, not least because Sandra’s partner was in love with Laila. Ivan is a suspect and has no alibi for the time of death.
A further strain is put the relationship when another suspect, Don Fletcher, who worked in the Federal Environment Department, wants to hire Sandra to help him clear his name.
Against opposition from Ivan, Sandra says yes and takes on the assignment.
Laila was a complex person, good friends with a Greens senator, and committed to her cause, but also unscrupulous in her use of men, and an accomplished hacker. While Sandra is attempting to understand Laila’s character, and the events that led to her murder, there is another ‘death by water’. This time the body of professional diver, Ben Sanderson, is found in Sandra’s local swimming pool.
Sandra has to weigh up her desire to learn the truth against her children’s needs. Only six-year-old Katya is Ivan’s natural child; adolescent Peter has a different father. But both children are deeply affected by Laila’s death and Ivan’s reaction to it. Added to this, Sandra’s friend in the Federal Police, Detective Sergeant Brook, is absolutely against her involvement in the case.
Laila had a secret passion, and though this passion was connected to her love of the sea, nobody who knew her guessed what it was. In pursuit of this passion, she stumbled on a major criminal activity.
It takes all of Sandra’s ingenuity and courage to steer herself, and her family, through the dangers that lead to an eventual unmasking of the truth.
The first book in my quartet, The Trojan Dog, was joint winner, ACT Book of the Year 2001, and runner-up in the inaugural Davitt Award. The second, The White Tower, was nominated as the ACT representative for the 2012 Year of Reading. These two were published in Australia by Wakefield Press and in America by St Martins Press. The third, Eden, was published in Australia by Wakefield Press.
My review of A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, Irish writer Eimear McBride’s first novel, was published in the Fairfax newspapers last Saturday. The jagged lines of the cover and the apparently haphazard way the blocks are put together echo Mcbride’s prose, which is extraordinary.
As with all literary fashions, this one has, while growing in popularity over the past ten years, attracted its share of second-rate imitations. A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing is narrated in the present tense, in fragmentary sentences of the kind that have often stuck in my throat. Maybe this is an obvious point to make, but when a writer of true originality and talent comes along, they make references to fashions irrelevant.
I didn’t have the space to add any of the background to the novel’s publication in my 650 word review, so I thought I would do so now. After years of rejections by UK publishers because it was considered too difficult to sell, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing was picked up by a tiny independent press. Familiar story? Sadly too familiar. McBride in the end was lucky, which is not to take away from her enormous talent. All her subsequent success is, in my view, wholly deserved.
McBride won the inaugral Goldsmith’s prize for the novel. Tim Parnell, head of English and comparative literature at Goldsmiths College and chair of the judges, said A Girl is a Half-formed Thing was a “boldly original and utterly compelling” novel. It was “just the kind of book the Goldsmiths prize was created to celebrate … Serious discussion of the art of fiction is too often confined to the pages of learned journals and we hope that the prize and the events surrounding it will stimulate a much wider debate about the novel.”
I first came across Professor Charles May’s blog eighteen months ago and was immediately struck by the quality of May’s insights into the short story form. May has published 8 books and over 300 articles on the subject of short stories, and I Am Your Brother is the culmination of forty years of teaching and thinking about this often misunderstood and disparaged prose form. True scholarship, in the sense of being heart-felt as well as erudite, is unmistakeable, and I recommend this book both to readers and writers of short stories, and to those who have not, up until now, given them much thought.
One of May’s central concerns is that short stories have suffered in the past, and continue to suffer, by being compared, in a simplistic way, to novels; by being considered no more than bits of novels, constructed according to the same formal patterns and with the same narrative ends in view. He sets out to dismantle these false assumptions and he does so very convincingly.
Short stories have ancient ancestors, and have remained connected to their roots in the sacred parable, allegory and myth. The everday passage of time, cause and effect, the development of individual characters within a social framework are all hallmarks of the novel from the eighteenth century onwards. In the short story, because of its shortness, and because its writers started out with very different aims, time is just as likely to be compressed, or frozen.
In discussing Edgar Allan Poe’s approach to the short story, May points out that it ‘reflects the basic paradox inherent in all narrative: the writer’s restriction to the dimension of time juxtaposed against his or her desire to create a structure that reflects an atemporal theme. Because of the shortness of the short story, the form gives up the sense of real time, but compensates for this loss by focusing on significance, pattern and meaning.’
Important themes for me, in I Am Your Brother, are the sense of mystery to be found in the best short stories, how they give an outer shape to inner meanings, manage to convey what can’t be put directly into words and eschew so-called rational explanations. May quotes Flannery O’Connor who ‘once said that what the short story writer sees on the “surface will be of interest” only as it can be gone through “into an experience of mystery itself.”
From Boccaccio’s The Decameron up to the present day, May illustrates his points with pertinent and interesting examples. My knowledge of short stories and what makes them essentially different from long prose forms, has been greatly enhanced by reading this book.
Above is the text of my Amazon review of I Am Your Brother, but I thought I would add a few more personal thoughts about it on my blog.
Having had eight novels published, and with a ninth (The Fourth Season) soon to be released, I am better known as a novelist than a short story writer. However, a few of my short stories have had multiple publications in anthologies and have found a readership. Two of these are ‘The Boatman of Lake Burley Griffin’ (Canberra Tales, Below The Waterline, The Invisible Thread) and ‘Two Wrecks’ (Best Australian Stories 2008 and Best Australian Stories – a ten-year collection, 2011).
The success of these stories, coupled with my experiment in self-publishing an ebook collection, Eight Pieces On Prostitution, has got me thinking about the place of short stories in my writing life.
Like many fiction writers, I always know when an idea is a ‘short story idea’, and I always hear, with my inner ear, before I set a word down, the tone of voice I will need to sustain. Needless to say, this is very different from how I begin the project of writing a novel. I have often been criticised, and, I am ashamed to say, too often bowed to the criticism, that my fiction is elliptical and indirect when it should be straightforward. I have often been asked to explain or clarify character and motivation when this was the last thing that I felt like doing.
Reading I Am Your Brother made me feel that my instincts were right all along, and that those criticisms came from perspectives and expectations that were alien to me, and to which I should never have tried to reconcile myself.
I’ve decided to use this blog post to expand my thoughts on the novella, and to add some new ones.
There’s been much talk of the novella being the perfect form for the digital age, both for reading and adaption to the screen.
‘Given that so much of the world suffers from a rapidly eroding attention span perhaps the novella is overdue for a new breath of life.’ (David Henley)
‘The form of the novella lends itself far more easily to (film) adaptation because of its focus on a single character, its concentration and shorter length. For the digital generation accustomed to the ninety-minute narrative, the novella fits neatly into the limits of the two-hour cinematic time frame.’ (John Dale)
I think many of the current claims made for and about the novella are dubious. In my view, people who enjoyed reading John Grisham on the train in print form will continue to do so on their tablets or ereaders; while those who enjoyed literary novels and short stories will continue reading those. The fact that you can’t finish a blockbuster on a single train journey will be neither here nor there. I’m not so sure about movie adaptions. We will have to wait and see.
But what I am sure about is that a good novella requires the same sustained concentration as the best short stories, and that this is a result both of their compression and their subtlety. Of course, not all of us are capable of sustained concentration on the train or tram, but that’s a separate point. There’s always the alternative of staring out the window, or studying one’s fellow passengers, heads bent over their tablets, or talking on their mobile phones.
I have just reviewed, for Kill Your Darlings, an excellent novella, Colm Toibin’s The Testament of Mary, shortlisted for the Man Booker prize. You can read my review here.
An earlier post on the novella, written when I reviewed Julienne van Loon’s Harmless, can be found here.
I wonder if it’s true that novella writers can’t get away so easily with sloppy construction and banal language as blockbuster writers can, that the tightness of the form somehow precludes this, or is simply not attractive to those who can’t help themselves from becoming long-winded. Alice Munro’s Nobel win may shed more light on fiction’s shorter forms, and there’s a great deal that those who wish to practise them can learn from her.
My short story collection, Eight Pieces On Prostitution is now nine!
You can purchase an extra story, at no extra cost, from Authors Unlimited.
The story is called ‘An Artist’s Story’ and it formed the nucleus of my novel The House At Number 10. Paul Ham accepted the story as a stand-alone and then told me he wasn’t going to publish any more fiction.
I wish I’d known in time to include it in my ebook collection, but here it is now.