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 two 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.
This is the second of my promised blog posts featuring Australian poets – this time it’s Joan Kerr, who writes delectable prose as well as poetry – more of that below.
Joan’s poetry has been widely published in Australia, including two appearances in Best Australian Poems (Black Inc, 2004, 2006). Joan has been published in the US and the UK and has been featured on Radio National’s PoeticA. She has won numerous poetry prizes including the John Shaw Neilson Poetry Prize, the Henry Kendall Poetry Prize, the Woorilla Prize, the W.B. Yeats prize and the Dorothy Porter Poetry Award, and minor prizes in the Gwen Harwood, Max Harris, Val Vallis, Tom Collins, Rosemary Dobson and Melbourne Poets awards.Her collection Human Voices was shortlisted for a Varuna Publisher’s Award in 2012. A selection is included in Triptych Poets Issue 3 (Blemish Press 2012). She also has a poem in the recently published Australian Love Poems (Inkerman& Blunt)
that time of year thou mayst in me behold
cloud light arches giving onto fields
and sometimes water, lying by the land
what are my walls what is sky water or earth
clouds the air’s shadow over the walls
like a gliding loss
the sound of my steps in vanishing corridors
under fog the water is so still
each boat stands on its own stiff shadow
and autumn burns the trees again
From: This vision thing (Melbourne Poets’ Union 2003)
When the phone rings in the night to tell him someone’s died
not unexpectedly, and without giving trouble,
he thinks as he lies down of the hurt red setter
he had to shoot, what, forty years ago? His heart flinches again.
His house flowering quietly around him
in this contented suburb, he lies awake until
the trees step out of the shadows. Fifty.
He wonders what he did for the rest of that day
and why he’s never seen, these forty years,
those trees with the ripped and shaggy bark
and under it, the silky heifer skin. That sky
so clean and glittering
it makes you want to weep.
‘Doctor’ was broadcast on RN PoeticA 12/3/2000
The autobiography of Alice B. Toklas
You knew genius when you saw it, you said.
Perhaps your cultivated
insignificance created shadow
in which it shone more brightly. Gertrude Stein
was your own household genius, not so much loved
as taken on, as an oriental monk
takes on the burden of the gods, whose service
depends on order. Bells are rung
to rule, and certain kinds of sweeping must be done.
For monks, it goes without saying
the gods are not indifferent to menu,
or to trademarks, or to fashion
and all their foibles are a kind of glorious cheek.
Because they can, they do
and this works well, as long as the god is stone.
But you are bolder and more knowing than monks
and you want more. Because you know
that genius is not stone, because you understand
how genius needs accomplices.
How like a blubbering child your genius is
standing at the head of the stairs
uncombed, half-dressed and pleading for your kindness.
You whisk by towards the kitchen.
Some third person is picking up its pen.
From: Best Australian Poems 2006 (Black Inc)
Here are some thoughts about poetry that Joan would like to share:
A poem is “an experience, a story, a piece of music, a set of images…” (Steve Kowit, In the palm of your hand, p. 125)
“Poetry expresses the passage from not-knowing to knowing through which we represent the world, including the perspectives of others, to ourselves and those around us.” (Kowit, p.14)
“The substance of a poem is not merely an expression of individual impulses and experiences. Those become a matter of art only when they come to participate in something universal…” (Theodor Adorno, quoted in Susan Stewart, Poetry and the Fate of the Senses, p. 43)
Mary Kinzie (A Poet’s Guide to Poetry) advises both reader and writer of a poem to think about:
“Words: you are not just reading messages or extracting meanings or drafting editorials to put into lines: you are thinking in words. You are thinking so hard in the atmosphere created by words that they enter you like your breathing. This means, first, looking at words by themselves, with all their weight and subtlety; it helps to think about their length, complexity, and language of origin too.
Sentence versus line: along with the form and sound of words by themselves, you are concerned with their connection into sentences, in whole or in part; some of these parts fall neatly into lines, others work against the lines.” (Kinzie, p. 6)
With her sister Gabrielle Daly, Joan writes comic novels under the pen name Gert Loveday. Writing Is Easy, by Gert Loveday, has recently been released as an ebook and you can find it on Authors Unlimited. It’s a great read!
Gert writes with authority on peculiar diets, exercise regimes, body makeovers, extreme fashion, gurus, pigeons, religion, poetry, politics, the health bureaucracy, gourmet cooking, reality TV and literature from the Norse Sagas to Jeffrey Archer, with a sharp eye for character foibles and the pricking of pomposity. Writing is Easy was shortlisted for a Varuna Publisher Fellowship in 2011.
When I came across AS Byatt’s description of the modern sentence, it was with a sense of deep familiarity.
‘A good modern sentence proceeds evenly, loosely joined by commas, and its feel is hypothetical, approximate, unstructured, and always aiming at an impossible exactness which it knows it will not achieve.’ (A. S. Byatt, “True Stories and the Facts in Fiction”, in On Histories and Stories, Selected Essays, Harvard University Press 2001)
The sentences Byatt described were the kind that I wrote naturally, it seemed to me instinctively, that I felt at home in. And I immediately recognized the irony; for it is precisely the feeling of being ‘at home’ that is unsettled by such syntax, interrogated by it.
Nevertheless, it felt good. It seemed that, during the years I was teaching myself to write, finding my voice as a writer, I had tapped into a mode of contemporary English that was meaningful because it expressed doubt about meaning, because expressions of doubt and uncertainty were fundamental to it. I had found a sentence construction that belonged to my time and I had made it mine.
Some months ago, I had the opposite experience. I received a reader’s report on a fiction manuscript I had submitted, a report complaining about my sentence construction. The reader described my parenthetic sentences as ‘like listening to a radio that isn’t correctly tuned to the station.’ I didn’t understand the criticism, and puzzled over it. I tried to initiate a dialogue with the reader, but this proved useless.
I finally concluded that, not only did this particular reader have no interest in what was happening inside my sentences, but she had no sympathy for the modern traditions I was writing out of; indeed, to her, they weren’t modern. They were, if she bothered to consider them at all, a thing of the past.
This experience has led me to look differently at writing trends, and to think back over the novels I have reviewed over the last fifteen years.
Many of the books I receive for review are written in the present tense. The present has become the norm, and normative. Sentences which are constructed out of it are shorter and, for the most part, direct; the visual image I have is of sentences all facing the same way.
Partial, verbless sentences are common, or ones in which the present participle is expected to do the work of a whole verb. The idea, I believe, is that this way of writing brings the reader right up close to the characters and the subject matter. The word ‘immediacy’ is often used on back cover blurbs. But I have never, either within an individual review, or in the discussion that goes on around them, found anybody making a case as to why immediacy, conceived in this way, matters. The beneficial effects are taken for granted.
I would love to find a discussion somewhere about what might become lost as this fashionable style spreads. Ambiguity has its dangers; I’m well aware of that. But I wish someone would explain to me why getting rid of ambiguity is better, or convince me that prose that strikes my ear as glib and shallow has more to offer than I give it credit for.
The present tense is supposed to bring readers right up close to the action, to make them feel that they are part of actions that are happening right now. These are illusionist’s tricks. You might argue that all writing makes use of illusion, and it does. But what troubles me is that the ubiquitous present, unrelieved by any other tense, unrelieved by even the pretence of narrative distance, makes it all too easy for the narrative voice to celebrate superficial reactions and emotions and to look no further.
Another way of putting it, is that the novels read like a rehearsal for the books they might be, if only their authors would reflect more deeply, and make sure their readers were given the space and the time to reflect as well.
You can read an essay I wrote for Spectrum on the present tense here.