Aug 2, 2015

Book Review – The Beast’s Garden


Very well known for The Witches of Eileanan Series, Kate Forsyth continues to establish a foothold as a writer of historical fiction for adults. 

It began (at least in my reading of her work) with Bitter Greens, which managed to blend historical fiction with myth and fairytale; to give the reader a set of tales that inhabited a narrative borderlands where the fiction and non-fiction elements were separated only by a thin veil. 

Then with The Wild Girl, (Forsyth’s tale based on the life of Gretchen Wild), the fairytale element formed part of the backdrop, informing the story or perhaps underlining it.  Readers were given a well researched and imagined historical.

The Beast’s Garden, is slightly different again.  It’s a reimagining of one of the early Grimm tales, The Singing, Springing Lark.  So if you know the tale then the plot might not present too many surprises.  Then again part of the fun in reading fairytale remakes is seeing what the author does with the story.  I must stress though, while based on the plot of The Singing Springing Lark, The Beast’s Garden is not in the least bit fantastical.  Indeed in the afterword, Forsyth informs us, that apart from the central characters and their families, all the other major players are historical figures.

While ostensibly a love story, there’s tension and action reminiscent of the World War II thrillers I grew up reading and watching.  The setting is Berlin 1938-45, covering the rise to prominence of the Nazi’s and the effect of the regime not only on the Jewish-German Berliner’s but on those who saw their beloved country torn apart by an ideology of hate.

In The Beast’s Garden we have Ava (the Beauty) the third daughter of a previously prominent Professor of Psychiatry, she’s inherited her mothers Spanish looks and talent for singing. Her family is close with the Feidlers, a Jewish family whose father worked with hers and whose mother practically raised Ava after her own mother’s early death.  We have Graf Leo von Löwenstein.(The Beast) an officer in the Abwehr (German Military Intelligence) who is smitten by Ava’s beauty and her forthright spirit in the face of the regime.  What follows is chiefly Ava’s and Leo’s story as they struggle against the fear and the regime, each in their own way.

Writing an historical fiction set during World War II is a daunting prospect – it’s a period that’s been worked over considerably in non-fiction, fiction and by Hollywood and countless other entertainment industries.  Indeed some 75 years on and it isn’t hard to find a contemporary project based on this era of conflict.  Then the writer must consider the Holocaust, how to handle a reality that still effects so many.

So the bar is set high, I think for a writer who wants to write fiction that entertains but is also true, not only to the written history but the emotional one.  I think in this case Forsyth has done well.  The holocaust is not glossed over and it’s not played on to manipulate our emotions.  There are scenes set in Buchenwald, but Forsyth keeps the emotional focus tight on particular characters and their attempts to survive. The enormity of the holocaust (hard to envision on a personal level) is revealed through juxtaposing reports received by Leo of the mass exterminations with what the reader knows from the prisoners point of view – a personal response magnified by numbers on a page, large numbers.

I also felt that Forsyth captured particularly well the state of fear brought to bear by the Nazi’s not only on the Jews but on other Germans who didn’t support the regime - fear of being reported to the Gestapo by your own servants or family members.  Much of what propelled me through the novel was Forsyth’s ability to sustain tension, fear of the authorities, fear of being discovered engaged in subversive activities, fear of those you love.

There are many stories in war and with 75 years of storytelling the action adventure angle has been done with varying degrees of success.  The Beast’s Garden is not about strikes and counter strikes, hero’s storming the beaches but it’s every bit as engaging. It’s a very human story, about what small groups of people can do, what we hope people would do when faced by an evil that is unacceptable.


This review is based on an uncorrected proof.

aww-badge-2015This review is part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2015.  Please check out this page for more great writing from Australian women.




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Jul 20, 2015

Book Review – Shifting Infinity by Patty Jansen

infinityShifting Infinity is the second novel set in Patty Jansen’s ISF – Allion Universe and continues the story and characters presented in Shifting Reality.  I thoroughly enjoyed Shifting Infinity for the same reasons I enjoyed its predecessor and the various novellas before that which have slowly built the wider universe.

So what do I like?  The story chiefly.  I read it in two sittings and if I’d had another book in the series to read, I’d have read it as well.  Stylistically, I think the prose is fairly transparent, it does a very good job of letting the move along and makes it approachable.

I find it can be hard to categorise the content.  Jansen includes aspects of Military SF, Space Adventure and Competence SF.  She underpins the whole world with solid Hard SF world building and manages to introduce a diverse set of characters (diverse genders, religions, races).  All of these combine to give the work broad appeal.

There’s also a wider universe with epic potential. There are teasing snippets/clues laced through all the works that Jansen has written in this series that hint at larger forces at play but Jansen brings the focus down to one character Melati, a scientist/ teacher of Indonesian background. 

The character has grown in confidence and ability from the first book and I am really enjoying Melati’s development. At one point I felt that Melati’s training in weapons might have been a little to quick to achieve the competency she later displays but then again I am forced to confront my own lack of experience and knowledge of firearms training and question my assumptions.

So what’s happened since Shifting Reality?

After Allion ( the forces that oppose ISF)  captured the New Jakarta space station, Melati  made it to the safety of the ISF warship Felicity but had to leave her family behind.  She joined the ISF force division in the hopes that they would liberate the station.  Instead the Felicity has laid siege to New Jakarta for 10 months.  Melati is increasingly frustrated with the slow movement of the ISF which seems to be content to play a conservative approach, and not care about the thousands of civilians trapped under deteriorating conditions

A rare escape from New Jakarta, a merchant who appears to have been tortured, is caught by ISF patrols.  Melati with her specialisation in constructing Mindbases (AI intelligences for vat grown clones) is called in to help, although the ISF seems keen to execute him as quick as possible as a spy.

The reality is much more interesting though.

Shifting Infinity is a page turner and should have something for everyone.  A believable, if at times annoyingly self-doubting protagonist(don’t get me wrong I really like the character and my annoyance is a good indication that I am invested) who is not your usual hero.

Please write more Patty Jansen.

aww-badge-2015This review is part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2015.  Please check out this page for more great writing from Australian women.





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Jul 16, 2015

The Haiku Anthology by Cor van den Heuvel (editor)

the-haiku-anthologyFor any compendium of Haiku to make it to wide publication seems amazing (from my reading, Haiku was/is generally supported almost exclusively by small press in the west) but The Haiku Anthology made it to a 3rd edition and until Haiku In English - The first Hundred Years, was probably the latest and largest collection of quality English Language Haiku and Senryu in print.

It catalogues works from the beginning of the genre in the west to the late 1990's and reading it does give you some idea of the various historical changes and trends while  also displaying the variety of approaches in what seems like such a restricted form.  If I have one minor gripe, it’s the absence of works outside of North America.  I understand that in earlier editions it included the work of  Australian pioneers like Janice Bostok and possibly for space and target market reasons these have been dropped.

The Haiku Anthology includes the previous two edition’s introductions (yes that’s three different introductions) all in reverse chronological order.  This was  informative and provided historical information that’s likely to get forgotten as the genre moves on.

There’s a broad range of nature and urban Haiku and the Senryu vary from the rude and obviously comic to being difficult to decide whether they are Senryu or Haiku:

Alan Pizzareli’s Senryu vary from:


the fat lady

bends over the tomatoes

a full moon



reaching for

the wind-up toy

it rides off the table


There’s some early work by JW Hackett in the 5-7-5 format:


Half of the minnows

within the sunlit shallow

are not really there


and then there’s Nick Virgilio’s work, which demonstrates the form’s applicability to urban situations:


approaching autumn:

the warehouse watchdog’s bark

weakens in the wind


and it’s power to handle grief and passing


my dead brother…

hearing his laugh

in my laughter


In terms of gender representation the collection is about 70/30 in favour of males, which I found interesting in the context of the Australian scene which seems largely dominated by women.  Perhaps its the effect of early proponents such as the Beat Poets (Kerouac and Ginsberg) who lent it some early legitimacy/cool for men interested in the form.

For the poet who intends to write Haiku, the anthology is a must have (either this one or Haiku in English above, which I take as a 4th edition, Cor van den Heuvel I assume, having passed on the editorial reins) even if it’s just for the ease of having a large number of quality Haiku readily at hand.  Additionally If there’s one thing that is annoying about Haiku, it’s not being able to easily track down print collections of quality proponents.  I have been trying to track down copies of Anita Virgil’s work and this collection is about the only place you’ll find a large number grouped together in print.

For the general reader, it might be a bit much to take in at once.  Haiku is one of those forms that gains depth with more understanding of the technical aspects.  So it’s worth figuring out how a good Haiku is constructed while reading the collection.  That being said, some of the Haiku and Senryu contained don’t require an understanding of the form and are “wordless” in getting their image across.

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