Reviewing and being reviewed, Twitter-style

A couple of months ago I engaged a promoter in California to find reviewers for my latest translated book, Stories to Read by Candlelight. He works at this by requesting my Twitter password and using my account to send out multiple requests to bookish Twitter users. I’m not convinced this was a good idea. A couple of reviewers accused me of spamming (though of course it was him acting as me) and in the end Twitter blocked me and I had to beg for two days to get them to let me back in.

Despite this, he managed to find several reviewers who are keen to read my book, but whether they all do remains to be seen. A few good reviews have been posted so far on Goodreads.

The promoter then asked me if I’d be interested in a little reviewing myself. I agreed, and he offered me an Australian novel for older children. Never having reviewed a book before, I had to read up on the correct process for saying what I liked and didn’t like. Here it is: my first ever book review.

Esme’s Wish is the first novel in a series by Elizabeth Foster, published by Odyssey Books in 2017. It was written for older children or young teenagers. The protagonist is a 15-year-old girl who has two friends about the same age. The book’s focus is the fantasy world that Esme slips into after her father’s second marriage, and since it does not deal too much with the emotional dramas that can accompany a new family arrangement, including a mean stepmother, I see it as more suitable for pre-teens.

I liked the focus on individual Gifts, reminding young readers that we each have one, but for some of us it takes a lot of living to discover it. While the Gifts in Aeolia are magical – various inhabitants breathe under water, walk on top of it, cast songspells, are not burnt by fire – the inference is that every human has a gift. As a teenager I would have liked to be told this. Another truth in Esme’s Wish is that we don’t know everything about our parents’ past lives and it might be painful to go searching. But I also liked knowing that Esme’s friends, Daniel and Lillian, supported her when she was searching for her mother.

For young readers, the many references to Greek mythology are a great introduction to the epics and the terms that have become part of Western language and culture. Also valuable to dwell on is the Pearl of Esperance that represents all those temptations we encounter, things that are sweet and hard to resist but do us harm in the end. It represents addictions, or even promises that we will get what we want if we just do this one forbidden thing. Esme’s Wish reminded me of Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C. S. Lewis in which some children escape reality through a painting, and there are ships and water and dragons in it, too. These are my kinds of story.

I really enjoyed the first half of the book that included Esme’s earthly family and her thoughts in Italics as she (and I) tried to understand the turn of events. In the second more fantastical half, the pace increased but the obstacles were quickly overcome and I was no longer guessing. I was keen to come to a resolution of Esme’s problem with her new family and how they would react to her discovery. However, I’ve just learnt that many novels are now published in series form, and it’s normal to leave things open at the end of the first one. I expect all will be revealed in the next book or books.

My favourite line is: ‘Just goes to show that you shouldn’t worry too much about whatever Gift you get. It might be the best thing that ever happens to you.’

Thank you to Elizabeth Foster for sending me a copy of Esme’s Wish.

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My authors: Claudine Jacques

On the unpredictable path of life I’ve ended up translating French literature from different hemispheres and different centuries. I’ve written about authors from 19th-century France who’ve taken my fancy with their fairy tales and fantasies, and now I want my readers to become acquainted with an author from 21st-century New Caledonia, Claudine Jacques.

My first encounter with Claudine’s writing was at university. I very much enjoyed studying the social problems laid out in her stories and was surprised to find numerous similarities between the histories of Australia and New Caledonia. Her writing is compelling and keeps me turning pages till the last. My favourite is Cœurs barbelés, part fiction, part history, based on the painful experiences of white Caledonians and the indigenous Kanak people trying to live harmoniously on an island.

I’ve enjoyed translating a few of her short stories into English and have been fortunate to have them published: ‘Life Sentence’, ‘The Mask’, ‘Guardian of Legends’, and three that are available online for free, ‘The Blue Cross’, ‘Other People’s Land’, and one set in Vanuatu, ‘Bitter Secrets’ .

Claudine Jacques

Born in Belfort, France, Claudine moved to New Caledonia as a sixteen-year-old with her parents and has since made it her own country. Until 1994 she ran a vocational training centre, but once she had discovered the world of books, she established a publishing company and now devotes herself almost exclusively to writing. In 1997 Claudine and other authors founded the Association des Écrivains de la Nouvelle Calédonie (New Caledonian Society of Authors).

The bush and island life have profoundly inspired Claudine’s work. Her home in the bushland of this Pacific island, on a cattle station in Bouraké, has allowed her to become immersed in the heart of the country and to know it as an insider. Claudine’s novels and short stories are concerned with all “Caledonians”: those of the main island, Grande Terre, those of the smaller Loyalty Islands, the Caledonians of European origin, the Kanak, the Wallisians, the Vietnamese and Indonesians who are all part of the New Caledonian population. Her stories reveal a part of the Pacific that is modern and multicultural, a country in transition.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is rich, sensual writing that moves readers with its power of suggestion. Knowing that Claudine’s stories are based on her island’s history, they will keep you turning pages. I personally found myself searching for light at the end of some dark tunnels. You’ll find it, as I did, at the end.

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Getting reviews

It’s what authors have to do. Get reviews. I’ve tried it for my previous two books and only ever managed to get one solitary review in spite of asking bloggers around the world.

Now since the release of Stories to Read by Candlelight, I’ve been offered advice from my publisher, Michelle Lovi at Odyssey Books, and her public relations man in California, Henry Roi, who has magically rustled up numerous reviewers to read my book and write their reflections on Amazon and Goodreads. Henry has me using Twitter daily though I’ve hardly touched it before. I’m doing my best to show potential readers what makes my little translation worth reading by adding ‘tweet’-sized quotations from each of the eight stories.

While the Twittersphere is not a place I enjoy, I can see the benefits for a time like this in a new book’s life.  All but one of Henry’s reviewers have said yes, and today I received my first review. A good one. Phew.

Illustration by Erin-Claire Barrow for ‘Monsieur d’Avonancourt’ by Jean Lorrain

Shelley Nolan posted her kind words on Amazon and Goodreads and, in reduced form, on Twitter. Here it is in full:

‘This is my first time reading a translated work and I was hooked from the opening introduction. It has a wonderful sense of nostalgia as it tells of stories from the author’s childhood, some of them eerie and disturbing, others whimsical or cautionary. I loved the parts where Jean Lorrain explained each story and how it affected him as a small boy and could clearly picture him watching on as his family’s seamstress regaled them with fantastical tales that made him shiver. Stories that would resonate with him long into adulthood.

I also loved the glimpses it gave into provincial life in France so many years ago, and the roles the servants played in the lives of their employers. This helped to bring the stories to life, painting vivid pictures as I read each one and transporting me back in time. As a translated work, it was a seamless read that was packed with charm and otherworldly beings, creating a delightful collection that was a perfect way to spend a few hours.’

Illustration by Erin-Claire Barrow for ‘Useless Virtue’ by Jean Lorrain

Shelley’s review would certainly tempt me to read this book! It’s interesting to see what leaps off the pages for others who read Lorrain’s words. He was a very perceptive turn-of-the-century man who observed, and never forgot, quirky behaviours.

As the translator of someone else’s ideas, I’ve read and written the text of this book – Lorrain’s French and my English – hundreds of times over the past six years or so, and while I’ve never stopped liking it, I’ve never known what other readers have thought despite the original being 120 years old, for there are no reviews of the French original (that I’ve found) and before now no English translation has been published of the whole collection.

I think I’m looking forward to reading any other reviews that turn up…

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Stories to Read by Candlelight – release

Odyssey Books has just published my translation of Contes pour lire à la chandelleStories to Read by Candlelight by Jean Lorrain, and today I received ten copies of a very well produced, postcard-sized book. As yet it’s available on Amazon only to pre-order, but will actually be available from next week, 16th September.

The eight stories were written in the 1890s by the French author Jean Lorrain. About six years ago I completed my translation of them (the first one in English according to my research) and began submitting it to publishers. At last I can announce that the little collection is available in English, and as a bonus it’s illustrated with surprising silhouette images by the talented artist, Erin-Claire Barrow. The cover design is by Simon Critchell.

And now, an excerpt, for a little of Jean Lorrain’s whimsy:

Illustration by Erin-Claire Barrow

Princess Mandosiane was six hundred years old. For six centuries she had lived embroidered onto velvet, her face and hands painted on silk. She was dressed all in pearls, her gorget rippling with heavy beading, and her gown was woven with threads of argentite and arabesques of the finest gold […] For a long time she had figured in processions and royal celebrations. She would be brought out and hoisted up on a banner staff, and the dazzle of her jewels would bring joy to great ladies and commoners […] Then the era of processions passed, thrones were abolished, kings disappeared, civilisation marched on, and the princess of pearls and painted silk now remained confined in the shadow and silence of the cathedral.

Please let me know if you read the stories and especially if you review them. May they give you as much pleasure as they did me when I pulled the original book from the library shelves of forgotten French literature.

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Spring in Canberra

Quite as if by arrangement on the first day of September, designated first day of spring, the temperature rose and there was a warmth in the air that we haven’t felt for months. Spring has sprung and flowering trees are performing on cue.

In Canberra two tree species shout loud and clear that spring is here: wattle and prunus. Wattle trees are bursting out everywhere in fluffy yellow flowers, and various plum, apricot, pear and others in the prunus family are lining our streets with their blossoms of white or pink flowers.

Here are some I snapped today on my stroll to the local shop, a row of half a dozen white prunus that have just bloomed and are already dropping petals to form a snowy blanket on the footpath below. They might technically be fruiters but this stand of trees hasn’t produced anything edible in the twenty years I’ve been walking under them, which is probably a good thing since the path would be covered in squishy fruit.

White blossom trees lining a Canberra street
Standing beneath, looking up, white petals drifting down

On my stroll back again I studied a lot of bees enjoying the pink flowers on these trees that produce dark red plums, and though most of them do drop off throughout summer, there is only grass and road below, no path.

Pink plum blossoms, Canberra

Back home I felt more than grateful for this wattle tree in my back yard. I didn’t plant it and I don’t water it. It simply grew up among other plantings of mine and I remained oblivious to it until the yellow flowers appeared. I do nothing for it, yet it graciously gives me an undeserved pleasure every spring. In past years it has been a little taller but the men who keep their eye on the overhead wires command us to prune the branches that make them anxious. Even without a symmetrical form it is beautiful, filling most of the space along the back fence.

Back yard self-seeded wattle tree, Canberra
The symbol of our land…

How good life is when spring comes. It’s a yearly reminder that the end is not nigh.

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Winter in Canberra – 5

Every big city has its hip district. Canberra adopted this concept not too long ago, creating one in Braddon, right next to the city centre. Of the many cafés here, Lonsdale Street Roasters is my favourite. What does it have to do with winter? Well the coffee machine is close to the door that’s constantly opening and closing from 6.30am with the flow and ebb of coffee addicts, so on chilly July mornings even the barista wears long johns under his shorts.

Ben making coffee at Lonsdale Street Roasters!
A little calligraphical time-passing this week

And the barista’s mother sits in her house with a large gas heater at her back, playing with pens and inks, writing out the slogan for the 21st-century coffee culture which she is happy to be part of.

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Winter in Canberra – 4

In the city centre an ice skating rink is presently being set up for the school holidays and will open tomorrow. The temperatures are not low enough for our lakes to freeze but an artificial frozen pond will stay solid with a bit of help. No skating is allowed today but I did spot this workman (in black) walking gingerly across the ice.

Behind the rink is the ACT Legislative Assembly from which the pollies will have a great view of the ice skaters, perhaps even ice dancers.

Here are a couple of girls in beanies putting up a white picked fence for that quaint northern look. The blue skies of past days have disappeared behind clouds, and rain is forecast, but children won’t mind. Skating in rain would probably be fun. Snow would be better.

So, as the sign on the marquis says: Get Your Skates On!

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Winter in Canberra – 3

This morning I met my son for coffee at 9.30 and noted that everyone in the café was clad in coats and scarves. Many of them were in black, pretty typical of winter-wear here. Plenty of shops have racks of black, suitable for this city of public servants. In fact, in my early years in Canberra I wore black because I thought it was right: black turtle-necks, black overcoats, black skirts and black jeans. Then I realised I was conforming. Now I avoid it.

Here’s my son wearing a grey-black jumper, but the man behind him has a bright yellow jacket on that makes him look like he’d be at home on the sea. He’s the only dab of colour in Sfoglia this morning. (Even the Italian owner is wearing all black, including his beard.) Meanwhile at the table beside us there were several workers on a morning tea break, all in black.

In a Canberra winter, I miss colours.

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Winter in Canberra – 2

Today was a little warmer. At 10am it was 3 degrees, up a degree on yesterday morning. And this afternoon it was 13 deg when I was pruning roses. I was wearing my fluffy jumper which keeps me snug when the temperature is a single figure, but when I started to work up a sweat I had two choices: take off the jumper or go inside (Canberra houses are cold, even with the heating on).

Around the rose bushes there are a number of deciduous trees looking very bare right now. An idea came to me to put down my secateurs and take a photo or two of the leafless limbs, which made me think about a curious contrast: when winter comes I don more and more layers while the trees shed every single leaf.

Contrasting limbs

The mass of bare branches behind me in the photo is a crepe myrtle that emerged from the lawn shortly after we moved into this house many moons ago. The previous owner had shorn it off at the ground and assumed he’d executed it and death was certain. Well, you can’t keep a good crepe myrtle down. You can see how large it is now! In summer it’s pretty in pink and drops a lovely blanket of flowers on the grass below.

I got a lot of work done today, pruning rose bushes, sweeping dead leaves off the deck, mopping floors and more. Here’s another benefit of living in Canberra – low temps make me a high achiever.

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Winter in Canberra – 1

Canberra has a pretty ordinary reputation for the capital city of an awesome country. Why? It’s not on the coast (unlike every other Australian capital), it’s a place of politicians and political decisions, and it’s uncomfortably cold for three months of the year and moderately cold for another six, too much cold for coast lovers.

Warm as toast in my coat and scarf this morning, I looked up to the clear blue sky and felt nothing less than gratitude for my Canberra life. If I give you five photos this week, one a day, you’ll get a glimpse of things I love about this city, even in its winter.

Winter leaf litter defrosting in the sun

Today, 1st July, began cold and clear. At 10am it was 2 degrees and the leaves in the car park were white with frost. As the sun moved across them, the frost melted, the leaves turned soggy and wet but beautifully golden brown. Crouching close to snap the photo, I heard a passerby ask “What did you find?”. “Melting frost,” I replied. “Ah, Canberra,” she said, and walked on.

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