From the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature: Set in Australia in the 1840s, A Fringe of Leaves combines dramatic action with a finely distilled moral vision.

Returning home to England from Van Diemen’s land, the Bristol Maid is shipwrecked on the Queensland coast and Mrs Roxburgh is taken prisoner by a tribe of Australian Aboriginals, along with the rest of the passengers and crew. In the course of her escape, she is torn by conflicting loyalties – to her dead husband, to her rescuer, to her own and to her adoptive class.

Penguin Books

I don’t think I’ve ever read a character arc that is more full, that roams physically wider and psychologically deeper than that of Mrs Roxburgh in A Fringe of Leaves.

For it’s placement in upper class colonial history, this book surprised me by pulling me into some of the most raw of human experiences. I found myself tossed and dragged right alongside Mrs Roxburgh’s incredible life path, leaving me as shell-shocked, disoriented and profoundly moved as the character herself (and just as unable to articulate exactly why) .

Originally published in 1976, I went retro with my bookshelf for this one, to catch myself up on Patrick White after reading The Aunt’s Story and being reminded why literature can be so powerful. In the hands of Patrick White it becomes a tool for searing, perceptive observation of human behaviour; not just what we do, but why we do it and what it means to us.

Every little action or statement is loaded with reason or question, where another author might simply give it a dialogue tag. His character descriptions, too, are among my favourites alongside Charles Dickens and Agatha Christie:

“Mr Courtney was so solidly built, anything overwrought or inessential could only expect to be skittled. It was unlikely that the [ship’s] mate’s own mind would ever wander out of bounds, except perhaps during sleep, heaving in those more incalculable waters like one of the whales it delighted him to watch.”

Patrick White, A Fringe of Leaves

I suspect he may have been rather a searing character in his own right. From his work, his eyes must have been like diamond-tipped drill bits, and I would not want to be under that gaze. As a reader, however, I am awed and more than happy to reap the benefits of his work.

I will say that I find Patrick White better as a writer than a storyteller. By this I mean that at times I find the story labouring to move forward; the book begins slowly, dense with description and characters; and ends similarly so that I’m not sure exactly where I’ve been left off, or why there. There was a neat tie-back to that laboured beginning which gave me the ah-ha I’d waited the whole book for, but it kept going beyond where I’d felt satisfied, and left me a little lost again. I suspect Patrick White intended to do exactly that though I’m not entirely sure I comprehended his full meaning.

The middle bit, however, was fantastic. As soon as the first shock came, I was hooked, and found myself thoroughly enjoying a book that I was unable to predict and had to work at fully comprehending, but that I knew somehow was completely worth it.

Night of the Living Deed (A Haunted Guesthouse Mystery Book 1)
by E.J. Copperman (2010)

night of the living deed book cover

Newly divorced Alison Kerby wants a second chance for herself and her nine-year-old daughter, so she’s returned to her home town on the Jersey Shore to transform a fixer-upper into a charming—and hopefully profitable—guest house. But when a bump on the head leaves her seeing not only stars but spirits, Alison realizes the real challenge she’s facing is out of this world.

The two residing ghosts are Maxie Malone, the foul-tempered former owner of the house (who has definite opinions about Alison’s design plans), and Paul Harrison, a private eye who’d been working for Maxie—both died in the house on the same night. The official cause of death was suicide, but the ghosts insist they were murdered, and they need Alison to find out who killed them—or the next ghost in the guest house will be Alison herself…

It was such a joy to discover a very confident narrative voice in a book, matched with a sassy, self-aware main character who you can visualise turning to the camera for a little quip about her own quirks and mess-ups. (Respect, Alison.)

I bought this book looking for a ghostly thrill and got an unexpected new take on the haunted house. I missed out on the scare, but had a whole lot of fun instead and wound up thoroughly satisfied with friendly ghosts that I’m keen to see more of as the series unfolds. Even the slightly-bratty Maxie showed a vulnerable side by the end… a bit.

It’s light enough to be YA but sassy enough to charm any age. Hoping for slightly meatier mysteries in the next books but yeah, I’m going there for sure.

I am a little disappointed that PI-Paul is a ghost, it’s messing with my fantasies but I admit it is the perfect writerly rouse for an ongoing sexual tension that can’t be resolved (and thus ruined).

Michelle Moran is one of my favourite historical fiction authors!

Cleopatra’s Daughter goes down as my absolute fave of Michelle’s, so this one just had to be shared! This book takes you right into a very natural, convincing ancient Rome (yes Rome, not Egypt for this part of the daughter’s story) and an insightful look at the real people behind names we’ve all heard – and some we may not have.

I thoroughly enjoyed the complex and contradictory relationships of this jigsaw family of half-siblings and enemy’s children. And I may have to admit to maybe falling in love just a little bit with he-who-wont-be-named-until-the-end!

I don’t think I put it down for one whole day, and the ending was sooo worth it!

Find more of Michelle Moran’s work at her website.

Happy to share another reader review, this time from Olga Walker, a PhD candidate and herself a historical fiction/non-fiction writer. Big thanks, Olga!

Based on rigorous research, author Victoria Collins has written a book that encapsulates a story about women in Rome 114BC. The main characters in this historical fiction novel are the priestesses of Vesta. Collins takes the reader on a journey through the lives of these women in the lead-up to an event which will be life-changing for them.

As a reader I loved this novel and that Collins does not shy away from the harsh realities of life for women at that time.

Of note is Collins’s Foreword where she highlights that the story of the Vestal Virgins,

can only be told in fragments, because fragments are all we find, and fragments are all we remember. (Collins, 2018: Foreword, p. 5).

The novel is structured in nine chapters, consisting of short and long passages and includes reference to research by scholars of Roman history which Collins has entitled, ‘Fragments’. These fragments of history act as interventions and help contextualise the incompleteness of the story that remains about the Vestal Virgins. More importantly, they highlight how fragmented the nature of history writing can be. Collins is a great writer and her use of language complements this notion of fragmented history writing when it occasionally sits outside the story, for example,

Ever killed anything but kittens before, junior? (Collins, p. 9).

The notion of fragments has been used to form the structure of the novel and is sustained within a dimension of connectedness to nature’s elements of Fire, Earth, Water, and Air as the reader follows the actions of the main characters, Secunda and Amelia. Collins’s approach keeps the story focused and the reader engaged as she builds a picture of what might have been daily rituals in the lives of the Priestesses of Vesta.

In her research of the history of the Vestal Virgins Collins visited the location in search of a sense of connection to the area where the story takes place. This has enabled her to give the reader vivid descriptions of the temple where we can visualise the interactions of the priestesses with the powerful elite of Rome, the people whom the Vestal Virgins serve, and how they bring together the principal elements of nature to their sacred hearth. Collins writes in a final note to the reader that,

it was a time when the sacred included connection to the earth, air, wind and fire. (Collins, p. 256).

The significance of a work like Fire and Sacrifice is that in telling a story about women’s history that has almost been lost, it also raises the issues of politics, power, class, and gender equality in relation to how women were chosen for the role of a Vestal Virgin.

Collins has an awareness of the fragmented nature of researching and writing history and her work is a good example of how this can be used to write a story set in the past. The direct linking of the creative writing in the novel to the research done by scholars provides a platform where history and historical fiction can work together. When stories are written with a perception of the incompleteness of what is remembered and how history has been written in the past, the reader benefits by being left to draw their own conclusions on the author’s stance when writing a story such as Fire and Sacrifice.

As a reader I loved this novel and that Collins does not shy away from the harsh realities of life for women at that time. Maybe more could have been written about the families from whence these vestal virgins came, but there is enough in the novel about the division between master/mistress and slave and the politics of the day to satisfy the reader. Nor, does she romanticise the position that the Vestal Virgins held in Rome at that time.

This is Collins’s first historical novel and I hope it won’t be her last. Her other work includes Fast Effective News Writing for Nonprofits, and I believe she is working on a contemporary fictional novel. It is for the reader to decide, but I recommend that a journey through Fire and Sacrifice be taken.

Delighted to be included in the Historical Novel Society Australasia’s reviews and the May 2019 edition of their print magazine, Historical Novels Review. It’s an honour to have been chosen for reading, and a bit of a personal goal, so if I can have a little moment: ‘woohoo!’.

Big thanks to the Society’s reviewer J Lynn Else for her comments.

“The author does a great job bringing the setting and political atmosphere to life. Exploring the inner workings of the vestal virgins is a delight.”

I always value feedback from readers and reviewers: it’s forever interesting to see how different people react to the story and the storytelling style! Always a rife creative decision whether to write using the ancient historical phrasing, or provide a modernisation to try make the time period feel more accessible to readers. I went with the latter and had loads of fun playing around with pushing the boundaries on dialogue in historical fiction. Would love to hear what others thought of that!

Please share your views, I’d love to hear them.

Historical fiction lovers can check out the Historical Novel Society on Facebook here.

Not since Indiana and Poirot have I got so much enjoyment from historical mystery set in this time period. I have discovered Lady Hardcastle and Armstrong a little late, after their 2016 release but I am as excited at the new reader’s adventure as if the series were released yesterday.

These are exceptionally well developed characters with strong voice, wit and personality plus clever hints at a detailed backstory that convincingly makes them who they are, as well as promising many more adventures to be revealed in their past and future. The range of secondary characters were as clearly defined, entertaining bunch as in any Agatha Christie, and the mystery plot detailed and convincing enough for a great fun read.

If any of my own readers get as much enjoyment from strong female protagonists in close friendships as I have from this book, I would be a very satisfied author. I’m going online now to buy more in the series and sign up for alerts from Kinsey!

There are 5 books so far in the Lady Hardcastle Mysteries series. Check out Kinsey here on Goodreads.

Just had to share this reader review by fellow historical fiction writer Sherry Christie, posted to Goodreads and Amazon. Glad you loved it, Sherry!

Overall, FIRE AND SACRIFICE is amazing. I believe it’s Collins’s debut novel. More, more! 

Victoria Collins’s FIRE AND SACRIFICE starts off at a breathless pace with the frantic slavegirl Secunda being dragged across Rome by her owner’s two sons, who intend to throw her off the Tarpeian Rock for an offense she denies. By chance they cross paths with a Vestal Virgin, who by law can pardon a condemned criminal on the spot. Secunda is instantly dazzled by the Vestal, Aemilia, who orders her release. 

The girl flees from her disgruntled accusers in a wonderful passage of helter-skelter terror: “I ran like a wild thing, flapping and flailing like a hen before the axe. I ran to the Tarpeian Rock, on the hill above the forum. I don’t know why. I threw up there. I ran from the rock to the Temple of Jupiter, looming behind me big as a god. I ran round behind it, away from its glare, back along the massive foundation stones and down the escarpment, through the bush like wildfire, leaping over logs and onto rocks, jumping hollows and charging through shrubs, sliding crawling falling all the way down to the road.”

Later Secunda sneaks to the House of the Vestals, where to her immense delight she is taken in and given a position as cook to Aemilia and the five other Vestals. Her facial disfigurement, dating from a fall into the kitchen fire as a toddler, doesn’t matter to these kindly women. Recruited in girlhood to tend the eternal flame of the goddess Vesta until their retirement at the end of 30 years, the Vestals’ devotion is regarded by superstitious Romans as an essential factor in retaining the favor of the gods. Alas, when the survivors of a terrible military defeat struggle back to the city, official fingers point to the Vestals’ somehow having failed in their duty of chastity and fidelity. The ending is one that will stick with you for some time.

Collins writes lyrical descriptions (“It was the gods’ hour. That hour before dawn when the moon has made its arc and the sky is deep turquoise as the light slowly warms . . . . Gods and spirits are better heard, and sneak most easily through as we sleep”), interspersed with startlingly unrefined dialogue (“The Arab huh? Really? Shit,” says the Pontifex Maximus). The abrasiveness of modern vernacular, coupled with Collins’s device of stitching in relevant excerpts from real historians, forces the reader into the reality of what’s happening. It’s a daring approach for an author to take, but it works.

I did note that oranges, pumpkins, and butter wouldn’t have been in Secunda’s pantry around 114 BC. And one or two terms were baffling (“Terentia was ropable: at the girls and at the gods,” and somebody “faffing about,” which I think we Yanks call “piddling around”). [hmm interesting note, Sherri – I did check these in my research but let’s check again. I suspect ‘faffing’ is an Aussie term? VC]

Overall, FIRE AND SACRIFICE is amazing. I believe it’s Collins’s debut novel. More, more!

For Sherry Christie’s own work including Roma Amor: A Novel of Caligula’s Rome and Villa of the Mysteries: A Novella of Nero and the God Dionysus  check out her website www.roma-amor.com.

Just finished Patrick White’s The Aunt’s story and just had to share! This is what Nobel Prize winning writing looks like, and oh my!

Some of my wonderful readers have shared with me their favourite passages from my own Fire and Sacrifice, that they re-read for the joy of the expression, and I am so incredibly flattered and thrilled to know some passages have had that effect.

I would never put myself in the same list as Patrick White, but in reading this book I have most certainly re-read and copied down in awe many of his passages that I might learn how the magic works!

“Many unfinished situations complicated the surface of the dining room, or lay folded, passive, and half recognized amongst the table napkins.”

Book review

(Also on my Goodreads page): The Aunt’s Story is going to stay with me for some time. Not just because of the haunting ending that makes me want to revisit and reread several sections, but also for the stunning literary presentations of intimate relationships and Theodora’s intensely private world. I like her!

I will admit to struggling with some sections, in particular where there’s a lot of un-translated French dialogue. This is one of those books that is a success for its character journey and literary genius, not for exciting plot. Really, little happens and you will need to concentrate.

That said, Patrick White seems to have a rare ability to see under the surfaces of daily interactions and get straight, painfully, to the heart of deeper motivations, agendas and psychological needs – from the way we navigate fleeting interactions, to manifestations of ongoing personal pain. And he does it often with such swift beauty I found myself re-reading in wonder (and then noting down!) many of his phrases. This is what the writing of a Nobel Prize winner looks like.

“You are an odious and repulsive glutton, Alyosha Sergei.” But her words were worn by much use and had a certain shabby tenderness.