Audiobook Review: Shadows

Shadows by John Saul

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Shadows is the first audio book I’ve listened to. I thought I would have problems with my mind wandering, but the story was so intriguing that I found myself completely absorbed with what was happening.

In short, the story is about a school for genius children. It confronts the many problems these children experience on a daily basis, in normal life such as isolation, teasing, boredom, lack of friendship and suicide tendencies. Then it moves into life at the new school and shows the feeling of normalcy and acceptance. But the school isn’t everything it portrays and that’s when things turn quite sinister in parts.

Unfortunately, because I don’t want to spoil it for anyone else, I can’t go into any details. There was, however, one section about suicide that actually made me quite angry. It was obvious to me, a person who has lost a son to suicide, that the author hasn’t experienced suicide and this fact showed in his writing. Yet, running parallel to this was some interesting thoughts that I actually agreed with too. One moment I felt a fire in my belly that wanted to put an end to the words I was reading because they embraced everything that fed the stigma that has been around for decades, and then the words changed and I found myself nodding in agreement. It was a roll coaster that swung back and forth. All I can say is that I was glad when the story changed direction and the topic of suicide was over.

Then the story moved into another interesting topic. I can’t tell you what it is as it would spoil the book, if you intend to read it. However, although I find the topic interesting, I am not emotionally attached to it so things were “sweet” from this point on…if not quite disturbing, in other ways.

I do not know if the technical stuff was correct or not. All I can say is that it sounded convincing and when reading a story that is all I care about. As the story ran swiftly to the climax, I found myself eager to find out how the author would tie the pieces together and what would have to a couple of the “characters”.

The end was satisfactory. I was pleased that the author didn’t elect to go in another direction, which I had feared might happen at one stage.

For my first audio experience I think I had the right book. I enjoyed it a lot and will definitely try something else by the author…and I’d also listen to another audio book too.

Book Review: Perfect Victim

Perfect Victim by Elizabeth Southall and Megan Norris

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Perfect Victim is a true story about the disappearance and murder of 15 year old Rachel Barber in March 1999 in Victoria, Australia. There are two “stories” running parallel – the story of Rachel’s family’s anguish and grief as told by her mother, Elizabeth Barber (using the pen name of Elizabeth Southall), and, an account of the investigation and court case by criminal court reporter, Megan Norris.

Because of the nature of the book, I do not feel it’s relevant to dissect the book as I usually do and talk about characters, plot, setting and voice. These things are what they are…true, disturbing, heartfelt and a complete waste of a young life. It would be wrong for me to “critique” a book which has been written out of love, need and pain, so I am going to talk about this book in relation to the loss of my son in 2006.

The loss of a child by murder and the loss of a child by suicide are two completely different things, yet they are so similar as well. The loved ones of each are left with unending questions that may never be answered. The deep feelings of guilt are overwhelming, although usually unwarranted. The grief is never ending. The lives of everyone close to the person who has gone forever are never the same.

Reading Elizabeth’s words made me cry…not only for her and her daughter, but for me and my son. As I read the Barber family struggles with accepting what had happened and their feelings of isolation, distress and frustration, I thought of my own family facing those same issues.

And then, when Elizabeth spoke directly to her daughter through the book, my heart broke. In her words I heard echoes of my own thoughts and feelings. It was like Rachel’s mother had crawled into my mind and plucked secret thoughts from my head.

Finally, Elizabeth mentioned that she wrote the book not only for herself or for Rachel…she wrote it to make the appropriate authorities – such as the police and the court system – aware of how the family of someone who has gone missing and murdered are feeling, how stressed they are. She needed them to know the anguish, frustration and total devastation felt by Rachel’s family and closest friends. It was important to her to inform and educate them of these things because she didn’t want another family having to deal with the lack of communication and isolation she experienced during the disappearance and then the murder investigation of her daughter. I could relate to the reasons, although in this regard my reasons are quite different. For me, I want to raise suicide awareness in others and I feel the need to educate people about grief.

In conclusion, Elizabeth said that at the time the book was published, it had been three years since her daughter’s death. It has been three years now since my son’s death. She said that her family were trying to move forward, although Rachel’s memory would never be forgotten. My family feels the same way. She mentioned the pain she still felt and the tears still shed on an everyday basis, but especially on “important” dates. I can attest to that as I’m the same. She also said how difficult it was to face everyday questions from strangers, such as “do you have children?” and then the inevitable questions that follow, like “how many?” and “what are their ages?”. For most people, these are easy questions and they eagerly reply. For a parent who has lost a child these questions are difficult and bring a lump to their throat because it’s hard to know how the questions should be answered as we are fully aware that whatever we say someone will feel uncomfortable.

Book Review: The Starthorn Tree

The Starthorn Tree by Kate Forsyth

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Starthorn Tree by Kate Forsyth, I found, was difficult to get into because of the dialogue of the characters. It slowed the story down and I found it distracting. But once I got used to the way they spoke and the strange names of the creatures, the story picked up and improved from there.

The story is a classic quest. Five children (aged around 12 to 15 years of age) from different backgrounds, ranging from princess to thief, are brought together for a common cause; although some characters are rather reluctant but they don’t have much of a choice. They are joined by an old man, who isn’t all he seems, and their journey takes them across the most dangerous terrain they can imagine. There are soldiers on foot and on flying birds chasing them; gibgoblins, sprites, wildkin and other creatures prepared to kill them as look at them and a woman of the Crafty they must find before time runs out and the princess’s brother dies.

The poor children are faced with horrors that would curl your toes and they must get over differences that we adults can’t seem to do ourselves. There is a lot of action, but there’s always time for a fed after a long day of journeying, fighting, arguing, and just generally running for their lives. There’s some good humour, lots of great scenery, moments of sadness that will bring a lump to your throat and even a touch of romance. As far as I know, The Starthorn Tree is a stand alone book, which means there are no other books with these characters in it. And as all good books should, it left me feeling satisfied with an ending that gave a hint of what would happen in the future for the characters and how their journey had changed their lives.

Apart from the unsettled beginning, I found this book to be a good read – interesting, exciting and it manages to draw you in. I certainly would pick up another book written by the same author.


Building a Family Tree: Where do I start?

I have over 6,000 names on my tree and that has taken over 20 years worth of research to build, but I still remember when I first started out. Even though I thought I came from the smallest family in existence, I was still dumbfounded as to where to start. And, really, where to start is the easiest question you have to face in genealogy.

You start with yourself!

Who knows more about you than…well, you? Maybe your parents, but generally speaking you know everything you need to know to get started.

But let’s back up a bit before you start jotting down information. At the beginning, drawing up little charts can be fun and exciting, but you’ll soon realise that those charts are not good enough. You’ll soon be looking for a better way to document the information you gather and I recommend you start out the way you will want to carry on – by using excellent genealogy software.

I use and recommend Legacy Family Tree. I’ve used it for years and find it not only easy to use, but easy to carry around on a flash card so that it can be used on any computer, which I find handy. In the past, I have created a family tree website with it too and it also allows me to search resource websites from within the program. Everything you’ll need to accomplish with it, can be done.

Once you’ve settled on the software you are going to use, open it to a fresh, blank tree and enter the first person – you! From there, enter the details of your husband/wife/partner (if you have one) and then the details of your children and grand children (if any). See how quickly your tree is growing? I’m sure you’ll feel inspired by that alone. When you’ve finished with your descendants, it’s time to look at your ancestors. Add your parents and then your grandparents. From there you’ll be able to add your parent’s siblings and their children. And you’ll also be able to add your parents aunts and uncles.

In a couple of hours you could go from a blank family tree to one with a couple of dozen people on it, if not more.

It is that easy.

Of course, getting started is the simple part. You’ll soon realise that you don’t know all the details you need for your aunts and uncles, let alone your great aunts and uncles and all your cousins. But how to get around that is something to discuss in another post. *grin*

Author Interview: Sean Williams

This month I have the honour of interviewing Sean Williams, author of several publications including The Change trilogy, the Broken Land series and several Star Wars novels.

Thank you for allowing me to interview you, Sean. Tell us about your latest publication.

I’ve had two series finished this year, giving me double cause to be anxious. Endings are hard enough when you’re writing just one book; over three or four the target can become very hard to hit. The Grand Conjunction concludes a gender-bending gothic-noir space opera set well over a million years in the future. The series, Astropolis, is full of all sorts of odd things, including a character who speaks solely in the lyrics of Gary Numan, and I was never entirely sure that I could pull it off. Reviews have been glowing, though, so I’m beginning to relax a little now.

The Scarecrow ends my “Broken Land” series for kids. It’s inspired by South Australian landscapes (like all my fantasy novels) and draws a lot of its characterisation and concerns from my own childhood. I felt very close to my young protagonists, and it’s been hard leaving them behind. I’ve since found the opportunity to continue their story as adults in a couple of sequel novellas, so I haven’t quite let them go yet.

Having read a couple of your books, I know how real your characters become so it’s no wonder you’ve grown attached to them. What project are you working on at the moment?

I’ve just finished a new Star Wars novel, but I can’t reveal the title, alas. The deadline for that was very tight, so I’m just beginning to catch up on all the things that have built up in the last few months. One is an introduction to a reissue of Arthur J Rees‘s classic mystery novel The Shrieking Pit, which required a lot of research. Another is a series of linked poems for an anthology celebrating the work of Charles Darwin. When I’m working on a book, particularly when time is tight, I don’t like to do anything else but write when I’m at the computer, so everything else gets put on hold. Then my brain breaks as I try to do nine different things at once, all of them usually late. Then it’s on to re-writes or the next book. It keeps life interesting.

It sounds exhausting. Is your life reflected in the stories you write?

In all sorts of odd ways, and probably ways you wouldn’t recognise. Some of it’s up-front: the landscape of my fantasy novels, for instance, which is very clearly modelled on places I have spent a lot of time in down the years. There are themes that return many times because they’re themes I’ve struggled with all my life. Some of them I’m still struggling with now–like the nature of fatherhood, and love, and one’s place in the world; those old favourites. My friends pop in the books, as names or in certain behaviours, but it’s like meat in hot dogs: you’d never see them in the finished products. I’ve occasionally destroyed Adelaide, my home town, just for fun.

The one area of my life that I haven’t included in a story is writing. It feels a little….obvious. And a little too close to home, perhaps.

Do you know how the story will end when you first start writing it?

I like to. Otherwise I risk getting lost. Given I write at least two books a year, there isn’t any time to waste. As far back as I can remember–back to when I was writing novels in high school instead of doing my homework–I liked to work that way. I always make sure there’s some room to have fun in along the way, but I don’t like to set out without knowing exactly where I’m going first.

That makes a lot of sense. How do you balance writing with the rest of your life?

That’s the question, isn’t it? It’s one I’ve struggled with several times in the last twenty years. It’s such an all-consuming vocation–or can be, if you let it. I totally dived in at first, to the detriment of lots of things, from my love-life to my mental health. Eventually it occurred to me that, while it was great I was doing something I loved, I also needed to live a healthy life. So I started taking time off, going out, rejoining the world. Now, with a wife and family, the pendulum sometimes swings the other way, but I still write every day, and I still meet my deadlines. Since I’ve never been happier, I’d say I’ve got the balance about right. Touchwood/

That’s something I’m still struggling with so I admire you for finding the right balance. What advice would you give to a newcomer to writing?

Read a lot and write a lot. They’re the first two of the ten-and-a-half “commandments”–my attempt to compile every piece of writing advice that doesn’t need to be qualified. (link: I also have an A-Z of writing that might help. (link: But as long as you’re reading and writing, you’re on the right trick. Weird to think that some people want to be writers without ever actually reading. They just think it’d be a good way to make a living. As the late great Charles Brown used to say: “Everyone wants to be a writer. It’s the writing that’s the hard part.”

Well, he certainly was right. Do you believe in writer’s block? Why?

Some people definitely suffer from it. I don’t know why. There have been periods where I’ve found writing on a particular project very hard, but that can be worked through. I mean, accountants have to go to the office whether they’re feeling inspired or not, right? Musicians have to perform if they’re booked play in a concert. Why should writers be any different? Finding your way through that feeling is one of the great challenges of writing. If you can’t do it, you’re in big trouble.

Well said. What are your writing goals for the future?

To keep loving what I write, and to write better books. That’s it.

I wish you the best of luck with that too. Thank you for your time.

If you would like to know more about Sean and his books, please visit him at his website.