Tag Archives: historical fiction

Author interview

I was recently interviewed about my latest book, The Good Child. You can check it out below.

Historically, men have power over the lives of both nations and women. Commerce and politics are traditional realms of masculine influence in cultures worldwide. The latest Australian historical fiction by S.C. Karakaltsas (see my review here), The Good Child explores the public and private aspects of how the behaviour of some influential men affects their loved…

The Good Child: exploring how power is shaped — Clare Rhoden

New Book Release: The Good Child by S.C. Karakaltsas

We’re finally out of lockdown mark 6 in Melbourne and after three straight months I’m emerging into a social life and a little retail therapy.

It might look like I’ve spent my days reading and reviewing other people’s books, but in between I’ve been slowly and methodically and sometimes haphazardly writing another historical fiction novel.

It’s taken a little over three years and any writer will tell you that it’s hard work even with a pandemic to distract in between.

The cover was done by the brilliant, Anthony Guardabascio from Continue , and doesn’t it pack a punch of vibrant colour?

About The Good Child:

The Good Child is a compelling story of two very different women: 72-year-old Lucille, with a hidden tragic past, and 30-year-old Quin, whose ambitions lost her everything.

Everyone hates Lucille for what her son Tom, did and she can’t blame them. He’ll probably go to jail. She’s to blame too — she ignored all of his faults perhaps even encouraged them. She never wanted him in the first place. But that wasn’t her first mistake. She’d ignored her grandmother’s warning that if she married the man she loved, her life would be a disaster. She was right too.

Now Lucille’s on a train with no money and no home. All she’s left with is a blind overprotective love for her son, but even that is now pushed to the brink as she comes to terms with her actions and those of Tom’s.

Quin worked for Tom and knows exactly what he’s done because she helped him do it – she turned a blind eye to the corners he cut and the lies he told. Now, she’s lost everything and it’s her own fault. She wants revenge.

Then she meets Lucille on the train and finds herself facing her past and her future.

Rich in detail and epic in scope, The Good Child is a powerful novel of emotional and financial resilience, loss and unexpected friendship.

First Reviews

And the first reviews have started. Check out this lovely 5 Star review for The Good Child 

The Good Child is available on Amazon.com or Amazon.au

Book Review: Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

This is the brilliantly imagined story about Hamnet, Shakespeare’s son who inspires the writing of the play Hamlet.  But it’s more than that. It’s a story about Hamnet’s mother, Agnes (Anne) Hathaway, the wife of Shakespeare.

The first half of the novel sets the scene.  Judith, Hamnet’s twin sister suddenly falls ill and her bewilderment is described in detail.

“She cannot comprehend what has happened to this day. One moment, she and Hamnet were pulling bits of thread for the cat’s new kittens … and then she had suddenly felt a weakness in her arms, an ache in her back, a prickling in her throat. … Now she is on this bed and she has no idea how she got here.” 

Hamnet desperately tries to find help for his sister.  His mother is out looking after her bees, his grandparents are not where they should be and his father is away in London. His desperation grows as does our anxiety for him and Judith. Then, it slips back in time between chapters from the present day to when Hamnet’s parents meet. Their love is genuine despite the 8-year age gap (Shakespeare is said to be 18) between them and when Agnes falls pregnant, they marry.  

In the second half, Agnes comes home to find her child ill. With her herbal remedies and gift for seeing into the future she desperately tries to keep her child alive.

It is imagined that the child falls sick from the plague and the author provides a delightful side story about a flea and its journey from continent to continent via the sea until it comes to rest in the village and bites Judith. It makes for even more compelling reading given the state of the world we now live in and the migration of our present day virus.

The other fascinating thing about this book is that Shakespeare’s name is never mentioned. He is merely referenced as the tutor, the father, the husband which serves the purpose of pivoting the story squarely on his little-known wife. Indeed, we become familiar with the detail of her everyday life:  her marriage, childbirth, living with her in-laws, moving from country to town, the separation from her husband and the subsequent death of her child.

Imagery so fine, that we can imagine ourselves there. “She is drifting through the apartment, touching things as she goes: the back of a chair, an empty shelf, the fire irons, the door handle, the stair rail…. She is … out the apartment’s back door, which leads into a shared yard… she fires the oven in the cookhouse and coaxes the dough into rounds, adding a handful of ground herbs from the kitchen garden.”

Losing a child was more common than it is today but is nevertheless just as painful. No detail of the mother-child bond is spared and the depth of grief is raw with emotion.

The other characters are well drawn and the love between Agnes and her husband and the bond she also has with her brother is moving.   

A novel, beautifully crafted and lyrically executed makes this one a joy to read.

Book Review: Elizabeth & Elizabeth by Sue Williams

I’ve been on a bit of a Elizabeth Macarthur odyssey ever since I read Michelle Scott Tucker’s book Elizabeth Macarthur: A life at the edge of the world. (See my earlier review https://sckarakaltsas.com/2020/05/22/book-review-elizabeth-macarthur-a-life-at-the-edge-of-the-world-by-michelle-scott-tucker/ ). When I heard about Elizabeth & Elizabeth, a fictional story about Elizabeth’s friendship with Elizabeth Macquarie, I had to buy the book.

Too many Elizabeth’s can be a bit confusing so I’ll use surnames. A young Mrs Macquarie was married to Lachlan Macquarie who came to Australia as the Governor of the new colony. He was a man of vision, providing the name of Australia and introducing social reforms to emancipate convicts despite strong opposition from the elite including Mr Macarthur. Williams imagines Mrs Macquarie to be a strong and assertive influence on Lachlan and credits her with imaginative ideas of architecture, garden landscaping as well as social welfare for young women.

Meanwhile Mrs Macarthur married to the troublesome, duel challenging at the drop of a hat, Mr Macarthur is much older and wiser not given to airs and graces while she’s grappling with a couple of sheep on the farm she’s managing because Mr Macarthur is in England sorting out the scraps he’s had with the previous Governor.

When she first arrives, Mrs Macquarie is portrayed as a wide-eyed and naïve young woman and I wondered if it might have been further from the truth given that she was thirty-one not twenty-one. But her character grows as she quickly adapts to the realities of the harshness of colonial life. She holds the much older Mrs Macarthur in high esteem. The relationship while brittle at first grows over the years as the challenges to the Macquarie’s post grows more difficult.

Of course, Mr Macarthur is as troublesome as history has portrayed. I’d always imagined that the relationship between Mr and Mrs Macarthur to be a difficult one with little love. Yet the author paints a loving and caring relationship between them. From what I’d read so far, I really doubted the woman could have done anything other than be relieved when he went to London for several years leaving her to make her mark on the colony with her sheep breeding ideas.

In reality, history being written by men provides us with little knowledge of the relationship between the two women but Williams reads between the lines to give us a delicious account of what these strong and intelligent women brought to society and to the foundations of the colony giving them credit when there’d been little before. No doubt there would have been few women from their class and they would have little choice than to fraternise despite their husbands opposing views of each other. I really liked the idea that women could come together to support each other enough to make the colony a better place. I can’t imagine how horrific it must have been to be a woman where childbirth and child raising was fraught with disease and death.   

The other great insight is just how entrenched the class system was adopted and continued on from England. It’s hardly surprising that the governing bodies, serving their own self-interests were mean-spirited about the people in the colony. But wait, what’s changed today with our present government? Perhaps not a lot when you consider the refugees who came here by boat.

This novel is rich in history, well-written and researched. If you’re after a bit of history about upper-class women of influence then check this one out.

Book Review: The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste

Short listed for the Booker Prize in 2020, this is a fascinating and insightful epic about the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935.

It opens with Hirut, an older Ethiopian woman travelling on a bus in 1974 through a troubled Addis Ababa. She’s on her way to take a box of photos to Ettore, a man who’d once been her jailer after her capture by Mussolini’s army.

The story takes us back to just before the Italian invasion when as an orphan, Hirut is taken in as a reluctant servant to Kidane and his wife Aster. When Kidane, an officer in the army mobilises troupes to fight, strong-willed Aster galvanises all the women in the district to help and Hirut transforms from servant to fierce warrior.

 The Emperor, Haile Selassie flees the country and when all hope appears lost, Hirut suggests disguising a peasant as the emperor to fool the Italians and inspire the Ethiopian army to continue the fight. Hirut is eventually captured and embroiled in her own personal war against her captors, one of which is Ettore.

It’s an incredibly written and lyrical novel on a brutal and horrific subject. Mengiste’s descriptions are poetic and I’d suggest you ignore the absence of some punctuation and enjoy the writing.

“She is close enough to see him racing across the spine of the mountain, his heels flying, that chest a swell of bony ribs and heavy air. In the ebbing night, he comes first as sound: the snap of a branch, a scrape of foot on stone. A hiss curving against the soft orange light. He is a fleeting mirage speeding over rough hills, shallow gasps stalling in thick breeze.”

The history is rich giving us insight into both sides of this little-known war of which I was totally ignorant. The author explores the bravery and sheer persistence by the Ethiopians in particular the power of their female soldiers. Mostly told from Hirut’s point of view, we are also given insight into other characters such as Ettore and Selassie who are rich and complex. The themes are numerous: trauma, survival, forced marriage, and colonisation to name some. Interestingly, Mengiste’s own great-grandmother had been a soldier and presumably provided her inspiration.

It’s a wonderfully enlightening and moving account of war fought by strong courageous women. Check it out.

Book Review: The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams

Intricately researched, this novel explores the making of the Oxford Dictionary. It’s an epic story taking in the years between 1886 and 1928 which is how long it took Professor John Murray and his team of editors, lexicographers and assistants to laboriously put it together via the help of thousands of people around the world who sent in words for inclusion.

The story revolves around Esme Owen who as a five-year-old, sits under the desk while her father and others work on the dictionary compiling, collating and making decisions about words on slips of paper and their definitions. One day, a slip with the word bondmaid, falls to the floor and little Esme scrambles to collect it and instead of giving it up, she stores it away like treasure. From that point, she observes the workers, collecting discarded slips with words which were deemed not to be worthy of inclusion. As she grows up, her secret collection of words grows and she begins to question and wonder why so many discarded words happened to be used by women.

“there is no capacity for the Dictionary to contain words that have no textural source. Every word must have been written down, and you are right to assume they largely come from books written by men.”

Esme is passionate about words and begins her research at local markets searching for words used by everyday women. Her best friend is Lizzie, a maid for the Murray family and she harbours Esme’s secret treasure supporting her friends’ quest but also questions some of her actions.

 The writer skilfully weaves in key historical events such as the women’s movement for the right to vote, class distinction, and World War One. Esme’s life is fictional yet some of the supporting characters are real and reimagined by the author to give us a sympathetic taste of what they might have been like.

I love the idea of language shifting and changing and the recognition that a dictionary can never be static as new words are constantly evolving every day. And what a challenge that must be to keep up to date.

“I spend my days trying to understand how words were used by men long dead, in order to draft a meaning that will suffice not just for our times but for the future.”

It’s a long, slow read at first and action is driven by Esme’s love for words and her observations and at times I wondered if my interest could be retained. It’s as a grown woman that things take a turn with Esme and not always for the better. It was easy to be swept up by the events some scandalous and other deeply moving.  I did find myself wanting to know more about Esme’s hopes and wishes for herself but it moved little beyond her work on the dictionary. I also loved Lizzie and her down to earth nature yet I earned to learn more of her hopes and dreams. However, the real main character must surely be the dictionary itself with a glimpse into the lives of the characters it affected.

I enjoyed this book perhaps even more so because I’d seen the movie entitled The Professor and the Madman based on the book The Surgeon of Crowthorne and I was already in awe of how the dictionary came about. The Dictionary of Lost Words took on a whole new perspective which I appreciated enormously. The research was meticulous, the writing beautiful, and methodical. Check this one out.

Book Review: The Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende

This book is a fascinating look at history spanning fifty years of Victor Dalmau’s life. He was a young doctor in the Spanish Civil War who fled to a concentration camp in France. Together with Roser his brother’s pregnant wife, they take a ship chartered by the poet Pablo Neruda and sail to Chile where they settle.

Although fiction, it is written in a non-fictional style and is rich in true historical events surrounding the main characters of Victor and Roser. The horror of the Spanish Civil War is played out from Victor’s point of view from the brutal conditions of the war zone to the struggle for survival and escape. I knew little of this war and was fascinated to learn more.

‘Hundreds of thousands of terrified refugees were escaping to France, where a campaign of fear and hatred awaited them. Nobody wanted these foreigners – Reds, filthy, deserters, delinquents, as the French press labeled them… No-one imagined that within a few days there would be almost half a million Spaniards, in the last stages of confusion, terror and misery, clamouring for the border.”

The skill of Allende is that she is able to transport us through history, teaching and enlightening us about Spain, Chile and also Venezuela, putting us into the lives of the characters so that we know their fear, their pain and their anxiety. Yet despite the tragedies, there is love. And the love which grows between Victor and Roser is beautifully done.

Other characters such as the Del Solar family reflect the class divide between rich and poor in Chile, a legacy still felt today in this troubled country. Characters such as Ofelia Del Solar who tries to escape her domineering father, Victor’s friend Aitor who helps Roser, Victor’s mother Carme, Juana the nanny; each have their own stories weaved throughout the narrative of Victor and Roser’s life.

Some might be put off by the expositional style of writing but it didn’t bother me in the slightest. It’s easy to read, highly enlightening and sweeps you along. Give it a go.