Autumn leaves, fat limes, plumper pomegranates, avocados ready to harvest, still-warm days, and nights just cold enough for a doona…I do love Autumn. Have begun to go to bed an hour earlier just to snuggle up and read.
It has been a lovely year. Last year was not lovely. A bit too… surgically dramatic for us, and for friends and family. This is a gentler year, with problems solved, or at least at ‘we can cope with this’ stage. And so many good things...
I think I might also have discovered how to put plots into my novels. (This does make me a slow learner.) Not that all books need nail-biting plots. I still love a gentle meander through time and place, with a stop for morning tea. But the last two books have been of the ‘turn the next three pages FAST’ kind – except if well done you can turn as many pages as you like but won’t find out the answer unless you read it all – in order, no use beginning at the final chapter to get the answer.
Today has been spent: writing Miss Lily 3; making white chocolate fudge and passionfruit shortbread, and marinating broccoli; and watching the rain- blue sky, then a single cloud – and the air turned liquid for ten minutes, then five minutes of hail and then the cloud was gone – about 20 mm later. The wombats will not be impressed. They do not like wet stomachs. But then, they are all fat and will probably decide just to spend the night snoozing rather than face cold damp paws.
And I have a great big new fat book to read…
Life is good.
Books for Tathra and The Magic Book Project
Melissa Pouliot has founded a program, Book Love for Tathra, to try to replace the libraries of the families who lost their homes in the bushfires. Search for 'Book Love for Tathra' if you want to contribute – any books, as long as they are new – and they will make sure the right books go to each home. There has been extraordinary generosity, with the Australian Women’s Weekly giving cook books, too. If I ever lose my home, the cook books will be among the books I miss most.
Send books to:
PO Box 7255
I give books whenever I am asked, whenever I can. (And apologies to those in the last month I haven’t sent books to – I have just one pair of hands and being away for a week, plus a cold, meant I wasn’t able to send the books in time for your function). I call it 'The Magic Book Project' – finding and or giving the books needed to turn a kid who is sure they hate books into a reader, or for those who need books for other reasons.
It is ‘whenever I can’ though, as it is just me, and there are times when I physically can’t send the books if there are too many requests, or I have been away from work or ill. But mostly, so far they are sent; and if more are needed, I try to spread the word.
The story begins years ago, when I met a homeless boy late at night at St Vincent’s hospital where my husband had been taken in an emergency. He asked me for ‘any spare change’. I gave him what I had. He chose sandwiches and chips from the vending machines, first inhaling the sandwiches, then eating the chips as slowly as he could, making them last.
Two social workers arrived. They told him that they had tried for two hours but couldn’t find him a bed to sleep in. He cried, ‘Don’t send me out into the street. Please don’t send me out there.’ They said, ‘We’ve done all we can’ and left.
I ran after them, offering to find him a bed. They said, ‘It isn’t as simple as that. It must be licenced.’ And then the surgeon arrived for my husband, and the boy who had no bed cheered for us because my husband now had one.
I couldn’t find him again.
I cried for three weeks, till my wonderful nephew told me to stop being self-indulgent and do what I could, not cry over what I couldn’t. And that day I realised that I wanted to give the boy books, too.
Years ago, when I was a homeless teenager and hungry, I never doubted I had a good future, because I'd grown up with books. I had libraries too and a teacher who gave me books. (And scholarships, and an Australia where you could walk into some kind of job the next day – it was grim, and I still have nightmares, but not as bad as you may imagine).
Book don't just carry the knowledge and inspiration of thousands of years of writers and story-tellers. They give us hope. They give us happiness. They give us refuge. Books are friends.
When times are bad you need all of those. And when times are good, you need books as well, so you have their comfort when things go bad.
And so I give books, every time I can.
The Lily and the Rose
Age range: 14+
World War I is over, but can there ever truly be peace?
Sophie Higgs, Australian heiress, faces the revolutionary turmoil of Europe to rescue her fellow student, Hannelore, the Prinzessen von Arneburg.
And what of the mysterious Miss Lily? Can she ever return?
Even love seems impossible, as the women who helped win the war are expected to forget all they achieved on the battlefields. Sophie is torn between her very different feelings for Nigel, Earl of Shillings; Dolphie, patriot and enemy; and ‘John’, the man who carves stone crosses on Sophie’s Australian property for every man who has died under his command.
This is the second in the Miss Lily series, a cross, perhaps, between James Bond and Downton Abbey, as well as following not just the changing role of women, but how we see ourselves.
Barney and the Secret of the French Spies
Age range: 8+
Barney Bean now has his dream, his own farm. But when Elsie suddenly falls desperately ill, the secret of why she will not speak is revealed.
This story reveals more of the secrets of our past: the French invasion ordered by Napoleon, and the women like Jeanne Barre who disguised themselves as men to take part in great scientific adventures on voyages across the world.
Goodbye Mr Hitler
Age range: 11+
This is the best book I have written and the most deeply important. It is a book that matters – and I have never said that about my work before.
Goodbye Mr Hitler is the third in the loose trilogy that began with Hitler’s Daughter and Pennies for Hitler. It is the story of Johan; of Heide, who has now become Helga Schmidt; and Georg’s mother.
The book still has too powerful a hold on me to write about it – if I could summarise it I wouldn’t have needed to write the book. Perhaps this quotation from the last chapter might say what I can’t about the book and why it is one that so many need to understand, now, today, before the world begins another insane spiral that, as an historian, I recognise too well:
The world has many ogres. Some, like Mr Hitler, do not even know that they are ogres, but dream they are the hero of the story.
But I have learned this in the years since I was ten years old: when you see injustice, stand beside each other and seize your spears. My spears are made of words. Yours may be different. But do not hesitate or look away. If too many look away, the ogres win. To be mostly deeply human we must risk our lives for others. Only when we stand together can we be truly free.
It is not easy fighting ogres. No one who fights an ogre comes away unscarred, even if you cannot see the wounds. And so you owe the ogre hunters this.
When the ogre has been vanquished, sit down upon the quiet earth and try to understand the ogre’s anguish and his twisted fear. Only by understanding can we stop them rising in our midst.
When you understand, forgive.
And then stand up, and live.
Facing the Flame
Age range: 12+
As grass dries and the hot wind howls, Gibbers Creek will burn. But if you love your country, you will fight for it.
Facing the Flame is the seventh in the Matilda series, a heartbreaking and powerful story of the triumph of courage, community and a love for the land so deep that not even bushfire can obliterate it.
Set in the late 1970s, this book tells the story of a small rural community suffering through a debilitating drought. When bushfire catches and spreads, the people of Gibbers Creek must come together to defend their home and all that they have worked for; a dangerous struggle that many Australians must face each year.
Lu Borgino has been recently blinded, but she battles flames to save a racehorse, even though her dreams of being Australia's first professional female jockey have been destroyed.
Scarlett O'Hara risks her hard-won life at medical school and the new love of Alex Romanov, to save a child.
Flinty McAlpine draws on the local knowledge of tens of thousands of years to protect her valley.
All the while Jed Kelly must escape not just bushfire, but the man who plots to kill her with its power.
There have been fires before, but not like this.
Facing the Flame is written for both teenagers and adults.
Some events this year are ‘possible’, i.e. not confirmed yet or details still being organised. While I’m travelling again now, my legs were damaged in surgery last year, so I need to travel with a crutch, which puts limits on how long I stand or sit. I’m trying not to let the damage stop me, but it does mean there’s a bit more involved in travel these days.
For bookings, check the terms on the website and/or contact Booked Out.
11–12 May: TATE, THTA and TGTA Humanities Conference, Launceston, TAS
18 May: Fundraising; SPELD luncheon, Brisbane, QLD
19 May: Book Links (Qld) workshop on Teaching and Writing History; fundraiser for books for kids from disadvantaged areas, Brisbane, QLD
20 May: SPELD family day, Brisbane QLD. Fundraising workshops on writing fiction and essay writing:—
Story Writing Workshop: Yes, you can write a story... and by the end of this workshop you'll know how
Essay Writing: If you can tell your best friend what you did last weekend then you can write an essay. This workshop will show you how to make it a superb one
20 June: SEATA, Adelaide, SA
10 July: ALEA conference, Perth, WA
4 August: Shoalhaven Readers' and Writers' Festival, NSW
20–22 August: Melbourne Book Week events organised by Booked Out, VIC
8 September: Joint Laureate event, Brisbane Writers Festival, QLD
18–21 September: Events in Hunter Valley, NSW
Poppies for Winter
A Passion for Poppies
For years I thought poppies were one of the glories of spring and summer – stunning sprawls of California poppies in vivid orange, yellows, reds and even creams and whites; flagrantly elegant Oriental poppies – the sort of flower that you stop and stare at because you can’t believe that one thin-stemmed bloom could look quite as stunning.
The weather is cooling now. With a few exceptions – like spinach, broad beans, and cabbages – the main vegetable planting time is over.
But then one day I saw a garden in Canberra filled with Iceland poppies – in mid-winter. Impossible – Iceland poppies bloom in spring and summer. Yet there they were, in what is possibly the coldest climate of any Australian capital city.
What was the gardener’s secret? It was simple – she didn’t know anything about gardening, so had planted the seeds in early autumn instead of late winter. And there they were – yellows, reds, oranges, a host of glowing, mixed, winter colours.
Since then I’ve grown my own winter Iceland poppies and encouraged others to grow them in Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, Hobart and Perth. I suspect they’d grow in Darwin quite happily in winter too.
Iceland poppies (Papaver nudicaule) don’t really come from Iceland. I’m not sure how they got the name; maybe because thy survive such cold climates, though they grow well in hot climates too as long as they are grown in the cold months. In fact they come from Siberia, another place of really extreme temperature variation, but they’ll bloom well in both hot and very cold climates if sown at the right times in a sunny aspect and kept moist.
If you sow poppies in early autumn they’ll flower at the beginning of winter and, if kept well fed and watered – and the seed heads are nipped off – will keep blooming till Christmas. Basically they flower longer in cool weather and each individual flower lasts longer — hot weather and lengthening days make them put most of their energy into forming seed heads, not new flowers.
Sow seeds on top of the soil and just ruffle it about a bit – they shouldn’t be planted deeply. Make sure your chosen area is weed-free. If you’re planting out punnets of seedlings, plant them about a hand-span apart. You’ll need about 20 plants per square metre with a thick display as the stems are thin (and hairy). They also grow beautifully in big pots and produce enough flowers for the pot to be covered in colour.
There are a few tricks to getting the most stunning and long-lived display of Iceland poppies. The first is to pick off the first flower buds (this can be a challenging exercise in self-discipline) so that the plants are strong and sturdy before they bear their first blooms. Just twist off the tiny bulges in the middle of the rosette with your fingers. While Iceland poppies will still flower in droughts, they won’t give much of a display.
The second trick is to water often, and feed them every week with a soluble fertiliser designed for maximum flower production. Once seedlings are about 10 cm high stop feeding them high-nitrogen water-soluble fertilisers and swap to using high-potassium water-soluble fertilisers. This will promote long flowering and slow down growth. (If you garden organically, a mulch of good, home-made compost will probably be all they need.
The Iceland poppy is also very popular with councils, especially the 'oranges and lemons’ variety. Most councils don’t have the resources to deadhead their poppies every couple of days so instead they spray with a water-soluble potassium fertiliser every two weeks. This keeps the blossoms coming for up to two months so that, in spite of dead flower heads remaining, the colourful blooms dominate.
While there are perennial poppies, like California and Matilda poppies, Iceland poppies aren’t one of them. They are annuals – they need to be planted again every year. But like many annuals, they give an extraordinary display in your garden.
And, if you want a host of oranges, yellows, golds, pinks, reds and whites dancing about your garden this winter and in spring and early summer, find some Iceland poppy seeds now. It is impossible to see a bed of Iceland poppies in the chill of winter and not smile.
A Few Autumn Recipes
Ultimate Comfort Chicken Soup
Chicken with Tomatoes, Almonds, Orange and Basil
Stir Fried Chicken with Mandarin or Tangerine Peel
Chook with Tomatoes and Olives
Soft and Fudgy Oat Cookies
Orange and Caramel Panna Cotta