Book review: The Fellowship of Puzzle Makers, by Samuel Burr

Title: The Fellowship of Puzzle Makers

Author: Samuel Burr

Publisher: Orion/Hachette, 2024; RRP: $32.99

Samuel Burr is a TV producer who has worked on popular factual shows including the BAFTA-nominated Secret Life of 4-Year-Olds. Samuel’s writing was selected for Penguin’s WriteNow scheme and in 2021 he graduated from the Faber Academy. He previously studied at Westminster Film School.

The Fellowship of Puzzlemakers is a story concerning relationships and self-discovery. It has two interconnected threads following two main characters, Pippa and her adopted son Clayton.

The book opens with a prologue;  here the reader is introduced to Pippa, and Clayton makes an appearance as the baby in the hatbox that Pippa has found on the steps of the Fellowship of Puzzlemakers.

Chapter One is the beginning of Clayton’s story – it is Pippa’s funeral some 25 years later. Burr interweaves the stories of Pippa and Clayton chapter by chapter to form a single story exploring the value of connecting with others.

On the bell curve of social normality, Pippa is something of an outlier, a setter of cryptic crosswords, an intellectual, single and alone. Pippa’s story is mostly concerned with her efforts to establish The Fellowship of Puzzlemakers, which she begins as a way of engaging with like-minded people. It soon becomes much more.  

The Fellowship members live in a sort of commune and make a living by creating jigsaws, crosswords, mazes, and other games. Burr has managed to draw on that tradition of English intellectual eccentricity, one of understated ability, and quirky cleverness.

Samuel Burr on his writing routine

writer’s routine podcast

Clayton lives within the Fellowship, which by this stage is more a retirement home than enterprise. He is not a puzzle maker but a chef and de facto carer for the aging Fellowship members. Clayton is  a quiet and reserved young man. Loved and treasured by those around him, but as the first line of Chapter One says, “Clayton Stumper is an enigma”.  He has never questioned his parentage, and Pippa has never told him directly.

He is somewhat reclusive and not particularly adventurous. This changes after Pippa’s funeral.  As part of her legacy to Clayton, Pippa has set him a puzzle that will challenge him and take him out into the world to find himself and his parentage.

Burr’s writing is clear, clean, and uncomplicated. At times I thought it felt too sparse, too direct – telling the reader, especially in the first half – but perhaps this was necessary to establish the context for the second half.

This is an agreeable and pleasing tale with a touch of English eccentricity.

Reviewed by: Frank Thompson

Ballarat Writers Inc. Book Review Group

Review copy provided by the publisher

It’s that time of the year again with the Pamela Miller Prize, our annual flash fiction competition.

The winner of the Pamela Miller Prize 2024 will receive a certificate and $100 first prize, as well as publication in the Ballarat Writers newsletter and website. The winner will be announced at the Ballarat Writers July members’ night. 

The Pamela Miller Prize first ran in 2015, in memory of Pamela Miller, who was a very active and productive member of Ballarat Writers. She was a writer of short stories and poetry, and won the short story competition with ‘Murder at MADE’ in 2014. Early in 2015, Pamela wrote a very popular poem called ‘Bronze Heads—The Prime Minister’s Walk’ as part of a Ballarat Writers project during the Begonia Festival.

Entries open: Saturday June 1

Entries close: Sunday June 30

Ballarat Writers is accepting fictional prose entries of up to 500 words on the theme Fire.

Entry is free. 

This is limited to members of Ballarat Writers, so make sure you’ve joined or renewed your membership!

All entries must:

  • be original and unpublished
  • be written by a current member of Ballarat Writers (judging committee members cannot enter)
  • engage with the theme Fire, and be 500 words in length or less (not including the title)
  • be sent to competitions@ballaratwriters.com with the subject line ‘2024 Pamela Miller Prize Entry’.

As the competition will be a blind judging, please do not include your name or contact details on the entry. 

You can read more about the Pamela Miller prize here.

Good luck and happy writing!

Book review – Red Gifts in the Garden of Stones, by P.A. Swanborough

Title: Red Gifts in the Garden of Stones

Author: P. A. Swanborough

Publisher: Two Feathers Press, 2024; RRP: $25

Pam Swanborough was originally from Melbourne, Australia, and for many years lived in the UK. She currently lives in rural Victoria. In 2019, she was runner up in the Best Regional Writer / Best Fiction in the GMW Emerging Writers competition run by Writers Victoria. Swanborough, a member of Ballarat Writers, also completed an Associate Degree in Professional Writing and Editing in 2021 at RMIT, Melbourne.

Red Gifts in the Garden of Stones is set in Wales and represents a unique level of observation and understanding by the author regarding the layers of society and family relationships, often hidden but in full view for those who look hard enough. It’s set in the 1960s  although at times if feels like 1860. Rich in language and description, this novel follows the lives of the four women who live in a property called Ty Merched: Lizzy, who has just turned 100; her daughter Myfanwy; her granddaughter Sarah Maud; and her great granddaughter Jenner.

When their lives unravel, it forces the women to respond and with difficulty change their family dynamics. Jenner, who has less emotional collateral, is a mystical creature who finally, by her circumstances and actions, allows for a shocking secret to be disclosed. Family is central to the plot, and the cultural background of the small Welsh village and its residents is cleverly intertwined. The novel is full of tradition, old-world superstitions, and beliefs. A chorus of ghosts hover but remain at bay, increasing the emotional atmosphere of the story.

Rich in description, Red Gifts in the Garden of Stonesreads as a satisfying lyrical tale. There is little division between the landscape and the characters: they merge and blend together in a manner that invites the reader to follow the threads of the story whilst immersing themselves in  poetic and majestic prose.

The house rests in the folded hills like an old woman abed this spring-dawning morning, blinking her eyes at the first light. The sky cups its cloudy fingers over a pair of hen harriers as they fly their courtship race: rocketing from shade to light as they soar above the hamlet, the road, the chapel, the graves in the dewy damp.

This book is visual and beautifully written. The humour is rewarding and well expressed, and the use of metaphor is excellent. 

Swanboroughhas created a work of fiction that leaves an imprint on the reader’s mind — I could go to the village and recognise it , walk to the police station and then to Ty Merched. I see the ghosts crowding for a closer look and hear the chickens scratching in the straw.

Reviewed by: Heather Whitford Roche

Ballarat Writers Book Review Group, April 2024

Review copy supplied by the author

Book review: A Feather So Black

Title: A Feather So Black

Author: Lyra Selene

Publisher: Hachette/Orbit, 2024; RRP: $32.99

Lyra Selene is the author of the YA duology Amber & DuskA Feather So Black is her debut adult novel.  She lives in New England with her husband and daughter.

Fia is a changeling left in place of the stolen High Queen’s daughter. The High Queen trains her to be a weapon. Fia, although eight years old when left in the princess’s place, has no memory of before. She is obviously not human but she looks like the human princess, Eala, except for her sable hair and two different-coloured eyes. She has an affinity with the forest and plants. Her only friend is Prince Rogan, Eala’s betrothed. 

Rogan and Fia find a forgotten gate to Tir na nOg and set out over almost a year (they can only cross over one night a month at the full moon) to break Eala’s curse and free her. Fia also has to find a Treasure. Early in the story Fia has a Folk creature ask her to “Mend the broken heart. End the sorrow. Give what life is left, so we may see the morrow.” This neatly sums up Fia’s ultimate task. 

The fantasy element adheres closely to Celtic tales of the Fair Folk and I only wished I’d thought to look for a glossary first instead of making up my own pronunciation for Gaelic names such as Eala and Irian. (The glossary is at the back of the book and I didn’t find it until I’d finished the story.)

The romance is equally important to, and bound up in, their quests. Fia’s tasks are complicated by her feelings for Rogan and her growing feelings for the dark Folk Gentry, Irian, who while seeming more monster than man reveals a better understanding of Fia’s nature than anyone else. Fia also learns to understand and accept her own self as her character develops and deepens throughout the story.

There is sex and violence and all that the fantasy aficionado could ask for along with a strong and steamy romantic element.

The book is 466 pages long but the writing is evocative and a pleasure to read, as this excerpt shows:

“Inside the tiered grotto surrounding the greenhouse, the world had cracked open, letting light inside. Winter branches were furred with new leaves. Crocuses in red and purple lolled their heads. The air smelled of moss and fresh beginnings.”

I thoroughly enjoyed this tale and my only regret is that I now have to wait for the second instalment, A Crown So Silver, Book 2 of The Fair Folk.

Reviewed by: Marian Chivers, April, 2024

Ballarat Writer Inc Book Review Group

Review copy provided by the publisher

  • Marian Chivers has a lifelong interest in reading and writing with her work and study involving books from children’s literature to postgraduate studies.

Book review: Forgotten Warriors, by Sarah Percy

Title: Forgotten Warriors: A History of Women on the Front Line

Author: Sarah Percy

Publisher: Hachette/John Murray, 2023; RRP $34.99

Dr Sarah Percy is an associate professor at the University of Queensland and former Fellow of Merton College, Oxford. She was also author and presenter of ABC radio series Why the Cold War Still Matters, and has written Mercenaries, another unconventional military history spanning multiple locations from medieval times to the present.

Forgotten Warriors is approached in the same way. What struck me about this work is how effectively the author tied together all the different strands across nations and recorded history to create a complex, cohesive picture of war itself and women’s roles in it. It is unstintingly relentless in its portrayal of what women can, and have done, destroying any notion that women don’t fight so comprehensively it was tempting  just to quote nothing but examples from this work. But a review needs more than just a list.  

The central theme of Forgotten Warriors, however, is not whether they were involved, but how women’s involvement in battle has been consistently and systematically concealed or misrepresented by military leaders since early recorded history. The book beginning with the example of the skeleton of a high-ranking Viking warrior surrounded by weapons and a horse being automatically identified as male for over a century until developments in DNA analysis revealed it, to widespread disbelief, to be female.

 In her research for Forgotten Warriors Dr Percy uncovers how large a role women have always played in conflict. Records show that female camp followers in European wars between the 15th to the 18th centuries, popularly described in history as wives and prostitutes, played essential support roles including feeding the armies, laundry and medical services, and fighting on the front line itself. Before them were Boadicea and Joan of Arc, and the millions of women who fought and died unnamed. Today women are fighting on the front lines in the Ukraine and Gaza, military and non military, on both sides and everywhere else a war is being fought.

The author identified a number of repeated reasons given for the belief that women do not belong in war. Among these were that it would destroy the bond of brotherhood between soldiers, that  women cannot fight, that their presence would distract male soldiers, that on the home front they would be taking men’s jobs, and finally that to acknowledge women as active participants in war was to damage the ‘feminine mystique’ necessary for peace time – at home and in the kitchen.

Watch Sarah Percy lecture on Forgotten Warriors

SAHR Lectures

What her research uncovers, however, is there are far more reasons why women are likely to be involved in war than not, that there is no real basis for the notion that women would sit passively aside while male family members, friends and neighbours went off to fight, or war came through their own front doors.

These discoveries are confirmed by what she details in Forgotten Warriors from when wars were first recorded. Some women, concealing their gender, were involved not for the above reasons but because soldiering was their chosen profession. The author also suggests homosexual or transgender women may also have found military life a safer option than civilian life. More telling is the fact that women were often conscripted, by military leadership bodies discovering repeatedly that wars could not be won without them.

There are countless stories of courage and of brutality, too many too repeat here. Some of the more dramatic include the hugely successful Russian Night Witches flying 24,000 missions using substandard bombers compared to their male counterparts, the terrifying Dahomey, and the Battalion of Death led by Maria Bochkareva. Google them.

Forgotten Warriors is not an easy read. I found it disturbing to find within it, for example, many instances where determination by military leaders to downgrade the input of women often involved putting them in dangerous situations, e.g., the  British women in WW2 who manned the huge anti-aircraft battery lights that spotlit attacking German planes. When enemy planes were caught in their sights the women became defenceless targets themselves, because women were not allowed to fire artillery while the men who did the same job could.

A confused sense emerges from history in Forgotten Warriors as it uncovers both military leaders and sometimes the men women fought beside, simply not being able to come to terms with the idea of women in wartime except in terms of needing to be protected, or inevitable victims of collateral damage. Being unable to openly acknowledge the need by women to fight for their own reasons, or essential contribution woman made when they were involved, leaves a gap it seems to have been too hard to traverse. 

During WW2 a high-ranking Russian official, Mikhail Kalinan, despite acknowledging that women’s involvement had strengthened the army and improved the behaviour of men, warned the women under his command that, post war,

Do not give yourself airs in your future practical work. Do not speak about the services you have rendered, let others do it for you. That will be better.

Betty Friedman, in her ground-breaking work The Feminine Mystique, would have loved ‘your future practical work’.

I want to stress, however, that the tone of Forgotten Warriors is one of serious military history and not a diatribe against men. Much of it is heartwarming, showing simple camaraderie between individuals fighting and suffering side by side. There are truly amazing, deeply human stories in there, celebrating both men and women at their best and worst in awful situations.

Target audience?

All those interested in military history and especially all those who believe women do not ‘belong’ in wars so they can test their understanding against what lies hidden beneath the other stories we have been told. 

Reviewed by: Rhonda Cotsell, March 2024

Ballarat Writers Inc. Book Review Group

Review copy supplied by the publisher

Book review – The Dawn of Language, by Sverker Johansson

Title: The Dawn of Language: How we came to talk

Author: Sverker Johansson; Translation by Frank Perry

Publisher: Mac Lehose Press Quercus/Hachette Australia, 2021; RRP: $24.99 (pbk)

Sverker Johansson, Doctor of Philosophy in Physics and Master of Philosophy in Linguistics, was born 1961 in Lund, southern Sweden. He is a senior advisor at Dalarna University, has conducted research at CERN in Switzerland and participated in EVOLANG, the leading international conference for research on the origins and evolution of language, since 2006.

Frank Perry’s translations have won the Swedish Academy Prize for the introduction of Swedish literature abroad and the prize of the Writers Guild of Sweden for drama translation.

Johansson is clearly an accomplished user of language: The Dawn of Language is a readable, fascinating, and informative book. Frank Perry has produced a very credible English edition, although I have no idea what the Swedish version is like as I have no Swedish language. And, according to Johansson, languages are best learnt in childhood.  

A key structural approach in the book is the presentation of a hypothesis and then a close examination of relevant material, looking at both sides of the theory, to support or debunk the claim. In the closing pages of the book, Johansson admits that this book is a less academic version of an earlier work, one with more detail and attention to explaining the references. At 400-plus pages, leaving out some esoteric detail of this subject probably has made the book more broadly appealing.

The Dawn of Language is not a rainy Sunday afternoon escape from bleakness and boredom. It is a dense book, full of information, and slippery arguments regarding the origin of language; I say slippery as there does not seem to be a lot of solid data. Johansson has, however, made the analysis of what there is into an engaging story. Apparently, humans love a story, love a good gossip, going over the whys and wherefores of living. Johansson even postulates that this aspect of humanness  contributed to the evolution and development of language.

Passing the ‘chimp test’: delving into the birth of language with Sverker Johansson

steven poole @ the guardian, 2021

Ironically, the lack of definitive evidence surrounding the question of how we come to talk, with language, makes this book possible. One might consider the lack of evidence as thoughtless by the first users of language not to have recorded the incident and for subsequent generations not to have preserved these facts. Linguistic researchers, such as Johansson, are left with speculation and second-level evidence to piece together the past. 

Significant parts of the book are devoted to the story of human evolution and to the research of language in other primates. These are like subplots and do much to make the book more fascinating.

Johansson’s writing is refreshingly honest, and he shares with the reader his own curiosity and intellectual journey in trying to find an answer to the question of the origin of language.

There is a lot of material in this book, and I would suggest it deserves more than one reading, and I look forward to re-reading this book in the fullness of time.

Reviewed by: Frank Thompson

Ballarat Writers Inc Book Review Group

Review copy supplied by the publisher

Book review: Yeah, Nah!, by William McInnes

Title: Yeah, Nah!: A celebration of life and the words that make us who we are

Author: William McInnes

Publisher: Hachette Australia, 2023

William McInnes is one of Australia’s most popular and well-known writers and actors.  He began his writing career with his memoir A Man’s Got to Have a Hobby.  In 2012 his book, co-written with his wife, Sarah Watt, Worse Things Happen at Sea, was named the best non-fiction title in the ABIA and Indie Book Awards.  He now has a dozen books to his name.

His acting credits include leading roles in Blue Healers, Sea Change, Total Control and The Newsreader.  He has won two Logies and two AFI/AACTA Awards for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor.  William now lives in Melbourne after spending his formative years in Queensland.

Language is an important identifier of culture and community and William McInnes looks into the changes in the language of Australia.  This entertaining read is part memoir – a nostalgic look at expressions used in his childhood, his parents’ time and through to the present day.  The book consists of 11 chapters each examining a particular ‘time’, the language used and developed and McInnes’s thoughts and memories.  He begins with Simpler Times and Unprecedented Times (memory inducing for all of us).  He looks at Sporting Times and ends with Calling Time.  Occasionally, I thought he had lost his way but he always neatly brought it back at the conclusion of the chapter.

It becomes part manifesto in chapters like Men of Their Time where he and a best mate devise a list to guide young men in their early to mid-twenties, including their sons, on how to be a ‘good bloke’ and, I must say, if the young men of my acquaintance followed the list they would be on the right track.

William McInnes on his favourite Australianisms

@ ABC australia

McInnes is a wonderful storyteller with an insight into the human condition.  The book has some laugh-out-loud moments and a lot of quiet chuckles and smiles while still getting his point across.  As an example, a former girlfriend dumped him because he surfed like Herman Munster from a TV series in the 1960s.  Being of a similar age, I could really identify with a lot of his reminiscences.  When there was some lingo I hadn’t come across (he did grow up in a different state to me) he explains these terms neatly and succinctly. 

I would recommend this book for middle to older generations for the remembrance of a time past and the reminder that the world has moved on and so has our language.  However, it is still relevant for younger readers for some inside information into a previous time and proof that Australia is still a living language after giving the world “selfie”.  Yeah, Nah! is a particularly Australian term and I think is worth an unequivocal Yeah.  Read it in one sitting or dip into it a chapter at a time.  Make the time even if you’re flat out like a lizard drinking.  You won’t be sorry.

Reviewed by: Marian Chivers, January, 2024

Ballarat Writers Inc Book Review Group

Review copy provided by the publisher.

  • Marian Chivers is a retired librarian with a lifelong interest in reading, writing and language with her work and study involving books from children’s literature to postgraduate studies.

Members Listing Page: information

Current members of the Ballarat Writers Inc (BWI) who have an author page, small press or offer editorial and similar literary services, can have an entry in the BWI listings page.

T&Cs:

  • One entry per current member.
  • The listing allows for approximately 50 words, plus one thumbnail image of the author or a book cover to which you own copyright.
  • In your bio, please include your author name, genre/s, and any relevant information you want to advertise.
  • Make sure all wording and links are correct as we cannot guarantee to proof or edit your copy.
  • Allow 1-2 weeks for your listing to appear, although we will make best effort to post it as soon as possible.
  • It is your responsibility to notify us of any changes; please keep your listing up-to-date and relevant (ie: not full of dead links and old info).
  • Available to all current members.
  • If you publish under a different name to your membership name, please tell us when you apply.
  • The words in italics at the end of each listing are for readers’ benefit, and are not counted in your word limit 🙂
  • Submit or refresh your profile by email, with the subject of ‘Members Listings <your name>’ Click here to send your listing by email

The small print

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The results of the Southern Cross Short Story Competition 2023

The winning entries of the 2023 Southern Cross Short Story Competition were announced at the Ballarat Writers members’ night on 29 November.

The successful entries were selected by judge Graeme Simsion from a long-list as selected by the reading committee from a pool of 95 entries. Graeme’s comments about the winners and entries are available to read here, and the winning entry here.

Congratulations to the winners, and all those who made the shortlist!

Winner ($1000): Maxwell Han: A Boy in a Raincoat and a Boy in a Bus Stop

First runner-up ($400): Janeen Samuel: Branch Lines

Second runner-up ($100): Nakita Kitson: Digging

Highly commendeds: “Over Your Souls” by Rebecca Higgie and “Summer’s Desire” by Shelley Dark.

Southern Cross Short Story Competition 2023 – Judge’s Report

Graeme Simsion

Thank you for the opportunity to read the twenty-one shortlisted entries in the above competition and for entrusting me with the responsibility of judging them.

First, by the standards of competitions I’ve been involved in before, this was a strong collection. While the intents and styles differed, the writing was consistently assured, and, I sensed, had benefited from careful revision and editing. Any criticisms should be taken in that context.

Selecting the winner, place-getters and highly-commended entries was difficult, and necessarily subjective. I suspect that if there had been multiple judges, we would have found it easy to agree on the ten best stories, but would have had plenty of debate as to the order in which to place them.

On first read, I rated the stories on each of four criteria: quality of prose, story, originality and engagement – incorporating other factors such as character and sense of place under those headings.

I did not consider fidelity to the theme tracks of desire. I assumed the pre-readers would have confirmed that hurdle had been cleared, but generally it seemed to have been addressed – sometimes fundamentally, sometimes cleverly, sometimes as a box-check!

I returned to the stories some time later and flagged those which had stayed with me –  another criterion to consider. I ended up with a short-short list of seven stories, which I re-read and reflected on before making final choices.

As noted earlier, the prose was consistently of a high standard.

Most stories had a strong sense of place and period, from seventeenth century London to Italy to the street where I live. The descriptions of physical environment featured some of the best writing, and were overall stronger than those of character. Emotions were vivid on the page; motivation sometimes less clear.

The best stories had a good balance of ‘show’ and ‘tell’, some of the less successful ones could have used more dialogue and action. No surprise there for writing teachers!

It was in the domain of story that writers took advantage of the convention that short stories need not follow the beginning-middle-end structures of popular fiction. But I felt that overall, the storytelling, in the broadest sense of how events and revelations unfolded, was not as developed as the prose: the authors hadn’t always realised the full potential of some promising ideas.

Several of the stories alternated between two situations (one past, one present), an entirely workable structure, but there was often room for clearer causal or thematic links between the two threads.

The old-fashioned twist is still alive though not necessarily well. To work effectively, it needs to change the reader’s understanding of and response to what has gone before in a fundamental way. In several cases, the ‘reveal’ was of something less central with correspondingly less impact. Indeed, few of the stories hit me with an emotional punch; their power was steady rather than sudden.

Originality lay largely in the choice of subjects. Prose and structure were consistently familiar rather than experimental or confronting, and there was little that was attention-seeking or distracting.

A couple of stories ventured into non-literal territory, but there were guideposts for readers. The overwhelming majority of the writing would have sat comfortably in a mainstream novel.

Which is also to say that most authors did not take advantage of the short-story format to experiment with styles that the reader might find tiring in a longer work. About half the stories were written in present tense and about half in first-person, and a couple chose omniscient points of view. But not much to scare the horses.

‘Desire’ was predominantly sexual and the sexuality conventionally straight or gay male (which was well represented). Within that, there were a couple of quite distinct voices and unusual settings. Unfortunately, the most original ideas didn’t correspond with the strongest execution.

I included ‘engagement’ as a catch-all for how interested I was, how much I wanted to keep reading and what impact the story might have on me – and, by extension, other readers. Most of these stories were easy and, yes, engaging, to read, and, as noted earlier, the styles would happily lend themselves to full-length novels.

My involvement in the stories was mostly emotional rather than intellectual; I tended to finish with a feeling rather than something to think about. And emotionally, there was definitely more ‘down’ than ‘up’ – not a lot of happy endings! Writers sometimes forget the emotional power of an instance of human kindness or decency in an otherwise grim scenario. And humour, even in the form of a wry observation, was thin on the ground.

When I returned to the stories, there were five that had stayed with me more than the others. It’s perhaps interesting that they were already all in my short-short list.

So:

The Winner: A Boy in a Raincoat and a Boy in a Bus Stop.

The most demanding of the stories, and the most rewarding to read a second time. A finely controlled piece which explores connection and disconnection and alternates deftly between the allegorical and the literal, and between authorial and character points of view. As much about what it evokes as what it says.

Second:  Branch Lines

Assured writing that would be at home in a contemporary novel of family life. The narrator’s desire to know her history is ever-present but elegantly understated. The sharp but not showy observation of place and character lift it above the ordinary.

Third: Digging

The strongest conventional storytelling: two stories linked by the central character. One gives us a powerful description of place and physical jeopardy; the other, memorable characters and emotional conflict.

Highly Commended

Over Your Souls
Summer’s Desire

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