Book Review: The Queen’s Colonial by Peter Watt

1845, a village outside Sydney Town. Humble blacksmith Ian Steele struggles to support his widowed mother. All the while he dreams of a life in uniform, serving in Queen Victoria’s army.

1845, Puketutu, New Zealand. Second Lieutenant Samuel Forbes, a young poet from an aristocratic English family, wants nothing more than to run from the advancing Maori warriors and discard the officer’s uniform he never sought.

When the two men cross paths in the colony of New South Wales, they are struck by their brotherly resemblance and quickly hatch a plan for Ian to take Samuel’s place in the British army.

Ian must travel to England, fool the treacherous Forbes family and accept a commission into their regiment as a company commander. Once in London, he finds love with an enigmatic woman, but must part with her to face battle in the bloody Crimean war.

Review:

My first Peter Watt novel was Cry of the Curlew, more than twenty-five years ago. Finally, I thought, someone was bringing a vivid, Wilbur Smith style of writing to Australian history. I’ve been a fan ever since, reading avidly along through the Frontier series. Later, when my own first book was coming out, I was introduced to Peter, and visited him up in Maclean where Peter, myself, and Pete’s good mate, talkback host John Carroll, had a great yarn over a coffee or two.

When I heard that Peter had started a new series I got hold of a copy straight off, and was thrilled to find that I was listed in the acknowledgements. I’m still not sure why I deserve that honour, but was thrilled nonetheless. So what did I think of The Queen’s Colonial?

It’s a cracker of a story. Peter never lets the story get bogged down with excessive description or gets carried away with his prose. The action moves along at a brisk trot, and as I reader I was drawn ever deeper into the characters and their lives.

Ian Steele is an admirable lead, with his own strong ethics and sense of fair play. He’s also forgiving to those willing to make amends. When he fulfils his dream to serve in the British army, he’s a caring and capable officer. Unfortunately, men like Ian foster jealousy in lesser beings, and he’s in fear of his life from both Russian bullets and scheming officers, some of whom are in league with his half-brother in England.

The battle descriptions in the second half of the book made me feel like I was there, with an Enfield rifle in my hands, and Russian cannonballs bouncing through the ranks, maiming and wounding as they went. Through The Queen’s Colonial I learned a lot about a war I knew nothing about, and applaud Peter for his research and attention to detail throughout.

I highly recommend this book, and can’t wait for the next in the series.

Greg Barron 2019

 

The Cloncurry Memorial

Amid the beer and barbecues, here’s a sobering thought for Australia Day 2019.

One of the saddest reminders that something in this country is still broken stands on the highway near Cloncurry: a monument to the Kalkadoon people who lived in the area for countless generations. The image of a black man’s face has been riddled with rifle bullets. Not the rest of the monument, just the face. The monument was also partially destroyed by explosives back in 1992.

Callous, smug, and cowardly.

Why does this monument make some people so angry? After atrocities committed by both sides, it was police trooper Frederic Urquhart and his native police who hunted the tribe down relentlessly, finally killing at least 200 at Battle Mountain. Over the last few years I’ve researched hundreds of accounts of killings, reprisals out of all proportion and inhuman brutality, from all over Australia. That, however, is history.

This vandalised face is a reminder that the problem is not only what happened in the past. But what is happening now. The clash of two very different cultures was probably inevitable, and was repeated all around the world. But what happens now is up to us.

There’s no way back, but a good start would be for us all to recognise the violent beginnings of Australia as we know it. Then learn to be as proud of our Indigenous past as of our white pioneers. Proud of the fluid and unique melding in the present day of not just one “Aboriginal People,” but hundreds of different Indigenous nations and language groups, many of which are very different. Some of these people, we have to remember, are not doing too well, living on the margins of modern Australian society.

Australia’s Indigenous history is part of the melting pot that makes us great. Maybe we can start by remembering that today.

Greg Barron, Australia Day 2019

The Immigrant

I just came back from the memorial service for a man of Chinese descent who grew up in Malaysia during WW2. His parents were forced to dress him up as a girl so would not be taken away to Japanese work gangs. For five years, due to war-time shortages, the family ate nothing but a little sweet potato and occasionally some rice.

He was very intelligent, however, and attended school when it was possible to do so. After the war he came to Australia and studied medicine in Melbourne. For fifty years he practiced as a GP in my local town on the Mid North Coast of NSW. Together with his wife, he raised his children here and became part of the community. I was lucky enough to be a family friend.

The memorial service was an open mic style event where locals expressed their point of view of his contribution and passing. I heard how this man had sat at children’s bedsides through the night until their fevers broke, at how he had saved thousands of lives through a talent for diagnosis, at how he would attend the public hospital, free of charge, at any time of the day or night. I heard how he fought for specialists to visit his out-of-the-way town, and how he used acupuncture in conjunction with modern medicine to bring pain relief. I heard of his wit, his interest in people of all walks of life, and the friendship he gave to his work mates and staff.

Not one person called him a bloody immigrant. Not one person said that he should have gone back to where he came from.

 

 

If I Had a Gun to Kill Cancer

I wish I had a gun to kill cancer,

with notches on the barrel for the loved ones you took.

I’d hunt you down, through dark twists of time.

Heartless, indifferent, I’d make you pay.

Like you, I’d give no warning,

creeping from the shadows.

I’d blow away your organs, one by one;

lungs, bowel, pancreas, heart.

I’d target your lymph and brain. Poison your blood.

While your family keeps vigil at your bedside.

 

If I had a gun to kill cancer.

I’d set free your chain gangs,

roped to dripping bags of drugs;

chemo room prisoners, in dungeons of chairs.

Slaves bound to CT scans, biopsies, and second opinions.

Endless appointments promising only reprieve,

while your bloody nails scratch flesh from bones,

and melt hope like candle wax.

I’d release them from dreams of remission, those who want to fight,

the coward who hides in the dark.

 

If I had a gun to kill cancer,

I’d wound you, then keep coming back.

Just when you think I’ve gone,

I’ll reappear, without conscience, to finish the job.

You putrid thing; you despicable thief.

Evolution’s worst mistake.

If I could, I swear to God I’d kill you.

And after that, I’d find some magic to bring back,

the people I care about. Who were taken by you.

I’d bring back the lives you stole.

If I had a gun to kill cancer.

 

©2018 Greg Barron

One for the writers: some thoughts on clichés.

There are clichés and there are clichés. Some popular writers fill novels with them. They work, that’s why people use them. Experienced readers, however, can find them off-putting.

There is nothing new under the sun, apparently, and we are told that even the most original plot ideas have been used before in one way or another. Some pundits have worked out that there are only seven real story lines. Others twelve. I know what they’re getting at, but I personally think that there are as many plots as there are stars in the universe, each as full of possibility as the last.

Plot clichés then, are the known and familiar planets; our Solar System, if you like.  Well charted, studied through millions of telescope lenses over the years. They are great stories, and every other story, will to some extent, be interpreted through familiarity with them.

These plot clichés have their basis in biblical stories, Greek myths and fairy tales. They are satisfying because many evolved from oral tradition, and stories that grow in this way become better with each telling—sharper conflict, more rounded characters, and edge-of-your-seat suspense.

Others come from the great storytellers of the last five hundred years or so. The classics. Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Would we have had Harry Potter without Tom Brown’s School Days, Goodbye Mr Chips, or even Enid Blyton’s First Term at Malory Towers?

Other plot clichés have been done so many times you need a very original slant to make them interesting: man (or woman) loses their memory. Good man spawns evil son. Ne’er do well child of tycoon has to prove himself. The Cinderella idea of a girl with a great heart surrounded by a family of monsters. The ugly duckling plot has been explored in almost every situation. The prodigal son. Kane and Abel. Need I go on?

Be aware, however, that certain genres basically run with one particular plot, and then it becomes a convention rather than a cliché. Cosy romances all have pretty much the same set-up. Australian Rural Fiction often uses an outsider-coming-back-to-the-country plot. These genres generate their readability from their wealth of characterisation, and the strength of the setting.

There is only one way to avoid writing clichéd story lines, and that is to read widely in your chosen genre. Then, if you do use a plot cliché as a framework, you’ll dust it off, give it fresh characters with compelling voices, make it mean something new.

Characters can be clichés too. They’re called archetypes. We all know a friendly mechanic in blue overalls, a funny dentist who hands out lollypops, a depressed, rebellious teenager, or an adult who never grows up, but once you get to know them, you find that they all have unique qualities of their own.

Elements of clichés exist in all humans, but unless you’re writing something deliberately basic, you need to make your characters complex and interesting. Clichés are neither.

The late Robert Graves, in his wonderful poem, The Devil’s Advice to Storytellers, advises that you should populate your novel with random travellers on a train, or a tea shop. Try having a look next time you’re waiting for a coffee. These people are all interesting in their own way. Describe some of them. I often take a notebook to public places and write short, descriptive phrases about everyone I see.

It’s amazing how few outright clichés you will find. Much fewer than in the latest Hollywood romantic comedy. Best of all are the characters that raise questions in your mind. An elderly woman wearing a red coat and blue beret holds a faded biscuit tin. What’s in the tin? Why is that teenage girl holding hands so tightly with that sad little boy? Make your characters fidget, look around, and get jealous. Make them do real things that real people do.

Most, but not all, clichés are based on looks. Dialogue helps too. As we walk down the main street of our town we are constantly assessing people. That kid with a skateboard tucked under one arm, baggy shorts and his cap on backwards, he’s a skater. Smokes dope, does graffiti and wags school, doesn’t he? Not if he’s your nephew, because then you know that he also collects rare coins, came second in his school in maths, and is a talented long-distance runner. Or the old man driving down the road at seventy km/hour. If he was your grandfather you’d know that he raced for Holden at Bathurst in the 1960s.

The thing that separates clichés from real living characters is detail. Clothes, age, facial features and hair colour are a great start. But readers need more than that. They need to know the characters’ experiences—what made them as people. The great writers of commercial fiction can paint these details in very quickly, with just a few strokes of the pen (or keyboard). The finer points of character, in genre fiction, are best fed into the story a little at a time. Literary writers will slowly build immensely detailed characters.

Don’t write nationality clichés: the disciplined, obedient German, the gruff, penny-pinching Scotsman, the loud American, the ocker Aussie. People might see these as insulting. Or jobs: The boring accountant, the stern headmaster, the selfish (or selfless) politician.

One way to stop yourself writing lots of clichés is to stop writing so fast! Writing 1500 words in an hour is not writing—it’s putting a stream of consciousness onto the page. Your brain is assembling images into words as fast as it can. The quickest way it can do this is to use clichés. They are a kind of image shorthand.

You have to stop, not let your mind choose the easiest pathway, but give it time to find an original and creative idea.

Sometimes that superfast writing is great for an action sequence, or riffing on a theme, where you just open up and see what comes out, worrying about editing later, but if you do it all the time, the editing will be beyond you. And you want to be editing something that’s at least half decent.

Look at the world through your eyes, not someone else’s.

Occasionally clichés can be used to enhance the vernacular of a particular environment: ‘Stone the Crows, Mary, get off your high horse.’

The only way to avoid clichés in your chosen genre is to read, read, read.

Have some fun. Turn archetypes on their ear. Use thoughtful, original detail. If there is a secret to writing, that’s probably it.

© 2018 Greg Barron

Browse titles at ozbookstore.com

Country Update Review of Whistler’s Bones

Huge thanks to Country Update Magazine for a powerful review of Whistler’s Bones in the last issue:

“This is a work that takes the true diarised story of Charlie Gaunt, the Durack family and an epic droving trip of more than two years of unrelenting deprivation – from western Qld to the Kimberley, nearly 5000 ks, in the 1880’s – and upholsters it with fiction, recreating a genesis of Australia’s pastoral history.

Confronting and uncomfortable, and raising more questions than it answers, it seems unbelievable to contemplate this was a real way of life when the west was the last frontier – yet it was. Chapters are preceded by true diary entries and notes that chill and fill the reader with dread yet instil empathy for the hero, the vanquished or the victim, forged to a ruthlessness none so young should ever know.”

Country Update Magazine

Huge thanks to Country Update Magazine for a powerful review of Whistler’s Bones in the current issue.

This is a work that takes the true diarised story of Charlie Gaunt, the Durack family and an epic droving trip of more than two years of unrelenting deprivation – from western Qld to the Kimberley, nearly 5000 ks, in the 1880’s – and upholsters it with fiction, recreating a genesis of Australia’s pastoral history.

Confronting and uncomfortable, and raising more questions than it answers, it seems unbelievable to contemplate this was a real way of life when the west was the last frontier – yet it was. Chapters are preceded by true diary entries and notes that chill and fill the reader with dread yet instil empathy for the hero, the vanquished or the victim, forged to a ruthlessness none so young should ever know.

http://countryupdate.com.au/whistlers-bones-greg-barron/

Do I read as well as write? Of course I do.

Writers are readers too. In this post I’m going to share my development as a reader. Some of you will relate to the books that were pivotal enough for me to remember. Others will have had an entirely different literary experience.

At the age of six or seven I read my first proper book with chapters. It was called Double Trouble for Rupert. My brother got it from Scholastic’s Lucky Book Club. I can honestly remember understanding at the time that I had just been given the key to a door, and that I could open it whenever I liked.

I read the Hardy Boys detective novels, Enid Blyton’s Secret Seven, and Archie comics. My far-seeing parents gave me a boxed set of Angus and Robertson Australian classics. We were living in Canada by the time I was eleven, and I missed my country. Ion Idriess, Henry Lawson, Steele Rudd, Miles Franklin, Lennie Lower and Tom Collins, took me home.

By the age of thirteen I was reading Ian Fleming’s James Bond series. I loved Alistair Maclean’s Ice Station Zebra. Desmond Bagley. Dick Francis. Hammond Innes. In between thrillers I still delved into my stack of Commando war comics, or snuck back to Richie Rich, Donald Duck and MAD magazine.

At fifteen or so I read When the Lion Feeds and worked my way through all of Wilbur Smith’s African adventures. I still think he is the most vivid writer of popular fiction on the planet, though his early books were far better than some of his later ones.

In my early twenties the university crowd turned me on to the literature of the day. Peter Carey’s Illywacker was mind-blowingly original, and showed me my country with entirely new eyes. It had paragraphs I needed to read over and over just to savour the way the words sounded. I discovered F Scott Fitzgerald. I felt like I lived a hundred lives in Xavier Herbert’s Capricornia.

At the age of twenty-seven I was living on a remote cattle station in the Territory. I read The Shining, alone in my caravan with a shotgun on my lap, while the curlews screamed, down towards the river. One night, over at Florina Station homestead, drinking beer with the ringers, I found Larry McMurtry’s  Lonesome Dove on a shelf of well-thumbed paperbacks and asked if I could borrow it. Another vivid writer, the best dialog I’d ever read, and such characters! The Wild West came to life in my mind.

A few years later, Peter Watt showed me that Australian History could be written into colourful novels just like McMurtry had done with the Wild West. I read Jon Cleary, Thomas Keneally. I struggled with other books that I was told I should read. Colleen McCullough showed me that deep research could go hand in hand with great fiction. Tom Clancy impressed me with his polish and knowledge of militaria.

I started writing seriously not long after that, but did I stop reading?

Never! The books on the shelf next to my desk are by Sebastian Faulks, John Steinbeck, James Clavell, James Michener, Stephen King, Ken Follett, Bryce Courtenay, Kevin Powers, Neville Shute, Gary Jennings, Leon Uris, Kurt Vonnegut, and contemporary Aussie authors like Steve Worland, Tony Park, Stephen Horne, Rachael Johns, Majok Tulba, Favel Parrett, Karly Lane, Kylie Ladd, Nicole Alexander, Margareta Osborn, Felicity Young, Helene Young, Tony Cavanaugh and many more. The picture attached to this post is my bedside table, and it has a different pile of books again, about half of which I’ve finished reading and been too lazy to put back on the shelf.

The books you read say a lot about who you are. So if I’m over at your house and I head straight to the bookcase … I’m just curious, okay?

Cheers

Greg