The Scandalous Life of Sasha Torte by Lesley Truffle

31306285The Scandalous Life of Sasha Torte is the fantastically titled second novel by Melbourne-based writer, Lesley Truffle and I have to say, it is unlike any book I have ever read. Part historical fiction, part-fantastical and whimsical romp, part crime mystery, cooking extravaganza and cautionary fable, it’s also a picaresque novel that tells the tale of the irrepressible Sasha Torte, flame-haired daughter of a murderess and heiress to a bad reputation and melancholy, who becomes not only a world-famous pastry-chef in, of all places, the wilds of Tasmania in the early 1900s, but courts men, drugs and danger with abandon.

Told with Truffle’s wonderful flair, at first I wasn’t sure what to make of a book that opens with the heroine in a luxuriously appointed prison accused of murder. Deciding to pen her memoirs, Sasha then takes the reader back through her childhood, revealing how she grew up in a brutal and unconventional family surrounded by dedicated servants and a doting grandfather. As she matures, she learns to deal with nepotism, bullying, the cruelty of strangers and their kindness in equal measure. When her Aunt Lily enters her life, she finds a soul-mate and confidant to whom she can also aspire.

Launched into the society that wants to reject her, but finds they’re unable to resist her, the beautiful Sasha appears set to conquer not only men, but the globe.

But in earning devotion, Sasha also attracts enmity, even from those who purport to love her and it’s when the handsome Dasher brothers enter her sphere that trouble for Sasha and those she cares about looms large and deadly.

Featuring wilful, sassy and smart women, dedicated and dastardly men, horses, dogs, a psychic goldfish (no, I’m not kidding) ghosts, gangs, and, of course, amazing confectionary and pastries, this novel is fast-paced, enormous fun and heart-aching at the same time. Able to transport you from the docks of fictitious and rough Wolftown, to parties on wealthy estates, then sail you to London (where the Hotel Du Barry has a cameo role), Paris, Vienna and beyond, you find yourself captivated by Sasha – honest, steadfast and fair – as you ride the roller-coaster of her full and often tragic life.

For all its fantastical elements, the book coheres into a luminous whole, an adventure and story like no other that you feel the richer and more fulfilled for reading. Like one of Sasha’s sweet creations, it lingers in your mouth, head and heart long after you’ve finished it. Quite simply, it’s so completely different and a real treat.

 

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I am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes

I was doing a book signing at a sensational book store (Petrarch’s in Launceston, Tasmania Australia) when the owner, Peter, and I began to discussing books we love. Apart from me being a huge fan of sci-fi and fantasy, our tastes were very similar. We started waxing lyrical about great historical fiction and crime fiction/thrillers. He asked me if I had read, I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes and when I confessed I hadn’t (I hadn’t even heard of it), he insisted I must. He pointed out the book even came with a “satisfaction guaranteed or your money back” clause. Well, how could I resist that?

18144124So, I started reading the novel. Written in the first person, it follows the life of, and investigation into, a terrorist plot by a man who has had many identities but in this book is mainly known as “Pilgrim”. Working for a top-secret US government organisation, Pilgrim, a man who has been involved in so many operations and worked all over the world, is forced back from premature retirement to find and halt a lone-wolf terrorist who plans to bring down the USA and its allies in the most diabolical of ways.

Taking the reader all over the world and into the hearts, minds and histories of both “pilgrim” and the lone-wolf, as well as different cultures and countries, the novel is vast in scope and very hard, once you get past the initial set up and what appears to be a red-herring murder in the USA, to put down. Parts of it are very well written, you feel like you are part of the action (Hayes’ screen-writing background is put to good use as the book is very cinematic) and the heart-racing consequences of some of the decisions both the “good” guys and those with nefarious intentions make.

However, it wasn’t always plain-sailing with this book. I have to say I found the main character almost too-perfect – like a James Bond/Jason Bourne and any other action and superhero rolled into one and then on steroids. There didn’t seem to be anything he hadn’t done or couldn’t do and was the “best” at – as an assassin, an investigator, an author (!) (yep), and even about art. Raised by a billionaire philanthropist, apart from a few family issues, the guy doesn’t even have to worry about money. Oh, and he’s really handsome… how do I know? Because he basically tells us – and smart – he tells us that too. Did I mention he’s also a doctor? Yet, there was so much telling rather than showing of all this throughout the novel (a major flaw in the book), Pilgrim came across as a bit of an egotistical prat (who nonetheless could demonstrate empathy for Holocaust survivors, appreciate art, and love kids – and ogle all the beautiful women that pepper the book. Apparently, unattractive or homely women don’t enter Pilgrim’s sphere) rather than the patriotic and ethical guy he apparently is.  Not only that, but when he did act/show, he made really basic mistakes and incorrect assumptions about those he was supposed to be an expert on. I found this tendency to “tell” all the time frustrating because, when Hayes “shows” he’s good at it and it’s mainly in the final stages of a very long book that he does this well.

Another aspect of the novel I struggled with was the portrait of the Islamic world. It was very negative and, frankly, clichéd. It was as if all the Arab characters, with few exceptions, were drawn from reductive and often horrible templates, created post 9/11, to justify invasion, racism, Islamophobia and so much more. I found this quite disheartening. It was very U.S.A “ra ra” (all the men in the White House, including the President, are “good blokes”, while the Turkish, Saudi and other Middle Eastern authorities are a range of negative and often idiotic stereotypes) in so many ways and I can see that it would be the kind of movie a post-Trump America (or at least those who voted for him) might love. I didn’t love the book, but I do understand its appeal – it’s simplicity. It creates a world of black and white, where there are clear-cut goodies and baddies and even when the good guys do bad things, it’s for a greater good. I couldn’t help but think of a line from the movie True Lies, when Jamie Curtis discovers her husband, played by Arnie Schwarzenegger, is a spy. She asks, “Have you killed anyone?” He answers (affected by a truth serum) “Yes. But they were all bad.” This is that kind of book; Pilgrim is that kind of “hero.”

Overall, this is a fast and quite gripping read (despite its length) that would be great for holidays or long plane trips – but be prepared to suspend your disbelief. While I don’t want my money back, it didn’t live up to the hype.

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“This is true love… you think this happens everyday?”

Ten points if you can guess where that quote comes from… if you can’t, I will reveal at the end of the blog…

So, here we are, another year. Happy New Year! I really hope that whatever plans you’ve made (even not making any), come to fruition and that you have many adventures, love and laughter in 2013. And good health. We cannot forget that!

I was going to do a reflective blog about the year we’ve just had and then project forward with my plans for the next twelve months, when I had a change of heart. You see, tomorrow, January 9th, is my 20th wedding anniversary. Twenty years! Instead of writing about a year, I want to celebrate and share with you my twenty years (briefly, I promise) with the most amazing man on this earth – my true love, Stephen Ronald Brooks.

Not many people can say they met and married their true love – I can’t say with any conviction I even knew he was the day we were married in our Midsummer’s Night Marriage Ceremony on Big Hill golf course in Bendigo.

Oh, I knew I loved him – very much. I knew that fairly early on in our relationship. We met making a film, Ranko. Stephen was the leading man and I was the leading lady. The shout line was something like, “He’s going to fall in love, get married and clean up the streets” and the movie was touted as Neighbours Meets Mad Max. We had a ball making it, even if it was, as Stephen says, “highly unsuccessful”, I am so very grateful I agreed to be cast.

And, let’s face it, you have to love a man who, in order to get to know you better while dating, asks what your favourite books are so he can read them too. There were so many I could have chosen, but I told him Lord of the Rings. He read it and The Hobbit.

Proposing to me on my 30th birthday, Stephen only told one of his best friends of his intentions. This best friend (I’m looking at you, Grant), told him not to be stupid. You see, I was what’s known as “a package deal” – that is, a single mother with two kids. I was also older than Stephen. It didn’t seem the wisest of decisions for a young man to make.

Fortunately, Stephen didn’t listen to his mate (who was just looking out for him), and went down on bended knee in front of all our friends and, after giving me a pewter cup that was shaped like Galadriel’s face (from Lord of the Rings), produced a lovely little ring from his pocket (Galadriel is also the bearer of the second ring – and this was to be my second marriage – clever, hey?).

The wedding was a hoot – a dress up affair in which the kids and friends and family partook. I had a theatre background and all my wonderful theatre friends, Andrew Balnaves, Angela Rashleigh (White) and many others, helped. One of my best friends, Frances Thiele was a bridesmaid. The men wore shirts and stockings, Stephen carried a sword, and we all feasted and danced and made merry under the beautifully decorated hall, festooned with ivy and fairy lights and outside the moon glowed. Magical.

The next twenty years seem to have passed so swiftly, now I can peer back with hindsight, but what fabulous years they have been – and all because of who I’ve had the privilege to share them with. They’ve been a combination of hardship (struggling financially while I did my PhD, Stephen working to support us, the kids becoming used to a step-father, both Stephen and I to each other and married life in a new place – we shifted to Wollongong from Bendigo two weeks after we married and away from family and friends), and utterly fantastic moments. But none of them would have meant anything to me, or Adam and Caragh, if hadn’t been for one man… Stephen.

 

Some of the highlights of those last twenty years are:

  • 1993. The scary move to Wollongong where with great difficulty we left behind (it was more like tearing ourselves apart) beloved friends and family. We lived in a place called Fairy Meadow in a street called Cabbage Tree Lane – great address J – which partly compensated and had the best neighbours in the world, Trevor and Maureen, with whom we drank ourselves silly the first day we met and every other week from then on…
  • Meeting Kerry Doyle and Peter Goddard in Wollongong and having them enter and still be a part of our lives.
  • Grant (yes, the one who advised Stephen not to marry me!) moving in with us for twelve months while he and Stephen (who was also working full-time) did postgrad studies.
  • Stephen and Grant coaching the local winning football team.
  • Delayed honeymoon to Thailand – was fantastic.
  • Stephen’s 30th surprise party – a funeral. Yes, I gave him a “death to his youth” party as he was always giving me a very hard time about being older than him – Grant too, so with Grant’s girlfriend (now wife), Fiona’s help, we gave him a party he’d remember. LOL!
  • 1996. Moving to the Sunshine Coast for my first uni position and again, being embraced by the community and meeting some terrific people (many of whom we still count among our best friends).
  • Buying our first house in Mountain Creek – it had a pool!
  • 1997. Stephen and I graduating from Wollongong uni (Grad Cert and PhD)
  • Going on our first family holiday – a cruise in 1998
  • Hosting two gorgeous Japanese teens, Keizo and Ayako
  • Our beautiful pets, Cupid and Psyche having kittens
  • My first book coming out in 2001
  • Adam being given his first pet snake, Morphea
  • Caragh illustrating her first book and being paid! She was still in primary school.
  • Great parties and fun Friday nights with friends
  • 2002. My 40th and second book launch
  • Adam “coming out” – he and his dad just held each other. *sniff*
  • Trips to Bali, New York, Las Vegas, Vietnam, Thailand, NSW, and VIC
  • Driving the car through the garage wall and into the house and ruining two rooms – one my study.
  • Caragh photographing me all distressed and laughing with Lesley who was staying with us. Our friend, Chris, the psychiatrist, running down the hill when I frantically called him (Stephen was at work) and asking me if I was “having a blonde moment?”
  • Adam accidently burning down the kitchen while I was in the USA and Stephen and the kids going to mum and dad’s up north for a few days while the house was repaired and cleaned.
  • Moving to Buderim and fully renovating our first house
  • 2004. Stephen’s 40th and first tattoo – back to the 80s night.
  • Too many Melbourne Cup and Grand Final parties to count.
  • Trips to China, New York, Las Vegas, Europe, England, teaching and living in Maastricht, The Netherlands – twice.
  • 2005. Caragh’s 18th and Adam’s 21st – Caragh’s a dress up, of course!
  • Both kids shifting out of home and becoming fabulous, independent people
  • Adam moving to Sydney and joining the Oaks group.
  • More books released
  • Invited to be part of the ABC show, The Einstein Factor (for four years)
  • Working with Lisa on Consuming Innocence and studying Italian with the lovely Lauren.
  • Another trip to Las Vegas, this time to say goodbye, along with my sister, Jenny, to my dying mother.
  • My beloved grandmother passing away as a consequence of a house fire.
  • 2008. Apply for job at Southern Cross University (promotion) and we move to Brooklet, NSW (three weeks after returning from three months in Europe) and Stephen starts renovating again.
  • Caragh graduates. I’m made an Honorary Senior Fellow of Sunshine Coast University
  • Caragh moves to Melbourne
  • Wonderful visits from friends
  • Caragh’s 21st 
  • Caragh goes to the USA and a short time later is married, making world headlines.
  • We are given a rescue dog, the gorgeous “Tallow”
  • My great friend, Jim McKay becomes my boss.
  • 2009. Receive cancer diagnosis.
  • Tallow is released to great success
  • Have big series of ops in Sydney for cancer – overwhelmed by support
  • Two years off work to heal. More ops. Keep writing my weekly column for Courier Mail and fiction books.
  • 2010. Travel around South-East Asia on a cruise
  • While we’re away, dad dies. Unable to go to his funeral, but do write the eulogy.
  • Our darling Dante Primo dies from a tick
  • Psyche, our 15 year old cat dies of cancer
  • Dante Piccolo comes into our life
  • Adam lands a fantastic job in Sydney with a terrific company.
  • 2010. Sell house in Brooklet
  • Visit Sara in Tasmania – she’s very, very sick.
  • Make decision to join her and care for her
  • 2011. Shift to Tasmania and rent seven minutes away from Sara by car.
  • Stephen cares for me and Sara (his two wives) while Sara and I write our books – her, The Devil’s Diadem, me, Illumination.
  • Loving friends visit – us and Sara.
  • Stephen works with the refugees at Pontville.
  • Stephen buys a Harley Davidson – a Heritage Soft-tail.
  • Meet fabulous people, have wonderful and very sad times.
  • Caragh comes back from the USA – single and very happy.
  • Sara dies and we grieve. For a long time.
  • After initially saying “no” (three times), agree to take part in TV show Location, Location, Location Australia to buy a house in Tasmania as Sara has left us her five cats.
  • Take a family holiday (cruise) to New Zealand.
  • Caragh begins a tattoo apprenticeship in Brisbane
  • Move to Braeside, Feb 2012.
  • Stephen begins to renovate
  • We travel to Gold Coast for the marvellous Somerset Celebration of Literature and catch up with darling cousins and friends as well.
  • I have a huge and horrid operation that makes me very ill for weeks.
  • Stephen is so caring and wonderful, as always.
  • Illumination comes out, I turn 50. 50!
  • Stephen begins plans to start a business
  • Make some fantastic friends here in Hobart.
  • Go on amazing trip to Turkey, Israel, Egypt, Greece, Cyprus and Dubai.
  • Stephen becomes a tour guide at Cascade Brewery – he is brilliant!
  • Christmas comes and goes as does New Year and the Taste of Tasmania. Share all this with family and friends – wonderful times.
  • 2013 is here. This is the year of a new book, a new business and the celebration of twenty wonderful years.

 

I know I have left stuff out… I’ll have fun recalling these times later. I know Adam and Caragh and Stephen will remember things too. But, just listing some of the highlights and lows of the last twenty years, what’s not evident but should be, is that every single moment was made all that more luminous and wonderful or bearable, because I shared it with my true love.

I cannot begin to describe or explain how utterly amazing he was and still is in his loving care, not only of me and the children over two decades, but our darling Sara as well. How he rarely loses patience with me (well, OK, sometimes!), but is always so compassionate, passionate, loving and caring. I am so very, very blessed and, as our anniversary unfurls, I remember this and every other moment I have spent with this beautiful man and wonder what it was that I did so right to deserve him. I thank his gorgeous mother every day that she raised such a magnificent man.

People often ask me what I wish for my children: the answer is simple. My wish for Adam and Caragh is that they too will find a love like this, like Stephen and I have. I don’t think it happens very often, nor does it occur everyday, but when it does, appreciate what you have because it’s more than rare, it’s magical.

Thank you Stephen Ronald Brooks for twenty perfectly imperfect years. Here’s to the next decades and beyond – per eternita.

 

 

PS. The quote above comes from our favourite film, The Princess Bride.

 

 

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Book Review: Poet’s Cottage by Josephine Pennicott

This is a wonderful, haunting piece of work that starts in the present day when newly divorced Sadie, along with her teenage daughter, Betty, moves to the sea-village of Pencubitt in Tasmania to claim an inheritance, the benignly and yet appropriately named house, Poet’s Cottage. On arrival, Sadie finds herself welcomed by both the rather closed and sPoet's Cottageomewhat eccentric community and the gorgeous house that, according to locals, needs a writer and, particularly a Tatlow, to bring it to life. Once the home of Sadie’s grandmother, the infamous children’s author, Pearl Tatlow, Sadie knows little about her relative except that her mother adored her and what she can glean from the children’s books her grandmother wrote and the snippets of delicious scandal that follow in Pearl’s wake. The other certainty that rightly  unnerves Sadie and Betty is that Pearl was brutally murdered in the cellar of Poet’s Cottage – a death that seems to have leached into the very foundations and walls of the house itself. As the killer was never found and Pearl’s presence lingers, not only in the house, but in the memories (written and otherwise) of many of the villagers, Sadie determines to unravel the mystery of her grandmother’s death and try and resolve the conflicting stories she’s told about Pearl Tatlow: which was she? Adored mother and talented writer, whimsical, imaginative and warm? Or a selfish seductress and abusive mother and wife who cared for little but herself? Sadie must delve deeply to find the truth, crack open the shell of lies and fabrications to reveal the real woman behind the shiny, beauteous facade. Pearl is, in this regard, aptly named: she is either a precious thing buried beneath layers of grimy history and skewed familial and local stories or she is merely a broken promise, an empty shell devoid of depth. There are risks to this kind of search for the truth as Sadie is about to find out…

Segueing between past and present, from first person narrative (being an unedited version of a published book about Pearl called Webweaver, written by a local, the interesting Birdie) to third person, as a reader you’re drawn into both Pearl and Sadie’s stories that centre on family, relationships, female desire, social standards, gossip, assumptions and the power of words. This book is, in so many ways, a tale about the way words shape, inspire, create and destroy. How they can both build and harm. The Tatlows and others in the novel are either professional users of words or people who deploy them with a specific purpose such as in letters or wills. Within these forms, they construct versions of events, history and themselves… But for what purpose and what, if anything, are they hiding or revealing? What is fact? What is fiction? Just as writers construct imaginative worlds and tales for others to escape into, it seems other characters are not above doing this for themselves, whether it be a children’s book, a work of non-fiction, letters, retellings of occasions or conversations  or even Betty’s wistful blogs, reconstructing themselves in the process. In all these modes, the subjective nature of ‘truth’ is exposed and questioned as is the transformative ability of words. Through words, of the novel and those given to the characters, imagination and memory are shown to be powerful tools that are wielded freely and in ways that mirror how we utilise both to protect, preserve, alter events to privilege a specific version and hasten forgetting of another. But this is not the time for fiction… Sadie wants and needs facts, but they’re proving harder to uncover than she ever realised.

The story is also about survival – surviving loss, the abnegation of longing, abuse, thwarted desires, and shattered or even fulfilled dreams and the role memory can play in these as well. It’s about female bonds and the capacity women have for great unity and destruction – mostly of each other. As we follow the many threads that weave both Pearl’s tale and thus Sadie’s, we’re seduced into a particular kind of thinking and believing. It’s testimony to Pennicott’s exquisite prose that just as you think you understand where the characters and stories are heading, your expectations are overturned. I loved this about the novel. What I also loved is that I could see these characters; what they wore, ate, how they walked. I could feel the wind on my face, walk through the misty streets of Pencubitt, and feel the cold embrace of Poet’s Cottage. Pennicott evokes time and place with a light and meaningful touch: a word, a mood, a gesture all bring the past and present lives of those dwelling in the village into acute focus.

This is a gorgeous, sometimes harrowing but always moving and deep story that remains with you long after the last page. Simply lovely. A triumph.

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