Launch Of ‘Turtle Reef’ plus a Q&A

 

Today is launch day for the international edition of TURTLE REEF! I’m very proud to share this book with the world, for it showcases one of my favourite places – Australia’s amazingly beautiful Great Barrier Reef. Here I talk about Turtle Reef with Kathryn Ledson, Senior Commissioning Editor at Pilyara Press

Kathryn – Lawyer turned author – what happened?

Jen – This is a great lesson in following your passion.  I never had a burning ambition to be a lawyer. I simply chose law because I had high enough marks to get into it – and it made my mother happy. The course was great. Studying law is excellent training in critical thinking, and it teaches intellectual discipline. But when it came to practising law, my heart wasn’t in it.

When I was a child, I did have a burning ambition though – to be a writer. Ten years ago I remembered that, and thank goodness I did. Finally I’m doing what I should be doing. In his wonderful essay ‘Why I write’, George Orwell says, ‘If a writer escapes from his early influences altogether, he will have killed his impulse to write.’ Well, I didn’t escape from my early influences, and am very glad I went back to my roots.

Kathryn – Your fans must know how passionate you are about the environment. How did it come about? Has it always been a part of who you are or did a single incident get your attention to its plight?

Jen – A passion and love for the environment has always been a part of me. I think I never outgrew my childhood wonder with nature. Children are fascinated by caterpillars, and autumn leaves and ant nests. I still am. When people find out that I have animal characters in my stories, they often say ‘I didn’t know you wrote children’s books.’ This puzzles me. It’s as if for some reason we’re expected to outgrow our emotional connection with animals.

Kathryn – You write environmental or eco-romance. Do you think you’ve invented a sub-genre of the very popular “ru-ro”? Are you hoping more authors will join you in using fiction to highlight issues around the environment? (Or would you like them all to stay away 🙂 )

Jen – It’s true that very few people are writing Australian rural fiction with environmental themes. But internationally, other authors are doing it, and very successfully at that. Take Barbara Kingsolver and her New York Times best-seller Flight Behaviour for example. She brilliantly weaves rural fiction with a climate-change theme, when the annual migration of millions of Monarch butterflies goes horribly wrong. So I’m already in very good company.  I don’t know why more Australian authors aren’t writing adult fiction with animal characters and conservation themes. I think there should be more of it. Readers love these stories.

Kathryn – TURTLE REEF shines a light on some of the ever-present dangers to our Great Barrier Reef. Tell us about the story that shows this.

Jen – Well, simply put, Turtle Reef is the story of a love triangle between a farmer, a scientist and a coral reef. The main character, Zoe King is an unlucky-in-love zoologist who has sworn off men. She moves from Sydney to the Queensland sugar town of Kiawa, for a fresh start, and at first, it’s a dream come true, working at a marine centre, with the wildlife of beautiful Turtle Reef. But things quickly go wrong. First, she falls for Quinn, her boss’s boyfriend. Then, animals on the reef begin to sicken and die. Things aren’t exactly what they seem in picture-postcard perfect Kiawa. When her personal and professional worlds collide, she faces a terrible choice. Protecting the reef will mean betraying the man she loves.

Turtle Reef was inspired by my passion for the Great Barrier Reef, the largest coral ecosystem on our blue planet, and one of the seven natural wonders of the world. It holds a special place in my heart, and in the hearts of most Australians.  I wanted to share my love of the Reef, and pay tribute to its unique wildlife. I wanted to showcase the important part it plays in the human and animal life of Queensland’s coastal communities. And I wanted to entertain readers with a passionate and unusual love story. If Turtle Reef sparks debate about reef protection, that’s a bonus.

Kathryn – Your character Zoe is a force to be reckoned with, but I admit I was sceptical when I first started reading TURTLE REEF. Even though I know and trust your skills as a writer, I couldn’t see how you could pull off what clearly needed to be pulled off. Sydney girl arriving in a tight-knit rural environment, tackling age-old standards to save the reef. Taking on the very beautiful and talented local girl and falling in love with her childhood sweetheart! (What were you thinking!!) But you did pull it off – beautifully so – so, what is it, do you think, that makes Zoe’s journey such a riveting and believable one?

Jen – Zoe is simply a fabulous main character – She’s brave, intelligent, honest and passionate and was inspired by a real life ocean hero, Dr Eugenie Clark, known as the ‘Shark Lady’ who died last month and did her last dive at the age of 92. She was a pioneering marine biologist who dedicated her life to shark research, and defied social expectations about women’s roles in science. But Zoe is also a flawed heroine. She’s naïve – almost gullible at times. She wears her heart on her sleeve and is far too forthright for her own good. And although she’s a zoologist, her knowledge of animals is almost entirely theoretical. In fact she’s actually scared of horses and dolphins. Yet life in rural Queensland and her job at the Reef Centre brings her in daily contact with these very animals. Throw in a crush on the boss’s boyfriend and a mystery out on the reef, and Zoe faces some serious challenges. That’s always interesting. We can all relate to somebody being thrown in the deep end, so to speak. Fortunately, Zoe’s pretty resourceful.

Kathryn – TURTLE REEF doesn’t just address issues around the reef. You clearly have a very special place in your heart for children and horses and love to write about them. There’s a beautiful bond that forms between a damaged boy and equally damaged horse. Without giving away too much, can you tell us a bit about it?

Jen – Ah, you’re talking about Josh, and Aisha, the Arabian mare. And you’re quite right, I do have a special love for children and horses. The healing effect that horses have on children is a favourite theme in my fiction. However that positive impact can work both ways. In Turtle Reef, Zoe befriends Josh, a teenage boy with an acquired brain injury. Josh might not have good people skills, but he’s very wise when it comes to animals, especially horses.  He’s able to help the mare Aisha, as much as she helps him.

Kathryn – In TURTLE REEF I loved the character Einstein and learning about her very special attributes. Tell us about your eight-legged friend and the message she has for your readers.

Jen – I’m intrigued by Einstein as well. Einstein is an octopus. These misunderstood creatures are usually cast in such an evil light. Take the giant, murderous octopus from 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, for example, or Ursula the sea witch from The Little Mermaid. I think the octopus gets such bad press because it is an alarmingly alien animal. Eight suckered arms. Three hearts pumping blue, copper-based blood around its boneless body. However, I’m a big fan — jet-powered, masters of camouflage, shape-shifters, and highly intelligent. If people want to know about Einstein’s capacity for maternal self-sacrifice, they’ll have to read the book …

Kath – I always learn so much from reading your books. How much did you already know about the reef, its inhabitants, stuffy old rural farmers and their outdated methods? Was much research required and how did you conduct it?

Jen – Oh, you know me Kath. I’m such a nerd when it comes to these things – an amateur naturalist from way back. I actually did know quite a bit about the reef already. But Zoe is a marine zoologist after all, and I’m not. So I took a research trip to Bargara, on the southern tip of the Great Barrier Reef.

Zoe’s love interest, Quinn Cooper, is a fifth generation cane grower. I had a lot to learn about the joys and challenges of sugar farming. The cane trains were especially fascinating. Did you know that Queensland has 4,000 kilometres of narrow gauge track? And that these picturesque little locomotives still transport almost forty million tonnes of sugar cane to the mills each year? Breathing life into Zoe’s character was even more interesting. It involved some island hopping, some snorkelling on coral reefs, some whale-watching and sitting around on moonlit beaches with hatching turtles. It was a tough job, but someone had to do it!

Kathryn – Finally, you know so much about it all, but can you tell me this: if I punch a Tiger shark on the nose, will it go away?

Jen – It does sometime work. Sharks are reactive animals, big sooks really, and don’t like getting hurt any more than you or I do. Their noses are vulnerable because they bear organs called Ampulae of Loranzini which are used to detect slight water pressure changes like the movement of an injured fish flopping around. These organs are very sensitive and hopefully a good hit to the nose will work – or a jab in the eyes. Hope you never have to try it Kath!

 

Rewilding Our Homes and Hearts

When I was a child I lived in suburban Melbourne. Our house backed onto a railway line, and I could tell the time by the trains. Our back gate opened onto a broad, shady laneway and wild paddocks lay between it and the tracks. A canal, where I wasn’t supposed to play, flowed past the end of the lane.

emperor-gum-caterpillarThat was decades ago now, and the overgrown paddocks and canal are long gone. Yet I still recall each detail of that special world. Waiting for the spotty, stone-coloured eggs of the purple swamp hens to hatch. Collecting handsome emperor gum caterpillars, resplendent in emerald coats and bright red standards. Raising them on leafy sprigs kept in jars of water until they spun cocoons and emerged as moths as large as my hand. Stalking the handsome water skinks, which when startled, would spring into the water and swim away with sinuous grace. I knew some of them by name, telling them apart by a distinctive stripe here, or a missing toe there. The heartfelt connection I formed with the natural world has lasted me a lifetime. It caused me to seek out wild places, and for the last thirty years I’ve lived on a hilltop overlooking the beautiful Bunyip State forest.

As a keen amateur naturalist, I’m fascinated by the notion of rewilding – restoring flora and fauna to their historical range. The theory has gained popularity after conservation success stories such as bringing wolves back to Yellowstone National Park and the large-scale return of Europe’s apex predators like lynx, bears and wolverines.

Zealandia Sanctuary

Zealandia Sanctuary

New Zealand provides a shining example. It is restoring Wellington’s former water catchment to forest. The sanctuary known as Zealandia, is an ecological island in the centre of the city, and home to some of the country’s rarest species. Now an important tourist attraction, it’s responsible for increased sightings of birds like tui and the endangered kaka in surrounding suburbs.

Australia is beginning to embrace rewilding. Quolls, bilbies, bandicoots and bettongs are being returned to parts of their natural range. Plans are afoot to bring Tasmanian devils back to the mainland after a four-hundred-year absence. Many ecologists advocate reintroducing dingoes to control introduced pests like rabbits, cats and foxes – a concept I explore in my new novel, Journey’s End.

Yet rewilding isn’t restricted to sexy, large-scale conservation efforts. We can all play our part. Rewilding Australia founder, Rob Brewster, says ‘It’s about filling those vacant rock crevices, and hollow logs with the marsupials that evolved over millions of years to fill these niches. It’s about acknowledging that the world should be a wilder place – and that humankind merely shares a spot in this wild world!’

wildscapes_008And it can start in our own backyard. Wildscaping is the new gardening buzzword for mingling layers of native trees, shrubs and ground cover. Throw in a pond, a rock wall and a nesting box or two. This provides shelter and foraging areas for species that prefer different heights and micro-habitats. Then sit back and watch the garden come to life. Even pots of natives on a balcony provide vital habitat. Nature wins by growing stronger and more diverse. We win by reconnecting in a small way with the earth. Imagine local communities wildscaping schools, railway corridors, vacant lots and parks. Before long our urban landscapes could be transformed into thriving webs of life.

I’m very fortunate, where I live. Yet many of us lead lives so far removed from nature, that we rarely even touch the earth. We delude ourselves that we are somehow immune to and separate from the natural world. But at what cost? The cost to our declining environment? The cost to our hearts? Rewilding isn’t just for our land. It’s a concept for our minds and spirits as well.

Launch Of Journey’s End

JE LaunchThank you so much to the friends and readers who attended the recent launch of Journey’s End at Readings Bookshop in Hawthorn. It was a great event. For those who couldn’t come, here is a transcript of the Q&A with Kathryn Ledson.

  • (1) Back in 2010, when you and I were sitting together in Andrea Goldsmith’s novel writing class with the rest of the LLGs, did you imagine we’d be sitting here today, barely six years later, talking about your 6th novel? How on earth have you managed to do it?

    Well, of course not. I didn’t think either of us would be here. It’s surreal, isn’t it? And I’ll remind you that you’ve published three novels yourself in that time Kath. What an inspiration Andrea must have been! I’m committed to writing a novel a year, so I take my writing time very seriously. I set myself a modest daily word count. Around a thousand words a day, and often less. But the point is I do write daily. It’s amazing how quickly the words add up.I’m inspired to take Steven King’s advice. He says when writing a novel you have three months. That the first draft of a book—even a long one—should take no more than three months, the length of a season. It takes me a lot longer than that, but I always think of him when I reach the three-month mark, and I hurry up.

(2) For a lawyer, you know a hell of a lot about wild places and wild creatures. Where did this passion come from? Was it childhood influence or something that coincided with your change of career?

I think I was born this way. Perhaps we all are, it’s just that I never outgrew my natural childhood wonder at nature. I didn’t grow up in the country. We lived in suburban Melbourne. Our house backed onto a railway line, and I could tell the time by the trains. Our back gate opened onto a broad, shady laneway and wild paddocks lay between us and the tracks. A canal, where I wasn’t supposed to play, flowed past the end of the lane.

That was decades ago now, and the overgrown paddocks and canal are long gone. Yet I still recall each detail of that special world. Waiting for the spotty, stone-coloured eggs of the purple swamp hens to hatch. Collecting handsome emperor gum caterpillars, resplendent in emerald coats and bright red standards. Raising them on leafy sprigs kept in jars of water until they spun cocoons and emerged as stunning moths as big as my hand. Stalking the handsome water skinks, which when startled, would spring into the water and swim away with snake-like grace. I knew some of them by name, telling them apart by a distinctive stripe here, or a missing toe there. That heartfelt connection I formed with the natural world has lasted me a lifetime. It caused me to seek out wild places, and for the last thirty years I’ve lived on a hilltop overlooking the beautiful Bunyip State forest.

  • Flowers from launch, still good two weeks later!

    Flowers from launch, still good two weeks later!

    (3) You’ve invented a new genre that we’re calling “eco-romance”. Some people are quite misguided about novels with romantic elements. They are often dismissed as being light-weight, poorly written, and so on. Your novels are far from poorly written – in fact, they are beautifully written, and touch on issues that others might prefer left unsaid. Can you tell us about some of the issues you’ve brought into the light in your other novels?

    A compelling story is always the most important thing for me, but I also explore rural conservation issues in all my novels. Brumby’s Run has cattle grazing in Victoria’s high country. Currawong Creek has coal seam gas mining on the Darling Downs. Billabong Bend has water use in the Murray Darling. Turtle Reef is about protecting the Great Barrier Reef. And the first novel I published a little eco/thriller/horror story called Wasp Season, is about invasive species – namely European Wasps. The wasp queen has her own point of view. You’d love her Kath!

(4) Let’s talk about Journey’s End – tell us first about Kim Sullivan.

JourneysEnd_coverKim Sullivan is the main character, and is a Sydney botanist. She and her husband inherit Journey’s End, a rundown farm high on the Great Eastern Escarpment. They dream of one day restoring it to its natural state. However, when Kim is tragically widowed, selling up is the only practical option. She and her children head to the mountains to organise the sale.

The last thing Kim expects is for Journey’s End to cast its wild spell on them all. The family decides to stay, and Kim forges on with plans to rewild the property, propagating plants, and acquiring a menagerie of native animals. But wayward wildlife, hostile farmers and her own lingering grief make the task seem hopeless. That is, until she meets the mysterious Taj, a man who has a way with animals …

(5) You write emotion so well, Jen. I found myself hopping from laughter to tears to anger, even shame. All of your books have well defined themes. So what’s Journey’s End really about?

In some ways the novel is about a woman’s journey through grief and out the other side. It’s also about Kim finding the courage to step outside her comfort zone and rediscover what’s fundamental and authentic in her life. When she sets about rewilding Journey’s End it’s not just about her land. It’s about her mind and spirit as well.

(6) We’ll talk more about that in a minute… I remember you saying once that if your characters must inhabit the city, then you get them to the country, as fast as possible. I’m keen to know about Tarringtops – where the property Journey’s End resides, and where Kim Sullivan takes her children. Does Tarringtops exist? Did you go there?

Tapin Tops National Park

Tapin Tops National Park

Tarringtops is a fictional blend of Barrington Tops and Tapin Tops – real national parks high on the Great Eastern Escarpment of the Great Dividing Range. And the character of Kim Sullivan is inspired by my old school friend, Kim Gollan, a real-life bush regenerator. She can’t be here tonight because she’s on remote Lord Howe Island, restoring habitat for the Lord Howe Island Giant Phasmid, the world’s rarest insect.

Twenty years ago Kim and her husband Pete established the Dingo Creek Rainforest Nursery at Bobin on the edge of Tapin Tops National Park. I’ve had the great privilege of staying at their nursery, and having a guided tour of Tapin Tops’ subtropical rainforest by two passionate botanists who love and understand it.

  • (7) I was completely convinced that Kim Sullivan is an expert horticulturist, and it’s hard to believe you’re not. How do you know so much about, for example, wild orchids, dingoes and trophic cascades? What sort of research do you do?– Well as you can imagine, having real-life Kim as my friend helped a lot for this particular book. But I’ve been an amateur naturalist all my life. I’m fascinated by everything wild and have some kind of David Attenborough complex. I read a lot of non-fiction. At the moment I’m reading a book called Once and Future Giants – What Ice Age Extinctions Tell Us About the Fate of Earth’s Largest Mammals. Also a book about Australian wildflowers, a book on Tasmanian history, and the 40th anniversary edition of Born Free by Joy Adamson, A Lioness of Two Worlds.
    Novels with similar subject matters are also must reads. For example, one of my works in progress has a fair bit of falconry in it. Reading novels such as H is for Hawk and My Side of the Mountain adds to the knowledge bank. I also immerse myself in locations when I can by taking research trips. When you visit a place, maps turn into landscapes and you get a feel for the people. And of course there’s always Dr Google
  • (8) Journey’s End takes us beyond Australia’s borders and touches on a very topical issue – racism. Tell us about Taj.
  • snow leopardTaj is an Afghani refugee who has been given asylum in Australia through the Interpreter Resettlement Program. He comes from Nuristan province in the north-east, an area which doesn’t conform to the stereotype of Afghanistan being a place of deserts and bombed out landscapes. Nuristan is instead a place of mountains, rushing rivers, and vast stands of oak, cedar and pine. These wild forests of the Hindu Kush reach all the way to the snow-capped summits of the Pamir range, known as the roof of the world. Next stop, China. Snow leopards and bears still live there. Wolves too.Taj is Tingo’s town handyman, but like many refugees, he once had a very different career. I’ve met a Pakistani taxi driver who was an orthopaedic surgeon back home, and a cleaner who was a lawyer. It’s hard starting out in a new country and Taj has a haunted past. It takes him a while to find his feet.
  • (9) As well as animals and the environment, children always play an important role in your novels. Taj has a very special relationship with both Kim’s children. Can you tell us about this? 
  • – Kim has two children, 11yo Jake and 7yo Abbey. Both children have highly emotional responses to Taj, who is working around the house and yards, preparing the property for sale. Jake hates him. The children’s soldier father was killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan, and perhaps understandably, Jake can’t get past the fact of where Taj comes from. Abbey on the other hand loves him – she is drawn by the gift Taj has with animals, and by his gentleness.
  • (10) Journey’s End is a love story in more ways than one. There’s a gentle, budding romance, and a worrying one. This book explores the love between adults and children, humans and animals, female friends, animals and nature. For you, as its writer, which of these romances came most easily to the page?

    As you might guess Kath, the romance with the animals and nature came most easily. Followed closely by the love between the animals and the two children. I completely understand that intense childhood connection with the natural world. Because, as I said before, I never outgrew it.However, this time I didn’t have my usual struggle writing the human relationships. I think this is because of my respect for Kim and the fact that I’m secretly in love with Taj. He’s a wolf-whisperer. What’s not to love? 
  • (11) I think your books are more than just greatly entertaining. They’re important and I think should be widely read. For example, I love that you’ve shown in Journey’s End how we can SHARE our environment with its indigenous plants and creatures, instead of culling or destroying them. What else would you like your readers to take away from this story? 
  • – Journey’s End has several main themes. It’s about a woman’s journey through grief and out the other side. It’s about finding the courage to live an authentic life. It’s also about overcoming prejudice. Both Taj and the dingoes are unfairly judged throughout the story, Taj by Jake and the dingoes by the town. Prejudice is a very destructive force that is based in fear. It’s only when people confront their fears that positive change can happen.
  • (12) Finally, I want to ask about your writing process. I was well into my third book before I discovered mine. Do you have one? What’s yours? 
  • – I write very consistently, daily if I can. I’m not a fast writer – a thousand words a day is about as much as I can manage, and I often write less, but it’s amazing how quickly the words add up. I edit as I go, producing very clean manuscripts that don’t require much redrafting.I do chapter summaries as I write, noting characters, POV, location, and main plot points. This is an invaluable tool during the redrafting process. If I want to add scenes I can see straight away where they will fit in best. I roughly plan the book before I start, putting plot points on a whiteboard, following a three-act structure. It always changes a lot in the writing, but it helps to have some sort of guide.
  • (13) And now, what next? It’s exciting. Are you allowed to tell? 
  • – I’m thrilled to announce that I have a new contract for a historical saga that will be out with Penguin in the first half of next year.They say history is written by the winners. I want to write a fresh version of history, giving a voice to the outsiders, and to the animals teetering on the extinction precipice. It will begin in late 19th century Tasmania, and is the first novel of a trilogy. It’s the story of Luke Tyler, a man unjustly condemned to prison in his youth, and of Isabelle Holmes, the girl he loves. It follows their lives over a twenty-five-year period.CoorinnaLike in all my stories, animals play an important part. It will also be the story of one of the last Tasmanian tigers, soon to disappear from Earth after twenty-five million years. Apart from a little gem, Coorinna, written in 1957, there is no historical fiction concerning the Thylacine. I think it’s time to fill the gap. 
  • The novel will explore the forces that caused the extinction of the greatest marsupial predator since Thylacoleo Carnifex the mighty marsupial lion, vanished forty-five thousand years earlier. What if the ultimate culprits weren’t the men who shot and snared them? What part did xenophobia play? And could the heroic actions of one young fugitive determine the fate of an entire species? I’m having a lot of fun writing this one!

Release Of ‘Journey’s End’ & Giveaway

The time has come for some shameless self-promotion – the release day for my new novel, Journey’s End. Leave a comment about your favourite wild place to go in the draw for two signed copies (Aust & NZ addresses only) Contest ends Sunday 26th June.

JourneysEnd_coverWhen Sydney botanist Kim Sullivan and her husband inherit Journey’s End, a rundown farm high on the Great Eastern Escarpment, they dream of one day restoring it to its natural state. Ten years later however, Kim is tragically widowed. Selling up is the only practical option, so she and her children head to the mountains to organise the sale. The last thing Kim expects is for Journey’s End to cast its wild spell on them all.

The family decides to stay, and Kim forges on with plans to rewild the property, propagating plants, and acquiring a menagerie of native animals. But wayward wildlife, hostile farmers and her own lingering grief make the task seem hopeless. That is, until she meets the mysterious Taj, a man who has a way with animals. Kim begins to feel that she might find love again. But Taj has his own tragic past – one that could drive a wedge between them that cannot be overcome …

I’m passionate about Australia’s flora and fauna and its magnificent wild places. There’s a world-wide movement afoot to reclaim territory for wilderness – rewilding. We’ve already lost so much. Conservationists are now trying to reverse this harm by restoring habitats to their natural state. I explore this fascinating notion in Journey’s End.            Most people have been aware at times of some primal core within them, which longs to break free of suburbia. Longs to escape deep into the desert, or high into the mountains. My main character Kim Sullivan acts on this instinct and I’m proud of her! Read the prologue to Journey’s End below.

Prologue

The day Kim Sullivan’s world ended was disguised as an ordinary Wednesday. She took the kids to school and did some shopping. She came home, put on the washing machine and went to make her bed. Scout poked his head out from behind the pillows. Kim picked up the old border terrier, and set him down on the carpet.

He whined, stiff legs scrabbling to climb back up. On the third attempt he succeeded and nestled down on Connor’s jumper, the one Kim slept with when he was away. His smell was in the weave. Scout had always been more Connor’s than hers. ‘We won’t have to make do with his jumper for much longer.’ Kim sat down beside the dog. ‘We’ll have the real thing home on Sunday.’

Home on Sunday. After years of deployments in war-torn Afghanistan, Connor would be home – home for good. It was hard to believe, a prospect too sweet to be true.

‘Daddy will be back from the army in four sleeps,’ Abbey had said on their way to school that morning, counting out the days on her fingers. ‘It’s going to be my show and tell. Mummy, do you think it will be good enough?’

‘The best ever.’

Jake had rolled his eyes. ‘What would preps know about the army? And Dad’s job is supposed to be a secret. You shouldn’t go telling everybody, Abbey. The Taliban might hear.’

‘I don’t think the Taliban will be listening to Abbey’s show and tell.’

Jake hadn’t looked convinced. He worried so much about his father.

Well, he didn’t have to worry anymore. In four sleeps Connor would be home and their new life would begin.

Her phone rang from the bedside table. Of course – that’s what she’d come in to find in the first place. ‘Daisy, what’s up?’

‘How about I pick your kids up from school this arvo, bring them back to my place for an early tea? Grace wants to show Abbey her new rabbit, Stuart’s been bugging me about having Jake over, and you’re always so tailspin busy before Connor gets back. What are you doing now? Cleaning behind the fridge?’

Kim laughed. She’d already done that. ‘Thanks. I want everything to be perfect. You know how it is when they come home.’

‘Steve’s lucky if I make the bed,’ said Daisy. ‘What’s the point, when the first thing we do is mess it up again? And I’m too scared to look behind our fridge. I think there’s a dead mouse.’

Kim shifted her feet as a flush of heat passed through her. Daisy was right. Nothing came close to come home sex, or waking up in Connor’s arms for the first time in months, or going to sleep knowing the man she loved was safe beside her. She sank down on the bed, dizzy with wanting.

‘Are you lot still heading off to your bush block?’ Daisy asked.

‘Just as soon as we can get away.’

‘Sounds like heaven,’ said Daisy.

That’s exactly what it would be.

Connor’s grandfather had left him two hundred hectares of land at Tingo, six hours north of Sydney, high on the Great Escarpment. Journey’s End. A property in his family for generations, although nobody had lived there for years. She could see it now. Stunning views across the mountains of Tarringtops National Park. Sharing a beer with Connor on the farmhouse porch, reconnecting. Watching the kids play on the old willow peppermint, its broad low branches just made for climbing. Talking about their future.

They had grand plans to restore the rundown farm to its natural state. It had been a shared dream since their first visit there, though more hers, perhaps, than Connor’s. She was the botanist. He was more interested in the wildlife.

But Kim had quickly fallen pregnant. Connor was promoted and went on the first of many overseas postings. And it had remained just that – a dream. When Jake was two, she started teaching horticulture at Campbelltown College, and then Abbey came along. Their lives were too full, too busy. ‘One day we’ll take off,’ Connor would say. ‘Use our saved leave and just go bush.’ That day was almost upon them.

Kim wouldn’t have heard the knock if Scout hadn’t barked. She glanced in the dressing-table mirror, running her fingers through her blonde hair then smoothing her shirt. Good enough. She opened the front door and blinked in surprise. Captain Blake stood on the step. He looked different somehow: sallow and slump-shouldered. Scout appeared at her heels, yapping in short, angry bursts.

‘Is Connor home early?’ she asked. ‘Should I pick him up from the airport?’

He shook his head. A cold stone formed in her chest and slipped down to her belly. ‘Is he all right?’

‘Let’s talk inside.’ He rubbed his forehead with his fingers, and she knew. The terrible truth showed in his swift breath, his guarded eyes, how he spoke – the fact he was there at all.

Kim put a hand to her heart. Panic claimed her, like she was walking too close to a cliff. Pain too. Her legs gave way, while white noise drowned out the Captain’s voice. Not Connor. Not her brave, handsome, clever Connor. Her best friend, her lover, her soulmate. What about their life together, their future? What about Abbey and Jake? She swayed alarmingly as the ground lurched beneath her. What about her? How would she live?

World Environment Day

World-Environment-Day 1

World environment dayToday is World Environment Day, and don’t we need one! A World Environment Year would be more useful. Or maybe a century? This year’s theme for WED – Go Wild for Life – encourages us to celebrate all those species under threat and take action of our own to help safeguard them for future generations. This can be about animals or plants that are threatened within your local area as well as at the national or global level – many local extinctions will eventually add up to a global extinction!

2016-06-05 00.02.32To celebrate this special day, I went for a nature walk here at Pilyara. And look what I found? A group of these gorgeous red-spotted Amanita muscaria toadstools. Every child has made their acquaintance via countless illustrations in fairy tale books. They’re a classic symbol of enchanted forests and magical groves – where elves, gnomes and witches dwell. And they’re not a great candidate for an Environment Day blog – as they are an introduced species. But I still love seeing them.

2016-06-05 00.01.47Amanita muscaria is found on the ground and in leaf litter, mainly under exotic conifers and broadleaved trees. I found these ones under a pine tree that we planted after it served as our Christmas tree for many years. That was two decades ago now. I presume the spores survived in the pot.

Finding these toadstools is of some 2016-06-05 00.02.17concern, as they’re extending their range into native forests. This spread will change the ecosystem, and could cause the decline or elimination of some native fungi. Amanita muscaria is native to conifer and deciduous woodlands of the Northern Hemisphere. Although classified as poisonous, reports of human deaths resulting from eating it are extremely rare. After 2016-06-05 00.03.18parboiling, which weakens its toxicity and breaks down the toadstool’s psychoactive substances—it is eaten in parts of Europe, Asia, and North America. I don’t think I’ll give it a go!

On a more bookish subject, I’m excited to announce I have a new contract with Penguin Random House for the historical I’m writing. It will be available next year. And this year’s release, Journey’s End, is now available as an eBook. The print version will be in the shops on June 13th. Exciting times 🙂

Great BYO Horse Riding Holiday

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Chericke 3

Star & Lofty enjoying breakfast!

Chericke ParkLast week my son and I took our horses on a holiday to Chericke Park at Maryknoll in Victoria – a hidden gem! This lovely cottage, nestled in the foothills of the Bunyip State Forest, offers horse and rider accommodation. It’s situated on five acres, has secure horse paddocks and you can bring your dogs too.

 

The cottage is beautifully appointed, and has everything you need to enjoy your stay. There are two large bedrooms, an open fire, barbecue and outside fire pit. It can sleep ten people, and there’s plenty of room available for camping if you want to bring a crowd. The state forest is only ten minutes away and offers stunning riding trails and bush walking. Although the cottage caters for horses and riders, it also welcomes city families and their pets to stay and enjoy the country life.

Chericke 1We spent hours exploring the forest trails, and the horses enjoyed their stay as much as we did. The safely fenced paddocks were chock full of sweet, juicy green pasture, and even the holding yards had grass.  Guests have complete privacy, yet the owners live in the property’s main house, and are only a phone call away if needed.

I highly recommend a stay if you can’t bear to leave your horse behind when you go on holiday. Didn’t get much work done on my new book though – there’s too much great riding on the doorstep. I’ve already booked another stay. Five stars! 🙂

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An Ancient Mimic

stick insectI’m deep in edits for my upcoming novel, Journey’s End, which will be out with Penguin Random House at the end of May. Taking regular walks is a must, to clear my head, and it’s always a treat for me to find an insect like this one during my wanderings – Ctenomorphodes chronus.

Phasmids (or stick insects) are remarkable animals. Even the name, Phasmid, has an evocative, romantic ring to it. They have been disguising themselves as walking leaves and twigs for 126 million years, even before the evolution of flowering plants. C. chronus has an uncanny resemblance to a gum tree twig and can grow up to 18 cm in length. The males are long and slender, have full wings and can fly. The females are larger but their small wings are not functional, except to flash at predators. Phasmids are harmless herbivores, eating gum and wattle leaves. They also eat blackberry leaves, and I sometimes find them doing a good job feeding on clumps of this invasive weed. They often rock back and forth, as if swaying in the breeze.

Stick Insect fossilFossil discoveries from modern-day Mongolia mark some of the earliest examples of twig-mimicking insects. Evolution quickly produced disguises for bugs, with the arrival of the earliest birds and mammals, which visually preyed upon insects during the age of dinosaurs. This is more tantalizing evidence of early insect-plant co evolution. These ancient phasmids were about 7 cm long from tail to antenna tip. They had parallel black lines running along their wings, which at rest would have resembled a ginkgo tree leaf, also preserved as fossils in China and Mongolia where the insects lived.

Spiny Leaf Insect

Spiny Leaf Insect

One especially interesting Australian phasmid is the Spiny Leaf Insect. Females lay eggs resembling seeds, flicking them onto the ground below their tree. The eggs have a knob, called a capitulum, which is tasty to ants. Ants carry the eggs underground, eat only the knob, and leave the rest of the egg in the nest, protected from other animals that might eat it. The young phasmids (or nymphs) hatch after 1-3 years underground They look and behave like ants. When they emerge from the nest they climb into the trees, where they moult into slow-moving leaf mimics.

Phasmids are parthenogenic, which means the females can lay fertile eggs without mating, but the babies will all be girls. Males can even mate with species other than their own, which can create new species. What fascinating creatures! No wonder they’re becoming popular as pets. Museum Victoria is currently breeding rare giant stick insects, that can grow more than 50 cm in length. Next time I’m in Melbourne, I plan to meet these miracle babies!

Congratulations to Womblywoo for winning the prize draw book giveaway! I shall email you soon for your postal address. 

2016 Australia Day Book Giveaway

 

I’m delighted to be part of the Book’d Out Australia Day Book Giveaway Blog Hop celebrating Australian writers and stories. I’m giving away a copy of my latest novel Turtle Reef, and a copy of Jilted by the fabulous Rachael Johns. The giveaway is only open to Australian residents. Stop by the other blogs on the tour to win more great prizes.

My Australia Day blog post is about a little Australian native orchid, that connects my memories of a lost brother with my upcoming novel, Journey’s End.

GEDSC DIGITAL CAMERAThere is little more poignant in life, than helping to pack up the house of a loved one who has died too young. This has been my sad task recently, since the untimely death of my brother, Rod Scoullar. He was a learned man, a man who loved Australia’s fauna and flora – a naturalist of the first order. His study was a gold-mine of nature books, stored on impressive floor-to-ceiling shelves that covered an entire wall. It was here that I found the holy grail for Aussie orchid lovers – Australian Indigenous Orchids Vol 1 & 2 by A W Dockrill. These are hard to find volumes, and sell on-line Ravine orchid 4.ashxfor up to $200 a set. But aside from being the definitive treatises on native orchids, they also provided me with a wonderful link to my new book, Journey’s End, which will be out in late May.

Journey’s End is concerned in part with a woman’s journey through grief. I’m deep in the edits at the moment. Little did I know when I was writing this book that it would take such a personal turn. It’s set in the wild, mountainous, subtropical rainforests of the Great Eastern Escarpment, and the rare Ravine Orchid (Sarchochilus fitzgeraldii) plays a significant role in the story. So I looked it up in my brother’s books, and found a glorious, full-colour plate of this beautiful and delicate flower.

Ravine orchid 4The Ravine Orchid is found in wet, humid rainforests of the Great Dividing Range, where waterfalls cascade from the tablelands. It is lithophytic, which means its roots cling to rocks or creep into humus-filled crevices. Old colonies form mats many meters wide, and relish the constant play of cool air through the deep, damp ravines. Plants also occasionally grow on the moss-covered buttresses of ancient trees. The fragile flowers appear in October and November, and are up to forty millimeters wide. Colours vary from pure white, white with a red heart, to a rare all-crimson form. They are borne on graceful, pendulous stems which may measure more than a meter long. Quite a sight, when draped in full bloom on the rocks above a mountain stream.

Ravine orchid 3I was fortunate enough to buy a tiny specimen from the Tinonee Orchid Nursery when on a research trip for the book last year, pictured right. According to the wonderful Ray Clement, it should do well in the climate of the southern Victorian ranges where I live. So far so good. One day it may flower, and I’ll think of my brother, and his passion for Australia’s marvellous native plants.

To go into the prize draw leave a comment on this blog post. Don’t forget to check out the other blogs at Book’d Out to be in the running for more great prizes!! (Entries will close at midnight on Wednesday January 27th)

The Multi-Talented Lyrebird

LyrebirdA lot of fencing has been happening at Pilyara lately. Thanks to a state government grant, we are fencing stock out of the timbered gullies that lead down to our creek. This is designed to protect wildlife and vegetation, as we live in a beautiful, mountainous area of high conservation value. All this hard work is already paying off – for the first time in years we’ve spotted a pair of Superb Lyrebirds in a fenced off gully, quite close to the house. What a thrill!

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John Gould’s early 1800s painting of a superb lyrebird specimen at the British Museum

Lyrebirds are famous for their amazing ability to mimic any bird song. They also mimic human sounds such as mill whistles, cross-cut saws, chainsaws, car engines, alarms, gun shots, camera shutters, dogs barking, babies crying and mobile phones. The male is renowned for the beauty of his long, lyre-shaped tail feathers and hypnotising courtship display. However our resident pair of lyrebirds bring more than beauty and music to Pilyara. They provide a far more practical service – as fire wardens in what is predicted to be a summer of deadly heat.

Recent studies show that lyrebirds reduce the chance of bush-fires in areas where they forage. They rake the forest floor in their search for worms and insects, burying leaf litter, speeding up decomposition, and reducing the amount of fuel available for bush-fires. They also inhibit the growth of ferns, grasses and other plants which would otherwise burn. The Latrobe University research was conducted in burnt and un-burnt sites of Black Saturday‘s two most devastating blazes. It showed lyrebirds reduced forest litter by a massive 1.66 tonnes per hectare over a nine-month period.

Lyrebird 3‘Our modelling suggests the reduction in litter fuel loads brought about by lyrebird foraging has the potential to result in markedly subdued fire behaviour…The loss of lyrebirds from forests could result in higher fuel loads and an increased likelihood of wildfires threatening human life,” said the report, published in the CSIRO’s journal Wildlife Research. ‘They forage like chickens, they’ve got big feet with really long toes so they’ve basically got rakes for feet. They rake through the litter looking for worms and little bugs, stuff to eat. They’re digging through that humus and litter layer looking for little invertebrates and whatever they can find.’

‘Through that process they reduce the litter fuel load by, on average, 25 per cent, or about 1.6 tonnes per hectare. And we put those figures into a fire behaviour model and found that that level of fuel reduction is enough [that] in low fire-danger weather conditions it excludes fire, fire’s not possible under low to moderate conditions. But even in more extreme conditions the fire behaviour will be more moderate, [with] lower rates of spread, lower flame height, so a less intense fire.

Our conclusion is that lyrebirds are reducing the chance of fires occurring in the areas where they forage and the ecological significance of that is that un-burnt patches within large wildfires are really important sites for animals to survive post-fire.’

On Black Saturday in 2009, the wind change that saved us, devastated Marysville and took many lives. Summer is always a tense time here at Pilyara. It’s lovely to know that we have at least two new fire wardens watching over us. 🙂  Play the video below for a taste of lyrebird song. (You have to skip the ad first) The great David Attenborough looks like he’s wandering around one of our gullies, and he misses the Whip Bird call.

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Almost There + Book Giveaway

These Saddles Will Soon Get A Workout

These Saddles Will Soon Get A Workout!

I’m putting the finishing touches on my new manuscript, which is due at Penguin on Thursday. This has been the hardest, but also the most satisfying book that I’ve written so far, with a broader focus than my previous novels. From Afghanistan’s last wilderness, to Australia’s great eastern escarpment, an epic tale of love, loss and redemption.Writing it has been an emotional roller coaster, and more than once I’ve found myself in tears.

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Waratahs

So, you can imagine how pleased I’ll be to send it off, and turn my attention to things closer to home – like the beauty unfolding all around me. Spring is my favourite time of year, and I’ll finally have a chance to enjoy it! This post is dedicated to Pilyara, the beautiful property where I live, and the animals and plants that I share it with.

DSCF0626Pilyara has many forested areas, with spectacular grey gums, mountain ash, and messmate stringy bark trees towering overhead. Below grows a dense layer of smaller plants including correa, heath, dusty miller, and golden bush pea. Delicate ground orchids abound, and ferns fringe the creek, including tall tree ferns. An astounding range of birds are found here: honey-eaters, bower-birds, parrots, cockatoos, kookaburras, currawongs, whip-birds, willy-wagtails, magpies, herons, swallows, swifts, ducks, eagles and owls, just to name a few. We’ve even spotted a lyrebird once or twice.Native animals include wombats, wallabies, koalas, echidnas, kangaroos, possums, gliders,bush rats, antechinus,bats and platypus in the creek. We also have the odd goanna and snake.

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Native Mint Bush

We received a grant from Victoria’s Healthy Waterways program, to finish fencing off the gullies and creek, and the work is almost complete. This will further enhance Pilyara as a habitat for native flora and fauna. Just talking about it makes me want to head off down to the creek! But no, first things first. Only a few more days work on the manuscript, and then the farrier comes to shoe the horses. (My present to myself for finishing!) Pilyara is only a few minutes ride from the Bunyip state forest, with its stunning scenery and heritage horse trails. Here are some photos taken today. Roll on Thursday!

I’m giving away a two-pack of my books. Leave a comment telling me your favourite native bird, or your favourite first line of a novel, to go in the draw. Let me know which two books you’d like. Closing date next Sunday 4th October. (Aust & NZ only) 

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Crabapple

Rex

Rex

Kitchen Garden

Kitchen Garden

Grevillia

Grevillia

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Sheba and Star

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