Saturday 16 August 2014

Book Review

That Stranger Next Door by Goldie Alexander (Clan Destine Press, 2014)
Reviewed by Dianne Bates

A fictional story, That Stranger Next Door, is nonetheless rooted in actual events that happened in Australia in the 1950s. Ruth Cohen is a fifteen-year old girl growing up in a Melbourne Jewish home she shares with her parents, grandfather Zeida and younger brother Leon. Like girls her age, Ruth has dreams for her future, but unlike her peers (and despite her mother’s ambitions for her), she doesn’t want to become a wife and mother when she grows up; she aspires to a career as a doctor. A scholarship student, she’s certainly clever enough. However, when she meets Patrick O’Sullivan from a wealthy Catholic family, her ambitions fly out of the window.

Invited to Patrick’s home where she meets his overbearing and unlikeable father, she hears political talk at the dinner table which is at odds with the politics of her parents who own a milk bar. Politics and events in Australia thread through this story; the world is in the grips of the Cold War, McCarthyism is rife in America and Australia is reeling from the shock of the Petrov spy affair. Ruth’s father, a former communist, is concerned that ASIO is investigating him, while Patrick’s father works for the right-wing politician, Bob Santamaria.

The story begins with Ruth wakening one night to a mystery; someone has stealthily moved into the flat opposite her home. When she discovers that the new tenant is Eva who never pulls back the curtains or comes outdoors, her active, intelligent mind creates a scenario; she comes to believe that Eva is Evdokia Petrov, the defector. A relationship develops between the two with Eva helping Ruth conceal her secret meetings with Patrick and acting as a romantic sounding board. Meanwhile, Ruth suspects that strangers in black cars near her home are spying on Eva – or are they spying on her father, believing he is a communist spy?

In That Stranger Next Door, Alexander has captured a genuine feel of the period in the way people spoke then, the way they dressed and behaved. Her characters feel real, too, from her depiction of the conflicted Ruth to Patrick’s intelligent, unfulfilled and depressed mother. Patrick’s moodiness and his treatment of Ruth after she loses her virginity to him are very well handled. The politics of the time and the cultural depiction of two diverse families – the Jewish Cohens and the Catholic O’Sullivans – ring true and is a great way of introducing teenager readers to a critical period in Australia’s history.

The story is told from two points of view with Ruth narrating most chapters but Eva telling her story, too – of being born in the Ukraine, forced to become part of the army of slave labour in a German munitions’ factory and eventually coming to Australia. Why Eva is in hiding is not revealed until late in the book. Is she Mrs Petrov? Or is there another reason for the mystery that surrounds her? The last chapter happens fourteen years later when the reader learns of what has become of Ruth and answers whether or not her ambitions were realised.

That Stranger Next Door is an engrossing read; the historical context is woven throughout the fiction to provide a rich background to the lives of two vastly different families with their respective beliefs and problems. Recommended for readers 14+ years.


Sunday 10 August 2014

About Writing

© Goldie Alexander

History is the narrative of mankind. It provides answers as to how people lived in the past as well as provides for us the roots of certain ideas concerning laws, customs, and political ideas.  That old adage, “you can’t know where you are going unless you know where you have been” is relevant. History does tend to repeat itself, if in different ways. This repetition has importance in all societies. It teaches the value of certain social changes and governmental policies. A good example is the Aborigines of Australia who managed to hang onto their history for 40,000 years by word of mouth. A knowledge of history clearly demonstrates that once a civilization was able to maintain a steady food supply, that their creative ideas flowed whether it appeared on rock walls, papyrus, or cedar bark.   

When I was young history was taught as a dry accumulation of facts.  Thus my personal challenge as an author is to transport young readers into the past by creating convincing settings, characters and dialogue that is totally different to their own experience and make them totally relevant.

 I write in all genres but am mostly known for my account of the First Fleet: “My Australian Story: Surviving Sydney Cove” now in its 10 or 11th edition. Some of my other historical fictions for young readers have included “ Mavis Road Medley” (Melbourne in 1933 towards the end of the Depression) “Body and Soul: Lilbet’s Romance”  (Melbourne in 1938 just before the outbreak of WW2) “Gallipoli Medals” ( a short junior novel set in Gallipoli and the present)  And “The Youngest Cameleer” (William Gosse’s discovery of Uluru in 1873). This last mentioned is a favourite of mine because if we don’t have Aboriginal ancestors, we are all migrants. Our great migrant waves have occurred at various times: during the gold-rush, straight after World War Two, and in the seventies when the ‘boat people’ arrived. Given the current political climate, it is good to recall that Afghans have been responsible for opening up this vast continent and that without their camels the task would have been harder than it already was. 

Presently I am organising a launch for “That Stranger Next Door” in early June. I refer to that novel as ‘Romeo and Juliet set against the 1954 Petrov Affair” but I really hope it will be read more seriously. If anyone knows anything about the McCarthy era in the US, and how PM Menzies wanted to implement this law over here, and used this incident to remain in power, they might guess as to what I’m on about. Ruth Adele Cohen who comes from a traditional Jewish family, and Patrick Sean O’Sullivan from a conservative Catholic family, fall in love. However, who is the mysterious woman in the adjacent apartment? Can she really be the infamous Eva Petrov? And if so, is this why she is happy to support this forbidden love affair in return for keeping her presence also a secret?

I began my career writing for Dolly Fiction and I learnt a lot from their guidelines. Four novels later started me off as predominantly a children’s author... though since then I have written adult crime: “The Grevillea Murder Mystery Trilogy” and two how-to-writes:  “The Business of Writing for Young People” plus the more recent “Mentoring Your Memoir”. I use that text to run classes for anyone thinking of writing a memoir or a local history.  In the 80 books, short stories and articles I have penned since then, I have tackled almost every genre apart from high fantasy, TV & Film scripts and graphic novels.  Can’t draw for nuts.

My latest novel for adults that uses history oddly enough is a romance. In ‘Penelope’s Ghost’  Lisa Harbinger seeks refuge in a posh summer retreat on Australia’s lush South Coast. There she finds work as a nanny for two wilful children on one prestigious estate. But behind Rangoon’s ivy and red brick walls lies a mystery: What really happened to the family’s beloved Penelope? Part of this novel explores early white settlement in the Mornington Peninsula.

 There’s lots about my books and more on I use my blog to feature others authors, books and writing, and never talk about what I am cooking for lunch. 






Friday 8 August 2014

Nanna's Boot Camp

Nanna’s Boot Camp, a children’s picture book © Vicki Griffin.
I decided to write Nanna’s Boot Camp because I thought it would be fun having a mystery about a big boot. It is a follow on from my first children’s picture book Nanna’s Storm published in 2012, which is still available through Black Ink Press Townsville QLD or message me on my author page.

Review of Nanna’s Storm on Goodreads © Sharon L Norris. April 2014
In most families, grandparents are the guardians of tradition. They pass on their knowledge, their skills and their own history through storytelling. Vicki Griffin explores this topic in her children's book Nanna's Storm, illustrated by Vicky Duncan and published by Black Ink Press.

The Nanna in this story is an Indigenous lady who is busy protecting her twin granddaughters, Amy and Jannie, from a cyclone that threatens their rural home. She has survived many storms in her day and she knows exactly what to do on this occasion, taking charge when her granddaughters are very frightened. Nanna turns it into a game and hides with the twins in the wrought-iron bathtub as the storm unleashes around them.

There is a twist in the tail of this story which demonstrates that Nanna is indeed a master of performance storytelling. Through this, her grandchildren learn a valuable lesson about dealing with the elements of nature, and in this way, another tradition is passed on to a new generation. 

Colourfully illustrated and told with warmth and heart, 'Nanna's Storm' will appeal to readers who enjoy the art of storytelling.

Review by Majhid Heath

Bug in a Book review.

Nanna’s Storm is based in a dry, dusty part of Australia. The indigenous residents haven’t seen rain for years. The young children have never seen rain at all. 

I love a wholly Australian book. I love a story that crosses generations, and I have a soft spot for cheeky Nanna’s too. 

Nanna’s Storm
is told from Nanna’s perspective rather than being about Nanna which is common in children’s books. I think this is a good thing as it puts the child reader in a perspective they are not used to. 

While at Nanna’s, a storm thunders and brews overhead. The twin girls of merely five years have not experienced a storm before and are afraid of the noise and the strange weather. Nanna comforts the girls and encourages them into the bathtub for safety which she tells them is a game of hide and seek with the rain. This becomes a bit of a fun adventure with everyone in the bath hiding under towels snacking on berries and juice. Eventually they all fall asleep. When they awake they are in an old bath in the middle of a field surrounded by sunflowers. Was the storm really that bad that it blew the house away or carried them bath and all into the field? Maybe Nanna is up to her tricks!

Nanna’s storm made me smile, giggle and laugh out loud. What a wonderful Nanna. 

Join Nanna in her rich Australian earth colours, cheeky fun, close family bond across generations and see out the storm. I swear I can almost smell the rain on parched soil.

Nanna’s Storm suits middle grade children and is predominately targeted for indigenous children but I think it should be read by all. A book for home and the classroom. I would love to see this book in the classroom as I think there are great topics to be explored, such as our Australian indigenous communities. 

Have you got a cheeky Nanna?


These two books;  Nanna’s Storm and Nanna’s Boot Camp are predominately marketed for Indigenous children as my goal has always been to help children in remote areas to experience the joy of reading. After 30 years of fostering children I had an understanding of what children like, what’s funny and in particular how they like disgusting, yucky things to happen within stories. Nanna’s Boot Camp is suitable for young readers and reluctant readers.

Author Jackie French loves the story and the below link is what she had to say in the children’s Laureate about it.

Nanna’s Boot Camp is available at  eBook $7.99 Hard Cover $15.
Vicki Griffin with her mob comes from the Shoalhaven area – Darawal tribe to the South Coast of New South Wales. Her Indigenous heritage inspired her to investigate her cultural and artistic talents and she began writing and painting.
Now her art hangs not only in local schools and daycare centres in the Brisbane area but also in Japan.
Discovering more of her talents in the realm of writing she enrolled at the University of New England and in 2006 completed a Bachelor of Arts majoring in Communication.

Vicki Griffin is married with four children and lives in Queensland. In 2001 she became a guardian of a Torres Strait Islander child and is leading him into his culture.



Thursday 7 August 2014

How to Run a Writing Competition

The Australian market and competitions for writing for children (excluding books) is extremely limited. To encourage children’s writers, and to honour my late daughter, I have run a number of writing for children competitions over the past few years under the banner, the Kathleen Julia Bates Memorial Writing Competition.

Past competitions have included awards for picture book texts, short stories, first chapters and poetry.

In most of the competitions I have covered my costs, the exception being the children’s (lyrical) poetry competition which didn’t get many entries, probably because there is no market for children’s poetry in Australia so not a lot gets written. A few times I’ve actually made a profit running competitions – but certainly not enough to live in the lap of luxury! The most successful competition was where I charged a $10 entry fee. This enabled every entrant to receive a score-sheet and at least a one page critique of their story. (However, it was a lot of hard work as I critiqued all of the non-shortlisted manuscripts). The numbers of entries submitted in the six competitions I’ve run to date have ranged from 75 to 205. All competitions have offered prizes for first, second and third with certificates offered for Highly Commended and Commended. Prize money has totalled $300 in each of the competitions.

If you or your organisation decides to run a writing competition, there are a number of considerations. To begin, make sure you include every bit of relevant information in your competition description. When you are fully satisfied you have listed every relevant criteria that will go out to prospective entrants, make sure you get an impartial reader to check your notice: it is very easy to overlook a simple thing that can later cause problems.

Be prescriptive when describing what the competition is about. If it is for a short story, is it a story for adults or young people? If the later, what age group is the story aimed at? What is the maximum word length? Are there any restrictions; for example, is the competition only open to senior citizens or those under the age of 18 years?

Make it clear that all entries should have a title page with the author’s name, full contact details (including email address) and word count; state that manuscripts be double-spaced and in 12 (14) pt with all pages numbered. Think about whether or not you are prepared to accept more than one entry per writer. State also that only those entrants who include a stamped addressed envelope will receive results. (I’d suggest that you don’t return entries: this is because many people send a ssae that is too small for return of manuscript plus results’ sheet).

 If you are charging an entry fee, make sure that you state to whom cheques be made out to – such as a specific person or organisation. If you are prepared to accept more than one entry per writer, then you need to stress that there is $X for each separate entry.  How much you charge will depend on factors such as the total amount of prize money and feedback on individual stories. Most writing competitions attract entry fees of $5 to $15.

Name the competition finalist judges and their positions. To assist the judges, you can sift through the entries and give each judge the 10 entries that scored highest so that they can arrive at the winners and place-getters.  Each entry can be scored on criteria such as story originality, use of language, characterisation and reader impact. It is a good idea to keep entrants’ names anonymous when you pass short-listed manuscripts on to the finalist judges.

Finally, in organising the competition, allow about 12 weeks from announcement of the competition to the deadline for receipt of entries. Add about 6 – 8 weeks for judging.

Publicising your competition will largely depend on which writers your competition will appeal to, but you are wise to consider writers’ centre magazines, the ASA and FAW newsletters, and online magazines such as Buzz Words ( or Pass It On.

Running a writing competition can be frustrating, but it also give the organisers a chance to take a look at the quality of writing that is being produced ‘out there’ and to learn valuable skills in organisation and networking.

Dianne (Di) Bates’ most recent book is a junior novel, A Game of Keeps (Celapene Press). Recipient of the Lady Cutler Award for distinguished services to children’s literature, Di is married to award-winning children’s author, Bill Condon. Their website is




Monday 4 August 2014

Lessons Learnt: Advice to New Writers

Here are some things that I have learned over the years – they are in no particular order, but the first lesson is the most valuable:

o   Be more tenacious and persevere longer than anyone else: it certainly pays dividends

o   Study markets; know which publisher is publishing what. To do this, subscribe to industry magazines and constantly read book reviews

o   Write every day; read every day

o   Be ruthless when self-editing

o   Submit manuscripts as often as you can and keep track of where they go and when they are replied to. After six months assume that no answer is the answer

o   Always be on the lookout for publishing opportunities; as soon as an opportunity presents itself, submit

o   Don’t spend more time networking than you do writing

o   Always have at least one project on the go

o   Belong to a weekly writers’ workshop group where you trust everyone’s opinions

o   Don’t believe what a publisher says until the contract is exchanged

o   Be loyal to publishers who support you and your career

o   Share what you know with others

Over the past 30 years, Dianne (Di) Bates has published 120+ books, mostly for young readers. Her next book is a junior novel, A Game of Keeps (Celapene Press, August 2014). Di has two blogs, Writing for Children, and Australian Children’s Poetry

Di offers courses for those wishing to write for children as well as junior novel and picture book manuscript assessments. Her website is


Friday 1 August 2014

Personal Meets Political

That Stranger Next Door by Goldie Alexander (Clan Destine Press)   

© Goldie Alexander

In my seventh decade it appears that my childhood memories are becoming stronger while my recall for ‘why did I go into that room?’ keeps fading. As a result certain events in Australia’s history that occurred when I was a teenager have become my ‘writing fuel’.

What triggered me to write That Stranger Next Door was the plight of our asylum seekers and the ‘Children Overboard’ incident, a situation John Howard used to regain his position as our prime minister. The similarity to the events of 1954 was overpowering.

Having taught history to high school students I knew how boring that could be. What had always been lacking was a sense of ‘being there’. Therefore once I started fictionalising history, I viewed my challenge as creating convincing settings, characters and dialogue. The all important narrative had to develop from the problems my characters encountered - their aims, wishes and fears.  All fictions based on history start with the premise ‘what if you were there at the time’. Though they must be based on careful research, this research had to be invisible.  The story must be seamless.

I had already written five historical fictions for young readers. In ‘Mavis Road Medley’ two contemporary youngsters time-travel to the Great Depression. In “My Australian Story: Surviving Sydney Cove” a thirteen year old girl convict lives in 1790 Sydney when the First Fleet felt cut off from the rest of the world. In ‘Lilbet’s Romance, a disabled girl describes her life just before the outbreak of World War Two. In ‘Gallipoli Medals’ Great Uncle Jack is a soldier in WW1. And in ‘The Youngest Cameleer’, my 14year old protagonist is a 14YO Moslem boy, part of a lesser known exploration into the interior that led to the first non-indigenous group stumbling across Uluru.

When I was in my mid teens in the mid 20th Century, PM Menzies was ‘king’ Australia was a place when the Queen visited us wearing pearls, England was Home, there was the Korean War, migrants being shunted into camps, the Snowy Mountain Scheme, the six o’clock swill, nuclear families, housewifery for women, and the coming of television. Politically, there was the White Australia Policy, the Communist Referendum, and the split in the Labour Party into ALP and DLP. And finally, the infamous ‘Petrov Affair’

It was that similarity of ‘history repeating itself,’ that niggled at me to write about that incident. When I approached several submission editors with the idea, some didn’t know what I was talking about. Alternatively, if they did, they told me no one would be interested.

Given that I am obstinate enough to persevere, I went ahead and wrote the book anyway. But this very political story needed a sweetener to make it appeal to young readers. What could be better than a Romeo/ Juliet romance set against that infamous affair?

Thus That Stranger next Door is set in 1954 at the height of the ‘Cold War’. In the United States, Senator McCarthy was using anti-communist laws to force academics, film makers and other intellectuals to a senate hearing to ask if they ever belonged to the Communist Party and to name anyone who had gone to their meetings. Many people lost their jobs and their families. Some even committed suicide.

When an insignificant Russian diplomat called Vladimir Petrov defected to Australia, promising to provide information about a Russian spy-ring, he forgot or avoided mentioning this to his wife. As Evdokia was pulled onto a plane in Darwin, she was rescued at the last minute by ASIO and hidden in a ‘safe house’. At the time PM Menzies was also trying to bring in similar anti-communist legislation to the US, and thankfully, in this he was unsuccessful.

However, the implications were frightening. So many migrants who had come to Australia in previous decades, and thus escaped death in the Holocaust, had joined the Communist Party. The propaganda coming out of the Soviet Union had been successful as this was before Russian tanks rolled into Hungary. So when the Petrov Affair was at its height, and people with membership cards were refused visas to the States, they buried and burnt any telling literature and trembled in fear. If Micks hated Protos, and vice versa, both groups joined together to hate Asians, Aborigines and Jews. 

I had to make a story out of that. Thus in That Stranger Next Door, 15YO Ruth, her Jewish mother, father, small brother Leon and her grandfather (Zieda) live above the family milk-bar in Melbourne’s Elwood. Because Ruth’s father once belonged to the Communist Party, the family fear that the ‘Petrov Affair’ will help bring in anti-Communist legislation that will produce another wave of anti-Semitism.

The story opens with Eva moving in next door and Ruth meeting Catholic Patrick O’Sullivan. (Patrick’s father is about to work for Bob Santamaria and the emerging DLP party). Patrick offers to teach Ruth to ride a bike at a time when some Jewish girls were actively discouraged from riding bikes, never allowed to mix with gentile boys, and kept sexually ignorant.  Eva agrees to provide Ruth with an alibi for meeting Patrick, but only with the proviso that her presence also be kept secret. As Ruth rails against her mother’s ‘how a good Jewish daughter should behave’, she is fascinated by Patrick’s totally different background. Between Ruth’s account of her first love, Eva fills in her own very unhappy story.  All this takes place during the height of the Cold War when the world seemed on the knife edge of nuclear annihilation.

Though many books have been written by the children of Holocaust survivors, I don’t think anything has come out about the after effects of the Holocaust on those Jews who were here well before WW2 and their children, though repercussions have echoed through the decades. This is my fictional account of what it was like to be a Jewish girl living in Melbourne, Australia in the mid 1950’s. I should add that this story is pure fiction. I never lived above a milk-bar, though I had a friend that did, and my family left Elwood to live in a more salubrious suburb when I was only seven.

That Stranger Next Door by Goldie Alexander (Clan Destine Press)    ISBN 9780992492434 (Available at all good bookstores)