The Cultural Gutter

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"We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars." -- Oscar Wilde

High Point Down Under

Chris Szego
Posted October 28, 2010


Canadians and Australians tend to go together well. Our affinity makes sense: we have so much in common. We both have a lot of British in our backgrounds. We both live on the edges of our very large countries. And our climates are quite extreme (although in opposite directions). Plus there’s all that beer drinking. I’ve always liked reading Romances set in Australia, a preference that only increased after I had a chance to live there for a while.Which makes it extra delicious that one of my new favourite category Romance writers is Australian Sarah Mayberry.

‘New’ in this sense means ‘new to me’. Mayberry has been writing for years, in more than one capacity, but I encountered her for the first time when searching for something new in my  local library last fall. The book I found was Below the Belt, a Harlequin category novel in which the heroine was a boxer trying to find a coach. Ever since, I’ve been on the hunt for more of Mayberry’s work.

Sarah Mayberry grew up in Melbourne. And she’s back in her hometown after having lived in New Zealand for several years. In fact, she’s swapped countries more than once:both she and her partner are screenwriters, and they’ve worked in both countries.

secret fling 250.jpgYes, screenwriters. After a getting her BA in Professional Writing, Mayberry worked in trade journalism, then in corporate communications. After that, she found work on ‘Neighbors’, Australia’s longest running soap (think Coronation Street Down Under). Her work on the show really helped Sarah refine her own fiction. It taught her about character and story structure, and most of all, about hitting deadlines.

At the time Sarah had several unpublished novels under her belt: a couple of Regencies which she swears will never see the light of day, and other contemporary novels. She applied what television had taught her to her own work, and began to see results. Currently, she is the author of eighteen category novels, and there are plenty more to come. Although she also enjoys the Mystery genre – and has a long-held desire to write a Fantasy epic – she loves writing Romance.

Which is excellent news for readers, because she’s terrific at it. Mayberry manages to pack an immense amount of character development into the confines of short category novels. Her Secret Fling<, a Harlequin Blaze released in Janauary 2010, is a good example. It’s the story of
Poppy Birmingham, a former Olympic athlete who gets a job writing for the sports section of a major Melbourne newspaper after an injury ends her swimming career. She’s looking forward to meeting her writing hero Jake Stevens, head reporter and author of a smash-hit novel. For his part, Stevens isn’t pleased that such a major job was handed to a neophyte with no training or writing experience, and he makes his displeasure known. It’s not an auspicious start.

But Poppy was a world-class athlete, with all that entails: the killer work ethic, the ability to
keep going through tough times, and the self-confidence that means she takes insults from nobody, no matter how good a writer he is. Jake is challenged by her attitude, and despite himself, impressed with her desire to improve. On a long road trip, the two of them discover that in addition to mutual admiration, they share a much more elementary attraction. And that’s where the story really takes off.

As I’ve said before, I often have trouble buying the conversion of hero and heroine from antagonists to romantic partners for one of two reasons: either the antagonism is fake, or it’s far too serious. Mayberry, on the other hand, accomplishes the transition beautifully. Partly because Jake has a point–Poppy got as a free gift a job many journalists worked their whole lives for. But though they come to an understanding as work partners, it is over grief that they truly connect. Poppy loses her uncle, who was her coach, mentor, and true father figure. And Jake has a serious loss in his own past, one that drowned his marriage, and left him unable to finish his second novel.  Together, they begin to work through their sorrows so that they can become the people they were meant to be.

Salacious as the title may be, Her Secret Fling covers a lot of emotional ground. Mayberry’s characters are real people: they have flaws they won’t admit, and strengths they don’t know about. They learn to adjust to changes in their circumstances (they make not like it, but they learn). They also have an immense capacity for love and forgiveness, if only they can access it. So what could be a story about opposites attracting is actually a story about grief and redemption: a neat trick to accomplish in seventy thousand words.

Sad side note: I just discovered that Eva Ibbotson died last week.  Eva was the subject of my very first column for the Gutter. Her writing had charm, warmth, intelligence, and superb style. She is one of my absolute favourites, and she will be missed.


Chris Szego wishes to inform whoever is in charge of these things that despite his diagnosis, nothing is allowed to happen to Terry Pratchett.  Thank you.

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